The War in the Skies: Enemy Ace


EA Showcase

I never got into war comics. Obviously I read them: take war stories out of a British boys weekly comic and some of them would be limp rags with about ten pages left, and that’s before the advent of Battle in the Seventies. But I would never have even thought of buying one of the DC War Comics in the Sixties. The handful I did read were from friends’ collections, sitting in the lobby of our old house in Brigham Street, in that private space between the inner door to the parlour and the front door, open to the elements. It was a tiny play-place on wet days, where we could read each others’ comics or play card games, get some fresh air but not soaked.
I was aware of Enemy Ace back then, and intrigued to a minor degree by a series about a German, who I knew very well from Eagle and Lion and Victor and Hornet were the baddies. But as with any of the others, like Sgt. Rock, or Gunner, Sarge and Pooch, the thought of reading any of the stories just didn’t even exist.
But the stories do, and for all my adult life I’ve known that they are amongst the most highly rated stories DC have ever published. The only ones I have read before are those that appeared in Showcase. Now it’s time to find out for myself.
Rittmeister Hans von Hammer, the ‘Hammer of the Skies’, the Enemy Ace, was introduced in Our Army At War 151, cover-dated February 1965, which would have been about right for when copies arrived in Britain. He was created by Bob Kanigher, Our Army At War‘s editor and writer of its lead feature, the famous Sgt. Rock, and drawn by Rock’s artist-in-residence, Joe Kubert. Von Hammer was teased on the cover as the blazing star they didn’t dare show and the whole concept was a controversial one, less than twenty years since the War in Europe ended.
Von Hammer was a pilot. Cleverly, Kanigher and Kubert went further back than the recent War, to World War 1, to 1918, and the ‘string-and-baling-wire’ planes of before. Von Hammer piloted a blood-red Fokke-Wulf triplane, the same as one of the Airfix models I had assembled and which hung from my bedroom ceiling.
Kanigher and Kubert, teamed on their natural subject. How could ‘Enemy Ace’ be less than superb? The first story was plain, but commanding, introducing the aloof von Hammer, a master of the skies, almost effortlessly establishing his superiority over the French and British planes, yet taking little or no pleasure from his prowess. Von Hammer is a man apart, in every sense, moving through the world behind a three foot thick sheet of glass. He is a killer, a cold, professional killer, putting his unique talent to the service of his country, aware of, and sometimes almost fearful of his degree of separation from everyone else. His only ‘friend’ is his lupine shadow, a Wolf that goes hunting with him.
All of this in one back-up story. For depth in economy I can only think of the original Swamp Thing story as comparable. And through it all, the remarkable thing is that von Hammer is simply von Hammer. He is not an indictment of the Germans as enemies. His nature is himself, and not the function of his country. Extraordinary stuff for late 1964.

EA 138

The series was a gamble, with Rock soliciting comments from the readers. Von Hammer returned in issue 153, in a story about the superstition of not having one’s photograph taken before flying into combat, and again in 155. This last one was astonishingly good: von Hammer shoots down a British plane only to realise, too late, that its pilot had empty guns, was defenceless. Horrified by what he has done, von Hammer follows the doomed plane down, hoping the pilot can pull out of the dive and land, but to no avail. The next day, his airfield is attacked by the pilot’s Squadron Leader, challenging von Hammer contemptuously to a single combat. Von Hammer takes off with empty guns himself, deliberately, and fights unarmed until the British attacker runs out of ammunition. Then the later realises von Hammer was defenceless, understands the nature, the honour of the man, salutes him and breaks off. The enemy understands, but von Hammer’s own pilots see only the Killing Machine.
This was the context of von Hammer’s two Showcase appearances. The first was about the honour that existed between pilots in this new form of combat, in a sky where their presence could not be taken for granted, where enemies had more in common than with their ground troops, who had no conception of what it meant to be in the air.
There had now been five Enemy Ace stories, two of them book-length. They were each excellent, especially in Kubert’s depiction of aerial combat as it was being formed. However, I couldn’t help but recognise the ploys Kanigher used invariably. Von Hammer flies and kills. He lands, ‘hearing’ his plane repeat ‘Killer, killer’ and his men call him a Killing Machine. His babbling orderly praises his ever-accumulating Victory Cups. He meets the wolf in the Black Forest, talks to it as his only friend, the only ones who understand each other. Over and over.
Showcase didn’t win von Hammer a title of his own. Enemy Ace disappeared then, in 1965. But he was not forgotten. Two and a half years later, von Hammer was revived as the lead feature in Star-Spangled War Stories, his logo emblazoned on the cove. Enemy Ace returned in issue 138 and, with the exception of one issue, featured until no. 150 before once again returning to that undeserved limbo reserved for characters who are too bloody good for the audience.

EA 141

Nothing had changed, not least the intensity that surrounded the character, the expert at flying and killing who is feared by everyone and kept a distance that he himself knows no way of bridging, the man trapped in what he is, addicted to the sky, knowing that one day it will kill him as thoughtlessly as it does everyone else, determined to give it every chance at his destruction that he can.
I could never have read and appreciated anything like this in 1968, but I should have done a long time ago.
The new series introduced a recurring foe for von Hammer, a French pilot of equal skill who goes by the name of the Hangman. In issue 140, a collision between planes downs both pilots and makes von Hammer the prisoner of the Hangman, himself an aristocrat. The two treat each other with the utmost courtesy, puzzling the Hangman’s sister, Denise, but once von Hammer escapes and regains the skies, the only place he will allow himself to die, they return to being implacable enemies, bending their skill to each other’s destruction.
And I may say Kubert’s art leads one into the skies and draws us on wings of paper-mache and string.
The artist had now taken over as editor of the war books but the writer continued to expand the range of the stories. In issue 142, von Hammer succeeds in shooting down the Hangman, only to gain a new and more bitter enemy in his sister Denise, an implacable foe, an equal flier, and a Harpy of hate, determined to wreak revenge upon an enemy whose honour forbids him from firing back at her.
The Hangman was brought back in issue 145 to lock horns with von Hammer again, tearing at him by killing his three ablest pilots first. Once again he appeared to die, though I’m not taking bets on it, whilst von Hammer crashed and would have been a victim of the wolves were it not for his black wolf friend.
Next issue, von Hammer appeared only as narrator for two unremarkable and indeed pretty flat WW1 air-fighting stories, presumably as a result of deadline difficulties. His return was with the series’ first complete schtumer, a gimmick-story featuring an OTT opponent who dressed up as St George and flew in a suit of armour, taking the run outside the bounds of believability for the first time. This was followed by von Hammer adopting a wounded puppy as a good luck mascot, only for him to fall from the cockpit in battle, to his death. Again, the insertion of the fantastic detracted from not merely the believability but the intensity.

EA 142

Once again, something different was coming to an end, failing to match up to the sales of the superheroes. 1970 was looming. A story in issue 179 explained von Hammer’s duelling scars, but it was also cut to only two-thirds length to make room for Kanigher and Kubert on a revival of the Viking Prince, welcome in itself but in a war book?
But the writing was on the wall, or rather the cover. The Star-Spangled War Stories logo was spread across issue 150’s cover, and Enemy Ace reduced to a circle, and inside was the last story. Von Hammer is shot down over France but returns to his airfield thanks to the ironic aid of three people awaiting sons, brothers and fiances return from the skies, not knowing each are dead at von Hammer’s hands. But somehow the story failed to connect, largely because of a curious decision to switch from first person narration to second person, distancing von Hammer at the very moment we needed to be brought in close.
The lettercol spoke as if nothing would change but Enemy Ace was dropped, and the Unknown Soldier replaced him as the new lead feature.
That isn’t totally the end of the story. Rittmeister Hans von Hammer reappeared years later, in 1974’s issue 181-3, a three part back-up story by Kanigher, drawn by Frank Thorne in a close imitation of Kubert, sending him up against another of DC’s war characters, Steve Savage, the Balloon Buster. It wasn’t the same.
Von Hammer’s final appearance in Star-Spangled War Stories was a five pager, written and drawn by Kubert, this time going the full distance into the third person. It was dry and shallow and a poor end.
There have been other runs. Shortly after, von Hammer was restored to appear in eleven of twenty issues of Men at War between 1977 and 1979. Even though it was still being written by Kanigher, the art was that of lesser hands, lacking a fraction of Kubert’s expressiveness. I couldn’t bring myself to read it. I know disappointment when it’s spitting in my face. The same thing went for another series of back-ups between 1981 and 1982 in The Unknown Soldier (as Star-Spangled War Stories was re-named from issue 205), even with some John Severian art.
No, Enemy Ace was indeed as good as they said it was all those years, good enough for me to decide to ignore lesser versions. I don’t have to accept that they are canon in my head, just like so many contemporary series don’t exist for me. Seventeen issues represent the whole as far as I’m concerned, seventeen and no more. Seventeen was more than enough.

Preston Front: s03 e06 – Diesel’s Ostrich


Preston

Of course there was comedy. Throw a live and pretty aggressive ostrich into a country home full of antiques, stomping down pretty corridors and imprisoning two consenting pairs of adults – even if one of them is encumbered by an eight year old girl – and you’ve got comedy. Chuck in Lloydy at his most Lloydy-esque, alternating between pure Lloydy dumbness and an amazingly astute naive perception and all the ingredients were there, and I laughed as I always do.

But this week, with the end of the series peeking round the corner there was yet more of the pain of human existence, of things working themselves through for good or ill with the inevitability of, well, life, and its amazing ability to fuck with us.

Threre was no place this week for soon-to-be-ex-Sergeant Polson or the commission-resigned former-Lieutenant Rundle, but there was a space for the internally collapsed Mr Wang, who never wanted to run a restaurant and who is now wandering the Roman Holiday, almost permanently drunk and insulting his customers, leaving Eric as his pillar of stability. Until, that is, he overhears Ally mentioning to Spock that Dawn has gone off for the weekend with his ex-mate Hodge. It’s the old, old story and Eric explodes and races off in the Noodle Van.

And indeed it’s true. Except it’s not true that way. Jeanetta and Declan are married, and are moving to accomodate his new job. Firth hides where that’s to be until the back half of the episode, when Hodge is admitting to Mel his feelings about his ‘god-daughter’, who’s going to Manchester. Aw-hey, marra, it’s not like you’ll never see her again. No, this is the Manchester that’s ninety miles up the Pacific coast of America from San Francisco, and yes, he probably won’t see her again.

It’s a last weekend, Hodge and Kirsty, with Dawn to look after any ‘female’ issues. Two friends, both at odds with the same mate. Hodge can make it up with Eric but won’t, Dawn wants nothing more out of the whole of her life and can’t.

Where does the ostrich – whose name is Sandra, incidentally – come in? Well, as the tirtle suggests, she’s Diesy’s. An investment opportunity, the profit on the eggs. Except that Diesy’s been visiting Sandra, feeding her grain by hand, and when the company falls out with the farmer and proposes to move her to Belgium, Diesy steals her, with the aid and collusion of Lloydy (who else?) and that walking disaster, Mel. They stick her in the shed at Jeanetta’s place.

It gets complicated here, but Hodge has planned the perfect last weekend for himself and his daughter and instead of Dawn he ends up with Mel, iconoclastic, uncaring, unthinking Mel, fucking the whole thing up. Until it twigs in her head that she is messing things up by encouraging Kirsty to ignore Hodge and not do what he says.

Caroline Catz has already turned up to breakfast in a shortie dressing gown and now, just when Eric arrives, spoiling for a fight, she’s wandering around in one of Hodge’s t-shirts and nowt else (nice legs). It’s all to do with painting Lloydy’s van, you see. This is where Sandra breaks loose. Hodge, who is bare-chested because he hasn’t brought more than the one t-shirt scrambles intohis bedroom with Kirsty and Mel, whilst Dawn drags Eric into her bedroom. They’re all trapped until Lloydy saves the day with the most unlikely fake ostrich you could ever mention.

Hodge is hurting, badly. It’s all going wrong. But Mel, finally demonstrating an understanding of something more than booze and fags, sets out to smooth the turbulent waters she’s created, and begins an easing process that draws her and him together as two scruffy, damaged adults who are starting to see something more than bodies in each other.

Meanwhile, in bedroom number 2, Dawn is facing Eric’s jealousy with her own agonies. He thinks she’s there to shag Hodge. She’s demanding he show the evidence that Hodge’s things are in this room, pulling out empty drawers, throwing them on the floor, her voice cracking, preferring to face the ostrich than his suspicion. It ends where it has to end, in bed, slaking passion and relief, and with Dawn pointing out that Eric’s inability to wire plugs is no barrier to their marrying.

We’re nearly there. Things are binding up. Issues are resolving. Eric asks Hodge to be his best man. Lloydy philosophises that Sandra is Diesy’s substitute for his loopy little brother Lennie, who’s converted to Islam and is now working on a kibbutz (don’t think about that one too closely). Hodge’s trying to get Kirsty to keep the ostrich a secret from her mother. To do so, he has to swear something with her, as Kirsty has done with her best friend Rebecca. It involves a secret hand gesture and the words ‘You and me. Forever’. Hodge stumbles over these but braves up and says them. From outside, Jeanetta sees her daughter and the man who is the little girl’s unlikely but utterly devoted father together. She’s already having qualms about separating them. She turns to the Estate Agent and takes the house off the market. They’re not moving.

And that leaves one.

Grand Master Westlake – A Career in Crime: The Final Years


The consensus of opinion is that the writing of The Axe sparked Donald Westlake’s ability to write in Richard Stark’s voice, and he took full advantage of this by promptly producing two consecutive Parker books. To everyone’s surprise, 1999 was a fallow year, with no new Westlake under anybody’s name, only the second time that had happened in the past two decades, but when he returned in the new Millennium, it was with another straight crime story, fit to be paired with The Axe.

W - Hook

This was The Hook. It occupies the same dark, serious crime setting as its immediate predecessor, without repeating any of its ground, or coming from quite so incredulous a basis. There is only one murder in The Hook, quite early on, though Westlake leaves us in no doubt that another will take place almost immediately after the final page. The book is, instead, a study of the psychology of murder, divided between two quite opposite viewpoints.
The book offers two protagonists, both writers, whose interlocking story is told in strict alternate chapters. First up is Bryce Proctorr, a superstar novelist who commands $1M + advances, but who is currently a year behind on his latest novel and in fact is lying to his long-term editor about having done any work on it at all. Bryce is deeply affected by the protracted and nasty divorce suit by his second wife, Lucie, a beautiful but poisonous blonde, and simply cannot write.
In contrast, Wayne Prentice is, and for twenty years always has been a mid-list writer, solid, reliable but not spectacular. Wayne, who is very happily married, is being killed by computer, bookshop computers that determine his initially successful books sell less and less, causing bookshops to order fewer and fewer and publishers to offer smaller and smaller advances. Wayne’s bucked the trend for seven years by hiding behind the protected pen-name of Tim Fleete, but the same downward curve has hit ‘Tim’ now.
Bryce and Wayne used to know each other twenty years ago, though they’ve followed different paths since. They bump into each other in the Library, go for a drink, catch up and tell each other their plights. Wayne has a completed novel that ‘Tim’s publisher won’t even accept. Bryce has an idea to solve both their problems. Bryce offers to take Wayne’s novel, adapt it to his style and present it as his own, in return for Wayne getting 50% of the advance. That’s $550,000. But there is one condition.
If that’s all they do, Wayne will get half the advance and Lucie will get the other half. There will be nothing left for Bryce. So the deal is only a deal if, with a deliberate echo of Strangers on a Train, Wayne kills Lucie.
Ideally, I’d like to leave things there. It’s one hell of a set-up, not as outlandish as Burke Devore’s solution to his problems, but within the same county. Of course, Wayne’s not the kind of guy who would do that sort of thing, or even could. His devoted wife, Susan, is willing to talk the idea over with him but not know anything more.
Of course Wayne does it. There wouldn’t be a book if he didn’t. And even though the actual killing, which is brutal, Lucie being beaten to death, occurs by impulse, not planning, he and Bryce get away with it scot free, the Police having no leads whatsoever, no matter how diligently they enquire.
The meat of the story is the different responses to the murder, of Wayne, who did it, and Bryce who merely requested it. And how that works out and what it leads to, I am just not going to say. More than any other of Westlake’s works, or those under his own name (and Sam Holt’s) that I have read, The Hook needs to be read for itself and not explained. Though the Dortmunder books are and will always remain my favourites amongst Westlake’s oeuvre, this is the one that I think is his finest work in his speciality field of Crime Fiction. Buy it, read it. This is not a suggestion, it is a command.

W - Lid

Two more new Richard Starks and the tenth Dortmunder Gang book preceded the novel that got me in here. This is Put a Lid on It, which came up somewhere on Amazon, offering a set-up that seemed a natural for Westlake. Given the nature of that situation, I was sure this would prove to be something I’d missed out on in the Seventies, so I was dumbfounded to discover that it had only been published in 2002, meaning that the book’s central idea was exactly three decades out of date, but I still enjoyed it, enough to decide me, at last, to go for a collection of all the remaining Westlakes I had read or missed over those years.
We’re back, for sadly the last time, among the criminal fraternity. This is Francis Xavier Meehan, 42 years old, professional thief, Currently incarcerated in Manhattan Correctional Community on his first ever Federal charge, robbing the mail. It’s not really fair: Meehan didn’t set out to rob the mail, there was nothing to say the truck he robbed was carrying mail, he was after computer components. But here he is, and here he’s going to stay, because this is going to be for life.
Until the arrival of Patrick Jeffords. Jeffords is introduced as his new lawyer, but Meehan makes him for anything but a lawyer in the first five seconds. Meehan is experienced, smart and thoughtful. He has ten thousand rules for life, all in his head, nothing written down (never write anything down is one of the ten thousand rules.)
Jeffords has a proposition, for which he needs Meehan. In return for performing a task within his speciality, Meehan will be relieved of all his current charges and set free to go where he will. Meehan just has to break into somewhere and steal – or rather retrieve – a small item. Meehan will be working for the President.
Apparently, the other side had gotten hold of something compromising, what they call an October Surprise, a scandal to be released too close to Election Day to be successfully rebutted. Jeffords is with the re-election campaign and has been assigned to find a professional thief to get it back, unused.
The obvious riff is on Watergate, and Westlake isn’t afraid of making that explicit. The comedic riff is that Watergate was a disaster because it was organised by the CIA: in short, by amateurs. This time they’re bringing in a professional.
Sound too good to be true? Meehan thinks so (besides, that’s one of the ten thousand rules). He’s a professional and they’re not, he can identify half a dozen slips and stupidities already and he only cares to work with professionals. Anyway, Meehan is honest enough to point out that if he sees an open door, he’ll be through it, first opportunity. Take him back to the MCC.
On the other hand, if there’s something in it for him…
Westlake skilfully exploits all angles of this situation, including Meehan’s involving his Court appointed lawyer, Elaine Goldfarb, to negotiate terms on his behalf (leaving out the details of any – non-distinguishable – crimes he intends to commit along the way).
The story is told in the third person, but the omniscient narrator not only knows but is willing to expound in much greater detail than usual on Meehan’s thoughts, responses and philosophies, producing an odd, but very effective and funny hybrid with the first person.
Despite the general feeling that Westlake’s last few novels represented something of a running out of steam, I find Put a Lid on It to be one of the funniest non-Dortmunder books he wrote, providing a constant stream of dry and cynical lines that had me chortling, giggling and out and out laughing. And of course, there’s the sting in the tail, that Meehan, professional to the last, has foreseen all along, and taken precautions against. A very nice rounding-off.

W - Stiff

After another Richard Stark, The Scared Stiff was Westlake’s penultimate standalone book. In America, it was published under the name of Judson Jack Carmichael, though the reason for introducing another pseudonym this late in his career is a mystery to me, but in the UK the book came out under Westlake’s name from the outset.
It’s not prime Westlake by any means. It’s the last in his exotic caper stories, taking place entirely in the fictional South American country of Guerrera, as mentioned in a couple of the Dortmunder books, and involving an insurance scam that threatens to go wrong in an ironic way.
What disappoints me is that Westlake’s basic idea is full of potential to be comic and sinister, but as written the book is geared to the sinister alone. It’s still an ironic reversal, but irony is not always funny and where this could have been, it isn’t.
The story is narrated by Barry Lee, an American with a Guerreran wife, the lovely Lola: Barry and Lola are very much in love. They are also chancers and not-quite hustlers though the failure of various get-rich schemes have left them very much under a cloud and apt to be rained upon by the kind of people who don’t go to Court about welshers.
However, Barry and Lola have mutual double-indemnity insurance worth $600,000 if one of them dies and logically the best person is Barry. It’s a scam, and it’s planned to take place during their annual January holiday to visit Lola’s parents back home. Guerreran record-keeping and its officials’ susceptibility to inexpensive bribery make it the best place for Barry to suffer an unimpeachable fatal accident, taking over the identity of a suitable ‘brother’ who actually died as an infant, who moves to New York to look after his sorrowing sister.
It’s perfect. Only there are problems. Of course there are problems, there wouldn’t be a book if there weren’t.
These start with cousin Luz, the family babe and wild child, who is currently concealing ‘cousin Felicio’ from the Insurance Investigator. Whilst drunk – a non-occasional state – Luz reveals the scam to a bunch of up-country cousins or stupidos. But Luz gets two significant details wrong. Luz claims the scam is for millions, not $600,000. And she tells the stupidos that these millions are going to be split between the whole family (and quite rightly too: didn’t they come to Barry’s funeral? That makes them part of the scam.)
The third problem is, however, entirely of the stupidos’ making. If the money is going to be paid because Barry is dead, why is everyone taking a chance of it being found out? Why not kill him themselves, to be on the safe side?
The problem is that Judson Jack Carmichael is writing this story, not Donald Westlake, so the inherent comic factor in that notion is left to die, whimpering, on a floor somewhere. Barry spends the entire book on the run, travelling from hideout to hideout, unsuspecting or suspecting cousins, friends and would-be mistresses (not his: he truly loves Lola, and she him, we’re talking about his brother-in-law and fellow conspirator, Arturo) until the money comes through and ‘Felicio’ can fly off to America and his poor, mournful, soon to be pseudo-incestuous sister.
It’s frustrating how Westlake keeps introducing strong, interesting female characters, one after another, only to abandon them at the next move as Barry is propelled along by the stupidos’ relentless pursuit.
The book’s failing overall is exemplified by one scene. The insurance investigator has sniffed out the scam and proposes to prove it by finding a Birth Certificate for a family member of the right age, and a request for a copy of that Certificate. Once that is collected, he will ensure Lola goes to prison for fraud. Barry is determined to prevent that: if necessary, he will ‘return to life’, denounce himself as the sole plotter and take the punishment.
He and Arturo devise a complex plan to find out from a female journalist friend of Arturo’s where the records are, how to get themselves locked in at night, ensure provisions, and leave in the morning. That’s several pages of plotting, not to mention arguing over a particularly luscious home-made cake and who gets to eat it. At the end of which, the journalist comes back with not the plans but the Certificate itself, which she’s pinched for them. The whole thing falls flat.
At the end, there’s another twist but as Barry susses it out and, at long distance, applies a wholly successful counter-manoeuvre, it’s all just a bit of extra space-filler. The suggestion that a sequel might be written was not followed up upon, for which I am pretty glad.

W - Money

Donald E Westlake’s final standalone novel, Money for Nothing, appeared the following year, in 2003. It’s another straight novel, a thriller, with little by the way of comedy. It’s a good but not exceptional example of its kind whose main failing its that it’s, well, undistinguished. It’s something a lot of writers could have written, that is not especially Westlake.
What it’s about is this. Seven years ago, Josh Redmont, a student who could do with some money, started receiving cheques, $1,000 each month, from something called United States Agent. Though he made some fairly desultory efforts to find out where these were coming from, basically Josh has just taken the money, and not bothered himself too closely as to why he was getting them.
Seven years on, Josh is a successful Accounts Executive at an NY Advertising Agency. He’s married to Eve, and has a two year old son. He doesn’t need the money any more but he still keeps cashing the cheques. He’s never told Eve about them. Today, whilst he’s waiting for the ferry to Fire Island, to join Eve and Jeremy for the weekend, a man walks up to him and, in an East European accent, says, “You are now activated.”
Josh is in deep shit.
Because, for seven years, he has been a paid-up sleeper agent for Kamastan, one of the ‘stans’ that emerged from the wreck of the Soviet Union. He wasn’t supposed to be, he was supposed to be an unwitting front for his Recruiter, Ellois Nimrin, who was preparing a nest-egg for himself by syphoning off the cheques into a Bank account of his own hiding. Only Nimrin suffered a degree of public exposure and was removed from authority. His successor, Andrei Levrin, being unaware of the scam and being the kind who would terminate Nimrin if it ever came out, ‘continued’ directing the cheques to Josh’s bank account.
Now Josh has a mission to perform. Nothing very big. Just the execution, on American soil, of Kamastan’s hated Dictator which, you never know, might even be a good thing, not that Josh knows, or cares either way. What Josh cares about is not finding himself coerced into this plot in the first place, a response that’s more than doubled when he finally works out that he and his ‘fellow sleeper’, actor Mitchell Robbie, are not there to be the getaway drivers. They’re the patsies. And Eve and Jeremy are set up to die with Josh in a guilt-ridden murder/suicide.
This is not good.
It’s a format Westlake is used to. After all, isn’t it the set-up of earlier books like The Fugitive Pigeon, The Spy in the Ointment and Somebody Owes Me Money: the innocent individual suddenly flung into a world he doesn’t recognise, that he is instantly out of his depth in, yet he has to learn to function in bizarre circumstances. But where those books were comedies, Money for Nothing is wholly straight, and very dangerous indeed.
There is an element of comedy. Fellow sleeper Robbie turns out to be inventive and creative (and a bit superior about it), as well as being mocking of both the plotters and his fellow victim. But mainly it’s Josh who, in extremis, rapidly learns how to be a sub-James Bond, though he does still need Robbie and his fellow off-Broadway actors to be a wholly appropriate deus ex machina.
It’s a cliché ending, the expected outcome of the form of story, and its disappointing to see Westlake follow the line of least resistance with his finale and no subversion. Otherwise, it’s a decent thriller, neither better no worse than any other, with only Mitchell Robbie to mark it out as something only Donald Westlake could have written. No, not a grand finale, but how many writers get to go out on a high?

Donald Edwin Westlake died of a heart attack on New Year’s Eve 2008, preparing to go to dinner. The last five years of his life were taken up writing about Parker and John Dortmunder. One last book was published posthumously in 2009: it was the last, and in its way most outre Dortmunder Gang caper. But there is still one post to come in this series.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: s01 e05 – The Deadly Games Affair


Uncle

For about seventy-five percent of its running time, this episode was a low-key and somewhat shapeless affair, whose plot didn’t seem to hang together or have any real point. Of course, we had already been given a very big clue, in the opening scenes, that fell into place once the mad scientist behind everything gave us the full no-names exposition as the climax neared.

To take things in the order in which they were served up, we began with a bearded individual (who we knew from the credits was Professor Amadeus (Alexander Scourby)) driving a pick-up truck into the woods, to dump an oil barrel into the creek before being interrupted by three boys in a rowboat, driving off, the barrel falling off in the woods and a white-haired man emerging in jerky motion before dropping dead.

Cue Ilya Kuryakin explaining everything to Napoleon Solo (and the audience). The dead man in former Nazi, Major Ernst Neubel, believed dead this past twenty years. Neubel was assigned as security to Dr Volp, a scientist, also believed dead these past twenty years, along with his last, unknown experiment. However, Volp was also an avid stamp collector, and one of his rarest stamps is going under auction tonight. Our men attend to buy it, but so too does an Agent of THRUSH.

This is Angelique, no last name given, played with slinky and steely gusto by Janine Gray. She and Napoloeon are old ‘friends’ and whilst she’d kill him without a qualm, if instructed, the pair do tend to have the odd truce here and there, during which it’s quite obvious that they bonk each others’ brains out. Nevertheless, they are on different sides in this as both THRUSH and U.N.C.L.E. want Dr Wolp and whatever he’s been working on.

Enter college student Chuck Boskirk, played by the fresh-faced Burt Brinkerhoff, and his pretty blonde fiancee Terry Brent (Brooke Bundy). Chuck is the stamp seller. It’s not his stamp, of course, it arrived through the post, anonymously, with instructions, but he gets 10% of the price, amounting to $650, on which he hopes to be able to marry Terry in the summer instead of waiting – in all senses of the word – until Graduation, though with the fair Miss Bundy, who could blame him for impatience?

Everyone wants Volp, who, in case you hadn’t already guessed it, is Professor Amadeus, Science lecturer at Chuck and Terry’s college. Chuck gets kidnapped, twice, the second time by Volp, Angelique finds Volp but fails to convince him to join THRUSH and is tied up herself, Napoleon gets there following Chuck’s homing device but is overcome by fumes. And everything drops into place and the episode suddenly becomes extremely pointed.

It’s now a cliche that no-one of any creative intelligence would dare use but back then, less than twenty years from the end of WW2, it may well have been fresh enough to be startling. Certainly it’s startling enough here, in the fanaticism Volp displays. He doesn’t want THRUSH, he doesn’t need THRUSH, he is aiming higher. He has lost none of his Nazi beliefs. His last great experiment was in suspending animation: now he intends to use Solo’s blood to revive their leader to be a leader to new, disaffected, strong young men. The H-name is never mentioned but does it need to be?

Needless to say, Ilya’s intervention brings the whole thing down in flames, literally, including Volp and his leader, the latter of whom Solo dispatches into the fire. Which gives us time for a happy ending as U.N.C.L.E. treats Chuck and Terry to a world-spanning honeymoon, and Angelique offers our man Napoleon another ‘truce’. Until the next time, no doubt, though she never returned and indeed Miss Gray gave up her acting career only five years later, having also appeared in the first series of Danger Man, in Get Smart, Bewitched and as a presenter on Double Your Money (ask your grandparents).

Taken overall, the ending had a fair amount to make up for, which it did to a large extent, but the episode did itself no favours with its title, and its ongoing theme of Games in the Act titles when the actual story was completely unrelated to games. We’re still feeling our way into what U.N.C.L.E. will become and, after last week, this is a One Step Back. Tune in for more next Tuesday.

The Infinite Jukebox: Television Personalities’ ‘Smashing Time’


I’ve already forgotten what it was that triggered a very long forgotten memory, but the recollection burst into my head and sent me scurrying to Wikipedia and YouTube to hurtle back in time to the late Seventies, and the wonderful days of Punk and New Wave, and to a band who’d vanished out of my head that are now heralded as forerunners of the likes of Half Man, Half Biscuit, a comparison I’d never have thought of myself but which is clear once made. I speak of a guy called Dan Treacey who, with whatever mates he chose from time to time, formed the completely unsuccessful band, Television Personalities.
TV Personalities were oddities. They could only ever have existed because of Punk but they rejected all but one of its basic components. Not for them the aggression, the energy, the high speed, the snarl. The only thing Treacey and Co took into their music was the amateurish style, the anyone-can-do-it ethos, taken to a further degree than before, and they married it to a Jonathan Richman-like naivete of lyrics, but not quite so, because Treacey was always smarter, and more smartarse with his sometimes not very concealed cynicism.
This was seen immediately on their debut, self-produced release, the Where’s Bill Grundy Now? EP. It’s lead track was taken up by dear old John Peel and played to death, five nights a week, oh what days they were. I could just as easily be writing about that song, the icily spiky, stiletto-sharp ‘Part-time Punks’, with it’s near unmelodious guitar strum, busy and shuffling. Treacey’s lyrics stripped the meat from the bones of the wannabe punks who were too afraid, or maybe too middle-class to commit on more than a superficial level.
Television Personalities captured these people whole, and nowadays it’s also a history lesson about what was considered fundamental to 1977.
But what I struggled at first to recall was another song, another single a bit later, could have been 1978 or 1979 and I’m disinclined to check because I don’t want my hazy memories of it to be disrupted by too much reality. Only let the song anchor itself.
‘Smashing Time’ was another simple affair, lacking in detectable melody. It was a softer, gentler sound, still tinny and light, but the edge of ‘Part-time Punks’ was missing, there was a little guitar twiddling, and the song eased up a little on pace. There’s a warm atmosphere right from the start, and a certain bashfulness that links the song in my consciousness to the later Jonathan Richman in its childishness.
It’s the oddest, but in what the song doesn’t say, one of the most emotional of songs. Cousin Jill came down to London for a weekend break, Treacey sings, and I promised that I’d show her round the sights. That’s all, so unusual yet so natural. Cousin comes to town and the singer promises to show her round, and the song counts up the places they go, the Tower of London, Madame Tussauds, the West End at Night. Feeling silly at being scared in the London Dungeon, and slightly embarrassed in Soho. A Wimpey Bar that wasn’t nice. Walking in Hyde Park eating ice cream. Jill thought the King’s Road was terrific and Carnaby Street was Fab.
It’s all about her, and giving her a good time, the best weekend that she had ever had. There isn’t a romantic note in the song, at least none that are held up for you to see, but me, I wondered. The song catches something it won’t disclose, but I hear it all the same. I see these two, youngsters, fourteen year olds at best. He’s giving up whatever he might have planned for his weekend to give her a good time. He doesn’t regard it as an imposition. Why not?
Because he likes cousin Jill, and whilst he would be embarrassed London bus red to have anyone suspect it, he shows it by trying to give her the greatest time. And Jill? Jill may not understand what he really thinks but she likes him and she likes being around him and the best weekend she had ever had is not just his attempt to give her all of London in one big arms-full gift but that it is he who is giving this to her.
It reminds me very much of the Lone Pine Club books and the early relationship between David Morton and Petronella ‘Peter’ Sterling, where Malcolm Saville shows us the more than mere friendship that links them but which neither is in any way ready to acknowledge even to themselves.
Jill and our singer may grow up, like David and Peter, to have a future. Or they may not. Right now they’re content with a wavelength that they don’t realise no-one else shares. We both agreed we both had a smashing time. And she thought it was really good.
And so did I.

Sunday Watch: Victoria Wood – As Seen on TV – s02 e01-03


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The one drawback about this Sunday Watch business is the sheer number of television series I have to get around, in an utterly random manner. Sure, it’ll keep me in viewing for years to come, but I was shocked to realise that it’s six months since I last settled down to watch any Victoria Wood – As Seen on TV.

It doesn’t really matter, though. This morning’s viewing is the first half of the second – and final – series. You could say that it’s more of the same, without change, and be right at that: the monologue, the sketches, Susie Blake as the snobby Announcer, Acorn Antiques, the documentary, the song, but the beauty of it all is not just Wood’s seemingly limitless invention, nor the range of imagination she puts into investing things with such a thoroughly human banality/surreality, but also the fact that she’s canny enough not to overload us with the same thing in the dame placeb, week in, week out.

For instance, there’s Patricia Routledge as Kitty, who only appears in episode 2, never two weeks running. And Wood and Julie Walters, as Joan and Marjorie (actually, it’s the other way round), TV magazine show presenters of stunning indifference, who only appear in episode 3. That way, Wood manages instant recognition without repetition.

Of course, Acorn Antiques appears every week, but one such feature is fine, even if the whole thing is ultimately one note. But it’s such a relentless lampoon of the kind of cheap daily soap – cough, Crossroads, cough – that we are as hooked on it as fans of the deadly originals are on their choice.

And episode 1 featured the debut of what was probably Victoria Wood’s most famous and beloved song, the saga of Barry and Freda, ‘Let’s Do It’. The song itself is an orgy of glorious lines, bringing overwhelming passion and sexual experimentation into the living room with pleas to ‘bend me over backwards on me Hostess trolley’ and ‘beat me on the bottom with the Woman’s Weekly‘ and Wood hurls herself into it with abandon, as the suddenly libidinous housewife Freda, demanding some long overdue orgasms from her mousey and reluctant spouse and his tired and snivelling excuse for a passion that’s not so much gone cold as been locked in a glacier maintained for that purpose in his garden shed.

And that’s perhaps the epiphany of a strand of British humour that made play with the comic-reversal of reluctant men and gagging-for-it wives.

This series was made and broadcast first in 1986, making it thirty-five years old, but it hasn’t aged a minute. It’s gloriously and riotously funny, and every time you marvel at not just Victoria Wood’s ocean-wide comic sensibility but also her unbounded generosity to her gang of supporting players in giving them the great lines too: Julie Walters, Duncan Preston, Celia Imrie and Susie Blake are at the heart of things, but everyone around her in even the smallest roles is perfect, and in the Kelly-Marie Tunstall sketches, Mary Jo Randle is brilliant in the sheer range of ways she delivers her sole line: “You didn’t?!” (ok, sometimes it’s “You never?!” but she’s still 100%, every atom perfect).

So that leaves me another triplet of episodes, maybe in six months more time, plus a Xmas Special. But it’s a six DVD box set so, even if it doesn’t include Dinnerladies, it still gives me more to go on. Even if I can’t Watch without that little lump in the throat for the fact that Victoria is no longer with us, and all the things she could have been doing with that stolen time.

Down These Mean Streets: Gotham Central


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Many years ago, when Public Libraries still had Graphic Novel sections, I took the opportunity to read stories I would never otherwise have touched if it had involved a penny of my own, strictly limited, pocket. Sometimes that was all it was. And sometimes it was curiosity that didn’t kill the cat but instead fed it a large bowl of cream. The most extreme example of that was Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s 100 Bullets. But I tried a couple of volumes of Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s Gotham Central, which were enough to make me explore eBay prices for the books, only to discover they were never cheap enough for me to get involved, especially when factored against my limited storage space.
A DVD collection of the series, which ran for forty issues between 2003 and 2006, takes up no space, and even less when there are a half dozen different series on it. Given that it’s a Twenty-First Century series, I had no intention of writing about it, just of having some enjoyable reading, but when I turned to it, I found Gotham Central to be even better than I recalled, and to be too good not to want to praise it for the qualities that make it so memorable.
Plainly and simply, Gotham Central is a procedural. It’s a crime series, ordinary, mostly-human crime, featuring an ensemble cast of Police detectives, a Major Crimes Unit. The hook is that this MCU is operating in Gotham City, the famous and infamous Gotham, and they are Police trying to do a job, their job, in a City dominated by the Batman.
Just like Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, even in a more limited fashion, it’s about imagining into being a realistic, non-sensational, above all natural look at what it’s like to live in a superhero Universe. What does the constant, in-the-shadows presence of the Batman, and all the murderous, psychopathic freaks he attracts, do to the job of being a Murder Police?

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The series was the concept of two writers, Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka, both of whom were writers with an interest in crime fiction (Rucka is also a well-regarded crime novelist). The writers co-wrote the opening two-parter, which begins with the killing of a Detective by Mr Freeze and the subsequent efforts of his partner to have the case worked by the Department and not the Batman, and teamed up again for a five part story, but otherwise each wrote arcs separately. The original series artist was Michael Lark, whose work I knew from one of the later Sandman Mystery Theatre playlets, a calm, deliberately unsensational artist with a neo-photographic style that eschewed detail, creating a grounded atmosphere for the series.
And it’s clear that a lot of the stylistic approach to the series derived from Homicide: Life on the Street, down to the presence in the squadroom of the visual of that series’ (and the real-life Baltimore Homicide Department’s) Board, which is another reason why I liked the series so much.
Lark left after issue 25 but his successors followed his visual method, always ensuring that the series remained grounded in human authenticity, and an avoidance of the spectacular.
The series featured the whole MCU squadroom and showed it for what it was, a workplace composed of very different personalities, thrown together by a shared skill, but not by a shared temperament. Though they were all cops, and all on the same side, especially when one of their own were threatened or harmed, they were not on the same side as people, with their own twists and thoughts and dreams, and the series benefited immensely in the variety of characters.
Inevitably, just as Pembleton and Bayliss came to be stars in Homicide: Life on the Street, the ‘show without stars’, certain pairings began to dominate. Renee Montoya, Harvey Bullock’s former partner and Crispus Allen, both with unwanted, undeserved futures as superheroes, Marcus Driver and Josie MacDonald, Romy Chandler. Stories involving them began to proliferate: Montoya’s outing as gay, her estrangement from her family, her growing, unresolvable anger were all stories battling, this time in more Hill Street Blues style, with the crimes.

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As you might imagine, Gotham Central didn’t sell. It should have done. It should have been massive, but it wasn’t superheroes, was it, and the audience is long since conditioned to only accept or understand superheroes. DC kept it going because its Graphic Novel collections were selling well, because it was good work that they considered deserved to be seen, and could be carried.
But it’s noticeable that from about the halfway point first supervillains, then superheroes increasingly play a part. The Penguin and The Mad Hatter share a story. There’s a procedural crossover with The Flash, involving a trip to Keystone City to bring back Albert Desmond, the original Dr Alchemy, for questioning, involving Detectives Fred Chyre and Reuben Morillo. A CSI by the name of James Corrigan starts to feature, which would have got us oldsters excited, waiting for him to be killed and returned as The Spectre, but this Corrigan is a scumbag who will end up killing Crispus Allen, and then he comes back as The Spectre.
There’s even a story featuring fifteen year old boys dressed in highly professional Robin costumes showing up dead all over the city, throwing suspicion on The Batman, and causing The Teen Titans to drop in and attest that it’s not the real one.
It made no difference to the sales, which continued to be low, but what sealed the series’ fate was Brubaker’s decision to leave. Rucka always thought of the series as belonging to both of them and agreed to write a final story to close the major storylines. Brubaker’s last issue was no 37, the Infinite Crisis crossover, after which the entire DC Universe leaped One Year Later, not that the final three-parter would have you notice.

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It was a grim ending. Allen is going after Corrigan on his own but is made: a trap is set-up and Corrigan kills Allen. He’s a step ahead of the Department, and beats the investigation. Montoya, strung out as far as she can be, beats him and prepares to kill him but he pleads pathetically for his life over several pages. The issue left it open as to whether Montoya pulled the trigger or not, but alone and last, it having gone out of her (like Pembleton at the end of Homicide: Life on the Street season 6), she hands in her badge and gun and leaves. In 52 she becomes the new Question.
It was an ending that was strong in itself but weak in the distance its melodrama is from what made Gotham Central in the first place. Nevertheless, it was still a clear, distinct series, full of good writing and good thinking that should be running still. Just one more reason why I find nothing to attract me to comics’ future.

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Preston Front: s03 e05 – Polson’s Mess


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Amid all the comedy…

This is a funny series and this is a very funny episode. But it’s also a very black episode, deeply involved with people’s pain.

What episode 5 is about is the Roker Bridge TA’s Mess Night, a formal Army function involving dinner, drinks and Mess Rugby. We’ll come to Mess Rugby in its time. Mess Manager for the night is the junior Sergeant, Pete Polson, proud to be entrusted with everything going like clockwork, sure that this will earn him the respect to those three stripes on his arm. Straight away we know that it will be no such thing, especially if 2 section are among the waiters etc.

Not everyone is involved. Officer-Cadet Mrs Ally Minshull is there as a guest, in a striking red evening dress. Private Lomax (D) is going to a Masonic function in Manchester, escorted by her cousin Paul, who’s handsome and drives a flash car of exactly the right model as to confirm Eric in his self-martyrdom as not good enough for Dawn. In a way, he’s being incredbly noble, sacrificing his love for the best thing that will ever happen in his life for her benefit, and in another he’s being so compoletely and utterly Eric that he should be getting his own entry in Encyclopedia Brittanica, complete with Health Warning about reading that bit.

He’s also being utterly Eric by talking about it all the time, to the point that Hodge, who still fancies Polson’s little sister Mel but who is going all the wrong way about it, goes onto a frustrated, exasperated and quite vicious attack on him, resulting in Eric replying in kind and skewering Hodge even more effectively than Hodge is doing to him. Things are said that can’t be forgotten, or forgive: a friendship breaks.

That’s not the only place where things are being said. Ally turns up at Spock’s place to change. She can’t do it at her place because, well, it isn’t her place any more. Frasier has not been nipping off to his ex-wife’s to talk about their daughter, he’s been having an affair. With his ex-wife.

So when Ally arrives at the Mess, she’s already been at the sherry, so to speak, and he’s determined to continue. And that determination gets overloaded with a ton of guilt. Because this Mess Night is Carl Rundle’s last night with the TA. He’s resigned his commission, he’s resigned from the TA, he’s leaving Roker Bridge and Lancashire to go to Cornwall. Ally is stunned. Her ability to tolerate the poison dwarf erodes. She takes delight in ordering him as his superior. She favours him with her real and unrestrained thoughts, and if you think Hodge got skewered, it’s nothing as to how Polson is exposed to realities that he cannot escape from. She points out that the bravery of what Rundle is doing makes him twenty times the man Polson will ever be. Words can be the most dangerous things of all.

Let us remove from the Mess Hall for a short while. Hodge has given Kirsty a family heirloom, a battleship model made by his Grandad long ago. She wants to know if it floats. Both Hodge and Jeanetta assure her it doesn’t but little girls have to find these things out for themselves, in bathrooms and baths filled up, and no, it doesn’t float, so that settles that conclusively if disappointingly, and oh, by the way, Kirsty’s managed to lock herself in. In the absence of anyone better, Jeanetta calls Declan to break the door down, which he does, only he manages to crack several ribs and bust his shoulder. He’s about to go but Jeanetta, who isn’t as resigned to losing him as she outwardly appears, holds him in place by starting a shared joke, a plethora of ideas of middle-class injuries that, as he have hoped, ends with her confessions about the real reason she hid Hodge’s relationship to the family. Soberly, Declan confirms his fear that she still had feelings for him. They end up kissing. One rift, one embarrassment, is resolved.

But let’s take ourselves back to the Mess Hall. Now the dinner is done, it’s time for Mess Rubgy. It’s very like ordinary Rugby except the ‘ball’ is round, actually it’s a melon, indeed a succession of melons as each one is reduced to pulp in the melee. Yes, it’s one of those games where the rules are left out and it’s two teams in raw, glorious and bloody stupid combat. You’d say the ‘game’ degenerates as it goes along but that would be to suggest it had ever been genberate in the first place. Hodge and Eric are ineffectually beating three shades of brickdust out of each other. The other individual battle is Rundle and Hodge. Rundle headbutts Polson in the breadbasket. Polson goes for him and is side-stepped. In a blind fury, this twisted, hate-filled goblin seeks a weapon, For all his military zeal about respect being shown to the Colours, that no-one touches them, Sergeat Peter Polson grabs the colours and tries to use them to brain Rundle. Instead, he hits the C.O.

It ends up as a trip to Casualty. Hodge and Eric, still arguing through puffed lips and split faces. Mel trying to console her brother who, even before he is summoned to Preston HQ, 11.30am, Monday, knows he is up shit creek and that essential third stripe, that means respect, even though he’ll never really know if he deserved it, even though it’s forced respect that he can demand but not deserve, will be fluttering away from his arm, never to return.

So at the end we return to the Mess Hall. And then there were two. The place is a mess, a mess of a Mess. Rundle’s sitting there in the final moments of his TA career, Ally knows that she is responsible for all this. One kiss, that was all, but it was the chaos butterfly kiss, that six days later started a storm in China. They’re saying goodbye in the awkward, unexpressable stir-fry of feelings that both binds and separates them. Rundle walks away. Ally stops him momentarily, saying isn’t it traditional for goodbyes to be done with a kiss?

It’s not funny, like the moles’ blackboard, or Lloydy’s Point Taken, but I will always remember the line Tim Firth dredged up for that moment, and Lieron Flynn’s delivery of it, stood with his back to Ally, because this is going to go far too deep into him and he can’t do that if he can see her, as he tries, tries impressively, to force some kind of lightness into his voice, as he tells her that he’d thoughts about it. But that would have to be the kiss that he would remember for the rest of his life. And only then does he turn, because he can look at her as he says, ruefully, that no kiss could ever live up to that.

Rundle goes off to shower himself clean. And Ally, who had mused early on about just how you can have sex in a shower, pulls back the curtains, slips the halter of her dress over her head so that it all falls away, and asks him if he is any good at geometry…

Grand Master Westlake – A Career in Crime: The Experimental Veteran


Samuel Holt wasn’t entirely dead yet. Westlake’s experiment had blown up in his face due to Publisher incompetence. The fourth and final contractual book would be delivered, though the fifth and sixth would never even be started and even the ideas behind them would be lost. But Westlake’s disillusion showed in the book that preceded Sam’s finale, killing off his latest alter ego, by suicide, in an offscreen, offhand moment. Authors can be like that.

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There isn’t a Donald Westlake book I actually dislike, but Sacred Monster comes closest to that description, and, perhaps appropriately for the successor to Trust me on This, for much the same reason.
Sacred Monster is another experimental novel, built up from two compare-and-contrast strands, in the first and third persons respectively, interrupted on occasion by interludes (referred to as ‘Ludes’ for reasons that are obvious) from another level of reality altogether. Jack Pine is an actor, a film superstar, very successful, very rich and very fucked-up. In his first person streams of consciousness he is awash with chemical stews that need periodic adjusting by his skilled butler, Hoskins. Jack thinks he’s being interviewed by some prissy nobody from a magazine, to whom he’s telling, in a less than coherent manner, his life story from his obscure beginnings to his current position.
In between these sections and the ‘Ludes’ – you get what I mean, now? – we get a more objective view of Jack’s journey in the form of Flashbacks, several of which cross different stages of his life.
Both versions ably demonstrate that Jack is a monster, as the title says, a monster of ego and self-interest, an actor of genuine talent who screws his way to the top, on both sides of the street, but who is bedevilled by issues that lead ultimately to his becoming first a lush, then a hack, then a druggie, coasting on schticks and tics without any remnant of talent, having pissed it all away up the wall. But still massively popular, and lucrative.
There’s a twist ending to all this, in fact two, one major, one minor. Westlake doesn’t show his hand until very late in the book, content with just a few cryptic indications about something Jack, in his glaze, won’t look at, but the big twist is easily detectable from a very early Flashback, where Westlake very evidently doesn’t tell us something. A practiced reader can quickly tell what that omission is, and that it’s going to be crucial.
No, the reason I find this hard to believe, and what places it in the same category as Trust me on This, is that I find it extremely hard to believe. Jack’s excesses are like the Weekly Galaxy’s excesses: probably based in either complete truth or in some more minor key that has needed not too great an exaggeration, but which are so excessive that my imagination won’t even try to keep up with thinking this is how the film industry and its stars operate.
That probably makes me dumb, but it makes me unable to accept the book on its own level. Others hold it in higher esteem, regard it as under-rated. Not I.

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The final Sam Holt and another Dortmunder followed, as well as Westlake contributing two chapters to a collaborative novel, The Perfect Crime, alongside writers such as Jack Hitt, Lawrence Black, Sarah Caufield, Tony Hillerman and Peter Lovesey. His next work under his own name was a return to the extra-length, serious novel like Kahawa, though Humans was of a more metaphysical bent and definitely not based upon a true story: at least I hope not.
I actually had this book nearer when it was first published, a departure from my practice of only collecting the Dortmunder books, and let it go in one purge or another.
In his Introduction to Humans, Westlake blames Evan (Ed McBain) Hunter for suggesting he try tackling something on a larger scale and of a subject he’d never done before, his wife Abby for keeping him going and a scientist friend for providing him with a way out of an otherwise inescapable hole. Personally, I think he’s just trying to pass the buck in case the villain of the peace starts looking askance at him.
The book is definitely different from everything else Westlake had done or would do, even if it has that familiar element of crime, a conspiracy to murder. It’s just that the victim is the entire planet Earth, and the arch-conspirator is God.
This makes the novel problematic on many levels. As an atheist, I find the basic premise difficult to accept, because of where it comes from. The basic premise is that God, creator of the Universe, who has set up life in many playgrounds (Westlake’s word, placed into the mouth of the Angel Ananayel) has gotten bored with Earth and Man and wants the whole thing killed off. The task is assigned to the aforementioned Ananayel, to be completed with some expedition.
I have no idea as to Westlake’s religious convictions. It’s easy to assume that Americans are more commitedly Christian at heart because that’s the basis on which their culture and country is built, not to mention their most frightening obsessions, but whilst he states that the religion is as biblically correct as he can make it, the portrayal of God, even though he doesn’t actually appear, is a notch or two below the respect due to his omnipotence and omni-benevolence.
But what do I know? I don’t accept he exists.
It’s an intriguing premise that’s perfectly acceptable on a level of fantasy, though Westlake sets out to make the book as scientifically accurate as he can make it, whilst making the means of Earth’s death out of a scientific experiment whose outcome is undecided and deciding it for the worst. Ananayel is not to directly intervene to cause this, so he gathers together a group of strangers, one from each continent – an American, a Brazilian, a Russian, a Chinese, an African – chosen for their attitudes and experiences and how these will combine, and manipulates them, slowly and carefully, into meeting, in a place and at a time, where their judgements will feed off each other and, operating only upon their own Free Will, they will despair and destroy everything. Plausible Deniability for the chief conspirator, though who’s going to accuse him is another moot point.
Westlake works in mainly the third person, following the separate courses of his five humans as their experiences move them across the globe and, unknowingly, into each other’s orbits. These are interspersed with short first person sections by Ananayel, at first pointing out the human forms he takes to provide the initial prods into motion (as well as the odd miniature miracle required to preserve them).
This gradually changes in nature, firstly to Ananayel’s direct actions against the Demon X, assigned by Lucifer to get to the bottom of Ananayel’s plans and preserve this world, which belongs to the former Angel anyway, and merging into a more metaphysical tone as the Angel cannot find it in him, notwithstanding his loyalty to his Maker, to want to see these creatures permanently removed.
Part of this is down to his sixth chess-piece, Susan Carrigan, who is not part of the plot but instead a lever used to move Grigor, the Russian fireman dying of Chernobyl from one continent to another, but with whom Ananayel, in the human form he creates/adopts, becomes involved. On several levels.
Ultimately. As you may have noticed, the Earth is spared, through direct intervention by our Angel friend, who is reduced to human as a consequence. This is your traditional eleventh-hour-and-fifty-ninth-minute-and-a-helluva-lot-of-seconds rescue when only divine intervention could work. Given the context, this is actually allowable where otherwise it would be a cheap fake.
Humans is an interesting, thought-provoking, frequently-gripping book. It is different from anything else Westlake ever produced, and as a one-off interesting in its own right. It’s only real flaw is its length. It feels as if Westlake, having selected a big theme, feels he has to write not merely big but long. The middle of the book drags as the five’s progression towards each other is prolonged: it would be much better if tightened in this area. Like Kahawa, but for different reasons, I’m glad he didn’t do this type of thing again.

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Humans was the second of a sequence of seven consecutive novels coming out under Westlake’s name that included three Dortmunder books, so it was after another of these that Westlake produced Baby Would I Lie? the only other book in his career to consist of a series, albeit a very short series, featuring, as it did, the reappearance of Sara Joslyn and Jack Ingersoll of Trust me on This.
Though our intrepid reporter/editor team no longer work for the Weekly Galaxy, having been sacked for falling in love with each other and inveigled their way into the much more reputable Trend magazine as an Investigative team, don’t think that their erstwhile home is not to appear.
A lot of people feel this book was not necessary, that a repeat was superfluous. I don’t entirely agree, if only because Baby Would I Lie? mixes two stories, one each for Sara and Jack, only one of which features the Weekly Galaxy, and that seen largely from the outside.
Sara’s story is set within the world of country music, at its most excessive and most difficult to cope with. The new Nashville is Branson, Missouri (it pretty much is, you know) and one of its many stars in residence, with their own Theatre at which they perform daily, is Ray Jones, a good ol’ boy star to the hicks and chicks that like that sort of thing.
Only Good ol’ Ray’s got problems. One of them is that he’s under the long-term thumb of the IRS, trying to extract payments for back taxes, penalties and interest that Ray may never get out from under. The other is that Ray’s been charged with murdering a female employee in what’s being painted as a vile response to her refusing his advances.
That’s the story Sara’s in town to cover. So too is the Weekly Galaxy, up to its old tricks. Sara’s brief is different. Trend is a weekly. She won’t be writing until the trial is over. But when she files a first draft suggesting she’s gone native in a way no smart New Yorker ever should, Jack flies out to rescue her.
And it’s he who decides to stay in search of the story on the Galaxy’s methods that will bring the whole rotten shitshow down.
It’s the minor counterpart to Sara’s story, which gets infinitely more exposure. That’s because this element is Westlake’s speciality. Did Ray Jones kill Belle Hardwick? Is it only his volatile nature that’s leading him to sabotage his own defence every time it looks like winning the case for him? Sara’s pretty close to things, close enough to point out to Ray’s legal team just where the Galaxy have got in, on both sides, but the mass arrests of the Galaxy men and women are orchestrated by Jack.
Sara’s reward is to spot just how and why exactly Ray Jones has got her fixed up to be his patsy, and it’s a very clever twist, and equally clever and appropriate how Sara gets her moment of blazing insight that shows what the whole book’s all been about. Admittedly, the reveal is a bit trivial, but you’ve got to admire Westlake’s cleverness.
Nor do I find Baby Would I Lie? anything like as hard to swallow as Trust Me on This, because the world of country music, and its adherents, may be strange an unfathomable but I have watched half a dozen Nashville Country Music Awards shows, so I know Westlake is very much not making this up.

W - Smoke

Smoke, for all its major differences, is very much a parallel to Humans, and a counterpoint to Kahawa. All three are big books, longer than the average Westlake book, and Smoke is the most consistent to his career in writing crime-fiction, but it contains elements of SF, and examinations of human motive and our underlying corruption that tie it to Humans despite operating in an almost opposite manner.
Though a number of viewpoints take centre stage throughout this book, the central character is Freddie Noon, a liar and a thief. It’s surprising to realise that Freddie is the first real, out-and-out criminal to be the subject of a Westlake novel since Castle in the Air. We get a brief summary of Freddie’s life and career up to the age of 29, a successful, clever and professional thief, living with his girlfriend, Peg Briscoe, and about to rob a Research Lab, which is sure to be a source of easily portable and even more easily fenceable equipment.
Which is where the problem starts.
Drs Peter Hoofheimer and David Randall, a couple, are engaged in Cancer Research, a worthy aspiration. However, as they’re being sponsored – generously – by the Tobacco Industry, that research consists of finding every cancer cure possible except the ones that suggest giving up cigarettes in any way, shape or form. Currently they’re working on melanoma, skin cancer, from the point of view that this is an issue arising from skin pigmentation. Peter and David have devised two formulae to reduce that, which have been tested satisfactorily on animals, in this case the pairs’ pet cats, Buffy and Muffy, who are now completely translucent.
They just need a human volunteer. Such as the unsuspecting robber they catch in their Research Lab, where they live above the store, so to speak. Freddie volunteers, as would anyone whose alternative is to go in for life if turned over to the Police. He agrees to take one of the formulae, the injection as it turns out, and remain under observation at two hour intervals before leaving.
Unfortunately for the scientists, Freddie has no intention of waiting around, and he escapes, taking the equipment with him on the way, and also the tablet formula. Unfortunately for Freddie, Peter and David haven’t been entirely straight with him, allowing him to think that the tablet was the antidote, except that once Freddie takes the tablet, the formulae combine, to turn him invisible. Completely. Permanently.
What Westlake does from here is spin out the implications of being invisible. There are certain advantages to people not being able to see you, especially if you’re a thief, but there are not as many as you might naively imagine, especially when Westlake points out the disadvantages of having to carry out your nefarious objectives, especially the ones pertaining to having to carry out your robberies stark naked, in New York, among endless jostling people.
Of course, a lot of people think there are advantages to having a naked person working for them. The opportunities for espionage, especially on behalf of the Tobacco Industries, are very enticing, though I really do wish I could believe that the purposes they would put Freddie to use in exploiting are comic exaggeration of a particularly black nature on Westlake’s part instead of being the exact ideas they would pursue with determined interest given the chance. This is not an area in which my overdeveloped sense of my own cynicism offers me much by way of comfort.
But in one way, the Industry is the soft option, compared to Detective Barry Beuler. Beuler is a corrupt cop in the way that the Statue of Liberty is a tall woman, and he’s either insane or a total psychopath, assuming there to be any great distinction between the two. Beuler wants Freddie under his thumb, for a variety of jobs he sees the Invisible Thief as being ideal for, and if I say they start from assassinations and work up from there…
The worst of it, however, is Peg. Peg loves Freddie and Freddie loves Peg, and she’s his willing and smart-in-her-own-right accomplice, as long as she can see him. Freddie’s invisibility throws Peg out of her stride and no matter what the two do to adjust to changing circumstances, it isn’t going to work. Even when Freddie is fully dressed, including long-sleeved shirts in a New York summer, kitchen gloves and a Bart Simpson mask, it’s not conducive to a settled and relaxed atmosphere.
This is an area that Westlake explores thoroughly, without getting into any explicit details, but enough to suggest that being invisible even to the woman who loves you and shares your bed, at least when it’s totally dark, is not a fulfilled one for either.
Ultimately, there has to be a pay-off. Freddie’s condition is permanent, so the only option for him is to disappear, so to speak, with the loyal Peg having come through her own version of the fire and fully committed to him, at least to sufficient extent that we can believe it into the sunset, whilst in one way or another, the other players get their various comeuppances, in a way that allows the Invisible Thief to become an urban legend. The industry turns its attention to genetics, and the art of making the human race fit for smoking (if you don’t want to be utterly revolted, don’t read the book to find out what Westlake means by this).
Of the three ‘big books’. I think Smoke is probably the most successful. Though a couple of ‘big books’ were to follow, one almost immediately, Westlake would never write anything in this far out of his wheelhouse again.

W - Axe

Another Dortmunder book, the ninth of the series, followed on and then Westlake wrote the book that at least one of his fans has proclaimed his absolute masterpiece. Published as The Ax in American and The Axe over here, this was a major, serious, up-to-the-moment and very dark story of murder, built upon one of those ingenious notions that leaves the reader gasping and instantly wanting to know, how the hell will he pull this off?
This is another big book. It’s a work of crime fiction and it’s dead straight. There is no room for comedy in here, not with the set-up Westlake has conceived and which he explores with rigorous logic. It was a product of its times, the down-sizing era, and as such it is and always will be relevant in its castigation of owners and shareholders and the absence of any urge to treat employees as human beings.
Burke Devore (the choice of name is deliberate) has spent most of his working life in paper, acquiring specific skills with certain specialist grades as well as management skills. He’s 51, married, with two children, one at college, one almost. Two years ago, he was laid off. He hasn’t found another job yet. Despite all their economising, they are running out of money.
And Burke is close to defining the real problem. There’s a hungry work force out there, chasing too few jobs. Retraining is pointless when genuine specialists are ten a penny. Whatever job he applies for, no matter how well he can do it, there are always going to be candidates for it who are better than him.
Burke’s found a job, one that’s ideal for him in every way, except that there isn’t a vacancy. The logical response to this situation is to create a vacancy, By murdering its current occupant. But Burke’s logical analysis cuts deeper. There are candidates out there who will apply for the vacancy, and who will get it ahead of him. So, before killing Ralph Upton, Burke needs to identify all the candidates who will precede him in the qualifications stakes, and kill them.
Yes, that is the book. A man, an ordinary man, desperate to work, desperate to provide for his family, without any outward sign of mania but with rigid determination, conceives of a plan to murder a half dozen people and more who are all exactly like him to get back into the job market.
This is one you do need to read for yourself. I’m not telling you any more. You have to decide for yourself just what degree of rationality Mr Devore possesses, to decide, to act, to conceal and progress. Because it’s only fair to tell you now that he does it, he achieves his aims, there is no retribution, punishment or even discovery. You can only watch, in disbelief – I hope in disbelief – the sequence of events. And then ask yourself, not the question of whether you could do any of that but the rather more disturbing one, which is, how many of the people around you could.

When Donald Westlake wrote The Axe, in 1997, it was twenty-three years since he had last written a Parker novel, having lost his ability to find the voice of Richard Stark. It’s impossible to ignore the connection between this very dark, black novel, and his very next book being the revival of Stark, and the appropriately titled Comeback. Between The Axe and his death in 2008, Westlake produced no less than thirteen Parker and Dortmunder novels. The four remaining solus novels will be the subject of the next instalment.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E: s01 e04 – The Shark Affair


Uncle

I don’t know what it would have felt like to watch this episode in its original era, in an America still reverbrating from the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of President Kennedy. That world no longer exists in 2021, its tensions and fears receded, to be replaced by the tensions and fears of our times. The story was about living under the shadow of nuclear destruction, imminent nuclear destruction, inevitable nuclear destruction – I know that feeling well, I lived most of my life under that shadow – and about one man’s response: outlandish, wierd and yet strangely noble.

Special Guest Star Robert Culp played the titular Captain Shark, a modern-day Pirate with an almost unfathomable modus operandi, stopping ships in mid-ocean, seizing certain not actually valuable supplies, taking one or more passenger and sinking the ship. What on Earth could he want with a skilled paino-tuner?

This was more like the U.N.C.L.E. I’m waiting to watch, that element of absurdity that characterises the best episodes. It’s starting to break through. Ilya and Solo are interviewing perky, loud-voiced, Brooklyn-accented Elsa Burnman, played by Sue Ann Landen, who has a delightful tip-tilted nose. Elsa is just one of many people around the world whose spuse has answered an add calling for a specialist – librarian in her husband Harry’s case, roof thatcher in another – only to go missing. Immediately I heard the profession of roof thatcher, I knew this had to be connected to the good Captain, but at first Messrs Solo and Kuryakin think they’re on two separate cases, Ilya the missing people, Solo the piracy job.

It’s Ilya who makes the connection. The people being removed by Captain Shark are all related to the missing people – wives, mothers, chidren, sweethearts – but that begs the question of what it’s all about. They know that Elsa has disappeared, having been sent a cruise ticket and money to rejoin Harry. So the two Enforcement Agents are dropped into the middle of the ocean, in the path of Elsa’s boat, complete with cover stories, to be in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, they’re ‘rescued’ by Captain Shark’s vessel instead.

Culp’s performance, a year out from his starring role alongside Bill Cosby in I-Spy, strikes a strange note. He plays Shark with immense dignity, a Ship’s Captain who is in command, who is working to a plan that involves sinking ships but not hurting people, who acts with an utter calmness and an innate courtesy. This is because, in his own eyes, he is a man on a mission, an important, imperative mission, and one that is wholly beneficial in intent.

This is because he has seen the future, the same future so many of us saw, then and for at least thirty years since, a future in which the rivalries on Earth would lead inexorably to all-out muclear War, and the planet’s destruction. Shark’s mission is to build an Ark, a completely safe and protected environment in which the building blocks of another, better civilisation will survive, to emerge when the toxins disperse and establish a new human race, tied together by its commonality, not its differences, its need for control.

Shark was completely sincere in this. His methods may have been illegal, but in his eyes they were all justified. The ends served, indeed demanded the means, but it was to be done without killing. Culp’s performance underlined the man who was set aside by his mission, and a man who, when his dream was exploded, refused to return to the outside world that he saw no place for himself within, and who, in the best tradition and cliche, was determined to go down with his ship.

In the end, it was that strangeness, and the memory of the times I felt the way Shark felt, that captivated me, yet in amongst the sad madness there was the first flowering of U.N.C.L.E,‘s lightheartedness. The occasional overblown lines, combining flippancy and cynicism, the idea of stranding Solo and Kuryakin in mid-Ocean to do an intercept, Elsa’s completely down to bedrock dottiness. Ah, it’s coming together. All they need to do is lose that mindless talk-to-the-screen introduction and we’ll be flying.