Discovering Dortmunder: Get Real

Donald Erwin Westlake, prolific writer of crime fiction, died on 31 December 2008, aged 75. He was preparing for a New Year’s Eve dinner with friends in Mexico, when he suffered a heart attack. He left behind one completed but unpublished novel. Parker fans hoped for a final Richard Stark, Dortmunder fans for a last Dortmunder gang tale: we were the lucky ones.
What does it feel like when an open-ended series ends? What is the best way to leave the reader satisfied? Westlake didn’t know that this would be his final book, his final visit to the absurd but somehow very realistic world of the unluckiest gang of criminals ever, and if he had, how might it have affected his story?
There’s an interesting comparison with Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series, which was also brought to an end on the author’s death, with the final book being Midnight Fugue. The Dalziel and Pascoe books are, primarily, independent of each other, but there was an ongoing chronology, and events in one book would often have consequences in the next.
For instance, Hill had had Andy Dalziel caught in a car bomb explosion in one book and barely surviving, in convalescence but still active in the next and, in Midnight Fugue, about to return to duty. In his absence, Peter Pascoe had taken on Dalziel’s duties, meaning that there would be a new aspect to their relationship: this would have been tackled in the next book, but that went unwritten.
There would be no such issues with Westlake: each Dortmunder book ended with an ending, and nothing hanging over to be addressed in another book. If he had known this was to be the last, would he have written it differently?
That we’ll never know, but by a gloriously sentimental chance, Get Real ends with a rare win for the gang. They make their score, the cops know nothing, they leave full-handed and with the opportunity to repeat the job no-one but they knows they’ve pulled off. Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch, Bulcher and Blint go out on a high.
Get Real may not be the best Dortmunder book, but it’s got the biggest and most absurd notion that Westlake came up with: a reality TV series, starring our favourite gang in the planning, casing and commission of a job. Real crime, for a thirteen week prime-time slot.
It’s all because things are quiet. The twenty-first century and its technological advances, especially in the realms of CCTV, surveillance, and enhanced security has not been kind to the sort of crooks like Dortmunder and co, the ones who prefer cash-in-illicit-hand. Everyone’s in semi-retirement, making their way, bit by bit, but lacking that piece of something that provides a cushion, you know. Which is why, when Murch’s Mom gets TV producer Doug Faircamp in her cab on a run from the Airport into the city, she takes the chance to big up her boy Stanley, figuring he could do with a change of career.
And Doug Faircamp gets the idea of a lifetime.
Now, leaving aside any moral qualms about the fact that Get Real Productions are planning to aid and abet and indeed profit from a criminal enterprise – this is television: there are none – Dortmunder and co have some concerns of their own. Like the fact that they usually do their jobs at night, in the dark, and without 12,000,000 witnesses and footage for the cops to use in evidence.  Not to mention that it wouldn’t go down well at the O.J. if they tried filming in the back room.
But Doug is full of assurances that they can get round that, that they’ll use side and back shots and head haloes, that the gang’s faces will never be seen, and besides, they’ll build the O.J. in the studio, and shoot the show there (there is an vein of pure cynicism about the ‘reality’-quotient of Reality TV running through this, rather like the Amazon runs through Brazil).
As far as the gang is concerned, they’ll only go ahead with this by planning two heists. The first is the one the TV company know about, that’s going to get filmed. The target’s going to be in the same building, another company from the same group: an escape hatch for if the Police get involved: it wasn’t a real robbery, the company were in on it.
But the more important job is the heist the company doesn’t know about. The one that turns upon how Doug has inadvertently revealed that there are large sums of cash to be found around from time to time, which the gang assume (rightly) to be on that floor which is shielded by massive security.
As far as Dortmunder’s concerned, the TV show is only a cover: once they’ve cased their real heist, they walk off the show, let things settle, then go in quietly at night. The way things should be done. Unfortunately (ahhh…), by that point the rest of the gang have seen the first rushes, have seen themselves on TV, and they kind of like it. They want to keep filming. And, when it comes to it, even Dortmunder gets the bug.
The jewel in this part of the story, and indeed the moment at which I laughed louder and harder than any other single moment in all this series, comes when the gang arrive for filming one day on the set of the O.J. to find Doug, production assistant and not-scripter Marcie and two cameraman having exactly the kind of cross-purposed, surreal and unfailingly inaccurate conversation as the regulars do in the real bar.
The gang stare in awe and amazement and it is Kelp who sums it up perfectly with the line, “If you build it, they will come.”
The cash, it turns out, is bribe money: bribe money for all those local agents and wheelgreasers in foreign climes, if one wishes to get anywhere with one’s enterprises. Since that is illegal under US Law, Dortmunder and co can feel assured that the crime will not be reported. Still, they go in with every intention of not leaving any traces of their presence, so it’s unfortunate that they disturb a large and suspicious Asian gentleman.
This leads to one of the very few moments of overt violence in the entire series and, ironically, it’s not even by Tiny: Kelp wangs the guy up the head with a frying pan. The cash in the safe being somewhat messily stacked, the gang are even able to extract nearly $170,000 without anyone even being sure a dollar is missing!
As winners go, this is a win.
The next day, the show is cancelled. Westlake’s used that as a cliffhanger twice and twice wriggled his guys out of it, but third time is the deal-breaker: the company is being shut down, the gang are paid off and they leave. It is, I’m sad to say, a weak and very perfunctory ending: our last look at our friends is as they wander off down the street forever, without fireworks or fanfare. For a moment, Dortmunder’s conscience seems about to assert itself: they’ve been paid off on top of everything they’ve made, but Marcie, who’s been invaluable to them on the show, is sacked with nothing. Should they give her something?
It’s a nice thought, but the ghost of Parker shines through John Archibald Dortmunder for one last time, and like the crook he is and has always been, he rejects the thought, and walks on.
So it ended. Like I say, it’s not the best of the series, but it’s plenty good enough and it’s very funny. There’s no place, this final time, for May or Anne Marie, and only cameos for Murch’s Mom and J. C. Taylor. There’s no Arnie Allbright either, sad to say.
The book was stated to be complete, but I wonder just how complete it was. Westlake was a very natural writer, a fast typist who caught his stories at the first go. All writers rewrite, to one extent or another though, and I have my suspicion that this book would have had another go through it to come, had fate not intervened.
I’m put in mind of P. G. Wodehouse’s final, unfinished novel, Sunset at Blandings. It’s unfinished in that Wodehouse was not more than three-quarters of the way through the story when he died, but it’s also unfinished in another sense. Wodehouse’s practice was to write the story as a whole, concentrating on working out the plot, and fitting everything together. He would then take a more relaxed approach to the manuscript, working through it and ‘thickening’ it: putting in those wonderful similes, those convoluted quips, the jokes and the fun, making the book into the rich brew it would become.
This is missing from that part of Sunset at Blandings that he had written, and I wonder if a similar process is missing from Get Real. The ending is so abrupt, so left-field despite the (over-) use of the shutdown device, twice already, so feeble, that it is a let-down. The book doesn’t end in a sense that feels complete, it just stops.
I wonder. But the question is moot. John Dortmunder, Andy Kelp, Stan Murch, Tiny Bulcher and, having not had half the development as a character that Westlake plainly intended for him, Judson “The Kid” Blint, went off into that good night of respected and beloved fictional creatures who will not be allowed to dragged back by foreign hands. The family will not allow their further use, and good on them.
There remains a total of eleven short stories and one rather unusual sidebar to the canon, all but one of which I’ll be discussing in the next entry, when I look at the one volume of collected short Dortmunder fiction.


The Prisoner: episode 7 – Many Happy Returns – discursion

Georgina Cookson

Many Happy Returns was the seventh episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast, and the thirteenth and final of the originally planned series 1 to be filmed. It was written by Anthony Skene, scripter of A, B and C, and was his third and final script for the series (the other being the as-yet-undiscussed Dance of the Dead). It was directed by Patrick McGoohan under his pseudonym of Joseph Serf.
The episode itself is a spectacular piece of work, not least in the daring to have no (English) dialogue until almost halfway through, and McGoohan’s performance as a man who has, after a long period of incarceration, returned home is subtle and delicate. Many Happy Returns was also one of the favourite episodes of series co-creator George Markstein, as one of the few that accorded with his original vision of the series. Indeed, Markstein saw this episode as the proper series closer: Number Six finally escapes and returns to London, only to discover that he is just as much under the control of his mysterious gaolers: that he is, and forever will be, a prisoner of who he is and what he was.
It was also the last episode with which Markstein was involved.
Skene also seems to have been under the impression that this was to be the final episode as his script recapitulates many incidents from Arrival, giving the impression that, after thirteen weeks, the Prisoner is back where he started.
Instead, the episode aired halfway through the putative Series 1 run (except in the 1983 Channel 4 first re-run, when it was aired second: way to go, boys, this guy has just been kidnapped to a mysterious, inescapable, secret location, and first thing you show is him escaping). Markstein’s influence had all but disappeared in the face of McGoohan’s increasingly abstract approach, and – ironically in the face of an episode that set up what would have been the underlying theme of series 2 – it must have been around this time that McGoohan and Grade had their meeting that led to the abandonment of the latter and the commissioning of the four additional episodes that would lead the show into Cult History.
With McGoohan as Director, everyone must have expected changes to the original script, but a comparison between what aired and Skene’s script as reprinted in Fairclough’s book is astonishing. The final broadcast varies little from the plot, or spine of Skene’s story, but each episode has been radically revised, to the extent that a version shot entirely to the script would be almost a brand new episode.
Just to give a handful of examples, the opening sequence in the Village is cut to eliminate almost all the emotions Number Six experiences, the German pair take him on board their motor vessel, the Romanies speak pure English with a cockney accent, Mrs Butterworth was a little old lady who thought the Prisoner was a burglar, and there is considerably more, and more pointed dialogue in the final scene back in Number Six’s cottage (the final version is much more effective, cutting things off at the punchline).
You will already have noted that this is the second time that an episode purports to identify where the Village is situated. We’ve already discounted the Lithuanian Coast theory, in The Chimes of Big Ben, as disinformation spread by a double agent. This time, the Village is authoritatively placed somewhere between the south west Portugal/Spain coast and the north west Morroccan coast (the original script ties it to an island abandoned because of the threat of volcanic destruction).
I say authoritatively, because whilst the work of the two experts is based on limited information and is tentative at best, the following day, McGoohan is flown to the area they specify, and he finds the Village. He is equipped with maps, he is directing a systematic survey of terrain that matches the maps he carries, he finds the Village.
Hang the fact that he is searching in a Mediterranean/North African region for a location that has a temperate British climate and flora. And there’s one other episode in which the Village’s physical location is indicated, completely incompatible with Many Happy Returns, but as we shall see, that is also completely unreliable. Face it, this is where the Village is.
And no, I don’t believe that for one moment. I cannot square it with seventeen episodes of daily life in the Village. But I also cannot come up with a way to step around what is portrayed here that convinces even me.
It would appear to be a massive blow to the believability of the series, except that one other, and more fundamental issue, supervenes.
What is the central fact of this episode? That the Prisoner actually does return to London, and he physically returns to British Intelligence, his former employers. But wait: didn’t he already do that in The Chimes of Big Ben? Not quite: he never left the Village in that episode, but he did meet two former colleagues in British Intelligence, including a superior, in Colonel J and Fotheringay: people he knew. Now he meets The Colonel and Thorpe. The Colonel is familiar to him, but I infer from how the scene is played, that he does not know Thorpe, the openly sceptic.
Why doesn’t he meet his first two contacts? The message in The Chimes of Big Ben was directed to Colonel J, who, it is implied, was Number Six’s direct chief. But, let’s say, the Colonel is higher in Intelligence than Colonel J, or that Colonel J has since been … removed? For that matter, given what we discussed last time, do we know that The Chimes of Big Ben took place before Many Happy Returns or after?
Actually, it doesn’t matter which order the two episodes take place, the same ultimate question applies. For what it’s worth, I do believe that The Chimes of Big Ben is earlier, and that Many Happy Returns in its early stages (far more so in the original script) portrays Number Six’s over-riding fear that he will only be allowed so far in his escape before the Village intervenes.
But whilst there are perfectly plausible reasons why the Prisoner doesn’t meet those contacts he met the first time, what is inexplicable is that he neither refers to that previous episode, nor shows any heightened suspicion about British Intelligence as a consequence.
Why doesn’t he bring it up? Why is he not automatically suspicious of the aid being given to him to locate the Village? Yes, the Prisoner is affected by a quasi-euphoric response to at last getting away but he retains his natural suspicions (what made him such a good agent) as to which side runs the Village.
The only logical explanation depends upon pure hypothesis. Number Six has been subjected to drugs on various occasions, and on his next return to London, he will have been brainwashed to forget he has ever been kidnapped at all. Therefore he must have been drugged on this occasion and brainwashed into forgetting his encounter with Colonel J and Fotheringay. Perfectly plausible: but when the Number Two of that story, Leo McKern, reappears in Once Upon a Time, Number Six recognises his voice instantly.
Even this plausible hypothesis can be knocked down, with evidence. So what is the reality?
The reality is that there is no reality. We cannot square the circle on this inconsistency because the series was seen as a succession of discrete episodes, not a tightly-consistent serial. Applying too much real world logic leads us to suggestions that the Prisoner is being brainwashed to forget between each episode, or that Number Six is actually a different character, reset to zero, in every episode.
And it’s not as if the series’ as yet unconceived ending doesn’t support such a reading.
A couple of minor points: anyone watching this episode under the age of thirty is unlikely to appreciate the in-joke of having veteran actor Richard Caldicot play the senior Royal Navy officer. Caldicot was best known as Commander Povey in the long-running nautical radio sitcom The Navy Lark, starring Leslie Phillips and Jon Pertwee, which ran from 1959 to 1975 and is still in regular repeat on Radio 4 Extra today.
The use of Robert Reilty to substitute as Number Two in the credits – it being impossible for Georgina Cookson to be revealed as Number Two up front – was intended as a one-off, but after the following episode, it became standard usage, relieving all the subsequent Number Twos (except the returning Leo McKern) of the task.
Lastly, having regard to our discussion about the possible misogynistic aspects of the series, let us note that Georgina Cookson is the second female Number Two. But though she plays a prominent, and beautifully misdirecting, part in the story, like Rachel Herbert before her, her actual identification as Number Two is limited to no more that ten seconds onscreen. That case remains open.

On Writing: Even in Peoria – Part 3

Even to this day, I don’t understand what happened. And I have never again had an experience where the words threatened to explode out of my head if I didn’t write them down.
It should be clear by now that I had little or no conscious input into this story, which leaves the vital question: where did it come from?
On many occasions during the 26 years he spent writing and drawing Cerebus, Dave Sim would talk about That From Which It Comes. Sim had long since ceased to believe that he was creating Cerebus, but rather that he was a vehicle for something, some indefinable thing outside of himself, that required the story to be told and which was using Sim as the vehicle, or conduit.
Sim spoke of discussing this with other writers and artists and, in coded terms, receiving confirmation from them that their work was being similarly compelled.
I have very great difficulty in believing that anything like that happened to me. I’ve never thought of Even in Peoria as anything more than a light, entertaining, comic-dramatic story, with no deeper significance, which makes it impossible to imagine some out-of-body entity wanting it to appear. But that still leaves me without an explanation for what was the most pleasurable – indeed effortless – writing I’ve ever done.
I’ve known for many years that I have a good subconscious sense of structure. Several times, I’ve composed things on a random basis only to find that, when it came time to make whatever changes were needed to make them into a coherent whole, they already were.
And since Even in Peoria, I have ceased to rely on advance plotting or pre-defined endings, and learned to trust in my ability to bring a story to a fitting conclusion simply by writing it. This isn’t boasting: I am convinced that much of the heavy work involved in writing is being conducted at the subconscious level, with Peoria as an extreme example, and it extraordinarily difficult to take credit for something you have no control over.
For many years now, as new ideas cross my mind, I’ve tended to start with some intense thinking about whatever idea has sparked my interest, before committing it to my subconscious to develop. Sometimes that takes a long time. I’ll give you an example in a later one of these essays.
Whatever else it taught me, Even in Peoria completely overthrew my established working practices. I’ve already said that I no longer plot in advance or need to know the ending: it’s enough to have the initial concept and a principal character, with a couple of ideas of things that will (probably) happen. From that, I can let the characters start to define themselves, and to move the story forward, towards ends generate by their wants and needs.
They live their story as I live my life, not knowing what’s coming.
And I don’t write out longhand drafts of the story any more: in fact, I try my damnedest not to write anything down on paper because it’s so wearisome copying it up into the laptop (even if I do end up revising the same drastically on the few occasions that still applies). I do still let the story proceed from beginning to end, before starting to study it in more detail. The last two times I did this, the story grew in scope and diameter in the Second Draft.
Next time, I’ll tell you something about the process of discovering what you want to write about, and some methods of developing that initial spark into something with a shape.

On Writing: Even in Peoria – Part 2

My Easter Monday surprise had netted me 2,200 unexpected and unplanned words, and that put me in a quandary.
This was a brand new tale, fresh, bright, vivid, and I had to write it. But I was already writing a novel. I had written between 10,000 – 12,000 words of the First Draft, it was going well, it was an idea I had been working up to writing for the best part of fifteen years (it was, in fact, what would become Tempus Infinitive), and I didn’t want to abandon it.
And I had a tried and tested working method.
For each book, I would plot, carefully and comprehensively, through to the end. I would write the book in longhand, first draft, working all the way through. The second draft was putting the book onto my computer, whilst sorting out the most obvious crap.
The third draft consisted of a print-out, worked over as extensively as necessary with a red pen, after which I’d make all the relevant changes on the computer. The fourth draft consisted of reading the book, identifying areas and sections that felt weak, or wrong, and reworking these as often as necessary until the story was complete.
Based on past experience, that took me about six months. And as this was only the second book of a trilogy, if I continued with this book, it was looking like a year before I could get back to my new story, and I didn’t think it would wait around that long. If I didn’t touch it for that length of time, I doubted I’d be able to get that ‘voice’ back.
Come to that, it had been such an outré experience, could I capture that voice again today?
In the end, it was that which settled it for me. I sat down with pen and paper and prepared to try Chapter 2. Once I’d succeeded in that, the choice was made.
It was completely against all my experience and all my habits. There was no worked out plot: indeed, over the next seven weeks, I would never be able to foresee where the story was going by more than two chapters. I was writing in the third person, which I’d never succeeded in doing before. I was writing a longhand draft and immediately typing it up into the computer, and after a week or so I was starting to make changes to it even as I was transcribing – and I was continuing from where I’d left off: some of this story wasn’t even appearing on paper at all!
Ten days in, I had the chance of a day’s walking in the Lakes: I got close to the hills and found myself pulling in to write an epilogue: a gleefully, anti-cliché epilogue to a story in which the only thing I knew about the ending was that the good guys would win.
Strange things happened. I’d named my female lead Susan in the sleeping bag scene, but when the time came to introduce her name, I called her Daphne Dean (a nod to The Flash, which I was collecting monthly). When the time came to task her with her name, she grumbled that she didn’t like it, and her friends called her Susan, leading everyone to assume it was a middle name.
The story moved on. Geography shaped it, as my leading pair separately and jointly crossed the fells. The sleeping bag scene appeared on the horizon.
When the day came to incorporate it, I re-read it carefully. I now knew who this pair were, where they were, why they were there, what had driven them together unexpectedly, and what was behind their respective actions. Now I would see what changes I had to make to ensure that Easter Monday session fitted in.
There were none. Oh, I hadn’t foreseen that it had been raining, and that my male lead had wet trousers, which necessitated adding half a dozen words to reference this. But everything else fit perfectly. I cut and pasted in amazement. How the hell had I done that?
The story moved on. The pair separated, came back together again, shared the sleeping bag for a second night, squabbled. The chapter ended with Richard falling into the hands of the ‘villain’, coming onstage for the first time. But instead of running, Susan was walking down the hill, surrendering herself to be caught.
It was a another day. I had a business appointment that necessitated me catching the train into Town. As I walked to the station, I was musing on that day’s stage. The villain knew Susan, worked for her father, saw her almost every day. Why then did I know that the first thing he was going to say when she walked up to him, a captive, was “Who are you?”
So. It appeared that my female lead was not who she had been supposed to be all the time. Well, how am I supposed to know, I’m only the writer?
So if Susan wasn’t Daphne, who was she? The answer came relatively quickly, and I was free to move on. As an aside, when I was finished and could read back, there were so many little things in there to support the pretence, even down to Susan’s gradually shifting change in speech patterns, from pretence to her real voice, that exactly supported the revelation, but which were completely unplanned by me.
The story moved on. The end came in sight. I was half-hoping I could finish in seven straight weeks, but a little more was needed.
I finished a chapter one night. From there, I knew where the next, penultimate, chapter had to end, but what concerned me was that there wasn’t much room between start and finish. Basically, I would need about 1,000 words of filler.
That word was a mistake. It raised concerns in my head about what I would have to write: this close to the end, what would ensure this chapter had the right length without waffle or distraction?
I didn’t start writing until 11.00pm, but things went smoothly and I was able to write out the length without sagging or irrelevancy. I reached the end of the chapter at midnight, and immediately turned over the page and began the next chapter. It took me over, I wrote it straight through, hitting the climax about 1.00am.
I still needed one more chapter before I could jump to the Epilogue. But I had a business meeting the following day, so I had to go to bed.
The next morning I set off for my meeting by car. Halfway there, the start of the chapter arrived in my head. I tried scribbling bits down at traffic lights, but they were never on red for long enough. And I couldn’t dismiss it. It demanded to be written down, and it was like a physical pressure in my head that would explode if I didn’t write it.
I ended up having to pull off, scribble some things at furious speed and arrive a bit late. But it would not let me ignore it or leave it.
And then it was written. 75,000 words in 52 days. From nothing. And without a title.

On Writing: Even in Peoria – Part 1

The first novel I published through was Even in Peoria. It wasn’t the first I had finished: two other novels preceded it, that is, if you count the Semi-Legendary Autobiographical First Novel, which never went into a second draft because the first was enough to exorcise the ghosts that had driven it. But it was an unrepeatable experience, and one that changed, almost overnight, my approach to writing fiction.
The facts are simple: one day, out of the blue, I started writing a completely unplanned book, in a totally different style, and I wrote it in 52 days, 75,000 words. I have never written another book remotely that quickly.
You could also say that the book took 11 – 12 years to write, instead of 52 days. This is because, whilst on holiday in the Lakes one year in the mid-Eighties, for no apparent reason I cannibalised a couple of experiences into an opening for a novel. Whether it was any good or not, I can’t say, as the original manuscript was lost ages ago, but it was only ever an opening and it suffered immensely from not having a story to go on the end of it. I did have one half-baked idea, but if it didn’t convince me, I couldn’t see it getting by readers, so that was that.
Except that, for some inexplicable reason, the piece seemed to go into some mental filing cabinet, and every so often, I found myself pulling it out and ‘reading’ it through, as some bizarre head-exercise. And it was always there and it was always the same.
Until Easter Monday, 1997. It was a significant day for me: I had finally reached the end of a five year contract at a firm where I hated every minute and loathed the people I had to work for. Discovering my last day was Easter Monday was like getting a four day parole.
And it was Easter and it was sunny, and I was off to the Lakes, free at last, for the first walk of the year, and I even had a football match to go to, as Droylsden were playing away at Netherfield – now Kendal Town – that evening. It was a day for exuberance.
The walk I’d chosen was an expansion of the very one I’d used as the basis for that old, not-forgotten piece. I got to the relevant summit by lunch, more relaxed than I’d been for many years, and now I was in a position to ‘research’, out came that old scene.
And it immediately began to change.
It had been so long, I couldn’t take the piece seriously. It started coming out with long sentences, convoluted tones, a detached and ironic mood, and after three paragraphs, it was as if a voice in my head said “Tangent” and I went off on a long, completely improvised paragraph, departing from the linear story, and spiralling round into a completely unforeseen punchline that had me laughing out loud and thinking, “Wow! I’ve got to keep that!”
So I re-ran everything in my head, three or four times, until I was confident that I could keep it stored until I got back to the car, and pen and paper, which was going to be at least two hours.
Only it didn’t end there. By the time I reached the end of the ridge and the last summit of the day, I had about 1,500 words in my head, a whole chapter repeating and repeating so that I could write it down.
Nothing like that had never happened before but, as I started downhill, I knew I still only had an opening, without a story to go on the end of it. On the other hand, if I was to do it in this tone, this ironic, comic, unserious tone, that stupid old idea I’d had before might well work, as a comedy thriller. There would no doubt be guns (there weren’t), and there’d have to be a scene where the two leading characters, one male, one female, would be benighted in the fells with one tent and one sleeping bag between them.
Back at the car, the first thing I did was take my boots off (that is always the first thing you do when you come down off the fells), and then I wrote out what I had, with relief. It was astonishing to have retained that amount of writing in my head for so long (not completely: I have vague memories of a paragraph about a camera that disappeared, but even so). It was even more astonishing that, having previously only ever worked in the first person, I had dropped into the third person, and into a totally new voice, without any prior warning or practice.
Being hot and thirsty, I headed for Keswick, parked up and walked down towards the Market Square, this new story still dominating my mind. Idly, I started to vamp the sleeping bag scene only to realise, as I reached the crowded centre that this wasn’t vamping: I was writing the actual scene.
Back to the car, write this new part down. I decided to start making a slow way towards Kendal, via Ullswater and Patterdale for the views, but it hasn’t finished, they’re in the sleeping bag, things are happening, and I’m desperately looking for somewhere in Patterdale where I can pull in and write it down without causing a queue all the way back to Penrith.
This accomplished, I drove on, but it still wasn’t over. She’d gotten her end away, but now she wanted to talk. With the result that I ended up in a layby on the slip road into Kendal, with the Droylsden coach rushing past me, writing down a third part to this completely unanchored scene of two strangers, in an unknown place, in unknown circumstances, having spur of the moment sex for unfathomable reasons.
But at least it was done now, and I could concentrate on getting a meal (plain but filling) and the match (lost 1-0).

Discovering Dortmunder: What’s So Funny?

What’s So Funny?, the thirteenth Dortmunder novel, was the last to be published in Donald Westlake’s lifetime. In keeping with the prolificity with which he was getting Dortmunder ideas, it appeared in 2007, only two years after Watch Your Back. It’s a fairly simple story, divided into two phases, and maintaining its theme throughout, and it ends with one of the most satisfying twists in the whole series.
Once again, the story begins at the O.J., where things are not as expected. Dortmunder comes out of Pointers to find the regulars silent, Rollo distracted and Andy Kelp signally ignoring him (with the bottle of Our Own Brand Bourbon). This time it’s not the Mafia in the bar, but instead a Cop. Or a Was a Cop Until Seventeen Months Ago And Now a Freelance, but everybody agrees that it takes at least three decades for the stigma to elapse.
The Cop – let’s start referring to him as Johnny Eppick For Hire, that being the name on his business card – is here for someone. Inevitably, it’s Dortmunder, though given a free choice, Dortmunder would rather sit down in Ohio than in a booth with this Cop. But Eppick has two things: the first being a commission from a rich gent to retrieve an expensive item of family interest, for which an ingenious, non-violent crook is to procure from its recently discovered resting place, and the second being incriminating evidence of John Dortmunder shopping for computers at an hour when no other customers, nor staff, come to think of it, were about.
The fact that the job is utterly and completely impossible to do has very little effect on either Eppick for Hire, or his aged, ailing but still mentally agile patron, Mr Hemlow: nor can Dortmunder exercise his constitutional right to clear out to Chicago where no-one knows him, given the willingness of cops to co-operate via the Internet.
The object of all this coercion is one of the most valuable objects Dortmunder has been asked to steal, a solid gold chess set, inlaid with jewels, originally created as a gift for Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Unfortunately, the delivery date was 1917, when the Tsar was otherwise engaged. However, during the illegal,unacknowledged and decidedly dodgy post-1918 war against the Bolsheviks, ten US soldiers found the chess set and made plans to remove it to the States, where they could make it the foundation of their fortunes.
Until their Sergeant, Abel Northwood, disappeared with the entire chess set, robbing his nine men of their fantastic future.
The whereabouts of this fantastic item has been unknown for decades, during which time Hemlow – son of one of the disappointed men – has made a fortune of his own by becoming a genius inventor. But now his granddaughter Fiona, a very lowly lawyer at a very high law firm, has found the chess set.
Her firm represents the elderly Mrs Livia Northwood Wheeler, one of seventeen descendants of Abel Northwood, and heirs to his substantial fortune. But the Northwoods, and Livia in particular, are contentious and litigious folk, continuously suing and counter-suing each other and everybody else. One of the assets about which everybody is suing is the chess set, and it’s so contentious that it’s been placed into the joint custody of several of the relevant law firms, and is, in fact, in the intensely protected sub-basement of Fiona’s firm.
Fiona, being a bit of a history buff, has passed the story onto her grandfather, who has decided to put the snatch on the chess set, for the family.
Yes, it’s all a bit of an elaborate back-story, but at least the scene is set and, like Dortmunder, you will have understood that the job of entering this electronic pass-protected, heavily guarded, limited access, uptown vault and exiting it with a solid gold chess set that is too heavy for one man to lift, is simply not on.
If they could only engineer a situation where the chess set had to be brought out of that sub-basement to somewhere with less security…
Dortmunder is, however, forced to go through the motions. Fiona, despite her status as an officer of the court and her utter refusal to assist any criminal act, does provide Dortmunder with as much information as possible (which only goes to support the status quo ante). Unfortunately, the knowledge she has only feeds her compulsion, which leads her to overstep the mark by directly addressing Livia Northwood, just having to have some communication with the ‘enemy’.
As a consequence, she is fired without references, and a remorseful Hemlow calls off the hunt, much to Dortmunder’s relief and Eppick’s frustration, a frustration exacerbated when the offices of Eppick For Hire are neatly cleaned out by a professional burglar. Everything is removed: even the evidence against Dortmunder.
Thus ends part 1, “Knight’s Errand”, during which very little has happened, though Westlake has kept things moving along nicely, and with a lot of comic touches in and amongst the cast, which includes Judson Blint as an accepted, but still in training member of our favourite gang. Fiona’s involvement is an appropriate diversion from the main line, but there’s a seemingly irrelevant tangent surrounding the intended hiding place for the purloined chess set, a compound in upstate New York. This has been invaded by two post-High School slackers, who are systematically eating all the frozen food and screwing incessantly in undeserved comfort, who overhear this plan to bring in a gold chess set.
The story is not, however, finished, and part 1, “Pawn’s Revenge”, picks things up three months later. Fiona Hemlow has not suffered from losing her job, far from it: she is now Mrs Wheeler’s personal assistant and much happier as a result. Unbeknownst to her, Jay Tumbril, who fired her, is suspicious that a scam is being set up. He hires a top-flight Private Agent (Jacques Perly, who appeared in The Road to Ruin) to investigate and, when Fiona proves to be squeaky clean, start looking at her live-in cartoonist boyfriend, Brian.
But Mrs W hasn’t forgotten the chess set, and decides to set Fiona onto researching it: where did it come from? What was its provenance before Abel Northwood first put it on display in 1948? Concealing her private knowledge, Fiona discovers that there is no information whatsoever. And that one rook is several pounds lighter than the other. There’s nothing for it but to have the chess set out for examination.
This puts the caper back on again, and Dortmunder signs up to take a crack. The chess set is to be moved to Perly’s high-security offices, by means of an elaborate transport plan (included Police cooperation from our old friend Chief Inspector Francis X. Mologna, pronounced Maloney) with detailed schedules, the very details of which are obtained by Dortmunder when a preliminary casing of the exterior of Perly’s offices goes badly wrong, and a disoriented John ends up breaking in accidentally.
The plan is simple: get into Perly’s offices ahead of time, intercept the delivery and drive away. Unfortunately (it’s like an old friend, that word) a number of things go wrong. First, Perly gets twitchy and turns up an hour early, leading to a superb Marx Brothers-esque scene as five conspirators get themselves out of the office without being seen.
Then everything goes so swimmingly with the rest of the plan that they decide not to wait until 2.00am to move and turn up nearly an hour ahead of schedule (much to the disgust of Dortmunder and Co, who are playing poker to pass the time).
And then finally the truck carrying the chess set turns out to be just too big for the tight turn on the ramp from the parking garage and gets stuck. This inspires a brilliant piece of improvisation by Dortmunder, who casts the gang as internal security, cons the travelling security into transferring the chess set into a smaller truck, which can get the gold upstairs once the big truck has been backed out, but which, unaccountably, locks the garage door shut and drives off.
There’s an awful lot of fall-out to be dealt with, especially as Jay Tumbril is still convinced that Fiona and Brian are behind everything. But Fiona is too canny and Brian too traumatised to give away anything incriminating,and when Perly’s evidence of their being led by a ‘tough old broad’ turns out to be Mrs W wearing a masquerade costume, the case collapses like an undercooked souffle.
But despite all the evidence to the contrary, there are once again no happy endings. Sadly Fiona learns that the Northwoods haven’t finished stealing from her family, whilst her grandfather, after waiting so long for just a glimpse of the fabled chess set, suffers a sad loss almost immediately after.
And Andy Kelp’s propensity for Doctor’s cars play a strange part in the ultimate, and some would say appropriate, destiny of Tsar Nicholas II’s chess set.
The curious thing about What’s So Funny? Is that Westlake originally set out to write about a completely different heist, one brought to the table by, of all people, Stan Murch (drivers do not bring in jobs). Stan’s idea also involved gold, being the removal of the dome from a mosque whose construction was being held up by New York’s way of doing things. The dome is fifteen feet across and twelve feet high. It is, of course, impossible to steal, which is why Westlake didn’t take that plot any further, but he did use it as the reason everyone was in the O.J. to begin with. And Stan got over it. Eventually.
This is, when you think about it, a pretty slim story kept buoyant by the characters and their habits. There’s an awful lot of background in the foreground, which is another late-series characteristic: we are here for the show and the plot is merely a link that justifies our favourites doing their respective souflethings. But it’s an engaging and funny book, and the set-up is a new twist from the ever-inventive Westlake, and everybody makes you laugh, and on the whole this is a pretty good book.
Unfortunately, there would only be one more to come.

The Prisoner: episode 7 – Many Happy Returns – synopsis

Thunder crashes.
The opening credits do not show the new Number Two, and instead an additional shot of Rover. The voice of ‘Number Two’ is spoken by Robert Reilty, who supplied voiceovers throughout the series.
Number Six awakes in his bed, looking somewhat muzzy-headed. He checks the coffee percolator in the kitchen and switches it on. He turns on the shower in the bathroom, but no water comes out, nor from the handbasin tap. The coffee percolator has not started, nor does a lamp light up when he clicks the switch.
Looking through the window, Number Six discovers that the square is deserted: there are no villagers in sight.
He explores the Village thoroughly. The café is locked and deserted, the shops shut. The bell pull does not ring at the Green Dome and, when he forces entry to Number Two’s office, the Chair is empty except for Number Two’s umbrella.
Number Six finds a working mini-moke and tries to drive away, only to find the Village surrounded by impenetrable mountains. He returns to the Village and constructs a raft, using cut down trees and oil drums for buoyancy. He takes copious photos of the Village, together with plentiful food from the store, and an issue of the Tally Ho on which to write his log.
As he is about to push off, he hears a crash behind him. Steeling himself to look round, he finds that it is only the Village cat, knocking over a plate on the terrace.
The Prisoner poles out into the bay and begins his journey. He cannibalises a loudspeaker and magnetises a nail to serve as a primitive compass. Days pass, He keeps himself shaved for some time, but by Day 18 he is growing weaker and dehydrated, and collapses.
He wakes to find two men on his raft. They ignore him, stealing his food, breaking his compass and dropping his oar into the sea. Before powering away in their motor vessel, they dump him in the ocean, but unseen by them he swims to the stern of the boat and gets on board.
The two men, who speak German, cook themselves some of the Prisoner’s food. Whilst they eat in the wheelhouse, he explores their boat. One cabin contains a box which, when prized open, contains guns.
The Prisoner creates a distraction by burning cloths in cooking oil in the galley, and waiting for the crew to investigate. He subdues both of them individually, and ties them up in a cabin, which he locks using a chain wrapped around the handles of the sliding doors.
He takes over the craft and pushes it on. Some time later, he sees a lighthouse and turns the boat directly towards it. By now the crew are awake. They release each other and escape from the cabin by kicking through the back of the locker, into an unchained cabin. Splitting up, they plan to attack the Prisoner simultaneously, one from each side of the wheelhouse. Their attack is mistimed: the Prisoner is able to beat off one before the other joins in. But the first man gets a gun from a drawer and the prisoner is forced to leap overboard and swim towards shore.
He comes to on an empty beach beneath chalk cliffs. Unable to find a way off the beach in either direction, he is forced to climb the cliffs, emerging on green downs. A man passes by, dressed as a Romany, leading a greyhound on a lead and using a rough stick. The Prisoner asks him what land this is (after 22 minutes, this is the first English dialogue in the episode). The man ignores him and hurries away.
The Prisoner follows him to a small Romany camp, where a woman and an old man are sat around a cookpot. The woman berates the man in Romany, ignoring his attempt to defend himself. She offers the Prisoner a cup of something from the cookpot, which he finds sustaining. None of the Romany speak English but the woman recognises the word ‘road’ and points his way.
When the Prisoner reaches the road, English bobbies have set up a road block and are quizzing every driver. He circles round to beyond the road block, and manages to get into the back of a lorry, concealing himself above the cab and going to sleep. He is woken by sirens and automatically leaps from the lorry, to find himself in London.
Overwhelmed to some extent by having gotten back to freedom, the Prisoner wanders, eventually ending up at his old home at 1 Buckingham Place. He knocks on the door, which is opened by a middle-aged maid, who clearly disapproves of his scruffy, unshaven, dishevelled appearance. Initially, he is rude and demanding, and by the time he recovers his manners and asked to speak to her master, she closes the door on him, saying that her mistress is not at home.
Her mistress returns almost immediately, driving the Prisoner’s Lotus. He is equally ungraceful with her, Mrs Butterworth, a middle-aged widow with a flirtatious air, clearly amused by the ragged man asking her questions he can answer about her car. She invites him in for tea and cake. Inside, his old flat seems to be unchanged.
Mrs Butterworth brings cake and sandwiches, which he devours hungrily. She shows him her lease – 10 years, prepared by a firm who had not dealt with the Prisoner. It is March 18th: the Prisoner, almost shamefacedly, says that it is his birthday tomorrow (McGoohan’s birth date), and Mrs Butterworth promises to bake him a cake.
It’s clear that all signs of his previous existence in London have been efficiently obliterated.
The Prisoner’s next step is to contact his former employers. Over his protestations, Mrs Butterworth insists on helping him further, forcing on him a bath, clothes belonging to her late husband, and the loan of the Lotus, on condition he fixes its problem with overheating in traffic. The Prisoner repeats his journey of the credits, to the underground garage, and the office occupied by the civil servant played by Markstein.
He is referred to two senior officials, who meet him at an old country home. The Prisoner has told his story, shown his photos,produced his Tally Ho log. The Colonel is blandly neutral, putting it to his subordinate Thorpe to point out the fantastic elements of the account. They openly state that they are concerned that the Prisoner defected, and is now trying to come back on behalf of the other side.
The Prisoner, in a much more relaxed frame of mind, still intoxicated to some extent by having gotten away from the Village, reasserts that he intends to find and destroy the Village, and to uncover its masters.
After checking out the Prisoner’s story as much as possible, the Colonel brings in senior Royal Navy and Royal Air Force officers to plot his course as best as possible from his rough log. They conclude that the Village ought to be somewhere on the south west Portugal/Spain coast or north west Morocco, or an island in that area.
Early the next morning, the Prisoner and the RAF officer meet at an airfield. It is so early, the milk is being delivered. They are to do a reconnaissance flight to locate the Village. The Colonel and the Prisoner go outside as the pilot finishes suiting up. Playfully, the Colonel calls the Prisoner Number Six. Calling the Colonel James, the Prisoner threatens him with hospitalisation if he uses that term again.
As the plane flies off, Thorpe describes the Prisoner as an “Interesting fellow.” “He’s and old, old friend,” the Colonel replies, “who never gives up.” They drive away.
The flight progresses steadily, in calculated sweeps over coasts and islands until the Prisoner sees the Village, on a peninsula, tucked up against its forested hillside. He instructs the Pilot to go closer. Instead, the pilot removes his oxygen mask and reaches for a yellow lever. He turns towards the Prisoner, showing that it is not the pilot, but instead the Milkman. He calls out, “Be Seeing you,” and ejects the Prisoner.
Stiff with mute fury, the Prisoner controls his descent until he lands on the beach. The Village is still deserted, the cat still by the broken plate. Weary and frustrated, he walks back to his cottage, clearly intent on starting again.
Suddenly the shower comes on, the percolator starts to bubble and the table light lights. The cat mews. Looking up, he sees Mrs Butterworth approaching him. She is carrying a cake, covered with birthday candles which she holds out to him. On the shoulder of her dress is a reversed Village badge, white-on-black, with the Number 2. “Many Happy Returns,” she says.
The sound of the Village band playing is heard. Number Six crosses to the window, The Square is filled with Villagers, playing and parading.
We cut to the stock shot of the Village. Number Six’s face races towards the centre of the screen. Iron bars slam across it with a prison clang.

An unusual phenomenon

I don’t know if this is happening on any other Blogs, but over the last four weeks I have had a half dozen new Followers register with this blog. All very gratifying: the more Followers the better, as any blogposter would agree.

The unusual thing is that all but one of this half dozen are female and, when I click on their profile to find out more about this new devotee to my thoughts and meanderings, it turns out that that profile has been deleted. Within a matter of hours of the afore-mentioned user choosing to Follow me.

It’s all rather confusing really, as the late and seriously great Spike Milligan would put it.

Naturally, being a cynic by name and experience, I cannot help but be suspicious of this activity. Somebody appears to want to piss me about: why they should do so and what they think it’s going to do to me are mysteries, albeit of the kind that I can’t really be bothered wanting to solve. As for what they get out of it, I’m at a loss to understand. I mean, surely no-one’s this shallow that they can think they’re scoring in any way with something this pathetic.

So, whoever it is, I’ve spotted what you’re doing, so save your energy and don’t bother in future. Meantime, those few of you who are genuinely interested in what I do and are supportive – many thanks to Jim, and hey there Wendy – it’s great to have you along for the ride and I hope I never disappoint. Tell your friends!

On Writing: For Emily

I had a meet-up the other week with an internet friend. Despite my being old enough to be her grandfather, we never find ourselves short of things to talk about.
Like me at her age, she wants to write. She’s already better at writing than I was at that age: there’s no way I could have gotten anything accepted by the Manchester Evening News, let along The Guardian, but she’s cracked that market, if not as often as she’d like.
At the moment, she’s written articles, comments and blog pieces, but as yet no fiction, and she was asking me about that,about where I get my ideas from, and how I develop them. So I described a few experiences, plus a cool story, and she asked if I’d ever written about these, and suggested they might be helpful.
Now I’m a long way from being convinced that my ideas on how to write fiction are helpful, but on the other hand I’m fascinated by the way fiction works, and what happens when you write, and, I admit, how little of it seems to be under my conscious control. So, at Emily’s suggestion, I’m going to start writing about some of the things that have happened in writing.
Who knows? Maybe somebody will find this interesting?

* * * *

The two most important things about writing are both commonplaces.
Firstly, whilst there are tricks and techniques that can be set out and taught, every piece of advice from a writer ultimately amounts to ‘this is how I do it’. Writers write in their own way. What works for Martin Amis may be the exact opposite of how Iain Sinclair writes (I stress that I know neither of these writers nor how they approach writing). One of the essential elements of learning how to write is learning how you write.
I started off believing that I could not complete any work without knowing how it ended, and plotting my way carefully and comprehensively, all the way between. How I write now couldn’t be further from that approach.
Secondly, you do, you really do, have thousands upon thousands upon thousands of words of bad writing to get out of your system before you will be able to produce something worth reading, even to yourself.
You must write, and write. And read. And write and write and read and read. Read for pleasure, read for instruction, read to understand how books work and how they don’t, read to take in, in whatever fashion best suits you, the way people write. And write and write. Be patient: a time will come when you start to feel as if you know what you are doing, and that’s a powerful feeing indeed.
By then, you should have begun to find your own voice, your way of saying whatever you have to say, what works for you, and how it works.
And keep writing until it feels strange, and empty, and a waste of your life that you are not writing today.

* * * *

You must also come to a decision as to who is more important when you write.
Why do you want to write?
For money, obviously. Who doesn’t want to have the monetary success that attaches itself to the work of Terry Pratchett or Joanne Rowling? To have the knowledge of so many readers with their demand for what you have written, that towering sense of millions hanging on to your thoughts?
Or at least enough to give up the day job.
But who are you writing for? For your reader, or for yourself?
Much as I’d like to be commercial, to sell more books, to at least derive a secondary income from them, I know that the writing is the most important thing to me. The urge to fit words together in a way they have never been placed before. The ideas, the situations, the characters who form in my head, and the need to make them exist outside of my mind. The stories I want to have exist that no-one else is writing, and therefore I have to write them to find out what happens.
I write because it is indeed empty, strange and wanting of purpose not to.
Or is it the reader’s requirements that you focus upon? Does your writing exist only to serve their needs, and are you then prepared to write only what they expect, or desire, or demand?
I can’t. Mind you, I’ve never had to. The very last thing under the sun that I am is a salesman, and I  have no interests in the kind of social media that might enable me to promote myself and gain readers: only this blog.
I write for myself, and to satisfy me, and my need to bring my fictions to the point where they can exist separate from me. I am my own first audience.
You may choose not to be.

* * * *

Which is enough for one session. Please comment if anything strikes you, please tell me about your experiences with trying to create something. I don’t want to be lecturing, I want to be learning.

Discovering Dortmunder: Watch Your Back

Throughout his career, Donald Westlake had avoided writing Dortmunder novels (or Parker books as Richard Stark) too frequently, fearing staleness. He was a prolific writer who, including his several pseudonyms, wrote over 100 books without ever getting the bestseller that he frequently deserved, and the continual switching of angle and character helped keep things fresh and inventive.
Until 2005, when Watch Your Back followed directly on from The Road to Ruin, without any intervening material (not to mention that the novella I’m keeping myself from reading was also written in 2005).
All this has to be taken into consideration when I admit that, though I thoroughly enjoyed reading Watch Your Back, I didn’t find myself laughing all that often.
It also has to be taken into consideration that I was off work ill, during a heatwave that brought back memories of the great Drought Summer of 1976, so let’s be fair and suggest that in my mentally dulled state, I wasn’t giving the novel a fair suck of the pineapple (sorry about lapsing into Australian, there, but the Ashes are on).
This time round, the book begins with the usual meeting at the O.J. Bar & Grill, to discuss a job being brought in by Ralph Winslow, he of the perpetually clinking ice cubes in his rye and water. The job’s a bust: Winslow’s been talking to some Police and is leaving town for a while, but things are a little off-kilter for once at the O.J. The regulars are arguing at their perpetual cross-purposes,  but Rollo’s building some pretty strange drinks for five women. They’re nothing to do with the plot, just an indication that things are not as we always see them.
The job of the book is actually brought in by none other than the obnoxious Arnie Allbright. That’s right, the fence is back from Club Med, thoroughly tanned, and dammit if he isn’t actually less obnoxious (he even cleans his apartment).
But Arnie was a deal to propose. Down there at Club Med he’s seen a lot of a guy called Preston Fareweather. Preston is this book’s Obnoxious Rich Guy Who Gets His Comeuppance. Preston is basically a mean (in both senses), supercilious, snide guy who enjoys making cutting comments to everyone he regards as inferior (everyone) playing ‘practical jokes’ on people who want something from him.
This latter trait is especially directed at women. You see, Preston’s been married and divorced four times. His ex-wives have banded together to pursue him, through the law, which is why Hall’s in permanent exile from his New York apartment and its extensive art treasures, and is staying outside the jurisdiction. Where, every week, he has an eye out for attractive woman who are happy to become his ‘companion’ for a week, putting up with all his little japes and humiliations, because they fondly think that this rich guy might be willing to take them on as Mrs Fareweather V.
Not a nice man is Preston, and he’s rubbed Arnie up so much that not only is Arnie feeding this guy’s apartment to Dortmunder and Co, he’s going to let them have one hell of a percentage.
As the job goes, it’s a straightforward one, calling for no excessive ingenuity on Dortmunder’s part. Unfortunately (a-ha!) there’s a fly in the ointment. Dortmunder can’t get into the back room of the O.J. to plan. It’s off-limits. There’s these strange guys. Young guys, slicked-up, a bit distant, hanging around the O.J. The regulars aren’t talking at all.
In short, the Mob’s moved into the O.J. and are running it as a bust-out joint (take a clean commercial enterprise, use its clean credit to order in as much supplies as you can, supplies that you have agreed to sell to others at a healthy profit margin, based on the fact that you’re not going to be paying for the goods in the first place, because once you ship the gear out, the business is left as a commercial wreck that rapidly shuts).
That’s what’s happening to the O.J. and nobody likes it. Meeting at John and May’s apartment is a bust, and the alternate venue suits no-one. But Dortmunder takes it to heart more than the others – especially Tiny – and instead of concentrating on this golden opportunity of a heist, John’s efforts are concentrated on saving the O.J.
At which he succeeds, eventually, tracking down and dragging back the bar’s owner from Florida (though the bit where the useless nephew, obsessed with mixing music and sounds, gets railroaded into a mental institution was for me a rare moment of disquiet. This is the twelfth book of a series focussing on amoral crooks who go around robbing from people, many of whom are far from being Obnoxious Rich Guys Who Deserve Their Comeuppance, and finally something grates queasily). The bust-out joint is busted back, the back room becomes available, and Dortmunder can finally concentrate on Preston Fareweather’s apartment..
Only, the Mob are unhappy at being frustrated in this fashion, and wish to make that displeasure known.
Meanwhile, as is Westlake’s wont, things have been happening elsewhere, and we have been privy to Preston’s  machinations in respect of his next target, Pam, or, to give her her real name, Roselle. Roselle is a woman on a mission, a mission paid for by the four former Mrs Halls, which is to get Preston off the island and into the jurisdiction of process-servers again.
At this she is partially successful. Preston does indeed find himself back in the United States but, being a resourceful little weasel, manages to get all the way back to his New York apartment, unseen. On the very day of Dortmunder’s robbery, and with Arnie around in person to point out what items he would most like to fence.
All goes swimmingly, but for Arnie discovering Preston asleep in his bed and going into a flat-out tail-spin. So everybody piles out, and Kelp and Murch take off in the truck with all their pickings, completely unaware that the Police are already on their tails.
And so is the Mafia too.
I’ll not give away the ending, save to say that the gang come out of it beyond suspicion and still free to rob again, but empty-handed. Well, not entirely empty-handed.
For me, the biggest delight about this book is that it paves the way for a return to Dortmunder’s maxim of the five-man string. Ever since Good Behavior, we’ve been following the adventures of a four man gang: Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch, Bulcher. There have been a couple of one-off fifth mans, such as Wilbur Howey or Wally Knurr, but generally it’s been the four associates.
In Watch Your Back, sadly very close to the end of the series, Westlake introduces a fifth member in Judson “The Kid” Blint.
Judson is a nineteen year old fresh out of Long Island who, now he’s finished High School, has made a bee-line for New York to fulfil his lifetime ambition of breaking into the business. Of being a crook. His starting point is the Avalon State Bank Tower, room 712, home of Allied Commissioners Courses, Inc, not to mention Intertherapeutic Research Service, Super Star Music Co, and the Commercial Attaché for the country of Maylohda. That’s right, J. C. Taylor.
Josie pins him for a scam artist straight away, but his resume is impressive enough so, instead of closing her mail order businesses down, as she was about to do, having too much to concentrate upon with her fictional United Nations registered country, she takes the kid on to manage that for a percentage.
She also takes Judson under her wing and, to some extent, under Tiny’s, which leads to meeting the rest of the gang. Ever eager, Judson offers his help, and is allowed to do one or two things on the Fareweather heist, but he’s not included in the denouement.
That doesn’t stop him from dropping by on his lunch break, just to see if he can help. The gang has gone by then, as has the loot, but as a souvenir, Judson extracts a painting that he identifies with. It only happens to be a Breughel, and the only score the gang makes out of the whole caper. So Judson gets accepted as part mascot, part-trainee, and is even admitted to the back room at the O.J., carrying a drink identical to Tiny’s.
But where Tiny’s is vodka and red wine, the Kid has to settle for strawberry soda: he’s under age, and Rollo doesn’t want the owner dropping by again any time soon.
So, a fun book, and one that has brought me more laughter on better occasions. It’s also an interesting variation in that the gang’s downfall is entirely due to Dortmunder’s obsession with saving the O.J. holding things up until, in the grand fashion of the best Dortmunder novels, someone else’s life awkwardly gets in the way of the stream-lined criminal plot
By this time, the series has taken on the role of a very comfortable and reassuring experience. We know the characters through and through, we know the running gags, and whilst Westlake always provides twists in the type of caper that underpins the action, we are here to see a performance that covers all the expected bases.
It’s the fate of all long-running series. What we as an audience demand of the books is that they give us an evening with old friends, doing their party pieces. The edge of the first two books has long since gone, that initial recognition of The Hot Rock‘s roots in hard-boiled crime, in Parker. There’s a more comfortable air to events. We read in recognition, not in suspense.
Some will say that that is a bad thing, that it makes series safe, predictable. You know that nothing will happen that changes the status quo, that prevents the beginning of the next book from being radically different from this one.
But this is a comedy series, a comedy set in a milieu that, no matter how much it takes of the everyday, inconvenient, awkward life, is still in an elevated state of absurdity, where we not only tolerate implausibilities but embrace them as cornerstones of the atmosphere Westlake induces. The gift is in maintaining that interest in recurring themes so that they are greeted with a laugh and not a yawn.
Westlake, thirty-five years on from the first book, still does this.