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!
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.
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.
Local Heroes marks the point at which Astro City began to run into serious difficulties. A glance at the original publication data in the credits reveals that the stories contained herein come from a mixture of the ongoing series, a mini-series and a one-off special. Kurt Busiek’s increasingly severe medical difficulties, undiagnosed for most if not all of the period covered in this book, forced drastic changes on the series.
After The Tarnished Angel, Busiek had announced a sequence of short stories, focussing on the people who live outside the superhero world but are affected by it in differing ways. Unfortunately, it took so long to get the first two of these out that, out of a sense of obligation to his readers, Busiek decided to suspend Volume 2 and, for the foreseeable future, continue Astro City via short-run mini-series, scheduled to appear only when enough issues were compiled to ensure reliable publication.
The first of these was Local Heroes. Consisting of five issues, it was intended to complete Busiek’s sequence of short stories begun in Volume 2. However, one of these got out of hand and insisted (rightly and gloriously) on stretching to two issues. The story forced out then appeared,in extended form, in a one-off special that brings up the rear of this volume.
Unusually, this is the only volume of the series not to print its stories in publication order, with “Newcomers” from Local Heroes 1 appearing first, ahead of the two remaining Volume 2 issues. It’s a broadbrush story, of the kind Busiek does so well, narrated by Pete Donacek, main doorman at a major Astro City Hotel. Donacek, who first came to Astro after a busted knee ended his pro hockey career, has knocked around the town twenty years or so and knows it well. He can relate the city to us even as we watch the differing experiences – and reactions! – of several visitors to the hospital.
It’s the kind of story that doesn’t have a plot, just a string of illustrative vignettes, but Busiek knows better than to leave us without a wrap up: early in the story, Donacek watches a group of teenagers go by, paying particularly attention to a blonde girl. Late in the issue, he flashes back to a street battle involving giant robots or statues, in which he saved a baby from being crushed: the final page brings the teenager back past the hotel, and she is the baby. Donacek doesn’t know her name and never will, but the responsibility still sits on him and he watches out for her, every day. Like the more famous denizens of Astro City, he too wears a uniform.
Following this is another of my favourite Astro City stories (there are two such in this volume), featuring Sally Twinings. Sally is a writer,of comic books, learning her craft at Bulldog Comics under veteran editor Manny Manning. Despite the fact that they’re supposed to be writing factual accounts of actual superhero stories (and you were wondering how superhero comics would work in a superhero world?), Manny wants everything hyped up, Marvel-style. He wants thrills, excitement, drama, especially where there are none.
It’s a sharp two-hander, between Sally’s attempts to reconcile her own instincts with the lies and exaggeration Manny demands, and that he brings to all his encounters, even the one with the villain Glowworm, who’s mightily offended at being painted as a racist in one of Manny and Sally’s comics (“How does (your mother) feel about you robbing banks?”).
Manny comes out of that with three broken limbs and an idea for a new range about cosmic heroes and interstellar stories, characters who “don’t give a gnat’s fart” about what happens on Earth. Turns out Sally is pretty good at these and the new line is a massive success – until six months later the Bulldog Comics building, with Manny in it, vanishes into thin air, leaving behind a strange odour that Sally compares to a gnat’s fart…
The final issue of Volume 2 takes another sidelong look at what it’s like to be on the fringe of superherodom, with Mitch Goodman, stuntman turned actor, playing a bit part role as a superhero on a TV soap, actually prevents a robbery in real life. The result is massive publicity and the opportunity to jump his career up another level. The problem is that the publicity attracts people who don’t want more heroes around and who would like to make Mitch into the kind of example no-one wants to be.
Back at the mini-series, we come to a story in which I appear to differ from the overwhelming majority of my fellow fans: they love it and I think it’s the worst story to date. It’s set in the early Sixties and features a major, but hitherto unmentioned hero named Atomicus. Or rather, it features Atomicus’s girl-friend Irene Meriweather, a career girl in an era inimical to career girls.
The story is simple: Irene falls in love with Atomicus, is challenged by him to prove herself worthy of sharing his life, spends the whole story trying and failing to prove he is Adam Peterson. You recognise this? Of course you do: it’s Lois Lane and Superman, twenty-odd years of psychologically disturbing, pathologically insane stories of obsession, instability and superhero dickishness, given a ‘serious’ twist in Busiek’s tale by making Atomicus not a grown man, in possession of full understanding, but a naïve child.
The story ends in tragedy: one Atomicus manoeuvre too many causes Irene to snap and simply rip off Peterson’s clothes in public: he, in turn, screams how much he’s hated her constantly pressuring him and he leaves Earth, never to return. Irene is publicly fired and humiliated and, though she spends the rest of her life well and worthily, she blames herself ever after.
Why don’t I like this? In part, it’s because, unlike so many other past-set stories, Busiek produces Atomicus like a rabbit out of a hat: he hasn’t even been named since, which feels wrong for such a major, powerful figure, clearly meant to be another Superman-analog. It feels detached and unreal. It’s also a story whose comic book antecedent is simultaneously too blatant and yet insufficiently related for this story to properly work as a commentary on those old Lois Lane tales.
Irene’s daughter (herself a new superheroine) tries to make her mother see how badly she was treated by the superjerk, which is a very pertinent comment on Superman in the Lois Lane stories, but the truth is that Busiek has removed Atomicus too far from Superman for this to pertain to him. To be frank, the Superman/Lois Lane stories feature two unpleasant people continually humiliating themselves and each other: try to impress that template on a couple where both are more sympathetic but caught up in a tragic misunderstanding of each other, and the commentary fails completely.
No such comments about the next story, featuring a smart, slightly snooty Astro teenager forced to spend the summer in the country with her cousins, who spends most of her time being politely dismissive of what they see as cool – especially in respect of the neighbourhood hero, Roustabout – only to learn her lesson in time. Nice, if slight.
Which leads neatly to that two-parter that took over the end of the mini-series, which is the other of my favourite stories in this volume. That’s because it’s about the Law, and I was a lawyer for thirty years so this is on my home turf, and I understand the sheer enormity of it from the inside.
It’s about rising trial lawyer, Vince Oleck, who’s been handed the case from hell. It couldn’t be simpler: Richie Forgionne, mobster’s son, bludgeoned his date to death in a restaurant in front of 41 witnesses. Open and shut. The world’s greatest lawyer couldn’t defend that, let alone Vince. But Forgionne’s dad expects his boy to walk, and Vince has a wife and young son…
And it’s 1974, when things have begun to go bad. Busiek’s hinted at a bad era, of suspicion, doubt and fear, and it will be the subject of the next extended saga. Here we are: the Silver Agent is dead, Nixon is fighting Watergate, the clouds are gathering. There’s a new ‘hero’ on the streets, the Blue Knight, and the difference is that he kills criminals.
Alone at the sharp end, with no argument, and no defence, Vince Oleck starts to feel the stirrings himself, the stirrings of something more primitive, something older, demanding that he act for himself, protect himself and his family. His friend Josh is a cop, a cop who’s concerned for him. But Josh lost his young son a couple of months ago, killed by a stray bullet in a drive-by (check).
And that’s when an offhand, jokey comment by Vince’s wife, triggers the moment of inspiration.
It’s absolutely hilarious because it’s not merely absurd beyond belief but also completely and coldly logical in a world where superheroes really exist, but Vince starts to recall all the prosecution witnesses, who were so absolutely certain that their evidence pointed only at Richie Forgionne, and starts to question them on past cases.
Like the one where the Doppel Gang robed banks looking like Lyndon Johnson, Elizabeth Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix, down to blood samples and fingerprints.
Like the time Julius Furst of the First family was arrested for treason, only it was his other-dimensional counterpart from the Worst Family.
Like when Supersonic died, but came back to life on the morgue table when the MO was about to start the autopsy…
It’s outrageous, it’s unbelievable, the shock and the concept cause howls of laughter. But within Astro City it is inevitable, and it is correct. Richie Forgionne walks. His dad wants Vince inhouse as their mouthpiece. And Vince runs.
It’s not the Law that protects him, but the Blue Knight, for the simplest of reasons.
At the end, the fact that a vigilante who kills, driven by some sort of primeval urge, undermines Oleck’s attempts to reassure himself that the world makes sense and the Law is a structure that works. He doesn’t continue long as a trial lawyer, but thirty years later he is a Professor of Law, teaching the trial lawyers – defence and prosecution – of tomorrow.
The story squeezed out of the mini-series appears last, released as a Character special, in expanded form, and I’m sorry to say that it makes for a disappointing ending. It features the afore-mentioned hero, Supersonic, Dale Enright, a bright, breezy, endlessly inventive hero in the Sixties who now, at the start of the 21st century, is an old man, a widower living in retirement near Astro City. But he’s dragged back into costume by his old Police contact, Captain Robbins, who knew his identity all along.
A giant killer robot is threatening the neighbourhood, and Robbins wants him to stop it. All the younger, more active heroes are otherwise engaged (though the real reason Robins has come to Dale is that he wants to prove that the old warhorses still function, having recently been retired against his will).
Reluctantly, Dale suits up and roars into battle, powers still intact, but his inventive mind, his gift for stratagems, his endless bag of tricks is empty now. All he can offer is brute force, and whilst this prevails, it’s only at the expense of massive property damage, and severe bruising to Enright’s ego.
It’s another story about ageing, but this time about realising when to step down. It’s a less interesting motif that the Junkman’s, in “Show ‘Em All”, and it’s delivered via what is Astro City‘s longest superhero battle, which combines to reduce the ambit of the story and manoeuvre the story to the conventional, which is always a disappointment.
I said that’s the end, but it isn’t. There’s a six page short, entirely free of superheroes (well, I say free: the superheroes are talked of and Winged Victory can be seen in the deep background, but they are beside the point). A young boy visits the Fire Station to thank a fireman who entered a burning building to get him out: the fireman lost a leg. The boy and his Dad drive him to his next appointment, visiting the guys who entered a burning building to get him out: it’s a graveyard.
Put like that, it sounds sentimental, almost manipulative, and if you are too dyed a cynic, you will think that after reading the story, in which Busiek says some important things but, most of all, gives the characters an open, honest life. It was created for a second volume of stories, dedicated to, and sold to raise money for the emergency workers who entered the Twin Towers on 9/11. If it’s emotionally simple, it has the right to be.
So we come to the issue concerning The Prisoner that has probably had more words expended upon it than any other aspect of the series over the past four decades: the running order.
For this series of posts, I’ve elected to stick entirely to the original broadcast order, as used in 1967/8, in the Granada repeats of 1976/7, in all but the first of the three series of Channel 4 repeats throughout the Eighties, and in the “Ultimate Collection” DVD Boxset that I own. Which, as we’ve already seen, veers wildly from the production order of the first thirteen filmed episodes.
This, by itself, is no indication. Some series – indeed, nearly every non-serialised drama series in the modern era – are written with a defined sequence. Lost was a serial, as was The Wire. On the other hand, to choose another favourite, Homicide – Life on the Street, though filmed during and for a period that still regarded episodes as detachable, was made with a running order built on developing sub-plots and arcs that continued from episode to episode.
Which didn’t prevent NBC chopping up the planned order and pushing episodes back and forth as it suited their immediate purposes.
However, with no exceptions that I can presently think of, the thriller series’ of the Sixties had no episode to episode continuity. Series could be shown in any order the television companies wanted, because it didn’t matter. Serials were serials, but series’ permitted viewers to miss a week or two, here and there, with no fears that when they returned, they would not understand what was going on.
With minor adjustments, this was the approach taken by The Prisoner, exactly as it had been for Danger Man. Certain episodes – Arrival as the opening episode, to set everything up, Once upon a Time as the series 1 curtain-closer, to set up the never-filmed second series – had a set position: the others might be shuffled as necessity demanded.
It simply wasn’t seen as important, as things are now. Guest stars (with a few exceptions, not foreseen in advance) only appeared in single episodes. Recurring cast were limited to supporting roles: the silent, dwarf butler played by Angelo Muscat was the most prominent, and most prolific, the Shopkeeper recurs a handful of times.
To a large extent, broadcast order was dictated by the order in which episodes finished in production: what was ready first was shown first, though a more contemplative decision was taken to postpone Dance of the Dead: it is clear from internal indications that this should be an early episode – one source suggested that this was one of three commissions issued to writers who were told this was to be the second episode – but its downbeat tone, and its dark and difficult story was thought to be unsuitable so soon into a new series that still needed to establish itself with its audience.
As we’ll see, in due course, its actual placement in the running order was ingenious, to make logical use of its contents.
But despite all this, there are episodes that contain indications that they were intended to show Number Six’s early reactions to the Village, and these are not all shown early in the series. For instance, I commented on the degree of credibility in Free For All behind Number Six’s acceptance of the supposed election: many people believe this indicates the episode should be placed second, when the Prisoner is still unfamiliar with the Village.
And there’s the Colin Gordon issue, as demonstrated by The General.
Given the contrast in his two performances, it’s only logical to place The General before A, B and C: they were filmed in that order, Gordon is the ‘new’ Number Two in the first and ‘is’ Number Two in the second, and he is calm, confident, almost arrogant in the first, but nervy, edgy and hyper-afraid of failure in the second. There is no emotional or psychological credibility in the performances taking place in broadcast order.
Yet in The General Number Two is experienced with Number Six, hints at a pre-episode meeting, already aware of what can and cannot be done with his Prisoner. Nowhere in any episode but this is there a suggestion that Number Six and the new Number Two have had any significant contact before their first onscreen encounter.
No such issues apply to Leo McKern’s episodes as Number Two: though filmed back-to-back, they were always intended to appear at different points in the series, and on McKern’s second appearance in Once Upon a Time, both he and Number Six identify him as having returned.
But there are two other instances where the same actor appears in two separate episodes. Georgina Cookson, appears in a minor speaking role at Engadine’s party in A, B and C and then returns in a major role, as Mrs Butterworth, in Many Happy Returns. There’s not necessarily a dislocation in this: her first part is as a character in Number Six’s dream, after all, but there are more serious issues surrounding the two appearances of Patrick Cargill, first as a British Intelligence senior official in Many Happy Returns and then, of all things, as Number Two in Hammer into Anvil.
There are alternate running orders available, that try to make more logical sense of the relationships between episodes, and try to encompass the best design in light of the clues that may be discerned. Several versions are detailed in Wikipedia
For instance, Six of One, the Prisoner Appreciation Society have endorsed a running order that is employed on the 40th Anniversary DVD box set. To give you a flavour of it, as it pertains to episodes I’ve already covered, it promotes Free for All to second, followed by Dance of the Dead and Checkmate. The Chimes of Big Ben and A, B and C drop two places but The General still follows that, despite all the indications to the contrary.
Channel 4, in their first repeat in 1983, decided in their wisdom to place Many Happy Returns second, a decision whose inanity you will understand when we move on to that next.
Me, I express no opinions. There is no achievable definitive running order, nothing that is not open to objection on some ground or other. There never was any consistent intention for there to be one. As I’ll be coming to after we’ve looked at Many Happy Returns, there is a second, insuperable bar to the application of strict natural chronology to The Prisoner. And that’s before we even think of Fall-Out.
Some or many of you may find that these contradictions are a bar to your enjoyment, or at any rate your acceptance, of The Prisoner. I have decided to accept them and to exclude appreciation of the story from such demands. It is, and from the beginning was, a thing of surreality, and I’m more than willing to play to its strengths and ignore its weaknesses.
You see, it’s not real.
The eleventh Dortmunder story, The Road to Ruin, though frequently funny, was something of a disappointment on first reading, and whilst it improves on closer acquaintance, it’s still one of the weaker efforts in the canon, for much the same reason as Bad News: John Dortmunder, the ingenious planner, simply doesn’t get enough to do.
It’s not the case that Dortmunder and Co are inserting themselves into someone else’s heist, although the job is brought to them from the outside. Once the idea arises, the gang approaches the job in their usual fashion. But the plan Dortmunder devises to achieve their ends is surprisingly simplistic, and its inevitable frustration has none of the usual sparkle and wit Westlake usually brings to the workings of fate and the real world. The Road to Ruin begins with a double break with tradition. Firstly, Dortmunder is not on a job that’s either failed or, within moments, is about to fail. Indeed, he’s in the apartment he shares with May, watching the 6 o’clock news.
The second breach is that the street-bell rings, and it’s Kelp: the same Andy Kelp who usually lets himself into their apartment so as to spare John or May the trouble of opening the door. Kelp’s being formal today because he’s not heard from Dortmunder in some time, and he’s worried that John has cut him out, is running with another bunch of guys. Dortmunder can reassure him on that: he’s not even pulling single-os at the moment. Things are pretty dead.
Until Anne Marie phones from Kelp’s apartment, which has just been invaded by this guy, giving no name, wants to see Kelp, is prepared to wait. Dortmunder returns with him, to lend moral support, but there’s nothing to fear: the interloper is Kelp’s old buddy, Chester Fallon, a driver.
Chester’s led an interesting life. First, he was a stunt driver for the movies, until he got replaced by CGI, then he used to work driving away from banks, which is how he knows Kelp. After getting parole, he went to work as chauffeur to Monroe Hall, a rich guy who has a great collection of vintage cars, $6,000,000 worth: perfect job, with house, medical benefits and pension thrown in through Hall’s company, SomniTech.
Until Hall was found to be embezzling SomniTech, and pretty much everyone under the sun, in a deeply greedy and omnivorous fashion. So now Monroe Hall is a pariah, unable to leave his estate in Pennsylvania on account of all these people hanging around wanting to have discussions with him about the staggeringly large sums of money they’ve lost. And the cars have been turned over to a charitable foundation in Florida, even though they’re still ‘displayed’ at the impenetrable, security-wrapped Pennsylvania estate.
Except that the Foundation can’t employ ex-cons, so that’s Chester out on his ear; no job, no house and, thanks to SomniTech having been sucked dry, no pension or medical benefits. So now Chester hates Monroe Hall, like everybody who ever meets him, with the exception of his still-loving wife Alicia. Chester would like some revenge. $6,000,000 of vintage cars-worth.
Naturally, after another trip to the O.J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue, the regulars are in the midst of another of their endless cross-purpose rambles, Stan Murch and Tiny Bulcher are on board and the gang head for Pennsylvania in another of Kelp’s doctor’s cars – nice and spacious, to suit Tiny – to case the joint. The security is, however, impenetrable. No-one can get in, and whilst Alicia Hall and the cook come out, Monroe Hall doesn’t.
Dortmunder’s solution is surprisingly simple. Hall, being both a pariah, and a man who offends people as easily as you or I click on a blog, is desperately short of staff: the gang will get themselves hired.
This isn’t quite as easy as it sounds, given the no ex-cons barrier, but this is where Anne Marie – who has adapted with surprising smoothness to this unusual life – comes in. Among her friends from her Washington days as a Senator’s daughter is the deliberately anonymous Jim Green, former FBI Agent and specialist at creating unbreakable new identities for people. Green costs too much for the gang to buy four lives off him, and four’s too many for freebies, but he can let them have four existing identities that the recipients no longer use.
The only risk is that if any of the original inhabitants of these identities created any enemies, any revenge might be directed against these temporary users, but it’s probably only a small risk, eh?
(You’re getting ahead of things. Slow down.)
So Monroe Hall gets four new staff simultaneously: Warren Gillette, a carroty-haired chauffeur, Judson Swope, a man-mountain security guard, Frederick Blanchard, a sharp-featured private secretary, and John Rumsey, a hangdog-looking, slope-shouldered butler. (There’s an in-joke here, but you’re going to have to wait for me to get to the right book before I explain it).
Once inside, the plan is, once again, utter simplicity. Tiny is doing the graveyard shift as the new boy, so he’ll open the gate whilst the other three drive the cars off to a handy holding space whilst the gang dicker with the insurance company.
I mean, that’s it. In terms of Dortmunderian ingenuity, this is kindergarten stuff. I could plot a crime novel with this plan, and I don’t even write crime novels.
So the book, which is already reliant on the little details along the way – the best of which being the discovery that Arnie Allbright’s family, who mainly go in for counterfeiting, have staged an intervention and sent Arnie to Club Med on one of them islands, to get his personality cleaned out – becomes ultra-dependant on the foil. How will this one screw up?
Westlake takes his time getting there. Given the simplicity of the gang’s part in it, the story stretches to encompass lots of other viewpoints. There’s Chester, for one, taking a (hopefully temporary) job as driver to a drunken sales-rep, under constant bombardment by sales-rep jokes. There’s Monroe and Alicia Hall, at different times: he an unthinking, unheeding monster of selfishness, contemptuous and callous of all, she an attractive, intelligent, perceptive woman doomed by the fact she still loves him.
There’s Hall’s personal trainer, Flip Morriscone, trying to get somewhere with a suet pudding of a man, who Hall betrays to the IRS. Henry Cooper, old ‘friend’ of Hall’s and owner of the Employment Agency to whom the gang apply.
And then there’s Mark and Os, and Buddy, Mac and Ace.
These are people who have been wronged by Hall, people who have been stalking the estate, people who want to get hold of Hall, just for a while, for some monetary redress (Hall, though technically making redress for his embezzlements, is in control of substantial, hidden assets offshore). Mark and Os are brokers, privileged men from privileged families, who want to be put back where they were. Buddy, Mac and Ace are union men, trying to get money back for, not directly themselves, but rather the ACWFFA.
These two sets join forces – tentatively, with piles of mistrust on both sides but no actual double-crossing – and with the assistance of Morriscone, they get onto the estate in a horsebox (Hall wants to take up horse riding) and they get off the estate with Hall in the horsebox.
Unfortunately (that word crops up rather often when discussing a Dortmunder story, doesn’t it?), they also have to take the witness to the kidnapping. The butler, John Rumsey.
Now Dortmunder is not unresourceful, as we have seen. Dortmunder escapes from captivity using a chair (he smashes it into the face of the guy coming into his room, and runs). Monroe Hall, however, is even more resourceful, and escapes from the hunting lodge in which they’re being held. Unfortunately (that word again), he doesn’t so much jump from the window as fall out of it. As a consequence, he hits his head, hard, on a head-sized rock. And loses his memory. Permanently.
Including all the passwords and codes to those off-shore holdings.
And everything just drains away like water. Whilst Dortmunder is making his way back to Pennsylvania, Kelp, Murch and Tiny have to watch the Foundation driving all the cars off the estate, to go to Florida, leaving nothing.
Which, sadly, is the feeling this denouement leaves.
As for the amateur conspirators, whose blunderings across Dortmunder’s path have led to this disaster, the fall-out takes different outcomes, with a pleasingly blue collar twist. And Dortmunder and Co. return to New York dogged by the realisation that they have actually spent two days working in a job!
Westlake does throw in one final plot twist, as we near the end of the book. As Jim Green warned, there is indeed an enemy, a foreign assassin no less, seeking the whereabouts of Fred Blanchard. However, this final twist gets untwisted with such perfunctory and unexpected ease, that it just becomes the reddest of red herrings.
Despite all of this, I like the book, and it’s still plenty funny. But I like it because I know Dortmunder and his friends and associates and hangers-on so well, because their skewed perceptions and the slightly surreal atmosphere that surrounds them is comfortable and engaging, because I like hanging around with them.
In that sense, The Road to Ruin is an archetypal late series book, getting by on familiar routines and tropes, but beginning to have some difficulties in finding fresh things for the cast to do. It might have been the point at which the series began to run into the ground, especially as – breaking his inviolable rule of thirty-odd years – Westlake was going to be writing another Dortmunder story immediately after this one.
But The Road to Ruin would prove to be no more than a stumble, as the series would pick up into its final, compressed years.
Strictly speaking, the next Dortmunder book, published later the same year as this novel, is the short story collection, Thieves Dozen, collecting together all the Dortmunder short stories then published. But I’m leaving the short stories until next to last, after we’ve covered all the novels. You’ll have to wait for me to explain that in-joke.
One thing I forgot to mention last month is that, just as this story is set in Mexico, so is it all in Spanish, or rather translated Spanish. The translations to not apply to the chapter titles or credits. So this episode is entitled ¡Tu Pasado Te Matara! which my favoured internet translator tells me means “Your Past will Kill You!”.
For the moment, the story is simply moving forward. Azzarello picks up from within a short time of issue 1’s ending, as Brother Lono escorts Sister Rose to the Church/Orphanages, filling her in on what to expect in Durango. It’s clear that he’s aware of her attractiveness: hell, with shorts that short, and Risso’s ability to draw endless varieties of attractive women, it would be entirely impossible to believe in a Lono who wasn’t aware. But just as this is a Lono who neither swears nor drinks, this is a Lono who no longer fucks. Though the vow of chastity is, he admits, the hardest.
At the orphanage, Sister Rose – or June, when she’s being as informal as Father Manny – is unpacking and settling in. Father and Sister assess each other, and their vocation, but it is Lono’s vocation that the lady is interested in. Because she’s attracted in turn? We’ll wait on that one. But she is intrigued by a Brother who has clearly come from a vastly different past.
So are we, as avid devourers of that past, and Father Manny unrolls the first stage of that story for her and us. Almost three years ago, whilst administering confession to the children, Lono came to the church. He confessed, was absolved, laughed and said something (unrevealed) that had Father Manny prepared to beat him.
But this was Lono as we last saw him, as the walls of the Trust fell inwards and the roof collapsed on (almost) everyone, wounded through the face, wounded by Dizzy Cordova, shot, scarred, mauled and bitten and near to death: Father Manny kept him alive.
There will, I trust, be more, including some sort of explanation of how Lono got from Miami to Mexico when the two are not contiguous,but this is Azz as we know him of old, parceling out information in mean amounts, rigidly avoiding anything that is an “As You Know…”, allowing, no, forcing us to use our own imaginations, to hunt for the clues that will open up the path of what is to come.
As for those many other elements that were flung into our faces first time out, again there is a less jumbled approach, fewer strands to follow, a more linear development. Senor Butler has the meeting with Cortez for which he has traveled. He is the West Coast Connection for Los Torres Gemelas (that The Twin Towers are absent on other business immediately draws from me the thought that they do not exist, that Cortez is the head and they are an invisible shield, all the more deadly for not being real). Butler is here to propose an extension of their franchise into the Midwest.
Los Torres Gemelas approves of the idea, but there is to be an increase in the cost price of almost 25% – Cortez is pedantically precise when he specifies it as 22.3%. There is to be no negotiation, not that this halts Butler from suggesting that Los Torres are not the only organisation in town. This is not a wise thing to say, especially not on Los Torres’ turf: by the issue’s end, he hangs, gagged, from a scaffold outside the compound: wild dogs rip and tear the meat from his naked, living legs.
Los Torres Gemelas are the only ones with whom Butler’s organisation can deal. Unfortunately for him,his organisation is not the only ones with whom Los Torres can deal.
But Lono? Lono has gone into town because red paint is needed. The shops which sell red paint are closed, but he has gone into town. He sits in a bar, debating his own nature, and his denial of it, within himself. He’s also looking at half-naked girls, and the macho boyfriends calls him on it, wants to start a fight. But Lono won’t fight. He apologises, he tries to make things smooth. Even when the idiot pulls a gun, he doesn’t respond,won’t fight. Admittedly, he does that very disturbing trick of crushing the glass in his hand, splintering shards into his hand, and the guy backs down, humouring the loco gringo.
But he won’t fight. He won’t take what he wants because he can, the way he’s always done. Lono is still holding out against himself.
Rather than trek back to the Orphanage, he sleeps in the jail cell: it’s a habit, allowed by the Police, who are investigating another drug-murder, the one we saw last month,the guy forced out of the jail.
Two down, a quarter of the story. Knowing Azz, knowing 100 Bullets, I see a shape forming. The graves of issue 1, page 1, dug by a sweltering man in a loud, Hawaiian shirt, are those of Father Manny, Sister Rose, and the Orphans, and the Lono who digs them seeks revenge on Los Torres Gemelas, who are responsible.
I see a shape forming. But then I only ever once beat Azz to the punch he had hidden in all of 100 Bullets, so I’m not betting on things, not yet.