Sunday Watch: The Lovers s02 e01-03 – The Engagement/Breaking it Off/The Birthday


Lovers

Just as he’d done earlier with The Dustbinmen, Jack Rosenthal created and wrote the first series of The Lovers, broadcast in late 1970, but left the programme’s second, and final series, to another writer to continue, in this case Geoffrey Lancashire, father of the very good actress, Sarah, as opposed to the half dozen who fill in on The Dustbinmen‘s two remaining series. And Lancashire does a good job of maintaining the series’ form, aided by the fact that Richard Beckinsale and Paula Wilcox are just so bloody good as Geoffrey and Beryl that they could probably make an entire episode reading the telephone directory sound funny.

The only obvious change to note is that whilst each episode is self-contained, Lancashire introduces a serialised aspect that foreshadows the effect Dick Cle by making that into ment and Ian la Fresnais achieved, two years later, when they reintroduced Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?by making that into a sitcom that told a complete story across twelve episodes (the one about the England game doesn’t count).

The title of the first episode tells you what you need to know. Another frustrating non-physical night (I know Geoffrey is supposed to be immature, naive, callow and all the other words in that section of Roget but even he must know that you can’t undo a girl’s bra-strap through her dress) leads to the pair splitting up in a record shop before the ad break (it’s wholly of the times but there’s Beryl swooning over a Deep Purple gatefold sleeve LP – Fireball, actually – with Geoffrey pointing out that ten minutes ago she thought Deep Purple was nothing but a shade of toenail polish). But not only can you not have a series if this pair have broken up but once you’ve seen Beryl and Geoffrey together for long enough, you know that, however unlikely it may seem, there’s an emotional centrifugal force that will always, and I mean always, draw them back towards one another. And from break-up to a slightly abstract suggestion from Beryl that fiances are allowed greater liberties than mere fellers, as if N-O might possibly become M-A-Y-B-E, Geoffrey finds himself engaged without actual proposing anything.

Needless to say, he does not so much as have cold feet over the prospect of marriage (tug of lock of hair beside ear at the mere word), not to mention the restrictions that this places on the life of a twenty-year old Bank Clerk who might like to go to the World Cup in Munich in 1974 (we had no idea then that England wouldn’t), not that said life can, with any degree of objectivity, be said to be full of life, excitement and certainly not sex, no, it’s more like forstbite at the very thought. Frostbite, and gangrene.#

It’s just the bit about telling Beryl that after two and a half days (it’s a key distinction between the pair that that’s what he says whilst Beryl says 64 hours, so much more precise) he’d very much like to call the engagement off please, on the grounds of incompatibility, capacity to irritate each other, any reason except the truth, which is that he’s scared of the whole idea and especisally the notion that he might miss out on something better, scared roght down to his crimson shoes with bottle-green socks.

Scared too of Beryl’s waspish temper, her refusal to see anything that might interfere with her vision of being married (which stops dead the moment the ceremony’s over because Beryl isn’t just preserving her marriageability, as opposed to her virginity when she rails aganst Percy Filth) and the fact that not only has he splashed out a whole £22 on an engagement ring but she’s putting the announcement in the paper. That means everyone will know!

Then there’s the engagement party, at which Betyl dresses up, has her hair put up and gets her back up when only one half of the engaged couple attends. Or rather, Geoffrey turns up at about 10.30pm, by which time Beryl has fled upstairs for a serious cry. And he’s come to a decision. Geoffrey wants to be engaged. He wants to be with Beryl (possibly becsause the only realistic alternative is not being with anyone else, at all, forever). He’s delighted to see her. Which is when she gives him the ring back.

Yes, of course, we know by now that that isn’t going to last, but Lancashire plays with the patterns superbly in episode 3, which focusses on Beryl’s birthday. She’s now twenty. For once, she’s not going on about being on the road to becoming an old maid, she’s actually suspiciously cheerful, singing ‘Sixteen Tons’ at the breakfast whilst doing her mascara, and then picking up the two heaviest books in the house, one in each hand, and swinging them in that cheerful exercise known as improving her bust (though from my angle, etc., etc., etc. Does any girl/woman do that any more?).

Geoffrey on the other hand is morose, despite breaking the engagement being the thing he’s been trying to do all weekend, but that was when he was the one calling it off, not Beryl. Now he feels likea reject. Roland drags him down the pub and tries to get him off with the barmaid, who’s dead old, she must be at least 25. Unfortunately, Beryl’s in the pub too, at her mate’s ‘stag-do’ (celebrating her divorce). Roland’s already tried to get off with Beryl, who’s sweetly asked him to do something for her, i.e., drop dead.

The weird thing was that whilst the first episode had seemed to be very short, with only two real scenes in it, the third episode as-break caught me on the hop, by being merely the ad-break: there’d been enough story that I was expecting the end of the episode. Of course, after the ads, it’s back to Beryl’s home, with her acting all aggrieved and bitter, until Geoffrey explains that he does want to be angaged to her, at which point out comes the ring again, as does the new status quo.

Looked at like that, there’s a ton of psychological and emotional depth to the ongoing story, as well as some acute perception, but the thing is that, even in the light of fifty years tearing down the societal conventions of the time, this is still bloody funny in a way that isn’t down to my nostalgia, or even fancying Paula Wilcox something rotten (which I still do).

A lot of that is in the principals’ performances, but it’s also due to the two supporting cast members, Joan Scott as Beryl’s cynical Mum and Robin Nedwell as Roland Lomax, his also-cynical but in a different way best mate. Each one plays the vital role of sounding board, someone for Beryl or Geoffrey to bounce thoughts off and get responses they don’t actually like.And a word must be said for Alison King, who does get a word to say but pops up every week to cross paths with the Lovers, or at least one of them, and provide vivid and horrified expressions at snatched words that don’t mean what she thins they mean but it’s very clear from her face what she thinks they mean, and she’s horrified.

The situation and the characters Jack Rosenthal set up had a vivid life of their own. I don’t say they could have kept the show funny just by themselves but, though Geoffrey Lancashire was not as good a writer as Rosenthal, he was good enough, and a bit more, to replace him. Pity there was only the one extra season.

In name only: Plastic Man in the Sixties/Seventies


Plastic Man 1

If only Julius Schwartz had known, it might never have happened. He admitted it himself: when John Broome created the Elongated Man in the early days of the new Flash series, if he’d known that National Periodical Publications owned the rights to Jack Cole’s legendary character, Plastic Man, he’d have never accepted the name Elongated Man. After all, it is a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? If only he’d known, Ralph Dibney would have been Plastic Man and then, when somebody suggested bringing back the original Plas in 1966 they wouldn’t have been able to call the series Plastic Man, and maybe they wouldn’t have done it.
But there it was, written by Arnold Drake, drawn by, would you credit it, Gil Kane (doing Gil Kane with just a cartoony edge) and coming out of the editorial stable of Murray Boltinoff. And I, in my insatiable curiosity for what I didn’t read then, have acquired a run of all twenty issues. Didn’t I learn my lesson on Swing with Scooter?
The first issue was… distinctive. Cole’s Plastic Man was an FBI Agent who existed in a surreal world of exaggeration and implausibility. Cole was an inspired genius who knew exactly how, where, when and by how much to bend body language without losing sight of what a straight telling required. His stories were compact but buoyant, the more so for only having a cast of two, namely Plas and his side-kick, Woozy Winks.
Arnold Drake opened up with a twenty-four pager involving three different and recurring villains – one of whom was named Professor X – two side-kicks including a girlfriend, both drawn as straight people and a Marvel-esque Police Chief out to trap him as a crook with an obsession that made J. Jonah Jameson look like a model of neutrality. Gil Kane drew orthodox superhero cartoons with a relatively small degree of hamming it up, in the process establishing this style as a very plausible influence on Dennis (Dalgoda) Fujitani. Though Kane only drew the first issue before being replaced by Win Mortimer.
It’s one thing not to be as good as Jack Cole on Plastic Man, as the number of people who have been is precisely zero, but to be so little perceptive as to what made Plastic Man Plastic Man is worrying. You can see the calamity that was Shazam! in the Seventies already.
The second issue came up with three alternate origins for Plas, one of which actually bore a tangential relevance to the real one, but of humour, as in funny stuff, was there none. We have our recurring villain, Dr Dome, obsessed with killing Plas. We have his beautiful but sinister whip-wielding daughter, Lynx, aka Magnificent when she’s in uniform. We have Plas’s buddy, Gordon G Trueblood, crew-cutted, sports jacket wearing pet shop owner, Gordy in one panel in issue 1, trying to get Plas to grow up as a responsible superhero. We have his rich, blonde girlfriend Micheline de Lute the 3rd, who was equally Mike in one panel, but we also have her Moms, Micheline de Lute the 2nd, determined that no-one like Plas, i.e., poor, is getting anywhere near her hotcha daughter. And we have Police Chief McSniffe but I’d rather not talk about him.
Sometimes, the penalty of curiosity is painful.
I had a fright on the cover of issue 6, which adverted to the menace of the Mad Mod, but it wasn’t the one from the Teen Titans, just some dumb guy in a ski-mask and a scooter helmet, who was called Goldzinger which, come to think of it, was just as bad.
On one level, the story in issue 7 was just as bad as all the rest, but somehow it wasn’t. Apparently inspired by a Marvin von Wolfman, it was perhaps the most classically orthodox superhero story yet, but despite that it was a game-changing inspiration. It involved Plastic Man’s true origin, which was that he wasn’t the real Plastic Man after all, not the Jack Cole Plas, who was still teamed up with Woozy Winks.
It didn’t make the story any better in itself, but it suddenly became more palatable, that this wasn’t the original. If the one we were now reading was a different person already, it gave him licence to be different, licence for Gordon Trueblood and Micheline and all the rest.
Jack Sparling took over as penciller with issue 8 but didn’t stop the rot and the series was cancelled abruptly after ten issues. It was then revived, continuing its original numbering, almost a decade later in 1976, with Steve Skeates as writer and Ramona Fradon as artist, a potentially very good selection. Though as the first story was about Hamsters of Doom…

Plastic Man 16

This version returned to the original continuity, including Woozy Winks and the NBI, to which a couple of new characters were appended, one of whom was a very dumb blonde. As a first attempt, it got a lot closer to the essence of the real Plas, though it erred grievously in changing that nickname to Plaz.
But saying that, the second issue already contains the seeds of failure, and it’s the same as the then-recent attempt to bring back Captain Marvel in Shazam!: the writers just don’t have the imagination capable of producing good stories. They see Plastic Man’s wackiness but their only thought in how to continue in that vein is to write the same kind of superhero action story but make it silly by trivialising things. The villain who wanted to take over the world by transferring hamsters’ brains into prominent human beings was succeeded by the one who was going to do it by giving everyone a tummy-ache.
It’s a basic inability to go beyond the limitations of superheroes, and without the genius of a Jack Cole to interject his inspired surreality, it comes over as merely feeble. I’d almost rather have Arnold Drake’s version, which was at least the product of an active imagination.
Though I’ve no memory of doing so, I obviously bought an issue or two at the time – hey, it was 1976, that summer was so bloody hot my mind was seriously frazzled – because there are panels and bits of writing I already know. Especially the one guesting Robby ‘Dial H for HERO’ Reed, featured for no better reason than that he turned into Plastic Man once in his series.
Anyway, Elliott Maggin wrote issue 14 as a fill-in without any discernible difference, and when Skeates got back, the artistic touch of calling Plas Plaz was abandoned and he was once again Plas. Of such things…
But it wasn’t selling. Issue 16 skipped a slot in its bi-monthly schedule and was the last to appear under Gerry Conway’s editorship. We were warned about a new Plas, under Joe Orlando and John Albano, although Fradon stayed on. The difference was a more serious, straight story with Plas and Woozy doing their thing. It was no hardship to see the silliness gone, but it wasn’t any better and it was less distinguished.
Slightly more levity was spilled in issue 18 but the whole thing is in that death spiral I’m getting increasingly familiar with and, at least with a fitting symmetry, the series was cancelled with issue 20, and not really missed.
So accept this as a cautionary tale about curiosity, and where it can lead to. After Scooter and this, I’m going to be a bit more selective in future. Until I get overwhelmed again…

Preston Front: s03 e02 – Eric’s Won-Ton


Preston

Another week, another episode, more fun and complications.

It’s an easily recognisable format for an ensemble series that, whilst each episode tells a discrete story, it’s made up of multiple ongoing tales spreading across all the cast, developing towards a finale in which everything will be resolved, to one degree or another, but which in episode 2 are basically nascent, and how do you describe that?

For one thing, you go by the title to indicate who’s turn it is this week to hold centre stage, and this is obviously Eric, which means it’s also Dawn. There’s a wonderful cold open in which Eric is meeting Dawn’s parents for the first time, parents justifiably proud of their intelligent, capable daughter, with management potential, who can do anything with her life, and who understands foreign films. And what does Eric do? He’s, ah, in Food, Transportation. Management. And then on comes the first cinema advert. For a certain Chinrese restaurant in Roker Bridge. With a noodle van…

Eric isn’t exactly Mr Self-Confidence at the best of times and it’s far too easy for him to see himself through the Lomax’s eyes, and if we’re being fair it’s not like they’re far out. Eric mopes about dragging Dawn down to his level. Which, as the lady herself suddenly finds herself completely unable to go through the school gates any more, gets herself a job as a waitress at the Roman Holiday and self-confidently slips into ‘Management’ (i.e., a suit) to deliver a totally bollocks ‘Notice’ trying to shut down the new, ultra-expensive, blow-your-socks off Chinese Restaurant in Roker Bridge, isn’t just a pessimistic expectation.

Unfortunately, as Eric fearfuly discovers from Greg Scarry (we’ll be back there in a minute, I promise), the owner doesn’t take nonsense like that lightly. Eric takes over from Dawn, so he’s the one who gets a facial scar off a crispy won-ton, whilst the Noodle Van goes into the canal… At least Dawn still loves him, for his gentleness, for his lack of ego, for the fact he effaces himself for her. It’s a happy, for-now, ending.

I’m going to get to where Greg Scarry comes in soon, but the second biggest story in this episode belongs to Ally. The poison goblin, Sergeant (don’t forget, it’s Sergeant) Pete Polson, is still smugging it all over but the wind is taken out of his sails when Rundle delightedly announces she’s been accepted for Officer training, making her Officer-Cadet Minshull, to be addressed by Sergeants as ‘Maam’. But the wind swings to another corner when Rundle is forced to admit that Mrs Minshull’s training is to be under… Sergeant Polson.

You only have to look at David McCreedy as Polson to know just what an absolute fucking bastard he’s going to be about that, and he is. McCreedy is just so brilliant at putting Polson’s inner self-loathing and insecurity on the surface of his military strictness, his overt air of superiority and the sheer, impenetrable pettiness of the man. And the worst of it is that his humiliating screaming at Ally when she can’t lead Section 2 – our mates – to the rendezvous point, even though she’s only about thirty yards away is actually correct.

It gets Ally’s back up so far, she’s determined to beat the little rat bastard, to prove she got her promotion on merit, not by blackmail. Having used the latter word before her little brother, Spock, Ally then has to explain about the kiss with Rundle that meant nothing. There’s another little pointer for later in the series when Spock points out that it might mean that she’s fallen out of love with her husband.

As for Greg Scarry, he’s actually second fiddle, there at the new Restaurant opening to provide a moment’s awkwardness for Jeanetta and Declan. No, Greg’s there to allow us to be re-acquainted with our absent friend, Laura Delooze (dress from Madrid, hat from Oslo, personality from hell). Laura’s gone up in the world, via Greg’s bed as Dawn points out, but of course it’s entirely due to her own merits. The peasants of Roker Bridge are beneath her notice and she’s working overtime to make them notice that, with that oh-so-sweet, breathy little girl’s voice dripping with acid.

It’s a massive contrast to the Laura of series 1 and 2, but it’s still consistent with her character, and Lucy Akehurst plays it up magnificently, to the extent of threatening, in a way she thinks is subtle, to let on to Mr Scarry that he definitely isn’t the father of Kirsty and no longer needs to pay that extra money on top of his maintenance to Jeanetta. Oh, Laura, sweet, innocent airhead that you were.

So that’s the pot nice and bubbling, and not even any sign of Mel this week. At least I know where she’s going to fit in. Stand by for revelations.

Grand Master Westlake – A Career in Crime: From New York to Anguilla


W - Somebody owes

After Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, Westlake came out with two more Richard Starks before resuming his annual novel under his own name, with the bright and buoyant Somebody Owes Me Money.
The book sees Westlake back on the ordinary-person-involved-with-organised-crime situation. NY Cabbie Chet Conway, who plays the track and poker, is on a run of bad luck when, in lieu of a tip, a customer in the know gives him a tip on a horse, a real-no-hoper. Chet trusts to his luck, puts $35 on at 27-1, and comes out $930 richer, which he desperately needs.
Unfortunately, when Chet arrives at his off-track illegal bookies’ apartment, he finds him dead, three dum-dum shells to the back and the knock-on effects to the front.
All Chet wants is his money, and now he’s got the widow accusing him of murder, the Police questioning him for murder, Tommy’s Mob bosses fingering him for murder, the Mob Tommy was selling out to fingering him for murder, even Abbie, Tommy’s gorgeous blonde mini-skirted and booted blackjack dealing sister back here from Las Vegas is figuring him for the death. Thankfully, Chet manages to convince everybody that he is not and never has been a murderer. Just not at first. Nor necessarily for long.
On the other hand, Chet really does want to find out where he goes to get his $930.
There’s a great opening line in which Chet complains that he supposes that none of this would have happened if he wasn’t so eloquent, and there’s a good case to say he’s right, but Chet is so eloquent, and that distinguishes his first person account throughout, as he and Abbie team up to help each other get to the bottom of their respective quests.
The writing throughout is quick and witty, but Westlake was also in complete command of a complex plot that brought many competing elements into play. The mystery underlies every step of the way, with Chet figuring that the only way to convince everybody once and for all – not Abbie, who turns out to be on his side for rather longer than the book’s going to last – is to find the real killer. Who comes completely out of left-field and yet was foreshadowed in a beautiful piece of disguise from very early on.
Somebody Owes Me Money is a very funny, very satisfying story, to be set alongside God Save the Mark as among his best.
Westlake went straight from there to Up Your Banners, from a different publishers but also published in 1969. I am certain I read this in the early Seventies, amongst the half dozen and more Westlake hardbacks in Didsbury Library though I remember nothing of it. It’s not a particularly cheap book to obtain at present and as this is not a crime caper, but rather about contemporary protests and the racial divide, and reputedly more than a little out of date, I’ve overlooked it.

W - Adios

It was followed by two more Richard Starks and The Hot Rock, the first Dortmunder novel, making the next book to be reviewed to be Adios Scheherazade. This was the first Donald Westlake book I read and even now, almost fifty years later, it remains my favourite. The title drew me in, the first few pages interested me and the subject was also very intriguing to a more than somewhat naive seventeen year old.
It’s not a crime novel, but rather one of Westlake’s occasional experimental novels that build themselves around an unorthodox structure. It’s a book informed by his experiences as Alan Marshall and Edwin West. It’s a book about writing books, softcore porn novels, for a living.
It’s also a book that straddles the very complex line between laughter and anguish. I have a theory about Comedy of Embarrassment, which is that it works only so long as it embarrasses the characters and fails, spectacularly, as soon as it starts to embarrass the reader. I have no such theory for Comedy of Agony, except that I have always found it very difficult, indeed almost impossible for comedy to balance on that line. The Agony usually overbalances everything and the humour falls exceedingly flat.
But Adios Scheherazade is one of those very rare examples of the hybrid working.
It’s told by Ed Topliss. Ed graduated from College with a degree in English that was of no practical use for anything except teaching, and a pregnant girlfriend he did the decent thing by. Ed’s fit for nothing. He writes for a living. He writes one softcore porn book every month. Each book is ten chapters long, each chapter contains one sex act, each chapter is fifteen pages and five thousand words long. It’s as formulaic as it comes, and Ed’s no writer, not in any real sense.
Ed’s friend Rod is a writer, a real writer. Rod started writing this stuff for the experience and the money, but he’s gone beyond that now, he writes real books. When he got to that point, he offered to let Ed take over his pen name. A book a month, a thousand dollars a month, one hundred of which goes to Rod as ‘commission’ for use of his name.
$900 a month for ten days work a month was a good deal as far as Ed was concerned. Ten chapters, one a day, no revisions, easy money. Ed was thinking of the money. He was also thinking of Rod’s girlfriend’s thighs in her minidress when Rod was outlining this so he missed the most important piece of advice Rod gave him: nobody can do this shit forever.
I’ll repeat that. Nobody can do this shit forever. Ed wasn’t listening, but he’s aware of it now. Ed has written twenty-nine books. The last three have been late by increasing margins. Ten days writing, twenty days lazing around, recharging. If he’s late again, he’ll be dropped. Ed has no other income. He has no savings. He has a wife who, no matter how much money he brings in, spends ten per cent more of it. And he’s only just finished the last book two nights ago.
Ed can’t write that book. He hasn’t got the juice for it. What he can do, is doing, is typing away, filling fifteen pages of writing anything, how this happened, his past record, even describing the manual for writing this kind of shit. But not an actual book. Fifteen pages at night, headed Chapter 1, page numbered 1 to 15. None of it useable.
Disaster is staring him in the face, and all Ed can do is obsessively type his fifteen pages, double-spaced, numbered 1 to 15, whilst his life disintegrates.
It is very funny on top of being extremely painful. I’m not going to go into any details of what Ed does or doesn’t do, or the wide-ranging things he goes into in his obsessive typing, nor even hint at the actual ending or non-ending Westlake produces. I can, however, say that, if there was still an active market for early 1960s style cheap softcore porn novels, I would be ready to start cashing it in. Even now, I’d take $900 a month…

W - I gave

Two more Tucker Coes, a book entitled Ex Officio under the name of Timothy Culver, which is an apparently little-plausible story about an ex-President trying to carry out a hopefully ingenious peace plan, and the next Richard Stark led us up to I Gave at the Office.
In it’s own way, I Gave at the Office is also an experimental novel, since it employs an unusual format, that of its central character, loyal Network servant Jay Fisher, dictating a self-justification over a scandal for which he is, unfairly, copping all the blame. His self-defence takes the form of cassette tapes, forever running out in mid-sentence, and in the whole book being a conversational monologue by someone whose mind if not entirely focussed on the point of his account.
Jay is a loyal Network man. He believes in the Network and will defend it at all turns, especially now. He is so much a loyalist that even though these tapes are being dictated for the Legal Department of the Network, he will not even give its initials so as to shield it from further association.
In short, Jay may not be a schnook or a schlemiel or anyone like that, but he is a twenty-four-carat naïf. He is completely unaware of what is going on around him, oblivious to any clues as to the likelihood of things going wrong, and not just unable to decipher the motives and actions of all the people he has become entangled with, but positively not interested in anything but the surface.
Jay started at the Network as a radio announcer, but his career has gone nowhere. He’s the stand-in for lunchtime Interviewer Townley Looms, which means he takes the guests to lunch, asks them Townley’s questions and brings the tapes back for Townley to re-dictate them, as if he’d been face to face with the guest all along. In short, Jay’s a nobody, a glorified gopher, and one who’s going through a divorce at the same time, which he swears has nothing to do with what’s happened, when everybody is dumping the blame on him.
One of these guests, author Bob Grantham, brings the Network an idea that Jay obediently takes to his superior. ‘A Sea of Guns’ is about following a shipment of guns from their original home in Oklahoma to the Caribbean dump of Isla Pombo Island (literally, Island Pigeon Island), where rebels will use them to overthrow its cruel and vicious dictator, General Mungu.
The film is taken up eagerly and Jay is assigned to be its interviewer and narrator. He denies pushing for this. He does what the Network asks of him, even though everyone is now changing their stories to make him responsible for everything.
There’s a complicating factor that Jay can’t see until everything blows up in his, the Network and everyone involved’s face, you know, a little matter of using American soil and guns to promote a revolution against a Foreign leader who is recognised by the US Government being illegal and extremely serious. The FBI has all the goods, courtesy of an undercover agent named Mary Marie McCrory or, as Jay knows her, Linda, his girlfriend throughout this long period who he has been trying to get into bed for months on end, and who has shown inordinate interest in the film without Jay ever once suspecting it to be anything more than curiosity about her boyfriend.
It’s the usual Westlake piling up of incident after incident, as slightly off-key characters behave according to their obsessions and interests that don’t dovetail harmoniously, causing a gradually expanding chaos. The Dortmunder books are usually the perfect example of these, but I Gave at the Office is of that ilk.
What makes it amusing but much less so than Dortmunder and his gang is the character of Jay Fisher himself. Jay’s a nobody, a plastic figure, without opinions, without his own hopes and desires, at least by his own account. He is a Network man and nothing else. Add to that that he is so out of it, so unaware of what is going on around him, that after a certain point your sympathy for him starts to drain away.
It’s a delicate balancing act for Westlake, who is telling this story in a garrulous, talk-over-a-drink fashion, with simultaneous reference to present and future. Jay Fisher is telling a complicated, point-by-point story of his knowledge, and that of everyone else, from moment to moment whilst having full knowledge of what is going to happen and what people are going to claim happened, but didn’t. It makes for a confusing scenario, and ultimately it all hinges on how plausible Jay is as the holy innocent.
Long ago, I took him at face value, and that is the consensus among Westlake’s fans, but in these later times, with cynicism rife and disbelief automatic, I’m starting to wonder. Is this a massive put-on by someone trying to get out from under a massive fuck-up for which he is responsible? Either Jay Fisher is an unbelievable idiot or he’s desperately trying to be taken for one. I’m far from sure which.
The book doesn’t have an ending as such, any more than did Adios Scheherazade, though it does have a sting in the tail that provides, if not closure, then something of a new , and even more unwelcome phase starting, demonstrating that Jay is not the only person in the book who’s blurred as to human natural responses, which I’ll leave you to discover for yourselves.

W - Cops

Cops and Robbers was one of the last Westlake’s I found in the Library, and perhaps even the last I borrowed, though there is a later book I recognise from then which must have been available at some point.
I found the book very odd. I was already well-acquainted by then with the fact that most, if not all, books were changed when they were made into films, sometimes in critical fashion. I may already have had evidence of that in Westlake’s work by watching the film made of The Hot Rock with Robert Redford as John Dortmunder: certainly not casting by the book.
What was curious about this novel was that, the longer it went on, the more and more I started to imagine it in filmic terms, and the more and more convinced I became that here was a book that could be adapted for the screen, word for word, action for action, without a single change forced by the translation into another medium.
There is a reason for this, which I did not find out until many years later, which was that Westlake originally wrote the story as a screenplay for a movie (which by then I had seen on TV without instantly recognising it as anything more than a story I had read before) and expanded it for the novel.
The concept is simple, almost too simple for Westlake, and as such, though it comes from a comedic impulse, it’s overall a more serious story than we’ve been used to since the hard-boiled period. Indeed, the central notion – of cops using their knowledge, experience and police uniforms to commit a robbery – is the only comic aspect of the story and the book is then completely serious about what they do and how. Indeed, it’s altogether more serious about New York, and it being a dirty, dysfunctional, dangerous place to be than almost any other of Westlake’s books set in that environment.
Once again Westlake adopts a formal structure to the telling, a strict round robin of third person chapters followed by first person short chapters by each of Tom, a Detective, and Joe, a Patrolman. The two are friends, and for the last nine years have been next door neighbours in suburbia. Tom’s a more laidback, easy-going character, Joe short of temper and resentful. Neither is where they want to be (Trinidad in Tom’s case, Saskatchewan in Joe’s), and neither is going to get there.
It all starts with Joe, on impulse, robbing a grocery store whilst in uniform. Some of it’s the money, because his wife’s just lost her job, some of it is the hell of it. The uniform makes it so easy and nobody thinks it’s a real cop, they think it’s just somebody using the uniform. Joe holds it in but just has to tell someone and it’s Tom.
From there, via a casual remark from a neighbour at a back yard barbecue, the pair progress to talking about carrying out another job. Just one. One with a big enough reward that they can follow their dreams, one that’s planned carefully using all their experience, to ensure it can be carried out without leaving any clues.
The more they think about it, the more it moves from being an academic exercise to a job they’re going to actually pull.
What they need is something that will bring them in $2,000,000, to be divided equally. But who has $2,000,000 in cash lying around? The answer is simple: the Mafia. Tom and Joe approach a known Mob boss and make him an offer: in return for $2,000,000, they will steal and produce whatever it is the Mafia will buy.
So they’re given a commission, an impossible to fulfil commission, knowing all the time that the Mafia are not actually going to hand over $2,000,000 and leave, they’ll be out to kill the two cops and make a clear profit all ways round.
So how do you steal $10,000,000 in bearer bonds, no bonds lower than $20,000 or higher than $100,000, and cheat the Mafia? That’s the story, and Westlake builds it in completely plausible steps, that are both ingenious and, in their way, bizarre enough to be comic.
This kind of plotting is meat and drink to Westlake, who comes up with a scheme that gives the impression that it could work in real life. Though I know of nobody who ever tried to use it as a blueprint. Maybe cops have safer and less complicated ways of robbing?

W - Under

The last book for this post is an anomaly in being a work of non-fiction. Westlake had published a biography of Elizabeth Taylor under the name John B. Allen but Under an English Heaven (whose title is taken from Rupert Brooke) is a Donald E. Westlake book because, despite being true, it is a Donald E. Westlake plot.
Westlake has researched the book very thoroughly, speaking to almost everybody involved in the two year sequence of events that led to Great Britain invading the east Caribbean island of Anguilla, to take over the island and put down a rebellion whose aim was to get Great Britain to take Anguilla back under its control as a colony, thus giving the islanders the very thing they wanted all along, had been trying to tell Britain for two years and which the Mother Country, which always knows better, had been ignoring out of sheer blindness.
Already, the set-up is pure Westlake. Structurally, it bears a definite resemblance to books like The Fugitive Pigeon and Somebody Owes Me Money, where an individual tries to convince people of the true facts whilst everyone around him dismisses his story as unlikely, this time with a whole island of 6,000 inhabitants as the ‘holy innocent’.
Westlake establishes Anguilla’s history and the character of its people quickly and lightly, up to the 1820s when the real problem begins. Anguilla is a small island, almost entirely lacking in resources, so the British Empire lumped it in with St Kitts and Nevis, under the former’s administrative control, first as a colony and then, in the Sixties, as an autonomous unit. Right from the start, the Anguillans protested. Their island lay seventy miles from St Kitts, with at least three islands under different countries’ control separating them, and was wholly different from not merely St Kitts but third party Nevis.
At the time the rebellion started, the problem was exacerbated by the fact that St Kitts was under the rule of the self-styled Colonel Robert Bradshaw, former sugar cane worker, trade union representative, Chief Minister and First President and, if Westlake’s depiction off him is to be believed – and it is supported by Bradshaw’s own words – all-round megalomaniac with a hatred of Anguilla that appears to lack any rational basis, unless we accept that some people need other tribes or races to hate.
Since Bradshaw’s comments include a statement of intent to turn Anguilla into a desert – before the rebellion – and his actions include the wholesale diversion, obstruction and outright theft of resources specifically meant for the island (including all medicines for over at least a year), it is not hard to see why the Anguillans were unwilling to be associated with Colonel Bradshaw and St Kitts.
Really, all Westlake need do is to line up the facts in chronological order to demonstrate the utter farce of a situation that is plain to see, unless you are involved with any level of the British Government, but almost in self-defence, because his bemusement at the obtusity with which every British official or MP or Minister approaches the situation is so clear that he cannot help the wise-cracks. So would you. Britain operates from an invincible position of ignorance of either the facts or the wishes of the islanders, sure that it’s own complete lack of knowledge is nevertheless a perfect understanding superior to anyone who actually comes from the island.
It’s only that this problem is of such a small scale in world terms, a natural slapstick, that the book doesn’t become an out-and-out horror. But behind the screen of farce, it is an out-and-out horror. You cannot help but think, is this how Britain conducted all its foreign affairs. Even the important ones? Reading Under an English Heaven, you can only assume it was.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: s01 e01 – The Vulcan Affair


Uncle

After the best part of a year spent watching a British espionage series dedicated to a grounded and realistic vision of spying as a grim, nasty and brutish business, what greater contrast than to move on to its polar oposite, a light, flashy, fantastic, America thriller version of the same thing that was its almost exact contemporary?

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was another of my parents’ favourites that we all watched in the mid-Sixties, a bright whirl of action, adventure and snappy lines from Robert Vaughan as Napoleon Solo and David McCallum as Ilya Kuryakin, the two leading Agents of the United Network Comand for Law and Enforcement, whose assistance in the making of the programme was always so assiduously thanked over the closing credits. That was in black and white, although only the first season was filmed as such. In the Nineties, BBC2 rebroadcast in, on Friday nights, to my great delight, allowing me the chance to watch it again in colour.

At the moment, all I have is the first, black and white season, it being surprisingly hard-to-impossible to get later seasons on DVD without paying ridiculous sums for Complete Seasons box-sets, but that’s the next six months of Tuesday mornings sewn up and who knows, the horse could always learn to talk.

‘The Vulcan Affair’ was a slightly re-filmed pilot episode for when the series was going to be called ‘Solo’. As such it is very much a solo affair for Solo, with Ilya and Mr Waverley enjoying less than five minutes of screen-time put together. Indeed, Leo G. Carroll, as Mr Waverley wasn’t even in ‘Solo’, and was substituted for Mr Allison, played by Will Kuluva.

The pilot is much more serious and straightforward than the U.N.C.L.E. I remember. It sets itself up immediately as a clash between U.N.C.L.E. and its opposite number, THRUSH, clearly derived from James Bond’s SPECTRE, who will be the eternal antagonists, thus placing it at one remove already from any politically oriented espionage. All the episode titles will be ‘(such-and-such) Affairs’ and it kick-starts the U.N.C.L.E. formula by which each episode will feature a guest star playing an ordinary person who gets swept up into whatever foul plot Messrs Solo and Kuryakin are out to foil.

In this first episode, the guest is Pat Crowley, of whom I’ve never previously heard, a genuinely lovely looking and very game lady, as Elaine May Donaldson. Mr Waverley has been advised of the intended assassination of President Ashumen (William Marshall) of a newly-forged independent African country. This is to occur on the visit of Ashumen and two of his patriotic ministers to America, whilst inspecting a chemical plant owned by Andrew Vulcan (Fritz Weaver), a senior THRUSH agent. Vulcan is a recluse, last known to have had a girlfriend at college, the afore-mentioned Elaine May, now a happily-married mother of two, but the only person who can get Solo near to Vulcan.

Elaine May becomes glamorous and lovely (and how) widow, Elaine May van Early, finding that whilst she’s stirring up old emotions in Andy, she’s also stirring up old emotions about him. Mixed in with finding it impossible to believe what Solo says is true – until THRUSH try to kill him – Elaine May also finds herself attracted to being attractive, to being the best-dressed, most beautiful woman at a Washington party, among movers and shakers.

It’s a complex situation for her but, like any decent, god-fearing American mother, she buckles down to helping Solo, even if it ruins her hairdo and gets her all sweaty. The day is saved. The assassination is not of Ashumen but his two Ministers, who would oppose Ashumen handing their country to THRUSH to take advantage of diplomatic immunity, armies and the like. In the end it’s Vulcan and Ashumen who die, Elaine May goes home happily to her family and Solo tries it on with the beautiful stewardess. We’ve already had a sunlamp and bikini shot of Victoria Shaw as the communications girl in Channel D, inside U.N.C.L.E. headquarters to keep up the glamour level.

So. On one level a disapointment in being a straightforward thriller with little of the fantasy of U.N.C.L.E. with which I’m familiar, but still a well-made, down-to-earth episode, especially the tense and professional open, as THRUSH agents break into U.N.C.L.E. headquarters to attempt to kill Mr Waverly. Or Mr Allison. Not what I expected, more like Danger Man at its best. Let’s treat that as a bridge.

The Infinite Jukebox: Kyu Sakamoto’s ‘Sukiyaki’


I think I’m safe in saying that Sukiyaki is the only Japanese-language song to ever hit the UK Top 10, as sung in a clear, indeed pellucid voice by Kyu Sakamoto. It was his first home hit as a solo artist and an international hit, including an American no. 1 and a UK no. 6.
The song’s actual title is ‘Ue o Muite Aruko’, which a sharp ear, forewarned, can make out is the opening line of the song. In English-speaking markets it was retitled ‘Sukiyaki’, which is a Japanese cooked beef dish and has remarkably little to do directly with love. The alternate title was out of concern that an English speaking audience would be unable to pronounce, or even remember the original title, which is unmistakably racist but, sadly, probably correct.
The title actually stands for ‘I look up when I walk’. It was apparently written to reflect emotions felt by a young man returning from a protest against the ongoing American military occupation of Japan, but was purposed symbolically as the thoughts and feelings that accompanied the end of a love affair.
I look up when I walk
So that the tears won’t fall
Though the tears well up as I walk
For tonight I am all alone
That’s not exactly the impression I get from Sakamoto’s singing, in fact the very opposite. He sings with great feeling, and the westernised melody is brilliantly smooth and sweeping, but if I had to pick a word for the emotion I hear in those strange syllables, it would be exultant. Sakamoto sings like a man with his heart full, and full of the glory of love, of fulfilment rather than denial.
Does this matter? A song in an unfamiliar language is a collection of sounds, exactly as an instrumental is (though this version is vastly superior to the instrumental version first released and a hit in Britain, by Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen). Sakamoto’s voice is no different from an instrument, a trumpet or a piano. I can enjoy ‘Sukiyaki’ for its sound.
But that begs the question of whether a song can be a successful interpretation if it conveys to a foreign-language listener the exact opposite emotion intended by the song. That’s analogous to Chris Andrews’ very successful recording of ‘Yesterday Man’ in which he makes being dumped by the girl he loves sound like the most glorious experience of his life. Am I listening to Kyu Sakamoto’s voice with topsy-turvy ears or is he doing the same thing?
Being a bit more forensic, Sakamoto’s performance on the middle eight of the song, where the lyrics translate as Remembering those autumn days/But I am all alone tonight/Sadness lies in the shadow of the stars/Sadness lurks in the shadow of the moon betrays more of a downbeat tone, a yearning for something out of reach that is more appropriate, but it’s only a few seconds before he is once more singing the chorus with smooth enthusiasm.
Does this really matter? After all I like the song as a sound. The recording is smooth and flowing, and the song has a sense of yearning intrinsic to it irrespective of whether it is telling a happy tale or a sad one.
But I keep coming back to the basic question of, is it me, or is it Kyu Sakamoto? Am I misreading the emotional component of his singing so dramatically, or is he investing a song in his own language with a wholly inappropriate energy? Without learning how to speak – and understand – Japanese, I doubt I’ll ever know. As it is, I can’t even analyse the syllables to enable me to raise my voice along with Sakamoto.
The singer had a very minor American hit with the follow up to ‘Sukiyaki’, but no other international success. He died in 1985, aged 43, a victim of the deadliest single-aircraft accident to date. Other musicians and singers have died in plane crashes but this stands out as being a mass commercial flight. I don’t know why but I find his fate profoundly sad.

Sunday Watch: The Office s01 e05/06 – New Girl/Judgement


Office

I have never seen the American version of The Office, except for a couple of cl;ips, mostly from YouTube. There are some things about it that I think I would enjoy, especially the relationship between their version of Tim and Dawn. Then I watch even five minutes of the original and I could never accept the American show as an equal. There is both ice and poison at the heart of The Office, and it is those two factors that make it the work of genius that it is.

Most of it is David Brent. By episode five the audience is conditioned by expectation and dread to almost freeze the momenmt he appears, insinuating himself into the background of a scene that has nothing to do with him, but walking forward to pull everything about him, the only worthwhile subject of anything, the natural centre of gravity and attention. And you watch in absolute fascination, pre-cringing about what he’s going to say next, oh God, he didn’t, no, oh fuck, I would die.

And Brent’s not the only monster, just the King of Embarrassing Beasts, a tragic figure when contemplated from afar, with an objective head, all thoughts of which flee the moment he is near you and you’re in a permanent state of pre-wince. There’s Gareth Keenan, an Empty Space incarnated in awkward flesh, full of firm, in-command opinions that vanish in a flash to be replaced by polar opposites, a walking talking classic no-hoper that imagines itself as capable of anything, especially the having of any woman he sees even as he’s rejecting them as slags or loose women, and you don’t go there.

Even Tim Canterbury, the sane one, the intelligent one, the fish in concrete, the one I identify with inescapably, is in his own way a monster. Tim is out of place. He doesn’t like his job, he is understretched by it, he doesn’t like the people he works with, with one sweet exception, he is offended by the OTT laddishness of Brent and his mate Finchy, and Gareth, the hanger-on, with their crude and sexist language and attitudes, their sheer boorishness. And most of all he doesn’t like himself, for his inability to act, to go, to do something better, something fulfilling, because Tim’s self-confidence is solely based in the knowledge that he is better than everyone else at Wernham Hogg in Slough and shot through with the fear that, in another context, where he might not be the only one who can snap and snide at the likes of Gareth, come out with sardonic digs that go over the heads of everyone else, he might be out of his depth.

I said I identify with him.

And then there’s Dawn, who is sweet, and nice, and likes Tim, likes his compsany, but who is engaged to and living with a jumped-up thug, a warehgouseman with no more anbition than to shag and pint it up, and bang her up. Tim is evidently superior to Lee, amd Dawn knows that, but she’s with Lee, and she can’t yet imagine herself out of that, any more than she can get away from Wernham Hogg or the dead-end of being a Receptionist. She’s not a monster, except towards herself, taking the path of least resistance. Always keep tight hold of nurse, for fear of finding aomething worse.

These two episodes finished The Office‘s stupendously brilliant first series. The first, ‘New Girl’, split itself into two phases, the first where Brent, in the face of the threatened down-sizing, decides his importance is such that he has to have a secretary. He interviews two candidates, one a bloke, the other a decently pretty blonde woman, Karen Roper. You know exactly what’s coming and it’s as horrifying as you expect, though only Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s imagination extends to Brent toying with a football and accidentally elbowing her in the face.

The second phase is the regular Wednesday night down the club, drinking till one o’clock, pinting it desperately, birding it with equal energy, fearful of loneliness, of insignificance. Gareth pulls a woman who makes all the running, he being unable to respond – she’s a loose woman, remember, and he doesn’t want to catch knob-rot (he is so much the charmer) – until he discovers she’s here with her husband, and he isn’t going to get involved in a threesome, well, maybe two birds. There isn’t, if you stop squirming long enough, an original word in there but bloody hell, Gervais and Merchant and McKenzie Crook get every moment spot on, like a butterfly pinned to a slide, only without the beauty.

And behind all of this is Tim, determined to quit, go back to University, study philosophy, and it’s not because he asked Dawn ut and was turned down in front of everybody else, and anyway it was just as friends, not girlfriends. Already we know he won’t do it, because he hasn’t done it, he’s going to do it, which signals he isn’t going to do it, he’s waiting for a face-saving reason to just do nothing. Always keep tight hold of nurse…

But it’s the final episode that’s the stunner. Gervais and Merchant have the courage to cut down on the comedy and allow the underlying horribleness of the situation to dominate, in a manner that is all the more pertinent in 2021 than in 2001. The time has come to decide the branch’s future. Downsizing will take place. Despite Brent’s public insistence that he will save everybody’s jobs, jobs will be lost. But…

The big but is that Jennifer Taylor-Clark is being promoted. Her job is open. There are two candidates for her replacemenmt and these are the two managers of the regional branches at Slough and Swindon, David Brent and Neil Godwin. And by a 5-2 majority, the Board has voted for Brent. Of course, if he accepts the job, and 5-2 is practically a landslide, and it’s a 71.4% majority, Slough will be shut down, its staff reduced and merged into Swindon.

It’s good news and bad news and Brent just can’t imagine why no-one is celebrating the good news or, as Malcolm outs it, the irrelevant news. Tim is indifferent, Dawn wants to be made redundant, to be kicked up the backside into doing something career-wise, Gareth is in tears at breaking up the old team, unwillingly aware that the limited and pathetic powers he has are wholly derived from Brent and that without him he is exactly nothing.

Don’t eworry though, there is a happy ending. Slough will survive. Everyone will keep their jobs, and Tim will be promoted to Senior Sales Clerk, with the prospect of taking Brent’s job in, maybe, three years, just the excuse (Lucy Davis’ ambiguous look at this news is genuinely unfathomable). Why for? Well, Brent only told them to stick their job up their arse, and now Swindon will be down-sized and merged into Slough. Hip hip hoorah for David Brent!

It’s about as unbelievable as a 45p coin, of course, but Slough has been saved, not by Brent’s hitherto unguessed at altruism but, as Malcolm has ferreted out, because he failed the medical due to High Blood Pressure. Faked, of course, just for the occasion, or so Brent claims. Heh heh.

I think I might not leave it so long before turning to the second series.

Good Girl Comics: Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld


A

It was a good time to be a DC fan in the early Eighties, as the company bounced back with unexpected speed and agility from the nadir of the infamous Implosion and the threat that DC, and maybe even comics, might vanish. Instead, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein and George Perez, Marvel-exiles all, assigned to a series that at least one of them didn’t think could last, let alone would, turned The New Teen Titans into DC’s first genuine Direct Market success and, for much of the decade at least, things were on the up.
That half-decade, leading up to Crisis on Infinite Earths, was a fun time for experiments. Marvel did Marvel, and did it harder than ever but DC, under a management that accepted being Number Two and concentrated on providing more diverse experiences for older readers, came out with a number of fresh ideas, offering their readers things that differed.
It wasn’t always successful. Robert Loren Fleming’s Thriller was deliberately impressionistic, to the point of wilful obscurity: it flattered to deceive though I retain fond memories of it and all twelve issues, even the ones written by Bill DuBay that turned it into a hideous mess. On the other hand, Len Wein’s leftfield throw to hire a British writer from Northampton to totally invert his baby, Swamp Thing, changed the entire industry for a couple of decades.
In this atmosphere, a writing team consisting of Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn started getting regular assignments at DC, consciously intent on bringing a kind of updated Silver Age fun into an industry that, under the influence of The Uncanny X-Men, was trending towards anger, pain and other dark elements. They would make their most substantial contribution towards that goal in 1984, with the creation of Blue Devil (which efforts would lead to one of the most stupid letters ever printed in a comic book anywhere in the world). But the previous year, they and artist Ernie Colon came together on a bright, lovely and fantastic in the best sense twelve-issue maxi-series, Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld.

A1

The story pitched for a strong, fairy-tale like atmosphere, deliberately geared towards a female readership. It structured itself as an adventure, with a nod towards superheroics of a kind that, without which the book would not have sold, but by making its lead character a young, almost pre-pubescent girl who, magically, transforms into a beautiful Princess aged twenty – adult but still close to her girlishness – Mishkin and Cohn used archetypal tropes to hold the attention of an audience not geared to comics.
And in Ernie Colon they had the perfect artist: clear, clean, with bold black lines, influenced by Gil Kane in his action sequences but, best of all, able to draw Amy Winston as the thirteen year old girl she was, and Amethyst as a tall, blonde, long-legged and beautiful woman who drew the eye as a clean-cut and non-sexually threatening figure and, best of all, relate the two versions of the character to one another.
Colon’s art was both dynamic and comforting. He had a knack for the implausible landscapes of a fantasy land, the Gemworld, rendering them in a sharp-edged style that made them look realistic, even as his art was comforting and cheerful.
Mishkin and Cohn played their story cleverly, aware of what elements were standard tropes and dealing with these with confidence instead of the knowingness that would have undermined and destroyed the series. Amy Winston was an ordinary, blonde, freckle-faced thirteen year old, an only child of ordinary parents – a businessman and a child psychologist – and basically happy with life and school, until she is pulled inside a portal, a hole in the wall, and finds herself aged twenty in the mysterious place known as Gemworld where people she doesn’t know are trying to kill her.

A2

Over the first half of the story, the writers let Amethyst experience things, doling out information as needed to advance matters. Amethyst and Amy alternate. The opening page of the story riffs on the child-like trope of believing your parents are not your real parents and that you are secretly a Princess, and plays with that. Amy is not the daughter of Herb and Marion Winston, but of Lord and Lady Amethyst, the beloved and benevolent rulers of Gemworld, a fantastic dimension founded by the witch Citrine, who led the folk of magic out of medieval Earth to live and prosper here.
Gemworld is divided between Twelve Houses, each named after Gemstones – Ruby, Emerald, Topaz, Garnet, etc. – ruled over by the House of Amethyst, until, that is, the evil Lord Dark Opal built forces to usurp their rightful leadership. Lord and Lady Amethyst sacrificed themselves to enable their baby daughter to be saved by Citrine, placing her with the Winstons, whose own baby had just died in childbirth. Time flows differently between the two realms, thus enabling our heroine to be simultaneously 13 year old Amy and 20 year old Amethyst., depending on where she is at any given time.
The second half of the series forsakes Earth and the Winstons. Dark Opal is planning to achieve ultimate power, by securing a chip from every House’s gemstone and welding these into a breast plate that will make him invincible. Amethyst intervenes to prevent the marriage of Lady Sapphire – allied to Dark Opal – to young Topaz, the Prince Charming of the bunch, and thereafter builds a coalition of, eventually, the eleven remaining Houses that finally destroys Dark Opal and all his realm.
Then Amethyst is able to return home and become Amy again, though she knows that if ever trouble recurs in the future, she can transform into her secret identity by returning.

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The whole series was a charming blend of the superheroics, which lay under the surface, and the fairy tale. I didn’t buy it at the time but found a complete set very cheap in a Sheffield shop that provided me with tons of my pre-eBay Eagles. I enjoyed it, especially Colon’s art, which combined clarity with a Perez-ian ability to add detail without obscuring the eye. In the end, it failed to survive one of my periodic culls of the comics I didn’t regularly read but I’m very happy to have it back on DVD-Rom, taking up no space whatsoever.
The Maxi-series was a success, enough to spawn first an Annual, in 1984, then an open-ended series, starting from no. 1 again. This I’m reading for the first time. It doesn’t augur well.
It’s an all-too-common failing. Mishkin, Cohn and Colon conceived Amethyst as a complete story, developed over a number of years, and intended to run contrary to the standard DC output. It was a success against the odds of a comic book structure not set up for such things. DC wanted to replicate that success. Mishkin and Cohn wanted to further explore the world they had created. The Annual was conceived as a lead-in to the new series. But maxi-series are complete because they have an ending. That sounds incredibly trite but it makes a massive structural difference.

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For one thing, Ernie Colon dropped out. The Annual was drawn by Ric Estrada and Pablo Marcos. Instantly, Colon’s bright, sharp images and their distinct lines were lost, as was the whole fairy-tale aspect. Estrada and Marcos were plainer and more conventional of line. They eschewed panel borders, marking no separation between images. Their art was overall more drab, their layouts less distinct.
Nor was the story up to scratch. It started on Earth with Amy and her best friend Rita (a red herring in the maxi-series, possessing an Opal stone) playing basketball when a dwarf breaks through and tries to steal Amy’s amethyst pendant. To fight it, she transfers to Gemworld, with Rita in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, the new Lady Emerald is about to be invested, whilst the impulsive, red-headed Lady Turquoise is mooning over golden-haired Lord Topaz (who is mooning over Amethyst) whilst young Lady Emerald confronts some mysterious menace. Amethyst rescues the munchkins from their land, the former Dark Opal territory but has to rescue Rita from a cat-like menace that turns out to be a former witch’s familiar, transformed by strange magic into an evil intent on conquering Gemworld. To neutralise it, leaving Rita behind temporarily, Amethyst and young Lady Emerald take it back to Earth where it turns back into a cat, but find their portal back to Gemworld blocked. Throw in lots of superheroing in the form of magical battles and you can see the problem: not only is the freshness drastically dimmed, but the story is all about setting up the new series, leaving the Annual incomplete. Something tells me not to read the new series…
Because one thing that always enters in with an open-ended series is Soap Opera, those unending sub-plots that drag down and trivialise events, like Princesses immediately starting to whine like adolescent girls. I got just two issues into the new series, pencilled by Ric Estrada and, for one bright moment in issue 1, inked by Ernie Colon before Romeo Tanghal took over, before deciding not to read any more.
The thing is, as it has taken me a lifetime to learn, you don’t have to accept everything in the DC Universe as real. Just because they publish it, just because diverse hands and minds – the latter term to be read metaphorically – have contributed doesn’t mean that you have to treat it as all being ‘real’. I choose to ignore the latter Amethyst because I can see already that it’s going to be absolute twaddle, even when written by Mishkin and Cohn, and edited by Karen Berger. The Maxi-series is a polished gem, and I’m content with that.

Preston Front: s03 e01 – Hodge’s Driving Test


Preston

It’s all back to Roker Bridge for a third and, alas, final time, with the start of series 3 picking things up in Central Lancaster six months on, and starting with a dream sequence. Hodge is taking his driving test. It’s very important to him because he’s being allowed to take his god-daughter Kirsty (actually his real daughter as only Eric and Dawn know) out on his own for the very first time on Saturday. But he’s failed, as the dry litany of mistakes is quietly reeled off by the examiner, including reversing through a supermarket window – at which point we twig we are not in Roker Bridge’s own specialised form of reality – only for the examiner to rip up the Fail sheet in time for a hallucinogenic congratulations sequence as even Stirling Moss (the real one) tells him he is a better driver.

Then he wakes up.

For the third and final series there are cast changes. Lucy Akehurst, aka Laura, has dropped out, and will appear only briefly in a later episode as a guest star. Carolyn Pickles replaces Susan Wooldridge as Jeanetta, Kieran Flynn, Ozzie Yue and Holy Grainger are all listed and there are two newcomers in Oliver Pickles as Declan (no last name given), a plastic surgeon and Jeanetta’s new ‘boyfriend’, and Angela Lonsdale as Mel, who plays a somewhat detached role in the first episode.

‘Hodge’s Driving Test’ isn’t quite as fuinny as previous episodes, though it contains a great deal of banter, farcical fun and confusion, not to mention my favourite Preston Front gag of them all (there’s another, nearly as good, later in the series).

The TA, under the puffed-up orders of Sergeant Polson (whose elevation by blackmail still rankles with Lieutenant Rundle and Corporal Minshull, aka Ally, since it’s them he’s blackmailing), are being trained in mine detection. Deisel assumes sophisticated ultrasound devices but the reality is glorified knitting needles, placed across the forearm and inserted into the ground – carefully – at a 30 degree angle.

Lloydy doesn’t like the prospect of this and starts chunnering. Polson describes the standard insertion from a prone position, but there’s also a two-foot extension so it can be done standing up. Lloydy immediately suggests a two hundred foot extension so it can be done standing up in Bradford. Next thing, he’s face down in the ‘minefield’, proding carefull, with Spock and Deisel immediately behind. He’s still chunnering. He asks why the Army can’t train moles to do this? Spock sighs and says they tried but it didn’t work. And Deisel agrees. It didn’t wiork because they had to have their desks too near the blackboard…

But whilst that, and many other things, like Lloydy facing down a tank, are wonderfully funny, that doesn’t for one moment obscure the fact that this is an episode filled with a tremendous amount of pain, and it’s that same pain we know from throughout the series, namely that Kirsty is Hodge’s daughter, and that she not only doesn’t know he’s her father but she must never know. Hodge wants to be a Dad, but cannot be in the way he wants, and, as the episode demonstrates, is far too wound up about being a Dad to be relaxed enough to be a good one.

In series 2, we had Jeanetta’s ex-husband, Greg Scarry, a very successful businessman, as the Hodge-that-might. Rich, handsome, a magnet for women. Hodge saw him as a rival, especially as he was making a play for Laura, but mostly as the image of a real Dad for Kirsty, even though she was none of his.

Now enter Declan, to be a new and even more serious rival. Not over Jeanetta, who’s clearly very comfortable with him (and Carolyn Pickles brings a very ready smile and an overall more relaxed and cheerful aspect to the role), but over Kirsty, who is also clearly very comfortable with him. Because Declan has an overwhewlming advantage above and beyond his craggy handsomeness, his wealth and his horse. Paradoxically, by not being Kirsty’s father or having any pretentions to be, he can play the part of a father with relaxed ease and comfort. No wonder Hodge hurts all over inside from the moment he meets him.

That’s all I’ll say for now. That alone would be enough to sustain a seven-part series without all the other subplots bubbling away in the background, but I’d better mention Mel. Mel, a very obviously Geordie girl, appears out of nowhere in the TA. Whilst trying to get her cigarette lit, she inadvertently directs Jeanetta’s car too far back and into a hole. She turns a palette into an escape ramp but doesn’t get all the nails out. She doesn’t tighten the nuts properly when she changes the wheel so the car has to be towed away… Oh, and when Jeanetta is gazing fondly at the departing Hodge, she makes a misassumption, and says, “Got a cracking arse, hasn’t he?”

We’ll get to know more about Mel over the next six weeks. Welcome back Roker Bridge.

Grand Master Westlake – A Career in Crime: The Comedy of Crime


Pity Him Afterwards marked the end of the first phase of Donald Westlake’s career. Those first five books earned him a reputation, praise and respect. He had broken out of the world of low rent erotica that had allowed him to practice, and make money whilst practicing, and he had a second line in the hard-boiled with his Parker novels, under the secret pen-name of Richard Stark. It looked all set to carry on, to grow and develop. Except that something went wrong, in the right way.

W - Fugitive Pigeon

Underneath the surface, there’s the making of a serious novel in The Fugitive Pigeon, in the mode already established. It’s a long way beneath the surface, in fact it’s mostly in the situation and the background, but the execution goes off in an unexpected direction.
The narrator is Charlie Poole, who tends bar and lives above the shop at the Rockaway Grill in Canarsie. The big difference between Charlie and Clay, Tim, Ray or Paul is that these are all professional, competent men and Charlie’s a nebbish. He’s the first of Westlake’s parade of hapless schlubs with whom we’ll get very familiar. Charlie’s a bum, he always has been. The job’s undemanding, the work minimal. The bar has never competed with its existing and already successful rivals.
What it does is launder money for its real owners, the Syndicate. And Charlie handles packages when he’s asked to. Until the night two guys in dark overcoats and hats walk in about 2.30am, making wisecracks. They get Charlie to open the till and they empty it so it’ll look like a robbery. But they’re going to kill him.
Thanks to the lucky intervention of the useless beat cop, Patrolman Zicatta, who doesn’t like to pry into other people’s business, Charlie gets away. He knows he’s done nothing wrong, he figures it’s a mistake somewhere, and all he has to do is get that mistake identified and straightened out and he can go back to his life of being a bum at his bar.
Charlie’s the joker in the deck. Put a Clay or a Tim Smith etc., in that situation and you’ve another hard-boiled novel going, but not with Charlie. Charlie is what you might say a bit too real for that sort of thing. Even though he’s a clown, that still makes him a lot closer to us than the Syndicate’s run-of-the-mill guys. Charlie doesn’t know what the hell is going on. He’s hard put to know anything at all, except the fact that he’s the fall guy.
Hell, he isn’t even one of the Syndicate, he’s just a nephew who got lucky through his Uncle Al. Uncle Al’s part of the Syndicate, though Aunt Florence doesn’t know it, and Al is more afraid of her finding out than he is of the Syndicate getting the idea that he’s telling his nephew anything. Charlie’s just working his way from name to name, hopefully upwards, until someone tells him what they think he’s done so he can prove he didn’t.
Unfortunately, that proves to be a problem when he walks in on Farmer Agricola on Staten Island, because the Farmer is dead and nobody will believe Charlie didn’t do it, not his somewhat inefficient bodyguard Clarence, and definitely not his beautiful, blonde, fragile daughter Althea, who intends to revenge herself on Charlie but is too fragile to hold a gun straight and misses him twice in an enclosed space from six feet, so Charlie and his pal Artie Johnson, and Artie’s little dark Jewish Princess morning-after girl Chloe Shapiro have to take Althea hostage…
You’re beginning to get the picture now, aren’t you?
There’s Mr Gross, who is, and his theories based on the evidence that have no bearing on reality but which would work perfectly in a serious gangster book, who lets slip that Charlie is supposed to be an informer, so you can see why the Mob might take umbrage…
What Westlake has done, and surprised himself in doing, is turned the whole thing into a frantic farce, exaggerating both character and incident to the point that their very absurdity makes them feel much more natural. Throw in a happy ever after ending with Chloe and the result was the first in a long string of comic crime novels based on applying the way real, self-obsessed, inconvenient people behave to crime of all kind.
From a start like this, John Dortmunder was born out of Parker.

W - Busy Body

Once you’ve done something like that, the natural impulse is to try it out and see if you can do it again. Westlake switched to Richard Stark for two more Parker novels before producing The Busy Body.
Never do the same thing twice in a row. This is still a gangster story and it still fills itself up with the standard gangster cliches and it could still be a straight story with a little planing down, but it isn’t. Our man this time is Aloysius ‘Al’ Engel, though he’s mostly Engel, and we’re in the third person here. Engel is, more by luck than good judgement, right hand man to Nick Rovito, a boss who has his own business that the cops are plenty interested in, especially Deputy Inspector Callaghan, who is honest. Engel does things for Nick. Mostly it’s glorified secretarial stuff but it gives him a good life and it makes his clinging mother proud that he’s higher up the organisation than his bum of a father never was. Engel’s fine with it. Until Nick Rovito’s latest order.
The opening chapter is all about a funeral, a great send-off like the old days. Charlie Brody wasn’t big enough to rate this kind of show, but since everything got better organised and people don’t end up getting gunned down, Charlie’s the chance to do it up right and proper, the old-fashioned way, even if what happened to him was that he had a heart attack whilst heating up some soup, fell on the hotplate and pretty much burnt his face off. Even if he was just a runner, who took money to Baltimore and brought heroin back.
And it all goes well. Engel rides in the first carriage, with Nick and Mrs Brody, who’s going to be going back to work next week under her former name Bobbi Bounds, and she’s weeping like any widow and about how she dressed him in his blue suit and nobody says a thing until the last line of the chapter when, leaving the grave, Nick takes Engel aside and tells him to mark the place quietly. Because tonight, when it’s dark, Engel’s going back to dig Charlie Brody up…
It’s a great stinger. Engel doesn’t like it, he’s not keen on becoming a body-snatcher and he’s also not keen on being told to take an informer with him to do the hard labour, then rub him out with the shovel and leave him in the grave when Engel comes out with Brody’s suit jacket. You see, that’s what Charlie used to carry his separate commodities to and from. They were sewn into the lining of his blue suit jacket. When Charlie got buried in that suit, he took a quarter of a million dollars of horse with him.
So Engel picks up Willie Enchik, who’s drunk and garrulous and altogether a noisy guy to have round you in a cemetery at 2.00 am when you’re illegally digging up a grave, and it only makes it worse when you get down there and find that the coffin is empty. So, where has Charlie gone?
That is the story. Engel has to find Charlie, or rather he has to find Charlie’s jacket but it almost certainly has Charlie’s body in it so it’s all the same and it doesn’t help that when he calls on the mortician, he finds the Police there because the mortician’s last job was an Officer, and it was his last job because Engel finds him dead, stabbed, and this tall, skinny, Scandinavian type blonde announces to all the Police assembled that Engel has killed her husband. Only she’s not the mortician’s wife.
All Engel has to do is work out what’s going on, and persuade Nick Rovito at a crucial moment, whilst he’s on the run from the Police and the Syndicate alike, that he’s not been running his own private protection racket that’s going to get him rubbed out too. Engel succeeds mainly because he’s not a schlub like Charlie Poole (even though, whilst on the run, he calls in the Rockaway Grill in Canarsie, because Westlake drops these little links in, to show that all these stories are taking place in the same, real world).
No, Engel knows what he is doing and eventually he works out who is behind all this, and that it’s nothing to do with Charlie Brody’s quarter of a million dollars of uncut heroin – he does find out who got the horse but not through working it out – and it gets him out from under, and all the way out because he doesn’t want to work for Nick Rovito or the Syndicate any more. It’s events here that are farcical in how they pile up, not the guy in the middle, which leaves the story closer to real than last time, but there is nevertheless a very real difference between The Busy Body and the hard-boiled books, which is that the people involved are themselves real. They have quirks and foibles, they are not grimly serious, there is a warmth that surrounds each of them that is inimical to hard-boiled fiction. It’s possible to imagine the people of this world doing everyday, little things, unconnected to their roles in the crime.

W - Spy in the Ointment

One more Richard Stark later, Westlake continued his approach with The Spy in the Ointment. Though it has the most funny lines to date, a refinement of Westlake’s approach, it was a book of which I could remember absolutely nothing until I started re-reading it. Our man, this time, is J. Eugene Raxford, pacifist and first person narrator, given to going off at tangents to begin with, a trait that diminishes throughout the book as his personal circumstances demand more and more concentration.
Raxford is a pacifist, a whole-hearted pacifist, through and through, although like all pacifists in fiction, and probably most of them in real life, he will overcome his principles at the furthest provocation and save the day. Not at first, far from it. Raxford is the National Chairman of the fringe organisation, the Citizens Independence Union, or CIU from hereon for as long as we need to refer to it. The CIU was once a thriving organisation of some 1,400 students, that is, until drafting for the Korean War ended, since when it’s a bit smaller. Nowadays it has 17 members, of whom 12 are inactive and only two of the rest are less than two years behind on their subscriptions. We’ll meet the other one shortly.
It all starts with the appearance of Mortimer Eulaly. Mortimer has a proposition. He also has a list of ten other fringe organisations, whose aims and purposes are, on the whole, completely irreconcilable, none of whom are familiar to Raxford. The one thing they all do have in common is that they are terrorists who first of all have to destroy Society as it is. In vain, Raxford denies the CIU are terrorists, they are pacifists, but Eulaly noddingly recognises that as being for the benefit of the round-the-clock FBI surveillance (actually all their devices stopped functioning years ago for one reason or another – Raxford accidentally spilt evaporated milk on the one in the fridge – but at least he’s never had to empty his wastebasket for three years now). Actually, thanks to a typing error on the part of the FBI, Eulaly has mistaken the CIU for the World Citizens Independence Union who a) don’t believe in borders and blow up customs shacks, b) were terrorists and c) were wiped out to a man years ago.
Eulaly is here to bring all these groups together in order to concentrate the terrorist side of their interests into a spectacularly effective force, and postpone the incompatability of their aims until afterwards.
Raxford doesn’t want to know. Unfortunately, he now has a couple of problems. The FBI won’t take him seriously, they think Eulaly is a con job, a fake threat meant to waste their time and resources. Possibly more important, Raxford may now be in danger from this Council for New Beginnings. After all, he knows about them now so if he doesn’t turn up and play ball…
This suggestion comes from his girlfriend, Angela Ten Eyck, the only other paid-up CIU member. Angela is beautiful, blonde, rich – her father is a very successful arms manufacturer and she pays for Gene’s rent and food – but she’s also dumb. Sweet with it, and passionate for the cause, but still dumb. Nevertheless, Raxford’s friend, rising young lawyer Morris, agrees with her.
So Raxford goes to the meeting, followed by the FBI only they lose the tail, much to Raxford’s fear, accompanied by Angela, to take notes so they can convince the FBI that this is not a snowjob. The meeting’s a hoot. No doubt Westlake’s simplifying horribly but he skewers every competing group with acid and emphasises the total impossibility of any of them working together, they’re all harmless clowns.
Except that when the one business manager class turns to leave, intent on reporting them all, he is murdered, brutally. And the real leader, an obviously cruel and evil man and a sadist to boot, turns out to be Angela’s older brother, Tyrone, who defected in Indochina in 1954, recognises his little sister and send her and Raxford on the run with the aid of another Agency, who aren’t the FBI nor the CIA, but who are inordinately interested in Tyrone and Eulaly.
So Raxford the pacifist ends up co-operating with the Security agency because it makes sense to do so, and going underground, based on five days intensive but not necessarily that effective training in every discipline he might need, except sword-fighting (his instructor gives up after five minutes: if they come at you with a sword, you’re dead, that’s all). Oh, and also based on a well-judged series of stories leaked to the Press about him disappearing with Angela, culminating in the ‘discovery’ of her murdered body.
Which leaves the pacifist pussycat going in with someone who would be very comfortably placed in the World’s Most Dangerous Man stakes, with every possible tracking gimmick lost by an unforeseen but reliably human twist that we will grow very familiar with in the Dortmunder Gang books. Oh sure, he somehow manages to con Tyrone that he’s every bit as much a wolf as the genuine terrorist, but can he really keep it up?
Of course he can, all the way to that briefly violent ending that Raxford is prepared to admit to but not describe, and beyond, to the restoration of his usual life, and after all that cooperating with the authorities, he and Angela are back out there, picketing the United Nations with either commendable consistency or a naïve refusal to learn, and good for them. This was decidedly funny on the level I first found Westlake’s stuff when I first discovered him, even though back then this was just a title on an ‘Other Books By’ page. I’m glad I finally got there.

W - God Save the Mark

Before his next book, God Save the Mark, which would give Westlake the first of his Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, he came up with another pseudonym, this of Tucker Coe, for the first two of eventually five books featuring retired Policeman Mitch Tobin. Another two Richard Starks followed and then came what several people regard as his first masterpiece.
God Save the Mark is a glorious book, and deserving of its accolades. It’s another first person story, this time told by Fred Fitch. Fred is a thirty-one year old recluse from Montana who has his own apartment in New York, where he works as a researcher. He’s soft and round: headed, bellied, that sort of thing. But what Fred is, mostly, which is why his entire family are several States over, is a Mark. A victim. A gulla-bull.
If there’s a con going around, Fred will fall for it. He just cannot bring himself to believe that one human being would deliberately lie to another. To their face. Jack Reilly, of the Bunco Squad, can’t believe Fred can get taken so many times and in so many ways, without learning better. Fred has had to call Reilly so many times that he looks upon Reilly as not just his cop, but more importantly, his friend.
It’s so bad that, at one point in the book, when someone tells Fred that there are 18,000 con-men in America, he wants to boast that he’s been got by all of them.
Naturally enough, the book starts with a con, two of them, one in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Fred falls for both of them and reports them to Reilly, who’s still amazed after all these years. For once though, Fred has sussed a con out for himself. A lawyer, name of Goodkind, ringing up to tell him his Uncle Matthew is dead and has left him $300,000. Even Fred knows better than to fall for that one. There’s just one flaw. This one is true.
Fred Fitch has inherited $317,000 (after taxes) from an Uncle who apparently chose him because he was the only relative who hadn’t bad-mouthed him, an easy qualification because Fred didn’t know he even had an Uncle Matthew before. Better yet, Uncle Matthew, alias Matt Gray, alias Short Sheet, was, of all things, a con-man.
A con-man who appeared to have made his money in Brazil, before coming home to die of cancer, at which he was spectacularly bad, since he’s already lived five years beyond his ‘six months to live’, but you may not be entirely surprised if someone lost patience and beat his brains out.
And if someone murdered Uncle Matthew, it’s not beyond the bounds of reason that they might also want to dispose of Fred too. Fred, who within a couple of hours of learning of his fortune and being determined, really determined not to fall for any more cons, is fending off a stunning blonde in the Park who is obviously pulling a con, but he winds up going to her apartment at 9.00pm that night, armed only with an address and a surname. This is because she warned him he was in danger, and just that afternoon this kid has to point out to Fred that these guys in a car have been shooting at him, three times in fact, missed them all, and does this Miss Smith really know something about it?
Actually, she doesn’t. Her name is Karen Smith and she’s just won $50 off her boyfriend, who bet Fred wouldn’t fall for it. Her boyfriend is Reilly. From there, it gets complicated. And that’s just Uncle Matthew’s ex-stripper girlfriend, Gertie Divine (the Body Secular).
There are all sorts of little twists and diversions along the way, outside of the story itself, but what it all boils down to is that there is a con operating. A very big one, a very detailed one, with multiple participants and only Fred – alright, temporarily he also has Karen on his side – to try to keep his own head above water and not fall for it. The odds are not short.
Further than that, I’m not prepared to go. This is definitely a book to read without the ending spoiled for you. Otherwise, I have no idea what else was up for consideration for the Edgar Award that year, but I’ll happily throw in with these guys knowing what they’re doing.

W - Who Stole Sassi Manoon

Donald E Westlake published three more novels, under three different names, before Who Stole Sassi Manoon? the last for this post. There was a juvenile, in his own name, a Richard Stark and for the book Anarchaos, an SF story, he chose Curt Clark.
Who Stole Sassi Manoon? has been described as the first of Westlake’s comedy crime-capers and that’s certainly true. Each of the other books has been about passive characters, people doing nothing, who suddenly find themselves being acted upon by an unforeseen circumstance. This is a caper. A crime is to be committed by a trio of young misfits who want to set themselves up so that they can pursue their own interests and to hell with the ordinary world.
The background to the book was unusual. Westlake was commissioned to write a screenplay. When the film fell through, given that he had a book-a-year contract with Random House, he decided not to waste his effort and converted the screenplay into a novel. As such, it contains weaknesses and cliches and implausibilities that are likely to be a reflection of the idea not being totally of Westlake’s shaping.
The caper is the kidnapping of Sassi Manoon, the world’s leading actress, able to command $850,000 per movie, currently in Jamaica as a Judge at a Film Festival. The kidnappers are led, unwillingly, by Kelly Bram Nicholas IV, possibly the only unindulged child in America. Kelly is a misfit, a recluse, a socially inept human being without a sense of humour or any social skills whatsoever. Kelly responds better to machinery, specifically his best buddy, STARNAP, the computer built by him into his yacht, the Nothing Ventured IV. What Kelly wants is enough money to be a misfit without financial concerns and avoid the non-mechanical part of humanity.
He’s even resentful of the fact that STARNAP insists he needs accomplices, resentful enough that when his two choices, Frank Ashford and Robert ‘Robby’ Creswell agree immediately, Kelly’s disappointed that the fun stage, refining the plan with STARNAP is over.
Frank and Robby are also misfits. In Frank’s case, he has reached the age of 25 without the faintest idea of what he wants to do with his life and would appreciate having enough money to think about it with the pressure off. Frank is not very well drawn, being basically someone who does impersonations and nothing more.
Robby, however, is black (this book coming from 1969, he and every other reference is Negro, and it was eye-opening just how offensive that came over as being), and is well aware, from experience, of what position he occupies in this world by virtue of his skin colour.
Robby was Westlake’s first black character to have more than a background role, and he makes a few very pithy points about racism along the way. He’s actually the most complex character in the book and it’s a shame he doesn’t get to dominate more of it.
The cast has three more players. Two of these are the elderly British couple Major ffork-Linton and Miss Adelaide Rushby, all old-fashioned courtesy. This pair are veteran con-men who are also out to kidnap Miss Manoon, to raise a ransom to buy back the life of their foolish son, Percy, who has conned the wrong person in Africa and committed the worst crime of all: not leaving before he got caught.
Then there is Jigger Jackson. Jigger, in case you didn’t immediately suspect, is a young woman, a woman who dreams of becoming a movie star. To date, Jigger’s enthusiastic talents and charms haven’t even got her a screen test, so her latest move is to get to Sassi Manoon and be taken on as a protege. It’s not a bad idea but it’s let down by a fatal flaw. Jigger is a sucker for a shnook. And Kelly Bram Nicholas IV is the Encyclopaedia Brittanica poster-boy for the word ‘shnook’.
None of these people, with the possible exception of Robby, really rise above being broad outlines, not even Sassi herself. Sassi is the bored filmstar of cliche, rich but unsatisfied, unable to take an interest in anything and anyone around her because she’s done it all and seen it all and heard it all so many times that nothing surprises her. As you might imagine, being kidnapped changes things for her more than somewhat, and once the first shock evaporates, Sassi is happy to be held prisoner indefinitely, on a Caribbean beach on a Caribbean island, with nowhere to do and nobody to see and nothing to do. Sassi is having the time of her life.
Once the plot is in motion, and the varying sides have to deal with each other, the book has at least the merit of movement, and some excellent set-pieces, but overall it suffers from being too obviously indebted to its origins. No book of Westlake’s is totally worthless, but this gets much nearer to that territory than most of the others.

These five books show Westlake’s abilities at turning crime into comedy, surprising him as much as it did everybody else. Though he varied his approach down the years, the comedic crime would be the form to which he would turn most often. In the next set of five books, we will see him flexing his muscles a bit more.