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


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

W - sacred

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

W - Humans

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

W - Baby

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

W - Smoke

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

W - Axe

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

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

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