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


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

W - Hook

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

W - Lid

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

W - Stiff

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

W - Money

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

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

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