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.