Grandmaster Westlake – A Career in Crime: The Catch-ups 3 – Call Me A Cab

Call Me

Only published in February 2022, a mere 22 years after his death, Donald Westlake’s Call Me A Cab is the fourth and last of his books to appear posthumously, though we can’t discount any future writings appearing out of nowhere. Hopefully.
Editor Charles Aderi’s afterword about the book’s provenance does hint at the novel being a bit of a Frankenstein job: apparently it underwent a couple of re-writes involving substantial changes to the story and it was savagely edited down for its only previous appearance in a magazine, but there’s no reason to think that what we now have is anything other than Westlake’s final thoughts on this subject.
Call Me A Cab was written in 1977 but, apart from a few minor details mostly perceptible to Americans, it didn’t feel in the least bit dated. It’s from the same era as Brother’s Keepers and, like that book, was born of Westlake’s experimental urge, in this case to see if it were possible to write a successful suspense novel without any crime or violence. The short answer is yes: suspense novels are all about resolving a question that reverberates throughout the book, into which you invest your interest.
Being Westlake, the situation is inherently absurd. New York cabbie Tom Fletcher is hired by a passenger, Katharine Scott, to drive her to Los Angeles. That’s the story, in a nutshell, unlikely as it sounds. It’s a journey novel. As we’ve seen with Arthur Ransome’s unfinished ‘Coots in the North’ and Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock’s Escape to Persia, the inherent weakness in this type of novel is finding something for the protagonists to do when they reach their destination.
Westlake covers that beautifully. Katharine Scott has a decision to make. When she is picked up by Tom it’s for a ride to Kennedy Airport to catch a flight to LA to join her boyfriend and lover Barry. Katharine, a successful landscape architect loves Barry, a plastic surgeon specialising in noses. He’s kind, understanding, placid, thoughtful, accommodating and the sex is good: in short, he’s perfect. Only.
Only Katharine has so far stood him up at the altar three times. She loves him, but something is holding her back from committing to the marriage, and she doesn’t know what it is. This time is the last time. If she won’t agree to marry him now, he won’t ask again. She’s promised to meet him in Los Angeles and give him the definitive yes/no answer. She just doesn’t know what it’s going to be yet. Five hours on an LA-bound plane isn’t enough time to make up her mind. On the other hand a taxi-ride across the whole continent should give her all the time she needs…
Thus we have the proposition. It’s absurd, but it’s plausible, especially in a Westlake world where we expect things to be off to a mild but recognisable degree.
The other half of the equation is Tom. Tom is a New York cabbie because his Dad owns a taxi company. It’s a temporary job that he expects to occupy for the rest of his life. Tom graduated college, had a good job and a career, was married. But he hated the job and wasn’t cut out for marriage. Tom’s attitude to decisions is that you should never take them, that you should avoid having to do so. Tom narrates the story, so we see everything through his eyes.
Katharine’s not necessarily driven by her profession but she’s very good at it, and is driven by professionalism and the enjoyment of using her skills. Tom’s a drifter, with neither ambition nor interest in shaping a future. So we have the classic odd couple, put together by fate or chance, confined or maybe condemned to each other’s company for an indefinite period, like Richard Hannay handcuffed to the female lead in the first two The 39 Steps films.
The suspense element is therefore what Katharine will say when she reaches LA. At first, this might seem a flimsy pretext for a story, but Westlake is set upon endearing this odd pair to us throughout the journey.
Again, given the setting and the fact this is a Westlake novel, we expect the pair to grow closer emotionally throughout the book, until by the end they will realise they’re in love and pair off. This, plus the fact that both Tom and Katharine are likeable in their different ways, is what invests us in her ultimate decision.
Meanwhile, Westlake has fun directing his pair across country, with sidesteps and diversions intruding on their path. The rhythm of a standard suspense novel is there, though the en route adventures lack the danger the form usually demands. This is not an exciting novel, but the lack is never felt and there’s plenty of room for things to happen along the way.
Including arguments, clashes, bad temper and long silences. Tom, without using the word, is clearly falling in love with Katharine, the longer he is with her. We don’t get the sense that Katharine is undergoing the same transformation and indeed, why should she? Tom is conscious of the gulf between them and, bearing in mind his track record with marriage, mentally writes off any thought of them getting together. Things like that don’t happen. That doesn’t stop him falling: they never do.
So it’s a complicated situation, leading up to the book’s climax and Katharine’s ultimate decision. She loves Barry, life with him could be perfect. Tom’s conclusion, sharpened by seeing the two of them together (Barry having flown out to join the ride) is that Katharine should marry Barry, but that Barry shouldn’t marry Katharine.
I shalln’t spoil the conclusion by saying what Katharine ultimately decides, nor what factor actually prompts her to her decision, which is a perfect moment. And Westlake avoids the journey pitfall by not having the pair hang around to do anything once they’re in LA except the big decision. All I will say about that is that when Tom sets off to drive back to New York, he has a passenger…
Call It A Cab isn’t a classic and, despite everything I’ve said, you may decide that it’s story is too trivial to be acclaimed, but I ended up sitting up until 2.00am to finish it, and I would definitely put it in the top twenty-five percentile of his books, if not higher. It’s definitely one I will return to regularly.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 29 – Point Blank

Point Blank

29: POINT BLANK: 1967. Director: John Boorman. US. Crime drama. Lee Marvin. Angie Dickinson. Keenan Wynn. Carroll O’Connor. John Vernon.
Producer: Judd Bernard and Robert Chartoff. Scriptwriter: Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse and Rafe Newhouse, loosely based on the 1963 crime noir pulp novel The Hunter, by Donald E. Westlake (writing as Richard Stark). Editor: Henry Berman. Screen-time: 92 minutes. Original MGM budget: $2million. Actual budget: $2.5Million. Box office takings US and Canada only: $9million. Despite this, it was not regarded as a success at the time, but is now a cult classic.
This was British-born director John Boorman’s first Hollywood movie. He was born in 1933 at Shepperton, then Middlesex. He and Lee Marvin met in the UK while Marvin was filming war movie The Dirty Dozen (1967, with Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland, at MGM’s British studio). Marvin invited Boorman to Hollywood, and the two subsequently became life-long friends. Marvin was even godfather to Boorman’s son, Charley Boorman (born 1966), the actor, television presenter, travel writer and motorbike enthusiastic. After Point Blank, John Boorman directed Marvin’s next war movie, Hell in the Pacific (1968, with Japanese actor Tohir? Mifune). Boorman’s later films include Deliverance (1972, starring John Voight and Burt Reynolds); the rather wacky sci-fi fantasy Zardoz, with Sean Connery and Charlotte Rampling (1974); Exorcist II: The Heretic, with Linda Blair and Richard Burton (1977); and the comedy war drama Hope and Glory (1987). Currently his filmography is 1965 to 2019.
Again we have Chris Petit writing a review in the Time Out Film Guide: “One of the definitive films to emerge from Hollywood in the late ’60s, this hard-nosed adaption of Ricard Stark’s The Hunter owes much to the European influences that Boorman bought with him from England. People have noted the influence of Resnais behind the film’s time lapses and possible dream setting, but Godard’s Alphaville offers a more rewarding comparison. Both films use the gangster/thriller framework to explore the increasing depersonalisation of living in a mechanical urban world. Just as Constantine’s Lemmy Caution was a figure from the past stranded in a futuristic setting, so Marvin’s bullet-headed gangster is an anachronism from the ’50s transported to San Francisco and LA of the ’60s, a world of concrete slabs and menacing vertical lines. Double-crossed and left to die, Marvin comes back from the dead to claim his share of the money from the Organization, only to become increasingly puzzled and frustrated when he finds there is no money, because the Organization is the world of big business run by respectable men with wallets full of credit cards.” The, rather obscure, throwaway mention of ‘Resnais’, refers to the French film director/screenwriter, Alain Resnais (1922-2014), contemporary to, but not part of, the 1960s la nouvelle vague ‘New wave’, whose films were said to “explore the relationship between consciousness, memory and the imagination, and…was noted for deriving innovative formal structures for his narratives.”
Point Blank is sunlit film noir with a touch of Godard New Wave surrealism. I’ve not been a Lee Marvin fan – neither for nor against, and I’ve watched only a few of his films. Here he is Lee Marvin playing Lee Marvin the hard-nosed gangster and professional killer. What sets this apart from any other gangster/crime/revenge movie is its air of underlying mystery and ambiguity. Walker himself is an enigma. He seems to have no other name – not even to his sexy sister-in-law Chris (Angie Dickinson). The film starts and ends at Alcatraz Island. Walker is shot following a stitch-up over heist loot by his friend Reese, who also then sleeps with Walker’s wife, Lynn. Everything that follows could be Walker extracting revenge on the ‘Organization’, while seeking to claim his share of the money due him, or it could all be Walker’s dream of revenge, the dream either of a dying man, or – like washed-up scriptwriter Joe in Sunset Boulevard – a man already dead. Is it real? If real, how did Walker survive, or swim from Alcatraz? We next see him on a San Francisco ferry or tourist boat as it passes the island. Thereafter, systematically, one by one, he eliminates members of the Organization who try to obstruct him, buy him off with packets of fake money, or attempt to assassinate him, although he seems strangely invincible now. He moves in and out of the shadows, and even perhaps through time – we see his wife Lynn’s apartment several times over, furnished, then unfurnished. He is not just the out-of-time, left-over 1940s/early 50s anachronism of Petit’s review above, but like a automaton, a pre-programmed robot, emotionless and single-minded. Only the bare outline of plot links it to the ‘Robert Stark’ (Donald E. Westlake) novel, The Hunter, which featured an unlikeable gangster/killer named Parker. The outcome is different, the ending less ambiguous. Originally written as a one-off, Westlake’s editor persuaded him to change the ending, and the character lived on, for another 23 novels over 46 years. The setting, too, has been moved from New York to LA, and again one thinks of the similar relocation of Spillane’s Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly. The Marvin/Boorman movie is a visual film of memorable set-pieces – of Marvin taking the crooked car salesman for a ‘test drive’, pre-seat-belts, and smashing up the vehicle under the flyover; Marvin and Angie Dickinson looking at Reese’s rooftop penthouse suite through the tourist telescope; Marvin at the LA River concrete drainage channel, made famous by the 1954 science fiction movie Them! Then there is Dickinson in seductive mode, having sex with Reese as a distraction for Walker to sneak up on him in the bedroom. In the cinema version I recollect seeing she wore red panties. In the television broadcast version that was edited out, but at least one other version has her scurrying naked out of the bed as Walker threatens Reese with a gun. Walker doesn’t actually intentionally kill anyone, as I recollect – unlike Westlake’s murderous thug. Instead, Walker set up the bad guys to kill each other, in the mistaken guise of trying to kill him. As for Reese – one time friend, who took both his money and his wife (she took an overdose soon after Walker reappears) – he goes tumbling over the parapet of his penthouse terrace, landing on the roof of a passing car.
With Carter eliminated by a sniper at the LA river, the next in the chain of command, Brewster, arranges with his superior, Fairfax, for a money drop at Alcatraz. It is another set-up, and the sniper shoots Brewster instead of Walker, who remains out of sight, in the shadows. As he dies Brewster reveals Fairfax’s true identity of Yost, who then steps forward, claiming he has used Walker to eliminate troublesome underlings, and offers a partnership. The movie ends with Yost leaving, the packet unopened, Brewster dead, Walker just a face in the darkness, before the camera pulls up and away, a night-time view of Alcatraz, back where we started. Even Boorman refused to explain or unravel the ambiguity. But this was very much Marvin’s movie also. At a pre-production meeting with studio executives, Marvin demanded complete control of the script and cost, then handing his authority over to Boorman, as director. But Marvin remained hands-on in shaping the picture and its central character. This was his creation, as much as Boorman’s. He was to appear in another 18 movies, but in the 1970s moved away from the tough bad-guy roles, his last role being in 1986.
Lee Marvin (1924-1987), after service in the Marines, 1942-45, in Asiatic-Pacific front, got his first acting break on stage in 1949, appeared on television in 1950, and his first film role in 1951. Thereafter, he moved, seemingly effortlessly, back and forth from film to television, appearing in numerous long-running series such as The Virginian, Dr Kildare, Wagon Train, Route 66, Dragnet, Bonanza, even in The Twilight Zone. From 1957-60 he played Detective Lieutenant Frank Ballinger in the NBC TV series M Squad, set in Chicago. Over the three seasons it featured Charles Bronson, James Coburn (who I always think is of the same ilk), Burt Reynolds, Leonard Nimoy (before he found fame in Star Trek), and Angie Dickinson – who would herself eventually star in a police TV series, as Sgt Suzanne ‘Pepper’ Anderson in Police Woman, 1974-78. In film, Marvin had a small part in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, with Spencer Tracey); Not as a Stranger (with Robert Mitchum, also 1955); I Died a Thousand Times (Jack Palance, 1956); Seven Men From Now (with Randolph Scott, again 1956); The Rock (Paul Newman, 1956); The Comancheros (1961, with John Wayne); The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, with Wayne and James Stewart); Donovan’s Reef (1963); top billing in The Killers (1964, with Ronald Reagan and Angie Dickinson); then comedy, Cat Ballou (1965, with Jane Fonda); Ship of Fools (1965, with Vivien Leigh); The Professionals (1966, with Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan). His 1970s period films were less successful, and he declined a role in Jaws (1975), apparently on the basis of upsetting his fishing friends. In 1983 he was in Gorky Park, with William Hurt, and his last movie was Delta Force, 1986, with Chuck Norris. He was married twice, to Betty Ebeling (1951-67), and Pamela Feeley (1970-87), while lived with Michelle Triola (1965-70).
Angie Dickinson (born Angeline Brown, 1931), continued to use her first married name, to Gene Dickinson, from 1952 to 1960. She later married musical composer/arranger Burt Bacharach (1965 to 1981). Her filmography was from 1954 to 2004. Her television appearances are from 1954 to 2009. As we can see from above, she and Lee Marvin had a history of performances together, perhaps the reason she got the part. The story goes that, whilst filming at Alcatraz, Angie and Sharon Acker (who played Lynne Walker) modelled fashion shoots for Life magazine.
I loved the movie even back when I first saw it, on original cinema release. Many critics at the time were less enthralled, or were simply baffled. Others were suitably impressed – “A brutal melodrama…intermittently dazzling.” – “Film noir to stylistic taste of European nouvelle vague.” – “Ignored in the 1960s, now regarded as the top film of the decade.” Another story is the studio executives wanted to do reshoots, but supervising editor Margaret Booth told John Boorman, “You touch one frame of this film over my dead body.” It is said many of the visual metaphors and colour tones were directly suggested by Lee Marvin himself. It is another time capsule of LA, but now in the 1960s.
Here are my comments as written 06/03/1988:
Point Blank (1967) with Lee Marvin (as ‘Walker’) and Angie Dickinson – I remember seeing this years ago at the time it first came out, but two of the most vivid memories of the film were either false or (more likely) for whatever reason edited out – in the penthouse scene Angie D. strips to her red panties as Walker’s latest victim Reeves prepared to seduce her, and when Reeves goes over the roof terrace we actually saw him hit the roof of a passing car in the street, and I recollect someone screaming…Even at the time I suspected that a body going it from however many floors up the penthouse was, would not be very solid on impact. In retrospect the film is rather ghastly and surrealistic. Is the whole thing a dream fantasy evoked in the last minutes of Walker’s life when shot down by Reese at the film’s beginning? Is he a ghost bent on vengeance, or did he really survive and swim back from Alcatraz? The film uses flashbacks, flashbacks on flashbacks, Walker moves in the shadows, a pro killer, but sometimes lost, directionless, really a puppet being manipulated by the mob to eliminate each other. This, we are told, is the time in American films when the so-called heroes got lost, killed or seem confused. It reflected the feeling of a nuclear age USA. Walker is a Mike Hammer type, but (despite the body count) the film lacks the mean nastiness of Kiss Me Deadly. The setting is L.A. again, but in colour and sunshine. We see downtown, high-rise hotels, the Hollywood hills and the famous storm-drains of the L.A. River – setting for Them! and several other movies, it seems. But overall a rather strange sense of nothing. Boorman, the producer, was British and another contemporary film very similar in mood (though not in content!) is Blow Up – in the same surrealistic mood, the same drifting anti-hero, the same casual sex.

Grandmaster Westlake – A Career in Crime: The Catch-Ups 1 – High Adventure


Originally, I didn’t make much of an effort to go after High Adventure. It wasn’t an easily available book, even at expensive prices, and the site I was using as my guide was pretty dismissive of it, giving it a review that ran about a line and a half, which it used to point out that the title was a pun, and the book had a lot of marijuana in it: in the space remaining it compared this book to Dancing Aztecs.
Now I’d enjoyed Dancing Aztecs, far more than the guy behind the site, but given the absence of any other information about the book, I didn’t pursue it very hard. Now, an affordable copy has come across my sight and the book has come across the Atlantic for me to read and my verdict is that it’s alright. Professional, as you might imagine, a well-delineated scam plot, one of those multiple viewpoint accounts, with no less than five different agents contributing to the story. But it didn’t hold my attention for a concentrated read.
It’s meant to be a comedy in the Westlake style, where a mostly serious plot is conducted in funny terms, and there’s quite a lot of that, not entirely successful, at the outset, only for this aspect to have fallen away some time before the book begins its second, differentiated half.
We start with Kirby Galway, freelance pilot based in Belize, where 99% of the story is set. Galway’s main source of income is smuggling marijuana and he has one sideline in smuggling out fake Mayan artefacts, made for him by an industrious small tribe living in the kind of isolated village favoured by refugees from Guatamela, which contends that Belize is a lost province, ripped from it by Britain, which any day it’s going to repatriate, if it weren’t for the British forces monitoring the borders. Let’s call Kirby Viewpoint 1. This makes Innocent St Michael, businessman, entrepreneur and Belizean Government official, not to mention full-time scammer Viewpoint 2. St Michael has conned Kirby into buying a parcel of utterly worthless land, except that Kirby and his Indians have faked a Mayan temple on an otherwise worthless hill, which they are using to attract marks. Such as museum curator Whitman Lemuel, but let’s get back to him.
Kirby’s trying to draw Lemuel into his clutches but is frustrated by the angry denouncement of cultural theft by tall, beautiful, serious but somewhat unworldly Valerie Greene, archaeologist, who is Viewpoint 3. Valerie has used computer plotting to identify the whereabouts of a lost Mayan temple in a place everyone says there is not and cannot be. Amongst those saying this are St Michael (who, despite being substantially older than her, seduces her and temporarily falls in love with her) but before that his assistant Vernon. Whether this is a first or last name is never determined, in fact the fact it’s never determined is one of the jokes in the first half, but Vernon is Viewpoint 4. Vernon is in the pay and under the threat of a Guatemalan General scheming to discredit the British Ghurkas and remove an obstacle to seizing Belize, oh, and incidentally pretty much razing it.
Despite Valerie’s efforts, Kirby does get to try it out on Lemuel who, rather more impatiently than Kirby wants, flies out to Belize. We’ll have to call him Viewpoint 6 (yes, of 5), because Viewpoint 5 is the joint and alternating one of Alan Witcher and Gerrold (Gerry) Feldspan, a gay couple, antiques dealers, and another set of Kirby’s marks for buckshee antiques, though originally they’re acting as undercover reporters for a New York magazine out to expose the trade in fake antiques, and Kirby along the way.
That’s our major cast amongst who the story rotates. The book consists of two sections, each with a couple of dozen short chapters, the first half setting up all the above details, with additional complications, and trying to showcase it as a Westlakian comedy crime novel, though it’s honestly a weak one on the level of Castle in the Air than Dancing Aztecs.
But the second half, sub-titled ‘Tings Bruk Down’ and aptly so, dials back on the comedy, not entirely but substantially, and starts to tangle everybody up. This is done primarily through Valerie, whose naivete is the main binding thread to her adventures. She finds the ‘Mayan Temple’ but is chased off by the angry Kirby, to whom she is a complete pest. She discovers Vernon’s connection to Guatemala and hears him order her to be killed. She escapes into the jungle and ends up at Kirby’s Indians village, where they name her Sheena of the Jungle. The village lives on pot but she manages to avoid partaking on anti-smoking health grounds but runs away when Kirby and St Michael both arrive at the same time, grabbing a handful of tortillas. Pot tortillas.
This leads her to the General’s band of pretend Ghurkas who will descend on the village, destroy it and kill everyone, in front of the world press, led there by Vernon, discrediting Britain, unless Kirby and St Michael can do something about it. Which Kirby can, in unusual but, as established in the story, perfectly justified manner.
Sadly, events expose Kirby to the world and require him to vacate Belize for three or four years but, in the last dozen pages, despite being at daggers drawn throughout the entire book, he and Valerie go to bed together and become a loving couple living an idyllic life on a seriously remote island.
I’ll retain the book, of course, but I can’t see returning to it to re-read before a lot of others, and there were two aspects of the story that drew my attention, not to Westlake’s credit.
The first was the trope of the hero and the heroine getting together at the end. It happens, over and again, throughout Westlake’s work. Of course, it happens over again throughout the history of literature, serious or otherwise. It’s all but a cliche of adventure fiction, the unlikely couple, thrown together by dangerous circumstances, forced to work together until, coming through the crisis by their shared efforts and heading off into the sunset to live happily ever after. In purveying such endings, Westlake is doing not a great deal different.
The thing about High Adventure is that when the cliche works, it’s usually because the writer shows a gradual softening towards one another, or else presents circumstances that imply some combination of a spark and a trust. Kirby and Valerie spend so much time in this book having not just totally negative opinions of each other, of varying accuracy, but apart from the very beginning and the very end they have no interactions with each under. All we get is Kirby uncharacteristically turning hero, and then the two have an off-stage fuck and they are the perfect couple. It really doesn’t work, and it casts a light on all the other occasions with similar denouements, and not all that much more sturdy set-ups.
But the one thing that vividly caught my attention, and which illuminated a constant seam in Westlake’s fiction, was Alan and Gerry.
Alan and Gerry are not the first and not the last gay couple in Westlake’s books, but they are an archetype that had me realising that they are the same couple every single time. Westlake doesn’t use them as villains as such, though they do get involved with shady schemes. They’re always a male couple – I can’t recall a single lesbian character in all the books – and they’re only ever subjected to stereotypical anti-gay terms in the dialogue, never the narration, and that only from the unsympathetic characters, and those you’d expect to hear anti-homosexual abuse from (the term most in use in High Adventure is ‘pansy-boys’).
And there’s always one emotionally stable one and one neurotic, apt to flare into quasi-hysterics or worse if you so much as look at him. This pattern makes all the couples into ineffectual participants in whatever plot is going on.
It’s a flaw I’d rather not have seen. One such couple is one thing, but when all the gay pairs are the same, that’s the author’s own attitudes at work, and given how much I enjoy Westlake’s work, it’s an attitude I frankly hate. It is one that’s typical of his age and era, but when you admire an author’s work, you want to see him rise above this kind of prejudice, not indulge it subliminally.
Right now, about Call it a Cab‘s imminent publication, that leaves me three other Westlake’s outstanding.

Grandmaster Westlake – A Career in Crime: The Posthumouses

When Donald Westlake passed away on New Year’s Eve, 2008, he left behind one completed book, to be published in the following year. For those of us attuned to John Dortmunder and his hapless little band, this was one final, regretful visit to his New York, in all its human failings. It was a bittersweet send-off.
But it was not, completely, the end. Since that time, no less than four completed novels have been found, or in at least one case, retrieved, and this last post is dedicated to these tailenders.

W - Memory

Or rather only to two of them. The first to be published, Memory, as early as 2010, was apparently written sometime in the mid-Sixties, somewhere around the time, or perhaps shortly after when Westlake was transitioning from his early, hard-boiled phase to the comic crime writer that became his reputation. I’ve never read it, and know little about it save that it’s about a man who has lost his memory after an encounter with the violent husband of the woman he’s involved with, and who is trying desperately to recover it.
Memory is a hard book to get hold of, ‘hard’ here being a word meaning that I’m not about to spend £65 on a book that no-one rates particularly highly. Class it alongside those other books I’ve left out of this series as a maybe-one-day.

W - Comedy

The Comedy is Finished was written in the late Seventies, but completely forgotten. Westlake appears to have held it back, but in the early Eighties he had sent a carbon of the manuscript to fellow crime writer, Max Allan Collins. Shortly after, Westlake decided against publishing the book, in part because its central situation was too similar to the Martin Scorsese/Robert de Niro film, The King of Comedy. Presumably he then destroyed all his copies. Once Memory appeared, as the ‘last’ novel, Collins recollected his copy, located it and offered it. After negotiations with Westlake’s widow, Abby, and his Estate’s Agent, the book appeared in 2012.
The story involves the kidnapping of a well-established comedian, but that’s where valid comparisons with The King of Comedy end, because Koo Davis, a veteran of entertaining the troops going back to WW2 and Korea, and now tainted by doing the same in Vietnam, is kidnapped by a small radical group, thus involving the FBI.
Westlake starts the book as a round of three viewpoints in alternation: Davis’s sequences are told in the present tense for his current situation and the past for flashbacks to his life, those of the radicals and of Mike Wiskiel, the slightly burned out FBI man in the past tense. Given that he’s kidnapped by the radical group, five unrepentant holdovers from the Movement of the Sixties, his and their strands merge in a not very consistent manner.
Frankly, if the book had been published in the era in which it was written, I think it would still have felt dated. Koo Davis is a gag-teller, a clear stand-in for Bob Hope, a non-political comedian who has nevertheless attached himself to the Establishment, and made himself, in that sense a target. In contrast, Wiskiel is a hardliner, posted to the West Coast after blotting his copybook during Watergate and eager to get himself back to DC.
Neither feel quite right, because they are out of their era in 2012, lacking the depth that post-perception would have brought to them if they had been written as historical figures. Between them, they uproot the book. But it’s the radicals, the quintet of remainders of the People’s Revolutionary Army, who are seriously out of date. Peter Dinely, the ‘leader’, Mark, the violent one contemptuous of any one who gets in their way, Liz, the burnt-out acid case who’s dead inside, Larry, the idiot of the dialectic, pompously convinced that he can explain their case to anyone and convince them because it is so right, and Joyce Griffith, the weak sister who is also a double agent.
The problem is, and it’s amply clear, that Westlake has neither any empathy with them nor any understanding of what motivates them. Unlike George R R Martin in The Armageddon Rag, giving his Seventies ex-Radicals a second chance, Westlake sees no validity in the People’s Revolutionary Army, and it undermines the thriller by turning the ‘enemy’ into an insincere bunch of idiots and no-hopers.

W - Forever

Which leaves only Forever and a Death, which came out of a similarly unexpected limbo in 2017. If you think the title sounds like a perfect James Bond film, you are displaying your perspicacity. The afterword, by film producer and writer Jeff Keenan, lays out the details of his attempt to get Donald Westlake to script a Bond film. It’s 1995, Goldeneye is nearing completion and is going to revive the franchise and the sequel needs to be planned. Keenan is a fan of Westlake and interests him in doing the screenplay. Since Bond 18 will be released in 1997, when Hong Kong is seceded back to China, Westlake conceives the brilliant idea of tying the Bond film into a real-life historical event, as it happens.
The film, of course, was never made. China had already banned Goldeneye for being anti-Communist and, given its ever-increasing importance as a major film market, no-one wants to antagonise them. And no-one wants to risk taking a light-hearted approach to something that, by the time the film was made, might have been an international tragedy.
The big problem was, however, Westlake himself. Franchise films are made in sequence. They are planned in advance, to keep the product flowing without painful intervals. That means that they need outlines, tight, cohesive, impossible to break free from outlines. Some writers work that way. Donald Westlake didn’t. Oddly enough, just like me, he started with an idea and then trusted himself to explore it into a story.
So Forever and a Death was the Bond film that never was. Instead, Westlake took his own premise and wrote a novel, with Bond or any real Bond figure, but with a Bond villain of the best kind.
The closest comparison to any of Westlake’s other works that I could make would be to Kahawa, though there’s no doubt that that is the better book. Forever and a Death is a big bad thriller, with the twists and turns you’d expect from the genre, but whilst its objective is as clear and straightforward as the earlier book, it is an impeccably Bondian crisis, and the single-mindedness with which the story builds to its increasingly comprehensible climax gives it a simple arc that comes over as more common to the international thriller. But in that respect, what do I know?
But I think it’s fair to say that I wouldn’t read a book of this kind if it weren’t written by Donald Westlake.
There are three principal characters: multi-millionaire businessman Richard Curtis, methodical engineer George Manville and ecological protester Kimberley Baldur: the bad guy, the hero and the girl. Curtis has been forced out of Hong Kong by the Chinese takeover. He has over-extended himself in trying to rebuild his fortune from Singapore, beyond the point from which he can recover. Using a remarkable engineering process built by George, he will create an artificial underwater tsunami that can clear landfill with irresistible force to enable him to rob Hong Kong’s banks of masses of gold whilst destroying all the evidence – and most of Hong Kong with it. Money and petty revenge: an unbeatable combination.
George is the engineer, a mechanical genius who has made this possible, technically, though he has no idea of Curtis’s intentions. Kim is a foolish and impetuous girl diver who nearly gets herself killed trying to prevent the first test of the ‘soliton’. Instead, she’s only badly injured, but her unanticipated role becomes a golden opportunity for Curtis to rid himself of an ecological nemesis, by ‘allowing’ her to die anyway. George, being an ethical person, and feeling responsible for Kim’s condition, takes charge of ensuring her safety, which gradually morphs into defeating Curtis’s plan.
Westlake’s approach to George is very interesting. The book flits through multiple viewpoints, amongst which Curtis’ and Kim’s are prominent but it expands to cover a range of minor characters. As with most third person narration, we not only see and hear the character but we are made privy to their thoughts. Not so with George, or rather only to a very limited extent.
It’s not that George is an enigma, rather that he is very little beyond being the Hero. He does all the Bondian things, including getting off with the girl, and for someone whose existence is tied up in being an engineer, he proves to be just as good at killing as he needs to be. But we never see inside him, and to that extent he’s a cypher.
But then again, he is the Hero, the ‘parfit, gentil knight’, doing good for no other reason than that is is Good, and frankly that’s not a Westlake character.
And whilst Kim is the girl, and she spends a long time debilitated by the injuries she gets from the soliton, she is a more interesting and certainly more rounded character, and she gets to save the day, which bit certainly would not have been shown in any Bond film that followed this story.

W - Cab

And that is that, for now. I mentioned four posthumous books but the fourth of these, Call Me a Cab, will not see publication until February 2022. It’s apparently an expansion of a short story published under the same name in the late Seventies, and is an attempt – promoted in advance as successful, but then would they say otherwise? – to write a suspense novel without any crime to it. It involves a woman hiring a New York cab to take her to the West Coast. It at least sounds interesting, but until it comes out, or until I find any of the three omitted books cheap enough, this ends this look at the non-series books of Donald Westlake’s career.
A mixed bag, as is always the case of any long-lived and prolific writer, but all are at least worth reading once, and many of re-reading, which I shall be doing when time allows. Dip in and try some yourself: I’m sure you can tell the ones I really rate, though I warn you that the best of them, Adios Scheherazade, is hellishly difficult to find. Well worth the effort, when you do, though.

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.

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.

Grand Master Westlake – A Career in Crime: The Samuel Holt Era

Dancing Aztecs was the fourth of twelve successive books Donald Westlake published under his own name. Of the next eight to come, only four find their way into this latest post, three of the other four being about the Dortmunder Gang and thus having already been discussed elsewhere on this blog and the other one of the very few Westlake’s I have neither obtained nor am greatly enthused about. The last book is removed in time and space for reasons that will be familiar when I come to it.

W - Enough

There’s some confusion about Enough. It was a blanket title for a short novel called ‘A Travesty’ and a short story called ‘Ordo’. The two tales are currently available in an American reissue under the title Double Feature. I, on the other hand, read it as my second Westlake, after Adios Scherazade, from Didsbury Library, and it is that UK hardback I have got hold of, only to discover that it only contains ‘A Travesty’, a title I’m tempted to use myself. So this post now only gets to deal with that.
‘A Travesty’ isn’t one of Westlake’s better efforts. For one thing, it’s too short, forcing the story to conclude with fewer convolutions than we usually expect. For another, and more importantly, its narrator, Corey Thorpe, like Art Dodge in Two Much is a wholly unsympathetic character. It’s not that he starts his story just as he’s accidentally killed one of his two regular girlfriends, Laura Penney, a small-time actress, nor even that Corey’s first reaction is to blame her for the argument that led him to hit her and her to fall, bang her head on her coffee table and expire. Nor is it the way Corey decides to avoid being held responsible, but clearing all his things from Laura’s apartment, cleaning the scene almost perfectly and leaving for home. These are all things we can get around.
Indeed, we can almost be sympathetic to him when he is blackmailed by private investigator Edgar Jacobson. Jacobson has been hired not by Corey’s estranged wife to gather information for her divorce proceedings, but by Laura’s estranged husband for the same purposes. Jacobson can testify to Corey entering the apartment block with Laura and leaving a couple of hours later looking as guilty as sin on the photo he shows Corey. For $10,000, he can have the negative.
Corey hasn’t got $10,000. By scrubbing round for every cent he can get and, in the last extreme, robbing a bank with a toy pistol that’s an old film prop (Corey is a film reviewer), he raises $9,200 and change, which Jacobson accepts. The PI hands over the negative, shows Corey the report he’s going to file, stating he never went inside at all. Corey accompanies to his offices to ensure the report goes in and is unchangeable. Then he robs Jacobson of all the blackmail money, using the toy pistol.
It’s a neat reverse and we ought to be cheering Corey on for his cleverness, but already we’re not on his side the way it seems we should. Corey gives us a big clue why up front, firstly by his callous manner towards the late Laura, for whom he has no regrets except the inconvenience she’s causing him, and in terms of his general personality, he amplifies this by telling us that when he and his wife separated, she went to his parents for comfort, support and a home, and they willingly give it.
That’s not the comic twist it would otherwise be. Corey is not only completely self-centred but it doesn’t take us very long to work out (as Westlake does not state) that he is one of those irritating bastards who considers himself to be smarter than everyone else around him and who, as a consequence, doesn’t give a damn about anyone but himself.
The Penney murder case runs through the story and provides its comeuppance end. Corey is cleared almost from the first, in part due to Jacobson’s report, but Detective Fred Staples, a film fan who reads Corey’s reviews, is not only chummy to Corey but when he’s called to a murder in the film world, brings Corey along. This is to identify people for Staples and his more hard-headed Partner, Al Bray, but when Corey solves the crime for them, he becomes a lucky charm, an inspired natural detective who gets called in to consult on several other cases, always successfully.
He’s not totally off the hook yet. Jacobson is blackmailing him, sending anonymous notes to the Police which point at Corey. One leads the cops to Corey’s other girlfriend, Kit Markowitz, which in turn turns Kit detective to clear herself. Unfortunately, Kit eliminates everyone who could be the killer except one: Corey. Who has to kill her.
It’s not even his second murder, as he’s had to hit Jacobson over the head with a hammer. That’s three killings without suspicion falling on him, all cleverly covered up. There’s just one fly in the ointment. Corey has done one stupid thing, that ever he recognises as a stupid thing. It involves a beautiful woman and having enthusiastic sex with her. Which directly leads to him being arrested, in fact quite clearly framed, for the very last murder you’d expect the Police to get him for…

W - Castle

Castle in the Air is not one of Westlake’s most highly regarded books. One commentator has suggested that it’s dedication, to the guys and gals of the Internal Revenue Service, is an indicator that the book may have been written in a hurry to discharge a tax bill. Reading the book, that notion is very plausible.
The book is another multiple viewpoint farce, utilising an exaggerated situation that’s at bottom plausible but which is not sufficiently grounded to be believable. It’s in a similar mould to Dancing Aztecs but lacks the latter’s buoyancy, plausibility, sympathetic central characters, and variety.
The situation is that Eustace Dench, an English planner of large-scale crimes conceives the notion to steal a Castle on its way to an Exposition in Paris. The Castle is coming from South America to be put on display, but its value lies in the outstanding amount of loot the country’s dictator is smuggling out of his forlorn country, which is concealed in a number of hollow blocks in the structure. No-one knows which blocks these are so the whole castle has to be dismantled, stone by stone, and removed to be searched at leisure.
Because of the sheer scale of the prize, Dench opts to set up an international consortium of criminal bosses, from England, France, Germany and Italy, each of whom will bring in two assistants to carry out the operation.
There are two drawbacks. The obvious one is that nobody trusts any of the others and everyone is planning to rip all the other teams, and their overall planner boss, off. The contrived drawback, which is the key to the book being a comedy rather than serious on any level, is that, below the level of the bosses, nobody speaks anybody else’s language. And there is a significant figure who only speaks Spanish just to add to the expected Babel.
So, to basic xenophobia, rampant on all sides, we add an overwhelming lack of comprehension. The result is, as I say, farce. Westlake tries to skate through the story quickly, but there’s a limit to how many incidents he can fit in to what’s very much a skeleton plot, there is really only the one joke, taken to the well far too many times to remain interesting, and it’s pretty clear that his heart isn’t totally in this.
And the switch ending falls flat as a consequence.
It’s also a matter for some concern that Westlake seems to think that Bruddy Dunk is an acceptable name for an Englishman, unless it’s his private signal that even he thinks this is a joke, in which case I can forgive him.
It’s fun, to some extent, but to echo the commentator I mentioned above, you really wouldn’t want to read this as your first Westlake. It’s really for completists only and I was warned about it in advance. Even ‘A Travesty’ in Enough is a better introduction to Westlake’s true form.

W - Kahawa

From a book that appears to have been written in haste, Westlake went to a book that clearly took a considerable time to write. Kahawa, named for the Swahili word for Coffee, was a book unlike any Westlake was to write before or after. At nearly 500 pages it was the longest book of his career, and a completely serious one. Though it bases itself upon a crime, and one that took place in real life, it is a big, serious thriller.
Kahawa appeared in 1982. It was not successful but was republished in 1995, with an introduction from Westlake that suggested that heavily-contributory factors were the replacement early on of a supportive editor with one without sympathy for the book, a publisher in turmoil and a publicity department incapable of suggesting anyone might be interested in reading it in the first place. Westlake even comments that when he mentioned to the afore-mentioned editor that it was being republished, the man’s reaction was, “Why?”
The introduction lays out the circumstances in which Westlake agreed to the book, establishing that initially it was meant to be a typical comic crime caper. The original incident was the actual theft of an entire train of coffee from Idi Amin’s Uganda. Westlake recognised that as a natural, albeit one that would require mountains of research. But the more his research led him to the impossible-to-believe reality of life in Idi Amin’s Uganda, of Amin himself and his reign of Terror, the less and less the prospect of making this into a comedy became viable. Westlake quotes himself as telling his wife, “I can’t dance on all those graves.”
So Westlake set out to write an African Adventure, a wholly serious, wide-ranging thriller with a most unlikely central pair in two actual heroes: mercenary and idealist Lew Bradley and pilot Ellen Gillespie, who come into the matter as a couple, break up and take up again at the end. Lew and Ellen are merely primus inter pares is a dozen or so viewpoint characters ranging across nations and sides, one of whom is Amin himself, though we remain outside his head whilst privy to his thoughts as such moments, probably because an objective explanation of his past and his processes can be made to be barely believable.
I single out Lew and Ellen because they are simultaneously the most sane among the cast of characters, but because they are in their ordinary ways both heroes. Westlake doesn’t do heroes, they’re not his forte, and Lew in particular has his flaws, but both share a common decency that marks them out from the usual Westlake character.
Indeed, Westlake does end up treating this pair as heroes, particularly when their escape from Uganda pauses to save two other more or less good guy characters on the way. That’s actually one of the book’s few big flaws: of its sprawling cast, only two die during the book, one of whom is the biggest, baddest villain who isn’t Idi Amin himself. That isn’t at all realistic.
Overall, Kahawa is a big, sprawling book that puts its research onto the page in a readable manner, without being dry about it too often. Westlake holds up his cast in balance, makes the complex plan look workable in practice, and throws in enough difficulties to sustain a Dortmunder novel without ever having to resort to the comedically mundane.
As far as I can tell, it’s a good book of its kind, but then I never read books of its kind, because they hold no interest for me, so I am hardly the best judge of how successful it is. It’s big, it’s time-consuming, it’s best gulped down in big sessions, as much at once as you can, and if Westlake had wanted to change direction in order to pursue commercial success on a Robert Ludlum scale, he had got off to a good start. I’m glad he didn’t, though.

W - Likely

Kahawa was followed by the next Dortmunder book, the fifth of that ilk. After that came A Likely Story, another out-of-character novel for Westlake, but in a completely different vein. Given his comments about how Kahawa was affected by losing its editor midway through the process, it’s not hard to see this novel being inspired by that recent experience. However, this is a two-track story, operating on two different levels, one professional, one personal.
Tom Diskant is our narrator. Tom is a writer: not of any great magnitude or fame, but a never less than competent professional. The book starts off with a list of his credits, which are, to say the least, mixed. It’s the first of January and Tom is out to sell a book to Clarke, Harry and Bourke, in the form of their editor Jack Rosenfarb. Tom’s idea is a Xmas book, to come out as part of the fall list, an anthology of Xmas stories and illustrations, mixing classical and modern stories and reminiscences.
Tom needs this book, or at least he needs the money from it. You see, Tom broke up with his wife, Mary, last year. Tom’s living with Ginger and her children, who’s separated from Lance, who’s living with Helena and her children, whose husband is, etc., etc.. Everyone’s separated. The fly in the ointment is, however, Mary, who won’t accept that Tom has left her for good and refuses to find herself a man.
So what we have here is, effectively, a diary that is a book, simultaneously covering Tom’s attempts to get his Christmas Book up and running, whilst trying to get his wife to accept he isn’t coming back.
In the first instance, after a first stage in getting the book commissioned, and a second in getting solicitation letters sent out, and handling some of the responses, we come to the point at which Tom’s editor Jack Rosenfarb quits for another job. Instantly, his book becomes an orphan, a project wished on another editor whose principal concern is with the books they have introduced themselves. Cue serious trouble.
Westlake’s evidently having fun with the publishing side of things, getting a lot of horror stories out of his system. I don’t think everything is based in his recent, or even personal experience, because when The Christmas Book is passed to initially indifferent and unsympathetic editor Vickie Anderson, neurotically obsessed with her mother, Tom inadvertently solves that problem by semi-accidentally getting her into bed.
With Lance having been thrown out by his girlfriend and temporarily living with Ginger and Tom, the personal life farce starts to slowly amp up. Tom can’t explain to Lance that he’s cheating on Lance’s wife, Ginger gets the impression Vickie’s a fag hag, Lance wants to date her and everything collides in July when people get out of New York for summer break on Fire Island. Tom and Ginger and her kids are already having to share two of their four weeks with Mary and her kids, and when Vickie comes out for the weekend with the galleys for correcting, Tom is surrounded by three bikini-clad women, all of whom he’s slept with. It’s not as appealing as you might think.
And it gets worse. Suddenly, Vickie discovers she’s pregnant – from before Tom, it’s not his – so this time his new editor is a complete idiot, Dewey Heffernan, 150% lacking in nous, discernment and experience and all set to fuck the book up by ordering a full-page drawing from a Heavy Metal artist, without authority, on the assumption that he knows better than Tom what his book needs.
Meanwhile, Tom’s relationship with Ginger is worsening, because Lance is around all the time. He takes to moving his ‘office’ back to Mary’s. Of course, you can see the way this is going.
And all this is before the intrusive, honest but essentially ignorant lawsuit claiming the whole idea of the book has been stolen…
Overall, the book is very enjoyable for what it reveals about the pitfalls of publishing. The rotating marriages bit is considerably more trivial and with the exception of Tom’s wife, Mary, a level-headed and balanced woman who’s expected him to come back all along, none of the players are sympathetic to any degree, and indeed this whole aspect of the book is superficial and trivial. The Eighties would not prove to be the best decade for Westlake’s writing overall.

A Likely Story was followed by a novel called High Adventure, another of those difficult and expensive to get hold of, and coming with no great reputation, so like Ex Officio and Up Your Banners, I’m passing it by. The sixth Dortmunder book followed in 1985, and then Westlake started his experiment with the protected pen-name of Samuel Holt, which back-fired on him as I’ve already recounted. The first set of three Holt books came out across 1986 and 1987, making Westlake’s next book under his own name, and the last for this post, the National Enquirer take-down, Trust Me on This in 1988.

W - Trust

This is a bit of a difficult book to read. There’s a crime in it, a murder, a dead body, shot in the head, on the first page, and a shoot-out conclusion, but that element is very much for and in the background, though you might think it the most important. But learning the relative importance of such matters is but one of, and pretty much the first lesson to be learned by Sara Joslyn, reporter, about eighteen months out of Journalism school, pretty, bright, ambitious and about to learn more lessons than she could possibly have imagined.
For today is Sara’s first day at the Weekly Galaxy, a 5,000,000 circulation supermarket ‘newspaper’ for the great American unwashed, full of stories with only the most tangential relationship to reality, and the grimmest of grim determination on its editors and reporters to get a story on the famous, the notorious, the TV and film stars, the fantasy creatures to all those readers out there. The Weekly Galaxy is practically the dictionary definition of Invasion of Privacy. It is the dead-end job of dead-end jobs in journalism. mainly because once they see the word Galaxy on your resume, it goes to its final resting place in the circular filing cabinet.
So nobody’s interested in Sara’s dead body, which disappears the same day. This particular fact of life is explained to her by her new editor, Jack Ingersoll, a hard-working, prematurely cynical man about thirty, who will in due course tart to fall for Sara (and she for him), who has to train her towards the kind of mindset this kind of gutter press requires (actually, gutters are a step up) whilst being extremely ambivalent about how well she is taking to it.
The most of the book is about the lengths Galaxy goes to get its story, with particular reference to the forthcoming marriage of TV star John Michael Mercer to the complete unknown, unspoilt and thoroughly ordinary Felicia. The Galaxy’s owner is hot for this, and Jack’s team has to face the fact that Mercer hates and loathes the Galaxy and would only co-operate with them if it was about pitching the whole lot into an alligator-filled pool, just before dinnertime.
The whole thing is so OTT it’s impossible to believe, except that Westlake prefaces the book with a short introduction in which he claims the reality is much worse, which leaves you asking yourself How?!
That’s the main flaw in the book. It’s too fantastic, too unbelievable to be credible in any sane world, which leaves very little room to laugh at the excesses, and an equal amount of room to be horrified. That doesn’t mean that the book is in any way uninteresting: if they really do behave like this at the National Enquirer then I for one would consider filling the obvious commercial gap in setting up alligator filled pools for the use of affronted people.

Grand Master Westlake – A Career in Crime: Westerns, Monks and Statues

Under an English Heaven appeared in 1972. Apart from articles, reviews and forewords, collected posthumously, it was Donald E Westlake’s last venture into non-fiction. Back at his usual pitch, he published three more novels under a variety of names – one Tucker Coe, one Richard Stark and another SF book, this time under the one-off pen-name of J. Morgan Cunningham, before his next appearance as himself, the book being his only official collaboration.

W - Gangway

Gangway is unique in Westlake’s career for being both his only Western and his only fill-scale collaboration, with Brian Garfield. Garfield was primarily known as a writer of Westerns, with no less than 46 novels under a variety of pen-names when he and Westlake got together, although he had already written Death Wish, the novel on which the massively successful Charles Bronson film about urban vigilantism was based. I’ve never read any of Garfield’s solo work so I have no idea what type of stories he wrote, if he had a type, but since Gangway is a crime story set in San Francisco during the heyday of the West, I doubt I’d be far wrong in putting that down to our man.
The main character is Gabe, or to be formal, Gabriel Beauchamps (pronounced Bo-Champs). Gabe is a New Yorker, born and bred, never even left Manhattan Island until there was a bridge built as Gabe does not like being on water, even down to wet pavements. Gabe has been a loyal right hand man to Boss Twill, until, that is, he leant on someone. Leaning on someone is part of Gabe’s duties, but this guy complained to his Uncle, a ward Councillor in Twill’s pocket and he not only complained to Twill but to his own mother. who happens to be Twill’s mother-in-law.
So Twill has, with due appropriateness to the times, invited Gabe to go west. To San Francisco. And stay there. Twill has a contact there who will report on a) Gabe’s due arrival and b) any future department. Should Gabe fail on a) or attempt b), it would be extremely unhealthy for him.
Therefore we pick up Gabe, sore as hell, entering California by train, having seen nothing west of New York, not even Chicago, that he believes could be classed as a city, and having no expectations of San Francisco, despite local boasting about it.
But things change at the end of the railway line, which is not San Francisco but Sacramento. The city on the bay is another hundred miles away and that’s by riverboat: all other approaches are much longer, much more expensive and very time-consuming. But a riverboat… Gabe’s stomach is already churning.
But he convinces himself at the last moment to take the boat when he discovers he will be sharing it with a massive load of gold, en route to the US Mint in San Francisco, albeit under overwhelming and professional guard. Still, the gold makes him feel good, and that’s without deciding to steal it and return to New York, buy off Twill’s protectors and establish himself as the head of the gangs. There’s only one problem: the Mint is impossible to rob.
At least, that’s what Evangeline Kemp keeps trying to impress on him. Vangie is a beautiful blonde freelance operator, that is to say that she is a pickpocket and all-round improviser at acquiring the good, or at least free things in life. There’s a running gag, starting with her picking Gabe’s pockets and extracting his knuckle-duster which is also a concealed one-shot pistol that goes off in her hand: this is not the only concealed pistol Vangie will pick up, much to her shock and distress.
By now, she’s Gabe’s girl and, despite being San Francisco born and bred and holding the same opinion of New York as Gabe does of her home town, is actually considering going back there with him, or more likely baking him a cake every month for the next fifty years. The Mint is unrobbable.
But with the help of the irrepressible Francis Chisholm, who has similar tastes and attraction to Vangie, Ittzy Hertz, a walking invulnerable, good luck charm and Captain Flagway, a reluctant sailor dreaming only to get back to his father’s apothecary shop in Baltimore, from where he was shanghaied sixteen years ago, Gabe has a plan he expects to work. It’s not a simple or in any way probable plan.
And having dealings of any kind with the Arafat brothers makes it that much less likely that it will succeed, except that their intervention won’t end with fifty year prison sentences.
Gangway is a clever book, very much a Westlake con, translated to the West Coast and the previous century. I enjoyed it very much more when I was borrowing it from the Library, but so many years on, and having read the vast majority of Westlake’s works, my main response to it is that it’s thin. The plot is dealt with in straight terms, and what’s more in linear terms. The usual twists and turns are absent, and for the theft of so many millions of gold in ingots, the story seems to take so little time from Gabe’s arrival in San Francisco to commission.
Yes, we know, Gabe doesn’t want to stay away from New York any longer than he has to, though if you’re expecting a finish in which he decides to stay out West, you won’t be disappointed, but the speed with which everything falls into place, and the absence of obstacles is unusual. Westlake’s characters don’t win like this, getting everything they want.

W - Help

Westlake followed Gangway with a further Parker book, though that was to be the last for twenty-three years, as he inexplicably lost Richard Stark’s voice. The next dozen books would all appear under Westlake’s own name, starting with Help, I am being held Prisoner.
The book is based on one joke, or rather two. The first joke is better than the other because it sets up the entire premise of the book and gives Westlake scope to wring all manner of absurd yet believable twists out of it. The second is equally fundamental, this time on a motivational level but it does run out of steam fairly quickly because as a joke it’s one-dimensional.
Our narrator is Harry Künt: that’s Künt with an umlaut and pronounced Koont, not without an umlaut and pronounced the way you’ve been thinking since I first wrote the name: this is the second joke. Harry is an inveterate, indeed compulsive practical joker: it’s his way of getting his own back against a world that persistently pronounces his name wrong. Unfortunately, one of his practical jokes has backfired, causing a seventeen car pile-up and injury to three children and two State Senators, leading to jail time. Doubly unfortunately for him, given that he’s locked in with a few hundred men who are genuine criminals, who are basically intolerant of having practical jokes played upon them, Harry cannot contain himself.
On the other hand, only the Warden knows about Harry’s proclivities, which is why, when someone who very definitely isn’t Harry starts playing large-scale practical jokes involving the appearance of the fatal words ‘Help I am being held Prisoner’, the Warden refuses to believe he isn’t responsible and starts threatening some very serious outcomes.
Poor old Harry doesn’t deserve this. But the real story comes when he’s assigned to work duties in the relatively cushy area of the gym. This has previously been the exclusive preserve of a certain gang, for reasons Harry will shortly discover, these being that during the construction of the gym, a tunnel to the outside world was constructed. Not for escape, however. No, the gang, real criminals all, use it to have a life outside, in the town. As long as they are inside for the morning roll call, and back for the evening one, there’s no risk to their excursions.
And Harry, despite not being an actual criminal, gets accepted as part of the gang, and gets his days out when the rota comes round to him. He even gets a girl on the outside. There’s just one (more) problem. The gang plan to do a job on the outside, a bank robbery. Two banks at once. After all, they have the world’s most perfect alibi: they’re in jail (that’s the other joke, the fundamental one).
Only, Harry’s not a criminal, and has no wish to become one. So, how does he balance things out? How can he thwart the Bank job, over and over, and over again, without being found out? Well, Harry is a practical joker…
Where Gangway was a light book due to the simplicity of its plot, Help I am being held Prisoner is light because it’s light-hearted. Despite the rest of the Gym gang being hardened, and thus dangerous criminals, there’s never any real sense of menaced, thanks largely to Harry being who he is. Harry makes the book impossible to take at that level of seriousness, turning it into a romp with a superb twist, and a good giggle.

W - Brothers

Something similar goes for Brother’s Keepers (working title, The Felonious Monks which Westlake and others later concurred would have been better). This is not actually a crime story, though elements creep in around the edges, but once more it is a light, open, airy story, and another of Westlake’s acknowledged masterpieces.
Brother Benedict, or Charles Rowbottom as he was in a previous life, is a monk of the Crispinite Order, who eschew Travel, as well as the more obvious things monks eschew. Brother Benedict has been a member of the Order, currently numbering 16, for ten years. They live in a monastery on Park Avenue, as the Order has for the last two hundred years. Benedict is the only monk who does any travelling, on Saturday nights to the nearest newstand to buy the Sunday Times. All is restful and undisturbed. Until Benedict happens to notice an item in an Architectural column about the monastery being torn down, next year. It is now November.
Nobody, least of all Benedict, is prepared for this or knows what to do, but when some digging is done, a not entirely wholly just position is uncovered. The Monks hold the monastery on a 99 year lease from the Flattery family. The Lease has gone missing. Their’s is but one parcel in a redevelopment deal in which Dwarfman Investments (Dimp for short) has purchased options exercisable on 1 January. Dimp are happy to relocate the monks, though there’s nowhere they want to go. Legally, everything’s on their side. Everybody else in the redevelopment area wants to sell. So too do the Flatterys, since they’re in the hole financially. And the monastery is front and centre in the development. Without it, the site can’t be built upon.
It’s the age-old clash between Law and Morality, except that, as things develop, ‘Law’ has been helped out by the theft of the Monks’ copy of the Lease – showing that they have an exclusive and unopposable right to renew – and the burning of the secondary materials that stand a good chance of establishing the details of the option, not to mention the presence of a bug in the Abbot’s office. It seems that the Flatterys, or some of them, have been playing safe. The Monks have got until 31 December to save themselves by any properly Christian means.
That, if you like, is the exterior story. The interior one is Brother Benedict and what, if you were minded to be wholly serious about this, is his crisis of faith. As if to punish him for finding out about the problem in the first place, Brother Benedict is forced to Travel, with Brother Oliver, the Abbot, to Dan Flattery’s home. There, Benedict meets Eileen Flattery, a very beautiful young woman and Dan’s daughter.
Benedict is very susceptible to Eileen. To everyone’s surprise, not least his, Eileen seems to be susceptible to him. She’s the only one sympathetic to the Monks’ cause, provided Benedict can convince her it is wrong for the demolition to go ahead. Which he can’t.
But as a last ditch effort, Benedict flies out to Puerto Rico, where Eileen has gone for her Xmas holidays, and where he reverts to being Charlie Rowbottom, who can have sex for the first time in ten years. Charlie loves Eileen and Eileen loves Charlie, though it’s far from certain that this could be a long term thing. The future of the monastery lies between them, and Charlie cannot forget it.
How it all works out is very carefully contrived and I’m not going to spill any beans. Benedict//Charlie might be thought to be something of a wishy-washy, pliable character, unworldly to say the least, but at the very end, when he makes things a face-to-face matter between him and Dan Flattery, and a matter of what is Right as opposed to Legal, we reach the conclusion we’ve been rooting for all along, and Benedict makes his decision as to the rest of his life.

W - Two

Westlake’s next book was a complete contrast to the three before it. Two Much is about a scam, an accidental scam that arises, in small but cumulatively serious steps out of a casual conversational piece of bullshit. It leads to a fantastically convoluted story about two pairs of identical twins, one set of which are beautiful, sexy and very riches blondes and the other set of which is a single chancer and hustler engaged in a fantastic deception by pretending to be his own twin.
As a plot, it’s archetypal Westlake, an initially implausible and faintly OTT notion rendered in a manner that exploits all its possibilities whilst maintaining a careful balance between reality played straight-faced and a recognition of the sheer absurdity of everything.
What makes Two Much differ from its recent predecessors is that it is a very dark story, perhaps the darkest of all his comedies. The story is shot through with cynical behaviour and motives. No-one has any innocence to them, in fact the closest we come to a person not motivated by what they can get in monetary terms is the narrator’s secretary, and even she sits back and connives at his manipulation of his creditors and business associates.
Our storyteller this time is Arthur ‘Art’ Dodge (talk about nominative determinism!). Art owns a small greetings card business offering cards with sick and offensive jokes. He’s a dodger, ripping off his artists and being ripped off by his distributors. It’s a small, narrow world and Art sits right in it. He’s also subletting from his friends Ralph and Candy Minck, who live out on Fire Island. Art has been screwing Candy behind Ralph’s back for the last six months.
One Sunday afternoon they’re invited to a party. There, Art meets Liz Kerner, a beautiful blonde wearing a bikini and a glass of vodka. Fancying his chances, especially as Liz seems to consider him the only semi-interesting person there, Art invites Liz back to ‘his’ place where they have sex. On the way, Liz mentions she has an identical twin. Just to keep the conversation going, Art pretends he has too.
(Incidentally, the Kerner twins are both named Eliz/sabeth, the ‘z’ being Betty and the ‘s’ Liz: some parents…)
The sex is sufficiently good for Liz to invite Art to a party at her home at Points O’Wood. This catches Art’s attention since this is a closed community of rich people. This gives him two reasons to see Liz again but once he’s there he first meets Betty. Betty is identical, though she dresses (and acts) a bit more staidly. The girls are rich, though. Their parents were seriously rich but unfortunately they died last year in a freak accident (a grand piano fell on their chauffeur-drive car and crushed them) leaving the girls in charge of all their extensive holdings. There are some minor complications to this but we’ll leave them unmentioned for now.
At this stage, Art’s interested in screwing Liz and scheming to get into that money in some manner. But he can’t resist the thought of screwing identical twins, so enter Bart Dodge, who differs from his twin by brushing his hair back instead of forward, wearing glasses instead of contacts and, like Betty, being a much staider and calmer character. Not so dull as he or she sound as their first date ends with them getting fantastically drunk, screwing frantically and getting engaged.
We’ll cut out a bit of story here, full of Mr Dodge’s complicated arrangements for courting identical twins without the Dodge ‘twins’ ever being seen or heard together, and cut to the much later bit where Liz asks Art to marry her.
This is where the cynicism starts to get a bit rich. It’s not out of love, or even great sex (Betty has already committed ‘adultery’ with Art) that the Kerner twins want to be married. It has something t do with the fact that each girl will lose $3,000,000 in tax advantages if they’re not married by 31 December. Liz, incidentally, is more more business-like about it, demanding a very serious prenup whereas Betty just flung herself into it.
There is a fifth – or technically fourth – person in this story and that is the real twins’ lawyer, Ernest Volpinex, and there goes that nominative determinism again. Ernest has Art pegged for a fortune hunter from the start, before he even meets him, but then he would. Art has an it-takes-one-to-know-one moment amidst his cheerful denials: Ernest wants the money and one of the girls for himself, in that order, and doesn’t want his pitch queering by a low-life like Art.
And Ernest, for all his bloodless remarks about how clever he is, how Art is punching seriously above his weight and is taking one almighty risk, has one big advantage over Art: he is cleverer, he is above Art’s weight and Art is not just at risk, Ernest intends to kill him.
So ‘Bart’ shoots him dead. And shoots the witness, Betty. And stages an accident that burns the bodies beyond recognition so it’s Betty and ‘Bart’ who are dead, except the Police suss it out only they believe it is Bart and the murderer is the missing Ernest.
That’s the point where we finally accept we are not in light comedy Kansas any more. Art is left, Liz is left, he’s forced her to trip up the prenup so he can provide her with an alibi for the death. But Ernest has left a little something to strike back from the grave. Still, Art has a way to deal with that… Or, given the way his character has shifted throughout this little morality lesson, should I say ‘Bart’…

W - Dancing

Our last book for this piece is Dancing Aztecs. I read it originally under the title A New York Dance (this was set in 1976 and is about The Hustle). I remembered the title with pleasure and had my eye out for it when I started picking the books up. When I finally saw it, I grabbed it quickly. I’d bought and enjoyed Dancing Aztecs by then. Only after I’d paid for A New York Dance did the thought strike me, which was confirmed as soon as it arrived. It sold on easily.
Dancing Aztecs is another third person story with multiple viewpoints. Westlake has mastered this technique since the uncertainties of Who Stole Sassi Manoon? which is just as well. Though the principal viewpoints are those of Jerry Manelli and Bobbi Harwood, there are many more viewpoints represented, crossing several ages and races, not always happily, but always in perfect command.
The story ought to be simple enough to define but given that it involves over thirty characters, that’s easier to say than do. Let me attempt this: the land-locked South American country of Descalzo, a brutal dictatorship, has a National Treasure in the form of a small statue of a Dancing Aztec priest. Made of solid gold with emerald eyes. A scam is created to illegally export said idol under the cover of a foiled phony theft. In twelve month’s time, the New York Museum will announce (and prove) it has the real one and the disappearance will be blamed on the non-existent thieves.
Where Jerry comes in is simple. Jerry, a native New Yorker, is a hustler, a cheerful criminal, a lifelonger. His current gig is Inter-Air Forwarding. Whilst at the Airport one day, Jerry noticed these trucks going around moving things from place to place without question or challenge. IAF moves things. They move things from where they should be to where Jerry and his partners, brothers-in-law Mel Bernstein and Frank McCann and brother-in-law’s brother Floyd McCann can inspect them at their leisure for valuable contents.
Sometimes, Jerry is asked to move things from here to there by the owner, before they are inspected by Customs. Such as a box from Descalzo, one of five identical ones. Jerry should be careful to move only the box marked A. Actually, it’s the one marked E that was really wanted, not that Jerry can be blamed. It’s just that his caller spoke with a distinctly Hispanic pronunciation, in which the letter A is pronounced Ah and the one that’s pronounced A is the letter E.
Unfortunately, by the time Jerry gets back, the box marked E has gone to its proper destination, i.e., a celebration lunch for a disparate Political Committee that’s succeeded in getting funds allocated to build a Squash Club in Harlem. As a souvenir of their successful endeavours, the Committee chairman has ordered sixteen plaster replicas of the Dancing Aztec Priest, one for each of the members.
What they’ve got is actually only fifteen replicas and one read, but indistinguishable solid gold statue. A statue worth at leat a million dollars. A statue in one (of sixteen) unknowable and unsuspecting hands. A statue being sought by a) the rich but not rich enough investor and the Union crook who set this up b) Jerry and his family who’ve discovered the real story and c) a random pool cleaner who lives with his Mom and screws wives with pools in the afternoon, who’s screwing Mel’s wife, Angela and overhears all this.
But who’s Bobbi? Bobbi is properly Barbara Harwood, Committee member and dissatisfied wife of Professor Charles S ‘Chuck’ Harwood, who’s an infuriating and irritating self-satisfied, smug pothead, serially forgiving and understanding of his wife’s incessant affairs with black men, none of which she’s ever had.
Statue, statue, who’s got the statue? Who’s going to find it first? Many farcical encounters later it looks like it’s got to be the one Bobbi, a harpist with a prestigious New York orchestra, is carrying to California, leaving her marriage behind for once and for all. And Jerry’s on her trail to commit one last super-hustle on her. But once he meets her, can he really do that?
I love the book. Some criticise it as being too frenetic, too unrealistic to be counted among Westlake’s best, and I’ll agree that it lacks his usual grounded underpinnings. Instead, it’s a classic farce, full of exaggerated characters doing exaggerated things, with only Jerry and Bobbi as the naturally believable characters (which ought to give you a hint as to the answer to the question in the previous paragraph). But the likeability of this pair and the fact that they’re both entirely sensible – in the circumstances – makes them the likeable heart that contrasts with Two Much and keeps us entertained until their surprising end.

Still more books in Westlake’s name were to follow but, between John Dortmunder and Sam Holt, the next five novels would take a dozen years to appear. I’ll move on to them next.

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.

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.