I sat up, and the room was full of a man with a gun.

Somebody Owes Me Money, by Donald E Westlake

I love the pulps, pulp westerns, weird tales, adventure pulps, and definitely crime pulps. At their best, pulp novels are immediate, exciting, a ton of fun and sometimes surprisingly well written.

Until recently though, I’d never heard of Donald E. Westlake. I’d missed out. Fortunately, Guy Savage of the wonderfully titled blog His Futile Preoccupations wrote up the excellent Somebody Owes Me Money, here. That caught my interest, I bought myself a copy, and now I owe Guy Savage for the recommendation.

Somebody Owes Me Money was originally published in 1969 and is now reprinted by Hard Case Crime (an imprint I shall be looking out for a lot more going forward). By mischance, when I started it I mistakenly thought it a contemporary novel written in 2008, and was mystified by the lack of mobile phones and general period feel of the novel, eventually I realised it was contemporary, just not our contemporary. Ahem.

Anyway. Somebody Owes Me Money is the story of how Chet Conway, a New York city cabbie, a gambler, and an eloquent fellow, discovers the corpse of his bookie and ends up having to investigate the murder himself. Chet recounts the story himself, in the first person, almost the whole tale therefore being in the present tense (possibly a stylistic tip of the hat to Runyon).

Here, in the opening two paragraphs, Chet tells us a bit about himself:

I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn’t so eloquent. That’s always been my problem, eloquence, though some might claim my problem was something else again. But life’s a gamble, is what I say, and not all the eloquent people in this world are in Congress.
Where I am is in a cab in New York City. Fares frequently ask me how it is somebody as eloquent as me is driving a cab, and I usually give them a brief friendly answer which doesn’t really cover the territory. The truth is, my eloquence comes from reading rather than formal higher education, which limits the kind of job open to me. Besides, driving a cab gives me the chance to pick my own hours. Day shift when the track is closed, night shift when it’s open. If there’s a game somewhere I’m particularly interested in, I skip a night and nobody cares. And if I’m broke, I can work as many hours as I want till I make it up.

In his own writeup, Guy talks about how as soon as he read that section, he was hooked. I was the same, it’s funny, breezy, tells you a lot about the character but also establishes him as an essentially reliable narrator. We’re not in tricky literary territory here, we’re metaphorically in the back of a cab or in a bar, being told a story by a likeable guy. We’re being invited to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Chet’s tale starts with him being given a tip on a horse race by a fare, he’d rather have had a cash tip, but you get what you get and the guy seemed a smart guy so Chet places the bet. Chet’s been losing a lot lately, and needs a big win, so he bets big. The horse wins, but when Chet goes to collect, somebody’s killed his bookie. Chet realises that the bookie would have been fronting for a syndicate, so somebody, somewhere, owes him that money.

The rest of the book unfolds from Chet’s attempts to get his money, in the process popping up on the radar of the police, fueding mobsters, the dead guy’s sister and assorted other characters most of whom assume that Chet is deeper into this thing than he is and most of whom at one point or another hold him at gunpoint trying to work out what his angle is. Chet, who despite all that still manages to make it to his twice weekly poker game, keeps pushing on, partly because once involved he needs to find out what really happened in order to get himself out of it, but just as much because he really, really needs his winnings. Here, Chet explains his philosophy when it comes to violence:

If you spend much time driving a cab around New York City, especially at night, sooner or later you’ll find yourself thinking about anti-cabby violence, and what you would do if anybody ever pulled a gun or a knife on you to rob you in the cab. A long time ago I decided I was no hero, I wouldn’t argue. Anybody with a knife or gun in his hand is boss as far as I’m concerned. It’s like the old saying: The hand that cradles the rock rules the world.

Another likeable quality of this book, is the lack of bravado shown by its protagonist. Chet’s full name is of course Chester, a name he hates. He wants people to call him Chet instead, but by and large nobody does, he’s just not that impressive a guy and whatever he may want to be called Chester is what he gets. He’s smart, but he’s not ambitious or any kind of a go-getter. He’s just a smarter than average average joe, with a nice line in dialogue but none of the tough guy nature of a Spade, Marlowe or Hammer.

Here, he’s held at gunpoint (as he often is in this novel) and ordered up a flight of stairs in an apparently deserted garage:

I went up the stairs. Our six feet made complicated echoing dull rhythms on the rungs, and I thought of Robert Mitchum. What would Robert Mitchum do now, what would he do in a situation like this?
No question of it. Robert Mitchum, with the suddenness of the snake, would abruptly whirl, kick the nearest hood in the jaw, and vault over the railing and down to the garage floor. Meantime, the kicked hood would have fallen backward into the other one, and the two of them would go tumbling down the steps, out of the play long enough for Mitchum either to (a) make it to the door and out of the building and thus successfully make his escape, or (b) get into the hood’s car, in which the keys would have been left, back it at top speed through the closed garage door, and take off with a grand grinding of gears, thus successfully making his escape and getting their car into the bargain.
But what if I spun around like that, and the guy with the gun was Robert Mitchum? What would he do then? Easy. He’d duck the kick and shoot me in the head.
I plodded up the stairs.

Part of the comedy comes from Chet being so plainly unsuited to the plot of the novel, at one point he’s holed up recovering from a bullet wound, a series of different tough guys calling round to interrogate or threaten him, he spends much of a couple of chapters lying in bed literally hiding under the covers while the dead guy’s sister (pictured on the cover of the novel) stands off the hoods and protects him.

Somebody Owes Me Money features a great protagonist, but that’s far from its only strength. Westlake also shows a nice eye for characterisation, each of the crowd at the twice weekly poker game is brought quickly and easily to life, so that you feel like you’re at the table with them. No small feat, given I don’t play poker and have no understanding of the rules. Even minor characters, like Chet’s father who spends his days analysing insurance policies in the ever vain hope of finding money-making loopholes or the investigating detective with his incredibly kitsch home bar with electric lights and porcelain drunks, are well drawn and sympathetic. Westlake’s characters are a likeable crew, owing more to the criminals of Runyon’s Broadway than the world of say Thompson’s petty grifters.

Westlake is comfortable working within his genre, clearly knowing it backwards, and so it’s no surprise that the dead bookie’s sister is a beautiful blonde packing a pearl-handled automatic in her handbag. What does surprise is that Westlake’s comfortable enough to have a bit of fun with genre expectations. Sure, the sister’s a beautiful blonde, but she’s also good in a fight, loyal and maybe not so bright – not the usual qualities one expects of a beautiful blonde in a hardboiled novel. There’s a playful subversion here, a writer at home with his craft enjoying himself with it, something that shows up again near the end when the characters discuss the discovery of the real murderer in a way which echoes strongly the likely reactions of readers used to traditional mystery novel conceits – were the clues fair, was there a reasonable chance to solve the puzzle?

Like any good hardboiled writer, Westlake also has a gift for snappy dialogue. Characters come out with lines such as “… they’d fill you with so much lead we’d have to paint you yellow and call you a pencil.” and “You’re a nice guy and I like you, but I can get along without you. I can’t get along without me for a minute.” He also has a real feel for location, place, which I consider essential to good crime fiction. This is very much a New York novel, full of affection for the city and its unruffleable inhabitants.

Graham Greene used to refer to his novels as entertainments, that’s what this is, it’s not a serious novel – it’s an entertainment. But, and it’s no small but, it’s a very good entertainment indeed. It’s funny, well written, skilfully paced and somehow despite it’s cast of low-lives, gangsters, gamblers and idiots, strangely cheering. It’s a novel where the nice guys win, and where an ordinary joe turns into a sort of hero, even if not a very brave hero. Chet is an everyman, easy to relate to, and perhaps that too is part of the novel’s charm, after all, as Chet says:

… there’s a touch of Robert Mitchum in all of us, or anyway the desire to be Robert Mitchum in all of us.

Somebody Owes Me Money

By the way, check out the wonderfully pulp-styled cover for this edition, which can be seen at the above link. One of my pet hates is the trend to dress up fiction considered lowbrow in highbrow covers, to conceal what is really being read. Harry Potter being reprinted for adults with sombre themed covers, instead of the colourful and exciting covers on the editions aimed at children. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with reading pulp, or SF, or or YA or fantasy or whatever, so there’s no need to hide it. I love this style of cover, and Hard Case Crime win my admiration for using it.

On the topic of covers though, their choice for a new Sherlock Holmes imprint done “Hard Case Crime style” is clearly having fun with the whole concept, marvellous stuff.

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21 Comments

Filed under Comic Fiction, Crime Fiction, Westlake, Donald E.

21 responses to “I sat up, and the room was full of a man with a gun.

  1. Guy A. Savage

    Glad you liked it Max. When Westlake is good, he’s very good. Hard Case Crime will publish Westlake’s novel Memory in April 2010. This is Westlake’s last novel (well unless someone finds another manuscript, and considering how prolific Westlake was, I wouldn’t be surprised).

    I particularly enjoy Westlake’s sense of humour. Light and easy going. I have a few more Westlake titles over on my blog if you are interested.

  2. andrewgirle

    Excellent review. Now I have to track down a copy here in Australia!

  3. Now that you’ve had a taste of Westlake, it’s time to step up to the hard stuff. Richard Stark, baby, Westlake’s nom de plume when he had to get really tough. Start with The Hunter and don’t look back.

  4. Guy A. Savage

    Max: here’s Westlake’s website:

    http://www.donaldwestlake.com

    As WalkerP notes there are Richard Stark novels and there are also Dortmunder novels plus lots of stand-alones, of course.

    Westlake also wrote under a number of pen names and you can see all of those on his site. As you already know, this is an author with a sense of humour. He admits on his website to writing a book with the name J. Morgan Cunningham with a blurp from Westlake on the cover saying “I wish I had written this book!”

  5. I’m sure I’ll be reading more Westlake’s, I’d noted you’d written up a couple of others Guy.

    The Richard Stark is the nastier stuff yes? Darker in tone.

    Richard Stark, Dortmunder, Cunningham, gosh, he sounds as prolific as Mickey Spillane or Ed McBain, perhaps more so. I’ll definitely check out his site.

  6. Guy A. Savage

    I’m not that fond of the Stark novels. I think Westlake is at his best when he’s using humour. It’s just a matter of taste.

  7. In addition to Westlake’s own site, you both might find this article about Westlake (and his many pseudonyms) in the Virginia Quarterly Review.

    It’s not really my genre, but I still found the article interesting. If you like crime noir, I am pretty sure you will enjoy it.

  8. Thank you Kerry, I’m printing it now, along with the Vonnegut story you linked to in the Consider Phlebas comments.

    Much appreciated.

  9. I thought it was an excellent article. I hope that you, being more knowledgeable of the subject, will get (have gotten) even more out of it.

  10. What a great review! I’m actually reading a Westlake now, having got hooked on him through the Stark novels–now I’m on a Dortmunder book, ‘Hot Rocks’, which is probably the epitome of how to do comic crime well.

  11. Hot Rocks eh, I’ll keep an eye out.

    Kerry, too busy at work to read the article yet, but I shall be this weekend. Thanks again.

  12. Kerry,

    I read the article, which was fascinating. Thanks very much for that, there was a lot there I wasn’t aware of. It’s a link well worth following.

  13. Guy has listed what he considers some of the best HCC books here: http://swiftlytiltingplanet.wordpress.com/2009/09/16/kiss-her-goodbye-by-allan-guthrie/, which I thought I’d link to so that I didn’t lose track of it.

  14. Thanks Max for the recommendation : I really liked this book. I’m not going to review it on my own blogg, I think your review better than what I could do.
    Westlake is very good at drawing small details, such as the name of the horse Chet bets on “Purple Pecunia”. It made me think of “pecuniary”, which is kind of an understatement for this horse. I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me that “purple” has some sinister connotation in English or has a double meaning.
    I also think Westlake has a real sense of theatrical effects : it’s particularly powerful in the part of the book when members of enemy gangs come in and out of Tommy’s apartment, in which Chet and Abbie took refuge. You can easily picture a stage of a mainstream popular theater, with doors slamming and comical misunderstandings. Very funny.
    While reading, I could also imagine what movie it could be, with a witty voice over. I could hear a familiar voice, and I eventually found out what it reminded me of : Woody Allen’s Scoop or Manhattan Murder Mystery. Chet Conway could be played by a young Woody Allen, especially because Westlake starts by writing about his eloquence. Chet is a sort of “hero-against-his-will” type, like in Woody Allen’s universe. Can’t you imagine Woody Allen in the following situation ?
    “Five P.M. of a freezing windy Sunday in late January, the sky a solid mass of gray clouds seven miles thick, the thin vague daylight already fading toward twilight, the temperature somewhere in the teens, and where am I ? Standing on a fire escape four stories up in my shirt sleeves with gunmen shouting “Stop” at me. Not to mention the crease in the side of my head where I’ve already been laid low by one bullet”
    But Westlake wrote Somebody Owes Me Money in 1969, before Woody Allen shot his movies. Maybe Westlake influenced him?
    I have to admit I got lost during the descriptions of poker game. Maybe it would have been easier in French, I don’t know.
    I’d be grateful if someone could explain to me what a “shlemozzle” is. The word sounds like a Jewish dish but applied to a man ?? I sort of guessed but sometimes I guess wrong. I looked for the word in several dictionaries and couldn’t find any translation.

  15. I’m really glad you enjoyed it. It’s huge fun, and you’re absolutely right that Westlake has a great eye for theatrical effects.

    The voiceover does work in a very cinematic way, wry and slightly resigned.

    I can imagine Allen in those scenes, after all he did direct Bullets over Broadway… That said, I can also imagine someone like a younger Walter Matthau.

    As for schlemozzle, I had to look it up. Apparently a schlemiel is a chump or a bungler and a schlemozzle is a loser. To quote a definition I saw:

    “If a schlemiel is someone who’s always spilling soup on others, a schlemozzle is someone who’s always the target of the soup.”

    I suspect it’s meant with more humour than the words chump or loser would convey, it’s Yiddish and that always seems to be a language rich in comic meaning.

  16. Thanks for the help on “schlemozzle” : I see I wasn’t so far off the mark when I thought of Jewish pastry. It sounded like Yiddish. So it’s a loser who’s a magnet for trouble.

    Usually when there’s a word I don’t know and it’s in a middle of a description, I let it go or I would spend too much time in the dictionary.
    I look for words that are repeatedly used or have an importance to understand what’s happening.
    Most of the time, I can guess the meaning, either because the word is close to a French one or because, as English is a very “down-to-earth” language, the word speaks by itself.
    French is more complicated and less flexible ; it seems a word must have a Latin or Greek origin to be trusted. In English, like in German, you can put two words together to create a new one, which is almost impossible in French. So to express a new notion, the French elite will create a new word coming from Latin or Greek (or both) and when you see it, nothing links the word to the reality it corresponds to. I’m happy French is my mother tongue, I don’t know how foreigners can learn it !
    That’s why I like your language : it’s more concise and more flexible.

    I think I’ll read other books from Westlake.
    You may like Fred Vargas. She’s a French writer of crime fiction, it’s good entertainment too. You may also like the Malaussene Saga from Daniel Pennac, as the characters have a kind of craziness you seem to appreciate. I checked, they have been translated in English.

  17. I’ve read the first Vargas, interesting and very different. I don’t know Pennac so I’ll look that up.

    If you look up in the comments section there’s some discussion of the Stark novels by Westlake too, which have a lot of fans though I wasn’t initially attracted.

  18. I think The Scape Goat is the English title of the first volume of the Malaussene Saga, if that can help.

  19. I thought I’d edit this to add the cover. I’m doing that off and on for other older blog entries, but the cover on this one is so wonderful I thought it worth a comment so as to help people notice it.

  20. Pingback: Happy New Year from Book Around The Corner « Bookaroundthecorner's Blog

  21. Pingback: I don’t have a gun, a badge, or even a working stapler. | Pechorin's Journal

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