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.
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.