Category Archives: Westlake, Donald E.

Brother Oliver shook his head. “I’m not entirely convinced a Freudian priest is a viable hybrid.”

It’s May, I know. I’m part of the UK Government’s Covid-19 response which means I’m working crazy hours. Blogging, including reading blogs, reading anything really, isn’t happening much right now.

March’s reading was prelapsarian. We went on holiday to Bangkok and on to Angkor Wat. We were out there two weeks as the news grew worse back home. When we came back it was straight into lockdown.

My March reading was almost all SF because I tend to buy SF on kindle and for a two week holiday my kindle was what I took. I read one book before we left, five while travelling and one in the two weeks after getting back. My April roundup post will be much briefer (two books). By the way, if you’ve no interest in SF you should still scroll down to the Donald E. Westlake because it’s huge fun.

Anyway, I hope everyone’s keeping well. Here’s what I read in March, back in a very different world.

Friends and Heroes, by Olivia Manning

This is the third of Manning’s Balkan trilogy, followed by her Levant Trilogy featuring the same core characters. I expect it to be one of my books of the year.

Guy and Harriet are now in Athens, as is Prince Yakimov (poor Yaki…) and several of their old associates from Bucharest. Guy and Harriet’s existence is now more precarious than ever before – they’re now part of the mass diaspora of people scattered across Europe fleeing before the chaos of the war.

Guy continues to be too unworldly for his own good, failing to see that just because he helped someone when they needed it doesn’t mean they’ll help him now that he does. Harriet continues to be the more practical, but at times she’s perhaps too cautious, and she can sometimes be too casual with the impact she has on others. It’s a brilliantly nuanced portrait of a marriage, all the better because Guy isn’t always wrong and Harriet not always right.

Manning doesn’t quite have Anthony Powell’s gift for making every minor character instantly recognisable. There were some who recurred from previous books who I could barely recall. The core cast though remains rock solid and Manning captures time, place and the internal and external strains on Guy and Harriet’s marriage perfectly.

I wrote about Manning’s The Great Fortune here. I didn’t write up the second, This Spoilt City, but I did refer to it briefly in my 2019 end of year post commenting that it was a “welcome return to Manning’s Balkan trilogy with some very impressive moments and lovely characterisation”.

Final thought. One of the benefits of series is the depth of characterisation they can achieve. At this point in the sequence Manning is able to explore nuances of Guy and Harriet’s characters, including times when they behave out of character. It’s possible because we already know them so well and would be much harder to pull off in a single book without them seeming inconsistent.

A Calculated Life, Anne Charnock

Anne Charnock is a British science fiction writer. A Calculated Life is about a young woman genetically engineered for desirable traits in a near-future Britain.

Effectively a slave, Jayna lives in a dormitory with others of her cohort. The company which engineers them leases them out as super-bright, super-reliable workers. The difficulty is Jayna’s generation have been tweaked for greater creativity and empathy, but the closer they come to ordinary emotions the harder they are to control.

Jayna decides she needs more data to carry out her work, which leads her out of her corporate bubble into the wider world. Outside a controlled environment her own controls start to slip. As so often in these stories, sex becomes a trigger for wider disobedience.

The idea of created beings becoming too human is hardly original. In fact, it’s an SF staple. Charnock delivers it well here though capturing Jayna’s inner life, the slow awakening of her peers, and the seemingly benevolent and very 21st Century corporate interest in their wellbeing and productivity.

Charnock also paints a depressingly plausible picture of a recognisable future Britain. A cognitive arms race has led to smart drugs and other enhancements keeping the well-off competitive, while an increasing proportion of the population is effectively written off as irrelevant. Sadly it’s all too credible.

Elysium Fire, Alastair Reynolds

We’re now solidly into holiday reading. Big screen SF set in a distant future with little connection to our real world (though the science is, as ever with Reynolds, pretty much rock solid).

Elysium Fire is set in a solar system dominated by a vast array of asteroid habitats known as the glitterbelt. Each asteroid contains its own society and is governed by its own rules. The only system-wide law is that citizens are free to choose which habitat they wish to live in and the rules that govern it. Police known as Prefects protect that fundamental right.

Reynolds previously wrote about this setting in his Aurora Rising, which I rather liked. The setting is great, but I was slightly less taken by Elysium Fire which has a less interesting threat for its heroes to contend with. If you like Reynolds it’s solid but not great.

Provenance, Ann Leckie

Provenance is a stand-alone novel set in the same universe as Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy. Again it’s star spanning distant future stuff. While the Ancillary series was big on action and intrigue, Provenance is closer to an Austenesque comedy.

In one not particularly important planet in Leckie’s future universe great store is set by vestiges – historical artefacts evidencing a connection to great people and events of the past. The most important families evidence their prestige through the quality of their vestiges, many relating to their own ancestors’ exploits.

All of which makes it slightly awkward when a young woman intent on proving herself to her own family discovers that many of her society’s most treasured vestiges may be counterfeit. Worse, some of the greatest families on her planet may rest their prestige on entirely forged historical treasures.

What follows is in one sense big action and intrigue, but with stakes that are a bit ludicrous. On its face it’s entirely serious, there’s a murder, hostage-taking, all sorts of dramatic events, but it’s also quite silly. I really rather liked it.

Brothers Keepers, Donald E. Westlake

Donald E. Westlake must have written some bad books at some point, but this wasn’t one of them.

Brother Benedict is a cloistered monk living with his brother monks in a small and not particularly noticeable monastery. His sins are small – taking a biro without permission, looking perhaps a little too long at a woman in a tv ad. His chief weekly pleasure is a trip out of the monastery to pick up the New York Times weekend edition.

Why the New York Times? Well, because unusually Brother Benedict’s monastery is located in the heart of Manhattan. It’s absolutely prime real estate, which is a problem when Brother Benedict reads in the Times’ architectural section that they’re due to be evicted so the site can be redeveloped.

One immediate difficulty is that the order Brother Benedict belongs to is “a contemplative Order, concerning ourselves with thoughts of God and Travel.”

Our meditations on Travel have so far produced the one firm conclusion that Travel should never be undertaken lightly, and only when absolutely necessary to the furthering of the glory of God among men—which means we rarely go anywhere.

Someone has to go out into the world to set things right. Who better than Brother Benedict who at least already goes to the local newsstand?

What follows is brilliantly funny. The brothers soon discover that when Manhattan real estate is at stake theft, fraud and all manner of villainy is rarely far behind. Can an unworldly group of monks defeat big capital? And can Brother Benedict reject the worldly temptations lying outside the monastery’s door?

I had not entered the monastery at age twenty-four completely inexperienced, but ten years is a long time, and now I stood before the concept of screwing the way a small child stands before the star-filled night sky, feeling its vast mystery and its close fascination in tiny tremors behind the knees.

This was an absolute delight of a read. It has a marvellous cast, lots of comic asides and set pieces, and it’s insanely quotable. Very highly recommended. I think I loved Somebody Owes Me Money slightly more, but this is still great.

By the Pricking of her Thumb, Adam Roberts

I’d enjoyed Roberts’ previous novel in this near-future crime series, The Real-Time Murders, which married a Holmes and Moriarty-style setup with a riff off Hitchcock movies. Here Roberts’ Holmes and Moriarty are back in the form of private investigator Alma and her bedbound lover Marguerite and the inspiration is Kubrick rather than Hitchcock.

This didn’t work for me, but whether that was the book or circumstances I don’t entirely know. I started it shortly before returning to the UK and lockdown. The news was worsening and a novel which has bereavement and grief as major themes wasn’t a great choice. For that reason I don’t think I can give it a fair review.

It’s cleverly constructed, the SF elements and crime elements combine well and Roberts takes a positive glee in setting up impossible crime scenarios which ultimately make sense by the rules of his world. Whether there was something lacking on this occasion in the chemistry I can’t say, but my guess is the fault on this occasion was in the stars rather than in the book.

Well, that’s a slightly depressing note to end on, but then that’s true of how March itself ended. While I didn’t quite take to the Reynolds or the Roberts this time, I did enjoy all the others (and I think I would have enjoyed the Roberts more had I chosen a better time in which to read it).

Hope you’re all keeping well and all going well I’ll see you on the other side, if not before (virtually anyway).

6 Comments

Filed under Charnock, Anne, Comic fiction, Leckie, Ann, Manning, Olivia, Reynolds, Alastair, Roberts, Adam, SF, Westlake, Donald E.

It was a sweet setup, with a ninety thousand payoff

Richard Stark’s Parker, by Darwyn Cooke

I don’t review many comics or graphic novels here. That’s not because I don’t read them; it’s just a question of focus. Graphic novels aren’t novels with art, and it’s a mistake to review them as if they are. It’s also why when I do talk about them I prefer just to talk about comics. It’s obvious when you talk about a comic that the art matters just as much as the writing. The phrase Graphic novel though, that implies to me it’s an illustrated novel and that’s not really what a comic is.

Except of course when that’s exactly what it is. Darwyn Cooke’s Richard Stark’s Parker is a dazzling adaptation of the original Richard Stark (a pseudoynm for Donald E Westlake) novel The Hunter. It’s beautifully drawn with a well-chosen bluish-gray colour palette and every page drips with early ’60’s cool. Although Westlake personally approved the project he sadly didn’t live to see the finally finished work. That’s a great shame, but Cooke did him proud.

photo

That image should really be in landscape of course, but then it wouldn’t fit properly into the space I have. So it goes. Buy the comic.

The plot is simple enough. Parker has been wronged; robbed and left for dead. Now he’s back and he wants to get even. He doesn’t care who he hurts along the way. Parker’s only weapons are his charisma, his wits, his sheer physical presence and the strength of his hands. He won’t need more.

Here’s the third page (not counting title sequences and so on), with Parker striding into town. Anyone familiar with how the novel opens will immediately be able to see how without using a single word Cooke captures Westlake/Stark’s prose.

photo 5

Parker soon tracks down his ex-wife, and it’s then that we see quite how much of a bastard he is. Parker isn’t a hero, he’s not even really an anti-hero, but he is a a protagonist. Parker drives the story at breakneck pace and it’s never less than exciting, but equally Parker is never anything better than brutal scum.

photo 4

It’s important to say (for a Guardian reader like me anyway) that I don’t think this is glorifying violence against women. We’re not supposed to like Parker. Rather this shows how Parker solves problems – with his fists. Parker doesn’t care whether the person on the other end is man or woman, powerful or weak, he just cares about what he wants and about getting even with anyone he thinks has wronged him. Unfortunately for his ex, however good her reasons may have been at the time she definitely wronged him.

The two pages above though do help illustrate one potential problem with this comic. The female characters tend to be quite similarly drawn and simply aren’t as developed as the males. Mostly the women are pretty blondes with snub noses; the visual range for the men is much wider. I’ve not seen enough of Cooke’s other work to know whether this is just an idiosyncrasy of his particular style or whether it reflects a lack of female character differentiation in the underlying novel. It certainly feels authentically early ’60s, but not perhaps in a good way – this is a story in which men drive the action, and in which women are essentially passive.

Adapting a novel presents some challenges, not least how to deal with situations where it’s hard to avoid including solid chunks of text. The backstory to what happened to Parker, to why he wants revenge so badly, takes a little while to tell and telling it all through images could detract from the main thrust of the tale. Cooke comes up with an elegant solution, and I’ve excerpted a page below which I think neatly demonstrates it.

photo 1

Firstly I think that’s a beautifully evocative piece of art in terms of illustrating the planning stage of a heist. It’s also though an elegant way to insert a fairly large chunk of text without having to use multiple pages in which there’d be relatively little actually happening. Cooke adapts his art to the needs of the narrative, but still maintains a consistent style. The result is a comic which is a consistent winner at the level of the individual page, but which is even better as a cohesive work.

One last example. If you’re a fan of classic noir cinema this should hopefully stir your heart a little. If you’re not, well, Guy Savage can recommend some films for you that will almost certainly change your mind.

photo 2

I opened by talking about how I don’t review comics here much. I made an exception for this one because I thought this such a success. This is a comic which pulses with ’60s hardboiled cool. It’s one to read with some hard bop playing in the background and a whisky on the table (well, really a bourbon but I’m an Islay fan, so whisky it is). If you don’t like comics I’m not saying this will convert you, but if you do or if you’re a Richard Stark fan and are interested in seeing a fresh adaptation of this much adapted novel (at least three movie treatments so far), then it’s a definite win.

Finally, a short technical note. I read this comic on my ipad using an app called Comixology. The app works beautifully and is how I read most of my comics these days, though given how lovely this one turned out to be I did find myself slightly wishing I’d just got a hardcopy.

Cooke has adapted two more Parker novels after this one, and has plans to do a fourth. I fully expect to be reading all of them.

13 Comments

Filed under Comics/Graphic Novels, Cooke, Darwyn, Crime, Hardboiled, Noir, Stark, Richard, Westlake, Donald E.

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.

26 Comments

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