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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Westlake Day!

Special thanks to Patti Abbott for including me in this!


The very first Hard Case Crime novel I read was The Colorado Kid by Stephen King. He had explained in the Afterword I was either going to love it or hate it. He was right. Not to be discouraged by this initial reading, I liked what Hard Case was attempting to do. The second one I read was 361 by Donald E. Westlake and this was much better. Not great; I found it somewhat formulaic, but I guess I expected that. It was a while before I picked up another Westlake. When I did, it came on the recommendation of Lawrence Block in his Mystery Scene Magazine column. The book was Memory and it blew me away.
In between projects and looking for a diversion from my day job, I paid a visit to a local box-chain bookstore. I had trained my eye to look for the yellow flag with the Beretta on it. I noticed one that seemed super-sized, figured it must be a large print edition. It was called Somebody Owes Me Money. The blonde in the mini skirt straddling a speeding taxicab caught my eye. I’m a sucker for Hard Case covers, especially the ones with women on them. This particular cutie looked a lot like Gail O’Grady who played the receptionist on NYPD Blue. The image carried through into the book. Abbie wasn’t just a pretty blonde with a gun, she was Mike Hammer, ready to beat a guy down who didn’t play nice with her.
The story breaks down like this: Chet is a cabbie who takes a tip from a fare on a horse. Chet makes a call to his bookie buddy Tommy and places the bet. The horse wins. Chet stops by Tommy’s after his shift ends to collect his winnings- a staggering $950.
Only problem? Tommy’s dead and there ain’t no moola.
Enter Abbie, who claims she’s Tommy’s sister and she wants to know who killed her brother and why. From the back seat of Chet’s cab, she draws on the hapless driver and threatens to spill his blood unless he spills what he knows. Abbie thinks it was Tommy’s wife who killed him, someone Abbie suspects is also sleeping with a local hood. Chet has his own ideas. In the middle of a conversation that is so rich you think you’re a passenger in the same cab, Chet gets shot and after that- hilarity ensues.
No, really. It gets funny after that. I mean laugh out loud funny.
Rival gangs want to know what Chet knows about the whole affair. While he’s laid up in Tommy’s apartment as a guest of Abbie, each of the gangs sends muscle to lean on Chet to crack him. Only problem? Chet doesn’t know squat. He’s as in the dark as to who killed Tommy as they are. Enter a suspicious detective who thinks Chet is the killer and you begin to feel the frustration Chet feels trapped in the apartment, having to explain his story each time a rival gang member shows up for more information.
Westlake’s banter is golden. The mobsters and their henchmen might be archetypes, but there is a sincerity about them; after a while I kept thinking how some of these guys were just working stiffs and had lives they went home to when they weren’t swinging guns around Chet and Abbie. He actually produces empathy for the people in this world.
If someone had handed me these three Westlake books before I read them and had removed his name, I might not have know he wrote all three; his voice as that different in each. 361 was all hard knuckles and flying bullets; Memory was some of the most tender prose I’ve ever read, and Somebody Owes Me Money moves like a seventies rom/com/caper film similar to What’s Up, Doc? or Silver Streak. The read is an enjoyable ride.


George said...

I always liked SOMEONE OWES ME MONEY. Westlake could devise an incredible plot out of the simplest materials.

BVLawson said...

As George pointed out on another blog, what's truly amazing is Westlake's versatility. The man was a writing machine (in a good way). Nowadays, writing experts tell you to find ONE voice, but Westlake managed to juggle several effectively.

Naomi Johnson said...

I'll second George's statement. I can't think of any author who could do more with less, and do it funnier or sadder or tougher, than Westlake.