Donald E. Westlake


"Somebody Owes Me Money"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage JAN 3, 2008)

“No question of it. Robert Mitchum, with the suddenness of a 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 way 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?”

Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald E. Westlake

As a fan of noir and pulp, I enjoy the titles selected by Charles Ardai, founder and editor of Hard Case Crime. After realizing that I was ordering each new release with addictive alacrity, I decided to take the plunge and joined the Hard Case Crime Book Club.

Somebody Owes Me Money, June 2008’s title is from Donald E. Westlake, and this release from Hard Case revives a book first printed in 1969 that hadn’t seen the light of day in decades. The first question I found myself wondering about this book was: "is this title worth reprinting?" And the unequivocal answer is… absolutely.

Like any good pulp novel, Someone Owes Me Money pulls the reader right into the plot with very few preliminaries. The book’s protagonist is a likeable, unflappable New York City cab driver named Chet Conway, and the very first paragraph of the book establishes a great deal about the personality of this strong character:

“I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn’t so eloquent. That’s always 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 eloquent people in this world are in congress.”

Chet is essentially a cab driver so that he can indulge his first love--gambling. He can work “day shift when the track is closed, night shift when it’s open.” Chet admits this with an easy, frank style in the book’s second paragraph, and when I read this, I knew I was hooked. Chet is a wonderful protagonist, and this character reminds me once again why I enjoy Westlake so much. At the same time, I admit that I don’t enjoy ALL Westlake novels equally, but in Somebody Owes Me Money, Westlake is at the top of his game.

Gambling is at the core of Chet’s life, and yet at the same time his "hobby" isn’t entirely out-of-control. While it dictates his life, for example how much he works and whether or not he has a love life, he still controls his gambling urges enough to reason through how much he can afford to lose. One day after driving a well-heeled fare to a swanky address, Chet is annoyed when he doesn’t receive the normal tip. Instead the man tells Chet to bet money on an outsider horse named Purple Pecunia scheduled to race that day.

Methodically Chet chews over the information. And after dismissing his annoyance at being robbed of a tip, he decides that there was something different about this fare, and playing a “hunch, ” Chet calls his bookie, Tommy McKay and places thirty-five dollars on Purple Pecunia. When the horse wins at 27-1, Chet is set to collect $980. But when Chet goes over to Tommy’s house to collect the loot, all he finds is a stiff “sunny side up” in the living room.

From this moment on, Chet stubbornly refuses to ditch the idea that someone somewhere owes him money, and he reasons that if he wants his winnings, he has little choice but to begin investigating the crime. Chet rapidly becomes the prime suspect in Tommy’s murder, but what’s even worse than that is he still hasn’t managed to collect his dough. Plagued by Tommy’s hysterical frumpy wife, a sexy gun-toting dame looking for revenge, and a slew of angry, competing Neanderthal gangsters, Chet’s life may never be the same.

This novel isn’t fluff, and Westlake’s canny observations of human nature add a great deal of depth to the story. Laced with strong well-drawn characters, Chet’s world is packed with colorful personalities from his weekly poker game, and we meet Chet’s father--a man whose “hobby” is an obsessive search for the best insurance policy available. In his pursuit of a policy that contains a lucrative flaw, Chet’s father displays “the faith and the obstinacy of a man with a roulette system,” and it’s through this relationship that Chet’s gambling addiction begins to make sense.

Written with a wry sense of humor, Somebody Owes Me Money is a wonderful escapist read and a superb addition to the Hard Case canon. There’s one perfect scene in the book when Chet imagines, just for a moment, that he’s Robert Mitchum. Chet notes, “there’s a touch of Robert Mitchum in all of us,” and for noir heads, that is most definitely true. A special thanks to Ardai for his vision and belief that noir fans everywhere were waiting for a revival of these great titles. Thank you.

  • Amazon readers rating: 5 starsfrom 13 reviews

 

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"Money for Nothing"

(Reviewed by Hagen Baye NOV 30, 2003)

Money for Nothing by Donald E. Westlake

It is not exactly a eureka-like moment, but at one point the main character in Money for Nothing comes to the realization that is the key insight of Economics: "There is no free lunch." Indeed, Josh Redmont learns that everything has a price and that, specifically, no one would send him $1,000 per month for seven years without inevitably expecting, even demanding, something in return.

Read excerptA monthly check of $1,000 begins to arrive at a most opportune time for Josh Redmont. He is unemployed and can really use the money. After he is gainfully employed and no longer needs it to live, which remains the case even after he marries and his son is born, he pockets the money just the same. Who could resist?

From the checks Josh knows that the source is something named the "United States Agent." Whenever he tries to call the phone number printed on the check, no one answers; the phone just keeps ringing. The United States Agent's address is said to be on "K Street NE" in the District of Columbia, but that is useless information without a street number. Josh's failure to receive annual 1099's decreased the likelihood that the monies' source was some agency of the federal government. A real mystery, compounded by the United States Agent's ability to track his every change of address, for the checks arrive in his hands like clockwork around the first of each month, despite his inability [were he inclined] to keep the United States Agent informed of his whereabouts.

Then, after seven years' worth of the monthly payments, Josh is confronted by a stranger, some foreigner, who informs Josh that he has been "activated," his role as "sleeper" ended, and his willing assistance expected--or a veiled threat makes it clear that terrible consequences would befall him. In consideration for the activation, in addition to the $84,000 theretofore paid, Josh is handed a bankbook that he is later able to confirm evidences the existence of an account in his name at the Cayman Key Bank with $40,000. In return, he is expected to permit his Manhattan apartment to be used as a "safe house" for euphemistic "tourists," during weekends while he is with his wife and son at their Fire Island summer rental. Then, he also has to permit his apartment to be used to store uniforms, weapons and ammunition. Little by little, one conjecture leads to another until it finally dawns on Josh that he is expected to assist in a plot to assassinate Fyeddr ("Freddy") Mihommed-Sinn, the premier of Kamastan, formerly of the USSR, who is due to arrive in New York City for an upcoming special event.

Josh also discovers that his role in all this arose from his unknowing inclusion in a scam whereby monies intended for 20 sleepers, at the rate of $1,000 a month each for 10 years, were to be diverted to a crooked insider mastermind, until the payments aggregated $2.4 million. However, the scheme falls apart when the mastermind gets indicted in an unrelated industrial espionage scandal and is replaced after 2 years by another who actually begins to send the checks to Josh and the other unknowing sleepers, only three of whom actually cash the checks: Josh, a Robert Van Bark and a Mitchell Robbie. Soon after Josh gets activated, he learns that Van Bark is found hanged under suspicious circumstances, which Josh attributes to foul play due to Van Bark's refusal to honor his part of the bargain; so much for veiled threats.

Mitch Robbie is an off-off-off Broadway actor who would have literally been a starving actor had it not been for the United States Agent's largesse. Fortuitously, Josh gets to Mitch before the foreigner. Josh tells Mitch about the foreigner, the scam and what befell Van Bark, and Mitch uses his acting skills to convincingly feign his willingness to accept his activation.

The heart of Westlake's inventive tale revolves around Josh and Mitch's attempt to survive the fiasco their imprudence brought upon them. They realize they are in a lose-lose situation. On the one hand, they are being set up as Freddy's assassins, and are likely to be killed as a result. On the other hand, if they somehow succeed to foil the plot, the foreigner and his cohorts will undoubtedly kill them---as well as Josh's wife and son. How to turn the tables on either of such terrible possibilities is the challenge that confronts them, and Westlake, as has been the case with his prolific writings over the past some 40 years, does not disappoint in how their dilemma gets resolved. In vintage Westlake fashion, the outcome is unpredictable and immensely entertaining.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 28 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Money for Nothing at MostlyFiction.com

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"Put a Lid On It"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark MAY 8, 2002)

Meehan said, "You people kinda specialize in farce down there in DC, don't you?"

"Not on purpose," Jeffords said.

Put a Lid On It by Donald E. Westlake

A videotape with incriminating evidence about the current president is in the hands of the opposition who plan to use it for an "October Surprise" which will surely unseat the president in the upcoming election. The one lesson that the Campaign Committee for POTUS (president of the United States) learned from Watergate is they should have a professional burglar get the video back for them. How lucky for them to have access to the federal penitentiary system and its diverse community of criminals.

For the last eleven days, Francis Xavier Meehan has been waiting trial in the Manhattan Correctional Center, which is where federal prisoners are kept who can't make bail. This is Meehan's first federal rap and one that was quite unintentional if not a little unfair - how was he to know that the truck they hijacked on Interstate 84 held registered mail? He and the guys thought they were hijacking a truck with computer chips. For sure, Meehan wasn't looking forward to making this plea to a jury.

Then he gets an unexpected visitor. The first thing Meehan notices is the guy isn't his lawyer. His lawyer is a frizzy-haired skinny Jewish woman who is probably close to forty. The second thing he notices is the guy isn't even a lawyer, which means there is no attorney-client privilege between them. When Meehan explains how he knows this, the Campaign Committee guy, Jeffords, gives a big goofy smile and says "Wow. Mr. Meehan did I luck out with you." Of course, for the very reason they need him, is the very reason they underestimate just how good this guy is.

By 5 pm that afternoon Meehan is told to pack his bags for a transfer. But rather than finding himself in a county jail bus, he's in a sedan with a couple of "Busters" up front and Jeffords in the back and the destination is Norfolk, Virginia not up state New York. The journey doesn't progress very far before Meehan loses faith in Jeffords. Meehan stays out of trouble, for the most part, by following his own unwritten creed of "ten thousand rules" of which Jeffords clumsily violates one at about every juncture. So when Jeffords and another Washington man explain that they need his expertise as a thief for a little job they want to "outsource," they are surprised by his answer. At first he says no, until he realizes what's really in it for him. Then he asks for his lawyer and a pay phone. Meehan is a bright guy; his failings come from not thinking ahead, he's more a "one problem at a time" type of guy. But perhaps this is the chance to change all that; he really doesn't want to go back to the MCC. That's if he can get this Washington DC group to not mess it all up.

If you expect me at this point to tell you how Westlake's latest novel compares to his previous ones, I have an embarrassing confession to make: This is the first Westlake novel that I've read. How this has happened I can't explain. To say that Westlake is a prolific writer is like saying there is water in the ocean. I gave up on fully documenting every novel this man has published when I begin to realize just how many pseudonyms he writes under. Although I can't explain how I never tripped over one of his novels before, I will say it doesn't matter --- I like this one, a lot. Put a Lid on It is a comic caper and one that will appeal to you especially if you enjoy a good political farce. If you are like me and jump at every Ross Thomas novel that you are lucky enough to find, then I highly recommend Put a Lid On It. You'll find yourself rooting for antihero and thief, Francis Meehan, and his court appointed lawyer, Elaine Goldfarb. It's a nice mix of quirky, clever, and humorous twists all the while taking a little poke at the Campaign Committee and the Other Side, the judicial system as well as a slight jab at petty criminals. Of course trying to tell the difference between who is more of a crook is the fun of it all.

O.K. if Westlake has written so many books, how can I be so sure I haven't read him before? Well, if his previous novels come even close to this one, I'm positive I would remember reading it. And everything indicates that Donald E. Westlake is not only prolific, but also consistently good with seemingly no end of fresh plots. From what I gather, he still doesn't even own an electric typewriter.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 19 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Put a Lid On It at MostlyFiction.com



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Hard Case Crime reprints:

The John Dortmunger Series

Writing as Samuel Holt (republished 2006):

Writing as Tucker Coe:

Written as Donald and Abby Westlake:

See Richard Stark for more on Donald Westlake

Nonfiction:

Movies from Books:

  • The Jugger (1966)
  • Point Blank (1967)
  • The Busy Body (1967)
  • The Score (1967)
  • The Seventh Split (1968)
  • The Hot Rock (1972)
  • Cops and Robbers (1973)
  • Bank Shot (1974)
  • The Outfit (1974)
  • Jimmy the Kid (1983)
  • Two Much (1984)
  • Slayground (1984)
  • Why Me (1990)
  • Dancing Aztecs (1996)
  • A Travesty (1999)
  • What's the Worst That Could Happen? (2001)

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Donald WestlakeDonald E. Westlake was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1933. After serving in the U.S. Air Force he began his writing career with The Mercenaries in 1960. He has written at least 100 novels over the past fifty years, under his own name and a rainbow of pseudonyms (including Richard Stark), and has more than a million copies of his Mysterious Press books in print, as well as more than a million copies of his many titles in print around the world. Westlake has been named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, has been a recipient of the Bouchercon Lifetime Achievement Award, and was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay of The Grifters.

He lived with his wife, the writer Abby Adams, in rural New York State. He died December 31, 2008 of a heart attack while vacationing in Mexico. He was 75 years old.

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