Friday, August 04, 2006

H. M. Tomlinson, the Arabian Nights, and Donald E. Westlake

From Christopher Morley’s introduction to the 1928 Modern Library edition of H. M. Tomlinson’s The Sea and the Jungle (1912)
It was the Putney bus that did it. Mr. Tomlinson admits it himself. There he was, a newspaper man, in his middle thirties, with a family, taking the 8.35 to town every morning, “dutifully and busily climbing the revolving wheel.” He looked up from his desk and the Skipper was grinning at him.

And just like that, H. M. Tomlinson unexpectedly finds himself ditching his workaday life and taking ship for Brazil to sail up the Amazon into deepest jungle. He faces peril after peril, but he comes through his journey alive and reasonably well, still a bit surprised at the way that, in the midst of a perfectly ordinary day, he had fallen through a door to adventure.

I think of such moments as Arabian Nights moments, when a seemingly innocuous decision transforms a life. The quotidian origins of such fantastic tales are a big part of their appeal. It could be any of us who falls asleep under a tree in the backyard and dreams of a treasure under another tree in another backyard, or who gives alms to the beggar who happens to be Harun al-Rashid. That’s the way many, if not most, good crime novels begin, too: a salesman at the end of a long day talks to the beautiful woman who sits next to him at his local bar—and fate takes over. Soon the man finds himself not just with a seductive lady, but with a gun and enemies as well, and it’s all he can do to keep his wits about him and his head above water.

I was thinking about Arabian Nights moments as I read Donald E. Westlake’s 361 (1962), out from Hard Case Crime, which opens with a newly demobbed airman, Ray Kelly, arriving in New York to meet his father. At 22, he’s come out of the Air Force without any plans, and he’s mostly looking forward to seeing his family again while he figures out what to do with his life. But without any warning, that all changes, as an unidentified gunman kills his father and seriously injures him. Baffled and angry, he sets to work unpeeling layer after layer of his father’s past, learning that the man did, indeed, have secrets worth killing for.

It’s a fast-paced revenge tale, featuring gangsters, Lake George summer homes, shady lawyers, and plenty of surprises. But the best part of the book is Westlake himself—or how his eye, and his sensibility, filters through the character into the narration. Here’s the narrator getting on the bus after being demobilized:
Another guy with two suitcases came on, and he and I kind of avoided looking at one another. I’d never seen him before, but he was another new civvy. We acted like we’d both just been circumcised, and if we talked to each other everybody would know.

And here’s a bit of his train ride into the city:
There were some kids on the train, maybe fourteen years old, writing on the posters and screaming about it. I kept looking out the window, down at the neighborhoods. After a while it was all crummy residential—stone buildings, four and five stories, lots of windows, baby carriages and old kitchen chairs and Baby Ruth wrappers on the sidewalk. Then it went down into an open trench, and there wasn’t anything to see. The kids got off at a stop called Newkirk. Then a little later it went underground all the way, and I read the ads above the windows. There was one I couldn’t believe; a drawing of a hand with spread fingers, and surprinted over that in green block letters BELCH. Underneath, it said something was three times faster with stomach gas.

That level of observation is upheld throughout the book, as we see the aging mobsters trying to keep abreast of both the vice trade and the vagaries of fashion, or the shabby office of a low-rent private investigator whose curiosity turns out to be stronger than his courage. It’s the work of a top-notch observer of people, their behavior and detritus, and it makes what should be a fairly ordinary crime novel something stronger.

The other Westlake novel from Hard Case Crime that I’ve read recently, Lemons Never Lie (1971), which was written under the name Richard Stark, is a heist novel starring Alan Grofield, a sometime partner of Westlake’s better-known thief, Parker (on whom, in part, Max Allan Collins’s Nolan was modeled). He joins heist crews in the winter, working just enough to keep afloat his real passion, a small summer stock theatre in northern Indiana that he runs with his wife.

The casual pace and somewhat episodic nature of Lemons Never Lie reminds me a bit of 1930s movie noir—say, The Thin Man—where, as the mystery perks along in the background, you might get a song or some comedy; there’s no hurry to get back to the action. In Lemons Never Lie, that plays out in a scene of Grofield painting backdrops for his theatre, a digression about why doctors finance robberies, and a patiently planned and executed heist that is peripheral to the main plot. Though later films, such as Double Indemnity or Kiss Me Deadly, might be tighter and more propulsive, the looser approach is a nice change of pace.

What’s also fun is Westlake’s clear appreciation of work itself, be it criminal or otherwise. Here’s Grofield, dressed as a grocery clerk pretending to do late-night stocking, just in case police drive by the store:
Grofield thought, I must be crazy. What the hell am I stamping the prices on these things for?

But he couldn’t help it. He couldn’t knowingly do a bad job; stamp the wrong price on each can, put the canned goods on the wrong shelves, put them up with no prices stamped on them at all. He had found the spot where Hal [the real grocery clerk] had been working, and had simply continued where Hal had left off. Spaghetti sauce. Twenty-two cents. Therefore: 22 22 22 22 22 22 22.

Actually, while I think literature in general has done a surprisingly poor job of representing work (some exceptions, off the top of my head: Tolstoy, Richard Russo, Wendell Berry, Michael Ondaatje, and Penelope Fitzgerald), crime novelists frequently—and often lovingly—describe the minutia of their characters’ occupations, bringing us just that little bit farther behind the curtain each time.

Grofield’s work, of course, carries with it the constant threat of violence, and just when Westlake has lulled us into enjoying the afterglow of a well-executed heist, he reminds us of that, slamming us back into the midst of the background plot and raising the stakes. Grofield hits the road on a mission of revenge, and suddenly the book is as fast-moving and hard-edged as 361.

The Wikipedia lists ten pseudonyms used by Westlake. He's been doing this long enough—and well enough—that he's welcome to use as many as he wants. Two more Hard Case Crime books to write about tomorrow, then I’ll be caught up and ready to tell about the books I read on my trip to L.A.

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