Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Book Review: Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald Westlake

As with most authors I read from Hard Case Crime, this is my first Donald Westlake book. In fact, HCC is now my standard for creating a list of Authors To Be Read. I know about Westlake only tangentially since he is such a large figure in crime fiction. I know he writes the Dortmunder books under his own name and the Parker books under his famous pen name, Richard Stark. I know his reputation as a comedic caper writer. So I approached Somebody Owes Me Money with high expectations.

And boy did Westlake deliver. Somebody Owes Me Money tells the story of New York cabbie Chester “Please call me Chet” Conway who is the self-described most eloquent cab driver in the Big Apple. He picks up a fare who leaves him not with a monetary tip but an inside line on a horse in a race. Fuming, Chet initially balks at the bet but then calls his bookie, Tommy McKay. I mean, thinks Chet, how can you not bet on a horse named Purple Pecunia? He does and the alliterative animal wins. Chet is now rich with $930 coming his way. He goes to Tommy’s house to collect…and finds his bookie dead on the living room floor, bullets having torn his chest open.

Then things really get out of hand. Like a good citizen, Chet calls the cops but during his conversation with the police, Tommy’s new widow shows up at the house, sees her dead husband, and starts yammering that Chet was the culprit. It was in this sequence that I got my first taste of Westlake’s humor with the widow ordering Chet to hang up while Chet tries to convince her that he is, in fact, talking with the police right now. The scene could have been played by Laurel and Hardy. I actually laughed out loud while driving my car, listening to the audio (more on that later). From there, Chet gets more and more in a pickle. The detectives don’t believe him, Tommy’s sister tries to kill him, rival gangs both think Chet is working for the other gang, and, to top it off, somebody takes a shot a poor Chet. He’s not having a good day, and all he wants—as he tells anyone who will listen—is to collect the $930 owed him.

The novel is copyright 1969, not quite old enough to evoke the 1940s or 1950s crime noir tradition but not quite new enough to evoke the later 70s or 80s vibe of Elmore Leonard. At the same time, Somebody Owes Me Money does not evoke what you normally think about when you hear the year “1969.” No hippies, no marches, no Woodstock. This is just New York City circa 1969 from a cabbie’s point of view. So you get the charming necessity of the characters needing coins for the public telephones while others casually carry around guns.

As with all books Hard Case Crime publishes, the book is blessed with gorgeous cover art and a gorgeous woman. That’s Abbie McKay, Tommy’s sister, who has arrived from Las Vegas with a single-minded purpose: find her brother’s killer. She first thinks Chet is the culprit and tries to shoot him but only winds up shooting a hole in his cab. For a man who, again, only wants his $930, Chet reluctantly agrees to help Abbie find the true killer. It’s a easy choice to make for Chet. Not only does he suspect that Tommy’s killer might give up the name of the guy from whom Chet can collect his, everybody now, $930 dollars, but Abbie’s dressed as she appears on the cover: mini skirt and go-go boots. What red-blooded man wouldn’t go wherever she went? In fact, when Chet brings her to his regular poker game, the reactions of the other men are hilarious.

The story is told from Chet’s point of view, all first person. That is a limitation because Westlake filters everything through Chet’s eyes. For example, in a third-person, multi-POV book, an author might jump into the head of the shooter as he aims for Chet. With the way Westlake presented everything, Chet gets shot and you don’t know by whom or why. But, by sticking with Chet’s POV and having him experience only things he witnesses, Westlake gives you a chance to examine the clues and evidence and see if you arrive at the same answer when Chet does.

Westlake puts Chet’s tongue firmly in his cheek all throughout the novel. At one point during his recovery, Chet is naked in bed and cannot get out of bed. Numerous gangsters and one detective stroll into the bedroom, all the while Chet is, well, in bed without clothes. He’s interrogated, he plays gin rummy with a gangster, he sleeps with Abbie but he only sleeps. It’s here that Chet thinks he’s like Nero Wolfe where everyone comes to him. And, as that section of the book progresses, every major character does, indeed, arrive at that apartment. It’s quite funny.

Chet is not some suave hero who fearlessly traverses through the events hardly getting scathed. Every time a gun is pointed at him, Chet does what normal people do: whatever the man holding the gun says. Which leads to a lot of prose passages that look and sound like this.

“Get up,” he said.
I got up.
“Put your hands on your head.”
I put my hands on my head.
“Don’t turn around!”
I stopped turning and waited.

On paper, it’s just straight action. But in the audiobook, it’s something else entirely. Stephen Thorne narrates this book flawlessly. His tone is pitch perfect as Chet, a man exasperated that everyone seems to think he knows something when all that he’s after is, well, “my $930.” Thorne adopts decent New York gangster accents for the various thugs and his voice for the detective—a calm, cool, dispassionate voice not unlike a father to his child who has just spilled milk—adds immensely to the scenes with the detective in them. Thorne finds the humor in the text and inflects his voice accordingly. Thus, the previous passage would look like this, with the italics indicating the added emphasis Thorne puts in the reading.

“Get up,” he said.
I got up.
“Put your hands on your head.”
I put my hands on my head. I started to turn around.
“Don’t turn around!”
I stopped turning and waited.

In film, stage, and TV, visual mediums all, it’s easy to break the fourth wall. Not so easy in books. But, late in the novel, when the true killer is revealed, Westlake breaks the fourth wall. And its hilarious. I can’t give it away here because I want you to read the book. Suffice it to say, the characters question the true killer’s identity because it didn’t hold true to form of a mystery novel. But, as I’ve said, the clues where there.

What I Learned As A Writer: Humor. Holy cow this book was funny, funniest book I’ve read in years aside from Don Winslow’s The Dawn Patrol. In Winslow’s book, much of the humor derived from the dialogue and the characters’ unique way of talking and seeing the world. With Somebody Owes Me Money, most of this humor is situational humor. It’s almost sitcom-ish, like a good episode of “Three’s Company.” Chet just shows up at Tommy McKay’s house to collect his—how much now? $930—and everybody else starts assuming Chet knows more than he does. Various characters even joke about it: “For someone who claims not to know anything, you sure turn up everywhere.” And no amount of logical explanation by Chet can totally convince all parties that he’s as innocent as he claims.

I make this point to demonstrate that Westlake, at least in this book, does not write jokes. There are some one-liners in the book but they come out natural and organic. I’ve read some books, not all crime fiction, where the author attempts to write jokes as part of the dialogue. It comes off stilted and unnatural. Not so Westlake.

Since most of the crime fiction I read is not the humorous kind, Somebody Owes Me Money was a breath of fresh air. I certainly got my money’s worth and it cost me a whole lot less than $930.


Chris said...

Okay, my library does have this one. Going to check it out right now. It's in the "closed" stacks, though, so I think it might be an early printing. Really, really, looking forward to reading this one. Your reviews are really well written, too. Very engaging and readable. I'm glad to have stumbled onto your blog!

Anonymous said...

Is she the same Christa Faust that wrote the novelization of the movie "Snakes on the Plane"? http://www.amazon.com/Snakes-Plane-Christa-Faust/dp/1844163814/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1221087174&sr=1-8

Scott Parker said...

Yes, she is one and the same. I have yet to read her novelization of SOAP (heh) but I think it won an award.