Auditing the Grand Master’s Course, Part 2

Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com

It’s been said that Agatha Christie has given more pleasure in bed than any woman in history.  If the sale of two billion books is any measure, it has to be true.  Certainly any course titled “The Pleasure of Crime Fiction” would have to include at least one of Dame Agatha’s mysteries and Lawrence Block, who is teaching such a course at Newberry College, included two.  The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the one that will be discussed in class, but I know that book too well.  I chose to read his second suggestion, The Body in the Library featuring the estimable Miss Jane Marple.

Christie’s critics have assailed her for her cardboard characters, vacuous dialogue, and myriad clichés.  A body in the library is, itself, a cliché. But in a forward to the book, Christie described how her mind worked to subvert an orthodox and conventional scene by desecrating it with a wildly improbable body.  To that shocking violation of normality, she added characters and imaginings “like the ingredients in a cookery recipe.”  The plot moved briskly, the pleasure quotient was above average, and only the pickiest of nitpickers would pause to bemoan its literary deficiencies.

It must have given Block a glow of pleasure when James Sallis dedicated his book Drive to three great American writers – Ed McBain, Donald Westlake, and Larry Block.  I mean, what writer wouldn’t feel flattered?  Whether or not the accolade had any influence, Drive made it onto Block’s list of required reading.  Driver, the protagonist, is as different from Miss Marple as a serial killer is from a serial knitter.  One passage in this book seems to encapsulate the formula of most murder mysteries and, in truth, most novels.

Driver had the keys bunched in his hand, one braced and protruding between second and third fingers.  Stepping directly forward, he punched his fist at alpha dog’s windpipe, feeling the key tear through layers of flesh, looking down as he lay gasping for air.

In his rear view mirror he watched the young tough’s buddies stand over him flapping hands and lips and trying to decide what the hell to do.  It wasn’t supposed to go down like this.

Maybe he should turn around.  Go back and tell them that’s what life was, a long series of things that didn’t go down the way you thought they would.

Besides being one of life’s essential lessons, that’s the guiding principle of all writers.  Obstacles, complications, fatal miscalculations.  One of Driver’s friends, a scriptwriter, sums it up this way.  “We sit on our butts all day guiding things toward disaster.”  I enjoyed Drive and, in spite of the waves of lapping blood, no harm came to the cat.

No author of crime fiction has given me as much pleasure as Donald Westlake, the past master of guiding things toward disaster.  He and Block were friends.  Both were awarded the title of Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America; both set their novels in New York City; and both created burglars as protagonists.  Bernie Rhodenbarr is Block’s burglar, a competent planner whose jobs usually go well unless he happens to trip over a dead body.  John Dortmunder is Westlake’s burglar, a stoop-shouldered two-time loser with “hair-colored hair” and a hangdog face.  He’s a brilliant and meticulous planner, but Dortmunder was born under a bad sign.  His best-laid plans inevitably go spectacularly and hilariously wrong.  Drowned Hopes, the caper novel Block chose for his course, is a study in comic frustration.

Arriving home one night after a failed jewelry store heist, Dortmunder finds one of his ex-cellmates waiting for him.  Tom Jimson, released from an overcrowded prison on his 70th birthday, needs Dortmunder’s help to retrieve $750,000, the haul from an armored car robbery before he was sent up for the last time.  He buried the loot under the library in the quiet little town of Putkin’s Corners.  Unfortunately, during his incarceration, the state of New York condemned the land surrounding Putkin’s Corners and built a dam.  Tom’s money now lies under three feet of dirt and fifty feet of water.  That is discouragement enough for Dortmunder to decline Tom’s request for help, even with the promise of a nice cut of the proceeds.  However when Tom threatens to blow the dam and flood the villages below, Dortmunder has no choice.  If he’s to prevent a human catastrophe, he has to concoct a plan to salvage Tom’s money.

Westlake writes with an effortless wit and excellence and his well-drawn characters exhibit a perverse, irresistible charm.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, one must have a heart of stone to read about Dortmunder’s drowned hopes without laughing.  I will never forgive the man for dying, but thank heavens he was prolific.  If you like capers, Westlake’s contributions to the genre are pure pleasure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.