Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald Westlake

“But what if I spun around like that, and the guy with the gun was Robert Mitchum?”

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 ‘self-educated’ New York City cab driver named Chet Conway, a man who became a cab driver so that he can indulge his first love–gambling. He can work the “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.

westlakeMethodically 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 the 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 Crime 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/crime fans, that is most definitely true.

6 Comments

Filed under Westlake, Donald

6 responses to “Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald Westlake

  1. Great cover as ever. It does sound fun, how long is it? It sounds like a book that needs to be sure not to outstay its welcome, if you know what I mean, but equally it sounds like it doesn’t.

  2. Guy A. Savage

    Thanks, Max. All of the Hard Case Crime books run in the 200 pages (at least all the ones I’ve read have). Somebody Owes Me Money is 253 pgs.

    Yes, I know exactly what you mean, but it doesn’t drag. I particularly enjoyed the humour of the NY cabbie who doesn’t give up, and just wants his money, damn it.
    Of the HCC I’ve read, they all start with a blast on page one. A couple flounder, but for the most part, they’ve been excellent reads.

    I have 2 or 3 books going at any time, and one of those is usually a crime novel. HCC are pulp novels and usually very entertaining. I’ve picked up some great new-to-me names by reading this series.

    I would argue that Fake ID by Jason Starr, which I just finished this weekend and am in the process of reviewing, is something special. But more of that later.

  3. There’s a lot to be said in pulp for hitting the ground running. A while back I read Edgar Rice Burrough’s At the Earth’s Core.

    By page 15, 15 just, the hero had been part of the invention of a new digging machine, seen it go out of control, found himself at the Earth’s core, had a battle with intelligent ape men and had his companion kidnapped.

    By page 15. None of this painstaking worldbuilding so popular today, rather Burroughs knew we came to the party to see his hero at the Earth’s core, so he got him there as fast as he could and left it to us to keep up as he did so. It was, in its way, bravura stuff and helped me understand why Burroughs in his day was as big as he was.

    I have a great love of the pulps, I think for them immediacy is very important, let the story drag and the sunlight starts peeping through the cracks, better to have two guys burst in with guns before that can happen.

  4. Oh, and I’ll pick this one up. The cover itself is so glorious, the concept so silly, it just has to be done. Can one buy Hard Case in normal bookshops?

  5. Guy A. Savage

    Yes, I joined the club because I don’t get to book shops often, but I’ve seen HCC in bookshops.

    If you see Jason Starr’s FAKE ID, check it out. I’ll be posting the review in the next day or so.

  6. Pingback: I sat up, and the room was full of a man with a gun. « Pechorin’s Journal

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