“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.
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 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.