Category Archives: Westlake, Donald

Lemons Never Lie: Donald Westlake (1971)

Lemons Never Lie is written by Donald Westlake using his Richard Stark pseudonym. That means it’s not one of Westlake’s funny ones; it’s harder, tougher, meaner.

The lemons in the title refer to slot machine lemons, and when actor/thief Grofield flies into Vegas to listen to a pitch about a heist, the very first thing he does on terra firma is to go to the closest slot, put in a nickel, and pull the handle. Three lemons flip onto the screen. Yes three lemons. According to Grofield, “Lemons never lie,” and three lemons on the slot machine signal bad luck. He should have turned around and got onto the next plane back to Indiana, but he didn’t, and that’s what this tale is all about: bad luck, fate and revenge.

Lemons never lie

Grofield meets a man called Myers in a hotel on the strip. They’re joined by a handful of other crooks and Myers (accompanied by a bodyguard) explains a heist he plans.  Myers, a “blowhard,” exudes a bad vibe. Grofield who runs a theatre in Indiana which doesn’t pay the bills, needs the money badly, but when he hears that the badly conceived plan includes murdering several people, he backs out–as does acquaintance Dan Leach, another crook who invited Grofield to attend the meeting.

“No,” said Grofield.

Myers stopped mid-sentence, his hand dipping down for yet another photo or map or graph. He blinked. “What?”

“I said no. Don’t tell me any more of it, I’m out.”

Myers frowned; he couldn’t understand it. “What’s the matter, Grofield?”

“Killing,” Grofield said.

“They’ve got a half a dozen armed guards in there,” Myers said. “There’s absolutely no other way to get past them.”

“I believe you. That’s why I’m out.”

Myers looked sardonic. “You really that kind, Grofield? Sight of blood bother you?”

“No, it’s more the sight of cops. The law looks a lot harder for a killer than it does for a thief. Sorry, Myers, but you can count me out.”

Leach wins big at the tables that night, but then Grofield and Leach are later mugged. Grofield managed to ID Myers and his bodyguard as the culprits, but Myers disappears while the body guard is in the hotel room with his throat cut.

At this point, Grofield knows to get out of Vegas fast, and since the popular phrase is “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” he flies home thinking he’ll never cross paths with Myers again. …

He’s wrong.

This is a dark, mean tale that begins with an omen of bad luck and then weaves a savage twisted thread. To add more to the plot would spoil the read that awaits Westlake fans. The novel brings up the issue of crooks working with other crooks: who do you trust? Sooner or later you’re going to run into psychos, egomaniacs, and sadists, and then what do you do? For its emphasis on the inescapable nature of fate, I’d file this under noir. 

(This book is number 4 in the Alan Grofield series)

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Help I Am Being Held Prisoner: Donald Westlake (1974)

‘That’s Künt with an umlaut’ explains Harold Künt, the main character of Donald Westlake’s lively, entertaining novel Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, but no matter how many times Harold protests the pronunciation of his name, he’s doomed to be called … well you can figure it out.

Having his last name mispronounced is just one of Harold’s problems. A bigger problem is that he’s serving time in prison for a practical joke that went wrong (you have to read the book to find out what he did).  Harold’s intentions may have been humour, but it’s no joke when he find himself locked up in prison and warned to avoid the showers when the Joyboys are there.

But wait … when Harold finds himself working in prison alongside the Joyboys, they seem like decent fellows and they befriend him. They can’t be that bad, can they?

Think of the idea of An Innocent Abroad, well Harold Künt is An Innocent Inside. Yes he is guilty of a thoughtless prank, but he isn’t a criminal as such. Thrown in with hardened criminals, Harold very quickly gets in too deep, but since his life depends on going along with the programme, he must survive by his wits. After all, ‘Snitches get stitches.’

Help I am being held prisoner

If you like the humorous novels of Donald Westlake, then you will enjoy Help I am Being Held Prisoner from Hard Case Crime. Harold is an entertaining, likable narrator, and it’s fun to go along for the ride in this well-paced blend of crime and humour.

“I think it’s beautiful,” I said.

“You want in?”

Later I would have more than one occasion to give that question deep thought, but at the moment it was asked I considered none of the implications; such as, for instance, the criminal nature both of the act and of my new companions. I was outside the wall, it was as simple as that. “I want in,” I said.

“There’s maybe more to it than you know right now,” he said. “I got to tell you that.”

The tiniest of warning lights went on at the end of some cul-de-sac of my head, but I was looking the other way. “I don’t care,” I said. “Besides, what’s the alternative?”

This is the first of 4 rediscovered novels from Donald Westlake scheduled to be published by Hard Case Crime

Review copy

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Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death by Donald Westlake

I’m a Donald Westlake fan, but it’s been some time since I read one of his books.  I don’t know about all the other readers out there, but when I return to an old favourite after a significant gap of time, I am reminded all over again why I like a particular author, and then I ask myself why it took me so long to return to a writer who is practically a ‘sure bet.’ Specifically, I’m talking about Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death which is the first entry in the Mitchell Tobin mystery series originally written by Westlake using the pseudonym Tucker Coe. Westlake, who died in 2008, was an extremely prolific author, and to be honest I’ve lost track of just how many names he used over his long varied career. I was delighted to come across another series character, and fans of Westlake will understand what I’m talking about when I say that readers of this author’s novels become die-hard fans of  Westlake’s series characters.

kinds of Love kinds of deathThe protagonist of Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death is a disgraced former New York police officer, Mitchell Tobin, fired from the force, and now unemployed. His wife, Kate works at a local five-and-dime and her meagre wages along with their diminishing savings keep the family afloat. Meanwhile, Tobin is using his energy to build a wall at his home. It’s back-breaking work, and there’s the sense that it’s both a physical punishment and a mindless distraction. Where did Tobin’s life go wrong? Now 39, he was a  member of NYPD for 18 years before being kicked out. In his 14th year as a police officer, he met Linda, the wife of a burglar named Dink:

But the story tips itself right there, doesn’t it? On first seeing Linda’s name in print you know that I am destined to go to bed with her, knowledge that did not come to me until over a year later, when Dink had already been tried and convicted and was in the process of serving a term that at its shortest must last fifteen years. But it is impossible for me to communicate the knowledge to you as it came to me, in slow revelations, in tiny sunbursts of awareness, in gradual dependence and increasing need and a feeling that developed so slowly it was there long before either of us was fully aware of it, a feeling of inevitability. None of the rationalizing mist which so delightfully blinded me is available now to blind you; you must see it in a cold harsh light, a cheap and nasty bit of adultery with the most tasteless and degrading overtones.

I won’t spoil the story by giving any more details of what went wrong in Tobin’s life, but here he is, still with his wife, Kate and their only child, feeling a crippling sense of guilt. Tobin is busy working on the wall when he’s approached, through a lowly intermediary, about a job for gangster Ernie Rembek, an “amiable czar in a two hundred dollar suit.” It’s ostensibly a bit of detective work, but Tobin doesn’t have a PI license. Rembek who  “needs somebody to do a cop-type job,” wants to employ Tobin for his detective skills and also there’s the  unsavoury, unspoken idea that, since the case involves adultery, perhaps Tobin is the perfect man for the job. Tobin would like to tell Rembek to get lost, but Rembek makes an offer that Tobin is in no position to refuse. Tobin feels awkward working for a gangster, so he sets some hard and fast rules which lay the ground work for how he’ll treat his client and the case. Tobin may be a disgraced ex-cop, but he’s heavy on integrity:

Years ago I gave up being bitter about the comparative incomes of successful crooks and successful cops; it’s a cheap and irrelevant comparison anyway, since wealth is the goal of the crook but presumably something else is the goal of the cop.

Tobin is hired to find Rembek’s mistress, Rita Castle, a bit-part actress who’s flown the love-nest taking a large chunk of Rembek’s cash for her trouble. She’s left behind a cruel note to her ex-sugar daddy, but Rembek, still smitten, wants her back. Since there’s every reason to believe that she’s run off with someone Rembek knows (and that means another member of “The Corporation” ), whoever investigates needs to ask delicate questions and keep his mouth shut about the answers. That’s where Tobin comes in.

I studied my reactions to the job I’d been offered. The job itself required no study; if it contained no elements other than those already described to me, it was a plain and honest piece of work. I might or might not be capable of handling it, but legally and morally I could have no qualms about it.

No, it wasn’t the job that was complicated, it was my reaction to it. To a large extent I wanted to make believe the offer had never come along, I wanted to go back to work on my wall and think of nothing but dirt and bricks and concrete block. But in a small corner of my mind I felt a certain excitement, almost eagerness about the job; it would be a kind of return to the life I’d lost, a task within my competence, and I couldn’t help feeling a degree of hunger for it.

This quote gives a taste of the sort of narrator Mitch is. He knows that he can never repair what happened in his past, and painfully honest about his errors and responsibilities, Mitch partly wants to be punished and remain in a state of disgrace. The job with Rembek offers some tantalizing possibilities that go far beyond the generous monetary compensation; the job is also a way to gain back some self-respect, and Tobin, who’s too hard on himself to allow for any self-pity or self-delusion, knows that he owes it to his family to do something about the mess his life has become.

Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death is the first of 5 Mitch Tobin novels, and it’s an extremely strong start (could Westlake do anything less?). Westlake creates an incredibly strong and interesting protagonist, a troubled man immersed in his own tangled problems–a man who’s thrown a lifeline from an improbable and questionable source. Tobin, of course, takes the job, as we knew he would, and he proves to be an excellent detective. He learns that the men in “The Corporation” had “wifey time,” and this means public events they attended with their wives, but then there’s the rest of the time when the gangsters trooped out their expensive mistresses and partied. While Rita Castle acted like the “original dumb bunny” and seemed to be little more than a “feeble-minded” dumb blonde out for whatever cash from whichever besotted middle-aged admirer she could hook, Tobin begins to suspect that Rita Castle was not what she appeared. One look at the bookshelf next to her bed tells Tobin that Rita was anything but dumb. She was sharp and manipulative coming on to Rembek’s acquaintances,  employees and business associates whenever Rembek’s back was turned. According to the chauffeur she was “dangerous,” and according to another gangster, Rembek couldn’t see what was obvious to everyone else:

When a man buys something new and shiny, and he loves it very much, you don’t tell him he got a lemon.

Anyway, I’m hooked, and I’m in for the series

Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death

Murder Among Children

Wax Apple

A Jade in Aries

Don’t Lie to Me

review copy

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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.

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361 by Donald Westlake

“Your father. You think you know him. You forget he lived a lot of years before he started you. All of a sudden you find out you never knew who the hell he was.”

Ok, so I’m a self-confessed Hard Case Crime fan, and a few years back I decided to take the plunge and join the Hard Case Crime Book Club. It’s an old-fashioned idea, but what it boils down to is that HCC sends me a book each month. Just about the time I am starting to wonder: “Isn’t it time for this month’s Hard Case Crime to arrive?” well, there it is. Getting a book you didn’t actually preselect can lead to disappointments (of course buying books off the shelf doesn’t spare readers this fate necessarily), but for the most part, I’ve really enjoyed the highly readable selection. I imagine Charles Ardai (founder and editor of Hard Case Crime) slaving over a stack of manuscripts trying to decide which ones will make the cut, and since HCC books tend to grab me on page one, I think that Ardai probably rejects any novels that start off slowly.

361  from Donald Westlake starts off really strongly with the return of Ray Kelly. It’s the 60s, and 23-year-old Ray has just got out of the Air Force. He arrives in New York expecting to be picked up by his brother, Bill, but instead he’s supposed to take a cab and meet his father at a hotel.

Ray has spent three years in the Air Force, and he’s eager to get back and see the sights. His father, however, seems nervous and jittery, reluctant to go outside. Ray chalks this up to fatigue, but the next day, they are ambushed in the car. Ray’s father is killed and Ray ends up in the hospital. Weeks later he is released and he’s looking for revenge.

Although 361 starts out with a blast, it fizzles when Ray hooks up with his brother Bill. Ray goes off on a vengeance rampage with Bill as a somewhat reluctant side-kick. As Ray searches for the truth, the novel spins on itself as Ray goes fishing for leads and information. Instead of increasing tension as the plot develops ,the novel enters the doldrums with too many leads and too few developments.

Westlake’s crime fiction is hit-or-miss for me. Westlake without humour leaves me with just another crime novel that’s not so different from dozens of other authors–hence I am not a fan of the Richard Stark novels, but I loved The Cutie and Somebody Owes Me Money. I love dark, bitter noir, but Westlake without humour isn’t dark or bitter enough for my tastes. With humour, Westlake gives the crimes a light, bizarre touch that I find refreshing, and his protagonists for these books are people I want to read about for a few hours.  In 361,  Ray Kelly remains a rather uninteresting anti-hero–in spite of the tragedy that hits him early in the book. But that’s ok, I’m currently reading Hard Case Crime’s Fake ID by Jason Starr and it’s a terrific crime novel.

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The Cutie by Donald Westlake

“One gets over the loss of a possession, no matter how valuable it once seemed.”


It was very sad to hear of the death of author Donald Westlake in December 2008. His death signaled an end to a wonderful writing career, and so I was pleasantly surprised to receive The Cutie from the Hard Case Crime Book Club. Published in 1960, the novel was originally titled The Mercenaries.


The Cutie arrived on Saturday. I started reading it almost the minute it was out of the box, and by Sunday, well I turned the last page with a satisfied sigh.


The novel’s protagonist, Clay works for notorious New York gangster, Ed Ganolese, and a strong bond of trust exists between the two men. One night as Clay is settling in with his luscious dancer girlfriend, Ella, the doorbell rings. On his doorstep is Billy-Billy Cantrell, a pathetic heroin addict who’s been framed for a stabbing. The dead girl is Mavis St Paul, a gold digger with a long list of lovers in her past, and her latest sugar daddy is the politically powerful Ernest Tesselman. It’s Clay’s job to get to the bottom of the murder, and within a few pages he’s up to his neck in intrigue.


Hard Case Crime delivers once again with The Cutie. The action begins on page one and doesn’t let up for a moment. There are slivers of humour here in this classic Westlake novel, but the novel’s best feature is the protagonist. He’s not a thug–but he can become one, and a great deal of his moral fibre remains undefined throughout the story; this is something that troubles his girlfriend Ella as she begins to wonder just what he is truly capable of. Clay seems easy-going and affable, never losing his cool. It’s not so much that he’s a nice man; it’s more than he’s basically unemotional and has a veneer of affability. And underneath that veneer is a man who’s capable of some dirty deeds.


The novel contains some marvelous descriptive passages of the different homes Clay passes through: Tesselman’s creepy mansion and its owner’s obsession with cannibal fish, and lawyer Clancy Marshall’s home with all the trappings of upper-middle class affluence. As Clay tries to find the killer, he observes the relationships other men have with their clueless wives, and he begins to question the viability of his relationship with Ella. Ultimately the novel isn’t just about solving the crime; it’s also about Clay coming to a realization about his own life.


Anyway, if you are a Westlake or Hard Case Crime fan, then you are in for a treat. This is pulp at its meaty best, and the novel’s timing makes it a wonderful goodbye gift from Mr. Westlake to his legion of fans.

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