Thursday, November 08, 2012

God Bless Donald E. Westlake

Fred Fitch has got a problem. Actually, he’s got several – you see, Fred Fitch is a conman’s dream: a born mark. Fred simply is so naïve that any convincing person can come up to him and walk away with Fred’s money, and only after the fact does Fred tumble to the whole trick. Here, let him explain for himself:

“I suppose it all began twenty-five years ago, when I returned home from my first day of kindergarten without my trousers. I did have the rather vague notion they’d been traded to some classmate, but I couldn’t remember what had been given to me in exchange, nor did I seem to have anything in my possession that hadn’t already belonged to me when I’d left for school, a younger and happier child, at nine that morning. Nor was I sure of the identity of the con infant who had done me in, so that neither he nor my trousers were ever found.”

Luckily for us (and unluckily for poor Fred), he’s about to star in a Donald E. Westlake novel: God Save the Mark, which won the Edgar Award for Best Novel. And boy, oh boy, did it ever deserve that prize!

In just one day, Fred manages to buy a fake Irish Sweeps ticket, gets conned by his neighbour’s supposed “new roommate”, and gets a call from a lawyer that he’s inherited $300,000 from his Uncle Matt (whom he’s never heard of). Fred for once tips off the coppers about the shady lawyer before the con actually takes place… except it turns out that Uncle Matt and the 300 grand were both very much real. And guess what? Uncle Matt was just recently murdered. I wonder, who could the prime suspect be???

Thus starts a novel of crime and confusion, as Fred is led on a merry little chase throughout New York City. It turns out that his uncle was a con-man himself, and the money wasn’t technically his, so the “rightful owners” are sure to inform Fred that his life is in danger (although it takes three shots to catch his attention). All sorts of crazy characters accost Fred left and right, and we find out that inheriting 300 grand isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Throughout all these crazy proceedings, Donald E. Westlake plants all the clues for the reader to figure out just who really murdered Uncle Matt. This is a very well-concealed, surprising puzzle; indeed, no less a figure than John Dickson Carr praised the book for that aspect. This is the most admirable achievement of God Save the Mark: in all the comedy, with all the crazy characters running around, playing a game of tug-of-war for time on stage, clues are planted fairly for a reader to come to the truth before the detective does. This is one of the best detective stories I’ve read all year long—not only is the ending good, the ride you take to get there is worth the price of admission.

Yeah, it’s a short review, but honestly I don’t want to give away more of this book than I have to. Plus, I’m lazy. Sue me.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds great Patrick, plus it's a Westlake I haven't read so always an exciting prospect - cheers.