Put a Lid On It by Donald E. Westlake. This is sort of an oddly packaged book. The covers hails Westlake as the author of The Hook and The Ax, while the “About the Author” note mentions only the books he wrote as “Richard Stark.” That would tend to lead one to believe that this is one of the darker Westlakes, and yet, it’s a funny book. It’s not a manic farce like the Dortmunder books, but it’s closer to those than the “Stark” books (from what I know of the latter). Kate spotted this in a bookstore a while back, and didn’t buy it precisely because it looks like one of the unpleasant Westlake books, not a funny one. I suspect that somewhere there’s a Stark fan saying “Bloody hell– it’s a farce…”
The confusion is probably because the hero of this book, Francis Xavier Meehan (“Meehan” to friends, “Francis” to some, but never “Frank”) is a more hardened criminal than the cuddlier brand of thief in the Dortmunder books. Still, the situation he gets into is vintage comic Westlake, and many of the supporting characters would be right at home in a Dortmunder novel.
Meehan is awaiting trial in the Manhattan Correctional Center (“the Bastille writ small, the runt of the same litter”) on a Federal charge for hijacking a mail truck when he’s visited by a bumbling political operative named Jeffords, and his superior Bruce Benjamin, who make him an offer: steal some incriminating evidence about the President from his political opponents, who are planning to use it as an “October Surprise”, and they’ll make all the charges go away. It’s a nice offer, but Meehan’s reluctant to do the job (he doesn’t work with amateurs), until he finds an angle for himself:
“I go in, even without you people watching me, I go in and I get your package, and while I’m there I pick up some stuff for myself.”
Benjamin said, “You’re telling us you mean to commit a burglary! And you’re telling us!”
“Mr. Benjamin,” Meehan said, “it was always gonna be a burglary. Didn’t you know that? Somebody breaks in and takes away something doesn’t belong to them, that’s a burglary.”
“But not for profit,” Benjamin insisted. “What we’re talking about is politics.”
As with Bad News, the most recent Dortmunder, this is an amazingly mellow caper novel. Meehan moves coolly and professionally through his new world of bungling politicos, noxious contributors, and odd-couple secret agents, and goes about the whole caper in a rather businesslike manner (accompanied at times by his lawyer). There are a couple of surreal moments, but nothing as frantic as in the Dortmunder books. To use a movie analogy, it’s The Score, not Heist.
And as I said regarding Bad News, the level of craftsmanship in this book is really impressive. It’s not High Art, and it’s not even trying to be– the characters are basically two-dimensional, and the plot is a little silly– but it succeeds marvelously at what it’s trying to do. And along the way, there’s hardly a page that doesn’t include some gem– a sharp little observation from Meehan, one of his “ten thousand rules” for life in prison, a snippet of snappy dialogue, a clever image in setting the scene. It’s a nicely put together little book.
Of course, a less charitable interpretation of the same material would be to say that Westlake is just coasting, and not trying all that hard. There is a certain effortless quality to the book, but I wouldn’t stretch that to “half-assed,” even if the spy subplot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I suspect he wrote more or less exactly the book he was trying to do. Sure, it’s mellower than his best comic novels (though not much lower-key than Baby, Would I Lie?), but cut the guy some slack– he’s been doing this for nigh on forty years.
Would I prefer another What’s the Worst That Could Happen? (which somebody really ought to think about making a movie of…) to this book? Sure I would. Until Westlake decides to write another one, though, this is a perfectly enjoyable way to pass the time.