No question of it. Robert Mitchum, with the suddenness of a snake, would abruptly whirl, kick the nearest hood in the jaw, and vault over the railing and down to the garage floor. Meantime, the kicked hood would have fallen backward into the other one, and the two of them would go tumbling down the steps, out of the way long enough for Mitchum either to (a) make it to the door and out of the building and thus successfully make his escape, or (b) get into the hood’s car, in which the keys would have been left, back it at top speed through the closed garage door, and take off with a grand grinding of gears, thus successfully making his escape and getting their car into the bargain.
But what if I spun around like that, and the guy with the gun was Robert Mitchum?
Chet Conway is an unflappable New York City cabbie, eloquent with his words, bad with the racehorses. He spends all night driving cabs to pay for his days at the track, and could use some dough right about now. Instead of a nice tip he can spend, Chet gets one about a horse: the winning one, as it turns out. But when Chet heads over to his bookie to collect almost a grand in winnings, he finds the guy “spread out on the floor, sunny side up. With the yolk broken.”
It’s hard to explain all this to the police while dodging the two rival criminal gangs after him, each thinking he works for the other. Things only get worse when the bookie’s beautiful sister Abbie takes a ride in Chet’s cab and pulls a gun on him… Still, Chet knows that somebody, somewhere out there, owes him money. And he’s looking to collect.
This novel is one of the best mysteries in the Hard Case lineup: the murder comes out of nowhere, and Chet ends up doing quite a bit of investigating. He’s such a solid character that having him as the protagonist sells the book. An eloquent cabbie is a fantastic idea, making him a unique character; the fact he’s so unfit for the detective work he’s doing adds to the comic flair. Yet his cynical outlook and bitter wit always leave him with the proper zinger at hand, no matter how bad his situation. And you can sympathize with the guy’s addiction to the racetrack and sad-sap losing streak. Chet is a very likeable protagonist, even though he’s a little dim—someone, someplace, owes him money, which is his sole driving force as a character. Teaming him up with sexy sharky Abbie provides him with a nice foil.
Westlake has a reputation as the master of comic mysteries. Going in, I didn’t expect a gut-buster; it isn’t, but the book had a good payoff. Westlake is simply amazing at building absurd surreality. I considered the novel pretty straight-laced at first; nothing too out of the norm. But the touch of humor that builds up, and I realized things were full-blown absurd when the protagonist and his femme fatale were fleeing down the middle of a street pursued by dozens of running mafiosos. Westlake very casually moved this book from mostly harmless to comic ridiculousness, and both sides were handled masterfully.
A lot of the humor is place on the characters. Chet’s horribly ill-suited to the kind of investigating he’s doing, and is always in over his head. Chet spends most of the novel worried about getting his money, even as he’s pursued by mobsters; this obsession with getting $930 is pretty tongue in cheek, as is the idea of a cultured cabbie. We also bump into Chet’s father briefly, and learn about his obsessive quest to find the best insurance rates. Abbie is a good foil, especially as she’s pretty comic herself, what with her flashy orange coat, and the way she holds up Chet hoping to get revenge.
Now, the cover. The original cover (above) is so pointlessly subpar that it’s hard to come up with something worse. What Hard Case got wasn’t just “better;” Michael Koelsch painted one of my top-five Hard Case covers. Femme fatale Abbie is a real bombshell, a Marilyn Monroe-style blonde, and having the car chase run right between her legs is a nice touch. And she’s wearing exactly the same getup as described, including the blue mini-dress and dopey spotted orange coat. It bears more than a passing resemblance to an old sleaze film poster, but that doesn’t make it any less awesome.
The humor doesn’t make the book a fluffy light piece, though it does cut some of the sharp edges. Westlake fills in some wonderful one-liners, some great comic scenery, and plenty of hardboiled noir action. This is why I buy Hard Case Crimes: the action is fast, the protagonist is witty, the girls are beautiful, and the book is fun. Most Hard Cases I read are enjoyable little books, and this is one of the best on that front. An enjoyable read, well-rounded on all fronts, and highly recommended.
I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn’t so eloquent. That’s always my problem, eloquence, though some might claim my problem was something else again. But life’s a gamble, is what I say, and not all eloquent people in this world are in congress.