Monday, July 6, 2015

Perfectly aged

I have been reading Donald E. Westlake novels throughout my adult life, yet I am still finding books of his I have not read. I finally caught up with God Save the Mark, a gem published back in 1967. I don't know whether to feel sorry I didn't read it decades ago or happy to have waited for the right time to open it, as with a bottle of fine wine that's been aging in the cellar for years.

This may be the only book title I have ever encountered that has a footnote, at least on this edition. The footnote explains that, according to the Dictionary of American Slang, a mark is "an easy victim," a sucker, in other words. That perfectly describes Fred Fitch, our narrator and main character, who is so trusting and gullible that confidence men, or for that matter, girl scouts selling cookies, can easily take him for every cent he has in his pocket.

This is true even though his best friend, Reilly, is a cop on the New York City bunco squad.

So when Fred inherits a large sum of money from his Uncle Matt, an uncle he didn't even know he had, confidence men (and women) begin to gather like vultures circling a corpse. He doesn't know if he can trust anyone, including his friend Reilly. Attractive women are suddenly interested in Fred. These include Gertie, an ex-stripper he seems to have also somehow inherited from Uncle Matt, and Karen, Reilly's girlfriend. How he escapes with his money does seem to be through the grace of God, except that Westlake leaves us with the possibility that perhaps Fred really hasn't escaped at all.

Westlake started out writing hardboiled crime novels, and he continued with his Parker series right up until the end of his life. Yet it was comic crime novels like God Save the Mark that were his true gift to the world.

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