Review by C.J. Bunce
Our look at the works of master crime writer Donald E. Westlake continues with his 22nd novel published under his own name and 75th (give or take) novel in all, Brothers Keepers, reprinted this month by Hard Case Crime for the first time in 30 years. It’s a deeply human, thoughtful, descriptive, and humor-filled look at a monk named Brother Benedict living in a 200-year-old monastery in Manhattan in the mid-1970s. When a 99-year lease on the land on which his monastery was built expires, and no one can find the original lease contract, the monks’ lives are upended. The problem is the land has become too valuable for the underlying owners–successors to the landowners that granted the lease during the American Revolution–not to cash out. The crime is real: Someone has stolen the lease from the monks, and worse for the Brotherhood, they believe one of the monks conspired with the landowners to hide knowledge of their rights until newly issued options to buy the land vest–meaning any rights the monks may have cease–on New Year’s Day, only a few weeks away.
You’ll hear the Jack Ryan line in The Hunt for Red October, “next time, Jack, write a memo,” as Brother Benedict becomes the monks’ bearer of bad news, only learning of the lease situation by reading the newspaper and seeing it mentioned as part of a story on the skyscraper set to replace the current buildings on the block. Soon he is the designated instrument of solving the problem, requiring him to travel, a concept that is anathema to the Brotherhood: travel is to be avoided at all cost. When he accompanies a more authoritative monk to confront one of the owners on his posh estate, a chance encounter with the owner’s attractive daughter prompts Brother Benedict to question his vows. When another encounter finds the monk and the woman target of a mugging, Brother Benedict has no choice but to confront his curiosity and fears, taking on more and more of the burden to find the original lease, rumored to have an automatic renewal clause that grants his Brotherhood–The Crispinite Order of the Novum Mundum–the right to renew the lease for another 99 years in the Brotherhood’s sole discretion.
For those familiar with property law, there’s a nearly unimpeachable attention to the law of leases that becomes the through line of the story. The rights of landowners, the public interest of preserving historical structures, right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, all intertwine with an order of monks who simply want to live their repeated, weekly routine without interfering with–or being bothered by–the outside world. The result is Brothers Keepers, a one-sitting read, a 300-page, laugh-out-loud (at least one laugh every other page) page turner that makes for the perfect follow-up to Hard Case Crime’s most recent Westlake reprint, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, another highly recommended retro-read reviewed here at borg last year.
First published in 1975, Brothers Keepers (a clever combination of the childhood phrase “finders keepers” and “My Brother’s Keeper” from the Cain and Able story in the Bible) has native New Yorker Westlake providing a travelogue of the streets of Manhattan, taking a corner by corner walk multiple times across miles of the city from the vantage of a Monk who sees walking everywhere as less intrusive and less costly than taking a taxi or a bus. Not remotely as mundane or dull as it all may sound, Westlake brings 1970s New York to life, while also filling us in on the quirky ins and outs of living the life of an honest monk whose faith can be challenged by a commercial on television.
St. Crispin, indeed. The camaraderie of the band of Brothers is implicit and the breadth of 16 memorable Westlake characters offers a diversity of personalities, from 34-year-old Brother Benedict who spends far too much time in confession explaining why he stole a Flair pen from Brother Valerian, to Brother Oliver, who leads the charge on the landowners, to Brothers Clemence and Dexter, who have been in the Brotherhood so long they cannot understand modern English phrases, Brother Quillon, the resident gay monk, Brother Silas, the reformed thief, Brother Flavian, the enraged personality, Brother Jerome, the handyman and insider with neighboring landowners, Brother Leo, who spots planes all day in the courtyard, the near-death Brother Zebulon, the only one who could possibly remember the terms of a 99-year lease, Brother Eli, the woodworker, Brother Peregrine, an ex-actor, Brother Thaddeus, former seaman, Brother Valerian, who doesn’t think twice about filling in the Sunday Times crossword, and the great Brother Mallory, a boxer who stands ready to take more aggressive action against those that would take his home.
Recall Ed McBain’s Cut Me In begins with a lost contract. Just because the crime isn’t murder, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be a compelling crime novel. It doesn’t matter whether you care about religious orders or real estate law, Westlake’s writing makes for another winner.
Now out in a great new trade paperback edition with a gorgeous new painted cover by artist Paul Mann, and highly recommended for your next retro read, Donald E. Westlake’s Brothers Keepers is available now at good bookstores and here at Amazon.