Review by C.J. Bunce
The New York Times once called Donald E. Westlake the Neil Simon of the crime novel, and that’s a pretty accurate comparison. But his work is so much more than that. In the world of Hard Case Crime reprints from writers of the past, Erle Stanley Gardner was the master of hard-boiled detective tropes, full of real characters and master of the human condition, Mickey Spillane wrote about those dark shadows in the corners of cities large and small, grabbing readers and sucking them into the worldbuilding of his stories, and Max Allan Collins is the craftsman keeping all the best of the genre alive with new stories today. Donald E. Westlake was the entire package–his work cinematic in its descriptions, laser-sharp in its details, wondrous in its scope, full of intrigue, action, adventure, and yes, brilliantly funny humor. Each one of his adventures is a sprawling production like the best James Bond movie you ever watched (in part why his Forever and a Death made our Best of the Decade list this year).
Our look at the works of master crime writer Donald E. Westlake continues with his 26th novel published under his own name and 73rd novel in all, Castle in the Air, reprinted by Hard Case Crime for the first time in 40 years. It’s The Bank Job meets It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and it’s flat out the best retro read we’ve reviewed this year.
A South American leader has decided to escape the nation he has plundered by moving his castle in carefully labeled stones and bricks to Paris (not at all far-fetched, this has been an actual practice the wealthy and even not-so-wealthy have carried out successfully for centuries). But a beautiful nationalist named Lida Perez has learned from her lover Manuel (who poses as her cousin) that some of the stones have been hollowed out, and inside has been placed the wealth of the nation in gold, jewelry, and the like, a king’s ransom worth millions–so much that when a master criminal named Eustace Dench (who has fallen for Lida) gets wind of this castle move, he knows this could be the haul of century. And so he recruits the finest thieves in all of Europe to help, with four team leaders, all of whom speak English (which becomes relevant in the story): the proper Brit Sir Mortimer Maxwell, suave Frenchman Jean LeFraque, the boisterous Italian beauty Rosa Palermo, and the eerie, thin German, Herman Muller. Although Dench initially promises Lida a full split of the bounty, his plan from the beginning is a double cross with each team leader, who in turn can split its share with any members it needs for its part in the heist.
The plan is exquisite, and as this was from the vantage of the late 1970s, to coordinate among the four teams Dench uses four iffy-quality walkie talkies. Once the job is done, the teams will meet and divide the loot. Only along the way communication becomes an issue as international teams get intermingled and the dissonance of the Brits trying to coordinate with the Italians and the Germans and the French amounts to full-on chaos. As each team finally lands in its destination, they begin to sift through their parts of the castle, but soon everyone believes there may be no bounty. Until one team discovers how the loot was hidden. This leads to tricks and confusion of the other teams and a series of double crosses and zany chases across the streets and canals of Paris.
A Cockney cabbie named Bruddy Dunk is a barrel of laughs and angst. French duo Charles Moule and Renee Chateaupierre share a romantic past. One of the Italians, Angelo Salvagambelli, falls for Lida (as does young German recruit Rudi Schlisselmann). The crude German Otto Berg is trusting of his team leader’s belief in the project. The normally placid Andrew Pinkenham doesn’t stay that way for long. Then there’s the retired, washed up former master criminal Vito Palone, who is broken out of jail for the job, even though he longs to be back in his restful jail cell.
The writing–the setup, plotting, and execution–is impeccable, succinct, and thrilling with every page. Westlake’s Brothers Keepers (reviewed here) juggled 16 characters that readers got to know well because of Westlake’s ability to make all of his characters prominent and interesting. Westlake juggles as many here. The fun audiences had with Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther and Redford and Newman in The Sting is all right here, and fans of The Italian Job and Baby Driver will love this. It balances slapstick with elements all of which can and do happen to any enterprise, “the best laid plans” and all that. This is among Westlake’s best.
Another one-sitting read, a 191-page, laugh-out-loud page turner that makes for a perfect follow-up to Hard Case Crime’s Westlake reprints, including Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, Brothers Keepers, A Travesty, and the stunning, previously unpublished novel Forever and a Death. 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 Castle in the Air is available now at good bookstores and here at Amazon.