Page Turners

God Save the Mark and the Incompetent Detective


I think it’s safe to say that I was…less than pleased with the last novel I talked about on here, Mercury Rises, so I figured that I should probably pick something up to treat myself a bit. So I flipped through my Kindle and found a book that’s been sitting on there for quite a while, and that had come highly recommended to me. Now, I’m not quite sure if Donald Westlake is an overly well-known author, but in certain circles he certain is. Even though his most popular creations weren’t published under his own name. Some authors play around with a pseudonym or two, but Westlake somehow juggled more than a dozen pseudonyms, most writing very different kinds of novels. He had several ongoing series’, including what’s probably his most famous, the exploits of an amoral criminal named Parker. But despite all of the variety in his names and tones, there was one theme that was prevalent in his work. Crime. Thieves, detectives, con-men, and all manner of criminals were the fascination of Westlake, and he’s considered one of the masters of the genre. But despite his stature in the genre I haven’t had much experience with the man’s work. I’ve really only read some of his Parker novels, which are certainly enjoyable, but also very dark and gritty. But he also seems to be interested in doing comedic, almost farcical crime stories, which is something I’m very interested in. So I decided to check out his novel God Save the Mark, and folks, it’s terrific.

The novel tells the story of a man named Fred Fitch, the self-described most gullible man on the planet. Fred lives alone in New York, quietly working as a freelance researcher, and falling for every single conman in the city. It’s gotten to the point that his only real friend is a policeman named Reilly who works on the Bunco squad, catching the various criminals who screw Fred over. And Fred’s whole life gets thrown upside down when something ridiculous happens. He actually inherits a fortune from an uncle he never knew he had. He was obviously a little suspicious about this, but it turns out to be true. Fred inherits a fortune and even gets his uncles amazing apartment. He also seems to inherit his uncle’s girlfriend, a bombastic former stripper named Gertie Divine, who fills Fred in on his uncle Matt’s life. Turns out Uncle Matt was a swindler himself, who may have gotten his money by screwing over some mobster. The very same money that is now in the possession of Fred, the most gullible man on the planet.  Which just makes him and even bigger mark for conmen than before, basically becoming Fred’s absolute worst nightmare.

What follows is Fred’s attempts to avoid being screwed over by basically everyone in his life. He has to avoid neighbors, family members, random people on the street, and really anyone and everyone who is aware of his recent inheritance and who thinks that they have a shot at carving some out for themselves. But then things get even crazier. Because when Fred is walking home one day there’s a sudden attempt on his life by a drive-by. Which is when Fred decides that he needs to start investigating the mysterious death of his uncle to see who may be after him. Because it turns out that while Matt was about to die of cancer, he was murdered, which is rather suspicious. So Fred begins going around town, meeting with all sorts of ridiculous people, trying to piece together the cause of Matt’s death in the hope that he can figure out who is trying to kill him. He deals with a vaudeville pair of murder detectives, Reilly’s earnest and idealistic girlfriend, Matt’s partner Professor Kilroy who may or may not be real, Matt’s doorman at the fancy apartment, and a diminutive man who may be Gertie’s pimp. Throw in a kidnapping, a couple more assassination attempts, a car-chase, and a high-speed bike ride through a crowded park while being chased by vindictive children, and Fred finally figures out just what the hell is happening in his life, which has become far more eventful and confusing than he ever intended.

This novel is a whole lot of fun. I love crime stories, and I specifically have a serious affection for silly crime stories. This novel honestly reminded me of the work of the Coen Brothers more than anything else, that perfect blend of terrible crimes and slapstick humor works wonders on me, and this book was full of that. I had heard that the novel was primarily about conmen, which didn’t necessarily turn out to be true, but I was in no way disappointed. Because while I would have loved to have seen the book be primarily about Fred dealing with more and more conmen trying to scam him out of his inheritance, I was more than pleased to see this book slowly transform into one of my favorite types of stories. The incompetent detective. I’ve been a fan of detective stories for quite some time, and I certainly love the classic hardboiled detective tropes where the protagonist is the most competent person on the planet who is able to tie together a jumble of disparate plot threads and make it seem logical. But when you read enough stories about people being good at their jobs, it becomes a lot of fun to see someone be bad at it. That’s one of the fundamental reasons that The Big Lebowski remains one of my all-time favorite movies. Seeing a person being tossed into an elaborate noir plot without the capabilities to understand it is a delightfully goofy premise, and one that works fantastically. And seeing Fred Fitch do his best, and largely fail, to understand what the hell is going on with his Uncle Matt and who exactly is trying to kill him, was a lot of fun.

God Save the Mark was written by Donald Westlake, 1967.

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