Monday, March 31, 2008

Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald E. Westlake (Hard Case Crime)

I'm really glad that Hard Case Crime has chosen to reprint this early Donald Westlake novel, not only because Somebody Owes Me Money is a really good book, but also for a more personal reason. I've been reading his series books for so long — whether under his own name, or the Richard Stark pseudonym — that I had really forgotten how good Westlake could be at standalone comic crime novels.

The most eloquent cab driver in New York City, Chet Conway works nights so he can spend his days at the track (and he works days where there are no races). When he gets a tip on a horse instead of the usual spendable gratuity, Chet decides that a man who can calculate in his head the return on a $3.54 bet at 22-to-1 odds must know what he's talking about.

But when Chet goes to pick up his winnings ("Almost a thousand dollars! I was rich!"), he finds his bookie Tommy McKay "spread out on the floor, sunny side up. With the yolk broken." And suddenly people start thinking he did it. Tommy's wife Louise, the police, the syndicate, etc. But nobody seems to know where he can go now to collect his $930.00 payoff.

When Tommy's sister Abbie climbs into his cab, things take a definite turn for the worse. Chet gets shot in the head and has to recuperate at Tommy's place, where eventually every member of organized crime in the city treads through, wanting to know why Chet killed Tommy. Chet has to clear his name by figuring out the real killer.

Somebody Owes Me Money is one of the few actual mysteries put out by Hard Case Crime. Off the top of my head I can only think of three, but they all involve licensed private investigators, as opposed to this amateur. After all, Chet may be eloquent, but, like all good crime protagonists, he's also a little dim. (Truly smart people manage to avoid these situations.)

God Save the Mark is more wildly clever (it's Westlake's masterpiece, in my opinion), and any given Dortmunder book has more belly laughs, but Somebody Owes Me Money is still vastly entertaining (with an ending that is 180° from the typical whodunit) and yet another reason why every Donald E. Westlake book, even the lesser-known ones, should stay continuously in print.

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