Friday, February 17, 2012

Forgotten Books: Gangway! - Donald E. Westlake and Brian Garfield

I don't pretend to be an expert on the work of Donald E. Westlake, but I thought I'd at least heard of most of his books. I've even read and for a number of years owned a copy of the elusive COMFORT STATION by "J. Morgan Cunningham", a copy for which I paid an entire dime. Literally, ten cents.

Anyway, not long ago I came across a mention of a novel called GANGWAY!, which was referred to as Westlake's only Western. Of course, I knew right away that I had to read it. Further investigation uncovered the fact that the book was written in collaboration with Brian Garfield, another good reason to read it. So now I have.

First of all, it's not really a Western. The dust jacket copy describes it as "the world's first comedy romance suspense pirate western adventure novel". That's not a bad description, but actually GANGWAY! is a historical caper novel, the sort of thing you'd expect if Dortmunder somehow wound up in 1874 San Francisco and decided to rob the United States Mint located there.

Instead of Dortmunder, the mastermind of this heist is Gabe Beauchamps, a likable crook from New York who has been banished from that metropolis by his former boss. Even before Gabe reaches San Francisco, he makes the acquaintance of the beautiful pickpocket Evangeline "Vangie" Kemp, and she's the first one he recruits into his scheme. Others who become involved include Francis Calhoun, a former friend of Gabe's from New York who works in the theater in San Francisco (Westlake and Garfield never come right out and say that Francis is gay, but it's pretty obvious); Ittzy Herz, a young man with seemingly supernatural luck that enables him to emerge unscathed from all sorts of disasters; Captain Flagway, an alcoholic ship's captain; and Roscoe Arafoot, a thug who specializes in shanghaiing unwary visitors to San Francisco.

Naturally, Gabe comes up with a workable but incredibly complicated plan to rob the Mint, so when the gang actually attempts the heist there are plenty of things to go wrong and numerous obstacles to overcome, along with a great deal of hilarity and slapstick, of course. The last fourth of the book, which covers the actual robbery, just races by and is highly entertaining. So is the whole novel. It's well-written, as you'd expect from Westlake and Garfield, and the characters are very appealing. I'm not sure why it's not more well known, unless it's because the historical setting is so different from the rest of Westlake's output. If you're a fan of his work, especially the caper novels, you really ought to read it.

And now that I have, I find myself wishing that he'd written a book about a Parker-like character in the Old West to go along with this period variation on Dortmunder. It would have been good, I'll bet.

(This is the author photo from the back of the book. Westlake on the left, Garfield on the right.)


George said...

Two of my favorite writers! I remember reading GANGWAY! when it was first published and thinking, "This would make a great movie."

BISH said...

uThis one slipped past my radar. Sounds right up my alley ... must track a copy down ... and Parker as a western ... genius! ... If you don't start writing it immediately, I will ...

Naomi Johnson said...

You had me at "historical" + "Dortmunder." I definitely have to find a copy of this one.