"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Saturday, April 14, 2018

It was all the same jungle: The Specialists by Lawrence Block (1969)

....You know what we did? We got too fucking cute with this one. A nice easy touch and we had to go and make it complicated."

The Specialists by Lawrence Block (1969)

Funny how in early novels we trace a trait, trope, or concern which will blossom later later in Block's career. A character's hobby or habit.

The Specialists was a Gold Metal paperback. It was supposed to be the first in a series, but so far it's the only volume. Block has a funny afterword in my ebook edition where he goes in to all this.

All we readers need to know is that The Specialists is a short, sharp caper with professional Special Forces soldiers (officers and other ranks) home from Southeast Asia and turning the tables on the mob-owned Commercial Bank of New Cornwall, New Jersey.

The team is brought together by their old colonel, Roger Elliott Cross. Cross left two legs in Laos, he he's the strategic mastermind.

....And he had always liked it. It was hell, as Sherman had said, but at the same time it was a football game for adults, with the sweet harsh joy of contact and the sense of being utterly alive that exists only in the midst of death.

Each member of the team is sharply drawn, a stereotype infused with Blockian gusto.

Captain Howard Simmons, rare stamp broker and family man in Detroit, is African-American. He delights in home ownership, his lawn, and thwarting red-liners.

While on the job, he hides a getaway vehicle in an empty suburban house  in Bergen County and strikes a blow against Jim Crow:

....Across the street a woman stood in the doorway staring. Simmons looked at her for a moment in puzzlement before he got the message. He smothered a laugh, then walked quickly across the lawn. He had to give the FOR SALE sign a couple of kicks to loosen it. He pulled it from the ground, carried it around back, and left it with the trash.

When he came back, the woman was gone. On the phone already, he decided. But not to call the police. Right now she'd be calling her husband, and then the neighbors, and after that she'd be on the phone to her friendly neighborhood realtor. With any luck at all, half the houses on the block would be offered for sale within the next two days.

And of course the people in them would sell them to Negroes. They wouldn't think twice, since a Negro had already bought one of the houses.

Simmons got into the Dodge. He connected the jumper wire and the engine caught immediately.

He started to laugh.

Edward Manso is a Las Vegas gambler. A gambler who knows when to walk away.

Frank Dehn sells encyclopedias and loafs on the golf course.

Ben Murdock works one blue collar job after another, transient and full of an appetite for the kind of fun only the Colonel can offer.

Louis Giordano runs a travel agency in Phoenix. His assignment on the current mission was to seduce and and subtly interrogate bank teller Patricia Novak about the layout. He does his job of seduction a little too well.

The main enemy in all this is Albert Platt of Tenafly, New Jersey. He runs Bergen County and two banks for the syndicate. He's a beast to women and his own lower ranks. He's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he is an impulsive and violent antagonist with organization and resources on his side.

Colonel Cross and his specialists are not vigilantes or avenging angels. Platt's grotesque treatment of women brings him to their notice, but the team is not out to do anything but stomp Platt and give themselves a little vacation from the doldrums of civilian life. And a little extra income.

There are reverses, and at one point the team's survival is in the balance.

But Block gives us a lovely teasing beachside ending:

"I wonder where they all are, what they're doing."

"The colonel's reading something. His Bible or some military history. Helen's probably baking. The others? Howard was going to spend a couple of days in New York. There were some stamp auctions he wanted to go to. Frank is on the road somewhere, I don't know where. Ben's probably in the drunk tank of some jail or other. He generally goes on a bender afterwards and drinks up all his money."

"How can anybody drink up fifty thousand dollars?"

"Ben would try, but he doesn't have to. If he took all his cash he'd get himself in all kinds of trouble. He generally takes a thousand or two. He keeps five hundred bucks for getaway money and blows the rest. What he doesn't take, the colonel invests for him. Ben must be worth, oh, a quarter of a million."

"You would never guess it."

"He doesn't act it. He doesn't even think about it, which is why he manages to stay out of trouble. You see, that's the whole thing, you have to create a life for yourself that you feel comfortable in. Like we could spend absolutely all our time traveling and living it up, but then life would just be something in between the jobs, and it's harder to live that way. Same with Ben. When he runs out of dough, he'll get a job somewhere. And live like a bum until the colonel gives him a call."

"And Eddie? He's in Europe?"

He nodded. "Monte Carlo, I think. He wants to stay away from the stateside gambling areas, at least for the time being. He's clean as far as the police are concerned, but he figures it might be good to let the gambling types have some time today forget about Platt and his wife. You want to go in for a minute before we go back to the cabin?"

"I don't think so."

"I'll just take a dip, then. It seems to be doing my leg some good."

14 April 2018

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