Donald Westlake dedicates his new novel, Put a Lid on It, to Mickey Schwerner, one of the three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964, who described the political system in America to Westlake as “the same old story...the moochers versus the misers.” We know: (a) that this is a political novel and (b) that Westlake doesn’t care for Democrats or Republicans. Indeed, this is a comic caper staged in the demimonde of political dirty tricks. Westlake’s contempt for the two-party system shines through each page in the absence of any mention of donkey and elephant: sure there are two sides in the novel, those that want to re-elect POTUS (President of the United States) and the Other Side.
It is Team POTUS that springs Francis Xavier Meehan (Francis or Meehan, never Frank) from his federal holding cell. They need a pro to clean up the Other Side’s potentially messy October Surprise (the tactical springing of skeletons from an opponent’s closet just before the November election). A pro because Watergate is the model of the amateur’s craft. A pro doing federal time because that’s where Team POTUS has juice. The offer: Meehan retrieves an incriminating videotaped confession from a major contributor for the Other Side, and he is a free man. But Meehan understands this is a devil’s bargain and won’t accept it unless there is something more tangible than his freedom is in it for him, which there is—the contributor’s collection of antique guns—and his lawyer makes sure this is really possible, which she does. Now Meehan just has to assemble his team and win his freedom (and make some cash).
Nothing is simple, of course, and Westlake in his mastery knows how to complicate his hero’s life enough to keep the story interesting, but not too much as to over-plot the novel. He doesn’t pad his novels with a thousand near deaths and 50,000 more words because Westlake doesn’t write bestsellers; he writes novels. Coherent, elegant, spot-on novels. He has no desire to regenerate the crime genre by adding literary fireworks, post-modern parlor tricks, or ultra-violence. Instead, Westlake knows the power of a story simply told. The same can be said about Westlake’s comic timing. As much as I love the Florida crime novel (taken as a sub-genre), its most prominent practitioners rely on grotesqueries and misfits to supply the laughs. Westlake knows people are funny enough. Put a Lid on It is often hilarious, but he never forces the humor. It flows from the conversation and situation.
But are all politicians really just moochers, misers and amateur crooks? Of course not, and that is not the conclusion I draw from the novel. Westlake knows that despite knowing “all the bitter histories” we all want to believe in politics. Some say we need to believe in politics as it is at the core of what it means to be human. So it is not surprising that a character assures Meehan that “everybody, somewhere down the line, trusts a politician.” Westlake just wants us to be a little more careful when we do.