Saturday, April 14, 2012
25. The Takeover by Richard Wormser
I'm not quite sure how it happened, but I have somehow managed to hit the 50 books halfway mark before a third of the year is over. It's odd because I had such a slow start. I guess it's a testament to just keeping plugging away. I was quite concerned about the double row of books on my on-deck shelf at the beginning of the year, but now I have made a decent dent in it, while remaing so far quite disciplined about not buying any new books. If I can hold off for the next three months in California and keep up this reading pace, I should be in good shape for the rest of the year.
Memory is shakey, but I believe The Takeover is also from the now legendary Maritimes trip. You'll notice how similar the typeface and layout is to The War of the Dons and the more blatant "from the publishers of the Godfather" both mark this as being a Fawecett book published in the wave of the Godfather craze. I guess I should read the book that started it all one of these days.
Howeever, though this is a book about corruption, the mafia only play a tangential role. The story here is about Jerry, the city marshall and the small group of men with whom he works who basically control a city and by extension the midwestern state it is in. They have converted the boilerroom of the city hall into an informal but highly select meeting room where they decide who will win which election, who will get which contract and how much they will skim off of it. These guys are corrupt, but from the protagonist's viewpoint (which is not uncynical), they do a pretty good job of running the town. They allow some crimes like gambling (including a big policy racket) and prostitution to exist, under their control, but have succeeded in keeping drugs and the mafia out and the streets safe.
Jerry's unofficial job is as the guy who actually goes out and gets a lot of things that need to be done done. He greases palms, hands out fat in the right places and gets favours in return. He is the right hand man and favourite of the unstated boss Hank Masters.
The problem arises when their attorney general in the state capitol dies suddenly of a heart attack. His over-eager and reform-minded assistant will by law take over the position temporarily and has a real chance of getting it for the next four years, which would cause all kinds of trouble for the gang in the boiler room. It's Jerry's job to try and undermine the guy (who also turns out to want a piece of the pie, but too big of one and in a way that would be disruptive to the status quo). In dealing with this problem, Jerry starts to realize that he has slowly morphed into the main man.
It's interesting, because when I first read the masterpiece that is Butcher's Moon, I loved how Westlake dissected the corrupt political structure of a small city. Now I see that this was a strong theme in genre books of the late '60s and early '70s. You see it in a lot of John D. Macdonald of course, but usually as a background. It is front and center in books like "The Fools in Town Are on our Side" and "All I Can Get". The Takeover is another fine example of that and goes into even a bit deeper depth of how the city politics can have some level of control over the entire state (though warily so as they take great pains to never disturb or alert the federal authorities). It's fascinating stuff and I wonder what great reforms went on that we don't have the same situation today?
The story itself is good, but puts the emphasis on Jerry's character development and moral decisions. The outcome is cynical and quite dark, though a bit obvious and not unexpected, so that it ended up with a bit of a loss of the momentum it had been building up. But it felt real and interesting and very cynical all the way through. This is one of those books where political positiions are utterly meaningless, right and left just playing pieces that need to be manipulated so everybody can get paid. I don't know if it represents the truth, but this vision can sometimes be a respite for the reader. It absolves one of getting engaged with everything that is wrong with the world because there is nothing to be done about it, but play the game, try to survive and come out on top.