The Barnes & Noble Review
Donald Westlake is the reigning master of the comic caper novel. His best-known books (The Hot Rock, Bank Shot, Why Me?) feature John Dortmunder, a highly skilled professional thief whose habitual hard luck derails countless brilliantly conceived schemes and scams. Put a Lid on It isn't a Dortmunder novel, but it's a clear-cut blood relation: a funny, cunningly constructed story of crime and politics that no one but Westlake could have written.
Westlake's hero this time out is Francis Xavier Meehan, another star-crossed criminal facing a possible life sentence for "accidentally" hijacking an unmarked mail truck. Meehan's luck changes -- or seems to, at least -- when a glib politician named Pat Jeffords -- a junior member of the incumbent president's campaign committee -- makes him an extraordinary offer. The president, Meehan learns, has committed a major political indiscretion, evidence of which exists in the form of a highly damaging videotape. The opposition has acquired this tape and plans to use it as an "October surprise" to tip the balance of a hotly contested presidential campaign. Having absorbed one of the more salient lessons of Watergate, the campaign committee have decided to hire a professional burglar to locate and steal the tape. Their burglar-of-choice is, of course, Francis Meehan.
Offered the opportunity to win his freedom by doing what comes naturally, Meehan signs on and finds himself enmeshed in a convoluted pursuit that ranges from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to the Massachusetts estate of an aging millionaire who makes Hitler look like a paragon of liberal thought. Along the way, Meehan encounters a bright, tough lady lawyer, an Israeli/Egyptian espionage team, an assortment of small-time, street-smart criminals, and a number of highly polished political types with an impressive capacity for lies, larceny, and betrayal. The result is a first-rate entertainment filled with deadpan humor, sudden reversals, and acute observations of the American political animal in action.
Put a Lid on It may not be the author's funniest novel, or his most ambitious, but it's a solid, assured example of that peculiar blend of action, suspense, and out-and-out comedy that Westlake does better than anyone. (Bill Sheehan)
Every Westlake book surprises in a different way, from the hilarious Dortmunder series (Bad News, etc.) to the dark, ominous novels of suspense (The Ax, etc.), and this latest comic caper is no exception. Francis Xavier Meehan, one of Westlake's luckless crooks, is in federal prison for hijacking a mail truck he thought contained computer chips. A presidential reelection official offers him a pardon with a Watergate-type scheme: Meehan must steal a video that, if made public, may prevent the president's reelection. Meehan's court-appointed lawyer cuts the best deal she can for him, and we're off on the caper as Meehan assembles his heist crew, figures the logistics and cases the estate of the elderly, right-wing gun collector who has the video. Egyptian and Israeli spies, plus a plethora of presidential aides ("A hundred thousand big mouths," says Meehan about Washington insiders), provide intermittent interference. By the time Meehan learns the video involves national security and he's superfluous, we've also learned that he's a lot smarter and more savvy than the better-educated president's men. The novel ends with a typical Westlake twist funny and perfectly appropriate. Westlake hooks the reader from the first sentence, maintaining the suspense with unpredictable turnabouts and dead-on descriptions: a presidential aide has "a store of meaningless smiles like Halloween masks." Though not one of the author's very best, you'll read this one with a meaningful smile and many a chuckle. Mystery Guild Featured Alternate. (Apr. 24) FYI: MWA Grandmaster Westlake, who also writes under the name Richard Stark, has won three Edgar Awards. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
When a lifetime criminal goes to work for politicians, it's up to the reader to decide who the real crooks are. Having burgled a truck that he didn't realize contained U.S. mail, Francis Meehan is serving his first stint of federal time. A week into his term, however, a visitor to the prison offers him a reprieve of sorts. To gain his freedom, Meehan has only to steal a videotape that may be of harm to the President, an item currently possessed by someone from the cryptically named "other side." Working with his lawyer and some trusted thieves, Meehan must not only find the tape but also beware of any potential double crosses by his employers. The irony of his situation he must commit a crime to get out of prison adds both to Meehan's character and the comic aspect of the novel. Westlake (Bad News) does another brilliant job, this time by contrasting the relatively smooth and efficient thieves with the bungling politicians. A tongue-in-cheek take on political scandal that belongs in all public libraries. Craig Shufelt, Lane P.L., Fairfield, OH Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-A presidential reelection committee needs to retrieve an incriminating videotape from the Other Side, and, having learned something from history, they "outsource" the job to a professional thief. Francis Xavier Meehan, a career burglar, is just hunkering down to his first federal sentence when he is offered his freedom if he will pull off the heist. Soon this political innocent who has never heard of contributors' planes or October Surprises is playing power politics with the best of them. He brings in his own lawyer to protect his interests, enlists the aid of some fellow thieves, and calmly turns every unexpected development to his own advantage. This might sound fairly predictable, but in Westlake's masterful hands every page delights readers with satirical observations, unexpected twists, and an endless supply of laugh-out-loud zingers. All of this fast-paced fun is laced with sharp observations of contemporary life; light reading just isn't crafted any better than this. Readers who enjoy humorous fiction, satire, or crime-caper stories should be delighted with this book.-Christine C. Menefee, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Westlake, who usually tosses off punchlines with the zeal of a suicide bomber, misfires here. The set-up is promising enough: Francis Xavier Meehan, a career burglar up on federal charges for assaulting a truck incidentally carrying US mail (how was he to know?), is approached by Pat Jeffords, a politico who has decided, post-Watergate, to hire a real crook to redeem sensitive papers that could seriously jeopardize the president's reelection bid. Meehan agrees when he's offered a presidential pardon and spots a chance to make a bit on the side (the cache is secreted among the valuable antique firearm collection of rabid conservative Clendon Burnstone IV). Of course, since he's dealing with crafty pols like Jeffords and Bruce Benjamin, Meehan demands legal representation and soon draws in his court-appointed attorney, the feisty Elaine Goldfarb ("No details!" she shrills when Meehan starts to confide his illegal plans to her). In the meantime, Meehan assembles a gang-not quite as hapless as any of John Dortmunder's (Bad News, 2001, etc.)-cases Burnstone's estate, drives up and down the northeast corridor, and bumps into one situation after another that craves a payoff. But Meehan and the reader are both out of luck: His attempts lead to nothing but quiet fizzles, with barely a glimmer of a double-cross at the end. Few smiles, fewer laughs. Westlake will have to rev up his sense of foul play, and of humor, to deliver the political version of Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty he's assuredly capable of. Mystery Guild featured alternate selection
Read an Excerpt
Put A Lid On It
By Donald E. Westlake
Warner Books Copyright © 2002 Donald E. Westlake
All right reserved.
Chapter One The eleventh day Meehan was in the MCC, the barbers came around to 9 South; two barbers, a white one for the white inmates, a black one for the rest. Each dragged a chair behind himself, with a guard following, and they set up in opposite triangles of the communal room, which was shaped like a six-pointed star, the cells outside that, in two facing lines in sword hilts sunk into five of the star's crotches: the exit to the concrete room where the elevators came was at the sixth.
So that was another difference from state or county jugs; no separate room for the barbers to ply their trade. After eleven days, Meehan was thinking he might write a monograph on the subject, was already writing it in his head. Never put anything on paper in stir: that was one of the ten thousand rules.
Of course, the primary difference between the Manhattan Correctional Center, which was where bail-less federal prisoners in the borough of Manhattan, city and state of New York, waited before and during their trials, was the attitude of the guards. The guards thought the prisoners were animals, of course, as usual, and treated them as such. But in this place the guards thought they themselves were not animals; that was the difference.
You get into a state pen, any state pen in the country-well, any state Meehan had been a guest in, and he felt he could extrapolate-and there was a real sense of everybody being stinking fetid swine shoveled into this shithole together, inmates and staff alike. There was something, Meehan realized, now that he was missing it, strangely comforting about that, about guards who, with every breath they took, with every ooze from their pores, said, "You're a piece of shit and so am I, so you got no reason to expect anything but the worst from me if you irritate my ass." These guards here, in the MCC, they buttoned all their shirt buttons. What were they, fucking Mormons?
Meehan had never been held on a federal charge before, and he didn't like it. He didn't like how inhuman the feds were, how unemotional, how you could never get around the Book to the man. Never get around the Book. They were like a place where the speed limit's 55, and they enforce 55. Everybody knows you enforce 70.
Shit. From now on, Meehan promised himself, no more federal crimes.
And this one was a wuss, this one was so lame. Him and three guys, whose names he would no longer remember, had a little hijack thing, off a truckstop, Interstate 84, upstate fifty miles north of the city, there was no way to know that truck held registered mail. Not a post office truck, a private carrier, no special notices on it at all. The truck Meehan and his former allies wanted, from the same carrier, was full of computer shit from Mexico. Meehan wasn't looking forward to making that plea to some jury.
But in the meantime, for who knows how long, here he was in the MCC, downtown Manhattan, convenient to the federal courts, thinking about his monograph on the differences between federal and non-federal pounds.
There were a number of ragheads on 9 South, Meehan presumed either terrorists with bombs or assholes who strangled their sisters for fucking around, and they all lined up to get their hair cut by the white barber. Johnson, a white inmate who'd been friendly and palsy with Meehan since he got here and who Meehan took it for granted was a plant, came over to help him watch the barbering, the two of them seated at one of the plastic tables in the middle of the communal room. "Every time," Johnson said, "those guys are first in line, get their hairs cut, never does any good."
Meehan, polite, said, "Oh?"
"Their hair grows too fast," Johnson told him. "It's something about the sand or something, where there's no water, you look at these guys, haircut haircut, end of the day they're back the way they were, they still look like a Chia toy."
"Chia toys take water," Meehan said.
"And sparrows take shit," Johnson said.
What was that supposed to mean? Meehan watched the piles of curly black oily hair mount up around the raghead in the chair, like they were gonna finish with a Joan of Arc here, and it occurred to him to wonder, as it had never occurred to him to wonder in a state pen, how come barbers were such a total criminal class. Everywhere you went, the barbers were inmates who happened on the outside to be barbers, so this was how they made bad money and good time on the inside, but the question was, how come so many barbers were felons? And what kind of federal crime can a barber pull? Maybe what happened, every jail around, whenever a barber was gonna finish his time, the word went out to the police forces of the world, keep your eyes on the barbers, we need one May 15. Could be.
A guard came into the block. His tan uniform was so neat, he looked like he thought he was in the Pentagon. Maybe he really was in the Pentagon; who knew?
The guard came over to Meehan: "Lawyer visit."
That was a bit of a surprise. There wasn't much Meehan and his lawyer had to say to one another. But any distraction was welcome; rising, Meehan said, "I'm with you."
Johnson, friendly and genial, said, "Expecting good news?"
"Maybe I'm being adopted," Meehan said.
Turned out, he was. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Put A Lid On It by Donald E. Westlake Copyright © 2002 by Donald E. Westlake. Excerpted by permission.
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