After recently reading and thoroughly enjoying two Parker novels by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake), I decided to read a book written under Westlake's real name. I've had a paperback copy of GOD SAVE THE MARK (1967) sitting on my shelf for years so I decided to start with that one.
There's a blurb on the cover that reads "Winner of the Mystery Writers of America 'Edgar' Award". I wasn't sure if this referred to the novel itself or to author Westlake. Turns out, the novel did indeed win the Best Novel of the Year Edgar Award in 1968. The other nominees that year were A PARADE OF COCKEYED CREATURES by George Baxt, FLYING FINISH by Dick Francis, LEMON IN THE BASKET by Charlotte Armstrong, ROSEMARY'S BABY by Ira Levin (much more of a horror novel than a mystery) and THE GIFT SHOP by Charlotte Armstrong. I haven't read any of those but I must confess, I found it hard to believe that GOD SAVE THE MARK was chosen as the best novel for that year.
Oh, it's not a bad little book at all. It's the story of one Fred Fitch, a man who is a perpetual mark for any and all con games, large and small. He's been conned so many times that his best friend is Jack Reilly, a detective in the NYPD bunco unit. A legendary conman has been murdered and he's left a small fortune to his nephew, our hero, Fred Fitch. Fred didn't even know he had an Uncle Matt but as soon as he's named the heir of the fortune, a colorful cast of characters start popping up out of the woodwork. They all want to get their hands on Fred's new found gains and Fred desperately tries to stay one step ahead of them and figure out just who is conning who,
It's fast paced, breezy and fun. Fred narrates the tale and he has some great comic asides. If this had been made into a film at the time it was published, I can easily see Jack Lemmon starring as Fred. The trouble is, it's not much of a mystery. It was fairly easy to figure out that all is not what it seems, even if I wasn't exactly sure how it all fit together. I will admit that the solution to the two murders in the story did come as a bit of a surprise. So there's no great detective work and we don't get any insight into the behind-the-scenes art of the con since everything is told from Fred's point of view.
GOD SAVE THE MARK isn't as good as the two Richard Stark/Parker books I've recently read. I've read a couple of other Westlake novels, 361 and THE COMEDY IS FINISHED, both published by Hard Case Crime. Those two are also vastly different from GOD SAVE THE MARK. That was the genius of Westlake/Stark. He could write a variety of types of crime/mystery novels in several different styles and tones. He was very good at what he did and I'm going to continue reading his books (both as Westlake and as Stark).