Friday, February 17, 2012

FFB Review: "God Save The Mark" by Donald Westlake (reviewed by Barry Ergang)

Today is Friday and that means it is time once again for Friday’s Forgotten Books hosted by Patti Abbott. Patti likes to do themes and today is no exception. Patti declared today in honor of Donald Westlake to celebrate his new novel THE COMEDY IS FINISHED  published by Hard Case Crime. So, later today, surf over to Patti’s blog at to read various takes on his novels and to celebrate his works and latest release.

GOD SAVE THE MARK (1967) by Donald E. Westlake

Reviewed by Barry Ergang

Fred Fitch is a con artist's wet dream. He seems to radiate an aura of gullibility that any and every grifter can see or sense: "Con men take one look at me, streamline their pitches, and soon go gaily off to steak dinners while poor Fred Fitch sits at home and once again dines on gnawed fingernail." It has been this way for him since his childhood in Montana "when I returned home from my first day of kindergarten without my trousers. I did have the rather vague notion they'd been traded to some classmate, but I couldn't remember what had been given to me in exchange, nor did I seem to have anything in my possession that hadn't already belonged to me when I'd left for school, a younger and happier child, at nine that morning. Nor was I sure of the con infant who had done me in, so that neither he nor my trousers were ever found."

Now thirty-one and living in an apartment in New York City, fleeceable Fred works as a freelance researcher. Because he's been conned so many times, he's become a good friend of Bunco Squad detective Jack Reilly. Thus, when he receives a letter from a lawyer named Goodkind that says he's inherited half a million dollars (three hundred seventeen thousand after taxes) from his Uncle Matt, Fred immediately assumes that Goodkind is another scammer working an angle and calls Reilly to let him know about it.  

As it turns out, however, Goodkind is legitimate, and so is Fred's inheritance. He calls his mother and learns that he really did have an Uncle Matthew Grierson, a man who was the black sheep of the family. Jack Reilly tells him that Uncle Matt was a con artist who was known by the monicker Matt "Short Sheet" Gray. After the irony of the situation leaves Fred a little hysterical, Reilly voices concern about what will become of the money if Fred actually gets possession of it because he's afraid it won't remain in his possession for long.

Then he tells Fred that although Uncle Matt had cancer, it wasn't what killed him. A blunt instrument did.   

Things begin to happen rapidly and wildly after that, as Fred encounters an array of offbeat characters, among them lovely Karen Smith, who accosts him in the street and asks him to kiss her; Gertie Divine, the Body Secular, a stripper who was Uncle Matt's nurse and companion; Grant and Wilkins, the other two tenants in Fred's building; Homicide cops Steve and Ralph, who come across like comic vaudevillians but who, Gertie says, aren't candidates for sainthood; the elusive Professor Kilroy, Uncle's Matt's former partner; Dr. Osbertson, who goes to a wacky extreme to avoid talking to Fred; Gus Ricovic, who's always willing to trade information for cash; the menacing Coppo brothers, whose father Uncle Matt swindled during the years he lived in Brazil; and former senator Earl Dunbar, who began the Citizens Against Crime Organization.

Fred may be gullible, but he's not stupid. He realizes that he's suddenly become Mr. Sought-After now that he has money. When someone trails and then takes some potshots at him, and after he discovers another murder victim, he questions whether he can trust anyone, even the police, as he tries to decide what to do with the money, how to avoid being murdered himself, and how to determine who is behind all of the chaos.

Written relatively early in a long and illustrious career, God Save the Mark is a fine  example of why Donald E. Westlake is generally acknowledged as the all-time-greatest writer of comical crime stories. A well-plotted tale, its situations develop primarily from its  delightful cast of idiosyncratic characters. I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy a brief and breezy page-turner that will keep them smiling and sometimes chuckling aloud.  

Barry Ergang ©2012


God Save the Mark is one several books by Donald E. Westlake (including some written under his Richard Stark pseudonym) that Barry Ergang has available for sale at  He'll contribute 20% of the purchase price of the books to our fund, so please have a look at his lists. Formerly the Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and First Senior Editor of Mysterical-E, winner of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Award for the best flash fiction story of 2006, his written work has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. For links to material available online, and fiction available for e-readers, see Barry’s webpages.


George said...

Even though GOD SAVE THE MARK was written early in Westlake's career, it showed his writing chops.

Naomi Johnson said...

I first read GOD SAVE THE MARK right after reading THE HUNTER. That combination made me a Westlake fan for life.

Caroline Clemmons said...

I loved this book. A friend said she became irritated with the protagonist's gullibility, but that's part of his character arc. Besides, being compassionate is not a crime.