Book review: Westlake puts a lid on pols

By PETER ROFF, UPI National Political Analyst

WASHINGTON, May 24 (UPI) -- The book at a glance: Put A Lid On It by Donald E. Westlake. Published by Warner Books, $23.95, 247 pages.

America has a love affair with the mystery story.


They are guilty pleasures, something no one exactly admits to reading but sell well enough to indicate that someone is buying them.

Donald E. Westlake, a grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America, is living proof of that postulate. He has written so many books over the last 35 years that he has likely had time for little else. Someone must have bought them, else he would have had to change professions long ago.

He is one of the most versatile mystery writers at work today. Either under his own name or one of his several pseudonyms, Westlake produces comedy crime novels, serious thrillers -- in series or as one-offs -- with equal ease and effect.


But for someone who appears to have such a strong interest in the dark side of humanity, the corruption of the human soul, he has pretty much stayed away from that most corrupting of all things -- politics. Until now.

Put A Lid On It (Warner Books, $23.94, 247 pages) puts forth the jailbird's eye view of the American political system. In a wonderfully witty conceit, the teller of the tale is a career thief named Francis Xavier Meehan, first encountered while a guest of the government.

It seems that Meehan, as his friends call him, had taken part in a truck hijacking that went awry. The truck they thought was full of computer parts from Mexico actually had as part of its cargo registered U.S. mail.

Stealing the mail is a federal beef, as Meehan might say, leaving him potentially high, dry and headed for a lifetime stay in a federal correctional facility.

So, when a man pretending to be his lawyer -- but whom he has never before seen appears at the jail where he is temporarily being held and offers him a potential way out, Meehan jumps at the chance.

As it turns out, the fellow is not a lawyer; he is a representative of the president's re-election campaign and he has a deal to put on the table.


The president, it seems, engaged in some action that could greatly complicate his re-election efforts if the reality of events could be proven.

The proof, a tape, exists and is in the possession of a wealthy donor, a supporter of the opposition candidate.

The top people at the campaign fear that the information will be released by the other side far too close to Election Day for the president's team to respond effectively -- and "October Surprise" as it is know in the business.

They want the tape back and they want Meehan to get it for them in exchange for having the federal charges pending against him "dealt with."

This would not be, of course, the first time a presidential campaign found itself in need of a little "second story work" on top of the usual political intelligence gathering efforts. Some top operatives from Ariz. Sen. Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign still maintain that their New York headquarters were burgled on the orders of President Lyndon Johnson's re-election team.

The stories that Ambassador Joe Kennedy consorting with members of criminal organizations to ensure his eldest surviving son, Mass. Sen. John F. Kennedy, emerged with the victory in key states during the 1960 presidential election also refuse to die.


Of course, the granddaddy of them all, the scandal to end all presidential scandals remains Watergate, which brought down President Richard M. Nixon in 1974.

The crisis that toppled a president began with the discovery in process of what was later called a "second rate burglary" at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington.

In that case, the burglars were all affiliated in some fashion with the Central Intelligence Agency -- and they bungled the job.

The tale, as Westlake tells it, unfolds from the recognition of this fact by the presidential re-election campaign -- which is never identified by party and is, in any case fictional -- who find the only possible solution is to outsource the work.

While not as gripping a page turner as some of Westlake's other works -- especially the books featuring a thief named Parker that he writes under the pen name Richard Stark -- it is still an amusing read.

The characters, while interesting, do not have the time to develop as they do in some of his other one offs like The Fugitive Pigeon, God Save the Mark and Brothers Keepers. They entertain as the story moves along, full of typical, for Westlake anyway, double crosses, missteps and strokes of bad luck that eventually turn out for the good but you have the sense you wanted to learn more about them and their relationships.


It is a difficult task to blend the intricacies of politics with humor and crime, after all -- fiction needs to be believable as opposed to real life -- and there are some notes that ring just a hair off.

Nevertheless, Put A Lid On It is an imaginative take on how politics and crime come together out of perceived necessity and it is well worth the read.

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