I was saddened to learn the other day that writer Brian Garfield died at the end of last year at the fairly modest age of 79. Back in the day, I read quite a few of Garfield’s crime novels, and by and large very much enjoyed them. (The one about which I had reservations was, oddly enough, the one that brought him the greatest fame, Death Wish, although I liked the novel a lot better than I liked any of the violence-glorifying, pro-vigilante screen adaptations I saw.) I got the impression, too, that Garfield was a thoroughly good egg, someone I’d have loved to have known.
Hearing of his death prompted me to dig out one of his books to read as a tribute, so to speak. The difficulty was finding one I was pretty certain I hadn’t read decades ago during my Garfield reading frenzy. And so it turned out that I found myself not only reading an extremely atypical Garfield book (surely I’d have remembered a Garfield/Westlake collaboration, since Westlake was another favorite author!) but also realizing after a few chapters that in fact I had read it. Still, it was about forty-five years ago, give or take, so I forgive my flawed memory.
It’s 1874 and young New York enforcer Gabe Beauchamps has been “advised” by his criminal boss that he might choose to continue his career as far away from New York as he could possibly get without drowning in the Pacific — in San Francisco, to be precise. By the time he gets there, Gabe has teamed up with beautiful pickpocket and con artist Evangeline “Vangie” Kemp. The two form the kernel of a tight little group that has all the requisite skill sets to perpetrate the heist Gabe has dreamed up: nothing less than robbing the US Mint of as much gold bullion as humanly possible . . .
It’s all great knockabout stuff, as if Terry Pratchett had decided to write himself a heist novel — more farcical, in fact, than even Westlake’s own solo comedy capers like the Dortmunder novels. I’ve no idea how many times I rocked with laughter, but it was certainly quite a few.
This is by no means one of the shining jewels in the Garfield crown, but it’s tremendous fun, a giddyingly fast read, and very likable. Oh, and it has a couple of truly groanworthy puns that I really enjoyed.