DONALD E. WESTLAKE – Brothers Keepers

Fawcett Crest 2-2962; paperback reprint, no date stated. Hardcover edition: M. Evans & Co., 1975. Later paperback edition: Mysterious Press, 1993.

Brothers Keepers

   Donald Westlake has written a long list of crime and mystery fiction over his writing career, all of the books avidly read and well celebrated. He’s well regarded for his comic novels too, and sometimes his crime fiction and his comic novels are one and the same. Not so this time. Even though I’m reviewing Brothers Keepers here on Mystery*File, and wickedly funny it is indeed, it’s a stretch to call it crime fiction in any shape, whatsit or form. You really have to hunt to find anything truly criminous in it all all. Al Hubin in Crime Fiction IV agrees with me, marking the title with a dash in front, indicating that it’s only marginally crime-related.

   For the basic plot line, I’m going to quote from the back cover of the Mysterious Press paperback. The book from Crest is actually closer at hand, since it happens to be the one I read, but I think the story is summarized a whole lot better in this later edition:

    “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” confessed Brother Benedict of Manhattan’s Crispinite Order. And that was before the 19-year lease on the order’s Park Avenue monastery had expired, pitting its sixteen monks against a greedy real-estate mogul who could quote scripture like a pro. And that was before Brother Benedict fell head-over-heels in love with the greedy landlord’s daughter. Suddenly, from Midtown to the Caribbean, Brother Benedict has to play detective and ladies’ man in the noisy, profane and inexplicable world outside the monastery. And Brother Benedict had better not trip on his robe. Because, although he’s trying to save a house of God, all hell is about to break loose.

Brothers Keepers

   There’s some exaggeration there in the last line, I’m sorry to say, all the more to sell books, I’m sure, but the rest is fairly well on the mark. The only crime, as far as I could see, occurs on page 139, when the Brothers learn to their dismay that the lease to their monastery, the one that will prevent them from being evicted has been stolen. Was it an inside job? Or has someone managed to infiltrate the monastery without anyone noticing? Good questions, both.

   As a purely personal matter, Brother Benedict may sin against God in this book, but his sins generally fall below the standard of being a crime, lust (for Mrs. Bone, the landlord’s divorced daughter) being not generally being a prosecutable offense in most courts of the land. Please note the outer cover of the Crest paperback (with the cutout hole part of the manufacture) versus the inner illustration behind. You may have a lot of sympathy for Brother Benedict’s anguish.

Brothers Keepers (inset)

   Quoting would be a good idea once again, I believe. From page 107 this time, as Brother Benedict, who tells the story, is taking his first ride in an automobile in ten years:

    … Mrs. Bone, of course, was exactly like the girls usually filmed with these cars on television.

    A red light at Sixth Avenue. The car stopped, Mrs. Bone glanced at me again, and by God I was looking at her, no doubt with the same equivocal expression as before. And I had been trying to think about the car.

    She frowned at me. “How long have you been a monk?”

    “Ten years.”

   The light changed; she spun the wheel and we turned right onto Sixth Avenue. “Well,” she said, “that’s either too long or not long enough.”

   I see Gina Gershon in the part. Maybe Matt Damon as Brother Benedict, although I haven’t thought about that half of the casting anywhere near long enough. A better name may come to me later.

   I didn’t keep an exact count, but I’d estimate that this book averages a laugh-out-loud guffaw every six pages. This includes Brother Oliver’s comment about an edifice complex on page 68. This may not seem to you like a very high ratio, but considering all of the smiles and grins in between, and the fact that most books do not have a laugh-out-loud cause for guffaw anywhere in them at all, and I think you might pause to reconsider, and rightfully so.

   In Pity Him Afterwards, a book by Mr. Westlake which I reviewed some time back, he showed me that he knows his way around a summer playhouse with the ease of one who’s been around one often, and on the inside. The same is true, as difficult as it may to believe, of Mr. Westlake and monasteries. Of course I’ve never been in one or part of one, and maybe I’m easily convinced, but if verisimilitude is what you’re looking for, as far as the settings where the books you read take place, this one has it, and in a bushel full.

Brothers Keepers

   The only part of this small affair – but a huge one for the monks involved, who are almost totally ignorant of the ways of the outside world – that I am a little hesitant about recommending outright is the ending, which didn’t go in the direction I was thinking that it was going to go. But it’s still a terrific ending – I just read it again, and it certainly works for me.

   What the heck. Forget my quibble. Let’s call it an outright recommendation. For a partially irreverent view of religion and the outside world of high finance as well, tossing in a bit of angst-filled bawdiness to boot, this is book that will challenge all comers, crime fiction or no.

— March 2007