The Busy Body (1966) is an early crime novel by Donald Westlake, who under the Richard Stark pseudonym wrote the famous Parker series. Although the Parker books are imbued with their own dark humor, their spare prose style and frequent violence limit the amount of comedy that they contain. Parker, after all, readily kills when he needs to — and he frequently needs to.
TBB features Aloysius Engel, a professional inside a comfortably profitable East coast criminal organization (referred to as the organization). Described accurately here as a comic retelling of the early novel The Cutie (originally, The Mercenaries), TBB was written during a considerable upswing in Westlake’s career. Several of his books were being optioned and, sometimes, filmed; TBB itself was loosely adapted into a Sid Caesar movie.* The Cutie, reprinted by Hard Case Crime, is a worthwhile read with an interesting depiction of mobsters, so my opinion of the TBB hinges on whether this story holds up just as well as a farce. Like the protagonist of The Cutie, Engel finds himself trapped between his role as a loyal criminal as unknown agents turn against him and force him to solve a mystery while avoiding the reach of the law. Engel’s growing discomfort with his career choice is his most compelling trait, and is illustrated in my favorite cover of TBB.
Engel is the right-hand man of the organization’s boss (named Nick Rovito, who strongly resembles the mob boss in The Cutie), which is mostly a comfortable job due to an ongoing true referred to as the “Miami conference”. The Miami conference is TBB’s version of the large criminal gathering described in 361, where the bosses carve out their territory and neatly set up Westlake plots. Rovito recruits Engel to dig up the body of a just-buried associate Charlie Brody, who trafficked heroin for Rovito by having it sewn into the lining of his ubiquitous blue suit. Engel has an ancient car and a drunken henchman, whom he is supposed to leave in Brody’s grave, as his help.
Unfortunately, Brody’s corpse apparently has a life of its own, because Engel discovers that the coffin is empty. His partner escapes a swing of the shovel, and escapes in the night. Thus, “the busy body” of the novel is Brody’s body, or the frantically engaged Engel, or even Engel’s henpecking mother; although the last character exists mostly at the other end of the telephone.
Engel reports his problems to Rovito, banking on the trust he thinks he built for himself over the years. After all, he became the right-hand man by – more or less inadvertently – shooting a high-level traitor and saving his boss’ life. After apparently buying a little time for himself, he visits the undertaker in his office. It so happens that the funeral home is hosting a large gathering of policeman, including the detective Callaghan. Engel talks his way past the cops and opens the office door, to find the undertaker dead with a knife in his chest. A reedy woman, presumably the undertaker’s wife, screams and faints. On his way out of the building, Engel gets identified by the same woman as the killer, and we are in full farce mode.
Engel, being relatively fleet of foot and always having a eye for detail, makes his first escape from capture (this time by a crowd of police in a funeral home) in a scene of chaotic glory:
Engel crossed a major street, against the light, being narrowly missed by a city bus, a TR-2, a Herald Tribune truck and a Barracuda. Behind him, the intersection was abruptly a sea of chaos, with cops and cars snarling together like long hair when it’s been washed. Half the cops halted in the middle of the street and held their hands up to stop traffic so the other half could go through, but the second half couldn’t get through because the first half was blocking the way. So were the city bus and the Barracuda, both of which stalled. So was a Mustang, which had run into the tail of the Barracuda. So was a bohemian-looking lady on a motor scooter, who had stopped in the middle of everything to see what was going on.
Of course there many similar circumstances in the Parker series, when Westlake writes as Richard Stark. But Stark uses a lot fewer words and his anti-hero Parker tends to ignore the irrelevant details. But here, Engel cannot get over how much a mess he gets plunged into, and this description takes on the flavor of complaining. Even the complaints are deft, however, and fit into a leanly-told story that never slows down.
The efficiency does come at a price, however. We never obtain a good feel for the detective Callaghan, who is there to wear a hat and make vague threats. The female characters in the supporting cast can seem rather one-dimensional: Engel’s mother is there for a single joke, and there is a on-and-off girlfriend who also nags Engel by notes written in lipstick.
However, Mrs. Merriwether and Mrs. Brody, the two widows of the story, have interesting roles and Westlake does a lot with them in a small amount of time. The Brody widow is returning to her prior role as an organization call girl, but her odd choice to stay in her apartment flies under Engel’s and Rovito’s faulty radars. The woman at the funeral parlor, whom we know originally as Mrs. Merriwether, ends up being an interesting foil, even if it’s obvious from the start that she’s up to something.
Overall, the book works as a comedy, even if Engel is bit too capable to be truly interesting in his role as an aggrieved target of a frame-up. He, the organization he works for, and the two women he encounters along the way, are enough to make a copy of TBB worth finding. 6/10.
* The Busy Body was also Richard Pryor’s debut film. There’s not a surfeit of reviews of it, but it certainly looks like it could be terrible.