Hard Case Crime review: Castle in the Air by Donald E. Westlake (HCC-148)


When four groups of international heist artists team up to pull off the theft of the century – stealing an entire castle, and the treasure hidden in its walls – what could possibly go wrong? Well, consider this: none of the master thieves speak each other’s languages… And no one knows precisely where the loot is stashed… And every one of them wants to steal it all for him or herself. It’s MWA grand master Donald E. Westlake at his wildest, a breathless slapstick chase through the streets of Paris only one step ahead of the law – and each other.

The cover of the Hard Case Crime reprint of Castle in the Air reads, “FIRST PUBLICATION IN 40 YEARS!”

Unfortunately, there is a reason for that. Castle in the Air is a novel of mostly unrealized potential.

There are two intriguing plot elements that form the foundation of this Castle. The first element is the one that gives the novel its title–a gang of thieves is going to steal an entire castle. How, you ask? Well, this castle is being transported from the fictional South American country of Yerbadoro (even the name of the fake country isn’t very good) to Paris to be part of that country’s exhibit at an international exposition. Revolution is brewing in Yerbadoro, and el presidente knows that it is in his and the first lady’s best interest to exile themselves before they are exiled, or much worse, by others. But they can’t be expected to leave their plundered wealth behind, now can they? The expo provides an opportunity to relocate with a modest home (by castle standards) and their looted lucre, which is to be hidden in the stones of the castle. Which stones is unknown, so all of them must be absconded with.

The second element is the gang itself. For this immense task, British master thief and ringleader Eustace Dench brings on board three other master thieves from three other countries, who then recruit their own subordinates. Eustace hires the British team, with additional teams from France, Italy, and Germany.

This is to enable the primary farcical elements. The first of these is the language barrier. All of the team leaders speak English, but the subordinates from the continent do not. In addition, there is the Yerbadoroan contingent, on whose behalf this ambitious heist is allegedly being undertaken, adding Spanish to the mix of this United Nations of crime.

You can probably guess the second: With twelve thieves from four different countries, there is extraordinary potential for double-cross upon double-cross.

Let’s take these elements in order.

The theft of an entire castle sounds like a heck of a premise for a book. What it actually amounts to, however, is stealing a bunch of stone blocks. An exciting concept becomes quite pedestrian in its execution.

The gang itself, and the attempts at humor derived from its composition, face a similar fate. Trying to squeeze comedy out of the language barriers becomes quickly tiresome. Maybe this could have worked in a movie*, but on the printed page, it’s nearly as irritating to the reader as it is to the monolingual Eustace Dench.

The one element that comes closest to working, which will surprise no one reading this, is the double-crossings. Westlake’s goal here, with four primary factions of three members each, seems to be to create the most double-crossing-est book ever, with each faction crossing the others, and then the individual members of each faction crossing each other. This is the liveliest portion of the book. As you would expect, this is primarily relegated to the third act, which is somewhat of a slog to get to. It’s also far from the best work Westlake has done in this territory–again, the concept is much more promising than the execution.

This being Westlake, there are, of course, worthy moments in this unremarkable novel. A scene involving a continuous stream of visitors to the chambers of the beautiful Yerbodoroan revolutionary deserved to be in a better book. But that and a couple of others are not enough to make Castle in the Air deserving of other than a low priority spot on your Westlake TBR list.

* One of the commenters over at The Westlake Review speculates that Castle in the Air began life as a script. While there is no evidence of this so far as I know, this strikes me as quite plausible.

Castle in the Air at the official Donald Westlake site