Hard Case Crime review: Call Me a Cab by Donald Westlake

Cover of Call Me a Cab by Donald Westlake


Note: Mild spoilers.

I should note up front that I am not the target market for Call Me a Cab. This posthumous novel began its published life as a novella for Redbook. It is a will-they-or-won’t-they story aimed at women, not at all the sort of thing I would pick up if it wasn’t by Donald Westlake. So it’s entirely possible that others, especially including its intended audience, will enjoy this novel more than I did.

I’m not at all confident that they will, but they may.

Call Me a Cab is the story of cab driver Thomas Fletcher and passenger Katharine Scott. Katherine has been proposed to by Barry, a successful plastic surgeon who seems like a good guy. She has been dithering about giving her answer, and she has promised that she will deliver it once she arrives in Los Angeles from New York. On the way to the airport in Tom’s cab, she comes up with an ingenious means of delaying her decision even further–instead of the flight that she had planned, she will have Tom drive her all the way across the country. She didn’t promise any particular means of getting to Los Angeles, after all.

Despite having a job that some (not me) may count as unskilled labor, Tom is a bright guy, college educated even. But he lacks ambition and is proud of that, having given up the business world to work at his father’s cab company. Katharine, on the other hand, is a successful landscape architect, which is why she can afford cross-country cab fare ($4000, or nearly $20,000 adjusted for inflation). Needless to say, she’s got beauty to match her obvious brains and drive.

This is a story of people on the road, and the things you would in general predict about it are in general the things that happen–an unusual occurrence or two, some interesting characters, car troubles at one point, sometimes our travelers get along and sometimes they don’t, and so on. Along the way, of course, they learn a few things about each other and a few things about themselves.

That Call Me a Cab largely sticks to the road adventure formula does not bother me. What bothers me is that I didn’t find most of their adventures to be interesting. At one point, Tom has to help a couple where the wife is about to give birth. This, I guess, was supposed to be funny–giving birth in a taxi cab is of course a cliché, and of course occasionally happens in real life. What Westlake was trying to do here is make a gag of this–here’s a cliché or something you read about in the papers, and it’s actually happening to Tom! The problem is that the giving-birth-in-a-taxicab vignette isn’t good enough for the gag to work. Not that’s it’s boring, but it never transcends the cliché, as Westlake clearly wanted it to do.

The reader is supposed to want Tom and Katherine to get together, but I never did. I was never sold that this couple could end up in a happy long-term relationship. I’ve seen relationships and marriages between people like Katharine and Tom. They ended in breakups or divorce. And since I liked both Katharine and Tom, I did not want them to get together when I thought they were doomed in the long term.

Some readers may say to this that I’m missing Westlake’s point, that they don’t have to live happily ever after–they can just enjoy their time together while it lasts. I get that–I just don’t find it very compelling. And, intentionally or not, Westlake precludes even the possibility of it working out long term by not having Tom grow as a character. If they are to have a chance, Tom needs to strive to be worthy of Katherine, but he ends the novel as pretty close to the same unambitious guy he was at the beginning. How long is Katharine going to put up with that? If Katharine is anything like the smart, driven women I’ve known (including the one I married), not very long.

One area where Call Me a Cab is interesting is as a cultural artifact. It takes place in 1977 and Tom (and Westlake) is grappling with feminism. Tom considers himself fairly enlightened, but he still finds navigating this new world to be treacherous on occasion–in other words, he steps in it a couple of times. Westlake handles the subject deftly–if it’s dated, I still think it gave me a vibrant picture of what it was like for men (and women) at that time. (Readers older than I am are welcome to correct me on that point.)

This is this the fourth posthumously published Donald Westlake novel, following MemoryThe Comedy is Finished, and Forever and a Death. The first two are terrific. I did not care for Forever and a Death, but it has its fans and possibly Call Me a Cab will have them as well. I’m still grateful that the latter two were published, although I hope that they aren’t too many people’s first experience with Westlake’s work.

Note: According to publisher Charles Ardai in the afterword, this is the last unpublished Donald Westlake novel. He’s said that before and been happily wrong. I have read that there is one more, entitled Ice, out there (I’ve covered this before elsewhere). We shall see!