Once again the mainstream media outlets are ignoring the story of the century to concentrate on piddling little things about people who live in Washington and wear ties to work. So you read it here first, folks, on some obscure writer’s blog.
Why should you care? Because Donald Westlake was one of the true grandmasters of the art of fiction, and Dancing Aztecs is, quite simply, the best plotted novel ever written. You may not be aware of this. In fact, you may never have even heard of Donald Westlake. Nonetheless, I will stand by my statement.
Dancing Aztecs is a heist/comedy/romance novel of breathtakingly elegant complexity. On the first page is a list of characters, and there are a couple of dozen main characters. Don’t worry about bookmarking that list, though, you won’t need to refer back to it. The characters are all introduced with skill and timing, and all have such a unique voice that the reader has no trouble following who is whom and what is going on.
The story is really quite simple. A shipment of sixteen replicas of a famous Aztec relic are sent to New York. Inside this shipment, cleverly disguised, is the real statue. Instead of being diverted at the airport as was planned, the shipment containing the genuine statue is delivered to a non-profit political group and given away as prizes.
So somebody in New York has a priceless Aztec relic and doesn’t know it. And the people who arranged the shipment are looking for it.
And then the people who were supposed to be diverting the shipment figure out what’s going on and start looking for the statue. And then the people who arranged the shipment start looking for the people who were supposed to have diverted the shipment. And then the people who actually received the shipment figure out what one of them has. And then…
This novel is a perfect portrayal of how the best laid plans go south. The lure of the golden million-dollar statue (this was written in the 1970’s, a million dollars was big money back then) infects everyone in its path with a kind of madness.
The novel is written in very short chapters (some less than a page long) and bounces back and forth between characters continually. It should be a confused, unreadable mess–but somehow Westlake carries it off, and he makes it look easy.
Reading this book is like watching a juggler–he keeps throwing more and more in the air and keeps it all moving in flawless precision. I have read this book a dozen times, easily, and I am still slack-jawed with admiration every time.
Note: This was written forty years ago, and much of the language would not be considered PC these days. However, I do believe that Westlake treats all of his characters–Black, White, Male, Female, Straight, Gay–with dignity and respect. But funny.
(Oh, and I suspect that the emergence of Westlake’s backlist on Kindle may have something to do with the fact that one of his novels has just been made into a film–the new Jason Stathem vehicle Parker, who was brought to the screen twice before, once by Lee Marvin and once by Mel Gibson. But I really don’t care why, I’m just glad that a master’s work is being re-released in a new format.)