Castle in the Air by Donald E Westlake

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Castle in the Air by Donald E Westlake front cover

Once again, Hard Case Crime has dug deep to unearth another forgotten book by the MWA Grand Master Westlake. At some point the well will run dry but there is so much enjoyment to be had from reading this caper that we must wish publishers are not approaching the bottom of this particular barrel.

It is 40 years or so since Castle in the Air was last published, but the story reads as if it was set in the 1960s. A criminal mastermind, Eustache Dench, has picked up the scent of a major heist. The citizens of the little South American country of Yerbadoro have toiled under a dictator for many years. But El Presidente Escobar Lynch has been feeling the pressure of late and a popular uprising looks sure to unseat him. Lynch is looking to escape the country with his wife, and in the process rob it blind. His plan is an audacious one – he has hidden his loot in the bricks of his castle and plans to transport it, block by block, to Paris where it will be rebuilt and where he can live in exile.

Dench, aided by a representative of the revolution, the beautiful Miss Lida Perez, plans to relieve him of his ill-gotten gains once he gets to Paris. In the style of all criminal masterminds, Dench also intends to relieve his partner of her share after that.

For his plan to work he knows he’ll need help. To this end he recruits four teams from across Europe to help him. From England, the upper class but broke Sir Mortimer Maxwell brings with him Bruddy Dunk, working class strongarm, and small-time con artist Andrew Pinkeham. From France, Jean LeFraque selects Renee Chateaupierre, cat-burglar, and depressed thief Charles Moule. From Italy, Rosa Palermo chooses the playboy Angelo Salvagambelli, and the reluctant godfather Vito Palone. Finally, from Germany, Herman Muller picks safe-breaker Rudi Schlisselmann and the kleptomaniac Otto Berg

Once in Paris, the four teams meet to work out a plan, a job made difficult since none of them speaks the others’ languages. Each team is given a part of the castle to steal according to its mode of transport – by air, by sea, by rail or by road. The team that finds the loot is supposed to then share it with the rest… Like that’s going to happen.

Castle in the Air is one of Westlake’s comic capers. His most well known involve the depressive thief Dortmunder, but I have to say I enjoyed this just as much as The Hot Rock or any of his other efforts. There’s nothing subtle or especially nuanced about the humour, it’s bawdy and farcical at times, but I sense that the author knew this and revelled in it. There are some stand out laugh-aloud scenes, the best of which is when a stream of hopeful male thieves appear at Lida’s door one evening while her fiancé, Miguel, gets steadily more annoyed that he has to pretend to be her cousin.

Castle in the Air is a frivolous piece of fun, which if it were a movie, would be a cross between The Italian Job and Ocean’s Eleven.

Why not take a look at another of the author’s books recently republished? Here’s our review of Brothers Keepers.

Hard Case Crime

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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