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Brothers Keepers


Brothers Keepers

If Hard Case Crime functioned only as a postmortem memorial press for Donald E. Westlake, that would be more than enough to justify its ongoing existence. Of course, this publishing imprint founded by Charles Ardai in 2004 is much more than that. It’s just that Westlake has created a body of work under his own name and others that remains enviable from both a qualitative and quantitative standpoint. Hard Case Crime has seen fit to rescue various titles of his from the concentric circle of hell known as “out of print” on a regular, if not frequent, basis. This brings us to the underappreciated jewel known as BROTHERS KEEPERS.

This newly republished stand-alone caper novel with a twist is full of quirky characters and Westlake’s trademark humor. It’s somewhat different from his other books in that it centers on the Crispinite Order of the Novum Mundum, an obscure order of monks who live in semi-cloistered self-sufficiency in the midst of Manhattan. Their monastery is two centuries old as BROTHERS KEEPERS begins but does not appear likely to get much older.

"This newly republished stand-alone caper novel with a twist is full of quirky characters and Westlake’s trademark humor.... It’s a quiet little gem that you'll want to keep and reread."

The story, as told in the first person by Brother Benedict of the order, is that the city has grown up around the monastery, so much so that the venerable building sits on some extremely prime Manhattan real estate and is in the way of a proposed high-rise office building. The lot on which the monastery rests has been sold out from under it. The monks discover this at the 11th hour and learn that they have less than a month before they are to be evicted. The new owner of the property is more than willing to aid them in finding another place to live and relocate them. To the order, though, such a proposition is unthinkable. The original lease agreement entered into way back when may provide the order with a legal basis to stay, but it has gone missing.

Brother Benedict, a reliable worker bee for the small order, is the one who discovered that the demolition of the monastery was in the works, and is an integral part of a series of ever-changing plans to either legally prevent that from happening or convince the new owner to change its corporate mind. He finds himself in contact with the outside world a bit more than he would like to be. That environment has its temptations, of course, and chief among them are those of the flesh. The good brother eventually falls in love, and as BROTHERS KEEPERS proceeds, there is a decent chance that he will sleep with the enemy…or at least the daughter of the enemy. Such an action would go against his vows, but it may be the only way to keep the monastery from being bulldozed and the Order moved. What to do? The answer is what you think, but not quite, and you will have to read this wonderfully written work to find out.

BROTHERS KEEPERS was penned in the mid-1970s. That said, one reading it in the late-2010s is struck not only by how much has changed but also by how much has stayed the same. Westlake was remarkably prescient in a number of ways. Still, those of delicate sensibilities may find themselves experiencing a bit of retroactive and arguably much-needed culture shock. At the end of the day, however, two things stand out here. One is the manner in which Westlake can illustrate, with a few paragraphs or a vignette or two, why New York is by turns the best and worst place to live. The other is the variety of instantly memorable and entertaining characters that he was capable of conjuring up in book after book, including this one. It’s a quiet little gem that you'll want to keep and reread.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 22, 2019

Brothers Keepers
by Donald E. Westlake