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Castle in the Air


Castle in the Air

A little backstory is appropriate for Donald E. Westlake’s CASTLE IN THE AIR. It was originally published in hardcover in 1980, released in paperback the following year, and quickly vanished. Westlake was quite prolific, and the market could consume anything and everything he was writing in those halcyon days of publishing. The now veritable and always indispensable Hard Case Crime imprint has resurrected the book in fine fashion. While it is not Westlake’s best work (or his worst, for that matter), this fast-moving, relatively short caper novel is worth your time, attention and money.

Eustace Dench, who is described in the book’s first sentence as a master criminal, is the prime motivator of the piece, though the narrative by no means is limited to him. Dench learns that Escobar Lynch, the president of the (fictitious) country of Yerbadoro, has plans to move a castle --- or at least a portion of it --- to Paris. That is all well and good, but Lynch also intends to plunder his country by hiding a fortune in jewels and the like in the blocks of the castle that will be reassembled once they reach their destination. Dench learns of this plan from the lovely and comely Lida, a Yerbadoran revolutionary.

"[T]his fast-moving, relatively short caper novel is worth your time, attention and money.... Westlake’s cinematic narrative ability is on full display here."

Lida wants the treasure to finance the revolution, and Dench has a way of getting it, though not necessarily for her. He quickly assembles a team of thieves from across Europe to pry the treasure from Lynch. Dench has some great ideas, but he doesn’t always think things all the way through. While each member of his team possesses a particular expertise, there are a number of language barriers built in the mix --- the Italians don’t speak French, who don’t speak German, and none of them seem to speak English. This makes communication and coordination during the heist difficult, to say the least.

However, the major complication is the personality flaw shared by all the participants in Dench’s plan: greed. There is no honor among thieves here. They are ready and willing to perform their respective parts that Dench has assigned, but they also are committed to absconding with the treasure at the first opportunity. Even the internal sub-alliances formed during the heist are not immune to their greed, and the team quickly learns that no one can be trusted. This creates a number of vignettes that are interesting yet predictable, but there is always a twist or two in the conclusion of each. The story wraps up pretty much the way one might expect, though there is a surprise secondary ending that is as clever as it is amusing.

CASTLE IN THE AIR will be of interest primarily to Westlake completists who are either part of a new generation of readers who are unaware of him or were not on this earth when the book initially released, or to those who loyally collect the Hard Case Crime books as they are published. It should be noted, though, that Westlake’s cinematic narrative ability is on full display here. The novel may never be adapted as a movie, but it wouldn’t be necessary anyway. One plays in your head as you read his fine prose, which incidentally references his best-known character in a couple of different ways. It is a fun reading ride for everyone.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 2, 2021

Castle in the Air
by Donald E. Westlake

  • Publication Date: March 30, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Humor, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Hard Case Crime
  • ISBN-10: 1785657224
  • ISBN-13: 9781785657221