CASTLE IN THE AIR by Donald E. Westlake

Castle in the Air
(Hard Case Crime Series #148)
By Donald E. Westlake
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 30th March 2021
ISBN: 9781785657221
— Paperback — 208 pp.


A beautiful woman named Lida from the (fictitious) South African nation of Yerbadoro has come to ‘master criminal’ Eustache Dent with a proposition. Escobar Lynch, the president of her nation has been ousted in a coup. The former dictator faces exile to keep his life, but cannot bring any of the tremendous fortune he has amassed off exploitation of the masses.

Lida has inside information that Escobar has a cunning plan to get his riches outside of the country: smuggling the fortune hidden in the bricks of his castle, an architectural attraction that is being disassembled and shipped to Paris to be reassembled for a special international exposition. Lida wants her people’s money returned to the people, but is willing to split the treasure with Dent, the nefarious thief who might just be able to pull such a heist off: taking a whole castle.

The novel begins with Dent starting to assemble his international group of thieves needed to coordinate such a complicated caper. He enlists a top thief from England, France, Germany, and Italy and instructs them each to recruit goons to help them. Each team is to simultaneously steal the castle blocks (edifices) as they are transported en route to Paris. None of the criminals are too happy about half the spoils going to Lida and back to to Yerbadoro, but Dent assures the team leaders that they will be cheating her out of any money as soon as they are able.

There are a couple problems. First, none of the thieves share a common language, so coordinating proves to be quite a challenging task! A bigger issue is that no one knows with part of the disassembled castle will hold the loot until after all are separately stolen and searched. Once one team discovers their pieces of the structure hold the valuables, what’s stopping them from taking it all and running? Is there any trust among criminals? Or will the fear of being chased by their fellow colleagues be a deterrent against greed? When there’s so much money involved, none of them can manage to say no, and all simply push doubts aside.

As I started reading Castle in the Air I became reminded of Rowan Atkinson’s The Black Adder, particularly a first series episode where the Prince Edmund goes throughout England to enlist the most ruthless bandits and criminals for help in seizing the throne. Things don’t go as planned. After all, you can’t really expect criminals to play well together.

The novel proceeds similarly, with farcical takes on each nation’s thieves that includes silly sounding names and clichéd eccentricities, all for comedic effect. With a fast moving pace the story proceeds through all the introductions and then spends a chapter on the actual theft. Then the really zany aspects of the caper begin, the double, triple, and quadruple crosses between each of the international teams. The humor of idiots trying to deal with the language barriers gets amped up through this all, until things finally settle with the loot ‘won’ by one and the others discovering themselves with unexpected successes of a different kind.

Castle in the Air is a much lighter sort of fare from Hard Case Crime than normal, but that doesn’t make it less entertaining. Just in a different way. There is very little violence, more just inept bumbling. No one dies, they are just humiliated. There is also very little sex or femme fatale type interaction, and brief bits that are present are also mostly played for comedy by poking fun at the stereotypes, and making the playfully seductive language extremely corny.

The success of the novel then is really going to depend on the reader’s potential enjoyment of a silly caper romp. It’s a pulp crime version of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. It may not be as laugh out loud funny, but some chuckles may come. The other potential interest for Castle in the Air may come for fans of the author. The prolific Westlake first had this novel published in 1980 and it’s pretty much disappeared since then. Hard Case Crime does a great job reissuing forgotten works such as this. It’s certainly not Westlake’s best, or usual kind of offering, but it is a worthwhile quick read, a curiosity worth a rediscover by genre fans.


DEPARTMENT ZERO by Paul Crilley

Department Zero
By Paul Crilley
Pyr Books — January 2017
ISBN: 9781633882010
— Paperback — 320 pp.


For some reason my reading over the last days has featured a good amount of cosmic horror, a sub-genre I don’t dislike, but also don’t gravitate toward. Given this, I thought it might be a good time to feature Paul Crilley’s 2017 novel Department Zero for a review from the backlist. Supernatural horror equal parts cosmic and comic, Department Zero has accurately been compared to the Men in Black series concept, with monsters in place of aliens. But, it also features characterization and motivation in its protagonist that goes beyond what those films attempted, and a multiversed panorama of settings and Lovecraftian creatures.

If you read any of my short fiction reviews, or the one I’ll soon write on Hailey Piper’s The Worm and His Kings, you’ll already know that I haven’t read Lovecraft. And even with the number of cosmic horror stories inspired by his style and creations, I don’t pay attention to, or care, who’s who or what’s what. Department Zero can be enjoyed without knowing anything about Lovecraft’s stories. I imagine it would be even more enriching for fans of the sub-genre who might get references. But, the heart of the story, its humor, and its non-stop moving action persist even if stripped from the cosmic horror particulars.

The protagonist of the novel is Harry Priest, a good-hearted – but generally failing-at-life – guy, whose job is to clean up deaths at crime/accident scenes. Stability at least accompanies this unpleasant occupation, stability that keeps him up with financial responsibilities to his ex-wife and continued visitations with his beloved daughter. No matter what crappy kind of day he has, Harry’s sole priority in life is getting to say goodnight to his daughter with a bedtime story.

On what he expects to be a routine biohazard removal job, Harry discovers something inexplicably bizarre amid the gory scene, and soon finds himself targeted by unfathomable creatures of nightmare. Harry’s actions at the crime scene draw the attention of one Havelock Graves, a self-absorbed agent for the Interstitial Crime Department (ICD), whose team has been demoted to “Department Zero” in punishment for the botched crime scene that Harry has accidentally disturbed. Harry has now been targeted by an evil cult that thinks he is involved in their multidimensional schemes, forcing Harry to join up as part of Graves’ team to reinstate them to ICD’s good gracious, and to thwart a criminal plan that spans the dimensions. The cult seeks the Spear of Destiny, a tool that can be used to free the cosmic entity/god Cthulhu from his dreamlike stasis.

Department Zero thus represents one huge mashup novel: science fiction, fantasy, gory horror, with a bit of mystery/thriller mixed in, all written with a lighthearted tongue-in-cheek humor from Harry’s point of view. No single one of these elements really works to overtake the rest, and Crilley keeps the engaging plot moving swiftly so that on a whole these disparate genre elements just all add up to a simply entertaining read.

The rapid pace of the novel has some downside to it, in that the reader doesn’t get too much of a chance to breathe or appreciate the multiverse as much as might be possible with more extensive scene-setting. On the other hand, like a good action movie, it keeps readers from worrying too much about the sense or silliness of it all, and simply instead just enjoying the ride. The main moments of ‘down-time’ from the novel’s plot propelling forward in action come from the grounded characterization of Harry Priest’s love for his daughter. Amid all the craziness and fantasy, there is something purely human and ‘realistic’ in his motivations and desires.

I suspect that the most prominent factor to Department Zero that will determine whether a reader likes the novel or decides to put it down unfinished will come down to appreciation of the humor. Some may find it too much, but others will find the quirkiness to hit the spot. It’s hard to predict where potential readers may lie, but if this summary and genre mash-up peaks your interest, it’s a wacky entertainment worth trying out. The blog Books, Bones & Buffy: Adventures in Speculative Fiction has an excerpt available for download, which might help potential readers decide if the novel’s tone is the right fit.

While Department Zero was not a book I was particularly looking for, it was one of those random ARC finds that left me pleased and glad that it found me.