Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: THE PRESIDENT'S GRASS IS MISSING by Patricia Breen-Bond

Now if anybody out there's ever read this neat little caper comedy/thriller from 1980, I will be mightily impressed. It sure ain't easy to find these days, but back when I picked it up they were practically giving the thing away. And by 'they,' I mean good old Woolworths. Back in the late seventies and early eighties, it seemed every UK Woolworths store you walked into would have a couple of bargain bins in the book department that were filled to the brim with remaindered, heavily-discounted paperbacks. And I do mean heavily discounted. If my memory serves me correctly they were usually around the 20-25p mark, which wasn't a whole lot even back then. Especially for a book.

But what made it even better was the fact that these were American paperbacks. Or at least most of them were. There were usually some British ones in there, too, but it was always the US ones I gravitated towards as they invariably had the more interesting covers. Wooly's must have had some kind of deal going with the overseas remainder houses or something, because they always seemed to be from second-rate publishers like Belmont-Tower or Leisure Books. You know the ones I mean. The ones with cheap pulpy paper and blue/green dye running along the sides of the pages.

Not that I cared, though. I was like a pig in clover, I really was. Anytime I had a few spare coins on me, I'd head over to my local Wooly's and just dive in and see what treasures would emerge. It was like a lottery. Most were crap, of course, and were probably overpriced at 20p. But every now and then you'd find a little gem, and this was one of them.

So let's take a look at the story itself, shall we?

The president of the title is Paul Eyman, a young, man-of-the-people type who was voted in by a landslide and who's one part charismatic bullshitter and one part eccentric maverick. Which means he often attends Oval Office meetings wearing colourful shirts, jeans and flip-flops, and in the summer usually works in only his swim trunks. Mainly because he's 'the Man' and he can do what he wants. More importantly, however, he also likes to partake in the occasional spliff or two when winding down of an evening. And he also happens to be in a position whereby he can get the best stuff available, courtesy of the Director of the CIA.

Except one morning the Secret Service discover a whole section of the White House lawn has been stolen. And wouldn't you know it - that's precisely where Eyman hid his marijuana. Within minutes, a phone call's put through to the President. The unidentified caller claims he now has the Prez's secret stash stilll wrapped in the original cellophane with the presidential seal on it (good thinking there, people), along with the president's fingerprints. And the price for its return is one billion dollars or it goes straight to the press.

What Eyman and the rest of his cabinet don't know, however, is that this whole scheme began in a corner bar in Upper Manhattan where a few regulars made a bet with a few other regulars about who could come up with the best prank. One group ordered 100 KFC buckets to be delivered to a rival Irish bar, so the other group booked an R&B group to play at the same bar. So far, so harmless. But over the course of a few months the pranks gradually escalate from the mildly irritating to the seriously felonious, such as pretending to be soldiers and stealing weapons from a federal armoury. Anxious for a new challenge, one of them goes as far as to suggest they steal a section of the White House lawn. Which, of course, they succeed in doing (in the prologue, no less), realizing only later that they've also got the main man's private drug supply as well. And naturally, rather than give the pot back, they decide to take things a step further by ransoming it off. The rest of the novel then follows various characters on both sides as they prepare for the handover of a billion dollars in cash. Or not, as the case may be.

So, as you can see, what we have here is the kind of comedy heist caper Donald Westlake perfected with his hilarious John Dortmunder series, as well as a whole host of other standalone novels. Breen-Bond even places the action in the New York area, the setting for most of Westlake's stories. But to be honest, the similarities really end there.

For one thing, the Dortmunder books were almost always played totally as farce (with the notable exception of 'Drowned Hopes'), whereas this one starts out that way but soon morphs into thriller territory as the moment of truth gets closer. Also, while Westlake always grounds his plots so they're at least relatively believable, Breen-Bond makes it fairly clear from the start that reality won't be getting much of a look in here. A pot-smoking president is one thing, but are we really to believe a bunch of blue-collar telephone engineers can train themselves up, prank by prank, to become the most successful criminal heisters in history? And then to blackmail the President himself out of a billion dollars of government funds? I mean, there’s a difference between suspension of disbelief and hanging it by the neck until it's dead, and Breen-Bond comes perilously close to the latter with this book.

But I think the best way to approach this story is to simply get on board and go with it, otherwise you simply miss out on all the fun. Because that's essentially what this book is. Fun. And I have to say that unlikely as it all is, at least the concept's a fairly original one. It also helps that Breen-Bond's able to extract the humour out of almost any given scene. For instance, only a few pages in we witness the cabinet getting together to discuss the problem at hand:

       The flustered, bulldogged-face FBI chief, Douglas Pomeroy, barked out first. 'Mr President, this condition is preposterous. I can assure you that the Bureau will get to the bottom of this at once. No one and I mean no one can get away with stealing the White House lawn.'
       'Thank you. By the way, are you gay?'
       The Secretary had to catch Pomeroy before he toppled the chair.
       'Don't take it so hard, Douglas. It was just a simple question.'
       'But, Mr President, as head of the... the... the...'
       'Bureau,' someone at the other end gently reminded him.
       'Bureau... surely...'
       'Come on, Douggie, a simple yes or no will do. Don't BS me.'
       'Certainly not, Mr President.'
       'Too bad. I was hoping to use it in my next campaign. - that I hire gays. Anybody here gay?'
       The room became quiet as a morgue.

And every few pages Breen-Bond introduces another walk-on character whose sole purpose is to make life that much more difficult for the main players - sometimes without advancing the plot at all. Which is exactly what you want in a caper such as this. The president's dog, for example, makes a notable nuisance of himself during the initial theft when he wants to play fetch. Or there's the bad-tempered rip-off artist who tries to make off with the van holding the stolen turf. Or there's the hostile telephone operator who refuses to give a certain CIA agent any information about the previous caller's location, and even refuses to give him her own name.

But I also like the healthy streak of cynicism that runs through the whole book, too. Corruption is rife throughout, and almost every character is on the make in one form or another. The President and his cabinet are very quick to suggest taking the ransom out of the defence budget, for example, which is about what you'd expect from a group of elected officials. And it goes without saying that almost every uniformed cop in the book is on the take. Then there's another character who needs to rent a car on short notice and has to bribe the rental guy to get what he wants. Or on reconnaissance duties in a deserted building, one of the thieves overhears a foreman and a contractor discussing how to cut corners on the fire sprinkler system so they can pocket the excess funds themselves.

These are just some of the reasons why I like this book, and why I wish Patricia Breen-Bond had written more. She certainly had the potential to become a name author in her field, but it seems she left the publishing world altogether after this one, which is a real shame. But on the upside, at least she left on a high.

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