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'Money for Nothing' by Donald Westlake

Sunday, May 18, 2003

By Michael Helfand

Imagine that an organization called United States Agent sends you $1,000 a month. That's what happened to young, single Josh Redmont when he worked as a temp.

Much as he tried to contact the agency (and he really tried), he couldn't find out why he got the money. Eventually, he stopped trying, but he still cashed the checks.

Seven years later, Josh, a successful family man who never told his wife about the stipend, finds out, from a man with a strange name, that he was paid to be a spy in waiting for a country east of Istanbul. There is no money for nothing.


"Money for Nothing"
By Donald Westlake
Mysterious Press ($24.95)


Since his wife and child are off on Fire Island for a few weeks, Josh is informed that his house will be used to store guns, ammo, uniforms and a few agents. And Josh also will be their driver.

The project, he quickly discovers, is the assassination of a dignitary about to visit the United Nations. Josh is angered and terrified, but he agrees to play along. So begins this comic thriller by a master of the form.

Josh later learns, from another man (with another strange name), that he's not alone: Two other decent Americans received and cashed those checks and one, who didn't play along, is now dead.

In short, Josh and the surviving fellow, an actor named Mitchell Robbie, find themselves in a commissar's version of Hotel California -- they can check out any time they like, but they can never leave.

Of course they play along, but they hope to create a scenario that will keep them breathing, foil the assassination and avoid a long prison term for domestic espionage. Maybe Josh can even save his marriage! The play, after all, is the thing.

But these foreign agents are pretty clever, too, and have scenarios and weapons of their own. It appears, however, there's a rift in the organization: Two heads aren't better than one if each wants the other on a platter.

So Josh and Robbie can try to play them off against each other. Or are they the ones being played? A good bit of the fun comes from watching the plots and counterplots unfold.

That's especially true of those involving Tina Pausto, a modern Mata Hari who is installed in the house with Josh to guard the goods but not, it seems, her goodies. Josh has learned there's no money for nothing. But are the chicks for free?

Then there's the senile millionaire with the big estate in the country who has unknowingly hired the entire hit squad as her servants and grounds-keepers.

But Westlake can go on forever. He keeps ratcheting up the tension and then relieving it with some good laughs. You get your money's worth with this one.

Michael Helfand teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh.

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