Up Your Banners, published in 1969, is Donald E. Westlake‘s twelfth novel.

With over 100 novels published, Westlake is known primarily for his comic crime capers starring the inimitable John Dortmunder as well as his hard crime novels published originally under a variety of pseudonyms, some of the reasons for which can be understood by reading his 2000 novel The Hook.

As I am writing this introductory bit, I am finding myself tugged in a hundred directions — “tell them about this Westlake gem!” “What about this one!” “Don’t forget Adios Scheherezade!”

Westlake is that good.

Westlake started out writing hard crime and has cited Dashiell Hammett as having been a strong influence. I’m not sure that Hammett was so much an influence as that Westlake recognized himself in Hammett’s writing — they are both masters at a particularly effective pacing and an ability to invoke a sense of place, character and emotion with a few simple words. If you are a crime novel fan and have not read Hammett’s first five (and best known) novels, you should go straight to your library and check it out. (I recommend leaving The Thin Man to last — although it is first in the compilation volume available in my library, it is like a sweet dessert after the more harrowing stories contained in the other four.)

In Up Your Banners Westlake departs from crime, hard-boiled or comic, and takes on real life in the 1960s. It is a Romeo-Juliet story, it is about race relations, it is about fear and understanding. But there is nothing heavy-handed about Westlake.

The protaganist Oliver Abbott gets his first teaching assignment at a school in Brooklyn where his father is the principal and where his grandfather had been the principal before him. His father wants Oliver to make it a three-fer and doesn’t tell him that he’s being dumped in the middle of a hot race-relations/nepotism battle. It’s haves against have-nots, it’s whites against blacks, “authority” against “the mob” and, once Oliver meets the girl of his dreams who happens to be not only a leader of the school rebellion but is black, it’s love against hate.

Westlake is at his best as Oliver attempts to defuse the crisis while vainly attempting to explain that he’s a victim here too, until the action is brought to a crescendo and then curtain down.

There is not a lot of “popular fiction” of the 1960s that holds up well 40 or 50 years later but this one does. Westlake brings insight and humor to a subject matter which can be depressing and/or overwrought. It is, at the end, an optimistic story yet with its feet firmly in the realities of our humanity.

(Book cover courtesy of Amazon)