Donald E. Westlake’s Castle in the Air is another example of Hard Case Crime bringing relatively forgotten volumes back into print. Castle In the Air is a technically accurately titled book, and an intriguing example of the heist novel as well.
A leader from a small South American nation has decided, in the midst of a bitter power struggle with his people, to move to Europe. This in and of itself has the makings of a story, yet his decision to move his entire castle to France with him is both a sign of massive overkill and an evocative idea for a title. The fact the man and his wife hide as much of their personal wealth and the wealth stripped from the people in the castle, however, makes this a wonderful setup for a heist novel.
Eustace Dench gets the idea to steal the whole castle so that he can find the hidden wealth while promising Lida, the paramour who told him of their movement, half for her revolutionary cause at home. Undoubtedly, this is going to be a big job. So more individuals are brought in, leading to crews of French, Spanish, German, and Italian thieves working together to steal the entire castle, trusting only that their mutual distrust and skill will prevent a double-cross. The very comic nature of this argument, particularly following from a more general suggestion of working together, sets the tone for this volume as a down to earth yet still humorous little caper.
There is a light humor to the piece that works well with heist stories, and in this particular volume the use of separated groups and parallel storytelling allows for humor in the way a point is driven steadily home. In a search, one group finds themselves reaching certain conclusions. Shortly after, another group has similar ideas, so that a reader can see the way they do so as a nice mix of logical and rediculous. Even the ending serves up its own unexpected twists, with a series of betrayals leading to a focus on the man whom first planned the heist, and the odd position in which he finds himself.
The new cover by Paul Mann is an interesting choice. Very much of the pulpy beautiful girl with a gun aesthetic, it still gets across the setting in Paris. The earlier covers downplayed the shapely woman, instead playing up the castle. As it does not serve as a focus of the story whole and in fact, that may very well make the more sexualized cover the more accurate for a shift from so many early paperbacks.
Castle in the Air should entertain fans of old school pulp stories, and fans of heists in general. I would not recommend it if one thinks it was written by Diana Wynne Jones; however for the reader looking for a lighthearted crime caper it may be the perfect fit.
(Hard Case Crime, 2021)