The Oldest Confession is a 1958 novel, the first of twenty-five by the American political novelist and satirist Richard Condon. It was published by Appleton-Century-Crofts. A tragicomedy about the attempted theft of a masterpiece from a museum in Spain, it engendered, along with other early works such as The Manchurian Candidate, a relatively brief Condon cult. Superficially it is what today would be called a caper story or caper novel, a subspecies of the crime novel—generally a light-hearted romp in which a gang of disparate characters bands together to pull off a substantial robbery from a seemingly impregnable site. The acknowledged master of this genre was the late Donald E. Westlake.
In spite of adhering to most of the informal rules of this genre, however, which include alternating comedy with scenes of dramatic tension and suspense and always building towards a powerful and surprising climax, Condon ends up thumbing his nose at most of these conventions and, for the last third of the book, it is clearly out-and-out tragedy that he is writing rather than comedy or straight entertainment. By then it has become apparent that, throughout the book, he has been writing about the human condition and its perils rather than merely regaling the reader with the story of an outrageous theft, no matter how ingenious its details.
With this initial novel, Condon clearly laid out the parameters for his next 24: a fast-moving, mostly tongue-in-cheek, semi-thriller narrative aimed at the general reader, peppered with occasional moments of grotesque horror and violence, all recounted by an omniscient narrator with a keen sense of irony and sardonicism, and always overlaid, to a greater or lesser degree, by Condon’s very deeply felt attitudes about America, business, money, greed, ethics, and morality.
In the course of his books, Condon frequently quotes verses or phrases from a work called The Keener’s Manual, in at least three instances deriving the title of that particular book from something in the manual. The manual is, however, as noted in greater detail in the Richard Condon article, an imaginary book whose lines have all been created by Condon himself. The epitaph to this first novel, which appears on the title page of the first American hardback edition, reads in its entirety:
The Oldest Confession Is one of Need, Half the need Love, The other half Greed
These, of course, are much the same words that Condon uses in speaking to A.H. Weiler of the New York Times as quoted just above.
Like most of the characters in Condon’s books, those in The Oldest Confession have little pretention to being true-to-life: they are, for the most part, colorfully drawn grotesques or funny hats. One of Condon’s great talents, however, is imbuing even his most exaggerated characters with enough lifelike or sympathetic features that their trials and often hideously unpleasant fates can be deeply poignant.
James Bourne, an American in his middle 30s, is the protagonist and anti-hero of the book. He is a superficially likable character, tall, physically powerful and intelligent. Bourne enunciates one of Condon’s recurring themes: that all businessmen are, by their very nature, both immoral and criminal. Bourne is shown to have learned this by working as a young man in his father’s insurance business for a number of years; he has been driven to the conclusion that all businessmen are, by definition, crooks and that it is no crime to steal from them
Barbour Women Paddock Quilted Jacket Red
. However, Bourne also believes that it is not a crime to steal from those who are actually friends of yours. The only truly honest people, he states throughout the book, are those who are avowedly criminal. But in spite of Bourne’s brooding introversion and his apparently genuine love for his wife, he is a totally self-absorbed and totally amoral person, ready to destroy all those around him through callousness, obliviousness, and solipsism. In this he is the forerunner of a number of later Condon “heroes” in books to come, the most notable of whom is probably Captain Colin Huntington RN (ret.), the cashiered Royal Navy captain who is the monomaniacally self-centered protagonist of the 1972 novel Arigato, and who, in spite of his stylishness, elegance, and cultivation, is directly responsible by the end of the book for the deaths of scores of innocent people.
Bourne is far from appearing in every scene. The number of other characters, however, is relatively small. Like Bourne, who perceives himself as the world’s greatest criminal genius, many of them are also superlatives in their own right:
.. kelme 360 star.Victoriano Munoz certainly deserved to die for what he had done in my first novel….The admirable Duchess of Dos Cortes, who murdered him, was very religious, and I was her old deity, poor woman. She implored me for permission to kill him for his most heinous crimes against her, and I had to so rule.
The dozens of great masterpieces that Condon had glimpsed hanging in the darkness of the Escorial became, in The Oldest Confession, paintings hanging in the main residence of Doña Blanca Conchita Hombria y Arias de Ochoa y Acebal, Marquesa de Vidal, Condesa de Ocho Pinas, Vizcondesa Ferri, Duquesa de Dos Cortes, a 29-year-old beauty who was married to an aged degenerate and becomes the wealthiest woman in Spain upon his death. The long-forgotten paintings are coveted by an American criminal named James Bourne, who lives in a hotel in Madrid and has stolen numerous other valuable paintings from across Spain. His method is simple, though arduous and dangerous: he replaces the original paintings with undetectable forgeries executed by Jean Marie Calvert, a Parisian artist who is the world’s greatest copyist.
Painted in Paris, the reproductions are brought into Spain by Bourne’s wife, an upper-class young American girl named Eve Lewis, who loves Bourne in spite of his criminality
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. In the first few dozen pages of the book Bourne successfully steals, with no twinges of remorse, three masterpieces from the castle of his supposed friend, the Duchess of Dos Cortes, and arranges for his wife to smuggle them to Paris for a highly profitable sale. When she arrives in Paris, however, she discovers that the mailing tube in which the paintings were being carried is now empty. The rest of the book is the narrative of their downhill path, as well as that of most of those people unlucky enough to have found themselves in their orbit.
Although Bourne has always fancied himself a master criminal, he is tracked by other criminals who are equally intelligent. The downhill path for all of the book’s characters begins when Bourne is coerced into accepting a seemingly impossible task: to steal one of the world’s most famous masterpieces, the Dos de Mayo, or Second of May or Charge of the Marmelukes, by Francisco de Goya, from its tightly guarded quarters in the national museum of Spain, the Prado. Adding to the difficulty of the task is the sheer size of the painting: it measures eight feet high by 11 feet wide.
By the last page of what begun as a light-hearted caper story, all of the principal characters, and some of the minor ones, are either dead, among the walking dead, or incarcerated for life. The very last words of the book are an apt summation: “His ruined face stared. She screamed. She screamed again. She could not stop screaming.”
In 1955 Condon, then 40 years old and a longtime New York publicist and Hollywood employee of various studios, was the publicity agent for The Pride and the Passion, a film starring Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren being shot in Spain. As he writes in his memoir, And Then We Moved to Rossenarra, he was present at a scene being filmed in the ancient rectory of the Escorial, the massive palace and cathedral outside Madrid. The enormous lights needed to film the scene
“revealed dozens upon dozens of great masterpieces of paintings that had not been seen for centuries, hung frame touching frame—the work of Goya, Velasquez, the great Dutch masters, and the most gifted masters of the Italian Renaissance…The idea of masterpieces of Spanish painting hanging in stone castles all over Spain, high and invisible in the darkness, stayed with me and gradually formed itself into a novel called The Oldest Confession….
Back in New York, Condon began turning his initial concept into a screenplay—until his wife pointed out, correctly, that he was writing it in the past tense instead of the present, which is obligatory for screenplays, and that it should be turned into a novel. Condon followed her advice and the book was published to favorable reviews not long afterwards.
Even before it was published in April 1958, twelve film companies had initiated talks about purchasing rights to it, a highly unusual amount of interest for an unpublished first novel. In a brief mention in The New York Times about the forthcoming book, “Condon explained without divulging details of the plot, [the theme] ‘Is one of need. Half the need, love. The other half, greed.'” The movie version was released in 1962 as The Happy Thieves, starring Rex Harrison and Rita Hayworth, and was dismissed by The New York Times as a “limp herring” of “the devastating first novel.”
The duchess was… a tribal yo-yo on a string eight hundred years long….
Bourne always sat uncommonly still… a monument to his own nerves which bayed like bloodhounds at the moon of his ambition.
…the giant gestures of throwing the ball from the long baskets as Van Gogh might have tried to throw off despair only to have it bound back at him from some crazy new angle.
…the dutchess [inherited] the ownership of approximately eighteen per cent of the population of Spain inclusive with farms, mines, factories, breweries, houses, forests, rocks, vineyards and holdings in eleven countries of the world including shares in a major league baseball club in North America, an ice cream company in Mexico, quite a few diamonds in South Africa, a Chinese restaurant on Rue François 1er in Paris, a television tube factory in Manila, and in geisha houses in Nagasaki and Kobe.
“It is greed with a social sense removed because what is there to be taken must be taken by the criminal consistent with his inner resources, eliminating envy, a much smaller sin.”
The crowd rioted at the bull ring…. Two children and one woman were trampled to death; twenty-six persons were injured, nine seriously. Two men, seated sixty yards apart in separate sections of the plaza, had been pointed at as having thrown the knife but miraculously had been saved from the mob by courageous police
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Gerald Walker, in the Sunday book review section of the New York Times of June 22, 1958, wrote a favorable review called “Urbane Insiders”. It managed to completely avoid giving his readers much more than a cursory clue as to what the book was about. One of his paragraphs (omitted here) was devoted to another, earlier work by another author about art forgeries, but, aside from that hint, his review is little more than generalities. It was, nevertheless, a fine inaugural reception in a most important media outlet for a hitherto unknown 43-year-old author:
Unlike most other first novels, Richard Condon’s is a fully controlled job of writing rather than an ardent grope. Written throughout with painstaking grace, not one scene or description is ever thrown away or treated in a commonplace manner. Everything is handled, and handled well, from the viewpoint of the cosmopolitan insider who knows everything there is to know about such urbane things as art critics, European customs inspectors, wire services, bullfights and fine food and drink.
And yet the one thing the author is unable to convey is any feeling of depth, of real mortality unfolding before the reader. The deterioration of James Bournes, Ivy League master criminal, is singularly unmoving even as one stunningly dramatic scene or ingeniuous plot-turn follows another….
Charles Poore, however, writing two months earlier in the daily Times, contented himself with a long synopsis of the story, finding “…a murderous sort of zaniness to Mr. Condon’s plot” and remarking that “With a technique that requires all surprises and revelations to be undermined by fresh surprises and revelations, Mr. Condon spins everyone deeper and deeper into the plot.”
Time magazine, the leading mid-brow American weekly for most of the 20th century, did not review The Oldest Confession. Over the next 30 years, however, they mentioned it at least six times, always favorably, and frequently as containing superior qualities that Condon’s later novels generally failed to meet: