Review: Killing Time

“Jack told us you were shifty but honest,” he said conversationally.   “How do you work  a stunt like that? 

“I’m on the side of the angels,” I told him.

“There aren’t any angels in Winston,” he said.

Say you go by the rather commonplace name of Tim Smith–an everyman, so to speak, but far from average.   Say you’re a detective–the private kind–in a small town, where everybody knows everybody, and everybody definitely knows you.   And you figure you know them, as well as the score, but guess what?   You figured wrong.

The second novel Westlake published under his own name, Killing Time, as I see it, is his first really substantial piece of work; product of a long-gestating talent that has finally matured, though it’s still years away from peaking.    It’s also a headscratcher of a book–it starts like the first in a series of hardboiled detective novels,  firmly in the Dashiell Hammett school, set in a small upstate New York burg–the kind of town Westlake had a fair bit of experience with, growing up in and around Albany and then going to Harpur College in Binghamton–Rod Serling’s birthplace.  But it most emphatically doesn’t end that way.   It ends, you might say, with a bang–or a scream.

So I have to wonder, as I briefly did in my last review of The Mercenaries–was Westlake angling around for a series, trying a variety of first person protagonists in familiar crime fiction subgenres (gangster, private dick), hoping to find a character worth writing a lot of books about?   No question, for a hungry young writer starting out in this genre, that’s where the money is–you can just keep running variations on a theme, turning out book after book, and the publishers eat it up–as long as it sells.   Ay, there’s the rub.   The main character has to be worth coming back to, again and again.   The premise has to have enough of a hook to hang more than one book on.

It’s just an inkling I have, but assuming Westlake did start each of his first two published crime novels with the idea that maybe this book would lead to others, in both cases, it proved to be a dead end (literally).   Even if I’m right, I’m guessing he didn’t get too far into either book before he realized it wouldn’t work.   George ‘Clay’ Clayton, errand boy to a mob boss, could have broken away and had a series of adventures as a soldier of fortune, the way Peter Rabe’s Daniel Port did–but Westlake later remarked that he didn’t think that series was any great shakes, even though it ran for six installments.  Having read all six, I tend to agree with him.    Rabe might have felt the same way, but hey, the checks cleared.

Now criminal investigators, like Philip Marlowe,  Lew Archer, Matthew Scudder, or even that Sherlock Whatshisface–they are without doubt the bread and butter of detective fiction, hence the name, so a hero like that makes sense for a series–but did Westlake really want to write detective fiction?   He wrote a lot of novels that are more or less whodunit mysteries–more than 20, by my count–but this is the only one of them featuring a guy who is officially employed as a detective, and actually wants to work as one–though not the kind who investigates killings.   If that was his line, he’d go broke.   You go a long time between killings in Winston, NY.

Winston, I would argue, is the real protagonist of Killing Time, and Westlake spends a whole lot of time getting us acquainted with this amiably corrupt and surprisingly complex little hamlet, with its deceptively placid and wholesome  surface.    Enough to make me think he did, in fact, toy with the notion that a small town detective could have enough interesting cases drop in his lap to provide material for multiple novels–and probably some writers would have gone that way with it (and many have).

But Westlake was going for realism of  a sort here–which means he had to figure out how a P.I. is making ends meet in a town like this.   And the answer that came to him was that Tim plays footsie with the political establishment.   He’s thrown in with them–is actually on the municipal payroll, when no other member of his profession would even be allowed to operate there, giving him a monopoly–and a leash.   Anybody can hire Tim, and he will find out what they want to know, and report back to them–with full confidentiality.   And as a result, his files are full of dirt on every major player in town.   And they all know it, but nobody much minds, because Tim can be trusted–he’s one of them.   He thinks so too, but holds himself a bit aloof, all the same.   If somebody tries something that might actually hurt people–like putting cheap cement in the new school building–he’ll raise a stink behind the scenes, and make sure that doesn’t happen.   Everybody’s getting money on the side, but the streets are pothole-free, the schools are good, taxpayers get the services they’re paying for (maybe a bit more than they should have to pay)–machine politics, George Washington Plunkitt style.   Honest graft.  That’s the theory, anyway.   And still widely practiced today, of course.   Along with the other kind of graft.  The line between the two is notoriously easy to blur, of course.   Just ask Chris Christie.  But don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer.

Here’s one example of line-blurring–Tim has a up and coming lawyer friend named Ron Lascow who plans to prove himself to the local bigwigs by coming up with a scheme to hit the residents of Hillview ( a sort of cut-rate Levittown, not technically part of Winston) with a new tax for services decidedly not rendered to its inhabitants.  At one point in the book, Tim decides he better explain to Ron the very real impact this will have on the lives of people there, who live in a sort of nether-realm between the town and the county, and have essentially been abandoned by both–he gives us the skinny in the meantime, since he’s visiting Hillview to talk to a cop who lives there–

“The builder of Hillview was a Winston man, now living in Florida off his profits, and he scrupulously followed the ideas of every other development builder in the country.  The streets were blacktop and curving and named after flowers.  The houses were two-and-three bedroom brick ranch-styles, most of them without cellars or attics.  There’s a shopping center in the middle of it all, a school off in one corner, and a firehouse down the road towards town.

In ’47, it all looked pretty fine.  Nice new homes, kind of shoe-boxy but sparkling and clean, with attached garages and curving flagstone walks leading to the front doors.  The people there were mostly young, either childless or with maybe one kid of pre-school age.   It was a pretty good place to live.”

But then —

“Only a little more than a decade after it was built, Hillview was a bedraggled mess.  Most of the lawns had been tromped into bare brown earth by kids playing Indian.  The empty houses had had their windows broken.   The blacktop streets had suffered from frost heaves after a few particularly severe winters, and were now crumbled and potholed.   The whole area was littered with tricycles and wagons and hanging laundry and screaming kids and straggle-haired housewives and door-to-door salesmen.”

I did some of my own growing up in an actual Levitt development (not the original), in New Jersey in the 60’s and early 70’s, and while we happily did not exist in the political and economic limbo Hillview does, and kept our houses and lawns up pretty well, this description still has an eerily familiar ring to it.  And come to think of it, by the time my family moved out, that development wasn’t much more than ten years old–I wonder how it’s  holding up today?   Didn’t look so hot the last time I passed it.

Aside from the chance to showcase a neat bit of writing, and a budding penchant for social commentary on the part of its author, I included the above quotes to demonstrate that Tim is well aware of the dark side of Winston politics–and not averse to socializing with those responsible for that, though he thinks Ron might lose his enthusiasm for the tax shuffle once he can put human faces on its victims.   Tim sees himself as standing in the middle, between the honest and dishonest folks of his hometown, helping both camps, while not strictly affiliating with either.   He sees that as his niche, and like the protagonist of The Mercenaries can get a bit defensive when challenged about the morality of his little arrangement with the powers that be.

Like Clay in The Mercenaries, Tim has a girlfriend who worries about him, but she’s a more credible and three dimensional character by far–Cathy Evans,  32 year old secretary for the town mayor, described as “good-looking in a level-eyed and practical sort of way.”  She and Tim also have an arrangement–as he sees it.   As we the audience see it, she’s head over heels in love with him, and he is much too inclined to take her for granted–and to blow off her very sound advice for the two of them to get the hell out of Winston when somebody starts trying to bump Tim off for reasons he can’t quite figure out.   Tim obviously has stronger feelings for her than he ever admits to–her house is the first place he goes after the first attempt on his life–but like Clay, he isn’t good at processing these kinds of things, and resists any suggestion he give up his carefully ordered existence to run away with her.   He’s going to stay and fight it out.   And Cathy is going to watch him do it, with an ever-increasing level of (as Tim puts it) “that combination of fury and terror that only women have down pat.”

The only thing that’s clear to Tim is that all these attempts to kill him are in some way connected to a statewide reform group that is just now getting to Winston, and would like to get his files in order to put most of the city fathers in jail.  So in his quest to figure out who amongst his various well-connected friends ordered a hit on him, and why, Tim takes us around Winston and its environs, and talks to its various power-brokers.   Chief among them is Jordan Reed, the main employer in town, who is The Boss of Everybody in all but name, and lives in a creepy old Victorian manse just outside of town, dealing rather harshly with his weak-willed son, and nursing statewide political ambitions (there being nothing harder to find in a Westlake novel than a sympathetic rich guy).

There’s also Jack Wycza, city councilman for Winston’s ‘Hunkytown’ on the North Side–a classic ward heeler, who knows about everything that goes on in his district, and about very little going on elsewhere.   Many have speculated that he and his very large nepotistic family bear some relation to Dan Wycza, who popped up a number of times in some better-known books Westlake wrote (that I’ll be getting to shortly), but seeing as the first two Winston policemen we meet are named Dan Archer and Pete Wycza, the shortest distance between two points would be to say Westlake just took one from column A and one from column B and leave it at that.

And at the other end of the power spectrum are the Casales–a large and growing Italian-American clan, honest working class folk, some of them close friends with Tim–not politically well-connected, but they turn out to be extremely well-armed, which figures into the narrative quite significantly towards the end.   Their patriarch gets killed by a bomb meant for Tim, which they don’t hold against him personally, but they expect him to tell them who set that bomb, so they can administer justice up close and personal.

I should mention now, because there won’t be time later, that this is the first novel Westlake published under his own name that mentions the fictional city of Monequois, somewhere around the Canadian border, that had already appeared in several of his pseudonymous smutfests, and would show up here and there in many of his later books, though it never got put under a magnifying glass like Winston does here.   It also features an early reference to “A Sound of Distant Drums”–a presumably nonexistent and apparently quite horrible play that is likewise referred to here and there throughout Westlake’s oeuvre, apparently as a private running joke between him, his writer buddies, and any of his readers who are paying close enough attention to notice.

The way a detective novel typically works is this–the detective gets on the case–he (or she) talks to a bunch of witnesses and potential suspects–then he summons them all to some meeting place, and fingers the killer–who is then carted off to prison–exeunt detective triumphant.

This is not a typical detective novel (well for one thing, the murder Tim is investigating is his own), and things work out rather differently here.   Tim finally figures out who the killer is (with a significant assist from Cathy and Ron), and then names him to the Casales, since the cops (at least half of whom are Wyczas), can’t really be trusted.   But at this point, Winston has turned into an armed camp, since nobody intends to march meekly off to prison, least of all Tim himself, who now has to find some way to get his hands on the killer, before the law drags him away in handcuffs instead–turns out the reform group could use some reforming itself–Tim’s been appointed as one of the fall guys, and it’s too late now for him to cut a deal.

With his back against the wall, Tim Smith, the affable, levelheaded, practical, deeply perceptive and sardonic Man With All the Answers we’ve come to know and like is replaced by a desperate violent Machiavellian schemer who will do anything to save himself.   It’s not as sudden as it sounds–you realize this has been coming for a long time now, but it’s still a shock to see how quickly he goes from detective fiction hero to crime fiction anti-hero.  Nobody is more horrified by this transformation than Tim himself.   He’s watching himself become a monster, and he can’t seem to stop it–because that would mean losing–his freedom–his home–his carefully wrought sense of self, that stems from being Winston’s one and only private detective.  That’s what he’s been fighting for all through the book, and he can’t accept that the game is up–you can almost hear him thinking “But I’m the HERO, dammit!”   Well, aren’t we all?  In our own minds?   He steps over a few lines too many, and there’s no going back.

What follows is chaos, of a kind we tend to associate with third world countries and (recently) eastern Europe.   A substantial swath of the cast of characters fall under a hail of gunfire, punctuated by loud explosions–the death count is well over 20 by the end.  Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, the ceremony of innocence–okay, none of these people were ever innocent, so can the Yeats.  But they were peaceful people, reasonable people–they had an arrangement–like Tim, we can’t believe that all it took was the threat of a few years in prison and the loss of some petty local positions to turn them all into ravening killers–but it feels frighteningly real.   And it has happened here, folks.   And probably will again.   Well of course today you could get a higher death count from one confused teenager with an AR-15, but that isn’t quite the same thing as civil war.

And nobody is more responsible for this bloody state of affairs than Tim Smith himself, with all his worldly wisdom and good intentions.  Why?   Because he wouldn’t pick a side.   Because he played both ends against the middle, and got crushed between them.  Because he didn’t know who he was, but he believed with all his heart that he did.  That’s the moral of the piece.

Tim describes himself as far from a dreamboat–average height, chunky, but deceptively quick on his feet–his general mode of exposition, and his sharp eye for social detail is strikingly familiar to anyone who has read the early work of Dashiell Hammett.  He’s clearly based on The Continental Op–the first of the great hard-boiled private detectives.   In his most famous adventure, Red Harvest,  The Op comes to a corrupt town called Personville, rife with divisions between management and labor and organized crime and corrupt cops, and he somehow manages to turn the various factions against each other,  and walk away smelling like a rose, and only bad people get hurt.  It’s a story that has been much imitated since (mainly in the movies, of which I will bet good money you have seen at least one or two),  and Westlake himself, who revered Hammett above all other crime fiction authors, must have read it with sentiments verging on the worshipful–but idols were made to be smashed.

Tim Smith would, on the surface, seem to be a more independent player than The Op–he’s self-employed, doesn’t have an ‘Old Man’ back in San Francisco to answer to–but that’s an illusion.   In order to make a decent living as a private detective in his own small town, the only place he really wants to live (because who would he be if he lived somewhere else?), he had to cut a deal with the big boys.   He’s not an independent operator at all.   He’s got a police radio in his car, strolls into the chief of police’s office without making an appointment–he’s a total insider, and he likes it that way.   Which would be fine, if he accepted that, but he continues to think of himself as an independent operator.   He can turn off his conscience when it gets in the way of doing business, like Clay in The Mercenaries turns off his compassion when it gets in the way of making a hit.   Then turn it back on again to do some good deed, and tell himself that makes everything square.  And Cathy, like Clay’s girlfriend Ella before her, tries to tell him he can’t have it both ways–

“You can’t just say that your job is to have no conscience and so people can’t blame you for not having a conscience because that’s your job.  Either you’re honest or you’re dishonest.  If you’re faithful to the rules of your job, and your job is a dishonest one, then you’re being dishonest.”

But how many people would choose honest poverty over dishonest affluence?   How many ever have?   Point is, most of us never really choose–we just tell ourselves that whatever happens to be in our best interests is also right and just and the natural order of things.   The Ends Justify the Means.  Westlake is not done with this idea by a long shot, but he’s done with Tim Smith.  He is not franchise protagonist material, at least not for this writer.   Because as a goody-goody-gumshoe–a Knight Errant of the mean streets like Philip Marlowe (who Westlake signaled his disdain for on more than one occasion), he’d be trite and done to death–a pretty lie.   But as a self-deluding functionary of a corrupt small town government, Tim only has one real story in him–the story of how it all fell apart.   And that’s the story of Killing Time.   And now Westlake needs to find other stories, other protagonists.   He’s had two dark endings in a row, and he wants to try something else–suppose a protagonist made the right choices.   Suppose he figured out who he really was, before it was too late–or suppose he just KNEW.

And I wonder………..there’s this one moment at the end, where Tim is battling it out with his former colleagues, killing people he’s known all his life, and he looks at Art Wycza, his wholly amoral ally of convenience, who has admired Tim’s cunning and toughness up to this point, but is now somewhat contemptuous–because having finally acted with sheer cold-blooded ruthlessness in order to win the day, Tim then had the nerve to try and renege at the last minute.   Because people he likes will get hurt.   He’s stuck between two modes of being, two sides of the same divided personality, and he hates it–and he looks at Art and sees no such conflict–“It must be nice, I thought, to not give a damn.”

What would it be like, Westlake must have wondered while typing this, to really not give a damn?   To be truly free.   Of everything.   Except yourself.    How would you write it?   Starkly, one supposes.


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8 responses to “Review: Killing Time

  1. I was fairly surprised when you called Killing Time a small masterpiece (it seems like you rewrote that sentence). I consider Killing Time the weakest of his four first novels (the fifth, as Bill Pronzini in 1001 Midnights righly wrote, “isn’t really good at all.”). I think the problem for me was the protagonist. Here is really is a town, not a person. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t root for Tim, as I did for Clay, Paul or Ray.
    It sure isn’t a bad novel, unlike Pity Him Afterwards. But it pales in comparison to Killy or Mercenaries. The book sure ends with a bang, but so do Killy and Mercenaries.

  2. I’m glad you brought this up–it’s been eating at me–I’ve read the book three times now, and I’m more impressed with it each time. But I did rewrite that sentence, because I felt maybe I went overboard a bit, and because Westlake himself said (in an interview I reread just after finishing this review) that he wasn’t happy with Killing Time. Called it a failure.

    Now bear in mind, Westlake was not his own best critic–few writers ever are the most objective reviewers of their own work. Objectivity is perhaps not even possible when it comes to an artist and his output. But then, objectivity is not really the goal of art, is it now? Point is, we readers are not all going to be seeing a book from the same perspective as the writer who slaved over it, and was working towards a specific goal, and is going to evaluate the book based on whether he or she feels that goal was achieved. Many writers have disparaged work that posterity has adjudged differently. Or praised work that posterity has tried to forget. Westlake did both, frequently. But in this case, it would seem that his reaction was not that far off from the average reader–the book, I’m guessing, was not a commercial success.

    Still this is the same Donald Westlake who said he thought The Jugger was the worst book he ever wrote–when most of his readers think it’s great stuff, as do I. And I think it’s the same problem in both cases that bothered him–motivation. He didn’t think he’d adequately set things up to explain why Parker went to check on Joe Sheer, even though Parker’s motivations as explained are anything but kindly–the problem, I suppose–well, we can talk about that once I get to The Jugger.

    In the case of Killing Time, he probably didn’t feel he’d properly transitioned Tim Smith from (as I put it) detective fiction stalwart to crime fiction villain (perhaps antihero would be better–well, I’ll just edit that in–gawd, I love being able to edit these things). I think the transition works beautifully, but it is rather abrupt. Nick Jones over at Existential Ennui, in his review, said the ending (which he loved) felt ‘bolted on’. I think that must have been Westlake’s reaction–and this may be because he didn’t originally intend to write it that way–maybe Tim was going to be a series protagonist, and when it became obvious he didn’t have the right stuff for that, Westlake gave him a bloody ending–I can think of several other instances where Westlake detectives end badly–honestly, Westlake was never terribly simpatico with his detectives, reluctant or otherwise. He felt more comfortable with his crooks. A Westlake detective, professional or amateur, has a decidedly poor life expectancy.

    Or maybe that’s not it–maybe the story and its protagonist got out of his control, which is what it feels like–an avalanche coming down and burying everybody and everything we’ve seen (I don’t think Westlake even mentions Winston again in all of his books set in upstate NY, though I could be wrong–in the interview he claims not to remember the name of the town, and calls it ‘Windsock’).

    But for me, this brings out the randomness of existence–it feels startlingly true to life for such a stylized detective novel. Avalanches happen sometimes. For Westlake, hypercritical and trying desperately to find his own style, it felt ‘overwrought’–he said it ‘tried too hard.’

    I’d guess he was aiming for something better–for a deeper, more layered, more believable version of The Continental Op, for a 60’s revisionist retelling of Red Harvest–he mentions the extremely strong influence of Hammett on both of his first two novels, but it’s especially obvious in Killing Time.

    And I must admit, while I think Tim Smith is a fine protagonist for the story being told, he isn’t all that. I like having a town as a protagonist, and a human protagonist who loses himself (or finds a part of himself he was hiding from all these years). But yeah, ‘masterpiece’ is laying it on a bit thick. I think ‘failure’ is laying it on even more. It’s an early novel. That contains the seeds of later, better novels.

    I assume by the fifth novel, you mean Killy? I think we’re going to disagree there as well–have to reread it first. But honestly, I wouldn’t even have bothered to start this blog if I thought there was no hope of anybody disagreeing with me. That’s the FUN part. And that’s why, when somebody disagrees with one of my reviews, my typical reaction will be to toss off a supplemental review. For lagniappe. So be warned. 😉

  3. That’s a comment that by itself is almost as long as the original review. Bravo!
    Hammett’s influence is certainly there, but the novel is not a work of immature writer. (I need to read Red Harvest in English to refresh my memory.)
    As for the fifth novel, I refered to Pity Him Afterwards, not Killy. I’d love to read your review of PHA. I think I read only one positive review of this novel.

  4. Sorry, you made it clear in your first comment that you meant Pity Him Afterwards–the 5th book Westlake wrote under his own name. I was posting very early in the morning.

    I think PHA is actually pretty well regarded, overall. Westlake was basically happy with it, which again doesn’t mean we the readers have to be, but I’ve never read a bad review, and it got good notices when it first came out. I may end up liking it less, just to be contrary, but again, must reread–I’m not going to review any book on the basis of reading it once–first impressions are often worst impressions. My first impression is that it started brilliantly, and fizzled a bit. But I liked it. Honestly, we’ve a ways to go before we reach my first bad review. And even my bad reviews will be oddly positive, because I have this philosophy that bad books sometimes tell us more about an author than good ones. They aren’t covering their tracks as well.

    It’s a pretty unique piece of work–unique to Westlake, and to the genre as a whole. My suspicion is that Westlake was happy with it because it did something nobody else had done up to that point–get completely into the head of a man who is not merely anti-social, or disturbed, or even sociopathic, but unequivocally and unreservedly full-on bat-shit crazy. Plus it gave him a chance to write about actors again, and he just loves doing that.

  5. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. When the times comes to discuss PHA, we’ll discuss it.

  6. Hopefully we’ll be more of a quorum by then. I am getting the distinct impression you are my only reader so far, though perhaps there’s a few lurking in the shadows. My girlfriend won’t read either of my published reviews because she hasn’t read the books yet (she’s more of a Stark fan), and she’s allergic to spoilers. And this is going to be an inherent limit to my blog readership, I fear–I want to talk about what happens in the books. Not every single thing that happens, but to me it’s much more about story than style, and it’s going to be a challenge to find ways to talk about story and not ruin the books for those who haven’t read them. And to them I say go forth and read, and I’ll see you later.

  7. I tweeted a couple times about your blog, it seems, to no effect. But lack of comments shouldn’t stop you. You are doing what no one else is doing. I can say I dreamt about a blog like yours. I could start it myself, but due to my vocabulary limitations it wouldn’t be as readable. It’s a rare thing on the net, full of spoilers, detailed reviews dedicated to one writer. I’m sure with time other will join discussions, maybe Nick and Trent, when his around-marriage things settle down.
    Looking forward to the next review.

  8. I really appreciate the support, Ray. And I wish more of my countrymen wrote English as well as you. Not a joke. Well, not the funny kind. :\

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