They say that Hope is happiness—
But genuine Love must prize the past;
And mem’ry wakes the thoughts that bless
They rose the first—they set the last.
And all that mem’ry loves the most
Was once our only hope to be:
And all that hope adored and lost
Hath melted into memory.
Alas! it is delusion all—
The future cheats us from afar,
Nor can we be what we recall,
Nor dare we think on what we are.
In the course of moving through Ernie Rembek’s world yesterday I had gradually built up a professional enthusiasm for the task at hand, but the enthusiasm hadn’t survived until this morning. I wanted to fill my attention with the wall, with the problems caused by rain, and instead I was being dragged away into this other thing, this mean and petty shuffling through degraded lives in a pointless quest for the slayer of a whore. What did I care about Rita Castle? What did I care about anything?
Of the eighteen Donald Westlake novels I’ve reviewed here thus far, eight can be categorized accurately enough, if perhaps not descriptively enough, as mystery novels, which is to say detective novels–and yet only one of the protagonists in those books, Tim Smith in Killing Time, was a detective by trade, a private detective, and not the kind who goes around solving murders, until circumstances force him into it–and he cracks the case, but not only does that not solve his problems, it makes them exponentially worse–though you could argue his troubles are over after the last paragraph.
In fact, almost without exception (there was this girl reporter, but she’s a long way off yet), Westlake’s mystery novels feature reluctant detectives, people who never had any desire or inclination to go hunting for clues, or interviewing suspects, who have little or no relevant training in this area, but they are left with no choice in the matter. In one way or another, their fates revolve around whether they can figure out whodunnit. But were that not the case, they’d much prefer to be doing something else.
This is unusual, to say the least–most of the really famous fictional detectives (and most of the ones you’ve never heard of as well) like solving crimes. They can’t wait for the next body to drop, so they can go through their paces. There really is only one noteworthy exception to this rule among the ranks of the classic supersleuths.
Nick Charles (played by William Powell in the movies), his lovely witty socialite wife Nora (played by Myrna Loy in the movies), and their standard schnauzer bitch Asta (played by a male fox terrier in the movies) were of course the creations of Dashiell Hammett, the most seminal figure in all of American mystery fiction, and Westlake’s single most important literary influence.
And the Charles’s were, sadly, Hammett’s final contribution to that genre. After writing the first novel, he did write two others (just recently rediscovered) to serve as the basis for the first two sequels to the hugely popular film adaptation of the first, but his career as a writer of prose fiction ended with The Thin Man, and nobody, not even his longtime companion Lillian Hellmann, was ever able to find out why (she said she was afraid to even ask). Alcoholism, depression, writer’s block–all doubtless contributed.
But Westlake felt the single biggest cause was that Hammett had gotten too distant from his source of inspiration. He’d spent years working for the Pinkerton Agency, leaving that work in part because their anti-union activities disgusted him. In the course of his work, he’d gotten to know the criminal underworld very well, and this, combined with a previously untapped genius for storytelling, allowed him to revolutionize the detective genre–because he knew what real detectives and real criminals were like. Because the note of genuine knowledge in his work is so strong that he can afford to underplay–there’s a level of nuance there you just couldn’t find in the genre before him. He’s credible in a way that Raymond Chandler and all the others who came after him were not.
Basically, Nick Charles is a thinly disguised version of Hammett himself, as was The Continental Op, but Charles is a self-portrait of a much older man who gave up the work that grounded him–he achieved fame and fortune by marrying an heiress he’d met in the course of his work, and running her vast financial holdings for her, but he realizes more and more that he’s lost touch with himself, and with the criminal world he once knew like the back of his hand.
He turns to heavy social drinking, and Nora matches him shot for shot–while noticing more and more that her husband is miserable. Not that he ever admits it. Not even once. But the sadness of the book and its protagonist is obvious to anyone who isn’t blinded by the movie version (where they drink like fish, but are happy as clams, because that’s Hollywood). Westlake called it “a sad, lonely, lost book, but it pretended to be cheerful and aware and full of good fellowship.” Having only seen the movies, I read the novel, and found myself in complete agreement with Westlake’s assessment.
Nick Charles is a man in almost ceaseless pain, that he refuses to acknowledge, because what’s the point? He couldn’t have done other than what he did–he was in love with Nora, and she with him–their bond is real, and she knows him like nobody else. He couldn’t have passed up a woman like that, or gone on being a private dick married to her. His emotional life sabotaged his professional life, and now he keeps his real emotions as deeply buried as possible–but Nora knows.
She’ll go down with him if she has to, laughing all the way, but she figures there’s one hope for them both–to push Nick back into the work he needs. He doesn’t belong in his old world anymore (though he still has a lot of friends there), but he can still solve murders in her world. Maybe this will fix him somehow. Truth to tell, when she married him, she was probably hoping he’d drag her into his world, instead of the other way around.
It’s a marriage made in purgatory, and we never do learn if they ever got out alive. Because The Thin Man is Hammett’s veiled confession that he’s lost his inspiration, run out of material. He didn’t stop working, but with the exception of those two follow-up novels he never even published, and some work for radio that couldn’t have meant nearly as much to him, he pretty much stopped writing.
This is a professional writer’s ultimate nightmare–to run dry. To see an endless sheet of empty paper stretching in front of him, forever. Westlake saw this all too clearly, must have wondered if the same fate someday awaited him, and perhaps this is one reason he kept switching up, writing in different genres–mystery, heist story, science fiction–different veins–serious, comic–and under different names–Westlake, Stark, and now Tucker Coe. To avoid getting trapped down a blind alley. To stay fresh.
The name derived from Westlake’s football fandom–he followed the Giants, and back then they had two running backs–Tucker Frederickson and Ernie Koy–Lee Wright, his editor at Random House, said Tucker Koy sounded vaguely obscene, so he changed the last name to Coe. Since 1960, Westlake had been turning out a book a year for Random House (one motive for the new pseudonym would be that he could now be doing two books a year for them), and for most of that time, those books had been slotted as mysteries, and identified as such on their covers
As I’ve already mentioned, none of them had really been mysteries in the truest sense–that is to say, they were never really about who had killed whom. That was something Westlake would find a way to stick in there, to satisfy the demands of the market he was writing for, and he often did this quite skillfully, but again–not really detective novels in the classic sense. He didn’t want to get bogged down in the ‘ritual’, as he called it. He wanted the stories to be more than a rote procession of genre cliches. But this always lacked a certain credibility–how is it this motley crew of mobsters, barkeeps and interns who never did a day’s sleuth-work in their lives before keep finding the killer with unerring accuracy?
So now he’d create a character who is a detective by training, and formerly by profession. Somebody who knows very well how to assess evidence, identify suspects, follow leads. He just doesn’t want to do it anymore (and legally speaking, isn’t supposed to). He has to be forced. But once he’s started, his training takes over–he’s not an amateur at this. Most of all because an amateur is, by definition, doing something for love, and this guy is not loving what he’s doing one bit. But he does it anyway. He doesn’t have any choice. He wants to just stay in his own back yard, building a wall to keep the world out–and the world keeps crashing its way back in again.
In an introduction he wrote to some much-later reprints of the Tobins, Westlake said he was trying to unlearn a lesson he’d learned a bit too well from Hammett–how to keep a character’s emotions beneath the surface. Nick Charles is having all kinds of feelings he doesn’t want to talk about at all, even though he’s the first-person narrator of the story–some of them clearly quite disturbing, but you can only guess at the specifics. Westlake, reading The Thin Man in his early teens, found this fascinating–
I didn’t know it was possible to do that, to seem to be saying one thing while you really said a different thing or even the opposite. It was three-dimensional writing, like three-dimensional chess, a writing style you could look through like water and glimpse the fish swimming by underneath Nabokov was the other master of that, but Hammett I read first.
So when Westlake started writing crime novels of his own, he tried to do the same thing in a different way, in his early serious work under his own name (most successfully in 361), and of course with his Parker novels written as Richard Stark, featuring a protagonist whose emotional processes are so alien that it’s often hard to be sure he’s feeling anything at all. Then Westlake started doing comic novels, where his protagonists were not nearly so poker-faced, but since it’s basically farce he’s writing, they can’t get all that deep into their emotions, because that’s not how the form works.
He wanted now to write about somebody who is trying to suppress his emotions, to feel as little as possible, but can’t always pull it off so well, because the pain is still new, because he’s got a wife and son to take care of, and because he’s not rich enough to afford the really good booze–in fact, he’s not much of a drinker at all–that isn’t one of his vices. He’s less sophisticated than Nick Charles, less skillful at disguising himself–he will labor mightily to keep from sharing his deepest feelings with us, but as Westlake parsed it, the fish would break the surface of the water sometimes.
He has no problem telling us why he’s this way. He screwed up. He had arrested a small time burglar named Daniel “Dink” Campbell who ended up serving a long stretch, and in the process, met Dink’s wife Linda–blonde, no bombshell, but emotionally and sexually available in a way his wife, the dark-haired, raw-boned, and wholly admirable Kate was not. His marriage was successful enough, they had a son, they respected and loved each other, but there were things he couldn’t talk to her about (like books), and Linda was a reader, like him. She was lonely, he was needy, and they gradually fell into an affair.
His partner Jock Sheehan didn’t approve, since he was one of Kate’s admirers, but loyal to a fault, he agreed to cover for Mitch, so he could see Linda when he was supposed to be working cases–this way, Mitch figured, the affair could go on indefinitely, no one the wiser, no one getting hurt. But then came a routine call to pick up a numbers runner–who had, unbeknownst to them, recently become a drug dealer, meaning he had a lot more to lose if he got picked up. Mitch opted out of the arrest to have a rendezvous with his mistress. With no partner to back him up, Jock was shot to death by the unexpectedly desperate pusher. Mitch’s absence at the scene was noted, and then explained. The press got hold of it. He was publicly disgraced, and expelled permanently from the NYPD.
He spares us the full details of what happened then, but they’re not that hard to fill in. Kate, as loyal as Jock, forgave him, but he could not, would not, forgive himself. He toyed with ending it all, but decided he wanted to go on living–on his own terms. Six months after his expulsion, he’s set about building a brick wall that will completely shut off his back garden, so that anybody who wants to come see him will have to come to the front door (and will, most often, be denied entrance). The metaphor may be a bit strained, but it’s extremely sincere.
A private detective with a guilt complex was no new thing in the ranks of noir fiction. But Tobin may well be the first clinically depressed detective to debut there. Not that he ever refers to himself as such, but that’s basically the size of it. And what he’s doing with this wall of his could well be considered occupational therapy. He would just say he needs something to keep his mind occupied so he doesn’t have to think on what his life has become. Well yeah, that’s basically what occupational therapy is. Brick-laying is certainly a more substantial pursuit than basket-weaving.
But just as he’s set about it in earnest, spending money his cash-strapped family can ill afford to obtain the needed materials, a minor mob guy named Wickler shows up in his still-unprotected back yard, with a message from Ernie Rembek, the big syndicate boss of New York. There’s a job they need a specialist for–a detective–nothing illegal, Wickler assures him. Tobin’s first response is to throw the bum out, but then he sees Kate going to work at a local store to make grocery money, and he says he’ll meet with Rembek, and hear his offer.
The job is to find out who killed Rita Castle, a beautiful blonde aspiring actress who was Rembek’s mistress (he has a wife he says he loves). The offer is five thousand in advance, plus expenses, plus a five thousand dollar bonus for successfully solving the crime. The killer can be turned over to the police, if found. Rembek will make sure Tobin has full access to everything he needs, including the right to interview potential suspects from within the organization.
If you’ve read The Mercenaries, you’ll recognize many recycled elements from that book, most notably the victim (and that Westlake’s writing has improved exponentially in the six years since that book appeared). But there’s also a parallel between Tobin’s recent disgrace and Rembek’s situation. This is something Tobin himself does not want to think about, but he agrees to take the job. Ten thousand dollars will allow him to concentrate on his wall for a good long time–Kate wants him to take the job as well, but for different reasons–she thinks it might help break down the wall he’s built inside himself. She may not be a bright beautiful heiress, and she never comes along with him when he’s on a case, but she’s his blue-collar Nora, no doubt about it.
We’ve seen a great variety of fantasy women from Westlake, but Kate Tobin is another order of fantasy entirely–a grounded, smart, nurturing person, who never complains, and doesn’t hold on to grudges, or throw up past mistakes in your face. A woman who just wants her husband to heal, so they can be a family again. A genuinely good, wholly unselfish person (and do I really need to mention how rare they are in this world?) To a man in the process of having his first marriage break down, that might be the most alluring fantasy of all. But of course, you know what Tolstoy said about happy families–it applies just as well to household saints. So we never do see that much of Kate. She’s an important balancing factor in the books, a pivotal character–but also a peripheral one.
Accompanying Mitch on his rounds to interview people who knew Rita (and might possibly have killed her) is Roger Kerrigan, who seems to be a sort of troubleshooter for Rembek, much as the ill-fated George ‘Clay’ Clayton was for Nick Ganolese in The Mercenaries. His job is to make sure the various people with connections to Rita and the ‘corporation’ cooperate with the investigation, but also that the investigation doesn’t create any problems for his employers. His past history is quite similar to Clay’s, but his relationship with his boss is notably different–he’s much more in control of the situation, has the trust of the people he and Rembek both work for, and there’s a strong implication that he might at some point succeed the overly emotional crimelord, who can’t seem to get over losing his girlfriend.
Kerrigan’s more the kind of character Westlake normally writes about–certainly more like a Westlake character than a policeman would normally be–but Tobin isn’t a cop anymore. He’s a free agent now, dictating terms to his temporary employers, demanding police reports (which they can get through cops on their payroll), an office, and eventually a gun. He quits the job several times in the course of the book, and Rembek keeps getting him back, because he needs so desperately to know who killed Rita. Tobin is in the driver’s seat here–the free lancer is telling the corporation what to do. But understand that at no point in this or the subsequent books is Tobin ever working as a private detective–you need a license for that, and he doesn’t have one.
He’s a complete and total independent–that’s what makes him a Westlake protagonist of the first rank, like Parker, only much more rooted in reality. And, of course, still not truly free of the one thing he most wants to be free from–his past. He has some of Parker’s ability to distance himself from humanity, to gaze at the world with cold dispassionate eyes, but unlike Parker, he keeps getting drawn back in. He’s no wolf. He gives a damn. He just wishes to hell he didn’t.
I don’t much see the point of going over the plot in depth–it’s a mystery. You know how they work. There are suspects. We meet them one at a time. We learn things about them as people–and people they are, though not very nice ones. Tobin is a self-described completist, meaning that he doesn’t rule anybody out as the killer. It comes down to five characters of significance who might have done it. But there’s always the possibility that there’s somebody they haven’t thought of. It’s a treat to watch his methodical yet intuitive mind go through its paces. And on some level, it’s a treat for him as well. He’d forgotten how much he used to enjoy his work. And it does distract him from thinking about his life, and what he’s made of it. But all in all, he’d rather be working on the wall.
Still, much as he tells us he doesn’t give a damn who killed Rita Castle–he wants to know. And to know that, he needs to know who she was. On the surface, just a dumb blonde with a sugar daddy, but the deeper he digs, the more he finds. She was leading not a double but a triple life. She was Rembek’s mistress (and perhaps more than that). She was also seeing her old boyfriend, a penniless slacker down in the Lower East Side (By the Mid-60s, as Tobin tells us, Greenwich Village proper is already too expensive for the true Bohemian, a process of gentrification that has progressed apace in the ensuing decades).
The boyfriend doesn’t seem like much of a man, but he was apparently the only one who satisfied her sexually, or emotionally–only that wasn’t enough for her. She needed Rembek to satisfy the artist in her–she wanted to direct. Rembek was supposed to finance that third and most important life for her. Or that was the plan, until the killer made it all academic. All three Rita Castles died in that moment. She never had the time to figure out who she really was.
As he learns more and more about her, he gets closer and closer to the truth–somebody’s worried about that, and the office Rembek gave him blows up, with a hapless mob gofer inside of it. The police are getting more and more interested in what he’s doing–and it’s not a kindly interest. Two detectives, one an old friend, come to see him–Tobin, remembering the old good cop/bad cop routine quite well, has no interest in playing it out. He’s also unable to answer some of their questions, because of his obligation to respect the confidentiality of his employers–much as he may dislike them, he’s taking their money, and he also knows that if he says too much, they’ll stop cooperating, and the case will never be solved. His former colleagues can’t understand this. He isn’t one of them anymore.
Marty got slowly to his feet and a second later so did James. Marty said, “I guess you’ve forgotten what the job is, Mitch. I’m not doing anything here you wouldn’t do, not anything you haven’t done a hundred times yourself.”
I said, “What you’ve forgotten is who I am. There are questions you can ask me and know the answer is absolutely going to be straight. You used to know that.”
Marty glanced at Kate and then hesitated, and then went ahead anyway. “You forfeited that, Mitch. When you weren’t there to back up Jock.”
Kate said “Marty!”
“No,” I said to her. “He had the right to say that. He didn’t have the need, but he did have the right.”
More than anything else, the Tobin books will be about outsider cultures–people who are out of the mainstream, living in the cracks, making their own rules, their own personal ethics, and their own private sins. In this book, Tobin is trapped between two such cultures–cops and mobsters. Each despising and yet making use of the other. Each despising and yet making use of him (though he does win the grudging respect of some on both sides). And he doesn’t belong to either culture now–or any other. He was an honest cop–never on any payroll but the straight one–he says he never resented the fact that the crooks he was trying to catch were often doing much better financially than him, because he figured if you wanted to be rich, you shouldn’t have become a cop. But because of what he did–or rather, failed to do–he’s lower in the eyes of most cops than the ones who actually are on the take. It’s not fair, but it’s reality. Then and now.
He opens up to us, now and again, about what he’s feeling. But there’s one thing he does not want to talk about, will barely even refer to–how much the story of Ernie Rembek and Rita Castle resembles, in a weird alternate-dimensional sort of way, the story of Mitch Tobin and Linda Campbell. That’s just too painful, and it stays buried. Some fish never break the surface of the water.
The moment comes, as it always must in this kind of book, when the killer is unmasked–and it’s an honest reveal, a good mystery, giving us all the information we needed to get to the answer, but also skillfully diverting our attention elsewhere, so if you guessed who it was, good for you. I didn’t. And spoiler-laden as my reviews generally are, I won’t divulge it here. But neither will I say, as I often do, that it doesn’t matter whodunnit–it’s not the main point of the story, and that’s probably true of most really good mysteries, but it does matter. Lives are irreparably shattered by the revelation. People will spend the rest of their lives in mortal pain because the truth was revealed. Nobody’s life was improved, or saved, because Tobin unmasked the killer. Nobody knows this better than Tobin himself. There’s no sense of triumph. There is one final bloody moment where he reveals that the cop in him is far from dead.
So what does he do now? He goes back to his wall, $10,000 the richer, his guilt about Kate having to work a lousy part-time job temporarily assuaged (though there’s plenty more guilt where that came from). A ditch must be dug, and then filled with concete blocks–a solid foundation for the structure he envisions. It will take years, and when it’s done, he’ll be safe behind that wall. Nobody will ever get in again.
Is that what you think, Mitch Tobin? Our next book has a few more unpleasant surprises for you, in a world geographically adjacent to and yet a million miles away from the world of Ernie Rembek and Roger Kerrigan. You go ahead and build your wall, but life’s not finished with you yet, and neither is Tucker Coe. But who is Tucker Coe? Ah, that’s another question entirely.
By the way, if you’re wondering what Robert Mitchum is doing up there, Westlake revealed (in an interview you can read in The Getaway Car, soon to be found in finer bookstores near you, if such things exist near you anymore) that he sold the movie rights to this book, and the project was intended for Mitchum. Who would have been over a decade older than Tobin’s thirty-nine years if it had been made with due promptness, but of course no movie was ever made at all. But say this much–they had the right guy. Impenetrable on the outside, bleeding on the inside. That was Mitchum–and that was Mitch Tobin. And the bleeding only gets worse next time.