“There’s going to be a party at our place tomorrow night,” Weissman said. “Why don’t you come?”
“You know, Stew’s place. Stew Remington. Most Saturdays there’s a party at one place or another, and it’s kind of our turn tomorrow night.”
“I’d be glad to come,” I said.
A frown touched his face, a sudden doubt. He said, “There won’t be any straight people there, you know.”
“If it’s a party,” I said, “and not an orgy, I’ll be happy to be there.”
“Oh, no, it’s just a party. People might go off into another room after a while, something like that, but it won’t be, you know, a lot of naked carrying-on or anything like that.”
“Then I’ll come.”
“Fine,” he said, and gave me a sunny smile, and I realized his wide-ranging net had just included me within his community.”
This book was probably written in 1969, a pivotal year for gay rights in America, and I hardly feel the need to link to any Wikipedia articles about that. Changes were in the air in the late 1960’s, on innumerable fronts, and gay liberation was merely one of them. There’s no mention of the protests here, no indication that these particular gay men are activists of any kind, and that would have been true of many, if not most, gay men of this period, particularly those who were older, more established, with more to lose by speaking up, acting out–though I’m sure everyone in that community was paying attention.
Westlake may, in fact, have finished the book before June 28th, when the unrest began, certainly finished it well before the long-term significance of that unrest became clear, so we probably shouldn’t read anything into that absence–Murder Among Children didn’t mention any specific events or movements relating to the youth culture of the Mid-60’s. The Coe books certainly react to current events, are informed by them, exist alongside them, but don’t reference them directly. They’re focused on the personal, much more than the political, though one can never separate the two entirely, can one?
Still, intentional or otherwise, it’s rather piquant that a murder mystery with a gay angle, which many consider the best of the novels about a depressed detective who spends his spare time building a brick wall in his backyard should be written the same year as the Stonewall Riots, wouldn’t you say?
Even more interesting, the same year this book came out (1970), Joseph Hansen published Fadeout, introducing LA-based insurance claims investigator Dave Brandstetter, generally considered the first fully realized openly gay protagonist in the mystery genre–if not all genres. Given the timing, there’s no way Westlake or Hansen were reacting to each other in this case, but of course everybody in the hardboiled faction of the genre was reacting to Westlake by then, and I’ve no doubt Westlake noticed Hansen before long, as he noticed anybody in his field who could write. “We all swim in the same ocean,” as he liked to say.
And when we last saw Mitch Tobin, he was preparing to explore the high seas of gay culture in New York City, to try and help his client, Ronald Cornell, find out who killed Ronald’s lover, Jamie Dearborn–the title character, who we never meet, though his ghost haunts every part of the book (it’s a bit reminiscent of Laura, except–well, never mind). He was an Aries, and decidedly jaded, inspiring love and hate in equal measure, and nobody who knew him seems to have come through the experience unscarred. But who hated him enough to kill him?
Jamie was black, and one interesting thing about this circle of gay friends, lovers, and frenemies, is that it’s racially integrated–not without some attendant conflicts, but still, interesting–as Tobin remarks later on, having a much smaller group of potential connections, fewer people to fall in love with, fewer people they can really open up to, gay men in a given area have a tendency to congregate, be a bit incestuous in their relationships (this is obviously less the case now, but probably still some truth to it).
Jamie had many lovers before he settled down with Ronald (we’re told his newfound monogamy was partly a way of slowing down, so as not to burn out). He and Ronald, diametrically opposed on almost every level, balanced each other out, yin to yang (or Aries to whatever sign Ronald is). Westlake himself understood the conflict between polygamous impulses and monogamous needs very well, and we see that dichotomy depicted quite sensitively here, in this entirely male grouping.
Tobin shows up at Ronald and Jamie’s apartment, and is let in by Stew Remington’s current boy toy (a term Stew himself would have gleefully adopted had it been around then); Jerry Weissman, an open-hearted young man from the sticks, wearing ordinary street clothes, who has found what he considers a wonderful group of friends in the big city, and if that means sleeping with a rich fat lawyer for a while, what of it? Stew doubtless has much to teach him.
There as well is David Poumon, a young writer (whose physical description sounds oddly similar to Westlake’s), also not a flamboyant dresser, who is involved with Cary Lane, one of Jamie’s fellow models, who is decidedly flamboyant–a strange mixture of affected decadence and genuine innocence–and a gifted mimic. And is above all else a kind and gentle person under all his fey mannerisms–and braver than even he realizes.
David and Cary are both on the list of potential suspects, along with Stew Remington; people Jamie trusted enough to let into the apartment who don’t have an alibi for the time of his murder–but it’s hard to imagine any of them being the murderer. None of them seems the type, and the thing about the Coe mysteries is that people who look innocent usually are, even though, as Tobin reminds us, all humans have the capacity for murder–yes, but not all to the same degree.
It’s either going to be someone really obvious, or someone who slips by unnoticed, while the obvious suspects distract us. This is pretty nearly always the way Westlake does mysteries, like it or not. I mainly do, but I’m not reading these books primarily for the whodunnit experience.
I think Westlake’s main interest in plotting his mysteries was in finding believable motivations for murder among people who might otherwise seem unlikely to ever resort to such an extreme. It’s part of how he makes ‘the ritual’, as he called it, a bit more rooted in real life. Nobody in his books is ever a killer ‘just because.’ And now might be a good time to stop reading if you don’t want to know who the killer is, because I can’t discuss the plot much further without giving it away.
To know the killer, Tobin needs to know more about the victim–and everyone gives him a somewhat different story. Jamie was charismatic, hypnotic, fascinating to everyone he met, and often cruel as well. But with Ronald, he’d built a world that Tobin quietly observes was beautiful–decorating their home himself, with the expected flair–Tobin is taken aback by their bedroom, that no one else was allowed into, which has a majestic view of the Brooklyn Bridge, and one wall covered with a gigantic mural of an incoming airliner. Unnerving, but beautiful.
Tobin can understand Ronald’s grief, share in it vicariously–perhaps it reminds him of the private world he shared with Linda Campbell, his former lover. Or in a different way, with his dead partner, Jock Sheehan. It’s not hard for him to understand loving another man deeply–just take out the sexual component, and the emotions aren’t that different. Jamie and Ronald weren’t really about sex, either–they were about finding something constant, in a perpetually unstable reality. And somebody destroyed that world, forever–as Tobin’s world was destroyed by a drug dealer’s bullet.
He’s still got four more suspects to meet, but one of them saves him the trouble and comes to see him at his house–Bruce Maundy, who works in the theater, and is anything but limp-wristed. He lives in Queens as well, with his mother, and is in mortal terror of her finding out he’s gay. He threatens Tobin, in Tobin’s own house, to stay out of his life, and forget about solving Jamie’s murder. Tobin, sensing that Maundy might attack at any moment, beats him to the punch, literally, and then throws him out. Exeunt Maundy, uttering threats. By the way, it’s not a Thursday when he shows up. That would have been a good pun.
Tobin never jumps to conclusions, no matter how obvious they might seem (one gets the feeling he was a rather unusual cop when he was on the force), so he just marks Maundy as a possible, and heads off to the party at Stew’s place. And there he meets the two remaining suspects, Henry Koberberg, and Leo Ross, Leo is also black, older than Jamie, and according to his partner Henry (partner both professionally and personally, as with Jamie and Ronald), is upset by the new order of things, where a black man has a chance to succeed in the white world, and therefore has to worry about not making it.
Henry’s got a dry sense of humor, an acerbic streak, and a lot of emotional issues to work out, but he’s basically a solid guy, Tobin thinks. He reminds Tobin of himself. Tobin tells Henry he’s better than he thinks he is–Tobin needs to be telling somebody else that.
Henry hated Jamie (who mocked his uptight disposition ceaselessly), and doesn’t mind saying so. It’s hard to see him committing murder, but then as Tobin thinks, it’s theoretically possible for any of them to have swung the weapon that killed Jamie Dearborn–
Stewart Remington judiciously.
Bruce Maundy enragedly.
Cary Lane hysterically.
David Poumon coldly.
Henry Koberberg agonizedly.
Leo Ross irritably.
There is no type of human being which is a killer type; all men can kill, given the proper impetus.
Tobin has a lot of conflicting information to distract him–there’s no physical evidence he can look at to help him, even if he was trained in forensic science, which he’s not. Several of his suspects were sexually involved with the murder victim–could have been anger over unrequited love. One was his attorney–could have been about money. Several were angry at him for the way he treated them–could have been personal pique. But none of these motives really satisfy Tobin. None are specific enough. People have these kinds of problems all the time without resorting to a blunt object.
In the meantime, he’s got some personal mysteries to plumb–he’s enjoying his time with this subculture. He’s watching them–not just the suspects, but all the others in their group, and like any straight guy might (Tobin being as straight as they come), he’s looking for all the stuff the books talk about; the sadness, the unhealthy appetites, the maladjustment, the emptiness–and sure, they have their problems. But at the party–the one where one fellow thinks Tobin is wearing ‘Warner Brothers Drag’–he can’t help but think to himself–
They all seemed so happy. Watching them, I thought at first it was a kind of hysterical happiness, urgent and artificial: Germany in the twenties. But it wasn’t that, or at least I soon stopped thinking so. What I finally decided was that the apparent artificiality and overstatement came from the fact that these people were more expressive and outwardly emotional than most men. To be in a room full of men dressed like South American birds and chattering like a beauty salon made for a certain sense of dislocation; it became difficult to say what was a normal level of behavior and what was strain.
This is more than just a breakthrough in the sense that he’s recognizing gay people are just people (which in 1970, would not be such an earth-shattering revelation). In watching these men, who he knows full well from his time on the force have experienced many unhappy moments, some of them violent in nature; who are treated with contempt or simply ignored outright by most of their fellow humans, he sees they’re still living, still taking what pleasures they can from their existence, still finding ways to be part of a growing changing circle of fellow enthusiasts, seeking their proper place in the world, finding things to laugh about.
They aren’t dead inside, as he, Mitch Tobin, has been these past few years. Lasting love and camaraderie is as hard for them to come by as anyone else–maybe harder, sometimes, because of the prejudices they face, the scars they bear–but they haven’t given up. So why has he?
He sees two men kissing on a stairway, and he thinks to himself that he should be disgusted–and isn’t. It’s just two men kissing. So what? And this is one of those times when I read a passage from one of Westlake’s books, and think this is him processing an experience he had in his own life. Westlake surely went to a lot of parties in Greenwich Village as a young man–maybe not gay parties, but in the artistic circles he moved in, the distinction would often be academic. At first, the upstate Catholic boy must have been shocked, repulsed. But shock tends to wear off. Hopefully to be replaced by understanding. Not always, though.
Driving home from the party, still working his way through the stirring of emotions he’d thought buried down in the sub-basement of his soul, while at the same time looking for some inkling of whom the killer might be, he suddenly gets pulled over by an unmarked police vehicle–it’s Manzoni. Who has learned about Tobin’s investigation. And gives him a pretty unequivocal warning that it better stop. Tobin, knowing better than to argue with an angry policeman, stays quiet, passive–and as Manzoni drives away, he sees someone in the back–Bruce Maundy.
Yeah, he’s the killer. Spoiler alert. If you’d never read a Tobin before, you might think he was a red herring, but as with Murder Among Children, it’s not really a whodunnit, so much as a whydunnit. People with a tendency to violent murderous rages, are, more often than not, going to be the murderers in our midst–not necessarily, but typically. In real life, it’s rarely the least likely person who did it. And it’s pretty much never the butler.
That being said, suspecting and proving are two different things, and Tobin is badly hampered yet again by his weird nether-realm status as a detective–neither true amateur nor licensed professional. And still badly mistrusted by the police, because of what happened to his partner. Maundy ratting him out doesn’t prove a thing. It just reminds us yet again that Bruce is the only one who seems actively upset by somebody trying to find Jamie’s killer. And Westlake knows that will be our reaction, and clearly doesn’t care. It’s the process that matters, much more than its conclusion.
He goes back to see Ronald at the hospital, and finds Cary Lane there–they’re working up in-depth horoscope readings, using the birth data Tobin obtained for Ronald. Now at the beginning of this book, ‘Tucker Coe’ tells us that he doesn’t necessarily believe in astrology as a science, and places it under the category of things not proven. Westlake clearly did a lot of research, knowing how seriously many gay people take it. Tobin never evinces any belief in astrology, but says that he could see people under stress using it as a way of expressing knowledge and understanding they can’t access on a conscious level.
Again, astrology is still a thing in the gay community, though I can’t say I’ve ever met any gay men who were into it. My sister and her husband were very strongly into it (still are, I assume), and I know how seriously an astrological reading is taken by those who do believe, and how much work is involved, and how disputed the results can be–it’s a lot more complicated than just knowing what sign you are. There are houses, and planets, and water signs, and air signs, and I don’t really understand any of it.
My brother-in-law did my chart once, and I didn’t understand it, or learn anything at all useful from it. Put me under the heading of “Not even the least tiny bit convinced.” I put more credence in palm reading and tea leaves (because I think good fortunetellers are actually reading you).
But as Ronald and Cary work up the horoscopes of everyone involved with the murder–victims, partners, suspects–patterns begin to emerge. And Cary’s perfect face (the product of plastic surgery) suddenly goes deadly white, and he says the reading shows David Poumon, his lover, is about to be killed. Then Manzoni arrives and takes Tobin in for questioning, ignoring what Ronald and Cary say about David. Which was a mistake. Because David Poumon is about to be killed.
Tobin once again gets put through the grinder of police procedure, and once again just grits his teeth and waits for it to be over. They don’t really have much to hold him on (he never took any money from Ronald), but Manzoni has used his pull to draw the whole process out. By the end of it, Manzoni is coming to him for help–because he’s found out David Poumon was just thrown to his death from his apartment building, and now he knows Ronald was right all along, and he’s going to look like the incompetent bigot he always was.
Tobin has had enough–what has he done but make things worse? He goes back to his sub-basement in Queens, but then gets a visit from Henry Koberberg, who is, atypically for him, in a state of high emotion–Leo has been arrested for David’s murder. He was called to the apartment by an anonymous caller, lured to the roof, and trapped there. He had a length of lead pipe in his pocket to protect himself. The killer (who threw David from the apartment window) is using him for a patsy. And as Henry puts it, “Good heavens, man, he’s black and he’s queer! What do you expect from the police department?” Plus ca change………
Henry insists Leo is innocent–Tobin calmly responds he knows that–Bruce Maundy is the killer. He’s known ever since he heard of David’s death. At some point, a number of things Bruce said to him came together in his head, and told him that Bruce knew too many things he shouldn’t have known, couldn’t have known, unless he was the one who killed Jamie, and almost killed Ronald. But there’s no physical evidence, no motive. A good investigator would smell a rat, but Manzoni is still in charge of the case. And he’s just trying to cover his own unsightly ass.
Tobin is still stubbornly insisting there’s nothing he can do, nobody who will listen to his theories, but Henry is frantic, insisting they can’t leave Leo to serve as Maundy’s sacrificial lamb. Faced with this burst of emotion from a man who has been almost as closed down personally as Tobin–again, the one man he’s met on this case who most reminds him of himself–something opens up inside Tobin, just a crack. And he has a sudden flash of personal insight–“I feel I don’t have the right to stop punishing myself, I thought. What a fool.”
He phones his old friend on the force, Marty Kengelberg, who we’ve met a few times before. He asks how quickly he could get a private investigator’s license–Marty practically falls over himself to help, reassuring Tobin that he can get the license for him very soon, and that he doesn’t have to worry about getting in trouble if he does any work before it’s finalized. And then they make dinner plans–the first time Tobin has agreed to have dinner with friends since Jock died. The dam has broken–Mitch Tobin is coming back to life.
But he still has to prove Bruce Maundy is the killer. And he does, in what is unquestionably the most exciting and ingenious finish to any of the Tobins, and much as I’ve already revealed the killer, I think I really would be spoiling the book to give it away–but suffice it to say, Jamie Dearborn helps solve his own murder, after a fashion. And Cary Lane, who ends up being the surprise hero of the piece, has a well-deserved cry. And Stew Remington finds out there are some things in this world that aren’t funny.
What was the why of the case? The reason Bruce Maundy murdered two of his friends, and tried to kill several more? It’s all too painfully simple–Jamie Dearborn threatened to tell Bruce’s mother about Bruce being gay. Bruce passionately believes his mother doesn’t know. She probably does, on some level, but he’s never told her. And he’d kill everyone in New York to keep her from finding out. As long as she sees him as ‘normal’, he can have his queer lifestyle, and still not be a queer.
It’s very reminiscent of The Sour Lemon Score, Matt Rosenstein–a violent macho thug who is clearly gay, but can’t admit it to himself, even while he’s sleeping with another man. And again, in the fictional world of Donald E. Westlake, the worst crime you can commit is to lie to yourself–or to others–about who you are. And those who commit that crime will very often end up committing other crimes as well.
If you’re gay, you’re gay–you can’t pretend to be anything else. It won’t work. It’s never worked. It never could work. And how many people are still out there, trying to make it work, putting up false fronts, running away from themselves, or trying to make other people run away from themselves? How much longer will the lies go on? Look at how long it’s taken us to get this far. All to keep (as Cary puts it) “A silly secret that nobody ever even cared about.” Amen, brother.
So Tobin’s cracked the case yet again–Bruce Maundy is in jail, on suicide watch. Ronald Cornell will be released from the hospital a free man, though still haunted by his lost love–he’ll have company there, from Cary. Henry and Leo may work out their relationship problems or not, but Henry has perhaps learned that he is, as Tobin told him earlier, better than he thinks. Leo will hopefully decide there are worse things than living in a world where it’s possible for you to fail–or succeed. And life will go on.
And for Tobin himself, life will resume. Somehow, this experience has set him on the path to recovery, though he’s still got a ways to go yet. He’ll get his P.I. license–though he won’t end up using it the way we readers of detective fiction would expect, or hope. Kate gets her husband back, Bill gets his father back, Marty gets his friend back. Welcome back, Mitch. But you realize this means your days as a fictional sleuth are numbered, right? Mr. Coe will have no more need of you, and Mr. Westlake will have no more need of Mr. Coe.
This is the climax of the Tobin saga–this is where it all came to a head. What follows can only be anti-climax, and to me, that’s what the final book in the series represents, though that’s not to say that an anti-climax is always a bad thing. I’ll see how it reads the second time through, once I get to it.
What I’m getting to next is not as good a book as this, but it’s still a rather interesting one, written in a genre Westlake isn’t known for, under a pseudonym Westlake only used once–and then he actually got Richard Stark, of all people, to kill that alter-ego off.
So he couldn’t have liked the book all that much, you’d think (or else he was disappointed by the sales). But I do like it, much as it isn’t really the kind of thing we read Westlake for. It’s got a lot of politics, a lot of family intrigue (and rich well-connected WASP family intrigue at that), and it’s really really long. Like stuck in an airport for hours, then flying across the Atlantic long. You could fit any three Parker novels that aren’t Butcher’s Moon into this one, and they’d still have room to turn around.
And If I had to come up with an alternate title for it, it might be something along the lines of Cold War and Peace. You know what Tolstoy said about all happy families being the same (rather ignoring the fact that no family is ever entirely happy or unhappy)? It often seems to me that no two Westlake novels are alike. But this is taking it a bit far, Mr. Westlake. In the world of popular fiction, you truly are the President of the Unexpected.
PS: The black Serie Noire edition up top has an alternate title, which translates to Aunts Galore–‘Aunt’ being a French slang term for gay man. The German title is something along the lines of No Time for Aries. The more you know….