Monthly Archives: April 2015

Review: A Jade in Aries, Part 2



“There’s going to be a party at our place tomorrow night,” Weissman said.  “Why don’t you come?”

“Your place?”

“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 is also David Poumon, a young writer (whose physical description sounds oddly similar to Westlake’s),  also not a flamboyant dresser.  He’s involved with Cary Lane, one of Jamie’s fellow models, who is supremely flamboyant–a strange mixture of affected decadence and genuine innocence–and a gifted mimic.   A kind and gentle person under 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, 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 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 sister’s husband did my chart once, and I didn’t 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 (because I think good palm readers 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 is 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 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 needs to believe his mother doesn’t know.  She does, of course, but they’ve never talked about it, and in his mind she still sees him as straight.  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 an 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 the kind of thing we read Westlake for.   It’s got a lot of politics, a lot of family intrigue (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.

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 (ignoring the fact that no family is ever entirely happy)?  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….


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, Tucker Coe

Review: A Jade in Aries



I walked around, watching and listening, carrying my glass of vermouth.  Twice, guests engaged me in conversation, patently trying to ease a certain curiosity about me.  One of them said “I never saw anybody in Warner Brothers drag before.  It’s fascinating!”  I didn’t volunteer any information, nor did I cut the conversations short.  I was as interested in their milieu as they were in mine.  I would also have liked a casual word or two dropped about one or more of my suspects, but that didn’t happen.

From A Jade in Aries, by Tucker Coe. 

In the Sixties in America there began to appear mysteries such as Tucker Coe’s A Jade in Aries, dealing with the gay milieu. The gay client is honestly dismayed at the murder of his lover and the police department’s apathy in finding his killer. (Factually, this is still a problem to the gay community). Emotionally, the book is sound, but it is not free of stereotyping; apparently, if we are to believe the book, all homosexuals wear brightly flowered ruffled shirts and wave their cigarettes about to a staccato Bette Davis beat (when they’re not dangling them from their incredibly limp wrists).

From Homosexuals in the Mystery: Victims or Victimizers?, by Solomon Hastings

A Jade in Aries was published in 1970, the same year Wax Apple came out, and it’s pretty clear that the two books were written very closely together, perhaps back to back–there’s a reference late in this one to Tobin’s broken arm from the previous book, and the two seem to link together on a number of levels, chronological and emotional.

I don’t think Westlake necessarily realized at first that he was writing a series of books about an unwilling detective exploring outsider subcultures, though he surely figured it out by the time he wrote Murder Among Children, which focused on the bohemian youth culture, and on African Americans.  So having made that connection, he had to think about other outsider groups Tobin could move among, and settled on the mentally ill, and then gay men.

Not lesbians–who he’d written about a lot in the 50’s and early 60’s, for the sleaze book market, and there was more than a touch of sympathy for them there, but not much in the way of empathy–his lesbian characters were unconvincing, and most seemed like they would be happier being with men, if only something hadn’t gone wrong (I can only think of one seemingly happy lesbian couple in a book of his, co-written with Lawrence Block, and that was about the quest of a lusty male teen to deflower a virgin, geared heavily towards farce).

I’d have to know a lot more than I do to form any solid opinion on his attitudes, which I’m sure were ‘evolving’, as we say at present–and in any event, he was writing to the market, which was mainly geared towards men who found lesbians sexy in much the same way they do today.  It’s okay to start with girl on girl, but only as a preliminary thing.  Yes, you may roll your eyes now; just understand somebody will be rolling their eyes at you someday, if they’re not already.

Marijane Meaker, who wrote for Gold Medal as Vin Packer (and who Westlake expressed his admiration for, presumably knowing who she really was), was (and is) herself a lesbian, who had a troubled affair with Patricia Highsmith.  She also wrote about lesbians as being emotionally disturbed in this period, because that’s the way you were expected to write them.   Societal expectations were damned hard to get around.

And anyway, in the climate in which these books were written, it was only a lie of omission.  We don’t blame the great African American authors of the Jim Crow era for writing mainly about troubled unhappy black people, do we now?   But even they could be more honest and upbeat about their prospects than those who practiced The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.   Nobody expected black people to pretend they weren’t black (though of course some did anyway).  Langston Hughes was almost certainly gay himself, and nary a word about that ever crept into his writing.  You can only be expected to take up so many crosses in one life.   James Baldwin wrote about the gay experience via a blonde American having an affair with an Italian in Paris.  And only well after he was very thoroughly established as a literary icon.

As always, I come at my point obliquely–it’s easy to look back and find fault, with gay and straight writers in that time, for failing to live up to our modern PC ideals when they write about the gay experience.  I find that many Post-Stonewall gay writers looking at the early gay mysteries seem to react to the gay men who wrote some of them almost the way black people do to Stepin Fetchit–forgetting that somebody has to be first, and that they can’t know what it was really like to be gay back then–or any other minority.   We just know the view is better standing on their shoulders.

Lots of self-evidently gay characters had shown up in mysteries, going all the way back to the dawn of the genre, even if they weren’t openly referred to as such. (Parenthetically, is it okay if I use ‘gay’ to refer to men and women alike?  One of my cousins said she was gay when she came out to me as a lesbian many years ago, and I only want to type ‘LGBT’ so many times in one article.)

Westlake was not breaking new ground by writing a mystery novel centered around a circle of gay men, one of whom is murdering the others.   By 1970, that was no new thing at all, and in fact there had been several fictional detectives who were themselves gay, and sometimes even referred to themselves as such.

In 1953, in Britain, a mystery called The Heart in Exile appeared, written by Rodney Garland (a pen name), and it was a rare thing then for even the most brilliant British and Irish writers (including those who were gay themselves, like–damn, that’s a long list) to openly admit homosexuality even existed.  The book is apparently full of self-hatred and class snobbery, and it’s probably not very good, but it’s a starting point.

By the 1960’s, things were loosening up a lot (oh behave!), at least in the urban centers of America.  George Baxt created the first series character who was both openly gay and a police detective–and black (Chester Himes beat him to the punch there, alluding to the gay subculture in Harlem as early as 1960, but his protagonists weren’t gay).

Pharaoh Love was his name, and almost unbearable campiness was frequently his game, but the books sold well enough, and Anthony Boucher liked them (did any mystery writer ever get a bad review from Boucher?).   Baxt was never identified as a gay man on the dust jackets, but he later went on to write a whole string of books with titles like The Marlene Dietrich Murder Case, The Noel Coward Murder Case, The Mae West Murder Case–I’m guessing most people figured it out.

And he also gets attacked today for depicting gay men in a negative light.   Then credited as a pioneer.  Then attacked again.  Because the fact is, the battle for full acceptance and equality isn’t over, even though some major victories have been won, and gay people are still very sensitive about stereotypes, and so is everyone, really.   It’s that kind of an era.   But to somebody who just cares about storytelling, the real problem with stereotypes isn’t that they offend people.   It’s that they make for bad writing.   Something that always offended Donald Westlake.

Westlake later wrote that “The Sixties crime novel was joky (as opposed to funny), smart-alecky, full of drugs, and self-consciously parading its cast of blacks and homosexuals.  The only Sixties mysteries with any merit at all were written in the Fifties by Chester Himes.”   And I don’t think he meant that to be taken entirely seriously (since he wrote it in the context of an interview of himself and several of his pseudonyms), but he wasn’t just blowing smoke either.

And looking over one of the Pharaoh Love books, I see exactly what he meant by that remark.  Yes, Pharaoh Love is an admirable man in many ways; capable, determined, intelligent, witty–and so full of himself, you can barely stand him.   Because he’s not a character, he’s a type.  He’s the author’s idealized self-image (Baxt was white, but obviously John Shaft was Ernest Tidyman’s idealized self-image, and what of it?), and at the same time, a reflection of the doubts gay men have felt, then and today, about their place in society.   Which often express themselves in a form of outre bravado–swishiness, if you will.  If you’ve got to live it, then own it.  Quentin Crisp did.  He was a pioneer too.   Like Stepin Fetchit.

And really, if you’ve ever seen footage of the Greenwich Village Halloween parade, you must be wondering why some gay people even try to pretend this isn’t a real thing.   But of course, nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody, wants to be defined by others.   We all want to define ourselves, in all our self-contradicting complexities.  Like I want to be a sensitive evolved male, and still get to talk like a sexist pig about hot chicks sometimes.  You see how subtly I just made my own persuasion clear?   Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Anyway, that’s enough prologue–if you want to read more about gay people in mysteries, you can start here, and you might just finish reading everything on this subject by next Christmas, but I doubt it.

Technically, A Jade in Aries is a Sixties Mystery, since it was quite certainly written sometime in 1969, and 1970 is generally considered to be part of that remarkable decade.  Maybe what Westlake aspired to do with it was fix all the problems he saw in earlier books with similar subject material–not joky, not smart-alecky, not full of drugs (unless the story really called for it), and if there were going to be blacks and homosexuals, they’d be people.  Nothing more, and nothing less.  Not paraded out self-consciously, but observed closely, and taken seriously.   He might get some things wrong, but it wouldn’t be for lack of interest in getting them right.

Tobin tells us he was working on a new home improvement project at his house in Queens, since the winter weather has temporarily stopped him from working outside on the brick wall he’s building around his backyard.  He’s in his basement, digging a sub-basement (that has to be symbolic of something, right?), when he hears a man calling from upstairs, then coming down–he tenses up–then relaxes, when the man comes into view.

Nothing to fear from this guy.  He’s not just gay–he’s one of the Bruised, as Tobin used to think of this type when working as a cop.  The type who is often found badly beaten up by his latest hook-up, and usually won’t even prefer charges against the perp.  Today, we’d probably just call him a ‘bottom’, and I hate that term, I really do.

His name is Ronald Cornell, and he owns a small men’s boutique in Brooklyn Heights, which is developing a large gay community (Greenwich Village would have been too obvious).   He ran it with his partner (in both senses of the word), Jamie Dearborn, a handsome young black man (normally way out of the drab Ronald’s league), who was much in demand as a model.

Jamie was found beaten to death in his and Ronald’s bedroom, and Ronald is convinced it was somebody in their immediate social circle who did it.  But the police investigation is being led by the exceptionally homophobic (by late 60’s police standards) Detective Manzoni, who is convinced it was merely some ‘changeable sailor’ who thought he’d try walking the wild side, then freaked and took it out on Jamie.  Manzoni pretty much figures these queers have it coming when this kind of thing happens.

Ronald refused to accept this, and started trying to solve the case himself–in his own rather idiosyncratic fashion, through astrology.  He’s sure Jamie would only have let someone he knew into the apartment, and he’s narrowed the list of acquaintances who don’t have alibis down to six.  He’s going to do their horoscopes (a very real thing in the gay community, then and now), but he needs to know exactly when and where they were born.  That’s why he’s come to see Tobin, who he heard about through channels–he needs somebody with the connections to get that information.

Tobin is rather bemused by this request, but he likes Ronald, sees he is in horrible emotional pain, as Tobin himself was after his partner Jock Sheehan died because of Tobin’s negligence–and it’s not a big deal–he calls an old friend on the force who has access to that kind of thing, and asks him for a favor.  He won’t even take any money (Ronald sends him a really nice scarf from his shop in gratitude).

He’s still not a licensed private investigator, and even if he was, he’d be stepping on some dangerous toes getting into a murder investigation that isn’t formally closed yet.  Tobin’s had plenty of trouble with the cops already, for his off-the-books activities.  But getting a few birth certificates checked out won’t ruffle any feathers.  He doesn’t believe astrology can be used to solve murders, but if anyone can identify with the need to keep busy to avoid dealing with grief, it’s Mitch Tobin.

And as I’ve said several times already, there has been one positive side-effect to Tobin’s depressive guilt-ridden state of mind these past few  years–it makes him incapable of looking down on anyone.  We are all sinners, and none worse than him.  Judge not lest ye be judged.   Yes, I know, Ronald hasn’t actually done anything wrong.   But he is about to make a serious mistake.

A few days later, Tobin and his wife Kate learn from a newspaper article that Ronald Cornell attempted suicide by jumping from the roof of his apartment building–same one the shop is located in–his fall was broken by a shed full of bolts of cloth relating to the shop, so he survived, but he’s very badly hurt.   Kate reads the article to Tobin, and he immediately deduces that this wasn’t suicide–it was a murder attempt.   Makes no sense otherwise–he’d have known the shed was there.  The police will figure it out–Tobin doesn’t want to get involved.   Tobin never wants to get involved.

But Kate, Tobin’s own dark-haired Jiminy Cricket, always wants him to get more involved–at least as long as he’s the way he is now.   She knows of no other way to try and bring him back to life.   And naturally compassionate as she is, she wants to meet Ronald, offer him some support.   So she goes and talks to him at the hospital, and confirms what Tobin said that somebody knocked him out and tried to kill him.   He didn’t see who it was.   He’s in full body traction, unable to move a muscle.  He’s not investigating anything now, unless it’s from his bed.

And as Kate learns to her horror, Manzoni now sees a chance to get another of ‘these people’ off the street–he’s going to have Ronald committed to an institution–since he not only tried to kill himself, but refused to admit it, and is clinging to the delusion that his lover was murdered by a friend, instead of just being a casualty of his own immoral lifestyle.   He’s clearly a danger to himself (and in 1969, remember, homosexuality is still widely considered a form of mental illness).  Case closed.   Two less perverts out there.   Mike Hammer would be proud.

So now it’s more than just a mystery to be solved–a living person’s existence is in jeopardy–Tobin is caught again.  Kate is giving him That Look–“Mitch, you have to do something.”   He just wants to go back to digging that sub-basement, but once again–

I could feel it closing in on me.  “Kate, what on earth could I do?  Even if I tried, what could I do?  I can make some phone calls and find him a good lawyer, but that would be the best thing.”

“A lawyer won’t beat Manzoni,” she said, “not if Manzoni is determined.   You know that, Mitch.


“Eventually?   After a year, two years?  Even six months, Mitch.   Put someone like Ronald Cornell in an asylum for six months?  What do you think it would do to him?

I said, “There’s no reason to believe I’d succeed, even if I did try.”

“That’s the worst excuse of all,” she said.

I looked down at the hole I was digging, the concrete blocks I was putting in place.   I didn’t want to leave all this.  I didn’t want to expose myself to anybody like Detective Manzoni, I didn’t want to pry into the unhappy world that Ronald Cornell lived in, I didn’t want to go out of this house at all.

Tobin, like most people of his generation, believes that homosexuality in men is the result of bad parenting–weak or absent father, dominating mother, lack of proper role models, etc. and so forth.   It doesn’t make you a bad person, but it’s a dysfunction, a regrettable development.  He’s stating this to us as the decidedly non-omniscient narrator, so it’s impossible to be sure whether this is what Westlake himself believed–I think he probably felt there was something to that theory, but  seems to hedge his bets slightly by having Tobin state it as a mere opinion, that he knows science has not confirmed.

Tobin even worries later in the book whether his own strange behavior could turn his son Bill gay–not that he uses that word.  It never appears in the book even once, and it was a long-established slang term that a former Greenwich Village denizen like Westlake was certainly familiar with–it appears frequently in those Pharoah Love books.   So make of that what you will.  But it makes sense Tobin would feel that way.  Parents often worried about that kind of thing then.   Many still do, of course (hey, it’s no worse than not vaccinating your kids because some website said it causes autism).

Tobin is homophobic in the sense of seeing gayness as something undesirable, even though he doesn’t hate and fear gay men in the deeply personal way Manzoni does.  It would be unrealistic for a man of Tobin’s generation and background to feel any differently.  But then, the hero of Up Your Banners was clearly shown to have racist attitudes, even as he fell madly in love with a black girl, and became increasingly repulsed by the prejudices he discovered in himself.

When Westlake’s muse is fully upon him, his own prejudices tend to fall by the wayside.   Because to Donald E. Westlake–and by extension, Tucker Coe–the most sacred right of all is the right to decide for yourself who you are, what your potentials may be.  To judge other people for things they can’t help, instead of the choices they make within the available parameters, is to commit the deadliest of sins.  And to base what you do with your life on what society expects from you is, as we were told in Up Your Banners, to be a traitor to yourself.

Anyway, Kate, still working on her spouse, plays her old hole card–that Tobin hasn’t been bringing in regular income–just the occasional detective job, and he didn’t even get paid for the last two we know about (it’s a bit unclear whether he’s done any paid detective work that wasn’t mentioned in the previous three novels–the lost Tobins?  We’ll probably never know).

The ten thousand he got from the syndicate in the first book must be long-gone, and he’s spending a lot on building materials for his projects.  Kate is working to keep the family fed.   And Ronald is offering them a percentage of his shop’s profits, in perpetuity, if Tobin will help him find Jamie’s killer (thus proving he’s not crazy).  Tobin makes it clear that if he fails to find the killer, he won’t accept payment of any kind.  And Kate, as ever, is gracious in victory.

So once more into the breach.   Tobin heads off to see Ronald at the hospital, and finds him as Kate left him, dazed, depressed, but believing deeply in Tobin’s ability to help him.  Then in walks Ronald’s attorney, Stewart Remington ESQ. (‘Stew’ for short), as gay as a man possibly can be, and loving every minute of it.  He is also into astrology, though more skeptical.   Basically all the people in Ronald’s circle have some interest–and all of them use Stew as their attorney.   And he’s one of the suspects on Ronald’s list.   He’s most amused to find that out.

Almost everything about him was a surprise.  I’d expected someone more or less like Cornell, perhaps a bit brisker, more down-to-earth, but generally from the same mold.  Stewart Remington, though, was from a different mold completely.

In the first place, he was about my age, around forty.  And he was huge, over six feet by an inch or two, and fat the way pictures show Henry the Eighth was fat; a lot of flesh padding a large broad frame.  I would guess him to be no less than three hundred pounds, and possibly ten or fifteen pounds over.

This huge body was draped in clothing which had undoubtedly come from Cornell’s boutique.  It was similar in style to what Cornell had worn the first time I’d seen him, but was more flamboyant in color and line.  Looking at him, one knew he was the kind of man who wore a cape, and who wore one whether capes were in vogue that particular time of year or not, and who surely had at least one cape with a red satin lining.

What he was wearing now, however, was a black velvet topcoat with black fur collar, the coat worn open, flung over his shoulders without his arms in the sleeves, like photos of Italian movie directors.

The description goes on at some length, but you get the idea.  And by the way, referring to that article quote up top, I don’t think there are any gay men in this book who wear brightly flowered ruffled shirts–in fact, they all dress quite differently, so Westlake did understand the vital significance of style in this subculture, even if he got the details wrong for this exact place and time–and honestly, who would know at this point?   Who would remember?   It would have changed every other week.  It’s an open secret here in New York that if you want expensive men’s clothing at a bargain, go to thrift stores in neighborhoods with a lot of gay men.  You’ll find tons of barely-worn discarded finery–the remainder bins of the fashion wars.

As Tobin makes his way through Ronald’s list, and meets the other five suspects, each of them is very much an individual, with his own very distinct tastes, interests, and behavior patterns, though they all do share an interest in astrology–the linking theme of this book.  Tobin likes some of them very much, forming tentative friendships–others rub him the wrong way, but that’s always been the case with him.

Some of the ones he dislikes turn out to be pretty solid citizens, under their various vaguely decadent mannerisms.  In fact, most of the people he meets in Ronald’s group are decent enough human beings, down deep–not saints by any means, but much more than sinners.  And one of them, of course, is the murderer.   And that’s the one he has to find, and quickly.   Ronald’s time is running short, and he may not be the only one.

I was hoping to get this one finished in one installment, but it won’t work.   There’s too much depth to this book, too much variety, too much detail, too much color, too much life–and too much death.   The truth is, I’ve only got one more Tobin to review after this, and I’m going to miss the guy.

So I’ll allow myself the indulgence of drawing out my analysis of arguably his most interesting case, and I’ll allow him the same honor I’ve extended to Parker and Dortmunder–a two part review.  Because Mitch Tobin, brief as his fictional existence was, is the only one of Westlake’s other series protagonists who can stand beside those two legendary thieves as an equal–in complexity and in character, if not in durability.

He could not last as long as they did, you see, because unlike them, he is in constant flux, learning and changing with each new case, though it’s been incremental up to this point–but next time, we’ll see that the seed germinating inside of him in his long emotional winter is ready to sprout into the warmth of spring.  And frankly, so am I.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, Tucker Coe

Review: Wax Apple


True!–nervous–very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses–not destroyed–not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily–how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

From The Tell-tale Heart, by Edgar Allan Poe

Walter Stoddard–a suspect too, and at my table, facing me–said, ‘What exactly are you, Tobin?”

I looked away from Debby and saw him studying me.  He had a brooding expression on his face today, more thoughtful and less hopeless  than I’d seen there before.  I said, “How do you mean?”

“Everybody knows you aren’t kosher,” he said, “But nobody knows what you are.”

I said, “I’m a friend of a friend of Doctor Cameron.”

“You weren’t at Revo Hill?”

I shook my head.

Jerry Kanter reluctantly gave up his study of Rose Ackerson and Molly Schweitzler.  “So you are a ringer,” he said.  “A counterspy.  What are you, a cop?”

“No.  I used to be on the force in New York City, but I haven’t been for the last three years.”

Walter Stoddard said, “Now you’re a private detective?”

“No.  In a way, I’m not really a ringer at all.  I’m a kind of mental patient, in fact.  I don’t want to go into that part of it.”

“Nobody’s asking you to go into that part of it,” Stoddard said.  “All I asked you is what you’re doing here.”

From Wax Apple, by Tucker Coe.

This is the third book in the Tobin series, and I’m now asking myself whether it might be the best (it’s either this one or the next one).   And that is not a universally shared opinion, by any means.  This fellow here says it’s the least effective book in the series.   I’m not sure I follow his reasoning as to why that is.  Contrary to what he’s saying, Tobin obsesses over his wall in all the books, even the last one, where he’s mainly come out of his emotional tailspin.  This book here is the only one of the series where he’s away from New York City the whole time–doesn’t get home until the final chapter.   Yes, he thinks about getting back to the wall-building, but there are very good reasons for that.  And nowhere else in the series are they made so abundantly clear.

I think a lot of people partly miss the point of Tobin (and of course, I think I get it, insert eyeroll here).   Tobin is about the oddest of odd ducks in the  mystery canon.  He’s a detective who doesn’t want to be a detective.   A sensitive compassionate human being who’d like to shut his compassion off permanently, deaden every last nerve ending.   His wall is merely a means to that end.   Without it, there is no character.  Without it, he’s just another fictional gumshoe bending our collective ear in first person narrator form, and Westlake figured there were more than enough of those around already.  Tobin is something else.  But what, exactly?   It seems like even he doesn’t know.   Book by book, he inches closer to solving that mystery.  And once it’s solved, he’s done.

Why would this book get less love than the others?   Well, look at the last two–the first was a fairly thrilling narrative involving organized crime, a mob boss’s beautiful slain actress girlfriend, all kinds of colorful glamorous characters, explosions, a thrilling finish involving gunplay.  It’s what we expect from a noir-style mystery, which is why it nearly got a film adaptation with Bob Mitchum playing Tobin.

The second book was set in the world of the nascent youth movement of the 60’s, Greenwich Village, more beautiful girls, corrupt cops, some kind of religious cult—somewhat more rooted in everyday reality, but still pretty glamorous.  Honestly, it’s kind of hard to avoid the glamor when you write about New York.  Gotham can’t help being sexy, no matter how much you dirty it up.   Why else would anyone want to live here?

And Westlake wanted to get Tobin away from all that for a while.   This is a bottle story, and you might say a country manor style mystery, but to call it a ‘cozy’, as some refer to that form–well–this one’s not very cozy at all.  It strips away all the illusions of fiction, and life, and shows us a world we’d maybe rather not see.   The world of the mentally ill.   You know.  Loonies.   But it shows us this world in the context of a mystery story, which maybe coats the pill, just a bit.

As the book opens, we see Tobin arriving by train at a small upstate New York town called Kendrick.  He haggles with a waiting cabbie over the fare, and gets dropped off at a big rambling house of grey stone–which the driver recognizes, and he’s suddenly looking at Tobin differently.

Because, you see, this is The Midway–it used to be a private home for a rich family, but now serves as a halfway house, a temporary home for people just released from mental institutions.   It’s been heavily remodeled to that end, making its endless corridors and rooms maze-like and confusing.  We’re all familiar with the concept of the halfway house in all its many forms now, but it was still a fairly new idea then.  And people living near places like this often treated them and their residents with suspicion and dislike.  And many still do.

We learn as we go that Tobin is there on a job–not a job he wanted to take, but he never wants to take jobs at all.   His old friend on the NYPD, Marty Kengelberg, got him in touch with Dr. Fredric Cameron, director and founder of The Midway, who had a problem he needed resolved discreetly, without involving the local police (who share the local prejudice against The Midway and its denizens).  Somebody is quietly arranging accidents that are injuring the patients.  That somebody must be a patient himself–or herself.  But if the other patients, still in a rather delicate mental state, found out what was going on–or were roughly questioned by cops who fear and hate them–it could send many of them back to the institutions they just got out of.  Or worse.

Tobin’s first impulse, when Dr. Cameron introduced himself, was to assume his wife Kate has tricked him into seeing a shrink, but he controlled the paranoia by force of will, and tried to get out of the job, as he typically does.   Kate, believing as always that her husband’s only possible path back to the world of the living is through doing his job, reminded him they could use the money–the cash he got from the mob in the first book must be running low by now–she and their son Bill can spend a month at the beach on Long Island while he’s away, a vacation they could not otherwise take.  Guilt over what he’s done to the people he loves is Tobin’s Achilles heel–he accepted Cameron’s offer–grudgingly.

So Tobin is going to pose as a patient himself, recently released from an institution called Revo Hill.   The irony of the World’s First Clinically Depressed Detective posing as a head case is so obvious, it hardly even needs pointing out.  But Tobin firmly tells himself he is not like these people.   At first.  But that’s never going to hold up.  Because what Tobin’s mental state has done is make him uniquely aware of how much he is like all people, and particularly those who aren’t in the mainstream; the rejects, the outcasts, the weirdos.   He moves between the many differing realities within reality, the infinitely varied outsider cultures in the world he’s turned his back on, and he sees himself in all of them.   Hard as he keeps trying not to.

Nobody is more outside the mainstream than the mental patient, unable to cope with or even process reality the same way as everyone else.   So you could argue that this is the definitive Tobin novel, because he’s completely immersed in that world; cut off from his home, his family, his therapeutic wall, and forced to confront his own alienation in a way he hasn’t been before.

But of course, he also has to solve the mystery of who the injurer is.   And five minutes after he arrives at The Midway, his task is complicated by a tripwire set atop a flight of stairs, that sends him crashing to the bottom, breaking his arm, and knocking him unconsciousness.   Shortly after he awakes, with his arm in a cast, and his head aching, he finds a note in his room, presumably from the injurer, saying “I’M SORRY IT WAS YOU.”   And a little bottle of Ballantine scotch.  Well, that’s nice.

This is, I think, the only book Westlake ever wrote with even remotely sympathetic characters who are practicing psychiatrists–I’ve noted elsewhere that he had certain issues with that profession.   There are two doctors at The Midway–Fredric Cameron and Lorimer Fredericks.  I never noticed until now that Westlake chose to give one a first name almost identical to the other’s last name.  That’s not the only name game in the book, by any means.

I think the point here is that they are two sides of the same coin–Cameron is calm and affable, but somewhat ineffectual and weak-willed.  Fredericks is abrasive, unlikable, and highly excitable in nature–but more forceful–he seems to think he can help draw his patients out in group therapy by deliberately antagonizing them, and has some notion that he’s engaged in a study of this promising new approach, with the inmates of The Midway as test subjects–and now Tobin has screwed up his data.

Tobin is not impressed with his techniques, and tells him so.   It’s hate at first sight on both sides, but they will have to learn to work together.   In the world of Tucker Coe, even the most unpleasant people have points of view that must be understood and respected–Fredericks ultimately proves to be a professional, in spite of his personality flaws.

Tobin has an exceptionally large list of potential suspects for a novel of this type–over twenty patients are living at The Midway, each of whom gets to stay there for six months, before returning to the outside world–but he manages to eliminate many of them early in the game–he obviously excludes those who were injured by the perpetrator’s various booby traps, and several more are eliminated this way before the story is over.  Since he can’t tell any of the patients what’s going on, or even give the impression that he himself is investigating anything, Tobin the ‘completist’ needs to narrow that list down as much as possible.  Risking the very real chance that he’s missing something of vital importance.

Going over his list, he comes to a startling revelation–a small quiet friendly man calling himself Dewey, full of information about The Midway’s history, who came and talked with him after the accident, and has clearly been living there for some time, is not one of the current patients.   He’s a stowaway.   A former patient who didn’t want to leave when his six months was up.  Taking advantage of the labyrinthine nature of The Midway, and the rotating group of residents, he’s managed to live there undetected for quite some time–Cameron and Fredericks are skeptical, but another patient remembers meeting him months ago.

Could he be the injurer?   Tobin doesn’t think so, but he has to be found and questioned.  Easier said than done.  But as Tobin prepares to join the doctors and a trusted inmate in a thorough search of the house, late at night, Dewey finds him.  He’s been thinking about why Tobin, who he’s pegged as a plant, is there, and he’s come to a realization.

He said, “I couldn’t think of a thing until yesterday afternoon, when poor Miss Prendergast fell and hit the radiator.  I was thinking what a coincidence that was, first you having an accident and breaking your arm, and then Miss Prendergast falling and hitting her head against the radiator, and then I remembered there’d been other accidents, and I suddenly realized they weren’t accidents at all!  Somebody was doing them on purpose!”

He seemed honestly shocked, even offended, his usually mild eyes staring at me through his wire-framed glasses as though insisting that I too should be affected by this piece of news.  I said, “That’s true, Dewey.  Somebody is doing them on purpose.”

“But that’s awful!  I don’t know if you, an outsider, can realize just how awful that really is.”

“I think I realize,” I said.

He either didn’t hear me or didn’t believe me.  “This place is a haven,” he said.  “It is safety, security, protection.  Not like the outside world.  For someone to be cruel in here–no, it can’t happen, we can’t let it happen!”

Tobin tries to get Dewey to come and talk to Dr. Cameron with him, but Dewey, terrified at the thought of being banished from the only world he wants to be a part of, slips away.  The house is searched top to bottom–he is nowhere to be found.  Fredericks, who has been challenging Tobin ever since he found out why Tobin was there (not having been aware initially that he was a former police detective there to investigate the accidents), sarcastically inquires as to whether Dewey is some kind of poltergeist.  I would have said he was more like a brownie, but I suppose it’ll do.

Needing to justify himself to Fredericks, who is getting on his nerves more and more (all the more since his antagonistic psychoanalytic methods got Tobin to reveal the story of himself, Jock Sheehan, and Linda Campbell, which triggered his depressed state), Tobin looks more closely, and realizes that all the remodeling done on the house has left large empty spaces within the walls–he finds Dewey’s hiding place–a rather neat little improvised apartment, complete with bookshelf–and finds too late that the startled Dewey has used an escape route to climb up on the roof, and come down the wooden fire escape–which collapses–another of the injurer’s traps. His neck is broken.  A very gentle inoffensive poltergeist has been exorcised.

It turns out his name was Franklin DeWitt, and he’d been living there at least six years past his scheduled release date, without anyone realizing it.  He might well have gone on living there happily for decades more, if circumstances had been different. Tobin looks at Dewey’s shattered body on the lawn–another dead weight on his already overburdened conscience–and when Fredericks grudgingly admits he was right after all, Tobin hits him in the mouth with his one good arm.   It’s starting to seem like you can’t live in this world without injuring somebody.  God damn it.

And now, as Tobin points out to the two horrified doctors, not having told the police what was going on, they are all accomplices to murder after the fact.   They can’t cover up Dewey’s death, so after tossing around a few ideas, the now chastened Fredericks comes up with a workable plan.  They agree to give the cops an edited version of what happened, saying Tobin was there to investigate the stowaway, not the accidents–which they only belatedly realized were not accidents–and Tobin’s presence as an investigator (which he’s not licensed to do professionally) will be explained as a quid pro quo–he was helping them look for Dewey in exchange for free psychiatric treatment, since he couldn’t afford it otherwise.

Tobin should be pissed–he’s broken his arm trying to help these people, and he’s not even getting paid?   But he immediately embraces Fredericks’ idea–it saves him from a lot of undue attention from the law–and it means he won’t be getting money for having caused Dewey’s death.   For such a thorough-going professional, Tobin really doesn’t like the idea of getting paid for the thing he does best.

The Kendrick P.D., true to form, runs roughshod over the delicate psyches of the Midway’s residents, who are now fully aware that they are in danger, and are reverting back to their old behavioral problems under the stress of the investigation.  One man, an alcoholic, runs away to get a drink.  Another, Doris Brady, a Peace Corps volunteer who developed severe culture shock while working in an impoverished African village, lapses into catatonia, and has to be taken away.

Tobin has been exposed as the wax apple in the bowl, but he sticks to the new story–that even though he’s not one of them, he really is, because he needs help as much as they do.   In telling the hastily constructed lie, he is finally able to admit the truth, to them and to himself.

If I were doing a very thorough synopsis here, I’d have to describe well over twenty characters, not including the ones I’ve already mentioned.   While some get more attention than others, before the novel is done, we get an explanation of what each and every patient is doing there, his or her personal medical history, that Tobin can read in files provided to him by Dr. Cameron (which seems like a violation of Doctor/Patient confidentiality, but I guess desperate times….).  And they are a very mixed bag of nuts, I must tastelessly observe.

We learn early on that one of them, Jerry Kanter, suddenly snapped and killed seven people with a rifle, years ago.   He looks like he wouldn’t hurt a fly, naturally, and it should come as no surprise that he isn’t the one setting the traps. Searching through the patients’ rooms, desperately seeking clues, Tobin finds a variety of literature in Kanter’s, including Man Hungry and Passion Doll–paperback sex novels, written by Alan Marshall–aka Donald E. Westlake.   Another male patient, William Merrivale, who brutally beat his overbearing father, has some books along the same line.

Robert O’Hara, who was caught molesting very young girls, has similar looks to Merrivale–the all American boy, blonde, clean-cut, well-muscled–not at all monstrous.   He seems to only read books intended for boys at the cusp of puberty, but they’re all written for generations before and after his own.  Every identity, healthy or otherwise, is a puzzle all its own, and Tobin doesn’t have the time, training, or inclination to get to the bottom of all of them.

As you’d expect, most only pose a danger to themselves.  Some are women who simply couldn’t adapt to the life society had chosen for them–

Marilyn Nazarro was the twenty-seven year old woman who’d married while still in high school, had twins, and another child in the first three years of marriage, and gradually developed severe symptoms of a manic-depressive cycle.  She’d been in mental hospitals twice, for two years and then for three years, and though she seemed cheerful and normal enough now, the prognosis was poor, primarily because no matter what was done for her in the hospital, every time she came out she had no choice but to return to the same life as before.

Beth Tracy, a pretty if vague-looking blonde of twenty-three was simply a sex-hysteric.  Her marriage had been annulled by her husband for non-consummation, she’d tried three times to kill herself, and she was frank that the whole idea of sexual intercourse was the most disgusting and terrifying thing she could think of.  The doctors believed the problem was rooted in some incident in the past, but had been unable to find it.  Beth Tracy was another ex-patient released not because she was cured but because she had learned to some extent to live with her insufficiencies.  She knew better now than to establish any romantic liaison with anybody.

Donald Walburn (hmm), had a history of burglary and petty theft as a young man (hmm!), spent some years in prison, and upon his release fell victim to paranoia, believing everyone was conspiring against him.  One assumes he did not have a father or some other guardian willing or able to intervene on his behalf, and perhaps no deep passion, such as writing, to give him some direction, an outlet for his imagination–so his imagination turned inwards, and became self-destructive.  He’s been released from the asylum because he’s not dangerous, but being in his late 40’s, alone, and unable to fully trust anyone, his prospects are not good.   Sometimes it only takes a few mistakes, a bit of bad luck, to upset the applecart for good.

But the patient who Tobin most identifies with is Walter Stoddard, who killed his retarded seven year old daughter years ago, then tried to kill himself.  He has been in and out of institutions ever since, never having recovered from the guilt of his despairing action, even though his wife (like Tobin’s) forgave him.

And so Tobin is shocked when Stoddard confesses to having set the traps–until he watches him being marched away by the cops (who are delighted to solve the case so easily), and he recognizes the look of the martyr in his eyes, Christ on the cross, Sydney Carton at the guillotine–Walter has finally found a way to atone for his sin.  He’s going to take the rap, so his fellow sufferers can be left in peace.   Now Tobin has to find the real killer, even if there aren’t going to be any more traps.

And he’s not just guessing that Stoddard is innocent–he finds another note in his room, along with a small hand-saw, after he’s finished searching the rooms of the remaining suspects–“WALTER STODDARD DIDN’T DO IT.   I DID IT.  WITH THIS.”

Tobin’s greatest challenge in solving this case is that his specialty is motives–when you know the why, you figure out the who.  But in this case, it might be anyone with means and opportunity, because none of these people are fully rational–the injurer’s reasons make sense to him or her, but probably wouldn’t to anyone else.   How can he find the person who set the traps, without understanding the reason for it?  And the victims have clearly all been random–whoever happened to stumble into the trap–yet the injurer is sorry Tobin was hurt, and wants to absolve Walter Stoddard.   Why?

I can’t discuss it much further without giving it away, and this is one of the Tobins where the killer isn’t obvious–where Westlake wants to keep us guessing until the very end, so I won’t risk spoiling that for anyone.  I didn’t guess the first time, and I only gradually remembered who it was as I reread the book for this review–certain details stayed with me, others faded.  My mother used to read the same Agatha Christies over and over, and she said she never remembered who the killer was, so it was always new for her

What was different this time was that when Tobin arranged for all the suspects to be gathered in one place, in classic mystery fashion, so he could reveal who the guilty party was, and what his/her motivations were–I began to cry softly.  And I think that’s the first time I’ve ever had that happen to me reading one of Westlake’s books.  It’s not something that typically happens when I’m reading any book, no matter how emotionally involved I get in it.  A little misty-eyed, sure, but I was actually sobbing quietly to myself.   I think I know why now.

In the interim period between my two readings of Wax Apple, I lost a friend. Much older than me, a classic kvetchy Jewish New Yorker, stiff-necked, opinionated, humorous, and independent as all hell.   A damn good friend, of the kind you don’t make very often in life.  We spent endless hours together, looking for birds and other wildlife in Van Cortlandt Park, in the Bronx, where we both lived in the early days of our friendship.   We lost touch gradually, when I moved to Manhattan, and then I realized that  something was wrong when I couldn’t reach him on the phone.

I found him in a nursing home–he’d hit his head out on the street, lost consciousness, woke up in a strange place.   He was told that his apartment was being cleaned out, his possessions scattered, and that from now on this would be his home.  He had absolutely no choice in the matter.

He was quite lucid when I first went to see him, though also very depressed, but as the months dragged by, and he never once got to go outside (I was not allowed to even take him down to the snack bar on the ground floor), he began to lose his mind.   Madness, not senility.  By the end, he had almost completely lost touch with reality, though he still remembered me.  Some of it may have been head trauma, I don’t know.  Certainly the confused mental state of other patients there affected him, and being treated like a child by the staff, as the elderly invariably are in such places.  I will always believe it was the abrupt and unaccountable loss of everything that made him who he was.

One night his sister called me and told me he’d passed away–I’d just passed the nursing home on my evening commute. This was the sister who had refused to let me take him on excursions, because ‘something might happen.’ There were no other family members living nearby, and there were apparently some long-standing issues between the siblings.  “We loved him, but we didn’t like him,” she said.   She felt like she had to use the plural pronoun, for some reason.

I’m still angry about it.   I always will be.   But I never cried for him.  I guess maybe I have now.   Something about the book brought it back for me–the helplessness and despair of the mentally ill, however their conditions originate.  The fragility of the mind, which Westlake had already written about in Memory, is the real subject here.  He clearly  made some use of research material he’d acquired for Pity Him Afterwards, but in the empathetic world of Tucker Coe, pity need not be so conditional.

Because the people we have the effrontery to deem insane are not ravening knife-wielding monsters out of some slasher story to thrill us in our beds, or in a darkened theater.  They’re just people who lost their balance for a moment and never regained it.   Or, in many cases, are fighting, valiantly, desperately, to try and get it back.  There but for the grace of God.  And really, God might show a bit more grace, don’t you think?  Or is that just passing the buck?

So anyway, having once again done his job, effectively and well, Tobin heads home to Queens.   Kate and Bill won’t be back from the beach for a few weeks more, but that’s fine–he won’t even let Kate know he’s back.   He’s got work to do.   His wall has been standing there neglected.  I don’t normally quote from the final passage of a book I’m reviewing, but there’s no spoilers here.

I hadn’t worked on it for quite a while.  It would fill the time, the way it always did, but here was my blasted right arm, useless.  I didn’t dare try to work with it, that would only delay the time when it would be healed and useful again.

One-handed?  I looked out at the wall, inching up out of the ground all the way around my back yard, two feet thick, an unbroken line for three sides, with the house forming the fourth wall.  I wouldn’t be able to dig one-handed, of course, but what about laying bricks?  It would be slower, but I cared nothing about speed, I had no deadlines to meet.  All I had to do was one step at a time, all left-handed.  It was at least worth a try.

And it worked.  I got into old clothes and went out in the yard and the only difficult part really was preparing the mortar, but once that was done the rest was almost easy.  Pick up the trowel, put down the trowel.  Pick up a brick, put down the brick.  The sun was warm, the air was fresh, the bricks were a beautiful color in the sunlight.

I’d sleep without dreams tonight.

I hope Westlake slept without dreams after finishing this.   It really is one of his finest books, certainly one of his two or three best murder mysteries, but again, I can see how it might not satisfy everyone’s notion of a nice little whodunnit.  It has something of the quiet desperation of Agatha Christie’s best work (to name one writer who understood the fragility of the mind all too well), but her detectives are always somehow standing outside the madness, never sharing in it.

Mitchell Tobin comes more out of the Hammett school; as damaged as the people he’s hunting, but somehow finding the strength to make something of that, turn it to his advantage, right at least a few wrongs along the way.   And yet, as with Hammett, the question must always be asked in the end–was there ever any real point to the exercise?  And as with Hammett, we readers will have to answer that one ourselves.

Tobin gained a bit more self-understanding this time–but he’s still holding himself back, hiding behind his wall.   In his next outing, which I’ll look at next week, he finally finds a subculture of people who might be able to help him, as he tries to help them.  He’s going to have to dig deep this time, in more ways than one.  A good alternate title might be Queer Eye for the Sad Guy.    But we’ll know it always as A Jade In Aries.  And if you haven’t read it, you don’t know who Donald Westlake really was.  But then, that’s hardly the point, is it?

PS: Here’s the French Serie Noire cover, from Gallimard–note the title, which roughly translates to Warning, Crazy People.


And here’s the Japanese cover–I have no idea what it means, but this publisher did seem to love abstract art–



Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, Tucker Coe

Review: The Crime of Our Lives


I haven’t really discussed Westlake’s colleague, sometime-collaborator, and close lifelong friend, Lawrence Block very much at all here, and there’s a reason for that.  I haven’t yet read enough of his work to feel comfortable discussing it.  I’ve read several Matthew Scudder novels, some of the Kellers, and three of his standalone books.   I’ve read enough to know that 1)He’s more than interesting, prolific and diverse enough to merit a blog just like this one here and 2)I probably won’t be the one writing it.   Well really, isn’t one blog like this enough for one person?   I’d welcome the flattery of imitation, so anybody who wants to set up a Block Blog devoted to reviewing everything he ever wrote should feel free to launch right into it.  I’d be a regular visitant.

I’m not quite 100% sold on Scudder yet, but I get the allure of the character, and I’ll come back to him.  I rather liked Keller–my personal favorite in that very tiny crime fiction sub-genre of the Hitman as Series Character (I think Max Allan Collins’ Quarry might be the only other contender?)–but lost interest after the second book, at least for now–though let me say, I’d have wholly supported Mr. Block had he chosen to sue the producers of Grosse Pointe Blank for plagiarism.

I am increasingly intrigued by the Evan Tanner series, which sounds bloody fascinating–I have to get some of the books.  I tried to start reading Bernie Rhodenbarr.  He’s a bit too cozy for me.  Like Westlake, Block has a lot of different fanbases, who don’t necessarily have that much to say to each other–they are both large writers, containing multitudes.  I don’t yet feel personally motivated to get to learn each and every nook and cranny (or crook and nanny) of Block’s work, as I have with Westlake.   As Block himself demonstrates in this book,  how one responds to this or that crime fiction author is very personal, and there’s no point getting worked up about it.  It is what it is.

Strangely, given that Block, perhaps more than any other contemporary hardboiled crime fiction author (Westlake included) is known for a variety of series characters, I’ve been most taken with his solo efforts, particularly The Girl With the Long Green Heart, which I consider a small masterpiece, and I hope there’s more like it waiting for me once I can start working my way through his oeuvre in earnest.  You understand, needing to reread several Westlake books a month does take its toll on one’s discretionary reading time.

Like Westlake, he hides behind a variety of masks (some of them female–Westlake never took it that far).  He’s even harder to pin down, in many ways.  But he’s also a great deal more confiding, and, I now discover–gossipy.   The man likes to spill the beans–but he waits until you’re dead before he unloads the really juicy stuff he knows about you.

This book is self-evidently a reaction to and something of a companion piece for The Getaway Car, which I’ve already reviewed, some months back.  Mr. Block was a most impressive and welcome presence at an event touting the publication of that book at The Mysterious Bookshop, down on Warren Street.   Probably The Crime of Our Lives was already in the works back then, or at least it was in his mind to put it out there.

It wouldn’t have taken long to compile, because as Block cheerily admits, there wasn’t that much to compile–it’s mainly just forewards he wrote for various reprint editions of books by writers he admired.  Donald Westlake wrote quite a variety of non-fiction in his life, for an editor like Levi Stahl to pick through–Lawrence Block mainly stayed in the fiction column.  But it’s an equivalently long book, though from a stylistic point of view, not quite so substantial.  Westlake put a lot of interesting spins on his non-fiction–for example, the piece he wrote explaining the origins of the third Dortmunder novel, which is itself a cunning work of meta-fiction–or his interview of his various pseudonymous selves–nothing half so clever here, and nothing so frustratingly evasive either.

Block isn’t playing mind-games with us.   He’s just going to tell us what he thinks, and he’s going to give us the skinny on a lot of very famous names–again, only those who are safely in the grave.   To Lawrence Block “Don’t speak ill of the dead” is a stupid maxim–those are the only people you can’t harm by speaking ill of them.  Not that all or even most of what he has to say about his deceased colleagues is bad, by any means.  It’s mainly complimentary, but some of it is damned near scandalous in nature, and he’s not pulling any punches when that’s the case.  And far as I’m concerned, that’s the best part of the book.   There’s not a lot of material like this out there, and it fills in a lot of blank spaces for those of us who are curious about the people who wrote the books we’re reading.   And I’m guessing anybody reading this blog is at least a bit curious about that.  Inquiring minds want to know.

See, he has this brilliant insight, expressed once or twice in the pages of this volume–mystery/crime writers mainly like each other, enjoy each others company.  And that’s weird.  Because writers typically hate each other.  ‘Serious’ writers, I mean.  Oh, they may hob-nob at fashionable parties, give each other complimentary book jacket blurbs and such, but mainly they just sit around longing for any writer who ever got better critical notices or an award they didn’t get to shut up and die already.

He writes about how Saul Bellow (who I’ve yet to read a word of, shame on me), was furious when some Chicago bookseller (not even a critic!) called John Updike one of the finest writers of his generation in an interview–just one of the greatest, mind you.  Bellow called the poor guy–on the phone!–and said he was never going to speak to him again.  That’s normal.   For  ‘serious’ authors who get front page write-ups in the book review section of the Times.   Literary lions behave much the same way as actual lions, it seems.

But as Block explains, mystery writers are different.  For one thing, they pretty nearly all started out as fans of that genre.  They attend conventions devoted to that genre together.  And really, they have no reason to resent the success of other writers in their field.  Because see, when a mystery writer sells a lot of books, that’s new converts to the Church of Mystery–the reader who loves that book will look around for more, and eventually find yours.  There’s rivalry, sure, but it’s mainly friendly in nature.  Same for Science Fiction.   Same, I’m sure, for westerns, romances, horror, etc.  The larger the genre, the chummier it will be, I’d guess.

In his introduction to an edition of Chester Himes’ Harlem Detective novels, Melvin Van Peebles talks about how Himes could have been a voice of his generation, on a par with anyone in the mainstream–except there was only room for one Great Black American Author at one time, and the spot was always taken.   So at his French publisher’s sage suggestion, he went over to mystery, where there was plenty of room for everybody–more the merrier.

Now, perhaps the shared burden of oppression kept Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin from hating each other’s guts, at least some of the time, but other ‘serious’ writers, though they may have more spots to compete for, have no such bonding point–above a certain level, they are fighting for that Pulitzer, that Nobel, and that most elusive prize of all, Immortality.

Mystery writers just figure people will keep reading their stuff as long as they’re having fun with it.  And that having read one mystery author with pleasure, they’ll go looking for others.   Hammett wasn’t worried about Chandler; Chandler had only good things to say about Hammett (while still subtly suggesting he was better).  The rising tide lifts all boats, whereas there’s no logical reason, as Saul Bellow well knew, for somebody who liked a John Updike novel about that Rabbit guy to think “Hey, I should read some Saul Bellow now!”  Genre fiction is more–collegial.   I think that’s the word.  But even the most sincere collegiality has its limits.

Block’s approach to writing about fellow mystery authors is different than Westlake’s–Westlake was more interested in trends, different waves of mystery/crime fiction, as opposed to saying “This writer I like–this one–eh.”  Westlake occasionally produced a sort of grudging list of favorites, but you can tell he’s rushing through it, not relishing the exercise at all.  Block loves it.

Early in the book, we get a list of his favorite mystery authors (all deceased, so he doesn’t have to explain to living friends why they aren’t on it), and it’s not what anyone would call even-handed.   In the (alphabetical) order they are are dealt with, they are Anthony Boucher, Fredric Brown, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Stanley Ellin, Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, John D. MacDonald, Ross MacDonald, Ellery Queen, Jack Ritchie, Rex Stout, Jim Thompson, and Charles Willeford–a decent list, you’d have to say.  He seems to have Boucher in there mainly out of gratitude for his services to the genre as a whole than for his specific contributions as a writer, but what of it?

His priorities are his own, all the way through–Chester Himes merits only two brief paragraphs, with no real explanation of why he’s even on the list (one reason comes to mind, but maybe it’s too obvious)–polite praise, but still something along the lines of “I liked this a lot when I read it, and haven’t read it since.”   Westlake didn’t go into a lot more detail when he mentioned Himes, but he did say he thought Himes was writing better 1960’s crime novels in the 1950’s than anybody (himself included) was writing in the 60’s, so his brevity is more eloquent by far.

Block and Westlake both love John D. MacDonald–many still do–so far I don’t, and who cares?  But given MacDonald’s huge influence, it makes sense Block goes on at such length about him, even though I think he lays it on a bit thick at points.  I guess maybe I need to try reading something besides Travis McGee, because that guy gets on my nerves something fierce.   Him and his damn houseboat, and his girlfriends who conveniently die so he can move on to the next one (Travis, you could just break up with them, you know).  But still, a uniquely important writer in the genre.   Who somehow gets a longer write-up from Block than Dashiell Hammett.

So does Ross MacDonald–he even gets more ink than Chandler, who he was directly imitating.  Block agrees with Westlake that the later Lew Archers got awfully repetitive, but there’s nothing with the deliciously acidic ring of Westlake’s remark that “He must have terrific carbon paper.”

So Block plays favorites–as do we all.  He also holds grudges (as ditto)–he loves Jim Thompson’s work, and clearly learned from it–The Girl With the Long Green Heart (1965) is a novel about grifters–much like Thompson’s The Grifters (1963), though going in a very different direction with the material–more optimistic and survival-oriented, which I think is a hallmark of both Westlake and Block.   I’d want to reread both grifter books before deciding which was better–seriously, it’s that close–but no doubt Thompson’s book is far more lauded, and got that great film adaptation, and I guess it’s not only the heart that’s green at times.

He seems peeved at Thompson for becoming so posthumously celebrated.   To which I’d respond,  “Mr Block, if the dead are insensible to the bad things people say about them, my guess is they don’t read their good reviews either–nor can they cash royalty checks where they are now–there’s a lot to be said for outliving all your contemporaries in any field of fiction–ask Stan Lee.”

There are like three pieces in the book where he talks about Thompson, spending much more time on his weaknesses than his strengths,  and concludes by saying “Just remember–it ain’t Shakespeare.”  Well no, but for a century or two after his death, neither was Shakespeare, and most of his stuff was likewise cranked out in a hurry to pay the bills, and was certainly not regarded as high art when it first appeared–nothing Thompson wrote was ever half as bad as Troilus and Cressida.  At least Thompson came up with his own stories.  Somewhere, I’m sure, Christopher Marlowe is grumbling that Shakespeare was pretty good, ‘but just remember–it ain’t Sophocles.’

Posterity does as it wills, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.   Thompson is not nearly as overrated now as he was underrated when he was alive, and Block’s resistance to giving that particular devil his full due because the critics went mad about him once he was safely underground seems a bit petty.  It’s not that his criticisms are wrong–Thompson did often write his books too quickly, and not do enough drafts, as Westlake also remarked once or twice.   It is undeniably stupid for him to be treated as the only crime writer who wrote ‘real’ literature.  And Thompson would have heartily agreed with that, so the proper target is the critical establishment–not the author.

Block acknowledges indirectly that the flaws he’s pointing at may be part of Thompson’s appeal now–the rough unpolished feeling of the work.  But he doesn’t develop that enough–his longer piece on Thompson doesn’t come up to the level of Westlake’s now-classic essay on the novels of Peter Rabe–which probably helped revive interest in Rabe, and which Rabe himself was still alive to read.  Rabe’s main reaction to reading it was that Westlake had been so thorough in analyzing his mistakes that when he got around to saying what Rabe had gotten right, he knew it was sincere and well-earned praise.  Westlake is, in short, a better critic.   But it was never the goal of either man to be a critic, so perhaps something of a Pyrrhic victory.

Block likes Raymond Chandler a lot more than Westlake (he likes detectives a lot more than Westlake), which I imagine was an occasional source of discord between them.  Perhaps not as serious as an incident Block vaguely alludes to that involved a woman and them not speaking to each other for two years.  One would like to know more, but it seems that Mr. Westlake is still too alive for Mr. Block to write about in that way–no major revelations.  Would it be too much to hope for that Mr. Block has a volume or two of memoirs in him?

Much of the really good stuff in the book revolves around Scott Meredith.   I don’t want to give too much of it away here.  Read the book.   His essay on Meredith is just revelatory.  I was geeking out over it all the way through.   What an utterly inimitable asshole Scott Meredith was!   No wonder Evan Hunter/Ed McBain was over the moon with delight when he died.   If I’d worked for or with him, I’d probably have been dancing in the streets for a week.  Or at his funeral.  Or on his grave.  He was that awful.

And I nearly did work for him, Lord help me–back in the early 80’s, I unsuccessfully applied for one of those reader positions Block tried out for and got, so that he could read untold numbers of bad stories, then tell the writers of said stories they showed promise–while pretending to actually be Scott Meredith telling them this, and encouraging them to send in money for proper representation and guidance (basically, the only people who became famous writers because of Scott Meredith were the ones working for Scott Meredith–and they learned their lessons by observation and osmosis).  The test for applicants Block describes hadn’t changed at all by the time I got there.  And I never suspected what a scummy job I was trying to get–and nearly did–they called me back once, but somebody else must have better understood what was being asked of the applicant–I wonder how it worked out for him?

The Scott Meredith Literary Agency was, in certain respects, a mail fraud operation on a par with anything ever dreamed up by J.C. Taylor of the Dortmunder novels–and now I know where Westlake learned about that kind of thing.   God bless you for the scuttlebutt, Mr. Block.   Mr. Westlake obviously preferred to keep his reminiscences oblique and fictional, but you spun them into nonfiction gold–and acknowledged that as scurrilous as Meredith could be, he did provide a training ground for one hell of a lot of good writers, yourself included.   But he did it for himself, so no need for gratitude–merely acknowledgement.   There are useful assholes in this world, one must confess it.  Another was Raymond Rohauer, who single-handedly preserved many of the films of Buster Keaton–and then sat on them like Smaug on his golden horde, for decades.   But we have them now.  Thanks to a complete and utter asshole.

Some of the essays I had to put to one side until I’ve read the authors they’re dedicated to.   Edward Anderson, Gar Haywood, Henry Kane–I just don’t have the context.   The field is too large, and time is too short.  And much as he may urge us to read all of Erle Stanley Gardner (even though the books are, as he tells us, all basically the same), I think I’d probably have to be serving a long prison sentence to ever find the hours.  But I know, reading this, that I must somehow find the hours to further explore the work of Lawrence Block.  And I intend to do so while he’s still with us, so that I can send him a fan letter, or perhaps an appreciatory email.  However, I still have maybe two years of steady blogging about Westlake ahead of me.  Maybe I could manage some kind of minor felony conviction?   What kind of internet access do they have in minimum security prisons these days?

A lot of the pieces in this book are about Westlake–and Stark.  Block seems to have most appreciated Westlake’s comic crime novels and his Parker novels (and The Ax, but who doesn’t?).  He doesn’t have too much to say about Westlake’s straight whodunnit mysteries (that being more Mr. Block’s purview).

There is no mention at all of Tucker Coe.   But years before Matthew Scudder, there was Mitch Tobin.  And next in the queue are two of his best mysteries–two of the best mysteries anyone ever wrote.  And two of the strangest.


Filed under Uncategorized

Bonus Item: Playback (Mad Magazine does Payback)

As promised, here’s the second (and to date, final) Westlake-related parody in Mad Magazine. Dortmunder fans can take some small satisfaction in the fact that The Hot Rock got seven pages, and Payback only four, though that probably relates more to changes at Mad in the ensuing decades than to the quality of the films being spoofed. And I note with approval that they didn’t even notice Parker. It was out of theaters too fast for them to do anything with it, anyway.

I tend to agree with the artist’s unspoken assertion that the most enjoyable thing about Payback was watching Lucy Liu and Maria Bello strut their considerable stuff. And hey, the movie wasn’t that inconsistent about how much money he’s asking for. Okay, maybe it was a little. Anyway–Playback.

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake film adaptations, Parker film adaptations

Review: Adios Scheherazade, Chapter 2





To: Donald E. Westlake, c/o The Final Mystery

From: ‘Fred Fitch’, via The Westlake Review

Dear Mr. Westlake:

Thanks so much for your response to my previous missive, and for answering my question about Ambrose Bierce (a hero of mine as a boy, as perhaps he was for you as well).  So that’s what happened to him!  Curiouser and curiouser–like something out of one of his stories.  If I said which one, that would be breaking a confidence, of course.  His secret is safe with me.

I was sorry to hear that your hopes of chasing girls in the afterlife with Robert Benchley were thwarted by his current domestic arrangements, but am nonetheless strangely moved to hear of his rapprochement with Mrs. Parker–a vicious circle closed at last.   Anyway, there’s still Fred Allen, right?

So.  In my last letter, I covered the two epistolary novels written by your friends Dresner & Block.  I did not, as you noted, say anything at all about your own book–I have a much-noted tendency to beat around the bush (that’s what she said).

Dresner’s The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books (1959), demonstrated to you and Mr. Block that your time spent writing sleaze paperbacks could be turned to good use.   Mr. Dresner had used his experience to pen a comedic romp of misunderstanding and identity confusion, that ended with the hero re-committing to his profession, and vowing to seek a more personally fulfilling way to practice it.

Mr. Block, who had never been the least bit embarrassed by his own dirty books (maybe the quality of the prose, nothing else), merely sought to write better and dirtier ones, hoping he could somehow revive the sleaze form without its publisher-imposed limitations–and he failed in his attempt, but Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man (1970) remains highly entertaining, not to mention arousing.  There, the protagonist has never written any kind of porn, but having lived out sexual fantasies with libidinous teenagers and repressed secretaries that even the randy heroes of sleaze would envy, he’s going to just write about his experiences as if they were fiction (neat turnaround).

Both of these novels are available now as ebooks.  But your Adios, Scheherezade (1968), while it appeared in a variety of editions, in a number of languages, has long been out of print, and has not been digitally re-issued.  And I am moved to wonder why that is, given the ongoing rebirth of interest in your work.   Many far more obscure and less distinguished works of yours are currently available electronically.  I must ask–did you want this book to be reprinted?   Is there some reason your estate has not found a publisher for it?  While used editions are not impossible to find, they do tend to be pricey.

I don’t really know how you felt about it, but I can tell you that I consider it to be one of the best things you ever wrote.  And one of the most painful.   Lawrence Block thought highly enough of it to single it out in a short-list of his favorite books of yours, after your death.  It has a level of gut-wrenching honesty that is rare for any author, let alone one who mainly writes genre fiction.

Oh to be sure, there are many brutally honest writers in the crime genre (paradoxically enough), but the venue does demand a certain measure of glamor, seamy and gin-soaked though it be–even Jim Thompson had to make his most deplorable anti-heroes tough and sexy.  There’s always an element of fantasy in that form, which is why you didn’t employ it here, in this story about a man who specializes in fantasies of a different kind.   Over-specializes, as it turns out.

This one reminds me in many ways of Memory, the much longer third-person novel you put aside in a drawer and never made any later attempt to publish–I personally believe that’s because you were ashamed of the way you didn’t give Paul Cole, the amnesiac protagonist, a chance to make choices that might get him out of his predicament.   Even though that’s the point of the book, that his lack of memory has doomed him.  I still think it seemed to you that you’d treated him unfairly.   And that mattered to you, didn’t it?

Adios Scheherazade is a more focused work than Memory, from a writer with a few more years experience–it’s more personal as well, because while both are about roads you yourself might have gone down if things had been different, this is a road that runs parallel to the one you took.  It’s a book about a man who is–and isn’t–a writer.

I feel somehow certain that you must remember the events of this book more clearly than many others you wrote, but for the benefit of those who haven’t read it in a while, or at all (I’d advise the latter to read the book first), I shall assay a synopsis.  In one sense, Adios, Scheherazade has a very simple, easily summarized story–in another, it’s almost a summary of everything you ever wrote, a touchstone for your work as a whole.   It marks the beginning of your true maturity.   And nothing hurts as much as maturity.

Edwin George Topliss (har-de-har-har) is a graduate (with what he considers a useless degree in American Literature) of Monequois College–in this instance, very clearly and directly based on Champlain College in Plattsburgh NY, which as Ed informs us, is now a defunct school that got turned into a military base–just as Champlain College did, after Donald Edwin Westlake attended it.

You said in an interview that you based Mr. Topliss on one of those guys who was writing sleaze under the pen name of a writer who’d moved on, but his first name is your middle name, you gave him your precise educational background. Seems safe to assume you gave him other things of yours.  And what’s more, you knew people who read the book would be assuming just that, drawing parallels between you and Ed, correct or not.   That’s a very deliberate choice on your part.  You even gave him a Smith Corona typewriter, and for you nothing could be more personal than that.

Now in a sense, this is an epistolary novel, but it is not mainly composed of letters, until the very end.  Each chapter is Ed’s attempt to write a sleaze novel that he has to submit to the literary agency he works for–a novel that will be published under the name ‘Dirk Smuff’ (seriously?), the former nom de plume of his former college roommate, the now successful author, Rod Cox, who doesn’t want to write sleaze books anymore (and, when he offered the lucrative opportunity to Ed, warned him “Nobody writes this shit forever”).

The manuscript is due in ten days.  Ed’s already missed two deadlines in the past, and has been put on notice that he better not miss another one, or he’s out.  The literary agent in question (‘Lance Pangle’, heh, good one) is not sympathetic to his personal difficulties–of course he isn’t.   He’s based on Scott Meredith, whose famous (and infamous) literary agency was the one commissioning these dubious books for equally dubious publishers–those who have read Lawrence Block’s just-released collection of non-fiction pieces The Crime of Our Lives (which I’m reviewing next week), will learn that Scott Meredith would literally not cut his own brother a break.

Rod Cox would, of course, be the successful Donald E. Westlake, farming out his porn name to a college buddy with a wife and kid, and a dead end low-paying job at a beer distributor–except you muddy the waters still further.  Because Rod Cox isn’t you.  He’s Richard Stark.  Yeah, I figured that out.   You weren’t trying to hide it, really.   It’s there for the people who pay attention.

See, Rod Cox doesn’t write hardcover mysteries for a major respectable publisher like Random House.  He writes paperback spy novels for an outfit called Silver Stripe (as opposed to Gold Medal, where you’d just started publishing the Parker novels).   He’s getting them published all over the world, in various languages–Ed even mentions them getting published as Gallimard Serie Noires, with those striking black covers.   He’s pretty hot stuff.

Rod’s got a sexy girlfriend named Sabina Del Lex (basically all the names in this book are porn names), with milky white thighs Ed can’t take his eyes off when they come to see him and his wife Betsy at their home out in the sticks.  Ed fantasizes about Sabina coming on to him, which of course she never does.  Ed is seething with envy towards his old friend Rod, who always knew he wanted to be a writer in college, but Ed never took him seriously.

Now wasn’t this the beginning of the time period in which you later sourly remarked that Richard Stark was outselling Donald Westlake?   So you’re playing one hell of a double game here–you’ve placed yourself in the position of a loser who is writing books under the assumed name of an established writer, and the established writer isn’t even you–he’s a poorly disguised version of this Stark guy whose books you’re writing at the same time you’re writing this book–you’re his Edwin Topliss.

And a lot of people, then as now, prefer Stark’s books to the books you’re writing under your own name–Ed even mentions the 20 grand Rod got for selling one of his books to Hollywood–a pointed reference to Point Blank, which Ed and Betsy go to see later in the novel, though that isn’t based on one of Rod’s books. This is very inside baseball, even for you–how many people are there who are going to pick up on all these in-jokes?   If jokes they are.

So by making Ed envy Rod Cox, a character you never flesh out much, you’re hinting that you envy and sometimes even dislike your own alter-ego, Mr. Stark.  Who isn’t really you–just another mask, like Alan Marshall, only better paid and somewhat more respectable.   But then who are you, Mr. Westlake?   Who is Ed Topliss?   Where are you going with this?

Couldn’t be this is another of your beloved identity puzzles, could it?   My paperback reprint says this is ‘The World’s Dirtiest Book’, but it seems like the dirtiest secrets revealed here are not mainly erotic in nature.  I’m guessing we aren’t going to get any naked horny Catholic school girls here.  Quelle dommage.

So anyway, Ed has to write this book in ten days.   He’s done it before–it’s possible.   The plot formulas are well-established, the characters need not be deep (it’s better they not be, really).   He’s expected to submit a book of ten chapters, each running 5,000 words.   He just has to start working, and the book will write itself.  Unfortunately, the book turns out to have a mind of its own.

Ed keeps veering off on tangents, all of them in some way related to his life, his relationships, his regrets, his secret sorrows.  He’ll start typing a nice piece of smut, and then the characters start talking back to him.   They aren’t content to just rip off each others clothes and go at it, like good little genre stereotypes.   So he finishes 5,000 words, but almost none of it is usable, and he puts the chapter aside, and starts over again.   He’s got six Chapter 1’s, before he manages a Chapter 2, and then he does two more 2’s before he gets to 3.   Come to think of it, this would be a challenging work to translate into ebook form.  Those things always have a clickable index menu, don’t they?

Now Ed is, self-evidently, an unreliable narrator–he’s a stranger to himself, and he’s trying to write fiction, so true and false are seamlessly blended together in his typewritten stream-of-consciousness narrative, and you never know when he’s being straight with you, or himself.  Man doesn’t know his own mind, let alone heart, but in the process of writing (and he is writing, and writing well, whether he thinks so or not), he is starting to come to terms with himself, and with the wreck he’s made of his life.  He’s learning how to tell the truth, in prose form–which is, as always, stranger than fiction.

But nothing he’s writing about his life could be the basis of a good living.  He can’t support a family live-blogging his own existence, decades before anybody knows what that means.   Like most people asking “how can I be a writer?” Ed is really asking “how can I be a writer and still eat?”  Ay, there’s the rub.

You remember how you (oh sorry, that was Rod Cox) had that police detective Parker confronts at his house in The Seventh lament inwardly that he doesn’t dare try to draw down on Parker, because his wife and daughter are nearby.  He thinks to himself that a cop with a family has given hostages to fortune–well, in a less dramatic way, so has an aspiring writer.  If you have a family to look after, you can’t just live on cheap food, share an apartment with a few other guys, and work on establishing yourself as a writer, figuring out how to best express what’s inside of you.  You have to pay the damn bills.  So you have to write what you can sell.  Whatever that happens to be.  Like, I dunno, maybe crime fiction.

Ed married Betsy Blake, a local girl attending Monequois College while he was there, who he got set up on a date with.  She was pretty enough, and after a bit of early resistance, a willing sex partner–he took her virginity, they burned up the sheets for months, and he was nuts about her–until he wasn’t.  And they parted ways after graduation, and he was relieved, and he thought maybe she was too–then she phoned him to say she was pregnant.

And he did the right thing.   Which he’s convinced now was the wrong thing.  Except he does love her, and their three year old daughter Elfreda (Fred for short–hmm).  Except he doesn’t.  Except he does.  Well, what is love?  How do you ever know if it’s real, if you don’t even know who you are?

Betsy has been increasingly angry and frustrated with the life they’re now leading in New York City, where she takes care of the kid and shops, while her husband hammers away each day on the typewriter and sulks whenever he takes a break–making a very nice living for the time, but they somehow keep finding a way to spend it all, so no savings to fall back on.

And it’s pretty clear most of Betsy’s anger comes from knowing that Ed didn’t really want her, that he just married her because he had to, and she married him for the same reason.  Ed realizes as he goes on that her future was blighted as much as his by their shared misfortune, which happens to be a little girl they both care about.   But early on, he’s still feeling like she trapped him, and that she’s so much less than he was hoping for in a mate.  Even her name bugs him.

Betsy.  Is that a great name?  Betsy Blake.  She sounds like something out of Archie Comics.  The Blake part she couldn’t help, of course, and Blake by itself isn’t a horrible name, but Betsy?  Of the six thousand different things that Elizabeths are called, Betsy is the absolute worst.

You know, that’s true.  Two out of five girls are named Elizabeth, and they all wind up with one of the Elizabeth nicknames, and it tells you an awful lot about the individual girl which one of those nicknames she gets for a label.  Like Liz is almost always a real whory swinger, a gutsy good-time girl, unless she’s very bony and has the clap, in which case she’s Lizzie.  Bess is respectable but she puts out but she feels guilty about it.  Beth saves herself for one man and works in the library and is very square but also reliable and intelligent and a rock in an emergency.  Bett is bitchy and expensive, but also a great lady.  Elsa is a ski-weekend swinger, but when she gives her word she keeps it.  Eliza hasn’t been seen since the ice floe broke up, but before that she was a whiner.  Elsie is lower class, cheerful, big-mouthed, big smile, she doesn’t get laid much because nobody wants to take advantage of her.  Ella has a lot of female complaints and can’t hold her booze and is very quiet and if things go right she’ll mother you.  Lisa has the self-image of a D.H. Lawrence heroine and likes horses and night clubs.  Betty is an all-American girl and gets married and has two point four children and lives in one of those crappy suburban developments like where I am right now and it’s her kitchen where the kaffeeklatsch is held and she collects for muscular dystrophy.  Betsy is a moron.

(What freaked me out most when I first read this passage is that there was at that time an Elizabeth at the library I work at, and everybody called her Beth.  As to the rest, I couldn’t say.  You were making all that up, right?  Right?)

So of course Ed feels very guilty about that and the other nasty things he says about his wife, and he knows it isn’t true, and it isn’t fair, and it’s precisely what he meant to say, and rather well-written, but that doesn’t make it right.  He starts trying to be nicer to Betsy, and they start making love again, and the marriage seems to be getting on a firmer footing, and then he finally gets to Chapter 2.   And hey–it’s starting to feel like a real book.

See, there’s this guy named Paul Trepless, he’s coming home from work, and he’s married to this wonderful girl named Beth, and they have a daughter named Edwina, and the marriage has been a bit rocky for a while, but it’s been going so much better of late, and he’s happy with her, but just like any man might, he kept a secret diary of his sexual fantasies, none of which were true–he was totally faithful to Beth.  And he gets home, and Beth and Edwina are gone, and he realizes–Beth read the diary!   She’s left a note saying that if he tries to come after her, her brothers will kill him.

(Sidebar: Mr. Westlake, if I may be so bold as to inquire, what was it with you and the name Paul?   Your two most personal-feeling early books, Killy and Memory, both feature protagonists by that name.  You later gave one of your sons that name.  It obviously meant something to you.  Did you, like Oliver Abbott in Up Your Banners, hate the name you’d been given, and have a secret name for yourself?  Don’t think I haven’t noticed that so far you’ve only answered my question about Ambrose Bierce, and I can’t even tell anybody what you said).

So yeah, Betsy read the discarded chapters, which Ed had left in his desk drawer.  Which included a totally fictitious account of how Ed was having sex with their teenaged babysitter, who just barely knows Ed is alive.  And now Ed is alone, and still trying to finish the damn sleaze book, seeing if he can turn his real-life tragedy into a book, because he doesn’t know what else to do.   She really does have two brothers who are very tough customers–they combine a Christmas Tree business with a smuggling operation, and they do come after Ed with the pretty clear intention of putting him in the hospital if not the morgue, and Ed’s life is suddenly a lot more like a Rod Cox novel than a Dirk Smuff.

And this won’t do, because he’s still got a sex book to finish.  So he goes and does some research in Times Square–picks up a black hooker.  And what follows is the most unsexy sex scene in the history of the sleaze genre.   He knows this woman despises him, and she won’t even take off her bra when he asks her, and when he tries to draw out the act, she just exercises certain pelvic muscles and finishes him off.   And then brushes him off.  And while he’s angry at her about this, and thinks about writing a version of the encounter where he gives her an orgasm, his main reaction is to loathe himself even more–and not just himself.   His entire race.  His entire gender.   His entire civilization.  And the New York Times.

He tells us he was reading the Times book review, that most prestigious place for a writer to get written about, trying to figure out what makes you an author, and not just a cheap hack, and what he noticed was that really, nobody seems to know.  He just knows that the books he writes are not in there.  Then he notices something else.

But I’ve saved the best for last.  Way in the back of the Book Review, page 76, there’s a review of a book of photographs of Africa called African Image.  Some of the photographs are shown, and do you know what is the main central photograph taking up almost one-third of the whole page?  A bunch of female spades with their tits hanging out.  Right.  In the Book Review of the New York Sunday Times, November 26th, 1967.  Not 1867, and not the National Geographic.

So I guess I am in there after all.  No matter what the hard news up front, no matter what the self-image we’re all pushing this week, back in the back of the Book Review there am I.  All the grubby old attitudes are still alive, all the sneaky little scatological sniggering nastinesses, all the little-boy-pulling-his-wee-wee dirtiness is still inside your head and mine and the head of the New York Times, and it always will be.  Because if those had been white women they would not have run the picture.

Now I know why that hooker wouldn’t take off her bra.

Why do I say that’s me back there, weeping and sniggering on those dusky boobs?  Because it is out of the adolescent garbage in men’s heads that I have made my living for almost three years.  The adolescent garbage in my head feeding the adolescent garbage in their heads, a real meeting of minds, a real communion, so when you come right down to it what I have been doing is closer to the definition of art than anybody in that jazz section will ever get in his whole life.

Phooey.  That’s garbage, too.  I have never risen above the material any more than my readers have, and if you can’t rise above the material you ain’t an artist.  And it’s tough to rise above quicksand.

(You mention in this book all the little tricks writers of cheap paperbacks have to fill up pages–us bloggers have similar tricks, often involving long quotations from books we didn’t write.)

So anyway.  Ouch.  Direct hit.  Well played, sir.  And now let me say something you may or may not want to hear–there have been a number of semi-obscene books about men’s sexual problems that were huge sellers–I’ve got images of two of the  most famous up above, and I know you read both–Portnoy’s Complaint came a few years after you wrote this, and see how the publisher reprinting your book in paperback tried to make the cover look similar?   Yeah, that didn’t work.  You know why?

Because Humbert Humbert and Alexander Portnoy are not Everyman.  They are very specific men, with very specific problems, and very specific pains, and very specific sins, and we can read those books, and maybe get some vicarious enjoyment out of them, and still say “Well, that’s nothing like me.”   And we don’t get that escape valve with this book.   It hits its target dead square on center, and that target is the reader.

Personally, I didn’t care much for either of those books, if you want to know.  I suspect I’m never going to get all the way through Lolita, which I find to be a meandering melange of mendacity, and screw what the critics and lit professors think.  Portnoy’s is intermittently moving and honest, but it’s basically just one successful promiscuous Jewish boy complaining to his shrink about how successful, promiscuous and Jewish he is.   I can’t relate on any front, sadly.  Few of us guys can manage more than two.  So we can admire him, feel sorry for him, be entertained by him, and not be terribly upset by him (particularly since the whole thing ends with a classic punchline).  And as for the other half of the world’s readers, wouldn’t you know, even the misogyny in Roth’s work (and in Roth himself) can turn some women on.  He’s no Everyman.

But, you see, Edwin Topliss is Everyman, as odd as his personal situation may be.  He’s speaking for all of us.  And he’s speaking very well, but in such a way as to offend and turn-off nearly everybody.   My girlfriend, who loves your Parker novels, put this book down a few chapters in, and wouldn’t go on.   And I’d say why I thought that was, but she reads this blog sometimes, and regardless of what Mr. Topliss thinks, there are valid life lessons one can learn from American literature.

(Mr. Westlake, perhaps you’ll know what I’m talking about when I tell you I can hear some of my readers muttering to themselves, “Oh dear, Fred’s in one of his moods.”  Hey, I don’t charge you guys to read this palaver.  Not even 35 cents.  I’ll get back to Dortmunder & Co. soon enough.  Humor me, willya?)

Anyway, even after all of this self-revelatory insight, and after being chased out of his own house, and then out of the apartment of a (surprisingly) intimidated Rod Cox by his two semi-homicidal in-laws, Ed is still trying to finish the damn sleaze book!   He’s sneaking into stores that sell typewriters and hammering out more pages, and then leaving when some salesperson asks if he want to buy anything.  We don’t even get an explanation of how this confused narrative has been conveyed to us, no framing device, ala Lolita–Ed tells us his earlier chapters are lost, yet we can still read them.   But that’s quibbling, isn’t it?

Betsy, who completely disappears from the story, though not Ed’s confused consciousness, after she walks out with Elfreda, told the police he’d committed statutory rape with their babysitter, which he didn’t, and the babysitter said so, but her father had her medically examined (ew!) and turned out she wasn’t a virgin (teenagers had sex back then? who knew?), so they don’t believe her.  So the cops are after Ed as well.   Not merely his writing career, such as it was, but Life As He Knew It, is over.

And I must say, he seems mainly relieved.   Sad, chastened, still deeply ashamed of having failed  to understand Betsy’s pain because he was so focused on his own, but still–relieved.  And somehow empowered, odd as that sounds.   As he starts to bid farewell to everything, we realize–he’s lost the whole world, and gained his immortal soul.

He’s trying to write a chapter about this guy named Brock Stewart, who Beth Trepless (Paul’s estranged wife, remember?  Of course you do) picks up as she’s escaping, and there’s supposed to be a sex scene between them, but he can’t bring himself to write it.  So Brock gets off at a crossroads where there’s a small diner, empty but for a pretty young waitress.  Per the ‘La Ronde’ form of the sleaze novel that Ed told us about earlier, Brock is now supposed to seduce this girl, or she him, so the mating square dance can continue and instead we get this–

“For Christ’s sake,” he said, “you have to do, don’t you?  You can’t just give up, can you?”

“Sure you can,” she said.

“Well, I’m not going to,” he said.  “Who would I be if I gave up?”

“You mean, where would you be?”

“No, I don’t.  I mean who would I be?  Whom would I be?”

“You’d be you,” she said.

“I can feel the ground crumbling away beneath me,” he said.  “I’m terrified.”

She said, “What is the worst possible thing that can happen to you?”

“Everything stops,” he said.

“You mean, you die?”

“No,” he said.  “I mean I don’t get the book done, and Betsy doesn’t come back, and I don’t live in that house any more, and all of the things that I have been and roles that I have played and personas that I have assumed will come to a stop.”

“And what is left,” she said, “‘will be you.”

You won’t believe this but a third-generation (!!!) TV writer named Joss Whedon who did this show about a teenaged vampire slayer wrote basically that same exchange for her and a vampire she was fighting, thirty years after you wrote this, and people were over the moon about it, and comparing him to Shakespeare on the internet.   He’s making untold millions now doing comic book superhero movies.  And in a few more decades, nobody will remember him.  Such is fame, for a writer.   Many called, few chosen.  Or chosen, then forgotten.  You knew all about that.

Nobody will remember Edwin Topliss.  The book he’s the hero of (and he is that, strange though it seems to say so), may never get republished, though I hope it will, someday.  And yet, I consider this a hopeful ending, by the standards you upheld in life, because he threw away all the masks and pretensions, took a good hard look at himself, and decided he preferred his real face, homely though it might be.

And you went on writing popular books (never too popular, but durable as all hell), and rising above the material, and trying to find yourself in it.   As some of us are still trying to find you in it, but you could have left us a few more clues, Mr. Westlake.

And I passed my self-imposed limit of 5,000 words–I guess maybe all formulas have their limits.  Still, I’d best bring this epistolary review to a close.  Au revoir, connard.  Give my regards to Ambrose, and tell him I said these things will happen.  Oh, and April Fool’s.  Like that needed mentioning.


PS: I bet you thought nobody would ever check, but I did.  And there it is, dusky boobs and all.  Page 76 of the New York Sunday Times Book Review, November 26th, 1967.  African Image, Grosset & Dunlap, $12.95.  Photos by Sam Haskins.  The review is fittingly entitled A Feeling for Africa.



Filed under Donald Westlake novels