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 (okay, Chester Himes beat him to the punch there–he also alluded to the gay subculture in Harlem as early as 1960).
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 after this one to review, 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.