Review: A Jade in Aries

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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–”

“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.

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16 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, Tucker Coe

16 responses to “Review: A Jade in Aries

  1. Any popular culture depiction of a minority or fringe community runs the risk of seeming dated or cringe-worthy within minutes of its completion. The closest contemporary equivalent to “A Jade in Aries” that I can think of is “The Boys in the Band,” which was simultaneously seen as groundbreaking and Uncle Tom-esque at the time of its release. Even more modern takes on the gay community (“Will and Grace,” e.g.) can seem awfully cringe-worthy after a decade of cultural evolution. That said, despite the reductive theorizing on the “causes” of homosexuality, the characters in AJiA are fleshed out and real (more so, I would argue, than in Wax Apple), and presented for the most part without judgment. Even more remarkably, with one (pretty important) exception, there’s little to no self-loathing evident among the gay characters in this book (something incredibly common in pop culture depictions of homosexuals). These people are just fine with who they are.

    • I think that’s what really matters–more than whether the clothes are accurate. As Mr. Hastings says, the book is emotionally sound, which I think is a very apt way to describe it–not that the characters are all emotionally sound, but that’s because they’re human beings, with the usual array of flaws and pretensions, which just happen to be passing through the filter of a different subculture. They aren’t happy all the time, but who is? Their pains and their joys are their own, and one admires them for making the best of a challenging situation. For enjoying life, and each other, as best they can.

      Westlake clearly admires them for that–I wonder if he went into the book intending to write it one way, and to some extent the characters took over, and wrote it another way. That’s what happened to Tolstoy when he wrote Anna Karenina. But that only works if the writer is open to his characters, as only the great ones truly are.

      It was a long time before popular fiction could look at gay people as neither tortured deviants nor campy figures of fun. Of course, sitcoms specialize in that type of persona, so I guess we can’t blame Will and Grace too much for sticking with the program.

      But it’s remarkable, isn’t it, how Westlake cuts through the crap, and just shows us so many layered complex characterizations in so short a book, with so much story to tell. But then a story like this, full of crisis and confusion, really is the best way to bring characters across, to reveal their inner depths. You don’t know who the best people are, the ones you can count on, until something terrible happens. It’s the only good thing about terrible things happening. One of the mysteries of life.

  2. Anthony

    There is an interesting subtext to the 1970s in general. One example: Blazing Saddles smashed all kinds of taboos. However, Mel Brooks is on record as saying that he would not be able to make it today. The film, of course, skewered many stereotypes and can be argued to have done its part to advance race “relations.” Many jokes, however, rely on the N-word, which is why it could not be made today, at least the same way. Same with All in the Family, which also used shock value to tear down bigotry. Hilarious and trend setting at the time; still hilarious but potentially discomforting now.

    As you continue to work your way through Westlake’s 1970s work, we will see that – like Mel Brooks and Norman Lear in the above examples – he gleefully participates in that era’s sudden freedom to be able to write flawed characters with little fear of the word-police. Which exposes him criticism from some people these days who may not be willing to consider context. Go to either the Barnes and Noble or Amazon pages for Dancing Aztecs or Two Much – just to give a couple of examples – and you will find a few current customer reviews accusing Westlake of bigotry and homophobia as a result of his writing characters who are bigoted and/or homophobic. Which is akin, I think, to calling Mel Brooks names for making a movie full of jokes like “the Sheriff is a Ni- (BONG!)” and swishy Dom Deluise at the end.

    I agree with you that Westlake was imperfect in his efforts to understand and write about “others” because of the times in which he wrote and because, well, nobody’s perfect (see what I did there?). But at least he was out there working at it, which must be admired. Moreover, one of the joys of reading Westlake is that he wrote about ALL humans with his bullshit detector set to all ahead full. It’s what made him great.

    • Well said, Anthony, and I pretty much entirely agree. Where I’m not sure I agree is about whether this new-found freedom was really so new–certainly to inform mystery readers that homosexuals existed was nothing new by 1970. What was new was to inform them that homosexuals were just people with differing tastes, who were mainly concerned with their own lives and relationships, and not necessarily that worried about what straights thought of them, as long as the straights weren’t beating them up or arresting them. Which a lot of them were, hence Stonewall.

      And even that new thing could be found developing all through the 60’s, within this genre. And other genres (Ursula Le Guin published The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969, and I could think of earlier examples in science fiction if I really tried).

      What you’re talking about is mass culture, popular culture, mainstream culture. Mel Brooks had a real knack for making people laugh, and when people are laughing, it’s much harder for them to feel offended. I think we see a ton of political incorrectness on TV now, but it’s mainly on cable.

      Race is another matter–gay people can pretty easily blend into their respective ethnic groups when necessary (or merely convenient), but people of a minority race mainly can’t follow suit. So the N-word has gotten to be a much bigger thing, because (as I discussed with Ray, some weeks back), black people don’t have an equivalently nasty word to use on white people (whereas gay people have a host of rejoinders to being called fags and queers). I see very little that is remotely PC in the way black people joke about themselves; they just reserve the right to tell white comedians not to go there. I don’t blame them, but I agree it can be constraining.

      Without any discomfort at all, there’s no comedy. We both know this, and I think most people would admit it when pressed, but not everybody has an equally good sense of humor–and sometimes “It’s just a joke” can be an excuse for saying things that aren’t remotely funny. The power relationships are getting more equalized by the day, which is building tension between the various groups, as they each struggle for their piece of a shrinking pie. Back in the 70’s, most minorities were grateful just to be acknowledged in a remotely positive way–now their expectations are higher. Would we want it otherwise?

      Honestly, I don’t know what would most bother a gay man about this book, but I do know that what most bothered me was that Westlake never used the word ‘gay’, and I can’t really understand why. Even the gay characters refer to themselves as homosexuals, and this was well behind the times, even in the mystery genre, and atypical of Westlake. He recognizes they are often happy, and yet doesn’t want to say they are gay.

      I think maybe–just maybe–the language maven in him (and all writers) didn’t like the repurposing of the word–didn’t like that he himself wouldn’t ever be able to use it again without that connotation. Remember that line from the movie Fame? “Gay used to be such a happy word.” Well, it still is, but in a very targeted way. Westlake lost that argument, if that’s what it was. 😉

      • Anthony

        I think what I was getting at regarding new found freedom was not about recognizing homosexuals or non-Caucasians as characters. Rather, it was the freedom to create a character such as Archie Bunker, warts and all. I know I’m getting ahead of myself here – but take Art Dodge in Two Much. A slimeball really, albeit in a strangely likeable way. I doubt he could make his bluntly worded observations about blacks, gays, Jews, “fellas in turbans,” etc. with such abandon prior to the 1970s. Some humorless souls writing reviews on Amazon attribute these unpleasant character traits to Westlake rather than the one Westlake is writing about.

        • Okay, I see what you mean, but I think there’s still plenty of room for that kind of character–Cartman on South Park, Ron Swanson on Parks & Rec, Ron Burgundy in Anchorman (damn, tough time to be named Ron), and basically any character ever played by Sacha Baron Cohen.

          We’ll talk about Mr. Dodge soon enough–that is one of the most subversive books Westlake ever wrote–but remember that Westlake was writing so many books, for such a defined audience, he could get away with a lot of things more famous writers who produced fewer books might have had a harder time getting away with.

          Now–well, I don’t even know what people are saying in contemporary novels, because I don’t have time to read any. I just mentioned Mad Men, and I don’t know if you saw the ep where John Slattery’s Roger smeared his face with black shoe polish at a party and sang minstrel songs? Personally, I thought that was over the top, but I don’t remember any calls to boycott the show. I think possibly because so few people actually watch the show.

          It’s hard to know when you’re crossing the line, in any era, because the line refuses to stay put. It keeps shifting. Not just from time period to time period, but within each time period. You remember that bit of dialogue from This is Spinal Tap?

          David St. Hubbins: It’s such a fine line between stupid, and uh…
          Nigel Tufnel: Clever.
          David St. Hubbins: Yeah, and clever.

          • Anthony

            So this is the way my mind works: A reference to This is Spinal Tap in light of where the line is drawn leads me to think of the other brilliantly absurd comedy we all know by heart – Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Which leads me to think of John Cleese’s memorial address for Graham Chapman, and this observation: “It is magnificent, isn’t it? You see, the thing about shock… is not that it upsets some people, I think; I think that it gives others a momentary joy of liberation, as we realised in that instant that the social rules that constrict our lives so terribly are not actually very important.”

            Which makes me think that Donald E. Westlake and Graham Chapman are having some hellaciously good poker game banter up (or down) there….

            • Ah, this reminds me why I miss Graham Chapman so much, and will someday be missing John Cleese–hopefully not too soon. But hey, better him than me.

              Westlake was a huge fan of The Goon Show, after hearing them on BBC World Service while stuck on The Azores, inhospitable rocks way out in the Atlantic, in his Air Force days. So I’ve little doubt he dug the Pythons. They got away with everything. Proving yet again that humor can disable the outrage circuit, and that, as Beaumarchais remarked, what cannot be said can be sung.

              • Anthony

                I see that some Native American actors have just walked off the set of an Adam Sandler Western (the Ridiculous Six) in protest of stereotypes. Of course, Adam Sandler is to Mel Brooks as the Aflac Duck is to Stephen Hawking so it is hard to judge exactly how this fits into our discussion of where the line is….

              • Personally, I’m offended Adam Sandler still gets to make movies.

  3. Ray Garraty

    That’s pretty Satanic cover. My kinda thing.

    • I like the Random House cover art quite a bit–you’ll note that basically all the cover art in the various editions refers to astrology–kind of a slam dunk, really. None of it refers directly to gay people, because the artists can’t figure out how to say “This is about gay people” visually without being offensive in some way–to straights and gays alike.

      My favorite Tobin cover of all time is either the British first edition of Murder Among Children, or the (astonishingly late) first American paperback reprint of Wax Apple, that was published by Charter (it’s next to the first edition atop my review). I just got my own copy of that–it’s just amazingly good artwork. I think the artist actually read the book!

      I hate to disappoint you, but His Satanic Majesty does not have a cameo here. You’ll have to wait for my review of Humans. 😉

  4. Whether or not its PC (or sartorially accurate), one has to admire this sentence: “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.” The fact that this observation/speculation is later proven accurate is just the icing on the cake.

    • I think the passages about clothes are very successful–speaking as someone whose knowledge of clothing is primarily limited to “Will it keep me from freezing to death in February/sweating to death in July?” If it looks good on me, that’s a nice fringe benefit. And no, I don’t wear fringe.

      The stuff about clothing is used to establish character–and that’s just as true of Tobin himself, who we suddenly realize has his own sartorial style; that he still dresses like a plainclothes cop when he’s out in the world–and therefore, like a character from a 1930’s Warner Brothers picture. Straight men’s fashion changes very slowly and incrementally–gay men are free to experiment more, but many choose not to, just as some women choose not to. Clothing expresses personality, even if you’re not into clothes. And by showing both fabulous and non-fabulous gays, Westlake is saying they really aren’t that different from everybody else, even when they’re trying to be different from everybody else.

      Mad Men must spend a fortune on wardrobe–their costume designer has her own blog–and it’s all about expressing character visually, and I don’t believe any of it. My memories of the era are vague, to be sure, but I know most people didn’t dress like that, at least not most of the time.

      And you ever notice that Mad Men mainly treats minority groups–blacks, gays, etc–with a great deal of sympathy, while relegating them almost entirely to the sidelines? It’s never about them–there was a gay artist at the firm who had his own subplot, and he got fired (because he wouldn’t sleep with a mean closeted gay client), and was rarely heard from again.

      These people get trotted in to remind us how much worse things used to be, but then they get ushered out again so we can concentrate on the rich successful white straights and their fabulous duds. And I’d love to think this was intentional irony, but somehow I doubt it. There’s zero sense of any thriving gay community in Don Draper’s New York. They are still being shown as tortured lonely misfits. There are tortured lonely misfits in any social grouping you can name, but there are also people who manage to make the best of life and its limitations, and I’ve yet to see one gay character on that show who isn’t either a victim or a victimizer. Not one who is just a person.

      So the 1970 mystery novel is hipper than Mad Men. I’m just saying.

  5. Great review! Some trenchant comments above as well. Any time I write about a book with LGBT themes on my blog many of my regular readers run away or don’t even bother reading the post. Makes me laugh.

    Just want to make a comment about a book you allude to in your post:

    “[A HEART IN EXILE] is apparently full of self-hatred and class snobbery, and it’s probably not very good, but it’s a starting point.”

    That’s a sweeping generalization about Garland’s book and I think it’s false. I’m gay. I’ve read the book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was impressed by its depth and humanity. There were times when what Garland has to say in his book struck me as truly profound. It won’t win any awards from GLAAD, that’s for sure, because the entire premise is the investigation of a gay men’s suicide, a man who killed himself just after becoming engaged to a woman. But nonetheless I’m willing to give it landmark status in the history of gay fiction. THE HEART IN EXILE I think is one of the most honest assessments of gay male characters in English language fiction. It includes all types of gay men: self-loathing, bitchy queens, closeted men, conflicted men, and — apparently glossed over by the critic you don’t name — a handful of well adjusted gay men who are happy with who they are. Imagine that! The narrator is a psychiatrist who is having identity issues of his own and he turns amateur detective in order to find out why his former lover wanted to be married yet killed himself shortly before the wedding. In the process of learning the truth about the dead man he learns all about himself and desire for love. Even with all its flaws it’s one of the most brutally honest and ultimately, I think, the most compassionate study of gay men in the 1950s. You ought to read it and judge for yourself rather than relying on dismissive comments by obviously biased critics.

  6. Glad to have you over here, John–as I was happy to be over at your place.

    I have not read A Heart In Exile (you’ll note my use of ‘probably’)–information about it is scarce online, and I just took the reviewer’s word–I certainly often disagree with online reviewers myself, and with print reviewers as well. If I like a book, I like it no matter who hates it. And vice versa.

    But much as I try to research my subjects in advance, I’m reviewing a book a week (okay, sometimes it takes two weeks), and there’s only so many hours in a day. To me, the important thing was the historical significance of the book, more than its literary quality (which is necessarily subjective). I was reviewing A Jade In Aries, and trying as best as I could to put it in the context of its era, and genre. And ya know, if you’d reviewed A Heart in Exile, I might have linked to your review. I’m just saying. In fact, if you’ll do so, I’ll edit my review, and add the link. If you did review it, and I just missed it, apologies.

    I did look over one of the Pharaoh Love novels, since there’s a copy here at the library I work at. Entertaining enough, but pretty shallow, I thought–hardly any worse than any number of hard boiled mysteries with straight protagonists–I never really got the appeal of Mike Hammer either. I suspect we’re in the same minority there, but you’d know better than me. We’re all pretty biased, when you get right down to it. That’s why we have blogs. 😉

    And I appreciate most of all the kudos for my intrepid little crew of co-bloggers, as I like to think of them. I really do think most of the best stuff in my reviews comes after the reviews, in the comments section. For example, you’ll note I didn’t really have an answer for why Westlake didn’t use ‘gay’ in this book, in the actual review–I noticed it, but couldn’t explain it. It was only in discussion afterwards that it occurred to me that he may just have had a writer’s dislike for people changing the meaning of words–and that may not be it at all, but I can’t honestly think of any other reason for it. He was certainly enough of a student of history to know it wasn’t the first or the last time that had happened.

    I wish he had made the gay characters call themselves gay, but to me it’s not a major defect that he doesn’t, because even though the term was prevalent, it was still in the transitional period in terms of popular usage. If you can cut Rodney Garland a break, you can certainly do the same for Donald E. Westlake, no?

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