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 brother-in-law 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

22 responses to “Review: A Jade in Aries, Part 2

  1. Ronald Cornell (one of the lesser Ivies) and Jamie Dearborn (one of the lesser campuses of UMich.) Probably just happenstance.

    • Cornell is in Upstate New York, where Westlake hailed from, but he never went there, and Ronald isn’t from New York State. I’d imagine this is just Westlake fumbling around for character names in his head, though there’s an outside chance that, sympathetic as Ronald is in this book, Westlake is saying something vaguely derisive about the guys who went there. Upstate college rivalries. Maybe their football team bruised easily. I dunno. There’s only so far I want to take this analyze every last word he ever wrote thing.

  2. I assume you’ve saved the following exchange for the comments thread. Happy to oblige:

    “You sound just like Don Stark,” Marty says to Mitch on the phone. “You don’t know him, do you?”

    “No, I don’t,” Mitch responds.

    I don’t know how much of an open secret Coe’s identity was in 1970, but here’s Westlake dropping a cheeky clue into the middle of everything. When I read that line, I wondered if it was something more: Westlake processing his various personae. Maybe he sees Coe as an amalgam of Westlake and Stark, borrowing Stark’s spare, chilly prose and bleak worldview and melding it with Westlake’s interest in the fragile resilience of hope. (The Dortmunder books, for all the failures they chronicle, are all meditations on hope in the midst of hopelessness. So are many of the nephew books.)

    Or maybe it’s just a joke. After touring Tobin’s world, I’ll take it.

    • I knew there was something I’d forgotten to talk about. Should have tied a string to my finger. Yeah, I saw that. I really don’t think it was any kind of secret that Tucker Coe was Donald Westlake, among those who were paying any attention. I’d call it a wink in the direction of those who were serious enough fans to give a damn who wrote what.

      For many casual mystery readers, it wouldn’t register at all. But since it kind of sticks out there, doesn’t really serve the story in any way, it might get them curious, and then they’d find out about Stark and Westlake, and maybe read their books as well. Cross-promotion, on an almost subliminal level.

      But maybe it’s just Westlake’s way of saying “This isn’t the world of Donald Westlake, or the world of Richard Stark–this is something else–related, but different.” I like your take very much, and the same thing has occurred to me–Coe owes something to both Westlake and Stark. He’s somewhere in-between them. But as those two defining poles of Westlake’s identity as a writer became more defined, more dominant, Coe wound up getting squeezed out. His time is nearly up.

      Random House treated Coe’s identity as a mystery, but as I pointed out in my review of Murder Among Children, they were promoting Westlake’s books under his own name on the back covers of the Tobin books.

      Somehow I don’t see Stark as a pessimistic writer. He’s pessimistic about human nature, sure (realistic, one might argue)–he sees the darker side more clearly–but in his world, there’s always a way out, always an angle you can play, if you know yourself well enough.

      Where he’s different is that he refuses to allow his protagonists any real point of vulnerability. They’ve accepted the world as it is, Parker and Grofield, and have decided to make the most of it, on their own uncompromising terms. There’s no room for a Mitch Tobin in Stark’s world–and yet, in that spoof interview of Westlake and his pseudonyms, Stark seems almost protective of Coe (calls him ‘Tuck’, like they’ve been out drinking together)–there’s some point of commonality between them. He’s downright derisive towards Westlake. And Westlake was rather irreverent towards Stark in Adios Scheherazade, you may recall. It got crowded in there, sometimes.

      Thanks for bringing that up, Greg. It would have haunted me. As I was telling Ray the other day, I think I just write these reviews so I can discuss the books in the comments section. 🙂

  3. Ray Garraty

    I rarely touch stylistical apsect of Westlake books. One thing did strike me odd in this one. You quoted above the metaphore “it was a kind of hysterical happiness, urgent and artificial: Germany in the twenties”. Where did Westlake get this about Germany? 20s were a post-WWI period, where germany had lost. It was a period of sorrow, the start of the cult of a fallen soldier.

    • Ray, I’m guessing you never saw any version of Cabaret? 🙂

      Tobin’s talking about the popular impression people had of the cosmopolitan scene in Berlin and other large cities in the 20’s. The Depression hadn’t hit yet, and in spite of the defeat (and the war reparations imposed on Germany at Versailles), there was a lot of money floating around, and a lot of directionless people looking for enjoyment–there was a certain breakdown of social conventions, which could be seen as liberating or soul-destroying, and it might well have been both.

      Culturally, it was a creative but also somewhat decadent period, where the German equivalents of bohemians–including many gay people–lived it up on a grand scale, and of course there was a tremendous artistic movement, expressionism in the visual arts and in film, Brecht in the theater, etc. Berlin still has that scene, of course–is world famous for it–but it’s not the same as that period, when so many dark clouds were forming on the horizon, and people just wanted to drink up and forget it. Which they probably shouldn’t have done, but hard not to understand why they did.

      Gay people all over the world have a certain romantic attraction to that period, but it’s not only them–Cabaret is often performed as a high school play here–it’s been a hit musical on Broadway several times. Westlake, with his love of the theater, presumably saw the original Broadway production, and might well have read Christopher Isherwood’s book that inspired it. There were many other sources he could have read, fiction and non-fiction.

      Anyway, what’s Westlake saying with this rather offhanded reference by Tobin? First of all, he’s telling us Tobin isn’t your typical cop, which we already knew–we were told in the first book that one of the reasons he was attracted to Linda Campbell was that she was a reader, like him. Any American of his generation might well feel that 1920’s Germany was a failure on many levels, that led to the horrors of the 30’s and 40’s–they should have been paying more attention to what was happening around them. Many probably were, but that’s beside the point.

      Tobin is saying that he doesn’t see the kind of frantic pretense at happiness that he imagines, through his reading, was prevalent in the Weimar-era cabarets, and in the general cosmopolitan scene of that time. He sees people who are just discovering themselves, forming friendships, having a good time. He had a particular image of their culture, formed by second and third hand information, but watching them in person, he sees something else. He’s reevaluating his ideas about gay people.

      This is something we see a lot in Westlake’s books–the hero has a certain preconception about a particular person or a group of people that he has to change in the face of direct experience. And only a fool doesn’t change his ideas when faced with evidence that contradicts them. Westlake very devoutly wishes to be something other than a fool.

      • Ray Garraty

        Well, it was you who studied European history, not I.

        How I was impressed by Wax Apple, that much I was unimpressed by Jade in Aries. Everything here feels flat to me. I see this as an excercise in mystery. As a murder mystery it was done not bad, but Westlake always was good at whodunnit aspect of his books. Yet I can’t see this novel as something more than a well-written mystery with not so usual background.
        JiA reminded me of Slayground, well-constructed novel built like a labyrinth. Strike that: Slayground, as well as this one, is like a beautifully ornated vase, pleasure to look at, hollow inside.
        For ornament here Coe used gay community. I don’t want to say that Westlake wrote gaysplotation, that he used gay men just to stretch his writer’s muscles. He was probably interested in the topic, was influenced by the situation around him. He wanted to explore gay field, no harm in that. And he didn’t write homophobic novel by any means. He didn’t write gays convincingly enough.
        In the novel, as you already and other commenters noted, Westlake portraited gay men as flawed people, no different than straight men. I didn’t buy them as gay, that’s the problem. I know that you’ll say I ask too much from a murder mystery. Maybe so. The men Westlake portraited were no different than the straight – that means Westlake didn’t explore the problems of gay community enough. For me his gay characters are just eccentrics, hipsters, fashionable men. Stretch this one tiny bit more – and you won’t consider them gay at all. Westlake could make them just tight friends, put a couple of girls into the mix, and nothing would really have changed. And if gays here are replacable, then what was the point to use them at all? To make mystery more edgable, more sharp. Unusual.
        The same could be applied to astrology. It was used – again – just as an aspect of murder mystery.
        That’s not very clever of Westlake. He didn’t dig deep enough into lives of gay men – it was all surface. While the patients of the half house came to life, although slowly, the gay men of this book remained cartoonish.
        I’m embarassed to say, the most fleshed out character of the book is Manzoni. He almost made me puke. One sure can read Westlake just for his cop characters – corrupt, bent, brutal, prejudiced, rarely bright. Just as I like’em. Manzoni felt real – the others were just symbols in the Westlake’s chart.
        I’m sorry to say, but maybe this is the weakest Tobin novel (among those that I’ve read).

        • Okay, first of all, I never studied this aspect of European history at all in my classes. It wasn’t that kind of graduate program. I did take a class in Expressionism in college, but we never talked about gay people at all. Catholic University in the early 80’s. Actually, might not have been much different in a regular university. Depends on the university, I guess.

          I think a case can be made that Wax Apple is better–it’s definitely more focused–but to me it’s a very very near thing. A Jade in Aries impressed me very much, both times I read it. You say it depicts gay men as just like straight with a somewhat different culture, who don’t date women–right! That’s what they are. That’s what they always were. That’s the breakthrough. For a straight mystery writer, anyway. Straight in both senses of the word.

          He does make it clear–explicitly clear–that they are more emotionally open than most straight men, which tracks very well with what I’ve seen in my gay friends. But some are more closed off and self-possessed (David and Henry)–because there are always exceptions to every rule.

          And you really have to figure that a very observant writer who spent a lot of time in Greenwich Village had ample opportunity to form opinions of what gay people are like. More than the average person would. More, perhaps, than you would.

          Westlake got some criticism from gay writers about this book, because they felt he still hadn’t made them normal enough, but you don’t want people in a mystery novel to be too damn normal. How representative are any characters in any mystery novel–did you ever meet anybody like your typical suspect in a Hammett story, or a Chandler? They can’t be too normal, because this is a more glamorous exciting world–we’re supposed to believe that at least a few of them could be murderers. Murderers are not, by definition, normal in an affluent civilized society where law and order holds sway. And yet they do exist–and some of them are even millionaires.

          Wax Apple avoided this problem by being situated in a group home for the mentally ill–people who are, by definition, not normal in their reactions, who could be expected in some cases to turn violent, against themselves or others, which is how they ended up institutionalized in the first place–but that approach would only work once.

          Manzoni definitely felt real, but he’s also a bit of a stereotype–Westlake goes out of his way to say that he’s not just a bigot, but an incompetent stupid bigot, who isn’t well-liked by many on the force, or trusted by his superiors. He’s a stereotype that certainly would have had many real-life representatives, but this is Westlake’s loathing for cops breaking through again–he knows intellectually they aren’t all like this, but he’s always most convincing when writing about the bad ones. There are overbearing incompetent policemen in all five Tobin novels. And they always feel very real, even though Westlake was pretty much basing them on the cops that interrogated him as a kid, who don’t seem to have really been that rough on him (if only because his dad made sure he was protected).

          There are also decent professionals among the cops in his novels, but they’re less convincing–because Westlake has to work harder to get past his anti-authoritarian streak when writing them. He knows we need policemen (we really do, Ray), but he can’t help but think of them as a necessary evil–and past a certain point, the ‘necessary’ part of it falls by the wayside, as it does in real life, all too often. Ideals, even imperfectly realized ones, always feel less real than worst case scenarios.

          I found the gay characters very convincing, but they’re still characters–because that’s what you want in this type of book. That’s the type of character portrait that works for the story being told. They all have to be very distinct and well-defined individuals, but that’s hardly something to complain about. You can’t fault a writer for hitting what he was aiming at, even if you think he should have aimed differently.

          Astrology was certainly used as a prop, but I thought an effective and well-researched one, that served the story. To get any deeper into it would slow the plot down too much, and turn it into a sort of New Age religious tract. Just enough, no more.

          Editing–I realize I neglected to mention one crucial point, in the review and in my response to you–these are, with one partial exception, uncloseted gay men. At a time when perhaps the majority of American homosexuals were closeted to some extent. Bruce Maundy is, in that sense, the most normal of the bunch. He has his secret gay life where he lets the real Bruce out, but he doesn’t want anyone in his ‘real’ life to know about it. And Westlake was suggesting–hell, he was saying it flat out–that was his problem–that was the source of his evil impulses, and of his final downfall.

          So perhaps this is why you feel they should be more different? Because it has never been that hard for gay men to blend into the straight world when they chose to do so. Which to me, tends to cast doubt on the notion that they’re all that intrinsically different.

          • Ray Garraty

            Yes, no one would want to read New Age tract. Yes Wetlake doesn’t connect convincigly gays with astrology. He gave them suitable for plot hobby, nothing behind it.
            That the gays are no different than straight made the whole point of the novel pointless. The novel, because of that, has no conflict. Hatred of police to gays? This is no conflict. Lover’s quarrels inside gay community? Not a conflict. The closest thing to conflict here is that secret “gay” life causes troubles, even that hadn’t been explored enough. It was a murder mystery inside the world of fashionable hipsters, where gays were just to attract attention, explore the area remained untouched by Westlake.

            • Well, astrology plays a role in solving a murder, so I wouldn’t say we’re shown there’s nothing behind it. I would agree with Tobin that when people are passionate about something like this, it can help express things inside them they can’t express through more rational means, and I think that really does tell us a lot about gay men–many of whom are, as I mentioned, still into astrology, probably because they feel so rejected by conventional religions, but they still need something to bring a semblance of order and meaning to the chaotic universe they live in.

              (To be clear, a lot of LGBT people are very devout Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc–they just tend to have a harder time being out and proud in those settings. Gay men who live as part of a community within the larger community don’t tend to be churchgoers–although you may remember Leo Ross is going to a local Catholic Church to say novenas for world peace–something I, who was raised as a Catholic and went to Mass every week, never once did–only the really hardcore Catholics do Novenas. To see a black gay man who is participating in this godless bohemian subculture go to church to engage in very extended public prayer–that’s something that really deepens our understanding of how many contradicting impulses there can be in a gay man–or any man–or any human).

              I’m still kind of blanking on what you think the book should have been about. I think all of the issues it raises are still quite potent and relevant today. Can you name a book from that general era you think does a better job?

              The general preference of gay people with regards to their depiction in stories would be that they are shown as ordinary people, basically like everybody else, only maybe a bit more stylish and cool (because everybody wants to be stylish and cool).

              • Ray Garraty

                I remember I read somewhere that the Bible is more tolerable to same-sex sex (sorry for the pun) than to different sexes sex.
                But I don’t want to touch this theme, it’s not important. It’s not important whether it’s about gays or other layer of people that considered a separate community. The problem is the book has no conflict. I can’t name you an example that fairly depicted gay men and asked some hard to answer questions on this topic. I’m talking about how hollow this book because it barely touches the subject, it remains light read without probing on difficult ground. I see only how Westlake employed gay community for his own means. Gay men were only elements of the plot, blank signals. You see, he only touched them as kind of messages in Morse code, but he didn’t try to decipher these messages.
                The other day I read Chekhov’s short story, about another borderline group, prostitutes. Students visit bordels, talk with prostitues, buy them drinks, no sex at all. That short story actually in only maybe 7 pages tells a lot more about prostitutes, their place in society, their expectations, their future and future of those who use them. This story has a conflict (one student is thinking about saving prostitutes), and you can actually feel the atmosphere, and understand the borderline group.

              • Interesting about Chekhov, but there’s so MUCH conflict between the various gay men, and not just romantic in nature–professional, cultural, political–I have a hard time agreeing. It isn’t Chekhov, no–it’s a murder mystery for Random House, and has to be assessed at that level. Chekhov was a keen observer of human nature, as are most of the great Russian authors, but my impression is that most of them didn’t really talk about homosexuality at all. Prostitutes have always been an acceptable subject for literature, except perhaps in Sean O’Casey’s Ireland.

                The Bible as a whole barely acknowledges the existence of gay people–certainly not lesbians–men having intercourse is, for the authors of Leviticus, a sin punishable by death. But so are many heterosexual offenses. They certainly had homosexuals back then, but because of the influence of Greek culture–where pederasty was considered normal, even laudable, a form of male bonding–you can’t say with any certainty who is gay and who isn’t, because men having sex with other men is not necessarily an indicator of any innate preference. The Jews of that period had a tendency to react in the opposite direction, and say that any sex that wasn’t directly related to procreation was evil. I’m quite sure it was never that simple in either culture.

                Most Greeks considered women to be intellectually inferior, therefore a relationship with a man was more potentially rewarding–a relationship of equals. This is educated Greeks we’re talking about now. The Spartans had a higher opinion of women, but still encouraged (in fact, mandated) sexual relationships between older men and boys, as part of the process where boys were turned into warriors to defend the polis (this was taken to its logical extreme by the Thebans, who had an army, The Sacred Band, composed entirely of monogamous gay couples).

                Perhaps you’ve read about how Spartan girls had to dress up as boys and cut their hair, as part of a sort of reorientation process for Spartan males who had reached the point in their lives where they were expected to do their duty and make more little Spartans. Somehow, that didn’t make it into those 300 movies.

                We are a really fucked up species, no matter what genitalia we prefer. 😉

  4. Anthony

    I recall reading a comment by Barney Frank to the effect that when he dies, he hopes the fact that he is gay is not the most interesting thing about him. Just tried to look this up but didn’t find it, so I may have the quote wrong or be attributing it to the wrong person. Still, based on discussions with my gay friends, I think this is a common attitude.

    • Let’s see–in 1969, when this book was written, Frank was a key assistant to the mayor of Boston. He ran for office for the first time in 1972. He made it to congress in 1980, and he got outed by a disgruntled ex-lover towards the tail-end of the 80’s. And then he was reelected. When they like you in Boston, they like you no matter what, though his victory margin went down a fair bit.

      I think we could fairly critique A Jade in Aries for not making it more clear that many many gay people were not living in some kind of sheltered urban enclave of artsiness, but were in fact contributing mightily to society at large. But at that moment in time, most of those gays and lesbians were keeping their gayness on the QT. Westlake needed to deal with openly gay men for the purposes of this story, and openly gay men would be more likely to be the ‘hipster’ type, though really I don’t think Ray fully grasps what that word means now in our culture. Ray, hipsters dress like goddam lumberjacks. 😉

  5. Ray Garraty

    I didn’t know about all that related to Spartan or Greek. My knowledge of the ancient times is rather limited.
    Are you familiar with the term “Hamburg account”? It doesn’t matter whether it’s Chekhov or Random House mystery, sometimes you just have to judge them by the same rules and the same standards. If you write, you have to reveal something about human nature, human soul, you have to dig deeper than you think you can. Westlake in this book revealed nothing new, not about gays, not about relationship between gays and straights.

    • Okay, but compared to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, isn’t Wax Apple kind of a sucky book too? You liked that well enough, so why not this? I’m not saying you should like it, I just don’t think you’ve explained why you don’t–it’s not as good as a Chekhov short story? How many crime novels ever have been? You’ve praised much weaker books than this, so I don’t know that the Hamburg whatchamacallit is terribly germane.

      I think this is apples and oranges. And I do very strongly believe that A Jade In Aries has a great deal to say about human nature, and the soul. Not just gay men’s souls–Tobin has a major personal insight as well. Partly because of his experiences in this book, he comes out of his depression, decides to give life and love another chance–something about the people he met on this case inspired him.

      This is a big thing for a series character–the whole point of them, when you get right down to it, is that they don’t change. They just go on, book after book, story after story, until they can’t anymore. But here, Westlake is taking steps to resolve Tobin’s primary conflict–you never saw that happen with the Continental Op or Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer, or even Sherlock Holmes, unless you count pastiches like The Seven Percent Solution, which I most decidedly do not. We never really saw anything like it again until Matthew Scudder started going to AA meetings. And having read that book, I will say that I don’t think Block transitioned his hero as well as Westlake does here, though he developed that transition much further (he kind of had to, since he had no intention of letting Scudder go).

      Westlake, by the standards of the genre he was writing in, the market he was writing for, was not, as I said, breaking new ground by having gay characters in a mystery–but he was making a major contribution, as a mystery writer who happened to be extremely heterosexual, by opening himself up to the idea that gay men were just men, trying to find their way in the world, and hampered in that effort by the fact that society kept pressuring them to deny a crucial part of their identity. He put himself in their place, and he saw things through their eyes–made them co-protagonists with Tobin. Even a writer as ruggedly individualistic and outright iconoclastic as Willeford never got that far (and Willeford wasn’t homophobic at all, best as I can tell).

      There were going to be mystery novels that showed gays and lesbians as just people with basically the same problems as everyone else (compounded often by prejudice), whether Westlake wrote this book or not. But for him to write it when he did, without any personal axes to grind other than his singular belief in the right of the individual to form his or her own identity, irregardless of what other people may think–I’d call that an achievement. And it’s a damn well-written book, and a fantastically entertaining read, to boot.

      It has not escaped me that you’ve really only liked one of the Tobins so far, and that one reminded you strongly of an experience in your own life. I don’t know what that means, but it has not escaped me. 😉

      • Ray Garraty

        It has nothing to do with personal experience. Yes, it’s always apples and oranges. I, for one, found Jade only mildly entertaining. I also didn’t found it well-written.
        In the previous book I saw a transformation in Tobin, and that is one of the main elements of this series, to show how the shamed and guilted hero can (if he can at all) overcome his guilt. It’s also a series of portraits of fringe societies. Wax Apple showed that Tobin realised about himself that he’s ill in some fashion. He’s stuck between two worlds, and he doesn’t know where to move – or maybe not to move at all. He saw the mental patients, and he through them saw himself. In the whole series I found the wall routine false and too symbolic to take it for the real thing. Then, in Wax Apple, Tobin for the first time left his usual routine – showed his real emotions.
        Now, in this book, he’a back again, his usual self, again with his too metaphorical wall – not too subtle a metaphor. Westlake touched one element which could have brought this book to a new level. It was when Tobin wondered what his son was, what lived inside him. If Westlake connected his son with the gay plot somehow, it would let him a chance to explore the gay topic and to, for the first time, have serious talk with his son about all kinda things, from adultery to same-sex relationship. That could bear a conflict. It also could make the novel more melodramatic. But at least it wouldn’t be static like it is now.

        • Technically, he’s not back with the wall in this one–he’s digging a sub-basement, which I thought was a metaphor for his getting deeper into himself than he got in the previous books. Metaphors can’t be too subtle, you know, otherwise there’s no point to them.

          Bill was never that big a part of the books (he barely has three lines of dialogue in the whole series), so you can’t say this book is ruined by there not being some father/son heart-to-heart. I think that wouldn’t have worked–I mean, he has no reason to think Bill is gay, and it would be creepy for him to try and find out. The point of that is to tell us a bit about how most people viewed homosexuality back then–Tobin’s more tolerant than many, but still frightened of it. Hence the term, ‘homophobia’.

          To argue this book is static, when it’s got him going all over the city, trapping a killer with an ingenious but dangerous gambit, dealing with a dangerous police detective, as well as the killer–I mean, Wax Apple took place almost entirely in one building, has almost no action, and Tobin really doesn’t change at all in that book. He just becomes a bit more willing to look at himself, which sets up the major transformation in this book.

          Again, I think they work as companion volumes, and were to some extent written as such–you can’t have one without the other. Wax Apple prepared the ground for A Jade in Aries, and it’s up to the reader to decide which works better, but the general consensus has been that A Jade in Aries is the best in the series. General consensuses are made to be dissented from, naturally, and I’m glad you did. I still think you haven’t really explained why this book is bad, and Wax Apple is good. They are very different books, but I consider them equivalently good.

          • Ray Garraty

            Me and general consensus walk different paths. I found Tobin series uninspiring, generally entertaining, but not on par with Parker or some stand alones.
            By static I meant not plot-wise, but character-wise. There is no develpment of the character, no conflicts. Shame.

            • There is enormous development of the character. So much so that after the next book, Westlake felt he had nothing left to say about the character. So you’re not just differing with the general consensus, but with the author. I think the Tobins absolutely stand with his best work.

              Parker may develop slightly over the course of 24 books, but not much. Your standards seem flexible to me. I think maybe you just enjoy being in Parker’s head more. Who wouldn’t? 😉

  6. Anthony

    I’mmmmmmm a lumberjack and I’m okay…..

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