Review: Don’t Lie To Me

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It is strange how the mind works, sometimes going on about its own business regardless of what is happening in the real world all around it.  The instant the shot had been fired, I had known who had fired it and why, and from that I had known who had killed the John Doe and Dan Tynebourne and the girl–I supposed she was a Jane Doe now, at least for the moment–and why those killings had been done.  The knowledge was absolutely useless to me in my present condition, but I did know it.

MODERATOR: He’s dead!

TIMOTHY J. CULVER: This water glass–yes, just as I thought.  A rare undetectable South American poison.  Tucker Coe has been murdered.

DONALD E. WESTLAKE: I didn’t do it!

And here we are, at the fifth and final Mitchell Tobin Mystery, and before we proceed to look it over, it might behoove us to ask why that is.  Why is this the last one?   Five novels for a reasonably successful highly-acclaimed detective series (the first of which almost got made into a movie with Bob Mitchum as Mitch Tobin) is an exceptionally brief run in this genre–even granting that you wouldn’t want there to be scores of them, that even a dozen might have been too much of a good thing, five is cutting things a bit short.

You ever read any Max Thursday novels?   If so, consider me impressed.  He got six books.   He was pretty good.  He was no Mitch Tobin.  Many far less interesting fictional detectives got twenty or more novels devoted to their perennially perplexed peregrinations.  And almost nobody reads most of those books now–collects them for the cover art, maybe.   So yeah, there is that.  Don’t want to wear out your welcome.

But why did Westlake not only get rid of Tobin, but Tucker Coe as well, killing him off in a subsequent self-referential spoof he wrote for an anthology of articles on the mystery genre?  And basically confessing that he himself, Donald Westlake, had done the deed?

We have long had the official answer from Westlake himself–that he had told the story he’d set out to tell.  He’d set out to show us a man coming back from a deep depression, while solving murder mysteries along the way, learning things about himself and the human condition as he went, and once his emotional wounds had finally begun to heal, there was no point continuing.  Tobin could either go on wallowing in a pit of gloom, or he could become a standard-issue fictional gumshoe, of which Westlake felt there were too many already.  I think Westlake was telling the truth when he said that, but maybe not the whole truth.  And it may have been more clear to him in retrospect than it was at the time.

There’s certainly no indication in the book itself that this is the last we’ll ever see of Tobin, or Coe–not in the novel, nor in the promotional text on the first edition dust jacket.  I doubt very much that Westlake started writing this book with the express and definite intention of never writing again as Coe, and he certainly leaves the door open at the end to more Tobin later, in spite of some loose ends getting wrapped up.

Westlake often wrote books that could serve as a finishing point to a given series character, only to return to that character later on.  Not this time.  This one can certainly be read as a finale, but having read it twice now, it feels much less like one than Butcher’s Moon or Good Behavior, which both turned out to be mere intermissions.

One reason this turned out to be the last Coe was probably that Coe didn’t sell that well–well enough, I’m sure, that Westlake could have prolonged his relationship with Random House a while longer, cranking out a few more Tobins–but they might have been less interested in anything else from Coe, assuming Westlake even had anything else in mind to write in that voice (which is basically Tobin’s voice).  Even a writer as prolific as Westlake can only produce so much work in one year–he may have simply figured it was not a sound professional decision, keeping that pseudonym alive.

But if he’d made that decision when he was writing this book, I doubt he’d have named the brokerage house in Cops and Robbers (which he would have written around the same time) ‘Parker, Tobin, Eastpoole, and Co.’   He was justly proud of having made not just one name for himself as a writer, but several.  He hadn’t quite let go of that in his mind.

And yet, as the 70’s went on, the pseudonyms fell by the wayside.  Just two more Starks appear after this, until Comeback in 1997.  No more Coes.  He wrote a bit more science fiction here and there, but never again as Curt Clark.  He’d quit writing sleazes, and Richard Stark shot Culver dead in the same piece where Westlake poisoned Coe, then escaped with everyone’s valuables–meaning Westlake was not ready to let go of that alter ego, several years after writing Butcher’s Moon.

Be that as it may, after Butcher’s Moon, his next twelve novels over the course of as many years are all under his own name, and then comes the even more abortive experiment of writing as Samuel Holt about a reluctant detective of the same name–and there are some odd parallels between the Holts and the Tobins, but we’ll talk about that in due course.

Westlake had been writing under multiple names since the start of his career, but from the early 70’s to the late 90’s, he wrote mainly as himself.   This couldn’t be a decision he made all at once–it would have come upon him by degrees.   It may have been partly motivated by a decreasing productivity–he no longer was writing ‘far too much’, as he confessed to doing for a while, in a later introduction he wrote for the Tobin novels.

He didn’t need the extra identities to serve as outlets for his surplus creative energies anymore.  He had a good thing going at M. Evans & Co.  He had regular income from Hollywood buying the rights to his books, and sometimes even getting him to write something original for the screen.  He had nonfiction articles bringing in money as well.  He had Dortmunder to fall back on as a series character; the most popular he ever created–certainly far more so than Tobin, and more suited to Westlake’s marked affinity for thieves.

And he turned 40 in 1973, a sobering milestone for anyone.  It was time to slow down and devote more time to figuring out what he, Westlake, could do as a writer.  To put aside all the masks,  for the time being at least.  And time for me to stop wanking about and review the damn book.  It really bugs me this is the last one, you know.   I’m going to reveal the killer below, so be warned.

So in his last outing, you may recall, Mitch Tobin, that most reluctant of reluctant detectives, had decided to stop sitting around feeling sorry for himself, building a brick wall in his back yard, and making the odd bit of change doing freelance (and technically illegal) private investigations.  Through his friend on the force, Marty Kengelberg, he got a P.I. license, and as that story ends, we the readers can only assume that he’s going to embrace his destiny as a man who solves odd crimes nobody else can, helping people who live on the fringes of mainstream society, and continuing his gradual journey back into the light of day.

And as this book begins, he’s working nights as private security for The Museum of American Graphic Art.   We probably have one somewhere in New York, there’s a museum of just about anything you can imagine here.  See, here’s the thing–most ex-cops and such who get P.I. licenses only do so in order to work this kind of gig, supplement their pensions, assuming they have one (Mitch, dismissed from the force with extreme prejudice, does not).

Tobin is actually an employee of a security firm, Allied Protection Services.  What, you thought he was going to set up his own shingle, have a little seedy office somewhere, do the Sam Spade thing?  Okay, that’s what I thought too.  It just makes sense, right?   Westlake always digs the independents–why would he make one of his greatest independents into a company man, a mere hireling?

Well, what else can Tobin do?  He’s not rich.  He’s got a wife and a son–kid’s going to college soon.  He needs a steady income, health insurance, etc.  He’s nearly gotten himself killed on three different occasions while trying to solve murders, and no real private detective makes a living solving murders.  That’s just in the pulps, and the movies.

If he worked as a private investigator, whether on his own, or for some big agency, he’d be peeping through keyholes, tracking down deadbeat dads or bail jumpers.  Maybe repossessing cars.  It’s a living, sure, but for a guy like Tobin, who values privacy above all else, it would be sheer hell.  Night security work is peaceful, quiet.   Peace and quiet is all he’s been wanting for a very long time now.  Oh Mitch.  Haven’t you figured out by now that you never get what you want?  Not for very long, anyway.

So he’s doing his rounds one night, looking at various displays, and he hears a knocking at the door–it’s Linda Campbell.  We’ve been hearing about her since the first book, and now we get a look at her–just a slender little blonde, nothing amazing–but she’s the woman who Tobin ruined his life over.   The wife of Dink Campbell, a minor-league burglar, who Tobin sent away for a few years when he was a detective, and he ended up spending some time with Linda, and if you’ve been keeping up you know the story by heart already.  It’s an old story, anyhow.   There’s a version of it in The Book of Samuel, as I recall.

Anyway, Dink’s out of jail now, and he’s in trouble, naturally.   Some criminal acquaintances want Dink, a skilled lockman, to help them on a job.   He’s one more conviction from going away for life, and is not enthused about it, but he didn’t send her to see her old lover.  She just didn’t know who else to turn to–she wants Tobin to use his connections on the NYPD to put pressure on these guys, make them lay off.  He’s not enthused about that, but we already know he’s terrible at saying no to the women in his life–even the ones that aren’t in it anymore.

Yes, this is a more than a bit reminiscent of The Out is Death, that novel by Peter Rabe that I referenced in my review of The Jugger, and I’m sure that’s no coincidence,but it’s only the B-Plot anyway.   The A-Plot is the dead naked male body Mitch and Linda discover inside the museum as she’s preparing to leave–he calls it in, but before she makes her hasty exist, it’s decided he won’t mention her–that would bring her into the media coverage, which would drag up the old scandal of their affair that led to the death of his partner Jock, and his expulsion from the force.   Tobin was a cop too long not to know there are times when telling the truth is a sucker’s game.  He’ll lie if he has to, and unless there’s a damned good reason not to, he’ll stick to that lie, come hell or high water.   Hence the title.

He doesn’t lie to Kate, though.  That’s a very different matter.  Having weathered the initial investigation without anyone getting too suspicious, he goes home that morning and tells his (much) better half everything that transpired.   He does not tell her his precise emotional reaction to seeing Linda again, all the thoughts that rushed into his head (and elsewhere)–he’s neither an idiot nor a sadist.   She takes this as progress in their relationship–sometimes she really does seem too good to be true (Westlake may be wryly acknowledging that by having Tobin mention she was watching an Andy Hardy movie when he came in).

They go upstairs, make love, and fall asleep.  Well, Kate does (Tobin being apparently okay in the sack when he’s not too depressed).  Tobin is still agitated over the night’s events, and unable to sleep, so he calls Marty Kengelberg, and asks for that favor, regarding Dink.   And this is his first real mistake, assuming you don’t count opening the door to Linda in the first place.

In very little time, everything becomes ridiculously complicated (Mitch’s life, and the book itself).   The two plainclothesmen on the case, Grinella and Hargerson, don’t like him for the murder, but they have no leads (not even the name of the victim), know Tobin’s holding something back, and unfortunately Linda was seen leaving the museum that night, though not identified.  The murder itself is the good old locked-room variety, because the museum was locked tight, and nobody should have been in there but Mitch (and anyone he might have let in).

Tobin gets on okay with Grinella, a solid pro, but Hargerson is another of those thick-skulled asshole cops that he seems destined to keep running into, who takes an immediate disliking to him.  They know he used to be a cop (like at least half the guys working security).  Of course Hargerson is going to find out why he isn’t one anymore.  It just keeps getting better and better.

In the course of checking to see if anything was stolen from the museum, it comes out that damned near half the collection has been stolen–somebody’s been taking the old archival copies of newspapers and magazines containing the aforementioned graphic art, making copies on a machine located in the basement, aging them to look authentic, and then putting them up where the ‘real’ art should be.

The irony being, as is mentioned several times, that none of it is ‘original’ artwork–it’s all copies, as anything that appears in a newspaper or magazine would be.  So it’s not worth very much, even to collectors.  Given the time and effort involved, you could probably make more money waiting tables, if the tips were good.   Why would anyone bother?  Clearly this has something to do with the murder, but what?

Nobody’s hiring Mitch to solve this one, and typically, he just wants to let someone else worry about it.   But as it becomes clear to the higher-ups that he’s that Mitchell Tobin, a high-ranking inspector assigned to the case (because there are powerful people connected to this museum) expresses his admiration for the discreet assistance Tobin has rendered in closing some tricky murder cases in the past, and makes it clear he’d like Tobin to put his ratiocinative abilities to work once more.

Hargerson, who thought he was getting Tobin in trouble by outing him, still wants Tobin to stay out of his case  And he wants Tobin to stop lying to him.   I already said ‘hence the title’, right?   What I didn’t say was that his anger is based on more than just professional jealousy.  Because his partner just got a face-full of acid that was clearly meant for Tobin.   And here comes the B-Plot.

Tobin’s friend Marty, in spite of some serious reservations about Tobin doing any favors for his old girlfriend, made some calls, and pressure was duly applied to Dink’s old heisting buddies.  Who are understandably steamed about it.   And apparently too stupid to know that when a job is soured, it’s soured entirely (probably a lot closer to most real-life heisters than the heisters you meet in a Richard Stark novel).

Instead of just melting into the woodwork until the heat is off, they put pressure on Dink, and since Dink is even stupider (Mitch, still carrying a wee torch for Linda, has to wonder what she sees in this schmuck, but that’s the oldest story of all) he spilled the beans to them about who was responsible for the unwanted scrutiny.   They figure they just need to remove this Tobin joker from the picture, and they can go back to the payroll heist they’re planning.  Only they splashed acid in an active-duty police detective’s face instead.  Bright boys.

So Hargerson may not be much of a detective, but he doesn’t need to be to know that Tobin has information he needs to find the guys who hit his partner.   And Tobin knows that he can’t give him that information without revealing Linda’s presence at the museum that night, meaning that she’d be connected to the museum murder, and the stolen art, and the acid attack, and the papers would be running stories about how he and Linda were an item once, and maybe still.   Tobin has made some progress in dealing with his emotional problems since first we met him.  Not that much progress.  He can’t take the flashbulbs in his face again.  He’d rather take the acid.   So he goes right on lying.

So Hargerson picks him up one night, and after asking him repeatedly who threw the acid, with no answer, takes him to an abandoned house not far from Tobin’s own house in Queens, and beats the living shit out of him.

We spent a long time in there, and he never once let me get all the way to my feet.  He used fists and knees and shoes, and from time to time paused to let me catch my breath or my wits, and each time he asked me the same question.  I held him off with determination for a while, and then with anger; for a time I was screaming through my raw throat that I would kill him, that I would follow him, that I would find my chance, I would kill him dead.  But he just kept at his methodical work, and steadily beat anger too out of me, and at the last I was resisting him with nothing at all.  I don’t know why I didn’t finally tell him the truth; it just seemed as though this thing would go on until it was time for it to stop, as though there was nothing I could do to cut it short, so why even try.   I guess what I was resisting with at the end was despair.

Tobin comes gradually back to consciousness, realizes Hargerson is gone, and phones Kate to come pick him up.   She wants him to call the cops.  Admirable as she truly is, she can be touchingly naive at times.  Good people often are.

As it happens, Tobin didn’t even know the name of the specific thug who threw the acid, but he’d asked Dink to find out for him, and he tells him it’s Vigevano (sounds a lot like Vigano, the mob boss from Cops and Robbers, which only proves this book was written just around the same time).  A guy named Mort Livingston drove the getaway car.  Vigevano is pleased he at least cost a cop his eyes, but he still wants to get Tobin.

Tobin tells Marty what he knows, but asks him to hold it back a while–then he talks to Hargerson, and tells him he can give him the name he wants, but he’s got to wait–he’s already proven he can’t beat it out of Mitch.   What’s he got to lose by giving Tobin a few days to wrap things up his own way?  And having illegally beaten a former cop half to death without any proof of wrongdoing (or any tangible results other than bruises a smarter cop would have known better than to leave), Hargerson isn’t in a good position to take him downtown.

In the previous four books, Tobin was called on to solve a murder case, and in all four cases, he tried like hell to get out of it.  Not much of a self-starter, is our Mitch.  It was always Kate who persuaded him–his guilt about what he’d done to her, his sense of obligation to at least try and support his family, the only way he could.  Three of the jobs were paying propositions; one was to clear a female relation of his that Kate had taken a shine to.

Kate’s not urging him to solve any murders this time, and there’s no payday involved.  Linda only wanted him to get Dink out of doing this heist.  He doesn’t give a hoot that some police inspector thinks he’s a great detective who could shed light on a case the inspector is under pressure from high-up to solve.  He just wants it all to go away–but it can’t–because it’s all gotten tangled together.   The A-Plot and the B-Plot.

He’s really trapped this time–Hargerson won’t let up until he knows who threw the acid–he can’t reveal who threw the acid without revealing why, which would reveal his lie–which would connect his past relationship with Linda to the museum murder.  But if he can solve the murder, then the press will stop writing about it, and Linda’s peripheral involvement won’t be of interest, and he won’t have to relive his past disgrace once more in the headlines.   So just this once, he’s doing it for himself.

To solve the mystery of the naked corpse in the museum, he has to solve the mystery of why anyone would spend many long hours of tedious work to steal something that isn’t very valuable.   That means he’s got to focus on the people who work at the museum.  He’s been meeting them here and there up to now in the course of the investigation,  but  now that he’s doing the investigating, he has to start paying more attention to them.   And this brings us to the outsider subculture in this book.

See, when I first read this one, a while back, I was rather indignant–I thought Westlake had for some reason dropped the main theme of the Tobin mysteries, the thing that makes them unique–that he always ends up learning about some group of social outcasts–mobsters, the youth culture, the mentally ill, gay men–there may even be a secondary subculture in the mix–actors, religious cults, and always cops (insiders and outsiders at the same time).   But I just couldn’t figure it out this time–then, rereading it for this review,  it finally came to me.  Academe.  The outsiders looking for tenured positions at institutions heavily funded by the very wealthy–the people they most despise.  Now there’s an identity crisis.

See, the museum, which runs on the income from a large endowment made long ago, is affiliated with New York University, and when it comes to maintaining the collection and planning exhibits, most of the work falls to two NYU professors and their graduate students.  Ernest Ramsay of the history department is very conservative (for an academic), rather anal and fussy, and very much inclined to quarrel with Phil Cane, from the Art department of NYU (these days referred to as the Department of Art and Art Professions).

Phil Crane is what used to be called a longhair.   It was never meant as a compliment, though he might take it as one anyway.    It’s certainly descriptive enough; “an intense, long-haired man in his late thirties, he wore a heavily undisciplined beard to go with his love beads and bell-bottom slacks, and tended to pepper his language with the slang of the moment.”   Strangely, he thinks he and Mitch are brothers under the skin–

Crane barked with laughter.  “Mr. Tobin,” he said, “you exceed my expectations.  You groove on crisis, I know you do.  Isn’t that right?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“It cools you out,” he said.  “You go along, you go along, everything’s quiet, then there’s a crash and you’re cool.  Am I right?”

I grinned at him.  “You mean I’m good under pressure.”

“Man I mean you live under pressure.  It picks you up.”

“No,” I said.  “I like a quiet life.”

He gave me a knowing look.  “Not you,” he said.  “You’re a fatality freak.  You know what I mean?”

“No.”

“You don’t know it,” he said, “but I groove with you.  I really and truly dig where you are.  You let it come to you, and that’s good.  I’m the same.”

Turns out he and Tobin are both immune to the effects of cannabis (Tobin tells us he tried it a long time before it was adopted by white college kids)–both too self-controlled to ever really let go.  He really does seem to understand Tobin very well, though there are gaps of understanding on both sides.

Tobin enjoys the understanding, but being like somebody is not the same thing as liking him, or sharing his goals.  They do say Churchill was very much the same personality type as Hitler, you know.   That’s what tipped Churchill off that Hitler was serious.   That’s how he knew they had to get ready.  Okay, I warned you there’d be spoilers in here.  You always have to be ready for that, reading this blog.

The point being made here is not that being an academic is a bad thing, but that the conflicts inherent to academia–that it attracts many people who have a love/hate relationship with their own civilization; who may have revolutionary leanings, but who also have a vested interest in keeping society afloat (why do you think tenure was invented in the first place?)–can produce major personality conflicts–people who don’t know themselves very well, because they can’t afford to.  Mitch figures the answers to the puzzle he’s trying to solve lie with a student of Crane’s, Dan Tynebourne, whose personality is really more akin to Ramsay’s, but who believes in being like Crane; subversive, off-center, cool.

Tobin breaks into his apartment to snoop around for clues.  A girl called him anonymously, who seemed to know who the John Doe at the museum was–she called him George–Tobin’s already figured out he might have been in Canada, since there was a pack of Maverick cigarettes down there–American cigarettes marketed in Canada, which are actually Marlboros, but another manufacturer owns the name Marlboro in Canada, and you can read about it here if you care.   He thinks he might find a lead to her, or to George himself, at Tynebourne’s apartment.

I found neither, but I did see plenty of further evidence of the split in Dan Tynebourne’s personality.  In his books, Jerry Rubin nestled with Henry James.  On his walls, a print of the Unicorn tapestry was hung next to a poster of Che Guevara.  His records were an amalgram of Jefferson Airplane and Mozart, and beside his bed I found a heavily annotated copy of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.  Looking at his marginal remarks, I saw him torn between the nihilism of the terrorists in that book and his own apparently natural love of tradition and heritage and history.  He was trying to be in love with both Now and Then, even though the currently accepted way to love Now is by rejecting Then.

Dan will never get a chance to resolve this conflict–he and the girl are found dead in a car that drove off a Manhattan pier.  Tobin had tried to find him by calling his role model, Professor Crane.   It’s interesting that whereas in most detective novels, the detective is always a few steps ahead of you, because of the odd methodical way Tobin’s mind works, and because he’s usually very distracted by various things in the course of the story, we sometimes get to the killer ahead of him.  But as always, he needs to know the why before he can know the who.

So cutting back up to the scene from the book that begins this review, Tobin is at his house–he wakes up and realizes that Vigevano and his gang are waiting downstairs to kill him.   The idiots didn’t see a car parked outside, because Kate and Bill are visiting family on Long Island, so they figured he wasn’t home yet, and they’ve been sitting in his living room, smoking.  He creeps down and gets the drop on them, but it isn’t enough–four against one.  His own partly-completed brick wall in the backyard hampers his escape.  But then one of them is shot in the head as he runs out the front door, and at that moment in time, Tobin knows who the killer is–and why.  But he can’t worry about that just yet–Vigevano is coming for him with a knife.

He’s not in the best of shape after that beating he got from Hargerson, but he manages to take his assailant out with a desperate bear-hug, squeezing the breath out of him.  He’s not doing much better than Vigevano at this point, though he’s in better shape than the guy who got shot in the head.  He’s on the point of total collapse, but he has to keep going a while longer.   He calls Hargerson, and tells him he has all the answers now–he just has to come to the museum with him and wait.

While they wait, he tells Hargerson the whole story–including how Grinella got the acid meant for him, and then one of the heisters got the bullet meant for him.  “You’re not a good man to be around,” says Hargerson, with admirable understatement.   He then proceeds to prove his point by getting knocked over the head by the killer–Crane.  Who has a pistol.  And who is now going to get Tobin out of there, and dispose of him at some suitable location, so as not to connect his death to the original  murder.

Mitch had called Crane and told him a story to lure him there, needing to find some way for Crane to incriminate himself.  Crane (of a similar mental bent to Tobin, sans the empathy) has figured out that Tobin has figured out what he did, and why, so he came prepared.  When you’ve murdered one person to keep a secret, it can get a bit like eating potato chips–you keep going until the bag is empty.

See, he’d talked some of his grad students into doing the museum thefts.  He said it was to return the expropriated wealth of the people–the museum endowment from some robber baron that had gone to buy a lot of old newspaper and magazine art hardly anyone ever came to look at.  They’d be symbolically returning that money by selling the material to collectors, then donating it to worthy left-wing causes.

Either Crane kissed the Blarney Stone one time, or the drugs back then were really good, because the poor kids bought it–including George, the first victim–a draft-dodger who had been hiding out in Canada, and taking some of the art there to sell.  Only he found out Crane was phonier than any of the copies they were making–he was just expropriating their surplus labor to enrich himself.   He wasn’t doing any of the actual work, so it was like having a small independent income, on top of his salary from the university.

George, suitably indignant, threatened to spill the beans.  So Crane killed George in the basement workroom, and dragged him upstairs.  And he killed Dan and the girl–because trying to find them through Crane, Tobin let Crane know they were a threat.  Tobin is a really bad guy to be around, you know that?

And the last person to find that out is Crane himself.  As they’re leaving the museum, Dink shows up, angry that Tobin beat up his heister buddies, and the cops think he did it.  Caught off guard, Crane starts firing at both of them–Mitch tackles him, and Dink finishes the job.   Then Dink wants to bawl Tobin out for getting him involved in the fracas at the Tobin house.  Tobin tells him to shut up, and then mercifully passes out.   The End.

Westlake loved abrupt endings.  He often chose to leave the reader hanging–the big stuff gets wrapped up, but all the little things stay unresolved.  There’s easily two or three more chapters he could have written about what happened next, how it all got straightened out, whether Tobin did in fact avoid the media spotlight he probably could have avoided simply by not making that call to Marty on Linda’s behalf the same night she came to see him–just wait until coverage of the museum murder had died down.  It’s all been one long self-inflicted wound.   Just like the mess that made him into the Mitch Tobin we first met back in Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death.

He’s come full circle.  He’s still alive.  He’s not in any real trouble with the law, though Hargerson isn’t going to like him any better once he wakes up.  He’s still got Kate.  He’s still got Bill.  He’s solved yet another insoluble mystery.   He’s repaid whatever debt he owed to Linda and Dink.  He may get fired from his nighttime day-job–hard to say.  But he can find work elsewhere.

He’s also inadvertently helped cause some murders and maimings, but he wouldn’t have made it this far if he hadn’t learned how to accept that you can’t beat yourself up forever over unintended consequences to well-meaning acts.  He’ll always be a gloomy bastard, looking at the world through jaundiced eyes, but he’ll go on living until he can’t, and his fate being what it clearly is, he’ll probably be faced with new mysteries in the future—and he’ll be just as reluctant to solve those.   Tobin is Tobin, and what else is there to say?

What I say is that this is the weakest of the five Tobin mysteries, the least satisfying on a number of levels.   Not everyone agrees, but since when does everyone ever agree about anything Westlake ever wrote?

First of all, the A Plot and B Plot thing is too convoluted, too contrived–I see the purpose of it, admire the way it’s constructed, but it just doesn’t work as well as the more focused stories of the previous four.  More critically, because of the two plots, there isn’t enough time to explore the outsider subculture Westlake has chosen.   What’s there is interesting, persuasive, but it isn’t enough.

It feels a bit tacked-on–Westlake would have seen that.  Compared to the organic near-perfection of Wax Apple and A Jade in Aries, you can see the joins too clearly–he’s thinking about it too much.   And while there’s some very good writing in it, there’s nothing to equal the haunting noir-inflected prose of Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, or Murder Among Children, with its echoes of Hammett, and perhaps a little of Chandler as well.

So why was this the last one?   Maybe because writing it, he could feel he was at the end of his string with this character.  I think he decided sometime after he started writing it, which is why it doesn’t quite read like a finale, but at the same time convinces you it is one. He was figuring it out as he went.

Having resolved Tobin’s depression the previous book, and his hanging storyline with Linda in this one, he had by no means resolved all of Tobin’s issues–any more than his friend Lawrence Block had resolved all of Matt Scudder’s issues by having him quit drinking Eight Million Ways to Die–perhaps not so coincidentally, the fifth Matthew Scudder mystery novel.

But was Scudder ever as interesting again after he stopped drinking?  Interesting enough for people to want to keep reading about him–in fact, he became more popular as the series went on.   Therefore, interesting enough for Block to want to keep writing about him–why give up on a character people liked?   Why not just keep going until you can’t anymore?  Westlake didn’t see it that way.   He didn’t like writing detective fiction nearly as much as Block did–for him, it was only worthwhile if it was completely different from what everybody else was doing.

Tobin doesn’t want to be a detective.  That’s what makes him such a great detective–his odd abstracted perspective, that allows him to see all the many worlds within the world–it’s not how he solves the mysteries, but what he teaches us about ourselves along the way.  And without that abstraction granted him by his depression in the first four books, the thing that made the books special is gone, or at least greatly diminished.  Westlake had to write this one to prove that to himself, and having done so, he stopped writing about Tobin, and he stopped writing as Coe. There’s no point anymore.

But on some level, he must have felt like he was killing a voice that had lived inside of him, sensitive, empathetic–different from his other voices, with valid things to say, and that’s why Coe is almost mute, tongue-tied, in that mock-interview–and that’s why he’s dead at the end of it, with Westlake vehemently insisting he didn’t do it, after having said earlier in the piece that the way you know somebody is lying is when he denies having done something without anyone having accused him.   But I would say that voice is still there, waiting its time–Coe remained a silent partner, and would be a major contributor to later books.  Don’t lie to us, Mr. Westlake.  We know you too well by now.

And whatever you do, don’t lie to Parker.   Who in our next book will suffer a succession of professional reversals to rival even Dortmunder for star-crossed fortune.  But Parker never counts on luck.   He makes his own.  And if you cross him badly enough, your luck will run out, sooner or later.

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14 Comments

Filed under Don't Lie To Me, Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin

14 responses to “Review: Don’t Lie To Me

  1. Westlake’s counter-culture characters (“hippies,” if you will), all seem of a type, and I sometimes wonder if people really talked that way, or if it was only in the movies. I was alive in the early ’70s (and the tail-end of the ’60s), and grew up around plenty of hippies (including my parents, to a degree), but I don’t remember anyone laying on the “groove” and “freak” talk quite as thickly as Westlake’s groovy freaks tend to. Perhaps the lingo has faded from my memory like so much pot smoke.

    There’s an interesting argument that Coe flirts with here about the value of an original vs. a copy, especially when the “original” was meant to be distributed via mass copies in the first place. (For a very academic and suitably dense take on the topic, see Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”) I don’t think the argument goes anywhere in particular in this book, except as a clue when Tynebourne slips up during an discussion about it. The various academic characters seems somewhat engaged by the topic until the book loses interest entirely. It doesn’t really cohere as a metaphor for what’s going on in Tobin’s life the way the themes of the other Tobin books do.

    Speaking of Tynebourne, he seems clearly to me to be on the spectrum, exhibiting classic Asperger’s symptoms long before Asperger’s was even a diagnosis. People obviously had Asperger’s, of course. We just didn’t have a name for it, except maybe “shy,” “socially awkward,” and “asshole,” depending on the severity of the symptoms. Tynebourne seems to fall into the second category, for the most part.

    • I probably didn’t give Tynebourne enough time in the review, but then again, Westlake didn’t really give him enough time in the book, which was one of my complaints–if you’re going to do a subculture, you need to engage with it. He’s just making a few reasonably cogent observations. Asperger’s seems like a reasonable diagnosis to me, but you know how Westlake felt about psychiatrists and their terminologies. To him, the point of the character is that he’s divided against himself–believing in one thing, desiring another thing entirely.

      Tobin doesn’t think Dan’s an asshole, but Tobin, as always, is unusually willing and able to put himself in other people’s places. He realizes that the guy just doesn’t realize when he’s being rude (walking off abruptly in the middle of a discussion), and has no desire to offend anyone–there’s no true rudeness without intent. Or so I sometimes tell myself. :\

      The argument about originals vs. copies is, of course, not limited to works of graphic art reproduced in newspapers. I think in the case of the story we’re told here, it’s a crime simply because the copies are inferior–you can buy very high-quality copies of Audubon’s bird paintings (quite expensive they are too), and many other great paintings–if it looks just as good as the original to anyone but an expert, does it make a real difference whether you’re viewing the original? That’s leaving out hand-painted forgeries of old masters, which some might actually prefer to the originals, but you’re still committing a crime if you try to pass them off as the originals.

      Westlake the writer, of course, is bemused by all this–as long as you use his words as he wrote them, print them cleanly, and pay him his proper share, it’s all one to him–literary art is in the text itself–much as you might like to see the very first copy of (let’s say) the Gospel of Mark (because it’d be interesting on many levels to know if it read any differently than the version we have, and odds are that it did), assuming the text is unaltered, the words really are all that matter. Certain old manuscripts can be worth something, if done by hand, but only because the writer’s script is itself a form of visual art, a physical connection to the writer himself. They don’t have the same iconic significance as an original piece of artwork.

      Westlake’s original typewritten manuscripts might fetch something at auction, but not much I bet. The only thing valuable about them would be any hand-written emendations–if he did those.

      I don’t think gangsters necessarily talk like crime novel gangsters, or detectives like crime novel detectives, or heisters like crime novel heisters–obviously if we know people from a given subculture, we’re going to spot problems with how people in that subculture are depicted in a book. You’ve read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, right? You’ve seen the Woodstock documentary. That’s how most people perceived the counter-culture, but of course any counter-culture is a lot of different cultures united only by their opposition to mainstream culture. So your experience wouldn’t be everyone’s. There’d be a lot of sub-dialects.

      These aren’t hippies, in any event–Tobin never meets any hippies. The kids in Murder Among Children are just young urban bohemians. Their speech patterns aren’t that pronounced. Academics in general don’t really count as hippies, even if they are reacting to that movement.

      I think what you’re really reacting to here is Crane, but Crane is a fake. On every level. He’s not part of anybody’s culture–he’s just hijacking it for his own ends. We’re told–I believe I provided the exact quote–that he’s just picking up bits and pieces of things he’s seen and heard, and cobbling them together to create an image he can use to masquerade as a legit member of the counterculture. He’s not divided against himself, because he has no self. He’s a sociopath, blending into a convenient background. And we’re told he’s very much like Tobin.

      So how would you diagnose Tobin himself, Dr. Tulonen? Not clinically depressed anymore, but hardly back to normal. Whatever that means. 😉

      • Well, he’s an introvert (obviously), but one who seems to genuinely like people, even (often) the murderers he helps catch.

        • Perhaps an innate tendency he’d overcome earlier in life, that was then ramped into overdrive by his disgrace. He’s coming out of it now, but he’ll always be more comfortable by himself, or with small groups of people he knows and trusts.

          He tells us he’s still working on his wall (he actually refers to it as ‘occupational therapy’ in this book, which he wouldn’t have done in the previous four), but very slowly–he’s in no hurry to finish. And the crowning irony of the series is that instead of keeping people out, it keeps him in–when he’s trying to get away from Dink’s former associates through the backyard.

          But the fact that he went to such pains to build that wall, and shows no inclination to tear it down now–yeah, introvert fits the bill pretty well. Westlake writes about this condition as if he’s intimately familiar with it. Hmm…..

  2. Crane may be a phony intellectual but he’s a genuine badass. George and the couple wouldn’t have put up much of a fight, but then he takes out angry armed cop without breaking a sweat.

    • Thing about sociopaths is, they’re very focused, and those that become murderers learn how to use the element of surprise. He’s created this image in people’s heads of the affable hippie, and they don’t see it coming until it’s too late–he obviously snuck up on Hargerson and hit him over the head with the pistol. Nobody’s a badass when they’re caught offguard–not even Parker, who we’ve seen taken by surprise several times thus far. Tobin himself can be pretty tough, but Hargerson takes most of the fight out of him with that first unexpected punch.

      Crane’s final plan does seem a bit dodgy–okay, so he hit Hargerson from behind, so Hargerson can’t prove it was him, but he’s going to leave Hargerson alive, and just kill Tobin–even though he’s got to figure Tobin’s told him his theory about who killed those people, and why. It’s not like Tobin’s a witness–killing him doesn’t change anything.

      Crane’s just an amateur, improvising his way through situations he hadn’t counted on, and as we’ve noticed in other novels, Westlake thinks amateurs almost always run out of luck if they don’t learn to be pros at whatever they’re doing. Truth is, Crane didn’t need to do any of the things he did. He didn’t need that extra money, he didn’t need to kill George the draft dodger (Seriously, what’s the penalty for stealing old newspapers? You know he could talk his way out of that.), and Mitch isn’t on to him until he kills Tynebourne and the girl, and then tries to kill him. I know Napoleon said ‘Toujours L’audace,’ but you can take that too far. Crane wasn’t going to make it longterm, not that this would have been much comfort to Tobin if Dink hadn’t shown up.

      This, btw, is a major problem with the book–too many coincidences. The murder happens the same night that Linda shows up. Crane shows up to kill Tobin the same night the heisters show up to kill Tobin, and kills one of them by mistake. Then Dink shows up just exactly as Crane is taking Tobin out of the museum to kill him. You don’t see this kind of contrivance in the other Tobins. They feel a lot more natural. Bizarre coincidences do happen in real life, but not like that–in a different kind of book this is acceptable, but not a Mitchell Tobin Mystery.

      Hargerson may not be very bright, but we’ve seen how determined he can be when he’s nursing a grudge–he’s going to know who hit him. I have to figure Crane was not going to get away with it–if Hargerson couldn’t find proof of what he did, he’d find some other way to get him. Crane might end up in that same little abandoned house in Queens, near the construction site, getting the shit kicked out of him. Well, you can’t plan for everything–and Crane’s not so much planning as reacting. Catches up with you.

      • I think Hitchcock had a theory that an audience will accept a coincidence that sets a plot in motion (“Paging George Kaplan…”), but not one that resolves the plot. I’m OK with Linda and the dead body showing up the same night, as either on its own doesn’t carry much of a story, but the two existing in tension with each other helps drive the plot. But you’re right, Dink showing up at the end is a bridge too far.

        • Westlake was clearly not entirely happy with the book–he had some ideas he was interested in, but he could tell it wasn’t gelling as he’d hoped, and again, I think the fact that it had turned out less satisfyingly than the previous four may have been what convinced him it was time to ring the curtain down on Tobin. Sometimes a writer will just look for the easiest way out of a corner he painted himself into. But he may have also liked the irony that the dumbest person in the book ends up saving the smartest.

  3. I’m usually oblivious to symbolism, so I get especially annoyed when it hits me over the head: in this case, it’s when the wall Tobin has built to keep himself safe from the world traps him and almost gets him killed.

    • Maybe it’s a little too on the nose, but I think if the book were better overall, it wouldn’t feel quite so forced. To me, that kind of thing of half-confirms my suspicion that he didn’t necessarily start writing this book with the intention of it being the last one–and as he worked through it, it started feeling like the last one, so he started writing in bits of business like that, to make it the finish, to say “this is the end.” But also, you know, he just liked making his detectives look ridiculous sometimes. There’s always something in him that seems to enjoy that. There’s a reason he’s known for heistmen, not gumshoes.

      I might mention that a rather prominent online overview of the Tobin series, on a website I greatly admire, says Don’t Lie to Me is “perhaps the most emotionally satisfying book Westlake has ever written”–and in the same piece, the reviewer in question calls Wax Apple the weakest book in the series.

      As I have been fond of saying for several decades now, ever since I realized that what seemed obvious to me was not always so to everyone else, “there’s no accounting for taste–the books never balance.”

      😉

  4. Ray Garraty

    What started as a sort of a rip-off of the Port novels with a romantic touch then turned into very weird mystery. Two plotlines separately make very little sense. They are convulted, they are hasty, they mix not very good. Even the motives behind both crimes are unclear and doubtful. The bunch of fools Dink is mixed up with looks more like a street gang of hooligans rather than a gang of heisters. They don’t really need to deal with Tobin at all. The other bunch, academic thieves, steal sheets of paper with zero value, and however much Westlake can argue for credulity of their motives, I’m not convinced at all.
    So one can rightfully say that plot-wise this book is one ugly piece of writing. Yes it is really ” the most emotionally satisfying book Westlake has ever written” (or – Coe has written, that’s more like it). I’d rate it second in the series after Wax Apple. I just loved this book. Glueing two worthless mystery plots, Westlake as if nullified the whole mystery angle. The novel turned into a piece of realism where one sad P.I./night watchman just wanted to be left alone, but life doesn’t let him.
    While in the four previous Coe novels I found the guilt angle completely artificial and the points that Westlake made to point out to Tobin’s emotions I found hollow, this one has bared Tobin’s soul. Finally, we had a chance to see how guilt and his loneliness fight inside him. He’s again facing the possibility of his past to return, and though he’s ready to fight it, he’s afraid. The whole convulted plot is a mirror of Tobin’s convulted emotions.
    I do believe that Westlake should have killed Tobin in the end like he did with the PI in Killing Time. This way Tobin would atone for his sins – that’s what he wanted to do during the four previous books.

    • It’s too easy. Worked for Killing Time, because Tim Smith’s sins were a lot worse, and the kind of sins that tend to get people killed–he started a war to save his own skin. Tobin went out and helped people, and learned to understand himself better. His only real sin was adultery–or rather, using his partner to cover it up. He didn’t want to die for it. He had that option, and he didn’t choose it.

      I just don’t get the emotional pay-off from this one. To me, it’s not just that the plot is slapped together out of mismatching elements (and it sure as hell isn’t realism to have Tobin saved by such an unlikely coincidence, but I think we’ve had this discussion before–realism isn’t the be-all and end-all of genre fiction, or fiction in general–it’s a tool in the kit, sometimes you use it, sometimes you don’t). How can there be an emotional pay-off when Tobin’s emotions revolve around two women and his son–all of whom are basically absent for much or all of the story?

      He doesn’t really explore an outsider subculture. He doesn’t have it out with Linda. He doesn’t have it out with Kate. He doesn’t have any moments with Bill at all. He doesn’t really learn anything about himself–he came to terms with his guilt complex in the previous book (which I might remind you, was greatly admired by that guy who said this was the most emotionally satisfying book Westlake ever wrote). He doesn’t make any decisions about his future.

      Forget Wax Apple–I tend to agree that’s the best Tobin book as a book, and a pivotal midway point in Tobin’s story, but it’s also an anomalous book in the series, since he’s away from his family and his city. A Jade In Aries is probably the one I’d give to somebody if I wanted them to know what this series was about. It’s a lot more realistic than this. That story could actually happen. This couldn’t. That really explores the subculture it’s devoted to–this doesn’t. The supporting characters here aren’t fleshed out enough. This was the book Westlake needed to write to prove to himself he’d written all he could about Tobin and his many worlds within the world.

      It’s far from the least emotionally satisfying book Westlake ever wrote, but it’s definitely the weakest of the Coes. And I have to think that if Westlake had felt he’d really knocked this one out of the park, he’d have kept going. There’s a real feeling here that he’s just tired of Tobin–and Coe. Obviously you had that reaction a lot sooner–some readers do. Not me. The previous four books are Westlake at his absolute best. But I think they were painful as all hell to write. Westlake had a certain tendency to run from strong emotion as a writer–then return to it–then run away again. I’d say this book marks the start of another cycle of running away. He couldn’t write books like the first four Tobins all the time. He’d have burned himself out, personally and professionally. Like so many other crime writers did.

      One thing I loved about reviewing these books was showcasing quotes from them–beautiful bits of prose, noir of the first order–writing that can be put up against the very best of Hammett, Chandler, Thompson. Some good writing here, but nothing that powerful. Not even close.

      • Ray Garraty

        For one it’s novel’s weaknesses, for another it’s its strong sides. Taste works in mysterious ways. It seems that everything was left unfishined. Tobin didn’t have it out with Kate, Linda and his son – but remember when I wrote about Tobin thinking about his son’s sexual orientation and not talking with him? You wrote that you can’t ask much from a Random House mystery. Too much can be written off on the crime fiction.
        Tobin didn’t have it out with them – but he understood something about himself. I think it was that whatever he does something will always prick him with guilt about the past. I just don’t see how Westlake stopped writing about Tobin because Tobin got past his guilt. This book does quite the opposite – it indicates that guilt is strong in Tobin as ever.
        Even police brutality episode works on the psychology of the characters. I won’t be advocating Hargerson here and his methods, but I feel that Tobin deserved this beating. It helped him to try to overcome his guilt. It didn’t help fully, though.

        • I don’t think that’s what I wrote–I just said you have different expectations for genre fiction–not necessarily lower, but different–like with science fiction you don’t necessarily demand the same level of characterization, because it’s more about ideas–I’ll still take the best science fiction over most ‘serious’ lit. I adjust my expectations to the form I’m reading. As Theodore Sturgeon said, “90% of everything is crap.” I’m interested in the other 10%.

          Westlake consistently surpassed the expectations for the crime/mystery genre, which is why his books continue to be read (and all five of these books are now available electronically).

          Tobin’s guilt is still there, but he’s more at peace with himself–he isn’t going to put his life on hold anymore, punish himself(and by extension, those who care about him) for past failings.

          Maybe it’s my Catholic upbringing, but I don’t think guilt is inherently a bad thing–like all other emotions, it becomes a negative when it gets out of control, becomes an idee fixe. Crane has no guilt at all, which is what separates him from Tobin. Guilt is the cop that lives inside of us–keeps us from acting as if everything is about what we want, all the time. Donald Trump has absolutely no guilt. Narcissists never do.

          Tobin’s goal is not to get rid of his guilt, but to bring it back into proper proportion, which he did in the previous book–I don’t really see him making any progress here. In fact, you could make an argument he regresses–most of his problems–and the blinding of a police officer–and the deaths of Tynebourne and that girl–can be laid partly at his doorstep. He didn’t mean for any of that to happen, but his actions helped precipitate it.

          He was still so conflicted over Linda that he had to deal with her request right away, which got him and his family involved–and being so unwilling to face the publicity that would ensue if he and Linda got pulled into coverage of the museum murder, he went on lying to the police, and trying to solve the case himself, which is necessary for the book’s story to function as planned. It’s hard to say for sure that things would have been better if he’d done otherwise. But it seems like seeing Linda triggered at least a minor setback, and there’s no indication by the end that he’s recovered from that–he’s not deceiving Kate anymore (just not telling her everything he felt upon seeing Linda), so that’s something.

          We’ve seen this in previous books–people who died because of Tobin’s meddling–and he’s always just buried it, gone back to his wall. And it doesn’t seem that’s changed, but since he’s more functional now, it seems more blameworthy. Because he’s more in control of himself, he’s more responsible for what happens because of his mistakes. He’s also a bit less interesting.

          I think Westlake didn’t want to write Tobin as a well-adjusted person–not interesting to him. So in this book, he tried to write him as a somewhat better adjusted person–and it just didn’t work as well. And this is what convinced him it was time to shut the Tobin files down for keeps. Because this really doesn’t read like an attempt to end the story, and as I said, it wasn’t promoted as the final Tobin mystery at the time (which you’d think it would be, if Westlake had told Random House this was the last one–good for sales).

          Maybe Tobin felt on some level that he deserved the beating Hargerson gave him, but I don’t think he got any sense of expiation out of it. And since Hargerson likely has a concussion at the end–maybe even a skull fracture–Tobin still comes out ahead. He’s really not a good man to be around. 😉

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