Mr. Westlake and The TV Detective


Hamlet: Denmark’s a prison.

Rosencrantz: Then is the world one.

Hamlet: A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

Rosencrantz: We think not so, my lord.

Hamlet: Why, then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.

Rosencrantz: Why, then, your ambition makes it one; ’tis too narrow for your mind.

Hamlet: O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

Guildenstern: Which dreams, indeed, are ambition; for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.

Well, we’ve certainly had an interesting time exploring The Westlake Museum thus far, haven’t we, kids?  Let’s take a nostalgic stroll back through its venerable hallways, passing along our way many a fascinating exhibit.  The Hall of Sleaze (don’t tell your parents we went there!), the Science Fiction Diorama (with derisive graffiti by Westlake himself), the Early Hardboiled Exhibit, the Mitch Tobin Memorial (walled up, naturally), the Nephews Nativity Scene, the Dortmunder Display (still under construction), and of course the Stark  Shooting Gallery (always popular but somehow never crowded).  Plus many an odd little cul-de-sac that leads nowhere, but may be well worth exploring, regardless.

And what’s this?  Something we’ve missed up to now.  The entrance is unmarked.  There’s cobwebs on the door handles.  Well, let’s go in.  Nothing ventured and all that.

The hinges creak.  In the mustiness and gloom of a long abandoned space, we see a mid-sized exhibit.   Some work was put into this one, clearly.  To our right, we see the majestic yet seamy Gotham skyline, and in the foreground a lissome pallid brunette in a very simple little black dress; streetwise, practical,  in equal parts sardonic and sexy, standing in front of an Italian restaurant, her arms akimbo.  To our left, we see the Los Angeles sunshine and smog, and in the foreground a luscious bikini-clad blonde lounging by the pool, book in hand, a sly winsome expression on her sun-drenched face–she clearly knows more than she’s saying (and she’s saying plenty).

And hovering solicitously between the two, a haughty-looking gentleman’s gentleman holding a tray of hors d’oeuvres,  who seems perhaps a mite too aware of his role–overplaying it to the veritable hilt.  A splendid anachronism, and don’t you forget it.  Also two lawyers (one on each side), a Hollywood agent, and an accountant holding out a ledger that somehow is never examined too closely.  Also assorted friends (quote marks sometimes necessary), colleagues, well-wishers, general hangers-on, milling about, begging for attention.

Last and not even remotely least, two delightful boxers (pooches, not pugilists), scampering about on the west side of the exhibit, having a good time for themselves, ignoring the general goings-on most of the time.  Not really relevant to anything, but they sure decorate nicely.

As we look around, we see a neglected barren stage, a television screen airing a nonstop test pattern, promotional posters touting a show we’ve never watched which is nonetheless perpetually in repeats.  There are cases full of murder weapons, and the deadliest of them all seems to be boredom, followed by indecision.  And far at the back, overlooking the tableau with a decidedly melancholy air, we see a looming figure, half in shadow; handsome, charismatic, piercingly intelligent, yet somehow unformed, incomplete–he’s dressed as Hamlet, or rather as Hamlet would dress were he a  TV Detective of the late 70’s/early 80’s.  Very high concept.

And behind him, in a roped-off alcove, a display case with framed obituary notices from the New York Times and Variety in it, but there’s a large question mark hovering over it in space, making us wonder….

Ah yes.  The Holt Wing.

Westlake’s last sustained attempt to write a series character under an assumed name came about, according to him, as an attempt to find out if he could start over from scratch, with a name no one knew, write in a voice he hadn’t used before, and still sell books, win converts, blaze new trails.  One would think that having done this already as Richard Stark and Tucker Coe (not to mention Alan Marshall et al, and he’d doubtless have preferred no one mention that), he’d have felt like he had nothing to prove in this regard.  But as he said in his brief intro to the very belated paperback reprints to this series, “Times change.  Cultures change.  Markets change.”  Had he changed?   Could he still pull it off?

In the intro, he mentions Stephen King’s alter ego Richard Bachman as an inspiration.  King cited similar reasons for adopting a nom de plume (having never been known for this kind of thing, whereas Westlake had been writing stories under multiple pseudonyms years before he published his first novel under his own name), but later said the question was never satisfactorily answered as to whether his previous success had been talent or luck, because people quickly enough figured out who Bachman was, and none of the Bachman books sold very well until his true identity became common knowledge.  Let’s be honest here–no matter who you are, luck is always involved in success.  It’s just a matter of degree.

The ‘Richard’ in the name was derived from Richard Stark (with Westlake’s bemused and unneeded consent), a name Westlake felt like he could no longer write honestly under, and people knew who Stark was by now anyway–there’d never been any real effort made to hide it.   Westlake’s earlier pseudonyms were not created to fool the reading public but rather to get around the publishing industry’s annoying tendency to only let you put out so much under your own name in a given year.

But somehow, for Westlake, the fake identities became real–alternate voices, parts of his personality he couldn’t fully express under his own name, writers who were memorable in their own right–who rivaled Westlake, competed with him, and some might even say surpassed him (Stark actually did outsell Westlake in the late 60’s/early 70’s).  King obliquely referenced this when he wrote The Dark Half.  But catering to his usual market (I have to say, I don’t really see any difference between the way he writes as King or Bachman), he just told another thrilling horror story with a psychological edge to it, and didn’t really try to capture what Stark and the others meant to Westlake–they were not monsters to be suppressed, demons to be exorcised.  They were truths that needed to be told.

But Westlake couldn’t tell them anymore–his other voices had abandoned him, one by one, as the 70’s wore on.  Tucker Coe just sort of tuckered out, with nothing more to say about Mitch Tobin–Coe’s voice was Tobin’s voice, so Coe went when Tobin did.  Westlake seems to have been equally concerned and relieved over the disappearance of Stark–there were obviously more stories to tell about Parker, but he wanted to explore other avenues, types of stories Parker didn’t go with at all, and the further he went down that road, the harder it was to summon back the Stark voice.  This was a lighter-spirited time in his life–Stark would wait for the darkness to return, as it always does.

The other pseudonyms he’d used in the 60’s and 70’s had never really amounted to anything–just brief attempts to branch into other genres, and the books hadn’t sold well enough to merit another try.  He was a mystery writer, a crime writer, and to most people by this point in time, a comedic writer within that genre.  And he’d liked that for a while, but it might have been wearing on him a bit.  He’d tried branching out under his own name (Kahawa, A Likely Story, High Adventure)–the books had been good, the reception less enthusiastic than he’d hoped.  People knew what they wanted from Westlake now.  Comic capers.  Dortmunder and such.  For him to write something else he had to be someone else.

Which he could do easily enough in the 1960’s and early 70’s, when people were not paying that much attention to who wrote what in his designated genre (Random House had made a big fuss over the secret identity of Tucker Coe, but I think everybody who cared solved that mystery quickly enough–they were promoting Westlake novels on the back covers of Coe novels).

His output had declined dramatically since then.  He could no longer disappear into a sea of pseudonyms.  He could no longer write paperback originals either, because that market was dead.  So could he make a deal with a publisher to put out something he wrote under a false name, and see how people liked it?   And then, obviously, spring the news on them that it was none other than himself?

Because that had to be the plan.  He never meant for the secret to last.  He wanted people to ask “Who is this Samuel Holt who writes mystery stories about a guy named Samuel Holt?”  Richard Stark didn’t write stories about Richard Stark, any more than Richard Bachman wrote stories about Richard Bachman.  King went out of his way to create a false bio for Bachman (then killed him off once the ruse was exposed–Westlake did something chillingly similar with Holt, after these books were written).

But how seriously can you take an author who says he wants to disappear into a pseudonym when he never seriously tries to make the pseudonym stand up to scrutiny?  Obviously there’s no such person as Samuel  Holt.  There’s people sort of like Samuel Holt, but they don’t solve mysteries.  They just make bad movies, and wait for their next series to start.   Well, that’s not fair.  Not entirely.

Whatever he thought would happen, what actually did was deeply disappointing.  He’d been developing a relationship with Tor Books (an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates LLC, known primarily for Science Fiction and Fantasy)–they’d handled the paperback reprints of a few books of his, and he’d been pleased in particular by them agreeing to reprint A Likely Story.

Even though these books he was putting out would be classic mysteries, ideal for The Mysterious Press, he clearly couldn’t publish them there without effectively outing himself right off the bat, since his close association with Otto Penzler was so well known (and yet the dedication to the first book is to “Otto and Michael, unindicted co-conspirators.”  Seriously, this was never going to be a mystery for the ages, folks.)

So he signed a contract with Tor, and in return for getting a much smaller advance than Donald E. Westlake would typically get, he was promised anonymity–a fresh slate.  Emulating John D. MacDonald’s example when writing the first Travis McGees, he hammered out three novels in close succession, and handed them in.  Two were published in 1986, one in 1987.  No books under Westlake’s name appear between them in his bibliography (yet another telltale clue for the amateur book detective).

Tor did a good job with the books, it must be said.  They’re nicely executed volumes, with decent artwork for the era (particularly the second entry), and lack the many egregious typographical errors of the much later reprint editions from Felony & Mayhem (with a clownish caricature of an 80’s-style detective cavorting on the covers).

But as Westlake revealed in his intro to those reprints, he was betrayed–the publisher (Doherty himself?) had told his staff to let bookstores know who ‘Sam Holt’ really was, so that they could put promotional displays up (maybe because they remembered how much better the Richard Bachman books sold after people knew there was no Richard Bachman).   Westlake wanted people to know the secret–but not so soon–not this way.  The game was no longer afoot–the game, in fact, had been ruined.  Might as well have told everyone the butler did it (though technically, in the Holt books, all the butler does is sulk).

So he owed them another book, and he made it quite a bit darker than the previous three, and its ending is powerfully reminiscent of the final chapter of the last Mitch Tobin mystery.  Because in fact, these books are a reworking of the Tobin series.  And Samuel Holt is, in many ways, a reworking of Tucker Coe, and Coe’s protagonist.

The Mitch Tobin mysteries, which I believe deserve to be ranked with the best work Westlake or any other mystery writer ever wrote under any name, stemmed from a personal insight he had about The Thin Man, the last novel Dashiell Hammett published in his lifetime, before his long creative drought set in.   Westlake felt that Nick Charles was deeply depressed by his decision, brought on by his marriage to Nora, to give up his career as a detective.

His life now lacked purpose, so he resorted to heavy drinking to dull that pain.   Nora, loving him every bit as much as he loved her, and having been attracted to him in the first place primarily because of his dangerous profession, wanted him to go back to doing what he was born to do, so that they wouldn’t have to drink themselves to death in too much of a hurry.  The Days of Crime and Roses.  The movies made it a lot cuter, as they tend to do (maybe Blake Edwards would have given it a darker tinge).  But there’s a nice terrier named Asta in the book as well (Schnauzer, not Fox Terrier, and yes there’s a difference, but we hardly need belabor it here).

So Westlake got rid of the high society thing, the solving mysteries with your wife and dog thing, but kept what was really interesting to him–a man who has lost the will to go on, because everything that mattered to him has vanished from his life.  Tobin’s partner died while covering for Tobin’s marital infidelity, and his subsequent exposure led to the end of his career as a police detective and the total loss of his personal and professional identity.

He manages not to kill himself by means of various ambitious home improvement projects he makes up to keep occupied, his wife Kate willingly forgives him (and like Nora Charles, pushes for him to go back to his real work), his son just sort of tunes the high drama out, and what follows is Tobin just looking for ways to avoid life altogether. But life keeps shoving itself at him, in the form of blood-stained mysteries he has to solve.

And bit by bit, he regains his equilibrium, learns the lessons he needed to learn from the people he meets along the way, and rejoins the human race.  End of series.  Only five books, and the last one was, as I mentioned when reviewing it, not really necessary except as a means of tying up a few loose ends, and proving to Westlake that he had nothing more to say with this character.  So really, just four books that matter.  Hmm.

The Coe voice is quietly powerful, done in first-person narrator form, with Tobin telling his own story, filling us in from book to book as to how he became the person he is now, observing the world around him with great clarity and perceptiveness brought on by his uniquely abstracted outlook on life.  He sizes up the people he encounters rather brilliantly, much more concerned with character and motivation than with clues.

Although he always cracks the case, Tobin never really feels like he’s made the world a better place for doing so. There’s a powerful existentialist feel to the novels, a sense that this ratiocinative activity is something that needs be done for its own sake, not because it will fix anything, but because the truth matters.  The truth about whodunnit, but also about who you are, down inside.   But of course the most important thing anyone must know about the truth is that it hurts like holy hell.

So not nearly as many people remembered the Coe books as the Starks.   Westlake was known to have written them, but mainly by aficionados.  If you look closely at the Holts, you can see more than a few intentional hints, clues Westlake left for those very cognoscenti–like the repeated use of the name Walburn, briefly in the first Holt, much more significantly in the second–that name appears in Wax Apple, with Westlake’s own first name appended to it (a road thankfully not taken, as I pointed out when that book came up in the queue).

In fact, there are many many deliberate clues as to the provenance of the Holts within their pages, not least their style, which I think comes closer to the way Westlake wrote nonfiction articles under his own name than any of his other fictional guises.  In many ways, Samuel Holt (the character) is simply Donald E. Westlake, only famous, handsome, rich, six feet six inches tall, bi-coastal, single and polygamous (it takes some explaining), and most unhappily unoccupied.  A fantasy and a nightmare come true at the same time.

Sam Holt gets everything his creator could ever have idly desired in his wildest dreams, except the most important thing–a job he actually wants to do.  And kids, of course, but he’s got the two boxers–which really is an actor thing, by the way–can’t tell you how many actors in my nabe I’ve met while exercising my dog, and the dogs introduced us–I think actors just need somebody in their lives who can’t read their reviews, and cats of course are born critics.

Westlake has always seemed a mite canophobic to me (maybe someday I’ll get to ask someone who knows), but writing as Holt he even conquers this long held phobia, and enjoys a healthy rewarding relationship with two fictive furry friends who couldn’t care less about his identity crisis.  Take us for a ride, dad!  Let’s have fun!  And that happens far too rarely.

Simply the close empathetic interest in the acting profession should have been a solid clue as to the author of these novels–this is also, to some extent, a reworking of the Grofield books, except Grofield, trying to live up to the Starkian ideal, refused to sell out to television, remained true to live theater, no matter how non-remunerative. Westlake wrote more about actors than any mystery writer I know of (his next two books after finishing the first three Holts both had actors in them, and likewise dealt with the tribulations of celebrity).

The East/West coast rivalry was another trademark of his. And his mingled predilection for blondes and brunettes. Honestly, I’m having a hard time believing he thought the secret of Sam Holt was going to last very long. It’s easy to see how he’d be upset that the publisher had failed to live up to the nondisclosure agreement (except if it was in the contract, couldn’t he have sued?)

He says they tried to hit the reset button–I don’t know what that means. If it came down to some bookstores advertising the Holts as Westlakes in their windows and displays, would that really have been such huge national news? How many ordinary mystery readers would have even noticed? How big a secret had Richard Bachman ever been? King’s last book under that name was in 2007, long after Bachman had been thoroughly outed (and killed off via publicity dispatch).  Why was Westlake so angry about this?  He knew what publishers are.  He wrote an entire novel about what publishers are.

‘Newgate Callendar,’ still handling the crime fiction beat for the New York Times (not for much longer, though–I think this might be his last crack at anything Westlake did), wrote a glowing review of the first Holt novel–with no apparent knowledge that it was actually a Westlake. If he’s playing dumb, I have to say, it’s a bravura performance. And either way, the irony might have tasted bitter to Westlake. The critic who never seemed to fully appreciate his work that broke with expectations was heartily applauding this incognito effort. Should he be elated–or deflated? It think it was more the latter.

So the part of me that sometimes feels obliged to question Westlake’s explanations of why he started or stopped writing this or that is moved to wonder–how upset could he be that people didn’t believe ‘Samuel Holt’ was writing the Samuel Holt books, when he’d included so many clues as to who really wrote them? Was this the real problem? Or did he decide, after cranking out three in a row, that the books weren’t as good as he’d hoped they’d be? Because they are definitely not as good as the Coes. Not even close. Was Tor’s show of bad faith simply a good excuse to pull the plug on a project that hadn’t worked out as planned?

I don’t think he had such high expectations here–he wanted to create a nice entertaining mystery series, about a reluctant detective (yet another clue it was him), with perhaps a touch of Rex Stout in the mix (Archie Goodwin with fame, money, a Manhattan townhouse and a busy sex life, but no Nero), all of this neatly distracting from the fact that as with the Coes, he was using these stories to make social commentaries. But instead of dealing with outsider subcultures, as Coe habitually did, he’d examine the ultimate insider subculture–showbiz–and all the various insider cultures it bumps up against.

It’s a subculture he’d learned a lot about while working as a screenwriter, hobnobbing with various friends in that biz, and as he admits in his foreward to the reprint editions, he wanted to use what he’d learned, but didn’t feel comfortable doing it under his own name (he would soon anyway, but apparently some of the portraits in the Holt books are more–personal). So another reason to dislike the books–maybe they got him in some hot water with certain people, once it came out he’d written them. Impossible to say.

Westlake’s ambiguous relationship with the movies has been much commented upon here (he commented upon it a fair bit himself).  His relationship with television is even more tortured.  He contributed to the (literal) train wreck that was Supertrain in 1979, and is actually listed as its creator, something that I have no doubt haunted him all the rest of his days.

Probably one reason I get a weird incestuous feel from Sam’s relationship with Bly Quinn, ace sitcom writer, is that she’s as much of a Westlake alter ego as Holt is, maybe more.  Many of her conflicts–feeling like she’s become trapped in a mode of storytelling she doesn’t entirely believe in–are Westlake’s as well.  But so is her delight in the conventions of genre, her wealth of arcane historical and literary trivia, and she even gets a reference to Graham Greene and This Gun For Hire in there at one point.

But Westlake didn’t want Sam to just be out there in LalaLand all the time–one of the central conceits of the books is that he’s a Long Island boy, to who New York will always be The City, and all other towns mere pretenders to that name (it works the same way with upstaters, I’m sure).   He needs New York to keep him honest, and a New York girl into the bargain, so Westlake gave him a Greenwich Village townhouse to go with his Bel Air mansion, and a smart sassy Italian-American restaurateur named Anita Imperato to serve as a counterpoint to his California girl (Bly is actually from Maryland, but she’s long since gone native).

Anita is close to Sam’s age (a year older), much more rooted in the here and now, and they feel like a real couple, in ways Sam and Bly never quite do.  Bly is very much an aspiring Nora to Sam’s Nick, encouraging Sam to be a detective, solve the mysteries, go on adventures, but Sam’s no drunk, and he’s hardly miserable (you’d kind of have to hate his guts if he ever dared whine about his lot in life), so it seems more like she’s doing it for herself–as a way of living out the kinds of stories she loves to read and write, and to keep Sam more in her sphere of influence.

Anita, by contrast, encourages him to find out what he really wants to do and do it already–he tells us that when he tries to get more serious with her (meaning that he’s tried more than once), she pushes him away–knowing he’s not ready to commit to anything yet, let alone anybody.  I never feel like there’s quite enough of her in the books, and for what it’s worth, if any resolution of Sam’s divided love life is even possible, put me on Team Anita.

It’s a weird gimmick (taking Archie Goodwin to the next level–Lily Rowan and Lucy Valdon in explicit competition instead of merely implied), and I suppose offputting to some readers–he’s not technically cheating on either of them–it’s an open arrangement that just happened, and he can’t seem to resolve it either way.

After he became a famous TV star, he could basically have any woman he wanted, kid in a candy store, but he found that palled on him after a while (I suppose that could happen), and the interesting women didn’t take him seriously anymore (that I believe)–so he cut back on the harem, until it was just the final two contestants–and he can never decide who gets the rose.  They’re both so independent, it’s not clear either of them even wants the damn rose, yet they’re always obliquely vying for his favor, regardless–they never meet, each remaining on her respective coast, and Anita refers to Bly disparagingly as ‘the tennis player.’

Bly scarcely refers to Anita at all, which I think is partly because she recognizes Sam’s connection with Anita is deeper, more real, a threat to the exciting fantasy life she and Sam are living out in California.   She’s enjoying the hell out of all the various intrigues Sam gets her involved in–it’s great research material for her screenwriting.   But at some point, aren’t all three of them going to want more?  And Utah wouldn’t suit any of them very well, methinks.

Sam’s put a whole lot of major life decisions on hold.  That’s the central theme of the book.  That’s the conflict he has to resolve, and the mysteries are supposed to help him do that, the way they did for Tobin.  But it just doesn’t work as well, does it?   The contrivances are too contrived.  The fantasy is too fantastic.  The TV Detective is too damn much of a TV Detective, supercilious manservant and all.

And who seriously believes a guy who is the hugely popular star of a major hit series that ran five seasons isn’t getting any serious job offers for three years?   Job offers that don’t work out, sure.  Movies that flop, shows that tank, guest shots that make him look diminished somehow, people saying “One Hit Wonder,” that I could buy.  But nothing at all?  Even though he never stops bugging his agent to find him more work?  It’s not like he’s holding out for a major motion picture here.

Westlake knows it’s a stretch, does his level best to justify it, and I still don’t buy it.   But for the books to work, you have to buy it.  Holt’s deep professional frustration–a guy who lucked into the coolest job in the world, then figured out he really wanted to be an actor, right around the time he couldn’t be one anymore–is central to the whole enterprise.

Westlake refers more than once to The Rockford Files and Magnum P.I. in the books.   The former series he has Holt call ‘The Gold Standard’ and that it was.  But Holt is closer to being a Tom Selleck type–his character, Packard, was too much of a Lance White (seen up top)–Stephen J. Cannell’s brilliant parody of over-idealized TV detectives (the very kind that made Cannell a rich man) who Rockford had to perennially contend with, which had the added benefit of making Rockford seem realistic by comparison.

And Holt recognizes that (as a Rockford fan, he doubtless remembers the Lance White eps all too well), hates it, wants to escape that into some more valid form of self-expression, but who’s ever going to let him break out of the typecasting?  And who knew more about typecasting than Donald Westlake?  Okay, maybe Tom Selleck, but I’m not sure it ever bothered him as much as it does Holt and (in a different way) his creator.

Depth of character may not in fact be a professional advantage for an actor or a writer.  Why can’t Sam Holt get another acting job?  Why couldn’t Donald Westlake ever write a best selling novel, or get people to fully accept the novels that didn’t fit his proper genre cubbyhole?   But point is, he kept writing novels, and not just as Westlake.  Actors have a more difficult time disguising themselves than writers do (hard as the best of them work at it).

The realization Holt is reaching for and never quite gets to is that there are no small parts–that he has to let his stardom go somehow, if he wants to truly join his chosen profession.  And much as he enjoys the celebrity (both an advantage and a handicap when it comes to solving mysteries), you wouldn’t think it would be so hard for such a smart guy, not hampered by deep depression like Tobin, to figure this out.

That’s one reason the books all take place in a rather unrealistically short time period.  One over-the-top escapade after another, self-consciously parroting and rationalizing various conventions of the mystery form (like the Grofields), distracting him from the choices he has to make, while at the same time forcing him to notice very real problems in the world that make his own troubles look shallow and silly.  How could that be sustained over a long series?  It couldn’t.  Another reason to pull the plug.   And blame the publisher.  Who should have kept his word.

But even if that had happened, if the secret had been kept for a year or three, the books still wouldn’t have worked, I think.  Westlake wanted to go incognito again, yes–disappear into another persona,  as he had with Stark, but this wasn’t the way.  He’d have to do it on the up and up, and that nettle would be grasped, when the time was right.  Because unlike Samuel Holt, Donald E. Westlake was a consummate professional before anybody knew who he was–he’d worked hard and long for everything he’d accomplished, and sure there was luck involved, but he was ready for it when it came.  The failure of this series was a setback, but it didn’t set him back for very long.

So why bother to review all four books, one at a time, as I am now preparing to do?   Well, that is the mission statement of this blog.  Review everything.  But fact is, I like these books.  I see their weaknesses, the fundamental flaws of their premise and protagonist, and I still like them.  I enjoyed reading them the first time, and I’m enjoying them again now.  They contain many valuable insights, about fiction and life, and the myriad ways that each acts upon the other.  What we are, and what we think we should be.

So standing here in the sadly neglected Holt Wing of the Westlake Museum, let us ring back the curtains, open up the windows, let in some fresh air and light, grab some of those hors d’oeuvres (still good after all these years, Robinson’s a marvel), and take those two enchanting boxers for a long-delayed romp.  They’ve earned it.  So have we.  Books are made to be read, as life is made to be lived.  Let’s see what you have to teach us, melancholy Prince of Bel Air.  Damn, that’s copyrighted, isn’t it?  Oh well, let the lawyers figure it out.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Samuel Holt Novels, Tucker Coe

46 responses to “Mr. Westlake and The TV Detective

  1. When Westlake first set up the web site, and for many years afterwards, the Sam Holt books were not included in his bibliography. He listed the Coes and the Starks (and even the Marshalls, the Wests, and the Clarks), but not the Holts. It was a curious omission. I had discovered Sam Holt via my library, whose card catalog listed him as a pseudonym for Westlake, but I was troubled by my inability to verify via Westlake’s site. Still, when I actually looked at the books, there was no doubt. The blurbs on the back were from Lawrence Block and Joe Gores, who go along with the conceit that Holt is a real person, but still drop clues (including Gores’ use of the phrase “God save the mark” in his praise). I’ll always wonder if I could have doped out the author’s real ID if I hadn’t already been pointed in that direction. I think I likely would have, because it just sounds so much like Westlake, doesn’t it?

    I haven’t read Westlake’s intro to the reprints (though I’d like to), but I did come across an Amazon review of One of Us is Wrong that suggested that there was a fifth Sam Holt book planned, this one involving an ex-astronaut. I haven’t been able to independently verify that. Does he mention this in his intro?

    The initial omission of Holt from Westlake’s “official” bibliography also made wonder, somewhat idly, if there were other, more carefully hidden pseudonyms out there. Unlikely, I know, but it would make for a remarkable discovery, wouldn’t it?

    • I think ultimately he felt guilty at the way he treated poor Sam. Westlake had, as we’ve previously discussed, a real god complex when it came to his fictional children–he could be cruel to them at times. But he wanted to treat them fairly, give them a chance. Sam Holt might have failed in the end to resolve his conflicts, but because Westlake was so upset at the way the series had turned out, whether it was the blabbermouth publisher or the fact that the books themselves had been a bit disappointing, he never gave him a chance to try–just clapped Sam in coventry, and kept him there a hell of a long time.

      At the end of his life, he apparently found the will to reread them, and decided hey, not so bad after all. And they’re really not. But they’re not great either. I will not be saying they are lost masterpieces. They all got published, so not lost at all.

      That intro is short, though. Not even two full pages long. He wrote it maybe two years before he died. Settling up accounts.

      He does talk about the two books he had in the planning stages that were scrapped–You Have Five Seconds to Live was going to be, as you say, about Holt meeting a former astronaut, and the idea was that neither of them could do what he was known for doing anymore (except anybody can be an actor if he or she wants to badly enough–there’s no such thing as the straw hat circuit for space exploration. No NASA equivalent of amateur theatricals).

      He could not remember by that point in time what Now I Am Six And Clever As Clever was going to be about. I don’t see much chance of future literary scholars trying to piece it together through forensic analysis, either.

      The more you look at the circumstances of publication, the harder it is to believe that he really believed nobody would know it was him. Lots of people would have known right off the bat. But to just kill the mystery before people even had a chance to try and solve it–that would have irritated him a great deal.

      And all that being said, I still think the main reason he stopped writing the Holt books was that he realized they weren’t turning out as well as hoped. They suffer very badly in comparison with the Coes, and of course he was making that comparison. And probably a bit angry at himself for going over old territory again–he may have actually allowed himself to believe he could improve on Tobin–he’d certainly learned a great deal about writing since then. But he’d lost that early spontaneity and energy that comes from youth, from the spirit of a more turbulent era, the sense of discovery.

      He was still in love with writing, but not the way he had once been. He had to find a way to express that love in more mature terms. Because not even Donald Westlake could roll back the clock. He was in his 50’s now. And man, let me just tell you, it sucks. But you have to work with it. Not against it. His best protagonists from now on would not be young men.

      The author’s version of a mid-life crisis. Instead of buying a Porsche, he created a protagonist who looked good in one, complete with a blonde who looked even better (actually, they were both blondes, as the third book revealed, and I kind of hate that). And maybe that’s what really bugged him about being outed as Holt–people connecting the handsome young hero with the guy he saw in the mirror every morning. Writers and readers often have one thing in common–they don’t like being reminded that their stories are stories–and yet that’s precisely what the Holts do, which is why you can never fully immerse yourself in them, as you do with a Parker novel. There’s always that ironic detachment from the material.

      A failed experiment can still teach you things. Most of all, about the person conducting the experiment.

    • PaperbackFilmProjector

      Just a quick correction: Westlake never included the Alan Marshall books in his website filmography — those titles were added after Westlake passed away by his son Paul. And yet from what I recall, he always had the Edwin West books on that list (I found it strange that he would admit to writing those books but not the Marshall titles). When I wrote a fan letter to the author in ’94 or ’95 and mentioned the Holt books, Westlake’s response was something like “Those are somebody else’s problem,” so at that point he was still denying he was the author.

  2. rinaldo302

    Wow, I love this article, Fred. And that last comment of yours, too. This is surely the most that Sam Holt has been written about, ever — and even if someone else rivals it in length someday, it’s likely to remain the most in-depth and insightful look at what he was all about. I really enjoyed reading it, and for once I have nothing to add. (That will change once we get to the actual books, I imagine.)

    Oh… except that encountering him at this point upsets my internal chronology-meter a bit. Because I didn’t hear about Holt until over a decade later, so my wait for “the new Westlake,” unsatisfied by that Hi Jinx (etc.) business, had to wait for the appearance of the Weekly Galaxy, which some part of me thinks of as “the next one.” So this’ll be a fun readjustment.

    • Which is probably the most interesting comment to date, because it bears out my suspicions–the average Westlake reader–and of course many far above-average readers such as yourself, rinaldo (deftly handled there, Fred)–never had any freakin’ clue Samuel Holt was really Donald Westlake, if they ever even heard of Holt to begin with.

      How many people would have just happened to wander into a bookstore and see some display touting the connection? Damned few. I’m sure most bookstores didn’t bother with any display. A popular writer he was, and is–but he’s not Stephen King. This isn’t Primary Colors. There was never going to be that much speculation, just some more informed people drawing accurate conclusions as to the authorship of the books, and everybody else just enjoying them on their merits (or not).

      And where were most people buying books in the Mid-80’s? B. Dalton. Barnes & Noble. Was Borders around by then? Mall stores. You can’t tell me most of them would have made a big fuss, or even paid attention to some memo from the publisher about who the author really was. Some minimum wage clerk would have tossed that away and stacked the books.

      And this makes how many pseudonyms now? Has anyone kept track? “Donald Westlake has written a mystery book under an assumed name. Alert the media.”

      So I think finding out about the publisher’s indiscretion simply served as the trigger mechanism–he was having doubts about these books before any of them saw print, probably. But he’d signed a contract, and he had to go through with it, and they might well have wanted more (mystery sells, and it’s a catchy concept for a series).

      So the publisher figured it would sell better if they outed him. And that he’d ultimately be grateful to them for making the sales better (I’d bet good money the foreign editions–and there were some–might not have happened if he wasn’t known to be the author). But he wasn’t, because perfectionist that he always was, he felt like he’d missed the mark. So methinks he did protest too much–because he needed an out. He knew he didn’t have a bunch more books to write about Holt, and he had to find a way to cut his losses and get out.

      Anyway, he was always very iffy about the whole detective subgenre to start with (he never returned to it after this). He liked it, and at the same time, he didn’t. He doubtless had second thoughts about bringing yet another sad sack shamus into the world, even while he was writing the books. But maybe he felt like he could do some things with this that he couldn’t do with the Coe books. And he could, but what he did with the Coes was better.

      You know how you can tell which are the best Westlakes, and which aren’t? If somebody like me can write the last word on a series of his, those are not the best ones. 😉

      • rinaldo302

        Ah, don’t sell yourself short there (the last paragraph). I think you’re covering the territory pretty darn well, all the way through.

        Anyway: In my case it was not having heard of Holt, plain and simple. I looked for my favorite authors when I found myself in a bookstore, and didn’t really explore the Mystery shelf systematically. Nor did I ask for help.

        But once, in the mid 1990s, a friend had a weekend free in Baltimore (an hour away from me) after a conference, so I joined her for a Saturday of showing-her-the-city. And lo and behold, as we wandered the back streets of Fells Point, what should we find but a mystery bookstore, a haven for both of us. And as we explored, the proprietor asked us what we were looking for, what we liked. I mentioned Westlake among others, and he pointed me to Holt, saying “They say he’s really Westlake.” So it was as accidental as that for me.

        • So even by the Mid-90’s, it was still largely rumor. The internet was a whole lot less informative then, as I recall. Google was not a thing (well, the project that became Google started in ’96), and since Wikipedia was launched in 2001, I think we can say with certainty there was no Westlake article there for anyone to check.

          And yet, that sounds like so much fun, the way you found the Holt books. So retro. I remember finding books that way. Legwork. Helpful clerks. Luck. Ah, Xanadu. 😦

          Might as well mention here (since I just could not find space for it in the main article) that two of my favorite writers other than Westlake achieved high notoriety for writing under pseudonyms that really were kept secret for some time.

          Before I started collecting Westlake, I was collecting James Tiptree Jr. (much less time-consuming, no less rewarding). The secret was out by then, but I remember reading anthologies as a kid that still assumed Tiptree was a guy (which is what you were supposed to assume, that was the point).


          Once she was ‘outed’ (sheesh, this is a crazy world we live in), she went on to write some very good science fiction–but somehow never quite as good as what she wrote as Tiptree (or Racoona Sheldon). The anonymity really helped bring out something special in her. Some writers need that mask to hide behind. Westlake not so much, but I doubt he could have written the Stark or Coe books under his own name.

          And the other thing–well, that was just the greatest literary practical joke of all time–Romain Gary, having won the Prix de Goncourt for The Roots of Heaven, decided he’d create a new persona, Emile Ajar (how did people not know that was a fake name?). And he won the Prix de Goncourt again! You’re only allowed to win it once! Gary killed himself (he never got over the death of Jean Seberg, and getting old sucks), and published a posthumous work, verifying that he was Ajar. Boy, was he ever. Great writer, though. Under any name. 😉

          • rinaldo302

            I was on the verge of appending a similar thought to my previous comment — how, really, would I have found out about Holt? At that date there was no instant technological source of knowledge. I was more up-to-date than many, having bought a Mac SE early on, and as an academic having had access to Usenet discussion groups; but a graphic interface was still pretty new at that date, a connection at home still not common, and online information still spotty in any case. Not much more than 20 years ago, and it’s another world.

            • And in that world, I can read everything Westlake wrote (pretty nearly), find out things I never could have before, publish over a hundred articles (we’ll see if I reach two hundred, wouldn’t rule it out), and people actually read them. Not a vast number of people, but I will say, I’ve been pleased with the general quality of the readership, not to mention how far-flung it is.

              So there are compensations, certainly. And yet. Xanadu. Adieu. 😐

  3. MartinD

    I’m pleased that you’re going to cover the Holt books. I can’t remember when I found the first of these books, but no one told me it was written by Westlake and I didn’t guess. Only slightly troubled by the lead character’s inability to find more acting work, I enjoyed the first enough to seek out the second; liked the second enough to hunt for the third. I found them light and breezy and very entertaining. I never knew there was a fourth volume until now (thank you!) but somewhere along the line I realized DEW was the author. Can’t really say what tipped me off but maybe it was the same kind of thing that alerted King readers to the true identity of Richard Bachman.

    I liked them quite a bit more than you did, apparently. If Hollywood wanted to make a series starring the character, I’d be clearing space on the DVR.

    • I go back and forth about how much I like them. Compared to the best of Westlake’s work, they’re not much. But entertaining they certainly are. And most definitely unique.

      Thing is, Westlake could be disparaging of the detective genre as a whole–he felt like everybody had to have a gimmick, and the gimmick ended up overshadowing character–a detective has a handicap of some kind, or some kind of unusual background, or a novel method of solving cases, or etc. With so many fictive detectives running around, the market rather demanded that there had to be something to set yours apart from the vast milling herd of gumshoes. And after a while, it got self-defeating.

      Tobin’s quirk–his depression–was so much a part of his character that it accentuated what Westlake felt this type of story did best. To some extent, he emulated this approach with Holt, but he couldn’t do a depressed detective again. So just a confused one–he’s reached a crossroads, and he doesn’t know which way to turn. He’s got everything a man is supposed to want (at least according to Penthouse Forum), and he’s not contented. Because he has no work to do. So Life gives him work to do, but it’s not the work he asked for. And it could get him killed. But he’s not bored by it. Say that much.

      So the question we have to ask is–is this a man who ought to be an actor? Does he really have the mind for it, the temperament? Would getting another series or a movie deal be a waste of a brain that can solve mysteries? But who the hell solves mysteries for a living? Only a mystery writer. And he (or she) knows the answers going in.

      And by the time of the last book, the answers are still unclear–because Westlake hadn’t really figured it out himself. He would have had to keep writing the books until the answer came to him, as it did with Tobin. But he didn’t want to write that many.

      I’m reading the third one now, and I have to say, it’s not very good–the weakest of the bunch. But the previous two impressed me on rereading, even though I felt both could have been a lot better. I remember the final installment straining at the limits of the formula somewhat. Anyway, four books, four reviews. Nobody has to agree with me. Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so. 😉

  4. rinaldo302

    That last comment stirred up a long-suppressed memory. I THINK I bought the third one on its own at some earlier point; I must have picked it up in a store and been attracted by it being set in the world of TV production. And then I apparently read it, was basically unimpressed, and got rid of it (probably included it in a batch of trade-ins to the local used book store). Maybe I didn’t realize that it was one of a series, or didn’t care. Plus I apparently was remarkably bad at picking up clues that it was by my favorite author.

    And THEN, some time later, learned about the Westlake connection and eventually acquired them all, including #3 again, at which point I saw that I’d owned it once before.

    • What I Tell You Three Times is False is absolutely the worst Holt to start with. It’s the Wax Apple in the bowl–the one that gets Sam away from his world, but unlike the third entry in the Tobin series, doesn’t force him to any major epiphanies about himself (you can feel Westlake starting to grow frustrated, as he realizes the epiphany may never come for this protagonist). Show people are interesting enough in their own way but a whole book about them cooped up in a scary house by themselves doesn’t really lend much insight to the human condition.

      There is one chapter in that one that I think ends up being a rather acute commentary on the entire series–and on popular culture as a whole–but it can wait.

    • I also started with the third one, because I’d seen it described as entertainingly meta (a mystery about actors who solve mysteries on TV in a real-life mystery), and was mostly bored by it. (Agatha Christie had already written And Then There Were None, and didn’t feel she had to load it up with improbably beautiful blondes and Asians.) And the conceit of Sam Holt books written by Sam Holt, who’s obviously a fictional character made (and makes) no sense to me, and in fact makes Holt seem like even more of a contrivance than he already is: Tall! Handsome! Charming! Rich! Not one, but two incredible women! But unhappy, because Hollywood has no use for tall, handsome, charming guys. (Would it be redundant at this point to say that I’m not a fan?)

      The first and second are not quite so bad, but not good. I’ve never read the fourth. I suppose I’ll do that for the review, if only so that I can complain about it.

      • It’s a very odd conceit, having the name of the author be the same as the name of the character, who’s clearly fictional because he’s also supposed to be a famous TV star, but no such TV star exists.

        I can think of a couple of (sort-of) equivalents. Singer-songwriter Kinky Friedman has written a series of mystery novels starring singer-songwriter Kinky Friedman as the crime-solver. And actor Richard Belzer (from Homicide and Law & Order SVU, etc.) has written a series of (well, two) mystery novels starring actor Richard Belzer as the crime-solver. But in both of those cases, the real-life version of the character actually exists.

        Sam Holt as an author is an obvious fiction from the get-go.

        • rinaldo302

          “It’s a very odd conceit, having the name of the author be the same as the name of the character . . .I can think of a couple of (sort-of) equivalents.”

          Ellery Queen?

        • People who had no idea who wrote the books still knew, if they had a brain in their heads, that it was an experienced and extremely talented author writing them.

          I mean, I suppose the conceit could be that Sam, seeing himself as a writer as well as an actor, has found himself a second career writing about his post-Packard misadventures. But does that really work either? And wouldn’t he be opening himself up to various lawsuits from other involved parties? It’s not like he could remember what everybody said, word for word. No, this is that particular type of first-person narrative that you’re not supposed to take that literally. Like Jim Thompson’s dead protagonists telling some sympathetic demon how they met their grim fates, before passing into the fiery furnace. Hmm–Westlake did write a sort of obituary for Sam in a Non-Holt novel. But then he took it back. Or did he? 😉

      • rinaldo302

        I found three of the books on my basement shelves last night (haven’t located #2 yet, but it’s in there somewhere — the Holts have migrated away from, or maybe were never on, the Westlake shelf). Just a chapter into it, I find a Great Big Problem already astutely pointed out by Fred: this guy has just become a huge TV star, and he can’t find one acting job?

        It just doesn’t work that way. We can tell Westlake knows it doesn’t, because he tries to justify it (“if only I had been doing other roles while the series was running…”), but even so, it doesn’t work. Ripoffs of his TV persona, sure; shlocky dumb ideas, yes; but something would be on offer. Selleck never got a movie part as successful as Magnum, but he was able to keep making movies as often as he cared to. And so on.

        I know we who enjoy light fiction of this type are used to swallowing improbable premises, but I think they have to meet us partway better than this one.

        • The way he tries to justify it is that Sam never took any other acting jobs while he was working on Packard. Garner and Selleck did, so they were not known only for their TV roles (Garner, of course, was a major star long before Rockford came along, but he did become famous on television–then returned to it after his hit-or-miss film career began to falter–it was The Rockford Files, springing from the corpse of the stillborn TV western satire Nichols, that proved to be his crowning achievement).

          But it still doesn’t work. Holt is really really famous. He’s young. He’s handsome. Everybody knows him. His show is constantly in repeats. At the bare minimum, somebody should have offered him a pilot. I mean, he’s foiling terrorists, solving mysteries–how is he not the toast of both coasts? His phone should be ringing off the hook.

          Westlake wanted to create a personal problem for Holt, as he did for Tobin. This one is closer to Nick Charles’ problem. But like Nick Charles’ problem, it’s got a fundamental flaw–Nick Charles can go back to being a detective anytime he wants to. He just decided not to, because he married a beautiful heiress, and it’s not necessary for him to work at anything other than managing her estate and drinking himself to death. Nick Charles’ problem is just an analogy for the very real problem Dashiell Hammett himself was having, which is that having left his detective life behind years before to write fiction based on it, he was running out of material. And he wasn’t the kind of writer who could fake it.

          Sam Holt, in reality, would be able to be an actor. How good an actor, how successful, how able to separate himself from the role people know him for–that’s another matter. Maybe he’d fail miserably at finding a second act, but he’d certainly be given a chance to find it. And Westlake knew that as well as we do, but he let himself think he could write around it. And of course, this is also based on a problem of the writer’s–Westlake felt like nobody wanted to read anything he wrote that wasn’t in a certain vein. He wrote the books, he published them, and they sort of died on the vine, unless they were Dortmunder or Parker or Nephew farces or something like that. And all that was left to him of those three was Dortmunder by this point in time.

          So he also felt trapped, frozen in time, knowing what he wanted to do, having a hard time finding new ways to do it. That’s the point of identification between him and the character, but can it work as the basis for a long-running series? I’ve already given my answer.

  5. rinaldo302

    Even after I was told who the author was, I didn’t know why this series or pseudonym existed (I don’t think there was anything in print about that until the introduction you mentioned, which came later, so there was no way for me to know). Trying to recall my state of mind back then, I think I concluded that he must have had a series idea that he found usable, but not up to his usual standard, so he sold it under a different name. That was how it struck me, apparently.

    • This is an interesting area we’ve wandered into here–how did you first discover Westlake? When did you first become aware he wrote under other names? With the Holts? You’ve mentioned not being crazy about Stark, but clearly that means you did read some Stark.

      Myself, I began with the Starks (after becoming weirdly addicted to watching Payback on cable, and then Point Blank, and then I found we had a few Parker novels here at the library). I read all of them (so much online shopping) before I moved on to the Coes. Only then did I start reading Westlake. Almost grudgingly, wishing he’d stuck to the hard stuff. But in many ways I ended up liking Westlake best. Not in all ways.

      At a certain point, I became a completist, and that meant I had to read Holt as well.

      • rinaldo302

        Did I say I wasn’t crazy about Stark? I guess I must have, and relative to the other two main names I suppose it’s true, but I still acquired the series as I could (paperbacks in used-book stores — no internet buying then!).

        As to the main question you propose: that’s an interesting one, and I’m not sure I can come up with a reliable answer, short of hypnotic regression. But Westlake came first, definitely.

        I remember, in my undergrad years in the late 60s, reading a review of his newest book in (of all things!) the student newspaper. He liked the new title but found it not quite as satisfying as the previous one, The Spy in the Ointment, so this must have been God Save the Mark. But what came next in terms of actually reading any of them myself… that’s a little foggier.

        I think I must have looked in our suburban-Chicago public library when I was home next. Good for me if I remembered the author’s name! but I may have found him by title in the card catalogue. Which led me to his early “straight” crime novels (not that interesting for me), plus Pigeon, Spy, Mark, and Sassi. So that led me to keeping an eye out for new titles in stores — probably paperback racks in drugstores (remember when those were huge?) rather than “real” bookstores. And once we hit The Hot Rock, I was hooked.

        • The Hot Rock was really where his comic stylings hit pay dirt–it didn’t come together all at once, as it did with The Hunter (though of course he’d written a few dark bloody books before that one as well).

          I started my first review on this blog in a drugstore, so yeah–I remember. I’m even old enough to remember actually being in those drugstores. You ever notice how Coca-Cola has never tasted as good as it did at a drugstore lunch counter? Or a Woolworth’s, same thing. I was always looking at paperbacks on those racks (and comic books), but sadly no Westlakes or Starks (the paperback original phase of Westlake’s career was mainly over by the late 60’s, and I’m not that old). For me, this reading has all been concentrated into a few short years, and this blog is the result.

          I’ve always done this–get obsessed with a writer, then go around trying to find everything he or she wrote. It just used to be a lot more time-consuming finding the books (of course, with those other writers, there were never so many books). Now I can do it with a few clicks of a mouse button. Am I richer or poorer for this? I can’t decide. Well, decidedly poorer from a financial standpoint, since the books still cost money. Though you do get some real bargains online. Which get balanced out by the more expensive collectible stuff.

          I’ve found a handful of Westlakes in physical bookstores, used copies obviously. Getting so hard to find any good bookstores in New York, and that’s partly the competition from the internet, but it’s also that the rents are too damn high.

          I must have walked right past books of his in the various stores I frequented when I was young. I don’t know how many times. You see what you’re prepared to see, nothing more. Anyway, I guess I owe Mel Gibson a vote of thanks for making that silly Payback movie. Honestly, I only watched it so many times because the dialogue (ripped straight from the book) was so fucking cool, and Maria Bello is so fucking hot. 😉

          • > Find anything he ever wrote.

            Me too. Not Westlake, as it happens — at least, I didn’t read the Mitch Tobin books until recently, and as I mentioned, still haven’t read all the Holts. But Asimov (at least all his fiction), Heinlein, Mark Twain, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Wodehouse, Fitzgerald, A lot of Bierce, though probably not all of him. Likely some I’ve forgotten.

            Also, all of Dumas’s Musketeer books. Before the Web, it was even hard to figure out which ones those were.

            • Never did get around to Dumas for the most part. Though I’ve seen the movies. And the Classics Comics. There’s not that much Fitzgerald, so he didn’t take long (some of it was a bit of a chore to get through–he had a weakness for melodrama). Steinbeck is special, isn’t he? Of course, they made you read him in school, but I never minded. Don’t think I read Cannery Row, though. They don’t make you read that one in school, for some reason. 😐

              Faulkner is on my to do list–I started with The Sound and the Fury in middle school. Wasn’t ready for that yet. Bierce I’ve certainly read all the important stuff, but he wrote some odd things that were really hard to find–I tried. Now it’d probably be much easier. But I’ve moved on to other names.

              For a while there I was trying to read all of Andre Norton. That’s a bit like scaling Everest. Also, her work can get repetitive after a while, but I like her themes–she only had so many plots to get them across, but she just kept on writing–some writers hate repeating themselves, others don’t let it bother them. Still have to finish reading Philip K. Dick. He never repeated himself. There was a writer with too many ideas, if such a thing is possible.

              I did manage to read all of Tiptree–I donated some of those books to the library I work at, because we had several books about her, and no books by her. I’d assume that’s because she’s an important figure in feminist studies, because she wrote as a man for a while, and dealt with gender issues in various innovative ways. So in certain classes, it’s important to study certain details of her life, but not as much to read her personal expressions of that experience, which are just science fiction, after all.

              That’s something that aggravates me–people getting focused on a writer being a woman, or black, or queer–and ignoring his or her work in the process of obsessing over ‘identity’–by which they mean the opposite of what identity is supposed to mean. Lumping that utterly unique individual into a group for political reasons. Sure, it’s part of the puzzle–but it’s just one piece. See the whole person. Truth is, he or she may have more in common with certain individuals belonging to entirely different groups. Convergent evolution.

              It happens with mystery authors too. Himes, Highsmith, etc. I’ve made a lot of progress with the former, still haven’t read much of the latter. I’ve read most of Jim Thompson–I feel like I might not need to read all of him. Nearly done with Goodis. And Willeford. I got interested in all five reading that Library of America anthology of crime fiction of the 1950’s. Many connections with Westlake. I’ll get to that here at some point, once I’ve done a lot more reading.

              • Don’t think I read Cannery Row, though.

                That’s probably the one I’d most recommend. I mean, everyone should read The Grapes of Wrath once, but you can read Cannery Row over and over.

  6. rinaldo302

    “I’ve always done this–get obsessed with a writer, then go around trying to find everything he or she wrote.” Me too. I did it with Agatha Christie, I did it with John Dickson Carr under both his names (a harder task, as despite the occasional reissue plan, at any given moment most of his stuff has always been out of print), I did it with Josephine Tey (very easy as she stays in print and there are only 8 titles). I found that it wasn’t a good idea (for me) to do that with Rex Stout. One book at a time, delightful; but if I start one the next day, it becomes obvious how similar in pattern they are, and more importantly how similar the pleasures are that each book provides.

    • I don’t normally do it with mystery writers. The Holmes stories, of course–but they don’t take that long to cover. Normally my obsession would be with someone in a different genre–science fiction, fantasy, horror–or somebody who really defies the normal pigeonholes, and yet is somehow genre-related.

      Shirley Jackson comes to mind–I knew about her, had seen the movie based on The Haunting (great film, don’t find it even the least bit scary), and I might have gone the rest of my life without reading her. Then I came across a copy of The Bird’s Nest being sold from a folding table on a Bronx sidewalk. By the time I was done, I knew I had find out who she was–and that’s what this type of writer obsession means, at least to me–understanding the writer. Understanding what the writer is trying to share with you. The insights of a lifetime, boiled into words on a page.

      So I read her short stories, which is what many admire her most for, but they were a bit too New Yorker (which you’d think would be the case, after all). But the novels–so few–and so powerful. Every one different. Every one about the mortal dangers involved in looking too deeply into yourself, into the many selves within yourself. And the rewards. I also read her non-fiction stuff, about her family in Vermont, which provided perspective. A great writer. But no more so than Westlake. They went at it differently, but they covered some of the same ground.

  7. It was not clear to me that Bly was aware of Anita, at least through the first couple of books. It was perfectly clear that Anita was always aware of Bly, but I don’t think Bly ever acknowledges Anita’s existence (maybe in the third book; I can’t remember). For that reason it seemed to me that Sam was more honest and more “himself” with Anita. It’s interesting that his cranky butler is steadfastly team Bly, even after his professional dust-up with her, but I guess show folk have to stick together.

    • It’s made clear in the first book that Anita and Bly are both very aware of each other, and of the fact that Sam is regularly sleeping with both of them. Celebrities have certain options mere mortals do not get to exercise–as do exceptionally good looking people. He’s both. It’s an unusual arrangement, but I will bet you Westlake had heard of similar ones when he was hanging out in Hollywood.

      And far stranger domestic arrangements have existed–I mean, did you ever read about the home life of the guy who created Wonder Woman?

      Sam’s honest about it. When he’s with one of them, he’s just with her (and yet, he tells us that whichever one he’s with at a given time, he misses the other–not a good sign for his future, methinks). I think each of his girls figures that she’s got a chance of ending up with him, but if not, a good time was had by all. Neither is primarily concerned with catching a husband. But I think they’re both in love with him–and he’s quite clearly in love with both of them. And I really would like to know how (or if) Westlake would have further developed this, if the series had run a while longer.

      I am forced to recall what F. Scott Fitzgerald told Ernest Hemingway, when he found out Hemingway was cheating on his wife Hadley with Pauline Pfeiffer, and somehow imagining he could have both of them. Fitzgerald said he’d lose both of them. And eventually, that did come to pass, though not quite the way Fitzgerald thought. Hemingway had fun, but he also had regrets that he took to his grave. One foot in sea, and one on shore, to one thing constant never.

      Sam doesn’t lead either of them on, and if he ever married one of them, or made any serious commitment, he’d be monogamous, I think. In a sense, he is monogamous–in the second book we’re told that Anita would never put up with him seeing anybody else on the east coast, and he takes that very seriously. Bly presumably has similar rules for the West Coast, but I don’t think Sam feels like he could handle more than these two. Not clear if he could have a girl in Chicago…..I suppose that would be one for the bylaws committee.

      Sam has his problems, but he’s not some lying two-timing philandering actor with a girl in every port. Because Westlake had already written those books, and I’ve already reviewed them. 😉

      • I don’t recall that about Bly, but I certainly trust you. Regardless, Anita seems to reference Bly in conversation (“the tennis player”) far more that Bly references Anita. Or maybe I’m misremembering that as well.

        • No, I referenced that as well. Anita talks a bit disparagingly about Bly, but also has no problem telling Sam to take Bly to that island with him. Bly would never be so blithe in the other direction.

          Bly is better educated than Anita, more sophisticated, more self aware–and much less secure. Because Anita isn’t in showbiz. She knows who she is, and that I think is the main reason Sam would ultimately dump Bly for her, if she’d agree to make their arrangement more serious. He sees in Anita what he himself lacks. A writer, like an actor, is always a work in progress. And Sam is both.

  8. Ray Garraty

    It’s probably a myth, but I think in the first half of 20th century actors (TV and film) were a pretty dumb crowd which could barely write their own names, certainly not books. I can only assume that the situation changed in the second half, actors became more intelligent, some even got college degrees. Still: how many actors you know who can write a novel without any help from ghost writers? I know one, David Duchovny. (Hayden has written memoir, not novel.)

    • David Duchovny pretty much defines the actor who got trapped in a role–but unlike Sam, he keeps crawling back to it, and it’s worse every time. His father was a novelist as well. I don’t feel much need to read either of them. I’m still mad about what he let them do to his character. No integrity. And quite honestly, probably a better writer than actor. And he has not improved with age.

      It’s definitely a myth, what you said–actors have always been a mixed bunch, in terms of intelligence and writing ability. Might I remind you, this article begins with a quote from an actor. Quite a well-known one, in his day.

      If anything, I’d say the generation from the first half of the century was smarter (at least the ones that came to prominence). For one thing, there was much less emphasis on perfect good looks, particularly for men–you think James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, or Edward G. Robinson could have been major stars (and not just in comedies) today? Bette Davis was a pretty girl, hardly a raving beauty. Barbara Stanwyck was a looker when she was young, but would anybody look twice today?

      It was their intelligence, projected through their acting, that made them stars. Even the handsome ones–say Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster–could be very smart, as well as driven to control their careers. But of course there’s always been actors who were shallow people–plenty of non-actors as well, wouldn’t you say?

      And I never heard of any illiterate film or theater actors. You have to be literate to read a script, not just to write one.

      I’d draw a distinction between people who get into acting mainly because they want to be rich and famous, and people who get into acting because there’s something inside of them that has to be expressed, and this is the path they choose.

      Sam Holt’s problem is that he thought he was the first type, and he turned out to be the second. He had a good mind all the while, but he never found anything to focus it on, and he could coast so easily on his looks, he never had to. I do feel like Westlake made him better-educated than he should plausibly be, given his background. We’re never told (as with Tobin) that he’s a voracious reader. But obviously he’s a quick study, and surrounded by people who are well-educated (like Bly) he became a cultured person.

      Westlake himself never got a college degree. I think we’ll have to concede he was literate. He worked as an actor for a while. And if he’d been tall and handsome, we’d have missed out on a lot of good books. I’m not convinced the same holds true for Mr. Duchovny, but I suppose I’m biased. I may get over what happened to The X-Files. Someday. 😐

      PS: Are we taking it as a given that fiction writers, as a group, are all exceptionally intelligent people? Honestly, I think Donald Westlake had one of the keenest brains I’ve ever encountered in all of literature–sometimes it may have been a professional handicap, I think–a lot of his most telling observations come in his worst books. You don’t have to be a genius to write good mysteries.

      One of my first favorites, Ray Bradbury (a great great prose stylist, brilliant imagination), was guilty of some extraordinarily vapid silly public utterances later in life–he was, to put it politely, a fool–like King Lear, a magnificent soul trapped in a puerile intellect. Intelligence is the most complicated thing there is–everyone’s a fool about something. We can see some things very clearly, and other things not at all. And the more specialized our gifts, the more hopeless we are at everything else.

      As a general rule, just as the best people always think of themselves as the worst, the smartest people often think of themselves as idiots. You have to know how much you don’t know. It has to irritate you. A lot.

      • Ray Garraty

        We always should separate what a writer says in his books and what he says in public. If a writer is plain dumb, he can sour your experience of reading his books. It can spoil the fun. Sometimes it’s just impossible not to know about author’s political position or his views on something.
        I’m not sure if actors in the past were smarter. They had more freedom, I think. Now they so depend on TV and movie companies, they are not free at what to say in public. They’re all correctness, that is damaging to artistic creativity. Probably having a lot of money from acting also didn’t help: if you are hungry and not getting enough money from acting, then you should hustle, do something else, write books, for example. Now they can just hire a ghost, if they want more fame.

        • Again, I think the opposite is true–Sterling Hayden was a very very atypical actor of his time period (Mitchum was the same). Back then, in heydey of the old studio system, actors were much less inclined to speak their minds in public, or show a rebellious streak, because they were all owned by the big studios. Even their personal lives were not always their own. Now big stars can pretty much do what they please, often own their own production shingles, and arguably have more power than the studios, at least as long as people keep coming to see them. Much more common now for them to speak out on issues that matter to them. Some do it more intelligently than others, to say the least.

          So why were the big stars of the past more complex interesting people a lot of the time? I think mainly because they were more likely to have a strong background in theater, to have fought in wars, to have been abroad, to have worked a variety of occupations. Now the business tends to get them young, and screen acting is all they know. But their position in life encourages them to act as if they know everything. The smart ones are, more often than not, the ones that are very careful about speaking out, using their celebrity to further agendas. They’re smart enough to know how much they don’t know. And others never figure that out. Yeah, looking at you, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.

          To get this back on-topic, Westlake obviously noticed this trend developing in the 80’s, and he’s made Holt sort of in the middle of these two types of star–he did serve in the military, he was overseas, he worked as a cop–but very briefly–he was spotted as a potential prospect in his 20’s–based entirely on his looks–and got drafted into the entertainment industry, you might say. And it just happened he had a good mind he’d never done much with, but he might just as easily have been a fairly shallow person. I think actually one of the things Westlake may be saying about him is that in some ways he’s not shallow enough to make it as an actor. It’s not about being deep, it’s about LOOKING deep.

          And of course we should separate a writer’s work from what he or she is like in person. Work always has to be judged in its own right–same’s true for actors, or any artist. Or any person, really. But it cuts both ways–we shouldn’t assume somebody isn’t really good at his job because he or she says or does something stupid. But we also shouldn’t assume being really good at your job means that what you’re saying or doing is smart. Like, for example, if somebody had a really cool book blog that is full of sage insightful observations about life and literature. That guy might still be dumb as a post. I name no names. 😐

  9. Richard

    Drifting away from Westlake for the moment….

    Like you, I enjoyed Ray Bradbury’s fiction when I was oh-so-much younger. I can’t agree that he was a fool because that wasn’t my experience. I didn’t read or hear whatever “vapid silly public utterances” he offered; I don’t disagree that these might have happened, but I don’t know them. What I remember best is the kindness he showed to me as a fan, responding promptly when I wrote him (snail mail, of course) and even sitting for an interview with me and my friend. Years later, when I went to my one and only science fiction convention, I came across him again. Watching him from afar, I saw how warm and friendly he was to the people around him.

    Rather than search for whatever foolish things he might have said, I think I’d prefer to remind him in that way.

    And, to my mind, the best of The X-Files was terrific but so much of the rest of the show was ordinary. But Duchovny was never the force behind the series, and it seems unfair to blame him for it.

    • You know, there’s really no point having a blog if you don’t get to be an opinionated a-hole at least now and again………

      I never met Ray Bradbury, and I’d have loved to–I never said he wasn’t a nice guy–that was certainly my impression, that he was a wonderful person to know. Personally, I mean. I met Harlan Ellison once at a bookstore (along with a hundred or so other people), and he was exactly what I would have thought him to be from reading his books. Say this for Harlan, he never disappoints. How smart you are, and how nice you are–two different things. But he never pretended to be nice, and most of the time he’s an a-hole to people who deserve it.

      When it came to politics, current events, etc, Bradbury mainly seemed very confused and more than a bit cranky–he wanted lower taxes and missions to Mars. He thought Bush was doing a great job (all the way through his Presidency!), he adored Reagan, he was viciously disparaging of liberal Presidents, and this was his right, and it’s my right to say he was an utter fool when it came to anything other than crafting beautiful assortments of words about fantastic goings-on–any wisdom that was in him was expressed through that medium, and no other. If it makes you feel any better, I think the same thing about William Butler Yeats. I would think that would make him feel better (Bradbury, I mean, Yeats would probably be offended by the comparison), but it’s not for me to say.

      He may not always have been like that–a lot of people who were liberals in their youth become conservatives as they age–some go the other direction, like my dad (and conservatives can be smart, it’s just that so many these days seem not to exercise that option). We’ll have to talk about that with regards to Westlake was well, but it’s a different story with Westlake–he was a lot more careful about exposing himself in this way, with one major exception. He was so much smarter than Bradbury, it’s not even a conversation. It’s very hard to take Westlake’s measure. I think I’m smarter than Ray Bradbury ever was. I know I’m not as smart as Donald Westlake was.

      I never saw anything in Bradbury’s fiction–even his stories about race prejudice–that indicated a very good understanding of social realities–that wasn’t really what he wrote about. We all have our areas of strength, and then there are those other areas. He also didn’t know much about science, but now I’m just being nitpicky. You don’t have to know science to write science fiction!

      I’ve said all I ever intend to say on this blog about Duchovny or The X-Files. I not only regret mentioning them, I regret knowing of their very existence. 🙂

      • I talked to Ellison on the phone once. He had put out a public request for anyone who owned a particular edition of one of his books to call him (collect!). My guess is that Harlan thought he was being screwed on royalties. I did own that book, so I called him, and it went something like this:


        “Hi, this is Harlan. Who’s this?”

        “Hi, my names’s Mike. I own a copy of [whatever it was].”

        “Hey, didn’t I tell you guys to call collect?”

        “It’s OK, I’m calling from work.”

        “In that case fuck them.”

        That last said in great good humor — we were conspiring against The Man. We established pretty quickly that it wasn’t the right edition, but we still talked for about fifteen minutes, Harlan being funny and entertaining the whole time.

        • Yeah, he doesn’t come across as an angry person when you talk to him, but that’s probably because he has so many other outlets for his anger. A cathartic lifestyle has its advantages.

  10. So you’ll note above that I infer that Westlake got the name of Sam’s TV character, Jack Packard, from his affection for a defunct brand of automobile?

    I just happened across an old movie, that led me to an old radio show, and now I’m thinking not.

    Going by the story and character descriptions, no direct influence, other than the name. But he probably would have listened to those radio shows as a kid.

    Again, not worth its own article–I’m done with Holt. But gives you an idea how many obscure references like this could be buried in the Westlake Museum, and what are the odds we’ll ever spot them all?

    (editing) I watched The Devil’s Mask(1946), recorded off an old people’s cable channel, one of three movies derived from the radio series, and even though Jim Bannon, who played Jack Packard, was only 6’2, given the average height of movie actors back then, he looks 6’6. Other than that, I can’t see any influence at all. I doubt Westlake remembered these stories very well.

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