Review: I Know A Trick Worth Two Of That


Walking to the taffrail, I was in time to make out, on the very edge of a darkness thrown by a towering black mass like the very gateway of Erebus—yes, I was in time to catch an evanescent glimpse of my white hat left behind to mark the spot where the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.

From The Secret Sharer, by Joseph Conrad.

 This table is set for twelve,” she said.  “but there are thirteen of us.”

“One of us won’t be staying,” I said.

Well, I may be a mere television actor, lacking stage experience, but I do know how to deliver a good line.  I couldn’t have gotten more attention at that moment if I’d announced I was the reincarnation of Vishnu.  Everybody gaped at me, and Terry Young said, “You don’t mean it, Sam?  You cracked the goddam thing?”


Enjoy those three foreign editions of the first Holt novel I posted up top last week?  They’re going to have to tide you over a while, because the Official Westlake Blog has no more of the same to offer with regards to the other three books in this series.  I’ll have to make do with the Tor first editions and the much more recent Felony & Mayhem paperback reprints (which I cordially loathe, though they probably do give a fairly accurate if superficial rendition of how most people would have perceived the Holt novels).

Tor Books may have done Westlake the dirty in terms of not keeping the secret of who ‘Samuel Holt’ really was, and most of their covers for this series were just okay, but for this book they really outdid themselves–that’s a brilliant little bit of cover art, that tells you just enough about the story and sets the mood perfectly–whoever did it clearly read the book carefully (as opposed to whoever did the paperback reprint cover up top, though I suppose he did at least give us a fair rendition of Anita Imperato–Bly Quinn never made the cover–except are we supposed to believe Anita is almost as tall as Sam?  Those heels aren’t that high).

And in my estimation, this is the Holt book that most especially rewards the careful reader.  It’s my personal favorite of the bunch.  And it’s still just okay.  But Donald Westlake’s version of okay is several cuts above the average mystery writer’s best work.

The first novel had been a ‘mystery’ in the broader sense of the term–violent mysterious goings-on, questions that need to be answered, villains that must ultimately be dispatched, but it almost falls more under the heading of an espionage novel (or certain types of P.I. novel).

The remaining three books in the series, beginning with this, had unemployed actor Samuel Holt playing detective in the classic sense–somebody is dead, and he has to solve the murder.   He doesn’t want to–he’s a reluctant detective, like pretty nearly all of the Westlake sleuths.  He’s dragooned into it, a victim of circumstances, and he’s not really trained to be a detective–he just played one on TV.  So in each case, Westlake had to be innovative in terms of how he motivated his shy shamus.

A real weakness in this series, which I’m going to get out of the way now, and which I just know was bothering Westlake at the time, is that no matter how cunningly the author motivated his hero, there’s an underlying improbability to the whole thing that works for a television show–like Packard–but not so well for this.  Why does Mr. Holt keep getting into these situations?  And why does he never ask himself that question?

In the course of what seems to be less than a year (starting in winter) he foils a terrorist plot, then solves three completely unconnected incidences of murder relating to people he was acquainted with in one way or another.  I used to cruelly tease my poor mother about this kind of contrivance when it came to her favorite show, Murder She Wrote–clearly Jessica Fletcher was doing the murders herself–how else can you explain all the bodies dropping wherever she goes?   How else could her sleepy New England hamlet have a homicide rate that rivals Detroit?  Hmm, that question probably ties better into the book after this one, but let it go for now.

Since Sam is a TV star, trying desperately to escape the role everybody knows him for, in which his character was constantly running into unsolved murders, obviously this is more or less along the lines of “Magnum P.I. meets Pirandello.”  One character in search of an exit.  Somebody is playing a very extended practical joke on him, and we know who that is.  But he doesn’t.

It’s not just a joke, though–a mere satiric commentary on murder mystery conventions, such as we saw in A Travesty.  Westlake hated the way mysteries made light of murder, ignored its deeper emotional aspects, and generally comported themselves as if to say the detective could solve all problems in life by solving the conundrum of whodunnit.

He’d been making a similar commentary in the Tobin novels, but since Tobin was a former police detective who needed money to support his family while he diverted  himself from thoughts of suicide by building a wall in his backyard, it was easier to make the reader believe he could run into five murder mysteries over the course of a few years, and then solve them.  People would bring the mysteries to him, he’d try to come up with some excuse for not investigating them, but he’d always get dragged into it somehow, because Life just wouldn’t leave him alone to brood on his sins and dabble in masonry.

Sam is a rich TV actor with many highly pleasurable diversions (blonde and brunette), no family to support (he seems to have lost both his parents, only occasionally visits his remaining family in Long Island), and he has four mysteries to solve in less than one year.  The mysteries have to revolve around his career (or lack thereof) somehow.  So the first one comes from him knowing a TV writer in trouble.  And the second will likewise stem from a personal connection, somebody who needs his help.  The third and fourth will also stem from his professional limbo.

But it’s an inherently self-limiting premise.  And a writer of Westlake’s caliber couldn’t possibly be unaware of that.  A less exacting writer could have probably written dozens of Holts (Richard Prather wrote forty-one Shell Scott mysteries), and maybe there would have been an actual TV series based on them at some point, but Westlake wants these to be real books that really mean something.  Let’s see how he does with this one.

It all starts when Sam gets a call from somebody claiming to be Holton Hickey–Sam Holt’s real name.  Somebody from his past, obviously–and Sam realizes it has to be his old partner on the Mineola police force, Doug Walford.  But he doesn’t want to identify himself over the phone, for some reason–and he wants Sam to meet him in a spot way out on Long Island where they used to ‘coop’–take a nap in their squad car when they were supposed to be on duty.  Sam agrees to the meeting and the call ends.

(Walford is a name that crops up here and there in the Westlake canon–first appearance I know of was in Wax Apple, one of the Tobin mysteries.  There was a Walford in the previous Holt book as well.  I don’t know what the significance of it is for Westlake–in Wax Apple and this book it’s seemingly a reference to a road not taken and just as well it wasn’t–but as I’ve already mentioned, I think this was one of the many little hints Westlake put in the Holt books that were supposed to tip sharp-eyed readers off as to who really wrote them).

But before he goes out there for the meet, he’s got dinner plans at Anita’s restaurant, Vitto Impero, where he’s also dining with his reporter friend Terry Young (a columnist for the Daily News who got into a big fight with Sam when assigned to interview him, and that’s how they became chums), Terry’s German-born wife Gretchen (who Sam greatly admires and ze feeling is moochul), and his personal physician (when he’s in New York), Bill Ackerson, plus Bill’s date, who doesn’t really figure into anything.

So Sam has to make his excuses early to pick up a rental car and get out to the sticks, and Anita jokes lightly that he better not be ‘three-timing’ her.  She accepts his west coast relationship with Bly Quinn, because to a Manhattan girl like her, nothing that happens west of the Hudson really matters–if he was seeing somebody else on her turf, that would be something else again.  She’s kidding on the square, he realizes, and he can’t tell her where he’s going, or who he’s meeting up with.  But he still has to go.

So he gets out to the meeting place, and after waiting around a while, gets back in the car, feeling a bit disgusted with himself–and Doug’s been waiting in there for him, hiding in the back seat. He snuck in and waited for Sam to get bored.  He tells Sam to just start the car and take him back to the city.  He’s being that careful.  And Sam is the only person on earth he trusts now.

Trusts him enough to tell him the story while they’re driving back.  After he and Sam parted ways, he got a job offer from a private detective agency.  The work was interesting enough, certainly paid better than traffic cop, but in the course of doing an investigation for a woman looking to divorce her husband, he found out some things about the husband’s business he wasn’t supposed to find out.  The husband’s name is Frank Althorn, and he’s a rich businessman, owns casinos and such.  You see where Doug’s going with this.

Frank’s not technically mobbed up–his own hands are always lily white, because that’s his function–as Terry explains to Sam later, he’s the mob’s shabbas goy–a term that has to be explained to Sam, because he only grew up near the city not in it–in New York proper, most people pick up some Yiddish terms.  A shabbas goy is a non-Jew who is employed by strictly observant Jews to do things they’re not supposed to do on the Sabbath.  And Frank Althorn does things known members of the mafia can’t do at all (like operate casinos).

Doug can’t tell Sam a whole lot about it–truth is, he still doesn’t really know what he learned that was so dangerous, and he’s been trying to find out–but it’s to do with pharmaceuticals, the legal kind, that much he knows. The woman he was living with and her kid were killed when these people tried a hit on him.  He’s been running ever since.  His one-man crusade is wearing him down.  He needs to come in from the cold for a while.

So much to the displeasure of Robinson, Sam’s personal Jeeves (only not so helpful and much less forbearing), he becomes a long-term house guest, but as Robinson reminds Sam, he’s got a dinner party coming up there in a few weeks, and it won’t be possible to hide Doug from the other guests (it’s a townhouse, not a mansion).  And as Terry informs Sam, Anita really is wondering if Sam left to see another girlfriend that night, and Sam can’t risk losing her to preserve Doug’s secret.

Anita was at the cash register, ringing up accumulated lunch receipts.  I could see her through the window in the locked front door, it now being almost three-thirty in the afternoon, lunchtime over.  Very faintly, I could hear the ding-ding-ding of the cash register.  She looked absorbed in her work, oblivious of the world around her, and I paused a few seconds before knocking, just to look at her.  A good-looking woman.  An intelligent, interesting, complex, sometimes irritable woman.  Very valuable to me.  I knocked on the glass.

So he tells her what’s going on, and she’s ready to help out, put some weight on Doug for one thing, so he’ll be harder to recognize.  They come up with an alias for him–he’s a TV writer Sam knows, having troubles with writer’s block.  He’ll mingle at the party, and everything will be fine.  Except everything isn’t.  Doug is murdered at the party.

He’s found locked in the upstairs bathroom, having apparently taken pills.  The police ask questions, Sam tells them what Doug told him, and they don’t buy it.  They write it off as suicide.  Doug Walford was depressed and paranoid, making up stories in his head to explain what had happened to him.  Sam flies back to L.A.

And that would be the story, except Sam doesn’t believe it was suicide, and after what he describes as ‘a moderately good mid-afternoon sexual encounter,’ Bly Quinn tells him so. And he’s still angry about it, and so it’s time for him to play Packard again.  With her as the daffy sidekick who pulls S.J. Perelman references out of thin air.  “Personne ici except us chickens, eh?”    

(You know why I don’t think Bly’s the right girl for him?  Because she’s so obviously Donald E. Westlake’s idealized female self-image, sharing all his interests, and Sam is his idealized macho self-image, and it’s just weird, sometimes.  The strangest take on auto-eroticism I’ve yet to encounter in literature.  But enjoyable, for all that.)

And it’s a nice drive anyway, to San Francisco, through Big Sur, to see Joe Kearny, the investigator whose firm Doug had working for him to try and get enough solid information so he could go to the law with his suspicions.  And of course Joe Kearny is clearly an alternate universe doppelganger of Dan Kearny, a tip of the hat to Joe Gores and the DKA novels, the first of which had a cross-over with Plunder Squad. I shouldn’t even need to mention that, but I will anyway.

He can’t tell them much, gives them little hope of success, but he produces Doug’s file, and tells Bly that when she’s had enough of this game, she should distract Sam.  He doesn’t know that she’s the one who always wants Sam to play detective, so she can play along with him.

And they have a good game, complete with two thugs threatening Sam out by the waterfront, as they investigate a shipping company that has some obscure tie to Frank Althorn.  The cops pull up just in time to stop the fight before it starts, and Sam wonders about that.  But one thing he knows–somebody wanted to send him a message.  He really is onto something here, but what?   All the leads have been dead-ends.  They head back for L.A. (pausing for some really great sex, because it’s a Sam Holt novel).

So they can’t expose the larger conspiracy, anymore than Doug could–they’re not equipped for it.  But as Bly reminds Sam, there is a less nebulous, more specific mystery to solve here–who actually killed Douglas Walford.  Not who gave the order, and why, but who carried it out. The suspect list is not that long.

She tells him that the real reason he’s so upset is that he knows Doug Walford was murdered, and the only possible suspects are people who attended that party–friends of his, and people his friends brought with them.  Somebody betrayed his hospitality, and his friendship, something Sam can never forgive or forget.  And furthermore, Doug was his partner, years ago, and you know what Sam Spade would say about that.  What Sam Holt says  is “Shit.”  She’s right.  And she found yet another excuse for an obscure reference, this time from The Big Knife“Why do you come fling these naked pigeons in my face?”

And naturally, one of those pigeons is Anita (she catered the event).  She is, after all, Italian, and owns a restaurant.  It’s not impossible the mob could have a hold on her.  Sam doesn’t want to believe it, he actively disbelieves it, but he can’t rule it out.  He can’t rule any of them out.  Because, like Mitch Tobin, he’s a completist.

You can’t help but think Bly is wondering if this is the moment the romantic stalemate between her and Anita gets broken in her favor, but her main concern is Sam–he’s never going to be okay with himself if he lets this go.  He’s never going to fully trust anyone again.  Already an occupational hazard for any celebrity.  To know who you are, you have to know who your real friends are.   So back to New York, to settle accounts.

He meets Bill Ackerson, his doctor, for lunch.  Softens him up with some Hollywood gossip–a well-known star, the kind who does romantic leads, who happens to be gay, has been talking about coming out of the closet, and his agent told him “Wait another ten million dollars, John.”  Damn, seems so long ago now that this was a thing (and am I naive for thinking it isn’t still very much a thing?).

Bill wants to know how a murderer could threaten someone into taking poison–Sam says they already did that on Packard–the poison would have been injected from behind, and the pills planted to explain the death. Bill, a fanatical fan of the show (Sam is appalled to find out he has every episode on tape–that’s going to be a thing too, Sam), can’t believe he forgot that one.  Anyway, it’s pretty clear Bill couldn’t have administered the injection himself–the key to this case is to figure out where everybody at the party was at the moment Doug was killed.

He’s been putting off seeing Anita.  She’s noticed that.  She demands he present himself to her, and he goes to her apartment, over the restaurant.  He kisses her passionately, then explains the situation.  She is not the least bit happy about it, but she somehow understands–and having read his list, which contains her name, has a partial solution to the problem.

Carefully folding the paper, she handed it back to me and said, “Let me offer you a drink now, okay?  If I’m the one who poisoned Doug Walford, and if I know Packard is on the case, which means sooner or later I’m bound to be found out, then I’ll poison you, too, right now, and your worries will be over.  If you survive the drink, you can run a faint pencil line through my name.  Is it a deal?”

I had to laugh.  “It’s a deal.”

“Hemlock and soda?” she asked, getting to her feet.

He’s still alive later that night, lying in bed beside her, unable to sleep–didn’t we have the same post-coital scene in Anita’s bed in the last book?  Sex with Anita seems to bring out a contemplative soul-searching side in him we never see when he’s with Bly (because what he has with Bly is a fantasy, and his thing with Anita is real, is my take).   Anita didn’t poison him, but suspicion has.

At this point, his investigation isn’t really about justice for Doug Walford, bur rather vengeance against someone who betrayed him.  And about being able to 100% trust a woman he has very deep feelings for.  It’s personal, and he can’t let go of it.

But there could be very serious personal consequences–one of the people he has to question is the very serious girlfriend of his acting chum, Brett Burgess–she can’t come up with an alibi for the party.  Brett, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, only belatedly realizes what Sam is saying, and gives him a look–tells him be careful not to break anything.  Like a friendship.

The plot thickens further, when Terry Young takes him out to Long Island to go yachting with a Republican congressman named Toomey, who Terry happens to know has been looking into links between organized crime and defective or experimental U.S. pharmaceuticals being unloaded on third world nations.  He doesn’t know anything about Doug’s murder, but it’s possible that’s what Doug stumbled into, and that means whoever killed Doug could be a link that leads to the people Toomey is after.

(Again, Westlake is using this series to write about a real issue, as he did with Islamic fundamentalism in the first Holt novel.  It’s less effective here, a bit too soap-boxy, and he seems to have dialed back on that angle for the next two books.  I’m no expert on this issue, but with decades of hindsight, I’d say it was a bit naive to think Big Pharma needed any help from the mob to do this kind of thing.  Naivete is not a trait I generally associate with Westlake, and maybe he decided he was out of his depth here.  Maybe we all are.)

Sam is still busily interrogating various friends and acquaintances–he’s got the list down to six names–he thinks.  At one point, he has to talk to Vera Slote, a fashion designer who came as Bill’s date, and later in the book she’s throwing herself at him quite unapologetically, as women often do. A rather unpleasant person, who cattily disparages Anita’s taste in clothing– but a very well-known designer, with no apparent motive, and of course none of the needed expertise to pull something like this off.  It just doesn’t seem like any of them could have done it.  Yet one of them did.

He also talks to his New York attorney, Morton Adler (one of the best supporting characters in this series, there are actors out there who could have had a ball playing him if this had ever become an actual series).  Mort says you never believe two witnesses alone–two can collude.  Three’s a crowd, when it comes to a conspiracy.

He heads out to Atlantic City to see Frank Althorn, shake the tree a bit.  Althorn has opened a new casino hotel, and the headliner at the theater there is a female stand-up comedian named Sandy Sheriff.  As luck would have it,  the guy opening for her (in this context ‘to open’ means to facilitate, make sure the talent is happy in every possible way) is Robin Corrigan, who used to make Sam’s life as a TV star so much easier when he was doing promotional stuff.  His primary concern at the present time is that the hotel, having just opened, is an organizational nightmare, and they can’t get Sandy the right kind of stool for her to use in her act.

Sam’s former life can be a nuisance at times, but at others it gives him a decided edge–he just calls Robin, and asks for an introduction to Althorn.  All he has to do in return is go to Sandy’s show, and stand up for a round of applause when she points him out. Robin is unequivocally gay, and again we see Sam has zero issues on that front–well, homophobia in straight guys is mainly about sexual insecurity, isn’t it?    Sam has nothing to be insecure about on that front, and finds Robin a delight to be around.  Robin likes Sam too, but he’s working for Sandy now, so Sam has to tread lightly.

Sandy Sheriff is, quite self-evidently, Joan Rivers.  You can know this simply by the fact that Westlake and Rivers worked together on a screenplay for a never-produced film that went by the title A Girl Named Banana.  Or you can just read her description in the book, without any background info at all, and that works about as well.  How that creative partnership ever came to pass, I have no idea, but Westlake, always interested in comedians, was very impressed with her stand-up work, as you can see here–

They found her a stool, a black one, and Sandy Sheriff, a tall skinny blonde with gawky knees and elbows, dragged it back and forth on stage behind her, occasionally sitting on it, at times leaping from it, all the while she harangued her audience, who loved her.  She talked very fast at top volume, she yelled and screamed and flung her arms around and wrestled with the stool, and I would say she used up more energy in fifty minutes on that stage than I do in a week in my gym at home in Los Angeles; and this was the first of two shows tonight.  Her material was somewhat blue, but it was mostly an inflamed report of her ongoing gun battle with the world around her: arguments with cabdrivers and telephone operators, put-downs from agents and movie stars, struggles with pets and locked doors and income-tax forms.

(Westlake’s opinion of the compatibility of his and Rivers’ comic styles can perhaps be divined from an exchange Sam has with Bly over the phone–he’s got to pretend to Robin that he’s seriously thinking about doing a project with Sandy, so he cold calls Bly–a well-known sitcom writer–and basically clues her in to act like she knows what he’s talking about when he talks about this potential series they’re working on.  She’ll play along, but she can never resist an easy punchline.  “Sandy Sheriff and Sam Holt.  Not since Wallace Beery and Rin Tin Tin.”)

So Althorn comes in, and Sam finds a way to let him know–he knows.  And Althorn finds a way to let Sam know–he better know what he could be in for if he doesn’t stop this.  And just to make sure the message hits home, he has four professionals armed with blackjacks work Sam over in the elevator later on.  They’re really professional.

At this point, Sam (bruised but not broken) makes the acquaintance of Charles Petvich, Treasury Agent, who has been keeping an eye on him–certain persons in the government are curious about his connection to Althorn.  Knowing that the thing about bureaucracies is that the left hand really doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, Sam introduces Petvich to Toomey, and now he’s got some heavy muscle of his own to aim at Althorn–but he’s still got to find the killer in order for them to have a target to zero in on, somebody to grill.

And this is when Sam finally has that flash of insight you’re waiting for in a story like this–one of his suspects slipped up, said something that clued him in–he knows who the killer is. And now comes the obligatory gathering of the suspects in the drawing room.  Only in this case, the detective has already played this scene many times in the past while pretending to be a detective on TV.  Life imitating Art imitating Life……

And it’s not anybody Sam (or the reader) really cares about, which I suppose is a bit of a cop-out, but this was never really about whodunnit, and this is true of most Westlake mystery stories, as I’ve noted in past.  I don’t want to give it away–truth is, with this genre, you can come back to a book years later, and find that you’ve forgotten how it ended.   It’s not crucial for my purposes to reveal the guilty party or parties at the party, so I won’t.  Except I will say that the best speech in the big finale scene goes to the best actor–Brett Burgess.  And Brett can be smart about some things.  Actors are smart about motivations.

But there he is, in his own townhouse, Sam Holt, a man who achieved fame and fortune playing a suave debonair amateur sleuth on television, and he’s playing it for real this time, before most of the people in this world who mean something to him, and on one level he’s enjoying himself–and on another, it feels so empty, so pointless, in a way it never did when he was faking it before the cameras.

Because, you see, he knew what he was doing it for then–to entertain people.  To fill an hour of primetime.  To sell soap.  But what did he do this for?  To prove something to himself?  To the world?  To prove he’s not just a has-been?  He still can’t get arrested in Hollywood.  But he can get somebody else arrested in New York.

He’s ruined somebody’s life–granted, that person deserves most of the blame for that, but Sam gets an assist.  And of course Doug Walford is still quite dead, and if any posthumous good comes from his quixotic one-man crusade, he won’t be around to see it.

It didn’t feel like a victory, or an accomplishment.  It didn’t feel like anything good at all.  I looked around at my friends, and saw my own feelings reflected.  “Well,” I said.  “Probably we could use another drink before dinner.  Robinson?”

As with the previous story, Sam was just trying to help out a friend, and it backfired, badly, forced him to see some things about himself he didn’t really want to acknowledge–he was trying to help Doug achieve his mission, because he didn’t have one of his own other than to go back to pretending to be someone else.  Doug was his secret sharer for a while (hence the Conrad quote up top), living clandestinely in his home, and they opened up to each other–but the strange optimism of Conrad’s ambiguous narrative won’t play here.  He still doesn’t know where to steer the ship of his life.

It’s hard to convey all the things about this book that do work–it’s much easier to convey all the things that don’t.  There are so many small scenes that come off perfectly–and Sam Holt is an interesting protagonist in that his celebrity allows him to move effortlessly through the different interlocking parts of the entertainment world, and all the other worlds (like politics and organized crime) that the entertainment world is always rubbing up against.

Westlake had spent a lot of time around people in showbiz, starting with his brief stint in small time theatricals, then writing for movies and TV, and he likes show people–he does.  They have many fine qualities, they make the world a more interesting place, and he must by his very nature appreciate anyone who is in a constant state of self-invention. He knows as well as anyone what that’s like.

But there’s something he wants to convey about that world–its unreality, the way it eats away at identity, until nobody is quite sure who they are–everybody’s as good as his or her last project.  And the fans who worship them from afar (or up close) don’t even see them as real people.  He’s going to have to find a better way to express this than these books, a darker way, and he will, soon enough, at which point he’s going to put his fascination with the world of actors aside, at long last.

But see, it’s not all bad, this world he’s showing us–he wants to be fair, as well as honest–and in the Holt books he shows that these often fairly messed up people, with their vanities and addictions and delusions, are still people, with understandable agendas and aspirations of their own.

And after all, people who aren’t in showbiz can be pretty confused as well.  Judge not lest ye be judged.  It’s not as if you wouldn’t trade places with them in a minute, right?  We’re all so damned interested in them, and there’s no point pretending otherwise.  They have the ratings and box office stats to prove we’re liars (not to mention the supermarket tabloids).

His title is yet again a hint as to the nature of the story (going to be  hard to sustain these numerical titles longterm).  And for his next trick, he’s going to take Sam Holt out of that world entirely, along with a handful of other actors trapped in their roles, in a rather odd admixture of Agatha Christie and Rod Serling–the latter of whom is mentioned in this book–by Anita, believe it or not–why should Bly get all the pop cultural references?  One little two little three little–never mind.


Filed under I Know A Trick Worth Two Of That, novel, Samuel Holt Novels, Uncategorized

30 responses to “Review: I Know A Trick Worth Two Of That

  1. rinaldo302

    “has been talking about coming out of the closet, and his agent told him “Wait another ten million dollars, John.” Damn, seems so long ago now that this was a thing (and am I naive for thinking it still isn’t in some cases?).”

    If I follow the negatives at the end correctly, yes, maybe a bit naive, but understandably so. It’s true that it’s now possible to list a couple of dozen familiar TV and movie faces who are publicly out, which was not the case 25 years ago. But the decision still seems to put an immediate cap on career possibilities. You can still be the outrageous best friend (Nathan Lane), the elfin vaguely sexless man-child (Neil Patrick Harris), and so on. But not, so far, the leading man, not if you’re looking to be cast after coming out. (Matt Bomer finished his run on White Collar, but what now? Rupert Everett seemed headed for the big time, and then….)

    And of course it’s so hard to prove anything, because there are lots of good actors out there competing for the same roles, and there’s always a good reason to make a different choice. But it seems that the other choice is still always made. Things have changed in show business to some extent, but only to a limited extent, I would say. Waiting till you have enough money to live on in case you never get another job may be brutally practical — because you may never get another top-level job.

    All of this is incidental to the main discussion about this book, of course. But since you asked….

    • I”m not sure I’d agree the guy who played Barney Stinson was vaguely sexless (sitcoms are basically the only network shows I watch now, and damned few of them), but of course he was cast in that role before he came out (and less than ten million dollars after he was cast, I’d assume, but probably after the show was renewed for a second season, and almost certainly headed for syndication, which means a lot more than ten million dollars in this day and age).

      But yeah, even as I typed that it seems so long since this was a thing, I realized, it’s still probably a thing. Things change, but not all at once. People may still like you, but they’ll look at you differently.

      And the weird thing is, straight actors can play gay men, and if anything, it enhances their macho status. I mean, the actual Tom Selleck, fercryinoutloud! That was a real Sam Holt moment right there–he was just delighted somebody was taking him seriously enough as an actor to play somebody who wasn’t even a little bit like Magnum.

      Actors who are just actors only have to worry if they have the range to play the role. Actors who are stars have to worry about how the role impacts their image, and how their image impacts what roles they get. But then again, they can have a conversation with an agent that ends in “Wait another ten million dollars.”

      PS: I see what you mean about the ambiguous negative–edited

  2. A fine write-up of my favorite Holt (of the first three anyway; I still haven’t read four) in that it’s a well-plotted fairly clued mystery that pays off in classic noir fashion (solving the mystery brings no pleasure, but it must be done all the same). You pretty much covered all of the points and references I noticed (the DKA nod, the Joan Rivers character, etc.) except the fact that title is from Henry IV Part 1, from a scene in which a thief tries unsuccessfully to social engineer some crucial information out of a money-carrier. (Perhaps such trivia is better suited the the comments.)

    I did have one question after Sam’s epiphany, in that he says something like “twice recently someone had said something to me that gave them away. Either one would have told me what I needed to know.” (That’s a crude paraphrase, as the book has gone back to the library.) I’m not sure what the “twice” is. I get the one slip-up, but I don’t count two. He needed the two pieces together to have his realization.

    We likely can’t dig too deep into this without drifting into spoilers, but that one detail did leave me wondering.

    • You know, I did miss that Shakespeare ref, and given what a devout Stratfordian Westlake was, and the rough applicability of the context in which it’s used, that’s almost certainly what it was intended as. However, Westlake was also a fan of Ambrose Bierce, and I was thinking more about this entry in The Devil’s Dictionary, under ‘frying pan’.

      Old Nick was summoned to the skies.
      Said Peter: “Your intentions
      Are good, but you lack enterprise
      Concerning new inventions.”

      “Now, broiling is an ancient plan
      Of torment, but I hear it
      Reported that the frying-pan
      Sears best the wicked spirit.”

      “Go get one—fill it up with fat—
      Fry sinners brown and good in’t.”
      “I know a trick worth two o’ that,”
      Said Nick—”I’ll cook their food in’t.”

      But of course Bierce is only using that phrase because Shakespeare made it common parlance, and perhaps it already was in his time, but if so it would be on the streets of London and its environs, not in more elevated (I’m tempted to say Oxfordian) circles. What would English letters and speech sound like today if Shakespeare’s work had not been gifted to posterity, I wonder?

      The slip-up on the murderer’s part has to do with someone’s name, but I don’t see how either thing Sam overheard, in isolation, could have given him the answer. Seems to me he’d need both pieces of information. So I’m as baffled as you, and maybe Westlake made a small mistake in the process of writing this book very quickly–and maybe we’re missing something.

      I now realize I completely forgot to talk about the whole subplot involving Bly offering Robinson a part as a snobby butler in a TV sitcom pilot, but that subplot lingers through the next two books, so plenty of time.

      PS: I had meant to google the titular phrase, and when I did just now, I was rather surprised to see that this book which is not even currently in print is featured more prominently on the search results page than Henry IV Part I. I am saddened to add that the featured cover image off to the right of the page is the paperback reprint from Felony & Mayhem. But then again, serves Tor Books right for being forsworn.

      • It’s amazing how often we go around quoting Shakespeare without realizing it. Even Sam Spade isn’t immune. The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of indeed.*

        *A Bogart improv, reportedly.

        • Has anyone ever tried to make a tally of all the titles of works in various mediums taken from Shakespeare? Well, Wikipedia, obviously–

          And wouldn’t you know, this book isn’t included. You want to edit or should I? 🙂

          PS: Bogie’s Sam certainly knew it, and if it was an improv, so did Bogie. An actor of unexpected depths, as well as the anticipated shallows.

          • Yes, I’m sure Bogart knew what he was doing, Shakespeare-wise. A few years prior, he starred as Harry Hotspur in a CBS radio adaptation of… yep, Henry IV Part 1.

            I got the Wikipedia entry covered.

          • rinaldo302

            Many have attempted the tally. One such was made by the mystery novelist Barbara Paul, though I don’t think she has updated it in a while:

            (I’m a frequenter of her message board within the site, and in fact a moderator of one of the subforums. She’s another of my very favorite authors, and we’ve discussed Westlake there.)

            One of the challenges with looking for “lines from Shakespeare” is that so much of his work has endured, not as a “quotation” (though there are plenty of those, for sure), but as an idiom that has been absorbed into the language. When I sat my younger brother down to watch the Branagh Hamlet DVD, he kept turning to me incredulously as phrases we’ve used all our lives kept popping up: “brevity is the soul of wit,” “method in my madness,” and all the rest. Probably nothing else in English is so “full of quotations,” unless it’s Casablanca.

            • It all comes back to Bogart, doesn’t it?

              I once had a student deride “Casablanca” because it was “full of clichés.” Sigh.

              • Well, the dialogue (which is the film’s principal glory) obviously bored so deep into our pop-cultural subconscious that it would seem clichéd to somebody of a younger generation, yeah. I would think a fair number of narrative clichés from earlier melodramas are present, but they come to life in that film, in a way that really defies explanation. Nobody can explain Casablanca. And nobody can really appreciate it until they’ve seen it in a a theater, with an audience. And most particularly a New York audience. You know which line I mean. 😉

                That screenplay is one of the marvels of western culture–it simply should not be so good–there were what–half a dozen different writers involved? How many drafts? The final line, so timeless and eternal, was added after the film was completed–Bogie had to come back to dub it in. How did classic Hollywood films ever come to inspire the auteur theory, when a close study of how they came to exist clearly makes nonsense of it?

                Just to pretend this is still on-topic, I think Westlake knew very well that the genius of film is most often a collective genius–that the writer often contributes as much or more than the director, that the actors do more than simply stand there and read lines, that there are so many dedicated professionals working behind the scenes. You don’t just credit one person for the Cathedral of Chartres, and you don’t just thank Vincente Minelli for Meet Me In St. Louis. And yes, I am seriously comparing the two–it’s not like we could recreate either one today.

  3. rinaldo302

    I just indulged myself looking for the New York magazine article about the happenstance and offhand decisions that resulted in Casablanca. (The magazine is digitized under Google Books, but a Google search so far turns up dozens of mentions, many of them capsules for its appearances in revival houses.) Ah well, there’s probably a book about it all now — very likely the article was a teaser for it. And we know the legends here anyway.

    Don’t get me started on the auteur theory….

    • Oh I think we’re all started on it–and it’s not that I don’t believe there are genius directors who put their personal stamp on films. But it’s such an oversimplification of the creative process, and most directors simply don’t rise to that level, and yet some of them still made great films–because of collective genius, which they facilitated, instead of hindering.

      Much of my knowledge of how Bogart’s films got made comes from a biography of him I read a few years back. One story that stuck out was him and Bergman sitting in the WB cafeteria between takes, and they were both rather disparaging of the film they were making. “I’m supposed to be the most beautiful woman in Europe–I look like a milkmaid!” Ingrid groused.

      This is neither Shakespeare nor Hollywood–

      O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
      To see oursels as ithers see us!

      My favorite story in that book wasn’t about a movie, though. Bogie & Bacall were living up in the Hollywood hills, and like Sam Holt, they kept boxers (I’m sure Westlake knew that as well). You know the little terrier mix Pard in High Sierra was Bogie’s real dog, right? When he runs after the car, he’s not acting–he thinks he’s being abandoned. And of course he never would be. Bogie and Bacall were nuts for mutts, purebred or otherwise.

      Anyway, the dogs barked a lot at night. When cars went by and such. High-spirited breed. The neighbors complained. The leader of the anti-boxer pack was none other than Art Linkletter (“Kids Say the Darndest Things”). He suggested the dogs could have an operation on their vocal cords. Bacall suggested he have that operation instead.

      They didn’t have Cesar Millan to fix this kind of behavioral problem back then, but the Bogarts were adamant–the dogs stayed. And Bogie in particular was indignant at this persecution from his neighbors–“They should be grateful they live where they can hear the wonderful sound of dogs barking.”

      I can never decide whether to imagine him saying that as Sam Spade, Rick Blaine, or Fred C. Dobbs.

      (belatedly fixing Linkletter’s name–I’m sure Richard Linklater would forgive me for the slip–to mention one genuine auteur who I don’t think ever refers to himself as such).

    • Well, Andrew Sarris, who developed the auteur theory, called Casablanca “the most decisive exception to the auteur theory” — which I suppose was his way of acknowledging that his theory just might be bunk.

      If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend “Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca,” by Aljean Harmetz — an exhaustive accounting of the making at the movie (as well as the historical context in which it was made).

      One choice anecdote, from the Epstein twins (writers who injected much of the film’s humor and left-leaning politics) were stuck for a good line after Rick shoots Strasser (spoilers!) They worked it for days without coming up with anything. Then one day, while driving onto the WB lot, they turned to each other and said, simultaneously, “Round up the usual suspects!”

      • rinaldo302

        Harmetz… memory is returning now, and I’m sure that was the source of the New York Magazine excerpt that I recall. (Hey, it was decades ago.)

        Sarris was one of the proponents of a particularly idiotic version of the auteur theory in the early 1960s: that not only did a movie’s director put a stylistic stamp on it and help indicate what it might be like (which most sensible folks would agree with, in some cases and to some extent), but he actually added value to every movie he directed, and made even obscure programmers worth studying to find the stylistic fingerprints. (Pauline Kael memorably ripped him apart for this in her first book, and he never forgave her for the rest of their lives; even his obituary notice for her contained some bitchy asides.)

        • I enjoyed a lot of what Sarris wrote, frequently agreed with his reviews, but his ‘pantheon’ was just a comedy of errors–he had John Huston, Billy Wilder and David Lean under “Less than meets the eye.” The fact is, evaluating a truly creative person while that person is still alive and creating is just begging for a black eye from posterity. And something I can’t be accused of here on this blog, but I’d happily take the lumps if Mr. Westlake were only still around to dish them out. 😦

          • Criminy, what an embarrassing list of “less than meets the eye.” Billy Wilder managed to turn out a masterpiece in just about every genre he put his mind to. That was self-evident even when he was alive.

            • I think Sarris backed down about Wilder. Not sure about Huston and Lean. The thing about his pantheon was that he could tweak it as he went, but then how valuable was it to begin with?

              About as valuable as internet top ten lists, which I have been guilty of perpetrating myself, on occasion. :\

              Critics have their uses, but the true value of any piece of work (by which I mean both works of art and the people who create them) can only be determined by time. If people keep coming back to it from generation to generation, then it’s something. If not, then you can say “less than meets the eye.” And we’ll be saying that about a lot of critically lauded and commercially successful stuff coming out now. And wishing we had the likes of Huston, Lean, and Wilder around today. Not to mention Westlake. Had to stick that in. 😉

            • rinaldo302

              That’s the problem (well, one problem) with that absolutist point of view: once you’ve decided that one individual does/doesn’t meet your requirement, every single work of theirs must be classified to match, despite the common-sense observation that (especially in the Hollywood system) nobody creates a masterpiece absolutely every time. I admit that I’m not as big a Wilder fan as some, but I gladly concede that he has an impressive number of enduring classics to his credit; but it also seems clear to me that his last four or five represent a pretty steep drop-off (Fedora, anyone?). I don’t hold them against him (the business can wear a person down over time, and so can age), but it seems disrespectful to his best achievements to rank his worst ones equally with them (and suggests that you’re unqualified to tell the difference).

              • It’s interesting how some artists (using the broadest possible interpretation of that word) go into a steep decline as they age, and others just begin hitting their stride. Wilder did have some good later works (sue me, I liked Avanti!), but I think he had trouble doing his best work without the old studio system to back him up. A great conductor isn’t much without a great orchestra. Maybe he just ran out of ideas, or couldn’t figure out how to make his ideas work in the new system. Films don’t make themselves, and they are not merely the products of individuals, but of eras–same for books. Same for everything.

                Hitchcock had the same problems as Wilder (I think his last undeniably great film was Psycho), but nobody said “Less than meets the eye” about him. Certainly not Sarris. Or Truffaut.

                And bringing this back yet again to our main subject here, there was a real question mark about Westlake in this time period. He was probably wondering himself if he was less than meets the eye. Was that great burst of creativity in the 60’s and 70’s just a fluke? Sam Holt was supposed to prove otherwise, and didn’t. I like the books, they’re fascinating in many ways, but they just don’t rise to anything close to the level of his best work.

                So not a slump, precisely, but he was having a hard time with the publishing industry in the 80’s, and with making his ideas work the way they used to. He had to adjust, and take stock, and find a way to make it work again. He could have just done Dortmunder books forever, but we’ve been over that–he’s too restless a spirit. He needs to break out. And he will. His masterpiece hasn’t happened yet.

              • Oh, clearly Wilder had a decline. And even some of his movies made at the height of his powers (Seven-Year Itch, e.g.) are pretty bad. But his highs are dizzyingly high. The Apartment, Double Indemnity, A Foreign Affair, Ace in the Hole, and One Two Three are about as good as the form gets.

                Towards the end of his life, Wilder secured (or nearly secured) the rights to Schindler’s List. He imagined that it would be his career-capping swan song, but the rights were snatched away by Spielberg at the last moment.

                Perhaps it was too late. Perhaps Wilder was too deep into his decline. That seems most likely. But perhaps the material would have inspired Wilder, whose mother, grandmother and stepfather all perished in the Holocaust. Perhaps it would have been his masterpiece.

                We’ll never know. And part of me can’t quite forgive Spielberg for that.

                (Boy, we’ve ventured pretty deep into the weeds, haven’t we? I love the comments section on this blog.)

              • You can’t copyright history–it’s not as if Spielberg really filmed Keneally’s novel (both are fictions based on fact, and I prefer Keneally’s version).

                Now that you’ve informed me of this, I find myself rather wishing Wilder had just made his own version of that story, and be damned what the critics would say (they said ‘less than meets the eye’!).

                Leaving aside the Jewish angle(and of course you can’t), can you think of a historical figure more perfectly in tune with Wilder’s philosophy and ethos than Oskar Schindler? A cunning con man, a shameless womanizer, with an unquenchable lust for life, who rescues an entire cross section of civilization (and its denizens) from the flames, more or less because he can? In him, you can hear Garbo’s Ninotchka, imploring,

                “Comrades. People of the world. The revolution is on the march. I know….Wars will wash over us. Bombs will fall. All civilization will crumble. But not yet please. Wait, wait…what’s the hurry? Let us be happy. Give us our moment.”

                Spielberg turned him into yet another feckless father figure, and that final maudlin apology for his excesses was totally out of character for the real Schindler, who just didn’t think that way. You can find elements from Spielberg’s Schindler story going all the way back to his screenplay for Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies. And yeah, I watched that. It has its moments. Spielberg didn’t direct it, and yet it’s unquestionably a Spielberg film. They keep going back to the same themes.

                And I like Spielberg films, and I see them for what they are, and most of them don’t affect me the way they used to, and yet–Lincoln. I have to say, I give more credit to Tony Kushner there. But there’s more than enough to go around. I got to see Abraham Lincoln, alive, just once. I bless each and every person who worked on that film. Yeah, this is getting a bit wide-ranging, isn’t it? Well, it’s my blog, and I say that’s perfectly copacetic. 😉

              • I agree, Wilder’s inherent cynicism would have been (or could have been) a much better match for Schindler. It’s one of the great Wilder what-if movies (the other being his aborted Marx Brothers movie, A Day at the United Nations).

                The criminally underseen A Foreign Affair, made in 1948, is breathtakingly cynical regarding America’s post-War occupation of Berlin. In the opening scenes, the nominal hero, a fast-talking con-man soldier, receives a cake from his supposed sweetheart back home in Iowa. He immediately trades it on the black market for a mattress so he won’t have to keep screwing his ex-Nazi lover on her bombed-out apartment floor.

              • But under the veneer of the cynic, you can always feel the wounded romantic, crying out to be heard. His message is clear–we make our own hells, and we can transform them into heavens anytime we please.

                And the weird thing is, I can hear the same message in Jim Thompson, but man he went a different way with it.

              • But he can still be the old Spielberg sometimes. That scene at the end, where the crowd of people come to visit Schindler’s grave, and you slowly realize who they are and exactly what they owe him … even describing it makes me teary-eyed,

              • As I recall, that ending was improvised at the last moment–which is also true of the ending of Jaws. Which makes me all teary-eyed to think of it. 😉

  4. rinaldo302

    BTW, that “you” was not addressed to anyone here (as I hope was clear), but to the auteurists (and there were plenty) who DID decide that Wilder was infallible.

    • It was absolutely clear.

      And I’m a battle scarred veteran of many an online war. I’ve been booted off a few forums in my day. Takes more than words on a screen to hurt my feelings. I love my comments section more than life itself, but damn, it’s so POLITE here. I can’t get used to it. 😉

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