Review: What I Tell You Three Times Is False

 

“That is excellent. I think, perhaps, it is almost time that I prepare for the new role I have to play.”

He disappeared into his bedroom and returned in a few minutes in the character of an amiable and simple-minded Nonconformist clergyman. His broad black hat, his baggy trousers, his white tie, his sympathetic smile, and general look of peering and benevolent curiosity were such as Mr. John Hare alone could have equalled. It was not merely that Holmes changed his costume. His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed. The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime.

From A Scandal in Bohemia, by Arthur Conan Doyle

“Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.

Lewis Carroll

Bly said, “You know, when Jack French said that about Daphne having been killed by her lover in a rage, that’s when I knew for absolute sure that he was wrong and Harriet isn’t the killer.  Because that thing wasn’t done in a rage, or any kind of high emotion at all.  It was cold and planned, Raven without the limp.”

Bly tends to be surrounded from time to time by bewildered faces, and here it had happened again.  Doubtfully, Mort said to her, “Is that something from Poe?”

I answered for her, mostly because I’m always pleased when I follow that labyrinthine brain of hers.  I said, “No, it’s Graham Greene.  Raven was the professional killer with a limp, the lead character in This Gun For Hire.”

“Sorry,” Bly said.  “Those things just slip out.”

The four Sam Holt mysteries Westlake wrote in the 1980’s have been following an arc roughly equivalent to that of the five Mitch Tobin mysteries he wrote in the 1960’s.  The first book in each series introduces a character who has lost his profession, though their reactions are quite different.  Mitch Tobin can no longer work as a police detective, and doesn’t care, because he’s given up on life, on himself. Sam Holt can no longer get work as an actor, and he cares a lot, and hasn’t given up on anything, least of all himself.  There’s  not much similarity in the cases they’re presented with in their first outings, though.

The second book for each is about somebody they have a connection to coming to them with a problem to be solved.  Again, the stories are very different, but the emotional core is the same–the reluctant detective, feeling obliged to put in an effort, solves the mystery, but feels no sense of triumph in doing so.  Mitch Tobin has at least saved a young woman he’s related to from wrongful imprisonment or institutionalization for a murder she did not commit.  But Sam Holt has merely helped make up for failing to prevent an old friend’s murder by picking up where his friend left off, and finding his murderer, which may or may not lead to a helpful resolution of the larger case his friend was working on.

I don’t know that Westlake was actively looking to follow the arc of the Tobin mysteries when he wrote the first two–he certainly knew from the get-go there were similarities between the two series and their protagonists.  He’d have wanted to avoid too direct a likeness between them for that very reason (while still leaving hints for observant readers that their authors were one and the same).  But by the time he wrote the third one, he’d seemingly become more aware of the  parallels that were nonetheless emerging, and decided that he’d do for Holt precisely what he’d done for Tobin in Wax Apple.  

That is to say, take Holt entirely out of his daily life in New York and L.A., confine him in an enclosed space, put him in close quarters with people who are suffering from professional difficulties similar to his, then force him to solve what is generally referred to as a parlor mystery or even better, a country house mystery.  The kind that more traditional and not even slightly hard-boiled detectives typically solve. Detectives like the three you see up top, underneath the book covers.  Do I need to tell you who they are?  I didn’t think so.

There’s a touch of the parlor mystery in I Know A Trick Worth Two of That (the murder happens at a party and is solved at one), but Sam’s constantly moving around during that one, coast to coast, New York to Atlantic City and back again. This time he’s going to be placed into an environment with exceedingly limited range of movement, where just walking away from the murder house (which is what most sane people would do, after all) isn’t even an option.

(Westlake did something similar in The Dame, by virtue of having Grofield be held prisoner by a vengeful mobster in Puerto Rico, but even there, Grofield got to escape for a while and frolic with a hot blonde before coming back to face the music and solve the mystery.)

A truly epic level of contrivance here, and one that reminds us of perhaps the least ‘cozy’ mystery Agatha Christie ever wrote–the one where no cerebral sleuth steps in to save the day.  Also the one that originally had the most offensive title of any mystery ever (when did the n-word become publicly verboten in the UK?).  The current title offends nobody, but kind of spoils the ending.

It was right around this time that the Westlakes (Donald and Abby) got involved in planning murder mystery weekends at the Mohonk Mountain House (I’ve never stayed there, but I’ve seen it in person, and small wonder Stephen King made it a setting in one of his books).  They collaborated on two books documenting the comically gruesome scenarios they’d dreamed up for the guests, which I’m sure were supremely fun to enact, but having read those books, I’m thinking you had to be there.   Meant to be played, not read.  Only Westlake books I can think of where the cover is the best thing.  I only wish Messrs. Gorey & Wilson had provided the artwork for other Westlake books, but alas.

(I’ve pretty much decided not to review these books in depth, since they have none, so I guess this is my review.  You can check them off your list, if you’re keeping track.)

So all these things factored into the creation of this book, but above all, I think it’s Sam Holt’s version of Wax Apple–and Wax Apple is, to my way of thinking, the finest murder mystery Donald Westlake ever wrote, and my personal favorite of any murder mystery I’ve ever read.  He liked this kind of story, had a long relationship with it, but he didn’t really believe in it–the setting of the Tobin novel, a halfway house for recovering mental patients, gave him that grounding in reality he needed to make the story ring true (as did Tobin, which is why he’ll always be Westlake’s supreme achievement in the art of whodunitry).

And this book we’re looking at now is as far from reality as you can get without bringing in the supernatural.  I think the idea was that Holt, stuck in a confined space with other actors trapped in a single role, would have some kind of small personal epiphany, that could lead to further development of the character (the ‘narrative-push’ method of writing), but if that’s what it was, it doesn’t really work here.

Sam Holt resolutely resisted character development.  It’s the TV Detective in him–much as I love and revere The Rockford Files, did Jim Rockford develop one iota from start to finish?  He developed bad knees, but that’s about it.  When they brought him back for those TV movies years later, he’d developed male pattern baldness, but was otherwise unaltered. Holt is such a dedicated health buff, with such award-winning genes, unlikely he’d even develop that way.

Holt’s very much the same guy when we leave him as when we first met him.  None of his issues have been resolved, nor does any resolution seem to be in the offing.  That, in my opinion, is the real reason Westlake left him.  And overall, I’d say this is his least distinguished outing to date.  But like any Westlake novel, this has many interesting little rooms and winding hallways to explore.  So let’s explore.

As the story begins, Sam and his west coast gal pal, Bly Quinn, are flying in a small private plane to a tiny remote island, off the coast of Latin America, where an eccentric drug lord who clearly saw too many Bond movies built himself a sort of castle out of the bedrock the island is made of.  There’s basically nothing else on the island.   I suppose there’s a slight echo of The Handle here, and maybe even Slayground, but this is no casino, nor is it an amusement park.  It’s a redoubt.

The drug lord was apprehended by the law, and wanting the princely abode upon which he’d lavished so much loving attention to to be cared for, he cut a deal–he’d rat out many a highly-placed associate if they’d let him turn the house over to these Hollywood producers he knew, and they would maintain it, and not let it be used in any way not befitting a drug lord’s dream house.

The producers, Danny Douglas, and Mort Weinstein, presented with this white elephant (paid for by white powder), want to use it as a sort of studio, shooting various things there, renting it out for other people’s productions, setting up editing facilities and such.  This sounds so horribly impractical, even as I type it (the real story turns out to be more complicated, but you can read the book for the details).  I guess weirder things have happened in the world of entertainment.  Looking at you, Waterworld.

They’re not fully set up for this yet, but they do have this small PSA project they’re working on now.  The idea is that four famous fictional detectives played by actors who achieved fame by playing them will go looking for a cure for cancer in a spooky old mansion, only to learn that the best way to fight it is to support The American Cancer Society.   And as Sam sourly thinks to himself, they probably only called his agent because James Garner and Tom Selleck both said no.

He wasn’t going to do it, but on the way to a nice weekend in the Hamptons with his east coast girl, Anita Imperato, she convinced him that he needs to think about something besides his career, or lack thereof.  He doesn’t want to play Jack Packard anymore–not even in dinner theatre, which was an actual proposal made to him by a producer in the first book–but this is for a good cause, and he should do it.  And he should take ‘the tennis player’ (Anita’s dismissive term for Bly), because Anita can’t leave her restaurant that long.  Sam wisely makes no response to this rather odd suggestion from a woman he’s been seriously dating for years, but to us he remarks–

Mmm.  Anita and Bly have never met, which we all think of as a good idea, but they are aware of each other.  It’s complicated enough to be involved with two women on two coasts three thousand miles apart in the first place; I’m not going to make matters worse by lying to anybody.  This arrangement grew of itself, without anybody planning it, and though it usually works out reasonably well, the living isn’t always easy.  I suppose there’s some of the same selfishness at work that Anita had just jabbed me for in connection with the Cancer Society spot, but the fact is, I could not possibly choose either Anita or Bly to give up, and neither one of them wants to give up on me–at least, not so far–so we just go along and try not to worry about it.  And on those rare occasions when one of them makes a glancing reference to the other–rather like a glancing blow in the Golden Gloves–I just watch the scenery go by and listen to the silence for a while.  As I did this time, and the next thing Anita said had to do with the people we were visiting, so that was that.

To re-purpose Fitzgerald (F. Scott, not Harriet); rich celebrities are very different from you and me–they have more lovers.

And Bly is clearly the appropriate companion for Sam in this book, since she’s the one who always wants Sam to play detective (I suspect she didn’t approve of his decision to give up playing Packard after a mere five seasons, when the show was still hugely popular), and in fact she’ll spend much of her time on the island geeking out and making mental notes.

Anita would like Sam to move into legit theater and a more grounded lifestyle (that would not-so-coincidentally entail him being in New York a lot more); Bly would prefer he find work in Hollywood, and moonlight as a real sleuth, with her tagging along as an exceptionally sexy Watson.  And he can’t figure out what the hell he wants, so he pursues both career options while enjoying both romantic options.  Fitzgerald might have something to say about that as well, but it’ll keep.

Sam’s co-stars in this PSA are Harriet Fitzgerald, the current TV incarnation of Miss Marple–Clement Hasbrouck, the reigning Prince of Baker Street–and Fred Li.  Fred is the first Asian-American to play Charlie Chan, a character yet to be played in our reality by a non-occidental, except in China.  They, like Sam, are both benefiting and suffering from an age-old actor’s complaint–captives of their characters.   But as that article I just linked to makes clear, not all actors react the same way to this situation.

Harriet takes it all in good spirit, a classically stage-trained British trouper, who had a good career before Miss Marple came along to more or less supplement her retirement income.  Fred mainly feels lucky that there’s a well-paying leading role for a short plump Asian guy with a sly sense of humor (his father, also an actor, played a lot of amiable chuck-wagon cooks in westerns).  Clement, in contrast to everyone else, has become utterly possessed by Holmes, and can’t seem to imagine a life without him.

(Sidebar: I feel certain Westlake must have seen at least some of Jeremy Brett’s version of Holmes, which had aired in America for several years by the time he wrote this.  And much as there are some real points of difference between Mr. Brett and Mr. Hasbrouck, whose accent is described as ‘mid-lantic’–I do wonder if Clement is a bit of a dig at Brett.  It may simply be that I can’t imagine anyone else as Holmes anymore.  To me, it was a grand and glorious thing to know back then that I was witnessing the most brilliant and compelling thespian interpretation of The Great Detective, and let me just say the current interpretations have only confirmed me in that belief.

But Westlake more than once expressed a certain coldness towards Holmes, even while referring to him constantly.  He must have been reading Conan Doyle long before he got to Hammett.  Something about the authoritative nature of the character–and the writing–may have rubbed him the wrong way.  I’m probably saying too much here.  Oh well, it’s not that great a mystery.)

So these are the four famous detectives, and Sam feels like a rather odd duck among them, since he’s the only actor to ever play Packard, a creature of television, with no literary antecedents.  He also feels out of place because the other three had much more varied interesting careers than him before settling into the roles that ended up defining them.  I mean, it is a bit like they stuck Magnum P.I. or Remington Steele into this movie.  (Except Selleck and Brosnan never had much trouble finding work afterwards, did they?  Sure, rub it in, why don’t you? )

Murder_by_death_movie_poster

(I would imagine Westlake might have thought something along the lines of “If they’re going to call me the Neil Simon of the crime novel, I might as well live up to the name.  Or down to it.”)

So anyway, you know what’s coming, right?  I don’t even have to say it.  But I will anyway.  Somebody is murdered.  The entire party of actors, their various companions, the producers, and one director (named Jack French, another clue to the author’s identity for those who had read The Rare Coin Score) were already in a somber mood, having witnessed the pilot who flew them in crashing into the sea as he tried to make it back to the landing strip in a major storm–a storm that has made the island completely inaccessible for the time being).  He wasn’t murdered–as far as anyone knows–but everybody is thinking about death now.

And then Daphne Wheeler, Harriet’s ‘longtime companion’ (as they used to say), is found dead in the bathroom, an apparent suicide–but hark!  Clement finds a clue!  A small feather floating in the bathtub, that proves she was smothered with a pillow, then dragged into the shared bathroom, where the killer slashed her wrists to feign suicide.  Quickly Watson, the game’s afoot!   And that quote is originally from Henry V, but never mind that now!

Harriet, who had a terrible fight with Daphne at dinner, is obviously a suspect, but her grief and shock seem too overwhelming to be an act–then again, she’s one of the finest stage-trained actresses of her generation.  Jack French, a recovering alcoholic, knew Daphne from before–she may have had some damaging information about him.  Professor Plum–oh never mind, bad joke.

In the meantime, George, the Jamaican cook hired on by Danny and Mort, assumes the police will pin it on him because he’s black.  Which to be fair, is exactly how a lot of real policemen play Clue, but Sam reassures him that in a situation like this, there’s no way the real cops won’t find the real killer.  When they arrive.  After the storm has ended. Days from now.  Did I mention somebody smashed the radio after Daphne’s murder was called in?   It’s starting to seem less of a murder mystery than an homage to hoary dramatic clichés.  Made somewhat believable by the fact that the murderer is clearly reacting to those very clichés.  But why?

Jack French, aggravated in the extreme by Clement’s impromptu investigation, disappears before anyone can really question him–search parties come up empty, but there is no way he could have left the house during the storm, short of falling to his death.  There’s a cryptic message written on his bed sheet–in Pepto Bismol.

Harriet is incommunicado.  Clement is all agog at the chance to solve a real mystery, become Holmes in the flesh.  And Fred keeps resorting to Chan-related aphorisms, many of which he made up himself.  “When danger threatens, is not the time to discuss the price of tea.”   (I never really liked those movies, but I always felt like I should, somehow)

Meanwhile, Sam and Bly are trading quips, drinking, and having lots of sex, which I suppose could be considered an homage to Nick and Nora.  In fact, that’s exactly what it is.  But there’s some dispute over who’s going to play Nick.

There’s an expression Bly gets in her eye every once in a while that I think of as her plot-maven look.  Being a writer of television sitcoms, she lives with those simple threads of storyline on which one strings the broad dialogue that goes in front of the laughtrack.  It’s impossible work unless you have a knack for it, like Bly, in which case it’s apparently very easy.  And from time to time I can see her busy brain reducing the circumstances of reality to the dimensions of a sitcom pilot, looking for the storyline, the useful pegs, the broadly laid-in motivations.  She had that look in her eye when I finished telling her about the initials in Jack French’s bed, and I said to her, “There’s no laughtrack on this one, Bly.”

“Somebody,” she said darkly, “is playing a double game.”

Bly really is the life of this party, the one making all the sharpest pop cultural references (she and Fred have this running bit where he’s an evil Japanese commandant and she’s a plucky Yank).  She’s actually rather delighted to be there in the midst of this dangerous situation, and isn’t really that bothered by all the murdering going on–and yet, she sobbed in Sam’s arms after witnessing the pilot die in that crash.  Basically, she’s so familiar with the genre the killer is parroting, the other deaths aren’t real to her–or to us.

That’s kind of the point Westlake is making here, and he’s made it before.  The murder mystery, as practiced by most writers, is a distancing device.  We’re all going to be killed by something, but the mystery story makes death a solvable problem, with an identifiable culprit who can be apprehended and punished (unlike cancer, which just recently murdered one of my dearest friends–no arrests so far).  How does finding the murderer and punishing him or her make the murder any less horrible?

Well, maybe some people might say there’s a point to that.  Harriet Fitzgerald, for one.  Harriet truly loved Daphne, and she’s learning that she differs greatly with Miss Marple over the healing powers of knowledge and justice.  She doesn’t want justice.  She wants vengeance.  She knows the killer will be found once the police arrive.

“But then,” she said, “they’ll fly him away to the mainland and give him psychiatric examinations, and the newspapers will be full of headlines about him, and the picture will be on television and he will be treated as a very important and interesting celebrit for a while.  And even more so if it turns out to be a woman.”

“That’s all true,” I admitted.  “But only for a few months.  And then the trial–”

“Commitment, I should think,” she corrected me, “as he or she certainly is mad.  In any event, whatever jurisdiction we eventually turn out to be in, whatever set of laws our murderer will face, the death penalty is extremely unlikely.  So, whether it’s commitment or a trial, at the end of it there he’ll be, or there she will be, warm and cozy, with a lovely scrapbook of clippings. And here I’ll be, without Daphne.”

“I see what you mean.”

“It’s more than unfair,” she said.  “Because, no matter what, he’s going to win.  Or she’s going to win.  It doesn’t matter if that person is caught or not, he’s won already.  So that’s why I would like to murder him–or her–myself.  I just see that gloating figure, in a comfortable little room somewhere, not even a cell really, leafing through the scrapbook.  I’d like to remove that vision from both my imagination and from reality.”

“I can see why you would.”

“So that’s another difference between Miss Marple and myself,” Harriet said with a very cold smile.  “She wants to solve murders and tidy up.  I want to commit a murder.  That’s my kind of tidying up.”

(Note to self: How much Patricia Highsmith was Westlake reading in this time period?  Had they actually met?   Did they ever?  Based on comments he made, I believe he actually wrote that screenplay adaptation of Ripley Under Ground before she passed.  He loved her writing. He wasn’t so sure about her, personally.)

As Sam ponders the clues, homing in on the answer, the score is up to three murders.  Mort Weinstein is found stabbed to death.  Jack French is shortly after discovered in the walk-in freezer, with a wire hanger wrapped around his neck (he got it before Mort did).  The murderer is telling them something, not once, but three times.  But what the murderer is telling them is a lie.   There’s no heart to these murders, no comprehensible motive.  They aren’t personal.  That’s what makes them so unforgivable.

But all through the story, the people there are distracting themselves from the horror (and the fear of death, since any of them might be next) with seemingly pointless conversations about fiction, movies mostly.

Fred’s companion, Crosby Tucker, a tall glamorous African American torch singer, at least has something useful to do–Clement’s wife collapses, and since her formidable mother only let her become a singer on condition that she study to be a nurse (in case the singing career failed), she’s coming in quite handy.  And pretty sure I detect a little echo of a character from Up Your Banners, but times have certainly changed, and this is not an exercise in social realism with a satiric filter, like that book.

But mostly they just eat, drink, and gather together for safety, talking about things that don’t matter (though never the price of tea)–except they do matter, to this particular professional gathering, because changes in the fashions of popular entertainment impact them all.

For example, what happened to the western?  How could that whole genre just up and die, or at least wither away to a mere shell of its former self, after being so dominant for so long?   Clement (who has contempt for any genre he can’t get work in) says the audience grew tired of them because they were just rote repetitive formula.  Fred points out that mysteries are mainly pretty hackneyed as well, while Crosby says  that most westerns had stopped being original long before they began to disappear from big and small screens.  Harriet says society stopped valuing the rugged individualist so much.  She mentions Star Wars as an example of something that may have western trappings, but is really much more about team effort.

Danny Douglas has the best answer–or at least the answer I know Westlake himself most favored, since he mentioned it in an essay once.  Then again, probably all the characters in this debate are expressing opinions he’s considered himself–the Shavian approach.  An internal debate, made external. Anyway, Danny says the western killed itself, via Deconstruction.  As in Derrida.  But much less intellectual.

Bly protests that deconstruction has its uses (Sam knows she herself wrote that kind of story before she sold out to Sitcomland).  There’s nothing wrong with a story that’s aware it’s a story.  That’s a valid approach, she thinks.  Danny thinks it’s an inherently self-defeating approach, particularly for popular entertainments.  Here’s part of their exchange–

Crosby said, “What do you mean, the story’s aware it’s a story?”

“By referring to itself,” Bly told her, “and by referring to the whole line of stories that came before it in that genre.  In a western, the tough but honest foreman is aware that he’s an archetype, that Ward Bond is the basic figure he’s modeled after, and that the purpose he’s been created for is to represent that element of the story and not to live a regular life like a regular human being.  He knows he’s a Kabuki mask, and once we all agree that’s what he is, then he can comment on and even disagree with the values his character represents.  Like Harvey Korman in Blazing Saddles, who knew he was playing the smooth evil saloon owner and was delighted at how well he was doing the part.

“That’s the trouble with deconstruction right there,” Danny said.  “You can’t tell a straight serious story with it.  You can only do comedy, and the comedy usually comes out pretty goddam arch.  Once you’ve got westerns like Dirty Dingus Magee and Goin’ South, where the actors spend all their time winking at the audience, the western was through.  Audiences thought they were being made fun of, and audiences don’t like that.  So they left the wise guys winking and grinning and making believe they were hip, and the audience went somewhere else.”

The irony of the exchange, of course, is that Westlake is doing precisely what he’s critiquing here, referring directly to earlier manifestations of the mystery form, and winking to beat the band.  That quite assuredly means he doesn’t expect anyone to really believe in Sam Holt, and doesn’t really believe in Sam himself.

This was the last of the Holt novels completed before Tor Books ruined his fun by revealing he was Holt, but assuming he didn’t write this in after that happened (and I find that hard to believe), he was having problems with this series well before that small professional betrayal occurred.

And he’s suggesting, obliquely, that the mystery may be running into the same problems as the western–at least as he writes it.  Mystery is a larger more complex genre than the western, but except for the police procedural (which takes itself perhaps too seriously, except for the occasional outright parody–and do check out Angie Tribeca when you get a chance), isn’t the current crop of TV mysteries incredibly arch and self-referential–and low-rated?

And when’s the last time we saw a real cerebral whodunnit mystery story on the big screen that amounted to anything much?  No, those garish SciFi Action pics with Robert Downey Jr. do not count.  Noir is a separate room within the mystery manse.  And yeah, they still make westerns too, but c’mon.  It’s dead, Jim.  As a viable genre, dead.  Every western that comes out now is either an homage to or a commentary on past westerns.  Danny’s right.

He’s also dead, by the end–the tally is four.   I don’t know how this works with the title.  The titles for this series can be problematic as well.  The entire series is problematic.  And I have to admit, I enjoy the problems.  But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t much rather have an organic well-balanced crime story that fully grips and convinces me while I read it, even if I look for hidden meanings in it afterwards.  Westlake at his best delivers that kind of story as well as anyone ever has.  But he must have been asking himself, more and more often, if he’d ever do it again.

Critics often go crazy over self-referential deconstructionist genre stories, preferring them to the stories they’re sending up.  But Westlake is clearly (and I would say deliberately) blocking any potential appreciation on that front by mocking and deriding this type of storytelling even as he resorts to it.  You remember what he said–a hack is someone who writes something he does not believe himself.  Is this hackwork?

At points, yes–self-consciously so.  But then he turns it on its head–the winking stops, and the story becomes deadly serious, reminding us that no matter how many pop cultural references we amass within our fevered overloaded brains, trying to avoid reality, reality comes for us all, regardless.  Harriet, the most deadly serious character in this book, the least enamored of her alter-ego, gets most of the best lines towards the end.

“The survivors,” Harriet said without expression, looking at her plate, “take longer to die.”  No one found anything to say to that.

The drug angle resurfaces late in the story with a vengeance–people in showbiz quite often self-medicate to avoid the crushing weight of reality impinging on their unreal world, and that comes with many terrible consequences, to them, and to a host of poor people who get caught up in the drug trade ( I’m all for ending the War On Drugs, but face it, if we legalized every drug there is, they’d just invent new ones for people to buy for that thrill of illegality–we’re going to legalize crystal meth?  PCP?  Heroin?  Crack cocaine?).  It turns out drugs are behind the murders–including the drug called fame.

Fred and Sam had been in a sort of friendly competition over who might solve the mystery (Clement too, but there was nothing friendly about that).  As the book draws near to its conclusion, and Sam is second-guessing how he’s done here, the lives he might have saved if he’d been quicker on the uptake, Fred offers a combination of reassurance mingled with good advice.  And he can’t resist going back into character, but somehow it works this time.  There’s nothing wrong with a bit of wry self-awareness, as long as it doesn’t get out of control.

“Well, what I think is,” Fred went on, “if this will make you feel any better, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have seen it.”  Grinning at me, he dropped into his Charlie Chan.  “Wise man who know limits of own wisdom not likely to fall off edge.”

“Thanks, Fred,” I said.  “I appreciate that.”

“Oh it’s sincere,” Fred told me.

“Sunshine,” Bly said, looking out the window

Donald E. Westlake knew the limits of his wisdom–and  his talents–all too well. He was pushing against them hard in the late 80’s, looking for an out. He knew Sam Holt wasn’t it.  But he owed Tor Books another one.  So that’s next in the queue (even though it came out after two other Non-Holt books, because I am more than ready to ring down the curtain on this exhibit).

There is no equivalent to A Jade In Aries in this series (how could a story about gay men as an outsider subculture work in the context of the entertainment world in the 1980’s?). But there is a pretty clear analog to Don’t Lie To Me, the last (and least) of the Tobins.  Will the last of the Holts also be the least?   Tell you next time.

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20 Comments

Filed under Samuel Holt Novels, What I Tell You Three Times Is False, novel

20 responses to “Review: What I Tell You Three Times Is False

  1. Martin

    You’ve offered some insights into the story that I hadn’t considered and, now, I want to read it again. As soon as I finish SMOKE, I think I’ll pull it from the bookshelf and give it a go. Thanks!

    • Ah, Smoke. That one’s going to be a two-parter for sure. I was sure as hell not doing any two-parters for the Holts, but I did want to do that preliminary piece, just to get some stuff out of the way first. I find myself talking more about style than story with these. And that’s no coincidence. The book shapes the review.

  2. I’m glad you highlighted the deconstruction conversation, not only because Danny’s views closely match my own, but also because it feels authentic and true in a book that is otherwise pretty self-consciously phony-baloney. Fiction works best when the audience makes a pact with the author, agreeing to invest in its make-believe world and care about its make-believe characters as if they were real people. But if the story keeps calling attention to the fact that it’s all artifice (which… no duh; that’s not exactly a revelation), then what’s the goddamned point? Why should I care? (To play devil’s advocate, I care when the story within the story demands that I do, even knowing it’s all artifice — as in, say, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a movie in which that’s the point.)

    I actually think deconstruction works better in non-fiction. When David Foster Wallace deconstructs (to the minutest detail) the artifice in a supposedly real-life activity like taking a pleasure cruise, I’m riveted. But pointing out that fiction is all a fiction seems somewhat tautological to me.

    Which is not what Westlake is doing here, thankfully; but blocking that avenue leaves our archetypes behaving in archetypal ways for no apparent reason other than the story demands that they do.

    • Exactly so. And Westlake must have known that while he was writing it, which must have been frustrating for him. It was nothing new for him to refer to the genres he was working in (he did it sublimely well in Adios Scheherazade, though of course that was basically a dead genre that he felt contempt for and was quite happy to deconstruct), but he took it to new levels of artifice here, and of course the idea was that he’d be doing deconstruction more seriously–this isn’t a farce, a parody, a satire. It’s a story with a frivolous style and concept, and a tragic emotional core. One hell of a juggling act, and I don’t think he could allow himself the writing time to pull it off. I don’t think he’d have even tried if he hadn’t been struggling with Holt to begin with.

      I don’t have a problem with a story that knows it’s a story. I don’t really have a problem with winking at the audience, though let’s be real here–Charles Chaplin and Oliver Hardy were doing that in the silent era. It’s nothing new. I’m sure they were doing it from the stage of the Globe Theatre. When you actually have a live audience to wink at, why not? Third walls are made to be broken, right? (Well, this is actually an argument still ongoing in dramatic circles, and I refer to this next week).

      But comedy can’t make itself irrelevant by admitting it’s comedic. The western, by contrast was particularly vulnerable to this type of storytelling, because it’s such a serious conservative form with such basic limited themes. There was always some humor in it, though I think the whole concept of the designated comic relief character owes much to westerns–it’s compartmentalized most of the time, a distraction. People enjoy seeing the western’s most venerable archetypes mocked, and archetypes in general, but maybe this hearkens back to that quote from Walter Kerr I referenced a few weeks back–the clown needs tragic heroes to mock. If all the heroes are clowns, then nothing is funny anymore. You need to maintain the balance between the two.

      Worth trying, I suppose. Not worth trying again. And the next book will be much more rooted in reality, while still very much of its genre. Still and all, he must have known on some level that Holt wasn’t going to work out, even as he handed in the first three novels.

      You think maybe part of him was relieved Tor Books gave him an excuse to pull the plug? The funny thing is, the books seem to have sold well enough. If they’d been huge sellers–or if Hollywood had shown some serious interest in Holt–I wonder.

  3. rinaldo302

    This was the first of the Holt series that I read — I happened to see it in a New display in a store, and the premise looked like exactly my kind of thing. (And Then There Were None plus showbiz insidery stuff). And it was, but the actual experience didn’t live up to what I’d anticipated, enough so that I traded it in at a used-book store (and wasn’t tempted to explore its predecessors). Then years later when I found out who the author was, I had to buy it again. to complete the shelf.

    “how could a story about gay men as an outsider subculture work in the context of the entertainment world in the 1980’s?” I can imagine such a story, unless I’m missing a nuance of what you mean here. There was certainly still a prevailing closeted atmosphere, especially among performers concerned about losing their bankability. That’s not the same situation as the Tobin story, but then none of the analogues are exact. And it might well not have been a good book in any case; in the 1980s AIDS would likely have been an element in people’s fears, and that tends to be too much freight for a lightweight mystery. (I found this to be true of its callous use in Trust Me On This.)

    • You could be right. But then Westlake really would be doing the Tobins over again, book by book, and each book inferior to its 60’s counterpart. Yes, there was still plenty of prejudice (and is now), but can you really say gay men were outsiders in 80’s Hollywood? They were, and are, in many ways, the ultimate insiders there.

      But since the Holts were more about insider subcultures, and he did explore current social issues in them (of which AIDS was one of the grimmest), maybe–certainly might have worked better than actors playing famous detectives on a mysterious island.

  4. rinaldo302

    “I don’t have a problem with a story that knows it’s a story.” Me neither. In fact, I love it IF it’s done really well, and feels organic to the tale being told. A prime example for me is The French Lieutenant’s Woman. That may have been the first example of the technique that I encountered (and I didn’t know it was coming), so it made all the bigger impression on me.

    • I never did read the book. The movie–eh. Of the two Jeremies, I’ll take Brett. 😉

      • rinaldo302

        Forget the movie (yuck) — read the book. (Except it’s impossible to come to it innocent now.)

        • My reading list stretches from here to the horizon. And honestly, it’s not my kind of thing. I still have to read the actual Thomas Hardy. So deconstructed Hardy (which is what I vaguely imagine Fowles to be, and feel free to tell me I’m wrong) isn’t high on my agenda right now.

          You know what I just finished? A biography of David Goodis, written by a Frenchman living in L.A. who doesn’t even like Goodis that much. Or the French, for that matter. And it was a brilliant brilliant book. To someone of my hyperspecialized tastes. 😉

  5. rinaldo302

    Life is short, and we all have our own priorities for what we can get to during the time we have. TFLW is in my all-time top 10 books (or 15, which is what I recall we were doing on Facebook a couple years ago), but that’s me.

    You’re not really wrong in your supposition, though I would call it more “general novel of the period” rather than specifically Hardy. (I’m not crazy about Hardy, but I’ve read several.) Anyway, it’s the deconstruction that makes it special. For me, obviously.

    • If you’re going to read a deconstructed version of something, probably best to read the undeconstructed version first, and in fact to be extremely familiar with it. Otherwise, what’s the point?

      But that’s a genre in itself, isn’t it? Nobody refers to it as such, but that’s what it is, all the same. For a while there, all these men wanted to write socially insightful novels about beautiful unfortunate women thrown to the vagaries of fate in some way, rejected by society. It wasn’t just Hardy, by any means. Flaubert (Madame Bovary), Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), George Moore (Esther Waters), and of course Dreiser later did the American version (Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt). Edith Wharton, not wanting to be left out of the fun, did The House of Mirth, among others. And finally, Westlake and Block did the somewhat deconstructed tag-team sleaze paperback version (A Girl Called Honey, and there were probably a million others by various people’s pseudonyms). I’ve read the sleaze one and Tolstoy’s. The rest are on the list. You see my problem. 😐

  6. > Did I mention somebody smashed the radio after Daphne’s murder was called in?

    And ate all the coconuts, so The Professor can’t build a new one. (Did I mention how impossible it is to take this book seriously?)

    • Now lovey, don’t be sarcastic, it’s so middle class. 😉

      Westlake wasn’t taking it seriously, and that’s the idea, and he does things like this all the time in other books, and it works fine (I mean pretty soon he’s writing a book about an invisible burglar, and it’s a damned good one). Because, you see, those books are supposed to be funny. But he’s stuck somewhere in the middle here. He wants the darkness of Stark and Coe back, without sacrificing the more playful aspects of Westlake–trying for a new voice, remember. Only it’s not coming together this time. It’s just odds and ends out of his voluminous mental remainder bin.

      There’s a lot of the first three Grofields in the Holts–the same tendency to cast our protagonist in a play featuring well-worn conventions of the mystery form, and he’s got to act his way out of it, even though he wants out of that form entirely.

      But even the Grofields aren’t this heavy-handed. And Grofield himself takes almost nothing seriously, which works better for this approach–Holt has a sense of humor but it’s mainly confined to his interactions with Anita and Bly, and maybe Robinson. Otherwise he’s pretty damn square. And no doubt square-jawed.

      Oh, and blonde, apparently. I couldn’t get that in before. At one point, he and Fred Li startle each other as they’re out investigating a noise one night–Fred says he’s realized tall blonde giants dressed all in black make him nervous. Only reference in all four books to Sam’s hair color, and I guess it’s hard to gracefully mention something like that in a first-person narrative, but I’d already head-cast Sam as Joe Manganiello. Now who’s he supposed to be–Bo Svenson in the second Walking Tall movie? That Blofeld flunky Bond tosses to the piranhas in You Only Live Twice? No wonder Fred was scared.

      Westlake doesn’t do blonde male protagonists very often–in fact, this is the only time I can think of, offhand. That in itself may tell us something about how far out of his comfort zone he’s strayed. His next series protagonist is also blonde, and also problematic, but she works out somewhat better. In the first book, anyway. Well, they have more fun, I’ve heard. 😐

      • It’s hard for me to cast him, because I don’t believe in him for a second. Mayne Tom Selleck, because I never believed that Magnum was anyone besides an actor saying his lines. (More or less like the entire cast of Murphy Brown.)

        Actually, I’ve got one: Tom Berenger, who played an actor who played a TV detective in The Big Chill. Actually, the movie came out in 1983 and the first Holt book in 1986; JT Lancer might have been part of the inspiration for Jack Packard.

        • rinaldo302

          I was thinking of Fred Dryer, who had a series right around then (and little else, ever), was unusually tall, and not really trained in acting. Looking back at photos though, I see that he wasn’t as blond as my memory made him. 🙂

          • I absolutely can’t stand him. He was funny enough on Cheers, but a block of wood on Hunter. Bly and Anita would never date that guy casually, let alone agree to share him. Does not work for me. Why are we discussing a show that nobody will ever ever make? Oh right, we do that here. 😉

        • Holt’s TV character was apparently more cerebral than J.T Lancer seemed to be from the opening credits of that other fake show (“I want a margarita and I want it NOW!”). And Berenger’s character (the one who had sex with Jobeth Williams, lucky bastard) was an idiot. Berenger himself, quite a good actor, which of course does not mean he’s not also an idiot sometimes, but that’s another subject.

          However, Berenger’s ‘real-life’ character is named Sam. So yeah, it’s probably in the mix somewhere. Physically and motivationally speaking, no resemblance.

          Thing is, Holt being really tall is such a major part of the character–that he’s larger than life–I don’t see how you could cast anybody who wasn’t at least 6’4, and even that would be a compromise. Actually, I suspect the physical model for the character was Sterling Hayden (6’5, blonde, and referred to as a ‘Viking God’ in the early studio promotion for him). But Hayden was the polar opposite of Sam–he mainly despised the pictures he made, kept walking away from Hollywood, getting on a boat and sailing around the world, and Hollywood kept luring him back with filthy lucre (which he needed to maintain the damn boat and pay the crew). Sam may be tired of doing Packard, but he loved the work, wants to do more of it, and they won’t let him. And he doesn’t seem to have much interest in boats.

          And that’s intentional irony on Westlake’s part, I’m convinced. He’s reversed the polarity–Hollywood walks away from Sam. Because being a TV star is different from being a movie star. Lots of money (if the show hits big), but they just don’t look at you the same way.

          I’m reading Farewell My Lovely just now–never read a Chandler novel before, finally getting around to it–and I don’t believe in Philip Marlowe for a minute, but from the moment he opened his mouth, I knew–Mitchum. So why the hell didn’t Hollywood know that? Jesus Christ, it’s obvious! Bogie was okay in the role, Dick Powell certainly put his own spin on it, but none of them fit the trenchcoat like Mitchum, who could have tossed those lines off in his sleep and done a better job–and he only got the role in ’75 (when he was in his late 50’s) because Richard Burton (!!!) said no. God damn it, what a wasted opportunity. John Huston directs, Mitchum plays Marlowe, and Laird Cregar as Moose Malloy. (Victor McLaglen maybe even better, but he was getting old). DUH.

          You don’t have to believe in a character to enjoy him or her. But I guess you mean he doesn’t grip you, and I get that, but I do find him interesting–because he’s a window into the mind of his creator. And you know, spending a few years of my life blogging about that guy, so I appreciate any help I can get. I mean, if I only read Parker and Dortmunder novels, I’d have no freakin’ idea who Westlake was. A writer may put more of himself into his or her better works, but thing is, they also cover their tracks better. It’s the misfires that really tell you something.

          (I should mention that nobody could have improved on Jack O’Halloran’s Moose Malloy, but that’s because he really WAS Moose Malloy).

          • Your mind went straight to Jobeth Williams? Mine too.

            • My mind only, alas.

              Used to go see movies just because she was in them–which was not, it must be said, the best way to choose which movies to go see, but I have no regrets. Well, I regret she didn’t do more nudity. And yet I did not go see Kramer vs. Kramer, and have yet to ever watch more than a few minutes of that film. Go figure.

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