The fundamental cause for the split between Stanislavsky and Meyerhold at the very beginning of the century lay in their divergent views of the place of the audience in the theatrical event. Stanislavsky taught that ‘an actor must have a point of attention and this point of attention must not be in the auditorium’ and that ‘during a performance…it is important that the sequence of objects you focus on should form a solid line. That line must remain on our side of the footlights and not stray once into the auditorium.‘ Meyerhold always opposed this conception of the actor deliberately and unwaveringly excluding the spectator from his consciousness and as early as 1907 posited an actor who ‘stands face to face with the spectator and freely reveals his soul to him, thus intensifying the fundamental theatrical relationship of performer and spectator.’ For Meyerhold, the audience was the vital fourth dimension without which there was no theatre. The other three dimensions–the playwright, the director, and the actor–worked to no avail if they had no audience, for it was somewhere between them and their audience that theatre ‘happened.’
From Vsevolod Meyerhold, by Robert Leach
The receptionist gave me a jaded look as I emerged from the elevator and sauntered toward her. “Hi, beautiful,” I said, and smiled like an idiot under my moustache. “Would you tell Mr. Henry that Ed Dante’s here?” Instead of trying to disguise my well-known voice, I used the flat nasal Long Island twang I’d grown up around.
“Of course,” she said, cool and professional. “If you’ll take a seat.”
I kept the stupid smile and leaned forward, shifting some of my weight to my palm, pressed down on her table. “And what’s your name?” I asked.
She was used to jerks. “Miss Colinville,” she said, clipping the syllables off, her eyes astonishingly hostile.
“Brrrr,” I said, still grinning as I turned up the collar of an imaginary overcoat. “I’ll be over there fighting frostbite,” I told her, pointing at an empty area of the room.
“You do that,” she agreed, but she did release a faint and frosty smile as she reached for the phone to announce my presence.
That was sufficient. I wanted to be enough of a jerk to go with my appearance, but not so obnoxious that no one would talk to me. So I went over and sat on a flowery sofa and beamed at the groups of chatting people as though I’d just love to join in. As expected, they worked very hard not to be aware of me.
The fact is, within obvious limits we do decide what we look like. Our clothing, jewelry, eyeglasses, hairstyles, way of standing and walking, a hundred other things, all go together to create that person the rest of the world sees. Every element of that involves a choice, and in our choices we make a lot of declarations, including which other human beings we’re most comfortable having contact with.
I would guess Westlake started this novel in something of a foul mood. He’d set out to create a brand new nom de plume, coupled with a brand new protagonist, which would test whether he could, in middle age, do what he routinely did as a younger man, create a literary persona and reputation out of thin air. He wrote three Holt books in a row, barely stopping to take a breath in-between. And he was not happy with the results.
In fact, the Holt mysteries got decent enough reviews, presumably enjoyed respectable sales–most mystery writers would have been well-pleased. But Westlake held himself to higher standards, and for him the experiment in self-reinvention was ruined by the fact that Tor Books had revealed his identity in the course of promoting the novels. And as I’ve said several times already, I don’t think that was the half of it.
As we saw in the last review, he’s arguing with himself in one chapter–questioning the very approach he’s taken to writing the third book, and really the series as a whole. He’s hitting a wall. He’d always had a bit of a split personality as a writer, and I don’t just mean that he wrote in different styles. Part of him wanted to focus with laser-like intensity on story and character, keeping the underlying themes of the work well-hidden–that side found its ultimate expression in the Parker novels, though there’s much of it in the Tobins as well, and in the early hardboiled novels under his own name.
But another part of him loved to play with words and ideas, to philosophize, to mock the very genres he used to get his points across, to wink at the reader from the page, bring us all in on the joke. That’s the part of him that wrote the comic works, the criminal farces, the satires, the parodies–mainly under his own name. He could do both approaches superbly well when at the top of his game–but in the Holt books, he tries both at once–a hybrid approach–and neither is working very well. His inner Meyerhold is not getting along with his inner Stanislavsky, and why do I feel this weird conviction he’d have understood that analogy a lot better than I do?
So in my opinion–and that’s all it is, but I’m not backing down from it–he was unhappy with the Holt books in ways that had nothing to do with the perfidy of a publisher. The man started his career with Scott Meredith, one of the most double-dealing bastards in the history of western letters. He’d done business with most of the major houses in New York, and a fair few minor ones, and he had precious little good to say about any of them, much as he respected the genuine professionals he was fortunate enough to work with. No one ever had a less idealized view of that industry than Westlake. He can’t have been that surprised that Tor hadn’t honored their pledge to keep his secret, because they wanted the books to sell better.
If he’d been happy with the Holt books, he’d have kept writing them, regardless of whether people knew it was him or not (and as some readers have revealed in the comments section, that was not widely known at the time, nor was it for many years after the books came out). That’s what I think. But he’d signed a contract. He owed Tor one more. So that’s the frame of mind he’s in writing this one. That contractual obligation frame of mind. I don’t know if he told them this was the last one when he was writing it, or when he handed it in.
I do note that the dust jacket, for the first time, calls it “A Samuel Holt Mystery.” As if it was a continuing series. It’s not marketed as the final chapter in Holt’s story, and you’d think it would be, because that would be good for sales too. Could be he kept his options open, just in case it was a big seller.
Still and all, Westlake never really wrote a true finale for any of his series characters, other than Levine. We have to assume he at least had the idea in his head that he was writing the last book in this series, if not necessarily a definitive finish to the strange narrative of Samuel Holt.
And wouldn’t you know, this may just be the best of the bunch. My personal favorite is the second, and I greatly admire aspects of the first–the third is mainly fascinating for the window it gives us into the author’s mind, his doubts about what he’s supposed to be doing as a storyteller.
But the fourth, which closely (and no doubt consciously) mirrors certain aspects of the fifth and final Tobin novel, actually succeeds in clarifying Samuel Holt, as a character and a writer–and an actor. Just in time for him to make his exit, stage left. Without any real resolution of his central dilemmas, but short of killing him off, I don’t see how Westlake could have done that.
As we’ve seen, Westlake did not like killing off his protagonists. Though he made a partial exception to that rule, in what you might call a belated postscript to the Holts, stuck into an entirely different book that Holt is not a player in. I’m not sure how seriously anyone should take that postscript. We’ll talk about that. But let’s talk about this book first.
No old friend in a jam asks for Sam Holt’s assistance this time. Nor is he stuck in a spooky murder house in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of fellow actors who also play detectives. He does have to solve a murder mystery, but who is the victim? Sam Holt. Or rather, somebody who plays him on TV.
Sam’s coming back to New York on some company’s private jet (ah, the joys of celebrity), with his meticulous manservant, Robinson. Robinson, as mentioned previously, is really an actor who used to play butlers, valets, officious maitre d’s and such. But when he was between gigs, he’d supplement his income by doing that kind of work for real, usually for more successful actors.
On the plane ride back, one of the executives recognizes him from old movies, and turns out to be a huge fan. Robinson is in seventh heaven, not that he’d admit it. Sam, maintaining a diplomatic silence, has to listen to him going on at length about how Bly Quinn, Sam’s sitcom-writing west coast girlfriend, begged for him to play a butler on a pilot she was working on, but then he had to walk off the set, never to return, because they just wouldn’t listen to all the helpful suggestions he was making with regards to his character, or let him rewrite the script. Oh the pain. The pain.
Robinson’s companionship means far more to Sam than the services he provides (Sam clearly lost both his parents long before he was a star), and he’s secretly relieved not to lose his gentleman’s gentleman to Hollywood–which furthermore would be pretty damned embarrassing for Sam, since he still can’t get acting work of any kind. He is, however, bothered by the fact that having once adored Bly, Robinson is now giving her the cold shoulder, as only an actor who specialized in snooty butlers for decades can do. This subplot has been ongoing throughout the series, is not resolved in this book, and I guess Robinson will be holding that grudge forever. So let’s look at the main plot.
Sam and and some other people who own the syndication rights to his show, Packard, have been suing over some ads using an actor playing a parody version of Packard to promote a chain of supermarkets. The lawsuit wasn’t really Sam’s idea (he’s sick of people identifying him with Packard), but he’s expected to participate in it.
The lookalike actor in question, one Dale Wormley (didn’t his agent tell him to change that?), who Sam doesn’t think looks like him (everyone else does), is not inclined to be understanding about this onerous legal necessity to protect Sam’s character and likeness from copyright infringement. Far as he’s concerned, he should be the star, and Sam should be impersonating him in cheesy TV ads.
Since it’s more satisfying to hate a person than a consortium, he approaches Sam on the street in front of his Greenwich Village townhouse, just as Sam is getting back from the airport, and gets abusive–verbally, then physically. Sam, not in a mood for abuse, and trained as a police officer, employs the ‘comealong hold’, bending Dale’s thumb back. The real police arrive, and after giving his side of the story, Sam goes inside, leaving Dale to discuss the general unfairness of life with them.
There’s a later incident at a general audition for a play. Sam is only there to give moral support to his less famous but much busier acting chum Brett Burgess (Brett says the role is ‘Alan Alda as a lumberjack’, which I find interesting since Alan Grofield and a number of Westlake’s comic protagonists always seemed very Alda-esque to me). But then Dale shows up, and assumes Sam is trying to steal this role from him as well. Sam is forced to knock him out. With one punch. Delivered from a sitting position. Impressive.
(Sidebar: The weird thing about Sam, as you may have noticed, is that he’s genuinely badass, can play that part in real life when he has to, and yet Hollywood still won’t hire him to play any fictional badasses who aren’t named Packard. I can’t for the life of me figure out how in the first book, he personally foiled a major terrorist attack in Los Angeles without getting any positive publicity that would have revived his acting career.
I get that he would be unwilling to exploit that kind of event for professional gain, particularly after what happened to his writer friend who was trying to do just that, but wouldn’t the press have caught wind of it? The gutter press, at the very least. In that same book that he fought terrorists in, we’re told that the supermarket tabloids are immediately notified if any major celebrity has some kind of significant interaction with the law, such as being at the scene of an attempted mosque bombing in L.A. The Weekly Galaxy should have had a field day with this. At a certain point in the Holt series there’s more holes than plot, which is most atypical for Westlake.)
So anyway, this is all most unfortunate, stems entirely from misunderstandings and insecurities on Dale’s part, and Sam doesn’t really bear his doppelganger any ill will. He can appreciate that an actor’s life is often frustrating, particularly since he’s feeling quite a bit of that same frustration himself. What he doesn’t appreciate is having the police show up at his door a few days later, and tell him Dale Wormley was found murdered a few blocks from his townhouse. Beaten to death with a two-by-four taken from a nearby construction site.
He’s down in his basement, exercising in the small stationary lap pool he’s installed there (I think they call them ‘endless’ pools now), when Robinson arrives to announce the detectives are there, greatly enjoying the impressive echo effect he can generate down there with his sonorous voice. Detectives Feeney and LaMarca by name, and after going to such pains to show us intelligent professional (and somewhat boring) police officers in the last three books, Westlake has decided he can once more indulge his anti-authoritarian leanings, since he doesn’t have to hide his identity anymore.
Why had I expected them both to be men? I guess the ingrown assumptions don’t change. Anyway, one was male, the other female, both probably in their late thirties. The man was short, chunky, with thinning brown hair and a blobby lumpy face, like something made of Play-Doh. The woman was an inch or so taller than he, big-boned rather than fat, with straight black Vampira hair and a long horsy face. The man wore a brown jacket, checked shirt, dark blue bow tie and gray slacks, while the woman was dressed in a severely cut dark blue suit, plain white blouse, dark hose and sensible shoes. All in all, he looked like a high school math teacher and she looked like the woman who interviews you when you plan to adopt a child.
They prove, if anything, more unpleasant than their oddly detailed descriptions. No good cop, bad cop here–both looking for any possible weakness in Sam’s story. They take their own sweet time telling him they’re from Homicide, and Dale Wormley is dead, and obviously Sam’s a suspect. Not merely because of his two altercations with Dale, but because a young actress who was living with the victim, name of Julie Kaplan, had told them it must be Sam Holt who killed her boyfriend–Dale had driven her out of their shared abode to a girlfriend’s apartment with his long paranoid rants about how this Holt bastard was out to get him, and now she realizes he was right all along!
Julie then shows up at the offices of Morton Adler, Sam’s New York attorney, and maybe my favorite character in these books who isn’t sleeping with Sam (I would assume). Mort is the guy any New Yorker with a lick of sense would want for a lawyer, but I can’t find him in the phone book. Just the Holt books.
A rumpled man with a neat round balding head, Mort’s usual manner is one of shy amusement, as though he doesn’t particularly see why everybody wants to make such a fuss. His office, with its large windows overlooking the remaining air-rights in mid-town Manhattan, is probably large enough, but is so cluttered and messy as to look small. Stacks of papers and books mound messily everywhere, most of them crowned by some recent copy of the New York Times, quarter-folded with the crossword puzzle on top, completed in neat black inked letters.
So Julie wants to apologize–she said what she did in a state of shock over Dale’s murder, and never meant to be taken seriously. But it’s too late to undo the damage, and Mort figures the best thing she can do for Sam is nothing. Let the investigation play itself out.
But in the conversation, she reveals some things about Dale–shows Sam his resume (Sam sourly reflects that it’s not much but still more impressive than his before he became Jack Packard). And she says he was very excited about a major role he was getting in a play that starts rehearsals in three months, the star of which is the well-known actress Rita Colby. Sam is surprised by this. Journeyman actors like Dale don’t get cast in plays that far ahead of opening night.
Feeney and LaMarca keep coming after Sam, even more motivated to nail him after he rashly tells them to fuck off when their questions cross the boundaries of professionalism (and they also plant a story in the papers suggesting he’s a ‘person of interest’ in the case), but he handles them easily enough–between his reporter friend Terry Young and the formidable Mr. Adler, it isn’t long before they’re both off the case entirely, replaced by the much more capable Sergeant Shanley, an attractively chunky female officer he met after his townhouse was invaded by terrorists in the first book. There are no leads on the killer, but the NYPD is satisfied the killer wasn’t Sam Holt. So that’s it, right? Short book.
Sam flies back to L.A. to give the story time to cool off. Without him being present in New York, the local press will lose interest quickly. What he doesn’t count on is that Dale’s mother, who was living vicariously through her son’s career, believed those early stories the two detectives planted, is convinced Sam Holt murdered her son, and won’t let him get away with it. So she files a civil suit, for millions of dollars in damages, accusing Sam of having deprived her of her son. Yeah, we’re all a lot more familiar with that kind of thing now, aren’t we?
It started, Sam’s west coast attorney Oscar Cooperman informs Sam (and us), with the best of intentions. Civil rights activists in the south were being murdered, and local juries wouldn’t convict their killers. So there was no way to seek redress except through civil courts, where the standard of evidence is much more lenient. No presumption of innocence there. It was an understandable tactic to make racist murderers pay for their crimes, and let their associates know they couldn’t kill with impunity anymore.
Thing is, once you’ve opened that door for the families of martyred activists, you’ve opened it for everybody else. This is the social issue of the book (every Holt book’s got to have one), and I have to say, Westlake convinced me. You shouldn’t be able to convict somebody of a capital crime in civil court. The right of families to seek justice shouldn’t mean depriving the rest of us of due process.
Sam and Bly are talking it over, and it’s becoming increasingly clear, the case will drag on for a long long time, and the lawyers will be the only winners. His name will be dragged through the press, and a final decision in his favor won’t change public perceptions. His already stalled career will be stuck in limbo. Sure, maybe he could use it, leverage the notoriety to start playing bad guys (which he’d love to do), but that isn’t how he wants to succeed as an actor, and it’s a dead end street anyway. He’s screwed no matter what he does.
They do a conference call with Mort (who’d be handling the case) and he grimly concurs with Oscar’s assessment of the situation. Sam can settle the lawsuit, therefore admitting guilt. Or it’s war to the knife for years to come, and tons of media coverage of the trial(s). Oscar suggests a change of venue, but Mort says that would just make Sam look guilty and the request probably wouldn’t be granted. Oscar’s response chills Sam to the bone….
“I suppose you’re right,” Oscar said, sounding rueful. “I wish I could take part,” he said, and then he added the absolute worst thing you can ever hear your own attorney say. “It sounds like a fascinating case.”
Sam and Bly talk it over at his agent Zack Novak’s ski lodge, up in the San Gabriel mountains. They have a lot of great sex, as they always do, but it doesn’t really make Sam feel any better. Or you any sorrier for him (it’s an inherent problem with the character–on his worst day, he’s still better off than you ever will be).
Bly, always loving the drama of Sam’s life (so much great material for her scripts), forces him to see that he’s got just one option open to him now. The police in New York have ‘opened’ the Wormley murder case–meaning, in typical bureaucratic doublespeak, that they’ve closed it without resolving it. No more work will be done on it until new evidence crops up, which will probably be never. Unless, of course, some intrepid private investigator, unconstrained by bureaucratic red tape, were to turn some up, crack the case wide open. Gee, who could that possibly be? Hint, hint.
Sam can’t believe it–all he wants to do is put that one role everybody knows him for behind him for good. But apparently God is the biggest Packard fan of all. Or else he’s got a book contract to close out. Either way.
“You know,” I said, “how everybody, at one time or another, dreams about escaping from it all, going somewhere new, getting a new name, starting a new life? This is one of those moments for me.”
Smiling in understanding, Bly said, “So here we are on Monte Cristo.”
“But you aren’t Eddie Dantes,” she said. “You know who you are, and you know what you’re going to do.”
“Oh Christ,” I said, feeling the weight of it landing like an Inverness cape on my shoulders. “It’s so stupid.”
“You don’t have any choice,” she told me. “This time, Sam, there’s nobody else to do it.”
She was right, dammit. I could feel the old stance come back, the set of the head, position of the elbows, placement of the feet. I looked down at Bly, the old smile on my face calm and superior but friendly, the assurance in the very lift of my eyebrows. “Packard’s the name, “Ma’am,” I said. “Jack Packard.”
But he can’t actually go around as Packard. No, he needs a new character, one people don’t know. Ed Dante, unsuccessful aspiring actor (much like the man whose murder he’s trying to solve) , will do fine. Nobody will recognize the Dumas ref (or the Eugene O’Neill ref behind it, but I did–check out one of the quotes leading into my review of the second book in this series). He knows how to change his appearance–he’s still an actor, employed or not.
He’s got professional quality false mustaches, beards, and wigs. He makes himself look a bit like a poor man’s Errol Flynn. The kind of guy most people don’t want to be seen with. That way they won’t look at him too closely. He does other things He’s still six feet six inches tall, but that can’t be helped. Fortunately for him, people don’t generally look past your surface appearance and manner. If you don’t act like a star, they won’t think you are one.
So he heads for Florida, incognito as they say, to see Julie Kaplan, get more information. She was staying with Anita Imperato for a bit, but now she’s got a role in a play over in Miami. He doesn’t learn too much more from her, but there is one interesting scene–he’s staying at a cheap dive hotel (to stay in character, you see), and he comes back to find two Hispanic guys casing his room for valuables. He really ought to get out of there, but he’s not in the mood (because he’s playing Packard, the martial arts expert, in disguise). So he stands his ground (without a gun, which seems strange in Florida)–they come at him with knives. And being such a badass, he beats the crap out of them both, and there’s this one interesting little moment when one of them pulls his wig off in the struggle–
The other one stopped still, astonished, and stared at me. “Pah-karrr?” he asked me, unbelieving, and I kicked him twice: First in the crotch, and as he bent double, in the face.
So obviously the guy had seen him on TV, and couldn’t believe Jack Packard was kicking his ass (among other things)–but for those people who know who the writer ‘Sam Holt’ really is, there’s another level of meaning in the way he pronounces the name–Westlake was having a bit of fun there. Because Sam is acting more like a very different Westlake series character here. He takes their money, intimidates the hotel clerk who clearly gave them the key to his room, and actually drives away in a car belonging to one of them. Really badass–and guess who Westlake is feeling really nostalgic for right about now? Patience, man–he’ll come back when he’s ready.
Having gotten all he could from Julie, Sam jets back to New York (he has a hard time adapting to coach), and has dinner with Terry Young, his wife Gretchen, and Anita. At one point, Gretchen, who has obviously been nursing a bit of a crush on Sam, makes a humorous pass at him while wearing his fake mustache (he says all German women have been into cross-dressing ever since Marlene Dietrich), and he responds willingly–that could have been a subplot later, if there’d been a later. Or maybe not.
What follows is Sam trying to worm his way into Dale Wormley’s professional life–signing up with Dale’s agent, trying out for the role in that play Dale shouldn’t have been able to get a role in, seeing if maybe Rita Colby is involved somehow, seeing if he can find out who might have had a motive for killing Dale. All of this in character, as Ed Dante, but the thing is, Sam is actually enjoying being able to try out for a role without all the baggage of being SAMUEL HOLT.
He obviously can’t take the role in the play, but he’s being an actor just by pretending to be somebody who could take that role. He’s having the time of his life playing this sleaze. He’s going back to his professional roots, without the burden of expectation created by his unearned overnight stardom. The only one who sees through his disguise is Dale’s acting teacher, Howard Moffitt. Who, as Sam tells us (and we’ve seen a version of this character before, in Memory), is a good acting teacher, precisely because he could never be a first-rate actor.
Moffitt, a stooped and craggy tall man of about sixty, reminded me of three or four other acting teachers I’ve met in my career, people who are theoretically fine actors, who not only know how it’s done but–much rarer–know how to communicate their knowledge, but nevertheless their credits in actual performances and productions are amazingly skimpy. Whenever one of these people takes a small part in a movie or a play, talked into it by some old student who’s made good, you see what the problem is: There they are, in the corner of the screen or the stage, acting. You can see them do it. Their strength as teachers is their weakness as performers: they don’t know how to stop showing you how it’s done.
But Moffitt has a good eye for a performance, and he can tell right off Sam is a fake, deduces who he must be. He’s actually surprised a television actor has such good technique (Sam doesn’t know whether to feel complimented or insulted). But however slick the performance, his character shouldn’t have been asking the kinds of questions ‘Ed’ was asking, and goes on asking, until he starts drawing too much attention to himself. And maybe now’s a good time to cut to the chase.
(And never mind that I’m skipping over an entirely different but related murder in this book. When it comes to the Holts, I tend to become a bit synopsis-intolerant. Yes, still not compared to most reviewers, I know.)
Sam comes face to face with the murderer (I see no purpose in revealing who that is), and the murderer doesn’t know who he is, but he’s also realized this guy is asking the wrong kinds of questions, and needs to be shut up permanently.
The motive for the killing was blackmail–Dale Wormley had damaging information he was using to further his career. That’s how he got that plum role in the play. And his murderer is going to kill Sam now, without even knowing it’s Sam. The killer does know this Dante guy, whatever his name is, is really an actor (that couldn’t be faked so convincingly), so the trap is baited with the one thing the killer knows a hard-up actor can’t resist–an audition–different part, different play. Sam is so excited to be really trying out for something, at long last, he drops his guard. Doesn’t think to himself why would there be an audition for a play in a theatre that isn’t even fully built yet?
So the climax is in that very theatre–where else?–and the villain of the piece has a gun. Sam has no choice but to remove his Ed Dante disguise and do the old ghost routine, pretend to be the vengeful spectre of the man who stole his fake identity, and whose life he’s strangely come to inhabit for a short time–see if it buys him a crucial second for attack when the murderer sees not Sam Holt but Dale Wormley in the darkened auditorium.
It works, but only just. Sam is shot several times before he beats the killer unconscious. Nothing necessarily fatal, but he has to find a cab to the hospital in a damned hurry, and if you’ve ever been to New York, you know how that went. He and Sergeant Shanley do the usual post-mortem discussion on who did what to whom and why, there in his hospital room. And then he passes out. Just like Mitch Tobin does at the end of Don’t Lie To Me. It’s about as abrupt and unsatisfying an ending to a multi-book character arc as it was the last time. But it’s the ending, all the same.
(I must belatedly add that he mentions Anita sending food from her restaurant to save him from hospital fare, and he does not mention Bly at all, which defacto means Team Anita WINS! Haha, suck it, Bly shippers!)
I don’t think this would be much of a book for somebody who hadn’t read the previous three. I wouldn’t recommend starting with it. But if something about this series appeals to you, and you stick with it all the way through–it’s not a bad payoff, in spite of the anticlimactic climax. Don’t Lie To Me was a bit of a disappointment after the brilliant storytelling of the first four Mitch Tobin novels–The Fourth Dimension Is Death is a much better finish, if only because one’s expectations are lower–and because Sam Holt, unlike Mitch Tobin after A Jade In Aries, needed to confront his demons–and his demons are all based around his chosen profession that has been refusing to choose him anymore.
But what, Westlake must have been asking himself as he finished it, could he ever do to resolve Sam’s dilemma? Let him become a movie star? Get another series? Segue into a stage career (strongly hinted at here and elsewhere in the series, and Lord only knows, established TV and film stars are all the rage on Broadway now, along with repurposed movie plots, and not sure I’m any too happy about that, but nobody asked me)? Is that really what Sam Holt needs? To disappear into other false personas? Can an actor, whose job is to disappear into alternate identities, ever truly know himself? And isn’t that the proper goal of any Westlake protagonist?
Westlake had started this multi-book saga without knowing how it would end–that I’m sure of. The ‘narrative push’ method of storytelling he sometimes talked about. You tell the story, and as you go, the characters tell you what to do, who they are, what they want. But this character may never know what he truly wants–west coast or east–Hollywood or Broadway–the blonde or the brunette. He’s caught in a limbo of his own making, and there may not be any organic way to resolve his conflicts. Bly gave him the benefit of the doubt, but truth is, Sam Holt only knows himself well enough to know what he doesn’t want.
The one mystery he can never solve is the mystery of his own life. Luckiest of men, and yet perpetually cursed to lament his ‘good bad luck’, as James Tyrone might name it. Living a life most people would deem idyllic–he just can’t get comfortable in the role he’s been cast in. He’s got motivation problems. And his acting coach–the one with the typewriter–has no more idea what to do with him than he does.
And maybe that’s why he killed Sam off via an offhanded mention in a later book (not the first time Westlake had done something like this–Ed Ganolese of The Mercenaries met a similar fate in 361). Most people reading that later novel probably never even knew what Westlake was doing. But truthfully, I think Westlake repented of this later on, and it doesn’t really count. Sam Holt may feel a little sorry for himself sometimes, but he’s not suicidal. You could write it that way, sure. But it’s just too dark an ending for a character who isn’t quite deep enough to merit it. I’m not sure if Sam would thank me for saying that, but I’ll say it anyway.
So that’s Samuel Holt. I could say more, but on the whole, I think that’s enough. There’s other and better books to get to. Maybe the melancholy prince of Bel Air never figured out what to do next, but his creator eventually did. The Holts were probably no more than a couple months’ writing time for the Man of a Hundred Novels. Westlake wrote this hero off as a hopeless case, and went looking for his next big idea. Leaving Sam and his entourage here, in an abandoned dusty wing of The Westlake Museum. And this is where we came in, folks.
And what’s this? Two cold wet noses, prodding me–two accusing sets of limpid brown eyes gazing dolefully in my direction. Max and Sugar Ray, Sam’s boxers! Aw guys, I meant to give you more time, honest I did. Truth is, you didn’t really factor that much into any of the books after the first one. And I promised you a nice walk. You’ve been shut up in here for decades now. Well, let’s go–Central Park’s not very far away, or we could try Van Cortlandt if you really want some room to run. Can’t wait to introduce you to my dog–he’s a Max too, hope that’s not too confusing. He’s a shepherd mix, but he’s been chums with a boxer named Jack Johnson (get it? well, of course you do) for almost ten years now. You’ll get alone fine.
And as the three of us saunter out nonchalantly, the tableau behind us comes to life. Suddenly Anita and Bly are strolling across the room that divides them, to have a little chat–Sam eyes them nervously, wondering what this betides. Mort and Oscar are in an involved legal discussion, and Robinson approaches Bly with what is (for him) an apologetic air. Zack Novak is on the phone, still trying to get Sam a part. Dammit, even Matt LeBlanc had a second act! How hard could it be? Oh well, they’ll have to work all this out for themselves. I have done.
And once I’ve given the dogs some exercise, I’ll be exercising my movie reviewing talents, because next up is the first movie Donald Westlake ever wrote a screenplay for that actually turned out to be pretty damn good. It’s also the first thing he wrote that I ever saw. Long before I ever heard of him, because who ever notices the screenwriter in the credits? Anyway, that’s next in the queue. Or should I say–the List?
(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books, and I can almost hear Mike saying “It should have stayed forgotten.”)
17 responses to “Review: The Fourth Dimension Is Death”
Westlake always was somewhat prescient, mostly by being a keen observer of society. But the Holt books have some startlingly prescient passages (e.g. the previously discussed Middle East discussion from Book 1). It’s eerie to see a washed-up celebrity contemplating a civil trial launched by the parent of one of his alleged murder victims. (And Westlake’s not done with the idea of a celebrity murder trial either, is he? No, he is not, as we’ll soon see.)
On the whole, I think I may have found this one to be the most satisfying Holt (it’s neck-and-neck with 2), in that its deep dive into the main character’s acting chops seems to have finally arrived at the point of Sam Holt. Yes, the premise of the series is deeply flawed, but loved the image of SH running around playing this sleazy, low-rent character. (He would explore this idea again in Backflash — that people are less likely to think that someone acting unpleasant is lying to them.)
And that idea is all too prescient, in light of the current electoral process, eh? Couldn’t he have had some flashes of prognosticative insight about something nice happening, once in a while?
No, he’s most defiinitely not done with celebrities–because he’s convinced that celebrity itself may be the ultimate distorter of identity. Not merely for those who possess it, but for those who envy and obsess over it. But a series of murder mystery novels wasn’t the ideal medium for that. Back to the standalones for a while. Although our next novel (after the movie) did become a series, as you allude. Which ran out of gas even faster than the Holts. Well, he still has Dortmunder–and in a few more years, maybe Pah-karrr? 😉
I’ve never read this one. I’ve ordered it via inter-library loan, and after I read it I’ll get back to you about the reasons I disliked it.
Above and beyond the call of duty. An example to us all. I now hereby award you the Croix de Rouspéter. (Kisses Mike on both cheeks, salutes, while a brass band plays the Magnum PI theme).
I have it sitting on my nightstand, but I suspect I won’t manage to reread it in time for our conversation. Your review makes it sound more fascinating than I remember it, so maybe I ought to.
Well as I recall, your first comments here were in relation to reviews I’d published some time back, so feel free to revive the discussion at any time. One of the undeniable advantages to a blog, as opposed to the perhaps somewhat overspecialized literary journal this particular blog rather unconvincingly poses as.
I actually kind of enjoyed it; Holt was less irritating than usual. It wasn’t a very good whodunnit, though. Matty was obviously a red herring — you can’t introduce the murderer on page 240 of 280. And the trap was far too obviously a trap, from the moment it’s introduced. (Also, why hadn’t he arranged to meet Wormley someplace convenient for a planned murder rather than beat him to death in public with an improvised weapon?)
By the way, did anyone notice that the guy that imitates Sam Holt has the initials DW?
I agree it’s not a great whodunnit, but none of the Holts are. Honestly, I’m not sure Westlake ever truly excelled in this very specific area of mystification. To the extent his mysteries work (and many of them do, brilliantly), it’s for other reasons. It’s hard for him to overcome his basic feeling that the whole exercise is inherently silly. He puts most of his energy into motives–the detective’s and the killer’s–but here he only succeeds with the former. The latter is pretty weak. But then again, he knew Scott Meredith, so he may have found it entirely plausible. Is that a spoiler?
Of the Holts, the best as a mystery alone would be I Know A Trick Worth Two Of That. The worst would be the third, which is ironic. The point of having Sam fall into an obvious trap is that he’s so happy to be an actor again, so deeply immersed in his role as as Ed that he just doesn’t stop to think about it–and that does ring true for me.
And I don’t know if anyone noticed the DW thing, but I didn’t. Another clue to the real mystery, that Tor Books spoiled (though most people never noticed).
Anyway, a more important belated realization is that Anita is attending to Sam at the hospital, and Bly is not even referred to in the final chapter. Since there will be no more Holt books ever, this means Team Anita WINS! I have accordingly edited my review so that members of Team Bly may forever gnash their teeth in the outer darkness. No need to thank me, I live to serve. 🙂
One other point — the “Holt is forced to become Packard again” theme would work much better if this weren’t the fourth time in a year or so that he’s been thrust into a situation where he had to solve a murder.
It’s a real problem. We can be sure Westlake saw it too. But his problem is that Sam’s real problem–his inability to find work as an actor–is going to seem more and more implausible, the more time passes. Obviously a famous TV star could find some kind of work. His Q-factor alone would get him offers. Yes, actors get typecast, one-hit-wonders are a commonplace, but not one-role-wonders. You get other roles, and the only question is whether you get other roles people accept you in.
So there has to be a mystery, because these are mystery novels. But if it’s just once a year (and the first three books came out very close together, remember–Tor must have really been eager about this franchise), that means it’s going to be like six years since he worked by the end of the first one. He’s going to be pushing forty, and still dating two hot women on opposite coasts (how long can that possibly last?), and Robinson will be getting too old to work anymore, and the whole contrived premise flies to pieces. Basically, these four individually improbable stories take place over the course of four seasons. One year in Sam Holt’s life.
And at the end of all this adventure and sex and navel-gazing rumination about the meaning of it all–nothing’s changed. He’s just another year older, and still collecting residual checks, so he’s not even in debt. And btw, I don’t think Tom Selleck is still getting much residual cash from Magnum–they do stop repeating even the biggest hits eventually, except on those old people cable channels I strangely seem to be watching a lot lately.
‘Ageless’ characters only work if they’re not thinking about tomorrow, but that’s all Sam Holt ever thinks about. He’s painfully aware of his age, as all actors have to be, because your age determines which roles you can go for–less for a handsome leading man type, sure, but it’s still there. And it’s not like he’s Harrison Ford or Bruce Willis. He’s just a guy who did a gimmicky mystery show for five years.
So even though Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin solved like 70+ mysteries together, and they don’t seem to be aging at all, it’s not the same thing. Because neither of them is concerned about the future, or the passage of time, or really anything other than solving mysteries (and dining really well in Nero’s case, and bedding classy dames in Archie’s). Westlake is trying to take that kind of formula and make it more believable and he’s making it less believable. Because it’s still too obviously a formula, and the character isn’t comfortable with that formula, even though that formula–and its various implausibilities–got him everything he ever thought he wanted.
It’s more interesting to write about than to read, but it’s still pretty good reading. Just not by the standards of a Westlake book.
Mike, I was doing some reading up on the Gold Medal imprint (the Wikipedia article on Fawcett Publications)–Westlake referred to the first three Travis McGee novels in his introduction to the Holt reprints, talked about how John D. MacDonald wrote them one after the other to get a consistent voice for the books–but in fact there were also commercial reasons for doing this.
So whether it was Westlake’s idea or Tor’s, they were consciously replicating that kind of a launch. The books came out one after the other–probably not once a month, but two in 1986 and one in what I imagine was early 1987. Only it’s a different market–these are Mid-80’s hardcovers, not cheap early 60’s paperbacks. Unlikely to have worked nearly as well. But the first three probably did come out in about a year’s time, maybe less.
And that would explain why Westlake would have the books take place so close in time to each other. It would also explain why he might have rushed them a bit, and maybe not have seen all the problems of the series as clearly as would otherwise have been the case. He probably liked the idea of each story representing a given season. Sam’s existence is itself seasonal, since, as he puts it (one of my favorite quotes from the series, and I finally have an excuse to include it)–
And much as many might envy such an existence, isn’t there also something a mite uncommitted, even contemptible about it? In spring and fall, Sam dates Anita, who is a true New Yorker, born and bred–doesn’t care what happens west of the Hudson River. And in summer and winter he sees Bly, who was raised a Maryland Wasp in horse country, but once she saw California, she bonded with it, and has no desire to ever live anywhere else. Both women know who they are. Who the hell is Sam Holt?
I’m sure Westlake had this very irony in mind, but Sam’s lack of a truly fixed abode is a problem for the series. Travis McGee has lover after lover (they were practically shot out from under him), but he will never abandon his houseboat in Fort Lauderdale. Nero Wolfe can scarcely be persuaded to step outside his townhouse in Manhattan, let alone leave the city altogether. Sherlock Holmes will go right on living at 221B Baker Street, with or without Watson. So a bicoastal detective was certainly an interesting experiment.
The thing about experiments is that most of them fail.
(In Sam’s defense, his description of the climate in New York is only slightly hyperbolic. One heat wave got so bad, dragged on so long, I found myself desperately searching online at work for someplace within driving range that we could escape to–we ended up spending ten days at a pet-friendly hotel in the Adirondacks. But that’s in New York State. I wasn’t Holting out. 😉 )
The lack of any outside reaction to his adventures strains credulity as well. If Tom Sellek thwarted a terrorist attach on American soil a few years after Magnum P.I. was canceled, that would have been pretty big news. If Peter Falk identified Jeremy Brett as a real-life murderer, people would have never shut up about it.
Right–and Westlake sort of tries to cover for this by making it clear in the first book that Sam loathes the idea of using these cases to publicize himself. He wants to be known as an actor, not a detective. He saw what happened to Ross when he tried to use his connection to terrorists to help his career. But it wouldn’t matter what Sam wanted, would it? Not one little bit. It would be huge news, no matter how hard he tried to cover it up. The first story in particular.
And what would happen in the wake of all this publicity? Studio execs would be rushing him en masse, waving enormous checks. And his central problem would be resolved. And the series would be over.
Westlake wrote three books in quick succession, and he came to realize there were problems with the premise and protagonist that just could not be fixed. He hated to give up on a problem before he solved it. So where’s the escape hatch? The publisher conveniently provided one. It’s not only fiction that can have contrived endings, you know.
So nobody wants to talk about books I think influenced The Hunter, huh? Good thing I didn’t plan to make a long-running series out of that. Though I probably could. You know me, Greg. 😉
The name “Dale Wormley” cracked me up, and the initials of course are Westlake’s — appropriate when the book deals with a double. I was also amused by the cryptic DW message written in Peptobismol in the third book…
Never got into that meta-textual wink to the audience (which theoretically now knows who ‘Samuel Holt’ the author really is), but of course ‘Ed Dante’ is pretty winky from a guy whose middle name is Edwin. Thing is, Westlake would have known many people never even cared who wrote these books to begin with, never noticed the promotional stuff from the publisher that outed him. He’ll go on playing the game, trying to get what fun out of it he can, and hoping we’ll do the same (and many of us did).
I can’t remember the Pepto message at all. Been a while. Save an old blogger the trouble of leafing through the book, won’t you? No e-edition for any of these.
The initials are written on bedsheets, and they are those of the first victim, signalling that the second victim is to be seen as a revenge slaying. They happen to be DW.
The thing about the winking is that it’s theoretically just another layer of entertainment. I like it fine. But when you get a lot of it, it can be evidence that some other layer is flawed.
The third Holt novel is, as I said, Westlake getting too deep into the metatextual aspect–and commenting on it. Because he can feel that the story itself isn’t turning out as he’d hope, so he might as well find some other use for it. But there, at least, the DW isn’t so obvious, since he didn’t know when he wrote that that the publisher would out him.
As I said back then, he never intended for Sam Holt to be a mystery that was never solved. Just not so soon, and for such tawdry commercial reasons. He enjoyed hiding behind his various masks–and peeping out at us, giving us a fair chance to find him out. It just didn’t work anymore, as it did in the 60’s, and that must have been saddening.