Review: Baby, Would I Lie?

Branson-MO-strip

It’s too blatant to be a put on, Sara thought.  With that voice, that honky tonk music thudding along in the background, it’s supposed to be taken seriously. Do the fans take it seriously?  What do they think it’s about?  Is this irony, or is it real?  Does Ray Jones know?

I know you’ve heard I did some time in Yuma jail,
And when I left, some girl got stuck to pay my bail;
But with you, babe, I know I’m never gonna fail.
Baby,
Baby,
Baby, would I lie?

“My God,” Sara said, and the sign by the road said Branson in seven miles.

This is the second and final Sara Joslyn novel, marking the end of Westlake’s shortest and last known attempt to create a series character, although I have some doubts as to whether he was actually trying to do that here.  Trust Me On This had been one of his most successful novels of the 1980’s, critically acclaimed, strong sales, lots of foreign editions, audiobook.    That had come out around six years before this one,  and the two standalone novels he’d done since had certainly been much less successful and acclaimed, and good luck trying to make a series out of either of them.

If he’d originally intended for that 1987 novel about a sleazy supermarket tabloid to form the foundation of a franchise, he’d have probably have gotten around to the next one a lot sooner.  And he wouldn’t have rescued the two main protagonists of that book, Sara and her sardonic swain, Jack Ingersoll, from the clutches of The Weekly Galaxy, basically resolving all their major character conflicts, and giving them a happy (if morally equivocal) ending.

So my own feeling is that Westlake needed a solid win that didn’t involve Dortmunder, and had, furthermore, an idea in his head for a story from a branch of the mystery genre that he’d never really done before.   But certainly one he was well familiar with.  Aren’t we all?  I’m speaking of what is sometimes called the Courtroom Drama, though Wikipedia prefers a different term.  Perry Mason country.  Much of the ethos of that mystery-solving, evidence-tampering, dubiously ethical defense attorney pervades this book.

Your typical Westlake protagonist is rarely if ever seen in court–it’s not a milieu he’s likely to feel at ease in.  Westlake never had a lawyer as the hero in one of his books, let alone a judge, though highly capable and professional attorneys often appeared as supporting characters.  There’s two of them in this book, in fact.  But it’s not a book about lawyers.   It’s a book about reporters (same ones we met in the last book), and it’s also a book about a famous country-western singer, and there sure as hell had never been a Westlake protagonist of that profession before, nor would there ever be again.

Back at the start of the decade, Westlake had written the book for a stage musical, Murder at the Vanities, which was never produced.  He had not written the song lyrics, but one might theorize the experience got him curious about what it would be like to try.  In a novel, he wouldn’t be expected to come up with the accompanying tunes, and he could use the lyrics to convey things about the character who had written them, as well as the regional subculture the songs had been written to appeal to.  One of his primary influences, P.G. Wodehouse, had in fact written the lyrics for a whole lot of popular songs.

Wodehouse had also sometimes written stories with spirited and intrepid female protagonists–a habit he probably picked up from his work for the stage.  The Adventures of Sally is one of his efforts in that vein, it was quite popular at the time, and is not today remembered as one of his classics (which to be fair, would be true of most of his prose efforts from that period).

I made a good faith attempt to read it before giving up, and my impression was that Wodehouse likes his spunky heroine too much to make fun of her, which is deadly to comedy.  That he could write devastatingly funny female supporting characters of all ages and backgrounds is attested to by many subsequent novels and stories.  He’s pulling his farcical punches with Sally.   He’s made her too perfect.  Yes, this is foreshadowing.

At some point, for unknown reasons, Westlake got interested in the country music scene just then starting to blossom in Branson, Missouri.  (That he spent some time there scoping out the scene is attested to by the dedication to some friends resident in Branson, whose social lives he does not wish to ruin by naming them in print).

Branson’s not so much a poor man’s Nashville as a southern-fried Vegas, only without the casinos (they have them now in abundance, I believe).  By the early 90’s, many established talents (primarily but by no means entirely country-western singers) who were getting a bit long in the tooth, and tired of the road, were setting up shop there, opening theaters and doing daily shows.  Instead of them going to the fans, the fans could come to them, which they did, in vast teeming multitudes.  And still do.

Westlake had spent a lot of time over the past two decades analyzing the strange foreign cultures of other lands–but as a New Yorker, of course, there could be no culture more foreign to him than that of rural southern America.  These people, as he saw it, were being roundly ignored by the urban opinion makers, and yet here they were anyway, paying taxes and voting in national elections and everything.  And what movie stars are to most of us, country stars were (and are) to them. Sacred Monsters.

Yeah, he’s revisiting a lot of the ideas from that savagely cynical satire here.  But you ask me, this is the most cynical book he ever wrote by a considerable margin.  It’s a glass of sweet tea with an acid chaser.   You may never quite get the taste of Bac-O Bits out of your mouth after reading it.

A famous country singer suspected of murder is nothing new–Columbo had done that years before, with none other than The Man in Black himself (who happily never had to stoop to playing daily matinees in Branson, though he’s probably been impersonated there as often as Elvis) as a rather less sophisticated foil for Peter Falk than was the norm on that show.

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But of course, as with any Columbo, that story begins by showing us not only who did it, but how and why and everything.  Westlake is playing a variation on the usual mystery game here.  It’s not a whodunnit, or even a howdunnit.  It’s a whodint.   And having said that, maybe it’s time the opening act winds down, and the headliner gets on stage, before the audience starts tearing up the seats.

Having kicked off the proceedings with a selection from Sonnet 110, and William Watson’s tersely titled To, we rejoin the beauteous Sara, working a solo gig now, driving into Branson from the airport in a rented car, there to cover the Ray Jones murder trial for Trend (The Magazine For The Way We Live Right Now, in case you’d forgotten).  She’s listening to one of his songs on the radio, and elsewhere so is Ray Jones himself, but he tells somebody to turn it off, because he’s heard it already.

The murder victim was Belle Hardwick, an employee at Ray Jones’ Country Theater, who was found beaten and raped and strangled and drowned in a nearby lake, with various circumstantial evidence tying the murder to her employer.  Ray Jones being a celebrity, what would normally be a minor local trial has blossomed into a major national story.

(Do I need to mention that this entire book was written and handed in to the publisher before Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were found murdered in June of the year it saw print?  I suppose I just did, and this is a very different story in a very different setting, but there’s one moment where Ray actually says “If I did it,” and of course the ghostwritten book of that title was well over a decade away, so–spooky).

Chapter 2 is all Ray (as are many others, he’s at least as much the protagonist here as Sara), and he’s remarkably calm under the circumstances, still doing shows at his theater, talking to his first-rate criminal attorney (increasingly vexed and perplexed by his client’s behavior), musing over the irony that basically everybody in his life is saying that he should keep his songs playing on the radio during the trial, but all for entirely different reasons.

The reason that particularly irks him is that presented by Leon “The Prick” Caccatorro (Ray’s nickname for him, and highly evocative it is), an IRS agent tasked with squeezing every last possible dime of revenue out of Ray, who made some ill-advised financial decisions some time back, and has been paying through the nose for it ever since.  Leon wants Ray’s songs to stay on the radio during the trial so Uncle Sam can keep siphoning away at Ray’s royalty checks.

(Sidebar: Just how bad were Westlake’s own problems with the dreaded Taxman?  Years before, he’d dedicated an entire novel to ‘the guys and gals at the IRS,’ hinting that he’d written it just to pay a tax penalty, but was the matter that simply resolved?  Let’s just say that there’s a level of empathy here with the sadly necessary duties of your average ‘revenooer’ that in Mr. Westlake’s body of work as a whole is normally reserved for brutal corrupt policemen, unethical psychiatrists, and the very very wealthy).

One charge aimed at this novel by some critics (overall, the book got great reviews, but the NY Times sneered once more at the efforts of Gotham’s native son to do anything other than funny heist books set in New York) is that it becomes clear, very early on, that Ray probably did not kill Belle Hardwick (or this other associate of his who turns up dead just before the trial begins, whose demise the authorities want to pin on Ray as well, just for lagniappe).

As was usually the case with a Westlake mystery, the identity of The Real Killer is not remotely the point.  The real mystery is why Ray seems to want people to think maybe he did murder Belle, why he’s repeatedly sabotaging his own cripplingly expensive and beautifully orchestrated defense, to the disgust and dismay of two savvy superior shysters busting their legal asses to save his, and if you’re paying close attention, the answer isn’t that hard to figure out.  But that’s not really the point of of the exercise.

The point is figuring out who Ray Jones really is, what’s going on under that folksy facade he’s created to fool the world, and Sara Joslyn (who already figured out who she was in the last book, and we learn nothing new about her in this one) is there merely as our entry point to that identity puzzle, along with the hillbilly Wonderland that is Branson; Alice through the looking glass, and Ray’s the Cheshire Cat, grinning to himself, and fading out of sight every time you take a close look.

So I liked this book better the second time through, probably because I wasn’t saddled with a lot of false expectations of what it would be about, but that doesn’t make me any more inclined to do a real synopsis.  There’s not a whole lot of story here.  It’s all about sly trenchant observations of the passing scene, and a handful of quirky complex characters, and I don’t need to synopsize much to talk about that.  I don’t need a Part 2, either.

Anyway, I could only find two covers worth highlighting–first time I ever didn’t have the first edition cover up top in a review, because it’s pretty lame–the audiobook used the first edition artist’s complete drawing, while the Mysterious Press cover weirdly focuses in on the guitar in that drawing, which isn’t germane to anything, since the only time Ray ever tells the truth is when he’s playing that guitar.  The Rivages/Noir edition predictably went with Cherchez La Femme, not that I’m complaining. The mere fact there was an audiobook makes me think this probably sold pretty well (though probably less than Trust Me On This).  But what’s actually on sale here?

The main story, at least on the surface of things, is Sara Joslyn managing to embed herself into the Ray Jones defense, sitting in on his trial, going to see his show, intrigued by his talent and the redneck subculture that spawned it–and it’s clear from the outset that she’s been given a ringside seat (it’s actually The Elvis Seat, explanation further down) to observe the goings-on, because Ray wants her there.  He believes he can make use of her, and it’s not entirely clear how, but he’s got a plan, and he’s sticking to it, come hell or high water.

She’s so enraptured by this cultural experience that she sends a somewhat starry-eyed preliminary story back to New York, which arouses the concern of her editor/lover, who heads down to Branson to make sure she hasn’t gone totally native (and to give her a fond hello in the process).  She’s fine with him being after her body, but he better not be telling her how to do her job.  She hasn’t forgotten who she is, and she believes she’s found a great angle for the story, as indeed she has.

Jack’s got his own agenda, which is to do that dreaded Galaxy-type expose on the Galaxy itself–his own personal Moby Dick.  He’s never forgiven that pernicious publication for making a whore out of him all those years, and the fact that Bruno (‘Massa’) DeMassi is no longer among the living (we’re told his loyal staff laughed itself to tears for hours after the news broke) makes no never mind to him.

And of course, Generoso Pope Jr., Massa’s prototype, founder of the National Enquirer and Weekly World News, had expired in 1988, so this is art imitating death.  “Massa in de cold cold ground,” their old friend and colleague Binx Radwell observes solemnly.  But the Weekly Galaxy is very much alive, now controlled by what seems to be an even more diabolical consortium of financial interests (strike off one head, and many grow in its place), so Jack can only say “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale.” Words to that effect.

So there’s Sara doing her story, Jack doing his, and in the odd moments in-between, they talk a little about their relationship, but there’s really not much of a story there at all.   Sara wants Jack to tell her what’s wrong with her, that she’s with a guy who is clearly never going to recover from the emotional traumas he underwent before she ever met him, to which Jack responds “After a close look at the X rays and the test results, I’m afraid I have to tell you the reason you’re staying with me is because you love me. Sorry.”  Sara says she was afraid it was something like that, and that’s really all there is to the Jack/Sara thing in this book, because that story got told in its entirety in the last book.  And this is why a sequel to His Gal Friday would have been a really bad idea, folks.

A much more interesting story is told about Jack’s perennially jealous friend, and Sara’s hopelessly lustful admirer, Binx Radwell, who was rather a pitiable figure in the last book, and begins as one here, but he doesn’t end that way.  One of the most interesting identity puzzles in the book is Mr. Binx, who decides he’s had enough of being a henpecked husband to his spiteful spouse Marcy, and consequently a fearful wage slave of the Galaxy, burning through each huge paycheck as soon as he cashes it, and knowing each paycheck could be the last.

His identity crisis comes to a head when he makes a desperate and doomed attempt to seduce Sara while they’re having dinner, and the seduction turns into a confessional (as they so often do), and this is the single best passage in the book, by far.  Painfully funny, painfully true.  And really, who but a man who had to get married three times to get it right could have written this?  Well, maybe a woman who went through the same damn thing from the other side, but only a man would write it quite this way.

“The thing is, we were too young when we got married, we didn’t know our own minds, we didn’t know who we were.  I’m not blaming Marcie, I think it’s just as tough on her as it is on me, and she’s stuck just the same way I am. And now with the kids, you know, and that drives us even further apart.  We were just kids ourselves, somebody should have told us, ‘Don’t do it!  Find out who you are first, don’t tie yourself down before you even tested those wings.” I’m not blaming Marcie, I know it’s hell on her, too, and she’s got the kids more than I do.  We came together and we thought it was love, you know, love for the ages, but what did we know?  It was just sex, that’s all.  We were just kids, and sex was like a new lollipop, you know, in those days we couldn’t keep our hands off each other, and then the kids started coming.  I’m not blaming Marcie, we made all the decisions together, but we were wrong. What did we know? Nothing.  We were in college, and her folks were all over her to marry me, and my folks were just as bad.  I’m not blaming them, it was our own decision, but we weren’t ready to make a decision, neither of us.  I’m not blaming Marcie, I’m as responsible as she is.  More.  It was up to me to be the mature one, and I just wasn’t.   And then the Galaxy job came along, and the money looked so good, and we just spent it, we just bought stuff, and everything you buy it winds up you still owe on it, we’ve got all these mortgages, and paying off the cars, paying off the furniture, paying off the swimming pool, paying off all this stuff.  I’m not blaming Marcie, I wanted that stuff as much as she did, or almost as much.  But it means we’re stuck again, all over again.  The kids, and all the debts, and when I was fired for a while we really fell behind, taking out loans and I don’t know when we’re gonna get caught up.  I’m not blaming Marcie, it’s the whole lifestyle, you get it, you spend it, you know how it is at the Galaxy, the money isn’t real, so you spend it as soon as it comes in, and then you’re behind the eight ball, and you don’t know what the hell you’re gonna do.  You’re stuck, that’s all.  You and Jack were right to get out, you really were, but I’m stuck in it.  I got Marcie, and the kids, and the house, and the cars, and the pool, and all this stuff, but I can’t make a move.  I wanted life, you know?  And I got the Sargasso Sea.  I’m not blaming Marcie, but if only I could get away from her at some point, find somebody that understands me, has confidence in me, faith in me, I know I could turn my life around, get out from under all this shit.  And I have to tell you, I’m not blaming Marcie, but she’s no help at all, she doesn’t try to save any money, give me any encouragement, act like she’s gonna stand by me, you should have heard her when I was fired for a while, no support, nothing. And sex. On a good day our sex is down to something that looks like an illustration in a plumbing manual, but when I was fired for a while it was hopeless, she had Krazy Glue in there, I swear I couldn’t–”

“Maybe,” Sara interjected, “you shouldn’t tell me about your sex life.”

But he does anyway.  And of course he does not get Sara into bed, but on the plus side, he doesn’t have to spring for a therapist, and I assume they can both charge dinner to their expense accounts.

A bit earlier in the book, he and Jack have a talk, and Binx both admires and resents Jack, and Jack both pities and despises Binx, and one is reminded of what Parker said in The Rare Coin Score–“You know how you make pity?   One jigger guilt, one jigger contempt.”   But Binx is no Billy Lebatard–he’s got a score of his own in the works, and when Jack tells him he has to accept that Marcie is his wife, and the Galaxy is his job, and then he’ll be happy, Binx responds, with quiet desperation, “no, I won’t, Jack.  No.  I won’t.”

He can’t be happy with this identity, so he’s going to find a new one.  No matter what it takes.  No matter who it hurts.  Much as he’s not a great artist, or any kind of artist, he can understand as well as anyone that Somerset Maugham’s Charles Strickland meant precisely what he said–“When a man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly: he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown.”

So using a vast dossier he’s compiled of the ‘journalistic’ misdeeds of many a Galaxy employee (Jack included) Binx sort of half bribes/half blackmails Jack into getting him a job doing a story on the new Post-Soviet Eastern Europe for Trend.  He doesn’t want a lot of money (he knows now what a trap that can be), and he’s got the journalistic creds (which in themselves were never enough for him to get a job anywhere but the Galaxy, after he’d worked at the Galaxy).   He’ll leverage his credentials to get a job there with some other media outfit, and he’ll find his own Sara to ‘mentor’ (maybe Czech, maybe Polish, Hungarian girls are lovely), and when Jack asks him what about Marcie and the kids, he says “Who?”

And angry as he is about the blackmail, Jack is still perversely proud of him, and probably Sara is as well.  You see what I mean about this being a really cynical book.   And you could argue that Binx is more the hero of this book than either Jack or Sara.  But still not as much as Ray Jones.

Ray was born dirt poor in a little town in Georgia, by the name of Troutman (I checked–it really exists, not too far from a town called Benevolence–sometimes I think people give Faulkner too much credit; he didn’t have to stretch things all that much, writing about the south).  He gives a sort of humble/proud version of his upbringing to the press, but he’s under no delusions in the privacy of his calculating mind–he was the runt of a very large litter, and nobody gave two shits about him.  But he made a loyal (if rather dull-witted) friend there, Cal Denny, who he’s kept around ever since, and who will do pretty much anything Ray asks of him.  A more pliable less calculating version of Buddy Pal from Sacred Monster.   But Ray Jones’s best friend has always been Ray Jones.

Born hungry, Ray was hungry his entire life,  but he’d never let the hunger show.  He was hungry for food, for love, for success, for ease, for safety, for money, for women.  He was born hungry for everything.  Fortunately, he’d also been born smart.

Indirection.  Guile. Use your brains.  Use the other guy’s strength.  Get what you want without anybody noticing you wanted it, or they’ll take it away from you.

And he was also born with a lot of genuine musical talent, which he developed with damned little help from anyone in his formative years, because he knew he needed something to make people pay attention to him.  If he’d been born somewhere else, into a different subculture, maybe he’d have become a writer of crime fiction.

Westlake the jazz buff is anything but unappreciative of country-western music, and the people who make their living playing it.  He makes it very clear how much he admires them, and that fascination with their world, and their professionalism, enlivens this book.  But he rather thinks many of its fans are not fully aware of just how good these troubled troubadours of theirs really are–because for them it’s less about the music these people make than it is about living through them.

Country-music fans don’t envy or begrudge the material success of the performers, and that’s because they don’t see country stars as being brilliant or innovative or otherwise exceptional people (which they are), but firmly believe the Willie Nelsons and Roy Clarks are shitkickers just like themselves, who happened to hit it lucky, and more power to them.  It means anybody could hit it lucky, including their own poor sorry selves, so these people, most of whom could lean down and rest their Coke cans on the poverty line, took vicarious pleasure in the overt manifestations of their heroes’ lush rewards.

If you get nothing else out of this book, you get a sense of how good a lyricist Donald Westlake might have been if he’d gone down a different road.  Though for the life of me, I can’t imagine him in a cowboy hat.  He wants us to respect what Ray Jones has accomplished, and at the same time, to understand that there’s always this dishonesty in what he writes, since he’s writing for people who want to be told, against all evidence to the contrary, that they are the only people in the world who matter.

New York sure is a great big city
Blow it up, blow it up;
Los Angeles is kinda pretty,
Blow it up, blow it up.

Oh, I don’t go to Washington D.C.,
Those marble halls are not the place for me;
They tell me San Francisco’s kinda gay,
I’m telling you that I will stay away.

Chicago is a toddlin’ town,
Knock it down, knock it down;
And Boston has got great renown,
Knock it down, knock it down.

Oh the country is the only place to be,
A silo’s the tallest thing I want to see;
I’m a country boy, my heart is in the land,
I’m a country boy, I think this country’s grand.

Jack is in ‘The Elvis Seat’ (a seat they save at Ray’s theater for an Elvis impersonator who is part of the show) when Ray sings this, and he tells Sara he took it kind of personal.  Sara tells him it’s about the tribal unit, defining who’s in and who’s out.  But we the readers have been made to know Ray Jones himself doesn’t really identify with his audience at all–sees them for the hicks and suckers they are, playing their prides and prejudices like a steel guitar, while wanting them to go on loving him, because that’s how he survives.  Except now he has to make them think maybe he’s a murderer.  Knowing full well that in showbiz, those who love you today can rip you to shreds tomorrow.  It’s a calculated risk.  With Sara as his failsafe device.

He’s got two very smart lawyers–his personal attorney (and friend), Jolie Grubbe, who strikes up a tense friendship with Sara (who she’d like to ban from Ray’s bus and the courtroom, for all that she admires Sara’s gumption)–and his brilliant criminal attorney, Warren Thurbridge.   Both are horrified when Ray insists on testifying on his own behalf in court, opening himself up to cross-examination–and Ray insists.  There’s really very little in the way of evidence against him.  All he has to do to get off scot-free is nothing–and that’s the last thing in the world he’s going to do.

And just as he expects (not that he’d admit it), the prosecutor hits him with a song he hasn’t sung in a long time, written after his marriage fell apart–that shows a darker side of Ray than he’s wanted to admit to in a while, along with a streak of misogyny a mile wide.

I’d like to tell you how I feel,
And what I think is my ideal.

Her face is like an angel’s is, but the devil’s in her eyes,
She dances like a panther, with lightning in her thighs.

She’s Ali Baba’s treasure room, all without a lock,
And she turns into a pizza at three o’clock.

There’s more, but you get the gist.  And the kicker is, the murder victim is estimated to have died just around 3:00am in the morning.

Now is this evidence of anything at all (other than a predictable streak of misogyny)?  Of course not.  But when you’re on trial for murder, you are on trial for murder–your public identity, the way people perceive you, is on trial, much more than the facts of the case.   All the more if you’re famous.  The prosecution hasn’t proven beyond any kind of doubt that Ray Jones murdered Belle Hardwick, but Ray has given them the ammunition to make it seem like he’s exactly the kind of man who’d have turned her into a pizza at three o’clock.  And he goes out of his way to make comments about her rather notoriously loose sexual behavior that everybody who knew her would have agreed with while she was alive, but that’s hardly the point now.

I mean, Fatty Arbuckle didn’t rape anybody, he was the same person the day after that wild party where a young girl died as he was the day before, but the same crude anarchic destructive boyish behavior that people had laughed at before in his films looked sinister now, in light of the accusations against him. He was acquitted by his peers, and banished from the movies. And that trial was in L.A.  This one’s in the Show Me state, and people have been shown something they’d forgotten about this guy–that he can be one nasty son of a bitch.

If you’ve come down this far in the review, you obviously don’t care about spoilers, so here’s the answer to this mystery–Ray has proof he didn’t murder Belle–he has proof of who really did it.  But he wants the IRS to think he’s going to be executed for Murder One, so they’ll accept a deal he offered–either they take half of his royalties from what he’s already created, or half of what he’s going to create in future.

And they were going to take Door #2, since that’s the more lucrative end over time, but he’s made it seem like his time’s up, so they take the former.  He’s conned his own lawyers, the state of Missouri, and the Federal Government.  And now he just has to con Sara Joslyn.  And that’s where it all falls apart.

Sara’s led right to the videotape that proves somebody else murdered Belle, stashed in Ray’s house.  And she figures out right away–she’s being used–because the tape will have more credibility coming from her.  Ray Jones wasn’t covering up for a friend–he was using a sordid tragedy that destroyed two human lives in order to free himself from the toils of taxation (not to mention costing the taxpayers a fortune in the process).  She grabs the tape out of Cal Denny’s hand, and drives away with it.  And tells no one about it.  Perry Mason would be proud.

But to me, it’s not an entirely satisfying ending.   Sara relents, of course.  She blackmails Ray into giving a lot of money to the local hospital, and he agrees, with grudging admiration.  She wasn’t going to let him go to the gas chamber for something he didn’t do.  But what she’s doing, of course, is anything but ethical. And she gets a nice exclusive for herself into the bargain.   “No losers, Ray,” Sara said, pleased with herself.  And why not?  “Everybody wins.”

Again, we see she’s the hungriest shark in the tank.  In many ways, she never really left the Weekly Galaxy.  She’s just doing the same thing at a more respectable level than before.  And how are we supposed to feel about this? About the same way we felt about the end of the last book–like maybe in this world it really is just about who wins and who loses, and nothing else.  We’ve certainly seen no indication to the contrary in this story.  But the difference is that now we know for sure–even with true love, even with Massa dead, even with the Galaxy perhaps exposed to all the world for exactly what it is–nothing’s changed, and nothing’s going to change.  The acid in that sweet tea has a real kick, don’t it?

The line isn’t between good and evil here, but rather professional and unprofessional.  Ray Jones is a professional at what he does, his lawyers are superbly professional, Sara and Jack and even Binx are all solid pros at what they do, and nobody gives a shit about right and wrong–the only thing that makes the Galaxy reporters different is that they don’t pretend to care–and the lawyers prosecuting Ray are such a bunch of dullards, one of the Aussie Trio poses as a reporter from The Economist, and gets away with it for most of the trial.

There’s a whole subplot in the book about a ‘Shadow Jury’ Ray’s defense hires to try and figure out how best to influence the real one, and this was and still is a real thing, and they’re even premiering a network series about it this fall, and the guy manipulating juries for possibly guilty people is the hero.  And I hope to hell it meets the fate of most network primetime shows in recent years, but who knows?  Who really cares about right and wrong these days?

Donald E. Westlake did.  This I believe.  Much as he’d long written about protagonists whose only morality was professional in nature, there’s quite a difference between an amoral armed robber who doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of him, and an amoral journalist who thinks of herself as a nice person.  Donald E. Westlake believed there was much more to life than winning. But he was in a dark mood when he wrote this, and he clearly identified a lot with Ray’s cynicism in particular–with a talented songwriter who has to hide his real feelings, because nobody wants anything deep from him, they just want to be flattered and entertained.

Nothing wrong with a dark story, but this is a dark story that is light on the surface, and he doesn’t pull that tricky balancing act off nearly as well with this story as he had with the previous Joslyn book.  Maybe that’s why he never wrote another one.  But I think it’s mainly that like Wodehouse, he couldn’t bring himself to go all out in showing Sara’s own inner darkness.  He liked her too much, she was one of his perky blonde ingenues, and he’s proud of her achievements, but what are they, precisely?   To be played for a patsy, and then to figure it all out in one rather unconvincing flash of insight (and to be sure, Perry Mason did that all the time, so double standard much?).

Now I’m not blaming Sara, she’s an enjoyable character, and she deserved a chance to solve the mystery on her own this time without Jack’s help, and the book is fun to read and all, but it seems like a lot of work for too small a reward, and it might have worked better to just concentrate more on the identity puzzle of Ray Jones.  I’m not blaming her, really, she’s got some great moments in this book, Westlake kind of enjoyed being a girl I think, and endowing his surrogate female self, his blonde bubbly Brenda Starr, with every quality, but maybe just a wee bit of a Mary Sue, not that it’s her fault, I am not blaming Sara, I hope you understand that, because I wouldn’t want to have to repeat it seven or eight times in one run-on paragraph, but while this book is worth reading once, or even twice, it’s not going down as one of his best novels, or even as his best novel about Sara Joslyn, but can we blame her for that?  Of course not.  How dare you even imply that. Shame on you.

There’s a scene in the middle of the book where Sara is telling Jack off for surprising her at her motel in the middle of the night, and all of a sudden she makes a face, because she’s noticed this unpleasant taste in her mouth–she realizes that she’s had to eat at the local restaurants for days now, and they all put Bac-O Bits, artificial bacon, in everything.  The Redneck’s garlic, she calls it. Now that she mentions it, Jack can taste it too.  An aftertaste that is not easily shaken, and while the ins and outs of this book could have easily taken up a much longer review, I hope you understand, I’m ending this one here, because I’m hoping the next book in our queue will help dispel it.

Mind you, there’s plenty of cynicism in that book as well, but there’s much else besides; an entire universe of wry empathetic observational humor, though the center of that universe is rather uniquely challenging to observe.  Westlake went back to his roots in more ways than one with it, and much as the romance in Baby, Would I Lie? is perfunctory and half-hearted at best, it’s at the very center of what can only be called Westlake’s last serious foray into science fiction–and his only true epic in that genre.  An homage to H.G. Wells, but maybe to Ralph Ellison as well.  Because if nobody can see you–who the heck are you?

And I just have to do one little piece before I get to that, to set it up.  And to give me time to finish rereading it.   And to find the antidote to Bac-O Bits.  Blech.

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19 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Uncategorized

19 responses to “Review: Baby, Would I Lie?

  1. rinaldo302

    This’ll take some mulling over. I reread this book a few months back, when I discovered the “Review.” I think I agree, on the whole. I liked Baby, Would I Lie? both times I read it, but it left me with very little aftertaste (unlike the Bac-O Bits). It seemed to be constructed around, and to lead to, the legal trick that “forced” him into the situation where he could pull the other trick with the IRS. And pretty clever as such legal reverses in a mystery go, I thought. But it does leave everyone dirtier than the light fluffy surface would imply — endowing a hospital doesn’t wipe everything out.

    That “pizza” business was a joke that made the rounds around 1980, in more and less clean versions, including some that reversed the genders. Nothing wrong with making use of that, of course.

    A stage musical of Murder at the Vanities? History of musicals is my field, so I should know more about this. Would it have been based on the pre-Code musical murder mystery film, directed by Mitchell Leisen? (Its two biggest songs being “Sweet Marijuana” and “Cocktails for Two.”) That would have been interesting. I’m not sure about Westlake as a Broadway lyricist though; that’s a really complex multi-layered craft, and many a fine songwriter in other genres (and I enjoy a lot of country music) has failed to meet the grade in the stage medium. Ah well, it doesn’t matter now.

    • If Wodehouse could do it (and he did, prodigiously, though only a few of his songs have become anything close to standards), I think Westlake could have too–yes, it would have required a considerable investment of time, and I’m glad he chose to do other things with his time, but all I know about that musical he wrote the book for is that it’s in that now-notorious archive in Boston, and if you want to go read it, and report back here, I’d be only too grateful.

      I was not familiar with the pizza joke, but you can see, I trust, why the 80’s is a decade for which I feel no nostalgia at all, even though it’s the decade in which I was in my physical prime. I was on a jury for a rape trial back then. I think I may have mentioned this before–the victim reportedly tried to avoid being raped by saying she had AIDS. The accused reportedly then rummaged around in his wallet and pulled out a condom. And that pretty much sums up the decade for me. But he at least listened to his lawyers, and did not insist on taking the stand. For all the good it did him.

      • rinaldo302

        Wodehouse was indeed a major lyricist in his time — “Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern” were enshrined in verse as the trio who wrote the brightest, smartest shows from about 1915 to 1925. But: he did give it his serious attention for that period, and honestly it was a simpler time when the standards of musicals and their lyrics were still being created. I don’t think it’s accidental that few songs with his lyrics have survived the years. Just about the only one is “Bill,” which Hammerstein gave a light revision for use in Show Boat. Westlake would have had a much bigger challenge ahead of him.

        And in fact as I look it up, I see that someone else (the excellent David Spencer) supplied lyrics (or was scheduled to) for that abandoned project. Which makes perfect sense, and is an extremely common division of labor. I still want to read that libretto; I’ll try to fit it in, on that distant day when I investigate the Johnny Green papers at Harvard.

        • When I think on some of the people who have written lyrics for successful shows (not at all the same thing as saying great and memorable shows), I don’t think it would have been impossible for Westlake to have done it–but given his typical luck with collaborations of any kind, I really doubt it would have worked.

          Rodgers & Hart were writing basically half the great standards during that very period (okay, maybe more in the 30’s and 40’s)–the musicals themselves are horribly dated–Hart’s lyrics will endure to the end of time. The greatest lyricist of all. I am not amenable to compromise on this point. Nor do I agree with one of Westlake’s characters in his belief that My Funny Valentine isn’t sincere. It is and it isn’t. It doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve, but only because that heart is perpetually bleeding on the inside.

          And Westlake hardly ever refers to Broadway lyricists–and yet he goes out of his way to reference Hart. Because he is swell and witty. Evergreen.

          (editing–Westlake did refer to My Funny Valentine in Two Much, but I think I somehow conflated that with what Charles Willeford has his protagonist from The Burnt Orange Heresy says about that song–and I could be wrong again, but I’ll find out sometime–can’t believe there’s no ebook for that, one of Willeford’s two unquestionable masterpieces).

          • rinaldo302

            I’m always glad to see fervent advocacy for a favorite, but “half the great standards” of that period is pushing it a bit. In the 1920s through early 1940s we also had the Gershwin brothers, Kern, Berlin, Porter, and Arlen. That’s an astonishing plenitude.

            • Okay, I’m amenable to compromise on that (compromise hell, I was just wrong) but there’s just something extra about Hart. Not that I underrate Hammerstein, but if you’re talking standards, how well a song plugs into the plot of a stage musical is secondary to how well the song stands on its own, lends itself to new interpretations, different genres. To a jazz buff, Hart really has no equals, because his lyrics are infinitely adaptable to the stylings and needs of each great singer who attempts them.

              Of course I have other favorites–few have been greater than Loesser. And who but Sondheim can compare to any of them today, and I fear we’ll never see that last show from him. It’s not looking good, last I checked.

              But back to the topic at hand–I still like Westlake’s lyrics here. I wonder if he had tunes in his head to go with all of them? Thing is, he’s writing each of them to make points about both the songwriter’s character, and the people’s he’s writing those lyrics for. It’s a prose fiction writer’s approach to song-writing. But no question at all, the right country singer could have made some of those lyrics into hits. Much as I like the best country songs, that’s not necessarily a compliment.

              You must admit though, “If It Ain’t Fried, It Ain’t Food” is catchy. And its message has many adherents to this day. Not just down south, either. 😉

              • rinaldo302

                Oh, I like all his lyrics here. They’re catchy in themselves, and convincing as examples of the genre they represent. Bravo. No argument.

                In reference to that golden age of popular song, “outside the show” is the only way to receive the songs, because that’s the only way they’re done (and also exactly how they were intended to evolve, at that time). And all those writers knew how to write songs that would do just that. Because before we get to Oklahoma! (usually, and reasonably, regarded as the dividing point), what ever gets performed? Show Boat and Anything Goes, maybe The Boys from Syracuse too, none of them very often and always in revised versions. Living within reach of NYC and having links to “the restoration game,” I’ve had a chance to see a handful more, in one-weekend special productions for specially interested audiences who know what they’re getting. But they’ll never come back for general audiences. But oh, those songs.

              • I recently saw The Mikado performed live (though to avoid doing “yellowface”, they moved it to Italy and called it The Ducato. Seriously. I wrote about it here.) I’d read that Gilbert was an influence on Wodehouse, but seeing a G&S play made that so clear: a ridiculously over-complicated plot based on following highly artificial social rules, characters who are mostly idiots, lots of wordplay: Wodehouse basically writes G&S plays without music.

                And Gilbert is another master lyricist whose plays are still being produced.

              • It still makes me angry that, being unable to attack the true sources of racism, some misguided people go after vulnerable targets like the poor players who do G&S, who depend so much on corporate contributions that any controversy at all can sink them. I simply do not believe 99.999% of Asian people have ever been offended by The Mikado. And switching it to Milan screws up the metaphor. Still, I’m sure they did a fine job, under the circumstances.

                You know what’s racist? Acting as if only white people are allowed have a sense of humor.

              • Reason I brought up Oscar Hammerstein is that he kicked off the next wave in the evolution of stage musicals, where the songs were written to fit the story, instead of vice-versa–an oversimplification, perhaps, but there’s a reason his shows with Rodgers have held up so much better over time. The trade-off is that his songs have much more rarely been recorded as singles by great vocalists than Hart’s. Hart would tool his lyrics to the tunes his partner wrote, while Rodgers would let Hammerstein’s words inspire his music. If you’re out to tell a complex story, the latter approach works better. If your goal is to inhabit a song, to bend it to your purposes, to remake it into something perhaps even its creators couldn’t fully grasp–as Billie Holiday did best of all–then the music before words method generally works better. I’ve read that Hart didn’t entirely appreciate what song stylists did with his lyrics–but they appreciated him, better than anyone else did, and brought out the deeper meanings–and the hidden pain–of his words, keeping them alive for all generations to come.

                And you know all this, but I just wanted to make it clear I did too. 😉

  2. tracybham

    Thank you so much for this post. I enjoyed Trust Me on This, and I am very eager to read this book, I just have to find a copy… soon. And thanks for mentioning the Columbo episode also… which is one of those that I have forgotten.

    • I don’t want to give the impression I didn’t enjoy it, because I did, Bac-O Bits and all. I think it’s one of his more interesting books from this general time period, full of fascinating details, but there are some much better novels coming down the pike. And it may well be that writing this one was in some way instrumental to what was coming–like any writer, he was learning from each new project he embarked upon (well, any good writer, I should say).

      Copies aren’t that hard to find online, but it’s not evailable (and neither is Trust Me On This). I have the paperback version of the Mysterious Press edition myself. Kind of curious what the audiobook is like. But probably not enough to obtain it and then listen to all six cassettes. Like I even have a cassette player these days. Mine died some time back, and I have not replaced it.

      And I hope I did not spoil it for you, but as I said, a Westlake mystery is never really centered around knowing who the killer is–it’s about all the little details that make up the story, and bring the characters to life.

      • Martin

        The audiobook is nicely done and a solid reflection of the novel. You’ve offered a solid review here, and thanks. I haven’t always agreed with your opinions on Westlake’s works — what fun would it be if I did? — but we’re marching arm-in-arm here.

        As an aside, I wrote Wodehouse when I was a young fan. (Perhaps if you like Wodehouse, you like Westlake?) He very kindly wrote back, using my same letter but adding a few personal comments. When he passed, I was saddened and wrote my condolences to Lady Wodehouse. I received a standard “appreciated, but she’s in no shape to reply” letter from her secretary — and, on that letter, Lady Wodehouse wrote a few nice things, too, in a very shaky hand.

        Not pertinent here, I know. Wanted to share, anyway.

        • rinaldo302

          That’s lovely. Thank you for sharing it.

        • If you like Westlake in a humorous vein, you probably like Wodehouse.

          If you like Westlake when he’s in a hardboiled Starkian vein, you might still like Wodehouse, because he’s very likable, but there wouldn’t be any real connection between the two.

          Maybe you just like good writing. He said modestly. 😉

  3. One nit: The Adventures of Sally (1922) is one of the last books Wodehouse wrote where the romance outweighs the comedy. Next came the wonderful Leave it To Psmith, which I’ve already recommended as one of his best, then a few books which stress the romance less and less, until 1927’s The Small Bachelor and 1928’s Money For Nothing are perfect PGW farces.

    • Wodehouse wrote the greatest anti-romance of all, the Mulliner yarn, Honeysuckle Cottage (I would like to make it obligatory reading for all fanfic authors), but the romantic in him never died. He continued to write lovely romantic comedies, but with the accent on the comedy, where it belonged. Laughing Gas is a near-perfect romance, but like a Westlake Nephew book, it’s about the hero’s journey of self-discovery, at the end of which he’ll finally be worthy of The Girl, and able to recognize her.

      This is a much better book than The Adventures of Sally, but I still felt there was an valid analogy to make–in both cases, the author struggles to write a convincing female protagonist, even though he’s quite capable of creating brilliant female supporting characters. Both men have a tendency to put certain types of girl on a pedestal. Sara, like Sally, is too sweet and fine a person for the roguish role she’s being asked to play, and that sets the book against itself. I’ll say once more, if Westlake wanted to try writing from a woman’s perspective, he should have given J.C. Taylor a ring.

      However, I can’t help but wonder–did he ever consider writing a ‘Niece’ book? In a sense, he did–some of his sleaze novels are written from a woman’s perspective, and are comedic in nature, erotic journeys of self-discovery, but for obvious reasons, those are unsatisfactory attempts at plumbing a woman’s soul–too much emphasis on other types of plumbing. 😉

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