Category Archives: Mitch Tobin

Review: One Of Us Is Wrong

But a few years later, my good bad luck made me find the big money maker.  It wasn’t that in my eyes at first.  It was a great romantic part I knew I could play better than anyone.  But it was a great box office success from the start–and then life had me where it wanted me–at from thirty-five to forty thousand net profit per season.  A fortune in those days–or even in these.


What the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder, that was worth–well, no matter.  It’s a late day for regrets.

He glances vaguely at his cards.

My play, isn’t it?

James Tyrone–From Long Day’s Journey Into Night, by Eugene O’Neill. 

Well, I can’t read backgrounders.  On the show I would never read the plot summaries, the character descriptions.  Just tell me what I say and what the other guy says, and I’ll figure out the details for myself.

Samuel Holt (playing himself) 

Perhaps now would be a good time to clearly state the premise of this four-book series, that I somehow failed to adequately explain in my very long preview to the reviews of it.   Ahem.

Holton Hickey, born and raised in Mineola, Long Island, dropped out of an upstate college after one year, and joined the army, mainly serving as an MP in Germany, and playing on the basketball team, because he’d shot up to six feet six inches in height, and was a strong athletic guy.  After his hitch was over, he went back home and spent a year and a half on the local police force, traffic detail for the most part.

Then one fine day, a film crew came to town, and he was, as the saying goes, ‘discovered.’  Didn’t have to hang out at Schwab’s Pharmacy.  Never even thought about being an actor before that day.  Never really had any long-term ambitions to speak of.  If he wasn’t ridiculously tall and a cop, he could have easily qualified as the lead of a Westlake ‘Nephew’ book.  But this was too good to pass up.  He moved to L.A., got an agent, and a new name, and various small parts here and there, and he took acting classes.

And then out of the blue he got the leading role in a TV series named Packard (Westlake loved those cars) about a rather implausibly young and dashing criminologist named Jack Packard, who worked for a university, and was always solving murder mysteries and other criminal conundrums that just kept dropping into his lap (don’t you hate it when that happens?).   Packard had a very large and diverse skill set (basically, if this week’s plot called for him to be able to fly a plane or karate chop somebody, he could do it).  It was maybe a little better than Magnum P.I., but not nearly as good as The Rockford Files.

He tells us that they were casting against type–since the role involved a lot of physical bits of business, stunts, fight scenes, they figured better to cast somebody who could plausibly do all that stuff (with lots of coaching), rather than some older more experienced actor who’d need a lot more stunt doubling.  Also, he was very good-looking, and networks like it when women watch their shows.  And presumably they got him cheap for at least the first season.

But there were four more after that, because the show was an enormous hit, and made him a major celebrity almost overnight.  He says they ended it at five seasons only because everybody was tired of doing it.  (Yeah, I don’t think that happens with huge network hits either–these days it doesn’t even happen with some flops.  But we’ll let it go for now.)

His agent and his lawyers (by this time he had a lawyer on each coast) made sure he got a very nice share of the syndication rights, which turned out to be quite lucrative. If he’s not too careless about money, he doesn’t need to work again for the rest of his life.  Not for money, I mean.

So he can afford a swanky home in Bel Air, and a brick townhouse in Greenwich Village (the nabe he says still looks like the New York of his adolescent fantasies), and a live-in manservant named William Robinson (hmm–you think maybe?), himself a retired actor, whose specialty was playing prissy supercilious man servants with pseudo-English accents in the movies and on TV, and the habits of a lifetime have stuck.  Robinson has become the character he played, and he likes it that way.  And Sam?  Maybe not so much.

Sam also has two beautiful boxers, Max and Sugar Ray (female and male), who cheer him up when he’s at his L.A. digs, and two beautiful girlfriends, Bly Quinn and Anita Imperato, one on each coast, who cheer him up in different ways, and I did get around to explaining that last time.  It takes some deal of explaining.

The two women know about each other, but it’s not so much an arrangement as something they’re all putting up with for the time being, because he doesn’t want to give either of them up, and he’s showing them both a really good time, and he lives a bi-coastal life anyway, spending summer and winter in Tinseltown, spring and fall in Gotham.  Towards the end of the series, he describes himself as being part of “two pairs, each complete, each in its own world.” 

Tall.  Handsome.  Athletic.  Famous.  Rich.  Two sexy intelligent charismatic women in his life, blonde and brunette, day and night, each tolerating the existence of her rival, and not asking for any commitment (they both have lives and careers of their own, but no other boyfriends we ever hear about).  Each woman appealing to different parts of his nature.  The best of both East and West, available to him at a moment’s notice.

And two cool dogs who ask for nothing more than to go for a ride in his station wagon now and again, and the blonde even agrees to look after them when he goes to New York with Robinson to bed down with the brunette for a while  (Robinson, who is on Team Bly, strongly disapproves of Anita, but Sam doesn’t care), and eat in her excellent Italian restaurant a few blocks from his house.  Okay, what’s wrong with this picture?  Seriously–what?

Just one little thing, as it turns out–Sam Holt is unemployed.  Not underemployed.  Unemployed.  Has been unemployed since Packard ended, about three years before we meet him (and it’s been three years still at the start of the last book, so time is passing very slowly for him).  Nobody knew him at all before the show started, then everybody knew him, and now nobody can see him in any other role.  Not audiences, not producers, not directors, not casting agents.  Nobody.

He keeps nagging his own agent to find him work and the agent keeps coming up with bupkus.  He’s not unreasonable, is our Mr. Holt.  He’s not holding out for a major starring role in a movie, or even necessarily a leading role in a TV series.  He’s open to suggestions.  As long as it’s not Packard, and it’s not out and out insulting, he’ll do it.  The phone never rings.  No, I don’t believe that either.  The phone would be ringing all the time.   But this is, in many ways, a story of contrivance.  A man whose real life reads like a fiction.  Or like a pitch for a TV pilot.  (Which for all I know is what it started out as.   Westlake was spending a lot of time in Hollywood himself in this time period.)

He knows he’s the luckiest sumbitch alive.  But the thing is, having gotten into acting as a lark, he’d gotten to like it.  To like the work, not only of acting but of writing, since he’d written some of the later scripts for the show. He wants to get back to it.  But Life, his real agent now, has put him on hold, and he just waits there for it to get back to him.  And when it does, it’s not with an acting job.

And he’s going to tell us all about it in first person mode–so is he writing and publishing books about his Post-Packard experiences?  Is that why the books are credited to Samuel Holt?   On the whole, I don’t think so, any more than I think Mitch Tobin was writing books about his experiences under the name Tucker Coe.  For one thing, there’s way too much kissing and telling, and Sam’s too much of a gentleman (and fiercely protective of his own privacy) to write that kind of book.  Sam’s telling somebody about his life, but in this genre, in this narrative format, you never do know quite who that is, do you?  Well, he’s telling us.  That we know.  So what’s he telling us this time?

First of all, he tells us some guys he never saw before tried to murder him by running his car off the San Diego Freeway.   They bang up his Volvo pretty badly (he’s got some nicer cars but rarely drives them), but he gets away from them, and calls his West Coast lawyer, Oscar Cooperman (always on the move and deeply in love with his cellular car-phone).

Then, with Oscar on the way, he arranges for an interview with two L.A. Sheriff’s deputies, who are pretty sharp and professional, as are most law enforcement personnel in this series–maybe because Westlake was wary of the the old “amateur knows better than the professionals” mystery trope you can trace all the way back to Poe’s Dupin.  But also, I’d guess, because he was trying to disguise himself here, and too many people know Westlake has a thing about cops.  The bad cops show up in the last book, after Westlake had been outed as Tobin.

They question him politely over quiche (a running stylistic motif in these books is established here–Sam will set up a question of some kind at the end of one chapter, then answer it at the beginning of the next–“Do sheriff’s deputies eat quiche?”–“Yes.”)  He can’t think of anything anybody would want to kill him for, anything unusual that happened to him recently.  Until they leave.  Then, after a brief conversation with Oscar (who mentions doing some legal work with regards to a mosque being built nearby),  he suddenly remembers.   Ross Ferguson.

Ross was one of the writers on Packard, and good at his job–he showed Sam some of the rudiments with regards to crafting a teleplay.  He can be hard to take at times, but Sam considers him a friend.  And one thing we’ll learn about Sam Holt is that he is loyal to his friends–sometimes to a fault.  And Ross called him at his New York residence three months ago, in a panic, begging to see him.

Sam had to go see his old acting buddy Brett Burgess appear in a play first, then eat with him and Anita at her restaurant, Vitto Impero (she took it over from her scapegrace ex-husband, and why do I think we’d have met the husband sometime if there had been a few more books). Anita won’t actually eat much, because according to Sam, running a restaurant has given her a contempt for food.

(Sidebar: Brett and Sam–weirdly, the cookie company this makes me think of started the year before this book came out, and that has to be coincidence, right?–are about the same age, height, and appearance, but their careers went in different directions–Sam became a big TV star, and can’t get an acting job to save his life.  Brett works all the time, all kinds of roles, legit theater and TV guest spots mainly, but will probably never make as much as his mailman.

Sam sometimes envies Brett, Brett sometimes envies Sam, but they’re still fast friends.  Brett makes an appearance in every Holt book but one, and nothing important ever happens with him.  He’s just there for counterpoint, to remind us what a real working actor’s life is more typically like, living from one job to the next, blending into his roles, not getting recognized on the street, or confused with his characters.  He’s probably a somewhat better actor than Sam, but unlike Sam, not terribly insightful when it comes to anything other than acting.  There’s a moral in there somewhere, I’m sure of it.)

So Ross is waiting for Sam outside his townhouse–he’s in trouble.  Somebody made a video of him killing Delia West, an ex-girlfriend of his.  Except he didn’t kill her–Sam, watching the video with a practiced eye, realizes it’s a very professional fake–except the final shot, with her dead in Ross’s Malibu beach house (oh, of course he has a Malibu beach house, and real-life Barbies to go with it)–that’s real.  It’s a snuff film.  With an actor made up like Ross playing the killer.

And just to make things worse, Ross panicked, put her body on his boat  (oh, of course he has a boat, it’s Hollywood), and dumped her at sea.  And this means whoever made this film has him at their mercy.  Ross figures what the hell, maybe he can work something out with them, what could they want that’s so bad–Sam urges him to go to the cops–these are murderers, not just common blackmailers.  But loyalty prevents him from calling the law himself.

And then he heard nothing from Ross for a while, and it just sort of went out of his head until now, though he did just happen to ask Ross about it recently over the phone, and Ross got really flustered like maybe somebody was listening in, and oh damn, that’s why somebody tried to kill Sam just now, isn’t it?

And now he needs to call those deputies, and tell them he knows who tried to kill him (well, not exactly who, that’s the mystery), except he feels like he owes Ross the courtesy of talking to him in person before exposing him to a potential murder rap.  Let’s all say it together now–No.  He does not owe Ross any such thing.  Somebody tried to kill him.

(This is going to be a recurrent problem with the series, by the way–Sam Holt is an incredibly smart guy who often does incredibly dumb things.  And if he doesn’t, there’s no story.  So Westlake has to keep figuring out ways to make this believable, keep it from turning into the kind of formulaic tripe such as you’d see on a show like Packard, and sometimes he manages it, and sometimes he doesn’t.)

So he heads over to Malibu, and the aforementioned beach house, and Westlake, via Holt, has some observations to make about that–

Malibu is a peculiarly Los Angeles sort of idea.  A narrow strip of land along the ocean’s edge, it is backed by steep precarious hills, with most of the slender flat band between ocean and hill given over to a six-lane highway, generally without dividers, called Route 1.  Stores and fast-food joints are shoehorned between the road and the hills, while restaurants and luxury vacation homes are lined up like houses on a Monopoly board between the traffic and the tides.  From time to time the sea reaches out a crooked finger and plucks some of the houses away.  From time to time one of the unstable hills falls over onto the shops, and occasionally, the highway itself  The whole place is insecure and transitory and ephemeral, and besides that the traffic is dreadful and the houses are too close together.  And yet…

And yet.

Real estate values are through the roof.  If you can talk about real estate in a place where at any moment the ocean may foreclose your house or a mountain fall on it or a runaway tractor-trailer dropkick it into the next wave, then the values are through the roof.  If the wind doesn’t take it.

Nobody answers the doorbell.  Sam has borrowed the place now and again, and he knows where there’s a key stashed.  He goes in and cases the joint (just like Packard would, and he’s painfully aware of this irony, as he will be so many more times before these books are over).  And then he opens a closet door and a nearly naked girl holding a knife jumps out.

It’s Ross’s current girlfriend, Doreen.  She doesn’t trust Sam at first, but then she recognizes him (Sam says that there’s a sort of mixed blessing to celebrity, in that people just assume they know you, even though they don’t, and trust you, even though they probably shouldn’t).

Anyway, now that she knows this is ‘Packard’, she opens up about what happened (one of the advantages of being a celebrity detective).  She was staying there, and says these Middle Eastern types showed up, asked her some questions, then sort of offhandedly gang-raped her.  More or less to pass the time of day.

Sam tries to make her understand how much trouble she could be in, but she’s really young, wants to think of herself as tough and savvy, and Ross is her only real contact in L.A.  She makes it very clear she’d be delighted to make contact with Sam (once she’s had a little time to get over the rape thing), and she’s cute enough, but his dance card is full, as has already been discussed (at no time in the series does Sam ever cheat on his two girlfriends, and I can imagine my female readers rolling their eyes now, and possibly some of the guys too).

So not wanting Doreen’s blood on his conscience, he offers to put her up at his place, and on the way out the door they get jumped–by tabloid reporters, armed with cameras, looking for a nice spicy photo spread of Sam Holt departing his secret love nest.  He gets a bit rough with them, but they’re used to that kind of thing, not the least bit deterred from future assaults on his privacy (and you can imagine Westlake thinking to himself maybe there’s a novel in this, and this being Westlake we’re talking about, it wasn’t long at all before there was a novel, and then two, and a character in those books greatly resembles a character in this one.  But we’ll get to that).

Sam finally gets to talk to Ross, and it’s worse than he thought–Ross won’t tell him what the blackmailers want, but it’s clearly something pretty bad–and Ross wants to write a book about it.  He’s tired of being a TV writer (this was at a time when 99.99999% of people who watched television had no idea who wrote it)–these guys are going to do something that will get a lot of attention in the press, he’ll be right in the center of it, and the publishers will be beating down his door, assuming there still is a door to beat down by then, and he’s still alive to open it.

We know how this kind of agenda tends to play out in a Westlake novel–some guy with a poorly developed sense of self trying to make a big change in his life out of the blue, distracted from reality by some personal agenda.  But of course, if you were reading this in the Mid-80’s, you didn’t necessarily know it was a Westlake.  And it’s still pretty obvious that Ross has a rather odd showbiz version of Stockholm Syndrome.

And yet Sam still promises to keep quiet–for now.  Never mind how loyal he is–I don’t care if he’s Rin Tin Freakin’ Tin–why would he make such an absurd promise to a man basically living as a prisoner in his own house, who is most likely going to be dead when this is over?  Self-evidently, because Sam himself is so desperate to break out of his own professional niche, he can totally relate.  And he still doesn’t really know what’s going on.

The setting changes to Manhattan.  Sam flies over there on business (and to see Anita, of course), and on the plane he finds himself sitting next to a man named Hassan Tabari, who is Minister of Justice for a small oil-rich Arabian principality called Dharak (Westlake’s list of fictional nations continues to grow).  Basically a glorified policeman (who expresses an admiration for The Rockford Files, when informed Sam played a TV detective–I seem to recall there was a Rockford episode based around Arab politics–oh yeah, this one).

Sam is pretty sure this is not a coincidence, but he can’t for the life of him figure out why he suddenly receives an impromptu lecture on Middle Eastern politics, and internecine Muslim rivalries, and we’re reminded that our present-day difficulties did not spring full blown from empty air.

Reading it over, I find myself devoutly wishing this book had been a huge bestseller when it came out.  Even when he wasn’t writing absolutely top-drawer mystery fiction (perhaps especially then), Westlake had an almost frightening capacity for seeing around corners, and–well, read for yourself.

“So,” he said, shrugging, “we are not all bombers of defenseless sailors, hijackers of innocent tourists.”

“All Arabs, you mean.”

He considered the term, and rejected it.  “All Moslems,” he decided. “After all, the Iranians are not Arabs, as they never tire of announcing.  The dispute is religious rather than racial.  In fact,” he said, suddenly voluble, shifting position so he could face me more comfortably, “I sometimes think the internal Moslem struggle is infinitely more important than Arab versus Jew.  That one is merely about territory, but the war within Islam is for the soul of the world.”

To have such an overblown hyperbole come from so restrained and self-controlled a man at first startled and then amused me, which must have shown in my face, because he cocked an eyebrow at me and said ,”Do you think I overstate the case?”

“Slightly,” I said.

“Perhaps,” he agreed, and nodded, and said, “but only very slightly.   We control the world’s energy for the next century.  We shall decide whether or not the machines of western civilization turn.  Don’t you think we will have some say as to what that civilization looks like?”

“It’s possible,” I admitted.

“The fundamentalist sects,” he said, “have captured Iran, taken control of Libya, assassinated Sadat, helped to destabilize Lebanon, performed terrorist acts against you of the West, and are creating great trouble and concern in every moderate Moslem nation.  Even Saudi Arabia is not as proof against the virus as it appears.”

This was far from any area of expertise I might claim.  I said, “We can see the struggle’s going on, all right.”

“But who are these people in white nightdresses, eh, slaughtering one another?” The twist he then gave his mouth could not have been called a smile.  “The Jewish lobby in this country makes no distinctions among Arabs,” he said, “and therefore America does not, and that is a very bad mistake.”

“I’m really not up on all this,” I said, wondering how to get back out of this conversation, deciding the thing to do as to find a need to visit the lavatory.

Tabari leaned back, shaking his head at himself, as though aware he’d gone too far, made me nervous.  “I’ll say only this,” he told me.  “Our fundamentalists are to us a more violent form of what your fundamentalists are to you.  The sort of people who a generation ago forced the famous Scopes monkey trial and still today try to keep evolution out of your schools.  The kind of people who bomb abortion clinics.  In America these people are merely an irritant, one point of view among many at the fringes of a strong center.  In my part of the world there is no center, there are only the extremes.  You would not like a world, Mr. Holt, that would please some of our imams.”

Now he tells us.  Oh right–then he told us.  Anyway, Sam tries to follow Tabari from JFK after they land, but he’s taken precautions to make sure Sam can’t do that.  And then Sam gets wrapped up in talking to Anita (among other things), and he stays over at her place above the restaurant, which turns out to be a good thing in more than the usual ways.  As she sleeps next to him, when he was just sleeping over at Bly Quinn’s place a short time earlier, the strangeness of his life becomes overpowering to him–his built-in identity crisis.

In every part of my life, it now seemed to me, the story was the same, I was neither one thing nor the other and yet both.  I was neither a New Yorker nor an Angeleno, but I was both.  I was neither Bly’s fella nor Anita’s, but I was both. I was neither a true star nor a has-been, but somehow I was still both.  What frequently seemed to me a good and rich and rewarding life now seemed, in this wakeful February night in Manhattan, merely a life of well-controlled vacillation.  “Indecision is the key to flexibility,” read a sign I’d once seen over a producer’s desk; it was meant to be a joke.

But when Sam walks back to his closed-up townhouse the next morning, he’s reminded that there are far worse fates imaginable–there’s a dead body there.  Some people broke into his house, and one of them is dead in a shoot-out with the cops (they triggered a silent alarm going in).

Talking to the NYPD detectives in charge of the case, including one Sergeant Shanley (a woman, we’ll see her again), he realizes that he’s doing what he always thought the characters in TV scripts were idiots for doing–not telling the police what’s going on until it’s too late.  Bad enough for him to be forced to play Packard, but now he’s one of the idiot supporting characters who end up dead in act three.

He heads back for L.A., and after one more futile attempt to reason with Ross (who insists he’s fixed that little problem with his friends apparently trying to kill Sam yet again), he stops being stupid, and calls the sheriff’s deputies.  But then he finds out that in real life, calling the cops doesn’t solve everything either–sometimes the cops really can’t do anything, even if they believe you (and they do in this case).  Ross’s house can’t be searched without cause, and he refuses to cooperate.  There’s no legal pretext for them to intervene until these people do whatever it is they’re planning to do.  Great.

So I don’t really want to give this the full synopsis treatment, and you can see where this is going–deep into Travis McGee country.  Westlake was consciously patterning some aspects of this book after those John D. MacDonald Floridian epics, which were never much about ratiocination and whodunnit but rather about conspiracy and intrigue and lots of violence, interspersed with lots of sex.  And frequently a dead or kidnapped lover (the better to justify the violence), but Westlake’s not going that way with it.  Too obvious.

Sam ends up being held prisoner by the terrorists–yes, obviously they’re terrorists.  We’ve all figured that out by now.  The question is, what do they want?  To blow up that mosque Sam’s lawyer mentioned earlier.  Because it’s insufficiently fundamentalist, one supposes, and they don’t like the government that’s behind it (I’ll give you one guess whose government that is–you got it!), and some people they really hate are going to be at the opening dedication for the building.  Security is very tight there, but guess whose property abuts the land the mosque is on?  That’s what they wanted Ross for.

Sam gets into this mess because he can’t stop thinking of himself as The Hero–that’s obvious.  He knows this about himself, he’s embarrassed about it, he knows he’s not really Jack Packard, but he’s still stuck in that role, will remain stuck in that role until he can find a new one.  But having gotten himself into this situation, behaving like Packard is the only way he can get himself out of it, and save a lot of people from being killed.  So that’s what he does.  If you want to know how, read the book.

The title refers to the conflict between himself and Ross–and the affinity between them.  Ross is just as determined to somehow recast himself in life, become a great author, turn his fictions into reality.  That obsession–combined with his inability to see just how poor a fit he is for the role he’s playing now–makes him not only willing but eager to collaborate with people who framed him for murder–and to betray a friend who tried to help him.  But when you’re so deeply unhappy with the life you have, you may be willing to do anything to change it.  Even if that means losing it.

One of them is wrong, yes–but how much less wrong is Sam?  Again, we see the parallel with the Tobin novels.  Tobin would find a way to obliquely express to us that he sees how easily he could go down the path of someone he encounters in the book, whose life has gone disastrously wrong, whose identity has become terminally confused.  He hasn’t gone that far down the road yet, but it’s the same road.  With each subsequent book, he gets a bit closer to admitting this to himself.

But it’s done a lot more skillfully in those earlier pseudonymous novels. It’s much more organic and unforced.  It works one whole hell of a lot better than it does here.  And Westlake was not the kind of writer to be okay with a do-over that turns out worse than the original.

Still effective enough–these are good books, everybody who noticed them thought so at the time, including those who didn’t know who wrote them. But Westlake must have realized, as he wrote three of them in close succession, that there was no natural endpoint for Sam, as there was for Tobin.   Tobin could just go back to his life, his family, when he came to the end of his depression.  But would getting work as an actor again really resolve Sam Holt’s identity crisis?   Seems to me that would only deepen it.

So to enjoy these books, you sort of have to accept them for what they are–a failed experiment, with some interesting results, some acute observations of the contemporary scene, and some damn good writing.  And that’s just as true of the next book on our list, my personal favorite of the four, but that may be because it’s the most Gotham-centric of them, and therefore the most Anita-centric.  Have I mentioned I’m on Team Anita?  I’ll go into more detail about why that is next time.   Not that either team ever wins.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books and this one really justifies that name)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, One Of Us Is Wrong, novel, Samuel Holt Novels

Mr. Coe and the Dedications


I find myself lagging behind once more this week, may not finish the next review by Friday, and there’s something I’ve always wanted to discuss about the Tobin novels, and if I don’t do it now, when will I ever? It won’t take long, and it’s an interesting footnote to our discussion of those five oddball detective stories.

Donald Westlake liked to keep his pseudonyms a sort of open secret. He’d joke about them, particularly in the pages of books he wrote under his own name, but his preference, at least some of the time, seems to have been that a lot of people would read his other books and not know a guy named Westlake had anything to do with them–it’s one thing to be popular under one name–could just be good luck–but if you’re popular under several names, and not everybody knows they’re all you, that probably means you can write. When you write as much as Donald Westlake, you can afford to play games like that.

The early Parker novels–the paperback originals–never had any dedications. The hardcovers would typically be dedicated to somebody he knew, but by that time the fact that Donald E. Westlake was also Richard Stark was presumably much better known, due to the Parker film adaptations, and the media coverage surrounding them.

Books under his own name would mainly be dedicated to very close friends, colleagues, family members, and one of his several wives–by name–as is fitting, and in that case he didn’t have to worry about compromising his semi-secret identities, since he wasn’t using one.

But the Tobins were always published first in hardcover, by Random House, the same publisher that was publishing most of his output as Westlake–a hardcover novel is a serious matter (not like those cheesy paperbacks), and is supposed to be dedicated to someone. He may have sometimes chafed a bit at this convention, but he observed it faithfully, nonetheless. So fittingly enough for a mystery series, his dedications for the Tobins were always somewhat–cryptic.

to My Secret, Love.

That’s the dedication for Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, and a very mischievous use of the comma it is. It’s even more mischievous when you look at the typography employed in the book itself.

KIC Image 0002(2)

What secret? Which love? Did he tell anyone? If he had, would that person know for a fact there weren’t other secrets, other loves? Is he saying that his secret is Love itself?  Given the adulterous subject matter of the book–the married Tobin’s affair with another woman leading indirectly to his investigating the death of a woman having an affair with a married mobster–it’s definitely intriguing. And oblique as all hell.  But one imagines the transition in Westlake’s married life–divorcing one woman, wedding another–could have had something to do with it.   One can imagine whatever one wishes.  And on to the next book–

Miss S /Mrs.

Some mysteries are easier to solve than others–this pretty clearly refers to Sandra Foley, Westlake’s second wife, who he married in 1967, the same year Murder Among Children came out. It refers to the transition in their relationship–whether that had happened by the time he handed in the book or not–it was at the very least impending.

Then came Wax Apple, and the dedications were getting downright odd…..

For the mother

Of the purple

First baseman’s mitt

Is this Westlake’s only published attempt at poetry?  Not quite a haiku, but it has that flavor to it.   And who is it about?   Still Sandra?  I’m quite sure they had no baseball-aged boys by then, but maybe their firstborn had a toy baseball mitt that was purple?   I thought maybe it could be to his first wife–who he had two sons with, who were likely into baseball, and it would be a friendly gesture to someone who was still an important part of his life, not to mention his early writing career–but would he dedicate a novel to a former wife that his current wife would be looking at?  I’ve no idea.  Anyway, it’s a nice poem.  And far easier to interpret than the next one, for A Jade In Aries

For the hand

of the


Your guess is as good as mine, folks.  Maybe something to do with astrology?  (More likely poker.)

And then, for Don’t Lie to Me–the last book, the end of the mystery, no need to keep the Coe mask on any longer–he comes right out and names names.   And is more ambiguous than ever.

                                                               For Sandy,

                                                               Ave et Vale, et

                                                               Ave et Vale, et

                                                                . . .

The original would have been Ave Atque Vale, but that’s classical Latin–Westlake is going with the less archaic form.  In any event, not hard to translate–“Hail and Farewell.”  That’s what it means.  But what does it mean?   Trouble in paradise so soon?   They divorced a few years later.   That might not be it at all.   Maybe he was just traveling a lot.   Not necessarily in three dimensional space.   I thought of one possible erotic interpretation, but you can figure that out for yourselves just fine, I’m sure.

Westlake let out a side of himself in Tucker Coe that he mainly kept more under wraps, though it’s always there.   The Coe novels are more confiding, more emotional, more intimate, more melancholic, than almost anything he wrote under his own name, or any other.   And the dedications he chose mirror that.   They are private jokes, perhaps, but they are not meant to be greeted with laughter.  A sad smile, perhaps.  But without the context to interpret them, we just blink confusedly, and move on to read the book.   And as I’ve already said, I don’t think the Coe voice went away–Westlake just reincorporated it into his larger self, and if you listen closely, you can still hear him groaning away determinedly in the chorus.

Maybe someday some biographer will come along and explain it all to us.   I can’t quite decide if I want that to happen or not.  Do you know what I mean?  Do we ever really know what somebody else means?   When he or she actually takes the trouble to say something?  Or do we just make a show of comprehension?   Like when I post something like this.  Don’t answer that.

Anyway, no more Tobin articles, but I want to do one last cover gallery–the Official Westlake Blog is still busily adding new images, and I may have to revise my opinion that Tobin rarely got great cover art.   He definitely did better than Grofield.

The UK and German editions of the first book both distinguished themselves, though obviously they could have been used for many another crime novel.  Still good work.   The German artwork is rather gothic–appropriate enough, I suppose.   Somehow, I can’t see Tobin in a Homburg and a trenchcoat, but that’s quibbling.


I like this Italian cover for the montage of images relating to the story, but also for its alternate title–“Over the Wall”.   The American cover next to it I like for its simple depiction of the most central visual motif of the Tobin series.


The British cover on the left I’ve already praised to the high heavens–but seems like the artist for this Italian edition had the same general idea–and executed it extremely well, in the grand giallo style.


Random House used a sort of pop art pistol, ala Roy Lichtenstein, to illustrate Don’t Lie to Me, and as is so often the case, overseas publishers took that idea and did their own thing with it (my understanding is that foreign publishers would have the option of using the original cover art, would have it sent to them with the galleys for the book, but would be paying extra for the rights, and they had their own artists).

This was the case with the Italian edition, which is much more graphic and violent, yet politely points the revolver away from the reader.  The Germans went in a completely different reaction (the aftermath to the pistol), and while that cover could also work for a whole lot of other crime novels, it’s still really high quality artwork that gives you a good idea of what kind of book this is.   And the title is delightfully formal–“Tell the truth, colleague.”


I know I’ve posted three of these already in past reviews, but I can’t say enough good things about the Charter reprints, which in several cases were the very first American paperback editions.  The one for Wax Apple is so good, I’m tempted to say it’s the best cover art for any Westlake, ever–it just sums the book up so beautifully–telling all, and revealing nothing.  As good as cover art got in that era. The others are pretty, engaging to the eye, but not at that level in terms of getting the book’s point across–note that Don’t Lie to Me has the same fallen figure of a man as Wax Apple, only reversed.  By the way, is it just me, or does the Tobin in the first cover look like a young Eric Braeden?  Never quite the same face, from book to book, though they’re all pretty similar.


I would assume Charter reprinted all five Tobins, but I can’t find any trace of their edition of Murder Among Children.  I also can’t find out a thing about the artist (artists?) behind these beautiful covers.  My copy of Wax Apple doesn’t identify the artist, but there is a signature embedded in the artwork itself–‘W. Rome’–I think that’s it.   Anybody know more?

Next week, Plunder Squad, without fail.  I just don’t know if it’ll be a two-parter or not.   Well, finding out how long-winded I’m going to get about a given book is part of the fun, right?


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, Tucker Coe

Review: Don’t Lie To Me


It is strange how the mind works, sometimes going on about its own business regardless of what is happening in the real world all around it.  The instant the shot had been fired, I had known who had fired it and why, and from that I had known who had killed the John Doe and Dan Tynebourne and the girl–I supposed she was a Jane Doe now, at least for the moment–and why those killings had been done.  The knowledge was absolutely useless to me in my present condition, but I did know it.

MODERATOR: He’s dead!

TIMOTHY J. CULVER: This water glass–yes, just as I thought.  A rare undetectable South American poison.  Tucker Coe has been murdered.

DONALD E. WESTLAKE: I didn’t do it!

And here we are, at the fifth and final Mitchell Tobin Mystery, and before we proceed to look it over, it might behoove us to ask why that is.  Why is this the last one?   Five novels for a reasonably successful highly-acclaimed detective series (the first of which almost got made into a movie with Bob Mitchum as Mitch Tobin) is an exceptionally brief run in this genre–even granting that you wouldn’t want there to be scores of them, that even a dozen might have been too much of a good thing, five is cutting things a bit short.

You ever read any Max Thursday novels?   If so, consider me impressed.  He got six books.   He was pretty good.  He was no Mitch Tobin.  Many far less interesting fictional detectives got twenty or more novels devoted to their perennially perplexed peregrinations.  And almost nobody reads most of those books now–collects them for the cover art, maybe.   So yeah, there is that.  Don’t want to wear out your welcome.

But why did Westlake not only get rid of Tobin, but Tucker Coe as well, killing him off in a subsequent self-referential spoof he wrote for an anthology of articles on the mystery genre?  And basically confessing that he himself, Donald Westlake, had done the deed?

We have long had the official answer from Westlake himself–that he had told the story he’d set out to tell.  He’d set out to show us a man coming back from a deep depression, while solving murder mysteries along the way, learning things about himself and the human condition as he went, and once his emotional wounds had finally begun to heal, there was no point continuing.  Tobin could either go on wallowing in a pit of gloom, or he could become a standard-issue fictional gumshoe, of which Westlake felt there were too many already.  I think Westlake was telling the truth when he said that, but maybe not the whole truth.  And it may have been more clear to him in retrospect than it was at the time.

There’s certainly no indication in the book itself that this is the last we’ll ever see of Tobin, or Coe–not in the novel, nor in the promotional text on the first edition dust jacket.  I doubt very much that Westlake started writing this book with the express and definite intention of never writing again as Coe, and he certainly leaves the door open at the end to more Tobin later, in spite of some loose ends getting wrapped up.

Westlake often wrote books that could serve as a finishing point to a given series character, only to return to that character later on.  Not this time.  This one can certainly be read as a finale, but having read it twice now, it feels much less like one than Butcher’s Moon or Good Behavior, which both turned out to be mere intermissions.

One reason this turned out to be the last Coe was probably that Coe didn’t sell that well–well enough, I’m sure, that Westlake could have prolonged his relationship with Random House a while longer, cranking out a few more Tobins–but they might have been less interested in anything else from Coe, assuming Westlake even had anything else in mind to write in that voice (which is basically Tobin’s voice).  Even a writer as prolific as Westlake can only produce so much work in one year–he may have simply figured it was not a sound professional decision, keeping that pseudonym alive.

But if he’d made that decision when he was writing this book, I doubt he’d have named the brokerage house in Cops and Robbers (which he would have written around the same time) ‘Parker, Tobin, Eastpoole, and Co.’   He was justly proud of having made not just one name for himself as a writer, but several.  He hadn’t quite let go of that in his mind.

And yet, as the 70’s went on, the pseudonyms fell by the wayside.  Just two more Starks appear after this, until Comeback in 1997.  No more Coes.  He wrote a bit more science fiction here and there, but never again as Curt Clark.  He’d quit writing sleazes, and Richard Stark shot Culver dead in the same piece where Westlake poisoned Coe, then escaped with everyone’s valuables–meaning Westlake was not ready to let go of that alter ego, several years after writing Butcher’s Moon.

Be that as it may, after Butcher’s Moon, his next twelve novels over the course of as many years are all under his own name, and then comes the even more abortive experiment of writing as Samuel Holt about a reluctant detective of the same name–and there are some odd parallels between the Holts and the Tobins, but we’ll talk about that in due course.

Westlake had been writing under multiple names since the start of his career, but from the early 70’s to the late 90’s, he wrote mainly as himself.   This couldn’t be a decision he made all at once–it would have come upon him by degrees.   It may have been partly motivated by a decreasing productivity–he no longer was writing ‘far too much’, as he confessed to doing for a while, in a later introduction he wrote for the Tobin novels.

He didn’t need the extra identities to serve as outlets for his surplus creative energies anymore.  He had a good thing going at M. Evans & Co.  He had regular income from Hollywood buying the rights to his books, and sometimes even getting him to write something original for the screen.  He had nonfiction articles bringing in money as well.  He had Dortmunder to fall back on as a series character; the most popular he ever created–certainly far more so than Tobin, and more suited to Westlake’s marked affinity for thieves.

And he turned 40 in 1973, a sobering milestone for anyone.  It was time to slow down and devote more time to figuring out what he, Westlake, could do as a writer.  To put aside all the masks,  for the time being at least.  And time for me to stop wanking about and review the damn book.  It really bugs me this is the last one, you know.   I’m going to reveal the killer below, so be warned.

So in his last outing, you may recall, Mitch Tobin, that most reluctant of reluctant detectives, had decided to stop sitting around feeling sorry for himself, building a brick wall in his back yard, and making the odd bit of change doing freelance (and technically illegal) private investigations.  Through his friend on the force, Marty Kengelberg, he got a P.I. license, and as that story ends, we the readers can only assume that he’s going to embrace his destiny as a man who solves odd crimes nobody else can, helping people who live on the fringes of mainstream society, and continuing his gradual journey back into the light of day.

And as this book begins, he’s working nights as private security for The Museum of American Graphic Art.   We probably have one somewhere in New York, there’s a museum of just about anything you can imagine here.  See, here’s the thing–most ex-cops and such who get P.I. licenses only do so in order to work this kind of gig, supplement their pensions, assuming they have one (Mitch, dismissed from the force with extreme prejudice, does not).

Tobin is actually an employee of a security firm, Allied Protection Services.  What, you thought he was going to set up his own shingle, have a little seedy office somewhere, do the Sam Spade thing?  Okay, that’s what I thought too.  It just makes sense, right?   Westlake always digs the independents–why would he make one of his greatest independents into a company man, a mere hireling?

Well, what else can Tobin do?  He’s not rich.  He’s got a wife and a son–kid’s going to college soon.  He needs a steady income, health insurance, etc.  He’s nearly gotten himself killed on three different occasions while trying to solve murders, and no real private detective makes a living solving murders.  That’s just in the pulps, and the movies.

If he worked as a private investigator, whether on his own, or for some big agency, he’d be peeping through keyholes, tracking down deadbeat dads or bail jumpers.  Maybe repossessing cars.  It’s a living, sure, but for a guy like Tobin, who values privacy above all else, it would be sheer hell.  Night security work is peaceful, quiet.   Peace and quiet is all he’s been wanting for a very long time now.  Oh Mitch.  Haven’t you figured out by now that you never get what you want?  Not for very long, anyway.

So he’s doing his rounds one night, looking at various displays, and he hears a knocking at the door–it’s Linda Campbell.  We’ve been hearing about her since the first book, and now we get a look at her–just a slender little blonde, nothing amazing–but she’s the woman Tobin ruined his life over.   The wife of Dink Campbell, a minor-league burglar, who Tobin sent away for a few years when he was a detective, and he ended up spending some time with Linda, and if you’ve been keeping up you know the story by heart already.  It’s an old story, anyhow.   There’s a version of it in The Book of Samuel, as I recall.

Anyway, Dink’s out of jail now, and he’s in trouble, naturally.   Some criminal acquaintances want Dink, a skilled lockman, to help them on a job.   He’s one more conviction from going away for life, and is not enthused about it, but he didn’t send her to see her old lover.  She just didn’t know who else to turn to–she wants Tobin to use his connections on the NYPD to put pressure on these guys, make them lay off.  He’s not enthused about that, but we already know he’s terrible at saying no to the women in his life–even the ones that aren’t in it anymore.

Yes, this is a more than a bit reminiscent of The Out is Death, that novel by Peter Rabe that I referenced in my review of The Jugger, and I’m sure that’s no coincidence,but it’s only the B-Plot anyway.   The A-Plot is the dead naked male body Mitch and Linda discover inside the museum as she’s preparing to leave–he calls it in, but before she makes her hasty exist, it’s decided he won’t mention her–that would bring her into the media coverage, which would drag up the old scandal of their affair that led to the death of his partner Jock, and his expulsion from the force.   Tobin was a cop too long not to know there are times when telling the truth is a sucker’s game.  He’ll lie if he has to, and unless there’s a damned good reason not to, he’ll stick to that lie, come hell or high water.   Hence the title.

He doesn’t lie to Kate, though.  That’s a very different matter.  Having weathered the initial investigation without anyone getting too suspicious, he goes home that morning and tells his (much) better half everything that transpired.   He does not tell her his precise emotional reaction to seeing Linda again, all the thoughts that rushed into his head (and elsewhere)–he’s neither an idiot nor a sadist.   She takes this as progress in their relationship–sometimes she really does seem too good to be true (Westlake may be wryly acknowledging that by having Tobin mention she was watching an Andy Hardy movie when he came in).

They go upstairs, make love, and fall asleep.  Well, Kate does (Tobin being apparently okay in the sack when he’s not too depressed).  Tobin is still agitated over the night’s events, and unable to sleep, so he calls Marty Kengelberg, and asks for that favor, regarding Dink.   And this is his first real mistake, assuming you don’t count opening the door to Linda in the first place.

In very little time, everything becomes ridiculously complicated (Mitch’s life, and the book itself).   The two plainclothesmen on the case, Grinella and Hargerson, don’t like him for the murder, but they have no leads (not even the name of the victim), know Tobin’s holding something back, and unfortunately Linda was seen leaving the museum that night, though not identified.  The murder itself is the good old locked-room variety, because the museum was locked tight, and nobody should have been in there but Mitch (and anyone he might have let in).

Tobin gets on okay with Grinella, a solid pro, but Hargerson is another of those thick-skulled asshole cops that he seems destined to keep running into, who takes an immediate disliking to him.  They know he used to be a cop (like at least half the guys working security).  Of course Hargerson is going to find out why he isn’t one anymore.  It just keeps getting better and better.

In the course of checking to see if anything was stolen from the museum, it comes out that damned near half the collection has been stolen–somebody’s been taking the old archival copies of newspapers and magazines containing the aforementioned graphic art, making copies on a machine located in the basement, aging them to look authentic, and then putting them up where the ‘real’ art should be.

The irony being, as is mentioned several times, that none of it is ‘original’ artwork–it’s all copies, as anything that appears in a newspaper or magazine would be.  So it’s not worth very much, even to collectors.  Given the time and effort involved, you could probably make more money waiting tables, if the tips were good.   Why would anyone bother?  Clearly this has something to do with the murder, but what?

Nobody’s hiring Mitch to solve this one, and typically, he just wants to let someone else worry about it.   But as it becomes clear to the higher-ups that he’s that Mitchell Tobin, a high-ranking inspector assigned to the case (because there are powerful people connected to this museum) expresses his admiration for the discreet assistance Tobin has rendered in closing some tricky murder cases in the past, and makes it clear he’d like Tobin to put his ratiocinative abilities to work once more.

Hargerson, who thought he was getting Tobin in trouble by outing him, still wants Tobin to stay out of his case  And he wants Tobin to stop lying to him.   I already said ‘hence the title’, right?   What I didn’t say was that his anger is based on more than just professional jealousy.  Because his partner just got a face-full of acid that was clearly meant for Tobin.   And here comes the B-Plot.

Tobin’s friend Marty, in spite of some serious reservations about Tobin doing any favors for his old girlfriend, made some calls, and pressure was duly applied to Dink’s old heisting buddies.  Who are understandably steamed about it.   And apparently too stupid to know that when a job is soured, it’s soured entirely (probably a lot closer to most real-life heisters than the pros you meet in a Richard Stark novel).

Instead of just melting into the woodwork until the heat is off, they put pressure on Dink, and since Dink is even stupider (Mitch, still carrying a wee torch for Linda, has to wonder what she sees in this schmuck, but that’s the oldest story of all) he spilled the beans to them about who was responsible for the unwanted scrutiny.   They figure they just need to remove this Tobin joker from the picture, and they can go back to the payroll heist they’re planning.  Only they splashed acid in an active-duty police detective’s face instead.  Bright boys.

So Hargerson may not be much of a detective, but he doesn’t need to be to know that Tobin has information he needs to find the guys who hit his partner.   And Tobin knows that he can’t give him that information without revealing Linda’s presence at the museum that night, meaning that she’d be connected to the museum murder, and the stolen art, and the acid attack, and the papers would be running stories about how he and Linda were an item once, and maybe still.   Tobin has made some progress in dealing with his emotional problems since first we met him.  Not that much progress.  He can’t take the flashbulbs in his face again.  He’d rather take the acid.   So he goes right on lying.

So Hargerson picks him up one night, and after asking him repeatedly who threw the acid, with no answer, takes him to an abandoned house not far from Tobin’s own house in Queens, and beats the living shit out of him.

We spent a long time in there, and he never once let me get all the way to my feet.  He used fists and knees and shoes, and from time to time paused to let me catch my breath or my wits, and each time he asked me the same question.  I held him off with determination for a while, and then with anger; for a time I was screaming through my raw throat that I would kill him, that I would follow him, that I would find my chance, I would kill him dead.  But he just kept at his methodical work, and steadily beat anger too out of me, and at the last I was resisting him with nothing at all.  I don’t know why I didn’t finally tell him the truth; it just seemed as though this thing would go on until it was time for it to stop, as though there was nothing I could do to cut it short, so why even try.   I guess what I was resisting with at the end was despair.

Tobin comes gradually back to consciousness, realizes Hargerson is gone, and phones Kate to come pick him up.   She wants him to call the cops.  Admirable as she truly is, she can be touchingly naive at times.  Good people often are.

As it happens, Tobin didn’t even know the name of the specific thug who threw the acid, but he’d asked Dink to find out for him, and he tells him it’s Vigevano (sounds a lot like Vigano, the mob boss from Cops and Robbers, which only proves this book was written just around the same time).  A guy named Mort Livingston drove the getaway car.  Vigevano is pleased he at least cost a cop his eyes, but he still wants to get Tobin.

Tobin tells Marty what he knows, but asks him to hold it back a while–then he talks to Hargerson, and tells him he can give him the name he wants, but he’s got to wait–he’s already proven he can’t beat it out of Mitch.   What’s he got to lose by giving Tobin a few days to wrap things up his own way?  And having illegally beaten a former cop half to death without any proof of wrongdoing (or any tangible results other than bruises a smarter cop would have known better than to leave), Hargerson isn’t in a good position to take him downtown.

In the previous four books, Tobin was called on to solve a murder case, and in all four cases, he tried like hell to get out of it.  Not much of a self-starter, is our Mitch.  It was always Kate who persuaded him–his guilt about what he’d done to her, his sense of obligation to at least try and support his family, the only way he could.  Three of the jobs were paying propositions; one was to clear a female relation of his that Kate had taken a shine to.

Kate’s not urging him to solve any murders this time, and there’s no payday involved.  Linda only wanted him to get Dink out of doing this heist.  He doesn’t give a hoot that some police inspector thinks he’s a great detective who could shed light on a case the inspector is under pressure from high-up to solve.  He just wants it all to go away–but it can’t–because it’s all gotten tangled together.   The A-Plot and the B-Plot.

He’s really trapped this time–Hargerson won’t let up until he knows who threw the acid–he can’t reveal who threw the acid without revealing why, which would reveal his lie–which would connect his past relationship with Linda to the museum murder.  But if he can solve the murder, then the press will stop writing about it, and Linda’s peripheral involvement won’t be of interest, and he won’t have to relive his past disgrace once more in the headlines.   So just this once, he’s doing it for himself.

To solve the mystery of the naked corpse in the museum, he has to solve the mystery of why anyone would spend many long hours of tedious work to steal something that isn’t very valuable.   That means he’s got to focus on the people who work at the museum.  He’s been meeting them here and there up to now in the course of the investigation,  but  now that he’s doing the investigating, he has to start paying more attention to them.   And this brings us to the outsider subculture in this book.

See, when I first read this one, a while back, I was rather indignant–I thought Westlake had for some reason dropped the main theme of the Tobin mysteries, the thing that makes them unique–that he always ends up learning about some group of social outcasts–mobsters, the youth culture, the mentally ill, gay men–there may even be a secondary subculture in the mix–actors, religious cults, and always cops (insiders and outsiders at the same time).   But I just couldn’t figure it out this time–then, rereading it for this review,  it finally came to me.  Academe.  The outsiders looking for tenured positions at institutions heavily funded by the very wealthy–the people they most despise.  Now there’s an identity crisis.

See, the museum, which runs on the income from a large endowment made long ago, is affiliated with New York University, and when it comes to maintaining the collection and planning exhibits, most of the work falls to two NYU professors and their graduate students.  Ernest Ramsay of the history department is very conservative (for an academic), rather anal and fussy, and very much inclined to quarrel with Phil Cane, from the Art department of NYU (these days referred to as the Department of Art and Art Professions).

Phil Crane is what used to be called a longhair.   It was never meant as a compliment, though he might take it as one anyway.    It’s certainly descriptive enough; “an intense, long-haired man in his late thirties, he wore a heavily undisciplined beard to go with his love beads and bell-bottom slacks, and tended to pepper his language with the slang of the moment.”   Strangely, he thinks he and Mitch are brothers under the skin–

Crane barked with laughter.  “Mr. Tobin,” he said, “you exceed my expectations.  You groove on crisis, I know you do.  Isn’t that right?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“It cools you out,” he said.  “You go along, you go along, everything’s quiet, then there’s a crash and you’re cool.  Am I right?”

I grinned at him.  “You mean I’m good under pressure.”

“Man I mean you live under pressure.  It picks you up.”

“No,” I said.  “I like a quiet life.”

He gave me a knowing look.  “Not you,” he said.  “You’re a fatality freak.  You know what I mean?”


“You don’t know it,” he said, “but I groove with you.  I really and truly dig where you are.  You let it come to you, and that’s good.  I’m the same.”

Turns out he and Tobin are both immune to the effects of cannabis (Tobin tells us he tried it a long time before it was adopted by white college kids)–both too self-controlled to ever really let go.  He really does seem to understand Tobin very well, though there are gaps of understanding on both sides.

Tobin enjoys the understanding, but being like somebody is not the same thing as liking him, or sharing his goals.  They do say Churchill was very much the same personality type as Hitler, you know.   That’s what tipped Churchill off that Hitler was serious.   That’s how he knew they had to get ready.  Okay, I warned you there’d be spoilers in here.  You always have to be ready for that, reading this blog.

The point being made here is not that being an academic is a bad thing, but that the conflicts inherent to academia–that it attracts many people who have a love/hate relationship with their own civilization; who may have revolutionary leanings, but who also have a vested interest in keeping society afloat (why do you think tenure was invented in the first place?)–can produce major personality conflicts–people who don’t know themselves very well, because they can’t afford to.  Mitch figures the answers to the puzzle he’s trying to solve lie with a student of Crane’s, Dan Tynebourne, whose personality is really more akin to Ramsay’s, but who believes in being like Crane; subversive, off-center, cool.

Tobin breaks into his apartment to snoop around for clues.  A girl called him anonymously, who seemed to know who the John Doe at the museum was–she called him George–Tobin’s already figured out he might have been in Canada, since there was a pack of Maverick cigarettes down there–American cigarettes marketed in Canada, which are actually Marlboros, but another manufacturer owns the name Marlboro in Canada, and you can read about it here if you care.   He thinks he might find a lead to her, or to George himself, at Tynebourne’s apartment.

I found neither, but I did see plenty of further evidence of the split in Dan Tynebourne’s personality.  In his books, Jerry Rubin nestled with Henry James.  On his walls, a print of the Unicorn tapestry was hung next to a poster of Che Guevara.  His records were an amalgram of Jefferson Airplane and Mozart, and beside his bed I found a heavily annotated copy of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.  Looking at his marginal remarks, I saw him torn between the nihilism of the terrorists in that book and his own apparently natural love of tradition and heritage and history.  He was trying to be in love with both Now and Then, even though the currently accepted way to love Now is by rejecting Then.

Dan will never get a chance to resolve this conflict–he and the girl are found dead in a car that drove off a Manhattan pier.  Tobin had tried to find him by calling his role model, Professor Crane.   It’s interesting that whereas in most detective novels, the detective is always a few steps ahead of you, because of the odd methodical way Tobin’s mind works, and because he’s usually very distracted by various things in the course of the story, we sometimes get to the killer ahead of him.  But as always, he needs to know the why before he can know the who.

So cutting back up to the scene from the book that begins this review, Tobin is at his house–he wakes up and realizes that Vigevano and his gang are waiting downstairs to kill him.   The idiots didn’t see a car parked outside, because Kate and Bill are visiting family on Long Island, so they figured he wasn’t home yet, and they’ve been sitting in his living room, smoking.  He creeps down and gets the drop on them, but it isn’t enough–four against one.  His own partly-completed brick wall in the backyard hampers his escape.  But then one of them is shot in the head as he runs out the front door, and at that moment in time, Tobin knows who the killer is–and why.  But he can’t worry about that just yet–Vigevano is coming for him with a knife.

He’s not in the best of shape after that beating he got from Hargerson, but he manages to take his assailant out with a desperate bear-hug, squeezing the breath out of him.  He’s not doing much better than Vigevano at this point, though he’s in better shape than the guy who got shot in the head.  He’s on the point of total collapse, but he has to keep going a while longer.   He calls Hargerson, and tells him he has all the answers now–he just has to come to the museum with him and wait.

While they wait, he tells Hargerson the whole story–including how Grinella got the acid meant for him, and then one of the heisters got the bullet meant for him.  “You’re not a good man to be around,” says Hargerson, with admirable understatement.   He then proceeds to prove his point by getting knocked over the head by the killer–Crane.  Who has a pistol.  And who is now going to get Tobin out of there, and dispose of him at some suitable location, so as not to connect his death to the original  murder.

Mitch had called Crane and told him a story to lure him there, needing to find some way for Crane to incriminate himself.  Crane (of a similar mental bent to Tobin, sans the empathy) has figured out that Tobin has figured out what he did, and why, so he came prepared.  When you’ve murdered one person to keep a secret, it can get a bit like eating potato chips–you keep going until the bag is empty.

See, he’d talked some of his grad students into doing the museum thefts.  He said it was to return the expropriated wealth of the people–the museum endowment from some robber baron that had gone to buy a lot of old newspaper and magazine art hardly anyone ever came to look at.  They’d be symbolically returning that money by selling the material to collectors, then donating it to worthy left-wing causes.

Either Crane kissed the Blarney Stone one time, or the drugs back then were really good, because the poor kids bought it–including George, the first victim–a draft-dodger who had been hiding out in Canada, and taking some of the art there to sell.  Only he found out Crane was phonier than any of the copies they were making–he was just expropriating their surplus labor to enrich himself.   He wasn’t doing any of the actual work, so it was like having a small independent income, on top of his salary from the university.

George, suitably indignant, threatened to spill the beans.  So Crane killed George in the basement workroom, and dragged him upstairs.  And he killed Dan and the girl–because trying to find them through Crane, Tobin let Crane know they were a threat.  Tobin is a really bad guy to be around, you know that?

And the last person to find that out is Crane himself.  As they’re leaving the museum, Dink shows up, angry that Tobin beat up his heister buddies, and the cops think he did it.  Caught off guard, Crane starts firing at both of them–Mitch tackles him, and Dink finishes the job.   Then Dink wants to bawl Tobin out for getting him involved in the fracas at the Tobin house.  Tobin tells him to shut up, and then mercifully passes out.   The End.

Westlake loved abrupt endings.  He often chose to leave the reader hanging–the big stuff gets wrapped up, but all the little things stay unresolved.  There’s easily two or three more chapters he could have written about what happened next, how it all got straightened out, whether Tobin did in fact avoid the media spotlight he probably could have avoided simply by not making that call to Marty on Linda’s behalf the same night she came to see him–just wait until coverage of the museum murder had died down.  It’s all been one long self-inflicted wound.   Just like the mess that made him into the Mitch Tobin we first met back in Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death.

He’s come full circle.  He’s still alive.  He’s not in any real trouble with the law, though Hargerson isn’t going to like him any better once he wakes up.  He’s still got Kate.  He’s still got Bill.  He’s solved yet another insoluble mystery.   He’s repaid whatever debt he owed to Linda and Dink.  He may get fired from his nighttime day-job–hard to say.  But he can find work elsewhere.

He’s also inadvertently helped cause some murders and maimings, but he wouldn’t have made it this far if he hadn’t learned how to accept that you can’t beat yourself up forever over unintended consequences to well-meaning acts.  He’ll always be a gloomy bastard, looking at the world through jaundiced eyes, but he’ll go on living until he can’t, and his fate being what it clearly is, he’ll probably be faced with new mysteries in the future—and he’ll be just as reluctant to solve those.   Tobin is Tobin, and what else is there to say?

What I say is that this is the weakest of the five Tobin mysteries, the least satisfying on a number of levels.   Not everyone agrees, but since when does everyone ever agree about anything Westlake ever wrote?

First of all, the A Plot and B Plot thing is too convoluted, too contrived–I see the purpose of it, admire the way it’s constructed, but it just doesn’t work as well as the more focused stories of the previous four.  More critically, because of the two plots, there isn’t enough time to explore the outsider subculture Westlake has chosen.   What’s there is interesting, persuasive, but it isn’t enough.

It feels a bit tacked-on–Westlake would have seen that.  Compared to the organic near-perfection of Wax Apple and A Jade in Aries, you can see the joins too clearly–he’s thinking about it too much.   And while there’s some very good writing in it, there’s nothing to equal the haunting noir-inflected prose of Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, or Murder Among Children, with its echoes of Hammett, and perhaps a little of Chandler as well.

So why was this the last one?   Maybe because writing it, he could feel he was at the end of his string with this character.  I think he decided sometime after he started writing it, which is why it doesn’t quite read like a finale, but at the same time convinces you it is one. He was figuring it out as he went.

Having resolved Tobin’s depression the previous book, and his hanging storyline with Linda in this one, he had by no means resolved all of Tobin’s issues–any more than his friend Lawrence Block had resolved all of Matt Scudder’s issues by having him quit drinking Eight Million Ways to Die–perhaps not so coincidentally, the fifth Matthew Scudder mystery novel.

But was Scudder ever as interesting again after he stopped drinking?  Interesting enough for people to want to keep reading about him–in fact, he became more popular as the series went on.   Therefore, interesting enough for Block to want to keep writing about him–why give up on a character people liked?   Why not just keep going until you can’t anymore?  Westlake didn’t see it that way.   He didn’t like writing detective fiction nearly as much as Block did–for him, it was only worthwhile if it was completely different from what everybody else was doing.

Tobin doesn’t want to be a detective.  That’s what makes him such a great detective–his odd abstracted perspective, that allows him to see all the many worlds within the world–it’s not how he solves the mysteries, but what he teaches us about ourselves along the way.  And without that abstraction granted him by his depression in the first four books, the thing that made the books special is gone, or at least greatly diminished.  Westlake had to write this one to prove that to himself, and having done so, he stopped writing about Tobin, and he stopped writing as Coe. There’s no point anymore.

But on some level, he must have felt like he was killing a voice that had lived inside of him, sensitive, empathetic–different from his other voices, with valid things to say, and that’s why Coe is almost mute, tongue-tied, in that mock-interview–and that’s why he’s dead at the end of it, with Westlake vehemently insisting he didn’t do it, after having said earlier in the piece that the way you know somebody is lying is when he denies having done something without anyone having accused him.   But I would say that voice is still there, waiting its time–Coe remained a silent partner, and would be a major contributor to later books.  Don’t lie to us, Mr. Westlake.  We know you too well by now.

And whatever you do, don’t lie to Parker.   Who in our next book will suffer a succession of professional reversals to rival even Dortmunder for star-crossed fortune.  But Parker never counts on luck.   He makes his own.  And if you cross him badly enough, your luck will run out, sooner or later.


Filed under Don't Lie To Me, Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin

Review: A Jade in Aries, Part 2



“There’s going to be a party at our place tomorrow night,” Weissman said.  “Why don’t you come?”

“Your place?”

“You know, Stew’s place.  Stew Remington.  Most Saturdays there’s a party at one place or another, and it’s kind of our turn tomorrow night.”

“I’d be glad to come,” I said.

A frown touched his face, a sudden doubt.  He said, “There won’t be any straight people there, you know.”

“If it’s a party,” I said, “and not an orgy, I’ll be happy to be there.”

“Oh, no, it’s just a party.  People might go off into another room after a while, something like that, but it won’t be, you know, a lot of naked carrying-on or anything like that.”

“Then I’ll come.”

“Fine,” he said, and gave me a sunny smile, and I realized his wide-ranging net had just included me within his community.

This book was probably written in 1969, a pivotal year for gay rights in America, and I hardly feel the need to link to any Wikipedia articles about that.  Changes were in the air in the late 1960’s, on innumerable fronts, and gay liberation was merely one of them.  There’s no mention of the protests here, no indication that these particular gay men are activists of any kind, and that would have been true of many, if not most, gay men of this period, particularly those who were older, more established, with more to lose by speaking up, acting out–though I’m sure everyone in that community was paying attention.

Westlake may, in fact, have finished the book before June 28th, when the unrest began, certainly finished it well before the long-term significance of that unrest became clear, so we probably shouldn’t read anything into that absence–Murder Among Children didn’t mention any specific events or movements relating to the youth culture of the Mid-60’s.  The Coe books certainly react to current events, are informed by them, exist alongside them, but don’t reference them directly.  They’re focused on the personal, much more than the political, though one can never separate the two entirely, can one?

Still, intentional or otherwise, it’s rather piquant that a murder mystery with a gay angle, which many consider the best of the novels about a depressed detective who spends his spare time building a brick wall in his backyard should be written the same year as the Stonewall Riots, wouldn’t you say?

Even more interesting, the same year this book came out (1970), Joseph Hansen published Fadeout, introducing LA-based insurance claims investigator Dave Brandstetter, generally considered the first fully realized openly gay protagonist in the mystery genre–if not all genres.  Given the timing, there’s no way Westlake or Hansen were reacting to each other in this case, but of course everybody in the hardboiled faction of the genre was reacting to Westlake by then,  and I’ve no doubt Westlake noticed Hansen before long, as he noticed anybody in his field who could write.   “We all swim in the same ocean,” as he liked to say.

And when we last saw Mitch Tobin, he was preparing to explore the high seas of gay culture in New York City, to try and help his client, Ronald Cornell, find out who killed Ronald’s lover, Jamie Dearborn–the title character, who we never meet, though his ghost haunts every part of the book (it’s a bit reminiscent of Laura, except–well, never mind).   He was an Aries, and decidedly jaded, inspiring love and hate in equal measure, and nobody who knew him seems to have come through the experience unscarred.   But who hated him enough to kill him?

Jamie was black, and one interesting thing about this circle of gay friends, lovers, and frenemies, is that it’s racially integrated–not without some attendant conflicts, but still, interesting–as Tobin remarks later on, having a much smaller group of potential connections, fewer people to fall in love with, fewer people they can really open up to, gay men in a given area have a tendency to congregate, be a bit incestuous in their relationships (this is obviously less the case now, but probably still some truth to it).

Jamie had many lovers before he settled down with Ronald (we’re told his newfound monogamy was partly a way of slowing down, so as not to burn out).   He and Ronald, diametrically opposed on almost every level, balanced each other out, yin to yang (or Aries to whatever sign Ronald is).  Westlake himself understood the conflict between polygamous impulses and monogamous needs very well, and we see that dichotomy depicted quite sensitively here, in this entirely male grouping.

Tobin shows up at Ronald and Jamie’s apartment, and is let in by Stew Remington’s current boy toy (a term Stew himself would have gleefully adopted had it been around then); Jerry Weissman, an open-hearted young man from the sticks, wearing ordinary street clothes, who has found what he considers a wonderful group of friends in the big city, and if that means sleeping with a rich fat lawyer for a while, what of it?   Stew doubtless has much to teach him.

There is also David Poumon, a young writer (whose physical description sounds oddly similar to Westlake’s),  also not a flamboyant dresser.  He’s involved with Cary Lane, one of Jamie’s fellow models, who is supremely flamboyant–a strange mixture of affected decadence and genuine innocence–and a gifted mimic.   A kind and gentle person under his fey mannerisms–and braver than even he realizes.

David and Cary are both on the list of potential suspects, along with Stew Remington; people Jamie trusted enough to let into the apartment who don’t have an alibi for the time of his murder–but it’s hard to imagine any of them being the murderer.   None of them seems the type, and the thing about the Coe mysteries is that people who look innocent usually are, even though, as Tobin reminds us, all humans have the capacity for murder–yes, but not all to the same degree.

It’s either going to be someone really obvious, or someone who slips by unnoticed, while the obvious suspects distract us.   This is pretty nearly always the way Westlake does mysteries, like it or not.  I mainly do, but I’m not reading these books primarily for the whodunnit experience.

I think Westlake’s main interest in plotting his mysteries was in finding believable motivations for murder among people who might otherwise seem unlikely to ever resort to such an extreme.  It’s part of how he makes ‘the ritual’, as he called it, a bit more rooted in real life.  Nobody in his books is ever a killer ‘just because.’   And now might be a good time to stop reading if you don’t want to know who the killer is, because I can’t discuss the plot much further without giving it away.

To know the killer, Tobin needs to know more about the victim–and everyone gives him a somewhat different story.   Jamie was charismatic, hypnotic, fascinating to everyone he met, and often cruel as well.   But with Ronald, he’d built a world that Tobin quietly observes was beautiful–decorating their home himself, with the expected flair–Tobin is taken aback by their bedroom, that no one else was allowed into, which has a majestic view of the Brooklyn Bridge, and one wall covered with a gigantic mural of an incoming airliner.  Unnerving, but beautiful.

Tobin can understand Ronald’s grief, share in it vicariously–perhaps it reminds him of the private world he shared with Linda Campbell, his former lover.   Or in a different way, with his dead partner, Jock Sheehan.  It’s not hard for him to understand loving another man deeply–just take out the sexual component, and the emotions aren’t that different.  Jamie and Ronald weren’t really about sex, either–they were about finding something constant, in a perpetually unstable reality.  And somebody destroyed that world, forever–as Tobin’s world was destroyed by a drug dealer’s bullet.

He’s still got four more suspects to meet, but one of them saves him the trouble and comes to see him at his house–Bruce Maundy, who works in the theater, and is anything but limp-wristed.  He lives in Queens as well, with his mother, and is in mortal terror of her finding out he’s gay.  He threatens Tobin, in Tobin’s own house, to stay out of his life, and forget about solving Jamie’s murder.   Tobin, sensing that Maundy might attack at any moment, beats him to the punch, literally, and then throws him out.  Exeunt Maundy, uttering threats.   By the way, it’s not a Thursday when he shows up.  That would have been a good pun.

Tobin never jumps to conclusions, no matter how obvious they might seem (one gets the feeling he was a rather unusual cop when he was on the force), so he just marks Maundy as a possible, and heads off to the party at Stew’s place.   And there he meets the two remaining suspects, Henry Koberberg, and Leo Ross,   Leo is also black, older than Jamie, and according to his partner Henry (partner both professionally and personally, as with Jamie and Ronald), is upset by the new order of things, where a black  man has a chance to succeed in the white world, and therefore has to worry about not making it.

Henry’s got a dry sense of humor, an acerbic streak, and a lot of emotional issues to work out, but he’s basically a solid guy, Tobin thinks.  He reminds Tobin of himself.  Tobin tells Henry he’s better than he thinks he is–Tobin needs to be telling somebody else that.

Henry hated Jamie (who mocked his uptight disposition ceaselessly), and doesn’t mind saying so.   It’s hard to see him committing murder, but then as Tobin thinks, it’s theoretically possible for any of them to have swung the weapon that killed Jamie Dearborn–

Stewart Remington judiciously.

Bruce Maundy enragedly.

Cary Lane hysterically.

David Poumon coldly.

Henry Koberberg agonizedly.

Leo Ross irritably.

There is no type of human being which is a killer type; all men can kill, given the proper impetus.

Tobin has a lot of conflicting information to distract him–there’s no physical evidence he can look at to help him, even if he was trained in forensic science, which he’s not.   Several of his suspects were sexually involved with the murder victim–could have been anger over unrequited love.   One was his attorney–could have been about money.  Several were angry at him for the way he treated them–could have been personal pique.   But none of these motives really satisfy Tobin.  None are specific enough.   People have these kinds of problems all the time without resorting to a blunt object.

In the meantime, he’s got some personal mysteries to plumb–he’s enjoying his time with this subculture.   He’s watching them–not just the suspects, but all the others in their group, and like any straight guy might (Tobin being as straight as they come), he’s looking for all the stuff the books talk about; the sadness, the unhealthy appetites, the maladjustment, the emptiness–and sure, they have their problems.   But at the party, where one fellow thinks Tobin is wearing ‘Warner Brothers Drag’–he can’t help but think to himself–

They all seemed so happy.  Watching them, I thought at first it was a kind of hysterical happiness, urgent and artificial: Germany in the twenties.  But it wasn’t that, or at least I soon stopped thinking so.  What I finally decided was that the apparent artificiality and overstatement came from the fact that these people were more expressive and outwardly emotional than most men.  To be in a room full of men dressed like South American birds and chattering like a beauty salon made for a certain sense of dislocation; it became difficult to say what was a normal level of behavior and what was strain.

This is more than just a breakthrough in the sense that he’s recognizing gay people are just people (which in 1970, would not be such an earth-shattering revelation).  In watching these men, who he knows full well from his time on the force have experienced many unhappy moments, some of them violent in nature; who are treated with contempt or simply ignored outright by most of their fellow humans, he sees they’re still living, still taking what pleasures they can from their existence, still finding ways to be part of a growing changing circle of fellow enthusiasts, seeking their proper place in the world, finding things to laugh about.

They aren’t dead inside, as he, Mitch Tobin, has been these past few years.  Lasting love and camaraderie is as hard for them to come by as anyone else–maybe harder, sometimes, because of the prejudices they face, the scars they bear–but they haven’t given up.   So why has he?

He sees two men kissing on a stairway, and he thinks to himself that he should be disgusted–and isn’t.   It’s just two men kissing.  So what?   And this is one of those times when I read a passage from one of Westlake’s books, and think this is him processing an experience he had in his own life.   Westlake surely went to a lot of parties in Greenwich Village as a young man–maybe not gay parties, but in the artistic circles he moved in, the distinction would often be academic.  At first, the upstate Catholic boy must have been shocked, repulsed.  But shock tends to wear off.   Hopefully to be replaced by understanding.   Not always, though.

Driving home from the party, still working his way through the stirring of emotions he’d thought buried down in the sub-basement of his soul, while at the same time looking for some inkling of whom the killer might be, he suddenly gets pulled over by an unmarked police vehicle–it’s Manzoni.   Who has learned about Tobin’s investigation.  And gives him a pretty unequivocal warning that it better stop.   Tobin, knowing better than to argue with an angry policeman, stays quiet, passive–and as Manzoni drives away, he sees someone in the back–Bruce Maundy.

Yeah, he’s the killer.   Spoiler alert.   If you’d never read a Tobin before, you might think he was a red herring, but as with Murder Among Children, it’s not really a whodunnit, so much as a whydunnit.   People with a tendency to violent murderous rages, are, more often than not, going to be the murderers in our midst–not necessarily, but typically.  In real life, it’s rarely the least likely person who did it.  And it’s pretty much never the butler.

That being said, suspecting and proving are two different things, and Tobin is badly hampered yet again by his weird nether-realm status as a detective–neither true amateur nor licensed professional.  And still mistrusted by the police, because of what happened to his partner.   Maundy ratting him out doesn’t prove a thing.   It just reminds us yet again that Bruce is the only one who seems actively upset by somebody trying to find Jamie’s killer.   And Westlake knows that will be our reaction, and clearly doesn’t care.   It’s the process that matters, much more than its conclusion.

He goes back to see Ronald at the hospital, and finds Cary Lane there–they’re working up in-depth horoscope readings, using the birth data Tobin obtained for Ronald.  Now at the beginning of this book, ‘Tucker Coe’ tells us that he doesn’t necessarily believe in astrology as a science, and places it under the category of things not proven.  Westlake clearly did a lot of research, knowing how seriously many gay people take it.  Tobin never evinces any belief in astrology, but says that he could see people under stress using it as a way of expressing knowledge and understanding they can’t  access on a conscious level.

Again, astrology is still a thing in the gay community, though I can’t say I’ve ever met any gay  men who were into it.  My sister and her husband were very strongly into it (still are, I assume), and I know how seriously an astrological reading is taken by those who do believe, and how much work is involved, and how disputed the results can be–it’s a lot more complicated than just knowing what sign you are.  There are houses, and planets, and water signs, and air signs, and I don’t really understand any of it.

My sister’s husband did my chart once, and I didn’t learn anything at all useful from it.   Put me under the heading of “Not even the least tiny bit convinced.”   I put more credence in palm reading (because I think good palm readers are actually reading you).

But as Ronald and Cary work up the horoscopes of everyone involved with the murder–victims, partners, suspects–patterns begin to emerge.   And Cary’s perfect face (the product of plastic surgery) suddenly goes deadly white, and he says the reading shows David Poumon, his lover, is about to be killed.   Then Manzoni arrives and takes Tobin in for questioning, ignoring what Ronald and Cary say about David.   Which is a mistake.  Because David Poumon is about to be killed.

Tobin once again gets put through the grinder of police procedure, and once again just grits his teeth and waits for it to be over.   They don’t really have much to hold him on (he never took any money from Ronald), but Manzoni has used his pull to draw the whole process out.  By the end of it, Manzoni is coming to him for help–because he’s found out David Poumon was just thrown to his death from his apartment building, and now he knows Ronald was right all along, and he’s going to look like the incompetent bigot he always was.

Tobin has had enough–what has he done but make things worse?   He goes back to his sub-basement in Queens, but then gets a visit from Henry Koberberg, who is, atypically for him, in a state of high emotion–Leo has been arrested for David’s murder.   He was called to the apartment by an anonymous caller, lured to the roof, and trapped there.   He had a length of lead pipe in his pocket to protect himself.   The killer (who threw David from the apartment window) is using him for a patsy.   And as Henry puts it, “Good heavens, man, he’s black and he’s queer!  What do you expect from the police department?”   Plus ca change………

Henry insists Leo is innocent–Tobin calmly responds he knows that–Bruce Maundy is the killer.   He’s known ever since he heard of David’s death.  At some point, a number of things Bruce said to him came together in his head, and told him that Bruce knew too many things he shouldn’t have known, couldn’t have known, unless he was the one who killed Jamie, and almost killed Ronald.   But there’s no physical evidence, no motive.  A good investigator would smell a rat, but Manzoni is still in charge of the case.  And he’s just trying to cover his own unsightly ass.

Tobin is still stubbornly insisting there’s nothing he can do, nobody who will listen to his theories, but Henry is frantic, insisting they can’t leave Leo to serve as Maundy’s sacrificial lamb.  Faced with this burst of emotion from a man who has been almost as closed down personally as Tobin–again, the one man he’s met on this case who most reminds him of himself–something opens up inside Tobin, just a crack.  And he has a sudden flash of personal insight–“I feel I don’t have the right to stop punishing myself, I thought.  What a fool.”

He phones his old friend on the force, Marty Kengelberg, who we’ve met a few times before.   He asks how quickly he could get a private investigator’s license–Marty practically falls over himself to help, reassuring Tobin that he can get the license for him very soon, and that he doesn’t have to worry about getting in trouble if he does any work before it’s finalized.   And then they make dinner plans–the first time Tobin has agreed to have dinner with friends since Jock died.   The dam has broken–Mitch Tobin is coming back to life.

But he still has to prove Bruce Maundy is the killer.   And he does, in the most exciting and ingenious finish to any of the Tobins, and much as I’ve already revealed the killer, I think I really would be spoiling the book to give it away–but suffice it to say, Jamie Dearborn helps solve his own murder, after a fashion.  And Cary Lane, who ends up being the surprise hero of the piece, has a well-deserved cry.   And Stew Remington finds out there are some things in this world that aren’t funny.

What was the why of the case?   The reason Bruce Maundy murdered two of his friends, and tried to kill several more?  It’s all too painfully simple–Jamie Dearborn threatened to tell Bruce’s mother about Bruce being gay.  Bruce needs to believe his mother doesn’t know.  She does, of course, but they’ve never talked about it, and in his mind she still sees him as straight.  He’d kill everyone in New York to keep her from finding out.   As long as she sees him as ‘normal’, he can have his queer lifestyle, and still not be a queer.

It’s very reminiscent of The Sour Lemon Score, Matt Rosenstein–a violent macho thug who is clearly gay, but can’t admit it to himself, even while he’s sleeping with another man.   And again, in the fictional world of Donald E. Westlake, the worst crime you can commit is to lie to yourself–or to others–about who you are.   And those who commit that crime will very often end up committing other crimes as well.

If you’re gay, you’re gay–you can’t pretend to be anything else.   It won’t work.   It’s never worked.  It never could work.  And how many people are still out there, trying to make it work, putting up false fronts, running away from themselves, or trying to make other people run away from themselves?  How much longer will the lies go on?  Look at how long it’s taken us to get this far.   All to keep (as Cary puts it) “A silly secret that nobody ever even cared about.” Amen, brother.

So Tobin’s cracked the case yet again–Bruce Maundy is in jail, on suicide watch.   Ronald Cornell will be released from the hospital a free man, though still haunted by his lost love–he’ll have company there, from Cary.  Henry and Leo may work out their relationship problems or not, but Henry has perhaps learned that he is, as Tobin told him earlier, better than he thinks.  Leo will hopefully decide there are worse things than living in a world where it’s possible for you to fail–or succeed.  And life will go on.

And for Tobin himself, life will resume.   Somehow, this experience has set him on the path to recovery, though he’s still got a ways to go yet.  He’ll get his P.I. license–though he won’t end up using it the way we readers of detective fiction would expect, or hope.  Kate gets her husband back, Bill gets his father back, Marty gets his friend back.  Welcome back, Mitch.  But you realize this means your days as a fictional sleuth are numbered, right?   Mr. Coe will have no more need of you, and Mr. Westlake will have no more need of Mr. Coe.

This is the climax of the Tobin saga–this is where it all came to a head.   What follows can only be anti-climax, and to me, that’s what the final book in the series represents, though that’s not to say that an anti-climax is always a bad thing.   I’ll see how it reads the second time through, once I get to it.

What I’m getting to next is not as good a book as this, but it’s still an interesting one, written in a genre Westlake isn’t known for, under a pseudonym Westlake only used once–and then he actually got Richard Stark, of all people, to kill that alter-ego off.

So he couldn’t have liked the book all that much, you’d think (or else he was disappointed by the sales).  But I do like it, much as it isn’t the kind of thing we read Westlake for.   It’s got a lot of politics, a lot of family intrigue (rich well-connected WASP family intrigue at that), and it’s really really long.  Like stuck in an airport for hours, then flying across the Atlantic long.  You could fit any three Parker novels that aren’t Butcher’s Moon into this one, and they’d still have room to turn around.

If I had to come up with an alternate title for it, it might be something along the lines of Cold War and Peace.   You know what Tolstoy said about all happy families being the same (ignoring the fact that no family is ever entirely happy)?  It often seems to me that no two Westlake novels are alike.  But this is taking it a bit far, Mr. Westlake.  In the world of popular fiction, you truly are the President of the Unexpected.

PS: The black Serie Noire edition up top has an alternate title, which translates to Aunts Galore–‘Aunt’ being a French slang term for gay man.  The German title is something along the lines of No Time for Aries.  The more you know….


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, Tucker Coe

Review: A Jade in Aries



I walked around, watching and listening, carrying my glass of vermouth.  Twice, guests engaged me in conversation, patently trying to ease a certain curiosity about me.  One of them said “I never saw anybody in Warner Brothers drag before.  It’s fascinating!”  I didn’t volunteer any information, nor did I cut the conversations short.  I was as interested in their milieu as they were in mine.  I would also have liked a casual word or two dropped about one or more of my suspects, but that didn’t happen.

From A Jade in Aries, by Tucker Coe. 

In the Sixties in America there began to appear mysteries such as Tucker Coe’s A Jade in Aries, dealing with the gay milieu. The gay client is honestly dismayed at the murder of his lover and the police department’s apathy in finding his killer. (Factually, this is still a problem to the gay community). Emotionally, the book is sound, but it is not free of stereotyping; apparently, if we are to believe the book, all homosexuals wear brightly flowered ruffled shirts and wave their cigarettes about to a staccato Bette Davis beat (when they’re not dangling them from their incredibly limp wrists).

From Homosexuals in the Mystery: Victims or Victimizers?, by Solomon Hastings

A Jade in Aries was published in 1970, the same year Wax Apple came out, and it’s pretty clear that the two books were written very closely together, perhaps back to back–there’s a reference late in this one to Tobin’s broken arm from the previous book, and the two seem to link together on a number of levels, chronological and emotional.

I don’t think Westlake necessarily realized at first that he was writing a series of books about an unwilling detective exploring outsider subcultures, though he surely figured it out by the time he wrote Murder Among Children, which focused on the bohemian youth culture, and on African Americans.  So having made that connection, he had to think about other outsider groups Tobin could move among, and settled on the mentally ill, and then gay men.

Not lesbians–who he’d written about a lot in the 50’s and early 60’s, for the sleaze book market, and there was more than a touch of sympathy for them there, but not much in the way of empathy–his lesbian characters were unconvincing, and most seemed like they would be happier being with men, if only something hadn’t gone wrong (I can only think of one seemingly happy lesbian couple in a book of his, co-written with Lawrence Block, and that was about the quest of a lusty male teen to deflower a virgin, geared heavily towards farce).

I’d have to know a lot more than I do to form any solid opinion on his attitudes, which I’m sure were ‘evolving’, as we say at present–and in any event, he was writing to the market, which was mainly geared towards men who found lesbians sexy in much the same way they do today.  It’s okay to start with girl on girl, but only as a preliminary thing.  Yes, you may roll your eyes now; just understand somebody will be rolling their eyes at you someday, if they’re not already.

Marijane Meaker, who wrote for Gold Medal as Vin Packer (and who Westlake expressed his admiration for, presumably knowing who she really was), was (and is) herself a lesbian, who had a troubled affair with Patricia Highsmith.  She also wrote about lesbians as being emotionally disturbed in this period, because that’s the way you were expected to write them.   Societal expectations were damned hard to get around.

And anyway, in the climate in which these books were written, it was only a lie of omission.  We don’t blame the great African American authors of the Jim Crow era for writing mainly about troubled unhappy black people, do we now?   But even they could be more honest and upbeat about their prospects than those who practiced The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.   Nobody expected black people to pretend they weren’t black (though of course some did anyway).  Langston Hughes was almost certainly gay himself, and nary a word about that ever crept into his writing.  You can only be expected to take up so many crosses in one life.   James Baldwin wrote about the gay experience via a blonde American having an affair with an Italian in Paris.  And only well after he was very thoroughly established as a literary icon.

As always, I come at my point obliquely–it’s easy to look back and find fault, with gay and straight writers in that time, for failing to live up to our modern PC ideals when they write about the gay experience.  I find that many Post-Stonewall gay writers looking at the early gay mysteries seem to react to the gay men who wrote some of them almost the way black people do to Stepin Fetchit–forgetting that somebody has to be first, and that they can’t know what it was really like to be gay back then–or any other minority.   We just know the view is better standing on their shoulders.

Lots of self-evidently gay characters had shown up in mysteries, going all the way back to the dawn of the genre, even if they weren’t openly referred to as such. (Parenthetically, is it okay if I use ‘gay’ to refer to men and women alike?  One of my cousins said she was gay when she came out to me as a lesbian many years ago, and I only want to type ‘LGBT’ so many times in one article.)

Westlake was not breaking new ground by writing a mystery novel centered around a circle of gay men, one of whom is murdering the others.   By 1970, that was no new thing at all, and in fact there had been several fictional detectives who were themselves gay, and sometimes even referred to themselves as such.

In 1953, in Britain, a mystery called The Heart in Exile appeared, written by Rodney Garland (a pen name), and it was a rare thing then for even the most brilliant British and Irish writers (including those who were gay themselves, like–damn, that’s a long list) to openly admit homosexuality even existed.  The book is apparently full of self-hatred and class snobbery, and it’s probably not very good, but it’s a starting point.

By the 1960’s, things were loosening up a lot (oh behave!), at least in the urban centers of America.  George Baxt created the first series character who was both openly gay and a police detective–and black (Chester Himes beat him to the punch there, alluding to the gay subculture in Harlem as early as 1960, but his protagonists weren’t gay).

Pharaoh Love was his name, and almost unbearable campiness was frequently his game, but the books sold well enough, and Anthony Boucher liked them (did any mystery writer ever get a bad review from Boucher?).   Baxt was never identified as a gay man on the dust jackets, but he later went on to write a whole string of books with titles like The Marlene Dietrich Murder Case, The Noel Coward Murder Case, The Mae West Murder Case–I’m guessing most people figured it out.

And he also gets attacked today for depicting gay men in a negative light.   Then credited as a pioneer.  Then attacked again.  Because the fact is, the battle for full acceptance and equality isn’t over, even though some major victories have been won, and gay people are still very sensitive about stereotypes, and so is everyone, really.   It’s that kind of an era.   But to somebody who just cares about storytelling, the real problem with stereotypes isn’t that they offend people.   It’s that they make for bad writing.   Something that always offended Donald Westlake.

Westlake later wrote that “The Sixties crime novel was joky (as opposed to funny), smart-alecky, full of drugs, and self-consciously parading its cast of blacks and homosexuals.  The only Sixties mysteries with any merit at all were written in the Fifties by Chester Himes.”   And I don’t think he meant that to be taken entirely seriously (since he wrote it in the context of an interview of himself and several of his pseudonyms), but he wasn’t just blowing smoke either.

And looking over one of the Pharaoh Love books, I see exactly what he meant by that remark.  Yes, Pharaoh Love is an admirable man in many ways; capable, determined, intelligent, witty–and so full of himself, you can barely stand him.   Because he’s not a character, he’s a type.  He’s the author’s idealized self-image (Baxt was white, but obviously John Shaft was Ernest Tidyman’s idealized self-image, and what of it?), and at the same time, a reflection of the doubts gay men have felt, then and today, about their place in society.   Which often express themselves in a form of outre bravado–swishiness, if you will.  If you’ve got to live it, then own it.  Quentin Crisp did.  He was a pioneer too.   Like Stepin Fetchit.

And really, if you’ve ever seen footage of the Greenwich Village Halloween parade, you must be wondering why some gay people even try to pretend this isn’t a real thing.   But of course, nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody, wants to be defined by others.   We all want to define ourselves, in all our self-contradicting complexities.  Like I want to be a sensitive evolved male, and still get to talk like a sexist pig about hot chicks sometimes.  You see how subtly I just made my own persuasion clear?   Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Anyway, that’s enough prologue–if you want to read more about gay people in mysteries, you can start here, and you might just finish reading everything on this subject by next Christmas, but I doubt it.

Technically, A Jade in Aries is a Sixties Mystery, since it was quite certainly written sometime in 1969, and 1970 is generally considered to be part of that remarkable decade.  Maybe what Westlake aspired to do with it was fix all the problems he saw in earlier books with similar subject material–not joky, not smart-alecky, not full of drugs (unless the story really called for it), and if there were going to be blacks and homosexuals, they’d be people.  Nothing more, and nothing less.  Not paraded out self-consciously, but observed closely, and taken seriously.   He might get some things wrong, but it wouldn’t be for lack of interest in getting them right.

Tobin tells us he was working on a new home improvement project at his house in Queens, since the winter weather has temporarily stopped him from working outside on the brick wall he’s building around his backyard.  He’s in his basement, digging a sub-basement (that has to be symbolic of something, right?), when he hears a man calling from upstairs, then coming down–he tenses up–then relaxes, when the man comes into view.

Nothing to fear from this guy.  He’s not just gay–he’s one of the Bruised, as Tobin used to think of this type when working as a cop.  The type who is often found badly beaten up by his latest hook-up, and usually won’t even prefer charges against the perp.  Today, we’d probably just call him a ‘bottom’, and I hate that term, I really do.

His name is Ronald Cornell, and he owns a small men’s boutique in Brooklyn Heights, which is developing a large gay community (Greenwich Village would have been too obvious).   He ran it with his partner (in both senses of the word), Jamie Dearborn, a handsome young black man (normally way out of the drab Ronald’s league), who was much in demand as a model.

Jamie was found beaten to death in his and Ronald’s bedroom, and Ronald is convinced it was somebody in their immediate social circle who did it.  But the police investigation is being led by the exceptionally homophobic (by late 60’s police standards) Detective Manzoni, who is convinced it was merely some ‘changeable sailor’ who thought he’d try walking the wild side, then freaked and took it out on Jamie.  Manzoni pretty much figures these queers have it coming when this kind of thing happens.

Ronald refused to accept this, and started trying to solve the case himself–in his own rather idiosyncratic fashion, through astrology.  He’s sure Jamie would only have let someone he knew into the apartment, and he’s narrowed the list of acquaintances who don’t have alibis down to six.  He’s going to do their horoscopes (a very real thing in the gay community, then and now), but he needs to know exactly when and where they were born.  That’s why he’s come to see Tobin, who he heard about through channels–he needs somebody with the connections to get that information.

Tobin is rather bemused by this request, but he likes Ronald, sees he is in horrible emotional pain, as Tobin himself was after his partner Jock Sheehan died because of Tobin’s negligence–and it’s not a big deal–he calls an old friend on the force who has access to that kind of thing, and asks him for a favor.  He won’t even take any money (Ronald sends him a really nice scarf from his shop in gratitude).

He’s still not a licensed private investigator, and even if he was, he’d be stepping on some dangerous toes getting into a murder investigation that isn’t formally closed yet.  Tobin’s had plenty of trouble with the cops already, for his off-the-books activities.  But getting a few birth certificates checked out won’t ruffle any feathers.  He doesn’t believe astrology can be used to solve murders, but if anyone can identify with the need to keep busy to avoid dealing with grief, it’s Mitch Tobin.

And as I’ve said several times already, there has been one positive side-effect to Tobin’s depressive guilt-ridden state of mind these past few  years–it makes him incapable of looking down on anyone.  We are all sinners, and none worse than him.  Judge not lest ye be judged.   Yes, I know, Ronald hasn’t actually done anything wrong.   But he is about to make a serious mistake.

A few days later, Tobin and his wife Kate learn from a newspaper article that Ronald Cornell attempted suicide by jumping from the roof of his apartment building–same one the shop is located in–his fall was broken by a shed full of bolts of cloth relating to the shop, so he survived, but he’s very badly hurt.   Kate reads the article to Tobin, and he immediately deduces that this wasn’t suicide–it was a murder attempt.   Makes no sense otherwise–he’d have known the shed was there.  The police will figure it out–Tobin doesn’t want to get involved.   Tobin never wants to get involved.

But Kate, Tobin’s own dark-haired Jiminy Cricket, always wants him to get more involved–at least as long as he’s the way he is now.   She knows of no other way to try and bring him back to life.   And naturally compassionate as she is, she wants to meet Ronald, offer him some support.   So she goes and talks to him at the hospital, and confirms what Tobin said that somebody knocked him out and tried to kill him.   He didn’t see who it was.   He’s in full body traction, unable to move a muscle.  He’s not investigating anything now, unless it’s from his bed.

And as Kate learns to her horror, Manzoni now sees a chance to get another of ‘these people’ off the street–he’s going to have Ronald committed to an institution–since he not only tried to kill himself, but refused to admit it, and is clinging to the delusion that his lover was murdered by a friend, instead of just being a casualty of his own immoral lifestyle.   He’s clearly a danger to himself (and in 1969, remember, homosexuality is still widely considered a form of mental illness).  Case closed.   Two less perverts out there.   Mike Hammer would be proud.

So now it’s more than just a mystery to be solved–a living person’s existence is in jeopardy–Tobin is caught again.  Kate is giving him That Look–“Mitch, you have to do something.”   He just wants to go back to digging that sub-basement, but once again–

I could feel it closing in on me.  “Kate, what on earth could I do?  Even if I tried, what could I do?  I can make some phone calls and find him a good lawyer, but that would be the best thing.”

“A lawyer won’t beat Manzoni,” she said, “not if Manzoni is determined.   You know that, Mitch.


“Eventually?   After a year, two years?  Even six months, Mitch.   Put someone like Ronald Cornell in an asylum for six months?  What do you think it would do to him?

I said, “There’s no reason to believe I’d succeed, even if I did try.”

“That’s the worst excuse of all,” she said.

I looked down at the hole I was digging, the concrete blocks I was putting in place.   I didn’t want to leave all this.  I didn’t want to expose myself to anybody like Detective Manzoni, I didn’t want to pry into the unhappy world that Ronald Cornell lived in, I didn’t want to go out of this house at all.

Tobin, like most people of his generation, believes that homosexuality in men is the result of bad parenting–weak or absent father, dominating mother, lack of proper role models, etc. and so forth.   It doesn’t make you a bad person, but it’s a dysfunction, a regrettable development.  He’s stating this to us as the decidedly non-omniscient narrator, so it’s impossible to be sure whether this is what Westlake himself believed–I think he probably felt there was something to that theory, but  seems to hedge his bets slightly by having Tobin state it as a mere opinion, that he knows science has not confirmed.

Tobin even worries later in the book whether his own strange behavior could turn his son Bill gay–not that he uses that word.  It never appears in the book even once, and it was a long-established slang term that a former Greenwich Village denizen like Westlake was certainly familiar with–it appears frequently in those Pharoah Love books.   So make of that what you will.  But it makes sense Tobin would feel that way.  Parents often worried about that kind of thing then.   Many still do, of course (hey, it’s no worse than not vaccinating your kids because some website said it causes autism).

Tobin is homophobic in the sense of seeing gayness as something undesirable, even though he doesn’t hate and fear gay men in the deeply personal way Manzoni does.  It would be unrealistic for a man of Tobin’s generation and background to feel any differently.  But then, the hero of Up Your Banners was clearly shown to have racist attitudes, even as he fell madly in love with a black girl, and became increasingly repulsed by the prejudices he discovered in himself.

When Westlake’s muse is fully upon him, his own prejudices tend to fall by the wayside.   Because to Donald E. Westlake–and by extension, Tucker Coe–the most sacred right of all is the right to decide for yourself who you are, what your potentials may be.  To judge other people for things they can’t help, instead of the choices they make within the available parameters, is to commit the deadliest of sins.  And to base what you do with your life on what society expects from you is, as we were told in Up Your Banners, to be a traitor to yourself.

Anyway, Kate, still working on her spouse, plays her old hole card–that Tobin hasn’t been bringing in regular income–just the occasional detective job, and he didn’t even get paid for the last two we know about (it’s a bit unclear whether he’s done any paid detective work that wasn’t mentioned in the previous three novels–the lost Tobins?  We’ll probably never know).

The ten thousand he got from the syndicate in the first book must be long-gone, and he’s spending a lot on building materials for his projects.  Kate is working to keep the family fed.   And Ronald is offering them a percentage of his shop’s profits, in perpetuity, if Tobin will help him find Jamie’s killer (thus proving he’s not crazy).  Tobin makes it clear that if he fails to find the killer, he won’t accept payment of any kind.  And Kate, as ever, is gracious in victory.

So once more into the breach.   Tobin heads off to see Ronald at the hospital, and finds him as Kate left him, dazed, depressed, but believing deeply in Tobin’s ability to help him.  Then in walks Ronald’s attorney, Stewart Remington ESQ. (‘Stew’ for short), as gay as a man possibly can be, and loving every minute of it.  He is also into astrology, though more skeptical.   Basically all the people in Ronald’s circle have some interest–and all of them use Stew as their attorney.   And he’s one of the suspects on Ronald’s list.   He’s most amused to find that out.

Almost everything about him was a surprise.  I’d expected someone more or less like Cornell, perhaps a bit brisker, more down-to-earth, but generally from the same mold.  Stewart Remington, though, was from a different mold completely.

In the first place, he was about my age, around forty.  And he was huge, over six feet by an inch or two, and fat the way pictures show Henry the Eighth was fat; a lot of flesh padding a large broad frame.  I would guess him to be no less than three hundred pounds, and possibly ten or fifteen pounds over.

This huge body was draped in clothing which had undoubtedly come from Cornell’s boutique.  It was similar in style to what Cornell had worn the first time I’d seen him, but was more flamboyant in color and line.  Looking at him, one knew he was the kind of man who wore a cape, and who wore one whether capes were in vogue that particular time of year or not, and who surely had at least one cape with a red satin lining.

What he was wearing now, however, was a black velvet topcoat with black fur collar, the coat worn open, flung over his shoulders without his arms in the sleeves, like photos of Italian movie directors.

The description goes on at some length, but you get the idea.  And by the way, referring to that article quote up top, I don’t think there are any gay men in this book who wear brightly flowered ruffled shirts–in fact, they all dress quite differently, so Westlake did understand the vital significance of style in this subculture, even if he got the details wrong for this exact place and time–and honestly, who would know at this point?   Who would remember?   It would have changed every other week.  It’s an open secret here in New York that if you want expensive men’s clothing at a bargain, go to thrift stores in neighborhoods with a lot of gay men.  You’ll find tons of barely-worn discarded finery–the remainder bins of the fashion wars.

As Tobin makes his way through Ronald’s list, and meets the other five suspects, each of them is very much an individual, with his own very distinct tastes, interests, and behavior patterns, though they all do share an interest in astrology–the linking theme of this book.  Tobin likes some of them very much, forming tentative friendships–others rub him the wrong way, but that’s always been the case with him.

Some of the ones he dislikes turn out to be pretty solid citizens, under their various vaguely decadent mannerisms.  In fact, most of the people he meets in Ronald’s group are decent enough human beings, down deep–not saints by any means, but much more than sinners.  And one of them, of course, is the murderer.   And that’s the one he has to find, and quickly.   Ronald’s time is running short, and he may not be the only one.

I was hoping to get this one finished in one installment, but it won’t work.   There’s too much depth to this book, too much variety, too much detail, too much color, too much life–and too much death.   The truth is, I’ve only got one more Tobin to review after this, and I’m going to miss the guy.

So I’ll allow myself the indulgence of drawing out my analysis of arguably his most interesting case, and I’ll allow him the same honor I’ve extended to Parker and Dortmunder–a two part review.  Because Mitch Tobin, brief as his fictional existence was, is the only one of Westlake’s other series protagonists who can stand beside those two legendary thieves as an equal–in complexity and in character, if not in durability.

He could not last as long as they did, you see, because unlike them, he is in constant flux, learning and changing with each new case, though it’s been incremental up to this point–but next time, we’ll see that the seed germinating inside of him in his long emotional winter is ready to sprout into the warmth of spring.  And frankly, so am I.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, Tucker Coe

Review: Wax Apple


True!–nervous–very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses–not destroyed–not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily–how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

From The Tell-tale Heart, by Edgar Allan Poe

Walter Stoddard–a suspect too, and at my table, facing me–said, ‘What exactly are you, Tobin?”

I looked away from Debby and saw him studying me.  He had a brooding expression on his face today, more thoughtful and less hopeless  than I’d seen there before.  I said, “How do you mean?”

“Everybody knows you aren’t kosher,” he said, “But nobody knows what you are.”

I said, “I’m a friend of a friend of Doctor Cameron.”

“You weren’t at Revo Hill?”

I shook my head.

Jerry Kanter reluctantly gave up his study of Rose Ackerson and Molly Schweitzler.  “So you are a ringer,” he said.  “A counterspy.  What are you, a cop?”

“No.  I used to be on the force in New York City, but I haven’t been for the last three years.”

Walter Stoddard said, “Now you’re a private detective?”

“No.  In a way, I’m not really a ringer at all.  I’m a kind of mental patient, in fact.  I don’t want to go into that part of it.”

“Nobody’s asking you to go into that part of it,” Stoddard said.  “All I asked you is what you’re doing here.”

From Wax Apple, by Tucker Coe.

This is the third book in the Tobin series, and I’m now asking myself whether it might be the best (it’s either this one or the next one).   And that is not a universally shared opinion, by any means.  This fellow here says it’s the least effective book in the series.   I’m not sure I follow his reasoning as to why that is.  Contrary to what he’s saying, Tobin obsesses over his wall in all the books, even the last one, where he’s mainly come out of his emotional tailspin.  This book here is the only one of the series where he’s away from New York City the whole time–doesn’t get home until the final chapter.   Yes, he thinks about getting back to the wall-building, but there are very good reasons for that.  And nowhere else in the series are they made so abundantly clear.

I think a lot of people partly miss the point of Tobin (and of course, I think I get it, insert eyeroll here).   Tobin is about the oddest of odd ducks in the  mystery canon.  He’s a detective who doesn’t want to be a detective.   A sensitive compassionate human being who’d like to shut his compassion off permanently, deaden every last nerve ending.   His wall is merely a means to that end.   Without it, there is no character.  Without it, he’s just another fictional gumshoe bending our collective ear in first person narrator form, and Westlake figured there were more than enough of those around already.  Tobin is something else.  But what, exactly?   It seems like even he doesn’t know.   Book by book, he inches closer to solving that mystery.  And once it’s solved, he’s done.

Why would this book get less love than the others?   Well, look at the last two–the first was a fairly thrilling narrative involving organized crime, a mob boss’s beautiful slain actress girlfriend, all kinds of colorful glamorous characters, explosions, a thrilling finish involving gunplay.  It’s what we expect from a noir-style mystery, which is why it nearly got a film adaptation with Bob Mitchum playing Tobin.

The second book was set in the world of the nascent youth movement of the 60’s, Greenwich Village, more beautiful girls, corrupt cops, some kind of religious cult—somewhat more rooted in everyday reality, but still pretty glamorous.  Honestly, it’s kind of hard to avoid the glamor when you write about New York.  Gotham can’t help being sexy, no matter how much you dirty it up.   Why else would anyone want to live here?

And Westlake wanted to get Tobin away from all that for a while.   This is a bottle story, and you might say a country manor style mystery, but to call it a ‘cozy’, as some refer to that form–well–this one’s not very cozy at all.  It strips away all the illusions of fiction, and life, and shows us a world we’d maybe rather not see.   The world of the mentally ill.   You know.  Loonies.   But it shows us this world in the context of a mystery story, which maybe coats the pill, just a bit.

As the book opens, we see Tobin arriving by train at a small upstate New York town called Kendrick.  He haggles with a waiting cabbie over the fare, and gets dropped off at a big rambling house of grey stone–which the driver recognizes, and he’s suddenly looking at Tobin differently.

Because, you see, this is The Midway–it used to be a private home for a rich family, but now serves as a halfway house, a temporary home for people just released from mental institutions.   It’s been heavily remodeled to that end, making its endless corridors and rooms maze-like and confusing.  We’re all familiar with the concept of the halfway house in all its many forms now, but it was still a fairly new idea then.  And people living near places like this often treated them and their residents with suspicion and dislike.  And many still do.

We learn as we go that Tobin is there on a job–not a job he wanted to take, but he never wants to take jobs at all.   His old friend on the NYPD, Marty Kengelberg, got him in touch with Dr. Fredric Cameron, director and founder of The Midway, who had a problem he needed resolved discreetly, without involving the local police (who share the local prejudice against The Midway and its denizens).  Somebody is quietly arranging accidents that are injuring the patients.  That somebody must be a patient himself–or herself.  But if the other patients, still in a rather delicate mental state, found out what was going on–or were roughly questioned by cops who fear and hate them–it could send many of them back to the institutions they just got out of.  Or worse.

Tobin’s first impulse, when Dr. Cameron introduced himself, was to assume his wife Kate has tricked him into seeing a shrink, but he controlled the paranoia by force of will, and tried to get out of the job, as he typically does.   Kate, believing as always that her husband’s only possible path back to the world of the living is through doing his job, reminded him they could use the money–the cash he got from the mob in the first book must be running low by now–she and their son Bill can spend a month at the beach on Long Island while he’s away, a vacation they could not otherwise take.  Guilt over what he’s done to the people he loves is Tobin’s Achilles heel–he accepted Cameron’s offer–grudgingly.

So Tobin is going to pose as a patient himself, recently released from an institution called Revo Hill.   The irony of the World’s First Clinically Depressed Detective posing as a head case is so obvious, it hardly even needs pointing out.  But Tobin firmly tells himself he is not like these people.   At first.  But that’s never going to hold up.  Because what Tobin’s mental state has done is make him uniquely aware of how much he is like all people, and particularly those who aren’t in the mainstream; the rejects, the outcasts, the weirdos.   He moves between the many differing realities within reality, the infinitely varied outsider cultures in the world he’s turned his back on, and he sees himself in all of them.   Hard as he keeps trying not to.

Nobody is more outside the mainstream than the mental patient, unable to cope with or even process reality the same way as everyone else.   So you could argue that this is the definitive Tobin novel, because he’s completely immersed in that world; cut off from his home, his family, his therapeutic wall, and forced to confront his own alienation in a way he hasn’t been before.

But of course, he also has to solve the mystery of who the injurer is.   And five minutes after he arrives at The Midway, his task is complicated by a tripwire set atop a flight of stairs, that sends him crashing to the bottom, breaking his arm, and knocking him unconsciousness.   Shortly after he awakes, with his arm in a cast, and his head aching, he finds a note in his room, presumably from the injurer, saying “I’M SORRY IT WAS YOU.”   And a little bottle of Ballantine scotch.  Well, that’s nice.

This is, I think, the only book Westlake ever wrote with even remotely sympathetic characters who are practicing psychiatrists–I’ve noted elsewhere that he had certain issues with that profession.   There are two doctors at The Midway–Fredric Cameron and Lorimer Fredericks.  I never noticed until now that Westlake chose to give one a first name almost identical to the other’s last name.  That’s not the only name game in the book, by any means.

I think the point here is that they are two sides of the same coin–Cameron is calm and affable, but somewhat ineffectual and weak-willed.  Fredericks is abrasive, unlikable, and highly excitable in nature–but more forceful–he seems to think he can help draw his patients out in group therapy by deliberately antagonizing them, and has some notion that he’s engaged in a study of this promising new approach, with the inmates of The Midway as test subjects–and now Tobin has screwed up his data.

Tobin is not impressed with his techniques, and tells him so.   It’s hate at first sight on both sides, but they will have to learn to work together.   In the world of Tucker Coe, even the most unpleasant people have points of view that must be understood and respected–Fredericks ultimately proves to be a professional, in spite of his personality flaws.

Tobin has an exceptionally large list of potential suspects for a novel of this type–over twenty patients are living at The Midway, each of whom gets to stay there for six months, before returning to the outside world–but he manages to eliminate many of them early in the game–he obviously excludes those who were injured by the perpetrator’s various booby traps, and several more are eliminated this way before the story is over.  Since he can’t tell any of the patients what’s going on, or even give the impression that he himself is investigating anything, Tobin the ‘completist’ needs to narrow that list down as much as possible.  Risking the very real chance that he’s missing something of vital importance.

Going over his list, he comes to a startling revelation–a small quiet friendly man calling himself Dewey, full of information about The Midway’s history, who came and talked with him after the accident, and has clearly been living there for some time, is not one of the current patients.   He’s a stowaway.   A former patient who didn’t want to leave when his six months was up.  Taking advantage of the labyrinthine nature of The Midway, and the rotating group of residents, he’s managed to live there undetected for quite some time–Cameron and Fredericks are skeptical, but another patient remembers meeting him months ago.

Could he be the injurer?   Tobin doesn’t think so, but he has to be found and questioned.  Easier said than done.  But as Tobin prepares to join the doctors and a trusted inmate in a thorough search of the house, late at night, Dewey finds him.  He’s been thinking about why Tobin, who he’s pegged as a plant, is there, and he’s come to a realization.

He said, “I couldn’t think of a thing until yesterday afternoon, when poor Miss Prendergast fell and hit the radiator.  I was thinking what a coincidence that was, first you having an accident and breaking your arm, and then Miss Prendergast falling and hitting her head against the radiator, and then I remembered there’d been other accidents, and I suddenly realized they weren’t accidents at all!  Somebody was doing them on purpose!”

He seemed honestly shocked, even offended, his usually mild eyes staring at me through his wire-framed glasses as though insisting that I too should be affected by this piece of news.  I said, “That’s true, Dewey.  Somebody is doing them on purpose.”

“But that’s awful!  I don’t know if you, an outsider, can realize just how awful that really is.”

“I think I realize,” I said.

He either didn’t hear me or didn’t believe me.  “This place is a haven,” he said.  “It is safety, security, protection.  Not like the outside world.  For someone to be cruel in here–no, it can’t happen, we can’t let it happen!”

Tobin tries to get Dewey to come and talk to Dr. Cameron with him, but Dewey, terrified at the thought of being banished from the only world he wants to be a part of, slips away.  The house is searched top to bottom–he is nowhere to be found.  Fredericks, who has been challenging Tobin ever since he found out why Tobin was there (not having been aware initially that he was a former police detective there to investigate the accidents), sarcastically inquires as to whether Dewey is some kind of poltergeist.  I would have said he was more like a brownie, but I suppose it’ll do.

Needing to justify himself to Fredericks, who is getting on his nerves more and more (all the more since his antagonistic psychoanalytic methods got Tobin to reveal the story of himself, Jock Sheehan, and Linda Campbell, which triggered his depressed state), Tobin looks more closely, and realizes that all the remodeling done on the house has left large empty spaces within the walls–he finds Dewey’s hiding place–a rather neat little improvised apartment, complete with bookshelf–and finds too late that the startled Dewey has used an escape route to climb up on the roof, and come down the wooden fire escape–which collapses–another of the injurer’s traps. His neck is broken.  A very gentle inoffensive poltergeist has been exorcised.

It turns out his name was Franklin DeWitt, and he’d been living there at least six years past his scheduled release date, without anyone realizing it.  He might well have gone on living there happily for decades more, if circumstances had been different. Tobin looks at Dewey’s shattered body on the lawn–another dead weight on his already overburdened conscience–and when Fredericks grudgingly admits he was right after all, Tobin hits him in the mouth with his one good arm.   It’s starting to seem like you can’t live in this world without injuring somebody.  God damn it.

And now, as Tobin points out to the two horrified doctors, not having told the police what was going on, they are all accomplices to murder after the fact.   They can’t cover up Dewey’s death, so after tossing around a few ideas, the now chastened Fredericks comes up with a workable plan.  They agree to give the cops an edited version of what happened, saying Tobin was there to investigate the stowaway, not the accidents–which they only belatedly realized were not accidents–and Tobin’s presence as an investigator (which he’s not licensed to do professionally) will be explained as a quid pro quo–he was helping them look for Dewey in exchange for free psychiatric treatment, since he couldn’t afford it otherwise.

Tobin should be pissed–he’s broken his arm trying to help these people, and he’s not even getting paid?   But he immediately embraces Fredericks’ idea–it saves him from a lot of undue attention from the law–and it means he won’t be getting money for having caused Dewey’s death.   For such a thorough-going professional, Tobin really doesn’t like the idea of getting paid for the thing he does best.

The Kendrick P.D., true to form, runs roughshod over the delicate psyches of the Midway’s residents, who are now fully aware that they are in danger, and are reverting back to their old behavioral problems under the stress of the investigation.  One man, an alcoholic, runs away to get a drink.  Another, Doris Brady, a Peace Corps volunteer who developed severe culture shock while working in an impoverished African village, lapses into catatonia, and has to be taken away.

Tobin has been exposed as the wax apple in the bowl, but he sticks to the new story–that even though he’s not one of them, he really is, because he needs help as much as they do.   In telling the hastily constructed lie, he is finally able to admit the truth, to them and to himself.

If I were doing a very thorough synopsis here, I’d have to describe well over twenty characters, not including the ones I’ve already mentioned.   While some get more attention than others, before the novel is done, we get an explanation of what each and every patient is doing there, his or her personal medical history, that Tobin can read in files provided to him by Dr. Cameron (which seems like a violation of Doctor/Patient confidentiality, but I guess desperate times….).  And they are a very mixed bag of nuts, I must tastelessly observe.

We learn early on that one of them, Jerry Kanter, suddenly snapped and killed seven people with a rifle, years ago.   He looks like he wouldn’t hurt a fly, naturally, and it should come as no surprise that he isn’t the one setting the traps. Searching through the patients’ rooms, desperately seeking clues, Tobin finds a variety of literature in Kanter’s, including Man Hungry and Passion Doll–paperback sex novels, written by Alan Marshall–aka Donald E. Westlake.   Another male patient, William Merrivale, who brutally beat his overbearing father, has some books along the same line.

Robert O’Hara, who was caught molesting very young girls, has similar looks to Merrivale–the all American boy, blonde, clean-cut, well-muscled–not at all monstrous.   He seems to only read books intended for boys at the cusp of puberty, but they’re all written for generations before and after his own.  Every identity, healthy or otherwise, is a puzzle all its own, and Tobin doesn’t have the time, training, or inclination to get to the bottom of all of them.

As you’d expect, most only pose a danger to themselves.  Some are women who simply couldn’t adapt to the life society had chosen for them–

Marilyn Nazarro was the twenty-seven year old woman who’d married while still in high school, had twins, and another child in the first three years of marriage, and gradually developed severe symptoms of a manic-depressive cycle.  She’d been in mental hospitals twice, for two years and then for three years, and though she seemed cheerful and normal enough now, the prognosis was poor, primarily because no matter what was done for her in the hospital, every time she came out she had no choice but to return to the same life as before.

Beth Tracy, a pretty if vague-looking blonde of twenty-three was simply a sex-hysteric.  Her marriage had been annulled by her husband for non-consummation, she’d tried three times to kill herself, and she was frank that the whole idea of sexual intercourse was the most disgusting and terrifying thing she could think of.  The doctors believed the problem was rooted in some incident in the past, but had been unable to find it.  Beth Tracy was another ex-patient released not because she was cured but because she had learned to some extent to live with her insufficiencies.  She knew better now than to establish any romantic liaison with anybody.

Donald Walburn (hmm), had a history of burglary and petty theft as a young man (hmm!), spent some years in prison, and upon his release fell victim to paranoia, believing everyone was conspiring against him.  One assumes he did not have a father or some other guardian willing or able to intervene on his behalf, and perhaps no deep passion, such as writing, to give him some direction, an outlet for his imagination–so his imagination turned inwards, and became self-destructive.  He’s been released from the asylum because he’s not dangerous, but being in his late 40’s, alone, and unable to fully trust anyone, his prospects are not good.   Sometimes it only takes a few mistakes, a bit of bad luck, to upset the applecart for good.

But the patient who Tobin most identifies with is Walter Stoddard, who killed his retarded seven year old daughter years ago, then tried to kill himself.  He has been in and out of institutions ever since, never having recovered from the guilt of his despairing action, even though his wife (like Tobin’s) forgave him.

And so Tobin is shocked when Stoddard confesses to having set the traps–until he watches him being marched away by the cops (who are delighted to solve the case so easily), and he recognizes the look of the martyr in his eyes, Christ on the cross, Sydney Carton at the guillotine–Walter has finally found a way to atone for his sin.  He’s going to take the rap, so his fellow sufferers can be left in peace.   Now Tobin has to find the real killer, even if there aren’t going to be any more traps.

And he’s not just guessing that Stoddard is innocent–he finds another note in his room, along with a small hand-saw, after he’s finished searching the rooms of the remaining suspects–“WALTER STODDARD DIDN’T DO IT.   I DID IT.  WITH THIS.”

Tobin’s greatest challenge in solving this case is that his specialty is motives–when you know the why, you figure out the who.  But in this case, it might be anyone with means and opportunity, because none of these people are fully rational–the injurer’s reasons make sense to him or her, but probably wouldn’t to anyone else.   How can he find the person who set the traps, without understanding the reason for it?  And the victims have clearly all been random–whoever happened to stumble into the trap–yet the injurer is sorry Tobin was hurt, and wants to absolve Walter Stoddard.   Why?

I can’t discuss it much further without giving it away, and this is one of the Tobins where the killer isn’t obvious–where Westlake wants to keep us guessing until the very end, so I won’t risk spoiling that for anyone.  I didn’t guess the first time, and I only gradually remembered who it was as I reread the book for this review–certain details stayed with me, others faded.  My mother used to read the same Agatha Christies over and over, and she said she never remembered who the killer was, so it was always new for her

What was different this time was that when Tobin arranged for all the suspects to be gathered in one place, in classic mystery fashion, so he could reveal who the guilty party was, and what his/her motivations were–I began to cry softly.  And I think that’s the first time I’ve ever had that happen to me reading one of Westlake’s books.  It’s not something that typically happens when I’m reading any book, no matter how emotionally involved I get in it.  A little misty-eyed, sure, but I was actually sobbing quietly to myself.   I think I know why now.

In the interim period between my two readings of Wax Apple, I lost a friend. Much older than me, a classic kvetchy Jewish New Yorker, stiff-necked, opinionated, humorous, and independent as all hell.   A damn good friend, of the kind you don’t make very often in life.  We spent endless hours together, looking for birds and other wildlife in Van Cortlandt Park, in the Bronx, where we both lived in the early days of our friendship.   We lost touch gradually, when I moved to Manhattan, and then I realized that  something was wrong when I couldn’t reach him on the phone.

I found him in a nursing home–he’d hit his head out on the street, lost consciousness, woke up in a strange place.   He was told that his apartment was being cleaned out, his possessions scattered, and that from now on this would be his home.  He had absolutely no choice in the matter.

He was quite lucid when I first went to see him, though also very depressed, but as the months dragged by, and he never once got to go outside (I was not allowed to even take him down to the snack bar on the ground floor), he began to lose his mind.   Madness, not senility.  By the end, he had almost completely lost touch with reality, though he still remembered me.  Some of it may have been head trauma, I don’t know.  Certainly the confused mental state of other patients there affected him, and being treated like a child by the staff, as the elderly invariably are in such places.  I will always believe it was the abrupt and unaccountable loss of everything that made him who he was.

One night his sister called me and told me he’d passed away–I’d just passed the nursing home on my evening commute. This was the sister who had refused to let me take him on excursions, because ‘something might happen.’ There were no other family members living nearby, and there were apparently some long-standing issues between the siblings.  “We loved him, but we didn’t like him,” she said.   She felt like she had to use the plural pronoun, for some reason.

I’m still angry about it.   I always will be.   But I never cried for him.  I guess maybe I have now.   Something about the book brought it back for me–the helplessness and despair of the mentally ill, however their conditions originate.  The fragility of the mind, which Westlake had already written about in Memory, is the real subject here.  He clearly  made some use of research material he’d acquired for Pity Him Afterwards, but in the empathetic world of Tucker Coe, pity need not be so conditional.

Because the people we have the effrontery to deem insane are not ravening knife-wielding monsters out of some slasher story to thrill us in our beds, or in a darkened theater.  They’re just people who lost their balance for a moment and never regained it.   Or, in many cases, are fighting, valiantly, desperately, to try and get it back.  There but for the grace of God.  And really, God might show a bit more grace, don’t you think?  Or is that just passing the buck?

So anyway, having once again done his job, effectively and well, Tobin heads home to Queens.   Kate and Bill won’t be back from the beach for a few weeks more, but that’s fine–he won’t even let Kate know he’s back.   He’s got work to do.   His wall has been standing there neglected.  I don’t normally quote from the final passage of a book I’m reviewing, but there’s no spoilers here.

I hadn’t worked on it for quite a while.  It would fill the time, the way it always did, but here was my blasted right arm, useless.  I didn’t dare try to work with it, that would only delay the time when it would be healed and useful again.

One-handed?  I looked out at the wall, inching up out of the ground all the way around my back yard, two feet thick, an unbroken line for three sides, with the house forming the fourth wall.  I wouldn’t be able to dig one-handed, of course, but what about laying bricks?  It would be slower, but I cared nothing about speed, I had no deadlines to meet.  All I had to do was one step at a time, all left-handed.  It was at least worth a try.

And it worked.  I got into old clothes and went out in the yard and the only difficult part really was preparing the mortar, but once that was done the rest was almost easy.  Pick up the trowel, put down the trowel.  Pick up a brick, put down the brick.  The sun was warm, the air was fresh, the bricks were a beautiful color in the sunlight.

I’d sleep without dreams tonight.

I hope Westlake slept without dreams after finishing this.   It really is one of his finest books, certainly one of his two or three best murder mysteries, but again, I can see how it might not satisfy everyone’s notion of a nice little whodunnit.  It has something of the quiet desperation of Agatha Christie’s best work (to name one writer who understood the fragility of the mind all too well), but her detectives are always somehow standing outside the madness, never sharing in it.

Mitchell Tobin comes more out of the Hammett school; as damaged as the people he’s hunting, but somehow finding the strength to make something of that, turn it to his advantage, right at least a few wrongs along the way.   And yet, as with Hammett, the question must always be asked in the end–was there ever any real point to the exercise?  And as with Hammett, we readers will have to answer that one ourselves.

Tobin gained a bit more self-understanding this time–but he’s still holding himself back, hiding behind his wall.   In his next outing, which I’ll look at next week, he finally finds a subculture of people who might be able to help him, as he tries to help them.  He’s going to have to dig deep this time, in more ways than one.  A good alternate title might be Queer Eye for the Sad Guy.    But we’ll know it always as A Jade In Aries.  And if you haven’t read it, you don’t know who Donald Westlake really was.  But then, that’s hardly the point, is it?

PS: Here’s the French Serie Noire cover, from Gallimard–note the title, which roughly translates to Warning, Crazy People.


And here’s the Japanese cover–I have no idea what it means, but this publisher did seem to love abstract art–



Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, Tucker Coe