Category Archives: One Of Us Is Wrong, novel

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.

Bitterly.

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)

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