Category Archives: Samuel Holt Novels

Review: Sacred Monster

Agent Smith: Then we have a deal?
Cypher: I don’t want to remember nothing. Nothing. You understand? And I want to be rich. You know, someone important–like an actor.
Agent Smith: Whatever you want, Mr. Reagan.

(No, Donald Westlake didn’t write this dialogue, but I bet he enjoyed it). 

“The symbolic weight you carry, darling,” Lorraine assured him, “would crush a lesser man.”

Pleased, smiling like a puppy, Jack said, “Do you really think so, darling?”

“Darling,” Lorraine said, holding tightly to his hand as they strode along the beach, “in many ways you’re a monster, a statement of infantile voracious appetite.  And yet at the same time you are God’s holy fool, the sacred monster, the innocent untouched by the harshness of reality.  You can be the hero, incredibly strong, and yet even I don’t know the depths of your vulnerability.”

Jack loved to hear talk about himself.  He listened as they walked together, nodding, absorbed in what she was saying.  “Tell me more,” he said.

Sacred Monster is a novel about the rise and fall and rise and etc. of a major motion picture star who is also a gifted but extremely eccentric actor.    A Brando, a Pacino, a DeNiro, a James Dean, a Steve McQueen, and, I’d posit most of all, a Jack Nicholson (though as opposed to The Comedy is Finished, the protagonist’s bio can’t easily be matched up to any specific real-life star, which probably made it easier to get published).  Before we start in on this one, why don’t we run down the thespian-oriented books Westlake had penned ere now.

There were the three Phil Crawford sleaze paperbacks of the late 50’s/early 60’s, about the life of a callow young stage actor, and his seemingly endless love affairs. Some other Westlake pseudo-porns dealt with acting (there was one about the porn industry, redundant as that may sound), but Westlake wrote so many of these, under so many different names, we’ll just take these three as representative.  I’ve only read the first of the Crawfords, didn’t think much of it, but was rather struck at how hard Westlake worked on describing the theatrical milieu, when all the sleazy publisher cared about was the sex.

There was Pity Him Afterwards, a psychological thriller about an escaped paranoid psychotic who kills a young stage actor, takes his place, and joins the small summer rep company his victim was about to join–the hero of that story is an actor as well.  They never do get around to performing the play they’re rehearsing.  We’re told the madman feels very much at home in the theater.

There were the four Alan Grofield novels, about an actor/heister, who bankrolls his perpetually bankrupt little theater in rural Indiana by committing armed robbery, with and without his friend Parker.  We never get to see him act on stage (even in rehearsal), but it seems like he’s always performing to some extent, sees even his criminal activity as a form of performance art.  Grofield, we’re told, could easily become a financial success on television, maybe even in movies, but he won’t use his craft that way.  Being in Richard Stark novels, selling out isn’t really an option for him.  An alternate universe version of him appears in some early Dortmunder books, and he sells out right quick in those.

Westlake turned a script he’d written for a movie that never got made into what I think was his worst novel ever, Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, about the kidnapping of the #1 box office star in the world, who is so fed up with her high-stress lifestyle that she treats the kidnapping as a sort of vacation, once she realizes the people who snatched her are harmless.  But title character though she is, she’s really a supporting character, and rather a nice well-balanced person overall.  Westlake may have gotten some of the inspiration from this for research he did into the life of Elizabeth Taylor, having written a sensitive (for the genre) unauthorized tell-all biography of her under a pseudonym, that had the misfortune to be written and published just before her epic romance with Richard Burton.

In the literary double-feature Enough, which collected two novellas of his, the second story, Ordo, was about an unsophisticated  sailor of that name who found out that Estelle Anlic, the naive teenager he’d been married to briefly before her mother broke them up had become a film star named Dawn Devayne, and it’s basically a detective story in which Ordo tries to find out what happened to the girl he used to know, who has been subsumed into this new persona.

There were also the four Samuel Holt novels, about an actor who never even did live theater, just went straight to Hollywood after being discovered,  got cast as the lead of a hit TV series after a very short apprenticeship, then found out after the show ended that he’d been typecast, and he couldn’t get work as anyone other than the only character people knew him for.   He kept having to solve mysteries for some reason.  Oh, and he had two beautiful girlfriends, one on each coast, and they knew about each other, and went right on dating him.  Not what you’d call an exercise in realism,  but then again, reality is notoriously overrated.

There are also many references to actors and the theater and movies and television throughout many if not most of Westlake’s novels.   And Westlake’s two excellent but commercially problematic unpublished novels, that were only released after his death–Memory and The Comedy is Finished.  Both of them about actors.   One of them a rising stage performer (perhaps destined for the movies) who lost his memory, and with it his ability to act, after a disgruntled husband skulled him with a chair.

The other is about a kidnap victim patterned very obviously after Bob Hope, and like his model, a major film star for some time.  We get quite a lot of background on him, his rise to success, the chaos of his personal life, his oddly fluid identity, his penchant for commenting wryly on the hellish situation he’s in.  But not much of an actor, really, and he mainly just did minor variations on the same role–the clown in danger.  The role he’s playing in real life in the book.  He’s no longer making movies by the time we meet him.  Comedian first, actor second.  Westlake had to put this book aside for various reasons, having put a lot of work into it.  In some respects, Sacred Monster is him coming at the same problem from a different angle.

So that’s at least fifteen novels and one novella dealing with actors of one sort or another, plus many other peripheral references to thespians in other novels, and let’s not even worry about short stories.  Donald Westlake was himself an actor for a time–that part of his life is not well-documented (like the rest of his life).  What roles did he play?  He referred to himself as a ‘former spear carrier’–it’s unlikely he ever had any leading roles.  But out on the straw hat circuit you never know–maybe he was the star’s understudy sometimes?  Thing is, even if he had some acting talent, he didn’t have the looks to be a leading man.  And well he knew it.

Then again, the movie actors he’d have most admired weren’t always lookers themselves.  Mr. Westlake was an avid fan of Warner Brothers gangster films of the 30’s and 40’s–Cagney and Robinson were hardly fashion plates, even Bogart seems ugly by modern standards.  He might have allowed himself a few fleeting fantasies of showbiz glory, even as he began to concentrate more and more on writing fiction for a living.  In any event, writers call on their past experiences to create, just as actors do.  There are many points of similarity between the two professions, as he often observed.

So even though he wasn’t an actor very long, his need to support his family forced him to keep the lines of communication open with Hollywood, and he kept coming back to his brief tantalizing experience with the stage, to his avid yet ambivalent love of movies, to the lucrative yet compromise-laden world of television, and as always, to the question of identity.  What is an actor’s true identity?  Does he or she ever really know?  If your mission in life is to become other people–to disappear into a role, then another–then how can you be yourself?   And is there not a similar problem for the writer of fiction, who has to inhabit many different people in the course of just one story?

And at a certain point, he just seems to have had enough.  He stopped writing Grofield novels, and never returned to the character when he resumed writing Parker novels in the 90’s–the other Grofield disappeared from the Dortmunders as well after Nobody’s Perfect.  He abandoned the Holt series after a short time, he never published the two novels of his that dealt most directly with acting and show business (in part because he had a hard time finding publishers for either of them).  When he wrote a second Sara Joslyn novel, Trust Me On This having dealt with actors to some extent, it was focused on the country-western music scene.

There may be a few minor exceptions I can’t bring to mind this moment, but it would be fair to say that after he wrote and published this book we’re looking at now that deals entirely with the world of theater and film, he stopped writing about actors and showbiz altogether.   The bug was out of his system at long last.  This is his final statement on the subject.  And it’s one of his best and funniest novels.  But also quite possibly his strangest.

Remember how the Hollywood gossip columnists, like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, used to interview movie stars sitting by their swimming pools, said star often attired in a swimsuit or robe, while he or she talked about his or her meteoric rise to fame and fortune from humble origins, while making it clear they’re still just regular folks down inside?  Well of course not, you’re much too young to remember that kind of thing, but you remember those Bugs Bunny cartoons that parodied that type of interview, no?  Well, that’s the format of this novel–an interview.  By a swimming pool.  Of a movie star.  In a robe (and nothing else, which is unfortunate at times).

Our protagonist, Jack Pine (best as we can tell, his real name–don’t you love farce?), believes the bland-looking gentleman interviewing him is from People or some other such celebrity-obsessive publication.  He’s a bit unclear about recent events, and for some reason keeps refusing to look directly at the swimming pool he’s sitting (then lying) by, but he stubbornly clings to this delusion throughout the interview.

We the readers are made privy to more information–the interviewer is a cop, and there has been a murder.  Michael O’Connor, detective second grade, has been assigned to get background information on the prime suspect.  Well really, they could have just asked for his press clippings.  But perhaps a few salient details have been left out of those.

There is the typically atypical chapter structure, of course.  The book opens in first person format, with Jack sharing his inmost thoughts and sensations (and hangover) with us, but then switches to a third person flashback–each flashback is numbered.  Sometimes lettered as well, when a given scene is revisited to be viewed from a different camera angle.

So it goes throughout the book, back and forth between brief first person reveries at the pool and detailed third person flashbacks, moving us through Jack’s life from high school to acting school to Broadway to Hollywood to stardom to superstardom to all that goes with superstardom–but Jack is apparently telling O’Connor all of this himself (quite possibly in third person format, it’s not clear) and O’Connor keeps asking him how Jack knows what was happening and who said what in a given scene where Jack wasn’t even present.

Jack simply says “One knows such things.”  In other words, he perceives not merely his life, but the life of everyone he ever met, as one big movie he’s the star of (probably has script control in his contract by now), and he knows by now how such scenes tend to go, formulaic conventions you see, so where his memories give out, he just fills in the blanks with melodramatic tropes picked up over a lifetime of bad movies and plays.  There’s a few specific blanks he doesn’t particularly want to fill in, but we’ll get to that.

Just to make things a bit more complicated, there are also several scattered chapters referred to simply as ‘Lude’–meaning interlude.  Really strange interludes.  Brought on by (among other things) quaaludes. Jack just shuts down, and stops responding to external stimuli, making O’Connor’s job quite impossible.  He has been imbibing so many arcane substances for so long now, that his grasp on reality, not to mention consciousness, has become sorely compromised.  There are a lot of ‘Tommy can you hear me?’ moments (hmm, how many Nicholson movie references can I fit into this thing?)  Also one dream sequence, Jack floating down a celestial staircase, and ya know, Bob Fosse could have done a great job directing this if he hadn’t up and died, but them’s the Missouri Breaks (a bit forced, but I’ll work on it).

Jack’s taciturn manservant Hoskins (English, of course), has to keep being called over from the house to administer various supplemental chemicals  in finely balanced dosages, to keep Jack functioning (after a fashion) until the interview is over.  Hoskins is a delight, Westlake channeling Wodehouse again, but with a twist–Jack has to keep prompting Hoskins to play the part of the impeccably irreverent manservant correctly–when Jack yells for him, he’s supposed to respond “You bellowed, sir?”, and he keeps blowing the line.  Jack’s reaction to pretty much all of life is “Am I the only one who knows his cues?”   Except by the time we meet him, he keeps forgetting them himself when he’s working, because of all the substances.  Well, that’s what film editors are for, right?

There are so many juicy quotes from this one, I could do a ten thousand word review that was nothing but quotes.  But I don’t want to do that.  Nor do I want to make this a two-parter.  So let me try to do the synopsis more quickly this time.   Spoilers abound, not that this book is really about who did what to whom.

Jack Pine grew up in a small town named Grover’s Corners (I completely missed the Thornton Wilder ref until somebody pointed it out) with his best childhood pal, whose name happens to be Pal.  Buddy Pal.  Farce, remember?  They resemble each other quite a lot, physically speaking (psychologically speaking, not so much) and are inseparable up to the time Jack goes to New York to study acting, and Buddy goes into the army to study killing people.

Their most intimate secret stems from when they went with the local good-time girl to a secluded spot, in order to have a nice courtly gang-bang. Her name was Wendy. What else would Peter Pan’s first lay be named?  Something really bad happened.  Jack does his level best not to think about that, while Buddy does his level best to make sure Jack never forgets that he owes Buddy for covering it up.

So Jack is a natural actor, better in high school productions than most actors ever get–he has a positive knack for inhabiting other identities–having none himself, at least none he wants to acknowledge.  He studies in New York, developing his talent by leaps and bounds, and quickly gets a part in a play with a famous but aging leading lady–in her play, and then in her bed (Jack has no sense of sexual shame at all, which on the whole is one of his good qualities).

Then while they’re having sex in her limo, she dies of a heart attack, in mid-orgasm.  Although he feels, with some justification, that he made her last moments happy ones, Jack is most distraught (brings up unpleasant memories).  So is the lady’s powerful agent, who blacklists him in the legit theater for life, for not having the good taste to stay away from her funeral.

Jack, not to be deterred, gets an introduction to a famous playwright, who holds court out on Fire Island.  The playwright immediately falls madly in love with him–because Jack is attractive, sure, but also because he’s the spitting image of the lead in a play the guy was writing at the time.  So Jack (who is not even a little bit gay but hum a few bars…) goes to bed with him too, because hey, it’s a really good part in a play!  And doesn’t everybody deserve a little love?   Or at least a reasonable facsimile?

O’Connor, the Irish cop, does not think so–he’s disgusted with Jack at this point in the story.  I mean, the actress in her sixties was bad enough, but this?

“The point is,” the prissy interviewer says, viewing me with loathing, “the point is, you slept your way to the top.”

“I did not.” I frown at him with offended dignity.  “I slept my way to the middle,” I correct him frostily.  “I clawed my way to the top.”

It’s an important distinction.   And who does this two-bit reporter think he is, anyway?  Jack still not processing what’s going on, fortunately for us.

The play is a hit, but even hits close eventually, and Jack is still blackballed anywhere else in the world of theater–that agent is really powerful.  Buddy Pal reappears in his life, attacking himself like a shark to a remora (yes, I know, but it doesn’t work the other way), and Jack is now sleeping rather more enthusiastically with his co-star, a tall sardonic brunette named Marcia Callahan, who also fits Buddy in on the side. Somehow I see her as a young Paula Prentiss–one knows these things.  Though I suppose Suzanne Pleshette could work.  Jean Peters?  Rosalind or Jane Russell?  You know, there’s been a lot of tall sardonic brunettes in showbiz.  Not nearly enough for my tastes, but a lot.  I digress.

Marcia heads out to Hollywood to do the movie version of the play that Jack wasn’t deemed suitable for.  Not having anything better to do (or anyone) he follows her out there.   She gets tired of him hanging around the place (all play, no work…), so she gets him hooked up with a Hollywood agent (not literally hooked up this time), who doesn’t care that he’s blackballed on Broadway.  Hollywood agents don’t give a solitary shit what powerful theatrical agents think about you or anything else in life.   And this agent sees potential in Jack Pine.  The statue encased in the marble.

Irwin Sandstone’s blunt thumb caressed the statue’s budding breasts.  “I am a mere servant of the creative impulse, Jack,” he said, circling and circling.  “It’s your unique gift we’re concerned with here, not the life or goals or dreams of Irwin Sandstone.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jack.

Irwin’s fingers oiled and warmed the bronze.  “How to mold, how to shape, how to bring out to the acclaim of the multitudes that unique talent deep within you, that is my humble duty, that is my mantra, to serve great talents, to be the willing stepping stone on which they rise, to do whatever is within my small powers”–with a wave at the power-reeking office–“to bring each wonderful unique private talent to its greatest glory.  That is what I wish do do with you, Jack.  If you agree.  Will you give me that task, Jack?  Will you order me to make you great?”

Accommodating, Jack said, “Sure.”

Fair to a fault, Jack says later in his narrative that Irwin was the real genius of the two of them–I kind of wonder how Westlake’s own agent, Henry Morrison, reacted to this passage.  But he was used to Westlake’s sense of humor by now (even though he originally told Westlake not to try writing comedy, it would ruin his career–then he made him write an Arthur Hailey parody that was pitched to the publisher on a roll of toilet paper).

So they do the normal progression of roles for an up and comer with actual acting talent–first a biker picture, then a psycho killer, and finally a ‘patient picture’–meaning a film where the protagonist is impaired in some way, terminally ill, paralyzed, psych ward–the full spectrum of humanity, in other words.  You can see why I thought about Jack Nicholson, not that his early career can be summarized so neatly.  (The hell it can’t, but I’m being polite.)

And yadda yadda yadda, Jack’s a major movie star.  Not without the odd few bumps in the road, to be sure.  Like finding Buddy in bed with Marcia, who is Jack’s wife by that point (they had a charming little ceremony at a Hollywood church that has been a backdrop to many a film, and the guests were all extras hired by the studio, but still man and wife in the eyes of God and Man and Variety).

Jack eventually forgives Buddy (after stabbing him repeatedly with a rubber prop knife while shooting the psycho picture in Mexico), and told Marcia the baby better look a lot like him (but since Jack looks a lot like Buddy, and DNA testing is a long way off yet….).   That marriage is not long for this world, but here’s my problem–ever hear the one about the big macho film star who caught his wife in bed with his best friend?  Me neither.  That’s not in any movie I ever saw.  Where’d that come from?  Hmmm.  Well, inquiring minds don’t need to know everything.

With Marcia gone, Jack invites his parents to live with him at his Malibu beach house.  Then remembers they are both really hard to live with (Jack’s mother is clearly nuts, and let’s just say the apple didn’t fall far), so he leaves them there at the beach house, chaperoned by an illegal immigrant from Guatemala named Constanza.  At least she wants to see the endless snapshots of his sister’s kids his mother keeps waving around.

Jack gets a ranch in Topanga Canyon.  Of course he does.

The people of Topanga Canyon are loners, oddballs, dropouts, believers in alternatives.  They are not fierce pioneers, the progenitors of capitalists, but gentle solitaries, aware of the fragility of all things in the fragility of themselves.  They do not pound deep foundations into the earth’s skin, do not thrust steel erections at the indifferent sky.  Their houses are modest, set apart from one another, colored in earth tones of orange and brown and green.  Unpainted rail fences enclose their horses: yes, they have horses.  Their driveways are likelier to be of gravel or dirt than glittering blacktop.  They grow egglant and tomatoes and marijuana.  Their lives are so in tune with their environment, they blend in so well with their terrain, that they are barely noticeable in their bivouacs up on the steep sides of the many canyon walls.  Only their television reception dishes stand out, amazingly, looking in this setting like UFOs from outer space. (They believe in UFOs).

Sounds nice.  Jack finds God there.  Also nice.  Reverend Cornbraker, who helped him find God (for a very reasonable fee) turns out to be a child molester.  Not so nice.  Buddy, sensing another shark clinging to his remora, brought Jack the photos.  “I didn’t know anybody could do it in that position,” Jack mentions.  Buddy explains that young bones are very supple.   A ‘Lude’ follows.  Jack was very very upset about Reverend Cornbraker.

Deprived of God, Jack turned to drugs.  But first he tried the ultimate drug–Love.  The real thing this time.  Well, as real as it could ever get for someone like him.  Her name was Lorraine.  She came to him a simple graduate student from Chicago, beautiful, auburn-haired, effortlessly chic, doing her doctoral thesis on ‘Post-Camp Male Nonaggression in the Popular Arts.’  “Naturally, I was one of the people she had to interview.”  O’Connor is really wondering by this point if this interview will ever end.   While you wonder the same thing about this review.

So they have amazing sex, and they talk about various profound intellectual topics (mainly relating to Jack, which he enjoys, see the quote up top).  They call each other ‘darling’ every other sentence, which kind of makes you want to find a way into the book to murder them, but that never works.  They get married at the London registry office.  Not the first celebrity wedding conducted there, it seems.

“I remember,” O’Connor says, “the news footage of the two of you coming out of there, protected by the bobbies, with the crowd of fans in the street.”

“They’re there all the time,” I say modestly.  “I believe they camp out there.  Some say they’ve been there since the Paul McCartney wedding, others that it goes back as far as Elizabeth Taylor.  Some scholars suggest a Druid connection, but I don’t go that far.”

So all is bliss for Jack and Lorraine, but not for poor Buddy Pal, and one occasionally hears the stirring sound of a face being soundly slapped when he and Lorraine are in another room.  Well, they can’t all be Marcia.  Lorraine would just as soon Jack cut Buddy out of his life entirely, but of course Jack can’t do that, for reasons O’Connor would avidly like to learn, but in the meantime something else unpleasant happens, as it so often does to famous people, which is why supermarket tabloids are so profitable.

A young woman of rather questionable background and appearance accuses Jack of fathering her rather questionable infant, which he absolutely did not do.  Her questionable family and attorneys back her up.  Still no DNA testing (barbaric times).  Jack’s case looks hopeless–even the superb quality of his expensive legal team makes him look guilty.  But he devises a cunning stratagem–didn’t do all those courtroom dramas for nothing, you see.   All he needs is a few good women.

It’s a major Hollywood paternity trial.  As should go without saying, his wife, and his former wife, and three former girlfriends (obviously Jack does not refer to them as five easy pieces) are all present in the courtroom.  Protocol.  He asks them all to step forward and display themselves to the jury, which they do, looking confused.  He asks the jury to compare these sexy sophisticated gals he has married and/or had wild affairs with to the rather unappetizing plaintiff.  He spreads his hands, in the great tradition of irreverent Westlake protagonists.  “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury….I ask you.”  The jury finds for the defendant.

And then a seething Lorraine dumps him for being a sexist womanizing pig–which she surely already knew that he was, having done her research, but there are different levels of knowing, and she can’t handle the truth.  Some verdicts you can’t appeal.  She keeps right on calling him ‘darling’ on her way out the door, but the darlings have a certain bite to them now–no longer terms of endearment.   Buddy tries to look sympathetic.  Jack tries to drown his sorrows in drink, among other things.  Many other things.  We’ve been over that.

Jack’s work begins to suffer, but he’s such a big star now, so well-established in the minds of the movie-going public, he’s got what you might call tenure.   His name alone fills theater seats, and somebody like that keeps getting callbacks from studio heads, no matter what he does.  In the days of the old studio system, a Louis B. Mayer or Jack Warner might have run him out of town.  But we’ve arrived at the era in movie making where the superstars really did run the roost most of the time.  Jack never forms his own production company, because he’s too stoned, but he can work when he wants to.  And this is how he typically works now.

At the far end of the set, he brought up against the interior door, which was not in fact a working door at all, so that he didn’t pass through it but merely brought up hard against it, with force enough to make the whole set tremble.  Recoiling form this encounter, he reeled back through his previous carnage to the middle of the set, where at last he managed to come to something like a stop; through he trembled all over, like a race horse after the meet.

And he wasn’t quite finished yet.  Turning to say something to the director, raising one expressive hand, index finger upthrust, he lost his balance yet again.  This time, he tottered backward, feet fumbling and stumbling with the shards and shreds of his previous passage, until he reached the wall of the set.  Here he flung his arms out to the sides as though crucified and leaned back against the wall, which gave way, the whole canvas rear of the set slowly falling over, Jack riding it down backward, arms outspread, an expression of harried but mild surprise on his face as he and the wall went completely over and landed with a mighty whoosh and great puffs of dust.

No one said a word.  A final clink was heard from somewhere.  The dust slowly settled.  And then the director spoke.  “Cut,” he said.

There’s a whole short chapter of that (Flashback 19), and it’s a small marvel of comic timing, absolutely first-rate slapstick, and I still have to say–it would work better visually, on film.  With the right actor and director, obviously.  That’s an underlying problem of the book–that you keep finding yourself wanting to see the movie adaptation that doesn’t exist.  With a forty-ish Jack Nicholson playing Jack Pine (okay, so pick your own sacred monster, see if I care).

Parts of it would be hard to bring across visually, of course–certain bits of verbal ju-jitsu that few besides Westlake could ever do just right in any medium.  The constantly switching perspectives (and states of consciousness) might be tough to pull off.  But overall, I think this should have been a movie, and maybe Westlake thought it might be–Hollywood has never really had a problem with satirizing itself (because like Jack, it believes it’s the only really interesting subject in the world), but maybe this hits a bit too close to home, and is not quite sufficiently respectful.  Underneath the light farce, there’s a lot of really biting sarcasm, and a scathing disrespect for glamor.  But anyway, the industry Westlake was spoofing here doesn’t quite exist in that form today, though certain universal constants hold true (and not just at Universal).  The moment has probably passed.

So Jack finally finds his one true love–and his name is Oscar.  Stoned out of his mind, he gives what would probably have gone down as the most embarrassing acceptance speech ever, had it actually happened (though the qualifier stands).  Probably should have sent a Native American up to claim the trophy for him.  He departs the stage holding Oscar in one hand, and the right breast of the busty starlet who presented the award to him in the other–and then he marries her.  Seriously.  Their wedding at that same little chapel he married Marcia in turns into a riot, with everybody fighting everybody, and the happy couple viciously mauling each other.  Thankfully, he can just get that annulled, since he only had carnal knowledge of her before the ceremony.

And now he just spends most of the year at a compound (the very one he’s giving this interminable interview at), with lots of private security, and Buddy hires nubile young things for him to chase naked around the grounds (they are instructed to let him catch them eventually, otherwise he’d never get any).  Hoskins has mastered the art of maintaining the proper balance of chemicals in his system.  He only has to work once a year or so.  He just did an apparently obscenity-laden remake of  the most overrated film in history. (“Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a flying fuck!”)

His one really bad moment came when a young woman having a bad trip at a friend’s cliff side home ran through a window with a splendid scenic overlook, and fell to her death.  That brought back some really bad memories. The van.  The girl.  The lake.  O’Connor finally gets to the bottom of that lake–Buddy had already had the girl, and Jack was up next, but he lost control of himself, playing the role of a lover (it was his first time), pretending he was confident macho Buddy–and he killed her by accident in the course of the wild ride–no easy rider, he (is anybody keeping score?).  Buddy and Jack, at Buddy’s insistence, pushed the van into a nearby lake.  The body was found, but the girl was known to drink too much, and the car was her father’s.

But O’Connor (who Jack now understands is not from People, or even US Weekly, nor is he from the Enquirer, so Jack can’t set the dogs on him, even if he had any, as Hoskins helpfully reminds him he does not), was never here about that past indiscretion.  It’s useful background detail, explains some things, but out of his jurisdiction.  He’s there interviewing Jack Pine because in that swimming pool Jack keeps refusing to look at is the waterlogged corpse of Buddy Pal.   Jack had meant to dump his body in a lake too, which would have had a nice dramatic symmetry to it, but he was so high at the time, he thought the pool was a lake.   He’d done such a good job cleaning up the crime scene, but he blew the last detail.

And why did he kill his other self, his alter-ego, his best and oldest friend in the whole wide world?  Because Buddy had just come back from Brazil where (as is well known) the best plastic surgeons in the world reside (Jack goes once a year now), and such is his pre-existing physical resemblance to Jack, it didn’t take that much work for him to be the spitting image of the star–frankly, he looks a lot better than the prematurely aged Bacchus Jack has become.

And all of Jack’s hangers-on, including his agent and doctor, are in on the scheme.  Jack’s no longer the actor he used to be, he’s working much less, and his asking price keeps going down because of his unprofessional behavior.  He’s not so much an actor as a brand, and the brand is losing its value.  His talent has degraded past the point of no return.  He just shows up, as he himself admits to O’Connor, and does a sort of impression of himself.  He can still do the tics, the vocal mannerisms, but the only part he’s playing now is Jack Pine, or rather the public perception of Jack Pine, and that’s all anybody really expects now, so nobody will notice it’s not him anymore, since it hasn’t been for a while now.  Jack will be sent to a rest home somewhere, given all the drugs he wants, and Buddy Pal will take his place, become the sacred monster.

But the real monster wouldn’t have it, you see.  Steal my scene, will you? Nobody puts Jackie in a corner!  He ran screaming at Buddy, wielding his Oscar like a tomahawk, and clubbed his bosom chum to death in the parlor with it.  (Hey, is there a celebrity  version of Clue?)   Finally forced to recall this, he is horrified to know he did that to Buddy, and even more aghast he did it to Oscar, who will never be the same again.  Those statuettes aren’t as solid as they look.

And that concludes the interview.  The little shop of horrors is all sold out.  O’Connor beckons the men in blue to take Jack away, and he accepts the situation graciously, telling Hoskins he’ll be back in maybe twelve years.  Given the situation, his celebrity status, and the ample evidence of his confused mental state, I doubt it would even be that long.  He’s in his early 40’s now, much as he may look older.  A few years of detox.  Lots of publicity (and need I remind you there’s no such thing as bad publicity for a movie star?).  When he gets out there’s always Brazil–a quick trip for a quick nip.

With Buddy gone and much of his entourage probably doing jail time along with him, his operating expenses will plummet, and funds will accrue.  The studios will get into ferocious bidding wars over him once he’s back on the market.  Nobody will care that he can’t act anymore.  His battered Oscar will have a twin in no time.  Forget it Jack (or even two Jacks), it’s Tinseltown.

Nothing can kill the Sacred Monster.  Least of all the critics.  Who mainly loved this book–even the New York Times was kvelling over it.  But it didn’t make that much of a splash (sales were probably decent enough).  Too far outside what was expected of Donald E. Westlake, and he wasn’t really trying with the murder mystery he stuck in there for the sake of form.  More Sunset Boulevard than Double Indemnity.

It’s a very funny book that might have made an even funnier film.  Hollywood’s loss, our gain.  Cynical as all hell, of course.  But you know what Jack Pine would say about that?

“My friend,” I say, “you just used a word that has no meaning.”

His face is blank.  “I did?”

Cynical.  You see, my friend, it’s a spectrum,” I say, and spread my hands like a fisherman lying, and very nearly, very nearly, very damn nearly spill the remains of my fuzzy drink, but recover in time and continue: “It’s a spectrum,” I say.  “Here at this end is the romantic, and over here at this end is the cynic.  So wherever you are on this here spectrum here, you’re the realist, and everybody on that side is too much of a romantic, and everybody on that side is too much of a cynic.”

And a rare few people in this world get it just about right, balance out the romantic and cynic, give both their proper due in life.  Westlake was one of those.  But there is one bit of indisputable cynicism in this book–that comes in Flashback 11, where we are told that after their marriage, Jack and Marcia moved into a larger house that had formerly been owned by “a television star named Holt who’d committed suicide when his series was canceled.”  That’s an atypically mean-spirited dig by Mr. Westlake at his recent failed attempt at self-reinvention, and doesn’t really fit the arc of the protagonist in those books (not that most readers of this book would even get the reference).  Mr. Westlake possibly still needed some anger management on the subject of Samuel Holt.

And here’s the crowning irony (which rhymes with Ironweed)–Westlake basically used this book to purge himself of his lingering infatuation with acting, with showbiz, as I already mentioned.  He made a lot of money in Hollywood, wrote a lot of stories about acting, but artistically speaking, it rarely worked out that well–the movies or the books.  He evidently felt like he finally did the subject justice here, after so many attempts, and as we’ve seen before, this meant he could put it behind him, move on to something else.  Personally I would say his best novel with an actor as the main protagonist is Lemons Never Lie, but that book is not about the acting world, and this one is.  So with that one checked off the bucket list, he never wrote another book about actors, at least not that I know of.

And right around the time this book was in stores (this is the irony part), Westlake was on the set of what would be the best movie he ever wrote the script for, as well as the finest and truest adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel ever lensed.  And that’s up next.  This one’s as good it it gets for Mr. Westlake and the movies.  I swear it. Prizzi’s honor.  Oh like you could do better.  Drive, he said.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Ordo, Samuel Holt Novels, The Comedy is Finished

Review: The Fourth Dimension Is Death

The fundamental cause for the split between Stanislavsky and Meyerhold at the very beginning of the century lay in their divergent views of the place of the audience  in the theatrical event.  Stanislavsky taught that ‘an actor must have a point of attention and this point of attention must not be in the auditorium’ and that ‘during a performance…it is important that the sequence of objects you focus on should form a solid line.  That line must remain on our side of the footlights and not stray once into the auditorium.‘  Meyerhold always opposed this conception of the actor deliberately and unwaveringly excluding the spectator from his consciousness and as early as 1907 posited an actor who ‘stands face to face with the spectator and freely reveals his soul to him, thus intensifying the fundamental theatrical relationship of performer and spectator.’  For Meyerhold, the audience was the vital fourth dimension without which there was no theatre.  The other three dimensions–the playwright, the director, and the actor–worked to no avail if they had no audience, for it was somewhere between them and their audience that theatre ‘happened.’

From Vsevolod Meyerhold, by Robert Leach

The receptionist gave me a jaded look as I emerged from the elevator and sauntered toward her.  “Hi, beautiful,” I said, and smiled like an idiot under my moustache. “Would you tell Mr. Henry that Ed Dante’s here?”  Instead of trying to disguise my well-known voice, I used the flat nasal Long Island twang I’d grown up around.

“Of course,” she said, cool and professional.  “If you’ll take a seat.”

I kept the stupid smile and leaned forward, shifting some of my weight to my palm, pressed down on her table.  “And what’s your name?” I asked.

She was used to jerks.  “Miss Colinville,” she said, clipping the syllables off, her eyes astonishingly hostile.

“Brrrr,” I said, still grinning as I turned up the collar of an imaginary overcoat.  “I’ll be over there fighting frostbite,” I told her, pointing at an empty area of the room.

“You do that,” she agreed, but she did release a faint and frosty smile as she reached for the phone to announce my presence.

That was sufficient.  I wanted to be enough of a jerk to go with my appearance, but not so obnoxious that no one would talk to me.  So I went over and sat on a flowery sofa and beamed at the groups of chatting people as though I’d just love to join in.  As expected, they worked very hard not to be aware of me.

The fact is, within obvious limits we do decide what we look like.  Our clothing, jewelry, eyeglasses, hairstyles, way of standing and walking, a hundred other things, all go together to create that person the rest of the world sees.  Every element of that involves a choice, and in our choices we make a lot of declarations, including which other human beings we’re most comfortable having contact with.

I would guess Westlake started this novel in something of a foul mood.  He’d set out to create a brand new nom de plume, coupled with a brand new protagonist, which would test whether he could, in middle age, do what he routinely did as a younger man, create a literary persona and reputation out of thin air.  He wrote three Holt books in a row, apparently barely stopping to take a breath in-between. And he was not happy with the results.

In fact, the Holt mysteries got decent enough reviews, and probably sold reasonably well–most mystery writers would have been well-pleased.  But Westlake held himself to higher standards, and for him the experiment in self-reinvention was ruined by the fact that Tor Books had revealed his identity in the course of promoting the novels.  And as I’ve said several times already, I don’t think that was the half of it.

As we saw in the last review, he’s arguing with himself in one chapter–questioning the very approach he’s taken to writing the third book, and really the series as a whole.  He’s hitting a wall.  He’d always had a bit of a split personality as a writer, and I don’t just mean that he wrote in different styles.  Part of him wanted to focus with laser-like intensity on story and character, keeping the underlying themes of the work well-hidden–that side found its ultimate expression in the Parker novels, though there’s much of it in the Tobins as well, and in the early hardboiled novels under his own name.

But another part of him loved to play with words and ideas, to philosophize, to mock the very genres he used to get his points across, to wink at the reader from the page, bring us all in on the joke.  That’s the part of him that wrote the comic works, the criminal farces, the satires, the parodies–mainly under his own name.  He could do both approaches superbly well when at the top of his game–but in the Holt books, he tries both at once–a hybrid approach–and neither is working very well.  His inner Meyerhold is not getting along with his inner Stanislavsky, and why do I feel this weird conviction he’d have understood that analogy a lot better than I do?

So in my opinion–and that’s all it is, but I’m not backing down from it–he was unhappy with the Holt books in ways that had nothing to do with the perfidy of a publisher.  The man started his career with Scott Meredith, one of the most double-dealing bastards in the history of western letters.  He’d done business with most of the major houses in New York, and a fair few minor ones, and he had precious little good to say about any of them, much as he respected the genuine professionals he was fortunate enough to work with.  No one ever had a less idealized view of that industry than Westlake.  He can’t have been that surprised that Tor hadn’t honored their pledge to keep his secret, because they wanted the books to sell better.

If he’d been happy with the Holt books, he’d have kept writing them, regardless of whether people knew it was him or not (and as some readers have revealed in the comments section, that was not widely known at the time, nor was it for many years after the books came out).  That’s what I think.  But he’d signed a contract.  He owed Tor one more.  So that’s the frame of mind he’s in writing this one.  That contractual obligation frame of mind.   I don’t know if he told them this was the last one when he was writing it, or when he handed it in.

I do note that the dust jacket, for the first time, calls it “A Samuel Holt Mystery.”  As if it was a continuing series.  It’s not marketed as the final chapter in Holt’s story, and you’d think it would be, because that would be good for sales too.  Could be he kept his options open, just in case it was a big seller.

Still and all, Westlake never really wrote a true finale for any of his series characters, other than Levine.  We have to assume he at least had the idea in his head that he was writing the last book in this series, if not necessarily a definitive finish to the strange narrative of Samuel Holt.

And wouldn’t you know, this may just be the best of the bunch.  My personal favorite is the second, and I greatly admire aspects of the first–the third is mainly fascinating for the window it gives us into the author’s mind, his doubts about what he’s supposed to be doing as a storyteller.

But the fourth, which closely (and no doubt consciously) mirrors certain aspects of the fifth and final Tobin novel, actually succeeds in clarifying Samuel Holt, as a character and a writer–and an actor.  Just in time for him to make his exit, stage left.  Without any real resolution of his central dilemmas, but short of killing him off, I don’t see how Westlake could have done that.

As we’ve seen, Westlake did not like killing off his protagonists.   Though he made a partial exception to that rule, in what you might call a belated postscript to the Holts, stuck into an entirely different book that Holt is not a player in.  I’m not sure how seriously anyone should take that postscript.  We’ll talk about that.  But let’s talk about this book first.

No old friend in a jam asks for Sam Holt’s assistance this time.  Nor is he stuck in a spooky murder house in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of fellow actors who also play detectives.  He does have to solve a murder mystery, but who is the victim?  Sam Holt.  Or rather, somebody who plays him on TV.

Sam’s coming back to New York on some company’s private jet (ah, the joys of celebrity), with his meticulous manservant, Robinson.  Robinson, as mentioned previously, is really an actor who used to play butlers, valets, officious maitre d’s and such.  But when he was between gigs, he’d supplement his income by doing that kind of work for real, usually for more successful actors.

On the plane ride back, one of the executives recognizes him from old movies, and turns out to be a huge fan.  Robinson is in seventh heaven, not that he’d admit it. Sam, maintaining a diplomatic silence, has to listen to him going on at length about how Bly Quinn, Sam’s sitcom-writing west coast girlfriend, begged for him to play a butler on a pilot she was working on, but then he had to walk off the set, never to return, because they just wouldn’t listen to all the helpful suggestions he was making with regards to his character, or let him rewrite the script. Oh the pain. The pain.

Robinson’s companionship means far more to Sam than the services he provides (Sam clearly lost both his parents long before he was a star), and Sam is secretly relieved not to lose him to Hollywood–which furthermore would be pretty damned embarrassing for Sam, since he still can’t get acting work of any kind.  He is, however, bothered by the fact that having once adored Bly, Robinson is now giving her the cold shoulder, as only an actor who specialized in snooty butlers for decades can do.  This subplot has been ongoing throughout the series, is not resolved in this book, and I guess Robinson will be holding that grudge forever.  So let’s look at the main plot.

Sam and and some other people who own the syndication rights to his show, Packard, have been suing over some ads using an actor playing a parody version of Packard to promote a chain of supermarkets.  The lawsuit wasn’t really Sam’s idea (he’s sick of people identifying him with Packard), but he’s expected to participate in it.

The lookalike actor in question, one Dale Wormley (didn’t his agent tell him to change that?), who Sam doesn’t think looks like him (everyone else does), is not inclined to be understanding about this onerous legal necessity to protect Sam’s character and likeness from copyright infringement. Far as he’s concerned, he should be the star, and Sam should be impersonating him in cheesy TV ads.

Since it’s more satisfying to hate a person than a consortium, he approaches Sam on the street in front of his Greenwich Village townhouse, just as Sam is getting back from the airport, and gets abusive–verbally, then physically. Sam, not in a mood for abuse, and trained as a police officer, employs the ‘comealong hold’, bending Dale’s thumb back.  The real police arrive, and after giving his side of the story, Sam goes inside, leaving Dale to discuss the general unfairness of life with them.

There’s a later incident at a general audition for a play.  Sam is only there to give moral support to his less famous but much busier acting chum Brett Burgess (Brett says the role is ‘Alan Alda as a lumberjack’, which I find interesting since Alan Grofield and a number of Westlake’s comic protagonists always seemed very Alda-esque to me).  But then Dale shows up, and assumes Sam is trying to steal this role from him as well.  Sam is forced to knock him out. With one punch.  Delivered from a sitting position.  Impressive.

(Sidebar: The weird thing about Sam, as you may have noticed, is that he’s genuinely badass, can play that part in real life when he has to, and yet Hollywood still won’t hire him to play any fictional badasses who aren’t named Packard.  I can’t for the life of me figure out how in the first book, he personally foiled a major terrorist attack in Los Angeles without getting any positive publicity that would have revived his acting career.

I get that he would be unwilling to exploit that kind of event for professional gain, particularly after what happened to his writer friend who was trying to do just that, but wouldn’t the press have caught wind of it?  The gutter press, at the very least.  In that same book that he fought terrorists in, we’re told that the supermarket tabloids are immediately notified if any major celebrity has some kind of significant interaction with the law, such as being at the scene of an attempted mosque bombing in L.A.  The Weekly Galaxy should have had a field day with this.  At a certain point in the Holt series there’s more holes than plot, which is most atypical for Westlake.)

So anyway, this is all most unfortunate, stems entirely from misunderstandings and insecurities on Dale’s part, and Sam doesn’t really bear his doppelganger any ill will.  He can appreciate that an actor’s life is often frustrating, particularly since he’s feeling quite a bit of that same frustration himself. What he doesn’t appreciate is having the police show up at his door a few days later, and tell him Dale Wormley was found murdered a few blocks from his townhouse.  Beaten to death with a two-by-four taken from a nearby construction site.

He’s down in his basement, exercising in the small stationary lap pool he’s installed there (I think they call them ‘endless’ pools now), when Robinson arrives to announce the detectives are there, greatly enjoying the impressive echo effect he can generate down there with his sonorous voice.  Detectives Feeney and LaMarca by name, and after going to such pains to show us intelligent professional (and somewhat boring) police officers in the last three books, Westlake has decided he can once more indulge his anti-authoritarian leanings, since he doesn’t have to hide his identity anymore.

Why had I expected them both to be men?  I guess the ingrown assumptions don’t change.  Anyway, one was male, the other female, both probably in their late thirties.  The man was short, chunky, with thinning brown hair and a blobby lumpy face, like something made of Play-Doh.  The woman was an inch or so taller than he, big-boned rather than fat, with straight black Vampira hair and a long horsy face.  The man wore a brown jacket, checked shirt, dark blue bow tie and gray slacks, while the woman was dressed in a severely cut dark blue suit, plain white blouse, dark hose and sensible shoes.  All in all, he looked like a high school math teacher and she looked like the woman who interviews you when you plan to adopt a child.

They prove, if anything, more unpleasant than their oddly detailed descriptions.  No good cop, bad cop here–both looking for any possible weakness in Sam’s story.  They take their own sweet time telling him they’re from Homicide, and Dale Wormley is dead, and obviously Sam’s a suspect.  Not merely because of his two altercations with Dale, but because a young actress who was living with the victim, name of Julie Kaplan, had told them it must be Sam Holt who killed her boyfriend–Dale had driven her out of their shared abode to a girlfriend’s apartment  with his long paranoid rants about how this Holt bastard was out to get him, and now she realizes he was right all along!

Julie then shows up at the offices of Morton Adler, Sam’s New York attorney, and maybe my favorite character in these books who isn’t sleeping with Sam (I would assume).  Mort is the guy any New Yorker with a lick of sense would want for a lawyer, but I can’t find him in the phone book.  Just the Holt books.

A rumpled man with a neat round balding head, Mort’s usual manner is one of shy amusement, as though he doesn’t particularly see why everybody wants to make such a fuss.  His office, with its large windows overlooking the remaining air-rights in mid-town Manhattan, is probably large enough, but is so cluttered and messy as to look small.  Stacks of papers and books mound messily everywhere, most of them crowned by some recent copy of the New York Times, quarter-folded with the crossword puzzle on top, completed in neat black inked letters.

So Julie wants to apologize–she said what she did in a state of shock over Dale’s murder, and never meant to be taken seriously.  But it’s too late to undo the damage, and Mort figures the best thing she can do for Sam is nothing.  Let the investigation play itself out.

But in the conversation, she reveals some things about Dale–shows Sam his resume (Sam sourly reflects that it’s not much but still more impressive than his before he became Jack Packard).  And she says he was very excited about a major role he was getting in a play that starts rehearsals in three months, the star of which is the well-known actress Rita Colby.  Sam is surprised by this.  Journeyman actors like Dale don’t get cast in plays that far ahead of opening night.

Feeney and LaMarca keep coming after Sam, even more motivated to nail him after he rashly tells them to fuck off when their questions cross the boundaries of professionalism (and they also plant a story in the papers suggesting he’s a ‘person of interest’ in the case), but he handles them easily enough–between his reporter friend Terry Young and the formidable Mr. Adler, it isn’t long before they’re both off the case entirely, replaced by the much more capable Sergeant Shanley, an attractively chunky female officer he met after his townhouse was invaded by terrorists in the first book.  There are no leads on the killer, but the NYPD is satisfied the killer wasn’t Sam Holt.  So that’s it, right?  Short book.

Sam flies back to L.A. to give the story time to cool off.  Without him being present in New York, the local press will lose interest quickly.  What he doesn’t count on is that Dale’s mother, who was living vicariously through her son’s career, believed those early stories the two detectives planted, is convinced Sam Holt murdered her son, and won’t let him get away with it.  So she files a civil suit, for millions of dollars in damages, accusing Sam of having deprived her of her son.  Yeah, we’re all a lot more familiar with that kind of thing now, aren’t we?

It started, Sam’s west coast attorney Oscar Cooperman informs Sam (and us), with the best of intentions.  Civil rights activists in the south were being murdered, and local juries wouldn’t convict their killers.  So there was no way to seek redress except through civil courts, where the standard of evidence is much more lenient.  No presumption of innocence there. It was an understandable tactic to make racist murderers pay for their crimes, and let their associates know they couldn’t kill with impunity anymore.

Thing is, once you’ve opened that door for the families of martyred activists, you’ve opened it for everybody else.  This is the social issue of the book (every Holt book’s got to have one), and I have to say, Westlake convinced me.   You shouldn’t be able to convict somebody of a capital crime in civil court.  The right of families to seek justice shouldn’t mean depriving the rest of us of due process.

Sam and Bly are talking it over, and it’s becoming increasingly clear, the case will drag on for a long long time, and the lawyers will be the only winners.  His name will be dragged through the press, and a final decision in his favor won’t change public perceptions.  His already stalled career will be stuck in limbo.  Sure, maybe he could use it, leverage the notoriety to start playing bad guys (which he’d love to do), but that isn’t how he wants to succeed as an actor, and it’s a dead end street anyway.  He’s screwed no matter what he does.

They do a conference call with Mort (who’d be handling the case) and he grimly concurs with Oscar’s assessment of the situation.  Sam can settle the lawsuit, therefore admitting guilt.  Or it’s war to the knife for years to come, and tons of media coverage of the trial(s).  Oscar suggests a change of venue, but Mort says that would just make Sam look guilty and the request probably wouldn’t be granted.  Oscar’s response chills Sam to the bone….

“I suppose you’re right,” Oscar said, sounding rueful.  “I wish I could take part,” he said, and then he added the absolute worst thing you can ever hear your own attorney say. “It sounds like a fascinating case.”

Sam and Anita talk it over at his agent Zack Novak’s ski lodge, up in the San Gabriel mountains.  They have a lot of great sex, as they always do, but it doesn’t really make Sam feel any better.  Or you any sorrier for him (it’s an inherent problem with the character–on his worst day, he’s still better off than you ever will be).

Bly, always loving the drama of Sam’s life (so much great material for her scripts), forces him to see that he’s got just one option open to him now.  The police in New York have ‘opened’ the Wormley murder case–meaning, in typical bureaucratic doublespeak, that they’ve closed it without resolving it.  No more work will be done on it until new evidence crops up, which will probably be never.  Unless, of course, some intrepid private investigator, unconstrained by bureaucratic red tape, were to turn some up, crack the case wide open. Gee, who could that possibly be?  Hint, hint.

Sam can’t believe it–all he wants to do is put that one role everybody knows him for behind him for good.  But apparently God is the biggest Packard fan of all.  Or else he’s got a book contract to close out.  Either way.

“You know,” I said, “how everybody, at one time or another, dreams about escaping from it all, going somewhere new, getting a new name, starting a new life?  This is one of those moments for me.”

Smiling in understanding, Bly said, “So here we are on Monte Cristo.”

“I suppose.”

“But you aren’t Eddie Dantes,” she said.  “You know who you are, and you know what you’re going to do.”

“Oh Christ,” I said, feeling the weight of it landing like an Inverness cape on my shoulders.  “It’s so stupid.”

“You don’t have any choice,” she told me.  “This time, Sam, there’s nobody else to do it.”

She was right, dammit.  I could feel the old stance come back, the set of the head, position of the elbows, placement of the feet.  I looked down at Bly, the old smile on my face calm and superior but friendly, the assurance in the very lift of my eyebrows.  “Packard’s the name, “Ma’am,” I said.  “Jack Packard.”

But he can’t actually go around as Packard.  No, he needs a new character, one people don’t know.  Ed Dante, unsuccessful aspiring actor (much like the man whose murder he’s trying to solve) , will do fine.  Nobody will recognize the Dumas ref (or the Eugene O’Neill ref behind it, but I did–check out one of the quotes leading into my review of the second book in this series).   He knows how to change his appearance–he’s still an actor, employed or not.

He’s got professional quality false mustaches, beards, and wigs.   He makes himself look a bit like a poor man’s Errol Flynn.  The kind of guy most people don’t want to be seen with.  That way they won’t look at him too closely.    He does other things  He’s still six feet six inches tall, but that can’t be helped.  Fortunately for him, people don’t generally look past your surface appearance and manner.  If you don’t act like a star, they won’t think you are one.

So he heads for Florida, incognito as they say, to see Julie Kaplan, get more information.   She was staying with Anita Imperato for a bit, but now she’s got a role in a play over in Miami.  He doesn’t learn too much more from her, but there is one interesting scene–he’s staying at a cheap dive hotel (to stay in character, you see), and he comes back to find two Hispanic guys casing his room for valuables.  He really ought to get out of there, but he’s not in the mood (because he’s playing Packard, the martial arts expert, in disguise). So he stands his ground (without a gun, which seems strange in Florida)–they come at him with knives.  And being such a badass, he beats the crap out of them both, and there’s this one interesting little moment when one of them pulls his wig off in the struggle–

The other one stopped still, astonished, and stared at me.  “Pah-karrr?” he asked me, unbelieving, and I kicked him twice: First in the crotch, and as he bent double, in the face.

So obviously the guy had seen him on TV, and couldn’t believe Jack Packard was kicking his ass (among other things)–but for those people who know who the writer ‘Sam Holt’ really is, there’s another level of meaning in the way he pronounces the name–Westlake was having a bit of fun there.  Because Sam is acting more like a very different Westlake series character here.  He takes their money, intimidates the hotel clerk who clearly gave them the key to his room, and actually drives away in a car belonging to one of them.   Really badass–and guess who Westlake is feeling really nostalgic for right about now?  Patience, man–he’ll come back when he’s ready.

Having gotten all he could from Julie, Sam jets back to New York (he has a hard time adapting to coach), and has dinner with Terry Young, his wife Gretchen, and Anita.  At one point, Gretchen, who has obviously been nursing a bit of a crush on Sam, makes a humorous pass at him while wearing his fake mustache (he says all German women have been into cross-dressing ever since Marlene Dietrich), and he responds willingly–that could have been a subplot later, if there’d been a later.   Or maybe not.

What follows is Sam trying to worm his way into Dale Wormley’s professional life–signing up with Dale’s agent, trying out for the role in that play Dale shouldn’t have been able to get a role in, seeing if maybe Rita Colby is involved somehow, seeing if he can find out who might have had a motive for killing Dale. All of this in character, as Ed Dante, but the thing is, Sam is actually enjoying being able to try out for a role without all the baggage of being SAMUEL HOLT.

He obviously can’t take the role in the play, but he’s being an actor just by pretending to be somebody who could take that role.  He’s having the time of his life playing this sleaze.  He’s going back to his professional roots, without the burden of expectation created by his unearned overnight stardom.  The only one who sees through his disguise is Dale’s acting teacher, Howard Moffitt.  Who, as Sam tells us (and we’ve seen a version of this character before, in Memory), is a good acting teacher, precisely because he could never be a first-rate actor.

Moffitt, a stooped and craggy tall man of about sixty, reminded me of three or four other acting teachers I’ve met in my career, people who are theoretically fine actors, who not only know how it’s done but–much rarer–know how to communicate their knowledge, but nevertheless their credits in actual performances and productions are amazingly skimpy.  Whenever one of these people takes a small part in a movie or a play, talked into it by some old student who’s made good, you see what the problem is: There they are, in the corner of the screen or the stage, acting.  You can see them do it.  Their strength as teachers is their weakness as performers: they don’t know how to stop showing you how it’s done.

But Moffitt has a good eye for a performance, and he can tell right off Sam is a fake, deduces who he must be.  He’s actually surprised a television actor has such good technique (Sam doesn’t know whether to feel complimented or insulted). But however slick the performance, his character shouldn’t have been asking the kinds of questions ‘Ed’ was asking, and goes on asking, until he starts drawing too much attention to himself.  And maybe now’s a good time to cut to the chase.

(And never mind that I’m skipping over an entirely different but related murder in this book.  When it comes to the Holts, I tend to become a bit synopsis-intolerant.  Yes, still not compared to most reviewers, I know.)

Sam comes face to face with the murderer (I see no purpose in revealing who that is), and the murderer doesn’t know who he is, but he’s also realized this guy is asking the wrong kinds of questions, and needs to be shut up permanently.

The motive for the killing was blackmail–Dale Wormley had damaging information he was using to further his career.  That’s how he got that plum role in the play.  And his murderer is going to kill Sam now, without even knowing it’s Sam.  The killer does know this Dante guy, whatever his name is, is really an actor (that couldn’t be faked so convincingly), so the trap is baited with the one thing the killer knows a hard-up actor can’t resist–an audition–different part, different play.  Sam is so excited to be really trying out for something, at long last, he drops his guard.  Doesn’t think to himself why would there be an audition for a play in a theatre that isn’t even fully built yet?

So the climax is in that very theatre–where else?–and the villain of the piece has a gun.  Sam has no choice but to remove his Ed Dante disguise and do the old ghost routine, pretend to be the vengeful spectre  of the man who stole his fake identity, and whose life he’s strangely come to inhabit for a short time–see if it buys him a crucial second for attack when the murderer sees not Sam Holt but Dale Wormley in the darkened auditorium.

It works, but only just.  Sam is shot several times before he beats the killer unconscious. Nothing necessarily fatal, but he has to find a cab to the hospital in a damned hurry, and if you’ve ever been to New York, you know how that went. He and Sergeant Shanley do the usual post-mortem discussion on who did what to whom and why, there in his hospital room.  And then he passes out.  Just like Mitch Tobin does at the end of Don’t Lie To Me.  It’s about as abrupt and unsatisfying an ending to a multi-book character arc as it was the last time.  But it’s the ending, all the same.

(I must belatedly add that he mentions Anita sending food from her restaurant to save him from hospital fare, and he does not mention Bly at all, which defacto means Team Anita WINS!  Haha, suck it, Bly shippers!)

I don’t think this would be much of a book for somebody who hadn’t read the previous three.  I wouldn’t recommend starting with it.  But if something about this series appeals to you, and you stick with it all the way through–it’s not a bad payoff, in spite of the anticlimactic climax.  Don’t Lie To Me was a bit of a disappointment after the brilliant storytelling of the first four Mitch Tobin novels–The Fourth Dimension Is Death is a much better finish, if only because one’s expectations are lower–and because Sam Holt, unlike Mitch Tobin after A Jade In Aries, needed to confront his demons–and his demons are all based around his chosen profession that has been refusing to choose him anymore.

But what, Westlake must have been asking himself as he finished it, could he ever do to resolve Sam’s dilemma?   Let him become a movie star?  Get another series?   Segue into a stage career (strongly hinted at here and elsewhere in the series, and Lord only knows, established TV and film stars are all the rage on Broadway now, along with repurposed movie plots, and not sure I’m any too happy about that, but nobody asked me)?  Is that really what Sam Holt needs?   To disappear into other false personas?   Can an actor, whose job is to disappear into alternate identities, ever truly know himself?   And isn’t that the proper goal of any Westlake protagonist?

Westlake had started this multi-book saga without knowing how it would end–that I’m sure of. The ‘narrative push’ method of storytelling he sometimes talked about.  You tell the story, and as you go, the characters tell you what to do, who they are, what they want. But this character may never know what he truly wants–west coast or east–Hollywood or Broadway–the blonde or the brunette. He’s caught in a limbo of his own making, and there may not be any organic way to resolve his conflicts.  Bly gave him the benefit of the doubt, but truth is, Sam Holt only knows himself well enough to know what he doesn’t want.

The one mystery he can never solve is the mystery of his own life.  Luckiest of men, and yet perpetually cursed to lament his ‘good bad luck’, as James Tyrone might name it.  Living a life most people would deem idyllic–he just can’t get comfortable in the role  he’s been cast in.  He’s got motivation problems.  And his acting coach–the one with the typewriter–has no more idea what to do with him than he does.

And maybe that’s why he killed Sam off via an offhanded mention in a later book (not the first time Westlake had done something like this–Ed Ganolese of The Mercenaries met a similar fate in 361).  Most people reading that later novel probably never even knew what Westlake was doing.  But truthfully, I think Westlake repented of this later on, and it doesn’t really count.  Sam Holt may feel a little sorry for himself sometimes, but he’s not suicidal.  You could write it that way, sure.  But it’s just too dark an ending for a character who isn’t quite deep enough to merit it.  I’m not sure if Sam would thank me for saying that, but I’ll say it anyway.

So that’s Samuel Holt.  I could say more, but on the whole, I think that’s enough. There’s other and better books to get to.  Maybe the melancholy prince of Bel Air never figured out what to do next, but his creator eventually did.  The Holts were probably no more than a couple months’ writing time for  the Man of a Hundred Novels.  Westlake wrote this hero off as a hopeless case, and went looking for his next big idea.  Leaving Sam and his entourage here, in an abandoned dusty wing of The Westlake Museum.  And this is where we came in, folks.

And what’s this?  Two cold wet noses, prodding me–two accusing sets of limpid brown eyes gazing dolefully in my direction.  Max and Sugar Ray, Sam’s boxers! Aw guys, I meant to give you more time, honest I did.  Truth is, you didn’t really factor that much into any of the books after the first one.  And I promised you a nice walk.  You’ve been shut up in here for decades now.  Well, let’s go–Central Park’s not very far away, or we could try Van Cortlandt if you really want some room to run.   Can’t wait to introduce you to my dog–he’s a Max too, hope that’s not too confusing.  He’s a shepherd mix, but he’s been chums with a boxer named Jack Johnson (get it? well, of course you do) for almost ten years now. You’ll get alone fine.

And as the three of us saunter out nonchalantly, the tableau behind us comes to life.  Suddenly Anita and Bly are strolling across the room that divides them, to have a little chat–Sam eyes them nervously, wondering what this betides.  Mort and Oscar are in an involved legal discussion, and Robinson approaches Bly with what is (for him) an apologetic air.  Zack Novak is on the phone, still trying to get Sam a part.  Dammit, even Matt LeBlanc had a second act!  How hard could it be?  Oh well, they’ll have to work all this out for themselves.  I have done.

And once I’ve given the dogs some exercise, I’ll be exercising my movie reviewing talents, because next up is the first movie Donald Westlake ever wrote a screenplay for that actually turned out to be pretty damn good.  It’s also the first thing he wrote that I ever saw.  Long before I ever heard of him, because who ever notices the screenwriter in the credits?   Anyway, that’s next in the queue. Or should I say–the List?

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books, and I can almost hear Mike saying “It should have stayed forgotten.”)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Samuel Holt Novels, The Fourth Dimension Is Death

Review: What I Tell You Three Times Is False

 

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

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

From A Scandal in Bohemia, by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

Lewis Carroll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murder_by_death_movie_poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see what you mean.”

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

“I can see why you would.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh it’s sincere,” Fred told me.

“Sunshine,” Bly said, looking out the window

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

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

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

Review: I Know A Trick Worth Two Of That

 

Walking to the taffrail, I was in time to make out, on the very edge of a darkness thrown by a towering black mass like the very gateway of Erebus—yes, I was in time to catch an evanescent glimpse of my white hat left behind to mark the spot where the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.

From The Secret Sharer, by Joseph Conrad.

 This table is set for twelve,” she said.  “but there are thirteen of us.”

“One of us won’t be staying,” I said.

Well, I may be a mere television actor, lacking stage experience, but I do know how to deliver a good line.  I couldn’t have gotten more attention at that moment if I’d announced I was the reincarnation of Vishnu.  Everybody gaped at me, and Terry Young said, “You don’t mean it, Sam?  You cracked the goddam thing?”

“Yes.”

Enjoy those three foreign editions of the first Holt novel I posted up top last week?  They’re going to have to tide you over a while, because the Official Westlake Blog has no more of the same to offer with regards to the other three books in this series.  I’ll have to make do with the Tor first editions and the much more recent Felony & Mayhem paperback reprints (which I cordially loathe, though they probably do give a fairly accurate if superficial rendition of how most people would have perceived the Holt novels).

Tor Books may have done Westlake the dirty in terms of not keeping the secret of who ‘Samuel Holt’ really was, and most of their covers for this series were just okay, but for this book they really outdid themselves–that’s a brilliant little bit of cover art, that tells you just enough about the story and sets the mood perfectly–whoever did it clearly read the book carefully (as opposed to whoever did the paperback reprint cover up top, though I suppose he did at least give us a fair rendition of Anita Imperato–Bly Quinn never made the cover–except are we supposed to believe Anita is almost as tall as Sam?  Those heels aren’t that high).

And in my estimation, this is the Holt book that most especially rewards the careful reader.  It’s my personal favorite of the bunch.  And it’s still just okay.  But Donald Westlake’s version of okay is several cuts above the average mystery writer’s best work.

The first novel had been a ‘mystery’ in the broader sense of the term–violent mysterious goings-on, questions that need to be answered, villains that must ultimately be dispatched, but it almost falls more under the heading of an espionage novel (or certain types of P.I. novel).

The remaining three books in the series, beginning with this, had unemployed actor Samuel Holt playing detective in the classic sense–somebody is dead, and he has to solve the murder.   He doesn’t want to–he’s a reluctant detective, like pretty nearly all of the Westlake sleuths.  He’s dragooned into it, a victim of circumstances, and he’s not really trained to be a detective–he just played one on TV.  So in each case, Westlake had to be innovative in terms of how he motivated his sleuth.

A real weakness in this series, which I’m going to get out of the way now, and which I just know was bothering Westlake at the time, is that no matter how cunningly the author motivated his hero, there’s an underlying improbability to the whole thing that works for a television show–like Packard–but not so well for this.  Why does Mr. Holt keep getting into these situations?  And why does he never ask himself that question?

In the course of what seems to be less than a year (starting in winter) he foils a terrorist plot, then solves three completely unconnected incidences of murder relating to people he was acquainted with in one way or another.  I used to cruelly tease my poor mother about this kind of contrivance when it came to her favorite show, Murder She Wrote–clearly Jessica Fletcher was doing the murders herself–how else can you explain all the bodies dropping wherever she goes?   How else could her sleepy New England hamlet have a homicide rate that rivals Detroit?  Hmm, that question probably ties better into the book after this one, but let it go for now.

Since Sam is a TV star, trying desperately to escape the role everybody knows him for, in which his character was constantly running into unsolved murders, obviously this is more or less along the lines of “Magnum P.I. meets Pirandello.”  One character in search of an exit.  Somebody is playing a very extended practical joke on him, and we know who that is.  But he doesn’t.

It’s not just a joke, though–a mere satiric commentary on murder mystery conventions, such as we saw in A Travesty.  Westlake hated the way mysteries made light of murder, ignored its deeper emotional aspects, and generally comported themselves as if to say the detective could solve all problems in life by solving the conundrum of whodunnit.

He’d been making a similar commentary in the Tobin novels, but since Tobin was a former police detective who needed money to support his family while he diverted  himself from thoughts of suicide by building a wall in his backyard, it was easier to make the reader believe he could run into five murder mysteries over the course of a few years, and then solve them.  People would bring the mysteries to him, he’d try to come up with some excuse for not investigating them, but he’d always get dragged into it somehow, because Life just wouldn’t leave him alone to brood on his sins and dabble in masonry.

Sam is a rich TV actor with many highly pleasurable diversions (blonde and brunette), no family to support (he seems to have lost both his parents, only occasionally visits his remaining family in Long Island), and he has four mysteries to solve in less than one year.  The mysteries have to revolve around his career (or lack thereof) somehow.  So the first one comes from him knowing a TV writer in trouble.  And the second will likewise stem from a personal connection, somebody who needs his help.  The third and fourth will also stem from his professional limbo.

But it’s an inherently self-limiting premise.  And a writer of Westlake’s caliber couldn’t possibly be unaware of that.  A less exacting writer could have probably written dozens of Holts (Richard Prather wrote forty-one Shell Scott mysteries), and maybe there would have been an actual TV series based on them at some point, but Westlake wants these to be real books that really mean something.  Let’s see how he does with this one.

It all starts when Sam gets a call from somebody claiming to be Holton Hickey–Sam Holt’s real name.  Somebody from his past, obviously–and Sam realizes it has to be his old partner on the Mineola police force, Doug Walford.  But he doesn’t want to identify himself over the phone, for some reason–and he wants Sam to meet him in a spot way out on Long Island where they used to ‘coop’–take a nap in their squad car when they were supposed to be on duty.  Sam agrees to the meeting and the call ends.

(Walford is a name that crops up here and there in the Westlake canon–first appearance I know of was in Wax Apple, one of the Tobin mysteries.  There was a Walford in the previous Holt book as well.  I don’t know what the significance of it is for Westlake–in Wax Apple and this book it’s seemingly a reference to a road not taken and just as well it wasn’t–but as I’ve already mentioned, I think this was one of the many little hints Westlake put in the Holt books that were supposed to tip sharp-eyed readers off as to who really wrote them).

But before he goes out there for the meet, he’s got dinner plans at Anita’s restaurant, Vitto Impero, where he’s also dining with his reporter friend Terry Young (a columnist for the Daily News who got into a big fight with Sam when assigned to interview him, and that’s how they became chums), Terry’s German-born wife Gretchen (who Sam greatly admires and ze feeling is moochul), and his personal physician (when he’s in New York), Bill Ackerson, plus Bill’s date, who doesn’t really figure into anything.

So Sam has to make his excuses early to pick up a rental car and get out to the sticks, and Anita jokes lightly that he better not be ‘three-timing’ her.  She accepts his west coast relationship with Bly Quinn, because to a Manhattan girl like her, nothing that happens west of the Hudson really matters–if he was seeing somebody else on her turf, that would be something else again.  She’s kidding on the square, he realizes, and he can’t tell her where he’s going, or who he’s meeting up with.  But he still has to go.

So he gets out to the meeting place, and after waiting around a while, gets back in the car, feeling a bit disgusted with himself–and Doug’s been waiting in there for him, hiding in the back seat. He snuck in and waited for Sam to get bored.  He tells Sam to just start the car and take him back to the city.  He’s being that careful.  And Sam is the only person on earth he trusts now.

Trusts him enough to tell him the story while they’re driving back.  After he and Sam parted ways, he got a job offer from a private detective agency.  The work was interesting enough, certainly paid better than traffic cop, but in the course of doing an investigation for a woman looking to divorce her husband, he found out some things about the husband’s business he wasn’t supposed to find out.  The husband’s name is Frank Althorn, and he’s a rich businessman, owns casinos and such.  You see where Doug’s going with this.

Frank’s not technically mobbed up–his own hands are always lily white, because that’s his function–as Terry explains to Sam later, he’s the mob’s shabbas goy–a term that has to be explained to Sam, because he only grew up near the city not in it–in New York proper, most people pick up some Yiddish terms.  A shabbas goy is a non-Jew who is employed by strictly observant Jews to do things they’re not supposed to do on the Sabbath.  And Frank Althorn does things known members of the mafia can’t do at all (like operate casinos).

Doug can’t tell Sam a whole lot about it–truth is, he still doesn’t really know what he learned that was so dangerous, and he’s been trying to find out–but it’s to do with pharmaceuticals, the legal kind, that much he knows. The woman he was living with and her kid were killed when these people tried a hit on him.  He’s been running ever since.  His one-man crusade is wearing him down.  He needs to come in from the cold for a while.

So much to the displeasure of Robinson, Sam’s personal Jeeves (only not so helpful and much less forbearing), he becomes a long-term house guest, but as Robinson reminds Sam, he’s got a dinner party coming up there in a few weeks, and it won’t be possible to hide Doug from the other guests (it’s a townhouse, not a mansion).  And as Terry informs Sam, Anita really is wondering if Sam left to see another girlfriend that night, and Sam can’t risk losing her to preserve Doug’s secret.

Anita was at the cash register, ringing up accumulated lunch receipts.  I could see her through the window in the locked front door, it now being almost three-thirty in the afternoon, lunchtime over.  Very faintly, I could hear the ding-ding-ding of the cash register.  She looked absorbed in her work, oblivious of the world around her, and I paused a few seconds before knocking, just to look at her.  A good-looking woman.  An intelligent, interesting, complex, sometimes irritable woman.  Very valuable to me.  I knocked on the glass.

So he tells her what’s going on, and she’s ready to help out, put some weight on Doug for one thing, so he’ll be harder to recognize.  They come up with an alias for him–he’s a TV writer Sam knows, having troubles with writer’s block.  He’ll mingle at the party, and everything will be fine.  Except everything isn’t.  Doug is murdered at the party.

He’s found locked in the upstairs bathroom, having apparently taken pills.  The police ask questions, Sam tells them what Doug told him, and they don’t buy it.  They write it off as suicide.  Doug Walford was depressed and paranoid, making up stories in his head to explain what had happened to him.  Sam flies back to L.A.

And that would be the story, except Sam doesn’t believe it was suicide, and after what he describes as ‘a moderately good mid-afternoon sexual encounter,’ Bly Quinn tells him so. And he’s still angry about it, and so it’s time for him to play Packard again.  With her as the daffy sidekick who pulls S.J. Perelman references out of thin air.  “Personne ici except us chickens, eh?”    

(You know why I don’t think Bly’s the right girl for him?  Because she’s so obviously Donald E. Westlake’s idealized female self-image, sharing all his interests, and Sam is his idealized macho self-image, and it’s just weird, sometimes.  The strangest take on auto-eroticism I’ve yet to encounter in literature.  But enjoyable, for all that.)

And it’s a nice drive anyway, to San Francisco, through Big Sur, to see Joe Kearny, the investigator whose firm Doug had working for him to try and get enough solid information so he could go to the law with his suspicions.  And of course Joe Kearny is clearly an alternate universe doppelganger of Dan Kearny, a tip of the hat to Joe Gores and the DKA novels, the first of which had a cross-over with Plunder Squad. I shouldn’t even need to mention that, but I will anyway.

He can’t tell them much, gives them little hope of success, but he produces Doug’s file, and tells Bly that when she’s had enough of this game, she should distract Sam.  He doesn’t know that she’s the one who always wants Sam to play detective, so she can play along with him.

And they have a good game, complete with two thugs threatening Sam out by the waterfront, as they investigate a shipping company that has some obscure tie to Frank Althorn.  The cops pull up just in time to stop the fight before it starts, and Sam wonders about that.  But one thing he knows–somebody wanted to send him a message.  He really is onto something here, but what?   All the leads have been dead-ends.  They head back for L.A. (pausing for some really great sex, because it’s a Sam Holt novel).

So they can’t expose the larger conspiracy, anymore than Doug could–they’re not equipped for it.  But as Bly reminds Sam, there is a less nebulous, more specific mystery to solve here–who actually killed Douglas Walford.  Not who gave the order, and why, but who carried it out. The suspect list is not that long.

She tells him that the real reason he’s so upset is that he knows Doug Walford was murdered, and the only possible suspects are people who attended that party–friends of his, and people his friends brought with them.  Somebody betrayed his hospitality, and his friendship, something Sam can never forgive or forget.  And furthermore, Doug was his partner, years ago, and you know what Sam Spade would say about that.  What Sam Holt says  is “Shit.”  She’s right.  And she found yet another excuse for an obscure reference, this time from The Big Knife“Why do you come fling these naked pigeons in my face?”

And naturally, one of those pigeons is Anita (she catered the event).  She is, after all, Italian, and owns a restaurant.  It’s not impossible the mob could have a hold on her.  Sam doesn’t want to believe it, he actively disbelieves it, but he can’t rule it out.  He can’t rule any of them out.  Because, like Mitch Tobin, he’s a completist.

You can’t help but think Bly is wondering if this is the moment the romantic stalemate between her and Anita gets broken in her favor, but her main concern is Sam–he’s never going to be okay with himself if he lets this go.  He’s never going to fully trust anyone again.  Already an occupational hazard for any celebrity.  To know who you are, you have to know who your real friends are.   So back to New York, to settle accounts.

He meets Bill Ackerson, his doctor, for lunch.  Softens him up with some Hollywood gossip–a well-known star, the kind who does romantic leads, who happens to be gay, has been talking about coming out of the closet, and his agent told him “Wait another ten million dollars, John.”  Damn, seems so long ago now that this was a thing (and am I naive for thinking it isn’t still very much a thing?).

Bill wants to know how a murderer could threaten someone into taking poison–Sam says they already did that on Packard–the poison would have been injected from behind, and the pills planted to explain the death. Bill, a fanatical fan of the show (Sam is appalled to find out he has every episode on tape–that’s going to be a thing too, Sam), can’t believe he forgot that one.  Anyway, it’s pretty clear Bill couldn’t have administered the injection himself–the key to this case is to figure out where everybody at the party was at the moment Doug was killed.

He’s been putting off seeing Anita.  She’s noticed that.  She demands he present himself to her, and he goes to her apartment, over the restaurant.  He kisses her passionately, then explains the situation.  She is not the least bit happy about it, but she somehow understands–and having read his list, which contains her name, has a partial solution to the problem.

Carefully folding the paper, she handed it back to me and said, “Let me offer you a drink now, okay?  If I’m the one who poisoned Doug Walford, and if I know Packard is on the case, which means sooner or later I’m bound to be found out, then I’ll poison you, too, right now, and your worries will be over.  If you survive the drink, you can run a faint pencil line through my name.  Is it a deal?”

I had to laugh.  “It’s a deal.”

“Hemlock and soda?” she asked, getting to her feet.

He’s still alive later that night, lying in bed beside her, unable to sleep–didn’t we have the same post-coital scene in Anita’s bed in the last book?  Sex with Anita seems to bring out a contemplative soul-searching side in him we never see when he’s with Bly (because what he has with Bly is a fantasy, and his thing with Anita is real, is my take).   Anita didn’t poison him, but suspicion has.

At this point, his investigation isn’t really about justice for Doug Walford, bur rather vengeance against someone who betrayed him.  And about being able to 100% trust a woman he has very deep feelings for.  It’s personal, and he can’t let go of it.

But there could be very serious personal consequences–one of the people he has to question is the very serious girlfriend of his acting chum, Brett Burgess–she can’t come up with an alibi for the party.  Brett, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, only belatedly realizes what Sam is saying, and gives him a look–tells him be careful not to break anything.  Like a friendship.

The plot thickens further, when Terry Young takes him out to Long Island to go yachting with a Republican congressman named Toomey, who Terry happens to know has been looking into links between organized crime and defective or experimental U.S. pharmaceuticals being unloaded on third world nations.  He doesn’t know anything about Doug’s murder, but it’s possible that’s what Doug stumbled into, and that means whoever killed Doug could be a link that leads to the people Toomey is after.

(Again, Westlake is using this series to write about a real issue, as he did with Islamic fundamentalism in the first Holt novel.  It’s less effective here, a bit too soap-boxy, and he seems to have dialed back on that angle for the next two books.  I’m no expert on this issue, but with decades of hindsight, I’d say it was a bit naive to think Big Pharma needed any help from the mob to do this kind of thing.  Naivete is not a trait I generally associate with Westlake, and maybe he decided he was out of his depth here.  Maybe we all are.)

Sam is still busily interrogating various friends and acquaintances–he’s got the list down to six names–he thinks.  At one point, he has to talk to Vera Slote, a fashion designer who came as Bill’s date, and later in the book she’s throwing herself at him quite unapologetically, as women often do. A rather unpleasant person, who cattily disparages Anita’s taste in clothing– but a very well-known designer, with no apparent motive, and of course none of the needed expertise to pull something like this off.  It just doesn’t seem like any of them could have done it.  Yet one of them did.

He also talks to his New York attorney, Morton Adler (one of the best supporting characters in this series, there are actors out there who could have had a ball playing him if this had ever become an actual series).  Mort says you never believe two witnesses alone–two can collude.  Three’s a crowd, when it comes to a conspiracy.

He heads out to Atlantic City to see Frank Althorn, shake the tree a bit.  Althorn has opened a new casino hotel, and the headliner at the theater there is a female stand-up comedian named Sandy Sheriff.  As luck would have it,  the guy opening for her (in this context ‘to open’ means to facilitate, make sure the talent is happy in every possible way) is Robin Corrigan, who used to make Sam’s life as a TV star so much easier when he was doing promotional stuff.  His primary concern at the present time is that the hotel, having just opened, is an organizational nightmare, and they can’t get Sandy the right kind of stool for her to use in her act.

Sam’s former life can be a nuisance at times, but at others it gives him a decided edge–he just calls Robin, and asks for an introduction to Althorn.  All he has to do in return is go to Sandy’s show, and stand up for a round of applause when she points him out. Robin is unequivocally gay, and again we see Sam has zero issues on that front–well, homophobia in straight guys is mainly about sexual insecurity, isn’t it?    Sam has nothing to be insecure about on that front, and finds Robin a delight to be around.  Robin likes Sam too, but he’s working for Sandy now, so Sam has to tread lightly.

Sandy Sheriff is, quite self-evidently, Joan Rivers.  You can know this simply by the fact that Westlake and Rivers worked together on a screenplay for a never-produced film that went by the title A Girl Named Banana.  Or you can just read her description in the book, without any background info at all, and that works about as well.  How that creative partnership ever came to pass, I have no idea, but Westlake, always interested in comedians, was very impressed with her stand-up work, as you can see here–

They found her a stool, a black one, and Sandy Sheriff, a tall skinny blonde with gawky knees and elbows, dragged it back and forth on stage behind her, occasionally sitting on it, at times leaping from it, all the while she harangued her audience, who loved her.  She talked very fast at top volume, she yelled and screamed and flung her arms around and wrestled with the stool, and I would say she used up more energy in fifty minutes on that stage than I do in a week in my gym at home in Los Angeles; and this was the first of two shows tonight.  Her material was somewhat blue, but it was mostly an inflamed report of her ongoing gun battle with the world around her: arguments with cabdrivers and telephone operators, put-downs from agents and movie stars, struggles with pets and locked doors and income-tax forms.

(Westlake’s opinion of the compatibility of his and Rivers’ comic styles can perhaps be divined from an exchange Sam has with Bly over the phone–he’s got to pretend to Robin that he’s seriously thinking about doing a project with Sandy, so he cold calls Bly–a well-known sitcom writer–and basically clues her in to act like she knows what he’s talking about when he talks about this potential series they’re working on.  She’ll play along, but she can never resist an easy punchline.  “Sandy Sheriff and Sam Holt.  Not since Wallace Beery and Rin Tin Tin.”)

So Althorn comes in, and Sam finds a way to let him know–he knows.  And Althorn finds a way to let Sam know–he better know what he could be in for if he doesn’t stop this.  And just to make sure the message hits home, he has four professionals armed with blackjacks work Sam over in the elevator later on.  They’re really professional.

At this point, Sam (bruised but not broken) makes the acquaintance of Charles Petvich, Treasury Agent, who has been keeping an eye on him–certain persons in the government are curious about his connection to Althorn.  Knowing that the thing about bureaucracies is that the left hand really doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, Sam introduces Petvich to Toomey, and now he’s got some heavy muscle of his own to aim at Althorn–but he’s still got to find the killer in order for them to have a target to zero in on, somebody to grill.

And this is when Sam finally has that flash of insight you’re waiting for in a story like this–one of his suspects slipped up, said something that clued him in–he knows who the killer is. And now comes the obligatory gathering of the suspects in the drawing room.  Only in this case, the detective has already played this scene many times in the past while pretending to be a detective on TV.  Life imitating Art imitating Life……

And it’s not anybody Sam (or the reader) really cares about, which I suppose is a bit of a cop-out, but this was never really about whodunnit, and this is true of most Westlake mystery stories, as I’ve noted in past.  I don’t want to give it away–truth is, with this genre, you can come back to a book years later, and find that you’ve forgotten how it ended.   It’s not crucial for my purposes to reveal the guilty party or parties at the party, so I won’t.  Except I will say that the best speech in the big finale scene goes to the best actor–Brett Burgess.  And Brett can be smart about some things.  Actors are smart about motivations.

But there he is, in his own townhouse, Sam Holt, a man who achieved fame and fortune playing a suave debonair amateur sleuth on television, and he’s playing it for real this time, before most of the people in this world who mean something to him, and on one level he’s enjoying himself–and on another, it feels so empty, so pointless, in a way it never did when he was faking it before the cameras.

Because, you see, he knew what he was doing it for then–to entertain people.  To fill an hour of primetime.  To sell soap.  But what did he do this for?  To prove something to himself?  To the world?  To prove he’s not just a has-been?  He still can’t get arrested in Hollywood.  But he can get somebody else arrested in New York.

He’s ruined somebody’s life–granted, that person deserves most of the blame for that, but Sam gets an assist.  And of course Doug Walford is still quite dead, and if any posthumous good comes from his quixotic one-man crusade, he won’t be around to see it.

It didn’t feel like a victory, or an accomplishment.  It didn’t feel like anything good at all.  I looked around at my friends, and saw my own feelings reflected.  “Well,” I said.  “Probably we could use another drink before dinner.  Robinson?”

As with the previous story, Sam was just trying to help out a friend, and it backfired, badly, forced him to see some things about himself he didn’t really want to acknowledge–he was trying to help Doug achieve his mission, because he didn’t have one of his own other than to go back to pretending to be someone else.  Doug was his secret sharer for a while (hence the Conrad quote up top), living clandestinely in his home, and they opened up to each other–but the strange optimism of Conrad’s ambiguous narrative won’t play here.  He still doesn’t know where to steer the ship of his life.

It’s hard to convey all the things about this book that do work–it’s much easier to convey all the things that don’t.  There are so many small scenes that come off perfectly–and Sam Holt is an interesting protagonist in that his celebrity allows him to move effortlessly through the different interlocking parts of the entertainment world, and all the other worlds (like politics and organized crime) that the entertainment world is always rubbing up against.

Westlake had spent a lot of time around people in showbiz, starting with his brief stint in small time theatricals, then writing for movies and TV, and he likes show people–he does.  They have many fine qualities, they make the world a more interesting place, and he must by his very nature appreciate anyone who is in a constant state of self-invention. He knows as well as anyone what that’s like.

But there’s something he wants to convey about that world–its unreality, the way it eats away at identity, until nobody is quite sure who they are–everybody’s as good as his or her last project.  And the fans who worship them from afar (or up close) don’t even see them as real people.  He’s going to have to find a better way to express this than these books, a darker way, and he will, soon enough, at which point he’s going to put his fascination with the world of actors aside, at long last.

But see, it’s not all bad, this world he’s showing us–he wants to be fair, as well as honest–and in the Holt books he shows that these often fairly messed up people, with their vanities and addictions and delusions, are still people, with understandable agendas and aspirations of their own.

And after all, people who aren’t in showbiz can be pretty confused as well.  Judge not lest ye be judged.  It’s not as if you wouldn’t trade places with them in a minute, right?  We’re all so damned interested in them, and there’s no point pretending otherwise.  They have the ratings and box office stats to prove we’re liars (not to mention the supermarket tabloids).

His title is yet again a hint as to the nature of the story (going to be  hard to sustain these numerical titles longterm).  And for his next trick, he’s going to take Sam Holt out of that world entirely, along with a handful of other actors trapped in their roles, in a rather odd admixture of Agatha Christie and Rod Serling–the latter of whom is mentioned in this book–by Anita, believe it or not–why should Bly get all the pop cultural references?  One little two little three little–never mind.

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Filed under I Know A Trick Worth Two Of That, novel, Samuel Holt Novels, Uncategorized

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

Mr. Westlake and The TV Detective

RF1

Hamlet: Denmark’s a prison.

Rosencrantz: Then is the world one.

Hamlet: A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

Rosencrantz: We think not so, my lord.

Hamlet: Why, then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.

Rosencrantz: Why, then, your ambition makes it one; ’tis too narrow for your mind.

Hamlet: O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

Guildenstern: Which dreams, indeed, are ambition; for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.

Well, we’ve certainly had an interesting time exploring The Westlake Museum thus far, haven’t we, kids?  Let’s take a nostalgic stroll back through its venerable hallways, passing along our way many a fascinating exhibit.  The Hall of Sleaze (don’t tell your parents we went there!), the Science Fiction Diorama (with derisive graffiti by Westlake himself), the Early Hardboiled Exhibit, the Mitch Tobin Memorial (walled up, naturally), the Nephews Nativity Scene, the Dortmunder Display (still under construction), and of course the Stark  Shooting Gallery (always popular but somehow never crowded).  Plus many an odd little cul-de-sac that leads nowhere, but may be well worth exploring, regardless.

And what’s this?  Something we’ve missed up to now.  The entrance is unmarked.  There’s cobwebs on the door handles.  Well, let’s go in.  Nothing ventured and all that.

The hinges creak.  In the mustiness and gloom of a long abandoned space, we see a mid-sized exhibit.   Some work was put into this one, clearly.  To our right, we see the majestic yet seamy Gotham skyline, and in the foreground a lissome pallid brunette in a very simple little black dress; streetwise, practical,  in equal parts sardonic and sexy, standing in front of an Italian restaurant, her arms akimbo.  To our left, we see the Los Angeles sunshine and smog, and in the foreground a luscious bikini-clad blonde lounging by the pool, book in hand, a sly winsome expression on her sun-drenched face–she clearly knows more than she’s saying (and she’s saying plenty).

And hovering solicitously between the two, a haughty-looking gentleman’s gentleman holding a tray of hors d’oeuvres,  who seems perhaps a mite too aware of his role–overplaying it to the veritable hilt.  A splendid anachronism, and don’t you forget it.  Also two lawyers (one on each side), a Hollywood agent, and an accountant holding out a ledger that somehow is never examined too closely.  Also assorted friends (quote marks sometimes necessary), colleagues, well-wishers, general hangers-on, milling about, begging for attention.

Last and not even remotely least, two delightful boxers (pooches, not pugilists), scampering about on the west side of the exhibit, having a good time for themselves, ignoring the general goings-on most of the time.  Not really relevant to anything, but they sure decorate nicely.

As we look around, we see a neglected barren stage, a television screen airing a nonstop test pattern, promotional posters touting a show we’ve never watched which is nonetheless perpetually in repeats.  There are cases full of murder weapons, and the deadliest of them all seems to be boredom, followed by indecision.  And far at the back, overlooking the tableau with a decidedly melancholy air, we see a looming figure, half in shadow; handsome, charismatic, piercingly intelligent, yet somehow unformed, incomplete–he’s dressed as Hamlet, or rather as Hamlet would dress were he a  TV Detective of the late 70’s/early 80’s.  Very high concept.

And behind him, in a roped-off alcove, a display case with framed obituary notices from the New York Times and Variety in it, but there’s a large question mark hovering over it in space, making us wonder….

Ah yes.  The Holt Wing.

Westlake’s last sustained attempt to write a series character under an assumed name came about, according to him, as an attempt to find out if he could start over from scratch, with a name no one knew, write in a voice he hadn’t used before, and still sell books, win converts, blaze new trails.  One would think that having done this already as Richard Stark and Tucker Coe (not to mention Alan Marshall et al, and he’d doubtless have preferred no one mention that), he’d have felt like he had nothing to prove in this regard.  But as he said in his brief intro to the very belated paperback reprints to this series, “Times change.  Cultures change.  Markets change.”  Had he changed?   Could he still pull it off?

In the intro, he mentions Stephen King’s alter ego Richard Bachman as an inspiration.  King cited similar reasons for adopting a nom de plume (having never been known for this kind of thing, whereas Westlake had been writing stories under multiple pseudonyms years before he published his first novel under his own name), but later said the question was never satisfactorily answered as to whether his previous success had been talent or luck, because people quickly enough figured out who Bachman was, and none of the Bachman books sold very well until his true identity became common knowledge.  Let’s be honest here–no matter who you are, luck is always involved in success.  It’s just a matter of degree.

The ‘Richard’ in the name was derived from Richard Stark (with Westlake’s bemused and unneeded consent), a name Westlake felt like he could no longer write honestly under, and people knew who Stark was by now anyway–there’d never been any real effort made to hide it.   Westlake’s earlier pseudonyms were not created to fool the reading public but rather to get around the publishing industry’s annoying tendency to only let you put out so much under your own name in a given year.

But somehow, for Westlake, the fake identities became real–alternate voices, parts of his personality he couldn’t fully express under his own name, writers who were memorable in their own right–who rivaled Westlake, competed with him, and some might even say surpassed him (Stark actually did outsell Westlake in the late 60’s/early 70’s).  King obliquely referenced this when he wrote The Dark Half.  But catering to his usual market (I have to say, I don’t really see any difference between the way he writes as King or Bachman), he just told another thrilling horror story with a psychological edge to it, and didn’t really try to capture what Stark and the others meant to Westlake–they were not monsters to be suppressed, demons to be exorcised.  They were truths that needed to be told.

But Westlake couldn’t tell them anymore–his other voices had abandoned him, one by one, as the 70’s wore on.  Tucker Coe just sort of tuckered out, with nothing more to say about Mitch Tobin–Coe’s voice was Tobin’s voice, so Coe went when Tobin did.  Westlake seems to have been equally concerned and relieved over the disappearance of Stark–there were obviously more stories to tell about Parker, but he wanted to explore other avenues, types of stories Parker didn’t go with at all, and the further he went down that road, the harder it was to summon back the Stark voice.  This was a lighter-spirited time in his life–Stark would wait for the darkness to return, as it always does.

The other pseudonyms he’d used in the 60’s and 70’s had never really amounted to anything–just brief attempts to branch into other genres, and the books hadn’t sold well enough to merit another try.  He was a mystery writer, a crime writer, and to most people by this point in time, a comedic writer within that genre.  And he’d liked that for a while, but it might have been wearing on him a bit.  He’d tried branching out under his own name (Kahawa, A Likely Story, High Adventure)–the books had been good, the reception less enthusiastic than he’d hoped.  People knew what they wanted from Westlake now.  Comic capers.  Dortmunder and such.  For him to write something else he had to be someone else.

Which he could do easily enough in the 1960’s and early 70’s, when people were not paying that much attention to who wrote what in his designated genre (Random House had made a big fuss over the secret identity of Tucker Coe, but I think everybody who cared solved that mystery quickly enough–they were promoting Westlake novels on the back covers of Coe novels).

His output had declined dramatically since then.  He could no longer disappear into a sea of pseudonyms.  He could no longer write paperback originals either, because that market was dead.  So could he make a deal with a publisher to put out something he wrote under a false name, and see how people liked it?   And then, obviously, spring the news on them that it was none other than himself?

Because that had to be the plan.  He never meant for the secret to last.  He wanted people to ask “Who is this Samuel Holt who writes mystery stories about a guy named Samuel Holt?”  Richard Stark didn’t write stories about Richard Stark, any more than Richard Bachman wrote stories about Richard Bachman.  King went out of his way to create a false bio for Bachman (then killed him off once the ruse was exposed–Westlake did something chillingly similar with Holt, after these books were written).

But how seriously can you take an author who says he wants to disappear into a pseudonym when he never seriously tries to make the pseudonym stand up to scrutiny?  Obviously there’s no such person as Samuel  Holt.  There’s people sort of like Samuel Holt, but they don’t solve mysteries.  They just make bad movies, and wait for their next series to start.   Well, that’s not fair.  Not entirely.

Whatever he thought would happen, what actually did was deeply disappointing.  He’d been developing a relationship with Tor Books (an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates LLC, known primarily for Science Fiction and Fantasy)–they’d handled the paperback reprints of a few books of his, and he’d been pleased in particular by them agreeing to reprint A Likely Story.

Even though these books he was putting out would be classic mysteries, ideal for The Mysterious Press, he clearly couldn’t publish them there without effectively outing himself right off the bat, since his close association with Otto Penzler was so well known (and yet the dedication to the first book is to “Otto and Michael, unindicted co-conspirators.”  Seriously, this was never going to be a mystery for the ages, folks.)

So he signed a contract with Tor, and in return for getting a much smaller advance than Donald E. Westlake would typically get, he was promised anonymity–a fresh slate.  Emulating John D. MacDonald’s example when writing the first Travis McGees, he hammered out three novels in close succession, and handed them in.  Two were published in 1986, one in 1987.  No books under Westlake’s name appear between them in his bibliography (yet another telltale clue for the amateur book detective).

Tor did a good job with the books, it must be said.  They’re nicely executed volumes, with decent artwork for the era (particularly the second entry), and lack the many egregious typographical errors of the much later reprint editions from Felony & Mayhem (with a clownish caricature of an 80’s-style detective cavorting on the covers).

But as Westlake revealed in his intro to those reprints, he was betrayed–the publisher (Doherty himself?) had told his staff to let bookstores know who ‘Sam Holt’ really was, so that they could put promotional displays up (because obviously they remembered how much better the Richard Bachman books sold after people knew there was no Richard Bachman).   Westlake eventually wanted people to know the secret–but not so soon–not this way.  The game was no longer afoot–the game, in fact, had been ruined.  Might as well have told everyone the butler did it (though technically, in the Holt books, all the butler does is sulk).

So he owed them another book, and he made it quite a bit darker than the previous three, and its ending is powerfully reminiscent of the final chapter of the last Mitch Tobin mystery.  Because in fact, these books are a reworking of the Tobin series.  And Samuel Holt is, in many ways, a reworking of Tucker Coe, and Coe’s protagonist.

The Mitch Tobin mysteries, which I believe deserve to be ranked with the best work Westlake or any other mystery writer ever wrote under any name, stemmed from a personal insight he had about The Thin Man, the last novel Dashiell Hammett published in his lifetime, before his long creative drought set in.   Westlake felt that Nick Charles was deeply depressed by his decision, brought on by his marriage to Nora, to give up his career as a detective.

His life now lacked purpose, so he resorted to heavy drinking to dull that pain.   Nora, loving him every bit as much as he loved her, and having been attracted to him in the first place primarily because of his dangerous profession, wanted him to go back to doing what he was born to do, so that they wouldn’t have to drink themselves to death in too much of a hurry.  The Days of Crime and Roses.  The movies made it a lot cuter, as they tend to do (maybe Blake Edwards would have given it a darker tinge).  But there’s a nice terrier named Asta in the book as well (Schnauzer, not Fox Terrier, and yes there’s a difference, but we hardly need belabor it here).

So Westlake got rid of the high society thing, the solving mysteries with your wife and dog thing, but kept what was really interesting to him–a man who has lost the will to go on, because everything that mattered to him has vanished from his life.  Tobin’s partner died while covering for Tobin’s marital infidelity, and his subsequent exposure led to the end of his career as a police detective and the total loss of his personal and professional identity.

He manages not to kill himself by means of various ambitious home improvement projects he makes up to keep occupied, his wife Kate willingly forgives him (and like Nora Charles, pushes for him to go back to his real work), his son just sort of tunes the high drama out, and what follows is Tobin just looking for ways to avoid life altogether. But life keeps shoving itself at him, in the form of blood-stained mysteries he has to solve.

And bit by bit, he regains his equilibrium, learns the lessons he needed to learn from the people he meets along the way, and rejoins the human race.  End of series.  Only five books, and the last one was, as I mentioned when reviewing it, not really necessary except as a means of tying up a few loose ends, and proving to Westlake that he had nothing more to say with this character.  So really, just four books that matter.  Hmm.

The Coe voice is quietly powerful, done in first-person narrator form, with Tobin telling his own story, filling us in from book to book as to how he became the person he is now, observing the world around him with great clarity and perceptiveness brought on by his uniquely abstracted outlook on life.  He sizes up the people he encounters rather brilliantly, much more concerned with character and motivation than with clues.

Although he always cracks the case, Tobin never really feels like he’s made the world a better place for doing so. There’s a powerful existentialist feel to the novels, a sense that this ratiocinative activity is something that needs be done for its own sake, not because it will fix anything, but because the truth matters.  The truth about whodunnit, but also about who you are, down inside.   But of course the most important thing anyone must know about the truth is that it hurts like holy hell.

So not nearly as many people remembered the Coe books as the Starks.   Westlake was known to have written them, but mainly by aficionados.  If you look closely at the Holts, you can see more than a few intentional hints, clues Westlake left for those very cognoscenti–like the repeated use of the name Walburn, briefly in the first Holt, much more significantly in the second–that name appears in Wax Apple, with Westlake’s own first name appended to it (a road thankfully not taken, as I pointed out when that book came up in the queue).

In fact, there are many many deliberate clues as to the provenance of the Holts within their pages, not least their style, which I think comes closer to the way Westlake wrote nonfiction articles under his own name than any of his other fictional guises.  In many ways, Samuel Holt (the character) is simply Donald E. Westlake, only famous, handsome, rich, six feet six inches tall, bi-coastal, single and polygamous (it takes some explaining), and most unhappily unoccupied.  A fantasy and a nightmare come true at the same time.

Sam Holt gets everything his creator could ever have idly desired in his wildest dreams, except the most important thing–a job he actually wants to do.  And kids, of course, but he’s got the two boxers–which really is an actor thing, by the way–can’t tell you how many actors in my nabe I’ve met while exercising my dog, and the dogs introduced us–I think actors just need somebody in their lives who can’t read their reviews, and cats of course are born critics.

Westlake has always seemed a mite canophobic to me (maybe someday I’ll get to ask someone who knows), but writing as Holt he even conquers this long held phobia, and enjoys a healthy rewarding relationship with two fictive furry friends who couldn’t care less about his identity crisis.  Take us for a ride, dad!  Let’s have fun!  And that happens far too rarely.

Simply the close empathetic interest in the acting profession should have been a solid clue as to the author of these novels–this is also, to some extent, a reworking of the Grofield books, except Grofield, trying to live up to the Starkian ideal, refused to sell out to television, remained true to live theater, no matter how non-remunerative. Westlake wrote more about actors than any mystery writer I know of (his next two books after finishing the first three Holts both had actors in them, and likewise dealt with the tribulations of celebrity).

The East/West coast rivalry was another trademark of his. And his mingled predilection for blondes and brunettes. Honestly, I’m having a hard time believing he thought the secret of Sam Holt was going to last very long. It’s easy to see how he’d be upset that the publisher had failed to live up to the nondisclosure agreement (except if it was in the contract, couldn’t he have sued?)

He says they tried to hit the reset button–I don’t know what that means. If it came down to some bookstores advertising the Holts as Westlakes in their windows and displays, would that really have been such huge national news? How many ordinary mystery readers would have even noticed? How big a secret had Richard Bachman ever been? King’s last book under that name was in 2007, long after Bachman had been thoroughly outed (and killed off via publicity dispatch).  Why was Westlake so angry about this?  He knew what publishers are.  He wrote an entire novel about what publishers are.

‘Newgate Callendar,’ still handling the crime fiction beat for the New York Times (not for much longer, though–I think this might be his last crack at anything Westlake did), wrote a glowing review of the first Holt novel–with no apparent knowledge that it was actually a Westlake. If he’s playing dumb, I have to say, it’s a bravura performance. And either way, the irony might have tasted bitter to Westlake. The critic who never seemed to fully appreciate his work that broke with expectations was heartily applauding this incognito effort. Should he be elated–or deflated? It think it was more the latter.

So the part of me that sometimes feels obliged to question Westlake’s explanations of why he started or stopped writing this or that is moved to wonder–how upset could he be that people didn’t believe ‘Samuel Holt’ was writing the Samuel Holt books, when he’d included so many clues as to who really wrote them? Was this really the problem? Or did he just decide, after cranking out three in a row, that the books simply weren’t as good as he’d hoped they’d be? Because they are definitely not as good as the Coes. Not even close. Was Tor’s show of bad faith simply a good excuse to pull the plug on a project that hadn’t worked out as planned?

I don’t think he had ridiculously high expectations here–he just wanted to create a nice entertaining mystery series, about a reluctant detective (yet another clue it was him), with perhaps a touch of Rex Stout in the mix (Archie Goodwin with fame, money, a Manhattan townhouse and a busy sex life, but no Nero), all of this neatly distracting from the fact that as with the Coes, he was using these stories to make social commentaries. But instead of dealing with outsider subcultures, as Coe habitually did, he’d examine the ultimate insider subculture–showbiz–and all the various insider cultures it bumps up against.

It’s a subculture he’d learned a lot about while working as a screenwriter, hobnobbing with various friends in that biz, and as he admits in his foreward to the reprint editions, he wanted to use what he’d learned, but didn’t feel comfortable doing it under his own name (he would soon anyway, but apparently some of the portraits in the Holt books are more–personal). So another reason to dislike the books–maybe they got him in some hot water with certain people, once it came out he’d written them. Impossible to say.

Westlake’s ambiguous relationship with the movies has been much commented upon here (he commented upon it a fair bit himself).  His relationship with television is even more tortured.  He contributed to the (literal) train wreck that was Supertrain in 1979, and is actually listed as its creator, something that I have no doubt haunted him all the rest of his days.

Probably one reason I get a weird incestuous feel from Sam’s relationship with Bly Quinn, ace sitcom writer, is that she’s as much of a Westlake alter ego as Holt is, maybe more.  Many of her conflicts–feeling like she’s become trapped in a mode of storytelling she doesn’t entirely believe in–are Westlake’s as well.  But so is her delight in the conventions of genre, her wealth of arcane historical and literary trivia, and she even gets a reference to Graham Greene and This Gun For Hire in there at one point.

But Westlake didn’t want Sam to just be out there in LalaLand all the time–one of the central conceits of the books is that he’s a Long Island boy, to who New York will always be The City, and all other towns mere pretenders to that name (it works the same way with upstaters, I’m sure).   Fact is, he needs New York to keep him honest, and he needs  a New York girl as well, so Westlake gave him a Greenwich Village townhouse to go with his Bel Air mansion, and a smart sassy Italian-American restaurateur named Anita Imperato to serve as a counterpoint to his California girl (Bly is actually from Maryland, but she’s long since gone native).

Anita is closer to Sam’s age (a year older, actually), much more rooted in the here and now, and they feel like a real couple, in ways Sam and Bly never quite do–Bly is very much an aspiring Nora to Sam’s Nick, encouraging Sam to be a detective, solve the mysteries, go on adventures, but Sam’s no drunk, and he’s hardly miserable (you’d kind of have to hate his guts if he ever dared whine about his lot in life), so it seems more like she’s doing it for herself–as a way of living out the kinds of stories she loves to read and write, and to keep Sam more in her sphere of influence.

Anita, by contrast, encourages him to find out what he really wants to do and do it already–he tells us that when he tries to get more serious with her (meaning that he’s tried more than once), she pushes him away–knowing he’s not ready to commit to anything yet, let alone anybody.  I never feel like there’s quite enough of her in the books, and for what it’s worth, if any resolution of Sam’s divided love life is even possible, put me on Team Anita.

It’s a weird gimmick (taking Archie Goodwin to the next level–Lily Rowan and Lucy Valdon in explicit competition instead of merely implied), and I suppose offputting to some readers–he’s not technically cheating on either of them–it’s an open arrangement that just happened, and he can’t seem to resolve it either way.

After he became a famous TV star, he could basically have any woman he wanted, kid in a candy store, but he found that palled on him after a while (I suppose that could happen), and the really interesting women didn’t take him seriously anymore (that I believe)–so he cut back on the harem, until it was just the final two contestants–and he can never decide who gets the final rose.  They’re both so determinedly independent, it’s not clear either of them even wants the damn rose, yet they’re always obliquely vying for his favor, regardless–they never meet, each remaining on her respective coast, and Anita refers to Bly disparagingly as ‘the tennis player.’

Bly scarcely refers to Anita at all, which I think is partly because she recognizes Sam’s connection with Anita is deeper, more real, a threat to the exciting fantasy life she and Sam are living out in California.   She’s enjoying the hell out of all the various intrigues Sam gets her involved in–it’s great research material for her screenwriting.   But at some point, aren’t all three of them going to want more?  And Utah wouldn’t suit any of them very well, methinks.

Sam’s actually put a whole lot of major life decisions on hold.  That’s the central theme of the book.  That’s the conflict he has to resolve, and the mysteries are supposed to help him do that, the way they did for Tobin.  But it just doesn’t work as well, does it?   The contrivances are too contrived.  The fantasy is too fantastic.  The TV Detective is too damn much of a TV Detective, supercilious manservant and all.

And who seriously believes a guy who is the hugely popular star of a major hit series that ran five seasons isn’t getting any serious job offers for three years?   Job offers that don’t work out, sure.  Movies that flop, shows that tank, guest shots that make him look diminished somehow, people saying “One Hit Wonder,” that I could buy.  But nothing at all?  Even though he never stops bugging his agent to find him more work?  It’s not like he’s holding out for a major motion picture here.

Westlake knows it’s a stretch, does his level best to justify it, and I still don’t buy it.   But for the books to work, you have to buy it.  Holt’s deep professional frustration–a guy who lucked into the coolest job in the world, then figured out he really wanted to be an actor, right around the time he couldn’t be one anymore–is central to the whole enterprise.

Westlake refers more than once to The Rockford Files and Magnum P.I. in the books.   The former series he has Holt call ‘The Gold Standard’ and that it was.  But Holt is closer to being a Tom Selleck type–his character, Packard, was too much of a Lance White (seen up top)–Stephen J. Cannell’s brilliant parody of over-idealized TV detectives (the very kind that made Cannell a rich man) who Rockford had to perennially contend with, which had the added benefit of making Rockford seem realistic by comparison.

And Holt recognizes that (as a Rockford fan, he doubtless remembers the Lance White eps all too well), hates it, wants to escape that into some more valid form of self-expression, but who’s ever going to let him break out of the typecasting?  And who knew more about typecasting than Donald Westlake?  Okay, maybe Tom Selleck, but I’m not sure it ever bothered him as much as it does Holt and (in a different way) his creator.

Depth of character may not in fact be a professional advantage for an actor or a writer.  Why can’t Sam Holt get another acting job?  Why couldn’t Donald Westlake ever write a best selling novel, or get people to fully accept the novels that didn’t fit his proper genre cubbyhole?   But point is, he kept writing novels, and not just as Westlake.  Actors have a more difficult time disguising themselves than writers do (hard as the best of them work at it).

The realization Holt is reaching for and never quite gets to is that there are no small parts–that he has to let his stardom go somehow, if he wants to truly join his chosen profession.  And much as he enjoys the celebrity (both an advantage and a handicap when it comes to solving mysteries), you wouldn’t think it would be so hard for such a smart guy, not hampered by deep depression like Tobin, to figure this out.

That’s one reason the books all take place in a rather unrealistically short time period.  One over-the-top escapade after another, self-consciously parroting and rationalizing various conventions of the mystery form (like the Grofields), distracting him from the choices he has to make, while at the same time forcing him to notice very real problems in the world that make his own troubles look shallow and silly.  How could that be sustained over a long series?  It couldn’t.  Another reason to pull the plug.   And blame the publisher.  Who should have kept his word.

But even if that had happened, if the secret had been kept for a year or three, the books still wouldn’t have worked, I think.  Westlake wanted to go incognito again, yes–disappear into another persona,  as he had with Stark, but this wasn’t the way.  He’d have to do it on the up and up, and that nettle would be grasped, when the time was right.  Because unlike Samuel Holt, Donald E. Westlake was a consummate professional before anybody knew who he was–he’d worked hard and long for everything he’d accomplished, and sure there was luck involved, but he was ready for it when it came.  The failure of this series was a setback, but it didn’t set him back for very long.

So why bother to review all four books, one at a time, as I am now preparing to do?   Well, that is the mission statement of this blog.  Review everything.  But fact is, I like these books.  I see their weaknesses, the fundamental flaws of their premise and protagonist, and I still like them.  I enjoyed reading them the first time, and I’m enjoying them again now.  They contain many valuable insights, about fiction and life, and the myriad ways that each acts upon the other.  What we are, and what we think we should be.

So standing here in the sadly neglected Holt Wing of the Westlake Museum, let us ring back the curtains, open up the windows, let in some fresh air and light, grab some of those hors d’oeuvres (still good after all these years, Robinson’s a marvel), and take those two enchanting boxers for a long-delayed romp.  They’ve earned it.  So have we.  Books are made to be read, as life is made to be lived.  Let’s see what you have to teach us, melancholy Prince of Bel Air.  Damn, that’s copyrighted, isn’t it?  Oh well, let the lawyers figure it out.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Samuel Holt Novels, Tucker Coe