Category Archives: Tucker Coe

Mr. Westlake and The Masterpiece

I’m not going to attempt to define the word masterpiece.  But I do suppose that any work to which the label sticks and sticks and sticks contains at least two things: an accounting, in perfect balance, of the materials it chooses to embrace; and an accounting so complete that it amounts to a summary, of the artist’s own creative method.  The content of the work must fall into place without forcing, with simple rectitude.  And its creator must expose himself in the content as wholly as it is possible for mortal man to do.

From The Silent Clowns, by Walter Kerr.

Sometime around 1998-’99, Donald Westlake wrote a very short article, that was never published in any form, until Levi Stahl saw the manuscript, years later, and put it in The Getaway Car, under the title Light.  And in essence, this article is Westlake complaining that people, both critics and readers, liked a recent book of his far too much, bought far too many copies of it, and he doesn’t know how to react to that, or what he’s supposed to do for a follow-up.  It’s just ruined his whole career.

Westlake bemoaned the fact that before this novel came out, he was operating more or less under the radar–popular enough that he could keep getting published, but not so well-known that he was burdened with excessive expectations for his next book–he had his readers, and they were willing to indulge his whims, follow him wherever he chose to go, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but they followed.  He says he kept hearing complaints from his fellow writers who had some major epochal best-selling award-winning tome come out, and then struggled to live up to it in subsequent books.

Now he says he’s experiencing some of that himself, even though his book only made the L.A. Times list for two weeks, and wasn’t really a bestseller in any strict sense of the term, and there were no Pulitzers in the offing.   There should have been, but it was still slotted as a crime novel, and 1998 was the year of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, now rather belatedly at a theater near you (Westlake’s book was adapted a decade sooner, by a much better director, with a slight change of venue).

He says he wrote a lighter thing, about insurance fraud (self-evidently The Scared Stiff, later published under a pseudonym), and was told by both agent and editor that it was totally unsuitable as a follow-up.

It wasn’t just the novel under his own name that created the problem–he’d also started writing Parker novels again as Richard Stark, but see, everybody knew who Richard Stark was now–a Stark novel would be treated as a Westlake novel, no longer its own separate thing.  And the new Parker novel had been greeted with great enthusiasm, and all of a sudden he’s not the ‘Neil Simon of Mystery’ anymore, the King of the Comic Caper–a relatively easy mantle to bear.  Now he’s being taken seriously, and it’s freaking him out.  He says something about it being rather late in the day to have second novel problems.

Towards the end of the piece, he’s saying that for the first time since 1970, it has become ‘inappropriate’ for him to write about John Dortmunder, “the easiest and most enjoyable part of my working life.”  I have a very hard time swallowing this claim that he was being discouraged from writing about his most popular and beloved character (whose latest adventure had been made into yet another terrible movie with inappropriately cast actors), but he makes it anyway.

Perversity, thy name is Author.

And I say perversity because I have no doubt he was complaining about the exact opposite problem a short time earlier–we’ve seen ample evidence that he wanted to find a way out of the comic caper ghetto he’d spent more and more of his time in since The Fugitive Pigeon came out in 1965 (his other most successful book, and as different from the one we’re discussing here as Philip Barry is from Eugene O’Neill).

We can now read several novels of a more serious bent that he’d lavished considerable effort on prior to this break-out book, only to learn that nobody would accept stories like this coming from him–he was also very bothered by the commercial failure of hybrid works like Kahawa, that tried to work within his established niche while still venturing far outside the lines.

Perverse, but still consistent.  Donald Westlake never wanted to wear just one hat.  He wanted as many strings to his bow as he could possibly carry.  He knew full well what a burden the expectations of the reading public can be upon a writer.  When we really like something, we always want more of the same.  We object when the storyteller wants to try something else–that’s not what you do!   Do that thing you did that we liked, and keep doing it–until we don’t like it anymore, at which point we shall call you a One Trick Pony, and pack you off to the knackers, like poor Boxer in Animal Farm.  The writer is simply supposed to sigh heavily and say “Comrade Reader is always right.  I must work harder.” And eventually drop dead in the traces.

Temperamentally, Westlake was far more a donkey than a workhorse (the Irish in him, no doubt).  He got very contrary.  He was going to work on his own terms, or not at all.  And he was going to get those Benjamins in the process (you see what I did there?).  Donkeys live a long time.  Professionally speaking, at least.

So in re-reading this little diatribe on his then-current woes as a suddenly much more successful and acclaimed Serious Writer (and don’t think for a minute he’s not bragging about this even as he’s bemoaning it, we’re wise to your tricks, Westlake!), I did experience some moments of doubt regarding numerous statements I’ve made in the course of working my way through the 80’s and early 90’s–that Westlake was chafing at the bit, feeling underrated, underappreciated, and confined to a cute comic cubbyhole. My certitude was shaken, I do confess it.

But not for very long.  Because, you see, I’ve read all the articles in The Getaway Car, and one of them was written not by Donald Westlake, but rather by Abby Westlake–the World’s Leading Authority on the many moods of her man.  And the most striking observation she made in that piece was that Westlake’s outward personality tics would change, depending on which literary mode he was in, which alter-ego, he was writing as (and given that this piece was originally published in 1977, it seems evident that sometimes he’d be writing (and living) as one of these alter-egos even when he wasn’t publishing anything under that particular nom de plume).

Tucker Coe, she observes–

–is the gloomy one, almost worse to have around the house than Richard Stark.  We see Tucker Coe when things go wrong.  The bills can’t be paid because the inefficient worlds of publishing and show business have failed to come up with the money to pay them.  Children are rude, noisy, dishonest, lazy, loutish, and above, all, ungrateful; suddenly you wonder what you ever saw in them.  Ex-wives are mean and grasping.  Cars break down, houses betray you, plants refuse to live, and it rains on the picnic.

But remember, she said almost worse–when Stark is in control–

Children tremble, women weep and the cat hides under the bed.  Whereas Tucker Coe is morose and self-pitying, Stark has no pity for anyone.  Stark is capable of not talking to anyone for days, or, worse yet, of not talking to one particular person for days while still seeming cheerful and friendly with everyone else.  Stark could turn Old Faithful to ice cubes.  Do you know how Parker, when things aren’t going well, can sit alone in a dark room for hours or days without moving?  Stark doesn’t do this–that would be too unnerving–but he can play solitaire for hours on end.  He plays very fast, turns over the cards one at a time, and goes through the deck just once.  He never cheats and doesn’t seem to care if the game never comes out.  It is not possible to be in the same room with him while he’s doing this without being driven completely up the wall.

And to some extent, even ‘Donald E. Westlake’–just another alter-ego.  No more or less real than the others.  Perhaps a bit more grounded, more complex–and more genial.  Certainly far easier to live with.  Is it a mere coincidence that of his three marriages, the one that lasted was the one embarked upon as Coe and Stark faded into the background for a very long time?  I’m sure it was more than that.  But going by his third wife’s own words, how long could you live with somebody who alternated between Stark and Coe all the damn time?

So in the light of these revelations, we can say with authority that it was ‘Donald E. Westlake’ who wrote that little article complaining about his newfound success–and then wisely shelved it for posterity to discover at a later date.  The part of him that was Coe, that was Stark (and we could throw in Curt Clark, who I don’t think ever went away completely either; Humans is proof of that, and maybe this book we’re talking about now as well)–those more somber personas could not live on a diet of non-stop whimsy, farcical felonies, mingled with satiric social observations.

Farce and satire and observational comedy were vital components of Westlake’s talent, his character–they weren’t everything he had to offer.  Like any man who knows what’s funny, he also knows what isn’t.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

Westlake was spared the final age–second infancy–by a sudden and untimely death, but we can see the middle ages reflected throughout his mature work.   The Lover, the Soldier, the Justice, and maybe even a bit of the lean slippered pantaloon towards the end.  Certainly much of the whining schoolboy in his very early stuff.

In effect, he was complaining in that article he never published about having finally achieved the Bubble Reputation–something he both desired and feared, because he knew how fame and success can undermine identity, trap you inside a false self, cut you off from your muse (and it’s not only artists who need muses–we all have them, little as we heed them most of the time).

I have that Walter Kerr quote up top (he’s talking about Chaplin and City Lights) because I think this is the one book of Westlake’s that embodies what Kerr was getting at there, with his typical incisiveness.  But I don’t think this is Westlake’s only masterpiece, by any means.  I’m sure we’d all come up with different lists.

You can see part of mine in the cover images I chose, but I couldn’t very well put all of them up there.  Man wrote a lot of good books.   And if you look closely, many of them can be perceived in the framework of this book.  Many of his scattered identities.  He was bringing the whole chorus to bear here, as he had never done before, nor ever would again.

361, about a young man whose already tenuous sense of self is undone by the loss of his family, and in taking arms against a sea of troubles, he finds out who he really is.  For better or worse.  Probably both.  The first unequivocally great Westlake novel, that was composed around the same time as The Hunter, which took the Vendetta as Identity Crisis angle to a whole new level.  To some extent, that cover is standing in for all the Parker novels–collectively, they may well be Westlake’s best work, but because Parker isn’t really one of us, there are certain limitations to what can be expressed with them.  They were written in third person, but please note–all the other books I’m referencing up top featured first person narrators–like the current book.

It was also around this time that Westlake started writing Anarchaos, which I’ll say once more is highly reminiscent of our current book (I’m really stalling about naming it, aren’t I?  What am I so scared of?).  A man is at war with an entire planet, with a brutish nasty and short way of life that chewed up his brother and spat him out, and he’s going to make them all pay.  It’s science fiction, so the protagonist can find a way to destroy that society, punish it collectively for its crimes–but once you’re outside that realm, your options get narrower, if not necessarily less extreme.

Then came Adios, Scheherazade, (still bafflingly and unforgivably out of print), which as I explained in my review, is about a man who loses the whole world and gains his immortal soul.  Much of Westlake’s 1997 book was prefigured in this early underappreciated masterwork, with a crucial exception–this book’s protagonist is headed in the opposite direction.  To hell with his soul, he wants his world back, by any means necessary.  Another first person narrative.

As were the five Mitch Tobin novels, of which I’d consider the third and fourth to be unquestionable masterpieces–the first and second come close, the fifth was just a good read.  But in Wax Apple most of all, he captured an element of pure despair–of human beings separated from each other by yawning gulfs of perception, that corruption of identity that is mental illness. A detective comes and solves the mystery, sure–and who does that help?   The detective, perhaps, but the underlying problems remain unsolved, waiting for an answer that may never come.  Tucker Coe is most of all about empathy, understanding, judging not lest ye be judged, striving to live up to Terence’s brave declaration, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.”  But the book we’re about to explore is more along the lines of “Homo homini lupus.”  Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.

It must have hurt to write it.  Westlake in this vein reminds me of no American writer so much as Eugene O’Neill, another black Irishman.  When it came time for O’Neill to write his defining work, the one about his family, we are told he would be sitting at the typewriter with tears of anguish in his eyes, opening old wounds in his soul, exposing himself as fully as it is possible for mortal man to do (Walter Kerr had some things to say about that play as well).  This work is far less autobiographical, but Westlake also had some family ghosts to exorcise within it.

I wonder how easy Westlake was to live with when he was writing this novel.  I’m sure Abby Westlake was exaggerating somewhat for humorous effect, but I’m equally sure she wasn’t just making it up out of whole cloth.  If it was hard to live with just one of these guys, imagine a house full of them.

And that’s what would have been going on, because in the writing this book, there was not one man hammering away at the Smith Corona, but a host of them.  Stark, Coe, Clark, and in the keen social observations, maybe even that shameless hack Culver.  All the voices within him, joined together at that moment to make a chilling and poignant statement about what they saw happening around them at that moment in time.  And yes, this is how things are.

But is this how things must be, always?   If we can’t be honest with ourselves, then yes.  To change a thing, you must know a thing first.  It’s always better to know.  Better, and harder.

And having ascended to that barren windswept plateau, he came back down, and never wrote anything nearly so revelatory again.  There were many good books to come, but he’d expended something that could not be regenerated.  And perhaps that whimsical little piece he wrote about how awful it is to be taken seriously as a writer after four decades of being dismissed as a genre scribbler–perhaps that was him admitting that he didn’t have another book like this in him.  He’d shot his bolt, hit the bullseye, and what followed was more along the lines of shoring up his existing legacy.

To know you have already done your best work is to begin preparing for death. Which was only eleven short years away.   Eleven years, seventeen novels, and a few story collections.  Including plenty of Dortmunder stories, because the clown in him could never be killed.  Referring back to Walter Kerr again, I’d say it was the clown that had kicked the tragic hero awake.  And now they’d all make one last run together.  Donald Westlake was going into his kick.

Let swing the Bloody Ax.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books, though pretty sure this one’s never going to be forgotten.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Richard Stark, Tucker Coe

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

Mr. Coe and the Dedications

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

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

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

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

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

to My Secret, Love.

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

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

Miss S /Mrs.

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

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

For the mother

Of the purple

First baseman’s mitt

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

For the hand

of the

Four-in-hand

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

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

                                                               For Sandy,

                                                               Ave et Vale, et

                                                               Ave et Vale, et

                                                                . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, Tucker Coe

Review: A Jade in Aries, Part 2

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

“Your place?”

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

“I’d be glad to come,” I said.

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

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

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

“Then I’ll come.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stewart Remington judiciously.

Bruce Maundy enragedly.

Cary Lane hysterically.

David Poumon coldly.

Henry Koberberg agonizedly.

Leo Ross irritably.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My brother-in-law did my chart once, and I didn’t understand it, or learn anything at all useful from it.   Put me under the heading of “Not even the least tiny bit convinced.”   I put more credence in palm reading and tea leaves (because I think good fortunetellers are actually reading you).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, Tucker Coe

Review: A Jade in Aries

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

From A Jade in Aries, by Tucker Coe. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the 1960’s, things were loosening up a lot (oh behave!), at least in the urban centers of America.  George Baxt created the first series character who was both openly gay and a police detective–and black (okay, Chester Himes beat him to the punch there–he also alluded to the gay subculture in Harlem as early as 1960).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eventually–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, Tucker Coe

Review: Wax Apple

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

From The Tell-tale Heart, by Edgar Allan Poe

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

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

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

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

“You weren’t at Revo Hill?”

I shook my head.

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

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

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

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

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

From Wax Apple, by Tucker Coe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think I realize,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d sleep without dreams tonight.

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, Tucker Coe