Tag Archives: Agatha Christie

Review: Wax Apple


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

From The Tell-tale Heart, by Edgar Allan Poe

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

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

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

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

“You weren’t at Revo Hill?”

I shook my head.

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

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

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

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

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

From Wax Apple, by Tucker Coe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think I realize,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d sleep without dreams tonight.

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

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

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

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


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



Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, Tucker Coe