Tag Archives: Charlie Chan

Distraction: Had I But Known………

For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The Saddest are these: “It might have been!”

From Maud Muller, by John Greenleaf Whittier, but then Kurt Vonnegut reworded it slightly in Cat’s Cradle, referring to Whittier only as ‘the poet’, and now everyone attributes it to Vonnegut.

To paraphrase Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear, and all those guys, “I wish I had known this some time ago.” 

From Sign of the Unicorn, by Roger Zelazny, and notice how he credits his sources, even though he’s just paraphrasing?

Ah, hindsight.  Had I but known.  That’s considered a mystery subgenre of sorts, you know.  But I didn’t, you see.  There’s the rub.

When I started this blog, I was but an aging neophyte with regards to the mystery genre.  I knew Westlake pretty well–or so I thought–but not the ocean he spent most of his life navigating.  So when it came time to talk about the influences on a given novel or story, I might, by chance, be familiar with this or that possible source (I was reading a long time before I knew Westlake existed), but there would be so many others I had no inkling of.

And then, later, I stumble across one, smite my forehead.  Then another.  And yet another.  The forehead shows signs of bruising.  Mr. Westlake was a most erudite mariner.  Or if you prefer, he’s Arne Saknussemm, and as I tunnel my way through this genre, I keep finding his mark, to indicate he’s been here before me. Perhaps you’ve seen his mark too, here and there. (Or are we the marks? God save us.)

To be a professional genre writer, you have to know the territory–those who came before you may have tricks of the trade to share–or have made mistakes you want to avoid–and you certainly want to avoid plagiarism charges.

The trick, and it’s no mean one, is to borrow, constantly, without stealing.  To see something worth recycling, run your own variations on the theme–perhaps improve on them, as Bach ofttimes improved upon Vivaldi (Vivaldi might disagree).  And if you do it just right, you can make your influences clear without ever copping to them (thus opening yourself up to the legal representatives of an irate estate).  Clear, that is, to those who pay attention, and the rest can just enjoy a good story.

Like Mitch Tobin, sagest and saddest of his reluctant detectives, Westlake was a completist.  You need as much context as you can muster, to see as many of the worlds within this world as you can, in order to pierce the mystery (which is about so much more than whodunnit).  Mystery is not one form but rather hundreds, perhaps thousands.  I don’t think he read everything (nobody could), but he covered the bases, mastered the essentials.

And perhaps for no reason other than to challenge himself (and to make a living), he would identify a discrete form within the form, study its best practitioners–and set out to create his own take on it, possibly without telling anyone he was doing that.  The result wouldn’t always turn out equally well (trial and error leads to a great deal of the latter), but it kept him amused, and I think he had no greater enemy than boredom.  The sense of repeating oneself, going through the motions.  He had to keep writing.

And what he wrote had to come partly from himself, his ideas and experiences, but you run out of those so quickly (as Hammett learned).  And then what? Then, Westlake reasoned, you combine stale ideas with fresh perceptions.

Anyway, I’ve come across what I consider three separate instances of this penchant of his–I’ve already mentioned one in the comments section for the relevant novel–hadn’t thought it enough of a find for its own piece, but it will do as one wheel of a tricycle.  Let’s start with that.

I’m working from home of late (call me eccentric), and as fate would have it, I’m helping to catalogue a large assortment of old mystery novels, anthologies, assorted miscellenia (hmm–aren’t all miscellenia assorted, by definition?)

One title caught my eye–The Chinese Parrot.  The second Charlie Chan novel (of six), by Earl Derr Biggers.

Westlake directly referenced the Chan novels and movies in his third Samuel Holt mystery, What I Tell You Three Times Is False.  In that novel, Sam is trapped in a huge mansion on a remote island with several other actors known entirely for playing a fictional detective, one of whom is Fred Li, described as the first Asian to play Chan, which isn’t quite accurate–there were several early adaptations (including a silent adaptation of The Chinese Parrot, of which no extant prints are currently known to exist) featuring Korean and Japanese actors as Chan (because they all look alike and Chinese immigration had been banned for a while), but for reasons too tiresomely predictable to mention, the detective’s role in the story was greatly reduced.  Chan only became the protagonist of his own films once he was played by Occidentals in makeup.

All this merely serves to establish Westlake’s famliarity with the character, which shouldn’t really require proof, since his generation routinely went to see Chan movies in the theater, then watched them on latenight TV later on.  Very popular.

Those of us familiar with Mr. Westlake will further divine that he wouldn’t have stopped with the Hollywood yellowface.  He would have gone back to the originals, at least some of them.  The second book in a series, in some ways, matters more than the first (you don’t have a series until you have a second book) so safe bet he read it.   Equally safe bet he wouldn’t use plot elements from it in a novel where an actor playing Chan is a character.

But years later, when he was writing the penultimate Parker novel, I believe elements of this book came back to him.  Let’s come back to that after I do a very quick synopsis.  (I can do that when forced.)

This is the only Chan novel I’ve ever read, and I skimmed it, mainly because most of the characters are white people, and these white people are dull.  By which I mean not only uninteresting, but exceptionally thick-witted.  It’s normal in a detective story for nearly everyone other than the detective and killer to be clueless (or what’s the detective for?), but Chan novels take this to the extreme, so I mainly just skipped to the parts about Chan himself, and soon discovered why these books have endured, in spite of their dating, and their defects.

Charlie Chan is a sphinx with many secrets–not only in the caucasian world, but even amongst his relations, some of whom he visits on his trip to the west coast. The previous novel having established him as a police detective in Honolulu, he goes to visit a cousin in San Francisco, who thinks he’s doing the bidding of ‘white devils.’  (The cousin also objects to his pretty assimilated American-born daughter working as a switchboard operator, but that second generation tends to laugh off such objections from old fuddy duddies, as those of us with recent immigrant roots know full well.)

He is there, ostensibly, to deliver a valuable necklace to a wealthy buyer, as a favor to a former employer fallen on hard times, but there is murder most fowl (humble apologies, dishonorable pun was lying there waiting to be sprung)–a pet parrot in the buyer’s desert home is poisoned.  Apparently because he talked too much.

“Poor Tony very sick before he go on long journey,” Chan continued. “Very silent and very sick. In my time I am on track of many murders, but I must come to this peculiar mainland to ferret out parrot-murder. Ah, well—all my life I hear about wonders on this mainland.”

“They poisoned him,” Bob Eden cried. “Why?”

“Why not?” shrugged Chan. “Very true rumour says ‘dead men tell no tales’! Dead parrots are in same fix, I think. Tony speaks Chinese like me. Tony and me never speak together again.”

Many justly defend Biggers from intended bigotry, but it must be said, a man as smart as Chan, born and raised in the future 50th state, could speak better English than that if he wanted to.  Then again, a man as smart as Lieutenant Columbo probably could too, when questioning snooty rich guys–only he appreciates the advantages of being underestimated by his social superiors, who prove not so superior after all–and guess where that idea came from?  The shadow of Chan is large indeed.

For the usual contrived reasons, Chan spends much of the book masquerading as a domestic, with even more stereotypical dialect, in the rich man’s desert home, with a few confederates knowing of the imposture (not as few as he’d prefer, since his trust in caucasians is only slightly greater than his cousin’s).

“Charlie,” said Bob Eden, “this is a friend of mine, Mr Will Holley. Holley, meet Detective-Sergeant Chan, of the Honolulu police.”

At mention of his name Chan’s eyes narrowed. “How do you do?” he said coldly.

“It’s all right,” Eden assured him. “Mr Holley can be trusted—absolutely. I’ve told him everything.”

“I am far away in strange land,” returned Chan. “Maybe I would choose to trust no one—but that, no doubt, are my heathen churlishness. Mr Holley will pardon, I am sure.”

“Don’t worry,” said Holley. “I give you my word. I’ll tell no one.”

Chan made no reply, in his mind, perhaps, the memory of other white men who had given their word.

He’s always wearing a mask, hiding his true self from those around him–now he’s wearing a mask over his mask, because much as white devils underestimate a Chinese policeman, they barely notice a Chinese servant.  This allows him great freedom of movement, ample opportunity for investigation.

The case is cracked, and let’s just say it’s not the greatest mystery ever written by a long shot (I gather it’s not the best Biggers was capable of), but that’s not really the point of anything, since it’s a story about human motivations, and a man who studies them closely, carefully,  quietly, because his professional success depends on such observations.  As to his true feelings, his own motivations, those always remain, to some extent, opaque–one might say inscrutable.  You want to know what Chan really thinks of us?  Might as well ask the parrot.


So that’s where the hook for the best of the final three Parker novels and one of the most haunting and intriguing books of the entire series, comes from.  (Though to be fair, fish out of water stories are older than the Paleoarchean hills, as are stories about disguised wanderers.)

To make it even more clear, there’s an abandoned mining town key to the story, and a crazy old hermit who comes out of nowhere, then disappears from the story, after providing a useful if misleading clue (but he isn’t shot down by mistake then left for scavengers, like the equivalent character from the Stark novel).

As usual, where Westlake seeks to improve upon his model is motivation.  Chan, as a policeman, self-effacing hero of the piece, and a self-conscious attempt by Biggers to counter racial stereotypes (only to end by perpetrating them, because it’s never that easy), has to behave honorably at all times.  Even though you get the distinct feeling he does so under extreme sufferance.

As a felon on the lam in upstate NY, Parker only has to survive.  His imposture, in a dying little town, done at the behest of a poor man seeking restitution, who knows Parker’s secret, and has one of his own Parker smells profit in, is much easier to justify.  Not only is he not called upon to solve the parrot’s murder (which is no mystery, except in the sense so much of we do is mysterious), he never even learns about it, nor would he give a damn if he did.  The story wouldn’t be much different if Stark’s nameless parrot (less garrulous than poor Tony, though it’s his decision to speak that gets him shot) wasn’t there–yet he’s the title character.  How come?

The parrot is there to tell us where parts of this story came from.  A respectful and nigh-inscrutable nod of the head to a predecessor who taught him a few tricks of the trade.  A subtle hint to the reader, that went unnoticed by most, since these two novels really couldn’t be much more different.  (Marilyn Stasio, who reviewed several late Parker novels, provided an introduction to a recent reprint of The Chinese Parrot–did she pierce the mystery?  I greatly misdoubt it, but that edition is not evailable.)


(In both books, the titular parrot is not nearly so colorful as the ones on most of the covers.)

All that being said (and Stark’s parrot is the wiser bird by far), Westlake knew very well Parker could never equal Chan’s ability to blend into the background, by putting on a cook’s clothing and chattering like Hop Sing from Bonanza. Parker is suspected, almost immediately, by several suspicious locals, of not being who he claims to be–Chan is only exposed at the climax, through a chance encounter, the fool’s mask slipping away to reveal the hunter beneath.

The race/class element is not present, and the story told to justify Parker’s sudden presence in Tom Lindahl’s world is even more hastily improvised, under the far sterner exigencies Parker faces.  For all that, it’s still a story about how most people see only what they’re prepared to see, and Parker, like Chan, sees what’s really there.

Thankfully, Parker doesn’t have to speak in hokey dialect.  He has the luxury of a white skin.  Not that he gives a damn.  Just another mask.  The Chinese policeman and the Wolf in sheep’s clothing would understand each other very well, in spite of their professional divide.  I would not go so far as to say Parker is Chan’s Number One Son, but again, dishonorable joke was impossible to resist.

So from one of Westlake’s finest novels to perhaps his very worst–I’ll give this one short shrift.  This is an easy catch, but to make it, you have to know the source, and it’s not a much-watched film these days.  TCM and DVR–what did we ever do without you?

Jane Russell was Star of the Month for April, and I could hardly refrain from recording a few of her films I was not familiar with.  (This gentleman does not invariably prefer blondes.)   The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown?  Didn’t sound promising, but what the hell.  It ended up being the only one I watched without fast-forwarding (much).

One of her personal favorites, though according to her own perceptive commentary (Russell, as you all should know, was a damn smart broad) it ended up foundering on a difference in vision between herself and the director, Norman Taurog.  She wanted a more serious satiric film, in black and white–he wanted a color romp.  It ended up going both ways.  You can see the joins.

She’s great in it–one of her best performances–like her chum Bob Mitchum, she never really exerted herself much, unless she found the role challenging.  With looks like theirs, it wasn’t necessary.  Neither is a synopsis.

There’s no point in my trying to prove Westlake saw this film prior to writing his take, since Westlake only wrote that half-baked kidnap caper after working up  a script with that general premise at the behest of disreputable film producers (very nearly the only kind he ever got to work with.  The flick was never lensed, but he retained the novel adaptation rights (hated to waste work).

I have no idea who first had the idea of kidnapping a sexy starlet and holding her for ransom, but Taurog’s comedy is the earliest instance I know of where somebody actually made a film with this precise subject,  and given that it had been just about ten years since the last attempt, some producer probably figured it was worth another go.

It’s not easy to write a romantic comedy about an ex-con (wrongly convicted, of course) who decides to kidnap a famous sex bomb who is bored with her life (though very good at her job), roughs her up a bit when she gets out of line, and they end up falling madly in love with each other.  Westlake probably did know the earlier film (maybe had it screened for him), and would have noted all the gyrations you have to go through to make that work.  He decided to switch the romantic angle from the star who is bored with her life to a younger woman who wants that life for herself, or so she thinks.

The kidnapping in the Taurog film is very perfunctory, and far too easy.  Westlake, who had only written capers as Stark up to that point, made it into a carefully planned girl heist (computer-planned, in fact) that gangs a mite aglae, but still works out well for all concerned (except for the English grifters who for all I know were a legacy from the original film concept).  The kidnappers, sterling lads all, actually get their cash, get away clean, and the gangleader gets his girl, while the movie star goes home well-rested.  Were they going to do all that if the film was made?  They didn’t in Russell’s flick.

There’s little point in trying to decipher how much of Sassi is Westlake, how much is the fuzzy nightgown, and how much is the threadbare borrowed concept he was handed by his former employers.  That’s not my point of interest here.  It is rather the origin of the earlier film, which was, if you’d believe it, based on a novel that may have been the basis for the self-faked kidnapping of a very minor Hollywood starlet.  (No, her name wasn’t Jimmy, but she was some kid.)

So did Westlake know about Marie McDonald’s fictionally inspired self-snatch? Did he check out the Sylvia Tate novel?  I would, but damn, expensive–though the first edition hardcover is often cheaper, because it doesn’t have Jane Russell on the cover, like the paperbacks that came out with the movie.  The book is not e-vailable, and life is short, you know?  Shorter all the time.


Life imitating art imitating life imitating whatever.  Shades of the Peugeot snatch, that inspired the third Dortmunder book.  Did all that stick in his mind, and a few years later, he found an opportunity to tell a version of the same story, only this time  exploiting all the latent satiric potential that Russell and Taurog couldn’t get close to? With a gang that wasn’t the least bit glamorous, but were always good for a laugh.  (Incidentally, the great Keenan Wynn plays the kidnapper’s best friend and confederate, and wouldn’t he have been a great pick to play Kelp, if Kelp had actually been a thing in the 1950’s?)   I think that’s all I want to say about this one.

So elsewhere amidst all the quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore I’m helping to catalogue (some of which were penned by Poe), I became aware of Mary Roberts Rinehart.  One of the most influential and successful of early mystery novelists, by no means forgotten today, though not quite the icon she used to be.  (Through her industrious sons, her last name decorated several major publishing houses over the years.)

She it was who inspired The Butler Did It meme that everybody knows, and almost nobody knows the origin of (it was actually a stage adaptation of a novel of hers that got that into popular parlance–the line does not appear in her novel, but people would describe what happened, and the rest is history).

Her most famous and influential novel of all is the one you see up top.  (That link leads to Project Gutenberg.)

And that novel (along with many others that followed in its train) inspired a less well-known term, that subsequently inspired the ribaldry of Ogden Nash–

Personally, I don’t care whether a detective-story writer was educated in night school or day school
So long as he doesn’t belong to the H.I.B.K. school,
The H.I.B.K. being a device to which too many detective-story writers are prone;
Namely the Had-I-But-Known.

In this case, the critics done it.  Readers loved her books, bought them by the carload, but were not required to read them for a living, and become overly innured to the inevitable tropes.  So peevish reviewers began pointing out that book after book would begin with the narrator of the ensuing mystery lamenting that if she (it was often a she) had only known what would happen, things would have gone much differently.  Foreshadowing, a technique for getting the mystery reader interested in finding out what terrible things would happen, as if the genre itself wasn’t a damned good clue.

But isn’t that life, friends?  Don’t we all go around lamenting thusly, of our unfortunate uninformedness, that led us into one pickle after another, and sometimes the waiting embrace of a body bag?  Is the mystery writer to ignore this inevitable outcome of being an autonomous, self-aware, yet not omniscient being?

(“Had I but known that when I went to the corner store to buy Kleenex, a woman would just walk up to the counter, right next to me, her unworn mask dangling down her neck, wanting to buy a pack of gum….”  Three days ago.  I’ll stop obsessing over it in another eleven.  I trust.  “Had we but known Donald Trump was a self-obsessed idiot…”–oh wait, we did know that.  But what’s the worst that could happen, huh?  Better not waste any more time on second-guessing.)

Let it be said, Rinehart was not a bad writer at all (most styles date at least a bit) and Westlake was hardly the first, by a very long shot, to inject wry humor into the mystery trade.

This is the story of how a middle-aged spinster lost her mind, deserted her domestic gods in the city, took a furnished house for the summer out of town, and found herself involved in one of those mysterious crimes that keep our newspapers and detective agencies happy and prosperous. For twenty years I had been perfectly comfortable; for twenty years I had had the window-boxes filled in the spring, the carpets lifted, the awnings put up and the furniture covered with brown linen; for as many summers I had said good-by to my friends, and, after watching their perspiring hegira, had settled down to a delicious quiet in town, where the mail comes three times a day, and the water supply does not depend on a tank on the roof.

And then—the madness seized me. When I look back over the months I spent at Sunnyside, I wonder that I survived at all. As it is, I show the wear and tear of my harrowing experiences. I have turned very gray—Liddy reminded me of it, only yesterday, by saying that a little bluing in the rinse-water would make my hair silvery, instead of a yellowish white. I hate to be reminded of unpleasant things and I snapped her off.

“No,” I said sharply, “I’m not going to use bluing at my time of life, or starch, either.”

The opening passage of The Circular Staircase.  And here is a less whimsical, more existential approach to the same answerless rhetorical question.

The ticket window was to my left, and on impulse I went over and asked the man when was the next train back to New York.  Without checking anything, he said “Four-ten.” It was not yet eleven-thirty.

Would I have gone back if there’d been a train right away?  Possibly, I don’t know.  The house would have been empty, Kate and Bill already gone to Long Island.  I would have had a month to myself, Kate wouldn’t have had to know I’d stayed home until she herself returned.  And of course by then it would have been too late to make me go back to The Midway.

Would that have been better, as things turned out?  But that’s a meaningless question, really.  In a life in which nothing really matters, nothing can be either better or worse.

If you’re looking for it, it’s not at all hard to see (which I suppose is one possible answer to the Had-I-But-Known thing–we are not sufficiently mindful of our surroundings, or of past life lessons learned, then forgotten–not our stars, but ourselves.)  However, he knows better–having read Rinehart, and many others–not to harp on it too much.  It’s all so much less busy, and there is far more attention paid to motivation, character development–to making it a story about people, not plot devices.

This much I can know–Westlake wrote Wax Apple quite consciously in the H.I.B.K. vein.  It is entirely about belated recognitions, Mitch Tobin figuring things out just a moment too late to avoid the consequences, to himself and others.  He typically feels no sense of triumph in identifying the guilty party here, already in stir, you might say.  It’s diverting, gripping–but there’s no sense of fun to it.  What’s so fun about people dying?  (Rinehart’s protagonist is already missing the excitement by the end, planning to find another country house to rent, hoping for more distractions from her boring existence, which is of course what people read books like this for.)

While this is not an uncommon feature in detective stories, and Tobin especially, it is especially pronounced here, and to exceptionally fine effect.  I consider this the best of the Tobin novels, and far as I’m concerned, the best H.I.B.K anyone ever wrote, though I’d have to slog through a whole lot of so-so mystery books to know that for sure.

He indubitably read some of Rinehart’s work.  He probably knew about the disdain some critics held this type of story in (most of them being male, and filled with the usual derision towards lady scriveners not named Austen or Sand), and while he was something of a critic himself, he knew professional book reviewers are mainly good at missing the point of things, as they did so often with him.

But would they even notice the well-worn plot device here, in a hard-boiled detective story, whose protagonist is not an aging spinster, but a disgraced and depressed former police detective, visiting not a grand old country manor, but a halfway house for mental patients?  I am not aware of anyone but myself ever twigging to that, and me only by virtue of being stuck at home, pouring over endless lists of books most people will never read again.  That doesn’t mean no one ever did.  Could I but know……

So to sum up, this is my lament for all the things that had I but known them, I would have put in my earlier reviews of these three books, and so many others. But I did not know, had nary the inkling, and all I can do now is bewail my past ignorance, and be grateful the consequences here are relatively inconsequential. Nobody died.  Right?

And the upside is, I can write many more articles about all the things I didn’t know heretofore.  And since I know so very little, I can bore you all here for years to come with my belated recognitions.  If I can but avoid being one of the many casualties of ignorance.  Would that you all avoid that as well.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Two Much

Review: What I Tell You Three Times Is False


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

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

From A Scandal in Bohemia, by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

Lewis Carroll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see what you mean.”

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

“I can see why you would.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh it’s sincere,” Fred told me.

“Sunshine,” Bly said, looking out the window

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

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


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