Tag Archives: crime fiction

Mr. Coe and the Dedications


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.

KIC Image 0002(2)

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


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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?


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, Tucker Coe