Tag Archives: gay people in mysteries

Review: A Jade in Aries, Part 2

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

“Your place?”

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

“I’d be glad to come,” I said.

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

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

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

“Then I’ll come.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stewart Remington judiciously.

Bruce Maundy enragedly.

Cary Lane hysterically.

David Poumon coldly.

Henry Koberberg agonizedly.

Leo Ross irritably.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, Tucker Coe

Review: A Jade in Aries

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

From A Jade in Aries, by Tucker Coe. 

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

From Homosexuals in the Mystery: Victims or Victimizers?, by Solomon Hastings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the 1960’s, things were loosening up a lot (oh behave!), at least in the urban centers of America.  George Baxt created the first series character who was both openly gay and a police detective–and black (Chester Himes beat him to the punch there, alluding to the gay subculture in Harlem as early as 1960, but his protagonists weren’t gay).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eventually–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, Tucker Coe