Tag Archives: Hollywood

Review: Sacred Monster

Agent Smith: Then we have a deal?
Cypher: I don’t want to remember nothing. Nothing. You understand? And I want to be rich. You know, someone important–like an actor.
Agent Smith: Whatever you want, Mr. Reagan.

(No, Donald Westlake didn’t write this dialogue, but I bet he enjoyed it). 

“The symbolic weight you carry, darling,” Lorraine assured him, “would crush a lesser man.”

Pleased, smiling like a puppy, Jack said, “Do you really think so, darling?”

“Darling,” Lorraine said, holding tightly to his hand as they strode along the beach, “in many ways you’re a monster, a statement of infantile voracious appetite.  And yet at the same time you are God’s holy fool, the sacred monster, the innocent untouched by the harshness of reality.  You can be the hero, incredibly strong, and yet even I don’t know the depths of your vulnerability.”

Jack loved to hear talk about himself.  He listened as they walked together, nodding, absorbed in what she was saying.  “Tell me more,” he said.

Sacred Monster is a novel about the rise and fall and rise and etc. of a major motion picture star who is also a gifted but extremely eccentric actor.    A Brando, a Pacino, a DeNiro, a James Dean, a Steve McQueen, and, I’d posit most of all, a Jack Nicholson (though as opposed to The Comedy is Finished, the protagonist’s bio can’t easily be matched up to any specific real-life star, which probably made it easier to get published).  Before we start in on this one, why don’t we run down the thespian-oriented books Westlake had penned ere now.

There were the three Phil Crawford sleaze paperbacks of the late 50’s/early 60’s, about the life of a callow young stage actor, and his seemingly endless love affairs. Some other Westlake pseudo-porns dealt with acting (there was one about the porn industry, redundant as that may sound), but Westlake wrote so many of these, under so many different names, we’ll just take these three as representative.  I’ve only read the first of the Crawfords, didn’t think much of it, but was rather struck at how hard Westlake worked on describing the theatrical milieu, when all the sleazy publisher cared about was the sex.

There was Pity Him Afterwards, a psychological thriller about an escaped paranoid psychotic who kills a young stage actor, takes his place, and joins the small summer rep company his victim was about to join–the hero of that story is an actor as well.  They never do get around to performing the play they’re rehearsing.  We’re told the madman feels very much at home in the theater.

There were the four Alan Grofield novels, about an actor/heister, who bankrolls his perpetually bankrupt little theater in rural Indiana by committing armed robbery, with and without his friend Parker.  We never get to see him act on stage (even in rehearsal), but it seems like he’s always performing to some extent, sees even his criminal activity as a form of performance art.  Grofield, we’re told, could easily become a financial success on television, maybe even in movies, but he won’t use his craft that way.  Being in Richard Stark novels, selling out isn’t really an option for him.  An alternate universe version of him appears in some early Dortmunder books, and he sells out right quick in those.

Westlake turned a script he’d written for a movie that never got made into what I think was his worst novel ever, Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, about the kidnapping of the #1 box office star in the world, who is so fed up with her high-stress lifestyle that she treats the kidnapping as a sort of vacation, once she realizes the people who snatched her are harmless.  But title character though she is, she’s really a supporting character, and rather a nice well-balanced person overall.  Westlake may have gotten some of the inspiration from this for research he did into the life of Elizabeth Taylor, having written a sensitive (for the genre) unauthorized tell-all biography of her under a pseudonym, that had the misfortune to be written and published just before her epic romance with Richard Burton.

In the literary double-feature Enough, which collected two novellas of his, the second story, Ordo, was about an unsophisticated  sailor of that name who found out that Estelle Anlic, the naive teenager he’d been married to briefly before her mother broke them up had become a film star named Dawn Devayne, and it’s basically a detective story in which Ordo tries to find out what happened to the girl he used to know, who has been subsumed into this new persona.

There were also the four Samuel Holt novels, about an actor who never even did live theater, just went straight to Hollywood after being discovered,  got cast as the lead of a hit TV series after a very short apprenticeship, then found out after the show ended that he’d been typecast, and he couldn’t get work as anyone other than the only character people knew him for.   He kept having to solve mysteries for some reason.  Oh, and he had two beautiful girlfriends, one on each coast, and they knew about each other, and went right on dating him.  Not what you’d call an exercise in realism,  but then again, reality is notoriously overrated.

There are also many references to actors and the theater and movies and television throughout many if not most of Westlake’s novels.   And Westlake’s two excellent but commercially problematic unpublished novels, that were only released after his death–Memory and The Comedy is Finished.  Both of them about actors.   One of them a rising stage performer (perhaps destined for the movies) who lost his memory, and with it his ability to act, after a disgruntled husband skulled him with a chair.

The other is about a kidnap victim patterned very obviously after Bob Hope, and like his model, a major film star for some time.  We get quite a lot of background on him, his rise to success, the chaos of his personal life, his oddly fluid identity, his penchant for commenting wryly on the hellish situation he’s in.  But not much of an actor, really, and he mainly just did minor variations on the same role–the clown in danger.  The role he’s playing in real life in the book.  He’s no longer making movies by the time we meet him.  Comedian first, actor second.  Westlake had to put this book aside for various reasons, having put a lot of work into it.  In some respects, Sacred Monster is him coming at the same problem from a different angle.

So that’s at least fifteen novels and one novella dealing with actors of one sort or another, plus many other peripheral references to thespians in other novels, and let’s not even worry about short stories.  Donald Westlake was himself an actor for a time–that part of his life is not well-documented (like the rest of his life).  What roles did he play?  He referred to himself as a ‘former spear carrier’–it’s unlikely he ever had any leading roles.  But out on the straw hat circuit you never know–maybe he was the star’s understudy sometimes?  Thing is, even if he had some acting talent, he didn’t have the looks to be a leading man.  And well he knew it.

Then again, the movie actors he’d have most admired weren’t always lookers themselves.  Mr. Westlake was an avid fan of Warner Brothers gangster films of the 30’s and 40’s–Cagney and Robinson were hardly fashion plates, even Bogart seems ugly by modern standards.  He might have allowed himself a few fleeting fantasies of showbiz glory, even as he began to concentrate more and more on writing fiction for a living.  In any event, writers call on their past experiences to create, just as actors do.  There are many points of similarity between the two professions, as he often observed.

So even though he wasn’t an actor very long, his need to support his family forced him to keep the lines of communication open with Hollywood, and he kept coming back to his brief tantalizing experience with the stage, to his avid yet ambivalent love of movies, to the lucrative yet compromise-laden world of television, and as always, to the question of identity.  What is an actor’s true identity?  Does he or she ever really know?  If your mission in life is to become other people–to disappear into a role, then another–then how can you be yourself?   And is there not a similar problem for the writer of fiction, who has to inhabit many different people in the course of just one story?

And at a certain point, he just seems to have had enough.  He stopped writing Grofield novels, and never returned to the character when he resumed writing Parker novels in the 90’s–the other Grofield disappeared from the Dortmunders as well after Nobody’s Perfect.  He abandoned the Holt series after a short time, he never published the two novels of his that dealt most directly with acting and show business (in part because he had a hard time finding publishers for either of them).  When he wrote a second Sara Joslyn novel, Trust Me On This having dealt with actors to some extent, it was focused on the country-western music scene.

There may be a few minor exceptions I can’t bring to mind this moment, but it would be fair to say that after he wrote and published this book we’re looking at now that deals entirely with the world of theater and film, he stopped writing about actors and showbiz.   The bug was out of his system at long last.  This is his final statement on the subject.  And one of his best and funniest novels.  But also quite possibly his strangest.

Remember how the Hollywood gossip columnists, like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, used to interview movie stars sitting by their swimming pools, said star often attired in a swimsuit or robe, while he or she talked about his or her meteoric rise to fame and fortune from humble origins, while making it clear they’re still just regular folks down inside?  Well of course not, you’re much too young to remember that kind of thing, but you remember those Bugs Bunny cartoons that parodied that type of interview, no?  Well, that’s the format of this novel–an interview.  By a swimming pool.  Of a movie star.  In a robe (and nothing else, which is unfortunate at times).

Our protagonist, Jack Pine (best as we can tell, his real name–don’t you love farce?), believes the bland-looking gentleman interviewing him is from People or some other such celebrity-obsessive publication.  He’s a bit unclear about recent events, and for some reason keeps refusing to look directly at the swimming pool he’s sitting (then lying) by, but he stubbornly clings to this delusion throughout the interview.

We the readers are made privy to more information–the interviewer is a cop, and there has been a murder.  Michael O’Connor, detective second grade, has been assigned to get background information on the prime suspect.  Well really, they could have just asked for his press clippings.  But perhaps a few salient details have been left out of those.

There is the typically atypical chapter structure, of course.  The book opens in first person format, with Jack sharing his inmost thoughts and sensations (and hangover) with us, but then switches to a third person flashback–each flashback is numbered.  Sometimes lettered as well, when a given scene is revisited to be viewed from a different camera angle.

So it goes throughout the book, back and forth between brief first person reveries at the pool and detailed third person flashbacks, moving us through Jack’s life from high school to acting school to Broadway to Hollywood to stardom to superstardom to all that goes with superstardom–but Jack is apparently telling O’Connor all of this himself (quite possibly in third person format, it’s not clear) and O’Connor keeps asking him how Jack knows what was happening and who said what in a given scene where Jack wasn’t even present.

Jack simply says “One knows such things.”  In other words, he perceives not merely his life, but the life of everyone he ever met, as one big movie he’s the star of (probably has script control in his contract by now), and he knows by now how such scenes tend to go, formulaic conventions you see, so where his memories give out, he just fills in the blanks with melodramatic tropes picked up over a lifetime of bad movies and plays.  There’s a few specific blanks he doesn’t particularly want to fill in, but we’ll get to that.

Just to make things a bit more complicated, there are also several scattered chapters referred to simply as ‘Lude’–meaning interlude.  Really strange interludes.  Brought on by (among other things) quaaludes. Jack just shuts down, and stops responding to external stimuli, making O’Connor’s job quite impossible.  He has been imbibing so many arcane substances for so long now, that his grasp on reality, not to mention consciousness, has become sorely compromised.  There are a lot of ‘Tommy can you hear me?’ moments (hmm, how many Nicholson movie references can I fit into this thing?)  Also one dream sequence, Jack floating down a celestial staircase, and ya know, Bob Fosse could have done a great job directing this if he hadn’t up and died, but them’s the Missouri Breaks (a bit forced, but I’ll work on it).

Jack’s taciturn manservant Hoskins (English, of course), has to keep being called over from the house to administer various supplemental chemicals  in finely balanced dosages, to keep Jack functioning (after a fashion) until the interview is over.  Hoskins is a delight, Westlake channeling Wodehouse again, but with a twist–Jack has to keep prompting Hoskins to play the part of the impeccably irreverent manservant correctly–when Jack yells for him, he’s supposed to respond “You bellowed, sir?”, and he keeps blowing the line.  Jack’s reaction to pretty much all of life is “Am I the only one who knows his cues?”   Except by the time we meet him, he keeps forgetting them himself when he’s working, because of all the substances.  Well, that’s what film editors are for, right?

There are so many juicy quotes from this one, I could do a ten thousand word review that was nothing but quotes.  But I don’t want to do that.  Nor do I want to make this a two-parter.  So let me try to do the synopsis more quickly this time.   Spoilers abound, not that this book is really about who did what to whom.

Jack Pine grew up in a small town named Grover’s Corners (I completely missed the Thornton Wilder ref until somebody pointed it out) with his best childhood pal, whose name happens to be Pal.  Buddy Pal.  Farce, remember?  They resemble each other quite a lot, physically speaking (psychologically speaking, not so much) and are inseparable up to the time Jack goes to New York to study acting, and Buddy goes into the army to study killing people.

Their most intimate secret stems from when they went with the local good-time girl to a secluded spot, in order to have a nice courtly gang-bang. Her name was Wendy. What else would Peter Pan’s first lay be named?  Something really bad happened.  Jack does his level best not to think about that, while Buddy does his level best to make sure Jack never forgets that he owes Buddy for covering it up.

So Jack is a natural actor, better in high school productions than most actors ever get–he has a positive knack for inhabiting other identities–having none himself, at least none he wants to acknowledge.  He studies in New York, developing his talent by leaps and bounds, and quickly gets a part in a play with a famous but aging leading lady–in her play, and then in her bed (Jack has no sense of sexual shame at all, which on the whole is one of his good qualities).

Then while they’re having sex in her limo, she dies of a heart attack, in mid-orgasm.  Although he feels, with some justification, that he made her last moments happy ones, Jack is most distraught (brings up unpleasant memories).  So is the lady’s powerful agent, who blacklists him in the legit theater for life, for not having the good taste to stay away from her funeral.

Jack, not to be deterred, gets an introduction to a famous playwright, who holds court out on Fire Island.  The playwright immediately falls madly in love with him–because Jack is attractive, sure, but also because he’s the spitting image of the lead in a play the guy was writing at the time.  So Jack (who is not even a little bit gay but hum a few bars…) goes to bed with him too, because hey, it’s a really good part in a play!  And doesn’t everybody deserve a little love?   Or at least a reasonable facsimile?

O’Connor, the Irish cop, does not think so–he’s disgusted with Jack at this point in the story.  I mean, the actress in her sixties was bad enough, but this?

“The point is,” the prissy interviewer says, viewing me with loathing, “the point is, you slept your way to the top.”

“I did not.” I frown at him with offended dignity.  “I slept my way to the middle,” I correct him frostily.  “I clawed my way to the top.”

It’s an important distinction.   And who does this two-bit reporter think he is, anyway?  Jack still not processing what’s going on, fortunately for us.

The play is a hit, but even hits close eventually, and Jack is still blackballed anywhere else in the world of theater–that agent is really powerful.  Buddy Pal reappears in his life, attacking himself like a shark to a remora (yes, I know, but it doesn’t work the other way), and Jack is now sleeping rather more enthusiastically with his co-star, a tall sardonic brunette named Marcia Callahan, who also fits Buddy in on the side. Somehow I see her as a young Paula Prentiss–one knows these things.  Though I suppose Suzanne Pleshette could work.  Jean Peters?  Rosalind or Jane Russell?  You know, there’s been a lot of tall sardonic brunettes in showbiz.  Not nearly enough for my tastes, but a lot.  I digress.

Marcia heads out to Hollywood to do the movie version of the play that Jack wasn’t deemed suitable for.  Not having anything better to do (or anyone) he follows her out there.   She gets tired of him hanging around the place (all play, no work…), so she gets him hooked up with a Hollywood agent (not literally hooked up this time), who doesn’t care that he’s blackballed on Broadway.  Hollywood agents don’t give a solitary shit what powerful theatrical agents think about you or anything else in life.   And this agent sees potential in Jack Pine.  The statue encased in the marble.

Irwin Sandstone’s blunt thumb caressed the statue’s budding breasts.  “I am a mere servant of the creative impulse, Jack,” he said, circling and circling.  “It’s your unique gift we’re concerned with here, not the life or goals or dreams of Irwin Sandstone.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jack.

Irwin’s fingers oiled and warmed the bronze.  “How to mold, how to shape, how to bring out to the acclaim of the multitudes that unique talent deep within you, that is my humble duty, that is my mantra, to serve great talents, to be the willing stepping stone on which they rise, to do whatever is within my small powers”–with a wave at the power-reeking office–“to bring each wonderful unique private talent to its greatest glory.  That is what I wish do do with you, Jack.  If you agree.  Will you give me that task, Jack?  Will you order me to make you great?”

Accommodating, Jack said, “Sure.”

Fair to a fault, Jack says later in his narrative that Irwin was the real genius of the two of them–I kind of wonder how Westlake’s own agent, Henry Morrison, reacted to this passage.  But he was used to Westlake’s sense of humor by now (even though he originally told Westlake not to try writing comedy, it would ruin his career–then he made him write an Arthur Hailey parody that was pitched to the publisher on a roll of toilet paper).

So they do the normal progression of roles for an up and comer with actual acting talent–first a biker picture, then a psycho killer, and finally a ‘patient picture’–meaning a film where the protagonist is impaired in some way, terminally ill, paralyzed, psych ward–the full spectrum of humanity, in other words.  You can see why I thought about Jack Nicholson, not that his early career can be summarized so neatly.  (The hell it can’t, but I’m being polite.)

And yadda yadda yadda, Jack’s a major movie star.  Not without the odd few bumps in the road, to be sure.  Like finding Buddy in bed with Marcia, who is Jack’s wife by that point (they had a charming little ceremony at a Hollywood church that has been a backdrop to many a film, and the guests were all extras hired by the studio, but still man and wife in the eyes of God and Man and Variety).

Jack eventually forgives Buddy (after stabbing him repeatedly with a rubber prop knife while shooting the psycho picture in Mexico), and told Marcia the baby better look a lot like him (but since Jack looks a lot like Buddy, and DNA testing is a long way off yet….).   That marriage is not long for this world, but here’s my problem–ever hear the one about the big macho film star who caught his wife in bed with his best friend?  Me neither.  That’s not in any movie I ever saw.  Where’d that come from?  Hmmm.  Well, inquiring minds don’t need to know everything.

With Marcia gone, Jack invites his parents to live with him at his Malibu beach house.  Then remembers they are both really hard to live with (Jack’s mother is clearly nuts, and let’s just say the apple didn’t fall far), so he leaves them there at the beach house, chaperoned by an illegal immigrant from Guatemala named Constanza.  At least she wants to see the endless snapshots of his sister’s kids his mother keeps waving around.

Jack gets a ranch in Topanga Canyon.  Of course he does.

The people of Topanga Canyon are loners, oddballs, dropouts, believers in alternatives.  They are not fierce pioneers, the progenitors of capitalists, but gentle solitaries, aware of the fragility of all things in the fragility of themselves.  They do not pound deep foundations into the earth’s skin, do not thrust steel erections at the indifferent sky.  Their houses are modest, set apart from one another, colored in earth tones of orange and brown and green.  Unpainted rail fences enclose their horses: yes, they have horses.  Their driveways are likelier to be of gravel or dirt than glittering blacktop.  They grow egglant and tomatoes and marijuana.  Their lives are so in tune with their environment, they blend in so well with their terrain, that they are barely noticeable in their bivouacs up on the steep sides of the many canyon walls.  Only their television reception dishes stand out, amazingly, looking in this setting like UFOs from outer space. (They believe in UFOs).

Sounds nice.  Jack finds God there.  Also nice.  Reverend Cornbraker, who helped him find God (for a very reasonable fee) turns out to be a child molester.  Not so nice.  Buddy, sensing another shark clinging to his remora, brought Jack the photos.  “I didn’t know anybody could do it in that position,” Jack mentions.  Buddy explains that young bones are very supple.   A ‘Lude’ follows.  Jack was very very upset about Reverend Cornbraker.

Deprived of God, Jack turned to drugs.  But first he tried the ultimate drug–Love.  The real thing this time.  Well, as real as it could ever get for someone like him.  Her name was Lorraine.  She came to him a simple graduate student from Chicago, beautiful, auburn-haired, effortlessly chic, doing her doctoral thesis on ‘Post-Camp Male Nonaggression in the Popular Arts.’  “Naturally, I was one of the people she had to interview.”  O’Connor is really wondering by this point if this interview will ever end.   While you wonder the same thing about this review.

So they have amazing sex, and they talk about various profound intellectual topics (mainly relating to Jack, which he enjoys, see the quote up top).  They call each other ‘darling’ every other sentence, which kind of makes you want to find a way into the book to murder them, but that never works.  They get married at the London registry office.  Not the first celebrity wedding conducted there, it seems.

“I remember,” O’Connor says, “the news footage of the two of you coming out of there, protected by the bobbies, with the crowd of fans in the street.”

“They’re there all the time,” I say modestly.  “I believe they camp out there.  Some say they’ve been there since the Paul McCartney wedding, others that it goes back as far as Elizabeth Taylor.  Some scholars suggest a Druid connection, but I don’t go that far.”

So all is bliss for Jack and Lorraine, but not for poor Buddy Pal, and one occasionally hears the stirring sound of a face being soundly slapped when he and Lorraine are in another room.  Well, they can’t all be Marcia.  Lorraine would just as soon Jack cut Buddy out of his life entirely, but of course Jack can’t do that, for reasons O’Connor would avidly like to learn, but in the meantime something else unpleasant happens, as it so often does to famous people, which is why supermarket tabloids are so profitable.

A young woman of rather questionable background and appearance accuses Jack of fathering her rather questionable infant, which he absolutely did not do.  Her questionable family and attorneys back her up.  Still no DNA testing (barbaric times).  Jack’s case looks hopeless–even the superb quality of his expensive legal team makes him look guilty.  But he devises a cunning stratagem–didn’t do all those courtroom dramas for nothing, you see.   All he needs is a few good women.

It’s a major Hollywood paternity trial.  As should go without saying, his wife, and his former wife, and three former girlfriends (obviously Jack does not refer to them as five easy pieces) are all present in the courtroom.  Protocol.  He asks them all to step forward and display themselves to the jury, which they do, looking confused.  He asks the jury to compare these sexy sophisticated gals he has married and/or had wild affairs with to the rather unappetizing plaintiff.  He spreads his hands, in the great tradition of irreverent Westlake protagonists.  “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury….I ask you.”  The jury finds for the defendant.

And then a seething Lorraine dumps him for being a sexist womanizing pig–which she surely already knew that he was, having done her research, but there are different levels of knowing, and she can’t handle the truth.  Some verdicts you can’t appeal.  She keeps right on calling him ‘darling’ on her way out the door, but the darlings have a certain bite to them now–no longer terms of endearment.   Buddy tries to look sympathetic.  Jack tries to drown his sorrows in drink, among other things.  Many other things.  We’ve been over that.

Jack’s work begins to suffer, but he’s such a big star now, so well-established in the minds of the movie-going public, he’s got what you might call tenure.   His name alone fills theater seats, and somebody like that keeps getting callbacks from studio heads, no matter what he does.  In the days of the old studio system, a Louis B. Mayer or Jack Warner might have run him out of town.  But we’ve arrived at the era in movie making where the superstars really did run the roost most of the time.  Jack never forms his own production company, because he’s too stoned, but he can work when he wants to.  And this is how he typically works now.

At the far end of the set, he brought up against the interior door, which was not in fact a working door at all, so that he didn’t pass through it but merely brought up hard against it, with force enough to make the whole set tremble.  Recoiling form this encounter, he reeled back through his previous carnage to the middle of the set, where at last he managed to come to something like a stop; through he trembled all over, like a race horse after the meet.

And he wasn’t quite finished yet.  Turning to say something to the director, raising one expressive hand, index finger upthrust, he lost his balance yet again.  This time, he tottered backward, feet fumbling and stumbling with the shards and shreds of his previous passage, until he reached the wall of the set.  Here he flung his arms out to the sides as though crucified and leaned back against the wall, which gave way, the whole canvas rear of the set slowly falling over, Jack riding it down backward, arms outspread, an expression of harried but mild surprise on his face as he and the wall went completely over and landed with a mighty whoosh and great puffs of dust.

No one said a word.  A final clink was heard from somewhere.  The dust slowly settled.  And then the director spoke.  “Cut,” he said.

There’s a whole short chapter of that (Flashback 19), and it’s a small marvel of comic timing, absolutely first-rate slapstick, and I still have to say–it would work better visually, on film.  With the right actor and director, obviously.  That’s an underlying problem of the book–that you keep finding yourself wanting to see the movie adaptation that doesn’t exist.  With a forty-ish Jack Nicholson playing Jack Pine (okay, so pick your own sacred monster, see if I care).

Parts of it would be hard to bring across visually, of course–certain bits of verbal ju-jitsu that few besides Westlake could ever do just right in any medium.  The constantly switching perspectives (and states of consciousness) might be tough to pull off.  But overall, I think this should have been a movie, and maybe Westlake thought it might be–Hollywood has never really had a problem with satirizing itself (because like Jack, it believes it’s the only really interesting subject in the world), but maybe this hits a bit too close to home, and is not quite sufficiently respectful.  Underneath the light farce, there’s a lot of really biting sarcasm, and a scathing disrespect for glamor.  But anyway, the industry Westlake was spoofing here doesn’t quite exist in that form today, though certain universal constants hold true (and not just at Universal).  The moment has probably passed.

So Jack finally finds his one true love–and his name is Oscar.  Stoned out of his mind, he gives what would probably have gone down as the most embarrassing acceptance speech ever, had it actually happened (though the qualifier stands).  Probably should have sent a Native American up to claim the trophy for him.  He departs the stage holding Oscar in one hand, and the right breast of the busty starlet who presented the award to him in the other–and then he marries her.  Seriously.  Their wedding at that same little chapel he married Marcia in turns into a riot, with everybody fighting everybody, and the happy couple viciously mauling each other.  Thankfully, he can just get that annulled, since he only had carnal knowledge of her before the ceremony.

And now he just spends most of the year at a compound (the very one he’s giving this interminable interview at), with lots of private security, and Buddy hires nubile young things for him to chase naked around the grounds (they are instructed to let him catch them eventually, otherwise he’d never get any).  Hoskins has mastered the art of maintaining the proper balance of chemicals in his system.  He only has to work once a year or so.  He just did an apparently obscenity-laden remake of  the most overrated film in history. (“Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a flying fuck!”)

His one really bad moment came when a young woman having a bad trip at a friend’s cliff side home ran through a window with a splendid scenic overlook, and fell to her death.  That brought back some really bad memories. The van.  The girl.  The lake.  O’Connor finally gets to the bottom of that lake–Buddy had already had the girl, and Jack was up next, but he lost control of himself, playing the role of a lover (it was his first time), pretending he was confident macho Buddy–and he killed her by accident in the course of the wild ride–no easy rider, he (is anybody keeping score?).  Buddy and Jack, at Buddy’s insistence, pushed the van into a nearby lake.  The body was found, but the girl was known to drink too much, and the car was her father’s.

But O’Connor (who Jack now understands is not from People, or even US Weekly, nor is he from the Enquirer, so Jack can’t set the dogs on him, even if he had any, as Hoskins helpfully reminds him he does not), was never here about that past indiscretion.  It’s useful background detail, explains some things, but out of his jurisdiction.  He’s there interviewing Jack Pine because in that swimming pool Jack keeps refusing to look at is the waterlogged corpse of Buddy Pal.   Jack had meant to dump his body in a lake too, which would have had a nice dramatic symmetry to it, but he was so high at the time, he thought the pool was a lake.   He’d done such a good job cleaning up the crime scene, but he blew the last detail.

And why did he kill his other self, his alter-ego, his best and oldest friend in the whole wide world?  Because Buddy had just come back from Brazil where (as is well known) the best plastic surgeons in the world reside (Jack goes once a year now), and such is his pre-existing physical resemblance to Jack, it didn’t take that much work for him to be the spitting image of the star–frankly, he looks a lot better than the prematurely aged Bacchus Jack has become.

And all of Jack’s hangers-on, including his agent and doctor, are in on the scheme.  Jack’s no longer the actor he used to be, he’s working much less, and his asking price keeps going down because of his unprofessional behavior.  He’s not so much an actor as a brand, and the brand is losing its value.  His talent has degraded past the point of no return.  He just shows up, as he himself admits to O’Connor, and does a sort of impression of himself.  He can still do the tics, the vocal mannerisms, but the only part he’s playing now is Jack Pine, or rather the public perception of Jack Pine, and that’s all anybody really expects now, so nobody will notice it’s not him anymore, since it hasn’t been for a while now.  Jack will be sent to a rest home somewhere, given all the drugs he wants, and Buddy Pal will take his place, become the sacred monster.

But the real monster wouldn’t have it, you see.  Steal my scene, will you? Nobody puts Jackie in a corner!  He ran screaming at Buddy, wielding his Oscar like a tomahawk, and clubbed his bosom chum to death in the parlor with it.  (Hey, is there a celebrity  version of Clue?)   Finally forced to recall this, he is horrified to know he did that to Buddy, and even more aghast he did it to Oscar, who will never be the same again.  Those statuettes aren’t as solid as they look.

And that concludes the interview.  The little shop of horrors is all sold out.  O’Connor beckons the men in blue to take Jack away, and he accepts the situation graciously, telling Hoskins he’ll be back in maybe twelve years.  Given the situation, his celebrity status, and the ample evidence of his confused mental state, I doubt it would even be that long.  He’s in his early 40’s now, much as he may look older.  A few years of detox.  Lots of publicity (and need I remind you there’s no such thing as bad publicity for a movie star?).  When he gets out there’s always Brazil–a quick trip for a quick nip.

With Buddy gone and much of his entourage probably doing jail time along with him, his operating expenses will plummet, and funds will accrue.  The studios will get into ferocious bidding wars over him once he’s back on the market.  Nobody will care that he can’t act anymore.  His battered Oscar will have a twin in no time.  Forget it Jack (or even two Jacks), it’s Tinseltown.

Nothing can kill the Sacred Monster.  Least of all the critics.  Who mainly loved this book–even the New York Times was kvelling over it.  But it didn’t make that much of a splash (sales were probably decent enough).  Too far outside what was expected of Donald E. Westlake, and he wasn’t really trying with the murder mystery he stuck in there for the sake of form.  More Sunset Boulevard than Double Indemnity.

It’s a very funny book that might have made an even funnier film.  Hollywood’s loss, our gain.  Cynical as all hell, of course.  But you know what Jack Pine would say about that?

“My friend,” I say, “you just used a word that has no meaning.”

His face is blank.  “I did?”

Cynical.  You see, my friend, it’s a spectrum,” I say, and spread my hands like a fisherman lying, and very nearly, very nearly, very damn nearly spill the remains of my fuzzy drink, but recover in time and continue: “It’s a spectrum,” I say.  “Here at this end is the romantic, and over here at this end is the cynic.  So wherever you are on this here spectrum here, you’re the realist, and everybody on that side is too much of a romantic, and everybody on that side is too much of a cynic.”

And a rare few people in this world get it just about right, balance out the romantic and cynic, give both their proper due in life.  Westlake was one of those.  But there is one bit of indisputable cynicism in this book–that comes in Flashback 11, where we are told that after their marriage, Jack and Marcia moved into a larger house that had formerly been owned by “a television star named Holt who’d committed suicide when his series was canceled.”  That’s an atypically mean-spirited dig by Mr. Westlake at his recent failed attempt at self-reinvention, and doesn’t really fit the arc of the protagonist in those books (not that most readers of this book would even get the reference).  Mr. Westlake possibly still needed some anger management on the subject of Samuel Holt.

And here’s the crowning irony (which rhymes with Ironweed)–Westlake basically used this book to purge himself of his lingering infatuation with acting, with showbiz, as I already mentioned.  He made a lot of money in Hollywood, wrote a lot of stories about acting, but artistically speaking, it rarely worked out that well–the movies or the books.  He evidently felt like he finally did the subject justice here, after so many attempts, and as we’ve seen before, this meant he could put it behind him, move on to something else.  Personally I would say his best novel with an actor as the main protagonist is Lemons Never Lie, but that book is not about the acting world, and this one is.  So with that one checked off the bucket list, he never wrote another book about actors, at least not that I know of.

And right around the time this book was in stores (this is the irony part), Westlake was on the set of what would be the best movie he ever wrote the script for, as well as the finest and truest adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel ever lensed.  And that’s up next.  This one’s as good it it gets for Mr. Westlake and the movies.  I swear it. Prizzi’s honor.  Oh like you could do better.  Drive, he said.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Ordo, Samuel Holt Novels, The Comedy is Finished

Review: One Of Us Is Wrong

But a few years later, my good bad luck made me find the big money maker.  It wasn’t that in my eyes at first.  It was a great romantic part I knew I could play better than anyone.  But it was a great box office success from the start–and then life had me where it wanted me–at from thirty-five to forty thousand net profit per season.  A fortune in those days–or even in these.

Bitterly.

What the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder, that was worth–well, no matter.  It’s a late day for regrets.

He glances vaguely at his cards.

My play, isn’t it?

James Tyrone–From Long Day’s Journey Into Night, by Eugene O’Neill. 

Well, I can’t read backgrounders.  On the show I would never read the plot summaries, the character descriptions.  Just tell me what I say and what the other guy says, and I’ll figure out the details for myself.

Samuel Holt (playing himself) 

Perhaps now would be a good time to clearly state the premise of this four-book series, that I somehow failed to adequately explain in my very long preview to the reviews of it.   Ahem.

Holton Hickey, born and raised in Mineola, Long Island, dropped out of an upstate college after one year, and joined the army, mainly serving as an MP in Germany, and playing on the basketball team, because he’d shot up to six feet six inches in height, and was a strong athletic guy.  After his hitch was over, he went back home and spent a year and a half on the local police force, traffic detail for the most part.

Then one fine day, a film crew came to town, and he was, as the saying goes, ‘discovered.’  Didn’t have to hang out at Schwab’s Pharmacy.  Never even thought about being an actor before that day.  Never really had any long-term ambitions to speak of.  If he wasn’t ridiculously tall and a cop, he could have easily qualified as the lead of a Westlake ‘Nephew’ book.  But this was too good to pass up.  He moved to L.A., got an agent, and a new name, and various small parts here and there, and he took acting classes.

And then out of the blue he got the leading role in a TV series named Packard (Westlake loved those cars) about a rather implausibly young and dashing criminologist named Jack Packard, who worked for a university, and was always solving murder mysteries and other criminal conundrums that just kept dropping into his lap (don’t you hate it when that happens?).   Packard had a very large and diverse skill set (basically, if this week’s plot called for him to be able to fly a plane or karate chop somebody, he could do it).  It was maybe a little better than Magnum P.I., but not nearly as good as The Rockford Files.

He tells us that they were casting against type–since the role involved a lot of physical bits of business, stunts, fight scenes, they figured better to cast somebody who could plausibly do all that stuff (with lots of coaching), rather than some older more experienced actor who’d need a lot more stunt doubling.  Also, he was very good-looking, and networks like it when women watch their shows.  And presumably they got him cheap for at least the first season.

But there were four more after that, because the show was an enormous hit, and made him a major celebrity almost overnight.  He says they ended it at five seasons only because everybody was tired of doing it.  (Yeah, I don’t think that happens with huge network hits either–these days it doesn’t even happen with some flops.  But we’ll let it go for now.)

His agent and his lawyers (by this time he had a lawyer on each coast) made sure he got a very nice share of the syndication rights, which turned out to be quite lucrative. If he’s not too careless about money, he doesn’t need to work again for the rest of his life.  Not for money, I mean.

So he can afford a swanky home in Bel Air, and a brick townhouse in Greenwich Village (the nabe he says still looks like the New York of his adolescent fantasies), and a live-in manservant named William Robinson (hmm–you think maybe?), himself a retired actor, whose specialty was playing prissy supercilious man servants with pseudo-English accents in the movies and on TV, and the habits of a lifetime have stuck.  Robinson has become the character he played, and he likes it that way.  And Sam?  Maybe not so much.

Sam also has two beautiful boxers, Max and Sugar Ray (female and male), who cheer him up when he’s at his L.A. digs, and two beautiful girlfriends, Bly Quinn and Anita Imperato, one on each coast, who cheer him up in different ways, and I did get around to explaining that last time.  It takes some deal of explaining.

The two women know about each other, but it’s not so much an arrangement as something they’re all putting up with for the time being, because he doesn’t want to give either of them up, and he’s showing them both a really good time, and he lives a bi-coastal life anyway, spending summer and winter in Tinseltown, spring and fall in Gotham.  Towards the end of the series, he describes himself as being part of “two pairs, each complete, each in its own world.” 

Tall.  Handsome.  Athletic.  Famous.  Rich.  Two sexy intelligent charismatic women in his life, blonde and brunette, day and night, each tolerating the existence of her rival, and not asking for any commitment (they both have lives and careers of their own, but no other boyfriends we ever hear about).  Each woman appealing to different parts of his nature.  The best of both East and West, available to him at a moment’s notice.

And two cool dogs who ask for nothing more than to go for a ride in his station wagon now and again, and the blonde even agrees to look after them when he goes to New York with Robinson to bed down with the brunette for a while  (Robinson, who is on Team Bly, strongly disapproves of Anita, but Sam doesn’t care), and eat in her excellent Italian restaurant a few blocks from his house.  Okay, what’s wrong with this picture?  Seriously–what?

Just one little thing, as it turns out–Sam Holt is unemployed.  Not underemployed.  Unemployed.  Has been unemployed since Packard ended, about three years before we meet him (and it’s been three years still at the start of the last book, so time is passing very slowly for him).  Nobody knew him at all before the show started, then everybody knew him, and now nobody can see him in any other role.  Not audiences, not producers, not directors, not casting agents.  Nobody.

He keeps nagging his own agent to find him work and the agent keeps coming up with bupkus.  He’s not unreasonable, is our Mr. Holt.  He’s not holding out for a major starring role in a movie, or even necessarily a leading role in a TV series.  He’s open to suggestions.  As long as it’s not Packard, and it’s not out and out insulting, he’ll do it.  The phone never rings.  No, I don’t believe that either.  The phone would be ringing all the time.   But this is, in many ways, a story of contrivance.  A man whose real life reads like a fiction.  Or like a pitch for a TV pilot.  (Which for all I know is what it started out as.   Westlake was spending a lot of time in Hollywood himself in this time period.)

He knows he’s the luckiest sumbitch alive.  But the thing is, having gotten into acting as a lark, he’d gotten to like it.  To like the work, not only of acting but of writing, since he’d written some of the later scripts for the show. He wants to get back to it.  But Life, his real agent now, has put him on hold, and he just waits there for it to get back to him.  And when it does, it’s not with an acting job.

And he’s going to tell us all about it in first person mode–so is he writing and publishing books about his Post-Packard experiences?  Is that why the books are credited to Samuel Holt?   On the whole, I don’t think so, any more than I think Mitch Tobin was writing books about his experiences under the name Tucker Coe.  For one thing, there’s way too much kissing and telling, and Sam’s too much of a gentleman (and fiercely protective of his own privacy) to write that kind of book.  Sam’s telling somebody about his life, but in this genre, in this narrative format, you never do know quite who that is, do you?  Well, he’s telling us.  That we know.  So what’s he telling us this time?

First of all, he tells us some guys he never saw before tried to murder him by running his car off the San Diego Freeway.   They bang up his Volvo pretty badly (he’s got some nicer cars but rarely drives them), but he gets away from them, and calls his West Coast lawyer, Oscar Cooperman (always on the move and deeply in love with his cellular car-phone).

Then, with Oscar on the way, he arranges for an interview with two L.A. Sheriff’s deputies, who are pretty sharp and professional, as are most law enforcement personnel in this series–maybe because Westlake was wary of the the old “amateur knows better than the professionals” mystery trope you can trace all the way back to Poe’s Dupin.  But also, I’d guess, because he was trying to disguise himself here, and too many people know Westlake has a thing about cops.  The bad cops show up in the last book, after Westlake had been outed as Tobin.

They question him politely over quiche (a running stylistic motif in these books is established here–Sam will set up a question of some kind at the end of one chapter, then answer it at the beginning of the next–“Do sheriff’s deputies eat quiche?”–“Yes.”)  He can’t think of anything anybody would want to kill him for, anything unusual that happened to him recently.  Until they leave.  Then, after a brief conversation with Oscar (who mentions doing some legal work with regards to a mosque being built nearby),  he suddenly remembers.   Ross Ferguson.

Ross was one of the writers on Packard, and good at his job–he showed Sam some of the rudiments with regards to crafting a teleplay.  He can be hard to take at times, but Sam considers him a friend.  And one thing we’ll learn about Sam Holt is that he is loyal to his friends–sometimes to a fault.  And Ross called him at his New York residence three months ago, in a panic, begging to see him.

Sam had to go see his old acting buddy Brett Burgess appear in a play first, then eat with him and Anita at her restaurant, Vitto Impero (she took it over from her scapegrace ex-husband, and why do I think we’d have met the husband sometime if there had been a few more books). Anita won’t actually eat much, because according to Sam, running a restaurant has given her a contempt for food.

(Sidebar: Brett and Sam–weirdly, the cookie company this makes me think of started the year before this book came out, and that has to be coincidence, right?–are about the same age, height, and appearance, but their careers went in different directions–Sam became a big TV star, and can’t get an acting job to save his life.  Brett works all the time, all kinds of roles, legit theater and TV guest spots mainly, but will probably never make as much as his mailman.

Sam sometimes envies Brett, Brett sometimes envies Sam, but they’re still fast friends.  Brett makes an appearance in every Holt book but one, and nothing important ever happens with him.  He’s just there for counterpoint, to remind us what a real working actor’s life is more typically like, living from one job to the next, blending into his roles, not getting recognized on the street, or confused with his characters.  He’s probably a somewhat better actor than Sam, but unlike Sam, not terribly insightful when it comes to anything other than acting.  There’s a moral in there somewhere, I’m sure of it.)

So Ross is waiting for Sam outside his townhouse–he’s in trouble.  Somebody made a video of him killing Delia West, an ex-girlfriend of his.  Except he didn’t kill her–Sam, watching the video with a practiced eye, realizes it’s a very professional fake–except the final shot, with her dead in Ross’s Malibu beach house (oh, of course he has a Malibu beach house, and real-life Barbies to go with it)–that’s real.  It’s a snuff film.  With an actor made up like Ross playing the killer.

And just to make things worse, Ross panicked, put her body on his boat  (oh, of course he has a boat, it’s Hollywood), and dumped her at sea.  And this means whoever made this film has him at their mercy.  Ross figures what the hell, maybe he can work something out with them, what could they want that’s so bad–Sam urges him to go to the cops–these are murderers, not just common blackmailers.  But loyalty prevents him from calling the law himself.

And then he heard nothing from Ross for a while, and it just sort of went out of his head until now, though he did just happen to ask Ross about it recently over the phone, and Ross got really flustered like maybe somebody was listening in, and oh damn, that’s why somebody tried to kill Sam just now, isn’t it?

And now he needs to call those deputies, and tell them he knows who tried to kill him (well, not exactly who, that’s the mystery), except he feels like he owes Ross the courtesy of talking to him in person before exposing him to a potential murder rap.  Let’s all say it together now–No.  He does not owe Ross any such thing.  Somebody tried to kill him.

(This is going to be a recurrent problem with the series, by the way–Sam Holt is an incredibly smart guy who often does incredibly dumb things.  And if he doesn’t, there’s no story.  So Westlake has to keep figuring out ways to make this believable, keep it from turning into the kind of formulaic tripe such as you’d see on a show like Packard, and sometimes he manages it, and sometimes he doesn’t.)

So he heads over to Malibu, and the aforementioned beach house, and Westlake, via Holt, has some observations to make about that–

Malibu is a peculiarly Los Angeles sort of idea.  A narrow strip of land along the ocean’s edge, it is backed by steep precarious hills, with most of the slender flat band between ocean and hill given over to a six-lane highway, generally without dividers, called Route 1.  Stores and fast-food joints are shoehorned between the road and the hills, while restaurants and luxury vacation homes are lined up like houses on a Monopoly board between the traffic and the tides.  From time to time the sea reaches out a crooked finger and plucks some of the houses away.  From time to time one of the unstable hills falls over onto the shops, and occasionally, the highway itself  The whole place is insecure and transitory and ephemeral, and besides that the traffic is dreadful and the houses are too close together.  And yet…

And yet.

Real estate values are through the roof.  If you can talk about real estate in a place where at any moment the ocean may foreclose your house or a mountain fall on it or a runaway tractor-trailer dropkick it into the next wave, then the values are through the roof.  If the wind doesn’t take it.

Nobody answers the doorbell.  Sam has borrowed the place now and again, and he knows where there’s a key stashed.  He goes in and cases the joint (just like Packard would, and he’s painfully aware of this irony, as he will be so many more times before these books are over).  And then he opens a closet door and a nearly naked girl holding a knife jumps out.

It’s Ross’s current girlfriend, Doreen.  She doesn’t trust Sam at first, but then she recognizes him (Sam says that there’s a sort of mixed blessing to celebrity, in that people just assume they know you, even though they don’t, and trust you, even though they probably shouldn’t).

Anyway, now that she knows this is ‘Packard’, she opens up about what happened (one of the advantages of being a celebrity detective).  She was staying there, and says these Middle Eastern types showed up, asked her some questions, then sort of offhandedly gang-raped her.  More or less to pass the time of day.

Sam tries to make her understand how much trouble she could be in, but she’s really young, wants to think of herself as tough and savvy, and Ross is her only real contact in L.A.  She makes it very clear she’d be delighted to make contact with Sam (once she’s had a little time to get over the rape thing), and she’s cute enough, but his dance card is full, as has already been discussed (at no time in the series does Sam ever cheat on his two girlfriends, and I can imagine my female readers rolling their eyes now, and possibly some of the guys too).

So not wanting Doreen’s blood on his conscience, he offers to put her up at his place, and on the way out the door they get jumped–by tabloid reporters, armed with cameras, looking for a nice spicy photo spread of Sam Holt departing his secret love nest.  He gets a bit rough with them, but they’re used to that kind of thing, not the least bit deterred from future assaults on his privacy (and you can imagine Westlake thinking to himself maybe there’s a novel in this, and this being Westlake we’re talking about, it wasn’t long at all before there was a novel, and then two, and a character in those books greatly resembles a character in this one.  But we’ll get to that).

Sam finally gets to talk to Ross, and it’s worse than he thought–Ross won’t tell him what the blackmailers want, but it’s clearly something pretty bad–and Ross wants to write a book about it.  He’s tired of being a TV writer (this was at a time when 99.99999% of people who watched television had no idea who wrote it)–these guys are going to do something that will get a lot of attention in the press, he’ll be right in the center of it, and the publishers will be beating down his door, assuming there still is a door to beat down by then, and he’s still alive to open it.

We know how this kind of agenda tends to play out in a Westlake novel–some guy with a poorly developed sense of self trying to make a big change in his life out of the blue, distracted from reality by some personal agenda.  But of course, if you were reading this in the Mid-80’s, you didn’t necessarily know it was a Westlake.  And it’s still pretty obvious that Ross has a rather odd showbiz version of Stockholm Syndrome.

And yet Sam still promises to keep quiet–for now.  Never mind how loyal he is–I don’t care if he’s Rin Tin Freakin’ Tin–why would he make such an absurd promise to a man basically living as a prisoner in his own house, who is most likely going to be dead when this is over?  Self-evidently, because Sam himself is so desperate to break out of his own professional niche, he can totally relate.  And he still doesn’t really know what’s going on.

The setting changes to Manhattan.  Sam flies over there on business (and to see Anita, of course), and on the plane he finds himself sitting next to a man named Hassan Tabari, who is Minister of Justice for a small oil-rich Arabian principality called Dharak (Westlake’s list of fictional nations continues to grow).  Basically a glorified policeman (who expresses an admiration for The Rockford Files, when informed Sam played a TV detective–I seem to recall there was a Rockford episode based around Arab politics–oh yeah, this one).

Sam is pretty sure this is not a coincidence, but he can’t for the life of him figure out why he suddenly receives an impromptu lecture on Middle Eastern politics, and internecine Muslim rivalries, and we’re reminded that our present-day difficulties did not spring full blown from empty air.

Reading it over, I find myself devoutly wishing this book had been a huge bestseller when it came out.  Even when he wasn’t writing absolutely top-drawer mystery fiction (perhaps especially then), Westlake had an almost frightening capacity for seeing around corners, and–well, read for yourself.

“So,” he said, shrugging, “we are not all bombers of defenseless sailors, hijackers of innocent tourists.”

“All Arabs, you mean.”

He considered the term, and rejected it.  “All Moslems,” he decided. “After all, the Iranians are not Arabs, as they never tire of announcing.  The dispute is religious rather than racial.  In fact,” he said, suddenly voluble, shifting position so he could face me more comfortably, “I sometimes think the internal Moslem struggle is infinitely more important than Arab versus Jew.  That one is merely about territory, but the war within Islam is for the soul of the world.”

To have such an overblown hyperbole come from so restrained and self-controlled a man at first startled and then amused me, which must have shown in my face, because he cocked an eyebrow at me and said ,”Do you think I overstate the case?”

“Slightly,” I said.

“Perhaps,” he agreed, and nodded, and said, “but only very slightly.   We control the world’s energy for the next century.  We shall decide whether or not the machines of western civilization turn.  Don’t you think we will have some say as to what that civilization looks like?”

“It’s possible,” I admitted.

“The fundamentalist sects,” he said, “have captured Iran, taken control of Libya, assassinated Sadat, helped to destabilize Lebanon, performed terrorist acts against you of the West, and are creating great trouble and concern in every moderate Moslem nation.  Even Saudi Arabia is not as proof against the virus as it appears.”

This was far from any area of expertise I might claim.  I said, “We can see the struggle’s going on, all right.”

“But who are these people in white nightdresses, eh, slaughtering one another?” The twist he then gave his mouth could not have been called a smile.  “The Jewish lobby in this country makes no distinctions among Arabs,” he said, “and therefore America does not, and that is a very bad mistake.”

“I’m really not up on all this,” I said, wondering how to get back out of this conversation, deciding the thing to do as to find a need to visit the lavatory.

Tabari leaned back, shaking his head at himself, as though aware he’d gone too far, made me nervous.  “I’ll say only this,” he told me.  “Our fundamentalists are to us a more violent form of what your fundamentalists are to you.  The sort of people who a generation ago forced the famous Scopes monkey trial and still today try to keep evolution out of your schools.  The kind of people who bomb abortion clinics.  In America these people are merely an irritant, one point of view among many at the fringes of a strong center.  In my part of the world there is no center, there are only the extremes.  You would not like a world, Mr. Holt, that would please some of our imams.”

Now he tells us.  Oh right–then he told us.  Anyway, Sam tries to follow Tabari from JFK after they land, but he’s taken precautions to make sure Sam can’t do that.  And then Sam gets wrapped up in talking to Anita (among other things), and he stays over at her place above the restaurant, which turns out to be a good thing in more than the usual ways.  As she sleeps next to him, when he was just sleeping over at Bly Quinn’s place a short time earlier, the strangeness of his life becomes overpowering to him–his built-in identity crisis.

In every part of my life, it now seemed to me, the story was the same, I was neither one thing nor the other and yet both.  I was neither a New Yorker nor an Angeleno, but I was both.  I was neither Bly’s fella nor Anita’s, but I was both. I was neither a true star nor a has-been, but somehow I was still both.  What frequently seemed to me a good and rich and rewarding life now seemed, in this wakeful February night in Manhattan, merely a life of well-controlled vacillation.  “Indecision is the key to flexibility,” read a sign I’d once seen over a producer’s desk; it was meant to be a joke.

But when Sam walks back to his closed-up townhouse the next morning, he’s reminded that there are far worse fates imaginable–there’s a dead body there.  Some people broke into his house, and one of them is dead in a shoot-out with the cops (they triggered a silent alarm going in).

Talking to the NYPD detectives in charge of the case, including one Sergeant Shanley (a woman, we’ll see her again), he realizes that he’s doing what he always thought the characters in TV scripts were idiots for doing–not telling the police what’s going on until it’s too late.  Bad enough for him to be forced to play Packard, but now he’s one of the idiot supporting characters who end up dead in act three.

He heads back for L.A., and after one more futile attempt to reason with Ross (who insists he’s fixed that little problem with his friends apparently trying to kill Sam yet again), he stops being stupid, and calls the sheriff’s deputies.  But then he finds out that in real life, calling the cops doesn’t solve everything either–sometimes the cops really can’t do anything, even if they believe you (and they do in this case).  Ross’s house can’t be searched without cause, and he refuses to cooperate.  There’s no legal pretext for them to intervene until these people do whatever it is they’re planning to do.  Great.

So I don’t really want to give this the full synopsis treatment, and you can see where this is going–deep into Travis McGee country.  Westlake was consciously patterning some aspects of this book after those John D. MacDonald Floridian epics, which were never much about ratiocination and whodunnit but rather about conspiracy and intrigue and lots of violence, interspersed with lots of sex.  And frequently a dead or kidnapped lover (the better to justify the violence), but Westlake’s not going that way with it.  Too obvious.

Sam ends up being held prisoner by the terrorists–yes, obviously they’re terrorists.  We’ve all figured that out by now.  The question is, what do they want?  To blow up that mosque Sam’s lawyer mentioned earlier.  Because it’s insufficiently fundamentalist, one supposes, and they don’t like the government that’s behind it (I’ll give you one guess whose government that is–you got it!), and some people they really hate are going to be at the opening dedication for the building.  Security is very tight there, but guess whose property abuts the land the mosque is on?  That’s what they wanted Ross for.

Sam gets into this mess because he can’t stop thinking of himself as The Hero–that’s obvious.  He knows this about himself, he’s embarrassed about it, he knows he’s not really Jack Packard, but he’s still stuck in that role, will remain stuck in that role until he can find a new one.  But having gotten himself into this situation, behaving like Packard is the only way he can get himself out of it, and save a lot of people from being killed.  So that’s what he does.  If you want to know how, read the book.

The title refers to the conflict between himself and Ross–and the affinity between them.  Ross is just as determined to somehow recast himself in life, become a great author, turn his fictions into reality.  That obsession–combined with his inability to see just how poor a fit he is for the role he’s playing now–makes him not only willing but eager to collaborate with people who framed him for murder–and to betray a friend who tried to help him.  But when you’re so deeply unhappy with the life you have, you may be willing to do anything to change it.  Even if that means losing it.

One of them is wrong, yes–but how much less wrong is Sam?  Again, we see the parallel with the Tobin novels.  Tobin would find a way to obliquely express to us that he sees how easily he could go down the path of someone he encounters in the book, whose life has gone disastrously wrong, whose identity has become terminally confused.  He hasn’t gone that far down the road yet, but it’s the same road.  With each subsequent book, he gets a bit closer to admitting this to himself.

But it’s done a lot more skillfully in those earlier pseudonymous novels. It’s much more organic and unforced.  It works one whole hell of a lot better than it does here.  And Westlake was not the kind of writer to be okay with a do-over that turns out worse than the original.

Still effective enough–these are good books, everybody who noticed them thought so at the time, including those who didn’t know who wrote them. But Westlake must have realized, as he wrote three of them in close succession, that there was no natural endpoint for Sam, as there was for Tobin.   Tobin could just go back to his life, his family, when he came to the end of his depression.  But would getting work as an actor again really resolve Sam Holt’s identity crisis?   Seems to me that would only deepen it.

So to enjoy these books, you sort of have to accept them for what they are–a failed experiment, with some interesting results, some acute observations of the contemporary scene, and some damn good writing.  And that’s just as true of the next book on our list, my personal favorite of the four, but that may be because it’s the most Gotham-centric of them, and therefore the most Anita-centric.  Have I mentioned I’m on Team Anita?  I’ll go into more detail about why that is next time.   Not that either team ever wins.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books and this one really justifies that name)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, One Of Us Is Wrong, novel, Samuel Holt Novels

Mr. Westlake and The TV Detective

RF1

Hamlet: Denmark’s a prison.

Rosencrantz: Then is the world one.

Hamlet: A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

Rosencrantz: We think not so, my lord.

Hamlet: Why, then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.

Rosencrantz: Why, then, your ambition makes it one; ’tis too narrow for your mind.

Hamlet: O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

Guildenstern: Which dreams, indeed, are ambition; for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.

Well, we’ve certainly had an interesting time exploring The Westlake Museum thus far, haven’t we, kids?  Let’s take a nostalgic stroll back through its venerable hallways, passing along our way many a fascinating exhibit.  The Hall of Sleaze (don’t tell your parents we went there!), the Science Fiction Diorama (with derisive graffiti by Westlake himself), the Early Hardboiled Exhibit, the Mitch Tobin Memorial (walled up, naturally), the Nephews Nativity Scene, the Dortmunder Display (still under construction), and of course the Stark  Shooting Gallery (always popular but somehow never crowded).  Plus many an odd little cul-de-sac that leads nowhere, but may be well worth exploring, regardless.

And what’s this?  Something we’ve missed up to now.  The entrance is unmarked.  There’s cobwebs on the door handles.  Well, let’s go in.  Nothing ventured and all that.

The hinges creak.  In the mustiness and gloom of a long abandoned space, we see a mid-sized exhibit.   Some work was put into this one, clearly.  To our right, we see the majestic yet seamy Gotham skyline, and in the foreground a lissome pallid brunette in a very simple little black dress; streetwise, practical,  in equal parts sardonic and sexy, standing in front of an Italian restaurant, her arms akimbo.  To our left, we see the Los Angeles sunshine and smog, and in the foreground a luscious bikini-clad blonde lounging by the pool, book in hand, a sly winsome expression on her sun-drenched face–she clearly knows more than she’s saying (and she’s saying plenty).

And hovering solicitously between the two, a haughty-looking gentleman’s gentleman holding a tray of hors d’oeuvres,  who seems perhaps a mite too aware of his role–overplaying it to the veritable hilt.  A splendid anachronism, and don’t you forget it.  Also two lawyers (one on each side), a Hollywood agent, and an accountant holding out a ledger that somehow is never examined too closely.  Also assorted friends (quote marks sometimes necessary), colleagues, well-wishers, general hangers-on, milling about, begging for attention.

Last and not even remotely least, two delightful boxers (pooches, not pugilists), scampering about on the west side of the exhibit, having a good time for themselves, ignoring the general goings-on most of the time.  Not really relevant to anything, but they sure decorate nicely.

As we look around, we see a neglected barren stage, a television screen airing a nonstop test pattern, promotional posters touting a show we’ve never watched which is nonetheless perpetually in repeats.  There are cases full of murder weapons, and the deadliest of them all seems to be boredom, followed by indecision.  And far at the back, overlooking the tableau with a decidedly melancholy air, we see a looming figure, half in shadow; handsome, charismatic, piercingly intelligent, yet somehow unformed, incomplete–he’s dressed as Hamlet, or rather as Hamlet would dress were he a  TV Detective of the late 70’s/early 80’s.  Very high concept.

And behind him, in a roped-off alcove, a display case with framed obituary notices from the New York Times and Variety in it, but there’s a large question mark hovering over it in space, making us wonder….

Ah yes.  The Holt Wing.

Westlake’s last sustained attempt to write a series character under an assumed name came about, according to him, as an attempt to find out if he could start over from scratch, with a name no one knew, write in a voice he hadn’t used before, and still sell books, win converts, blaze new trails.  One would think that having done this already as Richard Stark and Tucker Coe (not to mention Alan Marshall et al, and he’d doubtless have preferred no one mention that), he’d have felt like he had nothing to prove in this regard.  But as he said in his brief intro to the very belated paperback reprints to this series, “Times change.  Cultures change.  Markets change.”  Had he changed?   Could he still pull it off?

In the intro, he mentions Stephen King’s alter ego Richard Bachman as an inspiration.  King cited similar reasons for adopting a nom de plume (having never been known for this kind of thing, whereas Westlake had been writing stories under multiple pseudonyms years before he published his first novel under his own name), but later said the question was never satisfactorily answered as to whether his previous success had been talent or luck, because people quickly enough figured out who Bachman was, and none of the Bachman books sold very well until his true identity became common knowledge.  Let’s be honest here–no matter who you are, luck is always involved in success.  It’s just a matter of degree.

The ‘Richard’ in the name was derived from Richard Stark (with Westlake’s bemused and unneeded consent), a name Westlake felt like he could no longer write honestly under, and people knew who Stark was by now anyway–there’d never been any real effort made to hide it.   Westlake’s earlier pseudonyms were not created to fool the reading public but rather to get around the publishing industry’s annoying tendency to only let you put out so much under your own name in a given year.

But somehow, for Westlake, the fake identities became real–alternate voices, parts of his personality he couldn’t fully express under his own name, writers who were memorable in their own right–who rivaled Westlake, competed with him, and some might even say surpassed him (Stark actually did outsell Westlake in the late 60’s/early 70’s).  King obliquely referenced this when he wrote The Dark Half.  But catering to his usual market (I have to say, I don’t really see any difference between the way he writes as King or Bachman), he just told another thrilling horror story with a psychological edge to it, and didn’t really try to capture what Stark and the others meant to Westlake–they were not monsters to be suppressed, demons to be exorcised.  They were truths that needed to be told.

But Westlake couldn’t tell them anymore–his other voices had abandoned him, one by one, as the 70’s wore on.  Tucker Coe just sort of tuckered out, with nothing more to say about Mitch Tobin–Coe’s voice was Tobin’s voice, so Coe went when Tobin did.  Westlake seems to have been equally concerned and relieved over the disappearance of Stark–there were obviously more stories to tell about Parker, but he wanted to explore other avenues, types of stories Parker didn’t go with at all, and the further he went down that road, the harder it was to summon back the Stark voice.  This was a lighter-spirited time in his life–Stark would wait for the darkness to return, as it always does.

The other pseudonyms he’d used in the 60’s and 70’s had never really amounted to anything–just brief attempts to branch into other genres, and the books hadn’t sold well enough to merit another try.  He was a mystery writer, a crime writer, and to most people by this point in time, a comedic writer within that genre.  And he’d liked that for a while, but it might have been wearing on him a bit.  He’d tried branching out under his own name (Kahawa, A Likely Story, High Adventure)–the books had been good, the reception less enthusiastic than he’d hoped.  People knew what they wanted from Westlake now.  Comic capers.  Dortmunder and such.  For him to write something else he had to be someone else.

Which he could do easily enough in the 1960’s and early 70’s, when people were not paying that much attention to who wrote what in his designated genre (Random House had made a big fuss over the secret identity of Tucker Coe, but I think everybody who cared solved that mystery quickly enough–they were promoting Westlake novels on the back covers of Coe novels).

His output had declined dramatically since then.  He could no longer disappear into a sea of pseudonyms.  He could no longer write paperback originals either, because that market was dead.  So could he make a deal with a publisher to put out something he wrote under a false name, and see how people liked it?   And then, obviously, spring the news on them that it was none other than himself?

Because that had to be the plan.  He never meant for the secret to last.  He wanted people to ask “Who is this Samuel Holt who writes mystery stories about a guy named Samuel Holt?”  Richard Stark didn’t write stories about Richard Stark, any more than Richard Bachman wrote stories about Richard Bachman.  King went out of his way to create a false bio for Bachman (then killed him off once the ruse was exposed–Westlake did something chillingly similar with Holt, after these books were written).

But how seriously can you take an author who says he wants to disappear into a pseudonym when he never seriously tries to make the pseudonym stand up to scrutiny?  Obviously there’s no such person as Samuel  Holt.  There’s people sort of like Samuel Holt, but they don’t solve mysteries.  They just make bad movies, and wait for their next series to start.   Well, that’s not fair.  Not entirely.

Whatever he thought would happen, what actually did was deeply disappointing.  He’d been developing a relationship with Tor Books (an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates LLC, known primarily for Science Fiction and Fantasy)–they’d handled the paperback reprints of a few books of his, and he’d been pleased in particular by them agreeing to reprint A Likely Story.

Even though these books he was putting out would be classic mysteries, ideal for The Mysterious Press, he clearly couldn’t publish them there without effectively outing himself right off the bat, since his close association with Otto Penzler was so well known (and yet the dedication to the first book is to “Otto and Michael, unindicted co-conspirators.”  Seriously, this was never going to be a mystery for the ages, folks.)

So he signed a contract with Tor, and in return for getting a much smaller advance than Donald E. Westlake would typically get, he was promised anonymity–a fresh slate.  Emulating John D. MacDonald’s example when writing the first Travis McGees, he hammered out three novels in close succession, and handed them in.  Two were published in 1986, one in 1987.  No books under Westlake’s name appear between them in his bibliography (yet another telltale clue for the amateur book detective).

Tor did a good job with the books, it must be said.  They’re nicely executed volumes, with decent artwork for the era (particularly the second entry), and lack the many egregious typographical errors of the much later reprint editions from Felony & Mayhem (with a clownish caricature of an 80’s-style detective cavorting on the covers).

But as Westlake revealed in his intro to those reprints, he was betrayed–the publisher (Doherty himself?) had told his staff to let bookstores know who ‘Sam Holt’ really was, so that they could put promotional displays up (maybe because they remembered how much better the Richard Bachman books sold after people knew there was no Richard Bachman).   Westlake wanted people to know the secret–but not so soon–not this way.  The game was no longer afoot–the game, in fact, had been ruined.  Might as well have told everyone the butler did it (though technically, in the Holt books, all the butler does is sulk).

So he owed them another book, and he made it quite a bit darker than the previous three, and its ending is powerfully reminiscent of the final chapter of the last Mitch Tobin mystery.  Because in fact, these books are a reworking of the Tobin series.  And Samuel Holt is, in many ways, a reworking of Tucker Coe, and Coe’s protagonist.

The Mitch Tobin mysteries, which I believe deserve to be ranked with the best work Westlake or any other mystery writer ever wrote under any name, stemmed from a personal insight he had about The Thin Man, the last novel Dashiell Hammett published in his lifetime, before his long creative drought set in.   Westlake felt that Nick Charles was deeply depressed by his decision, brought on by his marriage to Nora, to give up his career as a detective.

His life now lacked purpose, so he resorted to heavy drinking to dull that pain.   Nora, loving him every bit as much as he loved her, and having been attracted to him in the first place primarily because of his dangerous profession, wanted him to go back to doing what he was born to do, so that they wouldn’t have to drink themselves to death in too much of a hurry.  The Days of Crime and Roses.  The movies made it a lot cuter, as they tend to do (maybe Blake Edwards would have given it a darker tinge).  But there’s a nice terrier named Asta in the book as well (Schnauzer, not Fox Terrier, and yes there’s a difference, but we hardly need belabor it here).

So Westlake got rid of the high society thing, the solving mysteries with your wife and dog thing, but kept what was really interesting to him–a man who has lost the will to go on, because everything that mattered to him has vanished from his life.  Tobin’s partner died while covering for Tobin’s marital infidelity, and his subsequent exposure led to the end of his career as a police detective and the total loss of his personal and professional identity.

He manages not to kill himself by means of various ambitious home improvement projects he makes up to keep occupied, his wife Kate willingly forgives him (and like Nora Charles, pushes for him to go back to his real work), his son just sort of tunes the high drama out, and what follows is Tobin just looking for ways to avoid life altogether. But life keeps shoving itself at him, in the form of blood-stained mysteries he has to solve.

And bit by bit, he regains his equilibrium, learns the lessons he needed to learn from the people he meets along the way, and rejoins the human race.  End of series.  Only five books, and the last one was, as I mentioned when reviewing it, not really necessary except as a means of tying up a few loose ends, and proving to Westlake that he had nothing more to say with this character.  So really, just four books that matter.  Hmm.

The Coe voice is quietly powerful, done in first-person narrator form, with Tobin telling his own story, filling us in from book to book as to how he became the person he is now, observing the world around him with great clarity and perceptiveness brought on by his uniquely abstracted outlook on life.  He sizes up the people he encounters rather brilliantly, much more concerned with character and motivation than with clues.

Although he always cracks the case, Tobin never really feels like he’s made the world a better place for doing so. There’s a powerful existentialist feel to the novels, a sense that this ratiocinative activity is something that needs be done for its own sake, not because it will fix anything, but because the truth matters.  The truth about whodunnit, but also about who you are, down inside.   But of course the most important thing anyone must know about the truth is that it hurts like holy hell.

So not nearly as many people remembered the Coe books as the Starks.   Westlake was known to have written them, but mainly by aficionados.  If you look closely at the Holts, you can see more than a few intentional hints, clues Westlake left for those very cognoscenti–like the repeated use of the name Walburn, briefly in the first Holt, much more significantly in the second–that name appears in Wax Apple, with Westlake’s own first name appended to it (a road thankfully not taken, as I pointed out when that book came up in the queue).

In fact, there are many many deliberate clues as to the provenance of the Holts within their pages, not least their style, which I think comes closer to the way Westlake wrote nonfiction articles under his own name than any of his other fictional guises.  In many ways, Samuel Holt (the character) is simply Donald E. Westlake, only famous, handsome, rich, six feet six inches tall, bi-coastal, single and polygamous (it takes some explaining), and most unhappily unoccupied.  A fantasy and a nightmare come true at the same time.

Sam Holt gets everything his creator could ever have idly desired in his wildest dreams, except the most important thing–a job he actually wants to do.  And kids, of course, but he’s got the two boxers–which really is an actor thing, by the way–can’t tell you how many actors in my nabe I’ve met while exercising my dog, and the dogs introduced us–I think actors just need somebody in their lives who can’t read their reviews, and cats of course are born critics.

Westlake has always seemed a mite canophobic to me (maybe someday I’ll get to ask someone who knows), but writing as Holt he even conquers this long held phobia, and enjoys a healthy rewarding relationship with two fictive furry friends who couldn’t care less about his identity crisis.  Take us for a ride, dad!  Let’s have fun!  And that happens far too rarely.

Simply the close empathetic interest in the acting profession should have been a solid clue as to the author of these novels–this is also, to some extent, a reworking of the Grofield books, except Grofield, trying to live up to the Starkian ideal, refused to sell out to television, remained true to live theater, no matter how non-remunerative. Westlake wrote more about actors than any mystery writer I know of (his next two books after finishing the first three Holts both had actors in them, and likewise dealt with the tribulations of celebrity).

The East/West coast rivalry was another trademark of his. And his mingled predilection for blondes and brunettes. Honestly, I’m having a hard time believing he thought the secret of Sam Holt was going to last very long. It’s easy to see how he’d be upset that the publisher had failed to live up to the nondisclosure agreement (except if it was in the contract, couldn’t he have sued?)

He says they tried to hit the reset button–I don’t know what that means. If it came down to some bookstores advertising the Holts as Westlakes in their windows and displays, would that really have been such huge national news? How many ordinary mystery readers would have even noticed? How big a secret had Richard Bachman ever been? King’s last book under that name was in 2007, long after Bachman had been thoroughly outed (and killed off via publicity dispatch).  Why was Westlake so angry about this?  He knew what publishers are.  He wrote an entire novel about what publishers are.

‘Newgate Callendar,’ still handling the crime fiction beat for the New York Times (not for much longer, though–I think this might be his last crack at anything Westlake did), wrote a glowing review of the first Holt novel–with no apparent knowledge that it was actually a Westlake. If he’s playing dumb, I have to say, it’s a bravura performance. And either way, the irony might have tasted bitter to Westlake. The critic who never seemed to fully appreciate his work that broke with expectations was heartily applauding this incognito effort. Should he be elated–or deflated? It think it was more the latter.

So the part of me that sometimes feels obliged to question Westlake’s explanations of why he started or stopped writing this or that is moved to wonder–how upset could he be that people didn’t believe ‘Samuel Holt’ was writing the Samuel Holt books, when he’d included so many clues as to who really wrote them? Was this the real problem? Or did he decide, after cranking out three in a row, that the books weren’t as good as he’d hoped they’d be? Because they are definitely not as good as the Coes. Not even close. Was Tor’s show of bad faith simply a good excuse to pull the plug on a project that hadn’t worked out as planned?

I don’t think he had such high expectations here–he wanted to create a nice entertaining mystery series, about a reluctant detective (yet another clue it was him), with perhaps a touch of Rex Stout in the mix (Archie Goodwin with fame, money, a Manhattan townhouse and a busy sex life, but no Nero), all of this neatly distracting from the fact that as with the Coes, he was using these stories to make social commentaries. But instead of dealing with outsider subcultures, as Coe habitually did, he’d examine the ultimate insider subculture–showbiz–and all the various insider cultures it bumps up against.

It’s a subculture he’d learned a lot about while working as a screenwriter, hobnobbing with various friends in that biz, and as he admits in his foreward to the reprint editions, he wanted to use what he’d learned, but didn’t feel comfortable doing it under his own name (he would soon anyway, but apparently some of the portraits in the Holt books are more–personal). So another reason to dislike the books–maybe they got him in some hot water with certain people, once it came out he’d written them. Impossible to say.

Westlake’s ambiguous relationship with the movies has been much commented upon here (he commented upon it a fair bit himself).  His relationship with television is even more tortured.  He contributed to the (literal) train wreck that was Supertrain in 1979, and is actually listed as its creator, something that I have no doubt haunted him all the rest of his days.

Probably one reason I get a weird incestuous feel from Sam’s relationship with Bly Quinn, ace sitcom writer, is that she’s as much of a Westlake alter ego as Holt is, maybe more.  Many of her conflicts–feeling like she’s become trapped in a mode of storytelling she doesn’t entirely believe in–are Westlake’s as well.  But so is her delight in the conventions of genre, her wealth of arcane historical and literary trivia, and she even gets a reference to Graham Greene and This Gun For Hire in there at one point.

But Westlake didn’t want Sam to just be out there in LalaLand all the time–one of the central conceits of the books is that he’s a Long Island boy, to who New York will always be The City, and all other towns mere pretenders to that name (it works the same way with upstaters, I’m sure).   He needs New York to keep him honest, and a New York girl into the bargain, so Westlake gave him a Greenwich Village townhouse to go with his Bel Air mansion, and a smart sassy Italian-American restaurateur named Anita Imperato to serve as a counterpoint to his California girl (Bly is actually from Maryland, but she’s long since gone native).

Anita is close to Sam’s age (a year older), much more rooted in the here and now, and they feel like a real couple, in ways Sam and Bly never quite do.  Bly is very much an aspiring Nora to Sam’s Nick, encouraging Sam to be a detective, solve the mysteries, go on adventures, but Sam’s no drunk, and he’s hardly miserable (you’d kind of have to hate his guts if he ever dared whine about his lot in life), so it seems more like she’s doing it for herself–as a way of living out the kinds of stories she loves to read and write, and to keep Sam more in her sphere of influence.

Anita, by contrast, encourages him to find out what he really wants to do and do it already–he tells us that when he tries to get more serious with her (meaning that he’s tried more than once), she pushes him away–knowing he’s not ready to commit to anything yet, let alone anybody.  I never feel like there’s quite enough of her in the books, and for what it’s worth, if any resolution of Sam’s divided love life is even possible, put me on Team Anita.

It’s a weird gimmick (taking Archie Goodwin to the next level–Lily Rowan and Lucy Valdon in explicit competition instead of merely implied), and I suppose offputting to some readers–he’s not technically cheating on either of them–it’s an open arrangement that just happened, and he can’t seem to resolve it either way.

After he became a famous TV star, he could basically have any woman he wanted, kid in a candy store, but he found that palled on him after a while (I suppose that could happen), and the interesting women didn’t take him seriously anymore (that I believe)–so he cut back on the harem, until it was just the final two contestants–and he can never decide who gets the rose.  They’re both so independent, it’s not clear either of them even wants the damn rose, yet they’re always obliquely vying for his favor, regardless–they never meet, each remaining on her respective coast, and Anita refers to Bly disparagingly as ‘the tennis player.’

Bly scarcely refers to Anita at all, which I think is partly because she recognizes Sam’s connection with Anita is deeper, more real, a threat to the exciting fantasy life she and Sam are living out in California.   She’s enjoying the hell out of all the various intrigues Sam gets her involved in–it’s great research material for her screenwriting.   But at some point, aren’t all three of them going to want more?  And Utah wouldn’t suit any of them very well, methinks.

Sam’s put a whole lot of major life decisions on hold.  That’s the central theme of the book.  That’s the conflict he has to resolve, and the mysteries are supposed to help him do that, the way they did for Tobin.  But it just doesn’t work as well, does it?   The contrivances are too contrived.  The fantasy is too fantastic.  The TV Detective is too damn much of a TV Detective, supercilious manservant and all.

And who seriously believes a guy who is the hugely popular star of a major hit series that ran five seasons isn’t getting any serious job offers for three years?   Job offers that don’t work out, sure.  Movies that flop, shows that tank, guest shots that make him look diminished somehow, people saying “One Hit Wonder,” that I could buy.  But nothing at all?  Even though he never stops bugging his agent to find him more work?  It’s not like he’s holding out for a major motion picture here.

Westlake knows it’s a stretch, does his level best to justify it, and I still don’t buy it.   But for the books to work, you have to buy it.  Holt’s deep professional frustration–a guy who lucked into the coolest job in the world, then figured out he really wanted to be an actor, right around the time he couldn’t be one anymore–is central to the whole enterprise.

Westlake refers more than once to The Rockford Files and Magnum P.I. in the books.   The former series he has Holt call ‘The Gold Standard’ and that it was.  But Holt is closer to being a Tom Selleck type–his character, Packard, was too much of a Lance White (seen up top)–Stephen J. Cannell’s brilliant parody of over-idealized TV detectives (the very kind that made Cannell a rich man) who Rockford had to perennially contend with, which had the added benefit of making Rockford seem realistic by comparison.

And Holt recognizes that (as a Rockford fan, he doubtless remembers the Lance White eps all too well), hates it, wants to escape that into some more valid form of self-expression, but who’s ever going to let him break out of the typecasting?  And who knew more about typecasting than Donald Westlake?  Okay, maybe Tom Selleck, but I’m not sure it ever bothered him as much as it does Holt and (in a different way) his creator.

Depth of character may not in fact be a professional advantage for an actor or a writer.  Why can’t Sam Holt get another acting job?  Why couldn’t Donald Westlake ever write a best selling novel, or get people to fully accept the novels that didn’t fit his proper genre cubbyhole?   But point is, he kept writing novels, and not just as Westlake.  Actors have a more difficult time disguising themselves than writers do (hard as the best of them work at it).

The realization Holt is reaching for and never quite gets to is that there are no small parts–that he has to let his stardom go somehow, if he wants to truly join his chosen profession.  And much as he enjoys the celebrity (both an advantage and a handicap when it comes to solving mysteries), you wouldn’t think it would be so hard for such a smart guy, not hampered by deep depression like Tobin, to figure this out.

That’s one reason the books all take place in a rather unrealistically short time period.  One over-the-top escapade after another, self-consciously parroting and rationalizing various conventions of the mystery form (like the Grofields), distracting him from the choices he has to make, while at the same time forcing him to notice very real problems in the world that make his own troubles look shallow and silly.  How could that be sustained over a long series?  It couldn’t.  Another reason to pull the plug.   And blame the publisher.  Who should have kept his word.

But even if that had happened, if the secret had been kept for a year or three, the books still wouldn’t have worked, I think.  Westlake wanted to go incognito again, yes–disappear into another persona,  as he had with Stark, but this wasn’t the way.  He’d have to do it on the up and up, and that nettle would be grasped, when the time was right.  Because unlike Samuel Holt, Donald E. Westlake was a consummate professional before anybody knew who he was–he’d worked hard and long for everything he’d accomplished, and sure there was luck involved, but he was ready for it when it came.  The failure of this series was a setback, but it didn’t set him back for very long.

So why bother to review all four books, one at a time, as I am now preparing to do?   Well, that is the mission statement of this blog.  Review everything.  But fact is, I like these books.  I see their weaknesses, the fundamental flaws of their premise and protagonist, and I still like them.  I enjoyed reading them the first time, and I’m enjoying them again now.  They contain many valuable insights, about fiction and life, and the myriad ways that each acts upon the other.  What we are, and what we think we should be.

So standing here in the sadly neglected Holt Wing of the Westlake Museum, let us ring back the curtains, open up the windows, let in some fresh air and light, grab some of those hors d’oeuvres (still good after all these years, Robinson’s a marvel), and take those two enchanting boxers for a long-delayed romp.  They’ve earned it.  So have we.  Books are made to be read, as life is made to be lived.  Let’s see what you have to teach us, melancholy Prince of Bel Air.  Damn, that’s copyrighted, isn’t it?  Oh well, let the lawyers figure it out.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Samuel Holt Novels, Tucker Coe

Review: Who Stole Sassi Manoon?

who_stole_sassi_2_frontwho_stole_sassi_1hl-wode2

Donald E. Westlake: It’s difficult to be truly whimsical without being arch.  I can’t do it.

Moderator: And P.G. Wodehouse?

Donald E. Westlake: He couldn’t do it, either.  That’s a minority opinion, of course.

The older the guest the closer to the front door he was likely to stay.  The main living room, off the entrance, was full of the cigar smokers, the businessmen, the money boys; words like probate and percentage thudded off the white walls and buried themselves in the purple carpet.  Some wives were there, too; fat-armed women expensively but uselessly dressed, sitting in a cluster like a display of joke dolls in a novelty shop, talking to one another about the quality of service in this hotel, that hotel, all over the uncivilized world.  Amid them sat Miss Rushby, blending with the group like a submarine in a school of whales.

Deeper in the house, in what was called the library because it was full of books bought en masse at an auction, where[sic] the pipe smokers, the intellectuals, the established writers and directors, and here and there a creative producer, telling each other how crappy their agents were.  The wives here tended toward straight hair and plain talk; some of them hadn’t seen each other since the last march on Washington.  In a corner, Major ffork-Linton was involved with five others in a game of liar’s poker, and seemed to be so far the only winner.

Beyond the library, in what was called the solarium because it leaned heavily to windows and plants, were clustered the cigarette smokers, the pros, the actors and singers and comedians and personalities and celebrities, telling each other what great book jackets they’d read recently.  Here the wives looked like audition day at the Copa–leggy, expensive, blank-faced.  Benny Bernard, trying to do himself a little good, was looking around for a conversation to join.

Out by the pool were the pot smokers, the young hippies, the twenty to twenty-five crowd, the new breed–TV series regulars, rock group members, actors who were feeling guilty about copping out on La Mama because they were too young to have copped out on Circle in the Square and too old to have copped out on Yale.  Nobody was married out here, or at least not very married, and everybody had already slept with everybody else, so there was nothing to do but dance around the pool and talk to one another–shouting over the music–about analysis.

Scattered through all the rooms, like the yeast in an upside-down cake, were the critics, the magazine writers, the freelance journalists and the book compiling aficionados who fill the chinks and crannies of every film festival worthy of the name.  They were the only guests talking about movies, and they were doing so passionately, knowledgeably, and interminably.

So I’m 469 words into a review without having written a word myself.   And honestly, I don’t know what there is to say–this is, in my opinion, the worst novel Westlake ever wrote.  And yet gaze upon that lengthy scene-setting passage I quoted above–magnificent, isn’t it?  Did anybody ever sum up a showbiz party any better?   That’s Who Stole Sassi Manoon? in a nutshell–a scattered assortment of precious gems in a setting of pure brass.  And somewhat corroded brass at that.   How did that happen?

Westlake was developing a relationship with Hollywood–stands to reason, since it was buying up the film rights to his books on a regular basis.  He obviously put out feelers via his agent to see if anybody wanted him to write an original screenplay, and Palomar Pictures hired him to do just that.  The story he wrote was a comic take on a movie star’s kidnapping, which I suppose, in hindsight, might have been a bad idea–who are you going to get to play the star being kidnapped who is famous enough to sell tickets but will still see humor in the premise?

Yeah, Scorsese did it, with Jerry Lewis as the star, and De Niro as the kidnapper, and it was brilliantly creepy (creepily brilliant?), and the critics raved, and it flopped to hell (and I’ll be talking about that film again, with regards to another Westlake novel).   Anyway, for whatever reason, Westlake’s screenplay never got made into a movie, but Westlake had kept the publication rights, and as he put it “I novelized the screenplay.”

So this is a book that was originally supposed to be a film, and that may be a big part of what’s wrong with it–though the same thing happened later on (with a movie that did get made), and the result was one of Westlake’s best books.  Turning your own screenplay into a novel is apparently a skill that requires some time to master–Westlake never even tried to master the art of turning his novels into screenplays, and it’s debatable whether anyone ever mastered the art of translating Westlake into other mediums, but we’ve spent enough time on that subject already.

This is, I think, his first novel dedicated to his second wife, Sandra Foley, who he married in 1967, just when he would have been writing it.  “This, like me, is for Sandy.”  In retrospect, perhaps not a good omen for that marriage?

Westlake now has an ex-wife, two sons, and a new wife who will shortly give him two more sons, and he needs Hollywood’s filthy lucre very very badly, and any other form of income supplementation he can muster.   He’d spent a lot of time and effort working on that screenplay, and he wasn’t going to let it go to waste. He’s also got a contract with Random House for a book a year under his own name, and for 1968, this was it.

But in spite of some typically great writing, and some ideas he’d return to repeatedly in future, this doesn’t feel much like a Westlake.   Yes, it involves a crime–and it’s meant to be funny.  It is, in point of fact, his very first comic caper–a subgenre he justly came to be regarded as the supreme master of, but you’d never have guessed it from this.

His previous comic crime novels had not been about heists–his nebbishe ‘nephews’ might be involved with organized crime sometimes, but they weren’t planning elaborate thefts.  Not their department.  This isn’t a nephew book–this, like so many later Westlake novels, is the story of a heist gone ridiculously wrong, only the item being heisted is a person.  Who ends up having the time of her life.  We the readers should be so lucky.

Hard to say what the film would have been like (I’m guessing not a classic; maybe something you’d watch on TCM at 3:00am in the morning because you couldn’t sleep, and it would cure your insomnia), but the novel is a satire of the film industry–and the parts of it that don’t involve dialogue or character development or plot are the best things about it.   It opens with a quote from the dreaded Hays Code, about how “Law, natural or human, should not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation”–well gee, if they followed that to the letter, Westlake would be right out of luck as far as Hollywood was concerned.

Then there’s a fairly ingenious ersatz program for the Montego Bay Film Festival in Jamaica–there do seem to be a fair few film festivals held there in real life (maybe Westlake attended one?), but this one is fictive in nature, and and so are most of the films on its schedule, full of ironic references to the idiosyncrasies of international filmmaking–such as The Boots of the Elk (Russian),  The Beautiful Sewer (Polish), and Abortion, Italian Style (guess)–though the funniest recurring gag relates to a retrospective of films based on the comic strip Blondie, and all those film titles (like Blondie on a Budget, Blondie Goes Latin, and Blondie Meets the Boss) are quite painfully real.   Would you believe they made 26 Blondie films between 1938 and 1950?  All starring Penny Singleton.  Now Debbie Harry I could see.  But I digress.

So that’s the short subject–on to the main feature–and its star, the closest thing this book has to a central protagonist, one Kelly Bram Nicholas IV, the black sheep of a wealthy family–okay, here’s another sticking point.  Technically, Kelly isn’t rich now, but he was born rich, and raised rich, and we know by now what limited sympathy Westlake has for the moneyed classes–since Kelly has been disinherited by his rather appalling family, and is out to make his own fortune now, his creator will cut him a break (and toss him a cute redhead, but we’ll get to her in a minute).

He still does not belong in the first, second, or possibly even the third tier of Westlake protagonists.   I don’t think Westlake even for one second entertained thoughts of making this guy a series character.  But he did invest Kelly with some of his own youthful personality quirks.  Kelly loves science fiction, comic books, all that nerdy stuff; used to collect it, but he’s now cast childish things aside, and has become an inventor–of a computer that plans kidnappings.

He calls it his Selective Timed Abstract Reactional Neutronic Abduction Positioner–Starnap for short.  He keeps it onboard his 40 foot cabin cruiser, the Nothing Ventured IV (he got the money for all this by selling a few inventions and blackmailing his dad).

At times, Starnap seems to be his only true friend–they play an African board game called Kalah quite frequently.  According to Kelly, Starnap is “An adaptation of components from IBM, Burroughs, Control Data, ITT, RCA, and National Cash Register.”  And with all this digital expertise, allowing him to create a computer compact enough to fit on a small boat, yet capable of performing calculations that successfully predict human behavior, he somehow thinks the best way for him to make a fortune of his own is to grab a movie star and hold her for ransom.   Well, it’s the late 60’s–who knew?

Kelly recruits two guys he knows to assist him in this grand endeavor.   His former comic book supplier and fellow nerd, Frank Ashford, who is a talented impressionist–meaning he can do celebrity voices convincingly, not that he paints like Monet.  And Kelly’s former prep school chum Robby Creswel, described as looking like Harry Belafonte’s younger brother–his parents are black professionals, very successful and respectable, but Robby always had a knack for getting into trouble, never did stick to the straight and narrow–I guess he’d be the white sheep of the family.

Robby could have been a much better character with a bit more work–Westlake goes out of his way to tell us about his identity crisis–black, middle class, educated–not really at home anywhere.  He has nothing in common with the black people in Jamaica, even though he was picked partly to blend in with them.  He seems to mainly hang out with white guys his own age, but we’re told that he feels more comfortable in a gathering if there are other black people around.

Musing sourly on the racism of two characters to whom racism is such a given they never give it a moment’s thought, he thinks to himself–

They still lived in another age, where all the people around them were white, and if a black skin did show up, it was a uniform for a servant.  It confused them to have the servant sit down like anybody else.  Robby thought sometimes he should feel compassion for people like that, locked into unreality, but he couldn’t quite get that objective.  What he felt was irritation.  They bugged him.

It kind of bugs me we don’t get to see more of Robby, but at least he’s there, and not just as a prop.

It feels different already, doesn’t it?   These are movie characters, somehow, albeit not so very typical.  Frank would be played by some rising comic with a talent for doing voices.  Robby–well, the kidnappers are in their early 20’s, and the real Harry Belafonte was in his 40’s, but were they even going to make him black in the movie?  A movie about a white woman getting kidnapped?  I suspect Westlake did that on his own, after the movie project fizzled.

I don’t really know who would have played Kelly, based on his description–tall, dark, gangly, intense, bespectacled–a young Jim Hutton?  The actual Jim Hutton was probably a bit too old as well, but I don’t know who else could have pulled it off back then.  And I note with some bemusement that he was born in Binghamton New York (a town Westlake knew very well), not quite a year after Westlake was born in Brooklyn.

The identity conflicts that typically dominate a Westlake novel are so much on the down low here, Robby’s race issues aside, that you can barely make them out.  Because Westlake can’t quite figure out how to sandwich them into this piece of work-for-hire (to put it politely) that he’ d churned out for a movie studio.  Did he get behind on his obligations to Random House because he’d been working on this thing, and had no choice but to quickly repurpose it when the movie didn’t pan out?

It’s not just that it started as a movie, though–Westlake is trying something quite different this time.  This is his first comic novel written from the perspective of multiple characters, in the third person.   Sometimes the narrator is gazing down omnisciently, commenting sardonically on the setting–sometimes he’s inside the head of this or that character, seeing things through his or her eyes–never sticking with any of them for very long.

All Westlake’s previous comic novels were written in the first person from one character’s perspective, and have a certain confessional feeling to them–with the exception of The Busy Body, which is in the third person, but entirely from the protagonist’s POV–a bit more hard-boiled, but still extremely focused on one person.   This new approach he’s trying here will increasingly be the standard approach for his comic novels, but he’s new at it, and the thing about letting each of your main characters be the center of attention is that you need a lot of good characters.   He doesn’t really have any here.   It’s a problem.

Who else writes like this?  Well, P.G. Wodehouse.  That’s why I have that caricature of him up top.  Wodehouse wrote quite often about comic kidnappings–quite often the abductee is a pig (good old Blandings Castle), but in two of his early books The Little Nugget and Piccadilly Jim, it’s a rich kid.    Wodehouse is, of course, the ultimate master of this type of writing–got it down to a science.   Here’s his opening for Piccadilly Jim–set in America, I should mention (Plum loved America and its citizenry, for all our many flaws–and we loved him back, for all of his).

The residence of Mr. Peter Pett, the well-known financier, on Riverside Drive is one of the leading eyesores of that breezy and expensive boulevard. As you pass by in your limousine, or while enjoying ten cents worth of fresh air on top of a green omnibus, it jumps out and bites at you. Architects, confronted with it, reel and throw up their hands defensively, and even the lay observer has a sense of shock. The place resembles in almost equal proportions a cathedral, a suburban villa, a hotel and a Chinese pagoda. Many of its windows are of stained glass, and above the porch stand two terra-cotta lions, considerably more repulsive even than the complacent animals which guard New York’s Public Library. It is a house which is impossible to overlook: and it was probably for this reason that Mrs. Pett insisted on her husband buying it, for she was a woman who liked to be noticed.

Compare this to the description Westlake wrote about the party, and you see he was studying The Master very closely–and finding out for himself how easy Wodehouse is to read, and how very difficult to emulate.  He never liked to talk much about his debt to Wodehouse, but it’s unmistakable.  Remember, Westlake worked for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency–which basically got its start representing Wodehouse.   Remember something else–Wodehouse worked extensively in Hollywood, as well as on Broadway and Tin Pan Alley (his contribution to popular culture simply has no parallel, anywhere), and his books were constantly getting adapted into films–Piccadilly Jim alone has been made into three.

That little comment I put up there, from a mock-interview of Westlake and several of his pseudonyms (written entirely by Westlake himself) that you can find in The Getaway Car, is Westlake indirectly admitting that debt.   But for Westlake, of course, the problem was not how to write like P.G. Wodehouse–it was how to write as well as P.G. Wodehouse, while still remaining Donald E. Westlake.

It’s fine for Wodehouse to be all whimsical and arch–that’s what he’s there for.  But Westlake wants to be a bit more–for want of a better word–rugged.  Wodehouse often wrote humorous fiction dealing with crime, but Westlake is writing crime fiction with a sense of humor, and he needs his own voice for that.  He isn’t all the way there yet.

One of my favorite non-series Wodehouse novels is Laughing Gas, set in Hollywood in the 1920’s–it has the premise that while under dental anesthesia, the protagonist and a bored American child star who just wants to have fun like a normal kid, switch bodies–yeah, you’ve heard this one before, haven’t you?   But nobody had ever heard it before Wodehouse.  Hollywood owes his estate like a trillion dollars, but never mind that now.

Sassi Manoon, the titular character (who really has almost nothing to do in this book at all), is an adult female version of the bored child star.  It’s the same idea–movie stars don’t really want to be movie stars.  It just got foisted upon them.  Now, that works if you’re talking about a child star, because c’mon–nobody asks for that.  That’s what stage mothers are for.   But just as certainly, nobody ever becomes a major film star as an adult without wanting it very badly, working, scheming, conniving, shouldering her way past other aspiring starlets.  How did someone as apparently bereft of ambition as Sassi ever get to the top of the pile?

And not only is Ms. Manoon a major film star, she’s supposedly ‘top box office in the world’, and it’s the late 1960’s–there was a time when nearly all the biggest stars were women, but by the late 60’s, those days are coming to an end–unless you could sing like Julie Andrews or Barbra Streisand, you were unlikely to be anywhere near the top of the box office charts–the exception, in 1967, was Elizabeth Taylor, who had, of course, started out as a child star.  And who Westlake had written a very sympathetic biography of, years earlier, published under a pseudonym–I’ll review that sometime.

Sassi develops a nice friendship with Frank, who amuses her with his impressions, though her first reaction isn’t so favorable–

“How come you sound like Michael Caine?”

His smile turned more boyish and his voice turned James Stewart.  “Well gosh, ma’am, I couldn’t, I couldn’t just say.”

“Oh, my God,” cried Sassi, “it does imitations.  There is a fate worse than death!”

So she’s a very nice person, not the tiniest bit stuck-up or neurotic, good sense of humor, and she’s got two beautiful Afghan hounds named Kama and Sutra, and is of course beautiful herself, and blonde, and there’s really nothing at all wrong with her, and all she wants is to live like a regular person and do her job, and still have a normal life.  And I could imagine any number of movie stars identifying with that notion of themselves, and maybe that would have been the hook to lure one of them in to play her.  If the movie had ever been made.

But I don’t buy any of it.  She didn’t start out as a child star–she left a sailor husband, before heading for Hollywood–she worked damn hard to get where she is, and the only person stopping her from walking away is herself (I mean, Grace Freakin’ Kelly walked away at the peak of her fame, though hardly to lead a normal life).  Westlake will revisit this general scenario, jilted sailor husband and all, in a later work, and it will be a much darker portrait of celebrity.   Followed still later by one of the darkest portraits of celebrity anybody ever wrote.   Plus there was this series of detective novels–oh well, it’ll keep.

I don’t want to synopsize this one to any great extent.  The story is, by Westlake’s standards, pretty damned weak.  They go to Jamaica–they scope out the terrain, following Starnap’s instructions.  They grab Sassi while she’s screening a film entry (she’s there as one of the festival judges), only to learn they’ve actually grabbed Miss Rushby, companion to Major ffork-Linton (Westlake is letting his Wodehousian roots show here), and a fine pair of old school English felons they are, but not enough time to develop them, and they do stick out a bit in this context.

It was the Major who stole Sassi (answering the question posed by the title), and they have to work out a deal, since he’s attached to Miss Rushby (she’s actually his wife and the mother of his son, who they have to ransom from some warlord, and it’s all just so tiresome having to explain it).   They all end up on an island in Part 2 (entitled People, whereas Part 1 was Machines), and of course there’s romance and revelations, and misunderstandings, and schemes and counter-schemes, and it sounds so much more interesting than it actually is.

And then there’s Jigger Jackson.   Yes, Jigger.  That’s a girl’s name.  No, I have no idea, maybe she’s from the south?   Redheaded, spunky, a whole lot sassier (and sexier) than Sassi, and trying her darndest to become a movie star.  She has this idea maybe Ms. Manoon will want to help her, and through a series of events I don’t feel motivated to describe, she ends up getting abducted as well.

For some reason, she’s attracted to Kelly–she’s got a weakness for schnooks, which is certainly convenient.   But she’s determined to resist her feelings, because she has a destiny to fulfill–Miss Rushby puts her up to stealing the boat starter key from Kelly–then she and Kelly have what I must admit is a pretty touching love scene–also funny.  And so very Wodehouse, I can’t even begin to tell you…..but with a Westlake-ian lilt to it.

He glared at her with brooding eyes.  “I mean that society has made no place for me,” he said through clenched teeth.  “So I have to carve my own place in this world, no matter who gets in my way.”

She blinked.  She hadn’t expected anything like this from Kelly.  All she’d ever seen from him so far was petulant schnookdom.  This was the other side of the coin and she was finding it a contradictory but compelling combination: a schnook with fire.

“I understand, Kelly,” she said.  “I know just what you mean.”

He looked surprised.  “You do?”

“Yes, I do,” she said fiercely.  “You have to fight for what you want in this life.”

“That’s right!  You do know, don’t you?”  He swigged from his drink, thumped the glass down on the table.

“Of course I know!” she told him.  “You don’t get anything in this life you don’t fight for.”

“That’s for sure.”  He grinned at her in savage companionship.  “And you know what the only weapon is?”

“She did. “Money!” she cried.

“That’s right!” His fists were clenched, his face was flushed.  “Money is power!”

“That’s right, Kelly, you’re right!”  She was caught up in it completely now, she was clutching at his arm, she’d never felt so totally understood by another human being in her entire life.  She’d forgotten all about her belief that Kelly was a schnook, she’d forgotten all about Miss Rushby and the key, she’d forgotten all about Sassi Manoon and the perfect entree into the movies.  There was nothing but Kelly, who understood!   He understood!  “We’ve got to get it any way we can!” she yelled, exultant.

“And then they’ll leave us alone!” Kelly roared.  He was gripping her arm, his hands like steel.

“To  live our own lives!” she yelled in his face, laughing at the wonder of it, the beauty of it, this meeting of star-crossed atoms.

“Yes!”

“Yes!”

“JIGGER!”

“KELLY!”

They flung themselves into a wild embrace, and only much later did they start to be gentle.

Cast Emma Stone as Jigger, and some guy who doesn’t make me sick to my stomach as Kelly, and I’d pay for a ticket.   Well, maybe I’d just wait for it to pop up on cable.

So can we just cut to the chase here?   They get the ransom money.   The Major and Miss Rushby try to swindle them out of it, with Jigger’s assistance (since Jigger still thinks Sassi can help her, and refuses to process that Sassi is delighted to be taking a vacation from her crazy life), but Jigger is torn between stardom and Kelly–and of course true love prevails.   As it always does in this kind of story.  Only in this case, true love prevailing means the kidnappers get away with the goods, and it’s all arranged in such a way as that you know the authorities will never remotely suspect them.

They only get about 100k per man, so they’re hardly set for life–they just get a bit more time to figure out who they want to be when they grow up. Kelly gets Jigger, and Jigger gets Kelly (kind of think Kelly’s getting the better part of the bargain here).   The Major and Miss Rushby get each other, though they are probably out a son (he sounds like a bit of a ne’er do well, anyway).  Sassi gets to go back to her Afghans.  And Westlake gets another check from Random House, after (one would hope) already getting one from Palomar Pictures.  It’s a living.

He also gets some ideas he can do more with later on.   His next comic caper will leave nothing to be desired.  He’s still a few years away from that, though.  The best writers learn at least as much from their misfires as their successes, and Westlake is already one of the best writers out there.   But even he can’t make a silk purse out of a bad screenplay–and it’s unlikely he deserves all the blame for that, since obviously the story he wrote would have been heavily influenced by the demands of his employers.   He presumably got notes from the suits.  Just so long as they came with bank notes, he wouldn’t complain too much–he’d just get even later on, by using that same story to bite the hand that fed him.   The hand probably never even noticed.

And that’s quite enough about Sassi–one of my shorter reviews–deservedly so (not that the quality of the book is really what determines how longwinded I get, from week to week).

And my next review will be of a collection of short stories–some of them quite good, none of them really prime Westlake, because that simply wasn’t his form.  And as far as publication goes, 1968 was not one of his better years.   In terms of what he was actually writing during 1968, that’s another matter, but we’ll have to wait until 1969 (and 2015) to start seeing that.   Well worth the wait.

PS: In that lengthy quote up top, I added a bracketed [sic] because clearly the word preceding it is supposed to be ‘were’, not ‘where’.   I don’t know if this is Westlake’s error or the publisher’s.  And I don’t really care.   I’m just relieved to have this one out of the way for good and all.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels