Walking to the taffrail, I was in time to make out, on the very edge of a darkness thrown by a towering black mass like the very gateway of Erebus—yes, I was in time to catch an evanescent glimpse of my white hat left behind to mark the spot where the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.
From The Secret Sharer, by Joseph Conrad.
This table is set for twelve,” she said. “but there are thirteen of us.”
“One of us won’t be staying,” I said.
Well, I may be a mere television actor, lacking stage experience, but I do know how to deliver a good line. I couldn’t have gotten more attention at that moment if I’d announced I was the reincarnation of Vishnu. Everybody gaped at me, and Terry Young said, “You don’t mean it, Sam? You cracked the goddam thing?”
Enjoy those three foreign editions of the first Holt novel I posted up top last week? They’re going to have to tide you over a while, because the Official Westlake Blog has no more of the same to offer with regards to the other three books in this series. I’ll have to make do with the Tor first editions and the much more recent Felony & Mayhem paperback reprints (which I cordially loathe, though they probably do give a fairly accurate if superficial rendition of how most people would have perceived the Holt novels).
Tor Books may have done Westlake the dirty in terms of not keeping the secret of who ‘Samuel Holt’ really was, and most of their covers for this series were just okay, but for this book they really outdid themselves–that’s a brilliant little bit of cover art, that tells you just enough about the story and sets the mood perfectly–whoever did it clearly read the book carefully (as opposed to whoever did the paperback reprint cover up top, though I suppose he did at least give us a fair rendition of Anita Imperato–Bly Quinn never made the cover–except are we supposed to believe Anita is almost as tall as Sam? Those heels aren’t that high).
And in my estimation, this is the Holt book that most especially rewards the careful reader. It’s my personal favorite of the bunch. And it’s still just okay. But Donald Westlake’s version of okay is several cuts above the average mystery writer’s best work.
The first novel had been a ‘mystery’ in the broader sense of the term–violent mysterious goings-on, questions that need to be answered, villains that must ultimately be dispatched, but it almost falls more under the heading of an espionage novel (or certain types of P.I. novel).
The remaining three books in the series, beginning with this, had unemployed actor Samuel Holt playing detective in the classic sense–somebody is dead, and he has to solve the murder. He doesn’t want to–he’s a reluctant detective, like pretty nearly all of the Westlake sleuths. He’s dragooned into it, a victim of circumstances, and he’s not really trained to be a detective–he just played one on TV. So in each case, Westlake had to be innovative in terms of how he motivated his shy shamus.
A real weakness in this series, which I’m going to get out of the way now, and which I just know was bothering Westlake at the time, is that no matter how cunningly the author motivated his hero, there’s an underlying improbability to the whole thing that works for a television show–like Packard–but not so well for this. Why does Mr. Holt keep getting into these situations? And why does he never ask himself that question?
In the course of what seems to be less than a year (starting in winter) he foils a terrorist plot, then solves three completely unconnected incidences of murder relating to people he was acquainted with in one way or another. I used to cruelly tease my poor mother about this kind of contrivance when it came to her favorite show, Murder She Wrote–clearly Jessica Fletcher was doing the murders herself–how else can you explain all the bodies dropping wherever she goes? How else could her sleepy New England hamlet have a homicide rate that rivals Detroit? Hmm, that question probably ties better into the book after this one, but let it go for now.
Since Sam is a TV star, trying desperately to escape the role everybody knows him for, in which his character was constantly running into unsolved murders, obviously this is more or less along the lines of “Magnum P.I. meets Pirandello.” One character in search of an exit. Somebody is playing a very extended practical joke on him, and we know who that is. But he doesn’t.
It’s not just a joke, though–a mere satiric commentary on murder mystery conventions, such as we saw in A Travesty. Westlake hated the way mysteries made light of murder, ignored its deeper emotional aspects, and generally comported themselves as if to say the detective could solve all problems in life by solving the conundrum of whodunnit.
He’d been making a similar commentary in the Tobin novels, but since Tobin was a former police detective who needed money to support his family while he diverted himself from thoughts of suicide by building a wall in his backyard, it was easier to make the reader believe he could run into five murder mysteries over the course of a few years, and then solve them. People would bring the mysteries to him, he’d try to come up with some excuse for not investigating them, but he’d always get dragged into it somehow, because Life just wouldn’t leave him alone to brood on his sins and dabble in masonry.
Sam is a rich TV actor with many highly pleasurable diversions (blonde and brunette), no family to support (he seems to have lost both his parents, only occasionally visits his remaining family in Long Island), and he has four mysteries to solve in less than one year. The mysteries have to revolve around his career (or lack thereof) somehow. So the first one comes from him knowing a TV writer in trouble. And the second will likewise stem from a personal connection, somebody who needs his help. The third and fourth will also stem from his professional limbo.
But it’s an inherently self-limiting premise. And a writer of Westlake’s caliber couldn’t possibly be unaware of that. A less exacting writer could have probably written dozens of Holts (Richard Prather wrote forty-one Shell Scott mysteries), and maybe there would have been an actual TV series based on them at some point, but Westlake wants these to be real books that really mean something. Let’s see how he does with this one.
It all starts when Sam gets a call from somebody claiming to be Holton Hickey–Sam Holt’s real name. Somebody from his past, obviously–and Sam realizes it has to be his old partner on the Mineola police force, Doug Walford. But he doesn’t want to identify himself over the phone, for some reason–and he wants Sam to meet him in a spot way out on Long Island where they used to ‘coop’–take a nap in their squad car when they were supposed to be on duty. Sam agrees to the meeting and the call ends.
(Walford is a name that crops up here and there in the Westlake canon–first appearance I know of was in Wax Apple, one of the Tobin mysteries. There was a Walford in the previous Holt book as well. I don’t know what the significance of it is for Westlake–in Wax Apple and this book it’s seemingly a reference to a road not taken and just as well it wasn’t–but as I’ve already mentioned, I think this was one of the many little hints Westlake put in the Holt books that were supposed to tip sharp-eyed readers off as to who really wrote them).
But before he goes out there for the meet, he’s got dinner plans at Anita’s restaurant, Vitto Impero, where he’s also dining with his reporter friend Terry Young (a columnist for the Daily News who got into a big fight with Sam when assigned to interview him, and that’s how they became chums), Terry’s German-born wife Gretchen (who Sam greatly admires and ze feeling is moochul), and his personal physician (when he’s in New York), Bill Ackerson, plus Bill’s date, who doesn’t really figure into anything.
So Sam has to make his excuses early to pick up a rental car and get out to the sticks, and Anita jokes lightly that he better not be ‘three-timing’ her. She accepts his west coast relationship with Bly Quinn, because to a Manhattan girl like her, nothing that happens west of the Hudson really matters–if he was seeing somebody else on her turf, that would be something else again. She’s kidding on the square, he realizes, and he can’t tell her where he’s going, or who he’s meeting up with. But he still has to go.
So he gets out to the meeting place, and after waiting around a while, gets back in the car, feeling a bit disgusted with himself–and Doug’s been waiting in there for him, hiding in the back seat. He snuck in and waited for Sam to get bored. He tells Sam to just start the car and take him back to the city. He’s being that careful. And Sam is the only person on earth he trusts now.
Trusts him enough to tell him the story while they’re driving back. After he and Sam parted ways, he got a job offer from a private detective agency. The work was interesting enough, certainly paid better than traffic cop, but in the course of doing an investigation for a woman looking to divorce her husband, he found out some things about the husband’s business he wasn’t supposed to find out. The husband’s name is Frank Althorn, and he’s a rich businessman, owns casinos and such. You see where Doug’s going with this.
Frank’s not technically mobbed up–his own hands are always lily white, because that’s his function–as Terry explains to Sam later, he’s the mob’s shabbas goy–a term that has to be explained to Sam, because he only grew up near the city not in it–in New York proper, most people pick up some Yiddish terms. A shabbas goy is a non-Jew who is employed by strictly observant Jews to do things they’re not supposed to do on the Sabbath. And Frank Althorn does things known members of the mafia can’t do at all (like operate casinos).
Doug can’t tell Sam a whole lot about it–truth is, he still doesn’t really know what he learned that was so dangerous, and he’s been trying to find out–but it’s to do with pharmaceuticals, the legal kind, that much he knows. The woman he was living with and her kid were killed when these people tried a hit on him. He’s been running ever since. His one-man crusade is wearing him down. He needs to come in from the cold for a while.
So much to the displeasure of Robinson, Sam’s personal Jeeves (only not so helpful and much less forbearing), he becomes a long-term house guest, but as Robinson reminds Sam, he’s got a dinner party coming up there in a few weeks, and it won’t be possible to hide Doug from the other guests (it’s a townhouse, not a mansion). And as Terry informs Sam, Anita really is wondering if Sam left to see another girlfriend that night, and Sam can’t risk losing her to preserve Doug’s secret.
Anita was at the cash register, ringing up accumulated lunch receipts. I could see her through the window in the locked front door, it now being almost three-thirty in the afternoon, lunchtime over. Very faintly, I could hear the ding-ding-ding of the cash register. She looked absorbed in her work, oblivious of the world around her, and I paused a few seconds before knocking, just to look at her. A good-looking woman. An intelligent, interesting, complex, sometimes irritable woman. Very valuable to me. I knocked on the glass.
So he tells her what’s going on, and she’s ready to help out, put some weight on Doug for one thing, so he’ll be harder to recognize. They come up with an alias for him–he’s a TV writer Sam knows, having troubles with writer’s block. He’ll mingle at the party, and everything will be fine. Except everything isn’t. Doug is murdered at the party.
He’s found locked in the upstairs bathroom, having apparently taken pills. The police ask questions, Sam tells them what Doug told him, and they don’t buy it. They write it off as suicide. Doug Walford was depressed and paranoid, making up stories in his head to explain what had happened to him. Sam flies back to L.A.
And that would be the story, except Sam doesn’t believe it was suicide, and after what he describes as ‘a moderately good mid-afternoon sexual encounter,’ Bly Quinn tells him so. And he’s still angry about it, and so it’s time for him to play Packard again. With her as the daffy sidekick who pulls S.J. Perelman references out of thin air. “Personne ici except us chickens, eh?”
(You know why I don’t think Bly’s the right girl for him? Because she’s so obviously Donald E. Westlake’s idealized female self-image, sharing all his interests, and Sam is his idealized macho self-image, and it’s just weird, sometimes. The strangest take on auto-eroticism I’ve yet to encounter in literature. But enjoyable, for all that.)
And it’s a nice drive anyway, to San Francisco, through Big Sur, to see Joe Kearny, the investigator whose firm Doug had working for him to try and get enough solid information so he could go to the law with his suspicions. And of course Joe Kearny is clearly an alternate universe doppelganger of Dan Kearny, a tip of the hat to Joe Gores and the DKA novels, the first of which had a cross-over with Plunder Squad. I shouldn’t even need to mention that, but I will anyway.
He can’t tell them much, gives them little hope of success, but he produces Doug’s file, and tells Bly that when she’s had enough of this game, she should distract Sam. He doesn’t know that she’s the one who always wants Sam to play detective, so she can play along with him.
And they have a good game, complete with two thugs threatening Sam out by the waterfront, as they investigate a shipping company that has some obscure tie to Frank Althorn. The cops pull up just in time to stop the fight before it starts, and Sam wonders about that. But one thing he knows–somebody wanted to send him a message. He really is onto something here, but what? All the leads have been dead-ends. They head back for L.A. (pausing for some really great sex, because it’s a Sam Holt novel).
So they can’t expose the larger conspiracy, anymore than Doug could–they’re not equipped for it. But as Bly reminds Sam, there is a less nebulous, more specific mystery to solve here–who actually killed Douglas Walford. Not who gave the order, and why, but who carried it out. The suspect list is not that long.
She tells him that the real reason he’s so upset is that he knows Doug Walford was murdered, and the only possible suspects are people who attended that party–friends of his, and people his friends brought with them. Somebody betrayed his hospitality, and his friendship, something Sam can never forgive or forget. And furthermore, Doug was his partner, years ago, and you know what Sam Spade would say about that. What Sam Holt says is “Shit.” She’s right. And she found yet another excuse for an obscure reference, this time from The Big Knife. “Why do you come fling these naked pigeons in my face?”
And naturally, one of those pigeons is Anita (she catered the event). She is, after all, Italian, and owns a restaurant. It’s not impossible the mob could have a hold on her. Sam doesn’t want to believe it, he actively disbelieves it, but he can’t rule it out. He can’t rule any of them out. Because, like Mitch Tobin, he’s a completist.
You can’t help but think Bly is wondering if this is the moment the romantic stalemate between her and Anita gets broken in her favor, but her main concern is Sam–he’s never going to be okay with himself if he lets this go. He’s never going to fully trust anyone again. Already an occupational hazard for any celebrity. To know who you are, you have to know who your real friends are. So back to New York, to settle accounts.
He meets Bill Ackerson, his doctor, for lunch. Softens him up with some Hollywood gossip–a well-known star, the kind who does romantic leads, who happens to be gay, has been talking about coming out of the closet, and his agent told him “Wait another ten million dollars, John.” Damn, seems so long ago now that this was a thing (and am I naive for thinking it isn’t still very much a thing?).
Bill wants to know how a murderer could threaten someone into taking poison–Sam says they already did that on Packard–the poison would have been injected from behind, and the pills planted to explain the death. Bill, a fanatical fan of the show (Sam is appalled to find out he has every episode on tape–that’s going to be a thing too, Sam), can’t believe he forgot that one. Anyway, it’s pretty clear Bill couldn’t have administered the injection himself–the key to this case is to figure out where everybody at the party was at the moment Doug was killed.
He’s been putting off seeing Anita. She’s noticed that. She demands he present himself to her, and he goes to her apartment, over the restaurant. He kisses her passionately, then explains the situation. She is not the least bit happy about it, but she somehow understands–and having read his list, which contains her name, has a partial solution to the problem.
Carefully folding the paper, she handed it back to me and said, “Let me offer you a drink now, okay? If I’m the one who poisoned Doug Walford, and if I know Packard is on the case, which means sooner or later I’m bound to be found out, then I’ll poison you, too, right now, and your worries will be over. If you survive the drink, you can run a faint pencil line through my name. Is it a deal?”
I had to laugh. “It’s a deal.”
“Hemlock and soda?” she asked, getting to her feet.
He’s still alive later that night, lying in bed beside her, unable to sleep–didn’t we have the same post-coital scene in Anita’s bed in the last book? Sex with Anita seems to bring out a contemplative soul-searching side in him we never see when he’s with Bly (because what he has with Bly is a fantasy, and his thing with Anita is real, is my take). Anita didn’t poison him, but suspicion has.
At this point, his investigation isn’t really about justice for Doug Walford, bur rather vengeance against someone who betrayed him. And about being able to 100% trust a woman he has very deep feelings for. It’s personal, and he can’t let go of it.
But there could be very serious personal consequences–one of the people he has to question is the very serious girlfriend of his acting chum, Brett Burgess–she can’t come up with an alibi for the party. Brett, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, only belatedly realizes what Sam is saying, and gives him a look–tells him be careful not to break anything. Like a friendship.
The plot thickens further, when Terry Young takes him out to Long Island to go yachting with a Republican congressman named Toomey, who Terry happens to know has been looking into links between organized crime and defective or experimental U.S. pharmaceuticals being unloaded on third world nations. He doesn’t know anything about Doug’s murder, but it’s possible that’s what Doug stumbled into, and that means whoever killed Doug could be a link that leads to the people Toomey is after.
(Again, Westlake is using this series to write about a real issue, as he did with Islamic fundamentalism in the first Holt novel. It’s less effective here, a bit too soap-boxy, and he seems to have dialed back on that angle for the next two books. I’m no expert on this issue, but with decades of hindsight, I’d say it was a bit naive to think Big Pharma needed any help from the mob to do this kind of thing. Naivete is not a trait I generally associate with Westlake, and maybe he decided he was out of his depth here. Maybe we all are.)
Sam is still busily interrogating various friends and acquaintances–he’s got the list down to six names–he thinks. At one point, he has to talk to Vera Slote, a fashion designer who came as Bill’s date, and later in the book she’s throwing herself at him quite unapologetically, as women often do. A rather unpleasant person, who cattily disparages Anita’s taste in clothing– but a very well-known designer, with no apparent motive, and of course none of the needed expertise to pull something like this off. It just doesn’t seem like any of them could have done it. Yet one of them did.
He also talks to his New York attorney, Morton Adler (one of the best supporting characters in this series, there are actors out there who could have had a ball playing him if this had ever become an actual series). Mort says you never believe two witnesses alone–two can collude. Three’s a crowd, when it comes to a conspiracy.
He heads out to Atlantic City to see Frank Althorn, shake the tree a bit. Althorn has opened a new casino hotel, and the headliner at the theater there is a female stand-up comedian named Sandy Sheriff. As luck would have it, the guy opening for her (in this context ‘to open’ means to facilitate, make sure the talent is happy in every possible way) is Robin Corrigan, who used to make Sam’s life as a TV star so much easier when he was doing promotional stuff. His primary concern at the present time is that the hotel, having just opened, is an organizational nightmare, and they can’t get Sandy the right kind of stool for her to use in her act.
Sam’s former life can be a nuisance at times, but at others it gives him a decided edge–he just calls Robin, and asks for an introduction to Althorn. All he has to do in return is go to Sandy’s show, and stand up for a round of applause when she points him out. Robin is unequivocally gay, and again we see Sam has zero issues on that front–well, homophobia in straight guys is mainly about sexual insecurity, isn’t it? Sam has nothing to be insecure about on that front, and finds Robin a delight to be around. Robin likes Sam too, but he’s working for Sandy now, so Sam has to tread lightly.
Sandy Sheriff is, quite self-evidently, Joan Rivers. You can know this simply by the fact that Westlake and Rivers worked together on a screenplay for a never-produced film that went by the title A Girl Named Banana. Or you can just read her description in the book, without any background info at all, and that works about as well. How that creative partnership ever came to pass, I have no idea, but Westlake, always interested in comedians, was very impressed with her stand-up work, as you can see here–
They found her a stool, a black one, and Sandy Sheriff, a tall skinny blonde with gawky knees and elbows, dragged it back and forth on stage behind her, occasionally sitting on it, at times leaping from it, all the while she harangued her audience, who loved her. She talked very fast at top volume, she yelled and screamed and flung her arms around and wrestled with the stool, and I would say she used up more energy in fifty minutes on that stage than I do in a week in my gym at home in Los Angeles; and this was the first of two shows tonight. Her material was somewhat blue, but it was mostly an inflamed report of her ongoing gun battle with the world around her: arguments with cabdrivers and telephone operators, put-downs from agents and movie stars, struggles with pets and locked doors and income-tax forms.
(Westlake’s opinion of the compatibility of his and Rivers’ comic styles can perhaps be divined from an exchange Sam has with Bly over the phone–he’s got to pretend to Robin that he’s seriously thinking about doing a project with Sandy, so he cold calls Bly–a well-known sitcom writer–and basically clues her in to act like she knows what he’s talking about when he talks about this potential series they’re working on. She’ll play along, but she can never resist an easy punchline. “Sandy Sheriff and Sam Holt. Not since Wallace Beery and Rin Tin Tin.”)
So Althorn comes in, and Sam finds a way to let him know–he knows. And Althorn finds a way to let Sam know–he better know what he could be in for if he doesn’t stop this. And just to make sure the message hits home, he has four professionals armed with blackjacks work Sam over in the elevator later on. They’re really professional.
At this point, Sam (bruised but not broken) makes the acquaintance of Charles Petvich, Treasury Agent, who has been keeping an eye on him–certain persons in the government are curious about his connection to Althorn. Knowing that the thing about bureaucracies is that the left hand really doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, Sam introduces Petvich to Toomey, and now he’s got some heavy muscle of his own to aim at Althorn–but he’s still got to find the killer in order for them to have a target to zero in on, somebody to grill.
And this is when Sam finally has that flash of insight you’re waiting for in a story like this–one of his suspects slipped up, said something that clued him in–he knows who the killer is. And now comes the obligatory gathering of the suspects in the drawing room. Only in this case, the detective has already played this scene many times in the past while pretending to be a detective on TV. Life imitating Art imitating Life……
And it’s not anybody Sam (or the reader) really cares about, which I suppose is a bit of a cop-out, but this was never really about whodunnit, and this is true of most Westlake mystery stories, as I’ve noted in past. I don’t want to give it away–truth is, with this genre, you can come back to a book years later, and find that you’ve forgotten how it ended. It’s not crucial for my purposes to reveal the guilty party or parties at the party, so I won’t. Except I will say that the best speech in the big finale scene goes to the best actor–Brett Burgess. And Brett can be smart about some things. Actors are smart about motivations.
But there he is, in his own townhouse, Sam Holt, a man who achieved fame and fortune playing a suave debonair amateur sleuth on television, and he’s playing it for real this time, before most of the people in this world who mean something to him, and on one level he’s enjoying himself–and on another, it feels so empty, so pointless, in a way it never did when he was faking it before the cameras.
Because, you see, he knew what he was doing it for then–to entertain people. To fill an hour of primetime. To sell soap. But what did he do this for? To prove something to himself? To the world? To prove he’s not just a has-been? He still can’t get arrested in Hollywood. But he can get somebody else arrested in New York.
He’s ruined somebody’s life–granted, that person deserves most of the blame for that, but Sam gets an assist. And of course Doug Walford is still quite dead, and if any posthumous good comes from his quixotic one-man crusade, he won’t be around to see it.
It didn’t feel like a victory, or an accomplishment. It didn’t feel like anything good at all. I looked around at my friends, and saw my own feelings reflected. “Well,” I said. “Probably we could use another drink before dinner. Robinson?”
As with the previous story, Sam was just trying to help out a friend, and it backfired, badly, forced him to see some things about himself he didn’t really want to acknowledge–he was trying to help Doug achieve his mission, because he didn’t have one of his own other than to go back to pretending to be someone else. Doug was his secret sharer for a while (hence the Conrad quote up top), living clandestinely in his home, and they opened up to each other–but the strange optimism of Conrad’s ambiguous narrative won’t play here. He still doesn’t know where to steer the ship of his life.
It’s hard to convey all the things about this book that do work–it’s much easier to convey all the things that don’t. There are so many small scenes that come off perfectly–and Sam Holt is an interesting protagonist in that his celebrity allows him to move effortlessly through the different interlocking parts of the entertainment world, and all the other worlds (like politics and organized crime) that the entertainment world is always rubbing up against.
Westlake had spent a lot of time around people in showbiz, starting with his brief stint in small time theatricals, then writing for movies and TV, and he likes show people–he does. They have many fine qualities, they make the world a more interesting place, and he must by his very nature appreciate anyone who is in a constant state of self-invention. He knows as well as anyone what that’s like.
But there’s something he wants to convey about that world–its unreality, the way it eats away at identity, until nobody is quite sure who they are–everybody’s as good as his or her last project. And the fans who worship them from afar (or up close) don’t even see them as real people. He’s going to have to find a better way to express this than these books, a darker way, and he will, soon enough, at which point he’s going to put his fascination with the world of actors aside, at long last.
But see, it’s not all bad, this world he’s showing us–he wants to be fair, as well as honest–and in the Holt books he shows that these often fairly messed up people, with their vanities and addictions and delusions, are still people, with understandable agendas and aspirations of their own.
And after all, people who aren’t in showbiz can be pretty confused as well. Judge not lest ye be judged. It’s not as if you wouldn’t trade places with them in a minute, right? We’re all so damned interested in them, and there’s no point pretending otherwise. They have the ratings and box office stats to prove we’re liars (not to mention the supermarket tabloids).
His title is yet again a hint as to the nature of the story (going to be hard to sustain these numerical titles longterm). And for his next trick, he’s going to take Sam Holt out of that world entirely, along with a handful of other actors trapped in their roles, in a rather odd admixture of Agatha Christie and Rod Serling–the latter of whom is mentioned in this book–by Anita, believe it or not–why should Bly get all the pop cultural references? One little two little three little–never mind.