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.