It is strange how the mind works, sometimes going on about its own business regardless of what is happening in the real world all around it. The instant the shot had been fired, I had known who had fired it and why, and from that I had known who had killed the John Doe and Dan Tynebourne and the girl–I supposed she was a Jane Doe now, at least for the moment–and why those killings had been done. The knowledge was absolutely useless to me in my present condition, but I did know it.
MODERATOR: He’s dead!
TIMOTHY J. CULVER: This water glass–yes, just as I thought. A rare undetectable South American poison. Tucker Coe has been murdered.
DONALD E. WESTLAKE: I didn’t do it!
And here we are, at the fifth and final Mitchell Tobin Mystery, and before we proceed to look it over, it might behoove us to ask why that is. Why is this the last one? Five novels for a reasonably successful highly-acclaimed detective series (the first of which almost got made into a movie with Bob Mitchum as Mitch Tobin) is an exceptionally brief run in this genre–even granting that you wouldn’t want there to be scores of them, that even a dozen might have been too much of a good thing, five is cutting things a bit short.
You ever read any Max Thursday novels? If so, consider me impressed. He got six books. He was pretty good. He was no Mitch Tobin. Many far less interesting fictional detectives got twenty or more novels devoted to their perennially perplexed peregrinations. And almost nobody reads most of those books now–collects them for the cover art, maybe. So yeah, there is that. Don’t want to wear out your welcome.
But why did Westlake not only get rid of Tobin, but Tucker Coe as well, killing him off in a subsequent self-referential spoof he wrote for an anthology of articles on the mystery genre? And basically confessing that he himself, Donald Westlake, had done the deed?
We have long had the official answer from Westlake himself–that he had told the story he’d set out to tell. He’d set out to show us a man coming back from a deep depression, while solving murder mysteries along the way, learning things about himself and the human condition as he went, and once his emotional wounds had finally begun to heal, there was no point continuing. Tobin could either go on wallowing in a pit of gloom, or he could become a standard-issue fictional gumshoe, of which Westlake felt there were too many already. I think Westlake was telling the truth when he said that, but maybe not the whole truth. And it may have been more clear to him in retrospect than it was at the time.
There’s certainly no indication in the book itself that this is the last we’ll ever see of Tobin, or Coe–not in the novel, nor in the promotional text on the first edition dust jacket. I doubt very much that Westlake started writing this book with the express and definite intention of never writing again as Coe, and he certainly leaves the door open at the end to more Tobin later, in spite of some loose ends getting wrapped up.
Westlake often wrote books that could serve as a finishing point to a given series character, only to return to that character later on. Not this time. This one can certainly be read as a finale, but having read it twice now, it feels much less like one than Butcher’s Moon or Good Behavior, which both turned out to be mere intermissions.
One reason this turned out to be the last Coe was probably that Coe didn’t sell that well–well enough, I’m sure, that Westlake could have prolonged his relationship with Random House a while longer, cranking out a few more Tobins–but they might have been less interested in anything else from Coe, assuming Westlake even had anything else in mind to write in that voice (which is basically Tobin’s voice). Even a writer as prolific as Westlake can only produce so much work in one year–he may have simply figured it was not a sound professional decision, keeping that pseudonym alive.
But if he’d made that decision when he was writing this book, I doubt he’d have named the brokerage house in Cops and Robbers (which he would have written around the same time) ‘Parker, Tobin, Eastpoole, and Co.’ He was justly proud of having made not just one name for himself as a writer, but several. He hadn’t quite let go of that in his mind.
And yet, as the 70’s went on, the pseudonyms fell by the wayside. Just two more Starks appear after this, until Comeback in 1997. No more Coes. He wrote a bit more science fiction here and there, but never again as Curt Clark. He’d quit writing sleazes, and Richard Stark shot Culver dead in the same piece where Westlake poisoned Coe, then escaped with everyone’s valuables–meaning Westlake was not ready to let go of that alter ego, several years after writing Butcher’s Moon.
Be that as it may, after Butcher’s Moon, his next twelve novels over the course of as many years are all under his own name, and then comes the even more abortive experiment of writing as Samuel Holt about a reluctant detective of the same name–and there are some odd parallels between the Holts and the Tobins, but we’ll talk about that in due course.
Westlake had been writing under multiple names since the start of his career, but from the early 70’s to the late 90’s, he wrote mainly as himself. This couldn’t be a decision he made all at once–it would have come upon him by degrees. It may have been partly motivated by a decreasing productivity–he no longer was writing ‘far too much’, as he confessed to doing for a while, in a later introduction he wrote for the Tobin novels.
He didn’t need the extra identities to serve as outlets for his surplus creative energies anymore. He had a good thing going at M. Evans & Co. He had regular income from Hollywood buying the rights to his books, and sometimes even getting him to write something original for the screen. He had nonfiction articles bringing in money as well. He had Dortmunder to fall back on as a series character; the most popular he ever created–certainly far more so than Tobin, and more suited to Westlake’s marked affinity for thieves.
And he turned 40 in 1973, a sobering milestone for anyone. It was time to slow down and devote more time to figuring out what he, Westlake, could do as a writer. To put aside all the masks, for the time being at least. And time for me to stop wanking about and review the damn book. It really bugs me this is the last one, you know. I’m going to reveal the killer below, so be warned.
So in his last outing, you may recall, Mitch Tobin, that most reluctant of reluctant detectives, had decided to stop sitting around feeling sorry for himself, building a brick wall in his back yard, and making the odd bit of change doing freelance (and technically illegal) private investigations. Through his friend on the force, Marty Kengelberg, he got a P.I. license, and as that story ends, we the readers can only assume that he’s going to embrace his destiny as a man who solves odd crimes nobody else can, helping people who live on the fringes of mainstream society, and continuing his gradual journey back into the light of day.
And as this book begins, he’s working nights as private security for The Museum of American Graphic Art. We probably have one somewhere in New York, there’s a museum of just about anything you can imagine here. See, here’s the thing–most ex-cops and such who get P.I. licenses only do so in order to work this kind of gig, supplement their pensions, assuming they have one (Mitch, dismissed from the force with extreme prejudice, does not).
Tobin is actually an employee of a security firm, Allied Protection Services. What, you thought he was going to set up his own shingle, have a little seedy office somewhere, do the Sam Spade thing? Okay, that’s what I thought too. It just makes sense, right? Westlake always digs the independents–why would he make one of his greatest independents into a company man, a mere hireling?
Well, what else can Tobin do? He’s not rich. He’s got a wife and a son–kid’s going to college soon. He needs a steady income, health insurance, etc. He’s nearly gotten himself killed on three different occasions while trying to solve murders, and no real private detective makes a living solving murders. That’s just in the pulps, and the movies.
If he worked as a private investigator, whether on his own, or for some big agency, he’d be peeping through keyholes, tracking down deadbeat dads or bail jumpers. Maybe repossessing cars. It’s a living, sure, but for a guy like Tobin, who values privacy above all else, it would be sheer hell. Night security work is peaceful, quiet. Peace and quiet is all he’s been wanting for a very long time now. Oh Mitch. Haven’t you figured out by now that you never get what you want? Not for very long, anyway.
So he’s doing his rounds one night, looking at various displays, and he hears a knocking at the door–it’s Linda Campbell. We’ve been hearing about her since the first book, and now we get a look at her–just a slender little blonde, nothing amazing–but she’s the woman Tobin ruined his life over. The wife of Dink Campbell, a minor-league burglar, who Tobin sent away for a few years when he was a detective, and he ended up spending some time with Linda, and if you’ve been keeping up you know the story by heart already. It’s an old story, anyhow. There’s a version of it in The Book of Samuel, as I recall.
Anyway, Dink’s out of jail now, and he’s in trouble, naturally. Some criminal acquaintances want Dink, a skilled lockman, to help them on a job. He’s one more conviction from going away for life, and is not enthused about it, but he didn’t send her to see her old lover. She just didn’t know who else to turn to–she wants Tobin to use his connections on the NYPD to put pressure on these guys, make them lay off. He’s not enthused about that, but we already know he’s terrible at saying no to the women in his life–even the ones that aren’t in it anymore.
Yes, this is a more than a bit reminiscent of The Out is Death, that novel by Peter Rabe that I referenced in my review of The Jugger, and I’m sure that’s no coincidence,but it’s only the B-Plot anyway. The A-Plot is the dead naked male body Mitch and Linda discover inside the museum as she’s preparing to leave–he calls it in, but before she makes her hasty exist, it’s decided he won’t mention her–that would bring her into the media coverage, which would drag up the old scandal of their affair that led to the death of his partner Jock, and his expulsion from the force. Tobin was a cop too long not to know there are times when telling the truth is a sucker’s game. He’ll lie if he has to, and unless there’s a damned good reason not to, he’ll stick to that lie, come hell or high water. Hence the title.
He doesn’t lie to Kate, though. That’s a very different matter. Having weathered the initial investigation without anyone getting too suspicious, he goes home that morning and tells his (much) better half everything that transpired. He does not tell her his precise emotional reaction to seeing Linda again, all the thoughts that rushed into his head (and elsewhere)–he’s neither an idiot nor a sadist. She takes this as progress in their relationship–sometimes she really does seem too good to be true (Westlake may be wryly acknowledging that by having Tobin mention she was watching an Andy Hardy movie when he came in).
They go upstairs, make love, and fall asleep. Well, Kate does (Tobin being apparently okay in the sack when he’s not too depressed). Tobin is still agitated over the night’s events, and unable to sleep, so he calls Marty Kengelberg, and asks for that favor, regarding Dink. And this is his first real mistake, assuming you don’t count opening the door to Linda in the first place.
In very little time, everything becomes ridiculously complicated (Mitch’s life, and the book itself). The two plainclothesmen on the case, Grinella and Hargerson, don’t like him for the murder, but they have no leads (not even the name of the victim), know Tobin’s holding something back, and unfortunately Linda was seen leaving the museum that night, though not identified. The murder itself is the good old locked-room variety, because the museum was locked tight, and nobody should have been in there but Mitch (and anyone he might have let in).
Tobin gets on okay with Grinella, a solid pro, but Hargerson is another of those thick-skulled asshole cops that he seems destined to keep running into, who takes an immediate disliking to him. They know he used to be a cop (like at least half the guys working security). Of course Hargerson is going to find out why he isn’t one anymore. It just keeps getting better and better.
In the course of checking to see if anything was stolen from the museum, it comes out that damned near half the collection has been stolen–somebody’s been taking the old archival copies of newspapers and magazines containing the aforementioned graphic art, making copies on a machine located in the basement, aging them to look authentic, and then putting them up where the ‘real’ art should be.
The irony being, as is mentioned several times, that none of it is ‘original’ artwork–it’s all copies, as anything that appears in a newspaper or magazine would be. So it’s not worth very much, even to collectors. Given the time and effort involved, you could probably make more money waiting tables, if the tips were good. Why would anyone bother? Clearly this has something to do with the murder, but what?
Nobody’s hiring Mitch to solve this one, and typically, he just wants to let someone else worry about it. But as it becomes clear to the higher-ups that he’s that Mitchell Tobin, a high-ranking inspector assigned to the case (because there are powerful people connected to this museum) expresses his admiration for the discreet assistance Tobin has rendered in closing some tricky murder cases in the past, and makes it clear he’d like Tobin to put his ratiocinative abilities to work once more.
Hargerson, who thought he was getting Tobin in trouble by outing him, still wants Tobin to stay out of his case And he wants Tobin to stop lying to him. I already said ‘hence the title’, right? What I didn’t say was that his anger is based on more than just professional jealousy. Because his partner just got a face-full of acid that was clearly meant for Tobin. And here comes the B-Plot.
Tobin’s friend Marty, in spite of some serious reservations about Tobin doing any favors for his old girlfriend, made some calls, and pressure was duly applied to Dink’s old heisting buddies. Who are understandably steamed about it. And apparently too stupid to know that when a job is soured, it’s soured entirely (probably a lot closer to most real-life heisters than the pros you meet in a Richard Stark novel).
Instead of just melting into the woodwork until the heat is off, they put pressure on Dink, and since Dink is even stupider (Mitch, still carrying a wee torch for Linda, has to wonder what she sees in this schmuck, but that’s the oldest story of all) he spilled the beans to them about who was responsible for the unwanted scrutiny. They figure they just need to remove this Tobin joker from the picture, and they can go back to the payroll heist they’re planning. Only they splashed acid in an active-duty police detective’s face instead. Bright boys.
So Hargerson may not be much of a detective, but he doesn’t need to be to know that Tobin has information he needs to find the guys who hit his partner. And Tobin knows that he can’t give him that information without revealing Linda’s presence at the museum that night, meaning that she’d be connected to the museum murder, and the stolen art, and the acid attack, and the papers would be running stories about how he and Linda were an item once, and maybe still. Tobin has made some progress in dealing with his emotional problems since first we met him. Not that much progress. He can’t take the flashbulbs in his face again. He’d rather take the acid. So he goes right on lying.
So Hargerson picks him up one night, and after asking him repeatedly who threw the acid, with no answer, takes him to an abandoned house not far from Tobin’s own house in Queens, and beats the living shit out of him.
We spent a long time in there, and he never once let me get all the way to my feet. He used fists and knees and shoes, and from time to time paused to let me catch my breath or my wits, and each time he asked me the same question. I held him off with determination for a while, and then with anger; for a time I was screaming through my raw throat that I would kill him, that I would follow him, that I would find my chance, I would kill him dead. But he just kept at his methodical work, and steadily beat anger too out of me, and at the last I was resisting him with nothing at all. I don’t know why I didn’t finally tell him the truth; it just seemed as though this thing would go on until it was time for it to stop, as though there was nothing I could do to cut it short, so why even try. I guess what I was resisting with at the end was despair.
Tobin comes gradually back to consciousness, realizes Hargerson is gone, and phones Kate to come pick him up. She wants him to call the cops. Admirable as she truly is, she can be touchingly naive at times. Good people often are.
As it happens, Tobin didn’t even know the name of the specific thug who threw the acid, but he’d asked Dink to find out for him, and he tells him it’s Vigevano (sounds a lot like Vigano, the mob boss from Cops and Robbers, which only proves this book was written just around the same time). A guy named Mort Livingston drove the getaway car. Vigevano is pleased he at least cost a cop his eyes, but he still wants to get Tobin.
Tobin tells Marty what he knows, but asks him to hold it back a while–then he talks to Hargerson, and tells him he can give him the name he wants, but he’s got to wait–he’s already proven he can’t beat it out of Mitch. What’s he got to lose by giving Tobin a few days to wrap things up his own way? And having illegally beaten a former cop half to death without any proof of wrongdoing (or any tangible results other than bruises a smarter cop would have known better than to leave), Hargerson isn’t in a good position to take him downtown.
In the previous four books, Tobin was called on to solve a murder case, and in all four cases, he tried like hell to get out of it. Not much of a self-starter, is our Mitch. It was always Kate who persuaded him–his guilt about what he’d done to her, his sense of obligation to at least try and support his family, the only way he could. Three of the jobs were paying propositions; one was to clear a female relation of his that Kate had taken a shine to.
Kate’s not urging him to solve any murders this time, and there’s no payday involved. Linda only wanted him to get Dink out of doing this heist. He doesn’t give a hoot that some police inspector thinks he’s a great detective who could shed light on a case the inspector is under pressure from high-up to solve. He just wants it all to go away–but it can’t–because it’s all gotten tangled together. The A-Plot and the B-Plot.
He’s really trapped this time–Hargerson won’t let up until he knows who threw the acid–he can’t reveal who threw the acid without revealing why, which would reveal his lie–which would connect his past relationship with Linda to the museum murder. But if he can solve the murder, then the press will stop writing about it, and Linda’s peripheral involvement won’t be of interest, and he won’t have to relive his past disgrace once more in the headlines. So just this once, he’s doing it for himself.
To solve the mystery of the naked corpse in the museum, he has to solve the mystery of why anyone would spend many long hours of tedious work to steal something that isn’t very valuable. That means he’s got to focus on the people who work at the museum. He’s been meeting them here and there up to now in the course of the investigation, but now that he’s doing the investigating, he has to start paying more attention to them. And this brings us to the outsider subculture in this book.
See, when I first read this one, a while back, I was rather indignant–I thought Westlake had for some reason dropped the main theme of the Tobin mysteries, the thing that makes them unique–that he always ends up learning about some group of social outcasts–mobsters, the youth culture, the mentally ill, gay men–there may even be a secondary subculture in the mix–actors, religious cults, and always cops (insiders and outsiders at the same time). But I just couldn’t figure it out this time–then, rereading it for this review, it finally came to me. Academe. The outsiders looking for tenured positions at institutions heavily funded by the very wealthy–the people they most despise. Now there’s an identity crisis.
See, the museum, which runs on the income from a large endowment made long ago, is affiliated with New York University, and when it comes to maintaining the collection and planning exhibits, most of the work falls to two NYU professors and their graduate students. Ernest Ramsay of the history department is very conservative (for an academic), rather anal and fussy, and very much inclined to quarrel with Phil Cane, from the Art department of NYU (these days referred to as the Department of Art and Art Professions).
Phil Crane is what used to be called a longhair. It was never meant as a compliment, though he might take it as one anyway. It’s certainly descriptive enough; “an intense, long-haired man in his late thirties, he wore a heavily undisciplined beard to go with his love beads and bell-bottom slacks, and tended to pepper his language with the slang of the moment.” Strangely, he thinks he and Mitch are brothers under the skin–
Crane barked with laughter. “Mr. Tobin,” he said, “you exceed my expectations. You groove on crisis, I know you do. Isn’t that right?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“It cools you out,” he said. “You go along, you go along, everything’s quiet, then there’s a crash and you’re cool. Am I right?”
I grinned at him. “You mean I’m good under pressure.”
“Man I mean you live under pressure. It picks you up.”
“No,” I said. “I like a quiet life.”
He gave me a knowing look. “Not you,” he said. “You’re a fatality freak. You know what I mean?”
“You don’t know it,” he said, “but I groove with you. I really and truly dig where you are. You let it come to you, and that’s good. I’m the same.”
Turns out he and Tobin are both immune to the effects of cannabis (Tobin tells us he tried it a long time before it was adopted by white college kids)–both too self-controlled to ever really let go. He really does seem to understand Tobin very well, though there are gaps of understanding on both sides.
Tobin enjoys the understanding, but being like somebody is not the same thing as liking him, or sharing his goals. They do say Churchill was very much the same personality type as Hitler, you know. That’s what tipped Churchill off that Hitler was serious. That’s how he knew they had to get ready. Okay, I warned you there’d be spoilers in here. You always have to be ready for that, reading this blog.
The point being made here is not that being an academic is a bad thing, but that the conflicts inherent to academia–that it attracts many people who have a love/hate relationship with their own civilization; who may have revolutionary leanings, but who also have a vested interest in keeping society afloat (why do you think tenure was invented in the first place?)–can produce major personality conflicts–people who don’t know themselves very well, because they can’t afford to. Mitch figures the answers to the puzzle he’s trying to solve lie with a student of Crane’s, Dan Tynebourne, whose personality is really more akin to Ramsay’s, but who believes in being like Crane; subversive, off-center, cool.
Tobin breaks into his apartment to snoop around for clues. A girl called him anonymously, who seemed to know who the John Doe at the museum was–she called him George–Tobin’s already figured out he might have been in Canada, since there was a pack of Maverick cigarettes down there–American cigarettes marketed in Canada, which are actually Marlboros, but another manufacturer owns the name Marlboro in Canada, and you can read about it here if you care. He thinks he might find a lead to her, or to George himself, at Tynebourne’s apartment.
I found neither, but I did see plenty of further evidence of the split in Dan Tynebourne’s personality. In his books, Jerry Rubin nestled with Henry James. On his walls, a print of the Unicorn tapestry was hung next to a poster of Che Guevara. His records were an amalgram of Jefferson Airplane and Mozart, and beside his bed I found a heavily annotated copy of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Looking at his marginal remarks, I saw him torn between the nihilism of the terrorists in that book and his own apparently natural love of tradition and heritage and history. He was trying to be in love with both Now and Then, even though the currently accepted way to love Now is by rejecting Then.
Dan will never get a chance to resolve this conflict–he and the girl are found dead in a car that drove off a Manhattan pier. Tobin had tried to find him by calling his role model, Professor Crane. It’s interesting that whereas in most detective novels, the detective is always a few steps ahead of you, because of the odd methodical way Tobin’s mind works, and because he’s usually very distracted by various things in the course of the story, we sometimes get to the killer ahead of him. But as always, he needs to know the why before he can know the who.
So cutting back up to the scene from the book that begins this review, Tobin is at his house–he wakes up and realizes that Vigevano and his gang are waiting downstairs to kill him. The idiots didn’t see a car parked outside, because Kate and Bill are visiting family on Long Island, so they figured he wasn’t home yet, and they’ve been sitting in his living room, smoking. He creeps down and gets the drop on them, but it isn’t enough–four against one. His own partly-completed brick wall in the backyard hampers his escape. But then one of them is shot in the head as he runs out the front door, and at that moment in time, Tobin knows who the killer is–and why. But he can’t worry about that just yet–Vigevano is coming for him with a knife.
He’s not in the best of shape after that beating he got from Hargerson, but he manages to take his assailant out with a desperate bear-hug, squeezing the breath out of him. He’s not doing much better than Vigevano at this point, though he’s in better shape than the guy who got shot in the head. He’s on the point of total collapse, but he has to keep going a while longer. He calls Hargerson, and tells him he has all the answers now–he just has to come to the museum with him and wait.
While they wait, he tells Hargerson the whole story–including how Grinella got the acid meant for him, and then one of the heisters got the bullet meant for him. “You’re not a good man to be around,” says Hargerson, with admirable understatement. He then proceeds to prove his point by getting knocked over the head by the killer–Crane. Who has a pistol. And who is now going to get Tobin out of there, and dispose of him at some suitable location, so as not to connect his death to the original murder.
Mitch had called Crane and told him a story to lure him there, needing to find some way for Crane to incriminate himself. Crane (of a similar mental bent to Tobin, sans the empathy) has figured out that Tobin has figured out what he did, and why, so he came prepared. When you’ve murdered one person to keep a secret, it can get a bit like eating potato chips–you keep going until the bag is empty.
See, he’d talked some of his grad students into doing the museum thefts. He said it was to return the expropriated wealth of the people–the museum endowment from some robber baron that had gone to buy a lot of old newspaper and magazine art hardly anyone ever came to look at. They’d be symbolically returning that money by selling the material to collectors, then donating it to worthy left-wing causes.
Either Crane kissed the Blarney Stone one time, or the drugs back then were really good, because the poor kids bought it–including George, the first victim–a draft-dodger who had been hiding out in Canada, and taking some of the art there to sell. Only he found out Crane was phonier than any of the copies they were making–he was just expropriating their surplus labor to enrich himself. He wasn’t doing any of the actual work, so it was like having a small independent income, on top of his salary from the university.
George, suitably indignant, threatened to spill the beans. So Crane killed George in the basement workroom, and dragged him upstairs. And he killed Dan and the girl–because trying to find them through Crane, Tobin let Crane know they were a threat. Tobin is a really bad guy to be around, you know that?
And the last person to find that out is Crane himself. As they’re leaving the museum, Dink shows up, angry that Tobin beat up his heister buddies, and the cops think he did it. Caught off guard, Crane starts firing at both of them–Mitch tackles him, and Dink finishes the job. Then Dink wants to bawl Tobin out for getting him involved in the fracas at the Tobin house. Tobin tells him to shut up, and then mercifully passes out. The End.
Westlake loved abrupt endings. He often chose to leave the reader hanging–the big stuff gets wrapped up, but all the little things stay unresolved. There’s easily two or three more chapters he could have written about what happened next, how it all got straightened out, whether Tobin did in fact avoid the media spotlight he probably could have avoided simply by not making that call to Marty on Linda’s behalf the same night she came to see him–just wait until coverage of the museum murder had died down. It’s all been one long self-inflicted wound. Just like the mess that made him into the Mitch Tobin we first met back in Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death.
He’s come full circle. He’s still alive. He’s not in any real trouble with the law, though Hargerson isn’t going to like him any better once he wakes up. He’s still got Kate. He’s still got Bill. He’s solved yet another insoluble mystery. He’s repaid whatever debt he owed to Linda and Dink. He may get fired from his nighttime day-job–hard to say. But he can find work elsewhere.
He’s also inadvertently helped cause some murders and maimings, but he wouldn’t have made it this far if he hadn’t learned how to accept that you can’t beat yourself up forever over unintended consequences to well-meaning acts. He’ll always be a gloomy bastard, looking at the world through jaundiced eyes, but he’ll go on living until he can’t, and his fate being what it clearly is, he’ll probably be faced with new mysteries in the future—and he’ll be just as reluctant to solve those. Tobin is Tobin, and what else is there to say?
What I say is that this is the weakest of the five Tobin mysteries, the least satisfying on a number of levels. Not everyone agrees, but since when does everyone ever agree about anything Westlake ever wrote?
First of all, the A Plot and B Plot thing is too convoluted, too contrived–I see the purpose of it, admire the way it’s constructed, but it just doesn’t work as well as the more focused stories of the previous four. More critically, because of the two plots, there isn’t enough time to explore the outsider subculture Westlake has chosen. What’s there is interesting, persuasive, but it isn’t enough.
It feels a bit tacked-on–Westlake would have seen that. Compared to the organic near-perfection of Wax Apple and A Jade in Aries, you can see the joins too clearly–he’s thinking about it too much. And while there’s some very good writing in it, there’s nothing to equal the haunting noir-inflected prose of Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, or Murder Among Children, with its echoes of Hammett, and perhaps a little of Chandler as well.
So why was this the last one? Maybe because writing it, he could feel he was at the end of his string with this character. I think he decided sometime after he started writing it, which is why it doesn’t quite read like a finale, but at the same time convinces you it is one. He was figuring it out as he went.
Having resolved Tobin’s depression the previous book, and his hanging storyline with Linda in this one, he had by no means resolved all of Tobin’s issues–any more than his friend Lawrence Block had resolved all of Matt Scudder’s issues by having him quit drinking Eight Million Ways to Die–perhaps not so coincidentally, the fifth Matthew Scudder mystery novel.
But was Scudder ever as interesting again after he stopped drinking? Interesting enough for people to want to keep reading about him–in fact, he became more popular as the series went on. Therefore, interesting enough for Block to want to keep writing about him–why give up on a character people liked? Why not just keep going until you can’t anymore? Westlake didn’t see it that way. He didn’t like writing detective fiction nearly as much as Block did–for him, it was only worthwhile if it was completely different from what everybody else was doing.
Tobin doesn’t want to be a detective. That’s what makes him such a great detective–his odd abstracted perspective, that allows him to see all the many worlds within the world–it’s not how he solves the mysteries, but what he teaches us about ourselves along the way. And without that abstraction granted him by his depression in the first four books, the thing that made the books special is gone, or at least greatly diminished. Westlake had to write this one to prove that to himself, and having done so, he stopped writing about Tobin, and he stopped writing as Coe. There’s no point anymore.
But on some level, he must have felt like he was killing a voice that had lived inside of him, sensitive, empathetic–different from his other voices, with valid things to say, and that’s why Coe is almost mute, tongue-tied, in that mock-interview–and that’s why he’s dead at the end of it, with Westlake vehemently insisting he didn’t do it, after having said earlier in the piece that the way you know somebody is lying is when he denies having done something without anyone having accused him. But I would say that voice is still there, waiting its time–Coe remained a silent partner, and would be a major contributor to later books. Don’t lie to us, Mr. Westlake. We know you too well by now.
And whatever you do, don’t lie to Parker. Who in our next book will suffer a succession of professional reversals to rival even Dortmunder for star-crossed fortune. But Parker never counts on luck. He makes his own. And if you cross him badly enough, your luck will run out, sooner or later.