Tag Archives: Mitch Tobin

Review: Murder Among Children

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Greenwich Village In The 1950s (7)citykidslotharstelterhotday1952

The world is not one world, but a hundred thousand worlds, overlapping and yet almost entirely sealed off from one another.  Their perimeters are age or occupation or home address or any one of half a dozen other factors.  I was someone who had been thrust out of his world to exist in limbo, and now in the search for Terry Wilford’s murderer I was peeking and poking into worlds foreign to me, trying to understand their customs and languages, wondering where in these alien landscapes I would find the one with the blood-red hands.

Mitch Tobin

He nodded, his grin getting broader.  “I like you, Mr. Tobin,” he said.  “You aren’t hip by a long shot, but you aren’t square either.  You’re a whole different thing.  You know what you are?”

“No, Hulmer, I don’t.  What am I?”

“You’re the guy that said stop the world I want to get off.  And they stopped the world, and you got off, and now you look at everything from off to the left a little ways.”

“That’s very good, Hulmer, you have a good eye.”

His grin faded and he said, “Did I cut you?  I didn’t mean to.”

“No, you didn’t.  Don’t worry about it.”

He shook his head, looking at me thoughtfully.  “I don’t know, man,” he said.  “I’d like to know what would make you blow your cool.”

“August,” I told him.

So in the mid-to-late 1960’s, Random House was publishing both Donald Westlake comic crime novels featuring a variety of hapless befuddled protagonists suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fiction, and Tucker Coe mysteries featuring a depressed detective exploring the seemingly infinite subcultures of New York City and its environs.   Westlake had finally figured out a way to get two books a year out of his first major publisher, in a time when he was writing and publishing at a truly extraordinary rate–as he admitted in a piece he wrote much later on–

The first few years I was writing, I produced far too much.  If I’d been a little older I might have burned out, but as it was, I just kept finding new areas to explore, new ways to write, new subjects, new formats.  I was like a kid who’s just moved into a new neighborhood and won’t be content until he’s run through every new alley, climbed over every new fence, surveyed every inch of this new world.

But what Random House wasn’t formally admitting at the time was that Westlake and Coe were the same person.  They were being rather coy about Coe.   In Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, you’ll find a little blurb on both the inner dust jacket and in the book proper, saying that Mr. Coe was already an established mystery writer under his real name, and they encouraged aspiring sleuths to try and figure out who he was–though they would probably be wrong.

In the second Tobin book, the blurb on the inner dust jacket says readers of the first Tobin novel had recognized at once that Coe could not be a first-time author (well no shit, Sherlock), and then asked rhetorically “Who is Tucker Coe?”   And then you look at the back dust cover, and they’re plugging God Save the Mark (“$3.95 at your local book store!”), with Westlake’s grinning bearded face on a bogus fifty dollar bill, and an entire New York Times review from Anthony Boucher praising him to the skies (as Boucher so frequently did).   Asked and answered, your honor!

And what this PR department hoopla tells me is that they realized they had something special here (not every fictional detective has his first novel optioned for a Robert Mitchum movie that never actually got made), but weren’t quite sure how to market it.  Tobin is a decidedly atypical detective; mulishly reluctant to solve any mysteries at all, not particularly happy when he does so, not necessarily making the world a better place by doing so.  Uncovering the killer not with the usual knowing smirk but a grimace of existential despair, then running back to his little home improvement project of building a brick wall in his back yard.

The mysteries themselves were clever enough as mental exercises, some more than others; but the books were never really about the mysteries, which existed only to throw light on the inner recesses of the human soul–and what they found there was rarely pretty.  Typical enough for noir-style mysteries, but Tobin was not a typical noir detective either–he was not romancing and/or shooting it out with sexy femme fatales, and while he was tough enough when he had to be, he was more likely to take a beating than dish one out.

His politics, to the extent he had any, were well to the left of Mike Hammer’s.  He was a married man, loyal to his wife Kate, who had been so deathlessly loyal to him when his affair with another woman became public–but what existed between them was a marriage, not a romance–no witty banter or sly innuendo, ala Nick & Nora.  So not a sex symbol, a romantic idol, or a macho empowerment fantasy, which is what most people want from the hardboiled mystery school, shallow as that may be.

I’m guessing book sales were solid but unexceptional, with good critical notices (and no more money from Hollywood after the first one).   Solid but unexceptional was Westlake’s wheelhouse for everything but his Stark novels and the comedies, and even those rarely if ever got on any best-seller lists.   Tobin always had his admirers, and does to this day, but it’s a pretty select club.  Great writing alone has rarely served to make anyone rich in the publishing biz, and certainly not great genre writing.

Westlake was probably just happy just to have another outlet for the plots and people that kept taking possession of his sorely overworked typewriter.  From the beginning of 1966 to the end of 1970, he published twenty-four (!!!) novels in several genres, along with one short story collection and a children’s book–he also produced several unused film treatments (some of which became books), a fair few nonfiction articles, and a bunch of uncollected stories.  At his peak, he was writing maybe five or six novels in the course of a year, of varying quality, but each of them very much its own creation.  The mind fairly boggles.

The gold standard for overly prolific authors (who are actually worth reading) is P.G. Wodehouse, and even in his prime he never managed more than two or three books a year–and basically all ‘Plum’ ever did was write.   The tortoise to Westlake’s hare (they both had a long history with the Scott Meredith literary agency, so this is not a wholly random comparison I’m making here), Wodehouse only beats Westlake by dint of tireless lifetime consistency.  Westlake eventually realized he had to slow down, if he was going to last.

But one can hardly blame him for being so excited, so overflowing with creative energies–think for a moment what it was like to be a young talented writer living and working in New York City in the 1960’s.   And in Greenwich Village much of the time.   The hotbed of the east coast counterculture, where you could find virtually any political opinion or cultural expression imaginable represented; where for a brief time literally anything seemed possible.

Westlake would have known that the actual possibilities were much more limited by the fault lines of human frailty, and he was, I imagine, as reluctant a radical as Tobin was a detective.  There are those, in any time like this, who don’t truly belong to any one world, and it is their gift–or curse–to walk between them, seeing the strengths and weaknesses of each, gathering and then purveying  a wide range of truths to a wide range of individuals who only have in common the ardent belief that their truths are the only truths.

See, I always get to the point eventually, just like Rachel Maddow.

Murder Among Children is about a number of things, but most notably the youth culture springing up in lower Manhattan in the first half of the 1960’s–that’s the outsider group Tobin’s been tasked with learning about this time.   There had, of course, been many such youth movements in New York before, and there have been many such movements since, and we’re not really talking about ‘beats’ or ‘hippies’ here, though their elders would call them that anyway–just naive idealistic kids, either working class or not far out of it, pioneers in the urban Bohemia, looking for something different than what their parents had–seeking a few precious moments of real freedom, before the world breaks them down into disillusioned adults.

And most tellingly, for the first time openly questioning the racial and ethnic and religious boundaries that had defined American life for so long–and still do.  Let’s not kid ourselves.   Not in the Summer of Ferguson.  But if we’ve made any progress, and I think we have, it’s because of kids like this, of all races, who decided those walls needed to get knocked down.  Whatever else you say about the youth movement in that era, say that.

But Mitch Tobin doesn’t want to say anything at all–he just wants to stay home in Queens, building up his wall, and thanks to a hefty check from the syndicate for his investigative efforts in the last book, he has no pressing financial need to take on any new cases for quite some time yet.   That last job was just a fluke.  He’s not a private detective–he’s got no license, and he’s got no office, and he’s not listed in the yellow pages.   He’s just a disgraced ex-cop with a guilt complex, trying to find a reason to stay alive, if only for the sake of his wife and 13 year old son.   The wall is as good a distraction from his pain as any.   Better than going outside and learning about other people’s problems.   He’s got plenty of his own.

Then a cousin–his mother’s sister’s granddaughter–shows up at his door.   Her name is Robin Kennely, she’s maybe 18 years old, long dark hair, very beautiful, and his immediate reaction to her, which he recognizes as irrational, is dislike.   He’s irritated that she’s interrupted his wall-building with her vague claims on family loyalty–and what she wants from him isn’t going to make him feel any better about it.

She and some friends, including her somewhat older boyfriend Terry Wilford, have decided to try running a coffee house down in the West Village, on Charles St., a bit west of Hudson St.   This is pretty near the western edge of lower Manhattan (just a few blocks from the famous White Horse Tavern), and with youth’s insistent perversity, they’re calling it “Thing East.”   This will be their own personal contribution to the counterculture (as it will be known by the end of this decade), a place for young bohemians to interact and unwind.   They rented the building they’re in for about half the going rate in that neighborhood from a small and rather unconventional religious group called The New World Samaritans.

And with the space, they inherited a serious problem–a police detective named Edward Donlon, who has been harassing them on a daily basis, asking odd questions, making snide implications about the type of establishment this is, and generally giving off a creepy unsettling vibe.   They don’t know if he wants a bribe, or drugs, or to get laid, or if he’s just trying to get them to offer him something illegal so he can shut them down.   Rita is here to ask Cousin Mitch to talk to the guy–since he speaks cop–and try to find out what it would take to make him go away.

Mitch wants nothing to do with it, but Kate, who has taken to Robin immediately, can be very persuasive–and still thinks that the best thing for her husband is to get out there in the world and do things, as opposed to wall-building in the back yard.  He grudgingly leaves the house the next day, out into the heat of a sweltering New York City summer, and heads down to the Village to see what he can find out.

And what he finds at Thing East is a murder scene–Robin’s boyfriend has just been stabbed to death upstairs, along with a young black prostitute named Irene Boles.  Robin is there, in a state of deep shock, smeared in blood, and holding the murder weapon in her hand.   A newer building constructed back of Thing East has blocked off the rear exit, so the killer could not have left unnoticed–the police take Robin to Bellevue, under suspicion of murder–they have no other suspects.  One of the policemen on the scene is Donlon.

Okay, I was very good about not spoiling the mystery in the last book, but let me say something now–if you don’t want to know, stop reading–but haven’t you already figured it out?   It’s impossible to synopsize this one without giving the murderer away.   It’s so obvious that you wonder if maybe you’re being misled, but you’re not.  It’s exactly who you think it is.

As a story about people, this is a big step up from Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, but as a mystery it’s not exactly up there with Agatha Christie.   I don’t believe Westlake is even trying to make us think Donlon didn’t do it–he’s making us ask why Tobin doesn’t immediately assume it’s Donlon, and of course the reason is that Westlake doesn’t care whether we figure it out or not–he just wants us to follow Tobin’s mental processes, and Tobin is a former cop–of course he doesn’t want to think a cop is the murderer.

He knows it’s possible–he finds out early on that Irene Boles had a client who was a cop, and he has no illusions about Donlon’s overall character, but it’s not a conclusion he would jump to without eliminating every other possibility first.   When he goes to see Robin at the hospital, where she’s still in a bad way, she talks about ‘The Red Man’, and when he asks her who that is, she tells him he already knows.   But of course, knowing and proving are two different things anyway.   Tobin can’t arrest anybody on suspicion of anything.

It’s a standard locked-door mystery, and anybody who has read a lot of those knows the most common solution to the puzzle is that the killer just blended in somehow with those that gathered after the killing, and thus escaped detection (there’s a reference to this durable cliche in the Parker novel Slayground).   That’s what Donlon did.   But that’s not what you’re reading this book to find out.  At least that’s not what Westlake wants you to be reading it for.

Mitch Tobin is not Sherlock Holmes.   He doesn’t take shortcuts–he’s a tortoise, not a hare.  The way he works is to consider every possible suspect, and most of all to know as much as he can about the people involved in the killing–and the potential killers–and by understanding the why of what happened, he comes to know the what.   His goal here isn’t really to catch the killer, and in fact he never does.   Donlon commits suicide about three quarters of the way through the book, and even then Tobin thinks he might have been murdered by the real killer, covering his tracks.   He figures out what really happened after it’s too late to impact any of it.   Though he does indirectly help clear his cousin–by virtue of briefly coming under suspicion of the murders himself, after Donlon’s death.

So is that it?   Am I done?   Not quite, because none of this is what matters in the book.   What matters is how we get there, and who we meet along the way.   Not whether Donlon committed the murders in the book, but why.   And how all of this impacts Tobin himself.   He’s starting to have a better understanding of his new place in the world.  Which is to say, no place at all.

But what this means is that now, having lost his position, his clique, his culture, he’s freer to understand others who are likewise living outside the mainstream, in different cultures–as he builds up his own wall, he’s breaking down the invisible walls that the rest of us build up between each other.   These walls no longer exist for him, because he’s become so alienated from society as a whole.  Without the slightest intention of doing so, he’s become a subversive element.   And is treated as such.

Anyway, after the murder at Thing East, Tobin once again tries to retreat into his box, as he calls it, but then George Padbury, another member of the Thing East group–who was present when the murder took place–is killed by a hit&run driver.   Tobin and the surviving group members know it’s no accident, but the police are still focused on Robin as the murderer, and once again he’s forced to get involved–for one thing, how does he know he won’t be next on the list?

So he gathers with the remaining children at his house–and that’s how he sees them–many are well into their twenties,  making their own way in the world, educated, self-aware, sexually active, but as Tobin phrases it, anybody much under thirty is a child–or to look at it another way, anybody much over thirty has been corrupted–

I understand the motto of the new student rebels is “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” and they’re right.  Between the child and the adult there is an opposition that cannot be breached or erased or ended.  Neither side can comprehend the other.  The child, as new and efficient as a Christmas bicycle, faces the world with confidence and impatience, all his emotions gleaming like neon through the skin of his forehead.  The adult, dulled and deadened and dwarfed by all the frustrations, disappointments, pains of living, faces the child with resentment and envy, insisting that the child be quiet, not make waves, not disturb the precarious balance by which the adult makes his small way through each cycle of twenty-four hours.

Ouch.   Would be my primary response.   But secondarily, I note that Westlake, by his own definition, was right on the razor’s edge between childhood and maturity when he started publishing novels under his own name, and as Richard Stark–but Mitch Tobin didn’t come into being until he’d come over completely to the other side–until he was one of those people the student rebels didn’t trust. Tucker Coe, one might argue, is his first fully adult alter ego.   Whether you think that’s a good or a bad thing is, of course, a matter of perspective.

The group is a mix of Wasps, Jews, Irish Catholics, and one African American, named Hulmer Fass–who Tobin is particularly interested in, I think in part because he’s the one most like Tobin, “an entire population in and of himself, too completely divorced from the world to allow anything in it to upset him emotionally.”  And yet, because he’s still young, and thus not so fully closed off emotionally, he easily strikes up a conversation with Tobin’s son Bill, about electronics–Fass repairs phonographs and radios for a living, which is Bill’s current passion.   Tobin watches this with a mixture of jealousy and wonder.

Fass is the only member of the group to contribute much to Tobin’s investigation, helping him track down leads in Harlem, investigating crime scenes, trading insights.   There’s a strong implication Fass himself might be thinking of being a detective someday–he’s got the right kind of intellect for it, and he increasingly comes to admire Tobin as they work together, after initially wondering if Tobin is just another closet racist.   We have to wonder that ourselves, listening to the confusion of terms Tobin uses to refer to Fass and other black people–colored, negro (nobody uses the n-word)–he thinks of Fass and other young black men as boys, though to be fair he sees white guys their age the same way.  There’s no sense he’s trying to be ‘politically correct’, as we say now, in his interactions with Hulmer.  But towards the end of their brief working relationship, his language changes, in a way he seems barely conscious of–

Watching him walk down the street, youthful, optimistic, humorous, bouncing on the balls of his feet, I found myself envying him in half a dozen different ways.  I envied his youth, of course, and his optimism, and his humor, and I envied the absence of scars on his psyche that made the youth and optimism and humor possible.  But beyond that I envied him for being young now, and black, and alive to the world in a way that I had not been for years, in a way that I perhaps had never been in my life.

It’s 1965-66 when Westlake is writing these words–‘envy’ is not a word most white Americans use to describe their feelings towards black people, except perhaps in a patronizing tone (or when talking about sports).   The position of most African Americans was decidedly far from enviable then.  Jack Kerouac, years earlier, had talked in similar terms about wishing he were black–the sentiment could be traced much further back, particularly among white members of the jazz subculture.   But Westlake isn’t writing radical beat poetry here–more like white ethnic working class poetry, and for an audience that mainly isn’t reading Kerouac and his peers.   He’s putting these words in the mouth of a 40 year old Irish American ex-cop living in a white enclave in Queens.   And the statement he’s trying to make is less political than personal–but succeeds in being both.

Personally, the statement is Westlake’s as much as Tobin’s–Westlake was born a bit too early to be part of the 60’s youth movement.   He turned thirty in 1962, before it really started heating up.  He’s seeing it up close, there in Greenwich Village–but also from a million miles away.   That’s what Hulmer says to him, when he’s off inside his head.  Hulmer just tried to pay him a compliment, saying that Tobin sees everything from off to the left a little ways– then worries maybe he insulted Tobin, got too personal–Tobin tells him he said nothing offensive, and nothing that wasn’t true.  Hulmer responds with a grin that it’s tough to do both those things at the same thing–Tobin thinks to himself this is a child beginning to learn how to be an adult.    And I’m not sure if he sees this as a good or a bad thing.   It’s just an observation.

Tobin’s other main connection in the story is with the leader of the New World Samaritans, who goes by the rather grand title of Bishop Walter Johnson.   What he’s built is not a cult so much as a self-help group–there’s no sense of disrespect for his perspective–Westlake shows, not for the last time, that he’s open to religion–while deeply skeptical of it.   Somebody has to take care of our souls, just as doctors tend to our bodies (and as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Westlake didn’t have much faith in modern psychiatry).   If only actual religions did a better job of it–but in any event, here’s another outsider culture, that Tobin would formerly have treated with total disregard, that he now can view objectively, as a group of people who are at least trying to help others.   But that doesn’t mean he’ll let them help him.

Johnson is a blind man, but he can see past Tobin’s stoic facade, and he knows this is a troubled soul he’s speaking to, and can’t help trying to reach him–Tobin, naturally, won’t let himself be reached.   It comes out that Donlon had been harassing this group as well, which is why they moved out of his precinct, and leased the property to Robin’s friends.  But Johnson had felt like Donlon had come close a few times to breaking down and talking about what was really bothering him.   He never did.  But what he does eventually do is park outside their new church and shoot himself in the heart.

I’m not relating the events of this book in a very linear fashion, as I normally do–somehow, it doesn’t lend itself to that approach.   But here we see, as in the previous book, that there are things too painful and frightening for Tobin to acknowledge–in the previous story, the parallels between his affair with Linda Campbell and the one between Ernie Rembek and Rita Castle.  In this story, what he can’t bear to recognize is how close he is to becoming like Edward Donlon–who we have already learned has been in an emotional tailspin for some time–particularly after learning he’s sterile.   He loves small children, but hates and fears those same children once they begin to mature.  “That’s when they’re good”, he says to Tobin, after meeting Bill, who is just 13.   His hostility to Tobin, for interfering in what he sees as his personal business, temporarily dissipates when Bill is there.

This, I’d guess is why Tobin takes so long to recognize Donlon as the killer of Terry Wilford, Irene Boles, and George Padbury (because Donlon realized Padbury might figure out he’d been there all along).  Donlon is a twisted mirror image of Tobin himself–cheating on his wife with prostitutes, betraying his sworn duty as a police officer, going around prying into other people’s lives.

His identity has become hopelessly compromised, degraded, to the point where his self-loathing turns into a loathing for everyone around him, but particularly the young.   The young must be punished for being young–for still having hope–but only once they are old enough to produce children of their own.  The one thing Edward Donlon can never do.   Several times in the book, we see Tobin smile at the antics of young children on the streets–and then react to older ‘children’ with a mixture of mistrust and outright dislike, but he, unlike Donlon, is able to see this reaction for what it is–the sixth deadly sin.

Tobin is sitting in a prison cell, booked on suspicion of murdering Donlon and all the others–he’s not concerned, he knows they’ll figure out it couldn’t be him–in this welcome solitude, being grilled by tunnel-visioned cops who can’t see past their shoddy theories, he finally realizes what happened.   There had been an attempt on his life shortly before Donlon’s death–somebody had tried to crush him with a heavy object thrown from the top of a tenement building.   That somebody, of course, was Donlon–still trying to protect his secret, go on living a while longer.

But the clumsy hastily-improvised murder weapon had missed Tobin, and killed a young Puerto Rican boy.  A small child–pre-sexual.  The one thing Donlon still held sacred–the last vestige of his younger uncorrupted self.   He went to the New World Samaritan Church, and he thought about going in to confess what he’d done, seek forgiveness.   Then he pulled out his service weapon and ended his pain forever (assuming certain theories about the afterlife are wrong).   As I said, the mystery here is not who, but why.   And now we know.

Tobin has no interest in Donlon being publicly exposed as the killer–he doesn’t see the point, now that Robin is in the clear.   He tells Donlon’s captain, who had been certain of Tobin’s guilt, that it’s up to the department whether they want to tell the press what really happened, or cover it up–leave the case forever unsolved.   They choose the latter option.   You can imagine how Hulmer Fass reacts to that–hell, you don’t have to imagine, just watch the news, and watch today’s Hulmers beating their heads against the same blue wall of silence.   Culture is a stubborn thing.

But Tobin doesn’t care.   All a big scandal in the papers will do is bring more attention to himself.   Crucifying a dead cop won’t change anything.  It’s not his problem anymore.  He’s already starting the process of separating himself from the people he helped–distancing himself from the fact that in a sense, he’s as responsible for that Puerto Rican boy’s death as Edward Donlon.   He’s going back to his wall once again.  He did what he had to do, and he did it well, and it hasn’t changed anything.  Or has it?

Hulmer and the others try, now and again, to reach out to him–to keep him in their lives, feeling gratitude for what he did, admiration for his abilities as a detective, and Hulmer in particular may be seeking a mentor.   But to Tobin, they are just unwelcome emissaries from a world he’s turned his back on.  He can’t be young and hopeful again–he can’t unlive all the years, undo all the mistakes.   This world is theirs now, and he wishes them well of it.  But for him to avoid Donlon’s fate, he can’t let himself feel things too deeply–not yet.   As he says to Kate, early in the book, “If it is cowardice, it’s still necessary to me.”  And she understands.   As always.

Robin and her mother come to see him, to thank him, and to find out from him what really happened, so they can begin to put their own lives back together, and he just lets Kate do most of the telling, while all he thinks about is the wall.  You’re left to wonder if the one thing that separates him from Donlon is that damn wall–but of course, there’s two other things–Kate and Bill.   And between those three things, he’s managed to hang onto a crucial piece of himself.   And maybe someday he’ll be ready to let it out again.   But it’s going to take one hell of a wrecking ball to knock down the wall he’s built up inside of him.

One more thing I must belatedly note–for all the hopeful notes about the youth culture, and how it’s changing everything, in the course of his investigations, Tobin meets a peer of Terry Wilford’s–a former enemy, so therefore a suspect, though he’s not holding any grudges against Terry (or shedding any tears for him either)–and at about the same age, and in the same era, he’s turned into what we now call a yuppie.  A very familiar, very modern figure.   Part of the group that shows up right after the bohemians in New York have colonized a given neighborhood–and then pushes them out.   The cuckoos in the nest of any youth movement.

Next time we see Tobin, he’ll be in a mental ward, pretending to be an inmate.   And trying like hell to avoid the rather obvious questions that situation poses for him.   But that’s a ways off yet.   Our next book is a sort of swashbuckling Latin American romance featuring Grofield as the protagonist–no Parker in sight.   And credited to Richard Stark, of course.

But I have to wonder–did Westlake actually ghostwrite this one for Stark?  And that’s a really weird question to ask, isn’t it?   But ask it I must.   Because this is The Westlake Review.

PS: A thousand thanks to Nick Jones of Existential Ennui for letting me snitch the extremely rare image of the British edition of Murder Among Children from his blog.   Tobin didn’t get great cover art, by and large–this is one of the prime exceptions to that rule.

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Review: Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death

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They say that Hope is happiness—
But genuine Love must prize the past;
And mem’ry wakes the thoughts that bless
They rose the first—they set the last.

And all that mem’ry loves the most
Was once our only hope to be:
And all that hope adored and lost
Hath melted into memory.

Alas! it is delusion all—
The future cheats us from afar,
Nor can we be what we recall,
Nor dare we think on what we are.

Lord Byron

In the course of moving through Ernie Rembek’s world yesterday I had gradually built up a professional enthusiasm for the task at hand, but the enthusiasm hadn’t survived until this morning.  I wanted to fill my attention with the wall, with the problems caused by rain, and instead I was being dragged away into this other thing, this mean and petty shuffling through degraded lives in a pointless quest for the slayer of a whore.  What did I care about Rita Castle?   What did I care about anything?

Mitch Tobin

Of the eighteen Donald Westlake novels I’ve reviewed here thus far, eight can be categorized accurately enough, if perhaps not descriptively enough, as mystery novels, which is to say detective novels–and yet only one of the protagonists in those books, Tim Smith in Killing Time, was a detective by trade, a private detective, and not the kind who goes around solving murders, until circumstances force him into it–and he cracks the case, but not only does that not solve his problems, it makes them exponentially worse–though you could argue his troubles are over after the last paragraph.

In fact, almost without exception (there was this girl reporter, but she’s a long way off yet), Westlake’s mystery novels feature reluctant detectives, people who never had any desire or inclination to go hunting for clues, or interviewing suspects, who have little or no relevant training in this area, but they are left with no choice in the matter.   In one way or another, their fates revolve around whether they can figure out whodunnit.  But were that not the case, they’d much prefer to be doing something else.

This is unusual, to say the least–most of the really famous fictional detectives (and most of the ones you’ve never heard of as well) like solving crimes.  They can’t wait for the next body to drop, so they can go through their paces.   There really is only one noteworthy exception to this rule among the ranks of the classic supersleuths.

Nick Charles (played by William Powell in the movies), his lovely witty socialite wife Nora (played by Myrna Loy in the movies), and their standard schnauzer bitch Asta (played by a male fox terrier in the movies) were of course the creations of Dashiell Hammett, the most seminal figure in all of American mystery fiction, and Westlake’s single most important literary influence.

And the Charles’s were, sadly, Hammett’s final contribution to that genre.   After writing the first novel, he did write two subsequent stories in film treatment form (just recently published) to serve as the basis for sequels to the hugely popular adaptation of his  novel, but his career as a writer of prose fiction ended with The Thin Man, and nobody, not even his longtime companion Lillian Hellmann, was ever able to find out why (she said she was afraid to even ask).   Alcoholism, depression, writer’s block–all doubtless contributed.

But Westlake felt the single biggest cause was that Hammett had gotten too distant from his source of inspiration.   He’d spent years working for the Pinkerton Agency, leaving that work in part because their anti-union activities disgusted him.  In the course of his work, he’d gotten to know the criminal underworld very well, and this, combined with a previously untapped genius for storytelling, allowed him to revolutionize the detective genre–because he knew what real detectives and real criminals were like.  Because the note of genuine knowledge in his work is so strong that he can afford to underplay–there’s a level of nuance there you just couldn’t find in the genre before him.  He’s credible in a way that Raymond Chandler and all the others who came after him were not.

Basically, Nick Charles is a thinly disguised version of Hammett himself, as was The Continental Op, but Charles is a self-portrait of a much older man who gave up the work that grounded him–he achieved fame and fortune by marrying an heiress he’d met in the course of his work, and running her vast financial holdings for her, but he realizes more and more that he’s lost touch with himself, and with the criminal world he once knew like the back of his hand.

He turns to heavy social drinking, and Nora matches him shot for shot–while noticing more and more that her husband is miserable.   Not that he ever admits it.  Not even once.  But the sadness of the book and its protagonist is obvious to anyone who isn’t blinded by the movie version (where they drink like fish, but are happy as clams, because that’s Hollywood).   Westlake called it “a sad, lonely, lost book, but it pretended to be cheerful and aware and full of good fellowship.”  Having only seen the movies, I read the novel, and found myself in complete agreement with Westlake’s assessment.

Nick Charles is a man in almost ceaseless pain, that he refuses to acknowledge, because what’s the point?   He couldn’t have done other than what he did–he was in love with Nora, and she with him–their bond is real, and she knows him like nobody else.  He couldn’t have passed up a woman like that, or gone on being a private dick married to her.   His emotional life sabotaged his professional life, and now he keeps his real emotions as deeply buried as possible–but Nora knows.

She’ll go down with him if she has to, laughing all the way, but she figures there’s one hope for them both–to push Nick back into the work he needs.   He doesn’t belong in his old world anymore (though he still has a lot of friends there), but he can still solve murders in her world.   Maybe this will fix him somehow.  Truth to tell, when she married him, she was probably hoping he’d drag her into his world, instead of the other way around.

It’s a marriage made in purgatory, and we never do learn if they ever got out alive.  Because The Thin Man is Hammett’s veiled confession that he’s lost his inspiration, run out of material.   He didn’t stop working, but with the exception of those two follow-up novels he never even published, and some work for radio that couldn’t have meant nearly as much to him, he pretty much stopped writing.

This is a professional writer’s ultimate nightmare–to run dry.   To see an endless sheet of empty paper stretching in front of him, forever.  Westlake saw this all too clearly, must have wondered if the same fate someday awaited him, and perhaps this is one reason he kept switching up, writing in different genres–mystery, heist story, science fiction–different veins–serious, comic–and under different names–Westlake, Stark, and now Tucker Coe. To avoid getting trapped down a blind alley. To stay fresh.

The name derived from Westlake’s football fandom–he followed the Giants, and back then they had two running backs–Tucker Frederickson and Ernie Koy–Lee Wright, his editor at Random House, said Tucker Koy sounded vaguely obscene, so he changed the last name to Coe.   Since 1960, Westlake had been turning out a book a year for Random House (one motive for the new pseudonym would be that he could now be doing two books a year for them), and for most of that time, those books had been slotted as mysteries, and identified as such on their covers

As I’ve already mentioned, none of them had really been mysteries in the truest sense–that is to say, they were never really about who had killed whom. That was something Westlake would find a way to stick in there, to satisfy the demands of the market he was writing for, and he often did this quite skillfully, but again–not really detective novels in the classic sense. He didn’t want to get bogged down in the ‘ritual’, as he called it. He wanted the stories to be more than a rote procession of genre cliches.   But this always lacked a certain credibility–how is it this motley crew of mobsters, barkeeps and interns who never did a day’s sleuth-work in their lives before keep finding the killer with unerring accuracy?

So now he’d create a character who is a detective by training, and formerly by profession. Somebody who knows very well how to assess evidence, identify suspects, follow leads. He just doesn’t want to do it anymore (and legally speaking, isn’t supposed to). He has to be forced. But once he’s started, his training takes over–he’s not an amateur at this. Most of all because an amateur is, by definition, doing something for love, and this guy is not loving what he’s doing one bit. But he does it anyway. He doesn’t have any choice. He wants to just stay in his own back yard, building a wall to keep the world out–and the world keeps crashing its way back in again.

In an introduction he wrote to some much-later reprints of the Tobins, Westlake said he was trying to unlearn a lesson he’d learned a bit too well from Hammett–how to keep a character’s emotions beneath the surface.   Nick Charles is having all kinds of feelings he doesn’t want to talk about at all, even though he’s the first-person narrator of the story–some of them clearly quite disturbing, but you can only guess at the specifics.   Westlake, reading The Thin Man in his early teens, found this fascinating–

I didn’t know it was possible to do that, to seem to be saying one thing while you really said a different thing or even the opposite.  It was three-dimensional writing, like three-dimensional chess, a writing style you could look through like water and glimpse the fish swimming by underneath  Nabokov was the other master of that, but Hammett I read first.

So when Westlake started writing crime novels of his own, he tried to do the same thing in a different way, in his early serious work under his own name (most successfully in 361), and of course with his Parker novels written as Richard Stark, featuring a protagonist whose emotional processes are so alien that it’s often hard to be sure he’s feeling anything at all.   Then Westlake started doing comic novels, where his protagonists were not nearly so poker-faced, but since it’s basically farce he’s writing, they can’t get all that deep into their emotions, because that’s not how the form works.

He wanted now to write about somebody who is trying to suppress his emotions, to feel as little as possible, but can’t always pull it off so well, because the pain is still new, because he’s got a wife and son to take care of, and because he’s not rich enough to afford the really good booze–in fact, he’s not much of a drinker at all–that isn’t one of his vices.   He’s less sophisticated than Nick Charles, less skillful at disguising himself–he will labor mightily to keep from sharing his deepest feelings with us, but as Westlake parsed it, the fish would break the surface of the water sometimes.

He has no problem telling us why he’s this way.   He screwed up.   He had arrested a small time burglar named Daniel “Dink” Campbell who ended up serving a long stretch, and in the process, met Dink’s wife Linda–blonde, no bombshell, but emotionally and sexually available in a way his wife, the dark-haired, raw-boned, and wholly admirable Kate was not.   His marriage was successful enough, they had a son, they respected and loved each other, but there were things he couldn’t talk to her about (like books), and Linda was a reader, like him.  She was lonely, he was needy, and they gradually fell into an affair.

His partner Jock Sheehan didn’t approve, since he was one of Kate’s admirers, but loyal to a fault, he agreed to cover for Mitch, so he could see Linda when he was supposed to be working cases–this way, Mitch figured, the affair could go on indefinitely, no one the wiser, no one getting hurt.  But then came a routine call to pick up a numbers runner–who had, unbeknownst to them, recently become a drug dealer, meaning he had a lot more to lose if he got picked up.   Mitch opted out of the arrest to have a rendezvous with his mistress.  With no partner to back him up, Jock was shot to death by the unexpectedly desperate pusher.   Mitch’s absence at the scene was noted, and then explained.   The press got hold of it.   He was publicly disgraced, and expelled permanently from the NYPD.

He spares us the full details of what happened then, but they’re not that hard to fill in.   Kate, as loyal as Jock, forgave him, but he could not, would not, forgive himself.  He toyed with ending it all, but decided he wanted to go on living–on his own terms.   Six months after his expulsion, he’s set about building a brick wall that will completely shut off his back garden, so that anybody who wants to come see him will have to come to the front door (and will, most often, be denied entrance).   The metaphor may be a bit strained, but it’s extremely sincere.

A private detective with a guilt complex was no new thing in the ranks of noir fiction.  But Tobin may well be the first clinically depressed detective to debut there.  Not that he ever refers to himself as such, but that’s basically the size of it.   And what he’s doing with this wall of his could well be considered occupational therapy.  He would just say he needs something to keep his mind occupied so he doesn’t have to think on what his life has become.   Well yeah, that’s basically what occupational therapy is.  Brick-laying is certainly a more substantial pursuit than basket-weaving.

But just as he’s set about it in earnest, spending money his cash-strapped family can ill afford to obtain the needed materials, a minor mob guy named Wickler shows up in his still-unprotected back yard, with a message from Ernie Rembek, the big syndicate boss of New York.  There’s a job they need a specialist for–a detective–nothing illegal, Wickler assures him.  Tobin’s first response is to throw the bum out, but then he sees Kate going to work at a local store to make grocery money, and he says he’ll meet with Rembek, and hear his offer.

The job is to find out who killed Rita Castle, a beautiful blonde aspiring actress who was Rembek’s mistress (he has a wife he says he loves).  The offer is five thousand in advance, plus expenses, plus a five thousand dollar bonus for successfully solving the crime.   The killer can be turned over to the police, if found.  Rembek will make sure Tobin has full access to everything he needs, including the right to interview potential suspects from within the organization.

If you’ve read The Mercenaries, you’ll recognize many recycled elements from that book, most notably the victim (and that Westlake’s writing has improved exponentially in the six years since that book appeared).   But there’s also a parallel between Tobin’s recent disgrace and Rembek’s situation.   This is something Tobin himself does not want to think about, but he agrees to take the job.   Ten thousand dollars will allow him to concentrate on his wall for a good long time–Kate wants him to take the job as well, but for different reasons–she thinks it might help break down the wall he’s built inside himself.   She may not be a bright beautiful heiress, and she never comes along with him when he’s on a case, but she’s his blue-collar Nora, no doubt about it.

We’ve seen a great variety of fantasy women from Westlake, but Kate Tobin is another order of fantasy entirely–a grounded, smart, nurturing person, who never complains, and doesn’t hold on to grudges, or throw up past mistakes in your face.  A woman who just wants her husband to heal, so they can be a family again.  A genuinely good, wholly unselfish person (and do I really need to mention how rare they are in this world?)  To a man in the process of having his first marriage break down, that might be the most alluring fantasy of all.   But of course, you know what Tolstoy said about happy families–it applies just as well to household saints.   So we never do see that much of Kate.  She’s an important balancing factor in the books, a pivotal character–but also a peripheral one.

Accompanying Mitch on his rounds to interview people who knew Rita (and might possibly have killed her) is Roger Kerrigan, who seems to be a sort of troubleshooter for Rembek, much as the ill-fated George ‘Clay’ Clayton was for Nick Ganolese in The Mercenaries.   His job is to make sure the various people with connections to Rita and the ‘corporation’ cooperate with the investigation, but also that the investigation doesn’t create any problems for his employers.   His past history is quite similar to Clay’s, but his relationship with his boss is notably different–he’s much more in control of the situation, has the trust of the people he and Rembek both work for, and there’s a strong implication that he might at some point succeed the overly emotional crimelord, who can’t seem to get over losing his girlfriend.

Kerrigan’s more the kind of character Westlake normally writes about–certainly more like a Westlake character than a policeman would normally be–but Tobin isn’t a cop anymore.  He’s a free agent now, dictating terms to his temporary employers, demanding police reports (which they can get through cops on their payroll), an office, and eventually a gun.   He quits the job several times in the course of the book, and Rembek keeps getting him back, because he needs so desperately to know who killed Rita.   Tobin is in the driver’s seat here–the free lancer is telling the corporation what to do.   But understand that at no point in this or the subsequent books is Tobin ever working as a private detective–you need a license for that, and he doesn’t have one.

He’s a complete and total independent–that’s what makes him a Westlake protagonist of the first rank, like Parker, only much more rooted in reality.  And, of course, still not truly free of the one thing he most wants to be free from–his past.   He has some of Parker’s ability to distance himself from humanity, to gaze at the world with cold dispassionate eyes, but unlike Parker, he keeps getting drawn back in.   He’s no wolf.    He gives a damn.  He just wishes to hell he didn’t.

I don’t much see the point of going over the plot in depth–it’s a mystery.  You know how they work.  There are suspects.   We meet them one at a time.   We learn things about them as people–and people they are, though not very nice ones.  Tobin is a self-described completist, meaning that he doesn’t rule anybody out as the killer.   It comes down to five characters of significance who might have done it.   But there’s always the possibility that there’s somebody they haven’t thought of.   It’s a treat to watch his methodical yet intuitive mind go through its paces.   And on some level, it’s a treat for him as well.  He’d forgotten how much he used to enjoy his work.   And it does distract him from thinking about his life, and what he’s made of it.  But all in all, he’d rather be working on the wall.

Still, much as he tells us he doesn’t give a damn who killed Rita Castle–he wants to know.   And to know that, he needs to know who she was.   On the surface, just a dumb blonde with a sugar daddy, but the deeper he digs, the more he finds.   She was leading not a double but a triple life.   She was Rembek’s mistress (and perhaps more than that).   She was also seeing her old boyfriend, a penniless slacker down in the Lower East Side (By the Mid-60s, as Tobin tells us, Greenwich Village proper is already too expensive for the true Bohemian, a process of gentrification that has progressed apace in the ensuing decades).

The boyfriend doesn’t seem like much of a man, but he was apparently the only one who satisfied her sexually, or emotionally–only that wasn’t enough for her.   She needed Rembek to satisfy the artist in her–she wanted to direct.   Rembek was supposed to finance that third and most important life for her.  Or that was the plan, until the killer made it all academic.   All three Rita Castles died in that moment.   She never had the time to figure out who she really was.

As he learns more and more about her, he gets closer and closer to the truth–somebody’s worried about that, and the office Rembek gave him blows up, with a hapless mob gofer inside of it.   The police are getting more and more interested in what he’s doing–and it’s not a kindly interest.   Two detectives, one an old friend, come to see him–Tobin, remembering the old good cop/bad cop routine quite well, has no interest in playing it out.   He’s also unable to answer some of their questions, because of his obligation to respect the confidentiality of his employers–much as he may dislike them, he’s taking their money, and he also knows that if he says too much, they’ll stop cooperating, and the case will never be solved.  His former colleagues can’t understand this.  He isn’t one of them anymore.

Marty got slowly to his feet and a second later so did James.  Marty said, “I guess you’ve forgotten what the job is, Mitch.  I’m not doing anything here you wouldn’t do, not anything you haven’t done a hundred times yourself.”

I said, “What you’ve forgotten is who I am.  There are questions you can ask me and know the answer is absolutely going to be straight.  You used to know that.”

Marty glanced at Kate and then hesitated, and then went ahead anyway.  “You forfeited that, Mitch.  When you weren’t there to back up Jock.”

Kate said “Marty!”

“No,” I said to her.  “He had the right to say that.  He didn’t have the need, but he did have the right.”

More than anything else, the Tobin books will be about outsider cultures–people who are out of the mainstream, living in the cracks, making their own rules,  their own personal ethics, and their own private sins.   In this book, Tobin is trapped between two such cultures–cops and mobsters.   Each despising and yet making use of the other.   Each despising and yet making use of him (though he does win the grudging respect of some on both sides).   And he doesn’t belong to either culture now–or any other.   He was an honest cop–never on any payroll but the straight one–he says he never resented the fact that the crooks he was trying to catch were often doing much better financially than him, because he figured if you wanted to be rich, you shouldn’t have become a cop.  But because of what he did–or rather, failed to do–he’s lower in the eyes of most cops than the ones who actually are on the take.   It’s not fair, but it’s reality.   Then and now.

He opens up to us, now and again, about what he’s feeling.   But there’s one thing he does not want to talk about, will barely even refer to–how much the story of Ernie Rembek and Rita Castle resembles, in a weird alternate-dimensional sort of way, the story of Mitch Tobin and Linda Campbell.   That’s just too painful, and it stays buried.   Some fish never break the surface of the water.

The moment comes, as it always must in this kind of book, when the killer is unmasked–and it’s an honest reveal, a good mystery, giving us all the information we needed to get to the answer, but also skillfully diverting our attention elsewhere, so if you guessed who it was, good for you.   I didn’t.  And spoiler-laden as my reviews generally are, I won’t divulge it here.   But neither will I say, as I often do, that it doesn’t matter whodunnit–it’s not the main point of the story, and that’s probably true of most really good mysteries, but it does matter.  Lives are irreparably shattered by the revelation.   People will spend the rest of their lives in mortal pain because the truth was revealed.   Nobody’s life was improved, or saved, because Tobin unmasked the killer.   Nobody knows this better than Tobin himself.   There’s no sense of triumph.   There is one final bloody moment where he reveals that the cop in him is far from dead.

So what does he do now?   He goes back to his wall, $10,000 the richer, his guilt about Kate having to work a lousy part-time job temporarily assuaged (though there’s plenty more guilt where that came from).   A ditch must be dug, and then filled with concete blocks–a solid foundation for the structure he envisions.  It will take years, and when it’s done, he’ll be safe behind that wall.   Nobody will ever get in again.

Is that what you think, Mitch Tobin?   Our next book has a few more unpleasant surprises for you, in a world geographically adjacent to and yet a million miles away from the world of Ernie Rembek and Roger Kerrigan.   You go ahead and build your wall, but life’s not finished with you yet, and neither is Tucker Coe.   But who is Tucker Coe?   Ah, that’s another question entirely.  

By the way, if you’re wondering what Robert Mitchum is doing up there, Westlake revealed (in an interview you can read in The Getaway Car, soon to be found in finer bookstores near you, if such things exist near you anymore) that he sold the movie rights to this book, and the project was intended for Mitchum.   Who would have been over a decade older than Tobin’s thirty-nine years if it had been made with due promptness, but of course no movie was ever made at all.   But say this much–they had the right guy.   Impenetrable on the outside, bleeding on the inside.  That was Mitchum–and that was Mitch Tobin.   And the bleeding only gets worse next time.

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