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Review: Pity Him Afterwards


It had happened to him other times, when he was fooling Doctor Chax by making him believe he was one of the other inmates.  Sometimes it had happened that in the making-believe he had lost touch with himself, the true self and the assumed self had become confused together, and for a while he had not been in control.  At such times a tiny portion of himself–he visualized it as crouching low against the floor in a dark corner–only that tiny portion of  himself was still aware, could still differentiate between fantasy and reality, while the rest of him was all taken over by the other being.  Times when all but that tiny portion of himself actually believed he was that other being.  It hadn’t happened often, and it never lasted long, so he had never been overly concerned about it.

From Pity Him Afterwards, by Donald Westlake.

Mother killed them.  That’s what he said, but it was a lie.

How could she kill them when she was only watching, when she couldn’t even move because she had to pretend to be a stuffed figure, a harmless stuffed figure that couldn’t hurt or be hurt but merely exists forever?

She knew that nobody would believe the bad man, and he was dead now, too.  The bad man and the bad boy were both dead, or else they were just part of the dream.  And the dream had gone away now for good.

She was the only one left, and she was real.

To be the only one, and to know that you are real–that’s sanity, isn’t it?

From Psycho, by Robert Bloch.

Pity Him Afterwards was Donald Westlake’s 5th novel for Random House–he was contracted to do one a year for them, starting in 1960, so this one came out in 1964.   It’s a break with his past Random House ‘mysteries’ on several levels–the most obvious of which being that it’s written in the third person, from the perspective of several different characters.   Westlake had written his four previous novels published under his own name in the first person, and they were firmly cast in the mold of hardboiled crime fiction, ala Dashiell Hammett.   This would be more of a psychological thriller (emphasis on the ‘psycho’), with a very slight (almost non-existent) mystery angle.  Westlake later claimed to have written the book in eleven days.   Which is pretty damned impressive, but as Moliere’s Alceste might say “The time’s irrelevant, sir.  Kindly recite it.”

Just a few years earlier, Robert Bloch’s Psycho had been turned into one of the most successful and influential films of all time by Alfred Hitchcock.   I’ve seen the movie I-don’t-know-how-many-times–ten, maybe?–but only read the novel this week–and was surprised at how closely Joseph (The Outer Limits) Stefano’s screenplay hewed to the original.    Remarkably few changes for a Hollywood adaptation.  The biggest change was to Norman Bates himself, a fat middle-aged amateur occultist in the book–did not even slightly resemble Anthony Perkins.

I was also a bit disappointed at how bland  (though extremely well-structured) the novel and its murderous protagonist seemed to me, right up until the end–when Bloch’s extraordinary gift for gruesome twist endings actually got to me, in spite of my knowing all the main twists in the story ever since I was a kid.   His reputation was well-earned.  But I wasn’t scared–I’ve seen too many variations on this story to be scared by it anymore.  Back in 1959, I’d have been scared.  The fact is, Psycho changed us as a culture–it raised the bar for what was shocking, for better or worse.   We’re still feeling its impact, over half a century later.

The success of both versions of Bloch’s story inspired hosts of imitators, or at least emulators–nothing wrong about this, it’s simply a fact.   Westlake must have seen the film, and I’ve little doubt he read the novel–Bloch was, after all, a fellow member of the Mystery Writers of America (and served as that organization’s President in 1970).    He had started out writing H.P. Lovecraft pastiches (Lovecraft was his primary mentor as a young man), but he’d quickly evolved into writing about non-supernatural tales of murder and mayhem, though he never quite gave up on the paranormal angle (it’s there in Psycho, just on a very low key).

Pity Him Afterwards isn’t a carbon copy of Psycho, but is following very much in its wake, and has to be viewed as a response to it, much as Killing Time is a response to Red Harvest.   But Westlake set out to tell a very different story about a very different crazed protagonist.   And what is merely implicit in Bloch’s story–the mutability and divisibility of identity, and how dangerous it can be–will be the centerpiece of Westlake’s narrative.

Westlake, like Bloch, chooses to open the narrative inside the mind of the killer–who in Westlake’s novel is already a killer, having murdered two employees of the psychiatric institute he was in while escaping it, and then strangled a young actor who picked him up on the road when the unlucky thespian realized who he was–this is while the car was in motion, and it obviously crashed, which got the state police back on his trail, which is where we find him when the book begins, desperately scrambling up a hill while they search for him.  But he gets away, and goes on to kill eight more people in the course of the book.   So if we’re talking stats, he’s got Norman Bates beat all hollow.

Robert Ellington (more often referred to as “The Madman”) is a young man with a high IQ  (168), and absolutely no understanding of other human beings–or himself.   We’re told that he became frustrated at an unrewarding job, and killed two male co-workers, leading to his being committed to an (inaptly named) sanitarium, followed by a lengthy regimen of psychoanalysis interspersed with electroconvulsive therapy.   Which served to make him even crazier, as it would most people (yes, I know, ECT is back, and they say it works wonders, and the abuses of the past won’t occur again, but they were sure as hell occurring at the time this novel is set).   It also made him willing to do anything to avoid going back to that place.   Literally.   Anything.

Though one of his doctors, named Peterby, calls him a genius, the narrator, peering directly into his mind, tells us a somewhat different story–because certain parts of his brain aren’t functioning properly, the rest function more efficiently to compensate–he’s an excellent mimic, with a fantastic memory–but his more recent recollections tend to fade after about a month (Westlake still making use of his research for Memory).

He’s no Hannibal Lector, that much is certain–he may think he’s a superior being, but we are most decidedly not supposed to think that of him.   His thought patterns are facile, but not particularly deep or penetrating, and his view of reality is hopelessly confused.    He reasons at the level of a child, and thinks children are better than adults–more honest–though they will someday become adults, which makes him wonder if it would be better to kill them all before that terrible event occurs.

He is deeply paranoid, but with some reason after his escape, since everyone is out to get him, or would be if they knew who he was.   Thing is, he tends to see enemies where they don’t exist–and he believes all his psychiatrists are one sinister collective entity, that he’s named “Doctor Chax”; a nearly omnipotent many-faced creature that exists only to torture and imprison him–and make him believe false things about himself–like that he’s a murderer–he feels wholly justified in killing anyone who tries to make him believe that.

Having killed the actor and taken his clothes, then killed an elderly couple so he can take shelter in their house, the madman reasons that he can find shelter at the summer stock theatrical company the actor told him about, where he was going to spend the season at–nobody there knows the murdered actor.   The madman used to think he could be an actor himself–now he’ll get a chance to try.

The madman solves the problem of the professional photos the actor’s talent agency had sent there by saying the agency sent the wrong photos–and getting photos of himself made–after which he kills the photographer who made them–for asking to be paid for them (he despises all mercenary motives).    He killed the elderly couple because he assumed they wouldn’t give him shelter.   He hates killing, but is finding it easier and easier, each time he does it.

He is self-centered to a pathological degree, but is incapable of understanding this about himself.   In his mind, nothing he does is wrong–every crime he commits is made necessary by the cruelty and selfishness of other people.   His father told him you do whatever you have to do to survive, and he takes this quite seriously.  He’s not an animal–no animal (except man) would bother to rationalize this way.   He takes whatever he wants from others, but he still needs to see himself as justified in the sight of–something.   He believes he is the only fully honest person alive, and that’s why he was sent to the asylum.  He does not seem to believe in any higher power–other than Doctor Chax.    This is the universe he lives in.   He does not think there is any other.

But in the book, there are other POV’s, other protagonists.   The first we meet is Mel Daniels, a young Jewish actor (whose father doesn’t understand why he needs to change his perfectly good name of Melvin Blum), who is coming to work at Cartier Isle Theater, which caters to the rich people who summer around the lake there.   He gets picked up at the bus stop by Mary Ann McKendrick, a local girl who aspires to be a theatrical director (and will serve as the obligatory love interest for Mel).  He’s at the theater less than an hour before he discovers the body of Cissy Walker, another actor, who has been raped and murdered.   Well, the other way around, actually.   The reader is not left in suspense over whodunnit.

The mystery–since this is, after all, a Random House Mystery–is which of the young male actors in the company was murdered and replaced by Robert Ellington, and we spend a good bit of the book trying to guess who that is–as Ellington commits several more murders, and gets progressively crazier, while still effectively hiding his true identity from everyone, including the law.  It’s a clever reversal of the usual expectations of the genre, but I don’t think Westlake does very much with it.

Nor do I think he plays fair with the reader–Westlake could write a very good mystery when he set his mind to it, but he’s not very interested in doing so here.   The clues are intentionally misleading–I’ve read the relevant passages through multiple times, and there’s just no way you could logically deduce which actor is the madman.  I couldn’t even remember from my previous reading who it was, and once again made the same bad guess Westlake intended the reader to make.

If you go by the clues alone, you will make the wrong guess every time.  And I think this is Westlake saying that it’s just nonsense there’s always this logic-based trail of factual bread crumbs that will lead you unerringly to the perpetrator, particularly when the perpetrator himself is supremely illogical.   Intuition will tell you who is the madman the first time you see him in his assumed identity, and then you say “Oh it can’t be that obvious” but guess what–it’s that obvious.   I won’t even bother to say which one them it turns out to be.  It’s not the point of the story.

The detective on the case (who fails to crack it just as miserably as I did) is Eric Sondgard, a humanities professor at a small New England college, who serves as Cartier Isle’s police chief during the busy summer months (there being no call for one the rest of the year, when the summer people go home).    He’s got his own version of a split identity–

“There’s a dichotomy in you, Captain Professor,” he told himself.   “Half of you is a humanist and half of you is a Cossack.  You’re all mixed up, Professor Captain.”

If this were a TV show or a movie, he’d solve the mystery–but this is a Westlake novel, where detectives–and people with divided identities–rarely do well.   Sondgard misses the one thing that might have solved the case early–checking to make sure all these young actors really are who they say they are–he ends up with four main suspects, and he doesn’t even send their fingerprints out to be checked, in case one of them committed a crime under another name.   Never so much as occurs to him.

He stubbornly refuses to call in the state police, because he thinks a humanist is better qualified to answer the question of who is a madman than some scientific detective.   It’s not at all certain the pros would have done any better, but the police procedural part of the story is basically just one long exercise in bungling by Sondgard and his deputy.   Sondgard could be called the hero of the piece, but he’s a lousy detective, and he is forced to admit that to himself.    When he learns the identity of the madman, it’s by accident.

Robert Ellington, in the meantime, is enjoying the actor’s life tremendously.   He thinks it’s wonderful.   Working together, building sets, learning lines, taking direction.   This is his true self, he tells himself.   He doesn’t think at all about what happens when the season ends (assuming it even gets started).   He sincerely hopes he won’t have to kill anyone else–except that he thinks Sondgard may be an agent of Doctor Chax–or Chax himself.    He will have to kill him.  Mel Daniels is also suspected.   There may be cameras recording his every move–Chax is everywhere.   Chax knows everything.

At the mental institution, they were trying to make him understand he was mentally ill, and he refused to accept that.   To avoid being forced to see it–to see himself, clearly–he began taking on the identities of other patients there, and responding to the doctors as these people.   That way, he could avoid any shattering revelations, but he also became a complete stranger to himself.   And no more capable of understanding other people than he understands himself.

And all the while, buried deep in his psyche, is a more primal version of himself, that springs forth and rips to pieces a security guard who confronts Robert on the grounds of one of the resort homes in the surrounding area.

It was some other being, some darker creation he remembered only vaguely, from long long ago, from the forgotten time before he was ever in the asylum. Beaten down and subdued by the ministrations of Doctor Chax, it had lain undetected all this time at the very core of him.  With freedom, it had slowly begun to emerge.  The killing he had been forced to commit had strengthened it, and this sudden surprise and shock and blindness had given it the opening it needed.

So deep within this madman is an even madder man.    He’s pretending to be someone he killed, soaking up ideas and memories from everyone around him to create a composite persona, and desperately trying to control a part of himself that kills compulsively (as opposed to his surface personality, that kills only when he thinks it’s necessary).

Sondgard doesn’t know how to identify him, but he ends up outing himself.    His identity becomes so fractured that he can’t hold himself together anymore, and he snaps at the wrong time, right in front of Sondgard.

He bolts for the lake, killing two lovers in a rowboat, and ends up on a little island that as luck would have it, Mel and Mary Ann have chosen to act on their growing feelings for each other.   Of course this proves without any doubt that Mel is Doctor Chax–who the madman can finally kill.   But before he can do it, the other  Chax named Sondgard shows up–with his gun.   And an enormous crushing sense of responsibility for all the people who got murdered on his watch, while he pondered on the nature of insanity.   He gives the madman no chance to surrender (not that he was going to), and he does not shoot to wound.   He cuts him down first, and whether he pities him afterwards is left to our imaginations, because that’s the last we see of any of these characters.

And in the epilogue, Dr. Peterby–the real Doctor Chax, or one of them anyway–is the only one who mourns the madman–feeling that Robert Ellington was far superior to any of the people he killed, or the ‘ignorant brute’ who killed him (either nobody told him Sondgard’s regular profession, or Peterby has a really low opinion of the humanities).    The final irony is that the only person who really cared about Robert Ellington was the one person Robert Ellington would have most liked to kill.   Have I mentioned that Donald Westlake didn’t think much of psychiatrists?   We’ll be seeing further evidence of this in later books.

That’s a very truncated plot synopsis for me, and for good reason–I don’t like the plot of this book.   I love the way it’s written, the beauty of the prose–I love the glimpses into the madman’s mind–the innovative take on the “there’s a crazed killer among us!” story–but overall, I think this book is much less than the sum of its parts.   Psycho isn’t simply better remembered because of the Hitchcock film.  Robert Bloch was maybe half the prose stylist Donald Westlake was–and a much less proficient novelist (his real metier was the short story, a form in which he had few equals in the genres he favored).

But for all its limitations of style and characterization (and dialogue, most of all), Bloch’s novel is a coherent whole, the pieces all fitting together perfectly–he knew this kind of story backwards and forwards, and being a better writer doesn’t necessarily mean you have a better story to tell.   Bloch likes Norman Bates.   He empathizes with him.   Not for nothing did they cast Anthony Perkins to play him.  Bloch doesn’t want him to win, but he feels sorry for him–and leaves him alive at the end (well, kinda).  He gave him two sequels (that Hollywood never touched), and I wonder if he’d have done that even if there’d been no movie.   His first victim’s sister, having helped bring him to justice, expresses no anger at him–her final word is “We’re not all quite as sane as we pretend to be.”   No indeed, but there are differences of degree, surely.

Westlake’s book, composed in feverish haste, possibly needing a few more rewrites, trying to turn itself into a detective novel while not thinking very much of detectives–and sticking a love story that doesn’t go anywhere right into the middle–it just doesn’t hold together that well.   It’s  what I’d call an entertaining failure.   Many have thought otherwise.  And if any of you would like to speak up in the comments section, I’d be only too pleased……

In the same interview he mentioned he’d written it in eleven days, Westlake said he’d recently reread Pity Him Afterwards (after a long period of not reading it), and said it was better–and faster–than he’d remembered.   Which to me, says that he originally thought it wasn’t that good, and was perhaps a mite slow-moving.   Expectations certainly do factor into our evaluation of any book–I liked it much better the first time I read it, with few expectations at all, though I remember being disappointed by the ending–unlike Psycho, which started slow and ended with a bang.

Rereading it for this review, I was struck by how unconvincing the characters other than Robert Ellington were–Westlake simply can’t make them live and breathe on their own.  They are there for counterpoint–to show how normal minds work, and how badly they understand the abnormal mind.  He obviously didn’t want to go the route of Edgar Allan Poe–showing us the world entirely from the POV of a madman, as opposed to interposing chapters from the madman’s POV, with chapters centered around Sondgard and Mel.   He didn’t want to stay inside his madman’s mind the entire book, which would have been a fascinating exercise.  I think that’s because he didn’t really identify with his madman.   He couldn’t.   Donald Westlake can’t identify with someone who doesn’t want to understand his own identity.  That, for him, is the unforgivable sin.

In many ways,  the madman’s philosophy jibes with that of Parker–do whatever is necessary to survive–but Parker never deceives himself, never rationalizes, never hides from the truth.  Robert Ellington never does anything else.  That’s what makes him a madman.   Unlike Parker, he hides from himself–and not knowing himself, he can’t correctly understand anyone else’s motivations–which means he makes murder the answer to everything.

Westlake created a few other protagonists who lose themselves, but they still at least aspire to self-understanding, even if they ultimately fail to achieve it.   The madman fails by design.   In fact, his failure is perceived by him as success.  Contrary to what Dr. Peterby thinks, he was never coming back to reality.   His ‘genius’ was simply a highly evolved form of blindness.

The most fascinating thing about the book to me is its title–and the passage from Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson that inspired it.   Dr. Johnson, you should know, was only using a madman armed with a stick as a metaphor for certain ‘enthusiasts’–familiar to him then as they are to us now–who perceive any threat to their political, philosophical or religious beliefs as a threat to their existence, and behave correspondingly.   Johnson is not approving of this attitude–he is simply seeing it from the inside, to better understand it.

Those who don’t believe deeply, Johnson told Boswell, can discuss any given subject dispassionately, and will not be offended when someone contradicts their beliefs.  But to those who want to believe with all their souls that only their opinions on God, the Universe and Everything are correct (while secretly doubting them) will literally see any attempt to contradict them as being the equivalent of a madman with a stick coming into the room–they knock them down first, pity them afterwards–because the alternative would be to question their most deeply held beliefs–which is to say, themselves.   And they’d rather die.  Or better, kill.

This is Robert Ellington’s madness–and to him, we are the madmen.   He was knocking us down first, before we could tell him the truth–but like all other fanatics, his pity for his victims was at best shortlived, and increasingly left out altogether.   People like that really do have to be knocked down sometimes, when they act on their feelings (and I am not speaking of the clinically insane here), but they seem to be proliferating with ever-greater rapidity these days, faster than the Sondgards of the world can dispose of them.   The Madman’s day may yet come.   Robert Ellington might well have been a prophetic figure.   I feel that way every time I watch cable news.

My feeling is that this book should have been written under a pseudonym–it’s not a Westlake novel.   It’s not a Richard Stark either.   It’s somebody else, but Westlake needed to submit something to Random House, and it had to be under his own name.   Writing under a different name, taking a bit more time to craft it, this could have been far more than it is–he might have found a way to make it come together.   But as it stands, it’s not bad.   A decent thriller with an unconventional take on a well-worn premise–perfect reading if you’re spending the summer by a lake.   But not the kind of book we remember Donald Westlake for.

What do we remember Donald Westlake for?   As opposed to Richard Stark?   I ask, because  we’ve reached a rather critical juncture in this exploration of his development as a writer.   I tend to think he was not satisfied with his detour into grand guignol, into Robert Bloch territory.   He didn’t want to keep doing variations on Hammett all the time, and he’d found a better outlet for the darker elements of his vision in Richard Stark and Parker.   So what else could he do in this crime/mystery/detective genre he’d made a place for himself in?   What could he be doing that basically nobody else in that genre was doing?    And in so doing, give voice to that very large part of him that wasn’t all grim and noir-ish?

And then it came to him.

See you in a week, nephews.   Stay sane.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels