Tag Archives: Robert Mitchum

Mr. Parker and The Casting Call, Part 2: Guns of The Reminiscent Seven.

To be honest, I don’t believe there are going to be any more attempts to adapt any of the Parker novels for a long time to come.  By the time it happens, if it happens, almost anyone we might think of who is the right age now could be out of the running.  So what are we doing here?  I won’t speak for  you, but I’m trying to convince myself it’s even theoretically possible to cast an actor who is spot-on right for this role.

To that end, I find myself casting an eye backwards in time–to actors born a mite too soon to play Parker (but may have had some influence on his creation).  To actors perhaps too iconic and sought-after to play him by the time it became an option.  Or to actors who, though much appreciated in supporting roles, often villainous ones, never quite made it as leading men, and thus would never have been considered in the first place, unless it was some lowly B picture from Poverty Row (which might have been the best option).

It’s all moot, but does that make for any less enjoyable an exercise? These days, I’m grateful for distractions, triter the better, so let’s survey the competitors, the youngest of whom is eighty-four.  (The rest, being deceased, are all the same age.)  I’m going to consider them roughly in order of generation.  Starting with–

RYAN, Robert.  Born 1909, Chicago IL.  Height: 6’4.  Eyes: brown. 

This may seem an odd pick.  By the mid-60’s, when Hollywood began to pay attention to Parker, Robert Ryan was pushing sixty hard. But I don’t feel like any list of actors who might have had the potential to play this role is complete without him. In the history of noir on film, there is no grander name to conjure with.

Not much doubt he was the best actor on this list of mine.  But he was never the kind of actor who put on airs–who was afraid to underplay, when that’s what the role called for.  He could be almost impossibly cool–but you could still feel the rage seething beneath, barely held in check.  He often played characters who were on the verge of losing control, fighting a losing war of self-containment.

But he could play calm well-balanced men as well, as he did in The Wild Bunch.  He could play cowards, pedants, bullies and blusterers.  He could play the hell out of just about anything.  The year The Hunter came out, he played John Claggart in Ustinov’s Billy Budd.  His last role was Larry Slade, in John Frankenheimer’s boiled down adaptation of The Iceman Cometh.  If he ever gave a bad performance, I haven’t seen it.

More than tall enough for Parker, built towards the lean and ropy side.  As a younger man, he was in splendid physical shape, knew how to box, could move like lightning.  He could project murderous intensity, and he could be sexy, without being conventionally handsome.  More of an ensemble player, but he had the charisma of a star–and people knew him the moment he walked onscreen.

So if you could figure out how to do a series of Parker movies in the 1950’s, he’d be hard to beat.  My reservation is the one I have for all truly great actors–with Parker, you have to know when not to act.  Much as I think Ryan could restrain himself as needed, his work in crime movies leans more towards the histrionic side (partly because that’s what the movies of his era called for).  He’d have been brilliant in those stories where Parker is on a rampage, all his buttons pushed.  But I’d like him even better in something by David Goodis or Peter Rabe.

Next up is another Robert–the guy you’d want to see in almost any hardboiled role in crime fiction.  Only trouble with him is that he’s too damn good-looking.

MITCHUM, Robert.  Born 1917, Bridgeport CT.   Height: 6’1  Eyes: dark blue (I think), heavy-lidded.

With Ryan, I’d like to somehow transport the younger man forward in time a bit.  With Mitchum, I don’t feel like he could have played Parker until he was well into his forties.  The Mitchum we want is the Cape Fear Mitchum–early 60’s vintage.  And who ever believed Gregory Peck could take him?  In a courtroom scene, sure.  Or a western.  Not anything hardboiled.

But he never needed to play the toughest man in town.  Never mattered much to him.  Never took himself that serious.  When you’ve got that kind of personal magnetism, doesn’t make sense to exert yourself.  Mitchum underplays almost everything, because he doesn’t need to try that hard to draw us in.  He’ll put in the work, reveal himself, if he thinks the role is worth it.  But most of the time, he just doesn’t give a damn.  Most of the time he’s hiding beneath a ceremonial mask of skin. (Or getting himself arrested–never had much use for authority.)

Mitchum fits the descriptions of Parker that lean towards big, blocky, shaggy.  Westlake didn’t always have the same image in his mind when writing the character, and neither do we when reading about him.

Though he was more often cast as sympathetic characters, Mitchum liked playing really bad guys, and you could make a case nobody ever played them so well.  If I’d like Ryan for the stories where Parker is angry at the world, out for blood, I’d like Mitchum for the ones where he’s hiding his true nature from the world–and of course, for the ones where there’s a woman involved.  Of all the names on this list, this is the one that would most easily justify Parker’s ineffable allure for the opposite sex.  I can’t think of a single leading lady Mitchum didn’t have chemistry with.  But as with everything else, he never worked hard for that either.  Lucky bastard.

He almost played Mitch Tobin, in a movie that never got made.  He’d have been right for that too, though in a different mode.  Not that he’d be right for any Westlake protagonist.  About the only worse pick for Dortmunder would be Robert Redford.  Strange be the ways of Hollywood.  Nobody found them stranger than the most reluctant star of all time, namely–

HAYDEN, Sterling.  Born 1916, Montclair NJ.  Height: 6’5.  Eyes: dark–something. 

The biggest problem with casting Sterling Hayden as Parker isn’t that he turned fifty before Point Blank was even made.  It’s that you would never know when he’d take a mind to jump in The Wanderer, set sail for distant climes, and not come back until his money ran out.

He didn’t even like acting until he got older, and they stopped trying to turn him into a matinee idol.  He hated being forced into any kind of mold.  Which is precisely what would make him a prime candidate here, along with his intimidating size, his patented surly glower, and the undeniable fact that he played a primary prototype for Parker, in one of the greatest crime films ever made.  You know the one.

I can’t pretend to myself that the Hayden of the 60’s could have played Parker, except maybe one of the later books.  He had happily moved into more eccentric supporting roles by then, the pressures of unwanted stardom no longer weighing him down. But I can’t watch Hayden as Dix, Sam Jaffe as Doc, without being further convinced that one aspect to Westlake’s conception of Parker was his aspiration to combine the two–brawn and brains in the same package.

Hayden only played a heistman one more time after The Asphalt Jungle–in that film he had brains and brawn (and bad luck).  See what you think.

He had, you might argue, the best pedigree (even if he was a blonde).  But again, born a bit too soon.  And a bit too fidgety.

Let’s move on to the one actor Westlake mentioned as a direct influence in Parker’s creation.  Not my personal pick, but you can’t talk about the might-have-beens without mentioning–

PALANCE, Jack.  Born 1919, Hazle Township PA.  Height: 6’4. Eyes: dark brown, verging on black.  Onyx, one might almost say.

Westlake would have gone to see a lot of movies about armed robbers in the years before he wrote The Hunter, so in all probability, he saw this one, a remake of High Sierra.  Not as good as the original–but the lead was somebody you’d be much less happy about meeting in a dark alley.  Or a well-lit one.

Palance, as an actor, was a mixed bag.  Huge ability, but he didn’t always know what to do with it.  In a picture like The Big Knife, he’s practically dancing across the screen, hyperkinetic, almost dizzying (personally, I find that film exhausting, but that may be Clifford Odets’ fault).  In other performances, he’s like the proverbial coiled spring–just about to snap.  I prefer the latter approach for him.  And for Parker.

He doesn’t look human–sometimes he’s more of a monster than Karloff was with Jack Pierce and the entire Universal Pictures makeup department helping him out.  There’s often this sense of him being out of place–of having been born not so much in the wrong century, but the wrong millennia, possibly the wrong geologic era (not for nothing did they cast him as Attila the Hun).  But the present day is where you most often find him, and he’s going to have to make the best of that.

He’d have been a good pick for Parker in the 50’s, into the Mid-60’s.  Though physically, he’d have been able for the role well into the 70’s, fitness freak that he was.  It would have been imperative to have a director who could rein him in.  He, unlike Mitchum, liked working too hard.  A natural born ham, he relished big dramatic gestures, strong facial expressions, and those are only rarely called for with Parker.

The Palance you want in this case is minimalist Palance, impassive as a rock, twice as hard–and he can be hard to find, but he’s worth looking for.  All he had to do to embody Parker was stand there and breathe.  He might not have found that interesting enough.

But if the acting career hadn’t worked out, he could have picked up some cash modeling for Robert E. McGinnis crime paperback covers.  He’d have looked terrifying, walking across the George Washington Bridge at dawn, murder in his mind.  And we can be pretty sure that’s the image Westlake had in his head when he wrote that scene.

 

Next is my most perverse pick by far, that even I don’t take seriously.  But I make it anyway, because 1)He could have played the part with zenlike restraint and 2)Some imp of the perverse within me thrills at the notion of making the ultimate white hat into the baddest hombre of all.  I speak of none other than–

ARNESS, James.  Born 1923, Minneapolis MN.  Height: 6’7 (in his cowboy boots).  Eyes: blue.

Anyone whose two signature roles are a straight-arrow TV western lawman and a carnivorous bipedal vegetable from another world can be said to have had an interesting career.  James Arness was, to all accounts, a very thoroughgoing gentleman, and there is reason to doubt that he would have been willing to portray Parker at his most dastardly.  So why am I bringing him up?

I guess because of scenes like this–

In a sense, Arness never stopped playing The Thing From Another World, only the planet he hailed from was Justice.  In scenes that called for Matt Dillon to get angry, he never lost his cool–he got even colder.  His eyes would turn to purest ice, bore contemptuously into whoever had roused his ire, and even if that bad guy was played by Chuck Bronson, he’d start to look scared. Matt Dillon was the most frightening good guy in television history.  I’m not sure even Palance could have shown that side of Parker so well.

Think about that scene in The Rare Coin Score, where Neo Nazi Otto Mainzer asks if fellow string member Mike Carlow is Jewish.  We’re told Parker just looks at him.  And Otto, a big scary guy in his own right, starts backpedaling, and we understand that he’s worried Parker will kill him right then and there, so that he won’t ruin the job with his personal crap.  How many actors could pull that off?  This one could.

So the question is, was there something in him that might have enjoyed playing the villain for once, if the villain’s targets were mainly other villains.  He was not one of the more ambitious stars you can name, but he knew his craft, and he knew as well as anyone how to underplay, show you what he was feeling with a relatively minor change of expression.

I think the main objection to him is that if he was playing someone who didn’t believe in law and order, and was more than willing to shoot first, it would be awfully hard to depict him as the underdog in any fight.  Slayground would literally be a romp in the park for that guy.

Humor me on this one, I’m a huge fan of early Gunsmoke (the Meston era, far as I’m concerned that show only ran ten seasons).  So much so that I’m going to put up another YouTube video–only this time the coldest eyes in the scene I’m looking at don’t belong to Arness.  Or to anybody who was ever any kind of star, though he sure had a long career.  Go in a bit over eleven minutes.

No, I don’t mean Strother Martin, though he’d have been a fine addition to the cast of any Parker adaptation.  I’m talking about someone  I first noticed in a small but important role in The Outfit.  He played a hitman, out to kill Duvall’s Macklin.  I don’t know how Macklin got out of that picture alive.  Fiction isn’t always fair. Best man doesn’t always win.  And in this contest I’m playing out in my head, the best man for the job might very well have been–

REESE, Tom.  Born 1928, Chattanooga TN.  Height: 6’3.  Eyes: Narrowed, depthless, unreadable.  Wouldn’t swear to their color.

You always want what you can’t have, and all the names on this list qualify in that respect.  Tom Reese never played the lead in anything.  But the more I see of him, the more I know–he was really something.  He’s my personal pick.

Big. Tall. Blocky.  Face like chipped concrete.  Eyes like a wolf, almond-shaped, unblinking, merciless.  Voice as impassive as his eyes, betraying little in the way of a regional accent.  There’s a scene in The Outfit, where he’s walking with his hands swinging at his sides, and you just know somebody made a mistake.  This is Parker.  Duvall is playing the crazy guy Parker’s going to kill.

He’s dressed as a priest when we first see him in that movie, and I wonder if maybe Westlake was thinking of that when he had Parker pose as a priest in Flashfire (it’s as good an explanation as any).  Later, he’s dressed as a hunter, complete with cap.  Suits him.  He doesn’t sneak up on his targets, he stalks them.  He’s a murderous automaton, that would give The Terminator nightmares.  They wasted him in that movie, but they usually did. And yet, he would find a way to get his point across, time after time.

And it’s hard to find suitable images of him online.  I’ve ordered a DVD of The Outfit.  Maybe later I’ll take some screenshots, put them up.  My personal tip of the hat to somebody who deserved a bigger career, but far as I know, he never complained.  Just did his job like a pro, claimed his split, went home.  Perfect.

But since perfection is not to be had in this world, here’s my idea of a compromise–

SMITH, William.  Born 1933, Columbia MO.  Height: 6’1-6’2 (opinions vary).  Eyes: dark as dark gets. 

Let’s play one last what-if game, just a little more rooted in reality.  Let’s imagine Point Blank had grossed enough to qualify as a minor hit.  Enough for MGM to consider a follow-up.  Let’s further imagine that they needed somebody to replace Lee Marvin as Walker, which doesn’t require much imagination, since he hated repeating himself.

And it’s a historical fact that the TV western Laredo, starring William Smith as Joe Riley–a role not unlike Clint Eastwood’s in Rawhide–ended the same year Point Blank came out.  Born the same year as Donald E. Westlake, just nine months earlier, Smith was just the right age to play Parker by then.  And it’s hard to imagine any actor more precisely resembling the character described to us in the opening paragraphs of The Hunter.  Or better able to embody the menace of the character.  Or his dangerous sex appeal.

Smith never got his big break, as Eastwood, Garner and McQueen did after their western shows ended (he fought the first two onscreen, he engaged in impromptu auto races with the last offscreen).  He, like Reese, was destined for a seemingly endless series of guest starring roles on TV, and a long succession of big screen heavies (and he was Conan of Cimmeria’s dad for like five minutes–he’d have fared far better than Arnold in the main role, but that wasn’t his karma).

Smith has many of the same strengths and weaknesses of Jack Palance, was perhaps not as good an actor, but given the generally putrid quality of the scripts he was given, it’s hard to say.  He made the whole country hate him in Rich Man, Poor Man.  He was encouraged to mug it up, because that’s what sneering heavies do.  Only rarely did he get a chance to show restraint, because restraint was almost never what the director wanted from him.  But he could keep a straight face when that’s what was called for.

WILLIAM-SMITH-8

WILLIAM-SMITH-2

What was usually called for was more like this–(he claimed Taylor broke a few of his ribs, and made it sound like a compliment.  Taylor never disclosed the full extent of his injuries.)

Or, on television, this (and yeah, I considered Garner for Parker, but would we want to lose him as Rockford?  He was too much the comedian to play it straight for long.)

The villains he usually played were too over the top, but does that mean Smith couldn’t have reined himself in, if he was the name above the title, instead of far below it?  Give him the right director, the right scriptwriter, an adequate budget, and he might have been the guy.  He sure as hell would have been available.

I’ve said it before, but for some roles, you don’t want the best actor–you want the right one.  Somebody born to play the part.  Willing to just let the character step forth,  unedited, unbidden, unforced.  Lee Marvin came the closest, but Marvin was too big a star by the time he came to Parker, and any major star is going to come with too many strings attached.

Think about what any casting director would have to find here.  Tall.  Powerful. Huge hands. Scary but sexy.  Calm, quiet-spoken, but able to project cold rage when needed.  Able to credibly scare the bejeebers out of mob bosses and criminal sociopaths, and yet mask his true nature from the straight world, and particularly the law.  Looking for all the world like a man born into the wrong age–or a wolf born into the wrong body.  Nothing to it, right?

That’s right.

So I’ve had several suggestions for somebody who could play Parker right now.  Michael Shannon.  Kevin Durand.  I’ve mentioned Joe Manganiello once or twice.  Not enough to justify a Part 3.  Anybody else got a pick?  If not, I’ve got one more thing to talk about before we get to the very last book in the queue.  Call it an addendum to my previous review.

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Parker film adaptations, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death

kinds_of_love_kinds_of_death_1220px-ThinMan38fc5cdb-141f-4501-b840-f1bfd552e401.imgbrickwall

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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