Tag Archives: The Rockford Files

Review: One Of Us Is Wrong

But a few years later, my good bad luck made me find the big money maker.  It wasn’t that in my eyes at first.  It was a great romantic part I knew I could play better than anyone.  But it was a great box office success from the start–and then life had me where it wanted me–at from thirty-five to forty thousand net profit per season.  A fortune in those days–or even in these.

Bitterly.

What the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder, that was worth–well, no matter.  It’s a late day for regrets.

He glances vaguely at his cards.

My play, isn’t it?

James Tyrone–From Long Day’s Journey Into Night, by Eugene O’Neill. 

Well, I can’t read backgrounders.  On the show I would never read the plot summaries, the character descriptions.  Just tell me what I say and what the other guy says, and I’ll figure out the details for myself.

Samuel Holt (playing himself) 

Perhaps now would be a good time to clearly state the premise of this four-book series, that I somehow failed to adequately explain in my very long preview to the reviews of it.   Ahem.

Holton Hickey, born and raised in Mineola, Long Island, dropped out of an upstate college after one year, and joined the army, mainly serving as an MP in Germany, and playing on the basketball team, because he’d shot up to six feet six inches in height, and was a strong athletic guy.  After his hitch was over, he went back home and spent a year and a half on the local police force, traffic detail for the most part.

Then one fine day, a film crew came to town, and he was, as the saying goes, ‘discovered.’  Didn’t have to hang out at Schwab’s Pharmacy.  Never even thought about being an actor before that day.  Never really had any long-term ambitions to speak of.  If he wasn’t ridiculously tall and a cop, he could have easily qualified as the lead of a Westlake ‘Nephew’ book.  But this was too good to pass up.  He moved to L.A., got an agent, and a new name, and various small parts here and there, and he took acting classes.

And then out of the blue he got the leading role in a TV series named Packard (Westlake loved those cars) about a rather implausibly young and dashing criminologist named Jack Packard, who worked for a university, and was always solving murder mysteries and other criminal conundrums that just kept dropping into his lap (don’t you hate it when that happens?).   Packard had a very large and diverse skill set (basically, if this week’s plot called for him to be able to fly a plane or karate chop somebody, he could do it).  It was maybe a little better than Magnum P.I., but not nearly as good as The Rockford Files.

He tells us that they were casting against type–since the role involved a lot of physical bits of business, stunts, fight scenes, they figured better to cast somebody who could plausibly do all that stuff (with lots of coaching), rather than some older more experienced actor who’d need a lot more stunt doubling.  Also, he was very good-looking, and networks like it when women watch their shows.  And presumably they got him cheap for at least the first season.

But there were four more after that, because the show was an enormous hit, and made him a major celebrity almost overnight.  He says they ended it at five seasons only because everybody was tired of doing it.  (Yeah, I don’t think that happens with huge network hits either–these days it doesn’t even happen with some flops.  But we’ll let it go for now.)

His agent and his lawyers (by this time he had a lawyer on each coast) made sure he got a very nice share of the syndication rights, which turned out to be quite lucrative. If he’s not too careless about money, he doesn’t need to work again for the rest of his life.  Not for money, I mean.

So he can afford a swanky home in Bel Air, and a brick townhouse in Greenwich Village (the nabe he says still looks like the New York of his adolescent fantasies), and a live-in manservant named William Robinson (hmm–you think maybe?), himself a retired actor, whose specialty was playing prissy supercilious man servants with pseudo-English accents in the movies and on TV, and the habits of a lifetime have stuck.  Robinson has become the character he played, and he likes it that way.  And Sam?  Maybe not so much.

Sam also has two beautiful boxers, Max and Sugar Ray (female and male), who cheer him up when he’s at his L.A. digs, and two beautiful girlfriends, Bly Quinn and Anita Imperato, one on each coast, who cheer him up in different ways, and I did get around to explaining that last time.  It takes some deal of explaining.

The two women know about each other, but it’s not so much an arrangement as something they’re all putting up with for the time being, because he doesn’t want to give either of them up, and he’s showing them both a really good time, and he lives a bi-coastal life anyway, spending summer and winter in Tinseltown, spring and fall in Gotham.  Towards the end of the series, he describes himself as being part of “two pairs, each complete, each in its own world.” 

Tall.  Handsome.  Athletic.  Famous.  Rich.  Two sexy intelligent charismatic women in his life, blonde and brunette, day and night, each tolerating the existence of her rival, and not asking for any commitment (they both have lives and careers of their own, but no other boyfriends we ever hear about).  Each woman appealing to different parts of his nature.  The best of both East and West, available to him at a moment’s notice.

And two cool dogs who ask for nothing more than to go for a ride in his station wagon now and again, and the blonde even agrees to look after them when he goes to New York with Robinson to bed down with the brunette for a while  (Robinson, who is on Team Bly, strongly disapproves of Anita, but Sam doesn’t care), and eat in her excellent Italian restaurant a few blocks from his house.  Okay, what’s wrong with this picture?  Seriously–what?

Just one little thing, as it turns out–Sam Holt is unemployed.  Not underemployed.  Unemployed.  Has been unemployed since Packard ended, about three years before we meet him (and it’s been three years still at the start of the last book, so time is passing very slowly for him).  Nobody knew him at all before the show started, then everybody knew him, and now nobody can see him in any other role.  Not audiences, not producers, not directors, not casting agents.  Nobody.

He keeps nagging his own agent to find him work and the agent keeps coming up with bupkus.  He’s not unreasonable, is our Mr. Holt.  He’s not holding out for a major starring role in a movie, or even necessarily a leading role in a TV series.  He’s open to suggestions.  As long as it’s not Packard, and it’s not out and out insulting, he’ll do it.  The phone never rings.  No, I don’t believe that either.  The phone would be ringing all the time.   But this is, in many ways, a story of contrivance.  A man whose real life reads like a fiction.  Or like a pitch for a TV pilot.  (Which for all I know is what it started out as.   Westlake was spending a lot of time in Hollywood himself in this time period.)

He knows he’s the luckiest sumbitch alive.  But the thing is, having gotten into acting as a lark, he’d gotten to like it.  To like the work, not only of acting but of writing, since he’d written some of the later scripts for the show. He wants to get back to it.  But Life, his real agent now, has put him on hold, and he just waits there for it to get back to him.  And when it does, it’s not with an acting job.

And he’s going to tell us all about it in first person mode–so is he writing and publishing books about his Post-Packard experiences?  Is that why the books are credited to Samuel Holt?   On the whole, I don’t think so, any more than I think Mitch Tobin was writing books about his experiences under the name Tucker Coe.  For one thing, there’s way too much kissing and telling, and Sam’s too much of a gentleman (and fiercely protective of his own privacy) to write that kind of book.  Sam’s telling somebody about his life, but in this genre, in this narrative format, you never do know quite who that is, do you?  Well, he’s telling us.  That we know.  So what’s he telling us this time?

First of all, he tells us some guys he never saw before tried to murder him by running his car off the San Diego Freeway.   They bang up his Volvo pretty badly (he’s got some nicer cars but rarely drives them), but he gets away from them, and calls his West Coast lawyer, Oscar Cooperman (always on the move and deeply in love with his cellular car-phone).

Then, with Oscar on the way, he arranges for an interview with two L.A. Sheriff’s deputies, who are pretty sharp and professional, as are most law enforcement personnel in this series–maybe because Westlake was wary of the the old “amateur knows better than the professionals” mystery trope you can trace all the way back to Poe’s Dupin.  But also, I’d guess, because he was trying to disguise himself here, and too many people know Westlake has a thing about cops.  The bad cops show up in the last book, after Westlake had been outed as Tobin.

They question him politely over quiche (a running stylistic motif in these books is established here–Sam will set up a question of some kind at the end of one chapter, then answer it at the beginning of the next–“Do sheriff’s deputies eat quiche?”–“Yes.”)  He can’t think of anything anybody would want to kill him for, anything unusual that happened to him recently.  Until they leave.  Then, after a brief conversation with Oscar (who mentions doing some legal work with regards to a mosque being built nearby),  he suddenly remembers.   Ross Ferguson.

Ross was one of the writers on Packard, and good at his job–he showed Sam some of the rudiments with regards to crafting a teleplay.  He can be hard to take at times, but Sam considers him a friend.  And one thing we’ll learn about Sam Holt is that he is loyal to his friends–sometimes to a fault.  And Ross called him at his New York residence three months ago, in a panic, begging to see him.

Sam had to go see his old acting buddy Brett Burgess appear in a play first, then eat with him and Anita at her restaurant, Vitto Impero (she took it over from her scapegrace ex-husband, and why do I think we’d have met the husband sometime if there had been a few more books). Anita won’t actually eat much, because according to Sam, running a restaurant has given her a contempt for food.

(Sidebar: Brett and Sam–weirdly, the cookie company this makes me think of started the year before this book came out, and that has to be coincidence, right?–are about the same age, height, and appearance, but their careers went in different directions–Sam became a big TV star, and can’t get an acting job to save his life.  Brett works all the time, all kinds of roles, legit theater and TV guest spots mainly, but will probably never make as much as his mailman.

Sam sometimes envies Brett, Brett sometimes envies Sam, but they’re still fast friends.  Brett makes an appearance in every Holt book but one, and nothing important ever happens with him.  He’s just there for counterpoint, to remind us what a real working actor’s life is more typically like, living from one job to the next, blending into his roles, not getting recognized on the street, or confused with his characters.  He’s probably a somewhat better actor than Sam, but unlike Sam, not terribly insightful when it comes to anything other than acting.  There’s a moral in there somewhere, I’m sure of it.)

So Ross is waiting for Sam outside his townhouse–he’s in trouble.  Somebody made a video of him killing Delia West, an ex-girlfriend of his.  Except he didn’t kill her–Sam, watching the video with a practiced eye, realizes it’s a very professional fake–except the final shot, with her dead in Ross’s Malibu beach house (oh, of course he has a Malibu beach house, and real-life Barbies to go with it)–that’s real.  It’s a snuff film.  With an actor made up like Ross playing the killer.

And just to make things worse, Ross panicked, put her body on his boat  (oh, of course he has a boat, it’s Hollywood), and dumped her at sea.  And this means whoever made this film has him at their mercy.  Ross figures what the hell, maybe he can work something out with them, what could they want that’s so bad–Sam urges him to go to the cops–these are murderers, not just common blackmailers.  But loyalty prevents him from calling the law himself.

And then he heard nothing from Ross for a while, and it just sort of went out of his head until now, though he did just happen to ask Ross about it recently over the phone, and Ross got really flustered like maybe somebody was listening in, and oh damn, that’s why somebody tried to kill Sam just now, isn’t it?

And now he needs to call those deputies, and tell them he knows who tried to kill him (well, not exactly who, that’s the mystery), except he feels like he owes Ross the courtesy of talking to him in person before exposing him to a potential murder rap.  Let’s all say it together now–No.  He does not owe Ross any such thing.  Somebody tried to kill him.

(This is going to be a recurrent problem with the series, by the way–Sam Holt is an incredibly smart guy who often does incredibly dumb things.  And if he doesn’t, there’s no story.  So Westlake has to keep figuring out ways to make this believable, keep it from turning into the kind of formulaic tripe such as you’d see on a show like Packard, and sometimes he manages it, and sometimes he doesn’t.)

So he heads over to Malibu, and the aforementioned beach house, and Westlake, via Holt, has some observations to make about that–

Malibu is a peculiarly Los Angeles sort of idea.  A narrow strip of land along the ocean’s edge, it is backed by steep precarious hills, with most of the slender flat band between ocean and hill given over to a six-lane highway, generally without dividers, called Route 1.  Stores and fast-food joints are shoehorned between the road and the hills, while restaurants and luxury vacation homes are lined up like houses on a Monopoly board between the traffic and the tides.  From time to time the sea reaches out a crooked finger and plucks some of the houses away.  From time to time one of the unstable hills falls over onto the shops, and occasionally, the highway itself  The whole place is insecure and transitory and ephemeral, and besides that the traffic is dreadful and the houses are too close together.  And yet…

And yet.

Real estate values are through the roof.  If you can talk about real estate in a place where at any moment the ocean may foreclose your house or a mountain fall on it or a runaway tractor-trailer dropkick it into the next wave, then the values are through the roof.  If the wind doesn’t take it.

Nobody answers the doorbell.  Sam has borrowed the place now and again, and he knows where there’s a key stashed.  He goes in and cases the joint (just like Packard would, and he’s painfully aware of this irony, as he will be so many more times before these books are over).  And then he opens a closet door and a nearly naked girl holding a knife jumps out.

It’s Ross’s current girlfriend, Doreen.  She doesn’t trust Sam at first, but then she recognizes him (Sam says that there’s a sort of mixed blessing to celebrity, in that people just assume they know you, even though they don’t, and trust you, even though they probably shouldn’t).

Anyway, now that she knows this is ‘Packard’, she opens up about what happened (one of the advantages of being a celebrity detective).  She was staying there, and says these Middle Eastern types showed up, asked her some questions, then sort of offhandedly gang-raped her.  More or less to pass the time of day.

Sam tries to make her understand how much trouble she could be in, but she’s really young, wants to think of herself as tough and savvy, and Ross is her only real contact in L.A.  She makes it very clear she’d be delighted to make contact with Sam (once she’s had a little time to get over the rape thing), and she’s cute enough, but his dance card is full, as has already been discussed (at no time in the series does Sam ever cheat on his two girlfriends, and I can imagine my female readers rolling their eyes now, and possibly some of the guys too).

So not wanting Doreen’s blood on his conscience, he offers to put her up at his place, and on the way out the door they get jumped–by tabloid reporters, armed with cameras, looking for a nice spicy photo spread of Sam Holt departing his secret love nest.  He gets a bit rough with them, but they’re used to that kind of thing, not the least bit deterred from future assaults on his privacy (and you can imagine Westlake thinking to himself maybe there’s a novel in this, and this being Westlake we’re talking about, it wasn’t long at all before there was a novel, and then two, and a character in those books greatly resembles a character in this one.  But we’ll get to that).

Sam finally gets to talk to Ross, and it’s worse than he thought–Ross won’t tell him what the blackmailers want, but it’s clearly something pretty bad–and Ross wants to write a book about it.  He’s tired of being a TV writer (this was at a time when 99.99999% of people who watched television had no idea who wrote it)–these guys are going to do something that will get a lot of attention in the press, he’ll be right in the center of it, and the publishers will be beating down his door, assuming there still is a door to beat down by then, and he’s still alive to open it.

We know how this kind of agenda tends to play out in a Westlake novel–some guy with a poorly developed sense of self trying to make a big change in his life out of the blue, distracted from reality by some personal agenda.  But of course, if you were reading this in the Mid-80’s, you didn’t necessarily know it was a Westlake.  And it’s still pretty obvious that Ross has a rather odd showbiz version of Stockholm Syndrome.

And yet Sam still promises to keep quiet–for now.  Never mind how loyal he is–I don’t care if he’s Rin Tin Freakin’ Tin–why would he make such an absurd promise to a man basically living as a prisoner in his own house, who is most likely going to be dead when this is over?  Self-evidently, because Sam himself is so desperate to break out of his own professional niche, he can totally relate.  And he still doesn’t really know what’s going on.

The setting changes to Manhattan.  Sam flies over there on business (and to see Anita, of course), and on the plane he finds himself sitting next to a man named Hassan Tabari, who is Minister of Justice for a small oil-rich Arabian principality called Dharak (Westlake’s list of fictional nations continues to grow).  Basically a glorified policeman (who expresses an admiration for The Rockford Files, when informed Sam played a TV detective–I seem to recall there was a Rockford episode based around Arab politics–oh yeah, this one).

Sam is pretty sure this is not a coincidence, but he can’t for the life of him figure out why he suddenly receives an impromptu lecture on Middle Eastern politics, and internecine Muslim rivalries, and we’re reminded that our present-day difficulties did not spring full blown from empty air.

Reading it over, I find myself devoutly wishing this book had been a huge bestseller when it came out.  Even when he wasn’t writing absolutely top-drawer mystery fiction (perhaps especially then), Westlake had an almost frightening capacity for seeing around corners, and–well, read for yourself.

“So,” he said, shrugging, “we are not all bombers of defenseless sailors, hijackers of innocent tourists.”

“All Arabs, you mean.”

He considered the term, and rejected it.  “All Moslems,” he decided. “After all, the Iranians are not Arabs, as they never tire of announcing.  The dispute is religious rather than racial.  In fact,” he said, suddenly voluble, shifting position so he could face me more comfortably, “I sometimes think the internal Moslem struggle is infinitely more important than Arab versus Jew.  That one is merely about territory, but the war within Islam is for the soul of the world.”

To have such an overblown hyperbole come from so restrained and self-controlled a man at first startled and then amused me, which must have shown in my face, because he cocked an eyebrow at me and said ,”Do you think I overstate the case?”

“Slightly,” I said.

“Perhaps,” he agreed, and nodded, and said, “but only very slightly.   We control the world’s energy for the next century.  We shall decide whether or not the machines of western civilization turn.  Don’t you think we will have some say as to what that civilization looks like?”

“It’s possible,” I admitted.

“The fundamentalist sects,” he said, “have captured Iran, taken control of Libya, assassinated Sadat, helped to destabilize Lebanon, performed terrorist acts against you of the West, and are creating great trouble and concern in every moderate Moslem nation.  Even Saudi Arabia is not as proof against the virus as it appears.”

This was far from any area of expertise I might claim.  I said, “We can see the struggle’s going on, all right.”

“But who are these people in white nightdresses, eh, slaughtering one another?” The twist he then gave his mouth could not have been called a smile.  “The Jewish lobby in this country makes no distinctions among Arabs,” he said, “and therefore America does not, and that is a very bad mistake.”

“I’m really not up on all this,” I said, wondering how to get back out of this conversation, deciding the thing to do as to find a need to visit the lavatory.

Tabari leaned back, shaking his head at himself, as though aware he’d gone too far, made me nervous.  “I’ll say only this,” he told me.  “Our fundamentalists are to us a more violent form of what your fundamentalists are to you.  The sort of people who a generation ago forced the famous Scopes monkey trial and still today try to keep evolution out of your schools.  The kind of people who bomb abortion clinics.  In America these people are merely an irritant, one point of view among many at the fringes of a strong center.  In my part of the world there is no center, there are only the extremes.  You would not like a world, Mr. Holt, that would please some of our imams.”

Now he tells us.  Oh right–then he told us.  Anyway, Sam tries to follow Tabari from JFK after they land, but he’s taken precautions to make sure Sam can’t do that.  And then Sam gets wrapped up in talking to Anita (among other things), and he stays over at her place above the restaurant, which turns out to be a good thing in more than the usual ways.  As she sleeps next to him, when he was just sleeping over at Bly Quinn’s place a short time earlier, the strangeness of his life becomes overpowering to him–his built-in identity crisis.

In every part of my life, it now seemed to me, the story was the same, I was neither one thing nor the other and yet both.  I was neither a New Yorker nor an Angeleno, but I was both.  I was neither Bly’s fella nor Anita’s, but I was both. I was neither a true star nor a has-been, but somehow I was still both.  What frequently seemed to me a good and rich and rewarding life now seemed, in this wakeful February night in Manhattan, merely a life of well-controlled vacillation.  “Indecision is the key to flexibility,” read a sign I’d once seen over a producer’s desk; it was meant to be a joke.

But when Sam walks back to his closed-up townhouse the next morning, he’s reminded that there are far worse fates imaginable–there’s a dead body there.  Some people broke into his house, and one of them is dead in a shoot-out with the cops (they triggered a silent alarm going in).

Talking to the NYPD detectives in charge of the case, including one Sergeant Shanley (a woman, we’ll see her again), he realizes that he’s doing what he always thought the characters in TV scripts were idiots for doing–not telling the police what’s going on until it’s too late.  Bad enough for him to be forced to play Packard, but now he’s one of the idiot supporting characters who end up dead in act three.

He heads back for L.A., and after one more futile attempt to reason with Ross (who insists he’s fixed that little problem with his friends apparently trying to kill Sam yet again), he stops being stupid, and calls the sheriff’s deputies.  But then he finds out that in real life, calling the cops doesn’t solve everything either–sometimes the cops really can’t do anything, even if they believe you (and they do in this case).  Ross’s house can’t be searched without cause, and he refuses to cooperate.  There’s no legal pretext for them to intervene until these people do whatever it is they’re planning to do.  Great.

So I don’t really want to give this the full synopsis treatment, and you can see where this is going–deep into Travis McGee country.  Westlake was consciously patterning some aspects of this book after those John D. MacDonald Floridian epics, which were never much about ratiocination and whodunnit but rather about conspiracy and intrigue and lots of violence, interspersed with lots of sex.  And frequently a dead or kidnapped lover (the better to justify the violence), but Westlake’s not going that way with it.  Too obvious.

Sam ends up being held prisoner by the terrorists–yes, obviously they’re terrorists.  We’ve all figured that out by now.  The question is, what do they want?  To blow up that mosque Sam’s lawyer mentioned earlier.  Because it’s insufficiently fundamentalist, one supposes, and they don’t like the government that’s behind it (I’ll give you one guess whose government that is–you got it!), and some people they really hate are going to be at the opening dedication for the building.  Security is very tight there, but guess whose property abuts the land the mosque is on?  That’s what they wanted Ross for.

Sam gets into this mess because he can’t stop thinking of himself as The Hero–that’s obvious.  He knows this about himself, he’s embarrassed about it, he knows he’s not really Jack Packard, but he’s still stuck in that role, will remain stuck in that role until he can find a new one.  But having gotten himself into this situation, behaving like Packard is the only way he can get himself out of it, and save a lot of people from being killed.  So that’s what he does.  If you want to know how, read the book.

The title refers to the conflict between himself and Ross–and the affinity between them.  Ross is just as determined to somehow recast himself in life, become a great author, turn his fictions into reality.  That obsession–combined with his inability to see just how poor a fit he is for the role he’s playing now–makes him not only willing but eager to collaborate with people who framed him for murder–and to betray a friend who tried to help him.  But when you’re so deeply unhappy with the life you have, you may be willing to do anything to change it.  Even if that means losing it.

One of them is wrong, yes–but how much less wrong is Sam?  Again, we see the parallel with the Tobin novels.  Tobin would find a way to obliquely express to us that he sees how easily he could go down the path of someone he encounters in the book, whose life has gone disastrously wrong, whose identity has become terminally confused.  He hasn’t gone that far down the road yet, but it’s the same road.  With each subsequent book, he gets a bit closer to admitting this to himself.

But it’s done a lot more skillfully in those earlier pseudonymous novels. It’s much more organic and unforced.  It works one whole hell of a lot better than it does here.  And Westlake was not the kind of writer to be okay with a do-over that turns out worse than the original.

Still effective enough–these are good books, everybody who noticed them thought so at the time, including those who didn’t know who wrote them. But Westlake must have realized, as he wrote three of them in close succession, that there was no natural endpoint for Sam, as there was for Tobin.   Tobin could just go back to his life, his family, when he came to the end of his depression.  But would getting work as an actor again really resolve Sam Holt’s identity crisis?   Seems to me that would only deepen it.

So to enjoy these books, you sort of have to accept them for what they are–a failed experiment, with some interesting results, some acute observations of the contemporary scene, and some damn good writing.  And that’s just as true of the next book on our list, my personal favorite of the four, but that may be because it’s the most Gotham-centric of them, and therefore the most Anita-centric.  Have I mentioned I’m on Team Anita?  I’ll go into more detail about why that is next time.   Not that either team ever wins.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books and this one really justifies that name)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, One Of Us Is Wrong, novel, Samuel Holt Novels

Mr. Westlake and The TV Detective

RF1

Hamlet: Denmark’s a prison.

Rosencrantz: Then is the world one.

Hamlet: A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

Rosencrantz: We think not so, my lord.

Hamlet: Why, then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.

Rosencrantz: Why, then, your ambition makes it one; ’tis too narrow for your mind.

Hamlet: O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

Guildenstern: Which dreams, indeed, are ambition; for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.

Well, we’ve certainly had an interesting time exploring The Westlake Museum thus far, haven’t we, kids?  Let’s take a nostalgic stroll back through its venerable hallways, passing along our way many a fascinating exhibit.  The Hall of Sleaze (don’t tell your parents we went there!), the Science Fiction Diorama (with derisive graffiti by Westlake himself), the Early Hardboiled Exhibit, the Mitch Tobin Memorial (walled up, naturally), the Nephews Nativity Scene, the Dortmunder Display (still under construction), and of course the Stark  Shooting Gallery (always popular but somehow never crowded).  Plus many an odd little cul-de-sac that leads nowhere, but may be well worth exploring, regardless.

And what’s this?  Something we’ve missed up to now.  The entrance is unmarked.  There’s cobwebs on the door handles.  Well, let’s go in.  Nothing ventured and all that.

The hinges creak.  In the mustiness and gloom of a long abandoned space, we see a mid-sized exhibit.   Some work was put into this one, clearly.  To our right, we see the majestic yet seamy Gotham skyline, and in the foreground a lissome pallid brunette in a very simple little black dress; streetwise, practical,  in equal parts sardonic and sexy, standing in front of an Italian restaurant, her arms akimbo.  To our left, we see the Los Angeles sunshine and smog, and in the foreground a luscious bikini-clad blonde lounging by the pool, book in hand, a sly winsome expression on her sun-drenched face–she clearly knows more than she’s saying (and she’s saying plenty).

And hovering solicitously between the two, a haughty-looking gentleman’s gentleman holding a tray of hors d’oeuvres,  who seems perhaps a mite too aware of his role–overplaying it to the veritable hilt.  A splendid anachronism, and don’t you forget it.  Also two lawyers (one on each side), a Hollywood agent, and an accountant holding out a ledger that somehow is never examined too closely.  Also assorted friends (quote marks sometimes necessary), colleagues, well-wishers, general hangers-on, milling about, begging for attention.

Last and not even remotely least, two delightful boxers (pooches, not pugilists), scampering about on the west side of the exhibit, having a good time for themselves, ignoring the general goings-on most of the time.  Not really relevant to anything, but they sure decorate nicely.

As we look around, we see a neglected barren stage, a television screen airing a nonstop test pattern, promotional posters touting a show we’ve never watched which is nonetheless perpetually in repeats.  There are cases full of murder weapons, and the deadliest of them all seems to be boredom, followed by indecision.  And far at the back, overlooking the tableau with a decidedly melancholy air, we see a looming figure, half in shadow; handsome, charismatic, piercingly intelligent, yet somehow unformed, incomplete–he’s dressed as Hamlet, or rather as Hamlet would dress were he a  TV Detective of the late 70’s/early 80’s.  Very high concept.

And behind him, in a roped-off alcove, a display case with framed obituary notices from the New York Times and Variety in it, but there’s a large question mark hovering over it in space, making us wonder….

Ah yes.  The Holt Wing.

Westlake’s last sustained attempt to write a series character under an assumed name came about, according to him, as an attempt to find out if he could start over from scratch, with a name no one knew, write in a voice he hadn’t used before, and still sell books, win converts, blaze new trails.  One would think that having done this already as Richard Stark and Tucker Coe (not to mention Alan Marshall et al, and he’d doubtless have preferred no one mention that), he’d have felt like he had nothing to prove in this regard.  But as he said in his brief intro to the very belated paperback reprints to this series, “Times change.  Cultures change.  Markets change.”  Had he changed?   Could he still pull it off?

In the intro, he mentions Stephen King’s alter ego Richard Bachman as an inspiration.  King cited similar reasons for adopting a nom de plume (having never been known for this kind of thing, whereas Westlake had been writing stories under multiple pseudonyms years before he published his first novel under his own name), but later said the question was never satisfactorily answered as to whether his previous success had been talent or luck, because people quickly enough figured out who Bachman was, and none of the Bachman books sold very well until his true identity became common knowledge.  Let’s be honest here–no matter who you are, luck is always involved in success.  It’s just a matter of degree.

The ‘Richard’ in the name was derived from Richard Stark (with Westlake’s bemused and unneeded consent), a name Westlake felt like he could no longer write honestly under, and people knew who Stark was by now anyway–there’d never been any real effort made to hide it.   Westlake’s earlier pseudonyms were not created to fool the reading public but rather to get around the publishing industry’s annoying tendency to only let you put out so much under your own name in a given year.

But somehow, for Westlake, the fake identities became real–alternate voices, parts of his personality he couldn’t fully express under his own name, writers who were memorable in their own right–who rivaled Westlake, competed with him, and some might even say surpassed him (Stark actually did outsell Westlake in the late 60’s/early 70’s).  King obliquely referenced this when he wrote The Dark Half.  But catering to his usual market (I have to say, I don’t really see any difference between the way he writes as King or Bachman), he just told another thrilling horror story with a psychological edge to it, and didn’t really try to capture what Stark and the others meant to Westlake–they were not monsters to be suppressed, demons to be exorcised.  They were truths that needed to be told.

But Westlake couldn’t tell them anymore–his other voices had abandoned him, one by one, as the 70’s wore on.  Tucker Coe just sort of tuckered out, with nothing more to say about Mitch Tobin–Coe’s voice was Tobin’s voice, so Coe went when Tobin did.  Westlake seems to have been equally concerned and relieved over the disappearance of Stark–there were obviously more stories to tell about Parker, but he wanted to explore other avenues, types of stories Parker didn’t go with at all, and the further he went down that road, the harder it was to summon back the Stark voice.  This was a lighter-spirited time in his life–Stark would wait for the darkness to return, as it always does.

The other pseudonyms he’d used in the 60’s and 70’s had never really amounted to anything–just brief attempts to branch into other genres, and the books hadn’t sold well enough to merit another try.  He was a mystery writer, a crime writer, and to most people by this point in time, a comedic writer within that genre.  And he’d liked that for a while, but it might have been wearing on him a bit.  He’d tried branching out under his own name (Kahawa, A Likely Story, High Adventure)–the books had been good, the reception less enthusiastic than he’d hoped.  People knew what they wanted from Westlake now.  Comic capers.  Dortmunder and such.  For him to write something else he had to be someone else.

Which he could do easily enough in the 1960’s and early 70’s, when people were not paying that much attention to who wrote what in his designated genre (Random House had made a big fuss over the secret identity of Tucker Coe, but I think everybody who cared solved that mystery quickly enough–they were promoting Westlake novels on the back covers of Coe novels).

His output had declined dramatically since then.  He could no longer disappear into a sea of pseudonyms.  He could no longer write paperback originals either, because that market was dead.  So could he make a deal with a publisher to put out something he wrote under a false name, and see how people liked it?   And then, obviously, spring the news on them that it was none other than himself?

Because that had to be the plan.  He never meant for the secret to last.  He wanted people to ask “Who is this Samuel Holt who writes mystery stories about a guy named Samuel Holt?”  Richard Stark didn’t write stories about Richard Stark, any more than Richard Bachman wrote stories about Richard Bachman.  King went out of his way to create a false bio for Bachman (then killed him off once the ruse was exposed–Westlake did something chillingly similar with Holt, after these books were written).

But how seriously can you take an author who says he wants to disappear into a pseudonym when he never seriously tries to make the pseudonym stand up to scrutiny?  Obviously there’s no such person as Samuel  Holt.  There’s people sort of like Samuel Holt, but they don’t solve mysteries.  They just make bad movies, and wait for their next series to start.   Well, that’s not fair.  Not entirely.

Whatever he thought would happen, what actually did was deeply disappointing.  He’d been developing a relationship with Tor Books (an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates LLC, known primarily for Science Fiction and Fantasy)–they’d handled the paperback reprints of a few books of his, and he’d been pleased in particular by them agreeing to reprint A Likely Story.

Even though these books he was putting out would be classic mysteries, ideal for The Mysterious Press, he clearly couldn’t publish them there without effectively outing himself right off the bat, since his close association with Otto Penzler was so well known (and yet the dedication to the first book is to “Otto and Michael, unindicted co-conspirators.”  Seriously, this was never going to be a mystery for the ages, folks.)

So he signed a contract with Tor, and in return for getting a much smaller advance than Donald E. Westlake would typically get, he was promised anonymity–a fresh slate.  Emulating John D. MacDonald’s example when writing the first Travis McGees, he hammered out three novels in close succession, and handed them in.  Two were published in 1986, one in 1987.  No books under Westlake’s name appear between them in his bibliography (yet another telltale clue for the amateur book detective).

Tor did a good job with the books, it must be said.  They’re nicely executed volumes, with decent artwork for the era (particularly the second entry), and lack the many egregious typographical errors of the much later reprint editions from Felony & Mayhem (with a clownish caricature of an 80’s-style detective cavorting on the covers).

But as Westlake revealed in his intro to those reprints, he was betrayed–the publisher (Doherty himself?) had told his staff to let bookstores know who ‘Sam Holt’ really was, so that they could put promotional displays up (maybe because they remembered how much better the Richard Bachman books sold after people knew there was no Richard Bachman).   Westlake wanted people to know the secret–but not so soon–not this way.  The game was no longer afoot–the game, in fact, had been ruined.  Might as well have told everyone the butler did it (though technically, in the Holt books, all the butler does is sulk).

So he owed them another book, and he made it quite a bit darker than the previous three, and its ending is powerfully reminiscent of the final chapter of the last Mitch Tobin mystery.  Because in fact, these books are a reworking of the Tobin series.  And Samuel Holt is, in many ways, a reworking of Tucker Coe, and Coe’s protagonist.

The Mitch Tobin mysteries, which I believe deserve to be ranked with the best work Westlake or any other mystery writer ever wrote under any name, stemmed from a personal insight he had about The Thin Man, the last novel Dashiell Hammett published in his lifetime, before his long creative drought set in.   Westlake felt that Nick Charles was deeply depressed by his decision, brought on by his marriage to Nora, to give up his career as a detective.

His life now lacked purpose, so he resorted to heavy drinking to dull that pain.   Nora, loving him every bit as much as he loved her, and having been attracted to him in the first place primarily because of his dangerous profession, wanted him to go back to doing what he was born to do, so that they wouldn’t have to drink themselves to death in too much of a hurry.  The Days of Crime and Roses.  The movies made it a lot cuter, as they tend to do (maybe Blake Edwards would have given it a darker tinge).  But there’s a nice terrier named Asta in the book as well (Schnauzer, not Fox Terrier, and yes there’s a difference, but we hardly need belabor it here).

So Westlake got rid of the high society thing, the solving mysteries with your wife and dog thing, but kept what was really interesting to him–a man who has lost the will to go on, because everything that mattered to him has vanished from his life.  Tobin’s partner died while covering for Tobin’s marital infidelity, and his subsequent exposure led to the end of his career as a police detective and the total loss of his personal and professional identity.

He manages not to kill himself by means of various ambitious home improvement projects he makes up to keep occupied, his wife Kate willingly forgives him (and like Nora Charles, pushes for him to go back to his real work), his son just sort of tunes the high drama out, and what follows is Tobin just looking for ways to avoid life altogether. But life keeps shoving itself at him, in the form of blood-stained mysteries he has to solve.

And bit by bit, he regains his equilibrium, learns the lessons he needed to learn from the people he meets along the way, and rejoins the human race.  End of series.  Only five books, and the last one was, as I mentioned when reviewing it, not really necessary except as a means of tying up a few loose ends, and proving to Westlake that he had nothing more to say with this character.  So really, just four books that matter.  Hmm.

The Coe voice is quietly powerful, done in first-person narrator form, with Tobin telling his own story, filling us in from book to book as to how he became the person he is now, observing the world around him with great clarity and perceptiveness brought on by his uniquely abstracted outlook on life.  He sizes up the people he encounters rather brilliantly, much more concerned with character and motivation than with clues.

Although he always cracks the case, Tobin never really feels like he’s made the world a better place for doing so. There’s a powerful existentialist feel to the novels, a sense that this ratiocinative activity is something that needs be done for its own sake, not because it will fix anything, but because the truth matters.  The truth about whodunnit, but also about who you are, down inside.   But of course the most important thing anyone must know about the truth is that it hurts like holy hell.

So not nearly as many people remembered the Coe books as the Starks.   Westlake was known to have written them, but mainly by aficionados.  If you look closely at the Holts, you can see more than a few intentional hints, clues Westlake left for those very cognoscenti–like the repeated use of the name Walburn, briefly in the first Holt, much more significantly in the second–that name appears in Wax Apple, with Westlake’s own first name appended to it (a road thankfully not taken, as I pointed out when that book came up in the queue).

In fact, there are many many deliberate clues as to the provenance of the Holts within their pages, not least their style, which I think comes closer to the way Westlake wrote nonfiction articles under his own name than any of his other fictional guises.  In many ways, Samuel Holt (the character) is simply Donald E. Westlake, only famous, handsome, rich, six feet six inches tall, bi-coastal, single and polygamous (it takes some explaining), and most unhappily unoccupied.  A fantasy and a nightmare come true at the same time.

Sam Holt gets everything his creator could ever have idly desired in his wildest dreams, except the most important thing–a job he actually wants to do.  And kids, of course, but he’s got the two boxers–which really is an actor thing, by the way–can’t tell you how many actors in my nabe I’ve met while exercising my dog, and the dogs introduced us–I think actors just need somebody in their lives who can’t read their reviews, and cats of course are born critics.

Westlake has always seemed a mite canophobic to me (maybe someday I’ll get to ask someone who knows), but writing as Holt he even conquers this long held phobia, and enjoys a healthy rewarding relationship with two fictive furry friends who couldn’t care less about his identity crisis.  Take us for a ride, dad!  Let’s have fun!  And that happens far too rarely.

Simply the close empathetic interest in the acting profession should have been a solid clue as to the author of these novels–this is also, to some extent, a reworking of the Grofield books, except Grofield, trying to live up to the Starkian ideal, refused to sell out to television, remained true to live theater, no matter how non-remunerative. Westlake wrote more about actors than any mystery writer I know of (his next two books after finishing the first three Holts both had actors in them, and likewise dealt with the tribulations of celebrity).

The East/West coast rivalry was another trademark of his. And his mingled predilection for blondes and brunettes. Honestly, I’m having a hard time believing he thought the secret of Sam Holt was going to last very long. It’s easy to see how he’d be upset that the publisher had failed to live up to the nondisclosure agreement (except if it was in the contract, couldn’t he have sued?)

He says they tried to hit the reset button–I don’t know what that means. If it came down to some bookstores advertising the Holts as Westlakes in their windows and displays, would that really have been such huge national news? How many ordinary mystery readers would have even noticed? How big a secret had Richard Bachman ever been? King’s last book under that name was in 2007, long after Bachman had been thoroughly outed (and killed off via publicity dispatch).  Why was Westlake so angry about this?  He knew what publishers are.  He wrote an entire novel about what publishers are.

‘Newgate Callendar,’ still handling the crime fiction beat for the New York Times (not for much longer, though–I think this might be his last crack at anything Westlake did), wrote a glowing review of the first Holt novel–with no apparent knowledge that it was actually a Westlake. If he’s playing dumb, I have to say, it’s a bravura performance. And either way, the irony might have tasted bitter to Westlake. The critic who never seemed to fully appreciate his work that broke with expectations was heartily applauding this incognito effort. Should he be elated–or deflated? It think it was more the latter.

So the part of me that sometimes feels obliged to question Westlake’s explanations of why he started or stopped writing this or that is moved to wonder–how upset could he be that people didn’t believe ‘Samuel Holt’ was writing the Samuel Holt books, when he’d included so many clues as to who really wrote them? Was this the real problem? Or did he decide, after cranking out three in a row, that the books weren’t as good as he’d hoped they’d be? Because they are definitely not as good as the Coes. Not even close. Was Tor’s show of bad faith simply a good excuse to pull the plug on a project that hadn’t worked out as planned?

I don’t think he had such high expectations here–he wanted to create a nice entertaining mystery series, about a reluctant detective (yet another clue it was him), with perhaps a touch of Rex Stout in the mix (Archie Goodwin with fame, money, a Manhattan townhouse and a busy sex life, but no Nero), all of this neatly distracting from the fact that as with the Coes, he was using these stories to make social commentaries. But instead of dealing with outsider subcultures, as Coe habitually did, he’d examine the ultimate insider subculture–showbiz–and all the various insider cultures it bumps up against.

It’s a subculture he’d learned a lot about while working as a screenwriter, hobnobbing with various friends in that biz, and as he admits in his foreward to the reprint editions, he wanted to use what he’d learned, but didn’t feel comfortable doing it under his own name (he would soon anyway, but apparently some of the portraits in the Holt books are more–personal). So another reason to dislike the books–maybe they got him in some hot water with certain people, once it came out he’d written them. Impossible to say.

Westlake’s ambiguous relationship with the movies has been much commented upon here (he commented upon it a fair bit himself).  His relationship with television is even more tortured.  He contributed to the (literal) train wreck that was Supertrain in 1979, and is actually listed as its creator, something that I have no doubt haunted him all the rest of his days.

Probably one reason I get a weird incestuous feel from Sam’s relationship with Bly Quinn, ace sitcom writer, is that she’s as much of a Westlake alter ego as Holt is, maybe more.  Many of her conflicts–feeling like she’s become trapped in a mode of storytelling she doesn’t entirely believe in–are Westlake’s as well.  But so is her delight in the conventions of genre, her wealth of arcane historical and literary trivia, and she even gets a reference to Graham Greene and This Gun For Hire in there at one point.

But Westlake didn’t want Sam to just be out there in LalaLand all the time–one of the central conceits of the books is that he’s a Long Island boy, to who New York will always be The City, and all other towns mere pretenders to that name (it works the same way with upstaters, I’m sure).   He needs New York to keep him honest, and a New York girl into the bargain, so Westlake gave him a Greenwich Village townhouse to go with his Bel Air mansion, and a smart sassy Italian-American restaurateur named Anita Imperato to serve as a counterpoint to his California girl (Bly is actually from Maryland, but she’s long since gone native).

Anita is close to Sam’s age (a year older), much more rooted in the here and now, and they feel like a real couple, in ways Sam and Bly never quite do.  Bly is very much an aspiring Nora to Sam’s Nick, encouraging Sam to be a detective, solve the mysteries, go on adventures, but Sam’s no drunk, and he’s hardly miserable (you’d kind of have to hate his guts if he ever dared whine about his lot in life), so it seems more like she’s doing it for herself–as a way of living out the kinds of stories she loves to read and write, and to keep Sam more in her sphere of influence.

Anita, by contrast, encourages him to find out what he really wants to do and do it already–he tells us that when he tries to get more serious with her (meaning that he’s tried more than once), she pushes him away–knowing he’s not ready to commit to anything yet, let alone anybody.  I never feel like there’s quite enough of her in the books, and for what it’s worth, if any resolution of Sam’s divided love life is even possible, put me on Team Anita.

It’s a weird gimmick (taking Archie Goodwin to the next level–Lily Rowan and Lucy Valdon in explicit competition instead of merely implied), and I suppose offputting to some readers–he’s not technically cheating on either of them–it’s an open arrangement that just happened, and he can’t seem to resolve it either way.

After he became a famous TV star, he could basically have any woman he wanted, kid in a candy store, but he found that palled on him after a while (I suppose that could happen), and the interesting women didn’t take him seriously anymore (that I believe)–so he cut back on the harem, until it was just the final two contestants–and he can never decide who gets the rose.  They’re both so independent, it’s not clear either of them even wants the damn rose, yet they’re always obliquely vying for his favor, regardless–they never meet, each remaining on her respective coast, and Anita refers to Bly disparagingly as ‘the tennis player.’

Bly scarcely refers to Anita at all, which I think is partly because she recognizes Sam’s connection with Anita is deeper, more real, a threat to the exciting fantasy life she and Sam are living out in California.   She’s enjoying the hell out of all the various intrigues Sam gets her involved in–it’s great research material for her screenwriting.   But at some point, aren’t all three of them going to want more?  And Utah wouldn’t suit any of them very well, methinks.

Sam’s put a whole lot of major life decisions on hold.  That’s the central theme of the book.  That’s the conflict he has to resolve, and the mysteries are supposed to help him do that, the way they did for Tobin.  But it just doesn’t work as well, does it?   The contrivances are too contrived.  The fantasy is too fantastic.  The TV Detective is too damn much of a TV Detective, supercilious manservant and all.

And who seriously believes a guy who is the hugely popular star of a major hit series that ran five seasons isn’t getting any serious job offers for three years?   Job offers that don’t work out, sure.  Movies that flop, shows that tank, guest shots that make him look diminished somehow, people saying “One Hit Wonder,” that I could buy.  But nothing at all?  Even though he never stops bugging his agent to find him more work?  It’s not like he’s holding out for a major motion picture here.

Westlake knows it’s a stretch, does his level best to justify it, and I still don’t buy it.   But for the books to work, you have to buy it.  Holt’s deep professional frustration–a guy who lucked into the coolest job in the world, then figured out he really wanted to be an actor, right around the time he couldn’t be one anymore–is central to the whole enterprise.

Westlake refers more than once to The Rockford Files and Magnum P.I. in the books.   The former series he has Holt call ‘The Gold Standard’ and that it was.  But Holt is closer to being a Tom Selleck type–his character, Packard, was too much of a Lance White (seen up top)–Stephen J. Cannell’s brilliant parody of over-idealized TV detectives (the very kind that made Cannell a rich man) who Rockford had to perennially contend with, which had the added benefit of making Rockford seem realistic by comparison.

And Holt recognizes that (as a Rockford fan, he doubtless remembers the Lance White eps all too well), hates it, wants to escape that into some more valid form of self-expression, but who’s ever going to let him break out of the typecasting?  And who knew more about typecasting than Donald Westlake?  Okay, maybe Tom Selleck, but I’m not sure it ever bothered him as much as it does Holt and (in a different way) his creator.

Depth of character may not in fact be a professional advantage for an actor or a writer.  Why can’t Sam Holt get another acting job?  Why couldn’t Donald Westlake ever write a best selling novel, or get people to fully accept the novels that didn’t fit his proper genre cubbyhole?   But point is, he kept writing novels, and not just as Westlake.  Actors have a more difficult time disguising themselves than writers do (hard as the best of them work at it).

The realization Holt is reaching for and never quite gets to is that there are no small parts–that he has to let his stardom go somehow, if he wants to truly join his chosen profession.  And much as he enjoys the celebrity (both an advantage and a handicap when it comes to solving mysteries), you wouldn’t think it would be so hard for such a smart guy, not hampered by deep depression like Tobin, to figure this out.

That’s one reason the books all take place in a rather unrealistically short time period.  One over-the-top escapade after another, self-consciously parroting and rationalizing various conventions of the mystery form (like the Grofields), distracting him from the choices he has to make, while at the same time forcing him to notice very real problems in the world that make his own troubles look shallow and silly.  How could that be sustained over a long series?  It couldn’t.  Another reason to pull the plug.   And blame the publisher.  Who should have kept his word.

But even if that had happened, if the secret had been kept for a year or three, the books still wouldn’t have worked, I think.  Westlake wanted to go incognito again, yes–disappear into another persona,  as he had with Stark, but this wasn’t the way.  He’d have to do it on the up and up, and that nettle would be grasped, when the time was right.  Because unlike Samuel Holt, Donald E. Westlake was a consummate professional before anybody knew who he was–he’d worked hard and long for everything he’d accomplished, and sure there was luck involved, but he was ready for it when it came.  The failure of this series was a setback, but it didn’t set him back for very long.

So why bother to review all four books, one at a time, as I am now preparing to do?   Well, that is the mission statement of this blog.  Review everything.  But fact is, I like these books.  I see their weaknesses, the fundamental flaws of their premise and protagonist, and I still like them.  I enjoyed reading them the first time, and I’m enjoying them again now.  They contain many valuable insights, about fiction and life, and the myriad ways that each acts upon the other.  What we are, and what we think we should be.

So standing here in the sadly neglected Holt Wing of the Westlake Museum, let us ring back the curtains, open up the windows, let in some fresh air and light, grab some of those hors d’oeuvres (still good after all these years, Robinson’s a marvel), and take those two enchanting boxers for a long-delayed romp.  They’ve earned it.  So have we.  Books are made to be read, as life is made to be lived.  Let’s see what you have to teach us, melancholy Prince of Bel Air.  Damn, that’s copyrighted, isn’t it?  Oh well, let the lawyers figure it out.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Samuel Holt Novels, Tucker Coe

Tribute: James Garner, 1928-2014.

cast

The real world never never impinges on the entertainment side of television, so fully realized private eyes continued to perform their pulp kabuki all over the tube. Mannix and Cannon and all those fellows, of whom the best was by a long shot Rockford. Rockford didn’t try to break out of the rituals, but used them in a very knowing and able way. His relationships with society, with the police, with his clients, with women, were all very much in the tradition, and yet Rockford was an individual, a human being you could believe in rather than a cardboard figure in a trench coat.
Donald Westlake, The Hardboiled Dicks

That quote, along with much else of interest, may be found in The Getaway Car, Levi Stahl’s soon-to-be-published anthology of Westlake’s nonfiction writing, which I’ll be reviewing in the near future (spoiler alert–I liked it). So there’s a quick plug, but this is a tribute–to somebody in the entertainment biz. Which this blog isn’t mainly about, and I wouldn’t be holding my breath waiting for a lot more of of the same here, if I were you. But Garner was the exception to so many rules in his world, I’ll make an exception for him in mine.

I grew up on The Rockford Files–I knew nothing back then about who wrote what. I never noticed the names Roy Huggins, Stephen J. Cannell, David Chase, Juanita Bartlett, Meta Rosenberg, until much later. All I knew about James Garner besides this show was that he did those Polaroid commercials with this sarcastic blonde who then showed up on The Rockford Files. Which was confusing. Maybe they should have hired Gretchen Corbett for the commercials, though that might have been even more confusing.

There aren’t a lot of big name stars who can remotely live up to their hype. Garner may have been nearly unique in that he far surpassed his (because in spite of his long popularity, he was never really an A-Lister). People who worked with him just couldn’t get over how un-full of himself he was. If he had an opinion he’d share it, but at the end of the day, if the writer or director said “This is what I want”, he’d back off and do it their way. And if it didn’t work, he might avoid working with that writer or director again, but he believed in letting people do their jobs. I don’t know if Westlake ever met him–tend to doubt it–but I think it’s a shame they never worked together. Garner would have been ideal to play many of Westlake’s protagonists (for example, the protagonist of the novel I’m reviewing next here).

He did a whole lot of quality work over the years, on television and in the movies, but it was in The Rockford Files, above all, that he hit that sweet spot, found the perfect venue for all the aspects of his talent. He wasn’t in the best physical shape by that point in time, and the show ended mainly because he couldn’t handle the demands of the role anymore, but for five years, he and his collaborators proved that commercial scripted genre television wasn’t crap because it had to be. If you cared enough, you could make it more than than gimmicks and posturing for an Emmy. You could make it truly great storytelling.

In one of the Sam Holt novels Westlake wrote under the not terribly convincing pseudonym of Sam Holt (I don’t have time to leaf through all four to find out which one right now), Holt, a former TV series star himself, hears a reference to The Rockford Files, and thinks to himself “The Gold Standard.” And it was. It was the epitome of television that entertained and illumined, at the same time, without ever putting on airs, or selling itself out. And it’s held up for around four decades now. No reason to think it won’t hold up another four decades, and beyond.

But Garner couldn’t. More’s the pity.

Anyway, back to the books.

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