Donald Edwin Edward Westlake (1933-2008) was a prolific writer and over the decades published all kinds of crime and mystery books – and other types of fiction too – under a great many pseudonyms. Of the dozen or so names he adopted the best-known, other than his own, is probably ‘Richard Stark’, which he used for his series of tough thrillers starring the merciless Parker, the first of which I reviewed here. But I have always had a real soft spot for the lesser-known quintet of novels he wrote as “Tucker Coe’ featuring disgraced former New York cop, Mitchell Tobin.
The following review is offered as part of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, which this week is devoted to Westlake’s work. For more of the tributes to the late, great man’s work, visit her blog at: http://pattinase.blogspot.com/
“You were stopped,” she said. “Six months ago you just came to a stop, as though somebody turned a switch. Maybe this will get your started again.”
In his salad days Westlake collaborated a number of times with his friend Lawrence Block under various guises, mainly on long-forgotten paperback excitements as No Longer a Virgin (1960), originally issued under the ‘John Dexter’ house name. I mention this because Tobin has quite a lot in common with Block’s Matt Scudder, a much better-known creation in crime writing annals but who actually appeared ten years after Westlake published the first Tucker Coe mystery, Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death. Both characters were once able New York policemen who, following a spectacular fall from grace, have left the force and end up working as un-licensed private investigators, haunted by the guilt over a death for which they feel responsible. In Tobin’s case he was conducting an extra-marital affair which left his partner working alone one fateful evening. While Tobin was visiting his mistress (the wife of a crook he put away), his partner as usual covered up for him and went alone to make an arrest, getting killed in the process.
Six months later, Tobin is still living in Queens with his wife and 13-year-old son but has otherwise retreated from real life. Instead he has begun to put all his energy into building a large wall in his back yard, one which will eventually envelope his house and, presumably, permanently cut him off from the society he feels he has offended. Then one day one of Ernie Rembek’s men comes to call … Rembek is a senior member of the Outfit (aka The Syndicate aka the mob), which features heavily in many of the Stark novels, and has a big problem on his hands. His mistress, Rita, had gone missing with $80,000 of the organisation’s money but now her body has turned up in a motel. She has been beaten to death and the cash is missing. And he think it was one of his own men who did it, so he can’t go to the police …
“Failure is your way of life,” I said. “Don’t try to change it.”
One of the less remarked-upon characteristics of Westlake’s work is a paradoxical attraction to group endeavours. While his work is mainly populated by loners, usually variants of the lone hero of the Noir world, this is usually contrasted with plots involving capers and organisations that can only work if the protagonists deal with multiple participants. Westlake in later life organised murder mystery weekends (and even turned some of the plots into novels) and this may give an indication of a certain fondness for group participation. The need for human contact in an otherwise solitary profession (dare one say it, like writing?) lies at the heart of the Tobin series. Although the man won’t admit it, even to himself, he does need human contact, so when he is offered $5,000 in advance to solve Rembek’s problem, he eventually agrees, not least to stop his wife having to take lowly jobs to keep them solvent. Tobin insists that the job be undertaken on a legit basis and so informs the police (not least because he doesn’t have a PI licence or a gun permit come to that). Eventually they accept that he will get access to information that an official would be unable to do, even though he will be bound by confidentiality not to reveal matters irrelevant to the murder. Here, as in the other books in the series, Tobin is drawn to helping those who, like himself, live outside of the mainstream, marginalised either through health, sexual orientation or , in this case, criminal activity.
Rita, a young actress who was only using Rembek for his money (a fact seemingly obvious to everyone but him), left a cruel note upon leaving, saying she was taking the money as she had now found a ‘real man’ and was going to start anew. The main thrust of the plot is fairly linear as Tobin whittles down the suspects to the men who would have known Rita socially and don’t have an alibi. He has Rembek set up an office and provide copies of the police reports as they come in. In effect he is recreating the place and patterns of work that he used to have when he was still a detective, though strained visits from his ex-colleagues remind him (and us) that this is only a memory. The story that unfolds is quite similar to Laura, the Vera Caspary novel turned into a Film Noir classic. As in that story, the hero investigates a woman’s death and learns many apparently contradictory things about her character, her friends and acquaintances only ever providing a partial view of a complex woman who pretended to be a ‘dumb bunny’, but was anything but. Tobin isn’t sure he is making much progress until his office is bombed and the ‘gopher’ the outfit provided gets killed in the blast – then one of the suspects goes on the run and eventually turns up dead, apparently a suicide. This seems to close the case – but there are plenty more twists to come before he recovers the money and discovers a well-hidden murderer in a neat variation of a classic Ellery Queen gambit.
He had the pudgy cheeks and petulant mouth of a man who began life as a spoiled brat and had never been given any reason to change.
Tobin may be a man in pain, but he is also smart and never out of control and the story fairly rattles along at a great pace. At the end of the story he may have solved the case but is apparently nowhere near ready to go back into polite society. This should not suggest that this a grim novel – far from it. The plot and the characters are engaging and there are even flashes of Westlake’s trademark humor, especially in the gallery of men suspected of potentially being Rita’s ‘real man’.
It’s important to read the series in sequence as we do follow Tobin’s progress towards some sort of rehabilitation. He is at his lowest in the first book but by the last one he has made some kind of peace with himself and is on the way to recovery. Many think A Jade in Aries, that deals in part with the gay community, is the best of the bunch. Francis M. Nivens Jr however cites the third in the series, Wax Apple, which is set in a halfway house for ex-mental patents, as being the best of the bunch and I would probably have to agree, though they are all above average mysteries with a truly memorable protagonist. Sadly these are all out of print (not even on Kindle yet) but they are all well worth getting second-hand.
The Mitch Tobin series
- Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death (1966)
- Murder Among Children (1967)
- Wax Apple (1970)
- A Jade in Aries (1970)
- Don’t Lie to Me (1972)
Several blogs have provided lots of great insights about the Mitch Tobin series in particular and Westlake’s output in general – I highly recommend Randy Johnson’s fine overview of the series over at his Not the Baseball Pitcher blog and Bryan Schingle’s detailed article over at Thrilling Detective.
Irregular updates on the Westlake legacy can be found on the author’s homepage at: DonaldWestlake.com