CONSIDERING WESTLAKE: KINDS OF LOVE, KINDS OF DEATH

kinds-of-love-kinds-of-death

All Mitch Tobin wants to do is commit himself to a backyard project, but people won’t let him. The bill collectors demand to be paid, and Mitch’s wife is working to support them. That’s bad enough, but then a job comes along from a powerful mob guy who refuses to take no for an answer.

Things had not always been so bad off. Six months before, Mitch was a cop. However, following an indiscretion and a deadly mistake he lost that job. No surprise. Top brass tends to look badly upon a cop choosing to schtup a suspect’s squeeze, thereby committing adultery on the clock, instead of backing up a partner in a life and death situation. They especially frown and start looking for scapegoats when such an indiscretion results in the partner eating a bullet. Adios, Mitch. Say goodbye to your life’s calling.

Off the force and in need of some reassurance, Mitch retreats to his home and his yard and the solemn but necessary task of erecting a wall in his backyard. Is it to keep the home safe or is it to keep everyone away? Yes, and yes. The lies we tell ourselves are pretty swell.

Make no mistake: Mitch is a liar just as much as the next guy. Oh, he shoots straight when he is hired by a gangster called Ernie Rembeck to find the killer of the gangster’s lover (another adultery that ended in murder) and asks all the right questions. He tracks through the underworld, encountering a cast of shady crooks who had every opportunity if not motive to perform the crime. He tracks the killer down under the assumption that he will be able to hand that killer over to the cops after returning some stolen lucre to Rembeck. He’s a liar, though. He never comes quite clean with himself about his emotional state though it bleeds through quite effectively in his narrative. Here is a depressed man, a volatile man, locked into guilt and self-loathing. He never comes out to tell the reader this, but he confesses it through what he doesn’t say and though how he says what he does.

KINDS OF LOVE, KINDS OF DEATH does not so much mark a departure in Westlake’s career, but a collating of where he had been and a vague return to the kinds of stories he had been telling previously. This time, instead of an inquisitive bartender (THE FUGITIVE PIGEON) or the right hand man to el capo de tuti capi (THE CUTIE), it’s a former detective who is sleuthing. He’s capable of the same intuitive leaps and showing off his own smarts, he has a couple of solid lines, but overall, the experience is . . . well, it’s a bit disappointing to a reader in search of the next cool plot.

Rigidity of mind is useless to a functioning cop. (location 363)

After decades of writing Spenser PI novels, Robert Parker kicked off a new series with a female detective protag, Sunny Randall. Critics picked away at the fact that the plot of the book is a mesh of two previous Spencer novels. However, Sunny’s character is different enough and her perspective is interesting enough to carry the book for a reader like me (who admittedly was never enamored with Spenser anyway). Subsequent books with the character found their own way plot wise, but as a writer myself, I know that sometimes a book comes about because of a character and not because of a nifty plot twist.

Published under a new pseudonym, Tucker Coe, thus granting him the ability to push another novel out into the world per year without fear of publisher reprisal. Over the years, publishing houses have increasingly frowned upon letting a single author’s name appear on a multitude of volumes in a given year, feeling erroneously that readers would either get sick of the writer or automatically assume said author was pushing drivel. As well, publishers suggested pseudonym usage when an author’s latest work was too removed from previous work he did – a genre hop, say. With a novel like KINDS OF LOVE, KINDS OF DEATH, I don’t believe this is the case. The Richard Stark byline was an obvious exception to the rule, though I expect the publisher considered those books to be men’s adventure, which is a genre often perceived as reserved for mental midgets who wouldn’t know a good book if it bit them in the hind end and shouted PROUST in their faces.

KINDS OF LOVE, KINDS OF DEATH strikes me as never having been intended to be read as a Westlake novel or by anyone familiar with the name. Maybe the idea of writing a detective series was intoxicating to the author; writers have to indulge themselves and entertain themselves as much as the next worker. Or else it was a way for the writer to earn a little more bread, to start another series so he could pay the bills and maybe contribute to a nest egg. Writers have to eat, too, you know. I could speculate wildly all day and never get the answer. Thus, the fact that it echoes some of the aspects of previous works, particularly Westlake’s first hardboiled crime novel THE CUTIE is no surprise.

The morose and analytical character of protagonist Mitch Tobin is the focal point for the book and the most interesting part of it. The plot is there to get a new guy out into the reading public’s hands, and it is also undoubtedly a solid tip of the hat to the detective novelists Westlake read in his formative years. A shamed ex-cop unaware that he’s seeking redemption even while he hunts it makes for some interesting reading in my eyes. This is especially true in the novel’s more confessional moments.

To a large extent I wanted to make believe the offer had never come along. I wanted to go back to work on my wall and think of nothing but dirt and bricks and concrete block. But in a small corner of my mind I felt a certain excitement, almost eagerness about the job; it would be a kind of return to the life I’d lost, a task within my competence, and I couldn’t help feeling a degree of hunger for it. (location 399)

I first read the book on an airplane, returning from a week and a half in Japan in 2014. I was exhausted and exhilarated from the travel, but I was also eager to get home. Reading was a way to distract my brain from all those time zone shifts. Westlake books were (and are) a comfort food of sorts, and KINDS OF LOVE, KINDS OF DEATH is a good example. The prose is well written, though it does not call attention to how well written it is. The characterizations are spot on, and the narrative voice offers a consistent world weary tone.

Take Tobin’s view of one of Rembeck’s lawyers:

The attorney, Eustace Canfield, was a distinguished façade, even to the gray hair at the temples. Surely he wore a corset. He was undoubtedly a first-rate textbook lawyer with a brilliant memory and no imagination, the sort of man who can prepare a case as intricate as a house made of matchsticks but who, in court, would blunder his matchstick house into ruin. (location 233)

Canny and witty but not really a laugh out loud. It’s the sort of description a Humphrey Bogart, Harrison Ford, or Robert Mitchum might deliver in voice over narration. Clear and formulated to deliver an excellent appraisal of the vision and character of an untrustworthy man.

Since I first read the work while in the last leg of the homeward trip, I glanced through some of the bits. There were passages (even a chapter or two) I could not recall, not only the echoes of previous Westlake works but some of the book’s more interesting pieces. I enjoyed rediscovering those moments this time through. I am still a weary dude, but not so weary from a long, lovely vacation. It was a pleasure to escape into Westlake’s world for a few hours. Particularly when I reencountered some of the finer dialogue exchanges between the two most interesting characters in the book: Tobin and his wife.

The mobsters, the crooks, the suspects, the cops. They aren’t terribly intriguing to me. However, Tobin and Kate are an intriguing pair, and I almost wish the mystery stuff had been ditched for a proper character study of the two. They are both bruised people, but Kate has managed to recover herself and wishes she did not have to watch her husband swirl down the toilet bowl of depression.

When asked if she wants him to turn down the job, Kate’s response is simple and poetic:

She shook her head. “No. As a matter of fact, I do want you to do it. But not for the money, that would be the wrong reason.”

“What’s the right reason?”

“You were stopped,” she said. “Six months ago you just came to a stop, as though somebody turned a switch. Maybe this will get you started again.” (location 424)

Although I have read a fair share of detective stories, I don’t often see those detectives in meaningful relationships quite the way Mitch and Kate are involved. This is one of the things that makes KINDS OF LOVE, KINDS OF DEATH a fairly engaging read. Interesting characters trump plotting every day.

KINDS OF LOVE, KINDS OF DEATH strikes me as a fairly good way to introduce new readers to Westlake’s early works. The writing is crisp, the pacing smooth, and the characters interesting. Longtime readers of the author’s works might not find as much to reward their reading time investment.

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This week’s Considering Westlake read is unfortunately only available in eBook editions, thanks to the fine folks at Mysterious Press and Open Road Media. Hard copies are still out there. Hunters might seek them using eBay or used bookstores.

Next week, we take another break from the Considering Westlake series. As I mentioned in this week’s Movie Monday post, I actually had a chance to program a film at our Houston/Katy Alamo Drafthouse cinema for their weekly horror series, Graveyard Shift. I chose the Japanese novel AUDITION, and it is showing on May 25, 2018. If you’re in town come check it out!

Takashi Miike’s film is a gripping, heartbreaking, and wonderful exercise in suspense and horror. Also, it was inspired by a novel written by Ryu Murakami. Next week’s entry will be a fresh look at that work, which is available in print and eBook editions. Grab a copy and come back here next week to see it under consideration . . .

WORKS CITED

Westlake, Donald E. KINDS OF LOVE, KINDS OF DEATH. New York, NY: Mysterious Press. 1966.

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