CONSIDERING WESTLAKE: DON’T LIE TO ME

Dont Lie to Me-CoverBefore he kicked off into a more traditional type of storytelling with the Mitch Tobin detective novels under his Tucker Coe pseudonym, Donald E. Westlake had mostly tackled crime from an atypical direction, focusing his narratives on the crooks themselves or on amateur detectives running for their lives. His Parker novels had occasionally drawn elements from whodunnits as had the stand alone crime novels he kicked off his career with.

So when the Tucker Coe books came along, they seemed predominantly interested in mining territory mystery fans had a closer acquaintance with and had an interest in continuing to pursue. That is: fans have long loved watching their favorite sleuths getting involved in a case and then exploring the twists and turns to their resolution. Rinse and repeat for the next volume. I have already drawn some comparisons between THE CUTIE and the first volume in the Mitch Tobin series, both books about tracking down a no-good element that the criminal organizations want or need removed. Of course, Westlake being the kind of writer he was, he also drenched his Tobin cases in layers of psychological trouble.

Tobin begins the series recovering from the traumatic knowledge that his own infidelity led to his partner getting killed, which then led to his getting thrown off the police force. He is a reluctant detective at best in his first few books, more interested in either building a wall around his back yard or building his basement when it gets too cold outside. Although the books were not really my cup of tea from that first installment, they have grown on me over the course of the series as Tobin himself has developed. Taken from the perspective of all five volumes, the series has been telling a slowly building story about one man’s efforts to rejoin humanity, not so much telling a redemption story as they are merely interested in rebuilding mental breakage. The metaphor is there in the stories themselves, crystallized into an actual wall that Tobin is building. Sure, walls keep people out, and can therefore be read as a defensive measure, but on a more positive side they also keep the roof from crashing down over our heads.

By the fifth volume of the series, protagonist Mitch Tobin is no longer reluctant. He has declared he will be going out for his PI license. Volume five opens with him as part of a security company on a night shift guard duty over some political cartoons at a local museum. Well, this being the instigation chapter, Tobin does not have long to relish his work before he gets a break from the mostly boring normal duty of walking the rooms with a flashlight, keeping wary for any unwanted action. Instead of a stranger landing on his doorstep, the night’s mundane tasks are interrupted when a figure from his own past shows up: Linda, the woman he was having the affair with when his partner was killed.

This is the first time he has had to face her since the incident a couple of years before, yet interacting with her at this particular juncture is not easy. Tobin still harbors unresolved emotions. However, she has not come to kick off another affair. Her husband—Dink, a man Tobin arrested before shacking up with her—is out of jail now and trying to make a real life for himself in an occupation he is particularly suited for.

“We’re saving our money ow,” she said, “so he can open a locksmith’s shop.”

I suddenly found myself grinning, with tension almost completely gone. I said, “Dink Campbell as a locksmith. He’ll be a good one.”

Her answering smile agreed to the comedy, but also took pride in her man. “Yes, he will,” she said. “If they give him the chance.” (location 2659)

It turns out some hoods from Dink’s past have showed up with demands for loot from an old score. He doesn’t have it, Linda claims, but the hoods don’t believe him. Tobin himself is not sure what to believe about Dink, but Linda still works her special kind of charm on him, and he agrees to help her out. Of course, before any more headway on that front can be made, the second break in the night shows up in the form of a nude corpse in the museum.

Where did this come from? Who is it? Why is this person dead? These and more questions show up, including but not limited to: Is this person somehow related to Linda and her problems? As it turns out there are two separate cases at play here, Linda’s and the case of the nude corpse, but by the end of the book they will both converge on Mitchell Tobin.

DON’T LIE TO ME is a solid mystery and more, it is an enjoyable study of Tobin the character, showing plenty of growth from his first volume to this. The book performs multiple roles, standing on its own feet as a separate mystery, culminating the first five books of Tobin’s story by providing resolution to several elements introduced in the early books, and serving as a springboard for further works, which unfortunately were not to be.

Mitch Tobin as a character has come a long way since that first book. He’s able to interact with the world, he’s also able to maintain his own falsehoods—something he seemed incapable of doing in the first few books—and he’s not obsessed with building anything this time around. In fact, he has finished his major construction project, the wall around his back yard, and this shows up in the narrative as a setback during one of the more suspenseful sections of the work:

My wall. It was now six feet tall, running all the way around the yard, with no entrances or breaks anywhere on its three sides. In normal physical condition, I could have climbed that wall and gotten to the other side without too much difficulty, but not now. My arms trembled at every exertion, and my legs could barely support my weight; they hadn’t been able to carry me down the steps from the back porch. I had spent two years building this wall, and now it had trapped me. (location 2282)

It’s fun to see the juxtaposition of Tobin’s obsession turning into one of the very things that ultimately prevents his escape.

There are plenty of nice bits like that scattered throughout the book, which not only makes for a fun read independent of the others, but encourages re-contextualization of the works that came before. Westlake is obviously having a fun old time with these novels, and his cleverness comes through without calling too much attention to itself.

Although the first several volumes of the Mitchell Tobin series were melancholic and mostly humorless, DON’T LIE TO ME shows off some of Westlake’s sense of humor. There are not a huge number of jokes, though. The humor comes in the narrative itself, the small stakes taken far too seriously, and a few asides that continue to show the duality between a life of crime and the life of an author. I have made mention before of how Westlake’s books, particularly the heist novels he wrote under the Richard Stark name, are great examples of that form known as ars poetica. That is, they are novels about the art of writing novels and living life as an artist. DON’T LIE TO ME continues this fine tradition in a few subtle exchanges. Take the characters discussing the low stake crime of political cartoon forgery, which culminates in this little pointed bit:

I said, “All right. The first thing is the forgeries themselves. The profit in the robberies was very small, particularly considering the amount of work involved in doing the copies. You could spend the same amount of time washing dishes in some diner and still make almost as much.” (location 2478)

That notion is a familiar one to anyone who has stated they were in the writing business to folks who just don’t get the draw. Stephen King’s notes to the story “Word Processor of the Gods” in his second collection SKELETON CREW even contains a bit similar to this, wherein a friend breaks down how writing short stories is ultimately a losing bet in terms of work to revenue. Yeah, the life of an artist involves a lot of work for little recognition or reward, just like the life of a forger of political cartoons.

One point of difference between this book and the previous volumes involves an absence. Each of the previous books took a whack at a particular subculture to be found in The City. There were the bohemian artist crowd in MURDER AMONG CHILDREN, the gay astrology scene in A JADE IN AIRES, the mob scene in the first book, and the psychologically damaged residents of a halfway house in WAX APPLE. DON’T LIE TO ME lacks that insider’s view to a particular subculture, instead bringing together a general cast of characters including a pair of cops, some cheap hoods, some museum owners and workers, and whatnot. There are telling details, but the lack of a specific subculture further gives this book its own identity.

I can now see why the Tucker Coe pseudonym’s books are held in high regard among Westlake fans. At first, they seemed like well-written pastiches of the sorts of tales Dashiell Hammett or subtle send ups of the product other paperback original writers might have penned (Brett Halliday or Richard S. Prather, for instance). However, with the fifth book, there is a distinct arc for Tobin’s character. While it might have been fun to see some more recurring characters here, I can appreciate the book for what it is: A culmination to that point and the promise of a new direction. Too bad that direction would not be realized.

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This week’s book, DON’T LIE TO ME, is available in an eBook edition thanks to the folks at MysteriousPress.com and Open Road Media.

Next week, we will return to Richard Stark land for the penultimate volume in the first run of Parker novels, PLUNDER SQUAD. That volume is available in eBook and paperback editions through the University of Chicago Press. An audiobook edition is also available through Blackstone Audio.

WORKS CITED

Westlake, Donald E. DON’T LIE TO ME. Random House. 1972.

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