After a career spent successfully balancing works published under his own name and those published under pseudonym, Westlake found his next series work hampered by a miscommunication with (if not skulduggery from) his publisher. He wanted his new “detective” series to go out under a pseudonym, and although the name on the covers was indeed his newest identity, bookstores got wind of the real author and all but announced it via klaxons. The author explained the situation in a prologue to the reissues of the novels:
We found a publisher who agreed to keep the secret in return for a shorter-than-normal advance for a four-book-contract, and Samuel Holt was born. […] Then the first book was published, and in the window of my local bookstore was a sign saying Samuel Holt was me. The publisher had told his sales staff the “secret,” and encouraged them to pass the news on to the bookstores.
Samuel Holt was poisoned for me. (v-vi)
It’s easy to see how disappointing this was for Westlake. Hell, he had maintained several identities to this point, which had survived scrutiny. These include a bestselling series (the Parker books under his Richard Stark name), a well-reviewed series of detective books (the Mitch Tobin works under his Tucker Coe name), and a few one off names that squeaked by with either a political book or a comic melodrama under their belts. Here he was, excited enough about this new opportunity with a new series character to do prep work on six books, and the publisher boned him. A shame really, since the first Samuel Holt book (both the author and the character’s name, by the way) is such a lovely blend of the grim action from his Stark works with a wiseass Westlake character.
ONE OF US IS LYING tells us the story of one Sam Holt, a “washed up” television personality who was big in a detective show called Packard. I see him in my head as a kind of Tom Selleck circa Magnum P.I. kind of guy, since that show was heee-ugely popular at the time. However, by the time we meet Sam at the opening of the novel, Packard has gone into the realm of reruns and he is in the unlucky position of not being able to find work. Is his name too closely linked with that show? Does he have a crap agent? Is he really the talentless hack he suspects? Or is such a “career” a crapshoot on the best of days? Only time will tell.
Of course, he’s not hurting for cash at the moment, so he can afford to wait around but does he really want to? No. Of course not. So, in the midst of job hunting, Sam finds himself involved in a near accident when a couple of Impalas try to ram him off the road. This is all tied to his pal, a screenwriter by the name of Ross Ferguson and some sketchy folks who targeted him for what seemed like blackmail but has much more sinister endgame goals.
After the whiz bang, we back up to get the story behind the story, and learn that Ross came home to find one of his recent girlfriends murdered. Like any sane writer, he got rid of the body (!) and thought it was all over. Well, not the case: Whoever killed the girl sent him doctored video that clearly shows Ross arguing and then killing the girl—actually a solid body double doing the actual murderous deed—with a note that instructions will follow. At that point, he comes to Sam for advice. As with Hitchcock stories, Ross refuses to go to the cops. He has his reasons, of course, and they mostly amount to “Don’t wanna” but he believes he knows what’s best for himself. Soon enough, he drops the dime to Sam from LA, declaring the entire matter “cleared up”. Then, Sam is almost killed on the freeway. Either Ross is lying his ass off or he doesn’t understand the people he is dealing with. Either way, Sam finds himself in the precarious position of helping a friend out while keeping himself out of the soup.
I use that phrase deliberately, by the way. As regular readers of this site’s reviews (or readers familiar with P.G. Wodehouse’s famous creation) know, the character of Bertie Wooster often finds himself in troubles galore, which he is unable to get himself out of. Bertie then has to rely on his amazing manservant Jeeves to get him out of trouble (aka “the soup”).
Well, as it turns out, Sam Holt has himself a pretty savvy live in manservant, a friend of his named Robinson. While Robinson is no Jeeves, per se, he is nevertheless as gently manipulative and sober as Wodehouse’s creation. Sam himself is in trouble quite a bit, much as Bertie Wooster often finds himself drowning though Sam is less helpless than Bertie. Sam has a history with law enforcement—having worked a short stint as a policeman in New York before he got “discovered”—and he’s a decent sort. What he shares with Bertie Wooster, unfortunately, is loyalty to his pals and this leads him into trouble in this book.
As it turns out, Ross is brokering a deal of sorts with shadowy people, allowing them access to his property for some nefarious purpose he refuses to divulge. However, as he is a good writer (!), Ross wants to capitalize on the whole affair by writing a book about the whole thing after the mess is all over. Would Sam please, please, please not go to the police and wreck Ross’s future livelihood?
It’s the request of a madman, but Sam is caught between sense and loyalty, and for the moment loyalty wins out. However, Sam is not the only target in Ross’s proximity. The writer’s newest galpal also finds herself in trouble, and the question continues to arise: How much control does Ross really have over these mysterious people and the situation they are involved in.
ONE OF US IS WRONG is a gleeful excursion into thrilling territory. Sure, the story is an actioner fit for television, but it’s also a savvy look behind the Hollywood veneer, into the lives to the people tinsel town often uses for a while, chews up, and then tosses aside. The book is also a clever magic trick, where almost every aspect of the book is targeted toward more than delivering an entertaining story. There’s plenty working under the surface here.
Not only is Samuel Holt, the author, a pseudonym for Westlake, but Sam Holt, the character, is a pseudonym as well, a name given to him by his agent. Sam Holt, the novelist, spends a bit of time rolling his eyes at very serious, very serious indeed writers like Ross, while noting that other writers who don’t navel gaze so much (such as his former gf and occasional bedmate, Bly) are actually good people. Also, Sam Holt the character is looking for a second chance to make a splash, which author Donald Westlake confesses he was trying to do with the Samuel Holt pseudonym (again, in that introduction). Sam Holt, the character gets to expound distrustful opinions about lousy agents, lawyers, producers, and the questionable merits of playing a television character for the dinner theater set, which Donald E. Westlake surely must have known or known about and was likely keen to get off his chest. There are a lot of things going on here, many of them riffing on the television industry, the publishing industry, and the weird folks who get involved in either industry. Sure, there’s a terror/religio-political thriller plot running along in the foreground to give Sam Holt (and, one supposes, Westlake) something to do apart from rolling his eyes at the various foibles on display. However, as engrossing as the whiz bang action plot is, the subtle (and not so subtle) satiric jabs are all more interesting than the plot itself.
One thing that surprised me about this particular novel is the level of violence. We don’t get loving descriptions of people getting eviscerated as was starting to happen in the ur-splatterpunk stories of the time, but there are quite a few scenes of murder that don’t find their way into Westlake novels so much.
Now, it’s impossible to carry on without comparing the Holt character with another of Westlake’s pseudonymous creations. I am talking, of course, about that other Richard Stark series, starring summer theater actor turned crook/spy/bodyguard/crook-again Alan Grofield. That character started off as a secondary character, a member of Parker’s string, and then he got a four-book-deal opportunity to venture out on his own. Those Grofield novels also take shots at television. As a medium, Alan Grofield finds television to be an unlikable bastard he wants little or nothing to do with. Theater is the place he prefers, and so theater is the place he finds himself. Sam Holt is the flipside to that perspective, but nevertheless the Alan Grofield novels feel a bit like a warm up for these books. You have an actor with an additional set of skills (policing/investigation for Holt, robbery and criminality for Grofield) who gets pulled into thriller plots that relate to his skills tangentially. The Stark books were perhaps satiric jabs at genres while the Holt books have the targets I identified above. There is a hazy connection here.
The heightened violence levels might also be a bit of a throwback to the rough and tough stories Westlake told under the Richard Stark pseudonym. The Alan Grofield-centered series gave less of that meanness than the Parker books did—though the final work LEMONS NEVER LIE sure goes grim places–and I suppose that’s another example of how this book falls in line with those.
Make no mistake, ONE OF US IS WRONG is a solid page turner. I enjoyed the characters Westlake strutted across the stage even as I wanted to grab Ross by the ears and shake him until his make-sense-circuits reconnected. Still, the fun plotting and the insider’s view into a different medium lend these books some intrigue not found in regular thrillers that focus on tough dudes doing dudely things. There may not be so many belly laughs as in a Dortmunder book or one of Westlake’s comic capers, but there are smiles aplenty.
It is always enjoyable to see a talented writer trying new things. Although some of this book falls into well-trod territory for Westlake, it remains a solid read made all the more enjoyable for his skewed view on America’s so-called Dream Factory.
ONE OF US IS WRONG is available in a paperback edition from Felony & Mayhem. The reprint itself is a cute little volume, almost a perfect square in format. There are some typos (mostly involving words that were hyphenated in the original text and retain that hyphenation here, despite being in the middle of the page), but the text is clean and readable. The cover art sure does feed into my impression of the character as Tom Selleck, too. No eBook that I’m aware of.
Next up in the Westlake series will be the second volume in the Sam Holt series: I KNOW A TRICK WORTH TWO OF THAT, which is also available in a paperback edition. However, that review will not appear here for two weeks.
Next week, we will be paying tribute to an author who recently passed away: Dennis Etchison. A well-regarded writer of horror and the macabre, Etchison has left behind a treasure trove of short fiction and a handful of novels. To celebrate his legacy, I’ve decided to return to his first collection THE DARK COUNTRY for the first time in little over a decade. Then, I plan on going through the author’s DARK titles (not a series, just a branding thing), which includes THE DARK COUNTRY (collection), DARKSIDE (novel), and TALKING IN THE DARK (collection). It’ll be a sort of short reading series, appearing in alternate weeks to the Considering Westlake series. The first book for consideration (THE DARK COUNTRY, as you recall) is available in an eBook edition. Grab a copy today.
Holt, Samuel. ONE OF US IS WRONG. Tor Books: 1986.
“Considering Westlake: One of Us is Wrong” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Quotes and cover image taken from the Felony & Mayhem edition, copyright © 2006.