According to the introduction for the Felony & Mayhem editions of this series, Westlake took a page from John D. MacDonald when sitting down to write his Sam Holt series.
I knew that John D. MacDonald, when he started Travis McGee, wrote the first three books simultaneously, because it was his first attempt at a series character and he wanted to be sure the voice was consistent. I thought that was a fine idea, so I did the same thing, figuring out at least the beginnings of three stories, then working on all three, going back and forth among them. I liked that method, so when I finished those three I put together beginnings for three more. (v)
I’m sure it was an enjoyable challenge for the author, and from the books themselves it sure seems like he was having fun at the typewriter. One thing is for certain, the first books in the series are tightly connected to one another. This is pretty good since it gives the series coherence despite the volumes being published at a clip of one a year (unlike the Parker books from his Richard Stark pseudonym which appeared several per year at his penname’s most prolific).
Sam Holt is, of course, the name of both the author and character, and I tackled some of the authorial aspects in my review for the first book in the series, ONE OF US IS WRONG. As a reminder, Sam Holt the character is an actor who managed to score a hit television series called Packard, wherein he plays the titular character, a PI who gets into entertaining adventures ala the Tom Selleck vehicle MAGNUM, PI. After five seasons, the Packard show ended mostly due to creative boredom on the part of the participants. While the crew and other cast members went on to other jobs, Sam himself is stuck in a career stasis. No one wants to touch him on account of the close tie his audience has built between actor and his character. It’s a sad story, since Sam only wants to work, but it’s a thing that happens. In the first book, he was given the opportunity to bring that character into another medium: dinner theater. When he offered to write a brand new play in lieu of the theatrical play cobbled together from two different episodes (episodes he actually wrote for the show’s final season), he was turned down. In the end, he decided to maintain integrity and turn down the role. Methinks this is nutty, since to take a page from Westlake himself, the difference between playing any role before an audience and not playing a role for an audience is the difference between life and death, but he felt differently. Well, no dice. As we return to Holt’s world, we find him still lounging around, coasting on the fortune he made from his television show, and unable to nail another acting job. In a few more years, he might hit the convention circuit, but that particular scene was not quite so lucrative in the days before San Diego Comic Con, so he mostly gets mixed up in adventures with his pals and gives readers an eyeful of the stuff that goes on behind the curtains and under the sheets in Hollywood.
Once more as the book opens, Sam gets a call from an old pal. This time, there’s a lot of cloak and dagger, however. The old pal calls him up, using Sam’s pre-stage name to keep any eavesdroppers from learning his identity. The clues are easy enough that even an actor who played a detective can figure them out. Before his failed career as an actor, Sam had a brief (one might say failed as well) career as a cop out in the New York suburbs. While there, he worked with a partner, Doug Walford. Well, Doug is the man who is bringing adventure to Sam’s doorstop, this book.
Doug is not a cop any longer, either. Instead, he works for a private security company to do some work for them. While in the midst of getting dirt on a hubby so a wife can divorce him, Doug seems to have stumbled onto a conspiracy. The husband, a squeaky clean guy by the name of Althorn, has ties to both the mob and to the “third largest pharmaceutical company in the world.” In fact, he is the link in a conspiracy chain of sorts. Doug is hesitant to name specific names, but he’s still in trouble. Someone has targeted him for death, and that someone already rigged his house’s water heater to blow up—that blast missed its intended target, but managed to smoke Doug’s woman and her kid. Nasty stuff, those mob hits.
Now, Doug is searching for a place to hide out, a place to lay low and figure out his next move. Can Sam help? Of course he can, and he does, but that help only brings trouble down on Doug and more trouble down on Sam and the people around him. The mob does not immediately target Sam, of course; however, he gets caught up in lies. To keep Doug’s cover safe and to prevent dragging his butler Robinson and his galpal Anita into the mix, Sam does not tell them the truth, making up lies about Doug being a writer pal from the West Coast who is suffering writers block. Well, when first we practice to deceive often turns around to bite us in the end . . .
When Doug ends up deceased in a way that looks like suicide, Sam finds himself yearning for answers. He doesn’t believe the suicide bit for a second, but that’s how the inquest closes. So, Sam is on his own trying to piece together Doug’s story and identify the real killer. As it turns out, Doug’s passing occurred during a party Sam was holding. The only suspects he has are the people he invited to it, and they are almost all trusted pals.
Well, before you can say boo, Sam is making enquiries amongst his friends, burning bridges as he does so. However, once a cop, once a detective (on TV), always a sleuth . . . . Sam cannot stop himself from wondering, and if he lets the case slide down, then it will haunt him. He is a man on the edge, and eventually becomes a man obsessed. In short, he takes on some of the qualities of Westlake’s other detective hero and reluctant detective, Mitch Tobin from the Tucker Coe pseudonymous stories. However, where that character was prone to being morose, Sam Holt is more of a wisecracking son of a gun, and he’s got a few good zingers here.
The Sam Holt books are solid page-turners. The characters are well drawn, the action is constant, and though this book is not quite the same cut of thriller that the first volume was—it’s more of a cozy mystery told in the bright lights, big city of NYC and the sunbaked houses in the Hollywood hills instead of a “there are bad people running around with a plan, let’s find out what they’re plotting!” scheme—it still manages to keep things rolling along at a nice pace. Westlake’s version of an investigation process involves people talking to one another, corroborating (or not) each other’s stories by a recounting of their observations. If nothing else, the book is a gem of character studies. We get some of Westlake’s trademarked wise (and wiseassed) views of the world, such as this little ditty:
Anita Imperato and I have had a very low-key on-and-off relationship over the years, never intense enough to ruin the friendship. She knows about Bly Quinn, my steady girl out on the Coast, but that doesn’t bother her because, like most New Yorkers, she believes that nothing that happens west of the Hudson matters. A girlfriend within the five boroughs though, would not be acceptable. (11)
Of course, Sam Holt is the protagonist, the veritable man of the hour, and though we got a fly on the wall view of him in the first book, he continues to develop here. As with many amateur detectives, especially those who find themselves in Westlake’s worlds, the hero is not much of a hero to start with, he is taken out of one comfortable job and thrust into another role entirely ala Alan Grofield in his first three standalone books under the Richard Stark penname.
The business of detective work is not one these characters take on easily. They grump and they grouse, and yet they still manage to do the work. This is true whether the character is the internalized, damaged Mitch Tobin, the outgoing Grofield, the plethora of first person protagonists ranging from books like THE CUTIE to GOD SAVE THE MARK, and more. Westlake’s people are not afraid of hard work, but they tend not to like doing what would seem at first brush to be someone else’s job. This is part and parcel of the professionalism most of his protagonists share: they are good at what they do, comfortable at their chosen career, and they dislike having to do things they are uncomfortable with yet they get stuck with the seeming crappy work only to discover they also have a talent for this new, originally unwanted job. Sam Holt joins these other characters in the same kind of worldview, though book two in the series finds him less unwilling a protagonist that the first book. Here, we see how the ramifications of that first real investigation have led to a kind of addiction. Sam cannot stop no matter how much he wants to because the idea that one of his friends knowingly stabbed him in the back is something he cannot ignore.
Secondary characters abound, of course. We need plenty of suspects, and here we have the dozen or more people at his gathering. Even a few stalwart presences from the first book are on that list, including the irascible butler Robinson (he doesn’t stay on the suspicion list for long, being anchored to the bar and having plenty of people using him for drinks while the deed was being done) as well as Sam’s New York girl Anita.
A bit about the women in this book. Sam is a ladies man, all right. He has a west coast and an east coast steady, and the two women know about one another. They are both strong willed characters with successful careers: Bly is an in-demand screenwriter for sit coms while Anita is a restaurant owner. Neither of them is the bubble headed ditz that some detective fictions throw at their protagonists, and neither of them is the icy femme fatale. Anita is a normal enough woman, a tough talking New Yorker, and this book shows a bit of her sensitivity when Sam admits he has to include her on his list of suspects. This lack of trust is a lovely little schism between them, and the basis for some juicy drama. However, it also offers the character to break out of the tough-talking sidekick mold, giving her more depth and things to do.
The book has plenty of opportunities for women to show up, some involved in hetero relationships, some in lesbian ones, and even a few on their own (such as the new face Vera Slote, who owns her own modeling agency, dates Sam’s shrink long enough to come to the party and then moves back into singlesdom). Mostly they are here to be questioned as suspects, occasionally to be ogled, but they fulfill the same roles as the secondary male characters, which is a nice touch. Sam’s views lean toward the sensitive male side—they aren’t all the way there, but they lean—and he has a couple of observations about individuals that are . . . uncharitable to say the least. In general, he comes across as a decent person in relation to the sexes.
Unfortunately, the book involves a lot more character interplay than it does brawling, explosions, or gunfights. The first book had plenty of these, but apart from the murder, such things don’t come around (short of threats) until the final quarter and even then they are sudden bursts of energy that are soon depleted. Still, readers who don’t require that Michael Bay indulgence of explosions every few pages to have fun will find plenty to enjoy here. The social violence is acute, verbal sparring can get downright coldhearted at times, but more often than not it is a book about people trying to understand one another through the medium of an attempt to understand whodunit and whydunit and howdunit.
And yet, the pages turn nevertheless. It’s a measure of Westlake’s ability as a writer to be so canny at coming up with entertaining dialogue and scenarios that sometimes use explosions and sometimes use witty repartee.
I KNOW A TRICK WORTH TWO OF THAT is available in paperback these days, from the folks at Felony & Mayhem. No eBook editions that I’m aware of.
Next up in the CONSIDERING WESTLAKE series is the third book in the Sam Holt series, WHAT I TELL YOU THREE TIMES IS FALSE. Again, only a paperback is available from Felony & Mayhem.
However, next week, we will be indulging in the second the Dennis Etchison’s Dark books, with his first horror novel: DARKSIDE. The book is available in an eBook edition from the folks at Crossroads Press. Old paperbacks and whatnot abound for the artifact edition hunters out there, but none are being published currently.
Holt, Samuel. I KNOW A TRICK WORTH TWO OF THAT. TOR Books: 1986.
“Considering Westlake: I Know a Trick Worth Two of That” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover image and quotes taken from the Felony and Mayhem edition, copyright © 2006