Hot on the heels of the first two volumes in Donald E. Westlake’s Sam Holt series comes the third work, a mystery that plays with the sorts of expectations readers might have for cozy mysteries, those that bring an amateur sleuth to a remote locale and then poses seemingly impossible crimes for them to solve (e.g. locked room murders). Usually a cozy of this sort would take place in a locale we might want to visit, somewhere exotic and fun. Sure enough, Sam finds himself (and his West Coast gal Bly) on a free vacation to Munro’s Island, a pleasant Caribbean island a short plane ride from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, hooked into going by the promise of work: He gets the chance to reprise his popular (but cancelled) television character Packard for a television commercial charity ad urging people to give to the fight against cancer.
Here was the idea: In a mysterious mansion on a mysterious island, four famous detectives prowl around, behaving in ways appropriate for their characters. What are they doing? Looking for a cure for cancer. But the American Cancer Society has a better way: Scientific research financed by your tax-deductible contributions. (7)
However, Sam arrives just in time for a brewing tropical storm with hurricane ambitions to start making landfall. It’s a nice mansion he’s stuck inside, but the weather outside is too frightful to make it cozy. And what about that house? It’s nice because it once belonged to a Detroit dope king; when that charming fellow was sent up the river, it ended up in the hands of a pair of producers who now use the place as a staging ground for Caribbean-set filming projects. Or at least they hope to. There are a couple of series in pre-production that should do nicely to kick off their venture. First, though, there’s this commercial to do.
If only the weather would cooperate to allow the crew a chance to arrive on island, and if only people would stop dying!
Trouble hits paradise shortly after the storm does. First, the plane Sam and a few arrivals came in touches down in the ocean instead of on land. Accident or sabotage? Then, after a drunken argument with her galpal, one of the other guests’ plus ones is found dead in a bathtub, an apparent suicide except for a bit of evidence suggesting she was throttled with a pillow before being dragged to a warm tub and some waiting razors.
Well, suspicions turn to the guests, of course. Just who are they, you might wonder? Why, they include film people and their respective plus ones. There’s the producers who own the place, there’s a terrified-of-flying director who will be in charge of the shoot (not only flying, he seems pretty afraid of most things). And then there are the “detectives,” a trio of actors in the same boat as Sam Holt. The commercial is supposed to be a spoof on mysteries, featuring four known properties. The invited actors are each connected with a character they have made famous via a television show. However, unlike Sam, who plays an original character, these others are known for bringing new life to classic detectives such as Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, and Charlie Chan. The plus ones range from girl friend to lovers to wife. As Holt opines:
Jack Packard is the most recently invented of these fictions, and the only one to have originated on television, so I suppose I should have felt pleased and flattered on Jack’s account, but my primary reaction as we flew northeastward out over the Caribbean and beneath the gathering storm clouds was a suspicion that James Garner and Tom Selleck had both said no. (12-13)
At first, the victim’s lesbian lover is suspect number one for the crime, but it turns out she might be innocent. If she did not do it, however, then who would? They don’t know each other, or do they? Have any of them even met before?
Well, as it turns out a few of them do have a secret shared past, and as the sleuths puzzle out that past, they do their best to flummox the killer’s need to announce his crimes. That’s right, not only does this murderer fall into the shtick of someone who wants to be caught, he is also looking for some kind of sick validation.
The fun of this particular book is in seeing different investigative approaches coming together. Holt has already shown an eagerness to emulate his own character in previous works. He was the next best thing to an action hero in the first book and he was a detective in the second. Here, he falls somewhere between the two character types. Of course, the other actors show similarities to their own characters. One of them (Clement Hasbrouck who has played Sherlock Holmes for years) spots the gag by admitting he’s been in his characters head long enough to set up house:
“How Sherlock drives me,” he said, again with that sad smile. “He has taken over my life, for better or worse. A hard taskmaster, and yet see”—with a graceful gesture at the view—”the rewards he gives me. And yet again, still a hard taskmaster.”
On Hasbrouck’s other side, his tiny wife, Betsy, gave a nervous giggle and said, “Oh, Clement; you love being Sherlock, you know you do.”
“But of course,” he said, looking down his nose at her. (She flinched, smiling gamely.) “I have just said so. Sherlock has made our very lives possible, my dear, and I hope I’m grateful. Still, the yoke of another man’s invention does at times rest heavy on one’s shoulders. I’m sure Mr. Holt understands what I’m saying.” (21)
In fact, Sam does understand, since Hasbrouck is a peek into Sam’s own future: So tied to Sherlock Holmes, he cannot find more work. Some ruder elements of Hollywood refer to the man as Clement Has-Been. Of course, Sam deviates from Hasbrouck’s fate in one regard: Sam Holt actually wrote several episodes of Packard, so he has helped shape his own character as opposed to relying solely on others to do the job.
The book breaks through the typical mystery, teasing the fourth wall as it were, by also breaking down mystery plots and the methodologies various characters use for solving them. One character relies on cold facts, one on character studies. All of them, the Charlie Chan actor Frank Li notes, also rely on one thing.
Clement, still solemn, said, “Interesting, really, the different investigative methods of the different detectives. Sherlock, for instance, is concerned almost exclusively in the verifiable details of the physical world, be it Turkish tobacco or the dog that fails to bark in the night. Your Charlie [Chan], on the other hand, is much more interested in character and interpersonal relationships.”
“And timetables,” Fred commented, grinning.
Crosby pointed a stern finger at Clement, saying, “At precisely two-seventeen, the butler saw you on the stairs to Professor Poopnose’s study.”
“Well, yes, of course,” Clement agreed, nodding, still taking it all very seriously. “There are the conventions of the form to be accommodated. But Charlie’s interest is always in the goings-on between people, while Sherlock’s interest lies in the hard and confirmable facts of the concrete world.” Considering his own remark and approving of it, he went on. “I must say that, temperamentally, I find myself more suited to Sherlock’s approach. A fortunate thing for the characterization, one supposes.” (40-41)
Timetables are invaluable in solving mysteries for all the detective characters. At least a lot of writers seem to believe so, using them as a crutch of sorts for other investigative methods.
In passages such as these, the wryly observant Westlake shines through. He is not only a writer of various schools of mystery, Westlake is a thoughtful connoisseur of the genre he works in, a veteran of the field who knows a thing or two about what makes these characters tick. Likewise, his (often cynical) views of the folks who make movies are touched with plenty of details to suggest writing from actual experience.
As the characters soon learn, knowing the methods and applying them to solving an actual crime is no easy task. No matter how the actors might try to convince themselves otherwise, they are still actors and they are not in possession of all the clues. Actually, they are not in possession of the faculties required to recognize all the clues. What follows is a delightful romp (punctuated by cruel killings) following people who ought to know better playing at being detectives in order to stay one step ahead of an actual killer.
At one point, Holt’s history as a police officer gets outed. Before turning to leading man material in a hit TV series about a criminologist turned sleuth, he worked as a flatfoot in a suburb of New York. When this comes to light, he gets drafted:
[Producer Danny said] “As of now you’re in charge.”
I was annoyed, but I was stuck with it, I could see that. “In charge of what?” I demanded.
Danny grinned at me and spread his hands. “In charge of keeping the rest of us alive,” he said. (163)
Though he wore a cop’s uniform, Sam is no detective. He’s maybe a step or two ahead of his fellow amateur sleuths, but still out of his element. Thus, the next chapter opens with the results of this tasking in blackly comic fashion:
Mort Weinstein’s body was found at six-forty next morning by George Noble, when he went into the kitchen to start breakfast. George closed off the kitchen and came upstairs to get me, since I was now the resident expert. Bly and I were both up, though bleary-eyed, having spent half the night in useless conversation about what was going on in this house, and George took me out to the head of the stairs to tell me in private what had happened. “Shit,” I said. (165)
The book balances its humor with its crimes pretty well, delivering yet another page turner with a singular voice for the first person narrator and yet a different style of mystery to the previous books in this particular series. Westlake is having a ton of fun with this premise, and unfortunately, there is only one more book in the series, due to a publisher error (or possibly a gross misstep on the part of sales staff, which revealed his pseudonym’s real identity).
This book hits on a topic Westlake has been grappling with pretty hard throughout his career: Identity. In earlier books (particularly his Richard Stark novels and the science fiction work ANARCHAOS), this manifested as the difference between rational human being and one operating from the animal instinct of survival. When characters lost themselves too much in the survival mode, they tended not to come back and often ended up dead. Following this came the trio of books I dubbed the Morality Trilogy (HELP! I AM BEING HELD PRISONER, TWO MUCH!, and BROTHERS KEEPERS), where questions of “who am I?” manifested as the choice to be a good person or a bad one. Here, characters would be positioned on a knife’s edge between the moral extremes, with situations providing those little urges to have them shift toward one extreme or the other. These stories all asked essential questions about who the characters were, and often allowed the characters themselves to see the results of losing themselves in roles or identities alien to themselves. In Stark’s world, this ends in death, in ANARCHAOS this ends up with a wiser (albeit punished) character, and in the Morality Trio, this results in characters who dabble with goodness and badness and yet land on one side or the other.
The question of identity proper fits into the occasional one off novel, such as the Robert Bloch-inspired serial killer book PITY HIM AFTERWARD. As well, it drove some of the character development in the Tucker Coe unwilling detective series starring Mitch Tobin, which gives a police detective his walking papers and then allows him the chance to figure out that private detective work is his calling, not some psychological symbol like building a protective wall for his backyard. The matter of identity even shows up in previous volumes of this Sam Holt series as well: What is Sam? the books have asked. Is he an actor, a cop, a detective, a writer, or some strange amalgam of all three? Here, we see the multiple personality disorder style schism of being an actor, which hearkens back to that Bloch-inspired serial killer in a summer theater book. The Holt works are less of a direct pastiche, however, merging Westlake’s own voice with that of classic mystery traditional writers Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle as well as a bit of Robert Bloch (each of whom spent parts of their careers referencing other writers, including Edgar Allen Poe and in Bloch’s case, H. P. Lovecraft; writing is nothing if not a bit incestuous what with all these references, inspirations, and occasional aping). The result is a strong novel that brings fun and clever observations about a variety of topics, including mysteries and the role of Deconstruction literary theory in the audience’s decline of the western film.
“That’s the trouble with deconstruction right there,” Danny said. “You can’t tell a straight serious story with it. You can only do comedy, and the comedy usually comes out pretty goddamn arch. Once you’ve got westerns like Dirty Dingus Magee and Goin’ South, where the actors spend all their time winking at the audience, the western was through. Audiences thought they were being made fun of, and audiences don’t like that. So they left the wise guys winking and grinning and making believe they were hip, and the audience went somewhere else.” (149)
This is a canny observation, and one that coincidentally fed into Monday’s review for Jim Jarmusch’s new film, THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019).
The Sam Holt series gives us a playful Westlake, and that always comes hand-in-hand with just a little bit of meanness. In the author’s Dortmunder series, that meanness takes the shape of coincidence and a tightening of the screws on the main character’s fate: protagonist John Dortmunder is a classic planner, but he just cannot catch a break on his jobs. Here, the meanness takes the shape of the murderer himself. These crimes are rather brutal, and though the brutality is handled off camera, there are enough details in the aftermath to give me (a hardened horror fan) pause. It takes some serious skill to pull that off.
It’s a shame there’s only one more book in the series, and that book is (by the author’s own account) one that came about after the series and character lost their appeal. However, we shall see if the author manages to deliver despite himself when we check in with that final Sam Holt work. This book, however, is my favorite of the three so far, appealing to the sort of whimsy that led Neil Simon to script the flick MURDER BY DEATH (1976), which drew archetypal detectives together for one big mystery. Here we get not only that type of story but a sendup of the actors who play those characters, as well. What fun!
WHAT I TELL YOU THREE TIMES IS FALSE is available in a paperback edition from the folks at small press Felony & Mayhem (in the case of the Sam Holt books, the publisher name is almost a perfect description for the works). No eBook edition exists as yet.
Next up in the Considering Westlake series, we will shift away from Holt and veer into Sara Joslyn territory (a new series character that appears in two books that I know of) with her premier: TRUST ME ON THIS. That book is available in an eBook edition. However, the review won’t be appearing here for two weeks.
Next week, we turn back to the final Dark-titled volume in late horror author Dennis Etchison’s backlist, the forty-year career retrospective TALKING IN THE DARK: SELECTED STORIES that first appeared in 2001 from Stealth Press. That book is available in an eBook edition, thanks to the folks at Crossroads Press.
Westlake, Donald E. WHAT I TELL YOU THREE TIMES IS FALSE. Tor Books: 1987.
“Considering Westlake: What I Tell You Three Times Is False” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover image and excerpts taken from the Felony & Mayhem edition of the book, copyright © 2006.