CONSIDERING WESTLAKE: TRUST ME ON THIS

Westlake Trust Me On ThisFollowing the first three volumes of a new mystery/suspense series under the Sam Holt name, Westlake decided to try something different under his own name. He wrote a strong, sassy female tabloid reporter as the protagonist for a novel about truth, lies, and the gray spaces between in TRUST ME ON THIS.

When Sara Joslyn graduated from journalism school (a year before the book opens), she received a job offer from the Weekly Galaxy, a tabloid rag operating out of Florida. Starting salary was incredible, over thirty k (in 1987 money, pretty good!). She knew the paper’s reputation for schlock, however, and chose to instead grab a stable job as a reporter for a small New England newspaper. Sadly, that little, stable job vanished when the small paper eventually got bought by a bigger company. What’s a girl to do? Why not try her hand at making a little real money and getting some better weather.

On her way into the office, she finds a man’s dead body laying half in and half out of a rental car. Dude had been shot in the face with a small enough caliber pistol that the bullet did not escape the skull, just leaving a little puffy swelling in the back. It’s a newsworthy story, right? Well, not at the Weekly Galaxy! They specialize in high-profile national pieces.

Her jaw dropped, and then clenched. “Are you,” she asked, “trying to make fun of me?”

“Not at all,” Jack assured her, while Mary Kate shook her head in scorn. “I am merely trying to point out,” he said,” that the Galaxy is a national newspaper, not some local hometown rag. We happen to be in the state of Florida, in which almost every road contains its murdered man, sometimes several. They’re mostly grubby little crimes about grubby little people, usually connected with cocaine or the Marielistas or both. Our readers don’t care about cocaine and have never heard of the Marielistas, and they’re happier that way. Our readers care about the beer and potato chip diet. They will love us and bless us and praise us as saviors of mankind when they read the beer and potato chip diet, and you are delaying that happy consummation. Now, you just got out of journalism school, so naturally you—”

“I did not,” she said. “I worked a year at—”

“Well, now you’re working here. Of course if you’d rather not pursue the beer and—”

“I never said that!” Angry, jaw thrust forward, hands on hips, loudly she said, “I happen to be a reporter, and a good reporter, and I can follow my editor’s instruct—”

“Good,” he told her, meeting glare with glare, letting all the frustration and rage spill out, not caring anymore. “Because,” he told her, bearing down, “my survivial on this rag depends on my people giving me what Massa wants. If you can do it, do it. If you can’t, save us all a lot of trouble and quit now.” Then, realizing he was just about to go too far, tht he was on the verge of firing the poor girl before she ever got a chance to go to work, he turned away to Mary Kate and said, “I’ll be in the men’s room, contemplating suicide.” (23-24)

After this, a brief shift in perspective shows us Sara’s reaction and the chapter’s final gag:

Sara stared, openmouthed, as that insufferable man went stomping away, turning left, then right, among the black lines. The skinny little rat-faced secretary said, “Honey.”

Expecting sympathy, an explanation, something, Sara turned her irritated expression toward Mary Kate Scudder, saying, “What?”

Mary Kate pointed across the room. “The phones are over there,” she said. (24)

Looks like Sara has a lot to learn and even more to unlearn. As it turns out, she is a quick study managing to get quotes from loyal experts on the benefits of a potato chip and beer diet as well as whether sex can prevent gallstones. All on her first day, in fact.

However, Sara is a newspaper woman and she cannot leave the “real” story alone. The car is gone by the time she leaves for the day, but no newspaper (local rag or otherwise) is running stories about it. Was the body even discovered? A wee conspiracy starts to peek into Sara’s life: the Weekly Galaxy gate guard she mentioned her find to disappears, so too goes the page from her notebook about the car and its plate number. Does the body have something to do with the tabloid? It is starting to look that way.

However, Sara can only dedicate part of her time to figuring that out. Otherwise, she is covering a 100-year birthday party for twins in Indiana (well, one twin since a brother dies on party morning), dodging the unwanted advances of her coworkers, serving as a fall girl so her editor can get compromising shots of local heartthrob and soap star John Michael Mercer behaving badly in public, or trying to remember not to cross black tape marks on the floor (the company is too cheap to buy actual walls for their squaricles). Needless to say, she has her work cut out for her without the demands of investigating murder . . .

TRUST ME ON THIS is a whimsical story with some turns into the downright macabre, in the vein of Westlake’s comic capers but without an actual caper involved. The book is divided into several sections, and it reads with the breezy wit and style of Westlake at his best. The characters are quirky as hell, the scenes moving back and forth between farcical and quasi-realistic, and the result is a book that leaves the reader uncertain what is going to happen next.

It’s also another of those books where Westlake manages to juggle several plotlines in the air. Sara’s journey (some might say descent) from professional journalist to professional Weekly Galaxy journalist is juxtaposed with the lives and times of several of her colleagues, including Phyllis who came to the large salary with gusto, buying an apartment too big for her to live in and Binx, a constantly nervous man who seems to be in a mutually parasitic marriage.

Of course, the big supporting role is Sara’s editor Jack Ingersoll, who is both a decent bloke and a turd as the moment suits him. I picture him sometimes as Cary Grant circa HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) and sometimes as Cary Elwes faking an American accent. He’s a charming guy, but he thinks mostly about the work he does. Of course, this is no surprise since his boss demands no less than 30 story titles each week. He is surrounded by strong women, which is a pleasant enough surprise. Jack’s own reliable rock is that rat-faced secretary Mary Kate Scudder, a smart talking woman who knows a lot and takes no guff. Then, there’s Ida Gavin, a reporter who uses every tool at her disposal (intimidation, sex, more intimidation) to get the stories and to nail Jack’s enemies to the wall.

And what enemies he has! Outside the paper there are numerous people he has conned to get this or that story. On the paper, there’s Boy Cartwright is the current golden boy of the paper. He’s a Brit who manages to be charming when he wants, though deep down he’s a backstabbing jackass. Still, Boy has got his nose so far up the owner’s ass that to all appearances he can do no wrong.

Of course, there’s a romance between the new reporter and her editor. Soon after the book kicks off, she decides she hates his guts. No one can really blame her, either. Jack lays into her about the corpse in a car, asking what show the body was star of (answer: none), and then proceeds to belittles her reportage. Her first day is a pain in the butt and her first week, too, particularly when she loses the sticker that allows her access to the employee lot, accidentally applied to a rental car window; she has to recover the sticker to save her job. However, Sara finds her footing in this mad world and becomes a willing participant in the proceedings as the book progresses.

The one area that could have been done better for my money is in the transition from professional reporter to muckraker. The book makes this a fast process, and while it pays some lip service to the conflicted feelings Sara has about the work she does, it’s more interested in the crazy stories she is stuck on and the thinking on her feet she is forced to do. Sara, it turns out, is a born liar, able to spin plenty of fictions in order to achieve her goals. When she applies as an assistant for John Michael Mercer in order to spy, she almost nails the gig. The hiring manager manages to eventually out her, though he gives her props for her skill. When she admits her actual experience level, he is honestly surprised:

Rising, nodding, smiling back at him, she said, “Well, I’m new at the game.”

“You are?” Reed viewed her with honest pleasure. “You’ll be something, when you get your growth,” he said. (118)

In fact, she will. There is a part of me that wishes we could have seen some of that transition, more failure on her part. However, the story Westlake is interested in telling is short on actual failures for her. In fact, she succeeds both “on camera” as well as “off camera”, appearing at one point with a folder of photographs that save her team’s bacon and propel them into paper owner and editor-in-chief Bruno “Massa” DeMassi’s good graces, giving the team their shot at a “body in a box” a gruesome term for an equally gruesome (yet nevertheless coveted) opportunity.

Ultimately, Sara is an interesting character but only just so. The pirate journalism’s crew of losers around her, some lovable and some not, are generally more interesting characters for my money. Their stakes are higher. I was not sure just what Sara had to lose . . . Maybe pride is the concern, professional or otherwise. Anyway, though I continued to turn the pages, the protagonist’s journey was less interesting to me than it could have been. YMMV, of course.

How about that paper, though? The Weekly Galaxy brought back grin-inducing memories from the height of the tabloids. What evidence do I have that the eighties could be dubbed such a thing? Well, anecdotal, alas, which is no kind of evidence at all.

As for the Weekly Galaxy itself, there’s a humorous note right off the bat about how it’s fictionalized. Completely fictionalized. No way would a paper like this exist in reality.

Although there is no newspaper anywhere in the United States like the Weekly Galaxy, as any alert reader will quickly realize, were there such a newspaper in actual real-life existence its activities would be stranger, harsher and more outrageous than those described herein. The fictioneer labors under the restraint of plausibility; his inventions must stay within the capacity of the audience to accept and believe. God, of course, working with facts, faces no such limitation. Were there a factual equivalent to the Weekly Galaxy, it would be much worse than the paper I have invented, its staff and ownership even more lost to all considerations of truth, taste, proportion, honor, morality or any shred of common humanity. Trust me. (vii)

However, that’s not quite the case is it? Sure, we had scandal rags like The Star and the National Enquirer still choking the racks at grocery stories, trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The Weekly Galaxy is a tribute to some of those rags and their paparazzi-using, bankrupt ethics. However, it’s also hearkening to a rag of a different color from that era. I am old enough to remember when The Weekly World News was around, showing pictures of Satan’s face in volcanic eruptions or Bat Boy’s grinning mug gazing wide-eyed and gape-jawed from the front page, each accompanied by schlock shock headlines. That was the magazine to extoll space alien stories and cryptozoological nonsense as well as goofy puff pieces about folks with one leg accompanied by a photograph too cheap to doctor the fact that there’s a guy standing there with one leg kicked up behind him. It’s a newspaper that featured a Page Five girl cheesecake shot, and one that offered all kinds of weird little “news” bites. I’m sure in its heyday it outsold the other rags based on pure chutzpah alone. Hell, I bought that one semi-regularly and have never purchased an Enquirer or Star or similar tabloid.

Either way, it’s a hell of a backdrop for a book that examines truth versus the perception of truth. The rag is more interested in perception, moving five million copies a week. With those kinds of circulation numbers, the paper can pay for just about anything—a twenty-foot-wide birthday cake, a helicopter to get its reporters in where they are not welcome, or plenty of bribes and kickbacks with stringers and authority figures to divulge secrets or overlook misdemeanor malfeasance.

The book glories in lies of all sorts The ones we spin for others, the ones we share with our colleagues, and the ones we tell ourselves. Sara’s journey is tied to this theme, of course, and that may well be the character arc Westlake was trying to tackle in the book. However, this theme is most appealing when applied to the broader strokes, painting a world where one trusted Galaxy reporter can be a spy for another editor or even for another paper. It’s a world where the bigger the lie, the better the victory. It’s a world unlike the one we live in today.

Trust me on this.

Westlake’s structure for the book is particularly interesting to me. It is broken in several sections, THE FIRST DAY, THE FIRST WEEK, THE FIRST HUNDRED YEARS, FELICIA, THE WEDDING, A BODY IN A BOX, and a brief epilogue. The individual chapters composing these sections are subsequently broken up into individual scenes. Reading the book is reminiscent of binge watching a Netflix show. Each section comes across as an episode in an overarching narrative. If I were to pitch a Westlake property to Netflix for the series treatment (apart from a Dortmunder series, of course, where each book would make a fine season) then this book seems perfectly suited for the treatment as one of that station’s Limited Events (aka miniseries). When you’re done binging STRANGER THINGS and want a different view of the 80s, why not check this one out?

In addition to aping the kinds of journalism stories that famed Hollywood writer Ben Hecht composed throughout his career, I suspect the book’s Florida location, newspaper theme, and weirdness are an attempt on Westlake’s part to invoke the sorts of bestseller material with which Carl Hiaasen had made a bestseller splash. Hiaasen had appeared on the mystery scene in 1981, penning three collaborations with William Montalbano. However, 1986 saw his first solo novel and NYT bestseller, TOURIST SEASON, which offered quirky crime and humor in Floridian locales when an eco-terrorist cell decides to save the state’s natural splendor by aggressively dissuading tourism. In the mid-eighties, Elmore Leonard was also telling occasional Florida-set stories (though my favorite of this bunch, OUT OF SIGHT, would not appear until the 90s). Since Leonard and Hiaasen was making some money from Florida-based tales that played to Westlake’s strengths, I would not be surprised if the novel kicked off simply as an exercise in showing the others what he could do in their Florida sandbox.

TRUST ME ON THIS may not be a perfect novel. Far from it. However, it is still an entertaining work, the perfect thing to visit after a particularly grueling day at my nine-to-five RnD gig in the oil and gas service industry. I cannot say that bad Westlake is still a treat (WHO STOLE SASSI MANOON? is not a great read; in hindsight, it’s lousy), but middle of the road Westlake is still good fun.

The book even netted a sequel (of sorts). Westlake gives Sara Joslyn a chance to return in BABY, WOULD I LIE TO YOU? Though I have not read it yet, I look forward to revisiting Sara and her weird little world for that book. However, that won’t be for a few months yet.

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TRUST ME ON THIS is available as an eBook from Crossroads Press. Paperback and hardcover editions exist in the world, but none of them are currently in print. I managed to score my own at a Good Will of all places, so the odds are good for finding a copy if you go look.

Next up is Paul Tremblay’s GROWING THINGS, a collection of short stories including one of the pieces that served as a genesis of sorts (pun intended) for his wildly successful A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS (which we reviewed many moons ago). Grab a copy in eBook, hardcover, or audio today!

After that we will return to the worlds of Seanan McGuire’s nasty horror pseudonym Mira Grant with the latest novella release from Subterranean Press, IN THE SHADOW OF SPINDRIFT HOUSE. The hardcover editions are close to selling out on, I believe, but a cheap eBook edition is still available.

Following that, we will return to the Considering Westlake series with SACRED MONSTER, which is sadly out of print. Old editions are available, however.

WORKS CITED

Westlake, Donald E. TRUST ME ON THIS. Mysterious Press: 1987.

“Considering Westlake: Trust Me On This” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R Robichaud. Cover image and quotes taken from the Mysterious Press edition, copyright 1987.

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