Sometimes, well-established authors look at their careers and wonder. Times, markets and tastes have changed since first they succeeded, and they wonder if they could make it again in current conditions.
I’m far from being an author in that category, but to me that’s got to involve at least a subconscious degree of insecurity: am I still selling on the strength of my writing, or is it that I have a conditioned audience who will buy my books irrespective of their quality?
If the writer wants to test this question, they have only one option open to them and that is to agree a Protected Pen-Name. This is a pseudonym known only to the Author, their Agent and the Publisher that agrees to accept it. Not to anyone else at the Publishing house, not editors, nor marketing. To them, the Pen-Name is a genuinely new author, a first time writer, and he will be marketed in that fashion.
In 1986, Donald E Westlake, author of the Parker books and the Dortmunder Gang series, went down that route. Westlake was used to working under a variety of pen-names: the Parker books were published as Richard Stark and his early career in soft core dirty books used a less famous pseudonym.
Westlake chose the name Samuel Holt and decided to write a series of books, narrated by Sam himself. Taking a leaf from Travis McDonald, when starting his Travis Bickle series, Westlake wrote the first three Sam Holt books simultaneously, building up the mode and the stories to ensure that he could create a consistent voice for his new approach.
Westlake planned a total of six books, with a numerical theme to their titles, and in due course delivered his first three: One of Us is Wrong, I know a Trick worth Two of That and What I tell you Three Times is False. Each book took on a different type of crime fiction, and Westlake was satisfied with his work and began the second trio on the same basis.
Then One of Us is Wrong appeared and the whole thing blew up in his face. The publisher had let slip Samuel Holt’s real identity to his Marketing Team, and the books were in the bookshop credited to Donald E Westlake, destroying the whole purpose of the exercise.
Samuel Holt was immediately poisoned in Westlake’s mind. Having signed a contract for four books, he had to go ahead and complete The Fourth Dimension is Death, but Famous for Five Seconds, in which Sam would have met a former Astronaut, and Now I am Six and Clever as can be, about which every trace of its concept has vanished, were doomed never to be written.
The books went out of print as soon as they could, and Westlake refused to allow them to be reprinted until twenty years later when, looking at them again with a bit more objectivity, Westlake decided that the debacle was not Sam’s fault, and he should be allowed his hour in the sun again.
Sam Holt was not a detective. Samuel Holt – real name Holton Hickey – was an actor who’d become both famous and rich through playing a detective on television, Jack Packard, academic and amateur criminologist. Though Sam never supplies specifics, the impression he leaves is that Packard was a Murder, She Wrote style show.
Packard lasted five seasons and was still popular, but was ended because everyone involved with it felt it had run its course. That was three years earlier. During the run, Sam caught the acting bug but unfortunately has found himself typecast as Packard, with no-one prepared to give him any kind of acting job. At the age of 34, Sam Holt finds himself unemployable. He doesn’t need the money, but the lifestyle is pretty boring.
All of this is established in each book, in which Sam gets exactly nowhere furthering his acting career, but finds himself being surrounded by situations, the nature of which vary from book to book, in which he has to act the part of a detective. One of Us is Wrong takes the form of a thriller.
The story starts with two Chevy Impalas, each housing two men of Middle Eastern extraction, trying to run Sam’s Volvo off the Freeway to his death. When the Police want to know who could want Sam dead, he has no idea, but one comes to him soon after.
Three months earlier, Sam’s scriptwriter friend Ross Ferguson came to him in a panic. Some time earlier, Ross had arrived at his Mailbu beach house to find the murdered body of his ex-girlfriend, Delia, who’d been trying to sue him for Breach of Promise. Scared that the Police would jump to the obvious conclusion, Ross had taken Delia’s body out to sea on his boat and dumped it, never to be seen again.
His current panic was down to the receipt of a videotape, recorded on Ross’s inhouse system, showing him murdering her.
Sam and Ross, being in the business, can tell how it’s been faked, but Ross still won’t go to the Police and swears Sam to secrecy. There’s no other possible connection.
Getting Ross to confirm it isn’t difficult, but getting him to explain what it’s all about is so much harder. Because Ross isn’t just being blackmailed, he’s now a willing co-conspirator in what is being sold to him as a plot to use Ross’s land to access a heavily-guarded political opponent who’s to be kidnapped and taken back home – wherever that is – for a show trial.
You see, Ross has a project. This is going to be an international best-selling book, written from the inside. Ross can’t see beyond that, and Sam’s concern is putting the project under threat. Ross is smart, and besides, he knows how to tiptoe through this because of the number of tricky Hollywood negotiations he’s successfully completed.
Sam, on the other hand, sees two things. One is that Ross isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, and the other is that it doesn’t matter even if he is, he’s still going to end up with a bullet in the back of his head, because that’s how guys like these cover their traces anyway.
One of Us is Wrong puts a pretty direct threat on the table. Even when that’s supposedly switched off by Ross, Sam has his doubts, and as things turn out he’s right to do so, but for a long time he’s trying to get his friend out of a situation he persists in failing to see as dangerous. As indeed Ross doesn’t get out of it, though not for the reason Sam’s been worried about all along (the scene’s a twist all right, but it’s one of the few points where Westlake lets himself down, not by making it so abrupt but by not letting the death have any impact on anyone, not even Sam).
I’ve also got to admit that I’m a bit uncomfortable with one aspect of Sam’s set-up, and that’s his two women. Sam’s a Native New Yorker whose career has taken him to Los Angeles, but he maintains a foot in both camps, spending summers and winters in LA, when NY is unbearable for its weather, but Spring and Fall in the Big Apple.
As a result he has a woman on each coast, restaurateur Anita Imperato in New York, scriptwriter Bly Danner in LA. The women, who are physical contrasts to one another, each know about their opposite number but leave the subject well alone. For the three of them, the arrangement works, for now and for some time, and Westlake leaves completely blank what might happen if either decided it was no longer for them. It simply wouldn’t work for me and whilst I’d normally treat such an arrangement non-judgementally, in this instance I can’t escape a degree of moral disapproval. I think it’s that, whatever emotion you attach to it, this is the bloke with two birds, having his cake and eating it at the same time that digs through the outer layer of skin. My impeccable liberal instincts can’t really approve.
Westlake was determined that each Sam Holt book should cover a different aspect of crime fiction, so I Know a Trick worth Two of That was written as a twist on the buddy-buddy story, the Maltese Falcon avenge-your-partner format.
In New York, Sam is contacted surreptitiously by Doug Walford, his old cop car partner from Long Island, looking to be hid for a while. Doug’s a PI, in over his head with some heavy guy who’s flagrantly not linked to the mob. That’s because he’s their shabbas goy, the one whose absence of ties means he can do things the mobsters themselves can’t. Doug’s a nuisance, a long way from getting anything that can lead to anything let alone prove anything. He’s kidding himself that he only needs a few more months, if he can stay out of sight. But people like Frank Althorn don’t let nuisances become more than nuisances. Sam shelters Doug, but at a party in Sam’s NY townhouse, Doug dies in the toilet.
The coroner rules it suicide, brought on by depression. There’s no evidence to contradict that, except what Sam knows, and what his reporter friend Terry Young and a couple of other read out of what Doug was like at the party. But it takes Bly Danner, back on the West Coast, to identify why Sam can’t let it go. Doug was killed by someone at Sam’s party. The killer was either a friend of Sam’s or someone brought by a friend. It’s a case of personal betrayal, and Sam has to find – and cut out – the guilty person. If only to clear the shadow of suspicion that otherwise will hang over the rest of his friends. Which includes Anita.
The culprit, ultimately, is the only one it could reasonably be, not that they’re the actual murderer, and Westlake leaves at least enough of a trail after the end of the book, in the hands of the professionals, to suggest that maybe yet the death can be brought back to the man who ordered it, but that’s no more the point of the story than the whereabouts of the real Maltese Falcon was too Sam Spade. Sam Holt has cleared his head of suspicion.
Though there was an element of locked-room mystery about the second Sam Holt book, Westlake developed the full-blown thing for What I tell you Three Times is False. Sam’s been persuaded by Anita to give his time to a Cancer Commercial, though it’s Bly who flies out to the isolated Caribbean rock where it’s to be filmed, in facilities that used to belong to a very proprietorial Colombian drug baron.
The pair are flow in in the teeth of a storm that kills the pilot, stranding everyone on the rock until it subsides, days later. Everyone here is the two Producers who know own the island, one servant, one Director and four actors, each associated with a particular famous detective; Sam’s out of his class here as Packard, since the other three are Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and Charlie Chan. The line up is completed by the star’s wife and companions.
During the first night, Daphne Wheeler, companion to ‘Miss Marple’ is found dead, apparently of suicide after a vituperous quarrel at dinner. But ‘Sherlock Holmes’ spots the little clues that pinpoint this as a murder, triggering an investigation that puts the three operational detectives on the spot of having to be what they only pretend to be.
Westlake sidelines ‘Miss Marple’ possibly because this is a Ten Little Indians-style set-up, and an Agatha Christie creation might be too at home. For Daphne is only the first of, eventually, five victims, though one of these is only put into a coma, not killed. Westlake deftly plays the absurdity of second-hand contrast and collaborate, with ‘Sherlock Holmes’ gearing up to announce to everyone that he has solved the mystery, which will make for ideal publicity for his forthcoming revival series as the Great Detective.
Unfortunately, this is Sam’s book, and Sam takes the wind out of his sails with a vengeance by identifying the real culprit, whose motive has to be read to be believed.
The Fourth Dimension is Death was a straightforward murder mystery, with Sam being called upon to carry out his most intense and sustained investigation, in order to clear his own name. A struggling actor called Doug Walmsley who is Sam’s lookalike has been portraying Packard insultingly for a series of TV commercials, and Sam travels to New York for depositions in the lawsuit. Walmsley turns out to be obsessed with Sam and taking what is a normal suit personally. He confronts Sam physically twice, both times getting the worst of it. Sam’s next encounter is with the Police: Walmsley was beaten to death outside Sam’s townhouse.
Homicide likes Sam for the murder, and two unsympathetic detectives, trying to pressure him, say too much to the Press, leading to stories that he’s not cooperating, and is getting away with it because he’s a celebrity.
That brings down a civil suit from Doug’s mother, charging Sam with violating Doug’s human rights by killing him. It places Sam in an impossible situation, especially if he ever does wish to work again: he has no option but to investigate Walmsley and his background to find the real killers. And to do so, he has to go undercover, keeping his whereabouts unknown, especially from the New York Police, who won’t take kindly to an amateur doing their job, especially an actor who played a detective.
That gives Sam a second motive for staying incognito: if he is found out before he solves the case, he’ll be a laughing stock and he’ll never work again on that score either. So he goes down the pipeline, following Doug Walmsley, hoping that the tide will spit him out at the same place. Only, when it does, there’s a gun waiting…
As a Westlake fan, over and above the Dortmunder Gang books, I collected the four books in their reissued form and, given that the story’s pretty interesting, I wanted to give the books a few good words to complement the good words in them. Westlake does a good job of not sounding like Donald E Westlake, and whilst the Sam Holt quartet are not the best of his work, they are entertaining enough for it to be regrettable that there weren’t the originally-planned six.
It’s a shame that that publisher couldn’t have been introduced to Tiny Bulcher…