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The death of Donald Westlake on New Year’s Eve affected a great many people throughout the world. 2008 was an especially bad year for writers it seemed to me. We lost a number of fine authors such as John Mortimer, Michael Crichton, Arthur C. Clarke, George MacDonald Fraser, and William F, Buckley(loved Blackford Oakes). Those are the ones that come to mind. There were others that I either weren’t familiar with or hadn’t read.

All had their mourners.

But none seemed to have the effect of Westlake’s passing. A lot of tributes were posted on various blogs to the man and his work, all more eloquent than anything I can say.

I was a fan of his work, more so the serious stuff than the comic Dortmunder novels, though anything with his name on was an assurance of a good read. I really liked the Parker novels(I’ve read all but one). As prolific as he was, it seems as if I’ve barely touched on his work and have a lot of catching up to do. Would that I was falling farther behind. In the different tributes, I learned of The Ax, which I promptly found and devoured.

And then I learned of the writer known as Tucker Coe. I’d never heard of him let alone read any of his books. So the fact that he was Donald Westlake was new as well. The praise for those five Tobin novels showed up all over the place and I had to go find them as soon as possible. A fault of mine. When I decide I want a book, I have no patience to wait. I need it right away.

I finished the fifth one last night(that makes six Westlakes this month) and wanted to put down a few thoughts on them.

Mitchell Tobin is a wounded man. Not physically, but inside. In six months, he hasn’t worked or left the house except in the direst circumstances. His wife works two part time jobs to supplement their savings.

Mitch had committed an unpardonable sin, in his mind anyway. He’d had an four year long affair with the wife of a man he’d arrested and put away for burglary. The only time he could meet her and keep it secret was on the job. His partner had always covered for him.

On the fateful night, his partner was making a routine arrest while he was with the woman and things went wrong. His partner was shot to death and, while the police were wondering where he was, he was still with the mistress. He was fired for incompetence and Mitch lost most of his friends over it. His wife was the only one who forgave him. Including himself.

He doesn’t want to face the world, so he decides to build a brick wall in the back yard, completely enclosing it, making access available only through the house, both literally and figuratively closing himself off from the rest of the world.

Hos wife recognizes that he needs to get out, both for his mental well being and their financial stability.

KINDS OF LOVE, KINDS OF DEATH

When a mobster comes with an offer of a “legitimate” job, finding the murderer of his mistress. strictly legitimate, you can turn the murderer over to the law for prosecution, I just want him found, she presses him to take it. There is $5000 dollars in it. At first refusing, reluctantly he finally does.

MURDER AMONG CHILDREN

An eighteen year old second cousin, daughter of a relative he hadn’t seen since their childhood seeks Mitch’s help. She and friends had opened a coffee house and were being harassed by a police officer. She thinks he wants a payoff and want Tobin to be there on his next visit to see if that’s what he wants.

At first, he declines, even when her mother comes by, preferring to work on his wall. But his wife keeps pressing and he relents, setting up a time for a meeting. No sooner does he arrive at the restaurant, than his cousin comes stumbling downstairs, bloody with a knife in her hand. Her boyfriend and a hooker are dead in the apartment, knifed apparently by her.

Tobin doesn’t buy it.

WAX APPLE

In this one, Tobin is hired by the director of a halfway house for ex-mental patients(yes, I caught the irony here). Someone is pulling pranks in the house that cause injury to residents. Nothing serious, but as they are trying to make that last step back into normal society, they don’t need this sort of stuff.

Tobin goes in undercover as a newly released patient beginning his six month stay there. He immediately gets caught in one of the pranks and suffers a broken arm. When he gets a note of apology from the prankster, that deepens the mystery.

First night there, he meets a resident named Dewey. He doesn’t see him again and no one seems to know who he might be, though one resident remembers meeting him her first night there, assuming he’d left the facility shortly thereafter, his time over.

Who is Dewey? Could he be the prankster? When he finally runs him down, finding his hiding place, he turns out to be a poor man who wasn’t ready to face the world despite what the doctors said and had been hiding out for years, coming out only at night. In the ensuing pursuit Dewey is killed by one of the booby traps.

Now it’s murder and Tobin’s secret is out. He’s not a resident.

I buzzed through the first three very quickly. Nice tight mysteries. Then i took a break with a few other novels before getting back to the series.

A JADE IN ARIES

By the fourth book, Tobin has started digging out his basement, the idea to enlarge and build rooms. This is simply to keep him occupied on rainy days when he couldn’t work outside on the wall. It’s all make-work anyway to keep him from having to face the world. A couple of years have gone by and Mitch still prefers not to face the world on a regular basis.

A gay man shows up and makes a unique offer. His partner has been murdered and he wants Tobin’s advice on how to find the criminal himself. He’d narrowed it down to six people and planned to use astrology to find the culprit. What he needed was the esiest way to find out the exact time of each suspect’s birth. He had the dates, but needed the times for his forecasts.

Though leery of astrology, Mitch makes a quick phone call to a friend, gives him the names and dates, then gives the man the number to call himself in a couple of days for the information. He thought that would be the end of it.

The next day, it’s all over the news about the man throwing himself off the roof of his business in an apparent suicide attempt. He crashed through the roof of a shed in back full of bolts of cloth and merely had a lot of broken bones, as well as in a coma.

Tobin knows right away it was no suicide, but still doesn’t plan to get involved, even when the man regains consciousness, declaring it was no suicide. The cop investigating doesn’t want to hear it, preferring to believe what he wants. Once again, the wife prods Tobin into getting the case. Before it’s over, one of the six suspects is murdered.

In the first four books, Tobin had always had to proceed carefully in his investigations. He doesn’t have a PI license and it’s a federal offense to function without one. The cop in charge starts giving him a hard time and, in self defense, he goes to one of the few cop friends he has left for help in getting a PI permit.

I’m not sure whether it was me or the book, but this one wasn’t one of those grab you by the throat and won’t let go until you finish reading it. I had no trouble putting it down any number of times and, though only a couple of hundred pages, it took four days to get through. I like the mystery so I can only put it down to me. Astrology was a strong part of the story and I have never believed or understood any of it.

DON’T LIE TO ME

By this one, Mitchell Tobin’s healing was well under way. He’s taken a job as a night watchman at a museum. Things had gone smoothly for the three weeks he’d worked there. This night was different. Two things interfered.

First, the woman with which he’d had the four year affair, and who he hadn’t seen in three years since that terrible night, shows up at the job seeking his help. Her husband was out and wanted to go straight, but was being pressured by a gang to help out on a job. She’s telling him this while making his rounds and they stumble across the second problem: a naked dead man lying in one of the rooms. It hadn’t been there a half hour before and all the doors were locked.

He lies to the police, omitting the woman from his story, but word gets out. Now he’s juggling a criminal gang who’s after him for interfering in their business, trying to keep the woman secret because that would only cloud the investigation of the dead man and the forgeries that turn up and have to be related to the murder.

These five novels were very much a part of their time(1966-1972). In Murder Among Children, the coffee house was a “beatnik” joint, probably the last days of such establishments, and the notions Tobin has of the cause of homosexuality in A Jade In Aries seem antiquated by today’s standards.

Westlake, in an interview I read somewhere, said as he was writing the fifth book, he knew it would be the last with Mitchell Tobin. The healing was well underway and he apparently had no desire to write just a regulation PI novel. Too bad, It would have been interesting to see a functioning private eye taking cases.

Five fine mysteries well worth tracking down if one hasn’t read them

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