I am not a huge fan of Donald
E. Westlake. But I love the books written by his pseudonyms.
I was already an avid fan of the extremely bleak,
hard-boiled Parker books
that Westlake wrote under the pen name of Richard Stark, featuring
a hardened professional criminal. The characters, the action,
the robberies -- everything about Stark's writing kept me enthralled
from the moment I first picked up The Hunter, the first
in the series. I had grabbed this book a few years ago, when
Mel Gibson and based on that novel) first hit the theaters in
1996, and subsequently got the rest of the series from used book
stores and e-bay.
One day I was poking around on the internet, and
I found out that Stark was a pen name of Donald E. Westlake.
So I picked up a few of the books he wrote under his own name:
Smoke, Money for Nothing and the first two Dortmunder
books. Personally, I wasn't as impressed as I was with Stark.
I guess that Westlake and I just don't share a sense of humor,
because I wasn't laughing at these books as much as everyone
The Dortmunder books, The Hot Rock and Bank
Shot were fairly funny, but the characters didn't grab me
like Parker did. Smoke was a step up from the Dortmunder
books, but still not quite my cup of tea. Money for Nothing,
his newest book, was enjoyable, but not really hard-boiled enough
for my tastes. I needed dark and brooding, showing the depths
of human soul at it's best and it's worst. I wanted something
with more punch, a book that would grab me by the shirt and rattle
I poked around on the web a bit more and found
out that Westlake had written five novels, all long out of print,
under the name Tucker Coe, featuring a non-professional private
investigator named Mitchell Tobin.
I came across a copy of the first in the series, Kinds of
Love, Kinds of Death (1966) at a used book store and decided
to give it a try.
Well, I finished that book in two days, blowing
off such trivial concerns as a college essay and proper work
performance, and ordered the remaining four novels the very same
day from e-bay. I had gotten the brain rattling that I had asked
for. I was hooked.
I think in large part it was because of the character,
Tobin. His character is intriguing from the very first chapter
of Kinds of Love. He's a guilt-ridden former police officer,
whose negligence in the line of duty got his partner killed and
Tobin himself thrown off the force. While on duty, Tobin was
in the bed of a woman that wasn't his wife. During those few
hours his partner stumbled into a shoot-out. Without Tobin to
back him up, he died.
Mitch's wife forgave the infidelity and tries to
coax her husband out of his mental shell and back into the land
of the living. But at the age of 39 and with six months off the
force, that's the last thing that Tobin wants. As hard-boiled
as Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder
and as tough as Hammett's Sam
Spade, but Tobin has a heart as well.
Hiding from the world that he feels he let down,
Mitch spends his time in his back yard, building a wall brick
by brick, and eventually becomes obsessed with it. He takes cases
only when pressured by his wife, and for the most part seems
interested in the money more than the people he works for. The
five novels show the full circle tale of a man who carries his
guilty conscience on his shoulders and never forgets his mistakes
for a minute. A man who refuses to forgive himself, although
the surrounding world may seem to.
The first novel, Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death,
features Tobin being hired by the Mafia, to discover who killed
the local crime boss' mistress. Tobin reluctantly takes the job,
fighting his demons every step of the way, wishing each minute
that he could go back to his wall. His wife tells him that they
could use the money, which seems to be the deciding factor --
for Tobin, it's not about justice in the end, it's doing right
by his wife and son. Trying to prove to them that he is still
functional, but that he simply chooses not to function with the
rest of society. The ending hits hard and fast, the final chapter
is amazingly emotional while the characters are emotionless,
and the final line still haunts me.
The next in the series, Murder Amongst Children
(1967), was a step up from the first. Tobin is begged by his
niece to try to stop the police from harassing the customers
and employees at her Greenwich Village coffee shop. Shortly after
he agrees, her boyfriend turns up dead and she's the primary
suspect. Tobin steps into the murder investigation, trying to
prove her innocence. The teenagers that Tobin defends help drive
the story right along with him, making unlikely allies and helpers.
The ending has a stronger punch than Kinds of Love as
The third in the series, Wax Apple (1970),
is the least effective book in the series, but still a good story.
Tobin is hired by a doctor who owns a mental recuperation facility,
where mysterious accidents are injuring the residents. Shortly
after he arrives, Tobin is hit by a trap himself and breaks his
arm. In a "locked room" mystery of sorts, Tobin goes
about talking with the residents and doctors, and hating every
minute of it. This book gets the lowest ranking simply because
it lacked the freshness that the first two had. The same disgruntled
Tobin, obsessing over his wall instead of the job. But it's only
a minor misstep in this superb series.
Next came A Jade in Aries (1970), even better
than Murder Among Children. Once again Tobin takes a job
that he doesn't want -- trying to discover who is killing off
a group of homosexual friends one by one. The description of
winter-time New York is outstanding and the characters are above
reproach, but the big difference is that Tobin himself has begun
to change. In his mind, he is easing his guilty conscience a
tiny bit. The mental process that the reader sees Tobin going
through is some of Westlake's best writing in my opinion, as
we get an outstanding feeling for what Tobin is going through,
and how -- despite his best efforts -- time is finally healing
his wounds, bit by bit.
The series concludes with Don't Lie to Me
(1972), perhaps the most emotionally satisfying book Westlake
has ever written. By now, Tobin has managed his guilt to the
point where he can take a job to support his family though, as
a night watchman at an art museum, it's one where he doesn't
have to deal with many people. He can spend his working hours
in spendid isolation, away from the outside world, alone at night
amongst the artwork. Or so he thinks. He is making his rounds
one night when an old flame shows up, pounding on the museum
door, and begs him for his help. Tobin decides to talk to her,
and while she accompanies him on his nightly rounds the two of
them stumble across a dead body in the museum. The book features
Tobin juggling his family life with his new troubles of crooked
cops, nasty hoodlums and old emotions for a relationship long
died out. This novel is the best in the series, with an outstanding,
exciting ending and honest emotions throughout.
The Tobin books are essential for mystery lovers
and writers alike; rarely will you find strong story-telling
and compelling emotion combined so well as in this series. I
love this series because it stays true to life. A man is unhappy
with his past, but pushes on and struggles to come to terms with
his mistakes. The novels have their depressing moments, when
Tobin is low on hope and cynical, but until you read the whole
series you won't get the full story. At the end of Don't Lie
to Me, you get the true sense of closure and reconciliation,
of trial and triumph, as though you were reading one story the
And in a way, you really have been.
All by Tucker Coe
Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death (1966)...Buy
Murder Among Children
Wax Apple (1970)..Buy
A Jade In Aries (1970)..Buy
Don't Lie To Me (1972)..Buy
Series overview submitted
by Bryan Schingle,
| Home | Detectives A-L M-Z | Film | Radio | Television | Web Comics | Comics | FAQs |
| Trivia | Authors | Hall of Fame | Mystery Links | Bibliography | Glossary | Search |
| What's New: On The Site | On the Street | Non-Fiction | Fiction | Staff | The P.I. Poll |
Your comments, suggestions, corrections and contributions are always welcome.
"...and I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk."