An Overview by Bryan Schingle
I am not a huge fan of the books 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 Payback (starring Mel Gibson and based on that novel) first hit the theaters in 1996. I 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 with the Dortmunders 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 else was.
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 then-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 its best and its worst. I wanted something with more punch, a book that would grab me by the shirt and rattle my brains.
I poked around on the web a bit more and found out that Westlake had written five novels, all then 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 well.
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 whole time.
And in a way, you really have been.
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THE MITCH TOBIN SERIES by Tucker Coe
- Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death (1966) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Murder Among Children (1967) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Wax Apple (1970) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- A Jade In Aries (1970) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Don’t Lie To Me (1972) | Buy this book | Kindle it!