Willie Werth

Created by Michael Z. Lewin

Okay, WILLIE WERTH is NOT a private eye. He’s not a detective in any way, shape or form. He has absolutely no excuse for cluttering up this web site, chewing up valuable cyberspace…

But hey–it’s MY web site.

So there…

The reason I’m shoving Willie in here, and hoping nobody cries “Foul” is that I love a good cheeky cover–and this is one of my all-time faves.

Michael Z. Lewin, a well-respected American mystery novelist who’s been hiding out in England since the seventies is best known for his series of quirky, off-beat books featuring quirky, off-beat Indianapolis private eye Albert Samson. The books were being reprinted in paperback for a while with a particularly distinctive (and I thought rather clever) gimmick: a photo of an old wooden office door with a frosted glass inset, through which we could vaguely make out something vaguely nefarious going on, overlaid with typography anyone familiar with old private eye movies would instantly recognize. The format was used on at least a couple of Samson novels, The Silent Salesman (1978) and Missing Woman (1981), and may have been used on a few others.

But right smack in the middle, between the two, the same paperback publisher Berkley released Outside In, a 1980 novel that was definitely NOT an Albert Samson mystery.

And proudly proclaimed as such, right there on the cover, while disingenuously utilizing the exact same format (The photo! The layout! The typography! The composition! The layout!) of the Albert Samson paperbacks that Berkley was also publishing.

I’m sure a few people were fooled. I know I was–but as a recent survivor (and theoretical graduate) of the Commercial Art career program at Montreal’s Dawson College, I didn’t mind being hoodwinked so much. Such cheekiness deserves kudos, not condemnation.

But I digress…

The book itself had its moments of cheekiness, as well, and put the peta to the meta. The afore-named Willie is a third-rate mystery writer, married, middle-aged and facing a major case of writer’s block. He’s grown rich, fat and famous, pumping out a string of books featuring hard-boiled private eye, HANK MIDWINTER–a dick who, as Steve Lewis memorably put it, outhammers Mike Hammer.

But now the words won’t come. His mojo ain’t workin.’ His get-up-and-go has got-up-and-gone. And Willy is falling apart, self-doubt running through his body.

And then a casual acquaintance gets bumped off, and Willie becomes obsessed with solving it and therefore finding his way back (maybe) to the typewriter. Or maybe to his dead buddy’s daughter.

Thing is, despite a long and successful career as a mystery writer, Willie hasn’t got a friggin’ clue. He soon discovers that quickly discovers that real cops and real crooks do not behave as they do in books–and he’s no Hank Midwinter.

Will he crack the case? Will he finish his book? Outside In swings back and forth from Willie’s life to the pages of his latest masterpiece, and the point/counterpoint as Willie/Hank work their respective cases.


You bet.

As the real author here, Michael Z. Lewin explains, “I was interested in the contrast between how he would handle reality, compared to how he dealt with things like murder in his fiction. In fact the book originated when a high school friend of mine was murdered. I found myself thinking that I ought to do something. Pathetic: who was I? A writer who lived an ocean away. All I could do was, eventually, write this novel.”


  • “The combination of Werth’s case and the eventual wrapping up of Midwnter’s own latest caper is a synergistic entanglement that finds each feeding off the other in alternating chapters. The result is a highly amusing and yet an intensely retrospective view of the world as it exists within its own shell of reality. Or perhaps, as Lewin strongly suggests, with the right perspective, why couldn’t that be taken the other way around?
    — Steve Lewis (September-October 1980, The MYSTERY FANcier)


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

Leave a Reply