Monday 16 July 2012

Book Review: Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death (Mitch Tobin #1) by Tucker Coe, alias Donald E. Westlake (Souvenir Press, 1967)

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.

Slight change of plan here: I had intended to blog about the final book which begat a perhaps more famous film to start the working week, but unfortunately I haven't finished reading the bloody thing yet; you'll have to hang on another day or so for that. Instead, while we wait, I thought I'd veer off-topic and take a look at a novel that I showcased as a Westlake Score all the way back in September 2010 – in its 1967 UK Souvenir Press first edition – but never got round to reviewing – or indeed showing off properly, as the photographs I took of the book back then were fairly awful. And having since established my Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery, and the jacket of this particular edition having been designed by an artist who's already in the gallery – S. R. Boldero – it struck me I could kill two birds with one stone... well actually, three: review the novel, add to the gallery, and fill an unexpected hole in Existential Ennui's schedule...

Originally published in the US in 1966, Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death was Donald E. Westlake's first novel under the alias of Tucker Coe, under which moniker he would go on to pen a further four books over the next five years or so. All star disgraced former cop Mitchell Tobin, who, as the series opens, has been off the force for six months following an illicit affair which led to the death of his partner. Mitch's wife, Kate, forgave him the affair (although he's unsure if his thirteen-year old son, Bill, has), but his former colleagues haven't forgiven him the death of his partner – and nor, for that matter has he forgiven himself, which is why he's spent six months doing virtually nothing other than, latterly, building a wall around his backyard.

So when a representative of New York mobster Ernie Rembek turns up at Mitch's house with a job offer, Mitch eventually – reluctantly – agrees – not because he has any interest in the job – which is to find out who within Rembek's organisation murdered Rembek's mistress – but because Kate thinks it will be good for him to do something other than build his wall. And so, attended by Roger Kerrigan – "an observer from the corporation", as Rembek puts it – Mitch sets about interviewing and eliminating suspects, in the process becoming a target for murder himself...

I must admit I was surprised by how good Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death is. Alongside the Parker novels – written, of course, under Westlake's rather better-known nom de plume of Richard Stark – I'd suggest that Kinds of Love is one of the best books Westlake wrote in the 1960s: a restrained yet quietly gripping murder mystery that's all the better for its sober, unshowy approach. Ordinarily my interest in mysteries is minimal – often as not I couldn't care less "whodunnit" – but Kinds of Love transcends its mystery trappings by dint of its fascinating take on mob life, which Westlake depicts as unrelentingly unglamorous. To take just one example, during an interview with one of the mobster suspects, Frank Donner, it arises that Donner and his wife have separate bedrooms, a detail that Mitch finds suspicious. But the explanation proves so mundane it becomes even more believable: Donner's wife admits with embarrassment that she snores.

For his part, Ernie Rembek is an unusual mob boss: he's intelligent and cultured, at one point referencing G. K. Chesterton in relation to overlooking background players in any investigation (a sly nod from Westlake to an influence, there). But each of the gangsters is well-drawn, Westlake-via-Tobin appraising each of them dispassionately – appraising everything dispassionately, in fact – deploying the occasional simile to add colour: noting how the glaring sun makes he and two other men lower their heads "like a trio of penitents", or describing a body, "its arms stretched out ahead of it", as "an acrobat still reaching for the trapeze".

Of course, Mitch's dispassion is a symptom of his lack of interest in pretty much everyone and everything – something that, conversely, serves to make him more interesting as a character – with the exception of his family and his wall, the latter of which he's back to building by the close of the novel. "Mitch, didn't it change anything?" Kate asks him of his investigation. "Change what?" is Tobin's blunt response, suggesting he has a long way yet to travel over the subsequent novels.

S. R. Boldero's wrapper for the Souvenir Press edition of Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death has now joined his one for Desmond Cory's Johnny Goes South in the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design gallery, taking the total number of covers up to 74. And I'll be adding another couple of Westlake dust jackets before too long, one of which, the British edition of the second Tucker Coe novel, I believe has never been seen online before. Next though: the final book which begat a perhaps more famous film...


  1. The entire Mitch Tobin series is excellent. Truly the best of Westlake in his dramatic mode. I read this and Jade in Aries last year when we had "DEW Day" as part of Patti Abbot's collective Friday's Forgotten Books. It's one of the rare instances in criem ficiton in which crime solving serves a therapeutic purpose for a character broken in mind and spirit. The books exhibit Westlake's surprisingly compassionate side. Highly recommended.

  2. In the 60's, Westlake wrote as Stark about protagonists who knew exactly who they were, and under his own name about protagonists who had to find out who they were (or die trying).

    As Coe, he wrote about a man who used to know who he was, but then lost himself, and has to gradually find his way back over the course of five books.

    Westlake said Tobin was directly inspired by Hammett's Nick Charles, a character Westlake describes as having lost the one thing that defined him, namely his work as a detective. He doesn't want to acknowledge this. He just manages his beautiful young wife's estate, and slowly amiably drinks himself to death. Nora sees what he needs, and encourages him to get back to detective work, which was excited her about him in the first place. He resists, but gets sucked back in against his will.

    Tobin is a better developed character, but Westlake cut his Nora's involvement down to being a support system (granted, Westlake didn't have Lillian Hellman to serve as a model, as the nearly depleted Hammett did).

  3. John: I recall reading your review back then. I'm looking forward to making my way through the remainder of the series.

    Chris: I didn't know that about Westlake being inspired by Hammett, but I think you're being a little hard on Kate. She plays a pivotal role in both Kinds of Love and Murder Among Children, which I'm reading at the moment. It's Kate who presses Mitch into becoming involved in each instance, and part of his reason for doing so is because of her belief that it will help him. He doubtless knows that himself, of course, but Kate provides the impetus. She's a support system, but she's also a driver.

  4. Hmm. Thought I responded to this. Nick, did it get lost somehow? Hate to type it out again. On an iPad yet. :)

  5. No idea what happened to your response, Chris: I didn't get an email notification, and it's not in the blog spam folder. It's vanished into the ether!

  6. Well basically I said that Kate was a fine character who served both the narrative and her spouse's mental health well, but she really played no active role in the series, nor did she verbally joust with Tobin (she doesn't talk much, period), and once he has regained his mental equilibrium, she's quite happy if he never gets involved in another murder case again. The same could hardly be said for Nora Charles, who wants Nick to be solving mysteries for her sake as much as his, since she obviously married him in hopes of escaping the boredom of being a rich society gal.

    So you would probably be wasting Myrna Loy on Kate, is what I was trying to say. But I like her anyway. For a saint, she is exceptionally likeable. And I suppose Westlake (who created a fair few love interests for his protagonists who do resemble Nora) was thinking he didn't want to simply transport the Charles' to bluecollar Queens. Tobin was inspired by The Thin Man, but he's very decidedly his own man.

  7. Great review - very much enjoyed it. I think I need to get back into Westlake...

  8. Chris: fair enough.

    Hyraxia: Thanks! And yes, you probably do...

  9. Thanks for your Tucker Coe posts. I knew these books existed but for some reason they never caught my fancy - which is odd because I am interested in just about everything Westlake did. (Except Samuel Holt - any chance you can work on that?)

    I got my copy of Kinds of Love today. It's ugly. Probably a BCE. Someone cut up the dust jacket and pasted parts of it onto the inside cover of the book. But I started reading it and love it. And having a crappy copy is kind of liberating - I just ordered cheap copies of the other four Tobin books so I can read them now and will worry about getting nice editions at some distant point in the future. I will look at yours until then.

  10. My pleasure, Brian. Glad you're enjoying Kinds of Love (despite its state of disrepair). I'm not sure when I'll get to progress beyond Murder Among Children, so you might soon be ahead of me in the series. Time for a blog post, perhaps...?