Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death by Donald Westlake

I’m a Donald Westlake fan, but it’s been some time since I read one of his books.  I don’t know about all the other readers out there, but when I return to an old favourite after a significant gap of time, I am reminded all over again why I like a particular author, and then I ask myself why it took me so long to return to a writer who is practically a ‘sure bet.’ Specifically, I’m talking about Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death which is the first entry in the Mitchell Tobin mystery series originally written by Westlake using the pseudonym Tucker Coe. Westlake, who died in 2008, was an extremely prolific author, and to be honest I’ve lost track of just how many names he used over his long varied career. I was delighted to come across another series character, and fans of Westlake will understand what I’m talking about when I say that readers of this author’s novels become die-hard fans of  Westlake’s series characters.

kinds of Love kinds of deathThe protagonist of Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death is a disgraced former New York police officer, Mitchell Tobin, fired from the force, and now unemployed. His wife, Kate works at a local five-and-dime and her meagre wages along with their diminishing savings keep the family afloat. Meanwhile, Tobin is using his energy to build a wall at his home. It’s back-breaking work, and there’s the sense that it’s both a physical punishment and a mindless distraction. Where did Tobin’s life go wrong? Now 39, he was a  member of NYPD for 18 years before being kicked out. In his 14th year as a police officer, he met Linda, the wife of a burglar named Dink:

But the story tips itself right there, doesn’t it? On first seeing Linda’s name in print you know that I am destined to go to bed with her, knowledge that did not come to me until over a year later, when Dink had already been tried and convicted and was in the process of serving a term that at its shortest must last fifteen years. But it is impossible for me to communicate the knowledge to you as it came to me, in slow revelations, in tiny sunbursts of awareness, in gradual dependence and increasing need and a feeling that developed so slowly it was there long before either of us was fully aware of it, a feeling of inevitability. None of the rationalizing mist which so delightfully blinded me is available now to blind you; you must see it in a cold harsh light, a cheap and nasty bit of adultery with the most tasteless and degrading overtones.

I won’t spoil the story by giving any more details of what went wrong in Tobin’s life, but here he is, still with his wife, Kate and their only child, feeling a crippling sense of guilt. Tobin is busy working on the wall when he’s approached, through a lowly intermediary, about a job for gangster Ernie Rembek, an “amiable czar in a two hundred dollar suit.” It’s ostensibly a bit of detective work, but Tobin doesn’t have a PI license. Rembek who  “needs somebody to do a cop-type job,” wants to employ Tobin for his detective skills and also there’s the  unsavoury, unspoken idea that, since the case involves adultery, perhaps Tobin is the perfect man for the job. Tobin would like to tell Rembek to get lost, but Rembek makes an offer that Tobin is in no position to refuse. Tobin feels awkward working for a gangster, so he sets some hard and fast rules which lay the ground work for how he’ll treat his client and the case. Tobin may be a disgraced ex-cop, but he’s heavy on integrity:

Years ago I gave up being bitter about the comparative incomes of successful crooks and successful cops; it’s a cheap and irrelevant comparison anyway, since wealth is the goal of the crook but presumably something else is the goal of the cop.

Tobin is hired to find Rembek’s mistress, Rita Castle, a bit-part actress who’s flown the love-nest taking a large chunk of Rembek’s cash for her trouble. She’s left behind a cruel note to her ex-sugar daddy, but Rembek, still smitten, wants her back. Since there’s every reason to believe that she’s run off with someone Rembek knows (and that means another member of “The Corporation” ), whoever investigates needs to ask delicate questions and keep his mouth shut about the answers. That’s where Tobin comes in.

I studied my reactions to the job I’d been offered. The job itself required no study; if it contained no elements other than those already described to me, it was a plain and honest piece of work. I might or might not be capable of handling it, but legally and morally I could have no qualms about it.

No, it wasn’t the job that was complicated, it was my reaction to it. To a large extent I wanted to make believe the offer had never come along, I wanted to go back to work on my wall and think of nothing but dirt and bricks and concrete block. But in a small corner of my mind I felt a certain excitement, almost eagerness about the job; it would be a kind of return to the life I’d lost, a task within my competence, and I couldn’t help feeling a degree of hunger for it.

This quote gives a taste of the sort of narrator Mitch is. He knows that he can never repair what happened in his past, and painfully honest about his errors and responsibilities, Mitch partly wants to be punished and remain in a state of disgrace. The job with Rembek offers some tantalizing possibilities that go far beyond the generous monetary compensation; the job is also a way to gain back some self-respect, and Tobin, who’s too hard on himself to allow for any self-pity or self-delusion, knows that he owes it to his family to do something about the mess his life has become.

Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death is the first of 5 Mitch Tobin novels, and it’s an extremely strong start (could Westlake do anything less?). Westlake creates an incredibly strong and interesting protagonist, a troubled man immersed in his own tangled problems–a man who’s thrown a lifeline from an improbable and questionable source. Tobin, of course, takes the job, as we knew he would, and he proves to be an excellent detective. He learns that the men in “The Corporation” had “wifey time,” and this means public events they attended with their wives, but then there’s the rest of the time when the gangsters trooped out their expensive mistresses and partied. While Rita Castle acted like the “original dumb bunny” and seemed to be little more than a “feeble-minded” dumb blonde out for whatever cash from whichever besotted middle-aged admirer she could hook, Tobin begins to suspect that Rita Castle was not what she appeared. One look at the bookshelf next to her bed tells Tobin that Rita was anything but dumb. She was sharp and manipulative coming on to Rembek’s acquaintances,  employees and business associates whenever Rembek’s back was turned. According to the chauffeur she was “dangerous,” and according to another gangster, Rembek couldn’t see what was obvious to everyone else:

When a man buys something new and shiny, and he loves it very much, you don’t tell him he got a lemon.

Anyway, I’m hooked, and I’m in for the series

Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death

Murder Among Children

Wax Apple

A Jade in Aries

Don’t Lie to Me

review copy

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16 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Westlake, Donald

16 responses to “Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death by Donald Westlake

  1. I know exactly what you mena about returning to a great author and wondering why it took so long. Rita sounds like an interesting character, enough of a mystery to make me want to read the book. is there not a move with Gene Tierney in which she’s absolutely not what she seems? the descriptionn reminded me.

    • Yes the film is Laura. The big build up fantasy about who she is comes from the detective investigating murder. It’s based on a book of the same name by Vera Caspary. It’s reviewed here.

      I really liked how Tobin thinks; he’s someone I want to hang out with so I’ll be reading the rest.

  2. This sounds compelling. The concept of a fallen cop and I smart mistress are elements that add to the appeal. It is a nice feeling to be at the start of a series that begins with such promise. Keep us posted as to weather the later entries maintain this level of quality.

  3. leroyhunter

    The Parker series is doing the business for me at the moment, but I’ll move on to other Westlake eventually. This sounds like good stuff.

    • The really great thing about Westlake is that he does all sides of the equation: PI, crim, humour, dark. I recently acquired a couple of really old titles written before he was known. They seem (from first glance) to be salacious more than anything else, so that should be interesting.

  4. That sounds tremendous, and the best series character I’ve read about in ages.

    Is the corporation the same as Parker’s outfit?

    Westlake wrote SF? Do you have any titles?

  5. Meteor Strike: science fiction triple feature (cheap)
    They also serve (free)
    The Risk Profession (free)

    I’m not sure if it’s the same Corporation or not…

    • Sadly they’re not on kindle in the UK yet. Hopefully they’re on their way.

    • I don’t think it was. Westlake didn’t blend continuities between his various pen names. Some of Westlake’s characters may cross over to other Westlake novels, but they wouldn’t be in books written by Coe or Stark. That’s not to say there wouldn’t be many similarities–parallel themes. But treated very differently.

      For example, there’s an Alan Grofield in the Dortmunder books, but he’s sort of an alternate universe version of the one in the Parker novels. We can tell he’s not the same guy–he actually agrees to work in television, which the Grofield who works with Parker wouldn’t do. The point being that a Stark protagonist doesn’t compromise on core principles, but a Westlake protagonist, living in something more akin to the messy world Westlake himself lived in, may decide purism has its limits.

      Great review–beat me to the punch by quite some time. 🙂

  6. I know the feeling of returning to a familiar writer.
    I liked the Westlake I read and this series sounds good. And there are only 5 titles.

    • They’ve just been released on the kindle which is great for fans. I get fed up with tracking down high priced copies that are so tatty the covers are falling off.

  7. Pingback: Catching up on the news roundup: 6/8/13 – 8/3/13 « The Violent World of Parker

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