Friday, February 17, 2012

FFB: A Jade in Aries - Tucker Coe

Today Patti Abbot, our host for Friday's Forgotten books, has arranged for a tribute to Donald E. Westlake (and all his various pseudonymous incarnations).  Be sure to visit her blog and click away to your heart's content traveling throughout the blogosphere to read reviews on the wide variety of books this Grand Master wrote. He did it all - tough crime novels, private eye novels, erotica, crime capers, satire, and screenplays. I chose one (well actually two ) of his books he wrote as Tucker Coe, a decidedly different voice from tough guy Richard Stark or the loony comic capers he wrote under his own name.

Mitch Tobin is the series character in the Coe books.  Tobin was forced to resign in shame when in the course of pursuing a daytime adulterous affair he was responsible for the death of his partner who was shot in the line of duty. Tobin was not there to protect him. He's now a bitter and broken man. He spends his days in a sort of occupational therapy building a wall in his backyard. Later in the series when the weather turns bad he puts the wall on hold and instead retreats to the darkness of his cellar where he begins a new project by digging a sub-basement. Tobin is trying to heal. His wife and son are lost to him and long for him to return to them as husband and father. Soon he finds himself in unusual side jobs from people in need who ask him to use his police skills in making their own broken lives whole again.

His first outing is in Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death in which he is hired by a mob head to find out who killed his mistress and made off with $80,000 of his money. It's where we first learn that Tobin is utterly conflicted - he knows he needs to start re-entering the world, learn how to interact with people especially his family but he feels that he is a toxic influence on everyone. He doesn't want anyone else to die from his neglect. Eventually he gives in when his wife cajoles him plus he recognizes that the fee he will receive is $5000 that they could really use. The first book is more than just Tobin's search for a killer and recovery of stolen money it's a journey into his own psyche and how the messed up lives of other people reflect his own inner turmoil. The entire series is a study in a broken man's recovery of his true self. And in order to become whole again he will have to enter the world of misfits, outcasts, and the reviled. He takes on cases involving the hippie scene (Murder Among Children), the mentally ill (Wax Apple), and in the book reviewed here the gay subculture of New York.

In A Jade in Aries (1970), the fourth book in the series, Mitch helps Ronald Cornell find the killer of his lover and business partner Jamie Dearborn. Cornell tells Mitch that the police are trying to pass off his lover's brutal beating death as just another case of a bar pick-up gone wrong. But when Cornell is found in the alley behind his men's clothing boutique having survived a fall from the building's roof Mitch is sure that someone is trying cover up the beating by making it look like Cornell attempted suicide over the loss of his partner. As in the first book sexual attraction, love relationships, and cheating partners are the primary focus of the story. Only in this book all the involved parties are gay men.

I have to admit that I expected this book to be similar to other crime novels about gay men that were written in the 1970s - populated with limp wristed, lisping queens in flower print shirts and leather clad, hypermasculine studs with pumped up bodies.  I was prepared to thoroughly despise the book. But though Mitch and a couple of other bigoted characters do like to throw around the "F" slur a lot the book floored me with its accurate, often complex, human portrayals of the gay men I knew while growing up in the 1970s. These gay men are a mix of the vain and the shy, the self-loathing and the out and proud, the butch and the queens, white guys and men of color. They're all here in all the vibrant color of a Rainbow flag as well as the darker colors of carnal desire and shame.

It's not so much the mystery of who killed Jamie Dearborn (a sexual tease and philandering bedroom thrillseeker much like Rita Castle was in Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death) or who pushed his surprisingly conservative, almost square lover Ronald Cornell off the roof that captures the reader's attention here as much as it is Mitch Tobin's slow realization that he may have an awful lot in common with all these faggots (as he first calls them) under suspicion of murder. Westlake displays a quiet compassion and insight into the troubled lives of these gay men. Mitch may not be thrilled having to deal with the strangely emotional, all male world but he has some pointed observations and confessions as the story unfolds. At a scene at a gay party where he walks up a stairwell and over two men into a heavy make-out session Mitch finds that he just sees two people kissing and doesn't think twice about literally stepping over them. Only later does it dawn on him that they were two men and he wasn't sickened by the sight. Earlier in the book Mitch fears his lack of paternal attachment and emotional distancing from his son may "turn" his son gay. A dated and guilt ridden belief to be sure, but a telling one showing that Mitch's interactions with these men are having an effect on him personally and psychologically.

For me the most significant aspect of this story is Mitch's unconscious analogy of the love and intimacy in a gay male relationship with the non-sexual intimacy in a cop's relationship with his partner.

I thought about Jock. I thought about him a lot, conversations we'd had, days of our partnership when specific things had happened. There was nothing homosexual between us, but there are other kinds of closeness than (sic) can become meaningful and real, and we had one of them.

He goes on to draw analogies between the other men and Jock and sees connections to his own life.  He also sees how after having been with these emotionally frank men that he has been able to open up more, to rejoin humanity, to forgive himself and stop living in guilt and shame. It's a powerful section of the book and the real highlight, the true climax of the plot.

My only quibble and the only things that rings false is that not once do any of the men refer to themselves as "gay." Only the words "homosexual" and "faggot," and twice "queer" are used to describe them. While most of the labelling is done by the straight men in the book, two of the gay characters refer to themselves as homosexuals. And it wasn't done archly or sarcastically. That bothered me. It wasn't real at all. Even in 1970 the word gay was being used regularly - both self-referentially and disparagingly. In an old 1970s issue of Kirkus Reviews the writer called the men in A Jade in Aries "Gay Liberationists." A euphemism or a political statement? I'm not sure. But the fact that the reviewer eschewed the clinical and derogatory term homosexual cannot be overlooked. If only Westlake could've seen that and dared to use the word gay -- at least when one of the gayest characters was talking about himself -- then this would truly be a perfect crime novel about gay men in the 1970s. Still and all it's probably one of the best. It sure beats the hell out of something truly dreadful like The Last Woman in His Life by Ellery Queen and some ghostwriter. Don't get me started on that broken record.


  1. Terrific reviews John for both of these, particularly JADE IN ARIES. The only other crime novel dealing with the New York gay scene that I've read from that era is George Baxt's QUEER KIND OF LOVE which is a very particular kind of 'sui generis' classic so I got a lot out of your take on it. I've only ever seen the movie version of Roderick Thorp's THE DETECTIVE, which presents a fairly salacious and hysterical view of a gay underworld - is the book the same do you know?

    Either way, wonderful review chum.


  2. I've always admired JADE IN ARIES. Westlake was at the top of his game when he wrote that book.

  3. Thorp not too much better, as I remember, Sergio.

    Whereas Westlake tended to be both observant and honest with you note, John. And it's not as if he didn't know gay men and lesbians...what's the other guys' excuse?

  4. One has to wonder if Westlake did use "gay" and if he did, did his editor "correct" him?

  5. I never thought of that, Todd. A definite possibility.

    Never read the novel that became the movie THE DETECTIVE. Seen the movie a long time ago and it's not much better than what happened to movie version of CRUISING.

  6. Briefly and very belatedly chiming in, I just recently reviewed this one myself, and that same question occurred to me--there is no way Westlake wasn't well familiar with 'gay' being used in that context, or that it was the way most same-sex oriented men referred to themselves--he lived in Greenwich Village. As a writer. He also worked in the theater briefly, and maintained a lifelong interest.

    So this is intentional, and obviously it's not meant to be insulting or dismissive, because look at the book--full of compassion and understanding.

    So what's the motive? Mainly that he didn't like a word taking on a new meaning that totally eclipsed and replaced its old meaning. A writer's prejudice, not a straight man's.

    Face it, you can't read an old book, go to an old play, hear an old song, that uses that word, and not immediately smile to yourself--maybe titter a little--it's funny. But it wasn't meant to be. The writer's intent has been undermined by a change in usage. Westlake knew this was happening, and he knew there was nothing he could do about it, but he was damned if he was going to participate in it.

    So yes, I suppose the novel would be better in some respects if it had used the correct terminology, but isn't it somewhat in character for its narrator/protagonist to feel the same way as its author? Tobin is an old-school guy. Of course the people he's talking to would be using that word to refer to themselves, but he's just editing their responses, because to him that's just not what the word means.

    And really--what's in a name? Maybe someday gay people will call themselves something else, and 'gay' can go back to its original meaning. Language evolves, but for somebody to whom language is a tool of the trade, you can't expect him to be happy at the thought that someday somebody may read something he wrote and see a joke that wasn't originally intended.

    Come to think of it, Westlake never uses the word 'gay' in any context, that I can recall.

    That may also be intentional on his part. Because he knows very well how it would be taken.

    1. Briefly? :^D Thanks for chiming in, Chris. And especially on Pride Day! How appropriate to be talking about this book this weekend.

      I would've liked to read your review, but your Blogger profile is private and I guess your blog is private as well. I fully understand the reasons that the characters themselves refer to themselves as homosexual rather than "gay". But the term homosexual is clinical. The use of it allows the speaker or writer to distance anyone labeled as such from humanity. That gay men referrred to themselves as such signaled to me they thought less of themselves than straight people. This was probably was unintentional on the writer's part. I can't help but allow my personal perceptions to color my reading of any book. Westlake may very well not have wanted to use gay for all the reasons you outlined. Both your reasons and my reasons are still nothing more than speculation.

      What's in a word you ask? Plenty! My chosen career path should have been linguistics because words, their meaning and connotation are basically my life. I loathe the use of the word homosexual in any context other than perhaps a scientific treatise. The fact it was repeatedly used in a book meant to be compassionate towards gay men still bothers me. I'm no fan of the word gay to describe myself but I do use it publicly. In private I use some less than favorable words but its all done tongue in cheek between me and my partner and friends. But it's better than using homosexual. Anything is! I will always be bothered by the use of that word (created by a 19th c psychologist) in any contemporary context -- fiction, journalism, and especially everyday speech.

    2. My blog is The Westlake Review, and here's the link to Part One of my (typically long-winded) analysis of the book. I was using my google account to respond here, and that's not linked to my WordPress blog. Can't quite figure out how to post as 'fredfitch'.

      Here's the thing--why isn't it insulting and dehumanizing to refer to straights as heterosexuals? I mean, the only straights insulted by that are those who don't know what heterosexual means. :)

      I prefer gay, because it's simpler. But it's still just a word, and it is used insultingly all the time, in today's youth culture--maybe you saw that Simpson's ep where Nelson Muntz kisses Lisa, and his tough friends sneer "You kissed a girl! That is so GAY!"

      You have a right to be referred to as you please, and I'm not even saying the terminology shouldn't have changed. I am saying that the change impacted more than just gay people. It impacted songs and stories written long ago. I'm reading "Cotton Comes to Harlem" now, and in it, the two tough-as-nails black detectives, Gravedigger and Coffin Ed, say they're going to take their wives out and make gay. Absolutely no joke is intended, and yet it comes across as funny.

      It's just an inevitable consequence of language. And I strongly believe Westlake was protesting this, in his own way. And honestly--would you rewrite Huckleberry Finn? Get rid of all the n-words? And all the powerful things Twain had to say about racism in that book? The power of the book would be destroyed if you cleaned it up.

      Be careful lest we destroy things of immense value in the search for an illusory paradise of tolerance. I've never met a fully tolerant human being in my life. But we can learn to live with our differences. We'd better.