DONALD E. WESTLAKE – Pity Him Afterwards

Carroll & Graf; paperback reprint, 1996. Hardcover edition: Random House, 1964. British hardcover: T. V. Boardman, 1965 (American Bloodhound #499). Paperback, UK: Penguin, 1970.

   It seems odd that there was no prior paperback edition before this one from Carroll & Graf — I’m assuming that the one from Penguin I found on ABE is a British edition. It was written at the beginning of Westlake’s career, however, and it was written just before it went in a different direction, and a terrifically successful one at that, so perhaps it got lost somehow in the transition.

   Let me show you what I mean. Here are Westlake’s first five books — I’m ignoring the non-mysteries and the ones he wrote under different names. (A topic that needs some attention, perhaps, and one that if not done already by someone else may indeed be discussed at further length here someday.)

      The Mercenaries, Random House, 1960.
      Killing Time, Random House, 1961.
      361, Random House, 1962.
      Killy, Random House, 1963.
      Pity Him Afterwards, Random House, 1964.

   All tough guy thrillers, more or less, in one way or another.

   Then came:

      The Fugitive Pigeon, Random House, 1965.
      The Busy Body, Random House, 1966.

The Busy Body

      The Spy in the Ointment, Random House, 1966.
      God Save the Mark, Random House, 1967.

   Comic capers all of them, in one form or another. And all were picked up by the Mystery Guild, as was Killy in the first grouping, but that was the only one of the five that was, and it is one that has never had a paperback edition in the US at all. (Can that be? That doesn’t seem right. But no, all I’ve found is a British PB from Penguin.)

   What I am trying to say is that until he started writing the funny stuff, no one knew who Donald E. Westlake was. And then all of a sudden they did, and there wasn’t a publisher around who wanted to confuse the reader by saying, hey, here’s Westlake, and he wrote this other stuff, too.

   Or I’m making this up out of nothing. It’s pure conjecture, nothing more.

   It isn’t as though Pity Him Afterwards is a bad book. Far from it, and it’s about time I started the review, isn’t it?

   If you remember OTR (Old Time Radio) and as a kid you listened to shows like Inner Sanctum, Suspense and The Whistler soon before bedtime, you will remember quite a few of them that began with an mad lunatic escaping from a mental institution, an asylum, a building which in my imagination had festooned with turrets and outside walls covered with barbed wire and unimaginable things taking place inside.

   And a motorist comes along and gives the madman, a hitchhiker, a lift, to his everlasting regret, a regret which sometimes did not that long at all. You can pick up the story from there. As often as it happened in real life, it happened 10 to 100 times more frequently on the airwaves of the 1940s and early 50s.

   I’m not sure how often it occurred in the world of mystery fiction. I do remember Margaret Millar’s The Iron Gates (Random House, 1945) as falling into the category, but no others come to mind, at the moment.

   Other than Pity Him Afterwards, that is. Just like I remembered it. Perfectly. Back then it was pull-up-the-covers time, but since I’m a few years older now, no, it didn’t bother me as nearly as much as madmen on the prowl did back then, when I was a kid, lying on the floor next to the radio, my heart pounding.

   Robert Ellington is one such escapee, although Westlake refers to him almost exclusively as the madman. Taking the identity of the fellow who picked him up, a young actor, the madman finds his way to Cartier Isle, and the summer playhouse where he becomes one of the troupe of players. The madman has a gift of mimicry and role-playing, and with a few well-chosen lies, he manages to fit right in. But which one of three newcomers to this season’s program is he?

Pity Him Afterwards

    He kills his first victim the second day he is on the job. Cartier Isle, a wealthy, upscale summer community, no state mentioned, has only a four-man police force, headed by Dr. Eric Sondgard, who is a mere college professor the rest of the year. It is this other half of his professional life that allows him to judge people quickly. He’s a quick profiler, in other words, but while reluctant to call in the state troopers, he soon begins to feel in over his head a whole lot sooner than he expected.

    The reader may become confused right about here. Not about the story itself, which is perfectly clear, but rather the category the story falls into. A detective story, perhaps? On page 58 a detailed timetable is created, eliminating all of the people staying in the boarding house next door to the theatre except for the aforementioned three newcomers. (The idea of a wandering tramp being responsible is discarded as soon as messages from the killer are found written with soap in the bathroom and with jam on the kitchen table.)

    Sondgard tries a bluff based on a fingerprint that he does not actually have, but it is a clever idea. On pages 127-128, however, he is beginning to worry that he is using the wrong approach:

   Sondgard shook his head in angry irritation. It was worse than a double crostic. Worse than Finnegans Wake without a pony. Worse than the detective books so many of his fellow professors — but not his fellow captains — insisted on writing every summer, in which the final clue came from the author’s specialty; an inverted signature in a first-edition Gutenberg De civitate Dei, the misspelling of the Kurd word for bird, the inscription on a Ming Dynasty vase, or the odd mineral traces found embedded in the handle of the kris.

   And so, no, in spite of first impressions, that’s not the kind of story it is. A thriller, then, as it started out to be? Pressured by the bluff, the killer … but no, that would be telling.

    Let me go back and show you some more what kind of writer Westlake was when he was in his early 30s. Lyrical and clear, pungent and confident, a glorious let-it-all-out sort of prose, written almost with the sheer joy of writing. It may not work for everyone, but there are passages in this book that made me only sit back and quietly admire them.

   For descriptive writing, from page 91, for example, and of an ordinary bar, no less, down the street from the theatre:

   The facade of the Lounge was Southern plantation, complete with pillars and a veranda and white front door. But inside the disguise was dropped completely; the interior was the stock bar decor to be found anywhere in the United States. A horseshoe-shaped bar dominated the center of the room, with booths at the side walls. The normal beer and whiskey displays, with all their flashing lights and moving parts, were crowded together at the back bar amid the cash registers and the rows of bottles. Most of the light came from these back-bar displays, aided only slightly by the colored fluorescent tubes hidden away in the trough that girdled the room high up on the wall. Lithographs of fox-hunting scenes predictably dotted the walls, and the imitation gas lamps jutting from the wall over each booth said Schlitz around their bases.

   With a setting such as a summer playhouse, a story works only if the author knows his way around summer playhouses, and the people who inhabit them. Westlake does, or he does well enough to convince me.

   Besides having the ability to describe bars, he also knows people, including the awkward boy-girl situation in which neither quite knows what the other party is thinking. From page 167:

   Mel was not at all sure of himself. Mary Ann seemed open and honest and friendly, and she had no objection to being here alone with him, but he wasn’t at all sure how much that meant. Because she was assuming more and more importance to him, he wanted to make no rash or ill-advised moves, wanted to avoid inadvertently driving her farther away from himself.

   So he hadn’t yet kissed her. He’d been thinking about it, more or less constantly, ever since they’d landed here [on a small island in the middle of a lake], but as yet he hadn’t even begun a move in that direction.

   He argued with himself about it, telling himself that after all she had come out here with him, and after all under circumstances like this she had to expect him to kiss her, didn’t she? But God alone knew went on in the minds of girls; she might not be expecting to be kissed at all. She might be thinking of them now as sister and brother.

   On the other hand, what if he didn’t try to kiss, and she’d been waiting all day for him to make the first move? Wouldn’t that be just as bad? If she did want to be kissed, and he didn’t kiss her, wouldn’t that drive her away from him just as surely as if she didn’t want to be kissed and he did try?

   It was a problem.

   A problem indeed, and a universal one. A problem, you will pleased to know, is finally resolved a page or so later, ignoring the madman, the two of them in fact ignoring the world around them and working out the problem on their own.

   The problem of the madman is another matter, and in a short book, only 185 pages long, the matter seems to end too quickly and abruptly. Not that I’m displeased. It’s a ending worthy of being called an ending, with only a doctor, the head of the asylum from which the madman escaped, regretting the loss of the madman’s intelligence and potential, if only he could have been cured.

    The title, not so incidentally, comes from Dr. Samuel Johnson (Boswell: Life of Johnson. Entry for April 3, 1776.):

   MURRAY. “It seems to me that we are not angry at a man for controverting an opinion which we believe and value; we rather pity him.”

   JOHNSON. “Why, Sir; to be sure when you wish a man to have that belief which you think is of infinite advantage, you wish well to him; but your primary consideration is your own quiet. If a madman were to come into this room with a stick in his hand, no doubt we should pity the state of his mind; but our primary consideration would be to take care of ourselves. We should knock him down first, and pity him afterwards.”

— September 2005

[UPDATE] 05-28-07.   You may be wondering why I happened to pick this review out the archives where it’s been mothballed for well over a year. On his blog a couple of days ago, Ed Gorman reviewed this same book by Donald Westlake, and if you were to stop over there to read it, it’s pretty clear that we were reading the same book. A slightly different perspective, it goes without saying, but it’s the same book, and it’s one we both think you should read (speaking for Ed without a prior consultation on doing so, but I don’t think he’s going to disagree).