Review: Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, by Tucker Coe

NB: A version of this post also appears on Existential Ennui.

After the excitement of last week, it’s back down to earth with a bump, with a review of a novel that I showcased as a Westlake Score on Existential Ennui all the way back in September 2010. First published in the US by Random House in 1966 and in the UK by Souvenir Press in 1967—which is the edition seen above—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 organization 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 color: 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.