Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The fate of Samuel Holt

In between bouts of research for my forthcoming Donald Westlake nonfiction collection last weekend, I also read one of the forty or so Westlake novels I'd not yet gotten to, Sacred Monster (1989). It's far from his best: a story of a self-involved movie star whose only mode of existence is playing a part, but no Westlake book I've encountered yet is worthless, and this one has its moments.

The bit that amused me most, however, comes in an aside, when the star is recounting his life story and tells of a new house he and his wife moved into, which had until recently been owned by
a television star named Holt who'd committed suicide when his series was canceled.
That, Westlake fans will quickly realize, is surely Samuel Holt, star of a Magnum, PI-style crime show--and author of four books about his inadvertent real-life adventures solving crimes . . . which were written by Westlake in the early 1980s and published under Holt's name as a Richard Bachman-esque test of the market. In the foreword to the Felony and Mayhem editions of the books, Westlake explains that he'd gotten his publisher to agree not to put his name on the books, and he was ready to see whether he could sell just on the strength of his writing--but then
The first book was published, and in the window of my local bookstore was a sign saying Samuel Holt was me. The publisher had told his sales staff the "secret," and encouraged them to pass the news on to the bookstores.
Coming at this from the other end--working in a publisher's marketing department--I have to admit that it would be very hard to grit my teeth and not share the secret.

Despite what we learn in Sacred Monster, however, I'm not at all convinced that Holt actually killed himself. He just didn't seem like that kind of guy: he's not exactly happy-go-lucky, but he's resourceful and determined, and while his show was clearly important to him you don't get the sense from the books that it's a matter of life and death. All these years later, we'll likely never know, but I suspect foul play. Does that loose-lipped publisher have an alibi?

1 comment:

  1. I wrestled with this question myself, when it came time to review Sacred Monster (having already reviewed all four Holt novels).

    And I came up with all kinds of possible explanations.

    And then it occurred to me--duh. Jack and his new bride are moving into that house formerly occupied by an actor named Holt at least a decade before the events in the Sam Holt novels.

    Why Westlake put that in there is open to interpretation--possibly just to tip off readers who didn't already know that he wrote he Sam Holt novels, the last of which came out the same year as Sacred Monster.

    But the suicidal Holt referred to in Sacred Monster is not the Sam Holt we met in those earlier detective novels. Any more than the Alan Grofield we meet in some early Dortmunder novels is the Alan Grofield who used to do heists with Parker.

    Mr. Westlake had a very strange sense of humor at times.