Donald Westlake in the late 1960s and early 1970s wrote five novels under the pen-name Tucker Coe. His reasons for utilizing the pen-name are given in his introduction to the fine reissue of WAX APPLE, the third of the Coe-penned novels featuring Mitchell Tobin; what is important and fascinating here is that WAX APPLE, the previously-reissued MURDER AMONG CHILDREN and KINDS OF LOVE, KINDS OF DEATH, stand as a documentation of not only an incredible literary talent in his early stages but also another, regrettably lesser-known side of Westlake's brilliant, complex literary persona.
Mitchell Tobin is hardly your self-assured private investigator. He is involuntarily an ex-cop, having lost his badge for carrying on an affair while on duty --- and while his partner was murdered in the line of duty. Tobin would be content to stay at home and shut himself off from the outside world. This is true in the figurative and literal sense; Tobin's only regular activity is the slow but steady construction of a ten foot high brick wall around his back yard. Tobin's wife encourages him in subtle ways to get back out into the world, and it is as a result of this encouragement that Tobin finds himself involved in the set of circumstances chronicled in WAX APPLE.
WAX APPLE takes place almost entirely at The Midway, a halfway or transitional house for mental health center patients. Dr. Cameron, the director of the facility, has been referred to Tobin in order to determine if anyone is behind what appears to be a deliberate series of accidents which have been visited upon The Midway's residents. The irony of his presence at such a facility is not lost on Tobin; the irony becomes stronger when Tobin breaks his arm in another apparent accident within a few minutes of arriving at the facility.
When Tobin begins to investigate The Midway's residents, he finds no dearth of suspects. His investigation takes on a special urgency, however, when one of the apparently deliberate "accidents" results in a murder. Tobin, in classic manner, gathers the suspects together and brings the matter to a surprising conclusion. The real conclusion, however, is saved for the very last page, for almost the very last paragraph, in fact, and drives home, in a quietly chilling manner, the degree and extent of Tobin's decompensation.
Five Star's ongoing reissue of the Westlake/Coe Mitchell Tobin mysteries is one of the more worthwhile projects of the last year, exposing a new generation and audience to one of Westlake's darker sides. I hope this fine house will ultimately publish all five of the Tobin mysteries to give newer readers a chance to experience this lesser known persona of Westlake.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 1, 2001