August 2nd, 2009

there!, Hello

Mortal Dread

54) Levine by Donald E. Westlake (Mysterious Press, 1984, 200 pages)
A collection of six short stories involving Detective Abraham Levine of the NYPD. Levine is an interesting choice for protagonist, as he is highly sensitive to death. His heart has been giving him troubles, and all of his cases serve as ever present reminders of his own mortality.

In "The Best Friend Murderer", Levine discovers that an open and shut situation can hold plenty of secrets. One young man confesses to poisoning his best friend. He has no motive to speak of, and something about the situation does not add up.

In "Come Back, Come Back" Levine gets to the heart of a suicidal jumper who refuses to divulge the reasons behind his urge to jump.

"The Feel of the Trigger" is a somber piece deals with the aftermath of a convenience store robbery turned murderous, where parents lie to alibi their son.

"The Sound of Murder" is perhaps the most moving of the stories. A ten year old girl comes into the precinct to report that her mother has murdered her stepfather "by making a big sound". Though the stepfather is indeed dead, the medical examiner is convinced it was simply heart failure. Natural causes. Is the girl imagining things, making up stories, or is there something far more sinister going on? As Levine is rather obsessed with his own heart imperfections -- particularly the skipped beats -- this case cuts a little close to home.

"The Death of a Bum" is the only story that escapes the follow-the-clues-to-discover-the-perpetrator pattern. When a hoodlum is killed, Levine has only a small amount of time to investigate the case ("The guy was a bum," everyone else sez, "Who really cares who killed him?"). However, the story is less interested in answers (undoubtedly confounding some readers) than it is in questions of legacy and memory. Touching and thought provoking.

"After I'm Gone" was written especially for this book, some twenty years after the previous tales. The plot involves a gangster who wants to stick it to his boss, and feeds the cops enough info through Levine to have the mob boss sent up the river (where his enemies can kill him). A convoluted puzzle of a story that comes together pretty well.

Strange to read this story against Donald E. Westlake's actual death. The stories take on a rather haunting quality, particularly in asking the questions of what follows death. Not afterlife issues (which are nonexistent here) but those of how (and how long) we are remembered. The themes here are similar to those I appreciate in haceldama's works, including an intensive exploration of mortality. Levine is a fine collection of mystery fiction.