Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Trust Me On This by Donald E. Westlake




Trust Me On This is a satirical novel with a murder mystery grafted onto it. It works because Westlake is one of the all-time great popular fiction writers, and he writes with an engaging voice that keeps you interested in both sides of the story.

But.

The book was originally published in 1988, and what was I’m sure biting satire back then seems absolutely quaint in the age of WikiLeaks and collusion between network news and the Democrat party. Having a journalist pretend to be one half of 100 year-old twins while the actual twin’s corpse is lying in its bed in its air conditioned room so that a tabloid can get photos of a birthday party doesn’t quite have the power it probably had almost thirty years ago. Neither does the by-land-by-sea-by-air pursuit of photos of the wedding of a TV star, or the race for “the body in the box,” a photo of a dead celebrity in a casket.

On her way to her first day of work at the Weekly Galaxy tabloid, Sara Joslyn finds a dead body lying half-in and half-out of a car by the side of the highway used almost exclusively by the Galaxy staff. The man had been shot just above his left eye and apparently just left there. Sara gets back in her car and reports the dead man to the guard at the Galaxy security gate.

Then she goes to work, expecting that once the guard reports it, at some point the police will contact her about the body.

Learning the ins and outs of tabloid office politics and journalism takes precedence, and her interest in the body fades into the background for a while. The Weekly Galaxy offices are eccentric: For instance, office walls are represented by tape on the floor, and the journalists, editors, and secretaries all dutifully walk at angles around the tape, careful not to pass into anyone’s “squaricle” without permission. Because there are so many phones and so many calls being placed and returned the ringers are set on mute, with buttons lighting when a call comes through. The publisher, Bruno DiMassi (known around the office as “Massa”), has his office in a large elevator, allowing him to pop between floors at random intervals, ensuring his staff remains on their toes.

Sara Joslyn begins the story as an innocent, or relatively so, anyway. She’s moved to Florida to accept the Weekly Galaxy position at about triple the salary she was making at the dying New England paper where she previously worked. The principles that guided her in her career up to this point are quickly shown to be of little use to her in her new job. I got the feeling while reading that we were supposed to be slightly appalled by the way the journalists operate, but their do-anything-to-get-the-story attitude feels admirable, and I spent some time wondering just how exactly Sara was doing her job back at the dying paper— and maybe the fact that the Weekly Galaxy sold five million copies a week should tell her something.

But Westlake is more subtle than that, and he actually deals with the issues that I was thinking about as the reader. In Chapter Seven of the “Felicia” section, Sara has a confrontation with her roommate Phyllis, another Galaxy employee. Phyllis says pompously, “The very existence of gutter journalism like that is a threat to decent news media everywhere.” Toward the end of their argument Sara tells her, “What it comes down to is, you want to do the same kind of muckraking we do, but you want to feel holy while you’re having your fun.” It’s actually a powerful moment.

The book also deals with the incestuous relationship between “gutter journalism” and the celebrities they cover. While trying to get photos of the wedding of a popular TV star, Sara has almost fully assimilated the lessons of working at the Galaxy. In a discussion (Chapter Five of the “The Wedding” section) with another particularly unsavory Galaxy employee, Ida, she says,

“What do people like John Michael Mercer have, except their celebrity?”

“That’s right,” Ida said, staring at Sara in aggressive solidarity.

“And where do they get their celebrity?” Sara demanded.

“From US!” Ida snapped.

“That’s right!” Sara cried, in full voice. “When they want publicity, we give it to them. And when WE want, they've got to give!”

Jack’s boss-turned-lover Jack Ingersoll watches Sara’s transformation with a mixture of apprehension and admiration. He’s unable to decide whether he wants Sara to become a cutthroat practitioner of “gutter journalism,” or whether he wants her to affect a distance from it all, the way he has. The choice becomes more clear to him after a surprise revelation. Jack tells Sara why he wasn’t able to see what was really happening, right under his nose. In Chapter Twelve of the “The Body in the Box” section, he explains, “I never wanted to look too closely at that particular piece of good luck. I never wanted to be sure.” That’s a stinging indictment of journalistic blinders.

The book ends with the mystery of the body solved and an ironic but hopeful scenario in which Sara and Jack will take what they’ve learned at the Galaxy and apply it to “decent news media.” This makes perfect sense: Journalists should have an adversarial relationship with their subjects. They work for the public, not those in power. They should be covering those stories the mainstream media might classify as “gutter journalism.” That’s an arbitrary distinction created as much to protect politicians and business executives and others in positions of power, and excuse journalistic laziness.

Even before WikiLeaks provided us with irrefutable evidence of collusion between “journalists” and the Democrat party, there has been a yearly White House Correspondent’s Dinner, where powerful elites get together to crack wise and congratulate themselves on their arrogance. Clinton operative George Stephanopoulos is the face of ABC news. The brother of the fantasist who concocted the “narrative” of the Iran nuclear deal is the president of CBS News. There is a revolving door between government—business—media that has compromised every bit of information we receive.


"Gutter journalism" today. A sycophantic press reporting Democrat talking points as fact.

And all the while, what passes for “satire” these days— The Onion, The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, Full Frontal, Real Time— is in fact just propaganda designed to protect established (Democrat) power. Smug mugging and f-bombs implying passionate disapproval, as perfected by Jon Stewart, takes the place of insight and commentary.

I found myself wondering what Westlake would have done with that. We need more “gutter journalism”!

I wrote two satirical mystery novels myself: The Misadventure of Dreama and the Rednecks, and The Misadventure of the Busted Reboot. They're both brilliant.

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