Overlooked Books: Samuel Holt
Posted by: David Pitt
In 1986 a new mystery writer, Samuel Holt, appeared on the scene. His first novel, One of Us is Wrong, starred a fictionalized version of the author, an actor called Sam Holt, who went from playing a criminology professor on a hit TV series to solving crimes in real life.
You might not have heard of Samuel Holt. He published four novels between ’86 and ’89, all of them featuring his fictional alter ego getting mixed up in various criminal goings-on. There were to be two more books. The author had them sketched out, but he never wrote them, because by then the secret was out:
Samuel Holt is Donald E. Westlake.
In his introduction to the 2006 Felony & Mayhem reprints of the Holt novels, Westlake explains that he introduced “Samuel Holt” as a protected pseudonym: only his agent and his publisher would know Holt was Westlake. It was a way to try out a new literary voice, to see if a new book, without his famous name attached, would succeed or fail.
“Then the first book was published,” Westlake writes, “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.”
Westlake finished out his four-book contract, and then the Holt novels went out of print, and stayed that way for a couple of decades, until they were reissued in ’06 with new covers.
I like the Holt novels very much (so did reviewers, many of whom praised the books even though they didn’t know Holt was Westlake). They don’t feel exactly like Westlake novels — a lot of the action takes place in California, not New York, for instance – but they are very entertaining, with Westlake’s usual close attention to character, dialogue, and plotting. You should definitely check them out. They’re called One of Us is Wrong, I Know a Trick Worth Two of That, What I Tell You Three Times is False, and The Fourth Dimension is Death.
And you should also check out Hellcats and Honeygirls, a forthcoming (Oct. 2010) collection of three long-out-of-print novels written pseudonymously in the late 1950s by Westlake and Lawrence Block.