When Donald Westlake passed away on New Year’s Eve, 2008, he left behind one completed book, to be published in the following year. For those of us attuned to John Dortmunder and his hapless little band, this was one final, regretful visit to his New York, in all its human failings. It was a bittersweet send-off.
But it was not, completely, the end. Since that time, no less than four completed novels have been found, or in at least one case, retrieved, and this last post is dedicated to these tailenders.
Or rather only to two of them. The first to be published, Memory, as early as 2010, was apparently written sometime in the mid-Sixties, somewhere around the time, or perhaps shortly after when Westlake was transitioning from his early, hard-boiled phase to the comic crime writer that became his reputation. I’ve never read it, and know little about it save that it’s about a man who has lost his memory after an encounter with the violent husband of the woman he’s involved with, and who is trying desperately to recover it.
Memory is a hard book to get hold of, ‘hard’ here being a word meaning that I’m not about to spend £65 on a book that no-one rates particularly highly. Class it alongside those other books I’ve left out of this series as a maybe-one-day.
The Comedy is Finished was written in the late Seventies, but completely forgotten. Westlake appears to have held it back, but in the early Eighties he had sent a carbon of the manuscript to fellow crime writer, Max Allan Collins. Shortly after, Westlake decided against publishing the book, in part because its central situation was too similar to the Martin Scorsese/Robert de Niro film, The King of Comedy. Presumably he then destroyed all his copies. Once Memory appeared, as the ‘last’ novel, Collins recollected his copy, located it and offered it. After negotiations with Westlake’s widow, Abby, and his Estate’s Agent, the book appeared in 2012.
The story involves the kidnapping of a well-established comedian, but that’s where valid comparisons with The King of Comedy end, because Koo Davis, a veteran of entertaining the troops going back to WW2 and Korea, and now tainted by doing the same in Vietnam, is kidnapped by a small radical group, thus involving the FBI.
Westlake starts the book as a round of three viewpoints in alternation: Davis’s sequences are told in the present tense for his current situation and the past for flashbacks to his life, those of the radicals and of Mike Wiskiel, the slightly burned out FBI man in the past tense. Given that he’s kidnapped by the radical group, five unrepentant holdovers from the Movement of the Sixties, his and their strands merge in a not very consistent manner.
Frankly, if the book had been published in the era in which it was written, I think it would still have felt dated. Koo Davis is a gag-teller, a clear stand-in for Bob Hope, a non-political comedian who has nevertheless attached himself to the Establishment, and made himself, in that sense a target. In contrast, Wiskiel is a hardliner, posted to the West Coast after blotting his copybook during Watergate and eager to get himself back to DC.
Neither feel quite right, because they are out of their era in 2012, lacking the depth that post-perception would have brought to them if they had been written as historical figures. Between them, they uproot the book. But it’s the radicals, the quintet of remainders of the People’s Revolutionary Army, who are seriously out of date. Peter Dinely, the ‘leader’, Mark, the violent one contemptuous of any one who gets in their way, Liz, the burnt-out acid case who’s dead inside, Larry, the idiot of the dialectic, pompously convinced that he can explain their case to anyone and convince them because it is so right, and Joyce Griffith, the weak sister who is also a double agent.
The problem is, and it’s amply clear, that Westlake has neither any empathy with them nor any understanding of what motivates them. Unlike George R R Martin in The Armageddon Rag, giving his Seventies ex-Radicals a second chance, Westlake sees no validity in the People’s Revolutionary Army, and it undermines the thriller by turning the ‘enemy’ into an insincere bunch of idiots and no-hopers.
Which leaves only Forever and a Death, which came out of a similarly unexpected limbo in 2017. If you think the title sounds like a perfect James Bond film, you are displaying your perspicacity. The afterword, by film producer and writer Jeff Keenan, lays out the details of his attempt to get Donald Westlake to script a Bond film. It’s 1995, Goldeneye is nearing completion and is going to revive the franchise and the sequel needs to be planned. Keenan is a fan of Westlake and interests him in doing the screenplay. Since Bond 18 will be released in 1997, when Hong Kong is seceded back to China, Westlake conceives the brilliant idea of tying the Bond film into a real-life historical event, as it happens.
The film, of course, was never made. China had already banned Goldeneye for being anti-Communist and, given its ever-increasing importance as a major film market, no-one wants to antagonise them. And no-one wants to risk taking a light-hearted approach to something that, by the time the film was made, might have been an international tragedy.
The big problem was, however, Westlake himself. Franchise films are made in sequence. They are planned in advance, to keep the product flowing without painful intervals. That means that they need outlines, tight, cohesive, impossible to break free from outlines. Some writers work that way. Donald Westlake didn’t. Oddly enough, just like me, he started with an idea and then trusted himself to explore it into a story.
So Forever and a Death was the Bond film that never was. Instead, Westlake took his own premise and wrote a novel, with Bond or any real Bond figure, but with a Bond villain of the best kind.
The closest comparison to any of Westlake’s other works that I could make would be to Kahawa, though there’s no doubt that that is the better book. Forever and a Death is a big bad thriller, with the twists and turns you’d expect from the genre, but whilst its objective is as clear and straightforward as the earlier book, it is an impeccably Bondian crisis, and the single-mindedness with which the story builds to its increasingly comprehensible climax gives it a simple arc that comes over as more common to the international thriller. But in that respect, what do I know?
But I think it’s fair to say that I wouldn’t read a book of this kind if it weren’t written by Donald Westlake.
There are three principal characters: multi-millionaire businessman Richard Curtis, methodical engineer George Manville and ecological protester Kimberley Baldur: the bad guy, the hero and the girl. Curtis has been forced out of Hong Kong by the Chinese takeover. He has over-extended himself in trying to rebuild his fortune from Singapore, beyond the point from which he can recover. Using a remarkable engineering process built by George, he will create an artificial underwater tsunami that can clear landfill with irresistible force to enable him to rob Hong Kong’s banks of masses of gold whilst destroying all the evidence – and most of Hong Kong with it. Money and petty revenge: an unbeatable combination.
George is the engineer, a mechanical genius who has made this possible, technically, though he has no idea of Curtis’s intentions. Kim is a foolish and impetuous girl diver who nearly gets herself killed trying to prevent the first test of the ‘soliton’. Instead, she’s only badly injured, but her unanticipated role becomes a golden opportunity for Curtis to rid himself of an ecological nemesis, by ‘allowing’ her to die anyway. George, being an ethical person, and feeling responsible for Kim’s condition, takes charge of ensuring her safety, which gradually morphs into defeating Curtis’s plan.
Westlake’s approach to George is very interesting. The book flits through multiple viewpoints, amongst which Curtis’ and Kim’s are prominent but it expands to cover a range of minor characters. As with most third person narration, we not only see and hear the character but we are made privy to their thoughts. Not so with George, or rather only to a very limited extent.
It’s not that George is an enigma, rather that he is very little beyond being the Hero. He does all the Bondian things, including getting off with the girl, and for someone whose existence is tied up in being an engineer, he proves to be just as good at killing as he needs to be. But we never see inside him, and to that extent he’s a cypher.
But then again, he is the Hero, the ‘parfit, gentil knight’, doing good for no other reason than that is is Good, and frankly that’s not a Westlake character.
And whilst Kim is the girl, and she spends a long time debilitated by the injuries she gets from the soliton, she is a more interesting and certainly more rounded character, and she gets to save the day, which bit certainly would not have been shown in any Bond film that followed this story.
And that is that, for now. I mentioned four posthumous books but the fourth of these, Call Me a Cab, will not see publication until February 2022. It’s apparently an expansion of a short story published under the same name in the late Seventies, and is an attempt – promoted in advance as successful, but then would they say otherwise? – to write a suspense novel without any crime to it. It involves a woman hiring a New York cab to take her to the West Coast. It at least sounds interesting, but until it comes out, or until I find any of the three omitted books cheap enough, this ends this look at the non-series books of Donald Westlake’s career.
A mixed bag, as is always the case of any long-lived and prolific writer, but all are at least worth reading once, and many of re-reading, which I shall be doing when time allows. Dip in and try some yourself: I’m sure you can tell the ones I really rate, though I warn you that the best of them, Adios Scheherazade, is hellishly difficult to find. Well worth the effort, when you do, though.