Book Review: The Comedy is Finished
by Donald Westlake
Hard Case Crime, 2012
Ordinarily, the explanation that perforce accompanies Hard Case Crime’s publication of Donald Westlake’s “Great Lost Novel” would be groan-inducing. Westlake, one of the greatest noir and mystery authors of the 20th Century, died in 2008, and in 2010, this publisher came out with Westlake’s final novel, Memory. The claim behind The Comedy is Finished reads like a particularly unimaginative fictional set-up: that Westlake originally wrote this book in the late ’70s but held onto it long enough for Martin Scorsese’s 1983 film The King of Comedy to appear, and that since both stories hinge on the kidnapping of a stage comedian, Westlake decided not to publish the book. According to the Publisher’s Note accompanying The Comedy is Finished, Westlake sent a copy of the manuscript to fellow mystery author Max Allan Collins, who let it moulder in his basement for thirty years, until he saw Hard Case Crime’s announcement that Memory was Westlake’s last book – at which point he dug up the book and dutifully sent it along for publication. Presto: a positively final appearance by Don Westlake!
Not one element of this explanation passes the laugh-test, but what else can readers believe? Hard Case Crime is a relative newcomer to the publishing world, but Max Allan Collins is not – and a more honest thousand-word-a-day hack isn’t living. If he says all this nonsense happened, you can bet your last basset hound it more or less did. They just don’t tell lies that big in Iowa.
In a way, all the explaining makes The Comedy is Finished all that more exquisitely sad. What reader hasn’t daydreamed at least once of this very scenario? A finished manuscript by a favorite author, written when that author was at the height of his powers, suddenly coming to light? And Hard Case Crime has inadvertently added to the sadness, by decking the thing out just beautifully, a solidly-produced hardcover with an exquisite cover illustration by the great Greg Manchess – all new mysteries should look this good. But this isn’t a dream, and if Hard Case’s story is true, this is the very last new Donald Westlake his legions of fans (and lucky prospective new readers) will ever see, and it just doesn’t get any sadder than that.
But not while you’re reading it. While you’re turning the pages, you’re squarely in Westlake-land, with its quick and perfect character sketches, its choreographer’s sensitivity to pacing, its digressions so wandering that only utter confidence would risk them. The plot is fairly simple: legendary showbiz comedian Koo Davis (“a funny man, a funnyman, a good comic, an honest uncomplicated human being, living like every comic in the eternal Now”) is kidnapped in 1977 by a domestic terrorists group called the People’s Revolutionary Army – really a small group of misfit sociopaths whose psychologies are gradually, mercilessly laid bare – who demand the release of ten of their imprisoned colleagues in exchange for Davis’ life. When the crime becomes known, the FBI sends in Mike Wiskiel, “a hot shot, a right-winger, a tough man but not a subtle one.” Wiskiel has the requisite guts and bitterness, the latter prompted by the disgrace he endured connected with Watergate:
‘Do this,’ they said.’ ‘It’s your patriotic duty.’ ‘Oh, yessir,’ and salute the son of a bitch, and I go and do it, and when I come back there’s some other son of a bitch in there and he says, ‘Oh, no, that wasn’t patriotic, it was illegal and you shouldn’t have done it.’ And I say, ‘Why I got my orders right here, I’m covered, I’ve got everything in black and white, this is the guy told me what to do,’ and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, we know about him, he’s out on his ear, he’s in worse trouble than you are.’ So that guy’s ass is in a sling and my nuts are in a wringer and Al Capone is up there at San Clemente in a golf cart. And who’s loyal now, huh? Who do you trust now, the shitter or the shit-upon?”
Already on the case when Wiskiel joins it is Chief Inspector Jock Cayzer, a leathery, senior lawman who almost immediately commands Wiskiel’s respect (Wiskiel notices that “His eyes were meant for seeing across open miles, they seemed too powerful for small rooms, small concerns”). As is the hallmark of all really good mystery writing, it’s a pure pleasure to watch this team in action.
The plot complicates when Koo Davis’ captors make their ransom demand and are met with a resistance that’s mystifying (to them, anyway), and at no point in the proceedings is the reader given even the slightest temptation to stop turning pages, to stop plunging deeper into the story. This was always one of Westlake’s strengths as a writer, and the fact that it’s also one of Collins’ strong points need not distract from the skill of what’s being done here.
The mind can’t help but be suspicious, of course. Pulling off a Westlake counterfeit – especially one as swaggeringly blatant as this might have been – would be a writing-story you could tell your grandkids, and if it were done well enough, Westlake himself would have been the first to applaud, as Max Allan Collins knows as well as anybody. Once your mind starts down paths like that, you start acting like those poor lawmen scrutinizing Koo Davis’ televised ransom demand for hidden clues. Passages like this one resound like footsteps on a deserted staircase:
There are many different kinds of bribe in this world. Money, actual cash, is the bluntest and often the least effective bribe of all, since each of the participants finishes with a sense of contempt for the other. At the other extreme, mutual back-scratching is the noblest and cleanest form of bribery, because the participants – if all goes well – finish by being grateful to one another.
In the end, every reader will have to decide for himself whether or not there’s some deeper, winking bribery going on here – and whether or not it matters, with all this enjoyment at hand. For myself, I’m choosing to think this whole ‘box-in-the-basement’ gag is true, and that we’re all in the presence of the master one last time.