Join us today in celebrating the publication of Donald E. Westlake's final book, THE COMEDY IS FINISHED by Hard Case Crime.
Mr. Westlake was born in 1933 and died in 2009. He published more than 100 books under several names and won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of American three times as well as many other awards. He is certainly one of the pivotal writers in crime fiction.
Thanks to Naomi Johnson for this link to an interview with Westlake from 1973.
Donald Westlake’s Trust Me On This (Mysterious Press, 1988)
Reviewed by Anita Page
Reporter Sara Joslyn, driving down a deserted road on the way to her new job, passes what looks like a body hanging out of a car. She makes a U-turn, because she is, after all, a reporter, and discovers that the person halfway out of the car is better than dead—he’s been murdered. First day on the job and she’s going to walk in with a story about a man with a bullet in his brain.
Poor Sara. She fantasizes accolades when she presents her discovery to her new editor, Jack Ingersoll, but instead gets: “On what series is he a regular?”
As you may have guessed, this isn’t The New York Times. It’s the Weekly Galaxy, a supermarket tabloid with a hunger for celebs and a very relaxed attitude toward truth in journalism. Forget the body, Jack tells Sara, and assigns her instead to a piece on the beer and potato chip diet.
Sara will eventually do some sleuthing, and Westlake pulls off a nice suspenseful climax, but the murder is an afterthought. We’re here to hang out in a newsroom where editors pace their squaricles—taped lines on the floor delineating walls and doors—trying to stay alive and earn their enormous salaries by pitching stories like “Jogging Causes Nymphomania” and “Desperate Aliens Search for Rogue Planet Earth.”
The characters are an appealing mix of evil, lunatic and charming: the despot publisher whose office is an elevator; the three perpetually drunk Australians known as the Down Under Trio; Sara and Jack, whose initial antipathy guarantees that they’ll end up together.
And then there are the wildly comic scenes that read like something out of a Marx brothers movie. Here’s a glimpse of the Down Under Trio in the Veterans’ Bar & Grill:
“The sight of a fairly respectable-looking, neatly dressed in suit and tie, fifty-one-year-old Australian leaping about the bar, up onto chairs and back down onto the floor, suitcoat tail flying, hand firmly holding drink as both hands pretended to be tiny kangaroo paws boxing, the whole while honking, was so captivating that everybody had to do it, beginning with the retirees and finishing with the widows.”
In the end, the murder is solved, of course, and Jack and Sara go off into the sunset, but you’ll be glad to know you can meet up with them again in Westlake’s Baby, Would I Lie?
Part of this review ran previously at Women of Mystery.
Deb Pfeifer was a technical writer in the financial and software industries for almost 20 years. After a few years as a stay-at-home mom, I went back to work in the public school system. I now work in a classroom with autistic students. It is very challenging, but also very rewarding, work. I love to read across all genres, but mysteries are my favorite.
With the frequent appearance of those latest technological marvels, the cell phone and the fax machine, Donald Westlake's WHAT'S THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN? places itself firmly in the mid-1990s. What I found interesting, reading the book some 16 years after its publication, is not so much the story's rather naive reliance on things like fax machines or its Ocean's Elevenish Vegas heist plot or its rogues gallery of Dortmunder and his associates, but Westlake's far-sighted view of media moguls like Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump, upon whom Max Fairbanks, the villain of the piece, is clearly based.
Amoral, assured, wealthy beyond measure, with plenty of politicians in his pocket, Max Fairbanks is also posessed of a petty vindictiveness that, the reader knows with pleasure, will be his undoing. It is this pettiness that compels Fairbanks take Dortmunder's "lucky ring" (left to Dortmunder's girlfriend May by her late uncle) when Dortmunder is being arrested for burglarizing Fairbanks's house. (A house that, in all fairness to Dortmunder, Max shouldn't have been in either.) The theft of the ring sets the plot in motion. Dortmunder only wants to get his ring back, but his ever-expanding circle of associates have other ideas: If Dortmunder is going to break into Fairbanks's various residences anyway, why shouldn't they come along and see what else is available? So while Dortmunder makes several unsuccessful attempts to retrieve his ring, his "colleagues" stage ever-more successful thefts of Fairbanks's property.
Eventually (thanks again to the marvelous fax machine), Dortmunder tracks Fairbanks to a flashy hotel and casino in Vegas, and Dortmunder must leave his comfort zone of New York and head west--with "friends" in tow, of course. Dortmunder's attempts to blend in with the Vegas crowds by wearing bright bemuda shorts and shirts is one of the book's funniest scenes. Meanwhile, the friends execute an elaborate plan to steal millions from the casino and an NYPD detective takes a suspicious look into the previous robberies of Fairbanks's homes, which, to the cop's eyes, appear to be inside jobs.
It will be no spoiler for those familiar with Westlake's work to say that by novel's end Westlake has masterfully pulled all these plot points together: The good are rewarded, the bad are punished, and Dortmunder gets back his lucky ring, although--considering the "luck" it gave Max Fairbanks--Dortmunder's not sure he's going to wear it again.
The story goes that Westlake's agent advised him against pursuing publication of this novel because it would derail his reputation as a crime writer. What a loss.
MEMORY is a classic mid-20th century American novel. I think it would stand quite credibly with novels like THE MOVIEGOER and STONER.
The only crime in the novel occurs on page one when Paul Cole is badly beaten by the husband of a woman he's slept with while on the road with a touring show.
The beating affects his memory. Each day, his past becomes murkier and the necessity of supporting himself more difficult. His situation takes him to strange and unpredictable places. We feel sorry for this man although we suspect from that first page that we wouldn't have liked the first Paul Cole.
One of the many charms of the book is the way that Westlake allows the reader to take this journey with Cole. We put our foot down right behind his as he suffers this debilitating condition. Nearly every action, Cole takes, we can imagine taking too.
Nothing untoward happens; this is a very realistic book. And when the end comes, it is entirely fitting and right for the story. Heartbreaking yet never maudlin. This is the work of a master.
I am so happy that Hard Case Crime rescued this novel from oblivion.
And for the new one. Here's Ed.
THE COMEDY IS FINISHED by Donald E. Westlake
Nick JonesGeorge Kelley
Kevin Tipple/Barry Ergang
You can find more FFB reviews of other authors at Jerry House, Martin Edwards, Ron Scheer, Richard Pangburn.