Friday, February 17, 2012

DONALD E. WESTLAKE DAY on Friday's Forgotten Books

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.

Jeff Meyerson
Donald E. Westlake, Dancing Aztecs (M. Evans, 1976)

As a New Yorker I am sensitive to how my home town is portrayed in fiction. If you're going to set a book here make sure to get it right. This is something you never have to worry about with Donald Westlake - think of the Dortmunder series - and that is certainly the case here, in what might be the quintessential New York City mystery by the late Grand Master. It is also, to my mind, his comic masterpiece.

The Dancing Aztec of the title is a thousand year old gold statue of a dancing priest worth $1 million, shipped to New York with a dozen or so others and, naturally, lost among the copies. Hustler Jerry Manelli has to quickly find where all the statues were delivered and find the real one before one of the unsuspecting recipients discovers he or she has the valuable one. This necessitates a raucous whirlwind around New York, which can serve as an accurate travelogue of New York in the 1970's, along with (as Bill Pronzini once put it in another review) hoodlums, con men, “a yam-fed Descalzan beauty,” union thugs, street thugs, a Harlem mortician, a Wall Street financier, a drunken activist, a college professor, “a visitor from another planet” and dozens more.

I remember discussing it with Bill at a long-ago Bouchercon and agreeing that no one does black street dialect like Westlake. If you can read this one without laughing out loud repeatedly you are made of stone. Highly recommended.

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.

MEMORY, Donald Westlake, Patti Abbott

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

"The rediscovered Donald E. Westlake novel, THE COMEDY IS FINISHED, is getting some great reviews. Regular readers of these updates know that I had the manuscript for the novel in my basement (actually a drawer in a cabinet in my basement, with other Westlake materials). Don and I had explored revising the novel for publication under both our names (or possibly a joint pseudonym) after he had difficulty finding a publisher for an unfunny Westlake novel about a Bob Hope-style comedian. The book didn’t really need any work, but he was sick of looking at it, and I had some ideas about streamlining, and addressing some complaints editors had expressed about the political content. But when the similarly plotted film “King of Comedy” came out, Don called me and scrapped the project." Max Allan Collins from

Yes, thanks to Max and Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime we're now able to read what may well be the last original Donald Westlake to see print.

Comedy deals with the comedian Koo Davis (think Bob Hope) being kidnapped just after taping another one of his uninspired and frequently self-congratulatory TV shows by a small group of mismatched hippie would-be revolutionaries.

The novel cuts back and forth between Koo using his captivity to relive his life and his captors arguing among themselves about how to best use the comedian as a bargaining chip with the powers that be. Westlake (and the readers) have a good time with Koo. Westlake avoids caricature and gives us a man who no longer understands the entertainment world--not even hanging out with generals and sports stars gives him much cache anymore--and must now face what a lousy father and husband he's been. He even wonders if he's "worth" kidnapping.

The captors are headed up by a secretive young man named Peter who is constantly being prodded by Mark, a sociopath who is dangerous even to the group itself. The others include a wistful theorist named Larry and two women, Liz, deeply troubled and confused and Joyce who held the studio job that secured the kidnapping.

Westlake makes all the charactersindividuals and it is their sniping, arguing even fighting that make the novel a real page turner.

These are the children of the faux Revolution as well as the Revolution of hippie Los Angeles with all the bravado and naivete that marked their fury. It's interesting to contrast their portraits here with an earlier novel Westlake wrote, Murder Among Children as by Tucker Coe. This appeared at the start of the Flower Power days and his take on hippies was much more benign.

Westlake was frequently a social critic in his novels and he is no less so here. He captures the late 70s perfectly, the waning times of Up Against The Wall Motherfucker as disco music played in the background. The kidnappers here are stranded in time--the cops were now killing Black Panthers in cold blood and getting away with it. The Revolution, such as it was, was long over.

While there are similarities between The Comedy is Finished and King of Comedy, King is entertaining and admirable but cold; Westlake's book is hot with fear, remorse, lust and violence. The reader is constantly speculating on how it'll end and who'll still be alive on the last page. The tight structure--we basically have the house the hippies are ensconced in and the scenes with the lawmen--embellishes the suspense and heightens the twists.

A fine novel in all respects. And all thanks to Max Collins and Charles Ardai for giving it to us.

Sergio Angelini
Yvette Banek
Jack Bates
Bill Crider
Scott Cupp
Cullen Gallagher
Naomi Johnson
Randy Johnson
Nick Jones
LinkGeorge Kelley
Rob Kitchin
B.V. Lawson
Evan Lewis
Todd Mason
J.F. Norris
Eric Peterson
David Rachels
James Reasoner
Trent Reynolds
Kerrie Smith
Kevin Tipple/Barry Ergang
John Weagley

You can find more FFB reviews of other authors at Jerry House, Martin Edwards, Ron Scheer, Richard Pangburn.


Charles Gramlich said...

The comedy is finished is such a great title. Says it all.

Cullen Gallagher said...

Hi Patti,

Here's mine: The Jugger.

Thanks for organizing all of this!

Gerard said...

Crap. I forgot there was a theme.

Yvette said...

Patti, I apologize. Old lady memory took its toll this week. I got nuthin'.

I'm running out the door now but I'll try and have something later today.


Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

Hi Patti,

Just posted mine, on Jimmy the Kid, at my blog, Existential Ennui:

and also on The Violent World of Parker, where I'm co-blogger:


Thanks for instigating and coordinating this!

Nick Jones

Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

Whoops -- that VWoP link's slightly wrong. Should be:

John said...

So glad someone did DANCING AZTECS (one of my absolute favorites of Westlake's comic crime novels) which was my first choice until I remembered I owned A JADE IN AIRES and had never read it. Great review, Jeff! Wish I could master being as succinct as you are.

Todd Mason said...

Well, mine's up...

wv: iniquities artikin

Todd Mason said...

Sergio Angelini, unless I'm mistaken.

George said...

What great fun, Patt! I've read all the posted reviews for this Special Donald E. Westlake Celebration. I really enjoyed Deb's review. And Jeff Meyerson needs to become a FFB regular! Maybe you can organize another Celebration a few months from now. There are plenty of deserving writers.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I'd love to George but who?

Cullen Gallagher said...

Margaret Millar!

Naomi Johnson said...

I have to smile, just knowing there are so many readers who still appreciate Westlake's work.

George said...

I'd recommend John D. MacDonald. Or Agatha Christie. Plenty of choices there!

Iren said...

Mine should be up now...

Yvette said...

Okay, Patti. I've got something up. :)

Todd Mason said...

TRUST ME ON THIS and BABY, WOULD I LIE? have a further sequel in "Come Again?" from THE MYSTERIOUS PRESS ANNIVERSARY ANTHOLOGY and the Westlake colletion A GOOD STORY.

The tabloid is THE WEEKLY GALAXY, as Richard Lupoff was quick to point out, as a further slap at GALAXY sf magazine, one of the targets of Westlake's vociferous "resignation" from science fiction, which he sent for publication in the Lupoff's amateur magazine XERO.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I hope you are writing a book. You know too much not to.

Deb said...

I've had so much fun reading all of the reviews of Westlake's books. It's astonishing to think that one writer could produce quality work in so many varied genres. I second (or third) the motion of doing another single-author FFB at some point in the future. How about Georges Simenon?

Jack Bates said...

I absolutely enjoyed MEMORY. There are so many moments that have just stuck with me it's as if I've lived it. Even sitting here now I'm trying to decide which to slip in and it's impossible to single one out.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Simenon would be perfect. Again, such a big choice.
MEMORY was outstanding. A book anyone who loves good writing and plotting and character would like.

Anita Page said...

Todd, glad to know there's a sequel to "Baby, Would I Lie?"

Patti, thanks for doing this.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Small Correction---Barry reviewed GOD SAVE THE MARK.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, John. I tend to think out reviews in my head first, editing as I go along, so when I get them down on paper (so to speak) they do seem concise.

George, every week I intend to do a review but either forget until it's too late or just get too lazy. Will definitely try and do better.

Jeff M.