When Donald E. Westlake died on New Year’s Eve 2008 at the age of 75, he was mourned as an expert and notably prolific writer of crime fiction under multiple bylines, and also as a comic novelist whose stature (in a different milieu) rivaled that of P. G. Wodehouse. To some, his position was even loftier: The Booker Prize-winning Irish novelist John Banville proclaimed Westlake one of the great writers of the 20th century.
Early in his career, Westlake wrote short fiction for mystery and science fiction magazines and, under a variety of pseudonyms and house names, soft-core paperbacks for the sleaze market. He broke into hardcovers with The Mercenaries (1960), a gritty, hardboiled crime novel that received an Edgar nomination, and continued in that vein with several other books before producing his first comic novel, The Fugitive Pigeon (1965). His first major series character was a professional thief known only as Parker, introduced in the paperback original The Hunter (1962). The Parker series was written under the pseudonym Richard Stark, a name which suits the dark and violent mood of the books. Westlake-as-Stark would continue the series into this century, with an extended hiatus of 23 years between 1974 and 1997, and a total of 24 novels.
Under his own name, Westlake wrote a shorter (15-volume) but similarly durable series about another professional thief, the capable and ingenious, but very unlucky, John Dortmunder, whose elaborate capers are presented in a farcical vein. The first Dortmunder book, The Hot Rock (1970), was reportedly intended for the Parker series but was converted to a comic novel when the scenes started to develop humorously. For most of his writing career, Westlake interspersed stand-alone novels among series entries, but in the last few years of his life, he confined himself to three Parkers and four Dortmunders. Introducing a reprint of the 2001 Parker novel Firebreak, Terry Teachout suggested that Westlake “was usually at his best in his series novels,” but that’s not necessarily so.
Befitting a performer of longstanding and unmatched versatility, Westlake has so far had no fewer than three final bows. First came Get Real (2009), involving the Dortmunder gang with one last trouble-plagued caper. Reality television provided an inviting target for Westlake the satirist—one character solemnly pontificates that “in the world of reality, we do not have surprises”—and loyal readers were pleased he was in good form for what appeared to be his last novel. But there were two discoveries to come, both from Hard Case Crime, an inventive line of mostly hardboiled crime fiction with the look of 1950s/60s paperbacks.
Posthumous novels, of course, are not unusual. All of Franz Kafka’s novels, the three books in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces were all published after their authors’ deaths. And novels like Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Austen’s Sanditon were left unfinished for other writers to speculate about.
But what about posthumous novels that are neither the last work of a writer recently deceased nor a virtually completed work that, for some reason, wound up in the bottom drawer? Both of the Westlake discoveries are in that category. So two questions arise: Why weren’t they published while Westlake was alive, and would he have been happy to see them published after his death?
Neither of the two books is in a series, and neither is typical of the author’s work. Memory, very dark in mood, is more mainstream than crime novel, and is notably lacking in anything resembling comedy. The Comedy Is Finished is certainly in the mystery/suspense genre, but, in spite of being full of one-liners and arguably having a happy ending, it is by no means a comic novel.
Memory was written in 1963 and was shopped to publishers by Westlake’s then-agent, Scott Meredith, who specialized in genre fiction and, despite an impressive client list, had a somewhat unsavory reputation. Westlake’s friend and fellow writer Lawrence Block has said that many editors praised the novel, but none bought it. From Westlake, known as a mystery writer, a serious and commercially dubious literary work was deemed unsellable. According to Block, in the late 1970s, by which time Westlake’s reputation as novelist and screenwriter had grown, his agent Henry Morrison thought he could sell the novel, but Westlake declined, pronouncing it too dated.
Memory tells the story of Paul Cole, an actor with a touring company who receives a concussion in a fight with a jealous husband and spends the entire book trying to deal with the resultant memory loss. It’s not the convenient amnesia common in suspense fiction: Cole remembers his name and never completely forgets all aspects of his past life—he knows he lives in New York, for example—but his short-term memory is shot, and he must resort to writing notes to remind himself of everyday things. While he eventually gets back to New York, his efforts to reestablish himself with his friends and profession are painful. For an actor, what could be worse than not being able to remember lines? This is a very unhappy book, and as close to humorless as Westlake could possibly get. But it is also relentlessly involving and readable.
Even Westlake’s close friend Block doubted any other complete manuscripts would turn up. But another friend and fellow novelist, Max Allan Collins, came forward to challenge the publisher’s label of Memory as Westlake’s “final unpublished novel.” The Comedy Is Finished was written in the late 1970s, and in the early ’80s Westlake sent a copy to Collins. At some point he decided not to publish, noting that the central situation, the abduction of a comedian, might seem too similar to Martin Scorsese’s film The King of Comedy.
As an explanation, however, such a claim is hard to buy. In Scorsese’s film, a late-night talk-show host, played by Jerry Lewis, is imprisoned by a show-biz wannabe, played by Robert DeNiro. The motivation is dissimilar from that of Westlake’s characters, and the situation is played more for humor. Maybe Westlake thought the book wasn’t up to his standard of quality; in any case, Collins’s copy seems to be the only surviving manuscript.
While Memory has been published as a paperback original, The Comedy Is Finished is a hardcover—but that vintage-paperback look is unchanged. The scene depicted on the jacket—a naked woman with a gun and a man tied to a chair—does occur in the novel, and it echoes the title’s hint that this is not among Westlake’s humorous novels. The story opens with television comedian Koo Davis warming up his studio audience. It’s immediately obvious from his fast-talking style and his backstory—broke into show-biz prominence in the late 1930s, entertained the troops in various wars, lost some of his audience through support of the Vietnam war—that he is patterned after Bob Hope.
At the end of the first chapter, Koo is kidnapped, and a disgraced, low-level FBI agent and minor Watergate figure, Mike Wiskiel, gets the case. The kidnappers are Weatherman-type radicals demanding the release from prison of 10 “political prisoners.” Koo and his five varied captors, throwbacks to the vigilante terrorism of the late 1960s and early ’70s, are fully drawn characters. The suspense and surprise are masterfully engineered. One unexpected turn is a flashback to the Korean War and a brainwashed G I Koo met while on tour, and among the features is one of the oddest father/son relationships in fictional annals.
Ultimately, this is not the best Westlake novel. Some of the plot turns and character reversals seem too contrived and easy; but while the denouement is not completely credible, the maintenance of suspense and reader involvement is undeniable. Above all, it illustrates Westlake’s ability to take either a serious or comic approach to the same situation. In both the farcical Dortmunder novels and the tough Parker series, elaborate crimes are planned and carried out by professional criminals before something goes wrong. But the treatment of events is entirely different in each series. The Comedy Is Finished could have been played for laughs instead of drama, with the reversals that frustrate the kidnappers promising comic fodder. Either way, the story would be compelling reading.
Westlake’s earlier treatment of 1960s militants took a lighter approach. Up Your Banners (1969), a comic novel with an underlying seriousness (as opposed to a very serious novel festooned with wisecracks), is a delightful story about an incendiary issue: the hiring at a predominantly black New York high school of a white teacher who happens to be the principal’s son. Most of the characters are lika-ble, human, and sometimes absurd; such terms as “Negro,” “colored,” and “black” all appear in a time of changing racial nomenclature. The subtly racist board of education meeting is deftly handled, and the ending is not all that predictable.
It is difficult to write about Donald E. Westlake without wanting to take a self-indulgent detour to read or reread his prodigious output. He wrote five grim, downbeat private eye novels as Tucker Coe, four comic amateur detective novels as Samuel Holt, and various one-shots under such names as Curt Clark, Timothy J. Culver, and Judson Jack Carmichael. And while it may seem heresy to say so, his great series about Parker and Dortmunder are not his finest work. Two late noncomic novels—The Ax (1997), in which corporate downsizing leads to murder, and The Hook (2000), about a bestselling novelist’s deadly struggle with writer’s block—are possible candidates for Westlake’s best.
Memory is very nearly in their league. The Comedy Is Finished doesn’t rank quite that high, but read it anyway. Westlake would undoubtedly have been happy to see these two books in print.
Jon L. Breen is the author, most recently, of Probable Claus.