Donald E. Westlake was a master craftsman, developing his skills in the paperback era of the ’50sand ’60s. His stories moved with distinct characterization and pace no matter the genre. That and his wicked sense of humor earned him respect from his peers and the generations of writers who followed him. We lost him on New Years Eve of 2008, but luckily a lost manuscript, The Comedy Is Finished, got into the capable hands of Hard Case Crime publisher Charles Ardia. While it has everything we expect from Westlake, the book is a bit of a departure.
He uses a kidnapping story to look at a brief but monumental time period, the mid-70’s. Koo Davis, a comedian in the Bob Hope tradition, is taken before the taping of his television show. His abductors are SLA style revolutionaries demanding their counterculture warriors be set free. FBI Special Agent Mike Wiskiel sees the case as a way to get back into the bureau’s good graces after being transferred when the Watergate scandal touched him.
Westlake deftly moves between these three points. Wieskel works with Koo’s agent Lynsey Rayne, a woman who seems to have more than a professional relationship with her client, trying to locate him and negotiate with the kidnappers. The revolutionaries struggle to stay together while executing their plan. Koo maneuvers to escape and play his captors with more wit than they or the reader initially give him credit for. All of them have their secrets and hidden agendas. Westlake reveals them with the timing of a master conductor.
He takes a look at an era that brought transition to more than one generation. The book begins with Koo wondering which side he’s on. A USO star who has performed for soldiers in combat for over thirty year, he’s become an Uncle Sam poster; nostalgic for some, a symbol of the enemy for others. His interactions with the revolutionaries are both a funny and chilling representation of the generation gap. Agent Wieskel is trying to find his footing as the myth of the FBI is eroding after Hoover’s death. Even the revolutionaries are seeing their time running out, turning to narcism and dissolution, flailing about for attention more than change. There’s a very telling passage when the group learns via TV about the prisoners they want freed.
While fast paced and with strong dialogue, The Comedy Is Finished shows Westlake’s awareness for the times. His ability to be unsentimental yet instill humanity in his characters makes him a perfect teller of this look at national ennui where the only threads keeping our country united flicker on the television screen.