Hard Case Crime Remembers Donald E. Westlake

When The Comedy is Finished, the forgotten manuscript of master story teller Donald E. Westlake, was recently found, it luckily made its way to publisher Charles Ardai and his imprint, Hard Case Crime. Charles was a fan and later an editor and friend of Westlake. I recently had a chance to ask Charles a few questions about the book, on sale today, and its author.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: Did I hear right that The Comedy Is Finished was sitting in the drawer of author Max Allan Collins for over twenty years?

CHARLES ADIA: Well…not a drawer.  But it is true that Max had it packed away in a cardboard box down in his basement, and it was more like thirty years.  Don sent him a carbon copy of the manuscript around 1980 or 81, and then when Don decided not to publish the book, Max just put it away for safekeeping.  Then when we published Memory and claimed it was Don’s final unpublished novel, Max remembered this one and let me know there was actually one more.

MP: I heard the reason that Donald Westlake decided not to publish it because he saw similarities to the Martin Scorcese’s The King Of Comedy. Other than it’s about a kidnapped comic, I noticed no similarities in plot, characters, theme or anything. Did you?

CA: No – aside from the basic premise (famous television comedian gets kidnapped), the two are very different.  In one case it’s by a crazy stalker and a would-be TV personality, in the other it’s a group of domestic terrorists with a political agenda.  But I guess Don was still concerned about it.  It’s not as bad as the story I heard about Ellery Queen throwing away a completed novel because Agatha Christie released And Then There Were None and it turned out to have the same solution.  At least Don’s book got put safely into storage – the Ellery Queen novel is lost forever.

Donald E. Westlake

MP: It’s rare to get an unedited manuscript from an author after his death. How did you go about working on it?

CA: I’d worked closely with Don on the previous books we’d done with him, so I knew the sorts of things he liked and didn’t, what he would have gone for gladly and what he’d have pushed back on.  Of course it wasn’t the same without him, but I just sort of pretended he was there and tried to hear his voice in my head, guiding me.  Fortunately (and not surprisingly), the book didn’t need much editing.  A few spots where a passage could be tightened up a bit; a few inconsistencies or typos.  But Don was a great writer, and even if he’d been alive I doubt we would have done a lot more.

MP: What struck you most about the book?

CA: The way every single character comes to life.  It’s a big book with a lot of characters – the victim, the kidnappers, the victim’s agent, his wife and kids, the FBI agent hunting for him – and every one of them is a fully fleshed-out, vibrant, memorable character, even the ones who make only brief appearances in the book.  It’s really breathtaking.  In so many novels, even the main character feels two-dimensional and never really breathes, but here even the minor characters feel like people you know well by the end of the book.  And of course that makes it all the more painful when they start meeting violent ends.

MP: Westlake takes an interesting look at  Koo and the radical kidnappers as two different generations whose eras are both coming to an end, and there are some barbs at our TV culture. Is this the closest Westlake came to more overt social commentary in his books?

Charles Adai of Hard Case Crime

CA: I think Don had more social commentary in his books than people give him credit for.  Sure, many are just escapist fun, but look at a book like The Ax, which is about the lengths a man might be pushed to by protracted unemployment in a desperate economic downturn.  That book was written decades ago, but he might as well have been writing about the economy of 2012.

MP: You were a fan of Westlake as a reader, who later became his editor, putting some of his books back into print, and his friend. What should people know about him as a writer and a person?

CA:Don was such a joy to work with.  We did most of our work together by e-mail, and the man was incapable of writing an e-mail, even one tossed off in passing, without being witty.  My face lit up any time I saw a message from him in my inbox.  I miss it, and I miss him.

Book Review: ‘The Comedy is Finished’ by Donald E. Westlake

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.

Three Books to Read Right Now

The Devil’s Odds by Milton T. Burton

This posthumous novel by the great Texas author looks at the state during World War Two. It tells of the fight over Galveston gambling when a Texas ranger is caught between the legendary Maceo Brothers and New Orleans mob, trying to save a red haired damsel who may or may not be in distress. This is noir Lone Star style.

The Comedy Is Finished by Donald Westlake

This recently discovered Westlake book has a Bob Hope-style comedian kidnapped by revolutionaries in the Seventies. A smart, sobering view of the post-Watergate era.

 

The Plot Against Hip Hop by Nelson George

A great schooling of hip hop culture via a strong hard boiled mystery, this novel provides a look at what happens when art, culture, commerce, and politics meet. A great read even if you’re not into rap music.