May 22, 2012

BOOKS: The Comedy Is Finished, Donald E. Westlake (2012)

I am not normally a fan of books that arrive after the author's death, heavily promoted as "the great lost novel." In my experience, if an author didn't publish the book while they were alive, it was because he recognized that it wasn't worth publishing, and its arrival now is simply the widow/estate trying to cash in.

But Donald E. Westlake always struck me as an author with more than his share of integrity, so despite the dreaded "great lost novel" bit, I picked up The Comedy Is Finished. And while it's not Westlake at his best, it's not bad.

There's a brief note at the beginning explaining that the book was written in the early 80s, and Westlake decided not to publish it because Scorsese's King of Comedy had just been released, and the two coincidentally share a central plot point. After Westlake's death, a friend who had been given a copy of the manuscript dug it out, and arrangements were made with Westlake's literary estate to publish the book.

The common plot point is the kidnapping of a veteran comedian, though Westlake and Scorsese do very different things with the idea. Westlake's novel is set in 1977, and his central character is Koo Davis, who got his start in radio, had a mildly successful movie career in the 40s, and is generally thought of as a national treasure, in no small part because of his tireless work with the USO. (Bob Hope is the obvious inspiration, though the two men share nothing beyond that broad career outline and a vaudevillian's sense of humor.)

Davis is kidnapped by five leftover 60s radicals calling themselves the People's Revolutionary Army. They aren't very good at crime, unfortunately, which only makes the situation even more frightening for Koo. It would be one thing to be kidnapped by a band of disciplined, skilled thugs; but these people are constantly bickering, making stupid mistakes, and arguing about whether or not they should just kill him now and get it over with.

Westlake was a master at the details of criminal plots, and at coming up with ingenious ways for everything to slowly go wrong, both for the criminals and (occasionally) for the cops. His characters aren't stupid, but like most of us, they don't always think through things as thoroughly as they should. The suspense builds beautifully, and the fact that we're seeing both sides of events -- the cops and the FBI trying to figure out where Koo is, and the kidnappers trying to hold it together -- only increases the tension.

This is minor Westlake, certainly, and a bit dated in spots, but even minor Westlake is still pretty entertaining stuff.

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