Review: A Likely Story

As for The Christmas Book, that continues apace.  I have actually received three submissions, one of which I unfortunately had to reject:

      Dear John Irving,

      ‘The Stars Wink,’ your short-short story about a bear whose eyes are put out by feminists on Christmas Eve, is certainly a powerful piece of writing, right up there with the rest of your work, and I for one would be proud indeed to publish it under any circumstances at all.  Unfortunately, I don’t always have final say on these matters, and the feeling at Craig, Harry & Burke was that the date of Christmas Eve in the story was merely happenstantial (apparently typed in later once or twice, in fact), that the story had very little to say about Christmas qua Christmas, and that all in all the tale was rather more depressing than we prefer for the contents of The Christmas Book.  Your suggestion that Tomi Ungerer illustrate your story would be an excellent one were we to publish the story, except that we already have approached Mr. Ungerer to do something rather different and more Yulesque.

Otherwise, Isaac Asimov’s piece about the aerodynamic qualities of Santa’s sleigh, and Andy Rooney’s piece about how there weren’t all these different sized batteries when he was a child, were both slight but puckish, and I was pleased to take them.  That is, I’ve sent them on to Jack Rosenfarb for approval and payment, and have no doubt he’ll accept them.

“How much?” letters have now been received from Russell Baker, William F. Buckley Jr., Truman Capote, Carl Sagan and Kurt Vonnegut, and have been answered.  And this came from Mario Puzo’s secretary.

     “Mr Puzo has asked me to tell you that he is tired of people trying to capitalize on his alleged relationship with the Mafia.  He has not the slightest interest in writing about the Mafia’s view of Christmas, nor if he did have such an interest would he be willing to share his thoughts with you.” 

Well, I just sent him the regular form letter, didn’t I?  I never mentioned the Mafia!   Enraged, I sat at my typewriter and wrote:

     Dear Mr. Puzo:

     Thank you for your prompt response to my query letter concerning The Christmas Book.  If you have nothing at the moment about the Mafia vis-a-vis Christmas, perhaps you’d like to give us a few words on Christmas in Las Vegas (though we do have a shot at Carol Doda on that topic), or maybe even a thinkpiece on the Christmas presents exchanged by Superman and Lois Lane.  Or it could be you have in the trunk something about Easter or the Fourth of July that could be adapted.  Looking forward to your response. 

One of the reasons people are always more complicated than you expect them to be is that they are always sillier than you expect them to be.

The least likely element in the story of A Likely Story is that Donald Westlake ever got to publish this story at all–and in the form of a 248 page novel, to boot.  He’d struck up what would be a mutually beneficial friendship and professional partnership with Otto Penzler, who had started his own publishing house, The Mysterious Press, in 1975, and his own matching bookstore to boot (Westlake helped build the shelves).

But Westlake’s first book for The Mysterious Press had been a collection of six short stories about that mortality-obsessed police detective, Abraham Levine.  The first novel of Westlake’s that Penzler published was under a different imprint, Penzler Books, and this is it.  And it’s hard to see how The Mysterious Press could have handled this one.

This is not a crime novel.  It is not a violent heist story, a comic caper, a criminal picaresque, a police procedural, a spy thriller, a mob melodrama, or a murder mystery–a coffee table book about Christmas gets pretty well slaughtered, but there’s no question about whodunnit.  No person appearing in this book is physically harmed, nothing is stolen (though there is an allegation of theft), no one is kidnapped and held for ransom, and in fact no laws at all are broken (there’s a minor mugging, but it’s offstage and not important).

True, those venerable and little-enforced laws against adultery are repeatedly violated here, but in the main with everyone’s full knowledge and consent, however reluctant–lot of partner-swapping going on (it’s the 80’s, not that you couldn’t find similarly libidinous tales from previous decades, or centuries, or millennia).

Nobody ends up on the run from the law for any crime he didn’t commit.   Nobody even gets amnesia, or comes to a bad end through the vagaries of fortune.   Nary a gun in sight.  Nobody gets so much as a paper cut.

There are no genre elements at all here, whether from mystery, science fiction, fantasy (maybe male fantasies), or westerns.  Though I will say, there are aspects of the pseudo-porn sleaze genre here, much as Westlake despised it–he did have a knack for sex comedies, rarely though he chose to pen them under his own name.  There’s even a brief cameo by Scott Meredith, the suitably sleazy dean of that short-lived publishing niche that gave Westlake his start.

This is as far outside the lines of what was expected of him as a writer that Westlake ever got, and he obviously loved every minute of it.  And re-reading it,  I can’t for the life of me see how anyone wouldn’t. It’s one of his funniest Non-Dortmunder books, and only a few of the Dortmunders could be honestly said to top it.

But to fully appreciate its humor, it may be that you need a certain grounding in the subject matter being spoofed here–referential humor is, by its nature, off-putting to people who don’t have the right frame of reference.   You don’t need to know much about bank robberies or police work to enjoy a comedy about either–in fact, the more you know, the more likely you are to be nit-picking the story, instead of enjoying it.  The subject matter of this book is books; the people who write them, the people who publish them, and in particular the poor schmucks who broker deals between those two opposing camps.  And I don’t know a whole lot about that general subject, but I do know a little.

I worked very briefly in publishing as a young man (jack of all trades….), in the 1980’s, the very period this book is set in.  Paragon House.  Ever heard of it?  No disgrace if you haven’t.  It was and I believe still is owned by the Unification Church.  No, I never saw the good reverend, and I gather all he cared about was that the place turned a profit.

Primarily non-fiction, some solid scholarly stuff mingled in with a lot of new-age nonsense (and the occasional techie book–there was one about how Steve Jobs was an over-hyped has-been whose best days were behind him), and that still seems to be the case, going by their website.   They do have one new offering that seems eerily on-point for this week’s review.


(I’d make the image smaller, but WordPress won’t let me unless I put some other image next to it, and nobody’s volunteering.)

They fired me after a few months.  I have no nostalgic feelings at all about that job, except the receptionist was cute, and it was walking distance from my building.  I also applied to quite a few more respectable houses (and the Scott Meredith Agency, as I’ve already mentioned elsewhere), figuring that somebody who liked books as much as I did might enjoy working in the business that produces them.

In retrospect, I believe the reasoning that lay behind this theory was not entirely sound–just because you like sausages doesn’t mean you’d enjoy working in a factory that makes them–but you have to start somewhere.  I work in a college library now, so all I see is the finished product, and sometimes that just makes the sausage analogy seem even more apropos (Polish or Perish?), but never mind that now.

Where did the idea for this book come from?   First of all, Westlake had just gone through a terrible experience with Viking Press.   He shared some details of that experience in the introduction he wrote years later for the Mysterious Books reprint of Kahawa.

The original publisher of Kahawa, in 1982, was in the midst of an upheaval.  My original editor was let go before publication to be replaced by an oil painting of an editor; pleasant, even comforting to look at, but not much help in the trenches.  The publisher moved by fits and starts–more fits than starts, actually–and though the book received good reviews, no one at the publishing house seemed able to figure out how to suggest that anybody might enjoy reading it.  So it didn’t do well.

Hardly his first bad experience with a publisher (nor his last), but he’d put a lot more time and effort into that novel than was the norm for him, he was proud of it, and it must have been painful–and Westlake was of that temperament that often converts pain into laughter.

Secondly, he was now on his third (and mercifully final) marriage, to a woman with three children from a previous marriage, while he had four sons from two previous marriages, and the second of his prior spouses also had a spouse before him, and let’s just say family life had gotten extremely complicated for him, as it had for many others, and still is today–but it was still enormously important to him.  He even reportedly packed up a great portion of this army of children and ex-spouses and future spouses for an extended European junket, which must have been a memorable experience for all concerned.

He had rarely written about married life; even more rarely had any of his protagonists been married men with children–children were rarely seen in his books, let alone heard.   Somehow this kind of subject matter didn’t fit the hard-boiled literary milieu he was associated with, but it would work fine for a comedy of manners, set in 80’s Manhattan, about a man working in roughly the same profession as himself.

It’s not autobiographical fiction–or a ‘roman a clef’, as it’s sometimes been accused of being–but it is heavily informed by the author’s own personal and professional life, that we’d love to know more about, but those memoirs remain forever unfinished and still mainly unpublished.  You can try to guess which experiences of the protagonist were directly experienced by the author (probably more than a few), but you can’t know for sure, and you don’t really need to.  A likely story is a story, nonetheless.

I would think Westlake read the ‘real-life’ segments of his friend William Goldman’s The Princess Bride with great interest.  Those chapters are no more fact-based than the ones about giants, father-avenging Spaniards, and Miracle Max.  They read like a confession, when they are merely a distraction–a way to make the fantasy segments more rooted in reality.

I’ve theorized that Goldman might have been influenced by Adios Scheherazade, Westlake’s 1970 novel about the ‘sleaze’ publishing industry–one of his few other books with a protagonist who is married and a father.  My theory about Goldman could well be wrong, but it is nothing more than a statement of fact to say that Westlake was using the raw materials of the 1970 book to create this one.

Both are novels written in diary form (something the protagonist of this book says upfront you should never ever do), both are about an abortive book project and its author’s troubled relationship with a publisher, both have the hero agonizing over his relationship with his wife and his daughter.  (He’s got a son as well, but the daughter gets a lot more attention, as does the younger daughter of the protagonist’s girlfriend, who also has a son, who also doesn’t get much attention–methinks Mr. Westlake, much as he loved his boys, rather yearned for a girl).

And both novels have a character named Lance, though the similarity goes no further–doesn’t need to, since it’s only there as a sly acknowledgment of the earlier work, that only his most devoted readers would even notice.  Okay, I’m over two thousand words into this, and if I don’t publish soon, people will think I’ve perished.   Clearly a two-parter.   Let’s get started on the synopsis.

Tom Diskant is a freelance writer who produces mainly non-fiction books and articles.  This is not what he always wanted to do.  He wanted to write fiction, novels, and he did get his first book, a slice of life reminiscence of his idyllic childhood in Vermont, into print– and he thought it was great, and maybe it was, but the publisher didn’t know what to do with it, and it got a very small printing, and his dreams of authorial glory died on the vine, as they so often do.

Truth is, he was working so hard just making a living as a writer, cranking out whatever he could sell (which was mainly nonfiction), he didn’t really have time to come up with any more ideas for a novel–and since his book was drawn entirely from his life–and his life hadn’t been all that interesting–he was out of material.   Without a genre to sustain him or her, provide plot templates he or she can come up with variations on, it’s tough for most writers to come up with a second act, particularly when nobody showed up for the first.

How did Eugene O’Neill put it?  You don’t even have the makings.  You just have the habit.  But for some people out there, the habit can be awfully habitual.  And at least you get to be your own boss–kind of.   Sometimes it isn’t that simple, which is a big part of what this book is about.

So Tom writes whatever there’s a market for, as professionally as he knows how, and this leads to his name appearing on such highly esteemed works as Golf Courses of America, The Ins and Outs of Unemployment Insurance, Hospitals Can Make You Sick, and The Films of Jack Oakie.  Somebody’s got to do it.

Diskant is a real name, that real people actually have.  But it’s also a term in music–spelled with a ‘c’ in English, but a ‘k’ in German–that refers literally to ‘singing in two’–an intended disharmony.   And that’s Tom, whether he knows it or not.  He’s divided against himself–he wants to be creative, to express something real and true–he has that impulse.  He’s not a hack, but he makes his living as one.

And as he goes about his mercenary trade in public, he expresses his inner doubts to us–through a diary he keeps, and this book is composed of about one year of that diary–from one Christmas to the next.  Since as we all know, we think of our lives in this western world of ours as a succession of Christmases–each of which makes us question where we are in life, and what the hell we’re doing with ourselves.

And his professional disharmonies are nothing compared to his personal ones. About a year before this book begins, Tom left his wife Mary, with whom he has an eleven year old daughter Jennifer and a slightly younger son Bryan, both of whom he adores. He used to adore Mary, a very good looking girl and there was nothing wrong with the sex life, but for reasons he has a hard time explaining–but which probably had more to do with his dissatisfaction with his career than with their relationship–he got restless. He felt like she wasn’t taking him seriously enough.

He’d have affairs, more or less to get Mary’s attention, and she’d act like it was no big deal, just a phase he was going through.   Mary is herself a professional photographer, but not a very successful one–like Tom, she feels the need to be creative, even if her temperament is too warm and sympathetic to cast that cold eye on life that an ‘artistic’ photographer needs–but too discerning to just do sentimental schmaltz for calendars and such.  Like Tom, she’s stuck in the middle somewhere, and perhaps that’s why she assumes they’re meant for each other.  Tom is not willing to concede this point.

Not long before he moved out, he took up with Ginger, separated from her husband Lance (I told you there was a Lance), and they live together now, with her two children from her own failed marriage–Ginger, we gather is quite a hot item herself (there is little in the way of physical description in this book, particularly with regards to Tom and the two women in his life–we never even find out what color their hair is, though I guess with Ginger you could make a guess–as you could guess what first name Mr. Diskant would have if this new pairing was going to work out longterm–a fine romance indeed).

So now he’s in this impossible financial situation–he has to support his wife and family–Mary makes very little money as a photographer, and she absolutely refuses to ‘get a fella’, as Ginger keeps putting it, because she is waiting for Tom to come back to her.  But he also has to contribute to the household he’s currently a part of, which the absent Lance is contributing to as well, but Lance has got to contribute to the upkeep of the woman he’s living with now, who also has kids that are not his, and you get the picture.  The 80’s were the decade where the price of the sexual revolution started to express itself in dollars and cents, and the accounting got more creative all the time.

So Tom has a Big Idea–he’s tired of writing stuff he doesn’t believe in–he wants to try being an anthologist–which is to say, somebody who compiles stuff he does believe in, that doesn’t happen to be his.  A different kind of creativity–organizing more creative people along some unifying principle that you came up with.

(I should mention that this is one of the things Bucklin Moon, Westlake’s former editor at Pocket Books, did after his downfall as a novelist brought about by the McCarthy Witch Hunts–he compiled an anthology of short fiction for Doubleday that came out in 1962.  The last significant piece of work he produced in his life, unless you count the Parker novels of ‘Richard Stark,’ that he  played a significant role in fostering, which also began in 1962–Westlake never forgot that debt, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Moon was one of the people he was thinking about here.)

Tom’s idea is simple–every Christmas, a big publisher has to have a Christmas Book.  That is to say, a book people can give as a Christmas present, which by its nature has to be bigger and fancier (and more expensive) than a normal book, and can be displayed proudly on coffee tables and such.

Okay, suppose this year’s Christmas Book was about Christmas (and was, in fact, entitled The Christmas Book)?  What it means to different people, and particularly what it means to famous writers and artists, who Tom will contact by mail, and solicit from them stories, essays, fact-based articles, and works of art. And he will then compile these contributions into a book, supplemented by a variety of public domain writings and works of art that won’t cost the publisher anything.

He manages to sell this idea to Jack Rosenfarb, an editor at the publishing house of Craig, Harry & Burke–Jack has worked with Tom before, trusts his professionalism, but is dubious about Tom being ready for such an ambitious project, with such a high overhead–still, you’ve got to get that Christmas book ready, and if it’s going to be ready for next Christmas, you need about a year.

So Tom’s chosen his moment well, and with the aid of his elderly, endearingly irascible, and just slightly absent-minded literary agent Annie (who occasionally calls him Tim), he gets a guarantee of a big advance–that he will have to pay the contributors with, keeping what remains for himself and his blended family–but now he’s got to procure the raw material for him to shape.  He starts sending out letters to what seems like a list of every well-known author in the country, as well as numerous artists  (and Roddy McDowell, who when not playing urbanely sarcastic future-chimps, was actually quite a well-regarded photographer ).

This is the most enjoyable part of the book by far–the answers Tom gets from these legendary literary lions (nearly all of which begin with some variation on ‘how much?’).  And Westlake is having entirely too much fun with these much more famous colleagues of his, nailing each one’s style and preoccupations–he’s so wickedly on-target here that he had to put in a disclaimer in the front of the book, saying that he’s not sending up the actual human beings behind these famous names, but merely the public image that has accrued around each–which is true.

But since that image is precisely what makes their work worth more on the open market than some equally good work from some less famous writer or artist, the distinction is, you might say, academic.  When you become famous enough, the line between your true self and your reputed self becomes blurred, a theme Westlake returned to time and again in his fiction.   Westlake himself never got that famous in his life, and I think he alternately regretted and rejoiced over this–that his work, popular though it often was, mainly got to speak for itself, because most people didn’t have a very clear image of him, personally.   He never became a celebrity.  There are no Al Hirschfeld caricatures of him in the New York Times.

That passage I typed up top, describing the John Irving story that Westlake just made up himself–Irving’s obsession with bears has been such an enduring cliche about him–that is amply justified by his actual work–that he just recently spoofed it himself, on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show.   Personally, I read The World According to Garp not long after it was published, and that was all the Irving I needed for the rest of my life–but he’s got this enormous media profile, that sells a lot of books–and defines him as a writer.  Love him, hate him, you know he’s into bears, and is really scared of feminists.

And this literary meme has endured over three decades from the time Westlake wrote that passage.  Irving can laugh about it, but he can never escape it. Westlake never got that famous, but he can relate–and subtly suggest that maybe mainstream authors are as constrained by cliches as lowly genre writers like himself.

Not that genre writers are immune from his satiric lash.  Isaac Asimov sends, as you see, a perfectly nice piece in about Santa’s sleigh–the kind of thing he used to produce all the time, when he wasn’t expressing fascinating influential ideas in slightly stilted prose, in the form of science fiction.  So Tom writes back and says the article is accepted.  And Asimov sends him another article, and another, and another–all Christmas-themed, all clearly composed in direct response to Tom’s original solicitation–he can’t stop himself.  Tom has to start sending the pieces back unread.

Asimov was one of the very few well-known writers of the 20th century who could make Donald E. Westlake seem laggardly and slothful in his rate of production.  I suppose this could be seen as a backhanded homage, but I think Westlake’s actual point might have been more along the lines of “If you’d stop vomiting out all this damned extemporanea, you might produce some more good science fiction stories, which is what people really want from you, and is all you’re going to be remembered for anyway.”  And really, there may be somebody out there who has read all of Asimov, but it’s never going to be me.   I’ll take the Foundation Trilogy, The Gods Themselves, the first two Baley/Olivaw detective novels, and the best of his short fiction. The rest will just have to wait for the hereafter, if they have libraries there.

But really, the only point is that we know Asimov through the public perception of him as somebody who never stopped writing, had opinions on every subject imaginable, all of which were disconcertingly well-informed.   You’d almost think the man was some kind of  writing robot–um–he wasn’t, right?   Did he ever allow a human to come to harm?  Never mind.

And then there’s the little dig at Mario Puzo, who wrote one of the great best-sellers of all time–which ate his career.  Nobody could ever think of him as anything other than the Godfather guy from then on.  And he’s understandably peeved, but what did he expect?   That’s the inherent risk to writing a book that gets too big (even though everyone who even imagined writing a novel has dreamed of precisely this happening), and all the bigger because of a hit movie based on it that has basically taken its place in popular culture.

So he takes it out on Tom, who writes that rather nasty rejoinder–then doesn’t send it.   He sends a very polite follow-up letter, explaining the misunderstanding, and hoping that Mr. Puzo can contribute something about his personal relationship with Christmas–which he does, and it’s excellent, and has nothing to do with the Mafia, Las Vegas, or Superman.  Though really, those would all have been worthy Yule-themed topics to address.  Tom is just happy to add another big name to his list.

It gets complicated, dealing with those big egos–Norman Mailer and Truman Capote each send in a piece about Christmas on Death Row.  Tom doesn’t know what to do–they’re just about the same exact length, both extremely powerful and well-written, each quite an individual expression of its respective author’s style and sensibility–what to do?  He wants both of them.   So he writes to them, explaining the problem, and the first thing each of them wants is to read the other’s piece (and perhaps show it to their lawyers).

The compromise arrived at is that the two submissions will be printed together–on alternating pages, Capote on the left, Mailer on the right (alphabetical order), in different fonts, with a little introduction from Tom himself, about how this came to pass, and how it graphically demonstrates the way two such unique literary talents can have such contrasting takes on the same subject, great minds think alike yet differently, etc.  Genius.  Tom’s actually putting together a book worth reading here.   He’s living out his dreams of authorial glory through these glorious authors.  He’s so excited.   But shortly before he gets the Capote and Mailer submissions, his editor quits.

When the editor who bought the book leaves the company before the book is published, the winds blow very cold.  In the trade, such a book is called an “orphan” and the word barely suggests the Dickensian–nay, the Hogarthian–horrors that await such a creature. Who shall defend these pitiful pages?  Who shall raise this tattered banner from the Out basket?  No one.

A new editor is “assigned” to the book, the way homework is assigned to reluctant schoolchildren, and the futility is evident in the word iself.  What commitment has this assigned editor in this book?  None.  How much time and thought will he divert to it from the books he chose for the company to publish?  Guess.

And it turns out the new editor assigned to his book is this rather attractive thirty year old named Vickie, quite tall (I’d cast her as a young Allison Janney in the movie that will never ever be made), who made her reputation by pushing through a book by a retired prostitute about how to lose weight by having lots of sex–and who never stops talking about her terrible relationship with her mother, who never stops talking about how Vickie should be married by now.   And who, as a consequence of this and other personal distractions, is doing precisely nothing to nurture and develop Tom’s book.

So they finally have a big fight over lunch, and feeling apologetic, Tom takes her home, and then he kisses her.  He didn’t plan it, it was spontaneous.  And then she looks at him with this strange expression in her eyes, and says maybe they should just fuck.

He’s got two women in his life already.  Mary may not have been the jealous type, but Ginger more or less defines that type.  She has this way of narrowing her eyes at critical moments that sounds quite frightening.  But Vickie has put herself in the position of offering sex to a colleague who desperately needs her help, and if he refuses, she will be terribly hurt and offended, and all future communication between them shall be rendered impossible.  As he explains it to us, “I just couldn’t be that rude.”  They fuck.

So now Tom Diskant, man of many disharmonious identities, has a wife who wants him back, a mistress who wants him faithful, and an editor/girlfriend who wants him, period.  And if he jilts the girlfriend, he loses the editor, and The Christmas Book shall be twice-orphaned.  And if the wife and mother of his children finds out about this burgeoning harem of his, she’ll lose all respect for him (and that matters to him, much as he wishes it did not).   And if the mistress finds out, he’s dead.  Alas and alack-a-day, what’s an aspiring anthologist to do?

For the answer to that and many more questions, dear reader, please tune in next week (or failing that, the week after), for the next  thrilling installment of The Westlake Review.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.)


Filed under A Likely Story, Donald Westlake novels, Uncategorized

43 responses to “Review: A Likely Story

  1. rinaldo302

    Oh, I’ve been waiting for this one! And… it’s a two-parter (of course it needed to be), so I can’t really say everything that’s in my mind yet. It’s not a matter of “spoiling” anything at this late date, but of discussion that’ll make more sense once the whole book is on the table.

    Still, I can say that this is one of my very favorite Westlakes, and one that I rarely see mentioned or discussed (and never at any length). Till now. Hurray!

    In description it no doubt can seem like an oddball or uncharacteristic work of his, what with no crime and only minimal suspense. But the human observation, and the offhanded humor, are absolutely him, at his finest. I found it just as much fun to reread recently as I did to read when it was brand new.

    But I will say that I’m appalled with myself that on first reading I was surprised by the personal outcome. I have no explanation for that, except that I guess I’m not a thinking-ahead kind of reader of fiction; I accept the given circumstances. Still, I wasn’t that much of a novice reader. Another thing I noticed this time, that went right by me before, was the offstage action in Ginger’s apartment on May 31 that Tom is oblivious to, but I think I have more excuse in this case.

    Anyway, it’s a helluva good read, and we’re just getting started.

    • I think most of Westlake’s best books that are not Parker or Dortmunder are books people never expected from him. If he hadn’t kept stretching out, he’d have dried up. But because people are used to thinking of him as a genre writer, books like this tend to go by the wayside. Just like Adios Scheherazade, it’s been out of print for a long time now, and there’s no ebook. When I want to look up a quote on this one, I have to do it the old-fashioned way–no Google Books to help out.

      Used copies aren’t hard to come by, but still–it’s a disgrace. One of his funniest books, and probably no book of his was more founded in his own experiences–not autobiographical, per se, but highly revealing, for all that.

      The ending is predictable in hindsight, but what isn’t? It’s important to recognize that Tom is not a thinly disguised rendition of his creator–he’s a road not taken.

      You ever see Carefree with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? I bet Westlake did–the premise is that Fred is a psychiatrist, and Ginger plays his patient, and they fall in love, and complications ensue, and there’s musical numbers along the way. But see, Astaire tells her that when he was younger, he thought he wanted to be a dancer. And that’s how you know he’s not as smart as he thinks he is. He missed his calling. He took the wrong road.

      Westlake could very easily imagine an infinite variety of roads he might have taken that would have led him away from being a writer–or from being a writer who produced fiction. Tom is just one possible route he might have taken, and that route led to Mary, and Ginger, and Vicki. But a different road would have led to different women, obviously–I don’t think any of these women are based on the actual women in his life, at least not very directly. So you can’t make any predictions about Tom based on what you know about Westlake, not that you necessarily did that. This is not a roman a clef. It’s about what might have been, but never was. And it’s not all bad. The scenes of Tom with his daughter Jennifer are damned poignant. You can feel Westlake falling in love with the daughter he never had.

      It’s impossible for anyone to have every experience he or she ever desired–but a writer like Westlake comes the closest–by creating those experiences in his or her mind, and them putting them on paper. Actors get some of that as well, by inhabiting their characters. The actors Westlake feels sorry for are the ones who get trapped in the same role, over and over again. The writers he feels sorry for are the ones who get trapped writing the same book, over and over again. What’s the point?

  2. rinaldo302

    “You ever see Carefree with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? ” Oh definitely. (Remember — or maybe I never mentioned it before — I’m a music professor who teaches, among other things, History of Musicals.) And I totally get what you’re saying here, and agree. I wasn’t predicting what Tom would do based on Westlake’s life (for one thing I knew very little about his personal life till I found this blog; for another, I’m not inclined to do that in general — I caution my students against automatically reading what they know of composers’ lives into their work), I just figured that the creation of the book would be the story, and the personal setups wouldn’t change.

    • You hadn’t mentioned it that I recall, but pleased to hear it–you probably did not have to look up the meaning of “diskant” as I did. I hope I gave a fair account of myself there–I love music, and have a large diverse record collection, but my understanding of musical jargon has never been anything to brag on. I just figured Westlake hadn’t chosen that name on a whim, because he puts a lot of thought into the names of his characters.

      This is, in its own way, a Post-Nephew book. Meaning that it’s about what happens after the Nephew finds The Girl, just as Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story is about what happens after the end of a 1930’s screwball romantic comedy. Granted, Tom probably never faced any criminal crises along the lines of Charlie Poole or Fred Fitch, but he found his calling, and his girl, had the happy ending–and then life refused to freeze in place on the happy ending. Life has a way of refusing to do that.

      So we meet him for the first time after the ending got screwed up, and the story is about getting back to the “They lived happily ever after–OR DID THEY?”


  3. rinaldo302

    You sure picked the right analogy for me! I adore The Palm Beach Story. (BTW, can civilians make italics here? blogs differ in this respect.)

    Do you agree about the May 31 chapter? (Or maybe it was blindingly obvious to everyone but me in the first place.)

    • I can only put in italics and such when I edit my replies in the comments section, and obviously you can’t edit posts without being able to log in–I feel badly about it, but not enough to give people the keys to the blog. Given how sharp my commenters tend to be, this is an advantage I sorely need.

      I noticed the May 31 thing the first time through.

    • You can make italics with the standard <i> </i> bracketing.

      • I’m so glad I don’t have to, though.

        Mike, have you read this one?

        • Yes, but not for some time. I did enjoy it, especially the playful jabs at Asimov and the other well-known writers. It didn’t occur to me to connect it with Adios, Scheherazade, but now that you’ve done that, compare the scrambled couples (Tom is living with Ginger, Ginger’s husband is living with another woman, her husband is living with yet another woman, etc.) with La Ronde, one of Ed Topliss’s templates for a smutty book (In Chapter 1, Bob sleeps with Carol, in Chapter 2, Carol with Ted, in Chapter 3, Ted with Alice, etc.)

          • And think about what year Westlake was writing that book, and realize he snuck yet another pop cultural reference in on us

            Maybe you caught that one already–maybe I did too and just forgot to put it in the review. After a while, the details tend to blur.

            More mentions of Adios in Part 2. Westlake had special feelings about that book. And I repeat that it’s a disgrace you can only buy used copies of it.

  4. rinaldo302

    Oh, don’t feel bad about it — I was asking purely for information in case I had overlooked something.

    On May 31: Yeah, I’m sometimes not very bright, especially when it comes to straight-people nuances. 🙂 At least I got it this time.

    On John Irving: It’s not just the bears, it’s not just the scary feminists, it’s the symbolic castration (often a blinding as here, though in Garp it’s an actual teeth-chomp). We hit all three in 10 words. When this book was written and Irving at his peak of visibility, it added up to an obvious shot to take, but also an irresistible and hilarious one; I laughed my head off at it. (And at the Asimov business, as it kept snowballing.)

    • Yeah, Westlake’s talent for thumbnail portraits is on full display here–thing is, it’s a book that rewards you for knowing who all these people are, and what they write or draw, and how they write or draw it, and just their overall public personas. Which makes it very very enjoyable for those of us who read a lot.

      But that’s not a huge percentage of the reading public. Consequently, I strongly suspect the book sales were not great. Westlake made it up to Otto Penzler later on. For all I know, this book was part of the price Penzler paid to acquire one of his top talents. But I don’t for one minute believe that was all that brought them together.

      I wouldn’t have thought nonstraight-people nuances were all that different. Or do you just dispense with the nuances altogether? Something to be said for that. 😉

      • rinaldo302

        I was mostly joking about the nuances. But I suppose there are SOME differences, even if it’s hard to pin down what they might be. For all the individual differences any two people have, there can be something that two men (or two women) “get” about each other without having to translate. But I wouldn’t push the idea very far at all.

        • I think the point being made is just that Tom is so wrapped up in all the secrets he has to keep, it doesn’t occur to him that everybody else is living through their own stories, their own secrets, their own disharmonies.

          And I think that pretty much applies to everybody, regardless of persuasion–people tend to be very self-involved. Doesn’t mean we don’t care about anyone else (sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t). But because each of us is locked up in his or her own head, empathy for others is always going to be a conscious effort.

          In Adios Scheherazade, Ed Topliss has this sudden moment of insight–he realizes that his wife, who just left him, had her own story going on all the time, parallel to his–that she wasn’t just this supporting player in his comic opera of a life. That maybe she was as trapped by circumstances as he was, and he’d been blaming her for getting pregnant, forcing him to marry her, when in fact it was just as much of a disaster for her, just as much of a compromise. That she’s the protagonist of her own story (which he then tries to write as a sleaze book, because that’s the connecting theme of the book, him trying to be a writer even in the midst of his life disintegrating around him).

          This is a much less dark brooding narrative, and it’s an 80’s book to boot–so that kind of personal insight is less germane to the narrative–Ed Topliss loses the whole world and gains his immortal soul. Tom Diskant will settle for less costly insights, if he can keep his family and his career, and hammer out some kind of compromise with the world, because he’s not ready to say adios to everything.

          I actually prefer the earlier book, but Westlake mainly wrote about survivors, and there were reasons for that.

          • rinaldo302

            Nice insights, thanks! A difference here is that we’re left to notice the “offstage” life of the other characters for ourselves, if we’re alert enough, with no explicit attention ever given to it. I like that (even if I missed it the first time).

            On another topic, I think your idea of Vickie being played by a young Alison Janney is right on the money. I kept trying different actresses in my imaginary movie, none of them quite right and all too obscure to share. I pictured Mary as a mid-70s Mary Tyler Moore, but with her hair still in a now-outdated Laura Petrie flip.

            • It also makes it easier to buy that Tom is able to have this extremely complicated sex life without being found out–everybody else is equally self-involved, and certainly Ginger. Mary perhaps a bit less so, but she’s so focused on getting Tom back from Ginger, it probably never occurs to her there might be another other woman. Then again, maybe she does figure it out (she has ample opportunity), and she just lets Tom think she doesn’t know about Vickie, because she recognizes his infidelity to Ginger as a sign that relationship is winding down.

              I was able to head-cast Vickie because there’s a fairly good physical description of her, which is not at all the case for Mary, Ginger, or for that matter, Tom (one would think he’d have to be at least a bit of a hunk to get all this action–maybe a nicer and more professional version of Art Dodge from Two Much–Art without the mother issues, since apparently Tom had a decent childhood). You’re left to imagine how they look, and you can head-cast anyone you like.

              The physical descriptions are vague for the two most important women in Tom’s life because, I would think, Westlake didn’t want anyone thinking he was basing them on important women from his life. A man with three wives has to watch out for this kind of thing.

              But the only female editor he’s known to have worked with was Lee Wright, who was married a few years after Westlake was born, and died at a ripe old age just about two years after this book came out. Not much danger of anyone thinking Vickie was based on that formidable woman, who Westlake repeatedly described as the finest professional editor he ever worked with. If anything, he might have based Tom’s agent Annie a little bit on her. But I wouldn’t know. I do know Wright is one of the people he dedicates this book to. Westlake’s heroes are always the thoroughgoing professionals. Or else the amateurs learning how to be pros.

  5. rinaldo302

    Annie is, for me, forever played by the late great Selma Diamond.

    I’ll enjoy playing with the idea that Mary catches on to some extent, and seeing if it holds when I reread that part. I do think Westlake masterfully maneuvers around a great danger in the middle of the story — and surely he knew he was doing it, and enjoyed rising to the challenge: that Tom, sleeping with Vickie while living with Ginger, could easily become too awful for redemption. He throws a lot in there to help: that Ginger has her own action-on-the side going (even if it was maybe just once), that she clearly and explicitly doesn’t want to get married, that Tom really isn’t enjoying the affair at all, and so on. And Westlake does bring it off; if Tom comes off a schmuck over the summer, it’s an understandable and in the end forgivable one, not another Art Dodge. Masterful control of tone there.

    • You understand, seeing Vickie as a young Allison Janney (wouldn’t matter if it was the present-day Ms. Janney, for that matter), I can’t entirely buy Tom’s objection that he’s not enjoying their dalliances rather a lot. It’s not like he’s a teenager. He may be losing weight, servicing her and Ginger, but he’s able to do it–often one right after the other. That would strongly indicate he’s very powerfully attracted to both of them.

      He did kiss her, after all. She may not be the right girl for him, but she clearly did get under his skin more than a little. No doubt at all he liked rubbing up against hers. But he’s not a natural polygamist, is the point. His pleasures are always going to be outweighed by his pains. He’s not cut out for this kind of existence. Don Juan he ain’t. Well, maybe Shaw’s Don Juan.


      Selma Diamond would work fine, sure. But how about Ruth Gordon? She died in ’85, so they’d have had to really rush that movie into production. Honestly, the list of older actresses who could have had fun with that role would stretch beyond the horizon.

  6. Anthony

    Goddammit. I loved this book when I first read it (checked out from a library. More than once) but haven’t read it in years. That there is no e-book…like I said, goddammit.

    • I always wonder why some of Westlake’s less successful novels get e-books, and others do not.

      The Starks all have electronic editions, as do the Dortmunder books (obviously), and the Tobin novels can be purchased singly or as part of a single set (pleasantly surprised by that last one, but straight detective novels can always find a market, and Westlake didn’t write many of them).

      The Nephews are mainly neglected–God Save the Mark is available electronically, and that of course was an Edgar Award winner, no mystery there (well, you know what I mean). But The Fugitive Pigeon, The Busy Body, The Spy in the Ointment–without which there would have been no Fred Fitch–well, you better spring for a used copy.

      The two Sara Joslyn books have a certain contemporary ring to them, understandable they get ebooks. Two Much got several film adaptations, and really is one of his best comedies (and one of his blackest). And it’s an easy enough book to tout, due to the twin thing. You can sort of make sense of some choices, if you try.

      But Ex Officio? Kahawa? The Scared Stiff, for crying out loud? They all have their virtues, but why them and not Adios Scheherazade, Brothers Keepers, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, or A Likely Story? Up Your Banners has some valid insights to convey to a new generation, I think. Concerns over PC an issue? Then how does Dancing Aztecs get an ebook? That only got adapted into a little-known French movie. It wasn’t a best-seller, though I’m sure it sold very well–probably not as well as The Fugitive Pigeon did, though.

      I know there must be reasons, but damned if I can figure out what they are. There are a lot of Westlake ebooks, but some rather glaring omissions on the list, no question.

  7. “Descant’ also means to talk tediously or at length. I expect Westlake knew this.

  8. The End of Eternity is pretty good too, but otherwise you listed all his best novels.

    • And I’ve read that one too, but I didn’t want to descant too much (as I so often do). It’s The Westlake Review, not The Asimov Assessment. 😉

      • The Asimov Assessment is here (he says he’s read all but four of them!)

        • Dear Lord in heaven–I was only kidding! 😮

          He even reviews the non-fiction science texts. Now call me small-minded, but I honestly don’t feel the need to know anybody’s opinion of How Did We Find Out About Vitamins?, The Noble Gases, or The World of Carbon. How many of these books did The Great Man even remember writing?

          I suspect I mainly agree with his reviews of the fiction, but they’re so damn short. Why he didn’t do a single two part review. His three short-short reviews of The Foundation Trilogy are collectively just a fraction as long as my review of Philip!

          Impressively thorough. But no staying power.


          • rinaldo302

            “He even reviews the non-fiction science texts.” Not just those, but also the non-fiction NON-science texts. The guides to Shakespeare and the Bible, and the annotated Gilbert and Sullivan, Paradise Lost, and onward. Well, now I know where to look if I need to, I guess.

            • Oh now, that’s different–Shakespeare and the Bible and Paradise Lost and such are vital landmarks of world culture–almost on the same level as Gilbert & Sullivan. 😐

              • rinaldo302

                Oh, for sure. But Asimov’s every thought on them perhaps is not quite so vital. I’ve read his Shakespeare, Bible, and G&S books, by the way. And I definitely agree about the place of G&S (and I do think that Asimov’s idea about how to improve the logic of The Sorcerer is a good one).

              • Did you ever read Fair Exchange? Not one of his best stories (Asimov was rarely at his best when dealing with his personal passions), but basically a Gilbert & Sullivan nut agrees to test out a time machine that will send him back to the opening of their lost operetta, Thespis. Yes, it’s very easy to nitpick the premise.

                This man has found his true love, who shares his devotion to all things G&S, and he’s determined to bring her back as much as he can remember of the fabled lost work–can’t bring a recording device with him, obviously–the operetta, as it turns out, is no Pinafore or Mikado, but some lovely songs, and he’s struck with inspiration–he’ll steal the score and libretto from Mr. Gilbert’s office to give to her!

                He fails to get it, and heads back for his own time–but you can see the twist ending coming–Gilbert wasn’t that enthused about Thespis, but if somebody wanted to steal it, it must be better than he thought–so it got published–so it was never lost–which changed the future just ever so slightly–and the protagonist’s lady love was never born. Fair exchange? Not really.

                Was there ever a genre writer worth reading who didn’t love O. Henry?

              • A better ending: because of the theft, Gilbert publishes Thespis, it becomes one of their biggest hits, and the woman dumps the time-traveller because in the changed future he’d promised to bring her the obscure lost operetta named (something like) Pirates Offend Aunts.

          • Even the SF anthologies, to which Asimov’s contribution was at most an introduction, some per-story notes, and one actual story (that also appeared elsewhere).

            • Clearly I’m going about this all wrong.

              I should have reviewed all the sleaze books by now, for one thing. Even though a lot of them published under Westlake’s pen names weren’t written by him.

              And I have yet to do a review of his Elizabeth Taylor bio.

              Or reviews of his reviews of other people’s books (he wrote quite a few).

              Does this mean I have to review those books that are basically just recaps of two Murder Mystery Weekends the Westlakes hosted at the Mohonk Mountain House?

              I have read those, btw.

              So really, who am I to judge?

  9. rinaldo302

    Yes, I’ve read and remember “Fair Exchange.” As you say, not one of his best (I’m inclined to blame it less on being one of his passions — I think he did great with “The Up To Date Sorcerer,” as I mentioned — than not having enough beyond the premise to make it a real story, plus as you say everyone can see the outcome way before it happens).

    Of course G&S fans can’t help speculating about Thespis and wanting to hear and see it. Someone even wrote a mock discography of all the recordings we’d have if it survived:

    • Every now and again, I am reminded, there are fans out there who make me look like the mere prattling dilettante I am.

      And on the whole, I’m good with that.

      I only meant that Asimov has a tendency to go into lecture mode when he’s supposed to be telling a story, and a subject like Gilbert & Sullivan is probably too great a temptation for him.

      Westlake is more inclined to philosophize in mid-story, and somehow that works better.

  10. Despite my silly pseudo (which refers to maybe the best of Fred Brown’s novels), I’m French and presently trying to list all the Westlake’s writings that are not translated in French yet.
    More than ten, even not mentioning the Alan Marshall’s and Edwin West’s.

    Unfortunately, this one is part of these, as Comfort Station and Ex Officio, and my english is too bad to appreciate it plenty in the original edition.
    Well, I just have to improve, I guess…

    You don’t know how lucky you are, guys !

    • Well, there are some French crime writers I’d love to check out who have never been translated into English, best as I can tell. I believe you have some rather enviable cultural amenities to boast of, but the compliment is accepted gratefully, nonetheless.

      I’m surprised to hear about this one not making it to France. Comfort Station and Ex Officio I could understand more easily (particularly the latter).

      I know Westlake is mainly associated with mystery/noir stuff over there, but even so, the story, with its (shall we say) flexible domestic arrangements and its lust for the literary seems fairly Gallic to me. And judging by all the French accents I hear when I head downtown, you guys are still into New York. (And I still haven’t made it to Paris.)

      It may be that too many of the inside references would fall flat. To fully enjoy this one, you need to be very conversant in American culture, and I know there have been questions raised in your neck of the woods as to whether there is any such thing. 😉

      The main publisher for Westlake in France now seems to be Rivages Noir, and this ain’t noir. They do great covers (better than most U.S. editions out there now), and I would hope their translations are equally well-executed.

      Would you mind listing the other untranslated works?

      • I am starting to feel your pain.

        I had assumed, when it came time to review The Ax, that I would have no trouble at all obtaining a DVD copy of the very highly-regarded Costa-Gavras film adapted from it, with English subtitles. Or I could view it online for a few bucks. Or something.

        My assumption has proven to be incorrect. I am an old hand at finding whatever movie I want online, and I have a region-free DVD player that can handle PAL, but there just does not seem to be an English subtitled copy to be had without paying a princely sum for it. Korean, Italian, Polish, no problem. And no help.

        I suppose I could just get the French version and assume I know what’s going on. Some things require no translation, of course. But I wanted to know how close they stuck to Westlake’s dialogue.

  11. I admit I was too short : I should have written : “You don’t know how lucky you are, guys, being able to read those books so easily !”

    But you’re right about the reverse : if my best preferred french “crime” writer is for sure Jean-Patrick Manchette (which I think all work is translated in english), there are several others who could pretend at maybe the same fame : Pierre Siniac, Francis Ryck, Tonino Benacquista, Frédéric Fajardie, Jean-Bernard Pouy, for instance, and all the ones you can find in the “Rivages/Noir” catalogue.

    Manchette became friend with Don and exchanged letters with him, but before — and more important —, he was the first in France (and maybe in the world) to point out, as a criticist, the genius of Westlake, in the chronicle named Notes about the use of stereotypes in Donald Westlake (late 70’s).

    Y’oure right about Rivages/Noir, whose director is François Guérif : they are now the main publisher for Westlake in France, since Gallimard stopped editing him in their famous collection “Série Noire” (don’t ask me why, undoubtly some nasty matters about money). Not only Guérif pursued to publish in french the unissued textes of Don, but they re-buyed (can we say this, is that correct ?) to Gallimard all the former ones that had been published in “Série Noire” (not the ones signed Tucker Coe and not all the Starks, I don’t know why either), and they made new translations, or completed the previous ones.
    Because, maybe you don’t know, during over 40 years, most of the american books which where translated in this collection, “Série Noire”, loosed some parts during the translation, mainly because of technical reasons.
    The “Série Noire” books could’nt exceed then 220 pages, so the translators had sometimes to cut and cut and cut again.
    It happened to Westlake, but also to Hammett, Chandler, Thompson, Latimer, Chester Himes… all of them.
    We don’t even got now in France proper translations of Hammett or Chandler !

    As far as Westlake is concerned, and for instance, Nobody’s perfect was first translated in french by Gallimard as La joyeuse magouille in 1978.
    When Rivages/Noir re-issued it, with the much better title Personne n’est parfait, three more chapters apperead like magic, and the book was a third thickier…

    But since Rivages/Noir re-published Adios, Schéhérazade ! — which is not a crime novel — I don’t understand why they would’nt translate A Likely Story.
    The inside references are not a problem, because the translators (Jean Esch or Pierre Bondil) are good enough to explain it by notes, as they did before, each time the expected french reader was expected not to be aware of what or who the author is refering to.

    For instance, I went lately to be very found of a Scottish writer, Christopher Brookmyre. All his talks about Scottish football, video games or local politicians — about what I could’nt understand a bit — are very well and quickly explained in notes by the translator, Emmanuelle Hardy.
    And if you want to understand a bit more, there is this thing which does exist now… — oh yes, they call it Internet, I think !

    Regarding the other untranslated works (still not to mention the Alan Marshall’s and Edwin West’s), what I’m sure about are these ones :

    — Philip (1967)
    — Comfort Station (1970)
    — Ex Officio (1970)
    — Help, I Am Being Held Prisoner (1974
    — A Likely Story (1984)
    — High Adventure (1985)
    The four Sam Holt ones (1986-1989)
    — The Perfect Murder (1991), even if he wrote only two chapters
    The Getaway Car (2014)

    But regarding the french adaptation by Costa-Gavras of The Ax (Le Couperet), I won’t be able to tell you anything, because I did’nt watch it.
    The only adaptation of Westlake I did appreciate was the Peter Yates’s one, in 1972 (I saw it quite recently, maybe three or four years ago), but as far as the first Westlake’s book I ever read was Un jumeau singulier (quite a good translation for Two much), I thought it impossible for a french director to adapt that kind of stuff on movies, especially when the actor was Pierre Richard !
    OK, time has passed, I’ll take a look about the Costa-Gavras one to check the dialogues…

    • I would give much to read that Manchette essay–I’ve mentioned him several times here, as he’s translated a number of Westlake’s books into French. And I hope to get around to reading his fiction in translation soon.

      The one that most bothers me on that list you provided, aside from A Likely Story, is Help, I Am Being Held Prisoner. Which is also out of print here, and far as I know, everywhere. One of his best comic capers, and one of his best picaresques. It should be reissued, tout de suite.

      Philip is out of print everywhere in the galaxy (I’ve heard rumors of an Andromedan edition), but I can send you scans I made from a copy I got via interlibrary loan. If you like. Mostly pictures.

      Comfort Station is only available now as an ebook that cuts out a few nifty little bits of parodic material (which I, in my infinite magnanimity, have made available here).

      Ex Officio is also only ‘in print’ as an ebook, though used copies aren’t hard to find here.

      High Adventure will probably never be reprinted, because it’s too far out of Westlake’s perceived purview–and a damn shame, because it’s a fine book, if hardly at the level of his best work.

      The Perfect Murder might be complicated to republish (in translation or otherwise) because of all the different authors involved.

      I’m stunned and aghast to hear about The Getaway Car not being translated. But on reflection, not surprised. Westlake isn’t known as a nonfiction writer, but he was one, nonetheless.

      I’ve heard complaints about the Serie Noire editions in past. But I still think they look cool. 🙂

  12. Thank you very much for this exhaustive recension !

    (By the way, I recently had the good fortune to receive as birthday gift a travel ticket to Andromede, so I’ll try to get Philip once I’ll be up there)

    But it’s a pity I’m being held prisoner of the french language, and so I have to wait for some more translations…

    More seriously, I watched The Ax last night and found it a very good adaptation — and obviously, by consequence, a really enjoying (!) movie.
    The construction is quite different from the novel, because it starts with the murder of the waiter (when the narrator crushes him with his car), then we have a consistent flashback about the ealier events, explained in voice-over by Bruno Davert (= Burke Devore, phonetically quite similar).
    I did’nt have time enough to check all the dialogues but the ones I could look over seemed very respectful to the novel : the evocation of the father is strictly respected, and in the same words.
    But you’d better judge by yourself : I found on the Web several free english subtitles files, as for instance this one, which you can integrate in the VLC reader.
    Costa-Gavras was clever enough to add some very westlakian visual effects : all the adds showed in the streets or the roads are really interesting : no trademark is visible, just the pure commercial arousing of desire (and you have to check the face of the girl on the truck to understand the end of the movie, which is not in the book)…

    The Manchette essay is very short : just five paragraphs and four pages, but far too much dense and clever for my possibilities to translate it.
    It talks mainly about how Westlake understood the sereotypes of the hard-boiled genre, how he re-used them in the Parker saga — each novel being built the same structural way — and how he turned these stereotypes into ridicule, very funnily, in the novels he signed from his real name (the Dortmunder saga, for instance). And Manchette doesn’t omit to point out that the maybe most personal Westlake’s novel, Adios Scheherazade, is obviously about stereotypes.
    I can transmit you scans of this essay, if you want (but I was wrong about the date : it’s January, 1982).

    About the Série Noire, three points are undoubtful :

    — If Marcel Duhamel (a former, even if briefly, member of the Surrealist Group) did’nt create the collection in 1945, the idea of roman noir would’nt exist in France — and maybe neither over the world — and such huge writers as Hammett, Chandler, Latimer, Thompson, Westlake, McBain… (stop, I won’t list them all !) would’nt have been translated, or at least not so much firmly.

    — The deal between Duhamel and his publisher Gallimard was that the books should’nt exceed 220 pages (roughly), then sometimes (often ?) the translators had to cut, but as far as I know, those cuts were very weel-done : the soul of the novel was still there after the cuts. For instance, what was cut of Nobody’s Perfect for its first edition in France had no influence on the understanding of the all story.

    — But the more important for us today is that these books were printed in thousands copies, so it’s quite very easy still now to find the early Stark’s translation for less than a nickel…

    • I think you really have to give Gallimard a huge amount of credit, even while acknowledging the deficiencies of their editions. I mean, Gold Medal was hardly producing an endless series of classics–99% of their paperback novels, in any genre, are forgettable at best, lamentable at worst. But they basically created the opportunity for many of the best books in this genre to be written–for them and for other publishers following in their wake. You take the bad with the good, and say merci beaucoup for the latter.

      I would actually love to get that essay–maybe I could get somebody to translate it for me. But it won’t be Google, that’s for sure.

      I saw those subtitle thingies online, but I’m wary about downloading things to my computer. And where do I get the movie itself, to stick the subtitles onto–how do you even do that? And why is this very important adaptation of a very important novel not easily available? I need to see it, and I’m flabbergasted at how hard that’s become.

      • You’re absolutely right when you say “You take the bad with the good, and say merci beaucoup for the latter” : it’s the same with the Série Noire, except that with this collection at least a third is unforgettable.

        I never had problems with the subtitles I downloaded, but I am with Mac OS, so maybe it’s different with Windows.
        You have to get an AVI or MOV or MP4 copy othe movie (I can provide you one if you give me an email adress), then proceed like described here, for instance.

        • Assuming I got the right addy from your blog, and copied it correctly, you should have my addy now. (editing–nope, didn’t work). (editing again–I think I got it now)

          I have a Mac myself. PC at work, but hardly practical for me to watch it here. It’s not something you want your co-workers to see you enjoying. Might give them the wrong idea. Or even worse, the right one. 😉

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