Review: The Hook, Part 2

Bryce couldn’t seem to get out of his temporal confusion.  He usually took the train up to Connecticut sometime on Friday, spent the weekend, left Monday.  This week, the New York apartment had just become too oppressive by Thursday, so he’d taken the train up shortly after Wayne had told him about the message from Detective Johnson, and now it was Friday morning, and he was already here, and he just couldn’t keep the day straight in his mind.

He phoned several weekend friends, wondering what if anything might be doing, this early in December, not yet massively Christmas, but of course none of them were here.  Today is Friday, he had to keep reminding himself, and they are in New York.  They work in New York.  This is their weekend place.

And me?  Where do I work?  Do I work?  Where do I live?  Where do I call to find me?

Having made extraordinarily little progress with the synopsis last time, I can’t let myself get bogged down in prologue this time.  All the more because I can’t find any other covers for this book, which clearly sold a whole lot fewer copies than The Ax (the book its title fairly begs comparison with), at home and abroad.  Four covers in all, three foreign–I found fourteen separate editions of The Ax.  If I did a Part 3 for this one, I’d have to use the audiobook cover, which is just too drearily literal for words.


And yet, this book still got a film adaptation, in 2004 (a year before The Ax!). With a title that would tend to indicate a certain lack of fidelity to the source, but what else is news?


Here’s what Time Out had to say about it–and they took so little time to do so, I’m just going to save you the trouble of clicking a link.

Vincent’s adaptation of Donald E Westlake’s ‘The Contract’ is a suitably nasty psychological thriller in the French-Hitchcockian mould. With echoes of Patricia Highsmith, a failed writer with a book and no publisher (Cluzet) strikes a bargain during a train journey with a successful colleague (Giraudeau) with a publisher but writer’s block. The former will kill the latter’s ex-wife in return for half the latter’s advance. Initially, the satisfying plot and motivational twists, fine performances, alongside the clever light and shade effects of cinematographer Dominique Bouilleret build to intriguing effect but unfortunately that gives way as the film dives too deep, too implausibly, into the murky terrain of sado-masochistic psychopathy.

Echoes of Highsmith so prevalent, it seems, that they decided to have the leads meet on a  train, which never happened in the novel, because a library makes more sense here, and possibly the late Ms. Highsmith’s estate could have raised an eyebrow or two.  I suppose meeting in a library then adjourning to a bar wasn’t noir enough, somehow.  Let the auteurs do their own thing (you know they will anyway), and we’ll get back to talking about the authors.

Famous best-selling author Bryce Proctorr and once modestly successful but lately unpublishable Wayne Prentice have a deal–kinda.  Wayne kills Bryce’s estranged wife Lucie, and Bryce will retool Wayne’s unpublished novel nobody will buy into a best-seller appearing under his own name, and give Wayne half the million-plus advance that would otherwise go to Lucie. Wayne figures Bryce is kidding at first.  Bryce figures Wayne won’t really do it anyway, but he’s just in love with the sheer cleverness of his own idea, as writers so often are.

Both men have serious qualms about all this–the first-degree murder thing, sure, but even more the ghostwriting thing, a crime their profession could far less easily forgive (the dreaded name Kosiński is mentioned).  They both have professional standards to uphold, after all–but see, to have professional standards, you need an actual profession to go with them, and both men are halfway out the door of theirs, desperate to find some means of remaining.

Wayne goes home to his loving wife Susan, a quietly atractive woman who works for a non-profit organization that oversees the fund allocations of still other non-profit organizations.  They have an apartment in the Village that many present-day New Yorkers would quite literally kill for.  A classic six, rent-controlled.  With a dining room, even.  No kids, because Susan can’t have any, and they’re both good with that.  She’s a fine cook, but mainly brings home pre-prepared multi-course gourmet meals they both enjoy (not Asian takeout or pizza, because that would be somehow unworthy of their dining room).

The sex is good, compatibility is high, Susan makes more than enough money to support them both, Wayne can always find some kind of writing work, and he’s no killer.  Obviously this murder scheme isn’t going anywhere.

Wayne considers Susan his rock, the designated pragmatist in the marriage, and trusts her judgment absolutely.  He tells her about his conversation with Bryce, confident she’ll veto any such risky and morally repellent scheme, and she does no such thing.  Because, as she explains, if Wayne doesn’t find some way to continue his writing career, the marriage is over.  Not because she doesn’t love him, not because she has any problem with supporting both of them, but because, pragmatist that she is, she knows Wayne can’t live with that arrangement.

Wayne needs a real job–he’ll fall apart without one.  The only job he’s qualified for that offers a (relatively) non-laughable salary and social position is teaching creative writing at a college.  The only colleges likely to hire him are nowhere near the city his wife’s job is in.  She isn’t willing to give up  her career and be some non-tenured professor’s wife out in the sticks, a life that would make both of them miserable.  They have the life they want, that many a cosmopolitan couple can only dream of.  But they can only keep it if Wayne finds some way back into his profession.  Bryce Proctorr’s bizarre offer is that way.

It’s pretty clear Susan likes being the wife of a published novelist, however little-known.  Wayne’s professional identity is part of her own as well, a splash of color in her otherwise mundane prosaic life.  Without making any explicit demands, she tells him she would prefer he do whatever is necessary so that Wayne&Susan remain Wayne&Susan.  Of course she disapproves of murdering some woman she’s never met in the abstract, but one has to face up to facts.  It’s them or her.

Susan may be the weakest link in this book, and that may be an inherent problem to retooling Highsmith’s original story.  There’s no time to properly develop her, so she’s a bit of a cypher, and we’re never inside her head.  But the same is true of the much more idealized love interest from Strangers on a Train, a sophisticated blonde socialite, who clearly suspects her architect fiance of having committed murder at the behest of a man she loathes at first sight–and she responds by marrying her fiance anyhow, going into full denial mode, and inviting that corrupting influence on her husband over for social occasions.

Susan is, in essence, the 90’s middle class version of that character–who works as a textile designer, but doesn’t really need to work at all–without the golden tresses or inherited wealth to hide behind.  Susan’s already married to Wayne when we meet her, and he shares everything with her upfront.  The equivalent Highsmith character remains willfully in the dark until sometime after the story ends.

Susan’s marriage and career are all she values, and she’s very strongly motivated to grasp at any straw that will keep her from having to choose between them.  Highsmith’s lovely heiress is only implicated in her lover’s crime by inference–Westlake obviously decided that in the more emancipated times he was writing in, her involvement should be explicit.

And she does, in fact, remind one a lot of Claire in the Parker novels–not wanting Wayne to tell her about the murder, which is fine and dandy by him–and then, gradually, wanting him to tell her all about it, and finding him all the sexier after he’s done the deed, which freaks Wayne out no end.  Y’know, Lady MacBeth is a problematic character as well.  First ice cold and remorseless, then driven mad with guilt.  But like Bryce, and unlike Lady M., Susan never saw the body.

Okay, there’s still one possible out–Wayne told Bryce he had to meet Lucie first.  Find out if she really is as horrible as Bryce insists, and therefore deserving of an untimely end (he muses to himself at one point that “There’s good and bad in everyone,” a phrase that Valerie Sayers, in her Times review, found impossibly trite for a professional writer to think to himself, as if professional writers are somehow incapable of even thinking anything banal or clichéd .  (FYI, Ms. Sayers herself, in her 1996 novel Brain Fever, had a New York based female character of hers say to the southern male protagonist  “Come on, you big lug.”  Seriously.)

Bryce arranges for them to meet at a preview of an Off-Broadway play written by a friend of his, but directed by a friend of Lucie’s.  He goes there, sits through the play, wangles an introduction to Lucie, a thin elegant blonde in her 40’s who treats all of life and everyone in it as if she were an Edward Albee character.  And not the one Sandy Dennis would play.  Uh-oh.

If I do a full synopsis of this book,  full of labyrinthine plot twists, involved character descriptions and general navel-gazing (because Highsmith), I’ll end up with my first-ever five-parter, and I’d so much rather not.  Let’s cut to the chase.  Wayne gets Lucie’s number.  They go on a date.  He’s torn between hoping she’ll be nice so he can’t kill her, and hoping she’ll be awful so he can. But he’s quite sure he won’t kill her that night. This is just reconnaissance.

Lucie alternates between applauding Wayne’s cleverness (he points out the one thing in her furnished apartment that actually belongs to her), and suggesting he’s a failure as a man and a writer–he’s told her he is also in mid-divorce, and she checked him out on Amazon before the date, musing out loud about how long it’s been since a Wayne Prentice book came out, and he doesn’t feel like explaining the pseudonym thing to her, since that would be just one more point of vulnerability for her to exploit.

She also snarks that he’s too cheap to pay for a cab, just because he took her to a good restaurant she really wanted to try, just a few blocks from where she lives (never occurs to her that Wayne doesn’t want any cab drivers placing him at her building).  Not what you’d call a fun date, unless endless mean-spirited verbal sparring is your idea of fun, but Wayne can see why Bryce was attracted to her.  ‘Fascinating but repellent’ was how he described her to Susan after their first meeting.  (Actually, that’s not a half-bad description of Patricia Highsmith, at her best and worst, but I don’t think we’re supposed to get that meta about it.)

Then, back at her place, as Wayne looks for a convenient moment to leave and start plotting The Perfect Murder, she off-handedly asks if Susan is any good in bed.  Because why not?  To her, this is how the game is played.  An endless struggle for supremacy.  Now Wayne is supposed to return her serve, and he does.  Much to his surprise.  More to hers.

How many people have you met in life who you’d at least consider murdering if somebody offered you half a million dollars to do it, and there was relatively little chance of you ever getting caught, and that person refused to stop being an infernal pain in the ass?  Some people literally do not  know when to shut up.  Mostly they get away with it because society says you don’t kill people for being obnoxious.  But now and again, one of them blithely trips over a human landmine, and you read about it in the tabloids afterward.

I don’t want to type out a quote from the murder scene.  Westlake had written a lot of murders in his career, some bloodier than others, a very small percentage involving men murdering women, sometimes by design, sometimes (as in The Ax) because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’d never before had a protagonist with absolutely no previous history of violence beat a woman to death in front of our eyes.

Acting on impulse, driven by greed, self-preservation, personal irritation, and blind rage at the insult to his wife (that Lucie probably meant as light after-dinner flirtation), Wayne realizes with horror that having struck the first blow, he has to follow through to the end or go to jail–his impractical fantasies of buying an unregistered gun out of state and shooting her from some dark alley on a deserted street are permanently shelved.

If she hadn’t offered any resistance, maybe he would have lost his nerve, run away (she knows his real name and former publishers), begged her to not call the cops, but that’s not Lucie.  She responds in kind, returning his volley with verve, only this isn’t her game.  Wayne is horrified to feel a brief moment of sexual excitement, once it’s nearly over and she’s laid out beneath him, but that ends as soon as her bowels release (he is simultaneously nauseated and relieved).  He finishes her off by tying a plastic bag over her head until she stops breathing (again, reminiscent of The Ax).  You see why I’m not typing out any quotes here, right?

He does a pretty good job eliminating any physical evidence that would link back to him (Westlake never stopped sneering at the CSI school of detection), and leaves.  The doorman at street level never paid any attention to Wayne (Wayne, in a clever bit of authorly improvisation, told him his name was Wayland when he called up, knowing the man’s accent would make it sound like Wayne over the phone, but not to the cops afterward) and the sketches produced from the doorman and restaurant staff descriptions predictably turn out to be worthless.  Lucie never talked to any of her friends about going on a date with this writer acquaintance of her soon-to-be-ex, probably because she wasn’t sure if he was going to be worth talking about.

In many ways, more disturbing than any murder scene in The Ax–definitely far more so than the equivalent murder in Strangers on a Train, where Charles Bruno quite unashamedly enjoys the experience of strangling another man’s nuisance of a wife, which is precisely why he did it, much as he pretended he was doing the guy (named Guy) a favor.  Even Charles Willeford might find it a bit off-putting, and he once had a protagonist beat a woman he actually liked to death because–well, that would be telling.

And the worst thing about it, from a mystery reader’s POV, is that it’s not enjoyable to read about. Because Wayne doesn’t enjoy it, is sickened by it, and didn’t even plan it–it simply happened, and he had to start improvising. He’s not a master assassin, or even a talented amateur. He just got lucky.  If blundering your way into being a successful killer can be called luck.

We love reading about murders, or we wouldn’t be reading books full of them all the time.  We want to know what it’s like–to kill or be killed.  The crime genre couldn’t exist without that curiosity, or the ‘true crime’ genre either.  What Westlake does here is take all the fun out of fictional murder, that vicarious sense of empowerment it gives us.  The shock is not that there’s a killer inside us all (we knew that already), but rather how horribly unglamorous killing another human being really is.  Damn him anyway.

But for Westlake, the murder is not the point.  The point is how his two writer-protagonists react to it.  And they will, of course, react to it as writers.  Because that’s what this book is about.  Not psycho-sexual pathology, or suppressed male rage against womankind, which is most assuredly a real thing (and not so suppressed lately, going by the election results).  But the way writers habitually turn fact into fiction, because that’s their stock in trade.

Bryce never believed Wayne would actually do this.  It was a story idea he came up with.  Wayne never really believed he’d do it either–but having written about murders, he could not help but be curious what it would be like to commit one.  He got enmeshed in Bryce’s plot.

The parallel fictions that are their lives have converged onto a single dead-end track, and now, just like Highsmith’s two doomed strangers, they can never escape each other, will become more and more entangled, each feeling a strange connection to the other, neither really understanding the other, each capable of destroying the other.  Two people caught up in a destructive relationship based on a dark secret–Highsmith’s speciality.  Westlake’s, not as much (well, he was a lot less specialized).

Hitchcock’s film of Highsmith’s novel is a pleasant lie, rooted in Hitch’s recurrent fascination with innocent men implicated in crimes they never committed.  In Highsmith’s world, there are no innocent men, or women.  Westlake lies in-between, not seeing humanity through as dark a lens as Highsmith, but still recognizing how easily corrupted our sense of self can be, how even the parts of ourselves we most prize, such as the skills he’d amassed as a writer, can turn like a snake in our hands and bite us.

See, the whole point of somebody doing a murder for a stranger, or near-stranger, is that you just go your separate ways afterwards, so no connection can ever be drawn between you.  However, the arrangement Wayne and Bryce have made necessitates them working together, becoming more and more involved in each other’s lives.  Bryce has to rewrite Wayne’s novel, which he retitles Two Faces in the Mirror.  He likes the book very much as Wayne wrote it, and immediately sees many things about it he can improve upon, as would any writer (as Westlake did, when he read Strangers on a Train).

But a well-written book is not a structure so much as a living breathing organism, and changing it around comes with certain inherent perils.  In making Wayne’s book his own, Bryce creates story problems that his highly capable editor, Joe Katz (the most admirable person in this book) says need to be fixed.

Bryce, unable to explain that he had no role in writing this book at all until just now, and unable to see any way to fix the problems himself, has no choice in the end but to ‘confess’ to Joe that he’d collaborated with another writer on this one.  He suggests bringing in Wayne to help with the tinkering.  Joe isn’t that shocked at Bryce’s confession (he knows his star player has been in a slump lately) and immediately recognizes Wayne as a talent worth cultivating, as Wayne senses a valuable professional connection in Joe.  They become fast friends in the coming weeks.

Bryce observes all this going on with a growing sense of disquiet–Wayne is moving in on his turf.  But there’s nothing he can do.  Including write any new books of his own.  He’s still blocked.  Lucie’s death, the end of the divorce proceedings, the temporary solution of his financial problems–none of this addressed his underlying problem, which is that he’s lost his creative focus–as a Eugene O’Neill character once said in a different context, he hasn’t even got the makings, he’s only got the habit.  Endless potential plot ideas drift in and out of his mind, like seeds born on the wind, and not a one ever settles into fertile soil and germinates.

His very pleasant relationship with a sultry Spanish-American divorcee sputters to an end, partly because she suspects him of murdering his wife, but mainly because he can’t focus on her any more than his work.  He abandons the apartment he once shared with Lucie, and retreats to his luxurious country home in Connecticut, where he meets a stay-at-home wife who recognizes him, wants to have an innocent little fling while her husband is at work.

Following her back to her place, he realizes with horror that all he can think about is beating her to death, so that he can experience the act of murder, as Wayne did.  He drives away from his confused would-be hook-up, just before it’s too late.

He can imagine it, and does, constantly–but does he really know what it’s like?  Before Lucie’s murder, in spite of his vastly greater wealth and status, he and Wayne were still somehow on equal footing professionally, like all storytellers who write about things they themselves have never experienced–did Shakespeare ever kill anyone in a fight?  Unlikely.  Did Homer ever even see a fight? Writers can’t only write what they know without unbearably constraining their options.  But now Wayne symbolically inhabits some higher plane of noir vérité Bryce can only guess at.

At one point, he confides in Wayne, who strangely seems much less bothered by Lucie’s murder, thinks about it less and less, and Wayne has an author’s insight to share.

“Oh Jesus, Bryce, I understand what it is.” Wayne shook his head.  He almost patted Bryce’s arm, but thought better of it.  He said, “I’ll tell you what it is.  I was there, Bryce, and it was horrible, and you can’t imagine it, but I don’t have to imagine it.  I was there.  So what I have is a memory, and memories fade.  All memories fade, Bryce, that’s what they do.  But you don’t have the memory, all you have is imagination.  And imagination never fades.

It’s dangerous for a storyteller to get too obsessed with reality (‘realism’ is just another artistic pose).  To question his or her ability to inwardly see that which he or she has never seen in the flesh–to lose faith in storytelling as a pathway to the truth.  Wayne has been promoted in Bryce’s eyes to some superior being, who has actually lived out one of those dark fantasies Bryce made himself a rich man by imagining, but now that all seems empty and fake to him.

He never wanted to kill anyone before, and he doesn’t really want to now, but how else can he get his mojo back?  He resists the imp of the perverse, uses every possible means of distracting himself from its siren call, but it keeps tugging at him, relentless as a riptide, inexorable as gravity.

By comparison, the man who actually beat Lucie Proctorr to death is doing great.  He never dreams about the murder. (Have any of you ever, in your lives, had a guilt-driven nightmare about something bad you did that you wish you’d never done?  By and large, the unconscious doesn’t work like that, outside of fiction.)

Essentially, following Highsmith’s logic (perhaps more The Talented Mr. Ripley  than Strangers on a Train, but all those early crime novels of hers are closely linked), he shows us a Wayne Prentice who is, not so gradually, becoming Bryce Proctorr.  But only in a very limited sense–he can’t, at this stage in the game, become an established brandname in publishing.  Joe Katz recognizes that he’s as talented as Bryce, maybe more so (and certainly a better writer than Bryce is now), but editors don’t decide who gets published anymore, to the limited extent they ever did.

Joe tells Wayne that his new novel, The Shadowed Other, won’t sell unless he can find some gimmick to sell it with.  It’s not high concept enough for the existing marketplace–just a good book.  It needs a more obvious–what’s the word I’m looking for here?–oh right, hook.  You know, something you can explain in one short sentence, like “A failed suspense writer agrees to murder a famous suspense writer’s wife in exchange for getting his own book published under the famous writer’s name.”  Bet there might even be a movie in that one.  Well, in France, anyway.

Wayne actually tries to turn his book into a screenplay, entitled Double Impact (already been used, but so what?), which goes not well, because he’s not visual enough.  He thought he was, but he’s not–at least not in the right way.  His strengths as a writer are shown to best advantage on the printed page, not on a screen.  (I detect a grudging admission here, and from an Oscar-nominated screenwriter at that, but that was for adapting somebody else’s work.)

He belatedly learns he can make a decent if unremarkable living doing nonfiction articles for magazines.  Which if he’d thought of it before, could have been the answer to how he could salvage his writing career, without becoming a murderer or (even worse!) a college professor. Still, he knows he’ll never love it the way he loved telling stories that never really happened.

Susan, once his compass (if not necessarily a moral one), is quietly becoming off-kilter.  She wants to go see the apartment Bryce and Lucie shared, that Bryce has now abandoned, leaving furniture Lucie mostly picked out for the new tenants, if they want to buy it. Just curious to see where the woman her husband killed with his hands used to live.  Nothing weird about that, right?  Truthfully, Wayne wants to see it too (this isn’t the transitional divorcee pad he murdered Lucie in), so he doesn’t talk her out of it.

Posing as a genuinely interested couple, they check out the ridiculously expansive expensive digs with a grand terrace view of the cityscape (over 6k a month, which would be a real bargain now), and all of a sudden Susan just talks the realtor into lowering the rent a bit and giving them the furniture outright to dispose of as they will.  The pose was reality, and the reality was the pose.  Wayne just gapes at her and says nothing.  He doesn’t know how to explain it to Bryce (or himself), so he doesn’t. But again, Susan has simply made manifest what he secretly yearned to do.  See how the other half lives.

Their rent-controlled classic six apartment in the Village that was always too big for them goes to Joe Katz and his growing family, along with basically the entire lifestyle Wayne committed first-degree murder to defend, and who the hell are these people now?  Untethered.  Rootless.  And living at the razor’s edge of their means, in spite of having two respectable middle class incomes and a nice bank balance (not to mention Bryce’s personal accountant minding their money).  You know, like normal upwardly mobile people.  No turning back now.

So how are the police not connecting all these dots?  Wayne was already questioned by the investigating officer on the case, Detective Johnson of the NYPD, smart, professional, African American, and you know where this is going already, right?  Because you’ve read The Ax.  You’ve read all the other Westlake novels involving police detectives.  Valerie Sayers had not, so she was irritated that the subplot went nowhere.  Westlake was irritated by something else.

Other than the two linked protagonists, the most central character in Strangers on a Train is a private detective named Arthur Gerard, who did odd jobs for Charles Bruno’s father (the father Bruno wanted Guy Haines to murder for him). He’s the deus ex machina in the story–out of both professional integrity and loyalty to his dead employer, he will relentlessly investigate the elder Bruno’s death if there’s even the slightest whiff of foul play about it, and he seems to have almost unlimited spare time and resources with which to do so.  (And it somehow never occurs to Bruno to just kill him first.)

He’s the primary reason Bruno can’t do the job himself, since he’s been basically waiting for Bruno to try something.  And before the story is over, after following a few false trails, he’s figured out exactly what happened, who did what to whom and and why, linked two seemingly unconnected murders in New York and Texas–he might as well have read an advance copy of the novel, so perfect is his understanding of each man’s character and motivation.  He might as well have written the book himself.   And at the end, when Guy finally unburdens his conscience with a confession (to somebody who couldn’t care less), Gerard is standing outside the door, taking notes.

Yeah.  You can see why Hitchcock wrote him out of the movie (though in a sense, he later had a version of him written into Psycho, played by Simon Oakland, who would have made a perfect Gerard, which is weird, but let’s not get too sidetracked here).

Westlake isn’t about the detectives; not in that sense of the word.  Neither is Highsmith, really–she was feeling her way into the genre with this one–she learned fast which clichés to discard.  If Gerard ever showed up in one of the later Ripley novels, he’d probably be leaving it feet first. But here he makes Holmes look like Lestrade.  And just to get it out there, he’s clearly drawn from Javert in Les Miserables, and the producers of The Fugitive later named their relentlessly pursuing Hugo-esque detective Gerard, and never once mentioned Highsmith as an influence.  Maybe she and David Goodis should have filed a class action suit together.  Well no, they wouldn’t have gotten along.  Not without a lot of alcohol in the mix, anyway. What were we talking about?

Westlake ended The Ax with a perfectly good professional detective making a perfectly understandable mistake.  Johnson isn’t even that important–he’s a McGuffin, is all.  Last we see of him, he’s telling Bryce they’re going to ‘open’ the case on his wife’s murder–which in cop-speak means they’re closing it, and will never look at it again, unless something new comes up.

He may suspect Bryce a little, he doesn’t suspect Wayne at all, he knows something funny is going on here, but he’s not magic, he didn’t read a story outline in advance, he has to work on other cases, and professionalism aside, he doesn’t really care who murdered Lucie Proctorr.  In short, he’s a real detective, not a fictional one.  Though he’s tried his hand at writing detective fiction, just as a sideline.  It’s never worked out for him.  Takes a certain kind of mind.   Not necessarily a compliment.

So there’s no point waiting for the detectives to show up, and Westlake isn’t quite sure there was any point to it in the original version of this story.  That’s not what the story is about, nor is it really about guilt driving the two men mad. Neither is really all that guilty. It’s about how they’ve so badly blurred the line between reality and fiction that they don’t know which is which anymore.

Bryce turned Wayne into a character in one of his novels.  But Wayne is a writer too, and he had to improvise his own story within the general outline.  He’s taken over part of Bryce’s life (while losing his own, since he still can’t get published under his own name), and Bryce feels like his life has become a fiction, and he still can’t write a thing worth reading.

Joe Katz is increasingly aware of Bryce’s professional paralysis.  There’s another deadline looming, and it just happens to be for the last novel in Bryce’s contract with the publisher.  He’s already taken a lot of advance money he has not provided the goods for.   He informs a horrified Bryce that they might have to demand he give that money back (and of course he’s spent most of it already).

What made Joe so convinced Bryce Proctorr is no longer ‘Bryce Proctorr’?  More than anything else, it was an interview he did for the New York Review of Books. Conducted, if you’d believe it, by Wayne Prentice.  Complete coincidence, NYRB didn’t even know the two men were acquainted, but Wayne had done some writing for them already.  They would normally ignore someone like Bryce (as they mainly ignored Westlake), but he’s become so famous, he’s a sort of cultural icon, in spite of the fact that most serious literary critics wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire.  They want to get his perspective on writing.  They promise not to poke fun.

So Wayne drives out to Connecticut, and conducts the interview.  He goes back to New York, reviews the tapes, and ultimately opts to write both the questions and answers himself and submit the piece, which is very well-received).  But Joe got hold of the original transcript through Wayne.  And here’s why I’ve had so few quotes in this review.  I wanted to make space for this passage.

For the record, Wayne’s question is “Were you influenced by Borges?” Relating to The Garden of Forking Paths.  Here is Bryce’s response, verbatim.  There is no indication in the book that Bryce ever smoked a doobie in his life.

“Duality…is, of course, naturally it’s in all of us, opposites and the movements of selfs under the skin, and the feeling that this can’t be happening to me, but then what is?  What is happening, if not what is?  From that point of view, every decision has to be inevitable, no way to get away from what was decided, because history then flows, you see, flows, history flows from each decision, and when we stand up here, you see, you see?  when you stand up here on this hilltop this is where you are and you could not have been here if you hadn’t decided the way you did way back there.  Of course, naturally, of course, if you made  a different decision then, that would be the right, the correct one, the only one, the only possible, the only way you could have gone, if only you’d thought, if only you’d thought it through, and now today, you see, you do see, don’t you?  today you’d be on some other hilltop looking back and you would see that you were right and that was the only possible hilltop, that was the only possible hilltop, if only you’d been patient, and you can’t even see that hilltop from there, where you are instead, you can’t get to it, you can’t ever get to it, but you certainly know, you know now, you should have known then, you should have known, you were thinking like a madman, worse, you were thinking like a storyteller, telling a story, with a hook, and you didn’t see there were other, other, there were other, oh, let’s call them scenarios, and the multiplicity of the scenarios, yes, forking paths, that’s good, I don’t know about a garden, but this multiplicity opens and then closes like stones, like giant stones closing, and all the variables, the variations, what shall we say, diversity, the multiformity narrows, constricts, strangles, until there’s only the one, and that it’s the only one is not the excuse, that it’s the inevitable is not the excuse, that it’s the only thing that could have happened only because it’s the only thing that did happen is not the excuse, and we’re left with a duality that is in the spirit, a remorse, a wish undone, a desire for a forking path, a garden, yes, a desire for a flower that does not grow, which is where I’ve always, my hand has always reached out, but the image and the reality are wrong, to bring us back to your question, the desire for another reality is what makes the writer of fiction, the teller of tales, to bring us back to your question, the liar, the one who forces his reality onto the world but the graft, to bring us back to your question, the graft can never survive on this new root, on this hilltop, this one, here.  Which I suppose is what I was writing about, if I’d ever cared to pay attention.  However, I’ve never read Borges.”

Me neither, and I’ve always meant to.

Even Valerie Sayers was a little impressed by that passage.  She probably had read Borges, but almost certainly not Adios, Scheherazade, or she’d have known Westlake was on familiar ground here, charting the chaos of a writer’s mind when he no longer knows what he wants to write, questions every choice he ever made, because to be a writer of fiction is to be, in a certain limited sense, God–and what mortal being can believe he or she is qualified for that job, if he or she ever makes the fatal error of seriously thinking about it?

But the difference here is that Bryce Proctorr is not some anonymous scribbler of obscure smutty paperbacks who can just fade away into a nirvana of self-realization–he’s a prisoner of his own name, his own fame, and he can’t get away from that, ever.

He can’t even confess what he did to the police and take his punishment–he confesses to his first wife, the one he left for Lucie, so she won’t be caught unprepared when he turns himself in.  She rages at him; how selfish can you be, how immoral, don’t you realize this will destroy your children’s lives, you’re a celebrity!  And she’s right.  But she’s also being very selfish and immoral herself, of course.  It’s pretty much the default human response to life.  And here we are on a hilltop (or maybe the top of a certain tower in Manhattan), wondering how we got here, and how the hell we get back down again.  Jump?

Wayne is still a writer, so he can still distract himself with fiction, but he sees a real danger to himself in Bryce’s mental confusion, their destinies being so interlinked.  He also sees a real opportunity–Bryce needs another novel, and he’s got one.  The Shadowed Other.  He’s going to make Bryce’s real name his pen name. Joe will look the other way, pretend it isn’t happening, so the brandname can survive. Wayne Prentice will become Bryce Proctorr for real. Why not?  How is that any different than writing as Tim Fleet?  If you gotta ask…..

He and Susan move into the house in Connecticut, so as to keep Bryce on as even a keel as possible, see that he doesn’t make any impromptu confessions, keep alive the fiction that Bryce Proctorr had anything to do with writing the book Wayne already wrote.  Wayne will just convince Bryce by degrees that it’s a collaboration, and at the same time, he’ll amass a trail of evidence that Bryce is mentally unstable–so that if he ever does crack and make a clean breast of things, his testimony won’t be admissable in court.  And seriously, who’d even believe such a thing?  Murder somebody’s wife for a book deal?  It’s just another of Bryce’s rejected story ideas, that he came to think was real.  Just another hook.

But Bryce isn’t going to confess.  He’s past that point now.  All he can think about is the murder.  Lucie’s murder.  If only he’d been there.  He should have been there.  He needs to know what it was like.  There must be a way.  Wayne has gone out.  It’s the housekeeper’s day off.  He walks into Susan’s room–she and Bryce never liked each other–he calls her Lucie.  “My name is Susan,” she says.  “Not anymore,” he responds.  End story.  Joe won’t be editing this one.  Johnson, maybe.  Hey, maybe he can write a book about it!

I could go into many more details about the shadowed other to this book that is Strangers on a Train; where the tracks divide and where they converge again, but here’s my advice.  Read the book.  It’s better than this one, as I said to start with, just as it’s better than the Hitchcock film most people remember it for–but not in every respect.  The multifarious Mr. Westlake had some very different things to say than the talented (but often tunnel-visioned) Ms. Highsmith.  They surely differed on many a subject.  But there were times when they gazed steely-eyed upon the same world, those two.  And unfortunately, the world they saw at those times was more than a fiction.  And less.

I liked it better the second time through, probably because I had more context to work with this time.  I don’t rank it among Westlake’s best work, but I do consider it one of his more interesting ‘problem books.’  It was certainly problematic to review, but next up is another Parker novel, and those are always simple, right?

Here’s my problem–this is the first thing by Donald Westlake I ever read in my life.  I consider it the weakest novel he ever wrote as Richard Stark.  It was used as the basis for one of the very worst film adaptations Westlake ever got (hopefully not the last one, but the box office was awful).  And it’s set mainly in Florida.  The most boring part of Florida (and the richest).

But here it is in the queue.  Can’t go around it.  And I’d take the worst thing Stark ever wrote over the best thing Clancy or Cussler (or Kosiński) ever pretended to write.  I couldn’t possibly say about Borges.

Belated post-script:  I had read in the past, but completely forgot until just now, that the British edition of this book had a completely different title. So there is one cover image I missed, but I’m not at all sorry not to have featured it up top.


I have no idea why this happened.  Some kind of copyright issue?  Titles aren’t copyrighted.  Corkscrews play no role in the story at all (as a murder weapon or anything else).  The word corkscrew doesn’t even appear in the book.  Perversity, thy name is Brit.



Filed under Donald Westlake novels

16 responses to “Review: The Hook, Part 2

  1. It’s got to be a coincidence that Proctorr and Prentice rhyme with Doctor and Dentist. Though it does help me keep them straight, since doctors make more money.

    • I will grudgingly admit that Prof. Sayers probably got that right–Proctor and Apprentice. And then the student becomes the master. And Westlake would have probably made a damned good teacher himself. But he understood you can only serve one master, and his was not academe.

  2. Did Homer ever even see a fight?

    Not if he was blind.

    • Now do I have to spell everything out? I figure I’ve got such a hip crowd here, I can use this little thing called ironic implication. 🙂

        • Seriously, did Homer ever see a battle fought, a life taken? We know next to nothing about him, but it’s entirely credible he was blind, perhaps from birth, or shortly afterwards. To spend your entire life doing nothing but memorizing endless epics via an oral tradition, composing some of your own, learning how to perform them before an audience–it was quite common for those who did this to be blind–because what other trade could they practice? The Irish harpers like O’Carolan, who also often told stories, were often blind men, and I believe the same held true for the African griots, and of course certain bluesmen. All storytellers, in their own different ways.

          So in that case, it’s all in your imagination. You don’t know what it looks like, you can only see it in your mind, the way it should have been. You can learn a great deal about human beings if you’re blind, since people pay less attention to you when you’re around, probably speak more freely. Homer’s imagery is remarkable–but it doesn’t really come across as realistic. It isn’t supposed to be, either. Fiction in its very purest form.

  3. I think the main problem I had with this book is that so much of it felt arbitrary: Susan being all in favor of the murder, Wayne not understanding that writing ability is a marketable skill [1], and especially Bryce’s madness. It contrasts badly with the way everything in The Axe flows from Burke’s situation and his initial decision about how to address it.

    1. There’s a decent salary to be had in being a tech writer.

    • I agree it doesn’t flow nearly as well, but again, I think that’s partly because Westlake is heavily rewriting somebody else’s book (which doesn’t flow so well itself, Highsmith is no Stark, she always takes the scenic route), and commenting on that very fact in the story itself–the problems that arise when you try to rewrite what somebody else has written. Even two writers that are very similar in their style and techniques will still have major differences, and it’s hard to make that work, because a book is not a machine with interchangeable parts. A book is a living thing.

      Also, Westlake is better writing about the bluecollar crowd. He has the same problem writing about the upper crust that Highsmith has about the lower–both of them were very class conscious (for Americans), much as Highsmith was something of a parvenu in the world of the rich (like Fitzgerald), she still feels far more at home there than Westlake ever could. And she in turn was no good at all writing about ordinary people unless they were social climbers, like her. Once she got high enough, I think she questioned whether the climb was really worth it. But reading The Price of Salt now, and man, she wanted to reach that summit, as much as Gatsby ever did.

      Now maybe Westlake did that hook-borrowing thing in The Ax as well–with Kind Hearts and Coronets, itself an adaptation of Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, but all he really got from that was the bare bones concept. I doubt Highsmith was the first mystery author to write about swapping murders, but she added these things sui generis to her, about a twisted friendship, moral duality–an outlook oddly related to Westlake’s, but even at that young age, she was already more cynical than him, more inclined to just give up on people entirely.

      And as a commentary, on literature vs life, on moral duality, on Highsmith vs. Westlake, on the writing profession itself, I think it’s all really neat–but the commentary wins out over the story, and that’s a fair critique of it, unquestionably. Though let’s be honest, people have done far less believable things in real life. When you study the annals of true crime, you don’t find a lot of rational behavior. You find people–often from very good, even privileged backgrounds, who aren’t insane in any clinical sense, doing things that make no sense on any level. And you can watch them all day long (played by actors) on TruTV. But see, that’s wrong–it may be RealTV, but it’s not true. You read fiction for truth.

      It’s not really hard to believe that a human being would commit murder for a lot of money and a chance to do the only thing he ever wanted to do (can you really see Wayne being happy as a tech writer?). But we tend to prefer Westlake protagonists who are more rational, pragmatic, self-realized–like Parker–or Dortmunder–or Devore. And in great part, we prefer them because they win, or at least survive. And we share in both their victories and their crimes. This time we only share in a really awful crime, that wasn’t even properly planned, stripped of all glamor, of that precious sense of empowerment. And then the punishment that follows–most of which is left to our imagination at the end–what will Wayne find when he gets back to the house? There are a lot of ways that scenario can play out. None of them good. Wayne might just possibly stay free (Detective Johnson will certainly have cause to de-open Lucie’s murder investigation), but he’ll never recover.

      I mean, sure, Art Dodge loses himself, but he also loses the ability to feel sorry about that. These two end up losing on every level. Because they betrayed fiction itself.

      Hook, line, and sinker, you see. Theme and variation. Not amorality, but alternate morality, something Westlake understood as well as Highsmith. A genuine homage, and one he wanted people to notice and comment upon, but of course he’s not a ‘serious writer’ and he knows the commentaries will mainly be limited to “Oh, this is like Strangers on a Train.” Nobody could be bothered to look any further. Until just now. Just like nobody ever bothered to analyze how Smoke was influenced by H.G. Wells, commenting upon him, in ways that went far beyond “What if The Invisible Man was already a professional thief?” And that book has story problems as well, but he did a better job setting it in the world his characters normally move in, so it didn’t stick out so much.

      I guess I’ll never stop being sorry that I discovered him so late. This apprentice showed up after the proctor had left the classroom. Make-up exam.

  4. I haven’t seen the movie since it came out (thirty years ago now!), but I wonder if this book owes anything to Throw Momma from the Train.

    • I never saw that one (I saw the ending on cable once, which is a copout, but what do you expect?). So I just read the Wikipedia synopsis, and yeah, quite possibly. Revisit Highsmith’s hook, only with writers (well, a professional writer and some guy who thinks about being a writer).. Doesn’t sound like they ever got serious about the writing angle. But a potential source of ideas, yes.

      Westlake didn’t have the option of writing a light comedy (even with a dark edge) this time. He was being pressured to come up with a different take on The Ax. He was probably having his own version of writer’s block. Which he sometimes did resolve by just taking ideas from movies and heavily reworking them.

      I should have mentioned this in the review, had a sort of vague notion of mentioning it as an earlier take on Highsmith’s story, but this one went long enough as is. Just as glad to talk about it in the comments section. Not an important influence. But it was probably in the mix, just as film versions of The Invisible Man were in Smoke, but it was still mainly a reaction to the novel.

      (editing) Here’s a perfect chance to mention something I edited out of Part 1, because it was too chatty–trains. We now have five ‘swapping murders’ stories that involve trains in some way.

      1) Highsmith’s 1950 novel.

      2) Hitchcock’s 1951 film, that must have been in the planning stages before most people ever heard of the novel, if not indeed before it even got to stores. Hitch was always looking for a good book to buy on the cheap, and Highsmith was later angry that the rights had been sold for a mere $7,500 to such an important filmmaker. However, no question she profited greatly in the long-term, because it boosted her profile at a critical time, and I really don’t know that there’d be two scholarly biographies of her now, and so many far less satisfactory film adaptations, if she didn’t have that Hitchcock cachet attached to her work, however much Hitch messed with her story.

      3)The 1987 comedy with Crystal and Devito, that was obviously referencing Hitchcock a lot more than Highsmith, and was also clearly referencing Double Indemnity. The protagonists don’t meet on a train, but they put a train in there anyway.

      4)The Hook. Nothing at all important happens on trains, but Bryce is depicted as taking one to and from his country home, presumably the Metro-North.

      5)The 2004 French adaptation of The Hook, which has the leads meet and come to their arrangement on a train, as doesn’t really happen in either Highsmith’s book or Hitchcock’s film. In the former, neither Bruno nor Guy believes they have a formal arrangement, Bruno just does his murder on spec. In the film, Robert Walker’s Bruno thinks they have a solid deal. The French are into Westlake, Highsmith, and Hitchcock most of all (The Auteur in Chief!), so they probably felt like they had to get a train in there. In fact, I strongly suspect they bought Westlake’s novel partly if not entirely so they could invoke the Hitchcock film without standing directly in The Master’s rather ample shadow.

      But only Highsmith really uses the train properly, in my opinion (Westlake wasn’t trying to use it, nor would he have been well-advised to do so). Hitch does a pretty decent job, but doesn’t develop it as much. And the point is, when you’re on a long train journey–not just a short hop–you talk to people. I know this from personal experience, having taken Amtrak all the way from Penn Station to Yemassee SC, in order to visit my parents for Christmas. I had some long interesting conversations with total strangers on both the ride there and the ride back–twelve hours each way, you’re damn right I talked to people. Wifi was lousy once the train was full. This was around the time I did my review of The Sour Lemon Score, and I found it absolutely impossible to work on it using my iPad and a bluetooth keyboard.

      You don’t talk to strangers on a plane nearly as much, even on transatlantic flights. Because you can’t move around nearly as much on a plane, you can’t switch seats so easily, you can’t adjourn to a dining car, or even a bar car (as sadly reduced as the dining amenities on Amtrak currently are, they still have a sort of snack bar on wheels you can go to). People are constantly boarding and deboarding, at every stop, so there’s constant changes in the people surrounding you, and you don’t worry about being trapped next to somebody you’ve shared too much with for the whole trip. I learned so many things. But nobody asked me to murder anybody. Well, it was the Christmas season, after all. Maybe I’ll try going down there for Easter sometime. 😉

  5. Another sidebar–the title. Now in Part 1, you saw an Italian edition with the title L’esca, which seemingly can be translated as The Hook, but refers more to what you’d put on a hook–bait, decoy, lure.'esca

    French titles did not attempt any direct translation. “The Contract.” “I am a Murderer.” The Polish edition with the murdered woman on the cover translates to “A Story with a Hook,” And here I was thinking it means “History of Hacks.”

    There are other English-language novels with the same title, but not sure there were any before Westlake’s. I feel pretty confident in saying this is the best novel with that title.

    (editing) I was just rereading an interview with Peter Rabe, and turns out his novel Benny Muscles In was originally called The Hook (as he explains in the interview, Gold Medal almost never used his original titles). This is something Westlake quite possibly would have known, given his long admiration for Rabe, and his having communicated with him on multiple occasions. Either way, it’s not one of Rabe’s better books, and I don’t see any similarities between it and Westlake’s novel. I can easily see how he’d have enjoyed the joke of using a rejected title by a writer he liked (as happened with quite a few of his own titles), and of course it matched up nicely with The Ax, which is what he was being told to somehow replicate here. Rabe wasn’t around to enjoy the joke, having died in 1990.

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