The last Donald E. Westlake novel ever published. Is what this is going down as. Whatever its merits as a book may be, that one quality eclipses all others. If you, like me, have developed a habit, worked your way through everything else on the list, once you’ve read this one, it’s over. No more Westlake. Okay, there’s sleaze paperbacks of variously dubious provenance, there’s uncollected short stories, there’s nonfiction articles, and there’s an archive in Boston you could visit under close guard, or possibly break into late at night; rather fitting, when you think about it. But really. This is it.
So is it any good? To the true completist, this question can seem fairly inconsequential. Mr. Westlake wrote far too many books for all of them to be polished gems, and he knew that better than anyone. That so many of them are good, and often much more than that, attests to his abilities, but I’d say an even more telling testimonial is how avidly many of us read even his less distinguished work, because on his very worst day he was capable of producing unique thought-provoking stories, and the more we read, the better we understand him. His failures often tell us more than his successes. But this, I would say, is neither. Or maybe it’s both. Somewhere in between.
I’m not here to review it this time, because first of all, I never review a Westlake novel I haven’t read at least twice. The way I review these books is to take them apart, piece by piece, looking in depth at the story and characters, typing out quote after quote, so that (I like to think) if all copies of that book were to disappear, you could get a pretty good feeling for it just from my review.
I have said in the past that nobody should come here and read my reviews if they haven’t read the books first. Well, hardly anyone has read this one, because it isn’t on sale until June. I got an advance reviewer’s copy from Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime. I will not abuse that confidence. Not until several months after the book comes out. Not until you at least have been given the option of reading it. I mean, it’s not going to be much of a discussion if it’s just me and Greg Tulonen, and Greg hasn’t read the edited for publication version yet, I don’t think.
The sole point of getting an advance copy (other than impatience) is to write a review, so that people can decide whether or not they want to read the book. That’s never really been what TWR is about, since if you’re here, you’re already hooked. You don’t need me to tell you a new Westlake is a big deal. You don’t need me to decide what books you want to buy. But you might still be interested in what I think. God knows why.
Let me talk first about the actual physical volume, which is what I read. A glossy paperback, eight inches high, five across, and one thick. 463 pages, but just 435 of those are the book itself, so it’s not his longest novel by any means. Westlake’s original 610 page manuscript has been trimmed down by about 10%, according to Ardai–mainly repetitive material, descriptions of restaurants, some local history relating to the various settings. Things that needed to be more fully digested into the narrative as a whole, and probably could have been if Westlake hadn’t been discouraged from doing any more work on the book, and if he’d had a sympathetic editor to work with.
There is a substantial and fascinating afterward from Jeff Kleeman, the producer who hired Westlake to write several story treatments for the project that eventually became Tomorrow Never Dies. Because, as he tells us right upfront, he was as avid a fan of Westlake novels as he was of 007 yarns as a kid. He wanted to see how the two would go together. Better than one might think, not as well as one might hope, is the short answer.
I’d have bought this book just for his description of Westlake’s creative process, and this I absolutely must quote from. If he ever gives up on this major motion picture producing gig, Mr. Kleeman would make a passing good book blogger.
I’m fascinated by how ideas take shape and how writers write. Some writers outline extensively, some start with an ending and work backward, some write a bunch of scenes in no particular order and with no obvious connection and then eventually pick a few of the best and build a story around them. None of these were Don’s method He relied on what he called “narrative push.”
Don would get an idea, usually for a beginning, an opening scene, something like, “What if there’s a bank robbery in progress and the getaway car can’t find a parking space in front of the bank? (This was the idea Don said was the spark for writing the first of his Dortmunder novels.) Don would start from a premise like that and just write, without any plan for where he was going, trusting that eventually he’d end up with a story. He told me there was only one story he ever started that he couldn’t puzzle out a way to finish. It involved insurance fraud and after six weeks Don realized he’d written his characters into such a tight corner he was unable to keep them moving all the way to a resolution. I hope one day Hard Case Crime will unearth the manuscript and we’ll get to see Don’s version of an impossible story.
Pretty sure Mr. Westlake was referring to The Scared Stiff, which he started writing after he finished The Ax, put aside, then published under a pseudonym in 2002, and I’ll be unearthing my copy soon enough so I can review it. That’s about insurance fraud, and it’s another one of his books he was sort of cordially advised not to proceed with by people he trusted, because it wasn’t what people expected of him. Maybe he was talking about an earlier attempt in this vein, but the dates match up pretty well, and how many insurance fraud novels was he going to write?
So as Kleeman explains, he loved the ideas Westlake came up with, and some were used in the finished film. Most significantly, Pierce Brosnan owed Mr. Westlake a drink for getting to work with Michelle Yeoh, because it was Westlake’s idea that Bond partner with a female Chinese agent, work with her and then play of course, because Bond James Bond and Westlake Donald Westlake.
But once it became clear that Goldeneye, Mr. Kleeman’s first Bond, was a hit that had given new life to the franchise, and the studio wanted to move ahead fast with the next one, the scheduling got tight, and Westlake’s process didn’t work so well when you didn’t already know in advance exactly what the story would be (like an adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel). Kleeman also mentions Westlake’s well known aversion to adapting his own work, which I think was not because he lacked objectivity, but because he didn’t want to mutilate his own children at the passing whims of some suits in Burbank.
They couldn’t know how well his Bond concepts would work until he’d turned them into a script using narrative push, and if the script didn’t work, it’d be too late to try again, and pre-production costs would keep accumulating. So that’s why Westlake didn’t write the screenplay for Tomorrow Never Dies, and if you look closely at what we’re being told here, you can see why he never really clicked as a screenwriter, except on very specific types of projects, where his process could be made to work. A writer on a studio picture is not a freelance artist for hire. He’s a (very well paid) cog in a machine. Ask Faulkner and Fitzgerald, neither of whom ever wrote a decent script in their lives. (Ever see Land of the Pharaohs?)
So there’s plenty more from Kleeman, and it’s all worth reading, but that’s just the dessert. The book is the main course, and the book came about because Westlake had developed this idea that he knew the producers wouldn’t use, and he felt like it had potential. There was no script, but there was a treatment he could turn into a novel.
He’d done something like this before, twice. First time with Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, where the film had never been made, and he’d retained the rights. That was probably his weakest novel–I think there actually was a finished script there, and he’d been taking a lot of notes from the producers no doubt, and trying to tailor it to the rather puerile standards of Mid-60’s light comedy. It was probably not a strong script to begin with, and he struggled getting it to work as a book, but good bet it was better than the movie would have been.
Second time, he wrote the original screenplay for Cops and Robbers, which was turned into a modestly decent 70’s comedy/thriller, but he thought the director, a former film editor, just didn’t know how to be the boss of everybody, and the many good scenes in it just kind of lie there, instead of jumping off the screen at you.
He’d retained the rights to novelize his screenplay, and he did, and the result was one of his best and most original heist books, very focused and unconventional in its approach. Much better than the film, which thankfully flopped, so that people who read the book wouldn’t have the masterful plot twists spoiled for them. You do see a certain incompatibility of interests between Mr. Westlake and Hollywood at times, but they both got something out of the relationship, which is why it never really ended.
So this was his third attempt to turn a film into a book, but unlike the previous two, it wasn’t in the heist genre. And he was told, respectfully but firmly, by people whose input he valued, that it just wouldn’t sell–which might have been true–and that it didn’t have the patented Westlake touch with regards to character and story–a reaction I can understand, while still not agreeing with it.
It has most of what we read him for, other than his humor, which is on the down low here, and for good reason. But at many points, and particularly in the early chapters, it feels like a preliminary sketch that needs to be filled in. Well, a preliminary sketch by a famous artist can sell for millions at auction. Isn’t Donald E. Westlake a famous artist? And what’s the one thing all famous artists have in common? Their work gets more valuable after they die.
Honestly, if he had filled it in, he still might not have gotten to publish it. He’d already had his shot at making this general type of book work, several times. One was Ex Officio, a political thriller, longer and much less action-packed than this, written under the pseudonym Timothy J. Culver (the only one of Westlake’s pseudonyms he publicly killed off, in a mock panel discussion between his most famous literary personas). I assume that did decent sales, since it was reprinted in paperback–but under the title Power Play, so probably nothing stellar. It’s also a better book than this–a finished work. He had good editorial relationships at M. Evans & Co., where many of his best books under his own name would later be published.
He wrote Kahawa under his own name, but I rather suspect Culver had a hand in it, the rumors of his death being much exaggerated. That was for Viking, where he had terrible editorial relationships, and very little support. That was at least outwardly a heist story, close enough to his usual fictive haunts that he could get away with making most of it about Africa, about Africans of all races, about various merry wars between the sexes, about brutal venal dictators and those who serve them, about the way we in the west look the other way when it comes to human rights abuses in the third world, because there’s so much money to be made there. And about identity, because everything he wrote was about that. It was a book he could be justly proud of. And it sold like purest shit.
When you write the kind of book that’s supposed to be a best seller, at least close to it–and it isn’t–you are damaging your own professional profile. As true in publishing as in the movies–you’re only as good as your last project. Perhaps feeling encouraged by the extraordinary success of The Ax, he wanted to try once more to break out of the confines of what people thought he was.
He’d tried that back in the 80’s with the book that became The Comedy is Finished (again about a celebrity kidnapping, but no comic capering this time), and that became the second novel of his to be published after his death.
Though many disagree, I think it’s one of the best books he ever wrote, a searing look at the political and generational divide in America that existed a long time before the internet and social media, and not just at Woodstock. And I don’t know it would have done any better than Kahawa if it had been published back when it was written. Westlake in this vein has a problem–he’s too commercial for the intellectuals, and too damn smart for the people who just want a good read. (Honestly, sometimes I think he’s too smart for the intellectuals as well. They’re like “Who does this guy think he is?” Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?)
Memory, written in the early 60’s, was his one attempt at a book that didn’t fit any commercial cubbyhole at all, and it’s a dark brooding masterpiece that can haunt you for weeks after reading it, and we’ll never know how many more like that he might have had in him, or whether it would have been worth losing all the books we know him for to find out. But knowing he had the potential to write that, we can’t help but wonder.
Writers build their own ghettos and live in them. Westlake wrote genre books, books with a defined audience, never a very large one, but never too small either. He couldn’t try to write The Great American Novel, as Philip Roth literally did, and it turned out to be about baseball, and it’s not that great, but it’s American. And a novel. If Westlake had his agent submit something different to some highbrow publisher like Knopf or FarrarStraussGiroux, what reaction would he get? “Oh yes, the Dortmunder fellow, very droll, did this get into the wrong envelope somehow?” Far easier for the highbrow author to explore the genre slums, and so many have, but it rarely works out. Grass is always greener.
He doesn’t want to let this Bond story he slaved over, did more than his usual amount of research on, go to waste. And there’s a larger problem he has been trying to crack for ages now, how to write an interesting long novel that isn’t a mystery, and will sell. This is a story he wrote for James Freakin’ Bond, which should make it commercially viable. But it can’t be about James Freakin’ Bond. For obvious legal considerations, but also personal ones. If you want my honest opinion, Westlake never believed in Bond. He enjoyed the movies, maybe even some of the novels (I’m guessing there was a lot of tongue-clucking and eye-rolling when he read Fleming), but he never believed in any of it.
Not because of the gadgets, or the glamor, or the girls, or the utter disregard for gravity, but because Bond is an Organization Man. He’s the Organization Man. He can twit his superiors from now ’til Doomsday (which in his world comes every other week). Doesn’t mean a thing. He puts on a suit, and he goes to the office, and he flirts with the secretary, and he does what he’s told. He kills on command. He’s not a Westlake hero. He never could be. Doesn’t mean he’s not interesting. He’s interesting the way Batman is interesting (and Westlake liked Batman too, almost wrote for the comic once). But you know who’d be much more interesting to Donald E. Westlake than Bond himself? Bond villains.
The thing about Westlake heroes is that none of them are, really. Heroes. Oh there are exceptions, but always very qualified and somewhat self-conscious ones, and even in those stories, the bad guys are usually a lot more interesting. The characters we remember Westlake for are thieves, killers, cads, rogues, rascals. Plus the occasional befuddled naif, picaresquely stumbling into adulthood. Hard Cases, for the most part (hey, bloggers can do product placement too).
So when these villainous heroes (heroic villains?), who know themselves, come up against out-and-out villains who don’t, the result is predictable. But suppose ordinary decent people, with considerable courage and some applicable skills, but absolutely no experience with the cloak and dagger shtik, came up against someone who is, for want of a better word, evil–and brilliant–and filthy rich. And he’s got a plan. That will make him still richer, and a whole lot of people dead. A Bond story with a Bond villain–but no Bond.
No SMERSH or SPECTRE either, because Westlake would feel, and rightly so I think, that the most interesting Bond villains in the best stories all worked for themselves. Auric Goldfinger. Hugo Drax. Francisco Scaramanga. Blofeld was more interesting as a figure lurking Sauron-like in the shadows than as an active antagonist. Who is this guy? What’s his motivation? World domination? Pfaugh. No evil scheme Blofeld irrationally blabbed to 007 before once again failing to kill him ever resonated half so well as Goldfinger’s epic rant–
(I can imagine Westlake standing up and applauding, which might have gotten him some odd looks in the theater, but he’d be used to that.)
Shakespeare knew the virtues of a great villain, and so did Lorenzo Da Ponte, and so did John Milton. A villain of this type is a rebel, after all. Somebody who refuses to bow to the established order of things. It may be necessary to thwart him or her, but we can still appreciate the ingenuity of the scheme, the audacity of ambition that inspired it.
Of all Bond villains, Goldfinger is the only one 007 personally compliments. He’s as delighted with the genius on display as any of us are. As we are delighted by the fictional Richard III, or Iago. While still knowing they must, in the end, be done to death. Though Westlake was notorious for having his villainous protagonists get away with all kinds of things, up to and including the social destruction of an entire anti-social planet. (See, not even going to give you that much of a spoiler.)
Anarchaos may well be the book most similar to this one in the Westlake canon, and that’s no accident. Curt Clark is very much in the mix here as well, though this one doesn’t have the noir atmosphere, the hard-bitten first person narrator, ala Hammett. The name of the villain here is Richard Curtis. Richard, for Richard Stark. Curtis, for Curt Clark. And just as Rolf Malone used carefully placed explosive charges to put an end to the world that murdered his brother–well, that would be telling.
(Editing this in much later–Richard Curtis was the real-life name of a writer and literary agent Westlake would have been acquainted with, from his days writing sleaze paperbacks. So maybe Stark and Clark were in his mind, but methinks I didst assume too much.)
So Richard Stark is here, and Timothy J. Culver, and Curt Clark. I can’t for the life of me detect any Tucker Coe. The whimsy of Westlake is mainly missing, and I think that’s perhaps at least partly why people who read the manuscript complained that it wasn’t like him. Of course, he wasn’t planning to publish it as a Westlake. Knox Burger, his agent of the time, said in a letter Greg Tulonen read, that he was confounded by the pseudonym Westlake had suggested using. I find myself wondering if the pseudonym might have been Richard Curtis. Same way the Samuel Holt novels are accredited to Samuel Holt. The fact that Curtis isn’t the narrator argues against that. But somehow, one would like to know.
He wanted so much to not have to be Westlake all the time. To get away from the established perceptions of him as a writer, to be free of that burden of expectations. The publishing industry simply couldn’t accommodate him in this way any more. So he put the book aside, and while it’s a finished work, I think we have to say that it’s also an unpolished one. But in many ways, that just makes it more interesting, to those of us who want to better understand his creative process, and how he was able to write so much, so well, and so multifariously.
I read the early chapters with a slight sense of disappointment. Then the pace began to build. I found myself turning the pages faster, needing to know the outcome. I felt the book was out of balance in some ways, but I wondered if maybe that was the point. There are many protagonists here, some more interesting than others, none entirely good or evil, all imperfectly knowing themselves, though the two most clearly heroic characters both end up knowing themselves better as the story goes on. Two of the protagonists are gay, and a couple–and two of the most serious obstacles to Curtis’s plans. Not comic relief this time. Well, there is no comic relief this time.
There is an Oddjob, though. That was maybe the thing I found most fascinating. We spend quite a lot of time in his head. Westlake must have really liked Goldfinger (he probably got the idea for The Green Eagle Score from it, and greatly improved on it). Essentially, the improbable and largely mindless henchmen one finds in a Bond story are rationalized here, given souls and motivations and inner lives, comprehensible pragmatic reasons for their loyalty to the main villain (who feels no loyalty to anyone but himself). But nobody gets to decapitate anybody else with a bowler hat. Oh well. Can’t have everything.
Anything else I might say? Not yet. Let me read it again, and a while after you’ve all had the opportunity to appreciate what this book has to offer, we’ll come back to it. And decide how high to rank it. I honestly don’t think I’ll place it as high as the other two unpublished works we’ve seen since Westlake’s death. But I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if it outsells both of them. We’ll see.
And there is a message to it, I think. Aside from the identity puzzles one always finds in Westlake. It would read something along the lines of “There are real Bond villains in this ever-changing world in which we live in. But there is no James Bond. It’s up to us to stop them. Or join them. Or be destroyed and/or ruled by them. There are no other choices.”
30 responses to “First Read: Forever And A Death”
Been looking forward to this intro — but as you say, it’s too early to say too much about the source material. Let me just note one highlight of the post for me: your point about script versus novel for Who Stole Sassi Manoon? makes me think of Isaac Asimov’s job re-writing Fantastic Voyage into plausible believability.
Yes, though it wasn’t his story he was re-writing. And expectations for that kind of thing are very low, since everybody understands it’s just a tie-in product. Would you believe Jim Thompson wrote the novelization for the black civil rights era film, Nothing But a Man? Would you believe there was a novelization for that movie at all? Why does Hollywood have to turn every movie into a book? That’s one thing Westlake never ever did. He’d adapt somebody else’s book into a movie, he’d adapt his own movies into books, but he’d never under any circumstances adapt a screenplay he didn’t write into a book.
Jim Thompson also wrote the novelization of the Ironside TV show. Jim Thomspon was pretty hard up, towards the end. Earl Mac Rauch wrote a novelization of his own screenplay for The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, a novel that manages to be far more narratively dense than the film (so much so that one reviewer called the move “a partially successful adaptation of its own novelization”).
It’s a struggle, making your living with the pen. A writer must needs be a salesman, and nobody dast blame this man.
However, I’ve read that novelization, and Thompson, while genuinely empathetic to the black characters, somehow makes the point of the story the need for black Americans to reach out to poor whites, make common cause, and in the south, in that era, probably not very realistic. I’ll talk about that sometime. Thompson just couldn’t help identifying more with his fellow rednecks, even while seeing them for exactly what they were.
I think you closing quote is exactly right, and I wish we could have seen Westlake’s polish of this material, because that is such a powerful idea, one that cuts through the phony-baloneyness of James Bond and all other action hero adventures. Because as you say, in real life it’s up to us to be the action heroes, if we’re willing to pick up the sword.
I’ll have more to say when you get to the review proper — more, much more, than I’ve said already, on this site and my own. While I agree that Memory is a far superior posthumous novel, I’m not sure about TCIF. I’ll need to re-read TCIF (which I’ve only ever experienced on audiobook) and also read the edited version of FAAD. I think it’s likely that I’ll come down on the side of FAAD, maybe only because I feel a personal connection to it. (Holding the author’s original manuscript pages will do that.) But probably also because the central message you distill above resonates pretty strongly with me.
In other news, “Westlake liked Batman too, almost wrote for the comic once” is the latest in a long line of pop-cultural “what if”s that pepper my imagination, right up there with Billy Wilder almost making a Marx Brothers movie and Sam Raimi almost making a movie of The Shadow (scripted by the Coen brothers) and Billy Wilder almost making Schindler’s List.
Since I’m not going to say much more about FAAD until the time is right and since I’ve wandered over to Billy Wilder (as I tend to do), I’d like to point out that “Five Graves to Cairo,” a very early Billy Wilder WWII movie, is only 99 cents to rent (or $2.99 to buy) on Amazon streaming, which, trust me, is a steal. Wilder knew his stuff even then, and working during wartime on what must have been a frayed shoestring of a budget, he crafted a fine warm film indeed, featuring a brilliant turn by Erich von Stroheim as General Rommel. Like the best Wilder movies, it focuses on individuals who must decide on their own whether to stand up to evil.
Which brings us back to Forever and a Death, or, as I’ll always think of it, Fall of the City.
And I still wish it was called Wake Up And Die, but as we’ve already discussed, Hard Case is probably right to play up the Bond connection to the hilt, and that was the title Westlake came up with for the movie that never happened. And I’d always rather have another Westlake novel than (almost) any Bond film ever made, even one written by Westlake.
FOREVER AND A DEATH was one of several titles that Westlake presented to Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson. My impression from reading the correspondence was that Westlake had been leaning more towards DRAGONSTEETH as the preferred title (ironically, a dragon features on the front cover of FAAD). I’m guessing it was Charles Ardai who decided to use FAAD because it sounded more like a Bond movie. However, there is another posthumous novel being published next month by Michael Crichton called DRAGON TEETH, so that may have been one of the reasons why DEW’s preferred title wasn’t selected. I haven’t read the afterword and don’t know if Kleeman gets into the specifics of the various titles or what DEW settled on.
I did read FALL OF THE CITY and, to be honest, didn’t think much of it, so I will be interested to see how Charles edited the book. Perhaps I was disappointed that some of the nuttier ideas from the two treatments didn’t make it into the novel (the action scene in a Transylvanian castle, the American villain modeled on Jim Thompson’s Lou Ford and his army of adopted Vietnamese “children,” the ritual sacrifice opening, etc.) and that affected my experience of the novel. In any case, I’ll be purchasing FAAD and giving this new version a look, because I am very excited to see it (finally) in print.
I wrote a short piece for the MI6 website (in the form of an FAQ) that gets into the similarities between the treatments and novel and includes a few bits of trivia I left out of the full print article:
There’s also another similarity (not mentioned in the piece above) relating to how Manville is able to surprise one of the antagonists. I’m assuming it survived to the new version, but I don’t want to spoil it.
There’s plenty of time to discuss all that, after we’ve all read it. A lot of the more extreme ideas Westlake came up with for the movie wouldn’t have worked in the book. I mean, how the hell do you get Transylvania in there?
You need a more outre villain in a Bond script to lure in some good solid character actor who’ll ham it up to beat the band (like John Goodman, who was specifically mentioned as the general type of actor they were going for, though pretty sure he wouldn’t work as Lou Ford). But for Westlake’s purposes, in the book he wrote, that kind of scenery chewing would just be a distraction–he doesn’t need the villain to tell anyone his evil plan, because he can go inside the man’s head and get it directly. That, to Westlake, is one of the supreme advantages of prose fiction over cinema. One of the most interesting things about the novel is that at no point does Curtis ever tell anybody his plan. He’d be damned stupid to do so.
And seriously, neither did Lou Ford, who is nothing like any Bond villain ever created. All they were getting from Thompson was that wacky southern gothic dialogue, and they could have gotten it just as easy from Faulkner, or Tennessee Williams. Lou Ford’s demons are private ones–shared only with us–he always plays his cards real close to the vest, until he’s ready to lay them down.
If I have a serious specific criticism to make, it’s that Westlake doesn’t do enough with the Asian characters. I think he felt like he couldn’t have the female lead be Asian, since that was one of the things they kept from his treatment. So another perky blonde ingenue. I feel somehow like we’ve had enough of those from him already to last a lifetime (and a few more yet to come). But he just couldn’t seem to help himself. One of the problems with his late oeuvre. He married one, you see. Well, that may be how he saw her at times, put it that way. A man can be forgiven for being hopelessly besotted with his own wife, surely. 😉
I liked it much better than you, but I certainly agree it could have been better.
Actually, it was Westlake who made it clear in his notes re: the first story treatment that Gideon (the original villain) should play his cards close to his vest — that, like Lou Ford, he would have a facade of southern charm and “affable gladhanding” (Westlake’s words) to disguise his deranged personality. That aspect is where the comparisons to Lou Ford came in — but yes, otherwise he’s a different character.
Also, in the story treatment the HK plot is kept a surprise, as it is in the novel, and Bond has to do a little detective work to get there (he also has the assistance of the villain’s wife and Muffy, the Chinese agent).
Did I mention that you should read my article? *winks*
Looking forward to your thoughts on the book.
I put off reading it until I’d read the book, and then I forgot to read it afterward, but in any event, Westlake clearly didn’t think it made sense to do Lou Ford in the novel, since he, you know, didn’t. And he was right not to do so. It would be too much.
And hey, you know what? This shows us Westlake didn’t feel comfortable with copying other writers’ styles in his books (a very different thing from doing it in a screenplay for a forgettable pop cultural artifact that would, by definition, be a melange of influences). Gee, maybe you should have read my posts a bit more carefully. 😉
It’s not unusual, in a Bond film, for Bond to spend much of the narrative trying to find out what the villain is up to (or even who the villain is). But it is unheard of for the villain to never tell anybody at all, onscreen or off, the full extent of what he’s planning. There isn’t even a final face-off between Curtis and his opponents. Westlake was out to defeat every possible expectation of this type of story here. I would think you could appreciate that, at least.
Also, the army of Vietnamese orphans is dated, and maybe a wee tad racist. Quite honestly, there’s a lot of that kind of thing in Bond in general, and more than usual in the Brosnan Bonds. It’s one of the things I don’t like about them. My favorite Bond, incidentally, is You Only Live Twice. For Dahl’s script, for Tiger, and for Mie & Akiko. Yes, I know, those are the names of the actresses, who also did yeowoman’s work in some of my favorite Kaiju Eiga films.
Another thing Westlake didn’t have in the novel, which I assume would have been in the script–cool spy gadgets. Another trope tossed in the trash.
Westlake kind of dropped the ball with the spy gadgets, to be honest. The best he could do was an exploding boomerang.
And again, that’s because he doesn’t believe in any of this crap. Which does beg the question, should he be writing it? I think Roald Dahl, an equally serious writer with an equally low tolerance for fools, did a far better job of it because his work so often dealt with the extreme and absurd and bizarre. If you can believe in Willie Wonka, or giant peaches, or fantastic foxes, you can believe in James Bond, and advanced gadgetry, and tanks of ravenous piranha without turning a hair. Dahl is a high-flying fantasist par excellence–Westlake likes to ground his fantasies in something solid. Different approaches.
But Westlake does seem to have enjoyed Dahl’s approach–he said something about the films he’d watched to prepare himself, and he mentions the concept of rebirth through water. That’s clearly a reference to You Only Live Twice, among others. And that does, in fact, make it into this book.
From Russia With Love actually didn’t have that much advanced gadgetry, you’ll recall. The movies got further and further away from reality as they went along. Personally my favorites are Thunderball and You Only Live Twice–just weightless enough, but not completely unmoored from plausibility. Just mostly. I just can’t take Bonds with lots of CGI and green screen at all seriously. Not that anybody should take any of it seriously, but I think Westlake did want at least some of the novel he wrote to be serious. So he had to leave all that stuff out, and try to make this a plan you could actually imagine taking place in real life. That really is a big part of what makes Westlake Westlake. It’s not mainly what makes Bond Bond.
(In any event, how many of the cool gadgets we remember from the films were in the original treatments, if they weren’t already in the novel it was being adapted from? I’m guessing not many–I’ve read Moonraker, and I’ve seen the movie, and the only gadget of note in the book is a nuclear missile aimed at London, unless you want to count a shiny cigarette case used to cheat at cards. A treatment isn’t going to get into details like that much. Leave that for the screenwriting process, and for the technical wizards who will make those gadgets work. If Westlake had written a complete script, you can bet that it would have still gone through quite a few changes before it got filmed.)
Well, the “best he could do” (in my comment above) isn’t being fair to Westlake, because we have no idea what the story details would have looked like with further development and in the form of a screenplay.
As to whether he “believed” in the Bond formula, I can’t really say. He certainly seemed enthusiastic from the letters to Kleeman/Broccoli/Wilson. I think he would have an easier and more enjoyable time removed from the EON development process — which can be frustrating, particularly for veteran writers. That’s not meant as a slam at EON, either, because they have a system that’s been working for decades. But sometimes creative minds don’t work in that kind of environment, and Westlake had already been jerked around so many times by the film industry that he may have expected the worst.
Dahl really clicked with YOLT’s director, Lewis Gilbert, so not only was he right for that project (as you’ve noted above), but he had a good creative relationship with the filmmaker — probably not unlike what Westlake had with Stephen Frears.
He probably made several times more for that story treatment than he did for any of his novels. And they paid his travel expenses. Of course he was enthused, Phil. With his usual reservations, that you sum up well, but definitely enthused. 🙂
I have reservations of my own, many of them but I still enjoy watching the films. They’re part of our shared cultural experience. It was typical for Westlake to want to take things like that and subject them to a more thorough examination than they usually got. It works better for some things than others.
And yes, we can’t know from a story treatment everything that would have been in the finished film. Australia clearly was going to be one of the settings, given the exploding boomerang. Now I’m wondering if Westlake ever read Flash comics. Well, of course he did.
“Isn’t Donald E. Westlake a famous artist? And what’s the one thing all famous artists have in common? Their work gets more valuable after they die.”
Gee, that reminds me of this — and before it, this. . . .
Stories about the absurdity of how we value works of art are always diverting. Crime fiction has done that more than a few times. Try Wllleford’s The Burnt Orange Heresy sometime. If you dare. 😉
Le noir, donc, le noir n’est pas vraiment ma couleur . . . but I will tuck the recommendation away for some rainy day.
I”m not sure Willeford’s work is technically noir–some of it riffs on well-established noir-isms, it certainly features many a self-destructive protagonist, but Willeford is almost a genre unto himself, albeit a very small one. Anyway, the color of the day in that book is orange, not black. Possibly not your color either.
Fair enough, sir, I’ll accept that — the other sources I looked at put Willeford on the fringes of noir, and the book further out of normal sensor analysis range. OTTH, even I know that Orange is the New Black. “Even” as in even though I haven’t watched that, either. I’m usually much more in the mood to take the recommendation of the old “Schickele Mix” radio program and think of the oranges as an under-recognized genre that’s the opposite of the blues . . . like the “59th Street Bridge Song” and this trope-namer.
It was just a suggestion. I know everybody here has a long reading list, and one always rebels at any suggestion it needs to be even longer.
But just FYI, after I’ve finished reviewing Westlake, Mr. Willeford is going to be dealt with here in some depth, along with four other writers, all of whom are technically part of the crime/detective/mystery spectrum.
But they never really belonged there. Or anywhere else. And Westlake learned from them all. And we might learn something too.
I like suggestions about reading, and I know my list could stand to be longer — and broader. If I had a DeLorean with the right accessory package, I wouldn’t try to make my fortune by gambling . . . I’d find a way to sell people extra time off the clock and off the calendar.
I think you’re right that “The Scared Stiff” is the finished version of the book Don told me he’d been unable to complete. As you point out, the timeing matches up, and I can add that the plot details Don told me coincide perfectly with a synopsis I found online. I’m going to eagerly read the book and I thank you for solving the mystery.
Mr. Westlake has many devoted readers, but few have had the necessary spare time and obsessive compulsion to read all of his novels. Being one of those few, I knew which one it was as soon as you mentioned it. Always possible he’d scrapped the original insurance fraud story and started fresh, but I didn’t think that likely. I would not recommend reading my review of it until you’ve finished reading it yourself. What you see above is perhaps my most spoiler-free article ever. I am rarely so scrupulous, so be warned.
Let me once again state my deep apprecation for your introduction to this book. It provides valuable context, and is entertaining to read in its own right. A pity Mr. Westlake didn’t live to write his own account of how this all came to pass, but this is definitely the very next best thing.
I applaud and envy your devotion. Westlake has and continues to be a huge influence for me. And thank you for your kind words about my afterword. An essay isn’t something I’ve attempted to write post-college, but when Charles Ardai suggested it the idea of adding my personal experiences with Don to the Westlake canon was too tempting to resist.
I found your article full of insights that ring very true based on my experiences with Don. Yes, adapting a novel, treatment or rewriting an existing script – anything which was to some degree pre-plotted – was Don’s Hollywood strong suit. In retrospect, it does feel like his original scripts were unintentional rough drafts for novels. As opposed to all the novels we read today that feel like they’re begging to be turned into scripts.
Your belief that Don chose not to adapt his own novels because he didn’t want to personally mutilate his own work by executing studio, producer, director and actor notes seems on target to me. I wish I’d thought of it and been able to discuss it with him. I probably would have attempted to change his mind.
Most fascinating to me were your thoughts about why Don and Bond weren’t, in some respects, a perfect match. A couple of them, like a lack of interest in SMERSH and SPECTRE united Don and myself. We both preferred fascinating, singular villains and the Bond films I worked on allowed for that.
I think you’re right that Bond as an organizational man would not have appealed to Don. When we made “Goldeneye”and were wrestling with questions of how to bring Bond into the 90s while retaining all the aspects of his original character that we loved, Bruce Feirstein described Bond as “a lone warrior from a vanquished nation”. And it’s that description that I gave to Don when we first began discussing who Bond was.
Still, Britain may not be as powerful as it once was, but Bond does represent that nation and your assertion that none of Westlake’s heroes are really heroes has stuck with me. It’s something I didn’t think about at the time nor, I believe, did Don. I still would have wanted to pursue a Bond script with him, but we certainly would have discussed how we could merge Don’s criminal skills with the Brosnan Bond. One can imagine how that would have worked for Connery and not for Moore. Pierce was an amalgam of the two – he can be tough (see “The Long, Good Friday”) and suave and we were always trying to figure out a way to allow him to do both things though admittedly we primarily defaulted to suave.
Maybe if Bond had some kind of temporary split from Mi6, was even called a traitor, hunted (shades of Batman) then Westlake could have bonded with him better.
I like Brosnan’s Bond, very much–a transitional figure, and so much that has genuinely worked in the latest films comes from that era. That’s the moment where Bond proved he could handle the 21st Century just fine. A lot of things got figured out in those four films.
Regarding the current incarnation, I’m not so crazy about Bond as an emotionally wounded sensitive guy putting up a macho front–yeah, that’s there in the novels, maybe even in the Connery films, but you have to keep it way on the down-low, not wallow in it, as a way of excusing his behavior. Nobody needs a license to kill in today’s Hollywood, but apparently you need a license to sleep around a lot. Well, that’s not so new, is it?
I worked on the first 3 Brosnan films and we were keenly aware of the need to transition Bond without, hopefully, losing the qualities that make Bond unique in the action genre so I’m glad that came through. I feel very good about “Goldeneye” and most of “Tomorrow Never Dies”. “The World Is Not Enough” has some good moments and many great intentions, but we lost our way a bit. If you ever want to have an in-depth Bond conversation, shoot me an email.
Not sure I’m qualified for an in-depth Bond-versation, but I appreciate the offer. We’ll be discussing Forever And A Death here soon, hope you can spare us a few insights when that happens.
The thing I note is that you guys created the version of M. who somehow transitioned herself into the next fully rebooted series. And who was the emotional linchpin of that movie where Bond suddenly has an ancestral hunting lodge in Scotland. Even though he hasn’t been Scottish for decades. Well, people seemed to like that one. 😉
Bruce Feirstein deserves full credit for the Judi Dench version of M. We’d been hitting our heads against the wall trying to figure out how to bring Bond up to date without completely sacrificing his 60s attitudes about women and sex and it was Bruce who had the brilliant idea to make M a woman who never hesitates to call Bond out when he’s manifesting Ian Fleming’s more outmoded ideas. It was Bruce who created her voice and provided her finest lines.
When we got to “The World Is Not Enough”, we pushed M’s questioning of Bond’s attitudes a touch too far and so this exchange (probably the most meta in the history of Bond films) was shot, but then cut from the final version of the movie. Bond’s in M’s office. She’s just met with a very wealthy, close friend who Bond does not approve of. M catching Bond’s dispproval says, “contrary to your beliefs James, the world is not filled with megalomaniacal billionaires who hollow out volcanoes, fill them with bikini-clad women and threaten the world with nuclear annihilation.” Bond simply replies, “it only takes one.”
A couple bits of trivia related to your last reply. When we research screened “Goldeneye” just outside of London, one of the audience members said he didn’t like that M was now a woman. A female audience member responded that the real head of MI-5 is a woman (Stella Rimington). “Yeah,” the guy replied, “I don’t like that either.” Clearly, we disregarded his input as we also disregarded a guy who a few minutes later said he didn’t like “Pierce’s Scottish accent.” As you can see, research screening’s always prove the adage that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
I suppose it’s not the greatest of shocks, but I got blurbed for this one. Check out the review snippets. (click on ‘buy’, complicated link)
And this wasn’t even a review, as I see it, but I guess pickings were slim.
I have to give credit–nobody consulted me, nor would I have expected it, but if I had been asked to pick out a quote, this is what I’d have picked. Hope it piques interest. The only point of a book review blurb is for people to buy and read the book.
Charles Ardai told me he had nothing to do with it, nor anybody at Hard Case–it’s somebody in the promotional department for Titan Books, the umbrella under which Hard Case operates
So far, the reviews are from the folks who review everything (Publishers Weekly, Kirkus), or threadbare enthusiasts such as myself. I’ll be truly shocked if it gets a serious Times review, though you’d think at least a mention, given all that has passed between Mr. Westlake and The Grey Lady. Anyway, it just came out. Meaning I will have to actually review it soon. That blurb will be for the dust jacket on the hardcover reprint. Hey, you never know.
Well, I got that book I ordered about 60’s sleaze paperbacks.
A number of essays to get through (and a slew of incredibly lurid covers), but thus far, it has not told me me where I can find Sleaze Parker.
It did tell me I made one hell of an assumption when I said the name Richard Curtis was a mingling of Richard Stark and Curt Clark. And you know what we do when we assume.
Richard Curtis was the real name of a writer Westlake would have known from his days in the porn pits. He penned sleaze as Curt Aldrich, among other names, he wrote science fiction, he wrote non-fiction, he covered the bases.
Curtis became a literary agent, somewhat in the Scott Meredith mode (not that bad, I hope), and seems to still be alive today. So he must be a really strong swimmer.
So I would not assume this Curtis was meant as a direct model for the one in the book, but how the hell would I know? I thought he was just an assemblage of nom de plumes. I mean, maybe that was in Westlake’s mind as well–my reasoning was sound, but my context was inadequate. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
These things always happen, when you write speculatively about someone lots of people know, but almost nobody knows one damn thing about (and the ones who know ain’t talking).