Review: Forever And A Death, Part 4



Bennett went over to stand beside Curtis and study the plans. God, it was good to be back in construction again! To be standing in a site office, shoulder to shoulder with the boss, looking over the plans. This, Bennett thought, is where I’ve been supposed to be, lo, these many years.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

Looking at the plans, Curtis said, “We don’t have as much time as I’d hoped, Colin.”

“No, sir.”

“Them being here in Hong Kong, and in one of the tunnels, suggests they know far too much.”

“It’s that Mark Hennessy, sir,” Bennett said, meaning, there’s a bad employee, and here, sir, right here at your side, is a good employee.

Curtis said, “I suppose part of it is Mark, but not all of it, he didn’t know that much. I think it’s mostly George Manville, figuring things out. Why I didn’t get rid of him when I had my hands on him I’ll never know.”

“You thought he could still help you, sir.”

“Well, I was wrong about that,” Curtis said. “But it isn’t going to stop us, Colin.”

Us. “No, sir!”

It might be interesting, in fact, to stay here in Hong Kong, particularly if they didn’t after all manage to thwart Curtis. To stay at the Peninsula—switching to a Hong Kong view room, of course—to sit in a comfortable chair by the window, and to watch the towers across the way begin to tremble, to shudder, then to fall to their knees, window panes snapping out into the air like frightened hawks, walls dropping away, floors tilting, desks and filing cabinets and people sliding out into the world, then to feel the power ripple in this direction across the harbor, to see it come like a ghost in the water, to feel it tug at the landfill on this side, the buildings swaying, the yachts and junks and huge cargo ships all foundering and failing and staring with one last despairing gaze at the sky, then the harbor boiling, this very building bending down to kiss the sea…

What a spectacular sight. Who would want to look at anything else after that?

One of the things I’ve had to chronicle, as I’ve worked my way from 1960 to the present day, has been the decreasing diversity and quality of cover art for Mr. Westlake’s various efforts.  (Though Richard Stark, as ever, remains the outlier, and I’ll have the covers to prove it in the coming weeks.)

Hard Case Crime, which published this book, is one component in a much larger media corporation, headquartered in the U.K., so the American and British covers are identical.  If there are different covers for any foreign language editions thus far, they have eluded me.  As of the present time, I don’t believe that’s the case (translations take time).  So was I going to just keep posting the same cover image, four times in a row?

Then it occurred to me–wouldn’t Hard Case Crime have commissioned a few alternate takes, before settling on one? Charles Ardai confirmed they had considered a different cover, and his email came with an attachment.  When making the inquiry, I figured the most I’d get would be a somewhat different preliminary sketch from Paul Mann, who did the cover you’ve already seen, but Ardai said Mann nailed it the first time, so no need for a second.

Instead, I got what you see up top, and that’s from none other than Robert E. McGinnis.  Yowzah.

There could be no more obvious choice to illustrate a Westlake novel based on an idea for a Bond flick that never happened than the man of a thousand (or more) gorgeously lurid paperbacks.  McGinnis also provided iconic poster art for 007 back in the 60’s, and to make it even more perfect, he did some of his best work for the six Gold Medal editions of the Parker novels–including their reprint of The Hunter, (entitled Point Blank, because of the film version just coming out), where Parker looks like Sean Connery, and doesn’t resemble Lee Marvin a whit.

(Also, I’m pretty sure Westlake put a fondly irreverent caricature of McGinnis in Nobody’s Perfect.  And McGinnis seems to have depicted himself as Parker in his cover for The Black Ice Score.)

So this is what McGinnis came up with, when approached.  And it’s breathtaking.  It evokes the villain’s plan memorably, as well as one of the heroes of the piece.  And I can see why they still went with Mann. (McGinnis’s art won’t go to waste; it will be used for some other Hard Case offering, in the next year or two.)

His nifty noirish style has held up beautifully (as two recent art books featuring his work can attest).  His technique (at 91 years of age!) can hardly be improved upon.  And his take on the female protagonist here–well……..

Kim Baldur is not some pale protein-deficient red-headed art model in heels.  Nor would she be wearing a pink bikini, let alone green mascara.  At any time in her life, but least of all when Hong Kong is about to be turned into a malodorous mire.  She’s going to be the one upon whom it falls in the end to prevent this, and she should be dressed for the occasion, no?  And she should probably eat something first.  Though not too soon before she goes in the water.  Like cramps are her primary concern there.

Also, there are no exploding helicopters or hungry sharks in the book, nor does George ever get his hands on an assault rifle, but that’s quibbling.  Mann’s cover has Kim boldly brandishing a sidearm, when the only weapon she ever employs is a can of hairspray, and that’s quibbling too.  One’s license to kill may never come through, no matter how many applications you fill out, but artistic license is a thing.

So how much license do we grant Westlake here?  Obviously this isn’t meant as an exercise in gritty realism.  Nor is it meant to be pure wish-fulfillment fantasy.  Somewhere in-between.  Taking the kind of story where the hero is a smug sexy secret agent, and the villain is trying to take over the world from his secret base on an island or inside a volcano or whatever–and recast it.  Re-imagine it.

The heroes (plural) are still attractive enough, but one is a duly diligent engineering wonk, another an earnestly impulsive eco-warrior of a girl, and the third is not merely gay, but German!

The villain is an arrogant billionaire, and that’s nothing new, but he’s wealthy on paper only.  In debt up to his deceptively bland eyeballs, caught in a trap of his own making, and not at all interested in conquering the world.  He merely wants to retain his current standing in that world, maybe improve it a tad.

But to do this, he has to pull off a stupendous (and murderous) caper,  taking most of the gold reserves from the Bank of China, then destroying all evidence of his crime, by obliterating most of the city of Hong Kong.  The same city the People’s Republic unceremoniously evicted him from, not long after they took charge there, so let’s just say that there’s a certain synergistic aspect.  Well, it was the Chinese who said that Crisis = Opportunity, right?

And in the process of dealing with certain complications that sprang up along the way, he’s hired a disgraced ex-employee of his, a hulking man-monster of a Singaporean, to deal with those complications, with extreme prejudice.   He’s got other henchmen as well, but keeps faith only with himself.  He expects none of the others, heroes or henchmen, to make it to the end of the movie.  But he fully expects to be there at the end, the last man standing, and he gets his way. Spoiler alert? If you don’t want to know, better stop reading now.

The final part of this novel is the shortest,  15 chapters.   Westlake has been paring away at the cast to make this possible (some posthumous paring from Ardai as well).

The guilt-ridden Captain Zhang is dead.  The murderous Morgan Pallifer is dead.  The well-meaning but tunnel-visioned Jerry Diedrich is dead.  Colin Bennett’s arc effectively concluded in Part Three, and now he’s just Curtis’s servitor–in his creator’s mind, he might as well be dead.  Inspector Fairchild, though making himself useful here and there, isn’t going to be solving any mysteries, or making any arrests. The once intrepid Mark Hennessy is soon to be reduced to a shadow of his former spying self.  A new POV character is introduced, then even more abruptly taken out of play.

One key figure after another has fallen by the wayside in this story, until there are only–


Martin Ha lived on a comparatively quiet side street in the middle-class neighborhood called Hung Horn, southeast of Chatham Road, an area heavily populated by the city’s Chinese civil servants, in which group, dressed for his commute, he seemed barely likely to belong. Mounted on his bicycle, teetering slightly as he made the turn onto Ma Tau Wai Road, this slender knobby-kneed serious-expressioned man of about 40 looked as though he might be a rickshaw driver on his day off. He didn’t look like anybody important at all.

Ha rode his bike down Ma Tau Wai Road and right onto Wuhu Street and then left onto Gilles Avenue, all the while ignoring the usual press of traffic that raced and squealed and struggled all around him, the other bicyclists, the hurrying pedestrians, the taxis and trucks and double-decker buses and even, though this was off their normal grounds, the occasional bewildered tourist. Gilles Avenue led him at last to the new Hung Horn ferry pier. Until just a few years ago, where he now stood had been Hung Horn Bay, next to the main railway terminal, but the bay had been filled in just recently, to make more precious land, on which had been built the opulent new Harbour Plaza Hotel, five minutes from the railroad terminal and even closer to the ferry pier.

The ferry ran every ten minutes or so, and took only fifteen minutes to cross the harbor, and this was what Martin Ha loved. The view from the ferry. Out in front of him, across the sparkling water, Hong Kong Island gleamed and blazed in the sunshine, its glittering towers bunched together like the crowded upraised lancetips of some buried army. Behind him, almost as huge, almost as modern, almost as gleaming and sleek and new, clustered Kowloon, Hong Kong’s mainland extension, the gateway to China. In the old days, you could take the train from that railway terminal beside the ferry dock on Kowloon and travel all the way across Czarist Russia and all of Europe to Calais in France, and then board one more ferry, and be in England. The jet plane had changed all that, of course, but the sense of it was still there, the ribbon that tied two worlds together.

The opening of Part Four serves several purposes–first to introduce us to Martin Ha, a Hong Kong police inspector, who bicycles to the ferry every morning, looking like some minor bureaucrat, which is pretty much how he sees himself. He will be informed over the phone by a fellow officer in Singapore that there are some people who have just arrived in his town, with a story he needs to hear. A story that may alarm him somewhat, he is cautioned, and he finds himself hoping it is something out of the ordinary–he could do with some excitement.

It also introduces us to Hong Kong itself, which matters because we need to be reminded this is not merely an idea of a city–this is one of the world’s great gathering points, a hub of commerce and trade, the home and workplace of millions of people–and much of it used to be ocean.  And might be again.

Then it shows us Ha thinking to himself about his city, how much he understands of the world he lives in–and how little–we all take the stability of our daily existence a bit too much for granted at times. No matter how many times Life warns us not to do that.

The surprising thing, Ha thought, as he sat in the air-conditioned back of his official Vauxhall, feeling the slight forward tug of the Star Ferry taking him back across to Kowloon, was how little the city had changed. Everyone had thought the transition from British rule to Chinese rule would be fraught with problems, particularly political and social problems, everything but economic problems, but everyone as usual had been wrong.

In hindsight, it was easy to see why. For one hundred fifty years, Hong Kong had been ruled by an oligarchy installed from a far-off capital, London. Then, for just a few years, there was an attempt to paste a democratic smile on this autocratic face, but the instant the pressure was released the smile fell off, and now Hong Kong was once again ruled by an oligarchy installed from a far-off capital, Beijing. Nothing had changed.

Except, of course, for some of the gweilos living in Hong Kong, the expats as they called themselves, the Europeans and Americans, but mostly the British, who had done well by serving the far-off capital of London but couldn’t be expected to receive the same opportunity to batten off the far-off capital of Beijing.

The ones who belonged to the working class, the barmaids and jockeys and interior decorators, mostly took it in good part, vanished when their work permits expired—or shortly after, when they were found to be still on the premises—and were presumably now living much the same lives in Singapore or Macao or Manila or half a dozen other neon-lit centers of the Pacific Rim.

At the other end of the spectrum, a few Richard Curtises had also found the world shifting beneath their feet. The homes they’d enjoyed for so many years up on the Peaks, the steep hills in the middle of Hong Kong Island, behind and south of the main financial districts, they’d sold off to their Chinese counterparts, entrepreneurs who now made their comfortable livings in exactly the same way the Curtises used to do. Those who’d left had sold those mansions on the Peak before the real estate crash; not bad. And if they hadn’t gotten quite as much in the sale as they’d have liked, well, how much money did any one rich person really need?

(To which many a rich person would respond “How much is there?”  That’s how they got rich in the first place.)

But Martin Ha finds it hard to believe this Curtis, who he remembers well as a ‘corner-cutter,’ could really have such a profound grudge against Hong Kong, or that he’d risk everything on some crazy scheme to steal tons of gold from one of the most powerful nations on earth, to cover some bad debts.  (Might as well imagine he’d run for President of the United States.)

So he has lunch with these people, at a world class restaurant in Hong Kong’s most luxurious hotel (where we are briefly told that George and Kim have happily renewed their sexual relationship, and that’s the very last bit of sex you’ll get in this perhaps over-prim Bond pastiche).

He’s hoping to hear a diverting tale, but for all his calm complacency, he’s a thoroughgoing professional, and no fool.  He can tell they’re not hysterics, or cranks, and one of them is a police inspector from Australia, another the somber son of a wealthy German (not known for histrionics, okay one exception, but he was Austrian).

And one is an engineer, who keeps talking about something called a soliton.  And about the solid ground beneath them, which is not solid at all, and only recently ground.

Inspector Ha nodded at the windows. “Hong Kong Island has been added to and added to. The island used to end far back at Queens Road. Just about everything you’re looking at on the flats is reclaimed land.” They all looked at the gleaming towers, and Kim remembered the great bruise of water thundering at her from Kanowit. She suddenly felt cold.

George said, very quietly, “Inspector, you’re using the wrong word.”

“What word?” “Reclaimed,” George said. “Everyone likes to talk about reclaimed land. ‘The new airport is on reclaimed land.’ It’s a wonderfully solid word, but it is a distraction.”

Ha said, “From what?”

“The Dutch reclaim land,” George said. “They build dikes, and force the sea back, and the lands they find are called polders. They’re solid and real, the same lands they always were except they used to have water on them.”

He waved a hand toward the window. “That isn’t reclaimed. It’s landfill.”

Inspector Ha said, “Reclaimed is more…dignified.”

“But landfill is what it is,” George insisted. “Inherently unstable, never quite solid. And now I suppose you’ll tell me there are tunnels under there.”

Of course there are.  They are used for air conditioning in this very hot climate.  The landfill section of Hong Kong, which is most of Hong Kong, is networked with tunnels.  Many of which go right past underground bank vaults filled with gold ingots–also constructed in landfill.  Fifty feet under the surface of what isn’t really solid ground.

But for the soliton to work, these tunnels would have to be connected to each other, as they are presently not–and how might this be done?  By construction crews, working quietly beneath the surface of the city, using one of Hong Kong’s many active construction sites as a front.  And what business is Richard Curtis in?  And in what city did he formerly practice that profession?

What truly alarms Inspector Ha is Luther’s mention of Jackie Tian, a man he knows to be midway between a union bigwig and a gangster–a man of few scruples, who would know basically every qualified worker in town who might be persuaded to engage in such a nefarious venture, could easily arrange for such a project to be undertaken without arousing suspicion.  He informs his luncheon hosts that they have succeeded in alarming him.

Luther Rickendorf, the self-exiled gay scion of a wealthy old German family, has been a somewhat neglected character in the previous three sections of this novel.  He’s made his voice heard throughout, but he rarely speaks when he doesn’t have something significant to say.  He’s been happy to live in the shadow of his more outgoing American lover.  But now the shadow is alone, and wondering what to do with himself.

For Luther, the last few days had been muffled, without resonance, like a pistol shot in a padded room. Or as though his brain and all his senses were in that padded room. Nothing came through to him with much impact or clarity. It was as though he watched the world now on a television monitor, listened to it through a not-very-good sound system.

He still went through the motions. He thought about the problem of Richard Curtis, he took care of his own needs, he responded quite normally to Kim and George and the others, but it was all simple momentum, nothing else. He went through these motions because there was no way to stop them, short of death, and he didn’t much feel like death right now; it would simply be the state he was already in, intensified.

He supposed he grieved for Jerry, but even that was muffled. He couldn’t find in himself much enthusiasm for revenge or justice, though he continued to trudge along with the others in Curtis’s wake. What he was realizing, and even that slowly and without much force, was that in grieving for Jerry he was grieving for a part of himself. Jerry had been his id, the outward expression of all those emotions and instant reactions that Luther had never quite managed to feel or express on his own. Without Jerry, he was merely the cool and amiable somnambulist he used to be, but now with the added memory of there having been once a Jerry.

(That’s also Luther, in the second quote up top, half-wishing he could be there to see the destruction of Hong Kong, the fall of its towers. Maybe he should try moving to lower Manhattan.)

Jerry Diedrich’s reaction to the loss of the man he’d loved before Luther was to lose himself in grief, bitterness, and retribution, leading ultimately to his own destruction (though it must be said, if he hadn’t pursued his grudge with such stubborn fervor, Curtis would be facing no opposition at all now).

Luther, you should pardon the expression, is not such a drama queen.  He processes his feelings more quietly, less directly.  It seems to run in the family, this emotional stolidity.  His father, upon learning his tall blonde athletic son was attracted to men, expressed no anger, no disappointment–he simply indicated he would prefer Luther live out his alternative life away from Germany, has been willing to supply the funds to make this possible.  (It is, in fact, Rickendorf pater who is shouldering much of the bill for Luther and his friends to stay in Hong Kong, in some considerable comfort).  Luther has no strong feelings about any of that, either.  Or is it that he keeps his anger locked away against the day he’ll need it?

Inspector Ha arranges for them to tour the tunnels, and Luther lags behind, still in something of a fugue state, thinking about how he and Jerry will not be spending eternity together in his  family’s ancestral burial vault, as he’d once allowed himself to imagine.  He hears something.  He looks around, curious.  Then he looks up–and Colin Bennett drops down on him, swiftly renders him unconscious, drags him away.

Just bad timing, is all.  Bennett, attending to his duties, got caught by surprise when the tour group came through, concealed himself overhead, had to neutralize Luther once he was detected.  Curtis is angry at the foul-up.  Now he knows for sure Manville is alive, and has come to stop him, and Rickendorf’s disappearance will make Manville’s story all the more believable–but it can’t be helped.  And he can always use another worker to dig in the tunnels.  He wants this over and done with as quickly as possible.

Next chapter is from Mark Hennessy’s POV, and it is not a happy one.  Curtis found out he was Diedrich’s mole.  Instead of just firing Mark, blackballing him as he’d once done to Bennett, Curtis decided to take a more satisfying revenge–and get yet another worker for his tunnels.

I’ve been informed by Greg Tulonen that some of Mark’s development got cut out of the published book, but all I can say to what I’ve read is that I don’t find his transition satisfactory.  He’s been spying on his employer, and doing a good job of it.  He’s been told Curtis is planning something terrible, by people he trusts.  He knows Jerry Diedrich has disappeared, and what’s more, his disappearance is directly linked to a man Mark knows to be in Curtis’s employ, a man who has been trying to learn the identity of the spy.

Luther had begged him over the phone to come talk to the Singapore police, back up the story he and the others are telling, and he refused to even give that very honorable man permission to tell the police his name.   To out him, in effect.

That all being said, it’s very hard to believe somebody smart enough to do what he’s been doing for years, right under Curtis’s nose, is dumb enough not to smell a rat when Curtis abruptly says he wants Mark to come along on a business trip with him.  He decides he’s done his bit for the environment, for his friends, and now it’s time to focus on his career.  His career is about to take an unexpected turn.

He was in the cabin only a minute or two, laying out his possessions on the top bunk, deciding he’d sleep on the lower, when there was a sharp rap at the door. Expecting Curtis, he crossed to pull the door open, and the man from that day in Curtis’s office shouldered in, shoving the door out of the way, punching Mark very hard in the stomach.

Reeling, doubled over, bile in his throat, Mark felt panic and blank astonishment. The man he’d delivered the money for, the one who’d been following Jerry and Luther, who’d done something to Jerry, was here! In this room, shutting the door behind himself. And when Mark stared upward at him, mouth strained open, air all shoved out of him, the man punched him in the face.

Oh, Luther, tell them! Tell the police, force me to change my mind, convince me, make me stay in Singapore and tell the police what I know, make me stay, anywhere but here! Luther, let me not be here!

(Mind you, I’m not saying that there aren’t people that smart/stupid in this world.  Thinking they can play both sides, leaking things to the press, let’s say, while still defending their master in public, collecting their paychecks, padding their résumés, praying there isn’t a Colin Bennett in their future, or just assuming nothing like that could ever happen to them, that’s just in stories.  And history books.  I’m just saying Mark needed a bit more fleshing out for this twist to work.  I don’t know if he got it in the original manuscript, but he doesn’t here.)

Bennett takes Mark to Curtis, who casually remarks that since Mark’s spying cost him some time, he surely wouldn’t mind helping to make up for that by doing a bit of honest labor.  Every time Mark objects, Bennett hits him.  Hard.  He stops objecting.

What follows, once they get him into the tunnels, is a subterranean hellscape, rather like the one experienced by Rolf Malone in Anarchaos, after he was sold as a slave and sent to be worked to death in a mine.  He is beaten mercilessly, fed minimally, allowed little rest, and in no time at all the man he was before crumbles away to nothing, his will broken.  He doesn’t even known if it’s day or night up above.  Well, that’s one way to learn how the other half lives.

What our heroes have to learn is which construction site–out of dozens now active in Hong Kong–is being used to infiltrate the tunnels.  It would take too long to find out which is a dummy corporation.   They’re so dug in now that searching the known tunnels for subtle alterations would likewise take too long.

Manville has a hunch–he remembers Curtis’s story about how the Hong Kong construction firm he took over with his wife’s help was originally called Hoklo Construction–Hoklos being pirates who escaped punishment and achieved respectability by blending into society, once they’d made their pile.  Anybody could be a pirate, hiding in plain sight, was the point.  (I’m sure Westlake read or heard about this somewhere, but I think there’s a whole lot of people who’d object to this characterization.)

Inspector Ha makes a call, and no, there’s no Hoklo Construction, nothing that obvious–but there is a company called Xian Bing Shu–which means ‘rat pie.’  I’m not quite sure whose expense that’s supposed to be at, but it’ll do as a hint.

(Very Long Sidebar: Let me point out one gaping Hong Kong sized plot hole now, and get it out of the way.  Both sides in this struggle seem to be of the opinion that if Curtis pulls off his coup, there’ll be no one left in the world who knows about what Curtis did.  They’ll all be be entombed in mud and rubble, and no fingers will be pointing at Curtis from any direction, and he’ll be safe as houses.

Curtis is seen thinking to himself that he will gradually transform the gold reserves he steals into ‘impulses in cyberspace.’  So there is a well-developed internet.  We know there are cellphones, rarely as they are mentioned.  And the telephone is mentioned quite frequently, as it has been since the dawn of the 20th century.

Martin Ha and Tony Fairchild are high-ranking police officers with easy access to those higher up in the chain of command.   It is hard to imagine that a few calls have not been made to various concerned parties, in Beijing, Australia, and elsewhere.  Maybe emails.  If this story took place in the 19th century, there’d still be time to send a telegram, or a even a goddam letter.

And, lest we forget, there’s Wai Fung, an inspector of equivalent rank in Singapore, who heard the entire story from Manville and the others, referred it to Ha’s attention, and is still in Singapore, immune from Curtis’s machinations.  He was skeptical, but he wouldn’t be once he saw the news footage.

Andre Brevizin, the eminent Brisbane attorney, came to Hong Kong with Manville and the others in Westlake’s surviving draft, but he seems a thorough sort of person, who leaves notes and things–and in this edited down version of the story, he’s still back in Brisbane.

Let’s acknowledge that Curtis is not in an entirely rational frame of mind here, and doesn’t know how many people Manville has talked to.  Let’s acknowledge that there is no absolute proof Curtis intends to destroy every acre of Hong Kong built on landfill, although if he doesn’t, he’s got to split the loot with a lot of other people, any one of whom might someday spill the beans on him.

Let’s acknowledge that it would be impossible to evacuate an island city in the time they have left, that mass panic would ensue were they to publicly announce what they’ve learned, and that Beijing’s reaction to the news might be problematic.  Let’s also acknowledge that nobody in the story has a lot of time to weigh their actions, which is very much by the author’s design.

And acknowledging all that, I think this aspect of the story needed a lot more work, and that Curtis would have to be stark raving to think he’s going to get away with this–I mean, even if they can’t prove a thing, doesn’t Beijing have a few assassins on the payroll?  Curtis doesn’t seem to be that particular kind of crazy.

And let’s finally remind ourselves that Ian Fleming’s Moonraker is today seen by many as the best-written Bond novel, and at the time it came out, none other than Noel Coward found it less outlandish than the previous two, which he admitted wasn’t saying very much.  One must always make some allowances for the literary form being employed.  Back to the story at hand, still bloody gripping for all my cavils.)

Things start happening very quickly now.   Inspector Ha surrounds the fake construction site, demands the workmen open the gate, or he’ll knock it down.   The workmen respond by opening fire, and one of the first to die is Inspector Ha.  He never liked gunplay, and his prejudice was well-founded.  But the point being made is that when  you’re going to arrest a group of men who are in the process of stealing billions in gold from a powerful and ruthless totalitarian government with some truly horrible prisons, best not expect them to come along quietly.  We say farewell to Inspector Ha, a better man perhaps than his world deserves.  (We could use you in America right now, Inspector.)

Curtis is now on a boat in the harbor, waiting for a small remote-controlled cargo submarine to deliver him his pirate gold (I would assume he got this very Bondian gadget from the same place real-life drug lords do).  In touch with Bennett, he gives the order to go ahead with the operation, get the gold to him, then get out of the immediate area before the soliton hits.  They’ll meet up later to divide the spoils.  (The men all think, remember, that it’s only going to obliterate a small area.  In reality, Curtis will be the sole surviving heister.  George Uhl would be envious.)

And that would be game over, were it not for the fact that Luther Rickendorf’s legendary patience has finally run out.  And the berserker within him is finally released.

It was when the man hit Luther on the back of the head with a fist-size stone, when he felt the pain and a runnel of blood trickling down his neck, that he finally snapped out of the stupor he’d been in ever since Bennett had dropped on top of him in the water tunnel. He turned to look at the man who’d hit him, a short compact pugnacious Chinese, who gestured angrily at the pile of rubble in front of them, making it clear Luther was working too slowly. The man tossed the bloodied stone into the tram and glared at Luther, hands on hips. Luther lifted the shovel, turned, and hit him in the face with it.

That time he used the flat of the shovel, but in the melee that followed he used the edge; it made a very adequate lance, producing quite satisfactory gashes in arms and foreheads.

He somehow fights his way outside, bullets flying everywhere.  He gets to the bulldozer blocking the gate, and much like Manville with the pistol safety in Part One, extrapolates from past experience working with snowplows at ski resorts.  He gets the big machine going, smashing through the gate, then smashing into a bus–but the cops are in, and they’re pretty mad now.  These are somewhat shady hardhats, not seasoned heistmen (seasoned heistmen would have either run away or given up when the cops came knocking).  They don’t hold out very long.

But the submarine is out of the tunnel, into the harbor, under Curtis’s control, as he heads for open ocean  He’s still listening on the phone he told Bennett to leave off the hook when the police smash into his operations room and take Bennett prisoner.  He knows Manville is there, but he assumes it’s too late to stop the charges which have already been set–on a timer.  Like last time  With no failsafe.  Like last time.  And the charges are all under water.

There is confusion in the ranks, because the now-ranking officer on the scene was not told by the cautious Inspector Ha what they were trying to prevent here.  Between Fairchild’s experience with policemen, and Manville’s understanding of what lies Bennett has been fed, they get their answers–and Bennett finally comes to the numbed realization that he’s been used.  And Curtis, still listening in on the other line, hangs up.  He’s won.

The diver Curtis used is their captive, but how can they possibly explain to him what needs doing, and why, and then trust him not to just swim away into the harbor himself, which is honestly what any sane person would do right now, given a chance.  Who could be idealistic and foolhardy enough to dive into dark murky water, with less than half an hour remaining, on a suicide mission that is almost certain to fail?  And it has to be somebody certified as an expert diver, who will fit into the scuba gear of a rather small man.

Oh, you guessed.

Kim had never been so frightened in her life. All she could see in her mind’s eye was that great boulder of hard gray water rolling at her from Kanowit Island, surrounding her, submerging her, beating her into a rag doll.

She was now wearing the other diver’s wetsuit and goggles and headlamp and flippers and air tank, thanking heaven he was a small man so it more or less fit. She moved strongly through the black tunnels. The water filling the tunnels was clouded, already beginning to mix with dirt from the temporary cross-tunnels. In a little while, you wouldn’t be able to see down here at all. Of course, in a little while, there would be no down here.

The more she thought about the urgency of the job, the need for speed and efficiency, the more anxious she became. And she knew that could be fatal. She’d almost fallen down the ladder into the water, unable to control her feet in flippers on the ladder rungs. And she didn’t want to dive or fall into that water, because who knew what debris might be in there, to cut her or knock her out.

And now, when she should be concentrating on swimming forward, finding the bombs, defusing them, all she could think about was the destroyer wave off Kanowit Island, all she could do was feed her fear. George hadn’t wanted her to come down here. None of them had wanted her to do it, none of them would have asked her to risk her life to save theirs—to save everyone’s. But who else was there?

So it’s all come full circle from the start of the book, but this time it’s different.  She’s different.  She’s not some dumb kid who thinks she’s immortal anymore, she’s not just acting on impulse.  She knows what the stakes are, and she knows what she has to do.  She knows who she is.  She’s Kim Baldur, and she wants to save the world.  Or at least this one small piece of it.  And she knows that if she doesn’t, she’ll die anyway.  Not idealism.  Not heroism.  Enlightened self-interest.  Could save us all if we let it.

So if you read this far, without reading the novel first, you have only yourself to blame.  That quote up top would indicate to me that Westlake at least considered having Curtis succeed in his plan, or partly succeed.  He had, after all, done at least three comparable stories before now, of men with vendettas against whole societies, and they were all to some extent successful, though one of them didn’t live to the end of the story.

It’s not made as clear as it might be, but in my estimation, he’d failed from the moment he tried to have Kim Baldur disposed of on his yacht, before she could wake up.  He’s lived much of his life under the illusion that he can control everything, manipulate everyone, and that led to a cascade error, one mistake leading to another, more and more people paying attention to him.

If he’d made a few less mistakes, he might have destroyed the city he feels betrayed him, destroyed many lives, caused global economic and political chaos–who’s to say he might not have triggered a nuclear exchange, the highest aspiration of many a Bond villain.

But in his mind, it’s all so simple.  He steals the gold, he kills everyone in his way, erases the home he can no longer call his own from existence, and he’s himself again.  He’s Richard Curtis, billionaire construction mogul and developer, working on projects like the Kanowit Island resort, and everyone respects him, or at least pretends to.

He’s perhaps a little like Parker–Beijing driving him forth, like St. Patrick expelling the snakes from Ireland, set off a mental chain reaction, a button pushed inside his head, and he could never know a moment’s peace until the slight had been repaid in full.  What was it Parker said in Butcher’s Moon?  “I’d like to burn this city to the ground, I’d like to empty it right down to the basements.”  But even Parker didn’t mean that literally.  And Parker’s retribution only touched those who had directly offended him.  And Parker never pretended to be anything but a thief.

That’s the problem.  That’s why he fails.  That’s why the soliton won’t go off, and he will watch, in stunned disbelief, miles offshore, on a boat operated by a married couple who know he’s doing something criminal and they’re the getaway car.  The deadline expires, and the lights of Hong Kong keep glowing in the distance.  Mocking him.

He fails because he doesn’t know himself.  He doesn’t know that he can never be what he was before.  He’s a thief and a killer now, and what’s more he’s a thief and killer who doesn’t keep faith with his fellow thieves and killers.  Or with anyone, really.  He has no code, instinctive or otherwise. Without money, he’s nothing at all.

But he’s no quitter, give him that much.

It’s George, somehow. George Manville has done this to me. He should be dead, the man should be dead, and in any case he’s nothing but an unimaginative engineer, how can he stop me?

Curtis had always known this was a possibility, but he’d had to go forward anyway. His position was untenable and getting worse. He had to get out from under or go under, ruined, disgraced. So he’d had to make this gamble, and now he’d lost.

Thirty-seven minutes.

It wasn’t going to blow. George Manville, of all people, had beaten him. (He never even thought of Kim.)

But was this any worse than to fail the other way? To be sued, hounded, taken through bankruptcy courts, reviled by everyone who used to shake his hand and drink his liquor.  If things had worked out…

If things had worked out, he would have had all the money he needed to solve his problems, and he would not have had one breath of scandal to touch upon him. He would have had his revenge on the city that had tried to destroy him, and he would have continued to be Richard Curtis, owner of Curtis Construction and RC Structural, respected, accepted everywhere in the world.

Well, he had failed, and now that failure was behind him, and it was time to start again. He still had a very few trusted people—the Farrellys at Kennison, for instance—he could rely on. Richard Curtis would have to disappear forever, and gradually he would have to build up a new identity. He had lost a battle, that’s all, not the war.

To disappear meant totally, and that meant he had to start now. Defeat had made him tougher, more decisive. He knew what had to be done, and he wouldn’t shrink from doing it.

He shoots the couple, throws their bodies overboard.  He hadn’t intended to do this before, but now that everyone is going to know what he’s done, now that the world is going to be hunting him, he can no longer count on their discretion, their complicity in his crime, to keep them silent.  He’s truly alone now.  And he just made another mistake.

He’s planning on the fly, and he’s never been good at that (he thinks he is, which only makes it worse).  He can pilot the ship, but he can’t run the risk of being discovered with a submarine full of gold trailing him.  He’s got Mark Hennessy’s papers, that will do for a start.  But he’ll need money to start over.  He’ll need a small portion of the gold, to hide on the boat, and take with him.

He has to surface the sub, tether it to the boat, get on top of the sub, open the hatch, start putting the ingots onboard.  He removes the outer hatch, which drops into the sea–no big deal, he has to sink it to hide the evidence.  It’s not the kind you ride in, anyway.  He’s surprised at how heavy the bars are.  For a man who knows everything about money, he doesn’t know much about gold.

It’s not a one man job.  But there’s nobody left to help him.  His choice.

The rope! Curtis saw it was going to happen, and lunged, but too late. The ships made one more incremental turn away from one another, and the rope tying them together met the spinning propeller of the submarine, and the propeller neatly sliced through.

Immediately the ships lunged away from one another. Curtis saw the lights of Granjya rapidly recede. There were no lights on the submarine.

Dive into the sea? He couldn’t possibly hope to swim fast enough to catch up with Granjya. But if he stayed in the submarine, what then?

Granjya’s lights were fainter, they disappeared. Curtis was getting wet. As the waves ran over the submarine, water ran inside through the two open hatches.

He was in pitch blackness, in this small heaving boat on the surface of the sea. It was riding lower, taking on water faster. There was no light anywhere in the world, except far away to the north, far away, the cold white sheen of Hong Kong against the night sky. Curtis, standing in the hatchway on his gold ingots, his body moving with the roll of the submarine, kept his eyes on that far-off pale glow.

After a while, the lights were still there, but he was not.

It’s not a perfect book.  But that’s a perfect ending.

And we never find out (because this is Donald Westlake, master of the abrupt send-off), what happened with George and Kim’s romance.  Last we see of them, they’re laughing and kissing in sheer relief that it’s over and they’re alive.  They can’t know if they’re compatible or not, and neither can we, and in this sub-genre it doesn’t matter.  The sex will be amazing in the coming months, and that does.

We never learn whether Luther got over his heartbreak and his mental solitude, or if he ever went home.  Maybe Papa Rickendorf will reconsider his position on the gay thing, in light of his son’s valor under fire?  Nah, I don’t think so either.

We never learn whether Mark got over his trauma, or his shameful understanding that it’s his own fault for trusting a man he of all people knew could not be trusted.

And most of all we never learn how the world reacted to the news that one of its (supposedly) richest men was a shameless blackguard and fraud, utterly bereft of conscience or fellow feeling, willing to go to any lengths to keep what he felt was rightfully his.  I mean, who would have thought such a thing?  (Anyone who ever did business with him.)

It’s an inspired mess of a book.  Fascinating idea, some magnificent bits of writing, several memorable villains, and if the heroes are maybe a bit less convincing, well, that’s because Donald Westlake doesn’t believe in heroes. Never did.

But he did believe, I think, that we have to go on acting as if we believe in heroes–not the idealized heroes of fiction, no.  The ordinary people who are capable of extraordinary things, once they get going.  Once they realize the alternative to heroism is death.  Enlightened self-interest.

The most chilling thing in this book is its description of the falling towers in Hong Kong, that quote that I put up top.  Not just the caliber of the writing, but the fact that Westlake wrote this in the late 90’s.

And then he would have watched, in disbelief, as it happened before his eyes, not to some distant foreign capital, but to the city he knew and loved most intimately.  And the man who planned that was an engineer.  Of course.  Who came from wealth.  Of course.  Though his motives were quite different from Curtis’s, he was still, I’d imagine, trying to get back something he believed was rightfully his.

And who would want to see anything else after that?  (I’d assume if he had any idea of polishing up this novel and getting it published, that idea was yet another casualty of 9/11)

This novel is a somewhat ill-conducted cacophony of long neglected voices in Mr. Westlake’s head–Culver, Clark, maybe Coe (I think I can hear him in Luther’s head).  But most of all, Stark.  Who had just somehow resurrected himself, and exerted great influence here, but Stark is never fully Stark unless he’s writing about Parker.

And the three remaining Parker novels, published over a period of around four years, were all conceived and created in the post-9/11 era.  They are Stark’s reaction to that event, and what followed it.  They are far better than Forever And a Death, and they are, I’d argue, the last great books Westlake ever produced–not so much as individual volumes, but as a collective work of art.

And they are so much better than his other late work, I would argue, because Stark was the voice at the back of all Westlake’s many voices.  He was the core program, that kept on running strong, after the other more sophisticated softwares had started to fade.  He’s ready to share his code with us one last time.

And Parker is going to meet his two deadliest foes.  The Information Age.  And the Security State.

We’ll see how fast and how far he can run from them.



Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Timothy J. Culver, Tucker Coe

53 responses to “Review: Forever And A Death, Part 4

  1. These last four posts have been a terrific examination of a messy book (for which I will always have a bit of a soft spot). Thanks for taking your time with this one. There were a bunch of ideas and story points here worth sinking our teeth into.

    By the way, in the original manuscript, I don’t believe Luther survives the bulldozer crash. (I could be mistaken. The archive’s hours were drawing quite short at that point, and that’s the only major change I detected in this section.) If I’m recalling that detail correctly, then all of the gay characters fared very poorly in Westlake’s original manuscript. Perhaps that’s why it was changed (if that was a change).

    What I love about this book is the idea that it’s possible to float through life without our resolve, our character, our very morality being seriously tested. But if there comes a point that we are tested, our reaction may come as a surprise to us. Some of us will choose the path of least resistance, ignoring or even enabling acts of great evil. Some of us will tap into our inner heroes and take up arms against a sea of troubles. But it’ll be our choice. That’s both thrilling and terrifying.

    Also: Robert E. McGinnis! Holy shit!

    • In the published book, he gets taken to the hospital with a minor head wound. You don’t hear anything about him after that, but clearly he’s not going to die. If that is a change to the original manuscript, I fully approve of it. Though what we learn about his mental state following his losing Jerry could be interpreted as a premonition of death. I mean, it’s a noble death and all. If you gotta go….

      I dislike the way Westlake keeps turning everybody who isn’t white, straight, and non-evil into a redshirt in this book. Same as he did in Humans. And the clean-cut caucasian couple clinches at the end. I suppose that’s what happens in Ex Officio, except almost everybody with actual dialogue in that book, good or bad, is white and presumably straight, so you don’t notice it so much.

      It’s not something I associate with his work overall. So maybe it’s a Culver thing. (It’s definitely a Fleming thing.) I’d like to think he’d have changed some of this in subsequent drafts, if there had been some. Obviously some good people had to die, and just as obviously it couldn’t be George and Kim.

      Your description of the book’s message oddly reminds me of a poem by Charles Donnelly, a young Irishman of some promise, who was killed fighting Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War. Wrote two poems on the battlefield before the bullet found him, and this was one of them.

      Between rebellion as a private study and the public
      Defiance, is simple action only which will flicker
      Catlike, for spring. Whether at nerve-roots is secret
      Iron, there’s no diviner can tell, only the moment can
      Simple and unclear moment, on a morning utterly
      And under circumstances different from what you’d

      Your flag is public over granite. Gulls fly above it.
      Whatever the issue of the battle is, your memory
      Is public, for them to pull awry with crooked hands,
      Moist eyes. And villages’ reputations will be built on
      Inaccurate accounts of your campaign. You’re name for
      Figure stone-struck beneath damp Dublin sky.

      And yeah, the McGinnis cover, for all its anachronism, is a fine thing to see. I once again thank Charles Ardai for letting me use it. And for making it possible for us to share this book. And for saving Luther, if that’s what happened.

      • Luther deserved to be saved, for sure (his death was the “sacrifice” and “tragic loss” I alluded to at the end of my original review). I approve this change. Making Kim an Asian-American, as you’ve suggested, would have been another useful change. Still, her hero moment is perfect, the groundwork for it laid out in her very first scene. I loved the moment you quoted in Part 1, when she reflects on how easily she accepted her own death. Compare that to the Kim passage above, when not just her life but everyone’s life is on the line. It’s a hero’s journey, and even if she’s white, that’s not an arc we see women get in this kind of book very often.

        Thanks for the poem.

        • You realize that if this was a real Bond novel, or film, nobody would be gay (except maybe a perverted henchman or two, or a woman Bond ‘converts’), and all characters of color would be evil or (frequently murdered) sidekicks.

          OR exotic babes for Bond to screw before he ended up with another white chick–honorable mention for You Only Live Twice–my favorite 007 flick, Roald Dahl wrote a hell of a script, and Toho provided two of its most delectable and talented stars, but that was, of course, a co-production, and they had to make the Japanese more than just local color.

          Also two of the Brosnans, including the one that cast Michelle Yeoh, in part because of Westlake’s earlier treatment. Oh, and Moneypenny is black now–and young, and gorgeous–and marginalized in the last film, in favor of a sultry French blonde. It’s hard to say, at times, how much of this is Westlake’s own predilections, and how much is him writing to the market. White remains the default color setting, for all the whining from the alt-right about how oppressed they are.

          Our expectations of Westlake are higher, and rightfully so. He’s gone much further than most genre writers of his era in expanding the options. I think he was really starting to feel his age at this point in his life, was overwhelmed by the multitude of choices before him, in a narrative of this size. I seem to recall a few minor errors in the final three Parkers–errors he wouldn’t have made when he was younger.

          If he’d put it down, come back to it later, I think a much better book would have resulted–but he didn’t have much time left, and as I said, 9/11 would have made it impossible for him to even consider trying again.

          There’s nothing wrong with filling a novel with people of the same race. Writers of all races do that. You write not only what you know, but whom. (I doubt I’ll ever see a fully sympathetic white character on Atlanta, and I’ll watch it for as long as it’s as good as last season).

          But if you choose to write about parts of the world where most people aren’t white, you take on a certain responsibility–a responsibility Westlake lived up to much better in Kahawa–set in a place Westlake took his time getting to know. Westlake did not know the Chinese-speaking world very well at all. Which is not to say he had nothing of value to say about it. I liked Captain Zhang and Inspector Ha, but perhaps a commentary is lurking there beneath the surface, about Asian passivity. If they’re so damn passive, and we’re so manly and heroic, how come they’re winning?

          By the way, I realize now why Brevizin has to be in Hong Kong–Westlake knows he’s created a problem with the soliton heist–there’s too many people who know about it. He’s got to get as many of them to Hong Kong as possible, to create the illusion that Curtis can get away with it. But of course he can’t. There’s no way. He would have to go back to the beginning, rewrite the whole thing, so that only Manville, Baldur, and a few others know. And aren’t in a position to tell anybody who matters.

          Maybe one answer would have been for Curtis to try and frame Manville for murder, as opposed to corporate espionage. Then George is really back on his heels, not able to just go around talking to all sorts of people about what Curtis is doing. That’s what Hitchcock would have done. And maybe he and Kim should have been together for more of the book, so their romance doesn’t feel so perfunctory.

          In trying to rationalize the irrational, he may have made it less rational. Fiction is, in many ways, the darkest of dark arts.

  2. Greg, you really have been co-reviewer on this one, and better qualified for the task than me–let me suggest a little imaginative exercise in hubris here, that you and I can engage in, and perhaps others who’ve read the published version of this book will feel free to join in.

    I call it “So You Think You Can Rewrite Westlake.”

    I’d keep Part One pretty much the way it is. It’s a fine opening gambit, sets up all kinds of possibilities.

    Part Two is where the problems start. I’d begin by putting Captain Zhang out of his misery a bit sooner–Pallifer knows Manville got the better of him because Zhang ratted them out. He kills Zhang–with the gun Manville used on one of his men, and left behind on the yacht. It’s an impulsive act, that shocks Curtis when Pallifer gets in touch with him, but they quickly realize they can turn it to their advantage, by framing Manville for Zhang’s murder.

    So as soon as Manville and Kim reach Australia, they’re fugitives. Westlake knew how to write about fugitives from the law. Cut out the stuff with Kim’s parents, and with Jerry and Luther trying to get the truth out of Zhang. It’s not bad, but it’s not helping anything.

    So more time for George and Kim to get to know each other. They would have to disguise themselves to some extent, another thing Westlake knew how to write about. (Oh, and there are actual sex scenes between them. Kahawa level sex scenes.)

    Instead of trying to go to Brevizin or the authorities, Kim convinces George they should contact Jerry and Luther (Jerry doesn’t faint when he sees Kim)–Jerry will be on their side as soon as he learns what Curtis is up to, and Planetwatch can provide them with papers that can get them out of the country.

    Pallifer manages to track Manville down, take him to the Curtis ranch, have the confrontation with Curtis, and Manville’s acquiescence to the arrangement Curtis proposes is now much more credible, since Curtis is offering to clear him of murder charges. However, Kim would be a witness who could prove his innocence, so the continued attempt to find and kill her would make more sense, and it all plays out pretty much the same way between Pallifer and Manville.

    In Part Three, Jerry Luther and Kim, figuring Manville has been eliminated (I think we can do without all the second-guessing about whether Manville has gone over to Curtis’s side), go to Singapore to try and find out what Curtis is doing and where. The stuff with them and Bennett is mainly the same, and Manville still comes in to thwart Bennett’s attempt on Kim’s life, but this time we get a Stark Rewind to tell us where he’s been and how he got there.

    Mark Hennessy’s odyssey is interesting in its way, but not necessary. Take too much time to explain why he would trust Curtis after everything he’s learned, so he spots the trap and makes himself scarce. Nobody has talked to the Singapore police, because they can’t. Manville finally puts it together, based on what he’s learned about Curtis’s anger about his expulsion from Hong Kong, and his realization that the city is largely built on landfill.

    Now this is all fun and all, and I’ve solved the problem of how Curtis could possibly hope to get away with his scheme and nobody would know about it. But Westlake wasn’t creating all these problems because he was dumb. In Part Four, how can you credibly get these people in touch with the Hong Kong police? Without some official help, how can Curtis possibly be stopped?

    Luther’s dad is a very rich powerful man, with connections in Hong Kong. Luther swallows his pride, and talks to his father (interesting conversation there), gets him to pull some strings to get them to see Inspector Ha (and not at some luxury hotel).

    With the understanding that George is now officially in police custody under suspicion of murder (Ha knows very well that Curtis is a scoundrel and a corner-cutter so the charges lack substance in his eyes), they work things out in much the same way as before, but it makes a bit more sense that Ha would be keeping the matter to himself, since he is aiding a fugitive. (Incidentally, the Inspector is wounded, not killed.)

    Luther, once he’s captured, can show us the same hellscape Mark did, and his snapping back to himself and saving the day would have more resonance, as it did in Anarchaos.

    And I can’t improve on the final chapter one bit.

    Overall, probably best to have Kim be Asian American, or maybe one of her parents is Chinese, and she speaks a bit of Mandarin. Still an American girl to her core, and still with the same odyssey of self-discovery to go through.

    Your move.


  3. Well, first of all let me say that if I had written this novel exactly as it came out, I’d be turning cartwheels of pride and would probably never, ever shut up about it.

    That said, I expect more from Westlake (as do we all). I think the changes you sketch out would go a long way towards fixing the novel’s problems. I would miss the hell out of Tony Fairchild, but you’re right that once you start involving the authorities (in any country), Curtis’s scheme starts to fall apart. Maybe some of those biographical details could be ported over to Martin Ha.

    Maybe Luther himself is Asian, his father a prominent businessman in Hong Kong, one of those who helped force Curtis out. (No matter how strong a German businessman’s ties are to China, he’s still an outsider.) That would tie Luther (not his name anymore) more inextricably to the plot, and give him a lot more value as a spokesperson with Martin Ha. Plus, Curtis would see an element of karmic justice to the son of a business rival getting press-ganged into service.

    • Ah, that’s a masterstroke. Solves the problem nicely. And Jerry would have met him because he was spending so much time in Hong Kong himself, in his dogged pursuit of Curtis. There’s a well-developed gay scene there, bars where they could have met, and Jerry’s interest would be sharpened by the family’s rivalry with Curtis.

      And the father’s rejection of his son (not voluntary exile, just a certain emotional distance), would be sharpened by his not only forming a connection with another man, but a Gweilo from America to boot (and let’s face it, Jerry, for all his likable qualities, is probably no one’s ideal son-in-law, leaving the same-sex aspect out of it.)

      Fairchild was a delightful character, but wasted in a narrative where there’s so little for him to do. His big moment comes when he shouts at a stubborn policeman who won’t let Manville question Bennett. I’ve no doubt a way could be found to shoehorn him in there. If the book was to be rewritten. Which it isn’t.

      But I do feel, very strongly, that a time must come in the future when Westlake’s unedited draft is made available as an ebook. I mentioned Trollope recently–just found out that quite recently, a literary scholar put out a ‘restored’ version of The Duke’s Children, last of the Palliser books. Substantially longer than the version people have been reading the past 130 years and change.

      And what did he restore it from? From Trollope’s own self-imposed edits! Nobody could tell him what to write or not write at that point but him. He felt the book was too long, and went about boiling it down by snipping a sentence here, a paragraph there. The restoration changes absolutely nothing related to plot or character. And people still wanted to read it.

      With all due respect to Trollope (who George Orwell once backhandedly praised as one of the ‘Good Bad Novelists’), I think Mr. Westlake is worth as least as much attention. Whether he’d want it or not is another question. 😉

      • I spent a few years volunteering on a project that published restored versions of a writer’s collected works:

        Fortunately, Westlake’s work wasn’t butchered the same way Vance’s tended to be.

        • Hell of a project. I’m a bit unclear as to how you get these in ebook form. Saw the website. I am not laying down a fortune for the print editions. I’m a fan, but not that big of a fan.

          Was The Dragon Masters one of the books restored?

          This would be one of the reasons why Westlake largely abandoned science fiction, not that all SF authors suffered such indignities. But if even a Vance could be treated this way, how many would have been exempt?

        • rinaldo302

          I’m delighted to know about this, being in the restoration/preservation racket myself (in music). And I’m glad to know more about Jack Vance. I knew the name, and in a general way the stature, but not much in the way of detail.

          I then had to quickly click through and verify that his three ghosted “Ellery Queen” books did not include the one (from the same period) that I regard as just about the most loathsome mystery I’ve read. And whew! no, it’s not his work (apparently it’s Dannay & Lee despite its late date, so I can comfortably blame them).

  4. I suspect most writers would be quite unhappy at the thought of their readers being able to pick through their “rough drafts,” even when they should have left well enough alone before making or demanding later changes. As “The Great Gatsby” was going to press, F. Scott Fitzgerald desperately wired his publisher to demand a title change to “Under the Red, White, and Blue.” His publisher (either truthfully or not, but definitely wisely) advised him that it was too late, the books were already printing.

    Once he had the clout, Stephen King put back in 300 pages his editors had made him take out of The Stand, allowing the original published version to fall out of print. (This was to the novel’s detriment, IMO.)

    Recently, Terry Pratchett’s final unfinished novel was posthumously destroyed, as per his wishes. Nabokov’s family wasn’t so accommodating, preserving and eventually publishing his incomplete novel, “The Original of Laura,” in express defiance of Nabokov’s dying instructions.

    When I taught writing (years and years ago), I used to tell my students a story about Cézanne that may or may not be apocryphal. Cézanne, as the story went, would sell friends his paintings, but then break into their houses late at night and make small changes to his work. People would wake up in the morning, smell fresh paint, and know that Cézanne had been there. It’s the kind of story that if it isn’t true, it ought to be. I think of Cézanne, lying in his bed, unable to get his latest painting out of his mind, knowing in his heart that it could be better, hating the thought of people seeing his “rough draft.”

    Was he right? Who knows? But art is a kind of collaboration between the artist and his or her audience, and the audience has a stake in how that art is presented, interpreted, and perceived.

    • I really liked The Stand when I read it, and still think of it as the best post-apocalyptic fantasy/horror novel I’ve ever read (even with the qualifications, that’s a legit distinction). I awarded major points for the Howard the Duck reference that future generations may puzzle over, if there are any.

      I cannot for the life of me imagine that 300 additional pages would improve it. King has now reached the point where he is less an author than an institution. The Pope of Horror. There are people urging him to run for office in Maine. And why not? Could he possibly be worse than the current Maine governor, who reads like a character from a King novel of the 70’s that the publisher insisted on major rewrites for, because nobody would believe this guy could get elected dog catcher?

      Westlake never had that kind of clout (neither did King in the 70’s), and I find it hard to believe he would have desired it. Too much of a burden, a distraction. And if you don’t have to listen to anyone’s advice, there’s a real danger you’ll stop listening entirely.

      The issue of writers declaring that certain works of theirs are to remain forever unpublished tears me to pieces. Do they have the right to control how we will remember their oeuvre, which imaginings of theirs they wish to stand as their legacy? Yes.

      Do we have the right to know all we can about not only their successes, but their failures? Yes.

      But more to the point, are writers always right about which of their books are successes or not? Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, I give you The Jugger. (And it kind of figures that Godard never had any problems at all with people seeing that lousy movie he made of it).

      • rinaldo302

        These are fascinating and perhaps unresolvable questions. Or rather, the resolution is what Fred just said: Writers have their legitimate wishes, and readers do too.

        For whatever it’s worth, I was glad when the expanded edition of The Stand appeared. I’m not the most faithful reader of King, but I really liked immersing myself in the world of this one, and the extra pages gave me all the more to immerse myself in (and answered some questions I’d had, too).

        Another example: Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. Everyone seems to agree that she wrote it too long and overstuffed with background and digressions, and that she did it a great service when she shortened it considerably in her revised edition. That’s always been the only edition I could find or buy — until the coming of online archives, which seem to have only the first edition, and I prefer it. It tells me just what I’d been wondering about — especially the operatic background.

        Which brings me to my own area, music. This sort of question comes up all the time. If a composer brings out a definitive revised version, may we prefer an earlier one? [Verdi’s operas] and (when copyright is not an issue) publish and perform it? [Carmen] What about works a composer withdrew? [my favorite, Britten] or never wanted heard? It’s interesting territory to negotiate.

        • I loved The Stand when it first came out. But for the new version, King didn’t just stick the expurgated material back in. He went through and updated it. The original novel was set a few years after it was written, or circa 1980. The longer version is set a good ten years later, so King went in and added references to AIDS, Pee Wee Herman, Ronald Reagan, etc. But he didn’t remove the old references to Vietnam, gas lines, and Shawn Cassidy. So the result it this weird, stitched-together Frankenstein.

          Even though more than 30 years had passed since I had read the original, reading the update, I could immediately identify all of the new sections, as King seems to have done quite a bit of “polishing” of those passages, to the point where I felt like they didn’t quite match younger King’s style.

          All of that said, plenty of people prefer the unexpurgated version. Which is fine. I just wish readers had a choice. Ridley Scott kept tinkering with Blade Runner, but fans can still watch the original, if they’re so inclined (which I am).

          • Sooner or later, copyrights expire, and so do authors (usually much sooner). As long as copies of the earlier edition exist, and the interest is there, the readers wil prevail.

            Given how many copies the original sold, I assume we still do have a choice–unless he’s buying them all up online?

            I never thought he’d go all George Lucas on us–though I guess at this point he’s almost as big. The box office for It is insane.

            And I’d still rather watch the original miniseries.

            Um–he’s not going to get rid of that is he? Nah, he wouldn’t do that. It’s got Annette O’Toole in it.

            Octavia Butler wrote a novel called Survivor, as part of her Patternist series–she didn’t write that series in any chronological order, nor did she ever really finish it, but it’s a hell of a ride. This one is chronologically the last book, I believe, but she didn’t like it. Said it was too Star Trek (and pretty sure she loved Star Trek, but she didn’t want to write it). She refused to allow any further editions, and the existing ones are just prohibitively expensive now (she wasn’t doing big sales at that point in her career, and she never did Stephen King sales). She didn’t die that long ago, and the copyright won’t expire for a long time, so maybe I should try interlibrary loan.

            Mr. Westlake took Omar the Tentmaker seriously, and once the moving finger had writ, he moved on. He left a few unpublished works, but he didn’t destroy them, or leave instructions that they never be published. However, I’m still wondering what the hell is up with Adios Scheherazade. That should have been out as an ebook years ago, and nobody will tell me why that hasn’t happened.

            I shouldn’t judge. I’ve edited articles (and comments) on this blog, years after publishing them.

            I’ve made mistakes even you guys didn’t pick up on.

            Or were too polite to mention.

            (I’d lke the Cézanne story to be true, but I’d have probably still called the cops.)

        • I see no problem with an expanded edition, as long as you can read both versions. I’ve only ever read Death Comes For the Archbishop, and her style seemed very spare and brief to me–sort of a nice Richard Stark. Keep meaning to get to My Antonia.

          Beethoven wrote three overtures to Leonore. My favorite is #1, followed by #2, and I don’t like #3 at all. I don’t know that it ever occurred to Ludwig to destroy the earlier ones. If I ever see him I’ll ask, but of course he wouldn’t hear me. Incidentally, I’ve never listened to the opera itself. Maybe that’s the problem. 😐

          You should respect the dead, but you can’t possibly embarrass them. Is my feeling on the matter.

          • rinaldo302

            Actually Beethoven wrote a fourth overture — the one that’s actually used with the final version of the opera, and shares its title Fidelio. It’s on a much different plan from the other three, being in the nature of a compact, effective curtain-raiser. (Which I suppose is why it works best: unlike L2&3, it doesn’t usurp the dramatic action by taking us through on a scale the stage can’t match.) Just in passing, I’m a little surprised by liking #2 but not #3, as they’re generally considered two different renderings of basically the same idea. But I believe you! We all have different tastes, as I was reminded so vividly when I wrote for a classical-recording-review magazine.

            • That’s why I don’t like #3. It’s just a less forceful statement of the same musical ideas. Beethoven was over-thinking it. And I plumb forgot #4, which is not a good sign. I recognize, of course, that an overture’s original purpose is to introduce something, but to me the two first overtures are far more important than the opera itself. They bring tears to my eyes. I like them as much as anything Beethoven ever did.

              Wagner holds mixed emotions for me, as I would think he must for anyone not on the alt-right (oh what am I saying, Kid Rock is probably a bit highbrow for those guys), but I was riveted once by a televised performance of his overture to Tannhauser, by Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. So off to the record store, and they had it, Deutsche Grammophon, oh joy! But then I got home and played it, and it just fizzles out at the end.

              I didn’t know about the Paris version. I wanted the Dresden version. If it’s Wagner, let it end in fire and blood, much like the regime his heirs shamelessly whored themselves out to! Never mind the damn ballet dancers, it’s an OPERA!!!!

              Anyway, let’s to back to talking about things I know more about than you.


            • I’ve done a fair bit of reading about the Third Reich of late (can’t imagine why), and all I can say about Papa Wagner und der kinder is, if he was a decent enough guy with maybe a few little quirks, those apples fell about a thousand miles from the tree.

              But you know, Ezra Pound was still a good poet.

              Character and talent–two different things.

              • rinaldo302

                Oh, Richard Wagner was definitely not nice; aside from personal behavior, he was an anti-Semite, and not a private one; he wrote about it. Blame him for that by all means. But I have yet to see it convincingly demonstrated that any of that got into his music dramas (and I’ve seen people try, believe me).

                What others have done citing his name — that’s on them.

              • rinaldo302

                And I meant to add — by all means let’s let this go (it must be tiresome to both of us) and continue the Westlake talk.

              • Oh, it’s not tiresome to me. The history of ideas is one of my lifelong fascinations, and certain types of hate qualify as ideas, as history attests.

                The line between ideology and art is finer than either of us would like to think. But yeah, let’s drop it.

      • I live in Maine. Terrifyingly, our governor is eyeing the Senate. Susan Collins may run for governor. If she does, she’ll have to resign from her senate seat, and the governor will have the power to appoint someone, including himself.

  5. Another plot hole: Creating a soliton requires understanding some pretty advanced mathematics. As Wikipedia tells us

    Solitons are the solutions of a widespread class of weakly nonlinear dispersive partial differential equations describing physical systems.

    This is going to be even truer in Hong Kong, where the medium is a set of tunnels that are connected in complex ways. I’ll accept that George Manning could have figured it out it, but not Curtis on his own. Perhaps there was a junior engineer on the original project, and he was more easily corrupted than Manning? Curtis would have to murder him, of course, to cover his tracks.

    • I think Westlake covers this for the most part in a passage in Chapter 13, from George’s point of view after the success of the solition on Kanowit:

      And he knew Richard Curtis appreciated him. Curtis had stayed with him every step of the way, showing a genuine interest, asking questions, even taking notes, following what Manville did, until by now Curtis could probably create the same effect himself. They’d been that closely tied together, the last few months.

      • Dumb thing to quibble about, but this is a blog comment, right?

        If the layout were the same, sure, but the multiply-connected tunnels are going to make the wave front act quite differently. I’d believe Curtis could reproduce the effect in a very similar situation, but not that he picked up enough advanced calculus to figure out Hong Kong.

        • It is most unlikely that Curtis could do it by himself, if he could do it at all. It’s one of the underlying failings of the book, that Westlake tries with his usual prestidigitation to conceal.

          Now–going back to my unofficial rewrite project–how can we make it work?

          He never confides to Manville that he’s going to use the soliton in a destructive way. He really doesn’t have to tell him that, he only does so because he thinks Manville is somehow his alter-ego, his secret sharer, due to all the time they spent working together–Westlake trying to justify something that happens far too often in Bond stories.

          The story Curtis, a somewhat more private Bond villain puts forth is that he just really hates Jerry Diedrich, he wanted Diedrich blamed for Kim’s death, and he went a bit overboard in making that happen.

          Now Manville still is going to refuse to let Kim be killed, and he’s still going to figure out that Curtis is going to try and have them both killed, and he’s going to sense there’s more going on here. It’s all going to play out much the same way, except that when Curtis gets him to the ranch (I just can’t get used to calling them stations, it’s an Ozzie thing), his offer to Manville, and his seemingly self-sabotaging decision to not have Manville killed, is more logical. He really does need Manville to do this. He had thought maybe he wouldn’t, but the deeper he gets into the planning, the more he realizes he’s simply not up to the math, and it’s far too late to find anyone else.

          (I rather suspect that Westlake considered having Manville assist Curtis with further calculations while staying at the ranch, and wasn’t sure he could handle the moral complexities in this already complex narrative. Look at the first quote up top–“You thought he could still help you, sir”–that’s Westlake patching a narrative hole. Let’s not kid ourselves that it was only the negative feedback he got that dissuaded him from continuing–he knew there were problems. And that it would be a shitload of work to fix them all. And if Charles Ardai chimes in and says he came up with that patch, I’m going to be really cheesed.)

          And even though Manville is suspicious about what use his brainchild is being put to, he’s still falling hard for Kim, he still wants to protect her, and he still desperately needs Curtis to get him off the hook (for espionage, or in my rewrite, for murder). He hasn’t been told it’s for mass murder, so unless Manville has to be perfect (and let’s face it, one of the flaws of that character is that he very nearly is, a Starkian ideal, but without any of Parker’s endlessly intriguing dark areas), it would really work better for him to be made even more complicit in what’s going to happen.

          Curtis tries to conceal the problem he’s having Manville work on, but Manville, in detective novel fashion, figures it out anyway, and that’s another reason why he makes a break for it, not simply because he realizes the hit on Kim was never called off.

          But having had so much of the plan revealed to him, however encoded, means he’s in a much better position to figure out where the charges are planted. Meaning they’d need less help from the Hong Kong brass. Meaning it’s still plausible that Curtis could pull it off without anybody knowing it was him. Anybody still alive, same difference.

    • Let me just say, I don’t think it was ever Westlake’s intent to lay out a practical plan for the destruction of a major city. I would think he’d have hoped that what he was proposing here was impossible, or at least impractical. But the idea is to make it credible, as a story. To make it seem real (if a handful of wonks think it isn’t, that’s not his concern).

      And original–I mean, Curtis could have just bought himself a nuke on the black market (he got his own custom-built submarine, so I don’t see why not). Had anybody ever done a story about somebody using a soliton as a weapon?

      According to Jeff Kleeman, the idea for the film treatment was quite different, at least with regard to the heist–

      In Don’s final treatment, the submarine isn’t used; rather Don came up with a method where the gold is ground up, turned into a slurry with seawater and pumped out into a waiting barge where it piles up like sand. There’s a climactic fight between Bond and the villain with the hill of gold sand rising around them. In a moment thematically reminiscent of the book’s final pages, the villain is buried by the still-descending gold as Bond says, “Too rich for him, I think.”

      Yeah, Bond doesn’t really do implicit puns. I always wonder how much of a film buff Mr. Westlake really was–you can find a similar visual in D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat, in Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, and in the very loose 1971 French adaptation of Goodis’s The Burglar, with Jean Paul Belmondo, which was undoubtedly riffing on Griffith and Dreyer (and not at all on Goodis, whose unforgettable ending to that book nobody has ever attempted on film, including Goodis. Very good chance Westlake had seen the 1971 film. Which is unforgettable in its own way, but more like a Bond film than a Goodis novel (except Belmondo does his own stunts).

      Curtis sees himself as an engineer, and so does Bennett, but it’s unclear whether either of them has an actual degree in engineering. Curtis probably never attended college, based on the brief background info we get on him, so that’s a lot of math he had to pick up on his own time. Of course, Westlake never graduated from any college.

      Maybe one reason Curtis is so much more compelling a character than Manville is that Westlake’s heart is always with the autodidacts of the world.

      • “According to Jeff Kleeman, the idea for the film treatment was quite different, at least with regard to the heist–”

        Jeff was referring only to the second treatment, in which the villain’s motivation is purely out of greed. Forever and a Death is based primarily on the first treatment, and the villain’s soliton/heist plan is almost the same (one exception being the escape route).

        • I put up the entire relevant quote, Phil, including the part where he says “in Westlake’s final treatment.”

          I did gather that the soliton was still involved, but I think it’s harder to justify in the second treatment. Obviously it’s going to take longer to get the gold in one place and cart it off in that form. The soliton requires a pretty tight schedule with regards to the getaway. But it’s an interesting visual–if not a wholly original one in the world of cinema, as I mentioned.

          How did Bond kill the villain in the original treatment? Was it a full-sized submarine where the final battle took place? That’s actually an idea they used in The World Is Not Enough.

          Westlake’s influence on that era of Bond is perhaps not fully mapped yet.

          • “How did Bond kill the villain in the original treatment?”

            The villain’s killed by his son.

            There’s no soliton in the second treatment; the plan is to blow up the city using a stolen nuclear device.

            • A nuclear device? How very predictable. You might as well be reading the President’s twitter feed.

              (Sorry, just watched a George Sanders film. In many ways, he was Bond before there was a Bond.)

              I would suspect the studio felt a doomsday device requiring math would in turn require too much of the audience. Obviously you can’t have a nuclear weapon without math, but everybody understands the language of “BOOOOOOOOM!” Even the President.

              (Walks away, whistling.)

  6. Clement Feutry, the manager of the fan site Commander James Bond, wrote a post in French that summarizes the story treatments using Jeff’s afterword and my MI6 article. Run it through the Google Chrome translator and it’s a handy reference.

    • Thanks. I take it this means Google translator has improved a lot since I last employed it?

      • The translator that works off the Chrome browser is excellent.

        • I’ll give it a try. At work. Don’t have Chrome at home.

          • This does clarify things a bit further, Phil Of course, my article was never about the film treatment, and that’s been admirably handled by you, Mr. Kleeman, and M. Feutry.

            Interesting idea, for Bond to sue the villain. Amazed he never thought of that before. Perhaps Calista Flockhart could have played the attorney who files the suit (while Bond removes hers.)

            (Ah, Google Translator. You’ve improved slightly. But still so much fun.)

            It is this scenario that inspired Forever and a death. The villain is a Gideon Goodbread, a construction mogul who wants to destroy Hong Kong with the “soliton” after stealing his banks to take revenge for the death of his parents: missionaries killed by the Chinese Communists. The pre-generic opens with Gideon’s “army”, named “the Children” (made up of young people) who makes a sacrifice somewhere. (As Kleeman says, the people behind Bond wanted a pre-credits with Bond in it, which was not the case). We meet Bond in bed in Oxford with a teacher (as will eventually be the case in the film). The MI6 gives Bond a mission to protect the wife of Gideon Goodbread, Gloria; the latter’s uncle promised MI6 plans in exchange for his protection. The uncle ends up dying and Bond meets Gideon at the burial of him. Gideon invites him to attend a demonstration of deconstruction of one of its islands via the soliton, “shaken not stirred” comments Bond. Activation of the soliton is complicated when an environmental group arrives and one of their diver (actually a Chinese secretive agent), Muffy Bhang, is hit by the wave. Bhang is recovered in the water by Gideon and Bond is then invited to a secluded property in Australia. The identity of Bond is discovered via his fingerprints and he is captured before being left tied up in the middle of the desert. Afterwards, Bond confronts Gideon in Vietnam and finally understands the objective of the latter. In Hong Kong Gideon is forced to advance his plans and flood the tunnels, killing several of his “Children”. Bond sued him but Gideon was finally killed by his own son as he tried to escape by helicopter, the latter did not bear that his father betrayed the “Children”. Bond defuses the bombs that must activate the soliton and exit the tunnels with Muffy Bhang.

            So what does Forever and a Death and the Westlake bondien scenarios have in common? As stated by Jeff Kleeman in the epilogue of the novel:

                In both cases, the villain is a rich and powerful businessman with a construction company located in Hong Kong. He created a device that can produce a destructive soliton wave, which he first tested on an island home to Japanese Second World War installations to rebuild it into a recreational complex.

                There is an environmental group boat that is trying to stop the test and one of its female members plunges into the water and is hit by the wave before being brought aboard the ship of the villain.

                The villain has a property in a remote part of Australia, where Bond and Manville are treated as guests and prisoners. As part of their loophole, the two end up on the metal frame of a garage door.

                The villain’s plan is to steal the Hong Kong banks and shave the city as an act of vengeance (in the scenario that takes place during the retrocession as the book unfolds after that). In both cases Bond and Manville determine which Hong Kong shipyard is used, workers barricade the police, resulting in a giant shootout as a radio-controlled submarine transports gold through flooded tunnels .

            Second scenario (9 pages):

            With Micheal G. Wilson, Westlake writes a second script in which the pre-generic returns to Transylvania Castle (Bond is then in a coffin during a funeral procession). The owner of the castle in which Bond stole a detonator from an atomic weapon is a certain Devlin Frey. Bond tries to sell him the detonator and meets Gloria, Frey’s wife. There are several attempts to kill Bond and 007 is finally saved by a secret agent named Jingjing Bhang. This takes him to an ancient nuclear weapons test site in scenes inspired by Micheal France’s GoldenEye script (which were included in The World Is Not Enough). The end of the script takes place in Hong Kong where Frey tries to steal the British gold reserve before retrocession with a drill and make the city disappear via a nuclear device.

  7. I’m actually surprised EON never used Westlake’s opening scene in which Bond rises from a coffin and straightens his tie. That would have been right at home with the silliness of DIE ANOTHER DAY.

    • Well, it might have been seen as a bit too much like the opening of You Only Live Twice. There was also a coffin in Diamonds Are Forever, and Bond rising from a sort of grave later on. It was Translylvania that made the joke work in Westlake’s version, if I’m remembering what I read correctly.

      Also, it wouldn’t fit the storyline there. Not one of my favorites, that one A very serious start, followed, as you say, by silliness exceptional even by 007 standards. Unbalances the narrative, but people seemed to like it.

    • Mike Schilling

      There’s a Breaking Bad scene reminiscent of that.

      • And innumerable scenes from Dracula movies, though he always somehow manages to remain immaculately caped and coiffed during his periods of interment.

        Bond is always neatening up his clothes after killing somebody or whatever. It’s a thing.

    • Hmm. Not quite the same thing, but in the same zip code, scientifically speaking. Speaking as someone who lives on a small island bordering the Atlantic, I am not amused.

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