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, not even close–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.
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.”