Tag Archives: Strangers on a Train

Review: The Hook, Part 2

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me neither, and I’ve always meant to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: The Hook

Wayne said, “Let me tell you the world we live in now.  It’s the world of the computer.”

“Well, that’s true.”

“People don’t make decisions any more, the computer makes the decisions.” Wayne leaned closer.  “Let me tell you what’s happening to writers.”

“Wayne,” Bryce said gently, “I am a writer.”

“You’ve made it,” Wayne told him.  “You’re above the tide, this shit doesn’t affect you.  It affects the mid-list guys, like me.  The big chain bookstores, they’ve each got the computer, and the computer says, we took five thousand of his last book, but we only sold thirty-one hundred, so don’t order more than thirty-five hundred.  So there’s thinner distribution, and you sell twenty-seven hundred, so the next time they order three thousand.”

Bryce said, “There’s only one way for that to go.”

As has been made evident many times in the past here, I enjoy trying to guess which past works of fiction might have helped inspire whatever Westlake opus I am reviewing at a given moment.  You may not necessarily agree with my guesses, but we certainly agree that’s what they are, and no doubt I’ve been wrong sometimes.  The exercise is, nonetheless, highly pleasurable to me.  Sometimes Mr. Westlake deprives me of that speculative pleasure by making his debt to another writer so blatant and unequivocal that it scarcely seems worth the mentioning.

As is the case with this book, but since Valerie Sayers (at that time the author of  five novels and a professor of English, at Notre Dame no less) completely failed to mention that debt in her well-written and somewhat condescending review for the New York Times, I might as well get it out there, just to make sure we’re all on the same page.

Not a Hitchcock buff, Prof. Sayers?  I won’t even inquire about Highsmith.  Why does the Times so frequently choose non-mystery authors to review mystery books?  A mystery in itself.  Perhaps they confused her with Dorothy?  An idle whimsy, never mind.

Now in all fairness, maybe Sayers (a South Carolinian of Irish Catholic descent, out of the Flannery O’Connor school, and that’s all fine by me) thought the similarity was too obvious to mention as well, or she figured all genre lit is derivative. (Southern Gothic isn’t a genre, you see–it’s a subgenre.  Entirely different.)  Or maybe she didn’t want to sound like she was crying plagiarism when all she really wanted was to deride Westlake’s shallow characterization and over-conceptualized plotting. But I strongly suspect she never made the Highsmith connection at all.  Maybe if there’d been a tennis match or a carousel in Westlake’s book?  Oh, that was mean.

It is not plagiarism, in and of itself, for one writer to react to another.  There is no writer worth talking about who does not do this habitually.  With her own book, Highsmith was clearly reacting to Dreiser, not to mention Dostoevsky (and they were all reacting to Poe). Westlake might have been a bit less careful here than he would have been had Highsmith been alive, and had he not been under the gun a bit (we’ll talk about that), but it’s really no different than his various creative reworkings of Red Harvest.  Less enthusiastic, perhaps–more self-conscious–an older man’s book.

A summary online search reveals that pretty much everybody other than Sayers made mention that Mr. Westlake was fishing with a borrowed hook here.  He wasn’t trying to hide it, and it wasn’t something you really could hide, from anyone who knew the genre at all.  You’re supposed to see the influence, think about it, what it means, compare and contrast.

Strange that Sayers would say in her review that the story Westlake tells here isn’t about character, when it’s riffing on the work of a writer who virtually drowns you in character, after first hitting you with an oar, and throwing you over the side.  Highsmith’s morbid missives take place more or less entirely in the heads of one or several people, expressing to us what seems to be their every waking thought (without going full stream of consciousness, like Mr. Joyce and his many imitators), which makes her work, in equal measure, fascinating and frustrating.  She writes good stories, but she’s primarily interested in aberrant dysfunctional personalities, and she was to all accounts a ranking authority on the subject.

(I’m being territorial here, I’m quite aware, about the Times review, another weakness of mine.  Valerie Sayers is a very fine writer, and has a sharp eye for detail–many trustworthy people have said so, and looking at a sampling of her work, I saw no reason to doubt them.  She got another novel out in 2013. A university press this time; her relationship with Doubleday must have ended by the time she wrote her review of The Hook, for reasons that The Hook might indeed help illumine–she grudgingly concedes Westlake knows his onions when it comes to the world of publishing.

Let me say in passing that a quick glance at her resumé and a general working knowledge of human nature gives me the distinct impression that she would have needed to be a living saint to not have had a hostile reaction to this book, hardly Westlake’s best work, but there’s no indication in her review that she’s ever read anything of his before, even The Ax.  She almost certainly hadn’t read Highsmith, and makes a passel of assumptions no dedicated mystery reader ever would.  If her review is a touch on the jaundiced side, I blame the Times for assigning it to her in the first place.

Westlake was known to write critically of other people’s books as well, often for the Times. I think he was a more perceptive critic than Sayers, but I would, wouldn’t  I?  Scratch a writer, find a backbiter, one of his themes here.  Maybe that entire practice of the literary circular firing squad should be reconsidered.

He could well have gotten a crack at one of hers at some point, except she didn’t publish any books at all between 1996 and 2013–you see my point about how this one might have rubbed her the wrong way.  Her 1996 book doesn’t seem to have gotten a Times review.   Publisher’s Weekly sort of gently panned it.  Her very well-reviewed 2013 offering seems to be a metatextual ode to baseball, certainly an under-covered subject in highbrow lit, and maybe I better get back to Westlake before I drown us all in sarcasm.)

Westlake, to be sure, liked to get at character both more obliquely and concisely than Highsmith did in her novels–he was the master of the thumbnail portrait, particularly when writing as Richard Stark (the part of himself that most resembled Highsmith), and he liked to let the actions of the characters tell us who they were as much as possible, while still reserving the omniscient narrator’s right to sum them up.

But he, like Highsmith, was all about identity, how it changes in response to external stimuli, exigencies beyond the individual’s control, and most of all our relationships with others.  His protagonists usually coped better with the dire situations he put them in than hers did.  Not always, though.

So yes, he took a stripped down plot device from a famous mystery novel (less famous for the book than the movie, the latter of which I’d summarize as a more efficiently told story about far less interesting people, probably true of most Hitchcock adaptations), and I’ll just say it now–he did not improve on the original, any more than The Master of Suspense did.  Did he expect to?  I don’t know.  But he clearly thought there were things he could do with the basic premise that Highsmith did not, otherwise he wouldn’t have tried.

Really, the author he was most obviously copying from here was himself. In my review of The Ax, I referred to an essay Westlake wrote but never published, now featured in The Getaway Car, in which he expressed his frustration that he was having ‘second novel problems’ after publishing scores of novels.  His editors, publishers, agents, spouse, etc, all told him that whatever book came out after The Ax under his own name had to be special, couldn’t be humorous, couldn’t be Dortmunder, couldn’t be some sexy tropical romp. It had to be bloody, hard-edged, suspenseful, and thought-provoking.  In other words, they wanted him to prove The Ax wasn’t a fluke.  (I might personally observe that masterpieces are all flukes, by definition, but I wasn’t involved in that conversation.)

The general sentiment was something along the lines of “This was your greatest commercial and critical success ever; now go do it again.”  Easy for them to say.  So anyway, he had a bunch of ideas, many from past books of his (Cops and Robbers, A Likely Story, others), but he clearly did read (probably reread) Highsmith’s book around this time, and saw so much more clearly than most ever would, what Highsmith was getting at with it–and where she’d gone wrong, because as powerfully unsettling a first novel as it is, it’s also crammed with journeyman blunders that would have made his typing fingers itch, and of course he and Highsmith would not be of a like mind about everything (a serious understatement).  And anyway, a good story is always worth revisiting, updating.

She might have been in his mind then because of her recent death, in 1995.  Since she and Westlake shared a publisher at one point–reportedly not a happy time for Otto Penzler–there’s no way she wasn’t aware of Westlake as a writer, but I don’t know which of her contemporaries she read, or whether she liked any writers other than her patron Graham Greene (I think they mainly just corresponded, probably an aid to friendly relations).  Liking people was never really her thing.  But this novel we’re looking at strongly suggests that writers having issues with other writers is not just a Highsmith thing.  Cats on a hot tin printing press.

I’m not clear on when he was first approached to write a screenplay adaptation of Ripley Under Ground–the film was produced in 2003, but as was frequently the case, they didn’t use much if any of Westlake’s treatment, and went to another writer after him, which would have drawn things out.  So a very good chance this book bears some connection to that project, and the reading he’d have done for it, to get her voice right.

I understand the finished film was terrible, not that I’d know, since it’s damned difficult to find.  I’ve read the novel, which I’m inclined to call the best thing of Highsmith’s I’ve read thus far–not quite as good as The Ax, but it’s close–her career batting average was better than his, but she showed up to play a lot less often.  Anyway, a masterpiece is a masterpiece, and to rank them is a waste of time.

I’ve just finished Strangers on a Train (I do my research), and I get the feeling she spent much of her subsequent career reworking that story, trying to fix it, with varying levels of success. Like Westlake, there were other directions she might have gone in as a writer (see Carol, originally known as The Price of Salt, which got published right away, unlike Westlake’s Memory), but she found a comfortable commercial niche in crime–comfortable for her in ways beyond the commercial. As many had learned before her, and since, you can get away with things in that genre that would raise too many eyebrows in a ‘serious book.’  And make a nice living doing it–she left a substantial estate behind when she died, though no heirs to enjoy it.

I’ve still read relatively little of her, but I’m in the process of emending that deficiency now, and for all her failings as a person, as a writer I consider her one of our very best, a lone sentinel on the ramparts of social alienation, with some troubling insights to share.  A true American original.  Who never much liked Americans either, but it would take too long to list all the subsets of humanity Patricia Highsmith disliked–easier to just say she didn’t like humans.  Least of all herself.  We can all relate, sometimes.

It’ll take me a while to get through her.  She isn’t someone you necessarily want to binge-read.  That could be deleterious to your mental outlook.  Unlike Westlake, whose range of interests and voices and moods could seem unlimited, she was very intently focused on a small handful of themes in her novels, and really just one dark prevailing tone–both a weakness and a strength.  As was Westlake’s need to keep changing up.  Which he was not, as mentioned, permitted to do right after The Ax.  And hence The Hook.  Not as startlingly original as the book that inspired it, or as searingly relevant as the book it was supposed to serve as the informal follow-up to, but a book has to be evaluated on its own merits (if any), so let’s do that now.

Bryce Proctorr, best-selling author, is doing research for a novel at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library (not the grand stone ediface with the lions, but the much less distinguished-looking glass & steel structure across 5th Ave. from it).   It seems he’s not doing research for a book he’s working on, so much as harvesting background material on various exotic locales he might set a book in, if he ever got an idea worth pursuing.

His publishing niche seems to be mainly books about foreign intrigue and adventure, espionage, that sort of thing.  Along the lines of Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, and similarly lucrative.  That most contradictory of creatures, a celebrity scribbler.  One of his many readers recognizes him there, asks for his autograph, and he’s outwardly polite, inwardly bored, happens to him all the time.  Then he recognizes someone.

Wayne Prentice.  Also a novelist, also doing research.  He and Bryce used to know each other, back when both were struggling to make it.  They lost touch, haven’t seen each other in twenty years.  (Valerie Sayers was struck by their last names–‘Proctor and Apprentice?’ she mused.  She somehow didn’t twig to the fact that their first names combine into Bryce Wayne.  Because they will become each other’s alter egos, secret identities.  I mean, seriously, how hard a reference is that to spot, if you’re actually looking for hidden meanings?  I’m sorry to keep bringing this up, it’s just irritating to me.  It was probably more amusing for Westlake.  He got used to the critics underestimating him.  Beneath the radar once more.)

Bryce hesitates before approaching–the perils of wealth and fame–suppose Wayne hits him up for money?–but he’s curious, and they were friends, and he knows he’s not really getting anything professional done at the library–this will be a welcome distraction.  Wayne is likewise both delighted and embarrassed to see Bryce.  They decide to adjourn to a nearby bar, and catch up.  (They aren’t on a train in the late 40’s, when rich people still took trains, so there’s no private drawing room they can chat in.)

As they sip a pair of Bloody Marys (okay, Sayers couldn’t have missed that, no need to belabor the obvious), Wayne opens up about his professional woes.  He’s not researching a novel.  He’s looking up colleges out in the boonies that might hire him to teach; writing, English, whatever.  His career as a novelist has itself become an exercise in fiction.  Nobody will publish him, and a writer who can’t get published isn’t a writer anymore, in his view of things–just a hobbyist.

He explains to Bryce about the bookstore chains, the computers keeping tabs on your sales, the ever-declining sales, leading to less and less assistance and promotion from the publisher, which leads in turn to still further declines in sales.  He was successful enough at first, but the new publishing landscape is merciless to writers who are established enough to command a decent advance, but not famous enough to deliver the big numbers. He got around this for a while through a subterfuge that nobody understood better than Donald E. Westlake.

“I’ll tell you a secret,” Wayne said.  “All over this town, people are writing their first novel again.”

It took Bryce a second to figure that one out, and then he grinned, and said “A pen name.”

“A protected pen name.  It’s no good if the publisher knows.  Only the agent knows it’s me.”  Wayne had a little more of his Bloody Mary and shook his head.  “It’s a complicated life,” he said.  “Since I did spend that one year in Italy, the story is, I’m an expatriate American living in Milan, and I travel around Europe a lot, I’m an antiques appraiser, so all communication is through the agent.  If I have to write to my editor, or send in changes, it’s all done by E-mail.”

“As though it’s E-mail from Milan.”

“Nothing could be easier.”

Bryce laughed.  “They think they’re E-mailing you all the way to Italy and you’re…”

“Down in  Greenwich Village.”

So Wayne Prentice became Tim Fleet, and for a while, Tim Fleet was a successful writer, getting bigger advances than Wayne had recently, because the computer didn’t know him. It wasn’t perfect–no way to do book tours, promotion was problematic, but they were evaluating each book in its own right, not on the basis of past track record.  And eventually the computers caught up, and the same thing happened all over again.  Wayne doesn’t think he can pull the same trick twice.  So he’s worked up a resumé for the colleges, and he’s depressed as all hell about it.

If the goal of fiction is indeed to ‘write what you know,’ Westlake could not be on more solid footing here.  Professionally, he was roughly equi-distant between Bryce and Wayne–never a best-selling author, but well-established enough under his various names that the bookstore computers could only hurt him so much.  He did, in fact, think about taking a teaching job at one point, but more because revenue from script-writing had flagged.  He never (that we know of) had a fully protected pseudonym that even the publisher didn’t know was him, but after the Samuel Holt fiasco, he certainly must have regretted not giving that a try.

Think for a moment, before we proceed, how incredibly difficult it is to make your living as a novelist in the modern age, not that it ever was easy.  Think about how many people are lining up for their share of an ever-shrinking market–because there is still probably nothing anyone dreams of more than saying at some social gathering “My new novel is in stores now.”  It’s the damn 19th century romantic movement.  Used to be nobody of any substance wanted to admit to writing fiction.  Or to being an actor.  Those were the days.

Rich famous people like Bill O’Reilly, who have absolutely no reason to write a novel (and 99.999% of the time, no ability) do so anyway, because it’s just such a neat thing to be able to say.  Admit it–you’ve fantasized about having a book in stores, standing by the book rack, holding a copy with the photograph of you on the back dust jacket exposed, waiting to be recognized.  I certainly have. Everybody who has ever read a novel has thought about writing one. Thankfully, that’s all most of us ever do, but imagine what it’s like for those who choose it as their daily profession, and don’t want to do anything else for the rest of their lives.

A handful will, to be sure, gain such a reputation for this or that book that they can more or less live off of that forever (looking at you, J.D. Salinger, and maybe you too, Miss Harper Lee, which isn’t fair, since neither of you are living at all now), but what kind of life is that?  If you make furniture for a living, if that’s what you love to do, would you be happy knowing that you’re so famous for this one table you produced that you don’t ever need to make another one, and if you ever did, people would just compare it unfavorably to the earlier one?

Let’s say you had this amazing sexual encounter with a stranger once, and you were on fire that night, performed beyond your wildest expectations, and when it was all over, your partner said, with hushed reverence, “Not to insult you, or demean what you and I just shared, but I feel I must leave two hundred dollars on the nightstand.”  And you take the money, not feeling at all dirtied, but rather ennobled, and you treasure that achievement always, as well you should, and maybe it even happens a few times more, though the stack of bills by the bedside keeps shrinking.

Even so–would you then, when asked at a party what you do for a living, declare with pride, “I’m a hooker!”?  Of course not!  Because to do something once, or even several times, is not the same thing as making it your job.  Your job is what you do, day in, day out, until you can’t do it anymore, at which point it is no longer your job, no longer who and what you are.  You are only a novelist for as long as you keep writing novels, with at least a decent chance of getting them published, and the publisher pays you, not the other way around.(Okay, maybe self-publishing on the internet is blurring the lines of this definition a bit–but not much.  Making it easier to kid yourself.  Blogs can work too.)

So Westlake is telling us how he feels about writing–it’s more than just a job to him, it’s an addiction, a craving, a hunger he can only satisfy by getting another book on the shelves of increasingly mercenary booksellers and their cold-hearted computers.   And the difference, as he put it once, between being in or out of print, is being alive or dead.  And what wouldn’t you do to keep that?   To keep your very sense of selfhood alive a while longer?

And even though Bryce Proctorr is a famous wealthy novelist, who hit it big soon enough that he never even heard about any of this computer crap until Wayne told him, he’s got his own identity crisis going on.  He’s in the middle of a bitter divorce battle with his second wife, Lucie, who is quite determined to get half of everything he’s got.  Including half of any books he produces between now and the official end of their marriage.  And the stress of all this has made it impossible for him to produce anything, for a year and a half now.  He’s well behind deadline, and his editor is making politely impatient noises, that will soon become louder and more insistent.

And honestly, for all the money he’s made–Wayne tries not to gasp when Bryce lets it slip his advance is over a million–there really isn’t that much left.  One ex-wife already, three kids to put through college, and he’s gotten used to the finer things in life (the more you make, the more you spend; the more you spend, the more you need to make in order to maintain your spending; the joys of the upwardly mobile lifestyle in a nutshell).

Sure, he wouldn’t be penniless if he hung it all up, but he wouldn’t be Bryce Proctorr either.  He’d be some has-been hack, with no reason to go on, washed up in his mid-40’s.  Never taken seriously by the critical establishment, forgotten by everyone else.  Just another name you see on some tattered mass-market paperback at a garage sale.  (Whatever did happen to Mario Puzo, by the way?)

And he’s just now getting a brilliant and rather evil idea (and really, aren’t all brilliant ideas just a little bit evil?), as well as providing this book with its title. What’s great about talking to Wayne is that they’re both professional storytellers, they both think in the same basic terms, speak the same language.  To them, fiction is not a metaphor for life, so much as life is a metaphor for fiction.

“Wayne, listen,” Bryce said.  “You know how you–You know, you’re working along in a book, you’re trying to figure out the story, but where’s the hook, the narrative hook, what moves this story, and you can’t get it and you can’t get it and you can’t get it, and then all of a sudden there it is!  You know?

“Sure,” Wayne said.  “It has to come, or where are you?”

“And sometimes not at all what you expected, or thought you were looking for.”

“Those are the best,” Wayne said.

“I just found my hook,” Bryce told him.

Wayne has a book he can’t get published–written by Tim Fleet, who almost nobody knows is Wayne Prentice.  Bryce says that can be his next book–he’ll just rewrite it enough so the few people who read the manuscript when it was making the rounds won’t recognize it.  Proctorr-ize it.  He’s read some of Wayne’s stuff under the Fleet name, liked it–he knows Wayne is good enough to impress his publisher, once he’s decked out in the Emperor’s old clothes.  He’ll split his advance with Wayne, 50/50–over half a million bucks.

Wayne can’t believe Bryce is even suggesting this, though in fact it’s a very poorly kept secret that both Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler have done this multiple times (Drowned Hopes contains a reference to a writer named Justin Scott, a crafter of nautical adventures, who is also known to have produced novels of the same general type that were accredited to the Clive Cussler brandname–probably most of Cussler’s readers never noticed the difference, except maybe to say “Hey, Clive’s stepped up his game with this one!”), and they were both probably a lot less generous in terms of the split.  Um–now that we’re on the subject– why so generous, Bryce?

Because there’s a catch.  A hook, if you will.  The book needs to be submitted soon.  The divorce may drag on for years.  Lucie will get half the advance if the book is completed before the divorce is final.  Bryce needs his half, in order to go on living in the manner to which he has become accustomed.  For Wayne to get Lucie’s half, Lucie’s gotta go.  He wants Wayne to kill her.  They may not be complete strangers, or on a train, but it’s close enough.  In return, Bryce will sacrifice his own sense of professional pride on the bloody altar of necessity by using a ghostwriter, which for a novelist is probably the more serious crime of the two.  So still trading murders.

Now.  Here’s my question.  Did Westlake start out writing another book along the lines of A Likely Story, that masterful and murder-free satire of the publishing biz that hardly anybody read?  Only to then be informed by various persons in authority that satire is well and good, but if he wants this book to sell, he needs to recognize that people will expect some kind of criminal activity from him, such as murder, and all the more after The Ax and the return of Richard Stark (his Tim Fleet) reestablished him as something more than just that guy who writes comic capers about baffled burglars.

And at the same time, he was in the early stages of adapting a novel by the late Ms. Highsmith into a movie, and he was not just reading that specific book by her, and he saw how her narrative hook in her first and still best-known novel–and the ideas behind it, the sense of compromised identity, a dark relationship between secret sharers (forgot to mention Conrad on Highsmith’s list of influences) that corrupts and destroys both protagonists–could fit into what he was doing here.  Or maybe he intended all this from the first.  I’m just curious. Because in a certain weird way, this book is a collaboration between him and a writer he may never have even met.

But suffice it to say Valerie Sayers was far more correct than she knew when she said this was a sort of meta-textual commentary on the writing of genre books–it’s a meta-textual commentary on the career of its author, and many another as well (I still think Sayers felt more of a sense of self-recognition there than she was comfortable with).  But she sort of sniffed a bit when she said it, dismissing the effort as somehow trivial, and was she right to do so?

Is this an unsatisfactory compromise of a book, stuck between two modes of storytelling?  Pretending to be a nice diverting suspense novel about murderous writers, while really playing around with another writer’s much earlier idea, turning it into a way to comment on the relationship between fiction and life?

(Though I might mention on the side, because I apparently can’t help myself, that I noted Sayers doing something quite similar in one of her books I was leafing through last week, that was published a few years before The Hook came out.  This character of hers, an aspiring writer, is right in the middle of a dramatic situation with a woman he’s involved with, and even as he deals with that sticky situation, he’s thinking to himself how he’s going to have to rewrite the book he’s composing in his head about their relationship to accommodate his altered perception of her.  Writers probably can’t stop themselves from doing that, fictionalizing daily existence, while cannibalizing daily existence for the building blocks of their fiction–but honestly, can anybody stop doing that these days?  David Copperfield was doing it back in 1849, and it’s only gotten worse since then.)

So I’m only a few pages into the book here, but we bloggers have our own self-imposed deadlines to deal with, internalized editors nagging us, and I’m sure I’ll have many more snarky and unfair things to say about Valerie Sayers’ review in Part 2 (why does she get paid and I do not!), but I will try to actually finish the review next time, and if I fail in that attempt, well, it wouldn’t be my first three-parter, would it now?  Here’s hoping the hook is sufficiently well stuck in your mouths for you all to come back and find out.  See, I really am a hooker.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels