When Rick Robinson proclaimed on his blog that he was reading only short stories in February and encouraged others to read more shorts, I mentioned in a comment that I'd read a lot of shorts in previous months, so I was sticking to novels. And then I happened to run across The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution on my shelves, picked it up, and read right through it.
I found it a mixed bag. The title story is a variation on James M. Cain, with a narrator who's come up with the perfect way to kill his wife. Except that he didn't take everything in to account, like the fact that they live in the suburbs. He's never spent a day at home. That's his undoing. It's a humorous story, not really like Cain at all, other than the basic plot idea. "You Put on Some Weight" is a good one. A thief is released from prison and discovers that things have changed. He's pretty down about it, but then . . . . "Sniff" is about a weak man who's blackmailing his boss, except the boss doesn't know it. Things go wrong because the blackmailer is too cowardly to speak up. In "Good Night, Good Night" a TV variety show host sits watching his own show as he dies of a gunshot wound and tries to figure out who shot him. He's such a worthless guy that it couldn've been anyone, and the reader doesn't blame the shooter at all. The dying man gains no insight into himself, as that kind of person never does. "Devilishly" was one I didn't care for. I thought it was kind of silly. It hinges on revenge at a costume party. "Murder in Outer Space" is both a mystery and an SF story. It's clever, but that's all I can say for it. Given Westlake's falling out with SF, it's interesting that this one was included. "No Story" is no story, all right. Sort of a shaggy dog tale, if anything. We know that "The Sincerest Form of Flattery" is imitation, so what if a man who's tried of his wife sees someone kill a woman and get away with it? Can he pull it off, too? Especially if someone sees him do it? "Just One of those Days" is a jokey story about a perfectly planned bank robbery that goes wrong. There are always unforeseen complications. In "Never Shake the Family Tree" a woman discovers that an ancestor of hers was a serial murderer. There's nothing to be done about that, but what about the descendant of that ancestor who's not courting our narrator and wants to marry her? This one's clever and fun. "Just the Lady We're Looking For" is a one-joke story. Not much there. "Domestic Intrigue" is another blackmail story, and the victim tries to turn the tables. You might be interested in how that works out, but I didn't much care. I was ahead all the way. When you're "One Man on a Desert Island" without much hope of rescue (and you're not Tom Hanks), there's not much you can do except go mad. And then you might kill somebody even if there's no one there. If you do, don't confess. "The Sweetest Man in the World" is far-fetched, but it's kind of funny in its way. "The Mother of Invention is Worth a Pound of Cure" is another blackmail story with a good twist.
All in all, I enjoyed these stories. Westlake is too good a writer not to give you something interesting in even the most minor of them.
Table of Contents:
The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution
You Put On Some Weight
Good Night, Good Night
Murder in Outer Space
The Sincerest Form of Flattery
Just One of Those Days
Never Shake a Family Tree
Just the Lady We’re Looking For
One Man on a Desert Island
The Sweetest Man in the World
The Mother of Invention is Worth a Pound of Cure