Monday, February 06, 2012

The Comedy Is Finished -- Donald E. Westlake

Before you read anything I have to say about this book, you should go read Max Allan Collins' comments about how the book came to be published and what his part in that was. You can find the comments here.

Okay, now that you've finished your assignment, you're probably as amazed as I am that Westlake's publisher wanted him to make the book funnier. Thinking about it, I can almost see why the editor (or someone) thought it was supposed to be funny, however, because the opening chapter does have some amusing stuff, as it's told by comedian Koo Davis in what's pretty much the voice of Bob Hope. If Westlake had wanted to change careers, he'd have been a cinch to get on as one of Hope's gag writers. But after that first chapter, things take a much darker turn.

The book is set in 1977, post-Viet Nam, but a time when radical groups still did radical things, like kidnapping a famous comedian and holding him hostage until their demands are met. The group that grabs Davis seems well-organized at first, but pretty quickly they begin to unravel, as you might expect in a novel like this. The chapters about the group and about the FBI and the cops alternate with chapters told from Davis' point of view (Davis' are in present tense, if that matters), and Westlake is a master of ratcheting up the tension. He's also a master at making every character in the book an individual and in presenting a picture of the times that's hard to beat.

As happens often, it seems, we owe Hard Case Crime thanks for bringing back a fine "lost" work, and we also owe Max Allan Collins. Not only is he working with the Spillane estate, but it turns out that he has treasure in his basement. Here's a tip of the Crider chapeau to all concerned, and the book is highly recommended.

P. S. It was fun to see the mention of A Sound of Distant Drums.


Deb said...

Patti's hosting an all-Westlake FFB on February 17.

Chris said...

I loved King of Comedy when it came out--it's still one of Scorsese's best films, with amazing performances by DeNiro, Lewis, and Bernhard.

It could just be coincidence, but please note--Scorsese didn't come up with the idea. What happened was that he wanted to do a movie with DeNiro, and DeNiro wanted to do a comedy, and showed him a script he'd purchased the rights to--by Paul D. Zimmerman. They rushed it into production to beat a looming

Zimmerman was a film critic who tried his hand at writing screenplays--only three were ever produced, and only King of Comedy ever got much attention. His only credit before KoK was a minor Goldie Hawn comedy (made in Italy), and he shared credit with several other writers--doesn't seem to have been the main writer on it. After KoK, he wrote a comedy for Michael Palin that likewise got little attention. KoK really stands out on his meager resume.

Sometimes this kind of thing happens--two entirely unconnected writers come up with about the same idea at about the same time, as Westlake once put it, because 'we all swim in the same culture'. I feel better about it when the two writers in question are on more or less equal footing, are constantly churning out quality work, and have no need to steal from anybody.

But a guy as prolific as Westlake probably wasn't shy about discussing his ideas at various social gatherings. Word could have gotten around. Zimmerman lived in New Jersey. He worked for Newsweek. It's far from unimaginable that he could have heard about Westlake's idea.

I'd want to read the book, then see the original screenplay (which probably got reworked a lot), before making any judgment. But what I'm saying here is that if you're looking for a perp, Scorsese isn't who you want to look at. He had no motive. Zimmerman was the one desperate to break in, and he doesn't seem to have been a bottomless well of creativity.

Sometimes they get away with it. Most of the time, probably.

Chris said...

looming strike, sorry. Left that sentence uncompleted. :)