- - Friday, June 15, 2012

By Donald E. Westlake
Hard Case Crime, $25.99 320 pages

When you read in a book that the copyright is held by “the estate of,” you can be pretty sure you won’t be seeing any more books by that author. That’s what the folks at Titan thought when they published Donald E. Westlake’s “Memory” two years ago.

In fact, they were so certain they described it as his “final unpublished novel.”

And then they got a letter from Max Allan Collins, a friend of Westlake’s who also writes crime fiction, saying that in his basement he had the typescript of a finished novel Donald Westlake had sent him for safekeeping in 1982 which now deserved to be called Westlake’s last unpublished novel.

The main character in the 1982 book was an aging comedian who’d made many movies and then gone on to stardom in television, a career that bore a close resemblance to that of Bob Hope. The portrait Westlake had drawn was not, let us say, an entirely flattering one. But that wasn’t what gave him pause.

Shortly after Westlake had finished the book (and sent a copy to his friend Collins) director Martin Scorsese brought out “The King of Comedy,” in which a troubled wannabe comic kidnaps a star, played by Jerry Lewis, and holds him for ransom, by which he means the opportunity to go on the star’s television program and open for him.

Westlake’s problem was that in his just-finished novel, the Bob Hope-ish character is also kidnapped and held for an unusual form of ransom. For that reason, and several others, Westlake decided not to send the book to his publisher, and the manuscript sat in his friend’s basement until 2010, when Collins sent what became “The Comedy Is Finished.”

On the cover, publisher Hard Case Crime proclaims it to be “The [Mystery Writers of America] Grand Master’s Great Lost Novel,” which allows for some wiggle room should yet another Westlake book turn up in somebody’s attic.

The reader should note that this book is not an “in the style of” sequel in which an established author takes on the characters, style and metier of a highly popular best-selling author who made the bad career move of dying, a la Lawrence Sanders or Ian Fleming. In contrast this is the real deal, a book written by the great man himself. And because it is the real deal, it is for the most part a good read.

I can’t say I couldn’t put the book down, but whenever I did I kept glancing back at it, as if to say, “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back.”

In this book, which takes place in 1977, the kidnapped king of comedy is named Koo Davis. Unlike the motivation of the Scorsese kidnapper, these kidnappers are political extremists who, as ransom, demand the release of 10 notorious activist criminals from federal prison. For those who no longer recall, or were not yet present, 1977 was but a few short years after the infamous trial of Patty Hearst, and the idea of a small band of dedicated, self-proclaimed revolutionaries, crazy or otherwise, was not far-fetched.

The group in this book, which calls itself the People’s Revolutionary Army, consists of two women and three men. When both their rhetoric and their resolve are tested, they do not hold up well under the pressure of being big-time kidnappers.

Applying that pressure is FBI agent Mike Wiskiel, recently banished by the bureau to California until people back in Washington forget that he committed felonies by following orders in covering up Watergate excesses. He’s bitter, and he drinks too much, but he’s a pro. Also a pro is Davis’ agent, an attractive hard-nosed woman named Lynsey Rayne, who fears Wiskiel’s tricky ways of dealing with the kidnappers is jeopardizing her client’s safety and maybe also his life.

As the drama progresses and the bad guys escalate the stakes, she is surprised to learn how much she cares for her famous and famously smart-mouthed client, who can’t resist joking at the kidnappers’ expense - until they threaten to remove one of his ears. Deservedly praised for great plots, crisp dialogue and believable characters - all of which are on display in “The Comedy Is Finished” - Westlake wrote seven days a week. His prodigious total included nonfiction, crime stories, screenplays and even graphic novels.

After Westlake’s death in 2008 at 75, his agent, Laurence Kirshbaum, told one obituary writer, “We were in his library, this beautiful library surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of titles, and I realized that every single book was written by Donald Westlake, English-language and foreign-language editions.”

Now, more than three years after his death, we have the last lost unpublished novel of the great Donald E. Westlake. Or do we?

What a fitting epitaph for a mystery writer.

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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