The first title released by Hard Case Crime in 2012 is a true literary find and masterpiece: the last unpublished novel by the three-time winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award and Mystery Writers of America Grand Master, Donald E. Westlake. THE COMEDY IS FINISHED is a brilliant work of nonstop suspense and richly developed characters. What is hard to believe is that it was sitting around unpublished for over three decades before the author’s untimely death on New Year’s Eve 2009.
Actually, I said that here before about another “last” Westlake novel, MEMORY, which came out in 2010. But after its publication, author Max Allan Collins told Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai that Westlake had given him an unpublished manuscript in the 1980s.
"If you start this book, you will find it almost impossible to put down, with an ending that will keep you guessing all the way."
And the first thing you should know about THE COMEDY IS FINISHED is that it is a superb work. The reason it never got published is almost as interesting as the book. Westlake’s tale involved an aging Bob Hope-type comedian who is kidnapped off his set by a revolutionary band of fanatics, like the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) that kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst in 1974. The Hearst case was well over by the time Westlake wrote this book, but then Martin Scorcese released a movie called The King of Comedy in 1983 about the kidnapping of a television comedian. Westlake did not want people to think his book was based on that movie.
He need not have worried. The King of Comedy is a terrific film that never got the attention it deserved, but THE COMEDY IS FINISHED is a completely different story and fascinating read today. For one thing, Westlake perfectly captures the zeitgeist of that long-lost troubled era. Just coming off a decade of assassinations, domestic riots and the devastating U.S. loss in Vietnam, America has changed, and aging comedian Koo Davis --- king of the one-liners, veteran of countless USO shows, golfing buddy to presidents and generals --- is not adapting well. Indeed, he soon finds himself trapped in one of the last violent melodramas of the 1960s.
Enter The People’s Revolutionary Army, a small group of hapless desperados and damaged outlaws left high and dry looking for their revolution that seemed to fizzle out long before the last helicopter took off in haste from the roof of the U.S Embassy in Saigon on April 30, 1975. These rebels are operating in “the Valley Forge of the New Revolution,” and they hope this kidnapping will re-inspire the masses. Like the real SLA, they would also like many of their comrades released from prison in exchange for Davis.
But this is not a book about politics or comedy, the title coming from the last line of the tragic opera Pagliacci. What Westlake did was write a dark, noir tale that builds inexorably with tension as the pages turn. And the writing is brilliant, as Westlake uses the first person to give us the immediacy of Davis’s terror. First, Davis tries dealing with it with his trademark one-liners. But the truth quickly sets in.
“That’s the fear, tucked down into a capsule and neatly answered, the fear that there is no way out, that kidnapping isn’t really what’s happening to Koo Davis. Death is happening to him, that’s what, Death, in early stages. He’s on the chute, the long slippery chute, sliding down into black.”
In the hands of a lesser writer, this book would be a simple morality tale of good and evil, with cartoon characters. But Westlake, who was most famous for the comedic novels starting Dortmunder, the hapless burglar, could write hard-boiled noir as well as anybody who ever worked the genre, such as in the grim Parker novels he wrote under the name Richard Stark.
In THE COMEDY IS FINISHED, Westlake gives us richly developed characters on both sides. In a shattering twist well worthy of noir, good and evil soon become blurred, and eternal truths about Hollywood and America come pouring out. Davis, who has spent his decades of fame going on USO tours and having sex with “the blonde of the year,” notes at one point the sad Hollywood reality that “...starlets are always quickly forgotten, like the individual leaves on a tree.”
At another point, one of the revolutionaries says words that could have been said at one of the Occupy demonstrations almost half a century after they were written. He says: “…unless somebody gives the whole rolling mass a shove in a new direction we’ll simply go right back to feudalism under another name, with General Motors and Chase Manhattan instead of the kingdom of this and the duchy of that.”
For the legions of Westlake fans, THE COMEDY IS FINISHED is a gift we never expected to receive. (And no disrespect to Mr. Scorcese, but it still would make an excellent film noir.) If you start this book, you will find it almost impossible to put down, with an ending that will keep you guessing all the way. Great work by Max Allan Collins for holding onto and coming forward with this work and to Charles Ardai and Hard Case Crime for proving yet again why they are the essential publishing house for all mystery and noir fans.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on March 8, 2012