Donald E. Westlake,
The Comedy is Finished
(Hard Case Crime, 2012)

In 2010, Hard Case Crime, one of the best publishers of crime fiction in America, posthumously issued Memory, which they thought was the final novel of Donald E. Westlake. Shortly after that book's release, the mystery writer Max Allan Collins told them that no, Memory wasn't the last one; in fact, he had another Westlake manuscript. It seems that for several years in the early 1970s, Westlake had been working on The Comedy is Finished, which was about a Bob Hope-like comedian who was kidnapped by a group of New Left Movement radicals. Just as he finished the book, Martin Scorcese's film, The King of Comedy, a film about a kidnapped comedian, came out and while the two works are completely different, Westlake felt people might think his novel was a rip-off of the film, so he put it away.

Collins sent Hard Case his copy of the manuscript and now, almost 40 years after it was initially written, the book is making its first appearance.

It was worth the wait. The Comedy is Finished is one of the best books Westlake ever wrote and, considering the fact that he published more books than most people have read, that's saying something.

Koo Davis is the establishment comedian. Now in his 60s, he has been a star since the radio days in the '30s and has conquered almost every arena: radio,TV, movies and live tours. He plays golf with senators and generals and, if he is no longer quite as beloved as he was, he is still right up there. On the day of a TV special he is doing, he warms up the audience and, when he walks back to his dressing room, a young man shoves a gun into his ribs and walks him out of the building. This is the beginning of the biggest thing in Koo Davis's life.

The Movement is in tatters. Most of its leaders have been rounded up, convicted of felonies and sent to prison. The five who have kidnapped Davis see this as their chance to bring the movement back to life, a dramatic event that will awaken the sleeping radicals and show them that the revolution is not finished and still has a chance. Their demand? The government must release 10 "political prisoners" and fly them to Algiers. Otherwise, Davis will die.

Westlake develops his story from three perspectives: Davis's attempts to keep himself alive, his kidnappers' efforts to deal when they realize their plan is falling apart, and the FBI's efforts to get Davis back alive. The suspense will keep you on the edge of your seat, turning the pages as quickly as you can read to the bottom of each one, but it isn't the suspense that really makes the book great. It's the characterizations. Each character is given complicated and multiple motivations and, as even as you read for plot, you find yourself connected to the lives of these people as they become real before your eyes. Westlake creates a sense of plausibility by making his people live and breathe, making them strive to reach goals that we can see are impossible but they cannot. And every time you think you have them figured out, they make turns that you could not anticipate but that you see are absolutely right.

Not only is The Comedy is Finished one of Westlake's best books, it is, just as it would have been had it been published in 1977, one of the best suspense thrillers of the year.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

28 April 2012

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