Monday, February 20, 2012

The Comedy is Finished - Donald E. Westlake

I tend to think of Donald E. Westlake's books as either caper comedies or ultra-hardboiled crime novels, but THE COMEDY IS FINISHED, soon to be published by Hard Case Crime (you can pre-order it!), is a prime example of just how wrong that is. Sure, it has "Comedy" in the title, and it's definitely a caper, and it's really funny in places. But it's also pretty dark and bleak at times, too.

Koo Davis is one of America's most beloved comedians, star of radio, movies, and TV, but perhaps best known for all the tours he did overseas with USO shows to entertain American troops in various war zones. Yes, Bob Hope is the obvious template for Koo Davis, but Westlake fleshes out the character and gives him a history and personality of his own.

Written and set in the late 1970s, THE COMEDY IS FINISHED is the story of how Koo is kidnapped by the few remaining members of a violent protest group, hangers-on from the Sixties, who want to use him to force the government to release some so-called political prisoners. Westlake cuts back and forth between Koo, the increasingly desperate kidnappers, and the dogged FBI agent who gets the job of finding and rescuing the beloved comedian.

Not surprisingly, Westlake throws in a number of plot twists and complications, and some of the characters turn out to be much different than they seemed at first. The book is expertly paced and very well written, and the last chapters really had me flipping the pages to find out what was going to happen.

For reasons that editor Charles Ardai explains in a short introduction, this novel was never published until now, and that it exists at all is thanks to Max Allan Collins, who hung on to a copy of the manuscript that Westlake sent to him thirty years ago.  Westlake fans, and anybody who loves good fiction, can be very grateful for that. THE COMEDY IS FINISHED is a fine, compelling novel, as well as a poignant conclusion to Westlake's career. Highly recommended.

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