Another piece of history plucked from the annals of obscurity by Charles Ardai and his label Hard Case Crime from publisher Titan Books is Donald E. Westlake‘s crime fiction thriller The Comedy is Finished. Over the years, author Max Allan Collins has done a lot for the crime fiction genre, but in recent years, his specialty (besides putting out some awesome books) has been saving obscure and unpublished works from his favorite authors. We brought you the exclusive interview with Max when The Consummata was released a few months back, and now we have another book he managed to save. In the 1980’s, as Max’s career was really taking off, he became friends with some of his idols, like Mickey Spillane and Donald E. Westlake, often striking up a pen-pal relationship with them, reading their material for them, and giving them good, honest feedback. With The Comedy is Finished, Max says that Westlake sent him the manuscript to read over, but decided not to publish it after he saw Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and felt the two works were too similar.
Now, with Westlake unfortunately passing away a few years ago, Collins unearthed this tome and presented it to Hard Case Crime with the permission to do so from Westlake’s estate. The book went into production, and finally, in 2012, we see the release of Westlake’s celebrity kidnapping opus, The Comedy is Finished. Centered on comedian Koo Davis, the story starts with Davis taping an episode of his television show, and we get some background on the man. Friend to generals, senators, and governors, Davis had lasting success throughout his career, even including a few USO tours to Korea, some of the most dangerous times of his life. But as he goes to leave the taping, he gets a gun in his face, and a bag over his head before he is whisked away into the Los Angeles hills in a van.
It’s 1977 and Davis reflects on the mistakes he feels he made in getting political in the late 1960’s, when everyone was against Vietnam and he just didn’t understand it. His career has since been rekindled, and he’s a busy entertainer, booked a full 2 years into the future. Despite his success as a showman, he regrets his failings as a father and a husband, neither job he really ever understood. When he realizes that a revolutionary group from the 60’s has taken him hostage, he begins to panic, afraid he won’t be worth anything to anyone that these people might want something from. The group consists of their “leader” Peter, a nervous man with strange habits when things don’t go according to plan, his psychopathic enforcer Mark, the political theorist Larry, the mentally tortured Liz, and the out-of-place Joyce, who facilitated the kidnapping with a job at the studio where Davis tapes his show.
Once they have made their demands known, a slow burn face off begins with the police, led by Burbank Chief Inspector Jock Cayzer and FBI man Mike Wiskiel. As the demands are unmeetable, the group begins to unravel, and infighting starts to prevail over the group’s plan. When they force Davis to record a ransom tape, he manages to slip in a hint to his agent, the only person that really loves him, Lynsey. With her help, Wiskiel makes a move toward getting Davis back, but when it blows up in his face, he agrees to scale it back and consider what Lynsey has to say as well.
As the group becomes more paranoid, and the web of lies starts to unravel their mission, Mark makes a startling revelation to Koo Davis, who must then reflect back on his life and wonder if it isn’t his own fault he ended up in such a mess. Like most Westlake books, it never gets too heavy, but it manages to have a salacious mix of sex, violence, and funny, but interesting characters. I can see why he felt it was too close to The King of Comedy, but I think at the end of the day it tells a different story altogether, a minimal-location kidnapping story that is taught and smart.
Davis is an interesting character, especially when Westlake explores what circumstances brought him to his current situation, and he’s forced to look back on some painful past mistakes. However, the character is never pathetic, and the villains are interesting and varied. They all have their own reasons for being involved, and that becomes the problem, everyone begins to pull in a different direction, and when things get drastic, the group can’t keep it together.
Written during the times of the Red Army Faction, the plot is time-topical and rarely touched on in a lot of current fiction. As we begin to dissect the 1960’s, and how that decade has affected each one after it, a lot of interesting story threads begin to unravel, such as musicians helping fringe political causes, and the way the FBI started to handle such situations. The pace of the story never lets up, and anyone familiar with Los Angeles will recognize the distinct role the city itself plays in the story. This might not be the cream of Westlake’s crop of work, but it’s definitely a fun read, and crime fiction fans and historians alike will be delighted to pick up the beautiful hardcover edition that Hard Case Crime will release on February 21st, 2012 to bookstores everywhere. If you’re interested, you can always pre-order it from Amazon right here.