Sometimes you can pinpoint the moment a novel grabs you by the lapels. The Comedy is Finished did it to me on page 29: ‘Terror was pulsing just beneath his cocky surface, like a kitten under a blanket.’ Even a month after I read it, I can still remember the smile that that line provoked. But when you’ve been writing thrillers for 40 years some things become second nature, right?
This was my first Westlake book, but surely not my last. The Comedy is Finished is the Don’s final novel to be published (at least until any more ‘lost’ works come to light). Westlake wrote it in the late 1970s but, perturbed by some similarities to the Martin Scorsese film ‘The King of Comedy’ (released in 1982), put the book to one side. It was rediscovered some 30 years later, when Hard Case Crime put it out – and I’m pleased to confirm that it’s well worth the wait.
Set in 1977, The Comedy is Finished sees ageing comedian Koo Davis (I pictured Bob Hope while reading it) kidnapped by the People’s Revolutionary Army, a far-left group who want to use him to reinvigorate their cause. This simple plan quickly goes awry, and as this fragile group fractures violence bubbles to the surface. Past grievances come to the fore, ensuring that the plot becomes satisfyingly multi-layered as the book progresses.
The importance of history – both personal and political – is central to the novel, from the book’s title (said to be Beethoven’s last words, as well as the last lines of the 1892 opera Pagliacci) to the way it influences and fixes the lives of Westlake’s characters in the present day. Agent Michael Wiskiel, exiled from Washington to California following his involvement in the Watergate scandal, is determined to use the case to propel himself back into the corridors of power. Koo Davis spends much of his time as a captive thinking about his own past, including a trip to entertain troops fighting the Korean War and an uncomfortable encounter with an American soldier turned Communist traitor. The members of the PRA also consider past actions – actions which impact very directly on the present, and have a nasty habit of bursting onto contemporary events with little warning.
What makes the book such a great read is Westlake’s terrific way of defining characters. Whilst realistic and consistent, they are also capable of surprising us. Westlake is careful not to take sides – he draws both the PRA and the authorities sympathetically, describing a game that eventually spins out of control. The final siege (and its outcome) is incredibly tense, and set in motion in a beautifully bold way – one which made me catch my breath in surprise and delight. Westlake draws his main characters with care and skill, so that each retains their own personality and drive.
But even the lesser characters are given enough attention to make them distinctive. Wiskiel works alongside Detective Jock Cayzer on the investigation, a man who on first glance seems the stereotypical cowboy – but as Wiskiel quickly learns, ‘the deep creases in his face and the knobby knuckles of his blunt-fingered hands said plainer than words that he was the real thing and not one of the million imitations spawned in the Los Angeles area.‘ It’s this attention to detail that makes Westlake’s writing so compelling. You believe and understand these people beyond the plot of the novel, and want to know what is going to happen to them.
The modern reader has an interesting perspective on The Comedy is Finished, which was never intended to sit in a box for three decades. Hotly contemporary when Westlake had first written it, it’s remarkable how relevant it still feels, despite the world now being very different. Fresh enough to have been written yesterday, The Comedy is Finished stands as a fine epitaph for its writer, and a reminder to me to check out more of Westlake’s work tout suite.