The Comedy Is Finished
By Donald E. Westlake
(Hard Case Crime)
Nobody can ever let anything go in Donald E. Westlake’s novels. His greatest creation, Parker (in the books Westlake wrote as Richard Stark), began his first outing hunting down those who betrayed him for a relatively paltry sum of money. In his posthumous thriller The Comedy Is Finished, completed in the early 80s but never before published, it’s not money, vengeance, or lust but the wounds of the 60s and 70s that can’t be forgotten. Not by Koo Davis, the television comedian whose popularity has only just recovered from its plummet due to his stance on the Vietnam War. Not by the small cadre calling themselves the New People’s Army, none of them kids anymore (though they behave like it), who kidnap and ransom Koo for the release of political prisoners. Not by the particularly brutal FBI agent, disgraced by his involvement in Watergate, who seizes upon the kidnapping as his chance to get back into the good graces of the Bureau.
But Westlake isn’t interested in theories of history or dialectical materialism, the latter brought repeatedly up by the cadre’s most impotent member. What he is interested in is how people, through series of small, thoughtless choices, back themselves into the rat traps that are their lives. And what they will do to escape.
At his best, the insanely prolific Westlake contorted basically simple premises into surprising shapes, his twists and turns springing organically forth from characterization. In that sense, this is Westlake at half speed: we’ve seen the kidnapping, the political kidnapping even, handled with more originality, suspense, and shock. However, the novel works because Westlake’s characters, emotionally stunted and desperate, have all the unpredictability the story lacks. It thus resembles Westlake’s 1997 masterpiece The Axe as it plods along obviously, forcing us to witness the wreckage of human lives.