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An Interview With Charles Ardai, Editor of Hard Case Crime, About Donald Westlake’s The Comedy Is Finished

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It would be hard to overstate the influence and impact of the late great novelist Donald Westlake, who wrote many great books under both the Westlake name as well as at Richard Stark, in addition to other pen names. Westlake was one of only two authors to win an Edgar Award in three different categories. He was named a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America in 1993.

I was lucky enough to interview him in 2007 and thank him for his many great books, as well as ask him about all his pen names and why he used them.

Lately I have been championing authors like Lisa Lutz and Josh Bazell, who I think can be seen as continuing his style of comic crime masterpieces.

After Westlake died in December 2008 one other book came out and it was believed that that was all there was to be published. Wrong. I’ll explain about that in a minute.

I recently received this press release from Hard Case Crime: “We’re just one week away from the pub date for the much-anticipated Donald E. Westlake novel The Comedy is Finished.

“This is the never-before-published lost Westlake novel and the first new Westlake since 2010’s Memory, and most likely the last new Westlake we’ll ever have the pleasure of reading.

“It’s a book I know a lot of people will be interested in, and we appreciate anything you might do to let people know about it.”

My response? You have to ask? I asked for a copy of The Comedy Is Finished and was offered a chance to interview Editor Charles Ardai. I was also given permission to include an excerpt of the book, which will follow this interview.

The book is typical Westlake — tight plotting, funny adventures, as plans by a group of criminals who kidnap a famous TV comedy personality go awry. It is dated — you can tell that it was written in the 1970s from some of the comments about women and from some plot twists — but it’s easy to get past that. This is not Westlake’s best book but it is a fun, enjoyable read. And now my interview with Charles.

As an unofficial representative of all Donald Westlake fans I thank you for publishing a new novel by him.

Are you a Westlake fan too? What do you like about Donald Westlake books?

Yes, of course – is there anyone who loves crime fiction who isn’t a Westlake fan? I first discovered him from his short stories in magazines like Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock (not to mention Playboy… yes, I read it for the short stories). At that point I mostly loved him for his wit and the cleverness of his plots. When I graduated from his short fiction to his novels I also came to admire how he could populate a book with a large cast of characters and make every last one of them come across as a fully fleshed-out, living, breathing human being. This is one of the best things about The Comedy is Finished.

How did you guys come to publish this novel? Why was it not published earlier?

We worked with Don to reissue four of his early books, and then when he died his old friend (and fellow Hard Case Crime author) Lawrence Block told us about a book called Memory that Don had written early in his career but never published. With the help of Don’s widow, we located the manuscript, and it was as good as Larry remembered, so we published it, telling the world that it was Donald Westlake’s final unpublished manuscript.

Well – we thought it was. But shortly after Memory came out with that claim on its cover, we heard from another Hard Case Crime writer who’d been a friend of Don’s, Max Allan Collins, who told us that there was one more, a book Don had written in the late 1970s but then never published.

Initially he found publishers reluctant because at the time he was best known for his comedic novels and they worried that readers wouldn’t accept a Westlake novel about a comedian that was dark rather than funny.

Then in the early 1980s another problem cropped up: Martin Scorsese released his movie The King of Comedy, which had a similar premise, the kidnapping of a famous television comedian. Don decided he’d just shelve the book permanently rather than run the risk that people might think he’d taken the premise from the movie. It’s a shame, since other than the premise the book and movie really have nothing in common – but of course it’s our good luck, since if he hadn’t set the book aside 30 years ago we wouldn’t get to give it its first publication now.

Were you guys already in the process of publishing it before he died or did this happen after he died?

No – we did work closely with Don on several of his other books, but this is one we only found out existed after he died.

How would you summarize the plot?

A group of angry political radicals left over from the 1960s kidnap a Bob Hope-like comedian and threaten to kill him unless the government releases ten of their imprisoned cohorts. The government sends in a disgraced FBI agent to rescue him. Meanwhile, the comedian’s trying desperately to rescue himself, and the kidnapers are falling apart as things begin to go awry. It’s a tense, suspenseful story with great characters and great writing – such a pleasure to get to hear Don’s voice one more time.

BOOK EXCERPT

And now an excerpt from this book, the last few paragraphs of Chapter 1. The book starts by introducing us to TV personality Koo Davis as he warms up the crowd before a show. Then he goes off stage to get ready to do the show.

Koo has three minutes to drink a little ice water, get the makeup adjusted, have a quick last look at the script, play a little grabass with Jill, and then come out stage center into a group of eight tall lean dancing girls and his opening line of the show: “I can remember when legs like that were illegal.” Now, he moves briskly along a cable-strewn alley created by the false walls of stacked sets, toward the door to a corridor leading to his dressing room, and as he reaches that first door somebody on his left says, “Mr. Davis?”

Koo turns his head. It’s one of the scruffy bearded young crew members; these hairy sloppy styles never will look to Koo like anything but shit. Behind the kid is a side exit from the studio, the red Taping light agleam above it. Koo is in a hurry, and he wants no problems. “What’s up?”

“Look at this, Mr. Davis,” the kid says, and brings his hand up from his side, and when Koo looks down he is absolutely incredibly dumbfounded to see the kid is holding a pistol, a little black stubby-nosed revolver, and it’s pointed right at Koo’s head. Assassination! he thinks, though why anyone would want to assassinate him he has no idea, but on the other hand he has in his time played golf with one or two politicians who were later assassinated, and in his astonishment he opens his mouth to holler, and the kid uses his free hand to slap Koo very hard across the face.

And now a bag gets pulled down over his head from behind, a burlap bag smelling of moist earth and potatoes, and cable-like arms are grabbing him hard around the upper arms and chest, imprisoning him, lifting him, lifting his feet off the floor. He’s being carried, there’s a sudden rush of cooler air on the backs of his hands, they’re taking him outside. “Hey!” he yells, and somebody punches him very very hard on the nose. Jesus Christ, he thinks, not hollering anymore. Now they’re punching me on the nose.

Copyright © 2012 by the Estate of Donald E. Westlake.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.