Both a fascinating time capsule and a strong character-driven crime novel, Donald E. Westlake’s The Comedy Is Finished is sold on its cover as “The MWA Grand Master’s Great Lost Novel.” Reportedly begun by the prolific writer in the late 1970s, it was withdrawn from publisher submission when 1983’s King of Comedy was released — ostensibly because the book’s central premise (the kidnapping of a famous comedian) was too similar to the movie. Fortunately for posterity, a copy of the ms. was sent to fellow writer Max Allan Collins, who brought the novel to the attention of his publisher Hard Case Crime after it had put out another posthumous Westlake novel, Memory.
I’m not sure that’s the full story, though, for while the central idea behind Finished is similar to King, the two works’ focuses are distinctly different. In King of Comedy, a disturbed Robert de Niro kidnaps Jerry Lewis’ late-night talk host out of fannish desire and a neurotic need to himself become a beloved comic; in The Comedy Is Finished, the misdeed is done by an out-of-time group of leftist radicals who go after a Bob Hope-styled comedian whom they see as “court jester to the bosses, warmongers and the forces of reaction.” (“You left out the Girl Scouts,” eternal wisecracker Davis points out when he’s given this list to read on tape.) So while the Scorcese film works as a darkly comic look at the Cult of Personality, Westlake’s novel considers the ways the personal imposes on the political.
The quintet that kidnaps Davis call themselves the People’s Revolutionary Army, and while this army of five spouts the appropriate political rhetoric, one of them turns out to have a more emotional reason for picking the comedian as a target. Foolishly clinging to the belief that the publicity generated by their criminal act will re-ignite radical public action in the post-Viet Nam era, the group calls for the release of ten jailed radicals, a demand that we know from the outset won’t be met (though Westlake pulls a surprising flip on it, nonetheless). Pursuing the kidnappers is F.B.I. agent Mike Wiskiel, a hard-boiled hard-drinker who is out-of-favor in the bureau due to his ties to the Watergate break-in. Though Davis’ wife and family is brought onto the scene, the only one hand-wringing over his safety is his agent Lynsey Rayne. While Wiskiel sees Rayne as a typical Hollywood liberal, in this battle between two sixties relics, she serves as the voice of moderation. Where Wiskiel sees his job as beating and capturing the ragtag self-proclaimed “army,” Rayne is concerned for Davis’ safety.
Old pro Westlake deftly moves his cat-and-mice novel between Davis’ PoV (written in present tense), that of Wiskiel and of the five radicals, each of whom develop their own relationship with the aging comedian. His treatment of Davis, who could easily have been drawn as an Old Hollywood monster, is both canny and sympathetic. While his two women radicals appear a bit underwritten, his presentation of the two dynamic male kidnappers seems right on the money, most notably team leader Peter Dinely, who we watch steadily deteriorate as the comedy approaches its finish.
Because it is set 40 years ago, some readers may have issue with some of the book’s plot mechanics (there’s a bit with a severed ear that wouldn’t work at all today on a forensics-savvy readership.) And while the novel’s well-tuned political dialog will ring true to those of us who remember such Judean People’s Front debates from the sixties and seventies, I suspect that readers of a different generation will skim over ‘em to get to the good stuff. Westlake, known for both comic crime novels (his Dortmunder novels) and noiry caper books (the Parker series), keeps The Comedy Is Finished balanced between suspenseful and bleakly comic. He even inserts a joking reference to himself when he has Davis mention a “writer I call the Tragic Relief with the initials dee-double-u.” Reading this Hard Case resurrection, you can’t help wishing that dee-double-u was still around crafting new novels.