When Donald E. Westlake died in 2008 he had over 100 novels under his belt. He left at least one unpublished, left in the care of fellow crime writer Max Allan Collins for some forty-odd years. Supposedly written in the ’70s, The Comedy is Finished was completed and ready for publication right around the time Scorsese’s film The King of Comedy came out in 1983. Although the motives and characters are different, the basic plot about a celebrity kidnapping was similar enough to his unpublished novel that Westlake tabled the book for fear of being called a copycat. After Westlake’s death, Collins found a publisher, and The Comedy Is Finished finally saw publication last month.
Set in the post-Vietnam days when yuppies begin to settle into the nascent ’80s, the novel focuses on an aging comedian, Koo Davis, who is kidnapped by a group of Marxist twentysomethings unable to move on from the radical days of the previous decade. Koo is pretty much a Bob Hope analogue, a relic of a past era of entertainment. Even through some traumatic experiences, he constantly manages corny one-liners and paraprosdokians.
At first this fell a bit flat for me, but Koo’s seeming incapability for seriousness reveals itself as a well-crafted shield for a deeply insecure and sad old man. Westlake’s effort isn’t high literature by any stretch, but he did touch a few nerves of emotion that serve the book nicely and left me genuinely surprised.
The plot is a fairly basic ransom thriller. Koo is kidnapped by five young people so full of grandiose visions of seeding a new American revolution to tear down capitalism that they too are relics of a bygone era. Though unlike Koo, they are unable to recognize that, or at least desperate not to acknowledge it. Since they kidnapped a famous personality in order to demand the release of political prisoners (Black Panthers and the like), the FBI is brought in, and things play out from there somewhat predictably.
The story switches perspectives between Koo; his various kidnappers; Mike Wiskiel, the agent in charge of the investigation; and Lynsey Rayne, Koo’s agent and the closest thing to someone who loves him (even though he has an ex-wife and estranged sons). Aside from Koo, none of the characters are particularly interesting, though a few have their moments, yet none are particularly disinteresting either. On the whole they come together to tell a compelling, if fairly standard, crime story.
Even though much of this book is predictable and verging on cliche, I enjoyed reading it quite a bit. Westlake tells a good story, arranging the pieces in a satisfying way. Fans of crime fiction like this will find plenty to like in this book, especially if they are already fans of Westlake. Personally, I agreed to read the book after seeing the cover in all its pulp fiction-y glory, so if that appeals to you too, this book is worth your time–it is exactly what it advertises itself to be.