Tidewater Review - April 2012

The Comedy Is Finished

reviewed by

Anne Stinson

The Comedy Is Finished by Donald E. Westlake. Hard Case Crime Series. 351 pp. $25.99.
Hello out there - is anyone around who remembers the ‘60s and ‘70s? The assassinations, Watergate, Nixon, hippies, the Weathermen and the Black Panthers ... and the divided country, all in turmoil over the Vietnam War that went on, and on, and on? Donald Westlake dips into the chaos of the times with this fictional Hard Based Crime that mirrors the era in all its folly and violence. He wrote it in 1977, and the tale of its publication decades later is a mystery in itself, but more on that later.
The author’s tour de force is remarkable. He’s turned around the violence with an adroit – even incredible – insertion of comedy, hence the book’s title, The Comedy Is Finished.
Koo Davis, a comedian at the top of his game, is the main character in the collision of crime and humor. He’s an aging vaudevillian, now 63, who adapted to radio, then television, interrupted only by countless USO tours to entertain the troops in Vietnam. He’s adored by American audiences for his store of one-liners, both old and new. He’s the last person anyone would expect to be kidnapped, especially by the five remaining zealots of the anti-war movement.
Hands tied behind Koo’s back and a burlap bag over his head, he’s dumped into the back of a van and whisked away from the studio, just before taping his show in front of a live audience.
Now his audience is very different. The gang is comprosed of five – Peter, in his early thirties, is the obvious leader. Larry’s the philosopher, earnestly talking about the “revolution” that was bound to come and, in some nebulous way, clean the country of corruption, exploitation, blah, blah, blah. Joyce is a motherly type of young woman. Liz is most often nude, with a back full of scars and fierceness toward all in the group. The really scary member of the quintet is Mark. He’s young, bearded, with a gun and a hair-trigger disposition. He’s the only gang member with a personal hatred of Koo. He obviously is itching to kill the comic.
So, Koo is in less than a comfortable situation. He can deduce from the bumpy ride that his captors are headed for the hills above Los Angeles. At the final stop, he’s guided into a house, unmasked and escorted to an underground room, plain but comfortable with a sofa, chairs, lamps, a small bathroom and a kitchen. The refrigerator is stocked with cold cuts, frozen TV dinners and a bottle of cheap scotch.
At the far end of the room there is a single window that reveals the bottom of a swimming pool. The original owner, a movie producer, had designed the room as a hideaway when noisy parties in the living room above became tiresome. The one door Koo entered is the only door in the room. His hosts lock it as they go.
Koo is a prisoner. Things don’t seem as funny any more. His attempts at humor are less than appreciated. He doesn’t know it, but the FBI and the local Los Angeles Chief Inspector are already on the job. Koo is something of a celebrity, after years of meeting bigwigs in the military and Congress in his USO tours.
What neither the bad guys nor the cops know is how fragile Koo’s health is. He carries a satchel of medications with him at all times. Unfortunately, the cache is in his dressing room at the TV station. Without his meds, he’s almost immediately in trouble. He’s so pill-dependent that in less than 24 hours, he can’t even keep a sip of water in his stomach.
While beginning to fret about the near-collapse of their captive, the kidnappers force Koo to read their demands into a tape recorder with the messages to be broadcast on television. The radical five want only one ransom: the release of 10 men in prison who were convicted of violent demonstrations against the war.
Koo agrees to make the broadcasts and suggests that he identify himself before he reads the proferred text. Since the whole world knows Koo’s voice and knows that he’s ill and in the hands of kidnappers, the demands will be authentic, he tells his captors.
Koo is a lightweight but also a very clever man in inserting hints on his whereabouts, the lawmen are equally sharp at hunting for hints, and most of all, the kidnappers are practiced dodgers of the law. The scheme is dangerous all around.
Westlake spins an exciting maze that bolts through the ever-tightening suspense. The final violence bursts like a too-thin garbage bag ripening in the sun. And, conversely, the author makes the reader somehow feel sorry for the bad guys’ lost cause, the shallow comic’s quest to be loved by everybody he meets and the tiresome, dangerous lives of people who succumb to fantasy.
Westlake finished the book in the early 1980s. He died in 2008 with some 100 published novels, a batch of non-fictional books and a handful of screenplays with his byline. So why did this novel, rated by many critics as his best work, not find a publisher for almost four decades? The explanation is as unusual as the volume of his work and reveals his generous nature.
Before Westlake submitted his manuscript to his publisher, he sent his final draft of The Comedy Is Finished to his good friend, writer Max Allan Collins. Westlake felt that his story was too much like Martin Scorsese’s new movie, The King of Comedy. He would hold off the publication for a while, he told Collins.
“A while” became a long time since Collins had tossed the manuscript into a box in his basement, but when he saw a copy of Westlake’s novel Memory in 2010 with the description on the cover of “Donald Westlake’s final unpublished novel,” Collins remembered the carbon copy of The Comedy Is Finished and sent it to Hard Case Crime. It is in print at last.
If this book makes the reader want to read more of Westlake’s work, be aware that he used the pen name Richard Stark for his Parker series of crime novels.
The brew concocted with two features, crime and comedy, make this a shiver-while-you-laugh-aloud book. I loved it!

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.