"The Comedy is Finished" Book Review
Written by Donald E. Westlake
2012, 320 pages, Fiction
Released on February 21st, 2012
A few weeks ago I mentioned how some books seem to be impervious to the passage of time. However, others don't age too well. Donald Westlake's The Comedy is Finished, a previously unpublished novel now seeing the light of day thanks to Hard Case Crime, is sadly on the negative side of that equation. When I started reading, I thought the novel wasn't pulling me in because I'm used to sharper, shorter, much more active books. However, by the time I was done reading, it was clear the lackluster volume just pales in comparison to the rest of Westlake's work.
The Comedy is Finished takes place in 1977. While the U.S. is busy getting over the nightmares of Watergate and Vietnam, there is a group of young rebels that simply refuse to calm down and take things as they come. The group of dissidents kidnap a public figure in order to get their message out and make people take notice. The victim is aging comedian Koo Davis, a man with an illustrious career that spans radio, television, the stage and film. Davis is liked by almost everyone except those who know him very well. When he disappears, the authorities start scrambling to get him back, but the kidnappers prove to be much more intelligent than what the FBI first thought. With the comedian badly in need of his medicine and the group of abductors setting tight deadlines for the release of political prisoners, the race is on to save him. Unbeknownst to the funnyman, the authorities and all but one of the kidnappers, one of the men holding him captive has powerful reasons to want him dead; reasons that go way beyond politics.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the premise of the book. However, the action is very diluted and the characters all feel one-dimensional. Davis has a great sense of humor and there some very good one-liners in the dialogue, but the man has few redeeming qualities to make him a likeable character, something that would make a lot of sense when you're trying to get readers to care about a kidnapped victim. Also, by the time Davis undergoes his emotional catharsis and emerges somewhat changed, it feels like it's too little, too late.
The second major problem with The Comedy is Finished is that it feels very dated. The reference to past events that are now forgotten by most and the ideological and political undercurrent of the narrative are just not as compelling as they would've been in the late 1960s or early 1970s. While hardcore Westlake fans will undoubtedly enjoy having an opportunity to read an unpublished novel by the author, this should not be anyone's first Westlake novel and fans of modern, fast-paced, gripping crime novels should steer clear of it.
There is no doubt Westlake is a legend and his legacy is assured, but The Comedy is Finished does nothing to add to what he left us. Westlake won three Edgar Awards and was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, so the man is definitely an author you need to read, but in the case of this book, there might just be more than one reason why it was left unpublished.