Book Review: Double Feature by Donald E. Westlake
To read Donald E. Westlake at the top of his game is to attend a master class in fun, fast-paced pulp. In Double Feature, the latest Westlake release from Hard Case Crime, we get two chances of seeing Westlake in action. While one the narratives is superior to the other, both showcase the wit, knack for dialogue, and careful plotting that made Westlake a household name and one of those crime fiction writers that are still being imitated today.
The novella that kicks off Double Feature is titled A Travesty. It follows a movie critic living in New York City who accidentally murders one of his girlfriends and is forced to start a life of crime as a result after a private investigator tries to blackmail him. In the aftermath, he becomes friendly with one of the detectives working the case and helps him solve a few murders in town. Caught between trying to act naturally and trying to hide a growing string of murders committed in order to protect himself, what follows is a tense, entertaining, wild romp of a narrative that pokes fun at the movie business in New York while exploring the things a man will do to stay out of prison.
From the first few pages, A Travesty showcases Westlake’s style and propulsive writing. Each paragraph pushes the action forward and his economy of language is a great as ever without shying away from jokes and witty turns of phrase. Also, the film critic is a smart man, but Westlake makes him dance a fine line between being likable and a victim of circumstance and being a cold, heartless killer who’s worried only about himself:
I met my wife-to-be, nee Shirley Francesconi, about a year after I moved to New York, at a press screening. She was two years older than I and living with a drugs-politics-8mm freak, so we knew each other only socially for a year or so, and if I’d had any sense I’d have left it that way. But then her freak got busted on possession and went away for an extended rest, so dated a while and then we lived together and then we got married and then we found out we hated each other.
Characters in this novella are sometimes one-dimensional, but that’s because Westlake was going for overall construction and complexity and not character development. In a way, we see the story through the critic’s eyes and that makes everyone a pawn that plays a unique role. We learn that all of them are disposable if they get too close to the truth. Despite this, which some might see as a shortcoming, the plot’s complexity more than makes up for the lack of rich characters. From the first murder, Westlake is in control. He weaves a tale full of twists than leads to an ending that will catch many by surprise despite the subtle hints dropped along the way. Lastly, the narrator is as complex as the plot, and that makes him interesting. He is responsible but also a junkie, a mellow man but also a womanizer, very smart but also kind of stupid whenever he forgets to pay attention. Of all this, the element that ends up playing a huge role is his addiction to Valium. He talks about it after receiving a letter than scares him half to death:
I had now been living a Valium-free existence for nearly a week, and it was astonishing what a difference it made in moments of stress. What did mankind do before these wonderful pills? Reality is drabber and slower and grayer without them, but the scary moments are suddenly faster and far more terrifying. My three murders had been serious, of course, but they had happened at a pace where I could retain control over myself and events. Now, with only the hospital’s grudgingly dispensed pain killers inside me, a simple matter like this envelope nearly killed me with fright. Consequences seemed more real, dangers more possible. Valium had made it possible for me to walk my tightrope as though there were a net. Now, the chasm yawned plainly beneath me.
Ordo, the second story, is more or less a long short story about the way secrets can come back to haunt you no matter how far away you think you’ve moved from them. Instead of New York, this one takes place in California, where movie star Dawn Devayne receives a visit from a sailor who says he used to know here before the fame, back when she was just Estelle Anlic of San Diego. Again, Westlake frames the narrative in the world of films and shows off the kind of tight, funny, action-packed prose that made him a household name. However, given the length (180 pages of the book’s 256) and complexity of A Travesty, this one ends up feeling a bit like second fiddle in a great show.
Many of Westlake’s books were turned into movies and his writing sometimes possessed an undeniably cinematic feel. Taking those things into consideration, this book, now titled Double Feature instead of its original title, is a great addition to Hard Case Crime’s catalog and something that should be on every crime fiction fan’s radar.