Donald E. Westlake once told me, “The difference between in print and out of print is precisely the difference between life and death.” He was alive when he said this, obviously; he was referring to the project we’d undertaken together to bring some of his more obscure early titles back into print. But I was reminded of it when I got the terrible news on New Year’s Day 2009 that Don had died of a heart attack while on vacation in Mexico. Life and death. I could keep him in print, but I couldn’t bring my friend back. What sort of life would that be? There would be no more new Westlake—only the old.
But that turned out not to be true. For as prolific as Don had been during his life—publishing more than 100 books under his own name and a raft of pseudonyms—he’d written more still. First, his longtime friend Lawrence Block told me about an existentialist novel Don had written in the early 60s called Memory. Larry had loved it when he read it, but Don had never managed to publish it. Maybe his wife, Abby, could locate the manuscript? She could indeed, and it arrived by post shortly, the onionskin pages held together with yellowing Scotch tape and defaced on the verso by crayon drawings of children long since grown to adulthood.
And so Memory came out, the first new Westlake following his death—and an exceptional book it was too. I thought this would be the one and only posthumous discovery until Max Allan Collins mentioned a manuscript he had in a box in his basement. Don had written a book about a Bob Hope-style comedian who gets kidnapped by domestic terrorists at the tail end of the 1970s, when the last whiffs of revolution were still hanging in the air but most of the world had moved on. The Comedy Is Finished was another exceptional Westlake manuscript, but he’d shelved it because he feared it might be seen as too similar to Martin Scorsese’s film The King of Comedy, which came out after Don had written the book but before he’d been able to sell it.
And so The Comedy Is Finished came out. And in my head, a little auctioneer’s voice called, I have two, do I hear three? Surely, Don hadn’t written only two novels he’d been unable to publish in his lifetime; surely, this Grand Master had a third lying about somewhere?
I first heard about Forever and a Death—then called Fall of the City—from Abby Westlake. Don had written a novel in the late 1990s that was about Hong Kong and a tsunami, and it had been inspired in some remote way by work he’d done for the producers of the James Bond movies. He’d come up with a premise for them, which they’d then decided not to use, and he saw how he could use it for a novel. If they weren’t going to do anything with it, well, by god, why let a perfectly good idea for a doomsday device and a villain’s motivation go to waste? But Abby didn’t have a copy of the manuscript this time (and there wasn’t one in Max Allan Collins’s basement). We had to go to Boston University, where Don’s papers are kept, and ask them to dig up the copy they had there.
The manuscript was 610 pages long (well, 609 since one page from the middle had gone missing), and that was at least fifty or sixty pages too long—there were long stretches in the book where the exciting plot stopped dead while Don regaled us with historical anecdotes and bits of color about the various exotic locales in which his characters had their deadly chase. But what remained after those pages were culled was one hell of a strong story, loaded with suspense, a truly terrifying threat, and an unforgettable final scene.
How could this gem have gone unpublished? Well, someone had to do that job of editing it. Even after that, it was longer than Don’s novels generally ran. Plus, it wasn’t the sort of book his fans expected from him—any of these might have been the reason. And yet, it remains a mystery to me. The world certainly deserves to see this final glimpse of what Donald Westlake could do with a typewriter and an idea. So I’m proud as hell to be bringing it out at last.
“The difference between in print and out of print is precisely the difference between life and death.”
And what of the auctioneer in my head? Is he still casting his shrewd eye about for further action, or has he rung the gavel down at last? I’m afraid it’s the latter: with three posthumous titles now in print, he’s called his Going … going … gone. No more unpublished manuscripts exist that any of us know about.
And yet: three. Three books that have extended Don’s life as an author nearly a decade past his death. It is a gift to the readers who have treasured his work for so long and a testament to his remarkable prowess.
And who knows? I don’t believe there exists another unpublished Westlake novel, but if there’s one thing the James Bond people have taught us, it’s this: Never say never again.
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