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Fans of the late Donald Westlake—Mystery Writers of America Grand Master, three-time Edgar winner, and Academy Award nominee for The Grifters
—are in luck with the posthumous publication of The Comedy Is Over
, a completed manuscript from the early ‘80s discovered in a friend’s trunk.
It is 1977, and America is still deep in the throes of a spiritual hangover, figuring out what has changed and why. Koo Davis is a comedian who’s been perfecting his schtick on USO tours since the second world war, when “the point of the touring shows was to give the troops a safe acceptable look at American tits and asses.”
Davis, a show-biz vet and not the most introspective man, nonetheless can’t help noticing that the tone of his military audiences has shifted between Korea and Viet Nam, and certain things just aren’t funny anymore. He’s battling a growing sense that the world has somehow passed him by.
He’s not the only one out there feeling that way. A random, ragtag band of self-styled radicals, the People’s Revolutionary Army, has also been plagued by a growing sense of irrelevance. In a weird and naïve bid for revolutionary glory, the PRA—all five of them—decide that kidnapping the beloved Koo Davis, known to frequent the nightclubs and golf courses of power, will constitute a Master Stroke that will bring about a Koo Coup of sorts, forcing The Man to release ten high-profile political prisoners.
Davis could (and in fact, does) tell them it’s not the most foolproof plan in world history. But the kidnappers, each in his or her own way, are not wrapped too tight. Neither, for that matter, is the FBI’s lead investigator, the man on the other end of the lifeline; he’s a closet drinker with career issues who’s mostly concerned with covering his butt.
Westlake skillfully lays bare the mundane nature of evil—even when perpetrated by people who claim to serve a Higher Cause, it’s still loony as the day is long—and gets unflinchingly close to the kidnappers as their plot and relationships to one another begin to unravel, inevitably and reluctantly, throwing Davis into ever-deepening danger.
The nature of fame, the perils of an unexamined life, and the politics of law enforcement all come into play. Like the five human beings who have managed to convince themselves that kidnapping the court jester will bring the kingdom to its knees, these forces stumble around and crash into each other, striking sparks that ignite brutal violence.
The suspense builds as the “army” implodes, and a revelation about one of its members turns the whole situation deeply and dramatically personal for Koo Davis. As if being in the hands of sociopathic kidnappers weren’t enough, he has no choice but to take a deep, hard look at his life choices under less than ideal circumstances, while trying to avoid ending up dead if he can possibly help it.
The novel languished for 30 years while Westlake relocated to Columbia County, wrote dozens more under a laundry list of pseudonyms, and stacked up awards. There’s a time capsule quality to the plot, with its post-1960s political divisions uninformed by anything that came later, but Westlake transcends the politics by digging beneath them: everyone in the room is just human, and human beings have some issues. Under pressure, some shine and others implode, but most of us do a bit of both, which makes for a deftly engaging mystery.