Hard Case Crime Files: Two by Two
Tuesday, March 06, 2012
A pair of mysteries by a pair of authors: The Comedy is Finished and Branded Woman.
The Comedy is Finished (2012) is the latest (and I believe, last) of Donald Westlake's unpublished novels to be rediscovered by the noir archeologists at Hard Case Crime. In this case, the finished manuscript was sent from Westlake to Max Allan Collins, who, after the publication of Memory, sent it on to Hard Case Crime.
Originally written in the 1980s, The Comedy is Finished features Koo Davis, legendary stand-up comedian. Koo is a media icon; a Bob Hope-style figure serving vaguely saucy, non-political humor to the masses. Like Hope, Koo made his name doing USO tours, a fact that comes back to haunt him at the start of the book.
Koo is just wrapping up another show - an easy routine for him, as he's been doing it for decades - when he's nabbed by group of radical activists. Their demands? The release of a dozen other activists, currently languishing in prisons around the country. As an icon of the establishment, the kidnappers feel that Koo is exactly the right person with whom to make their statement. His fatuous, blithe chuckling offends them, as does the man's lack of concern. His casual mockery of those more passionate than himself is taken as a direct insult.
Ostensibly, the arc of the book follows Koo as he learns (belatedly) to care. Not about a higher political cause, but about something besides his day-to-day existence. Koo's been grazing the pastures of success for so long that he's forgotten about everyone and everything else. His wife and children were abandoned at an early stage. They were just... left behind, ignored until they left him - the path of least resistance. His romantic conquests are routine and swiftly forgotten - Koo's casually decimated the legion of smiling blonds sent to help him entertain the troops overseas. Koo's entire being is artificial, he's a plastic parasite, propped up by bottles of pills and the insincere smiles of his fans.
But Koo's kidnappers have even more to learn. In true Westlakian fashion, the criminals begin with grand designs and vast ambitions, only to smash against the rocks of reality. In this case, the five radicals all have their own (oft conflicting) motivations. One seeks political change, one is a naive romantic; one is a psychopath, unable to connect with humans at all, another has a motivation that's all too personal. Although younger than Koo, they're all equally set in their ways and equally shaken by the events of the book. They believe that their causes (personal or political) are eternal, but they learn that hatred, passion, belief... these too shall pass.
Eventually, Mr. Westlake grounds the book in something. The Comedy is Finished is bleak, but not completely nihilistic. All men aren't islands, but nor are they universes. The goal, Mr. Westlake posits in a half-heartedly optimistic way, is to find someone with whom you can have a laugh.
Although not his best work, The Comedy is Finished is still well worth seeking out. Initially, its discussion of political moderation and fruitless passion seems very much linked to the post-Vietnam period of its origin. But it doesn't take much to extrapolate how it is relevant to today's political dialogues as well. The novel does still feel rough with some scenes (including a weirdly visceral bout of sex) that feel out of place. I'm not sure if this is rationalisation on my part, knowing the book's origin, but I still wonder what would've happened if Mr. Westlake had taken another pass at it.
Branded Woman (1952, reprinted 2005) is by Wade Miller - actually a combination of two authors, Bob Wade and H. Bill Miller. The two worked together under several pseudonyms, their most famous creation being Badge of Evil (later filmed by Orson Welles as "Touch of Evil").
Branded Woman follows the beautiful Cay Morgan (petite, curvy, platinum, etc) as she heads into Mexico. Cay's a smuggler by trade, but has now given herself over wholly to vengeance. Five years before, she'd bounced into another smuggler, known enigmatically as "The Trader". Pissed off that Cay was on his turf, the Trader had her kidnapped and "branded", with a "T" cut into her forehead. Cay's been on his trail ever since. (The authors press home the comparison to rape as much as they can - Cay recalls waking up from her experience naked, violated and bruised.)
The problem is, Cay has no idea what the Trader looks like. He is an enigmatic figure at the head of a criminal cabal, and she's never even seen his face. So Cay, with a succession of meat shields in tow, is forced to chase down one goon after the other in her quest to find the top man. Some she seduces, some she bonks over the head, some she drugs and interrogates at gunpoint. She's determined to find her quarry.
I had two problems with Branded Woman. The first, I'm afraid, is not really the book's fault given its age. Branded Woman is predictable. The eventual cross, double-cross, reveal, real reveal and even the denouement were all broadcast from the first few chapters. Branded Woman follows the rules of film (never waste a character) and detection (no unfair twists). There's nothing wrong with either, but, in this case, a reader familiar with any sort of mystery should see the end coming. After sixty years, Branded Woman has aged and its twists and turns are less sinuous than they are distracting. Predictability makes for a dull mystery. Unfair, but true.
My second problem with the book is less easily forgiven. Cay Morgan is a rubbish character. She's a small package of self-determination, utterly determined to prove that she's her own person, etc. etc. Until, of course, she's given a right good rogering and then she becomes a lump of goo - pathetically relieved to "belong to someone". Her hairy-handed manly-man talks like they're equals, up to the point where he declares that their business is now his business, and it all belongs to him, as does she. Cay, swooning, assents. Even by the standards of other early 1950s fiction, Cay's a frustrating character - if only because she's ostensibly fiercely liberated. Were she a swooning love interest that went gooey, it'd be easier to write her off as a period mistake. But when the authors deliberately undercut and belittle her, using her as a case study against independent female characters, it is utterly grating.
Cover for The Comedy is Finished by Gregory Manchess.
Cover for Branded Woman by Glen Orbik.