July 17, 2017

Bonding Over Death: a review of Donald E. Westlake's "Forever and a Death"

Forever and a Death
by Donald E. Westlake
Hard Case Crime (2017)

Donald E. Westlake is responsible for penning a couple of my absolute favorite novels, so when I saw Hard Case Crime was set to publish one of his as-yet-unseen novels, which happened to be inspired by a treatment he once did for the James Bond franchise, I just had to check it out.

Now, if you're expecting this novel to be a James Bond type of story, with hi-tech gadgets and femme fatales and a lead character who kicks all kinds of ass without mussing his hair, then you can put those expectations to bed right now. This isn't that kind of novel. This is pure Westlake. That said, you can pretty easily pick up the echoes of a Bond story that Westlake refashioned into his own brand of story.

Right from the get-go, Forever and a Death presents itself as a villain's tale. Oh sure, we have our plucky hero in the form of a conscientious engineer who happens to throw a pretty good punch, but the lion's share of the story, and where it shines, is with the inner machinations of the lead villain and his henchmen. Industrialist Richard Curtis has a score to settle with Hong Kong where he was kicked out after it was handed back China in the 90s, and his engineer's prized invention of a soliton wave, which transforms seaside landfill and everything built on top of it into a giant mud puddle, is just how Curtis intends to do it.

Curtis' best laid plans are undermined at every turn, most of all it seems by his own hubris. He considers himself superior to everyone around him both in stature and in intellect, which quickly bites him in the ass when an environmentalist watchdog attempts to stop his soliton wave experiment off the coast of Australia. A young activist named ??? dives into the water and is swept up by the powerful artificial current that levels a small island. And when her body is recovered and found to have survived, albeit barely, Curtis realizes his plans could go up in smoke if she lives. Enter George Manville.

Manville, his engineer, feels responsible for the woman's condition, and when propositioned by Curtis to aide him in disposing of her, managing a daring escape back to Australia. From there, it is a cat-and-mouse chase of sorts between Curtis and Manville. Manville needs to alert the authorities to Curtis' ill deeds while evading capture and/or extermination, while Curtis needs to silence Manville by any means necessary long enough for him to see his ultimate plan come to fruition.

On the one hand, Westlake's attention to detail is something to behold. Nearly every supporting character is fleshed out to the fullest. We see why Curtis has earned a sworn enemy by a famed environmentalist. We see the desperation to regain lost status by one of Curtis' former employers turned freelance goon. But with all of these characters given the spotlight, the pacing of the novel takes a hit. A couple sections of the book even become downright plodding as "will he or won't he" questions of conscience are hung over one character's or another's head. The third act is breakneck, however, and offers an ending that one may find ill fitting for something Bond inspired, but it is perfectly suited to Westlake's style.

All things considered, it's a good read that stopped short of being great, which may be why Westlake never saw it published before his death. A thoughtfully imagined plot with some forgettable heroes and one damned good villain. It may not be the makings of a franchise like James Bond, but it's a satisfying summer read for those looking for a taut thriller.

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