Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Early novels and late novels

Donald Westlake's first novel, published in 1960 as The Mercenaries and reissued by Hard Case Crime as The Cutie, offers a protagonist for whom crime is just a job he does well.

Conflicts result from this, some professional, some personal; some comic, some not, but the core of the book, and the source of its action, is a man doing his job.

The comedy is not quite as well-integrated into the main action as it is in Westlake's later books, and the ending is melodramatically reminiscent of the early work of Westlake's friend Lawrence Block. But this longtime Westlake fan was astonished at how consistently Westlake stuck to his main thematic concerns over a hundred or so novels written under various names over almost fifty years.

So here's your question: If Westlake's main thematic interest, like Dashiell Hammett's, was the man whose mission is to do his job well, what are the main interests of other writers with long, productive careers?  In what ways do such authors' early books foreshadow their later ones?  

(Read an excerpt from The Cutie.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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31 Comments:

Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Sounds like one of those horrid test questions.

June 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm grading on a curve, so you aced the test.

June 16, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

There are two sorts of mystery/thriller heroes that interest me: the competent hero and the nerdy-but-competent- inspite-of-himself-hero. i.e. Parnell Hall's Stanley Hastings.

A man doing his job and doing it well is always an attractive thing to read about. But not so much if the guy is a hit man. I detest happy hitman books and refuse to read them.

Usually when I think of competence, I think of Lee Child's JACK REACHER who began way back when as he meant to go on.

The main thing about Lee Child's work is that his hero is a fixed point. He is unchanging. So Child's early books foreshadowed his later ones in that Reacher is the same today as he was when Child first created him.

Sometimes that doesn't work, but mostly it does.

And the reason why it works so well in this case, I'm convinced, is Reacher's superb competence and his own confidence in his own ability to do what needs doing.

June 16, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

As an ex-college prof, I'll go on record as not approving of grading on a curve. It just isn't logical, fair, or scientific.

I like a protagonist with a soft heart for human suffering. I like to see him carry on in a job made harder by his bosses and by adverse circumstances, including his personal life.

Reacher has changed, I think. He started out as a gung-ho military policeman, a bit of a loose cannon, but good enough to get away with it. He has since thrown all that away, and is a wanderer who lives hand-to-mouth without a firm abode or a family. He has become a mythic creature, who arrives from nowhere, cleans up the mess, and disappears into nowhere again. I rather like that. The plots aren't always very good, though.

June 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, Westlake sidesteps the hit-man dilemma in this book, though I suspect he was aware of it. He has the narrator tell us that he has killed, but he never kills during the course of the book. He's a kind of go-between, arranging conferences between the mobsters and their lawyers, talking to powerful people who carry weight with the police, and so on. And that's the point: He's a business guy, wears good suits, doesn't shoot people or engage in other violence, and so on. Westlake always liked the idea of the mob as an organization.

Lawrence Block's Keller is a hit man, but he's far more pensive than he is happy.

June 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I don't think I've ever been graded on a curve. On can see such a system's appeal to a weak mind easily seduced by hyper-rationality.

Your comments on Reacher's mythic status reminded me of a defense I once read of the crime-fiction series. Far from being a cheap, commercial trick beneath the dignity of serious fiction, a long-running series (the defense goes) is akin in its string of adventures that never seem to end to adventure epics. Homer was invoked.

June 16, 2011  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

Long-running series as epic prose, huh? That would qualify Wolfe, who'd promptly argue against it.

June 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I don't want to overstate the case, since I remember only its barest outlines. But it was an interesting counter to the idea, probably taken for granted by many, that series fiction is somehow less to be taken seriously simply because it's series fiction.

June 17, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Well, you have to have a quest in an epic, a single objective. There are other characteristics. Suffice it to say that Nero Wolfe doesn't qualify. Reacher comes a bit closer. Harry Potter closer still.

June 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Couldn't one argue that Wolfe's life is a quest for the perfect orchid and the perfect meal? Maybe that qualifies the Wolfe series as comedy -- the hero endlessly interrupted in his quest to create and consume perfection.

June 17, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

:) Well, there is also the requirement that the quest involve something of enormous importance to mankind. If Wolfe were more active, and if the culinary and horticultural endeavors were more front and center, it could pass for a parody. He is rather a parody of what an epic hero looks like.
Frankly, I can see the importance of food, but orchids don't do much for me.

June 17, 2011  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

It occurs to me that my initial observation would be better suited to Wolfe if Archie had said it. Remember when Wolfe took up darts as a form of exercise? Archie said something like "Wolfe deciding he was too fat was like the ocean deciding it was too wet."

I can hear Archie saying Wolfe was on a lifetime quest for the perfect (orchid, meal) and determined to persevere until it was found.

June 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I wouldn't know a rare orchid if I accidentally sniffed one, but Wolfe's fascination with them fascinates me.

June 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Remember when Wolfe took up darts as a form of exercise?"

Linkmeister: That's a marvelous sentence. In what book does Wolfe take up darts?

June 17, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

It's interesting (to me, anyway) how crime fiction often has competent men alone and comedies (at least the movies) seemto be full of incompetent in groups.

June 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, one could think of Westlake's novels as explorations of what happens then the two meet. Parker, the icily competent loner, often gets into trouble when some member of a string assembled for a heist screws up. And someone once pointed out that John Dortmunder is not incompetent, just unlucky.

In any case, it's no accident that Westlake loved that great Italian heist comedy Big Deal on Madonna Street

June 17, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

In what ways do such authors' early books foreshadow their later ones?

I've forgotten who it was who said all writers write the same book over and over again. Too sweeping a generalisation to be true, but there's no doubt there are some writers who keep working the same small patch of ground in all their books.

Cornell Woolrich, for example, spent forty years mining the same preoccupations: love, lonliness, amnesia, paranoia, despair, death. You know, the usual kind of stuff.

The more of Woolrich I read, the more impressed I get. His biographer, Francis Nevins, calls him the Master of Suspense and the Father of Noir. I'll buy the first description without quibble, but the Father of Noir? To me, noir is just a recently invented branding device or even worse, an academic term, and I'd consider it an insult to apply such a term to a writer who never thought of himself as writing noir.

Of course I can understand the temptation. Woolrich's stories have more doomed heroes than you'll find anywhere outside of the fifth circle of hell. But he was just calling it as he saw it.

Why isn't Woolrich as famous as Hammett or Chandler? If Jim Thompson's reputation can be resurrected from the shallow grave it was buried in, why can't someone do something similiar for Woolrich? The guy deserves it.

June 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, no one could create tension and suspense like Woolrich at his best. I've read too little of his work to judge where he ought to rank in the pantheon, but he certainly deserves to be right up there with Jim Thompson, at least -- and right down there with David Goodis in the doomed-hero department.

June 17, 2011  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

Peter, I'll have to look up the darts episode.

During the war Wolfe and Fritz also exercised by taking brisk walks and eating veggies. Wolfe dropped about 100 pounds, as I recall, and was only persuaded to take up detecting again when Archie deliberately placed himself in the middle of a crime as a murder suspect.

June 17, 2011  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

Google is your friend. Wolfe played darts, which he called javelins, with a deck of cards which made up poker hands on the board. It was in one of the early ones, "The Rubber Band."

June 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Had Wolfe given up detecting out of respect for the war effort?

June 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

darts, which he called javelins

That's a nice Wolfeian touch.

June 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hey, that was this blog' 25,000th comment!

June 18, 2011  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

No, he gave up detecting in hopes he could join the Army to fight the Germans. As a Montenegrin I suppose he felt some antipathy toward the former Habsburg Empire.

June 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, and he feared his weight would prevent him from getting in, I suppose.

I seem to recall one story in which some significance attached to Wolfe's Montenegrin origins. Why did Stout choose Montenegro as Wolfe's birthplace?

June 18, 2011  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

Beats me, and if it was addressed in the authorized bio I've forgotten it.

What I really wish is that Stout had written the origin story of Wolfe meeting Archie and subsequent hiring of him. All we get is a one-sentence description from Archie in one of the novels.

June 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe such things are best left mysterious, with hints dropped here and there.

June 18, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I enjoyed The Cutie (The Mercenaries) but just finished Westlake's second novel, Killing Time, 1961, which I liked even better.

Peter, if you haven't already read it, I think you'd get a kick out of its many Hammettian touches. Including a first-person narrator who bears a suspicious resemblance to the Op: (from the first page) "I gave him a dime's worth of black coffee in the face and dove for the tile. He shot the ham sandwich and hollered, then I came back up from the floor and took the gun away from him. I may be chunky, but I can move fast when I have to." Wow! This is followed by a story based in another version of "Poisonville" with a Red Harvest-like slam-bang finale of all-out municipal war.

July 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Is Killing Time also published by Hard Case?

No, I have just found out. But it vaults instantly to a high position on my to-read list. That is a terrific opening ... "He shot the ham sandwich ..."

July 05, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Forgot to mention that on the theme of "the man whose mission is to do his job well," Tim Smith (first-person narrator of Killing Time) has this to say: "I'm no more honest or dishonest, in the vague abstract total way you use those terms, than anybody else alive in the world, I have a job [p.i.], an honest and proper job, licensed by the state of New York and the city of Winston, and I do that job as well as I can."

So, as you note, it seems that from these first 2 novels this will become a recurring theme of Westlake's crime fiction.

Doing a job as well as he can, how Op is that?!

July 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's Op all the way. In The Cutie, Westlake tries just a bit too hard at times to make the point that the Mob is just like a big corporation, that the protagonist is just another organization man. But I an forgive him; he was young then, and that was very early in his career. He learned to handle the theme a little more subtly later.

July 06, 2011  

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