Review by C.J. Bunce
Twenty years ago this weekend, the sovereignty of Hong Kong was handed back to China by the United Kingdom as the last act of the old British Empire, without incident.
The anniversary of this transfer of power coincides with the release by Hard Case Crime of one of crime fiction readers’ most eagerly awaited events: the final novel of Donald E. Westlake. The result surpasses all expectations from one of America’s most celebrated authors: the adventure of Ian Fleming, the complexity of Michael Crichton, the surprises of Stephen King, the thrills of Peter Benchley, the pulse of John Grisham. A taut thriller, gripping, heart-pounding, and jaw-dropping, Forever and a Death is Donald E. Westlake saving his best for last. Forever and a Death is his never-before-published new novel–a James Bond story of sorts–with an intriguing backstory. Tapped to write the second James Bond film to feature Pierce Brosnan as Bond, Westlake created a compelling story of international intrigue revolving around the return of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997. Because of the success of GoldenEye, the uncertainty of a smooth transfer of power of Hong Kong, and a distaste by the Chinese market for Bond, the Broccoli family and the Bond franchise machine amicably parted ways with Westlake. But he then reworked his story in secret, leaving behind at his death in 2008 a stunning action adventure, only snipping the world famous spy from the story.
The result is one of the most intelligent, loathsome, and shrewd Bond villains you’ll ever meet, Richard Curtis, an enormously wealthy business mogul who has amassed a network of corporations across the globe that will allow him to carry out his every wish. When he is booted from Hong Kong at the transfer of power, he becomes fixated on a power play to destroy Hong Kong as payback. As with many wealthy CEOs, Curtis is charismatic and influential. He has encircled himself with individuals who are beholden to him for their own wealth and they would do anything to maintain his and their own lifestyle. And that includes murder. Not as preposterous as many Ian Fleming constructions, the method Westlake creates for Curtis is completely believable: using a series of carefully calculated explosions, a soliton wave will be created that will shake the very foundation of Hong Kong and reduce the entirety of the city–skyscrapers, homes, and millions of lives–to sediment. Westlake introduces his male protagonist to show us the way, a trusted engineer named George Manville (a partner in action with Bond in the original treatment). Kept in the dark about the ultimate goal, Manville completes the first test on a small abandoned island near Australia that he believes to be part of a plan to make the island into a lavish resort. But when an environmental group tries to stimy Curtis’s test, a headstrong activist and diver emerges, a woman named Kim Baldur (who would become, to a small extent, Michelle Yeoh’s Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies) dives into the ocean and swims for shore to stop the operation. Unfortunately for her, Manville neglected to incorporate a kill switch to the project, and she is swallowed by the wave and what would have been a superb Honey Ryder-esque Bond girl is left for dead. And this is only the introduction of the novel.
Westlake peppers his story with completely unique characters, and readers will find they empathize with even the most minor of them as they are subjected to Curtis’s gruesome tactics. You may need to remind yourself to breathe as well-meaning whistleblowers find themselves in Hong Kong’s underbelly just as Curtis begins to carry out a plan to walk away from his destruction with a haul of gold bars that rest in the bank vaults beneath the city.
Despite the demise of Hong Kong as plot device, it’s no McGuffin like Grisham’s The Pelican Brief, but an integral driving force of the plot. The complex relationships and late-breaking introduction of new, compelling characters, is handled like a Crichton orchestration. Even in the absence of a solo protagonist hero by re-working his initial story to excise James Bond, Westlake created an exciting masterpiece that rivals Fleming’s classics. As a plus, Westlake also provides one of the most badass heroines of any Bond story.
Equal to the story within is that which we’re not supposed to judge the story by, the magnificent retro-feel, pulp-inspired, Bondian cover. Just marvel at Paul Mann’s cover painting, as well as Max Phillip’s cover design work. Bond or not, their book will fit beautifully along with your shelf of Richie Fahey’s pulp cover edition of the complete Ian Fleming Bond series, always accompanying our retro reviews of Bond novels here at borg.com.
Today Hong Kong has the appearance of autonomy on paper as a result of its decades old agreement with the United Kingdom, but in 2047 China has the right to end the “one country, two systems” approach, pulling the plug on that autonomy and governing Hong Kong with an iron fist as with its other provinces. It is expected that won’t come without a fight from its pro-democracy younger generations. It’s too bad Westlake isn’t around to write his version of that story.
Here is a brief excerpt of Forever and a Death at the Hard Case Crime website. Highly recommended and one of the best reads of 2017, pick up your copy of Donald E. Westlake’s final novel, Forever and Death, now available here at Amazon.