Tag Archive: Donald E. Westlake


Castle in the Air Westlake

Review by C.J. Bunce

The New York Times once called Donald E. Westlake the Neil Simon of the crime novel, and that’s a pretty accurate comparison.  But his work is so much more than that.  In the world of Hard Case Crime reprints from writers of the past, Erle Stanley Gardner was the master of hard-boiled detective tropes, full of real characters and master of the human condition, Mickey Spillane wrote about those dark shadows in the corners of cities large and small, grabbing readers and sucking them into the worldbuilding of his stories, and Max Allan Collins is the craftsman keeping all the best of the genre alive with new stories today.  Donald E. Westlake was the entire package–his work cinematic in its descriptions, laser-sharp in its details, wondrous in its scope, full of intrigue, action, adventure, and yes, brilliantly funny humor.  Each one of his adventures is a sprawling production like the best James Bond movie you ever watched (in part why his Forever and a Death made our Best of the Decade list this year).

Our look at the works of master crime writer Donald E. Westlake continues with his 26th novel published under his own name and 73rd novel in all, Castle in the Air, reprinted by Hard Case Crime for the first time in 40 years.  It’s The Bank Job meets It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and it’s flat out the best retro read we’ve reviewed this year.

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thebigsleep 2  thebigsleep 4

Review by C.J. Bunce

The first thing to know about Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel The Big Sleep is that it was published three years after James M. Cain published the serialized Double Indemnity.  If your only knowledge of The Big Sleep is the big-screen adaptation directed by Howard Hawks starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall with a screenplay written by the likes of Leigh Brackett and William Faulkner, you should go back and read the novel to see how wrong Bogart is for the lead detective Philip Marlowe.  Both the novel and significantly modified movie version are convoluted tales of murder and mayhem, but the novel is better than the film in many ways.  Its value is in its shocking subject matter for the 1930s and being an early entrant helping to establish hardboiled crime novels as a genre.  Readers were first put inside the brain of Marlowe in this story, which reads like an effort to adapt Cain.  Chandler also was a reader of Cain’s work and along with Billy Wilder, Chandler would adapt Cain’s Double Indemnity for the screen.  Still in print, The Big Sleep is available in trade paperback here at Amazon.

Eight decades after its first publication, how does Chandler’s novel hold up?

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Review by C.J. Bunce

If there is a better writer of pulp crime fiction in the long history of the genre than Erle Stanley Gardner, I don’t know who it is.  Yes, Mickey Spillane and Donald E. Westlake are in the running, too, but even if you push aside Gardner’s more than 60 novels featuring Perry Mason, you’re going to be challenged to find a better duo of detectives from the 1930s onward than Gardner’s Bertha Cool and Donald Lam.  Gardner wrote 29 novels published in his lifetime featuring the larger than life Bertha of the B. Cool Detective Agency and loyal and well-trod upon employee Lam, the narrator of the tales who lost his license to practice law and uses his smarts to keep money coming in to the agency.  Where the Hard Case Crime imprint is at its best is finding lost gems, and they have one in The Knife Slipped, written by Gardner and intended to be the duo’s second case, the publisher kicked it way back in 1939 because of Bertha’s brash, bombastic, and profane style.  Maybe that attitude just reflected the era of the day, but reading the novel now it’s clear Gardner was ahead of his time. 

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Some writers are great at writing crime novels from the perspective of the detective, some are great at writing as the criminal, and then there are writers like Donald E. Westlake who had it all figured out.  The latest publication of a classic Westlake novel from Titan Books’ Hard Case Crime imprint is from the vantage of a murderer who keeps getting wrapped deeper and deeper into his web of lies.  The novel is A Travesty, a 1977 pile-on of crime references and tropes about a film critic trying to prove wrong the maxim “crime does not pay”–featured in a new 2-for-1 trade edition with the short story Ordo titled Double Feature, and originally released together under the title Enough.

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Our borg Best of 2019 list continues today with the Best Books of 2019.  If you missed them, check out our review of the Best Movies of 2019 here, the Kick-Ass Heroines of 2019 here, the Best in Television 2019 here, and the Best Comics of 2019 here.

We reviewed more than 100 books that we recommended to our readers this year, and some even made it onto our favorites shelf.  We don’t print reviews of books that we read and don’t recommend, so this shortlist reflects only this year’s cream of the crop.

So let’s get going.  Here are our selections for this year:

Best Read, Best Fantasy Read, Best New Edition of Previous Published Work, Best Translated Work – A Hero Born: Legends of the Condor Heroes 1 by Jin Yong, translated by Anna Holmwood (St. Martin’s Press).  The first book in one of the most read books of all time finally makes its way to the U.S. after its premiere in Great Britain.  Readers will learn why George Lucas pulled its concepts for his Skywalker saga, and why generations of Chinese fans of fantasy of flocked to its heroes and villains.  Honorable mention for Best Fantasy Read: A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery by Curtis Craddock (Tor Books), The Dark Lord Clementine by Sarah Jean Horwitz (Algonquin Young Readers).

Best New Novel, Best Horror Novel, Best Historical Novel, Best Mystery Novel – The Cthulhu Casebooks: Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea-Devils by James Lovegrove (Titan Books).  A truly literary work combining a smart Holmesian adventure and the dark mind of H.P. Lovecraft.  Readers will love Lovegrove’s approach, Holmes and Watson’s journey, and all the creepy surprises.

Best Sci-Fi Novel, Best Thriller – The Andromeda Evolution by Daniel H. Wilson (HarperCollins).  Wilson successfully conjured the spirit of Michael Crichton for this smart, creepy, and oddly current sci-fi sequel to The Andromeda Strain.  A cast of characters just like Crichton would have put together, and a must-read.

Best Franchise Tie-In Novel – Firefly: Magnificent Nine by James Lovegrove (Titan Books).  One of the best authors around crafts a worthy story to expand the Firefly canon and give fans their own new movie of sorts for the franchise.  Runner-up: Alien: Prototype by Tim Waggoner (Titan Books).  Honorable Mention: Death of the Planet of the Apes by Andrew E.C. Gaska (Titan Books).

Best Retro Read – Mike Hammer: Murder, My Love, by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (Titan Books).  Collins continues to bring Spillane’s characters to life with thrilling prose and all the best pieces of noir drama and action.  Honorable mention: Brothers Keepers by Donald E. Westlake (Hard Case Crime).

Best Genre Non-Fiction – Industrial Light & Magic Presents: Making of Solo: A Star Wars Story by Rob Bredow (Harry N. Abrams).  Bredow’s unique access to the production made for a rare opportunity in any production to see details of the filmmaking process.  Every movie should have such a great deep dive behind the scenes.  Honorable mention: The Making of Alien by J.W. Rinzler (Titan Books).

There’s much more of our selections for 2019’s Best in Print to go…

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Review by C.J. Bunce

It’s not often a sequel surpasses the first novel in the series, but that’s the place where Spaceside lands.  And that’s saying something, because Michael Mammay′s Planetside was one powerful first novel.  I first reviewed Planetside before its release only a year ago here at borg, and its combination of military thriller and sci-fi action story was one of last year’s best sci-fi reads.  Happily for readers of Mammay’s first story, the protagonist this round is again Colonel Carl Butler, that ex-military mastermind who keeps getting pulled back into danger.  Imagine Edge of Tomorrow’s General Brigham a few years after the war or Starship Troopers’ Lieutenant Rasczak if he’d lived to fight another day, and you’ll have an idea of what you’re in for with Colonel Butler.

But this story and this style is different for Mammay.  I saw Planetside as military conspiracy-thriller in sci-fi dress, but this time Butler is part investigator in a planetside mystery as a bit of a future noir or tech noir detective.  Where Planetside featured plenty of the grunt-side action of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, this story delves more into the strategy and corporate politics (think Weyland Corp.), providing a fine standalone story.  Yet for those that take on the first novel (as they should), Spaceside fleshes out the secrets of why Butler was thrust far away across the galaxy to deal with the alien race called the Cappans in the first place.  Two books in and readers will be asking for more–Mammay has concocted one of the best science fiction universes around.  So just when a new series of Blade Runner novels is on its way, Spaceside fits the bill as a worthy read-alike of a future, cybernetically enhanced human trying to stay alive while he’s constantly dodging bullets (although Butler’s borg nature is downplayed for much of the story).  More like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner than Philip K. Dick’s source novel, Mammay’s story is a compelling character study that amps up the intrigue.

Instead of spending most of this novel’s adventure in outer space as the title might suggest, ex-Colonel Butler finds himself grounded, exiled, shunned, and scorned for the murders of millions of Cappans resulting from his decisions in the pages of Planetside.  Instead Butler is relegated to leading corporate team-building sessions where he takes groups on virtual reality combat missions with him as the real-life war hero.  It’s embarrassing, but it pays the bills, and it keeps him busy after his wife left him and took half his money.  That’s until the CEO calls him into his office to investigate a hacking of a major rival corporation–after all, his title has the word “security” in it.  If Butler can figure out what went wrong at the rival, then his own company can make sure it doesn’t happen to them, too.  Or so his CEO figures.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Our look at the works of master crime writer Donald E. Westlake continues with his 22nd novel published under his own name and 75th (give or take) novel in all, Brothers Keepers, reprinted this month by Hard Case Crime for the first time in 30 years.  It’s a deeply human, thoughtful, descriptive, and humor-filled look at a monk named Brother Benedict living in a 200-year-old monastery in Manhattan in the mid-1970s. When a 99-year lease on the land on which his monastery was built expires, and no one can find the original lease contract, the monks’ lives are upended.  The problem is the land has become too valuable for the underlying owners–successors to the landowners that granted the lease during the American Revolution–not to cash out.  The crime is real:  Someone has stolen the lease from the monks, and worse for the Brotherhood, they believe one of the monks conspired with the landowners to hide knowledge of their rights until newly issued options to buy the land vest–meaning any rights the monks may have cease–on New Year’s Day, only a few weeks away.

You’ll hear the Jack Ryan line in The Hunt for Red October, “next time, Jack, write a memo,” as Brother Benedict becomes the monks’ bearer of bad news, only learning of the lease situation by reading the newspaper and seeing it mentioned as part of a story on the skyscraper set to replace the current buildings on the block.  Soon he is the designated instrument of solving the problem, requiring him to travel, a concept that is anathema to the Brotherhood: travel is to be avoided at all cost.  When he accompanies a more authoritative monk to confront one of the owners on his posh estate, a chance encounter with the owner’s attractive daughter prompts Brother Benedict to question his vows.  When another encounter finds the monk and the woman target of a mugging, Brother Benedict has no choice but to confront his curiosity and fears, taking on more and more of the burden to find the original lease, rumored to have an automatic renewal clause that grants his Brotherhood–The Crispinite Order of the Novum Mundum–the right to renew the lease for another 99 years in the Brotherhood’s sole discretion.

First edition of Westlake’s Brothers Keepers.

For those familiar with property law, there’s a nearly unimpeachable attention to the law of leases that becomes the through line of the story.  The rights of landowners, the public interest of preserving historical structures, right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, all intertwine with an order of monks who simply want to live their repeated, weekly routine without interfering with–or being bothered by–the outside world.  The result is Brothers Keepers, a one-sitting read, a 300-page, laugh-out-loud (at least one laugh every other page) page turner that makes for the perfect follow-up to Hard Case Crime’s most recent Westlake reprint, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, another highly recommended retro-read reviewed here at borg last year.

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Our borg Best of 2018 list continues today with the Best in Print.  If you missed them, check out our review of the Best Movies of 2018 here, the Kick-Ass Heroines of 2018 here, and the Best in Television 2018 here.

So let’s get going.  Here are our selections for this year’s Best in Print:

Best Read, Best Sci-fi Read – The Synapse Sequence by Daniel Godfrey (Titan Books).  The Synapse Sequence is one of those standout reads that reflects why we all flock to the latest new book in the first place.  The detective mystery, the future mind travel tech, the twists, and the successful use of multiple perspectives made this one of the most engaging sci-fi reads since Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park.  Honorable mention: Solo: A Star Wars Story novelization by Mur Lafferty (Del Rey).

Best Retro Read – Killing Town by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (Hard Case Crime).  The lost, first Mike Hammer novel released for the 100th anniversary of Mickey Spillane’s birth was gold for noir crime fans.  This first Hammer story introduced an origin for a character that had never been released, in fact never finished, but Spillane’s late career partner on his work made a seamless read.  This was the event of the year for the genre, and a fun ride for his famous character.  Honorable mention: Help, I Am Being Held Prisoner, by Donald E. Westlake.

Best Tie-In Book – Solo: A Star Wars Story–Expanded Edition novelization by Mur Lafferty (Del Rey).  Not since Donald Glut’s novelization of The Empire Strikes Back had we encountered a Star Wars story as engaging as this one.  Lafferty took the final film version and Lawrence and Jon Kasdan’s script to weave together something fuller than the film on-screen.  Surprises and details moviegoers may have overlooked were revealed, and characters were introduced that didn’t make the final film cut.  Better yet, the writing itself was exciting.  We read more franchise tie-ins than ever before this year, and many were great reads, but this book had it all.  Honorable Mention: Big Damn Hero by James Lovegrove (Titan).

Best Genre Non-fiction – Hitchcock’s Heroines by Caroline Young (Insight Editions).  A compelling look at the director and his relationship with the leading women in his films, this new work on Hitchcock was filled with information diehard fans of Hitchcock will not have seen before.  Young incorporated behind-the-scenes images, costume sketches, and a detailed history of the circumstances behind key films of the master of suspense and his work with some of Hollywood’s finest performers.

There’s much more of our selections for 2018’s Best in Print to go…

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Review by C.J. Bunce

You don’t expect a crime novel or pulp fiction to be funny.  Sure, any good story has some humor, but crime mysteries are the stuff of suspense-thrillers and dark alleys, right?  Maybe so, but then there is the late great crime fiction writer Donald E. Westlake.  His novel Help I Am Being Held Prisoner has a lead character that would knock any reader off his chair.  The Chicago Sun-Times called Westlake “the funniest crime writer going” and they’re probably right.  His humor sometimes comes out of nowhere.  It’s not the hard-boiled flavor you may be used to, but his characters are still clever as ever, possessing those traits that make everyone appear so real.  His comedy is decisive and quick and the next thing you know tears are shooting out of yours eyes and coffee out your nose.  Hot on the heels of last year’s posthumously published action thriller Forever and a Death (reviewed here), Westlake’s Help I Am Being Held Prisoner is the latest classic find from the Hard Case Crime series, a 1974 novel now back in bookstores in a new edition for the first time in decades (with a great painted Paul Mann cover), and making people laugh again 44 years later.

Westlake’s protagonist this time is Harold Künt, last name pronounced “koont.”  The umlaut is important because pretty much no one has pronounced his name correctly in his life.  He’s 32 years old and unmarried, after three girlfriends refused to marry him, mainly because of his name.  In a roundabout but direct way, the joke God played on him with his name–in Künt’s mind–was rationale to play jokes on everyone else.  So Künt rebelled and got a sweet vengeance against everyone and anyone via his unique brand of practical jokery.  His signature?  The best practical jokes are the ones you don’t see play out.  You just set them up and walk away.  Künt is a pretty satisfied guy until one of his jokes goes too far off the rails and he lands in a New York jail–five to fifteen years in the penitentiary–a steeper penalty than warranted.  But two married Congressmen and unmarried ladies in the cars with them were part of a 17-car collision caused by Künt’s latest prank.  So Künt was due for his comeuppance.  The novel begins with Künt’s first day in the slammer.  Jailed for a joke, he’s resigned to becoming rehabilitated.  Sort of.  No more pranks, the warden orders, as Künt leaves some goo on the door handle as he leaves with the guard.  Künt is provided good advice, and he’s shown which of the inmates to steer clear of and for which reasons.  Then his roommate gets paroled and everything falls apart.  Or does it?

  

It’s a crime novel, so the novel needs a crime.  Künt falls in with exactly the wrong crowd, a group of thugs who have control over a tunnel out of the prison where they have found a way to live a second life outside of their jail sentences.  Is Künt in or is he out?  The band of criminals develop a plan to rob not just one but two of the local town banks.  What better an alibi to an armed robbery than being locked in jail?

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