That's the setup in Donald Westlake's new novel, The Hook. Bryce offers to publish his friend's book under his own name and split the profits with him, but there's a catch -- the plot "hook" of the title: First Wayne has to kill Bryce's annoying wife.
Westlake, the dean of American crime novelists, has no trouble making such a premise seem plausible. Yet The Hook is more than just a clever crime thriller; it's a wickedly satiric exploration of the book business and its obsession with brand-name authors.
And no one is better suited to tackle the subject than Westlake. Over the past four decades, he's published more than fifty novels, exhibiting an astonishing range of voices and material. There's the comic Dortmunder series, about a thief whose capers always go haywire; the lean, mean Parker novels, featuring one of the most hard-boiled antiheroes in all of literature; psychological thrillers like The Ax (in which a "downsized" executive bumps off his rivals for a new job); and a host of others, not to mention the screenplays (The Grifters, The Stepfather) and the books turned into films (including Point Blank and Payback, both based on the first Parker novel).
Early in his career, he was so prolific that he outpaced publishers' demands and began to use pseudonyms (Tucker Coe, Allan Marshall, etc.) to get more of his work into print. "I was writing too much," he says. "It was youthful exuberance -- or a really miserable social life." He also recognized the value of creating different brand names, such as Richard Stark -- an ideal pen name for the spare prose of the Parker books. But in the 1970s, Westlake abruptly dropped the series, despite a growing cult following. "The voice just went away," he says. "When I started out writing the books, I was a recent arrival in the publishing world. I didn't go to the right schools. I was writing about an outsider who didn't mind being an outsider. By the mid-'70s, the books were getting awards and being turned into movies, and I was writing screenplays. It was tough to feel like an outsider."
Two years ago Westlake revived the Parker series, in part because he was feeling like an outsider again. Publishing conglomerates now focus so relentlessly on "name" authors rather than content, with their decisions dictated by the sales figures of the big-chain stores, that many fine writers are simply abandoned, while others are propped up by "consultants" who ghostwrite for them, a situation Westlake attacks with relish in The Hook.
Even successful authors can be pulled down by the bestseller mania. Westlake has seen the casualties, including one friend who recently launched a new mystery series. "He got nice reviews and reasonable sales," he says. "It wasn't enough. The fourth book in the series was published only in England, and he gave it up. In an earlier time, that series would have built an audience over time. In today's sales-oriented, computer-driven publishing industry, Sue Grafton never would have got past the letter C."
Publishers are not sentimental people; as they see it, even the old masters are only as good as their latest book. After forty years of hooking readers, Donald Westlake remains very good indeed. -- Alan Prendergast