Thursday, July 12, 2018

Birthday Review: The Hook, by Donald Westlake

Birthday Review: The Hook, by Donald Westlake

by Rich Horton

Donald Westlake's 2000 novel The Hook treats a subject much on the mind of writers, and probably little on the mind of those not involved in some way with the publishing industry: the death of the midlist. Bryce Proctorr, a bestselling writer of thrillers, is in the middle of a nasty divorce, and perhaps as a result, is completely blocked on his new book. One day he bumps into Wayne Prentice, an old friend and fellow novelist with whom he has been long out of contact. Wayne tells him his sad story: his first novels were well-received, but he became a victim of the harsh logic of bookstore computers: each novel sold a bit less than its predecessor, causing subsequent orders to go down, which caused sales to go down -- the old vicious circle. Wayne had even switched to a pseudonym, with short-term success but eventually the same fate. He has a novel finished that he can't sell. So Bryce has an idea -- what if Wayne gives him the novel. Bryce will do a light revision to make it read like he wrote it, then submit it under his own name -- and they will split the advance, over a million dollars.

So far so good. But there's a kicker. Bryce's soon-to-be-ex wife will take half of his fee for the book -- if they are still married when the payment arrives. And she is apparently (Bryce says) a stone bitch who is dragging out the divorce just to torture him. So, she needs to die. And Bryce can't do it -- he'd be the first suspect. But Wayne ...

Wayne is an ordinary guy, it seems. Very happily married. A good writer, just a victim of the insanity of contemporary publishing. And not in any way a murderer. So he thinks he'll say no. But he runs the idea by his wife, who much to his surprise doesn't reject it out of hand. So he ends up agreeing to meet Bryce's wife, just to see if she is really a bad person ...

In a way, this part ends up making no sense. Wayne meets Lucie Proctorr, who is certainly not a nice person. But "not nice" doesn't mean "deserves to be murdered", and Wayne is not really presented as a character who would make that leap. Yet he does -- I felt mainly in order that the rest of the book would exist.

And the rest of the book is an ironic recounting of how Lucie's murder affects the two writers. Their writing careers develop in believable but not entirely expected ways. Their personal lives also change, in rather ironic fashions. Each feels considerable pressure from the power the other man has over him -- either one could reveal the crime, and send both of them to jail. But their lives remain intertwined in surprising ways. All leading to a truly creepy conclusion.

It's pretty good stuff. For me, the implausibility of the characters' initial actions keeps it short of brilliant -- though it is muchly redeemed by the ending. Making me wonder, indeed, if Westlake didn't work from the ending backward, in a sense.

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