Westlake, Donald E - Novel 41

BOOK: Westlake, Donald E - Novel 41
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Donald E.





In some ways, 1959 was for me a very good year.
The preceding fall I'd moved to New York and gotten a job as reader for a
literary agent and settled myself down at last to the task of figuring out how
to (a) become a writer and (b) make a living at it. In 1959, fired with youth
and freshness and enthusiasm, I churned out more work than in any other year of
my life, and most of it found a market. When the dust had settled, it turned
out I had produced over half a million published words that year (we say
nothing of the unpublished words) and had become a freelance writer. In April,
with blind optimism, no money, and an extremely pregnant wife, I had quit my
literary agency job, and since that date I have never once, I am happy to say,
earned an honest dollar in wages.

Among that year's output were forty-six short
stories and novelettes, of which twenty-seven were published. (That's about a
third of althe short stories I've written over my entire life so far.) One of
those pieces, written early in March, was a novelette entitled
"Intellectual Motivation" (I hadn't yet completely cracked the
problem of titles —still haven't, come to think of it), which was published in
the December 1959 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine under the
not-much-better-title, "The Best-Friend Murder." The story contained
clear analogies to my own current situation J and when I look back on it from a
vantage point (if that's the phrase I want) of twenty-four years I see it
contains more than a little self-analysis and self-criticism. I wasn't really
aware of all that at the time, of course, or I would have been too
self-conscious to write the story. (We do write what we know, whether we know
it or not.) What attracted me then —and what I still think is the story's major
excuse for existence — was the attitude of the detective toward the idea of

In any mystery story, one element is
inevitably the detective's attitude toward death, his reaction to the concept
of death. The amateur detectives, for instance, the whimsical Wimseys and
, view death in the shallowest possible way,
as a solvable puzzle, which is in any event one of the subliminal comforts of
the mystery form. Death is stripped of its grief, horror, loss, irrevocability;
we are not helpless, there is something we can do. We can solve death.

Similarly, it has become the convention that
policemen, professional detectives, are hardened to death, immune to life
untimely nipf>ed. "All I want is the facts, ma'am," Jack Webb used
to say in his Sergeant Friday persona on Dragnet; nothing would make him
scream, or cry, or —o'ercome — turn aside his head.
they broke with that just once, when the actor who played Friday's partner
They wrote it in, and on camera Jack Webb —somehow no longer the
cop —did cry, was human, faced death squarely.)

But is the policeman not flesh? Doth he not
bleed? Hasn't he in his own lifetime buried grandparents, parents? Isn't he
aware of his own mortality? It was the idea of a cop, a police detective, who
was so tensely aware of his own inevitable death that he wound up hating people
who took the idea of death frivolously that led me to Abe Levine and "The
Best-Friend Murder" or "Intellectual Motivation").

Which doesn't mean I saw a
series in it.
The other twenty-six published 1959 stories produced no
sequels, nor did I ever expect to see Detective Levine again once he'd finished
his gavotte with Larry Perkins. But for some reason he stayed in my mind, a
worrying painstaking fretful unheroic man, a fifty-three-year-old who seemed to
me at the age of twenty-five to be almost a doddering ancient, but
from my present position I realize is in the absolute
prime of life. Levine had not entirely explained himself in that first
novelette, nor had his relationship with death been completely explored. From time
to time I thought about him, and slowly another story idea took rough shape in
my mind, but I didn't get around to writing it.

Then a different story took shape instead, a
further exploration of Abe Levine and the idea of death. What if he were faced
with a potential suicide, someone who wanted to throw away that which Levine
found most precious? Would Levine reject him, hate him, turn away from him? Or
would he try, desperately, compulsively, to convert the suicide to Levine's own
point of view? And if the latter, what would it mean? It was in June of l960,
fifteen months after Levine's birth, that I put him together with that man on
the ledge, in a story I titled (sensibly enough, I thought) "Man on a
Ledge," but which Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine published in October
of 1960 as (and here I think they were wrong) "Come Back, Come Back."

A sequel does not necessarily a series make.
Having used Levine twice, it would have been possible then to go directly to
that other story I'd thought of, work out the plot details, and have a true
series on my hands —if a short one —but still I hesitated, and then six months
later, in December of that year, with Christmas coming on, another permutation
in the on-going story of Levine and death occurred to me, and I wrote "The
Feel of the Trigger."

There are several things to say about
"The Feel of the Trigger." First, at last Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery
Magazine, which published the story in October of 1961, agreed with me on a
tide; it was published as "The Feel of the Trigger." Second, this
story probably shows at its peak the influence of Evan Hunter on my development
as a writer. He had run down these same alleys just a few years before me, had
worked for the same literary agency, published in the same or similar
magaizines. His 87th Precinct novels, as by Ed McBain, had started being
published just around the time I was first seriously trying to figure out how
to be a self-supporting writer. Naturally I read them. They were that rarity,
that near-impossibility, something new under the sun, and naturally I was
impressed by and influenced by them. I would not for a moment blame Evan Hunter
for "The Feel of the Trigger"; I would only say that a kind of
specificity of description and a particular method of entering the
protagonist's mind did not exist in my stories before I read Evan Hunter.

Sometimes poetic justice is comic; maybe we
should cadi it doggerel justice. At the time "The Feel of the
Trigger" was published, an 87th Precinct series was on television; the
only story of mine ever bought to be the basis of an episode in a television
series was "The Feel of the Trigger." It ran as an 87th Precinct
story on
February 26th, 1962
, with Meyer Meyer the character who was
worried about his heart condition. Unfortunately, I couldn't be home that
night, but a friend offered to tape the program for me. Remember, we're talking
about 1962, not 1982, and the tape he was talking about was sound. He did
record the program, and some time later I heard it, and my memory of it is of a
lot of footsteps and several doors being opened. Some day I'd like to see that

After three stories, there was no longer any
question in my mind that I had a series on my hands, but at that time I had no
idea what one did with a series. A story —any story —is about several different
things, at different levels. It is about its plot, for instance, but only in
the worst and most simplistic writers do specific plots repeat themselves often
enough to be termed a series. The repetition of characters makes a series, but
if the characters in the original story are tied to a theme or a concern or a
view of life that colors them and helps to create them, can they live in
stories that are irrelevant to that extra element? I don't think so, and I
think over the years there have been several'series characters
have been less than they might have been because their
later adventures never touched upon those thematic elements which had created
the character in the first place.

So if I was going to write another story about
Abe Levine, it would have to tie in with his relationship with death, his
attitude toward death, his virtual romance with death. Death fascinated Levine,
it summoned him and yet repelled him; how could I write a story about Abe
Levine without that element?

I couldn't. The series might have died
aborning right then, three stories in. I still didn't want to write the one for
which I'd had that rough idea, and no other story that included both the
character and the theme came to the surface of my brain. Goodbye, Abe.

It was, in fact, not quite a year before
another story came along that suited the character and the theme; and had the
potential as well to broaden both. It marked a real change in the stories,
since for the first time Levine was attacked directly in the area of his
weakness. He had been attacked before, as any policeman is liable to be
attacked, but in "The Sound of Murder" (my title, left unchanged,
hallelujah) Levine is attacked in a way specific to Levine, particular to the
character and particular to the theme. The generational element became more
obvious, though it had been there in some way since the first story. "The
Sound of Murder" took Abe Levine farther down the same road, and when I
finished it I wondered if I hadn't gone too far, if this most recent experience
might not have changed Levine too much, and made him someone no longer relevant
to his
An odd finish for a
character, if true.
(That did happen, as a matter of fact, a decade
later, to the hero of a series of mystery novels I'd written under the name of
Tucker Coe.)

That story, "The Sound of Murder,"
was written during a strangely sporadic period of my writing life. I had
written two mystery novels. The Mercenaries and Killing Time, published by
Random House, and in the summer of 1961 had started a third which I already
knew would be called 361, which is the numerical classification in Roget's
Thesaurus for "Murder, violent death." Random House did eventually
publish the book under that title, with a note in front explaining what the
tide meant, but they didn't do what
wanted, which
was to run, in the form of a frontispiece quote, the entire 361 listing from
the Thesaurus. Read it for yourself some time, and you'll see why I found it
striking and wanted to use it.

In any event, 361 was the coldest book
tried to write up to that time, a book in which the
first-person narrator would never once state his emotions, but in which the
emotions would have to be implied by the character's physic2d actions. It was
an easy mood to get into, but a hard book to write, and in the middle of it I
stopped and switched to another book entirely, one I'd been thinking about for
a while, a paperback-style tough guy novel in which the entire world would be
like my 361 hero; a world of unstated emotion and hard surfaces. That book was
finished in September of 1961, and was published in February of 1963 as The
Hunter (my title!) by Pocket Books, under the pen name Richard Stark, a name Fd
already used for a few of that spate of short stories from 1959.

Having finished The Hunter, I should have gone
back to finish 361, but I think I wasn't ready for two emotionless heroes in a
row, and that's when the idea for "The Sound of Murder" came bubbhng
to the surface. Levine is emotional, the Lord knows, and I notice that in this
story he even makes a point of his being emotional. It was written in October
of 1961 and published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in December of
1962. "The Sound of Murder" restored some juice to my brain, some
humanity, and made it possible for me to go on and finish 361.

Another idea for a Levine story had emerged at
the same time, fed by the same impulses, another permutation on Levine's
reaction to violent death, but that other story had seemed much more of a
problem and I'd chosen to ignore it. Not that it would have been a problem to
write, but that it might be a problem to publish. The first four Levine stories
had all appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, but the story I had in
mind seemed inappropriate for that market. Unfortunately, I couldn't think of
another publication more likely to find it useful, so I turned my back on it,
for as long as I could.

Which turned out to be seven
After four novelettes, after nearly forty thousand words, I had
grown to know and to like Abe Levine. The story I had in mind, which I was
calling "The Death of a Bum," was somehow the inevitable next step in
Levine's narrowing relationship with death. It was not, in the normal sense of
the word, a "mystery" story, which was why I knew Hitchcock's would
have trouble with it. Remove Levine from it and it wasn't a story at all; I had
written myself into a terrible corner, the one in which the character himself
has become the world in which the story is set. (A simpler and sillier example
of this is Batman. Somewhere around 1955, the evil activity most pursued by the
criminals in Batman became the uncovering of Batman's identity! If Batman
didn't exist, they wouldn't be criminals. In self-referential fiction, I can
think of no peer to Batman.)

BOOK: Westlake, Donald E - Novel 41
11.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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