“Hard Case Crime, April 2022: It’s Westlake!” by Matthew Sorrento

As the renown imprint presents the last unpublished novel by the author, it delivers one of his most unique and rewarding.

Though Westlake is a longtime favorite in crime fiction, a few years ago Harlan Ellison, in an interview for Nat Segaloff’s biography of the writer, A Lit Fuse, offered one of the best summations of Westlake’s importance, as a voice all writers should study to improve their own.[1] And while Stephen King has generously offered shorter novels to serve as tentpoles for Hard Case Crime, he does so to celebrate and support the other works from HCC, especially King favorite, Westlake. Hard Case fans will recognize the several Westlake titles, stemming back to their 2005 publication of his smooth and very even 361 from 1962, and other rediscoveries (published for the first time), Memory and The Comedy is Finished.

Hard Case’s 2019 reprint of his 1975 novel, Brothers Keepers, presented a rewarding example of the author’s range. Westlake described it as a crime novel sans crime and notes that it began as a story of “felonious monks” (his original working title) conceiving a robbery. Yet, the story went in another direction, as its creator fell in love with his central monk and moved him to an ordeal where redevelopers set sights on his centuries-old monastery, right in the middle of Manhattan. The monks fighting the removal show a micro community attached to an earlier time though they prove to be timeless outsiders, akin to Westlake’s cast company. Interacting with city life around them (and yes, the usual Westlake trip to the riches of Long Island occurs, with some more travel) offers a distinct treatment of built environment as it situates and molds the individual. Brothers’s new edition appeared in a series of varied novels by the author from Hard Case: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, a prison tale; Forever and a Death, a James Bond that never came to be; Castle in the Air, a heist full of mishap; and the continually enjoyable Double Feature (a pair of tales of murderous movieland just as Westlake would see it). And Brothers will stand out the strongest in memory, and for this writer vying with The Cutie (Hard Case 2009; originally published in 1960 as The Mercenaries) as a favorite by Westlake.

The new Westlake release from Hard Case, Call Me a Cab, an unpublished road novel from 1977 using a ticking clock, deviates even more than Brothers from the imprint’s usual output (and sadly, Hard Case publisher Charles Ardai says it’s the last of the unpublished Westlake novels). It’s a crimeless entry with some suspense and even more charm. The novel features Tom Fletcher, an NYC cabbie smarter and slicker than we’d expect. While the company is in his family, he shows street smarts from years on the job, and particularly with the ladies. More importantly – like the cabbie central to Westlake’s 1969 novel, Somebody Owes Me Money (published by Hard Case in 2009) – Tom makes us think of all those who plied the trade and their fascinating perspectives and stories, often untold.

Katharine, a local pickup for Tom, turns into a cross country ride. An executive, Katharine questions the marriage proposal she has received from Barry. With her situation, Westlake offers a rendition of a woman who, keeping her career first, may not be into the routine of commitment to which professional women are expected to adhere. The drive to LA, where she will meet Barry, serves as one long taste of freedom before deciding to commit to a man she clearly adores. The days-long journey is ideal for her to consider the options and for Westlake to explore them and the potential of Katharine and Tom together.

While something quite original for the author, the novel shows Westlake within his comfort zone….

A writer concerned so often with urban space and its connections the suburbs, Westlake taps into the US mythos of the Westward journey and its locales. As the two traverse the wild, the tale invokes the expanse narratives of yore (equally the Stephen Crane’s “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” and the demythologization of Dorothy M. Johnson’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”). In a post-boomer era, Westlake presents the two moving through stale commodity, with identical Holiday Inns along with way reliable but blandly familiar (contrasting to the detail of city hotels in other Westlakes) and fueled by McDonald’s when on the move. The novel finds ways to be picaresque, with Tom picking up a waitress while his multi-night tally (and buddying love interest) is across the hotel hall, and some rest stops, one in which a rural lodge (a stone’s throw from that ever-present hotel chain) appears rough-hewn in design and too much so in comfort.

While something quite original for the author, the novel shows Westlake within his comfort zone, pulling out clubs from his reliable golf bag of options. Though known as the master of comic crime, Call Me a Cab reminds us of his versatility. And while hardly a crime novel, the couple in transit exist on the periphery of society – during their journey, at least – like the common Westlake characters who find themselves in bleaker situations.

Endnote


[1] Ellison attempted to adapt Westlake’s 1964 story “Nackles” as his directorial debut for the revival of The Twilight Zone at CBS in the 1980s, a program for which he served as Creative Consultant. But when the network rejected the segment, Ellison resigned from the series.

Matthew Sorrento is Editor-in-chief of Retreats from Oblivion and Co-editor of Film International. A critic and poet, he teaches film and media studies at Rutgers University in Camden. His latest book is David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation (co-edited with David Ryan; FDU Press, December 2021).

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