Westlake on Rabe: Murder Me for Nickels & Anatomy of a Killer

NB: A version of this post also appears at Existential Ennui.

In his 1989 essay on Peter Rabe for the critical anthology Murder off the Rack, Donald E. Westlake identified two distinct periods during which, Westlake reckoned, Rabe produced his best work. The first came at the start of Rabe’s career, encompassing the five books from Stop This Man! (1955) to Kill the Boss Good-by (1956). The second—also encompassing five books—began in 1959 and comprised the final Daniel Port novel, Time Enough to Die, along with My Lovely Executioner (1960), The Box (1962), and the final two novels I’ll be blogging about in this current run of Rabe posts: Murder Me for Nickels and Anatomy of a Killer (both 1960).

Only the second of Rabe’s novels to be narrated in the first person (the first being the aforementioned My Lovely Executioner), for Westlake Murder Me for Nickels was “absolutely unlike anything that [Rabe] had done before . . . as sprightly and glib as My Lovely Executioner was depressed and glum.” Westlake isn’t alone in appreciating the merits of the novel, either: it’s also a particular favorite of Westlake aficionado and The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson, who has called it “marvelously sardonic.” And the Gold Medal original—this copy of which I found at the last-but-one London Paperback & Pulp Bookfair—boasts one of the best covers ever to grace a Peter Rabe book, by the great Robert McGinnis.

But for anyone looking for the single Rabe novel that perhaps exerted the greatest influence on Westlake, especially on his pseudonymous Parker series, I’d still point to Anatomy of a Killer. I blogged about this one two years ago, in its original hardback edition—published, as Westlake puts it in his essay, by “a penny-ante outfit called Abelard-Schuman”—that post later appearing in an altered form over here. In order to demonstrate the similarities between Anatomy and the Parkers I quoted extensively from the opening of the novel, and would you Adam and Eve it that’s precisely what Westlake does too, sampling the exact same passage—including the opening “When”—and labeling the novel “as cold and clean as a knife.”

The copy seen here is the British paperback edition, published by Panther in 1962 as part of their Crime Circle line. The cover art is uncredited and I can’t make out the signature, but around this time Panther had a habit of taking cover art from often random and unrelated American paperbacks and reusing it, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that this artwork is lifted from a completely different book.

UPDATE: Over on Existential Ennui Ray Garraty quickly identified the original book the cover art was taken from as Harry Whittington’s 1959 novel Strange Bargain, as seen on Killer Covers. No word as yet on cover artist though.

I do have a handful of other Peter Rabe paperbacks to blog about, dating from the mid-1960s to the early ’70s, but Westlake doesn’t have much to say about those in his essay, so I think I’ll save them for another time. But I will be taking a look at one last Rabe book over on Existential Ennui—an atypical entry in his canon that has a special significance for me right now . . .

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