Hard Case Crime review: Forever and a Death by Donald E. Westlake (HCC-129)

The Bond That Never Was.

Two decades ago, the producers of the James Bond movies hired legendary crime novelist Donald E. Westlake to come up with a story for the next Bond film. The plot Westlake dreamed up – about a Western businessman seeking revenge after being kicked out of Hong Kong when the island was returned to Chinese rule – had all the elements of a classic Bond adventure, but political concerns kept it from being made. Never one to let a good story go to waste, Westlake wrote an original novel based on the premise instead – a novel he never published while he was alive.

Now, nearly a decade after Westake’s death, Hard Case Crime is proud to give that novel its first publication ever, together with a brand new afterword by one of the movie producers describing the project’s genesis, and to give fans their first taste of the Westlake-scripted Bond that might have been.

Richard Curtis is an angry man. Formerly a billionaire, and believed by most to still be such due to a rigorous putting on of appearances, he is, in fact, broke. He finds this humiliating, and he blames the Chinese, specifically their takeover of Hong Kong from the British in 1997, for this humiliation. He intends to get his revenge, and in the process, become rich again.

Unwittingly aiding in this scheme is engineer George Manville. Using a process involving seawater and an oscillating wave called a soliton, he believes he is helping to turn an abandoned island that was controlled by the Japanese in World War II and mostly made of landfill into a stable and flat island that can then be turned into a high-end resort.

On hand to oppose this transformation is the radical environmental group Planetwatch and one of their leaders, Jerry Deidrich, who believe that the process of transforming unstable landfill into stable earth will harm the coral reef. In the process of trying to sabotage the transformation, one of Planetwatch’s members, Kim Baldur, dives into the ocean near the island believing that this will force Curtis to stop the process, as she would almost certainly be killed if the process went forward. However, the process cannot be stopped. Her body is fished out of the water and ends up on Curtis’ boat, the Mallory. This tragedy is her fault, and Curtis cannot be held liable as he was cleared by the relevant authorities for his project.

However, it turns out that there is still some life left in that body. This presents a problem for Curtis, as it throws a wrench in his larger plan–to loot the gold stored in the banks of Hong Kong before using the soliton process to get his revenge by flattening Hong Kong the same way he flattened the abandoned island. But perhaps that problem can be taken care of…

* * *

It needs to be made clear from the outset that Hard Case Crime’s latest posthumous Donald Westlake novel, Forever and a Death (titled in manuscript form as Fall of the City) is in no way a James Bond book. Judging by a lot of the reader reviews I’ve seen, many people believed that Donald Westlake wrote a screenplay for a Bond movie, then changed the name of James Bond and a few other traits and novelized the never-made film.

That is not at all the case. Instead, as detailed in an afterword by United Artist employee Jeff Kleeman, Westlake was approached to possibly script a Bond film to follow GoldenEye. Westlake wrote a couple treatments that were rejected for a variety of reasons, and the studio eventually went with what became Tomorrow Never Dies.

Westlake then took certain elements of the treatments–the Hong Kong setting, a wealthy construction magnate, an environmentalist organization, the soliton, some others–and incorporated them into a very different creation that ended up as Forever and a Death. Engineer George Manville is no super-agent James Bond. Anyone expecting Bond under another name will be severely disappointed.

Unfortunately, those who don’t come in with that expectation are likely to be disappointed as well, because unlike HCC’s other posthumous Westlake publications, Memory and The Comedy is Finished, both of which are excellent, Forever and a Death isn’t a very good book. For starters, it’s way too long, with way too many pages spent with people running hither and thither or hiding out in this place or that. Its 444 pages is probably about 150 too many from the guy who could write something as lean and mean as The Hunter. It is often something that a Westlake book almost never is–boring.

This is a shame for a few reasons. First, there are the bones of a good thriller in Forever and a Death, and trimmed of its dross, it could have been a lot of fun. I have no knowledge of this, but I speculate that Westlake was trying to write for the doorstop-sized thriller market that has been plaguing us since at least The Hunt for Red October.

Also, there is the occasional great Westlakeian description or turn of phrase to remind you of why you love DEW so much to begin with, and I couldn’t help but wish that they had popped up in a better novel.

I’m also concerned that Forever and a Death may be many 007 fans’ first exposure to the world of Donald Westlake. If so, it is likely to be their last. And that would be the biggest shame.

Our coverage of Forever and a Death will return…