Movie review: A Slight Case of Murder (1999), based on “A Travesty” by Donald Westlake

A Slight Case of Murder is a quite-faithful TV-movie adaptation of Donald Westlake’s novella, “A Travesty,” really, one of the most faithful adaptations of Westlake’s works that I’ve seen. Plenty of scenes and even lines are straight from the book.

The setup is the same–film critic Terry (Stacy in the book) Thorpe (William H. Macy) accidentally kills his girlfriend (well, one of them, anyway) during a fight when he pushes her and she splits her head on a coffee table. Seeing no reason that he should pay a price for an unfortunate accident that wasn’t really his fault, he endeavors to remove traces of his presence from her apartment and go about as if he had nothing to do with it. It can’t stay that simple, of course, as private investigator John Edgarson (James Cromwell) is on to Thorpe and wanting money in exchange for silence and police detective Fred Stapelli (Adam Arkin) is on the case.

A Slight Case of Murder handles Thorpe’s internal deliberations by having him break the fourth wall and speak to the audience, a device that works well and often quite humorously. Part of the fun of the novel is the process of Thorpe talking himself through whatever moral and other contortions will get him off the hook, and this captures that.

Macy is reliable as always as Thorpe and Cromwell is a hoot as Edgarson, but Adam Arkin is badly miscast as Fred Stapelli (Staples in the book). While staying entirely faithful to its source would have been impossible, this character’s deviation from the material does not work at all. In “A Travesty,” Staples is a happy-go-lucky, charming, likable, and perhaps slightly naive fellow. Stapelli is jaded and grumpy, which makes a critical scene where he plays cutesy with his wife crash and burn and reduces the audience’s sympathy for him when he is betrayed. It also greatly dilutes the impact of the ending.

Another big problem is the final act, which is rushed and unsatisfying. A successful landing would have elevated A Slight Case of Murder over typical TV fare, but instead we’re left with a decent film–the kind you watch on a rainy Sunday when it happens to be on cable and you have nothing else to do (or, as of this writing, when you’re quarantined due to coronavirus). Not bad, but not worth going out of your way to seek out.

Related posts

Review: Double Feature, part one – “A Travesty”

Review: Double Feature, part one – “A Travesty”

Cover of Double Feature by Donald Westlake

Note: Donald Westlake’s 1977 collection of two novellas, Enough, was recently reprinted by Hard Case Crime as Double Feature. As “A Travesty” is or is nearly novel-length, I will be reviewing the two novellas (the other being “Ordo”) individually.

What is the most Westlakeian of all of Donald Westlake’s works? Something that really captures the whole of him?

That’s probably impossible to answer, but let me submit “A Travesty” for your consideration.

“A Travesty” begins moments after the accidental murder of one Laura Penney by film critic, Carey Thorpe, our narrator and her part-time lover. Thorpe’s imagining of how the conversation with the police would go, if he were to allow such a conversation to happen, tells you much about the kind of guy Thorpe is:

“And you say you hit her?”

“Well, not that hard. She slipped on the floor, that’s all, and smacked her head on the coffee table.”

“As a result of you hitting her.”

“As a result of her polishing the goddam floor all the goddam time.”

Laura’s clean jagged style had, as a matter of fact, killed her more than anything else. What kind of bachelor girl apartment was this, with its hulking glass coffee table and chrome lamps and white vinyl chairs and bare black floor?

Thorpe goes about clearing the apartment of evidence of his presence there without an iota of guilt. Nothing to be done about poor Laura now, after all.

In a first chapter that could have been a standalone short story, Thorpe encounters the first hiccup in his plan to suffer no consequences. A private detective has been keeping tabs on Laura at the behest of her husband, and has put the pieces together. But he’s not an unreasonable man…

Without giving too much away, we go from here to Thorpe absurdly (but it doesn’t feel absurd) solving the murders of others with the police assigned to the Penney case while attempting to make certain they don’t solve the Penney murder, and ending up, fittingly enough for a film critic, in a variety of situations that could only happen in the movies.

So what makes “A Travesty” such pure, undiluted Westlake? We have a protagonist with nothing to recommend him as a human being–Thorpe is reprehensible on every moral level–and yet, darned if I didn’t find myself to some extent rooting for him to get with it (“it” eventually becoming much more than just the Penney murder, of course). It casts a satirical eye on society in the form of a cast of eminently mockable shallow New Yorkers who may not be murderers but most of whom don’t seem to care much more than Thorpe does about their fellow human beings. It’s got one clever turn after another, leading to a completely satisfying conclusion to a story where that seemed impossible just pages before. And it’s both dark and funny as hell.

So, while depending on tastes, I might recommend The Hunter or The Hot Rock to someone looking for an introduction to Donald Westlake, I also might very well recommend “A Travesty.” If there’s another work that captures the totality of DEW at his best, I can’t think of what it is. This Travesty is a triumph.

Trivia: “A Travesty” mentions A Sound of Distant Drums. This is a title used in several Westlake and Lawrence Block works (and some by others), usually as a fictional film. In “A Travesty,” it’s an upcoming release by murder victim and director Jim Wicker:

“New movie?” I tried to remember what I’d read in the trades recently about Jim Wicker. “Oh, that would be A Sound of Distant Drums, for Lanisch-Sanssky.”

Cover of Enough by Donald Westlake

 

The Paperback Warrior website and podcast

 

Greetings!

Those of you who follow the VWOP Twitter account have probably heard of Paperback Warrior. Paperback Warrior, as you can tell by the above image, is a website devoted to reviewing hard-boiled crime, mystery, men’s adventure, espionage, and western novels. Like the pulp novelists of yore, Eric and Tom crank ’em out, posting at least one new book review a day and often two.

The Paperback Warrior empire expanded in the middle of last year to encompass a weekly podcast, featuring a book review apiece from Tom and Eric, as well as discussion of authors and other topics of interest to vintage paperback fans.

Needless to say, Parker would have to be involved in such a site.

The most recent episode (#36) of the podcast discusses Max Allan Collins’ Parker pastiche, Nolan, and has some news about Nolan that I have not yet covered.

Episode #16 covers Parker himself, and includes some very kind words about this site. (Thanks, guys!)

Several of the Parker novels have been reviewed on the site, and you can see them here.

I urge you to check out both the site and the podcast (which is perfect for a commute at about half an hour per episode). There’s always something interesting, and it’s likely to send you off hunting for treasure at whatever used bookstores are still around you or on eBay or Advanced Book Exchange.

Enjoy!

Book review: A Stab in the Dark by Lawrence Block (Matthew Scudder #4)

A Stab in the Dark

Nine years ago, the Icepick Prowler terrorized the boroughs of New York City. Eight murders were attributed to him, but when, in a lucky break, he is caught, he only confesses to seven of the killings, and has an unshakable alibi for the eighth.

The eighth victim was a young woman named Barbara Ettinger. With the police not much interested in a very cold nine-year-old murder case, Barbara’s father, Charles London, turns to Matthew Scudder for help.

People reading the series in order will know what to expect by this point (this is not meant as a negative). Scudder’s probing has him talking to and investigating the friends, family members, and acquaintances of Mrs. Ettinger, uncovering secrets and connections.

Scudder’s investigation is hampered by two problems. First, he finds that there are people who most likely had nothing to do with the murder who do not want the murder investigated for fear of what else the investigation may reveal. Scudder is even fired from the case but continues to investigate:

“When you open up a can of worms you can’t just decide to stuff the worms back in the can. There are a lot of things set in motion and I want to see where they lead. I’m not going to stop now.”

It is likely that Scudder’s belligerence and stubbornness in this instance are fueled by alcohol, Scudder’s second problem. Scudder was a heavy drinker when we began this series in The Sins of the Fathers, and in In the Midst of Death, Scudder could maybe just barely still be called a functional alcoholic. His descent continues in A Stab in the Dark, as his behavior becomes more erratic and his decision-making suffers. He hasn’t hit rock bottom yet, but there is little doubt as to his direction. And this time, Scudder pays a price for his addiction beyond the usual and expected hangovers.

A Stab in the Dark is a return to form for Lawrence Block and Matthew Scudder after the disappointing mess of In the Midst of Death. Indeed, it in some ways feels like an apology for or correction of the previous entry. When Scudder improbably breaks the case, the solution feels like a revised and improved version of the slapdash ending of the previous novel, changing the ridiculous to the possible with a full explication of why cases are sometimes cracked this way. Matthew Scudder may be going off the rails, but Lawrence Block is back on track.

VWOP Ordo movie giveaway – with a couple of catches (read carefully!)

The Donald Westlake novella Ordo was recently reprinted as part of the two-fer Double Feature for Hard Case Crime (a look at that volume is coming soon).

Did you know there was a movie based on Ordo? It’s a French film from 2004.

It’s fairly expensive in its US edition, but I found a cheap used DVD from France. I have a region-free DVD player, so I gambled that it would have English subtitles. Alas, it does not.

So I’m giving it away. To claim it, you must:

  • Speak French.
  • Have a player that can play Region 2 DVDs. So you will either have to be one of our European readers, or have a region-free player. A regular USA DVD or Blu-ray player will not play it.

You can e-mail me if you’d like it, or hit me up on Twitter. If there are multiple requests, I’ll draw a name.

And I guess I’ll have to find another means of seeing Ordo <grumble>.

News for week ending 2020-03-14 (open thread)

A slow week, but a couple of items of interest.

Off-topic

Over at my side blog, I’ve got a brief look at the awful German comedy western Manitou’s Shoe. Never heard of it? If you’re lucky, you never will again. https://trentofftopic.com/2020/03/12/movie-review-manitous-shoe-der-schuh-des-manitu-2001/

On a more substantive note, “A psychology of my music listening; or, why I’m going to write a bunch of album reviews.

Book review (take two): In the Midst of Death by Lawrence Block (Matthew Scudder #3)

Note: I wrote a rather perfunctory review of this years back. One problem then was I that I listened to the audio book, so was unable to flip back and forth. I’m reading the Scudder series in order at the moment and revisited this one, so here is an updated review. It’s more negative. Spoilers!

A police whistleblower has his halo not just tarnished but trashed when he is accused of extortion by a high-class call girl. Claiming innocence and knowing he is being targeted by a furious police force angry at their dirty laundry being revealed, he hires Scudder to get to the bottom of things. Before Scudder gets too far into it, the call girl is murdered.

After two terrific Matthew Scudder novels, The Sins of the Fathers and Time to Murder and Create, Lawrence Block stumbles with the third, In the Midst of Death. Block’s skill with writing will keep you turning the pages, but the book is a mess.

Nothing leads to revealing the killer’s identity other than Scudder’s instinct. There aren’t clues, there’s no foreshadowing, nothing. Something just clicks in his head and, voila!, he’s right!

There’s a ridiculous sex scene that leads to an attempted romance where the lovers talk of the moon and such. We are supposed to buy that this is more than a romance of convenience, but it’s difficult to believe that it’s a romance at all.

For the second novel in a row, Scudder pressures someone into suicide, and in the same way. You’d think Scudder would have learned after the first time. Why is nearly the exact same situation in two books in a row? In Time to Murder and Create, Scudder at least felt guilty about it, but this time out, he doesn’t really care.

In fact, Scudder bears partial responsibility for two deaths in this book. Scudder, who apparently has never read a mystery, doesn’t realize that if someone involved in a murder case is furiously trying to get in touch with you and you purposely avoid responding, that person will end up dead. This death doesn’t concern him much, either.

Throw in a plot hole with a major loose thread wrapped around it, add in some really awkward attempts at humor, and you’ve got a mess on your hands.

The last few pages are poignant, but that is not enough to salvage In the Midst of Death. If you are sampling the series rather than reading it in order, you are safe to skip this one. If you are reading the series in order, it’s short, at least not boring, and is important in tracking Scudder’s further descent into alcoholism, so go ahead and plow through it. Just don’t try to make sense of it.

Have no fear. Block and Scudder will right the ship, and soon.

Other posts in this series

News for week ending 2020-03-07

Greetings! Here are some items of interest from the past week.

From The Westlake Review–Existential Question: Will There Ever be Another Donald Westlake?

Todd Mason at Sweet Freedom drew attention on Twitter to a couple of pieces on Westlake from his archives:

Off-topic

I have revived my occasional blog of reviews of movies, books, and music not related to Parker, Donald Westlake, or crime fiction. Although I mostly write there, often quite quickly and sloppily, to amuse myself and as a diary of some of the things I watch, read, and listen to, it is viewable by all. I know you care about my opinion on everything (right?), so if you would like to read it, it’s at trentofftopic.com. This week I have a short review of the new H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, The Color Out of Space.

Content is pretty scant there at the moment, but it will get beefier pretty quickly as I port over scribblings I’m not too embarrassed of from other fora.

I also set up a separate Twitter feed for the same topics: @trentofftopic. If you are reading this and move quickly, you could become my first Twitter follower!

Have a great week! And remember, if you see something you think might be of interest to VWOP readers, I can be easily reached via Twitter or e-mail.

 

Review: Time to Murder and Create by Lawrence Block (Matthew Scudder #2)

Small-time crook “Spinner” Jablon hits it big running a blackmail racket. He’s got dirt on three people, who become the three prime suspects when he’s found in the river. Matthew Scudder had been given the evidence by Spinner, just in case that happened.

Why Scudder?: “Why I think you’ll follow through,” says Spinner, “is something I noticed about you a long time ago, namely that you happen to think there is a difference between murder and other crimes.” And Spinner is, of course, correct.

The second Matthew Scudder novel following the stunning The Sins of the Fathers does not pack the wallop of that classic, but few novels do. However, it’s an entirely worthy follow-up. Block’s extraordinary skill with character development is on full display as Scudder crashes into the lives of the three suspects, only one of whom is likely to be guilty–at least of the crime Scudder is investigating.

Block continues to develop Scudder’s moral compass in Time to Murder and Create, and it’s often a broken one. Scudder is barely interested if at all in bringing justice to a situation that’s nearly as reprehensible as murder, likely leaving the reader a little, or a lot, queasy.

The ending of Time to Murder and Create is ultimately unsatisfying–not because of a failure of writing, but because in life, endings often are.

Posts in this series

News for week ending 2020-02-29 (open thread)

Here are some items of interest from my first week back.

  • Clive Cussler dead at 88: 
  • Brian Cronin at Comic Book Resources: Darwyn Cooke Perfectly Melded the Worlds of DC and Richard Stark Together. It’s a look at Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score, Cooke’s precursor to his Parker adaptations. 
  • Dean Koontz has a new series called “Nameless,” published by Amazon. “His latest project is a bit of a throwback to the Parker novels by Donald E. Westlake (writing as Richard Stark): short, gritty crime stories with a no-nonsense protagonist. In one scene, Koontz even drops the name ‘Alan Grofield,’ a recurring character in Parker’s capers.”I hope to check out this series soon.
  • James Davis Nicoll at Tor has an introduction to the Dortmunder series: 
  • CrimeReads has an exclusive excerpt from Double Feature, the new Hard Case Crime volume featuring two Donald Westlake novellas. 

That’s it for this week! If you come across something that might be of interest to fellow Westlake and crime fiction fans, feel free to send it my way via e-mail or Twitter.