Forever and a Death by Donald E. Westlake
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is one of the more intriguing back stories to a novel being released years after an author’s death that you’ll ever hear. Back in the ‘90s Donald Westlake worked up an outline to a James Bond movie that would have been the follow up to Goldeneye, but for various Hollywood reasons the studio went in a different direction. Westlake then reworked those basic ideas into a novel he stuck in a drawer that Hard Case Crime is now publishing almost ten years after his death.
The book focuses on a dastardly plot put in motion by Richard Curtis who made a fortune in Hong Kong when the British ruled it, but who was pushed out in the cold when the Chinese took over in 1997. An engineer named George Manville has been helping Curtis by developing a brilliant technique to clear land, but he doesn’t realize Curtis’ true intentions for his work until an accident involving a young woman diver working for an environmental group brings his plan to light.
Once you know the background it’s very easy to pick out the elements that could have been used in a Bond flick. A powerful man with an elaborate scheme is the most obvious piece, and he employs a couple of henchmen in the book who you could certainly see as the heavies going against 007. The characters move through several countries like Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong over the course of the book. There’s even a segment where Manville is held hostage in very posh circumstances instead of being handcuffed to a chair or just killed outright which is another very Bondian thing.
However, it’s also clear that Westlake was working very hard not to get sued because there’s actually no James Bond character in this. Manville seems like he might be the guy for a while, but over the course of the book it turns into more of an ensemble story with multiple characters playing important roles. So while it seems like he thought his general idea was good enough to use on it’s own he didn’t go the cheap and obvious route of just creating a knock-off version of Bond to use as the hero.
There’s also a great afterwords by Jeff Kleeman who was the production company executive and Westlake fan who brought him onto the Bond project originally. He provides a very interesting account of the whole story as well as why it didn’t come to pass which was mainly due to nervousness about basing a story on the Hong Kong handover which had some tricky political ramifications. Maybe the most interesting bit of trivia that comes out of it is that Donald Westlake apparently was actually in a Bond movie once as an extra riding in a car during a chase scene in Live & Let Die which filmed in New York back in the early ‘70s.
Overall, it’s a pretty entertaining story although it’s far from my favorite thing that I’ve read by him. Westlake couldn’t quite bring himself to go all in on his comic book premise, and the rest of the book reads more like one of his standard novels so it’s got a bit of an odd tone to it. Kleeman points out in the afterwards that it seems like if the story had shifted a bit in one direction it could be a Parker novel, or if Westlake had gone a slightly different way it could also be one of his Dortmunder farces.
That keeps it from being one of Westlake’s best books, but it’s certainly an entertaining curiosity and well worth a look for any fans of his work or the Bond franchise.
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