Sunday, August 19, 2012

Why I love Donald Westlake's Trust Me On This (and you should too), by Alan David Doane

Writing as Richard Stark, Donald Westlake created some of the most ice-cold, supercool crime novels ever, the Parker series of heist procedurals about a sociopathic criminal who cares for virtually no one, but has a commitment to his work that is breathtaking to behold.

You can get something of a feel for the world of Parker in the graphic novel adaptations by Darwyn Cooke, or the movies that have been made from the books like Point Blank with Lee Marvin, but really,
Westlake’s Parker novels are best experienced in their purest state – by reading them all, in order. By the last handful, Westlake’s prose has become staggeringly economical, even as Parker has developed in some unexpected but fairly logical ways.

But Parker’s world isn’t the only one
Westlake explored. He wrote many novels, under his own name, as Richard Stark and under other pseudonyms. Probably my most favourite Westlake novel, published as part of the Hard Case Crime series of novels (perhaps the most consistently excellent genre fiction imprint ever), is Memory. A heartbreaking narrative about a brain damaged man who has a life to return to, but over the course of the novel he forgets more and more of that life until all that lies ahead of him is an unrewarding life of almost incomprehensible bleakness. The joy of reading Memory is the confidence with which it’s written and the level of detail Westlake injects into the story about the day to day life of the protagonist.

Not all Westlake’s work has blown me away, however – the Parker novels inspired a sort of comedic parallel series about a thief  named Dortmunder, and as with some of the other Westlake writing I have encountered, these novels are too tongue-in-cheek for me to be able to immerse myself in them.

Sometimes Westlake’s sense of humour works for me, though, and that’s the case with the most recent Westlake novel I have read, Trust Me On This. Written in the 1980s, and discovered by me hidden away deep in the stacks of crime novels in a used bookstore in upstate New York (and priced at a reasonable four dollars for a used but not abused hardcover copy), Trust Me On This focuses on a young woman who aspires to be a journalist, but somehow finds herself working for The Weekly Galaxy, a very thinly-disguised stand-in for The National Enquirer.

The Galaxy is located at the end of a long, empty, sun-battered stretch of road in
Florida, and on Sara’s first day, she drives by the scene of a murder. A dead man lies half-in, half-out of his car, a bullet in his brain. She continues on to The Galaxy, reports what she’s seen to the guard at the front gate, and then nearly forgets what happened as she is immediately tasked with one crazy tabloid newspaper story after another, until somehow she begins to suspect that there’s more to that roadside murder scene than she suspected, especially given that neither the police nor anyone else at all has any idea what she is talking about. It’s as if the murder never happened, so far as she can determine.

Of course eventually she finds out the truth, but the murder is almost a subplot to Westlake’s primary concerns in Trust Me, which are to lay out in loving and very funny detail the personalities and activities of an incredibly diverse, jaded and bizarre group of writers, reporters, editors and one seriously intimidating and iconoclastic publisher.

Westlake walks a fine line between satire and slapstick in Trust Me On This. A long sequence late in the novel involving the family of a recently deceased country music superstar strains the boundaries of credulousness, but does not violate them. On the other hand, a sequence in which Sara has to go to great pains to fraudulently report on the birthday party of 100-year-old twins after one of them inconveniently expires a few hours before the party, is hilarious in both its circumstances and the detail to which Westlake lays out Sara’s desperate conniving.

There’s even a bit of romance that flowers between Sara and her editor, who strongly suspects the wool may have been pulled over his eyes vis a vis that birthday party, and the love story between Sara and Jack provides both a solid ramp-up to the unexpectedly violent conclusion, and the hilarity of the novel’s final pages, in which we see just how much Sara has learned about the batshit crazy industry into which she has been welcomed.

Trust Me On This isn’t the greatest crime novel ever; despite murder, attempted murder, and other crimes and misdemeanors, the narrative is far more concerned with establishing characters and seeing what happens when they set out to fulfill the weird and often unethical or outright illegal assignments they get from The Galaxy. Westlake keeps the reader grounded and engaged by mainly concerning himself with Sara and her character arc, but pretty much everybody in the novel gets at least one good, funny line that plays off of the increasingly strange goings on, The funniest sequence in the entire book comes very late indeed, when a police officer betrays editor Jack’s trust. Jack’s response made me laugh out loud, which novels almost never make me do, and also revealed even more about Jack’s character than we had previously suspected.

Westlake’s strengths as a writer, and they are legion, the biggest weapon in his arsenal across every genre he worked in was his ability to create believable characters and then show us their lives. In Trust Me On This, the writer allows us to invest in people (tabloid newspaper writers and editors) generally regarded as beneath contempt. I won’t say he makes us glad such people exist, but he does humanize Sara, and Jack and the rest, and he does allow us to see into an off-kilter world of parallel-universe small-j journalism where you can believe jogging causes nymphomania, or beer and potato chips can help you lose weight. The novel was written and published at the height of popularity for newspapers like The National Enquirer, and Westlake was no doubt all fired up about revealing the dirty secrets of how such trash publications plied their seedy trade. He wrote Trust Me On This with passion and great humour, and a couple of decades on it’s still a fun and compelling read, and an interesting side-road off of the main highway of what we think of as Westlake’s stock-in-trade, the hard-boiled crime novel.     


Alan David Doane was the first person to say nice things about this blog, and even though the baffling popularity of Geoff Johns' comics and the whole Before Watchmen thing has almost driven him to justified despair,  he just started doing his link blog again. Hooray!


Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

Nice review – and nice to see my pic of the UK edition being put to good use! I liked Trust Me on This a lot, and wrote about it here.

William Burns said...

In case you don't know, there's a sequel, Baby Would I Lie?, that's not quite as good but still worth reading.