The Hook, Donald E. Westlake

Mysterious Press, 2000, 280 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-89296-588-6

If there’s one field that writers know pretty well, it’s publishing. No surprise there: It’s their job, really. But knowing it well doesn’t mean liking it… From time to time, it’s not uncommon to see a few authors turn their vengeful pens toward New York and have a little fun. Like screenwriters scorned by Hollywood, bitter authors can be quite mean when they allow themselves to be (pure passive-aggressive build-up, methinks) and the results can be spectacular.

Okay, okay, so “spectacular” isn’t the first word to come to mind whenever one thinks about Donald E. Westlake’s quiet and nasty tale The Hook. But in its own way, it’s a savage parody-through-extremes of problems facing authors today and how two sufficiently desperate writers might be pushed to wholly unsuitable acts in order to escape them.

The hook -or initial appeal of this novel- is in telling how a chance encounter between two old friends results in a curious bargain. One is a best-selling writer with an impregnable writer’s block. The other is an inspired writer who doesn’t sell. Their mutual problems naturally suggest an acceptable solution. But there’s only one detail; the soon-to-be-ghostwriter must murder the bestselling author’s soon-to-be-ex-wife.

I know, I know; I didn’t find it any more credible than you do. But I believe that every writer must be given some indulgence when it comes to an initial setup and so I let it go. This being said, it didn’t help that the wife of the would-be murdered essentially says “oh, that’s nice” and agrees with her husband’s intentions.

The actual crime, when it happens, is brutal and swift, as unexpected as it is fatal. Maybe the most shocking thing, though, is how well the murderer recovers afterward, easily rationalizing it and pocketing the check.

Indeed, the whole novel does seem to whistle back from the abyss and settle down in a far more pedestrian narrative about publishing, ghostwriting and life in New York. The most affected character comes to be the best-selling writer, who has more and more difficulty dealing with his false new success even as his writer’s block worsens. The Hook is blackly comic in its insider’s view of late-nineties publishing, where the computers can kill an author’s career through simple pre-order calculations and where pseudonyms are the only way out of a vicious circle.

You might be forgiven for almost forgetting about the crime; but at least one of our characters doesn’t, and that leads us directly to a conclusion that doesn’t reveal its true viciousness until the very last line.

At first, I had serious misgivings about that ending: “Aww, that sucks, that’s mean, that’s just not right, why’d you do that”, etc. But the more I thought about it, the more I found myself accepting, and then grinning at the appropriateness of it. The Hook isn’t, as much as we might be lulled into it, a fun little inside joke on writers. At heart (at its dark, beating, diseased heart…), The Hook remains a dark crime story, and you might even argue that the entire second half is meant to lull you into a false sense of security. It actually works better as, um, a hooking conclusion than if the entire novel had been a parade of ever-gruesome serial murders.

It’s a short book, too short to be worthwhile in hardcover but well worth the (short) reading time on the beach. The Hook‘s take on the realities of modern writing and publishing is depressing, but darkly amusing and pretext to some really good insider’s dirt on the mechanics of the industry. Avid readers (is there a mystery genre fan who isn’t an avid reader?) will gobble it up.

If all else fails, consider the cover illustration of the book, a stack of books by Donald E. Westlake all titled The Hook. It gets funnier, of course, when you know that Donald E. Westlake is no stranger to multiple pseudonyms himself…

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