Review: Fall of the City

(an unpublished novel by Donald E. Westlake)

July 31, 2016

I recently became aware of a manuscript for Donald E. Westlake's unpublished novel Fall of the City being kept at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center in Boston, Massachusetts. Being something of a Westlake completist, I made inquiries about viewing it. It took several weeks of negotiations, but I was finally granted access.

The novel's origins lie in two story treatments Westlake wrote in 1995 in collaboration with James Bond producer Michael G. Wilson for the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. Neither treatment was used in the completed film, but Westlake was still fascinated by the idea he had come up with, and the research he had done concerning his Bond villain's villainous scheme, and he incorporated those ideas into this book — which is in no way, shape, or form a spy novel.

These were Westlake's original typewritten pages, 610 in all, with his handwritten edits and white-outed corrections (which were kind of a thrill to behold). I had to wear white cotton gloves to handle all materials.

On top of the novel proper there were a series of newspaper articles about Hong Kong that Westlake apparently used for research, as well as story and character notes in Westlake's cramped hand. In addition, there's a dispiriting letter from Westlake's agent, Knox Burger, in response to the novel in question. Dated August 10, 1998, the letter begins:

"I am nonplussed by this Asian novel. I know you were entranced by your research into the Hong Kong landfill situation when you contemplated using it for the setting of a Bond film, but your novel is so different from any of the multifarious kinds of stories we've come to expect from you that I'm stumped."

First of all, I'm perplexed by Burger's description of Fall of the City as "this Asian novel." The three settings are Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong — two thirds of which are admittedly in Asia, but that's hardly the point of the novel. If you called Westlake's The Score "this North Dakotan novel," I'd suspect that you hadn't read it. Secondly, loosely translated, Burger seems to be saying, "This isn't like your other stuff, and that makes my job harder."

Burger has more reservations:

"Maybe it's so plot-driven that you just didn't want to devote your usual attention to shaping three-dimensional people."

Ouch (and also: bullshit). Knox tells Westlake that his opinions are shared by his reader, Pamela Malpas, a discriminating fan of Westlake's past work, Knox assures him. (I looked her up. She has since become an agent herself.) Malpas undoubtedly read the manuscript somewhat more carefully and offered up her summary and recommendations before Knox even looked at the thing.

Knox isn't done twisting the knife. He concludes:

"I have a few specific notes I'll spare you now… Despite my misgivings, which are obviously serious, I can forward your manuscript to Bill."

I'm not sure who Bill is — presumably Westlake's editor at the time, but I don't necessarily believe that Burger has more specific notes. This letter is clearly designed to discourage further discussion or action, and discourage it did. Westlake's response, written four days later on Mystery Writer's of America stationery, begins:

"I see that Friday the 13th was on a Thursday this month, as Walt Kelly used to say."

He follows this up immediately with:

"Well, no. I don't want it to go to Bill."

For Westlake, the final nail in the coffin was likely that his wife didn't much like it either: "Abby, in gentler terms, agrees with you." (And no, Knox Burger had not been particularly gentle.) Westlake seems dispirited as he distills the bulk of the criticism he has received:

"If I may draw the comments to their essence, the book is dull."

He seems ready to throw in the towel:

"Abby thinks the cutting of a hundred pages of hemming and hawing would help, but then what? I think it's attic-ready right now."

Nevertheless, he does indicate that he's seeking a second opinion:

"Jackie Farber [an editor at Delacorte Press] has agreed to give me a commercial opinion, which I'll wait for. Then decide whether it's a real thing or practice."

There's no record in the archive of Westlake's correspondence with Jackie Farber regarding Fall of the City, but if that exchange did indeed occur, it was evidently no less discouraging.

Westlake concludes his letter with a final self-reproach:

"This is a cuckoo's egg in my nest, you know. The fact that I planted it three myself is not ad rem."

In other words, I should stick to stuff people expect from me (which, again: bullshit, but nevertheless, advice Westlake largely followed for the rest of his career).

Well, then.

That's not an auspicious introduction to a 610-page novel that I'd have to read in one sitting if I wanted to read it at all. But now having read it (in one seven-hour sitting), I have to say I disagree with much of the above.

First of all, I don't believe Knox Burger gave it a serious read. None of his comments are very specific, and I think he's likely cribbing from his reader's notes. He also writes: "Maybe I was hoping for Kahawa and got brought up short when I encountered a sort of Sam Holt book," which is so far off the mark that I have a hard time believing he read it at all.

Second of all, the book is far from dull. It's far-fetched in spots, and has a couple of narrative hiccups that likely would have been addressed in a second draft, but it's a dandy adventure with memorable characters, and fully publishable in its present form.

What follows is a detailed summary of the first third of the book (set in Australia), followed by a light summary (with far fewer spoilers) of the last two-thirds (set in Singapore and Hong Kong). My hope is that readers of this review will someday get to read the novel in full.

The first sentence of the novel sets the scene:

"The silver helicopter sped eastward under a clear blue sky, low over the Coral Sea."

The helicopter, emblazoned with the initials "RC," is owned by the novel's villain, who may have started out in Westlake's imagination as a Bond villain (his evil plan is very Bond villain-esque), but he is ultimately (of course) an archetypal Westlake character. Richard Curtis, owner of the initials and the helicopter and almost everything that can be seen from the helicopter, is an American billionaire developer on his way to a new concern off the coast of Australia. He's bought Kanowit Island, a small land mass that falls under the governance of Australia but which is far enough into international waters that he can build a casino resort there (a premise swiped from Westlake's own The Handle — if you're gonna steal, you might as well steal from the best).

The island was occupied during WWII by the Japanese, who honeycombed it with tunnels and other structures that would be complicated and expensive to demolish and develop on top of. However, Curtis's engineer, George Manville, has devised a "solition" ("a self-reinforcing solitary wave," according to Wikipedia) that will be created via carefully executed underwater explosions that will trigger a destructive tidal wave, demolishing all of the structures on the island in one fell swoop.

The detonation process is complicated by the arrival of a ship belonging to Planetwatch, a Greenpeace-esque organization who believe that the planned explosions will damage the coral reef. This particular chapter of Planetwatch is led by Jerry Diedrich, who has an unexplained and single-minded obsession with Richard Curtis that seems to far exceed any environmental concerns. Communicating via radio, Jerry informs Curtis that his party will be making its way towards Kanowit Island, so the solition had better be called off.

Urgently responding, Curtis's ship captain, a mild-mannered Chinese man named Zhang Yung-tsien, informs Jerry that the detonation cannot be called off, that the explosions are on timers, and that anyone approaching Kanowit Island will almost certainly be killed. Jerry counters that Curtis must be bluffing, that there has to be a fail-safe switch.

While Zhang and Jerry argue, a member of Jerry's crew, Kim Baldur, takes matters into her own hands and dives off the Planetwatch ship in full scuba gear. Kim is a familiar Westlake character: a young woman whose biggest fear is that she'll live an uninteresting life, settling into a boring job and/or marriage before she's done anything at all of note — hence her impulsive (and ill-advised) leap into the unknown.

It's ill-advised because Zhang isn't lying. There is no fail-safe switch. The explosion is about to happen and there's nothing to be done to stop it. And then it happens: The explosions occur. Engineer George Manville has done his work well. The structures on the island are demolished; the coral reef is unharmed. Kim is likely dead.

Curtis threatens Jerry and his ship with violence if they don't leave immediately. This is private property and they're trespassing. A distraught Jerry leaves, comforted by his stoic German lover, Luther.

Meanwhile, back on Richard Curtis's ship, Curtis is actually pleased by the latest turn of events. It seems that Jerry Diedrich has been obsessed by him for years, hounding his every move, turning up at every new venture before it's even been made public (like today, for instance). Clearly, Jerry has a spy in Curtis's organization, but he'll worry about that later. Curtis is frankly mystified by Jerry's obsession. "Most of that Planetwatch crowd is off doing something about the ozone layer or some fucking thing," he muses to George Manville, his engineer, "but he's got them convinced it's a crusade and I'm the evil tycoon that has to be brought down."

And Curtis really can't have someone following him around. He's planning a hugely illegal and destructive act, and Diedrich's inevitable presence could potentially disrupt his plans.

But now, with a Planetwatch volunteer dead under Jerry Diedrich's command, Curtis can tie Diedrich up in Australia's court system for a few months while he goes off and enacts his big plan — which is, the novel makes clear at this point, to create a much larger version of George Manville's solition to destroy all of Hong Kong.

It seems that Curtis once had a significant business presence in Hong Kong, but the government and business rivals forced him out, exiling him to Singapore. Enraged and humiliated and nursing the mother of all grudges, Curtis wants to destroy the entire city of Hong Kong out of revenge — and also, as a slowly revealed aside, steal all the gold from the city's underground vaults in the process. In this way, he's like Edgars, the antagonist of Westlake's masterful heist novel, The Score, mixed with Max Fairbanks from What's the Worst That Could Happen?, with maybe (we'll eventually learn) a dash of Tom Jimson from Drowned Hopes.

He's also tapped out, more in debt than anybody realizes. He's oversold his island casino project to investors, lying to each of them that each has the majority stake. He's panicked and desperate, and his Hong Kong plan is his last hope to get out from under. So, when his divers retrieve Kim's body, he believes he has the tool he needs to get a thorn named Jerry Diedrich out of his side.

A problem emerges, however, when he examines Kim's body along with his captain, Zhang Yung-tsien:

"Beneath the pale flesh of the throat, on the right side, a small bird fluttered. A pulse."

The chapter ends with a two-word sentence: "Well, damn."

Curtis's life would be so much better if the diver were dead, he hints to his captain. The implication is clear: She's barely clinging to life as it is. Perhaps just a nudge is all that is needed for nature to take its course. Zhang is distraught by the implied directive, but he badly needs this job, and to remain in Curtis's good favor. Curtis figures it would probably be best if it were to happen tonight, when everyone is sleeping, which gives the poor captain many hours to contemplate his decision. Meanwhile, he announces to his passengers that the diver is dead and that they'll be transporting her body to port.

This news distresses his poor engineer, George, who makes his way to the room in which the body is being kept to apologize to the corpse. Only much to his astonishment, she's no corpse. George confronts Curtis, who waves off the captain (on his way to perform — or not perform, he's not sure — the task with which he's been charged) while Curtis deals with this new problem.

Counter-intuitively, the captain is even more distressed to be waylaid from the task at hand:

"Now he would never know what his decision would have been, and in some terrible way that was even worse than having the decision still out in front of him."

Impulsively, Curtis decides to take George into his confidence — not about his plan to destroy Hong Kong, but about his financial difficulties, his problems with Jerry Diedrich, and a vague future action that will net George ten million dollars in gold if George will just stay quiet about this one little thing.

George won't stay quiet. If she dies, George will make sure authorities check carefully for cause of death. Curtis warns George that he's making an enemy. "I know," says George, but he can't stay quiet.

Curtis alters his plan once again. He instructs Zhang to slow the ship, enough to delay its return to port by about six hours. Meanwhile, he departs via helicopter with his suckers/investors and makes… other arrangements.

The other arrangements take the form of Morgan Pallifer, a seafaring soldier of fortune in Curtis's employ who rounds up three other ne'er—do—wells to pull up alongside Curtis's ship in the night, board it, and dispatch George and Kim. Easy-peasey. George is a lightweight engineer and Kim is bruised and battered, barely able to move. The captain has been instructed to stay at the helm and ignore any noises he might hear, to which he morosely agrees.

But George is an engineer. He notices that the ship has slowed and correctly deduces the reason. He gets the weak-willed Zhang to confirm his theory and to come up with a counter-plan: They'll scuttle one of the launches and hide himself and Kim, convincing the assassins that they've escaped.

Well, no.

Morgan Pallifer is no dummy. ("His faded blue eyes could almost look kindly at a distance, but they were not.") He sees the missing launch and immediately understands that he's meant to think that his targets have escaped. He orders a thorough search of the ship.

George has hidden Kim in one of the other launches. (She's regained consciousness and understands what is happening, understands how flimsy George's plan is, but she's much too weak to move around effectively.) Meanwhile, George's idea is that he'll get behind the killers, keeping to parts of the ship they've already searched. Just in case, he arms himself with the only weapon he can find, an oversized pepper mill from the ship's kitchen, which he soon has occasion to use when one of the gunmen stumbles upon him. With a couple of lucky whacks, he renders the man unconscious with his pepper mill. Then he takes his gun.

George knows how guns work, but he doesn't necessarily know how this gun works. He takes a moment to examine it. Is the safety on or off? Impossible to know for sure, but with his engineering background, he makes his best guess based on the design and position of the button.

And then he hears Kim scream. She's been discovered. George races to the deck, where Morgan Pallifer and his two remaining thugs have taken Kim. They're unimpressed, even amused by George and his gun. Pallifer correctly surmises that George has never shot someone before and is ready to kill him on the spot, when George shoots one of the thugs in the chest. "Well, he'd been right about the safety. Good engineering."

Pallifer is surprised and impressed by George. "You're not what I was told you were," he muses. George instructs Kim to tie the thugs' thumbs behind their backs with their own shoelaces (a favorite method of Parker's, you may recall) and they escape in the other launch, making their way to Brisbane. Posing as husband and wife, George gets them a hotel room (explaining to the clerk that they need separate beds because he snores).

An exhausted Kim sleeps for most of a day, waking up feeling slightly better but ravenous. George is reading a crime novel called Payback by an Australian writer named Gary Driver. "He's imitating the Americans," George explains, "but he's pretty good. He's teaching me how to behave in dangerous situations."

This reference puzzles me. Assuming I transcribed the book's name and author correctly (and it's possible that I didn't), there is no such book. It might be a reference to the movie Payback, which was being filmed around the time of the novel's writing and starred famous Aussie Mel Gibson. But it also seems like a reference to Australian writer Garry Disher's Parker pastiche Kickback. The sequel, Paydirt, came out in 1992. Maybe Westlake combined the two titles and changed the author's name slightly. But why? Or maybe I transcribed the author and title incorrectly. It's maddening not to be able to refer back to the manuscript.

George has gone shopping for Kim, getting her some clothes. She cleans up, they go out to dinner, and when they return… Well, Kim is still very sore, but George considers it an engineering problem. They make their way to one of the beds and work it out somehow.

George calls a friend in the states and learns that Richard Curtis, having learned of George and Kim's improbable escape, has inoculated himself against any accusations they might make by swearing out a complaint of industrial espionage against George. He's even convinced a friendly business rival to issue a non-denial-denial about George approaching him with stolen documents. George's friend makes some calls and connects him to a local lawyer, Andre Brevizin

Andre Brevizin is a man who likes his order. He's not certain he wants to indulge George's wild story about corporate malfeasance and attempted murder, but George is just credible enough that he agrees to make some inquiries, asking George to return on Monday to find out whether or not Brevizin will even take him on as a client.

Meanwhile, Kim, waiting for George at a nearby café, is spotted by Morgan Pallifer and a couple more rent-a-thugs, who've been scouring the city for the fugitive couple. She flees. They pursue. She eludes. Unsuccessful in scooping up their quarry, the thugs return to the café to scoop up George when he returns.

And scoop them up they do. In a scene very reminiscent of a scene that occurs in Flashfire (written a couple of years later), George is approached at the café by a smiling thug, who calmly assures him that if George doesn't come along quietly, another man stationed about fifty yards away will start shooting. (Westlake, as always, twists his own formulas: In this book, the man cautions George that the shooter tends to miss, and might accidentally kill any number of civilians at the café. In Flashfire, the man assures Parker that the shooter never misses and that Parker will be the only one to die.) George, like Parker, allows himself to be led away.

He's taken on a very long drive to a Curtis-owned property currently occupied by some friends, where he has a very pleasant(-seeming) dinner with his hosts, as well as Curtis and his current romantic partner.

After dinner, Curtis lays it out: He bears George no ill will. He's happy to publicly rescind the corporate espionage charges. But he can't have George gumming up his plans. He'll have to be put on ice. George will have to stay on this property, out of sight, without making any contact with the rest of the world, while Curtis goes off and does whatever's he's going to do in Hong Kong. After that, George will be free to go wherever he likes. Pallifer and his rent-a-thugs will remain on the property to make sure George doesn't get the urge to wander.

Now, this sounds suspiciously like a proposal put to Sam Holt in One of Us is Wrong, and, like Sam, George realizes he's not scheduled to survive this little forced vacation. (The only reason he's being kept alive at all is that Curtis might have an engineering question or two before his little caper is concluded.) Like Sam, George goes along with the proposal (until he can think of something better), and he appears at a press conference at Curtis's side (or, more likely, at a Chris-Christie-like distance behind Curtis) while Curtis publicly exonerates him.

Meanwhile, Kim, having eluded her would-be captors but realizing that George has been scooped up, makes her way to the hotel where her Planetwatch boss Jerry Diedrich and his lover Luther are staying. They are flabbergasted at her appearance (as well as the fact that she continues to draw breath), having just met with her parents to explain her death.

Her parents hadn't blamed Jerry for her death, even though he blamed himself. They assured him that Kim had always been one to leap before she looked — literally, in this case. And they were grateful that someone was able to tell them something. They'd gotten nowhere with Curtis's ship captain, Zhang Yung-tsien, who had feigned ignorance of English — though Jerry knows this to be a lie, since he conversed with the man over the radio.

Kim relays her wild tale to Jerry and Luther, and Jerry, sensing that he finally has the goods on his longtime nemesis, takes her to a local police detective, Inspector Tony Fairchild, one of Westlake's few doggedly competent law enforcement characters.

Someday, somebody should compile the backstories Westlake devised for all the minor characters in his novels. Westlake was a master of this, imagining lives that expanded far beyond the pages of the book, and Inspector Fairchild's backstory is no exception. Raised in poverty, Fairchild developed extremely tight, small handwriting (for often there was no money for food, let alone paper). Now, he uses small memo pads rather than the large yellow legal pads favored by his colleagues, because with the big yellow legal pads,

"a lonely Tony Fairchild paragraph would be a tiny forested island in a great yellow sea."

(That's just a lovely description.)

Inspector Fairchild listens to Kim's story with great skepticism, especially since George, her alleged co-victim in Curtis's nefarious schemes, has been seen buddy-buddy with Curtis all over the TV.

Well, that's that, says Jerry. You never can trust Richard Curtis, nor anyone who does business with him. The proof is right there on your television screen. George was probably in on the scheme from the beginning. Kim isn't so sure, but what to make of George's apparent reversal?

They ambush Captain Zhang Yung-tsien at his hotel to find out why he lied to Kim's parents. Captain Zhang flees to his room, and, overcome by despair at the corner Curtis has painted him into, he writes a brief "I love you" note to his wife and jumps out his hotel room window to his death.

Jerry and Luther decide to pursue Curtis to his base of operations in Singapore to see if they can figure out what he's up to. Kim decides to accompany them, against Jerry's strenuous objections. (Her parents, while relieved that she's alive, know better than to try to talk her out of her latest plan.)

Doing his due diligence, Inspector Fairchild invites Richard Curtis in for an interview. Curtis is very smooth and manages to erase Fairchild's suspicions. Curtis also pays a call on George's would-be lawyer, Andre Brevizin, and smooths things over with him as well, hand-waving away George's wild accusations as so much corporate in-fighting.

If Inspector Fairchild and Andre Brevizin compared notes, they would quickly discover inconsistencies in Curtis's explanations to them, but they don't. Not at first. Later, still snagged by Captain Zhang's suicide, Inspector Fairchild has occasion to talk to Brevizin, and is quite angry with himself for being taken in by Curtis's oily charms. Fairchild and Brevizin decide to follow Kim and Jerry and Luthor to Singapore to assist in their amateur investigation. Together, they make up a very unlikely crew of heroes.

This may be the novel's most improbable plot turn (Curtis's outlandish heist plan aside), but Westlake gets away with it based on the strength of the characters, each of whom has a very personal reason for embarking on this adventure to Singapore.

It also brings us to the end of Act I of Westlake's three-act structure, the second act taking place in Singapore and the third in Hong Kong. Having introduced all the major characters and the events that have set the plot in motion, I'm going to dial back on the spoilers in the hopes that you'll have a chance to read this novel yourself someday.

On his way to Singapore, Curtis turns his attention to his Jerry Diedrich problem. Diedrich seems to know where Curtis will be almost before Curtis does, and that simply won't do as his Hong Kong plan approaches. Clearly, Diedrich has a spy in Curtis's organization. But who? Curtis calls upon Colin Bennet, a disgraced former employee living in Singapore, to follow Diedrich and his companions and identify the leak. Bennet, who was fired after he disastrously botched a development project of Curtis's years earlier, jumps at the chance to get back into his boss's good graces. His previous foul-up, by the way, resulted in a man's death, though Bennet was successfully able to cover that up, even from Curtis. (This little fact may give astute readers an inkling as to the reason for Jerry Diedrich's single-minded obsession with Curtis.)

The gang soon tips to Bennet's clumsy surveillance, and leads him on a merry chase to nowhere. This ups Bennet's desperation considerably (which has tragic consequences). Before long, the gang is reunited with George (whose own journey from captivity to Singapore is recounted in a lively flashback reminiscent of similar sequences in Westlake's Parker novels).

It's decided that the local authorities should be engaged. But before that can happen, Luther, in a small but devastating moment, gently suggests switching rooms with Kim, as homosexuality is a crime in Singapore, punishable by ten years to life in prison. Westlake had explored the homosexual community many times before, depicting without much editorial comment the discrimination and persecution gays faced in America. But to my knowledge this was the first time Westlake had examined how bad gays had it in other parts of the world.

The gang recounts what they know (and what they suspect) to Inspector Wai Fung (Tony Fairchild's Singaporean equivalent), who has little interest in disrupting the placid routine of his day by investigating some unsubstantiated accusations against a prominent businessman. The most he's willing to do (after Tony Fairchild exerts some pressure on Wai Fung's superiors) is to arrange an introduction with his equivalent in Hong Kong, Inspector Martin Ha. He places a phone call to Inspector Ha. "I apologize for having to ruffle your day," he begins.

"Ha was aware that an unruffled day was Inspector Wai Fung's dearest wish in life, but he himself didn't mind a little excitement from time to time, so long as he could win at the end.

This sounds a little like Dan Wycza in Butcher's Moon, who remarks "I like a little boom-boom sometimes," except:

"Martin Ha did not like gunfire. In the first place, most people weren't very good at it, especially when excited, and having bullets miscellaneously in the air meant no one was safe anywhere. In the second place, it made it more difficult to interrogate people afterward, since they tended to be distracted by wounds or dead. In the third place, it tended to create a terrible mess, hard to conduct an investigation in and nasty to clean up. There were more places, but those would do.

Inspector Ha greets our heroes graciously and is inclined to believe the accusations they lob against Richard Curtis. He tells them that Inspector Wai Fung had warned him that they would try to alarm him. "I must tell Wai Fung you've succeeded," he says. "I am alarmed." With our gang's assistance, Ha spearheads an urgent search for Curtis's Hong Kong solition — a search that leads to an armed confrontation with some of Curtis's men. (Remember, Ha doesn't like gunfire.)

I'm inclined to leave it here, at the height of the climax's action. I still hope to see this novel published someday, and I'd rather not spoil all of its secrets. Let's just say there are acts of bravery and sacrifice as well as cowardice and cruelty — and in the end, triumphant victories and tragic losses. Sort of like life.

What I liked about this book is the same thing I like about Billy Wilder movies. Wilder, though he dabbled in many genres, was drawn to characters whose morality has never been seriously tested — until the events we're witnessing. All their lives, they've sort of drifted along, being neither terribly good nor bad, until circumstances force them to make a choice. Some (like Walter Neff) break bad, while others (like C.C. Baxter) surprise even themselves with their own moral resolve.

Similarly, all of the characters in Fall of the City are faced with a choice at one point or another: take the easy path, ignoring (or even participating in) acts of great evil, or take the harder path, against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, to challenge that evil. The choices the characters make, whether for good or for evil, are always fascinating.

Since these characters were all created by Donald E. Westlake, I'd expect no less.

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