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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
In 1997, Donald Westlake published one of the more effective suspense novels of recent years: The Ax, a grim, compelling account of an unemployed middle-manager who becomes a serial murderer in order to secure a place for himself in an overcrowded job market. Now, after much too long an interval, Westlake has delivered The Hook, an independent novel that serves as a kind of thematic sequel to The Ax, giving us an equally grim, equally compelling tale of murder and deception in the insular world of the New York literary establishment.
Two writers -- one famous, one unjustly obscure -- dominate Westlake's subtle, elegant narrative. The first, Bryce Proctorr, is a literary brand name, a perennially bestselling novelist who commands seven figure advances and whose tangled private life is routinely recorded in People magazine. But beneath the surface glitter of his high-powered lifestyle, Bryce is in trouble. His new novel is more than a year overdue, he is deep in the throes of a protracted, potentially ruinous divorce, and worst of all, he is badly blocked, and hasn't written anything in much too long. At this point in his career, Bryce needs a miracle. More than that, he needs a book.
Wayne Prentice, by contrast, has a novel to sell, a good one, but he can't find a publisher. Wayne is one of that vulnerable breed -- a midlist writer -- whose career has been cut short by the expanding influence of computers, which monitor sales and dictate the print runs of each new book; which have, in effect, destroyed the relationship that formerly existed between writer and publisher. After several years of steadily dwindling sales, Wayne Prentice has disappeared from public view. His attempt to start a second, pseudonymous career is briefly successful, but quickly repeats the original pattern. As The Hook opens, Wayne is considering a retreat to academia, a move that threatens the stability of his marriage. Like Bryce Proctorr, Wayne needs a miracle. More than that, he needs a publisher.
These two men -- reluctant doppelgangers -- come together in an ultimately destructive process of symbiosis. The process begins when Bryce offers Wayne half of his considerable advance for permission to publish Wayne's new novel -- suitably rewritten -- under his own name. For Wayne, this is the deal of a lifetime, but the deal has a catch. In order to collect more than half a million dollars, Wayne must agree to murder Lucie Proctor, Bryce's soon-to-be ex-wife. Bryce makes this proposal -- which comes to him with the force of a story, an invented narrative with an irresistible hook -- in the opening chapter. From this point forward, events unroll with unanticipated speed.
Wayne, who is at first insulted by Bryce's risky, impulsive proposition, gradually becomes intrigued. He then discusses the proposal with his own wife, Susan, who gives it her immediate approval. Shortly afterward, Wayne engineers an introduction to Lucie Proctorr and begins the process of planning her murder, a murder that takes place with shocking suddenness a few days later. All of this -- from the conception of the plan to its quite literal execution -- occurs in the early stages of the novel. With great intelligence and unobtrusive skill, Westlake spends the bulk of the remaining narrative charting the corrosive aftereffects of Lucie's murder.
The implied message of stories such as this one is that actions -- especially violent ones -- have consequences. In the course of The Hook, those consequences assume different forms for both Bryce and his collaborator, but lead, in time, to a tragic reenactment that will link the two of them forever. This sense of the eternal, unbreakable connection between these men informs the novel on every level. Wayne, who once wrote novels for love rather than profit, finds himself in hot pursuit of the various accouterments -- money, an expensive apartment on Central Park West -- of Bryce Proctorr's People magazine lifestyle. Bryce, in turn, finds himself more and more obsessed with the singular experience he delegated to Wayne: the physical act of murder. In the end, both men lose their connection to the essential quality that once defined them: the need -- and the ability -- to tell stories. That, as much as anything, is the price they pay for selling their respective souls.
Over the years, Westlake has become increasingly identified with comic crime capers, such as The Hot Rock, Drowned Hopes, and Help! I Am Being Held Prisoner!. As a result, it's sometimes easy to forget how versatile a writer he is. Like The Ax, The Hook is a lively, darkly brilliant account of moral failure and encroaching madness. Like The Ax, it takes us, with absolute authority, into the bleak interior worlds of men who have told themselves a fundamental lie: that the circumstances of their lives leave them no acceptable alternatives to murder. The Hook is a surprising, suspenseful, psychologically acute novel that happens to be marketed as a thriller but is, in reality, a great deal more. If luck and justice somehow manage to prevail, Westlake's reputation will extend beyond the arbitrary borders of genre fiction. (Bill Sheehan)