Friday, September 28, 2012

A forgotten novel?

Donald E. Westlake's Memory (2010) was said to be the last novel by that prolific, Edgar Award-winning author who died in 2008 (although The Comedy Is Finished was published this year), but it must also have been one of his first. The story is about a man's struggle to reclaim his memory after being struck on the head when he is caught in bed with the wrong woman. Once a self-assured Broadway actor, Paul Cole is now a reserved, apologetic man who can't remember who he is, let alone his next doctor's appointment.

I say Memory must have been one of the first novels Westlake wrote because of the cultural references in the story, especially the cost of things. Cole pays $75 a month for his New York City apartment. When he does make it to a doctor's appointment, it costs him just $8. This sounds like it might be the late 1950s or early 1960s. Westlake's first published novel under his own name was The Mercenaries in 1960, although he wrote several earlier books under the name Alan Marshall. Apparently Westlake wrote Memory at about that time, but it was not published until after his death.

Why it wasn't  published earlier is something of a mystery. It is an excellent novel, although quite different from most of Westlake's work. He was known mostly for crime novels, either the hardboiled variety like the Parker books he wrote under the name Richard Stark or comic caper novels like those in his Dortmunder series. Although Memory was published by Hard Case Crime and has a cover illustration that makes it look like a crime novel, it really isn't one, at least not after the initial violence.

Was no publisher interested in Memory because it was so different from Westlake's other work? Or didn't Westlake think it was very good? Or did he simply decide he didn't want to be known as a serious novelist because there was more money to be made in crime fiction?

Whatever the case, this novel is a gem that did not deserve to be forgotten.

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