They say “Write what you know” – and if I was Donald E Westlake’s wife, I’d have been having kittens when The Hook came out in 2000.
That’s not to say I view all fiction as a reflection of its creator’s nefarious fantasies, but The Hook is so self-referential, the comparison is unavoidable.
The premise: Bryce Proctorr is a successful and famous writer, but like every Stephen King protagonist, he is suffering from writer’s block, in this case brought on by a long, drawn-out and spiteful divorce. Bryce chances upon an estranged friend, another writer he knew 20 years earlier, Wayne Prentice.
Wayne’s success has… waned, for want of a better word; his sales figures have dwindled with each subsequent book because each subsequent book receives a smaller print run, due to dwindling sales. A vicious cycle of decline. Even relaunching himself under a pen name ends with the same result.
To fix their respective problems, Bryce asks Wayne if he’d be willing to give him his current manuscript (which Wayne’s agent can’t get published); Bryce will then publish it under his own name. Bryce gets his editor off his back, Wayne gets his book into print and they share the $1.1m advance. Oh, and Wayne must murder Bryce’s wife, Lucie.
Bam! That’s your hook. But unlike the clumsily Photoshopped fishing-hook-fountain-pen on the cover, it’s fairly well crafted.
Problems arise when you’re invited to examine literature from an editor’s perspective. We are, after all, reading a writer’s novel about a writer with writer’s block who employs another writer to kill his wife. You’re already in the dangerous realms of meta.
You see, to keep Wayne’s manuscript reading more like a Bryce Proctorr novel, Bryce changes some of the narrative flow, inserting a scene to create some action.
The inserted scene forces the characters to act out-of-character. The editor notices it and it must be changed. We are told how two scenes can be mashed together to move the plot along, but it can only be done if someone in the story acts out of sorts, jarring the narrative and blind-siding the reader.
But this happens throughout The Hook; it’s almost as though Westlake is saying, “This novel was written by an authoritarian, a narrative despot, unwilling or unable to allow his characters to act by their own free will.” It’s like he’s writing under duress, hoping someone will receive his message and rescue him from writing this nonsense.
For a start, Wayne’s motivation is flimsy, to say the least: his wife, Susan, apparently believes their marriage will end if Wayne can’t get published and must start teaching at a college. It’s not something she thinks they can work through, so maybe murdering some woman to retain the status quo is worth it. For Wayne, half a million dollars and his book in print isn’t motivation enough, so it has to be about saving his marriage.
What an absolute bitch she is, this level-headed, logical and compassionate charity worker. Lest we forget, Susan is advocating murder to avoid a longer commute.
Furthermore, Susan has no qualms about being married to a murderer, someone who ruthlessly beat a woman to death with a table. Apparently that’s how methodical, pleasant career women think. But it moves the plot forward, so go with it, yeah?
Similarly, Bryce’s confession to his ex-wife, Ellen, is jarring both for his decision to reveal it to her and for her own reaction – admonishing Bryce for considering handing himself to the police. Yes, her priority is to her children, but before she is aware of Bryce’s intention to give himself up, she shrugs off the murder with a barely sympathetic, “My God, Bryce, what a mess.”
There’s no, “Get out of my house you filthy murderer!”; nor is there any fear that Bryce might call upon his hired assassin again; and there’s certainly no moral certitude. And all to save her three children the embarrassment of a public trial involving their biological father. I don’t buy it.
Root of all evil
This brings me neatly to my next gripe: the lack of likeable characters. Bryce has his wife Lucie killed, Wayne kills her, Susan is complicit and even encourages the endeavour, Ellen has no morals and Lucie, may she rest in peace, is a cold, money-grabbing harpy. Only Bryce’s editor and Detective Johnson are remotely relatable. So who do you root for, other than carnage itself?
Westlake’s writing style is a mix of internal psychological trauma, and tiresome unimportant detail. While Bryce’s emotional decline is gradual and effective, there are pages upon pages of dull living-arrangement changes, or accountancy problems, or background information on utterly insignificant neighbours.
As for the ending, it’s so painfully obvious, the New York Times described it as “both surprising and inevitable.” So, surprising to an idiot, then? To compound the inevitability, the end is heralded by that most cumbersome of thriller clichés – the compulsion to reveal to the reader forthcoming events in pretentious and glaring metaphor. Just like Elizabeth George’s blood-red carpet of blossom petals in A Suitable Vengeance, we are treated to:
“She had three [bathing suits], one… white, one… blue, and one just swirls of color, like a kaleidoscope that had bled. Today she wore the kaleidoscope.”
That’s right, she’s going to BLEED. Like my eyes every time I read one of these hackneyed metaphors.
Wayne Prentice is hopelessly oblivious to Bryce’s growing psychosis, despite Bryce repeatedly asking Wayne what it was like to beat Lucie to death, despite all Bryce’s new book ideas revolving around beating a woman to death, and despite Bryce not particularly liking Susan.
And yet, the Prentice (note the doubly contrived name) is happy to leave his wife alone in the house with a man clearly on the edge of a catastrophic breakdown, who has an obsession with the act of beating a woman’s head in. When is Wayne going to say: “I don’t know Bryce, considering what we did to Lucie, might writing a novel about a guy who gets away with beating a woman to death – might that be a bad idea? Maybe it’s time for a lie down? Would you mind putting that table down Bryce? You’re scaring the maid, Bryce.”
Idiots, the lot of them. And as I’ve already mentioned, you’ve no sympathy with any of them when the book reaches its inevitable – and therefore intrinsically unsurprising – ending.