Tuesday 7 August 2012

Book Review: Killing Time by Donald E. Westlake (T. V. Boardman, 1962)

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.

Thanks to a series of Westlake Scores, I've ended up reading – and reviewing – some of Donald E. Westlake's earliest novels this year. I wrote about his debut novel – under his own name, that is; he'd had a number of pseudonymous sleaze works published prior to it – The Mercenaries (1960), back in January, and then last week reviewed his third own-brand book, the brilliant 361. Nestling in-between those two novels is Killing Time (1961), which, in its 1962 British T. V. Boardman edition, I blogged about as a Westlake Score back in 2010 but only just got around to reading. And while it's certainly not the equal of 361, it's still a fine crime novel, and in its blistering finale again affords a glimpse of what was to come in Westlake's Parker novels (penned, of course, under the nom de plume Richard Stark) as the 1960s unfolded.

Written, like The Mercenaries and 361, in the first-person, Killing Time is narrated by Tim Smith, a private investigator living and working in the small town of Winston. Tim is eating in a diner late one night when a stranger enters, pulls a gun and attempts to kill him. Pretty soon after that the assailant is himself shot dead by a gunman across the street, leaving Tim wondering who in Winston would want to see him dead, and just as importantly, why. Part of the answer comes with the arrival in Winston of Paul Masetti, an agent of a reform group called the Citizens for Clean Government. Having cleaned up Monequois and New Hamburg, the CCG have set their sights on Winston, and Masetti wants Tim to provide information on corruption in the town.

Tim, you see, has a filing cabinet full of the town's dirty secrets, making him a prime target for anyone wishing to stop those secrets seeing the light. Except Tim is happy in Winston: he has a girlfriend, Cathy, who, if he doesn't love her, is at least comfortable with her; a job he likes; and plenty of friends in high places. But one of those "friends" evidently wants him dead, and as the town divides into rival factions, Tim is forced to choose sides, leading to an all-guns-blazing showdown.

It's that blood-soaked climax that's the real draw in Killing Time; it's no accident that Westlake titled the book thus, because it's by far the most gripping part of the novel: a fast-moving, startlingly violent battle royale between dozens of gun-toting men in an industrial plant (note Boardman's blunt labelling of the novel on the dust jacket flap as "massacre and mayhem"). And it's here that we can see hints of some of the finales in the Parker novels – The Seventh (1966), The Handle (ditto) and Butcher's Moon (1974) spring immediately to mind. Prior to that, Killing Time is little more than an agreeable P.I. mystery, narrated by a wisecracking protagonist clearly in debt to Hammett (the book has been likened by some critics to Red Harvest): 

Now I walked through the block-square City Hall Park in the late June sunshine. A few bums were loafing on the benches by the trees, resting up between elections. Over to the left, the town library was doing a thriving business in high-school students boning up for their exams. This year, the teen-agers were all imitating Sal Mineo and Brigitte Bardot, and they all looked as though they were going to do something obscene any minute.

But even in the pre-bloodbath stages of the book there are pointers to the Parkers: Westlake names one of Winston's clans "Wycza", prefiguring Dan Wycza, one of the Parker novels' recurring characters. That said, however, anyone expecting Killing Time to evoke the dour intensity of Stark – as, to an extent, 361 does – will be disappointed. Killing Time is an entirely different kettle of fish: an enjoyable whodunnit and an amusingly cynical portrait of a corrupt town, lifted by a brilliant ending that feels slightly bolted-on.

Right then: it's back to the signed editions next, with a 1964 thriller boasting a dust jacket that's already made it into the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery...

1 comment:

  1. It's not as good as 361, a mite better than The Mercenaries, and one thing that struck me when reading it was that it seems like the first book in a series--The Tim Smith novels--and yet it isn't.

    In my opinion, the ending isn't tacked on--for Westlake, it's a very logical progression to an inevitable denouement, that you don't see coming, precisely because the protagonist is a hardboiled detective in the Hammett mold, and however bad things get, those guys always win out in the end.

    But Tim Smith lost sight of who he was, and that's the one unforgivable sin for a Westlake character. Yeah, he's clearly based on The Continental Op, but he's made a few too many compromises, told himself a few too many lies, and basically has been straddling a fence between honest and dishonest for far too long. He should have picked a side and stuck to it.

    And when Cathy said "let's get out of here", he should have gone. He couldn't let go of the life he'd made for himself. I think the point of that relationship (less idealized but more believable than the fantasy girlfriend from The Mercenaries) is that he does love her, but he can't even commit to that. He's a smart cookie, but in the end, he outsmarts himself. Takes a bad situation and makes it worse for everyone, himself included.

    And honestly, isn't that the more likely outcome of a Red Harvest scenario? I know Westlake damn near worshiped Hammett, but he still figured he had something to add to that legacy--the understanding that if you play both ends against the middle, you'll end up crushed between them.

    Ray Kelly doesn't make that mistake, and Parker, Westlake's Ideal, always knows exactly who he is, and what side he's on--he never kids himself. Smith is a likable character, but he gets what he deserves.

    What's most interesting here is that Westlake is starting to create his own Upstate NY version of Yoknapatawpha County, or Miskatonic University if you prefer--some of these fictional place names will be recurring in his work for decades to come.

    As to the Wyczas, I like to think Dan was the black sheep of that family of cops--and the only honest one among them.