Under the Radar

Donald Westlake Revives a Lost Bond Movie Plot

Hard Case Crime has uncovered Forever and a Death, a finished and previously unpublished novel from the archives of the late thriller novelist Donald E. Westlake. Westlake, writing has Richard Stark, created the iconic thief Parker, a usually-renamed character played in the movies by Lee Marvin in Point Blank (1967), Robert Duvall in The Outfit (1973), Mel Gibson in The Payback (1999) and Jason Statham in Parker (2013). Westlake also wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Grifters (2000), based on the Jim Thompson novel.

Former United Artists executive Jeff Kleeman tells a fascinating story in an essay that appears at the end of the novel. When a second generation of Bond producers were determined to revive the series with Pierce Brosnan in the mid-1990s, Kleeman (a big Westlake fan since childhood) approached the writer about writing a treatment for a movie that would follow the as-yet-unreleased GoldenEye.

That next movie would likely be scheduled for release in 1997 if Brosnan and the producers revived the character (something that was deeply uncertain after a pair of relatively unsuccessful Timothy Dalton Bonds). Westlake came up with the idea that the plot should center on the British government's scheduled return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule that year.

Westlake's villain had a plan to use soliton waves to wreak havoc on a Chinese government he believed was destroying his business and treating him unfairly. Unfortunately, the studios were just getting an idea that China might open itself up and allow Hollywood movies to be shown in the country (they were right) and no one wanted to risk making Beijing mad. This might be the first recorded instance of Hollywood going in a different direction to keep the Chinese happy, which is of course standard operating procedure in the 21st century.

Another issue was that Bond movies need to have a sturdy location/stunt framework long before the script is finished. Westlake liked to find the story as he wrote and was either unwilling or unable to generate the kind of detailed outline that the production needed.

Rather than throw away the work, Westlake completed this novel. Bond is reincarnated as George Manville, an engineer working for the real estate magnate Richard Curtis. The novel is set a few years after the 1997 transfer of power with enough time passing for Curtis to feel as if the Chinese have destroyed his business.

There's impetuous environmental activist Kim Baldur, who barely survives the waves when she gets too close to a test explosion, and a host of mid-level thugs that George and Kim are surprised to discover they're fully capable of taking out even though they have zero prior thuggery experience.

Westlake is a master at plot and character and it's unclear why he didn't publish this novel during his lifetime. Maybe he thought the Bond people would object, since they'd already paid him for his work on the idea. Even so, anyone who didn't know about the Bond pitch would never guess that it had originally been conceived as the next 007 movie.

So, this is not exactly a "lost James Bond movie plot" in novel form. It's an excellent thriller that, paired with the afterword, offers a revealing look at the inner workings of the Bond machine and there are certainly plenty of us who care about that. It's also a must-read for Westlake fans.

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