Forever and a Death is a crime novel by Donald E.Westlake based on a rejected treatment for the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). As the afterword by Jeff Kleeman explains, Westlake’s treatment was rejected, either because it was too different from the other James Bond films or (after taking into account the producers’ notes) too much like all the other Bond films.

Westlake accepted the rejection and the following year quietly reworked the treatment into a novel. He was so quiet about it that Forever and a Death was only published in 2017 – nine years after Westlake’s death.

Under the name Richard Stark, Westlake is known for the tough crime series about professional thief Parker (filmed as Point Blank, Payback and others). The Hard Case Crimes paperback has an arresting cover by Paul Mann in the style of Bond movie-poster artist Robert McGinnis, so you might have expected Westlake to write something like a Bond movie with a more amoral lead character. But that’s not what he did. Nor did he write in the style of Ian Fleming, or even John Gardner. And whereas Jeffrey Deaver’s Carte Blanche was a Jeffrey Deaver novel about a modern spy called James Bond (in which the villain was one of many suspects, concealed by authorial misdirection) there is no James Bond figure in Forever and a Death.

If there’s a central hero, he’s an accidental hero. An engineer, George Manville who is suddenly put in the position of acting heroically. If he has any precedent, he is more like a tougher version of Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Manville is one of several characters who gradually come together to oppose the villain. Each has their own motivation and they contribute to the unpredictable development of the plot. The book is 464 pages, and I wouldn’t normally approve of that length, but Westlake is such an economic writer that he makes every page rewarding. As Kleeman points out, the villain Richard Curtis is the dominant character. That may not be surprising because Westlake’s novels are usually driven by the characters who are outside the law. Kleeman outlines some of the ways in which Westlake’s novel differs from and matches his James Bond outline. But it can be summed up as the villain being the most interesting character.

In a way, Westlake answers all those smart questions about the super-capitalist characters in the Bond movies; how they cross the line to become villains, how they finance their schemes and how they find a ready pool of expendable drones. Richard Curtis is a property developer, who plans to use a submarine to steal a fortune in gold from the vaults beneath Hong Kong and then destroy the city. He has enough dodgy contacts from his legitimate past to put his scheme into operation. His ‘Oddjob’ figure is a failed works manager, “a blank cheque to be written on,” who has a powerful motivation to follow Curtis’ orders, and gradually moves into criminality, always telling himself that he has no choice. Thinking back to that scene in Octopussy, where Louis Jourdan tells Kabir Bedi to go out on top of the plane and get Bond, Westlake provides a convincing psychological explanation as to why someone would follow an order like that.

As the novel came to a conclusion, I couldn’t help remarking on the irony that the early 1990’s revival of Thunderbirds had featured characters based on Parker (or his usual alias of Charles Willis) and Stark trying to steal antique gold from Venice. One of the big problems with gold bullion is its weight – Westlake acknowledges this in the novel, although his treatment for the Bond movie came up with a science-fiction solution which would have led to a much more dramatic climax. Nevertheless, Westlake works with the real-life circumstances and comes up with a perfectly fitting resolution.

FOREVER AND A DEATH by Donald E. Westlake
Hard Case Crime ISBN: 978-1-78565-423-7 £7.99