Forever and a Death, by Donald E Westlake

Forever and a death cvr

Richard Curtis (no, not that Richard Curtis) is an international businessman and head of a large corporation, a go-getter who is not afraid to cut corners when it suits him.  He had made a fortune in British-controlled Hong Kong but was kicked out when the Chinese took over in 1997.  He moved his operation to Singapore but has harboured a resentment towards the Chinese ever since and wants to get back at them.  Unfortunately business has not been good in recent years and he is on his uppers, though still conveying an air of affluence and with big plans to recoup his losses.

One of his employees, George Manville, a brilliant engineer, has invented a method for creating, by means of cunningly-laid explosive charges, a soliton wave of water able to destroy infrastructure created on landfill, turning it into a soup that can be more easily built on.  The novel opens with the wave being deployed on a coral atoll containing buildings left by the Japanese during the Second World War, and it successfully destroys them, leaving a smooth surface on which to construct a luxury resort.

The operation would have been perfect but for the unwelcome presence of environmentalist Jerry Diedrich and his colleagues on board the Rainbow Warrior-esque Planetwatch III.  Diedrich has a personal animus against Curtis which Curtis does not understand, and Diedrich and his organisation have been dogging him for years, monitoring this operation because they fear the coral will be destroyed by the wave.

When diver Kim Baldur swims from Planetwatch III into the area that will be affected she is caught by the wave and is presumed dead.  A chain of events is sparked that escalate, because Curtis sees a way of using her death as a stick to beat Diedrich and get the environmentalists off his back while he pulls off an audacious but illegal scheme.  Unfortunately for him when Baldur is pulled from the water by his crew she is not dead.  It is a state of affairs which can be rectified, only Curtis has not counted on the steely determination of Manville to do the right thing.

While unsuccessfully trying to persuade Manville of his preferred course of action in killing Baldur, Curtis tells Manville too much about the parlous state of his business, so Manville will have to be got rid of too.  Realising the danger, Manville and the injured Baldur flee, necessitating Curtis hiring a series of henchmen who all in one way or another fail to get the job done as to Curtis’s chagrin he finds his plans spiralling inexorably out of control.

Despite these annoyances, as the test has been successful Curtis sets his sight on a more significant target, one which will bring massive profits.  This will take the form of a bank heist in Hong Kong involving elaborate tunnelling and deployment of the soliton wave in ‘reclaimed land’ (i.e. landfill).  An added pleasure is that the operation will enable him to work off his grudge against his former home by destroying large parts of it.  It isn’t cheap so this play has to succeed or he is finished.  Manville and the Planetwatch group work to stop his plans and the pace intensifies as the deadline for the use of the soliton wave on Hong Kong gets closer.

A useful postscript describes how Westlake had been commissioned to write a James Bond script, Bond 18 as it was known, prior to the release of GoldenEye (1995).  He came up with the idea of tying the plot to the handover of Hong Kong, which was taking place the same year the new film would have been released.  Westlake pitched various ideas, however there were structural problems with the two treatments he submitted, and political sensitivities as well: there were fears at the time the transfer might create violence in the territory, and also China was emerging as an important market.

Thus a film featuring the partial destruction of Hong Kong, while there were dead bodies lying in the streets in real life, might not have gone down well.  Added to this possibility, the Chinese had blocked the release of GoldenEye on the grounds it contained anti-communist elements, so the studio was keen to steer clear of anything that might be considered controversial in Chinese eyes.

One can see why Westlake turned his idea into a novel, but also why he never published the result in his lifetime – he died in 2008 and Hard Case Crime only released this in 2017.  Somewhat overlong at nearly 450 pages, it rambles in the lengthy middle section and the structure is choppy.  Manville is the closest to the Bond character in the book, though not too close to risk copyright infringement, but he disappears for long stretches.

There is more of a collegiate feel to Curtis’s opposition than would be found in the secret agent format, and upright but slightly dull engineer George Manville is no Bond, even though he habitually gets the upper hand over very tough guys.  The soliton wave has a vaguely Bondesque feel, though it is hardly lasers from space.  Forever and a Death (definitely a typically Bond title) is an interesting curio, and a coup for Hard Case Crime.  Whether Westlake would have been happy to have the book published is unknown.

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