Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Books: KAHAWA by Donald Westlake (1982)

Today is Donald Westlake Day over at Patti Abbott's blog, PATTINASE, in honor of the prolific and much beloved writer who passed away in 2009. He left behind a huge store of novels and short stories, many of them written under pseudonyms. Check out Patti's blog for more info on Westlake and why Patti chose today to honor him. Also for more posts on various Westlake books written with love by many bloggers much more familiar with Westlakd than I.

Sad to say, I've never read any of Westlake's books unless I read one under a pseudonym and simply forgot about it. It happens.

I found a listing for a Westlake early book (1982) in a terrific little anthology I own, THEY DIED IN VAIN - Overlooked, Under appreciated and Forgotten Mystery Novels, edited by Jim Huang. (In and of itself, an overlooked book.)

The title of the book is KAHAWA and all I'm going to do is quote what Kevin James wrote about it to give you an idea of the sort of thing Westlake did best.

Scouting out the abandoned railway spur where they will (temporarily) hide the coffee train they plan to steal from Idi Amin, Isaac (ex-Ugandan civil servant, family slaughtered by Amin for...well, no reason, really ) and Frank (ex-pat mercenary) park the Mercedes in which they infiltrated Uganda (in disguise) on the old access road, now overgrown by the jungle.....

Donald Westlake puts the ball in play with a gloriously intricate plot. Idi Amin has to sell the coffee to get the hard currency he needs to provide the thugs that keep him in power with the luxuries that keep them happy. One of Amin's henchmen (Chase) plots the heist so as to leave Uganda in style, as things are getting so crazy that Amin might actually turn on him. Chase contacts an Indian merchant in neighboring Kenya who can both put together a team to steal the train and launder (as it were) the coffee, while, of course, plotting to double cross him with the assistance of the principal of the Swiss/German hedge fun that's financing Amin's sale, who get the idea.

But, of course, as Helmut Von Militke almost put it: no plot survives contact with the enemy.

....While the story alone makes KAHAWA a brilliant thriller, the characters the writing elevate KAHAWA into a brilliant novel,  full stop. Indeed, one imagines that Westlake put KAHAWA together only by winning a fierce bidding war with V.S. Naipaul for even the most minor characters.

.....So, just as people share 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees, KAHAWA shares many of its base constituents with other thrillers. And the difference is as marked. One should read KAHAWA just to see what thrillers can be.

Kevin James

Sounds like I may have to look this one up.


  1. Hi Yvette Donald Westlake (He added an E Donald E Westlake) was always a good choice of library book. One of those authors you knew what you were getting. Probably his most famous character was Parker, and Point Blank became a must see movie.

  2. This sounds good. I"ll add it to my TBR Mount Kilimanjaro.

    I am in the middle of reading three books: one set on W. 35th Street during WWII; Ariana Franklin's second book about Adelia Aguilar and one by the writing duo of sisters who use the name Perri O'Shaughnessy.

    And tons of books from Oz sitting here.

  3. Nice choice Yvette - I've not read that one. In fact, talking to Todd I realised that I seem to have read very few of the books he published as Westlake (but practically all of the ones he wrote as Richard Stark and Tucker Coe). The Dortmunder series of humorous capers, starting with THE HOT ROCK (which was made into a great movie with Robert Redford, George Segal and Zero Mostel), are really great.

  4. Yvette, I've been a Donald Westlake fan since my early teens; in fact, he was one of the writers that made me want to be a writer in the first place! I even rooted for Westlake when he was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay for the movie adaptation of THE GRIFTERS! KAHAWA sounds fascinating, and I know I'll love it as soon as I get my hot little hands on a copy! Your great review whet my appetite, as always -- looking forward to catching up with the novel!

  5. Dave: I can see I've been missing out on a lot by not having read any Westlake (E. or otherwise). So many people seem to love his work...

  6. Kathy: You can only do what you can do. Reading should not be a chore - as I always like to say.

  7. Sergio: Since I'm only vaguely familiar with Westlake's work, I picked this one because no one else did and because it sounds like one I'd probably enjoy reading.

    With all the praise Westlake has received, I'm bound and determined to read something of his at some point.

  8. Wow, I didn't know that Dorian. But don't forget this is not my review, but Kevin James'.

    I've yet to make Westlake's official acquaintance.

  9. Oops, in my excitement, I plumb forgot to praise Kevin James for his excellent KAHAWA review! Great reviewing, Kevin!

    Yvette, definitely look into Donald E. Westlake's novels! From zany comedy to film-noir-style suspense -- Westlake could do it all, sometimes under pseudonyms such as Richard Stark or Tucker Coe! Yvette, I urge you to dive into the wonderful world of Donald E. Westlake at your next opportunity!

  10. I've added his name to my 'must' list, Dorian.

    "So many books, so little time."

    A cliche, but a meaningful one.


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