A mystery novel looking at itself in the mirror

THE HOOK By Donald Westlake Mysterious Press 288 pp., $23.95

Donald Westlake's "The Hook" is a mystery novel about mystery novelists. Bryce Proctorr is a successful writer with a terrible case of writer's block. If he doesn't produce a manuscript soon, his gold-digging wife, Lucy, will bankrupt him in a messy divorce. He meets an old acquaintance, Wayne Prentice, a struggling writer who can't find a publisher. Bryce offers to publish Wayne's manuscript as his own and split the advance of $1.1 million. The hook: Wayne must kill Lucy.

Westlake's attempt to be postmodern, with frequent references to plotting and narrative, is less intriguing than it might have been, since the writing is so stilted and clichd.

Exhibit A: "Wayne, listen," Bryce said. "You know how you - You know, you're working along in a book, you're trying to figure out the story, but where's the hook, the narrative hook, what moves this story, and you can't get it and you can't get it and you can't get it, and then all of a sudden there it is! You know?"

Unfortunately, that's standard Westlake dialogue. Still, most of us read thrillers for the plot alone, and as plots go, this one isn't too bad. It's entirely unrealistic, but it did keep me guessing, and the first murder scene - which is truly grisly - caught me completely off-guard. It's the best-written scene in the book, although not for the faint of heart.

The characters are, for the most part, stock figures whose motivation makes little sense. We never understand, for instance, why Bryce would ask his old friend to kill Lucy, when hiring a professional would be far less risky, or why Wayne agrees to it.

I found myself impatient, rather than excited, to get to the end. While "The Hook," to be released next month with much publicity, is mildly entertaining at times - the kind of book you might want to read on a plane - by and large, it failed to hook me.

*Liz Marlantes is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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