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April 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Find more Another Look at . . .
Donald E. Westlake (1933–2008) marks 1959 as the beginning of his career as a writer. That year he published, by his own count, 27 short stories and novelettes. He also published All My Lovers, the first of several novels written under the name Alan Marshall. The Marshall novels are generally referred to as soft-core porn and are hard to find nowadays, although a collection of three of them, written by Westlake with Lawrence Block, will be released this October, under the title Hellcats and Honeygirls.
The Mercenaries (1960), a story of murder and conspiracy published under his own name, is usually cited as Westlake’s debut. He followed it with more crime novels that were good but not distinguished. Other writers were doing the same sort of thing and doing it better; Westlake was even doing it better himself, with a series of novels, written under the name Richard Stark, about a professional thief named Parker.
In 1964, Westlake began writing a story about a bartender on the trail of the guy who tried to kill him. By the time it was published in 1965, it had become, without any conscious planning on Westlake’s part, his first comic crime novel, The Fugitive Pigeon. Reading it today, alongside his early crime novels, you can feel the difference: Pigeon is not just better written than anything he’d done before, it sparkles, as though its author is having so much fun he can barely contain himself.
More comic crime novels followed, including 1966’s brilliant God Save the Mark, which won Westlake the first of his three Edgar Awards. There were also several private-eye novels written as Tucker Coe; the first, Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, was published in 1966. They’re good but unremarkable. (A similar thing can be said about a handful of novels written under the name Samuel Holt in the 1980s: they’re merely good.)
If you wanted to point to a book and say this is where Westlake hit his stride, you could point to The Hot Rock (1970), which introduced Westlake’s finest creation: John Archibald Dortmunder, a professional crook whose plans are brilliant in conception, if not in execution. Westlake wrote 14 more Dortmunders; the last, Get Real, was published in 2009. The books are comic caper novels, full of impish wordplay, likable characters, and, occasionally, in-jokes: in Jimmy the Kid (1974), Dortmunder and his gang plan a kidnapping by following the plot of a novel about a crook named Parker. (Westlake retired Parker that same year, in Butcher’s Moon.)
Between Dortmunders, there were stand-alones. Two Much! (1975) is about a greeting-card writer who pretends to be twins so he can date twins. Trust Me on This (1988) is set at a fictional supermarket tabloid. Sacred Monster (1989) is a Hollywood satire with a brilliant twist ending. Smoke (1995) is an invisible-man story. And there are many more.
Westlake got deadly serious in two novels that explore the extraordinary circumstances that make ordinary men commit murder. The Ax (1997) and The Hook (2000) are cold, dark books, sure-footed and compelling. They’re risky novels, with protagonists who are despicable people, and yet, we understand why they do the things they do. Westlake took another risk in 1997, bringing back Parker after nearly a quarter of a century. There was a chance the author might not be able to find the character or his world again; fortunately, he did, and Comeback, the first of a new series of Parker novels, feels just like its predecessors.
Although he stuck mainly to the crime genre and generally set his books in or around New York City, occasionally Westlake ventured farther afield. Tomorrow’s Crimes (1981) is a collection of 10 science-fiction stories. Kahawa (1981) and High Adventure (1985) are epic-sized action-adventure thrillers set in far-flung countries. In 1973, Westlake published Gangway, a light western cowritten with Brian Garfield. Westlake teamed up with Garfield again on the screenplay to The Stepfather, a 1987 thriller based loosely on the real-life multiple murderer John List. Westlake was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for 1990’s The Grifters, adapted from a Jim Thompson novel.
Westlake wasn’t the only writer of comic mysteries, but he was the best. He wrote about people on the wrong side of the law; his heroes are villains, but (for the most part) they’re not bad people. They work for a living, just like you and me; it’s just a different, more exciting, and dangerous kind of work.
Donald Edwin Westlake’s five-decade career ended too soon, on New Year’s Eve 2008. He will be missed, especially by the many writers—you’re looking at one of them—who count him among their inspirations.
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