Saturday, January 10, 2009

Nobody Runs Forever: A Last Good-bye to
Donald E. Westlake, Part I

Murch said, “You think we’ll ever really get that stone? Maybe God wants us to go straight and this is kind of a gentle hint.”

“If five jobs for the same emerald is a gentle hint,” Kept said bitterly, “I don’t want Him to shout at me.” -- from The Hot Rock (1970)
He was too young.

That’s what I remember thinking when I saw the news earlier this month that author Donald E. Westlake had died in Mexico at age 75. It just couldn’t be possible. It had to be a different Westlake, or The New York Times had got it wrong, playing a joke on its readership. The man was simply too vital and full of life, wasn’t he? That’s the thing: Westlake’s writing felt like the work of a man half his age, someone still hungry to make it as an author. His storytelling retained its interest right up to the end. Losing James Crumley stung. Losing Gregory Mcdonald was a blow. Losing Westlake? That hurt. Especially since he showed no signs of slowing down in his writing and never lost a step. A rare feat, indeed, dear readers.

I’m not going to bore you here with another biography of the man; if you want to learn more about the author’s history, go read the essay I wrote about him last year after Mystery Ink’s David J. Montgomery and I selected Westlake to receive the Gumshoe Lifetime Achievement Award.

Instead, I want to talk about Westlake’s writing.

The best crime novels are character-driven, and as a result the plotting can be weak, though not usually bad enough to ruin the work. Westlake, however, could do it all. Famous for penning books on the fly, he somehow managed to create curvy and convoluted plots that were nonetheless airtight, and compelling without sacrificing character, atmosphere, or dialogue. The strong plotting actually emphasized the rest of his talents. I loved his use of running jokes, such as having unlucky thief John Dortmunder blurt out “John Diddums” (“It’s Welsh”) as an alias. And Westlake wasn’t above making fun of himself, as he did in Jimmy the Kid (1974), which found Dortmunder and his gang copying a kidnapping plan from the pages of one of the Parker novels, written by Westlake under the pseudonym Richard Stark. The punch line there was that the events of the kidnapping were turned into a theatrical comedy, and Stark supposedly wrote an angry letter to a lawyer, complaining that having his novel ripped off was one thing, but having it made fun of … well, that was considerably worse. Westlake went on to try something similar in another Dortmunder book, Drowned Hopes (1990), wherein the gang gets part of its idea for a caper from a Joe Gores novel, 32 Cadillacs. Drowned Hopes is probably the best installment in Westlake’s Dortmunder series, because the stakes are high. The gang has to recover a coffin full of money from behind of a dam, before a criminal named Tim Jimson (a clever nod to Jim Thompson, who wrote The Grifters, which Westlake adapted for the silver screen) blows the dam up, drowning the town below and killing thousands. It’s an awesome, epic, and tightly plotted comedy.

Westlake wrote fast and could often turn out more than one book a year, which made publishers uneasy, so he started using aliases--Tucker Coe, Samuel Holt, Edwin West, and more. Doing that, he produced a truly mammoth body of work that included heist novels, private-eye novels, and even the occasional science-fiction story. The most renowned of his aliases was Richard Stark, under which he created the professional thief Parker. The genius of the Parker stories was how lean they were. There was absolutely no fat. A Parker novel was like a shark making its way through the ocean, looking for prey, and the reader was a trapped audience, compelled and too horrified to look away as Parker did whatever was necessary to achieve his goals. They were mean novels with cold, nihilistic hearts. There have been dozens of copycats over the years--some good, most of them bad, but none quite capturing whatever secret ingredient Westlake/Stark used to make the Parker books sing. The economy of words and language in that series was stunning. I’ll admit to being a bigger fan of the Dortmunder novels and Westlake’s standalones, but the Parker canon still holds a special place in my heart.

As everybody probably knows by now, the first Dortmunder novel, The Hot Rock, started out as a Parker novel, but as his protagonist kept failing to get the emerald, Westlake realized that the story was really a comedy. So he changed the main character’s name to John Dortmunder (the surname being one he’d seen on a bar sign somewhere) and the rest was history. The author actually considered Dortmunder to be the more realistic series and the Parker books to be more in the realm of fantasy. Parker stole and killed for greed and an elevated sense of entitlement, while Dortmunder and his blue-collar cohorts stole to pay the rent and buy the necessities of life. Parker would get the parking space he needed; Dortmunder would have to park six blocks away. In the rain. Both were very smart criminals; however, Dortmunder always had a lot of bad luck--and not silly bad luck either, but causing the kind of foul-ups that could happen to anyone. Westlake never used a hammer when a scalpel would serve him better. And it’s wrong to assume that Dortmunder always failed; he usually got away with something, even if it wasn’t what he intended. Sometimes a Dortmunder novel would even turn into a revenge tale, as the thief and his associates tried to ruin the life of whoever had wronged them.

It’s impossible to pigeonhole Donald Westlake as a certain type of writer. As soon as you’re lulled into thinking you know how he works, he’ll hit you with something completely different. Consider, for instance, 1969’s Up Your Banners. It focused on a white teacher (the third in a line of men who all went into the teaching profession) who was working in ’60s Harlem, just as segregation was experiencing its death throes. It’s a comedy. Sort of. It’s a social novel. Sort of. It’s that rarest of novels: important. Slightly more than a decade later, he published a caper novel, Kahawa, set in Africa during the insane regime of Uganda’s Idi Amin. It’s an angry book, and in the foreward of the paperback edition Westlake explained that he couldn’t possibly write something light when so many people were suffering and dying. Not if he wanted to be able to live with himself afterwards. Believe me, it’s not a novel for the faint of heart.

My personal favorite of his standalone works is 1997’s The Ax, about a man who loses his employment at a paper mill and thereafter devises a plan to kill anyone who’s qualified for the job he used to do. It’s the blackest of comedies, but horrifying in how far Westlake takes it. You won’t like protagonist Burke DeVore, but as somebody with a mortgage and a kid in college during bad economic times, you’ll certainly understand him. It’s a frighteningly relevant book nowadays.

Early in his career, in the 1950s and ’60s, Westlake composed a number of pulp porn novels, some under the pseudonym Alan Marshall and at least a couple in collaboration with Lawrence Block. Many years afterward, he penned a raunchy sex comedy, Two Much!, which was adapted into a lame and toothless vehicle for Antonio Banderas that didn’t follow the book at all (for one thing, the protagonist in the novel was in the business of writing pornographic greeting cards). I’d have to give up reading any other novels, just to devour all of those credited to Westlake during his lengthy career. But I prefer to take my time, reading them as I happen to acquire them. Westlake is worth the investment and hours, and I don’t want to go too quickly, because I know it will break my heart when I have nothing else by him to read. It hurts just thinking that this coming summer’s Get Real will be the last new Dortmunder, or that last year’s Dirty Money was the last we’ll see of Parker.

Westlake had themes he would visit recurrently, such as racism and the ability of humans to be cruel to one another, as they are in Kahawa and the Parker novels. He liked to tackle religion, whether to show how it can be harmful and cause trouble (Don’t Ask, 1993), or can be genuinely beneficial to some people (Good Behavior, 1987). Westlake appeared to harbor a special animosity toward rich fat cats who habitually look down on the lower classes and seem able to get away with anything. His characters often faced off with those wealthy yahoos, expressing such similar distaste that you could argue they were all the same guy with different names, perhaps every one of them based on the author himself. In The Ax, he wrote about life in white suburbia, and in his screenplay for the 1987 film The Stepfather, he satirized Ronald Reagan’s White America, where one had to reach a certain standard of living in order to feel accomplished. The plot of that movie (not based on one of Westlake’s books) was simple--it was about a man who’d marry into a family, and as soon as they disappointed him and his idea of perfection, he’d kill them and move onto the next unsuspecting clan.

Although he’s gone now, Donald E. Westlake is in a sense immortal. His work has inspired dozens of writers who will in turn inspire even younger authors. Westlake was truly a force to be reckoned with. There will never be another novelist quite like him.

But don’t just take my word for that. In tribute to the author, we asked dozens of his peers to share their memories of Westlake as a person and a wordsmith. The first batch of tributes appears below; a second set will be posted in The Rap Sheet tomorrow.

Charles Ardai, publisher of Hard Case Crime and author of the new paperback Fifty-to-One:

I first met Don Westlake in 2004, when I contacted him about letting Hard Case Crime reprint his long-lost novel 361. This wasn’t my first exposure to him, obviously--I’ve been reading his books and short stories for as long as I can remember, very nearly as long as I’ve been reading, period. But this was the first time I’d ever interacted with the man personally. And the extraordinary thing was that from the very first e-mail message he wrote me, he exuded a warmth and camaraderie and wit and charm that made me feel we’d been old friends for years. He had an extraordinary gift (entirely apart from all his equally extraordinary gifts as a writer) for making you feel like part of his family, or like he was part of yours. And he was a mensch: a good human being, through and through. And funny--my god, the man could make an e-mail about nothing at all as funny to read as something out of his best books. I think he saved some of his best lines for e-mails to his friends. I loved opening my mail to see if he’d written me something, because I knew whatever it was it would put a smile on my face.

When we worked on Somebody Owes Me Money, I asked him if he’d consider revising the ending of the book. Why, he wanted to know. It was a 38-year-old book, after all. Well, I said, it’s called Somebody Owes Me Money and it’s about a guy who’s owed money, and you get to the end of the book and the business about the money is never resolved. Another writer might have taken umbrage, or at least told me to take a hike, fly a kite, etc. Not Don. A few days later, I get a set of revisions by e-mail, and they’re perfect. Just perfect.

In all, we worked on four books with Don: 361, Lemons Never Lie (written under his Richard Stark pseudonym), Somebody Owes Me Money, and the forthcoming The Cutie, which hits stores at the end of February. The Cutie is the first reprinting in years of Don’s very first novel, originally published [in 1960] as The Mercenaries, and it’s the first publication ever under the title he originally meant for the book to have. He was excited to see it come out, and it breaks my heart that he won’t.

In one of our early e-mail exchanges about publishing his books, Don wrote, “I would love to see some of the earliest books back in print. Otto Penzler expressed surprise at that attitude once, till I told him, ‘The difference between in print and out of print is precisely the difference between life and death.’ Then he got it.”

Earlier this month, Don Westlake went out of print. But as long as readers love great crime stories, his work never will.

Craig McDonald, author of Toros & Torsos:

This is one of those deaths--one of those losses--you can’t really wrap your mind around. There’s such depth and breadth to the man’s work that even those who never read one of his novels published under his own name or a host of pseudonyms probably still saw a movie or TV treatment touched by Donald E. Westlake. You look at the man’s biography and just marvel. And that’s the other thing: 75 seems like a ripe old age, but with so many long-lived male crime writers, D.W. might easily have reached 80 or 85, which with his composition speed might have given us another dozen or so novels. Again, a loss too profound to comprehend.

Cornelia Read, author of The Crazy School:

One of the greats, gone far too soon. That Westlake was so prolific while maintaining such tremendously high quality as a writer is daunting for any author to contemplate; but his self-deprecating wit--extending even to the observations on his Web site--just makes me want to buy the man a drink in thanks. I’m saddened I never got the chance to.

Jeremiah Healy, the creator of private eye John Francis Cuddy and author of Turnabout:

I’ve always felt incredibly lucky to have been in the audience when Donald Westlake received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America [in 1993]. I also had the privilege of serving with him on a number of panels held during an equal number of events. What I will always remember about Don is the extraordinary variety of voices through which he could tell crime-inspired stories. His passing is a seismic shudder in our “Force.”

Linwood Barclay, author of the standalone thrillers No Time for Goodbye and Too Close to Home:

Donald Westlake could do it all. He could write funny, he could write serious, but most of all, he could just write. I loved his comic thrillers as much as his minimalist Parker novels, and while they seemed very different, they had much in common. An economy of language. Understatement. Brilliant plotting. Great dialogue. First Ed McBain, now Westlake--two of the greatest writers, in any genre, of the last 50 years.

Robert Ferrigno, author of Scavenger Hunt, Prayers for the Assassin, and Sins of the Assassin:

I never had the privilege of meeting Donald Westlake, but the joy he took in his work is evident on every page. If I had the chance, I would have thanked him for teaching me a couple of important things. One, that comedy is an essential part of good crime writing, both for the pleasure it gives readers, and because the only true criminal masterminds are on Wall Street. Most crooks are as nervous and inept as the rest of us, they just play for higher stakes. I’d also thank him for showing through the sheer numbers and vitality of his novels that writers never quit. Writers write. No excuses, no regrets, because there’s always a story that has to be told, and we’re the ones lucky enough to get tapped to do it.

Maggie Griffin, partner at Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers, New York City:

Don Westlake is irreplaceable.

Gary Phillips, editor of Politics Noir: Dark Tales from the Corridors of Power:

I only met Donald Westlake one time, so I didn’t know him as a person and wasn’t much of a fan of his humorous novels, though I appreciated the adroitness with which he pulled them off. But his Parker books, from their initial run in the ’60s and ’70s and his return to the professional thief’s arena taking him into this new seen-it-all century, still fuckin’ rock me in place. Cold-blooded, clear-eyed, and efficient, and with not one wasted word in text or pacing, the Parker canon is the stuff that will last generations.

Peter Robinson, author of the forthcoming All the Colors of Darkness:

Richard Stark was one of the first writers that got me interested in crime fiction way back, and I felt honored to spend some time with Don and [his wife] Abigail at “Darkness in the Sunlight,” a crime writers’ conference held at Club Med in the Bahamas. I last saw Don at a book festival in Virginia a few years ago and we had dinner with a group of other writers. As ever, he was an intelligent, warm, and extremely funny dinner companion. I’ll miss him, and so will the whole mystery community.

James O. Born, author of Burn Zone:

I met Donald Westlake at the Black Orchid Bookshop in New York just before my first novel came out. He was as friendly and funny as you would expect. Everyone who knew him mentioned how success had never gone to his head. His novels have a sarcastic, funny quality to them that captures real life the way we wished it played out. I could get lost in his novels for hours.

Joseph Wambaugh, author of Hollywood Crows:

Shortly after the publication of my first novel, I had the pleasure of reading Cops and Robbers [1972]. Both the novel and movie adaptation were written by the incredibly prolific Donald E. Westlake. His work helped me to realize the possibility of leavening my future cops tales with lots of gallows humor. But I knew that I’d never be able to match Mr. Westlake’s ingenious plotting ability and nobody else would either. He was one of a kind.

Joe R. Lansdale, author of Leather Maiden and Vanilla Ride:

Oh, hell. I can’t believe he’s gone. I didn’t really know Don. I met him once and he was fun and lively and witty, and I was honored to be in his presence. He could write anything and in any voice. I loved his Parker novels especially. He is a loss of immeasurable proportions.

Anthony Neil Smith, author of Yellow Medicine:

When it comes to Westlake, I can’t say much. But when it comes to Stark, there’s so much to say. Which is ironic, considering his name tells you what you need to know about him. Stark. Man of the fewest possible words. Only the necessary ones. But, holy shit, what great words. As a writer, I look at every page and wonder, “How many of these words would Stark cut out?” Then I try to do it myself.

Stark was minimalist crime fiction. The Parker books were stripped clean of the old staple of “justice.” He made you root for the bad guy. It was all about the job, the story, the people stuck in the middle--which is why the second section of those books shifted point of view to a variety of supporting characters--and the consequences of getting in Parker’s way. He was like the Angel of Death, judging none except those who had outlived their usefulness.

I came to Stark in grad school when I ordered Comeback [1997] on a whim along with The Ax. It made me blink a few times and do a one-eighty. While I’d known for a while that I wanted to write crime fiction, grad school in creative writing tends to screw with your head and make you want to be literary and important. But Stark books were important, and fun, and pure pulp. He wrote them as if it was the last thing he ever had to do and was already running late. And I’ll read them again and again.

Losing Crumley, that was a hard one. The sense of wonder and weirdness that his work gave me--the sheer audacity to write that!--is forever seared in my mind. And now we’ve lost Richard Stark, who showed me that being a pulp writer was a damned fine thing for a man to be, and he should hold his head high in any company. And also: don’t ever waste a word.

Gerald So, fiction editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site and co-editor of The Lineup: Poems on Crime:

I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface of Westlake’s body of work. We never met, but despite the number and breadth of his stories, I feel I got to know him in every one I read--a tribute to his talent for and dedication to narrative voice.

Tim Maleeny, author of Greasing the Piñata and Jump:

I remember seeing Donald Westlake on a panel during Edgar [Awards] week, alongside several award-winning authors, and what struck me was that all the other writers were so clearly in awe of him. Despite their success, they saw him in a completely different sphere of influence. Read his books and you’ll know why. His writing was so effortless, his sense of humor and observation so pitch-perfect, there was really nobody who came close. Westlake was in a class by himself.

Paul Johnston, author of The Death List:

Donald Westlake was a great hero of mine in my mid-teens and undoubtedly was a contributing factor to my becoming a crime writer. I have happy memories of being roundly criticized by one of my schoolteachers for bringing Point Blank [1962] to class. “Why are you wasting your time with that rubbish?” was his line of attack. Needless to say, I continued reading that brilliant novel between lessons and let its unique take on the revenge tale drip into my soul.

Thank you, Donald.

Jason Starr, author The Follower and Fake I.D.:

Donald Westlake was the true Grand Master. He had an enormous impact on the crime-fiction genre for six decades, and his impact will continue to be felt for decades to come.

Steve Brewer, author of Cutthroat:

Don Westlake was my hero. I am never more thrilled than when a reviewer or a reader compares my books to his. It means I’m getting closer.

Terrill Lee Lankford, author of the novels Blonde Lightning and Earthquake Weather:

I was making a sandwich in the kitchen when the guy kicked in the back door, screaming “Donald Westlake is dead!”

The phone rang. I picked it up and smashed the guy in the face with it before he could say another word. He grunted and hit the floor. I put the receiver to my ear. The voice on the other end said, “Richard Stark has died. They got Tucker Coe, too.”

I said, “Go to hell,” and hung up. I turned on the computer and went surfing.

It was true. Three of my favorite writers had died. All in one night. A great screenwriter as well. What more was there to say?

I grabbed The Hunter off the bookshelf, picked up a bottle of blended whiskey and a cigar, and went out into the backyard for a smoke, a drink, and a damn good read.

Bill Crider, author of Murder in Four Parts and Of All Sad Words:

Sometime in the middle to late 1960s, I picked up a copy of a nondescript paperback called The Hunter. I didn’t have to read more than a page or so before I knew Richard Stark was a writer whose work I was going to follow. Which I did. I picked up books already published and then bought each one as it hit the twirling paperback racks. Wonderful stuff--and the current Stark books are, too. It’s hard to believe that they’re only a small portion of Donald E. Westlake’s total output, a great deal of which I’ve read, enjoyed, and admired. The man was a master, one of a kind. He’s gone much too soon, but at least he’s left a tremendous body of work behind him. Now that the Stark books are being reprinted, some unsuspecting reader is going to come across one and be taken by surprise the way I was more than 40 years ago. He’ll say, “Holy smoke! This is great!” And then go on to read all the others. A legacy like that is hard to beat.

Steve Hockensmith, author of The Black Dove:

Donald Westlake wasn’t just great; he was great in a million, totally different ways. The Ax is not The Hunter is not The Hot Rock is not the film version of The Grifters--not by a long shot. But they’re all classics. I’m sure there would have been a lot more classics to come if we hadn’t lost him when we did.

Thomas Perry, author of Runner:

Donald Westlake was a national treasure. He could write funny, startling, suspenseful books with an ease and grace that the rest of us can only contemplate with admiration and wonder. Thinking about his work makes me wish I’d written him a fan letter before now. But I’m sure he would have done that better and faster too.

James Sallis, author of Salt River:

The last time I saw Don Westlake, I told him that my next novel was dedicated, in part, to him. He laughed and, mugging heartily, got onto the elevator. That book was Drive, in which I tried for a contemporary version of the sort of novels he’d been writing back in the Stark/Parker days.

The world is a far bleaker place without him. Donald Westlake was not only an example to me and hundreds of other writers, not only someone from whom we cribbed shamelessly; he is a part of the very way in which we experience our worlds.

James Reasoner, author of Dust Devils:

Donald E. Westlake moved back and forth between genres as effortlessly, and as well, as any writer who ever lived. He was one of the giants of the mystery field, a personal favorite of mine for more than 40 years, and I’ll really miss his work.

Michael Simon, author of The Last Jew Standing:

More than any crime writer since Damon Runyon, Donald Westlake redefined crime fiction by showing it through the lens of comedy. And he redefined heroes by showing us that they could also be schmucks.

Reed Farrel Coleman, author of Empty Ever After:

Donald Westlake should serve as an example to everyone in the community. Although I wasn’t well-acquainted with Mr. Westlake, we had shaken hands a few times and exchanged some pleasantries. What amazed me about the man, beyond his prodigious talent and staggering production, was his dedication to the art and craft of crime-fiction writing. He never let the fame, success, or accolades outshine what was truly important: the work. If there was any one writer who exemplified what a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master should be, Donald Westlake was that man.

(Author photograph by Mary Reagan. Used with permission.)

(Part II of the Westlake tribute can be found here.)


Corey Wilde said...

This is a wonderful tribute to Mr. Westlake, and I thank you for it. Problem is, I'm still in denial. He can't be gone, damn it.

Bill Cameron said...

I think Corey says it too well. The more time that passes, the harder it is for me to accept. Thank you for this, Cameron.

Randy Johnson said...

He left us much too soon. The Parkers were my favorites, but, just yesterday, I finished The Ax and I DID sympathize a bit with Devore. Not the murderous impulses, but I've been through that downsizing three times in my working life. My business was textiles, though, instead of paper.
The only consolation, not much, is the fun catching up on all the books I haven't read.
Dammit, I'd much rather be falling farther behind as each new book came out.

Anonymous said...

A wonderful 'hommage' to the great writer. But isn't it time that his books were reprinted and not only collectors items at vast prices. Hope I am still alive the day I can finally get all the books I want without having to imagine robbing a bank, with Dortmunders help, to pay for them.