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Novelist Gets His Revenge--and a Prize : Movies: After years of seeing his own mysteries adapted by others, Donald E. Westlake is cited by his peers for adapting ‘The Grifters.’

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mystery writers, from Edgar Allan Poe forward, have been a rich source of supply for the movies and television. Among innumerable films made from the novels and stories of Cornell Woolrich, for example, there are Truffaut’s “The Bride Wore Black” and Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.” Erle Stanley Gardner and Agatha Christie have spawned whole cottage industries for the visual media.

Donald E. Westlake made his film debut, so to speak, with the now-classic “Point Blank,” the John Boorman thriller adapted from a novel called “The Hunter,” which Westlake wrote under one of his several pseudonyms, Richard Stark. “The Split,” starring Jim Brown, was also based on a Westlake-as-Stark novel, “The Seventh.” “The Busy Body,” with Robert Ryan and Sid Caesar, was taken from a comic mystery Westlake wrote in his own name. But, in all three instances, the scripts were done by others. Always a best man, never a groom, so to speak.

Indeed, William Goldman wrote the script of the very successful “The Hot Rock,” a comic caper film that starred Robert Redford and George Segal. “The Bank Shot” (George C. Scott, Joanna Cassidy) was adapted by Wendell Mayes, both from Westlake novels.

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Westlake did get to write a movie, an original, “Cops and Robbers,” a satiric caper film released in 1973. He sensibly wrote the novel later, and it confirmed the widespread view among mystery fans that Westlake, who can write as hard-boiled as the next guy, is at heart the funniest mystery writer in America.

Having been mostly known to mystery readers and story-starved producers all these years, Westlake is now becoming a more public figure. He turned adapter himself, and wrote the script of “The Grifters,” from the noir novel by the late Jim Thompson. Westlake’s script was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, losing both to Michael Blake’s “Dances With Wolves.”

But a few days ago in New York, Westlake’s “The Grifters” was voted best mystery script of the year by the Mystery Writers of America, and he won the porcelain bust of Edgar Allan Poe, the most coveted prize in the field.

Accepting the prize, Westlake grinned and said, “As you know I was under Indian attack twice earlier in the year. You have no idea how nice it is to be back in the fort.”

Off the success of “The Grifters,” Hollywood is paying newly respectful attention to Westlake. He is now working on two film projects: “Emerald City,” an offbeat thriller set in Galveston, which he is now rewriting for Tri-Star and Dustin Hoffman, and “Love in the Attic,” which Richard Donner will direct for Columbia, based on a true story about a wife who kept her lover hidden in the attic for 12 years (several attics, actually, as she and her husband kept moving). The lover, with little else to do in the attic, became a successful writer of adventure stories. It sounds like prime material for Westlake’s splendidly eccentric view of human nature.

The novels that have endeared him to readers include “Trust Me on This,” a wickedly detailed story set at a weekly suspiciously resembling the National Enquirer. It incorporates some research Westlake did for a movie for television on a scandal sheet, which in the end the network dropped as too sensitive politically.

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In “Drowned Hopes,” which was published last year, a wonderfully incompetent gang tries to reclaim some loot buried in an airtight coffin that now, alas, rests beneath a new man-made lake. Westlake has a penchant for sustained slapstick that suggests he and Buster Keaton would have been a great team.

“Dancing Aztecs” (1976) are small plaster figurines just shipped out of a fictional Latin-American country. One of the figurines is not plaster but solid gold, set with emeralds and worth a cool mill. But it has been confused with all the others in the shipment and several teams of miscreants, each greedier than the others, are tracking the now-dispersed statuettes all over the Metropolitan New York area in search of the right one.

The book’s richness of invention is amazing. It may be Westlake’s personal favorite. “I said when I set it up that this is a stew that will hold all the ingredients you want to stuff into it,” Westlake said the other day in his tall, thin Greenwich Village house. “It’s five movies; that’s the trouble. But it would make a very funny miniseries--if anybody made funny miniseries. Nobody does; humor is anathema in miniseries. Too bad.”

Westlake, now 58, was born in New York and raised in Albany. He started writing after a hitch in the Air Force. “For the first 10 years,” Westlake says, “I was a writer masquerading as a mystery writer.”

He could have gone in any direction. “In terms of reading, I’m an omnivore,” he says.

What he saw finally was that he had a gift for story. “The best fiction writers are always interested in story,” Westlake says, “and more than any other genre, mystery requires a story or a tale.”

Writing “The Grifters” was a treat, Westlake says, because director Stephen Frears likes the writer on the set all the time. “They couldn’t pay me for four weeks in the middle, and that’s when they made all the mistakes,” he says, kiddingly.

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Westlake pursues his particular vision of the criminal world in which a kind of bemused criminal incompetence rather than innate evil--farce not fury--is the order of march. His kinship is indeed with Buster Keaton and not, say, Stephen King. His characters may not be admirable, but they tend to be very likable. His triumph in “The Grifters” was to make a trio of disreputable characters comprehensible and, in the end, figures of something like sympathy.

In general, this year’s Edgar awards confirmed the impact that women are having in the mystery field. The prize for best first mystery went to Patricia Daniels Cornwell for “Postmortem,” about a Richmond, Va., medical examiner, a woman based on the real-life woman in whose office the author has actually worked. The book also won Britain’s John Creasey award for best first novel, a rare double triumph.

The Edgar for best novel went to Julie Smith for “New Orleans Morning,” whose protagonist is also a woman, a policewoman investigating some high-society murders.

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