Mastering the Art of the Bad-Luck Caper

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sherlock Holmes always said that Professor James Moriarty possessed the greatest criminal mind the world had ever known. Sherlock never met Donald E. Westlake. During the last four decades, Westlake's overactive gray matter has conceived of countless murders, robberies and other felonies more diabolic and complex than any that the so-called Napoleon of Crime could have dreamed of.

Fortunately, he has used his dark genius for good and not for evil, turning his criminal inspirations into wickedly amusing books and motion pictures. Examples of both are currently available. The novel "Bad News" is the ninth typically hilarious entry in his popular series about thief John Dortmunder and his bad-luck capers, this one involving grave robbery, casino chicanery and DNA deception. "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" is a movie based on the last Dortmunder misadventure, starring Martin Lawrence and Danny DeVito.

Dapper in blue blazer and regimental tie, seated atop a tufted chair in his suite at the E Hotel in Westwood, far from the rural New York home he shares with his wife, Abby Adams, the author looks nothing like Sherlock's nemesis. Rather, he resembles one of Alfred Hitchcock's genial characters, charming and humorous except for the odd moment when you glimpse the razor-sharp blades whirring behind the smiling eyes.

Westlake has penned nearly 80 novels that he'll own up to; approximately half carry his name. Twenty-three hard-boiled tales bear the pseudonym Richard Stark. Five psychological thrillers are attributed to Tucker Coe. Those remaining are listed under a variety of noms de plume, including Curt Clark, Timothy J. Culver and "the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham."

"The Cunningham opus was the result of an idle comment made during a poker game years ago," the author explains. "At the time, Arthur Hailey was famous for books like 'Airport' and 'Hotel.' I casually mentioned that somebody ought to do a parody of him, set it in the men's room in Bryant Park and call it 'Comfort Station.' " A few days later, his agent, who'd been at the game, called to say he'd sold the book. "What book?" Westlake remembers inquiring.

"He told me he'd had his secretary spend all morning trying to type the proposal on toilet paper. Then he had it hand-delivered to an editor at Signet. . . . An offer was on the table, so I had to actually read the Hailey books. And the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham wrote his one and only novel. On its cover, by the way, is a quote, 'I wish I'd written this book. Donald E. Westlake.' "

"Comfort Station" notwithstanding, Westlake has achieved the kind of acclaim bestowed on few crime writers. In 1993, he was presented the Grand Master Award of the Mystery Writers of America, joining such previously acknowledged legends as Graham Greene, Elmore Leonard and Ross Macdonald.

Author and editor of Mystery Scene magazine Ed Gorman has called Westlake "the dominant mystery writer of his generation." The secret of his success seems to be a penchant for . . . no, make that an obsession, to create impossible crimes, then figure out ways of carrying them off. Or, in the case of Dortmunder, having them go awry.

He's had the hapless thief steal an entire bank ("Bank Shot"), break into an emerging nation's New York embassy to lift a sacred relic, the thigh bone of a cannibalized saint ("Don't Ask"), and don a diver's helmet to dig up loot covered by a new reservoir ("Drowned Hopes"), all to little avail. The tales are fresh, funny and fast-paced, but Westlake isn't satisfied with that; he adds genuine suspense to the mix and, every now and then, surprising poignancy.

As Stark, he's pushed his more serious felon, career criminal Parker, into out-intimidating organized crime ("The Hunter" and "The Outfit"), taking over an entire town ("The Score") and knocking over an assortment of difficult targets, from a floating casino ("Backflash") to the heavily guarded donation box of an evangelist's Christian crusade ("Comeback"). The mood here is darker than shadow, the style spare and hard-boiled and utterly convincing.

Where do the ideas come from? "I'll tell you how I got started on 'Bad News,' " Westlake says. "I kept reading about how there was an absolutely irrefutable bit of proof, and it was called DNA. I thought, 'Hmmm . . . we'll see.' "

Film director Stephen Frears played on Westlake's fondness for figuring out how to do the un-doable. On the heels of Westlake's successful screenplay for the sleeper hit "The Stepfather," he was offered the job of adapting the Jim Thompson novel "The Grifters," a grim tale that explores con artistry and mother love. He turned it down. Frears phoned him to ask, "Why don't you want to do my film?" "I told him, 'It's too gloomy.' He said, 'No, it isn't. Looking at it as the son's story, it's about defeat and death. But if you see it as the mother's story, then it's about the price of survival.' Still not exactly the Trapp family, but I saw his point.

" 'The problem,' I told him, 'is that the way the story is constructed, you have to meet the son first, then the son's girlfriend and then the mother. How do you explain to the audience that the person the movie is about is the one who turns up third on the screen?' Frears said what they always say, 'Well, you're the writer.' "

Point taken. A week later, Westlake had the answer. "You begin with a triptych. You have the three characters going through doors in different places in their lives. They begin on an even keel, and from there, you can make it the mother's story." His script for the movie was nominated for an Academy Award.

Though recently two of his darker stand-alone tales, "The Ax" and "The Hook," have carried Westlake beyond the mystery genre onto bestseller lists, it's the continuing sagas of his two thieves, Parker and Dortmunder, that have fueled his career via book sales and film adaptations, making crime pay quite handsomely. "Neither started out to be a series," he wryly notes, "leading me to the belief that a writer is better off if he doesn't know what he's doing."

He began the Parker saga in 1962. By then, at 29, he'd served in the Air Force and "worked at a lot of different oddball jobs." He'd published about 30 short stories and three well-received Dashiell Hammett-inspired hardcover novels when he decided to try his hand at a pseudonymous paperback original. His intention was to create a noir yarn similar to the gritty Gold Medal softcovers by writers such as Peter Rabe, a personal favorite.

To that end, he had his anti-hero take on the mob to reclaim money stolen from him by an ex-partner, who had, not incidentally, also tried to kill him. Titled "The Hunter," the book was turned down by Gold Medal, but it was warmly received at Pocket Books by an editor with the unlikely name of Bucklin Moon.

"I'd written Parker as a cold, remorseless son of a gun who dies at the end. Buck in his wisdom said he liked the character and if I could find it in my heart to let him live, he would publish three Parker books a year. I told him I could probably do that."

Readers loved Parker, and so did filmmakers. In 1967, "The Hunter" was adapted into a world-class crime movie, "Point Blank," starring Lee Marvin. Jim Brown played the hardened thief in "The Split," Robert Duval in "The Outfit," Peter Coyote in the seldom-seen "Slayground," and, in Jean-Luc Godard's "Made in U.S.A.," the role was filled by Anna Karina.

"Parker's been played by several white men, a black man and a woman," Westlake says with a laugh. "As my friend Joe Goldberg has observed, this could mean the character needs definition."

About 27 years ago, "Parker went away, I'm not sure why. I just ran dry," the author says. Then, in 1996, for reasons equally unclear, the character popped back into his typewriter. That appropriately titled account of Parker's recidivism, "Comeback," was saluted by fans old and new, and the series continues to flourish. Two years ago, the film "Point Blank" was retooled as the Mel Gibson vehicle "Payback."

Westlake wasn't terribly happy with the film. "It's an all-right movie, I guess, but the character wasn't Parker. Parker is not a mutt." There was another annoying aspect of the movie. "When the book was originally sold, there was nothing in the contract about remakes, so I got nothing from 'Payback.' Actually, I got a screening." He'll probably fare a little better financially when producer Joel Silver ("Lethal Weapon," "The Matrix") films the three Parker novels he recently optioned.

A Thriller Turns Funny

The Dortmunder series began just as haphazardly as the Parker. In 1965, while writing "The Fugitive Pigeon," a straight thriller about a mobster's nephew who winds up on everybody's hit list, the author was surprised by the tone of his manuscript. "I called my agent and said, 'This one's coming out funny.' And he said, 'Don't do that. You're not going to get a paperback sale. You're not going to get any foreign translations because nobody can translate comedy. You'll cut your income in half or worse.' But I kinda liked the nephew, and the writing was coming along fast. I said I'd just do this one and get back on track on the next one."

That didn't happen, because "Pigeon" took flight, followed by "The Busy Body," "The Spy in the Ointment" and the award-winning "God Save the Mark," each more hilarious and selling more copies than the last. To satisfy his darker creative moods, Westlake shifted into Stark.

But in 1970, a Parker plot wasn't working. "I had him steal the same object several times because something keeps going wrong with his plans. But there was a danger in that: Repeating the crime could make him look like a jerk. Not good. But I liked the idea, so I decided to find another hero, one who was a bit more Westlake than Stark. I called him Dortmunder after the beer. The word had such a nice gloomy sound to it.

"The book was titled 'The Hot Rock.' It was so thoroughly not going to be a series that my then-agent again got a bit careless about things like remakes and sequels when selling the movie rights. I immediately lost the name 'Dortmunder' for future films."

As some compensation perhaps, the name was retired by Robert Redford, who played the role in "The Hot Rock." Over the years, the character has been played by a variety of actors, from George C. Scott to Christopher Lambert to the present Martin Lawrence, employing a variety of other names (all, by the author's suggestion, derived from beers).

"There was one series that was planned from the beginning," Westlake admits. "The books by Tucker Coe. They're about Mitch Tobin, a guilt-ridden, disgraced former cop who has withdrawn from society. I knew it wouldn't be a long series, because he'd either get over his depression or become a hopeless, permanent neurotic. Either way, he'd be of no further use to me. The series ended after five books."

The Tobin quintet has just returned from three decades of print oblivion, appearing in uniform hardcover editions from Five Star. Might this encourage the author to give the ex-cop a few more cases to solve? "The character changed," he says. "What could I possibly do with him now?"

Well, as Stephen Frears reminded him, he's the writer. Given the proper encouragement, no doubt he can think of something.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The World According to Dortmunder

For the life of him, Dortmunder couldn't figure out how he'd been bamboozled into this. Standing on the southeast corner of 37th and Lex at 1 in the morning, waiting to be driven out to a cemetery to dig a grave. And then undig it again. It wasn't right. It was menial, it was undignified, and it didn't fit his history, his pattern, his M.O. "I'm overqualified for this," he complained.

Kelp, waiting cheerfully beside him as though ditch digging were the height of his ambition, said, "John, it's the easiest grand we'll ever take in."

"It's manual labor," Dortmunder said.

"Yes, I know," Kelp agreed, "that's the downside. But look at it this way. It's also illegal."

"It's more manual than illegal," Dortmunder said.

--From "Bad News," by Donald Westlake

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