Under any name, Donald Westlake was a grandmaster
Donald E. Westlake is dead. This simple sentence can’t even begin to encapsulate the enormity of this event. Because it also means Richard Stark has passed on too, as has Tucker Coe and Samuel Holt, Timothy J. Culver and J. Morgan Cunningham and a slew of other pen names best left to gather dust. The sum of these pseudonymous parts is a writing career well over 100 novels strong, running the gamut from overt comedy to biting satire, subtle existentialism to social commentary, and downright impossible to emulate in today’s publishing climate.
Westlake’s death at age 75, of an apparent heart attack on New Year’s Eve, comes ever closer to bringing down the curtain on a bygone era.
Lest one confuse prolific output with mediocrity, think again. Westlake came of age during the heyday of the paperback revolution, when quantity was rewarded at a penny a word by houses looking for lurid tales worthy of the racy cover art. With families to feed and deadlines to meet, there wasn’t time to fuss over the right turn of phrase or elongated story lines -- or to thumb a nose at a particular genre. During his six-decade career, Westlake wrote sleazy novels and children’s books, penned Oscar-nominated film scripts like “The Grifters” and epic television flops like “Supertrain,” dabbled in science fiction and even cooked up a biography of Elizabeth Taylor. But his best home was always crime fiction, as seen through the fun-house mirror of works written under his real name and by his darker alter ego, Stark.
Early Westlake works such as “The Mercenaries” (1960) -- which Hard Case Crime republished in March under its original title, “The Cutie” -- and “361” (1961) seem like training exercises for the Stark voice: tough, lean, skimping on internal monologue in favor of plot moved forward through dialogue and action.
Stark’s final polish came with “The Hunter” (1962), which introduced the one-named thief Parker to literary soil (and slowly coming back into print courtesy of the University of Chicago Press). For 20 installments published through the end of the Nixon era, Parker never apologized, never explained and, despite untold distractions, cared most about the job at hand -- which made the many attempts to capture him on celluloid problematic (Lee Marvin in 1967’s “Point Blank” came close, but Mel Gibson’s “Payback” (1999) missed by a mile).
And when Parker went underground for two decades, brought back to life only in the appropriately titled “Comeback” (1997), he and his creator were true to form: never looking back, moving only ahead to the next heist. “Dirty Money,” published last year, marks Parker’s end only by default, not by choice.
Stark’s Rip Van Winkle act afforded Westlake the chance to indulge his lighter side, most gloriously with the many novels featuring John Archibald Dortmunder. Where Stark was taciturn, Dortmunder was likable. Where Stark relied most on himself, Dortmunder put trust in the motley crew he’d meet with in the back room of the O.J. Bar and Grill. And where Stark was icily competent and ruthless, Dortmunder seemed a veritable Charlie Brown, accepting the vagaries of fate when complicated plots like stealing a prized jewel six times (“The Hot Rock”), robbing a mobile bank (“Bank Shot”), stealing a gold chess set meant as a gift for Russia’s last czar (2007’s “What’s So Funny?”), kidnapping someone according to a scheme mapped out in a Richard Stark novel (“Jimmy the Kid”) or carrying out their next score on reality television (the forthcoming “Get Real”) derail in spectacular, eye-popping fashion.
Dortmunder and Parker will, and should, be Westlake’s lasting legacy, but to my mind his best work takes place outside the confines of long-running series. The out-of-print gem “Dancing Aztecs” (1976), a love song to Westlake’s beloved home of New York City wrapped inside an all-borough scavenger hunt for 16 gold statues of Aztec priests, still makes me guffaw with pleasure years after I read it. He wielded his satirical sword at the country music industry (“Baby, Would I Lie?”), the book world (“A Likely Story” and “The Hook”), Idi Amin (“Kawaha”) and even Almighty God (“Humans”).
I suspect that the current recessionary roller coaster will attract readers to “The Ax,” Westlake’s 1997 tome of how one man decides to solve his perpetual post-layoff joblessness by eliminating the competition -- literally. Burke Devore is angry, frustrated and more than a little horrified at what he will do and later justify, and through him Westlake portrays the palpable paranoia in the wake of the pink slip:
“As the computer takes our jobs, most people don’t seem to realize why it’s happening. Why was I fired, they want to know, when the company’s in the black and doing better than ever? And the answer is, we were fired because the computer made us unnecessary and made mergers possible and our absence makes the company even stronger, and the dividends even larger, the return on investment even more generous.”
Westlake wasn’t trying to be prescient here or in his other work: His natural ability to observe human behavior and to follow an idea, no matter how bizarre, through to its proper, rightful finish echoed the vision of an architect, the array of moves available only to a chess grandmaster. That he could accomplish all this beneath the veneer of elegant mischief and make it look effortless in the process is all the more astonishing.
No matter what, Donald E. Westlake echoed the advice he once dispensed to the publishing industry: He always paid attention. Now it’s our turn to give this incomparable writer under any name his deserved due.
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