Rest in Peace, Donald Westlake
Friday, January 2, 2009
posted by Mark Finn
It may seem strange to readers of this blog that I would mention the passing of one of the greatest crime writers of the 20th century, but bear with me, I’ll get there.
I loved Donald Westlake, and all of his various pseudonyms. There wasn’t a Westlake book I picked up that I didn’t come away from it thinking something about the craft of writing, the art of plotting, or the sheer joy in a heist gone wrong (or sometimes right). He, along with Raymond Chandler, John Collier, and Robert E. Howard, continue to be sources of inspiration and maddening envy to me as a writer.
So many people, critics and fans alike, described Westlake as a “writer’s writer,” and sometimes I think that’s code for “respected, but not widely read.” I know the stats of his decades long publishing career would tell an entirely different tale. Otherwise, why would the Parker novels, written by his dour namesake, Richard Stark, continue to fascinate new audiences so many years after they were first published? Who else BUT the fans have continued to buy and support the hapless John Dortmunder and all of his various shenanigans over the years? No, Westlake of the 21st century was just as vital as he was in the 20th century.
The tributes are already pouring in from writers and professionals. This is a good thing. Westlake deserves to be lionized for his efforts. He was a master of his craft, both in style and substance. And he was ridiculously influential. Anyone who has read more than one Parker novel can spot the Westlake touch in films like Reservoir Dogs and The Usual Suspects. There’s such a Parker-like demeanor to Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White in the scene where he’s explaining to Tim Roth (Mr. Orange) how to extract information from reluctant tellers and managers that it’s hard to believe that Tarantino wasn’t chowing down on those novels in his formative years.
The thing that I most admired about Westlake was his ability to plot, and plot deftly, without ever a false note or leg pulling. Everything happens in a Westlake novel just so, and you can’t imagine it going down any other way (except maybe in the minds of the characters). I never knew how any Westlake novel was going to turn out. Ever. You can’t see ‘em coming. He was so good at throwing curveballs, you never knew when one of them was going to brush you back from the plate. Case in point: High Adventure.
This is my favorite Donald Westlake book, ever. I won’t spoil it for you, but check this out. We get a typically Westlake scheme all set up for us in the first third of the book. One of the other characters, seeing the scheme in play, identifies part A, B, D, and F. Using those few clues as his framework, he deduces an entirely different, equally plausible scheme, and from that point in the book forward, acts as if His scheme is the main scheme.
He did this in the span of a single chapter.
When I first read the book in the early nineties, I put it down and swore. Loudly. Writers have enough trouble working up one good plot, and Westlake here worked up two. It was brilliant. I’d never seen anything like that in a caper novel before (and that’s because, while Westlake didn’t invent the caper novel, he sure as hell perfected them). To this day, that novel brings a grin to my face and I’ve read it several times since then.
What first brought me to the party was, of course, Richard Stark and his Uber-Thief, Parker. I want to publicly thank bookseller Ron Tater for introducing me to them, and at a time when they weren’t commercially available from anyone. My Parker collection is complete (including Butcher’s Moon, and yes, you may eat your heart out now) thanks to him. Anyway, I came to these stories because I was interested in reading more crime fiction, having exhausted myself on Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, and several others. Ron flipped me a spare copy of a John D. McDonald novel (the name escapes me; obviously, it didn’t stick) and Point Blank by Richard Stark. “Parker’s got this kind of a code,” Ron said, “that I think you’ll enjoy finding out about.”
Jeez, what an understatement. I had to read about Parker’s adventures piecemeal, since that was how the books came to me. However, when I finally got my last few books in the series, I sat down and read them in order and just marveled at the dark and complicated world that Sta–Westlake had created. That’s when I began gravitating to non-Stark Westlake books, and that was when my appreciation of Westlake the writer really took off.
See, if you were to judge Westlake solely on his Stark novels, your picture of the man would be misanthropic at best. They are downbeat, sometimes bitter, and full of hard men with no remorse. As a worldview, they project the cynical underbelly of civilization as corrupt and deceitful. Speak up if this reminds you of another author, now. One of my favorite first lines (and there’s a whole website devoted to them) in a Parker novel is this: “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.” How matter-of-fact a murder description is that? However, Westlake’s comic capers (Dortmunder and otherwise) are full of wry observations (I’m thinking of Dancing Aztecs in particular), clever storytelling, funny dialogue, and utterly real people who may be a lot of things, but really bad isn’t one of them. It’s the other side of the Stark coin, which we could imagine as scarred, like that of Two-Face (triple nerd points for the Batman reference).
I think that Westlake the author was able to see both sides of humanity in flattering ways. After all, we admire some aspects of Parker’s character, even as we’re creeped out by his quiet sociopathy. And you have to appreciate a thief like Dortmunder who spends an entire novel trying not to kill anyone, going so far as to muck up his own plans so that it doesn’t happen. There’s humanity and compassion in Westlake’s books, and sometimes in the most unexpected places. He wrote of mankind at its most base and at its most noble, and frequently walked the fine edge between the two in the same story. He made his readers laugh, cry, wonder and think.
I loved Donald Westlake. He was one of the people I wanted to be when I grew up. I’m sorry I never got the chance to tell him that. Cimmerian readers, if you haven’t read any Parker novels, you really should. Start with The Hunter. The prose is terse and elegant, the violence well-written, and the worldview utterly Howardian.