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|Donald E. Westlake (1933-2008)|
Prolific American writer, master of caper-comedies and hard-boiled crime stories, whose career spanned over 40 years. Donald E. Westlake published more than 100 books. He also wrote under the pseudonyms Curt Clark, Tucker Coe, Timothy J. Culver, Samuel Holt, and Richard Stark. "Being prolific is at once both delightful and embarrassing," Westlake said in Twentieth-century Crime and Mystery Writers (edited by John M. Reilly 1985).
"John Dortmunder, professional thief, with his sloped shoulders, shapeless clothing, lifeless hair-colored hair, pessimistic nose and rusty-hinge gait, knew he could if he wished, look exactly like your normal average working man, even though, so far as he knew, he had never earned an honest dollar in his life." (from 'Now What', 1999)
Donald Edwin Westlake was born in Brooklyn, New York, into a family of Irish background. His father, Albert Joseph Westlake, was a salesman, and mother Lillian (Bounds) Westlake. He was educated in Catholic schools in Albany, where the family moved when he was six years old. In 1950 Westlake entered Champlain College in Plattsburgh, New York. After serving n the U.S. Air Force in 1954-56, he continued his university studies at Harpur College, now the State University of New York at Binghamton. At that time he had already started to plan on becoming a writer. His first stories Westlake sold to science fiction and mystery magazines, beginning from 'Or Give Me Death' (1954, Universe Science Fiction Magazine). His first crime piece was 'The Blonde Lieutenant' (1957, Rogue).
In 1958 Westlake moved to New York City, where he worked at
various jobs, among them as a free reader for the literary agent Scott
Meredith. He wrote during the next year 46 short stories, of which 27
were published. One of them was 'The Best-Friend Murder,' which
appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. The character
of the protagonist, Abe Levine, a police detective, was developed in
such stories as 'Come Back, Come Back' (1960), and 'The Feel of the
Trigger' (1961). The tale, which showed the influence of Evan Hunter
(Ed McBain), was bought as a part of the television series 87th
Precinct based on McBain's novels. Levine dies in 'After I'm Gone'
of a heart attack. These stories, dealing with the protagonist's
world-view and especially his attitude to death, were collected in Levine
(1984). Westlake's other collections of short stories
include The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution (1968)
and Tomorrow's Crimes
(1989). Having a negative attitude toward electric typewriters and
computers, Westlake used Smith-Corona Silent-Super portable
Chance played a big role in Westlake's world already in his early fiction, but more especially in his comedy crime novels. Life is unpredictable but the author's characters believe they can control it. They take calculated risks and are in trouble when something completely unpredictable happens. In an early short story, 'An Empty Threat' (1960) Frederick Leary is unhappily married and dreams of the South Seas and warm girls. One winter evening, just before Christmas, a young robber follows Frederick home and takes his wife, Louise, as a hostage. He demands that Frederick drive back to his shop, take the money from its safe, and bring it back in two hours. Otherwise he will kill his wife. The robber knows that he couldn't let them live, but he persuades them to take the chance. On his way to the shop Frederick realizes that he has now new alternatives: "what if he couldn't go back?" "Calculated risk. With sudden decision he accelerated, tearing down the empty residential street. He jammed his foot on the brakes, the tires slid on ice, he twisted the wheel, and the car hurtled into a telephone pole. The car crumpled against the pole with a squealing, jarring crash, but Frederick was lulled to unconsciousness by the sweet, sweet songs of the islands."
Westlake's first real novel, The Mercenaries (1960, as the Cutie, 2009),
was about a Mob hit man and marked Westlake as a rising talent in
hard-boiled fiction. In the late 1950s he had already published
soft-core "sex-novels". Parker, a cold-blooded, ruthless thief, one of
the author's most famous characters, was introduced in The Hunter (1962),
written under the Richard Stark pseudonym. "Richard" came from Richard
Widmark, and "Stark" excellently described his style. Westlate got the
idea for the book when he walked across the George Washington Bridge:
"Riding downtown in the subway I slowly began to evolve in my mind the character who was right for
that setting, whose own speed and solidity and tension matched that of
the bridge." (The Hunter by Richard Stark, with a new introduction by Donald E. Westlake, Gregg Press Edition, 1981)
In the beginning Parker arrives New York City. He is
penniless, he has been shot and left for dead. After recovering and
escaping from confinement his only thought has been
to revenge against his double-crossing wife and partner. During
the story, Parker kills his adversaries and eventually gets away with
his money. The book was made into an acclaimed film in 1967 under
the title Point Blank,
starring Lee Marvin (as "Walker") and
Angie Dickinson. When Westlake created his antihero, he imagined
him looking more like Jack Palance: "His face was a chipped chunk of
concrete, with eyes of flawed onyx. His mouth was a quick stroke,
Point Blank is a synthesis of American film noir, the vocabulary of European art cinema, and virtuoso
camera and editing techniques. Particularly important for Boorman was Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour
(1959). Both the director and the star Lee Marvin considered David and
Rafe Newhouse's original screenplay, which was faithful adapation of
the novel, poor and full of clichés. Alex Jacobs wrote the final script
with echoes of Harold Pinter in the dialogue. Some of the action
are extremely brutal: "was this the first film in which
someone is slugged in the crotch?" asked Danny Perry in Guide for
the Film Fanatic (1986).
A new version, Payback (1999), directed by Brian Helgeland and starring Mel Gibson as "Porter," was received less enthusiastically. It offered even more violence. Westlake controlled the use of his hero's name, and film characters have appeared under a different name in addition to "Walker" and "Porter" - "Georges" in Mise á sack (1967), "McClain" in The Split (1968) and so on. In the Parker novel The Green Eagle Score (1967) Norman Berridge tries to remember Parker's name: "Porter, Walker, Archer . . . something like that. No matter. It wasn't the man's name that counted, it was the opportunity he presented for investment."
Parker is true only to his own code of right and wrong in the
world of crime. If he is betrayed, as in The Hunter, Parker is
ready to do anything to have his money back -
revenge being perhaps the only reason for his existence. This formula,
in which somebody takes his money, was repeated in several subsequent
works. "Parker sat there, hands palm down on the table, little stack of
bills between his hands. His money was gone, about to become an
electronic impulse in Texas. This wasn't what it was supposed to be,
and it wasn't what it was going to be." (from Flashfire, 2000) Several of
the early Parker stories have been filmed, including Outfit
(1963), in which Parker takes on organized crime.
Butcher's Moon (1974) was the last part of a sequence where Parker and organized crime clashed. Westlake wrote Parker novels for Gold Medal books and Random House. After a pause of 23 years, his tough criminal returned in Comeback (1998) to the "world of electronic cash transfers and credit cards and money floating in cyberspace." But where there is money, there always exists the possibility of heists. As in the earlier stories, Parker does not steal from poor old ladies; this time he wants the money of a sleazy television evangelist. And again he finds out that there is no honor among thieves.
In Mitch Tobin, an ex-New York City cop, Westlake created a
disillusioned, guilt-ridden hero, who gradually finds his way back to
normal life from his building project, a concrete wall around his
backyard. While Tobin was in bed with a woman his partner was killed.
Mitch Tobin novels were written under the pseudonym Tucker Coe,
starting from Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death (1966). With
The Fugitive Pigeon (1965)
Westlake brought to the fore his humorous side. In the Edgar-winning God
Save the Mark (1967) a man is a sitting target for every
con-artist, and in Help I Am Being Held Prisoner (1974) the
protagonist has a prison escape, and life outside prison whilst still
serving his prison sentence. Westlake said later that it had not occurred to him that he could write funny.
Before Westlake most writers considered crime too heavy a subject to be treated light-heartedly. However, Dashiell Hammett's stories about Nick and Nora Charles had humor, and Chester Himes's novels about Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones had a great deal of absurd humor. After Westlake's success others became famous, among them Lawrence Block with his amusing Bernie Rhodenbarr novels.
The non-violent John Archibald Dortmunder and his fairy-tale world of slapstick crooks became a kind of opposite to the cold and serious Parker. Originally the first Dortmunder novel was planned as a new volume in the Parker series; even Parker's erstwhile partner Alan Grofield appeared in it. Westlake got the name for his anti-hero from a neon sign advertising a German beer, "Dortmunder Actien Bier". Dortmunder works with a bumbling band of good-natured thieves: Andy Kelp, a car thief and an eternal optimist, Stan Murch, a getaway driver, and Tiny Bulcher. Most of these stories deal with the planning and executing of a complex feat. Although his plans are ingenious, they go wrong because of unforeseen coincidences. Dortmunder has not heard of the 'Chaos Theory' – a tiny change can have a huge effect in a chaotic system. Its "butterfly effect" was crystallized by Edward Lorenz who asked: "Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?" The Hot Rock starts when Dortmunder leaves the prison. He has sold his cell for three hundred bucks - there is a working hot water faucet and a tunnel to the dispensary. With his friends Dortmunder steals the same Balambo Emerald over and over again. They break into a museum, a prison, a police station, an insane asylum, and a bank to get the legendary gem. Finally Murch says: "You think we'll ever really get that stone? Maybe God wants us to go straight, and this is kind of a gentle hint."
The awarded mystery writer and critic H.R.F. Keating selected Nobody's Perfect (1977) in 1987 for his list of the one hundred best crime novels. In the story, which takes the reader from New York to London and Scotland, Dortmund is persuaded to steal a painting in order to give it back to its owner. "You are never left thinking 'I wonder if that is really likely.' Before you do, an event just one stage more unlikely, and funnier, has swept you up. Enormous inventiveness is what is needed to do this, and that Westlake triumphantly supplies." (Keating in Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books, 1987)
Westlake was married three times. Following his marriages to Nedra Henderson in 1957 and Sandra Foley in 1967, he married in 1979 Abigail Adams, a writer on non-fiction. With her Westlake organized murder-mystery weekends and two of their plots have been novelized as Transylvania Station (1986) and High Jinx (1986). Westlake also publishded soft-porn novels as Alan Marshall and Edwin West, political thrillers, a children's book, and a biography of Elizabeth Taylor under the alias John B. Allan. Some of Westlake's stories are set outside the Unites States, as Kahawa (1982), in which his heroes plan to steal a coffee train from Idi Amin, the dictatorial leader of Uganda.
Westlake won numerous awards, including three Edgars, and he was made a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. He was awarded a doctorate of letters in 1996 from SUNY Binghamton, formerly Harpur College. In 1997 he received a lifetime achievement award from the Boucheron committee. Westlake's screenplay for The Grifters from Jim Thompson's novel received an Oscar nomination. A script for the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) was rejected. Westlake died of a heart attack on December 31, 2008 while on vacation in Mexico.
Although Westlake's books have been popular in Hollywood and he worked as a screenwriter, he was faithful to his native city, depicting its people, life, streets, bars, and famous buildings and institutions with affection, expertise, and irony: "Stuck in traffic on the Williamsburg Bridge out of lower Manhattan in a stolen frozen fish truck full of stolen frozen fish at 1:30 on a bright June afternoon, with construction out ahead of them forever on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, with Stan Murch on Dortmunder's left complaining about how there are no decent routes anymore from anywhere to anywhere in New York City - "If there ain't snow on the road, there's construction crews" – and with Andy Kelp on Dortmunder's right prattling on happily about global warming and how much nicer it will be when there isn't any winter, Dortmunder also had to contend with an air conditioner dripping on his ankles. Cold drips. "My ankles are freezing," he announced. As if anybody cared." (from Don't Ask, 1993)
For further reading: 'Foreword' by Lawrence Block, in The Getaway Car: a Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, edited by Levi Stahl (2014); 'Westlake, Donald E(dwin) (1933-2008)' by Chris Pak, in 100 American Crime Writers, edited by S. Powell (2012); 'Donald E. Westlake,' in The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction, compiled by Mike Ashley (2002); 'Westlake, Donald E(dwin),' in World Authors 1975-1980, ed. by Vineta Colby (1985); 'Westlake, Donald E(dwin Edmund)' by Francis M. Nevins, Jr., in Twentieth-century Crime and Mystery Writers, edited by John M. Reilly (1985)