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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. Westlake published more than 100 books. He also wrote under the pseudonyms Curt Clark, Tucker Coe, Timothy J. Culver, Samuel Holt, and Richard Stark.
"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 two years in 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. However, he had already started to plan on becoming a writer. His first stories Westlake sold to science fiction and mystery magazines in 1953.
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).
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 Westlake'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), 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: "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."
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 noir in 1967 under the title Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin (as "Walker") and Angie Dickinson. "John Boorman's cult film boasts interesting characters, choice locals (around LA, in Alcatraz prison), and virtuoso camera and editing techniques. The extremely violent action sequences are particularly well handled: “was this the first film in which someone is slugged in the crotch?" wrote 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, but it offered even more violence.
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. However, Westlake has controlled the use of his hero's name, and film characters have appeared under a different name - Walker in Boorman's Point Blank, McClain in The Split (1968) and so on.
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. "The fact is that it had never occurred to me that I could write funny," he later confessed. 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. However, the first adventure was originally planned as a Parker novel; 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. In 1979 he married Abigail Adams; they have fours sons. With Abigail Adams he has 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. In 1997 he received a lifetime achievement award from the Boucheron committee. His screenplay for The Grifters from Jim Thompson's novel received an Oscar nomination. 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: The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction, compiled by Mike Ashley (2002); Mystery and Suspense Writers, vol. 2, ed. by Robin W. Winks (1998); St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, ed. by Jay P. Pederson ( 1996); Encyclopedia Mysteriosa by William L. DeAndrea (1994); World Authors 1975-1980, ed. by Vineta Colby (1985); Lawrence Block's introduction to The Mourner by Richard Stark (1982)
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