Sunday, January 11, 2009

Nobody Runs Forever: A Last Good-bye to
Donald E. Westlake, Part II

(Editor’s note: Following Donald Westlake’s surprise death on New Year’s Eve, Rap Sheet contributor Cameron Hughes asked dozens of Westlake’s fellow authors to share their memories of him. Part I of this tribute can be found here.)

Laura Lippman, author of Hardly Knew Her, Life Sentences, and the New York Times serial novel The Girl in the Green Raincoat:

Donald Westlake was one of my literary heroes. I admired his range, but also his industry. I’ve noticed that the obituaries, so far, have fudged the exact number of books he wrote, with The New York Times settling on “more than 100.” It’s hard to imagine that line in obituaries for crime writers of my generation, for all sorts of reasons. But Westlake, along with Evan Hunter and Lawrence Block, was one of those writers who made it look so easy that you knew it had to be hard.

I expect other people to praise the Dortmunder books, the books written under the Richard Stark pseudonym, the more-timely-than-ever The Ax, even the screenplay for The Grifters. But my favorite Westlake novels were Trust Me On This [1988] and Baby, Would I Lie? [1994]. The latter simply has one of the most perfect endings in crime fiction.

In 1997, I saw Westlake interviewed by Julie Smith at the Monterey Bouchercon. At some point, asked about research, he said, “I became a fiction writer so I could make things up.” (A paraphrase, from memory.) I took that as my mantra. I don’t think Westlake was saying there was anything wrong with research, or the obsessive desire to get things right, just reminding us that our imaginations, deployed to their greatest powers, can create credible worlds. That is--if you’re Donald Westlake.

Ken Bruen, author of the Jack Taylor private eye series and the novel Once Were Cops:

There was never anyone like Donald Westlake. His output alone is staggering, and he was always, with such apparent ease, a true craftsman.

He will be remembered for his massive contribution to Mystery, the incredible longevity of his career, and of course, he gave us Parker.

Imitated a thousand times but never ... never equaled.

His loss is beyond measure.

I hope he and Lee Marvin sink a few celestial ones together and know how deeply and sadly we will miss him.

He was also just one of the nicest guys you could ever meet.

His passing is such a ferocious shock.

Tom Picirilli, author of The Coldest Mile:

Donald Westlake was a true giant in the crime-fiction arena, capable of handling any subgenre with aplomb. His novels The Ax and The Hook [2000] are brilliant, gut-wrenching suspense novels that do double duty as satires of the job market and publishing fields. Even during the most gripping and bloody parts of those books, you can almost hear Westlake chuckling to himself.

Joseph Finder, author of Power Play and Paranoia:

I never had the pleasure of meeting Don Westlake, and now, sadly, it’s too late. He loomed large in my career, and not just because he was from my hometown of Albany, New York. Or because he wrote the screenplays for two of the greatest crime movies, The Grifters and The Stepfather, or because he wrote one of my favorite thrillers ever, The Hook. Or because he was a wonderful writer with a great sense of humor. Or because he was incredibly prolific (The New York Times called him “tireless” on its front page), and almost of all of his books were good, most really good. But because the guy was generous as could be to other writers, and because as seriously as he took his work, he didn’t take it seriously at all: “I am sick of working one day in a row,” he once said. Now, that’s a role model.

Kevin Burton Smith, editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site:

It seems almost impossible that Donald Westlake is no longer with us--or that the shuffling off of one single mortal coil could also put an end to the literary careers of Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, Timothy J. Culver, Samuel Holt, and God only knows how many others.

Westlake’s classic tales of Dortmunder, the affable criminal genius whose brilliant schemes are particularly curveball-prone, and the grim, gritty adventures of professional thief Parker, written as Richard Stark (one of the truly great pen names in the genre), will be read for a long time to come. And his The Ax is some kind of timeless classic; a decidedly black pot shot at corporate soulessness--a particularly favorite target of this author’s.

My sorrow for those who have not yet discovered Westlake is tempered by the envy I have for them: they’re about to discover a new favorite author. Or authors.

My personal favorites, though, remain the five private-eye novels Westlake wrote as Tucker Coe, featuring guilt-ridden ex-cop Mitch Tobin. The Parker novels showed how fast Westlake could get you to turn pages, and the Dortmunder tales proved Westlake could make you laugh, but it’s the Tobin series that could make you cry. More than any of his other books, those are the ones I treasure the most. They’re beautifully written--haunting, compassionate, brooding examinations of a man slowly rebuilding himself. And they’re kick-ass mysteries. Go out, find them, and read them. It’s a true crime they all seem to be out of print.

But it’s not just his work itself that Westlake has left us to deal with. It’s the huge mark he’s also left on the crime-fiction genre, and those who have followed him. As recently as a day before his death, there was one of those unplanned moments of synchronicity that makes you wonder if God shares Westlake’s warped and wicked sense of humor.

It was an episode of a new USA Network show, Leverage, about a gang of scam artists and former criminals who pool their talents under the guidance of Timothy Hutton to right injustices--usually at the expense of corporations. Anyway, the episode began with a scam already over, and the gang on their way out of the bank with a briefcase full of loot when, in a moment right out of a Dortmunder caper, the bank is robbed. The plot twists and turns and winds its way to a clever, sly ending--every move and every wink and nudge is like something right out of one of Westlake’s comic capers, making it easily the best episode of the show to air so far.

But it’s not mere coincidence of plot alone that had me thinking about Westlake--it was the episode’s title: “The Bank Shot Job,” as obvious a wink to Westlake’s 1972 Dortmunder novel as you can get. And if that’s not enough to convince you, how about the name of the all-business bank robber member of the team whose expertise is called upon so heavily in this episode?


Yeah, it’s gonna be a long time before Westlake and his legacy truly leave the building.

Cara Black, author of the Aimée Leduc Investigation series, including the latest, Murder in the Rue de Paradis:

A legend has passed. But he wouldn’t like that. Prolific, a master in many genres, an award winner, a bestseller, to use polite standard terms. But I’d say “a working writer who wrote every day and wrote damn good,” would be what he’d like to be remembered for.

Our loss is huge.

Robert Ward, author of Red Baker and Four Kinds of Rain:

Donald Westlake is one of my favorite authors ever. He was brilliant in every way; with wonderful dialogue, great narrative skill, deft characterizations, and his plots--well forget about it. Awesome. His Richard Stark series was violent, and tense, the epitome of hard-boiled. Yet, it was never overdone, never became a parody of itself. And his novel The Ax was one of the best noir stories ever, impossible to put down.

Still, though I loved all his books, the very best, as far as I’m concerned were the Dortmunder novels, which were hilarious from start to finish. I loved Bank Shot, The Hot Rock, Drowned Hopes, What’s the Worst That Could Happen? [1996], Jimmy the Kid--hell, all of them.

For my money, The Hot Rock and Drowned Hopes are the best ever, but only by a slim margin. Indeed, I laughed so hard at Drowned Hopes that my wife kicked me out of bed and made me go into the frozen den to do my reading. It was worth freezing to read about Dortmunder and Kelp, and Murch, and May and the whole gang trying to get a buried treasure from under a manmade lake so a hardened criminal wouldn’t blow it up, drowning the town below. (It was a field when they buried it there, but the state decided it was a great place for a dam.)

Westlake’s movie The Grifters was awesome too, and some of the films made from his books were very good. I just saw The Hot Rock [1972], with Robert Redford, again a few months ago and it still holds up. (I saw it first when I was 25 on Times Square, and missed much of it because the very loaded patrons showed their enjoyment by talking back to the screen. “Way to go Dortmunder, mutha.”)

Bank Shot [1974] with George C. Scott was very funny, too, though it is rarely seen.

During the past 10 years I read the Dortmunder novels to my son, Robbie, who laughed hysterically at them and used them as an excuse to stay up late. “Awww, Dad, one more chapter.” Cuddled up in bed under a quilt and reading those wonderful books to my 9-year-old son is my best Westlakian memory of all. Thanks, Don, for those great times, the likes of which you won’t find playing video games.

Donald Westlake was a great wit and a wonderful writer. He will be much missed.

May he rest in peace. And may his hilarious and dead-on books continue to be read forever.

Christopher G. Moore, author of The Risk of Infidelity Index:

The character of professional criminal Parker was a shot fired by a precision marksman. It still echoes in the ear of many contemporary crime writers. Writing as Richard Stark, Westlake, novel by novel, showed us the rational, calculating, unsentimental Parker, the career criminal, the clear-eyed professional, anticipating the plays of other characters in the novels like a chess grand master. Parker planned his jobs like Special Forces operations, working with other freelance criminals to carry out an operation. In Parker, Westlake created a character who had survived because he understood the weakness of those around him and how ... [they] were held hostage by a combination of greed, arrogance, and fear. The emotional distance between Parker and others was as large as the vacuum of deep space. Even after plastic surgery, the world always hunted him, found him, and tried to destroy him.

He never gave up, he never gave in, and he lived by a personal code that demanded integrity among men and women who had long ago discarded integrity like a worn-out horse no longer fit to ride. Still, Parker never gave up.

In Parker we find clues to our own alienation and existential questioning of whether we can ever know or trust anyone. Donald Westlake and Richard Stark are seemingly gone. Dead. But as long as there are readers on the planet, no one will ever be able write R.I.P. after Parker’s name. In that way, Westlake/Stark will always be with us.

Dave White, the author of The Evil That Men Do:

Donald Westlake could make you laugh, make you cringe, and write books that were incredibly different each time out. Yet each novel would still drag you in, the pages flying by so fast they’d singe your fingers. He’ll be missed.

Ed Gorman, author of Sleeping Dogs:

By coincidence, I was reading Murder Among Children [1967] when somebody called to say that Don had died. It’s one of the books in which he’s emotional rather than cool and distanced. It’s a moving novel about sorrow and loss, and that was certainly how I felt when I heard the news. We’ll never see his like again. He was the master.

Craig Johnson, author of The Dark Horse:

When I was a young patrolman just starting out my abbreviated career in law enforcement, I got paired up with a legend of the two-three, an old fellow by the name of John O’Conner. He was such a legend that he had pigeon shit on his shoulders from being a statue up there for so long. He sighed deeply as I got in my first cruiser--I’d only been on the job for three seconds, how could I have screwed up that fast? His great, gray head drooped, and he studied me with his voice carrying about five yards of gravel, “Get your duty book and a pencil out, Rook. I’ve got something to tell you.”

I did as told.

“First, take off your hat--only rookies wear their hat in the car.”

I took off my hat and then wrote it down, do not wear hat in car. When I finished, I looked back at him and started to feel like I was in a Donald Westlake novel. “Is there more?”

“Yeah. First off, a short pencil is better than a long memory.”

“Do I have to write that down?”

“Yeah, and write this down, too.” He lit a cigarette and blew smoke partially out the open vent window as I scribbled away. “Listen carefully, Rook--you can lose your badge. Hell, you can even lose your gun, but just don’t lose your sense of humor and you’ll be fine.”

Westlake was never a cop, but he understood one of the most important aspects of the job: keeping your sense of humor--and writing it down. Rest in peace Donald; heaven knows you’re alive and well on our shelves.

Colin Cotterill, author of Curse of the Pogo Stick:

Most writers talk about this or that book that they’d like to write. Donald just sat down and wrote them all, and did so with passion and panache.

Sam Reaves, author of Mean Town Blues:

I can’t pose as a Donald Westlake expert, because I haven’t read all of his books. Not even close. The man wrote around 100 of them. But I’ve read enough of them that I can claim to be a fan. Make that a fervent admirer. I started reading Westlake when I was a kid, and my admiration only increased when I started trying to do what he did, namely write crime novels. What cost me buckets of sweat, he made look effortless. I can’t think of anybody who ever bettered Donald Westlake in the nearly impossible task of sustaining quality throughout a prolific output.

The first book I ever read by Donald Westlake was Somebody Owes Me Money. Is that not one of the great titles of all time? An entire novel in four words. That was a Westlake hallmark: concision, economy, an ear for the essential.

Was there anything he couldn’t do? He was the master of the caper novel, the comic novel, and just for good measure, the comic caper novel. The Dortmunder books alone would ensure his reputation. But he was also a master of the brutal, no-punches-pulled straight-up crime tale. 361 is pure grain alcohol, a malevolent gem. Westlake was the consummate New York writer, but then out of the blue he went and wrote Kahawa, a caper set in Idi Amin’s Uganda. And it worked.

Where did he get this stuff? How did he make it all sound so convincing? I suspect the answer was that he did it the old-fashioned way--he sat down and got to work, day after day, page after page. That’s what a professional does.

That and talent: a quick and fertile mind and the unteachable, inexplicable storyteller’s voice underlying it all. It’s called a gift, and Donald Westlake had it.

He’ll be missed, but the books are still here. Go and grab a handful and spend the next couple of weeks reading Westlake. That’s the best way to celebrate him.

Ben Rehder, author of Holy Moly:

Most authors write for a particular genre, but Donald Westlake created his own. He left a legacy that benefits readers and writers alike. He was one of a handful of authors who inspired me to write my own comedic mysteries, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that.

Zöe Sharp, author of Third Strike:

2008 will be remembered as a year we lost a lot of literary giants. Donald Weslake was one of the tallest.

Edward Wright, author of the John Ray Horn mysteries and Damnation Falls:

One of the little gems on my bookshelf is the 35-cent paperback original of Donald Westlake/Richard Stark’s The Hunter. I only wish I had read it when it first came out, because that kind of crime fiction--lean, mean prose and a brutally direct world-view--must have gone down like double bourbon to readers back in the early ’60s. Even today his words pack a punch, smelling of sweat and violence. Reading them, I can almost hear Westlake banging them out on his manual typewriter, and I’m grateful for the work he did. Writers like myself, even if our styles are dissimilar to his, owe him a debt for carving out important territory in fiction and showing us how the big boys do it.

Charlie Stella, author of Mafiya:

Although I knew the name, I first read Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark) when Duane Swierczynski gave me The Hunter. Much of the novel took place where I grew up in Canarsie, Brooklyn. That was about three or four years ago. I’ve read several more Westlake/Stark novels since and very much enjoyed him. Mostly, I’ve felt honored being mentioned in the same sentence with him in reviews. He’s an original who will be sorely missed.

Con Lehane, author of Death at the Old Hotel:

With the passing of Donald Westlake, New York loses an authentic voice in the vein of Joseph Mitchell, John McNulty, and Damon Runyon. Like them, Donald Westlake invented a mythic New York so real you could touch it, smell it, and taste it. As that real New York is swallowed up by luxury apartment developers, designer boutiques, and latté chains, we’re fortunate that books last and that we’ll have Dortmunder and crew to remind us New York has a soul, though we’ll greatly miss one of the mystery world’s finest gentlemen.

Victor Gischler, author of Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse:

Someone like Westlake ... well, you just think he’s always going to be there. An institution. So when you hear he’s passed, it’s like hearing gravity has been turned off. It’s strange and stunning. First [James] Crumley and now this. A sad time.

Ali Karim, contributing editor of January Magazine and assistant editor of Shots:

I first discovered Donald Westlake thanks to the movie version of The Hot Rock with Robert Redford, which led me to explore more of the Dortmunder books, as well as muttering “Afghanistan, Bananistan” to strangers from time to time. But my true love was the Richard Stark series featuring Parker. I loved the spartan style of Stark, and was overjoyed when I read Stephen King’s tribute to Stark in his brilliant novel about split personalities, The Dark Half. (“Anyway, for reasons you’d have to ask Westlake about, he eventually stopped writing novels about Parker, but I never forgot something Westlake said after the pen name was blown. He said he wrote books on sunny days and Stark took over on the rainy ones ...”) It was an apt tribute to a great man.

I only met Westlake once when we came to the CrimeScene convention in London in 2005. I was humbled in his presence, despite his modesty and gentle nature. I find it surreal that when I heard of the awful news [of Westlake’s death], the first words that came into my head were “Afghanistan, Bananistan,” which echoed as a lament for our loss. I miss his words already, as the world just darkened a tad, knowing that he is no longer with us.

Jeff Abbott, author of Collision and Trust Me:

Donald Westlake always made the difficult look easy. He was a consummate professional and will be missed as one of America’s great entertainers and storytellers.

Jess Walter, author of Citizen Vince and The Zero:

I never met Donald, and so my only relationship with him was on the page, but there he was like a reliable friend. I loved that he wrote so much and that he seemed able to write anything, that he didn’t allow himself to be pigeonholed by sales or by his own ego or by the shifting demands of the industry. The first book I read by Donald Westlake was Humans [1992], and no matter how many other books I read by him, I still thought of that book and of that word, because it was always his humanity that emerged, whether in stories of hapless criminals or more hard-boiled stuff, and under whatever name he wrote, he seemed humane and immensely talented. He will be missed.

Lisa Lutz, author of Revenge of the Spellmans:

He was one of those writers I’d always planned on stalking. Now I’ll never have the chance. I like the funny ones the best. And he was fucking funny.

James R. Benn, author of Blood Alone:

Donald Westlake expertly viewed society from the inside out with his depictions of crime, criminal circumstances, and consequences. It was truly a unique vision.

Brian M. Wiprud, author of Feelers:

Don’s indefatigable wit and spark have been an inspiration to me from my first novel to my latest. You could laud his peerless plotting and characters, but for me Westlake novels have a more essential ingredient: heart. His books are compelling because they both entertain and speak to the human condition.

Robert J. Randisi, author of the Rat Pack Mysteries, including Hey There (You with the Gun in Your Hand):

As I’m sure many others have said over the past few days, Don Westlake was three of my favorite writers--but since my first love is the P.I. genre, I have to say the Tucker Coe novels are my favorites. When I read Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death [1966] and Murder Among Children when they were first published, I was blown away that they had been written by the same writer who produced The Fugitive Pigeon [1965] and Somebody Owes Me Money. If possible, they are darker than the Parker books and certainly Don’s most melancholy works. Mitch Tobin easily ranks in my top five fictional P.I.s.

Don Westlake used to piss me off. I’d run into him from time to time at Bouchercons or other events in New York City, and it seemed I always had to be introduced to him again. Later, I started to believe Don was doing it to me on purpose, just to be funny. However, the two times I ran into him when I was with Marthayn, my partner-in-life-and-crime, he was incredibly friendly to me, and gracious to her. The last time we saw him was in Maine several years ago when we all attended a lobster cook hosted by Five Star Books. Don and [his wife] Abby were very helpful in showing Marthayn the proper way to eat lobster. I hate having a last memory of him, but that is a good and lasting one to have.

Peter Abrahams, author of Into the Dark:

What a wonderful long run he had--dark and sardonic, funny and inventive. Except for [Georges] Simenon, I can’t think of a similar achievement in crime fiction.

Bill Cameron, author of Chasing Smoke:

I came to Westlake rather late in life. The upside to that delay is I still have a lot to discover. For me as a reader, his work offers one delight after another. For the writer in me, it offers even more: rich lessons in the power of voice, economical language, and active characterization. His is a loss we will feel keenly, but we can be grateful for all he’s left us.

Vern, film critic and author of Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal:

When you’re a guy who spends his days and nights writing about bad-ass cinema, you often find yourself preaching the gospel of Point Blank. Lee Marvin is about as tough as they ever made ’em and the movie is a unique mixture of thoughtful art picture and perfect two-fisted entertainment. It’s one of the all-time, undisputed, canonical classics of my favorite genre ... but I like the books way better. Movies like Point Blank, Payback, and The Outfit led me to Richard Stark’s Parker books, which are some of the most perfect crime stories I’ve ever read. Parker is to me what James Bond is to a lot of people. He’s a character so perfect he doesn’t need to grow or evolve.

Although the books are now over, I believe they will only grow in popularity, and I think Parker will eventually be reborn in different screen interpretations, much like Bond. Westlake was such a funny writer, a great screenwriter (seriously, re-watch The Stepfather), [and] seemed like a nice guy, and yet he also created this mean bastard, this cold-hearted sonofabitch who’s as dedicated to robbery as a monk is to God. Richard Stark was pretty much my favorite writer--hard to believe he’s only the side project of this talented man we will all miss so much. You have to be very dedicated to explore every aspect of [Westlake’s] diverse body of work, and I know there are many sides to him that I’ve only dabbled in.

So I’m sad to see Westlake go, but happy he left so much behind for us to continue to discover.

James Grady, author of Mad Dogs:

Donald Westlake was a sly subversive of American literature, an artist with one fist of funny and the other of fury, who re-defined “popular” fiction with satires and savage crime stories that entertained millions of readers and inspired dozens of his colleagues. For one author to write the Dortmunder comic novels is a major accomplishment; for that same author to be Richard Stark writing ultra-realistic noir sagas is a literary wonderment. Add to those prose accomplishments his screenplay-writing--especially his great interpretation of lesser literary light Jim Thompson--and you’ve got a legacy of American letters we were privileged to enjoy. His massive output is proof that like true artists in all fields, he cared about “working” and “the work,” not “being famous” or “having published.” Professionally, I modeled my second novel after the comic romps of Westlake that were--for marketing purposes he, more than most, understood--published under a pseudonym. Personally, the few times I was lucky enough to hang out with him at banquets or parties, he was kind, funny, modest, and interested in everything and everyone else more than in his own magnificent shadow. He loved life, he loved Abby and his gigantic extended family of children and grandchildren. His passing brings us sorrow, his life gave us joy.

Kirk Russell, author of Dead Game:

I think Westlake was what a great novelist used to be, a skeptic with innate gentleness and a singular voice. He wrote both sides and they rang true. What drew me in is that there was nothing small about his writing. Characters weren’t blunted by plot. They did what they had to do, but they always stood up. And, sure, writing is a craft, etc.; writing you learn by doing, and he did all those books, right? Writing crime is plot, place, and character, etc., but it’s really the grace and talent to draw it all together. He had it. His passing is a real loss to the genre.

Harlan Coben, author of Hold Tight and Long Lost:

I’m sure [others] will tell you what a wonderful writer Don was. I’m going to miss his books, of course, but right now I can only think about the friend I will miss. He was funny, gracious, kind, pointed, and wonderful company.

I’m attaching a picture of us at Club Med in the Bahamas. We were both standing in the water up to your knees. R.I.P., old friend.

Donald E. Westlake and Harlan Coben

READ MORE:Donald Westlake: Prolific Writer of Crime and Science Fiction” (London Times); “From Laughter to Tears,” by Otto Penzler (The Wall Street Journal); “Remembering Donald Westlake, a Master of Crime Fiction,” by Don Fogleman (The Indianapolis Star); “Farewell to Donald Westlake,” by Stephen Frears (The Guardian); “Donald Westlake: Made in USA,” by Cullen Gallagher (The L Magazine); “Donald Westlake and Tucker Coe,” by Randy Johnson (Not the Baseball Pitcher).


Gordon Harries said...


Thanks so much for running both of these featrettes. I’m sure I’m not the only Westlake fan who’s touched/moved by seeing tributes to him from within the crime fiction community.

Surely one of our most beloved giants.

Alan Hutcheson said...

I realize I'm late to this. Brain fried from working on my own stuff I decided to see if there was a Westlake Fan Club I could join and came across this page. Haven't found a fan club, but it looks like there are enough well regarded authors who found the same sort of inspiration from Mr. Westlake's work to form a more than respectable fan club right there. I hope to join them one of these days.