Prolific and influential crime novelist
Donald A. Westlake died Jan. 1 after collapsing of a heart attack on his way to a New Year's Eve party the previous day. He was 75. Westlake wrote more than 100 novels over the course of his long career, turning out material of extremely high quality with such speed that early on, he found it necessary to use a variety of pseudonyms, most famously Richard Stark, because publishers were leery of releasing more than one book a year by the same author. His writing was notable for its brisk, inventive plotting, sharply drawn and believable characterizations, and especially his mastery of both the drolly absurd and the starkly hardboiled. Westlake often used his pseudonyms for particular kinds of stories, something like a brand name. As Westlake, he wrote mainly lighter-hearted crime stories, including the recently republished Somebody Owes Me Money, as well as harder-edged material including the terrifically bleak thriller The Ax, in which an out-of-work job-hunter raises his chances of landing a new position by systematically tracking down and murdering the other qualified applicants in the area. Writing as Richard Stark, he created what became his quintessential character: master criminal and heavy heister Parker, the antihero of more than two dozen novels. Originally, Westlake intended the character to die at the end of his first book, and so never bothered to give him a first name. That choice stuck with the character, though, because it fit both his taciturn personality and his workmanlike attitude toward thievery, which he treated as a job to be done, carefully and thoroughly. Raymond Chandler famously said about the hardboiled detective hero, that "down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." That wasn't Parker, who was never afraid, but was capable of being plenty mean when the situation demanded it. Parker began as something close to a thug, barely literate and fresh out of a stint in prison, but developed into a uniquely drawn character whose approach to crime wasn't so much amoral (or "tarnished," in Chandler's terms) as it was based on a code of self-preservation and utter ruthlessness. Like Patricia Highsmith's Ripley, Parker has an indomitable will, a genius for organization and improvisation, the ability to read people, and a single-minded focus on getting the job done–said job usually involving the theft of thousands of dollars in some spectacularly violent, meticulously planned fashion, and then dealing with the inevitable aftermath as accomplices double-crossed him, other criminals horned their way in, or random chance loused up what had been a perfect job. If he was the "good guy," it was often only because the other guys were worse. (The sharp dichotomy between the affable Westlake and grim Stark tales also inspired Stephen King's The Dark Half, the story of a writer who comes under attack from his own dark pseudonym, not coincidentally named George Stark.)
Westlake also used his own name to write his other major series character, the perennially unlucky and dyspeptic burglar John Dortmunder, whose clever schemes and hangdog tenacity are constantly at odds with a universe that seems determined to trip him up. Westlake's books were adapted into movies repeatedly over the years, with two particular standouts: John Boorman's 1967
Point Blank, an adaptation of the debut Parker novel The Hunter starring a well-cast Lee Marvin, and 1972's The Hot Rock, starring Robert Redford as John Dortmunder. (In 1999, Mel Gibson and director Brian Helgeland filmed The Hunter considerably less successfully as Payback.) Westlake was deeply respected within the field of mystery and crime fiction, and won three Edgar Awards as well as being named a Grand Master in the genre by the Mystery Writers of America in 1993. He was also nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay for 1990's The Grifters–and more importantly, the experience of adapting Jim Thompson's dark, cynical novel brought Westlake back in touch with the voice of Richard Stark, under whose name he hadn't written since 1974's Parker book Butcher's Moon. (He wrote about Stark's resurrection for the New York Times in 2001.) Stark returned in 1997 with the appropriately titled Comeback, an excellent return to form that kicked off a new set of Parker adventures as well as a wholesale rediscovery of the earlier books, most of which had dropped out of print. Westlake's final novel, a Dortmunder comedy titled Get Real, is due in April. In February, the publisher Hard Case Crime is also reprinting his first novel, 1960's The Cutie (originally titled The Mercenaries). It was also announced last year that artist Darwin Cooke would be adapting the early Parker books into comics for IDW Publications. The A.V. Club interviewed Westlake in 2006 on the occasion of the second-to-last Parker book, Ask The Parrot. (I was lucky enough to get to do the interview, which is among the three or four favorite experiences I've had on this job.) Among other things, he told us that his stories were always invented on the fly as he wrote, which makes his unusually solid handle on plotting seem even more remarkable. Sarah Weinman's crime-fiction blog Confessions Of An Idiosyncratic Mind has also collected a wealth of links to articles and interviews with Westlake. If you haven't read Westlake before, I'd recommend as starting points the first Parker, originally titled The Hunter but which can also be found in bookstores under the names Point Blank and Payback (having been retitled twice in the wake of the movies); The Hot Rock, Dortmunder's first; and The Ax.