Donald E. Westlake, 1933-2008
Donald E. Westlake died on Wednesday night, just before the New Year, and with him died Richard Stark, as well as the no longer active writers Tucker Coe, Samuel Holt, Edwin West, John B. Allan (author of one book, the wonderfully subtitled Elizabeth Taylor: A Fascinating Story of America's Most Talented Actress and the World's Most Beautiful Woman), Judson Jack Carmichael, Curt Clark, Timothy J. Culver, J. Morgan Cunningham, Sheldon Lord, and Alan Marshall. Westlake was all these, as well as his best-known characters, Westlake's bumbling crook John Dortmunder and Stark's coolly efficient thief Parker.
There's a quote at the top of the endless bibliography on Westlake's own site that says, "I believe Amazon knows more about me that I do. However, here is most of what I know." The vast hive that is Amazon may indeed know everything about Westlake, but this representative doesn't know as much as I might, so I direct you instead to Sarah Weinman, who is sad and stunned at the loss (75 is much too young to lose someone as merrily alive and productive as Westlake) but is constructing a wonderful list of links to things already out there on the web and tributes coming out now. Every one that I've followed so far has been worth the trip, but a few favorites are his conversation in Newsweek with fellow pseudonymist John Banville about writing under two names (and Banville's appreciation of the Stark novels, written just before Banville's own Benjamin Black books began appearing), a tribute of sorts to his notorious co-creation, the 70s TV megaflop Supertrain, and Westlake's 2001 piece for the Times about how in the mid-70s he suddenly found he couldn't write as his more lucrative Stark persona until writing the screenplay for The Grifters two decades later, and channeling the Stark-like style of Jim Thompson, opened that vein once again. Here's a bit from the latter:
But then, in 1974, Richard Stark just up and disappeared. He did a fade. Periodically, in the ensuing years, I tried to summon that persona, to write like him, to be him for just a while, but every single time I failed. What appeared on the paper was stiff, full of lumps, a poor imitation, a pastiche. Though successful, though well liked and well paid, Richard Stark had simply downed tools. For, I thought, ever.
It seems strange to say that for those years I could no longer write like myself, since Richard Stark had always been, naturally, me. But he was gone, and when I say he was gone, I mean his voice was gone, erased clean out of my head.
The photo I borrowed above is from the Times too: I love the image of this genial-looking man, in his cardigan and sheepskin slippers, happily split between his two typewriters and his two comic and brutal personas. (His apparently pleasure in his work reminds me of one of my favorite images of a writer, Jill Krementz's photo of Isaac Singer that's on the cover of The Jewish Writer (although the impish glee with which his fingers are poised over his keys is not fully appreciable even in the large image on our site).)
I don't know how you decide the next book you read (I'm sure it's not just what I tell you!). For me, especially before I started getting a flood of upcoming releases in the mail each day, it was often some combination of bookstore serendipity and the slow accumulation of recommendations from other readers. Those two combined a year or so ago when I finally picked up my first Westlake: after all the admiration I'd read for him (and Stark), often from Terry Teachout, had built up into a background roar, I came across a lovely little reissue, in the Hard Case Crime series, of one of his first books, 361. I loved the little package, I loved the cryptic title (I am a sucker for a book titled with a number), but I think it was this paragraph, the second in the book, that really sold me:
I was a mess. A twenty-three-year-old bum with mixed-up German and English in his head, two suitcases full of garbage, no plans. It felt fine.
Boy, that's enough to set you going, isn't it? "I was a mess.... It felt fine." Needless to say, it doesn't feel fine for long...
Somewhere I came across a quote that Westlake was the "Neil Simon of crime" (presumably for his Dortmunder books), but at the same time (per Banville), it seems clear that he may have been our Simenon as well. I have a taste for baroque, or rather opaque, stylings at times, but I'd recommend his refreshingly stripped-down style (which of course is opaque in its own ways) for anyone trying to figure out how to write. I expect I'll be reading Westlake and Stark for a long time to come, now that I've begun, and I get the sense that he will end up being one of the writers who last long beyond our own time. His latest (and last?) Dortmunder book, Get Real, is set for release later this year. --Tom