Saturday, 3 January 2009


Note: You can also find this essay at Shotsmag Confidential, here. Shots ( uk), is where I write a monthly American Eye column. 

Most obituaries of Donald Westlake concentrated, rightly, on his prolific output, more than 100 novels and an equal number of short stories, as well as some exceptional screenplays. Westlake was one of the last of a dying breed, the generation which followed the great pulp magazine writers, and made their livings pounding out paperback originals on manual typewriters. For Westlake, the habit was so ingrained he never gave up his typewriters; he once explained to me that, although he stockpiled old machines to cannibalize for parts, the real difficulty was finding ribbons, which he went through at a prodigious rate.

I met Westlake a couple of times; the last was a wonderful lunch thrown by Quercus at Chez Elena in Charlotte Street, where Don and Abby were literally the life of the party. I started thinking how Donald Westlake was the antithesis of his Richard Stark alter ego, in much the same way that the Dortmunder books are a reflection in a fun house mirror of the Parker novels, and then it occurred to me that a central theme of Westlake's work has always been human frailty. His characters are done in, or nearly so, by their weaknesses, their foibles, and in his plots, which he basically made up as he went along, he lets his characters find their own ways through situations which usually have arisen from those flaws. They generally run up against people with more serious flaws, most commonly greed, and things accelerate from there. 'You never really know what you're doing,' he explained, and I think that applies to most of his characters too.
Even Parker, who wants to know, and control, everything. In fact, Parker is a successful professional thief precisely because he has none of those human failings, the reason for that being he has very little in the way of human feeling, especially in the first series (Parker redux is a somewhat kinder, gentler sociopath), and he takes advantage of, or takes revenge on, those who do have them.
Like many great comic writers, Westlake's humour had dark roots. The best comedians see the world as a noirish place, and find it funny. Westlake described the Parker books as growing out of an image he had of a man walking across the George Washington Bridge, the feeling of being an outsider he'd experienced himself coming to New York during a peripatetic youth. When he said that, it reminded me of the somewhat lost hero of Up Your Banners, a straightforward comic novel he wrote around the student protest movement in the late 1960s, and Westlake loved my reminding him of that. He made the connection to Parker himself, saying he'd introduced Grofield, the actor and part-time thief, to the Parker novels in order to have a little comic relief. Grofield spun off into a few books of his own, and at about the same time Westlake, as Tucker Coe, wrote five novels about the ex-cop Mitch Tobin, whose existential angst in expressed by his working on a wall in his backyard. It was as if Tobin were the antithesis of Grofield. Remember too that the opening of the Grofield novel Blackbird, with its failed armored car robbery, was used as the opening of the Parker novel Slayground which was also made into a British movie starring Peter Coyote, Robbie Coltrane, and Billie Whitelaw, Beckett's favorite actress.
It's tempting to concentrate on the playfulness of Westlake's writing: how he and Joe Gores inserted their characters into each other's books, how Grofield pops up in The Hot Rock (still one of the great heist movies, and one of Robert Redford's best roles, with Ron Liebman and Zero Mostel stealing every scene they can from him) or how in Jimmy The Kid the Dortmunder gang use a fictional Parker novel, Child Heist, as the blueprint for their own kidnapping. It was while contemplating exactly how I was able to write the words 'fictional Parker novel' with a straight face that it finally occurred to me that what Donald Westlake actually was, what made him such a treasure as a writer. Westlake was a con man, a first-class con man, and we readers were the marks.
This is no great revelation. Go to Westlake's website and you're greeted with a quote 'I believe my subject is bewilderment' and then another one 'but I could be wrong'. He even wrote a novel called God Save The Mark, which won the first of his three Edgars. When he wrote an Arthur Hailey-parody paperback original, Comfort Station, as J. Morgan Cunningham, the book appeared with a blurb saying 'I wish I had written this book'. Signed Donald E Westlake!
Think about it. Westlake started out working for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, writing critiques of manuscripts sent in, with a fee, by hopeful would-be writers from across America. Meredith found some great wordsmiths there. Evan Hunter, of course, like Westlake, would establish a second identity for a different sort of book. Lawrence Block would, like Westlake, move between hard-boiled and comic crime. This crowd included Brian Garfield and John Jakes, who would become best-sellers. All of them would write to order under multiple pseudonyms. Some, like Robert Silverberg, could turn out perfectly-typed one-draft manuscripts as quickly as they could type. These guys would play poker every week, and practice their con games. They even wrote one novel as a joint enterprise to help one of them out, one player sitting out and writing as chapter while the rest played on, then another sitting out, and so on.
Meredith, as their agent, would get them bulk contracts for paperback originals and contract the work out. This included a huge number of adult novels, of which Westlake claimed to have written 28, though others put the number at 39, or more. He used the name Alan Marshall (or Marsh) for most of them, wrote some with Block who was writing as Sheldon Lord, but also let other writers use the name to sell books published under imprints like Bedside, Nightstand, and the probably unintentionally punning Midwood. It was the same publisher who printed Jim Thompson's later novels, including The Grifters, for which screenplay Westlake won another Edgar, and an Oscar nomination. He described writing these books by doing exactly one chapter, fifteen pages a day, for ten days, and figured out that at $900 a pop, he was earning $22.50 an hour. In the Dortmunder novel Bank Shot (filmed with George C Scott lisping for reasons best-known to him) Kelp hits a car whose trunk is filled with adult novels, and all the titles Westlake lists as being visible are ones he wrote.
Westlake then wrote a very funny novel, Adios Scheherazade, about a man who writes porn, cashing in one more time on that genre which is probably the biggest con of all, when you think of con-men as giving the mark what he thinks he wants. I wonder if one of the reasons Westlake wasn't more successful in Hollywood was that those guys, the Hollywood machers, never really know what it is they want. At least not what they want from the people they now call 'content providers'. But you look at Westlake's best work, like the screenplay of The Grifters, or the original screenplay for The Stepfather, or his adaptation of his own novel Cops & Robbers, or the Hammett adaptation Fly Paper (despite some odd casting) for Showtime's Fallen Angels series, and you know that he knew what he wanted from a film, from a story. Or maybe it was because he simply liked sitting at the typewriter and being the master of his own destiny.
But I can't escape this sense of Westlake carrying on the con as the reader turns the pages, and I think that's why the Parker books are so special, and may remain the focus of critical attention on Westlake's career. Critics tend to value seriousness over humour, and Richard Stark's books were written with such a taut prose, especially considering the early Sixties milieu in which they first appeared, that they jumped out at you. He was performing that same con, keeping your attention focused, but with such economy that the story-telling was subsumed totally in the force of the story. I remember being transfixed by them when I discovered them, somewhat bizarrely, in the library at Dickinson College, where I found myself teaching. I've written at length for both Shots and Crime Time on the film adaptations of the Parker books; although Point Blank remains a classic film, and was Westlake's own favourite, I remain exceptionally fond of John Flynn's The Outfit, with Robert Duvall the screen's best Parker (though, as in all the many adaptations, he was not called Parker). It is a small and perfectly formed crime film that deserves a higher reputation.
Westlake's reputation, on the other hand, has probably never been higher. The early Parker books are being reprinted by the University of Chicago, which says something about American academe as well as the quality of Westlake's writing. Those fabulously entertaining Sixties novels are re-appearing, and as for the early adult stuff, well, let's say university presses need not worry.
But anyone who knew Donald Westlake, even casually, was aware of how full of life he was. You imagine someone who writes seven days a week as being an introvert, but he was anything but. He died on New Year's Eve, as he and Abby were about to go out, and although that is tragic, I see something touching in the thought that he lived his life at a full pace until he just suddenly stopped.
Writers never die, of course, as long as they are being read. And I believe Donald Westlake will go on being read for a very long time. Readers love being conned, after all, and who could do it better?


Robin Ramsay said...

Fine appreciation of Westlake. I never got into his comic crime books but loved the Parker series (though the recent ones seemed less successful, though I'd be hard pushed to explain why).
This post, however, is is to add a big 'Amen' to your comments on John Flynn's The Outfit. As well as being the best adaptation so far of a Parker novel, it would get my vote as the best crime film of the 1970s. Yes, Point Blank gets the acclaim but as a Parker fan, Lee Marvin just isn't Parker. Robert Duvall, on the other hand, in The Outfit, is perfect. And the film also has nice performances from Robert Ryan and Joe Don Baker. So, next time it's on the tube, watch it.
And watch to see if it's intact. Because the last twice I've seen it on TV a tiny little section, no more than a few seconds, had been removed. In one of the early scenes Parker holds up a poker game, identifies there a hood who has tortured his (Parker's) girl friend, and shoots him in the hand. The few seconds it takes for the shot to be fired has been removed. In the old days projectionists would snip out little bits of films they liked but it seems unlikely this is the reason in this instance. Weird....

Ali Karim said...

Yes, excellent - I enjoyed your peice whenStark came back in the late 1990's