Donald E. Westlake 1933-2008

Donald E. Westlake died suddenly on New Year’s Eve. He was seventy five years old, he’d been married to the same woman for thirty years, he had four children, four grandchildren, and a successful writing career—he published more than a hundred novels and he was writing up until the day he died. You can’t really hope for a better way to go— and it still sucks. Death just isn’t fair, that’s all there is to it. I am not resigned.

Westlake wrote mysteries, under his own name and as Richard Stark. Some of them are funny, like the wonderful comic caper novels about Dortmunder, and some of them are hardboiled (the Stark books) and some are more akin to psychological horror, like The Hook, which literally gave me nightmares. He wrote a collection of short science fiction mysteries Tomorrow’s Crimes, and an arguably SF mystery novel, Smoke. He was amazingly versatile.

He was a writer that writers like. I have often been in a conversation with writers about writing and someone will bring up Westlake and everyone else will nod and agree. Westlake’s books have wonderful characters, complicated evolving plots, they’re tightly paced and incredibly readable. When he’s funny, he’s genuinely funny with humour arising unforced out of situations. Characters are always themselves, they act the way you know they would act. They’re acutely observed and like like people. Yet his plots are clockwork masterpieces—he winds them up and off they go, not just ticking away but producing wonderful pyrotechnics. He could be gentle and he could be as hard as steel. I’ve often recommended that beginning writers study his books if they want to see how to do these things right. They’re hard to study though, because they suck you right in. There’s a quality of writing there isn’t really a word for except “unputdownable” and Westlake had it in spades.

If you haven’t read him before, I’d suggest starting with What’s the Worst That Could Happen, because that’s where I started. It’s the story of how the thief Dortmunder has his ring stolen, and how he tries to get it back, pulling off more and more complicated heists on the same person, who thoroughly deserves it. The series actually starts with The Hot Rock where Dortmunder and his friends steal the same jewel over and over. He has one more Dortmunder novel coming out in July, Get Real, so that’s something to look forward to.

Westlake had a good life, and a productive career by any standards, but I will cherish the books he did write and miss the ones he never will.

Photo by Jean-Marie David, taken at Quai du polar, Lyon, 2006. Used under CC license.


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