Fri
Jan 2 2009 2:22pm

Donald E. Westlake 1933-2008

Photo by Jean-Marie David, Quai du polar, Lyon, 2006Donald 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.

12 comments
David Lomax
1. dlomax
That was very well said. Thank you for saying it. Could not agree more. He was a hell of a writer.

Thanks also for the link to the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem. I didn't know that one, and am very glad now to have made its acquaintance. I think I'll go back to it often.
Justin Adair
2. Hobbyns
Always enjoyed his Stark novels, they positively crackled with energy. I'm happy that there's one more of his books coming out, but sad that it will probably be the last.

Condolences to his family, he will be missed.
mehubbard
3. mehubbard
Don Westlake was my neighbor in NYC. He lived above us on East 10th Street in the Village. Our daughter babysat for his kids, Abby's kids & assorted ex-wives kids. They came to our parties and we went to theirs. Good times, good drink and good conversation were always had. He lived his life as a professional and a friend. We should all be so lucky
Clark Myers
4. ClarkEMyers
Anarchaos was not all that impressive when new and today in a pricey hardback is for the completist only I suppose. Time was the SF market was easier to crack.

Some of the early non-series sucked me right in although today I know the hard edged realism was no more realistic than either Parker or Dortmunder is a do it yourself guide to a life of crime. It's much easier to watch Westlake evolve than some others who either sprang full blown or were successful in suppressing their trunk stories.

I enjoyed the Parker meets Dan Kearney intersection all the more for coming to it unspoiled before I saw the cross-guesting written up. Folks who like the later Westlake may well enjoy Joe Gores.
Daniel Brown
5. dannyb741
The Hunter (a.k.a Point Blank) was the book that taught the twelve year old me that stories don't need heroes, just someone who makes things happen. Parker could make them happen more emphatically than just about any other fictional character I can think of. Westlake was a wonderful writer and a sad loss to those of us who were aware of his work, a shamefully small number in the UK.

R.I.P. Mr. Westlake and my condolences to his family and loved ones
Arachne Jericho
6. arachnejericho
This news makes me quite sad.

My favorite Westlake ever for various reasons was also a Dortmunder caper, Good Behavior. It was the one with the silent nuns. And also incredibly out of print. And of course I lost my copy some years ago.

He was an amazingly flexible writer; he could write both light comedy and serious, hard-edged drama. There are some images he's put in my head that I'm never going to get out. (South Africa. Dead woman. Rice. Ants. Good gods, man.)

He apparently also wrote Humans, wherein "a bored God sends the angel Ananayel to earth to 'announce, and to effect, the end of the World.'" Also out of print.

Sigh.
mehubbard
7. Nancy Lebovitz
I'm sorry to hear that he's gone-- it seems like there've been a lot of obituaries lately.

I'm very fond of his Cops and Robbers. It had a sharp view of how frustrating it is to not have much money, a clever scam, and an exceedingly fine car chase.
Bruce Cohen
8. SpeakerToManagers
arachnejericho: It saddens me too. Humans was my favorite Westlake of all; I don't think I've ever read a more carefully constructed book that nevertheless was very much about people (humans and angels) and how they love and hate.
Arachne Jericho
9. arachnejericho
Poking around on his website before it falls into inevitable 404 death, I found that he wrote some short SF stories.

See the saga of the Starship Hopeful here.
Steve Downey
10. sdowney
The NYT ran an article by him discussing the loss of his Stark writing style. (usual and obligatory remarks about paywall) WRITERS ON WRITING; A Pseudonym Returns From an Alter-Ego Trip, With New Tales to Tell

Writing begins with language, and it is in that initial choosing, as one sifts through the wayward lushness of our wonderful mongrel English, that choice of vocabulary and grammar and tone, the selection on the palette, that determines who's sitting at that desk.
mehubbard
11. KipD
I read somewhere that the Dortmunder books were some of Joss Whedon's inspiration for Mal and crew in Firefly. It's too bad more of the books aren't in print.
William S. Higgins
12. higgins
I have not read more than a few Westlake novels. With most of Wodehouse, some of Damon Runyon, and one lonely Heinlein book, they are pleasures I've been saving for my old age.


Yesterday at the Goodwill I came across a Dortmunder novel, Watch Your Back! I had recently enjoyed another one, so I picked it up. A dollar seventy-nine. I took it home and started reading.

On the title page is inscribed, quite legibly, DONALD E WESTLAKE 4/24/05.

This is the kind of thing that keeps me coming back to thrift stores, and scanning all the books. Even though I already have plenty of books.

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