Donald E. Westlake

As the computer takes our jobs, most people don’t seem to realize why it’s happening. Why was I fired, they want to know, when the company’s in the black and doing better than ever? And the answer is, we were fired because the computer made us unnecessary and made mergers possible and our absence makes the company even stronger, and the dividends even larger, the return on investment even more generous.

Donald E. Westlake — aka Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, Samuel Holt, Edwin West, Curt Clark, Timothy J. Culver, John B. Allan, J. Morgan Cunningham —died on New Year’s Eve of an apparent heart attack. He was 75.

As the list of pseudonyms suggests, Westlake was a one-man literary factory who produced over 100 novels in his lifetime as well as a number of film scripts, at least one of which — The Stepfather, about a serial killer who leaves a trail of slaughtered households in his search for the perfect nuclear family — is an underground classic.  Like Evan Hunter and John D. MacDonald (whom he called one of his idols), Westlake thrived as a writer of paperback originals, usually crime stories, that were seldom less than competent entertainment and frequently far better than they had any right to be.

Westlake had a gift for dark satire: the quote at the top of this post comes from The Ax, a 1997 novel about an executive who spills red in order to stave off pink slips, that I expect will see a bit of a revival in the coming year. Westlake’s light side was shown to best effect in the 15 caper novels featuring John Archibald Dortmunder and his unlikely buddies at the O.J. Bar and Grill, featured in the novels The Hot Rock (1970), Bank Shot (1972) and the upcoming Get Real, but I preferred the darker strain at work in the Parker novels, written under the name Richard Stark. The first three Parker novels — The Hunter (1962), The Man With the Getaway Face (1963) and The Outfit (1963) — set the mold for the series: lean, spare narratives propelled by action and dialogue, built around a ruthless, single-minded hood. I was surprised to learn there had been seven different film versions of various Parker novels. The two best-known ones — Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin, and Payback, starring Mel Gibson — are both adaptations of The Hunter, but there’s a pretty good version of The Outfit starring Robert Duvall that deserves to be rescued from VHS limbo.

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One thought on “Donald E. Westlake

  1. […] reveals George W. Bush’s reading lists, which Mark Tran finds unexpectedly revealing. And a master crime novelist is mourned by his fans. Posted by stevenhart Filed in Mass Market Media, Sunday Bookchat, […]

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