January 2, 2009


Donald E. Westlake, Mystery Writer, Is Dead at 75 (JENNIFER 8. LEE, 1/02/09, NY Times)

Mr. Westlake, considered one of the most successful and versatile mystery writers in the United States, received an Academy Award nomination for a screenplay, three Edgar Awards and the title of Grand Master from the Mystery Writers of America in 1993.

Since his first novel, “The Mercenaries,” was published by Random House in 1960, Mr. Westlake had written under his own name and several pseudonyms, including Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, Samuel Holt and Edwin West. Despite the diversity of pen names, most of his books shared one feature: They were set in New York City, where he was born.

Mr. Westlake used different names in part to combat skepticism over his rapid rate of writing books, sometimes as many as four a year, his friends said.

“In the beginning, people didn’t want to publish more than one book a year by the same author,” said Susan Richman, his publicist at Grand Central Publishing.

Later in his career, Mr. Westlake limited himself to two pen names, each generally focusing on one primary character: He used his own name to write about an unintentionally comical criminal named John Dortmunder, and as Richard Stark wrote a series about an anti-hero and criminal named Parker. [...]

Mr. Westlake’s cinematic style of storytelling, along with his carefully crafted plots and crisp dialogue, translated well on the screen. More than 15 of his books were made into movies. In addition, he wrote a number of screenplays, including “The Grifters,” which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1991.

Mr. Westlake wrote seven days a week, his friends said. His productiveness was honed in part by an era in which publishing houses churned out books at a relentless pace. During that time, he also wrote erotic literature, science fiction and westerns.

Mr. Westlake resisted computers and typed his manuscripts on manual typewriters. “They came in perfectly typed,” Mr. Kirshbaum said. “You felt like it was almost written by hand.”

Otto Penzler, a longtime friend of Mr. Westlake’s and the owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in TriBeCa, said, “He hated the idea of an electric typewriter because, he said, ‘I don’t want to sit there while I am thinking and have something hum at me.’ ”

Mr. Westlake kept four or five typewriters and cannibalized their parts when any one broke, as the typewriter model was no longer manufactured, his friends said.

The Dortmunder books are fun, and the film version of The Hot Rock is very good. But the Parker books are tougher and John Boorman's Point Blank is probably the best film made from one of his own books.

-ESSAY: Reading the President: From Tom Sawyer to commander in chief. (Donald E. Westlake, 06/10/2002, Weekly Standard)

Frequently, in the two days of the festival, President Bush was at his wife's side, but he never said one word in public. He grinned, he winked, he waved at friends, he showed how proud he was of the little lady, but he never revealed a personality of his own. Except, of course, Tom Sawyer.

Three days after that White House breakfast, those inhuman creatures with their own death-soaked values called America's attention to themselves, as they'd been trying to do for years. This time, they succeeded, but they accomplished far more than they set out to do.

In the first place, they finally brought an end to the Vietnam war. For thirty years, America has been wounded, defensive, insecure, a braggart, and a bully because it was no longer sure of itself. Vietnam had broken America's belief in its own decency, the belief that had made it so useful and so cordial in the world for so long. A German friend once told me that, when he was a child, the first word one thought of in connection with Americans was "candor." After Vietnam, that was no longer the first word anyone thought of.

With one slap across the face on September 11, that changed. America became closer to what it had been in 1960, self-confident without arrogance. The nation of the Peace Corps, not Grenada. Which meant that the symbol at the top had to change. In the first day or two after September 11, George W. Bush could be seen floundering, breathing open-mouthed like a fish, waiting for somebody to tell him what to do. But, more rapidly than I expected, he realized what he had to do. He had to become a grownup.

-PROFILE: The American Comedy: Donald Westlake: mystery writer, wit, philosopher (Steven Lenzner, 07/02/2001, Weekly Standard)
PLATO, AS EVERYONE KNOWS, once defined man as a "featherless biped." His student Aristotle insisted instead that man is by nature a political animal, a being whose capacity for speech compels him to live with others.

So who’s right, ironic Plato or solid Aristotle? I can think of only one living writer who might reconcile the two—and that’s Donald E. Westlake, the author of the best crime-caper stories ever written. Indeed, properly read, Westlake has already reconciled Plato and Aristotle in his stories, by showing us man as the animal who can laugh at himself, use speech to explode human pretensions, and thus reach toward civilization. Donald Westlake is not only our finest living comic mystery writer, but perhaps one of our finest living philosophers.

The bookstores nowadays stock an endless number of comic mysteries, the best known by Lawrence Block, Carl Hiaasen, and Gregory McDonald. Amusing as these writers often are, it is an injustice to place Westlake in their company. He is an author of a wholly different rank. His true peers are such great American humorists as Mark Twain and Ring Lardner and such great American crime novelists as Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout, and Raymond Chandler.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 2, 2009 9:25 AM
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