There is a cliché (and clichés usually become clichés because they’re true) that comedians and comic writers are dark, angry, unhappy souls.
Donald E. Westlake, who very sadly died on New Year’s Eve of an unexpected heart attack, was the funniest mystery writer who ever lived, and nothing about him, or his work, was a cliché. You wanted him at a party because he loved to laugh, just as he loved to make people laugh. He made it clear that he was never the funniest kid in school, but was always the best friend of the funniest kid.
He had a million stories. When he told them, his eyes twinkled and he couldn’t help but laugh as he recounted complex tales, astonished anew at the bizarre turn of events that his narrative took.
Westlake didn’t write a million stories, but it may have seemed that way in his earliest years, when he managed to write three or four or more books a year. He started out writing on a Smith-Corona portable typewriter and never felt an urge to modernize, and definitely didn’t want an electric. “When I’m thinking,” he said, “I don’t want something humming at me.”
There is a dismissive sniff that clings to the word “prolific,” but Westlake was unapologetically productive, much like Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie and Joyce Carol Oates. He once wrote that being prolific is “at once delightful and embarrassing.” He didn’t think he was getting all that much accomplished on a day-to-day basis, but “when I tot it all up,” he conceded, “there is rather a mess here.”
He found his voice or, rather, his voices, early. It is impossible to know which of his personae had the more dedicated following. As Donald E. Westlake, he began his mystery writing career with hard-boiled novels in the style of Dashiell Hammett (his greatest literary influence) before turning to the comic form for which he became famous.
His hapless protagonists became comic figures because they lived in a constant state of bewilderment. In The Spy in the Ointment, a pacifist finds himself somehow in a terrorist cell. In Somebody Owes Me Money, a Runyonesque cab driver is caught in the middle of a gang war. In Two Much!, an amateur con man pretends to be twins so that he can marry two rich and beautiful sisters. A guy with a windfall inheritance becomes the hopeless victim of every con artist in New York in God Save the Mark, which won the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America as the best novel of the year. He eventually won two more Edgars and was named a Grand Master for lifetime achievement.
His best-known pseudonym is Richard Stark, a name not chosen by happenstance. The lean, hard prose of these novels, mostly about a professional criminal named Parker, is the perfect voice for a no-nonsense protagonist played so perfectly by Lee Marvin in Point Blank, the best film noir of the 1960s. Nothing about Parker is easy to like. “No small talk,” as Westlake once said, “no quirks, no pets.” He’s just a guy going about his business, which is robbery, and sometime involves killing people.
While writing one Stark novel, everything that Parker did seemed to go wrong, so Westlake simply allowed it be funny, spawning his best-known comic character, John Archibald Dortmunder, in the novel The Hot Rock, published in 1970 and filmed two years later with Robert Redford and Zero Mostel.
In the Dortmunder adventures, the highly intelligent thief who meticulously constructs perfect capers is hopelessly, relentlessly, unsuccessful. He’s charming and likable, non-violent, and readers inevitably root for him and his infallible, if nefarious, plans, only to watch them fall apart through no fault of his own. Like all good caper novels (and films), they are suspenseful, but the unanticipated implosions are hilarious.
Occasionally, perhaps, too hilarious. One rush hour, I was reading his novel Drowned Hopes on the subway when a scene became so absurdly comic that I began to laugh. As it progressed, I became utterly incapable of controlling the laughter. Passengers began to back away, terrified that they had had the bad luck to be on the train with an obvious lunatic who might turn violent at any moment.
Westlake made several forays into screenwriting, too, most memorably adapting Jim Thompson’s The Grifters, directed by Stephen Frears, produced by Martin Scorcese, starring John Cusack, Anjelica Huston and Annette Benning. He wrote others, some of which were produced (Cops and Robbers, The Stepfather) and some of which were rewritten (including the James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies).
He liked working for Hollywood from time to time, but didn’t want to live there, and didn’t want to spend too much time writing screenplays, feeling that the novels were more important. The more films he turned down, it seemed, the more in-demand he became.
The mystery writing community, as well as everyone who knew Donald Westlake, mourns the passing of one of the most original, brilliant and original writers of his time—the man to whom other professionals pointed with reverence and respect.
Victor Borge said that “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” This is as good an explanation as any for why so many readers in every part of the world felt so close to Donald E. Westlake.