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Donald Westlake

By Bret McCabe | Posted 12/30/2009

The truth is, most writers would gladly settle for one great book. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it'd be great to have a long and prosperous career, cranking out celebrated genre works that get adapted into movies--and maybe even write a movie yourself. But if you get right down to it, any writer wouldn't mind creating one novel featuring one character who becomes unforgettable from the first page.

Donald Westlake had the audacity to have both those careers. Westlake--who passed Dec. 31, 2008, in Mexico en route to a New Year's Eve dinner at the age of 75--cranked out crime stories at a pace that should make most writers hate him. From 1960, when his debut, The Mercenaries, was published through to his death, Westlake cranked out more than 90 novels and an untold number of short stories, some under his own name, some under one of his many pen names. Most of these were crime/mystery stories--for which he was eventually awarded three Edgar awards--although, like many genre writers, he also dabbled in other forms, such as sci-fi. One of his most accessible serial creations, the comically bumbling criminal planner John Dortmunder, became the source of seven screen adaptations. Westlake himself even got a chance to write a screenplay, adapting Jim Thompson's The Grifters for director Stephen Frears 1990 movie--earning an Oscar nomination in the process.

Born in Brooklyn, NY, Westlake spent most of his life in upstate New York. The Dortmunder series became known among mystery writers and readers as one of the funniest in a genre better known for cold bloodedness. The Dortmunder series, in fact, was a rather ingenious invention. Marrying wisecracking humor with meticulous plotting of the genre, Westlake finely honed the idea of screwball noir. And from the many interviews he gave over the course of his career, the man comes off as an instantly likable and gregarious talker--the ideal interview subject.

All of which makes Westlake's most indelible creation so fascinating. In 1962, Westlake, under the pseudonym Richard Stark, created one of the most compellingly repugnant characters in contemporary fiction. In The Hunter, an amoral criminal, known only by the name Parker, gets left for dead by his double-crossing partner Mal. The entire novel is Parker's methodical, almost stoically self-righteous bloody path up through the ranks of a New York crime outfit to get back the $45,000 he feels he's owed. Parker is not a verbally gifted or especially likable main character, more this unknowable blunt force who knows what he wants, feels he deserves it, and will stop at nothing to get it back.

Parker became the recurring character in a Stark series, but none of the subsequent novels pack The Hunter's brutal precision, ingenious structure, and circuitous moral clarity. It's so well plotted it's been the source of two entertaining screen adaptations--John Boorman's 1967 Point Blank with Lee Marvin is the most cinematically arresting--and so tightly conceived not even Mel Gibson could muck it up when he starred in 1999's Payback. Parker is the sort of character that brands itself into the reader's brain, and The Hunter is that sort of one book on which a literary reputation can hang. Westlake, bless him, had five careers' worth of output still in his tank.

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