Friday, January 02, 2009

Donald Westlake

It seems almost impossible that Donald Westlake is no longer with us -- or that the shuffling off of one single mortal coil could also pull the plug on the impressive and respected literary careers of his contemporaries Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, Timothy J. Culver, Samuel Holt, and God only knows how many others.

Westlake's classic tales of John Dortmunder, the affable criminal genius whose brilliant schemes are particularly curveball-prone, and the grim, gritty adventures of professional thief Parker, written Richard Stark (one of the greatest pseudonyms of the genre ever), will be read for a long time to come. And his 1997 standalone The Axe is some kind of timeless classic; a decidedly black pot shot at corporate soullessness -- a favourite Westlake target. 

My sorrow for those who have not yet discovered Westlake is only tempered by the considerable envy I have for them: they're about to discover a new favorite author. Or authors.

My personal favorite, though, remains the private eye series Westlake wrote as Tucker Coe, featuring guilt-ridden ex-cop Mitch Tobin. The Parker novels showed how fast Westlake could get you to turn pages, and the Dortmunder tales proved Westlake could make you laugh, but it's the five Tobin books that could make you cry. More than any of his other novels, those are the ones I treasure the most. They're beautifully written -- haunting, compassionate, brooding examinations of a man slowly rebuilding himself. And kick-ass mysteries. Go out, find them and read them. It's a true crime they all seem to be out of print.

But it's not just his work itself that Westlake has left us to deal with. It's the huge mark he's also left on the crime fiction genre, and those who have followed. As recently as a day before his death, there was one of those unplanned moments of synchronicity that makes you wonder if God shares Westlake's warped and wicked sense of humor.

It was an episode of a new USA Network show, LEVERAGE, about a gang of scam artists and former criminals who pool their talents under the guidance of Timothy Hutton to right injustices --usually at the expense of corporations. Anyway, the episode began with a scam already over, and the gang on their way out of the bank with a briefcase full of loot when -- in a moment right out of a Dortmunder caper, the bank is robbed. The plot twists and turns and winds its way to a clever, sly ending -- every move and every wink and nudge is like something right out of one of Westlake's comic capers, making it easily the best episode of the show to air so far.

But it's not mere coincidence of plot alone that had me thinking about Westlake -- it was the episode's title: "The Bank Shot Job," as obvious wink to Westlake's 1972 Dortmunder novel Bank Shot as you can get. And if that's not enough to convince you, how about the name of the all-business bank robber member of the team whose expertise is called upon so heavily in this episode? 

Yeah, it's gonna be a long time before Westlake and his legacy truly leave the building.

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Blogger OlmanFeelyus said...

Very well put.

Nice little find on that tv show. I saw some commercials and it didn't really do much for me, but it's clear that at least one of the writers has good taste, so I'll give it a look now.

I feel like I saw the Mitch Tobin books rereleased at a bookstore recently. The Parkers are coming out again in a nice-looking new edition from University of Chicago press, all of them, 3 at a time, in order.

So there is some small silver lining in this otherwise very sad news.

12:07 PM, January 07, 2009  
Blogger StephenD said...

Very nice post about Westlake. He's been so influential in the genre, but I haven't read much of his work. A bunch of his books just made their way onto my TBR pile after his death.

I didn't catch the Westlake reference in Leverage, but I caught one to another great comic crime writer in the same episode. When Hardison and Parker were impersonating FBI agents, Hardison introduced themselves as Agents Elmore and Leonard.

8:23 AM, January 14, 2009  

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