Donald Westlake, R.I.P.


Donald E. Westlake, the incomparable writer of a great many fine crime novels – including the Dortmunder series under his own name and the Parker novels as Richard Stark – is dead. He was 75 and passed away from an apparent heart attack in San Tancho, Mexico as he headed out to a New Year’s Eve dinner. The New York Times has a quick obituary and there will be much, much more to come. 

I was stunned when I heard the news. I imagine many more will be as well. Who else will chronicle the world’s foibles and miseries, comic highs and cruel lows, the margins and the in-betweens in the way Westlake did? Who else could have the kind of publishing career Westlake did, the kind that was de rigeur decades ago but is now almost completely obsolete now? This is a loss I’ve dreaded and tried not to think about since Evan Hunter died three and a half years ago. And now here it is. And it’s as incalculable as I feared.

Suffice to say this is NOT the way to ring in 2009. So through the end of the week, the tributes will be collected and the floor’s yours to pay tribute to someone truly beyond measure in the mystery genre.

(photo credit: Laurie Roberts)

UPDATE: Some choice Westlake links:

UPDATE 2: Tributes roll in from:

  • Oline Cogdill
  • Terry Teachout
  • Thom Geier
  • James Reasoner
  • Bill Crider
  • Alonso Duralde
  • Peter Rozovsky
  • Peter Rozovsky (ii)
  • * Tom Piccirilli * Anthony Neil Smith * The Rap Sheet * J. Kingston Pierce * Michael Berry * The Corner * Gregoire Lemanger * 2Blowhards * Bob Randisi * Russel McLean * Neil Gaiman * Steve Steinbock * Jiro Kimura * Steve Brewer * Duane Swierczynski * Dave White * Jeff Abbott * Patrick Shawn Bagley * Maggie Griffin * Chad Orzel * Lucienne Diver * Nancy Friedman * Kevin Burton Smith * Jo Walton * Williamsburg Regional Library * Times of London obit * Tom Nissley * Phil Nugent * Mark Finn @ Cimmerian * Michael Carlson
  • Washington Post obit
  • * Ron Charles with comments on Westlake’s reviews for Book World * Patrick Merrell * Lee Goldberg * Tod Goldberg * Art Taylor * JP Rangaswami * Steven Hart * Ellen Datlow * And a short but devastating one from Harlan Ellison: “The best writer in America has gone. I will not be able to deal with this; not for a very long time.”

    UPDATE 3: Charles Ardai’s tribute at the Guardian Books Blog is a stunner. Here’s an excerpt:

    I feel lucky to have worked with Don over the past five years, to bring out new editions
    of some of his oldest and rarest novels. We have one coming at the end
    of February that he was particularly excited to see ("chuffed", he said
    he was) – it's that first novel of his, The Mercenaries, only it's
    finally going to appear, for the first time ever, under the title he
    originally meant for it to have: The Cutie. Before that we did 361,
    Somebody Owes Me Money, and his Richard Stark novel Lemons Never Lie.
    They are among our bestselling titles. People love his books and can't
    get enough of them. I am one of those people. It breaks my heart that
    after one more book coming this summer I'll never get to read a new
    Donald Westlake novel. I'd settle for a new short story. Hell, I'd
    settle for an email. Don wrote great emails.

    But my shelves are
    heavy with his work and it's a body of work I treasure. No petits fours
    here, but plenty of Grade A Prime just the way I like it, bloody and

    UPDATE 4: For some reason the NYT obit – which, of course, has been picked up everywhere thanks to the AP – reported that Westlake's final Dortmunder novel, GET REAL, would be published in April. That is incorrect. I've confirmed with Westlake's publicist at Grand Central, Susan Richman, that the book will be published on July 17, which is what the GC catalog and Amazon said.

    UPDATE 5: My appreciation of Westlake’s work appears in the Los Angeles Times. Here’s how it opens:

    Donald E. Westlake is dead. This simple sentence can’t even begin to
    encapsulate the enormity of this event. Because it also means Richard
    Stark has passed on too, as has Tucker Coe and Samuel Holt, Timothy J.
    Culver and J. Morgan Cunningham and a slew of other pen names best left
    to gather dust. The sum of these pseudonymous parts is a writing career
    well over 100 novels strong, running the gamut from overt comedy to
    biting satire, subtle existentialism to social commentary, and
    downright impossible to emulate in today’s publishing climate. Westlake’s death at age 75, of an apparent heart attack on New Year’s
    Eve, comes ever closer to bringing down the curtain on a bygone era.

    Lest one confuse prolific output with mediocrity, think again. Westlake
    came of age during the heyday of the paperback revolution, when
    quantity was rewarded at a penny a word by houses looking for lurid
    tales worthy of the racy cover art. With families to feed and deadlines
    to meet, there wasn’t time to fuss over the right turn of phrase or
    elongated story lines — or to thumb a nose at a particular genre.
    During his six-decade career, Westlake wrote sleazy novels and
    children’s books, penned Oscar-nominated film scripts like “The
    Grifters” and epic television flops like “Supertrain,” dabbled in
    science fiction and even cooked up a biography of Elizabeth Taylor. But
    his best home was always crime fiction, as seen through the fun-house
    mirror of works written under his real name and by his darker alter
    ego, Stark.

    UPDATE 6: Ethan Iverson’s amazing tribute is now up at The Bad Plus’s blog Do The Math. How amazing? He quotes from correspondence between himself and Westlake dating back to 2003 and presents an annotated bibliography of almost all the Westlake “canon” with comments from the man. And the close is particulary appropriate:

    Don, thanks for a memorable chapter in my life;  I’ll never forget meeting and getting to know a literary hero.

    But really, thanks for all the goddamn great books.  In way, I can’t even be that sad you have passed on:  you did here exactly what you were supposed to do.

    UPDATE 7, 1/8/08: Scott Timberg writes in the LAT about why Westlake’s work proved troublesome for making good movies:

    One of the enigmas in the long and rich career of Donald E. Westlake
    was that this author of more than 100 novels, many of them popular,
    accessible and plot-driven works of crime fiction, both grim and comic,
    received such a spotty handling by Hollywood.

    Roughly two dozen films emerged from Westlake’s novels or involved
    screenplay work by the man himself. But only two — 1967’s “Point
    Blank,” based on the first novel he wrote under the pseudonym Richard
    Stark, and Westlake’s adaptation of Jim Thompson’s “The Grifters”
    (1990) — are clear standouts. Both films, oddly, were done by British
    directors (John Boorman and Stephen Frears, respectively) well out of
    the Hollywood mainstream….

    …The issue of Westlake’s Hollywood legacy is
    worth pondering now, after the novelist’s death, at age 75, of a heart
    attack on New Year’s Eve. Next week, the first-ever film adaptation of
    Westlake’s work, “Made in USA,” opens at the Nuart Theatre in West Los
    Angeles, more than four decades after it was made. And that movie highlights another irony: The film, well regarded by the
    few who have seen it, was directed by Jean-Luc Godard, who is, of
    course, a Frenchman.

    It makes you wonder, Why was it so hard for Hollywood to get Westlake right?