Much Ado About Donald Westlake, Including a Newly Discovered Novel (UPDATED)

I’m not quite ready to dub this the Week of Westlake, but the plethora of news and reviews of late certainly makes the aphorism a good one. First up is Robert Crais’s consideration of GET REAL, the last novel featuring John Dortmunder and his gang of irregulars, in the Los Angeles Times. Crais gets at the heart as to why all 14 books succeed separately and as a whole chronicle:

Dortmunder is so appealing, I think, because he is not a criminal

genius and not even close to what anyone would describe as dashing and

debonair. In Dortmunder’s working-class world, he is simply an ordinary

guy trying to make a living, and Westlake is wise enough to make sure

Dortmunder’s victims are way worse than his hero-thief. Guns?

Fuggedaboutit. A frying pan is a dangerous weapon, and way more funny.

And if Dortmunder is known for his gloomy disposition, it’s because his

plans never quite work out the way they should — to great comic effect.

Also in the LAT is Geoff Boucher’s piece on Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel adaptation of THE HUNTER, the first of the Parker novels by Richard Stark (which I’ve raved about a lot already.)  What I’ve linked to is the uncut version of the story that runs in tomorrow print edition, with more goodies about Westlake in the movies, the growing number of crime/mystery graphic novels, and the difficulties Cooke had in translating prose to image:

“Yes, it was a lot of struggle finding Parker’s actual

appearance,” Cooke said. “I had to wean myself off of that Lee Marvin

prototype. We went through several evolutions. At one point he looked a

lot like Jack Palance. That’s what Donald had said, ‘I always pictured him as a young Palance from ‘Panic in the Streets.’ Then I had that in my head. A big raw-boned guy. That led the way.”

At one point, Cooke’s “The Hunter” had art in three colors: black,

white and something that might be called “drowning-victim” blue. But it

was too jolting and the artist kept searching for the proper

final color key and found it in a grim teal. “My wife,” Cooke said,

“calls it gun-metal green.” (Note: The art in this blog post is from

various stages so the color scheme varies.) The panels are shape-based

with distracting details drained away.

“There’s very little line work and very little detail that isn’t

just implied by a color plane or shape,” he said. “The idea was to

subtract everything flowery or extraneous. The color is muted and I

also had the pages antiqued with the very faintest amount of yellow.”

And finally, the biggest news of all: Next April, Hard Case Crime will publish MEMORY, a novel Westlake originally wrote in the early 1960s but was never published because, according to the imprint’s publisher Charles Ardai, “his literary agent advised him that it was too literary and encouraged him to concentrate on more commercial sorts of crime fiction.” Ardai also told Page Six that the sole copy of the manuscript was “a yellowing, faint carbon whose pages were torn and taped together, with Westlake’s handwritten notes. A real artifact,” Despite periodic urgings from his longtime friend Lawrence Block that the book should be published, Westlake never went that extra step.

The premise, as outlined by Ardai, sounds most intriguing:

It’s a beautifully written, heartbreaking story about a man who suffers an assault (after being caught in bed with another man’s wife) and wakes up in a hospital bed suffering from a peculiar sort of brain damage that doesn’t make him unable to function but does make it hard for him to form new memories or retain old ones. Stuck far from home (and struggling even to remember where home used to be), paranoid about the attentions of the police, and desperate to reconstruct his lost life, Paul Cole sets out on an extraordinary private investigation: a missing persons case in which he himself is the missing person.

The sample chapter is pretty damn good, too. And while it remains something of a puzzle as to why the book hasn’t seen the light of day now, such questions should be answered by both Block and Ardai soon – and at least we’ll have the chance to read and judge MEMORY on its merits come April 2010.

UPDATE: Lawrence Block answered a few questions of mine by email about his role in MEMORY’s upcoming publication. To the best of his recollection, Block first read a carbon copy of Westlake’s manuscript in the spring or summer of 1963, a year after Block had moved back to Buffalo. And correcting my misinterpretation of how events unfolded, Block never kept a copy of the manuscript – “I read it at the time, loved it, and returned it.  But never forgot it.” As to why the book wasn’t published back then, “Don was then represented by Scott Meredith, and they couldn’t sell that

book.  [Meredith was the] wrong agent for it—here’s a lengthy serious existential novel

by an unknown writer, and it’s represented by an agent with—at the

time—a real reputation as a schlock peddler.  No end of editors

admired the book extravagantly, but nobody would buy it.”

Fast forward several years later, roughly around the late 1970s, when Westlake was represented by Henry Morrison and had built much more of a reputation thanks to the success of the Parker and Dortmunder novels, not to mention work in TV and film. At this time, Block told me, Morrison thought he could sell MEMORY, but “Don insisted the book was too dated.  Maybe he read it and came to that conclusion, maybe not.” And so it remained, even as Westlake would publish some wonderfully unclassifiable books like KAHAWA and HUMANS later on in his career.

As to how MEMORY ended up with Hard Case Crime,  “After Don’s death, I was called on to prepare something for the MWA

paper, and I thought of MEMORY and wrote about it in my eulogy—which

was adapted slightly for the Writers Guild magazine as well,” Block said. “I told

Abby [Adams, Westlake’s widow] it might spark some interest, and it sparked enough interest in

her so that she hunted in Don’s files and, remarkably, there was a

bedraggled carbon copy.  She gave it to me, and I read enough to see it

was the book I remembered, and as fine as I recalled.  With Abby’s

permission, I passed it on to Charles.” 

Block said he would be “hugely surprised” if additional unpublished Westlake manuscripts resurfaced, but did say that in the spring or summer of 2010, Subterranean Press will be republishing three soft-core sex novels the two men collaborated on early in their careers as a triple volume, under the collective title HONEY GIRLS & HELLCATS:

 The Collaborative Novels of Lawrence Block and Donald E. Westlake: “So brace yourselves, Gentle Readers!”