Donald E. Westlake, who was, to my mind, the greatest crime writer this country ever produced, died Wednesday at the age of 75. That's not such a bad age at which to go out, but I honestly thought he was at least ten years older than that, due to the fact that he was so incredibly prolific. He wrote something like one hundred books, and had shown no signs of stopping. In the last few years, he had revived his series of novels about Parker (written under the pseudonym "Richard Stark"), and this year has another non-Parker novel, Get Real scheduled for release.
I find it difficult, sometimes, to describe what it is I like so much about a given writer, and the work of someone like Westlake is the hardest for me to dissect. At his best, his writing was completely unadorned, and there are those who mistakenly believe that such writing indicates that the author is incapable of writing any other way. This may be true of someone like, say, Dan Brown (okay, it absolutely is true of Dan Brown), but read The Da Vinci code side-by-side with The Hunter, Westlake's first Parker novel, and you will quickly see that Brown is flailing, and Westlake is incredibly precise. He stripped his sentences down to achieve a very specific effect. In The Hunter, the prose needed to be as cold, focused and unfeeling as Parker was.In truth, I've only read around ten of Westlake's books, which is a tiny fraction of his output. My own favorites among those I've read are The Ax, from 1997, and The Hook, from 2000. The Ax is a strange novel about an ordinary man who gets laid off from his job in the paper industry, and devises a plan to get a new job by murdering his competition. I've heard this novel described as a satire, and I can see that, in that its premise is easily bought in that context, but I don't remember it being very funny, which I don't mean as a knock. Meanwhile, The Hook, a play on Strangers on a Train, describes a man who feels he must murder a stranger in order to remove himself from a desperate situation. After he has committed the murder, he's a bit bemused to find that he's not really bothered by what he has done. Westlake was especially great at that: depicting people who thought they were normal, and basically moral, suddenly discovering that they are actually remorseless and cold-blooded.
Unlike many of his talented compatriates, Westlake did enjoy some critical respect -- I remember reading an absolute rave of The Ax in The Washington Post by Michael Dirda. He even had great support from a capital "L" and capital "W" Literary Writer: Booker Prize-winning Irish writer John Banville is a huge fan of Westlake's (he's Martin Amis to Westlake's Elmore Leonard), calling his Parker novels "among the most poised and polished fictions of their time and, in fact, of any time." A friend of mine saw Banville speak once, and he told me that Banville talked about the thrill he felt when he was finally able to meet Westlake. I can imagine how he must have felt. For more from Banville on Westlake, click here.
Just so you know, Westlake, like a lot of genre writers who got started int he plup era, didn't stop at dark crime stories. He wrote adventure novels (Kahawa, High Adventure), science fiction (Tomorrow's Crimes), comedy (A Likely Story, his Dortmunder series, of which the aforementioned Get Real is apparently the last book), even a bizarre Apocalyptic fantasy (the brilliant Humans). So pick your poison, go on-line, and find something to read by Donald Westlake. He was a great writer. I'm going to miss him.