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Farewell to the grand master of crime

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Donald Westlake, who died on New Year's Eve at the age of 75, wrote more than 100 books, mostly crime novels, over the past half century--almost all of them highly polished entertainments from a writer who knew his craft as few ever will again.

I've probably read close to half of Westlake's output. It would be difficult to track them all down, unless you were prepared to look for a string of aliases--Tucker Coe, Samuel Holt, Edwin West and the prolific Richard Stark--and hunt used paperback stores around the globe. Westlake debuted near the tail-end of the postwar boom in paperback originals, when pulp writers as varied as Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Frederic Brown and John D. MacDonald ruled the drugstore racks. They cranked out cracking good reads that are still being rediscovered and made into movies decades later.

For that bunch, there was no time for writer's block. Westlake was a particularly original and multidimensional crime novelist. He could be light and satiric, as in the series starring John Dortmunder, a burglar whose heists always go wrong, or spare and noirish, as in the amazing string of 23 novels featuring a shrewd, remorseless thief named Parker. He used all the pseudonyms because he turned the stuff out so rapidly his publishers didn't know what to do with him.

Several of Westlake's stunners were turned into movies. The first Parker novel became a memorable film with Lee Marvin, Point Blank, and a much sillier remake with Mel Gibson, Payback. Westlake did a few screenplays himself, including a crisp, nasty version of Thompson's The Grifters. But books always were his main interest -- old-fashioned yarns of mayhem and redemption that still managed to be fresh and unpredictable, pounded out on a series of manual typewriters.

I interviewed Westlake in 2000 for "Sweet Revenge," a short profile in connection with a local book signing. The book was The Hook, a savage look at the publishing world which, like so much of Westlake, happened to be a great crime read, too. When I saw him at the signing, he snapped, "Prendergast, you call yourself a journalist? That story was...accurate!"

Thanks for all the good times, Mr. Westlake. You, too, Mr. Stark. --Alan Prendergast




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