Thursday, January 01, 2009

Donald E. Westlake (1933-2008)

A sad start to the new year. Donald E. Westlake died late yesterday.

Mr. Westlake was one of my all-time favorite authors. More than that, he was one of the best. Named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, and considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century by some critics.

But their opinion doesn’t matter when the novels make their own case. His older ones are forever being reprinted and finding new audiences. I just picked up the University of Chicago reissue of The Hunter on Tuesday.

I admired him for so many reasons. His versatility. Writing wry comic capers under his own name, then offering the genre’s photo negative as Richard Stark, books that live up to the pen name. His longevity. Starting in the pulps and ending his career with some of his strongest work, like 1997’s The Ax, a book I’ve been thinking of a lot these last few months. His ability to work in different mediums. He cowrote the script for the marvelous thriller The Stepfather and was nominated for an Academy Award for his adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters. His matchless skill at capturing the rhythm and flavor of life in New York City. A Westlake coinage – “Harya” – is still my greeting of choice.

I never met Donald E. Westlake, but I felt like I knew him. I’m certain that I’m going to miss him. I’m going to start rereading The Hunter right now.

When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell. The guy said, “Screw you, buddy,” yanked his Chevy back into the stream of traffic, and roared on down to the tollbooths. Parker spat into the right-hand lane, lit his last cigarette, and walked across the George Washington Bridge.