Published at: Jan. 2, 2009, 1:23 a.m. CST by quint
Well, shit. The first bummer of 2009, or the last one of 2008. Turns out last night before his New Year's Eve dinner the great mystery writer Donald Westlake collapsed and died. He was 75.
Westlake was a hell of a prolific writer. He started in 1960 and delivered books faster than his agent thought he should. Supposedly it was bad to try to promote more than one book in a year, so he started using pseudonyms. Under the Westlake name he wrote around 50 books - add in the pen names and that number doubles. Movies based on his books include THE HOT ROCK (a fun Robert Redford heist comedy recently reviewed by Quint), BANK SHOT, A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER and the most recent Costa-Gavras movie THE AX. He was also a screenwriter who sometimes adapted other writers - Patricia Highsmith for RIPLEY UNDER GROUND, Dashiel Hammett for a TV anthology, Jim Thompson for THE GRIFTERS (he was nominated for an Oscar for that one). Personally I think his best screenplay is THE STEPFATHER, which does such a great job of including dark satire of '80s family values in the subtext of an effective thriller. He was often known for lighthearted and goofy material but he was definitely good at the mechanics of a tight mystery or thriller story.
The reason this one hits me hard is that one of the other writers hidden beneath the friendly Westlake exterior was Richard Stark. If you had asked me yesterday I would've told you Stark was my favorite living writer. Aside from four spinoffs about an actor/thief named Grofield, Stark's entire output was the 24 novels of the Parker series. These are the sparsely written, ridiculously badass adventures of a guy who plans heists, then leads the team executing them. He's the best at what he does, knows how to work with the best people, and is usually disciplined enough to follow his rules and obey his instincts. But something always goes wrong anyway and that's his other job, the problem solver. The guy who cleans up the mess. Usually, but not always, he's able to outsmart and outfight everybody and get away with his ass intact, and most of the loot.
Part of what makes Parker a fascinating character, somehow, is his lack of humanity. He's all business. He doesn't have quirks, hobbies, or emotions. He doesn't have attachments. He only sees women after a job, not during. Too risky. In so many crime stories the smartest guy still gets screwed because he thinks with his dick. Parker knows not to do that.
Parker has been put on film many times, but with more humanity and (like Westlake) not under his original name. The best and most famous is POINT BLANK starring Lee Marvin and based on the first Parker book, The Hunter. Marvin is so god damn tough as "Walker" that it's hard not to think of him as the perfect image of Parker, even though the character (and arty feel) are pretty different from the pulpy, straightforward novel. Other actors have followed but, like pretty much all men, they're no Lee Marvin.
One notable not-Lee-Marvin is Mel Gibson, who played "Porter" in PAYBACK, also based on The Hunter. I think both the fun theatrical version and the more harsh director's cut are worth watching, and even if it's not as good a movie as POINT BLANK it's a little closer to Westlake's characterization. Too bad they didn't turn it into a series like James Bond. They wouldn't even have to keep Gibson, because in the second book (The Man With the Getaway Face) he gets plastic surgery to hide out.
Another good Stark-based movie is THE OUTFIT starring Robert Duvall as "Macklin." That one's based on my favorite of the books, the third one, where he gets fed up running from the criminal organization he pissed off in The Hunter/Point Blank/Payback and takes the war to them. He convinces all his friends to simultaneously rob the Outfit's affiliates, so you get several heists for the price of one. The book is better, of course, but the movie's good. It was directed by John (OUT FOR JUSTICE) Flynn but, like his masterpiece ROLLING THUNDER, has only been released on VHS. Both are well worth searching for.
Lesser Parker-based movies include Godard's MADE IN U.S.A. (supposedly based on The Jugger, but to me it just seemed like tedious new wave fucking around with American iconography) and the okay SLAYGROUND with Peter Coyote as "Stone." Then there are two not on video in the U.S. so I have no idea how good they are: THE SPLIT (with Jim Brown as "McClain"!) and the French MISE A SAC (based on The Score, a great book where Parker's crew tries to take down a whole mining town).
Westlake wrote all his books on manual typewriters, but he he still managed to have a good (if rarely updated) donaldwestlake.com. He was still writing at 75, and the Parker novels were still going. I'm not sure if he would have wanted to write a last one or not, but it turns out the last one is last year's Dirty Money. He had stopped in '74 but started up again with Comeback in '97. I can't vouch for the new ones because I haven't gotten to them yet - I was reading them in order and I can't find The Sour Lemon Score. Then I have a couple books after that but when I get to Plunder Squad and Butcher's Moon I'm fucked
I highly recommend reading The Hunter and any others you can find. The first three are supposed to be adapted into comic books in the next couple years, but I dare you to read them without pictures first. For more information check out The Violent World of Parker. Also, talkbackers please recommend your favorite of Westlake's non-Parker books. 361 was a nice and brutal one reprinted by Hard Case Crime, but I would like to be enlightened about the many other styles he wrote in.
Donald Westlake, aka Richard Stark/Tucker Coe/Samuel Holt/Edwin West/Curt Clark/Timothy J. Culver/John B. Allan/J. Morgan Cunningham