Westlake, Donald E. 1933–
Westlake, Donald E. 1933–
(John B. Allan, Curt Clark, Tucker Coe, Timothy J. Culver, J. Morgan Cunningham, Allen Marshall, Richard Stark, Edwin West, Donald Edwin Westlake)
PERSONAL: Born July 12, 1933, in New York, NY; son of Albert Joseph (a salesman) and Lillian Marguerite (Bounda) Westlake; married Nedra Henderson, August 10, 1957 (divorced, 1966); married Sandra Foley, April 9, 1967 (divorced, 1975); married Abigail Adams, May 18, 1979; children: Sean Alan, Steven Albert, Tod, Paul Edwin; stepchildren: Adrienne Adams, Patrick Adams, Katharine Adams. Education: Attended Champlain College and State University of New York at Binghamton.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Mysterious Press, 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
CAREER: Worked at odd jobs prior to 1958 ("the same list as every other writer, except that I was never a short-order cook"); associate editor at literary agency, 1958–59; writer, 1959–. Military service: U.S. Air Force, 1954–56 ("no awards, by mutual agreement").
AWARDS, HONORS: Edgar Allan Poe Award from Mystery Writers of America, 1967, for God Save the Mark; Academy Award nomination, 1990, for screenplay adaptation of The Grifters, based on Jim Thompson's novel; Edgar Allan Poe Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America, 1992.
The Mercenaries, Random House (New York, NY), 1960.
Killing Time, Random House (New York, NY), 1961.
361, Random House (New York, NY), 1962.
Killy, Random House (New York, NY), 1963.
Pity Him Afterwards, Random House (New York, NY), 1964.
The Fugitive Pigeon, Random House (New York, NY), 1965.
The Busy Body, Random House (New York, NY), 1966.
The Spy in the Ointment, Random House (New York, NY), 1966.
God Save the Mark, Random House (New York, NY), 1967, Forge (New York, NY), 2004.
Philip, Crowell (New York, NY), 1967.
(Compiler, with Philip Klass) Once against the Law, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1968.
The Curious Facts preceding My Execution, and Other Fictions, Random House (New York, NY), 1968.
Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, Random House (New York, NY), 1968.
Somebody Owes Me Money, Random House (New York, NY), 1969.
Up Your Banners, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1969.
Adios, Scheherezade, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1970.
I Gave at the Office, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1971.
Under an English Heaven, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1971.
Cops and Robbers (also see below), M. Evans (New York, NY), 1972.
(With Brian Garfield) Gangway, M. Evans (New York, NY), 1972.
Help, I Am Being Held Prisoner, M. Evans (New York, NY), 1974.
Two Much, M. Evans (New York, NY), 1975.
A Travesty, M. Evans (New York, NY), 1975.
Brothers Keepers, M. Evans (New York, NY), 1975.
Dancing Aztecs, M. Evans (New York, NY), 1976, published as A New York Dance, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1979.
Enough!, M. Evans (New York, NY), 1977.
Nobody's Perfect, M. Evans (New York, NY), 1977.
Castle in the Air, M. Evans (New York, NY), 1980.
Kahawa, Viking (New York, NY), 1982, reprinted, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1995.
Levine, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1984.
A Likely Story, Penzler Books (New York, NY), 1984.
High Adventure, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1985.
(With wife, Abby Westlake) High Jinx, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1987.
(With Abby Westlake) Transylvania Station, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1987.
Trust Me on This, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1988.
Tomorrow's Crimes (includes Anarchaos, a novel, and other stories published between 1961–84), Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1989.
Sacred Monster, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1989.
Humans, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1992.
Baby, Would I Lie?: A Romance of the Ozarks, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1994.
Smoke, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1995.
What's the Worst That Could Happen?, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1996.
The Ax, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1998.
The Hook, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 2000.
Money for Nothing, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 2003.
The Road to Ruin, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 2004.
Thieves' Dozen, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 2004.
"JOHN A. DORTMUNDER" CRIME SERIES
The Hot Rock, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1970.
Bank Shot, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1972.
Jimmy the Kid, M. Evans (New York, NY), 1974.
Why Me? (also see below), Viking (New York, NY), 1983.
Good Behavior, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1986.
Drowned Hopes (also see below), Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1990.
Don't Ask, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1993.
Watch Your Back!, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 2005.
UNDER PSEUDONYM JOHN B. ALLAN
Elizabeth Taylor: A Fascinating Story of America's Most Talented Actress and the World's Most Beautiful Woman, Monarch, 1961.
UNDER PSEUDONYM TUCKER COE
Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, Random House (New York, NY), 1966.
Murder among Children, Random House (New York, NY), 1968.
Wax Apple, Random House (New York, NY), 1970.
A Jade in Aries, Random House (New York, NY), 1971.
Don't Lie to Me, Random House (New York, NY), 1972.
UNDER PSEUDONYM RICHARD STARK
The Hunter (also see below), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1963, published as Point Blank, Berkley (New York, NY), 1973, reprinted under original title with a new introduction by the author, Gregg Press, 1981.
The Man with the Getaway Face (also see below), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1963, published as The Steel Hit, Coronet (London, England), 1971, Berkley (New York, NY), 1975.
The Outfit (also see below), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1963.
The Mourner (also see below), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1963.
The Score (also see below), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1964.
The Jugger, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1965.
The Seventh (also see below), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1966, also published as The Split, Allison & Busby (London, England), 1984.
The Handle, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1966, published as Run Lethal, Berkley (New York, NY), 1966.
The Damsel, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1967.
The Dame, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1967.
The Rare Coin Score, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1967.
The Green Eagle Score, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1967.
The Black Ice Score, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1968.
The Sour Lemon Score, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1969.
The Blackbird, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1969.
Deadly Edge, Random House (New York, NY), 1971.
Slayground, Random House (New York, NY), 1971.
Lemons Never Lie, World Publishing 1971.
Plunder Squad, Random House (New York, NY), 1972.
Butcher's Moon, Random House (New York, NY), 1974.
Stark Mysteries (contains The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face, The Outfit, The Mourner, The Score, and The Seventh), G.K. Hall, 1981.
Comeback, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1997.
Backflash, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Flashfire, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 2000.
Firebreak, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 2001.
Breakout, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 2002.
Nobody Runs Forever, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 2004.
(With Michael Kane) Hot Stuff, Columbia, 1979.
The Stepfather, New Century/Vista, 1986.
The Grifters, Miramax, 1990.
Also author of screenplays Cops and Robbers, upon which Westlake based the novel, and Why Me?, based on the novel.
(Editor) Murderous Schemes: An Anthology of Classic Detective Stories, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1996.
Contributor to anthologies. Author of science fiction, sometimes under the pseudonym Curt Clark. Author of books under the pseudonyms Timothy Culver, J. Morgan Cunningham, Alan Marshall, and Edwin West.
ADAPTATIONS: Many novels by the author, either under the name Donald E. Westlake or pseudonym Richard Stark, have been made into films, including: The Jugger, adaptation produced in France as Made in the USA, 1966; The Busy Body, film produced by Paramount, 1967; The Hunter, adaptation produced as Point Blank, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1967; The Score, adaptation produced in France as Mise en Sac, 1967; The Seventh, adaptation produced as The Split, Metro-Gold-wyn-Mayer, 1968; The Hot Rock, film released by Twentieth Century-Fox, 1972; Bank Shot, film produced by United Artists, 1974; The Outfit, film produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1974; Jimmy the Kid, film produced by New World, 1982; Slayground, film produced by Universal, 1984; Two Much, adaptation produced in France as Le Jumeau; and What's the Worst That Could Happen?, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2001. Drowned Hopes has been recorded on audio cassette and released by Dove Audio, 1992.
SIDELIGHTS: "The Neil Simon of the crime novel" is how Donald E. Westlake was described by New York Times Book Review critic Newgate Callendar. It is a title Westlake earned through such popular books as The Hot Rock, Bank Shot, and Two Much, all characteristic of the author's talent for combining laughs with thrills in his fiction. In a Westlake tale, criminals and law enforcement officers are equally incompetent, and daring felonies fall prey to bad timing, bad weather, and bad luck. The author's plots revolve around the offbeat: "Who else could write a book about a man who pretends to be twins in order to marry a pair of identical heiresses?" asked Sheldon Bart in another New York Times Book Review article.
Westlake's first published books were more conventional crime novels; funny cops-and-robbers stories were not considered marketable. He had been working on a running character named Parker, a thief who "handles frustration very badly—he gets annoyed and kills everybody," according to Westlake in Bart's article. The "Parker" books, written under Westlake's pseudonym Richard Stark, are no less than "the best caper novels ever written," in the opinion of Austin Chronicle writer Jesse Sublett. These tales crackle with "lean and mean prose and chapters that flash back and forward to drive a narrative that zips along at whiplash speed despite the infinite convolutions of the heists, take-downs, betrayals and general mayhem of the plot."
The character of Parker, furthermore—"cold as an iceberg, sure as lightning"—is one that stands out, in Sublett's view, thanks to a professional demeanor that does not bend to the chaos that inevitably surrounds him. Some of Parker's rules of the trade: "Never have sex when working on a caper. (Before and after is a different story.)" And, "During a takeover job, learn and use the first names of the people you're holding at gunpoint. It boosts their ego and makes them easier to deal with."
When the author realized the comic potential in a no-win criminal, Westlake created another character, John Dortmunder, and starred him in a gem-stealing caper, The Hot Rock. So successful was this character, who, noted Newsweek writer David Lehman, "makes burglar seem synonymous with bungler," that Westlake continued Dortmunder's adventures in several subsequent novels, including Bank Shot and Jimmy the Kid.
Critics and fans of Westlake's work are quick to point out that his comic novels are as intricately plotted as any serious thriller. In a Los Angeles Times review of Why Me?, a book in which Dortmunder is once again the hapless victim of his own crime, Carolyn See found that "the characterization … is flawless, if unregenerately silly. And the plot is absolutely masterful, so that a dozen pleasing little details making you smile, even giggle, as they first slide by, are discovered in Chapter 29 to have been part of an elaborate literary setup, making you laugh till the tears come."
To Jerome Charyn, writing in the New York Times Book Review, Westlake's novels "are quite different from the classical mystery and espionage novels of Graham Greene and John le Carré…. [The author] shoves cartoons at us, instead of characters we might love, fear or despise. There are no murderous boy gangsters [or] pathetic drunken spies…. But we do have energized masks that babble at us in all sorts of crazy tongues, come alive for a minute, then return to their normal frozen position. This allows Westlake to push his narrative along at a tremendous pace, and supply his masks with the marvelous illogic of a cartoon world."
Westlake departed from the crime novel format with his works A Likely Story and Trust Me on This. A farce about the world of publishing and one writer's attempt to market his Christmas book, A Likely Story almost did not get published. Washington Post critic Alan Ryan found no small irony in the fact that "all the big-time New York publishers turned this book down. Why? Because it wasn't a crime novel, because it was different from Westlake's previous books, and—one assumes—because they didn't think it was funny and/or didn't think it would sell." But even writing out of his usual genre, "Westlake knows what he's doing," continued Ryan. "[His] comic eye is hilariously perceptive and ruthlessly unsparing. The result is likely the funniest book of the year."
In Trust Me on This, aspiring journalist Sara Joslyn lands a job with The Weekly Galaxy tabloid and is soon immersed in the world of madcap reportage. The bulk of the book involves the Galaxy crew invading Martha's Vineyard to cover a movie star's wedding. William A. Henry III, writing in Time, stated: "Rather than mock the already preposterous, Westlake explores the mentality that capable, rational people would need in order to crank out such stuff." Henry described Trust Me as "perhaps the most beguiling beheading of journalists since Evelyn Waugh's Scoop," and called the work "a frantic, inventive story with lots of good dialogue." In Newsweek, reviewer Peter S. Prescott proclaimed: "Donald E. Westlake writes a comic novel so well it's a wonder he bothers with crime at all."
Westlake returned to his "Dortmunder" series with the publication of Good Behavior. In this novel, the clever thief crash-lands in a Manhattan convent, the sanctuary of a sisterhood of nuns vowed to silence. They persuade Dortmunder to rescue Sister Mary Grace, a tycoon's daughter who has been spirited away by her father and held prisoner in a high-security skyscraper's penthouse. Dortmunder and crew attempt to save the girl, but in typical fashion, their plans go haywire when they confront mercenaries training for the overthrow of a South American dictatorship. Writing in the Washington Post Book World, Jean M. White emphasized: "In the midst of these antics, Westlake never allows his comedy to slide into silly farce or buffoonery," and Callendar remarked in the New York Times Book Review: "He has a wonderful feeling for the absurd, revels in farce and slapstick, [and] piles complication upon complication" on the hapless burglars.
Drowned Hopes, another Dortmunder caper, pits the ill-fated crook against ex-cellmate Tom Jimson, who plans to blow up a dam, endangering thousands of lives, to retrieve his hidden loot, now buried under fifty feet of water. In the Chicago Tribune Books, Kevin Moore observed that "Westlake, the Mel Brooks of mayhem, has great fun making it all much more complicated than that." About the "Dortmunder" novels, Katherine Dunn commented in the New York Times Book Review, "These are hard-nosed but never hard-boiled romps, with a hero you could trust to babysit but wouldn't ask to polish the silver." Dunn gave high marks to Drowned Hopes, claiming that "Westlake's lean prose and deadpan delivery are engaging, as always. His psychology is sharp and his characters colorful."
A later work, Sacred Monster, unfolds as a lengthy interview with a drunken, drug-using Hollywood superstar. Charles Champlin, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, deemed the book "a sparkling little set-piece," and commented that "Westlake's ingenuity in spinning out his tale and working his sleight-of-hand finale is an audacious treat." Tomorrow's Crimes gathers Westlake's previously unpublished 1967 novel, Anarchaos, and nine shorter science fiction-mystery stories. Gary Dretzka, in the Chicago Tribune Books, called the stories "fast, thought-provoking studies" of humankind in a universe disrupted by the inherited evils of corporate and individual greed and a deteriorating environment. Despite minor reservations, Randall Short, in the New York Times Book Review, determined that "devotees of either genre can look forward to a smooth, satisfying read."
In Humans, God orders the angel Ananayel to bring about the Apocalypse. Ananayel enlists five human agents to assist him, but the bringer of doom is drawn off course by a growing concern for humanity, as well as his battle with X, the force who wishes to perpetuate humanity's suffering for his own demonic pleasure. Garry Abrams, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, suggested that "a major purpose of the book" may be "to satirize the cleverness and conventions of the typical thriller through the stereotypes of an earlier, more faithful era," but he pointed out: "In [its] final section, Humans becomes more and more like the standard thriller it parodies…. The climax also is something of a whimper, considering the buildup." The New York Times Book Review's Michael Upchurch felt that West-lake's "narrative building blocks include … a labyrinthine plot and an unnerving insight into the depths of human behavior. The writing isn't as crisp as it could be, however, and the author has a persistently hokey side to him that may seem simply sophomoric to some readers." Upchurch did note that the human agents, "with their sense of rage and helplessness … give Humans a compelling urgency that, in its best passages, outweighs its obvious gimmicks," and found that "in bringing his characters to the brink of oblivion, Donald Westlake zeroes in on what is most precious about life. The ride may be bumpy in terms of technique but the view is, in unexpected ways, divine." Howard Waldrop, writing in the Washington Post Book World, declared: "This is a book that in many ways hurts, when so many others don't work up emotions in the reader at all. It's about the way the world mangles (and always has) the good and bad indifferently." He concluded: "We get a few glimpses, true ones, of the Third World hells that have been created because no one gives a damn one way or the other. It does these things in a frightening, sometimes funny, and unpreachy way."
Westlake returns to the character of Sara Joslyn and the seamy world of tabloid journalism with his novel Baby, Would I Lie? Sara is now working for a weekly newsmagazine, Trend: The Magazine for the Way We Live This Instant, and is sent to Branson, Missouri, to cover the trial of Ray Hanson, a country-western star accused of murder. Ronald C. Miller, writing for The Armchair Detective, called Baby, Would I Lie? "a comedic cornucopia … [that] lampoons journalists, contemporary music, entrepreneurs, and the IRS, among others." Charles Champlin in the Los Angeles Times Book Review termed it "a deliciously nutty sequel" to Trust Me on This, and "the funniest mystery of the year." Michael Lewis, reviewer for the New York Times Book Review was less complimentary. Although praising "Mr. West-lake's usually fine work," he felt that the novel's "humor … seems more like an excuse for the absence of any real mystery and its mystery an apology for the fact that it isn't very funny." He concluded, "In the end, the book's real satire is of itself."
Smoke lampoons the tobacco industry and resurrects the concept of the Invisible Man, but as Don Sandstrom warned in The Armchair Detective, "Do not dismiss [Westlake's protagonist] Freddie Noon as another invisible man like H.G. Wells's Doctor Griffin, Thorne Smith's George Kirby, or … H.F. Saint's Nick Holloway. This is a Westlake production." Gary Dretzka, writing for Chicago's Tribune Books, called Smoke "the kind of novel mystery fans will pass along to the unconverted as an example of just how enjoyable genre writing can be." In the Washington Post Book World, Kathi Malo characterized it as "one of his best books in years." And Terry Teachout, writing for the New York Times Book Review, compared Westlake to P.G. Wodehouse and said of Smoke, "Squirrel it away for emergency use the next time you find yourself stuck in an airport lounge with a departure time of maybe. The bartender may resent the fact that you're too busy laughing to order another drink, but you'll definitely feel better in the morning."
Between 1998 and 2000, Westlake wielded The Ax and The Hook, two thrillers that take a decidedly grim view of the effects of modern society. In The Ax, described by D. Keith Mano in his New York Times Book Review article as "pretty much flawless," downsized executive Burke Devore decides—literally—to kill off the competition as he strives to reestablish himself in the paper business. While a Kirkus Reviews writer noted a lack of "any sense of cumulative horror or revulsion" in Devore's systematic assassinations, the review also acknowledged Westlake's expertise in the genre as he "rises effortlessly to the challenge of varying these executions [and] keeping up the tension."
With The Hook, Westlake again examines the lengths one will go to in order to strike it rich in a competitive society. This time, famous novelist Bryce Proctorr, facing a deadline and a severe case of writer's block, meets up with old friend Wayne Prentice, a struggling writer who happens to have a promising manuscript in his hands. The two strike a Faustian bargain—Prentice will let Proctorr submit the novel as his own, and the two will split the hefty book advance. But the deal is more complex: Wayne must also kill Bryce's wife, who would stand to devour Proctorr's profits in messy divorce proceedings. "Like The Ax," remarked Kirkus Reviews, The Hook shows the often-genial Westlake "at his dourest." And while the novel's "opening conceits are clever," wrote New York Times Book Review contributor Valerie Sayers, the author "doesn't play it for the satire; [instead] he concentrates on building suspense with as many twists and bends as a plot can endure." Craig Shufelt, writing in Library Journal, also concluded that though The Hook "is not a comfortable read—there are no heroes to cheer for"—Westlake still earns plaudits for producing a book "this reader was unable [put] down."
To Sublett, "the bulk of Westlake's work [since the early 1970s] proved that he's just as good at being soft-boiled and biting and satirical as he is at being dark and suspenseful." In some of the author's most successful works, "he had already pushed the envelope just about as far as it could be pushed. Push it a little farther, the envelope turns inside out, and the payoff for a suspenseful setup isn't a sock in the jaw … but a tickled funny bone." In quoting the author, Sublett pointed out that "the line between noir suspense and dark comedy is a fine one. Or as Westlake says, 'It's the other side of the same street.'"
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 13, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 7, 1977, Volume 33, 1985.
Armchair Detective, spring, 1995, p. 206; winter, 1996, p. 106.
Austin Chronicle, December 29, 1997, "No Prozac for the Wicked."
Booklist, August, 1995, p. 1911; January 1, 2000, review of The Hook.
Connoisseur, December, 1989.
Entertainment Weekly, February 28, 1992; April 2, 1993; May 12, 1995, p. 59.
Film Quarterly, winter, 1987.
Harper's, September, 1988.
Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 1997, review of The Ax; January 15, 2000, review of The Hook, p. 88.
Library Journal, July, 1994, p. 130; November 1, 1994, p. 126; January, 1995, p. 158; February 1, 2000, review of The Hook, p. 120.
Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1983; August 7, 1985.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 25, 1981; July 13, 1986; May 8, 1988; June 4, 1989; April 15, 1990; March 1, 1992; September 11, 1994, p. 18.
Ms., June, 1986.
National Review, February 16, 1973.
New Republic, December 13, 1975.
New Statesman, January 10, 1986.
Newsweek, February 21, 1983; April 22, 1985; July 18, 1988; September 5, 1994.
New York, July 3 1989.
New Yorker, August 15, 1988.
New York Times, March 5, 1982; February 24, 2000, review of The Hook, p. B9.
New York Times Book Review, November 19, 1972; June 3, 1973; July 14, 1974; May 18, 1975; October 31, 1976; October 2, 1977; April 13, 1980; May 16, 1982; January 9, 1983; June 22, 1986; July 10, 1988; July 30, 1989; October 15, 1989; April 8, 1990; April 14, 1991; June 28, 1992; September 11, 1994, p. 20; October 8, 1995, p. 3; March 19, 2000, "Publish or Perish."
Observer (London, England), February 9, 1986.
People, November 6, 1989; October 24, 1994.
Publishers Weekly, January 17, 2000, review of The Hook, p. 43.
Saturday Review, May 29, 1971; September 25, 1971.
Spectator, January 29, 1977.
Time, July 22, 1974; August 8, 1988.
Times Literary Supplement, September 24, 1971; December 7, 1979.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), April 25, 1982; November 9, 1986; October 1, 1989; April 1, 1990; October 1, 1995, p. 4.
Wall Street Journal, September 30, 1994.
Washington Post, December 24, 1984; July 23, 1985.
Washington Post Book World, May 18, 1986; March 22, 1992; March 29, 1992; December 17, 1995, p. 11.
West Coast Review of Books, September 1986; Volume 13, number 6, 1988.
Donald Westlake Home Page, http://www.donaldwestlake.com/ (October 16, 2004).