Or, Donald Westlake, R.I.P.
Death is the common currency of popular mystery fiction. So we shouldn’t be so shocked when the major practitioners of the form happen to die. At least they weren't murdered.
Still, the death of Donald Westlake feels like a mortal blow to the entire mystery genre. He was an exemplary chronicler of witty, breezy, American bank heists or other escapist capers for half a century.
Westlake wasn’t a household name like Gregory MacDonald (the former Boston Globe columnist who created the Fletch and Flynn series) or Hartford's Hillary Waugh (credited with pioneering the modern police procedural), both of whom died last year. He certainly wasn’t on the level of longtime Weston, Conn., resident Ed McBain, who was still churning out a book or three a year right up to his death in 2005 at age 78. (Actually, the real household name among mystery writers would have to be Geoffrey Household, the British thriller author, but I digress.)
But to those who wallow constantly in the genre, Westlake was as inescapable as a locked-room conundrum. He operated at both ends of the spectrum, cheap and classy. His bibliography exceeds a hundred titles. He further labored under several pseudonyms, Richard Stark being the most notable. But despite his steady success as a novelist, he continued to publish short stories in seemingly any fiction magazine that would have him. The quality level of the Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen mystery magazines were assured by the regularity of Westlake’s contributions to them.
One of the last mystery authors old enough to have experienced the post-war transformation of the mystery novel into a pop culture phenomenon, thanks to innovations in paperback printing, Westlake filled the public trough. But his work was fine enough to catch the attention of filmic interpreters of the level of Costa Gavras (The Couperet, from Westlake’s The Ax), Jean-Luc Godard (Made in the USA, from Westlake’s The Jugger) and such A-list stars as Lee Marvin (Point Blank), Mel Gibson (Payback) and Robert Redford (Cops and Robbers). Westlake’s own screenplay for The Grifters, which he adapted from the Jim Thompson novel, was nominated for an Academy Award and lifted the careers of John Cusack and Annette Bening.
Westlake’s weakest books are as enlightening for involved readers as are his best. At his worst, he was simply guilty of getting too stuck to a format and filling in gaps with too much idle chatter and silly jokes. There is, nonetheless, artistry in that. At his best, he bent the rules for linear mystery storytelling, creating characters which were more interesting than the contrived situations they were thrust into. His talent was more for humor than humanity, but his desire to flesh out stereotypical cop and robber characters with amusing quirks and idiosyncracies set him apart. Part of an eager breed of prolific paperback writers who ruled late-20th-century pop fiction and who at times seemed interchangeable, Westlake was also a unique voice, furthering the mystery craft by never taking it too seriously.