(The Weekly Standard, William Kristol, Jan. 19)
The great Donald Westlake died of a heart attack on New Year’s Eve. When I heard the news, I did what I thought he’d want me to do: I reread a couple of his comic crime novels, dissolving several times into helpless laughter.
Death and laughter: These were two of Westlake’s themes. Or would it be better to say that his themes were life and laughter? There were plenty of deaths in his books, especially in his series of noir thrillers (written under the pseudonym Richard Stark), starring an amoral and extremely competent criminal named Parker. But Westlake seemed unpreoccupied with death. He refused to indulge in a tragic view of the universe.
It’s true that his comic mysteries, like all intelligent comedies, have an undercurrent of melancholy. This is especially the case for those featuring the ingenious-but-cursed-by-the-gods master thief John Archibald Dortmunder and the rest of his New York gang, who gather to plot their ill-fated heists at the O.J. Bar and Grill on Amsterdam Avenue. The Dortmunder series–which will amount to 14 novels when the last, Get Real, is published posthumously–is the jewel in the Westlakean crown. You can get a sense of the Dortmunder novels’ worldview from the wonderful and good-natured fatalism of some of the titles: Nobody’s Perfect, Why Me?, Don’t Ask, What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, Bad News, and What’s So Funny?To be the author of both the greatest series of comic mysteries and one of the best series of noir thrillers is pretty impressive. But there’s much more to Westlake’s oeuvre than Parker and Dortmunder. Over the course of half a century, Westlake produced in the neighborhood of 100 novels (for a list, go to donaldwestlake.com). They feature an amazing variety of inventive plots, a startling array of narrative techniques, and an extraordinary range of brilliantly (and seemingly effortlessly) sketched characters.
I was talking with Steven Lenzner (see his Westlake review essays in the July 2, 2001, and September 1, 2008, issues) about why Westlake comes across not only as an impressive author but also as an attractive human being. Steve commented that his writing combines, in a very unusual way, humanity with a lack of sentimentality. That seems exactly right.
One of the unusual things about Westlake’s books–especially the comic mysteries–is how enjoyable it is to read them a second and even a third time. You notice jokes and -subtleties you missed the first time when the wit and verve of the narrative swept you along. He wrote with both a strikingly light touch and remarkably inconspicuous precision. The mystery writer Lawrence Block commented a few years ago that Westlake had “never written a bad sentence.” (He added, in the spirit of the master: “Of course he’s young yet. Give him time . . .”)
Here’s Westlake himself on how he learned his art of writing:
When I was 14 or 15, I’d read The Thin Man (my first Hammett), and it was an astonishing read, I believe the single most important learning experience of my career. It was a sad, lonely, lost book, but it pretended to be cheerful and aware and full of good fellowship.
I hadn’t known it was possible to do that, to seem to be saying one thing while you really said a different thing or even the opposite. It was three-dimensional writing, like three-dimensional chess, a writing style you could look through like water and glimpse the fish swimming by underneath.
Westlake’s writing–I dare say more than Hammett’s–was three dimensional.
I met Westlake only once, for a cup of coffee here in Washington. I probably admired him too much to have an easy conversation with him–but he at least found the encounter pleasant enough that he submitted a short piece to the magazine, which we of course published (“Reading The President,” June 10, 2002).
Just before Nobel season in 2006, the Los Angeles Times asked several commentators for prize recommendations. I suggested Westlake for literature: “Enough with honoring self-consciously solemn, angst-ridden and pseudo-deep chroniclers of the human condition. Westlake is smart, clever and witty–a prolific craftsman–and deep. But do the Nobel judges have a sense of humor? I doubt it.”
Don saw my endorsement, and wrote a nice note, saying in part: “All I can say is, aw, you shouldn’ta.”
Well, all I can say is, I shoulda. And the judges shoulda. (But they didn’t, and they won’t.) And you should read Westlake if you haven’t, or reread him if you have. As Westlake put it in the titles to two of my favorites: Trust Me on This. And, Baby, Would I Lie?