Donald E Westlake, a very prolific writer of crime fiction, moved to New York in 1959 & immediately found that he could give up his day job in a literary agency & turn pro. By the end of the following year there were 9 published titles written by Westlake but not under his name. This soft-porn pulp used the pseudonym Alan Marshall, an umbrella apparently for a number of contributing authors. I have not read “Man Hungry”, “All the Girls Are Willing” or even “Passion’s Plaything”, maybe I should check them out…maybe. His fecundity, his range & eagerness to see his work in print meant that he employed many nom-de-plumes in his career. It hasn’t helped his reputation as a top gun in American crime fiction. You could have read one of his books & not known that it was by Westlake.
The first of his books to make an impression had the name Richard Stark on the cover. “The Hunter”, published in 1962, It is the debut of Stark & of the master thief Parker whose life in larceny would be developed over the next 45 years. As was the case with many of the writers of hard-boiled fiction Westlake attracted the attention of European film directors. In 1966 Jean-Luc Godard played fast & loose with “The Jugger” for “Made in the USA” without acquiring the book rights. The next year English filmmaker John Boorman adapted “The Hunter” changing Lee Marvin’s character from Parker to Walker for “Point Blank”. The film, one of the greatest of the 1960’s (OK, my favourite movie, like ever !) mixed the nouvelle vague with film noir. The existentialism & the brutality were Boorman/Marvin’s, the skeleton, the classic revenge thriller was Stark/Westlake’s.
Westlake became established enough to use just the 2 names (with a diversion for the Mitchell Tobin books written a Tucker J Coe). His books are about scores, capers & heists.They are set mostly in New York & the characters more sophisticated than classic 1950′[s pulp. The plots are tight, amusing & involving, the cracking-wise excellent. Parker, the pro, is cynical & suspicious, unsurprised by any twist & turn because everything is just business. In 1970 a Parker novel kept taking a lighter, more comic turn & it became the first book to feature John Dortmunder, another long-running criminal character. “The Hot Rock” was quickly picked up by Hollywood.
In “The Hot Rock” (1972) Robert Redford plays Dortmunder, George Segal his main partner-in-crime. There’s a good supporting cast, Moses Gunn & especially Zero Mostel always add value. English director Peter Yates (“Bullitt”) & master screenwriter William Goldman, fresh off “Butch Cassidy…” & a Westlake fan, were involved too. The movie, titled “How to Steal a Diamond (In 4 Uneasy Lessons)” in the UK, is a quality comedy-caper film shot in Manhattan with a cool Quincy Jones soundtrack. It’s not “Dog Day Afternoon” but then few films are that good.
It wasn’t until 1975 that Westlake slowed a little. There was a novel a year under his own name, some developing the Dortmunder character. In 1986 he couldn’t resist introducing the Sam Holt novels written by Samuel Holt ! In 1997, after a break of 23 years, Parker returned in the aptly named “Comeback”. He seemed no older & no better at life & crime but the world had changed. This time around Parker had a great plan to rip off a tele-evangelist. Man plans, God laughs.
Hollywood kept calling & his novels were regularly adapted. Mel Gibson starred in “Payback”, a remake of “The Hunter” with the Parker name changed again (this time it was Porter). Westlake insisted that the name could only be used if all the novels were optioned. It was only after his death in 2008 that a “Parker” film was made but if you think I am going to watch a Jason Statham movie, even in the interests of research, then think on. None of these films were better than “The Outfit” (1973) from a 1963 novel with a very similar revenge plotline to “The Hunter”. Written & directed by John Flynn, who went on to make the excellent “Rolling Thunder” (1977), it’s a direct, tense thriller. Robert Duvall (Macklin) is out of jail & pissed. He wants the money he is owed by the Mob & revenge for his brother’s death & single mindedly pursues the Boss (Robert Ryan) with Joe Don Baker & Karen Black for company. “The Outfit” is a proper film, I met Mr Baker once in London & spoke about “Junior Bonner”, the film he made with Peckinpah. I should have complimented him on this movie too. This great clip highlights Jerry Fielding’s cool score.
It’s tough to recommend particular books by Donald E Westlake, there are over 100. The early ones are now from a world that has changed, they belong with the classic 1950’s hardboiled fiction of David Goodis & Jim Thompson. Westlake wrote the screenplay for “The Grifters” (1990), an ideal choice to update the master. His later books reflect these changes, the effect of 9/11 on New York, Google…”some other nosey parker way to mind everybody else’s business.” In the final Dortmunder novel “Get Real” our anti-hero commits a crime for the convenience of reality TV. In this just as it always was the humour, the satire & the plot development is sharp & hits the mark. The cynicism too, nothing is what it seems. Donald E Westlake’s closest literary contemporary is Elmore Leonard, a writer held, I think, in higher regard. For myself Westlake’s cast of characters, his sophistication & even his dialogue outdoes Leonard & he deserves a place at the top table of American crime fiction.