The new year in the literary world starts off with the sad news of the death of Donald Westlake. One of crime fiction’s most prolific writers, Westlake produced nearly 100 crime novels under his own name and three pseudonyms, Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, and John B. Allan. He also wrote occasional science fiction as Curt Clark, and wrote under the pseudonyms Timothy Culver, J. Morgan Cunningham, Alan Marshall, and Edwin West. Unlike most crime fiction, Westlake’s novels most commonly were written through the eyes of the criminal. He excelled at creating sympathetic characters who were on the wrong side of the law, operating with their own code of what is right and wrong. Westlake is best known as the creator of two memorable criminals, the bumbling thief John Dortmunder and the colder, hard-edged master criminal, Parker.
The Dortmunder series are classic crime caper stories, featuring a sometimes hapless con-man and thief who finds himself in situations where his expectations and ambitions often exceed his abilities. Part of the pleasure in these books is following the process of setting up the crime — casing the scene, putting together the gang, arranging the details — and then watching as Dortmunder’s best laid plans go awry. The series starts with The Hot Rock, which finds Dortmunder and the gang in pursuit of a priceless emerald that keeps eluding their grasp. Watch Your Back!, a later title in the series is also a classic, as Dortmunder and the boys plan a burglary and at the same time have to save their favorite watering hole/meeting place from the mob.
Westlake’s Parker books are much darker, more violent, and lack the light humor of the Dortmunder titles. Parker is a skilled, if violent, thief who does not hesitate to kill when necessary. He’s not the easiest character to make appealing to readers, but Westlake succeeds. Again, Westlake shows the crime through the eyes of the criminal, so the planning and execution are at the center of the story. Although he is a bad man, Parker is not without a code of ethics, and this is what keeps him from becoming a complete monster. These are fast-paced stories, propelled by violence, car chases, gun play, and occasional dark humor. The series begins with The Hunter, which is a good place to start to follow Parker’s career.
Westlake will be missed for his humor, his twisting and complicated plots, and above all for his characters, people living on the borders between legal and illegal, trying to make their way as best they can in a dangerous and chaotic world.