Friday, January 02, 2009

R. I. P. Donald E. Westlake (1933-2008)

From Nobody Runs Forever (2004), by Richard Stark
Parker kept climbing. There was no way to know how high the hill was. He climbed to the north, and eventually the slope would start down the other side. He'd keep ahead of the dogs, and somewhere along the line he'd find a place to hole up. He could keep away from the pursuit until dark, and then he'd decide what to do next. He kept climbing.
Donald E. Westlake himself warned us that this day was coming: the title of his twenty-second novel about Parker the heister, Nobody Runs Forever, serves as a reminder that even those of us who work in less risky occupations are nonetheless living on borrowed time. And what better use to make of that time than to sit down every single day at the typewriter and explore the vicissitudes of humanity, inventing characters and getting them into trouble just to see how they might get out of it? Do it long enough, do it well enough, and you just might create something that runs forever after all.

No bookie will quote you odds on forever, but I'll lay a bet that Westlake's creations will keep running for a long, long time. A master craftsman, he's known primarily for two very different series: the comic caper novels featuring hard-luck heister John Dortmunder and the hard-boiled heist novels featuring Parker, written under the name Richard Stark. I've written extensively already about the Parker novels; for now, suffice to say that if you love crime novels, or even just good, smart, meticulously crafted writing, you should grab a copy of The Hunter and clear your schedule for the night.

I'm proud to have been able, a year ago, to play a part in the decision by my employer, the University of Chicago Press, to begin republishing the early volumes of the series; watching the books find new readers has been a sheer joy. While I think Westlake was amused by the idea of Parker stalking the staid, respectable halls of a university press, I also know that he was pleased to have joined a list that includes one of his own favorite writers, Anthony Powell. And though I never met Westlake, in all the e-mail exchanges my colleagues and I had with him, we found him to be unfailingly kind, warm, appreciative, and witty--everything you want your literary heroes to turn out to be. The raft of other tributes that have appeared since his death paint a similar picture.

Late last night I got to thinking about the sort of afterlife that one ought to imagine for Donald Westlake. I initially pictured a world full of the heists of Parker's dreams, the ones that run like clockwork, where you don't even have to draw your gun and there's not a layabout, double-crosser, goofball, or incompetent in sight.

But would that really suit someone as interested in human foibles as Donald Westlake? We wouldn't want him to get bored, after all. So, whoever sets up the strings to knock off the heavenly vaults, you might consider tossing in a grifter, a hothead, or even an idiot once in a while. Don't worry: Westlake will know how to keep them in line.

1 comment:

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