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Vern eulogizes the great Donald E. Westlake

Well, shit. The first bummer of 2009, or the last one of 2008. Turns out last night before his New Year's Eve dinner the great mystery writer Donald Westlake collapsed and died. He was 75. Westlake was a hell of a prolific writer. He started in 1960 and delivered books faster than his agent thought he should. Supposedly it was bad to try to promote more than one book in a year, so he started using pseudonyms. Under the Westlake name he wrote around 50 books - add in the pen names and that number doubles. Movies based on his books include THE HOT ROCK (a fun Robert Redford heist comedy recently reviewed by Quint), BANK SHOT, A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER and the most recent Costa-Gavras movie THE AX. He was also a screenwriter who sometimes adapted other writers - Patricia Highsmith for RIPLEY UNDER GROUND, Dashiel Hammett for a TV anthology, Jim Thompson for THE GRIFTERS (he was nominated for an Oscar for that one). Personally I think his best screenplay is THE STEPFATHER, which does such a great job of including dark satire of '80s family values in the subtext of an effective thriller. He was often known for lighthearted and goofy material but he was definitely good at the mechanics of a tight mystery or thriller story. The reason this one hits me hard is that one of the other writers hidden beneath the friendly Westlake exterior was Richard Stark. If you had asked me yesterday I would've told you Stark was my favorite living writer. Aside from four spinoffs about an actor/thief named Grofield, Stark's entire output was the 24 novels of the Parker series. These are the sparsely written, ridiculously badass adventures of a guy who plans heists, then leads the team executing them. He's the best at what he does, knows how to work with the best people, and is usually disciplined enough to follow his rules and obey his instincts. But something always goes wrong anyway and that's his other job, the problem solver. The guy who cleans up the mess. Usually, but not always, he's able to outsmart and outfight everybody and get away with his ass intact, and most of the loot. Part of what makes Parker a fascinating character, somehow, is his lack of humanity. He's all business. He doesn't have quirks, hobbies, or emotions. He doesn't have attachments. He only sees women after a job, not during. Too risky. In so many crime stories the smartest guy still gets screwed because he thinks with his dick. Parker knows not to do that. Parker has been put on film many times, but with more humanity and (like Westlake) not under his original name. The best and most famous is POINT BLANK starring Lee Marvin and based on the first Parker book, The Hunter. Marvin is so god damn tough as "Walker" that it's hard not to think of him as the perfect image of Parker, even though the character (and arty feel) are pretty different from the pulpy, straightforward novel. Other actors have followed but, like pretty much all men, they're no Lee Marvin. One notable not-Lee-Marvin is Mel Gibson, who played "Porter" in PAYBACK, also based on The Hunter. I think both the fun theatrical version and the more harsh director's cut are worth watching, and even if it's not as good a movie as POINT BLANK it's a little closer to Westlake's characterization. Too bad they didn't turn it into a series like James Bond. They wouldn't even have to keep Gibson, because in the second book (The Man With the Getaway Face) he gets plastic surgery to hide out. Another good Stark-based movie is THE OUTFIT starring Robert Duvall as "Macklin." That one's based on my favorite of the books, the third one, where he gets fed up running from the criminal organization he pissed off in The Hunter/Point Blank/Payback and takes the war to them. He convinces all his friends to simultaneously rob the Outfit's affiliates, so you get several heists for the price of one. The book is better, of course, but the movie's good. It was directed by John (OUT FOR JUSTICE) Flynn but, like his masterpiece ROLLING THUNDER, has only been released on VHS. Both are well worth searching for. Lesser Parker-based movies include Godard's MADE IN U.S.A. (supposedly based on The Jugger, but to me it just seemed like tedious new wave fucking around with American iconography) and the okay SLAYGROUND with Peter Coyote as "Stone." Then there are two not on video in the U.S. so I have no idea how good they are: THE SPLIT (with Jim Brown as "McClain"!) and the French MISE A SAC (based on The Score, a great book where Parker's crew tries to take down a whole mining town). Westlake wrote all his books on manual typewriters, but he he still managed to have a good (if rarely updated) donaldwestlake.com. He was still writing at 75, and the Parker novels were still going. I'm not sure if he would have wanted to write a last one or not, but it turns out the last one is last year's Dirty Money. He had stopped in '74 but started up again with Comeback in '97. I can't vouch for the new ones because I haven't gotten to them yet - I was reading them in order and I can't find The Sour Lemon Score. Then I have a couple books after that but when I get to Plunder Squad and Butcher's Moon I'm fucked I highly recommend reading The Hunter and any others you can find. The first three are supposed to be adapted into comic books in the next couple years, but I dare you to read them without pictures first. For more information check out The Violent World of Parker. Also, talkbackers please recommend your favorite of Westlake's non-Parker books. 361 was a nice and brutal one reprinted by Hard Case Crime, but I would like to be enlightened about the many other styles he wrote in. Donald Westlake, aka Richard Stark/Tucker Coe/Samuel Holt/Edwin West/Curt Clark/Timothy J. Culver/John B. Allan/J. Morgan Cunningham 1933-2008 --Vern http://www.geocities.com/outlawvern


Readers Talkback
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  • Jan. 2, 2009, 1:22 a.m. CST

    RIP

    by Fat and Curious

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 1:26 a.m. CST

    Payback was a great movie

    by the milf lover

    I still need to see the director's cut. Cant say I know anything else about Mr. Westlake as I am not much of a reader at all. Still, my condolences to his loved ones on their loss. <p> On a different note, you say "They wouldn't even have to keep Gibson, because in the second book (The Man With the Getaway Face) he gets plastic surgery to hide out." What? So that means Frank Miller stole that bit for Dwight when he did it in Sin City: A Dame To Kill For? Damn.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 1:32 a.m. CST

    Nicely done Vern!

    by Clarence Boddicker

    A good read and educational at the same time. I've never read his works...perhaps now I will.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 1:35 a.m. CST

    RIP Dortmunder

    by DonRivella

    Westlake was unbelievably prolific. I usually try to stay away from authors who publish books more frequently than I vacuum my house, but you can't go wrong with Westlake. While not all his books are masterpieces, none of them has disappointed me. I find it remarkable that he managed to write both one of the funniest (Dortmunder) and one of the most bad ass (Parker) crime series. If you don't know the man's work, check it out, it's not too late.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 1:54 a.m. CST

    Westlake was great

    by Continentalop

    I saw "Point Blank" years ago (and just bought it for my dad for Christmas) and that influenced me to go out and read his Richard Stark/Parker series. The funny thing is, as big as fan as I am of Westlake's novels and his screenplays, I did not know until now that he wrote the script for "The Stepfather". I guess there is always something new to learn.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 2:08 a.m. CST

    Westlake was the best

    by brisco1138

    I had the pleasure of interviewing him two years ago for a 20th anniversary article I wrote about the making of The Stepfather. He said he loved talking about the movie because it was one of his few good experiences with Hollywood. He told some great stories, including how the filmmakers couldn't change even ONE word in the script unless Westlake approved of it (that was written into his contract -- a contract, he joked, that should be in the Smithsonion!). He was a truly talented man whose presence will be missed. RIP Don... We talked for a couple of hours, but you treated me as if we had been friends for life.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 2:17 a.m. CST

    NOOOO

    by The Dum Guy

    I haven't a word more to say

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 2:25 a.m. CST

    by The Dum Guy

    other than to say next to King, this is (well maybe Lovecraft) the only author I own more books written by.<br><br>Although, I haven't read them all, so there is more to read...

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 2:53 a.m. CST

    RIP

    by Xiphos_2

    Man I just reread the Hunter for like the tenth time about a month ago. Westlake was quite the writer. Thank you sir, for the many fine hours I spent immerssed in your worlds.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 2:57 a.m. CST

    R.I.P, good sir...

    by FilmCritic3000

    He was and always will be a classic, a legend for all time.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 3:43 a.m. CST

    Top work Vern

    by palimpsest

    I'll have to go and re-read some Westlake now...

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 4:19 a.m. CST

    Godspeed

    by Bloo

    You were a great writer weather it be in novels or screenplays. You influenced countless people, Godspeed

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 5 a.m. CST

    Vern isn't supposed to bring bad news...

    by Alonzo Mosely

    I loved me some Parker, and it is amazing, or perhaps it isn't, that we never got a faithful adaptation...

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 5:25 a.m. CST

    Great Obit Vern

    by IAmMrMonkey!

    I'm ashamed that I wasn't aware of this great man's work; I wasn't even aware that Point Blank was based on one of his novels but you've got my interest in reading the Parker books now. RIP Donald Westlike

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 6:06 a.m. CST

    Tedious new wave fucking around w/ (U.S.) iconography

    by PTSDPete

    And THAT'S Goddard for you, fellas ! Especially during his quasi-Marxist, pseudo-' Anti American ' times, of basically salivating over blond U.S. girls and getting real angry at Flash Gordon comics ( or something ). And that supposedly ' Maoist ' ' La Chinoise ', MAAAAAAAN. Tom Clancy is a real bigger - and more relevant - U.S. policy critic than HIM, back there. Or ever. </p> I do respect him as a filmmaker, of course : admire his mastery of technique, like some of his films ( albeit most of them tending to dissolve into this ' lovey dovey ' schtick ), approve his view and use of film as continuing argumentation ( hence, ' the film essay ' ), hated his pomposity. Most especially the seemingly base-level impetus behind it, w/c looks to me as him vainly trying to resolve his horniness with girls, and a sort of loud, irascible, amorphic sense of ' politics ' you won't think he'd actually dignify in the streets. Just a random series of frustrations he's simply indulging in . We know that the thought of an American empire sucks, but please don't get toke up on it as some indulgence you can afford ! Like his crusade, it all ends up aimless, in bordering on NOTHING. He dourly scoffs at America's everything, yet has been living off its iconoclasms for YEARS. </p> ( And his whole ' tirade ' with Spielberg. Completely and utterly ridiculous. Dang, isn't the guy not Jew enough for ya ?( Not to sound Anti-Semitic, but not to be exactly pro-Israeli-Imperial-Neofascist-Agression War Machine, either ). The fact he seems to be less sympathetic to Oscar Schindler's ' wife ' in Argentina, as he argued , and more to the ACTUAL HOLOCAUST VICTIMS' DESCENDANTS he's been helping with his Hollywood carreer blatantly speaks otherwise ! )</p></p> That's why it's Jean Pierre Melville that I feel is the best among all of them Nouevelle Vague. He's the only one who actually buckles down and focuses on MAKING GREAT FILMS, more than merely talking about them; honing his arguments truly fine. He should have been the one to do those ' Parker ' novels like you described.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 6:28 a.m. CST

    They are re-releasing all of the Parker Novels

    by aint_it_cruel?

    http://www.donaldwestlake.com/wks_bkex5.html. But only three a year. Affordable copies of Sour Lemon, Plunder and Butchers should be available in 2011-2012...

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 7:20 a.m. CST

    Lemons Never Lie was good, too

    by Cruel_Kingdom

    I've found that anything written by Westlake/Stark is worth a read. I love crime novels, and Westlake was one of the kings of the genre. The only book I couldn't get through was Ask the Parrot. Not sure why I couldn't make it through, but it just never caught my interest. I kind of think Westlake/Stark was one of those guys, like just about every writer you can think of, whose work got a little more watered-down the older he got. But those early 60s and 70s novels are always fantastic. I've read The Hunter a couple of times, and I love that the best. The writer may die, but his work will live on... RIP, Donald Westlake/Richard Stark.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 7:23 a.m. CST

    MilfLover

    by Cruel_Kingdom

    I don't necessarily think you can say Miller stole that plastic surgery bit from Westlake. That's kind of an old staple of the genre. Ever see Dark Passage? It's this great old movie where Humphrey Bogart is on the lam and he gets plastic surgery and spends half the movie with a bandage over his face. Definitely worth a watch, my friend.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 7:57 a.m. CST

    Never read his stuff

    by Charlie_Allnut

    Sound right up my alley though. I actually liked the theatrical version of Payback more then the Directors cut... Lee Marvin may have been the toughest, most badass man to grace the silver screen.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 8:05 a.m. CST

    Dont forget Dortmunder

    by m_prevette

    Everyone loves his brutal pulpy crime stuff...but I'll always love Westlake for the Dortmunder books...great tight plotting and freakin' hilarious...

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 8:05 a.m. CST

    Serious Bummer-- R.I.P. Richard Stark

    by Laserhead

    At least U of Chicago press is re-releasing all of the Parker novels, three a season, with cool new covers and introductions by John Banville. Damn. Part of me just thought that Westlake would go on forever...

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 8:07 a.m. CST

    milf lover

    by Laserhead

    Frank Miller stole just about every single plot trope and line of dialogue in the Sin City series. The plot of 'A Dame to Kill For' is one of the most recycled of all time.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 8:47 a.m. CST

    Wow, sad news.

    by johnnyangelheart

    I just finished reading the latest Stark book, Dirty Money, a few weeks ago and now there will be no more. Mel should make some more Stark movies. He has that crazy energy that isn't really right for the character Parker, but is a lot of fun on film anyway. I agree that Lee Marvin had the quiet cool to be the perfect Parker but he too alas is gone.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 9:11 a.m. CST

    Bummer

    by toxicbuddha

    I am with you on the Stark Parker novels Vern. I love those books and that character.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 9:21 a.m. CST

    RIP Westlake. Here is a link Vern

    by CarmillaVonDoom

    Abebooks is usually the place to go to find rarer stuff. Not sure what your budget is, but it appears that there are some *cheaper* but not cheap copies out there. http://tinyurl.com/7m6shx You're welcome! ☺ Westlake will be missed!

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 9:23 a.m. CST

    Also, there is always the library!

    by CarmillaVonDoom

    Unless you are some type of germ-phobic. Support your local library!

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 9:27 a.m. CST

    I've read several of hs books (by Westlake and Stark)

    by YackBacker

    He had a great sense of humor- very dark and playful, like Vern said. All you have to do is watch THE GRIFTERS and see what Westlake's mind was capable of producing. I haven't read a book by the man for several years, but his stories always stuck in my mind. His talent is available for anyone to enjoy in his volumes of books.<p> Rest in peace, Mr.... all of you.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 9:31 a.m. CST

    Dominic West should play Parker in a new film

    by YackBacker

    That guy may be British, but like Christian Bale, he don't sound British when he wants.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 10:07 a.m. CST

    YackBacker

    by Xiphos_2

    Good Call on Dominic West as Parker. I've been racking my brain trying to think of somebody to play Parker and you nailed it. I thought Gibson was good but he's to old now I think and most every other actor is too soft. Lee Marvin was the best.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 10:14 a.m. CST

    When I was a kid

    by ButtfuckZydeco

    I had about 10 of the Parkers, in skinny little 2-titles-1-book paperbacks, with both books starting at one cover and meeting in the middle (they were upside down to each other). Good stuff. Slayground was always my favorite. The Burglar Who... series is also pretty good, though cutesy. RIP

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 10:50 a.m. CST

    He also wrote Supertrain

    by WIBoomer1

    He never talked about that...wonder why...!

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 11:09 a.m. CST

    Nackles

    by JimCurry

    Anyone ever read his horror-ish short story NACKLES, about the anit-Santa Claus? Creepy stuff...

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 11:36 a.m. CST

    R.I.P

    by Jim Bolo

    Bad, bad news. I was lucky enough to meet him a few years back when he came to London to introduce a screening of Point Blank at the NFT and to talk about his work afterwards. Still got the autographed ticket stub. There were some great anecdotes, some quality thoughts and observations. I remember coming away from it thinking how how articulate the guy seemed. I wish I could remember more about the night, apart from Westlake saying Jack Palance was his first choice for Point Blank, and wished he'd chosen a different name for Parker as it was always a pain in the ass writing scenes about him driving that didn't end with 'Parker parks his car'. Of his more recent books, I finished Road To Ruin and Watch Your Back a couple of months ago. The Dortmunder books are a lot more light-hearted than the Parkers. Both made me laugh by the time I got to the final page. Farewell, Mr Westlake, you are missed already.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 11:43 a.m. CST

    I found a Sour Lemon Score

    by Vern

    at a price that wasn't too bad. Thanks for the help with that. Those other two will have to wait though. Also I got a nice email that convinced me I have to read all the Dortmunders. Anybody know any details about Westlake's alleged work on Tomorrow Never Dies?

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 12:03 p.m. CST

    Westlake and Dortmunder will be missed.

    by danofan59

    Discovered Westlake in the seventh grade some decades back, beginning with The Hot Rock. Never got around to reading any of the Stark or Coe novels, though I did read one of the Holt books. I think the best Westlake adaptation, in terms of capturing the flavor of his writing, is the TV-movie "A Slight Case of Murder," starring William H. Macy. It's a shame that WB had "Help, I Am Being Held Prisoner" in development at one time, but never followed through. Would have made a great vehicle for Gene Wilder or, later, Robin Williams. Would also make a fun TV series. My favorite of the non-humorous ones of Westlake's is "Killing Time," which has been favorably compared to Hammett's "Red Harvest" (and with good reason). Stephen King has also been a longtime Westlake fan, and incorporated references to Westlake's books in his own novels before eventually writing "The Dark Half" as an homage to the Westlake/Stark relationship.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 12:05 p.m. CST

    Oh, and for a real treat...

    by danofan59

    Visit Westlake's web site. Hopefully it still contains the "Starship Hopeful" stories that were originally published in Playboy. Funny stuff, and again would make a good series.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 12:31 p.m. CST

    Vern - check out Full Contact

    by Wyr

    Full Contact, starring Chow Yun-Fat. It's an unofficial Hong Kong remake of Point Blank, directed by Ringo Lam. Very dark, violent and gritty. Excellent action scenes (fairly realistic ones as far as Hong Kong films go). Basic plot is the same, though there are changes to character motivation and the fates of certain characters.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 12:50 p.m. CST

    Darwyn Cooke is adapting the Parker novels as comics

    by Laserhead

    Darwyne Cooke (The New Frontier) is going to be adapting the Parker books as comics for IDW, I think. First one comes out late this year.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 2:02 p.m. CST

    Point Blank was on my Amazon list for years

    by Stormwatcher

    Before I got the email alert that it was available for pre-order. It took like 5 years. Man I love that movie, great DVD commentary, watch it with the Limey. I will read these books now based on Vern's recommendation as I am total Vern lover. Dude knows the pulse of near middle age guys.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 4:16 p.m. CST

    Westlake and Tomorrow Never Dies

    by JimCurry

    Supposedly Westlake wrote the original treatment for the flick, but it was never used. None of his ideas remain in the final product.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 4:39 p.m. CST

    More Sad News That's Not So Cool

    by darquelyte

    Jett Travolta, the 16 year old son of John Travolta and Kelly Preston died after apparently having a seizure and hitting his head in the bathtub of their vacation home in the Bahamas. My thoughts go out to his family. Tragic, horrible loss.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 4:43 p.m. CST

    thanks

    by Vern

    I will check out FULL CONTACT, thanks for the tip Wyr. And Jim, thanks for the TOMORROW NEVER DIES info. Was it ever reported what his version was about?

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 5:24 p.m. CST

    darquelyte

    by Grammaton Cleric Binks

    I read that too. Apparently he's had a history of seizures. It is quite sad anytime a father outlives his son.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 5:37 p.m. CST

    Don't bash Supertrain!

    by Stuntcock Mike

    Full Contact is totally insane. Insanly good.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 6:19 p.m. CST

    Last Swing of the Sythe Takes Another Good One.

    by DatoMan413

    Man, 2008 sure was brutal. I didn't know he was behind a lot of good stuff. Thoughts and prayers as always.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 9:20 p.m. CST

    Parker's

    by mxyzptlk

    I was able to find all of them with the assistance of my local library. I did end up purchasing a couple of the Grofield's at affordable prices through used online book stores.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 10:55 p.m. CST

    "Smoke" (If you're into invisible men)

    by Somerichs

    Only book I've read from him thus far, and I can't say i remember every detail as it's been a good 10 or so years since I read it, but I do remember enjoying it at the time. It's about a career thief who breaks into a lab where two docs are doing research for the tobacco industry, and then proceed to force him to take a drug that makes him invisible. Hilarity ensues...for reals...

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 10:59 p.m. CST

    Travolta has some very weird, weird requirements

    by Stormwatcher

    He was supposed to stay at a hotel I managed years ago and I had to have all the windows blacked out to the point that you couldn't see your hand in front of your face, that was the instructions, then we were to remove all sheets from all the rooms, all scents, all products, all mirrors, all items that could be thrown, hurled, used to stab, bludgeon, impale ect... it was all in the instrutions. I was terrified of what this kid was going to be like, there was so many instructions and I have dealt with many, many, many celebrities and rich to do types this one scared the hell outta me. Not surprised it ended badly. All that Scientology stuff about not medicating.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 11 p.m. CST

    Plunder Squad and Butcher's Moon

    by Teapot Jones

    I turned on to the Parker novels two years ago, and also got stuck around Sour Lemon. This Christmas, my father (who has also become a big fan) gave me two 3-ring binders with Plunder and Butcher's in them, which he got from library copies. Unethical, yes, but even as amazing as these books are, who wants to pay over $500 for them (and I thought the $300 it was going for a couple months ago was insane). Anyway, look forward to Slayground since you're going in order, Vern. Probably my second-fav of the series after The Score. Also, a long-time fan of your work. Great to here you're a Stark fan as well.

  • Jan. 2, 2009, 11:33 p.m. CST

    Vern, I've looked...

    by JimCurry

    Really can't seem to find any info on what his treatment was about, but damn wouldn't that be a cool little read... His Bond would prob resemble Craig more than Brosnan.

  • Jan. 3, 2009, 1:16 a.m. CST

    Damn, a Melville directed Parker might have been something

    by Guy Who Got A Headache And Accidentally Saves The World

    Or maybe it would have just been Point Blank with Alain Delon instead of Lee Marvin, who knows. I do know that's a hell of a christmas present though, Teapot Jones.

  • Jan. 3, 2009, 12:41 p.m. CST

    Read his novel _Humans_

    by pablo2004

    It's a terrific relgio/scifi story about the end of the world. I don't understand how it hasn't been optioned yet.

  • Jan. 3, 2009, 2:07 p.m. CST

    Such a fucking shame

    by Spaz_Monkey

    Westlake's Dortmunder books were among my favorites. He was the polar opposite of Parker, a perennial fuck-up, in and out of prison, no guarantees that his capers would even result in a payday. But just so damn much fun to read.

  • Jan. 3, 2009, 8:46 p.m. CST

    Dortmunder wasn't a fuck-up

    by Waylaid-by-jackassery

    He just had the most horrible luck in the world. It's proof of his cleverness that he always managed to get out out of whatever trouble his bad luck got him into. If you just know the hard-boiled Westlake, you'll be surprised how funny he could be. Oh and Jimmy the Kid features a sort-of crossover between Dortmunder and Parker. RIP Donald Westlake.

  • Jan. 7, 2009, 1:23 p.m. CST

    Vern try...

    by dannyocean

    this link to the Thrilling Detective site... a great listing for Westlake, with a chronology of Dortmunder/Parker storylines, how they crossover, spin-offs, etc. http://www.thrillingdetective.com/trivia/westlake.html