Thursday, January 01, 2009

Donald Westlake/Richard Stark RIP

Damn. Mystery writer Donald Westlake is dead at age 75.

Westlake surely ranks within my dozen favorite writers, regardless of genre. Under his own name, he's the creator of the Dortmunder series of comic caper novels, starting with "The Hot Rock."As Richard Stark, he's the genius who chronicles the adventures of Parker, the ultimate professional criminal. He adapted Jim Thompson's "The Grifters" for the screen and wrote the original screenplay for "The Stepfather."

I've been reading Westlake since I was about 15, and although some of his books are better than others, I don't think I've been genuinely disappointed by any of them. He made it all look easy -- plotting, character, scene-setting, humor, irony. He had the kind of career that's deeply enviable and most likely will never be matched.

If you've never read Westlake, I particularly recommend "The Ax," a newly relevant look at middle-aged and middle-management malaise. "Slayground" is one of the best Stark books, but it's currently hard to find, so you might as well just start with "The Hunter," filmed as "Point Blank" with Lee Marvin (good) and "Payback" with Mel Gibson (not so). Among the Dortmunders, I'm fond of "Jimmy the Kid" and "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" If you want a real change of pace, try "Kahawa," about diamonds, coffe and Idi Amin, and "Smoke," a clever riff on "The Invisible Man."

Sarah Weinman has posted a list of worthwhile Westlake-related links. The Onion AV Club interview and the chat with John Banville are especially good.

I'm thankful for everything Westlake gave us, but I still wish there were more.

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