Mr. Westlake and The 70’s

August was kind of an odd month, here at The Westlake Review, wasn’t it?   We started off with Westlake’s one and only nonfiction book published in his lifetime, about a tiny Caribbean island most people have never heard of, and their struggle to remain independent by remaining a British colony.  Then a very short novel about a public restroom, that turned out to be one of the longest and weirdest reviews I’ve ever written (that I have to stick in the qualifier really says something about both TWR and myself, but I’m not sure I want to know what that is).  Then a novel set in late 19th century San Francisco, of all things, co-written with Brian Garfield, and then a novel written entirely by Garfield, that Westlake didn’t write a word of, though oblique references to him abound within.  Well, that’s August for you.

Enough for now of the bibliophilia obscura (name of actual blog), the odd ducks, the apocryphal anomalies of Mr. Westlake’s long varied career, and nice as it is to know Mr. Garfield name checks his influences, our primary purpose here remains to analyze the major works of Donald E. Westlake, and over the next few months, it’ll be one after another.

Let me run down the list of coming attractions this fall–and remember my penchant for multi-part reviews when I think a book is worthy of extra attention:

Butcher’s Moon

Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

Jimmy the Kid

Two Much

Brothers Keepers

Dancing Aztecs

These six novels were all published within the span of three years–1974 through 1976.  For almost any other writer who was not doing mere hackwork, that would be a staggering rate of production, particularly since the first and last of these books are quite long and complex, the latter especially.

But for Westlake, it actually constituted a major slowdown.  In the 60’s, he’d been known to publish that many novels in a single year.  In 1976, his only published novel was Dancing Aztecs.   The furor of the 60’s, the drive to establish himself, the need to express so many ideas, speak in so many different voices–calming down somewhat.  He’s pacing himself more.  He’s taking a bit more time with each book.  And it shows.

Although we’ve already looked at sixteen books that bear publication dates from the 70’s, many of these were written before that decade actually dawned–no publisher could keep pace with Westlake’s staggering prolificacy (is so a word) in the 60’s, so books produced around the same time got spaced out.

And as we all know, a decade doesn’t start in earnest for a few years after it formally begins–the early 70’s were just an extension of the late 60’s, with the same basic social and political concerns, the same basic style in fashion, music, art, and fiction.  I’d say the 70’s proper didn’t get going until just around the time Westlake would have written Butcher’s Moon.

What came before was, you might say, a transitional period.  He wrote his last books featuring Alan Grofield and Mitch Tobin, two series characters with much to recommend them, that somehow ran their course and ended.  He introduced John Dortmunder, whose course would run straight to the end of Westlake’s life.

He finished with Parker, and with Richard Stark, but in a way that seemed more like a beginning than an ending.   He lost track of the Stark voice, as well as the Coe voice, but I’d say he incorporated those voices more into work he wrote under his own name.   And Stark would be waiting for him well into the future, when Westlake needed him again.

As one decade ended and another began, he experimented with a variety of forms he had not previously been known for, and never would be, really–political thriller (Ex Officio), political satire (I Gave At The Office), narrative journalism (Under An English Heaven), literary parody (Comfort Station), and Gangway! is a comic western, whether the purists want to admit it or not.   And while all were worth reading (and were fun to review), none of them really belong on a list of his best books.   Whereas any list of his best books that doesn’t include at least five of the next six isn’t worth a tinker’s damn.

He didn’t just go back to the same old mystery rut–his long innovative run at Random House ended with Butcher’s Moon, and his short frustrating stint at Simon & Schuster was over almost before it started, but at M. Evans & Co. he began to really dig into the guts of what made his style and preoccupations work for him.  He hit his stride in the 70’s, in a way he hadn’t before.  He understood himself better as a writer.  And there may have been one other factor in the mix.


That’s the dedication to Butcher’s Moon, and I believe the first time he mentioned Abby Adams, his future and final spouse, in a book dedication.   Interesting how often third time’s the charm for some creative folks.  Not that I don’t think Nedra Henderson and Sandra Foley don’t deserve credit as well for the amazing work he’d already done, but what we see now is Westlake taking stock, slowing down, and producing fully mature work–over and over again–even if that means producing a lot less.   He’s come to a more stable period in both his personal and professional life.  From our perspective, what this means is some really good books–but it also means we’ll get through the 70’s a lot faster than the 60’s.

Westlake published not one novel in the last three years of that decade–after the fourth Dortmunder novel, Nobody’s Perfect, in 1977, his next book was 1980’s Castle in the Air (which I like very much, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I think it’s very good), followed by 1981’s Kahawa, which he and Abby did extensive time-consuming research on.   These would also be technically 70’s books.

For all intents and purposes, the 80’s belonged to Dortmunder, though there’s one or two other books from that decade I love, plus an attempt at a new series character (written under a new pseudonym), who I like well enough, but again, liking and admiring are two different things.

The next six books I both love and admire–they are Westlake at his iconoclastic genre-bending thought-provoking best.   They are classics, each and every one of them.  They are books to savor.  And savor them we shall.



Filed under Donald Westlake novels

14 responses to “Mr. Westlake and The 70’s

  1. J. Goodman

    Call me nuts, but I think you should collect this blog into a book when you get to the last DEW book. This entry would make a great preface to the section on the 70’s you describe. I’ll buy a copy and keep it on the shelf with my Westlakes!

    Thanks again, Fred, for making me look forward to your reviews and for dedicating yourself to the monumental and rewarding task you’ve set up. Very excited to read the multi-part dissection of Butcher’s Moon and all books forward!!!

    • I suppose I could try McFarland. They specialize in highly specialized pop cultural analyses. Thing is, it’s written as a blog, not a book. The formatting is all wrong. It’s a bit too chatty. And I think it’s about half as good without you guys chiming in. But I’ll give it some thought. If I ever do finish this thing. 😉

  2. Ray Garraty

    Writers tend to improve over time, they get more stable, reliable, professional. Sometimes professional in them kills an amateur that was able to make a spark out of nothing. Westlake kept writing good books, none of which for me became cult. Hacking 60s were open fire, 70s more like a fireplace.

    • I don’t necessarily agree with that, but I know exactly what you mean (and I like the phrasing). In the 60’s, perhaps precisely because he was writing so much, so quickly, Westlake was tapping reserves that he couldn’t have reached otherwise. But there were a lot of misses along with the hits.

      I don’t think you can call it amateurism to write incessantly, constantly, for money, to support yourself and your family. The difference is that he’s writing for a very specific market, or rather several. He’s got certain expectations he’s got to meet–like he has to stick a murder mystery or a heist into the book (or if it’s a sleaze he has to stick–um–never mind).

      Point is, he’s got a very well-defined format, which he, being Westlake, has to find ways to shake up. But after a while, that got wearying, and he wanted to try getting further outside ‘the ritual’. Some of the upcoming books don’t really fit any genre, and yet they are informed by genre, still have that cult feel to them, that sense of fun that genre brings. He loved genre, but he didn’t want to be a prisoner of it. Hmmm, maybe the title of the book after our next book had a double meaning. That would be typical of him.

      Anyway, fireplaces have their uses. Uncontrolled fire can be a destructive force in life, as any Californian can tell you. Westlake had to slow down, take stock. If he’d continued at that rate much longer, he’d have burned out, and we’d have missed out on some of his very best books. And yet I agree the 60’s were a remarkable time in his career. And in many other ways. I was born in ’61, so I lived through them–but my memories of everything that didn’t directly concern me are necessarily vague.

      I would agree that picking up an original paperback Richard Stark at the newstand would be a cooler thing than buying an M. Evans & Co. hardcover Westlake at the bookstore. But that’s nostalgia speaking. This blog is about more than nostalgia. You can be nostalgic about all kinds of bygone dross, but we’re digging for gold here. And we’re about to hit a very rich vein.

      • Ray Garraty

        The further the writer into his career, the longer he works on a book. He, instead of as quickly as possible finish one books and skip to the next, polishes his manuscript, carefully works draft after draft, edits slowly. He improves as a writer, and a reader can see that. Yet the work can become too conscious, too tedious. I’m not speaking now only about Westlake, it is correct for all the writers.

        • I doubt anything is correct for all writers. But that certainly describes James Joyce. Donald Westlake is no James Joyce, and the upcoming books are anything but tedious.

          • Ray Garraty

            I may sound prejuduice: I have read almost all of his 60s work, but very few of the 70s.

            • First I read Stark, then Coe, and only then did I get to Westlake. I did feel a certain resistance to the work he did under his own name, and in the 60’s, I think it must be said he did his best work under other names.

              In the 70’s, that changed, and as I see it, it was not until the last decade of his life that it became a debate once more whether Westlake or Stark was better. And we’ll have that debate in due course.

              • Ray Garraty

                I’d argue with that. His first four books under his own name are the best he did.

              • Those would be The Mercenaries, Killing Time, 361, and Killy.

                Four books I hold in high regard (I didn’t think you liked Killing Time that much–better than the best Parker novels?), the last two in particular, but in many ways I’d say they are the Stark voice looking for an outlet–perhaps elements of the Coe voice as well. Westlake wrote magnificently in that voice, but I think his greatness as a writer lies in the range of voices he had inside him.

                There were others who wrote as well or better in that vein–Thompson, Goodis–but they all ran out of gas at some point–they’d become trapped in a certain type of story, their voices channeled into a narrow limiting niche they couldn’t get out of. Westlake kept busting out, finding new paths to follow.

                You might want to read more of his later work before you decide which of his books are the best. I hate to pull rank here, but I am one of the few who read every novel of his ever published. 😉

  3. There’s a writer I very much admire who found his voice quite late (in his early 40s), wrote masterpieces in it for about thirty years, and then spent the next twenty years writing books that declined from brilliant to kind of OK. But even the last few, for all their flaws of invention and construction, have one wonderful feature: they’re in that same voice.
    We’re now at the point where DEW has found his Westlake voice. It makes even the books that really aren’t very good (say High Adventure, or Castle in the Air) must-reads, because we can never get enough of that voice.

    • The voice and the underlying theme of identity. At least that’s what kept me going, book after book–how was he going to approach it this time. Westlake is much more of a philosopher than most of his contemporaries who write genre (or most who don’t write genre, for that matter). But he rarely lets that get in the way of the story.

      The problem with some of his later books that aren’t Parker or Dortmunder stories is that the characters are less convincing. You need good characters to bring out that voice to its fullest extent. But at this point we’re at now, he did not need his old reliables to create a great book. The characters were still pouring out of him.

      I like Castle in the Air, but for reasons that will take a bit of explaining. The characters are not great, but they are what the story requires. Anyway, he probably tossed that one off to pay his taxes.

      (editing) I forgot to ask–which writer?

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