Mr. Westlake and the 90’s

The 80’s segment of this blog dragged on longer than I anticipated or desired (much like the real 80’s).   I could, if I wanted to, count the next book in the queue, published in 1990, as an 80’s effort.  It was probably written mostly if not entirely in 1989, and the first book I counted as a true Westlake 70’s novel was 1974’s Butcher’s Moon.  Because I felt like Westlake (and to some extent, America) was still more or less in 60’s mode before that–also because he was writing books faster than the publishers could get them in stores, so the publication dates were often misleading.

But in my opinion, he got himself into 90’s mode a lot faster.  I don’t think he cared for that Reaganaut big-haired MTV decade any more than I did.  Anyway, there’s always something arbitrary about an era’s starting and ending points, and I hereby declare the 1980’s are dead as far as The Westlake Review is concerned.  Long live the 1990’s!

The 90’s constitute Westlake’s last groundbreaking era as a writer.  He wrote some very strong books during the first eight years of the 21st century, but with one significant exception, they were all Parker and Dortmunder books (the others will be something of a chore for me to review, but I’m game if you are).

He was drawing back into himself, marshaling his remaining creative energies. As the 21st century dawned, he knew the best was behind him.  He also knew that the public (and the publishing industry) would not accept his ventures outside the genres he was known for.  As we’ve been discussing elsewhere on the blog, he produced one more unpublished novel in the 90’s, and was actually rebuked by his agent for doing so.  In short order, I hope to link to Greg Tulonen’s review of that book, currently languishing in a Boston-based archive–but even more I hope to see it given the public airing it deserved in the first place.

In spite of such bruising disappointments, the best was still ahead of him at the dawn of the 1990’s, the decade in which he hit the big 6-O .   The true test of a writer–youth fully behind him or her–is whether he or she can do more more than just restate what’s come before.  To draw upon the decades of experience, and come up with something new, that builds upon the past without being stuck in it.  To gather his or her creative energies for one last definitive statement.

It didn’t start that promisingly for him.  He had some more serious misfires, most notably a return to science fiction (with a dash of C.S. Lewis) that I’d call his most intriguing and ultimately disappointing failure (that he retained a perverse affection for).  But he followed up shortly afterward with an homage to H.G. Wells that turned into possibly his best (and longest) satire, and a damned good heist story to boot (of course not everybody sees it that way).   He also turned out a sequel to Trust Me On This, and I wouldn’t call that a triumph either.  I’d call it a decent bit of a mystery read, mingled with some good amateur anthropology, and nothing more.

Dortmunder kicked off this decade for him, and for that star-crossed thief, 1990 marked the epic to end all epics (except it didn’t).  Counting the 1990 book, there were four Dortmunder novels that decade, and all of them rank among the very best for me.  Starting the decade with perhaps his most Sisyphean endeavor (and his most heroic), Dortmunder became less and less of a Jonah as the decade wore on, gaining a fuller understanding of his powers, and using them in an increasingly retributive fashion.

But as the decade reached midway point, Dortmunder was pushed aside for a time by the unexpected return of Richard Stark and Parker.  Retrospectively, there were plenty of hints this was coming.  Westlake convincingly resurrected the Stark voice, and somehow made it seem as if Parker and some of his associates (and enemies) had gone into a kind of protracted hibernation, emerging into the Information Age like the splendid anachronisms they always had been.

No coincidence at all that just before he came back to Parker, Westlake produced his masterpiece.  The book that somehow became a fruitful and terrifying collaboration of all the many voices of Donald Westlake, that most perfectly expressed what he had to say as a writer, and as a man.  Once that was completed, and received with a level of critical and commercial success he found oddly unnerving (there was even a good film adaptation!), you could say he’d shot his bolt.  He would have been well justified in just enjoying his final years, maybe turning out articles and short stories–he had nothing left to prove.

But even semi-retirement simply wasn’t an option for him.  He could never top himself again after The Ax, though a follow-up book with a very similar title served as a more personal take on the same general theme–the walls closing in, options narrowing, desperate measures taken–but this time set in the world of novelists.

Westlake was done playing.  Whether he wrote as Westlake or Stark in the 90’s, the harder tougher side of him began to take increasing precedence, even his comedic work taking on a stark edge.  Because nothing, I’m afraid, is starker than old age.   He only produced three Parkers in the 90’s, the beginning of a loosely linked five-book series that led into a final grim trilogy in the 00’s.   But Stark is present in many other books, and to a lesser extent, so is Coe.

This is one decade I’ll be in no hurry to get through, but it’ll go all the quicker because of that.   The closer you get to the terminal station, the faster the train seems to go.   Or to put it differently, the closer you get to shore, the faster the leaky boat seems to sink.

But before I get to that great aquatic Dortmunderian epic, there’s something I have to clear up, regarding Mr. Westlake and a far less distinguished (but still rather fascinating) crime fiction author–almost like a game of correspondence chess.  Unless I’m imagining it.  Which I may well be.  You be the judge.



Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

26 responses to “Mr. Westlake and the 90’s

  1. rinaldo302

    Oh, there are interesting times ahead, I can tell. We have some interestingly wide divergences about some of these titles (not about The Ax, I hope I needn’t clarify, or the imminent Dortmunders), which could make for lively times in the comments section, I hope.

    • It’s always possible my opinion on a book will change–in either direction–after I reread it. But I doubt my opinion of Humans will shift. It could have been a masterpiece. But it wasn’t. Westlake didn’t commit enough to the premise. I think he was stuck between two modes there, trying to appeal to old readers, while reaching new ones. That’s tough to pull off. It’s a pity he couldn’t keep writing under new pseudonyms. Freed from the burden of expectations.

      I don’t know which books you disagree with me about, but I certainly hope we’ll have some spirited discussions, even about the books we’re all in agreement about.

  2. PaperbackFilmProjector

    The unpublished novel (called Fall of the City) that you referred to in your post is based on Westlake’s first story treatment for the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. Both of Westlake’s treatments are covered in detail in my article, written for the magazine MI6 Confidential: I’ve read the manuscript of the novel but didn’t get into specifics about the similarities in my article. Looking forward to Greg’s review!

    • I believe Greg (or somebody) posted that link a while back. It took him a while to get to the archive and read the book himself. It was something of a surprise to all here that there was at least one more unpublished Westlake novel.

      I’d considered reviewing Tomorrow Never Dies here, but to all accounts very little of Westlake’s treatment made it into the movie (if they’d used a lot of his ideas, he probably wouldn’t have written the novel–it was an old pattern of his, retaining the book rights to work he did for studios that either never lead to a film, or to a film that strayed far from his original conception. The idea of Bond’s nemesis being an arrogant media mogul–I’d bet good money that was from Westlake.

      If I ever read the novel myself, maybe I’ll compare it with the Bond film, which is my personal favorite of the Brosnans. But I’m a Connery man, through and through. 😉

      • PaperbackFilmProjector

        Fall of the City is 610 manuscript pages and would need a lot of pruning if it was ever considered for publication. Judging by the correspondence in the archive, it doesn’t seem like anyone liked it (including Abby Westlake).

        I didn’t provide an overview of the novel in that article because the focus of MI6 Confidential magazine is on James Bond, and of course when Westlake wrote the novel he had to replace Bond with an original character. I’m glad Greg is writing this review because it will provide a lot of the information that I couldn’t because of the limitations of the magazine.

        What I found interesting is that the structure of the last chunk of the novel — the antagonist’s plot to destroy Hong Kong and the hero’s attempts to foil him — is taken directly from that Bond treatment. Even in a seemingly unrelated novel, the scenario would remind readers of a Bond movie (for the fans it may bring to mind Zorin’s Silicon Valley plot in A VIEW TO A KILL). I’m actually surprised Eon Productions didn’t hold onto some of his ideas and use them in a later Bond film.

        The media mogul villain was not Westlake’s, so I’m hoping you didn’t already bet good money on that. Westlake envisioned an American business tycoon (he wanted John Goodman for the role!) with an army of Vietnamese-American “children’ who carry out his violent acts, including the Hong Kong operation. It was Bruce Feirstein’s idea to bring in the media mogul in later drafts. None of Westlake’s story ideas made it into TOMORROW NEVER DIES.

        — Phil P.

        • I don’t really lose my bet, because it’s the mogul part that matters–Westlake had a strong personal loathing for corporate tycoon types, and what you describe isn’t all that different. He just provided an American equivalent (honestly, that would have been different–an American Bond villain! John Goodman would have been fascinating in a role like that). So I may not have hit the Exacta, but I beat the spread. To mix gambling metaphors a bit.

          And yes, I know Bond facing off against some arrogant rich guy is not an idea Westlake invented. Why, I even read a Fleming novel once. Moonraker. Research for writing a review of a Parker novel. But they’re always very unrealistic types, aren’t they? They’re not like real rich people at all. They’re not an attack on the very notion of people being invested with that kind of power on the basis of having a lot of money. They’re just supervillains. They’re rich in order to explain how they can afford to build a nuclear weapon, or a death ray, or a weather machine. Westlake was going for something a bit more reality-based. Not much, because it’s still a Bond film treatment.

          Your knowledge of Bond-iana is self-evidently superior to mine, but speaking as somebody who has read every novel Westlake ever published (and two published after he died), I can say with authority that while he was best at the middle distances, he wrote some very good long novels, not all of them crime books (I’m guessing you have not read Ex Officio, which is actually available now as an ebook), and I’d be opposed to cutting a single line of this manuscript. Let it stand on its own merits. Westlake often benefited from working with editors, but since I don’t believe in spirit mediums, that’s not an option here.

          It’s not like a dead man has a career to harm, and an ebook wouldn’t cost much to publish. The audience would be people curious to see what he did with this kind of story, and how can we know if we don’t see everything he wrote? Don’t think of it in commercial terms, that’s not what it would be about. He was a great writer, and great writers need to be studied, as well as enjoyed–their successes and their failures. Their strengths and their weaknesses. Nobody likes everything he wrote. Not even me. But I think some people would like it very much. If it’s a complete novel, then publish it as such. Not one word excised. Not. One. Word.

          Westlake probably had it written into his contract that if they didn’t use his ideas in the film, he retained the rights to them. He did that a lot. He may not have made this villain a media mogul, but he was well familiar with the perfidious ways of media moguls. They paid him for just that particular movie, and if they wanted to use his ideas for a later film, they’d damned well better pay him for that too.


  3. It’ll be interesting to reread the post-interregnum Parkers as we go. My current impression is that they’re better, richer, more fully imagined than earlier ones, but I suppose re-reading might alter that.
    And I can’t believe you prefer the Scottish Bond to the Irish one. He’s my favorite too, though the Australian one must have his god points if he could land Diana Rigg.

    • Connery is actually of partly Irish descent. And I can never watch that movie without thinking how much better a screen team Connery and Rigg would have made, though hard to imagine Connery’s Bond weeping. Thing about Connery’s Bond is, he never takes the proceedings seriously, and yet he never seems frivolous.

      My own take right now is that the first sixteen Parkers are better on average than the final eight, but the the latter represent a fascinating experiment. Westlake could have just kept Parker back in the earlier era, without cellphones, without the internet, and with the much cooler cars. Write them period (which we know Westlake never wants to do). Instead Parker just leaps across the decades–doesn’t even seem aware of the passage of time. From his POV, and that of a few other characters, it’s as if just a short time has passed since the events of Butcher’s Moon. And none of them ever thinks “Hey, where’d all this new stuff come from?”

      Parker isn’t an ageless character, as I see it. His age relates to that of his creator, but it’s odd–he started out older than Westlake, and ended up younger, at least physically–still much older than when we met him. In those final books, you can feel the grim stoicism of old age emanating from him, though his body remains strong. And the world around him continues to change. And he adapts as best he can. And you keep asking yourself how long he can remain himself and survive in this world. But he never asks that, because he doesn’t ask himself those kinds of questions. He just keeps going out to steal more money, and going back to Claire. “Every time but the last time.”

      • Poirot and Bertie Wooster do the same, though it’s weirder for Bertie, because he’s always lived in pre-WWI society with up to date gadgets.

        Parker’s a bit different, because his niche is being squeezed out. We see that even in the first set, where cash businesses are getting harder and harder to find, let alone in the final trilogy, where improved communications makes law enforcement a much tougher adversary.

        By the way, did you ever see the Sopranos episode where two of the gang try to sell protection to a Starbucks, and are defeated by the manager, who explains that he can’t authorize that kind of expenditure without authorization from the main office?

        • Oh yeah, that was classic. Westlake and Chase had very similar worldviews, I believe. They understood each other. There’s even a veiled Sopranos ref in one of the late Dortmunder novels, and I bet you know which one.

          Bertie and Jeeves are relics from the Edwardian age who somehow start out in the Jazz Age, and then just sort of meander along, while the world changes around them. However, Plum was not himself such a keen observer of the world around him, which he became increasingly abstracted from as time passed (this tendency got him in hot water during WWII, as you doubtless also know).

          Westlake was, as we all know by now, an exceptionally keen observer of the world around him, more than many people whose job it supposedly is to keep track of such things. That’s why he didn’t want to write period–he wants to always live in the now–like Parker. But Parker lives in the now by ignoring all change that isn’t directly relevant to him. Westlake couldn’t do that. And he must have had some rueful thoughts about that at times.

          But he can’t help himself. He wants to know everything about everything. And to write about it. And at times the crime genre got a bit confining for that, but at other times, it proved a rather good venue for his observations.

          As I’ve said before, the Parker novels are studies in comparative psychology. Compare a man who knows exactly who he is with (relatively) normal people, who never quite do. But the last eight were also studies in comparative sociology–compare a man who never really changes with a world that refuses to stop changing. Easy to type. Incredibly hard to do. And that’s exactly what he did. Lord only knows how.

  4. Martin

    I read HUMANS when it came out and really enjoyed it. It was fresh and different while remaining decidedly Westlake. I read somewhere — in Block’s THE CRIME OF OUR LIVES, maybe? — that the novel was the author’s pedal-to-the-metal attempt at a big bestseller. The reading public didn’t join him in the effort, sadly, but I remember the story as a winner.

    I remains so pleased that someone is devoting his attentions to an in-depth review of Westlake’s career. I’m looking forward to the posts to come.

    • And I’m looking forward to rereading Humans, and seeing if maybe I’m being too harsh. I just felt at the time that the book could have been so much more than it was. He had the makings of something truly great there. And I wonder if maybe he failed to make it work the way it could have because he was writing too much to the market, to popular tastes.

      Translation–after going to enormous trouble to create an international multi-racial cast of characters, he made the book entirely about white people. Probably because he figured only white people would ever read it.

      You compare it to Up Your Banners, or Kahawa–it falls very short. You compare it to The Black Ice Score, it falls short.

      But there are parts of it that approach genius. He had a brilliant idea there. He just didn’t follow through on it. He wasn’t a writer who could ever succeed by pandering to mainstream tastes. That’s why he never had a bestseller. Least of all when he tried to have one.

      And given that Mr. Block thought he had another Portnoy’s Complaint with Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man (written in a bit over a week), he’s a fine one to talk, but they always had a very competitive friendship. 🙂

      • Richard

        I like much of Lawrence Block’s stuff, especially his Bertie books, but RONALD RABBIT IS A DIRTY OLD MAN was far from his best. It reads as if it was written in a week. Thanks to you, I now know it was.

        • Let me just check my electronic edition of that book–Block contributed an epistolary afterward, where he talks about how he came to write that one–nope, I was wrong. He says he wrote it in four days. So really, given that it reads like it was written in a week, that’s pretty good!

          Let me just say, being a heterosexual male who has reached a certain age, and has a sense of humor, I enjoyed it very much. It’s one of my favorite pornos of all time. But that’s what it is. And porn isn’t even supposed to be good. That’s not what it’s for. 🙂

  5. Ray Garraty

    I’ll be a pain in the ass if I start to chime in more regularly here when you’re in the 90s now (and with a MTV joke to boot! I like MTV jokes!). It’s not that I didn’t like what I’ve read by Westlake of his 90s output, I just liked it a lot less than his 60s output. I’ll be waiting for the Parker novels (I’m sure we have a lot to argue about, as we already did a few weeks ago).

    • The 60’s and 70’s are my favorite decades for Westlake overall, but I think he found a renewed power in the 90’s–that came with a wealth of experience and understanding he didn’t have as a younger man. Because no one does, kiddo. There are things you just can’t know until you’ve lived the better part of a life. And I suspect when you’ve lived more of yours, you’ll appreciate the 90’s stuff more.

      But in the meantime, in-between time, let’s have some fun.


      • Ray Garraty

        I’m all for fun, I’m just afraid I’ll be playing a role of grumpy old man who always complains about something.

        • I’d draw a line between critiquing and complaining. Critiquing is what we’re here for.

          But if you’re going to say Westlake should have been writing 1960’s novels in the 1990’s, that would be complaining. He had no intention of doing that. He wrote in and about the times he lived in. He knew no other way.

          So try to appreciate or criticize the later books for what they’re trying to be, not for being different than what came before. At this point, the 90’s is getting to be a very distant era. I have certain nostalgic feelings for it (for reasons I will keep to myself), but nostalgia isn’t what drives this blog. Understanding is.

  6. rinaldo302

    This is all interesting reading for me. (I almost never get to see thorough discussion of his work; for many of his titles, this is the very first time.) I would, if I had to pick and choose, say that my very favorites of his books come from the extended 1970s (reaching a few years each way). But that’s not to say that I consider later ones substandard in any serious way; they’re still good achievements, and some more than that.

    As a musicologist, I’m used to understanding that nobody produces all-masterpieces (and we wouldn’t get the masterpieces if the good solid work in between didn’t get written as well), and that almost always the nature of the inspiration does change with time and age (Otello is a very different creation from Rigoletto but both are great). I’m looking forward very much to the whole remainder of our series.

    • I seriously do consider The Ax to be his best novel (not an opinion unique to me), and Mike has said he prefers the 90’s and 00’s Parkers to the 60’s and 70’s books.

      And the Dortmunders from the first half of the 90’s are, I would say, the final peak of that series, though the 00’s Dortmunders are certainly going to be fun to review.

      Once I’ve gotten through all the published work, certainly in less than a year, I’ll take a break to recharge, then resume blogging. There’s a whole lot of unpublished work, as Greg has let us know. And I’ve got some ideas for articles comparing him to mystery writers who are much more a match for him than Marlowe.

      Still, once I’m through the 00’s stuff, the once-a-week thing is over. Exhausting. :\

  7. Anthony

    We’ll find out when we get there, but I suspect that Humans is the one Westlake book we see fully eye to eye on.

    • I certainly hope to like it better the second time, but very unlikely I’ll like it so much better as to substantially change my opinion. And it’s not a problem I have with the subject matter, the themes, the ideas–that I love. No, it’s the execution I have problems with. But I have no problem at all, as you know, with Mr. Westlake going off the reservation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s interesting, either way.

      • Anthony

        Well, maybe not entirely eye to eye. I like most, but by no means all, of the execution. Starts with a bang. Ends with a whimper. That’s my problem with the whole thing.

        But as I said above, we’ll find out when we get there.

        Aside – I always loved the Wilson McLean covers of this era

        • I’m probably not using the word ‘execution’ in quite the same way you are. Westlake always wrote well. That goes without saying, or should. But I think he made some very bad choices with regards to Humans. And I usually like his choices a lot. So what went wrong here? We’ll discuss it. But ya know, even if he’d done it entirely to your satisfaction and mine, the critics and his normal readership probably still wouldn’t have liked it. Too far off the reservation. And it may well be that his consciousness of this fact–his desire to keep his readers onboard for the adventure–was one of the reasons for the choices he made.

          I think it’s a major problem for him that he can’t write under pseudonyms anymore. He’ll return to Stark soon, but everybody knows who Stark is–thankfully, that voice is so strong, and the characters so well-established, he can tune out the noise and concentrate on the story. But when he’s trying something new, there’s always this awareness of the readers out there (he could care less about the critics), asking themselves “Is this another fun heist novel, or is it one of those things he does that I don’t like?” And Humans may be an attempt to find some via media, between what he wanted and what was expected, that didn’t quite work out as hoped. You realize I make all this up as I go along, right?


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