Existential Query: Will There Ever Be Another Donald Westlake?

Another post I recently read, written by a literary agent, gave an exhaustive list of all the things authors should not do in the opening lines of their novel.

No fighting, breathing heavily, or running. No dialogue. No dead bodies. No rhetorical questions. No waking up. No vague philosophical statements. No false beginnings. No flashbacks. No prologues.

Don’t even think about anything that could be construed as filler actions or idleness, such as sighing, grinning, or pursing one’s lips. Action that involves fighting or running is a no-no because we don’t yet know or care about the character. But well, apparently we aren’t allowed to actually say anything that would reveal information about the character through dialogue or philosophical inquiry because that’s a “tension killer”.

Advice for novice writers treats readers as though they are inept children with the attention spans of goldfish.  The same agent posted a tweet by another agent who apparently felt the need publicize how a single opening sentence had motivated her to request an entire manuscript. The statement was followed by #querytip, but I personally find it embarrassing that this is the level of flippancy we’ve come to. When a gutted reader commented on the post, asking for examples of what writers were permitted to do, the agent responded with a circuitous rant that amounted to the assertion that the more experienced a writer became, the better their first line would be by default.

Oh, good.

From The Absurdity of Publishing, by Zandra J.  (published online, naturally)

“WELL, PRINCE, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family. No, I warn you, that if you do not tell me we are at war, if you again allow yourself to palliate all the infamies and atrocities of this Antichrist (upon my word, I believe he is), I don’t know you in future, you are no longer my friend, no longer my faithful slave, as you say. There, how do you do, how do you do? I see I’m scaring you, sit down and talk to me.”

From War and Peace, by Leo Somebodyorother.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Some hack devoting 206,052 words to dudes hunting a whale (animal rights activists will freak).

The Hunter (December 1962): “When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.”

The Man With the Getaway Face (March 1963): “When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger.”

The Outfit (September 1963): “When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed.”

The Mourner (December 1963): “When the guy with the asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.”

The Score (July 1964): “When the bellboy left, Parker went over to the house phone and made his call.”

The Jugger (July 1965): “When the knock came at the door, Parker was just turning to the obituary page.”

The Handle (February 1966): “When the engine stopped, Parker came up on deck for a look around.”

The Seventh (March 1966): “When he didn’t get any answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in.”

The Rare Coin Score (1967): “Parker spent two weeks on the white sand beach at Biloxi, and on a white sandy bitch named Belle, but he was restless, and one day without thinking about it he checked out and sent a forwarding address to Handy McKay and moved on to New Orleans.”

The Green Eagle Score (1967): “Parker looked in at the beach and there was a guy in a black suit standing there, surrounded by all the bodies in bathing suits.”

The Black Ice Score (1968): “Parker walked into his hotel room, and there was a guy in there going through his suitcase laid out on his bed.”

The Sour Lemon Score (1969): “Parker put the revolver away and looked out the windshield.”

Deadly Edge (1971): “Up here, the music was just a throbbing under the feet, a distant pulse.”

Slayground (1971): “Parker jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and the packet of explosive in the other.”

Plunder Squad (1972): “Hearing the click behind him, Parker threw his glass straight back over his right shoulder, and dove off his chair to the left.”

Butcher’s Moon (1974): “Running toward the light, Parker fired twice over his left shoulder, not caring whether he hit anything or not.”

Comeback (1997): “When the angel opened the door, Parker stepped first past the threshold into the darkness of the cinder block corridor beneath the stage.”

Backflash (1998): “When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the rest of the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.”

Flashfire (2000): “When the dashboard clock read 2:40, Parker drove out of the drugstore parking lot and across the sunlit road to the convenience store/gas station.”

Firebreak (2001): “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”

Breakout (2002) : “When the alarm went off, Parker and Armiston were far to the rear of the warehouse, Armiston with the clipboard, checking off the boxes they’d want.”

Nobody Runs Forever (2004): “When he saw that the one called Harbin was wearing a wire, Parker said, ‘Deal me out a hand,’ and got to his feet.”

Ask the Parrot (2006): “When the helicopter swept northward and lifted out of sight over the top of the hill, Parker stepped away from the tree he’d waited beside and continued his climb.”

Dirty Money (2008): “When the silver Toyota Avalon bumped down the dirt road out of the woods and across the railroad tracks, Parker put the Infiniti into low and stepped out onto the gravel.”

Need you ask?

A while back, I somehow I got a trial subscription to this thing called Medium Daily Digest.  Showed up in my inbox every morning like clockwork, for months.  A potpourri of online articles, on topics ranging from How I Ended Up Running An Outlaw Biker Gang to The Misogyny and Authoritarianism of Paw Patrol.  Sometimes the articles are good.  I mean, they’re not trying to sell me Viagra or anything.  The trial subscription ran out, and now they want money.  To read blog articles.  I think they’re missing the point.

So while the trial subscription was active, this article about publishing was highlighted.  They helpfully inform you it takes eight minutes to read.  More like five for me, but see, I know some of this shit already.  I worked in publishing, briefly.  A Likely Story, you say?  Precisely so.

One of Westlake’s best comic novels, if not the best.  Out of print for God only knows how long, still waiting for the ebook (and waiting, and waiting).  Westlake only got it published, after multiple rejections, because Otto Penzler was wooing him for The Mysterious Press.  Otto started a separate imprint for non-mystery books by mystery authors, just to show his quarry he was serious. It’s not often the 80’s makes me feel nostalgic (and the novel itself is anything but), but that’s a story you don’t hear much in the publishing biz now.  Not likely at all anymore.

The novel is written in the first person, and is a satire of the publishing industry, among other things.  Early on, there’s a snatch of dialogue where Tom says to a colleague, as they compile a list of things never-to-do in their line,  “Never write a novel in the first person.” 

There were always rules, they’ve always changed, and they were always broken.  That’s what they’re there for.  If everybody stays within the lines, the lines won’t be worth perusing.  Doesn’t mean you pay no attention to the laws laid down by The Powers That Be, just that you need to make your own as you go.  By-laws, if you will.  Written by you.  If you’re a writer, and if you’re not, what’s the point?   (Being a blogger, I don’t need one.)

In a later and bloodier novel, The Hook, Westlake repurposed the premise of Strangers on a Train for the publishing biz.  A modestly successful novelist who can’t get published anymore because the bookstore chain computers say  he’s a bad risk, agrees to whack a badly blocked bestselling author’s litigious estranged wife in exchange for getting to publish his own novel under the latter’s name, in exchange for half the advance, that would otherwise go to the ex.

And the joke is, they’re both in the same boat–the moral conundrum isn’t the murder, it’s that each is selling out his professional pride, rather than lose his profession entirely.  Even though both have published many novels (one of them under multiple names, to try and do an end run around those computers), and one is rich and famous, there’s still a certain fragility to any novelist’s position (Stephen King doesn’t count, since he only writes novels as a sideline now).

A writer of any gender is at bottom a salesman, and there’s no rock bottom to the life.  Except everybody dast blame them.  Who ever blames publishers when they don’t like the latest novels?  But it is in fact publishers who decide not only which books get in print, but which manuscripts get submitted in the first place, since the more you strike out, the worse your chances get and the harder it is to get an agent to return your calls.  You learn to write to the market, or the market writes you off.  There are a great variety of markets one can write for, and the greatest of names are painfully aware of their own, whatever they may be.

Even an established author like Westlake knew better than to go off-reservation too often, which is why there are 24 Parker novels, and 14 Dortmunders.  The former series happened because of Bucklin Moon, whose own fiction career had been torpedoed by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and had been reduced to wading through the slush pile at Pocket Books.

When he found The Hunter in there, it excited him, and he wanted more.  So he told Westlake to rewrite the ending (where Parker gets killed off),  give them several novels a year about this low-life, and the rest is bloody bullet-riddled history.  This, mind you, after Gold Medal and Dell had passed on the book.  If Moon hadn’t seen it, neither might any of us.  Unsung heroes doesn’t half-say it, when you’re talking editors.  The good ones, anyway.

Westlake’s reinvention of himself as a comic author, which ultimately led him to Dortmunder, likewise came about as an act of rebellion, Westlake’s this time.  He started writing a mystery/adventure, and it kept coming out funny, so he went with that, against his agent’s remonstrances that there was no market for funny mysteries anymore.

The Fugitive Pigeon became his biggest seller to date.  That couldn’t have happened if he didn’t have a book a year contract at Random House, and this was the book for that year, written to what was considered a more female audience of genteel mystery lovers (while the more hard-boiled paperbacks were for the boys).

His editor there was Lee Wright, a woman of remarkable literary gifts, who Westlake considered the best he ever worked with (with Moon orbiting close behind).  How did Westlake land that coveted contract, when all he’d done prior to this was short stories for the pulps and a long list of sleaze paperbacks no respectable publisher would touch?  Wouldn’t you like to know?  And so would I, but the publishing industry has yet to bring forth a Westlake biography to provide us with such details.  Many others were granted equal or greater opportunities, and are now entirely out of print.   And others got rich enough to buy their own islands.  (And may also be out of print–which would you choose?)

Some authors of note spend their whole careers with one publisher.  Others, like Westlake, are far more peripatetic.  Partly because of their inner natures, and partly because book sales, while healthy enough, are not so brisk as to make it a priority to hang into them (“Bye Don, thanks for all the Dortmunders.”)  So it is helpful that there be lots of outlets for talent, instead of just a few multi-media titans, with all their various imprints.  That way, you can shop around.

And of course, in this brave new world we live in, there’s self-publishing.  Something Westlake treated as the joke it usually is, in God Save The Mark, where Fred Fitch (the other one) has to fend off the advances of a neighbor who has a massive manuscript relating to his speculative scenario about Caesar having WWI biplanes during his campaign in Gaul.  (Which he won pretty convincingly without, right?  I mean, why not Hannibal?  Or Spartacus, like in that SNL skit with Kirk Douglas?)  He wants Fred to spend his newfound inheritance to print up innumerable copies of the book, and it’s a sign that Fred is beginning to put pigeon-dom behind him when he demurs.

Westlake’s comic  novels are littered with grifters who promise literary fame and fortune to those who will pay them their hard-earned dollars–just another con, and Westlake worked with Scott Meredith, literary grifter supreme,  who ironically did give a number of major talents a start, Westlake not least among them.  But it wasn’t what they wrote for him that was the making of them.  It was just the practice, cranking out crap for a quick buck–and reading other people’s bad books in the slush pile, sending them notes, learning what to avoid.  (And most of all, they learned to avoid guys like Scott Meredith.)

Self-publishing has a new wrinkle today–you can literally publish yourself.  Online.  Start your own digital publishing company, which can be just for you, or host other writers as well.  I’ve greatly enjoyed the comic crime novels of Caimh (pronounced ‘qweev’) McDonnell, an Irish stand-up comedian who decided to be funny in print, while getting in a good bit of trenchant social commentary along the way, and damned if he doesn’t pull that off some of the time.  But other times I’m thinking this guy needs an editor.  (And all the time I’m thinking he may have read almost as much Westlake as I have, so at least he chooses good models to work from.)

See, the problem with this type of self-publishing–even when it works out financially–is that you don’t get the apprenticeship.  You don’t have to worry about rejection slips, or being summoned to an office and given notes on how to improve your work.  And that all sounds great, but Westlake knew damned well that a good editor is worth his or her weight in gold-pressed latinum.  No matter how good you are, you can always be better.  A practiced eye can tell you where your weak spots are, how to fix them.  So you develop faster, find your own voice more easily.  (Or in Westlake’s case, multiple voices.)

Magazines aren’t a good medium to break in through anymore.  Just not enough people willing to pay to read fiction in that format. Westlake did an enormous amount of writing for science fiction and mystery magazines in the late 50’s, early 60’s, most of which are gone now.  Hundreds of stories, most of which will never see the light of day again, and he’d probably be fine with that. His memories of writing to that market were not, in the main, nostalgic.

The dark side of having an editor/publisher is that he may not be there to nurture you, but rather use you, as editors like John W. Campbell used generations of up and coming wordsmiths to give him (and us) the same basic idea over and over again–his notion of evolved psychic superman (‘psupermen’ was Westlake’s own contemptuous term) overcoming their inferiors, and then quite often ruling them.  In an essay where he announced his decision to stop writing for the SF pulps, Westlake revealed that he’d put an outright spoof of Campbell into one story–and Campbell not only didn’t realize he was being lampooned, he loved the story, insisted it be made longer, and his surrogate’s role greatly enlarged.

But then again, a whole lot of great writers came up through the pulps, going back to one of America’s greatest–Westlake’s hero, Dashiell Hammett.  Part of crafting a unique voice for yourself may involve meeting resistance to it–learning how to fight back against editorial expectations.  Anyone who reads about Hammett’s early days as a yarn spinner for Black Mask will know he had to fight several editors on his way up–each of whom helped and hindered him to varying degrees.

And then he had to fight for his vision at Knopf, where he was asked if he really needed to make it clear Spade and Brigid were doing the horizontal tango?  He insisted he did.  They backed down.  See, the ending wouldn’t have the same impact if the two hadn’t been lovers–the ending of the Huston film,  stylish and beloved as it is, doesn’t have a tenth the power–because you never really believe Bogie’s Spade ever gave a damn.  Just playacting his way through.  Which is something any writer better watch out for.  Huston had Bogart, Astor, Lorre, Greenstreet (and Arthur Edeson).  Hammett just had a typewriter.  And every time I compare the two reigning takes on that story, the typewriter wins.  Hands down.  Always will.  Mere words.

Of which I have now typed over 3,000, and FYI, I started typing this thing many months ago, and fell into a sort of creative torpor.  I came across the draft last week, thought maybe it was time for me to finish it up, or delete it.

Here is my point–I’m not a real writer.  I just write about what other people wrote.  And since I don’t get paid for it, I can’t even call myself a critic, not that I really aspire to be called that.  I aspire to understand why some words move me more than others.  Why some writers get under my skin, and others don’t.  And these days, I see so few of the former, so many of the latter.  And I suspect that’s because the way writers get made nowadays is not so conducive to the kind of writing I like.

And yet I know there are many good writers of fiction out there.  Many make their living in entertainment, where the money is much better, and the creative freedom is–negotiable?  Writing scripts, for TV or Film, comes with so many directives, rules, formats, time constraints, and endless tropes.  It’s really more of a collective effort, which is not in itself a bad thing, but it’s not the same thing as sitting down and writing a story for yourself–even if you also have a market to write to.  Even if you have an editor to satisfy.  It’s still mainly just you, hammering it out, building stories, seeking settings,  fleshing out characters, pondering motivations, and dealing, always, with whatever the reigning style of your era is.

Should you work with the grain, or against it?  I suspect pretty much every writer worth reading has done both.   Westlake combined the two with a deftness I’ve never quite seen anywhere else, to the point where you wonder where the formula leaves off and the man begins.  Probably he did too.  The  most important thing he did was decide what he wanted to say with each story–the questions he always wanted to ask, of each character.  Who are you?  What do you want?  What are you willing to do to get it?  What wouldn’t you do?  How much can you compromise without losing the only thing you ever really have–which is yourself.  Your identity.

Now I know full well Westlake will never have nearly so impressive a literary footprint as Tolstoy, Melville, or the beloved Dickens.  (Nor did he ever sport as impressive a beard as any of them, which is probably why he shaved it before long.)    But his achievement as a writer, in many ways, is even more remarkable, since he kept producing great work over half a century, never had a day job, or a landed estate.  Certainly crowds of people never waited restlessly at a dockside wharf to learn the fate of Alan Grofield in Butcher’s Moon (Just keep reading.) but try finding anyone who can give you a plot synopsis of The Old Curiosity Shop.  (Maybe Peter Dinklage for the evil dwarf?)

His humbler place in the pantheon is nonetheless a place, and it rises over time–nobody thought Shakespeare was all that big a deal in the early 1600’s.  Point is, Westlake did what he loved, and people still love it now that he’s gone.  That’s a winning game.

So will there be another like him?  Who produces nearly a hundred fascinating novels, none of them really bestsellers, or critical favorites, yet most of them popular, endlessly reprinted, each very much its own thing;  alternately funny, dark, thrilling, empathic, philosophical, searing, satiric, sardonic, piquant, prescient–and yet each somehow tied to all the others, forming a corpus, a body of work, that rewards endless rereading and cross-reading–so much so that at the time I type this, all but a handful of his books can be downloaded into a digital device for a few bucks?

Might someone accomplish that once more?

All I can tell you is, it won’t be me.  How about you?

















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39 responses to “Existential Query: Will There Ever Be Another Donald Westlake?

  1. Pingback: News for week endiding 07-03-2020 « The Violent World of Parker

  2. Anthony

    I know I’ve said this before, but I consider “Dortmunder blew his nose.” to be the greatest opening line, period. Nobody, including Westlake himself, could have possibly known that it established and summarized the entire Dortmunder vibe that would ultimately encompass over a dozen books and occasional short story. Not that this was really the point of your existential query.

    Will there ever be another Donald Westlake? Of course there will be. He or she could be out there right now, or may become known in a century or two. Either way, we’ll likely be long gone before it becomes apparent to those who love good writing – which, as you know, only BEGINS with wordsmithing – that So-and-So is worthy of some future Fred Fitch to do what you have done here.

    • ‘Future Fred Fitch’? Will he come through a time portal to warn me of an android assassin? (I’m so sick of those movies, I can’t even tell you.)

      I believe other writers will find a way to express themselves in an individualistic manner to a decent audience, without compromising their core selves too much. The specific circumstances of Westlake’s career will probably remain somewhat sui generis, but it’s not like I was asking “Will someone come along and write two genre book series, one about a ice cold professional robber, and the other about an intermittently brilliant nebbish who steals stuff.” That might happen–there are copycats out there, and I’ve seen some really bad and heavily derivative riffs on Westlake’s most popular work–but it won’t be nearly so memorable.

      What I really meant to say is I feel a certain sadness that I never got to follow his career as it was actually progressing. It was going on pretty much my entire life, and I missed it. Parallel lines that only converged after one of us had swerved off the road. 😦

      • Anthony

        “… other writers will find a way to express themselves in an individualistic manner to a decent audience, without compromising their core selves too much.” Hmmm – not a particularly high bar.

        In thinking about whether there would be another Donald Westlake, I am willing to place him at the level of a Dickens. Not in terms of the popularity implication of legacy; rather, in terms of respect, praise, excellence, and worth. Somebody who spent his whole life doing it because he could not NOT do it. Somebody whose worst efforts had merit and that merit could outclass most of the best of his contemporaries’ efforts. (Refer, for example, to your review of Who Stole Sassi Manoon? You state that it is in your opinion the worst book he ever wrote, but praise his delightfully perceptive description of a show business party as “magnificent.” Right on both counts). Somebody who is not afraid to step out of the comfort zone – in fact who often battled his publishers because he was goddam well GOING to step out of the comfort zone. Somebody who leaves a life’s work that stands the test of time.

        It is not about the niche (in Westlake’s case, primarily “crime”). The next Donald Westlake could write historical romance or (suck it up) time portal nonsense.

        It is about being a WRITER, which means having something to say and knowing how to say it masterfully. Most who work in the field achieve one but not the other, or only achieve 50% (max) on both. And I include a lot of big names (cough, Hemingway) on the also-ran list.

        If you believe blurbs on the back of paperback books, Kurt Vonnegut once wrote this about John D. MacDonald “To diggers a thousand years from now…the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen.” I suspect either money or alcohol or both contributed to that tidbit. And it’s a shame, because it’s a great tribute, and if it wasn’t already out there I would steal it and replace JDM with Donald Westlake. THAT’s what being another Donald Westlake means to me. It’s a pretty fucking high bar.

        • Much better than well said. Maybe you should have written the article, and I should have talked about it in the comments section, but in any event, I’m happy to still have a comments section, and such insightful folks to frequent it.

          (Honestly, I just wanted the thing out of my drafts file. It’s irritating to see how many articles I’ve started and not finished.)

          Too much of literary reputation is just that–reputation. A bubble Shakespeare called it, and he would know. We can all be soldiers on that battlefield now, online, but most of us end up as mere cannon fodder. Those who attain the bubble–well, let’s just say Ernest has lots of company. But I’d say he earned his spot. Even though I haven’t read him since high school. (And then mainly for the sex scenes. Which are damn good. Pity he never wrote sleaze paperbacks. That I know of.)

          There have been other Westlakes, in the sense you and I mean it–people who wrote for the sheer love of it, who got some recognition, but who somehow ended up swept under the rug to some extent–underappreciated, highly significant footnotes that some of us take the time to read through).

          But might I posit that part of being this type of writer we all love is precisely that ability to stay under the radar, over the sonar, skate on through without being turned into some kind of plaster icon in life. That’s what ruined Hemingway, and I bet he knew it too. Fitzgerald sure did. (He was smarter than Ernest, but the sex–eh.)

          Westlake knew it for a dead certainty, which is why the flood of acclaim for The Ax unnerved him. You can’t be a real writer and a plaster statue of one–not at the same time. Fortunately(?) the acclaim was shortlived and conditional, and he could get back into stealth mode before long.

          And good point–wherever the next Westlake comes from, he/she/they (have to include non-binary) will need the disguise of genre to get his/her/their points across without turning into a wax dummy in a museum. I mean, it’s fine for Mark Twain. He somehow knew how to work it so he could be both at the same time. Don’t ask me how. There’s never going to be another Mark Twain, that’s for damn sure.

  3. Greg Tulonen

    Sui generis indeed. The salt mines Westlake came up in just don’t exist anymore (no more genre monthlies, no more cheap-o pulps), and neither do the carefully cultivated editor-writer relationships he enjoyed. There are other salt mines, of course (I find myself laboring in any number of them), and the internet has opened up so many avenues that didn’t used to exist, but it’s also created a balkanization so extreme that we’re all out here on our own little islands, typing into the ether. No more weekly poker games with other like-minded writers, because the other like-minded writers you know are scattered across the globe.

    • Ah, the poker games–should have brought that up.

      The increasing isolation created by online culture was something Westlake not only deplored but feared–Wally Knurr, a talented and basically sound human being, was a warning bell–we’re given the impression he’s better off helping to organize robberies than he is living in his own mental cloister all the time, a computer his only friend, simply reflecting his own ideas back at him. Joining the gang helps him–you know–join the gang.

      Here at my workplace, we’ve just been informed that until further notice, all classes will be conducted online. For sound public health reasons, obviously. But the students don’t seem the least bit bothered. Walking back from lunch, I could hear them discussing it, and they mainly seemed delighted to be saved the time involved getting to and from the classroom.

      A very large part of Westlake’s ethos as a writer was shaped by his associations in what we now term ‘realspace’ and while there are great writers who lived fairly isolated lives–Miss Dickinson comes to mind–in the main, they were defined by their associations, the way they had to engage with each other, and the world.

      And that won’t end–we’re still going to see each other–but writers learn from other writers in more ways than just reading them. Ways must be found to maintain that loose-knit scribbler’s network.

  4. Greg Tulonen

    Looking at the Parker first sentences gathered above, I notice for the first time that there was a mini (two-book) trend of Parker doing something followed by “and there was a guy.”

    • But apparently all an unnamed literary agent would notice was that there was action. Which is bad. As is dialogue. As is the narrator giving a point of view.

      Westlake’s view of authority in all its forms, which has at times struck me as extreme (though he was by no means advocating anarchism, hence Anarchaos), seems rather au courant now, wouldn’t you say?

      Leaders can be good. If you can find any worth following. Might want to try the mirror.

  5. Hal

    I wanted to drop a note today because I sense the Review is winding down. All good things must, as they say, but I’ll miss your lively posts. The older ones will remain, I hope, so that I can return and enjoy them again. Since you mentioned self-publishing, I’d love to see them gathered in a paperback volume (Amazon publishes those, too, you know, without any payment from the author). No idea what you’d call it, but I’d buy a copy as soon as it was available.

    Will there be another Westlake? I think not. He was a product of his time. His friend and fellow writer, Lawrence Block, was a product of the same time. Like Westlake, he has a long-running series that tends toward humor and a long-running series that is darker and more serious. Both men wrote over 100 novels. Both men achieved success, but weren’t recurrent names on the best-seller list.

    If they were starting out today, I don’t believe either man would have approached their career in the same fashion. It’s a different world… and not necessarily a richer one.

    • I have plenty of ideas for new articles. Obviously I completed the main project of reviewing all his major published work, but there’s still plenty of short stories that never made it into anthologies, there’s sleaze paperbacks, there’s unpublished work if I could get my hands on it, there’s various comparative analyses I could do. Is the blog winding down, or am I? Remains to be seen.

      I am now ‘working at home’ and while that should give me all kinds of time to write what I want, in practice it means doing various make work projects to justify a continued paycheck. (Ironically, the project involves cataloguing old mystery books).

      I agree that the exact publishing world that created Westlake is gone, but publishing, and literature itself, never stop changing–were changing all the time Westlake was writing. I am not entirely sure what I meant when I asked if there’d be another him. And who says it couldn’t be a her?

  6. Here is my point–I’m not a real writer. I just write about what other people wrote. And since I don’t get paid for it, I can’t even call myself a critic, not that I really aspire to be called that. I aspire to understand why some words move me more than others.

    Two factual errors in less than 100 words. You’re slipping, sir 😉

    (New reader, since last night, and a great appreciator of your work, depth of discernment, and understanding. You are a critic in the best possible sense: informed, insightful, not just reviewing but adding real meat from multiple areas to increase our understanding of Mr Westlake and Mr Stark.

    Plus, kewl links, man!

    Much thanks for your work. Stay safe and sane)

    • Good point–it’s usually at least half a dozen errors, and I can beat that easy when I’m in fighting trim.

      Appreciative though I be of your appreciation, it’s Westlake’s work that matters here. Still and all, while I’m not a real writer, I do like being told I can write. Except that I’m not lately, am I?

      Over three months I’ve been ‘working’ at home–an opportunity that should have led to many new articles–and believe me, I’ve got ideas, and no end of materiel. I’ve managed one to date. Had I but known I was such a lazy scut. Well, everyone knows that.

      The problem, I now divine, is that I was doing these blog posts to distract me from boredom at work, but at home there were many more potential distractions, and I was, shall we say, a tad overwhelmed by circumstance–aren’t we all? I am a born procrastinator, and what impelled me to create TWR was a form of counter-procrastination. Doing something to avoid doing something else. But now I’m doing other things to avoid doing this. It must not stand. This blog isn’t finished. And so far, neither am I. I’d say I’m a work in progress, but where’s the progress?

      I’m probably going back to the office this month, but nobody knows for sure. I will undoubtedly be the very last to know. Such is my fate. 😐

      • I spent 20+ years as a journalist. Trust me, you’re more a real writer than many that get paid for it, in quality and writerliness…ess…

        And breaks are a good thing. Gives you time to look for your sanity. I suggest checking the couch cushions first.

        And since I am the current shiny object, I’ll toss in a query: Which (if any) audiobooks of the Parker series do you recommend?

        Recently went through a v stressful time period where I couldn’t focus enough to read, and was forced to delve into the accursed audio stuff (thank you, Los Angeles Public Library and friends). Loved Robert Davi’s (DIE HARD’s “No, the other Agent Johnson” actor) work on BACKFLASH. After Lee Marvin, Davi’s voice is my #2 Parker voice. Listened to a number of Books on Tape versions, by Michael Kramer, who is good, but I’m always up for a great rec.

        Thanks for transmuting your at-work boredom into something so helpful and enlightening, Mr. Non-Writer 🙂

        • Audiobooks are something I’ve yet to try. I like hearing the voices in my head, as opposed to someone else’s voice outside of it–though as a kid, I loved reading aloud to my younger siblings, and they would run when they saw me coming with a book. I always caught them. RHIP. The day may come when I try that format, but it hasn’t yet.

          However, some of my regulars here might be able to provide some recommendations. Guys?

        • Greg Tulonen

          When the coronavirus lockdown was beginning, I started making my way though all the Parker audiobooks. (For some reason, Breakout and Nobody Runs Forever don’t seem to have ever been available on audiobook, though later books are.) I like the Michael Kramers, but they’re harder to find in digital form. Audible.com has only two Kramer versions, and they’re more expensive than their siblings. There are also some odd textual changes in the Kramers, like when a character says a name, and Stark notes how it was pronounced, Kramer will instead note how it was spelled. Different media.

          Around the same time I was doing all this listening, my friend Bill Dufris died after a long battle with cancer. He was a voice actor and audiobook narrator, but I didn’t know until just two weeks after his death that he had narrated Ask the Parrot. I wish I could have asked him about it. Maybe it was just another job to him. It probably was, but I would have loved to have picked his brain about the experience. Frustratingly, the Audible.com version is missing four chapters. I reported it, but going by buyer reviewers, it’s been been an issue for at least seven years.

          I haven’t heard the Davi (my Backflash was read by Keith Szarabajka), but I bet it’s good. Parker needs a little gravel in his voice, and Davi’s got gravel to spare.

          • Thank you, Fred. Greg, my condolences on your loss — at least your friend will live on forever as one of Parker’s voices 🙂

            And yes, Davi’s rendition is very f’in’ good…

            How was Keith Szarabajka?

          • Fascinating story, Greg. It’s always frustrating, as well as sad, when someone dies before you can ask them questions. I kept meaning to go see an old army buddy of my dad’s who lives in Connecticut–does he still? I’m afraid to check. And I’m afraid to go to Connecticut. Our only real contact was me telling him my dad was gone. He probably had questions too. Life is always more questions than answers. That much we can rely upon.

            • Fred, agreed. Having gone through some losses on my side these past few years, I can state wholeheartedly to ask any and all questions *now*, hear those stories again so you can lock them into your memory, and know where all the photosare kept and who’s in them and where they were taken. Cuz when the family is gone, those histories go with them, and then you’re just left with unanswered questions

              • Changing topics, started THE SCORE last night after starting to read your article on it — and stopping myself before the spoilers began. Pleasantly surprised at the amount of dark comedy in the first few chapter, esp Parker and Paulis and Edgars in the front hallway 🙂 Did Stark start adding a sprinkling of dark comedy with this book 5, or did I miss it before?

            • I think Westlake put a touch of comedy into just about everything he did, but very often it’s hard to see–he’s doing it on a minor chord.

              In The Outfit, Bronson, once a run of the mill gangster, now a prosperous upstate burgher, can’t come to terms with the fact that he’s still just a crook–he’s a respectable businessman–with a faded showgirl wife he likes but no longer desires, who wanted to live in a big stone house in the fancy part of town–as if that changed who she was. Stark the satirist picks apart his weaknesses, his self-deceptions–all the vulnerabilities that Parker, who has no such silly contradictions in his wolfish nature, will use to destroy him.

              Or remember the incident with Parker and Handy finding Bronson’s black chauffeur in bed with a white woman, and he thinks they’re going to be mad about that (they couldn’t care less). She’s worried they’ll be mad at her, so she keeps saying it was rape when it clearly wasn’t–I guess nowadays we’d call her a Karen, though she doesn’t seem particularly privileged.

              When he finds out they’re just there to murder his boss–who he hates–he relaxes. Hey man, no problem. Go right ahead. Pretty dark comedy there, wouldn’t you say?

              The Mourner is similarly crammed with satiric moments. And you will find many more in The Score, which I would assume you’ve finished by now, since that’s not a book anyone tarries long over.

              The Hunter? Bit harder. Westlake was in a very dark frame of mind when he wrote that. I’d have to give that some thought. But Mal Resnick’s finale is rather comic, wouldn’t you say? He got exactly what he’d wanted from a woman all his life–by paying for it–but the bill turns out to be more than he can afford.

              And how about Carter? We’re told he looks like Louis Calhern, and can’t stop fiddling with his mustache. There’s a reason that the most faithful film adaptation of that book (though not the best) is basically written as slapstick comedy, almost out of the Three Stooges. Way off the mark, but not completely. The comedy is there in the original–but the producers of Payback felt like they had to make it more blatant, in order to distract us from the fact we’re rooting for a thief and a killer. It’s well-executed comedy, great cast–and so much less effective than the original. Well, so was Point Blank, which has plenty of intended satire in it as well.

              I think Westlake was always laughing. But sometimes that’s to keep from crying. Well, isn’t that so for all of us? Keep laughing, brother.

              • Agreed. The darkest, and to me the funniest, line in THE OUTFIT comes from the unlikely source of Handy(?), who tells the chauffeur, [bad paraphrase alert] “As long as you’re not going to geography class together, you’re good.” I thought that was pretty daring, too, coming from a book presumably published in the terrible segregation days.

                PAYBACK (director’s cut) was not to my liking, it seemed unnecessarily brutal and oddly off-tune. Parker can be brutal, but abides by a simple metric (you’re with me, against me, ignored). “Porter” never hit the right note for me, and seemed too muddled. I’ll have to check out the theatrical cut and see how Mel changed things 🙂

                I stopped listening to THE SCORE because it was so good I wanted to read it. Audio is not my thing, it’s fine for fleeting things but for great quality and enjoyment, I need to read something — on paper 🙂 I should have the book in the next week, and I can see now Edgars’ cold girlfriend mucks things up (which I know she will, she’s drawn too well not to). Stark has a way of writing terrible women so well it chills me — the waitress in GETAWAY FACE aka THE MASK, this woman in THE SCORE. You know from the introductory scene that they will mess things up horribly along the way. Poor Skimm…

                I thought THE JUGGER was fine (I’ve yet to read Fred’s review), skipping over to THE SEVENTH unless that’s too good not to read as well 🙂

              • New York City publishers of crime novels didn’t have to worry much about that kind of thing. You should see some of the stuff Charles Willeford got away with on racial issues (seriously–you should). And for that matter, give Chester Himes a go, though of course he was working out of Paris–still got published back home. There really wasn’t much in the way of censorship on political stuff. And if you know who Bucklin Moon is, you should know he himself was an important civil rights activist.

                You can read all I have to say about Payback (both versions) elsewhere on the blog. It’s a very flawed bit of work, but I did enjoy it, and it led me to Westlake by circuitous pathways. So I have to credit its strengths, without ignoring its weaknesses.

                Probably a bad idea to try and guess where Richard Stark is going to go with a storyline, or a character. He’s always a step ahead of you. Many a feint or false trail. His hand points one way, his eyes another.

                I have nothing against audiobooks–but somehow, the only way I ever want to encounter Stark is on the printed page. I’ve never even gotten any Parker ebooks–though I often read Westlake in that format. Never Stark. He’s–different.

              • Excellent. I shall search out your PAYBACK ruminations forthwith

  7. Greg Tulonen

    Thank you both. Keith Szarabajka was very good reading Backflash. He’s also an actor with a pretty extensive resume (TV, movies, and video games). You’ve probably seen him (or heard him) in something, even if you can’t remember him specifically.

    • On a happier note… Greg, thanks for the note. Glad Keith was good (as he should be, having played God and all 😉 And with all those films he did early on with a single-name title, Parker fits right into his repertoire!

  8. Btw, was DW asthmatic or knew someone who was? It just struck me that in the first four books, he had two characters with asthma (the woman who dies accidentally in THE HUNTER, the hitman in the opening of THE MOURNER). It seems a very specific trait to repeat so quickly, but it also might just be because Donald was pumping the books out quickly. Strange that Bucklin didn’t catch it, though (but again, see “pumping books out quickly”

    • I don’t know why Bucklin Moon would need to catch it, or what problem he’d have with it–paperback crime novels repeat plot elements all the time–so do mainstream novels (But it’s a good catch you made there, all the same).

      Westlake definitely had health issues–well, most of us do–but specifics are thin on the ground. He very nearly died as a newborn because he couldn’t digest his mother’s milk or most infant formulas–odds are he had to work harder at being healthy–it wasn’t something that came naturally. But he was active enough throughout his life that I doubt he was any kind of invalid. Just someone who was frequently reminded of his mortality. And who knew he probably wasn’t making it to any four-score and ten. His father, Albert, died in his 50’s, if I recall correctly. (It’s on the blog somewhere, but even I can’t keep track of everything I’ve typed).

      One of his earliest series characters, Abraham Levine, is a police detective with a nascent heart condition–he’s constantly worried he’s going to die, and this makes him treasure life–not just his, but everyone’s–which complicates his job considerably. Some of those short stories contain more hints as to Westlake’s own person–and maybe even hint that he considered–and rejected–suicide as a way out.

      And let me point another hint out to you–Dan Wycza. The very picture of health and strength–but there’s a hidden weakness–he needs to eat healthy foods, take supplements, exercise–just to maintain himself. If he were ever imprisoned, he knows he’d deteriorate quickly, turn into a shell of his former self, and he’d never see daylight again.

      Perhaps a different kind of tell–Westlake’s characters rarely become seriously ill, or develop any major health condition–one major exception is Memory, where the protagonist gets retrograde amnesia after being hit with a chair–and Westlake ended up putting the manuscript in a drawer for the rest of his life. I think one reason for that was that the book frightened him–and that he felt he’d done something unforgivable to his fictive brainchild.

      Another unpublished novel that came out after his death was The Comedy is Finished–and its central character is a famous comedian patterned after Bob Hope–who is full of life, but hardly healthy–when kidnapped by radicals, it’s made very clear he’ll die from a large assortment of serious ailments, if not given proper care and medication. And of course, the real Bob Hope lived to be a hundred. Healthy as a horse. So where’d that come from?

      The body and the mind can both betray us. Westlake knew this–but he also knew that the self is more than just tissue, bone, and neurons. And it’s selfhood he treasured above all.

      • Wise words, as always. And my copy of MEMORY just landed on my TBR mountain (as well as the 10-lb Rick Baker SFX retrospective book), so I have that to read as well as your thoughts on it someday!

  9. Has a publisher ever asked an author to continue with the series? #25 and beyond? Is there any legal restrictions prohibiting any author continuing the series?

    • Well, yes. It’s called ‘copyright.’ You can write all the Parker fanfic you want (like I write the odd bit of Dortmunder fic), but if you tried to publish anything on a for profit basis, there’d be a lawsuit in the offing. You probably knew that.

      The Westlake estate, controlled by his heirs, controls the rights. I’ve heard nothing–ever–about any additional novels being commissioned. I doubt very much that would ever happen–nor do I believe those books would be well-received, because let’s face it–nobody else could write Parker–even Westlake struggled for decades to write like Stark again. It’s a deceptively simple style, that nobody else could ever pull off. Such books would devalue the series as a whole. Make it less unique, less special. Just another media franchise, endlessly prolonged for quick cash. (And not much, I suspect).

      And I tell you now (as I have told others)–I would never read any such book, even if somebody sent me a reviewer’s copy for free. It would be art crime. There are 24 Parker novels, and that’s all that will ever exist. Anything else would be a fake.

      Westlake probably made his views on such efforts well known. If there were unfinished novels, that might be different–a loophole, that he’d probably also frown upon, but there’s precedent (Chandler, Spillane).

      I don’t believe there are even preliminary outlines for another Parker novel. Westlake wrote by the ‘Push’ method, meaning that he would usually just start writing and see where the muse took him. If any such notes existed, I could see him destroying them when he realized his health was failing him. He never wanted anybody else to write about Parker. Nobody else ever should.

      Did Westlake specify in his will that no such authorized pastiches were ever to be produced? Ask somebody who knows. Obviously the day will come when the copyright lapses, as it came for Sherlock Holmes, and now there are many more Holmes pastiches than there are Conan Doyle stories. And that, to me, is a lamentable state of affairs. But for such a universally famous character, it was inevitable it would occur. Parker is more–you know–personal.

      And I’m glad I’m going to lapse before the copyright does. Though I might just barely live to see copyright lapse on The Hunter. Which was in utero at around the same time I was.

  10. I’m with you on all points. I asked since, as you probably know, Robert E. Parker wrote and had published all those Philip Marlowe novels.

    • Greg Tulonen

      And then Ace Atkins payed it forward by writing Spenser novels after Robert Parker died. Incidentally, I believe initial copyright expires 70 years after the death of the author, not by individual work. After those 70 years, the estate can request extensions work by work, which is why some Sherlock Holmes works fell out of copyright before others did.

      In other words, ain’t none of us living to see Parker fall into the public domain.

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