“And what are you reading, Miss ---?” “Oh, it is only a novel! replies the young lady: while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. It is only… some work in which the most thorough of knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.” Jane Austen
Born the year prohibition was repealed, Westlake’s writing career took off in 1962 with the publication of The Hunter, (written as Richard Stark), the first Parker novel, a ground-breaking noir masterpiece, and didn’t slacken till he had the nerve to die in 2008 with close to a hundred books behind him and some still in the oven.
No more Westlakes. It’s cause for wailing, gnashing of teeth, and obsessive hunting in used bookstores for out of print books.
Westlake wrote quirky, smart stories about quirky, smart people living full lives outside the law. Sure, they go down quick and easy as escapist trash. But to think they are trash would be a mistake, like falling for Columbo’s dull bulb act. Single-handed creator of the comedic caper and noir crime fiction, Westlake is THE Grand Master.
You can read him for belly laughs. (And you should. There is nobody funnier than Westlake.) You can read him for the worldly vitamins and knowing minerals missing from your diet. You can read him to figure out how he does his magic. However you read him, his writing is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
Here is the first sentence from Watch Your Back!, the thirteenth novel in the Dortmunder series:
When John Dortmunder, a free man, not even on parole, walked into the O. J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue that Friday night, the regulars were discussing the afterlife.
Already I’m laughing.
Here’s the first sentence from Firebreak, the nineteenth in the Parker series.
When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage killing a man.
Already, I’m shocked.
Already, I’m dying to know what comes next. Already I know who these protagonists are.
So much accomplished, so quickly, with such understated economy of language, in a manner impossible to resist. Once I pick up a Westlake novel, there is no putting it down.
Just like Westlake himself, Dortmunder and Parker are consummate pros: they never assume, they don’t repeat themselves, they aren’t put off by what they don’t know, they trust themselves.
Being a pro myself, it’s fascinating to watch (and learn from) these guys at work in their outlaw parallel universe, using a toolbox and rulebook beyond me. And whether a comedic caper or a deadly serious heist, the story will be wild, count on it.
In Bank Shot, Dortmunder and his gang don’t just rob a bank, they heist the building. In The Score, Parker and string rip off an entire town. In Smoke, the protagonist, a small time thief, finds his unexpected invisibility both an asset and a liability.
The premise may be wacked, but Westlake’s plot will run it logically, unpredictably, and inevitably to ground. And while you’re distracted enjoying yourself, he’ll slip in an A-ha! like a mickey in a drink. This one finally knocked me out on the third reread:
Understanding… is the key to nothing except further understanding, but in the last analysis, what else is there? All of life is either ignorance or knowledge, there’s no third possibility. Jimmy The Kid
He gets people: that was his theme. And he played out every variation his laser sharp mind encountered.
Judge T. Wallace Higbee felt a lot better this morning. Last week, it had looked as though he would be sucked relentlessly into the vortex of the kind of case that law schools later use in moot court, but by now, Tuesday morning, he could see it was going to be all right. It was just the usual stupidity after all….
….Even little Marjorie Dawson, Ms. Redcorn’s first and extremely local lawyer, was here, blinking in the glare of all this high-wattage legal talent, and serving by her presence, her dimness, her simplicity, to reassure Judge Higbee that it is still the meek who will inherit the earth. After everybody else dies, of course. Bad News
“Trying to get me drunk, eh?” ….
But he looked at her with only the slightest trace of a smile and said, “Did you ever screw while drunk?”
The question startled her…—and she automatically gave a truthful answer: “Yes, of course. Hasn’t everybody?”
“How was it?”
He wasn’t smiling at all now, but she risked a tiny smile of her own, saying, “One hardly remembers.
His expression changed, and for the first time in her life she truly understood the phrase “a cocky grin.”
“I like to be remembered,” he said.
She couldn’t help mocking him. “Ho ho,” she said, “you sure do talk a good fight.”
“Right,” he said. He took the Bloody Mary glass out of her hand, threw it away into the view, and drew her close. Dancing Aztecs
“The essential point is,” Ritter told his son, “the world has changed. The world always changes. I would say that most people in this country still retain a nineteenth century view of the United States as an independent industrial nation with a republican form of government, wouldn’t you?”
“Well,” Garrett said, his puffy face frowning above his trim body, “that’s what it is, isn’t it?” Like all of Frank Ritter’s children, Garrett walked warily, but had learned that one was always relatively safe to behave as though Dad knew best.
Now, Dad shook his head, and said, “Of course it isn’t. And when that’s what America was, in the nineteenth century, people didn’t know it. They thought the United States was still an agrarian democracy with a government run part-time by farmers and lawyers. Reality is always one jump ahead of the masses, Garrett.”
“OK,” said Garrett, and sipped at his vodka-tonic….
Frank Ritter said, “Insofar as America is a major industrial nation, no, it is not. What we are today is the premier technological and service nation…. Any partnership that survives is merely a gentlemanly form of absorption, so now we have the multinational corporation, and that’s where the power lies today. Not in the UN, certainly, and not in national governments.”
“Gee, Dad,” Garrett said. “No?”
“No. The multinational is in the position of the bank robber in the old West; all he has to do is ride straight and hard to be safe, because the posse can’t cross the border. We [multinational businesses} have taken over the roles that nations recently held; we wage war, collect taxes through debt service, protect our areas of property and the worker/citizens within those areas, and we distribute power as we see fit.”
Garrett, along with his brothers and sisters, had grown up believing that his father spouted two things fairly constantly; verbal nonsense and lovely money. Accept the former with obvious pleasure, and the flow of the latter was unending…. Good Behavior
(Wycza) sat in back, leaning forward with his forearms on the seat back, and he and Devers and Carlow watched the three men come out of the small tenement-style apartment house a block away and turn in this direction. The smaller man in the middle carried an apparently heavy suitcase, while the bigger men flanking him kept looking left and right as they walked.
“I look at them,” Wycza said, “I look at these people, and I know they aren’t sensible.”
Devers said, “You think they’ll give us a hard time?”
“I think we ought to start right off by shooting them in the head.”
Devers looked troubled. “I don’t know,” he said.
“I do,” Carlow said. Nodding his head toward Wycza, he told Devers, “He’s right. The two big ones are hired to mother the money. They lose the money, they’re dead anyway.”
“I’m a pretty good shot,” Devers said. “Let me just plink one, and then we’ll give them a chance to work it out for themselves.”
Carlow twisted around to look at Wycza, get his opinion. These three men didn’t know one another, had never worked together, had only met today…. It was hard for them to know how to deal with one another, in what areas each was reliable, in what areas they would be stepping on sore corns.
Carlow and Wycza, looking at one another in the faint illumination of a nearby streetlight, tried silently to come to an opinion about Devers, and at the same time, gauge one another. Wycza finally dropped his eyes and nodded silently, with a small shrug, as if to say, “What the hell, let him have his try, we can cover if we have to.”
Carlow pursed his lips and faced front before answering, moves that clearly said to Wycza: “It’s your decision, I’m not the one that did it.” Aloud, Carlow said to Devers, “If you think so.”
“It’s worth a try,” Devers said. Twisting around, he said to Wyzca, “Judge it for yourself. It they’re gonna cause trouble, jump right in.” So that Devers too, was being cautious in the new partnership, and not taking all the responsibility on his own shoulders.
Wyzca nodded. Devers would shoot one of them in the shoulder, and then Wycza would shoot all three of them in the head. “Fine,” he said. Butcher’s Moon, Richard Stark
How did he do it? Not all of Westlake's magic eludes analysis. There's a method to it. Aristotle said: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”
Westlake stood this idea on its head. Why not? In the leanest of prose and with a pitch-perfect ear for idiom, he described only the outward appearance of things, leaving us readers on our own to infer their inward significance.
This mimics real life, of course. But does life let you in on what happens at the end? Not hardly. The pay-off with fiction, being utterly contrived and having nothing to do with reality, is that everything turns out. All the loose strings tie up in a neat bow. But the score with Westlake goes over the top. He always outsmarts you. I love that.
You’d think that would make you feel stupid, but no. It makes you feel smart as hell. Just for keeping up with him, even a little.
And here’s the best of all. Despite having absolutely no illusions about people, and stopping at nothing, there was no angst in Westlake. Neuroses, bad childhoods, shoulds— he couldn’t be bothered. No, the deep well of what is was good, enough and endlessly amusing. He probably whistled while he typed.
A perspective that offers, after the kind of workday I put in, the antidote. Or even, the cure. No, wait— the way.
For bust-a-gut laughs: the Dortmunder series. Starring the slope-shouldered thief Dortmunder, planner of his kooky string. Alas, his best-laid plans generally go agley. The Hot Rock kicks off the series of fifteen gems.
For disturbing noir: the Parker series, twenty-five in all, written as Richard Stark, his most famous pseudonym. (Yes, there are others.) Parker is all business. His specialities are planning and violence. The first is his work, the second a tool in his toolbox. Start with The Hunter.
All the novels in these two series stand alone, but for maximum pleasure read in order.
Trust me on this: anything Westlake (or Stark) will be good. Really, really good.