Thursday, January 01, 2009

Donald Westlake dies

Donald Westlake, one of the world's liveliest, funniest and most prolific crime writers, died New Year's Eve. He was 75.

Westlake wrote around 100 novels, virtually inventing the comic caper with his Dortmunder series and the amoral, professional thief/killer in twenty-seven novels featuring Parker, written under the pen name Richard Stark.

Westlake was also a screenwriter, and his screenplay for The Grifters earned an Academy Award nomination in 1991. He won three Edgar awards from the Mystery Writers of America, which named him a Grand Master in 1993

Westlake was one of the cleverest of crime novelists, engaging in such experiments as beginning two different novels with the same botched robbery in order to take the story in two different directions. He also liked to share chapters with authors whose work he enjoyed, a Westlake novel and a book by the cooperating author having a common chapter that features characters from both. He did this notably in the Dortmunder novel Drowned Hopes, which shares a chapter with Joe Gores' 32 Cadillacs, a delicious treat for anyone, doubly so for readers who know both writers.

The New York Times obituary of Westlake, by the way, is a shoddy piece of work, full of what the writer probably thought was delightful color ("who pounded out more than 100 books and five screenplays") but not mentioning Dortmunder, one of the author's two most influential and enduring creations. The obituary also makes the questionable assertion that Westlake's work translated well to the screen. The Dortmunder novels especially have been notoriously ill-served by screen adaptations.

(A knowledgeable observer of both crime fiction and journalism points out that the Times was likely caught unaware by Westlake's death. With a holiday schedule likely in effect, the Times had to draft a non-obituary writer and non-crime-fiction expert. But my correspondent also expressed surprise that the Times did not have an obituary ready in advance, as it should have and as newspapers traditionally do. Westlake was 75, he was extremely well known, especially in New York, and he had had health problems in recent years, though not apparently related to the heart attack that appears to have killed him. The Times dropped the ball on this one. )

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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8 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

God that obit made me mad. Always on the wrong foot the NYT. I'll never forget their mistake filled 158 word obit of Philip K Dick either.

January 01, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, that obit was shite. Why did the paper have no obituary in the can and ready to go? Even my newspaper has, or had, those. The writer drafted for the job tried but was obviously no Westlake reader. The Times did its readers a disservice.

Oh, and Happy New Year.

January 01, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

right back at you slick

January 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And welcome back, unless you're still away, posting from some remote location.

January 02, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I'm back in civ. It'll be said again and again about Westlake's great economy of style (not unthinking plodding out, just really clear prose) but I also really liked The Grifters. Excellent performances and a tight faithful script. Westlake lost out to DANCES WITH WOLVES at the Oscars. Yeah, I did just shout that. DWW also beat Goodfellas for best film and Costner won Best Director.

January 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, just looked in on your blog and found out you're back.

There's more to be said about Westlake, some of which rarely if ever gets said about him, and I'll say some of it in a post I plan to put up in a couple of hours. But this will not include that either he or Martin Scorcese were worse artists than Kevin Costner.

January 02, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Given what's happening in that industry, it's not entirely unlikely that the Times has no dedicated obituary writers any longer, sacrificed on the altar of reduced Macys advertising.

January 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wondered how the Times' dismal performance in this matter might tie into the industry's current troubles. I'm not sure there's a connection. Westlake had been a big name in crime writing since 1962. Someone should have prepared an obituary in advance, well before the current mess.

If I had to take a wild stab, and I could well be wrong, I'd guess that the big shots at the Times didn't think a crime writer was important enough for the serious consideration that an advance obituary would imply.

January 02, 2009  

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