Friday, January 02, 2009

Donald Westlake, Part II

Donald Westlake, who died Wednesday at 75, was not just a prolific, creative, original and endlessly entertaining crime writer, he was also a thoughtful, intelligent observer of the world around him.

He once lamented the reduced distribution of foreign films in the U.S., calling the superb 1958 Italian heist movie Big Deal on Madonna Street a laboratory for comedy writers and mourning that future Americans might miss similar opportunities to absorb and learn from foreign influences.

He also noted mass media's tendency to telescope the past into a timeless present/past accessible to all. This meant, he remarked, that Americans could assess the accuracy of a movie scene set on a train even though most had never been on a train. I suspect he underestimated the number of Americans who had travelled by rail, but his point was valid, and it anticipated such phenomena as retro fashions, digital sampling/recycling of old pop songs, and the Beatles churning out new records long after they had broken up and begun to die off.

Those statements, one in an interview, the other in a preface to one of Westlake's books, if I recall correctly, rank among my favorite Westlake moments. They're right up there with Parker out of jail and walking across the George Washington Bridge in The Hunter or Joe Gores' D.K.A. gang meeting up with Dortmunder and his crew in Drowned Hopes or all of The Score or the stoic Parker finally losing patience with his lighthearted sidekick's antics and snapping, "Shut up, Grofield."

I always said Westlake differed from most authors in one respect: Most writers might come up with a wild story idea from time to time. Westlake turned his wild ideas into books. That's why even some of his less successful stories were always exciting and worth admiration for the man's gumption, imagination and industry.

Sarah Weinman's remarks include a library of Westlake links and a rolling list of Westlake tributes. Leap in. The man offers some terrific reading.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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14 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

This truly is sad news. I have not read as much Westlake as I would have liked, but, given the caliber of his books, I suspect no one has.

As good as the Dortmunder and Parker books are, I was lucky enough to stumble onto a collection of short stories titled LEVINE about a year ago, stories of a middle-aged New York cop with heart trouble. Beautiful constructed mysteries, they are also poignant without becoming maudlin. Highly recommended. I used LEVINE as my contribution to Forgotten Books Friday, over at Patti Abbott's pattinase blog.

January 02, 2009  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

A great pair of tributes, Peter. I'll have to go on a bit of a Westlake binge at No Alibis in the new year. Unread book pile be damned!

gb

January 02, 2009  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Good comment about the lack of foreign films in America (and Canada).

I suppose these days we at least have film festivals all over.

I'd like to be able to see more foreign television these days, I wonder if it's the same in other countries as it is in the US that TV is where the some of the best stuff is being done?

January 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I'm not a big fan of the Levine collection. The concept was terrific, daring even -- another fruitful product of Westlake's always active mind -- but the ending was a little over the top for me. Poignant? Yep.

I don't remember if I've dragged out my personal Westlake reading statistics, but when I last checked, I'd read 44 or 45 of his books, and I've read a few more since. The list includes all the Dortmunders, all the Parkers but one, a Mitch Tobin book, Levine and a bunch of standalones. He could supply a good year's worth of reading.

January 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Gerard. That would be a worthy binge. Now, where would you start with 100 books to choose? If I had to recomment one, I'd suggest The Score, also known as Killtown. Allison and Busby reissued it as part of a three-novel Parker omnibus, so it should be available up your way.

The Violent World of Parker Web site, to which I link in my first comment, is a fine guide to Parker and ought to help you make your selection. Among the Dortmunders, I liked Jimmy the Kid a bit less than the others, though that might not be the case for all readers.

January 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

We have film festivals, and we've had the availability, at least in large cities, of all kinds of movies on tape, then DVD and now BluRay. Westlake wsa probably writing before the VCR era. Still, I don't think movies make their way into the popular consciosness via DVD the way they might have when there were more art houses and repertory theaters.

Westlake may have had special fondness for Big Deal on Madonna Street because it has all kinds of parallels with his own Dortmunder books. I don't if he ever disussed the subject, but it might well have influenced them or evern given Westlake the idea in the first place.

January 02, 2009  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Do you happen to know, Peter, which book started with the gang robbing a rock concert? I think it may have even been inspired by the theft of cash from a Led Zeppelin concert.

January 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That would be Deadly Edge, and the heist scene is excellent. I had no idea that it might have been based on a real theft. Where did this theft happen?

January 02, 2009  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Thanks Peter.

New York City, 1973. Apparently $180,000.00 was stolen.

I think there may be a TV news report on The Song Remains the Same DVD.

January 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I guess I liked Led Zeppelin a lot when I was a kid. Led Zeppelin II was one of my first albums ever, and I saw them at the Forum. Maybe you were at that concert, too. But the wisdom conferred by time tells me that Donald Westlake was probably a better entertainer than Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, and certainly better than John Bonham, with his goddamn endless drum solos.

The break-in scene in Deadly Edge is rendered nicely, down to the distant thudding of the music growing louder when the gang breaks through walls and so on. Westlake knew how to imagine his way into a scene.

January 02, 2009  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

You're right, Peter. I read that book a long, long time ago and I just followed the link you posted where it described it as only mid-range Westlake - maybe the rest of the book was "only" mid-range, but that robbery in the opening really is note perfect.

(okay, sorry, I couldn't resist, that's really not like me...)

I had a two record bootleg of Led Zeppelin in Montreal that may have been that concert - one whole side of one of the records was Dazed and Confused - lots of long solos that I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have any patience for today.

But I'm going out to pick up a copy of Deadly Edge tomorrow.

January 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Even the one Dortmunder and one Parker that I think are weak are fun to think about because of the experiments that Westlake tried. In "The Black Ice Score," if I recall right, he actually as a scene in which Parker talks nonstop. And in "Jimmy the Kid," he has the Dortmunder gang pull a job according to a plan in a non-existent novel by Richard Stark. The joke is that nothing goes right.

I don't listen to as much rock and roll as I did when I was a kid, but even then I knew drum solos sucked.

January 02, 2009  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

Thanks for the guidance, Peter. I'll go with your advice when I get around to my shopping trip.

Cheers

gb

January 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Westlake is not so much an author as an entire world of crime fiction.

I forgot to mention what I think might be Westlake's best Dortmunder story: the novella Walking Around Money in the Transgressions series, edited by Ed McBain.

July 21, 2009  

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