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September 16, 2008

More Westlake

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Is the crime writer Donald Westlake America's greatest living fiction-writer? I'm certainly open to the possibility -- I've praised Westlake repeatedly, maybe even monotonously, on this blog. (See here for one long-winded example.) In fact, I'm happy to consider Westlake a genius. Lordy, if he doesn't qualify, which of our fiction-writers does?

The LA Times' Richard Rayner -- writing about Westlake's "Parker" novels -- expresses a similar kind of X-treme admiration:

The Parkers read with the speed of pulp while unfolding with almost Nabokovian wit and flair ... not so much masterpieces of genre, just masterpieces, period.

I'd get rid of that weasely "almost" myself. But Rayner's piece is -- by hyper-cautious mainstream book-journalism standards, anyway -- an excellent and daring one.

It's nice when Americans take a little appreciative note of the riches that are already ours, isn't it? Now, how long until we see the NYTimes Book Review Section venturing to publish such an appreciation?



posted by Michael at September 16, 2008


Gotta love the mind of a man who writes a bank robbery caper novel where the characters don't rob the bank. They steal it.

They steal the bank. I love that.

Posted by: PatrickH on September 16, 2008 5:09 PM

And a good entry point, Michael, would be...?

Posted by: Neil on September 16, 2008 5:15 PM

It's pretty daring for a highbrow paper to give props to any genre fiction, no matter how well it's done. I"m very interested to give this Westlake guy a shot.

Posted by: T. AKA Ricky Raw on September 17, 2008 3:25 PM

Writers of crime fiction have always run a distant second to mystery writers in the US. Mysteries, IMO, are a flabbier genre, but there you have it. I've not read Westlake, and I'll certainly try him, but as for recognition, he's got to get in line behind the late George Higgens whose first 3 books ending with Cogan's Trade are the pinnacle of the art. It's a testament to the power and relevance of crime fiction, as a literary form, that the 2 greatest living writers -- Cormac McCarthy and John Banville -- have each turned their hand to it in recent years.

Posted by: Mike G on September 17, 2008 5:15 PM

Another great Westlake review:

Posted by: Cheryl on September 17, 2008 6:29 PM

It's cause for rejoicing that the first three Richard Stark novels are back in print, but the latest titles are none too shabby. The three most recent books cover a span of two weeks in Parker's life, with interconnected heists and characters wandering from book to book. They'd be damn near post-modern if they weren't so entertaining.

Posted by: Vince on September 17, 2008 8:17 PM

Oh, and his character Harry K*nt.

That's genius. Evil. But genius. I couldn't believe that when I read it on the back cover of a Westlake in the Ottawa Public Library. I was laughing so hard people were staring at me.

I was tempted to show them the cover. But I figured I might get charged with something. Spreading mirth.

Posted by: PatrickH on September 17, 2008 9:35 PM

Seconding the request, Michael, for a few suggestions of Westlake titles you particularly enjoy, or recommend. I read "God Save the Mark" decades ago, don't know why I've passed on his other works.

Posted by: Julie Brook on September 18, 2008 9:34 AM

I've never read any Westlake fiction, but a horror thriller he scripted in the 80s, "The Stepfather", occupies a special place in my heart.

Posted by: green mamba on September 18, 2008 9:44 AM

Mmm, never read Westlake but I have a copy of Bank Shot. A good one to start with?

Can I mention another American crime author? One who wasn't American, and scarcely went near the place?

My interest in the baby-boom is not in the babies and the "gen" thing, but rather in the cheerfully materialist American culture of those years after FDR but before Dylan. Show me a Saturday Evening Post with a Rockwell cover; give me a sparkling Chevvie, all fins and chrome, cruising through a New Hampshire landscape in autumn, its radio, looking more like a space-ship's console, playing Jo Stafford or Dean Martin...And write me a crime novel where some tawdry failure drags his long-suffering girlfriend through urban grime or western desert, running from the mob while chasing a bag of double-stolen loot. Or maybe the long-suffering one has plans of her own...

Well, the very British James Hadley Chase made a career of all this stuff after reading some James M. Cain. I've read little of his work, but Chase really seems to have grasped what these noirs are about. Dramatic, violent but unmannered, he's not concerned with who-dunnit, but with when-is-the-who-gunna-get-it. There's a touch of psychology, a whiff of sympathy, just enough to engage you with the characters...then it's into the nasty action.

Being in the wrong hemisphere to judge, I have no idea how authentic Chase is to Americans. I can only say I have no trouble envisaging a washed-up, sleepy-eyed Robert Mitchum in a movie-version of a Chase novel. Maybe he could wake up (Mitchum-slow) in a cheap room to find a grinning Richard Conte is going shoot Gloria Graham unless they tell him where the loot is hidden.

Jacques Tourneur to direct..And don't dare make it a colour movie!

Posted by: Robert Townshend on September 18, 2008 11:10 AM

PatrickH -- And that's just one of Westlake's dozens and dozens of genius narrative inspirations.

Neil, Julie -- The early "Parker" novels (which Westlake wrote under the name Richard Stark) might be a good place to start. "The Hunter," maybe ... The thing about Westlake is that (in one way anyway) he's like a crime-writin' version of P.G. Wodehouse. You don't read him for that one, world-unto-itself, earth-shattering personal statement. He isn't Faulkner or Joyce. Uncharitably viewed, he's nothing but a reliable provider of entertainments. But ... As you read more of his books you may start thinking, "Holy shit, this guy's incredible!" Anyway, he has written something like 100 novels, in a variety of modes (comic, existential-intense, even some non-genre novels), and of the 20 or so I've read each one has had a snazzy hook, lively characters, convincing situations, an upbeat spirit, and tons of virtuoso narrative-fiction technique. But do keep in mind that -- however brilliant -- they're in the "jaunty, likable entertainments" category, not the "straining for artistic greatness" category. You can read 'em in a night or two, and they're as fun and easy to get through as good movies. That's all a plus as far as I'm concerned.

T. -- You can say that again about how cautious mainstream books coverage is. Funny how coverage of movies and music is so much more open and adventurous than books coverage is. I've never been able to figure out why. Is it that books people just tend to be cautious and high-minded people? That'd make sense, given the way that school and books are so intertwined in Americans' lives ... Any thoughts?

Mike G. -- George V. Higgins is major, thanks for bringing him up. I'd argue that he's as weird-and-wonderful in an aesthetic sense as Samuel Beckett, and that he's of considerably more sociological interest than Beckett is. Seem fair to you?

Cheryl -- Thanks for the link. I'll have to subscribe, darn it.

Vince -- Another great thing about Westlake: He's so prolific that there's always more of him to explore.

Green Mamba -- I love "The Stepfather" too, thanks for reminding me of it. Genre perfection, as far as I'm concerned. Westlake is a heckuva screenwriter -- his script for "The Grifters" is another beauty. Are you a fan of that one too?

Robert -- Jacques Tourneur directing a James Hadley Chase adapation ... I'm there on opening day. That's a great evocation of that sleazy-gaudy low-rent atmosphere, btw. Does it really matter if Chase is true to the facts of American life? It works. What an interesting case he was. But I've only read "No Orchids" myself. Can you recommend a few other Chase titles?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 18, 2008 11:33 AM

Didn't know Westlake wrote the screenplay for The Grifters. That's a great, nasty little flick, with career-best performances by John Cusack, Angelica Huston and Annette Benning, as far as I'm concerned.

I'll have to give Westlake a try. I admit to having a hard time with "genre fiction," for lack of a better term. My uncle gave me a huge stack of Michener, and I gave it the ol' college try, I really did, but I couldn't get past the wooden writing.

Posted by: JV on September 18, 2008 1:20 PM

I saw "The Grifters" on video not long after it came out and it didn't make a big impression on me. I agree with your assessment of "The Stepfather": genre perfection. In fact, when I was trying to get my college film society to show it, I told them, "It's the most perfect film I've ever seen." Credit has to go to Joseph Ruben, the director, who hasn't had a distinguished career but who has done some fine genre work, for instance the excellent James Woods legal thriller "True Believer".

And knowing your pervy tendencies - ahem, your appreciation of female beauty, which I share - I'm sure you haven't forgotten the presence of the lovely young Jill Schoelen in "The Stepfather" (including nude shots of her in the shower...). Unfortunately, I don't think she had much of a career.

Posted by: green mamba on September 18, 2008 2:59 PM


Michener was not writing genre fiction.

Posted by: Pat Hobby on September 19, 2008 8:11 PM

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