Donald E. Westlake Essay - Westlake, Donald E(dwin)

Westlake, Donald E(dwin)

Westlake, Donald E(dwin) 1933–

When Westlake, an American, abandoned hard-boiled crime novels for what Anthony Boucher called "criminous farcecomedies," he proceeded to create some of the most entertaining novels in all crime fiction. He has written under two pseudonyms—Richard Stark and Tucker Coe—as well as under his own name. Several of his novels have been filmed. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Mr. Westlake is a hard-hitting young writer whose previous works have featured sundry unpredictable attacks on current mores. [In The Fugitive Pigeon,] without diminishing his oblique social criticism, he has composed a story of delectable humor, introducing young Charlie Poole…. Outrageous as are his adventures, they are based upon crystal-clear logic. Mr. Westlake has produced one of those rare stories, laugh-out-loud funny, with a perfect beginning in Charlie's character, a middle in a muddle of male and female friends as inept at this sort of thing as he, and a high-rise end in a Queens precinct house. The Fugitive Pigeon is so good the time-old question arises, what can Donald Westlake possibly do for an encore? (p. 23)

Dorothy B. Hughes, in Chicago Tribune Book Week (© The Washington Post), May 2, 1965.

Donald E. Westlake has staked out an area for himself—the comic caper. He does very well there, as witness ["Bank Shot"]…. Westlake has a fertile mind and a wonderful feeling for the ridiculous that makes his work something more than mere boffo writing. He gets so many oddballs into his books they resemble a Geo. Price cartoon in prose. ["Bank Shot"] has one of the funniest conceptions you are going to come across. (p. 29)

Newgate Callendar, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 16, 1972.

One of my favorite mystery fans, Charlie Schaefer, a wanderer who currently works in the bus depot in Madison, Wisconsin, has been urging me for years to read Donald Westlake. And I've tried. But Westlake is a very special sort of mystery writer, the rare type who specializes in farce and slapstick. The problem with this approach is that it's hard to be consistently funny about a subject like crime, and after several slapstick mystery novels the whimsy grows a bit wearing.

But in Cops and Robbers Westlake successfully breaks the mold, retaining enough humor to satisfy his longtime fans but adding sufficient depth for those of us who want a bit more. Two New York policemen, underpaid and unappreciated, make a deal with the Mafia to pay them $2 million for stolen bearer-bonds. The rogue cops pull off their bearer-bond operation, elude their fellow police, and bamboozle the Mafiosi who are determined not to let them get away with the $2 million.

Everything about Cops and Robbers is first-rate—the plotting is ingenious, the suspense is intense and sustained, the point of view is manipulated expertly, and the ending is surprisingly gratifying. But perhaps the best thing about Cops and Robbers is Westlake's ability to dramatize the daily lives of his central characters, the emptiness and alienation that finally forces them to metamorphose from cops to robbers. Charlie Schaefer was right. Donald Westlake is a first-rate novelist. (pp. 222-23)

John R. Coyne, Jr., in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1973; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), February 16, 1973.

[A] decade ago …, Westlake was known mainly as a promising heir to the tough, taut Hammett-Chandler tradition. But suddenly he glimpsed the comic potential of tossing the sand of petty frustrations and human fallibility into the well-oiled machinery of the thriller. Nonviolent, Runyonesque crooks could become the victims, and everyday life the culprit. Getaway cars could stall, crucial phone numbers could slip the mind, a paralyzing snowstorm could fall on the day of a planned bank heist.

The results, starting with Westlake's The Fugitive Pigeon in 1965, have brought new life to a neglected sub-genre: the caper novel. In The Spy in the Ointment (1966), a typographical error on an FBI list caused a pacifist to become mixed up with bomb-throwing subversives. In The Hot Rock (1970), a raffish foursome engineered several fiendishly clever jewel thefts in search of a rare emerald that turned out never to be where it was supposed to be. In Bank Shot (1972), a suburban bank temporarily operating out of a mobile home was robbed by a gang that simply hauled it away.

On the strength of such engaging fancies,… Westlake,… a soft-spoken, owlish ectomorph who resembles most of his protagonists, has slipped into the front rank of popular crime writers. Especially in Hollywood, where his plots seem like readymade movie scenarios—so readymade, in fact, that with Cops and Robbers (1972) Westlake reversed the usual sequence and wrote the movie script first, then turned it into a novel.

Christopher Porterfield, "Sand in the Machinery," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), July 22, 1974, p. E6.

Donald E. Westlake has carved out for himself a pretty unassailable position as the funny man of the American crime novel. A good, smooth, sophisticated writer with a feel for the ridiculous and a fine ear for colloquial speech patterns, Westlake can often be terribly amusing. And he is in his latest book, "Two Much."… Yet it is nowhere near as good a book as some of its predecessors. It is true that the Westlakean flashes are there to enliven it. It is also true that he belabors a situation that is impossible to begin with, ends up with too pat a solution and turns farce into tragedy. The author of the book is the deus ex machina, and that is always a cop-out….

Even if "Two Much" ultimately fails, it is so full of wry comments on the human condition and its dialogue is often so funny that the holes in the plot can be ignored. Call Westlake the Neil Simon of the crime novel. (p. 47)

Newgate Callendar, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 18, 1975.

Donald E. Westlake, the comic novelist of American crime fiction, has written his Profane Comedy, irreverent, impudent and rakish. If not his choice effort to date, [Brothers Keepers] still has some glorious moments of divine comedy undefiled by any uncharitable act of scorn or blasphemy….

Amid all his comic antics, Westlake never is merely silly. He is a genuine comic novelist, using laughter to expose the incongruities, complacencies, hypocrisies and pretensions of society. Rarely does Westlake's comedy backslide to the level of gross burlesque….

In Brothers Keepers, Westlake has exchanged his gang of oddball heistmen for a monastic community of 16 mild-mannered, but no less quirky, men, who have found a peaceful solution to the various problems of their lives within the repose of the contemplative Crispinite order. (p. 30)

Westlake's high-spirited humor is somewhat constrained within the bounds of a monastery, and Brothers Keepers doesn't attain the mad dash of some of the earlier capers, particularly those with the engaging Dortmunder gang. After all, an innocent lamb can stray only so far, even on monastery business in the outside world. Westlake must strain to reach a happy ending, but all can be forgiven for those hilarious moments of high comedy of character and situation. (p. 31)

Jean M. White, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), December 13, 1975.