Donald E. Westlake Critical Essays


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Donald E. Westlake’s earliest novels were praised by the influential Anthony Boucher of The New York Times as highly polished examples of hard-boiled crime fiction. Although Westlake wrote only five novels exclusively in this idiom, concluding with the extremely violent Pity Him Afterwards in 1964, he did not entirely abandon the mode. The novels he wrote under the pen names Richard Stark and Tucker Coe all display elements of hard-boiled detective fiction. In fact, much of this work invites comparisons to that of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The resemblances, however, are much more a matter of tone than of character or structure. Although Tucker Coe’s hero, Mitch Tobin, solves murder mysteries, he does so as a discredited police officer rather than as a private detective. The two Richard Stark series are even less traditional, since their protagonists are thieves and murderers. Illustrating the inverted mode of crime fiction, these novels draw the reader into sympathy with, or at least suspended judgment toward, Parker and Alan Grofield. Whether attributed to Stark or Coe, all these novels present a professionally controlled hard edge.

Parker Series

Parker, the master thief, is a remarkable creation in himself: calculating, meticulous, highly inventive, and totally lacking in normal human feelings. In some respects he resembles characters in the earlier novels published under Westlake’s own name, but Parker elevates these qualities through exaggeration. For example, murder is easy for Parker, but small talk is difficult, as are most human relations, because Parker sees no practical advantage to such transactions. When involved in a caper, Parker is all business, so much so that he feels no sexual desire until the current heist is completed. Then he makes up for lost time. The purely instrumental nature of this character is further evident in the fact that he has only a surname. According to Francis M. Nevins, Jr., the first novel in the series, The Hunter (1962), came so easily to Westlake that he had written more than half the book before he noticed that Parker had no first name. By then, it was too late to add one unobtrusively. Because Parker normally operates under an alias in the series, this lack causes few problems. Parker was scheduled to wind up in the hands of the police at the end of The Hunter, and it was Westlake’s editor at Pocket Books who recognized the potential for a series. Westlake easily arranged for Parker to escape and to pursue a successful criminal career.

The basic plot in the Parker novels and in the Grofield series is an elaborate robbery, a heist, caper, or score. In The Seventh (1966), for example, the booty is the cash receipts of a college football game; in The Green Eagle Score, the payroll of an army base; in The Score (1964), all the negotiable assets in the town of Copper Canyon, North Dakota. Daring robberies on this scale require sophisticated planning and criminal associates with highly varied skills, weapons, transportation, electronic equipment, explosives, and perhaps uniforms, false identification, or other forms of disguise. Engaged by the detailed planning and execution of the caper, readers temporarily suspend the disapproval that such an immoral enterprise would normally elicit. Thus, readers experience the release of vicarious participation in antisocial behavior.

Westlake cleverly facilitates this participation through elements of characterization. For example, Parker would unemotionally kill in pursuit of a score, and he can spend half a book exacting bloody revenge for a double cross, but he will not tolerate needless cruelty on the part of his colleagues. Furthermore, he maintains a rigid sense of fair play toward those criminals who behave honestly toward him. His conscientiousness is another winning attribute. In the same way, Grofield appeals to readers because he is fundamentally an actor, not a thief. He steals only to support his unprofitable commitment to serious drama. In addition, although Grofield often collaborates with Parker on a caper, his wit and theatrical charm give him more in common with the comic protagonists of Westlake’s The Spy in the Ointment (1966) and High Adventure (1985) than with the emotionless Parker. Thus, despite being far from rounded characters, both Parker and Grofield offer readers the opportunity to relish guilty behavior without guilt.

Westlake left off writing the Parker series with Butcher’s Moon (1974), telling interviewers, “Parker just wasn’t alive for me.” He had wearied of the noir voice. So Parker fans were delighted when, after twenty-three years, he returned in Comeback (1997) to steal nearly half a million dollars from a smarmy televangelist, only to find that a co-conspirator means to kill Parker and keep the loot for himself. A New York Times notable book of the year, the novel found a reception so hot that Westlake quickly followed up with a string of Parker best sellers, including Backflash (1998), Flashfire (2000), and Breakout (2002). In Nobody Runs Forever (2004), Parker’s perfect bank heist disintegrates spectacularly and leaves the more than usually frustrated thief running before the bloodhounds, apparently without possible escape. Refuge does, however, present itself in the opening pages of Ask the Parrot (2006), in the person of Tom Lindahl, an embittered whistle-blower who has been quietly plotting revenge. The titular bird is the cause of an uncharacteristcally comic episode in this otherwise noir novel.

Mitch Tobin Series

Mitch Tobin comes much closer to filling the prescription for a rounded fictional character, largely because of his human vulnerabilities and his burden of guilt. After eighteen years as a New York City police officer, Tobin was expelled from the force because his partner, Jock Sheehan, was killed in the line of duty while the married Tobin was in bed with Linda Campbell, the wife of an imprisoned burglar. Afterward, consumed by guilt but supported by his understanding wife, Kate, Tobin tries to shut out the world by devoting all his time and energy to building a high brick wall around his house in Queens. The world keeps encroaching, however, in the persons of desperate individuals needing help—usually to investigate a murder—but unable to turn to the police. A crime kingpin, a distant relative’s daughter, the operator of a...

(The entire section is 2669 words.)