By combining the intricate plotting characteristic of mystery writing with the deconstructive energies of comedy and satire, Donald E. Westlake invented his own form of crime fiction, the comic caper. Comedy was a significant element in the fiction Westlake published under his own name during the late 1960’s, beginning with The Fugitive Pigeon (1965). In those novels, harried protagonists bumblingly encounter the frustrations of everyday life while sidestepping dangerous enemies. Somehow, all the negative forces are rendered harmless in the end, as is usual in comedy. In the same period, Westlake, writing as Richard Stark, produced novels featuring master thief Parker, which developed increasingly more complex capers, or “scores.”
With The Hot Rock (1970), Westlake united these two creative forces in a single work and found his perfect hero/ foil, John Archibald Dortmunder. In the series of novels that followed, Dortmunder designs capers as brilliant as Parker’s. His compulsive associates follow through meticulously, but these capers never quite succeed. The reader, hypnotized by the intricacy and daring of Dortmunder’s planning, watches in shocked disbelief as the brilliant caper inexorably unravels. The laughter that inevitably follows testifies to Westlake’s mastery of this unique subgenre.
Some of Westlake’s novels have been made into American, English, and French films starring actors as varied as Lee Marvin (Point Blank, 1967), Sid Caesar (The Busy Body, 1967), Robert Redford (The Hot Rock, 1972), Robert Duvall (The Outfit, 1973), George C. Scott (Bank Shot, 1974), Dom DeLuise (Hot Stuff, 1979), Gary Coleman (Jimmy the Kid, 1983), Christopher Lambert (Why Me?, 1990), Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith (Two Much, 1996), and Mel Gibson (Payback, 1999). Westlake has also scripted several films, most famously his Academy Award-winning screenplay for The Grifters (1990, based on Jim Thompson’s novel, directed by Stephen Frears and starring John Cusack, Angelica Huston, and Annette Bening).
Westlake was thrice awarded the Edgar. The first was for his novel God Save the Mark (1967); the second for his short story “Too Many Crooks” (1989), which appeared in the August issue of Playboy. The Grifters won an Edgar for best motion picture screenplay in 1991. The Mystery Writers of America named Westlake a Grand Master in 1993. He received lifetime achievement awards in 1997 from the Bouchercon Mystery Convention and in 2004 from the Private Eye Writers of America.