It’s the legacy of a storied career, thick as the narratives the author himself wove. In the wake of that life develops a legend, as critics and contemporaries commemorate the author and his work gains new followers. The expansion continues.
Donald E. Westlake was an author who permitted his work to speak louder than he did, but this ethic allowed for no less fascinating an echo. Thing is, Westlake was probably too busy writing to bother enjoying the celebrity his work might have granted him.
Westlake will primarily be remembered as a crime novelist. With the publication of The Hunter in 1962 (under the ominous-sounding pen name Richard Stark), Westlake introduced the world to his most enduring protagonist, the shrewd and brutal career criminal Parker, and launched what would become his most commercially successful series. Densely and audaciously plotted, the series became known for its elaborate heist mechanics and for the power given to what was, for the time, a deeply immoral lead.
Though not an entirely new idea even in 1962, the predominance of these kinds of characters over the last decade or so indicates that the author had his finger on a pulse he all but predicted. Given the cultural firepower of recent titles like Drive, Killing Them Softly and The Sopranos, wherein the dubious morality of the protagonist is presented hand in hand with a sort of idol-making glamor and sensitivity, it’s hard to ignore Westlake’s foresight.
Listen to Westlake explain his fixation on this type of character, who he deemed more interesting in his disenfranchisement than is a true hero in his privilege.
But his myth runs deeper than a fortuitous preoccupation with the types of characters that would become cultural touchstones for a generation decades on.
Mysteriously and without pomp, the prolific Westlake published well over 100 novels using no fewer than a dozen pseudonyms over the course of five decades in print.
These figures may appear to be little more than statistics, but to a writer—this one, especially, who sometimes struggles to write at all—the figures are awe-inspiring. Not just for the resolve to put the hours into what could amount to four novels in a hyper-busy year, but because he maintained creative integrity throughout. In 1993, the Mystery Writers of America named Westlake a Grand Master of the genre.
But Westlake was not a one-note writer. The man operated on two sides of the same coin, stewing both in the darkness of the criminal underworld he galvanized as a crime writer and in the lightness that same world could produce, through the lens of a humorist.
In 1970, from the pages of what was intended to be another entry in the Parker series—there are 24 in all—sprang the chronically unlucky John Dortmunder, comedic and blundering rather than conniving and bloodthirsty; a sort of Leslie Nielsen counterpoint to the deadly Parker. Westlake published this novel, The Hot Rock, under his own name.
Though he wrote dozens of non-series novels, a slew of short fiction (more than a dozen titles published in the pages of Playboy alone) and several screenplays, Westlake found in the dichotomy of Parker and Dortmunder a sort of balance that would keep his imagination occupied for the remainder of his career, until his death five years and two days ago, at the age of 75. His last five years saw the four Parkers and three Dortmunders go to print.
Though Westlake worked in film as a screenwriter, and the Parker series spawned eight faithful adaptations, no film would bear the name of the source material until now. With action staple Jason Statham in the titular role, the release of Parker later this month is bound to have fans measuring this latest Hollywood adaptation up against the legend of Westlake and his inimitable portrayal of fully developed, flesh-and-blood characters.
What remains to be seen is which Hollywood director will have the prowess to unleash the Dortmunder line onto a new generation of filmgoers, and with what actor in that wayward role. Either way, the echo of Westlake continues to ring.