Donald E Westlake 1933-2008

Donald E Westlake, my all-time favourite mystery/thriller writer, died on 31st December 2008. A sad day for mystery fans everywhere.

Westlake was that rare beast, an author who was comfortable in multiple subgenres, each one completely different from the rest. He wrote true hardboiled mysteries under the name of Richard Stark, giving us the Parker series. He wrote wonderful traditional thrillers taking serious social issues and giving them the mystery treatment, books such as the Ax stand out in this context. He also turned out a number of screenplays, the most famous of which is “The Grifters”. He published over a hundred books under a dozen or so names. In the process he collected a whole pile of awards, winning Edgars in three different categories.

I’ve read every one of his books published so far (there is at least one more in the works, due this April), and have a number of his books signed by him. While I liked all of them, my true favourites were his caper novels, normally referred to as his Dortmunder series.

Just what is a caper novel? Let me try and explain.

Most crime novels are whodunits, where the storyline follows the discovery of crime(s) and then seeks to identify the perpetrator(s). Where the focus is on the general environment in which the crime took place, it’s a classic “mystery/thriller”, the main genre itself. Where the focus is on the process of “solving” the crime as if it were a puzzle, you could describe it as the subgenre of “detective fiction”, a la Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe or Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Where this solving process is described from the perspective of the forces of law and order, a la Ed McBain or Joseph Wambaugh, the book gets called a “police procedural”. If it is in the vein of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason through to the John Grishams of today, it would be called a “legal drama”. Sometimes the book is written in the first person by the criminal,  in a gritty and down-to-earth “authentic” style, as in the case of the classic Jim Thompson books or even Westlake’s own Richard Stark series: these tend to be called “hardboiled”. Much of what we call pulp fiction is hardboiled crime, and I’m delighted to see what Hard Case Crime has been doing to further this cause.

In all these cases, the crime itself tends to be committed opaquely, intransparently, and the plot revolves around finding out who did it.

The caper novel, on the other hand, is something else altogether. For one thing, it is written from the viewpoint of the criminal, the person or persons committing the crime. The crime itself is carried out in the open, completely transparently, there is no mystery about the perpetrator. The perpetrators tend to be less than perfect in their skill and in their execution, but this gets balanced off as a result of all other parties involved being similarly less than perfect: the victims, the forces of law and order, even the bystanders come with human failings and flaws.

Westlake’s John Dortmunder is the undisputed king of the caper novel.

I remember nearly doing myself an injury reading Bank Shot, one of Westlake’s early caper novels, while in my teens. The plot was simple, yet absurd. It was about a bank robbery. With a big but. Instead of robbing a bank, as you would normally expect, Westlake’s protagonists steal a bank, kit and caboodle. Now of course that meant they needed to find a bank that was housed temporarily in a portacabin, but that’s what literary licence is about, creating such an eventuality. Anyway, the police give chase while the criminals desperately try and break into the bank’s safe while careering down the motorway.

At the other extreme, more recently, I found the Ax gripping and sobering. Fortysomething manager of print operation gets made redundant, then proceeds to deal with the problem his way. Startling. Challenging. Different.

Donald Westlake gave me many many hours of unbridled joy with his writing, joy in many forms, but joy nevertheless. May his soul rest in peace.

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