Crime Wave #2 – Will the Real Donald Westlake Please Stand Up

Crime Wave with John Foster

A monthly crime column exploring an array of genre topics, from giants such as Chandler and Stark to the modern day masters like Megan Abbot, from essays to interviews to bloody knuckled arguments.

February 2020

When a fresh faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to Hell. The guy said, “Screw you, buddy,” yanked his Chevy back into the stream of traffic, and roared on down to the tollbooths. Parker spat in the right hand lane, lit his last cigarette, and walked across the George Washington Bridge.

The Hunter by Richard Stark

At the beginning of Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, Westlake’s wife Abby wrote, “No matter where he was headed, Don always drove like he was behind the wheel of a getaway car.” 

But who was he? Was he really a writer named Tucker Coe? Timothy J. Culver? Edwin West or Alan Marshall? Maybe Richard Stark?

Turns out the sonofagun was all of them. 

Tough guy Westlake cut his teeth around 1960 churning out “mid-century erotica” novels, eventually teaming up with pal Lawrence Block to write them together. They bore titles like So Willing and She Hellcat and Westlake wrote them under the nom de plume Alan Marshall (Block was Sheldon Lord). One co-written novel actually dedicated the book to Westlake and Block themselves. Fortunately for us, both men would go on to greater achievements and in a future column we’ll talk about Block.

Westlake tried his hand at science fiction and later at various characters, detectives and such, writing as Tucker Coe and Timothy J. Culver among other pseudonyms. He hit the big leagues when he turned to crime in the 60’s (he wrote a lot and wrote fast) and did it under his own name. Many of these Westlake novels feature a thief named Dortmunder, experienced and clever, the books delivered laughs along with the thrill of the chase. Several of them were adapted for the screen.

In 1962, he decided to release a crime novel under a new name: Richard Stark. He did this because he was releasing too much material and to protect the Westlake brand. The Hunter was something different. Where Dortmunder was clever and even funny, Parker, the protagonist of the Stark novel, was blunt and brutal. Dortmunder could deliver a toast, Parker answered the phone with a grunted, “Yes.” The writing style changed to suit the novel, becoming more direct, and from 1962 to 1974 Parker appeared in sixteen more Richard Stark novels, along with four novels about a Parker associate. Parker was cold blooded, possibly a sociopath, and specialized in violent high jacking operations. Banks. Armored cars. Mafia safe houses. Once an entire town. As 1970 approached, Richard Stark was earning more money and better known than Westlake. In 1967, The Hunter was adapted for the screen under the title Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin. Years later it was adapted a second time as Payback, starring Mel Gibson.

Then in 1974, Parker pulled a vanishing act. Westlake couldn’t summon the style or the stories. Years later, Westlake was asked to adapt the Jim Thompson novel The Grifters, but the director wanted Richard Stark to write it. Westlake convinced the director he could write perfectly well as himself, but the screen project knocked something loose and Stark came back to check out the ruckus. Four Stark books followed and every few years after that, Richard Stark would sit in Westlake’s chair and pen another story.

Westlake’s wife, Abby, said that the tenor of her husband changed depending on which name he was using and the most notable changes came when Stark took over. Parker was a character who could sit still all night on a stake out without moving. Westlake would develop habits such as endlessly playing and replaying solitaire without saying a word.

It’s easy to see why Stephen King looked at Westlake as inspiration when writing The Dark Half, his novel about a pseudonym coming to life to kill the “real writer.” In a gesture of respect, that pseudonym wore the handle George Stark and he wrote brutal crime novels about a killer named Alexis Machine. I’m endlessly grateful for this book, because when I finished, I was craving novels about Alexis Machine. After a little research I found out there were: enter Parker.

There are 14 Dortmunder novels and 24 Parker novels and I still haven’t read them all. Westlake was prolific to an incredible degree and I’m glad it will take me awhile to work through his entire oeuvre, because we won’t be getting any more.

Donald Westlake passed away in 2008, but maybe, if history is a guide, somewhere down the line Richard Stark will crawl back from a dark place, sit down at the typewriter, and give us another book.

John C. Foster was born in Sleepy Hollow, New York, and has been afraid of the dark for as long as he can remember. His most recent novel, The Isle, grew out of his love for New England, where he spent his childhood. He is the author of three previous novels, Dead Men, Night Roads and Mister White, and one collection of short stories, Baby Powder and Other Terrifying Substances. His crime novel Rooster will be published in 2020. His stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies including The Seven Deadliest, Dark Moon Digest, Strange Aeons, Death’s Realm and Lost Films, among others. He lives in Brooklyn with the actress Linda Jones and their dog Coraline. For more information, please visit www.johnfosterfiction.com.

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