Friday, January 2, 2009

Donald E. Westlake, 1933-2008

A hero of mine has died.

Donald E. Westlake, who wrote more than 90 novels, died on New Year's Eve from an apparent heart attack. Westlake was (is) my hero at the keyboard. He had a gift for humor that translated to the written page like no one else I've ever read. It's a true art to transfer humor from the spoken word, where dialect and inflection can play a great part in a joke to the page, where the words have to stand on their own. Westlake could do it like no other. He's credited for basically inventing a genre of writing: the comic crime caper. Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen followed in the path he carved. But I'm not sure either one would have been as successful if it weren't for the trail Westlake blazed.

He also wrote artful brutality under the pen name Richard Stark, books about a single-minded sociopath named only Parker. I can't do his books justice through description. Other writers, ones far better than me, will mourn his passing. I spoke to the man only once, in an hour-long interview where I found him gracious and self-deprecating. I didn't win any awards for the story that came out of the interview, but I treasure the memory of spending an hour with one of my favorite authors. It remains one of my proudest moments in journalism. We talked books -- not just his -- writing theory, life ... anything and everything seemed on the table for Westlake.

He had various other pen names: Tucker Coe, Edwin West, Samuel Holt, James Blue. But behind all those names was the wonderfully clever Donald E. Westlake. I got three of his books for Christmas, all Richard Stark novels: Dirty Money, Lemons Never Lie and The Outfit. I read them all within a couple of days. I did what I always do when I have a new Westlake or Stark novel: I devour it. It's like water to a man dying of thirst.

Now there will be no more. The fountain from which sprang so many happy hours losing myself in other worlds has dried up. One more new Westlake remains to be published: Get Real, in April of this year. I'll buy a copy. Hell, I'll probably buy more than one. Westlake is a treasure that should be shared.

So I guess I just wish I could say thanks one more time to him. Thanks for the humor, for the brutality (sometimes both wrapped together in unexpected ways). Thanks for the hours of enjoyment. You were a class act, Mr. Westlake. You will be missed.