I spotted this nice mini-review of Donald Westlake’s non-fiction collection, The Getaway Car, by Richard Moore on the Rara-Avis e-mail list and asked for his permission to republish it here. Richard, ever the gentleman, gave his permission. It was originally posted to the PulpMags e-mail list.
The Getaway Car by Donald E. Westlake and edited by Levi Stahl (University of Chicago 2014) is a fascinating collection of Westlake’s non-fiction. It is a must for Westlake fans but anyone interested in writing will find it worthwhile.
It includes Westlake’s “The Hardboiled Dicks” first delivered in a May 1982 lecture at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC and later published in The Third Degree. I was at that lecture and it is hard to believe it was over 30 years ago. I remember thinking the lecture was toned down in a couple of spots prior to publication but I will need to find what I wrote for a fan publication at the time for any specifics. It remains a great analysis of the work of the private eye.
One short piece that fascinates me is “Light” an unpublished manuscript found in Westlake’s files and apparently written in 1997 or 1998. His 40th novel “The Ax” was a departure that got great reviews, sold surprisingly well, and caught his publisher’s attention. His return to the world of Parker after a hiatus of more than 20 years in “Comeback” also created a stir.
Suddenly, expectations were raised. He had another novel finished but it was no longer deemed suitable as a follow-up to “The Ax.” He told his agent “It’s a little late for me to have second novel problems, but that is what this is.”
I noticed that the Wall Street Journal has just published an appreciation of Westlake and a nice review of Stahl’s fine collection by William Kristol, editor of the National Review. I rarely agree with Mr. Kristol on anything but I share his enthusiasm for Westlake. I would not go quite as far as Krystol, who said Westlake was “the greatest modern American novelist.”
Here’s also writer Barry Malzberg’s comment to Richard Moore, published here with Mr. Malzberg’s permission:
As I wrote Lawrence Block off-list a week or two ago, “I am being escorted however reluctantly to belief in Donald E. Westlake as the greatest 20th Century USA writer.” A refugee for half a century now from the precincts of quality lit and its bias, I am perhaps unthrilled but also embraced by this inference. No writer alive or dead has given me more pleasure per capita than Donald Westlake. I wish he had not been such a nasty son of a bitch (at least to me) but as Murch’s mother would point out, the best route does not usually parallel the most scenic route.
GET REAL shows a 75 year old writer going out at the top, his gifts not only undiminished but soaring. The two posth, the last novel, and the last published in Westlake’s lifetime shows his gift not only intact but still growing. The posthumously published novels are sensational, in fact THE COMEDY IS FINISHED, dealing with the same essential national dilemma as AMERICAN PASTORAL outdoes Roth’s great novel as social and literary document.
Here are three books all of which I’ve read or tried to read recently.
Stanley Ellin’s The Eighth Circle (1958) has come with high praise from many crime fiction aficionados as one of the more original private eye novels. Ellin has written some very good short stories, some of which are classics, and some good films have come out of his novels, but I couldn’t get past page 100 or so of The Eighth Circle. Maybe I’m the one to blame, but nothing much seemed to happen. I also couldn’t get into Ellin’s style. The situation might be different if there were a good Finnish translation of the book, but unluckily this is not the case here. I’m sure many of Pulpetti’s readers might like Ellin’s book. (The Penguin cover is so great I wanted to use that, even though it’s not very American in style.)
Donald Westlake’sDon’t Ask (1992) is one of his Dortmunder novels. I haven’t been a fan of Dortmunders (lately I’ve found I don’t really find jokes funny, especially in a book), but I’ve liked to read one now and then. This wasn’t very entertaining, I must admit. I struggled the book through, as I hoped the book would turn funnier. Beside some mild amusement and some satire on United Nations and some quirky characterization the book seemed a bit forced. I’m actually sorry to say this, since I’ve liked other books by Westlake very much.
Gar Wilson’sChip Off the Bloc (1986) is something completely different: it’s a book in the men’s adventure series Phoenix Force that’s a spin-off of the Mack Bolan series. I don’t really care for this kind of stuff, but I have, shall we say, an academic interest for it. I left most of these books out of my first book, Pulpografia, and I’ve been thinking about a sequel in which I’d talk about these later men’s adventure series. (Seems though I’ll never make it. I might settle for a longer article.) This one was written by a guy called Paul Glen Neuman who has a website of his own (he lists at least thirty screenplays he’s written, but none of them seems to have been filmed). Neuman has done also other men’s adventure series, so I guess you could call him a pro. Chip Off the Bloc is written in a pretty dull way, I must admit: there’s no actual development, the scenes just follow each other and something just happens in them. I understand this is supposed to be simple stuff, to be read shallowly and leisurely (which is actually what I did), but I think you could do these books with more imagination and better characterization. Now there’s not much life to these people. The book has also some funny outdated stuff on early modems and computers. (I recall reading somewhere that Dan J. Marlowe penned one or two of these books, is this confirmed in the new Marlowe biography? The Finnish edition of this book, by the way, is credited with the original title as “Chip Off the Bloch”!)
Title: Superstud Author: Alan Marshall Cover artist: Someone who can’t believe his idea got past house censors
Yours for: $25
Best things about this cover:
Wow. Just try out-sideboobing this cover. You Can’t Do It.
“Yes, that’s my right tit, complete with nipple. No, you’re not dreaming. Pretty good, right?”
The boob is to distract from the hair, which looks great from the brow down, but get up any higher and it’s a nightmare of random scalp attachment (and non-attachment). There’s a reason they wrote “SUPER-STUD” over the top of that mess.
Maybe if the hair is red, you might try a different color for the font next time. This book looks like it’s titled “R-“
Best things about this back cover:
Reading the first two sentences makes me think Brett isn’t that studly from the neck up.
Call me old-fashioned, but I like my superstuds to be nailing quivering, creamy-fleshed ladies, not killing cops. What a massive waste of studliness.
Also, “Brett?” As a superstud name? Vetoed.
He reached down and pulled her up. He didn’t want to finish this way, not this time. He had better things in mind for the bitch with the fantastic boobs.
Now *that’s* a superhero name. Give that bitch a cape!
Title: The Shame Sell Author: Alan Marshall (sometime pseudonym of Donald Westlake) Cover artist: Uncredited
Yours for: $30
Best things about this cover:
“Gee, putting together this new life-model kit is a blast!”
“So, you’re telling me the cup goes … like this … and it keeps those things on the front of your chest from bouncing so much? Wow.”
Seriously, he’s putting that bra *on* to that girl, and he’s even doing *that* wrong.
“I call this painting ‘Drunk Girl Airs Out Her Pits.'”
Actually, I would call this painting “How To Ruin a Perfectly Good Picture of a Naked Woman.” 1. Add creepy man-child. 2. have her do something inexplicable with her arms while making stupid drunk-face. 3. Replace pubic area with scary, uniformly black patch. Boner averted!
Best things about this back cover:
“Who could believe the truth?” I’m guessing Not Me.
Ah, the ad game. Oh, so the guy on the cover must be Dan Drooper from AMC’s “Sad Men.”
I hope the butterfly net is nonmetaphorical.
Jon sat back, rested his elbows on the arms of the swivel chair, tapped his fingers together, and eyed the ceiling. “C. F., the way I see it, it’s time for you to escalate against Oona. The situation is peaking out, and so a certain accclimatizing seems to be in order.”
Even the guy in the book replied, “A certain what?” Now if you’ll pardon me, I have to go escalate against Oona … *if* you know what I mean (do you? ’cause I don’t)
As you’ve noticed, I’ve been reading Lawrence Block’s old sleaze novels lately. The quality hasn’t been as good as Block’s reputation would indicate, but as I’m writing an article about the reprint boom of old sleaze paperbacks, I wanted to try another one: Kept, as by Sheldon Lord (Midwood, 1960). Lord was a pseudonym Block used in his novels (such as Pads Are For Passion, reprinted as A Diet of Treacle), but then again this website saysKept was actually written by Donald Westlake.
I couldn’t tell. Kept could be by either one as the prose is smooth and very readable, just as both Westlake and Block can deliver. I read the book in Finnish translation (it was published as Maksettu rakastaja in the mid-sixties by Finnbooks in their short-lived series called Domino) and for all I know, it could be abridged or altered in any other way.
I was rather disappointed in Kept, because I went in looking for a criminous content, but there was none! This could’ve been a romance paperback, save for the fact that there are some candid sex scenes (candid for their own time, mind you) and that the lead character is a man. The book starts off promisingly, a bit like Postman Always Rings Twice, with a beautiful, young woman picking up a hobo man off the side of the road. But in the end nothing much happens: the boy gets the girl and that’s about it. There’s some fascinating Mad Men territory being covered here, though: penthouse luxury, new hi-fi stuff, well-cut suits, bossing women around at the office, drinks consumed almost at all times, all that.
But all in all, I’m not sure if I share the Vintage Sleaze Paperbacks conviction this should be reprinted. (But take this with a grain of salt, since I read the translation.)
The great original cover is by Paul Rader.
By the way, here’s a link to the Finnish Domino series. Any comments on the books published in it?
(Yeah, I know what you guys are thinking: “Two posts by Haywood back-to-back? Really?” Well, don’t worry, it’s not a sign I’m taking over this joint. It’s just a Murderati scheduling quirk. Won’t happen again soon. I hope.)
This weekend, like many of you, I’ll be attending the Left Coast Crime Convention in Sacramento, and one of the two panels I’ll be sitting in on is all about noir.
I find this somewhat amusing, as I don’t really write noir. I skirt the edges sometimes — ASSUME NOTHING, my latest novel, comes the closest to making the noir grade, as I perceive it — but I don’t “do” noir. And this isn’t by accident.
Not so long ago, I did something I really didn’t want to do: I watched the movie Precious. Lord knows I’d tried to avoid it; critical acclaim or no, any film about a poor, obese, teenage black girl growing up as the live-in slave of an equally obese, abusive, welfare-queen mother has to be the cinematic equivalent of root canal surgery, right? Why would I ever want to subject myself to that kind of misery?
Well, surprise, surprise — the film was brilliant. Well written, smartly directed, and performed by a cast of actors deserving of every accolade and award nomination it received. In short, I’m glad I saw the movie.
But yeah, sitting through it was a living nightmare.
In part because its subject matter was cringe-inducing, yes, but mostly because it was real. The people who made this film — and I would assume this is also true of Sapphire, the author of the book upon which the film was based — didn’t pull any punches. Hell, no. They took a story dealing with some incredibly sordid characters and situations and presented them in all their horrific, obscene, and gut-wrenching glory. It could be argued that the language in Precious alone should have earned it an NC-17 rating. I mean, nothing Linda Blair ever regurgitated in The Exorcist comes close to the bile that comes out of the mouth of Precious’s mother, in particular, throughout the course of this film.
And all for only one reason that I can imagine: authenticity. A commitment to depict these people exactly as they would appear in the real world, grotesque warts and all. Choosing to hew this close to the ugly truth could not have been an easy decision; the filmmakers had to know that doing so would cost them a sizable part of the crossover audience movie studios so covet. Yet they held to their convictions and did it anyway, trusting that the quality of the film would win out over the criticisms it was bound to receive for its almost unrelenting darkness and vulgarity.
So what does any of this have to do with my aversion to noir, you ask?
Well, only days before popping Precious into the ol’ DVD player, I’d finished reading my first Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake) novel, THE HUNTER. Following my reading of James Crumley’s THE LAST GOOD KISS, this was Step Two in my ongoing effort to finally read masters of the mystery/crime/espionage genres I should have read a long time ago (Ian Fleming, George V. Higgins, Rex Stout, etc.). I had a particular interest in THE HUNTER — one of a series of books Stark wrote about a ruthless professional thief simply named “Parker” — because it served as the basis for one of my all-time favorite movies, 1967’s Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin.
In the film, Parker (renamed “Walker” for some odd reason) is a single-minded, sociopathic killer relentlessly blasting his way through the Mob in order to get somebody, anybody to pay him the $93,000 they owe him. Walker is also driven by revenge — his former partner double-crossed him, stole his wife, and left him for dead in the aftermath of a heist, then used Walker’s share of the take to buy his way back into the Mob’s good graces — but his primary interest is recovering his money. Because it’s his money, he earned it, and he wants it back, goddamnit: $93,000, not a penny more and not a penny less.
You’ve gotta love that kind of manic tunnel vision.
(Of course, were the film remade today [as it was earlier in the form of the 1994 Mel Gibson stinker, Payback], Walker would find his motivation in the fact that his backstabbing partner, who raped and killed Walker’s parents and kid sister fifteen years before, is now holding his wife and two children hostage in an impenetrable Mob fortress guarded by an army of ex-Special Ops psychopaths blah-blah-blah-blah-blah…)
I’d been warned by fans of Stark/Westlake that Point Blank’s Walker, as cold and violent as he was as portrayed by Marvin, paled by comparison to THE HUNTER’s Parker, so I was prepared to meet a somewhat less likable protagonist. But damn! Parker makes Walker look like a Salvation Army Santa Claus. It isn’t so much that the body count in THE HUNTER is higher than it is in Point Blank, it’s the ease with which Parker adds to it that makes for such a jarring contrast. Parker may only kill those who “need” killing in THE HUNTER, but it doesn’t take much in his estimation for someone to meet that qualification. Simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or knowing something he doesn’t want getting around, is enough to make you better dead than alive in his book. And remorse? Forget about it. That’s for relative softies like Darth Vader to fret over.
What I’m describing, of course, is the archetypical noir protagonist: a deeply flawed, self-serving lead character, who’s usually surrounded by a supporting cast cut from the same nasty cloth. Altar boys and Girl Scouts need not apply. To write fiction deserving of the “noir” designation, an author has to accept the fact that his work will probably turn off a lot more potential readers than it turns on. He has to write about unpleasant people doing terrible things to innocents and scumbags alike, without remorse or regret, and to do it realistically, he has to show little or no regard for the reactions of his reader. I call this “going there,” “there” being a place not everyone will care to visit, and I think embarking upon this journey is one of the most courageous moves any writer can ever make.
Because “going there” is entirely counter-intuitive to what we authors are hardwired to want from Day One: a wide, all-encompassing readership. Deliberately choosing to write the kind of book you know going in will have only a limited appeal, and then writing that book as faithfully to the form as possible (which is to say, without artificially toning things down to soften the blow), is gutsy as hell, and not every writer has the cajones to do it.
Most only have enough to do the job halfway. These people write, either consciously or subconsciously, what I like to call “Noir Lite”: novels that feature noirish characters and situations, but none of the hair-raising dialogue or on-screen violence that should naturally follow. The latter elements have been either sanitized or, worse, excised altogether, to better reduce the author’s chances of offending those readers for whom “noir” is a dirty word. This, to me, is a joke. A kinder, gentler noir? There ain’t no such thing.
Which is why I’ve actively avoided trying to write a legitimate noir novel to date. I don’t want to go there. I’ve got no problem writing dialogue that could peel paint off a wall, or describing certain acts of violence in gruesome detail, but I don’t want to write stories in which the good guys are, to all extents and purposes, completely indistinguishable from the bad, and can only end on a definite downer, as all true noir stories must. It’s just not my thing.
And neither is faking it.
To write noir, you have to do what the people behind Precious did: You have to go there. Not part way, not halfway, but all the way to that dark, funky, foul-smelling place in which noir resides. Some readers won’t be able to stand the heat of your kitchen, but those are the breaks.
As I’m sure Parker would say were he around to ask for an opinion: “Deal with it.”
Questions for the Class: What examples of “Noir Lite” — or, worse, downright fake noir — can you name?
I’m a bit late on this, but better late than never, right? Here’s a link to the Friday’s Forgotten Book postings organized by Patti Abbott, all about Donald E. Westlake, to commemmorate the forth-coming publication of Westlake’s lost novel, The Comedy Is Finished.
In a world ruled by weak bureaucrats and populated by scared alcoholics who eat at cheap diners, Parker is an existential anti-hero, an underground man almost wholly driven by self-interest who hates hippies and mobsters equally. He kills without mercy, though never without reason, and he seems to live almost entirely in the moment. “He was impersonal, not cruel,” Westlake writes. Westlake has called his Parker novels portraits of a “man at work,” and it’s true that Parker is better at his job than you’d ever hope to be at yours. Things often go to shit, but it’s never his fault.