The Mysterious Bookshop

...But I Could Be Wrong--The Work Of Donald Westlake


Donald Westlake (1933-2008) was a versatile, prolific writer who wrote some of the most acclaimed crime fiction in the history of the genre.

Perhaps his most widely known character came about when the author was walking across the George Washington Bridge in the dead of night. He’d been visiting a friend in New Jersey and somehow got on the wrong bus and eventually found himself trudging across the bridge back to Manhattan.  The heft of the bridge, stolidly standing its ground in the wind, inspired in Westlake a character of similar traits--a stolid, unyielding, tension radiating man who would never be softened or made more accessible. Never would Parker, as he became known, be quirky or have his dog help him on cases or, heaven forbid, use catchphrases.  An angry man, but a man simply doing a job, not a crusader but a working class guy who gets up every morning and goes in to the job just like millions of others. After the first Parker novel was published (The Hunter, 1962), Westlake’s editor at Avon told him that if he would change the ending so that Parker escaped from the long arm of the law, he would publish three novels per year with the character.  Westlake, prolific as he was, couldn’t quite make that pace, but was surprised at the request, since Parker was the bad guy!  And so was born one of the most popular and enduring characters in crime fiction.

The Parker books were released under the pen name of Richard Stark, one of Westlake’s many pseudonyms. One of them, Samuel Holt, was created by the author in an effort to learn whether his book(s) would sell by merit as opposed to someone keen on the Westlake or Stark names. It is said that when Stephen King faced the same situation he created his own nom de plume, Richard Bachman, partly as a nod to ‘Richard Stark’ and partly because he was listening to Bachman-Turner Overdrive!

In fact Westlake used numerous pen names, Tucker Coe, Holt, Stark, Curt Clark for his foray into science fiction, and several others.  

Westlake was not a meticulous pre-plotter, he gained inspiration from the previous chapter leading into the next, and was just as focused on his writing as Parker may be said to be on his own work.  And so the stories are not known for a lot of exposition, they get right to the point to the point where a lot of them start with ‘When…’  In Westlake’s stories, and especially the Parkers, people just do things, the whys and wherefores are not explored.


At some point in the late 1960s, Westlake was working on another Parker adventure, but something was wrong.  It kept coming out funny!  That sure wasn’t Parker, and finally Westlake bowed to the inevitable and rewrote the story, embracing the funny, and so was Dortmunder born. A nonviolent schemer and a hard luck professional thief, he is likely one of the few literary characters named after a brand of beer. He shares an apartment on E. 19th Street in Manhattan with his lady friend, who is a supermarket cashier (the first Dortmunder story was published in 1970, when this was actually possible).  That first book, The Hot Rock,  was made into a film starring Robert Redford in 1972.  Having twice done stints in prison, he’s living with the knowledge that if he goes up the river again, he’s never coming back, as it’s three strikes and out. Rather appropriate for someone whose (stolen) family crest bears the motto ‘What’s in it for me?’  The notably dour Dortmunder is usually surrounded by a reliably wacky cast of characters in trying to pull off his hare-brained schemes.


Mitch Tobin got kicked off the NYPD after it was discovered he was holed up in a hotel room with his mistress (the wife of a man he’d arrested who was sent to prison) while his partner was being shot to death. In need of income, and partnered with perhaps the most forgiving woman in all crime fiction, he occasionally takes a case as an unlicensed private eye.  It’s been said that the Parker stories will make you turn pages, while the Dortmunder tales will make you laugh, even as the Tobin adventures will make you cry. A true hallmark of the versatile writer, this time presented as Tucker Coe.

As are screenplays.  Between film and television, Westlake is credited with writing or co-writing 40 scripts, most from his own work.  He wrote and rewrote a James Bond film about a man who was kicked out of Hong Kong when the island was returned to the Chinese in the late 90s.  The Chinese government objected to this portrayal and the studio, nervous about losing the lucrative Asian market, shelved the project.  Never one to waste a good story, Westlake reimagined it as a novel and it will be released Summer 2017 with an afterword by one of the proposed film’s producers. Be on the lookout for Forever and a Death!


It’s probably no coincidence that many noted authors and filmmakers are professed Westlake fans, like Harlan Ellison, John Banville, and Quentin Tarantino. The list of writers influenced by Westlake/Coe/Stark/et al is very long and it’s been speculated that the man influenced more writers than he had readers!  Probably not, given the popularity of his books & characters, but it’s an interesting notion. Most writers dream of having such a far-reaching influence over the literary world, even if that influence didn’t always translate into fat sales. But the writing is terrific, the taste is impeccable, the settings are memorable, and so here are some that you might enjoy:

Forever and a Death available soon, reserve your copy today!

For Mitchell Tobin, try A Jade In Aries, the fourth in the series, in a first edition from Random House, only $45.  Call or write for details. 

Questions/Comments/A bridge in Brooklyn for sale?  mike@mysteriousbookshop.copm

Written by Ian Kern — June 08, 2017

Specializing in Mystery Fiction and all its subgenres, including Detective, Crime, Hardboiled, Thrillers, Espionage, and Suspense.

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