Hollywood favorite Donald Westlake digs up another comic caper
Donald Westlake was recently treated to a special big-screen viewing of The Hot Rock, a 1972 film based on his novel of the same name. The credits rolled and when the screen flashed Based on the novel by Donald E. Westlake, a loud cheer erupted from the assorted mix of best-selling mystery authors and journalists in the audience. Twenty-five years since his last viewing, Westlake flashed a grin as a young Robert Redford filled the screen with his jaunty gait, bringing to life Westlake's ever-challenged burglar Dortmunder.
No stranger to the big screen, Westlake has seen several of his novels make their way to the multiplexes, including the classic Point Blank!, the Mel Gibson remake Payback and his Oscar-winning screen adaptation of The Grifters.
In June, an adaptation of the 1996 Dortmunder caper What's the Worst That Could Happen? debuts at the box office, and this time Martin Lawrence takes over for Robert Redford as the bad luck burglar.
Popular and prolific, Westlake is widely credited with creating two of the most memorable characters in crime fiction -- the cold-hearted, professional crook Parker and the bumbling burglar Dortmunder. This month Dortmunder makes his 10th appearance in print in the new mystery novel, Bad News.
Westlake, 67, has been making readers laugh at the foibles of his professional criminals since his smashing debut, The Mercenaries, in 1960. His career took off, and he was soon publishing three to four books a year. So prolific was his output that his publisher warned him not to publish so many books under his own name. Rather than slow down, he developed a myriad of pen names (Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, Samuel Holt and Curt Clark to name a few) to keep up with the overflow. After 40 years, even Westlake himself has lost track of how many books he has written. "I don't know. I believe we might be in the 90s -- not 100 yet though," he says.
You get the sense when talking with Westlake that he doesn't have time for trivial matters like tracking his workflow. His conversation frequently veers off track, sentences tripping off his tongue unfinished. With all those books and characters in his head, who can blame him?
The Parker character made his first appearance in 1961. "I hadn't even bothered to give him a first name because I thought that [book] would be the only one," he says. With a new ending that let the bad guy get away, the series was born. Written under the name Richard Stark, Westlake's Parker novels don't waste words or spend much time dealing with emotions; Parker is a true tough guy.
A plot idea originally intended for the hard-hearted anti-hero led Westlake to create Dortmunder, another life-long crook and the polar opposite of Parker. Westlake thought it would be fun to have Parker grapple with the challenge of stealing the same thing over and over. But he realized that "as soon a tough guy becomes inadvertently funny, he isn't tough anymore; he's just ridiculous. I liked the idea, so I said, well, let's switch it around and give it to somebody else."
The Hot Rock was the first novel featuring the comic efforts of Dortmunder (named after a German beer) and his merry band of thieves. With plenty of puns and gags, this guy can't quite get his act together to pull off the perfect crime. Whether it's a scheme to nab a priceless bone or steal a bank (yes, the whole thing), the endless plot twists are a natural antidepressant.
In Bad News, Dortmunder's problems start right off the bat when he and his friend Andy Kelp are hired by shady businessman Fitzroy Guilderpost to do a little graverobbing. Soon they're caught up in a DNA switcheroo meant to prove that ex-Vegas showgirl Little Feather Redcorn is a long lost member of the Pottaknobbee Indian tribe. If they can pull off their scam, Little Feather will become one-third owner of the largest casino in the East. As with all Dortmunder novels, things never go according to plan, and plenty of hilarity ensues.
Westlake is famous for his comic touch, but in 1997, he had something of a career breakthrough with the publication of The Ax, a savage tale of a man caught in the era of corporate downsizing. He began getting a lot more attention, and suddenly the guy who could crank out three books a year was struggling with writer's block.
"I realized that for 35 years I'd been flying under the radar and always able to do whatever I wanted to do -- just successful enough so that I didn't have to have a day job and not successful enough so that they were watching me. So all of a sudden, after 35 years, I was having second novel problems," he says.
Not wanting to follow the critical and commercial success of The Ax with a light Dortmunder novel, Westlake spent over a year trying to figure out what to write next. "I was spending several hours playing solitaire in my office, which can really get to you. I think I'd rather be a drunk," he laughs.
He had given up and moved on to a different project when a snippet of conversation with a friend got the wheels turning. Soon The Hook, a tale that ironically involves a best-selling author suffering from writer's block, was under way. His editor took one look at the manuscript and announced, "That's the book that follows The Ax."
Which brings up another dilemma. "Now I have to think about what book will come after The Ax, after The Hook, after Bad News. Has enough time gone by? Can I go back under the radar now?" he laughs.
But Hollywood isn't about to let that happen. When the film adaptation of What's the Worst That Could Happen? debuts at the box office in June, Westlake will have to venture out for one more trip to the theater.
Author photo by Lisa Berg.