The rewards of following two masters of the form.
Sep 1, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 47 • By STEVEN J. LENZNER
What's So Funny?
Baby, Would I Lie?
Over the past half-dozen years I have had the privilege to write reviews of new books by the comic (crime) novelist, Donald E. Westlake, and by Bill James, who is at once the most unconventional and underappreciated detective novelist writing today--as well as the best such novelist. I was particularly grateful for those assignments, for I feared that there might not be many more timely opportunities to pay tribute to the two men. I imagined that, as they moved into their seventies, they might grow weary of the strain of writing.
I was wrong. Since 2001 the 75-year-old Donald E. Westlake--who essentially lost a year to an eye ailment--has published nine novels, four of which appeared under the name of his amoral alter ego, Richard Stark. And Bill James, whose real name is James Tucker but who has also written as David Craig and Judith Jones, has published an astonishing dozen novels in the past five years.
My mistake was the product of a false premise. Most of the people I know well are academics, for whom writing is a necessary evil, often more evil than necessary. We face writing as an inspiration to procrastination rather than a task to be savored. But as we write to live, Westlake and James live to write.
With regard to Westlake, my anxieties were not altogether irrational, for I thought a fitting tribute should focus on the adventures of his character, John Dortmunder--master criminal and plaything of the gods. But if Westlake could be counted on to produce, Dortmunder could not. 2001's Bad News was the tenth in a series (unequalled either for comic genius or consistent excellence) inaugurated in 1970 by The Hot Rock, but the first since 1996. Dortmunder's infrequent appearances, however, were not the product of authorial indifference towards a character grown stale; rather the reverse. To judge from Westlake's own account, it took a considerable degree of self-restraint to refrain from writing on Dortmunder more frequently. He summoned that restraint with a view towards keeping Dortmunder fresh:
Many years ago I made a mighty vow that I would never write two novels in a row about John Dortmunder, but would always write at least two books about other people and other things in between. The reason was I didn't want to overwork John, me, or the reader.
Westlake had seen all too many novelists give in to the temptation to go with the tried, if not necessarily true, and produce novel after novel with the same characters. The all-but-inevitable result is a decline into formula and, sometimes, self-parody. Westlake has avoided that trap, even as he has broken his vow by writing three novels in a row about Dortmunder. More precisely, he has written three "Westlake" novels in a row about Dortmunder, each of which has been succeeded by a "Richard Stark" about that embodiment of criminal amorality, Parker.
To get a sense of these characters you could do worse than begin with What's So Funny? and Dirty Money. Its title notwithstanding, Dirty Money is less about money acquired in an unsavory manner than about money that needs to be "laundered." Parker has a dilemma. His spectacular armed robbery of $3 million from a bank in transit--recounted in 2004's Nobody Runs Forever--proved to be a bit too spectacular: In post-9/11 America, the federal government tends to frown on the use of sophisticated military hardware.
Due to the swiftness and intensity of the government's reaction, Parker and his associates were forced to hide the proceeds in rural New England before their getaway. So rather than the better part of a million dollars, each man walked away with only a handful of bills for travel expenses. And when one of his confederates was arrested trying to spend such a bill, Parker wrote the money off. The only thing that money could buy was a lighter sentence for his erstwhile partner.
Yet at the outset of Dirty Money, Parker learned that his associate had escaped prior to employing the money as a (plea)-bargaining chip. Hence Parker's knotty dilemma: Was there a way to move the money that averted the gaze of unusually vigilant authorities? If so, could the dirty money be cleaned? And what would such a laundry bill cost? To explore those latter questions, Parker turned to a mobster with whom he had a somewhat ambivalent past. Their exchange perfectly captures Parker's worldview and the insightful economy of Stark's prose: