The Magazine

Westlake Lives!

Two posthumous gifts from a master entertainer.

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By JON L. BREEN
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

When Donald E. Westlake died on New Year’s Eve 2008 at the age of 75, he was mourned as an expert and notably prolific writer of crime fiction under multiple bylines, and also as a comic novelist whose stature (in a different milieu) rivaled that of P. G. Wodehouse. To some, his position was even loftier: The Booker Prize-winning Irish novelist John Banville proclaimed Westlake one of the great writers of the 20th century.

Donald E. Westlake in Paris, 2004

Donald E. Westlake in Paris, 2004

Getty Images

Early in his career, Westlake wrote short fiction for mystery and science fiction magazines and, under a variety of pseudonyms and house names, soft-core paperbacks for the sleaze market. He broke into hardcovers with The Mercenaries (1960), a gritty, hardboiled crime novel that received an Edgar nomination, and continued in that vein with several other books before producing his first comic novel, The Fugitive Pigeon (1965). His first major series character was a professional thief known only as Parker, introduced in the paperback original The Hunter (1962). The Parker series was written under the pseudonym Richard Stark, a name which suits the dark and violent mood of the books. Westlake-as-Stark would continue the series into this century, with an extended hiatus of 23 years between 1974 and 1997, and a total of 24 novels.

Under his own name, Westlake wrote a shorter (15-volume) but similarly durable series about another professional thief, the capable and ingenious, but very unlucky, John Dortmunder, whose elaborate capers are presented in a farcical vein. The first Dortmunder book, The Hot Rock (1970), was reportedly intended for the Parker series but was converted to a comic novel when the scenes started to develop humorously. For most of his writing career, Westlake interspersed stand-alone novels among series entries, but in the last few years of his life, he confined himself to three Parkers and four Dortmunders. Introducing a reprint of the 2001 Parker novel Firebreak, Terry Teachout suggested that Westlake “was usually at his best in his series novels,” but that’s not necessarily so.

Befitting a performer of longstanding and unmatched versatility, Westlake has so far had no fewer than three final bows. First came Get Real (2009), involving the Dortmunder gang with one last trouble-plagued caper. Reality television provided an inviting target for Westlake the satirist—one character solemnly pontificates that “in the world of reality, we do not have surprises”—and loyal readers were pleased he was in good form for what appeared to be his last novel. But there were two discoveries to come, both from Hard Case Crime, an inventive line of mostly hardboiled crime fiction with the look of 1950s/60s paperbacks.  

Posthumous novels, of course, are not unusual. All of Franz Kafka’s novels, the three books in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces were all published after their authors’ deaths. And novels like Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Austen’s Sanditon were left unfinished for other writers to speculate about.  

But what about posthumous novels that are neither the last work of a writer recently deceased nor a virtually completed work that, for some reason, wound up in the bottom drawer? Both of the Westlake discoveries are in that category. So two questions arise: Why weren’t they published while Westlake was alive, and would he have been happy to see them published after his death?  

Neither of the two books is in a series, and neither is typical of the author’s work. Memory, very dark in mood, is more mainstream than crime novel, and is notably lacking in anything resembling comedy. The Comedy Is Finished is certainly in the mystery/suspense genre, but, in spite of being full of one-liners and arguably having a happy ending, it is by no means a comic novel.

Memory was written in 1963 and was shopped to publishers by Westlake’s then-agent, Scott Meredith, who specialized in genre fiction and, despite an impressive client list, had a somewhat unsavory reputation. Westlake’s friend and fellow writer Lawrence Block has said that many editors praised the novel, but none bought it. From Westlake, known as a mystery writer, a serious and commercially dubious literary work was deemed unsellable. According to Block, in the late 1970s, by which time Westlake’s reputation as novelist and screenwriter had grown, his agent Henry Morrison thought he could sell the novel, but Westlake declined, pronouncing it too dated.