Novelist Donald E. Westlake, 75; Wove Farcical Mysteries

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 3, 2009

Donald E. Westlake, 75, a prolific comic novelist who was once described as "the Neil Simon of the crime novel," died Dec. 31 of a heart attack while vacationing in Mexico.

Under a variety of pseudonyms and in a career that spanned almost 50 years, Mr. Westlake wrote more than 90 books, winning three Edgar Awards and the designation of Grand Master from the Mystery Writers of America in 1993. His screenplay for "The Grifters" was nominated for an Academy Award.

Like authors James Crumley, who died Sept. 16, and Tony Hillerman, who died Oct. 26, Mr. Westlake had a huge following among connoisseurs of mysteries. Mr. Westlake, however, introduced offbeat and intricate plots featuring no-win criminals who usually fall prey to bad timing, bad weather and bad luck. Critics gave him credit for having invented and sustained his own comic genre, one that melds slapstick and one-liners with the conventions of the hard-boiled mystery.

"Everyone who's read Donald Westlake knows he's the funniest man in the world," Carolyn See wrote in a 1995 review in The Washington Post. Newsweek's Peter S. Prescott wrote, "Donald E. Westlake writes a comic novel so well it's a wonder he bothers with crime at all."

His books often start with an unusual situation and push it to a hilarious extreme. In "Good Behavior," (1986), his thief crash-lands in a Manhattan convent, whose nuns have taken a vow of silence. The main character, John Dortmunder, is persuaded to rescue Sister Mary Grace, a tycoon's daughter who has been spirited away by her father and held prisoner in a high-security skyscraper's penthouse. Dortmunder and crew attempt to save the nun, but typically, their plans go haywire when they confront mercenaries training for the overthrow of a South American dictatorship.

His characters include driver Stan Murch, obsessed with the constantly changing road conditions of New York City, and Tiny Bulcher, the muscle who looks "like a hillside brought to life by Claymation."

That character, Mr. Westlake wrote, "reminded most people of the thing they used to believe lived in their bedroom closet at night, when they were very, very small, and they would wake up, and it would be really, really dark in the whole house, and they would lie in bed and know just how small they were, and the closet door was the only thing in the entire vast universe they could see, and they just knew that inside that closet right now, reaching for the doorknob on the inside there, was . . . Tiny Bulcher."

Mr. Westlake, a gangly, loose-limbed man with great tufted eyebrows and a bald head fringed with white, had a laugh, Post staff writer Blaine Harden said, that was "childlike . . . light, lilting, almost helpless with mirth." On his own Web site, Mr. Westlake opined, "I believe my subject is bewilderment. But I could be wrong."

Donald Edwin Westlake was born July 12, 1933, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was raised in Yonkers and Albany. He attended several colleges in New York but never graduated.

He joined the Air Force at 19, served in Germany in the early 1950s and then worked in New York as a "slush-pile reader" for the Scott Meredith literary agency. When he placed his first science-fiction story in a magazine, for which he was paid $20, Mr. Westlake celebrated by taking 204 rejection slips down from his wall. The publisher, he later noted, "promptly went out of business."

He was launched on a prolific career, however, and by 1960 Random House had published his first novel, "The Mercenaries."

His earliest novels dealt with the world of organized crime as seen from within, but those tough, hard-nosed works soon gave way to what became his trademark: the comical mystery.

The Post's Michael Dirda noted in 1993 that the novelist had also written serious adventure fiction, lean paperback thrillers and scores of mysteries under names including Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, Samuel Holt and Edwin West.

"Yet whatever his incarnation, Westlake knows precisely how to grab a reader, draw him or her into the story, and then slowly tighten his grip until escape is impossible," Dirda wrote. "I suspect that most of the man's novels . . . are read in a single sitting. . . . Yet Westlake, it should be remembered, is more than just a funny man: As Richard Stark he produced the leanest, bleakest and fastest-moving crime novels of the 1960s. Stripped of any laughs except for some gallows humor, emptied of all emotional affect, these grim slices from the life of a thief known only as Parker can make even Dashiell Hammett look gushy."

The noms de plume came about, Mr. Westlake once said, because "I loved writing, and I was just pushing out too much stuff for a rational marketplace to contend with. I first started putting pen names on short stories because magazines wouldn't publish the same byline twice in the same magazine."

"I write from 10 at night to 4 in the morning, about 7,000 words at a time. It's like being in the basket of a blimp, working at that hour. It's wonderful. There's just one little room with me in it, and I'm sailing through the night wherever the story will go. Just me, alone." He wrote not on computers but on Smith-Corona Silent-Super manual portable typewriters.

More than 15 of his books became movies, and he wrote a number of screenplays. His latest novel, "Get Real," is to be released in April.

His marriages to Nedra Henderson and Sandra Foley ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Abigail Adams of Gallatin, N.Y.; four sons; three stepchildren; and four grandchildren.

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