When I reviewed “Get Real” in 2009, it looked to be Donald E. Westlake’s final book: On the last day of 2008, at the age of 75, he had suffered a fatal heart attack while on vacation in Mexico. His death wasn’t just a loss to his family and friends, though; it was also a loss to readers, for Westlake was one of the most sheerly entertaining fiction writers of his time. Whether his name was attached to a comic Dortmunder caper (14 novels, from “The Hot Rock” to “Get Real,” as well as two story collections) or a black-humored morality tale such as “The Ax” (my favorite among his “serious” books), or a high-spirited farce like “God Save the Mark,” readers always knew they were in the hands of a true professional. Nearly all his novels delivered — it sounds corny — a quiet happiness: They aimed to give pleasure and they did.
Yet Westlake, under the pen name Richard Stark, could also produce the leanest, most hard-boiled prose — he once described it as all “unstated emotion and hard surfaces”— this side of Paul Cain’s “Fast One.” Starting with “The Hunter,” the Parker books chronicled the life of a laconic thief and loner, one you should never double-cross, though time after time, greedy associates try. Most of them eventually end up dead. Each Parker novel opens with an action sentence, such as this one from “Backflash”: “When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.” As here, give Stark/Westlake a sentence, and he’ll have you in his steely grip for the entire book.
Since “Get Real,” Hard Case Crime has published two “lost” Westlake novels, “Memory” and “The Comedy is Finished,” to excellent reviews. (What else could they have been?) And now comes “The Getaway Car,” a collection of Westlake’s nonfiction — essays, introductions, letters and interviews — expertly compiled by Levi Stahl with a foreword by Lawrence Block. In his tribute to a 50-year friendship, Block writes that he was privileged to know two crime writers who never wrote “a bad sentence, a clumsy paragraph, or a dull page”: Evan Hunter (a.k.a Ed McBain, creator of the 87th Precinct series) and Westlake. (Yet a third would be Block himself.)
“The Getaway Car” may seem an odd title for a nonfiction miscellany, but it derives from a remark by Abby Adams Westlake. Her husband, she said, “no matter where he was headed, always drove like he was behind the wheel of the getaway car.” That suggests something of the rush and exhilaration with which most readers will turn these pages.
In an all-too-short autobiographical essay, Westlake recalls that the first word he deciphered when learning to read was “police.” As a child he would make up stories while lying in bed at night, often the adventures of a PT boat and its crew. Westlake adds that this boat saga actually taught him “continuity,” that “every event had to be followed by another event, so we’d better be sure we only provided events that generate some further occurrence.” From the start then, Westlake viewed himself as primarily a storyteller. In a later essay, he notes that his books usually steer clear of graphic sex and violence just because they tend to distract the reader from the story itself.
In another piece, he writes about being asked to distinguish between the books under his own name and those written as Stark. His answer: “Westlake is allusive, indirect, referential, a bit rococo, Stark strips his sentences down to the necessary information.” He also neatly differentiates his two recurring characters: The Eeyore-like pessimist Dortmunder “proposes a Christmas toast this way, ‘God help us, every one.’ Parker answers the phone, ‘Yes.’ ”
The longest piece in “The Getaway Car” is an insider’s history of the hard-boiled detective story. The first generation of Black Mask writers — Dashiell Hammett, in particular — had seen men die in battle, or worked as Pinkertons, or knew the rough and criminal milieu they wrote about. But the second generation — notably Raymond Chandler — drew their inspiration from the books of the first. Authenticity was replaced with artistry, what was once, in a sense, naïve became sentimental. Later writers still, such as Mickey Spillane, “let the emotions pour out like diseased honey, giving a pulpy stickiness to their work.” Westlake particularly criticizes the “mannered” Ross Macdonald: “The tortured similes, the brooding introspection, the jaundiced view of society — nobody ever has any fun in a Ross Macdonald book.”
The most emotional piece included here is Westlake’s youthful attack on science fiction. Though he originally intended a career in the genre, Westlake argues that the field, circa 1960, had grown too narrow and restrictive, that its heavy-handed conventions hampered the development of sophisticated work. Was he right? To an extent. But if he’d only waited a few years, he could have joined the “New Wave” or contributed to Harlan Ellison’s anthology “Dangerous Visions,” which broke all the rules and firmly established science fiction as the literature in which anything is possible.
Periodically, though, Westlake even worries that the crime novel could be an exhausted genre. He frets that his own books might be declining in quality. He accepts, grudgingly, that he will never be a blockbuster best-selling author, just a steady professional partly reliant on the occasional largesse of the movie industry. “The Hunter,” for instance, was filmed as the noir classic “Point Blank,” and more recently remade as “Payback.” Westlake himself won an Edgar for his script for “The Grifters,” which was also nominated for an Oscar.
Even with all this bounty, there’s a lot more loot in “The Getaway Car”: An analysis of the paperback novels of Peter Rabe (look for “Kill the Boss Goodbye”), a superb appreciation of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries, reminiscences of John D. MacDonald and Charles Willeford, lists of possible book titles, and even a defense of the semicolon. You will probably be surprised to learn that Westlake read Proust, as well as one of my own favorite books, Zola’s “Germinal” — this last after his wife told him it was the most exciting novel she’d ever read. “With that recommendation, I had to read it, and she was right.”
In “Hooked,” one of several hitherto unpublished pieces, Westlake describes how a writer thinks. A novelist, on his way out of the supermarket, “notices a woman in sunglasses in the back seat of that black Audi over there. Why is she just sitting in the car? Why in the back seat? Why isn’t she looking around, or reading, or doing something other than just sitting there behind her sunglasses? Halfway across the parking lot, the novelist has worked out a scenario for her that answers those questions.” It’s an automatic response, he says, a flexing of the story muscles.
Fortunately, Donald E. Westlake did more than flex those muscles: He left grateful readers with one terrific book after another. Perhaps now that Elmore Leonard is ensconced in the Library of America, it’s time that a new generation rediscovered this comparably great storyteller.
Dirda reviews book every Thursday for The Washington Post.
THE GETAWAY CAR
A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany
Edited by Levi Stahl
University of Chicago. 223 pp. Paperback, $18