Monday, May 11, 2009


Most of Westlake's early stories appeared in the digest-sized mystery magazines that came and went during the 1950s. Although emminently readable, they weren't particularily Westlakian. "Arrest" (Manhunt, 1/58) was a decent, albeit typical atmospheric killer-waiting-for-the-cops story. "Everybody Killed Sylvia" (Mystery Digest 5/58) was an uneven, undistiguished PI caper with a few comic touches. "The Ledge Bit" (Mystery Digest 9-10/59) had an actor trying to revive his career by playing "suicidal" on hotel ledge; alas, the hotel he chose lacked this vital architectural feature.

For the first touches of that inimitable Westlake style, we must turn to the November 1959 issue of the Guilty Detective Story Magazine. Published by a schlocky Massachusetts-based outfit, Guilty (and its sister magazine Trapped) were far more interesting than they had any right to be. Although their contents were dominated by the hack work of burnt-out pulp writers, the editors preferred JD stories (touching relics of the days when the biggest threat to Western civilization was a teenager with a zip gun) to the standard vitrified Mike Hammer clones. They also published a surprising number (not large, just surprising) of good stories, including early work from Lawrence Block, Harlan Ellison, and of course, Westlake.

"The Knife Fighter" is a bouncy, lightly-written vignette about Al, an ordinary looking teenager who provokes a philosophical confrontation with three JDs. "...let's say we get into an argument...and we decided to settle it with knives," he tells them. "What would it prove?" Using reverse psychology, he manipulates the leader of the trio into an alley for one-on-one action. The action is short and quick. After he wipes his knife off, he walks out of the alley, sadly telling the dead boy's companions, "You can't prove a thing with a knife." He walks down the street and decides to head for the Upper West Side because "he needed more action tonight...[and] there were some real mean guys up there." The Sharks and Jets were never this much fun.

Next up: the most unusual Westlake book you'll never read.


Donald Westlake's passing this past December inspired a large number of respectful obituaries, fond tributes, and humorous anecdotes. And justifiably so; he was a true master of the genre who could have used his prodigious output to shake the MWA for three Grandmaster Awards: one for Donald Westlake, one for Richard Stark, and one for a the goofy pen name he could have used for the Dortmunder books. It would have been a joke that I'm sure he would have enjoyed hugely

The closest I have to a Westlake anecdote is more about editorial myopia. Back in 1997, when Westlake brought back Parker (yippie!) in Comeback, I was doing a very small amount of freelance writing for a would-be Details. I pitched my editor what I still think is my best-ever book review idea: an "interview" with the monosyllabic Parker that would end with him breaking my arm or something. He said no. "Too obscure" were his very words.

Two weeks later, Comeback received a full page review in that renowned journal of the obscure and idiosyncratic, Time.

However, there is much Westlake that is truly "too obscure" for all but the fanatics. Next up: a look at some of his earliest stories.


Belatedly wrapping up the Noir City...

The Unsuspected: The atmosphere on the screen trumps the novel, but the the convoluted plot did not translate well. Presumably, key expository scenes wound up on the cutting room floor. I was the only person in the theater who could actually explain it.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is beyond a reasonable doubt not adapted from Grafton's novel.

Two O'Clock Courage is a heavily streamlined, but reasonably faithful adaptation of Burgess's novel with a surprising amount of B-movie charm.

The Harder They Fall: A great flick from a great novel that I really should re-read. But those who look upon this as an accurate depiction of the Primo Carnera story should be advised that liberties were taken. Legitimately or not, Carnera did KO Jack Sharkey for the title, boxed for four years after losing his title, and went on to a long and successful career in wrestling.

The Sweet Smell of Success was, as always, a success. I even managed to restrain myself from shouting "There's Frank Rosolino," although I did twitch. The cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river!

Next up: an even more belated Donald Westlake tribute!