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.