Thursday, January 01, 2009

My Three Favorite Mystery Writers Have Died

Don Westlake died of a heart attack on New Year's Eve, on the way to a party. He was 75. That's kind of ironic, because every year for the past decade or so Westlake has written a story for Playboy where his series character John Dortmunder crashes a Christmas or New Years Eve party while on the run from the law.

I would not be who I am today without having read Westlake. When I was in high school I saw the movie POINT BLANK with Lee Marvin, which is probably my favorite movie. Not the movie I think is the Best Movie, the movie I enjoy watching the most. It's based on a book called THE HUNTER by this guy named Richard Stark... and so I looked for books by that guy. And the books were great! Stark writes these brutal novels about this guy named Parker who steals for a living. There was this series of Parker books, and while in high scool I read through all of them... and would hang around the library waiting for the new ones to come out. The Parker books are the inspiration for everything from RESERVOIR DOGS (I talked to QT about the books one afternoon at a Fango convention before everyone knew what he looked like) to HEAT. In the books, someone would come to Parker (or one of the other thieves) with a score - something valuable that could be stolen and sold... or some payroll worth lifting, or maybe an armored car. Parker would put together a team of experts, pull the robbery, and then things would go wrong... and get really violent. Parker didn't like killing people, but sometimes it was required.

When I was about to graduate high school the books just stopped... and just as Parker's life had gone to hell. PLUNDER SQUAD managed to kill off half the characters when they went up against the Mob. Grofield, the comedy relief character, gets all of his fingers hacked off. I wanted to find out how they all got back on top... but there were no other books.

So, while I was looking around for something else to read, I found these private eye novels by this guy named Tucker Coe. As spartan and brutal as the Parker novels were, the Coe books were evocative and beautifully written - like a Chandler novel. This Coe guy loved words, loved language, and knew how to put together one of those sentences that were poetry. His books were about this private eye, Mitch Tobin, who always saw the worst parts of people... and became more depressed with every book. He was building a wall around his house - and around himself. The books were dark and kind of depressing - but you could get lost in the language. I don't know what happened to this Tucker Coe guy, but he quit writing around the time I began reading him - maybe even earlier. But his books were new in paperback, and fairly popular in the mystery section.

So, I was dating this girl, Debbie, who asked me if I'd ever read anything by Don Westlake. I had read BUSY BODY and FUGITIVE PIGEON and liked them, and knew that the movie THE HOT ROCK was based on one of his books. But, you know, I'd never devoured his stuff. Debbie and I broke up, but I started buying and reading everything Westlake wrote - and this guy was funny as hell. There were comedy crime movies - sort of like those Bob Hope films - but this Westlake guy had perfected that genre mix. SPY IN THE OINTMENT was kind of Woody Allen meets James Bond - someone thinks this regular guy is a spy and now everyone is trying to kill him. You laugh your butt off and sit on the edge of your seat. But Westlake's Dortmunder books (like HOT ROCK) are what got me hooked. Dortmunder is this series character - a second storey thief with the worst luck of anyone on the planet. When he and his gang figure out some intricate split second timing to steal some gem or work of art... minute-by-minute things just go completely wrong. For instance, BANK SHOT is about a house trailer kind of thing being used as a temp branch of a bank while they build a new bank building. Dortmunder and his gang figure they'll just steal the whole bank! And if it were only that easy, but one thing after another goes wrong and they loose everything. These books had TOPKAPI type schemes and big belly laughs. Somehow, Dortmunder would always end up at a police convention with a priceless jewel that had just been stolen and every one of the cops wanted to get whatever promotion might be had by arresting the guilty party. Humor and crime combined? That's kind of where I'm most comfortable. Well, this Westlake guy just kept writing, and I kept reading....

And my three favorite writers at one point were Don Westlake, Tucker Coe, and Richard Stark...

And then all three were interviewed in one of the mystery mags I subscibed to... and in the middle of the interview, Westlake pulls a gun and kills Coe and mortally wounds Stark. Huh? Well, it was Westlake's coming out as the other two writers (plus some other writers I had never read). This had been a big secret - no one knew they were all the same guy until this point! And it was no wonder - all three had completely different writing styles. Different vocabularies. Different voices. These were three completely different people!

And that's where Stephen King got the idea for THE DARK HALF - about a novelist whose pen-name Stark starts killing people... and leaving behind the novelist's fingerprints!

So, every year a new Westlake novel comes out, I buy it and devour it... and every once in a while I read some book that seems like it might be Westlake in disguise. It's hard to tell, because the guy is a chameleon... but when I read the first Sam Holt book - about a Tom Selleck style TV star who keeps getting caught up in real mysteries - people think he's his Magnum-like character and ask him for help, or he'll be on the set or at some TV show related function and somebody gets killed... and they expect *him* to solve the crime like he does on TV. Only, he's just an actor! But in every book, Sam Holt figures out who the killer is - and the fun is in the difference between his TV character and his real life. That one ended up being Westlake in disguise. He's written under a half dozen other names - and usually nobody recognizes him until he reveals himself. I'll bet there are another half dozen we will never find out about...

Because he passed away.

Oh, and when he wasn't writing novels under a dozen names, he was writing screenplays. He wrote one of the greatest slasher-thriller films of the 80s, THE STEPFATHER - a film with more going on in it than you might expect. He was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for THE GRIFTERS. And many of his books have been adapted to movies by folks like Godard and Costa-Gavras.

No one can ever replace Westlake... it would take a dozen people just to write all of the novels! He will be missed.


Hunter (1962): "When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell."

The Man With the Getaway Face (1963): "When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger."

The Outfit (1963): "When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed."

The Mourner (1963): "When the guy with the asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away."

The Score (1964): "When the bellboy left, Parker went over to the house phone and made his call."

The Jugger (1965): "When the knock came at the door, Parker was just turning to the obituary page."

The Handle (1966): "When the engine stopped, Parker came up on deck for a look around."

The Seventh (1966): "When he didn't get any answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in."

The Rare Coin Score (1967): "Parker spent two weeks on the white sand beach at Biloxi, and on a white sandy bitch named Belle, but he was restless, and one day without thinking about it he checked out and sent a forwarding address to Handy McKay and moved on to New Orleans."

The Green Eagle Score (1967): "Parker looked in at the beach and there was a guy in a black suit standing there, surrounded by all the bodies in bathing suits."

The Black Ice Score (1968): "Parker walked into his hotel room, and there was a guy in there going through his suitcase laid out on his bed."

The Sour Lemon Score (1969): "Parker put the revolver away and looked out the windshield."

Deadly Edge (1971): "Up here, the music was just a throbbing under the feet, a distant pulse."

Slayground (1971): "Parker jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and the packet of explosive in the other."

Plunder Squad (1972): "Hearing the click behind him, Parker threw his glass straight back over his right shoulder, and dove off his chair to the left."

Butcher's Moon (1974): "Running toward the light, Parker fired twice over his left shoulder, not caring whether he hit anything or not."

Child Heist (1974) (a Parker book they read in the Dortmunder novel Jimmy the Kid): "When the guard came to open the cell door, Parker said to the big man named Krauss, 'Come see me next week when you get out.'"

Comeback (1997): "When the angel opened the door, Parker stepped first past the threshold into the darkness of the cinder block corridor beneath the stage."

Backflash (1998): "When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the rest of the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first."

Flashfire (2000): "When the dashboard clock read 2:40, Parker drove out of the drugstore parking lot and across the sunlit road to the convenience store/gas station."

Firebreak (2001): "When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man."

Breakout (2002) : "When the alarm went off, Parker and Armiston were far to the rear of the warehouse, Armiston with the clipboard, checking off the boxes they'd want."

Nobody Runs Forever (2004): "When he saw that the one called Harbin was wearing a wire, Parker said, 'Deal me out a hand,' and got to his feet."

Ask the Parrot (2006): "When the helicopter swept northward and lifted out of sight over the top of the hill, Parker stepped away from the tree he'd waited beside and continued his climb."

Dirty Money (2008): "When the silver Toyota Avalon bumped down the dirt road out of the woods and across the railroad tracks, Parker put the Infiniti into low and stepped out onto the gravel."

Great stuff, huh?

Classes On CD On Sale!

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Holiday Block older tips that need a rewrite and haven't run for a while.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Dinner with a bunch of friends in San Francisco, then drinking in a bar in Chinatown.

MOVIES: FROST / NIXON - Okay, so our story is about a TV interview - two guys sitting in chairs talking to each other. Oh, and we’re also going to go behind the scenes and show how the interview was set up - you know, the research and contracts and stuff. Oh, and this movies is about an old interview - which cuts one of two ways: you either are old enough to know about the interview and have probably seen it, or you are young enough to not know about the interview... so you also don’t care about the subject matter. By the way, the interview is on DVD - so you can watch the real thing, not the movie recreation, if you are really interested. Why watch some actor play the President, when you can go down to Blockbuster and rent a DVD with the real President? The original interview could be seen for free in your living room, this movie will cost you $11.50 at the cineplex - plus $5 for a soft drink and $5 for popcorn and $5 for candy you could buy for $1 in the store. Okay - how do you make this movie worth seeing? How do you make it exciting?

You cast the story in a genre. The historical drama ELIZABETH was one of my favorite films a few years back because they prevented the story from becoming a stuffy history lesson in corsets by “casting it” in the gangster genre. It became THE GODFATHER in frilly shirts - with Queen Elizabeth as Don Corleone having to deal with all of the treachery and skullduggery and double and triple crosses of being in power. Trying to decide who to align herself with when gang wars broke out. And dealing with those advisors who have their own secret agendas and alliances. I had never seen an historical film about people long dead that was as exciting as ELIZABETH. By treating the story as if it were a gangster film - and even turning the scenes of violence into something that would be at home in a gangster film, they turned history into an exciting genre film. The whole movie was told as if it were THE GODFATHER... including, after all if the betrayals are played out... the Queen’s final violent revenge plays just like Michael Corleone’s revenge in THE GODFATHER. The same scenes - just with frilly shirts and corsets.

So FROST / NIXON casts itself as a boxing film - sort of like ROCKY. We have an underdog taking on the undefeated champ. Instead of researchers, we get Boxing Coaches - kind of a Trainer and a Corner Man. Everyone keeps telling Frost he has no chance of winning this fight - he is hopelessly outmatched. And from what we see of Frost - he doesn’t have a chance. He is a talk show host about to take on the President Of The United States... a President who managed to resign from office without anyone ever laying a hand on him. No proof or wrongdoing. He’s like the Champion Boxer who retires without anyone ever laying a glove on him. How can this talk show host possibly manage to last 4 rounds with him?

The 4 rounds element is built into the story - Frost had 4 interview sessions with Nixon, and the film treats each as a round of boxing. In fact the number of rounds and conditions for the fight are set up in a meeting that could have been between Frost and Don King. The first battle is all about how the battle will be fought - how many rounds, what are the rules, how much will be paid... and even who will televise the bout. The Champ gets paid the same whether it’s a network or syndicated on a bunch of independent stations. In these negotiations, we see what a powerful opponent the Champ is - Frost doesn’t have a chance! He’s gonna have to do that full Rocky work out, including beating the meat (if you’ll pardon the expression).

But after the fight is set up, the Trainer and Corner Man get pissed off again and again at Frost because he’s spending more time in the spotlight at the Contender than he is in training. He’s screwing up! He’s gonna get K.O.ed in the first round!

Each of the four interviews plays out as a round of boxing - with questions and answers as punches. There are even two corners, where the Trainers and Corner Men from each side watch the fight as it unfolds - even doing the debate version of yelling “Throw a left! Throw a left!”. And the questions and answers become exciting, because it’s not just an interview - it is a championship boxing match between a completely overmatched contender and the undefeated champ. We see the questions as punches, the answers as blocks and counter punches. And you, as an audience member, start to look for that undefended area where you might land a punch. “Ask him about....”

As with all great boxing movies, our over matched contender takes a beating in the early rounds, but right before the last round has that big talk with his Corner Man and Trainer (is Oliver Platt or Sam Rockwell playing the Burgess Meredith role?) and works through his pain, uses that secret punch he learned in training but seems to forget when he’s in the ring getting pummeled, and goes out to win the fight.

FROST / NIXON is an exciting film... about an old television interview.

- Bill

M4M2 (UK): Sunday, Jan 4th - 3:50 - Black Thunder - When the world's most powerful stealth jet fighter falls into enemy hands, only one man can get it back. Starring Michael Dudikoff.

You have been warned.


Anonymous said...

When Martell does a tribute, he does a damn fine one.

High Power Rocketry said...

: )

E.C. Henry said...

Sorry to hear about Don Westlake's death. I'll second the MovieQuill's comments, your tribute was quite nice.

I grew up devouring Steven King novels (that was before I got saved). Early to mid 80s he was top dog. LOVED Clavell too. Of all the writers I've ever read, he's the best, bar none! Never really got into the "mystery" genre.

GREAT insight bringing Quintin Tarrantio and his inspiration for "Reservoir Dogs," and Don Westlake writing as three different writers, which then inspired Steven King's "The Dark Half" which even used "Stark" as pen-name nightmare who comes alive.

All great stuff. Great post, Bill. Even in 2009, you're still my hero!

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Anonymous said...

Nice tribute to a great writer. When I started seriously getting into him (via the Stark novels), I did exactly what you did above, transcribing the first line of each novel. Titles I'm not so great with, but I rarely forget a "hook" as sharp as his usually were.

Apparently, one reason that the Parker character isn't called "Parker" in either Point Blank or Payback is that Westlake wouldn't option a single-film adaptation starring Parker. He didn't want to wind up in a situation like Fletch or Burglar (or even the Redford adaptations), where the film franchise is unlike the character in the novels.

(Oh, and the Dark Half is actually the punchline to the Stephen King story. If I recall correctly, "Richard Bachman" was originally invented, Keyser Söze-like, from a Richard Stark paperback in King's office while Bachman-Turner Overdrive played in the background....)

Scott the Reader said...

Nice tribute.

I grew up reading Westlake; don't know who turned me on to him, but I still have a dozen or so on me shelves.

Someday I'm going to try to get the rights to adapt "Help I Am Being Held Prisoner".

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