Donald Westlake, RIP

by Jeff Abbott on January 2, 2009

One of America’s best storytellers, Donald Westlake, died New Year’s Eve. Here’s the NYT obituary. I learned about this sad news at Sarah Weinman‘s blog; Sarah has done a great job of amassing the tributes to him. I particularly like the tribute at Terry Teachout’s blog.

I love the picture of Westlake in the New York Times–on a stool, straddling two desks, hands on two typewriters. It summarizes his amazing prolific output (he wrote over a hundred novels). Of course what nothing can summarize is his enormous attention to craft, his kindness, and his huge impact on the mystery and suspense field. He won three Edgar Awards, was an Oscar nominee for his terrific screenplay for The Grifters (he wrote four other screenplays as well), and was an Mystery Writers of America Grand Master.
He was a rare writer: a master of the comic caper, with his John Dortmunder novels, and a master of noir, with his Parker novels written under the name Richard Stark. One of my personal favorites of his works is Kahawa, a novel about a bunch of mercenaries who decide to steal six million dollars worth of coffee beans from Idi Amin. Brilliant. (It’s out of print, which boggles me.)
I was on a panel with him once at a conference in Indiana; I had never met him before and I was nervous and star-struck. He was the epitome of graciousness; everyone on the panel just wanted to let him talk, but he kept pulling us each back into the discussion. He had a warm smile and an easy manner and he was a writer who was loved and respected by his colleagues and his readers.
I like what Neil Gaiman said about his books: 

he built novels like fine watches, never wasting a word. 

If you’ve read Westlake before, go read him again. If you haven’t you’re in for a treat. The University of Chicago press is rereleasing the early Parker novels; and he was writing still, with Dirty Money and What’s So Funny among his recent releases. 

We’ve lost another giant. 
Peace, Mr. Westlake.

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