Some people are going to be sadder to hear the news about Donald E. Westlake. Other people are going to be sadder to hear about Richard Stark.
Westlake and Stark are both dead. They died together, over the weekend, killed by heart attacks, while vacationing down in Mexico.
Course they died together.
They were the same guy.
Same guy, very different writers.
Westlake was the author of mostly comic crime novels, the best and most famous of which starred a very unlucky thief by the name of John Dortmunder.
Stark wrote more hard-boiled crime novels. His main character was another thief named Parker. Parker's a nastier piece of work and the more successful for it.
The difference between Dortmunder and Parker, the difference between Westlake and Stark, can be seen in the titles of their books. Dortmunder appears in novels called Bad News, Drowned Hopes, The Road to Ruin.
One of those books, Bad News, begins, "John Dortmunder was a man on whom the sun shone only when he needed darkness."
Stark's books have titles like Nobody Runs Forever.
Westlake himself explained it once in the New York Times:
Language creates the writer's attitude toward the particular story he's decided to tell. But more than that, language is a part of the creation of the characters in the story, in the setting and in the sense of movement. Stark and Westlake use language very differently. To some extent they're mirror images. Westlake is allusive, indirect, referential, a bit rococo. Stark strips his sentences down to the necessary information.
In "Flashfire," [Stark writes], "Parker looked at the money, and it wasn't enough." In one of his own novels a few years ago, Donald Westlake wrote, "John Dortmunder and a failed enterprise always recognized one another." Dortmunder, Westlake's recurring character, proposes a Christmas toast this way, "God help us, every one." Parker answers the phone, "Yes."
Same guy. Westlake was Stark, when he wasn't writing as Westlake. Stark was Stark, and apparently didn't like to have much to do with Westlake. One time he cut himself off from Westlake for twenty-three years.
Richard Stark just up and disappeared. He did a fade. Periodically, in the ensuing years, I tried to summon that persona, to write like him, to be him for just a while, but every single time I failed. What appeared on the paper was stiff, full of lumps, a poor imitation, a pastiche. Though successful, though well liked and well paid, Richard Stark had simply downed tools. For, I thought, ever.
It seems strange to say that for those years I could no longer write like myself, since Richard Stark had always been, naturally, me. But he was gone, and when I say he was gone, I mean his voice was gone, erased clean out of my head.
I'm one of those people who are sadder about Westlake, and that's probably why. During the years when I was discovering Westlake, Stark was on strike and I never got to hear of him or read his old books. By the time he started writing again, I was too much a devoted fan of Westlake.
Judging by things he's written, like this review for the New York Times, I'd bet James Wolcott is sadder about Stark. But what do I know? I'm sure he's sad about Westlake too.
What I like about Westlake's novels, besides the fact that they're funny, is that they are observant. That allusive, indirect style Westlake assigns to himself gives him plenty of room and time to wander away from his plot and work in wry but dead-on descriptions of people and how they live, the work they do, the things they surround themselves with, the places they go, their eccentricities and vanities and various insanities.
Westlake is an acute social satirist. Bad News, besides being about a crime---stealing a body from a grave, putting it in another grave to pass it off as different body, in order to defraud a couple of crooked casino owners---is also about how small town politics and small town economics collide and collude in small town court rooms. And it's about not getting the breakfast you want in a diner.
Dortmunder didn't like to start the day with humor. He liked to start the day with silence, particularly when he hadn't had that much sleep the night before. So, avoiding Kelp's bright-eyed look, he gazed down at the paper place mat that doubled in here for a menu, and a hand put a cup of coffee on top of it. "Okay," he told the coffee. "What else do I want?"
"That's up to you, hon, said a whiskey voice just at ten o'clock, above his left ear.
He looked up, and she was what you'd expect from a waitress who calls strangers "hon" at 8:30 in the morning. "Cornflakes," he said. "O---"
Pointing her pencil, eraser first for politeness, she said, "Little boxes on the serving tray over there."
"Oh. Okay. Orange juice then."
Another eraser point: "Big jugs on the serving table over there."
"Oh. Okay," Dortmunder said, and frowned at her. In then nonpencil hand, she held her little order pad. He said. "The coffee's it? Then your part's done"
"You want hash browns and eggs over, hon," she said, "I bring 'em to you."
"I don't want hash browns and eggs over."
"Waffles, side of sausage, I go get 'em."
"Don't want those, either."
Eraser point: "Serving table over there," she said, and turned away...
...the settings in Donald Westlake's Richard Stark novels...where every boarded-up abandoned building is a potential stash site and many of those left behind are one missed disability check away from complete destitution.
Terry Teachout is sad about both Stark and Westlake, but he thinks Westlake will be best remembered for the work he did as Stark. I'm not so sure. But I'm biased. I think Westlake was the better writer because he had a bigger heart or, maybe it's better to say, when he wrote as himself he was more interested in the fact that other people had hearts.
Here's one of my favorite passages from my favorite Dortmunder novel, Drowned Hopes.
Wally Knurr, computer geek and innocent and clueless member of Dortmunder's gang of thieves, is talking to his computer, which he's programmed to respond to all inquiries as if any problem Wally gives it is part of an elaborate fantasy role-playing game, because that's the only way Wally feels he can safely approach real life. Wally wants to go see a girl he has a crush on but he's afraid that if he does it might somehow upset Dortmunder's plan to recover some stolen money from the bottom of a reservoir. He asks the computer what he should do and the computer advises him to stay away from the girl for now. Wally objects. Their conversation takes place on the computer screen.
Wally: But I've already met the princess.
Computer: Disguised as a commoner.
Wally: Well, not really.
Computer: You did not meet her in your true guise.
Wally: I still don't see why I can't just go over to the library and just happen to see her again and just say hello.
Computer: The princess does not at this time require rescue.
Wally: Not to rescue her. Just to say hello. I only saw her once. I want to see her again.
Computer: If the princess meets the hero in his true guise before it is time for the rescue, she will reject him, misunderstanding his role.
Wally: I don't think this princess is going to need to be rescued from anything. She works in the library, she lives with her mother, she's in a small town where everybody knows her and likes her. What is there to rescue her from?
Computer: The hero awaits his moment.
Wally: But I want to see Myrtle Jimson again.
Computer: She must not see you at this time.
Wally: Why musn't she see me?
Computer: She will misunderstand, and the story will end in the hero's defeat.
Wally: I'll risk it.
Computer: Remember the specific rule of Real Life.
Wally: Of course I remember it. I entered it into you myself.
Computer: Nevertheless. It is...
The tape of Real Life plays only once.
There are no corrections or adjustments.
Defeat is irreversible.
Wally: I know I know. I know.
Computer: Why any hero would wish to play such a game is incomprehensible.
"It sure is," Wally muttered aloud, and looked sadly out the window at the sleeping village.
Cross-posted at newcritics.