Donald E. Westlake, The Man With The Getaway Face
He was widely hailed as one of the best crime fiction writers who ever lived, but as a new anthology of his nonfiction proves, Westlake could write anything.
This review took a lot longer than it should have. First I read the late great crime fiction author Donald E. Westlake’s The Getaway Car, which the publisher has subtitled a “Nonfiction Miscellany.” Some parts I read several times, just for fun, and then there were selections that I found simply had to be shared with family and friends—aloud. (Let me say here that it is a tribute to Westlake that my family and friends don’t want to dig him up and kill him again, since in my experience there is nothing that puts people off a writer they don’t know like the words, “Just listen to this one little part …”)
Then I decided that in the interest of thoroughness I should revisit a few of Westlake’s wonderfully hilarious crime novels, including entries in the Dortmunder series, which can be classified in the genre of comic heist books, or would be if almost anyone but Westlake had ever written such a series about feckless thieves. I also reread some of the chillingly good Parker novels he wrote under the name Richard Stark, which also feature a thief as the protagonist but which are noirish and violent and almost never funny. Then there were the stand-alone novels, i.e, not part of a series and not necessarily classifiable as crime novels, although they usually contain a crime somewhere in the plot—books like The Ax, about a man who gets fired and then goes around murdering all the other qualified candidates for a job he wants. Since Westlake was as prolific as he was versatile, this all took a while.
Days turned into weeks before finally reason took over and I started to write (I think I finally came to my senses when I caught myself reaching for the DVD of The Grifters, for which Westlake wrote the Academy-Award nominated screenplay—enough is enough, even I had to admit). But the writing took longer than usual as well. At first I thought I would write a review that might serve as a general introduction to Westlake for readers who have yet to make his acquaintance. I would remind those readers that great writing is not always found solely at high altitudes but sometimes thrives in the precincts of what is (rather dismissively) known as commercial fiction. I would prove to my skeptical audience that Westlake was a great American writer, and great not in spite of the fact that he was funny or wrote genre crime books but because of those things. I would, in other words, write the same piece that every Westlake fan writes at some point or other, a piece that despite its enthusiasm probably alienates more readers than it attracts (see above: reading aloud).
In the end, I decided that the wisest approach would be to simply let Westlake speak for himself. There is surely enough offhand wit and wisdom in the essays, introductions, letters, and interviews collected in The Getaway Car to persuade any sensible reader of Westlake’s talent. (A word here about the title: it comes from a quote from the author’s wife that serves as the collection’s epigraph and proves that he was not the only wry inhabitant of his household: “No matter where he was headed, Don always drove like he was behind the wheel of the getaway car.”)
So let’s get to it.
In an essay chronicling the metamorphosis of hardboiled detective fiction—and if you ever want to read a concise account of how Hammett, Chandler, and their descendants came to dominate crime fiction, here’s where you start—Westlake tosses off the most succinct analysis of the import of Prohibition I have ever read. At the end of a paragraph that begins with an equally splendid description of the societal dislocation and anomie that resulted from World War I, he writes, “In America there were only four months between the end of the war and the beginning of Prohibition, which I think has to be listed as the most stupid social experiment since the Children’s Crusade. In addition to organizing crime, in addition to giving criminal gangs a vast new source of wealth, in addition to making the corruption of policemen and politicians and other authority figures absolutely inevitable, Prohibition did something even worse. It put us all over on the criminal’s side, doing business with him, agreeing with his rejection of the law, and encouraging him to remain rich and unrepentant.”
On the audience for detective stories: “I can no longer count the times I have been at a cocktail party and heard someone say, ‘I never have any time for serious/good/real novels any more. When I want to unwind, I just go to bed with a detective story.’” These people, he goes on to say, “are intelligent, they are educated, they are usually in the professions (though sometimes in the arts). They are precisely the people any writer would be delighted to count among his readership, and I am delighted, and I am willing to accept the barb that comes with it.”
Westlake spots the irony: “What they are seeming to say, these people, when they assure us they ‘just’ read detective stories, is that they unwind by insulting their own intelligence.”
That irony arises out of misunderstanding: “The mistake is that too many people are confused about what reading fiction is for. They believe you’re supposed to read novels to be improved, to be present at the clash of great ideas, to be challenged by new and profound ways to look at life. And then, it turns out, they’re too tired.
“Oh, they buy the books, the serious award winners, described by publisher and critic alike as important, ground-breaking, even deeply disturbing. They pay their dues. But when the moment comes, once again they fail. Just for now, just as a stopgap, sheepishly they slink off, inadvertently to read fiction for the right reason: Because it’s fun. Just for now, they’ll read detective stories.”
If they were reading Westlake, they were having some serious fun—and the best fun in his novels is always unexpected. He could plot as well as anyone and give you a whole character in a line or two. But the really good stuff is the lagniappe, the little extra Easter eggs that he threw in not because he had to but because he could. My favorite line in Put a Lid on It (premise: imagine what would have happened in Watergate if the burglars were real burglars and good at what they did) is a line of dialogue that doesn’t even need to be there. The protagonist runs into a high-powered exec and his bimbo girlfriend, “a big-chested ash blond of not yet thirty with very red lipstick and a very short pink skirt.” Introductions all around and then: “’Hi,’ said Cindy, in the kind of voice she would have.”
The Getaway Car is lousy with these throwaway lines and asides. One will suffice. Writing about his strained relationship with a character he created, Westlake says, “I had written myself into a terrible corner, the one in which the character himself has become the world in which the story is set. (A simpler and sillier example of this is Batman. Somewhere around 1955, the evil activity most pursued by the criminals in Batman became the uncovering of Batman’s identity! If Batman didn’t exist, they wouldn’t be criminals. In self-referential fiction, I can think of no peer to Batman.)”
Is a posthumous collection of miscellaneous pieces (even one as smartly edited as this one) a good place to first encounter a writer known for his fiction? Normally I would say no, but in Westlake’s case, there really is no wrong way to approach his work. It is after all his sensibility—funny, fatalistic, humane but never sappy and always a little off kilter—that gives his writing its flavor, and you can find that sensibility in these pages as surely as you can in the novels. Because ultimately Westlake was not this kind of writer, or that kind, not a crime writer, or a satirist, or a comedian. He was just a writer, and as good as they come.
I interviewed him once, and what I remember most is his delight when he shared a quote from H.L. Mencken that he had just come across: “There is always a sheet of paper. There is always a pen. There is always a way out.” Whenever I think of that quote—and I think of it a lot—I think of the man who shared it with me, and the memory always makes me smile.