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    Sunday, January 04, 2009

    Book: The Hunter, by Richard Stark (1962) & More Westlake

    On some scores, I am as good as my word. I said that I would reread the new University of Chicago reissue of The Hunter that I picked up the day before Donald E. Westlake died, and I did. It’s not like it was difficult; everything Donald Westlake wrote goes down smooth. Some random thoughts.

    The book is meaner and even darker than I remember. It’s plain that Mr. Westlake didn’t intend to start a series that would last 40 years with this novel, but the intervention of an editor changed that.

    A passage that leapt out on this reading:

    He could look out at the street, and let his fifteen-cent cup of coffee cool. It was a Park Avenue coffee shop, and expensive. Pastrami on rye, eighty-five cents, no butter. Like that.

    Like that. That phrase is an example of how, as Lee Goldberg noted, Mr. Westlake “wrote books that inspired people to become authors.” He made it look effortless.

    The Hunter, like many Westlake books, is so attuned to the city of New York that it can be plotted on a subway map. So far it’s been filmed twice, as a definitive Los Angeles movie and then in Chicago.

    Point Blank was acclaimed for its Nouvelle Vague-influenced storytelling, but the structure deployed in the Parker novels – four sections, with three from Parker’s POV and the fourth from other characters related to the job at hand – is every bit as impressive, with a formal rigor of its own. The Hunter features one of its more dazzling uses. Parker attempts to gain entry to a building, and things go wrong. Horribly so. Westlake generates tremendous suspense from this sequence even though we already know that Parker’s target is no longer in the building.

    Over the weekend I also reread “Fugue For Felons,” a short story from the 2004 collection Thieves’ Dozen (eleven stories, natch) that showcases Mr. Westlake at his most inventive. Fearing that he might lose the rights to the name of his character John Dortmunder to Hollywood, he wrote a tale featuring a “parallel universe” version of the hangdog thief. The only problem is John Rumsey didn’t behave in quite the same way. It’s a treat. And it features one of Mr. Westlake’s trademark observations that strikes particularly close to home, about the New York subway:

    ... and the poor G, the Brooklyn-Queens crosstown, which never gets into Manhattan at all but just shuttles back and forth between Brooklyn and Queens, full of people wearing hats.

    Tributes to Donald Westlake are all over the web, many of them collected at Sarah Weinman’s Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. I’d recommend the ones by Duane Swierczynski and Max Allan Collins. But the most astonishing is by Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus, who carried on a longtime email correspondence with Mr. Westlake. If you’re a fan, it’s a must-read.

    And I’ll echo Jeffrey Wells and say that now more than ever, we need a quality DVD of 1973’s The Outfit. Not only does it feature a cast of noir legends like Robert Ryan, Marie Windsor, Timothy Carey, Jane Greer and Elisha Cook, Jr., it’s also the Parker movie that Donald Westlake himself said was his favorite.

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