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Mystery Spotlight: Donald E. Westlake

Upstairs in an inconspicuous corner of our Murder/Mystery/Suspense room, just above the 'Serial Killers' shelf and all the seasons of Dexter, is a rotating special section. That's where we shine a policeman's tactical flashlight on an important mystery writer and the movie adaptations of his or her work. Past subjects include James M. Cain (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice) and Dashiell Hammett (whose section not only included direct adaptations like The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man but also unofficial ones like Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars).
 

Now we're turning our attention to the late Donald E. Westlake, prolific novelist and Academy Award nominee (not winner - like many greats he was defeated by Dances With Wolves). Westlake was also known under many pseudonyms, most famously "Richard Stark," which he used for his series of books about the character Parker, who has been played on screen by everyone from Lee Marvin to Anna Karina (and soon Jason Statham).

Mark Steiner explains:

 

With maybe the exception of Elmore Leonard, no crime fiction writer has had as many ups and downs in Hollywood as Donald Westlake. With over 100 novels to his credit, it’s not a surprise.

Many of Westlake’s most popular novels are comic capers, a genre fairly easy to read but nearly impossible to translate well in to cinema. Westlake’s blundering thief, Dortmunder, was adequately represented by Robert Redford in 1972’s crime-comedy The Hot Rock. The film’s success probably gave Hollywood the impetus to make Bank Shot, Jimmy The Kid, Why Me?, and What’s The Worst That Can Happen? Each was adapted with varying degrees of success.

When Westlake got serious, he was aces. One of his most famous characters, Parker -- a thief whose on-the-job professionalism borders on ascetic -- made his memorable cinematic debut in John Boorman’s adaptation of the first Parker novel, Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin. Parker later appeared under various guises in many more movies: Robert Duvall played him in The Outfit, Jim Brown played him in The Split (sadly, not on video), Peter Coyote played him in Slayground, and Mel Gibson took the mantle for Payback, Brian Helgeland’s gritty revisit to the first Parker novel. Anna Karina, of all people, played him in Jean-Luc Godard’s Made In U.S.A. Godard never asked Westlake’s permission to adapt his novel (The Jugger) and Westlake sued, preventing Made In U.S.A. from playing in the US until years later. The 1997 Harvey Keitel film City Of Industry also stole an entire Westlake plot, again without permission, from the Parker novel The Sour Lemon Score.

Westlake never wrote a Parker screenplay himself, but he was incredibly adept at adapting other notable crime fiction masters. For Showtime’s Fallen Angels series, he adapted Dashiell Hammett’s Fly Paper into a memorable, dynamic half-hour starring Christopher Lloyd, Michael Rooker, and Darren McGavin. In 1990, his script for Jim Thompson’s The Grifters earned him an Academy Award nomination. More recently, he adapted Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Under Ground for a 2005 film directed by Roger Spottiswoode and starring Barry Pepper as the eponymous criminal.

But in many ways, all this pales in comparison to his original screenplay for the 1987 thriller The Stepfather. With Jerry Blake (played by Terry O’Quinn), Westlake invented a character who was a professional criminal, a total sociopath, and a brilliant, satirical critique of the supposed family values forced down our throats for most of the 1980s. The character must have struck a chord with audiences; the film was followed by two sequels and a 2009 remake.
 

Even if he’d stopped writing after giving us his two greatest creations, The Stepfather and Parker, Donald Westlake would still be considered one of the all-time greats of crime fiction. He died on New Years Eve in 2008 at 75, leaving a rich literary legacy for Hollywood to mine for years to come.

 

Please come investigate some of the 20 titles in this special Westlake section (21 if you include the two vastly different cuts of Payback). For more information about Westlake and his works take a look at the official Donald Westlake site and The Violent World of Parker.

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