While I was writing my new novel Sleeping Dogs I went through my usual hell of tossing pages because none of them felt right. Maybe a hundred pages. My assistant Linda takes a lot of Xanax during these times.
One of the books I had on my night table was 361 by Donald Westlake. This is a novel I've probablly read a dozen times in my life. But I read (or reread) a Westlake book at least once a month so picking it up was fairly routine.
I suppose I was thirty or forty pages in when I figured out how to approach Sleeping Dogs. While I didn't borrow a character, a mood, a plot point or a theme, the book sent me to my computer long after my usual bedtime.
F. Scott Fitzgerald always reminded his daughter that to be a good writer she had to read the best writers she could find. Not to imitate them, he said, but to be inspired by their greatness.
I think this is what happened to me when I read 361. The plot is so compelling, the voice of the narrator so true and unique and the world he presents so sharply defined that some of energy and melancholy gave me the direction I needed. If it was one thing alone it was the voice I suppose. The narrator isn't a crime fiction type. He's a real, idiosyncratic person.
Last night I finished the Richard Stark novel Firebreak. Same feelings. Here we have Parker battling two enemies, a hit man sent to kill him and a heist that may defeat even Parker's cunning.
This is the third or fourth time I've read it and it gets richer every time. There is in its fury and spiritual dislocation (a good number of the people in it deserve to die ugly deaths) proof that in the proper hands craft can become art. Chandler talked about this, albeit a bit pompously. Here there is an undertow of despair new (I think) to the Parker books. Real ennui. The heist becomes more than a heist. It begins to represent a frantic salvation of sorts. And what Parker has to go through to achieve salvation would make Sisyphus give up.
Larry Lloyd is the greatest creation of the book. A computer nerd with a murderous temper (hence some time in the slammer) and a fantasy that would make George W. Bush proud. He's
definitely in the Stark-Westlake Wacko Hall of Fame.
Fitzgerald was right. Studying the masters is madatory for writers hoping to improve their own writing. And in every way possible Donald Westlake is a master.