Friday, January 02, 2009

Don Westlake #2

Six letter writers asked me to recommend three or four novels by Don Westlake. Hard as it is to believe (and it is) there are still readers of crime fiction unfamiliar with DW.

Tonight I'm going to talk about three of his lesser known works, though be no means are they lesser in accomplishment. I'm doing this because other blogs have covered most of his prominent material.

I was especially happy to see several bloggers talk about the private eye novels Don wrote as Tucker Coe in the early sixties. I consider athem masterpieces. In fact when Marty Greenberg and I started Five Star (and were doing reprints) we did all five of them in hardcover. The problem was we couldn't get trade publications to review them because they were reprints, even though this was the first time they appeared under Don's own name. Don wrote a very interesting essay about how the Tucker Coe's came to be. Until last night's blogs I was under the impression that the only three people who knew about these novels were James Reasoner, Kevin Burton Smith and I.

Levine: This is a collection of novelettes with an aging Jewish detective in the lead. He has a serious heart condition and is constantly afraid he's going to die. The stories are imbued with deathand not only of the victims but of the man investigating their demise. This is early but solid work. It also shows how DW could make any sub-genre his own. There is no other police procedural series like this one.

Pity Him Afterward: Some of DW's finest writing can be found in the early pages of this book. Really bravura prose in his descriptions of an angry disoriented escapee from a mental hospital who murders his way into a job in a theater group performing shows for the summer. The police chief here is unique in every aspect and DW's background as an actor in stock takes readers through the struggles of would-be thespians. An excellent novel.

Anarchaos: A nifty hardboiled science fiction novel that first appeared under the byline Curt Clark. "Anarchaos is a planet, inhabited by humans, where anarchy is the only law; where each man protects himself as best he can; and where the weak are soon dead. Malone's brother had dies that way, and Malone has come to Anarchaos, carrying a small arsenal of weapons, to find the man who killed him, knowing that he is facing an entire planet of enemies." Malone and Parker could be brothers. Grim and cunning.

4 comments:

Bill Crider said...

I agree with all those recommendations, Ed. I bought the Tucker Coe books in hardback before I knew Westlake was writing them. Great stuff.

Todd Mason said...

I'll agree as far as ANARCHAOS is an involving read...which betrays either a willful libel of what anarchism and human society generally are about, or at least Westlake playing fast and loose, mixing as he does what he chooses to misrepresent of anarchist philosophers such as Kropotkin (aka "the Prince of Peace" and a major pacifist influence on Gandhi and MLK), conflating them with nihilists, and then having the supposed adherents to this mishmash behave in ways that the most beserk Ayn Randians would not. But I suppose it was funny at the time. Also, close paraphrase from memory, "The Anarchaos residents had never learned how to co-operate, since that is one of the fuctions of a governed society." We see such sterling examples of that of late in the likes of Iraq, the Sudan, or the ex-Yugoslavia.

The only truly regrettable Westlake story I've read...in reviewing TOMORROW'S CRIMES (which is otherwise good to brilliant), I had to wonder whether Westlake bought every slander the Marxists threw at the anarchists, or if, again, he just thought it would be funny to conflate all the people he mentions as inspiring the hell he wanted to describe.

Juri said...

Todd, isn't that a prevalent view of anarchism in general, and not just what Westlake has to say about the matter and no matter what anarchism is really about?

Todd Mason said...

Well, no, Juri...what Westlake paints is a remarkably hostile and distorting portrait of what all anarchism is about, which if not driven by more than common prejudice or Marxist disinformation, is then informed by a remarkably casual filpping through an encyclopedia entry to transcribe the names of an entropic range of anarchist thinkers and/or activists, and then some who fall outside any useful definition of anarchism, and to say that if you drew the essence from what they all proposed, you'd have this dog bites dog hell. Ed has suggested to me that this might be a very heavily coded further kissoff to sf editors, particutlarly since it was published under his Curt Clark pseud, which he employed after his hostile open letter to sf editors reprinted in THE BEST OF XERO volume out a few years back...since the model of accused hypocrisy (assuming Westlake had a good idea of what Kropotkin or Bakunin or Proudhon propounded) and its practical results sounds a lot like his view of the sf establishment in '62, perhaps when he wrote the novel (published by Ace, edited by ex-Leninist Donald Wollheim, who might've been sympathetic beyond the surface metaphor).

One thing Westlake doesn't do in most of his fiction, in all but this case in my experience, is deliberately mislead us about something that is extraliterary, as opposed to an aspect of the plot.