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A Mourner for Don Westlake
Max Allan Collins
Don Westlake would not approve of this piece, or would at least
pretend he didn't, because he abhorred sentimentality, and even distrusted sentiment. I will leave career recaps to others, and apologize for the personal nature of this, which is a reflection on how this fine writer and fine man changed my life.
In 1967, I saw the movie "Point Blank" at a drive-in, and that very
evening went to an all-night supermarket to pick up the movie edition of the source novel by a writer called Richard Stark. I soon discovered that the anti-hero played in the film by Lee Marvin (as "Walker," not "Parker") was the star of a paperback series that had been around for several years.
I began to scour used bookstores for them, and on my honeymoon risked my life (and my new wife's) going through every trash-heap used bookshop in the city until I located the one Parker I was missing - The Mourner.
I became so enthralled with Richard Stark and his stingy third-person approach that for a time I had trouble reading anybody else, so I turned to a very different kind of book by a very different kind of writer - Donald E. Westlake. These chatty, first-person crime comedies caught my imagination in a way that rivaled my Stark obsession, and I kept my Stark and Westlake collections side by side, a divider between them, on a bookshelf of honor.
Don liked the next part of the story: when Anthony Boucher revealed in his New York Times column that Westlake and Stark were one writer, I picked myself up and promptly removed the bookshelf divider. Then I went looking for another byline of Westlake's revealed by Boucher, Tucker Coe. (Coe's brief but wonderful Mitch Tobin series is Westlake's major
contribution to the private eye form.)
In high school, I wrote imitative Mickey Spillane novels; but in college I tried to be Richard Stark. At the University of Iowa, the great mainstream writer Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road) helped shape me into a real writer and my Parker pastiche, Bait Money, got an agent in Knox Burger, legendary former Gold Medal editor.
During this same period I had somehow tracked Westlake down, and a long correspondence began. For 15 or 20 years, we exchanged lengthy letters - five to fifteen pages, his double-spaced and often typed on stolen hotel stationery - in which Don encouraged me and schooled me and was a genuine mentor to me. He knew Burger (who had edited the Parker novels at Gold Medal) and called Knox and advised him to take Bait Money on.
When that novel finally sold (in 1973), I had a dilemma - the publisher wanted a series. My Parker-ish lead, Nolan, died at the end - I figured one Parker imitation was homage, but a series would be highway
robbery. I wrote Don. He wrote back and generously said to write as many of 'em as I wanted. He said the father and surrogate son relationship at the core of Bait Money was something quite apart from Parker. I wound up doing eight of those, and launching my career.
In 1977, when I landed the DICK TRACY comic strip scripting job, Don invited my wife Barb and me to New York, put us up in his apartment, and threw us a party, at which this Iowa boy met Lawrence Block, Justin Scott
and Otto Penzler, among other luminaries. Once, Don and his talented, gracious wife Abby traveled through Iowa and stayed overnight in Muscatine.
In letters and occasional phone calls, we talked comics and he loaned me his rare Harvey Kurtzman Trump magazines and I sent him various underground comics; he introduced me to the work of Brit TV genius Dennis Potter, loanedme unproduced screenplays and unpublished novels of his, and we talked and sometimes argued about movies. On New York trips, we always saw Don and Abby, sometimes staying with them.
In the '70s and into the '80s, we remained close, and Don did me the honor of making me the villain at one of his Mohonk Mountain Lodge mystery events (I wrote a novel around it, Nice Weekend for a Murder, basing characters on both the Westlake and Stark personas). On a two-man panel we did at a Bouchercon, Don said my Nolan novels were the methadone to his Parker heroin (at Mohonk, he'd introduced me as the Jayne Mansfield to his Marilyn Monroe, and I pretended to take offense, saying I preferred to think of myself as Mamie Van Doren).
The relationship took on a strain when Don attempted to convince me that my novel True Detective should be re-written in the third person and the private eye narrator changed to a reporter or a cop. Don, though a master of the form, was not really a fan of the private eye genre. Burger rejected the book, too, and that was a low point. Fortunately, my other mentor/idol, Mickey Spillane, read the book and loved it, and Bob Randisi connected me with top agent Dominick Abel; the book sold and led to a long-running series. Eventually Don provided a blurb for it.
There comes a time when a mentor and pupil reach a crossroads - where the pupil comes into his own, and the mentor has trouble dealing with that pupil in this new way. Don and I stayed in touch with occasional letters, saw each other at Bouchercons and Edgar dinners, and he generously gave me any number of blurbs - his Road to Perdition blurb was particularly generous - and I like to think he was proud of what I accomplished.
The last time I spent quality time with him was a couple years ago at an event in London at the National Film Theater, where a number of films from his books were shown. I was able to witness the first ever meeting between John Boorman, director of the now classic Point Blank, and "Richard Stark" - and, in the midst of their warm meeting, I got them both to sign a laser disc jacket, with Don's inscription saying, "Hey Al - we all started here." He meant Stark/Westlake and Boorman...and Collins. He knew very well that the film Point Blank had led me to the Parker novels, and that my Parker imitation was my first professional sale, with my biggest success, Road to Perdition, a frankly Stark-influenced work.
In 1991, a Heller collection was reviewed by Publisher's Weekly, who somehow got the idea I had recently died. The review - a bad one! - got the word around that I had passed away. In my office, my phone rang and it was Don.
"Al!" he said. "You're not dead?"
"Good," he said, and hung up.
How I wish I could reverse that call right now.