Friday, May 30, 2014

Don Westlake by Robert Byrne

Don Westlake by Robert ByrneEd here: I'm rerunning this just because I like it.

A busy portable typewriter falls silent
Don Westlake, author of 100 novels, dies of a heart attack

(A photo accopmanies the article-I'll try to run it tomorrow night. If somebody will show me how. Here's the cast: Suspects in a Murder Mystery Weekend staged at the Mohonk Mountain House in New York in 1987.¤ Left to right: David Morrell, creator of Rambo, prolific novelist Don Westlake, novelist Justin Scott, Playboy fiction editor Alice Turner, crime writer Chris Newman, writer Robert Byrne (with flask), and Death Wish author Brian Garfield.¤ In front is Caroline Penzler, then wife of Otto Penzler of The Mysterious Press.)

A friend of mine was on his way with his wife to a New Year's Eve dinner. He never made it. He was felled by a heart attack at the age of 75.

Don Westlake was a writing machine, turning out 100 novels under 10 pseudonyms. He's best known for the comic novels written under his own name featuring an unintentionally funny criminal named John Dortmunder and for the hard-boiled Parker crime novels written by "Richard Stark." He also wrote screenplays for one of my favorite fright-flicks, "The Stepfather," and for "The Grifters," for which he was nominated for an Oscar.

In one room of his four-story home on Blecker Street in Manhattan are floor-to-ceiling racks of books. I was amazed when he told me that every one was written by him: he had every edition of his works in hardback and paperback, sometimes multiple copies, as well as copies in scores of foreign languages.

All of his books were written on a small portable typewriter, which went out of production in the early years of his career. To keep it supplied with spare parts, he never
missed a chance to buy the same model in antique stores and junk shops.

I knew him because we shared a couple of friends, novelist Martin Cruz Smith and mystery writer Joe Gores. Westlake and Gores once published novels that contained an identical chapter, and they did it without their publishers' awareness. That sense of fun made them both wonderful company.

For several years, Westlake wrote scripts for back-to-back "murder mystery weekends" at a rambling old hotel 80 miles north of Manhattan called The Mohonk Mountain House. Amateur actors, most of them writers he knew, put on playlets about a murder. Teams of hotel guests questioned the actors in an attempt to solve the crime. Actors had to stick to facts provided by Westlake and avoid saying anything that contradicted the stories of the other characters.

At the end of the weekend, the teams of sleuths dramatized the crime as they imagined it, and Westlake revealed his own solution. Prizes were given for accuracy and imagination. For the second weekend, the facts were altered enough to provide a new murderer.

In 1987, I was one of the actors. Between the two weekends my wife and I stayed with the Westlakes in Manhattan, it was one of the most enjoyable 10 days of my life. Don and Abby were amusing and upbeat people and perfect hosts. Abby has lost a husband like no other, a man who was loved by his many friends and admired by hundreds of thousands of fans.

The year we were at Mohonk, the murder was set in 1872 at the fictional Western town of Turnip Gulch. (The previous year, the scene was an ocean liner in 1923.) I played a drunken doctor named Homer Payne-Whitney, a good role because whenever I was asked a question that was tricky to answer, I could pretend to be in an alcoholic fog. The guests had been told that my character's parents had been killed by Indians. When I was asked, "What Indians?" I was able to safely answer, "The Cleveland Indians."

During the first weekend, Westlake, playing circuit-court judge Orner E. Plugge, questioned me in court. Before I could divulge crucial information, shots rang out from the balcony -- I was hit! I staggered around, clutching my chest, then dropped to the floor and died after a few violent twitches. It was the pinnacle of my acting career.

While staying with the Westlakes in New York, I heard Don say that he never knew if the dishes in the dishwasher were dirty or clean. Weeks later, I found a magnetic dial in a gift shop with an arrow that pointed to "Clean" or "Dirty" and mailed it to him. He replied that it helped a lot because every morning Abby pinned it to her blouse so he would know how she was feeling.

Byrne is the author of 23 books, including two novels about growing up in Dubuque. His Web site is, and his e-mail address is

Frances Fyfield Gold Digger

Product Details

The latest from bestselling British novelist Frances Fyfield, GOLD DIGGER (Witness Impulse; July 15, 2014; $13.99 trade paperback) is an enthralling story of greed and intrigue.  

The warmth of him, the glorious warmth, was fading by the minute…

In a huge old school house by the sea, full of precious paintings, Thomas Porteous is dying. His much younger wife Di holds him and mourns. She knows that soon, despite her being his sole inheritor, Thomas’s relatives will descend on the collection that was the passion of both of their lives.

And descend they do. The two needy daughters, who were poisoned against their father by their defecting mother, are now poison themselves. The family regard Thomas’s wealth as theirs by right, with the exception of young Patrick, who adored his grandfather and is torn between his parents and Di, the interloper.

The family know Di’s weaknesses, and she has to learn theirs. After all, she met Thomas when she came to his house to rob him. With the help of an unlikely collection of loners and eccentrics, she sets a trap to hoist the family members on their own greed. And on the night they are lured to the house, Di will be ready.….Or will she?

FRANCES FYFIELD has spent much of her professional life practicing as a criminal lawyer, work which has informed her highly acclaimed novels. She has been the recipient of both the Gold and Silver Crime Writers’ Association Daggers. She is also a regular broadcaster on Radio 4, most recently as the presenter of the series ‘Tales from the Stave.’ She lives in London and in Deal, overlooking the sea which is her passion.

Frances Fyfield
July 15, 2014
Witness Impulse
Electronic book text
Fiction / Crime
$8.50 USD

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Forgotten Books: The Plastic Nightmare by Richard Neely

The Plastic Nightmare by Richard Neely

I've written here before about Neely. He wrote non-series crime novels that pretty much covered the entire range of dark suspense. I mentioned that in the best of them the weapon of choice is not poison, bullets or garrote. He always prefered sexual betrayl.

Plastic is a good example. Using amnesia as the central device Dan Mariotte must reconstruct his life. Learning that the beautiful woman at his bedside all these months in the hospital--his wife--may have tried to kill him in a car accident is only the first of many surprises shared by Mariotte and the reader alike.

What gives the novel grit is Neely's take on the privileged class. He frequently wrote about very successful men (he was a very successful adverts man himself) and their women. The time was the Seventies. Private clubs, privte planes, private lives. But for all the sparkle of their lives there was in Neely's people a despair that could only be assauged (briefly) by sex. Preferably illicit sex. Betrayl sex. Men betrayed women and women betrayed men. It was Jackie Collins only for real.

Plastic is a snapshot of a certain period, the Seventies when the Fortune 500 dudes wore sideburns and faux hippie clothes and flashed the peace sign almost as often as they flashed their American Express Gold cards. Johnny Carson hipsters. The counter culture co-opted by the pigs.

The end is a stunner, which is why I can say little about the plot. Neely knew what he was doing and I'm glad to see his book back in print. Watching Nerely work is always a pleasure. This was turned in the movie "Shattered" which pretty much ruined the book.

Oscar Dystel, Who Saved Bantam Books, Dies at 101 COOL GUY

Wednesday, May 28, 2014



by Fred Blosser

As I discussed a couple of years ago in an earlier contribution to Ed’s blog, I find it interesting that when fans praise Gold Medal Books, they’re almost always referring to the GM catalog from the 1950s and 1960s, unless the subject is John D. MacDonald, Donald Hamilton, or the few others whose careers with GM spanned two, three, or more decades.  In my experience, the 1970s are rarely mentioned.  As a result, some fine novels from Gold Medal’s twilight decade have been overlooked and underappreciated, but worth trolling for.

For example, Richard Posner’s THE MAFIA MAN, published in 1973, that fondly remembered year of the Watergate hearings and the OPEC oil embargo. 

This was one of the ‘70s Mafia novels that Gold Medal cover-blurbed: “From the publishers of THE GODFATHER,” when that tag carried some marketing weight in the wake of Puzo’s best-selling novel and Coppola’s blockbuster movie.  

With greater accuracy, if lesser commercial appeal, the blurbs could have likened Posner’s grim little gangland story to the gritty Syndicate novels by Peter Rabe and Ovid Demaris that had appeared as Gold Medal originals two decades earlier.

Posner’s plot and characters reflect the free-floating malaise and anxiety of the early ‘70s, represented here in terms of seismic upheavals within the New York Mafia.  In the summer of 1972, the grisly murder of Dominick Passuia, an underling of the LaDuca gang, is followed by the drive-by killing of Don Vitone Francavilla, the capo of a rival family, on the Long Island Expressway.  Someone is trying to instigate a new gang war -- but who?  

The other Families fear that the Mafia’s black and Puerto Rican foot soldiers are trying to pit the Bosses against each other, so that they can seize power as wholesale slaughter begins and the Mob decimates itself.  The capos are going on the tenuous evidence that the killers in both murders were African-American.  But Don Vitone’s son Eddie, on the equally slender evidence of an old feud, thinks that the Passuias’ allies, the LaDucas, ordered the hit out of a mistaken belief that the Francavillas were behind Dominick’s murder.  

Neither side knows for sure.  Somewhere in the chain of command between the street soldiers and the Bosses, the lines of communication have been cut.

As tempers fray, Eddie recruits an outsider, David Holzman, an ambitious young reporter whose father had been Don Vitone’s sharp-eyed accountant in the old days.  David’s job: to poke around the internal machinery of the organization, ask questions, stir things up, and hope that clues will begin to emerge.  “Maybe someone will talk to him, who wouldn’t talk to Eddie,” Francavilla’s bodyguard Vinnie tells another Mafioso, Don Marco.

Posner knows how to tell a compelling story about the underworld in unpretentious, straight-ahead prose, like Mario Puzo but minus Puzo’s romanticized trappings.  The action takes place in rundown neighborhood stores, shabby offices, and cheap apartments.  This is the dirty, garbage-strewn, Lindsay-era New York City immortalized in THE FRENCH CONNECTION and SERPICO.  Even in Eddie’s upscale suburban estate, the furnishings are “vulgar.”  There’s no regal Don Corleone in Posner’s cast of mobsters, no tragically conflicted Michael, no larger-than-life Sonny.  

Holzman’s first impression of the new Don Eduardo: “Francavilla looked harried, like an executive whose business was failing.”  He’s a forerunner of other gangsters from later books, movies, and TV who find their upper-echelon Mob duties more grinding than glamorous, like James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano and Robert de Niro’s Jimmy the Gent Conway -- minus Tony’s flashes of humanity and Conway’s innate cunning.  

The old Dons fret over what will happen to their gangs when they retire or die.  Either their Americanized children will lack interest in taking over the business (“My sons are in medical school,” one capo says) or they’ll lack the needed drive and street smarts to maintain control.  Before his demise, Don Vitone considers the prospect with dismay: “To watch your son crap on everything you built, a weak-livered, simpering coward, like all the American-born sons.”

This theme of inter-generational discord pervades Posner’s story and poisons almost every one of the main characters.  Holzman looks back in resentment on “old world attitudes that stifled him in a boyhood of steaming chicken soup and bigotries.  Not love.”  Don Vitone’s angry disappointment in his son (“he was ashamed that this was all he could give to the organization”) is amplified in Eddie’s disdain for his own long-haired, seemingly passive son Ted: “He’s a piece of dog shit.”

A first reading of THE MAFIA MAN drowns you in Posner’s bleak, bloody story, with plentiful violence and sex.  After a second reading, you’re impressed with the subtext of generational divide in the Vietnam era of the story, and its legacy of disappointed parents and alienated, embittered offspring.  Read it a third time and notice the passage in which David Holzman, still in his twenties (like Posner himself at the time) speculates on the next American generation after his, foreseeing that the worst is yet to come for society:  

“The new breed, beautifully adapted to this world, an overcrowded jungle where human life was expendable.  Kids born and raised with a television screen for a mother.  Kids weaned on the media, instant war, computerized schooling.  . . . They saw death each night in color, real death, then make-believe death. . . .Nothing could possibly hold their interest, bombarded with frenzied entertainment from birth. . . . [T]he next natural step was murder, looting, mayhem.  It was a way to feel alive.”

Posner wrote two other Gold Medal novels about the Mafia: THE SEVEN UPS, a movie novelization (1973), and THE TRIGGER MAN (1974).  With Ed’s permission, more about them in future blogs.