No Prozac for the Wicked

The Cool Capers of Donald Westlake

Like God and the Devil, - - writer Donald E. Westlake has many names and sometimes seems to be everywhere all at once. In the field of crime literature, Westlake has few peers, a legion of admirers, and innumerable imitators. Since the 1960 publication of his smash debut The Mercenaries, he's written more than 70 novels (40-something under his own name and dozens more under a gaggle of pseudonyms), including two of the best crime fiction series ever written, and dozens of one-shot genre-twisting classics. His film credits include at least two movies that many writers would kill to have on their resumé. Westlake's screenplay for The Grifters, adapted from the Jim Thompson novel, won a well-deserved Academy Award in 1990. It was also widely acknowledged as being the first completely successful translation of Thompson's incredibly dark and tortured visions into the language of film.

True aficionados of hard-boiled fiction and cinema were the least surprised by Westlake's deft handling of Thompson's stark, hellish world view. After all, Stark was practically Donald Westlake's middle name. More precisely, Richard Stark was the pen name under which he wrote 20 hard-boiled classics between 1962 and 1974, the first of which, The Hunter, was made into a killer film noir in 1967 called Point Blank! With a stellar cast led by the inimitable Lee Marvin, director John Boorman transformed Westlake's original caper/revenge tale into a unique, stunning, and sometimes psychedelic celluloid trip that blew the genre to smithereens and, in the process, redeemed it from anachronistic irrelevance. (Should be required viewing for wannabe noir filmmakers weaned on Tarantino and MTV.) So far, six of the Stark novels have made it to film, a pretty fair number when you consider their dark, amoralistic tone. They're the best caper novels ever written, with lean and mean prose and chapters that flash back and forward to drive a narrative that zips along at whiplash speed despite the infinite convolutions of the heists, take-downs, betrayals, and general mayhem of the plot.

Parker reacted at once, almost without thinking. The lights flashed on, he spun and saw them, he heard the engine turning over, and he raised the shotgun and fired. The right barrel. The left barrel. The lights went out. -- The Black Ice Score

Sixteen of the Stark novels feature a protagonist named Parker (no first name), a professional crook who never gets caught. A cold, almost mechanical anti-hero, Parker has an ironclad set of rules for success in crime:

* Never have sex when working a caper. (Before and after is a different story.)

* During a takeover job, learn and use the first names of the people you're holding at gunpoint. It boosts their ego and makes them easier to deal with.

* When a caper goes sour and a partner gets in trouble, it's their tough luck. The professional crook sticks his neck out for no one.

At large since his first appearance in 1962, Parker is cold as an iceberg, sure as lightning. No marine was ever as professional or dedicated to his craft. Despite all that, no caper ever goes off without a hitch. Military precision devolves into carnage and chaos, but Parker always comes out on top. None of the conflict and suspense ever has anything to do with whether the crooks' behavior is right or wrong. The concept of amorality is almost as irrelevant as it would be discussing the behavior of animals. They're just doing the thing they do. And after the gig, Parker sleeps just fine. No Prozac for the wicked.

Hearing the click behind him, Parker threw his glass straight back over his right shoulder, and dove off the chair to the left. The bullet furrowed a line through the plans on the table, the sound of the shot echoed loud and long in the closed room, and Parker rolled amid suddenly scrambling feet, his arms folded in tight over his chest. He didn't have a gun on him, and the first thing to do was get away from the guy who did. -- Plunder Squad

In 1974, Westlake stopped writing about Parker. He'd already written four other novels as Richard Stark, but these featured one of Parker's sometime partners, a part-time actor named Grofield who supplements his stage income with crime capers. The Grofield books were good. Grofield was not Parker. Westlake tried to write another Parker novel, but "Parker just wasn't alive for me," he says. That's not to say that Westlake suffered from writers' block. He kept up his usual prodigious output, under numerous pen names (Samuel Holt, Tucker Coe, Morgan J. Cunningham, Curt Clark, and Timothy J. Culver, to name a few), but his most significant work was published under his own name, and most of it was, believe it or not, comic. The Hot Rock, published in 1970, introduced a new series character named Dortmunder. Like Parker, Dortmunder is a bent twig who thinks big. Unlike Parker, Dortmunder is a wannabe, a bungler. He never gets away with it. The Hot Rock was filmed as a light-hearted Robert Redford movie. The follow-up, The Bank Shot, also made the transition to film, though not as successfully.

The bulk of Westlake's work in the past two and a half decades proved that he's just as good at being soft-boiled and biting and satirical as he is at being tough and dark and suspenseful. But was it really a detour or merely a shifting of gears? In some of Westlake's most successful crime novels (the Parker series in particular), he had already pushed the envelope just about as far as it could be pushed. Push it a little farther, the envelope turns inside out, and the payoff for a suspenseful setup isn't a sock in the jaw or an exploding bank vault but a tickled funny bone. Sometimes it's just a matter of attenuation, of tweaking the reader or viewer's expectations. Notice, for example, how much humor there is in Hitchcock's films. Try watching noir classics like The Big Sleep, Out of the Past, The Glass Key, The Maltese Falcon, or The Postman Always Rings Twice and think of them as comedies. It's easy once you've seen them a couple of times. You can only watch a guy blindly following a suicide blonde into a rain-slick dark alley or falling out of her bed and into the gas chamber a few times before you start thinking, Hey, he shoulda known better. Notice how most of the best tough-guy lines are the ones that get laughs. The line between noir suspense and dark comedy is a fine one. Or as Westlake says, "It's the other side of the same street." And Westlake knows both sides like the back of his hand.

Channeling Hitchcock is easy while reading The Ax (Mysterious Press, $23). Published to rave reviews last June, The Ax details the predicament of one Burk Devore, a middle-class, middle-aged executive who is "downsized" out of his job as a specialist at a paper company. After being unemployed for two years, Burk decides that he will be a victim no more. Taking out a phony employment ad in order to attract all the top men in his field, he collects the resumés of the six men more qualified than he for the next job opening in his special field. Then he murders them. It's all quite logical. He has to do it. Otherwise he'll lose his wife, his two kids, his home with a two-car garage (already absent the second car), his minivan. Film rights are already being negotiated. If Michael Douglas hadn't already done Falling Down, I'd expect him to kill for the part. The Ax is truly a fable for our times, a hell of a book that should make a hell of a movie, too. Expect to see more and more Westlake film credits in the future. Like a flashback-driven plot, the resurgence of film noir seems to be cycling back to the scene of Westlake's brand of crime. Filmmakers turning out movies like The Usual Suspects and, more recently, L.A. Confidential and U-Turn, not only emulate the noir style but employ high-octane narratives to prove just how entertaining men behaving very badly can be.

Not-so-coincidentally, Brian Helgeland, co-screenwriter of L.A. Confidential (adapted from the work of another great crime novelist, James Ellroy), will be writing and directing a remake of Point Blank!, starring Mel Gibson. Can Mel do Parker? Can Helgeland handle a hard-boiled heist? Devoted crime fiction aficionados will be sweating bullets.

And the crime wave rolls on, in print as well as film. Here the big news is that Richard Stark is back, with a new novel called, appropriately enough, Comeback (Mysterious Press $18). This time, Parker's crew robs $400,000 in "love offerings" from the stadium revival meeting of big time evangelist William Archibald's Christian Crusade. Everything goes off without a hitch -- almost. Parker's inside man, one of Archibald's "angels," starts to have second thoughts in the middle of the heist. Too bad for him.

Parker reached out and closed his left hand around Carmody's right thumb, bending the thumb in on itself, applying only the slightest pressure. Carmody's face turned almost as white as the makeup smeared on it, his knees bent, his mouth opened in a wide O. Parker said, "Shut up, now. You said your say. Now we walk to the money room."

Next year, Parker will strike again with a new novel, Backflash, and in the fall, Mysterious Press will begin reprinting the entire series of Stark novels. A very welcome comeback. A timely one, too: Westlake's fabulous creation is the original Material Man, the ultimate Just Do It guy. Show me the money? Gimme a break. When Parker says it, you know exactly what he means. And what's more, he's the pop culture anti-hero who anticipated the craze of one-name celebrities by 20 years.

The creator of Parker is a guy who writes books faster than most people read. A very focused, very busy man, you'd think. Although, like most people who have a lot of aliases in their closet, there are some things he'd rather not discuss; he's an open, easygoing, entertaining guy to talk with. During our interview, he even laughed at all my jokes. But then again, he seems to be a guy who laughs easily. You could say that Donald Westlake is a guy who laughs all the way to the bank robbery.

AC: Was Mercenaries (1960) indeed your very first published book?

DW: Yeah, well, under my name. There was a bit of juvenilia before that but that's the first one I acknowledge.

AC: And what about the dozens of other books written under various pen names that you haven't acknowledged? Some of those are pretty wild and very sought-after by collectors. Anything in particular you'd like to say about any of those?

DW: Uh, no. (laughs)

AC: How did you start out writing the two series characters, Parker and Dortmunder?

DW: They were both supposed to be one-shots. I wrote the first Parker book, thinking it was for Gold Medal, the great paperback original house, but they rejected it, so my agent sent it to Pocket Books. There was an editor there named Bucklyn Moon, a wonderful man. He called me, and we discussed the fact that I had Parker get caught at the end. I thought bad guys had to get caught at the end. He asked me if there was any way I could let Parker get away and do more books about him. I said, "Oh yeah." So that was completely inadvertent.

And so with Dortmunder I just did The Hot Rock and didn't expect to see him again. Then two years later I was driving back and forth between New York and New Jersey every week and there was a bank being torn down and a new bank being built next door, and they were operating out of a mobile home next door while the construction was going on. I finally drove by one time and I said wait a minute, there's wheels on that thing, somebody could just pull up and drive that bank away, and I think I got the perfect people to do it. And so that's how Dortmunder came back, in The Bank Shot. But it was all inadvertent. I just get up every morning and scratch my head.

AC: Everybody says your books have this amoral center. Do you have an attitude or philosophy that explains that?

DW: It just seems to be natural. It's not that I am specifically myself anti-authority but it's just that I think I just basically have a distrust of people who say, "I'm in charge here." I remember years ago I was walking on the beach and there was a guy walking towards me and he was wearing a
T-shirt that said, "Question Authority," and my immediate reaction was, "Who says?"

AC: It's interesting that writers like you and Hammett and Robert B. Parker are able to balance humor and darkness while writing in the hard-boiled style. Then you've pushed it all the way over to the other side for the Dortmunder series. Was Dortmunder specifically intended as a satirical take on Parker?

DW: Actually Dortmunder came out of a failed effort to do Parker. I had an idea for a novel in which Parker would have to steal something over and over and that turned out to be too comic of an idea that you just couldn't give it to Parker. The character would lose credibility as a tough guy if you gave him that story, and that's why I wound up with Dortmunder. But it's just the other side of the same street.

AC: I see a lot of Hammett in your style. Do you like his Bloodmoney?

DW: Oh, yeah, yeah, yes. Hammett is one of the people I wanted to write like because he was laconic. He didn't waste words. He didn't make a big deal about emotions. But he made them very plain. You knew the emotions were there without him having to tell you a whole lot. I liked that a lot in him, so that was the stylistic thing I liked, not the kind of stories he was doing but the way he was telling them.

AC: Before Comeback arrived I was wondering how you were going to handle the time and age issue. Now that I've read it, I know. Here we are, 23 years after his last caper and he seems as spry as ever, but I feel a lot older.

DW: I figured that if Dick Tracy could go on without ever aging then Parker could too. I mean, if the cops can do it, then why not a robber? Dortmunder hasn't aged in 27 years. They live in a sort of perpetual Now. Like in one book they don't know about fax machines, and in another book they do, and things like that.

AC: How about Point Blank! Is that a great movie or what?

DW: Oh, yeah, that's a terrific movie.

AC: What's your interpretation of the ending? Is he supposed to be dead or is he really, literally, hiding in the shadows?

DW: Well, nobody who made the movie has ever been prepared to talk about what the ending means. One interpretation is that in the opening sequence, when he's lying on the floor in the cell, he's about to die and the entire movie is his dying dream sequence. Now that's a little artsy-fartsy.

AC: You think so? I've always kind of liked that interpretation. But it doesn't matter to me either way, doesn't detract from the movie.

DW: Yeah, it's better to leave it alone, which is why I'm glad that the people who made it never talked about it.

AC: Let's talk about the remake.

DW: I don't know too much about it. They never came to us, we went to them. My agent read in Daily Variety that they were going to do a movie called Parker. We got in touch with them and said, well, there are lots of things you can do but you can't do a movie called Parker because you don't own the name.

AC: Oh, is that why the Parker character is always named something besides Parker? How did that get started?

DW: Because Lee Marvin wouldn't do sequels. He just refused to do sequels. So you don't use up the name on a guy who's never gonna do another one. The second time, The Split, Jim Brown played the lead, and he wasn't gonna do a whole bunch of them either, so again, we said you can't use the name. And then it sort of became a habit. They own the remake rights but they don't own the name. We tried to work out a deal, because Brian Helgeland really wanted to use the name, and we tried to work out something that would be fair for everybody but it just wasn't possible, so I don't know what they're calling him, but...

AC: Spenser?

DW: Huh? What?

AC: That's a joke. You know, like Robert B. Parker's Spenser.

DW: Oh, yeah, that's a good one. I think that at one point they were saying that if they couldn't call him Parker they'd call him Hunter, since the book was called The Hunter, and the movie is now called Payback.

AC: Do you do anything differently when you're working as Richard Stark? Put on a different pair of shoes, or stick a gun in your pocket, maybe?

DW: No, no. I look at what I did yesterday to get back into that head. The personas and all that are waiting for me in my office. I don't carry them around.

AC: Let's talk about The Ax. Have you had any interesting feedback from people who've been in that position?

DW: Yeah. One letter, the guy said, "Now that I've read your book I'm surprised that murder never occurred to me in those 18 months." And there's a guy from the New York Post, a reporter, who told me he thought that The Ax is terrific, but he didn't finish it. He was out of work a couple of years, and he said, "That feeling of helplessness and rage and sadness is what you live with until you get back and your book is full of it and I couldn't stand it."

AC: So you're gonna have that on your conscience now.

DW: Well, the problem is that the natural audience for that book can't afford hardcovers.

AC: Why and how did Stark come back?

DW: I tried three or four times over the years, from '73 up to maybe 1980. Then in 1988 I started to do the screenplay for The Grifters and the Writers Guild went on strike. I was writing a Dortmunder novel, Drowned Hopes, and when I finished it the strike was still going on, and I had a little idea for what might have been a Parker novel and I started it then. But then the strike ended and I did The Grifters. So then a year later I went back and looked at those two chapters and I thought, geez, maybe I can, and I did half a book and then it just stopped. Then about a year and a half ago, I finished something, I forget what, and I said to my wife, usually I know what I'm gonna do next, usually by the time I finish a book I've got an idea for something, or I've been hired to write a screenplay or something, but I don't know what I'm gonna do next and it feels weird. She said why not take a look at that Richard Stark book you never finished. I went back and looked at the first half that existed I said, I see the next three chapters. And it just flowed and it went so easily then that I've done another one since. He'd gone away and then he'd come back. There's no telling why. Maybe it was me or something in the world around me...

AC: Maybe it was hanging out with those grifters.

DW: Yeah, that could be it.

AC: Did you experience any weird feelings slipping inside Jim Thompson's head when you wrote The Grifters?

DW: Yeah, I've been on both sides of this, I've been the novelist who somebody else adapts and I've been the adapter who adapts someone else's novel, so I've been both sides. My feeling is that the screenwriter's job is to get the original writer's feeling across, what it was that he was doing when he was putting it on paper. His world view, his attitudes, his approach, what he was trying to accomplish. You're not gonna get the specifics, you might get some of the dialogue, you may get some of the scenes, but it's a different field. Now, Thompson is the most nihilistic writer America has ever produced. As somebody says, every one of his novels ends when his characters go to hell. I mean, they just go to hell. The people who put The Grifters together were just wonderful, including the production designer, Dennis Gassner. He and Stephen Frears got together and they decided that in the early part of the movie there would be no red, to the extent that there's an early sequence outside in Los Angeles between John Cusack and a cop and in the background behind them it's like two blocks worth of parking lots. And somebody noticed there was a red car a block and a half away. So they ran down there with a car cover and covered it. Because they wanted to gradually introduce red until when you get to the end of the movie, when Anjelica Huston gets into the elevator and goes down, she's in bright, bright red, in an amazing amount of white light on her, in a black box. She's in red-red-red, and Stephen said that is the descent into hell.

So we tried to do in our way what Thompson was doing in his way. The thing was, Thompson had to write too fast for too little money; he knew he was better than that. And there was nothing he could do about it but just keep slogging ahead and you can see in his books, particularly if you do like I did and you're trying to get the parts right. You see, well, oh he should have introduced this back on page 30 but it didn't occur to him until he got to page 50, and he was damned if he was gonna retype page 30, so he'll introduce it on page 50. But I can take it and put it back in the story where it belongs. So I said what I'm doing is giving Jim Thompson the second draft he never got to do for himself.

AC: That's great. I've argued with people who carp about what they see as technical faults in his writing, and I say that they're missing the point. A Thompson book is an experiential thing. You can't judge his work by conventional standards.

DW: Yeah. He was very talented and very driven and so that sense of a guy who has a story to tell about everybody going to hell and has to do it in commercial enough terms so he can pay the rent and he's like he's got a following wind, and he's being driven forward at top speed and doing the best he can with it. It's sort of exciting and scary to go along with it. It was very interesting, very interesting to do.

And there was a premiere in Los Angeles and a party afterward and Thompson's widow and daughters and they're all tall, they're all like six feet tall, and they all looked like Anjelica in the movie! I was saying oh my God, oh Jesus!

AC: I know what you mean, I met some of the family at a book party in Westwood a few years ago. Let's come back to my favorite anti-hero for a minute. What are some things Parker would NOT do?

DW: I spoiled a book by having him do something he wouldn't do. The sixth book in the series is called The Jugger, and that book is one of the worst failures I've ever had. The problem with it is, in the beginning of the book this guy calls him and says "I'm in trouble out here and these guys are leaning on me and I need help," and Parker goes to help him. I mean, he wouldn't do that, and in fact, the guy wouldn't even think to call him! (laughs)

AC: But in Comeback, Parker convinces Ed and Brenda to come pick him up when he's on the run.

DW: Yeah, and they discuss it and Ed Mackey says, Well, he wouldn't do that for me, and Brenda says, No he wouldn't, but he expects you to, and you will.

AC:I noticed you've got some stronger female roles in Comeback than in previous Parker novels.

DW: Well, you're always writing in the time you're writing in, and women --

AC: Are stronger these days.

DW: Yeah, and they take a more active part in stories. I've seen the script for the remake of Point Blank!, and again, the women are stronger, because it's just natural. That's the reality.

AC: I like tough women in stories.

DW: Yeah, these days, any time I have dealings with a tough lawyer, it's always a woman. Used to be, it was always a man, it was always this sort of a bony older man, and now it's a bony, younger woman.

AC: Are you familiar with Paddy Mitchell, the professional bank robber?

DW: No, I don't think I've heard of him.

AC: There's a nice long story on him in GQ, the fall fashion special with Sean Penn on the cover. Until recently, Paddy was a very successful professional bank robber. And, like Parker, he had plastic surgery to hide his identity, and instead of now saying he's sorry for his crimes and must have been under some evil influence or something, he says, No way, I was having the time of my life!

DW: There's a guy named Al Nussbaum, last time I had any contact with him he was in San Francisco, and I'm not sure if he's now alive or dead. He was in San Quentin for the rest of his life for bank robbery because his partner killed a guard during the robbery, and therefore he was also guilty of murder one. He became a writer while he was in jail. He was very bright and very funny, and he says, "I didn't reform, I lost my nerve. I still think it's sensible to want money and if you want money it has to be sensible to go where they have it and make them give you some."

AC: When you first started out, did you have any inkling where your writing career was going to lead?

DW: (laughs) None, absolutely none. I used to make predictions and I was always wrong. Every time I used to say, "This is what I'm gonna do next," I was always wrong, so I stopped saying what I was going to do next. I just get up every morning and scratch my head.

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