Saturday, January 3, 2009

R.I.P. Dortmunder

And another one of the good guys is gone ...

Donald Westlake and I only crossed paths a few times. The first time I met him was on the set of a TV series I was writing for in the early ’90s called Father Dowling Mysteries. (“He’s a priest; she’s a nun. Together they fight crime.” Hey, it was a paycheck.) The episode I'd written was called “The Hardboiled Mystery”, and it lurched back and forth between the contemporary plotline and one set in the ’30s, which gave us an excuse to shoot B&W period. (The idea was that the B&W segments were part of a roman à clef about Our Guys, written by a mystery writer who then winds up dead and ... you get the picture.) Since Don had written the series pilot, we thought it’d be a hoot to have him play the writer, so we flew him out for the part.

I was thrilled, as I’d been a Westlake fan since discovering the Dortmunder novels, a series of comic caper books featuring the quasi-ept titular character and his gang. Details about Westlake's productivity and writing habits I’ll leave to the many obits that can be found online (here’s the NYT one). Suffice to say that the man was simply incapable of writing a bad book (or movie). I notice that the Times obit mentions his predilection for using a manual typewriter, and I remember chatting with him about his fear of being caught without a working one. It had led him to buy up junked ones just so he’d be able to cannibalize parts if need be.

He needn’t have worried. Donald Westlake was a writer’s writer -- if there were no other way, he’d claw words on the walls with his fingernails. And you wouldn't be able to stop reading until you'd finished the room.

Rest In Peace, Don.


Shanon said...

What a nice personal remembrance posting. In addition you have just provided me with a new set of books to read. Thank you!

orclgrl said...

Just wanted to drop a follow-up that I did go out and get a copy of the first Dortmunder novel - The Hot Rock - the characters were delicious with my favorites ranking: the much beleaguered Dortmunder (of course) and Murch (who doesn't love a man who doesn't have to stop for directions). I love finding ‘ new’ authors to read and characters to get familiar with. I will be adding more of Mr. Westlake’s novels to my reading library – Thank you.