I’ve just gone hang-the-expense crazy on Amazon (1p plus P&P) and bought the crime fiction collection Transgressions, edited by Ed McBain.
I’m not generally a crime fiction fan. I’ve read and enjoyed many crime books and series – McBain’s 87th Precinct stories for one, and the late Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe books, but overall it’s a take-or-leave field for me. Indeed, I’ve only bought Transgressions for one of the dozen stories collected, “Walking Around Money”, by the late Donald E Westlake.
Westlake was a very prolific writer, with over 100 novels to his name, including those published under a variety of pseudonyms. He died on New Year’s Eve 2008, still far less well known in the UK than he deserved to be. In his native America, he was tremendously successful, Grand Master of the National Crime Writers Association, and one of only three writers to win the prestigious Edgar Award three times, and the only one to do so in three different categories (Best Novel, Best Short Story, Best Screenplay).
Like many writers of his generation, Westlake made his first sales in the 1950s dirty book industry, writing soft porn novels at a rate of one a month, under the bland pseudonym of Alan Marshall. He later used this experience to great effect in the painfully funny novel Adios Scherezade, which was the first of his books that I read, and which is still my favourite of all his work.
Then, in the early Sixties, he gained attention and success with his series of hard-boiled, stripped down books about the professional thief, Parker, under the pen-name Richard Stark. The Parker books are still selling today, and the recent Jason Statham film Parker is adapted from this series.
When Westlake began to establish himself under his own name, in the mid-Sixties, his work took on a quirky, comic aspect. He was still an expert at depicting the criminal world, its mindset and its characters, but his books would focus upon losers and oddballs, nebbishes and innocents, dragged into situations beyond their control. He would frequently experiment with form, in order to enhance the laughter he could quickly induce.
Adios Scherezade is an unusual, but superb example of what Westlake could achieve. The story is told, literally, by Ed Topliss, in an increasingly obsessive series of fifteen page Chapters, most of which are headed and numbered Chapter One.
Ed, a (very) average New Yorker, writes dirty books for a living. One a month, each to the formula of 150 pages, divided into ten 15 page chapters, with one sex scene per chapter. He writes a chapter a day for ten days every month, and does nothing the rest of the time.
Unfortunately, when Ed’s friend Paul – a real writer – offered him the chance to ghost write Paul’s series whilst Paul went on to write real books, he gave Ed a warning: nobody can write this shit forever. Ed wasn’t listening: he was too busy staring at Paul’s girlfriend’s mini-skirted thighs. But, thirty months later, Ed is realising that Paul was right. His last three books have been increasingly late. If he blows a fourth deadline, he’s out, and that means no income, nothing he can do, and a wife and daughter to support.
But the deadline is in twelve days, Ed’s only just finished the one before, and he’s dry. Not an idea in his head, facing disaster, and desperately writing something, anything, in fifteen page chapters in the hope it will trigger something he can use, as the immensity of his disaster builds up around him.
It’s a painfully funny book in both meanings of the phrase: it can be so funny that it hurts to laugh, but it’s also a book that finds laughter in an improbable but all-too-real situation of real pain. And Westlake’s knowledge of the dirty book industry is put to use in establishing the authenticity of this book.
The same year, Westlake published another crime novel, The Hot Rock. The story was started in 1967 as another Richard Stark/Parker book, one in which Parker would be hired to steal a diamond with religious significance on behalf of an African nation. Unfortunately, due to a series of unforeseen events, the jewel would stay out of reach, requiring Parker and his team to go through a series of plans to get hold of it.
The book got only so far before Westlake realised that it was just not possible: Parker was a strict professional, and he would have soon given up, refusing to throw good time after bad. Besides, whatever he tried to do, Westlake couldn’t keep the story from developing a funny streak.
So he put it in a drawer and forgot about it for two years, until he found it again, re-read it and liked the premise. All it needed was a suitable protagonist, a kind of anti-Parker who, like the original, would be a professional criminal, a planner, very successful, but dogged by misfortune, and by the company he keeps.
And when Westlake saw a billboard advertising the popular DAB beer by using it’s full name, Dortmunder Action Bier, he had a name for his character.
The Hot Rock was a big success, and was optioned and filmed within eighteen months, starring (incongruously) Robert Redford and George Segal in the leading parts, although in Britain it was billed as How to Steal a Diamond (in Four Uneasy Lessons).
The book was intended as a one-off, but Westlake liked his little band of hapless and somewhat quirky crooks, and he was delighted to resurrect them in 1972, for a sequel titled Bank Shot, which was equally popular.
For the rest of his career, every few years he would produce a new novel featuring Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch and a slowly growing cast of professionals who, each time, would find themselves in another, frequently improbable, but always entirely believable caper, that usually ended with the gang staying ahead of the law but not ahead of the game.
And when Westlake died, there was one completed but unpublished novel to appear posthumously, and, most fittingly, it was the fourteenth and last to feature Dortmunder. And it had a glorious idea behind it: way to leave on a high.
I’ve by no means read all Westlake’s output (though if you read the unjustly overlooked Adios Scheherezade, you’ve read all the ‘Alan Marshall’ books you could ever want.
But I’ve been collecting the Dortmunder novels for many years, and I have these and Thieves’ Dozen, a short story collection compiling all ten short stories featuring the hangdog John. It’s only lately that I’ve properly realised that there was one more story I hadn’t read, namely, “Walking Around Money”.
Transgressions has arrived, but I’m going to keep it back for a while. In the meantime, I’m going to re-read the entire collection, and only then sit down to enjoy the last Dortmunder story I’ll ever read for the first time.
And I’m going to blog the series as well, in the hope of alerting a few more people to the sheer delight of Dortmunder & Co. Keep your eyes open: I’ll be re-reading The Hot Rock very soon.