musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Donald Westlake

Donald E. Westlake was the master of what’s been dubbed the “comic crime” genre of fiction. Most especially, his Dortmunder series of novels are classic examples of fun and funny blood-free crime stories, more comical capers than whodunit mysteries or violent thrillers. Westlake started penning novels way back in 1960 and didn’t stop until his untimely passing in late 2008. By that time he had written over one hundred novels, under a variety of pseudonyms. Several of his books were made into films, including The Hot Rock, Bank Shot, and What’s the Worst That Could Happen?


I was very happy to find a copy of Westlake’s latest Dortmunder adventure, Get Real, at a branch of Kinokuniya in Bangkok last week. Sadly, due to Westlake’s death, this is probably the last we’ll see of Dortmunder and gang. Unless Westlake had an unpublished tale or two stowed away in some filing cabinet (even in recent years he reportedly used a typewriter, not a computer, to write his books), Get Real will be the last of a long, hilarious line of books. One review posted on Amazon had a telling take on the conflicting emotions that many of Westlake’s fans had about the publication of Get Real:


“For some time after I heard of Westlake’s death I couldn’t bring myself to buy this book. It is akin to that last gift under the tree — you so want to see what lies inside yet know it’s over after that.”

Thankfully, Get Real turned out to be one keeper of a gift, a solid addition to the Dortmunder catalog. Some reviewers complained about the lack of “bang” at the ending, surmising that the novel was actually finished by someone other than Westlake. I have to admit that I too was expecting a little more in the way of a surprise, or yet another plot twist, by the ingenious author, before the story finally climaxed. But I really can’t nitpick too much. Get Real was a delightful read, packed with great scenes and the usual sharp dialogue from Westlake’s motley crew of loveable criminal misfits. Gonna miss that crew.


Westlake also wrote many books under the name of Richard Stark. Most of the Stark books featured the “Parker” character, and are much darker in tone than the Dortmunder ones. But like the Dortmunder books, the protagonist is a genuine criminal. No cute cops or clever private detectives to muddy the waters. In Parker’s world, real blood is shed, and bodies pile up, but the violence is not over-the-top or too gory, just enough to create the tone that Stark/Westlake wants. Many of the Richard Stark books have been reissued in recent years, so start digging, there are over twenty of them out there.

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