The following article was originally published in the fantastic Edgar-nominated anthology Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, edited by David Morrell, who has kindly given us permission to re-print Duane Swierczynski’s essay here. Please support this wonderful and timely collection available wherever books are sold.
Donald E. Westlake (1933–2008) was born in Brooklyn and raised in Yonkers and Albany. He attended colleges in New York state without graduating. Considered a writer’s writer by his peers, Westlake received an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay, The Grifters, three Edgar Awards, and the Grand Master Award from the MysteryWriters of America. His first novel, The Mercenaries, was published in 1960. Thereafter Westlake wrote under his own name as well as several pseudonyms, in part to combat skepticism over his rapid rate of production. His pen names included Tucker Coe, Samuel Holt, EdwinWest, and Richard Stark. Under his own name, he invented the comic caper genre (The Fugitive Pigeon, 1965) and wrote a number of humorous novels about a luckless criminal named John Dortmunder. Meanwhile, as Richard Stark, he chronicled the brutal existence of career criminal Parker. Combining the two, Westlake’s comic caper novel, Jimmy the Kid (1974), features Dortmunder’s gang of bumbling kidnappers using a Richard Stark/Parker novel as a blueprint for a crime. Westlake wrote over one hundred novels, many of which were made into movies, The Hot Rock and Bank Shot, for example. The Hunter was filmed twice as Point Blank (with Lee Marvin) and Payback (with Mel Gibson).
I discovered Richard Stark in Stephen King’s The Dark Half. In an afterword, King talked about how fictional tough guy writer George Stark was modeled on Donald E. Westlake’s “Richard Stark” alter ego. I was seventeen years old, and I remember thinking I really needed to track down some stuff by this Stark guy. He sounded like my kind of writer. But this was an Internet-less 1989, and I couldn’t find a single book by Stark, in print or used.