Donald Westlake has died

by Henry Farrell on January 1, 2009

Obituary “here”: I’m very sorry to hear this – he was one of my favourite writers, both under his own name and his Richard Stark pseudonym. A few of his Dortmunder novels were perfect, in the same way that P.G. Wodehouse’s best Jeeves and Blandings novels were perfect – beautifully made confections of style, wit and adept plotting.

Update: This “post”: from Jo Walton puts it much better than I could.

He was a writer that writers like. I have often been in a conversation with writers about writing and someone will bring up Westlake and everyone else will nod and agree. Westlake’s books have wonderful characters, complicated evolving plots, they’re tightly paced and incredibly readable. When he’s funny, he’s genuinely funny with humour arising unforced out of situations. Characters are always themselves, they act the way you know they would act. They’re acutely observed and like like people. Yet his plots are clockwork masterpieces—he winds them up and off they go, not just ticking away but producing wonderful pyrotechnics. He could be gentle and he could be as hard as steel. I’ve often recommended that beginning writers study his books if they want to see how to do these things right. They’re hard to study though, because they suck you right in. There’s a quality of writing there isn’t really a word for except “unputdownable” and Westlake had it in spades.

If you haven’t read him before, I’d suggest starting with What’s the Worst That Could Happen, because that’s where I started. It’s the story of how the thief Dortmunder has his ring stolen, and how he tries to get it back, pulling off more and more complicated heists on the same person, who thoroughly deserves it. The series actually starts with The Hot Rock where Dortmunder and his friends steal the same jewel over and over. He has one more Dortmunder novel coming out in July, Get Real, so that’s something to look forward to.



chris y 01.01.09 at 9:33 pm

OK, I’ve had it with 2009 now.


Hudson 01.01.09 at 10:16 pm

I knew Don Westlake just a bit, not as a famous author but as a member of the rural community in which we both lived, and found him to be generous and thoughtful.


PG 01.01.09 at 11:14 pm

In fairness to 2009, Westlake died on Dec. 31, 2008 — collapsed of a heart attack on his way to a New Year’s Eve dinner.


Don Willets 01.02.09 at 12:31 am

One of my favorite Westlakes is “The Ax”, which takes the logic of free market competition to a gruesome result, a brilliant match for Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”.

He will be greatly missed.


Barry 01.02.09 at 1:01 am


Any suggestions on where to start with his Dortmunder novels?



Eric Berlin 01.02.09 at 3:02 am

The best of the Dortmunders, in my opinion, is What’s The Worst That Can Happen? (Please try to forget that they ever made this into a movie.)


Josh in Philly 01.02.09 at 4:23 am

Barry, the first one, The Hot Rock, is in print: why not try that?


bad Jim 01.02.09 at 11:00 am

Damn. I’m a fan. I read all the books I could get. That’s the way it goes, though. Sudden there’s no more Ross McDonald or Ross Thomas or whatever flavor we crave. Damn mortal humans.

I can’t put butter on an muffin without remembering one of his character’s commentary on a traditional English breakfast, which he didn’t like.


Toro 01.02.09 at 3:01 pm

Not a church goer but God bless the souls of Donald Westlake, Samual Holt, Richard Stark, Tucker Holt as the man had blessed us with his books, his humor and his insights. Buy one of his books today or watch the “The Grifters” and smile, smile, smile for the man.


Paul 01.02.09 at 3:35 pm

What I know of him I like.


roac 01.02.09 at 6:33 pm

So I said, “But ‘The Grifters’ was by Jim Thompson!” Fortunately I had enough sense for once to check IMdB rather than make like an idiot: Westlake wrote the screenplay for the movie. Which is very fine indeed.


Django1066 01.02.09 at 7:37 pm

“Jimmy the Kid” has the Dortmunder gang use a Richard Stark novel to plan a crime; nothing goes as planned. “Bank Shot” is wonderful. “Drowned Hopes” is longer than most Dortmunders; Westlake is just as funny largescale.
“Dancing Aztecs” is my favorite non-Dortmunder.


Henry 01.02.09 at 8:59 pm

Barry – “What’s The Worst That Could Happen” is indeed very good. But there isn’t any bad place to start with the Dortmunder novels (although the most recent, about the chess pieces, wasn’t quite as good as some of the others).


Michael 01.03.09 at 12:56 am

I have been a Donald Westlake fan for over 35 years, starting with “Up Your Banners”. I own better than 30 of his novels and enjoyed them all. I thought “Drowned Hopes” and “Bank Shot” were his best Dortmunder books. I will miss him greatly.


lothlaurien 01.03.09 at 8:22 pm

Ah, Mr. Westlake.

One of my very favorite writers; I think the world will be a much sadder place
without this writer who was capable of generating such smiles. There simply
are not enough comic writers, let alone really good comic writers. And Mr. Westlake was “the top”.

I recommend reading the Dortmunders in order as far as possible,
starting with the first, The Hot Rock. There aren’t any
substandard Dortmunder stories (and there are short stories as well),
but although What’s the Worst That Could Happen is quite
possibly my very favorite Dortmunder book, I strongly recommend NOT reading it first. Part of what makes it so very very good is what came before.

(And much as I love Danny DeVito, the surgical removal of Dortmunder
from the movie makes it a non-starter as far as I am concerned. So sad, it could have been priceless rather than silly.) Considering the dramatic visual quality of Mr. Westlake‘s writing, it is unfortunate that none of his books were ever made into really good films; The Hot Rock and Payback came close, but still weren’t as near perfection as the books.

Although they don’t have to be read in order, when you do you can see the Dortmunder crew grow into the best (and funniest) ensemble cast of
caper meisters ever. And you can also see Mr. Westlake’s humorous
writing style mature. I especially loved the Drowned Hopes/32
crossover chapters.

One of the coolest things about the Dortmunder series is the fact
that no matter how brilliant and flawless the plan, the anti-heroes can never
really get rich. The fact that Mr. Westlake was able to bring that
off over and over again without ever getting stale is a definite indicator of
his brilliance.

He was a great writer at whatever genre he turned to, but the comic novels were the ones that I loved. Beyond Dortmunder, Dancing Aztecs, Brother’s Keeper and Humans are probably my favorites.

I will surely miss him.


bad Jim 01.04.09 at 6:58 am

The L.A. Times has a nice appreciation of him. One of my and my late father’s favorites was Kahawa, about stealing a train in Idi Amin’s Uganda. Think about it: how can you steal a train?

Another, little known, was High Adventure, a picaresque story set in Belize. I will always harbor resentment against my youngest brother for borrowing my copy for a trip abroad and leaving it behind. Genre paperbacks, for all that they’re trivial entertainment, are actually treasures because they are practically irreplaceable: if you don’t buy it when you see it you may never find it again.


karen marie 01.05.09 at 5:17 am

i am very sorry to hear that donald e. westlake is no longer with us.

i’ve read somewhere close to 40 of his books at this point and am grateful that i am not quite halfway through his library.

“adios sheherezade” is one of my favorite non-dortmunder books. i thought “up your banners” was remarkable.

if you like westlake’s style and have not read them already, go pull a copy of dashiell hammett’s 5 collected novels from your library to read.


David Brown 01.05.09 at 12:11 pm

I do not read a lot, but once a year I always looked forward to a new Dortmunder story. I will miss Donald Westlake. I’m sure he touched many lives with his wit. Somehow I am saddened like when Wally Cox passed. Goodbye Mr. Peepers, and to all gentle giants everywhere.


Helen 01.07.09 at 12:23 am

I loved them all! I will miss him. Dormunder’s gang was the best. But, you must read Dancing Aztecs, Up your banners…just find and read them all.

Comments on this entry are closed.