Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Tribute to Donald Westlake

One of my favorite writers, Donald E. Westlake, died on New Years Eve at age 75. Here's a link to his NY Times obituary http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/02/books/02westlake.html

When I like a fiction author, I generally read EVERYTHING they have. My good friend Mitch introduced me to Donald Westlake about 15 years ago. The books I liked best were the "John Dortmunder" series. As a tribute to Donald Westlake, I will tell you about this series, and why I enjoyed it so much.

John Dortmunder is a hard-luck, likeable burglar. He's not an ordinary burglar, he's more of a general contractor of big heists. Many of the books follow a familiar plot line. Dortmunder's friend Andy Kelp gets a lead on a potential big job. It's usually something daunting, and seems impossible. Dortmunder is asked to "look it over". If it has potential, he puts together the necessary crew, and many of these characters appear repeatedly. These are:

Dortmunder - the planner, plus basic lockpicking and safecracking
Kelp - steals vehicles (always MD plates so you can park), versatile with other skills too.
Stan Murch - expert driver....obsessed with routes and traffic, but first and foremost, a driver.
Ma Murch - Stan's mother, a cab driver, appears if a second driver is needed.
Tiny Bulcher - big, strong and scary. Muscle as needed, but more important, carries stuff.

If a job requires more....an expert lock man, a demolition person, a computer whiz, they'd bring one in too.

The fascinating thing was the depth and ingenuity of the PLANNING for the jobs. After reading for awhile, you realize that Dortmunder is the respected leader on every job because he has the one skill that is indispensible......his job is to "think of everything". As he tells the crew each thing he thinks the job needs, you say to yourself "oh yeahhhhhh" Of course, despite the ingenius planning, things always go wrong. Dortmunder seemed to expect this, and then made further plans to solve the problems. Some may be familiar with the movie "The Hot Rock" http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068718/ (starring Robert Redford as Dortmunder and and George Segal as Kelp), where a valuable gem is stolen and lost and re-stolen several times. It's a funny movie, worth renting if you can find it, but as usual....the book is WAY better.

If this brief intro inspires anybody to check out Donald Westlake, it will be worth it. I know I am always appreciative of a good book/author recommendation. While I am thanking Mitch for Donald Westlake, here's a bonus recommendation for my readers (also originally courtesy of Mitch). Mystery writer Lawrence Block. I've read at least 30 of his books. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Block (well worth checking out if you are looking for an author to try). I like the "Matt Scudder" series (retired NYC detective turned private eye....in earlier versions he is an active alcoholic, in later years he is in AA.....the drinking/abstinence issues pervade the series). Another series is Bernie Rhodenbarr, another funny burglar series, though he operates strictly solo. Then there's Keller, a hit man you can love....though he's kinda psycho and I don't always love him.

I hope you try some of these and like them. Got any recommendations for me?

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