Kindle Spotlight: A Tribute to Donald E. Westlake

Donald E. Westlake

On December 31st, 2008, notable author Donald E. Westlake died at the age of 75.

Westlake was most famous for his Dortmunder series, where a modern-day Robin Hood and his gang of merry men and women perform humorous crime capers in the name of good causes (even when they’ve been wrangled into it). Over his long career, he’s written under numerous pseudonyms as well, from the more famous Richard Stark to others such as Judson Jack Carmichael, Samuel Holt, and Edwin West.

I will miss his humor and wit, which could quickly turn to sarcasm and social critique—and gracefully so, on a dime. He was a wonderful writer and, as noted by Jo Walton, a writer that other writers like.

He will be missed.

His books currently available on the Kindle:

Dortmunder Series

The aforementioned humorous capers and adventures of John Dortmunder and friends.

What’s the Worst That Could Happen? by Donald E. Westlake

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The first caper available on the Kindle (although the oldest goes some years back, to 1970’s The Hot Rock), Max Fairbanks, a powerful and insanely wealthy GM Ford Chrysler CEO magnate catches Dortmunder and taunts him, adding insult to injury by also taking the thief’s lucky ring.

Naturally, Dortmunder and his gang exact humorous revenge at Fairbanks’ various swanky penthouses and other palaces around the country.

Bad News by Donald E. Westlake

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It’s been five years, and John Dortmunder is undergoing a midlife crisis. Nothing he does turns out right, bad news for someone who can fall into police custody at any time. He’s forced to hang onto someone else’s scheme—but they’re about to make him the patsy instead.

Fortunately, Dortmunder gets his game back.

The Road to Ruin by Donald E. Westlake

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Enron CEO Monroe Hall is a crook—but unlike John Dortmunder and friends, he’s a corporate crook, which is totally different. Dortmunder has an eye on the CEO’s collection of antique cars, so he and his gang decide to serve as Hall’s live-in staff temporarily. Who else would you trust to be the modern Robin Hood in this case?

Watch Your Back! by Donald E. Westlake

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Dortmunder really needs someone to watch is back in this adventure, because he’s fighting a war on two fronts. On the one hand, two incompetent thieving friends of his are about to attempt to steal the expensive art collection of millionaire Bernard Madoff Preston Fareweather. And on the other, the pub where Dortmunder and friends meet is about to get taken over by the mob.

Can he save the pub and also score the booty? Well, he is Dortmunder.

What’s So Funny? by Donald E. Westlake

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Dortmunder is forced to steal an expensive chess set. But it’s not just any chess set: it’s one of solid gold, originally a gift for the Russian czar, but now locked up in a vault under U.S. Government security. It’s not just red tape our favorite thief has to cut through, but several layers of iron-clad security, policed by people with an extremely dry sense of humor.

Thieves Dozen by Donald E. Westlake

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Need bite-sized Dortmunder capers for a snack on bus, plane, train, or ferry? Fear not: these are short stories featuring John Dortmunder.

Includes (and I’ll let you figure out the 11 question):

  1. “Ask a Silly Question”
  2. “Horse Laugh”
  3. “Too Many Crooks”
  4. “A Midsummer Dream”
  5. “The Dortmunder Workout”
  6. “Party Animal”
  7. “Give Till It Hurts”
  8. “Jumble Sale”
  9. “Now What?”
  10. “Art and Craft”
  11. “Fugue for Felons”

Parker Series

Unlike Dortmunder, Parker is a true anti-hero—he’s not at all a nice guy, and a hard criminal.

Luc Sante comments (and I’m taking this quote from the New York Times Review of Books and Wikipedia):

He is a loner, competing with conglomerates (the syndicate) and fending off marginal elements (psychotics, amateurs). He has no interest in society except as a given, like the weather, and none in power. He is a freebooter who acquires money in order to buy himself periods of vegetative quiet.

Parker was supposed to be the central character for The Hot Rock, but it was too humorous a story for him—he does the serious and grim side of the crime caper, and does and will resort to murder.

Flashfire by Richard Stark

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You don’t double-cross Dortmunder because he will find a way to humiliate you and prostrate your dough. You don’t double-cross Parker because you’ll end up dead.

So naturally two crooks attempt to double-cross Parker after a three-way heist. Sort of a natural Darwin Award right there.

Firebreak by Richard Stark

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Someone is trying to exact revenge on Parker (who knows why specifically, although we get the general idea) while he’s trying to steal Old Masters from billionaire dot-com mogul Bill Gates. Generally not a good idea, even if it seems that both of his hands are occupied with a loose cannon thief who nearly wrecks his plans.

Nobody Runs Forever by Richard Stark

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Parker’s finances are suffering, just like everybody else’s. Or at least, almost everybody else’s. It’s not a good day to be rich. On the other hand, it’s also not a good day to be Parker, what with everybody wanting to kill you and good help on a heist being hard to find.

Dirty Money by Richard Stark

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Parker’s last heist didn’t turn out quite so well: the money he stole was marked, and both head hunters and minor crooks are on his tail. How to keep the money (and all of his share) and not get caught by the law? Parker solves that one.

Other Novels

Ranging from the humorous to the hard-boiled and deadly serious, even covering science fiction occasionally.

God Save the Mark by Donald E. Westlake

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One of the early Westlake novels, but yet in print: Fred Fitch is the perfect mark, every con-artist’s dream client. Amazingly, he really does inherit a fortune (and it’s not actually a scam), but now he’s definitely marked by seemingly every crook around—but the fortune has a secret, and Fred is not about to let himself get scammed again.

Kahawa by Donald E. Westlake

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Full of images that won’t get out of your head (argh argh argh). The corrupt and ruthless Uganda dictator Idi Amin, who makes Parker look like Tiny and the Russian mob look like Girl Scouts, doesn’t realize that he’s about to get swindled by a band of merry thieves as a 6 million dollar train of coffee disappears. Oh boy, are they in trouble.

Smoke by Donald E. Westlake

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Freddie Noon is a likeable thief in the Dortmunder mode who gets caught when breaking into the offices of two doctors doing research for the Tobacco Institute. They turn him into a guinea pig—and get more than they bargained for when Freddie turns invisible.

Life as an invisible man: it’s been done many times, but this time it’s got the Westlake touch.

The Ax by Donald E. Westlake

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Burke Devore is our everyman in this book, and unfortunately he’s been laid off; a former manager for a paper company, his life is falling apart, he’s got a family to support, and his options are quickly running out. What is he going to do?

Out of desperation, he comes up with a plan: murder. Serial murder. The most chilling part is that Devore remains the everyman even as he gains confidence in killing off his competition literally.

Put a Lid on It by Donald E. Westlake

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Meehan is a thief about to be sentenced for his crimes. Unexpectedly, he’s saved by a mysterious representative: a member of the campaign to re-elect the president who wants him to steal an incriminating videotape from an insane millionaire. Chaos results.

The Hook by Donald E. Westlake

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Two authors have made a devil’s bargain in this book of criminal psychological suspense. Proctorr is a famous author, with a huge contract to fulfill and terrible writer’s block to boot. Prentice is a forgotten author, his backlist vanished, his pseudonym attempts at revival failed, and a manuscript in his hands that no one in their right publishing minds will look at.

Proctorr offers Prentice a deal to get his manuscript published—but first Prentice must kill Mrs. Proctorr.

Money for Nothing by Donald E. Westlake

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Josh Redmont is a happy man. He’s got a good job, a good house in a good neighborhood, a family and children. He’s the American dream come to life: ambitious yet honorable, hardworking, successful. Thing is, he keeps getting these $1000 checks from somewhere, every month. He doesn’t know where or why; it just happens. What do you do?

One day the bill comes due: a mysterious stranger shows up and tells Redmont that he’s a sleeper agent and must carry out a political assassination.

Really, it’s kind of bad to have good luck in a Westlake novel. It never, ever lasts.

Non-Kindle Sources

The Risk Profession
FeedbooksProject Gutenberg

From Amazing Stories, March 1961. Not copyright in the United States, but copyright just about everywhere else. It’s not legal for you to download this book if you don’t live somewhere in the 50.

Mister Henderson called me into his office my third day back in Tangiers. That was a day and a half later than I’d expected. Roving claims investigators for Tangiers Mutual Insurance Corporation don’t usually get to spend more than thirty-six consecutive hours at home base.

Henderson was jovial but stern. That meant he was happy with the job I’d just completed, and that he was pretty sure I’d find some crooked shenanigans on this next assignment. That didn’t please me. I’m basically a plain-living type, and I hate complications. I almost wished for a second there that I was back on Fire and Theft in Greater New York. But I knew better than that. As a roving claim investigator, I avoided the more stultifying paper work inherent in this line of work and had the additional luxury of an expense account nobody ever questioned.

It made working for a living almost worthwhile.

One thought on “Kindle Spotlight: A Tribute to Donald E. Westlake

  1. Arachne,

    I started reading Westlake about 8 years ago, and loved his wonderful style and gift for hilarious simile and metaphor. I remember one line where he describes a character as being “older than his teeth.” Many of them have really struck and stayed with me.

    Thankls for the tribute.

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