Farewell, Donald Westlake

Last week Donald Westlake, America’s best novelist, died at the age of 75.

His 100+ novels, all written on manual typewriters, covered different genres. Sometimes he used different writing styles. He wrote some fantasy and science fiction, but many of his books fell into two categories: small time crooks tangling with big time crooks, and rather ordinary people finding themselves in unusual situations that allowed them to enrich themselves by doing horrible things.

I’ve read dozens of his novels and throughly enjoyed every one. Two of my favorites are “Humans” and “The Axe.”

In “Humans” God is fed up with humanity and sends one of his angels to do some butterfly-effect tweaking that that will result in the destruction of the world. The Devil gets wind of it, and wanting to protect his choice gig sends one of his vilest demons to discover what the Angel is doing and stop him. The result is wonderfully disorienting – you’re cheering for the demon.

In “The Axe” a middle aged man is laid off from a highly skilled but very niche job. His life is falling apart, and after a few failed job interviews he decides to check out his competition. He places a fake ad in a trade paper and collects résumés. He finds six people who are his most likely competition, and then a thought occurs to him – what if something happened to them?

He becomes obsessed with the idea, and eventually, with a great deal of trepidation, kills one of them. He’s surprised how easy it was. The second one, though, is gruesome, barely a success. But now that he’s on a roll. . .

Like most of his novels about ordinary people doing evil things, the creepiest effect is your own reaction. The character seems so normal and likable you find yourself identifying with him, understanding his actions, and thinking, just for a moment, “I understand that. It doesn’t seem so bad.”

All of Westlake’s novels feature great characters, sharp dialog, plenty of action, intricate plots, and a healthy dose of humor. Be warned: If you read just one of them you will become hooked and want to read them all.

1 Comment(s)

  1. Thanks for the tip, I guess its a shame that I found out about his work after he had died. I’ll keep my eyes out for his works.

    In the meantime, I’m chewing my way through the F Paul Wilson books I ordered :P

    Jack Chapman | Jan 10, 2009 | Reply

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