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The Westlake Review

I came across this site one day:

The Westlake Review is a blog dedicated to doing a detailed review and analysis of every novel Donald Westlake published under his own name, as well as under a variety of pseudonyms. These reviews will reveal major plot elements, though they will not be full synopses. People who have not read a book being reviewed here should bear that in mind before proceeding. Some articles will be more general in their focus, analyzing aspects of Westlake’s writing, and in some cases of authors he was influenced by, or has influenced in turn. There will also be reviews of film adaptations of his work.

It’s been going since 2014! Westlake wrote a lot of books, so I guess they can keep going for awhile.

My favorite Westlake is Killing Time, but I also like Memory. And then there’s The Axe. And Slayground’s pretty good too. And Ordo, even if it’s kind of a very long extended joke on the idea of murder.

Overall, I do think there’s a black hole at the center of Westlake’s writing: as I wrote a few years ago, he has great plots and settings and charming characters, but nothing I’ve ever read of his has the emotional punch of, say, Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan (to choose a book whose plot would fit well into the Westlake canon).

But, hey, nobody can do everything. And I’m glad the Westlake Review is still going strong.

2 Comments

  1. fredfitch says:

    Thanks for the plug, Andrew (got a pingback, thought I’d turned those off, oh well).

    I’ve got exactly five more novels to review (including a just-published ‘lost’ novel), and some various side-projects in mind, and we’ll see if TWR has a reason to go on existing after that.

    Have not read either of Scott Smith’s two novels. I don’t see how anybody could say The Ax didn’t pack a massive emotional punch, or Memory, but as I like to say, there’s no accounting for taste; the books never balance.

    Westlake’s been a name for fifty years now. (Technically, he’s been a bunch of different names–several different writers, each of whom has his own style, and his own following. One way he got around the limitation of how many books you could publish under your own name in a year without wearing out your welcome. And one reason I could start a blog reviewing him in 2014, publish nearly every week, and just be finishing up by the end of 2017.) He shows every sign of continuing to be a name for another fifty and beyond. Thing about his books is, as I’ve become more and more aware of–if you’ve only read it once, you haven’t really read it. There’s always more going on beneath the surface. Lord only knows how much I’ve missed, and I’ve now read nearly all of them at least twice.

    I would agree many if not most of his books are formalist genre exercises, which is, after all, what was expected from him, and what fascinated me was how he always found a way to make it new and fresh, to turn old cliches upside down and put so much insight into them. He was more than a storyteller, you see–he was a philosopher of sorts. He was writing about identity, and how it can take on new forms under stress. Not an uncommon theme in crime fiction, but he thought it out further than most.

    I’ll give Mr. Smith a try sometime, but it’s not like I can claim any sort of objectivity here. I’ve had a number of more contemporary crime novelists recommended to me, and I sample them, and I usually come away wanting to read another Westlake. (Or Charles Willeford. Or Chester Himes. Or Jim Thompson. Or one of Highsmith’s Ripley novels.)

    You are right about no writer being able to do everything equally well. However, I would dissent from the notion that Westlake’s work is emotionally vacant. He was not the sentimental type, for sure. Not for nothing is Parker, his greatest protagonist, a man whose emotional responses seem to be a mystery even to the otherwise omniscient narrator. Though there is no doubt at all in my mind that Parker has very deep feelings–that he considers to be nobody else’s business.

    I remember something Westlake wrote once, about how when writing a movie, you can write dialogue where somebody says “I’m in terrible pain”–but in a story, you can make the reader actually feel that pain.

    So I’m just saying–you might want to look again sometime. The one thing all great books have in common is that if you’ve only read them once, you haven’t gotten all there is to get from them.

    Thanks once more.

    ‘fred’

  2. Mark Palko says:

    To a remarkable extent, Donald Westlake’s works succeeded on their own terms. You can’t really criticize them for not always being the works you’re in the mood for at the time. It’s a bit like complaining PG Wodehouse isn’t Evelyn Waugh. Westlake’s primary focus was generally the pleasure of a good story with engaging characters, effectively evoked emotions, and, most of all, the unfolding of events that managed to be both logical and unexpected.

    That said, any writer as smart and prolific as Westlake will feel the need to push his or her limits. If you are looking for something with a bit more heft and resonance, you might try 361, Killy, the very uncharacteristic A Likely Story, the short story series collected in Levine, the Tucker Coe novels, the posthumous The Comedy Is Finished, and possibly his adaptation of the Grifters.

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