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Donald E. Westlake, mystery writer, dies at 75

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Donald E. Westlake, the famously prolific mystery writer noted for his cinematic storytelling, died on Dec. 31 at age 75 of an apparent heart attack while on vacation in Mexico, according to the New York Times.

Westlake began publishing in the early 1960s and showed a mastery of the comic heist caper in novels starring the hapless crook John Dortmunder such as The Hot Rock (1970) and Bank Shot (1972)—both adapted into successful films starring, respectively, Robert Redford and George C. Scott. Writing under the pseudonym Richard Stark, he produced nearly two dozen mystery gems starring the single-named Parker, a coolly professional criminal with sociopathic tendencies who recalled Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley in everything but style. (While Ripley was more of a sexually ambiguous dandy with the airs of an artist, Parker sprang more from the no-nonsense hardboiled mold of a Dashiell Hammett character.) The first Parker book, The Hunter, which pits our antihero against the woman and best friend who betrayed him (as well as a Mafia-like “Oufit”), was adapted to the screen twice, first as the 1967 thriller Point Blank starring Lee Marvin and later as 1999’s Payback starring Mel Gibson.

With his penchant for twisty plots and witty dialogue, Westlake was a favorite in Hollywood. He also wrote several screenplays himself, picking up an Oscar nomination for director Stephen Frears’ 1990 film The Grifters starring Anjelica Huston and John Cusack as mother-son baddies. (The script was adapted from a novel by another undersung writer, Jim Thompson.)

Westlake, who set most of his books in his native New York City, was a pioneer in another sense. Working in an era long before writers like James Patterson could extend their personal brands churning out as many as five or six new titles annually, Westlake published as many as four books a year — but under a seemingly endless series of pseudonyms. In addition to Richard Stark, there was Tucker Coe, Samuel Holt, Edwin West, and J. Morgan Cunningham. On his website, Westlake noted that the cover of Cunningham’s 1970 book, Comfort Station, even contains one of his favorite blurbs: “I wish I had written this book!” — Donald E. Westlake. You’ve got to admire a guy who could get away with blurbing himself.

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