A pioneer from the golden age of original paperbacks is gone.

Donald Westlake, the renowned crime fiction writer, died on New Year’s Eve just as I was in the middle of a book in which he was, not the author, but a character.

I read a great deal of Westlake’s fiction. He wrote under a slew of pseudonyms  as well as his own name and I was, in the day, a big fan of the Parker novels he created writing as Richard Stark. Parker was a real hard-ass, a professional thief with few redeeming characteristics who appeared in 20 novels back in the ’60s, most, maybe all, of them mass market paperbacks. The Stark identity and Parker character were revived in recent years, but I had moved on.

As Tucker Coe, Westlake did several novels about PI Mitch Tobin in the ’60s and early ’70s.  The most famous character he created under his own name, and I guess the one whose adventures ran the longest, was John Dortmunder, another professional thief whose schemes always went awry, leading to all sorts of comic complications.

Westlake was one of the stalwarts of the early days of original paperback novels from  Gold Medal and other  imprints and both he and fellow old pro Lawrence Block (PI Matt Scudder; Burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr; Evan Tanner, the Thief who couldn’t sleep; Keller, a hit man without a conscience, others) appear—indeed, play a major role in—Fifty-To-One, just released by the Hard Case Crime line, edited by Charles Ardai, who also wrote this entry.

Hard Case is an effort to recapture the glory of the noir fiction days of the paperbacks an this was its 50th release since things started up in 2001, done with the conceit that each chapter heading came from one of the 50 titles in the line.

Fifty-to-One is set 50 years ago and uses the presumption that the line was created then to set up a wild and wacky caper involving an 18-year old would-be showgirl, the editor of the line and a host of molls and dolls, thugs and mugs. Great fun.

Hard Case has reprinted several novels by Westlake and Block, as well as old and new fiction by such familiar names as Cornell Woolrich, Mickey Spillane, Max Allen Collins Richard S. Prather, Earl Stanley Garner, Wade Miller, Donald Hamilton and Robert Block, many of which I read at their original release.

In a bit of a publishing coup, Stephen King did The Colorado Kid for the line a few years ago. This is the first book Ardai has done under his own name (he’s an Edgar Award-winner) but has reportedly written others using an alias. I’m guessing that’s Richard Aleas, with two titles showing.

Huh. This started out as a mini-tribute to Don Westlake’s work  and appears to have morphed, at least implicitly, into one for something much larger.

I can live with that.


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