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Donald Westlake

Donald Westlake

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Also Known As: Richard Stark, Donald E. Westlake Died: December 31, 2008
Born: July 12, 1933 Cause of Death: Heart Attack
Birth Place: Brooklyn, New York, USA Profession:

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

With an impressive catalogue of work that included hundreds of novels and non-fiction books, Donald Edwin Westlake was quite the prolific mystery novelist. The award-winning author, whose best known works featured the ruthless criminal Parker and the more likeable, albeit terminally unlucky, thief John Dortmunder, became synonymous with crime fiction. Westlake was born on July 12, 1933 in Brooklyn, New York, although he was raised upstate in Albany. Like many aspiring writers, Westlake nearly always had a pen in his hand as a young man. After a barrage of short story submissions and an equal number of rejections, the young author made his first short story sale in 1954. While he attended Champlain College in Plattsburg NY, he continued to work on his short stories, often modeled on the popular noir of the 1930s and 1940s. After finding a job at a literary agency, Westlake moved to New York City in 1959. On the side, he continued to write under the pseudonym Alan Marshall and published several exploitation novels under that name, such as All My Lovers (1959) and All the Girls Were Willing (1960). His first published novel under his own name was the 1960 crime thriller The Mercenaries. In 1962 he began...

With an impressive catalogue of work that included hundreds of novels and non-fiction books, Donald Edwin Westlake was quite the prolific mystery novelist. The award-winning author, whose best known works featured the ruthless criminal Parker and the more likeable, albeit terminally unlucky, thief John Dortmunder, became synonymous with crime fiction. Westlake was born on July 12, 1933 in Brooklyn, New York, although he was raised upstate in Albany. Like many aspiring writers, Westlake nearly always had a pen in his hand as a young man. After a barrage of short story submissions and an equal number of rejections, the young author made his first short story sale in 1954. While he attended Champlain College in Plattsburg NY, he continued to work on his short stories, often modeled on the popular noir of the 1930s and 1940s. After finding a job at a literary agency, Westlake moved to New York City in 1959. On the side, he continued to write under the pseudonym Alan Marshall and published several exploitation novels under that name, such as All My Lovers (1959) and All the Girls Were Willing (1960). His first published novel under his own name was the 1960 crime thriller The Mercenaries. In 1962 he began to write under a new name, Richard Stark. These works were set in a ruthless criminal world, where only an equally ruthless protagonist could survive. Thus Westlake's first novel as Richard Stark, The Hunter (1962) featured a coldly efficient career criminal known only as Parker. The novel was a success, later adapted into the 1967 film "Point Blank" starring Lee Marvin. Although the film did not smash any box office records, its noirish themes led to it becoming a cult classic. This was not Westlake's first brush with film, however: Jean-Luc Godard's crime spoof "Made In USA" (1966) had been adapted, without permission, from the Richard Stark novel The Jugger; Westlake sued the director and won, with the result that the film was largely unavailable to view in North America until after the author's death in 2008.

From the late 1960s, Westlake found continued success as a writer in both literature and film. His 1967 God Save the Mark novel won the prestigious Edgar Award for Best Novel. Diverting from his more serious early work, Westlake ventured into more comical material beginning with 1965's The Busy Body, a crime caper that he had started as one of his hardboiled novels, but which kept turning out to be unexpectedly funny as he wrote and rewrote it. For the rest of his career, Westlake's prolific output followed a roughly 60/40 split in favor of his comic crime novels.

His most successful character under his own name, hapless New York thief John Dortmunder, was introduced in The Hot Rock, which had originally been plotted as a Parker novel in which the career criminal ended up having to steal the same item multiple times. The antic comedy was a best-seller, and was turned into a 1972 movie of the same name starring Robert Redford as Dortmunder and George Segal as his perpetually optimistic right-hand man Andy Kelp. Several more of Westlake's novels were adapted into motion pictures, including the black comedy "Cops and Robbers" (1973), for which he also wrote the screenplay, "The Outfit" (1973) with Robert Duvall as a Parker-like criminal, and "Bank Shot" (1974) starring George C. Scott and based on the second Dortmunder novel. His most famous work written specifically for the screen was "The Stepfather" (1987), a critically-acclaimed horror film that spawned several sequels and a reboot in 2009.

Westlake also found critical praise for his screenplay for the movie adaptation of Jim Thompson's pulp novel "The Grifters" (1990), winning his third Edgar Award for Best Screenplay and getting nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 1991 Academy Awards. In 1993, the New York city-based Mystery Writers of America bestowed upon Westlake their highest honor, the Grand Master Award, for recognition of his lifetime's works and achievements as a mystery and crime writer. During the holiday season of 2008, Westlake and his third wife Abigail Adams took a vacation in Mexico. However, the elderly author suffered a heart attack on December 31, 2008 while on the way to a New Year's Eve dinner. He was survived by his wife, four sons, two stepdaughters, and four grandchildren. As he was throughout his life, Westlake was productive until his death. Three of his novels were published posthumously: including a final Dortmunder caper, Get Real (2009). The ingenuity behind Westlake's last works were as apparent as they were in his prime, and were a continued source of material for Hollywood, such as 2013's "Parker," based on his 2000 novel Flashfire with action star Jason Statham as Westlake's iconic hard-boiled criminal. In the literary genre of crime fiction, few had ever had such a lasting legacy as the works of Donald Westlake.

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Milestones close milestones

1967:
The Richard Stark novel <i>The Hunter</i> adapted into the Lee Marvin vehicle "Point Blank."
1970:
<i>The Hot Rock</i> introduces the hapless criminal John Dortmunder.
1987:
Writes screenplay for successful horror film "The Stepfather."

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