Thursday, August 19, 2010

Petty Complaints

My gamble buying four old Richard Stark paperbacks, thinking I would need to have them to read before the new University of Chicago Press editions of Deadly Edge, Slayground, and Plunder Squad were published, failed.  I got the latest UCP edtions from Amazon well before I needed them. (The Passage and a Steig Larsson took longer to read than I bargained for.)  And now I have some garish and overpriced paperbacks sealed in plastic baggies (to preserve them? - or to keep the other books safe?) sitting next to my crisp, clean UCP editions.   Some people (you know who you are) beautifully curate old paperbacks.  I can barely stand to look at these.  It looks like I will, however, get to Butcher's Moon in ratty, paperback form well before the UCP edition is published in 2011.

Nobody seems to want to republish any of the Grofield novels.  I have paperback versions of all four (the first three in Foul Play Press editions and Lemons Never Lie from Hard Case Crime) and just finished the third one, The Blackbird.  And while I love Grofield, this book was not a strong outing by Westlake.  In the first Grofield book, The Damsel, Grofield hears, in his head, a specially composed film score to accompany whatever he's doing.  I thought that was the funniest and most endearing thing I've ever read about a character in crime fiction.  Sadly, there's no more of this in the next two books.  I think Westlake knew that The Blackbird was not properly implausible - but he let's us know that hippies are implausible characters, too (a clear reference to the two hippie villains in the previous Stark novel Deadly Edge.

Now I am on to Slayground, which shares the same opening chapter as The Blackbird.  I should have stricter standards but I love this shared chapter thing in these books and simultaneously feel that it would be a cheap gimmick if anyone else did it or does it.  (Has anyone ever done this?)  I know Westlake does it some with Joe Gores. 

I read an interesting piece in the New Yorker last week about Charlie Chan

and its may be planting the seeds of a future collecting project.  I've never read or seen anything Charlie Chan but the hunt for the books I think I could enjoy irrespective of that little fact.

Also in the New Yorker was a good piece on Agatha Christie

whom I, despite me being a long-time fan of crime fiction, have never read. 

And why can't someone at the New Yorker do a long piece on Donald Westlake?  And when will there be a proper Westlake biography?  Or a journal for Westlake studies?  There looks to be a very good survey of the Richard Stark novels in the New York Review of books back in 1985 but it is not freely accessible online.  I must get my hands on a copy of it.


Louis XIV, 'The Sun King' said...

It is curious that there's never been a Westlake Biography. I'd actually be inclined to write one myself if there were a publisher willing to issue it.

Book Glutton said...

You work (or used to) in publishing, right? If word got out that you were working on a Westlake biography, someone would show an interest. At the very least you probably know an agent who owes you a favor or whom you can lean on and see if there is any interest in a bio. And since the University of Chicago Press is republishing the Stark books, they might be receptive to a pitch. (A guy who works for them named Levi Stahl seems to have been the driving force for the reprinting and he blogs at

I know this is an unsophisticated view of how the publishing world may work. But you clearly have both the talent and the obsessive streak to complete a big project like this. Go for it.

Louis XIV, 'The Sun King' said...

Yep, I work in publishing, although I edit illustrated books rather than fiction or, strictly speaking, biogs (we have published a book on Osamu Tezuka, and have one on Alan Moore in the works). A Westlake biog would certainly be an interesting challenge, but an American writer might be better placed to do it, or at least one who had the chance to interview the man himself in person. Never say never though; a couple of trips to the States to interview people would probably do the job, with the rest of the research on the phone or via email.

Trent said...

Although of course I'd read it, I'm not sure a Westlake biography would be all that exciting. My impression is that he was a homebody and generally private person with a small-but-close circle of friends who spent most of his time writing. Not exactly Ernest Hemingway.

If I could nominate one person for the job, it would be Terry Teachout. He's a Westlake fan, a biographer, and a critic, and quite talented at the two of those things that require skill beyond enjoying a good book. I think the best approach would be a combination a combination of biography and criticism of Westlake's output, and he'd be the guy to do it.

The big problem is that absorbing all of Westlake's books and doing the research to write about his life would be a huge endeavor resulting in a book with limited appeal.

I may try to gin up a blog entry on this subject at some point (thanks for the inspiration!). Maybe I can get the ball rolling on convincing Mr. Teachout or some other worthy (maybe Louis XIV?) to take a stab at it, money be damned.

Louis XIV, 'The Sun King' said...

Mr. Teachout's CV's certainly impressive. He could be the man for the job (if he's interested). A Westlake Biog wouldn't be a huge seller, but then biographies rarely are, as anyone who writes them could confirm. Nobody writes biographies to get rich! In hardback I'd estimate 5-10K, and then a fair few rights sales around the world. Enough to make it worthwhile.

Westlake may have been a stay-at-home, but even the quietest person has still lived a life. Three marriages, four sons, two stepdaughters, a body of work of well over a hundred books... there's a story to tell there. And even just looking at the work, there's the years spent toiling in the fields of smut, the creation of Parker, the writing games Westlake played with the likes of Joe Gores and Lawrence Block, the movies, the screenplays; plenty for a biographer to get their teeth into.

The other thing to consider is, time's running out to talk to anyone Westlake grew up with or went to school with. If there are people from his younger years still around they won't be around forever. And with all the Parkers coming back into print, if not now, when?

Book Glutton said...

I checked and found out that Terry Teachout is already committed to a new project. My source (I didn't think to ask if it was okay to attribute this to him/her but my source is better than Deep Throat on this subject) wrote "his next biography - of Duke Ellington - has been commissioned and contracted for, so I suspect that will occupy his time outside of theater and cultural criticism and libretto-writing for the next few years. "

So maybe he'll hear about this idea and maybe it will grow on him and then maybe in a few years it will be announced that Donald Westlake is his next subject. Wishful thinking at its best.