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About Donald E. Westlake
I think I'd best treat this as an interrogation, in which I am not certain of the intent or attitude of the interrogator.
I was born Donald Edwin Westlake on July 12th, 1933 in Brooklyn, New York. My mother, Lillian, maiden name Bounds, mother's maiden name Fitzgerald, was all Irish. My father, Albert, his mother's maiden name being Tyrrell, was half Irish. (The English snuck in, as they will.) They were all green, and I was born on Orangeman's Day, which led to my first awareness of comedy as a consumer. I got over the unfortunate element of my birth long before my uncles did.
My mother believed in all superstitions, plus she made some up. One of her beliefs was that people whose initials spelled something would be successful in life. That's why I went through grammar school as Dewdrip. However, my mother forgot Confirmation, when the obedient Catholic is burdened with yet another name. So she stuck Edmond in there, and told me that E was behind the E of Edwin, so I wasn't DEEW, I was DEW. Perhaps it helped.
I attended three colleges, all in New York State, none to much effect. Interposed amid this schooling was two and a half years in the United States Air Force, during which I also learned very little, except a few words in German. I was a sophomore in three colleges, finally made junior in Harpur College in Binghamton, NY, and left academe forever. However, I was eventually contacted by SUNY Binghamton, the big university that Harpur College had grown up to become. It was their theory that their ex-students who did not graduate were at times interesting, and worthy to be claimed as alumni. Among those she mentioned were cartoonist Art Spiegelman and dancer Bill T. Jones, a grandfaloon I was very happy to join, which I did when SUNY Binghamton gave me a doctorate in letters in June 1996. As a doctor, I accept no co-pay.
I have one sister, one wife and two ex-wives. (You can't have ex-sisters, but that's all right, I'm pleased with the one I have.) The sister was named by my mother Virginia, but my mother had doped out the question of Confirmation by then--Virigina's two and half years younger than me, still--and didn't give her a middle name. Her Confirmation name was Olga, the only thing my mother could find that would make VOW. The usual mother-daughter dynamic being in play, my sister immediately went out and married a man whose name started with B.
My wife, severally Abigail Westlake, Abby Adams Westlake and Abby Adams, which makes her three wives right there, is a writer, of non-fiction, frequently gardening, sometimes family history. Her two published books are An Uncommon Scold and The Gardener's Gripe Book.
Seven children lay parental claims on us. They have all reached drinking age, so they're on their own.
Having been born in Brooklyn, I was raised first in Yonkers and then in Albany, schooled in Plattsburgh and Troy and Binghamton, and at last found Manhattan. (At least I was looking in the right state.) Abby was born in Manhattan, which makes it easier. We retain a rope looped over a butt there, but for the last decade have spent most of our time on an ex-farm upstate. It is near nothing, which is the point. Our nearest neighbor on two sides is Coach Farm, producer of a fine goat cheese I've eaten as far away as San Francisco. They have 750 goats up there on their side of the hill. More importantly, they have put 770 acres abutting our land into the State Land Conservancy, so it cannot be built on. I recommend everybody have Miles and Lillian Cann and Coach Farm as their neighbors.
I knew I was a writer when I was eleven; it took the rest of the world about ten years to begin to agree. Up till then, my audience was mainly limited to my father, who was encouraging and helpful, and ultimately influential in an important way.
Neophyte writers are always told, "write what you know," but the fact is, kids don't know anything. A beginning writer doesn't write what he knows, he writes what he read in books or saw in movies. And that's the way it was with me. I wrote gangster stories, I wrote stories about cowboys, I wrote poems about prospecting-in Alaska, so I could rhyme with "cold"-I wrote the first chapters of all kinds of novels. The short stories I mailed off to magazines, and they mailed them back in the self-addressed, stamped envelopes I had provided. And in the middle of it all, my father asked me a question which, probably more than any other single thing, decided what kind of writer I was going to be.
I was about fourteen. I'd written a science-fiction about aliens from another planet who come to Earth and hire a husband-wife team of big-game hunters to help them collect examples of every animal on Earth for their zoo back on Alpha Centauri or wherever. At the end of the story, they kidnap the hero and heroine and take them away in the spaceship because they want examples of every animal on Earth.
Now, this was a perfectly usable story. It has been written and published dozens of times, frequently with Noah's Ark somewhere in the title, and my version was simply that story again, done with my sentences. I probably even thought I'd made it up.
So I showed it to my father. He read it and said one or two nice things about the dialogue or whatever, and then he said, "why did you write this story?"
I didn't know what he meant. The true answer was that science-fiction magazines published that story with gonglike regularity and I wanted a story published somewhere. This truth was so implicit I didn't even have words to describe it, and therefore there was no way to understand the question.
So he asked it a different way: "What's the story about?" Well, it's about these people that get taken to be in a zoo on Alpha Centauri. "No, what's it about?" he said. "The old fairy tales that you read when you were a little boy, they all had a moral at the end. If you put a moral at the end of this story, what would it be?"
I didn't know. I didn't know what the moral was. I didn't know what the story was about.
The truth was, of course, that the story wasn't about anything. It was a very modest little trick, like a connect-the-dots thing on a restaurant place mat. There's nothing particularly wrong with connect-the-dots things, and there's nothing particularly wrong with this constructivist kind of writing, a little story or a great big fat novel with nothing and nobody in it except this machine that turns over and at the end this jack-in-the-box pops out. There's nothing wrong with that.
But it isn't what I thought I wanted to be. So that question of my father's wriggled right down into my brain like a worm, and for quite a while it took the fun out of things. I'd be sitting there writing a story about mobsters having a shootout in a nightclub office-straight out of some recent movie-and the worm would whisper: Why are you writing this story?
Naturally, I didn't want to listen, but I had no real choice in the matter. The question kept coming, and I had to try to figure out some way to answer it, and so, slowly and gradually, I began to find out what I was doing. And ultimately I refined the question itself down to this: What does this story mean to me that I should spend my valuable time creating it?
And that's how I began to become a writer.
- Ancram, NY (2001)
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Fresh out of prison, Dortmunder plans a heist that could mean war.
John Dortmunder leaves jail with ten dollars, a train ticket, and nothing to make money on but his good name. Thankfully, his reputation goes far. No one plans a caper better than Dortmunder. His friend Kelp picks him up in a stolen Cadillac and drives him away from Sing-Sing, telling a story of a $500,000 emerald that they just have to steal. Dortmunder doesn't hesitate to agree.
The emerald is the crown jewel of a former British colony, lately granted independence and split into two nations: one for the Talabwo people, one for the Akinzi. The Akinzi have the stone, the Talabwo want it back, and their UN representative offers a fine payday to the men who can get it. It's not a simple heist, but after a few years in stir, Dortmunder could use the challenge.
Instead of robbing a bank, Dortmunder tries to steal the whole building.
Encyclopedias are heavy, and John Dortmunder is sick of carrying them. While in between jobs, the persistent heist-planner is working an encyclopedia-selling scam that's about to blow up in his face. The cops are on their way when his friend Kelp pulls up in a stolen Oldsmobile, offering a quick escape from the law and a job that's too insane to turn down.
Kelp's nephew is an FBI washout who's addicted to old-time pulp novels and adventure stories. He tried being a cop, and now he wants to be a robber. His target: a Main Street bank that has temporarily relocated to a large mobile home. Breaking in is impossible -- there are seven guards and a police station down the street -- but mobile homes were meant to be driven. Dortmunder just has to drive the bank away.
Taking cues from a pulp novel, Dortmunder arranges a kidnapping.
Kelp has a plan, and John Dortmunder knows that means trouble. His friend Kelp is a jinx, and his schemes, no matter how well intentioned, tend to spiral quickly out of control. But this one, Kelp swears, is airtight. He read it in a book.
In county lock-up for a traffic charge, Kelp came across a library of trashy novels by an author named Richard Stark. The hero is a thief named Parker whose plans, unlike Kelp and Dortmunder's, always work out. In one, Parker orchestrates a kidnapping so brilliant that, Kelp thinks, it would have to work in real life. Though offended that his usual role as planner has been usurped, Dortmunder agrees to try using the novel as a blueprint. Unfortunately, what's simple on the page turns complex in real life, and there is no book to guide him through the madness he's signed on for.
Dortmunder draws international attention when he steals the wrong ring.
The Byzantine Fire is much more than a ninety-carat ruby. As a stone it's worth over a million dollars, a value vastly increased by its pure gold band -- but its history makes it priceless. A ring that has been fought for with sword and pen, and passed from nation to nation by all manner of theft and trickery, it finally made its way to the United States. The US has agreed to return it to Turkey, but it's about to be stolen twice more.
A gang of Greeks armed with Sten guns burst into the security room at JFK Airport and escape with the priceless stone, which they deposit in the safe at a small jeweler's shop in Queens. A few hours later, unlucky thief John Dortmunder, expecting a routine robbery, steals it again. Much blood has been shed for this little ruby, and Dortmunder's could be next.
An art collector hires Dortmunder to steal one of his own paintings.
It would take a miracle to keep Dortmunder out of jail. Though he cased the electronics store perfectly, the cops surprised him, turning up in the alley just as he was walking out the back door, a television in each hand. Already a two-time loser, without divine intervention he faces a long stretch inside. Then God sends J. Radcliffe Stonewiler, a celebrity lawyer who gets Dortmunder off with hardly any effort at all.
Stonewiler was sent by Arnold Chauncey, an art lover with a cash flow problem. He asks the thief to break into his house and make off with a valuable painting in exchange for a quarter of the insurance money. Chauncey has pulled the stunt twice before, so it must look real. He'll give Dortmunder no inside help -- a shame since, when this caper spins out of control, he'll need all the help he can get.
Dortmunder agrees to do a dangerous favor for a gang of nuns.
It was supposed to be a simple caviar heist. Dortmunder is almost in the building when the alarm sounds, forcing him up the fire escape and onto the roof. He leaps onto the next building, smashing his ankle and landing in the den of the worst kind of creature he can imagine: nuns.
Although decades removed from his Catholic orphanage, Dortmunder still trembles before the sisters' habits. But these nuns are kinder than the ones he grew up with. They bandage his wound, let him rest, and don't call the cops -- for a price. The father of the youngest member of their order, disgusted by their vow of silence, has kidnapped his daughter, locked her in a tightly guarded penthouse apartment, and is attempting to convince her to renounce her faith. The nuns ask Dortmunder to rescue the girl. It's an impossible assignment -- but one he cannot refuse.
Donald Westlake turns the world of crime and criminals upside down and has the last laugh in WHAT'S SO FUNNY?, his latest comic caper novel. His perennially depressed master thief, John Dortmunder, finds himself involved an impossible crime, one he doesn't want and doesn't believe in and which he'd rather avoid if possible...but a little blackmail goes a long way.
All it takes is a few underhanded moves by a tough ex-cop named Eppick to pull Dortmunder into a game he never wanted to play. With no choice, he musters his always-game gang and they set out on a perilous treasure hunt for a long-lost gold and jewel-studded chess set once intended as a birthday gift for the last Romanov czar. Unfortunately for everyone, then and now, he became the last Romanov czar without making it to his own birthday party. From the moment Dortmunder reaches for his first pawn, he faces insurmountable odds...
In Westlake's brilliantly bizarre and always amusing world, it's usually the thief who comes out on top. But times could be changing.
When a TV producer convinces our roguish crook Dortmunder and his gang to star in a reality TV show that captures their next heist, being caught red-handed seems inevitable. It will take an ingenious plan to outwit viewers glued to their TV sets, but Dortmunder rises to the challenge.
In this last crime novel from an undisputed master of the genre the well worn phrase 'The eyes of the nation are upon you' takes on a whole new meaning - let's hope Dortmunder doesn't get stage-fright.
Dortmunder has a job offer. He's been hired by third parties to pull off heists in the past, but never to lay his hands on anything this peculiar. It is the 800 year old femur of a 16-year-old girl who who, having been killed and eaten by her own family, was made a saint by the Church. Now two European countries and the Catholic church are fighting like dogs over it. This bone, the femur of St Ferghana, is a holy relic claimed by two newly-created European nations, Tsergovia and Votskojek. The relic will be awarded to one of the two countries, which will then be admitted to the United Nations. Dortmunder and his gang are working for the Tersgovians.
As usual, nothing goes according to plan. How will this free-for-all end?
HELP I AM BEING HELD PRISONER is Donald E. Westlake at his funniest and his most ingenious, a rediscovered crime classic from the Grand Master returning to stores for the first time in three decades.
JAILED FOR A JOKE
It isn’t easy going to jail for being a practical joker. Of course, this particular joke left 20 cars wrecked on the highway and two politicians’ careers in tatters – so jail is where Harold Künt landed. Now he’s just trying to keep a low profile in the Big House. He wants no part of his fellow inmates’ plan to use an escape tunnel to rob two banks. But it’s too late: he’s in it up to his neck. And that neck may just wind up in a noose…
HELP I AM BEING HELD PRISONER is Donald E. Westlake at his funniest and his most ingenious, a rediscovered crime classic from the MWA Grand Master returning to stores for the first time in three decades.