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Memory (Hard Case Crime)
Donald E. Westlake
Hardcase Crime, 2010
366 pp., $7.99
Go Ahead and Flinch
You've probably forgotten—you've certainly forgotten—but back in the early 1960s there was a serious American novelist who achieved some small success writing psychological dramas. His name was Donald Westlake, and the explanation for his fading from the modern reader's memory may be, in part, that his work was so typical of his now sepia-tinted time: grim, knotted, unpleasant, intense, fascinated with the relation of social and psychological perception, and drawn to a vision of America as a wildly disturbing place.
He wrote ten books or so, all of them the mildly praised kind of midlist volume that reviewers think they should like, although they don't, really. The Mercenaries, Killing Time, and 361 are good examples, along with Pity Him Afterwards: the kind of novel of which maybe every other one gets taken up on page six or so of the Sunday New York Times book section, in a review that usually mentions something about close observation and hard-edged prose—and always employs the word "unflinching" somewhere along the way.
By the late 1970s, unsurprisingly, he was burned out, his will to write such novels, and the market to read them, having finally been extinguished, never to return. I'd say that such hard-edged psychological dramas from the early 1960s, born when Freudianism met the existential anti-hero, are worth revisiting, but they're not, really. And, besides, this is the biography of a Donald Westlake who never was. A Donald Westlake who could have been—who probably should have been, if the real Donald Westlake hadn't decided, instead, that the game wasn't worth the candle.
In fact, somewhere around 1965, the real Donald Westlake simply abandoned such serious work and sat down to write instead comic crime capers under his own name and straightforward hard-boiled genre fiction under the penname of "Richard Stark." It's a curious question—the answer to which might tell us something about the history of fiction—why Donald Westlake ...