The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany
- Edited by Levi Stahl
- University of Chicago Press
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Susan Schorn
- October 7, 2014
A deep dive into the musings of the prolific crime writer.
Prolific crime writers are nothing out of the ordinary. Consider Dame Agatha Christie, with her 66 detective novels and 16 volumes of short stories, or Erle Stanley Gardner’s 50-odd Perry Mason adventures, or John Creasey’s dozens of pen names and hundreds of titles. Among this indefatigable company, Donald E. Westlake’s career might at first seem unremarkable: over 100 novels, innumerable short stories, and half a dozen produced screenplays, created under 15 or 16 pen names.
But Westlake is rightly celebrated for the quality of his writing; the sheer tonnage of plot, character, and dialogue he produced was impressive, yet it never outweighed his talent. In The Getaway Car, editor Levi Stahl has assembled a diverse set of letters, interviews, and other documents that reveal what Westlake himself thought of his work — the business of writing, the process, and the resulting product of his labor.
The book lives up to its description as a “miscellany.” There is a certain amount of repetition as Westlake enumerates and describes his vast back catalog for various audiences (one senses even he was mildly astonished by all he had done). Clearly, Westlake had an incredibly disciplined mind, and favored the same sort of meticulous preparation his characters employ in planning a crime. What’s truly remarkable is that the same mind created such diverse criminals as the hapless John Dortmunder and the sociopathic Parker, along with innumerable others.
On the subject of his own career, Westlake is straightforward. He describes the prosaic work of mastering genre, reading entire back catalog of mystery and science fiction magazines to learn their editors’ preferences. He explains that a briefly held job reading amateur fiction for a literary agent taught him “just how many ways there were to do it wrong.” He recounts, in sometimes grinding detail, how much writing he had to do to hone his craft to marketability.
All of which we might expect from the author of over 100 books. And yet much more than hard work and persistence come across in this volume. We see Westlake wistful in his remembrance of fellow author John D. MacDonald, and shamefaced in recounting his own youthful criminal career, involving the theft of a microscope from a college chemistry lab and an uncomfortable and obviously formative stay in jail. We see his kind, detailed advice to then-novice writer David Ramus, advice any struggling first-time author would give his or her eye teeth for.
And we see Westlake casually sharpening his claws on the careers of Damon Runyon (whose groundbreaking use of present tense created, in Westlake’s judgment, “a kind of artificial smart-alecky chamber music”), Raymond Chandler (“a bookish, English-educated sort of mama’s boy”), and Ross MacDonald (who “became increasingly mannered, till finally he was nothing but mannerisms”).
We also see Westlake, startlingly early in his career, not just burning his bridges to the world of science fiction publication, but blowing them up, bombing the wreckage, and strafing the survivors. His 1960 letter to the editors of the sci-fi fanzine Xero, in which he forswore any further work in the field, named names and cited dollar figures, and it remains a stunning indictment of the genre’s economic and artistic constraints.
That letter prefigures Westlake’s lifelong audacity as a critic, and we see much more of this quality throughout The Getaway Car. His bedrock certainty about literary merit, formed over a lifetime of reading, writing, and selling fiction, is often cruel but always reliable. He confronts flawed writing like an architect regarding an unsound building. Poor aesthetics irritate him and structural defects inspire his contempt; still, he never loses sight of what works.
For example, he pronounces some of crime writer Peter Rabe’s work “quite bad, awkwardly plotted and with poorly developed characters,” and goes on to detail specific failings in one after another of Rabe’s books, all while tracing the long, depressing arc of Rabe’s unsatisfying literary career. And yet at the end of this critique, the reader is left deeply impressed by what Rabe accomplished: the fine psychological edge of his best stories, the precision of his narration. Westlake makes you want to read Rabe, flaws and all.
Mixed with this sharp, pointed commentary about storytelling in general and crime writing in particular is a great deal of Westlake’s (often self-deprecating) humor. We also learn how the world of film production looks from a writer’s perspective (generally pretty squalid), how “The Goon Show” on BBC radio saved Westlake’s sanity in 1957 when he was marooned in the Azores, and how John Dortmunder’s girlfriend May makes her famous tuna casserole.
Miscellanea, indeed; perhaps not germane to a critical appreciation of Westlake’s professional accomplishments, but fun all the same. And fun, as Westlake makes clear in these pages, was important to his life and his art. Ultimately, it wasn’t the mannerisms in Ross MacDonald’s work that earned Westlake’s condemnation. His chief complaint was far simpler: “Nobody ever has any fun in a Ross MacDonald book.”
Susan Schorn writes Bitchslap, a column on women and fighting, for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and is author of the memoir Smile at Strangers, and Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly, as well as the short-story collection Small Heroes.