Caught by the River

Caught By The Reaper – Donald Westlake & Murder One

3rd February 2009

Brian Case looks back at the life of thriller writer Donald Westlake (12 July 1933 – 31 Dec 2008) and mourns the passing of London’s hard-boiled book store, ‘Murder One


The death of Donald E Westlake over Christmas robbed crime fiction of the most prolific practitioner since Simenon. He wrote over a hundred books and saw many of them filmed. The Busybody, The Hot Rock, Jimmy the Kid, Two Much, Why me?, Cops and Robbers, were light hearted and forgettable, but the films based upon his brutal thirteen volume Parker series written as Richard Stark remain stunning. John Boorman’s ‘Point Blank’, his take on ‘The Hunter’, and John Flynn’s ‘The Outfit’, far exceeded Westlake’s text. Boorman never read the book. It came to him as a Chandleresque script which he rewrote for Lee Marvin. Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Made in USA’ is based on Westlake with Anna Karina in a gumshoe’s trenchcoat and anti-narrative dialogue. ‘The glass is not in my wine; the barman is in the pocket of the jacket of his pencil; the floor stubs itself against the cigarette.’ God knows what the novelist made of that, but when he wrote a screenplay – Jim Thompson’s ‘The Grifters’ – it was nominated for an Oscar.

Westlake’s comic capers divide opinion. How funny is stumblebum thief John Dortmunder? ‘I can restrain my mirth’ said critic and writer Julian Symons, but nevertheless Dortmunder bumbled on through twelve books. Wasn’t Lawrence Block funnier? Westlake’s favourite line went to the homicidal Parker who, furious at a message delivered to him, shoots the messenger. ‘Now you’re the message’.

His early books are the best, if hard to find. My edition of ‘Killy’ is an American Bloodhound Mystery with a big logo of the dog in deerstalker and pipe. It’s a criminal variant on ‘All about Eve’, with a student trainee outsmarting Killy, a top official in the Machinists Union. Dumbstruck, Killy stands with his hands on his hips. ‘It isn’t outraged innocence, it’s outraged omnipotence. This shouldn’t have happened to him.’ The revenge yarn, ‘361’ is as merciless as Sam Fuller’s ‘Underworld USA’, and ‘The Mercenaries’ and ‘Killing Time’ are prime Westlake.

Hillary Waugh, another top American crime writer died within the month. Less well known, he seems only translated once to the screen, and then in ‘Jigsaw’, a British film with Jack Warner – hullo hullo – as Fred Fellows, the Connecticut Chief of Police, here relocated to Brighton. Fellows was a series cop, big on spit-and-polish, methodical, courteous, and he spearheaded Waugh’s procedurals. Waugh had become sick of private eyes lording it over ‘A police force composed of a bunch of bumbling idiots’, and his 1953 cop debut, ‘Last Seen Wearing’, even won a rave review from Raymond Chandler. It also entered the usual lists of 100 best, voted by the Mystery Writers of America. Waugh was a brilliant plotter and excelled himself with ‘Prisoners Plea’, a switcheroo you can only do once. Mine has a crushed crane-fly on page 26. Startlingly today, Fellows is happily married, and barely drinks.


The death of the specialist bookshop on Charing Cross Road, Murder One – has been announced for the end of January. For twenty-one years Maxim Jakubowski’s shop was the one place where you could find all the above books, and bump into the authors at signings. Maxim’s published imprints, Blue Murder, and Black Box, revived hard-boiled classics and nearly forgotten noir masters like Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis and Jim Thompson. He edited countless collections of crime fiction, besides writing his own erotic thrillers. He has earned his retirement, and then some.

Murder One retains the phone number 02075398820, and for mail order go here.