The Getaway Car, by Donald Westlake

This post is not a review in the traditional sense, because I typically don’t like to write opinion articles about nonfiction books. Given that the Gaping Blackbird has been increasingly distracted by All Things Westlake, and that I’ve been poking around my fair share of biographical resources when putting together reviews lately, I figured I would lay my cards out on the table and admit to boring my way through the 2014 collection The Getaway Car.

tgetcar

Darwyn Cooke cover for University of Chicago Press

Constructed out of Westlake’s introductions, essays, letters and private papers by the editor Levi Stahl, The Getaway Car is a posthumous tribute to the great writer. This is a rare statement, but I would have liked to see more introductory material than the brief forward by Lawrence Block; maybe from someone who dealt with him as a screenwriter. Regardless, the book is an impressive collection of pieces, full of things hitherto unknown to this 20-book veteran reader of Westlake’s fiction (not to mention a dedicated consumer of The Westlake Review and other blogs).

Early in The Getaway Car, Westlake describes, with a fair degree of pride, how the detective story genre has never been highly regarded as literature. In place of a proper review, then, is an example of that ill-regarded form, the listicle:

10 things I learned from reading The Getaway Car

  1. Books are leaving the public library stacks at crisis levels

    My copy of The Getaway Car, in a condition that could be described as “almost new,” was withdrawn from the Carol Stream Public Library. I happen to be from northeastern Illinois, and have trouble believing that–for all its affluence–Carol Stream, Illinois could not find room in its public spaces for this volume. Libraries are being taken over by large collections of computers, because access to the internet is considered a basic human right or something. I wish they would consider their critical role as the best public source of non-internet information. Maybe this book would have seen more use if it were filed next to Westlake’s more popular volumes–his mystery fiction.

  2. Peter Rabe was a significant crime writer

    I first encountered Rabe’s work with the Hard Case Crime reprint of Stop This Man, a rough tale from the beginning of his career. I also enjoyed The Box, an unusual and layered read that was one of his last books. I haven’t written anything on The Box, because I had suspicions that it had something to do with Bram Stoker’s Dracula and I haven’t read Dracula yet. Westlake highlights several titles in between, so Rabe is back on my list of writers to look for.

  3. Westlake’s breakup with science fiction was even nastier than I thought

    The Westlake Review’s article on Westlake’s only SF novel Anarchaos is a really good, in-depth discussion of the reasons he left the field (incidentally, we had a fun back-and-forth about the merits of that novel). Reading the source material, the fanzine essay “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You” and the followup letter, in The Getaway Car only supports the The Westlake Review’s interpretations. Yet, the tone of Westlake’s commentary still surprises. When I left academia I didn’t name names and burn bridges this way; maybe life in The (mis-)Information Age has conditioned me against that temptation. The early 1960s was a very rough time for SF, and personal connections meant a lot when it came to whose stories were getting published and paid for.

  4. Westlake and I are both on Team Semicolon

    That’s good to know; it seems that the typical written page stocks a surfeit of commas, like plastic soda bottles in the grocery store. Either that or no commas at all. However, I often fail to pair off my dashes.

  5. Poe invented more than just the horror story, the detective story and the science fiction story

    Add to the list: the wrongly accused innocent who must clear his name (“Thou Art the Man”), the Indiana Jones-style adventurer (“The Gold Bug”) and the murderer-as-narrator (“The Imp of the Perverse”). This is from Westlake’s rich introduction to a 1996 anthology he co-edited, Murderous Schemes.

  6. One of Westlake’s series characters was a police officer

    Early in his career, Westlake (as Richard Stark) published a series of short stories (maybe novelettes) featuring Abe Levine in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. These were collected many years later as Levine, which I had thought was one of his many standalone novels. The Getaway Car contains the introduction to Levine, which describes how the major theme of each story reflected the author’s rapidly developing perspective on crime fiction.

  7. Kawaha was an attempt at a magnum opus

    In a 1965 letter to a librarian at Boston University, Westlake had been dismissive of his own reputation beyond “his own block,” but by the time he was working on Kawaha he was ready for greater things. The amount of legwork and scholarly research into Kawaha was impressive, and indicative of an effort that was intended to define Westlake’s legacy beyond that of a writer of caper novels. Westlake’s introduction to the 1995 edition (well after its initial 1982 release) strongly hints that Kawaha deserved more that its relatively muted reception.

  8. Raymond Chandler had style, Dashiell Hammett had both style and substance

    In a 1982 speech to the Smithsonian Institution, Westlake gave his convincing perspective on the major names in the history of detective fiction. As a relative newcomer to the genre (I’ve forgotten most of the Chandler I read, and can only claim The Glass Key from Hammett), I’ll have to take his word for most of the authors he mentions. “Hardboiled Dicks” is especially interesting for the writers and titles most admired by Westlake, which we can relate to his fiction as antecedents.

  9. Westlake had a personal connection to crime and its consequences, early in his life

    I’ll leave the details out (see here for more), but there appears to be an important autobiographical seed to the father/son relationships depicted in The Cutie, 361 and (from a much later time) The Ax.

  10. The task of screenwriting a feature film is intensely difficult

    In fact, writing for a film–even adapting the published work of another writer–seems to be as involved as writing a novel, with the added uncertainty about actually receiving credit for a finished script. In excerpts from an extended interview for a trade magazine, Westlake gives explanations about the origins of The Stepfather and the task of turning Jim Thompson’s The Grifters into a screenplay. The more unpleasant aspects of dealing with Hollywood are also mentioned, albeit briefly.

 

NOTE: Of course, I also learned the titles of Westlake’s favorite crime novels. I’ll maintain one habit of this blog and not spoil them here.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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4 Responses to The Getaway Car, by Donald Westlake

  1. fredfitch says:

    1)I work for a college library, and you don’t know the half of it, kid. Bear in mind, they also have to make room for new books. Whether they’re any good or not.

    2)I wouldn’t call Rabe a writer’s writer, because that implies he’s not tremendously enjoyable for non-writers as well. But I think it took other crime writers to know just how good he was. Rabe was reportedly pleased that Westlake went out of his way to say which of his book were not so great–that made the sincere plaudits more meaningful.

    3)He had just had enough of the guys who edited the pulps. And reportedly it was mutual. Lawrence Block reports having talked to Frederik Pohl, many years later. Pohl was one of Westlake’s primary targets in that polemic (though he saved his most telling barbs for John W. Campbell). Block mentioned Westlake. Pohl made it very clear he had neither forgotten nor forgiven. The problem was that the field had gotten so hidebound and constraining–you had to write what the editor wanted–very little freedom. But you weren’t getting properly compensated for selling yourself out. I think Westlake probably had a better time writing sleaze for Scott Meredith. Do what you like; just make sure it’s the right length and on time (that’s what she said).

    4)See above;

    5)I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Poe invented the incandescent light bulb, and Edison just came across the plans while pondering over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.

    6)Hey, I reviewed that too! It is a novel, really. Just one that was written in installments over several decades.

    7)When I reviewed Kahawa, several readers informed me it was their favorite Westlake. I like it, but would not go that far. And I’m still pissed that Frank and Ellen’s fling got short shrift, while Sir Denis and Patricia’s imbroglio gets a ton of ink. If I’d been his editor on this, all those steamy subplots would have been quite different. And from what he says about the editor he had, he couldn’t have done any worse.

    8)I’ve had occasion to quote from that essay more than once. It’s a masterpiece.

    9)I knew there had to be something in his past, some unhappy encounter with The Law–but until The Getaway Car, I didn’t know what it was. And how much else don’t we know?

    10)Honestly, just watching most movies tells you how much fun it is to work in Hollywood as a writer. But the pay is good.

    Anyway, you got a cheap copy. I got a free one (reviewer’s copy, from the editor), but it doesn’t have an index. That one I leave in my desk at work. And I have a copy I bought (with index) by my desk here at home.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      Now for a couple of things I didn’t learn…

      Do you think we’ve seen all of Westlake’s fiction that’s ever going to be published (meaning, all of the stuff that he would admit to)?

      What about another Getaway Car-type collection? I guess I was hoping for more about the influence of theatre, so explicitly referenced in The Comedy is Finished (itself unseen in TGC) and the Shakespearean allusions in the Parker books.

      Like

      • fredfitch says:

        I’ve heard nothing about a follow-up. There is certainly a ton of unpublished material in an archive in Boston where most of his estate is now kept. Including his unfinished memoirs, of which only an except is used in TGC. But I’d assume more time will have to pass before they want to go there.

        No more novels. Scores of short stories for the pulps and various mainstream magazines that never made it into any published anthologies (and there were probably reasons for that).

        Copyright is the main issue, and sometimes there isn’t any copyright protection, for one reason or another (the lack of copyright protection tends to rule out any significant publishing house getting involved, since they wouldn’t be able to get exclusive reprint rights. Have you noticed, for example, that there are these off-license PKD anthologies on Kindle–all reprinting the same set of stories? Same thing happens with Westlake, but on a smaller scale, because he’s less of a name in SF. Not sure how much of his crime writing for the pulps is still not available.

        Sleaze novels are another gray area, but I don’t see the estate getting involved in bringing those back. Lawrence Block was the main mover there. Authorship can be a bit muddy. Some of those books are quite interesting in ways other than the obvious, but I doubt Westlake wanted any of them reprinted.

        In some cases the rights might be a bit nebulous–like a screenplay adaptations of a book he didn’t write that never got turned into a film (several of those). Something he collaborated on with someone else (there was a musical). Lots and lots of nonfiction articles. Levi Stahl had his work cut out for him, not only picking what material to use, but dealing with the legalities.

        I believe there will be more unpublished Westlake made available, but I couldn’t say what, or when. I can say that I’m more interested in seeing his remaining novels that are long out of print republished, even if only as ebooks.

        But there’s this screenplay adaptation he wrote of Red Harvest that I NEED to see. And maybe I will. Someday.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Sour Lemon Score, by Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark) | gaping blackbird

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