Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A conversation with Donald E. Westlake July 1986 - Part One

The following story first appeared in The Asbury Park Press, July 27,1986. It was based on two phone interviews I did with Westlake from his NYC home earlier that month, shortly after the release of his Dortmunder novel GOOD BEHAVIOR.

Forget what your parents and grade school teachers told you.

Crime pays.

Just ask Donald E. Westlake. With more than 60 books to his credit. Westlake has proven that crime, or at least crime-writing, can be a profitable business.

One of the most prolific authors in the mystery/suspense genre for more than a quarter of a century, Westlake is perhaps best known as the originator and chief practitioner of the comic crime novel – a genre he created in 1964 with THE FUGITIVE PIGEON and which he has nearly perfected in his six novels about not-so-professional thief John Archibald Dortmunder. Dortmunder’s latest adventure, GOOD BEHAVIOR, has just been published by The Mysterious Press, and HIGH ADVENTURE, a novel about artifact smuggling in Central America, has recently been released in paperback by Tor Books.

In addition, about 12 of Westlake’s books (that’s right, 12) have already found their way to the screen in such films as THE HOT ROCK, with Robert Redford as Dortmunder in 1972; COPS AND ROBBERS in 1973; and, in a more serious vein, POINT BLANK in 1967.

But how can someone write so gleefully and entertainingly about characters who rob and steal as a profession?

“You have to keep a certain level of unreality to it,” Westlake says. “I write these types of books because these are the types of books I enjoy writing. I know I can have fun with them. That’s all there is to it.”

Westlake has apparently had a lot of fun over the years. Although he never graduated form college, in the 26 years he’s been a full-time writer, Westlake has written more books than half a dozen other authors combined, (“More than 60 at least. It’s hard to keep track of them, because the number’s always changing”) as well as a slew of short stories, a handful of screenplays and even a children’s book.

On top of that, his short stories appear frequently in Playboy and his prolific pace hasn’t slackened at all since his first novel, THE MERCENARIES, was published in 1960. Throughout it all, with some notable exceptions, his forte has been crime and criminals: all seen through an incisive, perceptive and sometimes very funny eye.

“Crime novels are one of the basic story forms. Always have been,” Westlake says. “The genre gives you the framework, and the plot gives you the thread, the sequence of events for the characters to operate with. The theme itself is just a skeleton to hang the characters on; they’re always more important than what’s going on with the plot. The crime thing is just a device I use. If I didn’t use it, then I’d just have to think of something else.”

The crime genre has indeed proved to be fertile ground for Westlake. In THE HOT ROCK, one of Westlake’s most popular books, Dortmunder and his band of misfit felons steal a priceless diamond for the leader of an African country and then lose it, a cycle which repeats itself throughout the novel as Dortmunder and crew are forced to re-steal the diamond from a variety of increasingly bizarre places, including a museum, an insane asylum and a New York City police station.

In THE HUNTER, written under the pseudonym “Richard Stark,” a cool, ruthless professional thief cuts a bloody swathe through the New York organized crime world, seeking revenge on a former partner who double-crossed him and left him for dead. Although the tone and style of the two books have little in common, both are graced with an eye for the details of everyday life and a narrative momentum that never sacrifices characterization or logic, yet is as quick and compelling as anything being written in the mystery/suspense field today.

But as to why his caper novels are so popular, the man who has made a career out of chronicling the larceny inside us all is not altogether sure.

“Guessing why other people like what they like is a tricky business,” he says. "I think one of the basic interests is in watching machinery at work; things like wind-up dolls and mechanical clocks. The crime novel, specifically the caper novel, is a lot like that. The crime itself is the machinery and the plot combines that machinery with puzzle and human movement all at once. There’s a certain amount of escapism involved for the reader as well. We all like to think we can get away with the crime, whatever it is.”

For someone who turns out as much material as he does, Westlake says his writing schedule is actually far from disciplined. Although he tries to write every day, he will sometimes work for no more than an hour, “just to keep the characters alive in my head.”

His actual writing times have also fluctuated greatly. One of his most recent novels, KAHAWA, about a plot to hijack a train load of coffee in a remote African nation, took 13 months to write, “the longest I’ve ever spent on a book.” On the other hand, PITY HIM AFTERWARDS, a suspense novel Westlake wrote earlier in his career, was finished in a record 11 days (“The title was appropriate," he says).

(PART TWO: Westlake on movies, television and killing Parker).

– Top photo credit: The Associated Press

A conversation with Donald E. Westlake July 1986 - Part Two

This is Part Two of my profile of Donald E. Westlake that first appeared in The Asbury Park Press, July 27,1986, shortly after the release of his Dortmunder novel GOOD BEHAVIOR. You can find Part One here.

Like many of his characters, Westlake has been known to operate under a variety of aliases. He has written nearly 30 of his books under assorted pen names, including a series of hard-boiled crime novels about a professional thief known only as Parker, written under the pseudonym "Richard Stark."

Inspired by the tough, terse detective novels of Dashiell (THE MALTESE FALCON) Hammett, the Parker books themselves have gone on to inspire a whole generation of suspense and crime fiction, as well as spawn half a dozen film adaptations – including the aforementioned POINT BLANK starring Lee Marvin, THE SPLIT (1968) with Jim Brown and THE OUTFIT starring Robert Duvall in 1973. One of the most recent was 1983’s SLAYGROUND, loosely based on Westlake’s 1971 Parker novel of the same name.

All 16 of the Parker books, written between 1961 and 1973, were reissued in paperback last year by Avon Books, and although the actual writing of them is now ancient history to Westlake, he says he’s “delighted” by the continuing interest in them.

“I’ve had a standing offer from a couple of publishers who said they’ll give me a contract if I write another one,” Westlake says. “But I just haven’t been able to. I’m not exactly sure what happened, he just sort of faded away for me as a character.”

In fact, Westlake says, portions of the plot and several characters from his newest novel, GOOD BEHAVIOR, are taken from an unfinished Parker novel that never saw the light of day.

“I’d made several attempts after the last of the Parker books (BUTCHER’S MOON in 1973) to write another one, but nothing ever came of them,” Westlake says. “I think that by cannibalizing one of the unfinished novels and adding humor to it, I was acknowledging the fact that there weren’t going to be anymore. I don’t think we’ll be seeing him again.”

Perhaps the final nail in Parker’s coffin is the dedication at the beginning of GOOD BEHAVIOR, which reads “In Memoriam: P., 1961-1973.”

The winner of an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his comic novel GOD SAVE THE MARK, Westlake also shares the dubious honor of having one of his novels (the Dortmunder novel JIMMY THE KID) become a film vehicle for Gary Coleman. Westlake admits to never having seen the film and harboring no desire to do so in the near future.

“The films (of my books) cover a wide area from pretty good to terrible,” Westlake says. “The best of them is probably POINT BLANK (based on THE HUNTER) and the worst – well, usually I’m warned away from them beforehand by people I know. Most times, after hearing about them from someone else, I have no desire to see them, because I know they’ll only make me angry.”

Westlake is currently adapting two of his own novels for film, WHY ME?, a Dortmunder novel scheduled to begin shooting in New York next year, and A LIKELY STORY, a tale of a divorced writer who is drawn closer to his family while working on a book about Christmas customs. No crimes and no capers this time; maybe, one wonders, even a touch of sentimentality?

“I like it,” Westlake says. “It’s as different from some of my other stuff as you can get, so I expected to have some problems adapting it. But so far it’s going pretty smoothly. I’m really enjoying it.”

Westlake is also working on an original screenplay for an upcoming television film. Although he won’t reveal much of the plot, he describes it as “another comic caper,” this time written expressly for the small screen. Although he has written for television in the past, Westlake says the inherent limitations of the medium have kept him from doing much work there.

“The best thing you can say about working for television is that’s good money for easy work,” he says. “When you’re writing a novel you’re deeply involved; you’re part of it. When you’re writing for the movies on the other hand, it’s more like you’re working on the surface. With television, that’s even more so, except that it’s a false surface. The books are the real love. That’s where my heart is.”

But after 26 years and more than 60 novels, could Westlake stop writing tomorrow and still be happy?”

“No way,” he says. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”

NOTE: Parker did return, of course, in Westlake's appropriately titled 1997 novel COMEBACK. He went on to appear in seven more novels before Westlake's death in 2008.

Thursday, May 19, 2016


My short story "Night Run" will appear in this upcoming anthology from Mulholland Books, due out in October. It's expertly edited by Patrick Millikin of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Ariz., who was a real pleasure to work with. Other contributors to the anthology include Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, Diana Gabaldon, Ace Atkins, James Sallis, Gary Phillips, C.J. Box, Joe R. Lansdale, Sara Gran, Luis Alberto Urrea and others.
You can preorder online here.

Friday, April 22, 2016

New MYSTERY SCENE interview

The new issue of MYSTERY SCENE magazine (#144, Spring 2016) includes an interview with me conducted by the legendary Ed Gorman, in which I talk about creating Crissa Stone, current works in progress and some favorite forgotten authors.

(Click on images below to enlarge)

Saturday, December 26, 2015

George Clayton Johnson: 1929-2015

George Clayton Johnson, the last surviving member of the murderers row of The Twilight Zone writers of the early '60s (which included Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and Rod Serling himself), passed away today (Dec. 25) at age 86. Some of the classic TZ episodes he wrote included "Kick the Can," "The Four of Us Are Dying" and - appropriately -"Nothing in the Dark" (that's him with star Robert Redford on the set of that 1962 ep). He also wrote the first STAR TREK episode "The Man Trap," co-wrote the novel and film LOGAN'S RUN, the original story behind OCEANS 11, episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, KUNG FU and much more.

Here's the VARIETY obituary.

Below is a clip from an amazing five-hour interview Johnson did with the Archive OF AMERICAN TELEVISION site about THE TWILIGHT ZONE and his television work.

Friday, December 25, 2015

A very Dali Christmas

You may think you have the Christmas spirit, but you don't have Salvador-Dali-at-a-booksigning-in-a-Santa-suit-eating-caviar Christmas spirit... .

Dali and his wife, Gala, signing books at Manhattan's Doubleday Bookstore, 1954. Photo by Philippe Halsman. Dali and Halsman's collaboration, DALI'S MUSTACHE (Simon and Schuster), had just been published.

There are 8 million Santas in the Naked City ...

... and here are two of them.

Weegee (aka Arthur Fellig) was probably on his way to photograph the aftermath of a mob rubout when he spotted these two sidewalk Santas coming out of the subway at Manhattan's West Fourth Street station. The photo appeared in the Dec. 27, 1954 issue of LIFE magazine with the following caption:

"The spirit of Christmas sometimes produces disquieting moments. In New York the Volunteers of America Inc. hires more than 50 men a day to dress up as Santa Claus and go out to the street corners around town soliciting contributions for the poor.

When their posts are in the same vicinity, the men often travel together. Emerging through the sidewalk exits, they give New Yorkers the shattering, if brief, illusion that Santa Claus not only comes in pairs but comes on a crowded 15¢ subway ride at that."

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Sunday, November 22, 2015

My Favorite Neo-Noir: Michael Mann's THIEF

“Keep in mind, kid, until your dying day, the only crime anywhere in the world is being broke.“
– “Oklahoma” Smith, as quoted by Frank Hohimer, in THE HOME INVADERS: CONFESSIONS OF A CAT BURGLER (1975)

“I am the last guy in the world that you want to fuck with.”
– “Frank,” as played by James Caan in THIEF (1981)

Michael Mann’s THIEF is the rarest of creations, an almost-perfect marriage of character, narrative and action. It gave James Caan what is probably the best role of his career. And, as Mann’s directorial debut, it announced his presence in the feature film world with authority.

THIEF centers around the single-named “Frank,” a Chicago jewel thief and safecracker who reluctantly agrees to take down some high-end scores for a mob fence and loan shark named Leo (Robert Prosky in his screen debut). Frank hopes this last string of lucrative robberies will help him create the life he aspires to, with a wife, Jessie (played by a weathered-but-still-luminous Tuesday Weld), an adopted child and an extended family that includes his mentor-in-crime, the imprisoned “Okla” (Willie Nelson in one of his first film roles).

Frank, who’s spent nearly half his life in prison, sees no reason why he can’t have these things, or why committing serial felonies isn’t the road to Happily Ever After. He wants to assemble his life the same way he organizes a heist, and he carries the blueprint around with him in the form of a childlike collage of Polaroids and pictures cut from magazines.

That new life is easier envisioned than realized though. As the stakes get higher and both the mob and crooked cops close in on him, Frank finally explodes, and embraces the nihilism he adopted in prison (what Mann calls his “Darwinian adaptation”). It’s his armor against a brutal world where, as Bruce Springsteen sings in “Something in the Night,” “As soon as you’ve got something/They send someone to try and take it away.”

THIEF is based on the book THE HOME INVADERS, a 1975 memoir by Francis Leroy Hohimer (left), a career criminal and burglar from Chicago who wrote the original manuscript while still in prison. It was eventually published by the indie Chicago Review Press, and soon optioned by Chicago native Mann for his feature debut. Mann had previous experience with the subject matter, having directed the acclaimed ABC-TV movie THE JERICHO MILE (1979), starring Peter Strauss and filmed at California’s Folsom Prison.

In commentary and interviews – most recently on the Criterion Blu-Ray of THIEF released in 2014 – Mann says after optioning THE HOME INVADERS he “threw the book out” and wrote the screenplay from scratch. However, significant parallels remain between the two. Both Franks own car dealerships and nightclubs, and have a mentor in prison (the character of Oklahoma Smith is carried over from book to film, as is much of the wisdom he imparts to Frank). Both are vocational criminals whose young adulthood was spent behind bars, and both work for brutal mob figures who eventually turn on them.

The differences, though, are major. The real Hohimer was primarily a cat burglar who, as the title of his book suggests, specialized in home invasions, targeting wealthy families. The film’s Frank excels in high-tech safecracking and sophisticated industrial robberies (depicted in rich detail by Mann, informed by a crew of Chicago “advisors”). Frank utilizes burning bars, magnetic drills and electronic countermeasures to commit his crimes. Hohimer’s method of opening a safe was to have the owner do it, on pain of injury or death. And most of Hohimer’s entries were by key, not by force, those keys having been provided to him by the notorious Chicago fence and mobster Leo Rugendorf. In THIEF, Caan’s Frank makes the distinction clear when he tells the film’s Leo what he will and won’t do. “No cowboy shit.” he says. “No home invasions.”

(Wikipedia and IMDB entries for both the film and Hohimer himself incorrectly state that “Frank Hohimer” was a pen name used by another convict named John Seybold. That’s untrue. As many sources have confirmed, Seybold and Hohimer were two different men).

Despite its urban nightscapes, rain-swept streets and atmosphere of claustrophobia and impending doom, THIEF is not a film noir, according to its director. In an interview taped for the Blu-Ray, Mann describes Frank as “a rat in a maze, the three-dimensional maze of the city,” but asserts that “I wasn’t thinking consciously about film noir at all. I think in true film noir there’s a sense of hopelessness, a sense of ennui ... that’s not THIEF.”

One might argue that THIEF certainly *looks* like a film noir. The art direction and cinematography, by Mary Dodson and Donald E. Thorin, respectively, lovingly depict a city gleaming with reflected neon, where shiny dark cars prowl wet streets, all of it set to an otherworldly electronic score by the German band Tangerine Dream.

With its glowing neon palette (including title credits that Nicolas Refn Winding obviously paid homage to in 2011’s DRIVE), THIEF does feel dated in a certain ‘80s way, but only in its stylistic tics. In one sense, it’s a throwback to American cinema of the 1970s, when even crime and action films tended to be character-driven. Caan’s Frank is fully realized, a man with a past, if not much of a future. He’s charming, but dangerous when cornered. On one level he’s a classic existential noir hero, yearning for things he can never have, and eventually dragged down into a hell of his own making.

When his partner Barry (played by Jim Belushi, in a role that seemed to promise a better film career than he actually had) is killed, and Leo threatens everything he loves, Frank again becomes the caged animal he knows he is at heart. He casts off his connections to the civilian world, and reverts to his prison mindset in order to become a man with nothing to lose, who can wreak vengeance without concern for its consequences. He tells Jessie that, in prison, “You gotta forget time. You gotta not give a fuck if you live or die.”

Leo begs to differ. “You one of those burned-out, demolished whackos in the joint?” he says. “Don’t come at me now with your jailhouse bullshit, because you are not that guy. ... You got a home, car, businesses, family, and I own the paper on your whole fucking life.”

But Leo’s wrong. As Frank proves at the end of the film, he *is* that guy. When he eventually takes down his tormentors in a brutally efficient gun battle at a suburban Chicago home, there’s nothing triumphant about it. His victory is both cathartic and tragic. Frank surrenders his hard-won humanity and post-prison achievements in order to survive. This rat escapes by blowing up the maze.

(Continue reading PART TWO here.)

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Film Noir Foundation's NOIR CITY magazine as part of its "My Favorite Neo-Noir" series.)

My Favorite Neo-Noir: Michael Mann's THIEF (Part Two)

(This is Part Two of an essay that originally appeared in an earlier form in the Film Noir Foundation's NOIR CITY magazine.) You can find Part One here.

Though a centerpiece heist takes place in Los Angeles, THIEF is very much a Chicago film, shot mostly on location and steeped in local history. In addition to being Mann’s feature debut, it’s also full of local actors he’d use again. The late Dennis Farina, a former Chicago cop, plays one of Leo’s henchman. William Petersen (who starred with Farina in Mann’s MANHUNTER four years later) has a bit role as a nightclub bouncer. The leader of the corrupt cops is played by John Santucci, a real Chicago jewel thief who lent the production both his expertise and his burglary tools. Busy character actor Ted Levine (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, MONK, THE BRIDGE) plays one of his partners. Another real-life Chicago cop, Chuck Adamson, is seen as one of the officers who give Frank a station house beating in an attempt to shake him down.

Farina, Santucci and Levine would go on to star – and Adamson write and produce – Mann’s TV series CRIME STORY in 1986, a period piece set in Chicago in the early -60s that eventually migrated – as did the Chicago Outfit itself – to Las Vegas (in the series, Levine played a career criminal named “Frank Holman,” perhaps an homage to the author of THE HOME INVADERS). Other THIEF actors, such as Tom Signorelli and Nick Nickeas, eventually appeared in other Mann projects, including his breakthrough show, MIAMI VICE. Prosky, here alternately avuncular and terrifying (he smoothes the way for Frank and Jessie to adopt a baby, then threatens to kill all three of them), went on to a long career in film and TV.

Mann would revisit the world of professional thieves in his 1995 film HEAT, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, based on a 1989 TV movie he’d written and directed called L.A. TAKEDOWN. One thing all three films have in common is a long dialogue scene set in a coffee shop, in which the characters explain their philosophies, what’s important to them, and how far they’ll go to protect it.

Of the three, THIEF’s version is far and away the best, as Frank tells Jessie about his wasted prison years, and his hopes for the new life he plans to build piece by piece. She’s intrigued, and a little freaked out, but she’s had a rough time with men up until now, and though Frank is no prince himself, she’s ultimately won over by
his sincerity. He tells her about his first year in Joliet Prison, after being convicted on a $40 theft charge, and how he survived the abuse of guards and cons alike – though fighting back cost him another eight years behind bars. Caan and Weld are in top form here, and he brings it all home by giving us a glimpse of a “state-raised” kid who caught one bad break after another. It might be his finest moment on screen.

Unlike Caan’s character, the real Frank Hohimer eventually turned and became a government witness in 1974, after being prosecuted by a federal organized crime strike force in Chicago. He was being groomed by the Justice Department to testify against Rugendorf, who died before he could go to trial. His later years found Hohimer in and out of prison on a variety of charges. He died in 2003.

In retrospect, THIEF may or may not, as its director contends, be a film noir. But there’s no question it’s one of the most vivid cinematic renderings ever of the criminal life – and one of the best films of the decade.