DONALD E. WESTLAKE:
WOMEN, RACE AND LITERARY DEVELOPMENT,
FROM SLEAZE THRU PARKER
This is an on-going (meaning I anticipate it taking at least a year) essay analyzing the writings of Donald E. Westlake with a focus on his literary development and how he portrayed women and race.
My questions are:
-did Westlake's portrayal of women and race evolve in his writings from his early sleaze to his later mainstream mystery novels?
-can we learn anything about Westlake from how he portrayed women and race?
-do the early sleaze writing of Westlake foreshadow his development as a first class mystery novelist?
I will start with the very earliest stories and novels of Westlake that I've been able to find.
These were written under numerous pseudonyms and are typically referred to as sleaze novels.
The short stories appeared in "men's magazines"
Westlake seems to have rarely spoken of these early efforts.
When he did he did so both disparagingly and with a hint of pride.
In the nonfiction autobiographical essay called "My Second Life" in the collection The Getaway Car, Westlake recounted how he first came to write these books.
He was hired by a literary agency to review manuscripts and was asked one day if he knew how to write sex novels.
Not knowing a thing but anticipating opportunity, he answered "yes".
Westlake writes in The Getaway Car:
"These books, which had a brief existence in the late 50's and early 60s, just before the sexual revolution made them look like hoopskirts, were actual stories, with a dozen or so sex scenes viewed gauzily through a kind of mist. I used to call them euphemism novels, and would say it's easy to get fifty thousand words when you can't call anything by its rightful name. This stuff was trash, of course, like the confession stories, but useful trash honing narrative skills, teaching how to shape a story." (pp. 11 - 12).
Although Westlake dismisses these books as trash, I wonder if his trash rises above the trash of others.
In this essay I will compare his sleaze writings to other sleaze writers to determine the answer.
While Westlake is dismissive of this work as trash, in a letter to Peter Gruber, reprinted in The Getaway Car Westlake speaks of his sex writing with a hint of pride.
He tells Peter that writing is simply like any other profession and yet writers "are afraid of being tarnished" with the image of being willing to turn their craft into money by writing about sex; that writing has been warped by a notion that it must be "art". (p.195).
Westlake has never claimed to create art; he simply wanted to entertain readers and make a living by writing.
So, he took the jobs as they came, especially in the earliest days when his choices were limited and he had a family to feed.
Yet, despite himself, Westlake's writing did eventually at times reach the level of art; for instance, in my opinion (which many others share) his Parker series under the Richard Stark pseudonym is art.
My interest in analyzing how Westlake portrays women rises from the fact that all of his books, from sleaze to comic capers to mysteries to serious novels (as serious as a Westlake novel can be) are male driven.
So, I wondered how women would fare in the hands of male fantasy.
Are they simply objects or protagonists?
Do they have feelings and emotions?
What is the role of a woman in the life of a Westlake man?
In The Getaway Car Westlake actually makes the case that he understands women.
In his essay "Playing Politics with a Master of Dialogue: George V. Higgins", he is critical of how Higgins portrays women:
"If Higgins has a major flaw, and he does, it is in his portrayal of women. Apparently he has never been in the presence of an actual woman; how else to explain the clumsy failures of this normally brilliant observer? Women are more than a mystery to him, they are blank spaces with names." (p 131).
This criticism implicitly sets a high bar for Westlake: if he is going to be so harsh towards Higgins, then I would expect him to be doing something different.
If so, in his man dominated world what is it?
QUESTIONS FOR LAWRENCE BLOCK:
As a point of reference and comparison, I will undertake the same analysis I apply to Westlake to his fellow mystery writer and good friend Lawrence Block.
To start out, I sent via email some questions to Lawrence Block.
Block also got his start in sleaze so I hoped he could provide some insights.
These are the questions I sent and answers I received:
I don't think I'll be able to provide much help. This sort of approach to fiction, mine or anybody else's, doesn't much interest me. Let me respond briefly to some of your questions:
- The big question I have is whether you have thoughts / insights you would share on the male driven nature of Westlake's fiction and the role women have to play in it?
Not really, no.
- For those early sleaze novels were there any written or unwritten editorial guidelines you and Mr. Westlake were supposed to follow in the use of women and/or race?
- Were there any guidelines as to how to portray ethnic or black people in those early sleaze novels?
There were no editorial guidelines for anything we wrote.
- Did you ever get a sense as to who the market was for these sleaze novels and how well the books did in the marketplace?
None. However, we always assumed the books required of their readers sufficient dexterity to turn the pages with one hand.
- Could you point me to or provide an accurate list of the early sleaze books you authored and the pseudonyms you've written under?
Lynn Munroe's is probably the best.
- Did Mr. Westlake ever discuss the role he felt women played in his fiction?
- Do you feel that in your own experience your handling of women characters in your fiction has changed over the course of your writing?
I have no idea.
- In your own fiction, what is your view of the role of male vs. female characters?
Oh, spare me.
What, in my opinion, can we we conclude or infer from Block's answers?
First, that Block, and likely Westlake, are not intellectuals but entertainers.
Their books can be considered projections of their own fantasies which they have honed in a nimble manner to satisfy the marketplace.
Second, their emotional lives are detached and unexamined.
This emotional repression is typical of men from their generation; working out fantasies was, for Westlake, a sort of emotional release valve.
So, in this regard, to understand both Westlake and Block it is worthwhile to look into the homoerotic subtext of their writings.
Block provides a critical note: their sleaze writings were not constrained by editorial dictates.
What we get in their sleaze fiction were the unconstrained fantasies (neuroses) of Westlake and Block alone.
Block's final response to my question:
"In your own fiction, what is your view of the role of male vs. female characters?" was:
"Oh, spare me."
Is Block is using sarcasm to disguise deeper feelings about women that are too personal to discuss?
Westlake's fiction seems to carry a similar love/hate emotional stance towards women.
There appears to be no comprehensive bibliography of Westlake's works.
A blog maintained by his son is the most authoritative since it is being updated based on confirmed writings found in Westlake's home after he died.
That bibliography is here:
There are, however, numerous other online bibliographies compiled by collectors that also claim to be authoritative and that differ from the official Donald Westlake website.
For example, a respected fan Trent maintains a bibliography here which he claims is the most accurate, yet it has inconsistencies compared to the official site:
I have emailed them both asking about the discrepancies but neither have responded.
One more thing: I have discovered articles by Westlake that neither the official bibliography nor Trent have listed on their sites.
One article I found has the by line Donald E. Westlake, so it is obviously by him.
The other has the pseudonym Sam Holt, which Westlake used for some novels.
While it is certainly possible someone else also went by Sam Holt, I believe there are enough give aways in the story to make it extremely likely the story was written by Westlake (I can't say certain unless it is confirmed by the official Westlake site).
According to the official Donald Westlake site, these are the stories and articles written by Westlake in the 1950s:
|Veronica *||1951||The Vincentian|
|My Father’s Chair *||1951||The Vincentian|
|And You (poem) *||1951||The Vincentian|
|Or Give Me Death||1954||Universe|
|The Blonde Lieutenant||1957||Rogue|
|Fluorocarbons Are Here To Stay||1958||Science Fiction Stories|
|Everybody Killed Sylvia||1958||Mystery Digest|
|Matin’s Place (as by Grace Selacious)||1958||Escapade|
|The Devil’s Printer||1958||Mystery Digest|
|Sinner or Saint||1958||Mystery Digest|
|Decoy for Murder||1959||Mystery Digest|
|Death for Sale (aka Down-Payment for Murder as by Richard Stark)||1959||Mystery Digest|
|And Then He Went Away||1959||Future Science Fiction|
|Journey to Death *||1959||Mystery Digest|
|One On A Desert Island||1959||Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine|
|The Ledge Bit||1959||Mystery Digest|
|Knife Fighter||1959||Guilty – Detective Story Magazine|
|The Best-Friend Murder (aka Intellectual Motivation)||1959||Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine|
Of these stories, the earliest one I've been able to find is "The Blond Lieutenant" from Rogue in July 1957.
This is the first story I will review.
The second story I will review is the one I discovered which is not included in this official bibliography nor on Trent's site.
It is called, "Death Wears a Bikini" and was published under the by-line Sam Holt in Two Fisted Detective Stories, dated September 1959.
I am still tracking down the other short stories from the 1950s and will add them in as I find them (some of which may also be included in later compilations of Westlake's).
From these stories I will turn to the sleaze novels, starting with those written under Westlake's pseudonym Alan Marshall.
According to the official Westlake site, these are:
|All My Lovers||1959||Tower Publications|
|Backstage Love||1959||Tower Publications|
|Man Hungry||1959||Tower Publications|
|All The Girls Were Willing||1960||Tower Publications|
|The Wife Next Door||1960||Tower Publications|
|Virgin’s Summer||1960||Tower Publications|
|A Girl Called Honey (with Lawrence Block)||1960||Tower Publications|
|So Willing (with Lawrence Block)||1960||Tower Publications|
|All About Annette||1960||Tower Publications|
|Off Limits||1961||Pert Publications|
|Call Me Sinner||1961||Pert Publications|
|The Sin Drifter||1962||Pert Publications|
|Sin Prowl||1963||Corinth Publications|
|Passion Doll||1962||Corinth Publications|
|The Sin Losers||1962||Corinth Publications|
I have been able to obtain copies of most of these Alan Marshall books, so will work my way through an analysis of them before turning to other Westlake books.
In an interview with The Armchair Detective (Fall 1988) Westlake said that the pseudonym he was given to use was simply a house name also assigned to dozens of other writers.
So, it turns out there are dozens of sleaze novels under the Alan Marshall name that were not written by Westlake.
I've chosen a couple of Alan Marshall books at random that were not written by Westlake to compare to the confirmed Westlake books.
The Blond Lieutenant by Donald Westlake (July 1957)
So, let's start with the earliest short story I've located, "The Blond Lieutenant":
"The Blonde Lieutenant" is a short story that takes place on a US military base in Germany which is interesting because we know that Westlake was stationed with the Air Force in Germany.
Also of interest is that its tone is comic.
In his interview with The Armchair Detective in Fall 1988 Westlake said that he didn't plan to write comic capers, that it just happened.
But, "The Blond Lieutenant" shows that the story based on comedic tension was in his writing DNA.
The outline of the story is that a soldier mistakenly ends up in the women's showers.
A female officer, aka The Blond Lieutenant, finds him there.
Rather than turning him in, some comedy ensues where she helps the soldier get out of the showers without being caught.
They end up on a date in Munich, get drunk, have sex, promise to keep in touch, return to base, get assignments to different bases and never hear from each other again.
As a story it is forgettable entertainment.
As insight into Westlake's style, it sets the roadmap he would continue to follow.
The Blond Lieutenant is never named; she serves one purpose which is to create a reason for something to happen to the male protagonist.
Westlake's women are all descended from The Blonde Lieutenant in that they often carry the contradictions of being both independent and passive, sexually uninhibited and prudish.
I wonder if Westlake was consciously writing for typical male fantasy (the beautiful blond lieutenant being essentially a plastic doll, a playboy bunny, a Stepford woman) or if he was writing his own fantasy that just happened to perfectly meet the needs of men's magazines?
And, I am curious as to whether Westlake's portrayal of women evolved over his coming decades of writing?
Sinner or Saint by Donald Westlake (December 1958)
Sinner or Saint won Best Detective won best detective story of 1958, at least as chosen by the above publisher.
If this is the best of the year I'd hate to read the others; the story has an ending worthy of a groan and plot holes throughout.
Two con artists plan to break out of prison, impersonate a minister and thereby con an elderly woman out of one of the most rare diamonds in the world.
Westlake breezes through the story by jumping over any pauses for detail or common sense.
The cons break out of prison with no explanation.
The cons take the place of a recently deceased minister with no explanation as to how that could happen - it just does.
The cons sweet talk the old lady into giving them the diamond and with no publicity (given that it is one of the world's rarest gems) sell it and cash a check (!) for the value over $1 million at a bank.
Unbeknownst to them the law is onto the con but before they are nabbed with no explanation they turn themselves in.
While the plot of the story is a waste, the writing is fluid if unremarkable.
Here the only female is the elderly Miss Grace Pettigrew.
Westlake portrays her with no characteristics except that she is an elderly spinster of immense wealth who believes the con artists are ministers who will use the diamond to build a hospital.
Knowing these facts alone makes her sympathetic and makes the humorous bantering between the two con artists fall relatively flat.
This failure of a story is compounded because Westlake seems to preen in the fantasy of the male ego without pausing to consider the making the elderly woman into more than a paper-cutout.
I'm not asking for literature but it is striking how Westlake so lovingly caresses his male characters while ignoring the women. It creates the effect of a subtle homoeroticism in Westlake's story.
Maybe in the 1950s that was meant to be funny? If so, it is a sad statement on the times.
Death Wears a Bikini by Sam Holt (September 1959)
This is a story that is not on any bibliography I've found but I suspect it was by Westlake, who later on used the pseudonym Samuel Holt.
I think there are some other giveaways that it is by Westlake, such as the name Mel of the protagonist (a name that featured prominently in the early Parker series) and a reference that the characters are from New York (Westlake's turf).
The opening paragraph also reads as if it could nicely fit into a Parker novel:
"Mel awoke in a panic from an unremembered nightmare which drenched his forehead in cold sweat. He had been screaming but he couldn't remember what."
And, later on:
"She was a good kid, Molly - good enough to marry if he were the marrying kind."
This also sounds like Westlake imitating Hammett, which he has frequently cited as a critical early influence.
In this story the woman, Molly, is very similar to The Blond Lieutenant.
She is beautiful and both independent and passive.
One interesting difference however is the insecurity this stirs in Mel.
In the story he ends up attacking a guy she is speaking with out of jealousy and killing Molly.
Westlake adds a groaning O. Henry like twist to the end of the story making the murder of Molly actually have been an accident with Molly trying to save Mel.
But, Mel knows the witnesses and police will never understand that and he'd destined to head to the electric chair.
The twist (and slightly tortured) ending perhaps served the need for pulp fiction and maybe also again shows Westlake's propensity for the dark comic turn of events.
In terms of Westlake's portrayal of women, Molly is again no more than a prop to move the action along.
While there is a slight definition of character the words out of her mouth exist not to define her but to give the reader an understanding of who Mel is:
"She sprang to her feet and there was fire in her eyes. 'You're a big mass of muscles, Mel. But you're empty inside. You're scared in spite of your size. When I'm alone with you I don't see it so much. But when we go out among people, real people, you melt away to nothing."'
The dialogue is obviously not an attempt at realism nor an attempt to inform the reader of who Molly is but to tell the reader who Mel is.
Once again, then, Westlake's woman is at most, plastic.
To be continued.....