One of my favorite authors, Donald E. Westlake, died this past week at the age of 75. I didn’t know him and never met him. My memories consist only of reading his incredibly clever and funny mysteries — with one exception. In 2002 a crossword puzzle appeared in The New York Times with the byline Donald E. West. I wondered, Could it be yet another of his many pen names, especially since the missing “lake” was suspiciously planted in the bottom right corner of the grid?
After discovering that it was a different person, I nevertheless used the incident as an excuse to write the real Donald E. Westlake and tell him how much I liked his books. The note eventually found its way to his home in the upstate NY town of Ancram, a name that struck me as more suited to a tin can company or a meatpackers’ union than a small hamlet (pop. 1,513) whose origin dates back to 1814. Writing back on his manual typewriter, a habit he apparently never kicked, Mr. Westlake verified his innocence, but went on to point out that he was a regular New York Times crossword puzzle solver. In fact, in an odd twist, he was on the train to New York City the morning after reading my letter and was surprised to discover my byline on the puzzle he was solving.
That’s all I can tell you about him. If you’ve never read his books, I’d recommend giving one a try. Not every one was a gem, but nine out of ten were, including nearly all the comic mysteries featuring John Dortmunder. Help I Am Being Held Prisoner (cover art above) and A Likely Story are two others sitting nearby on my bookshelf, as is The Ax, a book that taps almost too well, and too ominously, into the mind of a man desperately looking for employment. Recently laid off workers (and their fellow job seekers) beware!
Sarah Weinman has lots of D.E.W. links and tributes.