Crimezine visits Donald Westlake’s Castle in the Air

Tony Bulmer investigates Castle in the Air by Donald Westlake

There is a certain irony in the title of this 1980 read by Donald Westlake. For Westlake is the writer almost every [male] crime writer wants to be. From Stephen King on down, just about anyone you can think of is singing Westlake’s praises. And justly so, with three Edgars and an MWA Grand Master award under his gun belt, Westlake is a bona fide crime writing legend.

Who wouldn’t want to be Westlake? He hammered out over a hundred books in his time, the hardboiled Parker series, the camp Dortmunder comedies, and dozens of others, including a big stack of porn. He also wrote the screenplay for crime classic The Grifters based on the legendary Jim Thompson novel.

Porn you say? That’s right, Westlake was master of the pseudonym. Aside from writing the Parker books under the Richard Stark moniker, he wrote close to thirty “wrist titles” as Alan Marsh/Marshall two of which he co-authored with fellow crime writer Laurence Block [Writing as Sheldon Lord] Calm your pacemakers Crimeziners, So Willing and A Girl Called Honey most likely won’t see a reprint any time soon, remaining a testament to the times they were created. [That’s what YOU think, see below, Ed.]

And there’s the thing, knights of the air castle, for Westlake, who died in 2008, is very much a creature of the pulp paperback times. He was big from the late fifties, through the sixties seventies and beyond, the days when the lurid racks in newsstands and bookstores were crammed with garish exploitation and hyperventilating sauciness of every kind.

Trouble is, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. [ A smart line from The Tents of Wickedness the 1959 novel by Peter De Vries, and not Yogi Berra as so many think.] Castle in the Air is certainly a case in point when it comes to rose-tinted remembrance. Yes, it is charming, even endearing on occasion, often funny—but it oftentimes devolves into self-parody reminiscent of a Benny Hill sketch—complete with buxom blondes, garlic eating Frenchie’s, beer swilling krauts, and side-clutching bobbies-on-the-beat, bellowing ’ello, ’ello, ’ello, at every turn. It is perhaps sacrilege to suggest that those nice people at Hard Case Crime shouldn’t have crawled into the graveyard at midnight and pried this dated gem out of the crypt. Knights of the air castle will most likely be up in arms at the suggestion. Even now, Crimezine can hear the tippity-tap of nicotined fingers against the whiskey-worn keys of Smith-Corona Silentwriters, as the crime community pen their protests.

Save it, Jack. When it comes to Westlake, Parker is where it’s at, we all know it. Sure this book is a curiosity, a time capsule that any woman reader will slam shut soon as open it. But that doesn’t matter, on occasion we all like to clutch at castles in the air.

Cue Benny Hill theme.