I believe my subject is bewilderment,” said Donald Westlake. “But I may be wrong.”

Westlake, who published more than 100 books and wrote a dozen screenplays, was the very model of the writer as talented, disciplined, prolific professional. All but two of his books are fiction. A third of them feature either the ruthless criminal sociopath Parker or the hard-luck burglar John Dortmunder—each, in his way, also a consummate pro. Many regard the Parker novels, published under the pen name Richard Stark, as Westlake’s best—short and fierce, written in a bleak, stripped-down prose. The Dortmunder novels are genial, expansive comedies. Their typical arc: When his carefully planned caper-like robbery is sabotaged by bad luck, Dortmunder must do some fancy tap-dancing to get out of the resulting fix. His big score slips away and he is lucky to cover his costs.

The other...


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