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Writer Uses Humor to Spice Up His Whodunits : Books: Author Donald Westlake one day found his work was 'coming out funny.' His latest is set in the new country music mecca, Branson, Mo.


NEW YORK — Mystery writer Donald E. Westlake, master of the comic caper, thinks of himself as a realist.

"I'm one of the very few realists in fiction writing," Westlake said. "Everybody else is romantic. If my people are going to rob a bank, there's no place to park in front. They have to park three blocks away and walk back.

"Parking conveniently in front of the bank is romantic. My people are wire-crossed as opposed to star-crossed. They're not inept. They're just unlucky."

The 61-year-old author of 70 books said he was surprised to be voted a grand master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1993. It's an honor for lifetime achievement.

"Partly, I didn't feel I was old enough," he said. "And I felt I was an antibody in the corpus of the mystery field. I'm the smart-aleck. The class cutup as valedictorian? It doesn't seem right."

But Westlake doesn't apologize for spicing his writing with humor. "I think the first thing humor does in any genre is to put some tang into the conventions," he said. "You're getting some jalapeno peppers into the ordinary mix. It can also help characterization. And if what you're writing is a whodunit, humor is a very good way to distract the reader."

Westlake's latest, "Baby, Would I Lie?" released in September by Mysterious Press, is set in Branson, Mo., famous for its strip of country music theaters. Westlake's wife, author Abigail Adams, calls Branson "an irony-free zone."

"To fill it with a lot of cynical reporters seemed to me to be a good idea," Westlake said.

The book pokes fun at supermarket tabloid journalism and Branson itself. Westlake doesn't think he'll be invited to do a book-signing in Branson. "Of course, there's no bookstore," he said.

In the story, country singer-songwriter Ray Jones is accused of murdering a female cashier in his Branson theater. "I like the character of Ray Jones," Westlake said. "He's the opposite of the corporate mentality. Secretly and quietly, he's going to work it out himself."

Westlake also wrote song lyrics for Jones. "I couldn't do a book in which the central character was a singer-songwriter and not present songs. While I was writing the book, from time to time I'd write another one. A couple of them finally actually had something to do with the story line."

A Nashville composer has set to music "Baby, Would I Lie?" and "If It Ain't Fried, It Ain't Food."

When he was looking for a book title, Westlake thought a country song title would be good. "I woke up one morning with 'Baby, Would I Lie?' I realized it was a country-Western version of 'Trust Me on This,' an earlier book about the same people." It's the first time in years Westlake has used the same characters in a second book.

"I'd rather shoot them than use them in a third book," he said.

"In 'Trust Me on This,' Sara and Jack work for the Weekly Galaxy. At the end of that book, they blackmail their way into working for Trend magazine. That book came about because I met an editor who'd worked for the National Enquirer who told me stories about that life. I thought it would be really interesting to place a murder mystery among people with that short an attention span."

Westlake, born in New York and reared in Albany, has been writing since childhood.

When he started professionally, he said, "I was writing sensitive slices of life, science fiction and Westerns. The first story of mine ever published was science fiction. The second was a romantic comedy. After a while, it was mystery stories that were getting published. The more they published them, the more I wrote.

"I did five whodunits under my own name. As Richard Stark I was doing paperback originals, tough, hard-boiled crime novels."

Then humor crept into Westlake's writing, starting with his sixth whodunit, "The Fugitive Pigeon" in 1965.

"It wasn't supposed to be funny," he said. "I started to do it and I couldn't do the mystery conventions straight all of a sudden. I called my agent. 'The new book is coming out funny.' He said, 'Don't do that. You'll never get a paperback or foreign sale. You can't translate comedy. You're going to cut your income in two.'

"I said, 'It's coming along pretty fast. I'll just do this once and get it out of my system and I'll go back and do it the right way next time.'

"It sold twice as many as my previous books and has been published as a paperback five or six times over the years. It has been translated into 10 languages."

Then Westlake got another idea for an antic caper. "A mob courier died and his wife buried him in his traveling suit, in the seams of which are several hundred thousand dollars worth of cocaine. A gangster is sent to dig him up and the coffin is empty. That was 'The Busy Body.' I was launched and I never looked back."

But two of his recent books have been serious. "Kahawa," Swahili for coffee, is an adventure. "Humans" features an angel sent to Earth to arrange the end of the human race.

Westlake's approach to humor has changed through the years. "I think when I was first doing it, I wasn't entirely sure of what I was doing or that it was workable," he said. "Occasionally, there is a scene merely to be funny. After a while, I began to trust more the idea that being funny is having an attitude and humor is inside the characters. They're never telling us jokes or being funny. They are deadly earnest, trying to accomplish something.

"Stuff that passes for comedy in sitcoms on TV grates on me because it is all people trying to find funny remarks. It's just punctuation that goes before the laugh track."

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