I discovered Donald Westlake quite a few years ago, read The Ax and Trust Me on This and thought they were two of the funniest books I'd ever read, and then allowed years to elapse before finally revisiting the Westlake oeuvre. I have no idea why.
Now I'm making up for lost time, and loving it. Westlake is a master of the comic crime novel, and his Dortmunder novels--starring John Dortmunder, a third-rate burglar surrounded by equally means-challenged accomplices who bumble through a neo-Runyonesque New York--are pitch perfect and very, very funny. (This is how third-rate a burglar Dortmunder is: at one point in What's the Worst That Can Happen? he's actually planning a heist in the Watergate, and when several characters point out the humor in this, he doesn't get the reference.)
I began with the penultimate Dortmunder, Watch Your Back!, and have been shuttling back and forth through the list. (I just got my hands on the newest title, What's So Funny?) I tend to read novels less for plot than for character and writing, and Westlake never fails to satisfy. One character is as "innocent as a newborn hawk." A location is "so far out in Brooklyn, or possibly Queens, that the city buses ran on firewood." Something is "as easy as falling off a diet." And I savored this phrase: "The August sun, God's blood-blister."
But Westlake isn't a showoff; this isn't Chandleresque prose that shouts, "Ooooh, metaphors!" He follows the most important of Elmore Leonard's ten rules of writing: "Leave out the part that readers tend to skip." He lays it on, but lightly, like an expert lock-picker.
Cars play an important role in Dortmunder's universe; suffice it to say they frequently change hands without benefit of documentation. Sometimes Westlake inserts actual car names into the narrative--here a Chrysler Town and Country, there a BMW 1 Series. But sometimes, just for the heck of it, he casually drops in a gloriously wacky invention. Here's a list I compiled from Watch Your Back!:
I really like that Chrysler Consigliere. I can imagine Tony Soprano driving away in it (at the wheel? in the trunk?) in Sunday's finale of the long-running series.
Westlake has a web site whose splash page declares: "I believe my subject is bewilderment." Wait a couple seconds and the message changes to: "But I could be wrong." He's posted several sample chapters to whet your appetite.
Update: Donald Westlake died on New Year's Eve 2008. He was 75. Read my appreciation of his life and work.