Thursday, December 12, 2013

Welcome to Crime Alley with the Parker Novels!

Welcome to a new feature here at The Nerd Report called Crime Alley, where I'll be looking at the crime genre in all its varied forms, from books to movies to comics to TV shows to.....ballet, maybe? If you're a fan of crime stories, maybe this feature will give you a new little nugget to dive into. If you've read the odd mystery but aren't a huge devotee, maybe you'll find some new dark streets to wander down.

So, slam back a shot of whiskey, loosen your tie, put your feet up on your desk, and let's walk down Crime Alley.

In 1962, The Hunter was published, written by Richard Stark. A brutal, fast-paced thriller starring a professional thief named Parker who is betrayed by his fellow crooks during a heist and left for dead. We follow Parker as he cuts a bloody swath through the New York underworld to get revenge and the money owed to him.

It's a revenge tale, a plot as old as time. What sets The Hunter apart is its structure, and its uncompromising protagonist. Parker is certainly no hero. He's barely an anti-hero. He's a complete sociopath, and every action he takes is taken in his own best interests. He has little to no sentimentality, no compunction about violence and utterly no sympathy or empathy for anybody else. He is a creature composed entirely of machine logic, and the only emotion he consistently displays is a cool white-hot anger. The only thing remotely admirable about him is his commitment to professionalism in his work. Even that stems only from a desire to achieve maximum success with a minimum of risk to himself. As a result, he becomes our protagonist only in contrast to other characters in the book who are venal, petty, greedy and needlessly cruel. He is the existential ideal at its most extreme, and that makes him captivating.

The other remarkable aspect of the novel is its structure. It begins in the middle of the story, follows Parker back to its beginning, then switches viewpoint to another character that Parker is tracking down. It follows this character until Parker catches up with him, then goes back to depict, from Parker's POV, how he caught up with him. This non-linear style of storytelling would be imitated by others in future, most notably by filmmaker Quentin Tarantino.

Stark intended The Hunter to be a stand alone novel, but his publisher thought that Parker would make a compelling star of a series, and asked for more. Over the next twelve years, Stark would write fifteen further novels starring Parker, as well as four novels featuring Parker's sometime associate Alan Grofield. The Parker novels quickly settle into a formula; Parker takes on a heist, the heist goes wrong, Parker spends the rest of the novel escaping/settling the score/recovering the loot. The fun comes in the variations on a theme that occur within the novels. The series becomes the equivalent of jazz music; the song may be an old standard but the magic happens in what the musician does with the variations.

Richard Stark, of course, never existed at all. He was the most successful of the many pen names of Donald E. Westlake. Westlake was perhaps the most versatile and prolific crime writer of the late 20th century. He wrote over 100 novels, 2 non-fiction books, five screenplays and many short stories. He was the winner of three Edgar Awards, winning for best novel, best short story and best screenplay. He was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for 1990's The Grifters. In 1993 the Mystery Writers of America granted him their highest honour when they named him a Grand Master.

Westlake was always an extremely prolific writer, which partly explains why he had so many pseudonyms. Publishers of the time were resistant toa single author relasing multiple books in the same year. He wrote seven novels in 1961 alone. He also used the pen names to create a different style or tone to his novels. The Parker books are lean, tough and doggedly unsentimental. The novels he wrote under his own name were comic capers, featuring hapless crooks like John Dortmunder who bumble their way through ingenious and audacious heists.

The original cycle of Parker novels feature flashes of the wit and flair from his Westlake novels, and his gift for creating unusual and fleshed-out supporting casts around the more static Parker livened up the novels considerably. From 1962 to 1974, the Parker novels were among the most refreshing and exciting crime books around. Then they stopped. Westlake would say that "Richard Stark just up and disappeared. He did a fade. Periodically, in the ensuing years, I tried to summon that persona, to write like him, to be him for just a while, but every single time I failed. What appeared on the paper was stiff, full of lumps, a poor imitation, a pastiche. Though successful, though well liked and well paid, Richard Stark had simply downed tools. For, I thought, ever."

Then, twenty-three years later, Parker returned in the appropriately named Comeback. Seven more Parker novels followed, and though it's clear that the world he operates in has changed, little else about Parker has. Parker hadn't aged for instance, which makes sense because how do you age a force of nature? I wouldn't call these novels as strong as the ones in the original cycle, but they are still damn good, and Stark (or Westlake) clearly never missed a step. Westlake passed away in 2008.

The Parker novels are all eminently readable, and the University of Chicago Press have spent the last few years reprinting them in stylish and inexpensive editions.  But you may not have the time or the scratch to pick up all 24 books, so lucky for you, I'm listing five books that I'd say are indispensable Parker.

  1. The Hunter - This is the one that started it all, and in many ways is still the meanest and most stark (no pun intended).
  2. The Score - We're introduced to Alan Grofield in this book, one of Parker's criminal associates who is also a professional stage actor. The heist in this novel is one of the most ambitious in the series, as Parker and his crew try to rob an entire town in a single night.
  3. The Rare Coin Score - After eight novels, we finally get a little more insight into Parker when he gets involved in a job to rip off a rare coin convention and meets Claire, the woman who becomes his love interest for the rest of the series. When I say love interest, keep in mind this is Parker, so hearts and flowers are not on the menu. But their relationship manages to deepen Parker without softening him at all, which is quite a feat.
  4. Slayground - Parker is on an armoured car job that goes bad and is forced to hide out in a massive abandoned amusement park. Things go from bad to worse when the local mob and some corrupt cops get wind of Parker and the loot trapped inside the park. Even if you're the mob, it's a bad idea to go up against a guy for whom survival is a specialty.
  5. Butcher's Moon - The last Parker novel for twenty-three years, it certainly feels like an epic farewell. Almost a sequel to Slayground, the novel finds Parker back in the town of Tyler, trying to get some money owed to him and caught up in a gang war. Featuring Grofield and a whole host of associates from other books, this one's got everything and is probably the best novel in the series.
There are a few movies based on Parker novels out there, but Westlake wouldn't let any film studio use the Parker name unless they committed to doing a series of films, which is why he's called a variety of different names on film. The best film is John Boorman's 1967 adaptation of The Hunter, Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin. In 1973, an adaptation of The Outfit was released, starring Robert Duvall in the Parker role, and it's very good. I haven't seen the most recent film Parker, starring Jason Statham (presumably the first in a series as they use the Parker name), but it looks pretty bad. Parker is a resolutely American character, so I can't see the resolutely British Statham in the role.

But the best adaptations are the graphic novels written and illustrated by Darwyn Cooke. Cooke has adapted The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face, The Score and The Seventh, with Slayground due sometime this year. Cooke's classic and atmospheric style meshes perfectly with Stark's no-nonsense prose and these books are just beautiful to look at.

Panel from The Hunter,
art by Darwyn Cooke, published by IDW

That's all from Crime Alley. Hope you liked the new feature. We'll have more soon!

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