Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Parker project: Re-readng Richard Stark

I’m 10 books into the idea I stole from Heath Lowrance of rereading all the Parker novels Donald Westlake wrote under his Richard Stark alias. In order, I’ve reread Breakout, The Hunter, The Man With the Getaway Face, The Outfit, Butcher’s Moon, The Sour Lemon Score, Plunder Squad, The Seventh, The Mourner, and Deadly Edge.

The experience offers an impressive answer to a question I pose occasionally at Detectives Beyond Borders: How does an author keep a long-running series fresh? Stark did it by radically reconceiving the series repeatedly. The lone-avenger plot of the first three books bleeds gradually into stories of heists gone wrong, the seed of the latter sown as early as Book Two, The Man With the Getaway Face.

Once he began writing the heist books, Stark stayed constantly ahead of what his fans expected of them. Parker, the unemotional user of women? Stark got good mileage out of that motif before introducing Claire in The Rare Coin Score (1967), then making her a part of Parker's life and a driver of the plot in Deadly Edge four years later. Claire was no calculated, pro-forma addition, either. Her interaction with Parker and the hapless heist planner Billy Lebatard shows that Stark had assimilated every lesson postwar novels of nervous American masculinity and sexual jealousy had to teach. And Deadly Edge shows Stark doing a creditable job with the frightened-woman-alone-in-a-house motif even as he makes sure readers know why she so strongly loves the house and refuses to leave it.

Parker the silent? Stark laid that one to rest, giving Parker pages of nonstop dialogue in The Black Ice Score. That is easily the weakest of the Parker novels, but I respect Westlake for doing something different. And anyone who scorns the idea that Stark had a sense of humor needs to read The Score or The Seventh. The latter book especially uses humor like the minor-key variation on the main theme in an opera. The book is grim and violent, which makes the humorous touches stand out all the more.

Think of any shorthand tag by which readers and commentators refer to Parker, and the chances are that it's accurate, but also that Stark went way beyond it.

(Read all about Parker at the Violent World of Parker Web site.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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14 Comments:

Blogger Wallace Stroby said...

It's worth noting that series was written in stages too. In the first stage (Pocket Books), the books were a little more action-oriented and the heists ambitious (an island, an entire town, etc), and all of them started with the word "When." 1967's RARE COIN SCORE was the first book for Fawcett - a big step up - and he dropped the "When." Those four books begin with the word "Parker" and use the word "Score" in all four titles (plus they had those great McGinnis covers). Those books are bigger on characterization and the heists a little simpler, and they're mostly tightly written.
When he went to hardcover with DEADLY EDGE in '71, he dropped the first word conceit entirely,and those 4 books are a little more high-concept (esp. SLAYGROUND). The 4th stage, of course, was COMEBACK in '97, and he went back to starting them with "When."

December 27, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And we know where Westlake for the idea of gutting an entire island.

But even within those groupings of books, Stark would show signs of what was coming next. The Score is ultimate big-scale heist, but Grofield and Mary show that Westlake was interested in humor and character early on.

December 27, 2015  
Blogger Wallace Stroby said...

And you can almost argue that BLACK ICE SCORE and THE HOT ROCK are two sides of the same coin. Both have similar plots.
Westlake said often in interviews that HOT ROCK started as a failed Parker. He had the idea of Parker having steal the same item several times, and found it veered too much into comedy. Parker stuck around for 3 more years after HOT ROCK was published, but the writing was on the wall.

December 27, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The accounts I have read, and I think is from Westlake himself, was that he was writing a book in which Parker and his gang steal the same gem several times when he (Westlake) realized that was pretty funny. Hence, Dortmunder.

December 27, 2015  
Blogger Wallace Stroby said...

The 1985 Dortmunder novel GOOD BEHAVIOR is dedicated "In Memoriam: P., 1961-73." I interviewed Westlake at that time he said that was his way of finally admitting there would be no more Parker novels, and that one of the main characters in GB had been cannibalized from an in-progress Parker novel he never finished.

December 27, 2015  
Blogger Wallace Stroby said...

Plus, of course, the phony Parker novel CHILD HEIST is a plot point in the 1974 Dortmunder novel JIMMY THE KID.

December 27, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I need to study my Stark history. I have noticed that after he revived Parker in Comeback, the Parker novels, the Dortmunder books, and some of the standalones began to resemble one another more than they had before. Some of the post-Comeback Parkers had more of a comic edge, and some of the later Dortmunders had more somber views of the economic troubles of smaller towns, which reminded me of The Ax (which I have not read).

December 27, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Westlake's high-concept and whimsical fun had mixed results. I found Jimmy the Kid is the worst Dortmunder novel when I first read it (though maybe I should read it again now that I'm immersed in Parker). But its use of the imaginary Parker novel is a great idea. I like the shared first chapters of Blackbird and Slayground, and also the chapters Westlake shared with Joe Gores.

December 27, 2015  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

I've only read two Dortmunder novels and always found the humor a bit soft. They're entertaining, but they left me wanting to immediately read a Parker. IMHO the post-91 Parker novels are the best. I've read about half of the older Parkers and what stops them from being as good is that they're a bit too cluttered with cliche sexism and tough guy-isms. Some of that is down to the era they were written in, but it's still jarring. The more contemporary Parkers I'd count as some of the very best American crime fiction. Here's a review I did of Butcher's Moon that includes a Parker appreciation.

December 28, 2015  
Blogger Dan_Luft said...

I got the feeling that Westlake was trying every variation on a heist plot he could imagine. He tried starting the story at nearly every point in the narrative and was always playing with points of view. I think he really showed how resilient a pretty basic and re-used plot could be.

December 28, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cary: i remember your defense of the post-Comeback Parker novels, which surprised me mildly because i think at least a small majority of readers would favor the earlier ones. I think I could find some examples of what you regard as cliched sexism, but i'm not sure the books contained as much of it as you remember. In re tough-guyisms, I would suggest that Westlake (a) did it better than most other writers and that (b) they were no mere mannerisms most of the time, that he was able to make them part of the story. Compare The Outfit to, say, Don Pendleton's Executioner for evidence that Stark/Westlake could write.

I prefer the Parkers to the Dortmunders, but the latter contain some brilliant comedy. Have you read the Dortmunder novella Walking Around Money? That was part of the series of novellas edited by Ed McBain a few years ago and published under the collective title Transgressions? Its smaller size necessitated a reduction in the number of characters, and he has a somber mood that might remind you a bit of The Ax or some of the last Parker books.

December 28, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dan, you anticipated what I planned as part of a further reply to Cary. the early Parker novels are not uniformly brilliant or even successful. Part of that is that Westlake would try just about anything, a few examples of which I give in the post. It would be easy to regard the pre-1975 Parker novels as a series of experiments by a hard-working paperback-original writer who assimilated the best of his predecessors (Hammett, Peter Rabe, Mickey Spillane, then tried to do something new with each book--Slayground, say.

December 28, 2015  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

I guess what I appreciate about the "new" Parkers is their purity. The plots are mostly heist-based, but without spilling over into the improbabilities of earlier Parkers where our hero is taking over towns or islands. Also, Parker has a relatively normal relationship with his girlfriend. In the earliest novels Parker is obsessed with not having sex during the planning of a heist, but then, we're told, becomes a satyr once it's over. It's a silly bit of characterization, and Parker appears to have given up this habit in the later novels. The tough guy dialogue in the early books sometimes (not often) sounds like boilerplate film noir dialogue, but after 1991 Westlake's writing is virtually cliche-free. And the plots! The last Parkers are pretty much flawless in this regard. I'll have to give Dortmunder another chance seeing as my experience is pretty limited.

December 28, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Are you sure you don't mean plausibility rather than purity? Stark almost surely took the the idea of knocking over an entire island or town from Hammett, a debt he more less acknowledged in The Handle. Granted that the Hammett story in question, "The Gutting of Couffignal," is acknowledged as a notable effort that falls short of full success, Hammett is pretty pure as far as crime fiction lineages go.

In re the improbablities of the earlier Parker heist plots, you're the guy who called me on my criticism of the ridiculous heist in the DeNiro-Edward Norton-Brando movie The Score thus:

"I think in all heist films the audience is simply enjoying a display of ingenuity and intelligence, which, on the criminal flip side, is also what we like about a sleuth like Sherlock Holmes."
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-score-actors-who-act-as-actors.html

One could defend Stark's town-and-island plots in identical terms.

December 28, 2015  

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