Thursday 11 March 2010
The Parker Novels by Richard Stark
Okay, the first thing I should say is that Richard Stark is actually Donald Westlake. Westlake wrote priceless comedy crime novels under his own name, perhaps most famously The Hot Rock but also dozens of others, many of them filmed, including Cops and Robbers, Bank Shot and The Busy Body, which had a Frank Frazetta poster I'll try and include here somewhere. ¶ While the Westlake books are often laugh out loud funny, the Stark pseudonym is reserved for hard edged noir neo-pulp crime stories. And they're great. More tightly plotted than Elmore Leonard, more coherent and engaging than Jim Thompson, the Richard Stark novels mostly concentrate on dark, suspenseful tales of the ruthlessly proficient mononymic professional thief, Parker. ¶ Two things first attracted me about these books: the wonderful Coronet paperback editions with the die-cut bullet hole covers, and the fact that John Boorman's Point Blank, one of my all time favourite films, had been based on the early Parker adventure The Hunter. ¶ It was a great pleasure to assemble the complete adventures of Parker in those beautiful Coronet paperbacks. They had the classic design simplicity of Raymond Hawkey at his best (compare those bullet holes with Hawkey's edition of the James Bond novel Thunderball), although I suspect they were the work of someone else; Hawkey generally gets credit for his work and these classic designs remains shamefully anonymous (if you know who the unsung genius was, do share). ¶ The series was a high point in British paperback design and it was a sad day when Coronet abandoned it for a more conventional (not to mention dull) approach with Butcher's Moon in 1977. This cover was so lame I'm loathe to reproduce it here, but I will just to prove a point. Its utter lack of appeal may help explain why this is one of the scarcest Parker novels. Who would want to buy such a dull travesty of a cover, especially after a run of such magnificent editions? ¶ Anyway, copies of Butcher's Moon now change hands for silly amounts of money and the book spelled the end of the series in more ways than one. It would prove to be the last adventure of Parker for over 20 years. But Westlake is a clever fellow and he revived Parker in time to greet the new millenium. This was great news for connoiseurs of crime fiction — and news which only recently caught up with me. ¶ Last week I had the pleasure of acquainting myself with the renewed Parker saga by reading three of his latest adventures. (Yes, I really did power through three novels in a week, while busy writing my own stuff; they are that addictive.) These three novels were Firebreak, Breakout and Ask the Parrot. Parker novels, at least these days, are not so much stories about heists as about heists going badly wrong. Richard Stark — I'll refer to the writer by his pseudonym to avoid confusion — is a master of suspenseful plot complications and even though Parker is a remorseless, hard nosed bastard you will soon find your heart going out to him as he faces the seemingly endless series of obstacles his creator throws at him. ¶ Incidentally Westlake wrote a short story which depicted the last word in criminals thwarted by unexpected complications. It was called The Curious Facts Preceeding My Execution and it is deeply, darkly funny. ¶ In Firebreak Parker is embroiled in a fine art heist while contending with a loose cannon accomplice and a sequence of hit men who have been assigned by an old enemy to kill him . In Breakout Parker's heist goes wrong on the first page and he spends the rest of the book trying to deal with the consequences, including, as the title suggests, by breaking out of prison. ¶ Ask the Parrot begins with Parker already on the run as a result of a job that went sour. As he flees from the police and dogs up a wooded slope he encounters his dubous saviour, an embittered hermit who wants revenge against the race track where he used to work. He wants to rob the place — and Parker is just your man. ¶ The films based on the Parker novels deserve an essay all their own, so I'll content myself with a few highlights. Point Blank is by far the best of them, and a modern classic. The Mel Gibson remake Payback, written and directed by Brian Helgeland, has its moments, but isn't in the same league. ¶ The Outfit, written and directed by the British film maker John Flynn has many virtues, including Robert Duvall as Parker and a score by Jerry Fielding. It is also probably the film most true to the original novels. In particular it faithfully reproduces Parker's technique of asking his victims their names. So, for instance, when he orders them to lie down while he robs their bank, he can address them properly and they're more likely to cooperate. I've never tried this but it always struck me as a convincing detail. ¶ Lastly, The Split, directed by Gordon Flemying, another Brit (yes, he directed the Dalek movies) is worth a look, if only because of a cast which includes Donald Sutherland, Warren Oates and Ernest Borgnine, and a score by Quincy Jones. This score is available on a CD which includes liner notes with a detailed appreciation of Stark, and Parker. ¶ As a last, quirky detail concerning the Parker novels, there's one non-existent book, called Child Heist. What the hell do I mean by a non-existent book? Well it only appears in another book. ¶ In fact, and I love this, there's a Donald Westlake novel called Jimmy the Kid, which is about the incompetent John Dortmunder, who also starred in The Hot Rock and Bank Shot. The copy of Jimmy the Kid illustrated here has a terrific airbrush cover by the great Robert Grossman who worked for everyone from Time Magazine to National Lampoon. In Jimmy the Kid, Dortmunder and his gang have a copy of this 'imaginary' novel featuring Parker and they try to replicate the kidnapping described in it, and naturally bungle everything. ¶ Donald Westlake meets Richard Stark. It's like the scene in Monty Python's Meaning of Life where the short film attack the main feature. As with the revival of Parker, I've only just learned about this book and I'm off to buy a copy now. ¶ Another fact I discovered while researching this piece was, sadly, that Westlake died just over a year ago. There's an appreciation of him and his Parker novels here. What a shame. Westlake, Stark, Parker and Dortmunder all gone... Luckily there are over a hundred novels in print which feature one, or all, of them.