The writer protagonist in Stephen King’s The Dark Half, having failed as a literary novelist, uses ‘Stark’ as the pen name for a series of crime books about a killer, which become hugely popular to his growing chagrin. He explains that he chose the name for his alter ego as an homage to the creator of a classic thriller series featuring the career criminal known only as ‘Parker’ in the books, though this is not the man’s real name – but then again, ‘Stark’ wasn’t the actual surname of the author either. ‘Richard Stark’ was in fact the best known of the pseudonyms used by the late Donald Westlake, who usually reserved his own name for humorous stories of heists and cons that usually go spectacularly awry. He adopted the ‘Stark’ soubriquet during the 1960s when he was churning out paperback originals at a truly prodigious rate.
The office women looked at him and shivered.
Parker is a professional thief and the protagonist of an exciting series of Noir adventures set in the criminal underworld of the 1960s depicted with ingenuity but little glamour and much grit. It is a world of murderers, thieves and con artists, powerful femme fatales and insecure little men with axes to grind and scores to settle, all out to make a buck with precious little adherence to any kind of code. He first appeared in the 1962 novel The Hunter, and right from its opening line we know that this is going to be a bumpy ride:
When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.
Betrayed by his weak-willed wife and left for dead by his partner Mal (who he was planning to kill anyway) at the end of a successful munitions heist, Parker tracks them down and exacts his bloody revenge. These are pulp thrillers, short, tough, zesty and to the point. They also provide ironic commentaries on the rise of sixties corporate culture as Parker keeps coming up against ‘The Outfit’, a nationwide crime syndicate built on the same lines as any other business. Parker is a violent amoral criminal, but there are much worse out there, but he is a genuione tough guy. As Westlake put it in Dilys Winn’s hugely entertaining tome Murder Ink:
“Parker’s reaction to the underdog would probably have been to kick it … He hasn’t yet figured out how to operate in a world where heisting is one of the more rational responses to the situation”
Parker is a genuinely unrepentant career criminal, who pulls one or two major jobs a year and then lives off the proceeds in resort hotels until the need for money makes him plan a new heist. Only known as ‘Parker’, this is not his real surname and when held in prison during The Hunter he uses the identity of one Ronald Casper.
His hands looked like they were molded of brown clay by a sculptor who thought big and liked veins.
At the end of The Hunter Parker was originally meant to be on the point of expiring but Westlake was prevailed upon to tweak the book and so began a series which would, in the end, run to two dozen volumes. They all see Parker engaged in an operation with cool professional detachment while those around him lose their heads (or other parts of their anatomy) when things don’t go quite according to plan. His character is not explored in depth and even the physical details, if not exactly nondescript (he is known for having particularly large hands), is unusually pliable as Westlake alters his physiognomy early in the series after he has plastic surgery. Parker was slightly softened however as the years wore on and he acquired a long-term girlfriend in the shape of Claire, who would still be with him some thirty years later.
The complete list of the Stark / Parker novels is as follows. The original series ended in 1974 with Butcher’s Moon, with the character returning over twenty years later for 8 more up-to-date capers starting in 1997 with Comeback (appropriately enough) :
- The Hunter (aka Point Blank) – 1962
- The Man With the Getaway Face (aka The Steel Hit) – 1963
- The Outfit – 1963
- The Mourner – 1963
- The Score (aka Killtown) – 1964
- The Jugger – 1965
- The Seventh (aka The Split) – 1965
- The Handle (aka Run Lethal) – 1966
- The Rare Coin Score – 1967
- The Green Eagle Score – 1967
- The Black Ice Score – 1968)
- The Sour Lemon Score – 1969
- Deadly Edge – 1971
- Slayground – 1971
- Plunder Squad – 1972
- Butcher’s Moon – 1974
- Comeback – 1997
- Backflash – 1998
- Flashfire – 2000
- Firebreak – 2001
- Breakout – 2002
- Nobody Runs Forever – 2004
- Ask the Parrot – 2006
- Dirty Money – 2008
Due to an error when Westlake switched publishers from Pocket to Fawcett, the seventh book in the series, entitled in point of fact The Seventh, was published eighth but I have corrected this anomaly above. The first chapter of Slayground is shared with another Stark novel The Blackbird, but this follows what happens to Parker’s sometime confederate Alan Grofield when their paths separate. Grofield appeared solo in four Stark books:
There is an amusing bit of intertextual post-modern jiggery pokery with regards to Child Heist (1974), a book by Stark that exists only in the pages of Westlake’s comic caper Jimmy the Kid (1974), in which the author’s accident prone criminal Dortmunder uses the Stark novel as a guide for a job they are trying to pull off, alternating Parker’s progress in the ‘Stark’ book with that of the hapless gang in Westlake’s.
Many of the books in the series have been filmed, but one of the consistent oddities of them (presumably for contractual reasons) has been the fact that Parker has always been either renamed or altered into a completely new character – in the case of Jean-Luc Godard’s typically eccentric Made in USA, (admittedly an unauthorised adaptation of The Jugger) the ‘Parker’ role was played by Anna Karina! Otherwise in the two movie adaptations of The Hunter the protagonist becomes first ‘Walker’ in John Boorman’s superb Point Blank and then ‘Porter’ for Payback, the Mel Gibson vehicle written and directed by Brian Helgeland that is now available in two very different versions: the theatrical release from 1999 in which the last third was completely re-written and shot by other people and which also tacked on a voice over and a happy ending; and Helgeland’s darker original version which was eventually released on DVD 10 years later as Payback: Straight Up – The Director’s Cut which also deviates quite a lot from the original novel but which is much closer to its nihilistic tone (‘spirit’ seems the wrong word somehow). In other films the character is known variously as McClain (The Split, 1968), Macklin (The Outfit, 1973) and Stone (Slayground, 1983). This is finally set to change in Parker, an adaptation of some of the later novels (including Flashfire) with Jason Statham (an Englishman?) playing the title role. It is due out in 2012.
Those looking to find out more about Stark and Parker should first of all visit The Violent World of Parker (http://violentworldofparker.com/) but also check The Thrilling Detective site (www.thrillingdetective.com/parker2.html) as well as this amusing link to the opening lines to all the novels (www.miskatonic.org/parker-first-lines.html. You should also visit the detailed and handsomely illustrated Existential Ennui blog (thanks Nick).
This is one of my Top 100 Mysteries, though this is probably as much for the totality of the series as for the particular volume in question – you don’t just read these books, you have to live through them in a rush of excitement and tension and see if you can get through to the other side.