“When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”
-Richard Stark, Firebreak
When a book has an opening line like the one shown above, you’re compelled to rip through the rest of the novel straightaway, as if it were the most delicious hamburger you’ve ever tasted.
The prolific Donald E. Westlake is beloved by many for his breezy, comic crime capers, and deservedly so. Like many workmanlike mystery writers who rose to prominence in the 60s—Lawrence Block and Evan Hunter among them—Westlake wrote under many house names and pseudonyms. Richard Stark is Westlake’s most important pseudonym, because Richard Stark gave birth to master thief Parker.
If you’re a character in a Parker novel, you do not want to get in his way. He’s a human bulldozer. “Just do as I say and you won’t get hurt.” And he means that. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone. But he will—and he does—if you try and be a hero.
While his physique is sparingly described in the books, it’s always fairly vague. I imagine Parker as a giant rectangular slab, the body of a man who’s just retired from the NFL, with a square face and big, veiny hands—a lot like the actor Brad Johnson, in my mind’s eye.
Parker is not your friend—Parker doesn’t have friends. He has associates who work jobs with him. He’s a thief, a “heister.” Not the kind who burgles your house, but the kind that brazenly robs a racetrack of their weekend earnings.
He doesn’t say much, which I suppose is odd for a protagonist, even if he is an antihero. When Parker does speak, he’s direct. There is no subtext to his words, no dithering, no chatting, and no dancing around the subject before getting to the point. What he says is the point, period. In fact, we often find him sitting in dark rooms alone, not thinking or musing or sleeping; more like a machine that has been powered down but not unplugged.
Parker is as brutal as he is terse. He’s tougher than a biker gang, more ruthless than the most corrupt tycoon, more selfish than Wall Street, and more cunning than the sneakiest street urchin. He is averse to murder—not due to any moral compass, but because murders bring more attention from the police, “the law,” and attention Parker doesn’t want.
And, he never works alone, as the heists in most novels have too many moving parts for a single individual. So, in most books, Parker has to assemble a “string”—a rotating collection of criminals, each with their own specialty: safecracker, getaway driver, alarms, explosives, muscle.
These strings are one of the series’ biggest triumphs, because the character interactions and frissons add a unique spice to each venture. It’s also why I recommend reading the series in order, if only for the joy of familiar and welcome faces returning.
Now, these are not pleasant fellows (with the occasional woman mixed in). Some are cool, dependable, and professional; some are maniacs and psychopaths with limbic issues. Parker, himself, is probably a clinical sociopath, but he also has a code of underworld ethics he never wavers from, and that makes this straightforward creation that much more worthy of our endless fascination, regardless of his being a heister, a killer, a hijacker, and a kidnapper.
Another reason to read these gems in sequence is that the series does have a minor arc to it. A Song of Ice and Fire this is not, but changes happen. And yet, the most charming aspect relevant to every book is that Parker never changes. He does not mature into a better person, he does not learn to care, he does not grow softer or more learned or discover within himself a cistern of sympathy for the world that he didn’t realize was there.
None of that happens. Parker is as mean and as demanding in the first book as he is in the last. There is no evolution. There is no human heart in conflict with itself. This may sound more like a caricature than a character, but in Richard Stark’s hands, it’s refreshing. As if Stark is saying, “If you’re looking for depth of emotion, look elsewhere—and screw you.” Even marriage doesn’t weaken Parker, so stony is his persona. It is this very insubstantial nature, immutable, that makes Parker so substantial and such a potent influence on the genre.
What do Parker and his various strings rob, you ask? Banks, armored cars, payrolls, concerts, sports arenas, riverboat casinos, an island casino, an entire small town—relieving all of them of their money. But the thieves only take paper money, never bags of everyday coins. Parker always leaves those behind. Too heavy to carry.
With infrequent exceptions, all the Parker books have the same structure. They’re divided into four sections:
- Parker is presented with a heist, weighs its merits, decides to go ahead with it.
- Parker starts assembling his string, travels to the town where the heist will occur, begins collating his plan.
- This part is usually told from the perspective of the mark—an institution or a person—so we are privy to the opposite side of the crime. Also, this part usually takes us back in time to around Part One, and then moves forward to the launch of the heist itself.
- The heist is over, but they never go as designed. There’s almost always a double cross as well—never by Parker but to Parker, as it is anathema to his code to cheat his partners. He gets his revenge, sometimes going to Pyrrhic lengths to do so. He takes what’s left of his portion of the loot, and heads home.
The novels always begin with the word “when,” which is no small genius, because that word, at the beginning of a sentence, at the beginning of a book, has incredible immediacy. “When…” That one word, used as Stark uses it, patently embodies the definition of in medias res.
Parker doesn’t age, and his first name is never revealed—it’s just Parker. Or—and maybe this is too radical a notion for hardcore fans—Parker is his first name, and his last name is never revealed. I’m thinking of the actors Parker Posey and Parker Stevenson here. Uncommon, but not unheard of.
The first Parker novel (and that’s probably not even his real name; he has as many aliases as Donald E. Westlake) I ever read, The Score—not the first book in the series, I didn’t know any better at the time—I finished in one sitting. Being a compulsive reader, it’s one of my favorite memories. I remember getting on the plane from LaGuardia to West Palm Beach, buckling in and taking The Score from my backpack, and then we were landing and I had finished the book. There could have been furious turbulence on that flight; I wouldn’t have noticed.
The Score. Its narrative engine, the intensity of the storytelling, the wonderful and sometimes cruel dialogue—all of it was revolutionary to this budding writer. It was the kind of divine enchantment that happens to readers all too rarely, when you realize you’ve just been cursed/blessed and must read all of this author’s work now. Go out and buy all of their books today.
The series is not without humor. Donald E. Westlake is, after all, lurking beneath the mask of Richard Stark. In one novel, The Mourner, Parker and his recurring cohort Handy McKay interrogate someone in an empty bungalow within a community of empty bungalows. Following the interrogation they bind this man to a chair, lock him inside a closet, and then leave. This poor sap is tied to a chair, hidden in a closet, in a neighborhood where no one’s ever going to come looking for him. The chapter ends with: “They never did remember to go back.” In my head, the victim is still there in that closet—certainly deceased. Morbid, yes, but funny too.
There are bits of this kind of funny sprinkled throughout. Not much, but enough to leaven the violence. Overall the prose is precise and almost neurotically lean, but also nimble and rapid. (The only crime writer I know of with leaner prose is Jean-Patrick Manchette; his books are positively anorexic.)
I had the privilege of meeting Donald E. Westlake once, and I insulted him. My hero, and I pissed him off.
He was just emerging from a 23-year hiatus where Richard Stark was silent and no new Parker books were published. Westlake explained—to me, and to the others waiting in a line to greet him like royalty—that he had lost Stark’s voice, but he’d found it again. The fruit of this rediscovery was the novel Comeback (a title I’ve always thought just a little too cute, given the circumstances).
When it was my turn, I had the temerity to ask him—this Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, this three-time Edgar Award winner, this Oscar nominee, this American treasure—if he would please autograph the book “Richard Stark” and not “Donald E. Westlake.” He bristled, glared up at me from his seat and said, “But I wrote the book.” It was like he’d never been asked this before, and maybe he hadn’t.
I had offended my idol. It was the equivalent, for me, in that awful moment, all of a sudden, of asking Michelangelo if he wouldn’t mind sculpting you an ironic paperweight. You know, when he has a sec—if he isn’t too busy painting the Sistine Chapel.
After a painful pause, during which I was paralyzed by his reaction, the great Donald E. Westlake made a compromise. He signed the book “Richard Stark” but underneath, in brackets, he wrote his real name. He did not ask me for my name, nor did I offer it; I just fled from The Mysterious Bookshop, feeling very uncouth.
Donald E. Westlake—and Richard Stark and so many other pseudonyms—died of a massive heart attack on December 31, 2008. A towering wit perished that day, but also a man who could put that wit aside and write about such a humorless, impatient character like Parker.
If this piece has inspired you to investigate the Parkerverse, I would skip the first book, The Hunter. It lacks the magic that permeates the rest of the novels. Also skip The Damsel, The Dame, The Blackbird, and Lemons Never Lie. These last four generally take place between the real Parker books, before or after a job, and Parker is in these four only briefly. “The Grofield Books,” as they’ve come to be known, are more about Alan Grofield, one of Parker’s go-to associates. But Grofield is an oddity, an amusing character and very funny, so these books lack all the strengths of the main Parker novels and are inconsistent with the Richard Stark brand.
Since I read a few of the core novels out of order, I’m sometimes tempted to dip back in and read them chronologically (omitting the eggs I mentioned above). Yet, I’m afraid. What if they aren’t as wonderful as I remember? As invigorating? As perfect? Over the years, I may have built them up into an ideal no one writer could have possibly achieved. Right?
Wrong. Bullshit. These books are that good. If you haven’t gotten to them, go do so now. And if you already have, do what I’m going to be doing soon, reading them again.
Bonus material: Richard Stark’s books were routinely published during the month of November. In total there are 28 novels in the series, including the four Grofield misfires. There’s a curious Dortmunder and Parker hybrid novel released under the Westlake name called Jimmy the Kid. Parker makes a brief appearance in Joe Gores’s excellent Dead Skip. The final three books—Nobody Runs Forever, Ask the Parrot, and Dirty Money—form a loose trilogy. Ask and Dirty begin exactly where the previous book ended.
Adam Connell is an award-winning science fiction author. He also reads an unhealthy amount of crime fiction, which he worries might one day lead him to a life of actual crime. He can be found on the web at www.adamconnell.net, if you have any complaints or just want to learn more about his oeuvre.