It was simpler for the lead characters in the books. They suffered, they involved themselves with tense and driven people, they handled sudden death like a commodity in a secondary market. But when it was all finished, they were unchanged. What they had walked through had left no mark at all on them.
It would be nice to believe that. But the writers were blandly lying. They weren’t using up their lead character, because they needed him to be in the next book in the series.
From 361, published 1962, by Donald Westlake
In some interviews I’ve seen, Donald Westlake talks about how a while after the Parker novels he wrote as Richard Stark started coming out, he started getting fan mail (presumably addressed to Stark) from urban working class black men, who loved the books, and identified strongly with Parker–even though the first book in the series refers twice to ‘colored boys’, which I’m pretty sure was not what urban working class black males liked to be called in the early 1960’s (and I’d hesitate to give any black friend The Hunter to read today, without at least a prefacing apology). Clearly no offense was meant (and Westlake amended his terminology in his later books, many of which depicted black characters with considerable insight), but why was none taken? Why, in a time when racial tensions were racheting upwards at an exponential rate, were they cheering this honky heister, who didn’t even work with a black man until 40 years after his first appearance, with the same enthusiasm they would later cheer Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song?
At the other end of the spectrum (in more ways than one), towards the end of his life, Westlake participated by phone in an NPR segment featuring ‘activist lexicographer’ Erin McKean, who challenged Westlake to put three rarely-used words she’d dug up into a book–he read selections from the book he was working on at the time, which happened to be Ask the Parrot, in which he managed to employ all three more or less usefully, and while McKean was suitably pleased by this, she said she was much more excited about there being a new Parker novel coming out. You really have to listen to her speaking voice to get why I find this bemusing (though in no way displeasing, or by this point, surprising).
Further down the same page you can listen to those segments on, you can find Terry Gross eulogizing Westlake (and Stark), with selections from two interviews she’d done with him on Fresh Air. Ms. Gross, who stands about five foot nothing, and can’t possibly weigh more than 100 pounds, is often remembered for having conducted a rather tense interview with Bill O’Reilly, and having the notoriously antagonistic 6’4 Fox News pundit explode at her, then storm out in a rage. She is a courteous and mild-mannered person at all times, but she didn’t back down from asking the questions she felt needed to be asked. And I’m sure she only briefly and intermittently fantasized about strangling Mr. O’Reilly with huge veiny hands.
My point is that in one of the most testosterone-free environments in all of broadcasting, Parker has found adherents, just as he did in black inner city neighborhoods, and with all sorts of other people who could hardly be considered to be the original target audience–as Westlake often said, publishers at the time thought women read hardcover mysteries with more ‘sensitive’ character treatments and classy artwork on the dust jackets, and men read paperback crime novels with lurid covers where everything was rougher and tougher, but somehow it didn’t always work out that way at the book signings, and certainly not with Parker. If there’s any common thread binding Parker fans together, it’s that they tend to see themselves as outsiders, at least some of the time. But honestly, who doesn’t?
And the diverse nature of the Parker fanbase continues–as I was first reading the books, when I finished one, I’d hand it to my significant other, who is, as she will often remark, a very shy and private person–she would promptly devour it and request the next one. When she’d finished the very last one, I had to tell her there were no more, and she got this thwarted look on her face, and has read little of Westlake since (Dortmunder has never appealed to her much at all, an opinion I do not share). More recently, she read The Mercenaries, since I had just reviewed it, and she handed it back to me with a bit of a grimace, saying “It’s very misogynist.” I protested that she had read with enthusiasm novels about a guy much much worse than the protagonist of the book she’d just perused. “That’s different.”
That it is. It’s very very different. It’s Parker. And the difference is that while he is a person nobody in the real world could ever possibly become, when we read about him, we do become him, however briefly. Although the books are written in the third person, and frequently spend a lot of time in the heads of other characters, who are far more identifiably human in their pursuits and preoccupations, and may for all intents and purposes be the active protagonists of the story, they are never the main attraction. When we read a story about Parker, we don’t aspire to be human. We aspire to be like him. We want to know what it’s like to not give a damn. Just for a little while.
But in The Hunter, for a little while there, Parker does actually seem to give a damn about some things. He is, you might say, upset. His wife has betrayed and shot him. His associate has taken his share of the loot from a criminal venture. He’s been picked up as a vagrant by the police, and sentenced to six months hard labor at a prison camp–and fingerprinted, which is going to come back to haunt him later on in his career. Nothing like this, we gather, has ever happened to him before. Parker has been organizing and perpetrating heists for a long time before we meet him, but it seems like they all went smoothly before now. And because they went smoothly, they were not of any interest to Westlake/Stark. Identity is revealed by crisis, and crisis then triggers adaptive changes in identity. To paraphrase Tolstoy in a way I’m sure he would not approve “Happy robberies are all alike; unhappy robberies are all unhappy in their own way.” This is, of course, the story of the heist subgenre as a whole. But it has its own unique application here.
Parker was always different from other people, we are told–he doesn’t seem to remember a time when his emotional reactions were what anyone (even other criminals) would call normal, and his sexual pattern in particular is absolutely unique and unaccountable. But at the same time, he got married, and we’re told he was in love with his wife–presumably entirely faithful to her, and assuming she would always be the same way to him. When his assumptions prove untrue, he becomes temporarily unbalanced; to the point where having learned where she and Mal are located, he breaks out of the prison camp, killing a guard in the process (meaning his fingerprints are now linked to a murder), when he’d be released in a few weeks anyway. This is a deliberate choice by Westlake, to show us that Parker is not always fully in control of himself. When motivated by certain situations–like someone he trusted to any extent betraying or cheating him–Parker can behave irrationally, even though most of the time he views people who let their emotions control their behavior with quiet contempt.
What makes The Hunter different from all the books that followed it is that it was written as a one-shot novel in which the protagonist dies at the end. When Westlake altered the ending, at Bucklin Moon’s request, the rest of the book was not rewritten to match the new ending–as a result, the story is, effectively, using the character up, showing him do things we won’t see him do in later books, that justify his final comeuppance–we see him be bitterly sarcastic and spiteful with his wife and with others, kill an innocent person by accident (never happened again in the entire series–if you think you’ve got an exception, think again), and just generally act out in a way that to readers of the later books, may not seem entirely–Parkeresque. And yet we recognize him–it’s Parker, but in embryonic form.
The first book is shocking as all hell, and most of all in the fact that Parker walks away, whole and sane and reasonably contented, at the end of it. You’d have a hard time finding an analogous ending, anywhere in the crime genre, or in fiction as a whole. The Name of the Game is Death, which slightly predates The Hunter by publication date (and probably didn’t influence it at all) leaves its sympathetically psychotic criminal protagonist alive at the end, but he’s most decidedly not contented, or at large, and there wasn’t another book about him for around seven years. The Talented Mr. Ripley, which substantially predates The Hunter, ends with its title character nervously looking around every corner for the law to come after him–which it never does, and he calms down, but by the next time we see Ripley, in 1970, Parker is already winding down his first cycle of adventures. For a while there, it was just him out there on the frontier of noir morality–or lack thereof.
Westlake is figuring this new character out as he goes along, a process one might argue went on for the entire 24 book series, but is particularly pronounced in the first few installments. That’s the real reason for the differences between this Parker and the one we know from later on. You write a series character differently than a standalone character. A series character can only develop so much, without becoming so different that the audience who used to follow that character may no longer want to do so. A standalone character has to do all his developing, for good or bad, in a relatively short period of time.
But in the context of the story we’re being told, it plays out as something that was intended all along–Parker’s life is turned upside-down, and in response to that, he becomes even colder and more alien in his outlook by the end. The whole story has been about him trying to regain the inner calm he felt before Mal and Lynn destroyed it, and he succeeds in restoring that psychic equilibrium–but he can never be quite what he was before. He’s become something different, more dangerous, more unpredictable–capable of taking on an entire organized crime syndicate and walking away the winner. He sees that it’s a new pattern for him, but typically, he doesn’t ask himself why he would respond that way–what’s the point?
The potential for that type of response was always there, but the events of the book have caused it to become fully realized. Parker is no longer, in any real sense, a human being. When I first got interested in the character, I asked myself what he was. And for me, the answer that came back was that he’s a wolf in human form. And to say the least, not everybody agrees with me about that. Did Westlake? I don’t know. But as we go along through the other 23 novels, I may be able to present a few scattered bits of evidence that he did, at least sometimes, see Parker that way.
My first bit of evidence is, as I see it, a seminal influence on The Hunter. Written by none other than Graham Greene–originally published as A Gun For Sale, it is better known to American book and movie audiences as This Gun For Hire.
Westlake’s most important influence, of course, was Dashiell Hammett–who taught him that you could write a character on a sort of emotional mute button, where he tells you little or nothing about what he’s feeling, but you can still sense the emotions raging down beneath (Hammett also used the name Parker once or twice, which is neither here nor there, far as I’m concerned–what’s in a name?). Hammett is always there in everything Westlake ever wrote, but Westlake felt unhappy with his Red Harvest rewrite Killing Time, in part because it was too much of a Hammett homage/deconstruction–he wanted his own style, not just a new take on somebody else’s.
After Hammett in order of importance comes Peter Rabe, a less successful but much admired master of the paperback crime novel who Westlake learned from in a variety of ways, not all of them positive–in some cases, Westlake was avoiding traps he felt Rabe had gotten himself into. Rabe typically wrote about out-of-control gangsters on self-destructive rampages, often trying to get or maintain power in a criminal organization (like The Outfit), usually involved in a torrid tortured relationship with a woman, and the deadly combo of those two factors–the protagonist’s relentless ambition and his emotional vulnerability to the woman in question–does him in, physically and/or psychologically.
Nearly all of Rabe’s one-shot characters are completely used up by the end–his one series character, Daniel Port, just sort of drifts from place to place, story to story, and never really changes or finds any reason to go on existing–Westlake didn’t care much for those books, and I think they were a negative influence on Parker, at most–how not to write a series character. That’s the kind of thing Westlake was having Ray Kelly respond to by ripping up those crime books in 361. You either have one-shot characters who blow up in some dramatic Warner Bros. fashion (“Made it Ma! Top of the World!”), or series characters who just cruise along and never develop. And to Westlake, neither is completely satisfying. I’m not saying these approaches have no merit–I’m saying they aren’t what Westlake wanted to do.
But in any event, I don’t think either Hammett or Rabe contributed much to the story of The Hunter. I think the bare bones of a good portion of the plot are borrowed, in a form so utterly transfigured as to be barely discernible, from A Gun For Sale. In that book, a scrawny waifish disfigured hired gun named Raven (who is nonetheless a very dangerous customer indeed) is paid to kill a European statesman by a wealthy industrialist, via an intermediary, for the purposes of provoking a profitable war. To cover their tracks, they try to throw Raven to the law, and realizing their betrayal, he comes after them with the singleminded intent of killing both, even though he knows this will be literally the last thing he ever does. Most of the book is him tracking them down–like a hunter.
If you read the books one after the other, you can see how Parker is to a very great extent an idealized version of Raven–described in one passage as looking like a mangy wolf in a cage–and Cholmondeley, the lecherous greedy hireling who paid him, and then betrayed him, is Mal Resnick. The arrogant industrialist who pays Cholmondeley, who sees himself as invulnerable and above it all (unfortunately Jewish, as Greene was not above the odd bit of anti-semitism in this period) is Bronson, head of The Outfit. Westlake, as we have seen, liked to draw parallels between organized crime and the corporate world, and this would be him doing that again, only without telling anybody that’s what he’s doing, probably because it takes a long time for book copyrights to expire–not that what he did was remotely plagiarism, but why expose oneself needlessly?
In particular, the parallels between Cholmondeley and Resnick are quite telling–in both cases, their hunger for sex with women they have to bribe in some way to sleep with them is linked to their impending deaths. In both cases, we despise them, and yet are uncomfortably forced to recognize that in many ways we’re more like them than the ‘hero’ of the piece. In both cases, they are there to make the criminal protagonist look better by comparison.
There is no overstating the differences between Graham Greene and Richard Stark–the former is morally unromantic, the latter romantically amoral. Greene wants to show the ugliness of the world he despises for not living up to his Christian ideals, even though he still hopes it could change; Stark looks at the same world and glamorizes it, jazzes it up–partly because that’s the genre he’s working in, the market he’s writing for–but also because he likes it that way. And he wants to write about a character who is everything Raven dreams impotently of being. As Westlake said of Stark, when he writes about Parker driving up to rob a bank, there’s always a parking space right outside. The many difficulties he strews in Parker’s way make him look better, not worse. Parker is allowed to fail sometimes, but he’s never allowed to look bad doing it.
You can only do one book about a Raven–you can do a whole lot of books about a Parker. Because Parker doesn’t just look like a wolf–he is one. Because Parker doesn’t work for anybody but Parker. Because Parker is–let’s just say it–cool. Raven, by contrast, is a British working class take on Nietzschean ressentiment (google it), a born loser who knows it and is mad as all hell about it. He is possessed by rage and envy towards those more fortunate than him, and the most he can ever expect from the book’s lone female character of note is pity. She betrays him at the end, for very good reasons, but not without a pang of regret, the way you’d feel sorry for a stray dog that got shot raiding a chicken house. It’s like a funhouse mirror image of The Hunter–or rather, The Hunter is a prettied-up version of A Gun For Sale, transplanted to a different setting and genre, with the plot elements scrambled up.
And of course Greene’s book is better–my Westlake partisanship having some limits, though to be fair, neither man is in absolute top form here. To Greene, this was one of his ‘entertainments’, and he didn’t take it very seriously at all. To Westlake, his radically different take on the same basic plot Greene had earlier employed was a way out of the porn pits, and a chance to explore some ideas that had been percolating around inside of him. But he probably didn’t think this character would come to heavily define his entire career, or that Richard Stark would actually be outselling Donald Westlake at certain points.
So Westlake, I say with some confidence but zero proof, was drawing on Greene and Rabe, both of whom tended to use up their protagonists of this ilk, and that’s why he felt like he had to do the same thing–even though part of him rebelled against killing this character he liked so much, who he realized he would have no trouble finding stories for. When Bucklin Moon offered him the chance to write multiple books about him, he jumped at it–but knowing now that he was going to be writing about him for the forseeable future, three times a year at the outset, he had to find ways to move the character forward without using him up.
Parker’s identity crisis, for the most part, is resolved–he’s reestablished his old pattern with a new twist–now how can Westlake play with Parker’s sense of self, when Parker knows exactly who he is, what he wants, where he’s going? What’s next? How to keep the character basically the same, but still show that he is affected by what happens to him, that he is evolving, however slowly and enigmatically? How to keep asking questions about the nature of human identity, when your protagonist isn’t even human?
Unfortunately (or not), what’s next is another Westlake novel for Random House, but we’ll be seeing lots more of Mr. Parker and his vicious circle in the near future. And don’t think for one minute I didn’t notice how many more hits I was getting after I started writing about him. But we’re sticking to chronological order here. You’ll just have to learn to cultivate patience. Parker did.