Review: The Hunter, Part 2.

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Penguin-1896-a Greene A Gun for Sale

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 Deathwhich 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.

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21 Comments

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21 responses to “Review: The Hunter, Part 2.

  1. You accurately caught that difference between The Hunter-almost-stand-alone and series Parker novels. The Hunter is pure action, but you gotta have pace when you write a series character. Parker in The Hunter doesn’t have rest, and in later novels he does relax, only we don’t really see him rest. And in there lay great question: what Parker does in his _free_ time? Lying in the dark? Sipping cocktails? Thinking? Sleeping all day? I can’t even imagine him reading a paper, if only someone left one on the table where Parker would eat at a cafe. He doesn’t read books, listen to music, talk with friends. While we do want to become Parker, it would be impossible to survive being him. You certainly wound’t write a comment on a blogpost if you were Parker. He ain’t human, all right.

    ” You’d have a hard time finding an analogous ending, anywhere in the crime genre, or in fiction as a whole.”
    I woudn’t agree with that. Before The Hunter it was a small possibility that a writer would leave his evil character unpunished. But later on, it had become quite common to let a villain live. Take, for example, unnamed hitman from The Butcher’s Boy. Perry saved him, though the next novel about this character appeared almost 10 year later.

    I’m now finishing reading A Gun For Sale and I clearly see the parallels between the two works. And I agree that maybe Greene’s novel is better written.
    Parker is a character who you more sympathize with. Parker is cool. The key difference between them is background. Raven is working class-cum-low-life. He was bullied, he is a child of a criminal and a suicide victim. he was raised by state. But what do we know about Parker? How was he raised? Criminal life was a natural path for Raven. But Parker who is strong, fairly handsome, probably was in an Army, how the hell he became criminal? A need for big money? But why does he need money if he doesn’t have rest? You don’t need money to lay in the dark.

    • I don’t know if Parker is supposed to be handsome, per se–the original physical description was based loosely on Jack Palance (who was making a lot of crime pictures back in the late 50’s/early 60’s, and Palance was no dreamboat. But very attractive to women, which is all that counts. Dangerously attractive–not a pretty boy. Humphrey Bogart would be ugly by today’s standards, he was no Clark Gable back then, and women flocked to see his pictures. You got it or you don’t, and we are left in no doubt whatsoever that Parker’s got more of it than anyone. But he doesn’t care–not so much as a trace of vanity in him. Most of the time, he doesn’t even want sex. But when he wants it, he never has to look very far. It’s a very alluring fantasy, but if fantasy was all these books were about, we’d have lost interest by now. There are certainly bigger and better fantasies out there. But none so oddly compelling.

      You hit on maybe the most unusual thing about Parker, which is that if he doesn’t have anything to do, he has no objection to just doing nothing. He’s content to just BE. He’s free of our petty preoccupations, but he’s still somewhat a prisoner of his inner drives–he’s got to hunt for his sustenance (he could never retire, even if he heisted a billion dollars), he’s got to satisfy his mating impulse, he needs a certain amount of intense physical activity (swimming in the ocean seems to be his main thing, as we discussed at your blog), but once he’s temporarily sated all that, he totally chills. He watches television, but he’s not actually watching television. He sits in the movie theater, but he never sees the movie. He’s perceiving the images, hearing the sounds, but they simply pass through him, leaving no trace. I always wondered if he went to one of Grofield’s plays, what he’d say afterwards when Grofield asked him how it was. He’d probably just shrug. Actually, he probably wouldn’t go see the play, but I still wonder.

      The other thing is, he could never work a regular job. Impossible. Maybe his instincts could have been channeled into something besides thievery, but never anything with regular hours, a steady paycheck, benefits, or a boss. And prison–for him, that would be worse than the death of a thousand cuts. He can’t adapt himself to anybody else’s routine. Maybe he broke out of that prison camp (which would certainly be far less regimented than an actual penitentiary) because he couldn’t take it a minute longer. It eats away at the very core of who he is. Utterly free. For better and for worse. I wonder how he made it through his brief stint in the military in WWII. Of course he was maybe 14 or 15 at the time, going by what we’re told–there actually were kids that age who managed to sign up, and Parker may never really have been a kid at all. I figure that’s where he got into heisting.

      And no, I don’t think any of us could actually live in his skin, but it’s fun to take up temporary residence there–during the rare periods of excitement. So often the novels begin right in the middle of a heist, or some act of violence–as if he’d been half-asleep up until then, and that’s what it took to wake him up.

      Has anybody ever fallen asleep reading a Parker novel? I doubt it.

  2. You mentioned prison, and It is my dream, to read a Parker novel set in prison. Not a breaks-out-of-prison sort of novel, but day-to-day novel. But now it will never happen.

  3. No, the closest we get to that is Breakout–and that’s a long way off on this blog. But as soon as Westlake got him in there, he realized he had to get him out. He could no more write a novel that was just Parker in prison than he could write a novel that was Parker involved in a heist gone comically wrong. ‘On the bend’ though he may be, the character simply won’t bend that way.

  4. Ray, I just realized I forgot to respond to your very cogent point up above–about how there are in fact many books where a criminal protagonist gets away with murder, thievery, etc. Quite true, and The Butcher’s Boy is a fine example–but would you say he was ‘whole, sane, and reasonably contented’ at the end? He wasn’t any of that to begin with. Nobody wants to be The Butcher’s Boy. Nobody you’d want to invite into your home, certainly.

    The difference is that Stark doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with Parker’s attitude. There isn’t even a tacit unspoken sense of moral judgement here. Parker isn’t what all people should be, but he’s what he was born to be, and he’s no more subject to our judgement than a Velociraptor living in the Cretaceous.

    Westlake wrote later books under his own name in which people got away with murder, and they’re nothing like The Hunter. There’s a very deep sense of moral outrage in those books–this is not how people are supposed to live. There’s absolutely none here. What makes Parker different is not that he gets away with it, but how he and the narrator react to that. We know someday he may get caught or killed–he knows it too–he doesn’t give a damn. He’s above it all. I really do think he’s unique in all of literature. But not in that he gets away with it. If I seemed to be saying that, put it down to clumsy phrasing.

  5. The right approach for a writer is write a sympathetic protagonist, whoever he or she may be. He can be a criminal, he can be a wealthy banker, he can be lazy bastard, let the protagonist be what he is, let the reader feel for him, don’t be disgusted by your own creation, even if you’re writing about lowest scum. Don’t judge your character, and the reader will be sympathetic towards him.
    Stark follows that rule, so do the readers.

  6. I tend to agree, but I think the best writers can somehow let their own moral feelings show, while still not judging the characters–after all, that’s a Christian ideal, is it not? “Judge not let ye be judged.” And who among us could truly pass muster?

    I’ve read that when Tolstoy started writing Anna Karenina, his idea was to show how a bad arrogant immoral woman was punished for her sins–but once he started writing her, he started to see things from her POV, and she ended up being the heroine, albeit a very flawed tragic one. His empathy overpowered his morality. Tolstoy’s instincts were always better than his doctrines, I think. Until the end, perhaps. When he stopped being a storyteller, and became an evangelist. Now that’s an identity puzzle for the ages.

    The closest Westlake got to that level was The Ax, and I don’t think he judges the protagonist–but he does show us, somehow, that he grieves for the man. For all of us. For himself.

    Stark is able to write as if morality doesn’t exist–and for Parker, it doesn’t. And before humans existed, it didn’t. It’s something we invented–we had to, because we were no longer guided sufficiently by instinct. We need morality–but Stark imagines a man who doesn’t need it–for whom it would be merely an impediment. You can be a deeply moral religious person, like William Blake, and still feel a sense of awe and wonder at the thought of a tiger, burning bright, in the forests of the night. And whatever force brought humanity into being created the tiger as well–and must care as much for the tiger as ourselves. Or maybe that’s flattering ourselves.

  7. Incisive essay.

    Your observation on Parker: He is perfectly aware that he’s not like anyone else, but he never wonders why. He never questions his nature. He’s content to be as he is. ————– The exact opposite of Hesse’s Harry Haller the Steppenwolf. Harry continually questions his own nature and never is content to be as he is – he knows he’s a combination of both wolf of the steppes and solid member of the bourgeoisie, a man not of action but reflection, no a doer but a writer and aesthete. And Harry calls himself Steppenwolf. Parker never calls himself a wolf because, as you observe, he is a wolf in human form.

    Of course, there’s only one Parker. The closest literary character I’ve come across who is remotely similar is from Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities – Moosbrugger, a large, powerful, poorly educated carpenter who drifts from town to town seeking casual work, an enigmatic outcast and a possessor of a rebellious will. Moosbrugger brutally kills a prostitute and becomes a prime subject for newspaper headlines. Men and women sense the criminal Moosbrugger represents the dark forces at work under the smooth veneer of modern civilization. At one point the narrator of the novel says that all Europe dreamed Moosbrugger.

    I sense Richard Stark is working with a lot of the same energies: America dreams Parker. Probably a big factor why the Parker novels possess a timeless appeal.

    • That sounds like an interesting point of comparison, the Moosbrugger story. However I’ve never read Musil. (There’s a Westlake reference in there, which you will perhaps spot someday.)

  8. I don’t intend to burden you will my reviews as I move through the Parker novels but I’d appreciate your taking a look at my review of The Hunter. Link: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3623490077

    • Pretty good overview (you’re much briefer than me, which is not a bad thing). I’m glad you mention Bucklin Moon (pretty sure that’s the correct spelling, but I forget whether that’s an interview you quoted or Westlake wrote it himself–either way, a natural mistake to make with such a rare name). Without him, we’d have only one Parker novel, if that. Westlake shopped it around at Gold Medal and Dell, before he got to Pocket Books. It was a tough sell, and he must have been surprised to find that not only did Moon want the book, he wanted more, and he didn’t want Parker softened at all. Nor did he want him punished for his crimes. It went against the conventions of the form–and against existentialism. (But as I deduced a few years back, there were reasons why Bucklin Moon might want to believe there was somebody out there the organization men of this world couldn’t bring down.)

      Think about it–a Camus protagonist is doomed. A Sartre protagonist is doomed. All those tough guys in the French noir films and books are pretty nearly always doomed (and definitely if they actually pull a heist, or kill someone). Existentialism has its own form of strict morality–we’re all guilty of being born, so we’re all under the death sentence.

      But for all I agree that there’s an existentialist influence there, Westlake was not himself an existentialist, and neither was that part of him that was Stark. You have choices. You can choose to be true to your nature, whatever that is, and if you have that self-understanding, you can survive, you can prevail–not forever, but nobody runs forever. Why should anyone want to? Wolves don’t worry about death. Keep going until you can’t anymore. Starkian morality is “Know yourself shall be the whole of the law.” We’re not all the same, so self-knowledge leads to different choices–all of which are valid. As long as they’re not based on self-deception. As so many human choices are. Stark would probably say most of them.

      Not today, hopefully.

  9. On further reflection, I edited re the section on existentialism. You’re right, Westlake/Stark is not an existential per se. Rather, as Banville points out, the Parker novels touch on a couple of existential themes.

    BTW – I try to keep my reviews at about 1,000 words. Too long and nobody on Goodreads will read.

  10. Heist Girl

    Before I begin proper, I’m gonna put my cards on the table, just so everyone knows the score. In response to your comment in the previous post, you’re right, I haven’t read Smoke. I have read your review though a few years ago, and going from that, it appears to be a typically solid Westlake novel. I’ve read a few Westlakes in my time. Cops and Robbers, The Ax, Brothers Keepers (my personal favorite of the Westlake), Somebody Owes Me Money, Help I am Being Held Prisoner, Castle in The Air, and The Comedy is Finished. I’ve also read plenty of your reviews of Westlakes I haven’t read, including The Spy In The Ointment. I was younger, and fairly convinced I wasn’t gonna be able to reasonably get a hold of most of Westlake’s work back then. We’re all rookies at some point. Though, it’s been years since I read those reviews and I’ve forgotten a few of them.

    In regards to Stark, I’ve read the first 10 Parkers and I know vague details about later installments. He leaves Grofield for prison, makes a stripper perform a lapdance for him, he gets sent to an honest to god full on prison and escapes shortly after (in other words I understood your reference last time 😉 ), apparently Parker comes across a woman heister who’s more or less him in woman form, there’s an installment where the first act or so is essentially a series of false starts as Parker can’t find a good score to pull, and finally I’ve heard that he starts his own equivalent of the outfit in the last book. That’s pretty much all I know. A mistake I intend to correct now that I own all 24. Everyone got all that? Good. On to The Hunter!

    Y’know, rereading this book for the first time in a few years, I was initially concernced that it wasn’t gonna be as good as I remembered. It wasn’t terrible, mind you, and there were still some great moments (Parker going from looking like a pandhandler to looking like a million bucks still ranks high as a top tier introduction to a character). But for some reason, the opening chapters didn’t really grab me like they had before. I was worried I had likely outgrown Parker or that these books simply weren’t what I thought they were back in the day. Fortunately, I got into Parker reminiscing about the heist he, Mal, Chester, Ryan, and Sill pulled off, and that’s when the book became every bit as great as I remembered. Damn, was this an utter blast to read, again.

    The first thing I found really striking about this book in my initial reading wasn’t the brutality, or even Parker himself. I went in expecting those qualities and was fairly satisfied. No, what really struck me first was the sheer quality of the writing! I mean:

    “Mal was sitting there, grinning, waiting for Parker’s hands.”

    “The dead man fulfilled his ambitions. He got the best hotel suite and the best professional lay. And he got them just in time.”

    ” ‘The funnies call it the syndicate. The goons and hustlers call it the Outfit. You call it the organization. But I don’t care if you call yourselves the Red Cross, you owe me forty five thousand dollars and you’ll pay me back whether you like it or not.’ ”

    ” ‘One man, Carter. You go up high enough, you always come to one man.’ ”

    This is truly great stuff! Westlake picked the name “Stark” because that’s how he wanted the writing to come off as and he succeeded with flying colors. I find it interesting that, despite the rough, hard as nails story and characters, Stark is surprisingly playful with his prose:

    “The building was eleven stories high, with two L-wings jutting back toward Lexington Avenue, and eight of its eleven stories held innocent, respectable, well paying guests. The guests on floors one and two and three were not innocent, not respectable and not well paying.”

    It’s clear that it’s not just the Outfit who likes to play with their words. It’s like you said, you can always tell when a book is by Westlake.

    The book’s nature as a standalone one shot turned first installment is utterly fascinating for all the reasons you and others have mentioned above. My contribution to that topic is that book is about the only Parker book (that I’ve read, mind) where it feels like Westlake wrote everything from plot to the characters to the setting, in service of writing about this utter bastard of a protagonist. Well, ok, the characters and plot are there to service Parker in ALL the installments, obviously.

    In later novels though, you get the sense that Westlake also really wanted write about something else. Be it a specifc plot (The Jugger), or a specific character (Edgar from The Score), or maybe he just wanted to try a specific gimmick (The semi anthology with a Parker wraparound in The Outfit). Point is, it wasn’t solely about writing Parker anymore. In The Hunter however, all the other elements are fairly standard. I think it’s fairly telling that Joe Sheer and Bronson are the only living characters to return in later books (and even more telling that they’re killed off fairly early on). And needless to say, the plot isn’t nearly as interesting as later books. However, this doesn’t make The Hunter a bad novel. Far from it, actually. It means The Hunter knows what it is, an ordinary revenge thriller that’s really a vehicle for this extraordinary main character.

    If I had one critique about The Hunter, it’s that perhaps Stark should’ve ended the book one chapter earlier. Ending the story with Parker broke and sarcastically musing about if he should go to the mayor for the 45 grand would’ve been perfect, in my opinion. However, I do get that the final chapter as is sets up him having enough money for his new face to purchase for the next book. This is a nitpick really, but I felt it was worth bringing up.

    Your anecdote about providing both Parker and another Westlake novel to your significant really stuck with me all those years ago when I first read this review. Mostly because I had a similar experience myself! I read a book by Lawrence Block called Sinner Man. It’s a similar (but ultimately different) premise of a man whose previous life violently changes forever and he has to reinvent himself with a new life in a mew city (he evne uses the same identity card trick that Parker does). I won’t spoil it in case you haven’t read the story, but long story short I ended up really not liking it. It has a solid first act but the rest of the book has a nasty case of sexism in how the main character treats his love interest that only gets nastier as it goes along. The way it ends is admittedly memorable but also horrific.

    Of course, Parker is far from a saint as you mentioned. He beats women too, he gets innocents accidentally killed, he plans to kill Mal and take his cut, and then there’s the prison camp incident. Honestly, that last one really got me for some reason and even kinda made me chuckle oddly enough in its audacity. Because what asshole turns a 2 month sentence into an 8 month sentence because he assualted a guard and then proceeds to do it again, six months in?!

    Well, Parker does. And despite it all, we end up rooting for him anyway, oddly compelled by this bastard. I think I can explain it, too. At least, I can explain why the shit that certainly would bother me in other stuff doesn’t bother me here.

    Going back to Sinner Man, I was never able to tell if the book was ABOUT sexism or it was just a sexist book. The thing about misogny in stories (as I’m sure you know) is that it’s not solely about depicting women getting beaten. There’s also how the main characters talk about women, what they think about women, the perverse joy a character gets in “putting that bitch in her place”. All that occurs in Sinner Man, and I constantly wondered if the story was merely depicting this or if it was also endorsing it.

    However, for all of Westlake’s faults regarding representation, I never got the feeling I was supposed to enjoy Parker beating Lynn or that I was to approve of him treating Rose like shit. It’s pure depiction and if anything there’s more pleasure described in the way Parker kills men (Mal specifically). It also helps there’s a twisted fairness going on here. If women don’t fuck with Parker, he generally doesn’t fuck with them, treating them about as cordially as he’d treat men. It’s only when they screw him that he gets nasty. Also, Parker doesn’t really seem like the kind of guy who gives a shit about gender politics one way or the other.

    In regards to Parker resonating with minorities, well as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I can certainly vouch for that. When the world at large seeks to constantly remind you that “you’re not like us, you’re demanding too much from us, you’re not welcome here”, it can feel really invigorating to read about a guy who pretty much responds “I didn’t ask for your approval, I ordered you to give me your money”. A man who, for all his many faults, would likely be apathetic towards one’s race or gender. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not in any way calling Parker an ally, like holy shit, fuck no. However, if Parker’s gonna kill you, at the very least he won’t do it because you had sex with the “wrong” gender.

    Alright I think this is a good place to cut off for now. I do have a reading of The Hunter but I think I’m gonna leave that for another post as this one’s already so damn long. Anyway, thanks for reading. Hope to hear your thoughts!

    • That is one hell of a large download. To quote Mr. Data–“Processing. Processing. Processing.”

      It’s possible you vaguely remembered my mentioning The Ghost and Mrs Muir in my review, but I think you just dig many of the same things Westlake did, as do I, and it was synchronicity speaking. Grooving along the same general lines. A great writer can tell you things you already know, in such a way as to make you know it better. Or as Alexander Pope put it–

      True Wit is Nature to advantage dress’d
      What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d;
      Something whose truth convinced at sight we find,
      That gives us back the image of our mind.
      As shades more sweetly recommend the light,
      So modest plainness sets off sprightly wit.

      A passage Mr. Westlake would have appreciated–he cited Pope as aptly as anyone ever could in The Comedy is Finished, which you should read, if you haven’t already. No hurry about it. Not everyone is going to rush through him in a year or three as I did. Many will prefer to savor him across a lifetime. I’m a completist, and once a writer really grabs me, I’m a dog with a bone–every last bit of marrow must be consumed ASAP. And as Alice Sheldon once said about Philip K. Dick (one of her favorite bones, as she was one of his), “I don’t know if he’s a great writer or not. All I know is, don’t try to take it away from me.”

      Parker never tries to form his own version of The Outfit. I don’t know where you heard/read that, but whoever said it gave you a bum steer. For someone who expresses himself so succinctly, Stark gets misread a lot. You’ll see what I mean when you get there. Something’s trying to get its hooks into him at the end, but we’ll never know if it succeeded or not. I don’t think it’s in him to be an organization man. Which is to say, a man. He’s a wolf. That’s not the kind of outfit they join.

      As you already know, The Hunter is the only one Westlake didn’t write as a series novel (because he thought bad guys have to die at the end, that’s the form, and Buck Moon informed him otherwise). He rewrote the ending to make it the start of a series, which may make it work a bit less well as a standalone, but to me, the entire series is one rambling epic standalone. So I’m good with that.

      I’ve read Sinner Man. You’re right. Try Lucky at Cards. Much better. The Girl With the Long Green Heart is also great. He’s not quite at Westlake’s level, but then neither is Westlake, all the time. (Writing that much, how could he be?) Is Block a misogynist? I’d say it’s more that he’s misogo-curious. Yes, I just made that word up. It’s a bit like one of Westlake’s male characters (who is and is not the protagonist of the novel in question) saying “Maybe I hate women.” And his long suffering secretary says tartly “You’re not that selective.”

      Anyway, you have no idea how many books of this general type came out as paperback originals back when that was a thing. These days, they come out on the internet, or get self-published. (It’s the same thing.) Not always easy to separate a writer working within an established form from the form itself. As Westlake mused darkly upon in Adios Scheherazade, and if you haven’t read that, get yourself a copy, any way you can. It may get reprinted someday, but probably not in our lifetimes.

      Parker would probably appeal to just about any outsider type. Because he’s all the way outside–an ideal many can aspire to, even while recognizing how dangerous it would be (well, what else do we read crime fiction for, if not to experience danger in safety?).

      I don’t know what it’s like to belong to an oppressed group (might have done had my grandparents had stayed in Ireland, but then I wouldn’t exist, would I?)

      I still hear this song and weep. Every time. Your turn.

      • Heist Girl

        “The day’s gonna come when I don’t have to prove my worth and I won’t be no stranger, I said I won’t be no stranger on this earth.”

        …I’m a big girl, and big girls don’t cry. I’m a big girl and big girls don’t cry. I’m a big girl, and birg girls don’t…oh hell, oh fucking HELL that song is heartbreakingly good.

        I have indeed read The Comedy is Finished. Very solid Westlake and the unexpected father/son dynamic near the end was surprisingly touching. Have to say, when I read Koo Davis, I imagined him sounding less like Bob Hope and more like Phil Harris.

        I’ve also read The Girl With The Long Green Heart, which I indeed enjoyed significantly more than Sinner Man. I’ve read quite a bit of Lawrence Block, including the first 9 Scudder books, Grifter’s Game, that collection of short stories Hard Case released, the first Keller book and Borderline. He’s an extremely mixed bag for me. His writing’s damn good and he makes captivating characters and he has a fine knack for atmosphere. But then there’s the misogyny that’s unavoidably present in a lot of his stories, and I’m not just talking about the early stuff he wrote.

        I don’t know enough about the man to determine if he’s a misogynist. It’s why I constantly framed the sexism as coming from Sinner Man the book, and not from Lawrence Block, the author. I certainly hope he’s not, in any case.

        • He writes a lot of misogyny into his stuff, and so does Westlake, and it’s hard for me to explain why it feels different with Block, but it does.

          Charles Willeford wrote about misogynists all the time–he wrote an entire novel about one gaggle of gynophobes in Miami, The Shark Infested Custard, and at no time is there the least whiff of apology there, but all the same, it feels like he’s dissecting his own sex, and not liking what he sees. It’s not the least bit gloaty or leering, and the toughest bastard in that book is a bitch. Pardon my French. The ending will send a chill right down your spine and back up again. Willeford takes no prisoners. Well, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, so that tracks. That’s his answer to everything, right there. “Nuts.”

          You can’t write good crime fiction if you’re apologizing. Let alone virtue-signaling. It’s called that because there are crimes in it, and people who read it want that, or why would they have picked it up. But if you’re going all-out, you can’t pull your punches with anyone. You have to play it straight, right down the line. Not everyone can pull that off. I think the problem is not that Block hates women as that sometimes he gets a bit too far into the role when he writes those who do. There’s a bit of madness in his method. He’s less honest than Westlake, or Willeford. But he can still be awfully good. Can’t take that from him.

          As I’ve noted, Westlake despised the sleaze genre they both wrote in to pay the rent (as did several talented women, including Patricia Highsmith (who if she’d been assigned male gender at birth, would undoubtedly be called a misogynist). Abandoned it the moment he could support his family without it.

          Block thought it was a crying shame that publishing niche went under, and tried to revive it with a book about a man in his early 30’s who has wild sex with a passel of Catholic school girls in their middle teens who picked him up. Completely consensual. Like that matters a damn in a court of law. Lolita it ain’t (then again, I’ve never really gotten into that book).

          Block gets a kick out of sexual transgression, and there’s a place for that in fiction–but then he doesn’t commit. He doesn’t follow it to its logical ends. He tries to pretend you can do all this and still be a nice guy.

          Why is Parker not misogynist? Because he doesn’t care whether you think he’s a nice guy or not. He never thinks about that at all. He doesn’t think any less of women than he does of men. Women who can think and act more or less the way he does (there are a few) are, to him, superior than all but a handful of men.

          Parker never kids himself. He wouldn’t know how. The body and face the world sees when they look at him isn’t who or what he is. That’s just a disguise. Somebody upstairs made a mistake. Or played a practical joke. He was never supposed to be born into that body. But what the hell, find a way to make it work.

          Everything Westlake wrote was about identity–either succeeding or failing in finding out who you are. That was his theme. Willeford’s was more along the lines of men coming to terms with the worst in themselves, and either making it work or not. Highsmith was very similar to Willeford, maybe even more caustic and self-loathing (Willeford at least had some love as a kid before he had to hit the rails and be a hobo in the Depression), but being essentially a straight man in a woman’s body, her assessment of gender relations can be confusing as all hell. (That’s my opinion, don’t take it seriously, but why did she keep insisting Ripley wasn’t a gay or bisexual man, when so many of her best friends were?–because he was who she wanted to be, and who she feared becoming, at the same time). I’d argue every great writer has a theme, that he or she or they explore over time.

          I have read a lot of Block, and I see patterns, but I’ve yet to perceive a theme there. I don’t think he developed that far, and so it’s easy for the genre tropes he’s working with to get nastier than they have to be. Not enough context.

          • Heist Girl

            Yeah, agreed on all counts. Like you said, at the end of the day this IS crime fiction we’re talking about (a fair bit of it having been published decades ago). While I think there are lines you don’t cross, I also know that you gotta give the genre leeway too.

            I especially agree with your statement on Parker. Race, gender, sexual orientation, feh. Just make sure you can shoot straight and do your job right, that’s all that matters. Lucky bastard probably hasn’t even heard of the words “Culture War”.

            I’ve read some Charles Willeford too (Cockfighter was particularly excellent). I quite dug the few works of his that I’ve read. Need to read more of him.

            Didn’t mention it before, but I appreciate the correction on Parker starting his own outfit in Dirty Money. I’m also heavily relieved the series doesn’t go out that way because that would’ve been so out of character.

            • Cockfighter was Willeford’s favorite. Even though it didn’t merely flop the first time it came out–the tiny paperback publisher he sold it to folded before it even came out, and it took years for it to get reprinted in hardcover. And I managed to snag a copy of the first edition. In almost perfect condition. There must have been a warehouse full of copies that never got sold.

              And to him, all of this failure (that led to repeated hitches in the military) made perfect sense, and vindicated him as a writer. What bothered him was when the first Hoke Moseley was a big hit (there was a movie), and they asked him for a sequel. Sequel? What’s that? He wrote a book in which Hoke Moseley goes batshit crazy and destroys his entire life–making any further sequels out of the question. They politely declined to publish, and he grudgingly agreed to write series fiction, but there was a delicious perversity to the man. He was almost allergic to success. Didn’t trust it. He was going to be true to his muse, no matter what. His muse was an asshole, but no liar. It was in its way a triumph he managed to compromise with the publisher, and I’m sure his widow appreciated the sacrifice. I’ve yet to read Grimhaven. I’m almost afraid to.

              You can argue about whether Cockfighter is his best (you could make a strong case for The Burnt Orange Heresy, and a few others), but I think he didn’t keep writing tragic ends for his protagonists because he wanted to. He wrote them because he couldn’t figure out any other believable way for the story to end. That one time, he kinda sorta did. You know what I mean. He made a side bet. He accepted that sometimes in this imperfect world, you can’t have everything exactly the way you want it. Parker would nod, understandingly.

              I’m a major animal lover, basically since birth (one of several reasons I can’t help but love Highsmith) and nothing in this world makes me angrier than deliberate cruelty to creatures who can’t fight back. I read that book, and to my bemused horror, find myself enjoying it. Agreeing with it. Accepting its twisted but honest POV, and If that’s not genius, what is? It’s on my bucket list to review it someday, and pierce its many puzzling perplexities. The movie certainly didn’t. (Well, how often do they ever?)

              I guess maybe the problem with Block was he decided there weren’t any lines. And there are. They’re hard to see sometimes, but they are there.

              The other problem is that crime fiction has a streak of misogyny a mile wide, and has since before Hammett. Who was maybe half a misogynist. The best half of him wasn’t. The half that wrote the the last chapter of The Maltese Falcon. That Hollywood refused to film. ::sigh::

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