Addendum: Genealogy of a Hunter


Generally speaking, I don’t think writers know who they are; it’s a disability–and an advantage–they share with actors. And it’s probably just as well, really. Self-knowledge can lead to self-consciousness, and in a writer self-consciousness can only lead to self-parody. Or silence.

Whereas actors receive an endless supply of surrogate identities in the roles they’re given to play, writers tend to begin their search for identity in their predecessors. Every one of us began by imitating the writers we loved to read. Those writers had made their worlds so real and appealing for us that we tried to move in and live there.

Donald E. Westlake, from the Introduction to the Gregg Press edition of The Hunter

I’ve had this article in mind for quite a while now, and I’ve put off writing it for a reason. I didn’t have all the pieces to the puzzle. And I still don’t, and it’s increasingly clear to me that I may never have them all.   I keep coming across another piece, then still another, and they’ve started to accumulate.  I’ve got a pile of books on my desk to prepare for writing this, and I just realized, the morning I started writing this, that there’s another book I have to read, and thankfully it’s on Kindle, so I can download it, finish it in a day or two, and see if it’s worth adding to the pile.  But the pile will probably never stop growing.  So maybe I better start writing.

The Hunter is a deceptively simple book, much like Parker is a deceptively simple character.  There are hidden depths under all that bare bones language, those emotionless onyx eyes.   It runs 155 tersely worded pages in the original paperback edition–a book that was specifically designed to fit any decent-sized pocket, which is why the publisher called itself Pocket Books.  I’ve often taken that quite literally, when in the process of reading one in the course of a workday.   That image of the book up top is substantially larger than the book itself, at least on my computer screen.   Your device may differ.   But the book itself, in any edition, never changes, never dates, never needs an upgrade.

You can get lost in those 155 pages.  I’ve no idea how many online reviews there are (in all languages?  hundreds, at least), but a while back, somebody actually started a blog devoted to nothing more than analyzing the entire book, chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence.  And I thought that a worthy endeavor, and also thought maybe he didn’t have quite enough context to pull it off yet, but look who’s talking.  He stopped updating, and now I can’t find it anymore.

Those who try to bring this story to life in another medium invariably founder on the rocks of its seemingly simple narrative, adding bells and whistles, subtracting sense–of all its adapters, the late Darwyn Cooke (sad to type ‘the late’ before his name, but everybody’s elevens come up sometime) got closest, by sticking closest.   Still far from a match.  I doubt anybody will ever really capture it.  Like its ‘hero,’ it just can’t adjust to life in captivity.  It always breaks out–slips through the cracks, and it’s gone.

I’m not a deconstructionist–I don’t really want to take it apart like a watch to find out how it works–I can’t do that with a real watch, not that I wear one anymore (even they’ve become obsolescent, except as status symbols).  Westlake often admitted he never fully understood what makes Parker tick.  But he wasn’t averse to explaining what made him, personally, tick–as a writer. What, and whom.  If he liked another writer, learned something from that writer, somewhere or other, he talked about that writer, made his admiration known.  Some he liked much better than others, but a useful lesson–positive or negative–might come from anywhere.

So before I get lost in prologue, let me state the point of this article–I’m looking for all the stories that went into the making of this particular story, and the intimidating figure at its center.  In that introduction I quoted up top, Westlake made it clear there were many.  I’ve made it clear I may never know how many.  Westlake was a voracious and omnivorous reader, who also cheerfully admitted to borrowing heavily from the movies (or had Stark admit it for him).   Maybe you’ve seen some things I’ve missed.  Maybe that’s what the comments section is for.

When I first discovered the Parker novels, only a few years back, I saw people speculating on their influences.  They would mention books, and I’d read them.  I usually ended up feeling that yes, there were parallels, but not very close ones.  Then I’d read something I didn’t connect at all with Parker, more or less by chance, and I’d find something that seemed very direct and obvious to me.  Like this book.

That’s the first edition to the left, from 1936, but I read the 1955 Bantam Books reprint edition to the right, with the title changed to match the Alan Ladd film–and not nearly so pristine a copy as you see above, either.  Picked it up vacationing in Colorado–one of those tiny paperback exchange shops you sometimes find in aging strip malls.  There’s a lot of Greene I’ve yet to get to, and this was one of those.

Believing then, as I do now, that Parker is a wolf in human form, and that Westlake at least sometimes wrote him that way on purpose,  I couldn’t help starting when I saw how Raven, the titular gun of the story, was described as a ‘mangy wolf in a cage.’  That probably helped me to notice that the entire story of his single-minded vendetta against the men who had double-crossed him –that’s Parker’s story in The Hunter.  Very freely adapted.  Raven is an assassin, not a thief.  He was hired to kill an idealistic politician on the continent, who was proving an impediment to a British industrialist who hopes to get another big war going –good for business.

Raven’s employers had betrayed him to the cops after he’d done the job.  They wanted to cover their tracks–he’d resist arrest, get shot down, loose ends all tied up.  In retrospect, this seems like a bit of a plot hole.  Why would they risk him being captured alive, talking to the law?  It’s a fine book, but it has quite a few weak spots, that Westlake would have noted as aptly as its strengths.

The point is, Raven’s hunting the rich man’s paymaster, Cholmondeley, following him to a little industrial town–Raven knows his number is nearly up, and he just wants to take the guys who screwed him over down with him. A compulsion he can’t shake, a driving obsession–maybe even an instinct–he can seem very human and vulnerable at times, but at others he really does seem like some kind of predatory automaton–a killing machine who finally gets pointed in the right direction.

Cholmondeley, a fat frightened flunky, has delusions of being an impresario, uses his money to fund cheap music hall entertainments, and sleep with the showgirls.  That’s how Raven gets him–through that weakness.  Then from Cholmondeley to Sir Marcus, the rich man, a sort of legitimate mobster.  Then the cops kill Raven.  Because he’s still a villain, a murderer, and he’s got to be punished.  Even though technically he just averted, or at least delayed, a second world war (in The Assassination Bureau, Oliver Reed is decorated as a hero, and gets to screw Diana Rigg–unfair!).

It’s more complicated than that, as well as a bit preachy and Little Englander at points, and though Greene was certainly right about a war coming (not so hard to spot on the horizon from Britain in the mid-30’s), it’s rather unfortunate that his rich warmonger is Jewish–that book has actually dated a lot in some respects, but it’s still Graham Greene, and Westlake couldn’t have thought he was going to improve on it–just streamline and repurpose it–get rid of all the excess baggage.

There’s a nice girl caught up in the story, just to remind us what nice people look like, provide a moral underpinning, a witness to Raven’s partial redemption (and someone to point him, like the gun he is, at the real villain of the piece).  But that’s basically the whole story.  Raven’s quest for retribution, which indirectly makes the world safe for Democracy, or whatever.

He’d never had a chance, being raised the way he was, in the class he was born into, with a nasty birth defect (harelip–they never put that in the movies, somehow), but God, Greene quietly implies, was using him for a higher purpose.  And part of me thinks that purpose was to give Donald Westlake the bare bones idea for a book that wouldn’t be even the least bit preachy, about a wolf without a trace of mange in his coat.   Better in every way?  Of course not.  But The Hunter holds together as a narrative in ways A Gun For Sale does not.

Westlake referred to this book more than once (as in the Samuel Holt novel What I Tell You Three Times Is False).   He didn’t come close to plagiarizing Greene’s very different story and protagonist, but he still wanted to quietly admit the debt.

He was never going to come out and say “I got part of the idea for Parker’s hunt for Mal Resnick in The Hunter leading him to (eventually) kill Arthur Bronson in The Outfit from Graham Greene, and that’s why Parker finds Mal with a high class call girl, and Parker is, in some ways, an idealized version of Raven, translated into a Gold Medal style crime fiction paperback.” I mean, just reading that over, you’d see why no professional writer would ever say something like that, unless it was about something long in the public domain.  (Anyway, that probably wasn’t even his only influence for that part of the plot, but another template I’ve since located will have to wait a bit.)

He just saw a fascinating but imperfectly motivated story and protagonist that he thought he could improve on.  And on reflection, I’d say that’s exactly what he did.  It’s not one of Greene’s more highly regarded books (one of his ‘entertainments’, as he called them), and I doubt Greene would have minded that much had he ever noticed, but better safe than sorry.

And I talked about some of this already, in my review of The Hunter, but see, I didn’t stop reading books not written by Westlake after that, so these things keep jumping out at me.  Even just rereading Greene’s book a bit today, I came across a section relating to Anne, the young woman who Raven abducts to keep her from going to the cops, and then her kindness brings out something resembling a conscience in him.

Some other minor villain has bound and gagged Anne, and when Raven finds her that way, unconscious, he’s terrified she’s dead–then she wakes up, and their adventure continues. His emotions on finding her like that are wild, contradictory, confused.  He’s swearing to avenge her before he revives her.

In The Hunter, Parker needs a place to scope out the mob hotel Mal has taken refuge in, and towards that end he knocks out a woman in a beauty shop, binds and gags her, and when he returns, he finds out she’s asphyxiated–she had asthma.  He didn’t mean to kill her, as there was no reason to do so, but feels no remorse, just irritation at the pointlessness of it.  This marks the only time in the twenty-four Parker novels that he causes the death of a (presumably) innocent person.  It sticks out a bit–the shop could just as easily have been deserted, or the woman could have lived. Why put that in there at all?   Aside from the fact that something similar happens in Greene’s book?

Westlake, intrigued by that moment in Greene’s book, wants to test his protagonist’s reaction to having caused the death of someone he had no quarrel with.  He intends for Parker to die at the end, just as Raven did–though he wrote later that this seemed wrong to him at the time, false.  Is life really fair like that?  Death isn’t a moral ending slapped on by the Hayes Office.  Everybody dies, often sooner than they expected.

Westlake’s point is to prove to himself that this character isn’t Raven, who is still very much a human being under all his bloody-minded cynicism.  Parker isn’t eaten alive with resentment and guilt.  We’re not going to hear about his unhappy childhood.  He has no class consciousness, because he’s in a class by himself.  There are certain things he’s got to do, and he does them.  There’s no moral other than “Know yourself, know your capabilities, know what has to be done.”  Someone like Anne might be safe from him, but she’d never get to him.   She wouldn’t be able to appeal to his conscience, use him like a weapon.

That’s the first major influence I found–the most recent relates to Rose (aka Wanda), a bright enticing redhead working for The Outfit as a call girl, who knew Parker in the past, and self-evidently has been carrying a torch for him.  He goes to her hoping she can help him find Mal.  She does, eventually.  It doesn’t work out very well for her.  Parker is carrying no reciprocal torch.

That’s another odd little episode that somehow fits into the book, yet sticks out.  The point of all these encounters is to tell us who Parker is, how he’s different–but in this case, different from whom?  Well, in this case, from Philip Marlowe, Private Eye.


I’ve read very little Chandler.  I’ve long known Westlake wasn’t his biggest fan (as has been multiply attested to, by Lawrence Block and others), but I didn’t really know why. In hardboiled detective fiction, there’s the Hammett School, and there’s the Chandler School, and Westlake was firmly in the first column.  But sometimes he took a little from Column B, just to see how it tasted.

Chandler is basically the guy who invented the popular and deeply stereotyped image of the private detective–yes, Hammett and many others got there first, and Hammett was much better, but Chandler really created most of what we now would call the romantic clichés surrounding private detectives in hardboiled crime fiction.  “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean.”  Really?  Then how far do you suppose that man’s going to get down those streets?   Is what Westlake was thinking.

Anyway, I’m as much of a sucker for those clichés as anyone, and I had a chance to read a vintage first edition of Farewell My Lovely a short while back, so I took it.  I get why people liked him so much, and still do.  He had some serious skills.  Crafting a solid believable story featuring properly motivated characters was not one of them.  Westlake was on the money, as usual.  But he still would have read quite a bit of Chandler before reaching that conclusion.

No, there’s nothing I can find in the second Marlowe novel (Chandler’s favorite among his books) that reminds me of The Hunter.  Though Moose Malloy reminded me of a less hulking more dimwitted version of Tiny Bulcher.   Different franchise.

Reading the novel put me in mind of the short-lived 1980’s cable series, Philip Marlowe, Private Eye.  Not a creative high point for HBO, but also not without its pleasures, not least of which was Kathryn Leigh Scott’s take on Anne Riordan, a bright enticing redhead who Marlowe first met in Farewell My Lovely (she’s not the title character).  Anne didn’t appear in any subsequent Marlowe novels, but after many years, she made her second and final appearance in 1959, when Chandler published the very last Marlowe story, The Pencil.  He died that same year.

The relationship between Marlowe and Riordan is frustrating.  I mean really frustrating.  They meet cute at a murder scene, and she spends the rest of that book and the subsequent short story throwing herself at him, and he likes her as much as he’s liked any woman.  She is, when you get right down to it, the girl of his dreams, and he keeps giving her the brush-off.  She’s basically too perfect–she likes solving mysteries, she can match Marlowe wisecrack for wisecrack, she doesn’t scare easy, she’s smart as a whip–she’s a dead cop’s daughter.  She knows the score.

And in The Pencil, taking place years after their first encounter (which ended with her asking to be kissed), she lets it drop that she’s still a virgin at 28, and none too pleased about it, and not asking for any jewelry, and they should just adjourn to her nearby bedroom right now.  He doesn’t want to ruin her.  Whatever that means.  So he keeps giving her the brush, and she keeps taking it, and running whatever errands he has for her.  And this is generally regarded as the most convincingly three-dimensional female character Chandler ever created, folks.  I mean, she’s not his long-suffering gal friday, like Sam Spade’s Effie–he’s not even pretending to pay for her services.

Now I head-cast Marlowe as Robert Mitchum a few pages into Farewell My Lovely (Mitchum in the 40’s, I mean–how it took until 1975 for Hollywood to get around to that, I’ll never know–would you believe they wanted Richard Burton for that movie?).  In the books, he’s frequently described as a very attractive man, and he leads an exciting life, and he’s good with the banter. So bearing all that in mind, it’s not implausible Miss Riordan would hold onto a wee torch.  But she’s toting a torch that would snap the Statue of Liberty in half.  (See, you get into the habit of making colorful expressions like that when you read Chandler).

So anyway, why is Anne Riordan in The Pencil, if Marlowe isn’t going to make a dishonest woman of her at last (and didn’t he get married to some simpering heiress in the last novel, that Robert B. Parker finished)?    Because he needs a favor.  He’s got a client who’s had a hit put on him by the syndicate.  Or, as it is known in that 1959 story, The Outfit.

Yeah.  That got your attention.  You thought Westlake was doing research on the Chicago mob for a story set mainly in New York?  Westlake never cared about getting the fine details right when he was writing about organized crime–to him, that’s just a metaphor for corporate culture, organization men.  He got The Outfit from Chandler, or at least the name for it.  But again, what he does with it–entirely different.

Marlowe needs to find out who the hitters the Outfit is sending are, where they’re staying.  So he sends Anne to the airport to spot them, and report back to him.  He’s worried about the risk to her (bizarrely, he’s less worried about this than his mobbed up client, who hasn’t even met Anne), and it seems a bit perverse to use her that way when he could just as easily hire some stringer, but it gets her into the story.

He can talk to her about the wrap-up to the case at the end of the story, when they have dinner at the famous Romanoff’s in L.A., with champagne and everything, and this is the last we see of Philip Marlowe and Anne Riordan, and once Chandler wasn’t around anymore to hold them back, I say they tore each others clothes off right there in the fancy restaurant and did it on the table, while the waiter looked on with a mixture of disapproval and arousal.   Try and stop me, copper!

So again–the same story, turned on its head.  Parker goes to Wanda’s apartment seeking help, appealing to ‘the loyalty of friendship’ as she puts it, somewhat sarcastically.  She’s throwing passes the whole time and he’s not catching any, because he’s Parker.  It’s been explained to us.  No sex while he’s working.  He sort of hints maybe they could get together after he’s done, but only because he needs her help.   If she happened to be there when he was done, he’d give her all she could handle and more, but Parker couldn’t carry a torch if you welded it to one of those big veiny hands of his.

He’s just using her.  And he’s not pretending otherwise, at least not to himself.   Not the way Marlowe uses Anne, while never quite admitting that he’s doing that.  Marlowe has a tendency to say things like “If I wasn’t hard, I wouldn’t be alive.  If I couldn’t ever be gentle, I wouldn’t deserve to be alive.”  I can appreciate the sentiment, and still think to myself that’s a big stack of baloney, and so’s Marlowe, most of the time.

When Parker thinks Wanda’s betrayed him (like Lynn), tipped Mal off, he’s in a rage–much less in control of himself than in the later books.   But she hasn’t, and now fearing for her life, she gets the information he needs, but by a less discreet method, that leads back to her. When Parker leaves, she’s getting ready to pack up and run, before her employers get wise.  He should be guilty about this.  He’s not.   No champagne at Romanoff’s for Parker and Rose/Wanda.  She’s never heard from again.  And the point is that Parker, unlike Marlowe, is an honest bastard.  He’s not dishing out any baloney.

So is that it?  Not even close.  But I think I’m going to need a Part 2 to deal with it all.  And by all, I mean all I’ve found up to now.   There’ll be more, I’ve no doubt.  But let me get something out of the way here–all the books people might think were an influence, but aren’t.  Why?  Because I say so.  But I’ll say why I say so, because that’s what I do here.

People often point to a book written by a different Marlowe, name of Daniel J.   You know the name of that game.  And there’s another book Westlake made no secret of his admiration for (and therefore, a book he’d be damned cautious about taking anything too obvious from).  You may note my title is itself an homage.  And finally, Parker’s one true rival in the field of cold blooded crime fiction bastardry.  Who beat him to the bookstands by seven years.

I’ve read Dan J. Marlowe’s bloody masterpiece maybe three times now–I have a British reprint of the Gold Medal original paperback I cherish like it was made of real gold.  In many ways, it’s the best novel ever written about a bank robber (much more specialized than Parker).  But it’s in the first person, multiple chapters are devoted to telling us where this guy came from and why he is the way he is (short version–it’s always somebody else’s fault), and even though there’s a revenge subplot, it’s got nothing in common with Parker’s.  Telling a story about a thief and killer who has no guilt over being a thief and killer isn’t a plot idea, it’s just a concept that could occur independently to many people. Westlake took nothing from this book.

And that’s not just my opinion.  Because he couldn’t have taken anything from it if he’d wanted to.  Because as we now know, those two books were in the gestation stage about the same time.  (So was I, actually.   Must have been something in the air.)  Westlake showed Lawrence Block the manuscript of the book he was planning to submit to Gold Medal sometime around the end of 1960 or the start of 1961.   And thanks to Charles Kelly’s brilliant biography of Marlowe, we know that at that same time, he was living with a couple in Florida, working on his book.  No way of knowing who finished first, but we can be quite sure there was zero influence on either end–which is not to say they never influenced each other.  That’s an entirely different article I keep putting off writing.

Anatomy of a Killer is clearly a book that influenced Westlake in many ways (he drops little references to it here and there), and elements of it may have gone into the creation of Parker–it came out in 1960, so there was time.  But since that book is itself clearly following in the wake of A Gun For Sale, I’d call it a secondary influence.  Rabe’s assassin is a rather pitiable, almost adolescent figure, who switches off his humanity to do his job.  Rabe usually made his hit men menacing supporting characters, with little in the way of an inner life, but here he wanted to delve deeper into what might make a man choose that job.  Basically the job chose him, and he went along with it.  Then he  meets a pretty girl, and gets confused. Confusion is almost invariably deadly in a Rabe novel (in a Stark novel as well).

Some of how Rabe gets into his characters’ heads, describes their emotions, certainly impacted Westlake.  But that would be just as true of Rabe’s other books, some of which Westlake liked even more.  Point is, it’s mainly a stylistic influence, the way the story is told, much more than the story itself–I’ve read pretty nearly all of Rabe’s books, and I didn’t see much in the way of direct influence–except maybe Westlake was trying to improve on one of Rabe’s weakest books, The Out is Death, when he wrote The Jugger, and as I mentioned in my review of that book, Westlake ended up thinking he’d failed in that attempt (I disagreed, and you can read that review to find out why).

So that leaves Mr. Ripley.  I don’t doubt Westlake read the book within a few years of its publication.  He probably read most of Highsmith, adapted her once (it didn’t work out), admitted to finding her both fascinating and repellent, which was a common enough reaction.  Perhaps he had some problems with Highsmith’s intriguingly convoluted writing style that sometimes makes even her most ardent admirers throw up their hands in despair, but he would have appreciated her gift for looking below the surface of things.  It’s one of the most original pieces of work in all of crime fiction–I’m not sure the qualifier is even needed.  It would be difficult to find a previous story in the annals of popular storytelling where somebody who committed cold blooded murder–not of some stranger, but a friend!–was not punished in some way.

But Ripley and Parker have little else in common.   Ripley feels guilt all the time–it just doesn’t stop him from doing what he feels he has to do. He sees himself as a force for evil.  He doesn’t live in the present like Parker does–the past is always haunting him, often in physical form.  We’re told in almost excruciating detail what he’s thinking and experiencing at all times.  That’s the point, from Highsmith’s POV–to get all the way into  his head, which I’d argue is actually her head–an aspect of her own personality, that she both dislikes and wishes she could give freer rein to.  Ripley is a sociopath, not a wolf in human form.  He’s very much a human being, but with some crucial parts left out, which makes him at the same time more and less free than the rest of us.

And most importantly, Ripley is a dabbler in crime, a dilettante–the ultimate amateur.  Parker is the ultimate professional.  He’s not playing games.  Ripley never does anything else.  Nor does Ripley have that weird trigger in his head like Parker, that when pushed, leads him to incessantly hunt down those who have offended him in some way.

But what both books have in common, of course, is their lack of moral pretense, embodied by a ‘hero’ who defies all social norms, and somehow never pays the price.  So I could see Westlake reading that and wondering if he could get away with it–but he wasn’t in Highsmith’s position.  She wasn’t a huge bestselling author, but she had a certain prestige most crime writers never had, partly because of her association with Hitchcock via Strangers on a Train.  Partly because she became a sort of protege of Graham Greene’s, who rather oddly found her a kindred spirit.  But mainly because most of her books were published in hardcover.  She didn’t do series fiction until the 70’s, and she never did much of it.

She was in a somewhat more refined area of publishing, and she was writing about more refined sorts of characters, and the rules were different.  She was pushing the envelope pretty hard, but she had that option open to her.   Westlake didn’t think he did.  He didn’t even think he could let Parker live past the end of The Hunter, until Bucklin Moon told him that would be the condition for Pocket Books picking up the option Gold Medal had passed on.  Which those who have read my earlier review of The Hunter will know I think was an offer Mr. Moon made for reasons as much personal as professional.

Bad guys are supposed to die, no matter how much you like them.  It’s a fictional convention that stretches far beyond the confines of genre.  You can find it in Tolstoy.  You can find it in ancient mythology.  You can find it in the goddam bible.  Exceptions are rare.  Dan J. Marlowe’s protagonist was only a half-exception, since at the end of his first book he’s alive, unrepentant, but in a sort of living hell.  Ripley is still looking nervously over his shoulder for the cops at the end of his book.   That final shoe doesn’t drop for him until the last novel.

And by the time Ripley came back for another go, Parker had already appeared in a dozen outings.  He, more than than any character in fiction that I know of, would define what it meant to be a really bad guy and get away with it–over and over and over again, with a lot less excess verbiage along the way.   And what makes him so different from any of the other literary badmen I’ve compared him to here is that he keeps his secrets a lot better.   He’s a protagonist treated almost like an enigmatic supporting character.  Because that is, in many ways, how Westlake conceived him.

And when I get back to this–this week, next week, not sure yet–I’ll delve deeper into his consciousness–and his antecedents–without the slightest hope of ever fully comprehending either.  Because Parker always gets away.  The Hunter is never successfully hunted.  But I’ll do my best to stay on the scent.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

15 responses to “Addendum: Genealogy of a Hunter

  1. Ray Garraty

    It’s almost always impossible to prove if one author borrowed from another, especially in the age of mass culture and unlimited access to any book everywhere. (I’m trying now to do what you’ve done with one of Faulkner’s stories.)
    I’d say all the books you mentioned were influences on the idea level. Somehow it’s always like that: you see a connection and see it clearly, but another person just doesn’t see it. For you it’s obvious, for another person it’s a very distant connection.
    The whole plot of the Greene’s novel is similar to The Hunter, yet all the details are so different, one can safely guess the basic plot was generic. I like Greene’s book very much, more than you, for me Raven is just not like Parker.
    With this kinda thing it’s always in between: you can’t deny that one read another, you can’t prove it was an influence,
    (Funny thing with the first edition of The Hunter: the format was just right for carrying it in your pocket. Now, though, this edition is quite pricey and not common, you won’t want to read it outside your home.)

    • First of all, I don’t remember what I did with the Faulkner story, or which one it was. But letting that rest, ‘influences on the idea level’ is precisely what I’m addressing here, though I’d say Greene and Rabe were also very powerful stylistic influences on Westlake. As were some of the others I’ll be mentioning before this is done.

      Sometimes I probably see parallels that aren’t as clear as I think they are, but I flatter myself I’m better than middling good at this kind of thing–it’s a talent, and one I perniciously insist on believing I possess in full measure–seeing patterns–making connections.

      I’ve done this kind of thing many times before, with writers not even remotely connected to Westlake. The trick is finding proof–but see, Westlake is oddly helpful there. We can be quite sure he was familiar with all the stories I’ve mentioned, because he went out of his way to mention them. He can’t openly credit them as direct influences, because it simply isn’t done. He was once asked if he’d like to comment on his influences, and he said not until certain copyrights expired. Meaning effectively never, because copyrights tend to outlive people.

      Greene certainly might have gotten the basic story he used from somewhere, but where? Perhaps some story nobody ever heard of, perhaps some movie he saw, perhaps suggested by something he read in the news (which is not under any potential legal sanction). Stories don’t just spring out of a writer’s head in full armor, like Athena. The goal is not to be without influences, but to improve on your influences, add to them, become an influence in your own right. But to play the game fairly, I’d say, you should find some discreet way to credit your sources, and Westlake did that rather a lot. He just did it in ways that take a bit of extra attention. He would point in one direction, while his eyes signaled another.

      I don’t have to prove a damned thing. It’s not a court of law. And the only accusation I’m making is that he was a great writer.

      And FYI, I take those precious pocket paperbacks into bars and restaurants with me all the time, read them on the bus. I know, I’m endangering posterity and all, but think of the books, man. A book that isn’t read is a dead book. They deserve to be taken out and shown a good time. And as a wise man I worked with once proclaimed, “A book is not forever.” Meaning the physical copy. If we ever find a fully intact copy of a book that was produced thousands of years ago–the original copy–you know what? That’s a sucky book. Good books are read to death, which is why you need to keep reproducing them.

      • Ray Garraty

        I meant that what you’re doing with The Hunter now is similar to what I’m doing with Faulkner. Finding parallels and looking for intertextual connections are good ways to unravel literature. What you’re doing here is an important work. First, you’re writing down what doesn’t exist anywhere, that’s a starting point for those who will want to contribute later. Second, it’s a good laboratory. You see something and bring it here: look, guys, I found this, I see this connection but I think I’m delusional. and the other interested in this kinda thing people will say to you in reply: yep, you’re delusional, or: nope, we also see it. Then maybe you’re really onto something.
        (I won’t read any of my first edition Parkers outside of my home – actually my grandma’s home where they’re locked away in a special safe for books.)

        • Sorry, end of work day–your meaning was clear enough, my head was not.

          We can’t think of authors–no matter how great, no matter how revered–as isolated monoliths towering over everything else. They all started out the same as any genre hack, looking for models to emulate, styles to glom onto, themes to run variations on. And truth be told, most of them ended that way as well.

          But they put that extra bit of effort in, that crucial bit of themselves. They left it all on the page. And so did some of those genre hacks, except if they truly believed what they were writing–no matter how formulaic–the word hack doesn’t really apply.

          When Westlake said “We all swim in the same ocean,” he meant it. All writers. All storytellers. Some seas are more remote than others (language can be an effective barrier, and translations an imperfect way to breach it), but they all connect at some point. We can appreciate that some swimmers are more buoyant than others, have a better backstroke, a more efficient crawl, a stronger kick. But they’re all borne along by the same currents.

          • Ray Garraty

            As my prof says, It’s nothing just to find a connection between two works. The main thing is to show how this borrowed element is deformed and re-worked by another author. This is where the real analytical work kicks in.

            • He’s right, of course. I’m more interested in Westlake than in any of the writers he borrowed from (not all of whom are great or even very good writers). I’m trying to unravel all the skeins that went into this book (and therefore, many books that came after it), and it’s painstaking work. I don’t just need to point out a similarity, but to figure out why it exists, because Westlake was quite capable of coming up with stories of his own. If he borrowed, he did it for a reason.

              Ernest Hemingway famously (and with stereotypical bluntness) said, “You can steal from anyone you’re better than.” He could say that because he was Hemingway, and he thought he was better than anyone (at least when he was drinking). But that’s not quite right–you can ‘steal’ (perhaps better to say ‘adapt’) anything you believe you can improve upon, even if it’s from a writer who is normally better than you.

              No writer, no matter how great, is great all the time. All feet are clay. So an interesting idea may crop up in a book you’re reading, and you see unrealized potential–or you just don’t agree with what the writer did with it, you see an approach that better suits your own philosophy, your weltanschauung (I have to use big fancy words in case your professor reads this). If you can make it yours, it’s yours. If you just copy it, making mere cosmetic changes to hide the theft, look better than you really are, it’s plagiarism.

              And Westlake was no apologist for plagiarism, but neither was he obsessive about it. He wrote a whole article making fun of indignant writers always looking about for evidence somebody stole their ideas. He would have shook his head sadly about David Goodis suing the producers of The Fugitive. That’s a waste of a writer’s time and energy, and it almost never ends well (Harlan Ellison is the exception that proves the rule, since he doesn’t fight to live, he lives to fight). Goodis himself borrowed plenty, and so does everybody else.

              He really did want to let people know where he got his ideas from. But in the professional culture he lived and worked in, he had to be careful about how he did it. I am under no such constraints, but I must admit, I’d probably be a lot more constrained if he was still around.

  2. Jason

    Great analysis, as usual. And regarding the old Mitchum-as-Marlowe argument, I’ve always thought the guy in his prime would be absolutely perfect for the role too. From a distance it’s a real no-brainer, but in reality Mitchum’s star rose a little too late for him to be able to jump on the Marlowe bandwagon, such as it was. Because the fact is Hollywood had pretty much stopped adapting Chandler’s novels by 1947 – presumably they were no longer in vogue for whatever reason – while Mitchum didn’t really become a major bankable star until later that same year (after the one-two of ‘Out Of The Past’ & ‘Crossfire’) or possibly the following year (thanks to the infamous 1948 marijuana drug bust). So I think in the end it’s just a simple case of Right Guy, Wrong Time.

    • I can see that, but then again, Cagney came out of nowhere to star in Public Enemy. It would have just taken a bit of vision. Mitchum had been in a whole lot of movies by then, including a very central role in William Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe (the ending of which never fails to break my heart). Mitchum did a lot of movies for RKO, which did the first serious Marlowe adaptation.

      I mean, I’m a Dick Powell fan and all (heck of a guy), but he was never that credible a tough guy. Dmytryk really came closer than anyone to translating Chandler to the big screen for a long time, and I fully approve of him changing Chandler’s ending to Marlowe necking with Anne Shirley’s adorable take on Anne Riordan in the back of a car at the end. But it’s not really the book, is it? Neither is The Big Sleep, but seriously–how do you adapt a Chandler novel faithfully and have the film make sense? Bogie is still doing his Sam Spade, but Marlowe requires a different approach. Says the guy who has read one Marlowe novel. Am I weird for liking the girl in the book store (second book store) more than Lauren Bacall? But Marlowe always picks the wrong girl.

      I still haven’t seen James Garner’s Marlowe, but seeing as that film helped inspire The Rockford Files, I kind of think I’m going to watch it and think “Hey, Rockford is looking spiffier than usual.” I kind of liked Altman’s The Long Goodbye (points for using Sterling Hayden), but that is one freaky trip, man. Maybe that’s all you can do with Chandler, riff on him. But then they did the ultra-classicist versions with Mitchum, and I repeat–THEY WANTED RICHARD BURTON. Seriously! They left out Anne Riordan, and she’s my favorite part of the book. So the best version remains Murder My Sweet, but with the wrong actor. Not as wrong as Robert Montgomery, but of course we never even see him–I guess that’s one way to avoid disappointing audiences with your lousy casting picks.

      And I don’t know there’s any point in doing any more adaptations, ever. I’m not even sure there’s any point to my reading more Marlowe novels. I enjoy the language, the descriptions. I just don’t believe in the character.

  3. Jason

    Whip-crack dialogue and wild metaphors aren’t quite enough, are they? Loved Marlowe in my teens, and will always be grateful to him for introducing me to the whole crime genre thing, but then you read Hammett and all of a sudden you don’t feel any need to go back to Chandler ever again. So if you don’t read any more of his stuff, I don’t think you’ll have missed out on much – although from a purely academic point of view it might be worth giving ‘The Little Sister’ a look, since it gives the reader an uncomfortable insight into Chandler’s attitudes towards the fairer sex. Even as a callow youth I came out of that one thinking, ‘Jesus, he sure doesn’t like women too much, does he?’ And then when I finally dug up a biography of the guy, I found out I wasn’t far wrong.

    Ah, Bookstore Girl in The Big Sleep was lovely wasn’t she? Bogie goes into the back room with her while it pisses down outside. End credits. Screw the rich dysfunctional family. Let ’em work it out themselves, like the rest of us. But you know who I liked best? Bad girl Agnes, or rather poor Sonia Darrin, who never even got a credit in the movie despite having a sizeable role and some of the best lines (‘What do those look like? Grapefruit?’). Goodbye possible stardom, hello complete obscurity. Goddamn Hollywood. Bastards.

    But you might enjoy Garner’s Marlowe if you look upon it as a Rockford prototype rather than as an adaptation. Plus it’s got Bruce Lee completely trashing an office using just his hands and feet. Always a plus.

    • I’ll try to catch it next time it pops up on TCM. Though there are a lot of Rockford prototypes–including one not-very-good Burt Reynolds movie, Shamus–with none other than Joe Santos as an irritable but reliable police lieutenant who comes through in the clutch. When it’s meant to be, it happens. The pieces all fit together. I think that ideal Marlowe movie was just never meant to be. It’s not like there were any ideal Marlowe stories to adapt it from.

      People say maybe Chandler was gay–well, maybe his sexuality was confused, don’t know, don’t really care. But does being gay mean being a misogynist? In some cases it works out like that, but more often, and certainly in a creative person, it means at least a bit more empathy and understanding than your typical guy. I think like Goodis, Chandler had problems connecting with people, and particularly women, but he was much worse than Goodis at writing women. Anne was the only exception, and he must have known that by the end, since he brought her back out of nowhere just before he died. Too little. Too late. But did he hate women–or himself? Probably all hatred is misdirected self-hatred, when you get right down to it.

      I know what you mean about Agnes–a guilty pleasure of mine is the color noir, Slightly Scarlet, and I was all for John Payne ditching Rhonda Fleming for Arlene Dahl’s nutty nymphomaniac. Who was pretty clearly derived from Agnes, and I don’t know if that’s James M. Cain following Chandler’s lead in the novel they took that from, or if they just did it that way in the movie as an homage to Hawks.

      I don’t always prefer the bad girl, mind you. It’s a case by case thing. I was all for Jimmy Stewart ditching Kim Novak for Barbara Bel Geddes in Vertigo–like that was ever going to happen. Hitch was working out some of his own issues with women in that one. His very serious problems (that he was well aware of) didn’t stop him from doing intelligent believable female characters, even protagonists.

      So I think Mr. Chandler’s problems were less about psychology and more about methodology. He had some real gifts, but when you get right down to it, he just wasn’t a very honest writer, and honesty is the most important thing. Without that, nothing else matters. He made a contribution and there’s no denying it. It was fun to read about his back-and-forth with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity. When you can give Wilder lessons on storytelling, nobody should just write you off as a fluke. He wasn’t a fluke. He was just somehow–incomplete.

      And I might mention that when I went up to the stacks to get a collection of stories that had The Pencil in it, I saw there were dozens of books written about him, analyzing him, treating him more seriously as a writer than almost anybody else in the mystery genre. Critics and academics fool easy, don’t they? 😉

      (editing) Ah shit, you meant first bookstore girl. I was thinking about the slutty sister, Carmen. I can’t keep the names straight in a Chandler story. 😉

  4. Ah, Bookstore Girl in The Big Sleep was lovely wasn’t she?

    Why, Miss Jones, with your glasses off you’re built like a Playboy centerfold!

    • You know, that would be a neat idea for a story–what happened with Marlowe and Bookstore Girl after Vivian got carted off to jail, which it’s pretty obvious she will in the movie. The Bogie/Bacall thing made it necessary to have Vivian seem like Marlowe’s Great Love, but she wasn’t anything like that in the book, best as I can tell (maybe I’ll read it, what the hell).

      But seriously, nothing against Bacall, and she and Bogie have a nice little exchange of double-entrendres (they did a version of that for radio that was even better) but Bookstore Girl has the bod, the brains–and the books! I’d say that’s a combo that can’t be beat, hmmm? 😉

      • I remembered Google Books, so I looked up that bookstore scene from the novel. It’s a bit–different. Bookstore Girl is a ‘small dark woman’, there is no flirtation between her and Marlowe, and he describes her as having ‘the fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess.’ He seems to mean that as a compliment. Knowing that kind of face well, and liking it rather a lot, I’d say that it is, but still….they did have to filter him quite a lot for the movies, didn’t they? And maybe that’s just as well.

        Of course, this is nothing compared to the next book, which throws the n-word–and all that comes with it–around like it was nothing. And yet, I don’t think this is Chandler dismissing minorities–I think it’s his attempt at being inclusive. It could have used a bit more work. :\

  5. Just came across this–interesting, not worth its own post.

    Found it in Graham Greene: A Life in Letters, a sort of epistolary biography, collected by Richard Greene (no relation).

    Greene told someone in a letter that the first book of his he ever had listed as an ‘entertainment’ was A Gun For Sale. The reason was that he had not wanted the book to appear under his own name–presumably because it wasn’t the kind of story he wanted to be known for–wanted to preserve the purity of his brand, so to speak–much as I suspect he’d have hated my putting it that way.

    But the publisher said that if the book was released under a pseudonym, Greene’s advance would be much smaller. He couldn’t afford that, so he asked that it be listed as an entertainment, to distinguish it from more important works of his (to say, in effect, he didn’t take it seriously, just having a bit of fun), and the tradition stuck for future books in a similarly frivolous vein. Otherwise, Greene might have ended up having a Richard Stark of his own. No paperback original market back in 1936, in Britain or America.

    In a later missive, Greene responded to a reader’s question about changes made to some later editions of his books, where references to Jews were taken out or altered in some way. He says that he made those changes himself, because after news of the Holocaust came out “one couldn’t use the word Jew in the loose way one used it before the war.” Well, that’s nice. Basically, he says ‘Jew’ was used interchangeably with ‘greedy bloodsucking capitalist warmonger’ back in the old days. I believe that usage is still current in some quarters.

    The editor remarks in a footnote that the character of Sir Marcus, the arms dealer and war profiteer who employed Raven and whom Raven ultimately comes after with murder in his mind, is probably based on Sir Basil Zaharoff, ‘The Mystery Man of Europe’ who claimed all kinds of ancestry, and who was pretty dubiously Jewish. He was notorious for selling weapons to any side who had the ready cash–he also funded many charitable endeavors, was something of a philanthropist (he is not, of course, known for having pacifist politicians assassinated). Zaharoff was also one model for the much less malevolent Sir Andrew Undershaft in Shaw’s Major Barbara. Now that I think on it, Undershaft describes his partner in the business as a sentimental Jew. Shaw was all over the place on the Jewish thing, as I recall. But hey, that’s all over now, right? Water under bridge.

    I have a much later edition of A Gun For Sale, and seemed to me that the references to Sir Marcus’ Jewishness are still there, not watered down in the least. Greene couldn’t actually remember if he’d changed that book at all. As it was a mere ‘entertainment’, he might not have bothered. But Greene later was forced to acknowledge that governments themselves–including his own–could act as arms dealers, and warmongers, and he came to think he’d been unjustified in hanging it all on people like Zaharoff. Hindsight is good, foresight somewhat better.

    None of this changes my high regard for Graham Greene as a truly great writer, one of the touchstones of 20th century English literature, and I can understand how cultural standards change and all.

    But I’m increasingly leaning towards the opinion that The Hunter is a better book.

    Cleaner, anyway.

  6. I read that Donald Westlake quote: “Peter Rabe is one of the two major genre influences on my writing. .. The Box, the opening section of which is my beau ideal for how to begin a story.” I picked up the Stark House 2 in 1 edition – The Box and Journey into Terror. I’m half way through The Box – compelling story, for sure. I’ll be reading more Peter Rabe.

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