Tag Archives: Dan J. Marlowe

Mr. Westlake and Mr. Marlowe

As I mentioned when I started this blog, I’m a relative newcomer to crime/mystery fiction.  Sure, I encountered the usual stuff growing up, Poe, Doyle, Christie, a bunch of short story anthologies.  A little Hammett.  Lots of old movies.  But several years ago, more or less on a whim, I started reading the Parker novels, and when I ran out of those, I started on the Tobins, and when I ran out of those, I moved on to the books Westlake wrote under his real name.

And I began to be curious about his influences, and his contemporaries–about writers who were like him in some ways, who shared certain affinities, who covered some of the same ground.  If he mentioned an author favorably, I tried to read works by that author.  I also reasoned that if I really liked these particular books about a tough enigmatic armed robber, I might like other books about similar characters written by different authors.  Sometimes I did.  More often I didn’t.  But I learned things, either way.

Thanks to bloggers like Trent at Violent World of Parker and Nick Jones at Existential Ennui, who were similarly interested, I began to selectively explore the rest of the crime/mystery field, a fathomless genre, most of which remains a cipher to me, and quite honestly much of which doesn’t seem worth the deciphering (as Sturgeon’s Law helpfully informs us, 90% of everything is crap).  Ray Garraty, who has often posted here, was perhaps more helpful than anyone–as I helped him with his voracious book-collecting habit, often reading the books I ordered on his behalf, before dispatching them off to the general vicinity of the Urals.  We helped each other, as fellow enthusiasts so often do.

I’m still very far from being any kind of expert on the mystery genre, and doubt I ever shall be.  But I can honestly say I know more than most, for what that’s worth.  And coming at the field from a somewhat unusual perspective, I may have sometimes picked up on things that more experienced eyes missed.

One of the crime authors I became interested in for a time was Dan J. Marlowe.   And he is nothing if not interesting.

Marlowe was well into his 40’s when he became a professional writer, a very late start for anyone.  His wife had died, and after living a seemingly staid Middle American lifestyle for most of his life, full of grey flannel suits and offices, he just decided to pursue his long-suppressed creative ambitions full tilt.   He did not produce that many books, and most of his books are not that impressive–but a few of them became minor classics, and one achieved legendary cult status (though never a film adaptation, and at this point I doubt it ever will, unless Tarantino wants to do it).

Marlowe worked a lot with collaborators–two of whom were ex-military men, and those books mainly didn’t hold up that well.  Another was Al Nussbaum, formerly one of the most notorious bank robbers of all time–that collaboration worked out somewhat better, turned into a decidedly odd friendship that has inspired a lot of head scratching in various quarters.

Still, his best books were invariably written solo.  It seems a fairly safe bet to say that he didn’t have many good books in him, that his inspiration didn’t hold up over time, that his very late start negatively impacted his development as a writer.  But he enjoyed the authorial life, and wanted to go on producing crime/espionage paperbacks (mainly for Gold Medal) and getting paid for it.   The lifestyle agreed with him.  And who can argue with that?

Then he developed amnesia in the Mid-70’s–no, seriously, I didn’t crib this from a daytime drama!  He didn’t even remember writing his best book–he read it for the first time a second time, and didn’t remember a word of it.  Unless he was faking it.  Nobody knows for sure.  For all we know, he somehow got hold of an unpublished manuscript by Donald Westlake, about an actor with amnesia, and decided to see how that would work in real life.  I don’t believe that for one minute, of course.  But it’s just one of a slew of odd coincidences we’ll be looking at here.

In spite of being anything but a handsome man, he reportedly had many passionate affairs with a variety of women, but again, it’s hard to know where reality ends and fiction begins.  He also seems to have had a serious spanking fetish (giving, not receiving), that keeps turning up in his novels.  Hey, as long as it’s consensual…

He was politically conservative, as were most crime fiction authors of the time (Westlake was, in the main, an exception to that rule), but never predictably so. The small town he was living in when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated was somewhat shocked when he contributed an Op Ed to the local paper, in which he compared the late civil rights leader to Hitler, and said King, who he believed had started out fighting for a just cause, had brought his murder on himself by resorting to extremist methods and radical politics.  He meant this to be sympathetic, folks.   And let’s not get too superior about past racial attitudes, given who one of our Presidential nominees is now.

Honestly, the most interesting book connected to him may not be The Name of the Game is Death–it may well be Charles Kelly’s Gunshots In Another Room, a recently released unauthorized biography of Marlowe (there was nobody left to authorize it).  In spite of his relatively low status in the ranks of English letters, he’s a biographer’s wet dream.  His life is a better story than most of his stories.

As I see it, he wrote exactly four books worth reading (unless you’re one of those people who just have to read everything, and I can certainly respect that).

The Name of the Game is Death (1962)

Never Live Twice (1964)

Four For The Money (1966)

The Vengeance Man (1966)

And if you want to get pure about it, just the first. He basically said all he had to say with that one.  At his best, he had a weird sort of intensely detached immediacy that stands out from the crowd.   Most of his writing is derivative hackwork–written purely to the market.  But when he was fully engaged, he rose above the material he worked with.

Some would include Strongarm  on that list I just typed.  I found it mediocre.  Tastes vary.   One Endless Hour, the very belated sequel to The Name of the Game is Death, I don’t really consider to be a Marlowe novel.  According to Kelly, Al Nussbaum, the aforementioned bank robber, came up with most of the story ideas for that book, probably helped quite a bit in writing it, and although it’s a gripping suspenseful read–that feels like it should have been a film by Russ Meyer, or possibly John Waters, with maybe a pinch of Edward D. Wood Jr.–it comes nowhere near the level of the first book.  It’s mainly a Marlowe pastiche, even if Marlowe did all the actual writing.

Strange man.  Strange life.  And now I’m about to tell a strange story.  That may just be in my head.  It involves Donald Westlake.  And, not coincidentally, the next Westlake novel I have to review here.  So that’s why I’m doing this piece now, after putting it off for some time.  I still don’t really know what to make of it.  So I’ll put it out there, and you can decide for yourselves.

I don’t know if Westlake and Marlowe ever met, or even corresponded.  Al Nussbaum and Westlake corresponded briefly while Nussbaum was in prison (part of their exchange can be read in The Getaway Car).  He and Marlowe had other mutual acquaintances.  And they were most definitely aware of each other.

Marlowe’s first five books were about a supremely rugged and muscular hotel bell captain named Johnny Killain, who doubled as a two-fisted private investigator, working out of New York.  I’d call them more enjoyably terrible than terribly enjoying.  Every hardboiled trope you can think of, and a few you haven’t (because nobody dares use them anymore).  In spite of his modest station in life, Killain can beat any man in a fight, take any woman he wants to bed.  I’m not saying I don’t enjoy that (Marlowe had a genuine knack for fight scenes and sex scenes), but reading the last Killain, Shake A Crooked Town (1961), I found my eyes rolling with some frequency.

I also found myself wondering at an odd coincidence–1961 was the year Donald Westlake’s Killing Time came out.  That, you may remember, is about a private detective working in a small town in upstate New York, where Westlake grew up.  The protagonist is short, chunky–physically a lot less impressive than Johnny Killain, and is in fact rather reminiscent of Hammett’s Continental Op–an everyman type.

The book is basically a variation on Red Harvest.  It makes no pretense of being anything else.  But Westlake has his own take on the idea.  Very different from Hammett’s.  It’s not his best work (it’s only his second novel under his own name), but it’s a far better book than Shake A Crooked Town–which is also set in a small corrupt town.  In upstate New York.  Where Marlowe never lived.

And even though both books are about the hero getting caught in the middle between rival factions vying for control of a small town (with radically different outcomes), it’s hard to see how one could have influenced the other.  Marlowe’s novel was released very early that year,  Westlake’s just months later.  Westlake had far more direct experience with the setting than Marlowe (and boy does it show).  They were both clearly reacting to Red Harvest.  The stories aren’t really that similar, and the heroes aren’t similar at all.

(I rather suspect Marlowe got the idea for making his hero a bell captain from Jim Thompson, who had in 1956 published a short story entitled Bellhop, based on his colorful experiences working hotels in wild corrupt boom towns out west.  Two-fisted bell captains were not something Marlowe just dreamed up out of thin air, and I suppose he might have met a few, but he was definitely reading a lot of Thompson, and probably everybody else writing this kind of crime fiction.)

Okay, so that’s a big bag of nothing.  But then, of course, we move to 1962.  When another strange coincidence occurs.  Both men published paperback novels about an amoral armed robber going on a bloody campaign of vengeance against someone who heisted his heist and killed his comrades in crime.  Both books are vivid gripping reads.  The Hunter is unquestionably the superior book overall, more disciplined, better written, with a protagonist who has far more potential than Marlowe’s–but this was the one time in their overlapping careers that Marlowe could be said to have given Westlake a run for his money.   He put everything he had into that one.

Both protagonists had an oddly irregular sex drive.  Marlowe’s (who I won’t refer to as Earl Drake, because that name never appears in the first book, and I just don’t want to acknowledge the others as being about the same guy) can only seem to get it up right after he’s engaged in violence of some kind.  This problem just went away completely in the later books, with no explanation.

Westlake’s heister (or rather, Stark’s) has no interest in sex while he’s working, then a very intense interest after the job is done, which lasts a few months, then fades away entirely until after his next job. I’ve explained in an earlier piece where I think Westlake got the idea for that (see Genealogy of a Hunter).

Marlowe’s idea, according to Kelly, may have come from the fact that he had a problem with his foreskin that sometimes made intercourse very painful for him (you know, there are downsides to having a biographer, even one as capable and devoted as Mr. Kelly, but thankfully the dead don’t embarrass easily).

Really, the crucial difference is that Marlowe’s guy has a sort of resigned tolerance to what he regards as a problem he and the women in his life have to put up with.  While Parker doesn’t give a damn, has no problem at all with his cyclical drives.  Everybody else has a problem, not him.  It’s not a disability.  It’s how he is.  If you don’t feel like having sex, why should that bother you?  When his cycle changes, later in the series, we’re given believable explanations for that.  Marlowe wasn’t that good at developing his characters over a series of books.  Westlake was as good at writing series fiction as anyone ever has been, or ever will be.

But yet again–hard to see how either of these books could have influenced the other.  They came out too close together, and they were being written right around the same time.  So again.  Coincidence.  But starting to get weird.  And you know what Freud said.

And one thing I’d like to know–Westlake wrote The Hunter specifically for the Gold Medal imprint–where The Name of the Game is Death was published.  Gold Medal rejected Westlake’s novel.  Because it was too hardcore for them?   Much as I think The Hunter is a better book, Marlowe’s protagonist (who calls himself Chet Arnold for most of the book, though we’re quite sure that’s not his real name), makes even Parker seem gentlemanly by comparison.

Parker mutilates his dead wife’s corpse after she kills herself (at his urging), so she won’t be identified right away (this being the same wife that shot him earlier in the book, but who claims to still love him).  Marlowe’s Chet rapes a woman more or less to see that look on her face (no erectile dysfunction there), then later shoots her several times in a rage. He has his reasons, she’s not a good person, she did terrible things, but you see what I mean about a movie adaptation being a challenge.

No, in all probability, they rejected Westlake’s novel because they already had their sociopathic armed robber book for the year, and didn’t feel like the market needed another one.  There were never a whole lot of books in this vein, even at the peak of the era of lurid paperbacks–it was a very specialized sub-genre, and the bad guys almost always died in the end.  Westlake seems to have gone to Dell after that, and they also turned him down.  And then to Pocket Books, where Bucklin Moon told him to rewrite the ending so Parker got away with everything, and then write a bunch more books about him.

Gold Medal might have asked for more books about Marlowe’s robber (who didn’t get away with anything, but was still alive at the end, if not very happy)–except Marlowe’s book was apparently was too hardcore for even the Gold Medal readership.  Not a big seller for them.  The Hunter seems to have done much better for Pocket.  As it well deserved to, but that’s got nothing to do with book sales, as anyone who has perused the best seller lists knows full well.

Skipping ahead to 1969, Marlowe, who had hit a bit of a slump, had been persuaded by Nussbaum and others to do a sequel to The Name of the Game is Death, and as already mentioned, it’s at least as much Nussbaum’s book as Marlowe’s, and it’s not nearly as good (though it sure ain’t dull).   Reception to this one was apparently more enthusiastic, though–the first book had acquired a reputation by then, and the market was more permissive (thanks in part to the Parker novels).

So Gold Medal wanted a third book, stat–it was published the same year as the second, 1969.  But they wanted the protagonist, now calling himself Earl Drake (a name Nussbaum came up with) to stop robbing banks.  They asked Marlowe to change the genre–from hardboiled crime fiction to spy thriller.

According to Joseph Hoffmann’s well-known article on Marlowe,  Gold Medal made this request because they were now publishing the Parker novels, and once again, they felt like one ultra-violent armed robber was enough, and this time Marlowe was the odd man out.  Irony abounds in this story, as you see.

However, Marlowe never said anything about this (if he had, I would have at least one instance of him referring directly to Donald Westlake).  His story was that they wanted Drake to get dragooned into secret agent work because they were publishing John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee private eye series, which had started in 1964.

Charles Kelly found this very hard to swallow, and so do I.  Drake and McGee have nothing in common except a propensity for gunplay, and gunplay was the raison d’etre of every other book Gold Medal ever published.  Drake became more like McGee by turning secret agent, not less.   So why didn’t Marlowe just say they didn’t want another heister on the payroll?   What’s going on here?

The story is even more confusing when you consider that The Sour Lemon Score, the last Gold Medal Parker, came out that same year, 1969.  But negotiations probably took place the year before that.  Gold Medal was never on the best of terms with Westlake, though he gave them four great books.  If Marlowe had held out a little longer, maybe his criminal protagonist could have remained his old independent sociopathic self (not that he was ever what you’d call a goody-goody).

But my own feeling is that Marlowe didn’t have another book like Name of the Game in him by then, and it was probably easier for him to just crank out a bunch of formulaic espionage potboilers–not to mention more lucrative.  But again–coincidence?   And again–I don’t know.  Wherever one writer was, the other seemingly had to be somewhere else.   And if either of them ever said one word about this parallel track they were on for around a decade, I’m not aware of it.

I should also mention that One Endless Hour, the long-delayed sequel to The Name of the Game is Death (a book that Marlowe never originally intended to have a sequel) begins with the protagonist getting plastic surgery to change his appearance after he was badly burned in the previous book.  The Man With the Getaway Face, the brilliant and quickly penned sequel to The Hunter (a book that Westlake never originally intended to have a sequel) had, six years previously, begun with Parker getting plastic surgery to alter his appearance, so that he could avoid the retribution of his enemies from the first book.  Though that’s not so much a coincidence as a necessary development stemming from the endings of the two earlier books, and of course David Goodis had beaten both of them to the punch there with Dark Passage.

When Gold Medal turned Chet Arnold into Earl Drake, and made him the improbable hero of a long-running spy series, they promoted him as “Drake–The Man With Nobody’s Face.”  Which probably isn’t coincidental (or terribly coherent), but I don’t think Marlowe came up with that ad copy, any more than he came up with the name Earl Drake.

Now let me go back a bit, to 1963, when Westlake published The Score, one of the best of the Parker novels (honestly, one of the best novels I’ve ever read–I try to avoid fanboy gushing here, but it’s an amazing little book).  The premise is that a disgraced police captain of a small western mining town, who was fired for corruption, has proposed to Parker and some of his associates that they plunder all of the town’s assets in one night.  He doesn’t share his motives with them.

The premise of Marlowe’s Shake A Crooked Town is that Carl Thompson, the disgraced police chief of a small upstate New York burg who was fired for corruption (by equally corrupt cronies) comes to Killain, knowing his reputation for toughness, asking Killain to help him get his job back and throw these other bums in that sewn-up town out (for a fee, naturally).  There’s no heist, Thompson is murdered before they ever get back to his hometown, no indication he wanted to burn the whole place to the ground–his wife and kid are there.

Oh, and I should mention Killain is clearly about to take Thompson’s attractive French widow to bed as the story ends.  He knew her as an attractive tomboy (I believe the French would say ‘gamine’) when they fought together in the French Resistance many years before.  This is after he repeatedly beds the luscious town librarian, having previously bedded his longtime steady girlfriend in Manhattan. Plus a cute redheaded sixteen year old at the boarding house he’s staying at throws herself at him, but he turns her down flat, telling her to come back and see him in two years.  You see what I mean about the rolling eyes thing.

And this is a minor minor thing, but the big fight scene in Marlowe’s book comes when Killain tangles with a hulking brute named Jigger Kratz (and pulverizes him, I shouldn’t need to mention).  I would hope no parent would ever willingly name a child Jigger–maybe it’s a nickname.   I’ve only come across the name Jigger in one other book–Who Stole Sasson Manoon?, by Donald E. Westlake.  And in that book it’s the name of a cute young redhead who wants to be an actress.  You may remember I wondered in my review of that book where the hell Westlake got that name from.

Okay, I don’t believe these similarities are coincidence.   I think Westlake read Marlowe’s book, saw a useful plot component in a very bad novel, lifted it, remodeled it, and vastly improved upon it.

And one more thing–Westlake’s book ends with Parker going to bed with a woman who was sleeping with the disgraced police chief who lied to him and tried to use him, and ended up dead.  It does add a nice little ring of masculine triumph to the ending, doesn’t it?   But it’s so damned well written, my eyes never rolled even once.

Moving on to 1966, Marlowe produced Four For The Money, a sort of anti-heist novel.  The narrator/protagonist is Slick, a young hustler, not the violent type, who has just been released from jail.  While there, he got roped into a scheme concocted by Blackie, a hardened repeat offender, who is in the heavy, as Alan Grofield might put it.  There’s two other members of the string Blackie recruited in prison.  They’re all due to be released, and since Slick gets out first, he’s got to go to Desert City Nevada, a fictional gambling town, midway between Vegas and Reno in size.

His job is to set things up so that the gang can blend in once everybody else arrives, and look around for an easy target to hit.  When they do that, it quickly becomes apparent there are no easy targets to hit.  But Blackie, who spends a lot of time cleaning his little Mauser handgun, is obsessed with this job, and makes it clear that if his increasingly cold-footed colleagues pull out on him, he’ll just pull jobs on his own.  They know he’ll get caught and lead the law right to them. They’re all ex-cons, and they roomed together in the joint.  If Blackie goes down, they all do.

Here’s the kicker–they don’t really want to pull the job anymore.  Slick managed to buy a motel in town, to serve as a front for their operation, and it turned out to be a very lucrative business.  He met a nice girl (really nice, a short stacked brunette, who sounds an awful lot like the girls Jim Thompson protagonists keep getting hung up on, only not crazy).

Slick wants to settle down with this girl.  They’re all enjoying the straight life now, him and the other two guys in the string–they never want to go back to prison, and they don’t need one last big score.   But they have to pull the job so Blackie will go away and leave them alone.  Then they pull the job, and turns out Blackie always intended to kill them and take it all for himself.   You want to know what happens then, read the book.  One of Marlowe’s best, as I said.

It’s a bit reminiscent of The Score–gang tries to plunder a town out in the desert–but not very.  I’ve no doubt Marlowe read Westlake’s book, but he’d have also read Lionel White’s The Big Caper, published in 1955.  That’s probably an influence on both of the later books, but much more on Marlowe’s than Westlake’s (White’s book has the same idea of a scary master criminal forcing people who want to go straight to pull a job with him, and there’s a romantic subplot, and etc).   I’ve read all three, and White’s is the weakest of the bunch. Having an idea first is not the same thing as doing it best.

So I would hope those of you who have read the next book in the queue, which is Drowned Hopes, already know what I’m getting at here.  There’s a character in that book named Tom Jimson.  People have assumed that’s an homage to Jim Thompson (as well as a certain noxious weed).  Westlake was adapting a Jim Thompson novel to the screen right around the same time he was working on that book, so no doubt it is a humorous anagrammatic tip of the hat.  But I also think it’s a cunning head fake.  He points in one direction while his eyes go another.  Tom Jimson was inspired in part by Blackie from Four For The Money.  

See, there’s no Jim Thompson novel that ends that way.   Thompson didn’t really write much about heisters–not his area.  Yeah, The Getaway, but it’s not very similar at all.  And honestly, Tom Jimson is a much better scarier funnier character than Marlowe’s Blackie, but he’s got that same dogged single-mindedness, the same touching devotion to guns,  the same general lack of regard for human life, that same nasty little one-track mind (and Westlake knew all about one-track minds, well before he ever read Marlowe’s book, so I’m not saying Tom is all Blackie–there’s lots more there, and we’ll talk about it).

Westlake once again seeing a good idea (this time in a pretty decent book) and making away with it.  I can’t know this, but I see what I see.  I just don’t know what it means.  I don’t know what any of this means.  I can just sort of fumble around in the dark, with insufficient information to go on, knowing there’s something there, but unable to make any kind of sense out of it.

Westlake and Marlowe had to be aware of each other, from the early 60’s onwards.  They undoubtedly kept up with each others’ work to some extent.  They knew their paths kept crossing and recrossing in the incestuous little branch of the mystery genre each was so well known for.  Many of the coincidences I’ve listed here are coincidences, nothing more–but they’re coincidences Westlake in particular would have noted with interest. Because Westlake didn’t believe in coincidences any more than Freud did.  “A realist is someone who thinks the world is simple enough to be understood.  It isn’t.”

So they borrowed ideas from each other, and from other writers, and they each did their own thing with them, and they co-existed, occupying the same space, without ever directly encountering each other, or perhaps understanding each other.  Such different men, writing such similar stories, in such variant ways.  If Westlake had started writing in his 40’s, and Marlowe in his 20’s, maybe their positions in the genre would be reversed.  Again–I don’t know.  I do know Marlowe died a few years before Westlake started work on Drowned Hopes.

Anyway, I thought it was worth mentioning.  What do you think?

I think I’m going to take a break for the holiday weekend, and then tackle one of Westlake’s longest novels–definitely his longest series novel.  The Dortmunder Epic par excellence.  Very long, and very densely packed with both story and trenchant social observation.  I swore I would not make this a four-parter.  And I won’t.  I’m a man of my word.  But you know me.  I’m sneaky.  I find loopholes.  I make mental reservations.

See, my feeling is that this book is actually four books in one volume.  So I’m going to write four separate book reviews.  That’s not at all the same thing as writing a four part review of one book.  Oh look, now you’re rolling your eyes.  Well, go ahead and roll ’em.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

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