Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Guns, germs and steal: Richard Stark's Parker novels return, still nasty after all these years

Point Blank, based on Stark's The Hunter

He has several aliases but only one name, no detectable heartbeat, and, so it seems, not a single significant weakness. Money is typically his sole motivator. He’s quirkless and calculated, a logician efficiently eliminating obstacles. He beats women, occasionally, mercifully, killing them. Parker, the protagonist of Richard Stark’s long-running series of lean, mean mystery novels, isn’t flamboyant or indulgent enough to be a monster, exactly. He has no ideology, no longing for power. (If politics ever entered his mind, he might call himself an anarchist.) A thief by trade and a murderer only when necessary, he claims not to like killing people. A consummate professional, essentially—and in this sense an anachronism held over from Depression era crime, as his author’s confessed—and his professionalism may be the only aspect of his character we could consider redemptive.

Though I knew some of the films adapted from them, including the masterful neo-noir Point Blank (1967), and I’d often heard them praised by discerning fans of the genre, it took me a long time to get around to the Parker novels, partially because many were hard to track down, partially because I couldn’t quite fathom how they could be compelling for readers who weren’t just sadistic voyeurs. But the University of Chicago Press has recently underwent a campaign to get Parker back in print in affordable and handsome editions, and I dove in. And now I get it.

Donald Westlake, aka Richard Stark

Richard Stark was the most successful of numerous pseudonyms attributed to the celebrated novelist and screenwriter Donald Westlake, who died last New Year’s Eve at the age of 75. The first Parker novel was intended as a one-off, a sort of experiment, but his publisher accurately predicted that it would be a hit, and many more swiftly followed. Chicago has so far reprinted the first nine. Let me tell you about the three I’ve read.

The Hunter (62), Stark’s debut and the source for Point Blank, introduces Parker in a state of uncharacteristic destitution, walking along a clogged freeway into Manhattan. He spends the first chapter reconstituting himself, quickly building capital through a day’s work of fraud and shopping. He’s come back from the dead, or close enough. He visits Lynn, the wife who supposedly killed him—the book’s first half is in one sense a divorce parable—and will soon pay a visit to the fellow criminal who set it all up. What drives Parker here is pure revenge, a force that renders him—again, uncharacteristically—vulnerable. “He wanted Mal Resnick—he wanted him between his hands. Not the money back. Not Lynn back. Just Mal, between his hands.” Of course, given a little time, he’ll want the money, too.

Point Blank

The Hunter’s more self-consciously hard-boiled than later Parkers I’ve read, emphasizing Parker’s rage, his ripping the filters out of cigarettes, his adversary’s nervous stroking of their moustaches. A pang of sexual desire is described as “a knife twisting low in his abdomen,” though Parker strictly abstains from humpy-pumpy while working. But when Lynn winds up dead and Parker needs to dispose of her body he completes the act with a telling, prophetic gesture. In slashing her face he’s being icily pragmatic, making her death less likely to be made public, but he’s also eliminating the visage of the only woman that ever possessed him, and rehearsing the erasure of identity that he’ll later seek for himself with an equal lack of sentiment. After he settles the score with Resnick and single-handedly extorts the national crime syndicate.

By the time of The Mourner (63), Parker has bought himself a new face and fully resumed his routine of performing one or two big heists a year and otherwise retiring to some resort under a false name. By now the distinctions in the Stark style are maturing fully: the vivid descriptions of spaces, the Nabakovian wit, the audaciously elliptical structures that toss the reader into the midst of the action without context and, most fascinatingly, the detours into ornate biographical sketches of secondary characters who slowly emerge as pivotal to the plot.
Parker’s hired by the father of a lover to steal a statue, one of many originally sculpted to accompany a fifteenth-century French tomb, but a well-planned job is interrupted by a separate group of criminals who may or may not be after the same thing. Parker forges an uneasy alliance with Menlo, a fat, oddly charming bureaucrat from a tiny Eastern European country under Soviet control. Like Parker’s current employer, Menlo’s a voluble romantic, and much dry comedy arises from the contrast between Parker’s taciturn nature and the rambling narratives these others casually unleash. More silent than all of them however is the titular statue itself, a brilliantly conceived symbol of precisely the sort of emotional release to be found nowhere in the world Parker inhabits, and an ostensible treasure whose owner ironically never even registers its absence.

Made in USA, based on Stark's The Jugger

The Jugger (65) begins with Parker being visited by a cheerful leprechaun from his past just as he turns to the obituary page of the local rag in a hotel room in Sagamore, Nebraska. Parker’s here to investigate the suspicious death of Joe Sheer, an old comrade who retired in the town, and the leprechaun, who goes by the name of Tiftus, is just one of several opportunists who crop up with the hope of unearthing Sheer’s ostensible buried treasure. Taking Parker out of his milieu and having him on the scene basically to solve a mystery, chart his way through a labyrinth of greed, and assess some possible damage to his alias’ reputation, The Jugger is a virtually perfect little crime story, a rural noir with character to spare and an alignment of theme and action that’s both classical and inventive. It was also the first one I read, doing so in anticipation of the belated theatrical and DVD release of Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in USA (66), in which the Parker character’s embodied by Anna Karina—surely the only casting that actually stands a chance of one-upping that of Lee Marvin. I can't wait to finally see it.

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