Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake)
First published in the US 1962
This edition 2008, University of Chicago Press
My friend Nigel loaned me this a few weeks ago. It’s an edition of the 1962 noir classic published, somewhat surprisingly, by the University of Chicago Press, and a real change of gear after my last read Coffin Scarcely Used, published 4 years earlier and, seemingly, a world away.
The 24 books featuring the hard-as-nails career criminal Parker were published between 1962 and 2008 and are very well regarded. ‘Richard Stark’s Parker novels… are among the most poised and polished fictions of their time and, in fact, of any time,’ says John Banville on the back cover of this one. Stark was made a grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America under his real name, Donald E. Westlake. The Hunter has inspired three films, including the Lee Marvin vehicle Point Blank.
The book starts at an incredible pace. In a remarkable first chapter, Parker goes from penniless bum to hotel guest with 800 dollars in his wallet through a series of frauds. He works hard at it too. After forging a driver’s licence and using it to get access to a bank account, he goes shopping.
‘He bought a hundred and fifty dollars’ worth of good luggage, a matched set of four pieces. He showed the driver’s lisense for identification, and they didn’t even call the bank. Two blocks he carried the luggage, and then he got thirty-five dollars for it a pawn shop. He went crosstown, and did it twice more–luggage to pawn shop–and got another eighty dollars.’
Parker has arrived in New York after trekking across the US with one object in mind: revenging himself on one Mal Resnick. Mal is a middle manager in the Outfit, an organised crime syndicate with its HQ in a hotel on Lexington. Mal double-crossed Parker and left him for dead and now Parker is determined to hunt him down.
‘He didn’t want Mal to know he was alive. He didn’t want Mal spooked and on the run. He wanted him easy and content, a fat cat. He wanted him just sitting there, grinning, waiting for Parker’s hands.’
There is also the matter of Parker’s share of the money, which leads our anti-hero deeper into New York’s underworld and a head-on collision with the mafia.
‘Parker interrupted. “The funnies call it the syndicate. The goons and the hustlers call it the Outfit. You call it the organization. I hope you people have fun with your words. But I don’t care if you call yourselves the Red Cross, you owe me forty-five thousand dollars and you’ll pay me back whether you like it or not.”‘
Along the way he leaves a trail of bodies – some guilty, some innocent, and none regretted by their killer.
In the excellent Books to Die For, thriller-writer F. Paul Wilson selects The Hunter as his personal favourite. His enthusiastic and persuasive article bumped Parker up my reading list, and I reread it after finishing.
I agree with Wilson’s analysis that Parker’s ruthless efficiency and single-mindedness make him a compelling protagonist. I disagree that you have to end up rooting for him. Once he has Resnick in his sights, Parker’s modus operandi is simply to bully people until they either help him or get out of his way, and then he usually kills them. Okay, some (even most) of those people have it coming, but I think I’d have enjoyed Parker more if he’d continued to display the finesse and survival skills of the first chapter rather than just indiscriminately murdering people to get what he wants.
Is Stark/Westlake a great writer? This may just be me, but some thrillers create an atmosphere so effectively it follows you into real life. For my money, the best example of this is The Day of the Jackal – you can’t read that and not want to be an assassin (right?). The Hunter had a little of that effect on me – I felt a little bit tougher and street-smart as I walked through my small Norfolk market town last night.
So, although I ultimately couldn’t warm to Parker, I did think there’s a lot to recommend his first outing.
Final destination: Back to Nigel
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Rich – Thanks as ever for a fine review. I have to agree with you about the impact of Day of the Jackal. In my opinion that’s a true classic thriller. I know what you mean too about preferring finesse and ‘survival skills’ to just killing people; I like those qualities in my thriller protagonists too. Glad you enjoyed this one.
Nice review. Stark really created a new kind of anti-hero with Parker. I read my first Stark novel a couple of years ago and wondered why I’d never heard of him before; he’s really the father of modern crime writers. Here’s my piece on Stark/Parker.
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The Hunter is great, but there’s even better to come in the series: The Outfit, The Score, The Seventh, Plunder Squad, Butcher’s Moon… in fact, let me just send you to my blog and to The Violent World of Parker, where I co-blog: http://www.existentialennui.com/search/label/Richard%20Stark / http://violentworldofparker.com/?page_id=998