Parker and the art of hard-boiled crime writing

December 31 2010 marks the second anniversary of the death at age 75 of one of the masters of hard-boiled crime writing, Donald Westlake.

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about Westlake lately and his best known creation, the professional criminal Parker.

Westlake was a prolific writer. While he specialised in crime fiction, he also did science fiction, erotic stories and westerns under a myriad of pseudonyms of which Richard Stark, the name he used for the Parker books, remains the best known. He also worked on a number of screenplays, including the adaption of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters.

Sixteen Parker novels appeared between 1962 and 1974. For reasons I’m not clear about, Westlake took a rest from the character until 1997, then wrote another eight Parker books.

Several of the books were filmed, the best known of which is Point Blank starring Lee Marvin (later remade as Payback with Mel Gibson as the lead, but the less said about it the better).

I recently discovered via The Violent World of Parker website, The Outfit, an excellent 1973 adaption of Westlake’s novel of the same name, is finally getting an outing on DVD. (The details are here).

Robert Duvall does the honours as Parker or Macklin, as the central character in the film is called, alongside Joe Don Baker, Robert Ryan and the siren of seventies American B-movies, Karen Black. Those of us who have lovingly held onto our VHS cassettes of the movie can finally trade up.

There’s even a vaguely Blaxsploitation version of Parker, The Split, featuring one of my favourite sixties/seventies actors Jim Brown. In what must have been one hell of a wrap party, it also starred Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates and Donald Sutherland.

At their core all the Parker novels are about the same thing, a heist gone wrong and the consequences –  that and the mechanics of planning and conducting the crime. Parker is a craftsman. It just so happens his chosen trade is illegal, and Westlake was expert at portraying him at work.

Veteran Australian crime writer Garry Disher, whose character Wyatt is based on Parker, nailed it when I asked him in a recent interview what it is about the heist gone wrong genre of crime fiction and film that never seems to go stale.

“Well, there is always the promise that it might go right for a Wyatt or a Parker. There’s also the tension of the actual crime, and when it falls apart when he robs a bank or whatever and things go wrong. Can Wyatt retrieve the situation? Can he get the money back? Can he find out who betrayed him? That’s where the tension lies. Wyatt finding out where it has gone wrong and how he is going to get his revenge or get the money back or both.”

The Sour Lemon Score is about a heist gone sour. One of the gang, George Uhl steals the gang’s haul of $33,000 (not much by today’s standards but its real money, not numbers on a computer screen) and kills all his partners except Parker, which is a big mistake.

Parker spends the rest of the novel travelling up and down the eastern US seaboard searching for Uhl and the money. As is usually the case, things get complex when a couple of hoods pick up on the scent of the money and try to muscle in.

Two things stand out about the book. The first is how good Westlake was at depicting the criminal underworld. A phone call is made, a contact visited, someone talks to a friend of a friend. Each transaction in The Sour Lemon Score leaves Parker with just enough information to move onto the next. There is a constant feel of tension and disorientation.

The second was Westlake’s skill at depicting apparently normal people and places, then transforming them with the slightest twist into something much darker. A second-hand furniture shop run by an old lady is a front for an illegal firearms seller, a down at heel motel is owned by an ex-hooker who let’s people from the life stay when they need a place to lie low.

The best example of this from The Sour Lemon Score is when Parker visits the widow of Benny, a long-term criminal associate and one of the men killed by Uhl.

Parker had been here a couple of times before, and he remembered how Benny too had built himself a completely different at-home image. He was a semi-retired putterer, the Little League umpire, the maker of model planes and pup tents with the neighbourhood boys, the constructor of bird houses and clipper of hedges, a vague and amiable little man in baggy pants, with his glasses slipping down his nose. The difference was so complete that the first time Parker had come here he hadn’t recognised Weiss and had then thought Weiss had changed so much, grown too old, and couldn’t be used anymore. But Weiss has let himself know he was still his old self on the job, and he was.

Benny’s widow, who is baking a cake when Parker arrives, is also more than she seems. In a magnificently understated scene, she bargains hard with Parker for money in return for the few grains of information she holds that is useful to him.

‘Thanks, Grace,” says Parker once their trade has been completed.

“I did it for the money,” is all she says.

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4 Responses

  1. I’ll have to check out The Outfit. Point Blank is one of my favorites.

  2. Pingback: Top tens and spent casings | Pulp Curry

  3. Thanks for steering me toward this, Andrew, it’s an excellent article, and spot-on. What is it about Parker that makes him so compulsively readable? So many things go into the mix, not least of all Westlake’s brilliant, minimalist approach.
    There’s no question that Parker is my all time favorite fictional character.

    • Ditto, no one beats Parker. In addition to the minimal style, there’s Parker’s complete lack of morality. He, literally, doesn’t give a damn.

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