The following article was originally published in the fantastic Edgar-nominated anthology Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, edited by David Morrell, who has kindly given us permission to re-print Duane Swierczynski’s essay here. Please support this wonderful and timely collection available wherever books are sold.
Donald E. Westlake (1933–2008) was born in Brooklyn and raised in Yonkers and Albany. He attended colleges in New York state without graduating. Considered a writer’s writer by his peers, Westlake received an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay, The Grifters, three Edgar Awards, and the Grand Master Award from the MysteryWriters of America. His first novel, The Mercenaries, was published in 1960. Thereafter Westlake wrote under his own name as well as several pseudonyms, in part to combat skepticism over his rapid rate of production. His pen names included Tucker Coe, Samuel Holt, EdwinWest, and Richard Stark. Under his own name, he invented the comic caper genre (The Fugitive Pigeon, 1965) and wrote a number of humorous novels about a luckless criminal named John Dortmunder. Meanwhile, as Richard Stark, he chronicled the brutal existence of career criminal Parker. Combining the two, Westlake’s comic caper novel, Jimmy the Kid (1974), features Dortmunder’s gang of bumbling kidnappers using a Richard Stark/Parker novel as a blueprint for a crime. Westlake wrote over one hundred novels, many of which were made into movies, The Hot Rock and Bank Shot, for example. The Hunter was filmed twice as Point Blank (with Lee Marvin) and Payback (with Mel Gibson).
I discovered Richard Stark in Stephen King’s The Dark Half. In an afterword, King talked about how fictional tough guy writer George Stark was modeled on Donald E. Westlake’s “Richard Stark” alter ego. I was seventeen years old, and I remember thinking I really needed to track down some stuff by this Stark guy. He sounded like my kind of writer. But this was an Internet-less 1989, and I couldn’t find a single book by Stark, in print or used.
Life moved on. In 1997, I read and loved a novel called The Ax by Westlake, and later remembered that, oh yeah, this was that Stark guy, 201 under his real name. The first Stark novel I finally laid hands on was The Damsel, in a beat-to-hell Signet edition I found on the bargain shelves at Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop (shelves, I later learned, that Westlake helped build.) I read it in a gulp and instantly craved more. By that time, after a hiatus that lasted from 1974 to 1997, Stark had resumed writing the Parker novels (the first of the new ones had the appropriate title, Comeback), and slowly . . . very, very slowly . . . older Starks returned to print. In the years that followed, I finally managed to track down all of the 1962–1974 Parker novels, from The Hunter through Butcher’s Moon. If there’s a better series of American crime novels, I have yet to discover it.
I also devoured all of the Westlakes I could find. While he is famous for his comic caper novels, I enjoyed his hard-edged stuff better: The Ax, Killing Time, 361, The Hook, Don’t Lie to Me, Murder Among Children, Killy, The Smashers (aka The Mercenaries). But it was Stark’s novels about Parker, a tough amoral heister with no first name, that really grabbed me. So much so that when I decided to write a straight crime novel, I wrote one about a mute getaway driver named Lennon. Needless to say, The Wheelman owes a serious debt to Richard Stark—the pace, the clipped emotions. So do a lot of other tough guy novels in the Stark mode, including Max Allan Collins’s Nolan series, Garry Disher’sWyatt, and more recently Dan Simmons’s Joe Kurtz and Tom Piccirilli’s Chase. The influence goes beyond novels.
Whenever I see a character like Terence Stamp’s Wilson in Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey, or even Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, I think of Parker. Whenever I read a Punisher comic, I think of Parker. Richard Stark infused the crime genre with fresh, cold blood. He made it okay to root for the bad guy. Funny thing is, I don’t believe Westlake set out to revolutionize anything. At the time, he was being published in hardback and wanted to write paperback originals under a pen name. So Westlake came up with a story about a remorseless, cold operator who, by novel’s end, would be caught and punished. Because that’s what you did to bad guys in crime novels back in the 1960s. You caught them. And then you punished them.
But something weird happened along the way. Gold Medal, which had been Westlake’s intended target, passed on The Hunter. Pocket Books accepted it, but editor Bucklin Moon asked for one change. He wanted Westlake to let Parker get away at the end, so that the novel could serve as the first in a series. Westlake once told an interviewer: “So I wound up with a 202 thrillers: 100 must-reads truly cold leading series character, which was an interesting thing to do and to try not to soften him. We came in here with this son of a bitch and we’re going out with this son of a bitch.”
And that’s the nasty appeal of the Parker series: it’s fun to read about sons of bitches. It’s fun to watch how they respond when you start to apply the screws to them. The key to the Parker novels is that they aren’t about good guys vs. bad guys, or even flawed hero vs. bad guys. No—they’re about one bad guy versus even worse guys. You may not want to invite Parker over to the house to roll around with your kids in the backyard, but you can’t help admiring the way he operates. Parker doesn’t do office politics. He’s not passive-aggressive. He’s not going to lead a life of quiet desperation, like the rest of us mooks. Instead, Parker cuts out all of the bullshit we deal with on a daily basis, and figures out the straightest line between himself and his goal (which in The Hunter is $45,000 he’s owed). Then he walks that line. And God help those who try to stop him.Who wouldn’t want to be Parker?
The series has a remarkable unity, not only because of its impressive tough tone, but also because each book has four sections. The first, second, and fourth are presented from Parker’s viewpoint, while the third is presented from the viewpoint of Parker’s antagonist, usually a fellow criminal who has double-crossed him. In addition, the books usually begin with a sentence that has the following structure: “When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.” “When he didn’t get any answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in.” “When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the rest of the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood.”
Despite Parker being a “son of a bitch,” my wife and I named our firstborn son Parker, in honor of the Richard Stark character (as well as Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man). A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to meet Donald Westlake at the MWA Edgar Awards. Sarah Weinman introduced us, and I believe I just stood there, trying like hell not to say something stupid/stammer/collapse.What do you say to the writer who showed you the way? Thankfully, Westlake was gracious, funny, and totally laid-back—not at all like his cold-blooded creation. I shook his hand and thanked him for his “body of work,” or something geeky like that. Incidentally, this was the Edgars where Stephen King received the MWA Grandmaster Award. I wish I could have gathered both of them in the same place to tell them: You two! You’re the ones who did this to me!
Duane Swierczynski is the author of several thrillers, including the Stark-inspired heist-gone-wrong story, The Wheelman, as well as The Blonde and Severance Package— which he’s currently adapting as a movie for Lionsgate. He also writes the monthly X-Men series, Cable, for Marvel Comics, and has penned adventures for such various heroes (or antiheroes) as Punisher,Wolverine, and the Immortal Iron Fist. Swierczynski recently collaborated with CSI creator Anthony E. Zuiker on Level 26: Dark Origins, the first in a series of “digi-novels” that combine traditional book publishing with digital video. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, son, and daughter.