Monday, August 31, 2015

Stark action

Writing as Richard Stark, one of 17 pseudonyms he used, Donald E. Westlake penned hard-nosed Parker novels from 1962 (The Hunter) to 2008 (Dirty Money). He began writing Parker short stories back in the 1950s. There was a long gap from 1974 to 1997 when he abandoned his Parker character altogether, but even so he wrote, by my count, 28 novels as Richard Stark. That would make a career for most writers, but for the prolific Westlake, who died in 2008, the Parker novels were more of a sideline. His main claim to fame were the Dortmunder books and other comic crime novels written under his own name.

The Parker series (the character was never given a first name), unlike the Dortmunder books, provided no laughs. Parker is a no-nonsense, violent criminal who wins the reader's sympathy only because his violence is directed at other, worse criminals, not at police or innocent civilians. Westlake once said his Dortmunder series began when he was trying to write a Parker novel, but he found himself unable to keep the humor out. So he let the humor flow, changed the character's name to John Dortmunder and The Hot Rock was the result.

I just finished reading one of the earlier Parkers, The Black Ice Score, published as a paperback original in 1968. Typical of the Parker novels, it is short, just 144 pages long, and the action is nonstop. Parker is hired by a group from a small African nation who want to steal some diamonds in New York City as part of a coup attempt. This doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but apparently whoever holds the diamonds controls the country. The diamonds are worth big bucks, so other criminals want to get their hands on them. When things turns violent and Claire, his longtime girlfriend, is kidnapped, Parker switches from an advisory role to the center of the action.

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