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"Cunning...Courage...Imagination...Parker is in action once more." (New York Times)
— H. J. Kirchoff
— John McNally
Chicago runs one of the toniest scholarly presses in America. Richard Stark, the best-known pseudonym of the prolific Donald Westlake, wrote 29 of the least mannered novels in the annals of crime fiction. Twenty-five of them feature an antihero named Parker (there is no first name), a thief by trade who is as laconic as he is competent. Chicago's reprinting of the first six Parker novels would appear to be the most unlikely possible meeting of prestige and pulp.
Westlake -- who died in 2008 with over 100 novels published -- started writing the Parker books in the early '60s, as part of a great onrushing cataract of creative energy that led him to worry about flooding the market under his own name. The first half-dozen Parker books originally came out as paperback originals between 1962 and 1965, and they have a different style and tone than Westlake's other work, as though his pseudonym were insisting on its own individuality. (Stephen King has admitted that when he wrote The Dark Half, a 1989 novel about a pseudonym that comes to life and demands just that, he had Westlake/Stark in mind. That King's own pseudonym, Richard Bachman, shares a first name with Stark is no coincidence either.) Westlake as Westlake is light, witty, and clever. Westlake as Stark is, well, stark. The writing is as spare and unadorned as the plains in winter.
The first three Parker books, The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face, and The Outfit, which Chicago reissued together in 2008, form a loose trilogy that describes Parker without giving him a back-story. He's a professional robber who lives as an independent craftsman in a marketplace dominated by organized crime, which is known as the Outfit and, in the words of one of its operatives, "conforms as closely as possible to the corporate concept." Parker insists on remaining outside the Outfit's bureaucracy, relying on his ties with his fellow independent contractors. "We don't have any organization," says Parker, "but we're professionals."
Parker is all about the professional work he does, for it was "while working, while a job was being set up and run through, that he felt most alive." The early Parker books center on his workplace rules. When Parker feels he's been cheated by an employee of the Outfit, he takes on the enterprise as a matter of fairness. Those first three books (which can, like all the Parker novels, be read out of order) give Parker an identity as a coldly raging entrepreneur who cares enough about the work to take on the whole system.
The second trio of books, The Mourner, The Score, and The Jugger, released this year, show Parker at different jobs. The Mourner fits a classic type of crime story that one critic describes as the "Object X" plot, about the search for a mysterious and valuable prize. The most famous Object X in all of crime fiction is surely the Maltese Falcon, and as in Dashiell Hammett's classic 1930 novel, the characters in The Mourner chase an old and valuable statue. The Score centers on the audacious mass burglary of a whole town, while The Jugger shows Parker in cleanup mode: one of his main underworld contacts dies, compromising Parker's legal front, and he must restore order to his affairs.
Sixties crime writers reacted variously to the postwar vision of suburbia and corporate life enshrined in bestsellers like Sloan Wilson's 1955 The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Fictional detectives like John D. MacDonald's bohemian Travis McGee (who made his debut at around the same time as Parker) reflect an anxious preoccupation with the transformed view of what it meant to be professional.
The Parker series offers a criminal's take on the business of working, with Parker as a central character with no inner life at all -- he just eats, sleeps, has sex, and works. He never talks, except to say something concrete. He has no permanent home and no friends, just business associates and sex partners. Parker never ruminates; he just plans. When wronged, he becomes a fearless revenge machine. (In one of the later Parker novels, Parker brazenly seeks out a homicide detective who's looking for him. Parker uses his presence at the man's home as a dare; he knows that the cop can't go after him without risking his wife and children. The detective's conclusion: "He used my weakness.") In short, Parker is Westlake's vision of a skilled professional manager run amok.
Absolutely humorless, Parker is also pitiless. He takes no pleasure in killing, for he's "impersonal, not cruel," and killing represents an additional complication to him. But he's nobody's philanthropist either. When he tells a gun merchant, "I don't give a damn about you," he could be talking to anyone, anytime, anywhere in any Parker book. Westlake said of Parker that he'd "done nothing to make him easy for the reader." Indeed. The character is all hard surfaces and sharp edges, so it's no surprise that "his clothes fit him like an impatient compromise with society." (I love that line.)
Yet Parker is oddly easy to root for. To start with, he's better than the company he keeps, so he rarely suffers by comparison. But more important, Parker cares about doing things right. He weds precise skill to total self-interest without emotional complications like greed -- he never wants more than he can use -- or sentiment.
Like any good boss, Parker makes everyone accountable for the jobs they do. Do your job, and Parker will value you. Stop doing it, and he will scorn you as "a stupid old man" even if you've worked with him for years. In this sense Parker is as uncompassionate as they come: he measures all people by their value to him, and all of his decisions about how to treat them -- including whether to kill them -- arise from simple cost-benefit calculus.
In this respect, Parker resembles no one so much as Hammett's Sam Spade, the amoral detective of The Maltese Falcon. In a 1934 introduction to his novel, Hammett described Spade as a "dream man" who is "able to take care of himself in any situation" and "get the best of anybody he comes in contact with." Parker and Spade are both ingenious escapist fantasy figures who permit the reader to imagine extraordinary competence and life experience with no encumbrances.
Crime novels have gained greatly in cachet since Westlake/Stark's Parker paperbacks first appeared, with critics and readers now recognizing the substance of the genre. The Parker books meditate with surprising profundity on human desire and attachment at their fantastic extremes -- at a time when a roiling national debate was beginning about individual and social priorities, a debate which is still going on. Perhaps the surprise isn't that Chicago is publishing Parker, but rather why it took so long. --Leonard Cassuto
Leonard Cassuto is a professor of English at Fordham University and the author of Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories, now available from Columbia University Press. He can be found on the web at www.lcassuto.com.
When the guy with asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away. The asthmatic hit the carpet, but there'd been another one out there, and he landed on Parker's back like a duffel bag with arms. Parker fell turning, so that the duffel bag would be on the bottom, but it didn't quite work out that way. They landed sideways, joltingly, and the gun skittered away into the darkness.
There was no light in the room at all. The window was a paler rectangle sliced out of blackness. Parker and the duffel bag wrestled around on the floor a few minutes, neither getting an advantage because the duffel bag wouldn't give up his first hold but just clung to Parker's back. Then the asthmatic got his wind and balance back and joined in, trying to kick Parker's head loose. Parker knew the room even in the dark, since he'd lived there the last week, so he rolled over to where he knew there wasn't any furniture. The asthmatic, coming after him, fell over a chair.
Parker rolled to where the wall should be, bumped into it, and climbed up it till he was on his feet, the duffel bag still clinging to his back. The duffel bag's legs were around Parker's hips, and his left arm was around Parker's chest. His right hand kept hitting the side of Parker's head.
Parker moved out to the middle of the room, and then ran backward at the wall. The second time he did it, the duffel bag fell off. Across the room, the asthmatic was still bouncing back and forth amid the furniture. Parker went over that way, got the asthmatic silhouetted against the pale rectangle of the window, and clipped him. The asthmatic went down, hitting furniture on the way.
Parker waited a few seconds, holding his breath, but he couldn't hear anybody moving, so he went over and shut and locked the window, pulled the venetian blinds, and switched on the table lamp beside the bed.
The room was a mess. One bed had been turned at a forty-five-degree angle to the wall, and the mattress was half-pulled off the other one. The dresser was shoved out of position so it was blocking the closet door, and the wastebasket lay on its side in the middle of the floor with a big dent in it. All four chairs were knocked over. One of them had both wooden arms broken.
Parker walked through the mess to see what he'd landed.
Fifteen minutes ago it had started, with Parker lying clothed on the bed in the darkness, thinking about one thing and another, and waiting for Handy to come back. That was after eleven o'clock, so Handy was late already. The lights were off because Parker liked it that way, and the window was open because November nights in Washington, D.C., are cool but pleasant. Then through the window had come the faint clatter of somebody mounting the fire escape, four flights below at street level. Parker had got off the bed and listened at the window. The somebody came up the fire escape about as quiet as the Second World War but trying to be quieter, and stopped at Parker's floor. Somebody with asthma. It was all so amateurish, Parker couldn't take it seriously, which is why the second one surprised him. He'd waited, and the guy with asthma had waited outside—probably to make sure there wasn't anybody home in Parker's room—and then finally he came in and it all had started.
The nice thing about a hotel. Nobody questions any noise that lasts less than ten minutes.
They were both out, the duffel bag on his face and the asthmatic on his back. Parker looked them over one at a time, and then frisked them.
The asthmatic was short, scrubby, wrinkled as a prune, and fifty or more, with the withered look of a wino. He was wearing baggy gray pants, a flannel shirt that had once been plaid but had now faded down to a gray like the pants, and a dark-blue double-breasted suit coat with all but one button missing and the shoulder padding sagging down into the arms. He had white wool socks on and brown oxfords with holes in the soles.
Parker went through his pockets. In the right-hand coat pocket he found a boy-scout knife with all the attachments—a screwdriver, nail file, corkscrew, everything but a useful blade—and in the left-hand pocket a hotel key. The board attached to the key was marked: HOTEL REGAL 27. In the shirt pocket was a crumpled pack of Camels and in the left-hand pants pocket forty-seven cents in change. From the hip pocket he took a bedraggled old child's wallet of imitation alligator skin, with a two-color picture of a cowboy on a bucking bronco on one side and a horseshoe on the other. Inside the wallet was a hundred dollars in new tens and four dollars in old singles, plus half a dozen movie-theater ticket stubs, a long, narrow photo of a burlesque dancer named Fury Feline, clipped from a newspaper, and a Social Security card and membership card in Local 802, International Alliance of Chefs and Kitchen Helpers. The Social Security card and the union card were made to James F. Wilcoxen.
That was all. Parker left Wilcoxen and went over to the duffel bag, who had started to move. He had long, straight, limp hair, dry blond in color, and Parker grabbed a handful of it and slapped his head against the floor. He stopped moving. Parker rolled him over.
This one was just as short, and maybe even thinner, but about twenty years younger, with the face of a ferret. He was dressed all in black. Black shoes and socks, black pegged trousers, black wool-knit sweater. He had long, thin fingers and narrow feet.
Parker searched him. Under the black sweater was a blue cotton shirt, and in the pocket was a pair of sunglasses. The right-hand pants pocket contained fifty-six cents in change and a key to room 29 in Hotel Regal; the left, a roll of bills—one hundred dollars in new tens. Left hip pocket, a Beretta Jaguar .22, with the three-and-a-half-inch barrel. Right hip pocket, a wallet containing seven dollars, plus a bunch of dog-eared clippings about the various arrests of Donald Scorbi on suspicion of this and that, mostly assault or drunk and disorderly, with one narcotics possession. The wallet also disgorged a laminated reduced photostat of a Navy discharge—general discharge, for medical reasons—with the same name on it, Donald Scorbi.
Parker kept the two stacks of new tens and the Beretta, but put everything else back in Scorbi's and Wilcoxen's pockets. Then he used their shoelaces to tie their hands behind them, and their belts to secure their ankles together. Scorbi started to come out of it again and he had to be put back to sleep, but Wilcoxen was still out, wheezing through his open mouth.
Parker looked them over, and decided to keep Wilcoxen. He used a washcloth and face towel to gag Scorbi, then dragged him into the bathroom and dumped him in the tub. He closed the door and searched around the room for the other gun, the one he'd taken from Wilcoxen early in the scuffle.
It was under the dresser, a Smith & Wesson Terrier, five-shot .32. Parker took it and the Beretta and stowed them away in his suitcase. His watch said eleven-thirty-five, which made Handy over half an hour late, so something had gone wrong.
Parker straightened the room and Wilcoxen still hadn't come out of it. Parker dragged him over to the wall, propped him up in a sitting position, and pinched him awake. Wilcoxen came out of it complaining, groaning and thrashing his head around and keeping his eyes tight shut. There was a sour smell of wine on his breath. His face was all wrinkled gray leather except for two bright red circles on his cheeks, like a clown's makeup.
Parker said, "Open your eyes, Jimmy."
Wilcoxen stopped complaining and opened his eyes. They were a wet, washed-out blue, like an overexposed color photo. He took a while getting them to focus on Parker's face, and then the red blotches on his cheeks got suddenly redder, or the rest of the face paler.
Parker said, "Good," then straightened up and went away across the room to the nearest chair. He brought it over and sat down and kicked Wilcoxen conversationally in the ribs. "We'll talk."
Wilcoxen's lips were wet. He shook his head and blinked a lot.
Parker said, "I got a partner. You had a partner. Scorbi."
Wilcoxen looked around and didn't see Scorbi.
"Your partner wouldn't tell me about my partner. I threw him back out the window."
Wilcoxen's eyes got bigger. He stared at Parker and waited, but Parker didn't have anything else to say. The silence got thicker, and Wilcoxen squirmed a lot. His feet jiggled, and he licked his lips and kept blinking. Parker sat looking at him, waiting, but Wilcoxen's eyes kept darting all over the place.
Finally, he asked, "What you want from me?"
Parker shook his head and kicked him again. "Wrong answer."
"I don't know no partner. Honest to Christ."
"What do you know?"
"I got a hundred bucks. Donny and me both. Go to the Wynant Hotel, first fire escape in the alley, fifth floor. If there's nobody home, take everything there. Suitcases and like that."
"And if there's somebody home?"
"Don't do nothing. Come back and report."
Wilcoxen's blinking was getting worse. His eyes were closed more than they were open. "Listen," he said. "It's just a job, you know? A hundred bucks. Nobody hurt, just pick up some suitcases. Anybody woulda took it."
Parker shook his head. He didn't care about that. "Back where?" he asked.
"Howison Tavern. On E Street, down by Fourth Precinct."
"Who do you see?"
Wilcoxen frowned, and the blinking settled down a little. "I don't know," he said. "He just told us go in there and sit down. If we got the stuff, somebody would come by, pick it up. If not, somebody would come by, get the report."
"What time you supposed to be there?"
"By one o'clock."
"Which E Street?"
"Huh? Oh, Southeast."
"Who gave you the job?"
"The job? Listen, I got pins and needles in my hands."
Parker looked at his watch. Quarter to twelve. He had an hour and fifteen minutes. "I'm in a hurry, Jimmy," he said.
"How come you know my name?"
Parker kicked him in the ribs again, not hard, just as a reminder.
"I'm giving you the straight story. I ain't going to lie for a hundred bucks. You didn't have to throw Donny out no window."
"Who gave you the job?"
"Oh, uh—a guy named Angel. He's a heavy, he hangs out around North Capitol Street, up behind the station. Donny and me, we was in a movie on D Street, and when we come out Angel grabs onto us and gives us the offer."
"Is Angel going to be at the Howison Tavern?"
"He says no. He says somebody will come by, don't worry, he'll recognize us. We should sit in a booth and drink beer. Schlitz."
"Where do I find this Angel?"
"I don't know. Honest to Christ. Hangin' around someplace, up around behind the station. In around there, you know."
It was no good. Parker thought it over, chewing his lip. The meeting couldn't be faked, so there was no way to start a trail from there. And it would take more than an hour and a quarter to find somebody named Angel hanging around the Union Station area somewhere. If Handy was still alive, he'd be alive till one o'clock. Then, when Scorbi and Wilcoxen didn't show up, whoever had Handy would know there was trouble. The easiest thing would be dump Handy.
So it had to be done from the other direction, through the girl.
Parker nodded to himself. "All right, Jimmy," he said. "You can go. Roll over so I can untie you."
"You mean it? Honest to Christ?"
Wilcoxen scrambled away from the wall and flopped over on his stomach.
"You're all right, honest to Christ you are. You know it wasn't nothing personal. There wasn't even supposed to be nobody here, just suitcases and like that. We ain't torpedoes or nothing."
"I know," Parker said. He untied Wilcoxen's hands and stepped back. "Undo your ankles yourself."
Wilcoxen had trouble making his hands work. While he was loosening the belt from around his ankles and putting his shoelaces back in his shoes, Parker got the Terrier out of the suitcase, and held it casually where Wilcoxen could see it. He left the Beretta where it was; he didn't like .22's much.
When Wilcoxen got to his feet, Parker said, "Scorbi's in the bathroom. Go untie him." Wilcoxen suddenly smiled, beaming from ear to ear. "I knew you didn't throw Donny out no window," he said. He hurried over and opened the bathroom door. "Donny! He's lettin' us go, Donny!"
After a while Scorbi came out, walking lame like Wilcoxen. He looked sullen, not joining in Wilcoxen's happiness. Parker said, "Out the way you came in."
"What about our dough?" Scorbi asked.
"Hurry," Parker said.
"Come on, Donny," said Wilcoxen. He tugged at Scorbi's sleeve. "Come on, let's go."
"Our rods and our dough."
Parker said, "Go on, Jimmy. Either he follows you or he don't."
Wilcoxen hurried over and climbed out the window onto the fire escape. Scorbi hung back a second, but then he shrugged and went out the window. The two of them started down the fire escape, making even more noise than they had coming up.
Parker stowed the Terrier away inside his coat and picked up the phone. When the operator came on, he made his voice high-pitched and nervous. "There's somebody on the fire escape! Get the police! Hurry! They're going down the fire escape!"
He hung up while the operator was still asking questions, switched off the light, and left the room. He took the elevator down and crossed the lobby and went outside. A prowl car was parked down to the left, with the red light flashing. Hotels get fast service.
Parker stood on the sidewalk, and a couple of minutes later two cops came out of the alley alongside the hotel, pushing Scorbi and Wilcoxen in front of them. So that was that. Because the Scorbis and Wilcoxens never talk to the law, it couldn't get back to Parker. So, no matter how good a story they thought up, they'd miss that one-o'clock meeting, and whoever had Handy wouldn't be warned. It was better even than keeping them tied up in the bathroom.
Parker turned and walked the other way. A block later he hailed a cab.CHAPTER 2
It was just over the Maryland line, in Silver Spring, a squat, faded apartment building called Sligo Towers. Built of dark brick aged even darker, the bricks widely separated by the plaster, it looked like an old Thirties standing set left over on the Universal back lot. Thirties-like imitations of Gay Nineties gaslights, containing twenty-five-watt bulbs, flanked the arched entrance to the courtyard.
The courtyard was just concrete, but pink coloring had been added before it set. It was bounded on three sides by the building, rising eight stories and sprouting air conditioners here and there like acne. On the fourth side was a double arch with a concrete pillar, separating courtyard from sidewalk. Beyond, dark cars slept at the curb, hoods mutely reflecting the street light from down the block. A car purred by, without pausing.
Parker turned the far corner and came striding toward the Sligo Towers. He wore a gray suit and a figured shirt, the suit coat open despite the night chill. He looked like a businessman, in a tough business. He could have been a liquor salesman in a dry state, or the automobile-company vice-president who takes away the dealerships, or maybe the business manager of one of the unions with the big buildings downtown around the Capitol. He could have been a hard, lean businessman coming home from a late night at the office.
He turned at the double arch and went into the courtyard, his shoes with the rubber soles and heels making no sound on the pink concrete. There were walls on three sides of him, all around the courtyard, with a door in each wall. Each was marked with a letter so rococo it looked like a drawing of an ivy-covered window.
He didn't know which door. Slowing down would spoil the effect, stopping would tip any watcher that he was a stranger here. He kept on toward "B," the door straight ahead. Three brick-lined pink concrete steps led up, and then the door was metal, painted to look like wood. It was a double door, and inside there was a metal bar like those found on the doors of schools and theaters. A half flight of metal stairs painted red led up to a hallway running at right angles. There was no interior door, which was a surprise. With no trouble at all, he was already in the building.
Excerpted from The Mourner by Richard Stark. Copyright © 1963 Richard Stark. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted November 7, 2011
Posted October 31, 2011
did not even finish it I like the nook though. What would you recommend for a fan of the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Series. I have read them all. Liked it. Alos Sleepers, I have seen his other works. Read one. Apaches looked at the Sequel. Hi Mary Jo
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