Wednesday, February 04, 2009

8. The Hunter by Richard Stark (Parker #1)

When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.

And so begins the best series of crime novels ever written. In honour of Donald Westlake's recent passing and to support the re-release of the Parker series by the University of Chicago Press, I'll be re-reading and reviewing each of these as they come out, in order. The first three were released at the end of last year (pure coincidence that it happened so close to Westlake's death) and Meezly gave them to me for my birthday.

Donald Westlake wrote the 20 Parker books under the pseudonym Richard Stark, starting with The Hunter in 1962 and culminating in the ferocious masterpiece Butcher's Moon in 1973. He picked the series up again in the late '90s writing 6 more before he died.

The story goes that Westlake presented the manuscript of The Hunter to the editor Bucklyn Moon. In this iteration, Parker dies at the end.

I liked him, but I killed him off. He was, after all, a villain, and he killed people, and I wanted somebody to publish the book. In 1962, Hayes office mentality was still very strong throughout the popular arts; bad guys didn’t get away with it. The most one could hope for was an “ironic” comeuppance. So at the end of the book, Parker got shot down by the cops.

(From the Gregg Press edition, copyright 1981 -- read the full interview here)

Moon told him that he liked the book, but he requested that he would only publish if Westlake would keep Parker alive at the end and be able to write a series, continuing the existence of the character, at the rate of 3 books a year. If you ever wonder about the role editors play in the publishing process, remember this anecdote and be grateful! Thanks to this collaboration, Parker is born. (In another interview, Westlake mentions that Bucklyn Moon also discovered Chester Himes; he is an unsung hero of crime fiction for sure if that is the case.)

The Parker books have a consistent structure and theme. A heist is planned and executed. At some point, something goes sour, always as a result of human flaws. The narrative stops and jumps back in time, switching perspective to one of the side characters, usually the ones responsible for the screw-up. We meet back up at the point of error, with a fully understanding of everything that was going on in the background. Conflicts ensue and Parker has to clean up the mess and try and get away with the money and his freedom.

The Hunter is slightly different, in that it is a revenge story. Parker has come back from the dead to hunt down his wife and the man who betrayed him in his last heist. I don't know if Westlake went back and re-wrote these parts after he knew the book was going to be a series, but he remarks several times that this situation was an aberration from Parker's normal routine and his main goal, once the revenge is complete, is to return to his practice of knocking off a bank, payroll or armoured car once or twice a year and then spend the rest of his life living in hotels in warm climates, taking it easy.

Despite the different goal, The Hunter establishes the elements that make the series so powerful. I had forgotten how hard this novel was. I'd had the sense, in my memory, that it was slightly more florid than the later novels, with Parker being a bit more human and emotional. Barely. Even the fury of his revenge is more about setting things right than actual sense of betrayal. A deal was set and things were supposed to be arranged in a certain way. They weren't and Parker works to put things back into the place they should be, particularly the money that should be back in his hands. His logic is impenetrable, relentless, as is he as he drives to his goal.

It's interesting that Parker is motivated by such order, because it is a certain kind of authoritarian order that he targets with particular zest. This takes the form of the syndicate. The man who betrayed Parker works for them now, having used his take from the heist to pay his way into a middle-ranking position in the mob. To get to his target, he must get through them. Westlake's portrayal of the mob is a brilliant invention, a perfect combination of immorality and bland bureaucracy. They are organized, hierarchical and infinitely confident in their own power. Not unlike the phone company. And that is why it is such a pleasure to read about one ruthless, unstoppable man taking them down.

Ultimately, personal liberty is what the Parker books are about. Parker is an individual, a free radical, attached to no institution, organization, woman or job. The bulk of the series focuses on the individual jobs, the complications therein and the work that Parker needs to do to maintain such an idiosyncratic lifestyle. But the overarching theme of the entire series is what happens when institutions try to restrict Parker's freedom. The Hunter sets the stage for this conflict and it is revisited directly in several of the future books and finally comes to an ultimate conclusion in Butcher's Moon.

I realize I have talked more about the series than this book specifically. Really, you either read it or you don't. I can tell you this that I haven't read a harder, tougher book in a long time. I was shocked at some of the scenes, to the point where I would definitely not recommend this book for someone who hasn't been exposed a bit already to some of the darker aspects of our human existence. There is no fluff here, no moralizing, no glee, no pornographic satisfaction in the revenge. It's like a short, direct punch to the gut that nobody else in the crowd notices until the guy crumples to his knees, gasping for breath.

The office women looked at him and shivered. They knew he was a bastard, they knew his big hands were born to slap with, they knew his face would never break into a smile when he looked at a woman. They knew what he was, they thanked God for their husbands, and still they shivered. Because they knew how he would fall on a woman in the night. Like a tree.

[The Violent World of Parker, a site that was the only place on the net representing Parker back in the day, has a great cover gallery of all the various editions of The Hunter.]


Jason L said...

Right on. Looks like we are on the same Westlake page (see my latest review). I look forward to reading your reviews as these new editions come out. I may have to read a few myself as I think I have only read about 8 of the Parker books.

Buzby said...

Great review! I love the Parker series of books and look forward to your other reviews.