I am a continual source of aggravation to my booksellers, the good people at Mysterious Galaxy. Even at a store specializing in genre fiction, I often confound the staff by requesting books from obscure authors, strange imprints, and dubious small presses. Most of the time, these are books that only I would be likely to pay good money for. Once in a while, however, I come across something that other people will want, and a few extra copies get ordered along with my own.
A case in point are the University of Chicago Press reprints of the first three novels by Richard Stark: The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face, and The Outfit. Stark is the pseudonym and evil alter ego of Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Donald Westlake. While Westlake writes noir and heist novels with a comic flavor, there’s nothing funny about Stark and his infamous creation, Parker. This dangerous man is an “operator,” a professional thief, and his crimes, successful and otherwise, form Stark’s subject. The Hunter is the basis for the classic John Boorman film Point Blank, as well as the less impressive Mel Gibson vehicle Payback.
My enjoyment of Stark’s work is hard to quantify. For one thing, Parker is thoroughly amoral. He follows a code of conduct: Don’t burn your partners. Don’t kill cops or civilians. But the purpose of this code is to minimize trouble, and Parker follows it out of professionalism. Parker deals harshly with betrayal, but is never the first to break the rules. Apart from this, he is almost without personality. He goes home to his companion, Claire, but I cannot imagine them relaxing on the sofa together. Stylistically, Stark adheres to Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing stripped-down prose from which the author disappears. Combine this with Parker’s lack of affect, and there is something positively Zen about a Stark novel.
So what’s the appeal, then? In a review of the more recent Flashfire, the Wall Street Journal wrote, “The awful fascination in these Parker tales comes from knowing the protagonist will always do whatever is necessary to protect himself and to achieve his goals. The tension comes from never knowing what might happen next.” This isn’t exactly it, at least not for me. Once you’ve read a couple of Parker novels, they become, frankly, fairly predicable. So why do I still read them?
Part of it is pure pleasure in a heist story that takes itself seriously. It’s impossible to go out to a caper movie these days without seeing George Clooney and Brad Pitt pulling off ludicrously elaborate scores and mugging for the camera. Stark’s no frills narratives make an impressive contrast. But the biggest part, the part the Wall Street Journal won’t admit to, is that every man secretly identifies with Parker. Deep down, we all want to be the badass, the man who always gets what he wants, the man who doesn’t give a damn for the rules of society. That’s who Parker is. His blankness is a space the reader can inhabit, a safe and temporary sociopathy.
Stark has always had a cult following. There is fierce competition on auction sites for his out of print titles. I recently paid more than twenty dollars for a beaten-in mass-market copy of The Blackbird. That’s why the U. of Chicago’s reprints are such good news. According to Westlake’s official site, they plan to bring out three a year until the whole run is back in print.
In his most recent column for Entertainment weekly, horror god Stephen King names Stark as one of the best practitioners of “manfiction,” a term coined by King’s literary and biologic offspring Joe Hill. Perhaps this, along with the attractive new reprints, will help win both Stark and Parker the larger audience they deserve.
Support your local gunfighter!
Buy Richard Stark from Mysterious Galaxy.