Reacher v. Parker
A couple of years ago, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers were statistically certified, by Forbes magazine, as the most addictive novels in commercial fiction. The key finding was that ‘Child carries more readers with him from book to book than any other bestselling author.’ Perhaps I’m too weak-kneed to be a proper Reacher fan: the ones I’ve read I found hard to put down, but I didn’t feel compelled to go out and buy the lot. The airport-thriller page counts and twitchy plotting sometimes left me feeling jangled and strung out, as though I’d been bingeing on espressos and Haribo Tangfastics while playing a frenetic computer game. That wasn’t the case with another series about a laconic tough guy with a name ending in ‘-er’, a series that’s put together with more artistry than you’d expect and which has, for me, greater addictive properties: the Parker novels by Richard Stark, a pseudonym of Donald Westlake (1933-2008).
Westlake was an American paperback writer with more than 100 books to his various names, ranging from soft porn to science fiction to comic crime capers, plus the screenplay for The Grifters (1990). Parker made his first appearance in The Hunter (1962) and went on to star in 23 further novels, with a lengthy hiatus between Butcher’s Moon (1974) and Comeback (1997). The Hunter was the source material for John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), in which Parker was re-named Walker and played by Lee Marvin, and the character has had other big-screen outings. (Jason Statham essayed the role recently.) Towards the end of his life, Westlake was hailed as a master by John Banville and Stephen King, but he never troubled the bestseller lists, and it’s part of Parker’s charm that he’s a bit of a cult property, a creature of the drugstore paperback carousel rather than the airport bookstore.
Parker – he doesn’t have a first name – is, like Reacher, a big, cold-eyed guy whom men instinctively know not to mess with and women fancy in spite of themselves. Like Reacher, he says nothing a lot, the better to get on with solving problems using a mixture of high-speed reasoning and brute force. Unlike Reacher, he isn’t a goodie. He’s a ‘heavy heister’, a professional robber who’ll kill without hesitation or guilt to keep his plans from collapsing and the law off his back. Parker hates civilian casualties and superfluous murders – they're unprofessional and get the cops all riled up – and in practice the people he ends up whacking tend to be kill-crazy or sexually violent fellow criminals. Still, from time to time he’ll do something unsettling. One chapter in The Jugger (1965) ends: ‘“Good,” Parker said, and hit him twice. He buried him in the cellar in the hole the kid had dug himself.’
Most of the books open with a ‘when’ and a bang: ‘When he didn’t get any answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in’ (The Seventh, 1966); ‘When the guy with asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away’ (The Mourner, 1963). After a breathless, in medias res sequence, there’ll be a carefully judged flashback explaining the situation, and that’ll be the end of the first of four sections. The plots usually centre on elaborate thefts – from art collectors, banks, football stadiums, a whole town – which Parker is brought in on as planner and team leader. Obligatory sequences include his assembling a ‘string’ of like-minded pros to do the job; visits to oddball minor figures for financing, guns and cars; and the job itself, which typically goes off smoothly but collapses into chaos afterwards thanks to an intruding amateur or an attempted double-cross.
One of the pleasures of the series is Westlake’s ingenuity in playing variations on this formula. He has no trouble inventing big, gimmicky heists, but they’re a relatively small part of the narrative interest: the real focus is always on character and procedure. The books are written in a close third person style from Parker’s point of view, but in one of the sections – often, though not always, the third – the point of view will skip to another character or series of characters whose flaws drop a wrench in Parker’s calculations. Westlake is supremely good at these drive-by character studies, pausing briefly to give even the most throwaway figures a dab of inner life. He also lays out his plots as a series of tense, patiently dramatised scenes, with temporal cuts between the chapters, so there’s a feeling of efficiency and constant forward movement as well as a built-in mechanism for making the reader wait for the next piece of important information.
The antihero himself is a resonant cypher, much puzzled over by the other characters. Parker isn’t even his real name, which we never find out: ‘being Parker’ is merely what he does when he’s on a job. Sometimes he needs money, but as the series rolls on he increasingly seems to be motivated by a combination of professional pride and existential anomie. In some lights he’s a satirical embodiment of instrumental reason, in others an antitype of the postwar ‘Organisation Man’. (He’s equally contemptuous of corporations, the federal government and ‘the Outfit’, a kind of Waspified Cosa Nostra that he occasionally goes up against and beats.) The novels are also sensitive to social change. In the first few books he’s a veteran of the Second World War who spends his downtime in a world of light jazz and easy broads. Deadly Edge (1971) brings him up against stadium rock concerts and acid-tripping freaks, and in the novels written after 1997 he’s a more marginal, artisanal figure.
In this, he seems to reflect Westlake’s sense of his own changing position in the culture at large, and that isn’t the only way in which Parker resembles a hardscrabble novelist. Luc Sante – who published one of the first serious appraisals of the Parker books in 1985 – argues persuasively in his introduction to one of the University of Chicago Press reprints that the master theme of professionalism is as much writerly as criminal. Westlake said that he devised the series because he wanted to write about 'a workman at work', and the books offer a double lesson, showing not only, say, each step in the process of breaking though a Sheetrock wall with a claw hammer, but also how to turn the process into mesmerising fiction. A couple of years ago my wife, laid up with a broken ankle, asked me to bring her something effortless to read. Through a haze of co-codamol she managed to raise an eyebrow at the title of the Parker book I offered her, Slayground (1971). But she didn’t go to sleep until she’d finished it.