Author: Richard Stark
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Despite having passed away in 2008, American mystery writer Donald Westlake still enjoys a fair bit of success in the afterlife. His usual work has trended toward the comedic like 1965’s The Fugitive Pigeon or the posthumously published The Comedy Is Finished. However, Westlake did indulge in some darker work, which he wrote under the name Richard Stark. Simple, blunt, and noir to the core, these novels start off on the right foot and hurtle forward with a lean momentum.
Twenty-four of the twenty-eight books Westlake wrote as Richard Stark follow the exploits of a grim career criminal named Parker. No first name is ever provided or much in terms of back story. Our anti-hero is ruthless, enigmatic, and beyond any kind of redemption, save perhaps for his unshakeable professionalism. Anyone tickled by this pulpy, straight-forward concept should track down the series, which never deviates from the hard-boiled tone set in the first entry: 1962’s The Hunter, also known as Point Blank or Payback.
In The Hunter, Parker gets shot and left for dead on the side of the road. The culprit: his own best friend, Mal Resnick, who also happens to have taken off with his wife, Lynn, and all the loot from the last heist they pulled together. Too much of a tough guy or contrarian to just die, our anti-hero pulls himself out of the gutter and comes back for his former accomplice and his share of the money, taking down single-mindedly every obstacle in his path, be it a prison guard, former acquaintances, or the mob.
Parker’s adversaries can’t understand him. They figure that he must have an ulterior motive of some kind or a devilish scheme going, but all the guy wants is his slice of the proverbial pie and a bit of honor among thieves. There’s something engrossing about the idea of a pathologically on-tracked mind getting the chance to see things through and flourish in all of its sociopathic glory. The Hunter makes full use of its anti-hero’s absurdly Cartesian way of thinking, with a prose that never shies away from his foolish stubbornness and unredeemable brutality.
The minimalist pulp style of The Hunter lends itself to adaptation, as can be evidenced by all the creative minds trying their hand over the past fifty years. For my money, the best rendition of this hard-boiled crime story is Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunters, published in 2009 by IDW Comics. The line art and the muted colour wash give the book a gorgeous fifties feel, evoking the noir tradition from which Westlake, or rather Richard Stark, was drawing inspiration.
The version from which you want to stay away is the 2013 Jason Statham vehicle Parker, co-starring Jennifer Lopez. The first cinematic adaptation of The Hunter to actually use the name “Parker” for its protagonist, the film could have served as a return to form for Lopez, evoking the career high of Out of Sight (1998). Unfortunately, it just fizzles. If it’s movies you want rather than books, though, you should check out Payback (1999) if only remind to yourself of a time when Mel Gibson still had a career. Who knows? Maybe it’s something else that could come back from the dead.