A few weeks ago I came home carrying a stack of 20 paperback books. "What have you got there?" my wife asked me, and answered the question herself by shuffling through the books. " 'Richard Stark.' 'Richard Stark.' 'Donald E. Westlake as Richard Stark.' These are Don's books about. . . ."
"Parker," I supplied. "I'm doing a piece. So I figured I'd better read them."
"You read them when they came out," she said, "and you were rereading some of them a few years ago."
"Well, yeah," I said. "I've reread all of them at one time or another, but in a casual way. Now I want to go through them in sequence."
"How many are there?"
"Sixteen about Parker," I said, "and four about Grofield."
"He's a friend of Parker's?"
"Parker doesn't exactly have friends. But yeah, sort of."
She frowned in thought. "So you're going to read 20 books in order to write a short piece about them? Couldn't you just write it off the top of your head? As familiar as you are with the books. . . ."
"Impossible," I said. "You don't know the first thing about it."
Parker is a thief. Like Willie Sutton, he goes where the money is, taking off banks and armored cars and payrolls and concert receipts. In his first appearance, in "The Hunter" (a.k.a. "Point Blank"), he goes after the confederate who double-crossed him and left him for dead. In so doing he alienates organized crime, so in "The Man With the Getaway Face" he undergoes plastic surgery, and in "The Outfit" he extorts from the crime syndicate the money he feels they owe him. In the books that follow, he knocks over a whole town in North Dakota, a coin convention in Indianapolis, an Air Force Base in Upstate New York. And so on.
The books are as classically constructed as symphonies. Indeed, each has four movements. The first two sections are told from Parker's point of view. The third section--the scherzo?--has each of its chapters focused in turn upon one of the subsidiary characters. Then, in the fourth section, we once again see the story through Parker's eyes.
And the plots, like the structure, run to a pattern. Parker is a planner, an organizer, and he plans a heist, and it is carried out. Then something goes wrong, and then Parker does what he can to set it right. When he's not working, Parker lives in resort hotels and has sex all the time. When he's working, he's not interested in sex--or, indeed, in much of anything else. He's incapable of small talk. When he wants to think, he watches television with the sound off, or sits in the dark.
He is, it would seem, a two-dimensional character caught up in unvarying variations on a theme. Isn't it curious, then, that I read all of the books in sequence this past month, one after the other, that I moved through the series with increasing enjoyment, and that, when I turned the last page of "Butcher's Moon," I was pierced with regret that I had come to the end? And that I have every expectation of wending my way through them again in a couple of years?
There are several reasons why the books work as well as they do. The writing is crisp and clean, flat prose and on-pitch dialogue that carries you along. The details--Parker buying a truck in North Carolina, Parker picking up guns in a hobby shop in Syracuse--are absorbing. The minor characters are wonderfully drawn, wholly rendered in a few deft strokes.
But it's Parker himself who makes the books so eternally fascinating. Just as I reread Rex Stout for the pleasure of watching Nero Wolfe go about the business of being himself, so do I delight in observing Parker as he acts and reacts time and time again in utterly Parkeresque fashion.
Five of the books have been filmed, with Parker played at various times by Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall, Jim Brown, Peter Coyote and Anna Karina. Commenting on the scattershot casting, writer Joe Goldberg told Don, "Well, I guess the character lacks definition."
But it would be hard to imagine a character more utterly defined than Parker. While he may play a part in the course of a job--conning his way past a guard, posing as a petulant client at a travel agency--he is incapable of dissembling off-stage. He is always true to himself. He is always Parker.
You should know that I am not without a personal bias here. Don Westlake and I have been friends for 30 years. Indeed, I first made Parker's acquaintance when I read the first chapter of the first book in manuscript in an upstairs flat in Canarsie in 1961.
"When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell." In the pages that followed, Parker walked across the George Washington Bridge into New York, got hold of a checkbook, bought some luggage with bad checks, hocked it, repeated the process, then bought some clothes, ate a steak, checked into a hotel, and drank a pint of vodka.
"Now what?" I asked the author.
"I'm not sure," he said, "but I'll think of something."