was very sad to read about the passing of Donald E Westlake over the Christmas period. I only came across the news today on a blog whilst looking for a link to the Secret Agent X-9 radio show I was listening to.
I’m not sure what was the first book I read by Donald Westlake, it was maybe Kahawa, a comedic tale of mercenaries, coffee smuggling and Idi Amin or possibly it was The Mercenaries a gangster tale set in 1970’s New York. Which ever it was, it got me started at the local libraries reading whatever other books they had [this was before the Internet and such things]. I guess then I stumbled on to the Richard Stark alias and started reading the Parker books. I still remember excitedly finding a copy of The Split In Toxteth library and wondering if my card was okay for it. It was, and the book was great. Even when I was tracking them down and reading them in the early 90’s they still were streets ahead of anything else in the crime genre some 30 years after publication.
The later novels from the original 16 Parker stories we’re pretty scarce, still are in fact. Various publishers have started to reprint the series but all seem to have stopped short of the last couple of books. I only found a copy of the 15th book myself a couple of years back in a local second hand book shop. It was priced so low compared to what I’ve seen copies sell for on the Internet that I bought it and about four other books just to alleviate any guilt.
Parker came back in the late nineties after a twenty year absence, It was a little odd as he would have to be about 65 by now and perhaps a little old for throwing people down stairs and kicking windshields out of crashed cars. But in much the same style as Robert B. Parkers Spenser, Parkers aging was glossed over. It was certainly good to have him back and whilst some of the ‘poetry’ of the original era was gone the stories were enjoyable all the same.
Theres a site online that lists the first lines of all the Parker novels, First Lines to Richard Stark’s Parker Books, these probably give the most accurate idea of what they and the character are all about. I think these are my favorite three…
From The Hunter (1962)
When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.
The Rare Coin Score (1967)
Parker spent two weeks on the white sand beach at Biloxi, and on a white sandy bitch named Belle, but he was restless, and one day without thinking about it he checked out and sent a forwarding address to Handy McKay and moved on to New Orleans.
Butcher’s Moon (1974)
Running toward the light, Parker fired twice over his left shoulder, not caring whether he hit anything or not.
Oh, AND one more for good luck
When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.
Parker is usually described as ruthless, brutal and unflinching. One thing the synopses often leave out is the humor thats often found in the books, often arising from Parkers simple frustration at things that get in the way of what he wants to do, or the people he as to work with. Hes disgusted at the map supplied to him by ‘The Outfit’ as it has features wavy lines in the sea and illustrations of mountain with snow on the top… “He’d asked for a map and they’d given him a souvenir.”
Westlake wrote many many other novels, under quite a few different names. The ‘Sam Holt’ series about a successful TV actor who has become so well known as the TV detective he once played that he cant get any other work, Published as Sam Holt writing about Sam Holt, luckily the occasional murder turns up to keep him busy. There was also the Tucker Coe stories, a short series about a man driven to the edge of his own sanity and trying to hold on in whatever way he can, much bleaker than anything in any of the Parker books. He also wrote the very funny Dortmunder books, under his own name, about pessimistic New York Burglar John Archibald Dortmunder, apparently he was spawned from a Parker novel that became too comedic.
Along with these there are probably a hundred or so other novels, and of all the ones I’ve read I can’t say I’ve read a bad one.
I ordered the latest Parker novel, Dirty Money, last friday, with a Christmas book token. I didn’t realise at the time that I was buying what was likely to be the last Parker Novel. I’m sorry I wont get to read too many more new Donald westlake novels but I’m sure I’ll be reading the ones I’ve read again in the future.
Visit the Donald E Westlake website, a surprisingly good site for someone who ‘resisted’ computers and wrote all his books on a typewriter, also there is the New York Times obituary, and some more detail on the Parker books and films here.