I GOT AN E-MAIL IN EARLY MAY. "Dear Mr. Pollack," it went, way too formally, as though the editor were informing me that I'd been late in making my credit card payment. Then I read the pitch: "Would you be willing to review or write something on the occasion of U. of Chicago's reprints of Richard Stark's Parker novels?"
This "occasion" had slipped my purview, as had, I'll admit, Richard Stark's Parker novels themselves. I was only barely aware, if aware at all, of their existence and probably wouldn't have been able to say for sure that Stark was a pseudonym of the legendary crime writer Donald Westlake. This isn't something I'm proud to announce, particularly since I've spent many years trumpeting myself as a lover of all things "noir." But hey, there are lots of writers in the world, and I've got a kid to feed and TV to watch. Still, this email offered me something I couldn't refuse. Free books, in a genre I like. I would come to the Parker novels with fresh, innocent eyes, like a newborn fawn staring at the world for the first time, or at a pair of headlights.
A couple of weeks later, a big box arrived from Chicago. It contained 10 nifty, sleek paperbacks, with appropriately muted coloring and silhouettes of snubnosed guns on their covers. Some of them also featured backlit dames or guys with hats, and, depending on the book, a truck, a serrated knife, or a carnival midway. I'd entered noir country. That night, I flossed and put in my night guard and started some easy reading about a very tough character.
The first book in the series, The Hunter, begins circa 1960 with a guy walking over the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan at 8 a.m. He's not in a good mood, as we quickly learn from the book's iconic opening line: "When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell." Parker himself is anything but fresh-faced. He's the archetype of hard-boiled experience, "big and shaggy, with flat square shoulders and arms too long in sleeves too short ... his hands, swinging curve-fingered at his sides, looked like they were molded of brown clay by a sculptor who thought big and liked veins ... his face was a chipped chunk of concrete, with eyes of flawed onyx." For reasons I'll explain in a bit, that's one of the last descriptions we ever get of Parker's face. Regardless, he's apparently what the East Coast ladies want in a man. "Office women in passing cars looked at him," Westlake writes, "and felt vibrations above their nylons."
Parker is a master criminal, almost tragically amoral. No "syndicate boy" and definitely not a "solid citizen," he works on his own or in conjunction with other independent-minded crooks. "We're just a guy here and a guy there that know each other," he says.
He conducts himself how you'd want to, if you had the guts and the sinew, keeping "his money in hotel safes, and [living] his life in resort hotels — Miami, Las Vegas, and Palm Springs — taking on another job only when his cash on hand dropped below five thousand dollars. He had never been tagged for any of his jobs, nor was there a police file on him anywhere in the world." All transactions and job requests come to him by way of a "jugger," or a retired crook living somewhere in America, transmitted through a rigorous series ...read more