You know, Donald Westlake and I have a lot in common. We both write under a pen name. Both of our novels feature moments of shocking violence. We both…write under pen names.
Okay, so maybe we aren’t so alike after all. But man, could that guy write.
I’ve been hearing about the Parker books for years (quick recap for the uninitiated—Westlake is the author’s real name, Stark is the pseudonym, Parker is the character), but for whatever reason I never checked them out.
Until a few weeks ago when I read Parker #1: The Hunter. And, as I’ve found several times over the past couple years (with J.K. Rowling, with Preston and Child, with George R.R. Martin‘s Fevre Dream, to name just a few), the reality is even more impressive than the hype.
The plot is as simple and old as any ever told—criminals plan a crime; afterward, there’s a double-cross (actually, a triple-cross); one man—Parker—is left for dead. But he isn’t dead. He’s alive and hungry for vengeance. Simple, right? So what is it, you ask, that makes Stark/Westlake so good?
Let me choose one moment from the novel to explain why this book worked so well for me and why I’ll be reading many Stark/Westlake novels in the future. But let me say one more thing first…
It’s sometimes said that there are three types of protagonists: positive, negative, and anti-heroes. With a negative lead, we might root for him, but we might feel bad for doing so because if society were to follow his lead, we’d all be in big trouble. Parker is a negative lead, but (based on this book, at least) negative doesn’t even begin to capture his amoral iciness.
The moment in The Hunter that perfectly demonstrates how accomplished a writer Stark is (gotta start saying “Stark”—the “Stark/Westlake” thing was driving me nuts; you too, huh?) involves Parker tying a woman up and gagging her. This woman, keep in mind, is a completely innocent bystander. But she represents a potential obstacle to the attainment of Parker’s goal, which is killing the man who double-crossed him. Parker binds and gags her and leaves her in her office to momentarily put aside an obstacle. Parker goes to a different room to eye the building he’s staking out, but his potential victim doesn’t show. When he goes back to the office in which the woman is bound and gagged, he finds her eyes bugging out and her face an unnaturally livid color.
She’s dead. He has inadvertently killed her. She apparently experienced some sort of respiratory or allergic medical event, and she died a horrible death, probably by suffocation. Parker’s reaction?
Mild annoyance. It bothers him that she now represents a potential hitch in his plans. What if, Parker wonders, this complicates things for him? What if this prevents him from killing his adversary?
Unspeakably cold, right?
So if you’ve never read Stark you’re shaking your head and saying, “What a sick, depraved character. What a sick, depraved book. What a sick, depraved writer to come up with such filth!” Okay, you’re probably not saying that because if you’re visiting this blog, you already know that effective fiction can get really, really dark. And yeah, Parker’s attitude is unconscionable, at least if we were to transfer it to our world.
But we’re not in our world; we’re in Stark’s. See, it’s an impossible phenomenon for me to describe, but maybe this’ll come close: Parker reminds us how primitive human beings can be. Parker is a mirror held up to our basest nature. When he kills a bad guy, we celebrate. We might not be proud of our reaction, but that inner beast is part of us whether we like it or not.
“Okay, Mr. Armchair Psychoanalyst,” you say, “then what about the suffocated secretary?”
What about her? the Stark fan asks. Parker didn’t mean to kill her, nor did he enjoy the fact of her death.
“But…but…,” you splutter, “he KILLED a woman and didn’t feel any remorse!”
The Stark fan’s answer? That’s how Parker rolls. An answer almost as cold and unfeeling as Parker himself.
“That doesn’t cut it,” you say. “You can’t root for a hero without a conscience.”
But the Parker fan knows that, while a conscience is an important trait for a human being, it’s not necessarily required for a great protagonist. Not when the protagonist is Parker.
Because Parker is determined. Man, is he determined. And we admire that. He’s also uncompromising. He lives by a code, and he sticks to that code regardless of the dangers of doing so. Parker is powerful—especially his hands. Stark fixates on and waxes poetic about Parker’s hands the way Tarantino lingers on women’s feet. It’s fetishistic, to be sure, and it’s mesmerizing. We want to know what Parker will do with those hands. But we don’t know what he’ll do with them, which is another thing we love about Parker. He’s unpredictable. And smart. To steal a phrase from Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting, he’s wicked smart.
I’ll stop now. If you’re not convinced by now to read Stark’s ferocious hero, you’ll never be convinced. You’re likely still hung up on that poor secretary. Truth be told, I am too, else I wouldn’t be writing about her.
But I’m also going back for more Parker.
Wish me luck.