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Bronx Banter Interview: Levi Stahl


Donald E. Westlake (1933-2008) was one of our most prolific and entertaining writers. Now, we’ve got this posthumous treat: The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, published by the University of Chicago Press and edited by Levi Stahl. The book is a ton of fun. I recently had the chance to catch up with Stahl. Hope you enjoy our chat.

Q: When did you start reading Donald Westlake?

Levi Stahl: I first encountered Westlake via Hard Case Crime: they published Lemons Never Lie, one of the novels he wrote under the name Richard Stark about the heister Parker’s associate Alan Grofield. I was impressed by it, but in that way that happens when you read a lot, I just kept moving and didn’t dig deeper.

Then on the day before Thanksgiving in 2007 I was at the office—and if you’ve ever been in the office the day before Thanksgiving (and don’t work for Butterball), you know that absolutely nothing happens. You’re there just in case something catches fire. That day, nothing was even smoldering, so at lunch I went browsing at my local bookshop, 57th Street Books, and plucked from the shelves what would end up being the penultimate Parker novel, Ask the Parrot. Back at my desk, I set to reading, and two hours later when my wife arrived for the long drive downstate to my parents’ house, I had to apologize: I had promised to do the driving, but now there was no way I could do any driving until I’d finished this book and found out what happened.

I was hooked. By Christmas I’d read ten or so Parker novels, all harvested from the used book market, and was making the case to colleagues at the University of Chicago Press that we should try to bring the series back into print. Now, almost seven years later, I’ve read all 100 of Westlake’s books—the Westlakes, the Starks, the Samuel Holts, the Tucker Coes, and the one-shots from Timothy Culver, Judson Jack Carmichael, Curt Clark, and even “The Vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham.” And almost all have been worth reading—even the couple that I would regard as truly weak offer some elements of interest.

Q: Damn, Westlake wrote 100 books? And you read them all? Man, that’s daunting. Okay, before we even get to the collection you’ve assembled, what Westlake titles would you recommend for someone who’s never read him before?

LS: The two series are an obvious starting point: trythe first Parker book, The Hunter, and the first Dortmunder, The Hot Rock. Neither is necessarily the best in the series, but they’re both quite good, and they give a clear sense of what these books are up to and whether you’ll like them.

From the standalones, I tend to recommend Somebody Owes Me Money, a hilarious first-person narrative from a put-upon cabby that opens, “I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn’t so eloquent”; Killing Time, an early, hardboiled work that is clearly in thrall to Hammett and Red Harvest but satisfying on its own terms; 361, a crime novel that was written deliberately with no explicit emotional signposts; God Save the Mark, a brilliantly funny collection of cons and nonsense; and The Ax, a 1997 hardboiled crime novel that is also a dissection of contemporary economic pain, as a laid-off print shop manager decides to kill the competition for the job he’d like to land. It’s so unrelenting it can be hard to read at times.

Q: Also, for the uninitiated, can you talk about the difference between Westlake’s two most famous protagonists?

LS: What may be more interesting about Parker and John Dortmunder is a relatively underappreciated quality that they have in common: they’re both extremely good at their jobs, yet their well-laid plans always go spectacularly wrong. The difference comes in how they respond to that. Parker, while remaining utterly emotionless, is bothered when a job goes sour, and he then takes whatever measures are necessary, up to and including extreme violence, to extricate himself from the problem, preferably with the loot. Dortmunder reacts to problems with an unsurprised shrug of his shoulders. Everything has always gone wrong for him, so why should this time be any different? Parker is an existentialist, Dortmunder is a fatalist.

Dortmunder actually emerged out of those very differences: Westlake started writing what he thought was another Parker novel, in which Parker and a gang have to try multiple times to steal a giant diamond. When he got to the third or fourth time the gang tried to steal the diamond, however, he realized he couldn’t keep going: Parker would have already cut his losses and moved on. But he liked the concept enough that he created a heister who would just keep plugging away at it, and with that, The Hot Rock started really rolling, and John Dortmunder was born.

The other big difference is that Dortmunder actually likes and cares about his gang. They’re almost as much friends as colleagues, and it shows in his willingness to continue to put up with their irritating, silly quirks. Parker, on the other hand, sees his colleagues as mere tools, useful yet, like all tools, prone to failure. So the one time he does truly extend himself for a fellow heister—risking his life, and the job, to save Alan Grofield in Butcher’s Moon, it astonishes not just the other guys on the string, but the reader, too. The Parker novels are popcorn, or shots of whiskey; the Dortmunders are chicken soup, or a PB&J. You go to them on different days, for different reasons, and they deliver what you’re looking for.

Q: Okay, to the collection that you’ve edited. How did this project come about?

LS: I discovered Westlake the nonfiction writer via Trent Reynolds’s excellent Violent World of Parker site. He had posted a scan of an Armchair Detective article from the early 1980s that reproduced a talk Westlake had delivered at the Smithsonian about the history of hardboiled private eyes in fiction. That piece revealed Westlake to be a serious thinker about and critic of the crime genre, and it made me wonder what else he might have written. Quick searching turned up enough to build a book proposal, deeper library research fleshed it out nicely, and—best of all—a trip to the Westlake house to go through his files, courtesy of the endlessly gracious Abby Westlake, turned up a bounty of little-known and never-before-published pieces.

Q: With a guy as prolific as Westlake, how did you decide what to choose from—not only single pieces—but categories?

LS: The categories actually came last, when I looked at my giant stack of papers and realized, belatedly, that I would need to put them in some sort of sensible order. But once I started doing that, making stacks of pieces on Westlake’s own work, of pieces on other writers, of letters, etc., the very act of sorting helped me figure out whether I wanted to include the couple of pieces that were on the bubble. For example: you could probably do a whole book of Westlake interviews, but once I gathered what I had, it became obvious that the two I should include were the ones that focused largely on his film writing career, as most of the other topics that come up in interviews (his life and his books) were covered elsewhere.

My early readers, Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime and Sarah Weinman, editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, were also extremely helpful: seeing what pieces interested these two genre experts most, and which were less effective, helped to transform the early manuscript into something more compact and potent. The only piece that I knew from the very start had to be in the place it is was the final letter. The moment I read it, pulled from Westlake’s filing cabinet, I knew I had the last words of the book.

Q: Westlake’s generosity toward his peers—Rex Stout, Charles Willeford, even a review of a George Higgins novel come to mind—is admirable. He seemed not motivated by professional envy but professional admiration. I like the note he tacked up at his desk, NO MORE INTRODUCTIONS, but the truth is, he was very good at writing them, wasn’t he?

LS: He really was an astute and generous critic of other writers. His essay on Peter Rabe, whom he greatly admired and acknowledged was a huge influence, is the perfect example. In the book that section opens with a letter from Westlake to Rabe telling him he’s going to be writing about his work and asking some questions; the letter is appreciative, funny, and generous, and Rabe responded enthusiastically. However, knowing that Rabe would eventually read the essay clearly didn’t stop Westlake from offering strong criticism of his weaker books—but at the same time, the admiration for Rabe’s achievement is so strong, clear, and well grounded in detailed analysis that the overall effect is to make you come away wanting to read more of Rabe’s books. Ultimately, that’s the effect of all of Westlake’s introductions: it’s the job of the person writing the introduction to make you see what’s special about the writer being presented, and Westlake was spectacularly good at that.

Another example of his ability to analyze and offer criticism of crime fiction is the letter to David Ramus. Ramus had—I’m not sure through what channel—sent Westlake the manuscript of what would become his first novel, On Ice. I don’t know what he was expecting, but what he got was a detailed examination of what did and didn’t work in the book, with suggestions of how things could be done better—suggestions given, explicitly, not to say that Westlake’s way was right, but that another way was possible. The letter, and the investment of time it represents, is an act of stunning generosity. The most entertaining moment in that letter? “Finally, I have one absolute objection. We do not overhear plot points. No no no.”

Q: Can you describe how he used humor in his books? His wife said he wasn’t jolly in real life, but witty, loved to laugh and loved making people laugh.

LS: In his foreword to this book, Westlake’s friend Lawrence Block takes issue with my characterizing Westlake’s writing as being filled with jokes. It’s wit, rather than jokes, says Block, and I think he’s basically right. Perhaps the biggest thing I took away from my time researching this book was that Westlake hardly ever wrote a full page of anything—be it fiction or a business letter—without finding a way to get some humor into it. He just seems to have seen the world that way: everything is a tiny bit ridiculous, because, well, look at us? We’re not really very good at this living stuff, are we? Yet we have the audacity to make plans and think we’re in control. That illusion is the source of so much of Westlake’s humor. Everything is always going wrong, and that in and of itself is funny, if you look at it the right way. As he put it in his piece on Stephen Frears, “If we aren’t going to enjoy ourselves, why do it?” He really seems to have written, and lived, with that motto in mind.

Q: The most delightful surprise in the book is the chapter on the Goon Show, the British radio comedy hit that was the precursor to the Pythons and Beyond the Fringe.

LS: Wasn’t that unexpected? Westlake was a comic writer, obviously, but like you I was still surprised to find him writing about the show, and weaving his appreciation of it into a short autobiographical essay. I’d thought a lot about his genre forebears and influences, but I’d never given the same thought to the influences on his comedy.

Q: What did you find that surprised you?


LS: For me the biggest surprise was more structural: I knew that Westlake had written for Hollywood, but it wasn’t until I was going through his files that I realized what a big part of his work, and income, it was. Even as he was writing 100 books, he was also turning out screenplays, and treatments, and pilots, and rewrites, most of which never made it to the screen. That was a big reason why I wanted to include the two interviews that focused on film, and the piece on Stephen Frears: it’s a side of Westlake that I think even those of us who are big fans don’t necessarily know about. (My only regret with the book, meanwhile, is that I couldn’t find a way to work in even a single reference to Supertrain!)

Q: What were Westlake’s experiences with Hollywood like? Several of his books were made into movies, some of them good—The Hot Rock, Point Blank. I didn’t know it at the time but I first remember seeing his name in the credits for The Grifters and a very good, creepy movie, The Stepfather.

LS: He worked hard with Hollywood and drew a substantial part of his income from there throughout his life. But he always seems to have held it at arm’s length. You get the feeling that the loss of control and independence that working with Hollywood, even in the relatively isolated role of screenwriter, required sat awkwardly with Westlake’s lifelong iconoclastic, individualistic, rebellious streak. There’s a reason that he didn’t like, and didn’t stick in, the Air Force; that same reason seems likely to be why Hollywood never truly seduced him.

Q: In a letter, Westlake described the difference between an author and a writer. A writer was a hack, a professional. There’s something appealing and unpretentious about this but does it take on a romance of its own? I’m not saying he was being a phony but do you think that difference between a writer and an author is that great?

LS: I suspect that it’s not, and that to some extent even Westlake himself would have disagreed with his younger self by the end of his life. I think the key distinction for him, before which all others pale, was what your goal was: Were you sitting down every day to make a living with your pen? Or were you, as he put it ironically in a letter to a friend who was creating an MFA program, “enhanc[ing] your leisure hours by refining the uniqueness of your storytelling talents”? If the former, you’re a writer, full stop. If the latter, then you probably have different goals from Westlake and his fellow hacks.

But does a true hack veer off course regularly to try something new? Does a hack limit himself to only writing about his meal ticket (John Dortmunder) every three books, max, in order not to burn him out? Does a hack, as Westlake put it in a late letter to his friend and former agent Henry Morrison, “follow what interests [him],” to the likely detriment of his career? Westlake was always a commercial writer, but at the same time, he never let commerce define him. Craft defined him, and while craft can be employed in the service of something a writer doesn’t care about at all, it is much easier to call up and deploy effectively if the work it’s being applied to has also engaged something deeper in the writer. You don’t write a hundred books with almost no lousy sentences if you’re truly a hack.

Q: I loved the piece that Westlake’s wife wrote about his working habits.


LS: Isn’t it great? In her tongue-in-cheek, yet insightful essay “Living with a Mystery Writer,” Abby Adams Westlake talks about the differences she would see in her late husband depending on which of his many personas he was writing as. In discussing his Timothy J. Culver pen name, she describes his writing set-up:

“His desk is as organized as a professional carpenter’s workshop. No matter where it is, it must be set up according to the same unbending pattern. Two typewriters (Smith Corona Silent-Super manual) sit on the desk with a lamp and a telephone and a radio, and a number of black ball-point pens for corrections (seldom needed!). On a shelf just above the desk, five manuscript boxes hold three kinds of paper (white bond first sheets, white second sheets and yellow work sheets) plus originals and carbon of whatever he’s currently working on. (Frequently one of these boxes also holds a sleeping cat.) Also on this shelf are reference books (ThesaurusBartlett’s1000 Names for Baby, etc.) and cups containing small necessities such as tape, rubber bands (I don’t know what he uses them for) and paper clips. Above this shelf is a bulletin board displaying various things that Timothy Culver likes to look at when he’s trying to think of the next sentence. Currently, among others, there are: a newspaper photo showing Nelson Rockefeller giving someone the finger; two post cards from the Louvre, one obscene; a photo of me in our garden in Hope, New Jersey; a Christmas card from his Los Angeles divorce attorney showing himself and his wife in their Bicentennial costumes; and a small hand-lettered sign that says ‘weird villain.’ This last is an invariable part of his desk bulletin board: ‘weird’ and ‘villain’ are the two words he most frequently misspells. There used to be a third—’liaison’—but since I taught him how to pronounce it (not lay-ee-son but lee-ay-son) he no longer has trouble with it.”

In an interview conducted by Albert Nussbaum, Westlake went into a bit more detail about his approach:

“If I work every day from the beginning of a book till the end, my production rate is probably three to five thousand words a day–unless I hit a snag, which can throw me off for a week or two. But if I work every day I don’t do anything else, because everything else involves alcohol; and I don’t try to work with any drink in me, so in the last few years I’ve tended to work four or five days a week. But that louses up the production two ways; first in the days I don’t work, and second, because I do almost nothing the first day back on the job. This week, for instance, I did one or two pages monday, five pages Tuesday, five Wednesday, fourteen Thursday, and three so far today.” He went on to say that he used to complain to his second wife, “I’m sick of working one day in a row!”

Q: Craft was central for Westlake. In some ways, his Parker books are an appreciation of craftsmanship, aren’t they?


LS: When I first started reading the Parker books, what struck me was that they were essentially books about work. In the first one I read, Ask the Parrot, Parker sets up a hidey-hole in an empty house, carefully sawing off some screws in the wood that’s boarding it up so that he can get in and out easily without being detected. The activity is described in detail, and I’m pretty sure Parker doesn’t ever end up needing the hideout. But it was part of doing the job (in this case, the job of staying alive after a failed heist), so Westlake included it. (I wrote a bit about the Parker novels as books about work on my blog way back in December of 2007.)

Luc Sante, in his foreword for some of Chicago’s Parker editions, put the same point this way:

“Westlake has said that he meant the books to be about ‘a workman at work,’ which they are, and that is why the have so few useful parallels, why they are virtually a genre unto themselves. Process and mechanics and troubleshooting dominate the books, determine their plots, underlie their aesthetics and their moral structure. . . . Parker abhors waste, sloth, frivolity, inconstancy, double-dealing, and reckless endangerment as much as any Puritan. He hates dishonesty with a passion, although you and he may differ on its terms. He is a craftsman who takes pride in his work.”

There’s a passing line in The Man with the Getaway Face that has stayed in my head for seven years now: “When the mechanic came in at seven o’clock, he looked at the truck in disgust. He got interested, though, being a professional, and worked on it till nine-thirty.” That’s what a professional, a craftsman, is: a person who actually cares about, and becomes deeply engaged with working his best at, the job at hand.

[Photo Credit: Pictures of Westlake via Omnivoracious and Grantland; Drawing by Darwyn Cooke]

There’s Nothing More Loathsome Than Making a Film

From the funtastic new book, The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, check out this short essay Westlake wrote about working with Stephen Frears.×

Westlake wrote a screenplay based on Jim Thompson’s The Grifters for Stephen Frears’s acclaimed 1990 film adaptation, which ended up receiving four Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Screenplay. This essay was published in Writers on Directors in 1999.

Here are two things Stephen Frears said to me. The first was several months before The Grifters was made and, in fact, before either of us had signed on to do the project. We had just recently met, brought together by the production company that had sent us to California to look at the place. Driving back from La Jolla toward L.A., me at the wheel of the rented car, Stephen in the seat beside me musing on life, he broke a longish silence to say, “You know, there’s nothing more loathsome than actually making a film, and it’s beginning to look as though I’ll have to make this one.” The second was the night of the same film’s New York premiere, at the post-opening party, when he leaned close to me in the noisy room and murmured, “Well we got away with it.”

I think what attracted me to Stephen in the first place is that, in a world of manic enthusiasm, here at last I’d met a fellow pessimist. Someone who would surely agree with Damon Runyon’s assessment: “All of life is six to five against.”

Not that he’s a defeatist, far from it. For instance, he refused to let me turn down the job of writing The Grifters, a thing that never happens. The normal sequence is, a writer is offered a job, thinks it over, says yea or nay, and that’s that. Having been offered this job, I read Jim Thompson’s novel—or reread, from years before—decided it was too grim, and said nay. That should have been the end of it, but the next thing I knew, Frears was on the phone from France, some Englishman I’d never met in my life, plaintively saying, “Why don’t you want to make my film?” I told him my reasons. He told me I was wrong, and proceeded to prove it—”It’s Lilly’s story, not Roy’s,” was his insight, not mine—and I finally agreed to a meeting in New York, which was the beginning of the most thoroughly enjoyable experience I’ve ever had in the world of movies.

Here’s another thing Stephen said to me: “I like the writer on the set.” This is not common among directors, and I wasn’t at all sure what it meant. Did he want a whipping boy? Someone to hide behind? Someone to blame? (You can see that I too am not a manic enthusiast.)

Anyway, no. As it turned out, what he wanted was a collaborator, and what we did was a collaboration. I didn’t direct and he didn’t write, and between us both we licked the platter clean.

I am not a proponent of the auteur theory. I think it comes out of a basic misunderstanding of the functions of creative versus interpretive arts. But I do believe that on the set and in the postproduction process the director is the captain of the ship. Authority has to reside in one person, and that should most sensibly be the director. So my rare disagreements with Stephen were in private, and we discussed them off-set as equals, and whichever of us prevailed—it was pretty even—the other one shrugged and got on with it.

The result has much of Jim Thompson in it, of course. It has much in it of the talents of its wonderful cast and designer. It has some of me in it. But the look of it, the feel of it, the smell of it, the three-inches-off-the-ground quality of it; that’s Stephen.

If we aren’t going to enjoy ourselves, why do it? Stephen’s right, much of the filmmaking is loathsome. Pleasure and satisfaction have to come from the work itself and from one’s companions on the journey. The Grifters was for me that rarity; everyone in the boat rowing in the same direction. I hadn’t had that much fun on the job since I was nineteen, in college, and had a part-time job on a beer truck with a guy named Luke.

The Getaway Car is on sale now.

[Copyright Donald E. Westlake. Reprinted with permission from The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, published by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.]

The Banter Gold Standard: Parker

Here’s our pal Luc Sante on Richard Stark’s Parker. Stark, aka, Donald Westlake, was recently profiled by Michael Weinreb over at Grantland.

Luc’s piece is featured in several of the Parker books recently re-issued by the University of Chicago Press. If you’ve never read the Parker series, you’re in for a treat.


By Luc Sante

The Parker novels by Richard Stark are a singularly long-lasting literary franchise, established in 1962 and pursued to the present, albeit with a 23-year hiatus in the middle. In other ways, too, they are a unique proposition. When I read my first Parker novel–picked up at random, and in French translation, no less–I was a teenager, and hadn’t read much crime fiction beyond Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. I was stunned by the book, by its power and economy and the fact that it blithely dispensed with moral judgment, and of course I wanted more. Not only did I want more Parker and more Stark, I also imagined that I had stumbled upon a particularly brilliant specimen of a thriving genre. But I was wrong. There is no such genre.

To be sure, there are plenty of tight, harsh crime novels, beginning with Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, and there is a substantial body of books written from the point of view of the criminal, ranging from the tortured cries of Jim Thompson and David Goodis to the mordantly analytical romans durs by Georges Simenon. There are quite a few caper novels, including the comic misadventures Parker’s creator writes under his real name, Donald Westlake, and the works of a whole troop of French writers not well known in this country: José Giovanni, Albert Simonin, San-Antonio. The lean, efficient Giovanni in particular has points in common with Stark (anglophones can best approach him through movie adaptations: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le deuxième souffle, Claude Sautet’s Classe tous risques), but with the key difference that he is an unabashed romantic.

Stark is not a romantic, or at least not within the first six feet down from the surface. Westlake has said that he meant the books to be about “a workman at work,” which they are, and that is why they have so few useful parallels, why they are virtually a genre unto themselves. Process and mechanics and trouble-shooting dominate the books, determine their plots, underlie their aesthetics and their moral structure. A great many of the editions down through the years have prominently featured a blurb from Anthony Boucher: “Nobody tops Stark in his objective portrayal of a world of total amorality.” That is true as far as it goes–it is never suggested in the novels that robbing payrolls or shooting people who present liabilities are anything more than business practices–but Boucher overlooked the fact that Parker maintains his own very lively set of moral prerogatives. Parker abhors waste, sloth, frivolity, inconstancy, double-dealing, and reckless endangerment as much as any Puritan. He hates dishonesty with a passion, although you and he may differ on its terms. He is a craftsman who takes pride in his work.

Parker is in fact a bit like the ideal author of a crime-fiction series: solid, dependable, attentive to every nuance and detail. He is annoyed by small talk and gets straight to the point in every instance, using no more than the necessary number of words to achieve his aim. He eschews short cuts, although he can make difficult processes look easy, and he is free of any trace of sentiment, although he knows that while planning and method and structure are crucial, character is even more important. As brilliant as he is as a strategist, he is nothing short of phenomenal at instantly grasping character. This means that he sometimes sounds more like a fictional detective than a crook, but mostly he sounds like a writer. In order to decide which path the double-crosser he is pursuing is most likely to have taken, or which member of the string is most likely to double-cross, or the odds on a reasonable-sounding job that has just been proposed to him by someone with shaky credentials, he has to get all the way into the skin of the party in question. He is an exceptionally intelligent freelancer in a risky profession who takes on difficult jobs hoping for a payoff large enough to hold off the next job for as long as possible. He even has an agent (Joe Sheer succeeded by Handy McKay). Then again he is seen–by other characters as well as readers–as lacking in emotion, let alone sympathy, a thug whose sole motivation is self-interest.

And no wonder: Parker is a big, tough man with cold eyes. “His hands looked like they’d been molded of brown clay by a sculptor who thought big and liked veins”; the sentence appears like a Homeric epithet somewhere in an early chapter of most of the books. He might just possibly pass for a businessman, provided the business is something like used cars or jukeboxes. He doesn’t drink much, doesn’t gamble, doesn’t read, likes to sit in the dark, thinking, or else in front of the television, not watching but employing it as an aid to concentration. Crude and antisocial at the start of the series, he actually evolves considerably over its course. Claire, whom he meets in The Rare Coin Score, seems to have a lot to do with this–by Deadly Edge they actually have a house together. And Alan Grofield, first encountered in The Score and recurring in The Handle, among other titles, twice in the series becomes the recipient of what can only be called acts of kindness from Parker, however much Stark equivocates on this point, insisting that they merely reflect professional ethics or some such.

Parker is a sort of super-criminal–not at all like those European master criminals, such as Fantômas and Dr. Mabuse, but a very American freebooter, able to outmaneuver the Mob, the CIA, and whatever other forces come at him. For all that he lives on the other side of the law, he bears a certain resemblance to popular avengers of the 1960s and ‘70s, Dirty Harry or Charles Bronson’s character in Death Wish. He is a bit of a fanatic, and even though we are repeatedly told how sybaritic his off-duty resort-hotel lifestyle is, it remains hard to picture, since he is such an ascetic in the course of the stories. He is so utterly consumed by the requirements of his profession that everything extraneous to it is suppressed when he’s on, and we are not privy to his time off, except for narrow vignettes in which he is glimpsed having sex or, once, swimming. But then, writers are writing even when they’re not writing, aren’t they?

After The Hunter, all the remaining titles concern jobs gone wrong, which seems to account for most of Parker’s jobs, barring the occasional fleeting allusion to smoother operations in the past. The Seventh is, naturally, the seventh book in the series, as well as a reference to the split from the take in a stadium job. The actual operation is successful; the problem is what occurs afterward. It represents the very rare incursion, for the Parker series, of a thriller staple: the crazed gunman. Along with The Rare Coin Score, it is one of Stark’s always very pointed explorations of group dynamics. The Handle, with its private gambling island, ex-Nazi villain, and international intrigue, is (like The Mourner and The Black Ice Score) a nod to the espionage craze of the 1960s, when authors of thrillers could not afford to ignore James Bond. If The Seventh is primarily aftermath, The Handle is largely preamble. In The Rare Coin Score (the first of four such titles, succeeded by Green Eagle, Black Ice, and Sour Lemon) the culprit is an amateur, a coin dealer whose arrested development is so convincingly depicted the reader can virtually hear his voice squeak. Sharp characterizations abound in this one–its plot turns entirely on character flaws of various sizes.

The Parker books are all engines, machines that start up with varying levels of difficulty, then run through a process until they are done, although subject to different sorts of interference. The heists depicted are only part of this process–sometimes they are even peripheral to it. Parker is the mechanic who runs the machine and attempts to keep it oiled and on course. The interference is always caused by personalities–by the greed, incompetence, treachery, duplicity, or insanity of various individuals concerned, although this plays out in a variety of ways, depending on whether it affects the job at beginning, middle, or end, and whether it occurs as a single dramatic action, a domino sequence of contingencies, or a gradually fraying rope. The beauty of the machine is that not only is suspense as effective as it usually is, but its opposite is, too: the satisfaction of inevitability. Some Parker novels are fantastically intricate clockwork mechanisms (The Hunter, The Outfit, the seemingly unstoppable Slayground, the epic Butcher’s Moon), while others hurtle along as successions of breakdowns (the aptly acidic The Sour Lemon Score, the almost sadistically frustrating Plunder Squad).

Like all machines but unlike lesser thrillers the novels have numerous moving parts, and the more the better–more people, more subplots, more businesslike detail, more vignetted glimpses of marginal lives. Stark’s momentum is such that the more matter he throws into the hopper the faster the gears turn. The books are machines that all but read themselves. You can consume the entire series and not once have to invest in a bookmark.

Men at Work

Check out Michael Weinreb’s appreciation of Donald Westlake over at Grantland:

Westlake admired Hammett’s laconic ability to tell a story without delving into sentimentality; he never liked Chandler and some of the others much at all, and while he published some private-eye novels under a pseudonym, he also recognized the shortcomings of the form. In 1960, he wrote his first novel under his own name, The Mercenaries. He was young and voracious, and he produced so much that he required multiple pen names to keep up with his output: In 1961 alone, he published nine books under three different names.10 And then one day around that time, Westlake went to visit a friend in New Jersey and took the wrong bus home and wound up on the wrong side of the George Washington Bridge. He trudged across the bridge, and the wind and the tension of the bridge inspired in him the idea of a character whose “speed and solidity and tension matched that of the bridge” itself. He thought of a man who looked a little like Jack Palance, a man seething with anger, a man who, when offered a ride by a Samaritan while walking across the bridge, tells him — “for reasons none of us have been able to figure out,” Block says — to go to hell. This was the catalyst, and this became the opening scene of the first Parker novel, The Hunter.

One evening Block traveled to Westlake’s apartment in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn and read the first chapter. Block asked if he knew where it was going; Westlake assured him he’d figure it out. It was how he worked on most everything: He called it the “narrative-push” method, in which one chapter leads to the inspiration for the next, and nothing is outlined. In his first draft of The Hunter, Westlake landed Parker in prison at the end, because, in the early 1960s, that seemed the natural denouement for such a remorseless persona; his paperback editor at Pocket Books, Bucklin Moon, found it compelling enough that he asked Westlake if he could devise a way to more easily position Parker for a follow-up. Westlake obliged. The Hunter was published in 1962, and the following year, Westlake published three more Parker books. In the sequel, The Man With the Getaway Face, Parker visits a plastic surgeon who alters his appearance, and then he robs an armored car; in The Outfit, Parker schemes against the mafia; in The Mourner, Parker attempts to abscond with a 15th-century statue and slugs an asthmatic hoodlum in the process; in The Score, Parker and a band of professionals manage to rob an entire small town over the course of an evening.11

More than anything, Westlake once said, these are books about a man at work. Parker is strangely puritanical, in that he does not permit himself to even think about sex until a job is complete. During a holdup, he learns the first names of the people he’s holding at gunpoint, in order to soothe their egos. Parker and his catalogue of partners carry their twisted Protestant work ethic from job to job: It is fascinating how much of the text focuses on the process of criminality, on scenes of men sitting around a table in front of blueprints, on the notion of preparing for the worst and then accepting that things might go off in unexpected directions regardless of how much you plan for them. There are double-crosses and betrayals and outright failures, and the world is indifferent to all of this suffering, but Parker soldiers onward. And I imagine all of this has at least a little to do with the way the author felt when he sat down at his typewriter every morning.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver