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.