THE END OF RICHARD STARK (Monthly Book Report: 2/17)

Last month’s reviewable reading consisted entirely of the final three novels in “Richard Stark’s” Parker series. He’s the crit-illuminati‘s favorite psychopath (Parker, not Stark), but don’t let that deter you. The final books, like the rest of the series, make for compulsive reading and–unlike most psycho-lit–say not a little about this “modern” world we’ve made.

Nobody Runs Forever (2004), Ask the Parrot (2006) and Dirty Money (2008) Richard Stark

Richard Stark was one of several noms de plume adopted by pulp genius Donald Westlake. Under his own name, Westlake wrote mostly comic caper novels, a sub-genre he defined for the ages (I especially recommend his Dortmunder series, but they’re all good). Occasionally, he went darker, but the Stark persona–especially the twenty-four novels, published between 1962 and 2008, featuring a man known only as Parker–was the main outlet for Westlake’s blackest pitch.

To grasp the unlikelihood of man having written the Dortmunder series and the Parker series you need to imagine that P.G. Wodehouse and Jim Thompson were the same guy. Only if P.G. Wodehouse had wicked plotting skills and Jim Thomson were bleaker.

To review any single volume in the Parker series would require a re-read of the entire set (something I might be amenable in the future if there’s world enough and time). Even then, it might be an exercise in futility. The Parker novels are engines of pure momentum: the darkest pulp energy reduced to the purest elements of speed, efficiency and insularity in a world that looks just enough like the real one to keep the reader from resting on any ideas he might be harboring about pure escapism.

This being the case, I’ll stick to generalizing for now.

For starters, these last three books (Westlake passed away in 2008, by all accounts, and some sort of miracle, as sane as any other clown in our parade) are up to the rest of the series. There’s a baseline–quite high, and not just for pulp–below which the Parker books never fall. These last three are probably somewhere in the middle. Well above the baseline, not quite up to the series’ highest points.

The key to Westlake (writing as Stark, himself, or anyone else) is scalpel like skill with both language (syntax, description, action) and plotting (swift, sure, complex). You read even one or two of his books, and that becomes a clear given.

The key to Parker is that Westlake makes no attempt whatever to “explain” him. He just is. You sail through 24 books, waiting for him to break character and demonstrate some human trait beyond will to power and the survival instinct. Now that I’ve finished the series (caveat below) I can say with complete confidence that the wait is in vain.

And it’s that quality which will keep the character relevant to modern life for as along as it takes Paradise to arrive.

To wit, from Ask the Parrot:

They walked around the building, and there was really nothing at all anymore to say what it had originally been, no platforms, no railbed, no rotting luggage carts. The place might have started, long before, as a temple in the jungle.

If the Parker series had/has a message it’s just this: In a moral landscape that is rapidly reverting to the jungle from which it took thousands of years to emerge, a man like Parker, who operates best as a killing machine, incapable of remorse or reflection, will be king.

Highly recommended for those who enjoy pondering Black Holes.

(An aside: I’m finishing the series now because, back in 2008-2011, the University of Chicago Press put out most of the series in a nice set of uniform paperbacks. They released them three at a time, every few months and I hoovered them up as they came out, thinking I would end up with a uniform and complete set. To my surprise and no small disappointment (I wait years for publishers to put out “complete” sets of authors, series, etc., because there’s a nice, satisfying, civilized feeling to complete sets–you can look at them on your shelf sometimes and almost believe the world isn’t really falling apart), they did not publish the last four. So in January, I finally bit the bullet and ordered these last three in hardback from another publisher. Naturally, the U. of Chicago Press has just announced that they will be releasing the final Parker books in August, 2017. Of course they are. And I forgot that they stopped four books short of the finale, not three, so I accidentally skipped book #21 and will have to read it out of order. Of course I will!)


Honestly, I wasn’t a big fan of his crime writing.

Too much of the Cain/Thompson/Ellroy school in his approach I’m afraid.

I’ve never really been interested in the quandary of an amoral man walking through an amoral universe. And, if the writer starts pretending his amoral man isn’t really amoral–Leonard’s more usual approach–so much the worse.

So what he was best known for always left me a touch cold. I never completely warmed to it even though his prose was every bit as swift and effective as his legion of admirers profess and his source story for Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown was evidently strong enough to impose narrative discipline even in the desolate space between that wunderkind’s ears (with a very good movie resulting for once).


If there often seemed to be just a little more to Leonard than to Cain or Thompson (who really were pretty close to being nihilists and that “pretty close,” especially in Thompson’s case, may be kind) or to noise machines like Ellroy who came along afterwards, then it was probably attributable to his background in westerns, where he did some genuinely fine things.

Some of those fine things got made into even finer things when the movies got hold of them. I’d point particularly to Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T and Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma, the former one of the great westerns of the form’s golden age, the latter one of the greatest films ever made irrespective of era or genre. Even in such capable hands, it’s not likely either would have been quite as good without the cant-free strengths of their common source.

Once Leonard broke free of the moral constraints imposed by audience expectations in the last age of the pulp western’s cultural ascendance, however, he was basically on his own, bereft of even the most basic sorting devices. That’s a place no writer should ever be and he didn’t respond any better than anybody had a right to expect.

No, he didn’t turn into a genuine bomb-thrower. He wasn’t James Ellroy, forever calling for a police state and using his own novels as the evidence for how badly we need one. Nothing like that.

He just kind of drifted. You know, morally speaking. He got his ethics from his professionalism–the safe ground that isn’t safe at all.

The end result was that his prose got better and better…and covered less and less.

In his latter days, he was responsible, albeit indirectly, for Justified, which is one of those takes on southern white trash that makes it possible, for just a moment, for southern whites to get a small taste of what black people must feel when yet another Hollywood version of ghetto life springs forth.

In other words, he wasn’t entirely harmless just because he had emptied himself out.

I mention this because it was easy to be fooled. Appearances could be deceiving.

By the time he passed away today, he was, image-wise at least, a rather gentle curmudgeon, forever offering up writing tips to people who thought he was a stone cold genius. I give him enormous credit for never giving the appearance of believing the hype himself, or pretending to be anything but the solid, ethical pro he was. And I won’t worry too much about the rest. He wasn’t the sort of writer who can hurt us too much from the beyond. And if there’s anything that needs to be sorted out between him and the universe, then it’s nothing to do with me.

I will say that the chance he might have turned into a better version of Larry McMurtry (not saying the actual version is less than very good) will always be an intriguing one.

But that chance got lost along the way. It was gone a long time before “Dutch” went on to face whatever state of judgment or oblivion is really waiting.

So I’ll celebrate the best of what he did do, which was basically writing a thick volume of very good western stories and inspiring a raft of good-to-great movies.

Hombre, Out of Sight, Valdez is Coming, Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, The Tall T, 3:10 to Yuma.

The Complete Western Stories.

That’s a worthy legacy for any writer. Especially for one who lost his way and kept being assured otherwise.

Usually by people I’ll always prefer to believe he was too smart to trust.