Sunday, October 28, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

Point Blank

Richard Stark, 1962

“Richard Stark” is a pseudonym of the prolific Donald E. Westlake, and whichever name he writes under, he’s worth reading. For me, though, the twenty or so Stark novels, of which Point Blank is the first, are the best of the bunch.

The protagonist of the stories is Parker (he doesn’t have a first name, which would be an unnecessary frivolity). He’s a career criminal who defines “amoral”: he murders, robs, extorts as the need takes him. His job is crime, and he’s a thorough professional. The people he works with are not always so proficient, and his heists usually come unstuck at some point, often when members of the gang try to double-cross each other.

Creating sympathy for such an anti-hero is a difficult business, but Stark’s technical mastery pulls it off. The cool narrative tone doesn’t give us anything in the way of interior monologue: when we see Parker thinking, it’s about the practicalities of his heist, so the reader too is sucked in at that level. We are not invited to judge Parker, just to watch him—and we come to respect someone who’s very good at what he does. And he is amoral rather than immoral: he doesn’t kill for kicks, only when it’s “necessary” (i.e. to help him get what he wants). When we see the police, which is rarely, they are invariably buffoons, corrupt, or both. There is no-one to root for but Parker.

The Parker books are very much in a line of descent from the hard-boiled mid-century writers like Chandler and Hammett to the bleak nightmares of Ellroy, but there are other philosophical considerations at work. When reading Stark, I’m also reminded of books like Camus’ L’Etranger¸ another story in which killer is adrift in a world without morality. It might be excessive to describe Stark as an existentialist, but there seems to me little doubt that existentialist fiction has been an influence on his work.

One last observation: the Parker novels are short (normally around 200 pages). There are no frills at all. The grim practicality of Parker’s existence is reflected in the utilitarianism of Stark’s prose. It’s a perfect match.

How has it influenced me?

Stark is quite a recent discovery for me, so he’s not a writer who influenced my formative years. His example in showing how to pull off the anti-hero trick was an inspiration for The Dog of the North, however. One of the ways I try to make Beauceron sympathetic despite his career as brigand and kidnapper is to ensure that he’s very good at what he does, and to show that the people around him are no better, and in some cases rather worse. Both are lessons I learned from Stark.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Nice guys don’t always make the best protagonists

You can write satisfying stories in which crime pays

Choosing a narrative voice which supports the protagonist’s character is essential

You can get away with telling the reader almost nothing about your protagonist’s inner life


David Isaak said...

You're absolutely right about the narrative voice--which may explain why the various films based on the Parker novels never seem to work very well. They need Westlake.

Tim Stretton said...

I've never seen any of the universally panned films. Several sources cite Reservoir Dogs as Stark-influenced--but while I love that film, it's essentially a black comedy, with none of the bleakness at the heart of Parker.

Swainson said...

I know it's an old post, but hey.

I've read most of the Parker books and what I found I like is the absurdity of the situations that develop. There seems to me to be a fairly morbid humour running through the novels that take them away from being too 'Stark'

Please excuse my awful pun, I couldn't resist!

Tim Stretton said...

Thanks for your post, Swainson.

Stark doesn't do jokes, but I agree there is plenty of dark humour arising from the ill-assorted associates Parker finds himself working with. Because Parker doesn't have a sense of humour, the situations aren't presented as funny--but nonetheless the undercurrent is there.

In some of the novels Stark also uses Grofield as explicit comic relief (and I believe he wrote a handful of Grofield novels although I haven't read them).

Swainson said...

Sorry I forgot to comment that I thought the John Boorman's version of Point Blank was spot on. Lee Marvin as Parker was Perfect, with a capital P.

The last Stark book I read was called 'Ask the Parrott'. There's a joke in that itself.

On another note, I can walk into a bookshop and go to the sfi/fantasy section and say to myself, "Got it, don't want it".

I'm looking forward to reading a new author.

Sale one!!

Tim Stretton said...

I've never seen a film of any Parker book. It would be a real challenge, since so much of the meat is in the tone. I can imagine Lee Marvin in the role, though.

Hope you enjoy the book when it comes out!


Swainson said...

I was out the other day raving about Richard Stark, aka Donald Westlake, and was told he had died.

It was one of those "No, it can't be" moments.

He had been writing more Parker novels, which I have been making my way through, and sadly no more.

Tim Stretton said...

Very sad news. At 75 he was still knocking out good stuff, so a real untimely death.

Reading Westlake in his different guises was a real illustration of the craft of writing. A professional in the best sense.