Thursday, January 01, 2009

Stark Views: The Violent World of Donald Westlake

After two roars from the MGM lion, we cut to tough guy Parker (Jim Brown) kicking open the door to his girlfriend Ellie’s apartment. He charges inside, searches the place, and finds Ellie (Diahann Carroll) sitting up in bed, dead, skewered to the headboard with a sword -- "stuck there like a scarecrow put away for the winter." Checking the closet, Parker discovers that the money from the stadium heist is missing, and then -- "Whoa, wait a minute!" some of you are yelling now, "I saw THE SPLIT and it didn’t start like that! And who the hell is this Parker guy?! Jim played McClain in that movie!" Yeah, yeah, I know -- but if the producers of THE SPLIT had been interested in making a great caper movie instead of just a mediocre action flick that wastes a once-in-a-lifetime cast, they would’ve stuck closer to their source material: The Seventh, a fast-paced, ingeniously plotted crime novel written by the late Donald E. Westlake, under his "Richard Stark" pseudonym. Published in 1966 as a 158-page paperback from Pocket Books, The Seventh tells the story of seven crooks who rob a stadium during a college football inter-conference game, and the violent complications that erupt before the take is divided. The title refers not only to the one-seventh share of the loot that each crook is due to receive, but also to the fact that this was the seventh novel written by Westlake under the Stark alias.

"Stark" is right. During their peak in the late 60s and early 70s, these cold, hard, stripped-down books were extremely popular in prison libraries across the country, due to the fact that the main characters are killers and thieves who always get away in the end. Twenty-four of the twenty-eight books are about ruthless criminal Parker -- possibly the toughest tough guy in the history of crime fiction --while other novels shine the spotlight on his frequent partner in crime, Alan Grofield, a wisecracking stage actor who commits armed robberies to support the community theatre he owns in Indiana. Parker is a professional crook -- "Banks, payrolls, armored cars, jewelers, anyplace that’s worth the risk" -- and his adventures focus on the elaborate heists in which he participates, as well as the inevitable carnage that follows, with a few exceptions: The Jugger, a strange mystery set in a small town in Nebraska, brilliantly pays homage to Jim Thompson’s "crazy sheriff" stories (The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280), while The Handle is surely to blame for all those mind-numbing men's action paperbacks that Pinnacle started mass-producing two or three years later. In Butcher’s Moon, Westlake tips his hat to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest by dropping Parker and Grofield into the middle of a complicated plot involving gangsters and corrupt politicians. Grofield’s first three solo ventures (The Damsel, The Dame, and The Blackbird) are clumsy, lightweight affairs that turn the fourth book, the downbeat and nasty Lemons Never Lie, into a sucker punch.

In 1973, Berkley Medallion Books reissued most of the Parker novels as a numbered adventure series, "The Violent World of Parker," in an attempt to cash in on Pinnacle’s popular Destroyer and Executioner series (the Coffin Ed and Gravedigger mysteries by Chester Himes underwent a similar facelift around the same time). Titles were changed -- The Score became Killtown, for example -- but Berkley screwed up the whole thing by assigning the wrong number to almost every book in the series! For maximum enjoyment, the Stark books should be read in a certain order (see list below), since characters from earlier stories return, and previous adventures are frequently referred to and sometimes even continued. Bett Harrow, the woman who sets up Parker for blackmail in The Outfit, is dealt with in the following book, The Mourner. The Damsel opens with Grofield still recovering from the gunshot wounds he received in The Handle. Parker spends half of Plunder Squad on the hunt for George Uhl, the double-crossing lunatic who fouled up a bank heist split in The Sour Lemon Score, and at least half of Firebreak tracking down a trio of losers, also from The Sour Lemon Score, who put a contract out on his life. In Butcher’s Moon, Parker and Grofield return to the Fun Island amusement park to retrieve the $73,000 that Parker stashed at the end of Slayground. The last three books (Nobody Runs Forever, Ask the Parrot, Dirty Money) form a trilogy focusing on Parker’s robbery of armored trucks during a bank merger, and the problems evading law enforcement and moving the stolen cash.

Westlake was the mad scientist of crime fiction for nearly half a century and the Stark books showcase some of his more daring experiments with style and structure. The Blackbird and Slayground both open with the same botched armored car robbery, told from two different points of view: Grofield’s in The Blackbird, Parker’s in Slayground. The two books share the same opening chapter, but go off in completely different directions; Grofield is captured by the police, then recruited by the CIA (!) and sent to Quebec on a silly James Bond-type adventure with a beautiful secret agent from Africa (the "blackbird" of the title); Parker, who gets away with the loot, ends up tangling with mobsters and bad cops in a shuttered amusement park only one block away from the scene of the robbery! Even more bizarre is the jaw-dropping plot twist in Plunder Squad that sends Parker wandering into chapter eighteen of Dead Skip, the first DKA File mystery by Joe "Hammett" Gores. And then there’s Jimmy the Kid, the third installment in Westlake’s hilarious Dortmunder series (following The Hot Rock and Bank Shot), which has its hapless crooks using the nonexistent Stark novel Child Heist as the blueprint for their own bungled kidnapping attempt.

Big screen adaptations of Stark’s novels range from mediocre to excruciating. The superb POINT BLANK (1967) is an exception but departs from its source material (The Hunter) early on, while others are more faithful but not very strong as movies (PAYBACK). Westlake himself wrote several drafts of a screenplay for The Score from 1964-65, for a project that was to be directed by Ed Spiegel and produced by Max J. Rosenberg. He didn't allow other writers to use the name "Parker," so Lee Marvin is Walker in POINT BLANK, Michel Constantin is Georges in MISE EN SAC (a.k.a. PILLAGED, based on The Score) (1967), Jim Brown is McClain in THE SPLIT (1968), Robert Duvall is Macklin in THE OUTFIT (1974), Peter Coyote is Stone in SLAYGROUND, and Mel Gibson is Porter in a second version of The Hunter, PAYBACK (1999), as well as director Brian Helgeland's revised cut, PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP (2007). For Jean-Luc Godard’s MADE IN U.S.A. (1966), Parker became pretty Anna Karina as journalist Paula Nelson, in a political thriller bearing little resemblance to its credited source, The Jugger (though Westlake won a lawsuit against the film’s producer when he wasn’t paid for use of his novel).

The Novels of Violence by Richard Stark

The Hunter (a.k.a. Point Blank! - 1962) ***
The Man with the Getaway Face (a.k.a. The Steel Hit - 1963) ***½
The Outfit (1963) **½
The Mourner (1963) **½
The Score (a.k.a. Killtown - 1964) ***½
The Jugger (a.k.a. Made in U.S.A. - 1965) ****
The Seventh (a.k.a. The Split - 1966) ****
The Handle (a.k.a. Run Lethal - 1966) **½
The Damsel (1967) *
The Rare Coin Score (1967) ***
The Green Eagle Score (1968) ***
The Dame (1969) **
The Black Ice Score (1968) **½
The Sour Lemon Score (1969) ****
Deadly Edge (1971) ***½
The Blackbird (1969) **
Slayground (1971) ****
Lemons Never Lie (1971) ***
Plunder Squad (1972) ***
Butcher’s Moon (1974) ****
Comeback (1997) ****
Backflash (1998) ****
Flashfire (2000) ***½
Firebreak (2001) ****
Breakout (2002) ***½
Nobody Runs Forever (2004) ****
Ask the Parrot (2006) ****
Dirty Money (2008) ***

(This is a revision of an article that originally appeared in BadAzz MoFo #4, April 1999, p. 70)

1 comment:

John Ninnis said...

I never read the Parker books but enjoyed watching John Boorman's classic Point Blank which Lee Marvin gives a deadly performance. I got Slayground (1983) great performance from Peter Coyote but the film's script is very obscure but it outcoming bring a dark atmosphere especially the Blackpool fairground scenes.

Payback is a guilty pleasure for me even though it a remake from the classic Point Break and it plays it safe with Mel Gibson's performance as his character is too likable unlike Marvin's performance. But if payback is ever on TV I still watch it.