Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Starktober 1: The Hunter

Parker hits the page fully formed and deep into his own story: walking across the George Washington Bridge, on a rainy day in what was probably 1962, wearing a worn-out suit and without a penny to his name. It's enough to make you feel sorry...for anyone in his way.

The Hunter was not just the first book credited to "Richard Stark" and the first exploit of professional heister Parker, it was the first really ambitious book written by Donald E. Westlake, coming after a long string of quickie sex books and three prior crime novels under his own name (The Mercenaries, Killing Time, and 361). From this point, Westlake's apprenticeship was over: the sex novels would end almost immediately, and the pseudonyms would be for specific series (Tucker Coe, Samuel Holt) or for one-off oddities (Judson Jack Carmichael, J. Morgan Cunningham). So, even though it came out under a different author's name, The Hunter is really the book where Donald Westlake found a compelling voice and a strong path forward for his career. He would find other voices later -- funny caper books, starting with 1965's The Fugitive Pigeon and climaxing with the Dortmunder books from 1970's The Hot Rock; and his darker psychological novels, crystallizing with 1981's Kahawa -- but Stark's voice was first.

Parker is a big, blunt man with a will like a freight train, a single-minded machine for committing big robberies and an almost-complete lack of human feeling. He doesn't like to kill, since that draws attention, but he can and does do it, whenever he needs to, as easily as flexing his fingers. His world is populated by a nationwide loose network of similar men -- heavies, drivers, fingermen, safecrackers, and others with skills best used on the dark side of the law. They're not part of organized crime; they're just all independent operators in the same line of work, who make connections for particular jobs, relying on past experience, recommendations from others, and their own gut feelings. Parker and Stark never talk about such men having a code or standards -- this is a world where your compatriots can and will double-cross you, but those men don't last long: either they do a big job and get away, or word gets out and no one will work with them again. It's a tough world made of tough men, who can rely on their own instincts, skills and knowledge, but nothing else.

And Parker is their epitome: smarter and more focused than any of the others we see, exactly as tough and ruthless as he needs to be without shading into sadism, the perfect criminal to lead a team to rob a bank or payroll truck or arms shipment or anywhere else there would be a large pile of money in the early '60s. The novels featuring him take that as a given, and then Stark tosses complications in his way, as dispassionately as Parker himself, to see how he jumps and find out how he can get himself through this time.

In The Hunter, Parker has been living this life -- doing a few big jobs a year, getting ten or thirty thousand dollars at a time, and hiding it in small banks around the country as he lives between jobs at resort hotels like a rich dilettante -- for eighteen years, since we was kicked out of the army in 1944 for dealing on the side. He's just shy of forty, then, still in the prime of life and the peak of his game. But that all fell apart in one job six months before: he was double-crossed, robbed, shot, and left for dead in a burning building. They thought he was dead, but he survived, getting picked up for vagrancy but breaking out and mostly walking his way from San Francisco to New York.

They think he's dead: Mal Resnick, who set up the double-cross to buy his way back into the Outfit, and Parker's wife, Lynn, who shot him rather than be killed by Resnick herself. But Parker finds Lynn, leaves her to kill herself, and moves on to get revenge on Resnick. But, more importantly: to get back the money that Resnick took -- he and Lynn cleared out Parker's accounts on their way back to New York, so his entire support structure is gone. And the money is at least as important to Parker as the revenge.

Stark tells the story inside-out: he leads with Parker returning broke to New York, on the trail  of Lynn and Resnick, and only flashes back to the double-cross at the end of the first section, after Lynn is dead but Resnick still hidden somewhere under mob protection. Then Stark jumps to Resnick, following him as he learns Parker is back in town, ending his section with a parallel flashback to that double-cross. And then Stark doubles back again, to explain in a third section how Parker found Resnick. But that's not the end -- for Parker, Resnick was a necessary but not sufficient end. He demands to get back his money from the mob, even though it would be safer and simpler for him to let it go and start fresh.

And that, more than anything else, sets the model for Parker: he follows his own goals, his own unshakable sense of what he's owed and how to operate, no matter where that leads him. That will drive the plots of the next several books, because he makes the Outfit take notice of him here, makes them pay him back, and has them actively looking to find and kill him. But that's still in the future: by the end of The Hunter, Parker has solved his current situation and is ready to deal with the next one: he needs a new face if he wants to slip back into his old life without worrying about the Outfit behind him every moment.

Starktober Introduction and Index

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