The best compliment I can give the “Parker” novels by Donald E. Westlake is to admit that they’ve completely hijacked my usual schedule of reading and reviewing contemporary novels for the CCLaP website; originally planned to be a fun airplane diversion when I flew from Chicago to New Orleans and back about three weeks ago, I ended up reading the first book in the series, 1962’s The Hunter, from start to finish in just half a day, and have since been greedily devouring the rest at a rate of a book or two every week, blowing off all my other reading commitments no matter how much I realize I shouldn’t. (Sorry, all you authors who are patiently waiting for your book to be reviewed at CCLaP.)
That’s high praise indeed from someone who usually doesn’t like crime novels that much, with the key being that the main character is just so utterly fascinating, who like Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark is less a real human being and more an example of the “theoretically perfect” version of the philosophy the author is trying to espouse (Stoicism here in the case of Westlake, versus Objectivism in the case of Rand).
A professional thief who only pulls off one heist a year (netting him in today’s terms somewhere between a quarter-million and a half-million dollars each time), so that he can spend the other 51 weeks lounging poolside at resort hotels and having rough sex with trust-fund blue-bloods with a taste for danger, Parker doesn’t give even the tiniest little fuck about anything or anyone that falls outside of this monomaniacal routine, never negotiates nor compromises when it comes to his take or who he’ll work with, doesn’t have even the slightest hesitation about torturing or killing people who get in his way (yet avoids doing it anyway, simply because physical abuse is the “lazy” way to get what one wants, and being lazy is the first step towards getting caught), and possesses a psychotic distaste for such banal activities like “talking” and “having friends” or “acknowledging the inherent worth of the human race.” (A true misanthrope, these pre-PC novels are not for the linguistically faint at heart, filled on every page with dismissive contempt for women, homosexuals, and people of color; although in Parker’s “defense,” such as it is, he also displays such contempt for most of the straight white males he meets too.)
There are 24 novels in the Parker series (which Westlake published under the pen-name “Richard Stark”), most from the ’60s and early ’70s, the series then activated again in the late ’90s and up until Westlake’s death in 2008; but the first three form a trilogy of sorts, in that they all concern one overarching storyline that spans from one book to the next, and so make a tidy reading experience for those who are curious about the series but don’t want to make a 24-book commitment. (Most of the others are franchise-style standalone stories that each follow a similar blueprint — Parker decides on his heist for that year, Parker obsessively plans out his heist for that year, then everything goes to hell when Parker actually tries pulling off his heist for that year.)
The first, The Hunter, will seem familiar to many because it’s been made into a movie so many times (including 1967’s Point Blank with Lee Marvin, 1999’s Payback with Mel Gibson, and 2013’s Parker with Jason Statham); in it, we pick up a year after a heist that went bad because of a duplicitous partner, who needed both his share and Parker’s in order to pay back the Mafia for an old job gone bad, the novel itself consisting of Parker basically crisscrossing the country and getting his revenge on every person who had been involved, eventually provoking the ire of the Mafia when he insists that they pay him back the money that had been stolen from him, even though they had nothing to do with the actual theft.
The second book, then, 1963’s The Man With the Getaway Face, sees Parker get plastic surgery in order to stay out of the glare of the Mafia’s nationwide murder contract they now have out on him, just to have his new face divulged to the Mafia at the very end; so then in the third novel, The Outfit from later that same year, Parker decides to get the Mafia off his tail once and for all, enlisting his buddies-in-crime to pull off Mafia-victim heists across the country to the modern tune of ten million dollars in a single month, while he tracks down and kills the head of the entire organization by breaking into a mansion that’s been weaponized like a fortress, after affecting a promise from the number-two in charge that he’ll end the persecution if Parker does him this “favor.”
Like Parker himself, these novels are quick and lean, part of what makes them so obsessively readable; Westlake had a real talent for stripping narratives down to just their bare essentials, then cleverly invented a character for whom this fast-paced minimalism works perfectly, a true human monster but one you can’t help but root for anyway, if for no other reason than because he has zero tolerance for the chatty bullshit and regards for acquaintances’ feelings that you as a non-psychotic are forced to deal with in your own schmucky non-bank-robbing life. (Stupid schmucky non-bank-robbing life!)
Unfortunately my obsessive focus on these books must come to an end soon — I simply have to get back to the novels I’m “supposed” to be reading, plus I can already tell by the fifth book that this series gets a lot more formulaic as it continues, which I bet will dampen my enthusiasm on its own — but I couldn’t let the opportunity pass by to mention how unexpectedly thrilled I was by at least the first few books in the lineup, picked up on a whim completely randomly but that have turned out to be some of my favorite reading experiences of the entire last year. They come strongly recommended whenever you have some downtime soon, especially to those like me who aren’t natural fans of this genre to begin with.