Monday, September 19, 2011

The Hunter by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake)

Donald E. Westlake, who died at the end of 2008, was a ridiculously prolific writer in many genres under several pseudonyms.  He’s not really that easy to characterize, but under his own name he wrote a large number of light comedy criminal caper novels (as well as other things).  Under his pen name of Richard Stark, he wrote more dark crime stories, often featuring the character of Parker.  I’d been meaning to read these for years and finally got around to reading The Hunter, which is not only famous in its own right but has been filmed multiple times (actors playing characters based on Parker include Lee Marvin, Mel Gibson, Jim Brown, and Chow Yun-fat – clearly this has some cross cultural appeal).

Anyway, while organizing my thoughts for this post I realized what it was about this book that seems so familiar, and I decided that this is basically the inverse of a private detective novel.  Although I’m a fan of that genre, I used to find it very vexing that these PIs had such a huge chip on their shoulders at all times.  They’d certainly be within their rights to sass and threaten crooked cops, hoodlums, lowlifes and the like, but often you’ll find one of the heroes of such a novel antagonizing people who probably could help them or at least aren’t actively out to do them any harm.  Phillip Marlowe is especially bad about this, to the point where he could have probably solved some of his cases a lot faster if he was nicer to people.  To an extent I still feel like this is the case, but having read some of Chandler’s essays on the subject, I’m more sympathetic to the idea that a typical private eye character has a Code, which he never deviates from.  In Marlowe’s case, he very roughly feels that someone who has a certain amount of money or power must have gotten it by screwing over somebody, even if it’s not him, and therefore he will never give such a person the satisfaction of showing them respect.

Parker is a criminal who has a Code.  He’s not a petty criminal and he’s not a joiner, he’s strictly freelance.  He doesn’t have much of an inner life or emotions of any kind, simply pride in a job well done.  Parker spends his life in nice hotels, spreading his money among hotel safes, and when he gets low on cash he conducts a crime to get more, something he does maybe once or twice a year.  When he does a job he takes extra care in planning, if he brings in confederates it’s only people that he can trust, and he takes care not to work with the same people too often.  He’s super paranoid about his identity, to the point that everyone only knows him as “Parker”, with no other name, and even that is heavily implied not to be the name he was born with anyway.  His Code requires that he keep a low profile, complete the job, and leave no loose ends.  He doesn’t care a single thing about any other person besides himself and he’ll take anything he wants.

It’s a little unusual that such a person has a wife, but he does, and she’s described as the only person that he’s ever felt love for.  Or hate, when one of his partners double crosses him after a job and forces her to shoot him as he steals all the money from their hijacking job and then burns down the house that Parker is in.  This is how he ends up on a prison farm on a vagrancy charge, and having that loose end is why he’s in such a hurry to get off it.

At this point it would be simple to have sympathy for Parker, but I don’t think that’s what Westlake has in mind.  You can admire his competence and his single-mindedness, but he’s not really an admirable guy in any way.  For instance, Parker thought that the man who double-crossed him was flaky and so he was planning on killing him and taking his share of the loot already except that he got beaten to the punch (it wasn’t self defense on the part of Resnick, the betrayer, since Resnick didn’t know that Parker planned to do it, they each conceived their crosses separately).  And the job that they’d just completed was a hijacking where they’d killed about twenty guys.  Also in his hurry to get off the prison farm and get his revenge on the people who have wronged him he ends up murdering a prison guard just to shave two months off his sentence.  Then during his revenge he ends up killing a couple of innocent bystanders and doesn’t appear to lose a lot of sleep over it, although he does get irritated that one had the poor manners to die on him.  Still, he’s got style and he doesn’t apologize for any of his actions, which makes spending time with him pretty interesting.  You certainly wouldn’t want to run across him if you had anything he wanted, though.

Another interesting point is that the revenge part isn’t actually all that hard.  Parker’s a huge man, both mentally and physically strong, and he’s perfectly capable of killing with his bare hands, whereas Resnick is kind of a doofus.  He tries to lay low for a while, but once Parker finds him it’s really not much of a fight.  In fact it’s so disappointing that Parker decides to make more of a challenge for himself.  You see, the reason that Resnick stole the entire score in the first place was because he owed a debt to an organized crime syndicate.  Parker approaches the syndicate and explains that $45,000 of the money that Resnick paid to them didn’t actually belong to Resnick, and he would like it back.  (This money has been indexed for inflation in some of the film adaptations.)  The syndicate doesn’t really have a beef with him about his problems with Resnick, but they tell Parker that they consider this a personal debt of Resnick’s and they’re not going to pay it.  The syndicate is portrayed as a very 1960s corporate entity; you could easily see Robert MacNamara running it and they are basically MBAs, not street thugs.  As far as it goes they are pretty reasonable and tell him that they’d honor reasonable corporate debts, but that this isn’t one.  Parker does more than ask, and pretty soon the syndicate tells him that he can have the stupid forty-five grand – oh, and now he’s marked for death.

Originally Westlake planned for this novel to end with Parker’s capture by the police, and although that subplot is still in there and provides a pretty funny ending, Parker actually ends up escaping to see another day.  As it happens Westlake’s editor liked this book so much that he offered a deal to publish more books featuring Parker if Westlake would change the ending.  Apparently, there are over twenty of them, some of which are very well regarded.

Westlake has a very powerful and lean prose style and it’s probably at its peak here.  I will say that it’s obviously a product of its era, but Parker is sort of an anachronism even there.  I’m not sure how he adapted to being in more of a modern era (if in fact he did).  Some of the crimes that Parker commits are obviously impractical in this era of computer databases and cell phones.  It’s pretty amusing how it’s so hard for the organized crime folks to get hold of each other – they’ve got to make a couple of calls to figure out where the person they’re looking for is staying, then page them and wait a half hour for them to call back, and so on.  Many of the other references are equally dated.

And yet it’s very funny to watch Parker put the screws to so many people to get back $45,000 that he got from an armed robbery.  Because once Parker’s stolen your money fair and square it’s Parker’s money.  It’s the Code.

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