Donald E. Westlake was one of the most amazing and perhaps least known American writers of the 20th Century. As unbelievable as it sounds, he was the author of over 100 novels, screenplays, and short story collections written under 14 pen names, both male and female, and his books have been made into 24 movies prior to his death six years ago. I suspect all the pen names are one reason for his relative anonymity compared to dozens of less talented writers with far fewer writing credits. I’m sure he cried all the way to the bank. That said, Westlake was best known for two utterly different series of crime novels. One is the thirteen ‘Dortmunder’ novels — comic capers by a gang of dimwitted and always unlucky crooks. The best of these, and the best of his movies, are “The Hot Rock” and “The Bank Shot.” Read the books or rent the movie. You’ll die laughing. On the other hand, his second series is the 26 ‘Parker’ novels written under the name Richard Stark. ‘Stark’ is also a pretty good description of the lead character, the stories, and the writing. They are well beyond noir. Parker is a brutal, remorseless killer and the stories about him, such as “The Hunter,” the first of them, and “The Outfit,” the third, usually deal with violent crime and revenge. Parker doesn’t believe in ‘proportional response.’ When crossed, he kills everyone in sight and “lets God sort it out;” or he would if he believed in anything except money, which he doesn’t. Unlike Dortmunder, who has many redeeming character traits and is impossible to dislike, Parker has none, zero. No character arc, no quirky habits, no funny sidekick. He is a loner and a humorless killing machine. Some people refer to Parker as the prototypical ‘anti-hero’, but even they must have at least one redeeming, sympathetic character trait, and Parker has none. Hence, my dilemma. I loved Westlake’s other books; and then I read “The Outfit,” and I hated it. However, all the literary critics and Hollywood-types love the Parker character, the dramatic plots, and the technical stuff, so I figured I must be a dolt and missed something. To give it another chance, I read “The Hunter.” Same result. I didn’t like it either. The best comparisons I can draw are to some of the early Ed McBain 87th Precinct stories or a couple of less-successful Elmore Leonard novels, but maybe I just don’t ‘get’ it. Read them yourself and see what you think.
William F. Brown is the author of 5 suspense novels with over 300 Five-Star Reviews: The Undertaker, Amongst My Enemies, Thursday at Noon, Winner Take All, and now Aim True, My Brothers available on Kindle and Audible Audio Books. You can read about them at billbrownwritesnovels.wordpress.com