Tuesday, January 4, 2011


PARKER, Part 1: First Impressions
Van Allen Plexico

In this series of articles, Van Allen Plexico explores the history of Richard Stark’s (Donald E. Westlake’s) criminal pulp noir character, “Parker,” in his many appearances across various media. In this first installment, we discover Parker’s origins and earliest appearances.

When we first meet Parker, we see him as a big, hulking man, stomping his way automaton-like across the George Washington Bridge. All who gaze upon him feel a vague sense of dread or at least unease. He looks somehow dangerous, but also extremely focused.

On what exactly he’s focused, no one can guess—or really wants to guess.

That sums Parker up in a nutshell: Extremely dangerous and extremely focused. And, to a large degree, that’s pretty much all we know about him today—even after all these years.

Few main protagonist characters in all of literature, if any, have been the subject of so many stories—appearing in dozens of books, movies, and comics—with the audience still knowing so little about them afterward. Time after time we see Parker being pulled into a criminal enterprise, planning it, executing it, carrying out the inevitable damage control when things go bad, and then sorting out matters at the end. And every single time we learn little more about him by the end than we knew going in.

That’s perfectly fine, though, because the fun of a Parker story, in any medium, is not learning about the depths of Parker’s character. The fun is in seeing a consummate professional doing his job, exhibiting the ultimate in competence along the way, and in dealing out… not true and high justice, per se—not from a career criminal like Parker—but a sort of street-level justice where those who play fair and obey the rules get their promised rewards, and those who double-deal and back-stab get what they have coming, too.

Parker first made his appearance in 1963’s The Hunter, a novel by Donald E. Westlake, writing as Richard Stark. (That book has been filmed as at least two movies in the years since; more about those in an upcoming installment of this series.) Westlake later claimed he got the idea for Parker while he himself was walking across the George Washington Bridge and feeling its seemingly solid form vibrating from all the wind and traffic; he began to imagine the kind of character who would feel at home in such a setting. Indeed, Parker does come across often as a human equivalent of a massive, concrete-and-steel suspension bridge, solid as stone on the surface but concealing an ocean of tightly controlled tension (and, when necessary, violence) on the inside.

“He had big hands, Mal,” is the way one character who has encountered Parker describes the man in The Hunter—and that’s just the way Parker wants it. He likes appearing sort of “gray” and blending into the background; he never does anything to call attention to himself. He appears almost to have been hewn from solid rock, or roughly molded from raw clay.

Westlake claimed that one of his goals in writing Parker’s books was to challenge himself as a writer by using a protagonist who has almost no internal voice. With Parker, everything is right there in the open. He has a job to do, and that is all that he thinks about for the duration of the operation. While Parker is on a job, he has no room in his heart or in his mind for compassion, humor, or any other human emotion or consideration. Some might describe him as “amoral,” but that’s not entirely true. When it comes to dealing fairly with his accomplices, he is utterly and completely fair, following his own internal code of morality and justice—at least, as such things are to him. He is the definition of the term, “all business.”

That being the case, it’s not hard to see that the one thing guaranteed to set Parker’s teeth on edge is a co-conspirator who exhibits anything less than total dedication to the job and complete professionalism. Nothing will cause Parker to back away from a prospective job faster than a whiff of amateurism from one of his potential accomplices. He has a small circle of men (and a woman or two) that he trusts to work with him. Anyone else must be carefully scrutinized.

Inevitably, in almost every Parker tale, an amateur approaches Parker (or one of his friends) with a “brilliant idea” for a heist and, almost every time, Parker goes along despite his many misgivings. Again, almost every time, something goes horribly wrong and Parker is left to pick up the pieces, sort out his accomplices, deal retribution on the person who caused the problem, and get away with whatever loot is left.

This simple formula led to Westlake creating sixteen Parker novels between 1963 and 1974, and then returning to the character with a run of eight more between 1997 and his death in 2008.

In the installments to come, we’ll look at some of what makes Parker such an enduring and popular character (for such a mean SOB!), and the ways in which he and his heists (one hesitates to use the more lighthearted term “capers” when referring to the dour Parker) have been depicted in various media.

So—fill your shot glass, light up a smoke, lock the hotel room door, and get ready to explore the career of the greatest pulp noir criminal of all: Parker!

Coming in Part 2: An in-depth look at the first string of Parker novels, 1963-1974.