• Anyone who doubts the existence of original sin, or something very much like it, would do well to reflect on the enduring popularity of the novels of Richard Stark. For forty-six years now, Stark has been writing terse, hard-nosed books about a cold-hearted burglar named Parker (nobody seems to know his first name) who steals for a living, usually gets away with it, and stops at nothing, including murder, in order to do so. I couldn’t begin to count the number of people Parker has killed in the course of the twenty-four books in which he figures. His only virtues are his intelligence and his professionalism–yet you end up rooting for him whenever you read about him. Nietzsche knew why: when you look into an abyss, the abyss looks into you.
In real life “Richard Stark” is the pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake, a thoroughly delightful literary craftsman about whose virtues I have previously written in this space.
It’s a permanent puzzlement that Westlake, who is best known for his charming comic crime novels, should also have dreamed up so comprehensively unfunny a character as Parker, which doubtless tells us something of interest about human dualism, the subject matter of all film noir and noir-style fiction. I wouldn’t care to speculate about what it is in Westlake’s psyche that makes him so good at writing about Parker, much less what it is that makes me like the Parker novels so much. Suffice it to say that Stark/Westlake is the cleanest of all noir novelists, a styleless stylist who gets to the point with stupendous economy, hustling you down the path of plot so briskly that you have to read his books a second time to appreciate the elegance and sober wit with which they are written.
Parker’s latest caper, Dirty Money (Grand Central, 276 pp., $23.99), is a sequel to Nobody Runs Forever, the 2004 novel in which he stole two million dollars from an armored car, then had to stash it in an abandoned New England country church in order to escape arrest. The money, it turns out, is “poisoned,” meaning that the authorities have a record of the serial number on each bill, so Parker has to figure out not only how to get it back but also how to launder it. As always, his task is complicated by the fact that his colleagues in crime lack his chilly singlemindedness–unlike them, Parker always keeps both eyes on the prize–and thus have a way of lousing things up.
Readers familiar with the series of comic novels written by Westlake about a hapless career criminal named Dortmunder will know that they take place in a parallel universe in which the not-so-tough guys are constantly tripping over their own feet. The first of these books, The Hot Rock, began life as a Parker novel, but Westlake changed it when he realized that it was turning out funny. In a later Dortmunder novel, Jimmy the Kid, one of the characters actually gets an idea for a caper by reading a nonexistent Parker novel called Child Heist.
Needless to say, nothing like that happens in Dirty Money–Parker is all business–but you’ll smile from time to time at the spare economy with which Stark/Westlake paints his verbal pictures of life on the wrong side of the law. Imagine, for instance, that you’re a slightly crooked doctor who made the mistake of doing business with Parker’s gang and is now being interrogated by a bad guy. How might you be feeling? Probably a lot like this:
The doctor felt as though invisible straps were clamping every part of his body. He sat tilted forward, feet together and heels lifted, knees together, hands folded into his lap as though he were trying to hide a baseball….The doctor’s mind filled with regrets, that he had ever involved himself with these people, but then regrets for the past were overwhelmed by horror of the present. What could he do?
It’s possible to read and enjoy Dirty Money without having read Nobody Runs Forever, but you’ll enjoy it even more if you know how Parker got into this mess, so I suggest you buy both books and read them in sequence, after which you’ll doubtless want to work your way through Richard Stark’s complete oeuvre. That isn’t so easy to do, alas, since many of his earlier novels are out of print. (My favorite Parker novel, Butcher’s Moon, is currently going for as much as $300 a copy on the used-book market.) Fortunately, a dozen or so of the best ones are quite easy to find. As for the others, you could always heist them.