Two of the greatest writers of the 20th century are Georges Simenon—I am not thinking of the Maigret books, which I have not read, but of what he called his “hard novels,” such as Dirty Snow and Tropic Moon—and Richard Stark, real name Donald Westlake—if there is such a thing as a real name. Indeed, Westlake, born in New York in 1933, works under a clutch of pseudonyms, though it was as Donald Westlake that he wrote the masterly screenplay for Stephen Frears’$2 1990 movie The Grifters, in turn based on the novel of the same name by another master of the dark fictional arts, Jim Thompson. Stark has won numerous writing awards and holds the rather splendid title of Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America. His Parker books, the best of which were written in the early 1960s, are unique in the genre of crime fiction; in fact, they form a genre all their own.
Parker—no first name—is one of the most fascinating and compelling fictional criminals, played to perfection by Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s film Point Blank (needlessly remade in 1999 as the Mel Gibson vehicle, Payback), which is based on Stark’s The Hunter. * In Point Blank, as in the novel, Parker is double-crossed by his woman and his best friend, after whichhe has to take on the shadowy “Organization”—the Mafia, we suppose—in order to have revenge and, more importantly, get back the hot money the pair of betrayers cheated him out of. In his ruthlessness and unhesitating murderousness Parker is well up there with Simenon’s tormented monsters and, especially, with Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. In The Jugger, Parker forces a double-crosser to dig a hole in a basement to uncover hidden loot and then, as we are told in two brief lines, shoots the hapless fellow and buries him in the hole he had just finished digging.
But where Simenon’s creatures are victims of blind fate, and the dandified and sexually dubious Ripley takes risks with the insouciance of an artist, Parker is the ultimate professional, without airs or graces, a machine-man with no background and scant sensibility and yet, for all that, a peculiarly affecting figure. We admire Parker to our shame, taking a guilty pleasure in his fearless fearsomeness. This is existential man at his furthest extremity, confronting a world that is even more wicked and treacherous than he is. For a start, read The Juggerand Slayground, and then go out and buy the rest of the series. Oh, and while you’re at it, pick up some Simenons, too.
*Correction, May 25, 2006: An earlier version of this article misidentified the Richard Stark novel on which the film Point Blank was based. The correct title is The Hunter. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.