Guest slot: Parker, Westlake and Peter Rabe’s Anatomy of a Killer

Note: I apologize for the lack of content lately, but I’ve been too busy to read, much less write. In lieu of my own contributions, I’m hoping to host some guest posts. This piece about a key Donald Westlake influence was penned by our old friend Nick Jones, and originally appeared at his blog, Existential Ennui.

Peter Rabe is the uncrowned king of the pulpy paperback novel. From the mid-1950s until the early ’70s he wrote a string of crime novels, the vast majority of them for Gold Medal, almost all of them published straight to softcover. Much like Donald “Richard Stark” Westlake, upon whom Rabe was a major influence, Rabe’s stories deal with the dark underbelly of America and yet are surprisingly lithe and loose, nimble even. These aren’t plodding detective novels or methodical whodunnits: his antiheroes are usually gangsters and lowlifes—criminals, often up against fellow criminals.

Rabe’s writing is a cut above that of his fellow hacks. His prose style is slippery and agile, his intent sometimes opaque; the direction of his stories is rarely obvious. What motivates his characters isn’t always readily apparent either, and that makes them unpredictable and therefore compelling. Horrible things are done to them and by them, but these events are often alluded to rather than described in detail: violent moments sketched out in a single line; assaults or rapes skirted round or left dangling, and all the more effective and shocking for it, with not a hint of titillation.

Like his contemporaries John D. MacDonald and Jim Thompson—and indeed much like the initial twelve Parker novels Westlake wrote under the Richard Stark pseudonym—the paperback was Rabe’s natural home. But it also sidelined him unfairly. MacDonald, Westlake, and Thompson were all bestowed with that ultimate arbiter of publishing respectability in their lifetimes, publication in hardback. Only a handful of times in Thompson’s case, mostly at the beginning of his career, but that’s still more than Rabe. Peter Rabe only made it into hardback three times in his lifetime (and only once after he died in 1990, thus far anyway). The first time was in 1955, when Vanguard in the US and Frederick Muller in the UK published his little-remarked-upon non-fiction title From Here to Maternity, a humorous look at the birth of his first son, complete with line drawings by the author. The last time was in 1967, when Herbert Jenkins in the UK issued a hardback of his earlier Gold Medal paperback My Lovely Executioner.

And published in between those two, in 1960, came this:

Anatomy of a Killer was published by Abelard-Schuman simultaneously in the US, the UK, and Canada in 1960, with a dustjacket designed by former BBC television graphic designer John Sewell. According to George Tuttle’s interview with Peter Rabe, the story was, like The Cut of the Whip, rejected by Gold Medal, Rabe’s usual publisher, so Abelard-Schuman, who was a British publisher, picked it up instead. The plot concerns Sam Jordan, a professional killer who, as the dustjacket flap blurb has it…

…[had] honed his nerves down to a fine, taut edge and turned himself into a ruthless precision machine for killing—a cold-blooded automaton who dealt out controlled violence. He had this trick on a job of splitting himself in two—head over here, guts over there in a box—and that way everything went off smoothly and efficiently. That way there were no feelings, because Jordan couldn’t afford them.

“A ruthless precision machine… a cold-blooded automaton… no feelings…” Now who does that remind you of? Could it be, oh irony of ironies, that the only novel of Rabe’s to be published straight to hardback in his lifetime was the one that influenced Westlake’s Parker stories the most? I’ve written about the similarities between Rabe’s work and Westlake’s before, and how Rabe’s writing–and in particular his Daniel Port novels–impacted on Westlake enormously. But it’s possible that Anatomy of a Killer exerted the biggest influence of all. It was published just a couple of years before Parker debuted in The Hunter, and Westlake himself said of the novel, “Anatomy of a Killer is as cold and clean as a knife… a terrific book.” But the strongest evidence, I think, comes from the opening scene in the book, which begins exactly like a Parker novel, even down to starting with a “when”:

When he was done in the room he stepped away quickly because the other man was falling his way. He moved fast and well and when he was out in the corridor he pulled the door shut behind him. Sam Jordan’s speed had nothing to do with haste but came from perfection.

The door went so far and then held back with a slight give. It did not close. On the floor, between the door and the frame, was the arm.

He relaxed immediately but his motion was interrupted because he had to turn towards the end of the hall. The old woman had not stepped all the way out of her room. She was stretching her neck past the door jamb and looking at him. “Did you hear a noise just now?”

“Yes.” He walked toward her, which was natural, because the stair well was that way. “on the street,” he said. “One of those hotrods.”

“Did you just come from Mister Vendo’s room?”


“Was he in? I mean, I wonder if he heard it.”

“Yes. He’s in, and he heard it.”

Jordan walked by the old woman and started down the stairs. She shook her head and said, “That racket. They’re just like wild animals, the way they’re driving,” and went back into her room.

He turned when her door shut and walked back down the hallway. This was necessary and therefore automatic. He did not feel like a wild animal. He did his job with all the job habits smooth. When he was back at the door he looked down at the arm, but then did nothing else. He stood there with his hand on the door knob and did nothing.

The terse dialogue, the short, blunt, sentences: that’s a Parker by any other name.

Stark House Press brought Anatomy of a Killer back into print in 2008 as a double-novel with A Shroud for Jesso, so if you want to make your own Parker comparisons, you don’t have to go to the trouble of getting an expensive (anything from fifty to over a hundred dollars) first edition hardback to do so. Although personally, I’m of the view that it’s always nice to own a piece of publishing history.