Guest slot: The Man Who Doesn’t Wink, by Christopher Lyons

It’s guest slot time here on The Violent World of Parker. Trent has of course hosted guest posts before—one of them by me, no less, in my pre-co-blogger days—but now I’m muscling in on the act as well—partly because it saves me writing anything (apart from this intro), but mostly because this essay is a fine Westlake/Stark/Parker think piece. It’s written by Christopher Lyons, who left a number of intriguing comments on Existential Ennui at the start of the year regarding Parker’s morality and emotions—so intriguing, in fact, that I suggested he write an Existential Ennui guest post. The result is “The Man Who Doesn’t Wink,” which is actually the first of two parts; part two should follow next week. There’s lots of food for thought here: I believe Violent World regulars will find it an interesting piece, and I’m sure it’ll attract some comments, which is why I’m only posting it on here rather than on EE as well—that way, any comments will be in one place. Let us know what you think.

The Man Who Doesn’t Wink

by Christopher Lyons

The more Donald Westlake wrote in his Stark voice about Parker, the more aware he must have become that this was a character who would resist any attempt at explanation. But in The Hunter, Parker begins as a far from unprecedented figure in crime fiction–the angry revenge-obsessed criminal, seeking retribution against other criminals, and (in the original draft) meeting a bloody end, proving crime doesn’t pay. You could trace that back to James Cagney in Public Enemy, and probably much further back than that (Isn’t Shakespeare’s Richard III basically a criminal who makes us complicit in his crimes?).

That Westlake figured he had to kill Parker–because he’s a bad guy, and the conventions of the genre dictate that bad guys die at the end, even if you admire them–indicates that he had knew quite well he was treading well-worn ground. Though Westlake would become increasingly well known for finding unexpected twists to old ideas, it was Bucklin Moon, his editor at Pocket Books, who saw most clearly that this wasn’t your typical bad guy–that  this was a character too interesting to simply throw away (and that he’d sell a lot of books). Earlier that year, Gold Medal had published Dan J. Marlowe’s The Name of the Game is Death, featuring a brutal seemingly amoral heist-man who doesn’t die at the end (though given his situation, that might have been kinder)–but there were no more books featuring him for six years. Bucklin Moon, seeing further, made it a condition of buying The Hunter that Westlake would give them several books a year about Parker, an offer the struggling wordsmith could not refuse. It would have been nice if somebody had asked Mr. Moon what it was that he saw in Parker–he may simply have been looking for a response to Gold Medal, new trends being infectious in publishing, then as now. I have a sneaking suspicion that what intrigued him most was what he didn’t see.

Because unlike Richard III, Warner Bros. gangsters, Earl Drake, Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me, or really almost any protagonist you can name, villainous or otherwise, Parker doesn’t share–he has no interest in justifying or explaining himself–as Westlake liked to say, he never winks at the reader. Our glimpses into his thought processes are fleeting and shallow, and mainly of a goal-oriented nature. Once the goal is achieved, he lapses back into a form of waking catatonia; only coming alive when he’s working (or, in the company of certain women, playing). We learn almost nothing about who he is, where he came from, how he feels–in subsequent books, it’s hard to be sure he’s feeling anything at all. And yet it seems obvious to me that he does have emotional responses, albeit of a very unusual and dubiously human nature. In his Stark persona, Westlake once called him ‘‘Dillinger mythologized into a machine,” but he is not an unfeeling automaton–he has hungers, desires; he gets tired, bored, and it’s hinted at the start of The Rare Coin Score, maybe even lonely. He’s not just a biological robot.That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s human.  

Humans can be ruthless, no question. We are the most bloody-minded species on this planet, by a long shot. I have never forgotten an exhibition at the Bronx Zoo I saw as a child–a sign on a metal door saying that if you open this window, you will see the most dangerous animal that ever lived–you pull back the hatch–and it’s a mirror looking back at you. But was that an indictment, or a boast? With us, it can be hard to tell the difference.  

Violent as we unquestionably are, we’re different from other predators out there–unlike the lion, the shark, the eagle, or the crocodile, we need to believe we have reasons for our rapacity. We rationalize (perhaps the most ill-named mental process of all), we obfuscate, we soliloquize, we look for and find reasons to exempt ourselves from the moral codes we ourselves invented–Westlake himself came up with one of the supreme fictional exemplars of this tendency in Burke Devore, the chillingly identifiable protagonist of The Ax. But there’s nothing at all inhuman about Devore–when he says “The End Justifies the Means,” he’s saying that he needs to feel justified. So say we all. All except Parker.  

Even psychopaths (fictional or real) need to come up with reasons for their actions–whether you’re talking Hitler, Charlie Manson, or Hannibal Lecter, they will talk you to death if you let them about how they had to do this or that, it was the will of history, I’m doing it for the good of humanity, I have to support my family, my parents screwed me up, I had a hard life, it’s for the die vaterland, I’m rebelling against society, I was following orders, Darwin said only the strongest survive, I was born this way, the bastards had it coming, God told me to, I am God, yadda yadda yadda. If you’re going to kill me, just DO it already. It shouldn’t matter why–but you see, it does to them. To all of us. But not to Parker. You do what you have to do. There is no why.

Psychological boilerplate abounds to explain various criminal behaviors, but I don’t think any of it fits him very well. Westlake went out of his way in several of the novels to show us genuine sociopaths coming into conflict with Parker, and invariably getting the worst of it, because they aren’t in a Thomas Harris novel. He did this precisely to show us that Parker is something else entirely–he’s not a ‘normal’ personality, but he’s not maladjusted either–in fact, he’s perfectly adjusted, to the world he lives in, and the  life he leads–it’s everybody else who’s out of whack (and that’s why they keep getting whacked).  

In The Sour Lemon Score, innkeeper to the criminal class Madge shows considerable perceptiveness when she tells Parker that he and Matt Rosenstein have “different outlooks.” Rosenstein clearly is a sociopath, a psychopath–a man who enjoys hurting, killing, and exploiting others; who has no professional code, no empathy, no loyalty. He would probably have been a killer if he’d been born wealthy–perhaps a more prolific one. The only thing that seems to bother him at all about his behavior is his sexual relationship with Paul Brock–he feels obliged to tell himself that preferring sex with a man doesn’t mean he’s gay (not the word he’d use to describe it)–one gets the feeling his penchant for raping women is at least partly his way of proving the point, though the fear and pain of his victims are nice bonuses.

Yes, sociopaths lie to themselves–Parker doesn’t. Sociopaths, we are told, often refuse to ‘own’ their actions, to admit what they’ve done. Parker owns everything he does, denies nothing (except to the law). He doesn’t seem to feel guilt, remorse, but he doesn’t ever pretend to either–he may blend into the ‘straight’ world for professional purposes, but he’s not putting on an act to deceive anyone ‘on the bend’–in his world, he’s exceptionally honest. He gets no sexual thrill out of violence (not that only sociopaths have this problem). Nor does he feel any particular sense of pride or satisfaction over his various murders, as he clearly does feel with regards to the heists he plans and executes. In The Hunter, he tells Bronson and Carter he’s killed nine people, not including Mal and Lynn (he typically feels no need to explain that Lynn killed herself)–but we learn he actually doesn’t know how many people he’s killed–he never kept count. It’s not important to him, as it would be to the seemingly ubiquitous all-powerful serial killers that abound in modern fiction. It had to be done, he did it, it’s over. They’re dead, he’s alive, end of story. For pattern killers, driven by psychopathic rage, murder is an obsession, an itch that needs to be scratched. For Parker, it’s mainly a chore, an inconvenience, to be avoided whenever possible. He doesn’t take trophies. He wouldn’t understand why anyone else did.  

Also breaking with what we know of sociopaths, he does seem to be able to put himself in the place of another–for example, in Deadly Edge, when he tries to understand why Claire won’t abandon her house to avoid danger. He realizes it’s much like his own obsessive behavior when repaying a professional betrayal. While this type of imaginative exercise seems to tax him more than it would a normal person (like flexing a long-disused muscle), there’s no question that Parker demonstrates repeatedly that he’s very good at reading people, figuring out what they’ll do next–deeper understanding is hard for him, but he does not see other people as unreal, and he understands they all have motivations of their own. He may not care, but he knows. He realizes all too well that humans are irrational, and that their actions often don’t make sense from a pragmatic standpoint, being motivated by uncontrolled emotions. His survival depends, quite often, on being able to correctly assess various personalities–to know his enemies better than they know him. But of course, nobody really knows him. That’s his edge.  

As to alienation from society, another explanation of his behavior, most textbook descriptions of alienation, Marxian, existentialist, or otherwise, say that it stems from a sense of powerlessness. Does that sound like Parker to you? He controls his own means of production, thanks very much.  

Parker never kills for pleasure (sexual or otherwise). He never kills to prove his superiority to others, or to gain a sense of power over them. He envies no one, fears no one, hates no one. He doesn’t kill without a reason, but the reasons are always disarmingly simple and obvious–so much so that he rarely feels the need to explain them, to himself or anyone else, and only if it serves some pragmatic purpose to provide an explanation. He steals to live, and he kills to avoid imprisonment or death as a consequence of the way he makes his living–and in rare instances, to balance out a scale. You could call it revenge, but that’s not quite exactly what it is, somehow. It’s not always easy for him to figure out who has to die, and he is seen to change his mind sometimes–in either direction. It’s never personal–it’s never ideological–it’s never emotional. It’s a calculation. He’s always wary of making murder the solution to everything, because he knows that most of the time it causes more problems than it solves. If more people would figure this out, we’d live in a much less violent world. Or maybe if more people had to do the killing themselves, and found out what hard work it is away from their PlayStations? Oh well, different essay.  

Even when he kills Mal Resnick–and his vendetta against Resnick in the first novel may in fact be the most genuinely human emotional expression we ever see from him–it feels anticlimactic, and in fact it’s not the climax–the book is only three quarters done. After Mal is dead, Parker doesn’t even take a moment to gloat over the body. He forgets all about Resnick; the scale is balanced, and as we learn, he never hated the man–if you’ll recall, he was going to kill Mal before the double cross, because he recognized Mal’s weakness and incompetence as a risk factor. That actually seems out of character for Parker, but there’s just something about Mal that sets off alarm bells in his head. Does he live by a code–or by instinct?

Once he’s finished Mal, his mindset alters immediately, and he’s back to business–money is owed him, and somebody has to repay it. His old pattern had been disrupted, and in order to get back to that pattern, he needs to find a new pattern–one that involves taking on an entire criminal organization. We learn that he was in love with his wife (a startling thing to read if you began with some of the later books), but he’s never going to allow himself that weakness again–sure, Claire comes along a few years later, but it’s different–she’s different, and he’s different. Something has been building inside of him over the course of his life up to that point, and in The Hunter it finally takes its mature form. In a sense, the Parker we would come to know over the next 23 novels is born over Mal Resnick’s strangled corpse. He begins the book as an identifiably human figure, with an identifiably human agenda, and certainly a type of fictional character who has plenty of forebears–and he ends it as something else. Something new. Or something so old that it seems new.  

In the subsequent novels, revelations of his interior life are far and few between–in fact, there is very little to reveal. He has no interests other than theft and sex (work and play). He goes to movies to pass the time, stay out of sight, but he couldn’t tell you the plots of any of them–he’s not a film buff, he doesn’t look to movies for role models, stylistic hints, like Grofield–there’s no movie soundtrack in Parker’s head. He reads newspapers to keep informed of the world around him, but you’ll never find him reading a book, even a comic book. If he writes anything, it’s always to achieve a specific goal–such as getting his fellow heisters to hit The Outfit by sending out letters. He takes time to make sure a word in the letter is spelled correctly–not because he’s embarrassed by his lack of education, but because he wants to make sure he’s doing it right–there’s an extreme self-consciousness in the letter’s composition, as if he’s doing something unnatural to him–there is no such hesitance when he’s planning a job.  

He shows no interest in athletics of any kind–unless it’s to rip off a stadium box office. He’s not interested in art or music (we only hear him refer to the latter once, in The Hunter–a popular song that Rosie got her working name from). There is a rough sense of aesthetics in the way he reflects on a well-planned heist, and in the way he looks at women–again, work and play. He has no interest in outdoor recreation, other than basic things like swimming for exercise–he lives on a lake, he has a boathouse, but he doesn’t seem to own a boat (he can always steal one if he needs it). He’s not interested in sport hunting–when he hunts, it’s always The Most Dangerous Game, and there’s no sport to it at all.  

He has no opinion on religion whatsoever. He is not an atheist, not even an agnostic, because that would be taking a position on the subject, and he has none. In Comeback, he makes no cynical comment on the corrupt evangelist he’s stealing from–it’s none of his business how the guy makes his money. He judges not, and cares not a whit how others judge him. As far as we can tell, he doesn’t think about God, ever.  

He owns small businesses for tax purposes, but takes no role in them, or profit from them. He has no interest in making money–only stealing it. No investments, no stock portfolio, no 401(k)–he doesn’t even play the Lotto. He likes money, but he doesn’t hang onto it long–it’s for spending, and so he spends it, and then goes out to get more. He caches emergency funds all over the country, and is occasionally surprised to find a stash he’d forgotten all about. He could surely make the money he steals work for him–he could become a rich man, easily. He’s not interested. To be sure, his fellow heisters are the same way, but none of them show Parker’s extreme attention to detail, his level of preparation. They’re that way because they’re misfits. He’s that way because he’s something else.  

In all of this cultural indifference he displays, he is truly unique–everybody has beliefs, interests, a hobby of some kind, whether they call it that or not–it’s another universal human trait Parker doesn’t share. We repeatedly get glimpses into the personal lives of other heist men in the books, and all of them, without exception, have interests outside of work–race cars, model trains, ballroom dancing, the theater, jazz, health food, Neo-Nazism–they run the gamut. For many of them, heisting is simply a means of funding their genuine passions (though they do seem to enjoy their work). Ruthless as they can be, they’re all very identifiably human in that they have multi-track minds, and when they’re not thinking about a heist, they need to be thinking about something else. When Parker isn’t thinking about a heist, or making love to a woman, he’s probably sitting in a dark room somewhere, perhaps with the television on, but do you think he has a favorite show? Can you imagine him tweeting his opinions of the latest episode? He has no opinions to tweet. It’s just images on a screen to him. Something to look at. It passes through him without affecting him in the slightest. Fiction has no allure for him–he doesn’t want to hear made-up stories, or tell them. He probably dreams, but he isn’t thinking about what he dreamed after he wakes up. Nothing unreal can haunt him. Metaphor, mythology, symbolism, superstition (remember Grofield’s sour lemons?)–forget it. Parker has a one-track mind. When he’s thinking about something, that’s all he’s thinking about. He habitually maintains a degree of focus on the goal ahead that most of us can only achieve momentarily, at best.

In Plunder Squad, we see perhaps the slightest flicker of interest from him when he’s looking at some modern art. And then it’s gone. Works of art are a score to him, nothing more. One of the funniest moments in all the books is from The Mourner, when Elizabeth Conway’s father insists on telling Parker, in excruciating detail, the history of the art object he wants Parker to obtain for him–and Parker couldn’t care less. He keeps trying to tell Conway this, and Conway refuses to believe him. Finally, as he so often does, Parker decides it’s less trouble to just let Conway say what he clearly feels he has to say, even though it has no bearing on the job–but he doesn’t understand. He’ll never understand. Language to him is a tool, nothing else. Not a means of self-expression–Parker’s only means of expression is ‘The Profession.’  

What is it he says to Carter, in The Hunter?–”I hope you people have fun with your words.” And we do! But Parker doesn’t get it. Because he’s not one of us.          

What does he have fun with? Well, he likes certain physical activities–sex, for instance. He likes sex a lot. Nothing robotic about his love life. But his approach to it is perhaps the most unconventional thing about him. One of the first things we learn about him is that his libido is cyclical in nature–he’s insatiable right after a heist, but once the urge has been (repeatedly) satisfied, it gradually winds down, and then disappears entirely until the next job is completed. There are occasional exceptions to this rule, which I’d guess Westlake came up with because he wanted some sex in a given book, and there’d be no time for it after the heist. This is popular fiction, and the irresistible macho man was a well-established convention of hardboiled fiction long before Westlake showed up. It’s part of what men (and I’m guessing a fair few women) like about the books–it’s also a good way to show a different aspect of the character, and maybe learn a few things about him. But never very much. Parker does not go in for pillow talk.The women in his life have to accept that he’ll never open up to them–he’ll never talk about his feelings (unless he’s really angry)–he’s not holding it in, he simply doesn’t bend that way. And honestly, what’s to talk about? “I’m back, I got some money, let’s do it.” It’s not really the stuff deep conversations are born of, is it? There is nothing he finds more pointless than small talk. But of course, when two people are in the grip of passion, trivial expressions can seem awfully deep and meaningful. Not to Parker. His approach to sex is strictly non-verbal, which is probably one reason he’s so enviably good at it. A tough example to follow in real life, but a lot of fun to read about. And we shouldn’t forget that these books were written to entertain–in the best sense of that word.  

But going by the conventions of the genre Westlake was writing, a protagonist who just had any woman he wanted, whenever he wanted–who couldn’t see a beautiful woman without wanting to get her in bed–well, Mike Hammer and James Bond both sold more books than Parker ever did. And as unrealistic as those books surely are, they are more true to life in this–the human sex drive isn’t cyclical–it may ebb and flow, but it never just disappears from a healthy individual for no reason. We’re primates, not salmon. We want it all the time, we crave a variety of partners, and if we don’t find them in reality, we find them in our imaginations. It’s one of the more interesting (and problematic, and dangerous, and frustrating, and often hilarious) aspects of our nature.    

So to say Parker is successful with women because he’s a character in a genre where the protagonist is typically successful with women is begging the question–why write him so that he’s only interested in women for brief periods of time? Why show him as being fairly indiscriminate (if cautious) about the women he chooses to satisfy his periodic cravings, then suddenly change track in mid-series and have him become unfailingly monogamous with a single woman? We can be pretty damn sure it’s not to reassure the reader that Parker is really a Victorian-era hero. James Bond never settled down (well he did once, R.I.P Tracy Draco), and while Hammer may have finally gotten together with the long-suffering Velda, he never stopped undressing each new femme fatale with his eyes–one increasingly realizes that Velda is only there to reassure Hammer and his readers that he’s not a monster (which of course he is). Bond and Hammer are pure wish-fulfillment figures, fantasies–Parker is more than that. Westlake knew that, wanted to explore a side of his nature we could never see as long as he was a free agent–hence Claire Carroll. Who I gather some male readers don’t like because she ruins the fantasy aspect of the books for them, but would Parker give a damn about that? You know the answer.  

I see it as deliberate counterpoint in the Stark novels that Grofield is depicted as being devoted to his estimable wife and acting partner Mary, perfectly satisfied by her in every possible way, and rarely missing an opportunity to cheat on her when he’s away on a job. Never feeling guilty about it either, but that isn’t the point. The point is that whether we’re faithful to our mates or not, we still think about being unfaithful–we can’t avoid it. We are not naturally monogamous animals. But once Parker has decided he can trust Claire–which happens at the very end of The Rare Coin Score, well after he first goes to bed with her–and then with an acquaintance of hers, just to pass the time–we never see him with anyone else. He comes close in Comeback, with the evangelist’s curvaceous girlfriend. He doesn’t feel the slightest moral compunction about being with another woman, isn’t worried about what Claire would think–it just doesn’t work. Maybe if the situation wasn’t so dangerous, he’d go ahead with it (and never think about it afterward), but that’s the thing–sex is always dangerous, always a risk. At the end of the day, he’s monogamous with Claire because that’s what makes sense to him–every new sexual involvement is a new point of vulnerability, a new risk, extra effort. Grofield enjoys taking that risk, making that effort–Parker doesn’t. Another thing about us that he just doesn’t get. Monogamy is simply the most practical arrangement for him, which is probably how he ended up married to Lynn in the first place–by the time he met Claire, he was a better judge of character. He makes damn sure of her before he commits, but once he’s committed, that’s it.    

As he fleetingly muses in Deadly Edge, Lynn was hard, but when things got tough, she broke–Claire isn’t hard, but he doesn’t think she’ll break. It’s not something you’d find printed on a Hallmark card, but it’s romantic in its own way. Westlake specifically referred to Richard Stark as a romantic, in a way he, Westlake, was not. He did not mean romantic in the popular sense of that word. What he meant by that is that while Dortmunder is ‘real,’ Parker is an ideal. Which means that his relationship with Claire is an ideal, and so is Claire herself, after a fashion. I think that’s one reason this notoriously detail-oriented writer was so vague in his early descriptions of Claire (though I think she gradually began to resemble Abby Adams, Westlake’s third wife).  

There is one other telling moment, in Ask the Parrot–when Parker is thinking about getting back home to Claire–”It had been too long since he’d seen her.” Nothing soppy about it–that’s exactly how it feels to be away from your mate. No, he’s not a robot. He feels something very real and powerful for her, and once they’ve bonded, he’d risk anything to protect her–defend her life as if it was his own. Of course, before they bonded, he was ready to kill her if she put his freedom at risk, though the thought made him uncomfortable. She has to reassure him that this will never be necessary–thus demonstrating that she understands his essential nature, and accepts it, without ever being able to share in it. She doesn’t ask if he loves her–she asks if he wants to be with her. “I don’t know for how long,” he responds. A starkly honest response from a man who lives life an hour at a time–but fifteen books later, they’re still together, and from The Green Eagle Score onwards, Parker never even considers a life without her. What exists between them isn’t a marriage–it’s something more lasting, more primal.  

After he’s decided to trust Claire, the thought of killing her just doesn’t come up anymore. As Westlake put it, Parker has a very small circle, and within that space, you’re completely safe from him. Outside it, you are being reevaluated on a constant basis. Even after she betrayed him, he couldn’t kill Lynn, though we’re told she’s the only one he was truly angry at, not Mal. That isn’t sex talking–that’s love, or the ruins of it. But is it human love?  

What seems to bind him to Claire is that he enjoys being around her, even when he’s not in the mood for sex–he enjoys watching her–he has no interest in gambling, for example, but he gets a kick out of watching her enjoy it. Well–that pretty much does define what makes any long-term relationship work, right? We like to tell ourselves pretty lies about this most profound and essential part of our lives–to encumber it with a lot of sentimental nonsense, make it into something it’s not, stick names and labels on it, instead of knowing and experiencing it for what it is. We all do this to some extent–those of us lucky enough to find love in the first place. Parker doesn’t. Why not?

So anyway, where is this question and no-answer session getting us? We have a man who is highly intelligent, highly methodical, highly perceptive. Able to read the motives and behavior patterns of others with exceptional acuteness, but seemingly unable to comprehend many key aspects of human behavior he does not share. In The Green Eagle Score, for example, he’s the last one to figure out that when somebody sees a psychologist, they talk about whatever is bothering them, even if it’s supposed to be a secret–sure, the other heisters fail to see this coming as well, but this is Parker, always alert to any potential danger, and not distracted by any personal feelings. He never thinks to himself afterwards “Oh, of course she would do that.” He just passes over it as yet another incomprehensible human behavior. Talking to somebody about your problems is an bizarre unfathomable concept to him. Paying somebody for that–what is with these people?  

He has no interests outside of his work, which is armed robbery (cybercrime would be completely unsatisfying to him–it’s not real unless you do it yourself, in person, in three dimensions), and satisfying his sex urge, which is cyclical in nature. He engages in intercourse of a very basic, non-kinky variety without any emotional involvement at all most of the time. He would presumably be impotent if he tried to have sex during the low ebb of his cycle, but he wouldn’t try, and he isn’t at all worried about any of this–no sexual insecurity whatsoever. The idea of rape never even seems to occur to him, though his behavior with women is far from gentlemanly. When he finally finds a woman who interests him outside the bedroom, he seems to mainly stop noticing other women in a sexual way–perhaps the only man on the planet who could honestly say that, only he never would.      

He has no sense of guilt, shame, remorse, regret–he does what he thinks is necessary, and nothing else. If he makes a mistake, he wastes no time castigating himself over it, thinking “If only I’d done this instead of that,” but simply looks for a way to overcome the mistake, or turn it to his advantage. The past is remembered, in great detail, but it’s the past–after the events of The Hunter, it can’t hurt him, as it so blithely wounds the rest of us. He plans for the future, but doesn’t worry about it. He lives entirely in the present, and that’s a trick no human has ever mastered, best as I can tell. Most amazingly of all, Parker has absolutely no need to justify his actions, not even to himself. He never wonders why he’s this way. This is just how he’s always been. He sees no reason to try and change. He will modify his pattern as needed, but he’ll never abandon it. Retirement isn’t an option for him. He’ll just keep going out on jobs, and coming back from them–every time but the last time, as he puts it.  

We talk about him having a ‘code,’ but doesn’t it really come down to one simple rule? “If you work a job with me, you get a share of the take–if you die, your share gets divided up among the survivors.” And of course, the appending rule–“If you betray me, spoil a job I planned, or put my life and/or freedom at risk, I will hunt you down and end you, no matter what it takes.” This isn’t honor among thieves talking–we learn repeatedly during the Parker saga that there really is no such thing–if you die on the job, he won’t give your split to the grieving widow and orphans. There is no inheritance. Once you die, your rights die with you. He follows these rules because they seem natural to him. He doesn’t question them. He doesn’t think about them. They are a part of him. They define him. They are him.  

This man who has no use for society (except as a food source) is, nonetheless, an oddly social being when he works–he seeks out the company of other thieves, to achieve together what they cannot achieve alone–though he is often most brutally effective when he’s working alone or with a close associate like Handy McKay or Grofield, he still feels compelled to put strings together, always looking for that perfect combination of talents (and almost always thwarted in this by the illogical ways of men). He doesn’t trust most of his colleagues at all, and none of them completely, but to the extent he considers himself part of any group, he considers himself one of them–and they often see in him a leader, these men who have no loyalties, no leaders. When he calls to them, they respond–sometimes it seems like they don’t even know why, but they do. Because they associate him with good scores, one supposes–but also, I’m guessing, because he embodies what made them turn to heisting more perfectly than anyone else they’ve met–and he turns to them because they’re the closest thing he has to a peer group. But that’s a guess. With Parker, it’s always a guess. He’ll never tell us. Any more than he’ll wink at us. To hell with us.  

But still, knowing all this, I have to ask–what is Parker? Why do we find him so compelling, and yet so alien? What are we looking at when we imagine his unsmiling face glancing in our direction, his unreadable onyx eyes studying us, trying to decide if we need to die or not? What are we aspiring towards, however briefly, imperfectly, and vicariously, when we identify with him–and be honest–if you’re not identifying with him to some extent, why read the books?

What is being invoked in these stories? What are we responding to? What lies behind that face?  

Need a hint?

Click here

To be concluded (finally) in Part II: The Wolf Man

Christopher Lyons is a very recently minted Westlake reader, a lifelong science fiction fan who has taken a notion to explore the crime genre for a while. He lives in Manhattan—Washington Heights, to be specific. He often exercise his dog in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge. He’s even walked across it a few times. He’s never seen a big mean-looking guy in ill fitting clothes stomping over it into the city. But he lives in hope.