Peter Rabe, by Donald E. Westlake, in Murder off the Rack

Murder_off_Rack

NB: A version of this post also appears on Existential Ennui.

Chances are, if you become inordinately interested in the work of Donald E. Westlakeas I self-evidently have—at some point you’re going to encounter Peter Rabe. In interviews and articles Westlake would often cite Rabe as being a major influence (alongside Dashiell Hammett, Vladimir Nabokov and perhaps one or two others), an influence that’s particularly noticeable in the Parker novels (especially The Hunter). I’ve blogged about Rabe repeatedly over the past few years, sometimes comparing Stark to Rabe—notably in this post on Rabe’s 1960 crime novel Anatomy of a Killer (which also appears, in an altered form, on The Violent World of Parker)—mostly just reviewing and showcasing Rabe’s novels (the majority of which were published straight to paperback). But for true critical insight into Rabe’s work, there’s really only one place to go, courtesy of Rabe’s biggest fan, the aforementioned Donald Westlake.

In 1989 Westlake contributed an essay to Murder off the Rack: Critical Studies of Ten Paperback Masters, an anthology edited by Jon L. Breen and Martin Harry Greenberg and published by Scarecrow Press. Titled simply “Peter Rabe,” and nestling alongside essays by, among others, Bill Crider (“Harry Whittington”), Max Allan Collins (“Jim Thompson: The Killer Inside Him”), Ed Gorman (“Fifteen Impressions of Charles Williams”) and Loren D. Estleman (“Donald Hamilton: The Writing Crew”), across twenty pages Westlake examines the bulk of Rabe’s work, novel by novelfrom his 1955 debut, Stop This Man!, to 1974’s Black Mafia—turning an often highly critical eye on each of them.

Murder_off_Rack_2

The opening line of the essay—”Peter Rabe wrote the best books with the worst titles of anybody I can think of”—is oft-quoted in relation to Rabe, but make no mistake: this is no bibliographic hagiography. When Westlake feels Rabe is good—Kill the Boss Goodbye (1956), say, or Anatomy of a Killer, or The Box (1962)—he’s fulsome in his praise; but when he believes Rabe’s writing is subpar, he doesn’t pull punches. I was surprised, for instance, by the treatment meted out to Rabe’s series of novels starring reluctant criminal Daniel Port; I’d always figured the Port novels had been a big influence on the Parkers in particular, but apparently not. Of the debut Port outing, Dig My Grave Deep (1956), Westlake writes: 

[The book] is merely a second-rate gloss of Hammett’s The Glass Key, without Hammett’s psychological accuracy and without Rabe’s own precision and clarity. The book flounders and drifts and postures. The writing is tired and portentous, the characters thinner versions of Hammett’s.

Ouch—and the remainder of the Daniel Port series fares little better. Even so, Westlake has the gift, possessed of the best critics, to make even the duffest-sounding of novels seem interesting. His clear-eyed assessments are consistently entertaining, affording insight even when he’s slating Rabe’s work—and I’ll be drawing on a number of those assessments over the coming weeks, as I unveil some of the Peter Rabe paperbacks I’ve picked up over the past year, and take a look at what Westlake had to say about them.

News for week ending 2013-03-08 (open thread)

News for week ending 2013-03-01 (open thread)

The Employment Score

A quick personal note.

I GOT THE JOB!!!!!!

As long-time readers know, I’ve been struggling ever since the economy collapsed at the end of 2008. I’ve managed to get by on freelance gigs, contract work, and occasionally the grace of God, but I’ve had nothing like a permanent, stable position. Throw in selling a house and moving and some other significant life events, and you can see that life has been very complicated indeed.

I accepted an offer today for a permanent, stable position.

What does this mean for the site? Hard for me to say. I did the revamp right as my life began descending into chaos, so I’ve never tried to manage it with a forty-hour-a-week, Monday-through-Friday gig. I imagine in the short-term, my work here will be its usual sporadic self, but I’m hoping a set schedule without having to look for work in my free time (or feel guilty for not doing so) will mean that I get better at posting, replying to e-mail, and digging up the latest DEW and Parker news, as well as having more time to read great crime fiction to review.

Can’t promise that, but we’ll see!

I’ve got some down time before I start. A lot of things to take care of, of course, but I hope to get some long-delayed guest posts finally up. That won’t start for a few days though. I have celebrating to do.

Westlake Score: Adios, Scheherazade

Westlake_Adios

NB: A version of this post also appears on Existential Ennui.

Let’s have a Westlake Score, shall we? Namely a UK first edition of Adios, Scheherazade, published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton in 1971, the year after the US Simon & Schuster first. Quite an uncommon book this one: it fell out of print decades ago—in English anyway; there are more recent French editions—making it one of the scarcest of all of Donald E. Westlake’s novels—either under his own name or one of his numerous nom de plumes—in any edition, especially so in this British printing. I acquired this copy—for a ridiculously low price—from famed book dealer Jamie Sturgeon, who originally acquired it from . . . actually I don’t really know where Jamie got it from—which I guess is why he’s the famed book dealer and I’m simply one of the clueless slobs wot buy books off him.

The dust jacket design is by Lipscombe, Lubbock, Ewart & Holland, doing a grand job of evoking the era, if not the specific milieu, of the novel: that of the American sleaze paperback field, in which Westlake toiled away in the late-1950s/early-1960s under a variety of aliases. Chief among those was Alan Marshall, under which moniker Westlake wrote over a dozen smutty softcovers for Midwood; I blogged about some of them towards the end of last year, inspired by Trent’s series of posts on the Westlake sleaze catalogue. Adios, Scheherazade is about that part of Westlake’s life, and is also one of his more experimental novels; as Ethan Iverson notes in his brief precis of the book as part of his peerless Westlake overview: “here there are 10 chapters of exactly 5000 words each, just like the sex novels the hapless narrator is supposed to be writing.”

Speaking of other folks’ thoughts on the thing, there’s a detailed review of Adios, Scheherazade over at Those Sexy Vintage Sleaze Books, but perhaps the best piece on the novel available online (linked previously by Andrew Wheeler, Matthew Asprey and Bill Crider) is Earl Kemp’s “Nobody Can Write This Shit Forever.” Kemp actually edited some of Westlake’s sleaze efforts—quite heavily, if Kemp is to be believed—and his candid, gossipy reminiscences as he picks his way through Adios, Scheherazade make for entertaining and arresting reading. As Kemp drily observes: “The [Alan Marshall] manuscripts consistently rose just to almost the absolute minimum required input level.”

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News for week ending 2013-02-22 (open thread)

News for week ending 2013-02-15 (open thread)

Fourth (fourteenth?) anniversary

102 - The Comedy is Finished by Donald Westlake

Lots of stuff going on in my so-called “real life” at the moment, so this post is late and a bit more perfunctory than last year’s. But I did want to mark the anniversary, even if it is late.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think of the real anniversary of the current VWOP as being the date of Donald Westlake’s death, December 31, 2008, because that’s what caused me to get off my posterior and revamp the crude original version. The actual birthday of VWOP is lost to the mists of time, but it was sometime in late 1998 or maybe early ’99, crudely done as “The Parker Page.” But January 31, 2009 was the relaunch, so that’s the date we’ll use because I don’t want to write anniversary posts during the holidays. If you’d like to read more about the history of the site, let me send you to last year’s post.

It’s too bad I don’t have more time to devote to this post, because this was a big year for fans of Parker, Donald Westlake, and crime fiction.

So let’s hit at least hit the highlights. Please tell me anything I missed in the comments.

Donald Westlake’s legacy seems in no danger of dying, thank goodness. There were some major events in the past year:

The Comedy is Finished

The first unpublished Donald Westlake novel recovered from the vaults was Memory, a near masterpiece (and it’s possible I should drop the modifier “near.”) The second one didn’t hit that level, but it’s a damn good book that any fan should want to read. My review is here.

There are still at least two unpublished novels out there!

Richard Stark’s Parker: The Score by Darwyn Cooke

Darwyn Cooke continues his masterful series of adaptations of Parker novels with maybe the best one yet. I just realized I never gave this one a proper review (my life has been crazier than usual lately, and that’s saying something), but esteemed co-blogger Nick and I did get the high honor of interviewing Darwyn about the book, all things Parker, and lots of other things. It was a blast, Darwyn is a gentleman, and if you haven’t picked up his brilliant adaptations yet, what are you waiting for?

I was supposed to mention this a couple of weeks ago but forgot. Here is IDW Publishing’s new page for their Parker series. I have added it to the links section in the sidebar. Pretty nifty.

The Grofield series comes back into print

The wonderful folks at the University of Chicago Press, who have reprinted most of the Parker novels (and hope to do the rest), brought all four of the spinoff Alan Grofield series into print digitally, and three of the four in dead tree editions (Lemons Never Lie was already in print from Hard Case Crime). They also released a tie-in edition of Flashfire to coincide with the movie, and this terrific Parker character guide. I have also added this to the side bar.

Parker the movie

This one didn’t go so well, in my opinion, but others liked it more than I did. I linked what I think is a good cross-section of thoughts at the bottom of my post, although I was only interested in opinions from other Parker enthusiasts so I didn’t link to any regular old film critics. The comments section was lively.

I was honestly a bit surprised that a number of readers did enjoy the movie. I’ll check it out again when I add the Blu-ray to my Parker films collection, and write a re-assesment if I think it deserves it.

Max Allan Collins’ Nolan series comes back into print

Max Allan Collins’ Nolan starred in a series of Parker pastiches (also inspired by Ennis Willie’s Sand series). The first two volumes Blood Money and Bait Money have been in print as a twofer from Hard Case Crime under the title Two for the Money. The rest of the series was restored to print this year through Perfect Crime Books, who have also reprinted a number of volumes in MAC’s Quarry series.

The Violent World of Parker has posted two out of three in a series of pieces by Dan Luft giving an overview of the Nolan series (here and here). I hope to have part three up shortly. It was supposed to be this week, but it looks right now like I’m barely going to have time to breathe until a week from today, so it may have to wait (sorry again, Dan!).

The Future

So what’s coming up? In addition to part three of the Nolan overview, I’m hoping to finish my series on Donald Westlake’s sleaze catalog. And I’ve got two other great guest posts that I hope to deploy soon. As with Mr. Luft’s work on the Nolan series, they are great pieces and the writers should probably hate me for keeping them embargoed for so long. They will be worth the wait, for the readers if not the writers.

And, as always, I have a hundred other things I’d like to get to, at least three of which I probably will!

We will likely see less of esteemed co-blogger Nick for at least a few months. (Don’t worry; it’s for good reasons.) I know you all appreciate his contributions as much as I do, so we’ll treasure what we do get. Let me once again give him a hearty thanks.

On behalf of Nick and myself, let me again thank our many deeply loyal readers and commenters. And if you’re a reader but not a commenter, quit being so shy!

Happy 2013, everybody. I hope your year is blessed.

News for week ending 2013-02-08 (open thread)

Westlake Score: The Jugger

Stark_Parker_Jugger

NB: A version of this post also appears on Existential Ennui.

I unveiled the bulk of the Westlake—or rather, Richard Stark—Scores I acquired from Alan White Fine Books in one great big splurge of a bloated blogpost on Wednesday, but I kept one back because it dates from slightly earlier in the Parker series.

Published in the States by Pocket Books in 1965, The Jugger is the sixth entry in the series. The cover art is by Harry Bennett, who illustrated the covers of all eight of the Pocket Parkers, from The Hunter (1962) to The Handle (1966), and though there’s a general sense among Parker fanatics that there’s something a bit off about the novel itself—fueled, in part, by Westlake himself; more on that in a moment—I’m of the firm belief that the cover is one of Bennett’s best efforts on the Parkers. I like the abstraction of the midground—that jumble of flat colors denoting signage—and the way Bennett’s placed the figures and the rest on a white background, using the negative space for Captain Younger’s shirt. Clever, confident stuff. And as is often the case with Bennett’s Parker covers, you get a bonus sketch on the back too:

Stark_Parker_Jugger_back

In an Austin Chronicle interview excerpt on the Violent World of Parker dedicated page for The Jugger, Westlake identifies the book as “one of the worst failures I’ve ever had,” pointing to the way he “spoiled” the novel “by having [Parker] do something he wouldn’t do,” i.e. going to the aid of his “mailbox,” Joe Sheer. Except as Trent notes in the subsequent review, he doesn’t; as the novel itself makes clear: ” . . . he had come up to this rotten little town to find out if it was going to be necessary to kill Joe Sheer or not.” Westlake’s misremembered disapproval of The Jugger might be part of the reason some Parker enthusiasts aren’t keen on the book, but perhaps a bigger part is the unusual nature of the thing, at least in comparison to the bulk of the Parkers. As Ed Gorman points out, it’s not a heist thriller but “a kind of psychodrama.” Viewed in that light, and on its own merits rather than as a decent book in an exceptional series, it stands revealed as a cold, mean mini-masterpiece.

Mind you, despite my sweeping generalizations about Parker fans’ feelings about The Jugger, you don’t actually have to look that hard to find folks who appreciate it for what it is; witness the glowing reviews at Pulp Serenade, Kevin’s Corner, and especially this thoughtful, perceptive one at Olman’s Fifty. In fact, on reflection, it’s looking increasingly like Westlake was the only person who didn’t rate it . . .