Stark Views: The Violent World of Donald Westlake

Many thanks to Chris Poggiali and Badazz Mofo magazine for permission to reprint this article.

Stark Views: The
Violent World of Donald Westlake

After two roars from the MGM lion, we cut to tough guy Parker (Jim Brown) kicking open the door to his girlfriend Ellie’s apartment. He charges inside, searches the place, and finds Ellie (Diahann Carroll) sitting up in bed, dead, skewered to the headboard with a sword — “stuck there like a scarecrow put away for the winter.” Checking the closet, Parker discovers that the money from the stadium heist is missing, and then –“Whoa, wait a minute!” some of you are yelling now, “I saw The Split and it didn’t start like that! And who the hell is this Parker guy?! Jim played the badazz McClain in that movie!” Yeah, yeah, I know — but if the producers of The Split had been interested in making a great caper movie instead of just a mediocre action flick that wastes a once-in-a-lifetime cast, they would’ve stuck closer to their source material: The Seventh, a fast-paced, ingeniously plotted crime novel written by Donald E. Westlake, under his “Richard Stark” pseudonym. Published in 1966 as a 158-page paperback from Pocket Books,The Seventh tells the story of seven crooks who rob a stadium during a college football interconference game, and the violent complications that erupt before the take is divided. The title refers not only to the one-seventh share of the loot that each crook is due to receive, but also to the fact that this was the seventh novel written by Westlake under the Stark alias.

“Stark” is right. During their peak in the late 60s and early 70s, these cold, hard, stripped-down books were extremely popular in prison libraries across the country, due to the fact that the main characters are killers and thieves who always get away in the end. Eighteen of the twenty-two books are about the ruthless criminal Parker — possibly the toughest tough guy in the history of crime fiction –while the other four novels shine the spotlight on his frequent partner in crime, Alan Grofield, a wisecracking stage actor who commits armed robberies to support the community theatre he owns in Indiana. Parker is a professional crook — “Banks, payrolls, armored cars, jewelers, anyplace that’s worth the risk” — and his novels center around the elaborate heists he participates in, as well as the inevitable carnage that follows, with a few exceptions: The Jugger, a strange mystery set in a small town in Nebraska, brilliantly pays homage to Jim Thompson’s “crazy sheriff” stories (The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280), while The Handle is surely to blame for all those mind-numbing Executioner/ Penetrator/Death Merchant books that Pinnacle started mass-producing two or three years later. In Butcher’s Moon, Westlake tips his hat to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest by dropping Parker and Grofield into the middle of a complicated plot involving gangsters and corrupt politicians. Grofield’s first three solo ventures (The Damsel, The Dame, and The Blackbird) represent the nadir of Stark’s output — clumsy, lightweight affairs that turn the fourth book, the downbeat and nasty Lemons Never Lie, into a sucker punch to the groin.

In 1973, Berkley Medallion Books reissued most of the Parker novels as a numbered adventure series, “The Violent World of Parker,” in an attempt to cash in on Pinnacle’s popular Destroyer and Executioner series (the Coffin Ed and Gravedigger mysteries by Chester Himes underwent a similar facelift around the same time). Titles were changed — The Score became Killtown, for example — but Berkley screwed up the whole thing by assigning the wrong number to almost every book in the series! For maximum enjoyment, the Stark books should be read in a certain order (see the list below), since characters from earlier stories return every so often, and previous adventures are frequently referred to and sometimes even continued. Bett Harrow, the woman who sets up Parker for blackmail in The Outfit, is dealt with in the following book, The Mourner. The Damsel opens with Grofield still recovering from the gunshot wounds he received in The Handle. Parker spends half of Plunder Squad trying to track down and kill George Uhl, the double-crossing lunatic who fouled up the bank heist split at the beginning of The Sour Lemon Score. In Butcher’s Moon, Parker and Grofield return to the Fun Island amusement park to retrieve the $73,000 from an armored car robbery that Parker stashed there at the end of Slayground.

Westlake has been the mad scientist of crime fiction for nearly 40 years now, and the Stark books showcase some of his more daring experiments with style and structure. The Blackbird and Slayground both open with the same botched armored car robbery, told from two different points of view: Grofield’s in The Blackbird, Parker’s in Slayground. The two books share the same opening chapter, but go off in completely different directions; Grofield is captured by the police, then recruited by the CIA (!) and sent to Quebec on a silly James Bond-type adventure with a beautiful secret agent from Africa (the “blackbird” of the title); Parker, who gets away with the loot, ends up tangling with mobsters and bad cops in a shuttered amusement park only one block away from the scene of the robbery! Even more bizarre is the jaw- dropping plot twist in Plunder Squad that sends Parker wandering into chapter eighteen of Dead Skip, the first DKA File mystery by Joe “Hammett” Gores. And then there’s Jimmy the Kid, the third installment in Westlake’s hilarious Dortmunder series (following The Hot Rock and Bank Shot), which has its hapless crooks using the nonexistent Stark novel Child Heist as the blueprint for their own bungled kidnapping attempt.

The big screen adaptations of Stark’s novels range from excellent to excrutiating, but they all have one thing in common: screenwriters who felt the need to change Parker’s name. Lee Marvin is Walker in Point Blank! (1967), Jim Brown is McClain in The Split (1968), Robert Duvall is Earl Macklin in The Outfit (1974), Peter Coyote is Stone in Slayground (an awful mid-80s flick that manages to destroy two books at once — Deadly Edge and Slayground), and who the hell knows what names were used in Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in U.S.A. (1966) and Alain Cavalier’s Mise à Sac (1967) — based on The Jugger and The Score, respectively – since neither film received much of a release here in the States. Adding insult to injury is the upcoming Payback, a remake of Point Blank! that stars Mel Gibson as “Porter.” I really had high hopes up for this one, since the original title was Parker, and it was written and directed by Brian Helgeland, who did such a good job adapting James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential. Add to this a solid supporting cast that includes James Coburn, Bill Duke, and Angie Dickinson (from the original), and I was perfectly willing to overlook the fact that Mel Gibson is totally wrong for the part. I just can’t picture him saying something like “I’m going to drink his blood. I’m going to chew up his heart and spit it into the gutter for the dogs to raise a leg at. I’m going to peel the skin off him and rip out his veins and hang him with them.” Nope. Sorry, ladies, but I can’t imagine a nice guy like Mel smashing a woman in the nose, then calmly stepping over her while she dies of asphyxiation on the floor. But that doesn’t matter anymore, ‘cause the title’s been changed to Payback, Gibson is playing Porter, the trailer completely sucks, and I now remember that Helgeland also wrote 976-EVIL, Assassins, and The Postman.

Thankfully, Richard Stark himself returned from a twenty-three year vacation recently to give us two more top-notch Parker adventures, Comeback and Backflash, which are now playing at a bookstore or library near you.

The Novels of Violence by Richard Stark

The Hunter (a.k.a. Point Blank! – 1962) III; The Man with the Getaway Face (a.k.a. The Steel Hit – 1963) III½; The Outfit (1963) II½; The Mourner (1963) II½; The Score (a.k.a. Killtown – 1964) III½; The Jugger (a.k.a. Made in U.S.A. – 1965) IIII; The Seventh (a.k.a. The Split – 1966) IIII; The Handle (a.k.a. Run Lethal – 1966) II½;The Damsel (1967) I;The Rare Coin Score (1967) III; The Green Eagle Score (1968) III; The Dame (1969) II; The Black Ice Score (1968) II½; The Sour Lemon Score (1969) IIII; Deadly Edge (1971) III½; The Blackbird (1969) II;Slayground (1971)IIII; Lemons Never Lie (1971) III; Plunder Squad (1972) III; Butcher’s Moon (1974) IIII; Comeback (1997) IIII; Backflash (1998) IIII

– Chris Poggiali

Chris Poggiali is an accomplished journalist. He also writes for Fangoria and Shock Cinema

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