Introduction to the Payback Movie Tie-in Edition of The Hunter

Richard Stark

introduced by

Donald E. Westlake

Stephen King phoned me one day a few years ago. “I want the other half of your pen name,” he said. “Okay,” I said. And so the pseudonym come to murderous life in the King novel The Dark Half was named George Stark. I don’t know where the George came from.

Earlier, Stephen had made off with the front half of my pen name. He was using a pseudonym himself for the first time, and at the particular moment that his agent called to ask what the new name would be, he reading a Richard Stark novel and listening to Bachman-Turner Overdrive, so that’s how Richard Bachman was born.

Well, what the heck, I wasn’t being Richard Stark any more; why not let him have an outing? On the other hand, when I did the screenplay from Jim Thompson’s novel The Grifters, the movie’s director, Stephen Frears, insisted it was Richard Stark who had written it, and even pressed me to use Richard Stark as the name in the credits. I got out of that one by explaining Richard Stark wasn’t a member of the Writers Guild.

I don’t think he’s a joiner, actually.

The names we don’t get from our parents can come from anywhere. I used Richard because I was thinking of Richard Widmark, in his first movie, Kiss of Death, in which part of the character’s fascination and danger is in his unpredictability. He’s fast and mean, and that’s what I wanted the writing to be: crisp and lean, no fat, trimmed down…stark.

I needed a pen name just then because I’d decided to do something different. At that time, I was writing more or less normal whodunits, published in hardcover by Random House, under my own name, and I wanted to try something more hardboiled and rough-edged, troublesome in the manner of some people I’d known, and aimed at paperback publication. Aimed specifically, as a matter of fact, at Gold Medal Books, which published the cream of such writing at that time.

So I did a book without a hero, centering on the bad guy, paying attention to what he wanted and how he went about getting it, and where it led him. I wanted to start him with nothing except a desire for revenge, and let him construct himself. And at the end of the novel, because I knew what was supposed to happen at the end of tough guy novels, my lead character got caught by the police.

I never saw that book as the start of a series, never thought the bad guy could get off scot-free to come back and be a bad guy some more. If I’d known what was going to happen, I might have given him a first name, and he most likely wouldn’t have been called Parker. Why not? Well, he was in a lot of automobiles over the course of sixteen books, and it got tiresome after a while, trying to find some other way to say, “Parker parked the car.”

In any event, I’d written a simple revenge story with a non-hero in the lead, who gets his comeuppance at the end, and I was going to sell it to Gold Medal Books, and then I’d go ff and write something else, and maybe some day Richard Stark would come back and do a second novel, about some other character entirely. And the first thing that happened was that Gold Medal rejected the book, and the second thing that happened was that a brilliant editor and wonderful man named Bucklin Moon, at Pocket Books, read the manuscript and phoned me to say, “I’m considering buying this. Is there any way that Parker could escape from the police at the end, and you could give me three books a year about him?

Well, yes. It turned out, Parker was a very interesting character to follow. I followed him for fourteen years, over sixteen books, and then, just in the same way that he’d so easily escaped from those cops at the end of the first novel (once I’d given him his head), he suddenly and just as easily escaped from me. Or from Richard Stark. Or maybe it was Richard Stark who’d escaped. Whatever the mechanics, after twelve years of dual personality, I was suddenly alone.

I tried not to be. Three times over the next ten years I tried to tell another Parker story, and he just refused to show up. I could write sentences, but they didn’t refer to that guy, and they weren’t the kind of sentences Richard Stark would write. So the hell with it, I could do other things.

Then came The Grifters, about which, in an odd way, Stephen Frears was right. That was Richard Stark, rousing himself from whatever. And just as I started work on the script, along came a five-month-long Writers Guild strike. Couldn’t do film work, so I started another story about Parker, and it too turned into a dry well, just as the strike ended. Never again, says I.

Until, two years ago, my wife, Abby, suggested I look again at that last fragment, which I did, and saw it had life in it after all. I showed it to a friend, Otto Penzler, of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York, and said, “Is this Stark, or is this me imitating Stark?” He assured me it was Stark. He was back!

The book came into existence then as easily as all the others had done, and was called, had to be called, Comeback. Parker had years of stories waiting to be told, so now I have another new one, Backflash, and I’m working on the next, Flashfire.

Somehow, it must simply have been that the time was right for Richard Stark. Between the writing of Comeback and Backflash, a man named Brian Helgeland, co-screenwriter (and Academy Award recipient) for L.A. Confidential, wrote and directed, with Mel Gibson, a movie, Payback, base on The Hunter,that very first Richard Stark novel. (The Hunter had also been filmed in 1967, as Point Blank, with Lee Marvin, so the new one is technically a remake of the old one, but Helgeland based his script on the original novel.)

In 1961, when I wrote about Parker for the first time, I had no idea he would ever appear in another book. I had no idea he and his creator, Richard Stark, would become for a while, around 1970, better known and better paid than I was. I had no idea Parker would appear in (so far) seven movies. I also had no idea he would just up one day and disappeared. And I certainly had no idea he would ever come back, and be welcomed all over again. (I’m sorry to do this to Stephen King, of course, but I think he’ll survive the blow.)

Well, here’s Richard Stark again, as he began. Now we are once again two, and we are both pleased.

(The Violent World of Parker would like to thank Jeremy at Mysteries for Hire for providing this introduction.)