Introduction to the Gregg Press Edition of The Outfit

From the Gregg Press edition, copyright 1981


The Outfit (1963) was the third Parker story to be written and the fifth to be made into a movie. The first novel of the series, The Hunter (1962), had been the basis for the Lee Marvin film Point Blank (1967) which has become the focal point of a crime-movie cult. Directed brilliantly by John Boorman (Deliverance), Point Blank explores the American criminal world in an unsentimental slam-bang manner; it is an astonishing movie, but not a particularly faithful representation of the Parker novels. It was followed by The Split (1968), starring Jim Brown in the part of the Parker character and featuring such tough guys as Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates and Donald Sutherland. That one–an entertaining action movie but nothing extraordinary–was based on the 1966 Parker novel The Seventh, which was the sixth, not the seventh, novel in the series [ed-actually, it is the seventh].

Then came two French versions, one of them filmed by Jean-Luc Godard with the title Made in U.S.A., with Parker turned into a woman character, Anna Karina starred. Neither of the two French films has been distributed in America. At about that time, someone remarked to Parker’s creator that the character had been played by a white American, a black American and a white Frenchwoman: obviously “the character lacks definition”.  A good joke; but the charge is easily dismissed by reading any of the books. Parker is one of the most vividly defined characters in American fiction.

Then, fifth, in 1973, came MGM’s The Outfit, with Robert Duvall in the Parker role and Joe Don Baker in the Handy McKay role. It was written and directed by John Flynn, who initially wrote the screenplay as a period piece, intending to set the film in the postwar 1940s; for that reason he peopled the supporting cast with such ’40s “B” players as Elisha Cook Jr., Richard Jaeckel, Marie Windsor (!) and Jane Greer. The studio, however, decided it would be too expensive to shoot a period picture, so the script was superficially updated, the World War II vets became Vietnam vets, and actors like Robert Ryan (it was his last feature film), Karen Black and Sheree North joined the cast.  The result was that–inadvertently–the story was restored to its original conception.   Interestingly, it is also the only one of the five films to use the original (book) title. [ed–It has since been joined by Slayground.]

The Outfit–the film–turns up now and then on television. Unfortunately it has been re-edited, the ending changed: in the movie the two guys get away at the end but in the TV version they don’t. Television still hasn’t caught up with reality. Nonetheless the movie is worth watching.  It simplifies the plot of the novel for reasons of time and cinematic necessity but it is faithful to the idea and flavor of the novel. And Robert Duvall’s portrayal of the character (not called Parker in the movie because Columbia Pictures owns the rights to the Parker name and Columbia has never made a Parker movie so the character always gets a new name in his movie appearences) is superb, certainly the closest any actor has come to the original.  (Lee Marvin’s “Walker” in Point Blank is fascinating, but far more volatile and explosive than Parker is.)

Sidelight: in The Outfit, Robert Ryan plays the character who, in the book, is called Bronson.  Some years ago I was hired by producers at 20th Century-Fox to write a screenplay based on Butcher’s Moon, a 1974 Parker-Grofield novel by Richard Stark. It was never produced, but it was intended as a vehicle for Charles Bronson. The Bronson character in The Outfit, however, was conceived before Charles Bronson’s emergence as a major action-movie star.  Of course “Bronson” isn’t Charles Bronson’s real name (his name is Buchinsky); a good nom-de-guerre is a good nom-de-guerre wherever you find it, and the characters in the Parker stories always have terrific names.  (I have, however, heard the author complain that if he had it to do over again, he’d call Parker something else.  “Parker can’t do anything with a car. I can’t bring myself to write, ‘Parker parked the car.'”)

. . . . Movies are part of the literature of our century. The five Parker films are part of that literature.  But so far, as a canon, they can’t match the force and unique vitality of the Richard Stark novels that inspired them.  It’s going to be quite a while before we see Parker turn up as the protagonist of a weekly TV series; as far as I know, The Split has been shown only once on TV and there are no plans to re-release it in theatres; Point Blank and The Outfit turn up on the tube occasionally but both have been re-edited by television philistines; the two French movies, for legal and financial reasons, are unlikely ever to be shown in America. So when you want to meet the real Parker, that unique American literary institution, you must read about him in the pages of books like this one.

* * *

I first met Donald E. Westlake–alias Richard Stark–in 1965 at a poker game. Others who played in that game over the years included novelist Lawrence Block, literary agent Henry Morrison, novelist Justin Scott, folk-singer Dave Van Ronk, screenwriter Hal Dresner, science-fiction writer/editor Robert Hoskins, editor-poet George Dickerson and publisher Irwin Stein. It wasn’t exactly the Algonquin Round Table but it was close.  (In fact, for years the game took place directly across the street from the Algonquin Hotel.)  A few businessmen and doctors also became regulars in the game but it was essentially a writer-publisher gang and many of us came to count on The Game as a weekly clearinghouse for ideas and problems that came up in our work. We felt free to discuss works-in-progress with one another because there was an unspoken rule that nobody stole any ideas that were revealed att he poker table. Mostly, of course, the game was simply for entertainment and we all labored under the challenge of topping each other’s gag-lines. But it did affect our lives. It was the poker game that persuaded me to change agents and quit writing paperback Westerns and get into the mainstream with thrillers and non-fiction books and screenplays.

Chief wit and raconteur of the game was Westlake. The game broke up in the mid-1970s, mainly out of ennui, but its members still meet once a month for a “non-poker dinner” which Abby Westlake describes, resignedly, as the Boys’ Night Out.  In the years between my joining the game (which then had already been in progress for some seven years) and its eventual dissolution, Westlake and I became close friends. We still are.  We are winter neighbors in New Jersey and summer neighbors at the beach; I was best man at his wedding to Abby Adams; we collaborated on a novel (Gangway!, 1973) and have worked together informally on books, films and television scripts; we criticize each other’s manuscripts-in-progress–sometimes forcefully, for often nobody except the emperor’s best friend has the nerve to tell him he’s got no clothes. We share a therapeutic interest in carpentry and sometimes band together on projects like the building of the bookshelves in Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Book Shop on West 56th Street in New York: Westlake and I built the shelves with the architectural assistance of Justin Scott and Caroline Penzler.

For those reasons it’s both enjoyable and awkward for me to write this introduction. It’s enjoyable for obvious reasons. But it’s also awkward because I think of Don Westlake as my close friend; I have an obvious bias. Therefore let us establish and admit the bias right up front: I am a thorough admirer and fan of Westlake’s talent, wit and work; I am a devotee of the Parker novels and especially The Outfit, which in some ways is my favorite of them.

Parker–and Richard Stark–first appeared in 1962 with The Hunter (subsequently re-titled Point Blank to conform with the movie title). Originally it was a paperback, published by Pocket Books.  It wasn’t intended to be the first book of a series; it was simply a novel. But by the time it was published Parker was already on his way to further capers.  The Man With the Getaway Face, The Outfit, and The Mourner were published in 1963, and The Score in 1964, by which time Parker’s actor-thief partner Alan Grofield had already begun to appear in the stories. Grofield later was to star in his own spin-off series of crime novels by Richard Stark. Grofield doesn’t appear in The Outfit; I mention him here simply to allay the rumor that Grofield was named after me. I didn’t meet Don Westlake until a year after he’d introduced Grofield in the series.

Under his own name, Westlake wrote a number of hardboiled crime novels–The Mercenaries (1960), Killing Time (1961), 361 (1962) (the title comes from the Roget’s Thesaurus index number for “Killing”), Killy (1963)–before he started writing the Parker stories. Only after that did he begin to select his pen-names on a brand-name basis: comedies by Westlake, hardboiled crime novels by Richard Stark, brooding detective stories by Tucker Coe, so forth. The early Westlakes were not comedies; they were grim crime novels, precursors to the Parker series.  By the time Parker appeared, Westlake had already done his apprenticeship: he had learned his craft and his art, and Pity Him Afterwards (1964) is a spellbindingly harrowing novel of madness, terror and murder which today probably comes as a horrific surprise to those book-browsers who, when they see the Westlake by-line, think they are picking up a lighthearted comedy. After 1964, however, the brand-names were established and nobody was likely to confuse a Richard Stark novel with a Donald E. Westlake comedy.

(But it is interesting to note that Westlake’s “Dortmunder” series of comedy-caper novels, beginning with The Hot Rock (1970), grew out of the Parker stories. Westlake sat down one day to start writing the next Richard Stark novel, decided that the situation in the plot was too funny to let pass, and converted Parker into Dortmunder, Grofield into Kelp, and the tough plot into a comedy.)

I have heard Westlake describe Parker as a 1930s Depression character out of his time, or as a European criminal rather than an American one: European in the sense that he is an existential crook. Parker’s daddy wasn’t lynched by an evil railroad company (á la Jesse James in American mythology).  Parker wasn’t driven to crime by a bad environment (á la the James Cagney characterizations) or forced into a life of crime in order to buy an operation for his kid sister ( á la the Hollywood crime romances of the 1940s). Parker is a crook simply because that’s what he does. He is what he is.

* * *

In the fourth section of the first chapter of The Outfit, Parker’s history is recapped for those who haven’t read the preceding two novels in the series. In a few terse pages the plot of The Hunter is reprised. And Parker, apparently, sprang to life full-blown before that, like Minerva from the brow of Zeus. If Parker ever had a childhood we aren’t let in on it. He is supremely existentialist.

In the seventh section of the third chapter of The Outfit, a character describes Parker and his kind: “They’re outlaws, crooks. They don’t think of themselves as part of society, they think of themselves as individuals, alone in a jungle.  Therefore, they are always on the defensive, always ready to protect their own. They’ll never call for the police, never put in a claim on their fire and theft insurance, never look to society to protect them or repay them or avenge them.” And later (first section of Chapter Four), to Parker himself, thinking about his erstwhile partner Handy McKay, “It was a bad sign when a man like Handy started owning things and started thinking he could afford friendships. Possessions tie a man down and friendships blind him. Parker owned nothing; the men he knew were just that, the men he knew. They were not his friends and they owned nothing . . . When a man like Handy started craving possessions and friendships, it meant he was losing the leanness. It was a bad sign.”

The leanness . . . Parker is probably the leanest character in fiction.  He carries no baggage.  He simply is.  Like a rock or a mountain or a law of nature.

Parker is a criminal: he robs for a living.  Sometimes he is double-crossed by his partners or his victims.  (When one of his victims cries out for help, Parker reacts as follows: “Parker shot in irritation and ducked back out to the hall.  Behind him, [the victim] sagged onto the desk.”  It is that irritation that terrifies us because it so coolly informs us of Parker’s amoral leanness: he doesn’t live by the rules that the rest of us take for granted.)  When he is double-crossed and loses the loot, he takes action to get it back.  His attitude toward loot is that of a seasoned poker player: it may have been your money before I won the hand, but it’s my money now and if you steal it from me I’m going to get it back.  When Parker knocks off a bank or a football stadium he thinks of it as winning a game: after the game, it’s his money, not the bank’s or the stadium’s.

Parker is supremely logical.  All his decisions are based on perfect syllogisms.  Once you accept his premises, you accept the logic of his behavior.  In a peculiar sense I find Parker more apt to the 1970s and 1980s than he was to the 1960s when he was created: in this me-first generation Parker fits right in.  His morals are the morals of survival in a hostile universe.  His victims and enemies, by and large, are loathsome: bureaucrats, gangsters, mindless fools, greedy executives.  His life is lonely, ungiving, but proud and self-sufficient.  He is amoral but in another sense he is the quintessential Teddy Roosevelt moralist: “Don’t tread on me.”

Parker–he has a first name and I know it but I’ve agreed never to disclose it–is a unique character in modern American fiction. As a series, the Parker canon is more interesting than, say, the Travis McGee series (John D. MacDonald) or the Earl Drake bank-robber series (Dan J. Marlowe–it parallels the Parker stories both in time and in conception), simply because in those series the characters never change; they never grow–Parker grows.  He changes during the series–as in his relationship with Claire, or his increasing interest in grandiose scores, as if he were an addict seeking ever increasing doses of risk. Because of this growth and change in the caracter, I think the Parker series can be regarded as an extended novel; and as such, it is an important part of the literature of our age.  We may not acknowledge that fact for quite a few years yet, but I suspect in the long run Westlake may actually be remembered more vividly as the creator of Parker and Parker’s milieu than as the creator of the crime-comedy-caper genre with which, at present, he is most closely identified. (Actually, of course, nothing prevents him from being remembered for both. Edison invented both the light bulb and the motion picture, didn’t he? Well never mind–at least he’s remembered for having invented them.)

Part of the series’ uniqueness can be identified by the construction of the stories: they are as meticulously put together as formal sonnets. One notes the four-chapter structure of each novel (in which Chapters 1, 2, and 4 are told from Parker’s viewpoint, and Chapter 3 from somebody else’s), the opening sentence (always beginning with the word “When”, at least in the early books of the series), the plot sequence (a robbery goes wrong and Parker strives to set it right), the characters who keep turning up from book to book–instantly identifiable–until one by one they die violently; all except Parker, who is eternal.

“The Violent World of Parker” is the way one publisher billed the series when it was reissued in the early 1970s (Berkley Books). And truly the Parker stories create an entire world: a milieu as specific and recognizable as that of Sherlock Holmes’s London or Nero Wolfe’s New York. And Westlake–like Conan Doyle and Rex Stout–has imposed his own unique auctorial style on his canon of Richard Stark novels:

” ‘One time when Skimm was here,’ Parker said, ‘he buried a wad of dough out back some place.  If you haven’t looked for it, you can now.  He’s dead.’
” ‘You know who you sound like?’
” ‘Parker.’
” ‘Be damned if you don’t.”
“Parker went in and saw a man in the entrance to the parlor.  He was holding a gun, but not aiming it anywhere in particular at the moment.
” ‘Hi, Jacko,’ said Parker.”

Nobody else could have written those paragraphs.  And few readers are likely to mistake them for anybody’s but Richard Stark’s.

It is a series of novels that started on a very high plane. I thought at the time when I first read it, and I still think, that the opening chapter of the first novel in the series–The Hunter–is probably the tightest, most astonishing, and most brilliant first chapter of any crime novel I’ve ever read. It is a tour-de-force of auctorial legerdemain. It is one of those jobs of work by one writer that can make another writer sit up in awe and exclaim, “I wish to hell I could write like that.” Well the most astonishing thing of all is that Westlake just goes right on writing like that. I like all the Parker novels, but in a way The Outfit is my favorite of them all.  It is quintessential Richard Stark, quintessential Parker. In it, Parker takes on the entire Mafia (herein called The Outfit) and bests them on his own terms.

It’s a superb introduction to Parker. But I must warn you, if you’re coming to Parker’s world for the first time in this book, that you will find it habit-forming and you are likely to drop everything in the rush to get your hands on all the other Richard Stark novels.

Do so. You won’t be disappointed.

Brian Garfield
Alpine, New Jersey

Special thanks to Mr. Garfield for his kind permission to post this introduction.