Introduction to the Gregg Press Edition of The Score

From the Gregg Press edition, copyright 1981


In my opinion, Donald E. Westlake is the best writer in the mystery/suspense field to come along in the second half of the 20th century. I offer The Score (1964) as a small but valid piece of evidence.

Valid, because it’s a classic example of the hard-boiled caper novel; because it shows Westlake (or, rather his alter ego, “Richard Stark”–more about that relationship later) as a master of hard, clean prose, and a genius at shifting point of view. We slip in and out of the characters’ heads, see their thoughts, know them, carry the action forward, and move on without feeling a ripple in the flow of the narrative.

The Score is a small piece of evidence, though, because it can’t show you how Stark maintains quality over a long series (there are 26 [A typo. Sixteen when this was printed–ed.] Parker novels; The Score is the fifth of them), and it can’t show you Don Westlake’s most outstanding trait: versatility.

He’s written straight novels and travelogues, psychological thrillers and hard-boiled private eye stories. Science fiction, brooding explorations of personal guilt (the Mitch Tobin novels, under the name “Tucker Coe”), and a hilarious spoof of the Arthur Hailey-Harold Robbins “Big Book” (Comfort Station [1973], as the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham). He understands the “classic puzzle” story so well, he managed to ring all the changes on it in one half of the book (“A Travesty” in Enough [1977]).

It’s not unheard of, when mystery writers gather, for a bunch of us to find ourselves off in a corner somewhere talking about how good Westlake is. It gets embarrassing sometimes. I mean, I’m a big boy now, and I make my living (such as it is) plowing the same fields. When somebody like Brian Garfield or Bill Pronzini mentions how Westlake (as Stark) and Joe Gores decided they would write a book using the same first chapter, or how somebody in a Tucker Coe novel mistakes hero Mitch Tobin for “Don Stark”, I should just purse my lips and not, say something like, “Yeah, cute,” and start talking about my own books. But I don’t. I regress to purest fanhood, and come up with an anecdote of my own.

One time, I even caught myself explaining some Westlake/Stark in-jokes to Westlake! As I say, it gets embarrassing.

In my catalogue of Westlake topics, I left out the caper novel–not because he doesn’t work in that form, but because he does it so well he practically owns it.

Parker is the ultimate thief; the ultimate pragmatist; the last word in self control. Weslake once told an interviewer he created Parker to see if he could write a totally humorless character which seemed to me at first like trying to see if you can sing with a sock in your mouth–maybe you can but why would you want to?

The answer is that the character of Parker doesn’t need humor–humor is a defense against problems we can’t handle otherwise, or a way to feel closer to others.

But there is nothing Parker can’t handle, and Parker has no need or particular desire for closeness, except his desire for a woman immediately after a job. Westlake once referred to his master-thief as “Dillinger mythologized into a machine.”

One paperback publisher packaged the Stark novels as “The Violent World of Parker”; I think there was even more truth to that than the anonymous blurb writer knew. Parker does live in his own world. Or rather, he’s a world unto himself: king, prime minister, citizenry, and War Department all in one. Because Parker doesn’t just violate the laws of the larger world, he treats them as irrelevancies, except when they raise (in the form of police or guards) practical obstacles to what he wants to accomplish.

Parker makes his own laws, conceived in self-interest, and dedicated to keeping Parker out of jail. Any of the books in this series will provide the reader with a list of Rules for the Successful Thief. There are a lot of them in The Score. My favorite example:

“I don’t kill” (Parker says) “as the easy way out of something. If I kill, it’s because I don’t have any choice”

“You mean Self defense.”

“Wrong. I mean it’s the only way to get what I want.”

It occurs to me that Parker was way out in front of all the current winning-through-intimidation, self-help authors.

That, in fact, may be the most important part of Parker’s long-lasting appeal. The character of Parker is like a suit of armor the reader can put on as he explores the Stark world of amoral, or weak, or downright vicious personalities, Because, after the first few books, the stories aren’t really about Parker, any more than Ross Macdonald’s novels are about Lew Archer. Parker (as Archer) becomes a device that stirs up stresses and emotions in the other characters.

Westlake has also called Parker an “interesting fantasy”, and he is all of that. There is something perversely appealing about someone who always does precisely what he wants; who never makes a mistake; and who always manages to protect his own backside when some idiot coworker messes things up.

*  *  *

Parker’s fans are intensely loyal. Richard Stark’s novels are among the few I can think of to make the jump from paperback originals to hardcovers in mid-series (the other two are John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books and Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series).

I worked part time at Murder Ink, a bookstore in New York specializing in mysteries, during a time when no Parker novels were in print in the United States. The owner of the store, with great effort, was able to obtain a quantity of the British paperback edition of Butcher’s Moon (1974), the last of the Parker novels.

Unfortunately, due to postage, import duties, the fluctuations of the dollar versus the pound, and various taxes, she was forced to price the book–just a standard paperback, remember–at nearly four dollars.

We couldn’t keep them in the store. People came in, saw a Stark book available, and bought it. A few shook their heads over the price (most did not), but they all shelled out the four bucks.

I told Don Westlake about this, figuring he’d be pleased. Instead, he frowned and shook his head. “You don’t know what it’s like,” he told me, “to have a pen name who’s doing better than you are.”

There is a definite rivalry going on here. The title page of Otto Penzler’s copy of The Score looks something like this (italics represent the author’s inscription):


Richard Stark–5
Don Westlake–0

Perfection (I would guess) can be tiring for an author. Frederick Irving Anderson, who created the Infallible Godahl (the perfect thief of the first two decades of this century) ran out of gas after six short stories.

I suspect the same sort of thing might have happened with the Parker series, but Westlake found an outlet. As he once told an interviewer, he was trying to write a story where Parker had to keep stealing the same thing over and over, but it kept coming out funny. And if there’s one thing Parker mustn’t be, it’s funny. So John Dortmunder was born.

Dortmunder and his gang figure in four of the funniest caper novels ever written, beginning with The Hot Rock (1970). My theory is that Dortmunder gets not only his own share of grief, but Parker’s too. Parker robs whole towns and private islands; Dortmunder gets caught stealing bologna from the supermarket.

Not that Dortmunder isn’t competent; he’s just a victim of, as John Dickson Carr used to say through Sir Henry Merrivale, the blinkin’ awful cussedness of things in general.

One book Parker fans should look out for is Jimmy the Kid (1974), a Dortmunder novel in which Parker (and even Richard Stark) make guest appearances. Yes, I know how it sounds, but it works. I’m not going to spoil it for those who haven’t read it by telling you how it’s done, but in my opinion, nobody but Westlake could have pulled off a caper like this.

Because ingenuity is the hallmark of Westlake and Stark. A caper novel is almost by definition a tour de force. The writer has to set his protagonist an impossible task, then make it plausible that he accomplish it, or at least come close, making sure to throw in suspense and a few surprises along the way.

The witty Mr. Westlake always comes through. And so, emphatically, does the grim Mr. Stark.

And to prove that last statement, I’ll just let you read The Score, and rest my case.

William L. DeAndrea
Brooklyn, New York

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