Introduction to the Gregg Press Edition of The Seventh

From the Gregg Press edition, copyright 1981


It’s no secret (at least, not a well-kept one) that Richard Stark is a pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake.  He has also signed some of his work using Tucker Coe and other names.

There are any number of reasons a writer uses a pen name.  In the case of Westlake, each byline is a kind of brand name.  He uses the various names to let his readers know what to expect: The name Westlake usually means we are going to be treated to a hilarious crime-caper novel.  Tucker Coe writes books strong on police procedure and well-rooted in reality.  And Richard Stark, as the name implies, writes wonderfully tough-minded stories, humorless and grim.

Westlake once confessed that the worst book he ever wrote under any name was signed Richard Stark.  You’ll be happy to know it wasn’t The Seventh (1966).  Myself, I think he was lying.  I really don’t believe it is possible for Don Westlake to write a bad book.

Fiction writing is one of the few socially acceptable occupations for a damned liar.  In fiction, a damned liar can weave a fabric of deception designed to confound and confuse, and if he is particularly good at it, he will be praised, not condemned.  The first goal of a fiction writer is to make his readers suspend disbelief.  Put another way, his goal is to make them accept the essential truth and plausibility of people and situations that are the product of the author’s imagination.  He makes you believe in, and care about, people who never lived, doing things that never happened.

Westlake is especially good at this.  If he weren’t, he couldn’t have written so many successful books and built such a loyal following.  A friend of mine once listed his five favorite writers.  Three of them were Don Westlake.

I have read most of Don Westlake’s books and all of those with the Richard Stark byline.  I’ve not only read them, I’ve even tried to live a couple of them.  Before I sold my first fiction a couple of decades ago, one long crime spree ago, I read the first book in the Parker series, The Hunter (1962).  I read the rest of the series in various prison cells while serving a 40-year sentence for multiple bank robbery.

Parker is very popular in prison.  Despite the fact that almost everyone can find some nit to pick with the criminal methods described, or the factual detail, the strength of the Parker character overshadows any small flaws.  Parker is a man’s man (and probably a woman’s man, too).  He’s not afraid to risk failure by stepping into a difficult situation; he takes charge, and makes it better.  He’s a winner in an occupation–heavy, violent crime–that is usually the last resort of losers.

How does Westlake/Stark manage to make Parker likeable and even sympathetic?  This cold, methodical, humorless man would be the villain in most other writers’ books.  Westlake’s device is simplicity itself–he makes his villains even blacker than Parker.  And Parker’s victims are (except for the villains) never individuals.  They are huge businesses, corporations, even a national crime syndicate.  You can’t pity them.  In terms of power, it is Parker who is the underdog.

This kind of twist, or plot turning, is typical of the Parker series.  The books usually begin with some violent action to get the reader hooked into the story and emotionally involved with the characters.  (From then on few things happen that the reader can predict.  Many other writers try to accomplish this, but few have been as consistently successful as Westlake.)

Because of the strong characters and vivid action, the Parker books were ideally suited for transfer to the movie screen.  The Parker character has been played by several male stars and even a woman.  The Seventh became the film The Split in 1968, starring former fullback Jim Brown in the Parker role.

Some books in this series have been published with a number of titles.  If a book had a different name for the movie version, the next reprint probably had the movie title.  That happened with The Seventh.  Some of the paperback copies were named The Split.  But whatever you call it, it is one of the best of the Parker books.  If you haven’t read it before you are in for a treat.

Al Nussbaum
Hollywood, California

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