A reader writes:
I went to the local public library Saturday looking for Richard Pipes’s recently published memoir (which was out), and I came home instead with a Richard Stark. I hadn’t heard of Stark until your posting, though of course I know Westlake. The title of the novel is Comeback
from the Parker series. The first half was excellent — nicely plotted, credible, solid dialogue. But after the midway point, the story began to require a serious suspension of disbelief. In my experience, that is typical of crime and detective novels (and movies): great build-up followed by a (frequently precipitous) falling off. Nevertheless, I liked the novel enough to want to give Stark another try. Can you recommend one that won’t give my credulity quite so difficult a workout?
This note from a regular reader of “About Last Night” interests me for an unexpected reason. What mystery or suspense novel, if any, doesn’t require “a serious suspension of disbelief”? And why would that matter? I go to that kind of fiction in search of amusement, not plausibility, and so long as the imaginary world portrayed within is both internally consistent and involving on its own terms, I’m happy. Whoever thought Nero Wolfe or Philip Marlowe were plausible? In fact, I suspect it’s their very implausibility, even outrageousness, that makes them interesting to us. Wolfe is Dr. Johnson transplanted into a fancy Manhattan brownstone with a greenhouse on the roof, Marlowe is Raymond Chandler transplanted into a seedy detective’s office in Los Angeles, and the incongruity–the clash of sensibilities–engages the reader from the first sentence onward.
The Parker novels (which are written by “Richard Stark,” a pen name of Donald Westlake) aren’t interesting to me because of the comparative feasibility of the crimes portrayed by the author. I read them because I’m fascinated by Parker, a professional thief who is amoral to the point of sociopathy. The novels are told mainly from his point of view, which anyone not a sociopath will find totally unsympathetic. Yet the reader identifies with Parker, even cheers him on, as he does whatever he finds necessary to steal large sums of money and stay out of jail, up to and including cold-blooded murder. I’m not up for amateur psychologizing this morning, so I won’t speculate as to the appeal of a character like Parker, but appeal he does, and for me, at least, it doesn’t much matter whether his capers and scores pass the test of plausibility. They divert me.
Having said all that, I’ll return to the problem posed by my reader. Westlake wrote the first sixteen Parker novels between 1962 and 1974, then put the series aside until 1997, when he resumed with Comeback. The later novels are somewhat different in tone from the earlier ones–a little less traditionally “hardboiled,” a little more self-reflexive, even discursive (Westlake is a very funny man when not pretending to be a hardboiled mystery novelist). Those who find Comeback slightly unbelievable will prefer the earlier books, most of which are out of print, though they can usually be found in libraries or used book stores. Of them, the most conventionally “plausible” is The Rare Coin Score. Of the later Parker novels, the one I suspect my correspondent would find most acceptable is Flashfire. But as I say, don’t look to Parker for how-to-do-it guides to heisting. His interest lies elsewhere.
A reminder: Westlake has written a parallel series of comic crime novels under his own name about a hapless heister named John Dortmunder, and these books are a deliberate, almost systematic inversion of the Parker novels. Readers familiar with both series will find the Dortmunder books (which not infrequently make reference to the Parker books) even funnier, but you don’t have to get the inside jokes to appreciate them. Unlike the Parker novels, all of the Dortmunder novels are currently available in paperback, and that series starts with The Hot Rock.
Now, back to high culture!
UPDATE: Sarah has major Dortmunder-related news….