Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Donald Westlake is one of the best crime writers to ever put pen to paper, and he may be one of the best writers of the last century period. The literary historians will have to argue over that assertion, but with his broad range and his prolific output it is easy to say Westlake has written something for just about everyone.
While his Dortmunder novels are well thought of and he has earned critical acclaim for his stand alone The Ax, his reputation, in large part, rests on his Parker novels written under the pseudonym Richard Stark. His first Parker novel, The Hunter, published in 1962, has been filmed twice. The first adaptation, Point Blank, released in 1967, starred Lee Marvin as Parker (although he was renamed Walker). The second adaptation, 1999's Payback, starred Mel Gibson as Parker (this time renamed Porter). As Stark, Westlake has, by my count, written 24 Parker novels and another four featuring Parker's sometime partner Grofield, a thief who uses his ill gotten gains to finance his passion for community theatre.
Twenty-four books in a series is an extrodinary run for a character. Series books can get bogged down with backstory and history, but Westlake never let that happen with Parker, who has very little in the way of a history or personal allegiance to slow him down. He does, over the course of the novels, gain a girlfriend and house in Jersey, but he's not really the stay-at-home type. And while there are those who argue that the later Parker novels do not match the quality of Westlake's earlier books, even the critics must admit that mediocre Westlake is better than a the best that a lot of other authors have to offer.
The early Parker novels have been in an out of print for as long as they've been around. More recently they have been hard to find, but that is about to change. Westlake's most famous character is getting some attention from two very different parts of the publishing world. The University of Chicago Press is going to reprint three Parker books a year until they've covered the entire series. The reprints begin this September with The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face, and The Outfit. It's a long way from the paperback racks in drugstores to the world of academic presses, and U of C Press' decision to pick up Westlake's series certaintly goes a long way toward validating the opinion of many that Westlake, with his Parker novels, has earned a place in hard boiled fiction up there with Hammett or Chandler, both of whom have been considered worthy of academic attention for some time. (Whether all the academic attention these authors have received is, in final analyis, worth anything, is a question open to debate.)
On the flipside of the coin, Parker is getting the graphic novel treatment from IDW and artist Darwyn Cooke. The first of four graphic novels, which should hew closely to their source material, will hit shelves next summer. (Bear in mind, however, that comic publishing dates are notoriously unreliable). According to Cooke, Westlake has been closely involved in the project, which is a good sign.
Surely, the fact that Westlake's work can receive attention from both an academic publisher and a comic book publisher at the same time says a lot about the enduring nature of Parker, who has been around for 46 years. Westlake has created a character who has truly taken on a life of his own, and his story will continue to reach people in many media for years to come. If that's not success, I don't know what is.
Friday, July 25, 2008
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Innes is back at work doing evictions for the city’s shadiest landlord, Don Plummer, when he ends up rescuing a child from a house someone has torched. The press makes him a local hero, which gives him the confidence to open his PI business again. His first and only client, however, is Plummer, who is taking a beating in the press and has reason to believe the arson of his property will not be an isolated incident. It doesn’t help that the people who occupied the burned house were asylum seekers and that the scorching summer temperatures are making people a little crazy. Uncovering the truth about the arson is the only chance Innes has of keeping
Banks’ writing is tight, and sharp, and American readers will no doubt be pleased he has dialed back the dialect a notch or two. Readers will no longer be forced to consult Samuel Johnson’s Big Book of Scottish Slang to figure out what the characters are saying. The plot, unlike that of his last novel, holds up all the way to the end, and doesn’t focus at all on Innes’ past as a convict or his relationship with local thugs the Tiernans. In letting some of Innes’ baggage fall to the wayside, Banks has written a novel that is easily accessible to the casual reader, and can be enjoyed just as much by people who haven’t read his previous novels as by those who have.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Of course, it's not like the days of the pulps when such stories were considered mass entertainment,of drugstores were filled with Gold Medal paperbacks but the Internet is essentially unlimited in the amount of content it can hold, so there is room for everything, but a lot of pulp fiction was completely forgettable. For every Hammett or Chandler, who knows how many undistinguished writers there were? And let's face it, a lot of stuff that sold a ton of copies is, in final analysis, less than worthy of being remembered (I'm looking at you, Mr. Spillane.) I think that being a niche product has, overall, helped the quality of the stories that are available, especially with short stories, which are now largely a non-commercial endeavor. (Even though, there are plenty of anthologies you can buy.) I just wish I had the time and energy to keep up with all of it.
Saturday, July 12, 2008
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Sunday, July 6, 2008
The final novel in Leonardo Padura’s Havana Quartet to be translated into English, Havana Gold, is, like the other books in the series, a book with a mystery in the background and the life of Lieutenant Mario Conde in the foreground. Padura’s outings with Conde (There are five. Don’t let the fact that four of them are labeled a quartet throw you.) are only police procedurals in the loosest sense of the term. The crimes committed change throughout them, but Conde and his friends and coworkers remain a constant presence, changing over time, and they are the center of the story. It probably has not helped that Padura’s novels have not been translated into English in order. Adios Hemingway, the fifth Conde novel, was translated first, and Havana Gold (Winds of Lent or Lenten Winds in Spanish) is the second book in the series is billed as the fourth book in translation because that was the order of publication. Confusing people by presenting these books out of order is not doing the author or readers any favors.
In this entry in the series, Conde catches the murder of a young teacher at his old high school. She is found strangled in her apartment. There’s a joint in the ashtray, expensive clothes in the closet, and neighbors report hearing a loud party the evening before she is found. The deceased is a member in good standing of The Party and, as such, the powers that be are anxious to solve her murder with a minimum of fuss. The dead woman is, of course, not what she seems, and the more Conde digs the more corruption he uncovers.
Mixed in with the investigation is a romance, as Conde falls for a woman he meets on the street and helps change a tire. This interlude provides an opportunity for some purple prose, and it’s hard to know whether to lay blame for this at Padura’s feet or those of Peter Bush, who has translated all of Padura’s novels. Regardless of who is responsible, some of the sex scenes are unintentionally funny.
Sex scenes aside, Padura’s usual sense of melancholy and his love for Havana is on full display, although he has used it to better effect in other novels. Havana Gold is not a starting point, or an ending to the series, despite what the copy on the novel’s cover says, and readers interested in Padura’s work should start with Havana Blue, which is the first novel to feature Conde, and a superior work.