Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Coming Stark Resurgence

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.

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