john banville: "two of the greatest writers of the 20th century are georges simenon . . . and richard stark."
Donald Westlake’s Parker novels are a genre of their own.
By John Banville
Slate/Posted Wednesday, May 24, 2006, at 6:07 AM ET
Two of the greatest writers of the 20th century are Georges Simenon—I am not thinking of the Maigret books, which I have not read, but of what he called his "hard novels," such as Dirty Snow and Tropic Moon—and Richard Stark, real name Donald Westlake—if there is such a thing as a real name. Indeed, Westlake, born in New York in 1933, works under a clutch of pseudonyms, though it was as Donald Westlake that he wrote the masterly screenplay for Stephen Frears’ 1990 movie The Grifters, in turn based on the novel of the same name by another master of the dark fictional arts, Jim Thompson. Stark has won numerous writing awards and holds the rather splendid title of Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America. His Parker books, the best of which were written in the early 1960s, are unique in the genre of crime fiction; in fact, they form a genre all their own.
Parker—no first name—is one of the most fascinating and compelling fictional criminals, played to perfection by Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s film Point Blank (needlessly remade in 1999 as the Mel Gibson vehicle, Payback), which is based on Stark’s The Hunter. In Point Blank, as in the novel, Parker is double-crossed by his woman and his best friend, after which he has to take on the shadowy "Organization"—the Mafia, we suppose—in order to have revenge and, more importantly, get back the hot money the pair of betrayers cheated him out of. In his ruthlessness and unhesitating murderousness Parker is well up there with Simenon’s tormented monsters and, especially, with Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. In The Jugger, Parker forces a double-crosser to dig a hole in a basement to uncover hidden loot and then, as we are told in two brief lines, shoots the hapless fellow and buries him in the hole he had just finished digging.
But where Simenon’s creatures are victims of blind fate, and the dandified and sexually dubious Ripley takes risks with the insouciance of an artist, Parker is the ultimate professional, without airs or graces, a machine-man with no background and scant sensibility and yet, for all that, a peculiarly affecting figure. We admire Parker to our shame, taking a guilty pleasure in his fearless fearsomeness. This is existential man at his furthest extremity, confronting a world that is even more wicked and treacherous than he is. For a start, read The Jugger and Slayground, and then go out and buy the rest of the series. Oh, and while you’re at it, pick up some Simenons, too.
WHEN THE WOMAN screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed. He heard the plop of a silencer behind him as he rolled, and the bullet punched the pillow where his head had been.
He landed face down on the floor. His stubby, pregnant .32 was clipped to the springs under the bed like a huge black fly standing upside down, and Parker’s hand was reaching out for it before he hit the floor. He spun a half-turn away from the bed and raised the .32 so the other one would know he had it, but he didn’t fire. This was a hotel room and the .32 wasn’t silenced.
A half-turn; then he reversed his spin and rolled under the bed, hearing the second bullet thud into the floor just behind him. His arms were tucked in close to his body and he rolled all the way across and came up on the other side seeing the other one just stooping to fire under the bed. Parker threw the .32. The grip hit the other’s forehead, just above the nose. He grunted; then dropped out of sight. Parker bent and looked through under the bed. The other was lying on his face.
After the first scream the woman had been silent. Now she stared, slack-faced, as Parker got to his feet and went around the bed. He was tall and lean with corded veins and hard, tanned flesh. His torso was creased by old scars. His legs had a bony angularity to them; the muscles were etched against the bones. His hands were big, thick, knotted with veins; they were made for gripping an axe, or a rock. When he picked up the .32 again his hand made it look like a toy.
The killer lay, arms and legs splayed out, as though he’d been dropped from a height. His gun was still in his right hand. Parker stepped on the wrist, then bent and took the gun. It was a .25 calibre target pistol, useless for almost any serious work except to come up close and kill a sleeping man. The silencer had been made for a gun with a larger barrel, and a jury-rigged clamp arrangement had been fashioned to fit it to the small barrel of the .25.
Parker stuck his foot under the killer’s chest, pushed, and rolled him over. He flopped over like a fish, his right arm swinging over and thumping the floor like a sack. He had a narrow pale face, skimpy eyebrows, small nose and thin lips, prominent cheekbones and temples. He wore a short-sleeved white shirt with button-down collar, a red-and-green striped tie, with sharply creased tan trousers and no cuffs, and highly polished brown shoes with zippers instead of laces. Floppy leather fringes hid the zippers. There was a purpling bruise on his right temple, and a small cut in the middle of it gleamed carmine. Parker had never seen him before.
The woman found her voice again and half whispered, "Shouldn’t we call the police?"
"Shut up a minute! Let me think."
It was a mess. She knew him as Charles Willis, absentee businessman with an income from a few parking lots and rental properties and gas stations here and there around the country. How to be square Charles Willis and explain a silent killer in the middle of the night? He had to give her a story; she had to be convinced by it; and it had to give her a reason to keep her mouth shut. The law, too, would want to know why a professional killer had been aimed at Charles Willis.
The truth might do it, but he didn’t know her very well; nor how far he could trust her.
Her name was Elizabeth Ruth Harrow Conway. She was a good-looking woman, twenty-nine, with honey hair, golden flesh and the tall, lush, well-proportioned body of a voluptuous athlete. She lived on a combination of alimony from her ex-husband and atonement gifts from her parents. She’d always been rich, had always lived in luxury surrounded by servants, and she’d never had a problem that wasn’t fashionable. That much Parker knew about her. Also, that she was fine in bed, and that she sometimes had a panther craving for brutality. He knew little more than that, and thought there was probably little more to know.
The killer made a small sound in his throat and his head thrashed slightly on the floor. His blond hair was dry and limp. Sweat had broken out on his face, though the room was air-conditioned. He’d be waking up soon, and Parker had to have the woman squared away by then.
He saw her watching him, and was surprised at her expression. He’d expected fear and astonishment, but she looked breathless. Pleased, excited, and curious. The way she always looked when they bedded together. Expectant. So, the truth. But as little of it as possible.
There was a wooden chair with padded seat and back over by the blind window, the one with the air-conditioner in it. He got it, brought it to the bed, and sat down. "Charles Willis isn’t my name," he said. "I have another name. I use it in my work. You don’t want to know about my work."
"What?" She frowned at him, and glanced down at the man lying on the floor between them. "I don’t under — You aren’t Chuck Willis?"
"I am now, and here. When I’m not working, I’m Charles Willis. Here in Miami, or in Nevada, or out on the Coast."
"And when you are working?" She’d absorbed it faster than he’d expected.
He shook his head. "You don’t want to know about that."
"But he —" She pointed at the man who had tried to kill him. "— he’s from that other part of your life."
"What’s his name?"
"I don’t know. I never saw him before."
"Oh. You mean he was just hired."
"And you don’t want to turn him over to the police."
She reached out for the cigarettes on the night table. She was nude and, when she leaned to reach for the cigarettes, her breasts hung heavy for a moment. As she sat back again, they became firm again. She was a good animal.
She lit a cigarette. "I don’t see. You aren’t what you seem to be, but you don’t want me to know what you really are. Whatever you really are, someone, somewhere, hired this man to kill you. Whatever you really are, it keeps you from wanting to be involved with the police. You want me to help you by being quiet, but you don’t want to tell me what’s going on."
He was silent. She studied him, frowning, but he had nothing to say. He sat and waited. While he waited he watched the killer, whose head had moved again but whose eyes hadn’t opened yet. The bruise had stopped swelling, but it was an unhealthy colour. The carmine outline of the small cut had started to dull towards maroon as the blood clotted.
After a minute Parker got to his feet. He had the .32 in his right hand, the silenced .25 in his left. He went over and put the .32 on the dresser, then went back and sat down, studying the thug again.
"All right," she said. "For now."
She put her cigarette out, and nodded at the killer. "What about him?"
"We’ll talk to him." He kicked the killer in the ribs. "You’re awake," he said.
The killer opened his eyes. They were pale grey, gleaming faintly in the light from the table lamp on the night stand. His face was blank, as though he had no attitude about what had happened to him. He said, his voice as blank as his face, "You can’t turn me over to the law. You can’t kill me, because you can’t get rid of the body and you can’t trust the dame. And you can’t kill her because that would bring the law on you. You got to let me go."
"You can trust me, Chuck," she said. Her voice was low. She was half-smiling as she looked down at the pallid face of the killer.
Parker ignored her. He said to the killer, "Name of your contact. The guy who fingered me."
The killer shook his head, rolling it back and forth on the floor, doing it carefully, as though he were part of a balancing act. His face was still blank. "No," he said.
"And the name of your contact in New York. You work out of New York, don’t you?"
"Forget it," said the killer.
"You can’t go to the law either," Parker told him. He looked past the killer, over at the woman. "I’ve got to force the names out of him," he said. "I don’t like that kind of job. You want to try it? I’ll tie him. And gag his mouth so he can’t holler."
She smiled again, leaned far over the edge of the bed, and looked down at the killer.
"Yes," she said. "I’ve never done anything like that. I’d like to try." Her tongue peeked out past her lips. She moistened her lips, and looked down, and smiled.
Parker was pleased. He’d figured her right, every step of the way. He hadn’t figured the unloading yet, but that would come when necessary. When it was time to get rid of her, split with her, he’d find the way. Not kill her, just unload her.
He looked down to see if he’d figured the killer right, too. He had. The killer was staring up at the smiling face of the woman, balloon-like, in the air above him. His pale eyes seemed larger, and the sweat had started on his face again. His fingers were clenching and unclenching and his cheeks seemed hollower, thinner.
Parker said, "What’s your name?"
"Go to hell," said the killer. But his voice was higher and thinner and not completely under control.
Parker got to his feet. "We’ll use two of my ties," he said. "You. Get into the chair."
The killer didn’t move.
Parker stepped on his ankle. The killer gasped, and Parker stepped off the ankle again and said, "Get into the chair."
The woman said, "Tell him to take his pants off."
The killer closed his eyes. His whole face seemed sunken now, more pallid. He said, "Clint Stern. That’s my name, Clint Stern."
Parker saw the woman pouting. She leaned back against the pillow again and lit a cigarette. She wouldn’t meet Parker’s eye.
Parker asked, "Who fingered me?"
"Who is he?"
"A collector. He collects from the books around the hotels."
"All right. Who gives you the assignments?"
"Jim St Clair."
"In New York?"
"Where do I get in touch with him?"
Stern’s eyes flickered and his brow creased with worry lines. "You’re making me dead, man," he said.
Parker said to the woman, "Maybe you’ll get a chance at him after all."
Stern said, "I’ll be dead anyway. What’s the difference?" He sounded bitter, as though an injustice had been done him.
"I’m not talking about dead," Parker told him. "She won’t let you die. Will you, Bett?"
She shrugged. She no longer seemed very interested. She knew Stern was going to give in without her doing anything. So did Parker. So did Stern. He said, "He runs a club in Brooklyn. On Kings Highway, near Utica Avenue."
"What’s it called?"
"The Three Kings." Stern closed his eyes again. Every time he closed them, he looked like a corpse. He said, "You’re killing me, man." He sounded tired, that was all.
"This guy Menner," said Parker. "You were supposed to call him when the job was done. Right?"
"Yes," said Stern.
Parker pointed. "There’s the phone. Call him."
Stern sat up. Then he winced and put his hand to his bruised temple. He winced again, away from the hand, and looked bleakly at the spot of blood that had come off on his palm. "Maybe I got concussion," he said.
"Move faster," said Parker.
Stern got to his feet, climbing up the chair. He moved as though he was dizzy. He stumbled when he moved away from the chair, and almost fell down. He made it to the writing desk where the phone was, and leaned against the wall. He picked up the receiver as though it was heavy, and started to dial. Then he looked over at Parker and said "What do I say?"
Stern finished dialling, and lifted the receiver to his ear. He waited, dull-eyed. From the middle of the room Parker heard the click and the metallic chatter when the phone was answered at the other end.
Stern said, "This is Stern. Let me talk to Menner."
There was a brief metallic chatter again, then silence. Stern leaned against the wall. Perspiration was streaming down his face, and his eyes looked heavier and heavier.
Finally, the phone chattered again, rousing him. He said, "Menner?" His eyes got brighter, feverish. He licked his lips. A kind of sick nervousness seemed to be pumping through him.
Parker watched him, and knew he was getting ready to tell Menner the truth. He whispered, "Remember the women, Stern."
Stern slumped. He said, "It’s done. He’s dead." Questioning sounds. "No. No trouble." His voice was as flat and lifeless as his eyes. "Yes. All right. Good-bye."
But he remained leaning against the wall, head bowed, phone to his ear. Parker went over and took the phone away from him and hung it up. He said, "Where did you just call?"
"Floral Court. Rampon Boulevard."
"Twelve. Twelve Floral Court."
"How many others there?"
"Five or six. It’s a poker game."
"All right. You got any money? Stern! You got any money?"
"Not on me."
"Where you can get it."
"Yes." He was acting now as though he’d been doped.,
"You better get it and take off. South — out of the country."
"It won’tdo any good to try again. It won’t work. And it wouldn’t mean anything to the Outfit anyway. They’re going to know you missed the first time, so they’ll know they can’t count on you."
"Take off," Parker told him.
Stern stepped away from the wall, and stopped. His eyes swivelled up in their sockets and he fell over on his face, loose and limp.
Parker shook his head, irritated. He said to Bett, "Wait here." He pulled a pair of pants on, grabbed Stern under the shoulders, and dragged him to the door. He pulled the door open and looked outside. It was a quarter to four in the morning, and the hall was empty. Parker dragged Stern down to the hall and opened the door to the interior fire stairs. He pulled Stern through and shut the door again. A dim bulb faintly illuminated each metal landing up and down the stair well.
Parker propped Stern up in the corner and checked his pulse. He was still alive, but not by much. When he’d fallen he’d hit the bruised place on his temple. It was bleeding a little bit again.
"Die some place else," Parker told him. He pinched him, and jabbed him in the ribs, then snapped his finger sharply against the underpart of Stern’s nose. Stern came out of it groggily. His eyes were unfocused, and if Parker had asked him his name he wouldn’t have known the answer. Or what the date was, or what city he was in, or where he’d been born. But he could understand simple orders, and he could make his body move.
Keeping his voice low, Parker said, "Get on your feet."
Stern tried, but he couldn’t do it alone. Parker helped him get upright. When he was up he could stay up, one hand pressed against the wall. His head was down, chin sunk in his chest, but his eyes were half-opened. He could still hear.
Parker said, "When I go out this door, go down those steps there. Do you hear me? When I go out this door, go down those steps there."
Stern nodded minutely.
Satisfied, Parker stepped back and opened the door. He stood in the doorway and watched Stern take the first step towards the descending metal stairs. He turned away, closed the door behind him, and walked back down the hall. Behind him, he could hear the muffled thumping as Stern fell.
He went back to the door and it was empty. He frowned, looked around, and saw the .32 was gone but the .25 was still there. He stood looking at the place where the .32 had been and wondered what she wanted from him that would require blackmail.
But he didn’t have time to waste on her now. When she came back he’d decide what to do.
He locked the door and dressed hurriedly. The .25 with the silencer made an awkward, bulky package inside his coat.