Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Stark Truth

The Guardian reports today that rising British publisher Quercus is really pushing the boat out as regards its budding relationship with American Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press. Its latest release in the UK is Richard Stark’s Ask the Parrot (which saw publication in the States last November). I can’t help marvelling at how, from a standing start, Quercus has set itself up publishing some of the finest crime fiction available today. And this latest acquisition is no exception.

Readers familiar with Stark’s work (which began back in 1962, with The Hunter) also know that “Stark” is really a pseudonym of prolific Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Donald E. Westlake. (Afghanistan, Bananistan anyone?)

Reviewing Ask the Parrot for The Guardian, critic-novelist Ian Sansom remarks:
Westlake is, none the less, as fellow crime writer and critic H.R.F. Keating puts it, one of genre fiction’s great “prolificoes”--he is three-times winner of the coveted Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards in three different categories, for best novel, best short story and best screenplay--and possesses among his several noms-de-plume the nonpareil, the hard-boiledest of the hard-boiled, one of the darkest and best-loved names in all of noir: Richard Stark.

Writing as Stark, between 1962 and 1974--when he wasn’t writing under his own name, or as John B. Allan, or J. Morgan Cunningham, or Curt Clark, Timothy J. Culver or Tucker Coe--Westlake produced no fewer than 20 novels featuring a career criminal known only as
Parker. “His face was a chipped chunk of concrete, with eyes of flawed onyx,” we learn of this great anti-hero in the original Parker book The Hunter (later renamed, wisely, after the John Boorman film of the book, Point Blank, and later still, alas, renamed Payback, after the Mel Gibson remake of the Boorman film). “I’m going to drink his blood,” Parker remarks of an enemy in his first outing. “I’m going to chew up his heart and spit it into the gutter for the dogs to raise a leg at. I’m going to peel the skin off him and rip out his veins and hang him with them.” In the event, he’s content merely to strangle him with his bare hands. Like a psychopathic Peter Pan, or a pistol-packing Dorian Gray, Parker never aged and, after a long, Holmesian 23-year break, Westlake brought him back in the appropriately titled Comeback (1997), followed by Backflash (1998), Flashfire (2000) and Nobody Runs Forever (2004). Now, in Ask the Parrot, Parker’s back again. ...

There are many facets to Westlake’s talent--the short stories and the screenplays and all the books written under his own name, particularly those in the
John Dortmunder series, which are some of the funniest crime novels ever written. The great impresario of crime fiction Otto Penzler--the renowned editor, publisher and proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York--rightly describes Westlake as “the most consistently humorous writer of mystery and crime fiction the world has ever seen”. My guess is that Westlake won’t be remembered for his good humour--who is? He may not be remembered as Donald Westlake at all. My guess is he’ll be remembered for the deep blankness of Richard Stark.
You can read all of Sansom’s review here.

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