There’s a definite line between being influenced by the work of a crime writer and doing a pastiche or straight-out copy of his or her work. Being careful to allow myself the former without falling into the trap of the latter is something I was very conscious of as I was composing my second novel, Gunshine State (280 Steps)
Gunshine State is my attempt to write a quintessentially Australian take on the heist-gone-wrong novel. This is a subgenre of crime fiction I love, but which hasn’t been done too often in Australia. Gunshine State’s main character, Gary Chance, is a former Australian army driver, ex-bouncer, and thief. His latest job takes place in Queensland’s Surfers Paradise, where he’s part of a gang run by an aging stand-over man, Dennis Curry, who runs off-site, non-casino poker games, and wants to rob one of his best customers, a high roller called Frederick “Freddie” Gao.
There are several literary influences behind Gunshine State. I am, for instance, a big fan of the Crissa Stone books by Wallace Stroby (Shoot the Woman First, The Devil’s Share). I was also conscious that what I was creating could be viewed as a darker version of Australian writer Garry Disher’s Wyatt novels, which are already pretty hard-boiled. But my most obvious inspiration—and one of my favorite crime-fiction protagonists ever—is the master thief known as Parker, created by Richard Stark, aka Donald E. Westlake.
For anyone who’s not familiar with him, Westlake was a prolific writer. While he is best known for his crime fiction, he also did science fiction and Westerns, and was one of several crime writers (including Lawrence Block) who penned smut pulp in the early 1960s. He worked under a myriad pseudonyms, of which Richard Stark—the byline he used for the Parker books—remains the most familiar. He also did a number of screenplays, including the excellent 1990 adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters.
Sixteen Parker novels appeared between 1962 and 1974, after which Westlake grew tired of his creation and the fact that the pseudonym Richard Stark had become better recognized than his own, and he gave his thief a rest until 1997, after which another eight Parker books appeared. Several of those tales became films, the best known of which is Point Blank (1967), based on the first book in the series, The Hunter, and starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson. (It was remade in 1999 as Payback, with Mel Gibson in the leading role.)
At their core, all of the Parker novels (and most of the films) are about the same thing: a heist gone wrong and the consequences. They also concentrate heavily on the mechanics of planning and conducting each crime. Parker is a craftsman. It just so happens his chosen trade is illegal, and Westlake was expert at portraying him at work.
(Left) Author Andrew Nette
Disher, whose Wyatt character also owes a significant debt to Parker, nailed it when I asked him in a 2010 interview, what it was about the heist-gone-wrong subgenre of crime fiction and film that never seems to go stale.
“Well, there is always the promise that it might go right for a Wyatt or a Parker. There’s also the tension of the actual crime, and when it falls apart when he robs a bank or whatever and things go wrong. Can Wyatt retrieve the situation? Can he get the money back? Can he find out who betrayed him? That’s where the tension lies. Wyatt finding out where it has gone wrong and how he is going to get his revenge or get the money back or both.”One of my favorites among the early Parker books is The Sour Lemon Score (1969). In it, Parker pulls a heist, but one of his gang members, George Uhl, steals the take—$33,000—and kills all of his partners except for Parker. Parker then spends the rest of the novel traveling up and down the eastern U.S. seaboard searching for Uhl and the cash. As is usually the case, things get complex when a couple of hoods pick up on the scent of the money and try to muscle in.
As is the case with all the Parker books—and Westlake’s work, in general—The Sour Lemon Score is a crash course in how to plot and write a lean noir novel. A phone call is made, a contact visited, someone talks to a friend of a friend. Each transaction leaves Parker with just enough information to move one more step ahead. There is a constant feel of tension and disorientation.
The other notable aspect of the Parker books—and one that I borrowed for Gunshine State—is Westlake’s skill at introducing apparently normal people and places, and transforming them with the slightest twist into something much darker. In The Sour Lemon Score, a second-hand furniture shop run by an old lady is a front for an illegal firearms seller, while a down-at-heel motel is owned by an ex-hooker who lets people from “the life” stay there when they need to lie low.
The best example of this from The Sour Lemon Score, though, comes when Parker visits the widow of Benny Weiss, a long-term criminal associate and one of the men killed by Uhl. Parker had been there a couple of times before, and he remembered how Benny had built himself a completely different at-home image. He was a semi-retired Little League umpire, a maker of model planes, an amiable little man in baggy pants, with his glasses slipping down his nose. The difference was so complete that the first time Parker had come to visit Benny, he thought he had changed too much, grown too old, and couldn’t be used for the heist he was planning. But Benny let Parker know that he could still be his old self on the job, and he was.
As for the point I started this piece with—how successful I have been in allowing Gunshine State to be influenced by authors such as Westlake, without copying them? Only the reader can tell me that.