Book Review: Readings

Donald Westlake


by Richard Stark

Mysterious Press, 288 pp., $23.95 It was back around the time that Beatlemania and James Bond hit America that Donald Westlake first adopted the pseudonym Richard Stark, a name suitable for a film noir anti-hero. Westlake's alter ego wrote hard-boiled crime caper novels featuring a terse, diamond-tough criminal named Parker, too unsentimental and matter of fact to waste time on a first name. The first novel, published as a paperback original, was called The Hunter, and it established Parker as a noir icon: a sort of Hammett Continental Op character gone bad.

In the intervening four decades since Parker's debut, Westlake wrote scores of crime and suspense novels. Two of his best, Ax and The Hook, both bestsellers, blend humor, satire, and suspense in the best Hitchcockian tradition. His faithful adaptation of Jim Thompson's The Grifters is one of the best film noirs since World War II. One of my own favorites, Point Blank, which starred Lee Marvin, was adapted from The Hunter.

Firebreak, the 24th Richard Stark novel, finds Parker in top form again, with the Internet and Lexus luxury cars the only apparent concessions to the passage of time. The caper seems to be the most challenging Parker has ever attempted -- a cache of stolen priceless paintings kept in a dot-com billionaire's retreat in the Montana mountains, protected by a sophisticated high tech security system. Parker must depend on a highly unpredictable tech geek to crack the retreat's security, but the situation keeps getting more and more impossible with each plot development. It's a testament to Stark/Westlake's skill at creating character, tension, and depth with such graceful economy that both Parker and his creator can juggle so many balls without seeming to break a sweat.

Although Parker is a criminal, he's just as economical with his emotions and actions as the author's Hammet-like prose: lean and mean and as reliable as a snub nose revolver. Although Parker commits crimes instead of solving them, his work is curiously parallel to that of the private eye: He lives in a world of shadows, fake names, false fronts, and criminal codes, and he often has to track down accomplices who've gone awry and marks who've turned cagey. Chandler once described a woman as being so attractive she'd make a bishop kick in a stained glass window. Parker is so cool he could make the Pope bust a cap out the window of the popemobile.

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Firebreak, Donald Westlake, Richard Stark

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