As we’re getting closer to the modern age, we can see all the ways that Noir is evolving and changing – becoming more malleable and dividing into weird subgenres like Rural Noir, Detective Noir, Blackly Comedic Noir – and many more. Noir can be strictly realist, presenting a version of the world that’s just like the one we’re all familiar with. It can be stylized, like something out of a black-and-white movie, where every line is snappy. It can even be humorous and ridiculous. I think that no author epitomizes the variety in Noir more than the extremely prolific Donald E. Westlake, who is one of my favorite fiction writers.
Westlake wrote crime fiction from the 1950s all the way up to the modern era. He’s hugely prolific, largely because he wrote under tons of pen names. I’d say that his most famous creation is the Parker series, written under the penname Richard Stark. Parker is the subject of 24 novels, each a masterpiece of tight, sparse prose, shocking violence, and the toughest protagonist the literary world has ever seen. Parker’s a master thief who cares only about the score. He’s largely emotionless, settling into a rhythm of heists and vacation time, and approaches crime like a professional. Parker himself could be a sort of one-note character, but Westlake is always careful to give him hidden depths – even if he completely lacks mercy. Westlake’s also great at putting Parker in unique situations and pairing him with interesting accomplices he can bounce off of, such as the bon vivant actor turned thief Grofield. The odd couple pairing between Parker and Grofield is a lot of fun and can even inject some comedy into the otherwise hardboiled stories.
But Parker is actually just one small part of Westlake’s massive oeuvre. Another major recurring character is John Archibald Dortmunder, a thief without Parker’s skill or reserve, and massive amounts of bad luck. Dortmunder is the protagonist of 14 comedic novels, and he’s a hard luck thief with a penchant for getting into sticky situations, which he then struggles to get out from. Like Parker, Dortmunder has an inspired supporting cast which he can bounce off of to really make the stories great. One particularly inspired creation is Tiny Bulcher, a massive mountain of hateful criminal muscle who is always a looming threat, frequently telling darkly humorous tales about his past crimes. The Dortmunder novels are as crazy and hilarious as the Parker novels are serious and dark. It’s pretty amazing that one author could do both.
I got into Parker in a sort of roundabout way – through the comic book adaptations by Darwyn Cooke. After reading his adaptation of The Hunter, the first Parker book, I needed to know what happened to Parker next. I started snapping up the prose books and found them all amazing. Parker’s professionalism and the audacity of his jobs is one draw – he robs an entire town, an island casino, gets trapped in an amusement park – but another is just watching Parker deal with the world. Seeing other hoods and gangsters try to small talk with Parker is darkly hilarious, and it’s great to watch him put up with Grofield as well. All the Parker books are standalone, so I’d advise you to pick up any of them and get started.
Recommended Reading: For Parker, I’d say your best bet is to start with The Outfit, The Handle, or The Score – something that will familiarize yourself with Parker’s world and his character. They’re all a good place to start. But after that’s taken care of, check out the biggest, and in my opinion, the best Parker book of them all: Butcher’s Moon. It’s a sort of sequel to Slayground, with Parker and Grofield trying to reclaim some money they lost in an earlier robbery, only to get more than they bargained for. Quickly, they’re in over their heads and Grofield even gets captured. Parker decides to call in his thieving friends and take on the entire town. Butcher’s Moon is great because of how it takes what you know about Parker and twists it. Parker is emotionless – but he’s also got something like a friendship, or maybe just a professional partnership, with Grofield. A truly emotionless thief would cut Grofield loose the moment he gets captured and move on. Grofield knew the score, after all, and would expect that. But Parker and Grofield’s relationship is something more than that. Parker’s attempt to rescue Grofield become almost touching – which is something you’ll never expect from Parker after you get to know him.
Recommended Viewing: There are a ton of Westlake adaptations around. The most famous is probably Point Blank with Lee Marvin, which is supposed to be amazing, but, um, I haven’t seen it. Another Parker adaptation, actually called Parker, came out just last year, with Jason Statham in the leading role. It was okay, but not spectacular – and Statham seemed a little too emotional for the lead. Instead, I’m going to recommend the comic book adaptations of The Hunter, The Outfit, and The Score (with Slayground on the way) from master comic book artist Darwyn Cooke. These comic book adaptations take place in the years in which the books were written, mostly the early Sixties, and they match the design styles of the time, with clean, geometric lines and a pop art sensibility. That kind of Saul Bass awesomeness is always amazing, and seeing Parker and his pals depicted in such a way is a perfect fit. Because they’re faithful adaptations, Cooke captures everything about Parker’s character. Pick up all three, though I’d say The Outfit is my favorite.
Tomorrow, we’ll finally near modern times with Walter Mosley.