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Friday, November 27, 2009

Dirty Money - Grim

Eight of us met last week to discuss Dirty Money by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) 2008.

We all agreed: Stark gave us excellent and enjoyable descriptions of setting, wrote like the professional and mature writer that he is, and provided believable dialog. But to one degree or another, we also all agreeds that we did not enjoy the book and most likely would not read another by Stark.

OK, frankly our group prefers the "good guy" type of central character. At the very least, we want someone we can like. But in Parker, we felt there was little or nothing to like. He was not a "bumbler" like Dortmunder; Parker is a self-centered, remoreseless killer. In fact, Stark keeps Parker very flat and one-dimensional. We are quite frankly puzzled by the awards that Stark has received for Parker. Perhaps "less is more"?

We thought that the side characters were more interesting; they seemed to be real people with real feelings, more multi-dimensional. This observation includes the B&B owner, the two-timing bounty-hunter woman, and the doctor trapped by his own weaknesses.

Since we had no one in our group who had read the series opener, The Hunter (1962 !), we have no way of knowing whether Stark wrote differently in that book or provided more to like about him. One or two of us thought we might check it out, but that would be primarily a matter of curiosity.

We agreed there is good pacing and enough tension to keep us moving through the book. It's just that we regretted getting to the end. For the ending has no resolution; it just stops. One of our members had read the previous book instead of Dirty Money, and she confirmed that that book also just stopped. It is as though Dirty Money is the next chapter, but "so what."

Coincidentally, as I mentioned in a previous post, Cynthia Riggs and Mark Arsenault both mentioned Westlake as a most admired writer at a New England Crimebake panel two weeks ago. Our mystery book club gave a higher average score to Riggs (for Deadly Nightshade) than we did Stark.

Obviously Parker was an enduring character that lasted throughout Westlake's long writing career. But we would love to hear from some folks that "loved" Dirty Money and tell us why!


Ray Sawhill said...

I don't think you're supposed to like Parker. The Parker books are meant to be sort of existential. This is what he is, this is what he does, this is how he does it. The fascination isn't in identifying with anyone, it's in observing the actions and charaters. That's also why the books just seem to stop -- they don't do the usual narrative thing of pumping up all the turning points and climaxes. It's a deliberate suppression of the Usual Thing. The French adore the Parker novels, if I remember right. They love that total matter-of-factness. (Which to my mind is often quite exciting and funny, like an enormous cosmic deadpan joke.)

You either find this fun and engaging for its own reasons or you don't. I do -- I think Westlake was a genius and that his Parker books were some of his best. But each to his own.

Frank Hardy said...

I decided to ask Cynthia Riggs about Westlake. I am delighted that she took time to respond. So first comes my letter to her, followed by her reply.
Hi Cynthia,

I'm still puzzling over your Crimebake panel comment about Donald Westlake.

Last week, our mystery book club in Manchester-by-the-sea discussed Richard Stark's Dirty Money.

--Stark's central characters are losers
--Your book's central character is a good "guy" (apologies to Victoria)

--Stark's central character (Parker) has no appeal and seems flat, devoid of depth and feeling
--Victoria is appealing and there is plenty of depth - information about the character that creates the interest and appeal

--Stark's story has no ending; it's like the end of a chapter. It's like a puzzle piece.
--Your stories have resolution.

--While the Dortmunder series has a kind of humor, Stark's series are grim to the core with no real humor (at least to us)
--While Victoria encounters many murders, she is a good sport and there are lighter moments in the stories.

So -

At the risk of sounding really really dumb, and knowing that a fellow panel member happened to agree with the Westlake choice quite independently, still -

What exactly was it or is it about Westlake's writing that you admire?

Dear Richard:

I'm honored that the mystery book club compares my writing with Donald Westlake's. He's one of my favorite not-exactly-mystery writers. And, of course, I like hearing that you think Victoria Trumbull is appealing, has depth, and is a good sport and a good guy.

Westlake's caper books are quite different from his Stark books, which I like, but they're not among my favorites.

Dortmunder appeals to me because I love the concept of a failed burglar concocting yet another elaborate scheme that, yet again, fails. For some reason, I find that comical. I guess reading about losers makes me feel better about my own failed ventures, and thinking that an occasional venture of mine may succeed, unlike Dortmunder's.

Westlake has remarkable control over his writing. I'm sure he intended his losers to seem flat, which they are. Much like the characters in the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. His writing boils the story down to its essence. I'd say like poetry, but that's not exactly right. Doggerel, maybe, in its kindest definition. Westlake's settings are sketchy, his dialogue is a mere suggestion of the way people talk. The plot's the thing, leaving all else to the imagination, a carefully crafted, intricately engineered structure with cartoon people moving through. His spare dialogue and the absurd situations he sets up make me laugh. I'm not amused by much of today's over-written, in-your-face humor -- Seinfeld and Janet Evanovich, for instance, treat me as if my reading comprehension is at the third grade level. Reading Westlake I sometimes feel as though I'm the only reader who's ever seen through and around and beyond what he's put on paper, and believe I've discovered new territory. I suspect that's the way his other fans feel.

I consciously imitate some of Westlake's style, and find myself laughing aloud as I write.

Thanks for writing to me.


WalkerP said...

Westlake wrote the Parker books in two distinct periods. The first period started with the Hunter in '62 and concluded with Butcher's Moon in '74 and comprised of a dozen+ books. The second period was a kind of reboot and started around 2000, I think (I don't have the books in front of me). The books of the second period really took a while to recapture the tone of the first period and even the best ones are still only flashes of the cold, focused brilliance of the first series.

Parker is never a good guy. He is violent, dangerous freedom in a world of grasping, controlling organizations and institutions. He is cold, hard efficiency surrounded by weak, emotional people who can't get out of their own way. He is Saki's "unledgered wanderer" but one who will punch you in the throat twice to make sure that you are dead. There are so many reasons the Parker character is loved. At the very least, I would suggest you go back to some of the earlier books, which are almost all now reprinted by the University of Chicago press. Check out Slayground or The Score perhaps.

Frank Hardy said...

Thanks Ray and WalkerP - appreciate your thoughts very much!

Christopher Tassava said...

When I saw this post pop up in a search, I knew it would interesting, and it was! I'd love to belong to a book group like yours. I can't resist offering a few comments...

I discovering the Parker series via a graphic novel of the first novel, The Hunter, this summer. After reading and enjoying that book, I found the original novel, which I enjoyed even more, and then dove into the rest of the series (and quite a few other Westlakes). After jumping around a bit, I read the majority of the series in the order of publication, which meant I finished Dirty Money on Saturday night.

I'd never read "crime fiction" before (except for the canonical stuff by Poe and Doyle, which isn't really the same thing), so I was surprised to find myself enjoying every one of the novels so much, and to be so interested in Parker as a character. Though I'm still thinking about the series, about Parker, and about Stark/Westlake's artistry, I think that I personally was drawn to the way that Westlake used his remorseless but brutally rational character as a way to explore postwar capitalism. This sounds kinda theoretical or lit-crit'ty, but Parker's a businessman, in his own twisted way, and interacts with other businessmen, both "bent" and straight, from The Hunterand its sequels (with the Outfit and all that) all the way through the crooked dot-com billionaire in Firebreak and on to the gangsters at Cosmopolitan Beverages.

The plots that Westlake crafts are, from one perspective, carefully wrought business plans, which always go awry when someone - such as one of Parker's partners, or often another interloper (that is, another entrepreneur) - decides to muck up the system which everyone agreed to inhabit. I was endlessly engrossed in Parker's creations of these plans and his adjustments to others' attempts to wreck them. I "liked" Parker insofar as he almost always found a way to his chosen end, even when the means changed. He's a kind of entrepreneurial genius, in that way. He just happens to be pretty free with the threats and the bullets.

2009 POLL #2--Do Mystery Stories and Political Bias Mix? What is closest to your view?