Category Archives: Donald Westlake

Top tens and spent casings

Pulp Curry is going to be taking a break for a couple of weeks over the Christmas/New Year period while the family and I brave the monsoon-like conditions of Queensland.

But before I go, there’s a few spent casings lying around the place I’ve got to clean up.

First up, my list of top ten books for 2010 is up at Day Labor, the official blog of the online magazine, Crime Factory.  No surprises that Garry Disher’s Wyatt is right up there, as is Martin Limon, whose books featuring two military police on the beat in seventies Korea, along with Megan Abbott, are my big finds for this year.

My top ten is part of Day Labour’s Best of Whatever for 2010 series, put together by Keith Rawson. When Keith says whatever, he means whatever. There’s some great posts, not only on books, but comics, film and, well, whatever. Kudos to you, mate, for all your work and thanks to you and your Crime Factory co-editors, Liam Jose and Cameron Ashley, for making me feel so welcome in the Crime Factory family. I really appreciate it.

My recent post Parker and the art of hard-boiled crime writing generated a bit discussion on and off-line. That’s great, because if you haven’t picked up by now, I can talk the leg off a chair about Parker and his creator, legendary crime writer Donald Westlake.

As I said in the post, one of the things that’s always puzzled me is why Westlake stopped writing Parker books between 1974 and 1997. The answer came courtesy of Trent over at The Violent World of Parker who sent me a fascinating article written by Westlake himself for The New York Times in 2001. Like the master thief high tailing after a successful heist it seemed Westlake’s ability to write the Parker character, just disappeared. 

Anyway, you can read the article ‘A Pseudonym Returns From an Alter-Ego Trip, With New Tales to Tell’  for yourself.

One other great piece of Westlake memorabilia I found on the net is this clip of him talking about Parker, the process of writing and his career. Enjoy and see you all in 2011.

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Parker and the art of hard-boiled crime writing

December 31 2010 marks the second anniversary of the death at age 75 of one of the masters of hard-boiled crime writing, Donald Westlake.

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about Westlake lately and his best known creation, the professional criminal Parker.

Westlake was a prolific writer. While he specialised in crime fiction, he also did science fiction, erotic stories and westerns under a myriad of pseudonyms of which Richard Stark, the name he used for the Parker books, remains the best known. He also worked on a number of screenplays, including the adaption of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters.

Sixteen Parker novels appeared between 1962 and 1974. For reasons I’m not clear about, Westlake took a rest from the character until 1997, then wrote another eight Parker books.

Several of the books were filmed, the best known of which is Point Blank starring Lee Marvin (later remade as Payback with Mel Gibson as the lead, but the less said about it the better).

I recently discovered via The Violent World of Parker website, The Outfit, an excellent 1973 adaption of Westlake’s novel of the same name, is finally getting an outing on DVD. (The details are here).

Robert Duvall does the honours as Parker or Macklin, as the central character in the film is called, alongside Joe Don Baker, Robert Ryan and the siren of seventies American B-movies, Karen Black. Those of us who have loving held onto our VHS cassettes of the movie can finally trade up.

There’s even a vaguely Blaxsploitation version of Parker, The Split, featuring one of my favourite sixties/seventies actors Jim Brown. In what must have been one hell of a wrap party, it also starred Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates and Donald Sutherland.

Richard Stark aka Donald Westlake

But Parker is at his best in the written word. The character’s influence on crime writers and aspiring crime writers everywhere has been enormous, present company included.

Parker is a career criminal who steals things for a living. Get in his way on a job or try to double cross him afterwards and he’ll hurt you. Yet he’s not a psychopath in the vein of so many contemporary literary and film criminals. His only morals are what it takes to survive, no more, no less. He’s almost an anti-character, emotionless, with few social connections and hardly any past that Westlake ever let the reader know about.

The most recent Parker I’ve read was The Sour Lemon Score (1969). It’s not the best of the series but it’s pretty good and it made me fell a bit like I was saying goodbye to an old friend (not that Parker had friends). Now there’s only the very hard to find Butcher’s Moon and I’ll have completed all of the first wave of Parker books.

I’ve still got a few of the post-1997 Parker books to get through but they lack of hard-boiled feel of the first 16. Parker had mellowed and didn’t come across as nearly so immoral and cynical as his earlier incarnation.

The Parker books are meticulously constructed, using multiple points of view, Parker’s and others. Westlake’s writing style is lean and disciplined. He’s also a master of less is more.

I can’t help but wonder whether part of the reason for this is because Westlake did all his work on manual typewriter. When I first worked as a journalist in Asia I wrote on a small portable type writer I’d bought in a pawn shop in Brisbane. It was a pain in the arse to carry around and getting spare parts and ribbons was a nightmare but it gave my writing real discipline.

At their core all the Parker novels are about the same thing, a heist gone wrong and the consequences –  that and the mechanics of planning and conducting the crime. Parker is a craftsman. It just so happens his chosen trade is illegal, and Westlake was expert at portraying him at work.

Veteran Australian crime writer Garry Disher, whose character Wyatt is based on Parker, nailed it when I asked him in a recent interview what it is about the heist gone wrong genre 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.”

The Sour Lemon Score is about a heist gone sour. One of the gang, George Uhl steals the gang’s haul of $33,000 (not much by today’s standards but its real money, not numbers on a computer screen) and kills all his partners except Parker, which is a big mistake.

Parker spends the rest of the novel travelling up and down the eastern US seaboard searching for Uhl and the money. 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.

Two things stand out about the book. The first is how good Westlake was at depicting the criminal underworld. A phone call is made, a contact visited, someone talks to a friend of a friend. Each transaction in The Sour Lemon Score leaves Parker with just enough information to move onto the next. There is a constant feel of tension and disorientation.

The second was Westlake’s skill at depicting apparently normal people and places, then transforming them with the slightest twist into something much darker. A second-hand furniture shop run by an old lady is a front for an illegal firearms seller, a down at heel motel is owned by an ex-hooker who let’s people from the life stay when they need a place to lie low.

The best example of this from The Sour Lemon Score is when Parker visits the widow of Benny, a long-term criminal associate and one of the men killed by Uhl.

“Parker had been here a couple of times before, and he remembered how Benny too had built himself a completely different at-home image. He was a semi-retired putterer, the Little League umpire, the maker of model planes and pup tents with the neighbourhood boys, the constructor of bird houses and clipper of hedges, a vague and 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 here he hadn’t recognised Weiss and had then thought Weiss had changed so much, grown too old, and couldn’t be used anymore. But Weiss has let himself know he was still his old self on the job, and he was.”

Benny’s widow, who is baking a cake when Parker arrives, is also more than she seems. In a magnificently understated scene, she bargains hard with Parker for money in return for the few grains of information she holds that is useful to him.

‘Thanks, Grace,” says Parker once their trade has been completed.

“I did it for the money,” is all she says back.

Garry Disher interview

Garry Disher is a veteran of the Australian crime-writing scene. He is the author a series of books featuring the professional hold-up man known as Wyatt. Disher wrote six Wyatt novels in the nineties and a seventh was recently released by Text and took out the top prize in the 2010 Ned Kelly awards. Disher has also authored a number of books featuring Hal Challis and Ellen Destry, two police working on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsular, about an hour’s drive southeast of Melbourne, where Disher also lives. I talked to him for the issue 5 of Crime Factory about the difference between writing hard-boiled characters and police procedurals, why after over a ten-year break he decided to write another Wyatt book and the state of crime fiction in Australia.

It’s been over 10 years since the last Wyatt book, Fallout in 1997. Why the break and what inspired you to give Wyatt another outing after such a long time?

The break was to try and get established with the new series of police procedurals, the Challis and Destry books, which for me was a completely different way of looking at plot and structure. I wanted a break from Wyatt because there was basically one book a year and I thought I might get stale on them.

There are a number of reasons why I came back to Wyatt. I’d often go to festivals or give talks in libraries and people would come up to me and say ‘when are you going to bring back Wyatt,’ so I have a sense of a readership for him out there. At the same time I was getting tired of the police procedurals I was writing, so when my German publisher said we are about to publish number six have you got a seventh in the wing for us, I thought, well, yeah, it was a good time to write another Wyatt.

Are you surprised by the positive reaction to the latest Wyatt book?

I’m always surprised by positive reactions. When I read reviews that are positive I always think it’s not me, it’s another guy that I am reading about.

One of the things I thought you did so well in the latest Wyatt is way you created a sense of an old school heist guy who is out of his time and place in a high tech society. The modern world is really pressing in on him and the atmosphere in the book is very claustrophobic. That was obviously a conscious decision?

It was in the sense that I’d read the Richard Stark novels and I liked the remote and amoral nature of his character Parker. I didn’t want to create some sort of James Bond character who is always charming to women, ready with a quick quip and good with cars. His roots are working class and if he happened to be very good at by-passing electronic security systems, then that would mean that I would have to do a hell of a lot of research on how you do that and then I would have keep up to date with the technology. Then there’s the question of how I make that interesting in a book, so I went with the idea of the old-style heist guy. He relies on experts occasionally, but usually they betray him or something like that.

On one level all the Wyatt books have been about a heist gone wrong, which is essentially what the Parker books were about too. What is it about this genre of crime fiction that works so well?

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.

Donald Westlake, who used the pseudonym of Richard Stark, said that he meant the Parker books to be about “a workman at work”. Process, mechanics, trouble shooting, sometimes of a very technical nature dominate his books, which is why some people say they have so few parallels. Was it hard to write a character that was, in a sense, an homage to Parker without it being a parody?

It required a lot of thinking through. After I had read the Parker books I had to forget him and Wyatt had to be my character. Part of that was deciding not to know too much about him. If we knew who his mum and sister were and that he had favourite teacher in grade five or his old man used to beat him up, suddenly we are learning too much about him, he’s becoming too vulnerable.

At the same time, I give little clues about his past. In his latest book, for example, he is helping Lydia wash her hair and suddenly thinks, did I ever do this? Did a mother or sister ever do it for me? It gives him a feeling of tenderness that he’s not used to and he’s backing away from it but at the same time acknowledging it. But that sort of background is about as much as I am prepared to provide.

That was a fascinating thing about the recent book, you give us absolutely no back-story for what Wyatt has done in the last decade and it works fantastically.

That was a conscious decision. If there’s too much background too early in a book, I think you loose your readers. It was enough to hint that things went wrong and he had to go away for a while.

Do you have a favourite Parker novel?

I think it’s too long since I’ve read them. I bought them all one by one about 10 or 15 years ago and have told myself I should read them again. I do remember the first one in particular and I’ve seen the film that Lee Marvin was in, Point Blank. I also saw the Mel Gibson remake of that film but it was terrible.

Is there going to be another Wyatt book?

Yes, I think I need to follow up with another.

Any clues where you might be going with him, because as I said earlier, you have sort of backed him into a corner?

Yes, well, that is part of cranking up the tension. I don’t know what I will do as a backdrop to the next one. For the last couple of years we have gone to Noosa for school holidays and my first impressions were those big houses clustered along the canals. I took the kids out on a little motorboat and went up and down the canals and I could see Wyatt doing that. Casing these places, figuring out when they are empty. Whether the next book is set there, however, I don’t know.

What crime fiction are you enjoying reading at the moment?

I have just been re-reading the Martin Beck police procedurals by the Swedish husband-and-wife team, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. There are ten of them, first published in the ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, and recently republished. The authors were both communists and critical of welfare state Sweden, how poverty leads to crime and how Sweden was becoming a police state. They are good stories, good yarns, but there’s a lot of social commentary threaded through them too. I have also been re-reading some novels by the American writer John Sandford, his Davenport novels. He’s a sneaky plotter, I admire him greatly. I have a large stack of books by the bed including the third Stig Larson, which I haven’t read yet.

The books about the two police, Challis and Destry, are the focus of your other crime series. You said they were a different way of looking at plot and structure. Why did you feel the need to change your style of writing from the Wyatt books?

I felt there was a danger of getting repetitive with the Wyatt books because they follow a certain pattern, and I think writers have to keep pushing their boundaries and try new structural forms and approaches.

I’d been reading a lot of the police procedurals of the English writer, John Harvey, around a character called Inspector Resnick and what I liked about them are that they are set in a small regional town, not another big anonymous city and they have an ensemble caste and deal with major alongside minor ones, just as you’d expect in a regional setting.

They are set on the Mornington Peninsula. Is there a bit of a dark underbelly there?

I have certainly bumped up the crime rate there, the murder rate in particular.

I didn’t know where I would set these books but when I moved down to the Mornington Peninsula, the serial killer John Paul Denyer had recently abducted and murdered three young women near Frankston. I went into the deli near Hastings one day and heard some mothers of teenage daughters talking about their fears, and how their lives had changed in order to chaperone their daughters everywhere, and I had this strong sense of community anxiety. I knew then that the Peninsula was a good community to write about.

When I read the local newspapers, I do get a sense of a society under strain a bit. There is a shortage of police. The population is growing and services don’t keep up. There are not enough primary schools for the kids that are moving in. All of these things interest me, as does the tension and the gap between rich and poor on the Peninsula. I don’t want to beat the reader over the head with it but it is present as a layer in all the Challis and Destry books.

Can you talk a bit more about the different mindset you have to apply to writing the Challis and Destry books as opposed to the Wyatt series?

The Wyatt novels have a simple structure. Wyatt identifies a target, he gets a robbery crew together if necessary, something goes wrong and he has to put it right. The plotting at that level is quite simple.

With the Challis and Destry police procedurals I needed to stay more consciously a step ahead of the reader and try to trick the reader in the sense of planting clues and having multiple plot threads. At the same time I am weaving in aspects of the characters’ personal lives or workplace tensions or whatever it may be. So there are quite a few more balls in the air.

In terms of writing, are you a planner or do you just start writing?

I’m a planner. An extreme planner. I identify what the main crime might be and what the social milieu might be that it takes place in. Once I have identified the crime and where it might be, then I work out who did it. I might know from the start who did it, in which case I have to work out how they did it, how it unfolds and how the police might investigate it.

So you have pretty much plotted out the entire book by the time you have sat down to start writing?

Yes, chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene, trying to balance the demands of character traits and personality with those of a good plot.  I’m always testing the plan, asking myself things like: ‘Would she do that, given the kind of person she is?’ But I trust my instincts too. If it takes me away from the plan I always follow my instincts. For example in Snap Shot, the third in the series, I changed the identity of the murderer in the final rewrite before it went to print.

The Wyatt books are pretty hardboiled. I was trying to think of other books and characters like them on the Australian market and I couldn’t really think of any. It’s very different to the US market where there’s a much bigger publishing industry just focusing on noir, hard-boiled and pulp crime fiction. Obviously there is the question of size, but is that the only reason why there’s not more of a market for harder boiled crime fiction in Australia?

I think there is a kind of cultural cringe operating against all Australian crime fiction. If you go into one of the chain books stores like Angus and Robertson or Collins, they will have all the big new American and British authors on prominent display but not the Australians, not unless it’s Peter Temple, maybe. So there’s a mindset encouraged by the chain bookshops, where most book-buyers shop, but even some of the independents are culpable of it.

About four or five years ago several of the independent booksellers put out a catalogue of the newest crime titles. There was not a single Australian title in it, even though Peter Temple, Kerry Greenwood and I had just had books out. I got really cranky and wrote to all of them in turn and got a couple of measly answers but it just didn’t occur to them, I think, to put an Australian title there. It’s almost as though local publishers think that the Australian product is not as good as American hard-boiled. I think we have got to battle against that.

You have won prizes for the Challis and Destry books, including a Ned Kelly for Chain of Evidence in 2007. But there hasn’t been much recognition for Wyatt, even though he is one of the stayers on the crime scene. I remember when I first started reading crime fiction 20 years ago, in terms of Australian material, there was Peter Corris and his character Cliff Hardy and there was Wyatt. I know there was other stuff out but they were my first two.

Yes, well hopefully that might change a bit with [his current publisher] Text. I want to acknowledge Allen and Unwin, who published a lot of my early crime titles and were able to sell some to overseas publishers, but they struggled to find a local readership.  Michael Heyward  [the owner of Text] really gets behind all his titles, particularly his crime titles. It helps to have a young, newish and aggressive publisher. It’s possible Allen and Unwin didn’t really know how to publish the Wyatt books. They released them as inoffensive little pulp paperbacks that were not going to be noticed in bookshops.

Paperbacks that litter the shelves of second hand books shops across Australia and further abroad.

That’s true.  When I ran out of my own copies I went on the Internet. I was trying to find a copy of Kick Back. I found it for six dollars fifty in New Zealand or $240 in New York.

Is there much interest in Australian crime fiction overseas that you are aware of?

I did an author tour of the states last year for Blood Moon. I had reasonably modest audiences in books stores. I was certainly aware of a following for those books but not for Australian crime fiction in general.

Where are the Challis and Destry published apart from Australia?

Challis and Destry are published in the United States, Germany, the UK, Italy and a couple of smaller markets like Turkey and Spain.

What about Wyatt, is he going to get an international outing?

The first six Wyatts have been published in Germany, where they have been a bit of a hit and by smaller publishers in Denmark and Holland.

Soho, the same American group that publish the Challis and Destry novels, are publishing him later this year or early next year.

In addition to writing crime novels, you have also written for TV.  What was it like and how is it different from writing novels?

After a couple of Wyatts had appeared, back in the 1990s, I was contacted by a Sydney production company to write a character profile for a series character, and three storylines that a scriptwriter could turn into two-hour telemovies.

I got paid well, it helped me clear our mortgage, but two things went wrong, leaving me pretty cynical.  First, I had met an undercover cop who had infiltrated the NSW bikie gangs, and was interested in the strange kind of double life he led, where he had to keep reminding himself he was the good guy, and a normal guy, with a house and a job and a girlfriend, and I thought a guy like that would make a terrific series character.  But the producers said: ‘This is a bit dark; Gary Sweet can’t do dark.’  So, I had a created character in mind, they had an actor.

Then the storylines. It’s a strange form, present tense, no writing craft involved, only plotting craft.  ‘And then this happened and this happened and a bit later that happened’.  One story I wrote involved art theft, stolen paintings being used to bankroll crimes or as security for crooked loans, etc, etc.  In real life, art theft is a big deal.  But the producers said: ‘We see our audiences as the western suburbs of Sydney.  They’re not interested in art.’  So, take the money and run is the only attitude to take to film and TV.

Picture credits: Text Publishing and Allen and Unwin

Wyatt’s back

Veteran Australian crime writer Garry Disher has delivered his seventh book featuring the professional criminal and hold-up man, Wyatt, (Wyatt, Text Publishing), and the first since The Fallout in 1997, and it’s fantastic.

In Wyatt the score is a jewel heist, presented by an old colleague who fancies a shot at the big league. There are multiple double crosses courtesy of the cast of characters, including a bent cop, a wannabe gangster, a stone cold French assassin and an unhinged stripper.

There is something about the heist gone wrong genre of crime fiction (and movies) that seldom disappoints and Wyatt is no exception. It’s clear within the first few chapters things will go wrong. You know people are going to get hurt, some fatally, and most, but not all, deserve what’s coming to them. The good part is finding out just how incredible complicated and bad it’s going to get and how the characters react to each twist and turn of the plot.

The aspect of Wyatt that pushes it beyond a simple, albeit, well told heist caper, is the depiction of an old style criminal trying to adapt to a rapidly changing world. In sparse, gritty prose, Disher brilliantly delivers insights into this side of Wyatt’s existence. ‘He was an old style hold-up man: cash, jewellery, paintings. Wyatt thought about that as he cleaned his pistol, or stood at a window and watched the twilight leak away. The trouble was, technology had outstripped him. He no longer had the skills to by-pass high-tech security systems or intercept electronic transfers and was preternaturally wary of going into partnership with anyone who did. So, here he was, obliged to carry out small-scale hold-ups and burglaries.’

Wyatt’s old associates are either dead, in jail or getting careless. His carefully planned network of stashes has been used or swallowed whole by urban redevelopment. Even public phones, Wyatt’s preferred form communication with his criminal associates because they are more secure than mobile phones, are getting scarce.

It’s not just Wyatt’s criminal milieu that’s shrinking, his space, even his ability to maintain anonymity feels like it is being eroded. While earlier Wyatt novels were set in mining camps, the countryside or the Pacific islands, this latest outing largely takes place apartments, offices and back streets in metropolitan Melbourne. This gives the book a taunt, claustrophobic feel.

The parallels between Wyatt and character of master thief Parker, created by the late Richard Stark, aka, Donald Westlake, are obvious. Both men are more or less amoral, emotionally blank career criminals who while they prefer to restrict the violence to a punch or a pistol-whipping, won’t hesitate to kill if  double crossed. While there are many examples of this kind of fiction in the US, Wyatt is a stands out on the Australian crime fiction scene.

Wyatt’s back. Hopefully he’ll stick around this time.

A version of this review first appeared in Crime Factory, May – June 2010