CONFESSIONS OF A LAPSED PARKER FAN
Taylor Hackford’s PARKER is scheduled for release on DVD in May, giving me a second chance to see the movie. I failed to catch it in the theaters last January.
I suppose my apathy would have surprised and dismayed my younger self, the me of 40-plus years ago who became an early aficionado of Richard Stark’s novels. Was I turned off by the dismal reviews that the film received from many critics? Not necessarily. I take most reviews with a measure of skepticism anyway. And some knowledgeable observers whose opinions I respect -- in particular, Max Allan Collins and “Outlaw Vern,” if it’s ok for me to name names -- gave it decent marks online.
To be honest, my enthusiasm for the series had already waned over the years; more than anything else, my failure to shell out $12 at the box office was just another indication that I’ve become a lapsed Parker fan. It’s a condition that puzzles me, especially when I consider how brightly the flame burned at one time.
I can’t claim to have discovered Richard Stark back at the very beginning in 1962, but I was still a fairly early convert, considering how long the Parker series has lasted. On a sunny Saturday morning in June 1969, age 18, on summer break after my freshman year in college, and on a day off from the summer job that my dad had landed for me, I was browsing at the paperback rack in a G.C. Murphy’s five-and-dime in Montgomery, W.Va. For a total of $1.80 plus a few cents’ sales tax, I bought three new paperbacks.
Two were Bantam books: Ross Macdonald’s THE INSTANT ENEMY and Michael Collins’ ACT OF FEAR. I knew Macdonald’s work but not Collins’, and I had no idea that Collins was actually a writer named Dennis Lynds, but it was a private eye mystery, a safe bet since I was already becoming a private eye reader. My third choice was more of a wild card: a Gold Medal original, THE SOUR LEMON SCORE by Richard Stark.
The sketchy cover art had a low-rent look, and I mentally pictured Richard Stark as a guy in a sweaty undershirt in a dingy apartment, spilling cigarette ashes on his Smith-Corona and moving his lips as he typed. Still, I liked the Gold Medal series by John D. MacDonald, Donald Hamilton, and Philip Atlee that I’d been reading for a couple of years, so anything with the GM brand wasn’t totally an unknown quantity. In the course of the weekend, I read THE INSTANT ENEMY and ACT OF FEAR and liked them, but THE SOUR LEMON SCORE was a knockout.
I was fascinated by Stark’s terse style, the matter-of-fact depiction of crime, the swift movement of action across several states, the absence of TV-show baloney. Most of all I was impressed by the characterization of Parker, a professional thief who stole because that was what he was good at, not because he wanted to redistribute wealth or any noble BS like that.
I discovered that THE SOUR LEMON SCORE was actually the latest of a series, including several titles published by Pocket Books predating Parker’s move to Gold Medal. I determined to find all of the earlier novels. Mind you, this was ‘way before the Internet, and I was living in a small town.
From the publishers, I ordered the only other two titles still in print, and then went digging for all the rest. It took me about two years, but I finally scrounged together a complete set, mostly from junk stores and used book stores. Three books came in a surprise package from Pat Erhardt, a busy mystery fan of the early ‘70s whom some on this blog may remember. I think I met Pat by mail through one of the fanzines, and mentioned I was having a hard time finding those three titles. “Give me a bigger challenge next time,” she said in a note with the books.
By then, I had discovered that Richard Stark was actually Donald Westlake. I wrote a couple of parody Parker short stories and sent them to Mr. Westlake, and he responded and said he liked them, but I suspect he was just being kind to a kid. Around the same time, Parker moved to hardcover at Random House. I also bought the hardcovers as they came out.
I was still a Parker fan, but even then, the flame was beginning to sputter. I liked the hardcovers but not with the intensity with which I had devoured the paperback originals. Over the course of the next three years, ’72-’74, I graduated college, got married, found a job, and transferred my enthusiasm to Robert E. Howard and Conan; that landed me a gig with Roy Thomas at Marvel Comics to write fan articles for Marvel’s Conan comics.
When Richard Stark and Parker returned in 1999 with the first of a new run of novels for Mysterious Press, I picked up COMEBACK and . . . well, it was good enough, but it didn’t sock me between the eyes like THE SOUR LEMON SCORE had, thirty years earlier. I gave the next couple of titles a desultory try as they appeared, and skipped the rest through DIRTY MONEY, the last entry in 2008.
Today, Parker’s reputation is such that a university press is reprinting the series in a high-end format. The early novels have been adapted into critically acclaimed graphic novels. And Hollywood seems to have realized that Stark’s work has solid cult status, making it safe to stake the title of the latest movie on the character’s name. I should be popping champagne with other fans. I wish I were, but the infatuation isn’t there anymore.
I’m not sure why not. Maybe the series itself lost energy along the way, although there are plenty of fans out there who will disagree with that hypothesis, I’m sure. Maybe I finally had enough of Parker’s recurring sweetheart Claire, the most irritating girlfriend in tough-guy fiction this side of Susan Silverman. Although Claire was already in the series by the time I came along, she was absent from THE SOUR LEMON SCORE except by passing reference.
More likely, especially since so many other readers are fond of the series, Claire and all, it isn’t Stark and Parker who changed, but me. More likely, there was something in me that responded to Parker at age 18 that isn’t there at age 62. Maybe I’ve lost the connection with Parker the same way Wendy lost her connection with Peter Pan after she grew up.
I could test that by re-reading the early novels. I still have them. I might discover that they are as compelling now as they were then. I can still re-read other guys I discovered around the same time -- Dashiell Hammett, Dan J. Marlowe -- with undiminished interest, in the same way that I’m still as fond of Sergio Leone’s movies as I was four decades ago. On the other hand, JDM and Donald Hamilton haven’t worn as well, in my experience, and I’m afraid of adding Stark to the list.
Maybe I’ll watch PARKER first, and then decide. Jason Statham can’t be any more miscast as Parker, the Parker I remember, than he was as Ken Bruen’s Det. Sgt. Tom Brant in the movie version of BLITZ -- or can he?
# # # #