Friday, 21 May 2010

The Stark Stooges

I posted something a month or two back about the Stark Cutaways – the part in every Parker novel (or at least the eight I've read so far) where Richard Stark/Donald Westlake cuts away from the main action to fill in some back story or follow a different but still-related strand of the story. To a greater or lesser extent, these cutaways always focus on some hapless individual who's causing Parker problems, intentionally or inadvertently. Let's call 'em the Stark Stooges.

The first Stark Stooge is, of course, Mal Resnick, the guy who double-crosses Parker in the first novel in the series, The Hunter/Point Blank. Once he learns Parker's on his tail, Mal spends his cutaway trying first to get the Outfit (the crime syndicate that plagues Parker throughout the books) to protect him, and then... well, laying low with a hooker in a hotel room. Good plan there, Mal. Just as Parker comes for him, we flash back to the aftermath of the heist that set events in motion and Mal's betrayal of Parker, using Parker's wife Lynne as his instrument. Goes without saying, really, but: shouldn't have messed with Parker's moll, Mal...

Point Blank is obviously a terrific book, but Mal is a pretty loathsome individual, even for a career criminal; he's self-centred, sadistic and a coward, so it's no great shame when he gets his comeuppance. But the Stark Stooge in the second book, The Man with the Getaway Face, is much more sympathetic, mostly because he's so hopelessly dumb. Stubbs is a former Communist party activist who got thumped on the head one too many times as a younger man and as a result stumbles through life in a perennially befuddled state. He blunders into Parker's life after Parker gets plastic surgery on his face and the surgeon who performed the operation is subsequently murdered by a different patient.

So Stubbs embarks on a woozy manhunt, with Parker being one of the names on his shortlist of suspects. He catches up with Parker in the planning stages of a heist; Parker doesn't particularly want to kill Stubbs, so he puts him on ice, locking him in a shack in the middle of nowhere. But when Parker returns to the shack after the robbery, Stubbs has escaped, which is where the Stark Cutaway kicks in and we find out what Stubbs has been up to. This, for me, is the best part of the novel; witnessing Stubbs' plodding, fuzzy but methodical progress as he searches for the next name on the list. Needless to say, as with pretty much all the Stark Stooges, it doesn't end well for him...

The next Stark Cutaway in the third novel, The Outfit, is split between the various criminals who respond to Parker's letter-writing campaign asking them to hit the Outfit, and the target of Parker's ire, Outfit boss Bronson. Bronson is the Stark Stooge here, a miserable figure who's reached the top of the tree but takes little pleasure in his position, pacing around his ugly mansion, waiting for Parker to catch up with him. It's almost a relief when he does.

More unusual is the stooge in the fourth book, The Mourner: Auguste Menlo. Menlo is an odd fit for a Parker book. He's an Eastern European intelligence agent, sent to America to look into the actions of diplomat Kapor, who's been squirreling away cash with the intention of absconding. Menlo is educated, clever and ruthless, but also rather charming, so his (altered) mission to get his hands on the cash instead and defect himself is actually quite compelling. It's easier to root for Menlo than for previous stooges, which makes his ultimate downfall as affecting in its own way as that of Stubbs. Even so, Menlo is so different to the usual protagonists of the Parker novels that he feels somewhat unlikely; by my reckoning Stubbs is still the more believable and therefore sympathetic stooge.

Our next Stark Stooge, Edgars, in the fifth novel, The Score, is probably the least interesting stooge so far, which is odd, as the book itself is one of the best in the series. But his motivation is simplistic (basically revenge on the town Parker's crew hit), and he's overshadowed by the heist itself, which is glorious and bloody. But the main Stark Stooge in the following book, The Jugger, is much better. Captain Abner Younger is the police chief of the small town where Parker's 'mailbox' (i.e. how other criminals contact Parker), Joe Sheer, has retired. In fact we get two stooges for the price of one in The Jugger: in a flashback the previously opaque Sheer is fleshed out, as Younger discovers who he is and proceeds to blackmail and eventually torture Sheer in the hopes of getting his hands on Sheer's money. Even by the standards of Mal Resnick and Bronson, Younger is a real son-of-a-bitch. When he gets his, in Stark's standard matter-of-fact manner, I almost stood up and cheered.

The Stark Stooge in The Seventh (a.k.a. The Split) stands out by dint of something Westlake doesn't do: name him. (Westlake even has some fun with this, having characters state that it doesn't matter what the stooge's name is – and indeed it doesn't.) This un-monikered chancer careens into Parker's world after he kills Parker's bit of fluff (actually Nameless Stooge's ex-girlfriend) and makes off with the proceeds of Parker and his crew's latest heist. The result is the biggest bloodbath so far, as Parker and co. hunt for Mr. No Name and eventually turn on each other. The way this nobody, by no means a professional criminal, continually frustrates Parker is fascinating to watch, and becomes almost comical when it emerges he gets terrified and freezes during shootouts. The murder of his ex aside, Nameless Stooge is probably the closest character to the average Stark reader in the series so far; it's all too easy to imagine yourself in the nameless one's shoes at the end of the book, being pursued relentlessly by Parker through the woods.

The eighth Parker novel, The Handle (and the last one I've read to date), brings us Baron, owner of the island of Cockaigne off the coast of Texas and the casino that sits on the island. Baron is, in fact, an actual baron, who escaped from Germany after the war with his ill-gotten gains and eventually got involved with the Cubans, who set him up on his island. Baron is similar to Menlo from The Mourner; a more sophisticated and urbane foil for Parker. Although 'foil' isn't entirely accurate: Parker never really confronts Baron, although he is, at one point, shot by him. The fun with Baron is following him after the apocalyptic heist on his island, as he makes his escape in a boat and then to Mexico, meeting his unfortunate fate at the hands of a couple of peasants: class warfare, Richard Stark-style.

And those are the Stark Stooges thus far. Next up for me (after I finish the first Alan Grofield novel, The Damsel) is The Rare Coin Score. Wonder which type of stooge we'll get this time...?

(Some images 'borrowed' from The Violent World of Parker. Hope you don't mind...)

4 comments:

WalkerP said...

Great overview. I had to stop reading after The Mourner because I'm re-reading the entire series and I didn't want to remember too early some of the good bits.

I have to say that I find Stubbs story is so painful and sad, especially when he is locked up. Westlake had a hard mind at times. He didn't need excessive violence or drawn out cruelty to make the reader flinch.

Louis XIV, 'The Sun King' said...

Thanks for the comment. I was kind of pleased with that post. Makes a change from my usual nonsense.

Poor old Stubbs...

Christopher Tassava said...

I somehow missed this post earlier this year, but it's great. The Stark Stooge is a valuable character to watch for! Nicely done.

Louis XIV, 'The Sun King' (a.k.a. Nick Jones) said...

Thanks, Christopher!