Thursday, 26 August 2010

Parker Progress Report: The Sour Lemon Score by Richard Stark

Wow, this is a mean one.

There's a weird morality that weaves through Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's Parker novels. For the most part, despite all the violence, the heists, the mayhem, the only people who get hurt or meet untimely ends are those who share Parker's amoral world: criminals and lowlifes. Regular members of the public are generally left untouched. There's a string of bodies across the Parker books, but they're either part of Parker's crew, or silly buggers who've crossed him somehow, and either way they're likely on the wrong side of the law anyway. Presumably, even when Parker and co. hit a bank or a payroll, the poor schmucks whose life savings are deposited there or who are waiting for their hard-earned cash would be covered by insurance; the institution might lose out, or the insurance company, but not the individual.

Allison & Busby HB, 1986
There are exceptions, however, and when they occur, they're all the more shocking as a result. Right back in the first novel in the series, 1962's The Hunter, when Parker's staking out the Outfit hotel in New York from a hairdresser's across the way, he gags a woman so he can keep her quiet while he keeps watch. Unfortunately she's asthmatic, and dies. When he discovers this, Parker's disturbed; not because he particularly feels for the woman, more because her death was unnecessary, untidy. That's about as much emotion as you're going to get out of Parker: when regular joes occasionally wander into the firing line, he doesn't feel bad out of any kind of empathy – he just knows that the death of an innocent will complicate things and maybe bring unwanted heat. Even so, that is a kind of morality, if not on Parker's part then certainly Westlake's. And in The Sour Lemon Score – number 12 in the series, following The Black Ice Score, and a bruising book even by the standards of Stark – the fates of a number of innocent bystanders lend the novel an added level of jolting horror.

It's not just innocents that meet gruesome ends though, or who provide the shocks. The book opens with a bank job that goes off without a hitch, but as soon as Parker and his three cohorts hole up in their hideout, things start going spectacularly south. Westlake hits us with a couple of killings that come out of nowhere, delivered in his blunt, no-frills prose, and as ever all the more impactful for it. From there, Parker embarks on a quest to recover the lost loot, one which involves him trekking up and down the Eastern Seaboard on the trail of the betrayer, George Uhl.

Allison & Busby PB, 1991
This chase provides the impetus for the plot, such as it is; as he races from city to city Parker's forever one step behind, to the extent that he even pauses at one point to reflect that his efforts could be considered comedic if they're weren't so bloody frustrating (prefiguring Westlake's Dortmunder novels). Along the way he encounters a former ally of Uhl's, Matt Rosenstein, and inadvertently sets Rosenstein off in pursuit of the money too. Rosenstein acts as an interesting counterpoint to Parker, and this is where Westlake starts to play once again with the possibility of a moral core at the centre of Parker's amoral universe. Rosenstein's utter amorality throws Parker's relative morality into sharp relief: where Parker is reluctant to inflict injury on innocents, Rosenstein positively revels in it, cheerfully maiming and raping his way across the novel. Parker may be a bad man, but at least he's restrained by his single-mindedness: the score is what counts. Rosenstein's just a complete and utter bastard.

That nastiness reaches its apex at the climax of the book. Rosenstein and his lover, Paul Brock, hole up at the suburban family home of Uhl's old high-school buddy, Ed Saugherty, where Uhl had hidden out briefly. While they wait for Uhl to get back in touch with Saugherty and thus identify where the money from the heist is, Rosenstein whiles the hours away making use of Saugherty's wife (as Rosenstein himself reasons, he may have a male lover, but that don't make him gay). This mostly happens 'off-page', but it doesn't make it any less distasteful.

What we end up with is a kind of 'Parker to the rescue' scenario, if only inadvertently. Parker finally works out that the suitcase full of money is with Saugherty, and launches an assault on the house. So Westlake pits the amoral anti-hero against the even more amoral villain, with the lives of five innocent bystanders – Saugherty, his wife, and their three kids – at stake. But Westlake still isn't done with the questions of morality, because there's a sting in the tail that potentially turns the whole matter on its head, leaving us with the possibility of one last corruption that'll either turn your stomach or leave you with a wicked smile on your face, depending on how dark your sense of humour is.

Our Stark Stooge this time out is probably George Uhl (although his eventual fate isn't quite what you'd expect compared to previous Stark Stooge performances), but you could make a similar stooge case for Rosenstein, Brock, and maybe even Saugherty. Either way we do get a solid Stark Cutaway too in the traditional position of Part Three, bouncing between Uhl, Brock, Rosenstein and others in a mix of flashbacks and fill-ins.

Next up it's Parker #13, Deadly Edge, which I suspect may well continue this mean streak. Bring it on.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The Secret Servant by Gavin Lyall: Book Review (Hodder & Stoughton, 1980)

Hodder & Stoughton 1980
British thriller writer Gavin Lyall may not be completely forgotten, but he is sadly – and unjustly – increasingly overlooked. Most (possibly all now) of his books are out of print, a turn of events that's all the more striking when you consider that from the 1960s to the 1980s he was one of Britain's foremost action and suspense authors, with bestsellers on both sides of the pond. For the first fifteen years of his career he crafted a string of first-person novels often featuring hard-bitten pilots caught up in international treasure hunts and the like, but after the publication of Judas Country in 1975 Lyall was beset by writer's block, and his next novel, The Secret Servant, didn't appear until 1980.

The Secret Servant actually began life as a proposal for a BBC TV series, eventually broadcast in 1984 with Charles Dance in the role of Harry Maxim. Lyall went on to write a further three books starring Maxim, an ex-soldier and former member of the SAS seconded to 10 Downing Street as a troubleshooter. Major Maxim is damaged goods as The Secret Servant opens; the first scene in the book has Harry witnessing the death of his wife, as the plane she's in disintegrates while he watches helplessly from the ground. Lyall's elegant prose is evident from the off; it's what marks him out from other thriller writers, a wry, sometimes world-weary tone that acts as a lens through which events are viewed. In lesser hands that might diminish the action, but Lyall's understatement conversely lends certain scenes a greater impact – the old maxim (pardon the pun) of less is more. Take the first paragraph or so of the book, particularly the part where Lyall plays on the relative speeds of light and sound:

To Harry Maxim it seemed as if his wife died twice. He was watching the boxy little Skyvan climbing slowly away up the white-hot desert sky when it suddenly shuddered. A puff of smoke flicked out behind and immediately dissolved. Then one wing twisted gently off and fluttered away and the aeroplane was just a thing tumbling down towards the plain.

And all the time he could hear the distant whine of the Skyvan when it was still flying smoothly and Jennifer was still living...

Pan 1982
That final line, matter-of-fact as it is, only increases the horror of the situation. Lyall deploys this understatement throughout the book (and indeed throughout all of his books), sometimes mixed with a sardonic wit, either in the descriptions or in the gallows humour of some of the characters. And the characters, in particular the supporting ones, are the real gems here. Maxim himself is fine – a solid, flawed hero type – but his main co-stars, George Harbinger and Agnes Algar, are sublime.

Harbinger is a private secretary to the Prime Minister (who he calls Headmaster) and Maxim's direct boss at Number 10. He's akin to Sir Humphrey in Yes, Minister, except perhaps even more cynical and with more of a taste for the booze. He forms a kind of double-act with Agnes Algar from Box 500 – a.k.a. MI5, the domestic security service – who for her part takes endless pleasure in needling Harbinger. The two of them pop up throughout the novel, offering commentary on Maxim's exploits and a guiding hand when needed, and they're invariably thoroughly entertaining.

Coronet 1991
As to the plot, Lyall does a decent job of keeping us guessing right up till the end, as a fake terrorist incident, an Eastern Bloc defection and the direction of Britain's nuclear deterrent policy become linked via a mysterious letter. There are some good action sequences, in particular when Maxim decamps to Ireland and tangles with a Soviet agent (whom he later meets for a drink), but it's the scenes depicting the inner workings of Whitehall and the shady world of espionage and counter-espionage that are the most compelling, and which don't come across as dated as you might think: the British Civil Service is much as it ever was, and while the USSR may be gone the Great Game goes on even today. The climax of the book involves a flashback to World War II and a suitably shocking skeleton in a closet, as the contents of the wayward letter are finally revealed.

As for Harry, he's like a blunt instrument, ruffling feathers and raising eyebrows wherever he goes, much to the amusement of Agnes and the exasperation of George. And with Maxim's card now marked by the KGB (or Greyfriars, as George calls them), it's a safe bet he'll be butting heads with his shadowy Soviet nemesis again in subsequent books in the series.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Must Be Thursday 26/8/10

Well then. Here's the thing. Last week I had a bit of a whinge about how these weekly Must Be Thursday posts weren't terribly interesting and I couldn't see the point in doing them any more. But last week's Must Be Thursday did get a reasonable number of views in the end, so I figured, what the hell, I'll do one this week. So I wrote it, read it back, and by Christ it was boring. So I deleted it. Which means that's probably it for Must Be Thursday. I might bring it back occasionally if I feel an overwhelming urge to write about that week's new comics, but otherwise, that's yer lot.

Oh, and these are the comics I'll probably get this week. Think yourselves lucky you don't have to read my tedious thoughts about them:

Action #892
Batman #702
Superman Batman #75
Wonder Woman #602
Avengers #4
Captain America #609
Punisher Max Happy Ending (One shot)

Monday, 23 August 2010

Donald Westlake/Richard Stark Shelf Porn (Slight Return)

Hmm. I'm rapidly running out of space on the bookcase shelf devoted to Donald Westlake/Richard Stark. The Westlake/Stark first editions have practically crowded out any other novels, with only a couple of Peter O'Donnell and Joe Gores books still hanging in there for dear life:

Westlake Shelf: Left Hand Side
Westlake Shelf: Right Hand Side
And they'll have to make way for a couple more Westlake Scores soon. But then what? What happens when the Westlake Shelf is full? Do I just... stop?

A Richard Stark/Donald Westlake 'Alan Grofield' Book Cover Gallery

So then, with the arrival of The Dame, it's time to take a look at the covers for the four books Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake wrote about actor-turned-thief Alan Grofield. I've not included any Books on Tape editions, and there are two Hodder & Stoughton UK editions I've yet to find images of (The Dame and The Blackbird), but otherwise this is as complete as I could make it. Enjoy.

The Damsel

Macmillan, US, hardback, 1967
Signet, US, paperback, 1969

Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardback, 1968 
Hodder & Stoughton 1968 (back cover; jacket by Michael Dempsey)

Rivages, France, paperback, 1988
Foul Play/Countryman, US, paperback, 1990

The Dame

Macmillan, US, hardback, 1969
Macmillan 1969 (back cover; jacket by Muni Lieblein)

Foul Play/Countryman, US, paperback, 1990
Rivages, France, paperback, 1993

The Blackbird

Macmillan, US, hardback, 1969
Macmillan 1969 (back cover; jacket by Jack Wolf)

Gallimard, France, hardback (?), 1971
Foul Play/Countryman, US, paperback, 1990

Lemons Never Lie

World, US, hardback, 1971
World 1971 (back cover; jacket by Milton Charles)

Foul Play/Countryman, US, paperback, 1990
Hard Case Crime, US, paperback, 2006

Westlake Score: The Dame by Richard Stark (Macmillan First Edition)

This one took a bloody age to turn up from the States, longer even than the length of time I was waiting for my first edition of Plunder Squad to arrive, which was delayed by the Icelandic volcano back in April. Still, it's here, and here it is:

A US first edition hardback of The Dame by Richard Stark/Donald Westlake, published by The Macmillan Company in 1969 as part of their Cock Robin Mystery line, with a dustjacket designed (and illustrated) by Muni Lieblein. And it is a lovely jacket; this may well be my favourite jacket design of the four Alan Grofield novels, and ranks pretty high in the list of Richard Stark jackets too.

This is the second of Stark/Westlake's books to star actor/thief/Parker cohort Grofield, following on from 1967's The Damsel. Its non-arrival was in danger of holding up my progress with the Parker novels: my plan was to read all the Stark books, including the Grofield ones, in order, but I've had to press on whilst waiting for The Dame to arrive, and now I'm in the midst of The Sour Lemon Score (Parker #12, 1969). Really, in the fictional timeline of the Parker universe, The Dame should slot in around The Rare Coin Score (Parker #9, 1967), as the events of The Dame take place directly after the events of The Damsel (at the start of The Dame Grofield's just left the Mexican motel he's shacked up in with Ellie from that novel), which in turn takes place directly after The Handle (Parker #8, 1966). But no matter. I'm reading The Dame now, alongside The Sour Lemon Score, so I'll have finished it by the time I get to Slayground (Parker #14, 1971), which of course shares its first chapter with the next Grofield novel, The Blackbird (1969).

Confused? Tell me about it.

Anyway, The Dame proved the trickiest of the Grofield books to track down at an affordable price; there are a few Foul Play Press/Countryman paperbacks floating about on line for about £20, but other than that you're looking at US first editions upwards of £50, and all in the States. I couldn't find a single copy for sale online of the UK 1970 Hodder & Stoughton hardback first edition, so the US edition it had to be.

Intriguingly, Westlake's dedication in this book is a little different to his other books. Usually his dedications are to friends, family members or fellow writers. In The Dame, however, the dedication is to a fictional character – his own fictional character, in fact. It reads, simply, "to Parker". Of course, the first twelve Parker novels don't carry dedications at all, probably because they were originally published as cheap, mass-market paperbacks, and dedications are the kinds of things you see in more upmarket, prestigious hardbacks. It's a little-remarked-upon curiosity that the Parker novels didn't make it into hardback first editions until Random House picked up the rights with Deadly Edge in 1971, and yet the Grofield books were published in hardback right from the off in 1967.

So, with the arrival of The Dame, I now have all of the Grofield novels:

Which means it's time for a Grofield cover gallery!

Friday, 20 August 2010

Westlake Score: Good Behaviour by Donald E. Westlake (Plus the Neiman-Marcus Good Behavior Screw-Up)

Praise the Lord, sing Hallelujah, hang out the bunting and, if you feel so inclined, perhaps do a little jig too: the book I've been waiting for for what feels like bloody ages finally turned up in the post yesterday. Phew. That book isn't this book, however. That book – a Westlake tome, surprisingly enough – I'll come back to, but first we have this book, which I've been meaning to get to for a bit:

A UK hardback first edition of Donald E. Westlake's Good Behaviour, published by Allison & Busby/W.H. Allen & Co. in 1987, with jacket design and illustration by Peter Rozycki. This is the sixth of Westlake's novels starring John Dortmunder and his motley crew of hapless thieves, which I think involves nuns, a kidnapping, and the attempted overthrow of a country. Rather different from previous Dortmunders then.

This copy of the book came alllll the way from Australia; I did find three copies of this edition on sale from the UK online, but one of those was described as having a torn dustjacket, which, on further questioning of the seller, turned out to have a few tears in it and to be "not that good", another was a library re-bind with no jacket, and the final one was too expensive. So Australia it was. Sometimes you have to go to the other side of the world to get what you want.

The reason I wanted this particular edition is, one, I usually prefer to have UK first editions if possible; two, it seems to be a lot scarcer than the 1986 US Mysterious Press first edition (titled, of course, Good Behavior, no "u"); and three, that Mysterious Press first edition isn't actually the true first edition. And therein lies one of those publishing tales that anyone who, like me, works in publishing shivers at the thought of...

Let me take you back to 1985, when US retail company Neiman-Marcus decided to do a deal with Mysterious Press to print a special limited signed, slipcased edition of Good Behavior to be sold through their department stores and catalogues as a Christmas promotion. This edition of the book, restricted to 1000 copies, was scheduled to be on sale eight months before the Mysterious Press edition, making it the proper first edition. A fine idea... except somewhere along the line someone misspelled Neiman-Marcus on the limitation leaf in the book, swapping the "e" and the "i" – and the books printed like that. It's the kind of tiny mistake that brings publishing types out in a cold sweat, and sure enough Neiman-Marcus ordered the whole run destroyed, except for supposedly thirty-six copies (although I suspect a few more escaped).

You can find Neiman-Marcus copies online easily, often for not that much money, so it's not as scarce as you might think. But I do feel for the poor sod who missed that mistake. I've had similar experiences myself, and it's not a nice place to find yourself.

Anyway. As for the other Westlake Score I mentioned at the beginning, that one completes another run of Westlake books for me, so I'll be blogging about that soon. If I don't get to it before the end of the week, however, might I direct my fellow Stark/Westlake obsessives to previous Westlake posts from this week you might have missed, either on Existential Ennui or elswehere; The Week in Westlake, if you will:

Richard Stark, Robert McGinnis, and the Search for the Perfect Parker

Dortmunder Daze: A Donald Westlake Dortmunder First Edition Cover Gallery

Westlake Score: Why Me by Donald E. Westlake

Book Glutton: Petty Complaints

Book Glutton: Arms and the Man with the Getaway Face

Violent World of Parker: Good news from University of Chicago Press

Thursday, 19 August 2010

First Bourne: Carlos, Chaos and Haute Couture in Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity

Having recently finished the first novel in Robert Ludlum's Bourne trilogy, The Bourne Identity (1980), I've been struggling to work out what I think of it. At times whilst reading it I thought it was brilliant: pacy and kinetic, in parts it barrels along at a fair old clip, with thoroughly thrilling action sequences. At other times, the tin-eared dialogue made me actively cringe, particularly that between Jason Bourne and Marie St Jacques. Then again, some of the scenes where shadowy American intelligence types are sitting around jawing, trying to work out what the hell Bourne's up to, are gripping. On the other hand there's the frequently tiresome (although to some extent necessary) introspection on Bourne's part, as he tries to piece his fractured past together, forever repeating key phrases ("Get Carlos! Trap Carlos!") until you're sick to the back teeth of them.

It's a puzzle. It's a really good book and a really rubbish book rolled into one baffling rubber-band ball. One thing it certainly is is reasonably close to Doug Liman's 2002 film. Both have essentially the same structure: Bourne is found at sea with no memory of who he is, and has to track his way across Europe trying to put the pieces together, all the while fending off assassins and the fuzz. Marie is in both the book and the movie, as is Alexander Conklin. But there is one character who doesn't make it over from the book – probably in part because he was languishing in jail by the time the film was made: Carlos the Jackal.

Ilich Ramirez Sanchez was one of the most feared terrorists the world has ever known, the Osama Bin Laden of his day. He claimed responsibility for the deaths of more than 1500 people, masterminded the 1975 OPEC hostage crisis, and was involved in countless terrorist operations around the world. If only half the claims about him are true, he would still rank as one of the most dangerous criminals of all time. In The Bourne Identity, Ludlum casts Carlos as the villain of the piece, pitting Bourne against him and even having the two fight hand to hand. So far so barely believable. But Ludlum goes a lot further, turning Carlos into an all-pervasive Bond villain and creating a background and scenarios for him that frequently beggar belief and occasionally enter the realm of the delusional.

For one thing, it's strongly hinted in the novel that Carlos was the person who pulled the trigger when JFK was assassinated – despite the fact that Carlos would've been fourteen years old at the time. Then we get Carlos disguised as a priest, dispensing orders from a confession booth. Best of all though is the disguise Ludlum creates for him in Paris. Here Carlos is using a high end fashion house as his front, with the higher-ups in this establishment fully aware that they're working for the most dangerous man on the planet. But that's still not quite enough for Ludlum. Because not only is Carlos using this organization for his own nefarious ends... he's also quite possibly working there himself as its chief clothes designer!

It's all utterly barking, and again either brilliant or bloody terrible. I doubt I'm ever going to work out if it's the former or the latter. I do know one thing though: on this evidence, I'll definitely be reading The Bourne Supremacy.

Damn it, Brubaker!

Ed Brubaker is possibly my favourite comics writer. I've read his stuff since he was writing and drawing his autobiographical Lowlife series in the 1990s. His 1999 Scene of the Crime miniseries for Vertigo was a mini-masterpiece, a dense and layered slacker detective tale with beautifully restrained artwork by Michael Lark. His work on Sleeper with Sean Phillips was first rate, fusing espionage with superpowers in a recognisably real world. With co-writer Greg Rucka he created one of DC Comics' best series of the 2000s in Gotham Central, a street-level saga examining what it must be like to be a policeman in Batman's city. For my money his run on Daredevil was better than Brian Michael Bendis' preceding run, and for a good long while his Captain America was the ongoing comic I most looked forward to. As for Criminal, well, that continues to be one of the best comic books on the racks. And that's not even mentioning Catwoman, Deadenders, Incognito...

Criminal and Incognito aside, however, more recently I've become slightly disenchanted with Brubaker's superhero comics. Captain America feels like it's gone off the boil; The Marvels Project was a bit of a snoozefest; Secret Avengers is decidedly skimpy. It's almost like he's coasting. And there are hints that some of these scripts might be a little... dashed off. Action scenes have taken precedence over the kind of dense plotting and deep character work Brubaker can be so good at. Dialogue is getting repetitive. But the clearest indication is the constant use of a certain phrase, one that I mentioned a couple of days ago, one that seems to crop up in every single Brubaker comic at the moment:

"Damn it!"

So bugger me if I wasn't coming back on the train from the comic shop just now and decided to read Secret Avengers #4 on the way, and in the very first panel of the comic, the very first line of dialogue was:

Gah! It's almost as if he's taunting me! And then, a mere two panels later:

Noooo! Stop it! Stop with the goddamn "damn its"!

It's not the "damn its" themselves I object to. Swearing, even minor swearing like this, really doesn't bother me (as anyone who's read this blog can attest...). It's just there's so bloody many of 'em! Y'know, I'm almost tempted to count up all the "damn its" in Brubaker's comics over the past year or so. Or perhaps I should instigate a drinking game, like that Withnail & I one: every time you come across a "damn it" in a Brubaker comic you get to down a limoncello or something.

Anyway. Maybe it's just me. Maybe Brubaker's comics are as good as they've ever been. But if I come across one more "damn it" in a Brubaker comic I'll...



Damn it.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Richard Stark, Robert McGinnis Book Covers, and the Search for the Perfect Parker

Inspired by Book Glutton's comment here, I thought I'd post something akin to my musings on the changing face of James Bond from a few months back, but instead examine how Richard Stark/Donald Westlake's character Parker has been portrayed by artists – mostly on book covers – over the years. A kind of Search for the Perfect Parker, if you will. Except, as it turned out, it was rather a short search...

The point of that Bond post was to look at how the various Bond cover artists' visual representations of 007 developed over the course of the early paperback editions of the books – how Bond was depicted in the years prior to the arrival of the first movie Bond, Sean Connery. Because of course once Connery became fixed as Bond in the public's mind – and then Roger Moore and the rest – there was less room for manoeuvre for cover artists. Indeed, after the 1962 movie of Dr. No, Bond book covers tended to either feature film stills or be slightly more abstract.

In the end, the pre-movie Bond that seemed nearest the mark to me was the one drawn by Yaroslav Horak for the Daily Express newspaper strip, although Sam Peffer also did a creditable job on the original Pan paperbacks of the novels. And if you chart the progress of Parker through the various iterations of the Richard Stark novels, you could easily reach a similar conclusion. The original Pocket Books paperbacks of the first eight Parker novels sported covers by artist Harry Bennett, but Parker himself doesn't feature on all of them, and when he does he's extremely changeable. For example, the Parker on the cover of The Hunter (1962) isn't particularly recognisable as (presumably) the Parker on the cover of The Mourner (1964). And while the Parker on The Hunter does have the big hands Westlake describes in the book, none of Bennett's Parkers feel quite right to me.

Skipping over the Gold Medal editions of the next few Parkers for the moment – for reasons alluded to at the start of this post – we encounter some decent line drawings of Parker on the initial Coronet UK paperback editions of the novels from the late 1960s. Thereafter, however, it's a case of steadily diminishing returns. In the 1970s we get the US Berkley paperbacks, but these tend to show Parker at a small size, making it hard to pass judgment on his depiction. The less said about the 1980s Avon US photo cover editions the better, and probably the same goes for the UK Robert Hale editions from the 2000s too (although I do have a soft spot for some of Derek Colligan's covers).

Foreign editions aside, it's not until we get to Darwyn Cooke's interpretation of the character from his graphic novels of The Hunter and The Outfit that things look up again. As with Horak's Bond, Cooke's Parker is pretty much on the money – at least for my money. He's suitably craggy, lived in, mean... and no one draws Parker's hands as well as Darwyn Cooke.

Unlike the Bond books, one thing we don't really have to contend with here are any movie Parkers, mostly because there's never actually been a movie Parker. There's been a Walker (Point Blank, 1967), a Georges (Pillaged, 1967), a McClain (The Split, 1969), a Macklin (The Outfit, 1973), a Stone (Slayground, 1983), a Porter (Payback, 1999)... there's even been a Paula (Made in U.S.A., 1966). But a Parker? Not a one. So while variations of Parker have been seen on screen – some good (Lee Marvin), some bad (I don't think Peter Coyote's take is terribly well regarded) – there's never been a defining film Parker in the way that Connery, Moore, etc. have come to define Bond in most people's minds. Various editions of the Parker books have occasionally used film stills on their covers, but the artists who've depicted Parker post-the movies have never taken any visual cues from the actors who've portrayed him – or rather versions of him.

Funnily enough, Westlake himself thought that Parker perhaps looked like a younger Jack Palance, which isn't a bad fit. But then, weirdly, authors aren't always the best judge of what their characters look like. In the Bond novels Ian Fleming has characters likening 007 to composer Hoagy Carmichael, which never seemed right to me; Bond strikes me as being more chiselled, more angled.

Anyway, there may be no movie Parker to muddy the waters, but when I started trawling through the original Parker paperbacks for the perfect Parker (it's always best to start at the beginning), I pretty quickly realised my search would be somewhat truncated. Because once Gold Medal picked up the rights from Pocket Books with the ninth novel in the series, The Rare Coin Score (1967), and brought The Hunter back into print that same year under the title Point Blank! (often mistakenly credited as being published in '62), Parker found his ultimate artist: Robert E. McGinnis.

One of the most prolific – if not the most prolific – paperback cover artists ever, McGinnis painted covers for well over a thousand books, as well as dozens of movie posters, including posters for Bond movies like Thunderball and The Man with the Golden Gun. He started off creating detective covers for Dell in the 1950s, before branching out into westerns, romances and other mass market titles. More recently he's been providing covers for Hard Case Crime, his artwork as rich and evocative as it's ever been.

When McGinnis met Parker in 1967, it was a match made in heaven. Two of the three Parker novels published by Gold Medal that year – The Rare Coin Score and The Green Eagle Score – boast, for me, the best depictions of the character we've yet seen, Darwyn Cooke's version included. McGinnis went on to paint another three covers for Gold Medal's Parkers from 1968 to 1969: The Black Ice Score (1968, the eleventh book in the series), The Sour Lemon Score (1969, Parker #12), and the 1968 reissue of The Seventh as The Split. Great though these three are, none of them quite hit the heights of his 1967 portrayals. The Parker on McGinnis' cover for The Split doesn't quite feel like Parker to me – maybe it's that roll-neck sweater – while on The Black Ice Score Parker has, strangely enough given Westlake's own view on Parker's appearance, assumed something of the look of Jack Palance. On The Sour Lemon Score, McGinnis' final cover for the series (thereafter the novels were picked up by Random House), Parker has receded to the background, his features indistinct.

Rewind to those 1967 McGinnis covers, however, and we really hit paydirt. Of the three, McGinnis' cover for the '67 Gold Medal reissue of The Hunter as Point Blank! probably takes the bronze medal. It's a damn fine effort at nailing Parker: the hands are big, the look is thuggish, and the way Parker casually disarms Lynn, not even glancing at her as he does so, sums up the focused, no-nonsense side of his persona. Good as Point Blank! is, though, the other two covers from the class of '67 are even better.

McGinnis's cover for the 1967 Gold Medal edition of The Rare Coin Score features a Parker depiction par excellence. Standing in profile, looking towards us but with his eyes ever-so-slightly averted, and with a sultry woman draped over him, the Parker on this cover is just so right. That woman (whoever she is – could she be Claire?) isn't distracting him in the slightest; instead he's fixed on something else – although not us, not quite. He's thinking about the score in hand – because as we all know, when Parker's working, working is all he cares about.

The next Gold Medal Parker novel, The Green Eagle Score (1967, Parker #10), pulls a similar trick. Here Parker's female companion is virtually naked, yet again Parker doesn't seem to notice her. He's fully dressed, gun in one hand, cigarette in the other, folded into a swivel chair as if waiting for something to happen. In the novels there are countless scenes of Parker waiting around for one reason or another; he's like an automaton on standby in these scenes, not thinking about anything, often sitting or lying in a darkened room. Waiting Parker can do in spades. And waiting is what McGinnis' Parker is clearly doing here.

That McGinnis' subsequent Parker covers don't quite match up to these two doesn't really matter. When I read one of Richard Stark's Parker novels, the Parker I see in my head is exactly the same one as on McGinnis' covers for The Rare Coin Score and The Green Eagle Score. With those two 1967 book covers, Robert E. McGinnis provided us with a Parker that will be difficult, if not impossible, to better – the perfect Parker.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Dortmunder Daze: A Donald Westlake Dortmunder First Edition Cover Gallery

So then, simply because I now have them all (either in UK or US editions – or both in the case of Jimmy the Kid), here, for your delectation, are the covers of first five books in Donald E. Westlake's Dortmunder series; US first edition hardbacks on the left, UK first edition hardbacks on the right:

Simon & Schuster, US, 1970
Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1971

Simon & Schuster, US, 1972
Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1972

Michael Evans & Co., US, 1974
Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1975

Michael Evans & Co., US, 1977
Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1978

Viking Press, US, 1983 (no UK hardback edition)