Thursday 9 September 2010

Parker Progress Report: Deadly Edge by Richard Stark; Review

Hmm. This one's a bit... odd.

Where the previous book in Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's Parker series, The Sour Lemon Score, is a streamlined mean machine, Deadly Edge is a rather more clunky affair. For a start, there's the structure of the thing. Deadly Edge (Parker #13, in case you were wondering) is, like its predecessors, broken up into the now-traditional four parts. But in Part One, which details Parker and his latest crew's heist on a rock concert, rather than break the section up with chapters as he usually does, Westlake instead elects to write it as one long act. That's nearly fifty pages (in the Allison & Busby edition I was reading, anyway) of uninterrupted prose, which is unheard of in a Parker book. It's a strange choice, and one that has a deadening effect on the story, turning that first part of the book into something of a slog.

In spite of that soporific effect, however, I'm quite intrigued by this stylistic choice. The rest of Deadly Edge reverts to the short, punchy chapters-within-parts we've become so familiar with, so why did Westlake plump for a different approach with Part One? When you read the subsequent parts of the novel, Part One begins to feel more and more like a completely different book, one where Westlake seems to be trying to make the robbery (which, in earlier books in the series, would sometimes be detailed methodically, perhaps best evidenced in Parker #2, The Man with the Getaway Face) seem as mundane and matter-of-fact as he can.

With the discovery of a body at the end of Part One, however, and following a few chapters at the start of Part Two where Parker and his squeeze Claire play happy homemakers (not as incongruous as that sounds), the book shifts up a gear, sending Parker off in pursuit of a killer. This section of the novel is pretty effective, certainly more gripping than Part One, but it's also fairly scant; Parker rubs up against a local mob outfit, but nothing really comes of it, and before you know it Westlake has downshifted again, flung open the passenger door and brusquely deposited you in Part Three, in the company of the fragrant Claire.

Here again, Deadly Edge diverges from the norm. Usually the Stark Cutaways in Part Three of the Parker novels follow Parker's nemesis in that particular book (although there are exceptions). Here, in a part-flashback, we get to spend some quality time with Claire instead, who's bought a house by a lake for her and Parker to kick back in and has no intention of abandoning it now, even though someone is bumping off Parker's partners from his most recent score. Contrary to some Parker fans, I actually rather like Claire, so weirdly Part Three was for me the most enjoyable section of the book (alongside the scenes in Part Two where Parker does his best to appear normal and relaxed in the house, as opposed to the emotionless criminal automaton he really is). When unwelcome visitors turn up, Claire holds it together pretty well, and there's a brilliantly tense scene round the kitchen table.

(Incidentally, I think I spotted a mistake on Westlake's part. At one point, Claire recognises the name of one of Parker's cohorts... but I'm pretty sure Parker never mentioned that name to her.)

Part Four focuses on Parker again – and an incredibly cautious Parker at that. He takes a bloody age to exact vengeance on his foes; it never seems to be quite the right time or place for him to dispatch them, but that does give us a first-rate scene in a pitch-black room where Parker's unparalleled skills at doing nothing are put to the test. And then we're left with a rather sweet closing moment, one where, if this were a movie, you'd half expect Bing Crosby to start crooning as the credits roll.

So, as I say, all in all, an odd one. There's a weird stylistic experiment at the start, no Stark Stooge to speak of (Claire certainly doesn't fit that description), and some rather bizarre but beguiling Parker-at-home business. All of which makes for an interesting read, but not one of the best in the series thus far. Still, next up in the Parkers it's Slayground, for many the high water mark of the entire run (although I've got a review of the Alan Grofield novel The Dame to knock out first, and I might read The Blackbird before – or even concurrently – with Slayground).


  1. Maybe I liked it more than you, Nick. The long opening chapter rolled out beautifully for me - except that corny opening par about the rock band and the crowd noise. Westlake nicely draws his characters. Although maybe it would have been nice to have picked up with the string again after the job was done.

    There's something different about the final four of the early Starks - the first hardcovers. I haven't yet got to Butcher's Moon, but Deadly Edge, Slayground and particularly Plunder Squad are very much of their time. I don't think it's a bad thing. Those early ones have the whole sun-drenched Miami 1960s vibe. Then things change.
    Deadly Edge has the drugged-up crazy bad guy, the LSD references. Plunder Squad has the hippie kid in the squad balling the girl on the highway as a diversion for the cops. There's the repeated allusions to blighted big city, urban renewal. Parker's operating in a more realistic milieu.

    But I haven't read them all yet. Fun ahead.

  2. If you're reading the Parkers in order, Matt, sounds like you're up to exactly the same point as me. Butcher's Moon is the next parker I'll be reading, although I've got Joe Gores's Dead Skip and the final Grofield novel, Lemons Never Lie, to read first.

    I've got reviews of Plunder Squad and Slayground up here

    and here

    if you haven't seen 'em. I know what you mean about the Random House Parkers being cut from a different cloth to their predecessors, but that seems to work both for and against them. Plunder Squad is by far the strongest for me (at least so far; Butcher's Moon to come, obv); I'm a sucker for continuity, so all the nods to previous novels were right up my alley. Plus it's a series of fuck-ups from start to finish, which always brings out the best (read, worst) in Parker.

  3. The weirdest stylistic anomaly at the start for me was Parker's absence from the opening sentence: none of the other Parker novels do that.