Monday 11 March 2013

Peter Rabe, by Donald E. Westlake, in Murder off the Rack (Scarecrow Press, 1989)

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.

Chances are, if you become inordinately interested in the work of Donald E. Westlake as I self-evidently have – at some point you're going to encounter Peter Rabe. In interviews and articles Westlake would often cite Rabe as being a major influence (alongside Dashiell Hammett, Vladimir Nabokov and perhaps one or two others), an influence that's particularly noticeable in the hardboiled Parker crime novels Westlake wrote as Richard Stark (especially in Stark/Parker's debut, The Hunter). I've blogged about Rabe repeatedly over the past few years, sometimes comparing Stark to Rabe – notably in this post on Rabe's 1960 crime novel Anatomy of a Killer (which also appears, in an altered form, on The Violent World of Parker) – mostly just reviewing and showcasing Rabe's novels (the majority of which were published straight to paperback). But for true critical insight into Rabe's work, there's really only one place to go, courtesy of Rabe's biggest fan, the aforementioned Donald Westlake.

In 1989 Westlake contributed an essay to Murder off the Rack: Critical Studies of Ten Paperback Masters, an anthology edited by Jon L. Breen and Martin Harry Greenberg and published by Scarecrow Press. Titled simply "Peter Rabe", and nestling alongside essays by, among others, Bill Crider ("Harry Whittington"), Max Allan Collins ("Jim Thompson: The Killer Inside Him"), Ed Gorman ("Fifteen Impressions of Charles Williams") and Loren D. Estleman ("Donald Hamilton: The Writing Crew"), across twenty pages Westlake examines the bulk of Rabe's work, novel by novel from his 1955 debut, Stop This Man!, to 1974's Black Mafia – turning an often highly critical eye on each of them.

The opening line of the essay – "Peter Rabe wrote the best books with the worst titles of anybody I can think of" – is oft-quoted in relation to Rabe, but make no mistake: this is no bibliographic hagiography. When Westlake feels Rabe is good – Kill the Boss Goodbye (1956), say, or Anatomy of a Killer, or The Box (1962) – he's fulsome in his praise; but when he believes Rabe's writing is subpar, he doesn't pull punches. I was surprised, for instance, by the treatment meted out to Rabe's series of novels starring reluctant criminal Daniel Port; I'd always figured the Port novels had been a big influence on the Parkers in particular, but apparently not. Of the debut Port outing, Dig My Grave Deep (1956), Westlake writes: 

[The book] is merely a second-rate gloss of Hammett's The Glass Key, without Hammett's psychological accuracy and without Rabe's own precision and clarity. The book flounders and drifts and postures. The writing is tired and portentous, the characters thinner versions of Hammett's.

Ouch – and the remainder of the Daniel Port series fares little better. Even so, Westlake has the gift, possessed of the best critics, to make even the duffest-sounding of novels seem interesting. His clear-eyed assessments are consistently entertaining, affording insight even when he's slating Rabe's work – and I'll be drawing on a number of those assessments over the coming weeks, as I unveil some of the Peter Rabe paperbacks I've picked up over the past year, and take a look at what Westlake had to say about them.


  1. I still haven't read the Daniel Port books, so I can't opine on what kind of influence (if any) they had on Parker. But in general, I'd say that another author's failed experiment can be as useful to a writer as a successful one, if not more. Westlake was presumably reading everything Rabe produced, learning from him in both a positive and negative way--in other words, he's asking himself two questions--"How can I be this good?", and "How can I be even better?" And I don't think it can be argued that the Parkers haven't held up much better than the Ports (when were the latter last reprinted?). So he was learning from Rabe how to craft a better crime novel, but also avoiding traps he felt Rabe had stepped into. Still and all, he would have noticed that Rabe had no trouble getting a bunch of books about a somewhat amoral violent criminal protagonist published--Ripley didn't get a sequel until 1970, Earl Drake until 1968. So that in itself would have been an influence on a writer who was, as we know, still slaving away in the porn pits at the time.

    I continue to think the single book most influential on the creation of Parker was "A Gun for Sale", aka "This Gun for Hire", by Graham Greene. And I now know for a fact that Westlake was extremely familiar with that book. And for all I know, was cocky enough to think he'd improved on that as well, though the literary establishment would probably disagree.

  2. I'm looking forward to your thoughts on Rabe, Nick. And, Chris, isn't it in this very Westlake essay that he talks about Raven from THIS GUN FOR HIRE? Thanks for the jog, I really need to look at that one again. Very good call about it being an influence.

    Let's give it a few more years, but I suspect that first editions of Richard Stark will surpass first editions of THIS GUN FOR HIRE in value eventually!

    I read all the Rabes that Westlake really loved. As good as his favorite KILL THE BOSS GOODBYE is, I prefer THE BOX and ANATOMY OF A KILLER. But I think my number one is the marvelously sardonic MURDER ME FOR NICKELS.

    For me, THIS GUN FOR HIRE (or other "crime" Greenes) or KILL THE BOSS GOODBYE and ANATOMY OF A KILLER are a little dated in their emphasis on mental illness, or at least (in Raven's case) "the life of the mind."

    Perhaps one of the reasons Parker keeps gaining new fans is how he remains perpetually undiagnosed and unanalyzed. Looking at THE JUGGER recently (after an Existential Ennui prompt), the long sequence of mental games played between the cop and the jugger seemed a little dated, whereas all the scenes with practical Parker were as fresh as tomorrow.

    Fun to think about Greene, Rabe, and Westlake -- I'm going to crack open some of those books tonight.

  3. Haven't read the essay yet, Ethan--Westlake referenced "This Gun for Hire" (he used the American title) in the third of his Sam Holt novels. Once I read Greene's novel, I knew that Parker was, to some extent, a romanticized (and vastly more effective) Raven--see, Greene was a moralist, but not much of a romantic--Stark reverses that polarity. The stories of TGFH and The Hunter unfold along quite similar lines, but to much different effect.

    As to the diagnosis, Greene provides that, you might say, when he compares Raven to a mangy wolf in a cage. Remove the mange (and the harelip), add a few pounds of muscle, give him a better diet, a whole lot more self-understanding and control, and you have Parker. Parker is what Raven wishes he could be. And even so, he remains an enigma, which I agree is a primary source of his lingering appeal. And perhaps the reason they still haven't made a movie that gets him even halfway right. Raven's arguably had better luck there, even though they always edit out the harelip. And the British accent.

    But Nick's got me really curious to read more Rabe (just one early book so far, they're not so easy to find), to see how much Parker owes to him as well. And honestly, just for his own sake. I'm running out of Westlakes to read. :)

  4. Quickly butting in here, I can confirm that THIS GUN FOR HIRE is referenced in the "Peter Rabe" essay too; Westlake compares both Loma, a hitman in AGREEMENT TO KILL, and another character, Mound, from KILL THE BOSS GOODBYE, to Raven.

  5. The plot thickens! But seriously, what writer in that genre isn't reading Graham Greene, and that work of 'entertainment' (as Greene called it) especially, because of its influence on noir literature, not to mention the movie with Alan Ladd. I never had any doubt, but multiple confirmation is pleasant to have, nonetheless. You've both noted, I'm sure, that what we're discussing here is not the anatomy of a killer, but his genealogy.