Stark Gets Starker

hunterI was a long-time fan of Donald Westlake until his death in 2008. His Dortmunder novels–funny, shaggy-dog heist stories that read like the extended version of Murphy’s Law–are classics of the genre, probably the best caper series ever written.

I’ve always intended to try them, but I’ve never cracked the books of Westlake’s pseudonymous alter ego, Richard Stark. So when I saw the first of Darwyn Cooke’s graphic adaptations, Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter on my library shelf, I had to check it out.

The Hunter, published in its original form back in 1962, sets up Parker’s long-term quest for revenge. As the reader comes to find out, Parker was a successful thief until he took on the wrong partner, Mal Resnick, a man on the outs with a crime syndicate. Resnick convinces (bullies) Parker’s wife Lynn to join him a jolting betrayal of Parker, shooting him, stealing his share from a job, and leaving him for dead in a burning house. Resnick uses therichard-starks-hunter money to pay the syndicate back the money he lost for them previously, restoring his reputation.

But Parker’s a survivor, and he gets out of the fire, follows his wife across the country, and uses her to hunt down Resnick and ultimately the syndicate that backed him. Parker is taut as the wires at the high-end of the piano and fueled by a rage that he can’t satisfy. His resilience is admirable, but at the same time he is an anti-hero, a terrifying protagonist whose violence can explode at any moment, not a sympathetic or noble figure. The story was also adapted, with mixed success, into the Mel Gibson film Payback.

Cooke condenses the storyline well and his black-and-blue midnight and bruises artwork fits his noir story perfectly. When Parker is in action, his movement almost jumps right off the page.

There are plenty of ways for a book group to approach this work: by itself, as part of a night dedicated to Stark and Westlake, or as part of a graphic novel or noir theme meeting. Parker’s world is ugly and frightening, but it does raise interesting moral questions. The original novels (Westlake wrote 24 of them) are still widely available, and Cooke has published a second graphic adaptation, The Outfit. I know I’ll be looking forward to future adventures with Parker.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

1 Comment on "Stark Gets Starker"

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  1. aric@aricdavis.com' Aric Davis says:

    I am a huge fan of the Parker books, in fact, my debut novel, “Nickel Plated” was a thinly veiled tribute to Westlake and his alter ego in Stark.

    That tribute went as far as the cover design:

    http://thatcovergirl.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/cover-love-nickel-plated/

    And I was also lucky enough to see Nickel Plated receive a starred review in Booklist. Kudos to Mr. Westlake for making such an indomitable character come to life.

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