Monday, November 24, 2008

Definitely something to be thankful for

{Photo by rocketlass.}

When rocketlass and I trek the 300 miles to visit my parents, I usually do the driving; long drives make her sleepy, so while she sleeps I sing along to Sinatra and Sam Cooke. The drive last Thanksgiving was different, however, because that was when I read my first Parker novel.

I picked up Richard Stark's Ask the Parrot (2006) on my lunch hour the day before Thanksgiving and dove into it as I sat in my office waiting for a call from rocketlass to say that she was ready to leave work. By the time she was free, I was 100 pages in, and as she pulled up in front of my office, I had to break the news that my driving services would be unavailable for the next 188 pages. Fortunately, she understands what it's like to be in the thrall of a book—we’d be a sorry couple if she didn’t—and she was patient with me while I followed Parker into and out of jams.

One year later, I’ve read twenty Parker novels and been involved in bringing three back into print (with three more on the way in the spring!), and each one has been a treat. But now I’m left with only four that I’ve not read, none of which I’ve currently got in hand. What am I to do when I find myself in need of Stark’s no-nonsense prose and Parker’s no-nonsense work ethic?

Saturday I chose the next-best thing: one of Stark’s novels starring Parker’s cohort Alan Grofield. Stark wrote four of them in the late 1960s and early ’70s, one of which, Lemons Never Lie (1971, reprinted a couple of years ago by Hard Case Crime), was my introduction to Stark himself. Grofield­—who pulls heists to support his career as a small-time, but serious, stage actor—shares Parker’s competence, but whereas Parker is all lethal business, Grofield is, well, goofy. He’s an ironic wit, a ladies’ man, and a deft reader of character who has a bad habit of shooting off his mouth at people holding guns. Though the situations in which he finds himself are no less dangerous than those that confront Parker, the tone is lighter, as if Stark has mixed in a dollop of the comic crime novels he writes under his real name of Donald Westlake.

There’s no better demonstration of the difference between Parker and Grofield than to read the Parker novel Slayground (1971) back-to-back with the Grofield novel The Blackbird (1969). Both books open with the same scene: the crash of a getaway car carrying both Grofield and Parker. Grofield is knocked unconscious and taken, under guard, to the hospital, while Parker, carrying the money, slips into a shuttered amusement park.

Slayground shows us Parker stripped to his essence: he becomes more than ever simply a machine for survival. Trapped by mob types in the amusement park, his every thought and action is bent on escape, his indomitable will his primary weapon. It’s one of Stark’s most brutal and effective novels, tense and inventive.

In The Blackbird, meanwhile, Grofield catches a break—sort of. A pair of federal agents offers him freedom in exchange for his help in a cracked espionage scheme, and though he’s sure it won’t work, he goes along because, well, it’s probably better than jail. Calamities of various sorts ensue, and he finds himself in the frozen wastes of far-north Canada, getting frostbite and being shot at by two or three different groups. But even as the situation makes him understandably grumpy, he retains a certain degree of humor, even nonchalance. This passage is a clear example of how his approach differs from Parker’s:
Grofield had no way of knowing where he was or who anybody was or what anybody wanted. He had never been so helpless in his life, and was tending to react to it by simply giving up, on the basis that if it won't do any good to struggle, don't struggle.
To some extent that represents Grofield's real philosophy, but at the same time, once his back is against the wall, he'll struggle almost as mightily, and almost as well, as Parker himself.

Just as Grofield's not quite as tough or dangerous as his partner in crime, the Grofield novels are slighter and less ambitious than the Parker novels. But they're fun nonetheless—and when you're out of Parker novels, they'll certainly do until a new one comes along.

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