Books: “The Hunter,” “Getaway Face” (Richard Stark)

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Donald Westlake wrote nearly 30 books under the name Richard Stark between 1963 and his death in 2009. Stark was Westlake’s dark persona. Most of those books starred a hardcore professional thief named Parker. Westlake wrote 16 Parker books 1963-1974, then took a lengthy break before writing “Comeback” in 1997, and following it with another 7 Parker books.

A number of those books have been made into movies, but none use the name Parker.

The first book, “The Hunter,” has been made into a movie twice. The first version, 1967’s “Point Blank,” starred Lee Marvin as Parker, though in the movie he was named Walker; he was joined by Angie Dickinson.

The second version, from 1999, is the excellent “Payback,” starring Mel Gibson as Porter, which is the Parker character. I love that movie. It’s tight, moves right along, has crisp dialogue, sets a definite noir mood, and follows a great plot. Mel Gibson’s Porter nails the Parker character. He’s joined by James Coburn, Lucy Liu, Maria Bello, Kris Kristofferson, and William Devane, among others.

“Payback” is based on the first Richard Stark novel, “The Hunter.” The book’s plot is far simpler than the movie’s. Parker is double-crossed and left for dead after a heist, and spends the rest of the book tracking down his former partner, Mal, and getting even. Mal has bought his way back into the good graces of “The Outfit,” a mob organization, which Parker must contend with.

Parker is ruthless, unconcerned with human life, uncaring about much of anything except himself. This comes through glaringly in one scene which didn’t appear in the movie. To stake-out a building, Parker invades a small store across the street and ties and gags the owner while he’s borrowing her location. But she’s asthmatic, and accidentally dies on him. He thinks nothing of it. Didn’t intend to kill her, but it happened. Oh well. This minor scene stuck with me more than any other scene in the book.

A number of scenes in “Payback” are right out of the book. However, the movie takes the plot much further and brings in additional characters, making it a richer story. This is one case where the movie is better than the book. But the book does what it needs to do. Interestingly, although the name Parker is changed to Porter, all of the characters in the movie use the same name as in the book–Mal Resnick, Stegman, Carter, Fairfax, Bronson.

I liked “The Hunter,” so thought I’d try the second book in the series, “The Man with the Getaway Face.” Having upset The Outfit, Parker buys a face-change. He then gets involved in an armored car heist. When the plastic surgeon is killed, he becomes involved in finding the killer, though only to keep his new identity secret from The Outfit.

The Parker of “The Man with the Getaway Face” seemed toned down a bit, not quite as ruthless, though there is little room for sympathy. He’s just a flat-out hard case. And I’m becoming a fan.

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