The Hunter is the first in a series of 23 novels about the heists and other tribulations of a character named Parker. Writing as Richard Stark, Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Donald Westlake later described the milieu he wanted to create for The Hunter as “a paperback-style tough guy novel in which the entire world would be…unstated emotion and hard surfaces.”
He was spectacularly successful. Parker’s 1962 debut weighed in at a trim, taut 155 pages, but packed a heavyweight wallop. For the next dozen years, the Parker books were the most popular offerings in Westlake’s prolific oeuvre.
It’s fun to look at the original cover, drawn by Harry Bennett, before anyone knew The Hunter was destined to become a long-running series. Parker’s face, soon to be transformed by plastic surgery, is suitably intense. But what really draws your eye is the hands. Stark writes, “His hands, swinging curve-fingered at his sides, looked like they were molded of brown clay by a sculptor who thought big and liked veins.” Sounds like Michelangelo’s David—without the fear of god, morals, or poetry.
I liked the movie Parker with Jason Statham in the title role. It’s based on Flashfire, the 19th novel in the series, published in 2000. However, the character Statham portrays is more in the spirit of Westlake’s capers, than of Parker per se. There’s too much wisecracking by Parker—which Westlake wouldn’t have permitted when writing as Richard Stark.
That said, Westlake did allow some levity in the Parker series—including a reference to the least Parker-esque of novels, Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time; and allowing otherwise-low-brow members of Parker’s string to remark on how the heist they were committing amounted to a “locked-room mystery.”
A garden of earthly delights will be found lurking within the Parker novels’ “hard-edged, tough guy” exterior. Should you read them in order? Why the hell not?