Parker – the steamroller

One of my favourite anti-heroes is Parker, the early sixties creation of Donald E. Westlake, who wrote a series of novels about the hard-boiled criminal under the name of Richard Stark.

Parker, a vicious man of few words and no remorse, doesn’t let anyone stand in his way and destroys any obstacle he comes up against.

He’s a sociopath who you would oddly want on your side, although Parker only has one side, his own. But the reader doesn’t mind and roots for him all the same.

Westlake’s introduction of Parker to the reader initially came in 1959 and appeared in several short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Then in 1962 he wrote the first Parker novel, The Hunter, later retitled Point Blank in the 1967 film with Lee Marvin playing the lead.

Within the opening paragraphs of the novel, the reader understands he’s angry as hell, doesn’t give a damn and is attractive to women who recognise him immediately as being “a bastard”. All of these observations are made while Parker is marching across New York’s George Washington Bridge in early morning rush hour. In fact, Westlake’s opening for Parker was inspired after he took the same walk across the bridge.

Westlake started putting pen to paper when he was a teenager and turned to full-time writing in 1960 when he was 27. He thought he could make additional money by writing paperbacks for the male market and chose the penname Stark to reflect his economical prose where style and story are stripped down for a racy read. His choice of Richard as a first name came from his favourite actor at the time, Richard Widmark.

When he started writing The Hunter in 1962 he thought it would only be a standalone novel because he held the view that bad guys always lose and Parker ends up arrested. But his editor had different ideas and told him that if Parker could escape custody he would have a series on his hands. He went on to publish over 20 Parker books with the final one being written just before his death in 2008.

Parker has attracted many filmmakers to produce their versions of the character and story, but Westlake never gave them permission to use the name of Parker because there was a reticence in allowing them to depict their own vision of his character. In the case of Point Blank, Lee Marvin was given the name of Walker, not Parker, while in the 1973 film, The Outfit, Robert Duvall’s character was called Macklin. Incidentally, Westlake said he preferred Duvall’s representation of Parker to Marvin’s.

Westlake was an accomplished screenwriter and his excellent script for the 1990 film The Grifters, based on a Jim Thompson novel, was nominated for an Academy Award. He also wrote the screenplay, The Stepfather, based on a story he’d co-written, which led to two sequels and a remake.

Westlake was a prolific author with more than 100 books published under various pseudonyms. He was versatile and humorous in his work, creating formidable plots and quick-fire dialogue. Under his real name he wrote comic capers about the hapless criminal character, John Dortmunder, first introduced in Bank Shot in 1972 and turned into a film with George C. Scott two years later. Dortmunder was the opposite to Parker and Westlake once said he enjoyed switching between the two characters to keep the ideas fresh.

During his career Westlake won three Edgar Awards, and a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master title, the highest honour bestowed by the society.

His only regret about Parker was his name. If he’d known it was going to become a series he would have given the character a first name as well to avoid looking for alternative ways of saying, “Parker parked the car”.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

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The F. Scott Fitzgerald of crime writing

Kenneth Millar, better known under his pen name of Ross Macdonald, is largely recognised for scaling new heights in crime novel writing in the middle of the last century because of his finesse in handling the genre.

Born in California in 1915, but raised in Canada, he began writing in 1939 after being inspired by the success of his wife, Margaret Sturm, the mystery writer who wrote under the name of Margaret Millar.

They lived in Santa Barbara, California, for the remainder of their lives, and it became the setting for his Lew Archer character, a divorced former cop-turned private eye, in post-war Los Angeles.

Archer displayed all the traits of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe as a wisecracking PI crusading against the bad and the ugly, but in a later era. In fact, so inspired by Hammett, he took the name for his protagonist from Spade’s murdered partner Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon.

Even the themes were familiar as he wrote about the idle rich, bad marriages and dysfunctional offspring. But for the author, who’d gained a PhD in literature, his real ambition was to become one day a serious writer under his own name.

And yet, ironically, he fulfilled his dream under his nom de plume with literary critics hailing him for blending a “whodunit” with a psychological thriller with such great aplomb.

Macdonald began to surpass his two famous predecessors when his hardboiled thrillers gave way to a retelling of Greek myths based on a modern Californian narrative about family secrets, childhood traumas and skeletons in the cupboard. He once told Newsweek that he owed this transformation in his work to seeing a therapist, claiming that Freud was an important influence on his newfound voice. Turning tragedies of ordinary life into potboilers became his signature theme.

Though the early Archer series were well written, including his first, The Moving Target (1949), it wasn’t until after his epiphany on the psychiatrist couch, when he wrote The Galton Case (1959), that he came into his own, writing about his personal life experiences. Archer becomes the conduit in piecing together the story of lives of others. While some critics complained that from that moment onwards he ended up reworking and rewriting the same novel, others claim that he was clever enough to keep unearthing something new in every version. It would be another 10 years with the publication of The Goodbye Look that he was finally rewarded with the critical accolades he’d craved for when starting out as a serious writer.

Many have written about the Holy Trinity of American crime writers of Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald, but it was the latter who became the most academically respected. He also wrote more books than Hammett and Chandler combined with the Archer series totalling 18. Although Hammett created the PI genre, and Chandler perfected it, Macdonald pushed the crime novel into new directions.

Like Hammett and Chandler, he had critical success also in Hollywood with Paul Newman starring in both Harper (1966), based on The Moving Target, and later The Drowning Pool (1975).

Chandler didn’t take to the newcomer and described his prose as strained and pretentious. The feeling may have been mutual as Macdonald thought Chandler’s work lacked “tragic unity”. As a Dashiell Hammett fan, I could not comment. Hammett’s writing is pure and economical, while Chandler cuts clean and creates scenes that remain in a reader’s memory forever. Macdonald is silky and true to the traditions of Hammett and Chandler. In fact, he gave a new lease of life to the genre, just as his predecessors had done in their respective periods.

Was it such a coincidence that Hammett’s first PI novel hit the bookshelves in 1929, Chandler’s in 1939 and Macdonald’s in 1949? Was it not the sharp eye of the same publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, recognising what readers wanted from each author and shrewdly nudging the genre along in keeping with the time?

Macdonald’s books are written so elegantly that he was admired by poets as his stories were from the heart, and to describe him as the F. Scott Fitzgerald of crime writers would not be an overstatement as Fitzgerald was an author that had greatly inspired him.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

Hoping for a big thriller year

Last year proved to be a relatively quiet 12 months for the thriller market in terms of blockbusters. The publishing industry did its utmost to meet readers’ interests by offering the usual plethora of subgenres but there was no stand-out thriller as in previous years.

The ever popular domestic noir market still looks as strong as ever following the runaway successes of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and later Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train.

This subgenre has seen in recent years an exponential growth in interest as it changed the reading habits of many women who are preferring to seek out female-centric titles that keep them on the edge of their seats.

Women form the majority of thriller readers and their surge in interest in domestic noir has built up sales in the UK market of around 20m books per year.

This type of crime fiction is not only changing the psychological makeup of women in novels, but is possibly challenging the traditional narratives of the thriller.

The use of multiple narrators, a general absence of typical thriller tropes, and their softer climaxes seem to be altering the perspective of what is chilling, given that the stories often revolve around humdrum urban lives.

But framing a story around terrible marriages and abusive relationships is nothing new to the thriller market. It is a deeply mined subject of the traditional psychological thriller. Rebecca, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Dial M for Murder are all examples of the subgenres popularity in earlier decades.

Perhaps the real difference between the older classics and the modern domestic noir, is, as others have already pointed out, that the investigation being carried out by the writer is really about the breakdown of the relationship rather than the murder itself. The murder is no more than a McGuffin.

Money and control are often at the heart of a thriller, and it is no different in domestic noir. The woman is invariably dependent on a husband who is unfaithful and she feels her position becoming suddenly vulnerable because the man poses a threat.

But unlike the archetypically doomed femme fatales of the past – written mostly by men – the female characters in domestic noir tend to end up coming out on top. They are no longer the victims.

Amy in Gone Girl manages to get the upper hand, Jodi, a psychologist, in The Silent Wife, gets away with despatching her philandering partner, while in Season to Taste, dear Lizzie Prain has no qualms in eating her husband.

The thriller market has always been the golden goose for publishers, film makers, theatre and radio producers, alike. Nearly everyone from all backgrounds enjoys being transferred to an edgy world where they can be frightened or held in suspense.

It is an organic genre that keeps evolving and sub-dividing into subgenres. How long domestic noir will remain popular is anyone’s guess. This trend will no doubt reach a limit amongst readers and will probably give way one day to a new vogue in crime fiction, in the same way that Nordic noir thrillers are now starting to lose their shine.

Could the absence of a big blockbuster in 2017 be a sign of uncertainty about the direction that the thriller market is currently heading? Even in the cinema it seems to me that fewer traditional thrillers are being made. Is there some uncertainty about what people really want from a thriller today as there is so much competition from other genres?

A relatively fallow year for crime fiction doesn’t mean anything, of course, as the whole of the book market goes through such trends from time to time. While it is not a rare phenomenon it does seem curious that there was no real big splash in the thriller market last year given the huge number of books in the marketplace.

Too much choice? Not enough book critics in the media shining their torches on hidden gems? I have no idea how publishing houses pick and choose books, but as a consumer of their products I would urge them to go out on a limb and just take more risks.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

Life can be murder for Martin

The time has come to let you know about my new book. For readers seeking an unusual hero to root for, then step forward, Martin, a hapless journalist who works on a London-based financial magazine.

Martin desperately wants to tell you his side of the story about how the blue-eyed new boy, Tom de Lacy, turned up one day in the newsroom, and ended up grabbing all of the limelight, not to mention the well-paid industrial correspondent’s job that he had his eye on.

Once he lost out to Tom, life was never quite the same for him but I’ll let him tell you all about that. If only Martin could match Tom and his amazing elevation into television. If only he too could be, well, a bit like Tom really, someone whose ability was admired by all and sundry.

And it wasn’t an impossibility as he was every much Tom’s equal in journalism. But keeping a job and remaining solvent can be murder, and in certain circumstances could even give rise to it.

Watching Tom’s career blossom wasn’t easy for Martin, so when a really unexpected turn of events occurs, he just had to grab the opportunity with both hands.

But I’ll let Martin tell you how he got into trouble. Just go on to Amazon and pre-order his story now. It’s called, SCOOP OF THE YEAR.

Available in paperback or e-book:

Amazon UK: http://tinyurl.com/y7zwqmqc

Amazon US: http://tinyurl.com/ycyhcx5w

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

In search of the write stuff

When attending a book festival to listen to an author talk about his or her book, you can bet a pound to a penny that a member of the audience will raise a hand to ask the writer one particular question: Where do your ideas come from?

Most authors say their ideas come when they go on long walks in the countryside or at least somewhere nice and green, giving everyone this romantic idea that being an author is an endless exercise of writing and walking. But I’ve donned my wellies and tramped fields many a time only to return home absent of a eureka moment.

The writer and comedian, John Cleese, has strong advice on the whole subject of creativity, or at least the best chance of conjuring it up. In essence, he claims that by creating the right mood, creativity will follow. Cut yourself off from the busy world and allow yourself to play. Just make sure that time and space is your time and space. When ideas don’t come, work on them some more in your isolated state, then perhaps wait for the unconscious mind to kick-in when you least expect it.

This method of working, he says, explains why so many writers prefer to work late at night or in the early hours of the morning when there is less chance of interruption.

Yet, only the other day I read about a writer’s debut novel being written on a commuter train using her mobile phone. She didn’t specify whether she did this standing up or sitting down, given the state of our overcrowded trains, but you get the point, creativity can happen anywhere, locked away in a log cabin or in a train filled with passengers.

A year ago, I visited the lakeside house of the Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg, where he lived with his wife Nina, just on the edge of Bergen. I think any writer would have given his or her eyeteeth to work in his cosy hut overlooking Lake Nordas. Working in such tranquillity and light must have been heavenly for the composer. He apparently built it for himself to get away from the din of the house.

But for me, noise isn’t the issue having worked in busy newsrooms where there was constant interruption. I learnt quickly to block out everything around me while writing because there was a deadline to meet.

If anything, I found that I had more ideas floating around my head when I was working in a newsroom than I do today while sitting alone in my office. And when I used to travel for my job ideas seemed to multiply because there was so much going on around me to stimulate my mind.

But I agree with Cleese’s thesis that ideas have to be worked out in your head until a perfect solution is eventually found or otherwise it is just a compromise. I walk around thinking about such problems for days on end and then suddenly come up with an answer while reaching out for a jar in the cupboard. There can be no switching off until the right idea presents itself.

With my new book, Scoop of the Year, due to be published in late October, I wanted to write a suspense story based on a single emotion, jealousy. But I wanted this emotion to be a positive experience for the protagonist. Envy can be good for you, if it gets you off your backside.

I wrote the book in a few months as I knew what I was aiming at, but to figure out the right presentation of the story required an incredible amount of thinking and caused much delay.

Some writers are heavy plotters, and often decide the ending first before working their way back to the beginning of their novel. While others are more improvisational and go where the story takes them, often to places they never would have thought.

I’m somewhere in the middle of the two. I usually know the beginning and the ending before setting sail, but I do let the logic of the story unfold. Sometimes, an idea comes to me out of the blue as my fingers hit the keyboard. If it surprises me at that point, then it will sure surprise the reader.

Some ideas can peter out while writing or they just don’t hold out to keep the story alive, even if everything else is in place in terms of characters and plot. At the end of the day it’s about finding the right stuff to sustain 90,000 words or more. When you have it, you write fast and furiously, but when you don’t it’s a bit like playing a tune on a piano with one finger.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

How do you like your hero…or heroine?

Heroes and heroines in thrillers come in all shapes and sizes, but the one thing they have in common is the enormous baggage they carry, courtesy of the author.

My favourite type of hero is the bad’un who becomes a good’un at the end. A character who repents will always receive high numbers on my scorecard. But then again, I love Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, who is really a bad’un, through and through. He’s a wonderfully cultured and sophisticated chap, who also happens to be a psychopathic killer. The trouble is you can’t help caring about him.

But that’s the whole purpose of having a hero or anti-hero: it’s to put a reader in his shoes so that he or she can experience directly the dilemmas and anxieties facing the protagonist. Once that is achieved, then the writer can go to town on the hero, torturing him as well as the reader as much as possible right up to the end.

But the hero has to be real, usually likeable, and must have his own demons if he is to be accepted by readers.

So who are my fictional heroes? Here goes, and in no particular order:

Jo Nesbo’s loose cannon sleuth, Harry Hole, is a wonderful creation built on the alcoholic detective trope. Only this one is from Oslo, in nice Norway. Harry is a slob who courts disaster wherever he goes, but he always comes up trumps.

While Nesbo is best known for his Harry Hole series, I have to confess I have a soft spot for one of his few standalone books, Headhunters. The cynical protagonist, Roger Brown, is a recruitment specialist, headhunting executives for top jobs. He’s smart, wealthy and …er…short. He has a beautiful wife and a spectacular home. And, oh, he steals paintings on the side. Roger is too clever for his own good, and initially is not likeable. But as his circumstances change, so does the reader’s view about him. He’s not the typical hero readers would normally root for, but that’s part of the charm of the book.

Let’s stick with heroes that have Harry as their first name. Apart from Harry Bridger in Hider Seeker, I also like Harry Palmer in the Len Deighton’s series about the working class spy. Yes, I know, he doesn’t have a name in the book, and only receives one in the Michael Caine films (See article 15 Feb 2017), but the character is well established both in the written word and cinematically. The insubordinate working class hero was a reflection of the changing times in 1960s Britain, but the character is not a million miles from the wise-cracking Philip Marlowe.

When it comes to spies, I’m a sucker for John Le Carre’s British agent, Alec Leamas, in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. He was brilliantly played by Richard Burton in the 1963 film adaptation of the book, directed by Martin Ritt. There’s no happy ending in this bleak story set in the Cold War. Leamas, weary of his trade, chooses love over loyalty to his country.

However, the hero I liked the most from the Le Carre’s books I’ve read so far is the hapless interpreter, Salvo, in The Mission Song. Salvo, who is half Congolese but educated in England, discovers that a secretly organised British meeting with Congolese warlords is a total sham. But then the unthinkable happens to our naïve Salvo. He transforms from the role of the downtrodden husband to become a spy and lover of the beautiful Hannah. He proves to be a hero of sorts, but as with many of Le Carre’s novels it comes at an enormous cost. Filled with humour and cynicism, Le Carre delivers British treachery in his own inimitable style.

Milo Weaver is also a spy hero of mine who appears in Olen Steinhauer’s 2009 novel, The Tourist. Milo is a former “tourist” – a CIA operative that does the dirty work – and has been given a desk job after retiring from “tourism.” Need I spell out what happens next? Yes, he becomes a “tourist” once again to investigate allegations that a friend of his may have passed secrets to a foreign power. Milo is the reluctant hero who only wants to get back to his wife and kid, but first he needs to sort out some double-dealing by the state. A man with his heart in the right place.

Steinhauer, who cut his teeth on Cold War novels based in Eastern Europe, is often compared to Le Carre, Deighton and Graham Greene.

When it comes to police detectives, I can only say that I have one I really adore, the world-weary communist party member and Moscow policeman, Arkady Renko. Maybe it’s the location of Moscow or perhaps it is Renko’s disillusionment with city’s Prosecution Service, but I feel I want to be there working on his investigations. Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 bestseller Gorky Park, in which he introduced the detective to the world, was highly praised for the portrayal of Cold War Moscow even though the American author had never set foot in the Russian capital.

Surprisingly, Cruz Smith’s publishers turned down the idea of a Russian detective, but Gorky Park became an instant crime classic, and the author was soon being compared not only to John le Carre, but also to Dostoevsky.

And what about heroines? Well, who better than Lisbeth Salander, the enigmatic 24-year-old with a history of delinquency and a genius on a computer keyboard? She’s cool, violent, and not really the sort of girl to be messed with. But nevertheless she gets on with righting wrongs in her own way.

Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t an instant success in Britain, and I can remember receiving my free copy from an Evening Standard newsstand, a ploy used by the publisher to help push sales of the then unknown Swedish author. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk