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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Hold The Front Page!

When it comes to films about journalism, I only have two favourites, The Front Page, and its sister version, His Girl Friday.

I know I should choose Citizen Kane and All the President’s Men, but the fact of the matter is that The Front Page is a well-constructed and well observed study of a reporter’s mindset.

Originally written for the theatre in 1928 by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, it played a big part in introducing the general public to the cynical world of the self-serving newspaperman, an image that still remains today, some 90 years later.

Hecht was a newspaperman before becoming a novelist, playwright, and scriptwriter. When he and MacArthur adapted The Front Page for the silver screen in 1931 it became an immediate smash hit and is today considered one of Hollywood’s best farces.

The plot is about a well-seasoned reporter, Hildebrand “Hildy” Johnson, who has quit the cutthroat newspaper business to get married and work in the comparatively comfy world of advertising. But only a day after walking away from his job he stumbles across a major scoop – an exclusive interview with a murderer, ensconced in a rolltop desk, who has escaped from death row. Everyone is running around looking for the escapee, but only Hildy knows where he is.

The urge to scoop his fellow hacks is just too tempting, and Hildy’s ruthless editor, Walter Burns, cajoles him into covering the story.

Hildy thinks it will be his last scoop before wedded bliss awaits him. This act of not walking away because he’s married to both the job and his editor kicks off the action.

The 1931 film, directed by Lewis Milestone, and starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien, looked so close to perfection when it was released that it was thought by many that nothing would ever surpass it. But nine years later, Howard Hawks took on the task of a remake with the intention of directing an updated version of The Front Page. But when his female secretary read Hildy Johnson’s lines during an audition it was a lightbulb moment for him. The script was immediately re-written to make Hildy the ex-wife of the cunning editor, Walter Burns. Nothing else was changed in the script, apart from the fact that Hildy now had a fiancé instead of a fiancée.

Cary Grant became Walter Burns who not only wanted his ex-wife to cover the story but to have her back in his life again. Suddenly, the dynamics of The Front Page was supercharged with the battle of the sexes, but nothing else really changed. By bringing in Rosalind Russell as Hildy, a ready-made feminine name, Hawks created a more contemporary feel to the story by introducing a no-nonsense woman. She was better than the men in a traditionally male field and like her male predecessor was equally bitten by the bug to scoop the other reporters.

The 1931 film captured the darkness of cynical journalist banter much better than His Girl Friday as there was more freedom in Hollywood then, but the latter film had the additional romantic touch to make up for it.

As most film buffs know, His Girl Friday, is remembered for its speed of wit, with Hawks ignoring the convention of a script page per minute of screen time and doubling it to two pages per screen minute. It could only be achieved by overlapping dialogue that was never longer than a line each for Grant and Russell. This gave the movie its high adrenaline rush, something that Billy Wilder purposely left out when he remade The Front Page in 1974, even though it had also existed in the original 1931 version.

While the Wilder film was described by some critics as flat and lacking energy, Walter Matthau’s devious Walter Burns was for me the ultimate portrayal of the egomaniac. And Jack Lemmon also produced a faultless performance as the old newshound Hildy, who can’t resist breaking a top story. The lure of the scoop is already in his eyes before he even explains to his fiancée that he might be late meeting her at the railway station.

At the end of the day, the magic goes back to Hecht and MacArthur’s original script. Whether The Front Page can be updated again, as it was in 1988 with Switching Channels, remains to be seen. But imagine fake news in the hands of Walter Burns? Adorable!

Tom Claver’s Scoop of the Year is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon:

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Last night I dreamt I went to …

During the summer I took refuge in a second hand bookshop in Lyme Regis to get out of the pouring rain and found myself weaving around the higgledy-piggledy assortment of shelves, lazily scanning hundreds of titles to read.

The aptly named Sanctuary Bookshop on Broad Street stocks metres of books in every direction. It also has a reading room with comfortable armchairs, a cosy fire, and if you are a slow reader they can put you up in overnight accommodation. It’s a book lover’s paradise. (http://www.lyme-regis.com/)

For some reason I felt myself being drawn to the back of the shop and to a particular shelf where I found the book I’d been longing to read but never got around to doing so This was a sign, I thought, and grabbed the second-hand paperback off the shelf before anyone else suddenly took a fancy to it.

The well-worn book in my hands of Rebecca was published by Pan Books in 1978 under a fourth print run. Daphne du Maurier’s classic suspense story was first published in 1938 by Victor Gollancz and became an instant bestseller. It has never been out of print and according to the publishers Virago it still sells around 4,000 a month.

I’d seen Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of Rebecca many times and was curious to know why Hitchcock didn’t think much of his movie that brought him his first fame in Hollywood. I was rather hoping by reading the book it might shed some light on why he had taken this harsh attitude towards his movie.

The 1940 film was Hitchcock’s first in Hollywood and the only one to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Hitchcock was a close friend of Du Maurier’s father and wanted to make Rebecca several years earlier, but was unable to afford the rights to the novel. He’d already turned her novel Jamaica Inn into a film and would later direct her short story The Birds into one of his best known movies.

It got off to a bad start when the producer David O. Selznick rejected the script Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville had worked on. Selznick who was busy producing Gone With the Wind at the time was renowned for loving and understanding books. He’d insisted that the film faithfully adapted the plot of the book, including scenes and dialogues.

Here was a monumental clash of artistic differences – the producer seeking a literal approach versus the director’s visceral approach. It led to extensive re-writes, but Selznick got his movie and won Best Picture for the second year in a row after winning the same award for Gone With the Wind in 1939.

The black and white photography also won an Oscar and was put to good effect to convey the darkness of the book.

It might not have been the film that Hitchcock wanted to make but without Selznick’s interference some commentators doubt that it would have been so successful as Selznick brought a solid structure to the story, something that Hitchcock would eventually adopt in his later works.

Adapting the gothic melodrama to screen no doubt helped Hitchcock expand his repertoire from his trademark of sharp shocks to more moodier themes which eventually established him as an all-time great film director.

Hitchcock captures well the shy girl (Joan Fontaine) who suddenly enters the rich world of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) and Manderley, his beautiful mansion by the sea. Mr de Winter’s immature bride acts at first passively towards the large household of servants led by the pernicious housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson), who instils the idea that she is not worthy of replacing Rebecca, the late Mrs de Winter. From that moment on she is tormented by the ghost of Rebecca until she grows up to confront her demon and learn the truth about her death.

Du Maurier’s novel is a study of a new wife’s jealousy of her husband’s first wife who eventually goes on to discover that everything she had built up in her head is completely wrong. Echoes of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, possibly, but as Du Maurier admitted it was a story about a fairly common theme. In reality, it was based on her own marital experience.

Both the book and Hitchcock’s film were well received by the public. The toxic combination of jealousy and suspense has led to several versions of the story reaching the stage, television, radio, Bollywood, and even the opera.

The book is apparently read and re-read by fans the world over with many of them seeing something different in the characters each time. It is easy to understand its popularity just by reading the first opening sentence, one of the most memorable in classic fiction. ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’

 

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

Celebrating Agatha

Agatha Christie fans will be rubbing their hands with glee this year. Not only has a new Poirot novel been published but a whole host of events have been planned to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the birth of The Queen of Crime Writers.

A number of events are being organised during the International Agatha Christie Festival in her birthplace of Torquay in the UK this September while fans from around the world are being encouraged to post letters describing her importance to them. (http://www.125stories.com)

Next year will also see the performances of a few new adaptations of her plays while Fox is remaking the Christie classic Murder on the Orient Express. It will see the welcome return to the screen of Hercule Poirot, the fastidious Belgian detective.

Poirot, one of Christie’s best known characters, appeared in 33 of her novels, one play and in more than 50 short stories published between 1920 and 1975.

But this year saw the first Poirot book to be written since her death after the Christie family estate gave permission for a continuation novel.

The family wanted a writer who could be trusted and given a free rein. The choice of the crime writer Sophie Hannah seemed like a match made in heaven as far as the family was concerned. Hannah had read all of Christie’s books by the age of 14 and, perhaps more importantly, had become a respectful aficionado. She had already nine psychological thrillers under her belt and was considered suitably experienced enough to pull off the tricky task of reviving Poirot.

Hannah made a conscious decision not to imitate Christie at all in her new book, The Monogram Murders. Out went Captain Hastings, and his narration, along with Miss Lemon and Chief Inspector Japp. In came a new narrator, Edward Catchpool, a Scotland Yard detective.

The result got the immediate thumbs up from Mathew Prichard, Christie’s only grandson and head of the family estate. He said that The Monogram Murders was recognisably a Poirot book even though Hannah had brought her own style.

She claims to have brought all the elements of a Poirot novel: an enjoyable simple-to-read mystery with a complex puzzle to solve. Three bodies are found in separate rooms of a hotel behind locked doors. Only clue; monogrammed cufflinks found in their mouths.

Hannah says that the main difference between contemporary crime fiction and the golden age of detective fiction is that modern writers allow readers to witness events while in the past, writers relied on more overt story telling – clues are pointed out but not explained immediately.

What would Christie have thought of the concept of a new Poirot book? According to her grandson, she was against continuation stories during her lifetime, but not just for her own work, other writers too.

However, Hannah speaking at the recent Crimefest convention in Bristol defended the continuation novel on the grounds that “the whole point of the exercise is to get people back to the originals.”

The experiment has gone so swimmingly well that Mathew Prichard teased delegates with the possibility that Miss Marple could soon have her career resurrected as well.

Christie may not be everyone’s cup of tea with some critics claiming she was just a creator of puzzles. But Hannah firmly dismisses such arguments, pointing out that Christie’s novels had both “wisdom and insight.” She claims that Christie more than any other writer in her genre was always seeking to expand the boundary.

Hannah reckons that because Christie was so good at delivering pleasurable writing that some people automatically rule her books unworthy. Prichard concurs, claiming that Christie never thought of herself as a good writer and was content to tell people that she just wrote stories. She only wanted to entertain, he said.

So what is Hannah’s favourite Agatha Christie novel?

“I’ve a list of favourites. But After the Funeral is the one that struck me as the best all-rounder. Dysfunctional family, a fussy wife, and Poirot being used in a different way. Above all, it is Agatha Christie’s best example that when the solution is revealed by Poirot, everything rearranges itself and we can look back and see things differently. The perfect showcase of what Agatha Christie does best.”

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

100 years of the modern spy thriller

This year marks the centenary of the publication of The Thirty-Nine Steps, arguably the world’s first modern spy thriller.

When John Buchan wrote the book around the outbreak of the Great War, he set a template not only for today’s espionage novels but for all thrillers alike.

It was innovative for its time, with its fast and speedy style, drawing on all the latest technology of the era, such as the single-wing plane, fast cars, motorbikes, radio, telephone and probably the first reference in literature to a semi-automatic gun.

While some credit Erskine Childers’ 1903 Victorian novel The Riddle of the Sands, as the first spy thriller ever published, there are many who point to Buchan as the father of the genre because of his modern writing style that aligns him with 20th century thriller writers.

Childers’ adventure story certainly had an influence on Buchan who wrote on the same theme about the threat of a German invasion of Britain. It had become a popular storyline among many writers since the 1880s until the eventual outbreak of World War One in 1914. Buchan’s novel was in fact the last to be written on the subject.

Buchan was born in Perth, Scotland, and went to Glasgow University and Oxford. He was already writing at this stage of his life, winning awards including for poetry. Despite his constant ill health, he was a barrister, MP, solder, writer and publisher.

His first success as an author was the publication of Prester John in 1910. It tells the story of a young Scotsman named David Crawfurd and his adventures in South Africa, where a Zulu uprising is tied to the medieval legend of Prester John. The hero in this story is later reincarnated as Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Buchan was looking to write a best seller as he had a good eye for book trends as a publisher. It took him only a few weeks to pen The Thirty-Nine Steps just after the outbreak of war, publishing the short novel the following year in October 1915. It was an instant hit with the solders in the trenches because not only did it take their minds off the fighting, but it was the type of book they could read in short bursts. Buchan had hit on a winning formula.

The premise of an innocent man getting accidentally caught up in international intrigue has become the bread and butter of many latter-day thriller writers. It is the classic call to adventure that makes this theme so enduring.

But the set-up used by Buchan has such a contemporary feel, providing you can put aside the anachronistic characters he describes in Edwardian Britain. Richard Hannay, a Scottish mining engineer, returns to London from Rhodesia and is so bored that he’s at the point of returning to Africa when he stumbles on a murder that could have implications to Britain’s security. Suddenly, his world is turned upside down and he’s on the run.

Buchan realised that the stakes had to be high to be put the readers on the edge of their seat. And nothing could be higher than Britain’s secret naval plans possibly falling into the hands of German spies. This at a time when his readers already understood what it felt to be at war.

Twenty years after its publication Hitchcock brought new life to the book with a comedy thriller, improving the story, and setting new standards in modern film making. Hitchcock via Buchan had established the chase thriller and then went on to re-cycle The 39 Steps in the guise of Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, and North by Northwest.

I have to confess I’m a sucker of the man-on-the-run theme and in my debut thriller, HIDER/SEEKER, I have used it in an inverse way.

My favourite type of thriller is where an ordinary man, minding his own business, is suddenly put into jeopardy. In HIDER/SEEKER, the main character, Harry Bridger, is no ordinary man, but his nightmare begins when his client goes on the run.

I remember exactly where I first read The Thirty-Nine Steps. It was while on holiday in Torridon, in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland. We had rented a cottage and the landlord had left a pile of books for a rainy day. I sat down on a sofa after supper and never got up again until I’d finished the book. I can’t say that I’ve done that with many books.

The enigmatic title, which does not provide a credible pay off in the book, though Hitchcock does better, came from Buchan’s six year old daughter, Alice. She gifted him the title of his new novel while he was staying in a house in Kent with his family. It was the number of steps that went down to the beach from the house as told in the book’s finale.

Buchan was created Baron of Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and held the position of Governor-General of Canada until his death in 1940.

The British historian, G.M Trevelyan*, paid the following tribute to him. ‘I don’t think I remember anyone whose death evoked a more enviable outburst of sorrow, love and admiration.’

The book was published on 19 October 1915 by Blackwood & Sons of Edinburgh and the John Buchan Museum in Peebles, Scotland, will be celebrating its publication with a special exhibition. (See News)

* G.M Trevelyan’s work was much admired by Dr Rod Whitaker’s wife who suggested to her husband that he adopt the surname as his pseudonym, Trevanian. (See The countdown begins, 4 March 2015)

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk’.

The countdown begins

Having reached a very respectable age I thought it was high time to fulfil a lifelong ambition of publishing a thriller. I hope you will enjoy reading HIDER/SEEKER when it is launched as an e-book by Amazon from 29 April.

If you take a look at my home page you’ll read why it has taken me so embarrassingly long to get my act together and how I got the bug to write when I took creative writing classes with Dr Rod Whitaker in the early 1970s. He wrote under the pen name of Trevanian and was possibly best known for his debut thriller, “The Eiger Sanction,” which was turned into a film by Clint Eastwood.

I’ve paid a big tribute to the late Dr Whitaker on my web and would really like to hear from anyone who studied under him or who knew him well. He was an elusive author who baffled many people in his lifetime because of his keenness to keep his real name a secret. This led to all sorts of conspiracy theories, which I would imagine he enjoyed.

I didn’t go to his evening classes with any specific intention other than to get away from my awful bedsit and an annoying tenant. But I was captivated by the story of his first book becoming an international best seller and being turned into a film by Eastwood, a film maker I have always admired.

So he gave me the appetite to write and I did nothing about it all my life until 10 years ago when I decided it was now or never to learn how to write a thriller. I read lots of books on writing, but they didn’t mean anything to me until I wrote something that resembled a book. It’s only once you have written a novel that you understand what these books are trying to teach you.

Dr Whitaker inspired me to write, but showing me how to do it was largely down to three women who I’d like to thank in my first ever blog.

I sent my first attempt at writing a thriller to Bernie Ross, a former fiction editor and literary editor, who provided me with a 10-page critique (singled lined) blitzing my prose. There was absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, that she thought was right about the book. When I read her response I think I laughed aloud at how hopeless I was because that was all one could do. As a professional journalist, I didn’t see it as intimidating but as a perfectly good analysis of what was wrong with my writing. It was nothing personal, just business, as they say.

I took it upon myself to re-write some chapters as an academic exercise, doing it the way Bernie had suggested. And what an improvement. I’d hit upon a style of writing that suited me and I re-edited the whole book. We became friends and we have remained in touch ever since. Bernie still writes occasionally, but her great passion now is painting. (http://www.bernrossartist.com)

Now that I had written a book, I needed an agent. I was soon to discover that this would be the most depressing part of the whole writing experience. Although I never found an agent, I did receive a most encouraging telephone call from the indefatigable Betty Schwartz. She was with Futerman Rose at the time, and had previously been submissions editor at Hodder. Betty took the trouble of picking up the phone and telling me that she liked my style of writing. She helped sharpen my prose and told me not to give up. Anyone who has had the good fortune of coming into contact with Betty knows she is one of the nicest people you could ever wish to meet in publishing.

The book never got published, however, and I wrote another one, which also bit the dust. My third attempt was HIDER/SEEKER, which was a reworking of a film script I wrote many years ago. This time around I think I have hit all the marks, thanks mainly to the critical eye of Hilary Johnson Authors’ Advisory Service. There is no hiding place when Hilary analyses your MS. Hilary is always at the ready to administer the castor oil when it is needed and delivers it with such charm that you feel like asking for more.

So a big thank you to these ladies who have played their part in getting me over the finishing line.

But there is a very special fourth lady I would like to praise, my wife. She has put up with all my anxieties and pushed me into completing this ambition. She is the first reader of my books, and I want to especially thank her for making me stick to the course that I had set such a long time ago.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk’.