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”.

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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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It’s all in the genres

The London Book Fair closed the other week in a bullish mood with reports of some eye-watering deals for a number of thriller writers. It seems that the good times are back, judging by the number of publishers bidding at auctions for big titles and the frenetic activity in selling the rights for these books across the continent of Europe.

There was quite rightly a lot of attention on thrillers at the fair and one debut writer in particular appears to have hit the jackpot after giving up her job last summer to take the Faber Academy writing course.

Chloé Esposito looks set to become the next big thriller author after receiving over £2m in advances from UK publisher Michael Joseph and foreign rights sales, according to reports at the London Book Fair. There is also talk of Hollywood being interested in her Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know trilogy.

Pitched as “a heady mix of sex, lies, twists and murder,” it’s a story of sibling rivalry where the protagonist is described as “Bridget Jones gone bad.” There is apparently a nod in the direction of anti-heroes, Amy Dunne and Tom Ripley.

The first of the trilogy, Mad, is due to be published in June 2017 and looks set to become a hit like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.

Esposito says it is her first novel, although she had previously written “hundreds” of unfinished books. Her agent, Simon Trewin at WME, claims that it is “a thriller with a high concept,” and went on to describe it as the “American Psycho for the Gone Girl generation.”

No doubt this high concept thriller will lead to a round of similar novels reaching the market in the years to come, possibly adding another subgenre to thrillers.

In recent years, the domestic noir genre has grown in increasing popularity. Publishers and agents have been scouring female writers to come up with more domestic noir, which was grafted on the back of the classic detective genre by turning romantic women’s themes into darker stories.

Ian Rankin, the bestselling crime author who created the Rebus series, made the point recently that publishers are no longer just focused on publishing the next big book or author, but an entire genre. He claims that British writers are facing more competition than ever as publishers are turning their sights on finding the next success to Scandinavian noir.

More publishers are trawling their nets in foreign waters hoping to come up with a new cultural setting for crime readers to enjoy. Suddenly, there are more thrillers being stacked on the shelves of bookshops from around the world. This may be a good time to be a translator, but perhaps not a British thriller writer.

The majority of today’s crime novels are far from the roots of the classic thriller of the last century as they are filled with violence, horror, torture, misogyny, and sadomasochism.

Ann Cleeves, the crime writer, believes that publishers have encouraged such writing in a bid to keep up with the success of Scandinavian noir.

But she believes readers have tired of such genres, and supports her view with the recent trend towards traditional crime novels, citing the success of the British Library’s classic crime series, which reprints books from the 1930s with iconic covers from the golden age of thrillers.

While she admits that some of these books are beyond their sell-by date in entertainment value, publishers should be taking note what the readers are saying through their purchases.

That may be true, but given that Esposito’s new book promises “loads of sex and violence,” don’t expect any sea change soon.

Ian Rankin and Ann Cleeves will be speaking at Crimefest in Bristol, 19-22 May 2016. http://www.crimefest.com

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