I’ve always been a fan of reading Crime Fiction but, aside from a couple of humorous short stories, was never inspired to write in that genre. I loved Rankin’s Rebus, Connelly’s Bosch and, of course Mr Sherlock Holmes himself, but writing a police procedural or following the investigations of a lone detective just didn’t appeal to me. Everything changed when, a couple of years ago, a tweet caught my eye – from comedy writer Graham Linehan – waxing lyrical about ‘The Parker Novels’.
Who is Parker?
Well, for a start, he really isn’t ‘The Good Guy’ – in any sense of the word. Unlike Rebus et al, he’s on the wrong side of the law, a ruthless single-minded criminal always looking for the next big score. He is the creation of the ‘Crime Writer’s Crime Writer’, Donald E Westlake, writing under his pseudonym of Richard Stark. Parker is merciless, amoral and has a complete lack of empathy, but like most anti-heroes, he does have his own strict code – a set of rules as inflexible as he is. There’s a full run-down of those rules on the 50 Years of Parker website, but the gist is that he is the ultimate professional. The job is everything. Killing a man is the last resort – but only because it tends to bring unwanted interest from The Law. He is totally loyal to his colleagues right up until the point they try to double-cross him, at which point they become his mortal enemy. Revenge is a recurring theme throughout the novels and the stories are littered with the bodies of those who thought they could betray Parker and live to tell the tale.
Any redeeming features?
Even for an anti-hero, Parker’s redeeming qualities are pretty thin on the ground. Yet Stark created a protagonist that readers found compelling and addictive – there are 24 Parker novels and at least three film adaptations.
For one thing, Parker gets things done. He makes things happen and that alone is an attractive trait for a main character. He’s decisive and straightforward. If you’re looking for some existential angst or emotional hand-wringing, look elsewhere. That’s not to say that Stark doesn’t put his main character into some sticky situations. Parker spends most of his time against the ropes and railing against the huge faceless criminal organisation called The Syndicate. In the opening chapters of his first caper, ‘The Hunter’ he is betrayed and left for dead. In a cast of low-life, disloyal undesirables, Parker stands out because he lives his life to such a strict set of rules. He’s almost monastic in his dedication. And, most importantly, he is very, very good at what he does. In fact, he’s the best and that’s irrestible to a reader. Throw in the fact that Parker is always the smartest guy in the room, able to cut anyone down to size with his deadpan wit, and it’s easy to see why he’s such an enduring figure.
He doesn’t have the vulnerability that so many other anti-heroes often exhibit, but his greatest strength – his ‘code’ – is also his biggest flaw. That unwillingness to bend, to double-cross the other guy first – is often where his problems begin.
Stark’s prose is terse, tight and full of wit and after only a few pages of The Hunter, I was hooked. This was the type of character I wanted to write. A remorseless, unapologetic bad guy that everyone loves. The man that can walk into a room and say or do anything he damn pleases. And so, my leading man, Mickey Blake, was born.
Like Parker, Mickey is a career criminal, but is very much in the British villain mould. Unlike Stark’s man, by the time we meet Mickey at the beginning of my novel, he has plenty of vulnerability lurking beneath a tough, sarcastic exterior. In any given situation, he will choose the most inappropriate comment, just to score a cheap point, get a laugh or gain the advantage over whichever ne’erdowell he’s faced with.
In Stark’s novels, Parker’s stories unfold in third person point of view, but I wanted my readers to really get under Mickey’s skin and into his head as he’s forced out of retirement for the sake of his dying wife and an estranged son that hates his guts. That meant choosing a first person perspective and it’s been fun ‘being’ Mickey during the months I’ve been working on my first draft.
I couldn’t and wouldn’t try to emulate Richard Stark’s style, but I do hope that in Mickey Blake, I can create a British anti-hero that can at least hold his own with Parker – The Man With The Getaway Face.
Who is your favourite anti-hero? Or maybe you prefer the good guys? Drop me a line in the comments below and let me know your favourite Crime books too.
2 thoughts on “Parker and why we love an anti-hero”
I can’t pick one anti-hero, it’s impossible! I have a long list but here are just a few…
John Constantine is a British exorcist and occult detective in Constantine, the TV series, who actively hunts supernatural entities. He is just plain horrible, yet I love him. He’s tough and fearless, and in a previous life was a con man who sold his soul to the devil. He desperately wants to be redeemed, and will do anything to get what he wants…
And what about Pinkie Brown? The main character in the novel Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene is one of the best anti-hero’s I’ve ever read. He is a complete psychopath, and spares his victims no mercy. We should be repulsed by him, yet he is utterly fascinating. There is so much going on in this book, it’s dark, and although classed as an underground thriller there is so much more under the surface where Pinkie is concerned.
There are some fantastic female anti-hero’s around too. The first I came across was Scarlett O’Hara in the book Gone With The Wind. She is so spoilt, and cheats and backstabs everyone to get her way out of a bad situation. But you feel an empathy with her.
What about Cat Woman? Who is such a smooth badass, killing and stealing to get what she wants. Don’t you just love her too?
And then there is Beatrix Kiddo from Kill Bill, who is probably the scariest female anti-hero of them all for me. This protagonist goes on a major killing spree after being betrayed big style by her lover. It’s gruesome, but you just can’t help being on her side. You so want her to have a happy ending, but you know she is going to do a lot of bad things before she finds happiness.
Hey, I got carried away with my list, and there were only a few books in the mix, but they are the ones that have stayed with me.
As for my favourite Crime book? A tough question, and one I need to ponder. However, I’ve enjoyed reading the Robert Galbraith series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm and Career of Evil. I’m getting to know the private investigator Comoron Strike, war veteran and amputee. I love his black humour, and admire his resolve. I also love the developing relationship between Comoron and his assistant Robin, and I’m so waiting for the next book to be released.
Wow Maria! Great response! I think you have a blog post of your own in there. You’re right about the female anti-hero (anti-heroine?) too – there isn’t enough written about those. I can’t believe I still haven’t read Brighton Rock, so thanks for the reminder – it’s just moved further up my ‘to read’ list.