Books for the News, Fiction

More Parker Novels Arriving Soon and An Interview with Charles Ardai

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Fans of Donald E. Westlake were saddened by his sudden death on New Year’s Eve of 2008. But luckily, the beloved author—who over the course of his fifty-year career published more than a hundred books, many under sundry pseudonyms—has continued to be prolific, even in death. In September 2008, the University of Chicago Press began reissuing Westlake’s Parker novels (which he wrote under the alias Richard Stark). So far, we’ve published an even dozen, and the next three books in the series—The Green Eagle Score, The Black Ice Score, and The Sour Lemon Score—will be showing up in stores any day now. In order to celebrate the books, our resident Westlake scholar Levi Stahl talked with Charles Ardai, editor of Hard Case Crime, the publisher of a newly discovered Westlake novel from the early 1960s, Memory, out this month. Ardai will also contribute forewords to our next set of Parker reissues—Deadly Edge, Slayground, and Plunder Squad —due out this fall.

Fans of crime novels have a lot of reasons to be grateful to Charles Ardai: as a writer, he’s produced a couple of top-notch hardboiled novels, and as a cofounder of Hard Case Crime, he’s shepherded new voices into print and resurrected dozens of neglected or forgotten classics of the genre. But here at Chicago, we’re most grateful to him for introducing us to the work of Donald E. Westlake, and his alter ego Richard Stark: the Hard Case Crime edition of Lemons Never Lie , which stars Parker’s associate Alan Grofield, was my introduction to Stark—and it wasn’t long before I was dropping a beat-up old copy of The Hunter on the desk of our paperback editor and saying “We need to reprint this.”
This month sees the publication of the next three books in the Parker series from Chicago and it also sees Hard Case Crime’s publication of a never-before-seen Donald Westlake novel, Memory. Charles Ardai was kind enough to answer some questions about the new book, Parker, and what it was like to work with Westlake.
Levi Stahl When you and Max Philips were first envisioning Hard Case Crime back in 2004, I know you had a short list of writers you really wanted to publish. I assume Donald Westlake was on that list. How did you approach him? Was it daunting to try to pitch one of your writing heroes on what was at the time a fledgling, if not quixotic, venture?
Charles Ardai Westlake was definitely on our list. I’d been reading his books, and before that his short stories in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock, since the 1970s, when I was just a tyke. He was one of my favorites. The only snag was, I didn’t know him and I didn’t know how to reach him. The one person I did know who knew him was Lawrence Block—and after we’d worked with Larry on Grifter’s Game and demonstrated ourselves to be reputable and good to work with, I asked him if he might make an introduction to Don. He kindly agreed. More than that, he specifically recommended that we take a look at 361, the obscure early novel that wound up being our first Westlake title.
Was it daunting to approach someone I admired and whose work I enjoyed as much as Westlake? Yes, of course. But it was daunting to approach Ed McBain and Mickey Spillane, too—and on the art side, people like Robert McGinnis and Robert Maguire. These guys were legends to me, and the thought that I would get to work with them floored me. But it was also one of the reasons I launched Hard Case Crime in the first place. So I screwed my courage to the sticking place and made the phone calls. (Or, in Don’s case, sent the e-mail.)

LTS You got the opportunity to work with Westlake far longer and more closely than we did. What we he like to work with? I trust he was more avuncular than the Richard Stark persona might suggest?
Ardai Don was a joy. A real pleasure to work with, not only because he was kind and patient (no matter what kooky idea I came up with, he’d entertain it; he’d often say no, but always after entertaining it), but also because he was so very witty—any e-mail I got from him brought a smile to my face, even if the content amounted to no more than “Sure, go ahead.” He was incapable of writing an e-mail that wasn’t funny. He was also game about the spirit of our enterprise—when we set out to have a painter create the cover for 361 and realized there are no female characters in the book, we were briefly stymied because a pulp novel needs a gorgeous dame on the cover; Don promptly suggested several clever ways we could get one on there (my favorite being the idea of having the male lead walking down a street that happens to have a billboard on it advertising lingerie, or some such). He was also willing to make edits to his books, even ones that had been published many years earlier; when I pointed out that Somebody Owes Me Money ended without ever resolving the central plot thread of someone owing the narrator money, Don graciously penned a few new lines to tie off the loose end. And he was generous in other, entirely above-and-beyond-the-call ways. Once, on a trip in to the city, he picked up a copy of one of my books and read most of it on the way home; when he got home he sent me an e-mail to tell me how much he was enjoying the book—and then hazarded some guesses about how the plot was going to resolve itself. He was of course right on every point.
I don’t know that I’d use the word “avuncular” to describe him, exactly; our relationship was more like the old-thief/young-thief relationship from Max Allan Collins’s Nolan novels (which themselves were inspired by the Parker books). But I definitely felt that I’d been taken under the wing of one of the great pros of our business and will always be grateful for it.
LTS The new novel you’re publishing this month is actually one that Westlake wrote back in the 1960s, around the time he was really beginning to make a name for himself (or at least his alter ego) with the Parker novels. Why was it not published at the time?
Ardai For the answer to this question I have to rely on what Lawrence Block has told me, since he was around at the creation (and I, obviously, was not). As I understand it, Don showed the manuscript of Memory to Larry, who loved it, and to their mutual agent at the time, who either immediately said he wouldn’t be able to sell it or sent it to a few editors first and then told Don he couldn’t sell it. Why couldn’t he sell it? Lord knows it wasn’t because the book’s not good. But this particular agent specialized in selling genre fiction—crime fiction, in Don’s and Larry’s case—rather than serious, ambitious, philosophical literary fiction. Memory is a long book (twice the length of the crime novels Don was writing at the time), it’s a book that grapples with the themes of existentialism, and the only crime in the thing takes place on the first page. There’s a bit of sex in the book, but only a bit, and it’s all handled sensitively and painfully and realistically (which surely wasn’t what this agent was used to). It’s a heartbreaking, beautiful book—but it just wasn’t what this agent was equipped to market, or what the market wanted from Don at that point.
Years later, Larry says he urged Don to unearth the book and show it to publishers again, on the theory (surely correct) that Don’s stature as a writer had grown to the point that publishers would have been glad to see a serious mainstream novel from him. But Don declined, telling Larry he feared that the book had become too dated in the intervening years. That may or may not have been a reasonable criticism then, but it certainly isn’t one now. In the early 1970s, a book written and set in the 1960s might have seemed a bit stale, like it had been intended for earlier publication and just left on the shelf too long … but today, with almost fifty years having passed, what might once have felt dated is now a period novel, one that not only works at the level of character and plot but also as a time capsule of an era long gone. And that era just happens to be the period that Hard Case Crime exists to evoke. So the fit of book and publisher really couldn’t be better. Nobody who picks up a Hard Case Crime book ever says, “Hey, that’s dated!” if they see that the book is set in the ’40s or ’50s or ’60s. It’s what they’re looking for.
LTS Over the course of the many books Westlake published in his career, he ranged pretty widely in terms of style—but he always stayed within hailing distance of crime fiction. Do you think he saw this book as too far afield? Too different for what he perceived as his audience?
Ardai You know, Memory both is and isn’t a crime novel—as noted above, there’s only one crime in it and it takes place on page one. However, the rest of the book is a meticulous exploration of the consequences of that crime, and over the course of it the main character does come in for police scrutiny and face moments of potential or actual violence. More important, though, the book is noir through and through. Noir is the literature of defeat, the literature of men facing a universe that is either indifferent to their pain or actively malign, and of their desperate, quixotic, and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to escape being ground down. Memory is noir in spades. It’s also a mystery in the deepest sense—a missing persons case in which the missing person is the detective himself. And the plot, though not conventional crime fiction, does revolve in part around a nagging clue that Westlake sets up and then resolves just as if this were a conventional mystery novel, to devastating emotional effect. So while Memory is probably as far afield as Don ever got, it’s still very much within hailing distance of crime fiction. You never forget that you’re in the hands of a crime writer while you’re reading it.
LTS The response to Chicago’s reissues of the Parker novels has been impressive, both critically and commercially. Until our editions, the books had gone in and out of print over the years with a variety of different publishers—and, frankly, I’m astonished that no one ever beat us to the punch with a uniform edition. Do you have any theories as to why the Parker novels weren’t ever able to establish themselves as perennials in the way that, say, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels or John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels did?
Ardai I think the general public may have a harder time embracing a ruthless criminal protagonist as the lead in a series than a justice-seeking white knight type. But I also think there’s an element of chance. Travis McGee isn’t what he once was—people remember the character, but most of the books are out of print and fans of the genre often think less highly of the books upon rereading them. (I know I do.) Lew Archer is as good as you remember, and those books are still in print—but it’s because of the efforts of Vintage Books to bring them back, not because they were continuously in print for all these years. The Parker books are as important to the genre as the Archers, and more important (I think) than the McGees—but it took a publisher having the passion and commitment to bring them back before the public had the opportunity to take another look at them.

We’re now halfway through the series here at Chicago, and we’re getting ever closer to the most impressive—and, on the used-book market, most elusive—Parker novel, 1974’s Butcher’s Moon. As you note in the foreword you recently wrote for the three novels we’ll be publishing in the fall, there’s a sense in those books that lead up to Butcher’s Moon—Deadly Edge, Slayground, and Plunder Squad—of an artist working at the height of his powers, raising the bar a bit with each novel. From your conversations with Westlake over the years, do you know if he himself was thinking that way? Was he conscious as he sat at his typewriter every day that he was banging out his best work yet?
Ardai Don and I never spoke about Butcher’s Moon specifically, but my sense from the conversations we did have is that he considered himself a professional more than an “artist.” An artist might think in terms of striving to make a particular work the best he’d ever create; a professional just goes in and hammers out his six or eight or ten pages a day and makes them the best he can, but always with the knowledge that there’ll be another six or eight or ten the next day and the day after that. If you’re a baker, you want your cakes and rolls and such to taste good— but you don’t strive to make one particular batch the ne plus ultra that can never again be equaled. You just take pride in making great food every day and keeping your customers coming back for more.
That said, I do know that Don was particularly proud of some of his books. 361, for instance, is one in which he felt he’d accomplished something special; he wrote to me once, “I have a special fondness for 361, because it was the first time I’d tried to emulate three of my favorite writers, Hammett, Peter Rabe and Nabokov, in leaving all emotion completely unstated in a book that’s totally about emotion. Let physical description of the surface suggest the storms within. Keen.” But then, he had something he was proud of in almost all his books. When we corresponded about reprinting Lemons Never Lie, he wrote, “When I wrote it, I knew I was doing something you rarely do; inventing a story form. Instead of linear or arc, the story loops out and back, four times.” He made it all look so effortless and natural, but he was acutely aware of what he was doing. And given that, I’m sure he did realize just how well Butcher’s Moon turned out. I’ve always thought that was part of the reason he didn’t write another Parker novel afterwards for twenty-three years—how do you top Butcher’s Moon?

You’ve also published a handful of other Westlake novels: straight-up crime novels The Cutie and 361 and the crime comedy Somebody Owes Me Money. Aside from those, are there any other Westlake books you think Parker fans in particular should check out?
Ardai There are so many. Anyone who hasn’t read the Parker novels should dive in with #1 and work their way through to the end. You’re doing readers an enormous favor by bringing them all back into print. Anyone who hasn’t read Dortmunder [who first appeared in The Hot Rock] should read some of those, again starting with the very first. (If nothing else, Parker fans should at least read Jimmy the Kid, which is about how Dortmunder’s crew uses a Parker novel as the basis for a heist.) Anyone who hasn’t read Westlake’s brilliant, brilliant short stories should do so—go find yourself a collection and enjoy. And then there are his one-offs and oddballs. God Save the Mark, which won the Edgar. Kahawa. The Ax. Start anywhere. You really can’t go wrong.
LTS Ethan Iverson has read all 100+ of Westlake’s novels (and written this remarkable reader’s checklist for them as well!) How many have you read? (I’ll confess to having just put down my fortieth.)
Ardai I’ve lost track. Probably something like fifty or sixty, though it may be more without my even knowing it, since I’ve read a ton of the 1960s and ’70s softcore sex novels credited to house names like “Sheldon Lord” and “Alan Marshall,” some of which Westlake wrote.

As a crime writer yourself, are there any specific lessons you’ve drawn from Westlake’s books? Elmore Leonard has his famous ten rules for writing—is there a Westlake equivalent that you’ve been able to glean?

Keep it tight, keep it lean—if you’re writing a scene that goes on and on and you’re not interested in it, the reader won’t be interested either. Don’t be afraid to go for a laugh, even in a dark novel. No matter how clever and intricate your plot is, that’s not what people came for—they came for the characters. Language is not an end in and of itself—prose can be beautiful or memorable, but always in service of your story, not for its own sake. Keep things grounded and realistic—a handful of prosaic details that establish that your book takes place in the real world goes a long way toward investing the reader in your story. If you think of something that could happen in a book and then hesitate because it’s just too mean or too awful and you think you just can’t go that far—do it. And most of all: be brilliant. If you can master that one, all the rest falls into place.

And now for a variation on the question I try to sneak into every interview: Parker versus Predator?

Oh, I think Parker is much too smart to find himself caught in the woods with some seven-foot-tall alien hunter. That said, if he did ever find himself in that predicament, my money would be on Parker. The Predator kills for sport, and occasionally even demonstrates chivalrous, sporting behavior. Parker always winds up with the upper hand over people like that. As he says in Deadly Edge, “It isn’t how you play the game, it’s whether you win or lose.”