RARA-AVIS: Donald Westlake and the origin of Parker

From: Richard Moore (moorich@aol.com)
Date: 05 Jan 2009

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    Westlake has always been a favorite of mine and I've enjoyed his light-hearted novels almost as much as his grittier fare. As I've recounted here before in relation to other writers, Michele Slung hosted a series of talks with mystery writers at the Smithsonian Institute in 1981-82 and Westlake was one of those participating. This was before mystery writers, other than a rare few, enjoyed much public recognition and the prestige of the Smithsonian added to the honor.

    Unlike most of the other participants who spoke informally, Westlake composed a well-organized speech that declared the private eye novel was dead. While it had its funny moments, Westlake was not joking when he said the PI novel had been done to death and it was time to move on. He put the needle to many of the leading PI writers beginning with Ross Macdonald, the then leading practioner. He later converted the talk into an article for the much lamented publication The Armchair Detective and it caused a good bit of controversy at the time.

    Naturally, I can't find the issue when I looked for it tonight. But I did find an excellent Westlake interview conducted by the late William DeAndrea (with help from Richard Myers in the Fall 1988 issue of The Armchair Detective. In it he gives the origins of Parker, which owes its life as a series to the poor choice by an editor at Gold Medal and an inspired editor at Pocket Books who loved Chester Himes' Harlem series.

    Westlake: Of course, the first book wasn't going to be part of a series. Nothing happened the way I anticipated it was going to happen with that book. I was doing one a year in hardcover from Random House, and I thought, okay, time to have another name, and I'd been reading all these Gold Medal books--which is where Peter Rabe came from--so I wrote this book to be a Gold medal paperback original novel. Certainly not a series. In fact, Parker got caught at the end. The editor at Gold Medal turned it down, and I was confused. Then it was sent to Pocket Books. There was an editor at Pocket Books named Bucklyn Moon. Buck Moon.

    Meyers: Great name.

    Westlake: Yeah. He was a very interesting guy. He was a white guy whose three great interests were mystery--private eye--crime novels, poetry, and black writing. He edited anthologies of black poets, for instance; he was the American champion of Chester Himes--Gravedigger Jones, Coffin Ed Johnson. These things all came together in him. At that time, I was represented by Scott Meredith, God help me. Buck called Scott, and then he called me, and said, "Is there any way for you to let Parker get away at the end of the book, and give me three a year?" I said, "I think so."

    Skipping forward in the interview, Westlake continued.

    Westlake: But , at the time, a $3000 advance was very good. So in
    '61, being told that for my second name I would do three books a year, which would be no problem, that would be $9,000 already. On the first of January, I know I'm going to make at least $9,000 this year--that's terrific. And I'd really had to distort the book to have the guy caught in the end, anyway, so I just had him deal with those cops, you know? Parker unchained.

    DeAndrea: You once said to me, "You don't know what it's like to have a pen name who's doing better than you are" Is that really true?

    Westlake: Stark did better than Westlake for his last few years. The last Stark was published in '73, and maybe even a little farther, Stark did better than Westlake in terms of sales, income, and movie sales, and certain in terms of fan letters. This is knowledge that I resist but its true...

    So tonight I raise my glass in salute to both Donald Westlake and an editor named Bucklyn Moon.

    Richard Moore

    --- In rara-avis-l@yahoogroups.com, sonny <sforstater@...> wrote:
    > as you know, the hunter (aka point blank and payback) was the first
    parker book written/published.

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