Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Hunter by Richard Stark review

The first review I ever posted on the blog was of the comic adaptation of The Hunter. The Hunter is written by Richard Stark and the comic adaptation was written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke. Since my first exposure to the Parker novels was through Cooke’s adaptations, my review of the novel will also be somewhat of a comparison between the two.

One of the first differences is quite obvious; the novel gives us more insight into the mind of the characters, particularly Mal Resnick. The novel more than the comic, really gets across how much of a slime ball he really is. This helps the reader understand Parker’s motivations which is very important. Unlike a lot of noir or crime fiction, Parker isn’t a private detective or a retired cop or a tough journalist or anything like that. He’s a crook, plain and simple. We discover in later that he does have a code of honour, but that’s not really important in The Hunter. He was double crossed and left for dead. He’s out for revenge, plain and simple.

Stark does a good job demonstrating that tracking down a man in a criminal organization when having next to no leads is a time consuming process. Much like the Outfit, Parker has his own connections and he uses then up one at a time until one of his past acquaintances led him straight to Mal Resnick. I'm not spoiling anything by writing about Parker finding Mal. Where else was the book going to go? Parker is too good at what he does not to find the man he's looking for. Stark exudes that confidence in the way he writes Parker, and he writes him just like Parker does what he does. The prose in The Hunter is direct, calculating and doesn't give a damn about how you feel. It has a job to do and its does it. When Stark describes a room it's because Parker is studying the room, he's calculating like that. When Stark writes about the possible actions Parker can take in order to get out of a situation it's because Parker has thought those things as well. The only time the Stark's writing seems to take its time and meander a little is when he's describing the prettiest woman in the room. But even then, Parker's giving her the once over as well. The writing is direct and strong, like shot of hard liquor, and I love it all the more for it.

As I mentioned briefly, the main difference between the novel and the comic of this first Parker story is in the number of steps it took for Parker to get to Mal and the number of steps Mal took in order to avoid his inevitable fate. Some of the scenes in the novel are exactly how I remembered them in Darwyn Cooke's comic adaptation. For his first adaptation of a Parker novel, Cooke played it safe and barely deviated from the novel. Now I see that that is one of the things that contributes to the quality of the comic. The novel’s ending is different that the one Cooke wrote in the adaptation. It's not a huge change. The way Cooke wrote it allowed him to adapt the third book, The Outfit, immediately after Parker: The Hunter. The ending, a pretty great one, is not lost however. Cooke uses it in Parker: The Outfit, it's one of the heist in the middle if the comic, albeit in a slightly modified form.

The Hunter is a violent book. Much more violent than any other Parker book I've read yet, more so even than Slayground. It's the most violent Parker book not because of the quantity of violence to be found in these 200 pages, but the context in which Parker is violent. One particularly poignant scene, Parker breaks into a second story beauty parlour to stake out a hotel across the street. Parker knocks out the owner while she's counting the days till after closing hours. Parker’s use of unnecessary strength in knocking her out, compounded with the woman's respiratory problem, results in her death. Parker is so wound up in getting his man and his money that his actions begin to affect the lives of otherwise innocent people that had the misfortune of being in his path. Stark gives us a few other examples of this throughout the book but it's never the focus of the story. This book is about Parker and never mind the collateral. The violence stands out, but not because here is a lot, but because it’s calculating and almost nonchalant in its execution.

The most surprising thing about The Hunter is that Stark set up the formula for a Parker novel without us really being able to realize it until later books. He accomplished this tour de force by executing the formula out of order and shifting our attention on the end game. The formula is as follows:  

1) Parker alone or with a crew prepares to pull a heist, 
2) They do the job, 
3) There is a double cross or a serious complication,  
4) Parker fixes the problem (for himself at least), and
5) Parker does everything he can to get his portion of the take.

That's ones of the things that make The Hunter so good. There is very little set up. This novel is 200 pages of Parker fixing what went wrong with the job and getting his money. That's only the second half of the Parker formula and that's why we don't fully understand it yet. The entire formula is there though. We get the setup, the job and the betrayal but it’s given to us in a way that is different from the other Parker books that followed (primarily in extended flashbacks).

Stark is a master of crime fiction. I was immersed in The Hunter despite having previously read Cooke's comic adaptation three times. It's a credit to Stark prose that I was so interested and engaged in reading a story I knew almost as well backwards as I do forward. If anything else, reading The Hunter is an encouragement to read other Parker novels by Stark. I really look forward to them.

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