Richard Stark’s Parker novels constitute one of the best hardboiled series I’ve ever read. The University of Chicago has been bringing the early books back into print in lovely new editions, and so I’ve used that as a good excuse to re-read the series.
Parker stands as one of the greatest antiheroes in all of crime fiction. He is ruthless, utterly focused on the job at hand, and largely lacking in any of the softer virtues. Either you’re part of the job, and so he works with you; uninvolved, so he ignores you; or a problem, in which case he eliminates you. Stark said that he wanted the Parker novels to be about a workman at work, and it’s riveting to watch Parker and his accomplices do exactly that. These men are professionals, and they do their jobs with cold, solid precision and a minimum of BS.
While The Hunter is a little unpolished compared to the later books, it’s an excellent novel in most respects. The basics of the setup are familiar to anyone who has seen either Point Blank or Payback: Parker arrives, penniless, in New York City, looking to get even with his wife, Lynne, and a mobbed-up scumbag named Mal. The three of them were part of a group of criminals who were trying to steal money from an in-progress arms deal, and, while the heist went off perfectly, Lynne and Mal killed the rest of the team and left them for dead. Unfortunately for them they didn’t finish the job with Parker, who wants both revenge and the money he’s owed from the theft.
The book follows Parker as he both drags himself up from the gutter and plays detective, tracking first his wife and then Mal through New York’s underworld. As I said above, the Hunter is a little unpolished – Parker is a little too abrasive, a little too robotic to be an entirely attractive antihero. Part of this is because Stark never intended for Parker to survive the first book; he was originally going to get revenge, get his money and then die in the final pages.
In spite of the not-quite-perfect portrayal of Parker, The Hunter is an excellent piece of crime fiction, and a great introduction to one of the best series in the genre.