Friday, September 22, 2023

Richard Stark's Point Blank (AKA The Hunter)

The Hunter, published in 1962, was the first of the twenty-four noir novels featuring his anti-hero Parker written by Donald E. Westlake under the name Richard Stark. It was filmed in 1967 as Point Blank and subsequent printings of the novel carried the title Point Blank. I believe it has also appeared under the title Payback. For convenience I’ll refer to the novel as Point Blank.

The Richard Stark books are harder-edged than the books he published under his own name. Point Blank is very hard-edged indeed.

Parker is a career criminal. About once a year he pulls a job, usually a payroll or something like that. After a year or so, when the money starts to run out, he pulls another job. He is very careful and he’s never been caught. Between jobs he lives in resort hotels. He has a pretty wife named Lynn and although Parker isn’t the falling in love type he’s as close to loving Lynn as he’s ever been to loving any woman. It’s a nice life. It suits Parker.

Then came a job that didn’t go smoothly. Parker was killed, or at least that’s what everyone thought. He wasn’t killed and now he’s back and he has some scores to settle. He was double-crossed and that’s not the sort of thing he’s prepared to forget.

He intends to find Mal Resnick. He believes Mal was the one who double-crossed him. Mal isn’t easy to find but Parker has plenty of time and he’s patient.

At first Parker just wants revenge, but later he decides he wants something more. Going after that something more would be crazy but Parker is running on momentum and he’s determined to see it through to the end.

While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the plot the most impressive thing about this novel is Parker. He’s an anti-hero on steroids. He doesn’t get any particular pleasure out of killing but it doesn’t bother him either. He is obsessed and relentless. He’s not so much brave as simply indifferent to risks. And he is a very hard man. In this story he runs into a lot of men who think of themselves as tough guys or hardened professional killers but they’ve never come up against anyone quite like Parker. Parker tends to wrong-foot them because he takes risks that they never expected any sane man to take.

There’s not much positive one can say about Parker. He doesn’t have a good side and he doesn’t have a lighter side. But he is fascinating.

We learn a little about the motivations of the other characters, especially Mal Resnick, but the focus is overwhelmingly on Parker. Westlake uses third-person narration but we see events entirely from Parker’s point of view. What we learn about Parker’s motivations is that he hardly understands them himself. He isn’t operating according to a coherent plan. He’s like an out-of-control locomotive. Once it’s started it could end up anywhere.

There are no agonising internal conflicts. Parker is aware that he has made some mistakes. The heist that went wrong and that caused all the problems is one he should have stayed well clear of. But he doesn’t spend time on regrets or remorse or self-reflection.

Westlake’s prose is as tough and relentless as Parker. This was not Westlake’s usual style. He used the Richard Stark books to experiment with a very different ultra-hardboiled style.

The book is not short on violence. It’s not described in particularly graphic detail. Its impact of the violence depends more on its sheer cold-bloodedness and casualness than on anything else.

There’s some sex but not much and it’s not even moderately graphic.

It’s certainly a dark story. Is it noir fiction? The answer is yes, to a certain extent. It sure is hardboiled.

Point Blank is a roller-coaster ride and a very entertaining one. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed a slightly earlier Westlake crime novel, The Cutie. It was his first crime novel and has appeared under several alternative titles. It’s worth checking out.

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