Thursday, May 23, 2024

Richard Stark's The Man with the Getaway Face

Donald E. Westlake wrote 24 novels, under the pseudonym Richard Stark, featuring his anti-hero Parker. The Man with the Getaway Face was the second in the series, appearing in 1963.

These are definitely hardboiled crime novels (very hardboiled) but they don’t qualify as noir fiction.

Parker is one of the great anti-heroes in fiction. He’s a career criminal specialising in large-scale robberies and he’s unstoppable because he simply doesn’t consider the possibility of losing. If a job does go sour Parker just moves on.

This novel opens with Parker getting a new face, a necessity after the events of the first Parker novel (and I'm not going to reveal even a hint of a spoiler for that one). The plastic surgery has depleted Parker’s funds somewhat so he agrees to do an armoured car job with Skimm. Skimm’s girlfriend Alma came up with the plan.

Parker doesn’t trust Alma and he doesn’t like her plan. Right from the start he has no doubt that Alma is planning a double cross. But Parker really does need money urgently so he’s prepared to do the job. He’s sure he knows exactly how Alma intends to execute her double cross and he’s confident he can take appropriate steps. He’s also confident that he can make sufficient changes to her plan to make the job viable.

Interestingly the heist is not the real focus of the novel. The real focus is entirely unconnected with the heist. It concerns that plastic surgery job.

The heist itself provides some excitement and suspense but the real suspense kicks in afterwards. In a lot of crime stories it’s the betrayals that come after the crime that are the meat of the story but that’s not the case here. There really are two entirely separate plots running in parallel.

Anti-heroes don’t come much more ruthless and coldblooded than Parker. He is incapable of feeling remorse or regret. He cares about other people only insofar as they are useful to him. He will kill without hesitation. He will use whatever level of violence he considers necessary.

Parker’s mind is icily logical. Emotion is never allowed to interfere with his plans.

He should be a monster, and human monsters are rarely interesting. Parker does however have a couple of redeeming qualities. He kills only when he feels it is necessary. He uses violence only when he feels it is necessary. He gets no pleasure from violence. It’s not that he has a conscience. He simply sees unnecessary violence as inefficient, wasteful and risky. He might be incapable of feeling genuine human affection but he is also incapable of actual cruelty.

He is also, in his own way, an honest crook. If you’re involved in a job with Parker and you play things straight with him he’ll play things straight with you. He won’t consider double crossing someone unless he knows for sure that that person has double crossed him.

Parker has no illusions about women and has no intention of ever getting emotionally involved but he has no actual dislike of women. In fact he has no actual personal dislike of anybody. That would be a distraction and it would be inefficient.

And there was a woman once, and he still thinks about her. Once, just once, he experienced something resembling a normal human emotion.

All of this means that despite his extreme anti-hero status the reader finds it impossible to hate Parker. We feel a certain grudging admiration. He’s an unapologetic ruthless criminal but we can’t help hoping he gets away with his crimes.

There are indications in this book that by this time Westlake knew he had found a winning formula and that there were going to be more Parker novels to come.

The Man with the Getaway Face is great hardboiled crime. Highly recommended.

I've also reviewed the first Parker novel The Hunter (AKA Point Blank).


  1. Love the old Stark paperbacks! The term "noir" gets tossed around a little too lightly and widely; you're right, Stark novels are hardboiled crime thrillers, not noir fiction.

  2. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with hardboiled crime thrillers.