Under The Influence – Richard Stark – by Greg Barth

“When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”

That first line from Firebreak was my introduction to Richard Stark. And wow, what an introduction!

I’d heard of Richard Stark, knew that Stark was a pen-name used by the bestselling author Donald E. Westlake, and I’d seen the movie Payback starring Mel Gibson that was based on Stark’s novel, The Hunter. I think I first became aware of Richard Stark through Stephen King mentioning that his novel, The Dark Half, was inspired by Stark and Westlake. One of the characters in The Dark Half was even named George Stark. But I’d never read anything by Stark. Much of his work was long out of print and mostly owned by collectors.

Westlake stopped publishing as Stark in 1974. For twenty-three years Richard Stark was inactive. But, in 1997, something wonderful occurred. After two decades of silence, Comeback by Richard Stark was published. There was no explanation for the hiatus. Stark was back, and his character, Parker, was once again found in the middle of a heist going wrong.

When I picked up Firebreak at the local library in Asheville, North Carolina and read that opening line, I was immediately hooked. It was the literary equivalent of crack cocaine. Talk about being under the influence. I read everything by Stark I could get my hands on.

Stark’s character, Parker, was my first introduction to a fictional character who was truly amoral. I was reading about the bad guy here, and I don’t mean a misunderstood anti-hero or a Robin Hood rob-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor bad guy. No. Parker was just bad. He robbed from the rich to fund his own life of lavish leisure. He was tough. He could hurt people. Kill people. He was like a shark in the pool amongst civilized people, taking a bite where he could find it. His moral compass didn’t point in the same direction that yours and mine might.

The impact of Parker on my fiction writing is immeasurable. Parker coupled with Tony Soprano or Walter White led me to write the kind of fiction I do today. I write about the bad guys.

Unlike Westlake, Stark wrote with a lean (and yes, stark) style. He kept descriptions simple. You don’t get deep POV from Parker. He doesn’t say much. There’s no interior monologue. You don’t know what the guy is thinking. You have to watch what he does. The books all get to the point immediately. I liken them to the James Bond movies. Those movies always started out with Bond in the middle of doing something interesting. The Parker stories begin the same way. Parker is always in action with the first line of the book. And, as a reader, you are always hooked by that first line. That moment, standing in the library, when I read, “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man,” you better believe I read the second line. And The third, and so on. Stopping was out of the question.

When I sat down to write the novel Selena, I deliberately tried to draw upon everything I’d learned from reading Stark while also doing my own thing. And what a blast it was to write that first novel about her. The rest were just as much fun. And now, on July 1st, All Due Respect books will be releasing the fifth and final volume in the Selena series, titled Everglade. It’s been a fun, violent romp that I’ve had with Selena over the last couple of years, and I very much look forward to the final volume seeing the light of day soon. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them. Personally, I will miss Selena. As a fictional character, I heard her voice loud and clear in my head, which made writing about her an easy task. I always knew exactly what she was going to do, which – more often than not – was the wrong thing.

Everything by Richard Stark is now back in print. Thanks to the University of Chicago Press, you don’t have to be a collector of rare books to enjoy them. So, if you’ve never read anything by Stark, you should go to it immediately. Enjoy. And, while you’re at it, you might also check out that Greg Barth guy. I hear his stuff is okay too.

Bio: Greg Barth is the author of Bona Fide JobsWhere Moth and Rust Corrupt, as well as Selena and three other follow-ups Diesel TherapySuicide Lounge, and Road Carnage. He lives and writes in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Are you a crime writer? Would you like to write a short piece about one of your formative influences? If so, drop me a line via the contact form on the About page!

Book Review: Everglade by Greg Barth


Author: Greg Barth

Publisher: All Due Respect

Release Date: July 2017

After 18 months lying low – albeit under the thumb of a local drug cartel – wanted felon Selena is ready for a change. Her self-destructive lifestyle has put an enormous strain on both her personal relationships and her increasingly fragile health. But getting out is easier said than done. Selena’s operation is too lucrative to let go, and this is a business environment where retirement is inflicted on you with a bullet or a blade. When Selena’s posturing turns into a pissing contest (yeah, quite literally!), she is forced to escalate the situation at hand into an all-out-war.

If crime fiction has taught us anything, it is that no one ever gets away clean. Can Selena – always at her most dangerous when she is cornered – wriggle out of another horrendous predicament, or has her luck finally run out? At the outset of the original Selena book, few readers would have guessed that the eponymous heroine would still be on the warpath five books in. Selena is a live-fast, die-young character who has managed to stay alive despite going toe-to-toe with some of the most dangerous fictional characters in recent memory.

Interestingly, compared to the previous books in the series, Everglade has a surprising, elegiac quality, as Selena contemplates her own toxic legacy and her grim drug-addled future. Not that the downbeat mood impacts on the action – there will be blood! When the penny drops regarding the significance of the title mid-way through the book, it is a vicious kidney-punch of a move, and unsettles you because you wonder exactly how low Greg Barth is willing to let Selena’s enemies go…

While Everglade seems like a logical end-point for the series, I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I would pay good money to read a new Selena book every year for the foreseeable future. I hope Barth’s signature character re-emerges further down the line, as this series has been pure pulp dynamite, and offers an abrasive, come-stained, coke-snorting, booze-sloshing, bullet-strewn alternative to the mainstream. Great book – great series.

Review by Tom Leins