“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 Jobs, Where Moth and Rust Corrupt, as well as Selena and three other follow-ups Diesel Therapy, Suicide Lounge, and Road Carnage. He lives and writes in Bowling Green, Kentucky.