Breaking Bad ended a week ago as I write this. Why did I love it? Because of its character study of a good man gone bad? Or its portrait of an America that something something something? No, no, no. I loved it because its writers labored over answering the question, How’s he going to pull this off?
Crime novelist Donald E. Westlake, writing under the name Richard Stark, labored similarly on his series of crime novels about the professional thief known only as Parker, introduced as cheap paperback originals in 1962, now reissued as much classier paperbacks (I don’t mean that as a slam; the design is appealingly spare) by the University of Chicago.
If Raymond Chandler is jazz, Richard Stark is punk. Here’s the semi-legendary opening line from the first novel in the series The Hunter: “When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.” Before 1962, there weren’t many novels with a cold-hearted bastard as protagonist. That’s probably why novels this good were first published as paperback originals, like Iceberg Slim’s books about pimps and con artists were.
Hard, lean page-turners about well-plotted heists that you get to watch unfold, then something generally goes wrong, thanks to bastards even more cold-hearted than Parker, and you get to watch Parker figure out how to set things “right.” How’s he going to pull this off? Dig in. –Jim Woster (The University of Chicago Press, 1427 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL60637, press.uchicago.edu)