Wanted Dead or Alive

The past month been an interesting one, so much so that I’ve not really been able to get a whole lot of anything writing related finished. This is partly my own fault, of course; I should have repeatedly resisted the urge to continue to read and refresh pages and follow links and so forth; but like a train wreck, I wasn’t able to ever tear my eyes away from the carnage.

As I said to a friend at the height of the drama, “Every time I think the last car of the train has come off the rails and the wreck is finished, here comes another train on the same tracks and I am mesmerized all over again.” I’ve read blog posts and Facebook posts and Twitter threads, over and over again, my mouth wide open and there being literally no way to keep my jaw from its permanently dropped position other than using both hands to push it up and then hold it in place.

I mean, wow. What a month it has been for both the crime and horror fiction communities.

This is a roundabout way of getting to a question that has come up a lot in the last decade or so, and one I’ve thought about a lot, but have never really addressed very much…but with all these shenanigans going on recently, I started thinking about this again, and it also played into my thoughts about reading The Hunter by Richard Stark, and my recent read of I the Jury by Mickey Spillane; two enormously popular novels by well-regarded crime writers that might not hold up as well through the modern day lens as they perhaps did when they were originally released.

And that ever-present question of the artist versus the art.

Probably the first time I’ve ever thought about whether it’s possible to continue to enjoy art despite the artist was, of course, the film Chinatown. I never saw it in the theatrical release, but it’s widely regarded as one of the best crime films ever made; I remember it was nominated for like ten or eleven Oscars in the year it was released (which, if memory serves, was the same year as The Godfather Part II, which pretty much won everything imaginable), and the debate about the movie has raged ever since Polanski fled the country to avoid statutory rape consequences. I find that abhorrent; and any defense of Polanski’s indefensible behavior irrelevant to me. But I wanted to watch Chinatown, and Rosemary’s Baby is one of my favorite horror movies of all time; I revisit it every now and then. So, how can I justify watching and enjoying these two films directed by someone who did something heinous? When I was finally able to stream Chinatown a few years back, I justified it to myself by saying it was 1. before the statutory rape and 2. if I didn’t review or talk about or promote the film on social media or on my blog, streaming it through a service I already pay for isn’t contributing much, if any, money to Polanski’s bank account.

And yes, I am very well aware of how ludicrous and torturous those mental hoops I jumped through actually are.

There was also the Orson Scott Card debacle a few years back, and I didn’t jump through hoops on that one. I had read and enjoyed Ender’s Game, and had thought about reading more of Card’s work…until I discovered he was a horrific homophobe who actually worked, donated money to, and actively sought to block gay equality in the United States. 

Nope, sorry, done.

It’s one thing to have abhorrent opinions about a minority; it’s another to actively work–and use the money you’ve earned through your art–against the rights of that minority. Fuck all the way off, Mr. Card, and never come back.

Which brings me to The Hunter.

the hunter

When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to  hell. The guy said, “Screw you, buddy,” yanked his Chevy back into the stream of traffic, and roared on down to the tollbooths. Parker spat in the right-hand lane, lit his last cigarette, and walked across the George Washington Bridge.

The 8 a.m. traffic went mmmmmm, mmmmmm, all on this side, headed for the city. Over there, lanes and lanes of nobody going to Jersey. Underneath, the same thing.

Out in the middle, the bridge trembled and swayed in the wind. It does it all the time, but he’d never noticed it. He’d never walked it before. He felt it shivering under his feet, and he got mad. He threw the used-up butt at the river, spat on a passing hubcab, and strode on.

Richard Stark is one of the pseudonyms of crime writer extraordinaire Donald Westlake. I will be the first to admit, repeatedly, that my education in not only literature but crime fiction is sorely lacking; there are many authors whose works I should have read and haven’t; Westlake is one. I read my first Westlake a few years ago, a Hard Case Crime edition of The Comedy is Finished and it was amazingly good. I ordered a copy of The Hot Rock shortly thereafter; alas, it is still in the TBR pile., and I do intend to get to it at some point.

Westlake also happens to be an inspiration to one of my favorite queer writers, Rob Byrnes, who writes witty, Westlake-like queer caper novels (if you’ve not already read him, you must do so immediately).

I first discovered that Westlake was also Richard Stark when these Parker novels he wrote under that name were brought back into print recently by the University of Chicago Press, and a crime writer I admire deeply, Chris Holm, announced he’d written an introduction for one of the books. Chris has never steered me wrong in his recommendations (for that matter, neither has his amazing wife, Katrina Niidas Holm, who was the one who steered me to Michael McDowell’s The Elementals, for which I will always be grateful), and so I thought, as is my wont, to start with the first book in the series, The Hunter.

And once I started reading it, as you can see by the opening above, I was caught up in the story and the voice.

But, as I said earlier, The Hunter was very much a novel of its time: 1960.

Parker was considered an anti-hero when the books first started coming into print–although today I suppose he would be considered a sociopath. He does live by a code, even if he is a sociopathic criminal; and one has to admire the dedication to that code, and how he never deviates from it. He doesn’t have an issue with breaking the law–in fact, he makes his living breaking the law–nor does he have a problem with meting out vengeance on those who do him wrong. In The Hunter, he is betrayed–and almost killed–by his partners in a high-stakes robbery; amongst those who wronged and cheated him are his wife–and he kills her without a second thought, and then goes after the rest of those involved in the scam, even though some of them are very well connected with the New York mob. (The mob is referred to as a ‘syndicate’ in the book; an old term I haven’t heard in a very long time, and it was a lovely piece of nostalgia. Organized crime was often referred to as a ‘syndicate’ back in the day.)

It’s tautly written, suspenseful (will Parker get his revenge, or will he be betrayed yet again?) and I kept turning the pages. I really enjoyed the book tremendously, and will go back and continue to read the Parker novels–I am curious to see how Stark developed the character and the continuing story of his life and career in crime, as well as to see how Westlake continued to develop as a writer under the name Richard Stark.

However–the casual homophobia of the time slapped me in the face a couple of times while I was reading the book:

Page Three: On the way, he panhandled a dime from a latent fag with big hips and stopped in a grimy diner for coffee.

p. 38: “She’s dead. So is your fat pansy. You can be dead, too, if you want.”

Yeah, I did kind of recoil, and in both instances I debated finishing the book. But…it was written in 1960, and the attitude towards homosexuality exhibited in those lines (including the slur pansy, which I haven’t heard in a while) was common. We can’t deny that it existed–we cannot deny homophobia exists today any more than we can that it did in 1960–and it was a sign of the times. Does that mean the book shouldn’t be read? Should it come with a trigger warning? A deep-seated contempt for homosexuality was part and parcel of the alpha male/tough guy persona of the times, and including that language in the book was an easy way to convey the no-nonsense masculinity of the character (it was also there in I the Jury–much more so in the Spillane than the Stark).

The attitudes towards women isn’t much better; but again, a sign of the times:

p. 135 He used one cord to tie her hands behind her, the other to tie her ankles. He found scissors in a desk drawer next to an inhaler, snipped off part of her slip and used it for a gag. She had good legs–But not now. After it was over, after Mal was dead, he’d want somebody then.

Ew, because killing someone is a turn-on? Although it fits with the character Stark has created; this is a man who killed his wife without a second thought.

But…I enjoyed reading the book. I suspect my enjoyment would have been greater in the past–I probably would have loved this series had I discovered it in my late teens and early twenties, but the world was a different place then, too. I am definitely going to continue reading the series; as I said earlier, I am curious to see how the character develops and changes and grows–or if he doesn’t, how bad he becomes. I am intrigued by the character, and of course, the writing is absolutely stellar.

I don’t think, for the record, books from earlier times should be held to the same standards as we would hold something newly published; times and attitudes vary and change over time. It’s hard to read an older book without the modern lenses, however; probably as little as ten years ago I would have dismissed the “pansy” remarks or the misogyny apparent in the character without feeling the need to point it out. I don’t think these books should be cancelled or not read; primarily because it’s incredibly important to have these conversations–as well as these works serve as a time capsule, a window into another time where things hadn’t yet changed but needed to, certainly.

I do recommend it; as I said, I will continue reading the Parker series and I am looking forward to reading more of the Westlake novels as well.

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