[The below first appears as an introduction to Butcher’s Moon, republished in April 2011 by the University of Chicago Press, and is reprinted with the gracious permission of Lawrence Block. You can read his other intros for Backflash and Comeback here and here.]
One night around the end of 1960 or the beginning of 1961, I was in a second-floor flat in Canarsie, an unglamorous part of Brooklyn, located at the very end of the Canarsie Line, a part of the subway system which ran east across Fourteenth Street from Eighth Avenue, then crossed the river, and wound up running on elevated tracks all the way to Rockaway Parkway. (The train was subsequently designated the LL, until years later they took one of its letters away and it became the L. No one knows why, but I’ve always figured it was a cost-cutting move. Of such small economies are great savings made.)
I lived in Manhattan at the time, on Central Park West at 104th Street, so I had to take two subway trains and walk several blocks to get to that flat, but I did it often and without complaint because that’s where Don Westlake lived. We’d been best friends since we met in our mutual agent’s office in July of 1959, where we introduced ourselves before walking a few blocks to his flat in Hell’s Kitchen. We sat around there and had a few beers and talked and talked and talked, and that was the pattern that prevailed over the months. I moved home to Buffalo, met somebody, got married. Don and his then-wife moved from an unsafe neighborhood to an inaccessible one. My then-wife and I set up housekeeping in New York, first on West 69th Street, then on Central Park West. And Don and I got together often, and had a few beers, and talked and talked and talked.
And that’s what we were doing that night I was telling you about, out in Canarsie. We were young writers together—he was five years my senior, but had spent time in the Air Force—and we talked a lot about what we were doing, and sometimes showed our work to each other. “I started something new,” Don said, and handed me ten or fifteen pages of typescript, featuring a fellow named Parker who’s walking across the George Washington Bridge, into Manhattan. In the first sentence, a passing motorist offers Parker a lift, and Parker tells him to go to hell.
I thought the chapter was good, and said so, and asked its author if he knew where it was going.
“Sort of,” he said. “I’ll just keep writing and see where it goes.”
Which is how we both worked, more often than not. Don called it the Narrative Push method, and it has a couple of virtues. For one, you can just sit down and start writing, as there’s no need to work everything out in your mind ahead of time. And, as Theodore Sturgeon famously observed, if the writer doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, he needn’t worry that the reader will know what’s going to happen next.
“I like the character,” Don said. “I don’t think I’ll have trouble finding things for him to do.”
One thing Don found for Parker to do, at the book’s end, was die.
And that would have made this the shortest series in the annals of crime fiction, but for an editor at Pocket Books with the splendid name of Bucklin Moon. Moon may or may not have been the first editor to read The Hunter, but he was certainly the first who wanted to buy it. But he had a request. Did Parker have to die? Could he get away at the end, and go on to star in a whole series of books? Two more at a minimum, say, because Moon was prepared to offer a three-book contract.
Don had already established that he liked Parker, and that he could find plenty of things for him to do. And he confided that he’d only killed Parker off at the book’s end because he thought that’s what you were supposed to do with that sort of antihero. So he agreed, and revised the ending, and wrote The Man With the Getaway Face and The Outfit, and Moon sat down and drew up another three-book contract. Parker, and Richard Stark, were off and running.
The conventional wisdom these days is that Don created the Richard Stark pen name to distinguish the uncompromisingly hardboiled Parker novels from the bubbly frothy Westlakean comic mysteries.
Not exactly. The Parker series had six titles in print at Pocket Books by the time Random House published The Fugitive Pigeon, Don’s first comedic effort. (Don’s earlier Random House novels, starting with The Mercenaries, owe more to Hammett than to Wodehouse; they’re about as light and bubbly as bathtub gin.)
And Richard Stark first saw print two or three years before The Hunter. His was no separate persona, no marketing ploy; on several occasions Don had more than one story slotted in a single issue of a magazine, and was asked to use a pen name on one of them. Thus Richard Stark.
I don’t know if he originally intended to hang Richard Stark on The Hunter. He might have, simply because it was to be a paperback original and he’d been busy establishing his own name at Random House. But if Parker was to start in a multi-volume series, then of course he’d need a pen name.
As noted, off and running.
Let’s flash forward a few years, shall we? To 1974, and Butcher’s Moon, the book to which I am privileged to be writing an introduction, and of which you, Dear Reader, are fortunate to have a copy.
Fortunate, I should say, for a couple of reasons. For one, copies rank somewhere between hen’s teeth and the Holy Grail in elusiveness. The book, published in hardcover by Random House, does not seem ever to have been reprinted. When copies come up for sale, the price is high.
More to the point, Butcher’s Moon would be special even if it were not hard to come by. For over twenty years it looked to be the last book in the series, and while that would have been regrettable, at least Parker’s saga would have ended on a high note. Because in addition to being, to my mind, the strongest book in a strong series, Butcher’s Moon brings Parker’s story to completion if not to an end. In its pages, the author manages to tell a gripping and satisfying story while at the same time summing up and resolving the fifteen Parker books that preceded it.
He does so by having Parker confront the book’s central problem by bringing in characters from other books, subordinate criminals who’ve been his partners in other heists dating back to the early days of the series. (I read this book first as an Advance Reading Copy, and as I recall it was annotated; every time there was a reference to an earlier caper, a footnote referred the reader to the book in which the incident was described. I remember thinking that was a nice touch, but evidently someone somewhere along the line thought it was intrusive, and perhaps it was. In any event, the copy I own now is a first edition, and there aren’t any footnotes.)
It is strong testimony to the quality of the Parker books that, even decades after encountering them, the supporting cast members remain so sharply etched in memory that one recalls them at once. It is often said in the theater that there are no small parts, only small actors, and one could easily adapt the remark to the field of prose fiction. There are no minor characters, only minor writers, and the extent to which Parker’s cast members are always memorable and always wholly human demonstrates that there is nothing minor about them or their creator.
And that, if it’s all the same to you, is all I’m going to say about Butcher’s Moon. You’ve got the book in your hands, and I can’t see why you’d want me to explain it to you. Westlake, in any of his work and under any of his names, is very nearly as accessible as Dr. Seuss. You don’t need a study guide, or someone like me to point things out to you.
The one thing I can suggest to improve your experience of reading Butcher’s Moon is that you set it aside and read the foregoing fifteen books first, in the order they were written. If you’ve never read them before, or if you missed a few titles along the way, you’ve got a treat in store for you; if you read them years ago and your memory’s a bit tentative, you’ll find them a treat a second time around. And it’s easy to do this, as all of the earlier titles are back in print in handsome new trade paperback editions uniform with this one.
If you can’t wait, well, go ahead and read Butcher’s Moon. Why not? What the hell, you can always read it again.
LAWRENCE BLOCK has written series fiction about Matthew Scudder, Bernie Rhodenbarr, Evan Tanner, Chip Harrison, and a killer named Keller. You can email him at lawbloc @ aol.com, check him out at lawrenceblock.com, or look for him on Facebook.