There is a very fine line between being influenced by your favourite crime writers and falling into a straight out pastiche or imitation. Doing the former without plunging into latter is something I was very conscious of, as I was writing my novel Gunshine State and the follow up, which I am currently in the midst of, Orphan Road.
Gunshine State is my attempt to do an Australian take on the heist gone wrong story. It is a sub-genre of which I am a very big fan but which has not been tackled very much Down Under. There have been some excellent, if little known, Australian heist films: Bruce Beresford’s marvellously hardboiled 1979 film, Money Movers, and Two Hands (1999), with the late Heath Ledger, immediately spring to mind. But in terms of crime fiction, the heist is a story angel that has been given little attention.
Gunshine State’s main character, Gary Chance, is a former Australian army driver, ex-bouncer and thief. His latest job takes place in Queensland’s Surfers Paradise, working as part gang run by an aging stand over man, Dennis Curry, who runs off-site, non-casino poker games, and wants to rob one of his best customers, a high roller called Frederick ‘Freddie’ Gao. I won’t say anything more about it here.
Gunshine State has a number of literary influences. I am a big fan of the Crissa Stone books by Wallace Stroby and Australian writer Garry Disher’s Wyatt books. But my most obvious inspiration—and probably my desert island series—is the character of the master thief Parker, created by Richard Stark aka Donald Westlake.
For those not familiar with Westlake, he was a prolific writer. Perfecting his craft in the age of the midlist paperback writer, he not only wrote crime, but science fiction, Westerns and he was one of several authors (another is Lawrence Block) who got their start penning smut pulp in the early sixties. He worked under a myriad of pseudonyms of which Richard Stark, the name he used for the Parker books, remains the best known. He also did a number of screenplays, including the excellent 1990 adaption of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters.
Sixteen Parker novels appeared between 1962 and 1974, after which Westlake grew weary of his creation—and the fact that the ‘Richard Stark’ pseudonym was better known than he was—and gave the character a rest until 1997, after which another eight parker books appeared. A number of the books were filmed. The best known of this is the incredibly influential 1967 neo noir, Point Blank (which I have written about on my site here), starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson (later remade in 1999 as Payback with Mel Gibson as the lead). But there is also a French Parker (or Edgar as he was called in the film, Mise à Sac, released in 1967, a British one, Slayground (1983), and a pseudo-Blaxsploitation take, the underrated The Split (1968), starring Jim Brown.
When you strip everything away, the Parker novels (and films) are about the same thing, a heist that goes wrong and the consequences. There is usually a lot of focus on the mechanics of planning the job, which can vary from big to small, technically complex to a relatively straight forward smash and grab. This is usually very matter of fact in tone. Parker is a craftsman. It just so happens his chosen trade is stealing, and Westlake was expert at portraying him and his partners at work.
At some point, the job in question will go wrong. Because in Parker’s world—the world of heist film and fiction in general—the heist virtually always goes wrong, either die to bad luck, technical or human error or, most entertainingly due to greed or suspicion on the part of the people planning the heist.
Disher, whose character Wyatt also owes a significant debt to Parker, nailed it when I asked him in a 2010 interview, what it was about the heist gone wrong genre of crime fiction and film that never seems to go stale.
“Well, there is always the promise that it might go right for a Wyatt or a Parker. There’s also the tension of the actual crime, and when it falls apart when he robs a bank or whatever and things go wrong. Can Wyatt retrieve the situation? Can he get the money back? Can he find out who betrayed him? That’s where the tension lies. Wyatt finding out where it has gone wrong and how he is going to get his revenge or get the money back or both.”
I am not sure what my favourite Parker book is. I definitely prefer the earlier series of books, before Westlake took a break, because they are harder and darker than the ones that came later. The Handle (1966) is pretty good. Parker is engaged to rob an island casino in the Gulf of Mexico run by a German criminal. Westlake brings together a wonderful ensemble of characters to commit the robbery and things go south pretty quickly, including, if I remember correctly, the revelation that the German is actually a former Nazi with some very unsavoury connections.
Another favourite of the early Parker books is The Sour Lemon Score (1969). Parker pulls a heist, but one of his gang members, George Uhl, steals the take, $33,000 and kills all his partners except Parker. Parker spends the rest of the novel travelling up and down the eastern US seaboard searching for Uhl and the money. As is usually the case, things get complex when a couple of hoods pick up on the scent of the money and try to muscle in.
As is the case with all the parker books—and Westlake’s work in general—The Sour Lemon Score is a crash course in how to plot and write a lean noir novel. A phone call is made, a contact visited, someone talks to a friend of a friend. Each transaction in leaves Parker with just enough information to move onto the next. There is a constant feel of tension and disorientation.
The other notable aspect of the Parker books—and one that I admit I for Gunshine State—is Westlake’s skill at introducing apparently normal people and places, and transforming them with the slightest twist into something much darker. A second-hand furniture shop run by an old lady is a front for an illegal firearms seller, a down at heel motel is owned by an ex-hooker who let’s people from the life stay when they need a place to lie low.
The best example of this from The Sour Lemon Score is when Parker visits the widow of Benny, a long-term criminal associate and one of the men killed by Uhl.
Parker had been here a couple of times before, and he remembered how Benny had built himself a completely different at-home image. He was a semi-retired, the Little League umpire, the maker of model planes; an amiable little man in baggy pants, with his glasses slipping down his nose.
So, if you haven’t read any of Wetlake’s Parker series, get to it. You have a treat in store.
And as for the point I started this piece with—how successful I have been in allowing Gunshine State to be influenced by authors like Westlake, without copying him? Only you, the reader, can tell me that.
Andrew Nette is the author of Ghost Money and Gunshine State. His short fiction has appeared in a number of print and on-line publications, most recently the anthology The Obama Conspiracy: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir. He has contributed reviews and non-fiction to a wide variety of publications and is co-editor of Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980. His online home is PulpCurry.com. You can find him on Twitter at @Pulpcurry.