Donald Westlake’s One Amazing Trick
I started working on a new novel about a month ago. It’s a heist tale set in Manhattan in 1962, with brief sojourns to upstate New York and beyond. Originally, I had every intention of keeping my main character’s backstory to a minimum—or not mention it at all. I wanted to emulate Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark, who managed to complete 24 novels about Parker, the epitome of a brutal thief, without giving the character any kind of history to speak of.
As I wrote, I soon realized: crafting a character without any kind of backstory is really hard. By the time I crossed the 5,000-word mark, I felt compelled to add all sorts of layers, from my character’s time on Guadalcanal during World War II to his relationship with his father. Without those layers, the character felt completely inert, his motivations unclear, his desires inscrutable.
How did Westlake pull it off? The Parker novels are action-oriented and fast-paced; every chapter features Parker executing some task, if not some poor sap who got in the way. You could also argue that Parker doesn’t need a backstory; like a shark, he’s a creature of singular purpose, built only to devour whatever strikes his fancy. If you try to humanize him, you destabilize his very nature.
Even so, it’d be difficult to keep a character so minimalist through one novel, much less 24. From a writerly perspective, it’s an amazing trick, one that nobody else has seemingly emulated. Lee Child might have been able to achieve something similar, since the 27 novels about Jack Reacher, his vigilante/detective/wanderer, are similarly action-driven; but within the first few books, he gives us not only Reacher’s whole history, but that of his family going back three generations.
I’m sure there are other character examples that simply aren’t coming to mind at the moment. Maybe the best part of Westlake’s high-wire trick is how he never calls attention to it; the writing is so solid, and the books’ plots so propulsive, that Parker’s lack of backstory doesn’t ever seem to matter. Contrast that with generations of novels stuffed with flashy literary tricks, which are often fun in the moment but don’t show much genuine craftsmanship.
In the meantime, I’m achieving another long-sought goal with my novel. I’d long wanted to write a book that incorporates cooking as a major plot element, along the lines of John Lancaster’s masterpiece “The Debt to Pleasure.” The trick here is whether I can blend a tale of restaurant management and cooking with an old-school heist. Wish me luck.
Nick Kolakowski is the author of „Maxine Unleashes Doomsday“ and „Boise Longpig Hunting Club“ as well as the Love & Bullets trilogy of novellas. His noir fiction has appeared in Tough, ThugLit, Mystery Tribune, Plots With Guns, and various anthologies. His „Payback is Forever“ (Shotgun Honey 2022) is inspired clearly by the novels of Richard Stark. Our review here (in German). – See also his Hell of a Mess. A Love & Bullets Hookup.
Nick Kolakowski, geboren 1980, aufgewachsen in Washington. D.C., hat Geschichte in Chicago studiert. Er schreibt Romane, Kurzgeschichten, Lyrik und Essays, viele davon über Crime Fiction und verwandte Themen. Seine Texte erscheinen u. a. in der Washington Post, in Shotgun Honey, North American Review, The Evergreen Review, Rust & Months. Kolakowski lebt in New York City. Eine Besprechung des von Parker inspirierten „Payback is Forever“ in unseren Bloody Chops.
His column „Smoking Gun“ with us:
Cosby, Winslow, Pruitt: Three Heavy-Hitting Thillers for Summer
Weed-Based Crime Thrillers are Going Up in Smoke
‘The Last of Us’: Crime in the Post-Apocalypse
What Made “Glass Onion” and “Knives Out” So Popular?
Jordan Harper’s One-Two Punch of Crime Fiction Deserves a Wide Audience
‘True Detective’ Season 2: Was It Better Than We All Thought?
From ‘Touch of Evil’ to ‘True Detective,’ Long Shots are Crime Films’ Secret Weapon
Michael Mann, again: What Michael Mann Teaches Us About Enduring Crime Fiction
„Heat 2“ – How Do You Craft a Sequel to a Masterpiece?
4 Ways Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” Novel Stands Out From the Film.
On „Heat“: Manhunter Takes Down Thief: How Michael Mann’s Early Career Led to ‘Heat’
The Most Honest Nihilism – on „The Way of the Gun“
No, Time to Die – The latest James Bond movie digs into the fatalism at the iconic spy’s core.
Cormac McCarthy’s Overlooked Masterpiece? – „The Councelor“
„Nightmare Alley“ – How Guillermo del Toro’s Film Alters a Masterpiece Noir Novel
David Cronenberg – The Carnal Crime of “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises”
With Parker, Donald E. Westlake Pulled Off Crime Fiction’s Most Spectacular Magic Trick
Guy Ritchie’s Return to Crime Films is Worth Watching