Richard Stark (a pseudonym for the prolific mystery author Donald Westlake) created his most famous character, Parker, in 1962's The Hunter, and he pretty much nailed the character on the very first try. Parker glides, sharklike, through each of the 23 novels that follow in the series. He's a professional thief, a self-described "heister," but he kills without compunction if he gets double-crossed or the police get too close. He never discusses his past, the reader never gets a look inside his mind—we never even learn his first name. Most fictional criminals get greedy or panic, displaying the more pitiable aspects of human nature so the hero doesn't have to, but Parker is a businessman whose business happens to be crime, and he's good at it because he realizes there's nothing personal about business.
Over the last few years, University of Chicago Press has been rereleasing all of Stark's Parker novels in order; a reader could pick up any of those books, regardless of their order in the series, and be confident that they're about to read an entertaining heist story. The three most recent releases form an interesting sequence that is noteworthy because it diverges from the preestablished formula.
In 1974's Butcher's Moon, Stark believed he was bringing the Parker story to a close, and the novel is a departure: Parker returns to the town where he was raised and hatches an elaborate, and atypically emotional, payback scheme against a corrupt city government. He summons an army of criminals who have helped him with heists in the 15 preceding novels, and the stakes get personal; the book is nerve-racking and raw in a way that no other Parker novel is. Perhaps due to the way Stark tampered with his own formula, Butcher's Moon hadn't been reprinted since its original publication—this is its first time in paperback.
But Parker has a way of coming out on top, and 23 years later, he returned in a novel titled Comeback. It's a clunky return to form, despite the lip-smacking premise (Parker's target this time is a huge haul of cash from backstage at a smarmy televangelist's stadium-sized revival show). Parker doesn't regain his footing until the last third of the book, when he's trapped in a house with two freaked-out thieves. But when his vicious streak resurfaces for the sake of his own survival, it's like greeting an old friend.
The unofficial trilogy concludes with Backflash, a cut-and-dried caper. Despite the fact that Parker hates working on boats—there's only one way in and one way out, a cardinal sin for criminals who don't want to get caught or killed—the allure of a haul from a busy night at a floating casino proves to be too great.
And the reader learns about the character in sly little glimpses: When Parker begins planning the heist, an associate asks him why he doesn't gamble. The question feels too intrusive to Parker, who wonders:
What did this have to do with anything? But Parker had learned, over the years, that when somebody wants to tell you his story, you have to let him tell it his own way. Try to push him along, speed it up, you'll just confuse him...
With a character as taciturn as Parker, this amounts to Freudian analysis. And then he answers the question, because he feels he has to, and it's like his shadowy soul opens up on the page in front of you in what amounts to a Shakespearean monologue:
Turn myself over to random events? Why? The point is to try to control events, and they'll still get away from you anyway. Why make things worse? Jump out of a window, see if a mattress truck goes by. Why? Only if the room's on fire.
It's just a murderer and a career criminal talking about nothing in particular to calm a jumpy mark down, but it leaves the reader feeling grateful for the insight, and thankful for the fact that Parker keeps running into burning rooms.