Monday, April 21, 2014

Book Review : Richard Stark - The Mourner (1963)


Order THE MOURNER here

(also reviewed)
Order THE HUNTER here
Order THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE here
Order THE OUTFIT here

Reading a book series is like being in a long term relationship where each novel accounts for one year. There is a honeymoon phase in the beginning, where both parties involved think about nothing but to jump each others bones at the first occasion. Then, there is a period of disillusion where you get to understand the others' character better and learn to deal with their flaws. But where to go from there, to avoid falling in a stale and lifeless relationship? Richard Stark's THE MOURNER was published right after THE OUTFIT, a novel that contained little surprise, but closed the first Parker storyline in satisfying fashion. THE MOURNER is trying new things, going in a completely different direction while staying true to its trademark protagonist, like a passionate lover trying to find the second life of his couple. That reckless creativity made THE MOURNER my favourite Parker novel so far, after THE HUNTER.

In THE MOURNER, Parker comes back to Miami, to settle a score with Beth Harrow, a jilted lover looking to use his skills in order to acquire a package for her father, a collector of rare art pieces. Ralph Harrow stumbled upon one of the Mourners of Dijon and wants Parker to steal it for him. In exchange, Harrow proposes to give back a gun Parker used to kill an outfit enforcer in THE OUTFIT, a murder in self-defense witnessed by Beth. An Eastern European man named Kapor has the mourner in his private collection, but he has no clue to the fortune the statue represents. There is a secret police agent shadowing Kapor to the United States, a man named Auguste Menlo, who can smell the opportunity of a better life while doing his duty. Menlo is ready to do anything to leave his life behind the Iron Curtain behind. Parker and his trusted sidekick Handy McKay are being pushed into a conflict they don't see the entire picture of.

Richard Stark has a particular sense of humour. The Parker novels have a wry, tongue-in-cheek tone to them and THE MOURNER is a great example. Parker doesn't care about anything outside the moment and outside his objectives. It's noise to him. Richard Stark drags him into these long, convoluted conversations he needs to build the background of his story and it's hilarious to read every Parker rebuttals being dismissed under the threat of being cut from the prize. The narrative backbone of THE MOURNER is built around Ralph Harrow and Auguste Menlo and their respective passion for the past and the future. Parker is caught in between the two, trapped in the moment and wielding the power to make or break their hope. The strong, rational presence of Parker was an anchor amidst all these new characters.

Everytime I read a Parker novel, I find myself fascinated by how strangely they aged. They are founding novels of the present era of crime fiction, yet they are so entrenched in the present they come off as outdated sometimes. Richard Stark's view of the people behind the Iron Curtain is paranoid to a point they fit with the narrative. Kapor is the stereotyped lavish Eastern European official, who cares little about anything but to throw parties and gather riches and Menlo is the jealous, greedy outsider looking in. They live their own confrontation on the perimeter of THE MOURNER and I found it was a welcome addition to the fuel-efficient world of Parker. He's not only a man of action anymore, but also a witness of a changing decade in the United States and an agent of this transformation.

I did not expect THE MOURNER to be such a pleasant curve ball in the landscape of Parker novels. It cares about little but being fun and outlandish and giving Parker and Handy McKay an intricate job to pull. It's liberating to read a gritty novel that doesn't try its hardest to be gritty. Richard Stark was a swift natural with tough guys. His underworld is always fun, complex and textured in all sorts of subtle shades. The Parker novels are an artifact of a changing society that embrace individuality in a way it wasn't ready to understand yet. I'm on year four of this twenty-four year relationship and everything is going according to the plan. Parker is a fascinating leisure partner for crime fiction readers and contemporary literature nerds.


5 comments:

  1. The Score is next in line. Not only do I love that one, but that's the first time we meet Grofield who eventually gets three books of his own from Stark.

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  2. The Mourner proves a rule: when Westlake writes international intrigue stuff, it's not up to his best. This novel is not that good as the first three were. And though Westlake himself considered The Jugger his worst novel, because Parker goes out of character there, I find that The Mourner has the same flaw. In the end of the novel Parker could just dump Handy to save himself, but he didn't do it. Maybe it wasn't Parker's mercy, he just didn't want to leave any clues to the police.

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  3. Oh well, I loved this one but I get why you didn't. I kind of skimmed the Harrow and Menlo parts. About the ending, I thought Parker wanted to save Handy because he had a use for him somewhere down the line. Didn't even go through my mind he was merciful.

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    1. You're wrong about Handy, but don't worry, he'll live!)

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  4. Thing is, it's been two novels in a row he's been speaking of retirement. So I kind of took for granted his resolve was shaky.

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