Social Concerns / Themes

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The Hunter (also published as Point Blank!) and several others about the exploits of an armed robbery specialist were reissued under the series title "The Violent World of Parker," which sets exactly the right tone for a discussion of their distinctive attributes. Parker's world is not merely characterized by violence, it is founded upon violence: To an extent seldom found in even the hardest-boiled thrillers, it is the willingness as well as the ability to kill that separates the quick from the dead in these volumes.

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In The Hunter, violence is used to force Parker's loving wife to attempt to murder her husband, which establishes the relative priorities of force and sentiment for the remainder of the series. Subsequent books often place Parker in situations where love or trust is a tempting possibility, but his memory of his wife's treachery is always invoked as a warning against emotional involvement. There is usually a double-cross or a sellout in the offing where Parker is concerned, and it is only his profound awareness of human fallibility that ensures his continued survival.

Westlake has little faith in either the integrity or the competence of established social institutions. In the comic entertainments written under his own name, this is played for laughs; in the Parker novels written as "Richard Stark," it is presented with a brutal directness that both shocks and fascinates the reader. If Parker wants something, he takes it; if he wants to change an organization's policy, as is the case in The Hunter, he kills so many of their personnel that it becomes imperative for them to meet his demands. It is almost as if Westlake were indulging the manic and depressive poles of a split personality, with Donald Westlake writing as the bemused cynic and "Richard Stark" writing as the paranoid pessimist. Whether or not this is a conscious division of labor on Westlake's part, one cannot help but speculate that these two very different aspects of his literary work reflect his ambivalence regarding the prospects of a society in which selfish motives predominate over altruistic ones.

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