Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Stark Equation

by Mike Knowles

Pi is defined to be the ratio of the circumference c of any circle divided by its diameter. You can take any circle and divide it by its diameter and you will always come up with the same number: 3.14 and a huge line of digits going on and on. Equations are everywhere whether you can see it or not. They’re even in books— sort of.

My favourite writer is Richard Stark and most of his books are pretty loyal to a standard equation that I call the Stark Equation.

Stark Novel (SN) = P + N + C + O +N (M) - R

To understand the formula you must first understand the variables.

P— Parker

Every Stark novel revolves around Parker. He is the prototypical anti-hero. Parker is a remorseless, resourceful, thief who supports himself by doing big jobs like armored car heists and bank robberies. He is a bad guy who does bad things, but he doesn’t ever feel remorse about it and for some reason that transfers to the reader who doesn’t ever hold anything against the character for being a bastard. If anything the reader loves Parker for what he is. But the Stark Equation needs more than just Parker.

N— Need for Money

Almost every Stark book begins with Parker running out of cash. Loyal fans always know when Parker's coffers are low because his sex drive takes a nosedive. Soon, he becomes completely focused on the task of making money. This focus usually upsets a lady or two. Stark never lets the reader in on how a mean dude, with a fake name, no job, no interests, no conversational skills, who is living in a hotel for months at a time attracts such a bevy of beautiful women, but I always let it slide.

C— Caper

So Parker needs money and the only way he knows how to get it is the wrong kind of way. Parker is a robber and every book centers around a caper. The Caper is usually, initially, not a good one and is often poorly orchestrated. Parker will take over said job and refine the plan until it is sure to be a success. Well it would be if it weren’t for the next two variables.

O— Old Allies

Parker always aligns himself with at least one or two old allies he has worked with before. They are men like him who supplement their lives with the money they make stealing things. The usual suspects are often: gigolos, pro-wrestlers, race car drivers, diner owners, etc. Parker signs on for the job because he knows he can trust the men he has worked with before. But these men always bring along a complication.

N (M)— The new guy who’s inexperience is multiplied by some sort of mental defect.

Almost every Parker novel has a new guy who is the one behind the crime. It is usually some cousin’s sister’s brother’s roommate who has a perfect idea for a heist. Most people know someone like this. A guy who works somewhere and swears he could walk off with a pile of money without getting caught if he felt like it (On a side note, I got a few plans like this if anyone is interested). Other times, the new guy is another robber who is new to Parker. The new guy is always screwed up and has some issues that will definitely end up in a classic Stark double cross. The double cross usually goes like this: Men steal money, men evade cops, men get to hideout, new guy kills men (just not Parker) and runs away with the money. You would think Parker would learn to be suspicious of idiots, but most people accept others based on a friend vouching for them. When I was twelve, one of my buddies brought a friend over to a friend’s house. The kid seemed creepy, but we let it slide because his references checked out. It took ten minutes for the afternoon to go off the tracks. The creepy kid found the collection of artistic photos my friend’s dad owned (that somehow took us years to find) and the kid spent the next few hours in the middle of the area rug staring at the nudes (male and female) in the book and freaking us out. Never trust the new guy.

R— Revenge

Parker overcomes the double cross and usually must deal with a setback. The setbacks vary in intensity; they can be as mundane as a head start by the new guy, or as serious as several bullet wounds. Usually, Parker overcomes the setback in forty pages or so and ends up with less money than he thought he would get.

It took way longer for the weird kid to stop coming around. We had to hide the photo books and stop playing outside.

It all works out every time: (SN) = P + N + C + O +N (M) - R

The equation is never good for Parker. In his world, his job is a lot like everyone else's: He has to do all the planning himself, his job is physically intense, he ends up having to do the work over because the new guy screwed it up, and in the end he somehow makes less than he was supposed to.

But for Stark, the equation is literary alchemy that turns words into gold. The equation seems relatively simple to follow, but it cannot be properly applied by anyone but a master. Stark used a similar equation over and over again, but somehow managed to create something new and cool each time. His skill defies the laws of nature. Somehow, his 2+2 never equalled 4. If Stark added a literary 2+2 it would always end up equaling 100% badass.


John McFetridge said...

Good one, The Stark Equation, I like it.

As for your plans, when I was researching the idea of turning a laker freighter into a huge floating grow op for Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere there were a few times I had to ask myself, "Is this a novel, or a business plan?"

Probably a good idea to stick to novels, but maybe we could talk about those plans sometime....

Evil Ray said...

Well said. Stark put the stake in the heart of my SF fandom and was the first to feed the undead horror that is my love of crime fic.

Mike Knowles said...

Every crime writer is a criminal who just hasn't hit rock bottom. I walk around scouting crime all the time. For my next book, I spent a while figuring out how to rob an armored car. I even followed one for a while. I could do it, my wife would just kill me for it.

Steve Weddle said...

Crime novel: Never trust the new guy.
Horror movie: Always trust the dog.

Nice points, Mike. Is there anyone who doesn't like Stark? Is there a quicker read than a Stark/Parker book? Just fabulous.

I've never read any other Westlake, though I'm sure I should. Have you? Does it compare?

Mike Knowles said...

I've read a bunch of Westlake stuff. His Dortmunder character is a lot like Parker in design, but ends up in far more comical and non-violent situations. It's good, just not what brought me to the dance. I likes 'em mean. I thought his stand alone God Save the Mark was awesome. The stuff Hard Case Crime came out with over the last few years was great too, especially Lemons Never Lie.

Chris said...

In his world, his job is a lot like everyone else's: He has to do all the planning himself, his job is physically intense, he ends up having to do the work over because the new guy screwed it up, and in the end he somehow makes less than he was supposed to.

Ha, ain't that the friggin' truth.

And here I thought I was the guy always looking for opportunities to plan a heist. It's to the point where I send news articles related to local capers (usually college kids doing stupid shit and failing miserably, like robbing pharmacies or stealing each other's weed) for examples of how if WE'D done it, things would have gone differently!

John McFetridge said...

Okay, so how come all the Swedish crime fiction is slow-paced, gloomy stuff and yet they're the ones pulling off the cool heists?

Mike Knowles said...

The Sweedish are good at committing cool heists because they are practiced in the arts of complicated furniture assembly. Once you can put together a Bjursta from Ikea, robbing a bank is a sinch.

John McFetridge said...

That's a good point, Mike. And then there's the reliability of the Volvo getaway cars.