When the guard came to open the cell door, Parker said to the big man named Krauss, “Come see me next week when you get out. I think I’ll have something on.” [Child Heist, Richard Stark]
Richard Stark wrote 24 novels about a tough and remorseless American criminal called Parker. Child Heist isn’t one of them.
The first Parker novel hit the shelves in 1962 and opens with our anti-hero striding angrily across the George Washington bridge into Manhattan. The mob has taken his money and the veteran stick-up man wants it back. Parker’s last appearance was 2008’s Dirty Money. He’s in Massachusetts, lady friend at his side, hunting down the cash from a botched robbery that nearly put him in jail.
In between are armoured car heists, double-crosses, bank jobs, casino robberies, payroll snatches, and an attempt to rob an entire town. They’re good reads if you don’t mind rooting for the bad guy.
Stark wrote in a lean and minimalist style. It suited Parker, a professional who casually kills anyone who louses up his plans. Stephen King thought a cold-blooded murder in Butcher’s Moon one of the best scenes he’d ever read.
Shevelly read his intention and suddenly thrust his hands out protectively in front of himself, shouting, “I’m only the messenger!”
“Now you’re the message,” Parker told him, and shot him. [Butcher’s Moon, Richard Stark]
All the amoral brutality took its toll on Stark. He quit writing Parker novels in 1974 and only started up again twenty years later. So readers might have been surprised when they picked up a copy of Donald Westlake’s Jimmy the Kid, published the year the hiatus began, and discovered it contained scraps of a previously unpublished Parker novel called Child Heist.
The Westlake book is a crime comedy about talented but luckless burglar John Dortmunder and his crew. They’ve kidnapped a kid, basing their plan on Child Heist, a Richard Stark novel about an identical situation that one them read in prison. There are two whole chapters of Parker in Jimmy the Kid, plus a chunky extract at the start.
Just to confuse readers even more, Richard Stark turns up at the end of the book as a character, complaining his intellectual property rights have been violated. Readers back in 1974 must have been scratching their heads. Had Stark been heisted by Westlake?
The Truth and Nothing But
Not many people back then knew that Donald Westlake was Richard Stark. As the author of 100 books over his lifetime, Westlake used noms de plume to place books with different publishers. Stark was his alias for the amoral world of Parker. He preferred to save his real name for the more light-hearted stuff.
The Jimmy the Kid/Child Heist crossover was just another bit of the formal experimentation Westlake had been trying out for the best part of a decade. In 1967’s The Damsel a character wanders out of the previous year’s Parker novel The Handle and goes off on his own adventure. The same character is in a getaway car with Parker in 1969’s The Blackbird; the pair go their separate ways and Parker disappears after the first chapter … to continue his side of the adventure in 1971’s Slayground. Other books share scenes with novels by completely different writers.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise to find out that the novel Child Heist doesn’t exist. It was Westlake pastiching himself, all the better to contrast icily amoral Parker with unlucky sadsack Dortmunder. That’s headspinningly meta in itself but, just to add to the confusion, Westlake got the idea of crooks basing their crime on a novel from a real life event.
In April 1960 two French crooks read a translation of Lionel White’s The Snatchers, published almost a decade earlier, and decided its child kidnap plot would work out in the real world. They followed White’s plot and snatched 4-year-old Eric Peugeot, son of the millionaire car manufacturer. The ransom note even mimicked White’s writing style.
“You are a member of the filthy rich. You must cough up 50 million francs if you ever want to see the kid alive again.” [The Great Pictorial History of World Crime, Jay Robert Nash]
Crime Doesn’t Pay
The boy turned out to be a handful, demanding sparkling water with his dinner and sending the brains of the operation Pierre-Marie Larcher (aka Beau Serge) out in search of a bottle. Eric seemed extraordinarily calm during the ordeal, even escaping twice. The whole set-up seemed more O Henry than Lionel White. Eventually the crooks got the ransom and returned the boy unharmed.
They were caught six months later living like kings in a resort town near the Swiss border. Just to make things more weird, Eric and his parents were also in town trying to recover from the kidnapping. They may have passed each other on the street.
Beau Serge and his friend got 20 years in prison.
“They ran out of book,” said Westlake. “I always thought they should have taken the money and hired Lionel White to write them a sequel.”
Inspired, he substituted his fake Parker book for White’s The Snatchers and transferred the crime to America. Jimmy the Kid was born. It’s not the best Dortmunder novel and the extracts from Child Heist don’t show the best side of Parker. But as metafictional cross-overs go, it’s a good one.
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