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Richard Stark: Ask The Parrot

When Donald Westlake invented Parker, the iron-cold thief protagonist of the series Westlake writes under the pen name Richard Stark, he didn't know that Parker would be one of the noir genre's most enduring creations. If he had, he'd have given Parker a first name. But Parker has been just fine without one through 23 novels. What's important about him isn't who he is, but what he does: He steals, and survives the aftermath. Under his real name, Westlake writes lighthearted comic caper novels, often about luckless burglar John Dortmunder. Stark offers colder, bloodier, and more psychologically tense tales—if Westlake takes after Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man, Stark takes after Red Harvest. At its heart, the Parker series is about professionalism, and a man utterly ruthless in pursuit of his job.

The latest entry, the enigmatically titled Ask The Parrot, picks up after the disastrous robbery from the previous Nobody Runs Forever, finding Parker on the lam among "civilian" non-criminals. Even in hiding, Parker creates chaos. Like a great white shark that leaves a trail of blood which excites smaller sharks, he inspires criminal behavior in the average citizens around him, especially Tom Lindahl, a wronged whistleblower who rescues Parker, hoping for help with a revenge scheme aimed at his former employers. Parker agrees, but Lindahl soon discovers how dangerous crime is for the amateurs who lack Parker's single-minded survival instincts.

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The Parker books usually work well as standalone reads, but Ask The Parrot is too closely tangled with Nobody Runs Forever to be a good starting point for those new to the series. It also leaves several lingering plotlines from that book unresolved, making it a little disappointing for longtime fans. But ignoring those tangential problems, Parrot is well up to the usual Stark standard. Unusually for the series, it's often funny, laced with Stark's brutally morbid humor rather than Westlake's wry ironies. And as always, Westlake is a master of lean, hardboiled prose and fast-moving, tense scenes that drip with potential violence before, inevitably, exploding into actual violence.

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