Thriller instinct ... Patrick Stewart and Alec Guinness in the 1979 TV adaptation of John Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Photo: Everett Collection/Rex Features
Philip Marlowe, George Smiley, Nancy Drew, Count Fosco … detectives, spies and villains are among our best-loved fictional characters. As the crime-writing world comes together for its annual festival, top authors in the genre choose their favourites. But who is your most wanted?
The series of Parker books by Richard Stark – aka Donald Westlake – which began in the 1960s and ended with the author’s sudden death on the last day of 2008 are among the finest crime novels of the past 50 years. Parker – we do not learn his first name, if indeed he has one – is an elemental force, a Nietzschean Übermensch beyond good and evil as well as the long arm of the law. He has no past outside the books, and no life except the one that his woman, Clare, makes for him. He is a sort of marvellous machine, and utterly convincing.
When we first encountered him, in The Hunter, published in 1962, he was a bit of a thug, “big and shaggy, with flat square shoulders and arms too long in sleeves too short”, resembling the actor Jack Palance on whom Stark had modelled him. But as the series progressed he became leaner and smoother, a true professional, clinical, disinterested, ruthless, a man to see the job done and get away clean. The premise of nearly all the novels, however, is that something has gone wrong that Parker must fix, and will fix, no matter how many people have to be disposed of in the process. Not that Parker enjoys killing; in fact, he does his best to avoid it, since corpses make for a mess and clutter up the scene.
The books are all being republished by the admirable University of Chicago Press – it tickled Westlake that Parker should appear under an academic imprint – and among them are at least half a dozen masterpieces. They are intricately plotted, cool as burnished steel, exciting and intellectually satisfying.
My favourite crime series character? Instant temptation to name someone obscure, to prove I read more than you. Second temptation is to go full-on erudite, maybe asking whether someone from some 12th-century ballad isn’t really the finest ever . . . as if to say, hey, I might make my living selling paperbacks out of the drugstore rack, but really I’m a very serious person.
Third temptation is to pick someone from way back who created or defined the genre. But the problem with characters from way back is that they’re from, well, way back. Like the Model T Ford. It created and defined the automobile market. You want to drive one to work tomorrow? No, I thought not. You want something that built on its legacy and left it far behind.
Same for crime series characters. So, which one took crime fiction’s long, grand legacy, and respected it, and yet still came out with something fresh and new and significant? Martin Beck is the one. He exists in 10 1960s and 70s novels by the Swedish Marxist team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. They did two things with Beck: they created the normal-cop-in-a-normal-city paradigm, the dour guy a little down on his luck; and they used a crime series explicitly as social critique. All was not well in Sweden, they thought, and they said so through accessible entertainment rather than political screeds.
And along the way they gave birth to a whole stream of successors. From the current Scandinavians to Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko to Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, they’re all Martin Beck’s grandchildren.