Adapted and illustrated by Darwyn Cooke
Look, I’ll just say it.
I didn’t like it.
And it’s got nothing to do with Darwyn Cooke officially becoming a scab. I didn’t like it the first time I read it a year and a half ago, and I didn’t like it when I re-read it this week to write this review.
And yet here is a book that has been uniformly praised, as far as I can tell. I haven’t seen any dissent. And rightly so. The book is a masterpiece of craftsmanship. Cooke’s ability to construct a whole world in a near-minimalist style is astonishing. If the opening spread of New York doesn’t knock your socks off, nothing will. (Even though I’m sure Cooke didn’t “draw” it in any traditional sense.) I acknowledge all of that.
But I didn’t like it.
Let me start with a preamble about a different crime writer: Raymond Chandler. I deeply love Chandler’s writing. His perennial anti-hero Philip Marlowe is the ultimate archetypal Noir private dick: hard as concrete in a hard as concrete world that’s bankrupt of sympathy and decency, and everyone living outside that circle is living in some kind of pampered fantasy that is not the way the real, hard world is. But what’s fascinating about Marlowe is that there’s an undercurrent (sometimes explicit) level of melancholy to him. He lives and works in this world, and it’s what he’s good at, but there is a regret that it has to be this way — that people can’t just be decent to each other.
I think some crime writers after Chandler felt that this was perhaps a flaw in the Marlowe novels, and decided to strip their detectives of even that modicum of emotion. I have only read one of Richard Stark’s Parker novels (the second one), but I felt this was the case there. Parker is a hard-assed brick wall that moves through the novel seeking revenge. Why? I don’t know since he doesn’t seem to feel anything to make him want revenge. It’s almost like an involuntary muscle reaction, or a law of physics. He’s supposed to seek revenge, therefore he seeks revenge. But I can understand how this would appeal to post-Chandler readers as well. I mean, that can be some cool ass shit.
But that core emotionlessness was the damning problem for me. I don’t need to sympathize or connect with a fictional character emotionally, but I do have to understand what the goddamn point is. As the great Kumar Sivasubramanian once said: “A work of fiction only needs a likeable protagonist if you want it to be enjoyed by the intellectually deficient.” By which I mean, you can engage with a work of art in a rewarding and positive way on levels other than emotionally relating to characters. Actually, Parker does have one emotion: anger. Unwavering anger — there are no degrees to it. And he has one facial expression to go along with it.
Hilariously, the book begins in medias res. So before page 1, Parker has already been betrayed, is practically living in the gutter, and is out for revenge. So the reader doesn’t have to suffer any progression of emotions, or bother about what this guy would be like if he felt anything else.
In an early scene, Parker comes back to the woman that betrayed him (his wife!). She tries to come on to him. He rips a phone out of the wall (?!), and says, “For you, that tree is dead.” On the next page the narration says: “He lied to her. The tree wasn’t dead. He was afraid of her.” What is this fear of which you speak? Nothing in his behavior or the art indicates fear. Later: “He hated her and he loved her and he’d never felt either emotion for anyone before.” In fact, what he does to her after suggests he feels as much emotion about her as he does for a leaf in the gutter. We just have to take Stark/Cooke’s word for it.
Maybe the problem is a lack of internal monologue. The Marlowe books were narrated first-person. So was Garth Ennis’s Punisher and Frank Miller’s Marv in Sin City. What we see here is pure surface, and Parker’s relentless hard-ass one-liners. (“I touch you once and you’d be dead. Look at me, you know this isn’t a bluff,” etc ad nauseum. There is no balance. Part way through the book he accidentally kills someone and he actually bothers to call the police (out of anger), but even then has to deliver a “Never mind who I am” over the phone.
I will also add that while I love athletically lean prose (Hemingway is one of my favorite writers), Richard Stark (a clever pseudonym of Donald Westlake) writes almost anorexically. Darwyn Cooke’s lush art seems almost antithetical, but frankly I found it a relief because of that. At the same time, it is as perfectly married to the story/world as Stark’s prose was. Figure that out.
Or maybe the problem is that Parker is a criminal, not a PI, and he makes for an even stonier Noir protagonist as a result.
Well, maybe the appeal or point of a story like this is the details of a heist. But again, personally, while I love Noir as a genre, I have little interest in heists, and there is a sequence here — necessary, but weak — of effectively several pages of text with spot illustrations describing how the heist is supposed to work.
Blah, blah, blah. You’ll notice I’ve tried to weasel my way through this review. Lots of “I feel,” “I think,” “In my opinion.” There’s a reason. A “singular” (i.e. one note) experience can be a powerful thing and can sometimes make for great art. But 150 pages is a long time to hold a single note, and at that length it really comes down to personal preferences for genre.
What I’ll say finally is this. It’s an excellent book. I didn’t like it.
Kumar Sivasubramanian is the writer of Weird Crime Theater.