Monday, May 31, 2010

Two Never Quite Adds Up to Its Inspiration

We all know the old saying about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, and that aphorism holds no less true in the world of writing. Homages to the works of famous authors not only honor the individuals but show the extent of their influence in their chosen fields. The eldritch imaginings of H.P. Lovecraft have gotten mileage far beyond their original iterations thanks to artists as diverse as Brian Lumley and Neil Gaiman. Entire swathes of fantasy are basically testaments to Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. What happens, though, when a pasticheur can't quite imitate another's excellence? Can the resulting work be considered a success? It's a question I found myself asking while reading Two for the Money, hardboiled author Max Allan Collin's tribute to Richard Stark's Parker novels.

Nolan is feeling his age. No, scratch that, he definitely feels older than his forty-eight years. Running from the Family will do that to you, and Nolan can't exactly blame the Chicago crime syndicate for chasing him. He'd been doing fine as Family nightclub manager until Gordon got promoted, the thug. You see, Gordon told Nolan to off an old friend, and ... Well, let's just say things got messy. Killing Gordon might've been excusable on its own, but absconding with $20,000 of Family money? That definitely wasn't. Now after sixteen years of hiding from Gordon's brother Charlie, Nolan's ready to call it quits. But to do so he'll have to pull off the most difficult job of his career, a bank robbery where he has a crew of amateurs, a bullet in his side and no other options.

You can't say Collins doesn't line up the Parker tropes like a row of dominos. An amoral, single-named protagonist. A high-stakes heist. A deadly double cross. Plenty of blazing guns and down-n-dirty fisticuffs. Yet despite such similarities, Two for the Money never quite feels like a Stark book. It simply doesn't read the same. Stark's name could describe his style. His novels are bare and unadorned, peeled all the way back to the bone. In fact, the actions of Parker and his associates often seem a little mysterious at first because Stark doesn't let readers into their heads or comment on their actions. He's almost a hardboiled Hemmingway. Conversely, Collins lets his characters unspool paragraphs of internal monologue, ruminating at length about most everything under the sun. That isn't to say the book's bad. Two for the Money does what pulp ought to, namely entertain. But somehow it never quite adds up to the works which inspired it.

(Picture: CC 2009 by
il Quoquo; Hat Tip: The Violent World of Parker)


dolorah said...

Funny how you and Julie Dao at Silver Lining have basically the same post, with different styles and examples. :)

This was an excellent interpretation of "idea borrowing" without plagarism. My own feelings on the subject run the same thread, nothing new under the sun, only unique takes on the writing an interesting story.

And dang it, every time I come here I add another must read book to my too large to-be-read pile.

(sighs) could you not write such interesting reviews please? Honestly Loren; nobody makes a book sound more interesting than you do. I've read some jacket blurbs that sounded less appealing in more words than your reviews.


Ben Mann said...

My take on imitation stems from the opinion that the human brain is a great pattern matching machine. When we encounter something new, we classify it in terms of what we already know. Equally, when we develop something new, we develop it from what we already know.

As a result, I regard much of the imitative or seemingly derivative works out there as falling into three camps:

- The imitator, who is trying to ride a popular wave (Vampires are popular! I'll write a Vampire book!)
- The improver, who sees a popular work as horribly broken in some way (What the heck is Gandalf's magic anyway? I could do that soooo much better!)
- The innovator, who in taking a common symbol and social theme ends up writing a work which is markedly similar in some way to another, and being the pattern matchers we are, we pigeon-hole them together. (A ring. Yeah, Wagner used it, but it has such a binding meaning in our society. I could really use this. What's this, hon? Tolkien. Hmmm, never read him before. Wonder what it's about... D'oh!)

The cynic in me suspects there's a lot of imitators. The optimist in me hopes there's a lot of innovators (but wouldn't be able to tell the difference because of pattern matching), and the realist shrugs his shoulders and just assumes there's a lot of improvers.

I might have to read one of these Parker novels sometime, Loren, I keep reading about them here...

Peter Rozovsky said...

Interesting you should single out Collins' characters' internal gabbiness. One of the less successful Parker novels, "The Black Ice Score," falls short in part because Parker talks too much.
 Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Loren Eaton said...


Madam, you are far too kind about the quality of these little reviews. I appreciate it.

If you want something in the same style as Two to add to your reading list (if you're like me, you're probably drowning in choices) pick up The Hunter. It's super-short and amazingly done. Pretty brutal, though. Here's a bit I liked from it.

Loren Eaton said...


That's a pretty darn good matrix you have there. I may have to appropriate it myself.

The Parker novels are worth getting into if you like heist fiction and stories about criminals. They're almost deceptively simplistic, but there's a lot going on behind it. If you want to read a bit more about the background, it would be hard to do better than The Violent World of Parker.

Loren Eaton said...


Yeah, all that internal monologue kind of spoiled it for me, at least as a Parker pastiche. Parker doesn't waste words. He busts heads and steals stuff. Very interesting about The Black Ice Score.

Max Allan Collins said...

I wrote that stuff when I was around twenty, twenty-one. Try the later Nolan books -- like SCRATCH FEVER, HARD CASH and particularly SPREE.

Also the Quarry books.

Loren Eaton said...

Well, goodness, I think I'm going to have to! Thanks so much for stopping by.

Just for the record, Two for the Money is far better than anything I ever wrote in my twenties -- or now.