Review: Ask the Parrot, Part 2

Twas a sick young man with a face ungay
And an eye that was all alone;
And he shook his head in a hopeless way
As he sat on a roadside stone.

‘O, ailing youth, what untoward fate
Has made the sun to set
On your mirth and eye?’ ‘I’m constrained to state
I’m an ex-West Point cadet.

”Twas at cannon-practice I got my hurt
And my present frame of mind;
For the gun went off with a double spurt-
Before it, and also behind!’

‘How sad, how sad, that a fine young chap,
When studying how to kill,
Should meet with so terrible a mishap
Precluding eventual skill.

‘Ah, woful to think that a weapon made
For mowing down the foe
Should commit so dreadful an escapade
As to turn about to mow!’

No more he heeded while I condoled:
He was wandering in his mind;
His lonely eye unconsidered rolled,
And his views he thus defined:

”Twas O for a breach of the peace-’twas O
For an international brawl!
But a piece of the breech–ah no, ah no,
I didn’t want that at all.’

Polyphemus, by Ambrose Bierce

They stopped at a run-down traditional diner for lunch on the way back.  They chose a table beside the large window with its view out to very little Sunday traffic on this secondary road, and after they’d given the waitress their orders, Parker said, “Tell me about the Dennisons.”

“The who?  Oh, Cory and Cal?  What do you want to know about them for?”

“They came to see me last night.  Right after you left.”

“They came–They were at my place?”

“They think I might be one of the missing robbers.”

“Jesus!”  Lindahl looked as thought he just might jump straight up and out of the diner and run a hundred miles down the road.  “What are they gonna do?”

“If I am one of the robbers,” Parker said, “they think I must have a bunch of money on me.”

“But you don’t.”

“But if I was, and if I did, I could give Cal money to get plastic surgery and an artificial eye.”

“Oh for–” No longer in a panic, Lindahl now looked as though he’d never heard anything so dumb.  “They said that to you?  You’re the robber and give us some of the money?”

“The robber part wasn’t said.”

“But that’s what it was all about.  And if you give them the money, they won’t report you? Is that the idea?”

“I suppose so.”

“That’s a Cal idea, all right,” Lindahl said.  “He’s jumped off barn roofs since he was a little kid.”

Cal, suddenly bristling, said, “My brother tells me when to shut up.  You don’t tell me to shut up.”

As Lindahl killed the sound on the television set, Parker took a step forward and slapped Cal hard, open-handed, across the cheek, under the patch.  Cal jolted back, astonished and outraged.  Parker stood watching him, hands at his sides, and Cal, fidgeting wide eyed, tried to figure out something to do.

I have many times had cause to give fervent thanks for my comments section regulars (and irregulars), who have provided me not only with their opinions, but with information I had not previously possessed.  Rarely has this information presented itself in such a timely fashion, however.

Responding to Part 1 of this review yesterday, PhilPo, whose own blog may be seen here, provided this tidbit–used to be on the Official Westlake Blog.  I’d heard about it from Greg Tulonen, but he didn’t have the exact wording.  Thankfully, Phil had the text archived in his email, and his sharp eye (two, I hope) perceived its relevance to our current investigations.  Westlake posted this in June of 2006:

It began in January of last year, when my wife and I joined three other couples on a long-planned three-week trip in Southeast Asia. The night before we left, I started to get flashers and floaters in my left eye, but decided to ignore them, since otherwise I’d have to cancel the trip at the last second. After a twelve-hour flight from New York to Seoul, change planes, four hour flight to Hong Kong, I couldn’t see out of that eye.

The next day, I went into a hospital for an operation for a retinal separation. Terrific hospital, terrific doctors, but it was just the beginning. With more retinal tears, plus cataracts, between January 26th and December 15th, I had ten eye operations, all but the first in New York, seven on the left eye and three on the right. As I was warned partway through the experience, the left eye is now permanently damaged, but usable.

For eight months last year, I was essentially one-eyed. I couldn’t drive. It was hard to read. It was hell to go downstairs, particularly at Angkor Wat (yes, we did the Asian trip anyway). That’s over now; the damaged eye is doing what it can.

But it cost me a year. I did very little work in that time, which was why there was a halt in my publishing anything new.

So January of 2005 is when this started.  Westlake was engaging in that bit of radio wordplay with Erin McKean that I referenced last week in November of Aught Four, and going by the fact that his applications of her three endangered words all appear early in this book, we may assume he had not handed in a finished manuscript by the time of the planned vacation.

Meaning, as you have no doubt already intuited, it’s not likely a coincidence that one of his characters in this book has lost the use of an eye (has lost the eye, starker image, no medical jargon).  He’s pissed about it.  As his creator was.  As anyone would be.

The facial scarring the semi-literate Cal has in addition to the eyepatch is there, I’d think, to substitute for the angst Westlake experienced from neither reading nor writing books for long months.  Motivation.  Being Polyphemus is fun for nobody, with the possible exception of pirate cosplayers.  (Cal is quite taken with Tom’s parrot, says he ought to have one.)

(I don’t know if Westlake would approve of my using that morbidly irreverent poem up top–morbid and irreverent even for Bierce–but he is known to have approved of Bierce and I figured what the hell.)

Cal Dennison, and I think his brother Cory as well, represent two more of those characters you notice here and there in Westlake novels, who represent a road not taken–a life Westlake feels he might have lived, had he been less fortunate.  Suppose he’d lost his eye as a young man, living in upstate New York?  Suppose he hadn’t had insurance worth a damn?  Suppose he never got to read all the books that made him who he was, expanded his horizons, filled him with ambitions above his station in life?

Or suppose he’d been twins?  And one half of the amniotic duo was holding the other back?

Possible some version of the Dennisons (I’m going to guess that’s a pun) was already cued up in his head, before the eye troubles began–a necessary plot complication, of a type familiar in these books–the Cal/Cory subplot and its bloody climax bears a certain familial resemblance to the Negli/Feccio story from The Seventh–but what happened to Westlake during the time he was writing this book would still have shaped them, and Cal in particular.  So it’s good that we know about it now.  And can put it in its proper context.  (Unless he had already conceived a one-eyed character before his own ocular occurrence.  Which would be kind of scary.)

This all tracks with other intel we have, such as the fact that the New York Times review of this book was published–and it’s a thoughtful full-length review in the Sunday section, not a squib in their little crime fiction ghetto column–written by none other than James Wolcott, very nice indeed–was published in December of Aught Six.  Over two years after Westlake said on NPR that he expected this book would be in stores no later than November of Aught Five.  (He didn’t say Aught Five, I’m being archaic.  Parker tends to put me in that mood.)

I like Wolcott’s review, and vigorously disagree with most of it.  In retrospect, it’s quite obvious this is a much better book than Nobody Runs Forever, and a bit silly to talk about how a few extra blondes Parker won’t even think about going to bed with add sexual tension, assuming you even think every novel in the mystery genre needs some of that (somebody better tell Agatha Christie).

But I can still see his point–this isn’t what we expect from a Richard Stark heist story, and as a sequel to the previous book, it’s downright baffling.  It’s The Jugger all over again–a book that departed from all the established tropes of the series, and was greeted with a good deal of head-scratching by the readership when it first appeared–and then grew on us, like a fungus.  And yet, I’d argue, this book lives up to the basic formula of the Parker novels much better than the other two panels in this Triptych.

Here, the multi-POV part of the book is Part Three.  In Nobody Runs Forever and Dirty Money, it’s in Part Two (Nobody Runs Forever also switches POV’s in Part Four).  But more than that, this book revisits one of the most fascinating and consistent elements in Parker’s behavior–how he’ll take some aspiring felon under his wing, show him the ropes. (Who had better learn those ropes fast, or Parker may garrote him with one.)

Tom Lindahl is the last in this line of journeyman heisters, that includes Alan Grofield, Stan Devers, Larry Lloyd, and a few less apt pupils who don’t make it to the end of their respective books.  Tom is perhaps the most ordinary of the bunch, in that he doesn’t really want to be a thief, isn’t looking to pull more than one job, but doesn’t try to kid himself about the fact that once is all it takes.  He’s going to change, and he wants to change.

Stealing from his former employer is the only way Tom can regain his self-respect, not a motive Parker can relate to much.  Tom and Parker have a wall between them.  But over that wall, they can converse, learn things from each other, serve each other’s needs.  And nowhere is that more evident than in Part Two of this novel.  Which is all Part 2 of this review is going to cover.  Meaning I have to cover the rest in Part 3.  Well, it kind of worked last time……

Lindahl has already driven down to the track once tonight.  Parker wasn’t going to risk being stopped by the law with no ID.  The track has a machine that can make him a new driver’s license, that will pass muster as long as the cops don’t call headquarters to have it run through their system–and they’re too bored with this roadblock gig to do that.

Using a picture he took of Parker’s faux license, bearing the name John B. Allen (that Parker can never use again), Tom cooked up a very real-looking card on a machine he himself purchased and trained on years before.  Presto chango, Parker is William G. Dodd, of Troy NY.  The name of a retired former colleague of Tom’s.  Now the name of his new colleague, for whom ‘retired’ is a synonym for ‘deceased.’

To say Parker is grateful for this vital service Tom has done him would be imputing to him an emotion he may not be capable of.  He’s appreciative.  Put it that way.  He respects good work of any kind.  And this is good work. Which he’s going to test by driving himself and Tom right back to this track he’s heard so much about.  Time to case the joint.

A billboard ahead on the right read

GRO-MORE RACING
Next Right

That’s the main gate,” Lindahl said.  “We don’t want that.  You keep going, about another quarter mile, there’s a dirt road on this side.”

The dashboard clock read 12:42.  In the last hour, William G. Dodd’gs new driver’s license had been inspected by two state troopers at roadblocks and found acceptable; which of course, was more likely at night than by day.

On the drive down, Lindahl had alternated between a kind of buzzing vibrancy, keyed up, giving Parker little spatter-shots of his autobiography, and a deep stillness, as he studied his newly changed interior landscape, as mute as his parrot.

There’s just two guards, working for an outside company, and they rarely patrol–they do watch TV monitors showing various parts of the complex, and the building is alarmed.  It’s not much security for a place that holds hundreds of thousands in cash.  If Parker had known about this track before now, he’d probably have hit it years ago.  Getting so hard to find soft targets like this in the new cashless economy.  He’s been dealing with that ever since we met him, and it’s only gotten worse.

But the fact is, people still use cash.  And for gambling–well, would you want the wife to know how much you blew at the track?  She will if it’s on your credit card statement.  Many businesses still prefer cash, insist on cash, because of the added expense that comes with credit, that little slice of the pie the banks take, the equipment you have to buy.

Gro-More got with the times, they take credit cards, but a lot of people still pay cash.  And no track casino yet (though you can bet it’s in the works–maybe that’s one of the reasons the owners were greasing palms in Albany).

(Sidebar: Little story before we go on–I work at a college campus.  A significant amount of petty cash–enough that you might question calling it petty–was kept in an office here.  When that office was closed, somebody broke in and took the money.  Thousands.  Everybody assumed it was an inside job, and it likely was, but the perps were never caught.

No publicity–because you wouldn’t want to encourage others to try the same thing.  It wasn’t the crime of the century or anything.  Nobody got hurt.  Most people here never even knew about it.  But when I go into that office now, and there’s just one person there, sometimes that person gives a little start, you know?  Calls out “Who’s there?”  Looks around to make sure I’m not wearing a mask, holding a pistol.

There’s stashes like this all over the place, waiting for some aspiring crook to find them, and they do, much more often than you think.  Because people still use cash.  In Colorado, that’s all the newly minted Pot Lords can use, because banks won’t touch their profits.  Nothing petty about that cash, and they buy big heavy safes for it, hire tough guys to watch it.

This particular score I’m talking about was minor league–they probably blew it all on a night on the town [or the kids’ braces, how would I know?]  But you think they’ll ever stop grinning to each other about it when they meet?  Easy money.  As long as you know how to avoid the pitfalls.  As long as you don’t get caught.

I won’t even mention the woman who got caught embezzling here–a lot more money than those office heisters got.  Nice lady, used to talk to her all the time.  That got covered in the campus paper [kids must have been so excited over the scoop.]  A different kind of crime, requiring a different kind of criminal, and a different kind of crime writer.  So many specialties.

She didn’t go to jail, by the way.  Which you can bet the office heisters would have done, if they’d been caught. Nobody said life was fair.  Or that the phrase “I won’t even mention” should be taken literally.

Okay, back to the book.  Which feels a lot more real than Parker robbing an island casino run by a German aristocrat who used to be a Nazi.  Or fighting off a small army of mobsters in an amusement park.  But you know, I love those too.  Ain’t genre grand?)

There’s a wooden wall surrounding the entire facility, but Tom can turn off the alarm, unlock the gate.  Nobody has ever tried to rob this place–a few times, weirdos came here wanting to hurt the horses, that’s the only thing they really worry about.  Parker could care less about the horses.  All he’s interested in is the lay-out, and Tom is giving it all to him as they go.

They’re in the main building now, where the offices are.  Tom takes Parker through one office, so as to avoid some security cameras.  Somebody left a partly eaten omelet on a desk.  Tom knocks it over.  Here’s the final secret word from the game Westlake played with McKean–only 99 pages in–

He had bumped into the wrong desk, causing the breakfast to flip over and hit the floor facedown.  Lindahl stooped to pick up the plate, but the omelet stuck to the black linoleum, which was now a black icean, and that omelet the sandy desert island, with the solitary strip of bacon sticking  up from it, slightly slumped but brave, the perfect representation of the stranded sailor, alone and waiting for his cartoon caption.  On the floor, it looked like what the Greeks call archeiropoietoi, a pictorial image not made by a human hand.

“I ought to clean that up,” Lindahl said, frowning down doubtfully at the new island.

“A mouse did it,” Parker told him.  “Drop the plate on it and let’s go.”

Maybe the last time in these books that Stark interjects his personal perspective and knowledge into the narrative–because you know damn well Parker doesn’t know from archeiropoietoi. He doesn’t see the egg island and bacon sailor.  Tom may perceive the image, but he doesn’t know the word.  Neither did Westlake, before McKean gave it to him.

But language maven that he was, he was always picking up odd bits of obscure neglected verbiage (like pootle), putting them back to work.  It sticks out a bit–but it reminds you somebody is telling this story, and he is seeing things Parker misses.  And perhaps wishing he could stop seeing them, but he sees them anyway.  Stark cares about art.  Even accidental art.  So contrived as this is, sticking a word into a book simply to answer a challenge from a fellow word nerd, it also feels organic to the series.  Strange.

With some care, they make their way to the room where the cash is stored, in long metal boxes–which Tom proudly says he’s stolen a few of, for when he does the job he was never really going to do until somebody came along to prod him into action.  (He’s crestfallen when Parker says later they have to dump those boxes, pack the loot into easily toted anonymous canvas duffels–where’s the romance in that?  Stark may be a romantic; Parker is anything but.)

Looking at the cash there now–the cash they aren’t going to take yet–Parker asks the crucial question.

“How much is in there, usually, on a Saturday night?”

“Probably more than a hundred thousand, less than one-fifty.”

Parker nodded.  Enough to keep him moving.

Lindahl, proud and anxious, said, “So what do you think?”

“It looks good.”

With a huge relieved smile, Lindahl said, “I knew you’d see it.  You ready to go?”

“Yes.”

On their way out, up the stairs from the basement, Lindahl said, “You know, I know why you wanted me to open that box.  You didn’t want your fingerprints on it.”

“That’s right,” Parker said.

So they drive back to Pooley, and Parker, beginning to see Lindahl as a fellow professional (one who needs a lot of retraining), starts to lay out the rules.  Lindahl has to follow his lead, do what he says.  He’s the expert–that’s why he’s here, and Lindahl is willing to settle for half.  They’re going to take no bills smaller than a ten.  They’re going to obtain cheap canvas duffels, not use the heavy identifiable metal cash boxes, as Tom, looking for symbolic retribution as much as profit, wanted to do.

Lindahl has some rules of his own–

“But I can say no, I guess,” Lindahl said.  “I can say no, I don’t want to do that, and then we don’t do it.  Like if you say, ‘Now we go kill the two guys in security,’ I can say no, and we don’t do it.”

I’m not out to kill anybody,” Parker said.  “It only makes the heat worse.”

“Well, whatever it might be,” Lindahl said. “If I don’t like it, I can say no, and we don’t do it.”

“You’re right,” Parker told him.  “You can always say no.”

“Good.  We  understand each other.” Lindahl nodded at the window. “Lights out there.”

Another roadblock.  Another ID check.  Another narrow escape. And then Parker hits Tom with the rule he didn’t see coming.  Because he still hasn’t grasped the full implications of what he’s doing.

Parker tells him they’re going to take the money tomorrow night.  Tom had the notion that they’d wait for the weekend.  The armored car comes on Friday to pick up the cash, doesn’t come back until Monday.  So do it Saturday night–by the time they find out the money is gone, he’s got a thirty-six hour lead for his getaway.  And they’ll know it was him.  They’ll know he beat them.

Parker says that’s all bunk.  A few more hours won’t make any difference, one way or another.  Tom’s going to leave a trail.  He’s not experienced at getaways.  He should just stay put, cache his share in that boarded up house next to his converted garage, look the cops and prosecutors right in the eye and say he didn’t do it.  Let them prove he did.  In a year, he tells people he’s going on a trip, and he doesn’t come back.  Sets himself up in a new place.  Tells people back home he decided to retire someplace warm.

This is decent advice in the abstract, I think–though it might require more nerve and conviction than Tom has shown us so far.  It has the advantage that Tom wouldn’t need to build up a new identity from scratch, and he could still collect Social Security in a decade or so. It’s not like they’re heisting millions here.  Tom’s share would amount to no more than a small nest egg in the early 21st.  The whole take wouldn’t be enough to set him up for life.

So Parker’s suggestion would have much to recommend it–if so many people hadn’t already seen Tom with ‘Ed Smith.’  At this point, only Cory and Cal know who that really is–though Fred suspects.  Tom has also shown his ID at multiple roadblocks, going to and from the track.  The second time with a man matching Parker’s description, using an ID Tom made himself, with the name of a former co-worker of his on it.  Too many weak spots.  It wouldn’t work. Tom would get taken by the law–or tortured by greedy low-lifes like the Dennisons, for his share of the take.  Either way, he’d never make it to retirement.  You have to believe Parker knows that.

Does Parker care that he’s giving Tom bad advice?  Nope.  Tom’s no more than half a professional to him at this point, if that.  Parker wants to do the job ASAP because he needs to get out of there.  Thanks to Tom, he’s got new ID–he’ll have the money soon enough–now he needs a few other things.  What happens to Tom is up to Tom.  If he can’t see the cracks in the scenario Parker is laying out for him, he’s never going to make it on the run anyway.  It’s no different from what Parker said to Fred and Tom, to get them not to talk about Fred shooting the old derelict in the back. Telling them an edited version of the truth, to get the reaction he wants.

(It’s not all that different from the song and dance he gave that scared teenager in The Jugger, about how he’d help the kid get away from the consequences of killing someone by mistake. The kid takes Parker at his word. He’s making a grave mistake. Spoiler pun alert.)

Difference here is, he still needs Tom to pull the heist–and for all his lack of seasoning, Tom is starting to impress Parker with his sagacity.  There’s a wall between them, and Lindahl is straddling it, talking about what he will and won’t do.  To get the real advice, the full benefit of Parker’s expertise, he needs to get both feet planted on the other side of that wall.  Until that happens, he’s just another civilian–and, if he gets in Parker’s way, a casualty of war.  (Remind me again why some people think Parker got soft in the later books?)

They make it back.  It’s five-thirty in the morning.  Parker tells Tom to set the alarm for ten.  “You’ll sleep when we’re finished,” Parker tells him.  One way or another……

So next morning, Parker shows Tom the way he fixed up that boarded house so that you can get in or out without leaving any trace.  Then they drive to a mall that’s on its last legs.  Tom has to get those duffels, and the plastic gloves.

Parker has more serious shopping to do.  He brought the pistol he stole last night.  Uses it to rob one of those hip clothing stores where they look at you funny if you’re over thirty.  One of those places where people think it’s cute if you wear clothing with the name of a penitentiary on it.  ‘The Rad’ (now what could that be aimed at?)   He scares the kid at the cash register out of five year’s growth.  Gets cash he can actually spend on the road–in case the job tonight doesn’t work out.

Tom comes out of the Walmart or Target or whatever with the equipment.  They drive back.  Meet squad cars going the other way, lights flashing.  Tom wonders what’s up.  “Nothing to do with us,” Parker said. Us. Get it?  Mental reservation. I knew he was raised Catholic.  Just like Dortmunder.  Funny what takes and what doesn’t.

They stop to eat, and Parker tells him about Cory and Cal–doling out information in small amounts.  Have to be careful not to scare this finger away before they get into the pie.

Fred Thiemann’s wife is waiting for them when they get back.  She’s come for Fred’s hunting rifle.  He’s told her what happened at Wolf Peak.

Looking at her through the windshield, Parker saw a woman who was weighed down by something.  Not angry, not frightened, but distracted enough not to care what kind of appearance she made.  She was simply out in the world, braced for whatever the bad news would turn out to be.

Parker and Lindahl got out of the SUV, and Lindahl said “Jane.  How’s Fred?”

“Coming apart at the seams.” She turned bleak eyes toward Parker.  “You’re Ed Smith, I guess.”

“That’s right.”

“Fred’s afraid of you,” she said. “I’m not sure why.”

Parker shrugged.  “Neither am I.”

She tells them that Fred blames ‘Ed’ for what happened–not the shooting–he knows that’s on him–but for his deciding not to tell the police what happened.

That was a violation of his nature–maybe worse than the shooting itself, which was just an impulse act, regrettably commonplace, wherever firearms are sold.  He can’t live with it, and he can’t go back and fix it.

Parker doesn’t care what Fred can live with.  He just wants him to hold whatever’s bugging him in for another day, two at most.  He tells Jane to say that George, their son serving his time in Attica, will want Fred to be there when he gets out.  A not so subtle message about truth and consequences.  That Fred will somehow manage to garble, but we’ll get to that.

Cory and Cal show up as Jane is leaving.  All of a sudden, it’s like Grand Central Station at the hermitage.  Tom probably didn’t have as many visitors in the past year as he’s had in the past twenty-four hours.

Cal shows Tom a copy of the police artist sketch of Parker, done to Detective Gwen Reversa’s specifications.  It’s not a really good likeness.  But it’s a likeness.

“He could be a thousand guys,” Parker said.

“Not a thousand.”

Lindahl said, “Cal, if this picture looks so much like Ed here, and everybody up at the meeting at St. Stanislas had a copy of the picture, and Ed was standing right there with us, how come nobody else saw it?  How come everybody in the goddam parking lot didn’t turn around and make a citizen’s arrest?”

“It was that story in school,” Cal said, and frowned deeply as he turned to hand the sketch to Cory.  “That writer we had to read, all that spooky stuff.  Poe.  The something letter.  All about how everybody’s looking for this letter, and nobody can find it, and that’s because it’s right out there in plain sight, the one place you wouldn’t think it would be.  So  here’s a fella, and a whole bunch of guys get together to find  him, and where’s the best place he oughta hide?  Right with the bunch looking for him, the one place nobody in the county’s gonna think to look.”

Voice arched with sarcasm, Lindahl said, “And you, Cal, you’re the only one there figured it out.”

“Could happen,” Cal said, comfortable with himself.  “Could happen.”

“Not this time,” Parker said, and Cory said, “Look at that.”

Tom needs to turn that TV off sometime.  The one with the parrot over it.  It’s showing news footage about the daring robbery at the local mall.  Police say it was one of the bank robbers.  Oh, and the clerk’s name is Edwin Kislamski (he’s still shaking, but he’s also enjoying his moment of celebrity).  So we’ve got a Fred, an ‘Ed’ and now an Edwin.

Lindahl says nothing, but he’s trembling with anger and fear.  Parker waits to see if he’s going to have to shoot all three of them.  Tom somehow holds it all in, Cal oversteps his bounds, and Parker slaps him (this is where we came in).  Cory reins Cal in, and the brothers depart.  Parker is not reassured–he can see Cory isn’t like his brother.  He’s got a plan.

(You wouldn’t expect a guy like Cal to reference Poe, would you?  Something about that story got to him, but he never followed up, never became a reader,  never decided to see how many other interesting things you might learn from books, how far they might take you. Cory worked harder in school, learned self-control, how to plan, but he lacked imagination, vision, humor. Two halves who don’t quite make a whole, but who remain somehow essential to each other.  Ah, Anarchaos!  Almost missed that one, Mr. Westlake.

But you’re not talking about brothers now, anymore than you were back then. You’re talking about different parts of the self–your own younger self.  About who and what you might have been, if things had been a little different.  If you hadn’t gotten the two halves better aligned.  And what was it about losing an eye for a while that brought that out in you?  That got you thinking about contingency again.  There but for the grace of…..)

Tom’s  angry at Parker.  Not just for robbing a store while he was nearby, but for not telling him about it, even afterwards.  Not telling him about the gun, either.  Aren’t they partners?  Well no, not really. He understands that now.

But he’s getting over the anger, even while he’s expressing it.  Because after all, what did he expect when he went out looking for a crook to help him rob a racetrack?  It’s not quite the Scorpion and the Frog (Parker would at least wait until they were on the other side)–but–he’s on the edge of a realization.  An insight.  An  understanding very few have ever arrived at, about his guest.

After the Dennisons left, Parker said, “I’ll drive down to the corner, put some gas in the car.”

Sounding bitter, Lindahl said, “Using some of the money you stole from that boy?”

Parker looked at him. “You got that wrong, Tom,” he said. “I didn’t take anything from that boy.  I took some cash from a company that has nine hundred stores.  I needed the cash.  You know that.”

“You had that gun all along?”

“I’ll be right back,” Parker said, and turned to the door.

“No, wait.”

Parker looked back, and could see that Lindahl was trying to adjust his thinking.  He waited, and Lindahl nodded and said, “All right.  I know who you are, I already knew who you were.  I shouldn’t act as though it’s any of my business.”

“That’s right,” Parker said.

“It’s hard,” Lindahl said. “It’s hard to be around…”

The sentence trailed off, but Parker understood.  It’s hard to be around a carnivore.  “It won’t be for long,” he said.

I could almost believe that’s sympathy.  Well–empathy.  Tom understood him, just for a moment.  That’s rare.  He’s willing to return the favor.  It’s hard for a carnivore too, in a world of sheep. Lonely.

Tom tells Parker don’t go to the gas station just up the main drag in Pooley–it’s run by a semi-retired grease monkey, who doesn’t really like selling gas, so he charges more, hawks lottery tickets on the side.  Almost as anti-social as Tom.

Name’s Brian Hopwood. He’s a good mechanic, honest about that.  Always working on some car or other.  No, Tom says, go to the Getty station, not much further, way cheaper.  Like it really matters when they’re about to commit grand larceny.  Tom’s still in the straight world, worried about bargains.  Well, Parker needs a bargain deal on a getaway car.  Free would be good.  You won’t get that at Getty.  But that’s where he tells Lindahl he’s going.

He drives to the corner, and it’s one of those places you pay inside before you pump it yourself (it’s all self-service in New York, once you’re out of the big cities–New Jersey is more civilized, you can stay in your car, watch somebody wipe your windshield for you).  He walks in, gives Hopwood two twenties, says he’ll probably be needing change.  What he needs is a better look at this place and its proprietor.

He tells Hopwood he’s the guy staying with Tom Lindahl, knowing that Hopwood would have already recognized the car he’s serviced in the past.  He’s servicing a few others right now.  Just waiting there in the parking lot–the keys on the rack inside.  Thinks to himself he’ll come back later, pick out a ride.

Not so fast, sonny.  All of a sudden, Hopwood’s pointing a Seecamp LWS32 at him.  You know, there really are an awful lot of tiny little guns in these books.  I guess because with Parker, a gun really is just a gun.

250px-LWS32

But a .32 bullet really hurts, no matter what size the gun is.  Hopwood does the old don’t move a muscle routine.  He has the wanted poster, with the damn drawing.  Says he’ll wing Parker if he doesn’t get his hands over his head.  Figuring he’ll wait his chance, Parker starts to comply–and a woman comes in.  That same woman who talked to him last night.  Wanted to know if she could help.  She just did.  Parker throws her at Hopwood, and takes out his own tiny pistol.  “I don’t wing,” he says.

And to finish out Part Two, this woman looks at the Smith & Wesson Parker is now pointing at her and Hopwood, and says “You! You’re the one who stole Jack’s gun!”  Detectives. You can’t get away from them.  No matter how small the town is.

That’s a bit over 6,000 words.  For a section of the book that runs eleven chapters, fifty-seven pages.  Didn’t leave much meat on the bone for you this time, did I Greg?  Well, you know what they say about carnivores.  They always come back for thirds.  See you at Post #200.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Ask The Parrot

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.

Robert Frost

Thiemann looked out the windshield, not saying anything more, but thinking it over. He was suspicious of something, but he didn’t know what.  He had sensed the otherness in Parker, but he didn’t know what it meant.

An older Cadillac convertible, bright red, top down, big as a speedboat, came the other way, suddenly honking madly.  The three guys in it, middle-aged, in their bright orange or red hunting caps, waved hands with beer cans in them at Lindahl, who honked and waved back but didn’t stop.  Neither did the Cadillac, which went on by, the three guys all grinning and shouting things, now at Parker and Thiemann. They were very happy. Parker nodded, but didn’t honk.

“That’s part of our group,” Thiemann said.

“I know.”

“They shouldn’t be drinking.  That’s the worst thing you can do.”  Then Thiemann turned away with a grimace.  “Almost the worst thing.”

Ahead, Lindahl signaled for a left, and Parker did too.  “How much farther?”

“A couple miles.” Thiemann turned toward him again.  “You don’t think much of us, do you?”

“How do you mean?”

“Not just those guys with the beer,” Thiemann said.  “All of us, running around, being man hunters.  You could see in those troopers’ eyes, they thought we were all just a joke.  Useless and a joke.  And I could see it in your eyes too.  You think the same thing.”

Parker followed Lindahl around the turn.  Thiemann’s sense of Parker’s otherness, which had led him toward suspicion, had now led him to embarrassment instead. Parker wasn’t an alien from outside them, unknown and untrusted, he was a judge from above them, finding them wanting. Good; that moved Thiemann away from a direction that might have caused trouble.

Richard Stark

When Westlake conceived and wrote The Jugger, it seems to me that he had a very specific purpose in mind.  A bottle story, as it’s sometimes called.   Isolate Parker in a small midwestern town, where he would be cut off from the world he knows, his fellow professionals.

Not planning a job, because he just had a very satisfactory one, in Copper Canyon. Not knowing the terrain, the people he interacts with, the rules of the game he’s playing, or its stakes.  Trying to blend into the crowd, as he always does, finding it harder than usual, because any stranger draws attention in such a hick burg.  Fish out of water story would be another applicable term. But Parker is no fish.

He can’t leave until he knows what happened to his mentor Joe Sheer, and why–to see if it represents a threat to him.  Which it does.  There’s a lot of violence and evil beneath the innocent facade of that town, along with some genuine innocence.  Well, that’s pretty much true wherever humans live.  Parker has known that a long time.  He has never for one moment considered himself human.  Because he’s not.  What does he consider himself to be?  Unknown.

No doubt there’s a bit of Bad Day at Honda in it.  That short story by Howard Breslin that got turned into Bad Day at Black Rock.  I’ve read the story, seen the movie, and they’re both good–not a patch on The Jugger.  The Jugger, to me, is one of the finest short novels ever produced in any genre.  A minor masterpiece.  (The Godard film loosely adapted from it stinks on ice, which is nobody’s fault but Godard’s. Auteur theory cuts both ways.)

Westlake would not have agreed.  He repeatedly called The Jugger the worst failure he ever had.  Because he felt like he hadn’t come up with a strong enough motivation for Parker to come to this town in the first place, expose himself to so much risk with no potential reward.  Spencer Tracy comes to Black Rock because he’s a decent man trying to find out what happened to a friend.  Parker is neither decent nor a man, and in his mind, he doesn’t have friends.

And that kind of failure, real or perceived (and art is all about perceptions anyway, right?) tended to eat at Westlake, make him look for a way to get it right.  I think that’s part of what led him to write this book.  A do-over.  Parker’s motivation is impeccably contrived this time.  Fleeing the law after a heist gone wrong, he’s forced to take shelter in a slow-dying upstate NY hamlet, not far from where his creator grew up.  He makes a run for it too soon, the hounds will get him. Tarries too long, same deal.

Instead of trying to solve the mystery of a colleague’s death, he’s trying to stay out of prison, avoid the tightening dragnet.  He looks to blend in with his rustic surroundings, does his human impression once more, and once more learns it’s a harder act to pull off in the provinces.

The thing that really sticks out about The Jugger, probably hurt its sales when it first came out–that it’s got no heist in it–not an issue here.  The heist comes to Parker, via a most unexpected finger, with a story of his own to tell.  Parker has a secondary motivation to stick around.  A big stash of poorly guarded cash.

So maybe that chronic itch in the back of Westlake’s head was finally eased.  A very fine and oddly revealing late entry in the Parker series resulted.  I still think The Jugger is better as a standalone story, simpler anyway, but this center panel of the final Starkian Triptych has murky depths of its own to plumb. We’ll toss a line in, see how far down it goes.

Ask the Parrot picks up minutes after the end of Nobody Runs Forever, with Parker still climbing a steep wooded slope.  He can’t see down to the bottom anymore, but he knows the state troopers and their tracking dogs will be coming up after him.  He looks up, and sees a man holding a hunting rifle.  Figuring better the devil you don’t know, he finishes the climb.

At some point in that climb, he crossed into New York state from northwest Massachusetts.  My guess is Rensselaer County.  Not far from Albany,  The part of the world where Donald Westlake’s first conscious memories would have occurred.

This hunter’s name is Tom Lindahl.  He saw news coverage of the robbery and the subsequent manhunt.  They’re just a short drive from his house.  He ostensibly went out to plink a few rabbits, but really he was hoping to run into a genuine bank robber.  Someone with the guts to pull that kind of job.  “Those guys aren’t afraid of their own shadow, they go out and do what has to be done.”   Thinks he can use a man like that.

But he’s no fool.  He knows Parker would happily jump him, take his gun and his Ford SUV, make a dash for it.  Lindahl makes it very clear the searchers are up here as well, roadblocks all over the place, and Parker wouldn’t get very far.  But they aren’t going to search his home. A fugitive could find respite there.  He’s speaking in terms Parker can  understand–mutual need.

But what is it Lindahl needs from him?  What has he stumbled into here, in a ‘town’ called Pooley, that is not much more these days than a stoplight, a gas station, a few shuttered businesses, and a handful of people waiting to die?  And why does Lindahl have a green parrot (who doesn’t talk) in a cage on top of his TV set?  We never learn the answer to the last question (the bird’s not talking), but the others are easy enough.

“I’m a whistle-blower,” Lindahl said, as though he’d been planning some much longer way to day it.  “My wife told me not to do it, she said I’d love everything including her, and she was right.  But I’m bullheaded.”

“Where did you blow this whistle?”

“I worked for twenty-two years at a racetrack down toward Syracuse,” Lindahl said, “named Gro-More.  It was named afer a farm feed company that went bankrupt forty years ago.  They never changed the name.”

“You blew a whistle.”

“I was a manager, I was in charge of infrastructure, the upkeep of the buildings, the stands, the track.  Hired people, contracted out.  I was nothing to do with money.”

“So whatever this is,” Parker said, “you shouldn’t have known about it.”

“I didn’t have to know about it.” Lindahl shook his head, explaining himself.  “What we had was a clean track,” he said. “The people working there, we were all happy to be at a clean track.  There’s a thousand ways for a track to be dirty, but there’s only one way to be clean, so when I found out what they were doing with the money, it just hurt me.  It was like doing something dirty to a member of my own family.”

The strain of getting his point across was deepening the lines in his face.  He broke off, made erasing gestures, and said, “I need a beer. I can’t tell this without a beer.” Rising, he said, “You want one?”

“No, but you go ahead.”

What he found out was that the people who owned the track were using it to launder money given to state politicians running for reelection. It’s not a mob-run track, they always did everything straight there, but one supposes the owners had other concerns, and this was a convenient way to address them.

Tom went to the state police.  He wore a wire (still with the wires).  But the people this scandal would have touched had too much suction.  So in the end, the only one who lost his job (and his wife) was the whistle-blower.  And ever since, he’s lived by himself, stewing in his own juices, with only a parrot for company. (I guess maybe the answer there is that they don’t eat much, you don’t have to walk them, and good bet a parrot will outlive a bitter lonely middle-aged man.)

He wants his own back, on several different levels, and that’s why he wants to rob Gro-More.  He knows the track inside-out.  He’s got keys to everything.  He still goes in there some nights, just walks around, never gets caught, and if he sees a new lock, he finds the key and copies it. You get the feeling he still considers it to be his, somehow.

Nobody’s ever tried to rob it, so security is a joke; two bored guards nearing retirement, watching TV screens at night.  It has to be done during one of the two twenty-four day meets held during the year, and there’s one going on right now.  At an absolute minimum, there’d be a hundred grand in untraceable cash–usually quite a bit more.  But he hasn’t got the experience to spot potential pitfalls.  Nor does he have the guts do to it alone. He needs an expert. He needs a secret sharer.

Parker finds the set-up at the track interesting, from a professional standpoint, but he’s just done a heist, he needs to get  back to Claire, and he’s had his fill of pissed-off amateurs for the time being. He’ll just humor Lindahl, wait for a good moment to scram.

Then the TV under the parrot’s cage shows him a confederate’s face–Nick Dalesia.  They caught him (comes out later that the cash from the bank was new, and extremely traceable). The first thing you expect a pro in that position to do is give up the location of the money for a lighter sentence.  Meaning Parker is back to square one, and now that track is starting to look good to him.  Back to the races.

Parker says they’ll go take a look at it tonight–he needs to see for himself if it’s as good as Tom says.  But before they have a chance to discuss it further, a car parks outside the converted garage Tom lives in now.  Tom wants to know if Parker is there or not.

When there’s no place to hide, stand where you are.  Parker said, “I’m Ed Smith, I used to work with you years ago at the track, I moved to Chicago, I’m back for a visit.”

“Smith?”

“There are people named Smith,” Parker said as a heavyset man in maroon  windbreaker got out of the car.  “Who’s he?”

Name’s Fred (there are also people named Fred, quite a few in Westlake novels). Tom can’t place the last name.  Used to know him from the Rod and Gun Club.  Which he’s still technically a member of, though he hasn’t paid dues in years.

(Before we go any further, I think I detect a final homage to Peter Rabe in Parker’s alias, and his matter-of-fact justification for it–from Anatomy of a Killer.

When the policeman turned him over, he found one driver’s license which said Smith and another one which said Jordan.

“Must be Jordan,” he said. “There aren’t any Smiths.”

Sure there are.  So many that when the law tries to look for an Ed Smith in their fancy databases, later in the book, they get an overload of useless data.  Parker laying down a false trail for the hounds. But the downside is that people will naturally assume it’s an alias, even though there are actual Smiths. Can’t say I know a single one.  Even though my workplace directory has sixteen of them.  Half as many Joneses.  They’re keeping up and then some.

So anyway Fred is all hepped up over the manhunt for the bank robbers.  The state police have requested that groups like the American Legion, VFW, and sportsman’s clubs (the linking element being guns and spare time) volunteer to help cover the area. Fred wants Tom to pitch in and do his bit.

Tom, wanting no part of the search (because he’s already won that game), looks at ‘Ed.’  Who says says the safest place to be is with the posse.  Which Fred interprets as ‘Ed’ wanting safety in numbers from these violent fugitives, but Tom knows what Parker really means–the best protective coloration he can take on at present is blaze orange–that or a red and black checked hunting jacket, which is what he borrows from Tom, along with a good pair of boots and a rifle. Blend into the herd. Tom is nervous about giving Parker a gun. Parker’s not the one he should worry about.

They go to a community center to get their marching orders–which means now a lot of people have seen Tom’s guest, including two brothers, younger than most of the posse, local troublemakers–one with an eyepatch. Three eyes giving Parker a look he doesn’t like one bit, nor should he.  More on them later.

All the troopers overseeing the search make it clear they think this posse thing is a dumb-ass idea, but whoever had it outranks them, and at least this heads off any freelance vigilante crap.  They do their best to send the deputies to very isolated places where the robbers are least likely to be found. With luck, they’ll only shoot at each other. But in a Parker novel, that kind of luck is thin in the ground.

The three of them get through all the roadblocks just fine, nobody asks to see Parker’s ID, just as well, since he doesn’t have any.  They get assigned to search Wolf Peak (hmmmm), the site of an old abandoned railroad station, from the days when there was still a lumber industry there.  The roof of the station has fallen in, there are trees growing up out of it.

There’s a bedroll by one of the crumbling walls.  There are signs its owner heard them coming, forced his way through the bramble to escape. Fred’s excitement is palpable. Never mind they were told to only defend themselves if attacked, report back if they saw anything suspicious–he’s getting away!

They hear somebody running through the brush, give pursuit.  Tom yells at Fred not to do it.  He does anyway.  And then they’re all looking at the body of a ragged scabrous old derelict, his life’s blood oozing from a bullet wound in his back.  Fred, the light in his eyes dimming, asks why he was running.  “Men with guns chased him,” Parker responds.  Fred’s idea of himself collapses like the roof of that station.  Though as we’ll learn, the foundations were already compromised.

And for Parker this is a problem, because if the police learn about the shooting, they’re going to question all three of them–he’s a witness to accidental manslaughter, at the very least.  Not blending into the herd anymore, and he won’t have the right answers to their questions.  He’s got to talk Fred into staying quiet. Tom as well.

He tries to make it sound like he’s concerned for all three of them, which is true if you subtract two.  Good chance Fred serves a short prison sentence.  He and Tom will be implicated.  The old hobo was killing himself, just more slowly and painfully.  It was a mistake, why beat yourself up about it?  Why be a martyr?  You know, it’s not as if he doesn’t practice what he preaches.

Ground’s too hard to dig a grave.  He asks about carnivorous wildlife in the area, who could dispose of the remains–they tell him there’s coyotes, bobcats, hosts of Turkey Vultures.  Corpse picked clean, bones carried off to gnaw on.  They don’t mention timber wolves.  Been a long time since there were any of those at Wolf Peak.

Fred wants to make a clean breast, purge himself, but he’s terrified of prison–and of the world knowing what he’s become.  He’s suspicious of ‘Ed’s motives for counseling silence, but that doesn’t make the arguments any less persuasive.  He’s in shock, clay that can be easily molded–but which might rebel against the sculptor later on.

Tom is torn both ways–if it comes out who his guest really is, he’s in more trouble than Fred.  But he still knows what Parker is doing here, doesn’t like it. Parker doesn’t care what Tom likes.  If need be, he’ll shoot both of them, take his chances in Tom’s car, with Tom’s other rifle, that hasn’t been fired yet.  But there’s no need for any of that if they’re both going to be reasonable.  Not being human, he only kills when he has to.  A moral in there somewhere, I’m sure.

For all their doubts, they both agree to stay silent–once they’ve reported back to the state troopers and not mentioned the shooting, they’ve already committed a crime.  As they take the shellshocked Fred back home (they’re hanging onto Fred’s rifle for the time being), Parker tells Fred he should talk to his wife about it, don’t keep it locked up inside, where it can fester.  He tries to sound sympathetic, compassionate. Not really his strong suit.

He really has been watching us a long time now, knows more than he used to about how our minds work, how to manipulate us. There are, however, still significant gaps in his understanding of our mental make-up.  Well, that would be true of anyone, right?

(For those who have read Ripley Underground; I see the parallels, and so did Stark.  He wrote this type of scene almost as well as Highsmith  There are other types of scene she wrote almost as well as him.  And still other types sui generis to each.)

And as Lindahl drives Parker back to the house, he gets the rest of the story.  Fred’s son was on active duty in Iraq when he was caught looting.  He saw the locals doing it, the ones referred to as Hawasim, an Arabic slang term relating to something Saddam said about the war (there’s a story about how that word ended up in this book, we’ll get to that).  He went a little too native; now he’s serving a stretch in Attica.  Hit Fred very hard. Made him think about prison a lot.  And maybe want to take his anger out on the same general type of person who corrupted his son.

Parker wishes he’d known all this before.  Now he understands better why Fred did what he did–and why talking to his wife about it may not be enough to keep him in one piece, mentally.  And if he goes all to pieces….well, hopefully Parker will be gone by then.  Fred will be somebody else’s problem then.

The immediate problem is the racetrack.  And now Tom, who was getting cold feet before Fred showed up, is telling Parker he definitely wants to do it.  The encounter with Fred has reminded him how everyone there sees him–as a crazy old hermit, on his way to being like that guy dead by the railroad station.  He can never get past that–he’s got to escape this life, this world, if he wants to be anyone else.  Parker says they’ll drive out that night to look it over.

While Tom goes out to get food, Parker goes over to the boarded-up house by Tom’s converted garage.  He rigs the door so that it still looks boarded up, but he can get in and out easily (the old gag with the sawed-off nails that goes back to Jimmy the Kid).

Tom comes back with pizza, and as they eat, it comes out that there’s a machine at the track used to make employee ID’s.  Tom bought the machine, knows how to use it, could run off a new driver’s license for Parker, out of the burned fake license he has now under the name John. B. Allen.  Give him a new identity, that would hold up to a cursory glance, nothing more.

So Parker sends Tom to the track by himself–more than an hour’s drive, each way.  He’ll make the new license, and come back with it.  Then they’ll drive out together that same night.  This way, Parker doesn’t have to risk hitting a road block with no ID.  Each man is a bit antsy about letting the other out of his sight that long, but if you gotta you gotta.

While Tom is gone, Parker has visitors.  The two brothers from earlier that day.  Still giving him funny looks, like they know something.  Like they want something.

They figure he’s the bank robber, which he is.  They figure they can get some of that money, which they can’t, but the one with the patch, Cal, no point telling him that.  He was pretty wild before he lost his eye.  He’s still got scars.  He wants plastic surgery and a glass eye.  He wants to look like Cory again, the calmer smarter brother–his twin.  He wants that money.

Parker manages to intimidate both of them into leaving (now there’s a psychological technique he has few peers at), but it’s clear they haven’t given up.  Cory, the brains, figures it’s time for a strategic withdrawal.  As they go, Parker tells Cal (the opposite of brains) to make sure nothing happens to his other eye.  Frightened, ashamed, and enraged at Parker for making him feel that way, Cal asks him what about the eye he lost?  “Ask the parrot,” Parker responds.  I believe that constitutes the only instance where the title of a Stark novel is derived from a line of dialogue.  Or vice-versa.  Ask the author.

Still plenty of time before Tom gets back.  Parker goes for a walk in town.  Pooley only runs a few blocks either way, and pedestrians are as rare as they would be in Los Angeles. A woman in her thirties (very young for this burg) pulls up, asks if he needs help.  Not suspicious.  Just being neighborly.  He tells her he’s staying with Tom Lindahl.  She’s amazed.  Everybody knows Tom is a wacky old recluse.

He needs a gun. Pistol, not hunting rifle.  He figures he can find one in the home of one of these elderly shut-ins.  He figures right.  Sees an old man watching TV in his living room.  Breaks in the back way with a credit card.

There were two places people usually kept a handgun inside a house, both in the bedroom: either in a locked box atop a dresser or in a locked drawer in a bedside table.  There was no box on top of the dresser in here, only coins, socks, magazines, and a very thin wallet, but the lower of two drawers in the bedside table was locked.

Parker opened the drawer above that one, felt in the near-darkness through a jumble of medicines, flashlight, eyeglasses, and a deck of playing cards, and found the key.  He closed that drawer, unlocked the other, and took out a Smith & Wesson Ranger in .22 caliber, a stubby blue-black revolver with a two-inch barrel, moderately accurate across an average room, not much good beyond that.  But it would do.

I don’t believe Smith & Wesson ever made a gun called the Ranger.  I don’t know if Westlake made a mistake, or he just wanted to call it that for some reason. Pretty sure this is the gun Parker found, though (with a box of ammo, citizens can be so helpful).

2-in-Mod-34-300x223

Model 317 Kit Gun.  So called because in all its variations, it’s compact and light-weight, and you can carry it around with your camping gear, or in your fishing satchel, or whatever.  Just what an old man in the country would have.  And put in his locked night table drawer, because robbers.  But what does he have that a robber would want?  He never thought it that far out.  Parker did.

Parker walks back, goes into the boarded up house through his secret entrance, with his new pistol and a flashlight.  He waits in the attic, watching for Tom to get back.  Just in case Tom had a change of heart, called the cops.  When he’s sure Tom came back alone, he goes back down.  Sees his new ID.  It’s really nice.  This guy can be useful.  Pity if he has to kill him.  End of Part One.

I think I’m going to leave it there for now.  Been over a week since I posted, and I’m thinking this will be another three-parter after all.  I’ve got all the cover images I need for that.  Lots of parrots next time.  Nary a one of them green.  Go figure.

But before I sign off until next time, let me get this out of the way.  There are three words in this book that Westlake put in there as his answer to a spirited challenge from ‘activist lexicographer’ Erin McKean, in a segment she did (does?) for NPR’s Fresh Air.  (Both segments aired in 2004, the year Nobody Runs Forever came out, and Westlake mentions having finished the previous book a year ago, and the next one would be out in about a year and a half.  So much for my supposition he wrote them back to back.)

Hawasim was one word–the only one that changed the book in a significant way–perhaps it never occurred to Westlake to make Fred’s son a solder in Iraq before he got this assignment from Ms. McKean.

Blat (referring to a smalltime local paper of dubious quality) was another–Parker’s reading one of those to get an idea of his surroundings, just before Tom tells him about the whistle-blower thing.  The version you hear on the NPR segment is a lot more involved than what he finally settled on.  Probably because it wouldn’t make sense that a local blat could have the news about Dalesia’s capture so soon, complete with photo.

The third and strangest word we’ll get to next time, as I pootle along in my own fashion.

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Nobody Runs Forever, Part 3

Carl_Gustav_recoilless_rifleOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“You said it was Jersey plates,” Barry pointed out, and poured them both some more chardonnay.  “Maybe he went home.”

“Or maybe he’s lying low,” she said.  “If he isn’t a landscape designer, and I know damn well he isn’t, then what’s he doing here, what’s he doing with Elaine Langen, and why are they both lying about it?”

“Hanky-panky?”

“No,” she said, sure of that.  “She would, with anything in pants, but not him.  He’s a cold guy.  With me, when I stopped him, he wore this affability like a coat, it wasn’t him.”

“The cloak of invisibility,” Barry suggested.

“Exactly. Who knows who he is, down in there?”

It starts with technology, but it still ends with tracker dogs.

One more cover gallery, and a bit repetitive, I know, but how fortunate that University of Chicago Press finally published The Triptych.  Meaning that from now on, all twenty-eight of the books Westlake published as Stark are evailable, which means they’ll stay in ‘print’ no matter what.  Well, for the foreseeable future, which Parker wouldn’t think was saying anything much.

Not much to say about the cover itself, either–not sure what Parker is leaning against there.  Bank vault door?  Safe tumbler?  I’ve no idea.  The one next to it is tiresomely over-literal, and I’m not even sure who put out that edition.

Rivages, in its Thriller and Noir imprints both, chose to focus on Parker’s target–an armored car.  And was perhaps alone in choosing not to use the original title. Google tells me that it would translate to Personne Ne Court Toujours, though presumably other phrasings would be possible.  Perhaps none had the right ring, so they went with the above, which means ‘running on empty.’  Sound familiar?

C’est vrai. (And Parker has seen his share of both fire and rain.)

Marilyn Stasio, in her NY Times review column devoted to crime fiction (descended from the Criminals At Large column once written by Anthony Boucher, that originally championed these books), doesn’t so much review this book as describe it.  Never having been taken seriously in the past, but now possessing the authority of longevity, Stark and his chief protagonist are treated as found art, changeless relics of another time, which isn’t altogether wrong, but you miss a lot that way–it’s all been changing over time, we’ve seen that in some detail here. (And if Parker doesn’t have a sense of humor, please explain the ending of The Seventh to me, Ms. Stasio. )

The world around Parker is shifting, and he has no choice but to shift with it.  The question is, how far can he adapt to the encroaching exigencies of this digital age and still remain himself?  If he can’t go far enough, how much longer can he last?  Is he running on empty?   He wouldn’t be alone.

This book is hard to figure, and that’s because it’s not a book.  It’s one third of a book.  Three novels that form one trifurcated epic.   Not a trilogy, but a Triptych, as I said, as Westlake belatedly realized.

Like Butcher’s Moon, the blood-drenched epic that concluded the First Sixteen (which isn’t divided into sections at all, just fifty-five chapters of ever-switching perspectives), this longer, bleaker, more contemplative and far less sanguinary conclusion to the Final Eight just doesn’t fit the profile.  But unlike Butcher’s Moon, it pretends to.

We did the multi-POV round-robin thing in Part Two, each chapter from a different character’s perspective.  Part Three sticks with Parker and his colleagues.  But then there’s Part Four, which flouts the established protocol altogether.

In the fairly long first chapter of Part Four, where the heist finally goes down, Stark is just floating around in the ether, like a hovering hawk with x-ray vision, showing us everything happening at once, checking in on everybody who still matters in the story.  He can do what the frustrated heist planner in Westlake’s Castle In The Air can only fantasize about.

What Eustace wanted, what Eustace needed, was for the entire city of Paris to suddenly be reduced to the size and aspect of a model train layout, with himself on a high stool overlooking the whole thing.

Much easier to do for a lightly peopled corner of New England, late at night, but still a tricky balancing act for any writer.  Westlake had done something like it in a few chapters of Dancing Aztecs, though in a more lyrical form.  (If you want to see that form done to perfection in a recent novel, I shall again plug Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent).

This really should have been released as one volume, and I hope it will be someday–you can’t properly appreciate any one panel in The Triptych without the others to refer to.  To split them apart almost amounts to art crime.  That I hold these three final installments of the Parker Saga in  higher estimation than some probably stems from the fact that I read all three in quick succession.  As individual books, they must always be somewhat unsatisfying, for all their undoubted merits.  Their cumulative impact is exponentially greater.

As a unified whole, they are still far from perfect: the author was starting to falter, his race nearly run–but you understand them much better that way, how each complements the other.  I don’t know how close together Westlake wrote them, but he certainly came to understand along the way what he was doing here, quite different from anything he’d done before.

A pity that publishing schedules demanded they come out so far apart.  I broke my usual rule of reviewing books in order of publication for this very reason.  Let’s see how many more rules I can break before we’re done here.

Another way in which this book goes against the grain is that Parker is less involved in planning.  Dalesia seems to have a knack for that as well, so while he’s been out scouting for the spot where they hijack the armored car, and the hideout where they can chill with the cash afterwards, Parker has been rustling up some  ‘materiel,’ a phrase I don’t think has been used in a Stark novel before.

Remember Briggs?  He showed up briefly at the start of Butcher’s Moon, the jewelry store heist that went wrong–he was the guy Parker told to throw a bomb to cover their escape.  He had to throw it in the direction of Michaelson, their fallen comrade, who might still have been alive, but not after the bomb went off.  Ruined his nerve, and he retired.  Well.  As much as a Stark  heister ever can retire.  He and his wife have a nice little house on a lake, just like Parker and Claire.  But this one’s in Florida.

Watching the movement on the lake, Parker said, “You like things calm.  No commotion.”

“We get commotion sometimes, Briggs said.  He’d put on a few pounds but was still basically a thin unathletic man who looked as though he belonged behind a desk.  Nodding at the lake, he said, “A few years ago, a tornado came across from the Gulf, bounced down onto the lake, looked as though it was coming straight here, lifted up just before it hit the shore, we watched the tail twist as it went right over the house, watched it out that picture window there.  That was enough commotion for a while.”

Parker said, “You watched it out a picture window?”

Briggs either shrugged or shivered; it was hard to tell which.  “Afterwards, we said to each other, that was really stupid.”

Anyway, he’s still got connections, which is why Parker is here.  They need something along the lines of a bazooka, or an RPG–powerful enough to knock out a heavily armored vehicle–and they’ll need several of them, no time for reloading.  They also need assault rifles for the aftermath.  (No, I don’t know why they can’t just go to a gun show, or rob a Walmart, stupid modern reality screwing up my crime fiction.  The Second Amendment doesn’t apply to calm professional crooks, only psycho-zealots with death wishes, how’s about that?)

Briggs mentions something about how the Feds are paying a lot more attention to weapons dealers now, because terrorism.  Now that could have been true in the 90’s (the first World Trade Center job), and nobody mentions 9/11, but it’s pretty strongly implied that we’re living in a brave new world that includes a Department of Homeland Security.  Anyway, he knows some people with just the can opener Parker needs.  The Carl-Gustaf.  (The hyphen seems to be a mistake, and who cares?)

“Sounds like a king,” Parker says.  Because it’s named after one.   Just another Saab story.

(This is an old design, with many variations, no need for us to know which one Parker’s getting.  You can see Westlake trying to avoid too many specifics–still going to get irate letters from anal weaponry buffs, but keep it to a minimum. “No, it’s a grenade firing system!” Now they’ve got the internet to kvetch on.  I bet none of them have slept for a week.)

With an assurance from Briggs that he’ll get them the materiel in time, Parker heads back to Massachusetts, and hears about Dalesia recruiting McWhitney (and of the untimely demise of Mr. Keenan).  He’s fine with both developments, though he’s a little worried about McWhitney’s tendency to fly off the handle–the guy seems okay in a crisis, going by what happened at the card game, and they don’t have time to find anyone better.

Parker likes the spot Dalesia picked for the trap to be sprung, and he also likes the hideout–an abandoned church on a little-used two-lane road.  There’s a place they can hide the armored car, and it’ll be invisible from the air.

What follows is a lot of professional-grade threatening, because too many people know about this job–unavoidable, but no less annoying for that.  Parker has to threaten Elaine Langen, who is spooked by all the attention she’s getting from Detective Gwen Reversa, which she brought on herself by shooting Jake Beckham in the leg when nobody told her to do that.  She’s not sure she can hold up under questioning.  Parker reminds of how she accused him and Dalesia of playing good cop/bad cop with her.  She says so far Reversa is being the good cop, and there’s no bad cop.

“Yes, there is,” Parker said.  “Me.”

The look she gave him turned bleak.

Parker said, “Everything she says to you, every hour she spends on you, just keep reminding yourself.  This is the good cop.  The bad cop is out there, and he’s not very far away, and he doesn’t go for second chances.”

“I’m sure you don’t.” Her voice was now a whisper, as though all strength had been drained from her.

“The bad cop is nearby.”

She closed her eyes and nodded.

“Talk to the good cop all you want,” Parker said.  “But always think about the bad cop.”

“I will.”  “Whispered again, this time almost like a prayer.

Then  he refers to the make of her car.  Infiniti.  Means forever.  Worth going for, right?  And people say he has no sense of humor. Nobody puns forever.

Next he talks to Jake’s sister Wendy, asks her to give her brother a message for him.  She’s not happy about even peripheral involvement in some illegal act, straight as a die this gal, but her main concern is Jake, because like I said last time, she needs a project.  And while she’s no genius, she’s got good instincts for people–she’s noticed this Dr. Myron Madchen, hanging around her brother at the hospital all the time, when there’s no reason for it.  It’s making her nervous.  Parker thanks her–says that makes him nervous too.  Someone else to threaten.

As he drives away from the trailer park, he realizes there’s an old beat-up Plymouth Fury tailing him, and if you’ve read Dancing Aztecs, you know who is likely as not to be driving one of those.  State cops.  It’s Reversa.  He tries to shake her, but she’s too good.  Finally pulls him over.  She wants to talk.

He’s got good phony ID, identifying himself as Claire’s brother, John B. Allen (possibly a reference to a 19th century western politician who has a street named after him in Tombstone AZ, I wouldn’t know).

Says he borrowed the car because his was in the shop.  He’s a landscape architect.  Well, after a fashion, I suppose that’s true.  The car is clean, his ID doesn’t set off any alarms, she’s got nothing to hold him on, so she lets him go, and he resolves to ditch the Lexus, find something else to drive.  He knows she suspects him, and he can see this is a smart cop.  And here’s a little plot hole.

See, we’ve already been told that Keenan and his partner tracked Parker down by running the plates on the Lexus–using databases maintained by the law, which they can access as what you might call a professional courtesy.  So once it becomes obvious that ‘John B. Allen’ was involved in a bank robbery, how hard is it going to be for the law to zero in on the house in New Jersey?

Okay, maybe there’s a workaround (he’s going to tell Claire to report the car stolen), but seems like a bad idea for Parker to have gone there on a job, in a car registered to Claire, unless the registration was for a false address, which would be equally problematic.  Oh well, let’s see how that plays out further down the road.  It’s not going to matter for the immediate future.

Parker and Dalesia go to Madchen’s house, and terrify the hell out of him.  He’s going to stop hanging around Jake.  So he’s nervous, fine.  He needs his cut out of Jake’s share to get away from this life he hates, no problem.  But he’s only putting them in a situation where they’ll have to kill him just to neaten things up.   We learned in Part Two that he’s been on the verge of suicide for a while now–and wants to live, more than anything.  Parker is convinced he’s too scared to go to the cops, so they let him off with a warning.  This time.

Now it’s time for them to be threatened, by someone as professional as they are, albeit in a somewhat more legal profession.  Sandra Loscalzo, the late Mr. Keenan’s partner.  Not of the Hammett school, she doesn’t feel like when a woman’s partner is killed she should do something about it.  She just wants the same thing Keenan did–the reward money on Harbin.  She was always the brains of that outfit anyway.

She holds McWhitney at gunpoint, at the motel all three at staying at–has him call the other two in for a confab.  The other side of the coin from Gwen Reversa–also tall, slender, blonde, very attractive (this leads to some confusion, when McWhitney tells the others about this woman following him).  She’s right on the edge between legal and illegal.

Oh, and she’s gay.  She lets slip (for no reason I can see) that she lives in Cape Cod, has a mortgage on a house there, where she lives with a friend who has a little girl going to private school.  To which Parker says “To find a dyke on Cape Cod with a daughter in private school and a canary-yellow-haired roommate would not be impossible.”   It would if she shot them all dead with her .357, but it’s a small motel room.  She knows better.  So do they.  They work out a deal.

McWhitney will get her Harbin’s mortal remains (Keenan’s she could care less about).  She’ll get all the reward money herself, no partner to split it with.  She knows they’re planning a job, but she doesn’t care about that, none of her business, she’s just an implausibly hot skip tracer (heavy heisters don’t skip bail, because they don’t make bail). Seems like there’s really nothing she cares about but scoring big and heading back to the woman she’s shacked up with.  Hmmm.

Part Three ends with Parker seeing Wendy Beckham sitting in her little Honda, parked by the motel.  She knows about the bank job, and now that she knows they’re staying at the very same motel Jake works at, she figures there’s no way in hell her little brother isn’t going to jail again if they pull the job. (Of course, if he’d done what Parker told him to do in the first place, break parole and turn himself in, but Parker isn’t going to bring that up now.)

She’s got a point, but Parker’s got a better one.  He tells her that if she’d talked to this other guy in the string, who tends not to think things through (I’m going to assume this is McWhitney), he’d just shoot her right then and there.  But that’s not the threat.  He knows she’s brave enough, and devoted enough, and dumb enough to risk all that.

Here’s his final and most sophisticated threat.  Threats, you see, have to be tailored to the person being threatened.   What is this woman most afraid of?

Parker said, “The reason it’s better to tell me than this other guy is, I take a minute to think about it.  I take a minute and I think, “what is she gonna tell the cops?  Does she know when or where or how we’re gonna do it?  No.  Does she know who we are when we’re at home?  No.  The only thing she can do is blow the whistle on her brother, so instead of maybe he’s in trouble definitely he’s in trouble and you did it.”

He waited, watching her eyes, as she went from defiant to frightened to something like desperate.  Then he said, “You want to talk to the cops, go ahead.  Don’t worry about us.  I gotta pack now.  Goodbye.”

Part Four, Chapter One, is the most exciting part of the book, and the most free-ranging. Divided into thirty-seven segments, no more than two or three pages apiece, some no more than a  paragraph, each divided from the others by short horizontal bars centered on the page.  I guess I could follow suit, just to be different.

_______________

The pack, on the hunt now, departs the fittingly named Trails End Motor Inne (sounds like someplace Burke Devore might have stayed on one of his hunts, in The Ax), while Jake and Wendy contemplate a dwindling set of options at the hospital.  Jake says he’s sorry he told her about it.  So is she.

_______________

Parker meets Dalesia and McWhitney at their staging area, an old abandoned mill.  They’re waiting for Briggs and the materiel.  If Briggs doesn’t show, it’s all off.

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As they wait, four International Navistar Armored Cars, model 2700, are getting started for Deer Hill Bank, coming from Chelsea, just outside Boston.  Four big boxy vehicles like this one.

img_hhEyDKox3P

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Dalesia heads off to meet Briggs at the motel, and lead him to the staging area.

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The armored cars, on their way upstate, head onto the Mystic-Tobin Bridge. (Why am I hearing Van Morrison in my head?) Most people just call it the Tobin Bridge. It’s not just a metatextual reference to Mitch Tobin, though of course it is that as well. It exists in physical reality. Here, I’ll prove it.

1280px-Tobin_bridge_2009f

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Dalesia comes back to the mill with Briggs, who arrived on time, with the goods. McWhitney’s the only one who doesn’t know him from past jobs. They shake hands, neither convinced the other is okay. Both were generally dissatisfied people, in different ways, and couldn’t be expected to take to each other right away.  Awkward, introducing people you know from different places in your life. We can all relate.

_______________

Elaine Langen heads for the banquet that celebrates the destruction of her father’s legacy.  She hopes to be celebrating something else soon.  But she’s nervous.  Holding herself together with Valium and liquor.

_______________

Briggs introduces the team (and us) to the ordinance he’s acquired, sounding like a sales rep, which is what he is.  The three Carl-Gustafs (geez, they could knock over a small country) have three methods of sighting; the useful one here will be infrared. He was going to get them Valmets (remember them from Good Behavior?), but he could only find the ones without trigger guards (for Finnish soldiers wearing mittens), and he figured that would not be a good idea.  So the assault rifles are Colt Commandos–basically short-barreled M-16s.  I don’t feel like posting an image.  Too soon, you know?  Or do I mean too late?

_______________

Elaine stands there while her shit of a husband openly gloats about what he’s done to daddy’s bank.  She needs another drink.  Open bar.  Uh-oh.

_______________

At the Green Man Motel, Dr. Myron Madchen and his girlfriend Isabelle Moran, make love to celebrate their impending delivery from unsuitable spouses.  They have to make love carefully because of the broken rib her shit of a husband recently gave her.  Westlake recycling the love scene from that novel he recycled from a rejected Bond script; a book he figures nobody will ever read.  Fooled you, didn’t we, Mr. Westlake?

________________

Briggs heads back to the motel, where he’s supposed to rest up in Dalesia’s room (no need to register that way) before going home to Florida. McWhitney says it would be nice if the rent-a-cops just gave up when they saw the Commandos. Dalesia opines that they have to put up some kind of token resistance, just to feel okay with themselves afterwards. Parker says the only stupid thing the uniforms could do would be to shoot at them, since that would get them all killed.  Dalesia points out that Parker’s going to be in a borrowed police car, so nobody will be shooting at him.  “It’s still stupid,” he says.

_______________

Also at the Green Man Motel, Sandra Loscalzo comes back to her room and switches on her police scanners.  She doesn’t want to stop the heist, doesn’t even know what exactly is being heisted, but if there’s a way to include herself in, she’s going to find it.

Sandra had once heard a definition of a lawyer that she liked a lot.  It said: “A lawyer is somebody who find out where money is going to change hands, and goes there.”  It was a description with speed and solidity and movement, and Sandra identified with it.  She wasn’t a lawyer, but she didn’t see why she couldn’t make it work for her.

_______________

Elaine is really drunk now.  If you were forced to watch a lot of bankers give speeches, so would you be.

_______________

Wendy calls Jake at the hospital.  She wants to give him a pep talk, about how he mustn’t give up, just deny everything, she’ll get him a good lawyer, etc.  And when she means if they catch him out, he can always tell the law everything he knows about these guys who like nothing better than exterminating rats, to get a shorter jail sentence.  (This is her way of encouraging a man who couldn’t even face two weeks in a county lock-up to establish an alibi).  So buck up, baby brother!  By the time she’s done, she’s annihilated whatever nerve he had left.

_______________

Briggs is at the motel, but he can’t sleep.  He’s pacing around like a caged animal. The MassPike is right outside, and he wants to be on it, even though he’s exhausted from the long drive. Retired from active service though he be, part of him wants to join in.

It was the job those three were on; that’s what had agitated him.  He’d been away from that business a long time, and he’d forgotten the rush it involved, the sense that, for just a little while, you were living life in italics.  You weren’t really aware of it when it was happening to you, but Briggs had seen it in Parker and Dalesia and the other one, and he’d found himsel envying, not the danger or the risk or even the profit, but that feeling of heightened experience.  A drug without drugs.

Like any addict, he’s got to get away from the opportunity to relapse.  So he hits the road. Having reminded us all why we’re reading these books.

_______________

On his way south, Briggs passes a nice restaurant, and who should be there but Detective Second Grade Gwen Reversa and her criminal defense lawyer boyfriend, Barry Ridgely, about who Gwen knows everything there is to be known, because she checked him out like a potential perp after the first date. They talk shop, of course, and she tells him about her encounter with ‘John B. Allen.’  That quote’s up top, ending with a very good question.  And for all the words I’ve typed here, I don’t really know the answer for sure. Did Stark?

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Elaine’s had enough.  In several senses of the term.  She excuses herself, and walks to her Infiniti parked outside, trying to look sober, and not succeeding.

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The armored cars are still on their way.  Parker and the other two have dinner. At a diner. Not the one at the intersection where they’re going to lie in wait shortly. That one doesn’t serve dinner.

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The armored cars pull into the Green Man Motel, where Myron and Isabelle are just kissing each other good night.  The security men are going to take a quick nap, then head for the bank at around 1:00AM.

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Having eaten, the crew needs two cars for the job, not being dumb enough to use their own.  They steal an old rustbucket from a used car lot for McWhitney and Dalesia to drive, and then Dalesia takes Parker to some miniscule Hamlet that can’t even afford a regular police department, but gets enough ski traffic in the winter as to need to hire two retired cops for a few months each year–and the rest of the year, their only squad car is in a garage behind the town hall.  Won’t be missed for a while.

_______________

At Deer Hill Bank, it’s time to start packing everything up to be loaded into the armored cars.  Elaine’s supposed to be there, to see which car has the cash.  She’s home, sleeping it off.  Elaine, you had one job……

_______________

Jake was so agitated from his sister’s pep talk, they gave him a pill.  But he just refuses to chill.

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Parker is in the squad car.  Not the first time he’s driven one of those.  Not as good a string as the one in Copper Canyon.  Then again, the finger on this job isn’t out to destroy a whole town.  Just herself, mainly.

_______________

Sandra is glued to her scanners, and she’s starting to pick up chatter relating to the armored cars.  Cops clearing the route.  She can tell something’s up, but she’s not sure what.  Yet.

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Dalesia gets the truck to transport the cash in once they dump the armored car. Rented with McWhitney’s credit card, the one related to the bar he owns.  Back to the factory, where McWhitney is waiting with the stolen Chevy Celebrity.  The name of a real car make.  This isn’t a Dortmunder novel.

_______________

Sandra sees the armored cars leaving the motel, figures there’s a connection, but can’t get to her own car in time to follow them, so she goes back to the scanners.

_______________

Elaine doesn’t show at the meeting spot where she was supposed to give Dalesia the number of the money truck.  Surprise. He races to the ambush spot, and tells Parker.  Parker gets into the pick up, and directs him to the Langen home. Elaine’s got some ‘splainin to do.

Frightened as she is to see Parker standing by her bed, she’s even more horrified to realize how much she screwed up.  She’s got to drive back to the bank, where the party is long over, and get the truck number.  She repeats it all the way back to where Parker is waiting.  “One-oh-two-six-eight.”  

_______________

Jake’s starting to wake.

_______________

Sandra has gotten a rough idea of the route the armored cars are taking, and you remember her favorite quote about lawyers.  She’s going to try and be there when the money changes hands.

______________

Everybody’s getting in place now.  Soon.

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Sandra sees two police cars, one parked by a diner at an intersection, apparently empty.   The other has real cops in it.  The first one isn’t empty.

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Filled with panic and pain-killers, Jake decides he’s got to get out of the hospital, run away, can’t go back to prison, not ever.  He’s not fit to walk yet, but he somehow manages to get his clothes on, and inch his way down the staircase on the seat of his pants.  It takes a long time.  But he’s outside.  No hospital can hold Jake Beckham!

_______________

Jack watches in satisfaction as his life’s work of destroying his father in law’s life’s work is completed.  He’s mainly just worried about the bonds and securities–there’s a lot less cash than before, because they’ve been letting people take it out without putting more back in.  Somebody says he thought he saw Elaine’s car.  Jack says she’s asleep in bed.  He’s happy to think of the misery she’ll feel tomorrow.  You know what misery really loves, Jack?

_______________

Dalesia and McWhitney are where they’re supposed to be.

_______________

Sandra is where she’s not supposed to be, which we gather is where she always wants to be.

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Jack Langen drives with a few other bank officials, to the new improved home of the Deer Hill bank’s assets.  Shorter route than the armored cars are taking, they’ll be waiting when the money arrives.  He’s playing Sinatra.  Thinking about that future trophy wife.  Forgetting the current wife.

______________

Sandra is right on the spot when the Carl-Gustafs lay down their royal edicts. Chaos ensues.  A squad car appears out of nowhere–looks familiar–three of the Navistars are totaled, the mystery squad car cuts the fourth one out of the herd, using the loudspeaker to direct it away from the carnage, to safety, right?  No, that can’t be right.  That car’s a ringer!  It’s the crooks!   She’s an officer of the law.  You know, kind of.  Okay, not really.  More of a relic of America’s frontier history.  Cue the identity crisis.

She had to tell them; she had to let them know.  The story isn’t here, with these blocked roads and burning trucks and dazed people.  The story just went away with the only armored car that wasn’t hit.  Get after that phony cop.  She actually had her hand on the door handle, shifting her weight to get out of the car, when she thought again.  Wait a second.  Whose side am I on here?  If those are my three guys–and who else could they be?–I don’t want them arrested, I don’t want them in jail.  That way I’d never get the proof I need on Mike Harbin.

Keep going, fellas, she thought, as she put the car in reverse and U-turned backward away from there.  Keep going and I’ll see you in a couple days.

Quickly the fires shrank and then disappeared from her mirror.

Reminds me of this time I saw a Red-tailed Hawk and a Cooper’s Hawk in the same place, and there’s bad blood there, family feud, you know? But then this murder of crows showed up, started chasing the Red-tail, because they like to chase all hawks, and the Red-tail was bigger and slower, they could attend to the small fry later.  They don’t want these hardened predators robbing nests they’re supposed to be robbing. Crows are simultaneously the crooks and cops of the bird world.

The Coop, about the same size as a crow, joined in with the mob for a moment, caught up in the excitement of the moment. But then you could almost see a thought balloon appear over his head–“What am I doing?” and he darted off the other way before the crows noticed him. It’s a bit like that. Except the Red-tail wasn’t going to meet up with him later so they could do business.  I never said it was a one-to-one analogy.

So that’s Chapter 1 of Part Four.  Six chapters left in the book.   We’re over 5,000 words.  Why don’t we cut it short here, and synopsize Chapter 2 next time, as this eight part review of a 295 page novel continues.  Happy Columbus Day.

(I had you there a moment, admit it.)

In spite of all the little personnel snafus with Jake and Elaine and Myron, the heist went off like a dream, everything happened the way it was supposed to, and they got away clean with the cash, the disoriented men in the truck put up no fight at all–what little nerve they had left, McWhitney scared out of them with his psycho act that isn’t 100% an act.

This would normally be the part of the book where one of the partners turns on the others, or some interloper tries to get the loot away from them, because nothing can ever be easy for Parker.   There has to be a hitch.  This time it’s the law.  That’s a switch.

They make it to the factory in fifteen minutes, switch the cash to the rented truck in under ten.  And as they head for the church to hole up, they hear choppers overhead.  They split up, to avoid attention.  On the way there, Parker sees Dalesia with the rented truck, waiting for a break in the chopper surveillance, since a truck’s what they’ll be looking for.  When Parker arrives at the church, McWhitney is already there, looking even more irate than usual.  “I don’t like how fast they’re being,” he says.

They planned for every contingency–except the new communications tech. Except massive terror attacks ramping up readiness.  A machine built to stop Al Quaeda is being used to swat flies. And thing is, because of the hardware they used, the law can’t be sure they’re not Al Quaeda, or something like that.

Law enforcement in recent years had come to expect an attack from somewhere outside the United States, that could hit anywhere at any time and strike any kind of target, and they’d geared up for it.  Because of that, the few hours Parker and the other two had been counting on weren’t there.

The church is a solid hideout, but it’s not set up for them to stay there a long time, because they’d never planned it that way.  The plan was to get out of the area before the net closed.  Could they get away?  Sure.  With the cash?  Not a hope.

Parker improvises in the clutch, perhaps his most valuable talent.  The choir loft is full of boxes full of hymnals, similar to the ones the money is packed in.  Put the boxes up there.  Put a layer of books over the cash.  Leave.  Come back later. They pack up and go, in three different directions.  Parker hits a roadblock after a few miles–his ID holds up.  This time.  He’s got four thousand in cash from the bank in his pocket.  He finds a diner and sits down to eat.

There’s a TV showing the news there.  Parker sees Myron Madchen at a podium, making a statement to the press, with his lawyer standing next to him.  They got Jake.  Of course. He talked.  Of course.  What he said was not very coherent, but still pretty incriminating. Madchen is there to talk about his patient–but he himself is a person of interest, as they say.

His lawyer says it’s very wrong to cast any suspicion on the good doctor in his hour of bereavement–his wife just died.  Of a heart attack.  He’s in shock–never saw it coming.  Parker doesn’t have to be much of a detective to solve that mystery.

Gwen Reversa is on next.  She’s going to make first grade in no time.  Taking a modest little bow for having sensed something funny about Elaine Langen, who is now in custody.  Not quite the way Elaine wanted to get revenge on Jack, but something tells me that providing your wife with information used in an armored car heist is not the fast track to success in the banking world.

Then they show a police sketch of ‘John B. Allen’–presumably drawn from Reversa’s very distinct memories of that brief encounter with Parker.

They think that’s me, Parker thought, and studied it, as the interviewer’s voice, over the picture, said, “This is almost certainly one of the robbers.”

An 800 number appeared, superimposed over the drawing.  “If you see this man, phone this number.  Rutherford Combined Savings has posted a one-hundred-thousand dollar reward for the capture and conviction of this man and any other member of the gang, and the recovery of the nearly two million, two-hundred thousand dollars stolen in the robbery.”

Parker looked up and down the counter.  Half a dozen other people were gazing at the television set.  None of them looked to be ready to go off and make a phone call.  It seemed to him, if you told one of those people “This picture is that guy.  See the cheekbones?  See the shape of the forehead?” they’d say, “Oh, yeah!”  But if it wasn’t pointed out, they’d just go on eating.

Parker has never been much impressed by the drafting skills of police sketch artists. Reversa didn’t have a dash cam when she stopped him in her plainclothes Plymouth Fury, or it might be much worse. Parker pays the check and walks out. It’s much worse. There’s a squad car parked by his Dodge.

John B. Allen.  One computer talks to another, and it doesn’t take long.  He’d been moving through the roadblocks just ahead of the news.  John B. Allen is wanted for robbery over here.  John B. Allen rented a car over there.  Let’s find the car, and wait for Allen to come back to it.

He strolls towards the trees by the parking lot.

Final chapter.  Well, it really could be this time.  Chapter 7.  Don’t tell me Stark doesn’t have a sense of humor either.

Parker is climbing the increasingly steep wooded slope by the diner, stopping here and there to look down, check out the situation.  He’s thinking as he goes that the bank people are lying about what they got, they always make it more. The haul was just a bit over a millon, he’s sure.

Less than expected. Nowhere near enough to bankroll the escape fantasies of the comedy team of Elaine, Jake, and Dr. Myron, not that it matters now. Still, Parker’s biggest score ever, if you don’t factor for inflation, which of course you do.

His idea is he’ll wait for them to decide he’s not coming back, then go back down, maybe steal another car, catch a bus, something.  Not gonna happen.  Oh, there’s a bus, all right. Well, a van.  Full of dogs.  Parker’s bane.  He’s always feared them more than the humans and their machines.  So much more focused.  So much harder to fool.  One or two he can handle.  Not a pack.  With armed handlers backing them.

He doesn’t wait for them to come out of the van.  He’s seen this movie before. You will detect a note of angry sarcasm in his thoughts as he clambers upwards, as relayed to us by Stark.

Soon he heard them, though.  There was an eager note in their baying, as thought they thought what they did was music.

Parker kept climbing.  There was no way to know how high the hill was.  He climbed to the north, and eventually the slope would start down the other side.  He’d keep ahead of the dogs, and somewhere along the line he’d find a place to hole up.  He could keep away from the pursuit until dark, and then he’d decide what to do next.

He kept climbing.

“As though they thought what they did was music.”  I guess everybody really is a critic.

When this book came out, people were heard to wonder out loud–mother of mercy–is this the end of Parker?  It could have been.  Westlake was maybe four years from his own end when it came out.  If he’d put off writing the next book much longer, this would be the finale, and we’d be debating that very question in the comments section.

But just as in Breakout, when he got Lyme Disease in the middle of writing it, kept typing feverishly until he’d gotten Parker out of jail, Westlake couldn’t leave Parker there on that hillside, the dogs closing in for the kill.

Not literally, of course–they must be bloodhounds, German Shepherds don’t bay. Bloodhounds won’t do much more than lick you when they catch up, but you know what I mean.  Whether he goes down in a hail of police bullets, or gets taken off to prison forever–he’s over.  The second fate would be the worst. There’s a reason he didn’t kill Jake Beckham for not following his alibi instructions. The inability to stand confinement is something he can understand. He said so at the time.

Now he’s going to have to understand somebody else. Somebody much more like–well–us.  Parker is crossing much more than the border between Massachusetts and upstate New York as he climbs that hill.  He’s crossing the line between his world and a place we’ve never really seen him in before, for any great length of time.  What he would call The Straight World.

Not so straight as he might think.  If he gets lost, he can always ask directions from the parrot.

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Nobody Runs Forever, Part 2

crossroads-diner-nj

McWhitney sighed and slipped the automatic out of sight under his jacket.  “I’ll tell you what happened,” he said.  “I fell for an old one.”

“Yeah?”

“This guy Keenan, he comes to me, he says you told him he should ask me where to find Harbin.”

Dalesia laughed.  “Why would I do that?”

“That was my question.  What were you up to. But it wasn’t you up to something, it was Keenan.  That’s the old dodge, he tells me you told him this thing or that thing, then I’m supposed to figure it’s okay to tell him more.”

“He had no idea what was going on.”

“None,” McWhitney agreed.

“So that was a big mistake he made.”

“Yeah, it was.”

Dalesia grinned. “I bet he learned a lesson from it.”

“Yeah.” McWhitney nodded.  “He learned the harp.”

Bit of a mystery about this week’s covers.  The British edition, from Robert Hale Limited, is well done as always (Hale did some of the finest cover art I’ve seen for this series, and that’s going some).  Nobody will ever convince me Parker looks like that, but you make allowances for regional preference. Other than physiognomy, I’d rank it over the Mysterious Press cover art, which I do like quite a bit, but this is more specific.

The Italian edition, from a different publisher, seems to be a blurry close-up of that cover.  What’s up with that?  If they had the rights to the Hale art, why wouldn’t they just use it?  If they didn’t have the rights, or didn’t want an identical cover, why not just commission something along similar lines?  Hale is gone, as of 2015, its imprints now owned by The Crowood Press, and sorry I am to hear it.  Another independent gone the way of all things.  Shall we assume they never had the deep pockets to do anything about it if somebody glommed their art?

Also, could one of my German readers explain the alternate editions for the Parker novels I find on Amazon.de?  Two imprints of the same publisher?  The shared theme for this one was snakes.  I could think of more fitting novels in the series for that motif, but effective, all the same.   Unless Parker is supposed to be the snake, and I think everyone knows my zoological take by now.

And my penchant for prologue, but I’ve run on long enough here.  Notice how the foreign publishers just translated the original title?  (Not the French, as we’ll see next time, but they always go their own way.)  Something about this particular title struck a deep chord.  Let’s cut back to the chase, shall we?  While we’ve still time.

In all of the Stark novels but the last three Grofields, the book will have four parts, identified by number only.  One of them will be the round robin section, where you explore a variety of perspectives and Parker is not heard from much, or at all.  Part Two is the round robin this time, as happens now and then in the series–it’s usually Part Three.

But when there were a lot of people in the mix, many of them not really connected to Parker’s world, he sometimes opted for Part Two, so he could establish those perspectives, introduce key players Parker doesn’t know about yet, set things up for the big finish.  So that’s a bit out of the ordinary, but wait until we get to Part Four.

Part Two kicks off with a chapter from the POV of Gwen Reversa, a tall good-looking blonde Massachusetts State Police detective, with their CID unit, and I’m not sure they call it that in reality, nor do I think there are a lot of people with that last name, going by the fact that the online White Pages only came up with one match.  I’d guess it’s reverse-engineered (nothing implicit about that pun) from one of several similar French surnames, and Mr. Westlake is playing his name games again, but he draws attention from her last by telling us about her first.

Gwen Reversa had decided to change her first name from Wendy even before she knew she was going to be a cop.  The name Wendy just didn’t lend itself to the kind of respect she felt she deserved.  Wendys were thought of as blondes, i.e., airheads.

Or good little witches who date friendly ghosts, but never mind that now.  She found out Wendy is short for Gwendolyn, and there was an end to that (and isn’t the most famous Gwen in fiction a not over-bright blonde who got killed by the Green Goblin so Spider-man could date a much smarter redhead?  Never mind that either.)

She’s at the local hospital to talk to Jake Beckham about his being shot in the fleshy part of his thigh as he was leaving the motel he works at.  He suspects Parker of having done it, but he can’t very well tell her that.  So he talks a lot, she listens to what he doesn’t say, and knows he’s hiding something.  She knows he’s lying about not suspecting anyone, and about not being involved with Elaine Langen anymore.  She believes him when he says the husband didn’t do it.  But she figures she’ll go talk to his recently divorced sister, who is going to be taking care of him during his convalescence.  And is named Wendy.  She’s looking forward to it.

Chapter 2 is about Myron Madchen, Jake’s personal physician, there to see him, which he shouldn’t be doing (he’s not a surgeon), but he’s doing it anyway.  He’s very worried to learn there’s a cop there talking to Jake.  He’s worried about everything in his life.  In a bad marriage, to the unpleasant woman who put him through med school, who will never give him a divorce.  In a tense passionate affair with a lovely young married woman whose drunken husband is beating her, and all he can do is patch her up prior to illicit coitus.

They want to run away together to California.  But his practice isn’t that lucrative, and he doesn’t have the cash.  Hence Jake Beckham.  Hence Dr. Madchen taking a very real risk of going to prison for aiding and abetting a felony.  He may end up wishing it had been that easy.

Chapter 3 is Elaine Langen, tooling along in her white Infiniti, which isn’t really hers,  and neither is anything else.  That’s why she’s doing this.  God bless the child who’s got her own back with interest.  Just like Madchen, her woes stem from a very bad marital choice she made, that her father told her not to, and when will fathers ever learn?

The fact was, when Harvey believed he knew hat was best for his daughter, he was almost always right.  Her angry feuds with him were not because he was wrong, but because he left her no space to come to the right answers on her own.  Since he preempted the right, she had no cohice, the way she saw it, but to defiantly claim the wrong as her own.

Thus, Jack Langen.

Well, it wouldn’t be for too much longer, and in the meantie Jack wasn’t particularly hard to get along with, all wrapped up as he was in the coming merger.  A self-involved man, once he’d captured Elaine and the bank she sat on, he was content to let life just roll along.

Especially now, with this takeover that he’d insisted on, over her own objections and the posthumous objections of Harvey, relayed through Elaine.  This was not a merger!  It was a swallowing up, and Elaine knew it, and so did everybody else.

Well,  Jack would be happy in the new headquarters of Rutherford Combined Savings, where he could play at being an old-money banker the rest of his life.  And Elaine would be happy in the South of France, with all the money she’d need until the found the right well-off replacement for Jack.  And Jake Beckham would be happy wherever he decided to go with his piece of the pie, so at the end of the day everybody’s happy, so what’s the problem?

Well, for one thing, there isn’t likely to be enough money in that armored car to make all these people happy for very long (Elaine is forgetting Dr. Madchen & the mistress, not to mention inflation and the rate of exchange with the Euro), even if nothing at all goes wrong with the heist.

Something’s gone wrong already.  That’s why Parker is waiting for her when she gets home.  Always the best detective in these novels, because he overlooks all the distracting static and focuses on the essentials.  And right now, what’s essential is that Elaine give him her gun.  The one she told him she knew never to pull out unless she was ready to use it.

Since the chairs all faced the television set, he half-turned one toward her before sitting down.  Then he said, “A pro would throw the gun away right after, but you’re not a pro and you are greedy, so you held on to it.”

“If you’re saying I shot Jake–”

“We’re past that,” he said.  “You did it, and sooner or later a cop is gonna show up here, and you’ve got a license for that gun.  They’ll want to see it.  If you say you lost it, they’ll get a warrant and search the house and find it and match it to the bullet they’re gonna take out of Beckham.”

Being called greedy had overshadowed everything else he’d said.  She said icily, “I really don’t see–”

“What happens to you, I don’t care,” he said.  “But if they nail you as the shooter, the whole bank job comes undone.  I don’t want it undone.”

She hit exactly what she aimed at–the fleshy part of the thigh.  She was worried Jake wouldn’t have an alibi for the heist, so she arranged one.  The same old personality flaw that sabotaged her before–the need to take control of situations she doesn’t understand well enough.  Parker is subbing for her dad now, and is giving her no room at all.  But that’s hardly his fault.  And then the maid tells Elaine that Gwen Reversa is at the door right now.

Terrified, she gives Parker the gun, and he goes out the back.  Elaine has a little conversation with Detective Reversa, which goes no better for her than it did for Jake, but they don’t find the gun. Which looks bad, but not as bad as if they’d found it.

Jack Langen shows up in his Lincoln Navigator (of course), right as they’re searching the house.  Elaine’s wrong about a lot of things, but she’s 100% right to think he married her for her daddy’s bank.  What she doesn’t know is more important.  1)She could still block the merger if she really tried–2)Once it goes through, he’s going to divorce her and get to work on that trophy wife, and–3)She’s getting alimony, of course. Maybe not South of France alimony, but he figures maybe Alaska, or some island.  Nice guy.

She doesn’t need the heist to win her freedom from him.  On some level, she probably knows this, doesn’t care.  She wants revenge on the man who helped her ruin her life, even if it means ruining it all over again.  Parker already knows this.  She doesn’t.  All Jack knows is that he better watch her close, because she’s lying about having lost the gun.

Chapter 5 is Roy Keenan, bounty hunter, tracking down the elusive Michael Maurice Harbin for the big government reward, and I guess he’s under the impression Joe Gores is writing this book.  He bribed a state cop in Cincinnati–a mere hundred dollars gave him some names, of guys at that card game that opens this book.  The card game where Parker killed Harbin with his necktie, but the cop didn’t know that, so neither does Keenan.  Not that he’d care, he collects for a dead body just as well, except it doesn’t occur to him that the people responsible for Harbin’s death might like him to stay lost. Habeas corpus and all.

This Willis gent he braced in Jersey was unhelpful, and maybe a bit intimidating, even for him.  He hasn’t been able to find Nick Dalesia, but Nelson McWhitney owns a bar on Long Island.  He figures he’ll drop Dalesia’s name and see what results he gets.  He gets his results in the back room.  Direct from Louisville.

He staggered rightward, against the wall, throwing his arms up to protect himself, yelling, “Wait! No! You got this wro–“and the bat came around again, this time smashing into his upraised left arm, midway between elbow and armpit, snapping the bone there, so that the arm dropped, useless, and amazing pain shot through him.

McWhitney stood in a tree axer’s stance, not a baseball stance.  “So Nick Dalesia’s got a big mouth, does he?  Thinks he’s a comical fellow, does he?”

“No, no, not like that!  Let me–”

“I’ll see to Dalesia.”

This time the bat smashed his jaw and flung him again into the side wall.  “Naa!” he screamed.  “Naa!”

But the jaw wouldn’t work.  He’d always used words; he was a talker; words got him into places and out of trouble, got him answers, got him everything he wanted; words had always saved him, but now all the words were gone, the jaw couldn’t work, and all he could bleat was, “Naa! Naa!” Even he didn’t understand himself.

“Say hello to Mike Harbin,” McWhitney said, so at least he got the answer to that question, and the bat was the fastest thing in the world.

Chapter 6 is where the former Wendy meets the present one, as Reversa, still making the rounds, goes to see Jake’s sister at the trailer park.  Wendy Beckham (back to her maiden name, now that the divorce is final) is a nice person, the kind who takes care of family, and she knows her brother hasn’t always behaved himself, but he’s still family, and she needs a project.

Reversa shares a bit of what she knows, and Wendy realizes this project is going to be harder than she thought.  He wasn’t just dipping into the bank’s money, he was dipping into the bank manager’s wife.  And now this pretty young detective thinks the wife put a bullet in his leg–not to kill him, but to render him inactive a while.  Why?  That’s something any sister would like to know, so she goes to the hospital for a little heart to heart.

Chapter 7 is just Grace, Dalesia’s  former wife, talking to her pal Monica about how she still occasionally does things for her ex-hubby the heistman.  She’s basically serving as his mailbox.  She just got a fax with the number 4 written on it and nothing else.  The day of the big money move, but she doesn’t need to know that.

Chapter 8, Gwendy (she can’t shoot me, she’s a police officer) comes back at Jake a little harder this time, and he’s genuinely rattled when she lets him know who really shot him, but he improvises a story about why she might do that (hell hath no fury), and why he’d never consider pressing charges, even if they can prove it.  After all, she was just making a point.  Reversa shoots him a “Who do you think you’re kidding” look, and leaves.

The last two chapters are McWhitney and Dalesia ironing out this little misunderstanding on McWhitney’s part, and you can see how that worked out up top.  Dalesia’s less of a talker than the late Mr. Keenan, but he’s a lot less cocksure, and he speaks fluent heister. A language most skip tracers don’t speak well, if at all.  Honorable mention to Dan Kearny.

Before that rapprochement takes place, we see Dalesia, driving along the route he knows the convoy will take, looking for the best possible spot for an ambush.  An intersection, say.

And he believed he’d found it.  It was not part of any town, but it had a little commercial buildup around it; a cafe open only for breakfast and lunch, a gas station that shut at dark, a used-car lot with cards behind a chain-link fence and with a small shed out front with a handwritten sign on the door: PHONE FOR APPT.

The area was occupied, but not at night.  The roads heading north and east met other turnoff roads almost immediately, making an escaper’s route very hard to guess.  At the intersection itself, the two roads coming up from the south and east met at dogleg angles, no straight lines.  And the diner, the used-car shack, and the layout of the gas station made for a somewhat constricted area around the intersection.  The armored cars would have to come through very slowly.

For breakfast and lunch, the diner’s parking lot at the front and left side was full of pickup trucks.  This was where the labor force in this part of the world ate everything but dinner.  They were all regulars, talking to one another about their jobs and their bosses and their favorite sports teams.  They paid no attention to Dalesia when he sat among them and spent some time over coffee at a window table at the front, looking out at the intersection, pleased with his choice.

The point was to be here before the armored cars arrived to set themselves in useful positions.  They had a rough idea how to pull it off, and how to lead the target car away, but where should they place themselves to begin with?  The armored cars would come up along that road over there, to cross the intersection northbound.  Parker and Dalesia would want their special one to go out the road on that side, they would want the other three armored cars to block the intersection there and there, and the more Dalesia looked at the place, the more it seemed to him they needed two guys on the ground and one to bird-dog the target.

Three.  They needed one more man.

The end result is that McWhitney becomes the third man on the job, since Dalesia figures they’ll need one.  So now this little podunk bank has to have enough money for Dalesia, McWhitney, Elaine, Jake, Dr. Madchen, and the hopeful future Mrs. Dr. Madchen.  And Parker.  Or really, Claire.   And that’s all he wrote for Part Two.

And maybe the most interesting POV character in this book who isn’t an armed robber hasn’t even been heard from yet.  We’ll see a bit of her in Part Three, but we don’t get into her head until Part Four, which ranges around almost as much as Part 2.  Weird.  This one breaks a fair few Starkian rules.  And the last two parts kind of dovetail together.  So I might as well bend one of mine, and cut this short (for me).  Make up for it next time, I’m sure.

Oh, there is one other key player we’ll be meeting next time.  Not really a POV character, but he makes his presence felt.  Swedish.  And a king.

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Nobody Runs Forever

folded-film-poster-nobody-runs-forever-the-high-commissioner-1968-bp9nb2

When Parker got back to the lake a little before noon the next day, Claire was in the living room, reading a shelter magazine.  She tossed it aside, got to her feet, and said “Oh good, I was hoping you’d be home before lunch.  Take me someplace nice, with a terrace.  There won’t be many beautiful days like this left.”

“We can drive over to Pennsylvania,” he said.  There’s some places along the river there.”

She looked doubtful.  “With good food?”

“You want good food and a terrace?”

She laughed.  “You’re right.  Come with me while I look at my hair  We got a very strange wrong number this morning.”

“What kind of strange?”  He stood in the bedroom doorway and watched her poke at her trim auburn hair, which had been flawless when she started.

“He asked for somebody named Harbin.”

Thinking about it, it surprised him that there were always the same people in every job.

From The Man With the Getaway Face, by Richard Stark

In The Getaway Car, the thirteenth and penultimate section of that anthology of Westlake nonfiction is Jobs Never Pulled, which is a list of titles Westlake had considered but hadn’t used.  Many of them pretty awful–Cloak and Dagger, Clay Pigeon, Crossfire, Dark Angel.  Some are worse than that–and you will note, perhaps, that all those I mentioned have been used, though not by Westlake.  Perhaps not all when he first wrote them down (Crossfire was in theaters when Westlake was in his early teens), but good bet some of them had been.

He often fell back on well-worn clichés for his titles, which he would transform into ironic wordplay.  But some clichés are just too clichéd for that to work.  So he never used them, and just as well.

At the top of that list, there’s one title crossed out–the one you see above. Which had been the American release title of a Rod Taylor movie I haven’t seen yet (new DVD coming out in November, I’ve pre-ordered, can’t resist).  But which, going by every synopsis I’ve read, can’t be any kind of influence on the novel I’m about to review.  Maybe I’ll eat my words in November, but I’ve got to review this book now.

Pretty sure Mr. Westlake, like myself, was a fan of Mr. Taylor (I’ll explain why I think that some other time), but he only would have had to read the entertainment section of the paper back in ’68 to have seen that title.

The funny thing about titles is that they aren’t copyrighted.  In some cases they can be trademarked, but that takes a lot of lawyers.  You want to name your book Great Expectations, Moby Dick, or War and Peace?  Go ahead.  Only thing stopping you is the shadow you’ll be standing in. There have been a lot of books called The Hunter.  All but one have languished in obscurity.

Great cast, little-remembered film.  Bit of a dud when it came out, only available now under its original title, The High Commissioner. Doesn’t cast much of a shadow, does it?  But that American title is noir as noir gets. Fits Parker’s current situation (and his creator’s) like a well-worn black leather glove. That’s what I think happened here.

This is the largest panel in the Triptych (see previous article) going by word count. Almost three hundred pages in the first edition.  Longer than it needed to be, I think.  After a strong opening, it sags in the middle, then revives with a vengeance at the end.   Too much repetition of effort, not something you often find in Stark.  It’s what you might call a high-maintenance heist.

The grandeur of Plunder Squad and Butcher’s Moon notwithstanding, Stark, child of the gaudy paperbacks that he was, never fully adapted to the demands of the modern hardcover market–the pressure to crank out more pages to justify the cover price, be more ‘immersive.’  (Show me anything more immersive than those early Stark paperbacks, I dare you.)

If he had a big enough story to tell, not a problem, but this is more like half a story, with a completely different story sandwiched between.  Would have been better as a novella, leading into a shortish novel, leading into another novella–but who was publishing novellas then?  (Evan Hunter, but alas.)

No point crying over spilled ink, and I shouldn’t throw stones either, since I’m currently planning to make this review a three parter (the better to finish my final Stark review in one, since it wraps up the story this one kicks off).  Nobody runs forever; some bloggers come close.  However, I’d prefer none of the installments run over 6,000 words, so let’s emulate Stark at his best, and get to work.

The book begins in the middle of a card game, and we are reminded that poker can be a full contact sport in Parker’s world.

When he saw that the one called Harbin was wearing a wire, Parker said “Deal me out a hand,” and got to his feet.  They’d all come to this late-night meeting in suits and ties, traveling businessmen taking a break with a little seven-card stud.  Harbin, a nervous man unused to the dress shirt, kept twitching and moving around, bending forward to squint at his cards, and finally Parker, a quarter around the table to Harbin’s left, saw in the gap between shirt buttons that flash of clear tape holding the wire down.

As he walked around the table, Parker stripped off his own tie–dark blue with thin gold stripes–slid it into a double thickness, and arched it over Harbin’s head.  He drew the two ends through the loop and hanked back hard with his right hand as  his body pressed both Harbin and the chair he was in against the table, and his left hand reached over to rip open Harbin’s shirt.  The other five at the table, about to speak or move or react to what Parker was doing, stopped when they saw the wire taped to Harbin’s pale chest, the edge of the black metal box taped to his side.

(Loathe as I am to quarrel with such fine workmanship–Stark even describes the murder tie!–this story, as we shall see, takes place in the era of modern digital communications tech, as Parker shall have cause to lament.  It also takes place after 9/11, as we may infer from certain references later on.

Therefore, it is most unlikely even the most underfunded state police investigations unit–and that’s who was behind this–would have one of their informants wear a wire.  There were better ways to do it, long before then.  The convention lives on in crime fiction, and explaining how Parker somehow noticed a miniaturized listening device would have spoiled the rhythm of the scene. So, live with it.)

The rest of the chapter is the assembled felons (of whom Parker knows only Nick Dalesia, first and last seen in Butcher’s Moon) pretending to continue their game for the sake of whoever is listening in, while the guy who brought Harbin there to talk business,  red-bearded gent name of McWhitney, makes amends for his mistake by disposing of the body.  There was a potential job, involving a shipment of gold meant for people’s teeth, but that’s just as dead as Harbin now.

Parker leaves with Dalesia, who has an alternative score to offer.  A bank heist.  Way out in New England.  Parker says what they could get from some piddling backwater bank wouldn’t be enough to justify the risk. Dalesia says they can get basically everything there, because it’s merging with a larger bank, and all the assets are going to be moved at one time.  They take out one armored car, and it’s all theirs.  He already knows the route.  It’ll be in a convoy of four, the other three running empty–they have to know which one has the cash, and that won’t be decided until the last possible minute.

This, as Parker quickly intuits, is where you need somebody on the inside, and Dalesia’s got somebody.  Or rather, an old friend of his does.  Former security guard at the bank, named Jake Beckham.  Got caught on the skim (hmm….)  Served time for it.  Lives in a trailer park now, works at a cheap motel, wants a ticket to something better, figures this is it.

He arranges to meet them at his doctor’s office–doctor patient confidentiality means there can’t be any bugs there, and even if somebody was wearing a wire (or whatever they wear now), it would be inadmissible.  The doctor, Myron Madchen, is a mite bent himself, expects a nice taste of the proceeds, whatever they are–Jake’s not dumb enough to tell him, he’s not dumb enough to ask, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t both dumb about other things.

Jake’s been screwing the wife of the bank manager for years.  Daughter of the man who started the bank, she’s angry about the merger that will destroy her dad’s legacy, angry at her husband for tricking her into marrying him so he could take over.  She’s the one who can get them the info they need.  Parker smells emotion all over this one, and he doesn’t like it.  But so hard to find a lot of cash on the hoof these days.  This one could be worth millions.

The big problem right off is Jake wants to be part of the heist, and Parker and Dalesia both know he can’t be anywhere near it, has to have an titanium-clad alibi, because the cops will look at him hard.  He says Dr. Madchen will admit him to a local hospital, private room, and he can sneak out and meet them, then sneak back in afterwards.  No one will ever know!

Parker nixes that scenario, suggests an alternative–Jake’s on parole.  He breaks it by flying to Vegas.  He turns himself in there, says he was drunk, there was a woman.  They’ll have heard it a million times before.  Not like he killed anybody. They’ll lock him up, ship him back to New England, where he’ll be locked up some more.  He’ll be out again in a few weeks–after the job is done.

Jake hates every aspect of that idea.  Prison did not agree with him, or he with it. Plus he loved the idea of being in on the job himself (sticking it to the husband like the husband stuck it to him like he stuck it to the jerk’s wife).  He says he’ll go along with it, but without a whole lot of conviction.  Parker and Dalesia depart the trailer park with some trepidation.

As they drove, Dalesia said, “Jake’s problem is, he’s still part amateur himself.”

“He is,” Parker said.

“I like him, don’t get me wrong, but he didn’t start out to be one of us.  He started out to be a soldier boy, obey orders, get drunk, chase girls.  He got turned and turned, and he’s with us now because he’s got no place else to be.”

“He brings us a job,” Parker said, without emphasis, “he got us from the woman he’s in bed with.”

“I know.  It’s worse than a soap opera.  Do you think you got him to back out of this?”

“Maybe.  If not,” Parker said, “you’re the one he can finger.”

Dalesia laughed, but then he said, “No.  I put one in his head before that.”

“Then her head, too.”

Dalesia, considering, said, “You think so?”

“Never trust pillow talk.”

Dalesia thought about that for a while, then said, “We could just keep driving.”

“We could.”

“I got nothing else.”

“Neither of us has anything else.”

So they have to talk to the daughter.  Elaine Langen.  You might call her The Last Finger.  The first was named Alma, waitress at a New Jersey diner–where an armored car carrying a payroll would park, so the security men could eat.  Using a guy she’s sleeping with (named Skimm, hence the ‘hmmm’ ) to try and escape–and get even with the whole world.  She’s plotting a cross, which gets her killed, because Parker.

This finger was raised with money, isn’t planning any cross, just wants revenge on her dirtbag husband, with a bit of fuck-you money on the side–but otherwise it’s a lot like that.  Check out the descriptions.

First Alma:

She was in her mid-thirties, and her waitress-short hair, a mousy brown in color, was crimped all around in a frizzy permanent.  Her eyes were sullen and angry, glaring out at a world that had never given her her due.  She was heavily built, with broad hips and full bosom and thick legs, all of it solid and hard.  She had a double chin and a pulpy nose and a surprisingly good mouth, but the mouth was obscured by the hardness of the rest of her.

Now Elaine:

Well.  The first impression was of a slender, stylish well-put-together woman in her forties, but almost instantly the impression changed.  She wasn’t slender, she was bone thin, and inside the stylish clothes she walked with a graceless jitteriness, like someone whose medicine had been cut off too soon. Beneath the cowl of well-groomed ash-blond hair, her face was too thin, too sharp-featured, too deeply lined.  This could have made her look haggard; instead, it made her look mean.  From the evidence, what would have attracted her husband most would have been her father’s bank.

And now it begins to dawn on me at last that Stark knew all along what he was doing here, even if he didn’t know exactly where it was going.  As he had already done once, with the Dortmunder novella Walking Around Money, (credited to Westlake, but Stark was ghost-writing), he is consciously revising The Man With the Getaway Face.  Or, as Stark originally titled it, The Mask.

The second book in the series, the one that made it a series. The first that was really about a heist, that showed us what Parker was like when he wasn’t in mad wolf vendetta mode, the one that began to lay down the rules, the guidelines for what would come after.  The Hunter was the launchpad–The Mask the trajectory.  These last three books are the splash down.

You stay on the merry-go-round long enough, sooner or later you come back to where you started.  Dalesia, thin and dark, resembles Handy McKay quite a bit, has the same quiet competence and affable nature–less of his loyalty. It’s not that hard to see the parallels once you’re looking for them.  But see, that book came out more than forty years before this one, and the scenario can’t play out like last time.  The more things stay the same, the more they change.  No more Handy McKays in the world Parker lives in now.  Yeah, foreshadowing.

They tell Jake to tell Elaine to meet them at a service area on the MassPike.  There’s a cafeteria style restaurant there (a diner would be too on the nose).  She’s every bit as much of a handful as they thought, and even less of a professional than her lover.  Still, you have to give her points for brass.

She looked at the booth, looked at the privacy they’d arranged for her, and said “Thank you.”  She slid in and said, “Jake had to talk me into this, you know.”

Dalesia said, “Into this, or into the whole thing?”

Her laugh was brief and harsh.  “Into this,” she said.  “I had to talk him into the whole thing.  But I guess you two must agree with me.”

Parker said, “About what?”

“There was an old movie,” she said, “called, Nice Little Bank That Should be Robbed.”

Dalesia laughed and said, “That’s what we got here, huh?”  In the movie, did they get away with it?”

“I never saw the movie,” she said.  “I just noticed the title, in a TV listing.  It struck me.”

“Probably,” Dalesia said, “being a movie, they didn’t get away with it.  Movies are very unrealistic that way.”

She seemed amused by him.  “Oh? Do bank robbers usually get away with it?”

Well yes, Dalesia explains–in that the phrase literally refers to the robbers getting the cash away from the bank, and bank employees are instructed to let them do precisely that, so they pretty much always ‘get away with it.’  It’s the aftermath that tells the tale–if the robbers are stupid, as is often the case, they get caught or killed later on–if they’re smart, they may ‘get away with it’ in the more expansive sense of remaining alive and free and spending the money–perhaps multiple times.  But not too many.  Nobody runs forever.

(And yes, that’s a real movie title Elaine references, minus a prefatory article of speech, and I haven’t seen it either, but now I really want to, c’mon TCM.  As to whether they get away with it–yes and no.  Basically, the movie is making the same point as Dalesia.  Don’t go to the well too many times.)

It’s arranged that she’ll fax them the day of the big money move as soon as she knows it, using a fax machine at the bank itself.  The position of the money car is more time sensitive, and turns out the only way this can be worked is for her to go there that night, watch to see them loaded up, then drive to a pre-arranged intersection and give them the number of the car.  It won’t be the first or last of the four, she knows that already, but that isn’t enough.

Her only contribution to this job is information, but it’s an indispensable contribution. If they could get rid of Jake altogether, the job would work a lot better.  His relationship with both Dalesia and Elaine makes that impossible.  She’s not too enthused about his breaking parole to establish an alibi–mainly because she knows how much he hated prison.  But she accepts the necessity of his having an unbreakable alibi, in order for suspicion not to fall on her as well.

She tries not to show much bothered she is by their conviction that her husband knew about the affair with Jake all along.  She says she knows her husband, would know if he knew about her and Jake.  Her husband’s name is Jack.  Do I really have to spell out the implicit pun here?  Point is, much as she may think she is above suspicion, nobody would ever accuse the old man’s daughter, she better take care to establish an alibi for herself as well, call her husband the minute she gets home that night.

Frowning, she said, “You really believe it, don’t you?  That Jack will suspect me.”

“Whether he does or not,” Parker said, “do you like to take risks?”

“To wind up in jail, you mean?” Her mouth twisted.  “Prison orange is not my color.”

Really?  I’ve heard it’s the new black.  Parker notices she’s got a gun in her purse, which she’s very defensive about (there’s a lot of that going around lately, can’t imagine why). She kids on the square about how they’re playing good cop/bad cop, complains they never even offered to buy her a cup of coffee, and departs.  Leaving them less than reassured of her soundness, but they still have nothing else.

Parker goes back to Claire in New Jersey, they go swimming together in Colliver Pond, in the warm September weather, she’s wearing a bright blue bikini, and let’s just say Parker has a lot to lose here.  Then again, women like Claire come with a certain amount of overhead built in, even if they’re happy with a small house on a lake in Northwestern Jersey that they have to vacate during the summer, when it gets all touristy.  Anyway, Parker has to work whether he’s got a woman or not.

She tells him the bank account is getting low, so he goes to his bank–caches of cash, concealed in little hidey-holes he’s made inside surrounding vacation cottages, that he can easily access when they are unoccupied, which is most of the time he and Claire are in residence there.  It’s a neat system.  No interest accruing, to be sure.  But you know, with the market so volatile of late, call it a hedge fund.  Perhaps in actual hedges, at times.

He comes back to the house, and Dalesia left a message to call–bad news.  Jake went to his scheduled appointment with his parole officer like a lamb.  They head back to Massachusetts to see if the lamb needs slaughtering.

They go to the trailer park this time, never mind the doctor.  Barge right in.  Jake tells them he knows what they’re going to say.  Parker says he was going to say the job works just as well if Jake is dead.  Dalesia, the good cop, is in general agreement with this sentiment, with the difference that he feels personally let down by his old camping buddy.

Jake’s rattled, but sticks to his guns–he can’t do another minute of time.  He won’t.  He came up with a better version of his medical alibi.  Madchen will diagnose him with stomach problems, he’ll be in a hospital ward, not a private room, and he agrees he can’t sneak out to participate in the heist.  He’s already talked to his parole officer about it–meaning that it’s a fait accompli.  And if they kill him, Elaine will be too scared to play ball.  Not liking it one bit, Parker gives in.

Back to Claire again, leading to the exchange you see up top.  Which I’ve found interesting for a while now, for two reasons.  Reason the First: Would Parker know or care what constitutes good food?  I guess he knows the difference between rare and burned.  It seems more like a Westlake Foodie thing.  Away from major cities, you pretty much do have to choose between classy ambience and good food.  Even in major cities, you have to look pretty hard and pay through the nose to get both.

Reason the Second: Claire’s a redhead?  She was introduced in the ninth book of the series.  This is the twenty-second.  First time we’ve ever been told what color hair she has.  She was depicted on the cover of three of the four Gold medal originals, each one drawn by Robert E. McGinnis.

I’ve always preferred the brunette.  But that’s just McGinnis, perhaps going with his personal preference of the moment, given no visual cue in the books–or else he just assumes that if a woman has red or yellow hair–in a crime novel–you mention it.  For whatever reason, his final take on Claire is a strawberry blonde.  And is being pawed by somebody we assume is Parker (though it could be one of her abductors), who looks an awful lot like a younger version of McGinnis himself.

I could probably spend a good five thousand words just speculating on Westlake’s reasons for telling us what previously only Parker and Claire’s hairdresser knew for sure.  Five thousand wasted words, because in the final novel of the Triptych, which takes place just a few weeks later, she’s suddenly ash blonde, and Parker doesn’t say one word about that when he sees her.  Okay, it’s Parker, why would he care, wolves being colorblind and all.

Is Stark messing with the heads of his faithful longtime readers?  Westlake, in truth, never cared all that much about matters follicular himself–to the point of sometimes describing this or that character as having ‘hair-colored’ hair.  He doubtless had been asked by some readers whether Claire was blonde or brunette, as most of his female love interests had been in the past. Only redhead I can think of offhand in the Westlake canon is Jigger Jackson, from the ill-starred Who Stole Sassi Manoon?

I saw one exchange where a fan asked Westlake why Parker had started out as a blonde, then had dark hair–but that reader was just responding to the early cover art, since none of the books ever described Parker’s coif that way–it did seem to get darker over time.  As did that of the author himself.  Childhood photos of him show a tow-headed boy, adult photos show a man with hair both dark and rapidly thinning –it’s an Irish thing, as me and one of my sisters can attest–we were both born blondes.  We didn’t stay blonde.  (Maybe because we got smarter.)  I went from blonde to brown to salt & pepper.  Sis was a redhead by choice, last I saw her.  It’s just hair.

Point is, by starting to define Claire a bit more, after decades of letting us (and the cover artists) imagine her, Stark is making her less of an ideal.  She’s going to start coming into focus more and more during this and the final book–leading to some questions about the long-term stability of her arrangement with Parker.  She’s now freely discussing a job with him, before it’s even pulled–she never used to want to hear a word about what Parker did to earn their living.  But that’s been changing for some time now.  Like everything else in Parker’s world.  Except Parker himself.  He adapts.  It’s not the same thing.

The third thing about that scene with Claire is the important thing–the guy who called looking for Harbin.  Who is dead, you should recall.  Parker does.  Not long after that, the guy calls again.

“I’m looking for Harbin.”  The voice was gravelly and a little false; not as though he was trying to sound tougher, but softer.

“Which Harbin would that be?”

“The Harbin from Cincinnati.”

“Don’t know the guy, sorry.”

“Hey, wait a minute, I think you can help me.”

“I don’t.”

“From your phone number, I got a pretty good idea of your general geographical location.  I can get up into that northwest corner of New Jersey in, say, an hour.  Give me directions to your place, we can talk it over.”

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

“I just don’t want to leave a stone unturned here,” said the gravelly voice, sliding back and forth between menace and gentleness.  “I’m the kind of guy, I’m dogged, I just keep coming.”

People who tell Parker they know where he lives tend to end up going, but there’s no point telling this guy that.  He obviously knows he’s living life dangerously.  He plays a little game of tag, agreeing to meet the guy at a gas station by the Delaware Water Gap, having no intention of keeping the appointment, not expecting the mystery caller to do so either, but figuring he can spot the dark red Chevy Suburban the guy said he was driving.  (Parker’s driving a Lexus himself, but he didn’t mention that over the phone.)

Whoever is behind this, they know about surveillance.  Parker never sees the Suburban, but he still gets followed back home–spots the tail, black Honda, tall good looking blonde woman inside.  Like the wolf he is, he tries to double back, lead them away from the den, from his mate, but no good.  He finally parks, and waits for the mystery caller to identify himself.

Parker’s heeled, Beretta Jetfire .25, a handgun smaller than most hands (but look at all the movies it’s had cameos in).  Parker never did go in for ostentation much. Nor has he ever been much inclined to mince words.

Parker showed him the Beretta.  “One step back; I don’t want blood on the car.”

The guy took the step back, but he also gave a surprised laugh and stuck his hands up in the referee’s time-out signal, saying, “Hold on, pal, it’s too late for that.”

Too late?  Parker rested the Beretta on the windowsill, his eyes on the other’s eyes and hands, and waited.

The guy nodded toward the supermarket.  “Sandra’s already been on the horn with the DMV.  Claire Willis, East Shore Road, Colliver’s Pond, New Jersey Oh-eight-nine-eight-nine.  Why don’t you wanna have a nice little talk?”

“You’re not law,” Parker said.

The guy shook his head.  “Never said I was.”

Being with a partner, running a license through Motor Vehicles, having all the time in the world for a stakeout, not particularly impressed by the sight of a handgun.  “You’re a bounty hunter.”

“You got it in one, my friend,” the guy said, grinning, proud of either himself or Parker.  “If you’re not gonna blow my head off, I can reach in my jacket pocket for my card case, give you my card.”

“Go ahead.”

“Not that a Beretta like that’s gonna blow anybody’s head off, the guy said, reaching into his jacket, coming out with a card case.  “Though it would make a dent, I give you that.”

Roy Keenan Associates.  Sandra’s the associate, and Roy mentions she packs a S&W 357.  Parker could try getting her too, with his dinky little rod, but wouldn’t it be easier to talk?

There’s a big government reward out on Harbin, which Keenan can collect just as well by proving Harbin’s dead.  We still do that dead or alive thing?  I thought that was just Steve McQueen.  Googled around, seems to be a bit of a grey area–you can’t shoot the guy in the back and drag him in, no legalized murder, but you can bring in a dead body to collect, as long as you didn’t plug the guy in the back. If he resists, and you shoot him, you get paid.  Somebody else shoots him and you dig him up, same deal.  Keenan would take that deal all day long.

Keenan’s got Dalesia’s name as well, and perhaps a few other names from that ill-fated card game the book began with.  He doesn’t know much of anything else–like Parker strangling Harbin with his tie–or he wouldn’t be this close.  He tells Parker he’s not giving up until he finds Harbin, or Harbin’s corpse.  Parker figures there’s no point mentioning the third option and leaves.

He calls Dalesia, to warn him, only to hear yet more bad news.  Jake’s been shot in the leg.  He’s in the hospital, which was part of the plan, but there’s cops asking him questions, which wasn’t.  One of those cops is also a good-looking blonde, who we’ll meet next week.  See, you mention a woman being blonde in a crime  novel.  There’s three blondes in this one.  All of them trouble.  Well, that’s a crime fiction thing too.

That finishes Part One.  We’re over 5,000 words.  I actually have enough cover images to make this a four-parter, if I want.  Nobody runs forever, you say?  Try and stop me, coppers!

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Mr. Stark and The Triptych

Beckmann;+The+Departure

When I sent Ask The Parrot, the previous Parker novel in the series, to Stephen Moore, my west coast agent, he said, “Oh, does that mean it’s going to be a trilogy?” “No, no,” I said, “This is just the next book in the series.” But his question stuck in my mind. Although Ask The Parrot had nothing to do with the book before that, Nobody Runs Forever, except that it starts one second after the previous book ends, and although Ask The Parrot does close out its own story and characters pretty satisfactorily, it was true there were some messy strings hanging out of Nobody Runs Forever and some cash up there in New England that Parker and his associates thought they had a right to. So, thanks to Stephen Moore, Dirty Money started to grow in my mind. Maybe it’s more a triptych than a trilogy, where the side panels reflect on one story and the center panel reflects on something else. At any rate, it closes out the triplet, tercet, triangle, and the job is done. And no, it won’t be a tetralogy.

Donald E. Westlake, blogging about himself.

“For me this painting is a kind of rosary, or a ring of colourless figures, who can glow when there is real contact and who tell me truths that I cannot express with words and did not know before. It can only speak to people who, consciously or not, have within them more or less the same metaphysical code.”

Max Beckmann, referring to his 1932 triptych, Departure

It’s been about three and a half years since I reviewed The Hunter (with a Starkian brevity I can only glance back upon in wonder now–and I thought I was being so bold and undisciplined, making that review a two-parter).

And here I sit, twenty four reviews later (counting the Grofields), prepared to look at the last three Richard Stark novels we’ll ever have.

Not the best of them, by any means.  Not the worst either (that’s still Flashfire).   But having subjected the saga to such intense scrutiny over that much time, I feel entitled to say that I don’t know of a more riveting, intriguing, or satisfying multi-book journey in all of literature, nor one that closes itself out with such integrity, if not finality.  And if we’re talking about a series based around one character that proceeded over the course of a score or more novels and close to five decades–well, I can’t say I’ve encountered its equal.

The runner up for me would be the Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian (I know, two characters, but I think of them as one), which I devoured back in the 90’s.  And they were still coming out at the time, so I kept reading, and came to wish I hadn’t.  After The Commodore, the story was complete, even if Bonaparte was still at large.  The Yellow Admiral was a pleasant enough coda to the dance.  Then the masts toppled.  Would I had not read a word of the remaining two and a half books.  An unpleasant surprise (still better than the movie with Russell Crowe).  O’Brian was having his troubles towards the end, but who isn’t?

Series fiction is harder than most people think.  And more important than most critics will allow.  Oh, they’ll acknowledge there are ‘serious’ writers who have dabbled in it. (Dabbled?  More than half John Updike’s novels are series fiction.)  But there is always the suspicion that by writing one book after another about the same set of well-liked creations, a writer is merely playing to the pit, repeating him or herself, to ever-diminishing effect.

And that’s usually the case, if not right away, then eventually.  Did we need most of the latter run of Sherlock Holmes stories?  Conan Doyle clearly didn’t think so.  (I sometimes think he was getting revenge on the public for rejecting his knightly romances about Sir Nigel and the Hundred Years War.)

Any idea, any character, can be exhausted through repetition for repetition’s sake.  Even Wodehouse, perhaps the ultimate master of series fiction, was flagging at the end.  As was Westlake, just a bit, in his last few Dortmunder novels, which have much of Wodehouse in them.

Stark never did.  Past his prime, perhaps.  His potency?  Not hardly.  Some people say he got a bit softer.  I say he got even starker.   This Triptych begins with Parker strangling a man with his own necktie, at a card game.  Towards the end, he strangles another man with one hand.  But that’s not really what I mean by starker.

There was always a certain romantic element to the series, from the start. Westlake said himself that Stark was a romantic. By which he meant an idealist; Parker representing that perfect Platonic form, that everything else in creation is aspiring to, and never quite attaining.  He’s real, but he’s not real.  He’s a man on the outside, but he’s the furthest possible thing from a man.  He’s a wolf on the inside, but you can’t be a true wolf without others of your kind around you, and he’s alone.  He’s evil, he’s honorable, he’s beyond category.  An insoluble mystery, which is why he belongs in this genre.

And in the earlier run of novels, written mostly for the crime paperback market, Stark indulged our desire for larger than life adventure.  Parker goes to war with organized crime.  Parker steals a forgotten art treasure.  Parker loots an entire town.  Parker sacks an island casino run by a German aristocrat who used to be a Nazi.  Parker steals rare coins and finds an even rarer woman into the bargain. Parker steals the payroll from a military base.  Parker steals the box office for a rock concert, and then defends it from a pair of drug-crazed longhairs.  Parker fights an army of mobsters in an amusement park, then comes back later to decimate that mob, decapitate it.

Well, there’s none of that here.  He robs a tiny rural bank and a minor upstate racetrack.  Positively mundane.

And there were the vendettas–the most impractical thing about him, therefore the most romantic.  His need to finish things with those who violated his sense of order, who transgressed against unwritten laws.  Well, there’s none of that here either.  No Mal Resnicks, no George Uhls, no treacherous gang lords (well there’s one, but if he’s plotting a cross, it’s coming later, and there was no later).

There are people he needs to kill, and he does, but it never has that personal feeling to it.  It all makes sense, from his standpoint.  He’s calmed down a lot since the first book.  I guess you could say calmer means softer.  Parker never would.  To him, a well-ordered mind is the deadliest weapon you can wield.

So while I think most of the best writing in the series had already been done years before, in spite of my undying love for the grand gory guns-a-blazing scenarios that have played out in past decades, I can still appreciate what’s being done here–how everything is scaled back, made more real, less fanciful, so that you could almost drive through Northern Massachusetts, or upstate New York, and imagine you see him, at a gas station, or a crossroads.  It’s all taking place at the northeastern tip of America.  Westlake country.  The Stark Lands.

Westlake began this process with Comeback, but there was still much of the old romance there.  There’s none by the end.  Because really, what room is there for romance in this world we live in now?  Because old men see the world differently than young men.  And Westlake was old now.  So was Stark.  But he’s aging better, because what he has to do is simpler.

Westlake was the more sophisticated writer (so there were more things that could go wrong).  The farceur, the satirist, the social commentator.  Indignant and irreverent at the same time.  Dry, whimsical, witty, compassionate, urbane.  Stark just had to be dry.  Until things got wet.

The saga had begun without any plan for it to be one.  The Hunter was supposed to be a one shot, that ended with the random death of its random anti-hero protagonist.  And just as randomly, Bucklin Moon, who I will always believe saw in Parker’s story some funhouse mirror image of his own, demanded a rewrite.  Parker would live. Parker would win.  Parker would go on being Parker.  (And Moon ended up retiring to the Florida Keys, where Parker was thinking about going at the end of the book.)

So Westlake followed up with a book that followed right on the heels of the previous one, but somehow skirted away from that storyline.  Parker is hiding behind a new face, planning an unrelated job, and it goes off pretty well, with a few complications, but the way it ends, he’s realizing he’s going to have to confront unfinished business from the earlier book.  So that’s what he does in the third book.

And whether Westlake knew it or not, that was the first Starkian Triptych.  And it just went on from there, until there were twenty-eight novels, about Parker and his thespian sideman, Grofield.  Three more than he wrote about Dortmunder, Tobin, Holt, and Joslyn, combined.  Not that numbers tell the whole story, by any means.

Westlake probably never got over this quirk of fate, that gave him his second (and more lucrative) steady contract with a publisher, got him out of having to write crap he didn’t believe in.  Now he was writing crap he did believe in–makes a difference.

Now having strong relationships with two first-rate editors, Lee Wright at Random House and Moon at Pocket, he could perfect his craft,  really figure out what this writing gig was about, while supporting his family.  Breathing space. Parker got him out of a tight spot, and he never forgot it.  He’d sell the novels to Hollywood (or Paris), but never the character.  Parker would remain Parker, and his cinematic counterparts, well or poorly executed by committee, would be something else, something less.

He had his little ambiguities about the devil he was dealing with.  Mr. Westlake had a criminal mind, but not the heart to go with it.  He wasn’t sure this was what he was supposed to be writing, and I doubt any writer worth reading is ever sure about that.  He abandoned the Stark voice, then learned it had abandoned him.  It only came back to him once he’d reached a certain age, and Parker longer represented the romantic in him, but the realist.  Which, at a certain age, means the same thing as fatalist.

And this sense of fatalism permeates the second unplanned Triptych, beginning with the title of the first panel, which had an ending so stark as to make readers who’d been there from the beginning ask if the man with the getaway face had made his last getaway.

He hadn’t, but that brings us to the second and major panel, which takes Parker out of the underworld he normally inhabits, into our world–and guess what?  It’s not that different.  He just sits there most of the time, watching us go through our paces, fine civilized people that we are.  And wonders what the fuss is all about.  Some people didn’t get it.  Thought it was too quiet, too uneventful, too rustic.  Some people never do get the point of anything. You know what Max Beckmann would say about that?

At some point, he must have realized he was unconsciously echoing the first Triptych (the word, incidentally, occurred quite independently to me, before I ever read that quote I put up top).  It was time to get back to the first story, finish it out.  But to leave some things unfinished, in case he had a little more room to run afterwards.  As matters worked out, he didn’t.  Mexico beckoned in the distance.  Oh well.  You know what they say.

Autumn is here.  Winter is coming.  I had to get that in there somehow.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Uncategorized

Review: Forever And A Death, Part 4

McGinnis-art-3

hong-kong-day-panorama

Bennett went over to stand beside Curtis and study the plans. God, it was good to be back in construction again! To be standing in a site office, shoulder to shoulder with the boss, looking over the plans. This, Bennett thought, is where I’ve been supposed to be, lo, these many years.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

Looking at the plans, Curtis said, “We don’t have as much time as I’d hoped, Colin.”

“No, sir.”

“Them being here in Hong Kong, and in one of the tunnels, suggests they know far too much.”

“It’s that Mark Hennessy, sir,” Bennett said, meaning, there’s a bad employee, and here, sir, right here at your side, is a good employee.

Curtis said, “I suppose part of it is Mark, but not all of it, he didn’t know that much. I think it’s mostly George Manville, figuring things out. Why I didn’t get rid of him when I had my hands on him I’ll never know.”

“You thought he could still help you, sir.”

“Well, I was wrong about that,” Curtis said. “But it isn’t going to stop us, Colin.”

Us. “No, sir!”

It might be interesting, in fact, to stay here in Hong Kong, particularly if they didn’t after all manage to thwart Curtis. To stay at the Peninsula—switching to a Hong Kong view room, of course—to sit in a comfortable chair by the window, and to watch the towers across the way begin to tremble, to shudder, then to fall to their knees, window panes snapping out into the air like frightened hawks, walls dropping away, floors tilting, desks and filing cabinets and people sliding out into the world, then to feel the power ripple in this direction across the harbor, to see it come like a ghost in the water, to feel it tug at the landfill on this side, the buildings swaying, the yachts and junks and huge cargo ships all foundering and failing and staring with one last despairing gaze at the sky, then the harbor boiling, this very building bending down to kiss the sea…

What a spectacular sight. Who would want to look at anything else after that?

One of the things I’ve had to chronicle, as I’ve worked my way from 1960 to the present day, has been the decreasing diversity and quality of cover art for Mr. Westlake’s various efforts.  (Though Richard Stark, as ever, remains the outlier, and I’ll have the covers to prove it in the coming weeks.)

Hard Case Crime, which published this book, is one component in a much larger media corporation, headquartered in the U.K., so the American and British covers are identical.  If there are different covers for any foreign language editions thus far, they have eluded me.  As of the present time, I don’t believe that’s the case (translations take time).  So was I going to just keep posting the same cover image, four times in a row?

Then it occurred to me–wouldn’t Hard Case Crime have commissioned a few alternate takes, before settling on one? Charles Ardai confirmed they had considered a different cover, and his email came with an attachment.  When making the inquiry, I figured the most I’d get would be a somewhat different preliminary sketch from Paul Mann, who did the cover you’ve already seen, but Ardai said Mann nailed it the first time, so no need for a second.

Instead, I got what you see up top, and that’s from none other than Robert E. McGinnis.  Yowzah.

There could be no more obvious choice to illustrate a Westlake novel based on an idea for a Bond flick that never happened than the man of a thousand (or more) gorgeously lurid paperbacks.  McGinnis also provided iconic poster art for 007 back in the 60’s, and to make it even more perfect, he did some of his best work for the six Gold Medal editions of the Parker novels–including their reprint of The Hunter, (entitled Point Blank, because of the film version just coming out), where Parker looks like Sean Connery, and doesn’t resemble Lee Marvin a whit.

(Also, I’m pretty sure Westlake put a fondly irreverent caricature of McGinnis in Nobody’s Perfect.  And McGinnis seems to have depicted himself as Parker in his cover for The Black Ice Score.)

So this is what McGinnis came up with, when approached.  And it’s breathtaking.  It evokes the villain’s plan memorably, as well as one of the heroes of the piece.  And I can see why they still went with Mann. (McGinnis’s art won’t go to waste; it will be used for some other Hard Case offering, in the next year or two.)

His nifty noirish style has held up beautifully (as two recent art books featuring his work can attest).  His technique (at 91 years of age!) can hardly be improved upon.  And his take on the female protagonist here–well……..

Kim Baldur is not some pale protein-deficient red-headed art model in heels.  Nor would she be wearing a pink bikini, let alone green mascara.  At any time in her life, but least of all when Hong Kong is about to be turned into a malodorous mire.  She’s going to be the one upon whom it falls in the end to prevent this, and she should be dressed for the occasion, no?  And she should probably eat something first.  Though not too soon before she goes in the water.  Like cramps are her primary concern there.

Also, there are no exploding helicopters or hungry sharks in the book, nor does George ever get his hands on an assault rifle, but that’s quibbling.  Mann’s cover has Kim boldly brandishing a sidearm, when the only weapon she ever employs is a can of hairspray, and that’s quibbling too.  One’s license to kill may never come through, no matter how many applications you fill out, but artistic license is a thing.

So how much license do we grant Westlake here?  Obviously this isn’t meant as an exercise in gritty realism.  Nor is it meant to be pure wish-fulfillment fantasy.  Somewhere in-between.  Taking the kind of story where the hero is a smug sexy secret agent, and the villain is trying to take over the world from his secret base on an island or inside a volcano or whatever–and recast it.  Re-imagine it.

The heroes (plural) are still attractive enough, but one is a duly diligent engineering wonk, another an earnestly impulsive eco-warrior of a girl, and the third is not merely gay, but German!

The villain is an arrogant billionaire, and that’s nothing new, but he’s wealthy on paper only.  In debt up to his deceptively bland eyeballs, caught in a trap of his own making, and not at all interested in conquering the world.  He merely wants to retain his current standing in that world, maybe improve it a tad.

But to do this, he has to pull off a stupendous (and murderous) caper,  taking most of the gold reserves from the Bank of China, then destroying all evidence of his crime, by obliterating most of the city of Hong Kong.  The same city the People’s Republic unceremoniously evicted him from, not long after they took charge there, so let’s just say that there’s a certain synergistic aspect.  Well, it was the Chinese who said that Crisis = Opportunity, right?

And in the process of dealing with certain complications that sprang up along the way, he’s hired a disgraced ex-employee of his, a hulking man-monster of a Singaporean, to deal with those complications, with extreme prejudice.   He’s got other henchmen as well, but keeps faith only with himself.  He expects none of the others, heroes or henchmen, to make it to the end of the movie.  But he fully expects to be there at the end, the last man standing, and he gets his way. Spoiler alert? If you don’t want to know, better stop reading now.

The final part of this novel is the shortest,  15 chapters.   Westlake has been paring away at the cast to make this possible (some posthumous paring from Ardai as well).

The guilt-ridden Captain Zhang is dead.  The murderous Morgan Pallifer is dead.  The well-meaning but tunnel-visioned Jerry Diedrich is dead.  Colin Bennett’s arc effectively concluded in Part Three, and now he’s just Curtis’s servitor–in his creator’s mind, he might as well be dead.  Inspector Fairchild, though making himself useful here and there, isn’t going to be solving any mysteries, or making any arrests. The once intrepid Mark Hennessy is soon to be reduced to a shadow of his former spying self.  A new POV character is introduced, then even more abruptly taken out of play.

One key figure after another has fallen by the wayside in this story, until there are only–

FOUR:

Martin Ha lived on a comparatively quiet side street in the middle-class neighborhood called Hung Horn, southeast of Chatham Road, an area heavily populated by the city’s Chinese civil servants, in which group, dressed for his commute, he seemed barely likely to belong. Mounted on his bicycle, teetering slightly as he made the turn onto Ma Tau Wai Road, this slender knobby-kneed serious-expressioned man of about 40 looked as though he might be a rickshaw driver on his day off. He didn’t look like anybody important at all.

Ha rode his bike down Ma Tau Wai Road and right onto Wuhu Street and then left onto Gilles Avenue, all the while ignoring the usual press of traffic that raced and squealed and struggled all around him, the other bicyclists, the hurrying pedestrians, the taxis and trucks and double-decker buses and even, though this was off their normal grounds, the occasional bewildered tourist. Gilles Avenue led him at last to the new Hung Horn ferry pier. Until just a few years ago, where he now stood had been Hung Horn Bay, next to the main railway terminal, but the bay had been filled in just recently, to make more precious land, on which had been built the opulent new Harbour Plaza Hotel, five minutes from the railroad terminal and even closer to the ferry pier.

The ferry ran every ten minutes or so, and took only fifteen minutes to cross the harbor, and this was what Martin Ha loved. The view from the ferry. Out in front of him, across the sparkling water, Hong Kong Island gleamed and blazed in the sunshine, its glittering towers bunched together like the crowded upraised lancetips of some buried army. Behind him, almost as huge, almost as modern, almost as gleaming and sleek and new, clustered Kowloon, Hong Kong’s mainland extension, the gateway to China. In the old days, you could take the train from that railway terminal beside the ferry dock on Kowloon and travel all the way across Czarist Russia and all of Europe to Calais in France, and then board one more ferry, and be in England. The jet plane had changed all that, of course, but the sense of it was still there, the ribbon that tied two worlds together.

The opening of Part Four serves several purposes–first to introduce us to Martin Ha, a Hong Kong police inspector, who bicycles to the ferry every morning, looking like some minor bureaucrat, which is pretty much how he sees himself. He will be informed over the phone by a fellow officer in Singapore that there are some people who have just arrived in his town, with a story he needs to hear. A story that may alarm him somewhat, he is cautioned, and he finds himself hoping it is something out of the ordinary–he could do with some excitement.

It also introduces us to Hong Kong itself, which matters because we need to be reminded this is not merely an idea of a city–this is one of the world’s great gathering points, a hub of commerce and trade, the home and workplace of millions of people–and much of it used to be ocean.  And might be again.

Then it shows us Ha thinking to himself about his city, how much he understands of the world he lives in–and how little–we all take the stability of our daily existence a bit too much for granted at times. No matter how many times Life warns us not to do that.

The surprising thing, Ha thought, as he sat in the air-conditioned back of his official Vauxhall, feeling the slight forward tug of the Star Ferry taking him back across to Kowloon, was how little the city had changed. Everyone had thought the transition from British rule to Chinese rule would be fraught with problems, particularly political and social problems, everything but economic problems, but everyone as usual had been wrong.

In hindsight, it was easy to see why. For one hundred fifty years, Hong Kong had been ruled by an oligarchy installed from a far-off capital, London. Then, for just a few years, there was an attempt to paste a democratic smile on this autocratic face, but the instant the pressure was released the smile fell off, and now Hong Kong was once again ruled by an oligarchy installed from a far-off capital, Beijing. Nothing had changed.

Except, of course, for some of the gweilos living in Hong Kong, the expats as they called themselves, the Europeans and Americans, but mostly the British, who had done well by serving the far-off capital of London but couldn’t be expected to receive the same opportunity to batten off the far-off capital of Beijing.

The ones who belonged to the working class, the barmaids and jockeys and interior decorators, mostly took it in good part, vanished when their work permits expired—or shortly after, when they were found to be still on the premises—and were presumably now living much the same lives in Singapore or Macao or Manila or half a dozen other neon-lit centers of the Pacific Rim.

At the other end of the spectrum, a few Richard Curtises had also found the world shifting beneath their feet. The homes they’d enjoyed for so many years up on the Peaks, the steep hills in the middle of Hong Kong Island, behind and south of the main financial districts, they’d sold off to their Chinese counterparts, entrepreneurs who now made their comfortable livings in exactly the same way the Curtises used to do. Those who’d left had sold those mansions on the Peak before the real estate crash; not bad. And if they hadn’t gotten quite as much in the sale as they’d have liked, well, how much money did any one rich person really need?

(To which many a rich person would respond “How much is there?”  That’s how they got rich in the first place.)

But Martin Ha finds it hard to believe this Curtis, who he remembers well as a ‘corner-cutter,’ could really have such a profound grudge against Hong Kong, or that he’d risk everything on some crazy scheme to steal tons of gold from one of the most powerful nations on earth, to cover some bad debts.  (Might as well imagine he’d run for President of the United States.)

So he has lunch with these people, at a world class restaurant in Hong Kong’s most luxurious hotel (where we are briefly told that George and Kim have happily renewed their sexual relationship, and that’s the very last bit of sex you’ll get in this perhaps over-prim Bond pastiche).

He’s hoping to hear a diverting tale, but for all his calm complacency, he’s a thoroughgoing professional, and no fool.  He can tell they’re not hysterics, or cranks, and one of them is a police inspector from Australia, another the somber son of a wealthy German (not known for histrionics, okay one exception, but he was Austrian).

And one is an engineer, who keeps talking about something called a soliton.  And about the solid ground beneath them, which is not solid at all, and only recently ground.

Inspector Ha nodded at the windows. “Hong Kong Island has been added to and added to. The island used to end far back at Queens Road. Just about everything you’re looking at on the flats is reclaimed land.” They all looked at the gleaming towers, and Kim remembered the great bruise of water thundering at her from Kanowit. She suddenly felt cold.

George said, very quietly, “Inspector, you’re using the wrong word.”

“What word?” “Reclaimed,” George said. “Everyone likes to talk about reclaimed land. ‘The new airport is on reclaimed land.’ It’s a wonderfully solid word, but it is a distraction.”

Ha said, “From what?”

“The Dutch reclaim land,” George said. “They build dikes, and force the sea back, and the lands they find are called polders. They’re solid and real, the same lands they always were except they used to have water on them.”

He waved a hand toward the window. “That isn’t reclaimed. It’s landfill.”

Inspector Ha said, “Reclaimed is more…dignified.”

“But landfill is what it is,” George insisted. “Inherently unstable, never quite solid. And now I suppose you’ll tell me there are tunnels under there.”

Of course there are.  They are used for air conditioning in this very hot climate.  The landfill section of Hong Kong, which is most of Hong Kong, is networked with tunnels.  Many of which go right past underground bank vaults filled with gold ingots–also constructed in landfill.  Fifty feet under the surface of what isn’t really solid ground.

But for the soliton to work, these tunnels would have to be connected to each other, as they are presently not–and how might this be done?  By construction crews, working quietly beneath the surface of the city, using one of Hong Kong’s many active construction sites as a front.  And what business is Richard Curtis in?  And in what city did he formerly practice that profession?

What truly alarms Inspector Ha is Luther’s mention of Jackie Tian, a man he knows to be midway between a union bigwig and a gangster–a man of few scruples, who would know basically every qualified worker in town who might be persuaded to engage in such a nefarious venture, could easily arrange for such a project to be undertaken without arousing suspicion.  He informs his luncheon hosts that they have succeeded in alarming him.

Luther Rickendorf, the self-exiled gay scion of a wealthy old German family, has been a somewhat neglected character in the previous three sections of this novel.  He’s made his voice heard throughout, but he rarely speaks when he doesn’t have something significant to say.  He’s been happy to live in the shadow of his more outgoing American lover.  But now the shadow is alone, and wondering what to do with himself.

For Luther, the last few days had been muffled, without resonance, like a pistol shot in a padded room. Or as though his brain and all his senses were in that padded room. Nothing came through to him with much impact or clarity. It was as though he watched the world now on a television monitor, listened to it through a not-very-good sound system.

He still went through the motions. He thought about the problem of Richard Curtis, he took care of his own needs, he responded quite normally to Kim and George and the others, but it was all simple momentum, nothing else. He went through these motions because there was no way to stop them, short of death, and he didn’t much feel like death right now; it would simply be the state he was already in, intensified.

He supposed he grieved for Jerry, but even that was muffled. He couldn’t find in himself much enthusiasm for revenge or justice, though he continued to trudge along with the others in Curtis’s wake. What he was realizing, and even that slowly and without much force, was that in grieving for Jerry he was grieving for a part of himself. Jerry had been his id, the outward expression of all those emotions and instant reactions that Luther had never quite managed to feel or express on his own. Without Jerry, he was merely the cool and amiable somnambulist he used to be, but now with the added memory of there having been once a Jerry.

(That’s also Luther, in the second quote up top, half-wishing he could be there to see the destruction of Hong Kong, the fall of its towers. Maybe he should try moving to lower Manhattan.)

Jerry Diedrich’s reaction to the loss of the man he’d loved before Luther was to lose himself in grief, bitterness, and retribution, leading ultimately to his own destruction (though it must be said, if he hadn’t pursued his grudge with such stubborn fervor, Curtis would be facing no opposition at all now).

Luther, you should pardon the expression, is not such a drama queen.  He processes his feelings more quietly, less directly.  It seems to run in the family, this emotional stolidity.  His father, upon learning his tall blonde athletic son was attracted to men, expressed no anger, no disappointment–he simply indicated he would prefer Luther live out his alternative life away from Germany, has been willing to supply the funds to make this possible.  (It is, in fact, Rickendorf pater who is shouldering much of the bill for Luther and his friends to stay in Hong Kong, in some considerable comfort).  Luther has no strong feelings about any of that, either.  Or is it that he keeps his anger locked away against the day he’ll need it?

Inspector Ha arranges for them to tour the tunnels, and Luther lags behind, still in something of a fugue state, thinking about how he and Jerry will not be spending eternity together in his  family’s ancestral burial vault, as he’d once allowed himself to imagine.  He hears something.  He looks around, curious.  Then he looks up–and Colin Bennett drops down on him, swiftly renders him unconscious, drags him away.

Just bad timing, is all.  Bennett, attending to his duties, got caught by surprise when the tour group came through, concealed himself overhead, had to neutralize Luther once he was detected.  Curtis is angry at the foul-up.  Now he knows for sure Manville is alive, and has come to stop him, and Rickendorf’s disappearance will make Manville’s story all the more believable–but it can’t be helped.  And he can always use another worker to dig in the tunnels.  He wants this over and done with as quickly as possible.

Next chapter is from Mark Hennessy’s POV, and it is not a happy one.  Curtis found out he was Diedrich’s mole.  Instead of just firing Mark, blackballing him as he’d once done to Bennett, Curtis decided to take a more satisfying revenge–and get yet another worker for his tunnels.

I’ve been informed by Greg Tulonen that some of Mark’s development got cut out of the published book, but all I can say to what I’ve read is that I don’t find his transition satisfactory.  He’s been spying on his employer, and doing a good job of it.  He’s been told Curtis is planning something terrible, by people he trusts.  He knows Jerry Diedrich has disappeared, and what’s more, his disappearance is directly linked to a man Mark knows to be in Curtis’s employ, a man who has been trying to learn the identity of the spy.

Luther had begged him over the phone to come talk to the Singapore police, back up the story he and the others are telling, and he refused to even give that very honorable man permission to tell the police his name.   To out him, in effect.

That all being said, it’s very hard to believe somebody smart enough to do what he’s been doing for years, right under Curtis’s nose, is dumb enough not to smell a rat when Curtis abruptly says he wants Mark to come along on a business trip with him.  He decides he’s done his bit for the environment, for his friends, and now it’s time to focus on his career.  His career is about to take an unexpected turn.

He was in the cabin only a minute or two, laying out his possessions on the top bunk, deciding he’d sleep on the lower, when there was a sharp rap at the door. Expecting Curtis, he crossed to pull the door open, and the man from that day in Curtis’s office shouldered in, shoving the door out of the way, punching Mark very hard in the stomach.

Reeling, doubled over, bile in his throat, Mark felt panic and blank astonishment. The man he’d delivered the money for, the one who’d been following Jerry and Luther, who’d done something to Jerry, was here! In this room, shutting the door behind himself. And when Mark stared upward at him, mouth strained open, air all shoved out of him, the man punched him in the face.

Oh, Luther, tell them! Tell the police, force me to change my mind, convince me, make me stay in Singapore and tell the police what I know, make me stay, anywhere but here! Luther, let me not be here!

(Mind you, I’m not saying that there aren’t people that smart/stupid in this world.  Thinking they can play both sides, leaking things to the press, let’s say, while still defending their master in public, collecting their paychecks, padding their résumés, praying there isn’t a Colin Bennett in their future, or just assuming nothing like that could ever happen to them, that’s just in stories.  And history books.  I’m just saying Mark needed a bit more fleshing out for this twist to work.  I don’t know if he got it in the original manuscript, but he doesn’t here.)

Bennett takes Mark to Curtis, who casually remarks that since Mark’s spying cost him some time, he surely wouldn’t mind helping to make up for that by doing a bit of honest labor.  Every time Mark objects, Bennett hits him.  Hard.  He stops objecting.

What follows, once they get him into the tunnels, is a subterranean hellscape, rather like the one experienced by Rolf Malone in Anarchaos, after he was sold as a slave and sent to be worked to death in a mine.  He is beaten mercilessly, fed minimally, allowed little rest, and in no time at all the man he was before crumbles away to nothing, his will broken.  He doesn’t even known if it’s day or night up above.  Well, that’s one way to learn how the other half lives.

What our heroes have to learn is which construction site–out of dozens now active in Hong Kong–is being used to infiltrate the tunnels.  It would take too long to find out which is a dummy corporation.   They’re so dug in now that searching the known tunnels for subtle alterations would likewise take too long.

Manville has a hunch–he remembers Curtis’s story about how the Hong Kong construction firm he took over with his wife’s help was originally called Hoklo Construction–Hoklos being pirates who escaped punishment and achieved respectability by blending into society, once they’d made their pile.  Anybody could be a pirate, hiding in plain sight, was the point.  (I’m sure Westlake read or heard about this somewhere, but I think there’s a whole lot of people who’d object to this characterization.)

Inspector Ha makes a call, and no, there’s no Hoklo Construction, nothing that obvious–but there is a company called Xian Bing Shu–which means ‘rat pie.’  I’m not quite sure whose expense that’s supposed to be at, but it’ll do as a hint.

(Very Long Sidebar: Let me point out one gaping Hong Kong sized plot hole now, and get it out of the way.  Both sides in this struggle seem to be of the opinion that if Curtis pulls off his coup, there’ll be no one left in the world who knows about what Curtis did.  They’ll all be be entombed in mud and rubble, and no fingers will be pointing at Curtis from any direction, and he’ll be safe as houses.

Curtis is seen thinking to himself that he will gradually transform the gold reserves he steals into ‘impulses in cyberspace.’  So there is a well-developed internet.  We know there are cellphones, rarely as they are mentioned.  And the telephone is mentioned quite frequently, as it has been since the dawn of the 20th century.

Martin Ha and Tony Fairchild are high-ranking police officers with easy access to those higher up in the chain of command.   It is hard to imagine that a few calls have not been made to various concerned parties, in Beijing, Australia, and elsewhere.  Maybe emails.  If this story took place in the 19th century, there’d still be time to send a telegram, or a even a goddam letter.

And, lest we forget, there’s Wai Fung, an inspector of equivalent rank in Singapore, who heard the entire story from Manville and the others, referred it to Ha’s attention, and is still in Singapore, immune from Curtis’s machinations.  He was skeptical, but he wouldn’t be once he saw the news footage.

Andre Brevizin, the eminent Brisbane attorney, came to Hong Kong with Manville and the others in Westlake’s surviving draft, but he seems a thorough sort of person, who leaves notes and things–and in this edited down version of the story, he’s still back in Brisbane.

Let’s acknowledge that Curtis is not in an entirely rational frame of mind here, and doesn’t know how many people Manville has talked to.  Let’s acknowledge that there is no absolute proof Curtis intends to destroy every acre of Hong Kong built on landfill, although if he doesn’t, he’s got to split the loot with a lot of other people, any one of whom might someday spill the beans on him.

Let’s acknowledge that it would be impossible to evacuate an island city in the time they have left, that mass panic would ensue were they to publicly announce what they’ve learned, and that Beijing’s reaction to the news might be problematic.  Let’s also acknowledge that nobody in the story has a lot of time to weigh their actions, which is very much by the author’s design.

And acknowledging all that, I think this aspect of the story needed a lot more work, and that Curtis would have to be stark raving to think he’s going to get away with this–I mean, even if they can’t prove a thing, doesn’t Beijing have a few assassins on the payroll?  Curtis doesn’t seem to be that particular kind of crazy.

And let’s finally remind ourselves that Ian Fleming’s Moonraker is today seen by many as the best-written Bond novel, and at the time it came out, none other than Noel Coward found it less outlandish than the previous two, which he admitted wasn’t saying very much.  One must always make some allowances for the literary form being employed.  Back to the story at hand, still bloody gripping for all my cavils.)

Things start happening very quickly now.   Inspector Ha surrounds the fake construction site, demands the workmen open the gate, or he’ll knock it down.   The workmen respond by opening fire, and one of the first to die is Inspector Ha.  He never liked gunplay, and his prejudice was well-founded.  But the point being made is that when  you’re going to arrest a group of men who are in the process of stealing billions in gold from a powerful and ruthless totalitarian government with some truly horrible prisons, best not expect them to come along quietly.  We say farewell to Inspector Ha, a better man perhaps than his world deserves.  (We could use you in America right now, Inspector.)

Curtis is now on a boat in the harbor, waiting for a small remote-controlled cargo submarine to deliver him his pirate gold (I would assume he got this very Bondian gadget from the same place real-life drug lords do).  In touch with Bennett, he gives the order to go ahead with the operation, get the gold to him, then get out of the immediate area before the soliton hits.  They’ll meet up later to divide the spoils.  (The men all think, remember, that it’s only going to obliterate a small area.  In reality, Curtis will be the sole surviving heister.  George Uhl would be envious.)

And that would be game over, were it not for the fact that Luther Rickendorf’s legendary patience has finally run out.  And the berserker within him is finally released.

It was when the man hit Luther on the back of the head with a fist-size stone, when he felt the pain and a runnel of blood trickling down his neck, that he finally snapped out of the stupor he’d been in ever since Bennett had dropped on top of him in the water tunnel. He turned to look at the man who’d hit him, a short compact pugnacious Chinese, who gestured angrily at the pile of rubble in front of them, making it clear Luther was working too slowly. The man tossed the bloodied stone into the tram and glared at Luther, hands on hips. Luther lifted the shovel, turned, and hit him in the face with it.

That time he used the flat of the shovel, but in the melee that followed he used the edge; it made a very adequate lance, producing quite satisfactory gashes in arms and foreheads.

He somehow fights his way outside, bullets flying everywhere.  He gets to the bulldozer blocking the gate, and much like Manville with the pistol safety in Part One, extrapolates from past experience working with snowplows at ski resorts.  He gets the big machine going, smashing through the gate, then smashing into a bus–but the cops are in, and they’re pretty mad now.  These are somewhat shady hardhats, not seasoned heistmen (seasoned heistmen would have either run away or given up when the cops came knocking).  They don’t hold out very long.

But the submarine is out of the tunnel, into the harbor, under Curtis’s control, as he heads for open ocean  He’s still listening on the phone he told Bennett to leave off the hook when the police smash into his operations room and take Bennett prisoner.  He knows Manville is there, but he assumes it’s too late to stop the charges which have already been set–on a timer.  Like last time  With no failsafe.  Like last time.  And the charges are all under water.

There is confusion in the ranks, because the now-ranking officer on the scene was not told by the cautious Inspector Ha what they were trying to prevent here.  Between Fairchild’s experience with policemen, and Manville’s understanding of what lies Bennett has been fed, they get their answers–and Bennett finally comes to the numbed realization that he’s been used.  And Curtis, still listening in on the other line, hangs up.  He’s won.

The diver Curtis used is their captive, but how can they possibly explain to him what needs doing, and why, and then trust him not to just swim away into the harbor himself, which is honestly what any sane person would do right now, given a chance.  Who could be idealistic and foolhardy enough to dive into dark murky water, with less than half an hour remaining, on a suicide mission that is almost certain to fail?  And it has to be somebody certified as an expert diver, who will fit into the scuba gear of a rather small man.

Oh, you guessed.

Kim had never been so frightened in her life. All she could see in her mind’s eye was that great boulder of hard gray water rolling at her from Kanowit Island, surrounding her, submerging her, beating her into a rag doll.

She was now wearing the other diver’s wetsuit and goggles and headlamp and flippers and air tank, thanking heaven he was a small man so it more or less fit. She moved strongly through the black tunnels. The water filling the tunnels was clouded, already beginning to mix with dirt from the temporary cross-tunnels. In a little while, you wouldn’t be able to see down here at all. Of course, in a little while, there would be no down here.

The more she thought about the urgency of the job, the need for speed and efficiency, the more anxious she became. And she knew that could be fatal. She’d almost fallen down the ladder into the water, unable to control her feet in flippers on the ladder rungs. And she didn’t want to dive or fall into that water, because who knew what debris might be in there, to cut her or knock her out.

And now, when she should be concentrating on swimming forward, finding the bombs, defusing them, all she could think about was the destroyer wave off Kanowit Island, all she could do was feed her fear. George hadn’t wanted her to come down here. None of them had wanted her to do it, none of them would have asked her to risk her life to save theirs—to save everyone’s. But who else was there?

So it’s all come full circle from the start of the book, but this time it’s different.  She’s different.  She’s not some dumb kid who thinks she’s immortal anymore, she’s not just acting on impulse.  She knows what the stakes are, and she knows what she has to do.  She knows who she is.  She’s Kim Baldur, and she wants to save the world.  Or at least this one small piece of it.  And she knows that if she doesn’t, she’ll die anyway.  Not idealism.  Not heroism.  Enlightened self-interest.  Could save us all if we let it.

So if you read this far, without reading the novel first, you have only yourself to blame.  That quote up top would indicate to me that Westlake at least considered having Curtis succeed in his plan, or partly succeed.  He had, after all, done at least three comparable stories before now, of men with vendettas against whole societies, and they were all to some extent successful, though one of them didn’t live to the end of the story.

It’s not made as clear as it might be, but in my estimation, he’d failed from the moment he tried to have Kim Baldur disposed of on his yacht, before she could wake up.  He’s lived much of his life under the illusion that he can control everything, manipulate everyone, and that led to a cascade error, one mistake leading to another, more and more people paying attention to him.

If he’d made a few less mistakes, he might have destroyed the city he feels betrayed him, destroyed many lives, caused global economic and political chaos–who’s to say he might not have triggered a nuclear exchange, the highest aspiration of many a Bond villain.

But in his mind, it’s all so simple.  He steals the gold, he kills everyone in his way, erases the home he can no longer call his own from existence, and he’s himself again.  He’s Richard Curtis, billionaire construction mogul and developer, working on projects like the Kanowit Island resort, and everyone respects him, or at least pretends to.

He’s perhaps a little like Parker–Beijing driving him forth, like St. Patrick expelling the snakes from Ireland, set off a mental chain reaction, a button pushed inside his head, and he could never know a moment’s peace until the slight had been repaid in full.  What was it Parker said in Butcher’s Moon?  “I’d like to burn this city to the ground, I’d like to empty it right down to the basements.”  But even Parker didn’t mean that literally.  And Parker’s retribution only touched those who had directly offended him.  And Parker never pretended to be anything but a thief.

That’s the problem.  That’s why he fails.  That’s why the soliton won’t go off, and he will watch, in stunned disbelief, miles offshore, on a boat operated by a married couple who know he’s doing something criminal and they’re the getaway car.  The deadline expires, and the lights of Hong Kong keep glowing in the distance.  Mocking him.

He fails because he doesn’t know himself.  He doesn’t know that he can never be what he was before.  He’s a thief and a killer now, and what’s more he’s a thief and killer who doesn’t keep faith with his fellow thieves and killers.  Or with anyone, really.  He has no code, instinctive or otherwise. Without money, he’s nothing at all.

But he’s no quitter, give him that much.

It’s George, somehow. George Manville has done this to me. He should be dead, the man should be dead, and in any case he’s nothing but an unimaginative engineer, how can he stop me?

Curtis had always known this was a possibility, but he’d had to go forward anyway. His position was untenable and getting worse. He had to get out from under or go under, ruined, disgraced. So he’d had to make this gamble, and now he’d lost.

Thirty-seven minutes.

It wasn’t going to blow. George Manville, of all people, had beaten him. (He never even thought of Kim.)

But was this any worse than to fail the other way? To be sued, hounded, taken through bankruptcy courts, reviled by everyone who used to shake his hand and drink his liquor.  If things had worked out…

If things had worked out, he would have had all the money he needed to solve his problems, and he would not have had one breath of scandal to touch upon him. He would have had his revenge on the city that had tried to destroy him, and he would have continued to be Richard Curtis, owner of Curtis Construction and RC Structural, respected, accepted everywhere in the world.

Well, he had failed, and now that failure was behind him, and it was time to start again. He still had a very few trusted people—the Farrellys at Kennison, for instance—he could rely on. Richard Curtis would have to disappear forever, and gradually he would have to build up a new identity. He had lost a battle, that’s all, not the war.

To disappear meant totally, and that meant he had to start now. Defeat had made him tougher, more decisive. He knew what had to be done, and he wouldn’t shrink from doing it.

He shoots the couple, throws their bodies overboard.  He hadn’t intended to do this before, but now that everyone is going to know what he’s done, now that the world is going to be hunting him, he can no longer count on their discretion, their complicity in his crime, to keep them silent.  He’s truly alone now.  And he just made another mistake.

He’s planning on the fly, and he’s never been good at that (he thinks he is, which only makes it worse).  He can pilot the ship, but he can’t run the risk of being discovered with a submarine full of gold trailing him.  He’s got Mark Hennessy’s papers, that will do for a start.  But he’ll need money to start over.  He’ll need a small portion of the gold, to hide on the boat, and take with him.

He has to surface the sub, tether it to the boat, get on top of the sub, open the hatch, start putting the ingots onboard.  He removes the outer hatch, which drops into the sea–no big deal, he has to sink it to hide the evidence.  It’s not the kind you ride in, anyway.  He’s surprised at how heavy the bars are.  For a man who knows everything about money, he doesn’t know much about gold.

It’s not a one man job.  But there’s nobody left to help him.  His choice.

The rope! Curtis saw it was going to happen, and lunged, but too late. The ships made one more incremental turn away from one another, and the rope tying them together met the spinning propeller of the submarine, and the propeller neatly sliced through.

Immediately the ships lunged away from one another. Curtis saw the lights of Granjya rapidly recede. There were no lights on the submarine.

Dive into the sea? He couldn’t possibly hope to swim fast enough to catch up with Granjya. But if he stayed in the submarine, what then?

Granjya’s lights were fainter, they disappeared. Curtis was getting wet. As the waves ran over the submarine, water ran inside through the two open hatches.

He was in pitch blackness, in this small heaving boat on the surface of the sea. It was riding lower, taking on water faster. There was no light anywhere in the world, except far away to the north, far away, the cold white sheen of Hong Kong against the night sky. Curtis, standing in the hatchway on his gold ingots, his body moving with the roll of the submarine, kept his eyes on that far-off pale glow.

After a while, the lights were still there, but he was not.

It’s not a perfect book.  But that’s a perfect ending.

And we never find out (because this is Donald Westlake, master of the abrupt send-off), what happened with George and Kim’s romance.  Last we see of them, they’re laughing and kissing in sheer relief that it’s over and they’re alive.  They can’t know if they’re compatible or not, and neither can we, and in this sub-genre it doesn’t matter.  The sex will be amazing in the coming months, and that does.

We never learn whether Luther got over his heartbreak and his mental solitude, or if he ever went home.  Maybe Papa Rickendorf will reconsider his position on the gay thing, in light of his son’s valor under fire?  Nah, I don’t think so either.

We never learn whether Mark got over his trauma, or his shameful understanding that it’s his own fault for trusting a man he of all people knew could not be trusted.

And most of all we never learn how the world reacted to the news that one of its (supposedly) richest men was a shameless blackguard and fraud, utterly bereft of conscience or fellow feeling, willing to go to any lengths to keep what he felt was rightfully his.  I mean, who would have thought such a thing?  (Anyone who ever did business with him.)

It’s an inspired mess of a book.  Fascinating idea, some magnificent bits of writing, several memorable villains, and if the heroes are maybe a bit less convincing, well, that’s because Donald Westlake doesn’t believe in heroes. Never did.

But he did believe, I think, that we have to go on acting as if we believe in heroes–not the idealized heroes of fiction, no.  The ordinary people who are capable of extraordinary things, once they get going.  Once they realize the alternative to heroism is death.  Enlightened self-interest.

The most chilling thing in this book is its description of the falling towers in Hong Kong, that quote that I put up top.  Not just the caliber of the writing, but the fact that Westlake wrote this in the late 90’s.

And then he would have watched, in disbelief, as it happened before his eyes, not to some distant foreign capital, but to the city he knew and loved most intimately.  And the man who planned that was an engineer.  Of course.  Who came from wealth.  Of course.  Though his motives were quite different from Curtis’s, he was still, I’d imagine, trying to get back something he believed was rightfully his.

And who would want to see anything else after that?  (I’d assume if he had any idea of polishing up this novel and getting it published, that idea was yet another casualty of 9/11)

This novel is a somewhat ill-conducted cacophony of long neglected voices in Mr. Westlake’s head–Culver, Clark, maybe Coe (I think I can hear him in Luther’s head).  But most of all, Stark.  Who had just somehow resurrected himself, and exerted great influence here, but Stark is never fully Stark unless he’s writing about Parker.

And the three remaining Parker novels, published over a period of around four years, were all conceived and created in the post-9/11 era.  They are Stark’s reaction to that event, and what followed it.  They are far better than Forever And a Death, and they are, I’d argue, the last great books Westlake ever produced–not so much as individual volumes, but as a collective work of art.

And they are so much better than his other late work, I would argue, because Stark was the voice at the back of all Westlake’s many voices.  He was the core program, that kept on running strong, after the other more sophisticated softwares had started to fade.  He’s ready to share his code with us one last time.

And Parker is going to meet his two deadliest foes.  The Information Age.  And the Security State.

We’ll see how fast and how far he can run from them.

 

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Timothy J. Culver, Tucker Coe