Review: Firebreak, Part 3

“I get it,” Parker said.  “That’s your firebreak again.  Now they’re gonna move the stuff.”

“But they don’t get a chance,” Wiss told him.  “Right after Griffith gets there the place fills up with ATF, maybe thirty, forty of them, you’d think they’re after terrorists.”

“But they’re not.”

“When Larry told us, we said, what are they doing there, and he said, ‘They’re looking for our paintings.'”  Wiss laughed.  “Is that a pisser?  They’re looking for our paintings.  Larry’s gonna be okay, Parker.”

That didn’t matter, not now.  “But there isn’t a job any more,” Parker said, meaning, if the job did still exist, they’d have to think very hard, should Lloyd still exist.

“We don’t know yet,” Wiss said.  “The general feeling is, let’s stick around, see what happens next.”

“Until when?”

“Until the dust settles.” Wiss shrugged.  “Who knows, maybe they’ll truck the pictures outa there, we can  hijack them on the road, we’re the only ones know what and where they are.”

“Possible,” Parker said.

“At this point,” Wiss said, “everything’s possible.  Listen, I forgot to ask.  Did you deal with that problem?”

“Yes,” Parker said.

The most interesting stories in this one aren’t about the heist itself, not directly.   That’s not so unusual for a Parker novel, but it’s a bit out of the ordinary that there are so many distinct storylines apart from the heist that are so much more interesting than the heist, which doesn’t go off as planned, but we’re all used to that by now.

There’s the attempted hit on Parker at the very start of the story, that forces him to turn detective again, leading him to the mobbed up Cosmopolitan Beverages. Another run-in between Parker and organized crime that goes no better for the mobsters than any of the previous encounters, and sets up potential stories for future books.

This leads him in turn to a final showdown with Paul Brock and Matt Rosenstein, that cuts off the last dangling plot thread from The Sour Lemon Score.  The other dangling plot thread was named Uhl, and that concluded in Plunder Squad, also centered around an art heist, albeit much more contemporary stuff.  Parker walked away empty-handed from both of those jobs.  Third time lucky?

Just as important, and stretching across all four parts of the novel, is the arc of Larry Lloyd, disgraced techie turned heister, now the protégé of longtime Parker associate, Ralph Wiss.  Larry is as good as hacking into computer systems as Ralph is at blasting into bank vaults.  But the question remains–is he tough enough for this line of work?

And if the answer is no, Parker’s quite certainly going to kill him–not out of vengeance for Larry having accidentally exposed Parker to the hit, compromised his home base in New Jersey.  No, simply because he knows too much about Parker, he’s too emotional, too inclined to act on impulse, too likely to crack under pressure, spill what he knows.  If Parker has no faith in Larry’s ability to adapt to his new life, avoid the law–which wants him for murdering his former partner now–then Parker’s going to make sure Larry’s in no position to talk to anybody, ever.

And where is this coming from?  Westlake’s own run-in with the law, so many years before.  He and a guy he knew from college, needing a bit of extra pocket money, conspired to steal microscopes from a science lab, and sell them to some minor local crook, who then got into a fight with his unfaithful wife, then went after her boyfriend, which brought in the law.  He ended up selling both Westlake and his buddy to the state police.

Westlake broke easily under pressure, admitted to everything–which was the right thing to do, the smart thing.  He knew that.  And I doubt he ever stopped despising himself for doing it.  While trying, in his fiction, to relive that moment, to look for ways that authority could be successfully resisted, suborned, evaded, outmaneuvered.  Because there would be times in life when that would be the right thing to do, the smart thing.  If you were living a different life.  If you were a different person.  Or if authority wasn’t really looking out for decent law-abiding folk, which has been known to happen.

Larry Lloyd doesn’t have a path back to a decent law-abiding life anymore.  He knows that now.  He can only move forward, become the 21st century version of Ralph Wiss, take his chances out in the wind.  If he can prove to Parker–and to Stark–that he can make this new identity work for him, he lives.  If not, he dies.  And that’s enough prologue for a Part 3, I think.  This shouldn’t take long.

Dealing with the middle of this book last time, and mainly focused on the non-heist stuff, I opted to skip over some fairly significant moments involving Ralph Wiss and Frank Elkins.  Who are having their troubles.  Both of them are family men, leading outwardly respectable lower middle class suburban lives, as they have been doing for many years now.  While supporting their families through an assortment of burglaries and armed robberies.  They always work together, an inseparable team, but their partnership is in danger of going off the rails now.

It was their attempt to burglarize Paxton Marino’s remote luxurious hunting lodge that got them in trouble.  Elkins spotted an incongruity in the floor plan of Marino’s basement–Wiss was able to find and break into Marino’s hidden gallery of stolen art masterpieces.  But before they could make off with the goods, the law came running, alerted by a secret alarm they’d tripped.  They got away, their two partners, Corbett and Dolan got nabbed.

They lawyered up, and are currently out on bail, but there’s no chance of them escaping prison–they’d get significantly less time if they finked on Wiss and Elkins.  They also have families, but they’re willing to go on the lam–if they get enough money to make that feasible.  Meaning Wiss and Elkins have to go back and get that art that if they had left it alone to begin with, Corbett and Dolan wouldn’t be looking at hard time.

And, as has been already explained, that’s going to be much harder now, because the previous robbery made Marino beef up his security, and because Marino is now looking to move his stolen paintings out of there, and because the law has been alerted to the fact that Marino has stolen paintings.  And because those two ex-partners of theirs are starting to breathe really heavily down their necks–Dolan actually violated the terms of his parole to show up at a softball game Elkins was playing in.  Softball is the very last game these guys intend to play.  Do the heist.  Now.

And just to make things even more complicated, Larry Lloyd is now every bit as gung ho for doing the job, because as Parker finds out during a layover in Chicago, Larry’s wanted for murder, and he needs the money to create a new identity for himself.  Basically, the only one who doesn’t have to do this job is Parker–except that he knows these other guys have to do it, and they all know stuff about him, and suppose they end up trading him to the law for less time behind bars?   And anyway, this is what he does.  Steal stuff.  Once he’s started a job, he likes to finish it.

So the four of them set up at a motel near the lodge, as hunters, which is what they are, just not in the usual sense.  The law has displaced Marino’s security staff from their usual headquarters, and this being a sparsely populated area, it’s not too much of a coincidence that they are now living at the same motel.  The gang chats them up, buys them drinks, and gets plenty of useful information about the lodge.

The plan is that Larry Lloyd never gets near the lodge–he’s their eyes and ears, snooping on email conversations between various concerned parties; Marino & Co., as well as the various government officials now trying to nail Marino & Co. (You know, I’d hate to think some nerd could actually do all this, with a portable device, while operating out of a Montana motel, which I assume has lousy internet connectivity, but then again, I have been reading the news lately, so it’s kind of hard to rule anything out these days, isn’t it?)

The bad news is that the law has gotten involved in advance of the actual robbery.  The good news is that for the time being, there’s only two cops there–Bert Hayes, who works for a tiny and possibly fictitious art theft department of the Secret Service, and a Montana State CID man named Moxon, who, like Hayes, has taken a strong dislike to Paxton Marino, and would dearly love to see him behind bars.  They are in constant communication with ‘Sog’ which Parker is informed stands for ‘Seat of government’ and words cannot express how much he does not care.

So decked out like hunters with rifles and blaze orange jackets, with Larry monitoring them through one of those com links involving tiny earphones and mikes that I suspect work a lot better in fiction than in real life,  Parker, Wiss, and Elkins start closing in on the lodge. It’s actually a few days before the start of hunting season.  Like real hunters never jump the gun?

And speaking of people jumping the gun, who should turn up but Bob Dolan–Corbett isn’t far off.  Turns out their parole got revoked the day before, and they had to run for it.  They’re just here making sure they get their share of the proceeds.  The question remains open as to how large a share they figure that’s going to be.

Moxon sees the hunting party approaching, and starts issuing warnings via a loudspeaker.  Elkins talks his way in close enough to pull a gun on him, and before long, both lawmen are in heister custody.  Larry took control of communications to and from the house, so any pleas for help were never received. They surrender graciously.  Figuring these are the same pros who did the first robbery, they are reasonably hopeful they’ll still be alive when this ends–and in the meantime, would the crooks mind terribly showing the cops where the hidden art vault is?  It’s been really hard to find, and they could use some expert help.

It all starts going sour quicker than anticipated.  The damned telecommunications revolution.  People now expect to be in touch with other people at any time, all the time, for any reason, or none at all. Remember when you could be incommunicado for days on end without anybody noticing?  If not, my sympathies.  Yes, Larry can intercept and block calls and emails to and from the estate.  Yes, he can come up with a series of excuses as to why Hayes and Moxon can’t be reached.  They can even have Hayes get on the phone, at gunpoint, to talk to an FBI guy.  Who has some bad news–for the heisters.

The crooked art dealer, Griffith, has flipped on Marino, who is now in custody in Italy.  Since there is now zero doubt that there is priceless stolen art stashed at the lodge, a whole lot of law is now going to be showing up, very soon.  Three hours, max.  Not enough time to break into the stainless steel vault in the basement, and make off with the art.  Larry’s com has suddenly gone dead, which they presume means Mr. Lloyd has run out on them.  “Well, he’s right,” says Wiss.  “I know he is,” says Parker.  (As it happens, they’re both wrong, about Larry, but we’ll get to that.)

Okay, so the job has fallen through completely.  It’s happened before.  Time to leave.  Except they can’t.  Because here’s Bob Dolan, pointing a Colt automatic at Elkins’ head, and telling them that his partner Corbett is upstairs, guarding the entrance–no other way out of the basement. Parker and the others are armed, but Dolan has the drop on them, and even if they could take him, Corbett would hear the shot–if he doesn’t hear Dolan’s voice right afterwards, he’s going to just shoot anybody who comes up.

Here’s the deal–they’re betting that it is possible to get into that vault before the cops show up. The law is already after Corbett and Dolan, so they can never go home again.  They can’t make their getaway without a lot of money.  So far as they’re concerned, if they’re going to jail, they’d like some company.  Get busy with that drill, Wiss.

Parker quietly asks if he can take a look in a storage area–maybe there’s something in there he can use to help get the vault open.  Dolan says sure, what’s the harm, just don’t get too close.  Self-evidently, he’s never worked with Parker.  If he had, he’d know Parker has two specialties.  One is planning heists, which hasn’t been much in demand this time.  The other is troubleshooting.  He’s the one who figure out how to fix problems that crop up during the job.  And if the problems happen to be people, he’s the enforcer who makes them go away.  You don’t let a guy with that particular skill set out of your sight, even for a second.

The storage area is full of sports equipment.  He sees a target, wonders what Marino and his friends used to shoot at it.  Not much time to look, but he senses there’s something there, and he finds it.  A beautifully made wooden composite bow, four feet long, complete with arrows.  And now we’re faced with an unexpected question, as he sizes up this seemingly unfamiliar weapon.

Had he ever shot one of these things?  If he had, he couldn’t remember it, but it wasn’t high technology.  He selected one of the arrows, which also had a nock in the back end of of the shaft, beyond the feathers, which the bowstring nestled into.  He wrapped his left hand around the bow’s grip, rested the arrow’s shaft on top of  his fist, and worked out how to hold the arrow with the fingers of his right hand.  Something like a pool cue grip seemed right, between the feathers and the nock.

When he tried drawing the bowstring back, it was surprisingly taut.  If he managed to let the thing go in the proper way, it would move with a hell of a force, but he could see how easy it would be to flub it, and have the arrow dribble away across the floor, asking a bullet to come rushing back.

There was no way to do practice shots.  But there was nothing else to do either, except be gunned down either by Bob’s friend Harry or by the law.

Parker moved up to the wall just to the left of the doorway.  If he moved forward, he would see Bob diagonally across the room, seated on the sixth step, leaning back against the seventh step and the side wall, half-turned towards Parker, Colt in lap, eyes on Wiss and Elkins.

Parker inhaled, and held it.  He drew the string back to his ear, left arm out straight as he held the bow.  He stepped into the doorway, aimed down the shaft, opened his right hand.  The arrow streaked across the space like an angry wasp and pinned Bob’s chest to the wall.

He’s not sure if he’s ever used a bow before?  I haven’t used one in maybe thirty years, but it’s not something you forget doing, even once.  I hit a few bullseyes in my day, but in Parker’s place I would have quite certainly 1)Missed Dolan by a mile and 2)Flashed back to archery class at summer camp as Dolan gunned me down. What do you figure the odds are Parker ever went to summer camp?  He was in the army in WWII as a very young boy, and pretty sure archery practice wasn’t part of basic training then.  He studies the weapon, figures it out, and uses it like a zen master–in a matter of moments.

Who the hell is this guy?  What names did he go by before he was Parker, and for how long?  How many lives has he lived, in how many different forms?    Not necessarily bipedal forms.  But always a hunter.  That we know.  Or perhaps he was a single drop of rain?

Stark puts just the ghost of a whisper of a hint behind this passage, as he’s done in previous books, that there is something about his protagonist that is beyond any rational accounting.  We’ve seen him throw a knife with deadly accuracy–we’ve never been told how he picked up that skill–or any other skill we’ve seen him employ.  It would have been easy enough for Parker to find a hunting knife in a hunting lodge, use that as a means of neutralizing Dolan without warning Corbett.

But Stark presents him with a different weapon–just to see what happens.  Like it isn’t obvious what will happen.   Parker will never be able to use ‘high technology’ like computers, because he’s about simple things.  Eternal things.  Perfect things.  So he’s not flying any starships across the universe divide, but he does like to wear black a lot, doesn’t he?   Back to the story.

Without speaking, Parker signals to a slack-jawed Wiss to keep the drill running, make it sound like he’s still working on the vault, keep Dolan’s partner thinking everything is fine.  Parker walks over to the gasping Bob, who is probably thinking he should have taken those stories he maybe heard about Parker in the past a bit more seriously, and squeezes the remaining life out of him with one huge gnarly hand.

Now he’s got Bob’s Colt, along with his own gun.  Now he’s got to go up and get the other one.  There’s not really any suspense at this point about whether he can do that, but after a brief exchange of fire, Harry Corbett runs like a rabbit for the car parked outside and makes his exit.  Their only means of escape is gone.

Well, there’s always the old-fashioned way.  They reverse their hunting jackets, from orange to brown, leave the two cops behind to tell a damned interesting story to their superiors, and start running down the road, figuring to get into the woods at some point, try shaking the law the same way Elkins and Wiss did last time (but without a truck this time).  Three squad cars come in fast, and they get out of sight until they’re gone.  Right now, the law is just thinking about Corbett and the Jeep Cherokee he’s driving, but very soon Moxon and Hayes will tell them about these three other guys, and then the heat will be on for real.

Another vehicle approaches–but this one is an ambulance.  Bit soon for that, no?  Parker looks more closely–it’s Lloyd.  He came for them, when he could have walked away.  What do you know about that?   Parker’s not a big fan of heroism as a general rule, but that’s not what this is.  Loyalty to his fellow thieves aside, Larry wants those paintings, needs them.  Because he needs money to do his disappearing act, but also because this is his job, and he needs closure.  He wants to go back to the house and get what they came here for.

He stole the ambulance from a nearby hospital.  It provides a limited degree of protective coloration from the law.  Larry argues they can park at the sentry house, and nobody will notice them for a bit.  Parker agrees, but with a caveat.

Parker said, “I don’t like to leave empty-handed either, but it would be worse to leave in a prison bus.  If we work something out, good.  If not, I don’t mind leaving you right here.”

Lloyd slowly nodded.  “I understand,” he said.

He really does.  So do Elkins and Wiss–mentoring only goes so far.  This is their pupil’s moment of truth.  Either he passes this test, or he’s not going anywhere–not even to prison.

Larry Lloyd is the planner now, and the troubleshooter, improvising a way to salvage something from this fiasco.  He puts on one of the uniforms for Marino’s security people–he knows enough about them to pose as one of them.  He’s cobbled together a jamming device that will keep the cops from radioing down, and he can show Parker and the others how to shut off the electricity and phone at the lodge.  He’ll drive right up in a borrowed Chevy Blazer, and take some of the paintings they’re loading on a truck.  They don’t need all of them for it to be a nice score–every single one is worth a fortune.

The others are impressed, in spite of themselves–but wondering where the hell this new Larry Lloyd came from.

Elkins said, Larry, I never knew you had yourself confused with James Bond.”

Lloyd offered a shaky grin. “Are you kidding?  The last few weeks, I’ve been scaling cliffs, shooting people, getting rid of bodies, stealing ambulances, I am James Bond.”  Earnest again, he turned back to Wiss.  “Ralph, it’s my only shot at this paintings, and without those paintings I’m dead, even if Mr. Parker here doesn’t kill me.”

Wiss blinked.  He and Elkins looked at Parker, who looked at Lloyd, whose expression was now that of a kid at the principal’s office, insisting they got the wrong guy.

Parker said, “Take your shot.”

That’s not just a figure of speech.  He’s going to be watching.  If it looks like the cops are tipping to who Larry really is, Parker’s going to be sorely tempted to try and plug him, except he doesn’t have the hunting rifle anymore.  He’s taking a big chance here.  Larry knows where he lives.  He and Claire would have to get the hell and gone from Colliver Pond, and never come back.

So, pretending to be a security man named Dave Rappleyea (the one who kept playing DoomRanger II all the time), Larry walks right up to Moxon, who is helping supervise the removal of the stolen artwork from the Marino manse.  Larry is a very convincing civilian, and before Moxon knows what’s happening, he’s jumped into the truck with the paintings, and is driving like a maniac away from there.

The other heist men follow in the ambulance, which they then turn into an improvised bomb (oxygen tanks), to block pursuit.  They know Corbett is dead, saw the cops bringing his body up to the lodge.  There’s nobody left to finger them.  They just need to find transportation and disappear

They got four crates–four paintings.  One for each of them.  Most likely they’ll deal with museums, insurance companies–eventually, these masterworks will be back where they belong–property of the world once more, instead of one self-obsessed billionaire, whose lawyers are going to be putting in a lot of overtime trying to keep him out of prison.  You know, I’d almost want to read a novel about that.  Well, a novella.  Actually, how about a nonfiction piece?

Wiss is already gone, to get a vehicle. Elkins goes to dump the Blazer.  Larry and Parker wait there for him on the back road.  Alone.  Deep in the woods.  Elkins makes a brief plea for Larry before he goes.  But it’s Parker’s call what happens now.

In this alternate reality stream we’re in, I’d kind of like to think one of the four paintings–the one Larry gets to finance his new life–is The Just Judges, seen up top–or rather, a black and white photo taken of it before it was stolen in the 1930’s.  It has yet to be recovered.  Hope springs eternal, though.

Now Larry must face his own judge, who I think we can say is just.  Some of his late colleagues might disagree.

Parker sat looking at the road, listening to the faint rustle of the woods.  It would be an hour, maybe more, before Wiss got here.  They could drop Parker at the airport in Bismarck, North Dakota, on their way home to Chicago, he’d take a plane east, call Claire.

Lloyd said, I’m too jumpy to sit.”  He walked back and forth, back and forth, looking at the road, looking with wonder at his own hands.  Finally, he stopped to face Parker and say “So you aren’t going to do it.”

“No need,” Parker said.

And if you don’t need to kill, you don’t.  Larry Lloyd proved out, after all.  He’ll be a useful member of The Profession–Parker may well work with him in the future.  Not in any of the remaining novels, but if there had been a few more, I imagine we’d have seen him once or twice.  He’s going to get a new face, via plastic surgery–well, that’s familiar, isn’t it?

Parker likes things that are familiar.  He likes patterns he can recognize.  Larry is something he can understand now.  No longer some confused frightened nerdy fish out of water, mired in unreality, lamenting a lost life.  He’s adapted to his new existence, his new reality–he prefers it.  He’s something else now.  Something better.   Well–simpler.  And Parker is all about simple things.  Eternal things.  Perfect things.  But only he can ever truly embody these things.  The rest of us will always fall short of his standard. That’s okay.  He can work with that.  He’s learned to accept us for what we are.  And we’ll never fully understand what he is.

And what I don’t understand is where the time went–and the books.  This was the first of the five final Parker novels.  And the next book in our queue is the first of the five final Dortmunder novels.  They really are in synch now, those two.  Pulling together in harness, as the finish line looms ahead.  Miles to go before Westlake sleeps.  More good books left than most authors complete in a lifetime.  That’s the good news.  But the end is in sight.  That’s the bad.

Oh, and looks like Barry ‘Spider-man’ Williams is getting eight years for art theft.  What kind of news you think that is–entirely up to you.

PS: I knew there was another cover somewhere.  My own personal gallery of stolen art is getting harder to keep track of, and foreign titles so rarely give any hint as to what book they’re for.

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(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Firebreak, Part 2

West of the Holland Tunnel, the Turnpike Extension rides high over the Jersey flats, where garbage and construction debris and used Broadway sets and failed mobsters have been buried for a hundred years.  Arthur drove, with Parker and Rafe behind him on the backseat.  Rafe had nothing to say until Arthur took one of the steep twisty ramps down from the Extension into the industrial wasteland of the flats.  Then, not looking at Parker, he said “I’d like to live through this.”

“Everybody would,” Parker said

Take me home–to Bayonne
To the place–that I call home!
Jersey City!–By the turnpike–
Underneath–
Exit 14-G!

Mark Russell, parodying John Denver, and getting the exit number wrong, but the aggrieved writer of that linked Times article got his lyric wrong, so they’re even.

Writers of crime fiction often stake out a patch of home turf to write about.  Dashiell Hammett had San Francisco, where he did most of his writing.  Raymond Chandler had L.A., and so did his prolific emulator, Ross MacDonald (though his gumshoe avoided competition from Mr. Marlowe by sticking to the ‘burbs)  San Diego had Wade Miller (the writing team of Bob Wade and Bill Miller), who dreamed up the melancholy loser Max Thursday to solve its sun-drenched mysteries.

At the other end of the country, David Goodis, who spent a short time in L.A. himself, was never more at home than when writing about his native Philadelphia and its environs, though I don’t think Philadelphians of the time necessarily appreciated the way he wrote about it (many do now, which only goes to prove that even the seamiest scenarios can seem romantic in retrospect).

Jim Thompson got around some, but his best books tend to be out there in the dry dusty southwestern states he grew up in, some panhandle or other.  John D. MacDonald more or less invented the Florida crime novel, followed by the likes of Hiaasen and (in the final years of a strange peripatetic life) Willeford. Chicago, by comparison, has a perplexing paucity of first-rate crime fiction, but it got Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, and that ain’t nothing (honestly, I haven’t read the books, so I don’t have an opinion).

Patricia Highsmith and Chester Himes, expatriates both, took different paths in their long European exiles–writing out of France and Switzerland, Highsmith transplanted New York bred Tom Ripley to the French countryside, while her one-shots mainly stayed in New York.  Himes, a Parisian by way of Missouri, dreaming of the country that had rejected him as a writer and a man, turned the metropolitan microcosm that is Harlem (which he spent a rather short period of his life in) into his own personal Dublin, ala James Joyce.  (Needless to say, there’s crime writers for Dublin as well, and plenty of real crime there to keep them busy).

But when they weren’t working their own patch, most of them wrote about New York.  When it comes to crime, New York is nobody’s turf, because it’s everybody’s turf.  One writer proved the exception to that rule, made New York (city, state, and half of New Jersey into the bargain), uniquely his own, to the point where they became not merely settings for a story, but dramatis personae in themselves.  Give you one guess.  Well, actually, you’d need at least three.  The reluctant detective agency of Westlake, Coe, and Stark.

Westlake didn’t like to confine himself too much to his patch, but he was always somehow more sure-footed when negotiating it.  Spending a few weeks in a different part of the country, or some sultry tropic clime may give a writer all kinds of ideas for stories, but it doesn’t give him/her that deep familiarity with the terrain that comes from spending the better part of a lifetime there.  You gotta know the territory, if you want to make it work for you.

I really tend to doubt Westlake spent all that much time in Florida, a state he never seemed to like very much (a big club, that includes a fair few longtime residents, but the winters are nice, and not everybody there is crazy).  And the section of it he’d have felt the least affinity for would have been Palm Beach, primary setting of Flashfire.  And that is certainly one reason Flashfire is a bit of a misfire.

But Firebreak, by comparison, is set primarily in Manhattan and North New Jersey (with a quick nod to the wintry upstate region Westlake was raised in).  He concludes the story in Montana, but such a relatively unpeopled part of the state, the need for extreme familiarity with the landscape isn’t really there.  He could have done a fair bit of his research for that part of the book with the Delorme State Atlas and Gazeteer for Montana, and no one would be the wiser.  (Plus he would have loved that it still calls itself a ‘Gazetteer’, whatever that means.  And is still printed on paper, though they’re diversifying into GPS now.)

Because Parker doesn’t like to work too close to home, his settling down with Claire in Sussex County made it harder to justify him pulling heists in and around nearby Gotham, but the main action of this book isn’t actually heist-related, and he’s really got no choice but to attend to business in both Bayonne NJ and Greenwich Village NY.  Two more disparate communities could rarely be found in such close proximity to each other (maybe six miles as the crow flies).  And yet Parker’s visit to the former leads inevitably to his grim descent upon the latter.  One of the charms of this book.  Which I’d better get back to now.

Having gotten involved in the plan to steal dot.com mogul Paxton Marino’s stolen collection of famous art from his grandiose hunting lodge in Montana, along with series perennials Frank Elkins and Ralph Wiss, Parker has discovered that their new recruit, disgraced uber-nerd Larry Lloyd, has accidentally identified Parker’s home address to old enemy (and nerdy in his own right) Paul Brock, who promptly dispatched a Russian hitman to that location, only to have the hitter be dispatched by Parker instead.  I feel fairly confident that sentence will never be typed again.

Parker has learned there’s a surveillance device in the currently vacant house in New Jersey, but to find whoever is using it, he needs a specialist.  Lloyd is elected.  Parker is reserving judgment on whether he goes on living after this job is over, but his digital acumen is necessary for the heist, and in the meantime he might as well help clean up the mess he created with Brock and (presumably) Brock’s larcenous lover, Matt Rosenstein.

To track down the base the hidden camera is broadcasting to, Lloyd will need some equipment from his house, just outside Springfield, MA.  Parker drops him off there, and drives off in Larry’s car, planning to swing around and pick him up.  A paranoid with very real enemies, Larry has his house wired for sound, and the car can pick up the audio of a conversation he’s having with some people who clearly aren’t supposed to be there and are leaning on him hard.

Parker figures the same people who sent the Russian after him sent these people after Lloyd, because they can’t find Parker.  Now does Parker give a damn what happens to Larry Lloyd?  No, but these people are grilling him about the Montana job.  Even if he doesn’t tell them anything crucial, and even if they don’t kill him (which would kill the job), he’ll be so mentally crushed by the third degree that he won’t be useful to anybody afterwards.  Parker to the rescue once again.

Parker breaks into the house just before a weeping Larry spills everything he knows.  He shoots one man in the knee, and the other jumps through a closed window to escape.  Parker’s all ready to do the old “you can dish it out but you can’t take it” routine, to find out how much these people know about him, but in a humiliation-fueled rage, Lloyd shoots the remaining hood in the head with his own gun.  It’s not like Parker didn’t already know about the Mr. Lloyd’s self-control issues.  But this nerd-on-the-bend’s chances of living to spend his share of the loot just got significantly worse.

Parker calms him down by asking him a sobering question–does he want to leave his current life on parole and go on the lam, or does he want to dispose of the body and stay put?  Larry’s not ready to be out in the wind yet, so he opts for the latter–Parker tells him how to go about getting rid of the stiff, and leaves him to it, while he takes a little nap.

It’s not often we learn anything at all about Parker’s sleeping habits.  After almost 40 years, we still don’t even know what he dreams at night, or if.  And we’re not going to find out this time either.

It wasn’t real sleep, but something close, learned a long time ago, a way to rest the body and the brain, a kind of trance, awareness of the outer world sheathed in unawareness.  The dim room remained, shades drawn over both windows, the gray-canvas-covered synthesizer in which Lloyd kept his computer equipment not so much concealed as reconfigured, the shelves and cabinets, the close door, the framed color photographs of machines, the small occasional sounds from outside the room, and the cot, narrow, with a thin mattress covered by a Canadian wool blanket in broad bands of gray and green and black that held him like a cupped hand.  Inside it, farther within it, there was nothing except the small bubbles of awareness that surfaced and surfaced and found nothing wrong.

Call it sleep mode, if you like.  Power-save?  Mind you, this type of half-waking dormancy was around a long time before electronics.  If you have a dog or cat, you’re well familiar.  Can’t say I’ve ever met a human who’d mastered it.  Wish I could.

Mr. Lloyd does okay with the corpse disposal, a point in his favor.  He thanks Parker for the help, and Parker doesn’t want thanks, of course.  He wants to go back to Colliver Pond and find out who’s watching the house.  Lloyd takes very little time to pinpoint the source–another unoccupied vacation cottage, a short distance off.  Not wanting to seem unneighborly, they go pay their respects.

It’s a double set-up.  The people the Russian worked for, Cosmopolitan Beverages (a legit business fronting for all kinds of illegal activities), sent a semi-retired former employee of theirs (strictly smalltime stuff), named Arthur Hembridge, to watch the monitor linked to the camera in Claire’s house.  If he sees a man matching Parker’s description (“A big man, hard and shaggy, with brown flat hair”–Stark tended to alternate between making Parker’s hair brown and black, and I’ve never been quite sure what he meant by ‘shaggy’),  he calls a number to report.

What he doesn’t know is that calling that number generates a signal that will automatically trigger a bomb in the house he’s watching.  What he also doesn’t know is that he and his wife blow up at the same time, removing all possible witnesses, and avoiding the need to pay him for his services.  Cute, huh?  Arthur is most amused, as you can imagine.

So after they clear up a little misunderstanding with Arthur’s wife (she panics when she wakes up and hears voices in the other room, runs to the other house, and very nearly calls that number herself before Arthur stops her), Arthur agrees to accompany Parker on a little investigation into the inner workings of Cosmopolitan Beverages.  Parker knows what he’s up against here–another version of The Outfit.  He knows how you deal with people like that.  Make them bleed.  They always have more soft spots than they think.

Lloyd will stay behind, clean up all the explosives and such.  Parker and Hembridge head for a building on Hudson Street in lower Manhattan, which is where Arthur’s former colleague Rafe Hargetty works–his successor there, the ‘friend’ who sent him on a suicide mission.  Arthur is a bit sore about this, you know.  He was a good organization man, always did what he was told, never talked out of school.  He’s sort of feeling like Cosmopolitan’s retirement package isn’t all it was cracked up to be.  We’ve all been there, or will be in future.  One way or another.  Never trust a boss.

Parker plays a variation on the game he played in the early books.  Climb the ladder, from one underling to the next, until you reach the top.  He leans hard on Rafe, who folds like the proverbial cheap suit.  Once Parker has the address where they can find Rafe’s boss, in Bayonne, they head over there.  They drop a relieved Rafe off along the way, in the midst of the industrial wasteland, far from the nearest phone, with no shoes or socks. I’m sure he turned up eventually.

Ah, Bayonne.  You know, it’s not really such a bad little town.  Some parts are downright livable.  They’re not going to any of those parts.

It’s called the Port of New York, but years ago most of the shipping businesses moved across the harbor to New Jersey, where the costs were lower and the regulations lighter: Newark, Elizabeth, Jersey City, and Bayonne are, along their waterfronts, a great sweeping tangle of piers, warehouses, gasoline storage tower, snaking rail lines, cranes, semi-tractor trailers, chain-link fences, guard shacks, and forklift trucks.  Day and night, lights glare from the tops of tall poles and the corners of warehouses.  Cargo ships ease up the channels and into the piers every hour of every day from every port in the world.  The big trucks roll eastward from the Turnpike and the cargo planes lift off from Newark International.  The thousand thousand businesses here cover every need and every want known to man.

Gentrify that, yuppies.

The receptionist at Cosmopolitan, a well-mannered young black man, is rather perturbed to have actual visitors to receive out here in the wilderness–normally he just sits there, more or less as window-dressing.  Parker identifies himself as Rafe Hargetty, and asks to see Frank Meany.  It works.  Down comes Rafe’s boss, with two goons.  He’s just a better-dressed goon himself.  Too good a physical description to skim past.  And we’ll be seeing this one again a few books from now.

He was tall and bulky, with a bruiser’s round head of close-cropped hair that fists would slide off.  He’d been dressed very carefully by a tailor, in a dark gray suit, plus pale blue dress shirt and pink-and-gold figured tie, to make him look less like a thug and more like a businessman, and it might have done a better job if the tailor’d been able to do something about that thick-jawed small-eyed face as well.  The four heavy rings he wore, two on each hand, were not for decoration.  He had a flat-footed walk, like a boxer coming out of his corner at the start of the round.

So this is the capo del tutti capo, right?  Wrong.  Just another flunky, who may have been genuinely tough once, but has been sitting behind a desk too long, wearing tailored suits.  Clothes sometimes unmake the man. Standing next to him is the thug who got away at Larry Lloyd’s house, bandaged, still bearing the marks of having gone through that window, and very unhappy at seeing Parker instead of Rafe–he reaches for his holster.

All Parker’s got is a small-caliber Beretta he took from the dead thug (the one Larry killed him with).  Not enough range and power for this situation, but just drawing it makes Meany nervous (flying bullets don’t discriminate) and he suggests they go back to the office and talk.

Parker’s never really the chatty type.  As soon as they get to the office, bunched closed together, he kills the hood with the bandages, and takes his .32 revolver.  He has Arthur take the guns from the other two.  Then he says he’s going to shoot Meany in the spine, paralyze him for life, if he doesn’t arrange for Parker to talk with his boss–not just a higher-up–one of the owners.  There’s five of them.  Meany only knows one, named Joseph Albert.

See, Meany is more than willing to call the hit on Parker off, just a misunderstanding, let bygones be bygones.  Brock does little things for them like debugging their offices so the Feds can’t listen in, plus he can make neat gizmos like remote-controlled bombs, so they did him a solid in return.  They gave him Viktor Charov’s number, so Charov could do a little freelance job for Brock.  But when Charov disappeared, and they knew Parker must have made that happen, screwed up their system, so it got personal, and they tried to do the job themselves.  Mistake.  They know that now.

But Parker isn’t buying that.  Meany isn’t the boss of anything, he’s just an employee, a soldier, so he can’t call it off.  Best way to make Cosmopolitan realize going after Parker is a poor business decision is to start sacrificing assets–like Meany.  Make him the message.  Keep killing soldiers until the generals are ready to make peace.  Meany, eager to discourage this line of strategic thinking, agrees to get Mr. Albert on the phone, stat.

The conversation has to be somewhat encoded, in case Brock missed some of the taps on their phones.  But Albert gets the gist.  He can put an end to any further attempts on Parker’s life, and tell Parker where Brock is.  Or Parker shoots Meany, and comes after him next.

Albert doesn’t sound like he’s easily intimidated.  But even if Albert doesn’t think Parker could get to him–like he just got to Meany, and Hargetty before that, and a very professional Russian hitman before that–he knows what would follow would be unpleasant, and noisy, and when things get noisy, cops get nosy.  They can always find another nerd-on-the-bend (more of those in Russia than hired killers these days).  Brock is expendable.  He agrees to Parker’s terms.  Meany relaxes.  Parker gets the address.

414 Bleecker.  The Village.  Brock didn’t run far.  He and Rosenstein used to share an apartment at the fictional address of 8 Downing Street,  and now he owns a fictional townhouse that would be maybe a brisk ten minute walk from the former address, a mere block away from the seriously overrated Magnolia Bakery (come check out the long line of suckers sometime), were 414 Bleecker not in fact the site of a large municipal playground.  Mr. Stark giving us a rare glimpse of his droll side.

Part 2 ends with Arthur Hembridge dropping Parker off in Manhattan, just after they exit the Holland Tunnel.  Arthur seems oddly crestfallen Parker doesn’t require his services anymore.  It’s almost a Handy McKay moment, but Arthur isn’t nearly so handy, and while they both had a score to settle with Cosmopolitan, Parker needs to settle with Brock and Rosenstein alone.

“I was getting used to going places with you,” Arthur says.  “Now you’re retired again,” Parker responds, and sets off for 414 Bleecker. On the way, he phones Lloyd, says to tell the others he’ll have finished with his personal business soon, and he’ll see them in Montana.  But the first chapter of Part 3 opens in a very different (though no less scenic) locale.

Horace Griffith, art dealer to the rich and famous, is in Geneva negotiating over the sale of a Titian when he gets a call from longtime client Paxton Marino, who wants to meet.  No need for him to come to New York, where Marino is now; Marino will jet over to Northern Italy, meet Griffith at his chalet in Courmayeur.  Griffith readily agrees to make the three hour drive, since obscenely rich and obsessively acquisitive people like Marino are, after all, his bread and butter.

Griffith didn’t actually believe in ghosts, and yet he was always among them.  He traded mostly in European paintings and sculpture, from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and most of the creators of those works had firmly believed in an unseen world, in spirits, in an often vengeful and occasionally merciful God.  They’d painted saints and sinners, martyrs and miracles, and Griffith had steeped himself in their work.

He had also, in the darker side of his profession, showed himself to be at one with the world those artists had described.  He, too, was merely human, full of error.  He didn’t really believe in all that cosmic moral accounting, but he couldn’t help some faint awareness in the back of his mind that, if retribution ever did fall on him, he’d damn well deserve it.

Every dealer in valuable art, at a certain upper level of market worth, is offered the temptation now and again.  To deal, in almost absolute safety, with stolen work, or forged work.  Griffith at times envied those who had never fallen, but he also knew he could not possibly live as well, as comfortably, if he had been one of the virtuous ones.  If virtue truly is its own reward, then Griffith regretfully had to go where the rewards were more palpable.

He’s the one who arranged for Marino to buy all those stolen paintings, and even arranged for some of them to be stolen in the first place.  And now he needs to arrange to unload some of them.  Because the sad truth is, he’s broke.  In the manner that only the very wealthy ever can be broke.  Property rich.  Cash poor.

“That’s all it is,” Marino insisted, turning his glower at last full on Griffith.  Still standing there in all that Alpine light, he looked like a later Roman Emperor, lesser and more effete, but still both powerful and dangerous.  “I have a cash-flow problem,” he said.  “It’s temporary.  I’m projected to be out of it in less than eighteen months, probably under a year.  But the problem is, if I’m seen to cut back anywhere, it will be taken as a sign.”

“Yes, of course.”

“That’s where the self-fulfilling prophecy comes in,” Marino said.  “With the hyenas.  With the schadenfreude.”

If he stops spending at his current rate, if he starts selling off houses, planes, other fungible assets, the scavengers of the marketplace will close in and rip him to shreds.  But if he merely sells off things nobody knows he has, because he’s not allowed to have them, they’ll just assume he had more cash at hand than expected, and seek another wounded wildebeest at a different watering hole.

The attempted theft of Marino’s lodge in Montana that started this whole narrative unfolding; which Griffith had not known about, and the potential implications of which chills him to his very marrow, has made Marino aware that he needs to move all of that stolen artwork out of his cunningly concealed basement gallery there.

This is what he wants Griffith to do for him, tout de suite–and then to pick out three or four masterworks, and negotiate with museums and/or insurance companies as if he’s representing the thieves who stole them (which of course he is).  The rest can be restored to their unlawful owner once he’s set up a new secret gallery to gloat over. (Geez, man, you’re a nerd, not an aesthete.  Couldn’t you just collect old Spider-man comics or something? Oh yeah, that reminds me. Still very topical, this book.)

Chapter 2, in this very traditionally Starkian multi-POV Part 3, shows us Pam Saugherty coming out of the D’Agostino supermarket at 790 Greenwich (which closed recently, but seems to be open again–no, you didn’t ask, I’m just trying to be current–rents are so damn high in the Village now, it’s getting hard for anybody to stay in business).  She’s headed for 414 Bleecker, where she is, in effect, the housekeeper.  On the way there, she bumps into Parker, who is too focused on his objectives to notice her, but she recognizes him, and it brings back memories, none of them pleasant.

Okay, the last time we saw Pam, her pleasant suburban home in Philadelphia had been invaded by Messrs. Rosenstein and Brock, the former of whom had beaten her husband Ed to death for not letting him rape her (and then raped her anyway).  After a brief bloody engagement with Parker, both men were critically wounded, incapable of defending themselves, and Parker, not caring if they lived or died, left them to her tender mercies.  Which seem to have been more tender than Parker could have ever imagined.  Pam, what happened?

After Parker untied her, she had every intention of hurting Matt Rosenstein, torturing him, making him pay for what he’d done to her and her family.  Then calling the cops, once she’d gotten back some of her own.  But Paul Brock called to her from the basement Parker had left him lying in, unable to move.  Imploring her to help them.  Help Matt.  Help the man who used her like a blow-up doll, only with less empathy.  But who is still the only person in this world Paul Brock has ever loved.

He’s offering to support her and her three children, even send them to school, everything, anything, if she’ll call a doctor he knows, the kind who can be discreet.  She is oddly moved by his devotion, and uncomfortably aware that with her husband dead, her economic prospects are extremely poor.  Rosenstein can’t ever hurt her again–Parker’s bullet severed his spine, he’s probably going to die anyway.  She agreed to call Brock’s doctor. And here she is, an unspecified number of years later, still looking after them.

(Sidebar–there is a bit of a timeline clue here–we’re told her oldest child was ten at the time of the home invasion, and all of them are in college now.  Well over ten years have passed from her perspective. A lot less than the 30+ years that have passed from our perspective.  Time warp.)

Rosenstein didn’t die, but if Brock’s love had been less possessive, less needy, he would have let his sociopathic sweetie go.  It was impossible for a man like that to adapt to life in a wheelchair, reinvent himself–he liked himself the way he was, even if nobody else other than Brock did.  No life of the mind, only of the body, and the body has been wrecked beyond repair, leaving only a shell of the predator he once was.

Predator?  No, that’s the wrong word.  To call Matt Rosenstein an animal would be doing a disservice to animals, predatory or not.  The worst person ever to appear in a Parker novel.  Even Otto Mainzer was a pro compared to him.  And this is his hell, to which he has been consigned, not for his many evil deeds, but for being incapable of self-knowledge.  Or love–even for the one person who has single-mindedly devoted himself to Rosenstein’s welfare.  Another way in which love and life resemble each other.

Pam tells them about seeing Parker at dinner, and Rosenstein’s response is along the lines of I Told You So, even though he obviously wanted Parker dead, and just as obviously could never do the job himself.  Brock is terrified, remembers that look Parker gets in his eyes when he’s hunting all too well, but holds himself together somehow.  Rosenstein can afford the luxury of self-pitying rage.  He has to find a way to shore up their defenses for the assault that is surely coming.

He was hoping that if Parker was dead, Matt could let go of his anger, which was foolish, but understandable.  He goes out at night sometimes, to slake the needs Matt can’t satisfy anymore, but that’s just sex.  He should have just put Matt in a private hospital and walked away, but he can’t do that.  Just like he can’t run now, when he knows he should.  He can’t let Parker finish the job he started years ago, even though that would be merciful at this point.  Anyway, Parker would keep coming after him, after Rosenstein was dead.  He’d never stop looking over his shoulder.  He’s not a strong man, never was, but in his own quiet way, he’s got more guts than his lover ever did.

He tells Pam to go to Florida or somewhere, he’ll call her when it’s over–unless it’s really over, in which case there’ll be no call.  One somehow assumes he remembered her in  his will.  Fellow caretakers, they understand each other very well, formed a sort of tenuous friendship, but that’s coming to an end now.

He nails the inner door of the townhouse shut.  He seals off the roof entrance.  He’s got a gun–Matt wants one too, but he’s afraid of what he might do with it, in his growing panic, knowing the wolf is closing in, stuck in that chair, telling himself that if he could just walk again, he could deal with Parker himself (like you did before, Mr. Rosenstein?).  He hears footsteps on the roof.  “He’s here,” Paul thinks.

And then a few chapters that have nothing to do with Parker, Brock, and Rosenstein.  Stark can be sadistic sometimes.  Let’s skip over them fast.  We meet Bert Hayes, an investigator working for a the Art Identification Department of the Secret Service, in charge of art theft.  (I can’t find any evidence this department exists, but I wouldn’t be surprised–they do a lot more than just try to keep VIP’s from being shot).

He’s very suspicious of Paxton Marino.  An early report of the theft at the lodge in Montana mentioned some valuable old paintings–then later reports left that out (because local cops were bought off).  He talked to Marino about it directly, and let’s just say rich people probably never do learn much about diplomacy.  Well, I guess we all know that now,  huh?  He’s going to nail this guy if it’s the last thing he does.  And he just found out about a bunch of crates suitable for shipping paintings are coming to the lodge, along with a certain art dealer.

And then we’re with Larry Lloyd again.  He’s found out his old business partner, Brad Grenholz–you know, the one that cheated him, who he then tried to murder, and they both ended up in prison, that guy–is getting out of prison, a lot sooner than he’d expected.  And then he gets a friendly visit from the local fuzz, who make it very clear they are never going to stop harassing him–he’ll never have a normal life again.  Because of Brad Grenholz.  Who is rich, and will therefore never have to worry about the police knocking his door down and searching the premises, and treating him like slime, even though he’s a criminal too.

Larry belatedly decides that of the two options Parker gave him earlier, he prefers the first one after all.  He destroys any evidence he ever had a computer there–after he uses it to ‘buy’ plane tickets for Brad’s location.  He makes his way to the beachfront house, which belongs to Brad’s crooked lawyer brother-in-law, George.  They’re planning to make a fortune together–a fortune that should have been partly Larry’s.

He gets into the house.  Wanders around a bit, stumbles into Brad.  Brad is surprised, but he recovers his equilibrium quickly.  And Larry feels the tug of  his old identity, the self he used to inhabit, before he became a convict, and then a crook.

And all at once, Lloyd was himself again.  The nerd, the follower, the number two, the fellow born to be a sidekick.  The years on his own  had, after all, been horrible ones, left to make his own decisions, with no one to trail after and obey.  Brad was a leader, and needed Larry.  Larry was a follower, and needed Brad.  It was as simple as that.

Except it’s not.  He can’t go back to that Larry.  He died in prison.  Brad killed him, and will happily do it again, given half a chance.  And Larry has gotten used to making his own decisions now.  He’s gotten to kind of like it.  So he decides to hit a very surprised Brad with a very nice half-empty bottle of wine, again and again, until it breaks over his head.  And then he’s got a very nice cutting implement to work with.  Afterwards, he heads for Montana, and the life he has now.  Which isn’t much, but at least it’s his.  The King is dead–long live the independents.

Then there’s a chapter set at the small house for security staff at the Marino lodge.  A fine group of self-obsessed social misfits, since nobody else would want the job.  One of them named Dave is happily playing something called ‘DoomRanger II’ on his handheld gaming device, as he clearly intends to do for the rest of his life; we are now officially in the modern era, like it or not.  He sees a bunch of ATF vehicles descending like locusts upon the estate, and experiences a moment of dislocation between the gaming world and the real one.  He has no idea what this means, but he’s pretty sure it’s nothing good.

Chapter 8 comes from inside the head of Matt Rosenstein, not a happy place to be, as has already been explained.

He hated this body.  He remembered who he used to be, when he was someone who wasn’t afraid of anybody, when he was stronger than anybody, and more reckless than anybody and tougher than anybody, so if anybody ever had reason to be afraid, it was the people who had to deal with Matt Rosenstein.

He knows Paul is soft, can’t protect him, and who can he call for protection?  He was a scavenger bird, as Madge once told Parker.  He preyed on other predators.  Nobody could ever trust him, particularly those who worked with him, so he can’t call on any of them now.  He assumed he could just take whatever he wanted, from anybody dumb enough to trust him, and it would never come back to bite him in the ass.  Not that he can feel his ass now.

He’s not remotely concerned with what happens to Paul Brock.  He’s just thinking about how to prolong his life a while longer, and for that he needs a weapon.  He gets a heavy chopping blade from the kitchen, but that’s not a range weapon.  Parker won’t give him the chance to use it, unless he can trick him somehow.

He can’t even move between floors now, because Paul turned off the chair lift.  He hates needing Paul, hates needing anyone.  He screams for Paul, and Paul comes, like a whipped dog, which is what he is, loyal to the very end, and far better than his master.  They decide they better wait together for Parker to come.  Matt still wants a gun, but Paul won’t give him one. He seems strangely resigned to what’s coming.

Paul doesn’t see the knife hidden beneath the blanket on Matt’s useless legs.  He does know that Matt’s arms are still very strong.  He knows, down inside, that Matt doesn’t care about him, but a long time ago, he surrendered a piece of his soul to the person he needed Matt Rosenstein to be, and he can never get that back again.  Love can be a way to find yourself, or to lose yourself.  It depends on what you do with it, and who you do it with.

A noise comes from below.  Parker sized up the defenses, found them inadequate.  As he so often does–as he did when he came after Brock and Rosenstein all those years before–he takes the direct route, no second story crap. He’s got one of those police battering rams.  He’s inside the vestibule, where nobody will notice him smashing through the inner door, reducing it to splinters.  He’ll be upstairs soon.  They have nowhere to go.  You’d think Brock would have invested in a panic room, but who really believes that would stop Parker?  When you can’t call the law, and the attackers are determined enough, a panic room is just a tomb for the temporarily living.

Paul insists he doesn’t have a gun with him, but Matt won’t believe him.  Overcome with fear-driven rage, he grabs Paul with one hand, and shakes him.  The other hand has the sharp steel blade.  It goes about the same way as it went with Ed Saugherty.   Before he even realizes what he’s doing, it’s done.

Christ, why didn’t you give me the gun?  Shit, he’s coming up, where is it, where is it?

Matt yanked Paul’s body across his lap, frisked it desperately, one-handed, knife in the other as he patted the pockets, searching…

There was no gun.  There was no weapon of any kind.  How could Paul not have a gun?

Matt looked up, and Parker stood in the doorway.  He had a gun, a small stub pistol in his right hand.  Matt lifted the slippery red knife, but there was no threat in it.  He knew he was no threat.  He stared at Parker, and Parker stepped forward to look at the scene.  Matt let go of Paul’s arm, and the body slid off his lap onto the floor.  Parker looked at it, at the knife, around at the room, and at last into Matt’s eyes.  He shook his head.  “You aren’t worth much,” he said, and turned around, and walked away.

Now once again I have to explain why Parker shows mercy.  Or do I?  Isn’t it obvious that’s not remotely what this is?  Mercy would have come in the form of a bullet crashing into Rosenstein’s thick skull, but Parker doesn’t care about Rosenstein.  Parker was never after Rosenstein.  The target was Brock, and Brock is dead, so the hunting instinct has once again switched itself off. Parker doesn’t kill without a reason.  He’s not like  us.

He knew just what he’d done to Rosenstein in Philly; that the injury to his spine would never heal, and that without his body, Rosenstein was no threat to him.  He knew who had been combing the internet for Parker’s location, who had used his connections to send an assassin after him, who would never stop looking for some way to kill him.  Parker knew the real threat was always Paul Brock, the brains of the outfit–always more dangerous than Rosenstein, from the very start.

It was Brock, not Rosenstein, who humiliated Parker all those years before, giving him drugged coffee, so Rosenstein could interrogate him–it was Brock who made the money, it was Brock who gave Matt Rosenstein a safe home base to operate from, enabled him, indulged him, kept him out of jail all that time, kept him alive when there was no reason. Rosenstein was the id creature of this collective consciousness, nothing more.  Brock was everything else.  And as sometimes happens, the id has destroyed the ego, and there was never much of a superego there to start with.

Without Brock, without his legs, Rosenstein is now truly helpless.  Maybe he’ll starve to death in that room.  Maybe the cops will come, and he’ll wind up ranting impotently in some state nursing home.  Maybe he’ll have the guts to use that knife on himself.  But I doubt that last one.  A lot.  Because the truth is, Matt Rosenstein was a coward all his life, and he’s going to die a coward.

And the other, more unsettling truth that comes to me now, is that the world we live in is full of Paul Brocks, men and women, straight and gay, all desperately seeking a Matt Rosenstein to cling to.  I called Brock a dog just now, and that wasn’t right.  Because as Cesar Millan once said, the primary difference between dogs and humans is that dogs don’t follow unstable energy.  You know exactly what I’m talking about.

There’s one more chapter in Part 3, but I don’t really feel the need to get into that.  Part 3 of the review will be ready when it’s ready.  If there’s someone you love, who deserves that love, go hug them.  Now.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Firebreak

When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.  His knees pressed down on the interloper’s back, his hands were clasped around his forehead.  He heard the phone ring, distantly, in the house, as he jerked his forearms back; heard the neck snap; heard the phone’s second ring, cut off, as Claire answered, somewhere in the house.

There’s a part of me feels like that quote I just typed, the opening paragraph of the 20th Parker novel, is all the review it could ever possibly need.  If you haven’t read it yet, which would presumably mean you don’t have a copy, what are you doing here?  Buy, borrow, download, steal.  We’ll talk later.

Over the past few years, Westlake had been adjusting to the renewed presence of Richard Stark in his writing life.  It can’t have been easy.  Stark was an exciting voice to write in, but giving that part of him free rein came with certain inherent consequences, as his wife half-humorously detailed in an article she wrote about life with Mr. Westlake and his various authorial personas.  To write as Stark, he had to become Stark, and Stark was never easy to live with.

As the new Parker series progressed, he got more confident.  Comeback and Backflash both felt a bit retro, and I remain convinced they are both set quite a few years before their respective dates of publication (and that Backflash may in fact take place some time before Comeback).

In both those books, he had Parker working with old and trusted associates from earlier novels.  Strong well-defined personalities, some of whom could have easily anchored a novel themselves.  Who wouldn’t love to read a novel about Brenda and Ed Mackey, Dan Wycza and Noelle Kay Braselle, or maybe a little escapade with Mike Carlow and Lou Sternberg?

But in Flashfire, which I am forced to deem the first truly contemporary entry in the series since Butcher’s Moon, he had Parker working with–and then against–total strangers.  No familiar faces other than Parker and Claire (there are phoned-in cameos from a few old stalwarts, but that hardly counts).  And that book, as I’ve just finished detailing, is a frustrating melange of false notes, dangling plot threads, and social commentary–the commentary is hardly a new thing for Stark, but it doesn’t feel organic to the story this time, somehow.

We know it’s set sometime in the Mid-to-Late 90’s, because of the material being covered, and because it’s the very first time the word ‘internet’ appears in a Donald Westlake novel.  At least I can’t think of any earlier instances–obviously Wally Knurr is using the internet in the Dortmunder books he appears in, but it’s never called that, and it’s clearly pre-WWW.  The internet referenced in Flashfire isn’t just for nerds anymore–even semi-literate redneck Neo-Nazi militiamen in the Everglades are using it.  But other than the fact that a curvy blonde realtor can use online databases to run a credit check on Parker, penetrate his false identity, it doesn’t really impact the story at all.

Donald Westlake was a different order of nerd.  You wouldn’t expect a man who pecks his books out on a manual typewriter–in the early 21st century–to be any kind of web wizard.  How retro can you get?  But he was never interested much in writing about the past (and it’s impossible to imagine him getting into Steampunk).  No doubt he was interested by the possibilities of the new online medium–a great new tool, but also a point of vulnerability.  Would it empower the enterprising individualist, free him/her in new and previously unimaginable ways–or absorb him/her into the machine matrix forever?  (Yeah, I’d assume he did see that movie.)  Bit of both, maybe?

Stark needed some time to catch up, as did Parker, so going retro with the first two books made sense.  So did bringing some of the other Stark characters forward through the time warp with Parker.  But if these books are going to be something other than a mere exercise in noir-stalgia  (You see what I did there?  Google it, and you’ll see how many bloggers beat me to that pun.), he’s got to bring Parker into the new era, which means Parker is going to have to deal with people who understand this new tool, who can wield it as effortlessly as he wields a Smith & Wesson Terrier.

Some will be his enemies–so just as certainly, some will have to be his allies, since Parker himself could never venture into the cyberworld–he’s too well-rooted in the real one.  But will they be allies he can rely upon?  Or will they prove unstable, off-kilter, a danger to him and everyone else they work with, as well as themselves?  The answer to that question depends on whether such a person can truly know himself.

And the thing about the internet, and all that comes with it, is that it can seriously erode one’s sense of self.  You can get lost in there, out of touch with reality.  Parker can be a good teacher when it comes to embracing the real.  But as the song lyric goes, when you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.  Let’s start getting to know the cast of characters here.

So Parker just killed a man, with his hands, in his own garage (he thinks of it as Claire’s house, but the garage seems to be Parker’s special domain there, going by the set-up).  He spotted the guy approaching the house through the surrounding woods, with a silenced .357 Colt Trooper in hand.  He waited for the hitter to be halfway in through the garage window before he made his move.  Hard to say whether the man’s primary reaction was terror or confusion.  Who’s hitting who here?

And no sooner has he finished the intruder off than he has to take a call from Frank Elkins, who is partners with Ralph Wiss.  Parker’s known these two a very long time indeed–you might call them co-founders of the franchise.  At the end of The Hunter, Parker pulls a heist on an operation run by The Outfit, to get back the money he feels that crime syndicate owes him.

His partners in that job were Elkins, Wiss, and a guy named Wymerpaugh (who had a brief cameo in The Handle).  He’d worked with Elkins before the events of that book, and Elkins brought in Wiss, who wields a mean chisel.  In The Score, they both appear again–Wiss is needed for his expertise in safe cracking, and Elkins comes along as his sideman.  Parker marks them both as solid steady pros you can count on in the clutch, so they’re among the elite string he recruits to finish off the Tyler mob in Butcher’s MoonFirebreak would be their final appearance in the series.

Lucky charms, for Parker, and for Stark–when these two make an appearance, you know you’re in for a successful heist and a good book.  But since they only appeared briefly in The Hunter, and then in two books with a lot of other characters, they never really got much attention before now.  They’re not the most distinctive or finely drawn of Parker’s criminal cohorts, and they’re not really what this book is all about either.  But this is their one final moment in the spotlight, and they make the most of it.

This book has two distinct plots.  One is Parker planning and carrying out a heist with three other guys.  The other is Parker tracking down and dealing with whoever was responsible for the attempt on his life (that would probably have encompassed Claire’s life as well, to avoid leaving any witnesses).  And each of these two main plots has a number of sub-plots within it.

And the connection between the stories is that the hit on Parker only happened because of the heist–before he even knew about the heist.  How’d that happen?  The damn internet, that’s how.  If Parker had known in advance how much of a headache that was going to be, how much it was going to complicate his working life, he’d have taken out everybody working on it.  Well, too late now.  The humans actually came up with a stupider idea than psychoanalysis, another means of compromising themselves, making private things public–instead of telling their secrets to a doctor or a priest, now they tell them to the whole fucking planet.   Why do they always have to share?

Parker goes to a nearby gas station to talk more freely with Elkins.  You still don’t go into detail over the phone, so they arrange to meet in Lake Placid–Parker indirectly signals to Elkins that he’ll be checked in at a hotel there under the name of Viktor Charov.  The name of the man who just tried to kill him.  And you thought he had no sense of humor.  Well, it’s probably also because he’s got the guy’s ID now, and a sample of his signature he can forge on the hotel register.

So after getting rid of Charov’s car, with Charov inside of it, in a nearby abandoned stone quarry, Parker drives up to the famed Adirondack ski resort and site of two past Olympics (I’ve always preferred Saranac Lake myself, Lake Placid is kind of tacky).  He meets Elkins, Wiss, and their new associate, whose services are deemed essential to this particular job.

This new guy is a protégé of Wiss, a newly minted member of The Profession, recently paroled.  He’s supposed to be in Massachusetts; they made him wear one of those ankle monitors, and he can’t cross a state line without permission, but electronic surveillance is never going to work well for a guy like him.  He just reprogrammed the device to tell the law what it wants to hear, so he can come and meet Parker.  That’s his specialty.  He’s the uber-nerd in this story.  Well, one of them.  See if his physical description sounds at all familiar to you.

The one he knew was Elkins’ partner, Ralph Wiss, a safe and lock man, small and narrow, with sharp nose and chin.  The other one didn’t look right in this company.  Early thirties, medium build gone a bit to flab, he had a round neat head, thinning sandy hair, and a pale forgettable face except for prominent horn-rim eyeglasses.  While Parker and the other two were dressed in dark trousers and shirts and jackets, this one was in a blue button-down shirt with pens in a pen protector in the pocket, plus uncreased chinos and bulky elaborate sneakers.  Parker looked at this one, waiting for an explanation, and Elkins came past him to say, “You know Ralph.  This is Larry Lloyd.  Larry, this is Parker.”

Donald Westlake, if Donald Westlake had followed one of those innumerable sidepaths not taken along the road of his life.   He was, let’s remember, a science fiction fan, a jazz buff; he was probably into stuff like tinkering with radios and audio equipment, going by various references in his stories; he seems to have enjoyed building things.  Maybe weak in the math department, I wouldn’t know.  But a few different twists and turns, he might have been a tech nerd, instead of a word nerd.  While still the same basic personality underneath, of course.  Identity, you might say, is what you choose to do with the underlying potential you were born with.  Or not to do.

Larry Lloyd chose to go into the burgeoning field of internet apps, but for all his formidable technical prowess, he didn’t have that weird thing that guys like Steve Jobs have–he wasn’t an innovator, or a salesman.  He joined up with a partner who had that knack (and, it’s implied, less technical ability, meaning he needed someone like Larry to do the wonk work).  Just as they were about to make a fortune, after years of belt-tightening, the partner screwed him out of his share, acted like he was just an employee, and the partner’s brother-in-law, a lawyer, made sure that would stick–Larry should have read the fine print.

Larry went to the partner’s house and threw him off a balcony.  Unfortunately, he lived.  The partner didn’t only screw over Larry, and he wasn’t quite as slick as he thought, so they both ended up in jail–Larry was instrumental in that happening, since he’d had read up on game theory, knew about The Prisoner’s Dilemma–so he got out first.  Parker has no real problem with that, but makes a mental note Larry will squeal if he’s squeezed.

And once he was out, let’s just say employment opportunities in his old field of endeavor were not all that might be wished for (going to prison for attempted murder can do that to a guy).  He’d done some networking in prison, and that led him to Wiss–in a sense, Larry’s the new version of guys like Wiss–cracksmen were the old school nerds of the heisting profession, the ones who figured out how to get past locked doors, bank vaults, and alarm systems.  Security tech is changing now, and they need to recruit from the new order of nerds in order to keep up.

In what might be considered a bit of foreshadowing with regards to the resurfacing of certain other unpleasant persons featured in past books, Larry tells Parker (who is not at all sure what to think of this new recruit) that he met Otto Mainzer, the Neo-Nazi heister/arsonist/rapist, first and last seen in The Rare Coin Score, while he was inside.  He later lets it slip that Otto told him a few stories, without any names attached, that he’s now thinking might have involved Parker.  Parker is surprised to learn Otto’s still locked up–hit a guard.  Well, that part doesn’t surprise him. Otto’s the kind of guy never learns from his mistakes.  Question he’s asking himself here; is Larry that kind of guy as well?

Anyway–the job.  It’s an interesting one.  Seems Elkins and Wiss were hitting this glorified hunting lodge (if you can call a huge ostentatious McMansion full of expensive stuff a lodge) way up in Montana, near the Canadian border.  It belongs to one of those dot.com billionaires, one Paxton Marino (the kind of guy Larry’s old partner was aspiring to become).  Elkins read about it in one of those architectural magazines that have big spreads on the homes of rich famous people (you have to wonder how much of the subscriber base for those publications is made up of burglars), and he noted with pleasure that it’s got a lot of solid gold fixtures.  Bathtubs, sinks, toilets, etc.  All of this out in the middle of nowhere.  Very Trump.  You know, some people never do quite grasp the concept of roughing it.

So the original concept was very simple–disable the alarms, break in, grab everything that’s made of precious metal, bring a forklift, load it all into two trunks, get the hell out.  But since they were basically ripping out the plumbing, they needed to turn off the water, so they went down to the basement, and Elkins noticed something a little off about the layout down there.  They realized there was a hidden vault (call Geraldo!).  What does a guy who has sold gold bathrooms feel like he needs to hide?

Art.  Really valuable really famous art.  Rembrandts, Titians, etc.  Art he’s got no business having.  Art that was stolen from museums and private collections–in fact, some of these paintings Elkins and Wiss stole themselves, for some art dealer who was obviously acting as a beard for Marino.  He’s a bigger thief than they ever were.  But before they can do anything about it, they realize that the vault had a separate alarm system they hadn’t disabled, and the cops are coming.  Their two partners got caught, but they managed to drive the other truck deep into the surrounding woods, on little back roads, over into Canada, and they finally had to get out and walk.  Froze their asses off, but they got away.

And now their partners are out, on really large bail, and basically no hope of getting off–if they skip bail, their families will be stuck with the tab.  The law is pushing them hard to divulge who they were working with, for a lighter sentence.   The way they see it, if Elkins and Wiss had left well enough alone, stuck to the job they’d agreed on, they wouldn’t be in this mess.  They want to run, create new identities, and they need money for that.  So either Elkins and Wiss heist the art and give them their share, or they spill everything they know.  The clock is ticking, and they need to do it soon, or go on the run themselves.  They have families too, established lives in the straight world, and would rather avoid that eventuality.  Plus, you know, they like money.

But here’s the catch–the original heist created what Larry calls a firebreak (don’t know how common that phrase was among techies back then, but it’s sure used a lot with regards to web security now).  A small fire that prevents a bigger one.  Because his security was circumvented–which could have led not only to loss of his property, but also the loss of his freedom, if it came out he had all this stolen art–Marino will have heavily upgraded his system.  Indeed, the only reason the law hasn’t already picked up Wiss and Elkins is that Marino didn’t want security cameras down there with those Old Masters he’s not supposed to have.  Larry figures that’s still probably the case, but they’ll have to feel their way in carefully.

So in spite of some lingering doubts about Mr. Lloyd’s reliability, Parker says he’s in, but he has to deal with some personal shit first.  Needless to say, it never occurs to him to ask for help with that, nor does it occur to Elkins and Wiss to offer any.  We’ve come a long way from the days of Handy McKay.  Every man for himself, when it’s not part of a heisting job.  And that’s very much the way Parker wants it.  But he will be requiring some assistance in this matter later in the story, all the same.

This Charov’s ID says he lives in Chicago.  Parker goes there to check out his apartment, which is full of small pistols carefully stashed in every room, in case somebody comes after him there (man after Parker’s own heart).  Charov’s family is in Russia, where he hails from–he’s been living far away from home, in order to support them, like many a hard-working immigrant.

Parker figures he was on retainer with some big outfit, and maybe doing freelance hits on the side.  Best way to find whoever wanted Parker dead is to find his employer–he finds an envelope addressed to Charov from a company called Cosmopolitan Beverages, in Bayonne, New Jersey.  Importers.  Not just of beverages, it seems.

He also finds a piece of paper with three names on it, two written in Cyrillic.  The third entry is the name Willis, written in English, so Charov could recognize it on the mailbox.  The name Claire uses, one of Parker’s discarded aliases that she adopted as a way of writing herself into his past.  The other names may prove to be of interest, so he’ll have to get them translated.  Perhaps most importantly, he plays back the messages on Charov’s answering machine, and the second is clearly a client, trying to find out if the job has been done–and the voice sounds familiar.  He can’t quite place it.

He calls Cosmopolitan Beverages, talks to their accountant, a Ms. Bursar (heh).  She says she never heard of any Viktor Charov, he certainly does not work as a purchasing agent for them,  though that seems to have been his work title of record.  Parker is sure the woman is telling the truth, as she knows it.  Charov had a no-show job there, to justify his presence in the U.S.  Like so many other things, killing people for money has been outsourced.  Actually, that started much earlier with contract killing than it did for many other walks of life.

For years the hit men came from Italy, know-nothing rural toughs called zips, who spoke no English, came in only to do the job and collect their low pay, and then flew back out again.  But that system soon began to break down.  Some of the zips refused to go home, some of them got caught and didn’t know how to take care of themselves inside the American system, some of them had loyalties in Europe that conflicted with their one-time-only employers in the United States.

It’s still better, all in all, to have a contract killer whose  home base is far away, in some other land.  But it pays to have somebody reliable, educated, useful over the long term.  Viktor Charov could come and go as he pleased, cloaked by his “job” at Cosmopolitan Beverages.  He could take on whatever private work he wanted, and from time to time the people who’d given him his cover would ask him to do a little something for them.

But the mob wasn’t behind the run at Parker.  That had been a civilian, that nervous voice on the answering machine in Chicago.  It was one of his independent contractor jobs that had run out Charov’s string.

Parker has to do a lot of multi-tasking in this one.  He flies up to Montana, taking a commuter flight from Great Falls up to Havre.  Beautiful wild country, hope to get there before I die.  He meets his partners, and they scope out the ‘lodge’ together.  As expected, the security has been ramped up, at great expense.  Larry Lloyd is absolutely essential to figuring out the technology, finding its weak points.  Without him, there’s no job at all.

They can’t even get near the big house without tripping an alarm, but they check out the house the security staff stay in, and Larry can go right up to it–no valuables inside, just one man on duty in the big house now, with Marino not currently resident.  He checks out the telecommunications hook-up.  He says he can get in–meaning he can hack into their system (the word ‘hack’ doesn’t appear in this book, which probably means Westlake didn’t like it being used in that context, or just wanted to avoid getting caught up in techno-jargon as much as possible).

Elkins wants to know if they can ‘get in’ in the older sense of the term.  You can’t cyber-heist a Rembrandt.  Some things still have to be done in three dimensions.  (Remember when sex was one of them?  Oh, never mind.)

At the present time, the plan is that they find a way past the security system in the big house, and Larry won’t even be in Montana during the heist–he can do his part of the job from Boston, now that he’s got the information he needed about their hook-up to the phone lines.  He can do his part with a few mouse clicks in Massachusetts.  Best laid schemes of mice and men……

Bad news on the home front.  Parker told Claire to check into a hotel in New York before he left.  She got word from the cleaning lady that the house in New Jersey was broken into.  The hit is still on.  He tells her he’ll meet her for dinner when he gets back–after he looks at the house (which he suspects has been booby-trapped).  And he asks her to find somebody who reads Cyrillic.

He comes at the house in a ‘borrowed’ rowboat he takes from another of the houses surrounding Colliver Pond–same way he did in Deadly Edge.  He enters through the screen porch in back.  He methodically searches the house, and finally finds the trip-wire at the front door–it triggers a tiny camera.  So the idea is that somebody is nearby, looking at a monitor, waiting for it to switch on, and will know if the person who entered the house is Parker or not.  Don’t want to blow up the cleaning lady.  That wouldn’t be professional.  He needs to find the house that monitor is in, but figures it can wait.  He heads for the city.

After a pleasurable reunion with Claire (I do sometimes lament the lack of explicit sex scenes in the Parker novels; you never have this problem with Max Allan Collins and Quarry–bit of a Puritan streak in Mr. Stark), she and Parker go to a furrier in Manhattan, run by a Russian woman of seemingly aristocratic lineage who Stark says looks like a pouter pigeon.  Stark remarks in passing that “Her manner was coolly highbred, as though the entire Bolshevik interlude had been no more than unpleasant weekend guests who’d overstayed their welcome.  The Russia she came from still had czars.”  Some of whom don’t like to wear shirts.

Claire can multi-task with the best of them as well, and found a translator for Parker who also has something of interest to her, namely very expensive fur coats–you get a little hint here of where all the money goes between heists.  Parker offers no objection–he enjoys Claire’s little fashion shows, and the only point in having money is to spend it.  Given his ascetic tastes, and his lack of interest in gambling, if he didn’t have Claire around, he wouldn’t have an excuse to work more than once a decade or so.  Those of us who love these books owe her a vote of thanks.

Madame Irina, whose accent sounds more French than Russian, is quite willing to translate Parker’s note, does not care to question the rather threadbare excuse for why he needs it translated.  She says the first name is Brock, with the initial P.  The second–well, Parker can easily guess the second now.  Damn.  Rosenstein and Guilden-Brock aren’t dead, after all.

At a restaurant, Parker fills in Claire (and late-arriving readers) about what happened in The Sour Lemon Score, how he left these two guys alive, and how it’s come back to bite them. They agree to go their separate ways until Parker’s cleaned up the mess.  Claire, slightly miffed she can’t go back to her house, perhaps a bit more bothered that she might have been collateral damage here (Parker actually apologizes to her, though the tone you hear in his voice doesn’t sound all that contrite), sucks it in like the trouper she is; says she’ll take her new coat and show it off in Paris.  That Montana heist better pay off good.  High maintenance, to say the least.  (But worth it.)

And now Parker is going to find out why all of this happened in the first place.  He gets a call from Elkins, who sounds tense.  They need to have another meet.  Larry had a security lapse–Parker doesn’t understand.  He asks if the law picked him up.  No, Parker, not that kind of security.

They meet in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.  Everybody looks very serious.  Larry looks downright redfaced.  He tries to explain it to Parker–in his old job, you backed everything up.  He created a file.  This file had contact information for the people he’s working with, or expects to be working with, on this job.  It had contact information for Parker he got from Elkins and Wiss.  Presumably under more than one name (there’s no way just ‘Parker’ would do it).  It had the address of the house in New Jersey.  It was on the internet. Somebody got into the file, and that’s how they found out where Parker lives, and that’s why Viktor Charov showed up there just as Elkins was calling to sound him out about the Montana job.  Brock hadn’t wasted any time.

Cloud computing was just starting to be a big thing about 2000, but it was available to true cognoscenti well before then.  I assume that’s what Larry is talking about here, but it’s not made clear.  I mean, if he just had a file stored in the hard drive of his computer, it’s not like somebody randomly trawling the web in search of a guy named Parker could just randomly break into it, right? Seriously, I don’t know.  The technical data is kept intentionally vague here, for the simple reason that Westlake doesn’t know very much about the tech, doesn’t want to do a ton of research into it, doesn’t want the story to get bogged down in a lot of cyber-jumbo.  That’s not what we read Westlake or Stark for.

But I imagine there will be those who will want to nitpick, and having done quite a lot of that myself regarding the last book, I’m in no position to throw stones–nor am I remotely equipped to nitpick myself.  It sounds possible, and Parker observes to himself (his own technical knowledge is fairly limited in this area) that Paul Brock had already been into recording technology when they first encountered each other.  He could have expanded into computers quite easily, and he never would have forgottten Parker’s unforgivable rape of his beautiful apartment, or Parker shooting both him and Rosenstein either.  Of course, he’d be well into his sixties now, if these characters were all aging normally, but clearly he and Rosenstein came through the time warp into the digital age as well.  They should have stayed back in the analog.

Larry’s tone is infinitely contrite.  He keeps talking about how stupid he is.  Parker doesn’t need to be told that.  Larry says something about how old habits die hard.  “Some things die easier,” Parker responds.  Not a warning.  Just an observation.

From this moment onwards, to the end of the book, Larry Lloyd is on double secret probation with Parker.  That button in Parker’s head that makes him kill whoever sets if off it hasn’t quite been pushed, but it’s been nudged, hard.    Larry compromised Parker’s home base–he’s erased the data now, nobody else can get it, but to Parker this just confirms Mr. Lloyd can’t be counted on, that he’s as much of a threat as any loose-lipped idiot gabbing in a bar about the cool heist he’s pulling, except he’s gabbing to anyone who has internet connectivity.  The law has no end of that.

First heist we ever saw Parker on, as soon as it was over, he was going to kill Mal Resnick, a partner who had not yet betrayed him (though it was coming), simply because Parker sensed there was something off about the guy, that he was a threat.  Larry’s good intentions don’t matter a damn here.  If Parker identifies Larry Lloyd as a threat to his life or freedom, he will start seeing Larry Lloyd as a dead man.  Period.

That’s the end of Part 1 (of 4, naturally), and that’s where we’re going to leave it for now.  I detect the outlines of a three-part review here.  Good thing I found a lot of cover images.  Like Backflash, it’s got an involved backstory.  Lots of loose ends to tie up.  Oooh, kinky.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Flashfire, Part 2

Hammer: Look, in a little while I’m going to hold an auction sale at Cocoanut Manor, the suburb terrible or beautiful. You must come over. There’s going to be entertainment, sandwiches, and the auction. If you don’t like auctions, we can play contract. Here it is – Cocoanut Manor – 42 hours from Times Square by railroad. 1,600 miles as the crow flies and 1,800 as the horse flies. There you are – Cocoanut Manor, glorifying the American sewer and the Florida sucker. It’s the most exclusive residential district in Florida. Nobody lives there. And the climate – ask me about the climate. I dare you.

Mrs. Potter: Very well – how is the…

Hammer: I’m glad you brought it up. Our motto is Cocoanut Beach, no snow, no ice, and no business.

Scene from The Cocoanuts (1929), and Mike must think I’m nuts for even bothering to mention that.  But why a duck?  Answer me that, Mr. Schilling.  I thought I was the one doing the shilling around here.  A fine thing.  

Most people, I believe,” Alice said, “will just go for the baubles, because they won’t want to spend an awful lot of money this late in the season.  Just so they take home some little thing.  But I will bid on this necklace, and I’ll bid low, and because it’s so valuable it won’t come on the block until very late, when everybody else will already have their little something, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I get it for my opening bid.

“How clever you are, Alice,” Jack said, and patted her shoulder before he went back to his seat and his Wall Street Journal.

She continued to smile at the necklace in the photo.  “What a coup,” she said.  “To get that necklace cheap, and to wear it on every occasion.”  Like all very wealthy women, Alice had strange cold pockets of miserliness.  Her eyes shone as she looked across the table at Jack.  “It will be an absolute steal,” she said.

“But you don’t care if I live or die,” she said, “do you?”

“I’d rather you were dead,” he said.

She thought about that.  “Are you going to kill me?”

“No.”

“Because of the bargaining chip.”

“Yes.”

“You’re a little more truthful than I’m ready for,” she said.

He shrugged.

Let me state for the record that I don’t hate this book at all.  I have read it four times, and enjoyed it each time, in spite of all my nitpicking.  Hell, if you can’t enjoy a good bit of nitpicking sometimes, you should stop perusing fiction altogether, and were probably born into the wrong reality altogether.  This is not a world of Platonic Ideals.  I’m far from convinced any such world exists, but this ain’t it, that I know.

But having typed that, I am forced to ponder the unavoidable truth that Parker is, in certain respects, Westlake’s ideal–or rather, Stark’s.  Westlake likes things messy, imperfect, the daily scrum of human existence, with all its inherent absurdity–and the potential for love and laughter and self-realization that lies within all that.  Stark also aspires to self-realization, but he does so by striking a cold clinical contrast between Parker and the rest of us; never fully knowing ourselves, always caught between what we wish we were, and what we really are.

Why is Parker so quietly and implacably enraged when he’s shortchanged by his colleagues at the start of this book?  They’ve promised to pay him back with interest, once the big heist they’re planning is done (having failed to inform him this might happen upfront).  Why go to such extraordinary pains to acquire a small fortune through small thefts, simply in order to create a false identity, so he can go to a place he normally would avoid, risk death and (even worse) imprisonment for the chance to erase the insult by killing these men who mean him no harm, taking their ill-gotten gains for himself as restitution? Why not let it go, for God’s sake?  It’s just 21k–at the dawn of the 21st century.  Claire probably spends more than that per annum on clothes.

Why react this way?  Because in Parker’s mind, this is not how it’s done.  You pull a heist with some people, you share the proceeds in the manner agreed to upfront, you go your separate ways.  No exceptions.  He would have had more respect for them if they’d just tried to kill him to get his share, though the response would be no different. Parker doesn’t know from Platonic Ideals, because that’s an intellectual concept, and he’s about instinct.  He is, in reality, what someone like Plato can only dream about.  Maybe more along the lines of Aristotelian Natural Philosophy than Platonic Ideals, but it’s all Greek to him.

So obviously to me this novel does not properly reflect the Stark Ideal established in my mind by the previous books.  It lacks the proper balance of elements.  It asks questions of Parker that should never be asked; presents answers to those questions that he would never think to himself, let alone utter aloud. This is why I have such a bad reaction to it.  But my response to that is simply to have a good time nitpicking all the inconsistencies and false notes in the book, while acknowledging the many genuinely fine moments within it.  I don’t have to go find Richard Stark and kill him.  I mean, even if I could find him, he’d probably end up killing me.

When last we saw Parker, he was lying face down in a swamp in the Florida Everglades, having been shot in the back with a .30-06 rifle, by one of a pair of killers sent to find and eliminate him, so that he can’t divulge the identity of a man whose identity remains a mystery to him.  One of those guys who makes murder the answer to everything.  One of those pairs of chuckling assassins that used to frequent many a Westlake Nephew book.  And in just a few seconds, they’re going to wish they’d stuck with the Nephews.

But this being Part 3 in a Parker novel, we’re not going to find out what happened right away.  Chapter 1 is from the perspective of Parker’s three former cohorts, Melander, Carlson, and Ross.   They had told Parker to go home and wait for their call, so they’d know he wasn’t after them.  Four days later they call.  Nobody’s home.

What follows is an irritable debate on the admittedly complex ethical strictures of organized armed robbery.  Melander, the mercurial fidgety idea man of the group, feels like they did nothing wrong.  Carlson, the pragmatic veteran, says if they’d done the same thing to him as they did to Parker, he’d say they robbed him–they should have considered the consequences of bringing in a fourth man who might have to be shortchanged, before they went ahead and did it.  Ross, the peacemaker, says maybe they better just go to Parker’s house in New Jersey and check up on him.  And if he’s not there, maybe they can grab his woman and use her as leverage.

Everybody agrees this is a good idea.  Until they get to the house and find it deserted.  They spend days there, waiting for Parker, Claire, somebody, to show up.  All they ever find is places Parker had cached guns to use on anybody who came after him at home.  There’s even one behind a sliding panel by the garage door.  Each is increasingly aware they are dealing with an ice cold methodical planner, and that there’s a target stitched on each of their backs.

They decide to head back to Florida.  It’s really cold in Northwestern New Jersey in winter, even if you’re not right off a lake.  They put everything back the way it’s supposed to be at Claire’s house so nobody will know they were there.  They get back to their Palm Beach house, and everything is the way it’s supposed to be, so they figure Parker wasn’t there.  Not so good at making connections, these guys.

(More fun with nitpicks: Parker is told at the start of the book that the trio needed a fourth man on the Palm Beach job, and if it’s not going to be him, it’ll be somebody else.  Guess what?  There’s nobody else, they just do the job–a really big complicated risky job–with three men.  No explanation of how they were able to rejigger the plan to make that work. Just one mistake among many.  Westlake is rarely this sloppy, and never when he’s working as Stark.  What was going on when he wrote this book?)

Chapter 2 is Leslie Mackenzie musing on her life, the sequence of events that led her to throw in her lot with Parker.  She grew up poor in a place where you’re surrounded by wealth.  She got into a bad marriage with a guy who talked big, but talk was all it was.  Her mother and sister are an embarrassment and a burden to her, and she’d dearly love to get her hands on a lot of cash, so she can leave them behind, start over.

Sex has never been much fun for her, but she is (of course), starting to become attracted to Parker, wondering what he’d be like in bed.  Truthfully, her situation isn’t that desperate. She’s very good at her job, and her job is selling luxury housing to people who can afford it.  She just isn’t happy with where and who she is.  She’d like to be somebody else, somewhere else.  For that she needs a score.  And for a score, she needs somebody like Parker.  And for this subplot to work out satisfactorily, for Leslie and us, Parker needs to be sexually available to her, at least on a temporary basis, but he’s not.  Frustrating.

He is, however, still alive.  You won’t believe how that happens.  Seriously, you won’t.  Chapter 3 is from the perspective of a 23 year old paramilitary grunt named Elvis Clagg.  You know that right-wing militia movement that started getting a lot of attention in the 90’s?  Seems like some people got started much earlier than that.  Warning, racial epithets ahead.  Like you couldn’t hear worse at a meeting of the President’s closest advisors these days.

Captain Bob Hardawl himself had founded the CRDF not long after he’d come back to Florida from Nam and had seen that the niggers and kikes were about to take over everywhere from the forces of God, and that the forces of God could use some help from a fella equipped with infantryman training.

Armageddon hadn’t struck  yet, thank God, but you just knew that sooner or later it would.  You could read all about it on the Internet, you could hear it in the songs of Aryan rock, you could see it in the news all around you, you could read it in all the books and magazines that Captain Bob insisted every member of the CRDF subscribe to and read.

That was an odd thing, too.  Reading had always been tough for Elvis Clagg.  It had been one of the reasons he’d dropped out of school at the very first opportunity and got that job at the sugar mill that paid shit and immediately gave him a bad cough like an old car.  But now that he had stuff he wanted to read, stuff he liked to read, why, turned out, he was a natural at it.

They oughta figure that out in the schools.  Quit giving the kids all that Moby-Dick shit and give them The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and you’re gonna have you some heavy-duty readers.

I’m sure that option is being discussed as we speak, but leaving that aside, Elvis was out on maneuvers in the Everglades, with the rest of the CRDF, and would you believe they just happened to witness Parker being shot?  Why, sure you would.

And while there’s no particular reason for them to get involved, the fact is that you get bored marching around in formation with shiny well-oiled automatic weapons all day, and never having anyone to use them on.  One excuse is pretty much as good as another.  Captain Bob yells something at the thugs.  The thug with the .30-06 rifle panics and shoots two of the uniformed thugs armed with Uzis.  Problem is, there’s twenty-six of them left, and the guy with the rifle didn’t shoot Captain Bob, who starts barking orders, and the end result is that Parker’s abductors end up getting shot 13 times apiece.  Dead and unlucky.

Chapter 4 introduces the 67 year old Alice Prester Young, and her 26 year old husband, Jack.  Alice is rich, and Jack is not.  That didn’t really need explaining.  And I’m not sure this story really needed telling.  Westlake wants to satirize Palm Beach society, and that’s a worthy ambition in itself, but how well does it mesh with the story being told?  Not very. I strongly suspect this is left-over story material from something Westlake started writing that wasn’t originally going to be by Richard Stark.

Alice is reading in the paper at breakfast about how a Daniel Parmitt is in the hospital, in critical condition, after being abducted and shot in the Everglades, and she’s asking Jack if they know any such person.  Jack doesn’t know, doesn’t care.  She goes on from that subject to discussing the upcoming auction of Miriam Hope Clendon’s jewelry, as you can see up top–a certain necklace she’s had her eye on since time immemorial.  Jack’s only interest in that stems from his figuring he’ll inherit it someday.  We shall be hearing from both of them again, so on to Chapter 5.

Chapter 5 introduces pretty nearly the only non-asshole POV character in the book who isn’t Parker or Leslie; Trooper Sergeant Jake Farley of the Snake River County Sheriff’s department, who is working on the strange case of Daniel Parmitt.  He’s irritated on several counts–first of all, those dangerous idiots of the CRDF finally killed somebody, like he always knew they would, but he can’t arrest them, because it was self-defense.

Secondly, he just can’t figure out the angle on this Parmitt.  They have the ID papers Parker bought from the late Mr. Norte, which are holding up to scrutiny so far–unlike the more resourceful Leslie, they haven’t thought to run a credit check, because obviously rich oil men from Texas have great credit.  Point is, why does somebody like this get waylaid by two men who were self-evidently professional killers?   Something’s rotten in the state of Florida (pretty much the default setting there, and not just in crime fiction).

Parmitt was badly shot, and drowned to boot, before the CRDF guys practiced their CPR on him (breaking a few ribs in the process).  And yet, miraculously, it looks like he’s going to recover.  When Farley questions Parmitt, something about the way the man’s eyes focus on  him from his hospital bed makes Farley feel like he’s the one in danger.  Unnerving.  But no question, the man is still very weak.

Leslie has shown up, wanting to see her friend and client, whom she suggestively suggests may be more than just a friend and client.  Leslie quickly figures out Farley, who has a thing for amply proportioned blondes, and is currently married to one, is going to be knocked off balance if she brings sex into the equation, and it works like a charm.  He gives her a few minutes alone with Parker, in Chapter 6.

As soon as she tells Parker that the attack on Parmitt made the papers, he knows the man who sent the first two killers will send more, right to the hospital, and there’s no police guard on his room (nor can he request one without making explanations he’s in no position to make).  And at any time the cops might take his fingerprints–which will lead back to a dead prison camp guard in the 1960’s, among other things. He tells Leslie she needs to get him out of there, without anyone seeing them leave.  She’s taken aback, but tells him she’ll figure something out.

Chapter 7 is set at the site of the auction, the house of Mrs. Helena Stockworth Fritz, who is deeply involved in getting the place ready for the social event that will officially make her the new queen of Palm Beach.  Then all of a sudden these two common workmen we recognize as Melander and Ross show up with some amplifiers they say they were tasked with deliverying there.  Irritating, but just so they’ll go away, she has them let in, and as promised they stick the equipment where it won’t get in anyone’s way.  Until it does.

Chapter 8 is Leslie pressuring her mother and sister into aiding her in springing Parker from the hospital.  Her sister Loretta, as mentioned, is mentally disabled, and her mother’s no bright light either.  They’re both very nervous about participating in this escape plan.  But they buckle when she threatens to move out–her income is all that’s holding them up.  And we know she’s planning to move out as soon as she gets her money.

Chapter 9 is the evening of the heist, and switches around a bit, starting with Alice Prester-Young getting her jewels out of the bank, where the Palm Beach elite keep most of their valuables most of the time.  They have dressing rooms, mirrors with grey tinting to disguise the marks of time on the faces and bodies of those who look in them.  Alice feels she’s earned all of this, even though the entire point of being in Palm Beach society is that you didn’t earn any of it.

Farley is talking about Parmitt with an FBI agent named Mobley, and they agree his story about not remembering anything about how or why he was attacked doesn’t add up, he’s holding something back.  Mobley suggests Farley get Parmitt’s fingerprints to him, and he’ll check them for priors.  Farley agrees.

Leslie is driving to the hospital with her sister, in a Plymouth Voyager (nice little nod to The Ax there).  They pass a fire engine.  Guess who’s riding on it?

Then we get a bit more social satire with Mrs. Fritz, learning that even within the 1% there’s a class system, and she sees herself as being at the very top now–too good to even go to the bank to get her jewels and furs with the rest of the hoi polloi, as she thinks of them.  She uses the panic room her late husband installed for that.  And she doesn’t need any gray-backed mirror.  She likes the person looking back at her just fine the way she is.  She knows herself better than the others.  But she still doesn’t see those amplifiers the grimy workmen delivered, that somehow never got hooked up to the sound system.

Chapter 10 is Leslie and Loretta springing Parker from the hospital by putting him in the wheelchair Loretta was pretending to need.  Loretta’s actually having a fun time with the caper now. Leslie is still worried about getting her money, and starting to feel protective towards ‘Daniel’, in spite of herself.  But when she asks him what he plans to do tomorrow night, his answer is “Kill some people.”

Chapter 11, surprisingly enough, isn’t about Donald Trump’s financial affairs.  It’s another multi-POV chapter, and the only thing of real consequence that happens in it is that the hitman sent to kill Parker in his hospital bed gets there only to find out the bed is empty, and he’s about to be arrested by Deputy Sheriff Farley (showing great presence of mind when he finds the man in Parker’s room, pretending to be a doctor).  Farley is delighted to finally have somebody he can question without a lot of doctors making a fuss.  Less delighted that Daniel Parmitt has disappeared, but he’ll worry about that later.

Chapter 12 is all Leslie and Parker.  He’s recovering from his injuries with astonishing rapidity–not Hugh Jackman with adamantium claws fast, but fast.  He’s staying at a condo she’s already sold, that the new occupants won’t be occupying for weeks yet.  She’s reached the point where she’s actually trying to talk him out of heisting the heist, but of course nobody can ever talk Parker out of anything.  She can’t understand why he’s so much more intent on killing these three guys who never tried to hurt him than he is on dealing with the man who has sent hired killers after him.  Yeah, what’s up with that, Parker?

“The other guy’s gonna self-destruct,” he told her, “He has to, he’s too stupid to last.  He’s somebody used to power, not brains.  But these three are mechanics, we had an understanding, they broke it.  They don’t do that.”  He shrugged.  “It makes sense or it doesn’t.”

Only time I’ve ever felt like arguing with Parker’s logic (not the part about somebody used to power instead of brains; that’s borne out by the headlines we read every morning now).

Actually, only time offhand I can think of Parker arguing for his own logic.  The mere fact that he’s doing so means that he knows it doesn’t make sense, which we know from several past books is something that always irritates him.  But in The Seventh, the most noteworthy of those books where he’s knocked off-kilter, he was doing something that didn’t make sense because, in part, a girl he was starting to like had been skewered with a sword by The Amateur.

There was no time to stop and think in that story, everything happened over a very short time frame, which is why that book works so well.  And The Amateur had tried to kill Parker, had tried to frame him with the law, had taken all of his money, and was certainly not promising to pay him back later.  Given all that, it made perfect sense that Parker’s behavior didn’t make sense, least of all to him.

But in this story he’s had weeks to think about what he’s doing now, and now he’s clearly in no shape to take on three armed men, or three unarmed men for that matter.  He’s going to do it anyway, because he can’t help himself.  Frankly, this seems less like a wolf in human form acting on instinct than a really hardcore case of OCD.  The Sheldon Cooper of Crime.

Chapter 13 is the heist.  And a good one, I might add.  The gaudy trio use their favored strategy of pyrotechnic distraction–they should probably quit the heisting game, and try putting together a magic act in Vegas.  The amplifiers contained incendiary rockets.  As anticipated, the rich people forget their innate dignity and stampede like cattle.  The trio appear disguised as firemen, in the stolen fire engine–then depart as frogmen, wetsuits under their slickers, over the sea wall into the sea, with the jewels. Next stop, the safe house.  Which isn’t going to be as safe as advertised.

Meanwhile, back at the Fritz, the whole soap opera subplot of Alice and Jack concludes with her desperately seeking Jack in the smoke and confusion, afraid he’s been killed–then seeing him carrying the luscious young trophy wife of another elderly rich fool out of harm’s way, and realizing in an instant that he’s just been patiently waiting for Alice to die, and entertaining himself with a woman his own age while he waits.  Which Alice probably could have forgiven easily enough, if it wasn’t so blatantly obvious that his first thought when all hell broke loose was to save his lover, not his wife.

He looks back at Alice, the corpus delectable in his arms, and can’t think of a single thing to say.  He’s fond of her and all, he enjoys her company, he didn’t mind servicing her sexagenarian sexual needs, wasn’t bothered by the snickering gossip that inevitably surrounds any such marriage, but in a crisis, his true feelings betrayed him–and her.  And their whole tidy mutually beneficial arrangement is exposed for the tawdry sham it always was (same goes for his lover, whose husband is now processing the same ugly truth as Alice–money can buy you everything but youth, and youth is worth all the rest of it combined, wasted on the young though it may be).

And that’s a perfectly good short story, for Playboy, maybe, but what the hell’s it doing in a Parker novel?  We won’t see any of these people again, and we won’t miss them either.  At times, this book feels like a jumble sale of ideas Westlake wanted to do something with, but never found the proper outlet for.  On to Part 4, eight chapters, just a bit over fifty pages, and blissfully free of any such distractions.  But sadly, not free of some pretty serious problems, and one outright blunder on the part of the author.

Parker has painfully made his way back into Melander & Co’s hideout–last time he was in there, he fixed things so he could get in there without triggering any alarms, or leaving any trace.  But last time he didn’t have a bullet wound and several broken ribs, and wasn’t weak as the proverbial kitten.  Still, this kitten has claws, and a gun stashed under a Parson’s table.  And he’ll have the element of surprise.  Or maybe not.

The trio get back from their heist, laughing over how well it went–one of them even saw a dolphin as they swam back to their private beach.  They’re improvising too much–it only occurred to Ross at the last possible moment that they needed to sweep the sand behind them, to cover up their footprints.  The heat from this heist will be intense, like nothing they ever faced beore.  They never did fully process how intense.  Rich people don’t like getting robbed (They’re supposed to be the robber barons here!  Well, their forebears were, anyway.).  In a closed-off place that is entirely controlled by the rich, the cops will be relentless and methodical in tracking down the thieves–or lose their jobs.

But right away they get distracted–by Leslie.  Parker curses to himself when he hears it happening.  She couldn’t just sit back and wait, she had to come in and look, and they found her.  They assume she’s Claire, looking for Parker.  Well, they’re half-right.  They start interrogating her, slapping her around a little, and then when they lock her in the same room Parker is hiding in, she inadvertently tips them off to his presence.  Parker thinks to himself sourly that she’d been better than most amateurs, until it mattered.

Melander isn’t sure whether he wants Parker dead or not.  Obviously Parker’s not in great shape, and it’s three against one (he’s not counting ‘Claire’).  Parker tells one of his usual lies when he’s faced with guys he wants to kill who are currently in a position to kill him–he was just making sure he’d get his money.  They don’t really believe him, but they can sleep on it.  And while they sleep, Parker keeps getting a bit stronger, every hour.

The plan, not that it matters now, was that he’d kill them in their sleep.  Won’t work now, and far from clear it ever would have worked.  But that plan is dead.  Parker waits to see what new plan can be salvaged from this mess.  And Leslie looks for some way to prove herself to him again.

Next morning, all plans turn to crap.  The cops come calling.  Melander puts on his faux Texas accent, tries to assure them he’s what he pretends to be, but the fact is, in the harsh light of a major manhunt, his act just doesn’t play anymore.  The house is largely unfurnished, in bad shape, there’s a dumpster outside, no contractors at work, and they haven’t even applied for a phone yet.

This isn’t how real rich people live, camped out like squatters in a derelict property–certainly not in Palm Beach.  Parker was right all along about this plan being a disaster waiting to happen.  The cops, who work in Palm Beach every day, can easily sense Melander doesn’t belong here, that something’s very wrong with this picture.  They insist on coming in to look around.

(The absolute worst mistake in this book is something I never noticed before now–see, back in Chapter 1, Part 3, we’re told that when the trio decided to try contacting Parker in New Jersey, they called from the ‘freshly installed phone’ at the mansion in Palm Beach–that very phone the cops now say they never even applied for.  That’s not their mistake, it’s Stark’s.  Stark doesn’t make mistakes like this.  An honest-to-god plothole in a Parker novel.  What the hell was going on with the writing of this book?  What kind of pressure was Westlake under when he produced it?)

Melander can’t very well tell the law to come back with a search warrant–he does that, they’ll have a cordon around the house in five minutes, the warrant in ten, and SWAT teams in place.  He realizes he’s got no choice but to shoot it out–just two of them.  He and his buddies can figure out Plan B once the cops are dead.

But Parker’s advance planning comes into play now.  He disabled all their guns days ago.  Melander pulls the trigger and nothing   happens.  Except he gets shot to pieces by edgy lawmen, of course.

Parker and Leslie had been brought downstairs for breakfast.  Leslie is sitting at that very table Parker duct-taped his trusty little Sentinel revolver beneath.  Parker quietly let Leslie know about the gun, hoping she’d get it to him, but Carlson sees her with the gun in her hand, aims his shotgun at her, and of course that doesn’t work either, but Leslie doesn’t know that (Parker understandably didn’t want to trust her with any further information).

In the ensuing shitstorm, Parker hits Ross with a chair, knocking him into view of the cops, who gun him down with alacrity.  Leslie, terrified out of her wits, empties the Sentinel into a confused Carlson.  The trio is gaudy in a different way now.

Parker grabs the bags with the jewelry, and goes out the back, signaling Leslie with his eyes that she should say nothing about his ever having been there.  He’s still in tremendous pain, and can’t go very far, but he manages to get over the fence surrounding the property, and into a decent enough hiding place, assuming there’s no major search of the area.  And then he passes out.

By the time he wakes up, the house is abandoned again.  He goes back inside, helps himself to the food and beer his deceased captors stocked the fridge with.  Cops come in a few times to poke around, but they aren’t looking for anyone, so he just avoids them in the big rambling house.  After a few days of this routine, he’s feeling a lot better–now he just needs to make contact with Leslie one last time.

And here she is–something of a local heroine now.  Reminiscent of Claire at the end of The Rare Coin Score, she told the law a good story, used her feminine wiles on her male interrogators, and not only is she not in any trouble, she’s now got the exclusive right to show the house to potential new buyers.  So her presence there isn’t going to arouse any suspicion.  Parker is pleased with her–she’d never make it long in his business, but in the end, she proved her worth to him.  She can live.  And she is, of course, due a share of the spoils.

She tells him all the accounts he set up as Parmitt have been frozen.  He expected that, isn’t bothered by it.  He tells her he’s going soon, will leave the gems in her keeping.  She’s amazed he’ll trust her that much, but he reminds her, there is no way she could possibly sell them herself without getting caught.  He’ll send a fence to see her, and he figures her end will come to around 400k, give or take.  We were told at the start of the book that it would take three fences to unload all this swag, but even I’m getting bored with the nitpicking now.

In the Pre-Claire era, this would be the part of the book where Parker and Leslie hook up.  But those days are gone, and Parker feels like he somehow has to explain this to Leslie, why he’s not going to take out his post-heist horniness on her, which she would be more than willing to let him do.  For the record, I’m totally fine with the emotions he’s expressing here; not so fine with the fact that he is expressing them.  Hey, if this heist thing ever falls through, he could always take a job with Hallmark.

He said, “You don’t want to know about Claire, Leslie.”

“Of course I do,” she said.

He looked at her, and decided to finish that part once and for all.  “Claire is the only house I ever want to be in,” he said.  “All her doors and windows are open, but only for me.”

A blush climbed Leslie’s cheeks, and she stepped back, looking confused.  “You’re probably anxious to see her again,” she said, mumbling, going through the motions.  “I’ll see you at eight.”

The plan is she comes to pick him up, drive him to Miami, where Claire is waiting.  But plans are always subject to change.  Farley shows up at the house, still trying to figure out what the hell happened.  He never bought Leslie’s story.  He knows Parmitt is tied up in this some way.  Parker avoids Farley easily, but waits for him in his car.  He’s still got some business left to attend to, and Farley could be useful there.

So Farley comes back to the car, sees Parker, and is taken aback by the man’s sheer gall.  They have a little talk, in which Parker admits to no crime, but fills Farley in on why those two hoods tried to kill him in the Everglades.  Tells him about this guy, probably from Latin America, probably a general or a drug lord looking for a cushy safe retirement home in the states, tried to cover his tracks by the most stupid brutal means imaginable, because that’s the only way he ever knew to deal with problems–and in so doing, made himself more vulnerable.  In so doing, he made Parker his enemy.

The deal is, Parker gives Farley enough information so that he can go to his FBI friend, knowing how to prove the papers Norte gave this man are fake, and in a short time, they can take him down for keeps–a big arrest, very nice for everyone’s careers.  If they somehow screw it up, fail to get him, Parker will take the guy out himself.  But he doesn’t think that will be necessary.  He also teases Farley about his obvious attraction to Leslie.  Well, I guess there’s a little matchmaker in everyone.

Farley drops Parker off in Miami.  Even gives him a quarter to call Claire with. He would still like to arrest this Parmitt guy, even though he doesn’t exactly have any concrete charges–he could find something if he wanted.  The bloodhound in him can smell the wolf in Parker, is feeling the pull to do something about it.  Parker reminds him they’re alone.  “I’m armed,” Farley says.  “So am I,” Parker responds.  And flexes his huge hands, which are in easy reach of Farley’s throat.  Farley says he’ll always wonder if he could have taken Parker.  Parker ends the book by saying “Look on the bright side–this way you  have an always.”  

Not a bad ending.  Not a bad book.  Unless you compare it to all the others.  Maybe someday we’ll know what happened here, the explanation for all the mistakes and false notes, but I doubt anything will ever explain why Hollywood producers would pick this book to kick off what was supposed to be a long-running franchise, starring a short bald Englishman as Parker (actually named Parker, something Westlake would never have countenanced had he still been around), and a skinny blonde Australian whose name I can never remember as Claire. And Nick Nolte as her dad, who is Parker’s mentor.  Seriously.  This happened.

But Jennifer Lopez wasn’t a bad pick for Leslie.  Even though I know she was only picked because the producers wanted her to do that striptease from Part 1.  She looked right for Florida, and she certainly had the curves to play Leslie.  But they screwed up that subplot as well.  Trying to ‘fix’ the story, they made it ten times worse.

The producers of “Parker” (quotes intentional) were, whether they knew it or not, playing the role of the gaudy trio in this book; so confident of their abilities, so sure they had a perfect score planned, so sure Palm Beach (which they insisted on shooting in, driving up the budget) would be a goldmine for them.  And in the end, it didn’t work out any better for them than it did for the movie stars.  But it worked out fine for the Westlake estate.  So that tracks.  Can’t wait for the sequel.  I really can’t.  Because seriously, I’m not going to live that long, and neither is anyone else.

But pretty sure I’ll live long enough to review the next book in our queue, also a Parker, and vastly more satisfactory than this one, in every possible way.  Parker is back in his proper habitat–both of them.  City and wilderness.  And still learning about this brave new world he’s been stuck back into.  Adds another string to his bow, you might say.

Anyway, I’ll try to get Part 1 out next week.  Anyone needs me before then, I’ll be in the garage, killing a man.  Just kidding.  I don’t have a garage.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker film adaptations, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Flashfire

“No,” Parker said.

All three were disappointed, gazing at him as though he’d let them down in some unexpected way. Carlson said, “Could I ask why?”

“You’ve got a place to stay,” Parker said. “If I ask, you’ll tell me how the mansion won’t trace back to any of you after it’s all over.”

“Sure,” Carlson said.

“But that isn’t the job,” Parker told him. “That’s nothing but the safe house. The job is still a whole lot of jewelry, twelve million dollars’ worth of jewelry, completely surrounded by people with weapons who don’t want you to get your hands on it. From this idea today–blow up something a little farther out of town as a distraction–I can see you guys like to be gaudy. That’s fine, fires and explosions have their place, but I think you mean to be gaudy in Palm Beach, and it won’t work out for you any better than it did for the movie stars.”

Fantastic fortune, thou deceitful light
That cheats the weary traveler by night
Though on a precipice each step you tread,
I am resolved to follow where you lead.

Aphra Behn

September 23, 2011. Not much more than five years ago. Having been watching Payback a lot on TNT (curse you Maria Bello, and your warm knowing brown eyes), having gone from that to Point Blank on TCM (curse you Lee Marvin, and your cold fathomless blue-grey eyes), noting the differences and similarities in the stories, I was curious. I knew both movies were based on the same book. I knew Richard Stark was a pseudonym for some guy named Westlake.

The library I work for didn’t have The Hunter, or any of the First Sixteen, but we had three of the Final Eight, and the earliest was this. So I went up to the stacks and got it. September 23, 2011. Nobody’s charged it out since. Why bother when you can download? Honestly, I’m wondering if this library thing has a future to it.

I finished the book same day I took it out. I wasn’t what you’d call blown away, but I wanted more. I read the other two. They went fast too. I started hitting used bookstores, then ordering a lot of books online, vintage paperbacks, old hardcovers, U. of Chicago reprints.  I ran out of Parker novels. I moved on to Grofield. Then Tobin. Then I started reading the books Westlake wrote as Westlake. I finally accepted that I’d have to read all of them, every last book on that long long bibliography, because somehow they were all connected, infinitely varied in subject, tone, approach, style–but all about the same thing, underneath. There was this subtle satiric sensibility at the back of all of them.  I was, you might say, hooked.

I started discussing Westlake at The Violent World of Parker (now vanished from the internet, has anybody heard from Trent?), and Nick Jones’ Existential Ennui (still extant, but not talking about Westlake much these days). I published a guest article on the former site, in which I started promulgating my common sense observation that Parker is a wolf in human form, which was not uniformly well-received, as I recall.

I was my usual charming self, the very soul of diplomacy, on this and other subjects (including the awful movie made from this book I’m supposed to be reviewing now).  The conversation grew heated, and I got banned from that site’s discussion forum.  I been thrown out of worse joints for less reason.  Trent and I remained on amicable terms, and he was later gracious enough to plug TWR on VWOP.  Seems like a million years ago now.

Nick Jones, who had encouraged me to write that guest article, sort of tactfully hinted I was getting a mite too long-winded in my responses to his articles (oh now, I think that’s a bit unfair).  He suggested I might want to start my own blog, an idea I dismissed out of hand as impractical and overly time-consuming. And 161 posts later (counting this one), here we stand, back where it all began.  Thus endeth my rumination on causality, spare time, and the internet.

I believe this is the third or fourth time I’ve read Flashfire.  That’s more often than I’ve read many of the other Parker novels; the ones that aren’t The Hunter, The Score,  Slayground, etc.  That’s partly because I wanted to compare the book and the movie.  Partly because I read it first, and I reread all these books periodically.

But mainly because I want to  understand why this one bothers me so much.  Why it seems so much less right than any of the others, less than the sum of its parts.  It’s by far the worst book in the series, one of the weakest novels Westlake ever wrote under any name.  And still a good read for the most part.  Westlake never wrote anything he didn’t put something of himself into.  I’m here to try and understand him, and as I have said before, you often learn more about a writer from his or her misfires.  The most important question to ask about a misfire is always “What was the writer aiming at when he/she pulled the trigger?”

Westlake’s peak as a writer came between 1962 (the year of The Hunter) and 1976 (the year of Dancing Aztecs).  In that narrow window of time, he produced over fifty novels, along with quite a lot of less important work.  A lifetime’s worth of writing compressed into fourteen years.  What followed that productive era was often brilliant–he was a long way from finished, in fact he had almost as many books ahead of him as behind him (if you don’t count the sleaze paperbacks).  But he was working more slowly, having a harder time coming up with workable ideas, ways he could top himself.

Stark and Coe, his two most important alter-egos, deserted him.  The publishing market was no longer so well-suited to the kind of writing he did best.  He had to change with the times, and the times were not to his taste (probably neither were most of the books being published, but when is that ever not true?).  He was slotted as a humorous writer, and he liked writing in that vein, but it wasn’t enough for such a restless probing intellect.

Having resumed writing as Stark in the 90’s, he could not let the voice go again, as he had in the 70’s.  He needed to keep going.  But he struggled at finding ways for Parker to remain relevant in this not so brave new world he went on improbably surviving in.  Dortmunder is equally anachronistic, leading to many an absurd sitution but Dortmunder is supposed to be absurd.  Parker isn’t. Parker won’t stand for that.  Dortmunder is Fortune’s Fool.  Parker is nobody’s fool.  Not even Stark’s.

So that’s all well and good, but how do we explain this book, in which Parker repeatedly does things that could not be more out of character?  Impersonating a priest, then a rich foppish playboy.  Making jokes that display a familiarity with contemporary popular culture.  Pursuing a vendetta, which is very Parkeresque, but a vendetta so extreme and irrational that it stretches the boundaries of credulity, even within the context of this fictional reality.  Revealing himself as a secret romantic; basically confessing, both to himself and a total stranger that he’s madly in love with Claire, who is only marginally in the book.  Though at least we learn something about her reading habits.

And on the whole, you’d have to say Parker is a whole lot less effective here than he normally is, making mistake after mistake, very nearly dying as a result. He wins out mainly by virtue of his strange luck; a bit too strange for me this time.

Was Westlake testing Parker again, putting him to the question, as he had in past books where Parker seems to be acting out of character, but really isn’t?  Or did he have an idea for a book involving some other criminal protagonist, and decided for various reasons (commercial, let’s say) that it needed to be a Parker novel?

Personally, I think this should have maybe been the next Grofield, but how many people even remembered Grofield by then?  All those novels were out of print, and so were the Parker novels he’d first appeared in.  That would change soon, but at the time of writing this one, Westlake only had two marketable series characters, and Dortmunder clearly wouldn’t work.  Westlake wasn’t doing so well with one-shot characters of late.  It’s just a theory, but I wonder if that’s the answer to this identity puzzle–it wasn’t originally going to be a Parker novel at all.  Once it was, he tailored it to Parker as best he could, with very mixed results.

Whatever its origins, the final result is an interesting but frequently unsatisfying work, that still has that Starkian touch to it, which pulls you along, keeps your attention.  Were that not the case, I wouldn’t be typing this now.  So let me start typing the synopsis.

The book begins with a bank robbery, already in progress, in Nebraska.  Except that Parker isn’t in the bank, he’s some distance away, throwing a Molotov cocktail through a plate glass window into a gas station convenience store, to serve as a distraction.  The rest of the string is robbing the bank, and will use a stolen fire department vehicle to make their getaway, blending in with the real fire department.

(And right away, I’ve got a problem–a firebomb is not a discriminating weapon, and casualties are not unlikely.  Parker doesn’t like killing civilians, because it brings down too much heat from the law.  Obviously the convenience store is open if the gas station is (that’s where he gets the gas), and there’s no mention of whether anybody is in there or not.  Unusually sloppy work for Parker–and Stark.  The movie skirted this entire issue by having somebody else set the diversionary blaze, and Parker is upset they killed somebody, which is even worse.)

This is not Parker’s plan; he’s just been called in at the last minute to sub for Hurley (last seen in Butcher’s Moon), who recommended Parker after he dropped out. Parker got kind of a weird vibe from Hurley when they talked over the phone, but apparently he needed the work–some time must have passed since his previous two successful heists.  My feeling is that this book actually takes place pretty close in time to when it was written, unlike the previous two.  The internet is referenced, for the very first time in this series.  The guy we see thinking about it briefly is no Wally Knurr. Not only is he not web-literate, he’s just barely lit-literate.  The age of idiots online has dawned.

This is the last time we see Parker involved in a bank robbery (unless you count armored car heists, and I don’t).  First time was in The Score, but they were knocking over a whole town, with Parker overseeing the operation, and the banks were both closed for the night so it’s not a typical job.  Second was The Sour Lemon Score, the only classic daylight bank robbery in 24 books about a supposed bank robber.  This is the third time, and he never even sees the bank.  Or his money, except from a distance.

Melander, Carlson, and Ross.  Parker never worked with these guys before.  They like him, and they’re professional enough; maybe a bit too flashy, but good.  And ambitious–they pulled this heist, they belatedly inform him, only to bankroll a much larger one elsewhere.  They want him to come in on that.  Parker hates surprises.  But he’ll bite.  What’s the job?

Jewelry.  Twelve million dollars worth.  They’ll only get ten cents on the dollar, and they’ll have to use three different fences to unload the merchandise.  It’s going to be in Palm Beach, which for those of you who don’t know (and at this point in time, we all should know), is the world’s most overprivileged sandbar, off the coast of Florida.  No way to drive on or off it without crossing a drawbridge–no crocodiles in the moat, but probably sharks, and lots of patrol boats. The bridges can all be closed very quickly if anything big happens, like a major robbery.  Parker expresses a disinclination to participate.  He’d like his money now, please.  But wait, there’s more!

This is why they need the bank job money.  They’re spending 100k to put a down-payment on a beachfront mansion formerly owned by two movie stars, who found out Palm Beach society frowns on new money, and on people who like to draw attention to themselves (hmm).  The place got kind of trashed, and is definitely a fixer-upper, but all they need to fix here is an excuse for them to be in the richest part of Palm Beach, so they can hide out on the large fenced-off property, while the law looks for them in hotels and condos, and stops every boat on the water around that glorified sandbar.

A dodge we’ve seen many times before in these books; holing up near the site of the robbery until the heat fades, but Parker’s not buying it.  Something will go wrong, somewhere down the line.  Palm Beach and its pampered denizens are too well-protected, and there’s no escape route if things go sour.  He’s out.  Now fork over the cash. His share comes to $21,319.  He does not take IOU’s.

There isn’t enough money.  They knew going in that might happen, and what the consequences might be.  Just a bit over 85k.  They’ll have to borrow the remaining 15k, and pay back 30k.  If they give Parker a quarter of the take, they’ll have to borrow even more, and it cuts into their profit margin too much.  They promise he’ll get his share, and a bit extra, once the job is over.  But for the moment, they’re going to have to stiff him. Give him a tiny stack of bills, which they say is in addition to his share, once they’re ready to give it to him.  Like he’s the hired help, and this is his tip.

Understand, none of these guys has ever read a Parker novel.  Andy Kelp could have told them what a terrible idea this is.  They’re not like Mal Resnick, Auguste Menlo, George Uhl, George Liss, or any of the other former colleagues who just decided to take the whole boodle by eliminating the rest of the string.  They won’t kill him.  They have professional standards.

And his only response to that is to think about how stupid they are not to kill him.  He’s sure as hell going to kill them, and take their entire Palm Beach score as back interest on the debt, assuming they succeed.  The button in his head has been pushed.  These are dead men walking, far as he’s concerned.  He’s going to heist the heist.  But for that he’s going to need a bankroll of his own.

Thus begins Parker’s One Man Crime Wave, which is for many the most enjoyable part of this book, though I found it oddly disappointing this time through, because it’s too rushed.  Stark packs a lot of story into a small space, but this is too much, and I’m not even going to try to cover it all, because it would take too long.

Overall, not a terrible premise for a Parker novel, but it’s problematic on several counts.  First of all, by pulling a series of small quick scores, on a gun shop, a check cashing place, two drug dealers, a multiplex theater, and some rich people’s houses in Texas, he quickly amasses almost as much money as he’d get if he actually had gone in with the gaudy trio on their big heist, and it had succeeded.  So this isn’t about the money, because he could just go home to Claire with all that, and then wait for the guys to show up with his share, and he could kill them then if he wanted.  Assuming they didn’t get themselves killed or jailed, which would save him a lot of effort and risk.

This is the part of the book where he poses as a priest (collar and all), who is raising money for his church, and a more inappropriate look for him is hard to imagine.  The point is, he takes on several false identities, and sets up a bunch of bank accounts, all in order to set up a convincing enough false identity as a rich Texan/Ecuadorian of American parentage (and citizenship) named Daniel Parmitt, who can infiltrate Palm Beach society and wait for the heist to happen.  Parmitt has a mustache (Claire later advises him to make it look like Errol Flynn’s ‘stache, trims it for him herself, between bouts of intercourse).  He wears light-colored slacks, colorful shirts, and a yachting cap.  Well, at least it’s not a cowboy hat.  Okay, so there is a more inappropriate look for him after all.

In order to get high quality fake ID as Parmitt, he goes to a guy Ed Mackey refers him to (a brief phone cameo by Brenda, who is clearly still wondering if she and Parker might end up together someday).  Julius Norte, a specialist in this field.  He seems professional enough, but when Parker comes back for his papers, Norte tries to kill him, because another client sent some thugs to whack him, so nobody would be alive who knew about his new identity (shades of The Man With the Getaway Face).  Parker would know too much if he let him go.  Parker has to kill Norte’s hulking bodyguard, and then has a cowed Norte kill the tied-up thugs himself, with a gun Parker then confiscates, so he’ll have leverage over Norte.

Now you see up top where he’s telling these guys they’re too gaudy, that their plan is too complicated, improbable, and risky?  It’s not like him to live in a glass house.  He’s being at least as gaudy as them.  There’s too many moving parts here already for a Parker book, and we’re just 74 pages in.

Then he meets Claire at a hotel in Miami they’ve stayed at before–as soon as he resolved to pull this risky scheme of his, he told her to vacate the house at Colliver Pond in New Jersey, so she couldn’t be taken by his former partners and used as a bargaining chip.  She learned something from the events of Deadly Edge, and complies with alacrity.  It’s winter, anyway, good excuse to get warm.  She’s sitting by the pool when he arrives, wearing a red bikini, and reading Aphra Behn (I think the above quote might help explain both her and her creator’s affinity for that author).  He sees her from across the pool, drawing many a lustful glance.  And if you’d believe it, he begins reminiscing on how their relationship began.

It had been a while since he had seen her at a different angle like this, coming upon her as though she were a stranger, and it reminded him of the first time they’d met, when he’d opened a hotel room door expecting some flunky driver and had seen this cool and beautiful woman instead.  When he told her then he hadn’t expected a woman in the job because it was unprofessional she’d said, “It doesn’t sound like a very rewarding profession,” and already he’d been snagged.  Closed off before then, indifferent to the world except as it had to be tamed and manipulated, he hadn’t known he could be snagged, but here she was.  And here again.  Still here.

Of course he’s snagged, that’s been obvious since the end of The Rare Coin Score, but we’re not supposed to see him thinking about it.  It’s supposed to be unstated, implicit, instinctual, oblique.  This is too wordy, too self-conscious.  This is Stark putting thoughts in Parker’s mind that don’t belong there.  And how could Parker be unaware he could be snagged, after all that happened with Lynn in the first book?

(This scene would work for Grofield just fine.  He could be meeting his wife Mary, or romancing an actual stranger, as he so often does.  In fact, it reads quite a bit like similar scenes between Grofield and one of his blondes, also in warm weather settings, near water.)

But Parker is working now.  Yes, his relationship with Claire is different, his sex drive is no longer so cyclical as it once was, but we’ve never seen him show any interest in sex when he’s on the job before now.  You can justify it (he’s saying goodbye, just in case, and he’s got some time to kill before the final phase begins), but there’s so much else to justify in the course of this story. It’s a lot of extra work for the reader, who doesn’t get to enjoy Claire’s lithe body as recompense.

But this is the only sex scene in the book, you see (rather on the tame side)–the main female character here isn’t Claire, and isn’t an option for Parker (him being snagged and all), and there had to be some erotic content, given the genre.  This is it, plausible or not.  Claire is seen no more in the book, but her presence continues to be felt.

As Part 1 ends, Parker leaves her, and drives over the bridge into Palm Beach.  In a leased Jaguar.  Wearing a yachting cap, a brightly colored shirt, a pencil thin lounge lizard mustache, and a silly-ass playboy’s expression on his face, or at least what he hopes is a reasonable facsimile thereof.  It’s maybe a bit like what Jules Feiffer once said about Superman.  That Clark Kent is his sardonic commentary on the society he’s blending into.  (Yeah, the title character in Kill Bill said the same thing, but he stole that from Jules Feiffer.)

Before he realized they were going to shortchange him, Parker told his former colleagues he didn’t want to know all the details of their heist, so he doesn’t know where this house is, when the heist will take place, or what high society event they’re boosting the jewels from.  Now he needs to know all of that, and to establish Daniel Parmitt as a legitimate aspirant to the Palm Beach scene.  And for all that, he needs to go house-shopping, for which he needs a real estate agent.

Enter The Amateur in the story, Leslie Mackenzie–this amateur is going to be on Parker’s side for a change.  A blonde in her early 40’s, a bit on the hefty side but appealingly so, a penchant for pastel-colored pantsuits.  Quite the contrast with Claire (whose hair color remains a mystery to this point in the series.)  She shows ‘Daniel’ around, and gives him a bit of background info, as much for our benefit as his.  She feels this newb should understand Palm Beach proper isn’t about how much money you have (poor people can’t afford to live there, except as servants of one type or another), but rather how you got it.  Some people seemingly have a hard time figuring that out.

“Donald Trump never fit in here,” Leslie said, having pointed out Mar-a-Lago, which for many years had belonged to Mrs. Merriweather Post, who definitely did fit in here, and which after her death had been for years a white elephant on the market–nobody’s inherited money, no matter how much of it there was, could afford the upkeep of the huge sprawling place–until Trump had grabbed it up, expecting it to be his entrée to Palm Beach, misunderstanding the place, believing Palm Beach was about real estate, like New York, never getting it that Palm Beach was about money you hadn’t earned.

“I should be pleased Mr. Trump took over Mar-a-Lago,” Leslie said, “I think we should all be pleased, because we certainly didn’t want it to turn into Miss Havisham’s wedding cake out there, but to be honest with you, I think a place must be just a little déclassé if Donald Trump has even heard of it.”

(Mr. Westlake certainly did have his eye on Mr. Trump, didn’t he?  Did you know dear Mrs. Merriweather-Post gave Mar-a-Lago to the Federal government to be a sort of winter White House, but none of the subsequent Presidents wanted to use it?  So it devolved back to her heirs, and they just wanted to sell, but not to that poseur Trump, who would obviously commercialize it in order to afford the upkeep of the place, as indeed he has done.  But nobody else wanted it, and he threatened to build stuff that would block its view of the ocean, so they ended up selling it for less than half his original offer.  And now Mrs. Merriweather-Post’s dream has been fulfilled.  And I can almost hear her screaming from rich people hell, “That’s not what I meant!!!”  So picky.)

Westlake obviously spent time in Palm Beach, soaking up the scene, and generally finding it ghastly.  The architecture is banal and derivative, the cultural scene barely can be said to exist, it’s all private clubs and mediocre McMansions, and leading citizens who only live there from November through May, and probably in some place with mild summers the rest of the year.  Weather is for the poor.

But again, I’m taken aback when we’re told Parker is actually observing the architecture, thinking to himself that it seems inspired by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and of course Parker wouldn’t make any such observation, because he doesn’t care about architecture, except to the extent it makes breaking and entering easier or harder for him.  Stark should be making these observations, but somehow he’s projecting his own interests onto Parker in this one.  The line between observer and observed is breaking down.

But of course what Parker’s really looking for is the house Melander purchased (partly with Parker’s money), while pretending to be a rich Texan.  And he spots it easily enough.  Leslie happens to have some sheets on it, useful information, alarm systems, floor plans, and she’s more than willing to hand this over to ‘Daniel’ when he asks, since that house is sold.

Having said goodbye to her for the day, he breaks into the house, finding it deserted, but not quite empty.   There’s a few bottles of beer in the fridge, and a metal footlocker full of guns in the garage.  He’s found them.  They’ll be back, and he’ll be ready.  He walks back to his car, only to see Leslie’s car nearby.  She followed him.  He needs to know how much she’s figured out, and who she might have been talking to, before he kills her for the crime of being stupid.

But she’s not stupid.  In the ensuing conversation, that becomes increasingly clear.  She saw something wasn’t quite right about Daniel Parmitt–she saw halfway through the mask Parker perpetually puts on around law-abiding citizens, to cover his true self.  Her background in selling high-priced real estate means she’s good at background checks, and she knows now there was no Daniel Parmitt until about two months ago (Parker hasn’t figured out yet how much more quickly these things can be checked online–technology is catching up with him).

His interest in the movie star mansion was a bit too obvious.  His asking for the info on it when he knew it wasn’t for sale was a dead giveaway.  He, like the men he intends to rob and kill, had  underestimated how hard it is to pass oneself off as legit in Palm Beach.  And he’d underestimated her. Most people wouldn’t have noticed the things about the front he put up that didn’t fit, because most people don’t notice anything that isn’t directly relevant to them.  He’s a thief, not a huckster–he counts on that lack of situational awareness in most people to get him through when he misses some crucial detail in his disguises.

Leslie, by contrast, knows very well that if he decides she’s a threat to him, he’ll kill her.  But she smells money, and she wants it.  She wants out of her life.  The same way Mary Deegan grabbed onto Grofield, way back in The Score, she’s grabbing onto him.  He’s her ticket out of an unrewarding existence.  One way or another.  And here we may perceive another little scrap of evidence Westlake might have originally toyed with making this a Grofield novel, but of course The Score was a Parker, so maybe not.  Grofield actually does care about architecture.  (And sometimes blondes he’s not married to.)

And here comes the scene that probably got this book turned into a movie in the first place (the money shot, if you will).  Parker is willing to consider Leslie’s offer to be his native guide to the Palm Beach jungle.  But he needs to know she’s not wearing a wire.  So she has to strip naked in front of him.  Every ad for that damn movie had that scene, with Lopez stripped down to her underthings while Statham checks her out.  Well, she was the right age and shape.  She wasn’t really the problem with that movie.  She wasn’t enough to sell it with, either.  We’d already seen all there was to see of Ms. Lopez.

Leslie is a bit of a problem for the novel and the movie.  Because she’s the sex interest, but there isn’t going to be any sex.  And she’s yet another moving part added to an already over-complex mechanism, though it’s kind of nice, imagining all her parts moving, as she walks.  Westlake was going through a phase where he liked to write about amply proportioned blondes, and why not?  To some extent, she’s a hybrid of the preacher’s buxom girlfriend from Comeback, and the PR woman from Backflash.  But this time she’s a much more central player.  She is, in fact, a secondary protagonist, the B-Plot girl, going through an identity crisis, a life transition.  But more about that next time.

Parker does his homework on Leslie, which (since he’ll never be an internet guy) means he breaks into the house she shares with her mother and developmentally disabled sister (the book uses an older euphemism).  She checks out fine–she is who she says she is,  the kind of person who might be willing to risk everything to get a new life.  He’s also pleased she didn’t try to use her body to entice him, back at the office, not that there was any chance of that working.  Okay, he’ll give her a try.  He can still kill her if it doesn’t work out.

They meet again, posting once more as realtor and client, checking out a luxury condo.  Mr. Westlake must have had some experience with this type of housing unit (timeshare, maybe), and was none too impressed.  If there’s anything more pathetically predictable than the very rich, it’s the people who futilely aspire to join them.

The condos along the narrow strip of island south of the main part of Palm Beach yearn toward a better life: something English, somewhere among the landed gentry.  The craving is there in the names of the buildings: the Windsor, the Sheffield, the Cambridge.  But whatever they call themselves, they’re still a line of pale concrete honeycombs on a sandbar in the sun.

I’ve never been to Palm Beach, but I’ve been to Hilton Head, and Long Beach Island.  It’s pretty much the same everywhere, up and down the intercoastal waterway.  Palm Beach just costs more.

Parker puts Leslie to the test, and she better not flunk. He tells her about these guys he worked with, who stole from him, and now he’s going to steal from them–their money and their lives.  She gulps a bit, but she’s still in.  He tells her what he knows about the heist.

She knows what the auction in question must be–Mrs. Clendon’s jewels.  She was the grande dame of Palm Beach,  and her collection of baubles and trinkets was the envy of every other society matron there.  She willed her jewels to a local bank official who got her interested in improving the local library.  They’ll be auctioned off to raise money so that all the hoi polloi there who can’t afford their own personal libraries can obtain free reading material (Let them eat books!).

Leslie is massively let down–this is a dead end.   There is no way these guys can get the jewels, they’re too well-guarded; from the bank, to the armored car, to Mrs. Fritz’s house (the newly reigning grande dame), back to the bank again.  Parker, just from listening to her descriptions, knows immediately that the weak spot is the house.  Full of rich people.  Who will be panicked by some explosion or fire, because that’s what these guys do.  Hundreds of silly stupid socialites, milling around like sheep–the armed security people won’t dare shoot, won’t even know what to shoot at.  In the confusion, they’ll grab the jewels, and get back to their hideout.

There’s no beach by Mrs. Fritz’s house–just a seawall.  He figures they’ll come in from the ocean.  “Like James Bond?” Leslie asks?  “More like Jaws,” Parker responds.  You know, I could see him actually paying attention during parts of that movie.  But it’s still not a good line for him.

So he goes back to the hideout, and they still aren’t there.  He rigs the alarm so that it looks armed, but it’s not.  He breaks into their cache of guns, and rigs the firing mechanisms so that they look armed, but ditto.  He tapes his trusty little Hi-Standard Snub-nose Sentinel .22 to the underside of a Parsons table (nothing to do with clergymen) where he thinks they’ll have him sitting if they catch him there, and decide to interrogate him.

Oh heck, I might as well post an image.  Basically, just another version of the Smith & Wesson Terrier, only the bullets are even smaller.  With Parker, size really does not matter.  It’s how you use it.

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(I’m going to type another niggling little quibble now.  Once he starts on his One Man Crime Wave, Parker thinks he needs better guns.  He’s only got the Sentinel and a .38 Special Colt Cobra, so in Kentucky he finds a closed gun shop along a sparsely traveled road, hijacks a backhoe from the county Highway Dept and uses it to scoop up a bunch of guns from the display window, of which he picks four, and makes his escape. We’re told he chooses this shop because it doesn’t have any guard dogs, so Parker still has more respect for dogs than people, which tracks.

What does not track is that in the course of his misadventures in this book, pretty much the only gun he uses is the Sentinel, because it’s so easily concealed, and he’s mainly shooting people at extreme close range, not necessarily to kill them but sometimes just to get their attention, let them know he’s serious–for that purpose, a smaller caliber weapon works better.  He goes to all this trouble to get better guns, when in reality he had one more gun than he needed already, and the least formidable of them turned out to be the most useful.  This really is a book about overkill–on every possible level.  Well, I guess that tracks with Palm Beach.  Back to synopsis.)

So it’s all going fine.  He’s got the information he needs, where the safe house is, when and where the heist will take place.  Parker figures he can kick back for a bit now, go see how Claire is doing with Aphra Behn or whatever.  This is also really out of character, but what the hell, go with it. Florida does weird things to people.  Why not wolves in human form as well?

On his way there there, these two guys he can see are hired killers waylay him outside a restaurant, and drive him into the Everglades.  He knows they’re going to kill him, figures it’s something to do with Norte and that guy who wants to kill everybody who knows what his name used to be.

He knows he’s got to make his move before they get to wherever they intend to do him in.  He surprises the hoods, makes it out of the car, but the terrain is not favorable, and he gets shot in the back with a rifle, then pushed into the shallow water by the road.  Last we see of him, he’s badly wounded, underwater, blacked out, and there’s two guys with guns who want him dead.  End Part 2.  Part 3 is the round robin section of the book, so we’ll get multiple perspectives, none of them Parker’s.

Earlier in the book, when he’s with Claire, we’re told he’s been shot eight times in his life.  Once would be Lynn shooting him in the belt buckle in The Hunter.  Another would be Auguste Menlo winging him with his Hi-Standard Derringer in The Mourner.  We see him thinking (almost nostalgically) of Little Bob Negli, stinging his ear with his Beretta .25 automatic, in The Seventh.  And of course he got pretty seriously plugged by a Colt 45 wielded by the nefarious Baron, in The Handle, but he went right back into action once he woke up. Claire strokes his scars as they lie in bed, and says she’s lucky for him–he hasn’t been shot since he met her.  Well, even the strangest of luck has its limits.

This is the first time we know of that he’s been shot up so badly, he might actually die.  Only, of course, he won’t.  And I have very mixed feelings about how Westlake finagles that–fantastic fortune indeed!  I have very mixed feelings about this book.  I think that quote I used up top says it all pretty well–this one didn’t really work out for anybody.  But I still read it cover to cover the same day I got it out of the library.  I still found things to enjoy about it this time (not necessarily the same things as in previous readings).

And I’ll still be back with Part 2 next week.  If the Lord of Mar-a-Lago doesn’t blow us all up.  I do hope you’re enjoying rich people hell, dear Mrs. Merriweather-Post.  I hear the amenities are spectacular.  Probably a mite chilly compared to Florida in the summertime, but nothing’s perfect.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: The Hook, Part 2

Bryce couldn’t seem to get out of his temporal confusion.  He usually took the train up to Connecticut sometime on Friday, spent the weekend, left Monday.  This week, the New York apartment had just become too oppressive by Thursday, so he’d taken the train up shortly after Wayne had told him about the message from Detective Johnson, and now it was Friday morning, and he was already here, and he just couldn’t keep the day straight in his mind.

He phoned several weekend friends, wondering what if anything might be doing, this early in December, not yet massively Christmas, but of course none of them were here.  Today is Friday, he had to keep reminding himself, and they are in New York.  They work in New York.  This is their weekend place.

And me?  Where do I work?  Do I work?  Where do I live?  Where do I call to find me?

Having made extraordinarily little progress with the synopsis last time, I can’t let myself get bogged down in prologue this time.  All the more because I can’t find any other covers for this book, which clearly sold a whole lot fewer copies than The Ax (the book its title fairly begs comparison with), at home and abroad.  Four covers in all, three foreign–I found fourteen separate editions of The Ax.  If I did a Part 3 for this one, I’d have to use the audiobook cover, which is just too drearily literal for words.

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And yet, this book still got a film adaptation, in 2004 (a year before The Ax!). With a title that would tend to indicate a certain lack of fidelity to the source, but what else is news?

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Here’s what Time Out had to say about it–and they took so little time to do so, I’m just going to save you the trouble of clicking a link.

Vincent’s adaptation of Donald E Westlake’s ‘The Contract’ is a suitably nasty psychological thriller in the French-Hitchcockian mould. With echoes of Patricia Highsmith, a failed writer with a book and no publisher (Cluzet) strikes a bargain during a train journey with a successful colleague (Giraudeau) with a publisher but writer’s block. The former will kill the latter’s ex-wife in return for half the latter’s advance. Initially, the satisfying plot and motivational twists, fine performances, alongside the clever light and shade effects of cinematographer Dominique Bouilleret build to intriguing effect but unfortunately that gives way as the film dives too deep, too implausibly, into the murky terrain of sado-masochistic psychopathy.

Echoes of Highsmith so prevalent, it seems, that they decided to have the leads meet on a  train, which never happened in the novel, because a library makes more sense here, and possibly the late Ms. Highsmith’s estate could have raised an eyebrow or two.  I suppose meeting in a library then adjourning to a bar wasn’t noir enough, somehow.  Let the auteurs do their own thing (you know they will anyway), and we’ll get back to talking about the authors.

Famous best-selling author Bryce Proctorr and once modestly successful but lately unpublishable Wayne Prentice have a deal–kinda.  Wayne kills Bryce’s estranged wife Lucie, and Bryce will retool Wayne’s unpublished novel nobody will buy into a best-seller appearing under his own name, and give Wayne half the million-plus advance that would otherwise go to Lucie. Wayne figures Bryce is kidding at first.  Bryce figures Wayne won’t really do it anyway, but he’s just in love with the sheer cleverness of his own idea, as writers so often are.

Both men have serious qualms about all this–the first-degree murder thing, sure, but even more the ghostwriting thing, a crime their profession could far less easily forgive (the dreaded name Kosiński is mentioned).  They both have professional standards to uphold, after all–but see, to have professional standards, you need an actual profession to go with them, and both men are halfway out the door of theirs, desperate to find some means of remaining.

Wayne goes home to his loving wife Susan, a quietly atractive woman who works for a non-profit organization that oversees the fund allocations of still other non-profit organizations.  They have an apartment in the Village that many present-day New Yorkers would quite literally kill for.  A classic six, rent-controlled.  With a dining room, even.  No kids, because Susan can’t have any, and they’re both fine with that.  She’s a fine cook, but mainly brings home pre-prepared multi-course gourmet meals they both enjoy (not Asian takeout or pizza, because that would be somehow unworthy of their dining room).

The sex is good, compatibility is high, Susan makes more than enough money to support them both, Wayne can always find some kind of writing work, and he’s no killer.  Obviously this murder scheme isn’t going anywhere.

Wayne considers Susan his rock, the designated pragmatist in the marriage, and trusts her judgment absolutely.  He tells her about his conversation with Bryce, confident she’ll veto any such risky and morally repellent scheme, and she does no such thing.  Because, as she explains, if Wayne doesn’t find some way to continue his writing career, the marriage is over.  Not because she doesn’t love him, not because she has any problem with supporting both of them, but because, pragmatist that she is, she knows Wayne can’t live with that arrangement.

Wayne needs a real job–he’ll fall apart without one.  The only job he’s qualified for that offers a (relatively) non-laughable salary and social position is teaching creative writing at a college.  The only colleges likely to hire him are nowhere near the city his wife’s job is in.  She isn’t willing to give up  her career and be some non-tenured professor’s wife out in the sticks, a life that would make both of them miserable.  They have the life they want, that many a cosmopolitan couple can only dream of.  But they can only keep it if Wayne finds some way back into his profession.  Bryce Proctorr’s bizarre offer is that way.

It’s pretty clear Susan likes being the wife of a published novelist, however little-known.  Wayne’s professional identity is part of her own as well, a splash of color in her otherwise mundane prosaic life.  Without making any explicit demands, she tells him she would prefer he do whatever is necessary so that Wayne&Susan remain Wayne&Susan.  Of course she disapproves of murdering some woman she’s never met in the abstract, but one has to face up to facts.  It’s them or her.

Susan may be the weakest link in this book, and that may be an inherent problem to retooling Highsmith’s original story.  There’s no time to properly develop her, so she’s a bit of a cypher, and we’re never inside her head.  But the same is true of the much more idealized love interest from Strangers on a Train, a sophisticated blonde socialite, who clearly suspects her architect fiance of having committed murder at the behest of a man she loathes at first sight–and she responds by marrying her fiance anyhow, going into full denial mode, and inviting that corrupting influence on her husband over for social occasions.

Susan is, in essence, the 90’s middle class version of that character–who works as a textile designer, but doesn’t really need to work at all–without the golden tresses or inherited wealth to hide behind.  Susan’s already married to Wayne when we meet her, and he shares everything with her upfront.  The equivalent Highsmith character remains willfully in the dark until sometime after the story ends.

Susan’s marriage and career are all she values, and she’s very strongly motivated to grasp at any straw that will keep her from having to choose between them.  Highsmith’s lovely heiress is only implicated in her lover’s crime by inference–Westlake obviously decided that in the more emancipated times he was writing in, her involvement should be explicit.

And she does, in fact, remind one a lot of Claire in the Parker novels–not wanting Wayne to tell her about the murder, which is fine and dandy by him–and then, gradually, wanting him to tell her all about it, and finding him all the sexier after he’s done the deed, which freaks Wayne out no end.  Y’know, Lady MacBeth is a problematic character as well.  First ice cold and remorseless, then driven mad with guilt.  But like Bryce, and unlike Lady M., Susan never saw the body.

Okay, there’s still one possible out–Wayne told Bryce he had to meet Lucie first.  Find out if she really is as horrible as Bryce insists, and therefore deserving of an untimely end (he muses to himself at one point that “There’s good and bad in everyone,” a phrase that Valerie Sayers, in her Times review, found impossibly trite for a professional writer to think to himself, as if professional writers are somehow incapable of even thinking anything banal or clichéd .  (FYI, Ms. Sayers herself, in her 1996 novel Brain Fever, had a New York based female character of hers say to the southern male protagonist  “Come on, you big lug.”  Seriously.)

Bryce arranges for them to meet at a preview of an Off-Broadway play written by a friend of his, but directed by a friend of Lucie’s.  He goes there, sits through the play, wangles an introduction to Lucie, a thin elegant blonde in her 40’s who treats all of life and everyone in it as if she were an Edward Albee character.  And not the one Sandy Dennis would play.  Uh-oh.

If I do a full synopsis of this book,  full of labyrinthine plot twists, involved character descriptions and general navel-gazing (because Highsmith), I’ll end up with my first-ever five-parter, and I’d so much rather not.  Let’s cut to the chase.  Wayne gets Lucie’s number.  They go on a date.  He’s torn between hoping she’ll be nice so he can’t kill her, and hoping she’ll be awful so he can. But he’s quite sure he won’t kill her that night. This is just reconnaissance.

Lucie alternates between applauding Wayne’s cleverness (he points out the one thing in her furnished apartment that actually belongs to her), and suggesting he’s a failure as a man and a writer–he’s told her he is also in mid-divorce, and she checked him out on Amazon before the date, musing out loud about how long it’s been since a Wayne Prentice book came out, and he doesn’t feel like explaining the pseudonym thing to her, since that would be just one more point of vulnerability for her to exploit.

She also snarks that he’s too cheap to pay for a cab, just because he took her to a good restaurant she really wanted to try, just a few blocks from where she lives (never occurs to her that Wayne doesn’t want any cab drivers placing him at her building).  Not what you’d call a fun date, unless endless mean-spirited verbal sparring is your idea of fun, but Wayne can see why Bryce was attracted to her.  ‘Fascinating but repellent’ was how he described her to Susan after their first meeting.  (Actually, that’s not a half-bad description of Patricia Highsmith, at her best and worst, but I don’t think we’re supposed to get that meta about it.)

Then, back at her place, as Wayne looks for a convenient moment to leave and start plotting The Perfect Murder, she off-handedly asks if Susan is any good in bed.  Because why not?  To her, this is how the game is played.  An endless struggle for supremacy.  Now Wayne is supposed to return her serve, and he does.  Much to his surprise.  More to hers.

How many people have you met in life who you’d at least consider murdering if somebody offered you half a million dollars to do it, and there was relatively little chance of you ever getting caught, and that person refused to stop being an infernal pain in the ass?  Some people literally do not  know when to shut up.  Mostly they get away with it because society says you don’t kill people for being obnoxious.  But now and again, one of them blithely trips over a human landmine, and you read about it in the tabloids afterward.

I don’t want to type out a quote from the murder scene.  Westlake had written a lot of murders in his career, some bloodier than others, a very small percentage involving men murdering women, sometimes by design, sometimes (as in The Ax) because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’d never before had a protagonist with absolutely no previous history of violence beat a woman to death in front of our eyes.

Acting on impulse, driven by greed, self-preservation, personal irritation, and blind rage at the insult to his wife (that Lucie probably meant as light after-dinner flirtation), Wayne realizes with horror that having struck the first blow, he has to follow through to the end or go to jail–his impractical fantasies of buying an unregistered gun out of state and shooting her from some dark alley on a deserted street are permanently shelved.

If she hadn’t offered any resistance, maybe he would have lost his nerve, run away (she knows his real name and former publishers), begged her to not call the cops, but that’s not Lucie.  She responds in kind, returning his volley with verve, only this isn’t her game.  Wayne is horrified to feel a brief moment of sexual excitement, once it’s nearly over and she’s laid out beneath him, but that ends as soon as her bowels release (he is simultaneously nauseated and relieved).  He finishes her off by tying a plastic bag over her head until she stops breathing (again, reminiscent of The Ax).  You see why I’m not typing out any quotes here, right?

He does a pretty good job eliminating any physical evidence that would link back to him (Westlake never stopped sneering at the CSI school of detection), and leaves.  The doorman at street level never paid any attention to Wayne (Wayne, in a clever bit of authorly improvisation, told him his name was Wayland when he called up, knowing the man’s accent would make it sound like Wayne over the phone, but not to the cops afterward) and the sketches produced from the doorman and restaurant staff descriptions predictably turn out to be worthless.  Lucie never talked to any of her friends about going on a date with this writer acquaintance of her soon-to-be-ex, probably because she wasn’t sure if he was going to be worth talking about.

In many ways, more disturbing than any murder scene in The Ax–definitely far more so than the equivalent murder in Strangers on a Train, where Charles Bruno quite unashamedly enjoys the experience of strangling another man’s nuisance of a wife, which is precisely why he did it, much as he pretended he was doing the guy (named Guy) a favor.  Even Charles Willeford might find it a bit off-putting, and he once had a protagonist beat a woman he actually liked to death because–well, that would be telling.

And the worst thing about it, from a mystery reader’s POV, is that it’s not enjoyable to read about. Because Wayne doesn’t enjoy it, is sickened by it, and didn’t even plan it–it simply happened, and he had to start improvising. He’s not a master assassin, or even a talented amateur. He just got lucky.  If blundering your way into being a successful killer can be called luck.

We love reading about murders, or we wouldn’t be reading books full of them all the time.  We want to know what it’s like–to kill or be killed.  The crime genre couldn’t exist without that curiosity, or the ‘true crime’ genre either.  What Westlake does here is take all the fun out of fictional murder, that vicarious sense of empowerment it gives us.  The shock is not that there’s a killer inside us all (we knew that already), but rather how horribly unglamorous killing another human being really is.  Damn him anyway.

But for Westlake, the murder is not the point.  The point is how his two writer-protagonists react to it.  And they will, of course, react to it as writers.  Because that’s what this book is about.  Not psycho-sexual pathology, or suppressed male rage against womankind, which is most assuredly a real thing (and not so suppressed lately, going by the election results).  But the way writers habitually turn fact into fiction, because that’s their stock in trade.

Bryce never believed Wayne would actually do this.  It was a story idea he came up with.  Wayne never really believed he’d do it either–but having written about murders, he could not help but be curious what it would be like to commit one.  He got enmeshed in Bryce’s plot.

The parallel fictions that are their lives have converged onto a single dead-end track, and now, just like Highsmith’s two doomed strangers, they can never escape each other, will become more and more entangled, each feeling a strange connection to the other, neither really understanding the other, each capable of destroying the other.  Two people caught up in a destructive relationship based on a dark secret–Highsmith’s speciality.  Westlake’s, not as much (well, he was a lot less specialized).

Hitchcock’s film of Highsmith’s novel is a pleasant lie, rooted in Hitch’s recurrent fascination with innocent men implicated in crimes they never committed.  In Highsmith’s world, there are no innocent men, or women.  Westlake lies in-between, not seeing humanity through as dark a lens as Highsmith, but still recognizing how easily corrupted our sense of self can be, how even the parts of ourselves we most prize, such as the skills he’d amassed as a writer, can turn like a snake in our hands and bite us.

See, the whole point of somebody doing a murder for a stranger, or near-stranger, is that you just go your separate ways afterwards, so no connection can ever be drawn between you.  However, the arrangement Wayne and Bryce have made necessitates them working together, becoming more and more involved in each other’s lives.  Bryce has to rewrite Wayne’s novel, which he retitles Two Faces in the Mirror.  He likes the book very much as Wayne wrote it, and immediately sees many things about it he can improve upon, as would any writer (as Westlake did, when he read Strangers on a Train).

But a well-written book is not a structure so much as a living breathing organism, and changing it around comes with certain inherent perils.  In making Wayne’s book his own, Bryce creates story problems that his highly capable editor, Joe Katz (the most admirable person in this book) says need to be fixed.

Bryce, unable to explain that he had no role in writing this book at all until just now, and unable to see any way to fix the problems himself, has no choice in the end but to ‘confess’ to Joe that he’d collaborated with another writer on this one.  He suggests bringing in Wayne to help with the tinkering.  Joe isn’t that shocked at Bryce’s confession (he knows his star player has been in a slump lately) and immediately recognizes Wayne as a talent worth cultivating, as Wayne senses a valuable professional connection in Joe.  They become fast friends in the coming weeks.

Bryce observes all this going on with a growing sense of disquiet–Wayne is moving in on his turf.  But there’s nothing he can do.  Including write any new books of his own.  He’s still blocked.  Lucie’s death, the end of the divorce proceedings, the temporary solution of his financial problems–none of this addressed his underlying problem, which is that he’s lost his creative focus–as a Eugene O’Neill character once said in a different context, he hasn’t even got the makings, he’s only got the habit.  Endless potential plot ideas drift in and out of his mind, like seeds born on the wind, and not a one ever settles into fertile soil and germinates.

His very pleasant relationship with a sultry Spanish-American divorcee sputters to an end, partly because she suspects him of murdering his wife, but mainly because he can’t focus on her any more than his work.  He abandons the apartment he once shared with Lucie, and retreats to his luxurious country home in Connecticut, where he meets a stay-at-home wife who recognizes him, wants to have an innocent little fling while her husband is at work.

Following her back to her place, he realizes with horror that all he can think about is beating her to death, so that he can experience the act of murder, as Wayne did.  He drives away from his confused would-be hook-up, just before it’s too late.

He can imagine it, and does, constantly–but does he really know what it’s like?  Before Lucie’s murder, in spite of his vastly greater wealth and status, he and Wayne were still somehow on equal footing professionally, like all storytellers who write about things they themselves have never experienced–did Shakespeare ever kill anyone in a fight?  Unlikely.  Did Homer ever even see a fight? Writers can’t only write what they know without unbearably constraining their options.  But now Wayne symbolically inhabits some higher plane of noir vérité Bryce can only guess at.

At one point, he confides in Wayne, who strangely seems much less bothered by Lucie’s murder, thinks about it less and less, and Wayne has an author’s insight to share.

“Oh Jesus, Bryce, I understand what it is.” Wayne shook his head.  He almost patted Bryce’s arm, but thought better of it.  He said, “I’ll tell you what it is.  I was there, Bryce, and it was horrible, and you can’t imagine it, but I don’t have to imagine it.  I was there.  So what I have is a memory, and memories fade.  All memories fade, Bryce, that’s what they do.  But you don’t have the memory, all you have is imagination.  And imagination never fades.

It’s dangerous for a storyteller to get too obsessed with reality (‘realism’ is just another artistic pose).  To question his or her ability to inwardly see that which he or she has never seen in the flesh–to lose faith in storytelling as a pathway to the truth.  Wayne has been promoted in Bryce’s eyes to some superior being, who has actually lived out one of those dark fantasies Bryce made himself a rich man by imagining, but now that all seems empty and fake to him.

He never wanted to kill anyone before, and he doesn’t really want to now, but how else can he get his mojo back?  He resists the imp of the perverse, uses every possible means of distracting himself from its siren call, but it keeps tugging at him, relentless as a riptide, inexorable as gravity.

By comparison, the man who actually beat Lucie Proctorr to death is doing great.  He never dreams about the murder. (Have any of you ever, in your lives, had a guilt-driven nightmare about something bad you did that you wish you’d never done?  By and large, the unconscious doesn’t work like that, outside of fiction.)

Essentially, following Highsmith’s logic (perhaps more The Talented Mr. Ripley  than Strangers on a Train, but all those early crime novels of hers are closely linked), he shows us a Wayne Prentice who is, not so gradually, becoming Bryce Proctorr.  But only in a very limited sense–he can’t, at this stage in the game, become an established brandname in publishing.  Joe Katz recognizes that he’s as talented as Bryce, maybe more so (and certainly a better writer than Bryce is now), but editors don’t decide who gets published anymore, to the limited extent they ever did.

Joe tells Wayne that his new novel, The Shadowed Other, won’t sell unless he can find some gimmick to sell it with.  It’s not high concept enough for the existing marketplace–just a good book.  It needs a more obvious–what’s the word I’m looking for here?–oh right, hook.  You know, something you can explain in one short sentence, like “A failed suspense writer agrees to murder a famous suspense writer’s wife in exchange for getting his own book published under the famous writer’s name.”  Bet there might even be a movie in that one.  Well, in France, anyway.

Wayne actually tries to turn his book into a screenplay, entitled Double Impact (already been used, but so what?), which goes not well, because he’s not visual enough.  He thought he was, but he’s not–at least not in the right way.  His strengths as a writer are shown to best advantage on the printed page, not on a screen.  (I detect a grudging admission here, and from an Oscar-nominated screenwriter at that, but that was for adapting somebody else’s work.)

He belatedly learns he can make a decent if unremarkable living doing nonfiction articles for magazines.  Which if he’d thought of it before, could have been the answer to how he could salvage his writing career, without becoming a murderer or (even worse!) a college professor. Still, he knows he’ll never love it the way he loved telling stories that never really happened.

Susan, once his compass (if not necessarily a moral one), is quietly becoming off-kilter.  She wants to go see the apartment Bryce and Lucie shared, that Bryce has now abandoned, leaving furniture Lucie mostly picked out for the new tenants, if they want to buy it. Just curious to see where the woman her husband killed with his hands used to live.  Nothing weird about that, right?  Truthfully, Wayne wants to see it too (this isn’t the transitional divorcee pad he murdered Lucie in), so he doesn’t talk her out of it.

Posing as a genuinely interested couple, they check out the ridiculously expansive expensive digs with a grand terrace view of the cityscape (over 6k a month, which would be a real bargain now), and all of a sudden Susan just talks the realtor into lowering the rent a bit and giving them the furniture outright to dispose of as they will.  The pose was reality, and the reality was the pose.  Wayne just gapes at her and says nothing.  He doesn’t know how to explain it to Bryce (or himself), so he doesn’t. But again, Susan has simply made manifest what he secretly yearned to do.  See how the other half lives.

Their rent-controlled classic six apartment in the Village that was always too big for them goes to Joe Katz and his growing family, along with basically the entire lifestyle Wayne committed first-degree murder to defend, and who the hell are these people now?  Untethered.  Rootless.  And living at the razor’s edge of their means, in spite of having two respectable middle class incomes and a nice bank balance (not to mention Bryce’s personal accountant minding their money).  You know, like normal upwardly mobile people.  No turning back now.

So how are the police not connecting all these dots?  Wayne was already questioned by the investigating officer on the case, Detective Johnson of the NYPD, smart, professional, African American, and you know where this is going already, right?  Because you’ve read The Ax.  You’ve read all the other Westlake novels involving police detectives.  Valerie Sayers had not, so she was irritated that the subplot went nowhere.  Westlake was irritated by something else.

Other than the two linked protagonists, the most central character in Strangers on a Train is a private detective named Arthur Gerard, who did odd jobs for Charles Bruno’s father (the father Bruno wanted Guy Haines to murder for him). He’s the deus ex machina in the story–out of both professional integrity and loyalty to his dead employer, he will relentlessly investigate the elder Bruno’s death if there’s even the slightest whiff of foul play about it, and he seems to have almost unlimited spare time and resources with which to do so.  (And it somehow never occurs to Bruno to just kill him first.)

He’s the primary reason Bruno can’t do the job himself, since he’s been basically waiting for Bruno to try something.  And before the story is over, after following a few false trails, he’s figured out exactly what happened, who did what to whom and and why, linked two seemingly unconnected murders in New York and Texas–he might as well have read an advance copy of the novel, so perfect is his understanding of each man’s character and motivation.  He might as well have written the book himself.   And at the end, when Guy finally unburdens his conscience with a confession (to somebody who couldn’t care less), Gerard is standing outside the door, taking notes.

Yeah.  You can see why Hitchcock wrote him out of the movie (though in a sense, he later had a version of him written into Psycho, played by Simon Oakland, who would have made a perfect Gerard, which is weird, but let’s not get too sidetracked here).

Westlake isn’t about the detectives; not in that sense of the word.  Neither is Highsmith, really–she was feeling her way into the genre with this one–she learned fast which clichés to discard.  If Gerard ever showed up in one of the later Ripley novels, he’d probably be leaving it feet first. But here he makes Holmes look like Lestrade.  And just to get it out there, he’s clearly drawn from Javert in Les Miserables, and the producers of The Fugitive later named their relentlessly pursuing Hugo-esque detective Gerard, and never once mentioned Highsmith as an influence.  Maybe she and David Goodis should have filed a class action suit together.  Well no, they wouldn’t have gotten along.  Not without a lot of alcohol in the mix, anyway. What were we talking about?

Westlake ended The Ax with a perfectly good professional detective making a perfectly understandable mistake.  Johnson isn’t even that important–he’s a McGuffin, is all.  Last we see of him, he’s telling Bryce they’re going to ‘open’ the case on his wife’s murder–which in cop-speak means they’re closing it, and will never look at it again, unless something new comes up.

He may suspect Bryce a little, he doesn’t suspect Wayne at all, he knows something funny is going on here, but he’s not magic, he didn’t read a story outline in advance, he has to work on other cases, and professionalism aside, he doesn’t really care who murdered Lucie Proctorr.  In short, he’s a real detective, not a fictional one.  Though he’s tried his hand at writing detective fiction, just as a sideline.  It’s never worked out for him.  Takes a certain kind of mind.   Not necessarily a compliment.

So there’s no point waiting for the detectives to show up, and Westlake isn’t quite sure there was any point to it in the original version of this story.  That’s not what the story is about, nor is it really about guilt driving the two men mad. Neither is really all that guilty. It’s about how they’ve so badly blurred the line between reality and fiction that they don’t know which is which anymore.

Bryce turned Wayne into a character in one of his novels.  But Wayne is a writer too, and he had to improvise his own story within the general outline.  He’s taken over part of Bryce’s life (while losing his own, since he still can’t get published under his own name), and Bryce feels like his life has become a fiction, and he still can’t write a thing worth reading.

Joe Katz is increasingly aware of Bryce’s professional paralysis.  There’s another deadline looming, and it just happens to be for the last novel in Bryce’s contract with the publisher.  He’s already taken a lot of advance money he has not provided the goods for.   He informs a horrified Bryce that they might have to demand he give that money back (and of course he’s spent most of it already).

What made Joe so convinced Bryce Proctorr is no longer ‘Bryce Proctorr’?  More than anything else, it was an interview he did for the New York Review of Books. Conducted, if you’d believe it, by Wayne Prentice.  Complete coincidence, NYRB didn’t even know the two men were acquainted, but Wayne had done some writing for them already.  They would normally ignore someone like Bryce (as they mainly ignored Westlake), but he’s become so famous, he’s a sort of cultural icon, in spite of the fact that most serious literary critics wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire.  They want to get his perspective on writing.  They promise not to poke fun.

So Wayne drives out to Connecticut, and conducts the interview.  He goes back to New York, reviews the tapes, and ultimately opts to write both the questions and answers himself and submit the piece, which is very well-received).  But Joe got hold of the original transcript through Wayne.  And here’s why I’ve had so few quotes in this review.  I wanted to make space for this passage.

For the record, Wayne’s question is “Were you influenced by Borges?” Relating to The Garden of Forking Paths.  Here is Bryce’s response, verbatim.  There is no indication in the book that Bryce ever smoked a doobie in his life.

“Duality…is, of course, naturally it’s in all of us, opposites and the movements of selfs under the skin, and the feeling that this can’t be happening to me, but then what is?  What is happening, if not what is?  From that point of view, every decision has to be inevitable, no way to get away from what was decided, because history then flows, you see, flows, history flows from each decision, and when we stand up here, you see, you see?  when you stand up here on this hilltop this is where you are and you could not have been here if you hadn’t decided the way you did way back there.  Of course, naturally, of course, if you made  a different decision then, that would be the right, the correct one, the only one, the only possible, the only way you could have gone, if only you’d thought, if only you’d thought it through, and now today, you see, you do see, don’t you?  today you’d be on some other hilltop looking back and you would see that you were right and that was the only possible hilltop, that was the only possible hilltop, if only you’d been patient, and you can’t even see that hilltop from there, where you are instead, you can’t get to it, you can’t ever get to it, but you certainly know, you know now, you should have known then, you should have known, you were thinking like a madman, worse, you were thinking like a storyteller, telling a story, with a hook, and you didn’t see there were other, other, there were other, oh, let’s call them scenarios, and the multiplicity of the scenarios, yes, forking paths, that’s good, I don’t know about a garden, but this multiplicity opens and then closes like stones, like giant stones closing, and all the variables, the variations, what shall we say, diversity, the multiformity narrows, constricts, strangles, until there’s only the one, and that it’s the only one is not the excuse, that it’s the inevitable is not the excuse, that it’s the only thing that could have happened only because it’s the only thing that did happen is not the excuse, and we’re left with a duality that is in the spirit, a remorse, a wish undone, a desire for a forking path, a garden, yes, a desire for a flower that does not grow, which is where I’ve always, my hand has always reached out, but the image and the reality are wrong, to bring us back to your question, the desire for another reality is what makes the writer of fiction, the teller of tales, to bring us back to your question, the liar, the one who forces his reality onto the world but the graft, to bring us back to your question, the graft can never survive on this new root, on this hilltop, this one, here.  Which I suppose is what I was writing about, if I’d ever cared to pay attention.  However, I’ve never read Borges.”

Me neither, and I’ve always meant to.

Even Valerie Sayers was a little impressed by that passage.  She probably had read Borges, but almost certainly not Adios, Scheherazade, or she’d have known Westlake was on familiar ground here, charting the chaos of a writer’s mind when he no longer knows what he wants to write, questions every choice he ever made, because to be a writer of fiction is to be, in a certain limited sense, God–and what mortal being can believe he or she is qualified for that job, if he or she ever makes the fatal error of seriously thinking about it?

But the difference here is that Bryce Proctorr is not some anonymous scribbler of obscure smutty paperbacks who can just fade away into a nirvana of self-realization–he’s a prisoner of his own name, his own fame, and he can’t get away from that, ever.

He can’t even confess what he did to the police and take his punishment–he confesses to his first wife, the one he left for Lucie, so she won’t be caught unprepared when he turns himself in.  She rages at him; how selfish can you be, how immoral, don’t you realize this will destroy your children’s lives, you’re a celebrity!  And she’s right.  But she’s also being very selfish and immoral herself, of course.  It’s pretty much the default human response to life.  And here we are on a hilltop (or maybe the top of a certain tower in Manhattan), wondering how we got here, and how the hell we get back down again.  Jump?

Wayne is still a writer, so he can still distract himself with fiction, but he sees a real danger to himself in Bryce’s mental confusion, their destinies being so interlinked.  He also sees a real opportunity–Bryce needs another novel, and he’s got one.  The Shadowed Other.  He’s going to make Bryce’s real name his pen name. Joe will look the other way, pretend it isn’t happening, so the brandname can survive. Wayne Prentice will become Bryce Proctorr for real. Why not?  How is that any different than writing as Tim Fleet?  If you gotta ask…..

He and Susan move into the house in Connecticut, so as to keep Bryce on as even a keel as possible, see that he doesn’t make any impromptu confessions, keep alive the fiction that Bryce Proctorr had anything to do with writing the book Wayne already wrote.  Wayne will just convince Bryce by degrees that it’s a collaboration, and at the same time, he’ll amass a trail of evidence that Bryce is mentally unstable–so that if he ever does crack and make a clean breast of things, his testimony won’t be admissable in court.  And seriously, who’d even believe such a thing?  Murder somebody’s wife for a book deal?  It’s just another of Bryce’s rejected story ideas, that he came to think was real.  Just another hook.

But Bryce isn’t going to confess.  He’s past that point now.  All he can think about is the murder.  Lucie’s murder.  If only he’d been there.  He should have been there.  He needs to know what it was like.  There must be a way.  Wayne has gone out.  It’s the housekeeper’s day off.  He walks into Susan’s room–she and Bryce never liked each other–he calls her Lucie.  “My name is Susan,” she says.  “Not anymore,” he responds.  End story.  Joe won’t be editing this one.  Johnson, maybe.  Hey, maybe he can write a book about it!

I could go into many more details about the shadowed other to this book that is Strangers on a Train; where the tracks divide and where they converge again, but here’s my advice.  Read the book.  It’s better than this one, as I said to start with, just as it’s better than the Hitchcock film most people remember it for–but not in every respect.  The multifarious Mr. Westlake had some very different things to say than the talented (but often tunnel-visioned) Ms. Highsmith.  They surely differed on many a subject.  But there were times when they gazed steely-eyed upon the same world, those two.  And unfortunately, the world they saw at those times was more than a fiction.  And less.

I liked it better the second time through, probably because I had more context to work with this time.  I don’t rank it among Westlake’s best work, but I do consider it one of his more interesting ‘problem books.’  It was certainly problematic to review, but next up is another Parker novel, and those are always simple, right?

Here’s my problem–this is the first thing by Donald Westlake I ever read in my life.  I consider it the weakest novel he ever wrote as Richard Stark.  It was used as the basis for one of the very worst film adaptations Westlake ever got (hopefully not the last one, but the box office was awful).  And it’s set mainly in Florida.  The most boring part of Florida (and the richest).

But here it is in the queue.  Can’t go around it.  And I’d take the worst thing Stark ever wrote over the best thing Clancy or Cussler (or Kosiński) ever pretended to write.  I couldn’t possibly say about Borges.

Belated post-script:  I had read in the past, but completely forgot until just now, that the British edition of this book had a completely different title. So there is one cover image I missed, but I’m not at all sorry not to have featured it up top.

1271066

I have no idea why this happened.  Some kind of copyright issue?  Titles aren’t copyrighted.  Corkscrews play no role in the story at all (as a murder weapon or anything else).  The word corkscrew doesn’t even appear in the book.  Perversity, thy name is Brit.

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Review: The Hook

Wayne said, “Let me tell you the world we live in now.  It’s the world of the computer.”

“Well, that’s true.”

“People don’t make decisions any more, the computer makes the decisions.” Wayne leaned closer.  “Let me tell you what’s happening to writers.”

“Wayne,” Bryce said gently, “I am a writer.”

“You’ve made it,” Wayne told him.  “You’re above the tide, this shit doesn’t affect you.  It affects the mid-list guys, like me.  The big chain bookstores, they’ve each got the computer, and the computer says, we took five thousand of his last book, but we only sold thirty-one hundred, so don’t order more than thirty-five hundred.  So there’s thinner distribution, and you sell twenty-seven hundred, so the next time they order three thousand.”

Bryce said, “There’s only one way for that to go.”

As has been made evident many times in the past here, I enjoy trying to guess which past works of fiction might have helped inspire whatever Westlake opus I am reviewing at a given moment.  You may not necessarily agree with my guesses, but we certainly agree that’s what they are, and no doubt I’ve been wrong sometimes.  The exercise is, nonetheless, highly pleasurable to me.  Sometimes Mr. Westlake deprives me of that speculative pleasure by making his debt to another writer so blatant and unequivocal that it scarcely seems worth the mentioning.

As is the case with this book, but since Valerie Sayers (at that time the author of  five novels and a professor of English, at Notre Dame no less) completely failed to mention that debt in her well-written and somewhat condescending review for the New York Times, I might as well get it out there, just to make sure we’re all on the same page.

Not a Hitchcock buff, Prof. Sayers?  I won’t even inquire about Highsmith.  Why does the Times so frequently choose non-mystery authors to review mystery books?  A mystery in itself.  Perhaps they confused her with Dorothy?  An idle whimsy, never mind.

Now in all fairness, maybe Sayers (a South Carolinian of Irish Catholic descent, out of the Flannery O’Connor school, and that’s all fine by me) thought the similarity was too obvious to mention as well, or she figured all genre lit is derivative. (Southern Gothic isn’t a genre, you see–it’s a subgenre.  Entirely different.)  Or maybe she didn’t want to sound like she was crying plagiarism when all she really wanted was to deride Westlake’s shallow characterization and over-conceptualized plotting. But I strongly suspect she never made the Highsmith connection at all.  Maybe if there’d been a tennis match or a carousel in Westlake’s book?  Oh, that was mean.

It is not plagiarism, in and of itself, for one writer to react to another.  There is no writer worth talking about who does not do this habitually.  With her own book, Highsmith was clearly reacting to Dreiser, not to mention Dostoevsky (and they were all reacting to Poe). Westlake might have been a bit less careful here than he would have been had Highsmith been alive, and had he not been under the gun a bit (we’ll talk about that), but it’s really no different than his various creative reworkings of Red Harvest.  Less enthusiastic, perhaps–more self-conscious–an older man’s book.

A summary online search reveals that pretty much everybody other than Sayers made mention that Mr. Westlake was fishing with a borrowed hook here.  He wasn’t trying to hide it, and it wasn’t something you really could hide, from anyone who knew the genre at all.  You’re supposed to see the influence, think about it, what it means, compare and contrast.

Strange that Sayers would say in her review that the story Westlake tells here isn’t about character, when it’s riffing on the work of a writer who virtually drowns you in character, after first hitting you with an oar, and throwing you over the side.  Highsmith’s morbid missives take place more or less entirely in the heads of one or several people, expressing to us what seems to be their every waking thought (without going full stream of consciousness, like Mr. Joyce and his many imitators), which makes her work, in equal measure, fascinating and frustrating.  She writes good stories, but she’s primarily interested in aberrant dysfunctional personalities, and she was to all accounts a ranking authority on the subject.

(I’m being territorial here, I’m quite aware, about the Times review, another weakness of mine.  Valerie Sayers is a very fine writer, and has a sharp eye for detail–many trustworthy people have said so, and looking at a sampling of her work, I saw no reason to doubt them.  She got another novel out in 2013. A university press this time; her relationship with Doubleday must have ended by the time she wrote her review of The Hook, for reasons that The Hook might indeed help illumine–she grudgingly concedes Westlake knows his onions when it comes to the world of publishing.

Let me say in passing that a quick glance at her resumé and a general working knowledge of human nature gives me the distinct impression that she would have needed to be a living saint to not have had a hostile reaction to this book, hardly Westlake’s best work, but there’s no indication in her review that she’s ever read anything of his before, even The Ax.  She almost certainly hadn’t read Highsmith, and makes a passel of assumptions no dedicated mystery reader ever would.  If her review is a touch on the jaundiced side, I blame the Times for assigning it to her in the first place.

Westlake was known to write critically of other people’s books as well, often for the Times. I think he was a more perceptive critic than Sayers, but I would, wouldn’t  I?  Scratch a writer, find a backbiter, one of his themes here.  Maybe that entire practice of the literary circular firing squad should be reconsidered.

He could well have gotten a crack at one of hers at some point, except she didn’t publish any books at all between 1996 and 2013–you see my point about how this one might have rubbed her the wrong way.  Her 1996 book doesn’t seem to have gotten a Times review.   Publisher’s Weekly sort of gently panned it.  Her very well-reviewed 2013 offering seems to be a metatextual ode to baseball, certainly an under-covered subject in highbrow lit, and maybe I better get back to Westlake before I drown us all in sarcasm.)

Westlake, to be sure, liked to get at character both more obliquely and concisely than Highsmith did in her novels–he was the master of the thumbnail portrait, particularly when writing as Richard Stark (the part of himself that most resembled Highsmith), and he liked to let the actions of the characters tell us who they were as much as possible, while still reserving the omniscient narrator’s right to sum them up.

But he, like Highsmith, was all about identity, how it changes in response to external stimuli, exigencies beyond the individual’s control, and most of all our relationships with others.  His protagonists usually coped better with the dire situations he put them in than hers did.  Not always, though.

So yes, he took a stripped down plot device from a famous mystery novel (less famous for the book than the movie, the latter of which I’d summarize as a more efficiently told story about far less interesting people, probably true of most Hitchcock adaptations), and I’ll just say it now–he did not improve on the original, any more than The Master of Suspense did.  Did he expect to?  I don’t know.  But he clearly thought there were things he could do with the basic premise that Highsmith did not, otherwise he wouldn’t have tried.

Really, the author he was most obviously copying from here was himself. In my review of The Ax, I referred to an essay Westlake wrote but never published, now featured in The Getaway Car, in which he expressed his frustration that he was having ‘second novel problems’ after publishing scores of novels.  His editors, publishers, agents, spouse, etc, all told him that whatever book came out after The Ax under his own name had to be special, couldn’t be humorous, couldn’t be Dortmunder, couldn’t be some sexy tropical romp. It had to be bloody, hard-edged, suspenseful, and thought-provoking.  In other words, they wanted him to prove The Ax wasn’t a fluke.  (I might personally observe that masterpieces are all flukes, by definition, but I wasn’t involved in that conversation.)

The general sentiment was something along the lines of “This was your greatest commercial and critical success ever; now go do it again.”  Easy for them to say.  So anyway, he had a bunch of ideas, many from past books of his (Cops and Robbers, A Likely Story, others), but he clearly did read (probably reread) Highsmith’s book around this time, and saw so much more clearly than most ever would, what Highsmith was getting at with it–and where she’d gone wrong, because as powerfully unsettling a first novel as it is, it’s also crammed with journeyman blunders that would have made his typing fingers itch, and of course he and Highsmith would not be of a like mind about everything (a serious understatement).  And anyway, a good story is always worth revisiting, updating.

She might have been in his mind then because of her recent death, in 1995.  Since she and Westlake shared a publisher at one point–reportedly not a happy time for Otto Penzler–there’s no way she wasn’t aware of Westlake as a writer, but I don’t know which of her contemporaries she read, or whether she liked any writers other than her patron Graham Greene (I think they mainly just corresponded, probably an aid to friendly relations).  Liking people was never really her thing.  But this novel we’re looking at strongly suggests that writers having issues with other writers is not just a Highsmith thing.  Cats on a hot tin printing press.

I’m not clear on when he was first approached to write a screenplay adaptation of Ripley Under Ground–the film was produced in 2003, but as was frequently the case, they didn’t use much if any of Westlake’s treatment, and went to another writer after him, which would have drawn things out.  So a very good chance this book bears some connection to that project, and the reading he’d have done for it, to get her voice right.

I understand the finished film was terrible, not that I’d know, since it’s damned difficult to find.  I’ve read the novel, which I’m inclined to call the best thing of Highsmith’s I’ve read thus far–not quite as good as The Ax, but it’s close–her career batting average was better than his, but she showed up to play a lot less often.  Anyway, a masterpiece is a masterpiece, and to rank them is a waste of time.

I’ve just finished Strangers on a Train (I do my research), and I get the feeling she spent much of her subsequent career reworking that story, trying to fix it, with varying levels of success. Like Westlake, there were other directions she might have gone in as a writer (see Carol, originally known as The Price of Salt, which got published right away, unlike Westlake’s Memory), but she found a comfortable commercial niche in crime–comfortable for her in ways beyond the commercial. As many had learned before her, and since, you can get away with things in that genre that would raise too many eyebrows in a ‘serious book.’  And make a nice living doing it–she left a substantial estate behind when she died, though no heirs to enjoy it.

I’ve still read relatively little of her, but I’m in the process of emending that deficiency now, and for all her failings as a person, as a writer I consider her one of our very best, a lone sentinel on the ramparts of social alienation, with some troubling insights to share.  A true American original.  Who never much liked Americans either, but it would take too long to list all the subsets of humanity Patricia Highsmith disliked–easier to just say she didn’t like humans.  Least of all herself.  We can all relate, sometimes.

It’ll take me a while to get through her.  She isn’t someone you necessarily want to binge-read.  That could be deleterious to your mental outlook.  Unlike Westlake, whose range of interests and voices and moods could seem unlimited, she was very intently focused on a small handful of themes in her novels, and really just one dark prevailing tone–both a weakness and a strength.  As was Westlake’s need to keep changing up.  Which he was not, as mentioned, permitted to do right after The Ax.  And hence The Hook.  Not as startlingly original as the book that inspired it, or as searingly relevant as the book it was supposed to serve as the informal follow-up to, but a book has to be evaluated on its own merits (if any), so let’s do that now.

Bryce Proctorr, best-selling author, is doing research for a novel at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library (not the grand stone ediface with the lions, but the much less distinguished-looking glass & steel structure across 5th Ave. from it).   It seems he’s not doing research for a book he’s working on, so much as harvesting background material on various exotic locales he might set a book in, if he ever got an idea worth pursuing.

His publishing niche seems to be mainly books about foreign intrigue and adventure, espionage, that sort of thing.  Along the lines of Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, and similarly lucrative.  That most contradictory of creatures, a celebrity scribbler.  One of his many readers recognizes him there, asks for his autograph, and he’s outwardly polite, inwardly bored, happens to him all the time.  Then he recognizes someone.

Wayne Prentice.  Also a novelist, also doing research.  He and Bryce used to know each other, back when both were struggling to make it.  They lost touch, haven’t seen each other in twenty years.  (Valerie Sayers was struck by their last names–‘Proctor and Apprentice?’ she mused.  She somehow didn’t twig to the fact that their first names combine into Bryce Wayne.  Because they will become each other’s alter egos, secret identities.  I mean, seriously, how hard a reference is that to spot, if you’re actually looking for hidden meanings?  I’m sorry to keep bringing this up, it’s just irritating to me.  It was probably more amusing for Westlake.  He got used to the critics underestimating him.  Beneath the radar once more.)

Bryce hesitates before approaching–the perils of wealth and fame–suppose Wayne hits him up for money?–but he’s curious, and they were friends, and he knows he’s not really getting anything professional done at the library–this will be a welcome distraction.  Wayne is likewise both delighted and embarrassed to see Bryce.  They decide to adjourn to a nearby bar, and catch up.  (They aren’t on a train in the late 40’s, when rich people still took trains, so there’s no private drawing room they can chat in.)

As they sip a pair of Bloody Marys (okay, Sayers couldn’t have missed that, no need to belabor the obvious), Wayne opens up about his professional woes.  He’s not researching a novel.  He’s looking up colleges out in the boonies that might hire him to teach; writing, English, whatever.  His career as a novelist has itself become an exercise in fiction.  Nobody will publish him, and a writer who can’t get published isn’t a writer anymore, in his view of things–just a hobbyist.

He explains to Bryce about the bookstore chains, the computers keeping tabs on your sales, the ever-declining sales, leading to less and less assistance and promotion from the publisher, which leads in turn to still further declines in sales.  He was successful enough at first, but the new publishing landscape is merciless to writers who are established enough to command a decent advance, but not famous enough to deliver the big numbers. He got around this for a while through a subterfuge that nobody understood better than Donald E. Westlake.

“I’ll tell you a secret,” Wayne said.  “All over this town, people are writing their first novel again.”

It took Bryce a second to figure that one out, and then he grinned, and said “A pen name.”

“A protected pen name.  It’s no good if the publisher knows.  Only the agent knows it’s me.”  Wayne had a little more of his Bloody Mary and shook his head.  “It’s a complicated life,” he said.  “Since I did spend that one year in Italy, the story is, I’m an expatriate American living in Milan, and I travel around Europe a lot, I’m an antiques appraiser, so all communication is through the agent.  If I have to write to my editor, or send in changes, it’s all done by E-mail.”

“As though it’s E-mail from Milan.”

“Nothing could be easier.”

Bryce laughed.  “They think they’re E-mailing you all the way to Italy and you’re…”

“Down in  Greenwich Village.”

So Wayne Prentice became Tim Fleet, and for a while, Tim Fleet was a successful writer, getting bigger advances than Wayne had recently, because the computer didn’t know him. It wasn’t perfect–no way to do book tours, promotion was problematic, and they were evaluating each book in its own right, not on the basis of past track record.  But eventually the computers caught up, and the same thing happened all over again.  Wayne doesn’t think he can pull the same trick twice.  So he’s worked up a resumé for the colleges, and he’s depressed as all hell about it.

If the goal of fiction is indeed to ‘write what you know,’ Westlake could not be on more solid footing here.  Professionally, he was roughly equi-distant between Bryce and Wayne–never a best-selling author, but well-established enough under his various names that the bookstore computers could only hurt him so much.  He did, in fact, think about taking a teaching job at one point, but more because revenue from script-writing had flagged.  He never (that we know of) had a fully protected pseudonym that even the publisher didn’t know was him, but after the Samuel Holt fiasco, he certainly must have regretted not giving that a try.

Think for a moment, before we proceed, how incredibly difficult it is to make your living as a novelist in the modern age, not that it ever was easy.  Think about how many people are lining up for their share of an ever-shrinking market–because there is still probably nothing anyone dreams of more than saying at some social gathering “My new novel is in stores now.”  It’s the damn 19th century romantic movement.  Used to be nobody of any substance wanted to admit to writing fiction.  Or to being an actor.  Those were the days.

Rich famous people like Bill O’Reilly, who have absolutely no reason to write a novel (and 99.999% of the time, no ability) do so anyway, because it’s just such a neat thing to be able to say.  Admit it–you’ve fantasized about having a book in stores, standing by the book rack, holding a copy with the photograph of you on the back dust jacket exposed, waiting to be recognized.  I certainly have. Everybody who has ever read a novel has thought about writing one. Thankfully, that’s all most of us ever do, but imagine what it’s like for those who choose it as their daily profession, and don’t want to do anything else for the rest of their lives.

A handful will, to be sure, gain such a reputation for this or that book that they can more or less live off of that forever (looking at you, J.D. Salinger, and maybe you too, Miss Harper Lee, which isn’t fair, since neither of you are living at all now), but what kind of life is that?  If you make furniture for a living, if that’s what you love to do, would you be happy knowing that you’re so famous for this one table you produced that you don’t ever need to make another one, and if you ever did, people would just compare it unfavorably to the earlier one?

Let’s say you had this amazing sexual encounter with a stranger once, and you were just on fire that night, performed beyond your wildest expectations, and when it was all over, your partner said, with hushed reverence, “Not to insult you, or demean what you and I just shared, but I just feel I must leave two hundred dollars on the nightstand.”  And you take the money, not feeling at all dirtied, but rather ennobled, and you treasure that achievement always, as well you should, and maybe it even happens a few times more, though the stack of bills by the bedside keeps shrinking.

Even so–would you then, when asked at a party what you do for a living, declare with pride, “I’m a hooker!”?  Of course not!  Because to do something once, or even several times, is not the same thing as making it your job.  Your job is what you do, day in, day out, until you can’t do it anymore, at which point it is no longer your job, no longer who and what you are.  You are only a novelist for as long as you keep writing novels, with at least a decent chance of getting them published, and the publisher pays you, not the other way around.(Okay, maybe self-publishing on the internet is blurring the lines of this definition a bit–but not much.  Making it easier to kid yourself.  Blogs can work too.)

So Westlake is telling us how he feels about writing–it’s more than just a job to him, it’s an addiction, a craving, a hunger he can only satisfy by getting another book on the shelves of increasingly mercenary booksellers and their cold-hearted computers.   And the difference, as he put it once, between being in or out of print, is being alive or dead.  And what wouldn’t you do to keep that?   To keep your very sense of selfhood alive a while longer?

And even though Bryce Proctorr is a famous wealthy novelist, who hit it big soon enough that he never even heard about any of this computer crap until Wayne told him, he’s got his own identity crisis going on.  He’s in the middle of a bitter divorce battle with his second wife, Lucie, who is quite determined to get half of everything he’s got.  Including half of any books he produces between now and the official end of their marriage.  And the stress of all this has made it impossible for him to produce anything, for a year and a half now.  He’s well behind deadline, and his editor is making politely impatient noises, that will soon become louder and more insistent.

And honestly, for all the money he’s made–Wayne tries not to gasp when Bryce lets it slip his advance is over a million–there really isn’t that much left.  One ex-wife already, three kids to put through college, and he’s gotten used to the finer things in life (the more you make, the more you spend; the more you spend, the more you need to make in order to maintain your spending; the joys of the upwardly mobile lifestyle in a nutshell).

Sure, he wouldn’t be penniless if he hung it all up, but he wouldn’t be Bryce Proctorr either.  He’d be some has-been hack, with no reason to go on, washed up in his mid-40’s.  Never taken seriously by the critical establishment, forgotten by everyone else.  Just another name you see on some tattered mass-market paperback at a garage sale.  (Whatever did happen to Mario Puzo, by the way?)

And he’s just now getting a brilliant and rather evil idea (and really, aren’t all brilliant ideas just a little bit evil?), as well as providing this book with its title. What’s great about talking to Wayne is that they’re both professional storytellers, they both think in the same basic terms, speak the same language.  To them, fiction is not a metaphor for life, so much as life is a metaphor for fiction.

“Wayne, listen,” Bryce said.  “You know how you–You know, you’re working along in a book, you’re trying to figure out the story, but where’s the hook, the narrative hook, what moves this story, and you can’t get it and you can’t get it and you can’t get it, and then all of a suden there it is!  You know?

“Sure,” Wayne said.  “It has to come, or where are you?”

“And sometimes not at all what you expected, or thought you were looking for.”

“Those are the best,” Wayne said.

“I just found my hook,” Bryce told him.

Wayne has a book he can’t get published–written by Tim Fleet, who almost nobody knows is Wayne Prentice.  Bryce says that can be his next book–he’ll just rewrite it enough so the few people who read the manuscript when it was making the rounds won’t recognize it.  Proctorr-ize it.  He’s read some of Wayne’s stuff under the Fleet name, liked it–he knows Wayne is good enough to impress his publisher, once he’s decked out in the Emperor’s old clothes.  He’ll split his advance with Wayne, 50/50–over half a million bucks.

Wayne can’t believe Bryce is even suggesting this, though in fact it’s a very poorly kept secret that both Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler have done this multiple times (Drowned Hopes contains a reference to a writer named Justin Scott, a crafter of nautical adventures, who is also known to have produced novels of the same general type that were accredited to the Clive Cussler brandname–probably most of Cussler’s readers never noticed the difference, except maybe to say “Hey, Clive’s stepped up his game with this one!”), and they were both probably a lot less generous in terms of the split.  Um–now that we’re on the subject– why so generous, Bryce?

Because there’s a catch.  A hook, if you will.  The book needs to be submitted soon.  The divorce may drag on for years.  Lucie will get half the advance if the book is completed before the divorce is final.  Bryce needs his half, in order to go on living in the manner to which he has become accustomed.  For Wayne to get Lucie’s half, Lucie’s gotta go.  He wants Wayne to kill her.  They may not be complete strangers, or on a train, but it’s close enough.  In return, Bryce will sacrifice his own sense of professional pride on the bloody altar of necessity by using a ghostwriter, which for a novelist is probably the more serious crime of the two.  So still trading murders.

Now.  Here’s my question.  Did Westlake start out writing another book along the lines of A Likely Story, that masterful and murder-free satire of the publishing biz that hardly anybody read?  Only to then be informed by various persons in authority that satire is well and good, but if he wants this book to sell, he needs to recognize that people will expect some kind of criminal activity from him, such as murder, and all the more after The Ax and the return of Richard Stark (his Tim Fleet) reestablished him as something more than just that guy who writes comic capers about baffled burglars.

And at the same time, he was in the early stages of adapting a novel by the late Ms. Highsmith into a movie, and he was not just reading that specific book by her, and he saw how her narrative hook in her first and still best-known novel–and the ideas behind it, the sense of compromised identity, a dark relationship between secret sharers (forgot to mention Conrad on Highsmith’s list of influences) that corrupts and destroys both protagonists–could fit into what he was doing here.  Or maybe he intended all this from the first.  I’m just curious. Because in a certain weird way, this book is a collaboration between him and a writer he may never have even met.

But suffice it to say Valerie Sayers was far more correct than she knew when she said this was a sort of meta-textual commentary on the writing of genre books–it’s a meta-textual commentary on the career of its author, and many another as well (I still think Sayers felt more of a sense of self-recognition there than she was comfortable with).  But she sort of sniffed a bit when she said it, dismissing the effort as somehow trivial, and was she right to do so?

Is this an unsatisfactory compromise of a book, stuck between two modes of storytelling?  Pretending to be a nice diverting suspense novel about murderous writers, while really playing around with another writer’s much earlier idea, turning it into a way to comment on the relationship between fiction and life?

(Though I might mention on the side, because I apparently can’t help myself, that I noted Sayers doing something quite similar in one of her books I was leafing through last week, that was published a few years before The Hook came out.  This character of hers, an aspiring writer, is right in the middle of a dramatic situation with a woman he’s involved with, and even as he deals with that sticky situation, he’s thinking to himself how he’s going to have to rewrite the book he’s composing in his head about their relationship to accommodate his altered perception of her.  Writers probably can’t stop themselves from doing that, fictionalizing daily existence, while cannibalizing daily existence for the building blocks of their fiction–but honestly, can anybody stop doing that these days?  David Copperfield was doing it back in 1849, and it’s only gotten worse since then.)

So I’m only a few pages into the book here, but we bloggers have our own self-imposed deadlines to deal with, internalized editors nagging us, and I’m sure I’ll have many more snarky and unfair things to say about Valerie Sayers’ review in Part 2 (why does she get paid and I do not!), but I will try to actually finish the review next time, and if I fail in that attempt, well, it wouldn’t be my first three-parter, would it now?  Here’s hoping the hook is sufficiently well stuck in your mouths for you all to come back and find out.  See, I really am a hooker.

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