When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger. He nodded to the stranger and looked beyond at the reflection of Dr. Adler.
Richard Stark, The Man With the Getaway Face
Then he realized there was a mirror in front of him, level with his face. And he looked up
And he saw his new face.
It was very difficult to believe that he was actually looking at himself. This was not himself.
David Goodis, Dark Passage
This is a book that comes second in many respects to the book it is a direct sequel to, The Hunter. It’s the second Parker novel, the second Richard Stark novel, the second novel that begins with the type of opening sentence these novels became known for (“When such and such happened, Parker did something.”), the second to feature the trademark Stark Rewind (where the novel would suddenly roll time backwards and show us the same general sequence of events from a different character’s POV), and the second to feature cover art by Harry Bennett, emphasizing Parker’s monstrous hands.
It is first in two respects, however–it’s Westlake’s first novel with a truly long title–six words, eight syllables. He never topped that, though he did equal it with the second and third of the Samuel Holt novels (seven words, eight syllables). It sticks out from the rest of the Parkers in this regard. [edit: I was wrong, he topped it with Help I Am Being Held Prisoner.] It’s an interesting title, and an atypical one. When I see a Westlake book title that sticks out like that, I tend to look for some hidden meaning in it. Can’t help myself.
More significantly, it is Donald Westlake’s first true series novel. The Hunter had been written as a one-off, and was only slightly tweaked at the request of Bucklin Moon, to make it possible for Parker to appear in three novels a year for Pocket Books–it worked out to four Parker novels released in 1963, and what a time that must have been for fans of hard-boiled crime fiction–I would have been feverishly scouring the bookstands for them myself had I not been a toddler at the time.
Westlake had done series characters before. He wrote at least three pseudonymous novels featuring the amorous exploits of Phil Crawford (an actor, I believe–I’ll come back to those books sometime), between 1959 and 1963. He also had written several short stories about the mortality-obsessed police detective Abraham Levine, also starting in ’59. But nobody was buying books to see Phil Crawford strut his stuff, and Levine never got a novel. Now, for the very first time, Donald Westlake had a character worth writing a lot of books about. He’d end up writing 24 of them, not a record for the crime genre, but name another crime (not detective) series based around a single protagonist that has that many books–all of them still in print.
But he wasn’t going to be writing any of those 24 books as Donald Westlake. He was putting on a new face for these, creating a new identity. Richard Stark was going to become the most enduring and infamous of his other selves–to the point where Steven King would get half of his own pen name of Richard Bachman from him, and name the murderous alter-ego George Stark from The Dark Half after him (the Wikipedia article says otherwise, but the Wikipedia article is wrong). To the point, in fact, where by the late 60’s/early 70’s, Stark was selling more books than Westlake, and had gotten two major film adaptations before Westlake got one. To this day, many prefer Stark to Westlake. Westlake was always wryly aware of this.
But as we’ve seen, Westlake had already published several books under his own name that were as dark as anything he ever wrote as Stark, and maybe darker (certainly more fatalistic). The much-touted dichotomy between the whimsically long-winded Westlake and the succinctly sinister Stark had not been established yet, and was never much more than a deeply misleading critical trope at any time. Nonetheless, Westlake must have been aware that he was not merely creating a means whereby he could publish more books a year–he was creating a new persona. A distinctly different storyteller, who viewed the world both more cynically and more romantically than Westlake did. Well, that kind of tracks–a cynic is just a wounded romantic, right?
Parker was wounded in the first novel–figuratively and literally–by his wife Lynn. Emotionless as he seems, Parker does feel some things very deeply, and we learn more about this side of him in Face.
He’d felt for her what he’d never felt for anybody else, or anything else, not even himself, not even money. She had tried her level best to kill him, and even that hadn’t changed anything, the way he felt about her or his helplessness with her. He didn’t want that again, ever, to feel about anybody that way, to let his feelings get stronger than his judgment. Oddly enough he missed her, and wished she were still alive and still with him, even though he knew that sooner or later she would have found herself in the same kind of bind again and done the same thing.
The wolf needs a mate. But where in this faithless human world will he ever find one he can truly depend on, as she always could on him? And how was the marital situation when you were writing this, Mr. Westlake?
Anyway, this marks the very first time Westlake sat down to write a book knowing that he was going to be writing a lot more books about the same character in the very near future. Meaning he couldn’t kill the protagonist off, and in a short time, he wouldn’t be able to make any but the most credulous of his readers believe there was any real chance of that ever happening, so the suspense factor had to come from elsewhere. It also meant he needed to use each book to hook readers into the one coming after it, and hopefully make them look for the ones that came before it, if they were just showing up for the party. But he also had to make each book stand up on its own.
The Man With the Getaway Face picks up a few months after the events of The Hunter–last we saw of Parker, he had just ripped off The Outfit (again), and was headed west to Nebraska to get plastic surgery, after which he intends to resume his old pattern of doing a job every year or so, then spending the rest of his time relaxing in Florida. There’s just enough exposition about the events of the previous book to whet your appetite, if you hadn’t read it already–or to give you a sense of smug in-the-know satisfaction if you have.
Parker looks at his radically altered visage, and his only reaction is “The new face went with the rest of him as well as the old one had.” There’s not even half a second of readjustment, or disorientation. He doesn’t ask himself “Who am I now?” He knows who he is. He’s always known. The face never had anything to do with it. He’s satisfied that he still looks like somebody to reckon with, because that’s a useful attribute for a man in his line of work. He wouldn’t care if you made him look like Boris Karloff. Or even Raymond Massey. Did anybody catch the Arsenic and Old Lace ref? Well, never mind. He presumably no longer looks a little like Jack Palance, as Westlake originally envisioned him, but his effect on the opposite sex clearly remains undiminished, and women he passes in the street continue to feel ‘vibrations above their nylons’, as we were told in The Hunter. That was never about his face either. You got it or you don’t.
Parker’s reaction to his new face, as you can see up above, is quite distinctly different from the reaction of Vincent Parry, the protagonist of David Goodis’ second novel, Dark Passage. I read it for the first time this week, just to see how it compared–the story and outlook are radically different, and I have to say, with predictable Westlake-centrism, that the book is not as well written as Face–Goodis had a weakness for run-on paragraphs at this point in his career, it seems–that and staggeringly improbable coincidences. But it’s a strangely powerful and original piece of writing, all the same. And forever overshadowed by the early film noir classic San Francisco native Delmer Daves made out of it. Goodis’ best work was still ahead of him, even though his professional peak in terms of earning power was probably behind him after the 25k he got from Warner Brothers for the rights before it was even published (and right then is when his marriage fell apart, wouldn’t you know).
Vincent Parry isn’t a bad guy by nature or by choice, but he’s been framed for murdering his wife–a murder he did not commit, though it sure sounds like he had cause. On the run from the law, doomed to be picked up and taken back to prison forever before long, he just happens to hail a cab driven by one of those supremely sympathetic, chatty, and knowledgeable hacks that only exist in genre fiction–not saying talkative taxi drivers don’t exist–I’ve met a few. And so have you. But I’ve yet to ever get good advice from any of them. Your mileage may differ.
The cabbie tells him he knows a doc who can fix up his face so his own mother wouldn’t know him–for the bargain rate of 200 dollars (Parker’s new mug costs 18k–yeesh, inflation!). Vincent takes the gamble, and it pays off. He’s been a loser all his life, and it’s been all downhill since his wife’s body was discovered, but once he gets the new face, it’s like he’s become a new man–more decisive, more capable, and maybe Lady Luck just likes the new mug more, because in spite of a few expectedly unexpected twists and turns, things start going his way–by the end, he’s headed down to Peru, where if his new luck holds, he’ll end up living out his days with his soul mate, a ‘deeper than pretty’ blonde who shares his passion for gin and Count Basie records–and damned if I didn’t keep hearing Bogey & Bacall in every exchange those two have–it’s as if the book was written for them to appear in the movie of it, and it wasn’t, but that’s how these things go sometimes.
It’s not so much that Vincent’s luck has changed, though–it’s still lousy, by and large, the blonde excepted–but he’s changed. He’s not a victim of circumstance anymore. By shedding his old face, he’s shed the worst elements of his old self, his passivity and his self-pity–that’s what always held him back. But once he sees the new face in the mirror, he starts acting like a new man. By Goodis standards, it’s a pretty upbeat piece, dependent on deus ex machina though it be. Goodis’ literary arc was different from Westlake’s–he started out fairly hopeful, and then got darker and darker, as his personal and professional life unraveled. Still, even at the start he was, you might say, a very early adopter of existentialism. You can see why Truffaut made the other best film adaptation of his work. But I digress.
I see a lot of Goodis in Stark (particularly The Burglar), and I’ve no doubt Westlake had read Dark Passage, though I bet he saw the movie first. There’s the same sense of detached immediacy in both books. Goodis approaches the terseness and hardness of Stark at points, but Goodis’ protagonist is torn by doubts and confusion and regret and identity crisis–and Parker, self-evidently, is not feeling any of that. To him, the new face is just a new face. You make your own luck. He doesn’t need helpful cab drivers or jazz buff blondes, to get out of the various fixes he finds himself in.
Dr. Adler, the surgeon who who gives Parker his new face, isn’t some philanthropist with a scalpel trying to help out an innocent man, ala Dark Passage, but a former left wing activist, who charges heavily for his services, and knows all his patients are living outside the law (and finds them fascinating for that very reason). The cover of The Man With the Getaway Face is going to make anybody with two cents worth of knowledge of the crime genre think of Dark Passage, but this is Stark Passage. We’re going a very different way with it.
There are two main storylines in Face, one of which is a heist. Another first, you might say–the first true heist novel Westlake wrote, because even though The Hunter shows us two different robberies, the primary emphasis is on retribution, not remuneration. Here, Parker comes in on an armored car hold-up that’s already been partly mapped out, and he basically takes over–we get to see him be a planner, sizing up the job–and the people he’s doing it with. The ‘finger’ (the person who pointed out the opportunity) is a surly New Jersey waitress named Alma, and, it seems, one of the few women alive who is immune to Parker’s surly sexual charisma, not that he’s bothered by this in the least. She’s gotten a small-timer named Skimm to be her patsy, and find her a few other suckers to do the heavy lifting, at which point she intends to take the entire boodle for herself and scram. She clearly doesn’t know what kind of book she’s in.
I love this part of the novel so much, I get chills every time I read it (three times, thus far). Thing is, I grew up in New Jersey, a short drive from where the heist takes place, in Monmouth County, right next to Middlessex–the place names resonate for me; Freehold, Old Bridge, the Amboys (Perth and South). My earliest memories are of this very terrain, just a few years after the events of this book would have happened, if they’d happened. I can feel it. I can smell it. It doesn’t always smell very nice, but it smells like home. I lived in nice middle class suburban colonials, but that grittier blue collar world was never very far away. We even took a class trip to Perth Amboy once, by train. And if you ever saw Perth Amboy, you’d wonder what the hell the point of that was (“study hard or you’ll end up here”?).
More than half the book takes place between Freehold and Newark, and makes use of the geography very well–what makes the heist so sweet is that where they take the money, near Perth Amboy, they can get to Staten Island very quickly, crossing the state line into New York–which as Stark correctly points out, gets along so poorly with New Jersey that they can make their getaway before the authorities in both states are on the same page (still true, by the way–see “Bridgegate”). So this is the most Jersey of all Parker novels, and for that alone I love it. But there’s plenty more.
Most of all, there’s Handy McKay. Parker had a number of sidekicks throughout the series, but Handy was always the best, because he liked being a sidekick. He was never going to get his own series, like Grofield did, and he was perfectly okay with that. Rarely if ever do we see anything from his POV–he’s there as a point of reference for Parker, somebody has known him a while, who understands him as well as anyone can, who comes as close as anyone we ever meet to sharing Parker’s outlook, but somehow he’s just a more affable get-along kind of guy–and the kind of friend and ally we all wish we had, and so rarely ever find in this world.
Not that Parker would call him a friend, of course. But he shows a level of trust in Handy that we’ve never seen before now, meaning Parker knows, on a cellular level–this is a stand-up guy. This is a real professional. This is the prototype for all Parker’s future associates we meet who do their jobs right, stick to the plan, and don’t get greedy. This is, almost, a fellow wolf–but with a few little human weaknesses Parker kind of inwardly rolls his eyes at.
Handy wants to retire from heisting and buy a diner in Maine–Parker doesn’t think he’ll ever do it, which just goes to show Parker isn’t always right. Handy is maybe a bit too loyal for his own good–Parker sees this as a flaw, even though Handy’s chief loyalty is to Parker himself. He’s got a streak of kindliness that causes problems sometimes (in this very book, in fact). But he’s still a cold customer if you cross him. He’ll take you out hard, and sleep like a baby afterwards. Handy is the shit, pardon my French. But he’s so uncomplicated, with so few moving parts to his mental makeup, that Westlake opted to only make significant use of him in four of the Parker books. Just not enough to work with there. Not much of a puzzle at all to his identity. Still a lot of fun to watch him work.
With Handy there, Parker deals with the doublecross from Alma very easily. She thought she was somebody who could get away with something like that, and that’s the last mistake she ever makes. Skimm’s mistake was to forget he’s not the kind of man a woman like Alma would want for any reason other than money. An unstated irony of this storyline is that Parker figures Skimm has over a hundred thousand bucks stashed away all over the place, since he clearly never spends any of his share of the many jobs he’s been involved with on himself–if she’d only realized this, Alma could have skimmed Skimm without ever getting involved in a heist. But maybe the money wasn’t all there was to it–she feels so angry at the lousy world she was born into, she wants to plan the means of her own escape from it, as a sort of final fuck you to everything. She escapes all right, but not the way she planned.
And now comes the B plot–earlier in the book, Parker was braced by Dr. Adler’s chauffeur, Stubbs–a punch-drunk slow-witted former union organizer for the CPUSA. He fell in with Adler back then, and Adler gave him a home and a job after it all fell apart–he’s remained deathlessly loyal to him ever since–even after Adler is murdered, shortly after Parker leaves his clinic. He figures it’s one of the last few patients Adler gave new faces to, getting rid of the last person who can link him to his old identity. Stubbs is satisfied with Parker’s alibi, but there’s a catch–if he finds the killer and gets killed himself, the doctor’s cook May (who comes across like an ill-tempered addlepated version of the May from the Dortmunder books–Westlake does love to recycle) will blow the whistle on all these guys, including Parker, and she knows how to contact The Outfit to clue them in to Parker’s new face.
Stubbs is the most important POV character in the book after Parker, and we spend quite a bit of time with him, inside his slow-moving brain, which is compared to that of an animal, and it’s not meant as a compliment this time. He escapes the cellar Parker & Co. lock him in until after the heist is done, and he’s off to find the doc’s killer. The chapter where he spends several days at a cheap hotel, recovering from the ordeal of his confinement, sounds inspired by a story Westlake told in an interview about his traveling salesman dad, who once felt a heart attack coming on while he was out on the road. Instead of checking into a hospital (which would cost too much), he checked into a fleabag hotel, drank cheap liquor, and waited it out. The good old days, huh?
Stubbs’ single-minded pursuit of what he feels must be done is oddly reminiscent of Parker–but he’s not doing it for himself. He’s just doing it mechanically, blindly, out of habit as much as loyalty–his brain has been so scrambled by company scabs wielding two-by-fours, he can’t stop and ask himself what he’s doing. He’s almost a caricature of Parker–a lower class of hunter, and a much less able one, but you still admire his sheer doggedness, his implacable sense of resolve, as we admired it in Parker in the previous book. And again, the difference is that he’s doing it for somebody else, somebody who’s dead and won’t ever know about it–he’s long since forgotten what he wants, if he ever wanted anything other than to be a part of something bigger. If Parker is a wolf, Stubbs is a bulldog–who just can’t let go. Like Paul Cole in Memory, brain damage has made him a stranger to himself. He remembers the past, but only vaguely. He used to believe in the party, in the union, in Marxian dialectic–he remembers that–but he can’t remember why.
Stubbs finds the killer after a lot of starkly humorous trial and error, making his way haltingly from address to address, including an apartment on Grove Street, in Greenwich Village.–same street Paul Cole lived on–a little self-referential wink to Memory that nobody else would have caught at the time, since the book hadn’t been published. Then finally realizing his quarry is on Long Island, he makes his way to an old stone house there–and ends up being the quarry himself (this is partly Parker’s fault, not that Parker cares). But at the last moment, he sees terror appear in the face of the man who killed him, as he looks beyond at something Stubbs can’t quite see. Stubbs failed, but justice is still coming–in a most unexpected form. And Stubbs brought it there–so he didn’t fail completely. He got what he wanted. He just didn’t get to know it.
Then the story doubles back to Parker, covering a lot of ground, stowing his share of the loot, temporarily sating his post-heist sex drive with a few anonymous hookers (Westlake keeps reminding us throughout the series that Parker only wants sex for a limited period of time after a job is done), then we see him follow the same cold trail Stubbs did, only with a lot less trial and error, because his much sharper mind can skip past obvious dead ends. The point of all this, I’d guess, is to say it’s not enough to have a one-track mind–you also need a good one. Stupid is stupid, no matter how determined you are. Parker wins with brains, not just brute force.
A bit earlier in the book we took a brief detour into the past of Charles F. Wells (real name C. Frederick Wallerbaugh), former Wall Street stockbroker. And here we get a little bit of trenchant social commentary that tells us Richard Stark has as much quiet contempt for the ‘One Percent’ as Donald Westlake ever did. But somehow it’s phrased in a more neutral manner–there’s no moral judgment here. He’s just a different kind of crook. Takes all kinds to make this world what it is.
There was this man named Wallerbaugh, C. Frederick Wallerbaugh, and he made a very good living for a number of years by doing the sort of things with stocks that no one is supposed to do. He had a Seat, and his racket was its own respectable front, and no one bothered him. The men at the top ignore the Wallerbaughs for the same reason that a police force retires a graft taker rather than prosecuting him–exposure of dirtiness in a part of the system reflects on the rest of the system. So Wallerbaugh did well, and the only men who could have stopped him ignored him, But in 1946, money at the top was tight, and Wallerbaugh, as usual, had overextended himself.
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. But anyway, Wallerbaugh realized that thanks to the G.I. Bill (which you’ll recall Westlake had also mentioned in Killing Time), there was plenty of money in distribution down at the bottom of the social ladder, and he got a nice big chunk of it selling worthless Florida real estate to gullible veterans. Then he got found out, and since this time he was stealing Federal money, he had to hightail it to Argentina. After a while he missed the states, came back and got his new face and identity, and then he decided to kill Dr. Adler to tie up that last little loose end, and then live high as a wealthy respectable American citizen the rest of his life. He decided murder was the answer to everything. Parker could have told him how stupid that is.
So Parker was what Wallerbaugh/Wells saw coming as Stubbs lay dying–not a brain damaged bulldog, but a fellow crook, only the kind who knows what side of the street he works on. Wallerbaugh tries to have it both ways–to be criminal and respectable at the same time. It backfires. Badly. He couldn’t leave well enough alone. His kind never can.
So having done what Stubbs wanted done, in spite of not personally giving a damn whether Adler’s murder is avenged or not, Parker goes back to Nebraska to square things with May the Cook–only to find that she’s already blown the whistle, mainly out of spite for the way Parker talked to her. He could easily kill her and the rest of Adler’s staff, but what’s the point now? If you don’t need to kill, you don’t. These sad sorry hangers-on will drift away like dead leaves now that Adler isn’t around to support them. But he gives them one last parting gift–the face Adler gave Wallerbaugh/Wells. With the head still attached to it.
And here we get to the real kicker–Parker realizes he was wrong all along to try and disappear, the way Wallerbaugh did. The only way to deal with a group like The Outfit is to come right at them, make them bleed until they sue for peace. He is what he is, and there’s no point pretending otherwise–a false face can’t change his true nature. It’s the people who earn his displeasure who should be hiding. And soon enough they will be. The Man With the Getaway Face will be showing his real face to them, and they’ll end up wishing they’d left well enough alone.
And right after that, a little foreign intrigue, sex, double-dealing, and an art history lecture. You just never know what’s coming next with Parker. You only know you have to see it. Hey Mr. Bookseller, is that new Richard Stark in yet? Would you check, please? Yeah, I’ll wait.