Review: The Outfit


“Hold on.”   Bronson held up his own hand, fingers splayed like a traffic cop’s.  “What do you mean, they don’t think they’re crooks?”

“They work for a living.  They have an employer; they pay income tax; they come under Social Security; they own their own homes and cars; they work in local industry.  They know the corporation they work for engages in illegal activities, but they think what-the-hell, every corporation these days does, from tax-dodging through price-fixing to government bribing.”

“What’s that got to do with anything, Quill?”  There was an undertone of warning in Bronson’s voice.  He thought of himself exactly as Quill had described it.  He wasn’t a crook.   Bastards like Parker were crooks.  Bronson thought of himself as a businessman.  All right, he was a criminal, but everybody was more or less dishonest, particularly in business.

The Parker novels were fairly serialized, particularly in the beginning (and towards the end), and writing in his new Stark modality, Westlake developed a neat little trick to keep readers on the hook–he’d finish a particular story arc in one book, then start a new one in that same book, to pull you into the next one.   He’d done that with The Hunter, finishing Mal’s story two thirds of the way through, then getting Parker started on his war with the syndicate, which was just heating up by the end.   He took a temporary break from that war in his second outing, then finished it in his third–but by then, a new complication had cropped up, requiring Parker to move immediately to another job in book four.

The fifth novel was the first true standalone–ie, the first that didn’t either end on some kind of unresolved note or resolve something from an earlier book–but there was still this sense of a continuing story–as if all the books were just chapters in one long sprawling epic (that never truly ended).  Later, when the novels weren’t being published so close together, there would be more of a pause between jobs, and less need to refer to earlier novels via brief footnotes, but in the early days, Westlake had to justify Parker being active all the time, even though we were told in The Hunter that he only pulled one heist a year.   That may have been the ideal, but it didn’t always work out that way.

Parker gets called an ageless character, but I don’t think he ever was.   The books have an odd sense of time, but they do exist within it.   In The Outfit, we find out Parker served in WWII from 1942-44 (and was given a bad conduct discharge for black-marketeering), which would make him remarkably young when he joined up, but not impossibly so.   Calvin Graham joined the navy at 12, and it took the brass a long time to find him out.  Some folks just mature faster than others.   And maybe some were never really kids to start with.

Someday I’ll work up my own Parker timeline (that should be fun), but for now, let’s concentrate on the book at hand, which is one of the most pivotal in the series–and probably not anyone’s personal favorite (somebody wants to tell me I’m wrong there, pipe up).   But still one of only four Parker novels to get turned into a movie; which I’m less impressed with than some, and which I’ll review eventually, but not now.   Synopsis follows–spoilers abound.

For the first time in a Parker novel, we join the proceedings right in the middle of a scene of violence.  The Outfit has sent a hitman after Parker in Florida, just a few weeks after the events of the last book came to a close.   Parker is just in the process of working out his usual post-heist horniness on a tall toothsome blonde name of Bett Harrow when the guy takes a shot at him.  The hireling misses his mark, and Parker takes him out with his gun–not by shooting, which would risk bringing in the law, but by throwing it at the guy’s head, giving him a concussion that ultimately proves fatal.

Before the ill-starred trigger man dies, Parker finds out what local Outfit stooge fingered him, by threatening to have Bett torture him (which she’s a bit too eager to do, but we’ll see a lot more of Ms. Harrow in the next book, so she’ll keep).   The hitman is terrified of women, as Parker suspected he would be, and spills all he knows.

Parker manages to get his would-be killer out of the hotel room before he collapses, but when he returns he finds out Bett took his gun–with his fingerprints on it–so now she’s got leverage over him.   Leverage for what?   No time to worry about that now, so  Parker writes her a brief note saying he’s got business to attend to, and whatever she wants can wait–if he’s not back in a month, she can give the gun to the cops.  Because if he’s not back in a month, he’s probably dead.

Parker tracks down the local who fingered him at a poker game, finds out the hit came from New York, kills the fink on general principle, and then sets about outfitting himself for war with The Outfit.    As he goes from place to place, getting the needed equipment, he’s writing letters to fellow heist men (as he’d threatened he would do in The Hunter), telling them The Outfit has been giving him a hard time, and he’d consider it a favor if they knocked over any Outfit operations they might have had their eye on.    His reasoning being that many of them had only been looking for an excuse to do exactly this.

It’s interesting to watch him compose a letter–he’s literate enough, checks his spelling if he thinks he got a word wrong, but it’s almost like he’s using a second language, even though English is the only language he knows–it isn’t natural to him, communicating this way.   It’s a skill he acquired because he had to, but he’s not comfortable with it.   Words are a necessary evil to Parker.

Then comes a scene that makes it hard to be a Parker fan and a dog-lover at the same time.   He heads down to Georgia to get himself a mace (a vehicle with seemingly legitimate registration that won’t bring unwanted attention from the cops when driving across multiple state lines).   He looks up his old friend Chemy, a redneck genius mechanic, whose specialty is souped-up getaway cars.

Chemy’s brother has a very unappealing wife who offers herself to Parker (as all women apparently must, sooner or later), and even if she looked like, I dunno, Sheree North, Parker wouldn’t be interested, because he’s working.  When he turns her down, she cries rape, gets her husband to make an ill-advised attempt to avenge her honor, and that failing, sics the dog on him (Chemy, to his credit, tells her to leave the dog out of it).

When the lean black and tan cur, loyal to a fault, leaps at him, Parker smashes the poor brave mutt’s head in with a shotgun butt.  Oh, and he threatens to kill the wife, the brother, and Chemy, just to make sure he doesn’t have some southern-fried vendetta to worry about, but that’s perfectly understandable.

Parker gets in his mace and drives away, irritated, but otherwise unaffected, and certainly not the least bit guilty about the dog.  And this is why there’s never going to be a fully faithful film adaptation of The Outfit, folks.   In the movie that was made, the character standing in for Parker doesn’t kill any dogs–in fact, we see him pat a completely different dog on the head for trying to protect his brother (yeah, he’s got a brother in the movie) from hitmen.

Westlake is resisting on all four cylinders the temptation to humanize this character.   It’s too easy an out to say the big bad heister has a soft spot for animals.   Same thing goes for kids.   Like him or don’t, but either way, you’re going to have to take him on his own terms, because those are the only terms on offer (except in the movies).

Parker hits an Outfit joint in New York, then looks up Fairfax, who we saw in the first novel (still looking and acting like a roadshow Louis Calhern).    Through Fairfax, he gets in touch with Walter Karns, Arthur Bronson’s primary rival for control of The Outfit, and makes a deal–if Parker gets Bronson, who put out the contract on Parker, Karns will cancel the contract, and leave Parker alone.   Fairfax, seeing which way the wind is blowing, coughs up Bronson’s home address in Albany, where he’s currently holed up.

Parker meets Handy McKay at a motel run by retired hooker Madge, a relic of the 20’s;  a sort of heister groupie who frequently offers members of Parker’s profession a safe haven when they’re planning a job or laying low (she’s also one of the most enjoyable characters in the entire series, but we’ll see more of her later).  Parker lays out the plan, and it’s pretty simple–go to Albany, whack Bronson, and Handy can have whatever cash and valuables they find at his place, plus all the money Parker has already taken from The Outfit.

Handy is confused, maybe a bit offended–he’d go with Parker just because it’s Parker–they can split whatever they find at Bronson’s, and if there’s nothing to split, he won’t kick about it.   Why offer him money from jobs he wasn’t in on? Usually they’re on very similar wavelengths, but Handy doesn’t understand Parker’s thinking here–that this is his personal war, not a regular job, and Handy shouldn’t come in just out of loyalty.    They find a working compromise, and as Handy leaves to chat with Madge, we get a glimpse into Parker’s mind–

It was a bad sign when a man like Handy McKay started owning things and started thinking he could afford friendships.   Possessions tie a man down and friendships blind him.  Parker owned nothing, the men he knew were just that, the men he knew, not his friends, and they owned nothing.  Sure, under the name Charles Willis he had pieces of a few businesses here and there, but that was for tax reasons.  He stayed away from those places, had nothing to do with them, didn’t try to get a nickel out of them.  What Handy was doing was something else again–buying things to have them.   And working with a man, not for a profit, but because he liked him.

Parker is assuming too much about his fellow heisters.   We briefly meet Salsa in this book,  one of Parker’s most formidable sidemen, and we’re told he owns a house and a car–many if not most of the heisters we meet in these novels will be shown to be men of property, and sometimes even loyalty.   This is not Westlake being inconsistent–this is Parker projecting his own wolfish weltanschauung onto his colleagues.

But wolves feel deep loyalty to their pack, which is to say, their family.   Parker, the lone wolf, born into the wrong species, has no pack, no family, no friends–just temporary work partners, and to him, loyalty outside the boundaries of the workplace is a luxury he can’t afford in the treacherous human world–the only exception had been his wife Lynn, and seeing how that turned out, you can understand his thinking, without necessarily sharing it.   It’s a desolate alienating moment in the book–who wouldn’t gladly trade anything they own for  a friend like Handy McKay?   But then again, if you don’t own anything……

At this point in the book, we cut over to Albany to see how Bronson is doing, and he’s in a bad mood–worse than usual, I mean.   The reports keep coming in–turns out Parker’s letters were a huge hit with the heisting community, and they’ve been hitting Outfit operations with gusto, taking over a million bucks, and meeting token opposition at best from the Outfit personnel they’re ripping off.

Several short chapters are devoted to detailing several of these operations, including one that introduces Salsa to us (we’ll be seeing him again, book after next).   The point of this detour in the plot is to show us that ‘organized crime’ is mainly just organized illegal business dealings–numbers rackets, money laundering, gambling, offtrack betting, etc–things people enjoy doing that the law frowns upon.   In the movies it’s all guns and glamour, but the realities are far more mundane.

The people staffing these operations mainly aren’t what you’d call tough, and because they’ve got The Outfit behind them, they’re not prepared for Parker’s very professional colleagues to show up armed and organized–as Parker warned Bronson, most of them have had these jobs cased out for years, and were just waiting for a reason to pull them.

This is when Bronson has his little business discussion with Quill, an Outfit numbers man–I began this review with a snippet from their discussion.   Quill is trying to explain to Bronson (who came up during Prohibition) that people working for The Outfit now aren’t equipped for anything heavy, except for the ones that specialize in violence–they know that technically, what they’re doing is illegal, but they still see themselves as decent citizens, who own homes, and have families, and they aren’t going to risk all that to protect money that isn’t even theirs.   The Outfit is just a corporation that breaks the law–like most ‘legitimate’ corporations do, just in a different way.

It’s not hard to discern what we’re being told here–it goes back to what Parker was thinking about Handy–you have to know which side of the fence you’re on.   You can’t be crooked and straight, and do both equally well.   Bronson, the old school hood, is disgusted by the softness in his organization that Quill describes to him, but we’ve seen enough of his personal life in Albany to know he’s gotten soft himself.   He owns things, he’s got a wife (who he tries desperately to please, even though he’d much rather be with a high-priced call girl)–he’s become a rather bourgeois sort of gangster.   His personal life mirrors the identity confusion we see in The Outfit as a whole.

In the process of protecting himself from the law, playing the upright citizen, blending into high society,  he’s become a part of it, in spite of himself, and that’s made him just as vulnerable as the businesses Parker’s friends are knocking over.  He’s trying to get this straight in his mind, looking out the window of his big impressive old stone house on a once-fashionable now increasingly plebeian street, a house he only bought because his wife wanted it, so she could forget she used to be a showgirl–when he feels a prickling in his spine, and he looks behind him–guess who’s here?

Then the book rewinds, and we see how Parker made his way to Albany with Handy (stopping in Syracuse to pick up firearms), and turns out he was listening to Quill’s little lecture in the other room, waiting his chance.   Prior to entering the mansion, he and Handy had made sure the chauffeur was neutralized, and we get a soupcon of racial politics–he’s a black man, and they find him with a white woman–he’s terrified at first.   He’s of a generation that remembers what used to happen to black guys in this situation not so very long ago (and since the woman keeps insisting he was raping her, obviously she remembers those times as well).

Handy just thinks it’s funny, and makes a little joke about how there’s no problem as long as they’re not going to school and learning geometry together–because of school desegregation in the south,  get it?   Handy has a much livelier sense of humor than Parker (well really, who doesn’t?).    At any rate, the chauffeur is relieved to learn they’re only there to kill his boss.   Bronson, we gather, is not a fun guy to work for.

So back to the study–Bronson is looking down the barrel of Parker’s gun, and he knows his number is up.    Does he beg, offer money, hide under the desk?   Nope.  Deep down inside, the gangster is still there–he looks Parker dead  in the eye and yells for his bodyguards, knowing Parker’s going to kill him anyway, but damned if he’s going to give him the satisfaction of going down like a punk.   Not that Parker gives a damn about Bronson’s identity crisis, but he helps resolve it, all the same.    Once a hood, always a hood.    Well, not literally always, of course.

Parker and Handy deal with the bodyguards, and case the house for cash.   It’s a pretty good haul– 24k in a safe, and maybe 6k in jewelry.    Quill, who is no hood, calmly agrees to take Parker’s message to Karns–the robberies won’t stop right away, but they’ll stop.

The war is over. The king is dead. Long live Walter Karns (and he does).  Parker is ready to go back to Florida and find out what Bett Harrow wants from him in exchange for that gun. He asks Handy if he wants to go along–doesn’t he have a diner in Maine to get to?   Handy says the hell with his diner in Maine.

Was it all too easy?   I think that’s the main critique one could level at The Outfit, that and a somewhat disjointed narrative structure, because of all the different elements being introduced, some of which will figure heavily in later books. When they made the movie, they threw in all kinds of added complications to the final act, probably for that very reason–it just seems too simple.   This is a major criminal operation, bristling with expensive hired muscle, and Parker brings it to its knees in a matter of weeks.   Unrealistic, right?   Well, who said realism was ever the point here?

The point is actually not about how tough Parker is–that’s a given, always–the point is that with any organization,  size itself can become a weakness–success makes you stupid.   You get fat and complacent, and sooner or later somebody comes along to knock you off your high horse.   We’ve seen that drama play itself out in the business section of the paper, many times, and in the history books.

But Parker is no rival syndicate–he’s got zero interest in taking over The Outfit’s territory.    He could never become a Bronson, a Karns, or even a Fairfax–he’s got no taste for it.    He’ll always be a loner, albeit a loner who knows how to network like nobody’s business.

Parker is something a man like Bronson can’t understand (even though Bronson thinks he and his friends from the 1920’s were the Parkers of that time), and you can’t fight an enemy you don’t understand.    Parker keeps running rings around the Outfit boys, because he’s got nothing to defend except his life.   He seeks the weak spots in their defenses, and zeroes in on them.

Think about all these enormous dot.coms out there now–and all it takes is a few nerds armed with cheap little computers to paralyze them, steal priceless data, and there’s damned little they can do to hit back.   Parker’s doing the same thing, only in three dimensions (he could never understand the point of cybercrime).   The more you own, the more you have to defend.    And the less you own, the faster you can move, and the harder you are to find.

I would argue The Outfit is rather prophetic in this way–and while the odds of one man surviving an all-out war with organized crime are pretty poor, there are some real-life analogues–ever hear of Danny Greene?   If he’d made himself a bit harder to find, he might still be alive today.   Unlike Parker, he actually thought he could take over the whole shooting match.  The Irish can be very pigheaded (and I oughta know)–but he still took his enemies down with him, like a mobbed-up Samson in the temple of vice.

So no.   It’s not impossible.   It’s just very unlikely it would happen this fast.   Parker does have a knack for finding the shortest distance between two points. Richard Stark likes to get to the point.   And perhaps I should emulate him now, and get to my own.

My final point is that this is a really weird way to tell a story–to use the first book to set up a mob war, then call an intermission to that war in the second book, then resolve it rather abruptly in the third–and the fourth and final book in what is essentially a self-contained cycle within the overall Parker saga is going in a different direction entirely, with a different type of enemy entirely.   One you would think would be far less formidable than the late Arthur Bronson.   But in fact, he turns out to be quite possibly the most dangerous opponent Parker ever faces.    And the most–piquant?   I think that would be the word.    Not the word Parker would use.   But to him, all words are necessary evils, at best.


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22 responses to “Review: The Outfit

  1. First of all, let’s start with the title. It’s obvious that Westlake didn’t know that The Outfit is the name for Chicago mafia, not New York. It’s pointing to the fact that this whole organized crime thing in his novels is pure fantasy (the same goes for the circle of US heisters). But it’s one heck of a fantasy.
    Now when I started researching US organized crime, I see all fictional elements in Stark’s OC world. Even if we start with the beginning, with the failed hit, we probably find dozens of mistakes. It would probably be not one hitman, but a hit squad, and maybe contract would be passed on to Miami family, no one from NY would fly in. And that American names, instead of Italian, one family instead of five (though I think there was one who operated in Albany and north New Jersey), and Mob became all business and no violence a little too early. Westlake was like Hoover, who wouldn’t use word Mafia and all mafiosi called just hoodlums.
    But it’s all elements of Stark’s OC world. Interesting how Parker goes alone against the organization, and still he asks for help – from the heisters union of sorts. That is funny.
    Now you mentioned that it was all too easy for Parker. Probably (didn’t seem so for me at the time). But I see flaws in The Outfit not in that simplicity. Mostly it’s not on the same level with the previous two, because Parker here is in the aggressive mode. Yes, he’s tough, and you couldn’t not like how he destoys his enemies, mostly because they’re a bunch of fools and softies. And still, Parker is the hunter here, and that weakens the whole book for me. Too much of toughness, I guess. When Parker is in the defense mode, he’s more inventive, he’s on edge.
    Second, the part of the novel where heisters rob Outfit joints – that is a bit too repetitive. And writing letters – that’s out of character. At least, we for the first time saw how Parker struggles with writing. That was worth it.

  2. If I was looking for a clue that this was a fictional crime organization, I’d start with the fact that it seems staffed almost entirely by WASPs, with a few energetic young Irishmen like Mr. Quill moving their way up the ladder. Westlake was clearly referring to the Chicago Outfit, but as he says in this book, it’s just what the syndicate is calling itself this year. As we now know, real mobsters just call it “this thing of ours”, if they call it anything at all.

    As I think I remarked in an earlier exchange, Westlake may have been wary of offending Italian Americans, who were still sensitive about this kind of thing–in a few more years, they’d start being proud of the aura of toughness around the Italian Mafia that was being projected by the movies. But for Italian Americans who grew up at the same time Westlake did, it could actually impact their professional prospects, this notion they were all mobbed up. They wanted to be ‘respectable’. And they got there. And then came “Jersey Shore” and “Mob Wives.” And Antonin Scalia. Ah well, it was nice while it lasted. 😉

    Hoover insisted there was no such thing at all as organized crime. Westlake isn’t really that interested in the mob, per se, but he’d never for one minute suggest it isn’t there. He’s just more interested in the stories he can tell around it, using it basically as a prop. If somebody isn’t pretending to tell you a real mob story, you’ve got no beef if his mob isn’t real. When you get right down to it, it’s the stories purporting to be about the real mafia–like those Executioner books–that are the most unreal.

    Murder Inc. was quite real, and they did not send whole squads of assassins after people–the problem with that is that it makes too much noise, and for some reason the cops start getting interested when you’re killing people–you’re thinking more about the 1920’s in Chicago, but those days are long over in the 60’s. The law had gotten too strong, and they didn’t have their pick of the hottest prospects anymore, now that the Italians, Jews, and Irish were all getting ‘respectable’.

    Read that article about Danny Greene, if you get the chance–he was right out there in plain sight, giving them a very hard time, and they sent one hitman–singular!–after another, and he kept killing them, one by one. They finally got him with a carbomb, but by that time they’d left themselves wide open to the Feds, gossiping over the phone about their war with him, so in a way he got them too. This was the real Mafia, and one slightly crazy Irishman with a social club was giving them conniption fits. They ain’t so tough.

    They probably had tougher guys than the hitman in this book, but Westlake had a certain disdain for hired killers, I think. He revealed his thinking in “The Mercenaries”–somebody who does that for a living is going to be a fairly dysfunctional individual–and more psychologically fragile than he might appear at first glance. He was maybe following Peter Rabe’s lead–ever read “Anatomy of a Killer”? That’s all told from the POV of a Murder Inc. type of killer, and while he’s a sympathetic figure, he’s also rather pitiable, and basically a sociopath, even though he gets no pleasure out of his job–it’s just a job.

    Westlake wants to make it clear that Parker is a cut above everybody else running around in the crime fiction genre–mobsters, hitmen, criminal sociopaths, P.I’s–not because he’s bigger and meaner, but because he knows who he is, and they don’t. Self-knowledge–that’s where real power comes from in the Kingdom of Westlake. In reality, maybe not so much. But screw reality.

    It’s a matter of personal taste as to whether one wants Parker to be hunted or hunter–he’s both in the first book, as the back of the first Pocket edition states. Only time he’s ever on the run for very long is when the law is after him. He can’t fight the whole government, so he doesn’t try. But if the people hunting him also fear the law, he’s going to double back on them. That is, actually, what happens in this book–I think what you’re objecting to is that the doubling back starts almost immediately.

    Still and all, I’d agree The Outfit and The Mourner are not as good overall as the books that come before them–entertaining reads, but they don’t hold together as well as novels–because they aren’t really standalones, you see. What he’s doing here is what we now call ‘universe-building’. Adding new characters, fleshing out existing ones, laying the foundations for storylines that will persist throughout the series, and just overall giving us a sense of this whole criminal world that is Parker’s hunting ground. And he is The Hunter, Ray. You can’t get around that.

  3. I don’t see that The Outfit and The Mourner are not that good, because they’re not really standalones. Stark later wrote some truly stanalones, but some of them were great (I won’t say the titles until we get to them), and some weren’t. The reason lays somewhere else.
    And that reason is violence. I’m not that type that whines and moans how this or that novel shows gore and blood and how protagonist swears. I’m also not that type that enjoys reading about tortures, or sadistic sex, or rapes. I like stories about hitmen (I started cataloging hitman books for future essay), professional criminals etc. But that story about man of violence is appealing to me, when protagonist uses violence as self-defence. He’s a bad guy, but somebody after him, and he becomes a good guy. The same with Parker: when he is foced to use his technics to hide, fight back, he’s appealing to me at the most. (As for the law, we should wait for your reviews of The Jugger and The Handle.)
    Fear of offending Italian-Americans sounds like a plausible idea, though it can be a double-edge sword. Remember how later mobsters use that strategy in trials and press? “Government opresses us because we Italian-Americans.” Now gangsters start to hide behind Italian-American curtain.
    Thanks for pointing out to Danny Greene. That’s an unknown name for me, I need now to read two books on him. I’m interested in regional organized crime, so far I read about Boston and NY. Cleveland’s next.
    And while I didn’t forget: I don’t remember the episode where Stark writes that Parker was in the Army during WWII. If you didn’t point to that, I’d throw an idea how Parker got in the Army. In those days first-time offenders were offered by judges a choice: prison or the Marines. I guess Parker, caught after some heist as juvenile, was thrown before the judge, and Parker didn’t want to go to prison. He chose the Marines, where he was trained but where he still couldn’t give up life of crime. He was kicked out of the Marines. And that is where he became career criminal. How that theory sounds to you?

  4. Based on what we’re told of Parker’s age, it’s impossible he could have been sentenced to serve in the army–he’d be too young. Lots of underaged boys (and some girls) served in the military in WWII–possibly hundreds of thousands. But they got there by their own efforts. There was a strong taboo against putting children in uniform. Maybe something to do with all the little drummer boys who got killed in the Civil War (one of them joined up at 9, and retired as a Brigadier General–!!!).

    Also, why would he simply get a Bad Conduct Discharge for black-marketeering? He actually got shot at by his own side, driving trucks full of stolen military supplies. Normally, if you’ve been involved in something that serious, you get a BCD AFTER serving a significant period of time in military prison–one or two years, maybe. And it’s not as serious as a dishonorable discharge.

    Most logical explanation for me is that they realized they were dealing with a very young kid, and they wanted him gone before it became a scandal. Around a year before Parker was discharged, Calvin Graham had been clapped in the stockade for lying about his age to join the Navy–his sister had written to the papers and embarrassed them into releasing him (with a dishonorable discharge, even though it was his exemplary service that had gotten him found out), but he spent most of the rest of his life fighting for military benefits. He got a lot of sympathy in the press, then he was forgotten.

    The army would figure “Okay, the newspapers will eat us alive–we let a 12 year old enlist, and then he turned out to be a hoodlum. Let’s just get him out of here without any fuss.” They don’t know Parker has no family or friends to fight for him. They just let him slip through the cracks, and he goes on doing that for the rest of his life. His strange luck.

    I see your point about the violence, though it is a violent book (even a dog gets killed in it). Certainly much less of a body count than “Killling Time”, which is an utter bloodbath by the end. And there’s a point to that–Parker doesn’t kill any more often than he has to. He deliberately tries to avoid situations that will lead to high body counts, because high body counts draw too much attention from the law. He gets no satisfaction from killing, and he sees no point to it. He kills in self-defense, 99% of the time. The only exception would be certain instances where somebody has truly offended him. And it’s not that easy to offend Parker.

    “Killing Time” probably didn’t sell half the copies “The Outfit” did (look which one got a film adaptation). Parker’s surgical strike makes perfect sense–if he goes around slaughtering Outfit men right and left, there’s no way they can let that go–they’ll keep coming after him until they get him. He’s not Mack Bolan, or that Punisher guy from the comics, and he doesn’t want to be. He just goes in and decapitates the organization–but first he makes sure the new guy will be more reasonable. Is it a bit too convenient that the interior power struggles going on in The Outfit happen to be very favorable for him at that point in time? Yeah, but that’s very Parker–his strange luck.

  5. Westlake doesn’t try to write graphic violence. Yes, there are always a few killings (even killings of civilians), some assaults, but mostly violence stays off the page. Parker can kill somebody, and Westlake can packed this killing into one sentence.
    We can discuss Parker’s (un)necessity of killings in two books in particular, The Handle and Plunder Squad. I remember I regretted that Parker didn’t kill someone in GM books. This could lead to the topic of Parker’s mellowness in GM books.

  6. Most graphic Westlake ever got–with violence and sex–was “Kahawa.” And that was a very different kind of book. Though when it comes to violence alone, you could argue that “The Ax” was the most graphic. You could make a case for one particular scene from “The Hook” as well. But he was never Jim Thompson, and I don’t think he was ever trying to be. He showed as much as he thought he had to show, to get the point across.

    Parker often spares people you’d think he would have killed, and kills people you’d think he might have spared. I don’t believe that he ever mellowed, though it’s certainly a widely held opinion that he did. I think the pattern is pretty consistent in the early and late novels, but we understand his pattern so imperfectly, we often misinterpret it. That’s part of the allure of the character–we think we’ve got him figured, and then he surprises us, throws us off-balance.

    I think Westlake felt much the same way about him–he would start writing it one way, and Parker would say “Wrong”, and he’d alter course. He understood Parker better than any of us, but that doesn’t mean he understood him perfectly. There must have always been dark areas of Parker’s consciousness even Stark couldn’t quite penetrate.

    If killings are described briefly when he’s writing as Stark, that’s because Stark is all about brevity. In all things.

  7. Today I learned that early in his career, Arthur C. Clarke thrice used the pseudonym Charles Willis, and his Willis persona eventually became a character in and narrator of Clarke’s “White Hart” stories (published under Clarke’s name between 1950 and 1957), a series of science fiction tall tales relayed in a British pub.

    So, add that to the tapestry.

    • I remember the stories, but had long since misfiled the name. Frankly, I never much cared for Clarke’s short fiction, or most of his novels, and even Childhood’s End I am far from simpatico with, impressive though it be. Better we die for earth to evolve than the other way around. James Tiptree Jr. would agree.

      But of course Westlake would have read those stories, and he didn’t misfile anything.

      There’s a coldness to Clarke. You know what I mean? He’s affable enough on the outside, but down deep, he’s a hard bastard, who will sacrifice anyone or anything to get what he wants. Even an entire world. And we all remember what happens in Westlake’s only SF novel, right? A novel he was writing right around the same time he was first envisioning Parker.

      So. It tracks.

      Good catch.

  8. Ron

    You were talking about this one not being anyone’s personal favorite … actually, depending on the mood I’m in on a given day, this one and “Getaway Face” alternate as my first and second favorite Parker books, with “The Hunter” always a solid #3. With this one, the highlight for me is the chapters about the different robberies Parker and his fellow thieves pull off against Bronson’s organization. I’m now reading the Final Eight for the very first time, and I can see that they are more polished novels (and also longer ones), but for me, it always comes down to those first three books. I prefer the rougher, quick and dirty style of those earlier novels. (In a weird way, it’s like the Bond films. The more recent ones may be more technically accomplished films, but they can’t touch the level of those first three classics that Connery made.)

    • Took almost five years, but somebody piped up.

      I like this one a lot, but it feels like part of a larger work–not as self-contained as most of the others. If you considered the first four as one long novel, then nothing in crime fiction could stand up to them for raw energy and gutter panache–and an underlying sophistication that Stark hides remarkably well.

      The Man With the Getaway Face (title by Bucklin Moon; Westlake wanted to call it The Mask) is a strong contender for the #1 spot, in spite of its serialized nature. The Hunter is the best standalone of the four (since it was written to be one), but Parker isn’t quite there yet as a character, and his world hasn’t been fleshed out enough. I actually quite like The Mourner, and if anybody thinks that’s the best, pipe up. I can wait another five.

      This one has undeniable charms–I kind of feel like the War With the Mob angle was done better in Butcher’s Moon. The organized crime angle is dealt with in more depth, and the characters are better-motivated. And this leads me to a point.

      I prefer Handy to Grofield in a lot of ways, but I realize something now that partly eluded me before–Stark writes that little inner monologue for Parker about how Handy is getting soft because Stark is unhappy with himself for making Handy come along on that dangerous mission out of loyalty alone. One the one hand, it’s got that dark romanticism Stark loves–but Handy’s supposed to be a professional. He’s always supposed to ask what’s in it for him.

      Grofield doesn’t need to ask–half that money in Tyler is his. He needs it. He didn’t like leaving it behind any more than Parker did. He and Parker have a certain undefined loyalty to each other, but Grofield is no faithful sidekick. He’s in it for the bucks (and the blondes).

      And writing the letters to various heisters he knows–it’s a great idea, the loose-knit network of pros who The Outfit can’t trace–but doesn’t it work a bit too easily? They weren’t hitting The Outfit before, because they were on the same side, but now that the mob’s put a hit on Parker, it’s open season? Some contrivances are more contrived than others.

      It works in the context of those cheap brilliant little paperbacks that go down fast and easy. It’s done so well, you let it slide. But in Butcher’s Moon, Parker can’t just depend on the kindness of heisters. He has to organize them himself, give them their assignments, and let a combination of greed and dislike of the Tyler mob’s methods move them along–not to mention his own odd charisma, that brings out the wolf in them.

      Do you prefer the greater simplicity and elegance of the earlier books? Or the way Stark finds ways to restate his ideas with more power and credibility (and life experience) in the later ones? In Butcher’s Moon, you see, Parker is forced to acknowledge that sometimes you do need other people. That maybe Handy was right after all, and the pack has to stand together sometimes, or be wiped out.

      I prefer them all. Except Flashfire, but even that’s better than most of what passes for crime fiction these days.

  9. In The Outfit, we find out Parker served in WWII from 1942-44 ——- I read somewhere that Parker hovers around age 40 in The Hunter (1962). If this is accurate, then Parker is born in 1922 and serves in WWI from age 20-22.

    I also read that Parker always hovers around age 40 in all the novels (possible since, although we’re talking a sequence of 24 interconnected novels, this is fiction). Any and all reflections appreciated.

    • We’re clearly told Parker is 38 during the Cockaigne job in The Handle. The books (very) roughly jibe chronologically with the years they were published in, and that one came out in 1966. Meaning he was about 32 when we first met him, in 1962. Meaning he was no more than 14 in 1942–and trust me, that was not a rare thing, and some much younger kids served in combat, got into trouble for it later, when they were found out. (Google Calvin Graham–who joined up at age 12–and got denied a pension for serving his country–truth stranger than fiction, always).

      Lots of underaged boys joined up, for all kinds of reasons–the recruiters needed bodies, and were not inclined to ask too many questions, or insist on a birth certificate (who says Parker had one?) I don’t think this was a mistake on Westlake’s part–I think he wanted us to know Parker was never really a kid in any normal sense. Nor would he have seemed like one, at any point beyond puberty, whenever that hit.

      I do not buy he’s an ‘ageless character.’ He doesn’t age normally, but he ages. Wolves don’t age the way we do–they have a long prime, where they don’t visibly age–and then suddenly get old–and can’t hunt anymore–and die.

      My theory is that between Butcher’s Moon and the final eight novels, there’s a sort of warp effect–he and some other characters jump forward in time, without realizing it. It happens with Dortmunder too, but less jarringly, since there was no equivalently long gap in the Dortmunder series. (I also think Backflash is set well before the events of Comeback, even though it was published after Comeback).

      And to me, this makes more sense than to say he goes from 1962 to 2008 at age 40, and nobody notices. Why bother to say he’s 38 if we’re not supposed to ask ourselves how old he is? There are inherent problems to making a series last for decades, and Westlake found his own odd ways of surmounting them.

      Westlake is always smarter than any of his readers. Or critics. Get used to it.

  10. Excellent! One reason I’m drawn to fiction bigtime: an author’s imagination nearly always trumps “facts,” so called.

    I do not buy he’s an ‘ageless character.’ He doesn’t age normally, but he ages. Wolves don’t age the way we do–they have a long prime, where they don’t visibly age–and then suddenly get old–and can’t hunt anymore–and die. ——— Makes perfect sense, especially, as you note, Parker the wolf is 32 in The Hunter.

    BTW – My own observation when people say they don’t read fiction since they want to stick with facts or “reality” – complete poppycock drivel. To enter the world of the novel requires a reader to open heart and soul to an author’s vision and creative imagination, a dramatic shift many people simply can not or will not make.

    • I think sometimes we resent fiction for being fiction. This is why we tend to obsess over anything that takes us out of the story, like ‘plotholes’–yes, I’m all for attention to detail, continuity, but not with taking it to anal extremes. It’s a story, and it only has to make sense on its own terms. It isn’t supposed to replace our own reality, obscure it–but to make us understand it better.

  11. Just did finish listening to the audio book. So enjoyable – all those heists, all those colorful characters. Will go back and read the book for the sheer pleasure of every single scene. Parker must have that wolfish sense of hunting in packs – thus he does heist jobs with multiple partners. After reading The Outfit, one might think Parker would work solo or with one trusted partner, Handy. At least that would eliminate having to keep an eye out for the double-cross.

    • One pleasure of the series is that it switches up–Parker as a lone wolf, Parker hunting with a trusted partner, Parker with a string that pretty nearly always has one unreliable member, and (as in Butcher’s Moon, towards the end) Parker with a super pack he forms himself.

      Really, The Outfit isn’t just him and Handy–he figures out how to turn various fellow pros into a weapon against The Outfit, without even seeing any of them in person. To some extent, Butcher’s Moon is a variation on that approach. At no point is he strictly their leader. More like an instigator. He understands how their minds work, and what will get them engaged. They follow him only because he brings them to good scores. They’re all independents too.

      Sorry, but can’t seem to figure out how to add a GoodReads link to Known Associates. I’ll come up with some other way to plug you.

  12. Fine overview.

    For me, rereading The Outfit was an eye-opener. In many ways, this novel is a study in American society in the second half of the 20th century. Driving through Syracuse, passing all the used car dealers, junkyards then bars, appliance stores, crap houses as he makes his way downtown, Parker says: “I hate this city.” Handy points out all cities are like this city. True, true, Handy – for the most part, America as one colossal, unending lineup of people selling crap to one another, people living in crap.

    I recall that telling scene in Getaway Face where Parker is at a crap motel office with the owner. –

    “Five thousand.” He said it with a kind of heavy contempt. “What would I do with five thousand? Where would I go? What would it get me? I’d need a lot more than that. I’m stuck in this rattrap for the rest of my life.”
    And that’s a business owner! Not even a lowly employee.
    Parker sees the only way to maintain a degree of freedom is to refuse to give in. One reason that quote you cite is so important. “It was a bad sign when a man like Handy McKay started owning thing…”

    Parker sees very clearly, as does Quill and quickly Bronson that the Outfit has become soft and stupid, just like all the other large, highly successful organization in the country. Even the bodyguards are so dimwitted they don’t give a thought to guarding Bronson’s house but rather sit together and play board games.

    I enjoy the chapter popping to different heist jobs across the country. The most perceptive, intelligent people are the crooks while those who spend their lives following orders are variations on what it means to be a nincompoop.

    And all those legitimate business people, so called, find ways to be crooks. Brings to mind that Schopenhauer quote about humans: ““In savage countries they eat one another, in civilized they deceive one another; and that is what people call the way of the world!”

    • Another sage little observation–the black chauffeur. He assumes these two white men are going to be mad they caught him with a white woman. They couldn’t care less, he calms down, he’s cool with them offing his jerk boss. Handy makes a joke about school desegregation. But the woman keeps insisting she was raped. Has to protect her reputation. That’s actually one of two false rape accusations in the book.

      The early Parkers were, I believe, written around the time Westlake’s first marriage ended, and there is some anger there he’s dealing with, that resolved itself later. They can come across as misogynist at times. Though to be sure, there’s a lot of that in the genre as a whole. I think one reason he brought Claire into the mix was to resolve Parker’s sexual problems (not that Parker ever sees them as such).

      Parker seems more human in the early books, though less so with each installment. In later books, he’d never bother to say he hated this or that city. He’d never make any observation at all, without prompting. There’s no point. One reason Handy had to go was that he and Parker are almost friends. It’s too cozy. By Starkian standards.

  13. Spot-on. That chauffeur scene could be used as the basis for an entire essay on the state of American society in the early 60s.

    Yes, I was surprised by Parker’s “I hate this city.” But then after reading how, several scenes later, Parker is “oddly tense and impatient” in the hotel room and quickly recognizes the reason: “Because it wasn’t any ordinary job, that was why, and he knew it. This wasn’t money he was after, it was a man.” And not for profit but for personal reasons.

    Now that “I hate this city” makes perfect sense – it’s a foretaste of Parker feeling off about going after a man rather than money.

    But Parker knows he can click back into his usual pattern when he tells Handy, “Besides, we want time to go through the place. You don’t want to do this for nothing.”

    • Well-observed. Been a long time since I last read that one. You are paying attention.

      I think Parker always feels a bit uncomfortable in cities, even though he spends a lot of time in them. (That’s where the money is.) Even when living in Miami, he’s in a hotel by the beach–goes out to the ocean each day, swims far out, to get away from people. He ends up living way out in the country, with Claire–but leaving even that redoubt when the summer people are there.

      His sad sack doppelgänger, Dortmunder, wouldn’t willingly live anywhere but Manhattan. This is a divide in Westlake’s own nature. He also divided his time between city apartments and country houses. He craves the stimulation of city life, then yearns for the quiet contemplation of the rural scene. That’s why these two characters are the ones who stuck with him over the years.

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