Monthly Archives: June 2014

Mr. Westlake and The Nephews

Among these novels, however, important distinctions must be made.  Some of them portray character as a process during which the picaresque hero’s personality emerges; others depict character as a function of the protagonist’s inherent nature.  Some create fictional worlds in which the picaresque hero can plausibly attain wealth and pyschological well-being; others situate “picaros” in worlds where they cannot possibly escape a “double-bind” situation in which they are compelled to choose between survival and integrity.
From The Picaresque Hero in European Fiction, by Richard Bjornson.

You that Mitchel’s prayer have heard,
“Send war in our time, O Lord!”
Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind,
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease,
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace.
Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate,
Know his work or choose his mate.

From Under Ben Bulben, by William Butler Yeats. 

The first one shook his head after a minute and said, “He don’t know, he honest to Christ don’t know.”
“What a nephew,” said the second one.  “Nephew, you are the biggest nephew that ever lived.  You’re all the nephews in the world rolled into one, you know that?”
“What’s the joke?” I said.  “I give up, what’s the joke?”
“Joke,” said the second one.  He said it flat, like it was too incredible to believe.
From The Fugitive Pigeon, by Donald E. Westlake. 

No, this isn’t my review of The Fugitive Pigeon, originally entitled The Dead Nephew.   That’s up next, but this is what you might call a sidebar, to prepare the ground for discussing what amounts to a whole new sub-genre Donald Westlake came up with, that is more or less unique to his body of work–certainly not without influences, though they are challenging to pinpoint exactly–pretty sure Yeats isn’t one of them, though Westlake knew that poem I quoted from up above, you can bet.   Certainly not the Bjornson book.  I only read a little of that myself.   Most of its content is, for our purposes, academic.   But I thought that one passage summed up the novels I’m discussing here admirably, even though he wasn’t referring to them.

The ‘Nephew’ books, as they have come to be called in some quarters (notably here), feature a fairly befuddled but likable young man who has delayed maturity in some way, and is a bit of a slacker, a deadbeat, a bum, a loser–but, it must be said, a loser with potential.  He’s usually single at the time the story begins, but he may be in a relationship, or even married (or a monk).   His troubles will sometimes stem from a blood relation, such as an uncle, but not usually–it’s just a convenient catch-all, stemming from the first book in this vein.

As the story begins, the ‘Nephew’ gets caught up in some dangerous and generally illegal situation that turns his formerly settled pattern of living upside-down, and he’s forced by the exigencies of the moment to redefine himself, and his position in the world.  He may commit crimes, or even acts of violence in the course of the narrative.   He may even kill  (though this is rare), but he doesn’t murder anyone with malice aforethought, or for any purpose other than self-defense–he’s not a killer by nature.  The story is comic in nature, so the ending is happy–more or less.   In one particular instance, a lot less.   There are variations, but that’s the basic narrative formula.

And then there’s The Girl–and there must be a girl.   It’s a requirement of the form, and good for book sales, and have I mentioned Westlake really liked girls?  The Nephew typically meets a really interesting and appealing young woman in the course of his impromptu adventure–or more rarely, he’s met her already, but doesn’t know yet how much she means to him, and now’s when he finds out.   She appreciates him for the man he is in the process of becoming, may aid him significantly in his quest, or trigger it somehow, and he almost always ends up with her, unless there’s a very good reason not to.

She may be an active player in the story, or less commonly a prize waiting for him at the end of his journey, but she’s never merely a stock character–very much a person in her own right, with her own agendas, and each of the girls in the Nephew books (I guess we could call them Nieces?  Or would that be incest?) is quite distinct in character and appearance from all the others.   Because each of the Nephews is different, and therefore requires a different sort of girl.   As she requires a different sort of boy.  And it all works out in the end.   Usually.

There is always room for disagreement as to which of Westlake’s novels can be categorized as Nephew stories–it’s a category that was created after the fact, like Shakespeare’s ‘Problem Plays’–a way to slot something that doesn’t really have a slot–isn’t mystery, noir, hardboiled crime fiction, tragedy, comedy, history, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, etc.

The most common term I’ve seen applied to Westlake’s comic novels that aren’t ‘comic capers’ (funny heist stories, and we’re still quite a few books away from the first of those), is ‘picaresque’–a brief Google search will tell you how often that term has been employed in connection to these books, for want of anything better to call them.   The picaresque proper began with Lazarillo de Tormes, first published anonymously in 1554–that’s the title page of the first edition you see just below.   Many similar works followed it in Spain, and the term eventually came to comprise famous works in other languages, including English; books such as Tom Jones, Moll Flanders, Huckleberry Finn, and at least half the work of Charles Dickens.


But as a brief perusal of the literature on the picaresque shows, once you start moving away from Spain in the 16 and 17th centuries, you can call just about any story about a young person’s journey of self-discovery picaresque and get away with it.   It’s a useful word, but not a very specific one, now that it’s been repurposed.    All the same, Westlake would have been familiar with it, and with many of the most famous books considered to fall under that heading, and I think he was aware of the fact he was being picaresque here–not terribly concerned about it, but aware of it.

He’s still usually writing something that falls within the general category of crime fiction, or some other popular genre, but he’s putting a picaresque spin on it.   Which is to say, he’s making it funny, but the type of humor employed can vary quite a lot–it may be very farcical and contrived, it may be heavily satiric, or it may be low-key and naturalistic.   Depends on where he wants to go with it.

Here are the ten Westlake novels I would consider to be Nephew stories:

The Fugitive Pigeon

The Busy Body

The Spy in the Ointment

God Save the Mark

Somebody Owes Me Money

Up Your Banners

I Gave At the Office

Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

Brothers Keepers

Money For Nothing

A pretty disparate group of books, eight of which rank among the best and most interesting pieces of work Westlake ever did–and if you want to get persnickety about it, it’s only the first five that are classic Nephew stories.   The second five are Westlake turning his own private sub-genre inside-out, and reversing most or all of the expectations he himself had created out of borrowed bits and pieces. But I contend they are Nephews, all the same.   And it’s my blog, so I can do that.

I could go on (and I do, endlessly, I know), but that’s nearly all that needs be said about these books here, since I’ll be reviewing all of them individually, as they come up in the queue.   I just wanted to get some of the preliminaries out of the way, and to further the notion that this is a sort of genre, more or less unique to Donald Westlake.

And yet, I must acknowledge, this form may not be wholly unique to Westlake–what would you call The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything, by John D. MacDonald?    Many fans of MacDonald’s detective fiction have called it a waste of reading time, and it is not all that well-regarded today, but it was extremely successful when it came out, is in print as we speak, and eventually became a terrible TV movie, with a terrible TV sequel.  Westlake would certainly have noted that it sold well, when it first appeared in 1962.   This may, in fact, be the inspiration for the Nephew stories.   Or else MacDonald was reacting to some earlier book.   And there’s always an earlier book.


Same basic structure as Westlake’s Nephew stories, with a Fantasy/SF spin, but somehow it’s just not the same.  MacDonald may be writing something vaguely picaresque in nature, certainly a comic spin on an established genre (science fiction), and yes his hero inherits a watch that stops time from his uncle, and there’s danger, and intrigue, and there’s a redefinition of the terms of his existence, and there’s a Girl (who jumps into bed with him the moment she shows up, which certainly never happens to Westlake’s nephews), so yeah, he’s a nephew–but he’s not a Westlake nephew.  Not even close.

And his Girl is a pure fantasy figure, not that there’s anything wrong with that (women fantasize as much and as vapidly about implausible boys in their stories), except you don’t believe in her, which ruins the fantasy.   Westlake was no feminist, at this or any other stage in his life, and he never did quite get the hang of doing female protagonists (though he’d done quite a few for his ‘erotic’ novels before now),  but comparing some of the early Nephew stories with his other work from this period, you can see the difference–he’s letting the female love interests be more than sexy–he’s letting them be smart, and tough, and capable, and cool.   They are individuals in their own right.  They’re seeking their path in life, as much as the male protagonists.  They are subjects of narrative interest as much as they are objects of desire.  They can be this way, because the Nephews themselves are mainly a bunch of timid hopeless schlemiels to start with, and they need more than a prize to inspire them–they need heroes.   Or heroines.

What Westlake does in these books is more than just encapsulate the common young man’s fantasy (that older men can still enjoy) that Everything Will Somehow Change, and the woman of his dreams will just appear, and he’ll get into all kinds of trouble without dying in the process, and find out who he really is, and finally become a man for real, instead of just playing at it.   Westlake is digging into the nature of this dream, and with each new book in the cycle, re-evaluating it.   He’s also having a lot of fun, and so are we.   But it’s not just a fantasy.   And it doesn’t stop time.   Because let’s face it, folks.  Nothing ever has, and nothing between now and the next Big Bang ever will.

In the Nephew stories, which I’m sorry to say I never read as a young man (And I’m even more sorry to say I’m not one anymore, though there are compensations.  I suppose.), he’s telling his readership, male and female alike, something very important–that there will be moments in life, hopefully not involving risk to life and limb, that you just have to grab onto, and see where they take you.   If you miss the brass ring, it may not come around again for a long time–if ever.   Life is a game played for keeps, and we’re all amateurs at it (except maybe Parker), so we just have to figure out the rules as we go along.   And even more importantly, figure out who we are.

And it all started with a guy named Charlie Poole.   Now stop me if you’ve heard this one before–two guys walk into a bar……


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: Pity Him Afterwards


It had happened to him other times, when he was fooling Doctor Chax by making him believe he was one of the other inmates.  Sometimes it had happened that in the making-believe he had lost touch with himself, the true self and the assumed self had become confused together, and for a while he had not been in control.  At such times a tiny portion of himself–he visualized it as crouching low against the floor in a dark corner–only that tiny portion of  himself was still aware, could still differentiate between fantasy and reality, while the rest of him was all taken over by the other being.  Times when all but that tiny portion of himself actually believed he was that other being.  It hadn’t happened often, and it never lasted long, so he had never been overly concerned about it.

From Pity Him Afterwards, by Donald Westlake.

Mother killed them.  That’s what he said, but it was a lie.

How could she kill them when she was only watching, when she couldn’t even move because she had to pretend to be a stuffed figure, a harmless stuffed figure that couldn’t hurt or be hurt but merely exists forever?

She knew that nobody would believe the bad man, and he was dead now, too.  The bad man and the bad boy were both dead, or else they were just part of the dream.  And the dream had gone away now for good.

She was the only one left, and she was real.

To be the only one, and to know that you are real–that’s sanity, isn’t it?

From Psycho, by Robert Bloch.

Pity Him Afterwards was Donald Westlake’s 5th novel for Random House–he was contracted to do one a year for them, starting in 1960, so this one came out in 1964.   It’s a break with his past Random House ‘mysteries’ on several levels–the most obvious of which being that it’s written in the third person, from the perspective of several different characters.   Westlake had written his four previous novels published under his own name in the first person, and they were firmly cast in the mold of hardboiled crime fiction, ala Dashiell Hammett.   This would be more of a psychological thriller (emphasis on the ‘psycho’), with a very slight (almost non-existent) mystery angle.  Westlake later claimed to have written the book in eleven days.   Which is pretty damned impressive, but as Moliere’s Alceste might say “The time’s irrelevant, sir.  Kindly recite it.”

Just a few years earlier, Robert Bloch’s Psycho had been turned into one of the most successful and influential films of all time by Alfred Hitchcock.   I’ve seen the movie I-don’t-know-how-many-times–ten, maybe?–but only read the novel this week–and was surprised at how closely Joseph (The Outer Limits) Stefano’s screenplay hewed to the original.    Remarkably few changes for a Hollywood adaptation.  The biggest change was to Norman Bates himself, a fat middle-aged amateur occultist in the book–did not even slightly resemble Anthony Perkins.

I was also a bit disappointed at how bland  (though extremely well-structured) the novel and its murderous protagonist seemed to me, right up until the end–when Bloch’s extraordinary gift for gruesome twist endings actually got to me, in spite of my knowing all the main twists in the story ever since I was a kid.   His reputation was well-earned.  But I wasn’t scared–I’ve seen too many variations on this story to be scared by it anymore.  Back in 1959, I’d have been scared.  The fact is, Psycho changed us as a culture–it raised the bar for what was shocking, for better or worse.   We’re still feeling its impact, over half a century later.

The success of both versions of Bloch’s story inspired hosts of imitators, or at least emulators–nothing wrong about this, it’s simply a fact.   Westlake must have seen the film, and I’ve little doubt he read the novel–Bloch was, after all, a fellow member of the Mystery Writers of America (and served as that organization’s President in 1970).    He had started out writing H.P. Lovecraft pastiches (Lovecraft was his primary mentor as a young man), but he’d quickly evolved into writing about non-supernatural tales of murder and mayhem, though he never quite gave up on the paranormal angle (it’s there in Psycho, just on a very low key).

Pity Him Afterwards isn’t a carbon copy of Psycho, but is following very much in its wake, and has to be viewed as a response to it, much as Killing Time is a response to Red Harvest.   But Westlake set out to tell a very different story about a very different crazed protagonist.   And what is merely implicit in Bloch’s story–the mutability and divisibility of identity, and how dangerous it can be–will be the centerpiece of Westlake’s narrative.

Westlake, like Bloch, chooses to open the narrative inside the mind of the killer–who in Westlake’s novel is already a killer, having murdered two employees of the psychiatric institute he was in while escaping it, and then strangled a young actor who picked him up on the road when the unlucky thespian realized who he was–this is while the car was in motion, and it obviously crashed, which got the state police back on his trail, which is where we find him when the book begins, desperately scrambling up a hill while they search for him.  But he gets away, and goes on to kill eight more people in the course of the book.   So if we’re talking stats, he’s got Norman Bates beat all hollow.

Robert Ellington (more often referred to as “The Madman”) is a young man with a high IQ  (168), and absolutely no understanding of other human beings–or himself.   We’re told that he became frustrated at an unrewarding job, and killed two male co-workers, leading to his being committed to an (inaptly named) sanitarium, followed by a lengthy regimen of psychoanalysis interspersed with electroconvulsive therapy.   Which served to make him even crazier, as it would most people (yes, I know, ECT is back, and they say it works wonders, and the abuses of the past won’t occur again, but they were sure as hell occurring at the time this novel is set).   It also made him willing to do anything to avoid going back to that place.   Literally.   Anything.

Though one of his doctors, named Peterby, calls him a genius, the narrator, peering directly into his mind, tells us a somewhat different story–because certain parts of his brain aren’t functioning properly, the rest function more efficiently to compensate–he’s an excellent mimic, with a fantastic memory–but his more recent recollections tend to fade after about a month (Westlake still making use of his research for Memory).

He’s no Hannibal Lector, that much is certain–he may think he’s a superior being, but we are most decidedly not supposed to think that of him.   His thought patterns are facile, but not particularly deep or penetrating, and his view of reality is hopelessly confused.    He reasons at the level of a child, and thinks children are better than adults–more honest–though they will someday become adults, which makes him wonder if it would be better to kill them all before that terrible event occurs.

He is deeply paranoid, but with some reason after his escape, since everyone is out to get him, or would be if they knew who he was.   Thing is, he tends to see enemies where they don’t exist–and he believes all his psychiatrists are one sinister collective entity, that he’s named “Doctor Chax”; a nearly omnipotent many-faced creature that exists only to torture and imprison him–and make him believe false things about himself–like that he’s a murderer–he feels wholly justified in killing anyone who tries to make him believe that.

Having killed the actor and taken his clothes, then killed an elderly couple so he can take shelter in their house, the madman reasons that he can find shelter at the summer stock theatrical company the actor told him about, where he was going to spend the season at–nobody there knows the murdered actor.   The madman used to think he could be an actor himself–now he’ll get a chance to try.

The madman solves the problem of the professional photos the actor’s talent agency had sent there by saying the agency sent the wrong photos–and getting photos of himself made–after which he kills the photographer who made them–for asking to be paid for them (he despises all mercenary motives).    He killed the elderly couple because he assumed they wouldn’t give him shelter.   He hates killing, but is finding it easier and easier, each time he does it.

He is self-centered to a pathological degree, but is incapable of understanding this about himself.   In his mind, nothing he does is wrong–every crime he commits is made necessary by the cruelty and selfishness of other people.   His father told him you do whatever you have to do to survive, and he takes this quite seriously.  He’s not an animal–no animal (except man) would bother to rationalize this way.   He takes whatever he wants from others, but he still needs to see himself as justified in the sight of–something.   He believes he is the only fully honest person alive, and that’s why he was sent to the asylum.  He does not seem to believe in any higher power–other than Doctor Chax.    This is the universe he lives in.   He does not think there is any other.

But in the book, there are other POV’s, other protagonists.   The first we meet is Mel Daniels, a young Jewish actor (whose father doesn’t understand why he needs to change his perfectly good name of Melvin Blum), who is coming to work at Cartier Isle Theater, which caters to the rich people who summer around the lake there.   He gets picked up at the bus stop by Mary Ann McKendrick, a local girl who aspires to be a theatrical director (and will serve as the obligatory love interest for Mel).  He’s at the theater less than an hour before he discovers the body of Cissy Walker, another actor, who has been raped and murdered.   Well, the other way around, actually.   The reader is not left in suspense over whodunnit.

The mystery–since this is, after all, a Random House Mystery–is which of the young male actors in the company was murdered and replaced by Robert Ellington, and we spend a good bit of the book trying to guess who that is–as Ellington commits several more murders, and gets progressively crazier, while still effectively hiding his true identity from everyone, including the law.  It’s a clever reversal of the usual expectations of the genre, but I don’t think Westlake does very much with it.

Nor do I think he plays fair with the reader–Westlake could write a very good mystery when he set his mind to it, but he’s not very interested in doing so here.   The clues are intentionally misleading–I’ve read the relevant passages through multiple times, and there’s just no way you could logically deduce which actor is the madman.  I couldn’t even remember from my previous reading who it was, and once again made the same bad guess Westlake intended the reader to make.

If you go by the clues alone, you will make the wrong guess every time.  And I think this is Westlake saying that it’s just nonsense there’s always this logic-based trail of factual bread crumbs that will lead you unerringly to the perpetrator, particularly when the perpetrator himself is supremely illogical.   Intuition will tell you who is the madman the first time you see him in his assumed identity, and then you say “Oh it can’t be that obvious” but guess what–it’s that obvious.   I won’t even bother to say which one them it turns out to be.  It’s not the point of the story.

The detective on the case (who fails to crack it just as miserably as I did) is Eric Sondgard, a humanities professor at a small New England college, who serves as Cartier Isle’s police chief during the busy summer months (there being no call for one the rest of the year, when the summer people go home).    He’s got his own version of a split identity–

“There’s a dichotomy in you, Captain Professor,” he told himself.   “Half of you is a humanist and half of you is a Cossack.  You’re all mixed up, Professor Captain.”

If this were a TV show or a movie, he’d solve the mystery–but this is a Westlake novel, where detectives–and people with divided identities–rarely do well.   Sondgard misses the one thing that might have solved the case early–checking to make sure all these young actors really are who they say they are–he ends up with four main suspects, and he doesn’t even send their fingerprints out to be checked, in case one of them committed a crime under another name.   Never so much as occurs to him.

He stubbornly refuses to call in the state police, because he thinks a humanist is better qualified to answer the question of who is a madman than some scientific detective.   It’s not at all certain the pros would have done any better, but the police procedural part of the story is basically just one long exercise in bungling by Sondgard and his deputy.   Sondgard could be called the hero of the piece, but he’s a lousy detective, and he is forced to admit that to himself.    When he learns the identity of the madman, it’s by accident.

Robert Ellington, in the meantime, is enjoying the actor’s life tremendously.   He thinks it’s wonderful.   Working together, building sets, learning lines, taking direction.   This is his true self, he tells himself.   He doesn’t think at all about what happens when the season ends (assuming it even gets started).   He sincerely hopes he won’t have to kill anyone else–except that he thinks Sondgard may be an agent of Doctor Chax–or Chax himself.    He will have to kill him.  Mel Daniels is also suspected.   There may be cameras recording his every move–Chax is everywhere.   Chax knows everything.

At the mental institution, they were trying to make him understand he was mentally ill, and he refused to accept that.   To avoid being forced to see it–to see himself, clearly–he began taking on the identities of other patients there, and responding to the doctors as these people.   That way, he could avoid any shattering revelations, but he also became a complete stranger to himself.   And no more capable of understanding other people than he understands himself.

And all the while, buried deep in his psyche, is a more primal version of himself, that springs forth and rips to pieces a security guard who confronts Robert on the grounds of one of the resort homes in the surrounding area.

It was some other being, some darker creation he remembered only vaguely, from long long ago, from the forgotten time before he was ever in the asylum. Beaten down and subdued by the ministrations of Doctor Chax, it had lain undetected all this time at the very core of him.  With freedom, it had slowly begun to emerge.  The killing he had been forced to commit had strengthened it, and this sudden surprise and shock and blindness had given it the opening it needed.

So deep within this madman is an even madder man.    He’s pretending to be someone he killed, soaking up ideas and memories from everyone around him to create a composite persona, and desperately trying to control a part of himself that kills compulsively (as opposed to his surface personality, that kills only when he thinks it’s necessary).

Sondgard doesn’t know how to identify him, but he ends up outing himself.    His identity becomes so fractured that he can’t hold himself together anymore, and he snaps at the wrong time, right in front of Sondgard.

He bolts for the lake, killing two lovers in a rowboat, and ends up on a little island that as luck would have it, Mel and Mary Ann have chosen to act on their growing feelings for each other.   Of course this proves without any doubt that Mel is Doctor Chax–who the madman can finally kill.   But before he can do it, the other  Chax named Sondgard shows up–with his gun.   And an enormous crushing sense of responsibility for all the people who got murdered on his watch, while he pondered on the nature of insanity.   He gives the madman no chance to surrender (not that he was going to), and he does not shoot to wound.   He cuts him down first, and whether he pities him afterwards is left to our imaginations, because that’s the last we see of any of these characters.

And in the epilogue, Dr. Peterby–the real Doctor Chax, or one of them anyway–is the only one who mourns the madman–feeling that Robert Ellington was far superior to any of the people he killed, or the ‘ignorant brute’ who killed him (either nobody told him Sondgard’s regular profession, or Peterby has a really low opinion of the humanities).    The final irony is that the only person who really cared about Robert Ellington was the one person Robert Ellington would have most liked to kill.   Have I mentioned that Donald Westlake didn’t think much of psychiatrists?   We’ll be seeing further evidence of this in later books.

That’s a very truncated plot synopsis for me, and for good reason–I don’t like the plot of this book.   I love the way it’s written, the beauty of the prose–I love the glimpses into the madman’s mind–the innovative take on the “there’s a crazed killer among us!” story–but overall, I think this book is much less than the sum of its parts.   Psycho isn’t simply better remembered because of the Hitchcock film.  Robert Bloch was maybe half the prose stylist Donald Westlake was–and a much less proficient novelist (his real metier was the short story, a form in which he had few equals in the genres he favored).

But for all its limitations of style and characterization (and dialogue, most of all), Bloch’s novel is a coherent whole, the pieces all fitting together perfectly–he knew this kind of story backwards and forwards, and being a better writer doesn’t necessarily mean you have a better story to tell.   Bloch likes Norman Bates.   He empathizes with him.   Not for nothing did they cast Anthony Perkins to play him.  Bloch doesn’t want him to win, but he feels sorry for him–and leaves him alive at the end (well, kinda).  He gave him two sequels (that Hollywood never touched), and I wonder if he’d have done that even if there’d been no movie.   His first victim’s sister, having helped bring him to justice, expresses no anger at him–her final word is “We’re not all quite as sane as we pretend to be.”   No indeed, but there are differences of degree, surely.

Westlake’s book, composed in feverish haste, possibly needing a few more rewrites, trying to turn itself into a detective novel while not thinking very much of detectives–and sticking a love story that doesn’t go anywhere right into the middle–it just doesn’t hold together that well.   It’s  what I’d call an entertaining failure.   Many have thought otherwise.  And if any of you would like to speak up in the comments section, I’d be only too pleased……

In the same interview he mentioned he’d written it in eleven days, Westlake said he’d recently reread Pity Him Afterwards (after a long period of not reading it), and said it was better–and faster–than he’d remembered.   Which to me, says that he originally thought it wasn’t that good, and was perhaps a mite slow-moving.   Expectations certainly do factor into our evaluation of any book–I liked it much better the first time I read it, with few expectations at all, though I remember being disappointed by the ending–unlike Psycho, which started slow and ended with a bang.

Rereading it for this review, I was struck by how unconvincing the characters other than Robert Ellington were–Westlake simply can’t make them live and breathe on their own.  They are there for counterpoint–to show how normal minds work, and how badly they understand the abnormal mind.  He obviously didn’t want to go the route of Edgar Allan Poe–showing us the world entirely from the POV of a madman, as opposed to interposing chapters from the madman’s POV, with chapters centered around Sondgard and Mel.   He didn’t want to stay inside his madman’s mind the entire book, which would have been a fascinating exercise.  I think that’s because he didn’t really identify with his madman.   He couldn’t.   Donald Westlake can’t identify with someone who doesn’t want to understand his own identity.  That, for him, is the unforgivable sin.

In many ways,  the madman’s philosophy jibes with that of Parker–do whatever is necessary to survive–but Parker never deceives himself, never rationalizes, never hides from the truth.  Robert Ellington never does anything else.  That’s what makes him a madman.   Unlike Parker, he hides from himself–and not knowing himself, he can’t correctly understand anyone else’s motivations–which means he makes murder the answer to everything.

Westlake created a few other protagonists who lose themselves, but they still at least aspire to self-understanding, even if they ultimately fail to achieve it.   The madman fails by design.   In fact, his failure is perceived by him as success.  Contrary to what Dr. Peterby thinks, he was never coming back to reality.   His ‘genius’ was simply a highly evolved form of blindness.

The most fascinating thing about the book to me is its title–and the passage from Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson that inspired it.   Dr. Johnson, you should know, was only using a madman armed with a stick as a metaphor for certain ‘enthusiasts’–familiar to him then as they are to us now–who perceive any threat to their political, philosophical or religious beliefs as a threat to their existence, and behave correspondingly.   Johnson is not approving of this attitude–he is simply seeing it from the inside, to better understand it.

Those who don’t believe deeply, Johnson told Boswell, can discuss any given subject dispassionately, and will not be offended when someone contradicts their beliefs.  But to those who want to believe with all their souls that only their opinions on God, the Universe and Everything are correct (while secretly doubting them) will literally see any attempt to contradict them as being the equivalent of a madman with a stick coming into the room–they knock them down first, pity them afterwards–because the alternative would be to question their most deeply held beliefs–which is to say, themselves.   And they’d rather die.  Or better, kill.

This is Robert Ellington’s madness–and to him, we are the madmen.   He was knocking us down first, before we could tell him the truth–but like all other fanatics, his pity for his victims was at best shortlived, and increasingly left out altogether.   People like that really do have to be knocked down sometimes, when they act on their feelings (and I am not speaking of the clinically insane here), but they seem to be proliferating with ever-greater rapidity these days, faster than the Sondgards of the world can dispose of them.   The Madman’s day may yet come.   Robert Ellington might well have been a prophetic figure.   I feel that way every time I watch cable news.

My feeling is that this book should have been written under a pseudonym–it’s not a Westlake novel.   It’s not a Richard Stark either.   It’s somebody else, but Westlake needed to submit something to Random House, and it had to be under his own name.   Writing under a different name, taking a bit more time to craft it, this could have been far more than it is–he might have found a way to make it come together.   But as it stands, it’s not bad.   A decent thriller with an unconventional take on a well-worn premise–perfect reading if you’re spending the summer by a lake.   But not the kind of book we remember Donald Westlake for.

What do we remember Donald Westlake for?   As opposed to Richard Stark?   I ask, because  we’ve reached a rather critical juncture in this exploration of his development as a writer.   I tend to think he was not satisfied with his detour into grand guignol, into Robert Bloch territory.   He didn’t want to keep doing variations on Hammett all the time, and he’d found a better outlet for the darker elements of his vision in Richard Stark and Parker.   So what else could he do in this crime/mystery/detective genre he’d made a place for himself in?   What could he be doing that basically nobody else in that genre was doing?    And in so doing, give voice to that very large part of him that wasn’t all grim and noir-ish?

And then it came to him.

See you in a week, nephews.   Stay sane.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: The Score

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Several of the books had been by this writer Richard Stark, always about the same crook, named Parker.   Robbery stories, big capers, armored cars, banks, all that sort of thing.   And what Kelp really liked about the books was that Parker always got away with it.  Robbery stories where the crooks didn’t get caught at the end–fantastic.    For Kelp, it was like being an American Indian and going to a western movie where the cowboys lose.  Wagon train wiped out, cavalry lost in the desert, settlement abandoned, ranchers and farmers driven back across the Mississippi.  Grand.

From Jimmy the Kid, by Donald Westlake.

By late 1963, Westlake had published four novels about a professional heavy heister–not simply an armed robber, but a specialist, who typically works with a ‘string’ of fellow professionals, to commit institutional robbery–that is to say, stealing from organizations, private or public in nature.   Banks, payrolls, businesses that have a lot of cash or valuables on hand, etc.  He may sometimes steal from an individual, but it’s never his preferential option.   He may work alone or with just one partner at times, but ditto.

He feels most comfortable in a group of about five skilled reliable people he already knows, scoping out the target, coming up with a solid plan (one of Parker’s two specialties), taking untraceable cash, making an agreed-upon split, and then going their separate ways, without any ‘civilians’ getting hurt along the way, because death ups the ante for law enforcement.   And it never did quite work out that way, in any of the novels.   But that was always the goal.

And yet we never see this kind of job in any detail before the fifth novel.   There are maybe eight organized armed robberies depicted in the four previous books (depends on how you define it), most of them quite briefly.   They are all more or less incidental to the main story in each book, and Parker is only involved in about half of them.   In The Score, for the very first time, the growing readership for these books saw a job from beginning to end–the job itself is the story.   The job, and the men who do it.    And there’s a lot of them–twelve, in fact.  Each of whom is a protagonist in his own right.    It’s a real  heist story, of a kind movie audiences were well familiar with from the past few decades, and particularly the 1950’s and 60’s, when the genre in its modern form began to really take hold in its own right.

Though if you wanted to trace it back all the way to its roots–well, isn’t the Argonautica basically a heist epic?   If you look at what actually happens in it, it’s more amoral (or downright immoral) than anything from 20th century Hollywood (including the Ray Harryhausen adaptation of the Argonautica).   Jason steals the Golden Fleece from people who never harmed him, killing hundreds (maybe thousands) of people along the way, with the help of his legendary band of heroic thieves, with the gods basically serving as backers for the whole operation.

In the latter part of the myth, he abandons the woman who gave up everything for him (without whom he could never have gotten the Fleece), leading to famously horrific consequences, but he still gets his son on the throne, lives to what was then considered a pretty good age, and dies in his sleep, crushed by a timber that falls off his rotting ship.   We’re told this was the punishment of the gods for Jason violating his oath to love Medea forever, but hey–how many 20th Century noir heroes ever got off that easy?

People all over the world have always enjoyed a story about a group of talented individuals getting together to take something that doesn’t belong to them. Basically ever since people started telling each other stories.  How that story ends tells you a lot about the culture that produces it.   In America, the story usually ends with the robbers getting caught, or killed, or losing the money, or else they were stealing from bad people so it was never really stealing (that last variation is increasingly dominant at the movies these days).   Cecil B. DeMille said American audiences like to see sinful doings, but then they want the sinners punished at the end, so they (the audience) may be purged of vicarious guilt.   C.B. knew what he was talking about.

In France, the heist story usually ends the same way, but somehow not for quite the same reasons–it’s more of an existentialist thing–we’re all guilty of the crime of being born, or something like that.  In Italy and the UK, the story usually ends comically, showing us the absurdity of the participants (whose absurdity we share in), but again we see the thieves get their comeuppance somehow.   They never just walk happily off into the sunset with the loot, unless they’re taking it from other criminals.   There’s always a catch somewhere.

These approaches all have their merits.   But there is another alternative–suppose the thieves just go in and take what they want from legitimate non-criminal enterprises, and get away clean, and spend the money, and live to steal again?  Maybe take a casualty or two, some things go wrong along the way, courtesy of Murphy’s Law, but they deal with the complications, and come out the other end richer for the effort.   Someday they’ll die, but someday everybody dies.   How long they live will depend in part on how smart, intrepid, and careful they are, as well as on luck.   Just desserts have nothing to do with anything.

And they are actually enjoying their work, mind you–doing it not as some kind of get-rich-quick scheme, something they’re going to try once and then retire to South America or wherever–habitual offenders, not dabblers.   And not doing this because they were forced into it somehow–a time-tested moral escape hatch in the movies–but because it’s what they do, who they are, how they want to live.

How would that be?   Wouldn’t you like to know?   Well, read The Score (you should anyway, before you read this spoiler-laden review).   And possibly some earlier books, but I don’t really know any earlier ones to recommend to you.   They may exist, but I haven’t read them.   Or heard of them.   And forget about the movies.

I shouldn’t forget about The Man With the Getaway Face, which did show a rather small scale payroll heist, and while two of the four participants end up dead, Parker and Handy get away clean with more money than they’d have had if one of the other two hadn’t tried a doublecross.  Parker steals money that was intended to pay honest hardworking people,  murders without the slightest qualm a female accomplice who was going to take it all for herself, and if there’s a moral to the story at all, it sure isn’t “crime does not pay.”

In many ways, The Score is simply expanding and elaborating on that section of the earlier book, but The Man With the Getaway Face is more about what comes before and after the heist than the heist itself.   It ends with Parker inadvertently performing what might be called a good deed, by killing a guy who was a much bigger crook than he and his confederates could ever possibly be–rough justice, but still justice.    We’re not 100% of the way there yet.

In The Score, there’s no moral escape hatch.   We’re in on this job with Parker & Co., fully implicated in their crime, and rooting like hell for them to succeed.   They may not all make it, but neither will some decent law-abiding people in the story who don’t remotely deserve the fate awaiting them.   There is no justice here.   There is only what you do and what you fail to do.    There’s life and death and what comes in-between, and how you deal with all that.    Nothing else.  The only values Richard Stark holds dear are professionalism, individualism, and self-understanding.  The rest is negotiable.   Donald Westlake may not feel quite the same way about it, but Westlake isn’t in the driver’s seat here.

This book opens in Jersey City, with Parker headed for a meeting about a job–after two introductory chapters, there’s a relatively brief flashback that could just as easily be left out, except it shows us a rare glimpse of Parker in non-working mode, at a Florida resort hotel, getting ogled by bikini-clad girls, and wishing he was on a job again, only six months after he finally got everything squared away with Mal Resnick, The Outfit, and Bett Harrow.   And he can’t just relax and enjoy it.   He could basically just point at one of those good-looking secretaries on vacation and she’d toss him her room keys–and he’s bored, restless.   His cyclical sex drive has petered out again.

You’d think after a year or so like the one he just had (that started with his wife shooting him), he’d want at least a year or so off.   And you’d think he could afford it, after nabbing what in today’s money would well over $700,000.  Yes, he’s living in a luxury hotel, he’s eating in fancy restaurants, he’s wearing tailored suits, and he’s a really good tipper (Parker has learned that it pays to schmooze the help) but his lifestyle is pretty spartan for all that, and he doesn’t want to own anything.  We’re told that he’s only got 17 grand left.   Which  is more than the average working slob back then made in three years, but Parker figures he’s got enough for a few more months.

I remember one interview in which Westlake said he’d love to ask Parker what he did with all that money–the only answer  that presents itself to me is that Parker can’t live without working, which for him can only mean heisting, so he spends the money faster than he has to, so he’ll have an excuse to work again.   He has to find a balance between taking enough jobs to satisfy this need, but not so many that he ends up in prison (which would destroy him).

In The Hunter, we were told that he worked once a year on average, but that was when he had Lynn.     Without her, he’s restless, unrooted, and needs to work more.  He’ll have to do something about this eventually, but for the moment he’s going to tell himself his reserve fund is too low, not ask himself how he managed to blow through almost a hundred thousand dollars in a few months, and go to Jersey City to talk to some men about a potential job.

The finger on this job is a guy named Edgars, who has hooked up with Paulus, a safecracker Parker knows, who is solid at his specialty, but a jumpy paranoid wreck otherwise.   Paulus has also called in Dan Wycza, a sometime-wrestler, and Alan Grofield, a most-of-the-time actor.   We’re going to be seeing Dan on and off throughout the series, and Grofield  is going to be Richard Stark’s other franchise boy for a while–the supporting cast is really shaping up.

What Wycza and Grofield have in common is that heisting is a means of financing their other lives–Dan is a fitness nut, as well as a pro wrestler.   Grofield got into heisting when the theater company he was a part of ran out of money, and they decided to knock over a supermarket.   Parker considers them solid pros, but they are very very different from him, and from Handy McKay, who tells Parker to count him out of this job–he really is retired this time.   Which serves to remind us of what’s come before, while telling us we’re going in a new direction.   The first cycle of the Parker saga, that centered around his trouble with The Outfit, has concluded.  This is the transitional book.

Edgars breaks out a slide projector, and shows them shots of Copper Canyon, a small mining town in North Dakota.   It takes them a few minutes to realize what he’s proposing–that they rob every major enterprise in town, the banks, the mining payroll, jewelry stores, everything, all in one night, taking over the police station and the telephone switchboard in the process–he figures they’ll get over a quarter of a million dollars.    He also figures they’ll need maybe thirty men.   There’s only one road out of the town, which is surrounded on three sides by high cliffs.   If anything goes wrong, they could be trapped in there.   And there’s a state trooper station right outside the town limits.

Parker smells trouble all over Edgars and his crazy scheme, but the professional in him is intrigued by the challenge.  He says they wouldn’t need half that many guys to keep a lid on this sleepy little burg in the middle of the night.  He finally settles on twelve–enough to do the job, cover all the bases; few enough for everyone to get a decent split and avoid the kind of over-complexity that dooms a job.   Also a rather disturbing gospel reference, presumably unintended on his part, if not Stark’s.

They start reaching out to various professional acquaintances (including our old friend Salsa from The Outfit), financing the job via a doctor in New York, buying guns from the usual unsavory people–also cars, walkie-talkies, and other equipment–and firming up the plan with a bit of advance scouting, done under the pretense of selling insurance (which comes up so often in Westlake’s novels and short stories, I have to figure he actually did sell insurance for a while).   It must be said that in this genre, the preliminaries can be as much fun as the main event.  And particularly when Richard Stark is spinning the yarn.

It turns out Edgars has been shacked up with a good-looking 30-ish blonde named Jean–a very different kind of blonde than Bett Harrow–a New York girl, short, stacked, working class, a bit prone to theatrics.   Edgars wants her to come along, because he’s worried she’ll find another boyfriend.   Parker says forget it–eventually, it’s arranged for her to wait for them in Thief River Falls Minnesota, which is a real place (unlike Copper Canyon).

Jean takes an immediate disliking to Parker, calling him ‘Ugly’, and of course tries to get him in bed maybe 20 minutes after they first meet.   He says maybe after the job is done.   He does not say this in front of Edgars.   He doesn’t know if he means it or not.  It’s not really that important at the moment, but he will need a woman afterwards.   In the privacy of his mind he calls Jean a tramp, which seems a mite judgmental for him–and Stark–is Westlake still working through some issues with womankind here?    Perhaps, but in spite of her flaws (or because of them) Jean is the most likable woman Parker has met to date in the novels.   The competition is admittedly not fierce thus far.   It gets better.

They get set up in an abandoned mining camp outside town, which will serve as their hideout for a few days after the heist.   One by one, we get to know a bit about each of the 12 participants–except Edgars, who is hiding something from his colleagues (and the reader).   They are all quirky freewheeling individuals, some more professional than others, and Parker has his work cut out for him getting them to function together as a unit, but morale is good overall.    It’s a decent string.    Parker is pleased.   But there’s still something about Edgars……

The operation itself takes place within in Part 3 of the book,  which runs from page 79 through 125 in the first edition paperback.   It’s a small marvel of impeccably choreographed storytelling: constantly switching perspectives–we begin with the two police officers in their prowl car, who get called back to their station by a nervous-sounding dispatcher–only to find that he’s nervous because he’s got a whole lot of guns pointed at him.   Parker, the organizer, troubleshooter, and (if the need arises) enforcer, will take their place for a few hours–he’s going to be riding around in the police car, wearing a mask, looking for problems–and that’s an image that sticks with you a long time.

All the main points of authority, the police station, the firehouse, the switchboard, will be taken over and run by thieves.   Small town Middle America, living under a self-imposed curfew (that makes Parker’s life so much easier), has been turned on its head–Copper Canyon is under heister law, and only a handful of the locals even know about it.   Most are peacefully sleeping, though Stark says a few are reading, having sex, occupied with their own lives, while all the while Parker & Co. are opening safes, and carting everything of value in Copper Canyon into a waiting Mack Truck.  Even the radio station is shut down (and there’s no mention of television).  For a few hours, everything stops.   Everything but the thievery.

One beautiful little vignette involves a 19 year old named Eddie who was having an enjoyable night of sex with his girlfriend Betty in her own bed while her parents are out of town.   He doesn’t want his parents to know about this, and  he and Betty took a post-coital nap that lasted well past curfew.   She wants him to stay, but he feels like he has to sneak back home–and along the way, he sees the bank being robbed.   He does what any good citizen would do–he calls the cops from a phone booth.   They tell him to stay where he is.   Parker comes around in the prowl car and picks him up.   Eddie can’t believe it.  Parker leaves him bound and gagged in an alleyway, catching a cold, and wondering why the hell he didn’t just stay warm in bed with his girl.   He’s asking himself, why did he care if his parents knew?   Because he’s not ready to think of himself as an adult yet, even though he’s acting like one.

I will say, this is one of the few times the movies improved on a Parker novel–in Alain Cavalier’s adaptation, Mise a Sac, which switches the action to rural France, the poor kid (whose girlfriend is beautiful, and French, so maybe more to be envied than pitied?) ends up in the town jail, looking truly confused.   There’s a good reason why Westlake didn’t write it like that, but Cavalier picks up perfectly on what the story is really about here–subversion of social authority–you only have to take over a few key positions in a town like this to control it.   Then the crooks can put the honest citizens behind bars if they want–it’s topsy-turvy, a criminal Walpurgisnacht.    And then it all falls apart.

We get the warning from one of the bound-and-gagged cops when he recognizes Edgars’ voice–as we finally get into Edgars’ head, we learn the story Parker should have uncovered, but didn’t–probably because he wanted to work this job so much, he didn’t listen to the alarm bells in his head.  Edgars was the Chief of Police there–a corrupt brutal one, who was fired and run out of town.

What irks him the most is that they didn’t have anything solid on him–so even though he was guilty as sin, firing him without proof of wrongdoing was breaking the rules, hypocritical, unfair.   Very reminiscent of Clay’s anger at society in The Mercenaries, when everyone assumed he was guilty of a hit&run–which he was, but they didn’t prove it.    When I see Westlake returning to a theme like that again and again, I know it has to be coming from somewhere inside of him.   This is an emotion he personally has felt.   Let’s stick a pin in that, and move on.

Edgars swore he’d get even, and for him, getting even means not just robbing Copper Canyon blind, but destroying it utterly, leaving its smug city fathers alive to survey the ruins.   He knew Parker and the others wouldn’t go along if he told them this, but he figures once it’s already happening, they’ll help him finish the job, because they don’t have any other choice.   Yeah.  He’s nuts.   That can happen when you take a man’s whole identity away from him–Edgars doesn’t know how to be a decent crook, but he can’t be a cop anymore, even a crooked one, so his energies turn inwards–he becomes his own opposite.    It’s driven him over the edge.   And he takes a lot of people with him, starting with the policemen left in his care, who he guns down without mercy.

It escalates quickly–he’s gotten some confiscated hand grenades from a storage room at the station house, and he uses one to blow the station house up–then on to the firehouse, where he shoots one of his fellow heisters,  Chambers, a Kentucky redneck, who ironically enough was just hoping the firemen he was guarding would give him an excuse to kill them–but he still won’t just let Edgars gun them down in cold blood–maybe he gets a few years off his stretch in Purgatory for that?  Sorry, the Catholic in us Irish boys dies hard.

Boom goes the firehouse.   Edgars then heads for the gas station, with convenient above-ground tanks, which he’s going to use to set the whole town on fire–Parker and Wycza have caught up with him by now, and are probably about to kill him, but they never get the chance–he blows himself up.   Copper Canyon is burning.   The job is soured.   The whole crew gets out of town in a hurry, with most of the money they were after.   The state troopers, headquartered right outside town, drive right past them without even stopping.  Parker is pissed.   And he doesn’t even know about Grofield’s girl yet.

Grofield was at the telephone switchboard, and unfortunately or not, depending on how you look at it, the girl they left untied to handle any late-night calls,  named Mary Deegan, was very attractive–no physical description of her, but you just assume she’s got to be.   She immediately hit it off with Grofield.   He took his mask off (among other things), and she’s seen his face (among other things).   Not the last time Grofield will mix business with pleasure–he’s no Parker.

Mary wants to go along with Grofield–nay, she insists.   She wants out of this dead end town.   She’s ready to try being somebody other than a switchboard girl.  She doesn’t quite threaten to provide the police with a physical description of Grofield, but she reminds him she can.     The sex must have been really good, because Grofield finally agrees.   When he shows up at the Mack Truck with her, Wycza blows a gasket, but there’s no time to argue, so she blows town with them, sitting in Grofield’s lap.    It’s been an interesting night.

So back at the hideout, things are, shall we say, tense.   Thanks to Edgars, the police are looking not just for thieves, but cop-killing, fireman-slaughtering, town-burning maniacs.   Helicopters are passing overhead, but they have the automotive transport well-concealed.  Paulus is about ready to bolt.  And thanks to Grofield not being able to stop being–Grofield–they have in their midst a young female ‘hostage’ whose uncle is one of the dead firemen.   And now she’s seen all their faces.   Parker takes Grofield aside, and tells him where he can bury Mary’s body.   It isn’t a suggestion.

Grofield is capable of quite a lot of things, but killing a woman probably isn’t one of them.  He and Parker have a tense little discussion, that ends with Parker asking to see Mary alone.   He’s got to know.

She looked up and studied his face in the matchlight, and when it was dark again she said, “The simplest thing would just be to throw me off the cliff here, wouldn’t it?”

“It would.”

“Why don’t you?  You’re not afraid of Grofield.”

“I don’t kill as the easy way out of something.  If I kill, it’s because I don’t have any choice.”

“You mean self-defense.”

“Wrong.  I mean it’s the only way to get what I want.”

In spite of himself, Parker is impressed with her.   She knows exactly what she wants.   It wasn’t just a random impulse she’ll later regret.   She’s sorry her uncle is dead, but that cuts her last tie to Copper Canyon.  She’d been planning her escape for a while, and Grofield showed up at the right time.  She doesn’t know if they’ll stay together, and she doesn’t care.   She wants the new life he can show to her–the theater, travel, big cities–a whole new identity.   She wants Mary Deegan dead as much as Parker does.   This is something she’s doing for herself, but she can also stabilize Grofield, maybe keep him out of jail, force him to do boring bourgeois things his artist’s soul is repulsed by, like filling out imaginative tax returns to justify his illicit income.   That way Parker can go on working with him in the future.   That’s well and good, but it isn’t the main reason he lets her convince him.  Parker can understand her motives for doing what she did.   They make sense to him.   She can live.

In the meantime, Paulus is about to die–Edgars’ deception has confirmed his most paranoid instincts, the circling helicopters doing their grid searches have unnerved him completely, and the calm professional in him collapses, replaced by a panic-stricken amateur.  He wants to leave, with his split of the take, now, while the roadblocks are still up.   The others can’t let him do this, so he sneaks out and does it anyway–Parker, Wycza, and Salsa block his car on a narrow cliffside road, and losing his last solitary shred of self-composure, he goes off the edge–taking his share with him.   Salsa finds this oddly fitting.

There’s plenty left to split between them–a bit over 30k per man.   They give a few hundred to Grofield and Mary as a joke wedding gift (which turns out to be prophetic).   Pop Phillips, the most respectable-looking of them, checks to see if it’s safe to leave–when he comes back and gives the all clear, they pack up their vehicles and head out.   They robbed an entire town, inadvertently leading to its near-total destruction, and the death of uniformed personnel–and they’re just going to drive away from it.    Pity some folks got hurt, but that’s nothing to do with them.   They were just doing their jobs.   Shit happens.

Parker’s only problem with the job was how messy it got.   He was exceptionally satisfied with it, otherwise–it seems to have touched some primal aesthetic sense within him.    It was a beautiful job, a perfect plan, marred only by one man’s madness.   And that madman has failed, because you can’t kill a town with a viable source of income–namely a working mine–the burned sections of Copper Canyon will be rebuilt (a good excuse for urban renewal), and people will gradually stop thinking about it.   They will never know Edgars was the man behind it.   Because his body was burned to ashes.   Nothing left of him.

Back at Thief River Falls, Parker pulls one last posthumous heist–he tells Jean about Edgars.   She isn’t what you’d call grief-stricken, but she is moved to to ponder the tragicomic trajectory of her life to date.

She shook her head, a sour grin on her face.  “I pick ’em, don’t I?  Tell me, Parker, what’s wrong with you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“There’s got to be something, Parker, or I wouldn’t pick you.”

“You didn’t pick me.   Get another glass.”

“Oh, don’t act so goddam tough.   Where are you going from here?”

“Drive to Chicago, take a plane to Miami.   You like Miami?”

“How the hell do I know?   This is the furthest I’ve ever been from New York in my life.”

Jean doesn’t really know who she is, what she wants, but if Parker has any ideas, if he’ll just treat her like a person, she’s game.  Maybe she’ll turn into a butterfly. How would she know?  He wonders just a moment what it would be like to have someone like Mary–someone more self-possessed.   Someone who would know.   Where do you find something like that?   But this is what he’s got for now.  And she’ll do just fine.   For now.   He removes her chrysalis.   The windows are wide open.   The story is over.

What was it all about?   All that death and madness and sex and plunder, interspersed with a few moments of self-discovery and introspection.  It’s a great story–one of the best I’ve ever read, in any genre or none–but was there any point to it at all?    Maybe Grofield, who we will be seeing again in the near future (Mary a bit further off into the future), has a clue for us.

Earlier in the book, before the heist, when the whole gang is chilling at the hideout, waiting for the curtain to rise, we’re told that  Grofield is off in a corner, reciting both parts from Henry IV, Part 1, Act 1, Scene 2.    I can’t be the first Stark reader who was ever moved to look that up, but I can’t find any other review that mentions it–it’s not in the Cavalier film (in which ‘Grofield’ isn’t an actor) or in Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel adaptation.   You can read the whole thing here–but if you can’t take your Elizabethan straight, try this.

Lord, what fools we mortals be.   But while we may all be crazy, some are decidedly more so than others, and in our next book, Donald Westlake (back to his old self again, writing for Random House), is going to try and see just how crazy crazy can get.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: The Mourner


 It stood in a corner, near the bookcase, on a low pedestal nearly hidden from view.  White, small, alone, bent by grief, the mourner stood, his face turned away.  A young monk, soft-faced, his cowl back to reveal his clipped hair, his hands slender and long-fingered, the toes of his right foot peeking out from under his rough white robe.  His eyes stared at the floor, large, full of sorrow.  His left arm was bent, the hand up alongside his cheek, palm outward and shielding his face.  His right hand, the fingers straight, almost taut, cupped his left elbow, the forearm across his midsection.  The broad sleeve had slipped down his left forearm, showing a thin and delicate wrist.  His whole body was twisted to the left, and bent slightly forward, as though grief had instantaneously aged him.  It was as if he grieved for every mournful thing that had ever happened in the world, from one end of time to another.

“I see,” said Menlo softly, gazing at the mourner.  He reached out gently and picked the statue up, turning it in his hands carefully.   “Yes, I see.  I understand your Mr. Harrow’s craving.  Yes, I do understand.”

“Now the dough,” said Parker.   To him, the statue was merely sixteen inches of alabaster, for the delivery of which he had already been paid in full.

We might as well ask ourselves at this point–who the hell is Richard Stark?   Originally, just a name Westlake had submitted a few short stories under, none of which were terribly different from what he wrote under his own name.  Then a name Westlake chose to use for a one-shot novel about an amoral armed robber, that turned into 24 novels written over a span of about 45 years, because an editor at Pocket Books really enjoyed the first one, and wanted to read more about this guy.

Westlake could only do one novel a year under his own name for Random House, and he was good for a lot more books a year than that.   He needed an outlet for his burgeoning creative energies, and he needed to make more money for his burgeoning family (ex-wives and all).   If he wasn’t writing crime books as Richard Stark, he’d still be writing sex books as Alan Marsh.  So above all else, there’s a pragmatic side to it.

But right from the start, and more with each subsequent book, Stark wrote differently than Westlake.   He used fewer words, for one thing, but that wasn’t because he didn’t know all the same words Westlake did–laconic by choice, not necessity.   Less likely to go off on tangents–more focused, more intense, but also calmer, somehow.  More deliberative.  More objective.   More methodical.  Less judgmental.   He tells you the story, and lets you figure out how you feel about it.   He may have a point of view, but you’ll never be quite sure what it is.   As opposed to Westlake, who is perfectly okay with you having your own take on his story, but is still going to give you his own, because that’s part of the fun of being a writer, right?

Westlake, writing pretty much entirely in the first person at this point (at least in his novels), has his narrators go on at some length about their their experiences, their outlooks, their worldview.   They don’t just narrate, they philosophize.  We know who they are, because they tell us, in great detail, how they got where they are, why they are the people they came to be, and we see how their experiences change them, for better and for worse.  And we see things entirely from their perspective,  of course–we see every other character through their eyes.

But Stark, writing in the third person, with a protagonist who isn’t remotely interested in sharing with the reader, sees no reason to try and justify his actions, whose origins will always remain obscure (and downright unaccountable), who seems to have no opinions that don’t directly relate to the job at hand, no interests other than getting paid and (eventually) laid–you see the problem.  Stark has no choice but to jump over into the heads of other characters in the book, some of whom basically become protagonists in their own right, short-lived as they often are.

Parker is only interesting when he’s active, engaged, and he seems to require long stretches of complete inactivity and total disengagement.   How many pages can you write about Parker sitting in a dark room, with the TV on, staring blankly at the screen, not taking any of it in?   That’s good for one short enigmatic paragraph.  At best.

Ipso facto, there is not one Parker novel written entirely from Parker’s perspective.   And that’s for two reasons–the first being that Parker’s consciousness, his interior castle (to borrow a phrase from St. Teresa), is too sparsely decorated, too perfect in its simplicity–and the second is that we want to see Parker through the eyes of other people, to get a different perspective on him.  People whose interior castles are anything but simple.  People who do have worldviews to share with us.   People we can actually understand, if not necessarily approve of.  People who stand in contrast to Parker himself.  The books are an exercise in comparative psychology.   Among other things.

So anyway, this book directly follows up on the events of The Outfit.   Parker and Handy McKay are out to steal a small statue from a foreign diplomat for Bett Harrow’s industrialist father, who paid them $50,000 in advance to do it–Parker doesn’t like the set-up but he agrees to it because Bett has a murder weapon with his fingerprints on it to trade–technically it was self-defense, but Parker knows he’s never getting off on any technicalities.  He could just disappear and create a new identity, but that’s a pain to do, so he figures 25k is a decent enough haul.   He never bothers to tell them he’s got a partner to split with, because they don’t need to know that.

Mr. Harrow thinks Parker needs to know the full history and provenance of this statue, which is one of the lost Mourners of Dijon (yes, they really exist, that’s a picture of some of them up above, on tour at the Met), and he simply can’t understand why Parker isn’t even a little bit interested–doesn’t this man understand the concept of plot exposition?

Parker doesn’t give a rat’s ass about plot exposition.   Parker just needs to know where it is, what it looks like, and a blueprint of the house would be good.   Art has absolutely no meaning to Parker.  It does not exist for him.  The Lost Mourner of Dijon might as well be a  garden gnome from Walmart, as far as he’s concerned.  He’s not a philistine, because a philistine has bad taste.   Parker has no tastes of any kind when it comes to anything other than women–he’s not all that picky there in a pinch.   Art is only meaningful to him as a potential source of income.   But he’d so much rather steal cash.   Simpler.

And yet, because he spent a few nights in the rack with a rich leggy hollow-cheeked blonde with a taste for violence and manipulation, he’s forced to become an art thief.  And to listen to an impromptu art history lecture from a guy who makes airplanes for a living.  While the rich leggy hollow-cheeked blonde laughs quietly to herself and stares at the ceiling.

So here we see Richard Stark doing what he does–rattling Parker’s cage, testing his reactions, taking him out of his comfort zone.   Parker just wants to do like he did in The Man With the Getaway Face–over and over and over–let him hijack an armored car here, steal a payroll there, and he cares not who writes the nation’s laws.  Not like any of them are written for his benefit.   But much as he (and we) enjoy that routine, it’s too simple–Stark wants to mix things up, keep Parker hopping, find out how he deals with matters he’s not accustomed to–like international espionage.   But not the way Ian Fleming writes it.   Not the least tiny bit like that.

Parker and Handy have inadvertently stumbled onto a much more complicated situation than they had bargained on, as Parker learns after he rescues Handy from two Outfit guys who are working with a member of the secret police of Klastrava, a tiny central European nation under Soviet sway.   There is, you should know, no such place as Klastrava, in central Europe or anywhere else, but Westlake loved to make up his own countries–I may commission an atlas someday.   Or possibly a google map.

The policeman/spy is a short, chubby, and utterly charming fellow, whose name is Auguste Menlo (which is not, best as I can tell, a name one would find in central Europe–it’s actually an anglicized version of an old Irish name, and I’m guessing Westlake lifted it from Menlo Park, New Jersey).  He has conned a local branch of The Outfit into working with him.  He had previously conned his own government (and perhaps himself) into thinking he was incorruptible, so they sent him on a special mission to America.   See, the the diplomat with the statue (named Kapor) also has about $100,000 that he embezzled from the Klastravan government, which is hidden in the same place as the statue Mr. Harrow covets for his collection.   Menlo is to liquidate Kapor and return the money–in that order.

Menlo had heretofore lived a life of unblemished Marxian integrity, faithful to his plump pleasant wife, never taking a bribe, sniffing out the non-orthodox (then snuffing them out), acting the part of a not-so-grand Inquisitor, up until the moment he found out he could become a rich man in America, at which point he immediately decided to hell with Marx, he wanted some capital of his own.   He’s going to try playing some new Engels,  har-de-har-har.

There is a kind of man who is honest so long as the plunger is small.  This kind of man has chosen his life and finds it rewarding, so he will not risk it for anything less rewarding.  And while Menlo had long since lost all interest in his Anna, the occasional woman who became available seemed to him hardly much of an improvement, certainly not worth the risk of losing his comfortable home.  Nor were the financial temptations that cropped up along his official path worth the comfort and security he already enjoyed.  As time went by, his reputation grew, and so did the trust it inspired.   Who better to trust with one hundred thousand dollars, four thousand miles from home?

Who indeed?  Finally faced with real temptation, Menlo’s carefully constructed identity instantly crumbles away, revealing his true identity–a thief and a rascal, loyal only to himself.   But at this new avocation he is an amateur, though chillingly professional in other respects.    And since he can’t take the money for himself if he goes about his job in the expected manner, with his officially sanctioned confederates, he needs to enlist the help of true professionals in this new field of crime that he is entering–he tries the organized gangsters he’s heard so much about, who have some helpful connections, but are otherwise a bit of a disappointment.

Then he has a series of encounters with Parker and Handy on their parallel mission, who fall afoul of Menlo’s group, forcing them to eliminate both the Outfit men  and the Klastravan spymaster who was about to execute Menlo for his disloyalty.    There’s a lot of torturing going on in this section of the book, by both Parker and the opposition, the difference being that Parker doesn’t enjoy it (Handy neither, since he’s one of the people being tortured at one point).

They learn about the 100 g’s from Menlo, who learns about The Mourner from them–and unlike them, he actually gives a damn.   Something of an art buff, is our Mr. Menlo.   How very bourgeois of him.  Anyway,  they strike a deal, which neither side intends to honor–Parker and Handy will keep him alive long enough for him to tell them where the money is.   They expect him to try a cross sometime after they make their escape.  He decides to do it a bit earlier than that.

When they break into Kapor’s art room at the ambassadorial mansion, he is most disparaging of Kapor’s miscellaneous collection of statuary, sniffing that such lack of taste deserves no one hundred thousand dollars (and in this we learn that he is not, like Parker, amoral–no truly amoral man ever used the word ‘deserve’ in earnest).

Menlo is grateful in his own way to Parker and Handy for their help,  but has no intention of splitting ‘his’ money with them, and recognizes that they are too dangerous to keep alive a moment longer than necessary.   When they are distracted by the cash he’s produced from a hollow sculpture of Apollo, he produces a deadly toy he’d concealed from them–a Hi-Standard Derringer, firing only two shots.   He makes both of them count, leaving the startled heisters for dead, as he makes his exit, with the loot and the statue.  He only had two bullets, and he does have to make his exit quickly, but still–he should have made sure they were dead.   He’s so enraptured by his own prowess, the stunning early success of his new identity, that he fails to do so.


(I’m not a gun person, but damn that’s a neat little gizmo).

It should be pointed out that this is the second time Handy McKay’s affable nature, the one thing he does not share with Parker, proves a source of danger to them both–when Menlo wanted to grab his shaving kit, where the derringer was concealed in a false bottom, Parker had been disinclined to oblige, but Handy said what’s the harm, which turned out to not be a rhetorical question.   Just as in The Man With the Getaway Face, Handy had given Stubbs a flashlight  to light up his basement prison, which Stubbs then used to free himself.    In the world of Richard Stark, it is literally true that no good deed goes unpunished.

So now we enter into a whole section of the book where Menlo is the POV character, and we follow him on his hastily improvised trip from Washington DC to Miami, where the Harrows are waiting for the Mourner, using the getaway car his presumably deceased associates had so thoughtfully provided.   Bett Harrow has already invited him into her bed once (much to his astonishment), after Parker, in his “no sex, I’m working” mode had refused to service her needs (much to her astonishment), and he’s looking forward to repeating that experience.

It’s a very enjoyable section of the book, and it shows why Westlake had to become Richard Stark in order to write about Parker (and why when he couldn’t summon Stark’s voice, he had to stop writing the books for many years).  Stark is, you might say, multi-lingual–he can get into Parker’s head, interpret his strange mode of thought to us–but he can also understand a man like Menlo, sophisticated, urbane, driven by more conventional human hungers.

Writing as himself, Westlake can appreciate a man like Parker, be fascinated by him, but can’t really understand him.   Writing as Stark, he can temporarily shuck off his usual moral parameters (which are always there, even in his bloodiest books–especially in his bloodiest books), and just go with the flow, appreciating each character’s unique perspective, without necessarily sharing any of them.   Though you can’t help but think that Stark thinks Parker’s way is best.   And he wishes he could share fully in it, but somehow he can’t–Stark describes The Mourner to us, and we know–it’s not just sixteen inches of alabaster to him.   Stark is midway between Parker and the rest of us, making him the ideal chronicler for both Parker and the people Parker works with–and against.

There’s a recurring theme in Westlake’s work (writing as Stark or himself), which I’d best mention now–you have to watch out for amateurs.   They will catch you offguard, do what you don’t expect, and often win the day, or at least a skirmish, through sheer unconventionality.   But they have their limits–professionalism is the key to a long successful career, in any field of endeavor.    And the one thing a professional thief knows first and foremost is that too much improvisation is going  to backfire on you, sooner or later–another is that you need to know the territory you’re working in.   Menlo is entirely improvising, and he’s now deep into terra incognita, as he drives through the American heartland.

One thing after another goes wrong for him–he gets caught in a speed trap (something he’d never even heard of before), and has to kill a small town policeman to make his escape.  He realizes more and more that he’s out of his element, not merely in terms of being a stranger in a strange land, but also in that a lifetime in the Klastravan thought police has ill prepared him for this new life he’s entered upon, in which he is no longer part of a political machine, but a free agent, with no organization to fall back on.   His job was not merely a livelihood–it was who he was, and now he’s separated himself permanently from that, and from everything else he’s ever known.  He’s become a stranger to himself.   You don’t have to read every book Donald Westlake ever wrote to know how this journey is likely to end.

He reaches the Harrows, and makes a deal with them–The Mourner in exchange for assistance in creating a new identity for himself in America–he also needs to get a now unnecessary suicide capsule in his tooth removed.  What he doesn’t realize is that Bett, who once again willingly accepts him as her lover, has told her father to promise him anything–then turn him in to the Feds once the statue has been handed over.   He never does learn that American capitalists can be just as cold-blooded as his former colleagues, because when he returns with The Mourner, he finds Parker waiting for him in Harrow’s hotel room, gun in hand–and turns out that suicide capsule comes in handy after all.   The amateur’s lucky streak has run out.

Then the story rolls back, and we see what happened to Parker after Menlo’s over-hasty exist from the art room.  Handy is near death, but Parker was only grazed.  He braces Kapor, who is suitably frightened to learn of his narrow escape.  Parker offers to get back half of Kapor’s money from Menlo, in return for a doctor for him and Handy (and of course the other half of the money).

This is the second time in the book that Parker has gone out of his way to save his partner, and we’re going to see this kind of loyalty from him in the future–and never quite be sure what triggers it.   Parker agrees to pay for a hospital for Handy out of his half of the 100k, and just for one startled moment we’re reminded of the Good Samaritan–later, when Handy survives, Parker says he can pay the bill out of his half, which almost comes as a relief–but the enigma of Parker’s selective altruism remains, a mystery that will never be fully solved.

Handy asks what Kapor said when he found out The Mourner was gone–Parker realizes Kapor, who has now absconded with his diminished bankroll, with Menlo’s colleagues hard on his heels, never even noticed the statue was gone.   You wonder if somebody will someday steal the statue from Harrow, and whether he’ll meet the same fate as some of its past temporary owners.   And you wonder if Harrow, for all his desire to possess The Mourner, really understands it, and the impulse that created it, any better than Parker.   Certainly not as well as Richard Stark.

The main identity puzzle of The Mourner is Menlo, but we’ve been presented with a second conundrum–why is Bett Harrow so eager to offer herself to Parker, who she knows to be a thief and a murderer–and then Menlo, who she believes, briefly, to have murdered Parker.   Parker, to be sure, has been shown to be attractive to most women he meets, but Menlo is by no means similarly gifted.  And atypically, Parker himself gives us (and her) the answer–she’s attracted to strength.   Which she defines as winning–by fair means or foul, doesn’t matter.

She feels no attachment to the men she beds, she doesn’t care what they look like or how good in bed they are.   She’ll betray any of them when it suits her, but she needs them to be strong, dangerous in some way, to satisfy some secret yearning in herself, and in her privileged world, a good man is really hard to find.     Parker, now in post-heist mode, his wounds forgotten, tells her he’s got a few hours to kill, and then she’ll never see him again.   He walks into the bedroom, and she follows him, seemingly in a daze.   A classic noir blonde of the deadliest variety, who would have spelled doom for the common run of hardboiled hero, has finally met her match–and lost him.

I guess you could say there’s one more identity crisis to be resolved here, and that’s Handy’s–he’s been putting it off, caught up in the events of the past three books, but when Parker visits him in the hospital, he says he’s finally ready to retire to his diner in Presque Isle, Maine.   He says Parker should drop by sometime, and he’ll flip him an egg.  Parker will never drop by, and they both know it.

Handy only plays an active role in one more Parker novel, and his absence is sorely felt, but there are reasons why Westlake is retiring him so young.   He’s too much like Parker, differing mainly in his more easy-going nature.   The only mystery to Handy McKay is why he stayed in this racket so long.   He likes the work, he’s extremely skilled at it, but he seems temperamentally unsuited.  We’ve seen it in these small acts of compassion that have cost him and Parker dearly.

He’s never going to be a fully honest man either, and his compassion has its limits.   Menlo, contemplating his impending betrayal of both men, has a moment of exceptional insight when he inwardly refers to the two of them as “the most lupine of wolves.”   But for the present, Handy is going to try being at least a semi-honest citizen.   Just to see what it’s like.   Parker has no interest in being anything other than what he was born to be.   And that’s why he’s the strongest of all.

And in the next book, his strength is going to be tested like never before.   Art may mean nothing to Parker, but he is nonetheless an artist after his own fashion, and when we return, we’re going to watch him paint what might well be called his masterpiece.   With a most fascinating group of collaborators.


Filed under Parker Novels