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.

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38 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

38 responses to “Review: The Score

  1. You are not the only one who thinks that The Score probably best Parker novel. (http://noirboiled.blogspot.ru/2010/11/book-review-richard-stark-score-1964.html)
    I’m not one of those. It’s a good Parker novel, though nothing special for me. If The Score was a standalone, then maybe I’d like it better. And that whole troupe – too much like circus. Parker character reveals betetr when he communicates with a limited group of heisters.
    Still, you can’t not admire the idea and the plot. I wonder would I have liked it better if Parker killed Mary after all. I see your point on why he saves her life. I think Westlake, maybe unconsciously, lay ground for his GM novels, where Parker almost in the same way saves Claire and settles with her.

  2. Judging by the number of hits this review has gotten (and the variety of places around the world they’ve come from), I’d say I’m very much not alone in considering this a defining moment in the Parker saga, Ray. A defining moment in Westlake’s career, a defining moment in the history of crime fiction as a whole. It’s the best book of the series to date, and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who said it was the best, period, though I might not necessarily agree.

    Yes, Parker is most comfortable, as I said, with a group of about five heisters, but again, the goal isn’t to make Parker feel comfortable–you don’t think so either, since you like novels where he’s hunted, pushed to his limits in some way–as indeed he is here, but not in the way you prefer. If Parker gets too comfortable, the reader is going to get bored, as will the author.

    I do look forward to finding out which books most appeal to you–I would have to assume “Slayground” appears prominently on that list. Much as I admire the purity and ingenuity of that novel, I think “The Score” is a better piece of work overall. I’ve read it three times now, and it never fails to grab me. And I just don’t understand how he got all that story and character development into such a short novel. It truly confounds me. It’s got the complexity and range of a novel with the intensity and focus of a short story. It’s a masterpiece, full stop.

    Westlake is, no question, starting to think about maybe getting Parker another steady girl. But it’s too soon after Lynn. And maybe too soon after whatever was happening to him in his own personal life, which is none of our beeswax, but it would still be interesting to know–if here were a ‘serious’ writer, we WOULD know, in intimate detail. One advantage to being a genre author–much less likely people will be reading about your love life after you’re dead. 😉

  3. The shortness of the novel is one thing you immediately see. Robbing a whole town in less than 200 pages, that seems like impossible. It’s an example how Westlake mess with the genre. I’m sorry for those who turn up their noses claiming that Stark wrote ordinary series with cliched plots. Those people think about Parker novels as boilerplate thrillers, using the same formula again and again. But you won’t find two Parker novels that look like each other.
    You already found two books of the series which I like very much, the first and the second novels. Another two are also from Pocket Books run. And you’re wrong about Slayground, but I’d not call it a masterpiece.

  4. Turning formula fiction on its head was really Westlake’s primary claim to fame. He was less successful in this regard with science fiction, mainly, I think, because he only wrote one novel in that genre. He generally got his best results from short novels and novellas. He wrote a few very good short stories, and a few very good long novels, but the middle distances were where he truly excelled.

    Perhaps after a few more Parkers, I’ll be better able to predict your tastes, Ray. But the neat thing about doing a chronological book review blog is that while I may care about ‘ratings’, I can’t do a blessed thing about them. The next book in line is the next book in line, whether anybody wants to read about it or not. I can’t wait to see how people react to my “Castle in the Air” review. That’s maybe Westlake’s least-loved novel, and I actually like it quite a bit, but for reasons I suspect most of my readers will find perplexing. Ah well, you can pity me afterwards.

    😉

  5. Though Westlake had written a lot, there is nothing messy about his bibliography, except for his softcore stretch. If we leave alone early pseudonymous novels, which is a big mess (authors wouldn’t recognize their books, or just don’t remember who wrote what), everything else about Westlake’s body of work is pretty clear. Two novels had been published posthumous, every pen name is known, every short story is documented, all books were published in that order how they were written. There are writers who wrote three-four books, which bibliographies are an adventure for researchers. With Westlake almost everything is clear. Maybe it’s a good thing.

  6. Though Westlake seemed to mainly hope people would forget about his sex books, I’ve read a few, and they do actually show telltale signs of being written by somebody with serious talent. I will be reviewing some of them, eventually. All those writhing sweaty bodies are part of his body of work whether we (or he) like it or not. And they did inspire one of his best (and most confessional) books.

    He didn’t write under pseudonyms to get away with anything–just a way to get published more often. It was a very open secret that Westlake and Stark and Coe and etc were all the same person, but most people pay so little attention to who writes what they read, it would sometimes amount to the same thing. Who would believe that nice John Dortmunder who helped the nuns was created by the same man who wrote those those nasty Parker books!

    I can appreciate both–in fact, I appreciate Parker more for having later made Dortmunder’s acquaintance–but not everyone else can. Westlake has a completely separate fanbase from Stark. It may overlap at points, but many who love one can’t abide the other. You don’t see this kind of dichotomy with most genre writers–for example, what difference is there between the books Cornell Woolrich wrote under his own name and those he wrote as William Irish? Basically none, best as I can tell.

    Westlake is one of the few authors I know of who really did become a very different type of writer when he wrote under a different name–not all of the pseudonyms were as individual as Stark, obviously. None of the others were nearly as successful as Stark (who was more successful than Westlake for a time), so he tended to abandon them quickly, but even if they only got one book, they came across as very distinct personas.

    If you know what to look for, you can still see Westlake behind all of his masks, but the style and sensibility does change quite a lot, even if the same basic interests and outlook are still there. And I think this is because he really was experimenting with identity, all through his career. What would it be like to be THIS kind of author?–find out! It’s one of the secrets of how he could write so many books without falling prey to boredom and rote repetition. He was constantly shedding his skin.

    So anyway, getting back to “The Score”, I have to ask–did anybody actually read that scene from “Henry IV”? I was quite proud of myself for picking up on that, but maybe I’m just the last to notice. That happens to me sometimes. 🙂

  7. If by anybody you mean me, since I don’t see anyone else, I’ll say it’s rather pointless for me to read Shakespeare now, when I never read a word of him.
    Yes, I’ve read the scene from Henry IV, but I have not a bloody thing to say about it. Probably Parker would say the same.

  8. Sure, but Parker wouldn’t have anything to say about “The Score”, or any other novel he’s in. He doesn’t give a damn about crime fiction–just crime itself. He’d have nothing to say about any form of fiction ever contrived. We’re not like Parker, you and I. We read for more than just information. Stories matter to us. To him, they’re just things that didn’t happen. Or even if they did, he wouldn’t care, unless the information in the story impacted him in some way.

    That’s one reason Westlake created Grofield–who is more of a Westlake character, even though he was born in a Stark novel–eventually, of course, he found some means of transmigrating himself–in somewhat altered form–to the Dortmunder books. Where he doesn’t stick out nearly so much.

    Thing is Grofield actually cares about the things Westlake cares about. He’s always got this double-consciousness–at times, he almost seems to know he’s a fictional character–he’s very ‘meta’.

    Parker, like Stark, strips away everything unnecessary, but if there’s anything all humans have in common, it’s our love of the unnecessary. Stark does know who Shakespeare is, though. I don’t think Parker has a clue what Grofield is blathering about. He just filters it out–extraneous noise. Grofield will shut up and get to business when it’s time, and that’s all he cares about.

    Nobody at all clicked out to the Shakespeare link, according to WordPress–and the review got quite a lot of hits, probably because a lot more people have read this one (I can’t blame people for taking me seriously when I say “Don’t read this review if you haven’t read the book”, now can I?)

    I found it utterly fascinating–Grofield sitting there in a corner, reciting lines written centuries before, that are stunningly applicable to the situation he finds himself in at that moment. And he knows none of the others are paying any attention, least of all Parker, but he doesn’t care. He’s doing it for himself. And for us. So we’d do well to pay attention.

    C’mon, somebody click out to that link. The Bard doesn’t bite. 😉

  9. You know, what I’m looking forward to is your reviews of the Grofield novels. A lot had been said about Parker, and some Westlake’s novels, but Grofield – everyone doesn’t take him seriously. Some hate him, some think of him as just a Parker’s funny partner, and there was no analysis of Grofield novels. Time for some action.

  10. I’m rather looking forward to that myself, even though my reviews of all but the last Grofield novel shall be somewhat mixed. But Grofield himself, I consider to be quite interesting. He has plenty of fans out there–some even say “Hey, they could do a Grofield TV series, and have Parker show up in it.” And I know what they mean–it’s an easier concept to pitch to a network–but no. Absolutely would not work.

  11. Filmklassik

    Just finished the novel after putting off reading it for 15 or 20 years. Sorry, but I can’t call it a masterpiece. It’s an energetic crime book that was obviously written in haste and without much of an outline (I think Westlake knew from the outset that Edgers had an agenda, what that agenda was, and how this loose cannon would end up threatening to blow the entire operation in a later chapter, but that’s about all).

    And suspense novels invariably suffer when they’re written on the fly. To me, anyway. My all-time favorite thrillers – – Marathon Man, The Day of the Jackal (which has the contours of a heist-novel in that the reader is following the master criminal as he plots to carry off the perfect crime), A Kiss Before Dying, Red Dragon, A Simple Plan, The Silence of the Lambs, et al. — are all masterpieces of precision. Things are laid in deftly and artfully in the beginning and pay off in surprising yet seemingly inevitable ways later on, and the frisson of excitement one experiences from this sort of narrative legerdemain cannot be understated. But that sort of thing is enormously difficult to pull off. What’s more, it cannot happen by accident or by trusting to the inspiration of the moment.

    Take two highly-regarded stories about con men: Jim Thompson’s The Grifters (which Westlake, coincidentally, later scripted for producer Martin Scorsese and director Stephen Frears) and David S. Ward’s screenplay for The Sting. One was written by the seat of the author’s pants and one was carefully worked out ahead of time, and if you’re familiar with both, it shouldn’t take you more than a nano second to determine which was which.

    I’m not knocking Westlake (I swear). I’m a huge fan. And I know there are many gifted writers who simply don’t have the temperament for outlining. Elmore Leonard was another one. So was Robert B Parker, Ross Thomas, Raymond Chandler, the list goes on. Huge talents all — and all felt encumbered by the process of outlining and preferred to keep surprising themselves at the typewriter.

    But as I said, when it comes to suspense novels, I’ve always preferred the Ira Levin method. But others’ mileage may vary.

    In other news, I’m really enjoying your blog.

    • And in still other news, I don’t agree with anything you said prior to your kind words about my blog, which is creating some existential doubts about my blog. :\

      The Sting is a good movie and all, but The Grifters (the novel, I mean, though the movie’s great too), for all its undoubted flaws that Westlake perceived better than either of us, is vastly superior in all the ways that count–it’s about real people, who you care about even when they’re doing horrible things to each other. It’s not some fucking buddy picture (and we both know that even in that regard, The Sting is vastly inferior to the other Newman/Redford buddy picture, written by a screenwriter who outranks David S. Ward in every respect, who was also a great admirer of Donald Westlake).

      Thompson’s problem, according to Westlake, wasn’t that he didn’t outline, but rather that he didn’t have time to do second and third drafts–had to get those manuscripts in if he was going to get paid, and he had a family. He was working on about the same professional level Westlake was when he was writing sleaze paperbacks. Except he was producing great books while doing that. (Books people still read for their own sake, not for the movies, which mainly suck). Never had any editors like Bucklin Moon or Lee Wright, and we have to allow for that when assessing him.

      The Grifters takes such incredible chances. Thompson had a dark throbbing soul that bled out all over the page, and with all due respect, David S. Ward turned out a fine professional blueprint for a good piece of disposable entertainment and that’s it. That’s all. I haven’t watched that movie in years, and I wouldn’t much care if I never saw it again. Honestly, all I ever got from it was an abiding admiration for Scott Joplin. And to this day, I don’t know why a movie about the Jazz Age is set to Ragtime.

      What do we learn from The Sting? That being a con man is fun and they only steal from bad guys. What do we learn from The Grifters? That yeah, it can be fun, there’s a sense of achievement in making other people your suckers, but it comes with a horrible price–that in fooling other people, mainly honest hard-working folks, you can lose yourself forever. I know, it’s a downer, never going to get the box office or awards the fantasy will, but it’s the truth–doesn’t that count for something? There are no grifters like the ones in The Sting. The people in Thompson’s novel are expressionistic takes on people he really knew from his youth. (FYI, I already wrote about that book when I wrote about Westlake’s adaptation of it).

      The Score is, in a word, perfect. There isn’t one word I’d change, one scene I’d add or delete. Yes, I absolutely agree Westlake didn’t know everything going in, because that’s how he worked. It’s one of the most deliciously subversive books I’ve ever read, about one night where criminals make themselves the law, take a lot of money, one of them burns and blasts the freakin’ center of that town to ashes and rubble–and all but two of them ride away rich and happy. The ones who don’t make it are the ones who don’t know themselves. That’s Westlake’s vision. There will never be a faithful film adaptation, because how the hell could there be? The French came close, but no cigar. And let me propose an inconvenient truth for you–the book that can never be captured on film is, by definition, superior to any story that can. You can make a good movie out of a great book, but if the movie ends up replacing the book, there was something deficient about the book. Or maybe the audience.

      Who reads Marathon Man or Day of the Jackal for their own sake now? Maybe you, but most just to see how they match up with the film version. They’ve been subsumed by the movies. Something nobody was ever able to do to anything Westlake wrote, not even John Boorman, who was trying to do that, but he failed (while still creating a film full of unforgettable imagery).

      Westlake will always be superior to everybody who tries to put him on screen. Because he’s not about mechanical plotting techniques and market surveys. Because he can’t be outlined. He breaks out, and he takes us with him, and why don’t you tell me which of his books you did love, so we can agree on something. (Maybe. I don’t love every one of his books either.)

      And thanks. I needed something to wake me up, and righteous outrage is better than caffeine any day. 😉

      • The other Redford-Newman picture was written by one of the world’s great believers in story construction being the first and only thing that matters, And someone who fell apart as a novelist when he lost that ability. Read any of his late books: awful novels with a few great scenes. And ke knows that, which is why he never wrote Buttercup’s Baby.

        • Only Goldman novel I’ve read is The Princess Bride. And the only character in that book I 100% believe in is the narrator, and maybe his father–who I have to believe is based at least in part on Goldman’s father, even though obviously he did not read Goldman that book at bedtime.

          The narrator is not, of course, the character we love in that book. We love the heroes all the more because of the very imperfect unhappy person revealing them to us–the author making his ‘real’ life much worse than it was in reality, telling us “I’m just some screwed up schlub like you–here’s a story about the people we’d wish to be, in a different but still very painful world. An escape–but not a perfect one. Because life is not fair, even in fairy tales. Or else they’d have nothing to say to us.”

          If Westlake was the greater novelist, and of course he is, it’s because his primary emphasis is on character. If Goldman was the greater screenwriter and ditto, it’s because his primary emphasis was on plot structure. Each could do both, of course. Just not equally well.

          Newman and Redford, being great actors and great stars, with some oddball rapport between them that nobody has ever explained, can make us believe in Butch and Sundance more than we ever could if they were just sitting there on the page.

          Much as I like the Princess Bride movie, it never comes to life as the novel does, partly because Goldman realized he had to censor himself or nobody would bring the kids, and partly because the cast, good as they are, don’t have that kind of juice. Well, except for Patinkin, Shawn, and Andre. Cary Elwes ain’t no Cary Grant, sorry to say. Robin Wright is too pretty to be Buttercup. I can’t believe I just typed that.

          I really am working on Part Three, you know.

      • Filmklassik

        “The Sting is a good movie and all, but The Grifters (the novel, I mean, though the movie’s great too), for all its undoubted flaws that Westlake perceived better than either of us, is vastly superior in all the ways that count–it’s about real people, who you care about even when they’re doing horrible things to each other. It’s not some fucking buddy picture.”

        Point taken. But if scrupulous realism is the measure of these things, where does that leave Parker? I mean, for all the violence and mayhem on display in a typical Parker book, the character himself remains a fantasy figure. One could even argue that Parker is to real life criminals what the heroes of The Sting are to real life con men. Which is to say, not real at all.

        But who cares? I certainly don’t. Doesn’t mean Parker’s not a compelling character. He obviously is.

        But I agree that Thompson’s and Ward’s narrative priorities could not be more different.

        As for who reads Marathon Man and Day of the Jackal these days … I don’t think they’ve ever been out of print. And how many thrillers published in the seventies can we say that about? A few, surely, but not very many. In fact, probably less than 1 percent. Maybe 1 percent of 1 percent. And if you take away horror, the list gets shorter.

        Doesn’t make ’em great books, or bad books, or anything in between (although, yes, I happen to think they’re great books). But it does mean they’re being read.

        As for their critical reputation, well, take a few seconds and type in the words “Jackal” “Forsyth” “Thrillers” and “Best” into the search engine of your choice, then settle back for a long night of reading. Here are just a few of the citations I found on the first page:

        http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1332647/From-Dr-No-The-Day-Jackal-The-10-greatest-thrillers-LEE-CHILD.html

        http://www.npr.org/2011/06/13/128718927/audience-picks-top-100-killer-thrillers

        http://www.heymiller.com/2009/12/what-are-the-best-thrillers/?fdx_switcher=true

        And I’m guessing Donald Westlake himself, who admired William Goldman a great deal (and thought Goldman’s screenplay of The Hot Rock was an improvement on his novel) was a big fan of Marathon Man. You really oughta read it.

        Of course, all of this proves nothing. These things are entirely subjective and are not — thank God — settled by referendum. If they were I’d surely be an outcast for my indifference to all things Star Wars. Not to mention my apathy toward Game of Thrones, The Wire, Deadwood and The Sopranos (indeed, most of what is now referred to as “peak TV”). I just don’t care about it. Never have.

        In fact, while we’re on the subject of Popular Things That Leave Me Cold, I happened to think Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was the most overrated “thriller” of the last 30 years. I found it a slog that played its one trump card at the halfway point, after which, Zzzzzz. But almost all of my friends and family disagree with me. (And one possible smart aleck reply to that is, “And they’re right, too!”)

        So obviously, you and I are looking for different things when we crack open a thriller. Or rather, we’re looking for the same thing (to love it!) but clearly that itch is going to be scratched in different ways.

        But once again, who cares? If any of these things mattered, I would be friendless, dateless, and very much alone.

        (You can probably sample Marathon Man for free on Amazon. I recommend it!)

        • First of all, I’m confused as to why I had to approve this comment. I don’t have my blog set up that way. It goes against my principles. Plus I’d get fewer comments. WordPress, you do irk me at times.

          Parker is real, but not realistic no–he’s a mythic ideal. He operates by his own set of rules, and he’s quite unique in all of fiction, at least modern fiction. If I could explain to you exactly why that works so well, and never comes across as forced or contrived, well, I’d be Richard Stark, wouldn’t I, in which case I’d have nothing to say to you. Stark was never going to have a blog. I doubt Westlake ever felt quite right about it either, but he knew how to compromise with the times.

          If I felt The Sting pulled this off a tenth as well as Stark does, I’d be with you on this. I’ve already talked about how conflicted I can get when comparing Thompson and Stark. I go both ways at once. I’m going to be writing more about that in future, if I ever get through my last few reviews in the queue. But please remember, Stark didn’t only write about Parker. His other characters are frequently anything but ideals. As I said, the Parker novels are about comparative psychology, and Parker is the standard all others fall at least a bit short of. No Parker novel is all about Parker, or even primarily about him–not even Slayground. He’s an enigmatic supporting character promoted to the lead, then fading into the shadows. Westlake saw him that way.

          Anything that sold a lot of copies and inspired hit movies is going to stay in print for a very long time. No matter how bloody awful it is. Arthur Hailey is still in print. I rest my case.

          Critics are frequently wrong, and I should know, since I’m basically an unpaid critic, and I’ve lost count of my mistakes. Very often, when something hits big, critics find some way to justify that retroactively. I have no idea how Westlake felt about Marathon Man–I don’t remember anything he said about Goldman’s novels. I tend to suspect it’s not one of Goldman’s own favorites among his work. Nobody ever said it wasn’t a fine taught suspenseful professionally written book. And nobody quotes from it. Everybody quotes from The Princess Bride. (Do you find this–inconceivable?)

          I have read no Gillian Flynn at all. I doubt I shall find the time, but you never know. I have read damned near nothing in the way of novels published in the last twenty years, and I hardly ever go see new movies in a theater anymore. But I just read The Essex Serpent, and the only thing preventing me from calling it a classic is that nothing is a classic while the author is still alive. Long live Sarah Perry. (And write us a novel from the perspective of The Imp, why don’t you?)

          I don’t know what other response you could possibly expect from somebody who has spent several years of his life reviewing everything Westlake ever wrote (and nearly done now!) He’s probably the most popular author of fiction I’ve ever gotten obsessed with, and I’ve never been quite this obsessed with any writer. Much as I may admire Goldman’s ability, much as I want to read more of him, I doubt I could ever feel the same way about him. I think he’s going down as one of the greatest screenwriters, but the only book he wrote that’s going to make it to posterity is going to be the one with princesses, giants, and vengeful Spaniards. That is still in some danger of being subsumed into the (much shallower) movie.

          I’ve said this before here, but once more won’t hurt. There’s no accounting for taste. The books never balance.

          • Filmklassik

            For me, the most striking thing about the Parker books (I’ve read eight so far) is their incredible narrative energy. They were obviously written in a white hot streak and they read like it.

            I’ve also read two or three Dortmunders and at least five Westlake standalones. (I thoroughly enjoyed The Ax and Cops and Robbers).

            Just do me one favor, okay? Read another Goldman novel — just one more — before doing any more compare & contrasts between him and Donald Westlake. (I recommend Marathon Man). You can’t in fairness say Westlake is “obviously” the better novelist if all you’ve ever read is Princess Bride.

            And “quote quotient” is no gauge of a novel’s quality because if it is, Marathon Man is better than any of the Parker books because who besides yourself (and maybe Brian Helgeland) ever quotes the Parker books? Whereas “Is it safe?” has been coined into the vernacular.

            But once again, “quote quotient” is no gauge of anything, thank goodness, and you may well finish Marathon Man and say “Meh.”

            But I hope you’ll at least read it, then do an honest assessment of Goldman’s ability with character.

            He was wonderful at structure, yes, but he could do other things, too.

            So please take a uh — brace yourself, pal — run at Marathon Man.

            • I did actually read a bit of it, after the movie came out (you would be tripping over paperback copies of it at the time, they were at every garage sale).

              It seemed fairly–standard. Nothing wrong with it. Very high level standard suspense intrigue stuff, and I wasn’t reading much of that, being an SF/Horror person at the time. I wasn’t moved to continue. I have never actually watched the entire movie, either. I know the highlights, obviously. Hitchcock it ain’t, and I kind of resent it for getting Olivier stuck with that accent for most of the rest of his film career. It’s a whole hell of a lot better than Cops and Robbers. But not the novel Westlake made out of that screenplay.

              (I read the entire Mad Magazine parody for Marathon Man! Do I get points for that?)

              Lots and lots of people quote from the first Parker novel without ever knowing it, because of Payback, which for reason I’m sure neither of us could ever explain, is on TV roughly a thousand times more often than Marathon Man these days (I’m guessing it’s something to do with TV syndication packages, or maybe people are less sensitive about having things done to their feet than their teeth). People who are into crime fiction quote directly from the books quite often. I have never seen “Is it safe?” pop up anywhere in the pop cultural foment, though I recognize the quote. Anecdotal evidence is no evidence at all, because we all move in different circles (though authors of fiction all swim in the same ocean).

              I never said Goldman could only do structure. I said the opposite of that. I did say Westlake was better–and not by a little–at character. And as Stark, his books do move better than Goldman’s. If anything, Goldman is a lot more like Westlake than Stark. He likes to go off on tangents, and he’s every bit as good as Westlake at that. At a certain point, it’s just apples and oranges, of course. They wrote different books for different markets.

              It’s not even a discussion as to who accomplished more as a novelist (and I don’t just mean who published more books), but Goldman let himself get sucked into the Hollywood machine, had the swimming pools to prove it. There’s no telling how many masterpieces we lost because of that. I don’t know how he feels about that choice (I have my guesses). I wish him every joy, he seems to be a really great person, and I suspect him of having a fine subtle searching mind to boot. But we all make choices, in our lives and careers, and those choices come with consequences. Hell, that’s one of the things The Princess Bride is about.

              I have no idea what Marathon Man is about. Yes, I know the premise, the plot, but those are never what the book is about.

              The Princess Bride is about how life is not fair, but it’s all we’ve got.

              What’s Marathon Man about? What was he saying with that one? Dentists are Nazis? Yes, okay, evil is all around us, the Nazis never really died, but that’s not enough in itself to hang a book on, and I think I’d probably go with The Boys From Brazil.

              If I were going to read another of his books, it’d probably be Boys and Girls Together, because he name drops that in The Princess Bride, as well as Butch Cassidy. If I recall correctly, he mentions nothing else he’s done in his whole life.

              I tend to read into choices like that.

              • I find Goldman to be a stronger screenwriter than a novelist (the opposite of Westlake). In his best films, he seems to understand inherently what makes a story work, though as he himself wrote in Adventures in the Screen Trade, “nobody knows anything.” That’s quoted plenty when discussing the vagaries of success in Hollywood. (Also from AitST: “Screenplays are structure.”) That said, I found Marathon Man to be a gripping novel, more layered (and bolder) than the movie. However, the sequel, Brothers, is pretty aggressively terrible.

              • Oh I have no doubt it’s gripping. I know that much just from the few pages I read as a kid–before putting the book down and looking for something else.

                But again–what’s it about? You know what I mean when I ask that question. What’s your take? Is there some underlying weltanschauung Goldman is getting at with all his stories, or is he just telling stories? “Nazis are mean and scary” is not a philosophy, it’s just a statement of fact. But I have to believe it’s about more than that.

                Best I can come up with is a message not unlike the book I’m reviewing now–you can’t depend on rugged secret agents to save you from the monsters out there. But I think that’s unique to this one book. Goldman himself pointed out the parallels between Butch Cassidy and Princess Bride. But I still don’t have a good grip on who he is as a writer. Which is to say, what questions is he asking us?

                Again, I was never saying he doesn’t write good characters, but the question is, does plot service character or does character service plot? One must be the master, and with Goldman it’s usually plot. I think the exception would be The Princess Bride, because he used such iconic familiar characters, that more or less come with their own ready-made plots he can tinker around with, use them to say something new (or really, so old it’s new, because the original fairy tales were really not so much about the happy ever after as people think).

                The Score is a much shorter novel than probably any of Goldman’s. Could Goldman ever have written anything that said so much with so little?

                I mean, it’s not that hard to make the audience identify with your hero when your hero is a short unassuming jogger whose secret agent brother is murdered by a Nazi dentist who is coming after him now, drills ablazing. That’s about the easiest lay-up there is.

                The Score makes you identify with a gang of ruthless criminals who take over a small town, rob it blind, leave it in ruins (though that was never the plan, far as Parker was concerned, he still never lost a wink of sleep over it). It never got the huge push Goldman’s publisher would have put behind Marathon Man, it was just one little crime paperback among many–and it got a movie in France, a graphic novel adaptation quite recently. And people still think of the book first and foremost, and always will.

                Advantage: Stark.

              • Brothers is very terrible. It’s probably the canonical example of a sequel that ruins the original (Scylla’s alive and heterosexual?), and it’s exactly what I had in mind about how his late novels have some great scenes (like the basketball game) while being absolutely rotten.

                By the way, I’m probably the only one here who’s read all of Goldman’s novels, and Boys and Girls Together is not one I’d recommend. It’s really long, and even though it’s an early book, it has the same issue with a few great scenes that add up to nothing, along with some very dated and ugly homophobia. Marathon Man, on the other hand, is a fine book; its important character journey is Babe’s (Dustin Hoffman); Szell is a device. The Silent Gondoliers , his other Morgenstern book, is a trifle, but it’s a sweet, fun trifle. The Thing of It Is and its sequel Father’s Day are fascinating studies in writing from the point of view of someone who’s just plain awful. Beyond that, there’s not much to choose from.

              • He also wrote that crazy ventriloquist novel. How the hell did that become a subgenre? They even referenced it on American Horror Story. The Great Gabbo seems to have come first, then Dead of Night, followed by a radio script, then both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone did it. It was a running subplot on a Nickelodeon sitcom, and there was a recurring Andy Dick character on 2 Broke Girls. Durable meme.

                Male ventriloguists are invariably portrayed as unhappy schizos who can’t get girls, but in reality, I see no evidence for a lot of mental illness in that profession. Edgar Bergen, Senor Wences–lovely men. Saner than most of the folks writing those crazy ventriloquist stories, I’d guess. Getting all those voices out must be very purging. Maybe we should all be ventriloquists.

                So what’s he doing there, in Magic? Same thing Westlake so often did. Taking an established story form, putting more flesh on it. I read a bit of that one too, and once again, didn’t grip me. Pity Him Afterwards did, for all its flaws.

                I have lost count of how many times I’ve watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. If that’s one of the greatest movies ever made, and I’d fight anyone who said it wasn’t, the first person to credit is the guy who wrote the script. I revere William Goldman, but you look at his career overall, it’s a bit sad. Some enduring successes, but how many times was this stellar talent called in to doctor some tawdry piece of action crap, uncredited?

                The last script of his that got produced–and I didn’t know this until just now–was an adaptation of one of his novels–who’d they get for the lead? Jason Statham. ::sigh::

                Thanks for the rundown, Mike. Maybe the reference to Boys and Girls Together in The Princess Bride wasn’t so complimentary, after all. Now I think on it (and look up the relevant sections on Google books), the context in which he refers to that book is not positive. (He thinks about having an affair with some bubbly babe who loved it, which the critics did not.) I was wrong about that, and who isn’t going to be wrong a lot about an author they only know in bits and pieces?

                He also says in that book that Butch Cassidy is the only thing he’s going to be remembered for, if he’s remembered at all. As I mentioned a while back, the sections where ‘William Goldman’ is talking to us are very reminiscent of Adios Scheherazade. So much so that I’m maybe 80% sure Goldman had read it (he clearly knows a whole lot of Westlake’s work) and was consciously riffing on it.

                How could any writer, no matter how successful, ever feel fully secure? Particularly one with half a brain in his head, and a hunger for greatness? One of the most poignant passages in The Princess Bride is where ‘Goldman’ tells us he wishes he could take credit for Morgenstern’s brilliance. That is an immortal book. I honestly think it’s the only immortal book he wrote, but how many can say they wrote even one?

                I am going to read Marathon Man at some point. Maybe I’m ready for it now. And I have to figure it’s better than Forever And a Death. Though maybe if Westlake wrote a few more drafts…..

                Hollywood took the best of him. That’s the bargain a writer makes when he spends his whole career writing movie scripts. You sit in somebody’s lap and they tell you what to say. Hmm, maybe that’s why he wrote that crazy ventriloquist novel.

              • There’s also a “ventriloquist possessed by dummy” short story by Anthony Boucher. I don’t recall the title, so don’t have the exact date, but sometime in the 40s or 50s.

                I know nothing about Edgar Bergen’s personal life, but given his daughter I expect his wife was quite lovely,

              • Nobody knows much about Bergen’s personal life, even though he was one of the most famous entertainers of his day.

                That would tend to argue he had his head screwed on straight. As to Charlie, maybe his needed a little tightening up now and again. Mortimer was sort of a hopeless case. Well then, they should have bought him a new case. 😉

              • Two things about Edgar Bergen:

                1. He was one of the most successful performers in American being a ventriloquist on the radio. Think about that.

                2. One day when he was 38, he noticed that his show’s audience included a gorgeous 19-year-old model, He introduced himself and eventually married her.

                In other words, Bergen was no dummy.

      • Let me say one more thing–Westlake’s method worked brilliantly at the middle distances–novels of 150-250 pages. Novellas as well, but there wasn’t much market for them by the time he showed up. When he wrote a very long book, he would usually have problems, and this may well be in part because of the ‘push’ method he employed.

        Short stories were also a problem, more because he would figure out his characters as he went, and the short form didn’t give him enough room to run–that’s why his Dortmunder shorts are his best work in that format, since character had already been established in the novels.

        I mean, the very last thing I’d ever want to say is that everybody should write exactly like Donald E. Westlake did–and I’d be just as allergic to saying that about any other writer I admire. If they all did it the same way, literature would be a lot less diverse, and a lot less interesting. The very methods writers choose are determined by their own characters and personalities, what it is they most want to express by writing. It’s not about who has the best technique, important as technique can be. It’s about who is best at using stories as a way of revealing his or her inmost self to the world.

        And that is not, sadly, what a screenwriter on a major motion picture (or a mass market novel) is being paid to do. Points to those who manage it anyhow.

  12. Filmklassik

    David Mamet has an online writing seminar on a website called … God, I can’t even think of the name of it right now. Masterclass? Something like that. And of course it serves no practical purpose (writing can’t be taught) but I bought it anyway just to listen to Mamet hold forth. Entertaining dude. Insightful too. At one point Mamet is asked about the subject of Theme and how important a role Theme has played in his work over the years, and Mamet replies that he doesn’t even *think* about Theme when he sits down to start a new play or screenplay. He leaves it for other people to impute Theme.

    And I’m not sure that’s uncommon, by the way. I think any number of good writers begin with a compelling plot or character and worry about Theme later on, if at all.

    And of course there’s Mark Twain’s legendary epigraph at the beginning of Huckleberry Finn.

    My point: Does every great work of genre fiction really need to be “about” something, or does MGM’s motto of “Arts grata arts” ever obtain?

    • And remind me how many great novels David Mamet has ever written?

      It’s been a very long time since his last good play (hence the seminar, those who can’t do…..).

      I’m sure he’s entertaining and all. Deranged people so often are. Oh, that was mean. But not as mean as Mamet. Oh well, I kind of liked his adaptation of The Winslow Boy. Well, I liked Rebecca Pidgeon. So did Mamet. Lindsay Crouse, probably not so much.

      I’m not saying it’s uncommon for good writers to not have an underlying theme they keep returning to. But great writers always do. In my opinion. Because great writing is more than just knowing how to diagram a chapter.

      You know Twain was lying in that epigraph, don’t you? Well, maybe not about the plot part (it comes and goes), but motives and morals we see aplenty, if we can see at all. Just not conventional motives and morals. It was shocking then for a boy to say he’d rather go to hell than betray a friend (particularly a friend of color) But that is morality, of the very truest sort. Alternate morality. Something you find in Westlake rather a lot. My point would be, you write satire when you say one thing while meaning another–hoping your readers will see that. If they don’t, somebody screwed up.

      As to MGM, my favorite epigraph there would of course be Louis B. Mayer’s, but how many great screenplays did he ever write? Actually, how many screenplays did he ever write, period? I get that the studio heads of that bygone era had their virtues, and great commercial instincts, but they were still gaping assholes, who stepped on creativity far more often than they nurtured it. And now we still have the assholes and not much creativity at all. Progress.

      Does great art always need to have a point? No! But a great novelist does, because novels are about ideas, always have been. I think even P.G. Wodehouse had points to make. And for the record, I think William Goldman has points to make as well. Unless you think a novel that ends with the disillusioned miserable narrator telling us “Life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all” was meant as light entertainment.

      This is where our disagreement stems from–you were reading The Score for light entertainment–self-evidently it succeeded in that regard, or there wouldn’t have been so many Parker novels after that. It was written to a very specific market. But fair enough, Marathon Man, written to a much more general market, sold a lot more copies, even before the movie. And shall we mention some of the recently published books that have vastly outsold everything William Goldman ever published, several times over? Fifty shades of green is more like it.

      But the only one I’m interested in is the shade that tells me who the writer is, what the writer feels, how the writer sees the world we live in. And the rest is just gravy.

      I have no problems with the honest sell-out. A bit of a problem with a so-called artist who made it very very clear it’s money that he loves. And people he just hates. Some more than others, to be sure. Likes himself just fine. Mamet. Let not that name darken my blog again, okay?

  13. Filmklassik

    “Advantage Stark.” Ha! Love it! And on reflection, I think I was being a trifle naive.

    I mean, imagine a blogger with a website dedicated to the wonder that is Marlon Brando, with hundreds of posts and essays written about the man over a period of many, many years, and then I come along one day and say “Hey, nice website and all, but — ah — being as objective as you can, wouldn’t you say Bogie was the greater star?”

    Like I said: Naive.

    …And I really do dig your site. And I just ordered Memory from Amazon.

    • Well yes, but I do think there are greater writers than Westlake.

      I just don’t think you’ve mentioned any of them. Okay, Twain, but you took him at face value, and that’s never a good idea. He’s a sneaky bugger.

      Memory is a road not taken.

      In more ways than one.

      It’s been fun, but maybe we should both call it a day.

      PS: Bogie. By a parsec. Though Brando was pretty good in Guys And Dolls.

      Here’s looking at you, kid. 😉

  14. Filmklassik

    Wait, are you … upset? Jesus, I honestly didn’t see that one coming. (But once again: Naive)

    • Now you’re boring me. And I’m not the one typing “Ha! Love it!” A classic tell.

      You know you smell of ‘aspiring screenwriter’ don’t you? Well there’s nothing wrong with that. (Mr. Tulonen has actually done that gig in reality). But speaking as a library clerk with a blog, I think you’re in the wrong conference room. Back to the Mamet seminar with you!

      😉

  15. Filmklassik

    Honestly? I do write screenplays. Excellent call. And fame would be awesome (although movies suck now). But equally honestly, there was nothing — and I do mean nothing — untoward about the “Ha! Love it.”

    Lot of snark online. And a lot of nastiness. And I try to engage in NONE of it unless I find myself duking it out with some crazed Trump supporter or else his equally crazed counterpart in antifa. Something like that.

    But this was — I truly thought — lively and civil.

    But these last few minutes, well, they caught me napping. But that’s the internet, right? It will always surprise you.

    Okay, get ready for the third encore…

    I am friggin naive.

    • Well yes, of course you’re a screenwriter. Not the first I’ve butted heads with, by the way (first on this blog; I used to have other obsessions). It’s the insecurity that gives you guys away. And the over-sensitivity.

      I mean, we’re just kidding around, right? And this is my blog, right? Meaning that even if you won a fucking Oscar, I still outrank you, as long as you’re here.

      I thought it was lively and civil, too (though really, how well do those two words go together?).

      But I’m getting that vibe from you. That I have gotten before. From aspiring screenwriters, wasting time online, when they should be working on screenplays (or teleplays). The old “Who does this guy think he is, anyway? I bet he couldn’t even come up with a decent story pitch.” And I couldn’t.

      I am absolutely nobody. But here you are, taking umbrage. Something my regular posters here have never done. Even the one who has written an entire miniseries and got it produced independently.

      (And to this day, I still don’t know what the word ‘untoward’ is supposed to mean, but I do know I’ve never once come across it in a screenplay.)

      Now listen up, and listen good, Hollywood.

      I meant what I said. About it being against my principles to approve comments before they get posted.

      However, when a poster starts to make enough of a pest of himself, it is most decidedly not against my principles to throw the bum out of my place.

      Let’s shake hands and move on.

      Or else.

      Capish?

      🙂

  16. Filmklassik

    Jesus.

    Capish.

    Sorry to’ve troubled you.

    • Not at all, my good man, not at all. And with that thick skin of yours, I’m sure you have a splendid future ahead of you, in that bastion of enlightened civility that is the entertainment industry.

      Peace. OUT.

      PS: I could edit out that double-post you made. As a gesture of good sportsmanship. But you know, I don’t think I will.

      Go have a drink and forget about it.

  17. (pokes head up and peers around cautiously)

    Is it safe?

    Seriously, that was a bit like pulling teeth. Haven’t had an encounter quite like that for some time. After a while, one starts to accumulate past internet lives, and this was like a flashback to one of them, and not one of my favorites.

    At one point, this past life involved a semi-successful screenwriter with actual IMDb credits (nothing you’re likely to have ever seen or heard of), stalking me on and off for years, trying to reveal details of my personal life (that he knew nothing about), to the point where he accomplished the truly remarkable feat of getting himself banned (I think twice!) from the minimally moderated IMDb forums. Back when there were still IMDb forums. (They shall not be missed. Neither shall he. Neither shall anything I ever posted there. It’s like they erased a karmic burden. I feel lighter.)

    I don’t want to sound like I have issues with people who write for movies and TV, because there are a whole lot of screenwriters I admire a hell of a lot (more TV than movies these days), and I even know their names, which you know, most people who go to movies and watch TV never will, unless it’s Joss Whedon. (Who I’ve never been that sold on, like he should care.)

    And here’s my beef.

    At no time did he ever really explain what he thought was wrong with The Score. I mean, most of my regulars here can, with quite a lot of precision and insight, tell me what they don’t like about a given book. The intelligence and sophistication of my comments section happens to be one of the few things that make me feel life is worth living. Even if I don’t agree, I understand what you’re saying, and can see things from your POV. But what the hell was his POV? I have no idea. I get that he was underwhelmed, and that’s fine, but he has no real explanation as to why that was. He had a reaction first, tried to explain it afterwards, and that doesn’t always work out as well as you’d hope.

    And here’s a guy who has written screenplays, who has been to writing seminars (And can you imagine Westlake, at any point in his life, laying down good money to hear the wit and wisdom of David Mamet?). This is somebody who knows a great deal more about how to write fiction than I do, or so I would assume, not that this is saying very much.

    And what’s his informed professional critique? It was written quickly. Well yeah, what part of 1960’s paperback original did you not understand? He knows Westlake tended to work without an outline, or at least I think he does. And apparently that’s some kind of minor felony if you pay dues to the WGA (which I’m guessing Westlake did, though maybe not when he wrote this one).

    He says Westlake didn’t know going in that Edgars had a hidden agenda, it came to him later on. Okay, the problem with this, as he would know if he read more of my reviews (even my most recent one), is that Westlake had already written Anarchaos, which had not yet been published. He was repurposing elements of that story for The Score, revisiting the theme of a man with a vendetta against an entire community, this time a town instead of a planet. He fucking well knew Edgars was a ringer going in. In fact, Edgars going apeshit on Copper Canyon might very well be the image he began with and wrote the novel around.

    But either way, this guy offers no clues as to how he would have written Edgars differently. Like maybe he would have implied that a factory owner in the town stole Edgars’ wife? Screenwriters tend to look for visual hooks like that. They repeat the mantra “Show, Don’t Tell” like it was holy writ–but a novel can take you right inside a characters’ head. Very different approaches.

    He also calls it a suspense novel. Now granted, genre is a fluid thing, different forms overlap, there can be suspense in mystery, mystery in suspense, but in no way shape or form is this book being written to the same standards or the same market as Marathon Man, let alone The Sting. I would say it was written to higher standards, but higher, lower–they’re DIFFERENT THINGS. This is a hard-boiled crime novel written about career criminals who take stuff, shoot people, and mainly get away with it. If you want to compare it to Kubrick’s The Killing, go nuts. (The book that’s based on is awful, incidentally.)

    I try to imagine Bucklin Moon’s response if Westlake had submitted a book written along the lines of Marathon Man, in place of The Score (remembering that his contract with Pocket was exclusively for Parker novels, nothing else), and I think he’d have tried to be dlplomatic about it, but he sure as hell would not have cut Westlake a check for it. Be worth his job. I mean, Pocket was not publishing any crime novels that long, for one thing.

    And Buck Moon was as anti-fascist as they come, ask Joe McCarthy. But c’mon. Nazi dentists? And how you gonna make anyone believe Parker,Grofield, or even Wycza gives two shits about African Olympic runners who don’t wear shoes?

    (See, I really did read some of it! It’s a very well written book! It just didn’t move me, so I stopped reading it. I was young, you know how the attention span is back then.)

    So he waltzes in, feeling like he knows everything, and we’re all going to be really impressed with his acumen. But what he knows is how to write screenplays to the standards he’s trained himself to satisfy, so he can make bank, fulfill his ambitions, and I am absolutely 100% cool with that.

    But I used to chat a lot online with this woman who wrote for TV, and was struggling (“This is a Man’s World” is a song about Hollywood), but she got some pretty good stuff on the air, a few times. She was also prickly as all hell (they are all incredibly insecure in that line of work, at least until they’ve got more money than God, if somewhat less than George Lucas). She would not back down one hundredth of an inch on anything, but when we were not busily fabricating garters from each others’ guts, she had some decent points to make. (He said generously.)

    And one thing that stuck with me is how she would refer to some writer she felt had basically been beaten down by all the little notes on the latest draft, and the subtle little threats about one’s longterm future in the biz, and the group mentality that tends to infect a writer’s room. She would say “They’ve broken him.” And she may have often been wrong about that (one of the writers she said that about has a roomful of Emmys now), but I know that’s because she was afraid they’d break her too.

    Nobody ever broke Donald E. Westlake.

    Nobody ever will.

    My philosophy on evaluating any work of fiction is that you judge it on its own merits, if any–and on the basis of what the writer was going for. Not what you think he or she should have been going for. And by that criteria, I can think of very few novels as good as The Score. It hits every target it aims at. It holds up to reading after reading, and I get something different from it every time.

    To once again paraphrase Alice Sheldon on the subject of Philip K. Dick (who never outlined ANYTHING, and they keep making movies and TV shows based on his novels, and all of them stink): I don’t know if it’s a great novel or not; all I know is don’t try to take it away from me. Seriously. Do. Not. Try.

    Okay, rant mode disabled. Back to Part Three.

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