Monthly Archives: July 2014

Tribute: James Garner, 1928-2014.


The real world never never impinges on the entertainment side of television, so fully realized private eyes continued to perform their pulp kabuki all over the tube. Mannix and Cannon and all those fellows, of whom the best was by a long shot Rockford. Rockford didn’t try to break out of the rituals, but used them in a very knowing and able way. His relationships with society, with the police, with his clients, with women, were all very much in the tradition, and yet Rockford was an individual, a human being you could believe in rather than a cardboard figure in a trench coat.
Donald Westlake, The Hardboiled Dicks

That quote, along with much else of interest, may be found in The Getaway Car, Levi Stahl’s soon-to-be-published anthology of Westlake’s nonfiction writing, which I’ll be reviewing in the near future (spoiler alert–I liked it). So there’s a quick plug, but this is a tribute–to somebody in the entertainment biz. Which this blog isn’t mainly about, and I wouldn’t be holding my breath waiting for a lot more of of the same here, if I were you. But Garner was the exception to so many rules in his world, I’ll make an exception for him in mine.

I grew up on The Rockford Files–I knew nothing back then about who wrote what. I never noticed the names Roy Huggins, Stephen J. Cannell, David Chase, Juanita Bartlett, Meta Rosenberg, until much later. All I knew about James Garner besides this show was that he did those Polaroid commercials with this sarcastic blonde who then showed up on The Rockford Files. Which was confusing. Maybe they should have hired Gretchen Corbett for the commercials, though that might have been even more confusing.

There aren’t a lot of big name stars who can remotely live up to their hype. Garner may have been nearly unique in that he far surpassed his (because in spite of his long popularity, he was never really an A-Lister). People who worked with him just couldn’t get over how un-full of himself he was. If he had an opinion he’d share it, but at the end of the day, if the writer or director said “This is what I want”, he’d back off and do it their way. And if it didn’t work, he might avoid working with that writer or director again, but he believed in letting people do their jobs. I don’t know if Westlake ever met him–tend to doubt it–but I think it’s a shame they never worked together. Garner would have been ideal to play many of Westlake’s protagonists (for example, the protagonist of the novel I’m reviewing next here).

He did a whole lot of quality work over the years, on television and in the movies, but it was in The Rockford Files, above all, that he hit that sweet spot, found the perfect venue for all the aspects of his talent. He wasn’t in the best physical shape by that point in time, and the show ended mainly because he couldn’t handle the demands of the role anymore, but for five years, he and his collaborators proved that commercial scripted genre television wasn’t crap because it had to be. If you cared enough, you could make it more than than gimmicks and posturing for an Emmy. You could make it truly great storytelling.

In one of the Sam Holt novels Westlake wrote under the not terribly convincing pseudonym of Sam Holt (I don’t have time to leaf through all four to find out which one right now), Holt, a former TV series star himself, hears a reference to The Rockford Files, and thinks to himself “The Gold Standard.” And it was. It was the epitome of television that entertained and illumined, at the same time, without ever putting on airs, or selling itself out. And it’s held up for around four decades now. No reason to think it won’t hold up another four decades, and beyond.

But Garner couldn’t. More’s the pity.

Anyway, back to the books.


Filed under Uncategorized

Review: The Seventh (AKA The Split)


I used to be able to look at myself and grin without giving a damn about how ugly it made me look. Now I was looking at myself the same way those people did back there. I was looking at a big guy with an ugly reputation, a guy who had no earthly reason for existing in a decent, normal society. That’s what the judge had said.

I was sweating and cold at the same time. Maybe it did happen to me over there. Maybe I did have a taste for death. Maybe I liked it too much to taste anything else. Maybe I was twisted and rotted inside. Maybe I would be washed down the sewer with the rest of all the rottenness sometime. What was stopping it from happening now? Why was I me with some kind of lucky charm around my neck that kept me going when I was better off dead?

From One Lonely Night, by Mickey Spillane.

Sometimes it was a bad thing to be devoid of small talk.   If he’d had little meaningless conversations with her, the last few weeks he might have learned something he could use now.  But Parker couldn’t stand meaningless conversations, couldn’t think of anything to say or any reason to say it.

The only time he talked about the weather, for instance, was when it had something to do with a job he was on.

From The Seventh, by Richard Stark

Why no image of the first edition up top this time?   Mainly because after doing excellent cover art for the first six Parker novels, Harry Bennett fell a bit short for The Seventh.


That isn’t Parker on the cover–it’s Dan Kifka and his girlfriend Janey.  Not looking at all as they do in the book (since Dan is generally naked, and while Janey is described as pink-complexioned, she isn’t shocking pink).  Parker and the rest of the crew are on the back.  Bennett’s emphasis is confusing, to say the least.  But the text refers to the heist, and so does the text on the back of the book–and that’s an even more egregious error.   Fact is, there’s almost as much text describing the heist on the front and back covers as there is inside the book.

The first thing to say about The Seventh, renamed The Split when reprinted by Gold Medal a short time later (to link in with the then-upcoming Jim Brown movie, which I’m not reviewing here, except to say they could have had something and they blew it) is that it’s not really a heist story.   The heist itself takes up less than five pages in the Gold Medal reprint–and that’s including the entire getaway.   The way the job came about, the advance preparation, introducing most of the main players, the execution, the getaway, Parker’s post-job hook-up–one chapter.

It’s a neat little job, fun to read about, and features yet another appearance by the justly beloved Madge and her Green Glen Motel–but it’s deliberately dealt with in a brisk matter-of-fact anticlimactic manner.    No drama, no serious tension, no dialogue even, until they are well away from the scene of the crime–exactly the type of job Parker loves, and so rarely ever gets.   If you picked up the Pocket edition because you’d been hankering for a great novel about a stadium heist, you got ripped off.   It’s a short story, at best.   And the least important part of the book as a whole.

But looking at the Gold Medal edition, featuring eye-catching artwork from the legendary Robert E. McGinnis, you knew what the story would be about.   Parker’s money got stolen.  Parker’s girl got killed (with a sword!).   Parker’s coming after whoever did this.   And yeah, he’s wearing a turtleneck, but they were very hip back then (Steve McQueen wore one in Bullitt), and the story is set in winter.   It’s a minor flaw.

Though I’m not going to talk about the film adaptation, I would deduce that Fawcett’s Gold Medal paperback division, having passed on The Hunter when Westlake gave them first shot at it, had second thoughts after they saw that movie made into a major motion picture with Lee Marvin–and would have felt even more convinced of their error after learning yet another Parker novel was being adapted into a big Hollywood movie.

That probably did enter into the switch-over from Pocket (who would publish only one more Parker novel after The Seventh)–and getting a series of McGinnis covers would have been a nice bonus, though what Westlake and other crime writers of the era really loved about Gold Medal was money–they paid more than anyone else in that general publishing mileau, and as long as your book stayed in print, they’d keep paying.  If they did another printing, you’d get another check–for copies printed, not copies actually sold.   For a struggling wordsmith, this seemed like manna from heaven.

Who did Gold Medal authors ultimately owe for this princely largesse?   None other than Frank Morrison Spillane, better known as Mickey, and his misanthropic manchild, Mike Hammer.   Fawcett started Gold Medal in response to the staggering sales for Mike Hammer novels when reprinted in paperback–these novels invariably featuring lurid covers, dripping with sex and violence.   Much like the one above.   The Hammer novels would get published in hardcover by E.P. Dutton, then in paperback by Signet.   The paperbacks were where the money really was, and there was an awful lot of money.

Hammer was a household name by the end of the 1940’s–just like Parker, they never did find a way to get him across convincingly onscreen, and just like Parker, the best film adaptation was the one that didn’t take him or his worldview at face value–John Boorman’s spectral neo-noir Point Blank in Parker’s case, and Robert Aldrich’s apocalyptic Kiss Me Deadly in Hammer’s.   When it came to Hammer though, there were also endless parodies and spoofs–people loved these stories, but most didn’t take them that seriously.

I remember Jean Kerr’s “Don Brown’s Body” from Please Don’t Eat The Daisies (yes, women did read these novels, eyes rolling furiously as they did), but even better was the 12 minute ballet “Girl Hunt” from Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon.  Fred Astaire is too natty and nice to pull it off (that’s part of the joke, of course), but he really gives it all he’s got.   “Now I knew who The Killer was, but it didn’t matter anymore–Killers have to DIE!”   Betty Comden and Adolph Green really nailed what these books were all about, and why they were so popular, and why they were so equally ridiculous.

Gold Medal couldn’t have Spillane, but Spillane wasn’t all that prolific (with sales like that, he didn’t have to be).   His readers would wait a long time between books–so all Gold Medal had to do was find writers who could hammer out (sorry, couldn’t resist) the same general type of sexy violent hardboiled noir with a touch of the gutter to it,  hire artists who could visually communicate it was that kind of story, and even if they never got a mammoth best-seller like I, the Jury or Kiss Me, Deadly,  they’d still score heavily on the rebound.

Many, myself included, would say a lot of the Gold Medal Spillane knock-offs, from Westlake and others, were easily superior to the originals.   Spillane had a genuine knack for going to the jugular (and other parts of the male anatomy), but maybe because he’d hit it so big, so fast, he never really learned how to write (and often spoke derisively of those who did).   His style is self-indulgent, turgid, narcissistic, and often downright preachy.   Small wonder he and Ayn Rand formed a mutual admiration society.   He couldn’t write convincing dialogue to save his life, he never knew much about plot, and he couldn’t care less about character.   Great salesman–not much of a craftsman.

Still, when talking about The Mick, and finding more oblique ways of saying that his writing stunk, Westlake and others of that later generation of crime fiction authors never failed to acknowledge their debt to him.   He’d blazed a trail, and they’d followed it.   And what he genuinely had to teach them, they were avid to learn.   What he taught them most of all was that if you link up sex and death, and  really grab your readers with your first few paragraphs, draw them into an exciting criminal otherworld where ordinary moral values don’t hold sway, you can get away with almost anything.

I mean, this is the guy who wrote a novel called (I kid you not) The Erection Set, that ends with the hero (named ‘Dog’) happily screwing his lady love, who is directly based on the  bottle-blonde model shown nude on the cover of the book, who Spillane was married to for a while–he brags about hooking up with her in the dedication–is this literature or performance art?   Anyway, the hero has a .45 handgun right next to him on the bed while he is having carnal knowledge of this girl, because hey, guns go with everything.  While he is still inside of her, he realizes this crazed sicko is behind them with a gun, and he just reaches around and blows the guy away with the .45, then goes back to screwing the bottle-blonde, because she’s even more in the mood now.  Best as I can tell, there was no controversy when this best-selling book came out in 1972, at the height of the feminist movement.  Boys will be boys.  Bill O’Reilly wishes he was Mickey Spillane.   Seriously, he does.

So to get back to the subject at hand, it’s no surprise that Gold Medal knew exactly how to sell a book that opens with a morally ambiguous ‘hero’ finding his girlfriend of the moment impaled with a sword, and then resolving to kill the bastard who did it.   This was pretty much an ordinary day at the office for the folks at Gold Medal.   But this was no ordinary ‘hero’, even by their standards. This was Parker.   And Parker, to put it mildly, makes Mike Hammer look like an overaged boy scout with ‘roid rage.

The Seventh, (the title referring directly to Parker’s share of the loot and indirectly to the fact that this is the seventh book in the series) opens with the scene I’ve just described.   But describing it and capturing the feel of it as Westlake/Stark lay it out, are two entirely different things.   Parker is coming back from a beer run, after a three day orgy with the girl his colleague Dan Kifka set him up with for this stadium heist in Monequois, Westlake’s go-to fictional burg (this time a fairly big town–somewhere between Binghamton and Albany in size, I’d guess).   He finds the girl, one Ellen Marie Canaday (Ellie for short), was killed during his ten minute absence–and worse–the money from the heist is gone.

Then two plainclothes cops (who Parker thinks of as Mutt and Jeff) come in and find him with the body–he realizes the killer called the police to try and frame him.   He plays it cool, but when they come across the guns from the heist, he has to knock both of them out, and run for it, scooping up four pistols as he leaves.   He figures it has to be one of his partners, but after he talks to Dan Kifka–sick in bed with a bad flu, and being ministered to by his luscious blonde coed girlfriend Janey, he gradually comes realize it must be some amateur who was after Ellie, and just came across the money by accident.   He also realizes the killer is after him as well–somebody keeps taking shots at him from a distance, then running when he fires back.

Kifka seems to be an alternate take on Dan Wycza–a big blonde Hungarian American, who comes from the general area, drives a cab, and occasionally works as a driver on big heists.   He met Janey, a Monequois College student, while driving his hack, and she basically picked him up–instant chemistry, and they’ve been going at it hot and heavy ever since, only coming up for air when she goes home to her folks.    Kifka is maybe not the brightest guy Parker has ever worked with, but he’s pretty sharp overall, socially connected, and way off his best game because of the flu, and Janey distracting him, as she would most guys.

(Sidebar–Westlake obviously knew a fair number of ‘hunkies’ growing up.   There’s a lot of them in Binghamton to this day–Binghamton Airport still has regular flights to Budapest–and you’ll remember that they figured rather heavily in Killing Time–Tim Smith ventures into Winston NY’s ‘Hunkytown’,  to talk to its political boss.   Not a big factor in this book, but the more ya know…..)

So the gang has to be gotten together, and informed that Parker lost their money–quite possibly his most embarrassing professional moment ever, which he takes with his usual good humor (yeah, right).   The situation is pretty dire–the stadium heist was already big news, then a girl got murdered in a sensational headline-grabbing way (which the local paper tries to link to the Boston Strangler killings that occurred from 1962-64).    Parker has been seen by two cops at the scene of the killing, and the cops have most of their guns, meaning the murder will be linked to the robbery.   The smartest thing to do would be to get the hell out of Monequois, and forget the money, which comes to less than 20k for each of the seven participants.

But Parker wants them to stay and help him recover the loot.   If anybody leaves, and the money is recovered, he forfeits his share.   And if the ones who stay are caught, as one of them points out, there’s a good chance the cops will learn the identities of the ones that fled.   Whatever they do, they have to do it together.   And together, they opt to stay and look for this guy.

And this is a very stupid thing to do, and they all know it, and Parker most of all. And yet not only is he not running, he actually braced the police detective in charge of investigating Ellie’s murder, one William Dougherty, in his own home, and made veiled threats against his family–just to get the list of people the cops are looking at for the killing.  Which Dougherty, no fool (and no coward either) handed over in exchange for Parker telling him what he knows about Ellie’s murder–but now, feeling somehow humiliated by the way Parker used his vulnerability as a family man against him, is out to get Parker (and doesn’t give a damn that he didn’t kill Ellie).

And this is the enduring puzzle of the book.   Why is Parker so intent on finding this amateur, whose name and face he doesn’t know, who could be anywhere, anyone?    Yes, the money, which he certainly needs after losing almost everything during the events of The Jugger.   But it’s not that much, and he can always find another job.   The risks of staying seem to greatly outweigh the potential rewards.  The smart thing to do is run, and he knows this.   He also knows that the seven of them looking for the cash are bound to attract more attention from the law than just him looking for the guy who is trying to kill him.

But Parker was aggravated.   Somewhere in this dirty city there was a guy who had stolen two suitcases full of money from Parker.  And shot at Parker twice. And killed the girl Parker was living with.  And tried to set Parker up to take the fall.

What he wanted now was the appearance of logic and good sense.  If the other six stayed active in this thing, then it was a simple sensible matter of getting the group’s money back.  But if they all quit, Parker knew he himself wouldn’t quit, and he’d be going after the guy instead of the money.

He didn’t like to catch himself doing things that weren’t sensible, and that just aggravated him all the more.

Parker’s behavior here is arguably even more irrational than in The Jugger–the book Westlake frequently described as a failure, because he felt he hadn’t managed to explain Parker’s motivation for taking all the risks he did in that story.   But here, in this passage, I think Westlake felt like he’d pulled it off–and he did.   This is the Parker we remember from The Hunter–all his buttons have been pushed at the same time.   Somebody stole from him, somebody tried to kill him and was obviously going to keep trying, somebody killed a woman he was actively involved with at the peak of his cyclical mating cycle (in a manner that bothers him more than he wants to admit), and that same somebody tried to get him taken or killed by the law.

All these separate yet related actions have combined to thoroughly upset Parker’s mental equilibrium, trigger a reaction over which he has no control, for which he has only one remedy.   He won’t be able to rest easy or think calmly for even a moment until the man responsible for all this is dead.   It isn’t revenge for what was done to him.   It isn’t justice for Ellie.  It isn’t self-preservation.  It isn’t even the money.  It’s the same thing he felt towards Mal Resnick–an itch he can only scratch by killing whoever caused it–and if Parker feels this way about you, he will keep coming until one of you is gone.  That’s his nature, and he can’t change it.   Not even if he wanted to.

It’s pretty clear from his reaction to seeing Ellie pinned to the bed that he didn’t have any real feelings towards her–but Westlake goes out of his way to tell us she’s not just another random hook-up either.   Parker liked being around her in the period coming up to the heist, when he normally would have no real use for a woman–she was attractive, with long black hair, not fussy about her appearance–quiet and preoccupied with her own interests, so not bothering him with small talk–but once Parker came back from the job, his on-or-off libido fully engaged, she proved to be more than ready for him.

Seeing how lackadaisical Ellie was about everything else in life, Parker hadn’t expected her to be more in bed than a receptacle, but she surprised him.  He had found the one thing that made her pay attention.  For three days and nights they hardly left the bed at all, and the whole time she was nothing but stifled mumblings and hard-muscled legs and hot breath and demanding arms and a sweat-slick pulsing belly.  All the passion that had been damned up inside Parker while his one-track mind had been concentrating on the robbery now burst forth in one long sustained silent explosion, and Ellie absorbed it all the way a soundproof room absorbs a shout.

This is one of the passages in the book nobody ever forgets.  It’s very clear that neither Parker nor Ellie has ever had it this good in bed before.  It’s like they’ve been waiting all their lives for this perfect matching–not love, on either side, but a physical and temperamental compatibility that can be even harder to find, particularly for life’s oddballs.  It seems likely that had she lived, Parker would have suggested that Ellie come with him when he left Monequois, and it seems likely she’d have agreed–she’d have taken his dead wife Lynn’s place, and probably filled it better than Lynn ever did.

But he hadn’t formed any real bond with her, in spite of all this compatibility.   Not enough time for that.   He isn’t sad or angry that she’s dead.   He doesn’t miss her.   It’s more like the way she died irritated him–the pointlessness of it–and the way the thing that was building between them was cut short in full bloom.   It’s something he could never possibly explain in words, and he’d never try, not even to himself.   And that just irritates him more.  He barely knew her, in anything other than the biblical sense–because she had no more use for pillow talk than he did.  He has this bemused inner revelation that the seemingly inconsequential conversations people have, that he has always found a nuisance, actually have their uses–that’s how we humans learn about each other.   Knowing nothing about her life, he has no way of knowing who might have ended it.

As little as Parker cares for her as a person, he still cares more than anyone else he meets during his quest for her killer–Kifka, who apparently dated her in his Pre-Janey era, feels nothing more than frustration that her busy love life caused them to lose the money from the heist.   “Fuck her” is his reaction.   She’s got no friends or family to mourn her, it seems.  She was too much of a loner.

The very conscientious Detective Dougherty, after his encounter with Parker (who he knows is not the killer), asks to be put on the detail looking for the stadium heisters–because he wants to settle a personal score.   He’s supposed to be finding Ellie’s killer–his superior sarcastically asks him doesn’t he care who bumped poor little Ellen Canaday, and he replies “Not for a minute.”   Just another dead tramp to him.

And let’s be honest–that’s what most police detectives would feel in real life.   This isn’t an 87th Precinct novel.    It’s not a Mike Hammer novel either.  Ed McBain’s Detective Steve Carella, who represents an ideal, would go after the killer relentlessly, feeling compassion for the slain girl (perhaps thinking how easily she could have been his beloved wife Teddy), and simply because it’s his job.   He’s what policemen may aspire to be in real life, but those aspirations nearly always fall short.  And not just for policemen.

Mike Hammer would go after him because–well, because it’s a Mike Hammer novel, and that means something always happens to justify the violence inside Hammer that never stops looking for an outlet.   Hammer knows he’s a monster, and he beats himself up about it all the time, but the fact is he lives the life he lives because he needs to kill people on a regular basis, and this way he can do it without going to jail, and tell himself he was avenging some poor girl, or ridding the world of a crazed sicko, or stopping those lousy commies–but he really doesn’t care about any of that–not for a minute.   His inner monologues never lead to change, because he doesn’t really want to change.   He just wants to pretend that he does, sometimes.

But Parker will do what he does simply because it needs doing, and not ask questions that lead nowhere.  His only goal is survival, and he survives by seeing things as they are.  He doesn’t need pretty words to say.  He’s kidding himself and his colleagues a bit about his motives here (and he knows it), but he isn’t seeking to justify anything he does–he’ll never understand the point of that.   You do what you have to do, and after it’s done, there’s no need to think about what that makes you.   It makes you alive, and it makes the other guy dead.   Period.   A wolf doesn’t need excuses for what he was born to be.   That’s a human thing.

Early in the book, Parker is walking through a slum targeted for urban renewal, and Stark, seeing things from Parker’s perspective tells us “Within them, the cockroaches crawled and the rats chittered, but the humans were away, infesting some other neighborhood.”    That’s how he sees most of us, and sometimes it’s hard to blame him.

Ellen Marie Canaday (hmm–Canaday–Canidae?–maybe not intentional–then again….) is at the center of everything that happens in this story, but only two people in it have any real feeling towards her–the man who killed her, and the man who’s out to kill the man who killed her.   And you’d have to say the former had the stronger feelings by far.

We’re going to have to talk about this guy–whose name we never learn, even though we spend quite a bit of time in his head.   But I’m getting to that point I’ve come to twice before–with The Hunter and The Jugger–where I am forced to recognize this is a two-parter.   Just too much to talk about.   A short book, that you can polish off in well under two hours–but that’s the most amazing thing about Stark–how much meaning he could pack into so few words.

If I was as good as Donald E. Westlake writing as Richard Stark, no doubt I could finish this review now.   But alas–so see you next week.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: The Busy Body

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“We got the clearance to rub him,  just day before yesterday.  I had it set up for over in Jersey.  Friday night, he’s on this bowling league, see?  And it struck me, a bowling ball, now, that looks a hell of a lot like the old fashioned kind of bomb, you know what I mean?  So I thought I’d–”

“You’re supposed to rub Menchik,” Nick Rovito reminded him, “Not the whole Bowlorama.”

“Sure, so this is better.  We can double up.  Willy goes with Engel, see, and helps him dig it up, and then Engel rubs him and leaves him in the coffin with Charlie and covers it all up again, and who’s to find Willy?   You gonna look for him in a grave?”

Nick Rovito smiled.   He didn’t do that very often,  and it made the boys around the table happy to see him do it now.  “That’s pretty nifty,” he said.  “I like the feel of that.”

Somebody else around the table said “It’s like a poetic humor, huh Nick?” and Nick Rovito said “Yeah.”

Though I suppose it very slightly resembles The Trouble With Harry  (I’ve only ever seen the Hitchcock film based on Jack Trevor Story’s–um–story),  as you can see from my choice of book covers this week, I don’t particularly have any works by other authors to compare this book with.   I’ve got the deliciously morbid Ballantine paperback reprint cover up there because I  happen to like it much better than the rather generic caricatures of the original Random House edition.

One thing that is almost always missed in visual interpretations of Westlake’s comic novels is how straight-faced they are.   Keatonesque, you might even say.   You may be laughing, but nobody in the book is, most of the time.  They are all taking the proceedings very seriously, particularly the protagonist, who is usually in mortal peril.  To do Westlake’s  style of comedy right, you have to play it like a particularly crucial hand of poker.  One where your life is at stake.

But for some reason everybody who adapted them wanted to play up the comic angle really hard, just so the audience would know they weren’t being serious about it–the same way when they adapted Richard Stark, they kept finding some way to make Parker seem like a nice guy.   And since they didn’t take the proceedings seriously, that’s why the movies were almost never funny.   And absolutely never as funny as the books.   And they pretty much always flopped, with audiences and the critics.   And for some reason, Hollywood kept making more of them, and they kept right on flopping.   But the checks they made out to Westlake kept clearing.   So the joke wasn’t on him.

The reason I’m mentioning all this is that the film Hollywood made out of The Busy Body was the first Westlake adaptation to go into general release in the U.S., and really the first film based on one of his books that got any mainstream attention.   There had been three French movies already–an anthology film that incorporated one of his short stories into it (that is literally all I know about it), Godard’s unauthorized & 99.9999% unfaithful adaptation of The Jugger  (see the previous two reviews here), and Alain Cavalier’s Mise a Sac, which transposed the events of The Score to rural France.

Westlake said he saw Mise a Sac once, on video (probably taped from a TV broadcast), at a friend’s apartment in Paris, without subtitles, and he thought it looked pretty good–I’ve seen a high quality print, with subtitles, at the Museum of Modern Art and it’s very good.  I’ll get around to reviewing it pretty soon.   The Busy Body I will never bother to post a full review of, because it’s terrible.   Ditto with Godard’s film.  I have no idea where you’d get a copy of that anthology thing, but give me time.

The Busy Body was released in March of 1967, and John Boorman’s Point Blank came out in August of the same year.   They definitely saved the best for last.   Please note that even though I’m mentioning this movie, I didn’t put an image of the poster up above.   The film is currently available on Netflix, if you’re curious.   I urge you not to buy a copy.   It’s a train wreck, made all the worse by the amazing cast they put together for it.   Sid Caesar, Richard Pryor, Robert Ryan, and the hilariously delectable Arlene Golonka, and here is the only image I choose to recall from the entire film.


That scene isn’t from the book, and do I care?   I most emphatically do not.    Ms. Golonka’s breathtakingly busy bod aside, the movie stinks, and Westlake thought so too.   He said after this one, William Castle finally decided to stop trying to be a director, and just produce movies.   Castle’s next production, Westlake noted ruefully, was Rosemary’s Baby.   Timing is everything.

It’s strange that this was the only ‘Nephew’ book that became an actual movie–several others were optioned, including The Fugitive Pigeon, which would have been a much better choice, though maybe a bit too counter-cultural for the likes of William Castle (and not enough for the directors who dug that kind of scene).  One gets the impression that a very large part of Westlake’s income derived from studios buying the rights to this or that book and then never doing anything with it.   Most of the time, that was probably just as well.

To me, this is one of the weakest of the Nephew stories.   It’s self-evidently a comic re-telling of The Mercenaries, featuring a mob boss’ right hand man dragooned into investigating a mystery for his employer, and ending up on the chopping block himself.   It also contains elements freely recycled from The Fugitive Pigeon, which had been Westlake’s first really big seller for Random House (even outsold the Parker novels that had come out thus far).

Westlake’s comic technique is improving here, and there’s much to like about the book.   It’s a more polished work, with better gags, and improved execution overall–but there’s less conviction behind it.  He’s still figuring out how to make this kind of story work.  Enthusiasm alone won’t cut it now, but neither will mere technique.  He needs characters people will care about who are still genuinely and uniquely funny.   Characters from whom the story will flow naturally.   He doesn’t have that here.

He wrote the first comic novel more or less as a reaction against the overly serious mysteries he was expected to keep cranking out, and his relief at getting to express the humorous side of his nature is abundantly clear–as is the fact that he can easily imagine himself being in Charlie Poole’s situation (and falling in love with a girl like Chloe Shapiro, as I suspect he really did at some point in time).

But here, he’s writing about an older guy (over 30, I think) who has chosen to be somebody’s flunky for life–a second generation mobster–an organization man practically from the cradle to the grave–almost literally, in fact.   His protagonist is an empty suit, with lots of money, and no real self-understanding.   He feels no strong attachment to anybody in his life, or to his job.  Typically, in a Westlake story, this kind of character ends up dead, or about to be dead.  But this is a comedy, and not really a dark one, in spite of the subject matter–so the guy has to live.  How to work it this time?

Aloysius Eugene Engel (of Irish and Jewish parentage, going by the name) is the son of a smalltimer in the New York syndicate, whose general lack of direction in life led to him becoming a messenger boy for the rackets himself.  Engel Sr’s overbearing ambitious wife (clearly the Irish side of the family, though she’d give any Jewish mother a run for her money) noodged him into using some information he had to boost their son’s career.

Engel Jr. was therefore put in a position where he could tell the boss of the outfit, one Nick Rovito (very reminiscent of Nick Ganolese from The Mercenaries) that his right hand man was about to betray and supplant him–and in the process, Engel Jr. ended up taking the guy’s place.

In the process, Engel inadvertently killed the guy he was informing on–without really thinking about it, since the guy was about to strangle him, and Nick helpfully tossed him a gun, which he emptied at the guy with his eyes tight shut.   Nick kept the gun, with Engel’s prints on it, just in case it was needed someday.   Yeah, very reminiscent of The Mercenaries.    (And yeah, I know I said Nephews don’t kill, but the rules of imaginary sub-genres are notoriously flexible–we never see him kill anyone on purpose, and it’s clearly something he’d much rather not be doing).

The story opens in earnest with the funeral of another mob guy–a huge expensive affair for a very unimportant guy, named Charlie Brody (kind of interesting that Westlake chose to give the stiff in question the same first name as the protagonist of his previous comic crime novel–he loved morbid little injokes like that).

Charlie’s only job of any significance was to transport large quantities of narcotics sewn up in his blue suit.   Rovito just felt like there hadn’t been a good funeral in a while, and this was as good an excuse as any.   Belatedly, it’s realized that the grieving widow, a former call girl for the syndicate, has chosen that very blue suit to bury her husband in.   The suit with a quarter million dollars worth of drugs sewn into the jacket.

Engel gets tapped to go dig up Charlie and get the suit jacket.    In the process, as the opening quote makes clear, he’s supposed to whack this other mob guy who has become a problem, after the guy helps him dig it up.   But the coffin is empty, and the guy skedaddles, and Engel is now seriously in dutch with his boss.   Bad enough he had to play grave robber, but now he’s got to play detective, solve the case of the missing corpse, and retrieve the drugs–or at least find out what happened.

So here we go again–another guy who doesn’t want to be solving a mystery forced by a rather contrived set of circumstances to do precisely that–but his reaction is a bit different–see, Engel isn’t the cool competent customer that Clay in The Mercenaries is–who eventually turns out to not be as smart as he thinks he is.   Nor is he the clueless terrified schlemiel that Charlie Poole in The Fugitive Pigeon is–who finally turns out to be smarter than he thinks he is.   Engel is pretty much exactly as smart as he thinks he is–and kvetchy as a man could possibly be.   He’ll start monologuing on his grievances at the drop of a hat.

“I might as well gone to college,” said Engel, “like my mother wanted.    I might as well gone legit, and took the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  So I got money, I got prestige, I got the respect of my community, I even got a pipe with my name on it at Kean’s, but is it worth it?  To be involved with slobs like this masochist on the floor here, is it worth it?  To go dig up graves and conk people on the head with shovels and drive a standard-shift car and get lost forty times in Brooklyn and associate with slobs like Willy Menchik at this hour of the night.   I might as well been a milkman.”

He opened the door and stepped out, still grumbling.   “I might better off been a milkman, they got a union.”

That is world-class kvetching, and another strong indicator that he is of both Jewish and Irish descent (arguably the two most gifted groups of complainers, and historically having much to complain about, in all fairness).

Engel is tall, lean, and saturnine in countenance.   His reaction to every new difficulty that arises in his life is to grouse and brood over it, with a general aura of aggrieved melancholic resignation–like he expected this to happen, because fate is determined to play an endless series of practical jokes on him, but he still has to say something about it, just to make it clear he’s not okay with this wholly undeserved treatment he’s getting from what powers there be.    Does this remind you of anyone else you’ve ever met in a Donald Westlake novel?   Let’s come back to that later.

So Engel goes to the funeral home where Charlie was prepared for his interment, and since it must be obvious by now I’m not that interested in the story of this one, let me do a bit of comparative quoting here–Parker visited a funeral home in The Jugger, which was written around the same time as this book (I’m going to hazard a guess that Westlake attended a funeral or three around then and was making mental notes amidst the mourning).

Let’s see how different the styles are–here’s Richard Stark–

The room stank of flowers and death.   Orange light bulbs shaped like wrinkled mosques shone dimly in wall fixtures on the left, gleaming on the tangled pattern of the wallpaper, muting and deadening in the thick maroon rug and the heavy dark draperies around the doorways.  To the right, rotting flowers in green wicker baskets stood around a coffinless bier; a few white rose petals had fallen on to the flat table-top of the bier and were slowly browning and curling into tiny fists.

Here’s Donald Westlake–

The sign on the front lawn that said 


Grief Parlor

 was three feet wide and in neon, but it was blue neon, for dignity.   Behind this sign and beyond the manicured lawn was the building, a robber baron’s town house when it was built in the latter part of the nineteenth century, its gables and bay windows all done in a rotten stucco now painted a gloomy brown.  A broad empty porch spread around the broad vacuous face of the house, and as Engel came up the slate walk he saw that this porch was full of uniformed policemen.

Stark again–

Going through the curtained doorway at the far end of the room was like time travel, like leaping across the years out of the muffled darkness of the Victorian era and into the plane geometry of IBM.  The walls of this corridor, painted grey, looked like some sort of spackled plastic in a poor imitation of stucco; the ceiling was a gridwork of white sound-proofing panels with small black holes in rows; and the floor was black composition that deadened the sound of Parker’s feet almost as much as the maroon rug in the other room.

Westlake again–

He was in a different world now, though just as dim and cluttered a one.  Out ahead of him stretched the hallway, narrow and low-ceilinged.  Two wall fixtures shaped sort of like candles contained amber light bulbs shaped sort of like candle flames, and these dim amber bulbs were the only source of light.  The walls were painted a color that was maybe coral, maybe apricot, maybe amber, maybe beige; the woodwork was done in a stain so dark as to be almost black, and the floor was carpeted in dark and torturous Persian.  If a Pharaoh had died in A.D. 1935, the inside of his pyramid would have looked like this hall.

It’s not that Westlake is so much wordier than Stark–it’s really a difference in attitude and emphasis, more than anything else.   There’s a very dry dark humor in Stark, but it’s not meant to make you chuckle–or even smile.   And he keeps it very simple (hence the name).   Westlake, by contrast, likes to throw in that bit of extra commentary, that snark-laden aside–he becomes Stark, in a sense, by suppressing the part of himself that sees the humor in everything, that wants to find that extra line (like the 1935 Pharaoh) and this suppression makes his sentences crisper, cleaner, more to the point–which works much better for a hard-boiled crime novel, but obviously much less well for a story that plays the same basic set of circumstances for laughs, and a protagonist who is far less sure of himself than Parker.

Back at the funeral home, Engel blunders into exactly the same scenario Charlie Poole did before him–he wants to talk to the mortician, and finds him in his study, with a knife in his back.   And then this attractive woman sees him and starts screaming.   And then comes a scene right out of Buster Keaton, with Engel fleeing what seems to be roughly half the NYPD (there’s a cop’s funeral going on at the same time), and negotiating a series of obstacles to evade them–and by dint of desperation-fueled ingenuity, making those obstacles work in his favor–he ends by plugging an alleyway with a handy truck, leaving them all stuck in there, while he walks nonchalantly back into the funeral parlor to ask more questions–and again, doesn’t this remind you of somebody else?   Again, let’s get back to that.

He does the usual Westlake reluctant detective stuff, talking to this person and that, working up a list of suspects, meeting several attractive women with dubious agendas he can’t quite fathom at first; failing to meet his sort-of girlfriend Dolly, an ‘exotic dancer’ who works on the West Coast, just blew into town, and wants to hook up with him, and we never see her once–she keeps leaving him increasingly irate notes written in lipstick and fastened to his apartment door with false fingernails.   It’s not a romantic comedy, like The Fugitive Pigeon.   There are girls, but there is not The Girl.   Another rule of the Nephew genre that gets bent here, if not outright broken.

But if there’s one rule of the Nephew stories that holds true book after book, it’s this–the hero will end up in trouble for something he didn’t do.   Engel finds out that some businessmen have told Nick Rovito that he’s been shaking them down for money–none of which has gone to Nick.   Nick has sent two trigger-men pretty much identical in appearance and personality to Trask and Slade from The Fugitive Pigeon, only this time they’re named Gittel and Fox, same difference.

Not only are they going to whack him, but Nick Rovito pulled that murder weapon with his fingerprints on it out of storage, and used it to frame him for the death of that guy he was supposed to have conked with a shovel anyway.   What we’re seeing here is what probably just what happened to Clay from The Mercenaries right after the last paragraph in that book–only without the comic hijinks.   And probably with a much darker finish.

Engel is taken for a ride, in the good old 1930’s gangster movie sense of the term, just like Charlie Poole before him, but instead of talking his way out of it the way Charlie does, he makes a break for it at a traffic plaza, and slips away into that  labyrinthine redoubt that is Queens.

Then Engel holes up (in more ways than one) with Charlie Brody’s widow, the once and future hooker (working name Bobbi Bounds)–who offers him the comfort of her bed, and you know what, in the movie they must have figured they’d combine Bobbi the hooker/widow with Dolly the exotic dancer/girlfriend, and make it a romantic comedy, and it might have worked, but Sid Caesar and Arlene Golonka had zero chemistry and the script still stunk on ice.

There’s a lot more investigating, and running from the cops, and Gittel & Fox, and some more oddly familiar moments involving an office building full of shady businesses, and Engel using a fair ride on wheels full of joyfully screaming kids to make his getaway, and maybe it’s just time to cut to the chase.   Engel finds out who took Charlie’s body.   It wasn’t for a reason anybody would have suspected.   It involves one of the attractive women with dubious agendas.   It ties everything up neatly in a nice bow for Nick Rovito, and Engel gets offered his old job back.

And here’s where he proves himself a Nephew at last–he nixes the offer.   He’s not going to pull a George Clayton from The Mercenaries, and double down on his choice to be an organization man.   He decides working for people you can never trust is for the birds.   He’s going to try being his own man–and part of that means telling his mother goodbye–she’s been pestering him to have dinner with her all through the book–this woman who wanted him to be a big career man with the mob, but never could process what this would actually mean for him.

He’s been putting her off by threatening to move to California.   She calls his bluff this time–it’s not a bluff this time.   He hangs up on her, finds out where Dolly lives, and heads for the airport.

Westlake had probably spent some time in California by now, relating to his new sideline of selling books to Hollywood, and this marks the beginning of yet another dichotomy in his books–the part of him that was a loyal New Yorker to the bitter end–and the part that was oddly attracted to the West Coast.   Usually New York won, but not always–in this case, Engel finds out that a relentless police detective has it in for him (geez, you trap half the police force in a blind alley they take it so personal), and intends to see him dead or permanently jailed.   So that tips the balance in favor of California–like I said, a very loyal New Yorker, but loyalty has its limits.

Needless to say, in the movie, made for a mainstream audience that would have a whole lot of mothers in it, Engel does not coldly abandon his mom, and they are all happily reconciled; Engel, his mother, and the Bobbi/Dolly amalgram.   And that is the very last thing I shall ever have to say about that movie.   Unless it comes up in the comments section.

I admire the skill with which Westlake put this all together–but I don’t really love the book.   Again, it’s the characters.  Most of them come across as cleverly reworked cliches, and a cleverly reworked cliche is a cliche nonetheless.   They don’t have much in the way of soul, and I don’t think you’re even supposed to care about them–I mean, the hero telling his mother ‘good-bye forever’ (his exact words!) over the telephone kind of tips you off to that.

It’s Westlake experimenting with the comic form–he’d made the main characters very warm and empathetic in his first comedy, so now he’s going to try going the other way with it.   It doesn’t work as well.   I’m also pretty sure it didn’t sell as well, and Westlake was not in a financial position to say the hell with that.  (Editing, long long after–I just recently found out Westlake got 50k for the movie rights to this book, which would have the equivalent of a quarter mil back then, so he wasn’t in a position to say the hell with that either).

But it does show some potential–it’s funnier, for one thing.   Too much sympathy can be bad for comedy.   You have to measure out the ingredients just right.    Great comedy always has an edge to it.   But it also needs great memorable characters–Bertie Wooster and Jeeves come to mind.   Yes, you love them, you root for them–but you also know they aren’t ever going to change.   Bertie will always be a silly ass layabout who gets himself into trouble with some oddly-named young lady or other; Jeeves will always be a laconic Machiavellian schemer, manipulating his hapless employer at will to make him stop wearing those ridiculous Etonian spats, or to take Jeeves to Florida for a spot of Tarpon-fishing.

It’s like the mantra the Seinfeld writing staff always held to–“No hugging, no learning.”   Because that may warm the cockles of your heart, but it won’t tickle your funny bone.   Truly funny people don’t have to be nice all the time–we’ll love them just for making us laugh.

The problem with Engel isn’t that he’s not as easy for us to sympathize with as Charlie Poole, but that he’s harder for Westlake to empathize with–because until everything fell apart, he was perfectly happy to throw away his life being a cog in a machine.   Because this is a comedy, he has a change of heart and of mind, extracts himself bloodlessly from his employers, and strikes out for terra incognita, to make a life for himself (possibly with an exotic dancer, but that’s not really the point here).   Charlie embraces maturity (and Chloe, who vividly symbolizes it for him), but Engel just sort of passively accepts it.   It’s better than the alternative.

But that all being said–Engel is still a seminal creation for Westlake–a prototype, if you will.   Because as I have kept hinting throughout this review, he promises greater things–he just needs a bit more of  a backbone (not too much more)–a suitably individualistic profession to practice–perhaps a few equally comic colleagues–a girlfriend he can rely on, who bakes a mean tuna casserole–and a set of burglar tools.

Yeah, you heard me right.   Aloysius Engel is John Dortmunder in embryo.   Did you ever wonder why we’re told Dortmunder used to be married to a showgirl whose professional name was ‘Honeybun Bazoom’?   A character we never met?   I often think Westlake’s favorite jokes were always the ones only he was in on.    Or so he thought.   Didn’t count on internet review blogs helmed by people with way too much spare time, did you, Mr. Westlake?   Though I guess you did kind of anticipate us with Wally Knurr.   Credit where credit is due.

And what is due next here is my review of what many consider The.  Best.  Parker.  Novel.   EVER.

Let’s just say that seven isn’t Parker’s lucky number–but if you were following these books as they came out in the 60’s, you were feeling pretty damn lucky when you spotted this one on the revolving book rack.  Sex.  Violence.   Football.  Tiny psychos with huge Napoleon complexes.  Big psychos with tiny–um–never mind.   It’s a good one.  And heavily reviewed.  Can I possibly find anything to say about it that hasn’t been said a hundred times before?   Maybe not, but I’ll go down swinging.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review, The Jugger, Part 2.


One afternoon Jimmy Valentine and his suit-case climbed out of the mail-hack in Elmore, a little town five miles off the railroad down in the black-jack country of Arkansas. Jimmy, looking like an athletic young senior just home from college, went down the board side-walk toward the hotel.

A young lady crossed the street, passed him at the corner and entered a door over which was the sign, “The Elmore Bank.” Jimmy Valentine looked into her eyes, forgot what he was, and became another man.

O. Henry, A Retrieved Reformation

It was the light, Port thought, the way it hit Dalton’s face from below.   His face was set, without movement.

“Dan,” said Dalton, “I want you to go away.”

“You’re rattled,” said Port.   “Just stand still, I’m–”

“No, Dan.   It’s no use.”

“Abe, I know he’s got a gun on you now, but–”

“He can put the gun down if he wants.  I’m staying.   I’m going through with the job.”

Peter Rabe, The Out is Death

In the third place, a man never apologized for what cards he’d been dealt; what did Joe Sheer think all of a sudden at age 70, he was the captain of his own fate?   A man was what the world decided he would be, and where the world decided he would be, and in the condition the world had chosen for him.  If the world had decided to deal Joe Sheer a bad hand this time, it wasn’t up to him to apologize for not having better cards.

Richard Stark, The Jugger

When I first read The Jugger, knowing the title referred to Joe Sheer, a guy who opened safes for a living, I assumed, like this fellow reviewer and I bet a lot of you reading this did, that ‘jugger’ is some obscure archaic slang term for safe-cracker, and maybe I’m not the only one who thought it was short for juggernaut (because no safe ever built can stop this guy).

Well, we were all wrong.   A bank robber is called a jugger, whether he can open a safe or not.   He’s called a jugger because ‘jug’ is criminal slang for bank.  A good safe-cracker can be called a box man, a peterman, a cracksman, or if he’s a second-rater, a yegg or a can-opener.  A guy who specializes in opening safes and vaults in banks (the kind of job you’d probably bring a few guns along), is called a jug heavy.   Check it out.

So why isn’t The Jugger called The Jug Heavy?   Aside from the fact that it just sounds better that way?   Probably because in writing this novel, Westlake was drawing upon the work of a writer he greatly respected–and to some extent, reacting against it.  That writer was Peter Rabe, and the book Westlake was reacting to was The Out is Death.   It’s the second of Rabe’s Daniel Port novels.   And one of the main characters in that book is an old safe-cracker who did bank jobs, and Port refers to him as a jug heavy.

And though The Jugger greatly differs from the earlier work–and is a major improvement over it–Westlake probably felt a bit self-conscious about what he was doing with the premise of Rabe’s story.   I believe this is another reason he had such negative feelings about this particular book.  He had set out to fix the problems in Rabe’s story (there are quite a few), and in the process got hung up on the same problem he felt had torpedoed Rabe–motivation.

The Out is Death, like all the Port books except the first, features its roving protagonist acting as a sort of Knight Errant of Noir.    Like Philip Marlowe, only coming from the other side of the law, without a home base, or even the excuse that sometimes he gets paid for his efforts.   Port is a reformed gangster, a  tough smart connected guy who worked with a corrupt political machine, made enough to retire young, and (with no small difficulty) got out–this happened in the first novel.

He’s the polar opposite of Parker–Parker doesn’t give a damn about most people and is purely concerned with his own survival, while Port is constantly involving himself in other people’s problems, as he moves restlessly from place to place, looking for somewhere to settle down (and a woman worth settling down with).

He repeatedly imperils his own survival by sticking his neck out for people he’s just met or barely knows, maybe because he feels like in spite of his reformation, he still needs to redeem himself.   Or maybe because he can’t get used to the boredom of life on the straight and narrow, so he goes looking for trouble.   Or maybe because there’d be no story if he didn’t get into trouble.   Yeah, maybe that last one.

At least some of the time the recipients of his heroic largesse are exceedingly desirable females Port wants to get closer to, so you can understand that much at least–Rabe had a real knack for imagining the kind of girl a guy might credibly risk his neck for.   But his sex life aside, Port is a character that never gelled.  You get some good writing in the books, but they always feel like something written without much conviction, for the sake of having a series character.   Westlake admired the hell out of Rabe’s best work, and went out of his way to say so, but he never thought much of the Port novels.

The problem, again, is motivation.   And The Out is Death has this problem in spades.   Port receives a note from Abe Dalton, an old acquaintance from his days working with the syndicate that ran the political machine.    Dalton was a heister, a jug heavy, and one of the best in the business.   Port was just starting out with the syndicate when they met.  Somehow they became friends, possibly worked together on a heist or two (it isn’t clear, and doesn’t jibe with what we know about Port’s former life, but what the hell).  Port admires the old man’s professional abilities, likes him personally, so when he gets the note, he drops everything and goes to see if he can help him out.  Yeah, it’s already sounding a bit forced, isn’t it?

Dalton did a long stretch in the other kind of jug, and he got sick (stomach cancer, sounds like), so they let him out.  At best, he’s got two or three years left, and he wants to retire peacefully to this small town he knows, sleep in a warm comfortable bed, enjoy his last few days left on earth.   But this younger thief named Dicky Corday that Dalton mentored before he went to prison needs his safe-cracking skills to pull a payroll job, and Dicky is leaning on him–hard.    Age has robbed Dalton of his strength, and he wants Port to intercede for him, convince Dicky to lay off.    He’d rather die than go back to jail, and he feels like that’s where he’s going to end if he does what Dicky wants.

What follows is a long frustrating convoluted story–Port keeps beating Dicky up, and getting beaten up by Dicky’s friends in return, and Dicky won’t take the hint, and Port won’t take a powder, even though Dalton is refusing to let Port do what needs be done–for example, he won’t let Port throw Dicky to the cops, because that would go against what I guess you might call his code of ethics.   He wants out of the racket, but he wants to leave with his self-respect intact.

Port can’t give up and leave because he identifies with Dalton’s desire to get clean–that much is clear.   But he’s risking everything for this guy, going to extraordinary lengths to give him  a few short years of retirement in a town he thinks he’s got friends in (we find out later this was never anything more than a pipe dream), and Rabe doesn’t really make us believe Port and Dalton were ever close enough to justify this kind of loyalty, so it feels almost perverse.   He’s doing it because he’s ‘the hero’, and for a writer as good as Rabe, that isn’t a good enough reason.

But Rabe is a good enough writer to know that a conventional happy ending is not in the cards here.   Dalton is a jug heavy to the bitter end–much as he may want to change, when Dicky finally gets him in front of the safe with the payroll in it, his old self returns–Port tries to get him to stop, but he wants to go on, finish the job, do it right one last time.    His professionalism is all that’s left of him, and  he can’t let go of it.    It’s too late to change.

Dicky, betrayed by an abused girlfriend, gets caught by the cops, while Port manages to get Dalton out of there–but the stress of the situation triggers a hemorrhage, and he dies while Port is  driving him to a doctor.   Port uses Dalton’s money to do one last good deed in his name, and muses on Dalton’s mixed nature–he was a kind man, with genuinely good instincts towards people, but he was also an irredeemable thief.   “The old man, Port thought, had been wrong most of his life, but he had not been bad.”

And the book isn’t bad,  but it’s not all that good either.   Because it’s wrong, almost all the way through.   There’s a real story in there (a short story, perhaps), but it’s all tied up in knots, because the motivation isn’t there.   Port’s single-minded dedication to saving Dalton from himself doesn’t make any sense.   He’s there as a witness, but he doesn’t impact anything, change anything, and it’s a third person narrative, so we don’t need him to tell us what happened.

He’s risking his life and his freedom to tidy up the mess a casual acquaintance has made of his life, and when Dalton starts digging himself deeper,  Port just keeps doubling down–and then drives away towards his next poorly motivated adventure, unchanged by the experience (because he’s a series character).   It’s a deeply romantic exercise in futility, but a good noir story can be about failure–in fact, most of them are.    This one doesn’t hold together.   Too confused in its loyalties.

When I first read The Out is Death, it seemed very familiar to me, and I quickly recognized it as a likely influence on The Jugger, albeit a negative one.   It was only when I started writing this review that I realized it was Rabe’s take on a much earlier story–one that has been read by exponentially more people than everything Westlake and Rabe and probably every other crime fiction author combined ever produced.    And there’s no way Rabe hadn’t read this story.   Because everybody has read this story.

It’s A Retrieved Reformation, by William Sydney Porter, alias O. Henry.   I use the word ‘alias’ advisedly, since he started publishing under that name from prison.   I won’t bother with a synopsis.  You can click on that first link to read the story if it’s been a while, but you know it already, right?   You were probably tested on it in school at some point (“What lesson do you think Jimmy Valentine learned from his experiences?”).

It’s a bit corny now, sure–it was back then too–but it still works.   It’ll always work.   That was O. Henry’s magic.   Nobody ever knew how to put a story together like him.   Nobody ever will.   He was read all over the world in translation–Rabe (real name Peter Rabinowitsch) quite possibly knew this story even before he and his father fled Germany when he was only 14. He, like any aspiring writer, would be in awe of the man’s gifts.   But envying the technique doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with the message conveyed by it.

O. Henry wrote that story, one can easily divine, as an expression of his own desire to believe a man can change, shift the foundations of his life, as he himself had done, several times, and in both directions.   Rabe, the future psychology professor, was not convinced.   Yes, people can change their outward behavior, but can they change who they are down inside?   O. Henry’s story has a deeper truth concealed in it–‘Dandy’ Jim Valentine, the greatest master cracksman of all, may have forgotten what he was when he looked into a pretty girl’s eyes–but his true self lies sleeping just beneath the surface, waiting for the right moment to step forth and be recognized.  The world won’t let him forget what he is, even if a merciful human bloodhound will.

So if I guess correctly, a good alternate title for The Out is Death would be A Rejected Reformation.  The things you do in life make you who you are, and you can’t just shuck them off like an old coat.  Abe Dalton tries to change–he sincerely wants to, and he calls in Port to try and forestall any backsliding–but when the moment of truth comes, he fails the test–or maybe he passes it.   It’s a matter of perspective.   If the truth about yourself is grim, does that mean it’s okay to lie?   What you are may not amount to much, but it’s all you’ll ever really have.

Very unlikely that when you open your own personal bank vault, it’s going to be to rescue a suffocating child.  But remember something–in O. Henry’s story, the reason Jimmy Valentine can open that vault right that very moment is that he’s carrying his tools of the trade with him–because he was going to make a gift of them to a fellow cracksman.   Would a fully reformed citizen ever have done that?   O. Henry is never as innocent as he seems.   Nor as original, since obviously Victor Hugo covered all of this same basic ground in far greater (one might say excessive) detail in Les Miserables, four decades earlier.   No, you don’t have to go read that one right this minute.

Now there was this other book I was talking about–oh right!   The Jugger!   Where were we?    Something about a trap closing.

With Tiftus murdered, the highly competent Nebraska state police investigating, and Younger convinced that Parker is after the same thing he is, an alliance of convenience is formed.   Parker needs Younger to give him an alibi, since the state cops like him for the murder, and Younger thinks he can use Parker to find Joe’s money, eliminating him once he doesn’t need him anymore.   They will also have to find whoever killed Tiftus, since he’s obviously after the money too.   And Parker still needs to know who murdered Joe, and find out if Joe gave up any information that could lead to him.

But there is no money.   Joe wasn’t murdered (not technically).    It’s all just a dark comedy of errors.   Younger is too intent on finding the money to see any other possible motive for Parker being there, and Parker is too caught up in trying to preserve his false identity to ask the right questions about what happened.   Neither man could ever truly understand the other.

As good as the parts of the book with Parker are, perhaps the most powerful section is Part Three, which tells us about Younger, and how he got mixed up with Joe Sheer.   He was a local boy from this very town, who lacking any direction, joined the army and spent his entire life in it, without ever rising above the rank of Master Sergeant, or really giving a damn about the job he was doing (when WWII broke out, he congratulated himself on having outsmarted most of his generation by joining up beforehand, so he’d just train men to go die overseas, while he stayed safe at home).

He retired on full pension at fifty, came back to his home town of Sagamore Nebraska, because he didn’t know where else to go, and just hung around aimlessly, drinking beer and gaining weight–until friends he’d made at the American Legion post there got him the job as Captain of the town police force, a job for which he was clearly unqualified, but which gave him renewed purpose in life–and a new identity–and way too much power, which he freely abused.    As Parker thinks to himself, “Younger was a moron with a title, that’s all; give a moron authority and he forgets he’s a moron.”

(Sidebar–Westlake, an Air Force veteran himself, really did not like the American Legion–there was a rather irreverent mention of them in The Mourner as well, you’ll recall.  And they still attract a fair few morons with authority, even today.)

Bored with pointlessly reorganizing his tin pot army, Younger zeroes in on Joseph Shardin, a relative newcomer in town–something about him just doesn’t ring true.   He manages to get Joe’s fingerprints, and send them to Washington–when an FBI man calls him saying they’re the fingerprints of a wanted bank robber (that the Feds had assumed was dead by now), Younger surprises himself by concealing the fact that he knows this felon’s exact location.

He may not have been much of a lawman to begin with, but now Younger is going to switch identities yet again, and try being a blackmailer and a thief–and then see how he likes being a rich man.    It’s a very late-blooming spurt of individualism and initiative from a lifelong organization man–he’s throwing his habitual caution and conservatism to the winds, reacting against all his previous life choices–without any understanding that he’s doing this.  Abandoning past identity without any honest self-examination–not a good idea in a Westlake novel.

Using simple psychological intimidation techniques he must have spent decades honing on unfortunate buck privates, Younger begins to break Joseph Shardin down–to get at Joe Sheer.   Nothing overt at first–just a slightly excessive friendliness, a shade too much curiosity, and the occasional smug hint–then escalating to direct threats and physical abuse.   Joe is seventy years old, and has been comfortably retired for five years–there isn’t enough of the tough ruthless jugger left in him.   He breaks more easily than he could ever have imagined was possible.

Once or twice he comes close to striking back–or cutting out for the state line–but he’s too old and scared to start over.   His money is all tied up in property and retirement accounts.   He let himself get too comfortable, too settled.   He tries to placate Younger, to explain that all he’s got left is 100k and change–but Younger has managed to get him to tell everything about the jobs he pulled, the men he pulled them with, and what his share was–and is convinced Joe has over half a million dollars stashed somewhere.   He can’t imagine how anyone could spend that much money, having led such a limited existence himself.

This is told mainly from Younger’s POV, and so we don’t see what was going on in Joe’s mind when he wrote to Parker that last time–the letter that brought Parker to Nebraska to see if he had to put Joe Sheer out of his misery.   All we know is that Younger found Joe hanging in the shower.   And he just couldn’t understand why.   All he was asking for was a measly quarter of a million bucks.

Parker never hears this story we’ve just been told, but he can figure out the general outlines when Younger shows him the information he got out of Joe–including Parker’s working name, connected to several robberies.   He knows now that Younger was the one who turned Joe Sheer into ‘a stupid old man’–and that Younger has more than enough information to send Parker to prison.  From that moment, Younger is a stupid dead man, and he can almost sense it, but greed overrides his instinct for self-preservation.

Parker is surprised to learn Younger didn’t kill Joe, but makes no further inquiry, and thus never learns that Joe’s death was a suicide.   He may be playing the part of a detective, but that doesn’t mean he is one.  His mind doesn’t work that way.   How Joe died isn’t relevant to him, because he’s not seeking justice.  If he feels any sense of anger at what happened to the old jugger, it isn’t relating to the death of his body, but of his integrity.

Pointless stupid cruelty always disgusts and angers Parker.   You might say it’s his most human trait–I’d say it’s the wolf in him, gazing at us evolved primates with cold observant eyes.   But those eyes often miss important details, because his mind works so differently–it never occurs to him Joe might have decided to kill himself.   Like I said, his strengths are bound up in his weaknesses.

Still, Parker does solve one mystery–who killed Tiftus.   Same guy who hit him with the shovel when he went to the cellar, same guy who was digging down there, looking for the money that doesn’t exist.  Younger finds the shovel in the possession of one Alfred Ricks, a lanky acned 19 year old living in the house next door, who says he found it in a field abutting both properties.

Always overestimating his own sagacity, and believing in the scientific detection methods he’s read about in stories, Younger takes the shovel to dust for fingerprints and such (CSI: Sagamore)–but after he tells Parker where he found it and goes off to play detective, Parker’s gift for lateral thinking comes into play, and he calls Ricks over for a talk, telling the boy he knows it was him that killed Tiftus.   He isn’t gentle about it.

The frightened boy breaks down and starts blubbering–it was an accident–he had overheard Younger interrogating Joe, and had gone looking for the money himself.   When he’d searched Tiftus’ hotel room, Tiftus discovered him there, and in a panic, Ricks hit him over the head with a heavy ashtray to keep him quiet.  Parker tells him it’s okay, he’ll help the kid get out of town.   He waits tensely for Ricks to go back to his house, pack a bag, write a note to his parents, come back.   Then Parker kills the boy with two quick blows from his deadly hands, and buries him in the cellar.

This is the part of the book that always gets to people.   Even though Ricks is a legal adult, he still thinks and acts like a kid.   He committed manslaughter, sure–involuntary manslaughter, a lawyer would have called it, and maybe he’d have even gotten a suspended sentence if he’d gone to the law, given that his victim was a crook and an outsider, and he could say it was self-defense.

And yeah, he peered through a window into a neighbor’s house, and saw that neighbor, a 70 year old man who never did him any harm, being beaten and tortured by the chief of police who said that neighbor had half a million dollars hidden somewhere, and he said nothing to anyone, because he thought he could get that money for himself, and escape his dead end life.

And sure, he had ten minutes after he left Parker to think about why this total stranger he’d hit over the head with a shovel was offering to help him, and what possible motives he might have for making that offer, and he still came trotting back like a lamb.  And does anybody ever get shocked when lambs are slaughtered?   Only when wolves do  the slaughtering.

This is the typical fate of the young amateur in a Parker novel–Donald Westlake has a fair bit of patience for them, remembering when he was a young amateur himself–Richard Stark has none at all.   Grow up fast, or die.  Still, if Ricks had shown a bit more perspicacity–if he’d kept his cool, made Parker believe he had the right stuff–maybe Parker would have recruited him into The Profession.   But if he was that smart, and that self-possessed, he wouldn’t have already made so many stupid mistakes.   Being smarter than Abner L. Younger just won’t cut it in a Parker novel.  Not when you go that far outside the lines.

With the Ricks boy taken care of, Parker just has one more loose end to tie up.   He tells Younger they need to go search Joe’s apartment in Omaha–Younger’s already been there, but Parker says he wants to toss it personally, and he knows Younger won’t agree to him doing it alone.   On the drive there, he says there’s a way the two can trust each other–mutually assured destruction.

Parker will write and sign a note saying he killed Tiftus–whose death Parker has arranged to blame on Jimmy Chambers, his hillbilly confederate who got killed in The Score, but whose remains were destroyed by an explosion and subsequent fire, so the police think he’s still at large.    In return, Younger will write a note saying he killed Joseph Shardin in the process of trying to extort money from him.

That note tells the absolute truth, of course–Younger is the proximate and unrepentant cause of Joe Sheer’s death–but Parker still doesn’t know how Joe really died.   He’s not playing the detective anymore.   He’s back to a more familiar role.

There at Joe’s apartment, Younger’s note in his grasp–a full confession to something Younger still doesn’t understand he really did–that can easily double as his suicide note–Parker takes out a small pistol he stole from a shop in Sagamore, and gets Younger’s own .32 revolver away from him.

Younger can’t believe it–his first impulse is to think the man he still calls Willis found the money and is trying a cross, but Parker doesn’t allow him even that small comfort–of believing he’d sacrificed a comfortable life for the chance at half a million.   He finally makes Younger understand that Joe spent most of his ill-gotten gains, years before Younger ever laid eyes on him.   Terrified, but still believing he can talk his way out of anything, Younger says okay Willis, I believe you, there’s no money…..

“Too late,” Parker told him.  He walked around the table and stuck the .32 up close against Younger’s chest, at an angle the way it would be if Younger was holding the gun himself in his right hand.  Younger’s mouth opened and his hands started to come up from the table to protect himself and Parker pulled the trigger.

And if you’re not pulling it right along with Parker, you’re a very good person.   Who I must humbly observe is still reading this book about very bad persons.

Parker’s last loose end is Rhonda (and loose is about the right word).   With Tiftus dead, she needs a new man, and Parker will suit her fine–if he leaves her there in town, there’s too much chance of her telling what she knows.   He makes a mental note to dump Jean once he gets back to Miami, but turns out she’s saved him the trouble–the butterfly has flown.

Before they get back to Parker’s Miami digs, he and Rhonda officially seal what I suppose you could call their relationship with a post-job orgy in a hotel room, now that his cyclical sex drive has roared back into overdrive (hey, killing Abner Younger would turn anybody on).

But Rhonda doesn’t get to enjoy Parker’s post-job hard-on for very long.   Parker’s trip to Nebraska created more problems than it fixed.   Since Joe Shardin was not murdered, and an autopsy proves that definitively, the state police investigation, led by a very capable detective named Regan, and no longer held in check by Younger’s local authority, quickly finds the holes in Parker’s hastily contrived scenario.

As Stark succinctly puts it, “If the Shardin murder wasn’t a murder but was a suicide, then the Younger suicide wasn’t a suicide but was a murder.”   And then they find where Parker buried Alfred Ricks.  At least somebody in this book takes the murder mystery angle seriously.

But final definitive answers shall avoid even these genuine detectives, because when the law shows up at Parker’s hotel, his foresighted practice of taking very good care of the hotel staff pays off big time.  The manager, J.A. Freedman, who we’ve met before, calls ‘Charles Willis’ into his office, and tips him to the fact that two FBI men are already questioning Rhonda in Willis’ room.   Freedman figures it’s tax problems.   These government men just don’t understand business, do they, Mr. Willis?

And this means there is no more Mr. Willis.  Parker leaves Rhonda to her fate without a backward glance, along with his established ‘straight’ identity, and one hell of a lot of money in bank accounts under the Willis name.   He steals a car, and heads for the state line.   Something went wrong with his plan, and he’ll never try to find out what, or think about it ever again, because it doesn’t matter now.

He’ll have to get in touch with some of his fellow professionals, find a job, make some money, begin building a new identity, a new fake life, to conceal his true one.   He’s done it before.  He hasn’t lost anything he can’t afford to lose.   As long as you’re alive and free, anything is possible.  It will work itself out.

Retirement is a human concept.   The notion that you reach this point in your life when you’ve done all the work you need to do, made enough money to take it easy, smell the roses, maybe even grow some.   No other animal has this idea.   For our fellow travelers on this spinning dirtball in space, life is something to be lived until the very last moment.  You live until you can’t anymore.   If you’re too old to hunt–or to escape the hunters–you’re too old to live.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with retirement.   I’d love to retire right now.   I’m just saying.   It’s our idea.   Nobody else’s.   And that bereft of purpose, we run the danger of losing ourselves, of having our identities hopelessly corrupted, unless we find something else to do, to be.   Joe Sheer would have known how to deal with the sorry likes of Abner L. Younger.   Joseph Shardin didn’t.   That’s the story of The Jugger.   That he stopped being The Jugger, and became a scared old man.

This is where Westlake’s story critically differs from the one told by Peter Rabe.   Rabe was contradicting O. Henry’s overly optimistic tale (or at least the interpretation of it our teachers wanted us to see), saying that people can’t really change deep down inside–if you’re a thief, you’re a thief to the end.  Westlake, through Stark, was saying there is one thing that changes all of us–time.   It truly does wound all heels.

And the only way we can resist its debilitating effects, imperfect though it be, is to hang tight to our sense of self–and the things we do that make us who we are.   As Donald Westlake himself would do, to the very last moment of his life.  And he still died, of course, not all that much older than Joe Sheer. But as himself. That’s the best anyone can hope for.

And if only hope was all it took.   If only Joe Sheer’s ending wasn’t so horribly typical of modern life, once you strip away the murder mystery trappings.   Just substitute an underpaid nursing home orderly for a sadistic middle-aged noncom with a badge–you get robbed and humiliated either way.

But I wonder–did Joe Sheer die such a helpless victim after all?   Why did he hang himself after writing that note to Parker?   There hadn’t been enough time for him to be sure Parker wasn’t coming.   And even in his sadly bewildered state, wouldn’t he have realized on some level what kind of reaction that note would provoke in his colleague?   Did he kill himself to save Parker the extra work?

And as he was knotting the rope, did he smile one last secret smile, thinking about what would happen to the high and mighty Captain Abner L. Younger, when the wolf came to Sagamore?   Maybe there was just enough of Joe Sheer left for him to go out on his own terms.   The Jugger opened one final vault door, and made his last getaway, clean as they come.

Anyway.  Back in the mid-1960’s, Westlake is still young, overflowing with creative energy, and producing a truly astounding number of memorable books.   Okay, so he thought this particular book was a failure (a conclusion posterity has soundly rejected), but when you’re writing so many, that’s nothing to get discouraged about.   If Parker can shrug off the total failure of his attempt to save his life as Charles Willis, and start all over from scratch, what’s so bad about a novel that didn’t quite work out the way he’d hoped, that got illegally turned into an incomprehensible movie by a batty Frenchman?

Cheer up, man!   Isn’t the Parker franchise still a going concern at Pocket Books?  And didn’t you just have your biggest success ever with your first comic crime novel for Random House?   And if it worked once, it can work again, right?  And aren’t I doing yet another shameless segue into my next two reviews?

Well, now you mention it.   From a funeral parlor in a fictional Nebraska town, to one in New York City–only this one is crammed with cops (of the Keystone variety).   And from there to a book many consider the greatest Parker story of all–and Westlake seemed to like it just fine–even though it also had motivation problems, and was also made into a bad movie with a puzzling choice of lead actor.   Well, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, no?

And from my all-time favorite Westlake protagonist to one who is not even in my top twenty–but who may have led to the birth of a far more enduring creation.   And this second of the Westlake ‘Nephews’ is yet another reluctant detective.   Will Westlake ever create any other kind?   Not if he can help it.


Filed under Uncategorized

Review: The Jugger


There were more numbers on this second sheet, but they weren’t what caught Parker’s eye.  Besides the numbers there was a list of names, scattered down the right side of the paper.  Loomis, McKay, Parker, Littlefield, Clinger…a long, long list of thirty or more names, all of them men Joe Sheer had worked with at one time or another.

But not in Joe’s handwriting.  The list of names, and the figures over on the other side of the page, were all done in the same handwriting as the total on the first sheet.

Younger looked up, smiling his smug smile, tapping a finger against the list of names.  “See that there?  It wouldn’t surprise me none if your name’s down there.  Don’t think I ever bought that Willis name.”

Parker looked at him, seeing him definitely for the first time as a dead man.  “Let’s get on with it,” he said.

Among the 24 Parker novels Donald Westlake wrote, The Jugger may qualify as the oddest of odd ducks.   It isn’t about Parker planning and executing a heist, nor is it about Parker seeking bloody restitution after somebody swindled him out of his rightful share of a heist, dealing with the aftermath of a failed heist, or fighting off some interloper trying to muscle in on a heist; nor is it about Parker battling the mob (which pretty much always has something to do with a heist).    That list covers every Parker novel ever written–except The Jugger.    Which is about a murder mystery–that isn’t really a murder or a mystery–that Parker solves–only he doesn’t.   Mainly because he doesn’t give a damn whodunnit.

Reaction to the book from the growing readership for Parker novels was probably a bit mixed at the time it came out, precisely because it was so different from what people expected, but over the years, it’s become recognized as one of the best books in the series–it’s very rare to find a bad review of it now.   But the worst review ever came from Westlake himself, many years later–

I spoiled a book by having him do something he wouldn’t do. The sixth book in the series is called The Jugger, and that book is one of the worst failures I’ve ever had. The problem with it is, in the beginning of the book this guy calls him and says “I’m in trouble out here and these guys are leaning on me and I need help,” and Parker goes to help him. I mean, he wouldn’t do that, and in fact, the guy wouldn’t even think to call him! (laughs)

It’s worth pointing out that ‘the guy’ not only doesn’t call Parker, he tells Parker in a letter “Whatever you do for God’s sake don’t call me on the telephone.”  And in the version we have, as many a puzzled reader has pointed out before me,  Parker is decidedly not going there to help this guy–he’s going to find out if he has to kill him to keep his mouth shut.   So Westlake’s memory of what happens in the book was spotty at best after all that time, and that’s probably because he’d deliberately avoided re-reading it, and perhaps had blocked it out almost entirely, because he’d seen it as such a stinging personal failure.

I think a different interview conducted around the same time (1997–this link is to a 2013 article utilizing excerpts), gives us a bit more of the answer to this mystery–

“I did one entire novel where I went completely wrong. It was the sixth Parker novel, called ‘The Jugger.’ The first five had gone well, and I was happy. And I did this and I knew something was wrong, but I got through it. And my editor called me and said, ‘Come in and we’ll try to save it.’

“Neither of us could figure it out. We changed it and changed it. Maybe 18 pages of the original manuscript was left when we finally gave up and published it. It was about an old guy that Parker used to know who calls Parker about people leaning on him for money. ‘I need your help,’ he says. Parker goes, and the old guy’s dead and we’re off.

“But I’d made a terrible mistake. It was simple: Parker wouldn’t go to help anybody. He’s not Spenser. It threw the entire book completely off.”

– See more at:

“I did one entire novel where I went completely wrong. It was the sixth Parker novel, called ‘The Jugger.’ The first five had gone well, and I was happy. And I did this and I knew something was wrong, but I got through it. And my editor called me and said, `Come in and we’ll try to save it.’

“Neither of us could figure it out. We changed it and changed it. Maybe 18 pages of the original manuscript was left when we finally gave up and published it. It was about an old guy that Parker used to know who calls Parker about people leaning on him for money. ‘I need your help,’ he says. Parker goes, and the old guy’s dead and we’re off.

“But I’d made a terrible mistake. It was simple: Parker wouldn’t go to help anybody. He’s not Spenser. It threw the entire book completely off.”

– See more at:

“I did one entire novel where I went completely wrong. It was the sixth Parker novel, called ‘The Jugger.’ The first five had gone well, and I was happy. And I did this and I knew something was wrong, but I got through it. And my editor called me and said, `Come in and we’ll try to save it.’

“Neither of us could figure it out. We changed it and changed it. Maybe 18 pages of the original manuscript was left when we finally gave up and published it. It was about an old guy that Parker used to know who calls Parker about people leaning on him for money. ‘I need your help,’ he says. Parker goes, and the old guy’s dead and we’re off.

“But I’d made a terrible mistake. It was simple: Parker wouldn’t go to help anybody. He’s not Spenser. It threw the entire book completely off.”

– See more at:

“I did one entire novel where I went completely wrong. It was the sixth Parker novel, called ‘The Jugger.’ The first five had gone well, and I was happy. And I did this and I knew something was wrong, but I got through it. And my editor called me and said, `Come in and we’ll try to save it.’

“Neither of us could figure it out. We changed it and changed it. Maybe 18 pages of the original manuscript was left when we finally gave up and published it. It was about an old guy that Parker used to know who calls Parker about people leaning on him for money. ‘I need your help,’ he says. Parker goes, and the old guy’s dead and we’re off.

“But I’d made a terrible mistake. It was simple: Parker wouldn’t go to help anybody. He’s not Spenser. It threw the entire book completely off.”

– See more at:

I did one entire novel where I went completely wrong. It was the sixth Parker novel, called ‘The Jugger.’ The first five had gone well, and I was happy. And I did this and I knew something was wrong, but I got through it. And my editor called me and said, `Come in and we’ll try to save it.’

Neither of us could figure it out. We changed it and changed it. Maybe 18 pages of the original manuscript was left when we finally gave up and published it. It was about an old guy that Parker used to know who calls Parker about people leaning on him for money. ‘I need your help,’ he says. Parker goes, and the old guy’s dead and we’re off.

But I’d made a terrible mistake. It was simple: Parker wouldn’t go to help anybody. He’s not Spenser. It threw the entire book completely off.

Okay, I must ask–without any real hope of an answer–was this Bucklin Moon?   The same editor at Pocket Books who had originally suggested Parker become a series character, and had been a highly regarded author in his own right before the McCarthy witch hunts ruined his career?   Whether it was Moon or someone else,  for Westlake to have sailed through the first five books with an increasing sense of confidence in his Stark writing persona–and then basically get called in to do a near-total rewrite by somebody at the publishing house–hardly something that would make him feel fondly inclined towards the book in question.    An unwelcome reminder that for all his hard-earned success, he was still a long way from the top of his profession.

There was probably nothing Westlake liked more about being Richard Stark than the relative simplicity of that guise–just hammer out another neat little crime novel in a hurry, send it in, cash the check, wait for the fan mail, repeat.   Not this time.

And of course, there was the other thing–the French thing.   The first full-length feature film ever adapted from anything he’d written–by quite possibly the last filmmaker on earth any sane author would want to be adapted by.   The enfant terrible to end all enfant terribles–Jean Luc Godard.   Who as even his greatest admirers would admit, never gave a damn about trifles like fidelity to his source–or story–or characterization–or basic narrative coherence.  Not his thing.   But neither was intentional theft–it just worked out that way.

During a period when he was making disjointed deconstructionist Nouvelle Vague films almost as fast as Westlake was writing sharply plotted crime novels, Godard went to a producer named Georges de Beauregard to ask if he had the rights to a suitable story for him to have his way with.   De Beauregard gave him the rights to The Jugger, failing to mention that he had not half-finished paying for them–he still owed $10k, having paid $6k.

Westlake later told Patrick McGilligan (whose interview I am paraphrasing to beat the band) that he believed de Beauregard meant to pay eventually.   But he never actually did.   Mainly because once he saw the film, he figured there was maybe one minute’s worth of material that came directly from the book, so what was he paying for?   De Beauregard was no lightweight–he was in on the making of some truly great films.   Sadly, this wouldn’t be one of them.

Shooting several movies at the the same time with the same equipment, all of them starring the insanely beautiful Anna Karina (who thus ended up being the first actor to ever play Parker in a movie because hey, why not?), Godard guilelessly mentioned to Sight & Sound that he was making a film of a Richard Stark serie noire thriller.  Word got around.  In this area of the law, it’s less about how directly you copy something than it is about whether the writer who was copied can prove you copied him, so Godard should have kept his mouth shut, but that was definitely never his thing.

Westlake sued for copyright infringement, and eventually won.   It took years.   International lawsuits are no fun for anyone but international lawyers–like lawsuits in general, but in multiple languages.   He ended up with the U.S. distribution rights–the alternative being to destroy all prints and negatives, which even as a non-fan of Godard strikes me as extreme (though having seen it, I have to wonder if the film’s reputation might not have benefited from its destruction).   By that point in time, the American rights to a minor arthouse flick weren’t worth much, but he did eventually get paid for them–it opened officially in the U.S. the week after Westlake died.  Hopefully the check cleared earlier than that.

So to sum up–he felt troubled and uneasy about this book while writing it, having had no such trouble with the previous five–his editor then called him in to rewrite it almost from scratch.   A crazed auteur then turned his story into a weird abstract political diatribe dressed up in noir clothing, that seems to have something to do with the Vietnam War (that somehow the French keep forgetting they started–love you guys, but I’m just saying), and features a drop-dead Danish dame playing the roughest of all rough-hewn American tough guys.

Westlake not only didn’t get paid what had been agreed to for this, but he had to drag the the producers into court, and then settle for the U.S. rights to a movie he hated, that only diehard Godard buffs would ever pay money to see, and he didn’t see a franc until just before he kicked (if then).

Nope, can’t see any reason at all for him not liking this book.   Just irrational prejudice, is all.

Have I left anything out?   Anything else that might have colored Westlake’s view of this novel?  Maybe just one more thing but I’ll save it for later.   Time to synopsize.

The Jugger opens with Parker in a small Nebraska town, investigating the death of his old heisting partner (and perhaps mentor?), Joe Sheer.   They had worked a number of heists together, mainly bank jobs, Joe being one of the best safecrackers in the business, as well as a good planner in his own right.   Then Joe, having amassed a decent retirement nest egg, suddenly started getting Social Security checks–for his carefully crafted alias of Joseph Shardin.   Enjoying the irony of the situation, and starting to feel his age, he retired to Nebraska under that same alias, and bought a nice little house in a podunk burg where nobody would ever think of looking for an old jugger like him.   Or so he thought.

We already know Joe from previous books–he’s been Parker’s contact, his ‘mailbox’–the guy you call if you have a job you think Parker might be interested in, and Joe then refers your message to Parker, and if he’s interested, he’ll get back to you.   This indicates a very high level of trust between the two men.   In The Man With the Getaway Face, we see Parker send a small portion of his proceeds from that book’s heist to Joe–not to pay any debt, we’re told, but simply as a gesture of respect.   Joe was the one who arranged for Parker to get plastic surgery in that novel.   There is probably nobody Parker trusts more.   And nobody who could be more dangerous to Parker if he suddenly got talkative with the wrong people.

The first few chapters, we’re pretty much in the dark as to what’s going on–there’s all these people interested in Joe Sheer, and consequently, in Parker, since Parker is making inquiries about Joe around town–having found out when he got there that Joe just passed away.   One of these kibbitzers is a two-bit crook named Tiftus, who Parker knows but never worked with.    He keeps acting like he and Parker are there for the same reason–money–but Parker can’t make out what he’s talking about.

He roughs Tiftus up to make him bug off, and in the process meets Rhonda Samuels, an actress (in burlesque, one imagines) who Tiftus brought along with him.   She’s naked and pissed off when he first sees her, and the physical description runs thusly–

She was yellow above, black below, and she’d been out in the sun for a tan while wearing a two-piece bathing suit.  She was built heavy but not fat; firm flesh well padded over a big-boned frame.   Her face would have been beautiful except she had the eyes of a pickpocket and the mouth of a whore.

No one will ever compose an ode to her charms, but she’s sexy enough to interest Parker–when he actually becomes interested in sex.   Which he isn’t now, because even though he’s not planning a heist, what he’s doing there feels like a job.  And he’s still got Jean, his woman from The Score, back in Miami.   Though that relationship has probably not been going great guns of late, since Parker’s cyclical sex drive would be at a low ebb several months after his last score, and Jean is probably wondering what’s up with that.

But now he’s on a job, so no sex drive at all–only what is the job, exactly?    What’s he doing there?   Parker isn’t quite sure himself.  He talks to the funeral home director, he talks to a doctor who (falsely) claims to have been treating Joe, and he keeps running into the chief of police–a fat blowhard in a cowboy hat named Abner L. Younger, who is taking a decidedly unhealthy interest in Parker’s activities–but not the way a cop would normally be interested.   As we learn later, Younger’s only been a cop for a very short time, after a long uneventful life spent as a sergeant in the U.S. army who never actually served in combat.   He’s the chief because of politics, not professionalism.  He’s the amateur in the piece (one of them, anyway).   But he thinks he’s a consummate pro.

Parker checks out Joe’s house–which has clearly been searched repeatedly, from basement to rafters.  Joe’s stash of emergency getaway cash is gone from the flour bin.   Parker decides to check out the cellar–at which point somebody wearing a sack on his head clobbers him with a shovel.   When he comes to, Younger is standing over him, demanding answers.   This is the third and I believe final time in the first 16 novels that we see Parker caught offguard and temporarily incapacitated–the previous two instances were in The Hunter and The Mourner.   You’d think he’d learn to stay away from books with two-word/three-syllable titles ending in ‘er’.

And now comes the rewind, and we find out what Parker is doing there–and as Westlake would bitterly lament later on, it is a bit tricky to explain.   Joe Sheer had written to Parker twice–the first time to say he was having some problems, and Parker better not contact him for a while.   The second letter is what really raises Parker’s hackles–Joe is clearly scared out of his wits now, though not going into any detail about what’s scaring him–and he’s asking Parker to come help him out.

This is not something one guy on the bend asks of another, as Parker sees it.   And Joe knows this as well as Parker does, but he’s still asking.  Which means the Joe Sheer Parker knew is gone–but his body is still walking and (even worse) talking.  To who?  About what?

When he finally made up his mind it was really Joe Sheer who had written that letter, Parker pulled out a suitcase and started packing.  It wasn’t for Joe Sheer that he packed, or that he called the airport and made a reservation on the next plane for Omaha.  As far as he was concerned, Joe could drop dead right now and that would be fine with Parker.  In fact, that would be better; it would save him a trip.

He was going for himself.  He was going because in Joe’s letter he saw a danger to himself much more obvious and lethal than any danger Joe had been trying to describe.  What he saw was the shaky penmanship and shaky personality of an old man.  Joe was going senile.  At seventy, he’d lost every trace of the code of ethics he’d lived by all his adult life.

Clearly this was written after Westlake and his editor at Pocket got together–probably no such explanation of Parker’s trip to Nebraska existed in the first draft.  Westlake was explaining Parker’s behavior after the fact–and he still felt like he hadn’t gotten it right.   Normally, writing in the Stark voice, he could at least partly penetrate the murkier reaches of Parker’s mind, but this time he felt he’d fallen short.   And he was right.

First of all–‘code of ethics’?   From the moment he typed that, Westlake must have known it was wrong, though of course it’s Stark saying it, and it’s referring to Joe.   It’s still meant as an interpretation of Parker’s thought processes, and Parker doesn’t give a damn about ethics–or codes.   Only code he responds to is genetic.    I know some very dedicated readers of these books use that word to refer to Parker sometimes, and I am here in all hubris to tell you–Parker has no code.   Never did.

Instinct.  If Parker is nothing else, he’s a predator.   I’d say a wolf, but you don’t have to be that specific about it.   He’s a hunter, as we’ve known from the very first.  A predatory animal is one part aggression to one part caution to one part curiosity.  It’s curiosity that’s got Parker heading down there–he’s heard a fellow wolf (as he perceives it) howling fearfully in the distance–he needs to know what about.  His strengths are all bound up in his weaknesses–that curiosity may tell him things he desperately needs to know–or it may put him in the sights of a long-range rifle.   Many a pelt nailed to a cabin wall can attest to the risks engendered by curiosity.  But he’s got to know.

The safest smartest thing for Parker to do would be to assume Joe is going to somehow blow his ‘straight’ identity wide open, and start taking steps to protect himself, leaving Joe to whatever fate awaits him.   But if he does that, he’ll never learn what happened (and the book will be really dull).   He tells himself he’s going down there to find out if he has to kill Joe, and no doubt whatsoever he would do that, without the slightest qualm, if there was no other alternative–but he’s creating the very danger he’s trying to avoid by showing his face in a small town where he can’t help but be noticed, asking questions that can’t help but lead to more questions being directed at him.

Creating a new identity would be a hassle, but he’s done it before.   So why make things more complicated than they need to be, when simplicity is always Parker’s primary ideal, and the only law he respects is Murphy’s?  My reading is that even though he hasn’t worked directly with Joe in a while, something in the letter did touch him on some primal level.   It isn’t compassion.   It’s something that existed a very long time before compassion.   And we’ve seen this nameless emotion in Parker before.   And we’ll see it again.

In his effort to explain away Parker’s behavior, Westlake makes what I think may be an outright blunder–he has Parker sourly musing on Joe’s offer to pay his travel expenses–he thinks this isn’t how it’s supposed to work–you go in together for shares–you don’t offer to pay another heister out of your own pocket for his trouble–but Parker offered to do exactly that with Handy McKay, in The Outfit, less than a year earlier.   Handy refused the offer, partly because he genuinely wanted to help Parker out, and partly because it’s weird for Parker to be offering to pay him.   Parker seems oblivious to the contradiction in his reasoning.   Perhaps Westlake, caught up in trying to fix a book on a short deadline, never even noticed it.

Now ask yourself–if Handy McKay, who also worked with Joe Sheer, had gotten that letter, what would he have done?   He’d have gone down there to help Joe, out of loyalty.   We’ve seen him take pity on people he’d barely met, which twice ended up costing him and Parker dearly.   And Handy is as tough and capable as they come in the heisting world.   So Parker is once again wrongly assuming all his fellow heisters are like him.   There are aspects of the human mind he can never really grasp–we’re as much of a mystery to him as he is to us.

The Joe Sheer he thought he knew would never break like this, so in his mind, the Joe Sheer he knew is dead.   What killed him?   And is it a threat to Parker in some way?  That’s the mystery he’s out to solve.   Made all the more urgent by the fact that Parker checked into the local hotel under his cover name of Charles Willis, which can be traced back to Florida, and the life he’s set up for himself there.

And now Tiftus has turned up dead in his hotel room–and the state police, who are a damn sight more professional than Younger, consider ‘Charles Willis’ a suspect, though Younger can give him an alibi (for his own reasons).   The mysteries are starting to multiply.   The trap is starting to close on Parker.   He’s got to figure all this out, and fast.

And I’ve got to make this a two-parter, like I did with The Hunter.   Too much more to say about this one–it’s not the kind of book you skim through.   I’ll post the rest of it sometime this week.  You’d think I’d learn to stay away from Parker novels with two word/three syllable titles ending in ‘er’.   But they’re all so bloody interesting.   Contradictions and all.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: The Fugitive Pigeon (AKA The Dead Nephew)


I stared at her. “Artie? Looks up to me?”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“I thought it was the other way around,” I said.

She laughed.   “You don’t know yourself at all, Charlie,” she said.  Looking neither to left nor right, she started the Packard rolling forward and angled it out into the traffic.

It would have been sometime in 1964 I’d guess, that Donald Westlake talked to Henry Morrison, who worked at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, about a book he was working on–he’d been trying to write it as a serious mystery/thriller involving a young man in a dangerous situation with organized crime, much like two of his earlier novels for Random House, and as Westlake put it, “It’s been coming out funny.”

Morrison urged his client to curb his comedic capers.  The book wouldn’t sell, he said.  Wouldn’t get a paperback reprint here, or any book club editions, and since American humor doesn’t translate well, it wouldn’t get any foreign language editions, which is where maybe half Westlake’s income derived from.

Westlake went ahead with it anyway, mainly because he found he couldn’t stop himself, and Random House published it.   Originally entitled The Dead Nephew, it got changed to The Fugitive Pigeon, because Lee Wright, Westlake’s talented but quirky editor at Random House, didn’t like titles with the word ‘dead’ in them.

It ended up outselling his previous serious-minded Random House mysteries by roughly a two-to-one margin.  As you can see up above it got multiple foreign editions, and a fair few paperback reprints (you can see more of them here, and there were many others besides), and  it was the first book Westlake ever sold to Hollywood, though the picture was never made.  While it’s debatable as to whether or not this constitutes vindication for Ms. Wright, it was certainly vindication for Mr. Westlake. Morrison’s response to all this has not been preserved for posterity.

Comedy was nothing new to Westlake.   Much of his earliest work was comic in nature, as a perusal of his short stories from the 1950’s shows.   Some of his erotic novels written under pseudonyms had been farcical (notably So Willing, co-authored with his good friend Lawrence Block), bedrooms and farce being natural companions at all times.   His Levine stories had a wryly sardonic tone to them, though they were dead serious at heart.    In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything Westlake ever wrote that didn’t have at least a hint of a comic undertone.

But this was the first of his crime novels to make it the overtone–to heavily emphasize that side of him, the side that saw the humor in everyone and everything, up to and including death.   And as far as hard-boiled crime/mystery novels of the time were concerned, it really did mark a departure in tone, which was probably what made Morrison so nervous about it–there had been a funny mystery writer named Craig Rice (real name Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig)  who had a string of funny detectives who solved funny mysteries, and as Morrison reminded Westlake, she had worn out her welcome.   Funny mysteries often have a way of getting a bit too cute and cozy, and the thrills we associate with the genre can be lost amidst the hijinks.

Comical crime stories were hardly invented by Craig Rice, of course.   There had always been an element of levity in the genre overall (which was written first and foremost as entertainment, let’s remember), and particularly in detective stories, going all the way back to Poe’s Dupin (“The letter was in plain sight all the time–D’OH!”).  Westlake would certainly have noted how his hero Dashiell Hammett deftly blended violence and intrigue with witty banter in The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.   The hardboiled P.I. in general is never at a loss for a snappy comeback.  Westlake would have likewise noted that the main thrust of those stories remained serious, in spite of the humor, which served as leavening–it was never the main ingredient.

Once a genre establishes itself, somebody is going make fun of it.  That’s how you know it’s truly arrived.  Hollywood produced scores of funny gangster movies from the 1930’s onwards, often starring the actors who had first made people take these movies seriously–Cagney, Robinson, Bogart, Muni–they all took turns spoofing the very archetypes they themselves had created.   As far as the printed page is concerned, Richard Prather’s Shell Scott, the second biggest-selling P.I. of all time after Mike Hammer (mainly forgotten today), was winking furiously at his readers from Day One, his tongue seemingly never out of his cheek.

But sending up the cliches inevitably created by a successful genre is not quite the same thing as realizing the deeper comic potential inherent to any crime story–the confusions of identity, the absurd yet deadly situations created when some hapless schmuck gets stuck in the machinery of a mystery, and wants nothing more than to find some way out again.   It’s one thing for a Shell Scott to get stuck in that machinery–he wants to be there, that’s where the action is (that’s where the dames are!)–but what if you stuck some average Tom, Dick or Charlie into the mix, forced him to play a role he never remotely sought or desired, and sat back to watch him try to wriggle his way off the hook?   And how would that affect him?  Could he ever really go back to what he was before?

This fall guy keeps trying to explain to the various desperate characters he encounters along the way that there’s been some mistake, he’s not who they think he is, and of course they don’t believe him–if he’s just some average schmo, what’s he doing in this kind of story?   Central casting would never make such a stupid mistake.

So they go right on shooting at him, and he goes right on ducking to beat the band, and it’s a difficult balancing act to pull off for a writer–go too far towards the serious, and you lose the humor–but the humor depends to some extent on us actually caring what happens to the sacrificial schlemiel, clinging desperately to life the way Harold Lloyd clung to that clock face in Safety Last.  You have to make them believe he’s really in danger, as Lloyd did by clinging to actual clock faces, on actual skyscrapers, with the nets tucked well out of sight.   A writer of prose fiction has to resort to less obvious and personally hazardous techniques, but the principle is the same.

Lloyd, like nearly all the great early American masters of cinematic comedy, came out of the Mack Sennett/Hal Roach schools, and in a less direct line of succession, so did Westlake–you take an inherently ridiculous situation, and you build on it, each gag topping the last, an ever-escalating cascade of comic contrivance, that makes us gasp, as well as guffaw–and as the legendary Shakespearean Edmund Kean reputedly said in his final moments, dying is easy–comedy is hard.

Westlake was going to have to work at this.   His first attempt is entertaining as hell–but it doesn’t have a lot of belly laughs.   It has plenty else to offer, and the belly laughs would come, but it would be a tough slog, with a few missteps along the way.  Westlake always insisted he was never the class clown as a boy–he was the guy standing next to the class clown.  Comedy didn’t come to him naturally.   It didn’t to Harold Lloyd either.   But there’s always much to be said for a clown who earns his laughs the hard way.

For this novel, Westlake goes back to the first person singular, having experimented with multiple third person protagonists in his previous Random House effort, and of course in the Parker novels.  He needs to make sure we’re firmly in his hero’s camp, and the best way to get there is to have him talking to us all the way through (except for one brief interlude, and we’ll get to that).

Charlie Poole is a prototypical slacker, a perfectly nice young man in his early 20’s, nothing wrong with him except a total lack of ambition–he was whiling away his days reading science fiction magazines (hmm, wonder who that’s based on?).  Since Charlie’s aunt (heh) married a minor mob boss, Charlie’s mother, despairing of ever getting him out of the house, pulled a few strings and got him a job running The Rockaway Grill, a mob-owned bar in Canarsie, located at the arse-end of Brooklyn, way back before Brooklyn became the Locus of All Hipsterdom it is today, because hip young people can’t afford to live in Greenwich Village anymore.

It’s basically a slacker’s dream job.   He works from about 4pm to midnight–he can stay open later, if there’s a classic black and white movie on the Late Late Show and back in those days there pretty much always was–this is how people used to watch old movies.   Customers are few and generally affable, and he has his own little apartment above the bar, so his commute involves going up or down a short flight of stairs (geez, I’m fantasizing about this job just writing about it).

He knows a few neighborhood girls from his school days who are no more ambitious than himself, and will still go out with him, and then go home with him, so his sex life proceeds in much the same mediocre fashion as the rest of his life.  The only real responsibility he has is to serve as a drop-off for certain packages, the contents of which he does not inquire about, which are then picked up by certain persons, the identity of whom he does not inquire about.   Charlie sees no reason any of this should ever change–he has no desire to better himself–what could be better than this?

Then one night, just as he’s closing up, these two ominous looking gentlemen who look like they stepped out of one of the gangster movies he likes to watch late at night show up and present him with a card, featuring his name and a black spot.   Charlie is not that quick on the uptake at this point of the story, and it takes a bit of explanation before he grasps that they are hitters, and he’s the hit–and he still doesn’t know why, but the hitters don’t feel it’s their job to explain that.

The local patrolman happens to come in right at that point, forestalling the execution of Charlie’s execution, and before the torpedoes can zero back in on him, he’s out the second story window, clinging to the bar sign, and then the ‘away’ part of ‘Rockaway’ gives way, and he’s off and running for his very life.  (Parenthetically, I should add that from this point onwards, The Rockaway Grill is referred to as The Rock     Grill–it’s the little details that count in this kind of story).

Charlie scarpers for the subway, and makes it to Midtown Manhattan, over by Central Park, where his uncle the minor mob boss lives with his aunt–who is the one thing his uncle the minor mob boss most fears, so Charlie figures he’s got some leverage here.  Unfortunately the hit men (whose names are Trask and Slade) figured out that’s where he was going, and beat him to the apartment door, where they talk to his uncle–and listening to them talk from a nearby stairwell, Charlie learns to his horror that his uncle already knows about the hit, which was ordered by somebody much further up the ladder, and he has no intention of doing anything about it.   Charlie will have to seek sanctuary elsewhere.

He heads down to to the Village, to hole up with his old friend Artie Dexter–it’s the wee wee hours of the morning now, that brief moment you can stroll through almost any part of Manhattan and be utterly alone, and actually hear your own footsteps echoing off the surrounding canyons.    If you don’t believe me, come here sometime and try it.  You won’t get mugged, because all the muggers are asleep too.

Authors who come to New York from Majorca once every ten years to buy a new bathing suit always put down in their books that the big city never sleeps, but that’s what they know.  New York sleeps, all right, from about four-thirty in the morning till about quarter after five.  That’s maybe only forty-five minutes, not very long to be asleep, but it can seem like forever if you’re one of the few people awake during it.  And it’s most noticeable in places like Times Square, that are so fully awake the rest of the day.  Sixth Avenue is like that, right about 8th Street, at Village Square.  The movies and bars are closed, the luncheonettes are closed, everything is closed.  There’s no traffic, no pedestrians, and the streets westward radiating away like a fan are all narrow and dark and empty.

As true today as it was when Westlake typed it.   Anyway, Artie is throwing a huge party in his tiny apartment, which he is always doing, being a much more ambitious slacker than Charlie.   Charlie sacks out on the floor, and the next day meets Chloe Shapiro, “a sloe-eyed raven-tressed beauty in dungarees and black turtle-neck sweater,”  who is the absolute best thing in the book, and far and away the most interesting, modern, timeless, complicated, baffling, and mind-numbingly desirable girl Westlake had dreamed up to this point in time, and maybe ever (much too specific to be pure fantasy–Westlake knew some version or versions of this girl, and lusted after her, successfully or not I couldn’t say).

She’s about to have breakfast, and then sex with Artie–she’s his ‘morning-after’ girl.   Hey, it’s Greenwich Village in the 1960’s, people.   Compared to what’s probably going on nearby, this is a Disney film.

Whenever I read this book, I invariably cast a 20-ish Winona Ryder as Chloe.   I then have to cast a 20-ish Mark Wahlberg as Charlie.   And maybe Quentin Tarantino could have directed it with his typical panache, but in a somewhat less sanguinary vein than is generally his wont?  And we will never see that adaptation, or probably any other.  More’s the pity, but we can always unreel it in our heads.

So back at the den of iniquity, Chloe sizes Charlie up pretty well in all his glorious slackerdom, and is perhaps a bit more impressed than she lets on, figuring there’s more to him than meets the eye (there’d kind of have to be, right?).   Charlie utterly fails to size Chloe up in all her glorious Village hippie chick-dom, which is not all there is to her either–in all fairness, he’s the one running for his life, but mainly she’s just smarter than him.  Then he gets a little mob-related intel from Artie, who used to be connected, and off he goes to Staten Island, where dwells ‘The Farmer’ Agricola, the higher-up mob guy who put the hit on Charlie.   Charlie figures he can reason with him.  For some reason.

Staten Island sounds about the same as it is now–a series of little rural-suburban towns on an island that for some reason is part of New York City, though they keep threatening to do something about that, and never actually do.  Charlie finds The Farmer living in an actual farmhouse, probably without any sense of irony whatsoever, but he’s not living there anymore, because somebody stabbed him in the back with a dagger in his own study just before Charlie got there, like this was a badly-played game of Clue.

Newsflash–you can’t write a Random House Murder Mystery without putting a mysterious murder in there somewhere.   Westlake is rolling his eyes as much as you are, but dem’s de rules.   Charlie, having failed to read the rulebook, finds himself on the hook for yet another hit-worthy offense–and it only takes one.  And Trask and Slade keep popping up everywhere he goes (as they will throughout the entire book).

The Farmer’s exquisitely beautiful blonde daughter with an exquisitely beautiful blonde sense of the melodramatic, tries to murder Charlie for murdering her father, and ends up accidentally freeing him from the barn he’s being held captive in, and then it turns out Artie and Chloe came after Charlie because they belatedly realized he might be in a little trouble, and they kidnap the daughter because hey why not, and they’re off to the races.

Yes, Chloe gets to come along for the ride–come along, you say?   She’s driving!   With no license, or visible sense of self-preservation.   And take a gander, will you, at what she’s driving.


1938 Packard Limo.  “The Mechanical Sydney Greenstreet”, Charlie calls it, spending much of the remaining narrative geeking out over it, and who could blame him?

So after a few twists and turns (or a lot, because it’s Chloe driving), the Farmer’s daughter makes her escape with Artie in hot pursuit (neither character is seen again), and it’s just Charlie and Chloe, following one lead after another, finally confronting an even higher-up and more improbable mobster than The Farmer Agricola–one who somehow dragoons Charlie into playing a few hands of bridge, preparatory to killing him.   But then in bursts Chloe, gun in hand, “as wild and beautiful as a cheetah”, and if your heart doesn’t skip a beat, you’re dead.

After the misapprehending mob boss (something of an armchair detective himself–in fact, I think he’s a rather sneering reference to Nero Wolfe, which is probably why I always see him as Maury Chaykin) refers to Chloe as The Farmer’s Daughter, and she comes close to shooting him for what she considers an off-color remark, Charlie learns that he got fingered as a police informant inside the mob by a mob informant inside the police department.   Well, that figures.

He’s got to go talk to this cop now, but first he and Chloe need some sleep.   Well, they need to do something else besides sleep at this point, but neither of them wants to broach that subject just yet.   The subject that does get broached is why Chloe is screwing Artie on a regular basis, when she obviously has no strong feelings towards him at all.   And turns out she has a five year old daughter currently living with the grandparents in The Bronx.

“Now, one last point, and I hope I don’t make you blush.  Remember, puberty at 12.   Married at seventeen.  A mother at eighteen.   I’m long since no virgin, Charlie, and I’ve got drives and needs just like anybody else  So I’ve got these drives and needs, and I don’t want responsibility, so I wind up Artie Dexter’s morning-after girl. “

She’s not quite the female Charlie Poole, but she’s living in the same nether-realm between childhood and maturity.  Only one gets the feeling it’s starting to pall on her a bit.   Charlie, on the other hand, can’t wait to get back to Canarsie and the Rock     Grill, which Chloe notes with some displeasure.

So they cruise back to the Village in the Packard, and of course one of the hitters is there waiting for Charlie, so Chloe does what any impossibly cool 1960’s Village hippie-chick would do–pretends to be drunk, sings a filthy song, and takes her top off right in front of whichever one it is, distracting him while Charlie slips into the building.   Then she disguises herself as a boy, and walks in herself.    Charlie is getting more bedazzled by Ms. Shapiro with every passing moment.

And after a mutually restless night spent sleeping in separate rooms, she and Charlie have it out–a recurring motif in Westlake’s writing on the whole boy/girl thing is that sexual revolution or no, the guy is still expected to make the first move most of the time, and damned if he does, damned if he don’t–that hasn’t changed much either, has it?    She has decided he’s judging her for being sexually free, which isn’t at all the case, but her real beef is that he doesn’t know who he is, and doesn’t seem to want to know.   She’s ready to grow up, and he isn’t.  So she pointedly absents herself from his quest to regain slacker nirvana.

So Charlie must go forth bereft and Chloe-less , to seek the final answer to how he got put on that infamous black spot, and who killed The Farmer Agricola, and the reader can only mourn her absence, but some things a man really does have to do himself, or he’ll never be a man at all.   And some plot synopses a blogger really does have to cut short,  or he’ll never get to the point.

Following a fairly innovative chapter, in which Charlie, in the clutches of the long-thwarted Trask and Slade, finds himself being marched out on a desolate beach over near Orient Point (sheesh, there’s a lot of driving in this novel!) and abruptly switches to the third person, to tantalize the reader with the possibility that maybe this is a really dark comedy–just in the proverbial nick of time, he realizes who fingered him, and who the killer is, and that it’s the same person, and he manages to call a time out to his own demise, and all the mystery nonsense gets tied up respectably well, with about as much plausibility as one might expect at this point, which isn’t saying much.   I mean, it involves a cop named Tough Tony Touhy, and the seeming end of all organized crime in New York City.   Like that.   Hey, none of Shakespeare’s comedies end believably either, you know.

All of this mob fol-de-rol was never anything more than a threadbare excuse to go tooling around in a 1938 Packard Limo with a sloe-eyed raven-tressed beauty who drives like a maniac–and who Charlie now realizes is worth more to him than all the Rock    Grills in all the Canarsies that ever were. Turns out all he needed to snap him out of arrested adolescence was to stare death right in the face. And now he’s ready to do something far more frightening, but also potentially a lot more fun. He and Chloe do the old ‘your place or mine’ bit (my vote is for the back seat of the Packard), but first they’re going to grab a bite to eat. The End (with one final twist I won’t give away, because it’s redundant).

Now, did you take any of that seriously?   No, and neither did Westlake, which is why he ended up having to write it as a comedy.   Thing is, not needing to take the constraints of the narrative too seriously was oddly liberating–he originally told the skeptical Henry Morrison that he was almost done with the funny mystery anyway,  he might as well finish it, he’d just do one and get it out of his system, but of course any chance of that prediction coming true ended when he and Random House saw the book sales. Even if the book had flopped, his whimsical  impulses would have remained difficult to suppress, but having made his first really big success under his own name, the floodgates were flung wide open, and now he just had to figure out how to make this work for him.

Because The Fugitive Pigeon, as much fun as it is, is not a great book.    It succeeded by dint of sheer anarchic energy and invention, and by virtue of being essentially all by itself in a market overpopulated by earnest somber world-weary detectives–whose plots, when you get right down to it, are not much less nonsensical.   That’s what Westlake was trying to tell Morrison–it’s all nonsense anyway, so why not just go with that, make something of it?

His later attempts at comedy got better and better (with the occasional misfire)–to me, what none of them quite have to the same extent as this one is that sense of joyous discovery, of making up the rules as you go along, of doing something just to see how it would work, which is the signal distinction of this book.   And which, when you get right down to it, is the joy of genre fiction as a whole–when it’s done right.   When it’s not just cranked out mechanically, to fit an existing template, but rather refuses to stay within the lines–using the form as a guideline, but never letting it become a prison–and letting the reader figure it all out as he or she goes along.   The very constraints of a genre can be oddly liberating, if you just allow them to be.  Nobody ever knew this better than Donald Westlake.

And just for lagniappe, as he goes along, Westlake has Charlie, who had after all mainly been living what passed for his life through various forms of popular fiction, toss one pop cultural reference after another at the reader, as part of his attempt to describe his experiences–surprisingly, most of his references are still recognizable today.

From start to finish, Charlie mentions High Sierra, Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Billy Strayhorn, Charles Addams, Liberace, The Scarlet Pimpernel,  Dale Carnegie, Disney heroines, The Belles of St. Trinians, Madame Defarge, Playboy, Sidney Greenstreet, The Three Stooges, Anita Ekberg, Peanuts (Charlie Brown and Lucy), Disneyland, Carol Reed, Kiss of Death, Victor Mature, Richard Widmark, It’s a Gift, W.C. Fields, Baby LeRoy, Errol Flynn, Hail to the Bastard King of England, Roger Bannister, The Hayes Office, Cary Grant, Brand X, Volto the Grapenuts Martian, Sally Rand, Merry Anders, Barbara Nichols, John Wayne, Robert Ryan, Superman, and Spy Smasher.    If you knew all of those without clicking or googling, you should stop reading this blog and try out for Jeopardy!

And all of this in the first 164 pages of my Ballantine paperback edition.   No pop cultural references at all in the remaining 13 pages–in which Charlie embraces adulthood (and Chloe).  Hmm–wonder if there’s a subtextual message buried in there somewhere?

By the bye, the Bastard King of England ref is technically Chloe’s, since she’s the one singing the song–on a public sidewalk–in the middle of the night–right before she strips to her bra.   And if you are easily shocked, I must urge you to by no means click on that link or you will be thoroughly scandalized (and have I mentioned not enough of you are clicking on the links?  I spend a lot of time looking all this stuff up, you know.   Like minutes, even.  For shame.)

So what happened to that movie they never made?   According to Westlake, a lot of bad scripts–Hollywood had forgotten how to do this kind of story right in the 1960’s.   And he got a pittance for the rights.   A learning experience in that regard as well.   But what he’d stumbled upon was a lot more important than any movie anybody could have made.   Lots of writers have done both serious and funny books, and succeeded at both–but how many of them have practiced both polarities so well that people will never stop arguing which constitutes that writer’s true legacy?    Will the real Donald Westlake please stand up?

When Morrison told Westlake to stay serious, he remembered saying this in response–“Well, it’s going fast, it’s not going to take that long, it’ll be this aberration, I’ll just do it once, and I’ll do it right.  But I need a breath of air, here.  I’m feeling as if the form is a stupid form. And I have to have fun with it for once.”

By ‘the form’, he clearly meant murder mysteries, not crime fiction as a whole.   The mystery was a form Westlake could never quite master, and never quite get comfortable with, and never quite take seriously–but he could never quite shake it, either.   And as evidence of that, I present the next book on our list–another Richard Stark, and guess who’s playing the shamus this time?   Reluctantly, of course.  But with a deadly efficiency that Charlie Poole could only envy (the dame in this one, not so much).

Edifying as his romp with Charlie and Chloe had been, Westlake in the Mid-60’s was still at his absolute peak when hardboiled as all hell, and the next book has long been recognized as one of his very best.   By everybody other than Westlake himself–who hated it. Will we ever figure this guy out?   Stay tuned.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels