Review, The Jugger, Part 2.

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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.

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10 responses to “Review, The Jugger, Part 2.

  1. Great follow-up to the Part 1.
    You’re wrong about A Retrieved Reformation, though. I never read it: we were taught different books in school. The same for The Out is Death: I have read all Rabe prior to this one. I finished Rabe’s first Daniel Port’s novel, and it’s not one of his best. I guess if I had read it, I’d spot the influence.
    The murder of that kid captures everyone’s attention, that’s right. I think that’s because that boy was still civilian. Yes, he was no angel, but still everyone considers him civilian. I mean, Parker is cop killer, right? Not convicted, though. How many cops Parker killed throughout the entire run? He may have not killed many himself, his partners in crime killed also, but he’s still an accessory, that means he’s a cop killer. And yet no one is bothered by that. No one lay tears about that prison guard from California.
    No one will cry about that boy, but everyone will remember him.
    Your last paragraphs of this review leads to another reason why The Jugger is so great. Parker beginning with this novel runs out of luck. Since his wife and Resnick’s double-cross, Parker somehow was in luck. He won the battle with the Outfit, changed his face and identity, scored some jobs, scored some women, everything was good for him. And then Parker started to make mistakes. Now the heat is aware of him, and in the next two books he will make more mistakes. Parker will become more human, closer to us. And nothing’s better for a reader than Parker’s making mistakes. Parker’s not perfect, Parker’s on the run, Parker’s playing defensive. Even here Parker can’t figure out Sheer’s death, Tiftus’ death, money angle. Parker’s not THAT smart, after all.

  2. Well, I’d say ‘hyperbolic’, not wrong, Ray. I didn’t mean that literally every person on the planet had read that story. In spite of my having readers in many a far-flung corner of the globe (27 flags and counting!), most of my readership is still American, and American kids still get tested on this story, because it’s so short and simple and (outwardly) moral–not entirely sure O. Henry would approve, but nobody asked him. Internationally speaking, O. Henry was and probably is still very widely read, but I was mainly talking about Americans there. If I said “Everybody loves chocolate”, that would be hyperbolic as well–there are hunter-gatherers out there who find it repulsive–you have to extend me a bit of literary license. The more literary you are, the less literal.

    Is Alfred Ricks still a civilian when Parker kills him? I think he’s transitioning. Every thief and killer has to start somewhere. Maybe he would have turned back from the path he was on, but he sure wasn’t showing any signs of doing that–Parker gave him a chance to change his mind–not for the kid’s sake, but so that he’d write that note for his parents to explain his absence, but he still had that little moment to say “I killed a man, and I have to face up to it.” He’s not really a civilian or a crook. He’s somewhere in-between. That’s never a good place to be in a Westlake novel, and it’s an even worse place to be in a Richard Stark novel.

    However dissatisfied Westlake was with this book, he needed to write it, or one very much like it, because he needed the income from writing several Parkers a year. Random House was good for just one book a year. He originally said Parker worked just once a year, but that isn’t going to work. He wants a certain immediacy to the books–he wants them to be in the now–which means they’re happening more or less in real time. Which means Parker has to keep getting forced into situations where he has to work, even though that greatly increases the chances of him being caught or killed.

    So he needs a story in which Parker, still flush with cash, not needing to pull another heist, is motivated to become active again–and that activity leads to him being broke and on the run, and needing to pull more heists. I agree it’s a necessary step–Parker’s fortunes rise and fall, but the ebbs would mean less without the flows, and vice versa.

    The way I interpret Parker’s failure here is that his laser focus on what’s ahead of him is both an advantage and a disadvantage–his strengths are also his weaknesses. He did solve Tiftus’ murder–and he found out who was responsible for Joe’s death–but having done this, he didn’t keep digging for the whole story, because it didn’t matter to him–he thought the job was done, and so the detective in him got switched off. Grofield would have wanted to know the answers for the sake of knowing them–out of intellectual curiosity–and in knowing them, he would have recognized that Younger’s ‘confession’ wouldn’t hold up.

    Parker’s curiosity works differently–it isn’t an intellectual curiosity. Because Parker isn’t intellectual. But when Grofield gets into this type of situation (as he does, several times), he tends not to do as well as Parker, because he’s too easily distracted. By women, most notably. His kind of curiosity has its own disadvantages. Our strengths are bound up in our weaknesses.

    I must strongly disagree that Parker becomes more human in the coming books. More vulnerable, perhaps. More fallible. But still far from human. And least human of all in that he never worries much about his fallibility, never second-guesses, never says “Damn, I should have done that instead!” How many days have ever passed when you never once said that to yourself? With me, it’s more like how many hours. :\

  3. Fallable, yes, that’s the word. Sometimes Parker gets what’s his too easy. If I recall remember, in early books Stark allows Parker gets away with money and his life, and the further he goes the less money Parker gets. More and more Parker had to abandon money. And without money Parker gets more poorly constructed jobs, which means Parker should sweat more and avoid more traps. And that it’s more fun for the reader.

  4. He gets some really nice scores in the later books, but yeah–it does get harder. For one thing, as becomes increasingly clear, Parker’s primary source of sustenance is getting thin on the ground. He’s not equipped to steal money when it’s stored as electronic impulses. He needs cash, and cash is getting harder to find, at least in the quantities that would make it worth his while. Surveillance and security are getting more and more sophisticated as well. Cops are sharing information a lot better. As they update their methods, Parker has to update his, and seek suitable targets. His last major heist (a long way off on this blog) is an inside job, and he’s still caught offguard by how quickly the police get on his trail.

    He’s very good, but he’s also very lucky. The Stark god of his universe is testing him, pushing him to his extreme limits–but also looking out for him, giving him openings, then waiting to see if he’s strong and smart enough to take advantage of them. I guess it’s a bit like Conan and Crom. Did that ref make any sense to you?

    The funny thing is, Dortmunder actually did better sometimes. The great god Westlake may put you through all kinds of embarrassing situations, and you’ll never find a convenient parking space, but overall he takes better care of his people. When he’s in a comic vein, at least.

  5. I have never understood why Tiftus thinks Joe Sheer left a load of cash around. Younger’s a fool that can’t imagine how fast thieves will spend money when they’re flush, or that they invest what’s left in scattered banks and stocks rather than keeping it as a big pile of bills. But Tiftus is from the same world as Parker and Sheer — why would be independently make that same mistake?

    • Tiftus is not quite from the same world as Parker and Sheer–he’s a small-timer, and Sheer was big time. He never expected Sheer to have the same kind of money that Younger was looking for. He just thought he’d get a decent score, enough to live on for a while–he’ s a fool, but not as big a fool as Younger.

      And in fact, we do see guys in the course of this series that bury their heist money somewhere–remember Skimm, from The Man With the Getaway Face? Tiftus doesn’t know Sheer well enough to know whether he’s the kind that invests, or the kind that caches. There could very well be tens of thousands buried somewhere nearby. He figures it’s worth a shot–he’s not the kind that can take it directly from the source (ie, banks).

      In fact, Parker himself mainly caches–concealing money in various hiding places, or in motel safes, or in small banks around the country, making sure the deposits are small enough to avoid notice from the authorities.

      The books are not always consistent with each other. Stark overhears Parker thinking that of course men like him invest their money, make it work for them, but when do we ever see Parker actually do this? To me, this is an actual flaw in the book, but a minor one.

  6. I wish Younger’s first name had been Arnold rather than Abner, because at one point he asks “What the hell are you talking about, Willis?”

  7. cent

    well, i certainly assumed that “jugger” was slang for a safe-cracker, like you and that other reviewer; and we may indeed all have been wrong, but in that case i think DEW was wrong as well. why? because of several references in *the score*, pt.1/ch.4 (i am currently working my way through all the parker novels in chronological order, most of them for the first time; i just finished *the jugger*, so of course i read *the score* before that and it’s still fresh in my memory):

    – “they all sat down at the table again, and edgars cleared away the maps. parker said, ‘we need three jug men. you’re one, paulus…'” (pp49-50; we have already established that paulus’ speciality is safes and vaults; and that three men will be needed to open the various safes, plus three more for the heavy lifting.) and then again, shortly afterwards:

    – “parker turned to paulus. ‘you got a list of the jobs? wait a minute, the other two juggers first…’ …he looked around the table. ‘we need another jugger. a vault man. any ideas?'” (p50 – page refs are for the chicago u.p. edition)

    so… that really sounds to me as if DEW was under the impression that “jugger” meant a safe-cracker specifically, and that the sixth book was titled accordingly. it may not be strictly correct, but surely it’s not that outlandish to suggest he could have been wrong about his underworld slang..? he wasn’t a criminal himself, after all; and wherever he got his slang terms from, that sort of argot must vary a bit from one place to another. fwiw after i clicked on your “vernacular” link i scrolled down to the M’s to see whether there was an entry for “mace” – and there is, with several meanings, none
    of which have anything to do with the way DEW uses the word (to mean a stolen car with fake papers: used in *the outfit*, first, and later in *the score* – same chapter quoted above, where stark very helpfully has parker explain the term to edgars!).

    on a totally unrelated note, like ray garraty above, i have not read “a retrieved reformation” either; in fact i had never even heard of it until i read your article. of course i know o. henry’s name as a writer, but (i say this having grown up in the u.k.) he was never someone i thought of as “canon”. you may be right that his work is still widely read outside the u.s. (though i’m not sure how you would know that…), but on this side of the pond, at least, his books are emphatically NOT taught in schools. i don’t mean there is any sort of campaign against him or anything; he’s just not on the radar. still, i will take your word for it that his work, or that story at any rate, is drilled into every north american who has any sort of schooling at all, in which case it’s safe to assume that DEW had read it…

    … finally, may i just say how much i admire your site. i expect to refer back to it quite a bit over the coming months!

  8. I hope you find it useful–it’s certainly quite a long slog to get through by now.

    To put it simply, all jug heavies are juggers, not all juggers are jug heavies. But for the purposes of a story like this, it really doesn’t matter which term you use. I think he just liked the sound of jugger better, and Rabe had already used ‘jug heavy’, so he wanted to be different. I don’t really know how often either term was ever used in crime fiction dealing with safecrackers. O’Henry obviously didn’t know it, and perhaps the term was not yet in use when he was writing.

    My point was that we can enjoy the story being told, and still understand that it’s a story–that these are not real criminals, but fictional ones, and the storyteller is free to make changes to the slang, for his or her own purposes. It’s still interesting to know what the actual slang terms were. My guess is they’ve all changed by now. Slang never stops mutating.

    Safecracking may be enjoying a revival now–in Colorado, where marijuana has been legalized, growers are making enormous profits–but can’t put them in banks, because federal law still considers what they’re doing to be illegal, and U.S. banks are under federal regulation. So they have to buy big heavy safes to protect their money, and somewhere out there you have to figure there are guys thinking about ways to go in there and take that money away. If Parker was still around, he’d be in Colorado, and looking for a good cracksman. I’d love to know what they’re called now. So would the law. Which is why the terminology would keep changing.

    I really was not literally saying everyone has read that story. I mean, everybody doesn’t really love Raymond, right? Everybody must not necessarily get stoned. Everybody doesn’t have to dance now. Sometimes everyone doesn’t even poop, because, you know, constipation, colostomy bags, etc. Point is, when somebody says “Everyone knows that”, it’s an expression. What you’re saying is, it’s common knowledge–there’s really no such thing as universal knowledge.

    O. Henry is one of the most widely read writers in history, and one of the most admired. It would be hard to find anyone more influential in English literature, this side of Shakespeare. And as far as crime fiction goes, his influence is impossible to calculate–Westlake did write about him–no question he knew that story, and you’ll never convince me Rabe didn’t know it. He was an influence on writers all over the planet, but particularly those who wrote about criminals.

    And for the record A Retrieved Reformation was actually used in standardized tests for many years in America–I’m not surprised to learn it wasn’t used that way everywhere, but there were whole generations of American schoolchildren who read it and then had to answer questions about it. It’s been read in every corner of the world, translated into many languages. So to the extent you can say ‘everyone’ in a cultural context, you can say it about O. Henry. I think my admittedly hyperbolic language was justified. 🙂

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