Review: The Seventh (AKA The Split)

46627521-Stark_The_Split_Gold_Medal-600x969OneLonelyNight

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.

seventh_original_1seventh_original_2

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 in human form 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.

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9 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

9 responses to “Review: The Seventh (AKA The Split)

  1. First off, let me say a couple of words in Harry Bennett’s defense. I like the cover to The Seventh. It’s goofy, cartoonish, simplistic, but there is not a reason not to like it. It’s certainly better than the McGinnis’s cover, which is closer to original, sure, but a little bit too much cinematic. (That doesn’t say I don’t like his covers to four Score novels.)
    You have raised a topic that I thought won’t be raised until the first Score book. Well, and now all hell broke loose. That’s your fault. That topic is the transition from Pocket Books to Gold Medal. You started this review so if that The Seventh was written for GM, not Pocket Books. Your arguments about GM wanting his own Spillane are on point, but only if you would consider the whole transition and reissue of two earlier books. This novel wasn’t written for GM, and it isn’t right to consider it legitimate GM novel.
    The main reason for reprinting two earlier novels is, I believe, obvious and it has to do with movie adaptaions.
    But the move itself is more mysterious. Why would Westlake leave Pocket and move to GM? I doubt I saw the answer anywhere in his interviews or other sources. Money? Prestige? Some changes inside Pocket? I asked Lawrence Block about it, who may have known the answer from DW himself, but even Block didn’t know. He suggested that maybe it had to do with the change of editor. But there could be a lot of reasons.
    All of it are things around the novel. The Seventh is certainly up there, right on top with The Hunter. Probably a tie.
    The Seventh is such a powerful thing because here Parker made a stupid mistake. He’s vulnerable after all, though he doesn’r admit this mistake to his collegues, he’s still Parker, he can’t look weak. A huge part of the novel Parker is helpless. He makes mistakes, he is a target, his crew lost trust in him, I felt sorry for him while reading the book.
    I think I’ll save my two other points for the second part of the review. Looking forward to how you will dissect Parker the sleuth.

  2. LOVE Harry Bennett. HATE his cover for The Seventh. Love McGinnis’ cover, which tells us what the story is really going to be about (and was certainly going to sell more books than a fat man and a pink girl on what looks like a blank TV screen). What I have written, I have written. And then rewritten. Repeatedly.

    Gold Medal was around a long time before Parker showed up, and to be clear, I don’t think they changed their mind about publishing the Stark novels because they wanted their own Mike Hammer, and thought Parker could be it (and of course, he couldn’t). They were looking for a general type of story and protagonist that would appeal to the same people who were reading Spillane–they would fill that niche, since Spillane readers had to go a long time between books.

    That meant that writers like Westlake would be looking to tap into all that gold in the GM coffers, by telling that general type of story with that general type of protagonist–but the best of the bunch wouldn’t simply be ripping off Spillane. In fact, they’d be improving on him–avoiding all the excesses and stupidities of those books, that made them such a ripe target for parody. They might never match his sales–but at their best, they’d outlast him. Parker will always hold up. Mike Hammer, increasingly, seems like a relic of a bygone era. A lot of people saw him that way from the start.

    Westlake went to Gold Medal first with The Hunter–the fact is, Gold Medal was the top outfit in paperback crime novels. If that’s what you were writing, you wanted them to be publishing you. That doesn’t mean Pocket and Dell and the rest weren’t turning out great paperback mysteries with fun covers. But Gold Medal was the gold standard. And they paid better than anyone else. That was his primary motive, and he made that pretty clear in interviews I’ve read–Pocket paid pretty well also, which is why he went to them next. But they didn’t write you another check if they did another print run of a book that sold well.

    Editing this in (it bothers me that I even feel obliged to edit my contributions to the comments section, but I do it anyway)–I should have mentioned something else–Peter Rabe did much of his best work for Gold Medal (sometimes with cover art by McGinnis). Westlake’s primary influence, apart from Hammett. That could have been a factor as well.

    I’d assume Westlake’s contract with Pocket came up for renewal, Gold Medal made an offer (because of the movies), Pocket didn’t match it, good-bye Pocket. That’s the simplest answer, and those are usually the correct ones. While you could argue he owed Bucklin Moon something for ‘discovering’ Richard Stark, Moon was just an employee there, and for all I know he’d left by then. Westlake wouldn’t be hurting Moon’s status in the publishing biz by going over to Gold Medal with Parker–his success would be vindicating Moon’s acuity as an editor–somebody who could spot great new talents and concepts.

    In any event, publishers are never terribly loyal to writers who aren’t making them as much money as they used to, are they? Westlake probably got dropped by Random House at some point–I don’t know the specifics of that either. But you only have to read A Likely Story or The Hook to know what a cutthroat business publishing is–though not usually in the literal sense. I would hope.

    By Parker’s stupid mistake, do you mean losing the money, or not getting the hell out of Monequois without it? Parker went out for beer for ten minutes. He left the door locked. The money was stowed out of sight. Nobody had any way of knowing about Ellie’s disgruntled ex showing up–not even Ellie. What were the odds? Some things just can’t be predicted in advance. Parker’s genius is his ability to roll with the punches that life invariably dishes out. Not his ability to prevent those punches from ever being thrown in the first place. If he could do that, reading about his working life would be intensely dull.

  3. You can’t predict intruding of an amateur, and yet we await from Parker almost unhuman things. He, who masters such complicated schemes, screws up on that little detail. In the eyes of his crew he’s at fault. He isn’t guilty that that happened, but it seems like he’s guilty.
    Getting out of Monequois wouldn’t advance the plot. You remember how in The Handle Parker could get away from the G-men and casino heist, and that’d be a right choice, and yet Parker stays. Stark should have a compromise and make up reasons for Parker to stay, otherwise Parker every time would be out of work.

    I forgot that Westlake first came to GM with The Hunter. Then yes, it probably had to do with money. And that raises another question: why Westlake left GM and moved his Parker series to Random House which published his other novels? Money agan? An editor promised Westlake it’s time to drop that immature paperback lifestyle and become a solid hardcover writer? Or the time of the paperbacks left? Whole lot of questions.

  4. He’s angry at himself about it. Only one member of the string really holds him responsible–the rest are still basically doing what he says, accepting him as defacto leader, even though the job in question wasn’t his idea, and we’re not even told he was the primary planner this time–it’s likely he contributed heavily to the finished plan, that worked so well–until that one crucial moment.

    Westlake was a big believer in Murphy’s Law. If anything can possibly go wrong, it will–the unexpected can never be planned for. Reading a fragment of an unfinished autobiography in The Getaway Car anthology, I can see why he felt this way so strongly.

    Somebody once asked John Ford regarding the famous chase scene in Stagecoach, why the Indians didn’t just shoot the horses to stop the coach. Now you could come up with a good reason for that–maybe they wanted the horses–but all Ford said was “Well, that would be the end of the movie, wouldn’t it?”

    The era of the paperback original was a truly fascinating part of publishing history–and a controversial one. Gold Medal pioneered the notion of publishing an never-seen-before book in a cheap (but colorful–and surprisingly durable) paperback edition, that would be sold on newstands. Essentially, they filled the niche formerly filled by the pulps, and probably dealt them their death blow. Which was kind of appropriate, given that Fawcett had, much earlier, helped pioneer that market as well.

    There was a certain inhibition to publishing in paperback–sure, everybody wanted a SECOND paperback edition (and still does), because it meant more money, more exposure. But what Gold Medal did (and the other paperback lines like Pocket/Permabook followed suit pretty quickly) was to say “Give us first shot at this book–we want something colorful and fast-moving like Spillane–you won’t have to share royalties with a hardcover publisher, and we’ll pay extra if it sells well enough to do more printings.” Many Gold Medals sold over a million copies. The reaction from hardcover publishers was extremely negative, in the main. They said Gold Medal had lowered the industry, but what they really meant was that they had to pay certain authors more to keep them from going over to GM.

    I probably oversimplified the genesis of GM–I’d guess they’d have come about with or without Spillane–but because the high saleability of violent sexy crime novels with lurid covers had been proven by him, GM is to this day best known for that kind of book, even though they published spy novels, westerns, romances, etc.

    We who are Stark fans obviously see the Parkers as a high point in Gold Medal’s history, but it’s generally felt they’d peaked by the end of the 1950’s. They went on into the 70’s–I can’t find a source that says when they stopped publishing. Parker’s tenure there was actually pretty brief–1967-69, and of course two of those were reprints inspired by film adaptations, and sharing the movie titles.

    I doubt Stark was even close to being one of their biggest all-time sellers. But my guess would be that again, the contract came up for renewal, GM was not willing to up the ante (both movies had flopped, after all), and Westlake figured he’d been there done that–GM was losing its mojo. The era of the paperback original was coming to a close. It was time to move on. He had come in right at the end of something very special. A few more years, and he’d have missed it entirely.

    So Deadly Edge was published by Random House, in hardcover. Stark was now, very briefly, under the same roof as Westlake. I’d love to know what happened there. The feel of the book, as you already know, is distinctly different from the earlier Parkers, written as paperbacks, in that pulpy style. And here’s the final mystery–1969, the year Deadly Edge was published by RH, was the last year Westlake got published by RH. The rest of the first sixteen Parkers were all published by RH. Stark had thrown Westlake out of his own house.

    I really wish he’d finished that autobiography.

    PS: Editing again! Looking at the Wikipedia article for Pocket/Permabook, which had been around since 1939, I see that Simon & Schuster acquired it in 1966. Which was the year the last Parker novel was published by Pocket. That could be a coincidence, but you know what Freud said. Generally speaking, when there’s a corporate merger, people get fired, and contracts get dropped. So maybe it wasn’t that GM made a better offer–maybe S&S was cleaning house over at Pocket, and Parker went out with the wash. Or maybe Bucklin Moon and others Westlake had been working with got let go, and Westlake felt it wasn’t the same place anymore, and he found GM more receptive this time. A whole lot of maybes, but I doubt it’s just a coincidence.

    And just to make the irony complete, Westlake would briefly be at S&S later on–they published The Hot Rock, Bank Shot, and two other books.

  5. Damn, you’re editing this and I should read comments section twice! Anyway, you made a nice observation: Stark had eaten Westlake (and yet Coe remained with RH till 1972). It’s all publishing games, which at the first glance have nothing to do with the texts. But every Parker fan knows that different publisher meant a different run for Parker. he was pulpish at Pocket, mellow (or you’d say just different) in GM, more solid in RH. And this is we discuss only Parker novels, where the situation was more clear. If we look at those books DW wrote under different pen names, we’ll see that he was published by different publishers also.
    Nice detective work there with S&S. We certainly need to take into consideration that merger.
    I agree with you on the end of GM as the end of the paperback era. I think there are a few articles around in which this particular period is discussed, and the reasons for decline of PBOs offered. Starting with 1970s PBOs became marginal, it was mostly for men adventure stories, and maybe DW didn’t want that his work was mixed with men’s adventures.
    I wish not only that Westlake wrote his autobiography, but that critics and journalists at that time were more persistent and asked all those questions we don’t know the answers for.

    • We can speculate from now ’til doomsday, but without more facts to go on, we’re not likely to ever come to a conclusion. Westlake changed publishers a lot, all through his career. Mysterious Press was probably the closest thing he had to a home, but that was more or less a family affair, with Penzler in charge. Fact is, he was never a big enough seller–publishers could always afford to lose him (what do you think would happen to the publishing exec who lost Stephen King or J.K. Rowling?). He had to hustle, make connections, move around from house to house, look for the best contract he could find. He must have known more about the industry than most writers, having worked at almost every major house, and quite a few of the minors. But that knowledge came at a price. He could never for one minute rest on his laurels.

      I do know that Westlake didn’t think the 60’s were a very good time for detective/crime fiction, overall. At Gold Medal or anywhere else. The form was becoming decadent, because people were just writing variations on what they’d read, as opposed to writing from experience, like the guys who came out of WWI and WWII–and in some cases, like Hammett, had actual experience with detective work and crime.

      Of course Westlake never served in any war, and his experience with crime was minimal, to say the least. It was enough to make him identify more with the criminal than the guy who catches him. That may be why he was so reluctant to do serious mysteries, and his detectives are always reluctant themselves.

      Personally, I like that era–but mainly for Westlake–also Block, though I’ve read less of him. A lot of the best aspects of the 50’s version of that genre continued well into the 60’s, but there is a sense of something winding down–ripening, and then withering on the vine. There’s a difference between a few good writers and a literary movement. Seems like Westlake felt he’d missed that train–but there was an advantage to that–it meant he stood out more. One of the few writers left in that genre who could really write. And he could more or less change the rules to suit himself. And he did.

  6. Ray, it’s unfortunate you didn’t ask your questions about publishers just a few days later than you did. Or that I didn’t get around to reading my advance copy of The Getaway Car sooner than I did. Point is, if either of us had read it, we could have saved ourselves a lot of pointless typing, and somehow appropriately inept detective work. And btw, this goes out to anybody writing anything whatsoever in a speculative vein about Donald E. Westlake–READ THE GETAWAY CAR FIRST.

    Al Nussbaum, the felon/writer who was so central to the later career of Dan Marlowe, interviewed Westlake from prison, via the mail, that interview being in The Getaway Car. He asked Westlake why he he kept switching publishers–whose idea that was. Westlake told him. I guess there’s something about felons/writers that made him feel confiding.

    To sum up, Pocket dropped its entire line of original mysteries in 1965–I don’t know if this had anything to do with the S&S merger–the timing seems slightly off. Westlake went to GM out of necessity (sending Grofield to MacMillan), and it was not a happy relationship on either side, which is why it was so brief–we may be nostalgic about it, but he was not. Though he did say some very positive things about the way they paid their authors in a different interview that I had read, and was paraphrasing in this review.

    Westlake left Random House (while Coe stayed, and Stark made a brief debut there), because his agent got RH and S&S in a bidding war over him, with S&S courting him assiduously, and RH decided they didn’t love him that much. And it turned out the grass was not greener at S&S, so that ended, and Westlake ended up at M. Evans where he was deliriously happy, or so he told Nussbaum–this being when he was still there, so maybe he exaggerated his joy–but it was a fairly long and fruitful relationship.

    And believe it or not, there’s also fragments from an unpublished autobiography in The Getaway Car. But whether that would have talked about publishers, I have no idea.

    • I’ll read it – in October probably. I’m glad this interview cleared out a lot of things. Maybe someday we’ll see a volume of Westlake’s letters (and letters to him).

  7. There’s some letters in there–not a lot. Hopefully TGC sells well enough to justify a second volume.

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