Monthly Archives: August 2014

Review: Murder Among Children

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Greenwich Village In The 1950s (7)citykidslotharstelterhotday1952

The world is not one world, but a hundred thousand worlds, overlapping and yet almost entirely sealed off from one another.  Their perimeters are age or occupation or home address or any one of half a dozen other factors.  I was someone who had been thrust out of his world to exist in limbo, and now in the search for Terry Wilford’s murderer I was peeking and poking into worlds foreign to me, trying to understand their customs and languages, wondering where in these alien landscapes I would find the one with the blood-red hands.

Mitch Tobin

He nodded, his grin getting broader.  “I like you, Mr. Tobin,” he said.  “You aren’t hip by a long shot, but you aren’t square either.  You’re a whole different thing.  You know what you are?”

“No, Hulmer, I don’t.  What am I?”

“You’re the guy that said stop the world I want to get off.  And they stopped the world, and you got off, and now you look at everything from off to the left a little ways.”

“That’s very good, Hulmer, you have a good eye.”

His grin faded and he said, “Did I cut you?  I didn’t mean to.”

“No, you didn’t.  Don’t worry about it.”

He shook his head, looking at me thoughtfully.  “I don’t know, man,” he said.  “I’d like to know what would make you blow your cool.”

“August,” I told him.

So in the mid-to-late 1960’s, Random House was publishing both Donald Westlake comic crime novels featuring a variety of hapless befuddled protagonists suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fiction, and Tucker Coe mysteries featuring a depressed detective exploring the seemingly infinite subcultures of New York City and its environs.   Westlake had finally figured out a way to get two books a year out of his first major publisher, in a time when he was writing and publishing at a truly extraordinary rate–as he admitted in a piece he wrote much later on–

The first few years I was writing, I produced far too much.  If I’d been a little older I might have burned out, but as it was, I just kept finding new areas to explore, new ways to write, new subjects, new formats.  I was like a kid who’s just moved into a new neighborhood and won’t be content until he’s run through every new alley, climbed over every new fence, surveyed every inch of this new world.

But what Random House wasn’t formally admitting at the time was that Westlake and Coe were the same person.  They were being rather coy about Coe.   In Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, you’ll find a little blurb on both the inner dust jacket and in the book proper, saying that Mr. Coe was already an established mystery writer under his real name, and they encouraged aspiring sleuths to try and figure out who he was–though they would probably be wrong.

In the second Tobin book, the blurb on the inner dust jacket says readers of the first Tobin novel had recognized at once that Coe could not be a first-time author (well no shit, Sherlock), and then asked rhetorically “Who is Tucker Coe?”   And then you look at the back dust cover, and they’re plugging God Save the Mark (“$3.95 at your local book store!”), with Westlake’s grinning bearded face on a bogus fifty dollar bill, and an entire New York Times review from Anthony Boucher praising him to the skies (as Boucher so frequently did).   Asked and answered, your honor!

And what this PR department hoopla tells me is that they realized they had something special here (not every fictional detective has his first novel optioned for a Robert Mitchum movie that never actually got made), but weren’t quite sure how to market it.  Tobin is a decidedly atypical detective; mulishly reluctant to solve any mysteries at all, not particularly happy when he does so, not necessarily making the world a better place by doing so.  Uncovering the killer not with the usual knowing smirk but a grimace of existential despair, then running back to his little home improvement project of building a brick wall in his back yard.

The mysteries themselves were clever enough as mental exercises, some more than others; but somehow the books were never really about the mysteries themselves, which existed only to throw light on the inner recesses of the human soul–and what they found there was rarely pretty.  Which was not so out of the ordinary for noir-style mysteries, but Tobin was not a typical noir detective either–he was not romancing and/or shooting it out with sexy femme fatales, and while he was tough enough when he had to be, he was more likely to take a beating than dish one out.

His politics, to the extent he had any, were well to the left of Mike Hammer’s.  He was a married man, loyal to his wife Kate, who had been so deathlessly loyal to him when his affair with another woman became public–but what existed between them was a marriage, not a romance–no witty banter or sly innuendo, ala Nick & Nora.  So not a sex symbol, a romantic idol, or a macho empowerment fantasy, which is what most people want from the hardboiled mystery school, shallow as that may be.

I’m guessing book sales were solid but unexceptional, with good critical notices (and no more money from Hollywood after the first one).   Solid but unexceptional was Westlake’s wheelhouse for everything but his Stark novels and the comedies, and even those rarely if ever got on any best-seller lists.   Tobin always had his admirers, and does to this day, but it’s a pretty select club.  Great writing alone has rarely served to make anyone rich in the publishing biz, and certainly not great genre writing.

Westlake was probably just happy just to have another outlet for the plots and people that kept taking possession of his sorely overworked typewriter.  From the beginning of 1966 to the end of 1970, he published twenty-four (!!!) novels in several genres, along with one short story collection and a children’s book–he also produced several unused film treatments (some of which became books), a fair few nonfiction articles, and a bunch of uncollected stories.  At his peak, he was writing maybe five or six novels in the course of a year, of varying quality, but each of them very much its own creation.  The mind fairly boggles.

The gold standard for overly prolific authors (who are actually worth reading) is P.G. Wodehouse, and even in his prime he never managed more than two or three books a year–and basically all ‘Plum’ ever did was write.   The tortoise to Westlake’s hare (they both had a long history with the Scott Meredith literary agency, so this is not a wholly random comparison I’m making here), Wodehouse only beats Westlake by dint of tireless lifetime consistency.  Westlake eventually realized he had to slow down, if he was going to last.

But one can hardly blame him for being so excited, so overflowing with creative energies–think for a moment what it was like to be a young talented writer living and working in New York City in the 1960’s.   And in Greenwich Village much of the time.   The hotbed of the east coast counterculture, where you could find virtually any political opinion or cultural expression imaginable represented; where for a brief time literally anything seemed possible.

Westlake would have known that the actual possibilities were much more limited by the fault lines of human frailty, and he was, I imagine, as reluctant a radical as Tobin was a detective.  There are those, in any time like this, who don’t truly belong to any one world, and it is their gift–or curse–to walk between them, seeing the strengths and weaknesses of each, gathering and then purveying  a wide range of truths to a wide range of individuals who only have in common the ardent belief that their truths are the only truths.

See, I always get to the point eventually, just like Rachel Maddow.

Murder Among Children is about a number of things, but most notably the youth culture springing up in lower Manhattan in the first half of the 1960’s–that’s the outsider group Tobin’s been tasked with learning about this time.   There had, of course, been many such youth movements in New York before, and there have been many such movements since, and we’re not really talking about ‘beats’ or ‘hippies’ here, though their elders would call them that anyway–just naive idealistic kids, either working class or not far out of it, pioneers in the urban Bohemia, looking for something different than what their parents had–seeking a few precious moments of real freedom, before the world breaks them down into disillusioned adults.

And most tellingly, for the first time openly questioning the racial and ethnic and religious boundaries that had defined American life for so long–and still do.  Let’s not kid ourselves.   Not in the Summer of Ferguson.  But if we’ve made any progress, and I think we have, it’s because of kids like this, of all races, who decided those walls needed to get knocked down.  Whatever else you say about the youth movement in that era, say that.

But Mitch Tobin doesn’t want to say anything at all–he just wants to stay home in Queens, building up his wall, and thanks to a hefty check from the syndicate for his investigative efforts in the last book, he has no pressing financial need to take on any new cases for quite some time yet.   That last job was just a fluke.  He’s not a private detective–he’s got no license, and he’s got no office, and he’s not listed in the yellow pages.   He’s just a disgraced ex-cop with a guilt complex, trying to find a reason to stay alive, if only for the sake of his wife and 13 year old son.   The wall is as good a distraction from his pain as any.   Better than going outside and learning about other people’s problems.   He’s got plenty of his own.

Then a cousin–his mother’s sister’s granddaughter–shows up at his door.   Her name is Robin Kennely, she’s maybe 18 years old, long dark hair, very beautiful, and his immediate reaction to her, which he recognizes as irrational, is dislike.   He’s irritated that she’s interrupted his wall-building with her vague claims on family loyalty–and what she wants from him isn’t going to make him feel any better about it.

She and some friends, including her somewhat older boyfriend Terry Wilford, have decided to try running a coffee house down in the West Village, on Charles St., a bit west of Hudson St.   This is pretty near the western edge of lower Manhattan (just a few blocks from the famous White Horse Tavern), and with youth’s typical perversity, they’re calling it “Thing East.”   This will be their own personal contribution to the counterculture (as it will be known by the end of this decade), a place for young bohemians to interact and unwind.   They rented the building they’re in for about half the going rate in that neighborhood from a small and rather unconventional religious group called The New World Samaritans.

And with the space, they inherited a serious problem–a police detective named Edward Donlon, who has been harassing them on a daily basis, asking odd questions, making snide implications about the type of establishment this is, and generally giving off a creepy unsettling vibe.   They don’t know if he wants a bribe, or drugs, or to get laid, or if he’s just trying to get them to offer him something illegal so he can shut them down.   Rita is here to ask Cousin Mitch to talk to the guy–since he speaks cop–and try to find out what it would take to make him go away.

Mitch wants nothing to do with it, but Kate, who has taken to Robin immediately, can be very persuasive–and still thinks that the best thing for her husband is to get out there in the world and do things, as opposed to wall-building in the back yard.  He grudgingly leaves the house the next day, out into the heat of a sweltering New York City summer, and heads down to the Village to see what he can find out.

And what he finds at Thing East is a murder scene–Robin’s boyfriend has just been stabbed to death upstairs, along with a young black prostitute named Irene Boles.  Robin is there, in a state of deep shock, smeared in blood, and holding the murder weapon in her hand.   A newer building constructed back of Thing East has blocked off the rear exit, so the killer could not have left unnoticed–the police take Robin to Bellevue, under suspicion of murder–they have no other suspects.  One of the policemen on the scene is Donlon.

Okay, I was very good about not spoiling the mystery in the last book, but let me say something now–if you don’t want to know, stop reading–but haven’t you already figured it out?   It’s impossible to synopsize this one without giving the murderer away.   It’s so obvious that you wonder if maybe you’re being misled, but you’re not.  It’s exactly who you think it is.

As a story about people, this is a big step up from Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, but as a mystery it’s not exactly up there with Agatha Christie.   I don’t believe Westlake is even trying to make us think Donlon didn’t do it–he’s making us ask why Tobin doesn’t immediately assume it’s Donlon, and of course the reason is that Westlake doesn’t care whether we figure it out or not–he just wants us to follow Tobin’s mental processes, and Tobin is a former cop–of course he doesn’t want to think a cop is the murderer.

He knows it’s possible–he finds out early on that Irene Boles had a client who was a cop, and he has no illusions about Donlon’s overall character, but it’s not a conclusion he would jump to without eliminating every other possibility first.   When he goes to see Robin at the hospital, where she’s still in a bad way, she talks about ‘The Red Man’, and when he asks her who that is, she tells him he already knows.   But of course, knowing and proving are two different things anyway.   Tobin can’t arrest anybody on suspicion of anything.

It’s a standard locked-door mystery, and anybody who has read a lot of those knows the most common solution to the puzzle is that the killer just blended in somehow with those that gathered after the killing, and thus escaped detection (there’s a reference to this durable cliche in the Parker novel Slayground).   That’s what Donlon did.   But that’s not what you’re reading this book to find out.  At least that’s not what Westlake wants you to be reading it for.

Mitch Tobin is not Sherlock Holmes.   He doesn’t take shortcuts–he’s a tortoise, not a hare.  The way he works is to consider every possible suspect, and most of all to know as much as he can about the people involved in the killing–and the potential killers–and by understanding the why of what happened, he comes to know the what.   His goal here isn’t really to catch the killer, and in fact he never does.   Donlon commits suicide about three quarters of the way through the book, and even then Tobin thinks he might have been murdered by the real killer, covering his tracks.   He figures out what really happened after it’s too late to impact any of it.   Though he does indirectly help clear his cousin–by virtue of briefly coming under suspicion of the murders himself, after Donlon’s death.

So is that it?   Am I done?   Not quite, because none of this is what matters in the book.   What matters is how we get there, and who we meet along the way.   Not whether Donlon committed the murders in the book, but why.   And how all of this impacts Tobin himself.   He’s starting to have a better understanding of his new place in the world.  Which is to say, no place at all.

But what this means is that now, having lost his position, his clique, his culture, he’s freer to understand others who are likewise living outside the mainstream, in different cultures–as he builds up his own wall, he’s breaking down the invisible walls that the rest of us build up between each other.   These walls no longer exist for him, because he’s become so alienated from society as a whole.  Without the slightest intention of doing so, he’s become a subversive element.   And is treated as such.

Anyway, after the murder at Thing East, Tobin once again tries to retreat into his box, as he calls it, but then George Padbury, another member of the Thing East group–who was present when the murder took place–is killed by a hit&run driver.   Tobin and the surviving group members know it’s no accident, but the police are still focused on Robin as the murderer, and once again he’s forced to get involved–for one thing, how does he know he won’t be next on the list?

So he gathers with the remaining children at his house–and that’s how he sees them–many are well into their twenties,  making their own way in the world, educated, self-aware, sexually active, but as Tobin phrases it, anybody much under thirty is a child–or to look at it another way, anybody much over thirty has been corrupted–

I understand the motto of the new student rebels is “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” and they’re right.  Between the child and the adult there is an opposition that cannot be breached or erased or ended.  Neither side can comprehend the other.  The child, as new and efficient as a Christmas bicycle, faces the world with confidence and impatience, all his emotions gleaming like neon through the skin of his forehead.  The adult, dulled and deadened and dwarfed by all the frustrations, disappointments, pains of living, faces the child with resentment and envy, insisting that the child be quiet, not make waves, not disturb the precarious balance by which the adult makes his small way through each cycle of twenty-four hours.

Ouch.   Would be my primary response.   But secondarily, I note that Westlake, by his own definition, was right on the razor’s edge between childhood and maturity when he started publishing novels under his own name, and as Richard Stark–but Mitch Tobin didn’t come into being until he’d come over completely to the other side–until he was one of those people the student rebels didn’t trust.  Tucker Coe, one might argue, is his first fully adult alter ego.   Whether you think that’s a good or a bad thing is, of course, a matter of perspective.

The group is a mix of Wasps, Jews, Irish Catholics, and one African American, named Hulmer Fass–who Tobin is particularly interested in, I think in part because he’s the one most like Tobin, “an entire population in and of himself, too completely divorced from the world to allow anything in it to upset him emotionally.”  And yet, because he’s still young, and thus not so fully closed off emotionally, he easily strikes up a conversation with Tobin’s son Bill, about electronics–Fass repairs phonographs and radios for a living, which is Bill’s current passion.   Tobin watches this with a mixture of jealousy and wonder.

Fass is the only member of the group to contribute much to Tobin’s investigation, helping him track down leads in Harlem, investigating crime scenes, trading insights.   There’s a strong implication Fass himself might be thinking of being a detective someday–he’s got the right kind of intellect for it, and he increasingly comes to admire Tobin as they work together, after initially wondering if Tobin is just another closet racist.   We have to wonder that ourselves, listening to the confusion of terms Tobin uses to refer to Fass and other black people–colored, negro (nobody uses the n-word)–he thinks of Fass and other young black men as boys, though to be fair he sees white guys their age the same way.  There’s no sense he’s trying to be ‘politically correct’, as we say now, in his interactions with Hulmer.  But towards the end of their brief working relationship, his language changes, in a way he seems barely conscious of–

Watching him walk down the street, youthful, optimistic, humorous, bouncing on the balls of his feet, I found myself envying him in half a dozen different ways.  I envied his youth, of course, and his optimism, and his humor, and I envied the absence of scars on his psyche that made the youth and optimism and humor possible.  But beyond that I envied him for being young now, and black, and alive to the world in a way that I had not been for years, in a way that I perhaps had never been in my life.

It’s 1965-66 when Westlake is writing these words–‘envy’ is not a word most white Americans use to describe their feelings towards black people, except perhaps in a patronizing tone (or when talking about sports).   The position of most African Americans was decidedly far from enviable then.  Jack Kerouac, years earlier, had talked in similar terms about wishing he were black–the sentiment could be traced much further back, particularly among white members of the jazz subculture.   But Westlake isn’t writing radical beat poetry here–more like white ethnic working class poetry, and for an audience that mainly isn’t reading Kerouac and his peers.   He’s putting these words in the mouth of a 40 year old Irish American ex-cop living in a white enclave in Queens.   And the statement he’s trying to make is less political than personal–but succeeds in being both.

Personally, the statement is Westlake’s as much as Tobin’s–Westlake was born a bit too early to be part of the 60’s youth movement.   He turned thirty in 1962, before it really started heating up.  He’s seeing it up close, there in Greenwich Village–but also from a million miles away.   That’s what Hulmer says to him, when he’s off inside his head.  Hulmer just tried to pay him a compliment, saying that Tobin sees everything from off to the left a little ways– then worries maybe he insulted Tobin, got too personal–Tobin tells him he said nothing offensive, and nothing that wasn’t true.  Hulmer responds with a grin that it’s tough to do both those things at the same thing–Tobin thinks to himself this is a child beginning to learn how to be an adult.    And I’m not sure if he sees this as a good or a bad thing.   It’s just an observation.

Tobin’s other main connection in the story is with the leader of the New World Samaritans, who goes by the rather grand title of Bishop Walter Johnson.   What he’s built is not a cult so much as a self-help group–there’s no sense of disrespect for his perspective–Westlake shows, not for the last time, that he’s open to religion–while deeply skeptical of it.   Somebody has to take care of our souls, just as doctors tend to our bodies (and as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Westlake didn’t have much faith in modern psychiatry).   If only actual religions did a better job of it–but in any event, here’s another outsider culture, that Tobin would formerly have treated with total disregard, that he now can view objectively, as a group of people who are at least trying to help others.   But that doesn’t mean he’ll let them help him.

Johnson is a blind man, but he can see past Tobin’s stoic facade, and he knows this is a troubled soul he’s speaking to, and can’t help trying to reach him–Tobin, naturally, won’t let himself be reached.   It comes out that Donlon had been harassing this group as well, which is why they moved out of his precinct, and leased the property to Robin’s friends.  But Johnson had felt like Donlon had come close a few times to breaking down and talking about what was really bothering him.   He never did.  But what he does eventually do is park outside their new church and shoot himself in the heart.

I’m not relating the events of this book in a very linear fashion, as I normally do–somehow, it doesn’t lend itself to that approach.   But here we see, as in the previous book, that there are things too painful and frightening for Tobin to acknowledge–in the previous story, the parallels between his affair with Linda Campbell and the one between Ernie Rembek and Rita Castle.  In this story, what he can’t bear to recognize is how close he is to becoming like Edward Donlon–who we have already learned has been in an emotional tailspin for some time–particularly after learning he’s sterile.   He loves small children, but hates and fears those same children once they begin to mature.  “That’s when they’re good”, he says to Tobin, after meeting Bill, who is just 13.   His hostility to Tobin, for interfering in what he sees as his personal business, temporarily dissipates when Bill is there.

This, I’d guess is why Tobin takes so long to recognize Donlon as the killer of Terry Wilford, Irene Boles, and George Padbury (because Donlon realized Padbury might figure out he’d been there all along).  Donlon is a twisted mirror image of Tobin himself–cheating on his wife with prostitutes, betraying his sworn duty as a police officer, going around prying into other people’s lives.

His identity has become hopelessly compromised, degraded, to the point where his self-loathing turns into a loathing for everyone around him, but particularly the young.   The young must be punished for being young–for still having hope–but only once they are old enough to produce children of their own.  The one thing Edward Donlon can never do.   Several times in the book, we see Tobin smile at the antics of young children on the streets–and then react to older ‘children’ with a mixture of mistrust and outright dislike, but he, unlike Donlon, is able to see this reaction for what it is–the sixth deadly sin.

Tobin is sitting in a prison cell, booked on suspicion of murdering Donlon and all the others–he’s not concerned, he knows they’ll figure out it couldn’t be him–in this welcome solitude, being grilled by tunnel-visioned cops who can’t see past their shoddy theories, he finally realizes what happened.   There had been an attempt on his life shortly before Donlon’s death–somebody had tried to crush him with a heavy object thrown from the top of a tenement building.   That somebody, of course, was Donlon–still trying to protect his secret, go on living a while longer.

But the clumsy hastily-improvised murder weapon had missed Tobin, and killed a young Puerto Rican boy.  A small child–pre-sexual.  The one thing Donlon still held sacred–the last vestige of his younger uncorrupted self.   He went to the New World Samaritan Church, and he thought about going in to confess what he’d done, seek forgiveness.   Then he pulled out his service weapon and ended his pain forever (assuming certain theories about the afterlife are wrong).   As I said, the mystery here is not who, but why.   And now we know.

Tobin has no interest in Donlon being publicly exposed as the killer–he doesn’t see the point, now that Robin is in the clear.   He tells Donlon’s captain, who had been certain of Tobin’s guilt, that it’s up to the department whether they want to tell the press what really happened, or cover it up–leave the case forever unsolved.   They choose the latter option.   You can imagine how Hulmer Fass reacts to that–hell, you don’t have to imagine, just watch the news, and watch today’s Hulmers beating their heads against the same blue wall of silence.   Culture is a stubborn thing.

But Tobin doesn’t care.   All a big scandal in the papers will do is bring more attention to himself.   Crucifying a dead cop won’t change anything.  It’s not his problem anymore.  He’s already starting the process of separating himself from the people he helped–distancing himself from the fact that in a sense, he’s as responsible for that Puerto Rican boy’s death as Edward Donlon.   He’s going back to his wall once again.  He did what he had to do, and he did it well, and it hasn’t changed anything.  Or has it?

Hulmer and the others try, now and again, to reach out to him–to keep him in their lives, feeling gratitude for what he did, admiration for his abilities as a detective, and Hulmer in particular may be seeking a mentor.   But to Tobin, they are just unwelcome emissaries from a world he’s turned his back on.  He can’t be young and hopeful again–he can’t unlive all the years, undo all the mistakes.   This world is theirs now, and he wishes them well of it.  But for him to avoid Donlon’s fate, he can’t let himself feel things too deeply–not yet.   As he says to Kate, early in the book, “If it is cowardice, it’s still necessary to me.”  And she understands.   As always.

Robin and her mother come to see him, to thank him, and to find out from him what really happened, so they can begin to put their own lives back together, and he just lets Kate do most of the telling, while all he thinks about is the wall.  You’re left to wonder if the one thing that separates him from Donlon is that damn wall–but of course, there’s two other things–Kate and Bill.   And between those three things, he’s managed to hang onto a crucial piece of himself.   And maybe someday he’ll be ready to let it out again.   But it’s going to take one hell of a wrecking ball to knock down the wall he’s built up inside of him.

One more thing I must belatedly note–for all the hopeful notes about the youth culture, and how it’s changing everything, in the course of his investigations, Tobin meets a peer of Terry Wilford’s–a former enemy, so therefore a suspect, though he’s not holding any grudges against Terry (or shedding any tears for him either)–and at about the same age, and in the same era, he’s turned into what we now call a yuppie.  A very familiar, very modern figure.   Part of the group that shows up right after the bohemians in New York have colonized a given neighborhood–and then pushes them out.   The cuckoos in the nest of any youth movement.

Next time we see Tobin, he’ll be in a mental ward, pretending to be an inmate.   And trying like hell to avoid the rather obvious questions that situation poses for him.   But that’s a ways off yet.   Our next book is a sort of swashbuckling Latin American romance featuring Grofield as the protagonist–no Parker in sight.   And credited to Richard Stark, of course.

But I have to wonder–did Westlake actually ghostwrite this one for Stark?  And that’s a really weird question to ask, isn’t it?   But ask it I must.   Because this is The Westlake Review.

PS: A thousand thanks to Nick Jones of Existential Ennui for letting me snitch the extremely rare image of the British edition of Murder Among Children from his blog.   Tobin didn’t get great cover art, by and large–this is one of the prime exceptions to that rule.

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Review: Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death

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They say that Hope is happiness—
But genuine Love must prize the past;
And mem’ry wakes the thoughts that bless
They rose the first—they set the last.

And all that mem’ry loves the most
Was once our only hope to be:
And all that hope adored and lost
Hath melted into memory.

Alas! it is delusion all—
The future cheats us from afar,
Nor can we be what we recall,
Nor dare we think on what we are.

Lord Byron

In the course of moving through Ernie Rembek’s world yesterday I had gradually built up a professional enthusiasm for the task at hand, but the enthusiasm hadn’t survived until this morning.  I wanted to fill my attention with the wall, with the problems caused by rain, and instead I was being dragged away into this other thing, this mean and petty shuffling through degraded lives in a pointless quest for the slayer of a whore.  What did I care about Rita Castle?   What did I care about anything?

Mitch Tobin

Of the eighteen Donald Westlake novels I’ve reviewed here thus far, eight can be categorized accurately enough, if perhaps not descriptively enough, as mystery novels, which is to say detective novels–and yet only one of the protagonists in those books, Tim Smith in Killing Time, was a detective by trade, a private detective, and not the kind who goes around solving murders, until circumstances force him into it–and he cracks the case, but not only does that not solve his problems, it makes them exponentially worse–though you could argue his troubles are over after the last paragraph.

In fact, almost without exception (there was this girl reporter, but she’s a long way off yet), Westlake’s mystery novels feature reluctant detectives, people who never had any desire or inclination to go hunting for clues, or interviewing suspects, who have little or no relevant training in this area, but they are left with no choice in the matter.   In one way or another, their fates revolve around whether they can figure out whodunnit.  But were that not the case, they’d much prefer to be doing something else.

This is unusual, to say the least–most of the really famous fictional detectives (and most of the ones you’ve never heard of as well) like solving crimes.  They can’t wait for the next body to drop, so they can go through their paces.   There really is only one noteworthy exception to this rule among the ranks of the classic supersleuths.

Nick Charles (played by William Powell in the movies), his lovely witty socialite wife Nora (played by Myrna Loy in the movies), and their standard schnauzer bitch Asta (played by a male fox terrier in the movies) were of course the creations of Dashiell Hammett, the most seminal figure in all of American mystery fiction, and Westlake’s single most important literary influence.

And the Charles’s were, sadly, Hammett’s final contribution to that genre.   After writing the first novel, he did write two others (just recently rediscovered) to serve as the basis for the first two sequels to the hugely popular film adaptation of the first, but his career as a writer of prose fiction ended with The Thin Man, and nobody, not even his longtime companion Lillian Hellmann, was ever able to find out why (she said she was afraid to even ask).   Alcoholism, depression, writer’s block–all doubtless contributed.

But Westlake felt the single biggest cause was that Hammett had gotten too distant from his source of inspiration.   He’d spent years working for the Pinkerton Agency, leaving that work in part because their anti-union activities disgusted him.  In the course of his work, he’d gotten to know the criminal underworld very well, and this, combined with a previously untapped genius for storytelling, allowed him to revolutionize the detective genre–because he knew what real detectives and real criminals were like.  Because the note of genuine knowledge in his work is so strong that he can afford to underplay–there’s a level of nuance there you just couldn’t find in the genre before him.  He’s credible in a way that Raymond Chandler and all the others who came after him were not.

Basically, Nick Charles is a thinly disguised version of Hammett himself, as was The Continental Op, but Charles is a self-portrait of a much older man who gave up the work that grounded him–he achieved fame and fortune by marrying an heiress he’d met in the course of his work, and running her vast financial holdings for her, but he realizes more and more that he’s lost touch with himself, and with the criminal world he once knew like the back of his hand.

He turns to heavy social drinking, and Nora matches him shot for shot–while noticing more and more that her husband is miserable.   Not that he ever admits it.  Not even once.  But the sadness of the book and its protagonist is obvious to anyone who isn’t blinded by the movie version (where they drink like fish, but are happy as clams, because that’s Hollywood).   Westlake called it “a sad, lonely, lost book, but it pretended to be cheerful and aware and full of good fellowship.”  Having only seen the movies, I read the novel, and found myself in complete agreement with Westlake’s assessment.

Nick Charles is a man in almost ceaseless pain, that he refuses to acknowledge, because what’s the point?   He couldn’t have done other than what he did–he was in love with Nora, and she with him–their bond is real, and she knows him like nobody else.  He couldn’t have passed up a woman like that, or gone on being a private dick married to her.   His emotional life sabotaged his professional life, and now he keeps his real emotions as deeply buried as possible–but Nora knows.

She’ll go down with him if she has to, laughing all the way, but she figures there’s one hope for them both–to push Nick back into the work he needs.   He doesn’t belong in his old world anymore (though he still has a lot of friends there), but he can still solve murders in her world.   Maybe this will fix him somehow.  Truth to tell, when she married him, she was probably hoping he’d drag her into his world, instead of the other way around.

It’s a marriage made in purgatory, and we never do learn if they ever got out alive.  Because The Thin Man is Hammett’s veiled confession that he’s lost his inspiration, run out of material.   He didn’t stop working, but with the exception of those two follow-up novels he never even published, and some work for radio that couldn’t have meant nearly as much to him, he pretty much stopped writing.

This is a professional writer’s ultimate nightmare–to run dry.   To see an endless sheet of empty paper stretching in front of him, forever.  Westlake saw this all too clearly, must have wondered if the same fate someday awaited him, and perhaps this is one reason he kept switching up, writing in different genres–mystery, heist story, science fiction–different veins–serious, comic–and under different names–Westlake, Stark, and now Tucker Coe. To avoid getting trapped down a blind alley. To stay fresh.

The name derived from Westlake’s football fandom–he followed the Giants, and back then they had two running backs–Tucker Frederickson and Ernie Koy–Lee Wright, his editor at Random House, said Tucker Koy sounded vaguely obscene, so he changed the last name to Coe.   Since 1960, Westlake had been turning out a book a year for Random House (one motive for the new pseudonym would be that he could now be doing two books a year for them), and for most of that time, those books had been slotted as mysteries, and identified as such on their covers

As I’ve already mentioned, none of them had really been mysteries in the truest sense–that is to say, they were never really about who had killed whom. That was something Westlake would find a way to stick in there, to satisfy the demands of the market he was writing for, and he often did this quite skillfully, but again–not really detective novels in the classic sense. He didn’t want to get bogged down in the ‘ritual’, as he called it. He wanted the stories to be more than a rote procession of genre cliches.   But this always lacked a certain credibility–how is it this motley crew of mobsters, barkeeps and interns who never did a day’s sleuth-work in their lives before keep finding the killer with unerring accuracy?

So now he’d create a character who is a detective by training, and formerly by profession. Somebody who knows very well how to assess evidence, identify suspects, follow leads. He just doesn’t want to do it anymore (and legally speaking, isn’t supposed to). He has to be forced. But once he’s started, his training takes over–he’s not an amateur at this. Most of all because an amateur is, by definition, doing something for love, and this guy is not loving what he’s doing one bit. But he does it anyway. He doesn’t have any choice. He wants to just stay in his own back yard, building a wall to keep the world out–and the world keeps crashing its way back in again.

In an introduction he wrote to some much-later reprints of the Tobins, Westlake said he was trying to unlearn a lesson he’d learned a bit too well from Hammett–how to keep a character’s emotions beneath the surface.   Nick Charles is having all kinds of feelings he doesn’t want to talk about at all, even though he’s the first-person narrator of the story–some of them clearly quite disturbing, but you can only guess at the specifics.   Westlake, reading The Thin Man in his early teens, found this fascinating–

I didn’t know it was possible to do that, to seem to be saying one thing while you really said a different thing or even the opposite.  It was three-dimensional writing, like three-dimensional chess, a writing style you could look through like water and glimpse the fish swimming by underneath  Nabokov was the other master of that, but Hammett I read first.

So when Westlake started writing crime novels of his own, he tried to do the same thing in a different way, in his early serious work under his own name (most successfully in 361), and of course with his Parker novels written as Richard Stark, featuring a protagonist whose emotional processes are so alien that it’s often hard to be sure he’s feeling anything at all.   Then Westlake started doing comic novels, where his protagonists were not nearly so poker-faced, but since it’s basically farce he’s writing, they can’t get all that deep into their emotions, because that’s not how the form works.

He wanted now to write about somebody who is trying to suppress his emotions, to feel as little as possible, but can’t always pull it off so well, because the pain is still new, because he’s got a wife and son to take care of, and because he’s not rich enough to afford the really good booze–in fact, he’s not much of a drinker at all–that isn’t one of his vices.   He’s less sophisticated than Nick Charles, less skillful at disguising himself–he will labor mightily to keep from sharing his deepest feelings with us, but as Westlake parsed it, the fish would break the surface of the water sometimes.

He has no problem telling us why he’s this way.   He screwed up.   He had arrested a small time burglar named Daniel “Dink” Campbell who ended up serving a long stretch, and in the process, met Dink’s wife Linda–blonde, no bombshell, but emotionally and sexually available in a way his wife, the dark-haired, raw-boned, and wholly admirable Kate was not.   His marriage was successful enough, they had a son, they respected and loved each other, but there were things he couldn’t talk to her about (like books), and Linda was a reader, like him.  She was lonely, he was needy, and they gradually fell into an affair.

His partner Jock Sheehan didn’t approve, since he was one of Kate’s admirers, but loyal to a fault, he agreed to cover for Mitch, so he could see Linda when he was supposed to be working cases–this way, Mitch figured, the affair could go on indefinitely, no one the wiser, no one getting hurt.  But then came a routine call to pick up a numbers runner–who had, unbeknownst to them, recently become a drug dealer, meaning he had a lot more to lose if he got picked up.   Mitch opted out of the arrest to have a rendezvous with his mistress.  With no partner to back him up, Jock was shot to death by the unexpectedly desperate pusher.   Mitch’s absence at the scene was noted, and then explained.   The press got hold of it.   He was publicly disgraced, and expelled permanently from the NYPD.

He spares us the full details of what happened then, but they’re not that hard to fill in.   Kate, as loyal as Jock, forgave him, but he could not, would not, forgive himself.  He toyed with ending it all, but decided he wanted to go on living–on his own terms.   Six months after his expulsion, he’s set about building a brick wall that will completely shut off his back garden, so that anybody who wants to come see him will have to come to the front door (and will, most often, be denied entrance).   The metaphor may be a bit strained, but it’s extremely sincere.

A private detective with a guilt complex was no new thing in the ranks of noir fiction.  But Tobin may well be the first clinically depressed detective to debut there.  Not that he ever refers to himself as such, but that’s basically the size of it.   And what he’s doing with this wall of his could well be considered occupational therapy.  He would just say he needs something to keep his mind occupied so he doesn’t have to think on what his life has become.   Well yeah, that’s basically what occupational therapy is.  Brick-laying is certainly a more substantial pursuit than basket-weaving.

But just as he’s set about it in earnest, spending money his cash-strapped family can ill afford to obtain the needed materials, a minor mob guy named Wickler shows up in his still-unprotected back yard, with a message from Ernie Rembek, the big syndicate boss of New York.  There’s a job they need a specialist for–a detective–nothing illegal, Wickler assures him.  Tobin’s first response is to throw the bum out, but then he sees Kate going to work at a local store to make grocery money, and he says he’ll meet with Rembek, and hear his offer.

The job is to find out who killed Rita Castle, a beautiful blonde aspiring actress who was Rembek’s mistress (he has a wife he says he loves).  The offer is five thousand in advance, plus expenses, plus a five thousand dollar bonus for successfully solving the crime.   The killer can be turned over to the police, if found.  Rembek will make sure Tobin has full access to everything he needs, including the right to interview potential suspects from within the organization.

If you’ve read The Mercenaries, you’ll recognize many recycled elements from that book, most notably the victim (and that Westlake’s writing has improved exponentially in the six years since that book appeared).   But there’s also a parallel between Tobin’s recent disgrace and Rembek’s situation.   This is something Tobin himself does not want to think about, but he agrees to take the job.   Ten thousand dollars will allow him to concentrate on his wall for a good long time–Kate wants him to take the job as well, but for different reasons–she thinks it might help break down the wall he’s built inside himself.   She may not be a bright beautiful heiress, and she never comes along with him when he’s on a case, but she’s his blue-collar Nora, no doubt about it.

We’ve seen a great variety of fantasy women from Westlake, but Kate Tobin is another order of fantasy entirely–a grounded, smart, nurturing person, who never complains, and doesn’t hold on to grudges, or throw up past mistakes in your face.  A woman who just wants her husband to heal, so they can be a family again.  A genuinely good, wholly unselfish person (and do I really need to mention how rare they are in this world?)  To a man in the process of having his first marriage break down, that might be the most alluring fantasy of all.   But of course, you know what Tolstoy said about happy families–it applies just as well to household saints.   So we never do see that much of Kate.  She’s an important balancing factor in the books, a pivotal character–but also a peripheral one.

Accompanying Mitch on his rounds to interview people who knew Rita (and might possibly have killed her) is Roger Kerrigan, who seems to be a sort of troubleshooter for Rembek, much as the ill-fated George ‘Clay’ Clayton was for Nick Ganolese in The Mercenaries.   His job is to make sure the various people with connections to Rita and the ‘corporation’ cooperate with the investigation, but also that the investigation doesn’t create any problems for his employers.   His past history is quite similar to Clay’s, but his relationship with his boss is notably different–he’s much more in control of the situation, has the trust of the people he and Rembek both work for, and there’s a strong implication that he might at some point succeed the overly emotional crimelord, who can’t seem to get over losing his girlfriend.

Kerrigan’s more the kind of character Westlake normally writes about–certainly more like a Westlake character than a policeman would normally be–but Tobin isn’t a cop anymore.  He’s a free agent now, dictating terms to his temporary employers, demanding police reports (which they can get through cops on their payroll), an office, and eventually a gun.   He quits the job several times in the course of the book, and Rembek keeps getting him back, because he needs so desperately to know who killed Rita.   Tobin is in the driver’s seat here–the free lancer is telling the corporation what to do.   But understand that at no point in this or the subsequent books is Tobin ever working as a private detective–you need a license for that, and he doesn’t have one.

He’s a complete and total independent–that’s what makes him a Westlake protagonist of the first rank, like Parker, only much more rooted in reality.  And, of course, still not truly free of the one thing he most wants to be free from–his past.   He has some of Parker’s ability to distance himself from humanity, to gaze at the world with cold dispassionate eyes, but unlike Parker, he keeps getting drawn back in.   He’s no wolf.    He gives a damn.  He just wishes to hell he didn’t.

I don’t much see the point of going over the plot in depth–it’s a mystery.  You know how they work.  There are suspects.   We meet them one at a time.   We learn things about them as people–and people they are, though not very nice ones.  Tobin is a self-described completist, meaning that he doesn’t rule anybody out as the killer.   It comes down to five characters of significance who might have done it.   But there’s always the possibility that there’s somebody they haven’t thought of.   It’s a treat to watch his methodical yet intuitive mind go through its paces.   And on some level, it’s a treat for him as well.  He’d forgotten how much he used to enjoy his work.   And it does distract him from thinking about his life, and what he’s made of it.  But all in all, he’d rather be working on the wall.

Still, much as he tells us he doesn’t give a damn who killed Rita Castle–he wants to know.   And to know that, he needs to know who she was.   On the surface, just a dumb blonde with a sugar daddy, but the deeper he digs, the more he finds.   She was leading not a double but a triple life.   She was Rembek’s mistress (and perhaps more than that).   She was also seeing her old boyfriend, a penniless slacker down in the Lower East Side (By the Mid-60s, as Tobin tells us, Greenwich Village proper is already too expensive for the true Bohemian, a process of gentrification that has progressed apace in the ensuing decades).  

The boyfriend doesn’t seem like much of a man, but he was apparently the only one who satisfied her sexually, or emotionally–only that wasn’t enough for her.   She needed Rembek to satisfy the artist in her–she wanted to direct.   Rembek was supposed to finance that third and most important life for her.  Or that was the plan, until the killer made it all academic.   All three Rita Castles died in that moment.   She never had the time to figure out who she really was.

As he learns more and more about her, he gets closer and closer to the truth–somebody’s worried about that, and the office Rembek gave him blows up, with a hapless mob gofer inside of it.   The police are getting more and more interested in what he’s doing–and it’s not a kindly interest.   Two detectives, one an old friend, come to see him–Tobin, remembering the old good cop/bad cop routine quite well, has no interest in playing it out.   He’s also unable to answer some of their questions, because of his obligation to respect the confidentiality of his employers–much as he may dislike them, he’s taking their money, and he also knows that if he says too much, they’ll stop cooperating, and the case will never be solved.  His former colleagues can’t understand this.  He isn’t one of them anymore.

Marty got slowly to his feet and a second later so did James.  Marty said, “I guess you’ve forgotten what the job is, Mitch.  I’m not doing anything here you wouldn’t do, not anything you haven’t done a hundred times yourself.”

I said, “What you’ve forgotten is who I am.  There are questions you can ask me and know the answer is absolutely going to be straight.  You used to know that.”

Marty glanced at Kate and then hesitated, and then went ahead anyway.  “You forfeited that, Mitch.  When you weren’t there to back up Jock.”

Kate said “Marty!”

“No,” I said to her.  “He had the right to say that.  He didn’t have the need, but he did have the right.”

More than anything else, the Tobin books will be about outsider cultures–people who are out of the mainstream, living in the cracks, making their own rules,  their own personal ethics, and their own private sins.   In this book, Tobin is trapped between two such cultures–cops and mobsters.   Each despising and yet making use of the other.   Each despising and yet making use of him (though he does win the grudging respect of some on both sides).   And he doesn’t belong to either culture now–or any other.   He was an honest cop–never on any payroll but the straight one–he says he never resented the fact that the crooks he was trying to catch were often doing much better financially than him, because he figured if you wanted to be rich, you shouldn’t have become a cop.  But because of what he did–or rather, failed to do–he’s lower in the eyes of most cops than the ones who actually are on the take.   It’s not fair, but it’s reality.   Then and now.

He opens up to us, now and again, about what he’s feeling.   But there’s one thing he does not want to talk about, will barely even refer to–how much the story of Ernie Rembek and Rita Castle resembles, in a weird alternate-dimensional sort of way, the story of Mitch Tobin and Linda Campbell.   That’s just too painful, and it stays buried.   Some fish never break the surface of the water.

The moment comes, as it always must in this kind of book, when the killer is unmasked–and it’s an honest reveal, a good mystery, giving us all the information we needed to get to the answer, but also skillfully diverting our attention elsewhere, so if you guessed who it was, good for you.   I didn’t.  And spoiler-laden as my reviews generally are, I won’t divulge it here.   But neither will I say, as I often do, that it doesn’t matter whodunnit–it’s not the main point of the story, and that’s probably true of most really good mysteries, but it does matter.  Lives are irreparably shattered by the revelation.   People will spend the rest of their lives in mortal pain because the truth was revealed.   Nobody’s life was improved, or saved, because Tobin unmasked the killer.   Nobody knows this better than Tobin himself.   There’s no sense of triumph.   There is one final bloody moment where he reveals that the cop in him is far from dead.

So what does he do now?   He goes back to his wall, $10,000 the richer, his guilt about Kate having to work a lousy part-time job temporarily assuaged (though there’s plenty more guilt where that came from).   A ditch must be dug, and then filled with concete blocks–a solid foundation for the structure he envisions.  It will take years, and when it’s done, he’ll be safe behind that wall.   Nobody will ever get in again.

Is that what you think, Mitch Tobin?   Our next book has a few more unpleasant surprises for you, in a world geographically adjacent to and yet a million miles away from the world of Ernie Rembek and Roger Kerrigan.   You go ahead and build your wall, but life’s not finished with you yet, and neither is Tucker Coe.   But who is Tucker Coe?   Ah, that’s another question entirely.  

By the way, if you’re wondering what Robert Mitchum is doing up there, Westlake revealed (in an interview you can read in The Getaway Car, soon to be found in finer bookstores near you, if such things exist near you anymore) that he sold the movie rights to this book, and the project was intended for Mitchum.   Who would have been over a decade older than Tobin’s thirty-nine years if it had been made with due promptness, but of course no movie was ever made at all.   But say this much–they had the right guy.   Impenetrable on the outside, bleeding on the inside.  That was Mitchum–and that was Mitch Tobin.   And the bleeding only gets worse next time.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: The Handle (AKA Run Lethal)

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“I sure wish I knew what was going on.”

“I’m a counterspy,” Parker told him.  “I got to get to Washington before the Russkis start World War Three.”

“It’s something like that,” the kid said.

From The Handle, by Richard Stark

“Don’t look to me for any James Bond rescues.”

“I don’t look to anybody for James Bond rescues,” Parker assured him.
From Backflash, by Richard Stark.

Okay, so here’s the story–Parker has a mission, should he choose to accept it, given to him by Walter Karns of The Outfit.  His target is a remote island in the Gulf of Mexico, where a former Nazi officer who calls himself Baron is maintaining a casino, with assistance from the Russians and the Cubans.   Parker is to do reconnaissance, then recruit a group of professionals, and take out Baron’s operation.   He arrives on the island with a beautiful blonde, equipped with a cunningly concealed spy camera in her purse, and–hey–did we wander into the wrong book by mistake?  What gives here?

As I mentioned in my last review, Donald Westlake believed Robert Ludlum (among others) was writing crime fiction novels tricked up as spy thrillers, simply to avoid getting slotted into a genre with decent but limited sales–much the same way Kurt Vonnegut stopped calling his stuff science fiction, so he could get on all those recommended reading lists.  But isn’t ‘spy thriller’ or ‘espionage’ a genre too?  Yes, and books like that can even get categorized as mysteries, but somehow, when properly marketed, the potential audience for spy stories has been much greater from the 1960’s onwards–and that began in earnest with Ian Fleming.

Having created James Bond in 1953, and enjoyed brisk but hardly epochal sales throughout the 50’s, Fleming became an earner on the same level as Mickey Spillane around 1961–when President Kennedy (an acquaintance of Fleming’s) said in an interview that one of his favorite books was From Russia With Love.  That was just about the exact time Westlake would have been writing The Hunter, you should note.  You should also note that the Robert McGinnis cover for the Gold Medal reprint of that book made Parker look like Sean Connery, and that McGinnis was much better known for his artwork on Bond movie posters. 

In a sense, you could say Bond picked up where Mike Hammer left off–but unlike the brutish Mike, Bond was civilized, urbane, suave, well-mannered, and impeccably well-dressed–and unlike Hammer, his violence was state-sanctioned, and necessary for the survival of western civilization, if not indeed humankind itself–even his famed sexual rapacity could be excused (and vicariously enjoyed) for this reason.  Fleming took his critical lumps, as Spillane had before him, but like Spillane, he knew what the public wanted, and provided it over the course of 13 books (one published posthumously), and then of course the torch was passed to others, because Bond was no longer exclusively Fleming’s creation.  Not since Eon Productions and an Edinburgh mick named Connery transformed him into an industry.

Those movies were so immensely popular (to the point where by the end of his short eventful life, Fleming was retooling his Bond to be more like the screen incarnation), that even Mike Hammer couldn’t compete anymore.   Bond joined Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and other characters who transcend (or just plain abandon) their creators’ original visions, and become something that gets ‘reimagined’ every few years (pretty sure Ian Fleming didn’t think Bond had a hunting lodge in Scotland named “Skyfall” with a gamekeeper–that would probably have come up in the course of 13 novels).    007 isn’t in the public domain yet, and one can only imagine what will happen to him when copyright expires.   But maybe he’s like Mickey Mouse–trademarked?  Trademarks never expire, any more than fictional licenses to kill.

Like just about anyone reading this, I’ve known Bond since at least the dawn of adolescence (I’m a Connery man right down the line, though the pretenders have their place, I suppose), and it was only this week that I ever read a Bond novel–for research.   It happened to be Moonraker (it was available).   I could see certain parallels between Bond and Parker, mainly in the way that Fleming would (at least in the early days) lay out a pattern to Bond’s life between adventures, explain to the reader that Bond only worked several times a year, and just devoted himself to training and various personal interests like vintage cars and other men’s wives the rest of the time (not that Parker has any such interests, or really any interests, period).  And of course in the generally amoral way Bond goes about his daily business, though his motivations for what he does (and his personal reactions to it) are another matter.

The other thing I saw was that Ian Fleming wasn’t half the writer Donald Westlake was.   Sales be hanged.  The accursed critics had a point, just as they did with Spillane.   Fleming was not a wordsmith for the ages.   But then, he didn’t have to be.   He was a damned good storyteller, armed with an engaging fantasy he could back up with just enough verisimilitude drawn from his wartime experience in Naval Intelligence (not to mention his bedtime experience in other men’s wives), and that’s all most readers have ever cared about.  But the readers have long been outnumbered by filmgoers, and more recently, videogamers.

Fleming, interestingly enough, was influenced by some of the same writers as Westlake–notably Dashiell Hammett and Graham Greene.  If he’d started writing as young as Westlake had–well, he would probably have missed out on some of the experiences he put into his books.   Maybe he would have been a much better writer with much lower book sales.   It’s not for me to say.   The two men came from radically different backgrounds, radically different generations.   Different class, different nationality, different ethos.  Still, they had some similar preoccupations.  Well, lots of people have those preoccupations.   That’s why all these books are still in print.

So anyway, The Handle is Westlake intentionally putting Parker into a Bond-like situation, just to see what happens.  Probably there’s some Matt Helm in there as well, maybe some Mission Impossible, but how much research am I supposed to do for one review?   It’s not a Bond spoof, like The Liquidator, or the Derek Flint movies with James Coburn (or the first film adaptation of Casino Royale).   It’s not written as a parody, or a send-up of any kind.   Satire, possibly.  Westlake, writing in his Stark mode, is setting out to show not the similarities between his protagonist and Fleming’s, but rather to ironically highlight the differences.   This is his response to Bond, to Helm–he doesn’t need to refer to them–his readers are mainly reading those books as well.   He can make it all subtextual, and those who want to see the point can pick up on it without any help–the rest can blithely ignore it, and enjoy a good trans-genre adventure.

We pick up with Parker, not long after the events of The Seventh, surveying the island Baron’s casino is on from a boat manned by employees of the outfit, including a perpetually tipsy (but dangerous) admixture of playboy and thug named Yancy. We’re told Parker is 38 now, which I’d guess would make him 35 or so when we first met him. It doesn’t really matter, but somehow you want to know. Time is passing. He is getting older.

They can’t get in too close. The island is small and carefully guarded–there are only a few places it’s possible to land at all. Parker tells Yancy to get him a map of the island, along with information about personnel, particularly armed personnel. He looks with disdain at a fancy map The Outfit got an artist to make up, and concentrates on the technical map the artist was working from, which is all lines and numbers–facts. Not fancy.

Yancy, an outwardly jovial drunk constantly putting on an act that Parker sees through easily, is none too happy with Parker’s typically blunt and surly attitude, but he knows Karns wants this guy for this job, so he has to put up with it–promising Parker they’ll have a reckoning later on–as it happens, they never do, which seems odd given the amount of time devoted to the character.   It belatedly occurred to me that Yancy might be Stark’s sardonic take on Bond–a hired thug with outwardly good manners, and a taste for the finer things in life, who is really just an errand boy.  But if that is indeed the point of Yancy, it’s a very private joke indeed.   He doesn’t look at all like Bond, so maybe he’s Felix Leiter instead.  Or maybe I’m overthinking the parallels with the Bond novels.

Contemplating Yancy and his co-workers, Parker thinks to himself that The Outfit is just a bunch of overspecialized nitwits, each of them useless for anything but a single job, many of them useless for anything at all. He hasn’t changed his opinion of big hierarchical organizations, private or public, straight or crooked. Success and stratification make you soft and stupid. It’s the independents of the world who know what’s what.

But he likes one of their specialists quite a bit–Crystal, a combination courtesan/photographer, a foxy little brown-eyed blonde who gets assigned to him so that he can personally case Baron’s island as a paying customer. He just doesn’t look like the right type to be there, but with her as a cover he can blend in well enough.

She’s terrified of the water (Parker merely dislikes being out on the open ocean because there’s nowhere to hide on it), but she does a solid professional job once she’s there, taking all the photographs he needs, and playing the role of a rich man’s plaything with practiced ease. He’s impressed with her. And once they’re back, and he tells her there’s no point in sleeping with him to get information, because he’s on to her–she convinces him that since he does know, and she knows he knows, and she’s got nothing to report to her bosses, and she would want to be with him anyway because he intrigues her…..he can’t argue with her logic, and he reaches for her hungrily.

This seems to violate his usual sexual pattern, but it’s an unusual situation for him. He just finished a job a few weeks ago, and only had three days and nights with Ellie Canaday before she was murdered. He’s still got quite a bit of his post-heist horniness to work off, and he’s not actively planning this new job yet. So he enjoys Crystal for a few days, before Grofield and Salsa show up–and then, having formally begun working, has lost all sexual interest in her, so she dallies with Grofield–married to Mary Deegan from The Score now, but Grofield is a born polygamist, and when you can’t be with the one you love…

She also asks to photograph Salsa in the nude, and he seems quite willing to comply. Parker pays no attention to any of this–it’s irrelevant information, filtered out by his one-track mind. Sexual jealousy is seemingly not a component of his nature. Or any other kind of jealousy, for that matter.

There’s a brief flashback to his meeting with Karns in Las Vegas, where the Outfit boss (who owes his position to Parker) forces Parker to listen to yet another history lecture (ala The Mourner) full of irrelevant detail; this one about the island of Cockaigne, and its self-styled master, a German who calls himself Baron, who got the Cubans to lay claim to this insignificant speck of dirt about 40 miles off the coast of Texas, and has established his own little hedonist wonderland there, named after the mythical paradise, where every desire is granted, and the social order is turned upside-down. Parker wishes Karns would just get to the point, but he’s still short of cash after the events of The Jugger, so he forces himself to listen.

(Sidebar–this book contains footnoted references to the events of every previous Parker novel other than The Mourner, which perhaps resembles The Handle a bit too much in its European nemesis and spy thriller trappings, and there’s no need to refer to it anyway, since it doesn’t impact anything happening in this book. Westlake rewarding his faithful readers here, and reminding newcomers that there’s a lot of other books to read–it also fosters the sense of this being a continuing story, not just an assortment of disconnected episodes).

The point, simply put, is that Baron refuses to play ball with The Outfit, and share his profits with them. He’s taking business away from their gambling operations, and they want him shut down for good. Karns remembers how effective Parker was in organizing robberies of The Outfit’s various illegal casinos, and figures by using Parker he can get this job done on the cheap without getting his own hands dirty. He says Parker can figure on as much as a quarter million if he robs Cockaigne–and The Outfit will bankroll the heist, and provide needed intel, on condition that Parker and his string leave not one stone standing on another when they leave the place. The job isn’t to kill Baron–just to break him.

Parker isn’t for hire–Karns is perceptive enough to know that. He’d be working for himself, as always, with The Outfit as silent partner (not silent enough, you can hear him thinking)–but he has one big stipulation–if he’s going to take all the risks here, he wants Karns to guarantee that if the ‘handle’ on the island is below 200k, The Outfit will make up the difference to Parker and his men. Karns grudgingly agrees. Parker is a better negotiator than he had anticipated. A lot of the tension in the first half of the book is between The Outfit’s corporate culture and the independent outlook of Parker and his associates. And in a Richard Stark novel, we’re left in absolutely no doubt as to which outlook is superior.

Though Parker is always the ultimate independent in Starkville, we learn a good deal more about Grofield here, and see that he is being groomed to be the second Stark protagonist (the events of this novel would lead directly into Grofield’s first solo outing). Grofield, we are told, took to heisting as a way of bankrolling his acting career–not because he couldn’t make a very good living in TV and film, but because he refuses to degrade his art (and his identity) by taking such work. One perceives a certain wry commentary from the author peeking out here, but we’ll talk more about that in later articles.

To Grofield, only the ‘legitimate theater’ is truly legit, and only a select handful of actors ever make a living there without some form of income supplementation–somehow you can’t see him busing tables between gigs. He and some fellow actors robbed a supermarket almost as a gag, but the heist was successful, and he found that the work suited him somehow–this creates a division in his nature that will always make him second to Parker–but still very effective in his own way, and much closer to Westlake in his tastes and preoccupations.  Much as I think of Parker as a wolf that got born into a man’s body, I think of Grofield as a Westlake protagonist who got born into a Richard Stark novel.

His style is markedly different from Parker’s (he’s human, for one thing), but they share a devotion to high professional standards, and to avoiding certain types of personal compromise at all costs. And they tend to like the same women, which you would think would lead to conflict, but somehow never does. Because Grofield isn’t really the jealous type either. His sins are many, but hypocrisy isn’t one of them. “Polygamy,” he tells Crystal most solemnly, “is the only answer.”   For him, certainly.

A further wrinkle emerges–government agents who want to arrest Baron and are aware of the impending heist, brace Parker at Crystal’s apartment, and tell him they’ve got the goods on him and his colleagues–so they can bring Baron into their jurisdiction, or face lengthy jail terms.   This, of course, is the wrong way to approach Parker, who never responds well to threats–they should have offered him something he wanted in exchange for Baron (like expunging his criminal record, and those fingerprints connected to a prison guard’s death that keep coming back to haunt him), but of course their bureaucracy doesn’t work like that, and neither do they–they’re even further away from understanding a man like Parker than Karns and The Outfit.  They think they can use him, but they end up being used.

Then we take a brief detour into the mind and existence of Baron Wolfgang Friedrich Kastelbern von Altstein–a genuine Prussian aristocrat, but sadly not the kind with money.  He played with the right wing politics of Germany in the 20’s and 30’s, going from the Brownshirts to the SS, moving up in the ranks–and learning once the war started, that he had no real taste for politics  or its blood-stained alternative.  He’s got no interest in ruling the world, merely enjoying its many pleasures.  He committed no war crimes but dabbled in virtually every other kind, notably art theft, and became quite wealthy by the end of the conflict, adding to that wealth on the black market after the war, and temporarily evading the nets of the Nazi-hunters, since he never really was much of a Nazi to start with (if we’re going to dislike him, it’s not going to be for something that obvious).

However, there comes a point when stripping a country like France of its treasures under military occupation gets to be considered a war crime of sorts as well, and he has to flee Europe to New Orleans (one of the few places in America he’d consider civilized), where he ties up his money in various semi-legitimate businesses only to be forced to abandon it there and run to Castro’s Cuba when the American law comes after him.

In Cuba, he convinces some very gullible KGB operatives that he could collect intelligence for them if he were set up on this little island he’s had his eye on with a credible cover like a casino–he has no intention of ever providing them with anything useful, just using them and the equally credulous Cubans to rebuild his lost fortune, then disappear once more into a well-earned retirement.   Well, that’s how he sees it, anyway.

Baron (as he now calls himself) is a fitness freak, who looks much younger than his 57 years.  He has a devoted aide from his Nazi days named Steuber; bodyguard, valet, chauffeur, personal trainer–you might call him Oddjob if that wasn’t already taken.  Baron has created his own little world, a blend of mismatching elements from past lives, a stronghold where he alone reigns supreme, but that’s the problem, though he doesn’t realize it yet.   He’s become too dependent on that world and the people in it, his sense of self all wrapped up in being the mysterious Baron, lord of Cockaigne.  He’s switched identities a few too many times, and though he’s always gotten away with it before, his lucky streak is about to run out.

While putting together their string, Parker and Grofield had been forced to reject a fellow named Heenan as their boatman–he seems unreliable, just out of prison for molesting an 11 year old girl, after serving a bit over five years of a fourteen year sentence–and yet not on parole.  Parker doesn’t like the smell of him (who would?), but they haven’t told him much of anything, so they just tell him he’s not needed.

Two things they don’t know–first of all that Heenan was working for the Feds, who recruited him to keep tabs on Parker & Co., which is how he got out early–and secondly that he’s one to bear a grudge.  He goes off on his own to Cockaigne (which he knows about because the Feds told him), and tips Baron to the impending heist, figuring he’ll get a nice cash bonus, and revenge for being rejected.  Baron believes him, but isn’t inclined to let him go before the heist goes down.   He doesn’t trust the Irish–his one prejudice, he calls it.   Heenan is an amalgram of all the worst anti-Irish cliches in the book–Westlake having a perverse bit of fun with his own tribe.

Parker and the others wait some days before pulling the job–they don’t want the Feds to know when it’s going to be.   Grofield and Salsa go out there night after night just to play cards, throw dice, and watch cockfights–finally the big night arrives, and this time they turn on the agents tailing them and render them harmless.  Then Baron’s men try to do the same to Grofield and Salsa–Salsa just melts into the underbrush and starts planting hand grenades to go off at an appointed time.  Grofield, not quite as smooth, pulls out his gun and starts shooting.  He kills the two men sent to take him, but gets shot up a bit himself.

Salsa is finally captured–found dancing with a rich old matron, as he once did in his days as a shipboard gigolo.  Protective coloration, no doubt, but perhaps also a premonitory act of nostalgia.    Baron asks him where he’s been, what he’s been doing–“I have been dancing.”  Salsa asks the time–ten o’clock–“Then it no longer matters.”   He discloses the existence of the fire-bombs, but when asked where they are, he says “The exact locations are hard to describe.  It might take half an hour to give you the precise idea.”  He is not the least bit put out by any of this.   You might as well be asking him where to find the nearest cafe.

Baron tries to get him to tell where Parker is, but he just smiles and goes limp, awaiting the expected blows.  Baron’s calm self-assurance shatters as the bombs go off, the entire island starts to go up in flames, and he realizes his time as Lord of Cockaigne is coming to a finish no matter what he does now–he grabs a heavy desk set and beats Salsa to death with it in impotent rage, not even realizing what he’s doing until it’s done.  Heenan panics as well, knowing that Parker will be coming after him soon.  He grabs a Luger from Baron’s gun closet, and kills Steuber with it–now Baron’s world is truly ended, all ties to his past identity cut.  He lies there in the dark and tries to figure out his next move.   There has to be some way out of this.

In the meantime, Grofield meets Parker at the dock, taking out the men who were there to prevent their boat from landing–the pilot is killed, but there’s no time to worry about that, because the island is in complete chaos now–they’ve got a clear path to the casino, and the loot.  They see Heenan, figure out the story in half a second, and cut him down.  They get what they came for in Baron’s office–including a nice little cache of diamonds Baron was saving for a rainy day–but miss Baron himself, hiding under his desk.

Once they’ve left for the boat, he decides he is not going to take this lying down after all–armed with a Colt .45 automatic from his gun locker, he comes up behind them at the dock, shooting both men, taking back his goods, and heading for Mexico in the cabin cruiser The Outfit had provided Parker with for the job.   He doesn’t realize the now very badly wounded Grofield is hiding onboard.

He lands the boat on a remote shoreline, and treks through the desert, carrying heavy bags full of money and diamonds, looking for some sign of civilization, scheming all the way, congratulating himself on his intrepidity and foresight.   He finally thinks he’s found an easy mark in an old man–an Indian.  Sitting by what the locals are pleased to call a road.

Baron spent some time in Spain after the war, and can sort of communicate with the decrepit geezer, who says he’ll take him back to his hut–and asks a few pointed questions about his luggage.   Baron figures he’ll dispose of the nosy Indian once they get there, and then he’ll get a ride to the nearest city.   Then he sees the old man’s hulking son, hears the old man say the gringo has valuables in his suitcases, and realizes–this isn’t a James Bond novel, and he’s not Ernst Stavro Blofeld or Dr. No, and if he were Auric Goldfinger he’d have just stayed in some neutral country counting his money.  Lebewohl, Herr Baron.  I would say Auf Wiedersehen, but I’ve read every Richard Stark novel and know we shall not meet again.

Grofield wakes up on the boat, and realizes Baron and the loot are gone, and also that he’s going to die really soon if he doesn’t get medical attention.   He figures Parker must be dead or in the hands of the law.  He also sets out to seek civilization, but he’s in much worse shape than Baron was, and he collapses out there.  And then–

He had been asleep or unconscious, he couldn’t tell which, and then suddenly he was awake again.  He rolled over on his back, unmindful of the stones, regardless of the sun’s light, and stared into the sky, and he thought he saw Parker coming down out of the sky on a cloud.

“Sacrilege, Parker,” he said aloud, and smiled, and closed his eyes.

And we roll back the clock in Stark fashion, to see the last day or so from Parker’s perspective. This is the third time Parker has been shot in the novels thus far–just a minor wound in the fleshy part of the leg, but it does nothing to improve his disposition.  The Feds are none too happy about the situation either.   Baron’s heading for Mexico, where they can’t touch him.   But Parker convinces them he can find Baron and drag him into their jurisdiction–he has no more intention of actually doing this than Baron had of providing the Russians with real intelligence.   He just needs a patch job on his leg, and a bit of help finding his goods–and Grofield.  In that order.

They take some time finding the boat, even with Navy ships and planes and a hundred men to look, and he rages at them, saying “You need a hundred men to zip your fly, you people. You and Karns’ crowd, you’re all alike. No one of you can do a damn thing, so you figure a whole crowd of you can do anything.” It’s probably the closest thing to a philosophical/political statement we’re ever going to get out of him.

So as we’ve already seen, Grofield is found–Parker is surprised to find him alive, but seeing that he is, he must be kept alive, free, and given his share of the loot (if recovered). Grofield can be of no possible use to him now, in his weakened state. There is no pragmatic purpose in sticking his neck out for him, making sure he goes with Parker and one of the Feds to look for Baron. Best case scenario, they both get free, they find the money, and Parker only gets half. He just thinks to himself it’s no good to leave Grofield there.

Technically, he’s not saving Grofield’s life but rather endangering it–he really should go to a hospital. But shortly after that, he’d be in a prison hospital. Freedom trumps survival. So when the requisitioned jeep arrives, Grofield’s coming along. He strains his acting abilties to their limit to appear ready for the journey. Parker, Grofield, and the Fed (named England, and man Westlake has a weird sense of humor sometimes) head out in search of Baron, who they providentially do not yet know is no longer among the living (or else Parker and Grofield would probably be in cuffs by now).

Parker spots the two Indians with the suitcases as they drive past, figures out what happened, and shortly afterwards ditches Mr. England, none too gently. The natives, when Parker comes back for his money, are none too friendly, but impressed by the pistol he points in their direction, and decide to settle for just the diamonds (that’s going to be one interesting day at a Mexican pawn shop), leaving the suitcases full of cash behind–Parker spotted where they were hidden by the roadside because–wait for it–one of the handles was sticking up out of the ground. He allows himself a brief smile.

So all that remains is to get back in the jeep, head for Mexico City (where you could lose a whole army division of gringos), get Grofield a doctor, put him up at a hotel with his share, conceal the cash in a pile of hastily bought souvenirs to pass customs, and the job is done. Parker won’t be in touch with the Feds or Karns–however it came to pass, the money he got is about what he was expecting (because two of his colleagues died on the job), and therefore there’s no shortfall to make good.

Would Karns know any better if Parker said he owed him (let’s say) 50k? Nope. And Karns has seen what happens to people who try to stiff Parker. But Parker doesn’t think like that–and he never liked the idea of getting paid off by Karns anyway. This is cleaner, neater–more professional. This is the pattern he feels comfortable with. You take what you need, and nobody owes anybody anything.

Grofield doesn’t quite agree with that sentiment–says he appreciates Parker going to all that extra effort for him–Parker doesn’t understand what there is to appreciate–“We were working together.” In that specific situation, he could not have behaved differently. Grofield gives up, and says he’ll be seeing Parker–and he will, but little does he know what a long strange trip home is waiting for him.

So that’s Parker’s Bond novel. And what have we learned? That you can put Parker into any situation, and he’ll remain himself. He adapts, but he doesn’t change his way of thinking. For all his seeming independence and individualism, Bond is an organization man, a hireling–something Parker could never be. For all his seeming amorality, Bond is a hero, a solid Victorian gentleman, packed with the same sterling values that motivated Tom Brown or Horatio Hornblower. Fleming just added a few scars and peccadillos to make him more interesting, more modern. Still the same old stock character underneath.

In Moonraker, the most shocking thing the villain does–the way he shows his hand, you might say–isn’t to try and nuke London, but to cheat at cards at a private club. Parker wouldn’t cheat at cards (because what’s the point?) but he wouldn’t be much bothered that anyone else did. Everybody’s got their line. Just be damned sure you’re not wearing a wire at the card game (well, that’s getting ahead of things).

This is basically Westlake’s commentary on Mr. Bond and his fictive ilk–their fault is in themselves, that they are underlings. But in one of those ironies that abound in the careers of genre fiction writers, he himself ended up writing a film treatment, decades later, that would become the seed for the Pierce Brosnan Bond vehicle, Tomorrow Never Dies (which came out shortly before Backflash, hence the quote up above). Tomorrow Never Dies was my favorite of the Brosnan Bonds (faint praise is praise nonetheless), before I ever heard of Donald Westlake. And maybe I’ll review that one someday. Once I’ve run out of books.

All through The Handle, they keep trying to push Parker into the role of a James Bond, and he keeps pushing back. “You’re talking like a man with a choice,” one of the Feds tells him–“I’ve always got a choice.” he responds. He wins, once again, because he knows what he is, and what he’s here to do, and you could stick him into a cowboy novel, a gothic romance, or a space opera–he’d still be Parker. There’s nothing else he can be. It’s neither a blessing nor a doom–it’s just a fact. Nobody puts a handle on Parker–not The Outfit, not the government, not even the lovely Crystal–though in the next book, one could say, he meets somebody who can handle him better than anyone else–and he might even like that.

But what’s Grofield, once you take him away from Parker, put him in a situation where people want him to be something other than a stage actor or an armed robber? We’re going to find out very shortly. Not quite yet, though. First, we’re going to meet another Westlake franchise character, written under another Westlake pseudonym (and yet still published by Random House). A detective–reluctant, naturally. But unlike Westlake’s previous shy shamuses, a trained professional. With a massive guilt complex. And a serious case of the blues. And a fetish for bricklaying, of all things.

In the meantime, I’ll finish with a short musical elegy to a character we often miss in the later Parker novels.   We can only wonder if Parker sometimes misses him too.  Adios, Salsa.

Editing this in, very belatedly–I just saw this French edition for sale on ebay–not that I’m buying it–but man, what a cover!  C’est magnifique.

$_57

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: The Spy in the Ointment

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“You should dream more, Mr. Wormold. Reality in our century is not something to be faced.”

From Our Man in Havana, by Graham Greene.

The borderline between crime fiction and spy fiction has always been sketchy, to the point where one could argue it doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense (some might argue the line between real crime and real espionage is equally porous). Westlake once argued, rather convincingly, that his acquaintance Robert Ludlum was writing best-selling crime novels dressed up as espionage thrillers. Graham Greene wrote about criminals and spies alike under the general heading of “Entertainments” (later, he repented of making even that cursory distinction between those and and his ‘serious’ books about conflicted Catholics and such).

Dan Marlowe created one of the most hard-boiled crime protagonists of all time in The Name of the Game is Death–that character being a murderous bank-robbing sociopath with a somewhat redeeming affection for animals and redheaded tomboys–but by the third novel in the series Marlowe had transitioned his anti-hero over to the ranks of spy fiction, where he remained.

The character stayed at Fawcett’s Gold Medal division the entire time–there was no need to relocate him, because Gold Medal did both genres, and probably encouraged Marlowe to make the switchover, due to changing trends–it was assumed that people who read sexy violent paperback crime novels were every bit as inclined to read sexy violent paperback spy novels, if not more so. After all, Mike Hammer had never made any distinction between fighting gangsters and commies. A crime is a crime is a crime–and what’s more, a genre writer is a genre writer is a genre writer.

Westlake had experimented with several different genres in his early days as a writer, but since publishing his first crime novel, had focused more or less exclusively on that form, perhaps feeling the need to better define himself, stake a claim on a specific market. Having started out doing what could best be described as ‘noir’, he had recently started experimenting with a comic approach to the crime/mystery/detective story, against the advice of his agent (because comic mystery novels had been defunct as a subgenre for years).

His first two novels in this vein had been notably successful, and this would have encouraged him to stretch out even further–hence, a comic spy story. But in this case, he was not bucking existing trends in the publishing industry. Quite the contrary.

There may have been comic spy novels before Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, but I can’t find any, and as was typical of Greene, he did it first and best (and got an astonishingly good film adaptation to boot). And in writing this book, he laid out the most enduring theme of the comic spy story–which is that the people working in ‘Intelligence’ are often surprisingly devoid of that quality. Misunderstandings abound. Comedies of errors are never-ending. Also, and much less surprisingly, many of the people working in that area of endeavor have a remarkable talent for telling stories.

Working for MI6 during WWII, Greene had learned that German agents in Portugal were passing on completely fictitious reports to their spymasters, which were being taken quite seriously, not only in Berlin but in London. Having nothing of any significance to report, and wanting to keep their comfortable well-paying posts in what must have been one of the safest places in Europe during the war, these enterprising informants had simply made stuff up.

This was the core of Greene’s book–his protagonist, an unsuccessful British businessman selling vacuum cleaners in Batista’s Cuba, shortly before the revolution, is recruited by a British spy agency, which assumes for some reason he’ll know how to recruit assets and collect vital information–and they have no end of money to dole out towards this end.

Not having any idea how to do any of this, but desperately needing the aforementioned funds, he begins crafting bogus reports full of bogus intelligence, and nonexistent assets to draw very real paychecks–only to learn to his horror that his opposite numbers in Havana are taking his accounts as seriously as his London employers, and that real people are being endangered by his doctored dispatches. Enemy agents who have broken his code are zeroing in on people who seem to correspond to his fanciful descriptions of his operatives–one of whom is actually killed. He himself is being targeted for assassination. It’s as if his creations have taken on a life of their own–the novel is as much about fiction itself as it is about espionage–and human folly.

The book was a great success, as was the delightful Alec Guinness movie that followed it, and whether it was the first true spy comedy or not, it served as the mold for nearly all such stories ever since. Spy comedies are, most often, about amateurs somehow confused with professionals–mistaken identity. Ah-HAH, you can hear Westlake thinking to himself.

Before long, you had Bob Hope in My Favorite Spy (1951), where a comedian is recruited to fill in for a real secret agent he coincidentally resembles–a plot that was later recycled for Fred Flintstone, of all people–in 1966. That very same year, the late James Garner appeared in A Man Could Get Killed, which was at least a bit more realistic than a movie about cavemen with ICBMs, but still revolved around its hero being mistaken for a spy.

More interesting to a novelist in 1966 would have been The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax–about a bored elderly widow who actually wants to be a spy, but only succeeds via a bureaucratic snafu, combined with her own previously unrecognized talents. That led to a very long-running series of books, as well as a 1971 movie. The joke here is that Emily Pollifax was born to be a spy, but doesn’t look like one. Which of course is probably true of most actual spies.6900202-M

Only a short time earlier, there was The Liquidator, published in 1964, with a film adaptation in 1965. John Gardner wrote it as a direct satire on the Bond novels (which he ended up writing himself, after Ian Fleming’s death), about a tall good-looking Brit named Boysie Oakes, who looks like a ruthless coldblooded killer–you see, under extreme stress, he has this facial tic that makes it seem like he’s leering diabolically (Gardner filched that from P.G. Wodehouse’s The Smile That Wins, if anyone cares), but he is actually a tenderhearted soul, incapable of harming a mouse, let alone a man.

His only real vice is–well–vice. Meaning women. For Boysie, “Make Love, Not War” is a way of life, not merely a slogan for protest rallies. All he wants is to get paid and get laid. He may resort to violence when given no option, and he’s even semi-competent at it, but he could never act with malice aforethought.

He is recruited to be a government assassin by an otherwise highly competent spymaster who has formed an unshakeable but entirely mistaken view of Boysie’s character due to a wartime incident–needing the money, Boysie accepts the job. Then realizing he can never actually do the job, he hires a contract killer in the private sector to do the dirty work for him, and everything is fine until–well, read the book. Seriously, it’s a lot of fun. It’s no Our Man in Havana, but what is? Well, aside from that, I mean.

The Liquidator led to yet another long-running series of books, and as already mentioned, a remarkably faithful film adaptation with Rod Taylor, Trevor Howard, and Jill St. John, that flopped miserably at the box office, which I’ll always think is because they didn’t actually let Boysie and the Jill St. John character knock boots in the movie, though they do so repeatedly in the book (did the producers never see any actual Bond films?). Perhaps also because Jack Cardiff, the greatest cinematographer who ever lived, does not even rank in the Top 1,000 as a director. Yes, I digress. Don’t I always?

My point in recounting all of this is that Westlake was hardly breaking new ground here. His agent, when told he was working on a funny spy story about mistaken identity would not be the least bit concerned, since at that point in time, everyone was doing this story. Though the French, for some reason, didn’t get to it until 1972. And that may be the best spy comedy ever made (not the American remake, though). The last shall be first, they do say.

Neither last nor first on this particular scene, Westlake was content, as usual, to be different. The Spy in the Ointment, his eighth novel for Random House, is a departure for him in several senses–first of all, it’s not a murder mystery, as all his previous Random House books had been, at least nominally. (You will note the first edition cover doesn’t have the legend ‘A Random House Mystery’ on it).

There are murders, but there’s not the slightest confusion over who committed them, so the hero is not a detective, reluctant or otherwise–he’s a spy, which is not the same thing, though there is some overlap in that they both go around looking for information. A detective typically figures out who did what to whom and why, after the fact. A spy ideally figures out who is doing what to whom and why, before it’s actually done.

It’s the first novel Westlake published under his own name without a murder mystery somewhere within, and his delight at being able to at least temporarily put aside the onerous duties of whodunnitry is palpable. This is, I think, one of the reasons he decided to try the spy genre, since nobody ever asks James Bond to solve murders. Well, Bond is usually the murderer himself, right? That’s what the ’00’ stands for.

Secondly of all, and distinguishing it not only from Westlake’s previous work, but from all the other spy comedies discussed here, other than Greene’s, the book is full of politics. Not electoral politics, but the other kind–the kind that would like to dispense with those messy noisome elections, and use more direct efficient methods to effect hope and change, mainly firearms and high explosives, and the occasional garrote.

There was politics in Killing Time, as well as firearms and high explosives, but it was all of a very local nature, and we’re never told which parties any of these machine politicians are affiliated with, because it doesn’t really matter. Mainstream politics is about money and power (though it aspires to ideology). Fringe politics is about ideology (though it aspires to money and power). And the people our hero runs up against in The Spy in the Ointment are about as fringe as fringe can get.

But our hero himself, much as he’d object to that term, is also quite ideological. He is that ultimate in oxymorons–a militant pacifist. J. Eugene Raxford (Gene for short) is somewhere in his middle 30’s; as perpetually impecunious and lecherous as Boysie Oakes himself, but differing in one very key respect–he’s got principles. Studying at City College in the early 1950’s, he got involved in the Citizens’ Independence Union, fairly popular among his fellow students then, partly because it advocated against them being sent to die in Korea, and partly because it was a good way to hook up.

Gene fell under the sway of Ethical Pacifism at this time, and when most of the CIU membership drifted away (no longer worried about the draft, and figuring there were easier ways to get laid), he and other pacifists of varying bents took over the group, and have continued to write and disseminate pamphlets no one reads (except the FBI) and organize protest rallies no one attends (except ditto). This is his life, and for all its little deficiencies (mainly of a financial nature), he seems to be enjoying it.

Most of all, he’s enjoying his current girlfriend, Angela Ten Eyck, a raving beauty in black stretch pants and a Chinese red bra, who enjoys the dubious distinction of being Westlake’s first dumb blonde of any consequence–perhaps ditzy would be a more tactful way to put it. Ethereally lovely, sweet-natured, mechanically gifted (comes in handy when the mimeograph machine breaks down), and as devoted a pacifist as Gene, mainly because her father is a massively wealthy and thoroughly unpleasant munitions manufacturer. Imagine a felicitous co-mingling of a 20-ish Blythe Danner and Teri Garr as she appeared in Young Frankenstein

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Like that. But dumb. There really is no other word for it. And Gene spends a good part of the book complaining about this deficiency in his lady love, while simultaneously conspiring to rip her clothes off. Which she’s perfectly fine with, as long as she’s not busy fixing something. A fine specimen of The Girl, that essential factor in all of Westlake’s ‘Nephew’ books, but his girls have not, up to now, been so endearingly yet irritatingly helpless, or so–blonde. The operative term here is “Shiksa Goddess”, and once again we see why Westlake never has any trouble identifying with nebbishe Jewish guys. Spiritually, at least some of the time, he is one.

As the narrative begins, Gene tells us how one Mortimer Eustaly came to his door one day, inviting him to a meeting to be held uptown, at the Odd Fellows Hall at Broadway and 88th Street–there never was an Odd Fellows hall there, best as I can tell, but maybe Westlake knew something Google does not. In any event, an Odd Fellows hall is certainly the appropriate setting for this event–

“Mr. Raxford,” he said, leaning forward and pointing a tapered clean finger at me, “have you ever heard of the American Sons’ Militia?”

“No.”

The National Fascist Reclamation Committee?”

“No.

“The Progressive Proletarian Party?”

“No.”

“The Brotherhood of Christ Defense Fund?”

“No.”

“The Sons of Erin Expeditionary Force?”

“No.”

The Householders’ Separatist Movement?”

“No.”

“The Pan-Arabian World Freedom Society?”

“No.”

“The Eurasian Relief Corps?”

“No.”

“The Gentile Mothers for Peace?”

“What? No!”

“The True Zion Rescue Mission?”

I shook my head.

Gene is bewildered by Mr. Eustaly’s seeming assurance that he has anything in common with this motley assortment of seemingly overspecialized enthusiasts. Only later does he learn that his devoutly pacifist group–the Citizens’ Independence Union–has been confused with a devoutly non-pacifist group who called themselves the World Citizens’ Independence Union, before one of their bombs exploded prematurely at a meeting and wiped out the entire membership.

The State Department published a list of dangerous terrorist organizations, and through a regrettable clerical error left out the ‘World’ part of the now-defunct organization’s name. Not knowing of the WCIU’s untimely demise, Eustaly has mistakenly assumed Gene is the leader of a group of violent bloodthirsty fanatics who want to eliminate all borders everywhere. This would be the mistaken identity component of the plot, we may safely assume.

Eustaly intimates that the goal of this meeting is to unify all these highly disparate but individually rather small and ineffectual groups under a single umbrella, and channel their combined energies into something suitably impressive–say, blowing up the United Nations building. Unmindful of Gene’s horror-struck reaction to this (which he probably interprets as astonished delight), Mortimer Eustaly departs.

Gene (who is under constant FBI surveillance, because wanting to end all violence is subversive), tries to get the Bureau interested in his predicament, but they just assume he’s trying to play them for fools–which in all fairness, he’s been happily doing for years–Aesop could have warned him about that kind of thing.

Advised by his close friend and attorney Murray Kesselberg that if he doesn’t attend the meeting, its attendees will probably come gunning for him, he decides to go there, with Angela, and since he’s constantly tailed by the FBI (because wanting to end all violence is subversive, remember?), he figures they’ll follow him there, and deal with the bad guys.

What he doesn’t figure is that the Feds tailing him will lose him at Columbus Circle, and having been there many times, I can tell you he should have figured that. Westlake, it should be said, is none too impressed with J. Edgar’s boys.

At the meeting, Gene and Angela are admitted by a looming monstrous individual who goes by the name of Lobo and seems rather less intelligent than your average Golden Retriever (and far less affable), but as Gene puts it “brains aren’t everything.” They are then treated to a succession of increasingly bizarre political manifestos from the leaders of the various groups–all of whom seem to hate each other even more than society at large (and that’s saying something).

But with Lobo’s help, Eustaly is able to keep order, until one of them–who seems to be the head of a disgruntled order of plutocrats (perhaps distantly related to the Koch Brothers?)–refuses to play nice, and says he’s going to report all of them to the authorities.

What happens then is not entirely clear, because Gene, our pacifist narrator, closes his eyes, and we’re treated to a succession of highly suggestive sound effects. But the general gist is that Lobo rips the rich twit’s head off and rolls it down the aisle like a bowling ball. That is not meant as a figure of speech. Have I mentioned that Westlake really really did not like The One Percent? I probably have, yes.

So any hopes Gene had that this was just a gag, or that these people were all talk are now thoroughly flushed, and it’s only going to get worse. Because Eustaly and Lobo are not actually the worst people he’s going to meet here. In comes a man introduced as Leon Eyck–“tall as an eagle is tall, lean as a wolf is lean, quick as a cheetah is quick. Lupine, saturnine, sure of himself and contemptuous of everything around him, he was dressed, inevitably, in flowing black, as black as his hair, as black as his eyes. His face, sallow and cruel and sardonically handsome, glinted like an evil thought.”

And just to throw one more gasoline-soaked log on the fire, he’s really Angela’s brother, Tyrone. A truly dangerous revolutionary who fled the country years ago, after a happy childhood of torturing cats, servants, younger siblings, and anyone else unfortunate enough to command his attention. He’s been selling his services to the Red Chinese and anyone else who’ll have him, but his loyalties are only to himself. And he’s always hated Angela. Who is mortally afraid of him, as well she should be, but Gene tells her to just stay calm and he’ll never notice her. Which he doesn’t, until in her panic she knocks down a whole row of folding chairs.

Somehow, they manage to get away, and finally they talk to somebody who believes them–not the FBI, but one of those shadowy fictitious intelligence groups, so much more hush-hush than the paltry likes of MI5 or CIA, that nearly always crop up in this type of novel. It should be mentioned, by the by, that nearly all the various agents Gene and Angela meet are identified by letters of the alphabet, and now I have mentioned it.

An agreement is reached–Gene will infiltrate this new patchwork organization, the League for New Beginnings (is it just me, or does that sound like a glee club?), learn their evil plans, and try not to get too dead in the process. They will accept him back because the newspapers will report that he murdered Angela, and even the regular police will have no idea the story is a plant. Gene is not overly thrilled by this scheme, but since his alternative is to wait for the League to come to him, and he’s already seen (or rather heard) what happens to informers…..

He goes through a rushed five-day training program, in which he’s schooled in self-defense, among other things. He makes it very clear to his trainers that whatever the provocation, he is a true pacifist–he will not resort to violence even in defense of his own life. Not for any reason. Never. This is the one part of his conception of himself that he will not bend on.

J. Eugene Raxford is anything but a saint–he’s actually something of a cad, self-centered as all hell, and his manners leave much to be desired, but he is not calling himself a pacifist just to avoid having to fight anyone. Though that certainly doesn’t hurt. Not like getting shot, or having your head ripped off, anyway.

The plan works–up to a point. Gene contacts a young member of the group, a blonde, muscleheaded young Nazi living in Queens named Jack Armstrong (a much funnier joke in 1966), and through him meets Sun Kut Fu, leader of the aforementioned Eurasian Relief Corps (also from Queens), who takes him to Tyrone Ten Eyck. And in the process, he loses his shoes, which were full of transmitting equipment that was going to keep him in touch with his handlers.

Gene is completely on his own now–the spy is fully immersed in the ointment. He can summon the spy cavalry by submerging a coin they gave him in a glass of water (don’t ask), but until he has actual information, there doesn’t seem to be much point. His faith in the efficiency of his handlers is less than 100%, and he wants to make damn sure there’s nobody left in this group to come after him once he’s been outed as a spy. His natural cowardice is leading him to discover heretofore unsuspected reserves of courage.

But he feels the strain of putting up this facade most sorely–he thinks “What a nerve-wracking way to live! If I’d never found any other reason to advocate pacifism, this would be it; it is so much easier on the nerves not to be perpetually circling your fellow man, hand warily on the hilt of your knife.”

So he spends several days in the company of this assorted bag of nuts, this ‘volley of terrorists’ as he calls them (Westlake’s original title for the book) noticing to his surprise that they are all quite human, and getting on better than you’d expect now that they’re all living in the same house, and working towards the same goal. He also learns that Ten Eyck is gradually eliminating them, as they cease to be useful to him (many never were to begin with). It’s like Big Brother, only with an actual Big Brother, in the Orwellian sense.

Ten Eyck is an interesting villain, and I am quite convinced, an alternate take on Parker (you’ll note the physical description is highly reminiscent)–he’s similarly ruthless and amoral, but being brought up in an obscenely wealthy family seems to have corrupted his nature, driven him insane. A wolf cursed with ideology is a mad wolf. Though he’s more often described as a panther.

He thinks Gene is a fellow carnivore, and Gene does a good job faking it–and just by accident survives an attempt by Ten Eyck to have him eliminated while out on a little trip to Canada to pick up explosives. Which just further convinces Ten Eyck of Gene’s formidability. Gene has figured out that one way to avoid violence is to convince others you are supremely good at it, and are only refraining from it out of a dislike of wasted effort. But he knows that’s only going to work for so long. He hands Ten Eyck a pistol with which he could have tried murdering him in response to that attempt on his life–only he couldn’t–only Ten Eyck doesn’t know that.

He looked at the pistol in his hand, and then at me. “You amaze me, Mr. Raxford,” he said.

“I prefer reason to violence,” I told him. Which was the absolute truth; in my groggy state, my true and false personalities had found a basis for merger. (If I had come to Ten Eyck under my true colors and advocated pacifism to him, he might have murdered me merely in rebuttal. But coming to him now in the guise of another panther like himself, advocating the identical pacifism, I seemed to him a dangerous and capable man, an awesome opponent, and he embraced my ideal [in this limited and local application] with pleasure and relief.)

“Reason,” he said, his glinting smile touching me and the pistol in turn, “is always preferable to violence.”

Gene’s penchant for tangents, as you see, often makes him place bracketed asides within parenthetical remarks. Westlake is putting a lot of himself into Gene–he knows one of his weaknesses as a writer is going off on tangents (it’s one of mine too, which I guess is one reason I like him so much). He turns it into a strength here by making it a window into Gene’s confused personality, his overly glib but nonetheless acute intellectual capacities.

Gene is a true Nephew–somebody with lots of potential, who has been drifting, liking his bohemian existence, but not committing to any part of it. Unlike his predecessors in the previous two Nephew books, he’s found his life’s work, but he’s never been fully serious about it. What’s missing is focus–and as Dr. Johnson so aptly remarked, nothing concentrates the mind like knowing you’re going to be hanged tomorrow. If not sooner.

So skipping way ahead, past the revelation of the villain’s evil plot (which is pure MacGuffin, and never really the point of the story), Gene’s hangman faces him at the Ten Eyck Mansion, where Angela has been hiding out with her father, who Tyrone intends to murder, along with his sister, to inherit the family fortune, and just because it’ll be a fun thing to do. By the way, this is the point you really need to stop reading if you have not yet gotten to this book.

Seeing Angela is alive (and that therefore Gene did not murder her), Ten Eyck’s pantherish illusions about Gene are dispelled. “What are you?”, he asks Gene–not whom, but what. Gene takes advantage of his momentary confusion to grab Angela’s hand, and run out of the room–they hide in the attic, but Angela once again manages to betray their location. Gene is beyond exasperated with her now. How dumb can a girl get? He manages to turn Sun Kut Fu and his men against Ten Eyck and Lobo, but the ensuing battle leaves one survivor–and sadly, it’s Ten Eyck.

Luger in hand, Ten Eyck points the gun at Angela–he knows Gene is no panther now, but some kind of double agent, and unarmed, anyway. He’ll attend to him in a minute, but sister dearest comes first. He tells her how much he’s going to enjoy killing her, while she stands there like the proverbial deer in the headlights. And Gene runs.

He runs right at Tyrone Ten Eyck. He takes the Luger out of his hand and tosses it away. He then somehow channels his five day intensive training course in self defense into an all-out adrenaline-driven physical assault on the most frightening man he has ever met. He does this without thinking, without any conscious choice, though he is painfully aware all the while that he is flagrantly violating his most sacred principles. He lays Ten Eyck out cold on the floor. “That was a terrible thing for a pacifist to do, Gene.” Angela says quietly.

He is neither proud of himself, nor relieved to be safe once again. Instead, he asks himself a question he says he may spend the rest of his life trying to answer–“If I’ve been right all my life about who I was, how came I to be where I was?”

How indeed? Not via his instincts for self-preservation–the gun wasn’t aimed at him, and he could have just run away again–he’s always been good at that. Anyway, he’d had a perfect chance to push Ten Eyck off a cliff a short time earlier, and hadn’t taken it, because of his principles.

No, it’s because J. Eugene Raxford, much as he may not want to admit it–much as he never once admits it in the entire course of the story–is a man in love. And what he cannot express in words can still be expressed through violence. What he could not, would not, do for himself, he can do for her. In fact, he could not stop himself from doing it. This was a part of himself he never acknowledged, but it was there all the same, waiting its time.

All well and good, and after a few more wrinkles, the case is closed, the plot is foiled, Gene is eventually cleared of Angela’s murder (the police have a hard time processing the fact that she isn’t dead), the remaining terrorists are rounded up, and Gene’s alphabetized Federal agents all say he’ll be left strictly alone from now on, having proved his loyalty beyond all question, and anyway he surely realizes now that his pacifist ideals are just a big joke, right?

Wrong. What happened only served to show him, more vividly than ever before, how much true pacifism is needed in this violent world of Tyrone Ten Eycks and all their ilk. He and Angela rededicate themselves to that cause for which so many others have given the last full measure of devotion. He tells us that he’s related this story not as an account of his unexpected bravery and proficiency, but as an admission of guilt.

The fact of the matter is, my activities before all this mess were pale and half-hearted attempts by comparison with my pacifist work thereafter. Since that night with Tyrone Ten Eyck outside Tarrytown, I’ve had something to live down, to pay penance for, to equalize.

It’s only the fool who, because he’s fallen once from grace, believes he should never have tried to be in the state of grace to begin with. I fell, when sorely tempted by Tyrone Ten Eyck, but I stand again, and I hope eventually to have made up for that slip.

And Angela helps me. We discuss it from time to time, as she fixes the mimeograph machine or we drive together in her convertible to peace rallies, and she has admitted to me that when I attacked her brother she was glad, she stood there delighted, urging me on with shouts of encouragement that in the excitement of the moment I never even heard. So we are both struggling back.

Man’s nature is violent because man is partly animal. But we’ve come into an era in which that violence must be quelled, and if it must be, it can be.

And who would know this better than a man supporting his family by crafting supremely enjoyable tales of mayhem and bloody retribution? This book, in a very real sense, is Donald Westlake’s own personal act of penance–the lapsed Catholic inside of him comes out in full force here, and you can see that effect on the language. You also see that Angela’s name was not chosen merely because it sounded pretty.

He must have spent a good bit of time talking to his editor at Pocket Books, Bucklin Moon, who as I discussed in my review of The Hunter, was himself a dedicated lifelong advocate of ethical pacifism–who got denounced as a subversive and had his writing career ruined as a result. So this book is also a tribute to Mr. Moon, to whom Westlake owed a great deal for seeing the potential in a series of books about a wolflike armed robber who kills without qualm–the contradictions in human nature really can seem insurmountable, can’t they? But what was true in 1966 is even more true now–that violence in our natures must be quelled. And if it must be, it can be. Right?

As his story concludes, Gene describes how, accompanied once more by truly perplexed Federal agents, he and Angela picket the United Nations building–still there, unexploded, in spite of the worst efforts of Ten Eyck and his volley of terrorists, who have been exposed to us not as evil geniuses, but as deluded buffoons, like the rest of us, only better armed and less inhibited.

Gene and Angela carry no weapon but signs, and you know what those signs say? They say BAN THE BOMB. That’s how the book ends, and years later, in an interview, Westlake recounted how he’d just received a very upset letter from a woman who said she didn’t expect to read radical propaganda in a nice spy thriller.

But to Westlake, that’s not what it was at all, and he couldn’t see how this woman (who sounds herself like a potential inductee to the inaptly named Gentile Mothers for Peace), could possibly have come to the conclusion that this was a political book in the sense that she meant it. Gene, after all, had very narrowly escaped being blown up himself–his message is not political, but personal. Pacifism is not a partisan ideological stance, or shouldn’t be. We can argue about politics all day if we like, but the point is, let’s keep arguing. For as long as we possibly can.

But in the meantime, I still have many violent novels to reread and review, and I expect to vicariously enjoy them all, as I have before. Including the extremely violent Richard Stark novel that comes next on our list, where Parker (the non-ideological one) takes out an entire island–and then commits an act of mercy that would probably confuse the hell out of Tyrone Ten Eyck. As Saint Augustine used to pray–before he was Saint Augustine–“Oh Lord, make me virtuous–but not yet.” He was actually a lot more likable before he was a saint, but never mind that now.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: The Seventh, Part 2

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He lunged forward, and his right arm pushed ahead of him, and he impaled her forever on that red instant of time. The words remained unspoken, would remain unspoken ever after. The world tick-tocked on, and Ellen remained back there in that blood-red second, slowly slumping around the golden hilt.

It was as though he had stabbed her from the rear observation platform of a train that now was rushing away up the track, and he could look out and see her way back there, receding, receding, getting smaller and smaller, less and less important, less and less real. Time was rushing on now, like that rushing train, hurtling him away.

That’s what death is; getting your heel caught in a crack of time.

It was the amateur who had soured the sweet job, bringing in his own extraneous problems, killing for no sensible reason, taking money that should have been safe, running around wild and causing trouble with everybody, attracting the attention of the law.

There was no profit in killing him, but Parker was going to kill him anyway. He was going to kill him because he couldn’t possibly walk away and leave the bastard alive.

But that didn’t mean he had to get like Negli, stupid and careless.

It’s hard to explain to newcomers to the Parker novels that the stories are never about revenge. Or rough justice. Or violence for the sake of violence. Which often seems to be what pretty nearly all popular entertainments are about. Parker isn’t interested in any of that. He kills when he has to. To protect himself. To protect the very few people he gives a damn about (at this point in the series, there is no such person–Ellie Canaday might have filled that niche, had she lived). To get what he needs to survive on his own terms, namely money.

And, now and again, to calm a storm that springs up within him when people behave in ways he doesn’t understand–when they indulge in certain types of cruelty, disrupt his carefully laid plans, or steal from him. This creates an inner turmoil, a contradiction, which he can only ease by making its source stop breathing. The rules are not clearly spelled out, and are sometimes broken, because they aren’t rules at all–this is instinct talking. In one sense, Parker is utterly free–in another, he’s enslaved by his inner drives.

Parker knows himself incredibly well on the instinctive level–but it’s hard for him (and for his interpreter, Stark) to express this in terms of conscious human thought. Something is always lost in translation. Appearances to the contrary, Parker isn’t a human being. His physical shell is human, the outward expressions of his consciousness are human, but lurking under those external realities lies an inner truth that no one else can ever fully grasp (though occasionally, some more perceptive person will catch a glimpse of Parker’s true nature). And nowhere was this ever more clear than in The Seventh.

I know it sounds like science fiction, or maybe horror fiction, but that’s not what it is, somehow. Because it’s never quite made explicit. Westlake knew where to draw the line. As he put it once, “A realist is somebody who thinks the world is simple enough to be understood. It isn’t.” Neither is Parker. We don’t have to understand every aspect of him to enjoy watching him work.

But that’s not all these books are about–most of all, they are about people. Westlake stopped writing science fiction, a genre he’d loved from childhood, and concentrated on the mystery genre because he felt (with some justification at that time) that the latter genre was more about the study of individual human behavior than the former. He didn’t just write the Parker novels as entertainment (after all, science fiction is certainly entertainment, whether it contains fully fleshed out characters or not). He wrote them as comparative behavior studies.

Parker may not be human, but he’s nothing if not an individual–so are the people he works with and against in the course of a given book. Each novel will spend a lot of time in the heads of these other characters, and because Parker is such an anomalous being, his thought processes will shed light on theirs–and vice versa. That’s the whole point of the exercise, at least as far as Westlake is concerned. That’s what he’s most interested in.

Writing as Stark, he can do something quite different from his first person narratives for Random House, which are mainly character studies focused on the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery. Parker may occasionally dabble in self-discovery, but it’s very much a sideline. He knew who he was long before we ever met him. He’s always known. Maybe once in a while, in the grip of that aforementioned mental turmoil, he may partly forget. But his inner compass will always stabilize, eventually.

The pattern here is reminiscent of The Score–we’ll begin with Parker, and finish with him, but in the middle we’ll learn about the men he’s working with (and against), one at a time. The big differences are that the heist itself went off flawlessly, in the course of one brief chapter, and then everything went to hell–and that two of the men in question are Parker’s adversaries. The cop trying to catch Parker. The murderer Parker intends to catch and kill, who is trying to prevent that from happening, by killing Parker first.

As Part Three begins, we find ourselves at last in the head of this deadly cold-blooded killer, The Amateur who has given Parker so much trouble–and find out he’s just a frightened boy in the body of a football player. We never learn his name (it isn’t relevant), and the description of his confused mental processes seems to owe something to Westlake’s Pity Him Afterwards, but he’s not clinically insane, like Robert Ellington–he’s just been driven crazy by a heightened awareness of his own inadequacies. By the contradiction between who he seems to be on the outside, and who he really is.

With a few deft strokes, Stark puts us in the picture–he’s a former college football star at Monequois, who got involved with Ellie Canaday, who was a fan of the football team there. Sexy, self-possessed, experienced, she was his fantasy, but he most decidedly was not hers. We don’t ever get into Ellie’s head (or that of any female character in the book), but it’s interesting to see his recollections of her, and realize how different she was with him than with Parker. She was calm and at ease with Parker–a shrill discontented harridan with The Amateur. She wanted a man, and she got a boy in a man’s body–she was restless, probably all her life, looking for something. She found it with Parker, just before she died.

Ellie mercilessly drove The Amateur out of the apartment they shared–his apartment. She went further than she had to, but then again, maybe he wasn’t one to take subtle diplomatic hints. She made him painfully aware of his inadequacies as a lover–he’s an amateur most of all at amatory exploits. He ran to Mexico, nursing his psychic wounds, and then came back, needing to revenge himself on her. He never planned to kill her, but knowing she’d just spent three days and nights in bed with Parker (who The Amateur feared the moment he first saw him), and knowing she’s about to launch into another verbal assault on his manhood, he grabs a sword off the wall and skewers her with it.

Then he finds the heist money in the closet, and somehow feeling like this is a symbolic reward for what he’s been through, he walks away with it. He calls the cops to try and get Parker on the hook for Ellie’s death. Then he realizes Parker will kill him for doing all this, and starts trying to kill Parker first. He kills a minor character named Morey who helps him find Parker, just for shouting a warning when he tries to shoot him. He’s not remorseful about any of this–he’s completely alienated from his own actions. Stark explains his thought processes to us parenthetically–

(He couldn’t really encompass the concept that he had murdered two people and tried to murder a third. He did these things because in their moments they were the only possible things he could do, but at no time did it seem to him that these actions were a part of the fabric of his personality. He was sure he wasn’t the type; he did these extraordinary things because he had been thrust into extraordinary situations. In the normal course of events he would no more murder anyone than he would spit on the flag. His having killed Ellen, and then Morey, and then having tried to kill the stranger, were all atypical actions which he would not want anyone to have judged him by.)

He doesn’t enjoy the killing. He panics and runs like the proverbial scared rabbit every time somebody shoots back at him. What he wants most of all is to get away from there, go back to Mexico with the money, live easy, forget the past. He can’t. Because he sees Parker from a distance, walking purposefully, huge hands swinging at his sides like lead weights, and he knows Parker would find him someday, wrap those hands around his neck. He’d spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. He’s not a complete idiot. Just mostly.

Hardly one of Parker’s more impressive enemies, but he’s one of the most dangerous–because he’s stupid, terrified, and armed. You only have to read the papers to know there’s nothing more dangerous in this world than a firearm-toting coward and fool, trying desperately to be something he’s not. They’re everywhere, infesting the malls, college campuses, fast food restaurants, the airports, Starbucks. You’d think somebody would invent some kind of spray. Besides pepper, I mean.

From The Amateur, we switch to the perspective of Detective Third Grade William Dougherty. When last we saw him, Parker had invaded his home, made tacit but unmistakable threats against him and his family, and gotten the location of nine potential suspects in Ellie’s murder case out of him–not so much because he was afraid to have it out with Parker as that he was afraid his wife and daughter, whom he’d sent over to the next door neighbors, would hear the shot that killed him. Dougherty is as much a professional on his side of the law as Parker is on the other. He knows Parker isn’t Ellie Canaday’s killer, figures immediately that Parker was in on the stadium heist, and isn’t terribly shocked by Parker’s behavior (other than his casual admission that he and Ellie were ‘screwing’).

But Parker found his weakness, and exploited it, and it’s created a bit of an identity crisis for Dougherty–the ambitious dedicated cop in him, who might have taken a chance and drawn down on Parker, was thwarted by the husband and father who put his family first. He’s angry at Parker for using this fault-line in his nature against him. He’s angry at himself for letting Parker use it.

He’s Parker’s true adversary in The Seventh–his opposite number. Both men are formidable. Neither man is behaving with sound professional good sense here. Parker wants The Amateur and the loot, in that order of importance, no matter what it costs, or who. Dougherty wants Parker just as badly–and a promotion to detective second grade would be nice. They can’t both have everything they want.

From here we go, one by one, to each of Parker’s colleagues, who are helping Parker look for The Amateur and their money (for them, the order of importance is reversed, of course). First we get a little glimpse of Dan Kifka–still naked, still laid up with a bad virus, still having almost non-stop sex with his coed girlfriend Janey, in-between making calls to various mutual acquaintance of his and Ellie’s, much to the insatiable Janey’s disgust. He reminisces about how this unlikely pairing came about–out driving his cab, he’d picked up her and a soon-to-be-ex boyfriend, and then she’d picked him up–like Ellie, looking for a different kind of man, a different kind of life.

He’s happy with her, but she’s a major distraction–and she doesn’t go with the life he’s leading. He hasn’t figured out yet that one of them will have to make a choice. Too caught up in his work-related problems, and not used to thinking longterm. He finally reaches a buddy who also knows The Amateur. He tells Kifka about what happened between The Amateur and Ellie, and that the former just got back from Mexico the other day–he knows this because The Amateur, lonely and restless, called him up and they had a night out on the town. He knows where The Amateur is staying.

Kifka knows he’s got a live one here, but he can’t go check the lead out himself, so he waits for another member of the string to show up, or call in from a payphone, so this suspect can be questioned. No cellphones. No email. No texting. No pagers, even. Hollywood can never faithfully adapt this book without making it a period piece. Today, the story would go very differently. Today, they’d probably find the guy via his Facebook page.

Now we’re out in the field with the extremely reluctant detective agency of Parker, Shelly, Feccio, Negli, Clinger, and Rudd. Feccio, Clinger, and Rudd are pretending to be pollsters inquiring into TV-watching habits (so they can find out if the guy they’re questioning was home when Ellie was killed). If they don’t eliminate the suspect right away, Parker and Shelly show up pretending to be police detectives. They’re trying to stay away from the nine names Parker got from Dougherty, all of whom are likely to be under police surveillance. But as they work down the list, they end up going to some of those names anyway. None of whom are The Amateur, by the way. It’s a terrible plan, made in haste, but for all but one, it shall not be repented at leisure.

Dougherty did something Parker didn’t expect–he put cops inside the apartments. Parker figured he’d have them stationed outside in unmarked cars, waiting for him to lead them back to the rest of the gang. He didn’t think Dougherty would realize it’d be Parker’s colleagues making the calls. He also didn’t make it clear enough to his colleagues that they should stay away from those nine names until they’d exhausted every other lead. He and Dougherty came at the problem from different angles, and the end result is chaos.

First Clinger–a former movie theater owner who hates television for bankrupting his nice little business, making him an embezzler, then a convict, then a heister. He’s been useful because he’s good at masquerading as honest citizens–but he’s never been any good at the heavy stuff. He sees the plainclothesmen waiting for him, remembers the gun in his pocket, panics, and bolts–he tries desperately to ditch the gun while he’s running, and thinking he’s going to point it at them, they gun him down.

Then the same thing happens to Feccio, only this time right in front of his longtime partner, Little Bob Negli (whose name we’ve heard mentioned in an earlier book), a very short (4’11), snarky, ill-tempered pro, who was needed to get over the fence at the stadium. Negli and Feccio are really tight–there’s even a faint implication of something sexual there, perhaps only on Negli’s side. Negli not only isn’t attracted to women, he seems to outright hate them, particularly when Feccio goes off with one. But it’s not really the main issue here.

Negli sees Feccio, the only person he’s ever felt comfortable with in his life, being led away by the cops that were inside the apartment Feccio just went into–he tries his level best to get his partner out of it–and gets him killed instead. Unable to process his grief, he converts it into rage, and directs it against the guy he blames for Feccio’s death. He abandons the car they shared, and goes gunning for Parker. Who is roughly twice Negli’s size, and so’s his gun, but what the heck. The bigger they are, right?

(Brief sidebar–back at the time this book came out, there was one actor who could have played the hell out of Negli–Mickey Rooney–who did a tremendous (no pun intended) bravura turn in Don Siegel’s 1957 gangster biopic, Babyface Nelson. Rooney played the infamous depression-era bank robber as a textbook Napoleon complex–somebody who robs and kills out of sheer anger for the joke the world played on him, making him so small. He’s always got something to prove, and he’s never shy about proving it. That’s Negli, a heavily concentrated mass of sarcasm, intelligence, and aggression, who intentionally goads Parker to violence–gets under his skin more than just about anybody else in the whole series. A dandy in the way he dresses and carries himself, a thoroughly fascinating thumbnail portrait of a pint-sized felon, and quite honestly the most compelling figure in the book who isn’t Parker. No doubt, Rooney would have been the guy to play Negli back then–but now, we’d be thinking of someone else–
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Yeah, that’ll happen. Back to the synopsis.)

Pete Rudd, a former cabinet maker, pushed into crime by cheap mass-produced furniture sold at shopping centers (one detects a bit of social commentary here, as with Clinger)–is next. His problem isn’t the cops–it’s that he knocked on The Amateur’s door (having gotten the assignment from Kifka), and it turns out The Amateur wasn’t even on the police department’s radar–they don’t even know he’s in town. So they’re not watching him.

The Amateur, figuring out the pollster scam right off, beats on Rudd until he spills that the gang members–and therefore Parker–are hiding out at an abandoned health spa called ‘Vimorama’, at the edge of town. Rudd, like Clinger, was never supposed to be in this business–neither was tough enough to handle this type of situation. Changes in the world around them forced them into a life neither was suited for. But Rudd will survive–to talk to the cops, and serve a long stretch in prison. Where hopefully at least they’ll have a carpentry shop.

Finally, we see Parker and Ray Shelly doing their cop bit, and having no luck. Shelly, who physically resembles Parker, is much more easy-going, and seems to have just drifted into a life of crime after this major at the army base he was stationed at found him in bed with his wife–and started beating up the wife, because Shelly was too big. Shelly made the mistake of hitting his not-so-superior officer, and got a bad conduct discharge, which really cuts into your employment opportunities.

He and Parker head back to the Vimorama, and as they get there, all hell breaks loose. Negli comes after Parker, and ends up shooting the very confused Shelly dead, when Shelly pulls out his gun to shoot The Amateur, who has just showed up to try and kill Parker. The Amateur thinks Negli is on his side, but Negli, not having been properly briefed, starts shooting at him too. Then Kifka comes running out, stark naked, guns blazing–The Amateur pots him, then runs the hell away. Parker goes after The Amateur. Negli goes after Parker. And Janey, holding her dead lover’s head in her lap, goes out of her mind.

Enter Dougherty–a bit late–and he’s more or less figured out the confusing scenario that greets him there at the Vimorama, though he’ll never know precisely what happened, or why. He realizes Parker and Ellie’s murderer have both hared it into the woods. He could go after them, like Dirty Harry would (not that anybody’s getting that ref for another eight years or so) but instead he suddenly realizes–he’s a cop. There’s a girl here who needs help–no matter what dodgy taste in boyfriends she may have, she’s one of the citizens he gets paid to protect. There’s a crime scene that needs to be investigated. Running into the woods like a crazy man because a crook made him feel small for a moment isn’t going to fix anything. It’s time for him to do his job.

And then he gets his karmic reward for remembering who he really is–a car full of stolen money The Amateur left behind. Detective Second Grade here we come. But he’ll never lay eyes on Parker again–let alone cuffs. Dougherty and the cops are no longer part of this story. And then there were three.

Parker has to think very quickly now. The Amateur tries to get to his car, but a near-miss from Parker’s gun makes him run into the woods instead. He’s a football player, running back maybe, and he can go a bit faster than Parker. Parker realizes the money must be in the car–he could stop, take care of Negli, drive off, take the whole score for himself, forget The Amateur. He never considers doing this for even a fraction of a second.

As they go through the woods, The Amateur, panicked and fighting his way through heavy brush, gets slower and slower, while Parker, following the trail his quarry makes, gets closer and closer. He’s never been more an embodiment of The Hunter than he is right now. The Amateur comes to a clearing created by a construction sight, and tries to make it across–Parker stops, carefully sights his pistol, and drops him. And just like that, a switch flips in his head. Believing The Amateur is dead, he’s his normal self again–well, he’s his usual self again.

Just in time, because a bullet from Negli’s little .25 automatic grazes his ear. Parker doubles back on Negli, hiding in the underbrush, as slow and careful and silent as a wolf“–amazing to me I never noticed that until I reread this book. Meanwhile, Negli, his grief in complete control of his actions now, the professional in him stone cold dead, rants into the empty air about how Feccio is dead, everyone is dead, all because of Parker. Every time he yells out into the woods, Parker moves a bit closer, Negli’s voice covering up the sound of his approach. Negli should know this. He’s not stupid. But he keeps shouting.

What Negli doesn’t know is that until he told Parker everything that happened, Parker was going to try and capture him alive, so he could learn what had been going on in his absence–information he needs to have. But Negli told him–his human rage, his need to assign blame, to try and make Parker understand his crimes, his failures, his inferiority, has negated any possible usefulness he might have to Parker. Parker knows all he needs to know now. The job has been spoiled. His colleagues are all dead or jailed. Negli is as dead as any of them. All that remains now is escape.

Guilt? Parker literally does not know the meaning of the word. He did what he had to do. If any of them had decided to run, instead of staying to help him find the money and The Amateur, he wouldn’t have stopped them. They made their own choices. What’s past is past.

Negli, still raving, calls Parker an animal–he doesn’t know just how right he is. He also doesn’t know Parker is right behind him, his gun pointed at the back of Negli’s head. Negli tells Parker to come out and fight like a man. Bad choice of words.

With Negli finished, Parker buries his guns, and heads back to The Amateur’s car–only to find the cops beat him to it. Nothing to do but work his way back to the construction site–and then he sees The Amateur’s body isn’t there. He isn’t dead yet.

Taking Negli’s tiny gun, with one remaining bullet, he heads for the half-constructed office tower, 20 stories high, looming in the twilight, cranes and pulleys sprouting from the top “looking like unruly hair on the head of a Mongoloid idiot”, and narrowly escapes being cut in half by a sheet of window glass The Amateur tried to drop on him. He knows where the quarry is now.

The chase becomes vertical in nature, each man working his way higher and higher up, in a structure that doesn’t even have walls on the upper floors yet. The Amateur, in a state of absolute terror now, leaves a small pile of cash for Parker, like a propitiatory offering for an angry god–or demon. Parker takes the cash and keeps coming, realizing now that not all the loot has been lost to the law.

He finds The Amateur at the top, his gun (actually Rudd’s) thrown away in surrender to this implacable force of retribution–nowhere else to run. He begs incoherently for his life, telling Parker Ellie had it coming, it was all her fault, he had just tried to give her what she wanted–Parker cuts him short. He doesn’t need any more backstory.

And then it’s time to count the money in the dead man’s pockets–sixteen thousand three hundred dollars. Just a bit less than he’d have gotten anyway, if everything had gone according to plan. And up above the trees, in the darkness of night, with the world spread out beneath him, Parker laughs out loud at the sheer absurdity of it all. There’s that much humanity left in him. Though it must be said–wolves do laugh. My dog does, all the time. Mostly at me.

I’d like to think that he came back into Monequois some night, long after Ellie Canaday was buried, and placed an opened bottle of beer on her grave. But I don’t really believe it.

It’s a unique piece of work–I defy anyone to show me a story anything like it, in the heist genre or anywhere else. What’s most interesting about it is that Parker is not in full control of himself until the very end–the point where he first thinks he’s killed The Amateur. He had temporarily lost a part of himself–the part that’s in control, that weighs the odds–then he gets it back, and that’s when he wins, finishes Negli and The Amateur, gets his rightful share of the loot, gets away clean once again.

He and Dougherty both get rewarded (with cash!) for remembering who they are. The rest are punished, not for their crimes, but for not knowing themselves well enough. It’s a strange morality you find in the world of Richard Stark. Amorality? I wouldn’t call it that. Alternate Morality. It’s not what you do. It’s the way that you do it. And the why.

And in our next book, we’ll see that Westlake feels just the same way about it, differently as he approaches the matter–back to Random House, for another ‘Nephew’ story–this one about a protagonist so different from Parker, they don’t seem to even occupy the same universe, let alone the same head. But in the imagination of Donald E. Westlake, there was room for everyone. Spy you later.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels