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, 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–
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.