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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20 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

20 responses to “Review: The Handle (AKA Run Lethal)

  1. Parker’s relationship with Groefield is interesting. This is not the first time Parker bends a little when it comes to his impulsive colleague, and it’s not the last time he goes out of his way to rescue him. In Butcher’s Moon, other characters even call Parker on his uncharacteristic behavior when it comes to Grofield. Each time, he has a reason (“We were working together”; “These people nailed my foot to the floor”), and each time he’s right — there’s a way to frame his actions so that they fit into Parker’s worldview. But swap in Mike Carlow, say, for Grofield, and does Parker still commandeer a government helicopter to go find him? It’s an interesting question. It could be that some of Westlake’s love of the character is seeping into Parker’s bones, but I think there’s a friendship there, unspoken and unexamined (especially by Parker), that’s not there with any of Parker’s other heist partners, even Handy McKay, the closest thing Parker ever has to a sidekick.

  2. Or it could be that Stark is whispering in Parker’s ear, saying “You got to save him–Don wrangled a contract with Macmillan, and we need the extra dough. Do it, or next time you have to listen to the entire history of western Europe before you pull the job.”

    Lots of people have said this about Parker and Grofield, myself included, and there’s something to it, but maybe less than we think. Parker, let’s remember, leaves an unconscious Grofield very readily in Slayground, and hearing later that he survived but was taken by the law, thinks merely that a bit of time in jail will be a good learning experience for him.

    And in this book he didn’t come to rescue Grofield, but to get his money–then seeing Grofield is alive, his internal protocols will not allow him to just walk away and leave his partner to his fate. He will get you your share whether he likes you or not, as long as you were straight with him on the actual job, and still have a pulse. We’ll see this in the next book. Maybe he’s a touch more diligent about it for some than others–but that could just be pragmatism–truly reliable work partners are hard to find in his business. If Grofield dies, Parker can’t work with him again. I don’t think you can explain everything in Darwinian terms, but you can explain a lot that way. Pretty much every higher emotion we feel started out as a survival-based instinct. Instincts really are just targeted emotions.

    He doesn’t have any idea of right or wrong in a moral sense–just right or wrong in what I guess you could call an OCD sense. “This looks right.” “This feels wrong.” We all have external learned rules–our codes, in noir-speak–that work more or less in tandem with our consciences (which I like to think we’re born with, though Freud would disagree). It’s like something I read once about Charles Proteus Steinmetz wearing two watches at the same time–they may not always agree, but they help keep each other honest. In theory.

    And frequently our inner moral compass and the rules we learn growing up are in conflict–create a dualism. Our innate impulses are not always trustworthy–and civilization’s rules can be more screwed up than any criminal’s. Huck Finn is taught all his life that black people are property, and it’s wrong to steal, and that means he’ll go to hell for helping Jim escape. So he finally decides he loves Jim more than he fears hell (which sounds less boring than heaven anyway). It’s easy for us to say he did the right thing, in a world without a fugitive slave law, or (for most of us) an ingrained belief in eternal damnation.

    In the same situation, Parker would just not understand the concept that a person could be property. It wouldn’t make any connection with his brain–our prejudices are just random noise he filters out. He might well abandon Jim to his fate, but not if they were working a job together and there was some way for them both to get away clean. There is no way in hell you could ever make him worry about what happens after you die. As to man’s law, we know what he thinks about that. He obviously learned a few basic rules from the heisters he worked with, but he always listens to the inner voice first. If the unwritten law conflicts with the unspoken law, he goes with the latter.

    Does this make him a good person? You might as well ask if the coyote eating your cat in the back yard is a good person. He is to other coyotes. And maybe to all the birds your cat was going to eat.

    What triggers the ‘rescue’ in this book is that they were working on a job together (and a job in which Grofield had acquitted himself especially well)–to me, that says Parker temporarily sees Grofield as a fellow wolf–that doesn’t mean he’ll commit suicide for the guy, but he’ll stick his neck out a bit further than normal.

    We’re a long way from Butcher’s Moon, but I talked about this elsewhere–if they hadn’t given him the finger, he wouldn’t have felt such a driving need to rescue Grofield (again). Did some sense of camaraderie with Grofield make the response a bit more extreme than might otherwise have been the case? Unknown.

    Again, I think Parker functions mainly on instinct, and when we hear his thoughts, we’re just hearing his conscious mind imperfectly explaining choices he made on an unconscious level. A fellow professional on a job has certain rights–as Westlake puts it, Parker has a very small circle, but when you’re in it, he’ll go the extra yard for you. But exactly how far he’ll go is never easy to predict.

    You can never be sure with Parker, and that’s partly Westlake making it ambiguous on purpose to intrigue the reader–but it’s also that Westlake isn’t quite sure himself why Parker does what he does–he feels like he’s closer to the mark in some instances than others–that’s why he hated The Jugger. That’s why he stopped writing books that had a ready-made market for several decades, because he felt like Richard Stark had gone out for beer and not come back.

    (Btw, name other other genre writer who ever did something like that. Parker was his most popular character–Dortmunder was unproven–Tobin and Grofield were done. You think Ian Fleming would have stopped writing Bond novels because he didn’t think he was getting Bond right anymore? He wrote a goddam shippy fanfic from the perspective of this drippy Canadian girl who Bond saves from gangsters, and he actually published it. And he was freakin’ RICH by then. Conan Doyle stopped writing Holmes because he was sick to death of Holmes, not because he thought he wasn’t getting the voice right anymore. It’s unusual. You have to admit that.)

    There’s always this process of interpretation going on–Parker talks to Stark, Stark talks to Westlake, and something’s always lost in translation. So we’re free to explain it as we please. My explanation is that Parker is a wolf, and sometimes wolves go out of their way for other wolves. And sometimes they don’t. And we’ll never be 100% sure why that is. Hell, we don’t even know why we do most of the shit we do. Like for example, why is this response to your post almost as long as the review? I have NO idea.

    😉

  3. You hailed this novel as anti-spy, or anti-Bond, but look at the cover? A word on spies? Nope. Publisher didn’t do it, focused more on heist side, than on international intrigue side.
    The back cover has probably my favorite quote from Parker: I don’t kill for hire. That’s right, Parker’s way off a hired gun.
    Yet I wished Parker would kill those two Federal men. And that’s why.
    I was hurt to see that Parker would in any way help law. It is one thing to go to a homicide dick and threaten him and his family to obtain information, and quite the other thing to help Federal agents, even because it was probably an easy way out.
    I believe a career criminal would never do that, more so that he had an opportunity to kill them and run. What two more deaths mean when you are already done for one? And after killing two G-men life for Parker would become much harder. Ain’t it what we want, so Parker’s life become hell – and the tougher for Parker, the happier for the reader.
    I believe Parker bended here. The Handle is someone’s favorite (I know that Dick Lochte considers it the best Parker), not mine certainly. The whole setup is shaky and not in Parker’s character. Working for the Outfit, helping the government, not killing two Feds – I won’t say I view this as a beginning of Parker’s mellowness, but it’s close. Even helping Grofield looks in character, on the background of other stuff.

    Aside all that, am I mistaken in my thinking that Parker never ages? I thought Westlake mentioned it somewhere that time changes, but Parker doesn’t?

    • This is Harry Bennett’s last cover for a Parker novel–and artistically speaking, it’s beautiful. A small masterpiece of design–just the title is a treat for the eyes. And as an illustration of the book’s events, it’s horrible. Who is the little bald guy in the blue suit supposed to be, Salsa or Grofield? A Fed? Why is Crystal dressed like she’s at a society ball–and a redhead to boot? Why is Parker (assuming that is Parker) looking so slovenly? He’s supposed to be blending in. Crystal is overdressed (where’s her tiara?), he’s underdressed (where’s his tie?).

      So this ties in with what you’re saying–the book’s cover doesn’t match its contents–and this isn’t so surprising, because this is the last Parker published by Pocket. It’s one of the last original crime novels published by Pocket. As we discussed earlier, Pocket just shut down that whole division, leaving Westlake scrambling to find a home for Parker (and for Grofield’s upcoming solo outings). The original paperback–crime, spy, western, etc–is already well past its heyday. Westlake came in right at the end of that era. My guess is that neither the people writing the copy for the cover, or the guy illustrating it, had actually read the book. But it may also be that they didn’t know how to explain or illustrate Parker being in a spy novel.

      Remember, the line between crime fiction and spy fiction is very thin indeed–in many of the Bond novels, he’s actually dealing with criminals, gangsters of one type or another (The Spy Who Loved Me, Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, Goldfinger). Sure, there’s a difference between (let’s say) Hugo Drax and Auric Goldfinger, but it’s hard to put your finger on. They are both fanciful larger-than-life villains, just motivated a touch differently. The main difference is that Drax is a Nazi–which makes him a villain by definition.

      You can see Westlake playing with that cliche in The Handle–Baron personally despised the Nazis, but used them the same way he used everyone else. He’s a deliberate anti-type–the antithesis of a Bond villain. Bond villains are villains because they want to do evil for evil’s sake–and because they don’t know the right wine to have at dinner. Or which fork to use. Or how to play cards like a gentleman. They aspire to some level of refinement only a true English gentleman–like Bond (and Fleming)–can ever achieve. Baron is genuine nobility, knows all the social graces–he’s as much a gentleman as Bond, more. That doesn’t make him a stand-up guy–not in Parker’s world. Parker doesn’t give a damn which wine you serve at dinner.

      As to Parker killing the agents–he’s got a lot to lose there, and he never kills when it’s not necessary. He’d kill them if he had to, but c’mon–how many times does he ever kill lawmen in any of the books? They found him once, and sufficiently motivated, could do so again. He does knock out Mr. England, which is a pretty serious crime in itself, but it’s not in England’s jurisdiction–officially, he’s not even there, so he can’t very well file charges. But if Parker killed him, there’d be a massive manhunt–as matters stand, they won’t be able to justify the resources to the people holding the purse strings.

      It’s not that his sentence, if caught, would be any worse (though killing two Feds might well bring the death penalty)–but you don’t bring down more heat on yourself if you don’t have to. Parker does as little as possible to get what he wants. He only killed that prison guard because his inner turmoil over Lynn’s betrayal had temporarily unbalanced him. He’s in full control of himself here. Personally, I’m more disappointed that he didn’t get to kill Yancy, but that’s intentional–Parker isn’t going to waste energy proving what he already knows. Yancy can go blow himself. A few more weeks of heavy drinking, he won’t even remember why he was mad at Parker. A few more years, he’ll be too busy trying to get a liver transplant.

      Parker is not helping the Feds–they are helping him. All they wanted from him was Baron–alive and kicking and spilling information about his Russian and Cuban associates. They wanted Baron tried and imprisoned–though how much you want to bet that if they had arrested him, he’d have somehow conned them into letting him work for them? The reason Baron dies the way he does is that he finally ran into somebody he couldn’t negotiate with. A situation he couldn’t talk his way out of.

      Most likely, they’ll never even find Baron’s body. They won’t know what happened to him. They can’t file a complete report. They get no brownie points from their bosses for any of this, and they spent millions of dollars in tax money (and released a child molester from prison). Karns got what he wanted–the destruction of Baron’s casino–because he approached Parker the right way–made a reasonable offer. The Feds just used threats–all stick, no carrot–Parker figures he owes them nothing. But he uses their desperate need to somehow justify the expense of their operation to get what he needs from them–he uses their ships, their planes, their helicopter, to get back on Baron’s trail–and their jeep to get him and Grofield away clean.

      I consider it a good book–a worthy variation–but not one of the absolute best of the series. That’s less about Parker than about Westlake–he’s always better working in more familiar territory (though I think he knew Mexico pretty well–at the end, he must have smiled one last wry smile realizing that he was dying there, just like Baron). But he’s got to test himself, stretch out sometimes. Or he’ll get stale, bogged down in ritual. He wants to see how Parker would respond in a Bond-like situation, and the only way to know is to write that story.

      Parker stays the same on the inside, but it’s my strong belief that he is physically aging throughout the series. Remember, in Comeback only a short time has passed since the events of Butcher’s Moon–even though suddenly we’re in the modern era, with cellphones, and the internet, and different cars. He’s clearly a middle-aged man by the end of the series. Of course, his version of middle age is a lot different than the average guy’s.

      That could also explain why Grofield never appears again after Butcher’s Moon–he didn’t make that great leap forward in time. He made a great leap sideways–into the world of Dortmunder. Which should hopefully motivate you to read some Dortmunders.

  4. You still don’t convince me here, Chris. Criminals helping the law who thinks they do that just to fool the law – yes, we read about that type a lot of times. But any help to the law damages my image of Parker. I can’t say Parker turned rat here – certainly not. But a criminal like Parker never, ever would consider work with the law.
    Yes, he fooled the Feds and Baron, as he fooled many more before them. But some stain remained on Parker forever.

  5. Ray, did you ever hear of Whitey Bulger? I know it sounds like a made-up name, but he really did (and does) exist.

    Mob guy, Irish, South Boston. The Feds approached him about being an informant, and basically his choice was to play along or go to jail, so he played along (this is an old old story, and it almost never goes well for the Feds). Privately, after talking to the agents, he said “Alright, if they want to play checkers, we’ll play chess. Fuck ’em.”

    He played chess with them for years and years, and basically got a lot of out them, while giving them jack spit, and committing a long list of capital crimes. Finally, when that game was up he went underground for the better part of two decades–they finally caught him and sent him to jail. He was in his 80’s by then. Wow, swift justice.

    So basically, he stole and swindled and murdered for decades, right under the noses of the Feds, and to some extent protected by them. When he couldn’t do that anymore, he just disappeared, and by the time they caught up with him (in 2011) he was a very old man–I’m sure they treat him like a celebrity in the joint. I will bet you any amount of money he’s far better off there than a friend of mine who was honest all his life was when he hit his head and woke up in a bad nursing home, and died there a few months later–they wouldn’t even let him go down to the snack bar, and he never got to go outside for the rest of his life–this was a guy who spent most of his life outside. I guarantee you Bulger can go out into the exercise yard anytime he wants.

    So life is unfair, and we all knew that, but my point is this–Parker gives the law NOTHING they wanted. He says he’ll turn Baron over to them in exchange for them not sending him and his colleagues to prison, but he never has any intention of doing this, and he doesn’t even try to find Baron (which in retrospect, he probably should have, since Baron ended up finding him).

    Then he makes basically the same deal, only this time he’s getting free medical attention, search planes, navy ships, and over a hundred men out looking for the boat, so he can get back on Baron’s trail Then he gets a free jeep out of them, which he uses to find his money, and get him and his partner to safety.

    Now it turns out Baron is dead, so he couldn’t keep that agreement if he wanted to, but c’mon–most he would have done is kill Baron himself. He was never working with the law. The law was working for him. Same as Whitey Bulger. They got even less out of Parker than they got out of Whitey, and Whitey never had the goddam navy working for him.

    I don’t claim it’s a perfect analogy, and I know Parker is a fantasy of a criminal, not a real one. All the same, I must point out that Whitey Bulger worked with the law for a very long time, and if Whitey Bulger wasn’t a real criminal, there’s no such damned thing.

    My primary critique is that it’s set in Texas and Mexico. I like Parker to stick to the Northeast as much as possible. The Midwest is okay. California is barely acceptable. We all have our tastes, and it’s unreasonable to expect Mr. Westlake to satisfy all the people all of the time. 😉

  6. I know about Bulger, and he’s not a prefect example of a criminal for me. He had a titman in his team, Johnny Martorano, he’s more my type of a criminal. Although Martorano also turned rat after years in hiding, I accept his position and his working with prosecution. “You can’t rat on a rat”, that was his words.
    Anyway, I would like to read a Parker novel where some Parker’s collegue would turn rat. I don’t remember that any heister from the Parker universe would help the law (Sheer is the closest case, but that’s the special situation). You probably will name Yancy, I don’t remember him.

    • Yancy was an Outfit guy, assigned by Karns to be his liaison with Parker, and he doesn’t work with the law at any point in the book.

      Much much later in the series (Nobody Runs Forever), Parker does notice that a fellow heister he’s playing cards with is wearing a wire. He isn’t technically working with Parker at the time. Or after Parker is done with him, with anyone else. Later in that final trilogy of books, he’s out to kill another associate who has killed a cop, and who Parker thinks will turn him in to the law in exchange for a lighter sentence, if captured. Parker himself, when captured in Breakout, never so much as suggests turning state’s evidence. He never admits to anything.

      A rat is somebody who gives information on somebody else in the criminal underworld–Bulger certainly was a rat in that sense, though it’s debatable whether he ever gave the law anything they could really use.

      That hardly applies here. Baron is not part of Parker’s world, and Parker never gives the law any information about him, nor does he ever have the slightest intention of helping them get Baron. Furthermore, this isn’t ‘the law’ in the usual sense–these aren’t cops, not even Federal cops. They aren’t involved in domestic law enforcement, which is why they can let Parker go. They’re more like CIA or OSS. They want Baron for his wartime activities, and for his connection to the KGB and the Cubans.

      Btw, people like this are still cutting deals with criminals. And most of the time, getting snookered.

  7. PaperbackFilmProjector

    Great review, Fred. I wonder if THE HANDLE was partly responsible for the creation of Mack Bolan and other men’s adventure paperback series in the ’70s. I noticed you added the poster for TOMORROW NEVER DIES — I’m assuming because of Westlake’s involvement in the screenplay for that film. MI6 Confidential recently published an article on Westlake’s story treatments for TND (as well as an unpublished novel based on the first treatment): https://www.mi6confidential.com/issue_32.php

    • I don’t believe the Mack Bolan stories needed Stark for their inspiration, PFP, and tend to doubt Westlake would have wanted to acknowledge even indirect responsibility for their genesis, had there been any (can you point to any very specific similarities between this and any of the Pendleton books?). I’d say The Outfit and Butcher’s Moon are closer in spirit to those stories, but not by much. The debt Marvel’s Punisher owes to The Executioner is indisputable, but since all his movies flop, who cares? 😉

      Please note the very important difference between them–Parker’s only cause is Parker. He’s not out to cleanse the world of evil, any more than an urban coyote eating rats and feral cats is out to cleanse the world of pests. If some villainous people meet their ends in the course of him conducting business, we may view that as a desirable byproduct of his own deeply anti-social activities. He isn’t a hero, and he has some measure of contempt for those who aspire to be heroes. He thinks they do more harm than good. He has a point.

      I think the most likely explanation for any similarities you might find between The Handle and the Executioner novels would be that they were both influenced by Fleming and other authors of that general type. Difference is, Westlake is poking gentle fun at his sources, and Pendleton is maybe taking them a bit more seriously.

      I mentioned Westlake’s treatment for that Bond film in my review, and I am afraid I shall probably have to spring for that issue of the magazine which contains this article you referenced. I will want to try myself to solve the mystery of how much of Westlake’s original ideas remained once that film was completed. I know much less about Bond, but (hopefully) a lot more about Westlake, so I may pick up on some things the author of that piece missed.

  8. Anthony

    Pretty sure Dortmunder is too

  9. Anthony

    Typed too fast, Meant to say pretty sure that Dortmunder is pretty sure that Diddums is not Welsh too. Or something.

    It is a great running gag though. Always makes me laugh

    • Don’t see how Dortmunder could be sure of anything regarding his ancestry, given that he was raised by nuns, with apparently no knowledge of his parents (I think the same probably holds true for Parker, sans the nuns). It doesn’t seem to trouble him much. He just stole himself a coat of arms, and acquired a family more or less by accretion.

      If Westlake had been a bit more vague about Dortmunder’s age, I’d be tempted to float a theory that he and Parker are fraternal twins–the Romulus and Remus of heisting, separated at birth. I half-suspect Westlake avoided such vagueness (and made Parker fictional in Dortmunder’s world) precisely to block such silly speculations. Bastard. Never lets us have any fun. Sherlock Holmes fans even got to speculate Watson was a woman. 😉

  10. Anthony

    Wolf and Coyote work well enough for me, although even that is somewhat flawed. Coyote as the “trickster” – at least in the cultural connotation – partially covers Dortmunder’s methods of doing business but is still slightly off. Dortmunder IS a trickster in the sense of being extremely crafty, but NOT in the sense of being a joker. Does he even have a sense of humor? Seems doubtful. It all (movies, TV, Kelp’s witticisms) seems to just wash over him,

    If we are talking just the animals, though, without the cultural baggage, then coyote is just fine. A scavenger, indifferent to appearances, open to any form of treasure (food) that crosses its path, fierce when corner or riled. Yep. That’s our Dortmunder.

    • Tricksters are not all of a piece, I think. They are often quite serious figures. Dortmunder is very serious about what he does, and rarely cracks a joke (but then again, his coat of arms, complete with motto, is pure whimsy on his part). Westlake referred very explicitly to the Trickster archetype in Help I Am Being Held Prisoner–with Dortmunder, he was more oblique. And overall, that was more effective.

      Let us say that in the Dortmunders, we get multiple forms of Tricksterism–Dortmunder’s is one, Kelp’s another, and there may be others (as in Jimmy the Kid). The Trickster often gets tricked–that’s part and parcel of the myth-form. But he generally wins out in the end. Then loses everything he’s won. Perhaps at the roulette wheel. Or the race track. 😉

  11. We now know that Westlake had another novel in him that would comment on the Bond series, but it would be many, many years before it would see the light of day.

    After reading Dirty Money, I wondered if Westlake was planning to revisit some of the ideas explored in The Handle, but (like the rest of the final eight) likely stripped of the romance. Parker was building a (very tentative) relationship with an Outfit equivalent at the end of the series, and it seems only a matter of time before they came calling, needing a favor from a man with Parker’s expertise. It’d have been interesting to see how this would have played out in the 21st century.

    • That’s one possible avenue of exploration. He’s essentially building up a new Outfit, in Firebreak and Dirty Money. A bit more rooted in the here and now. Connected to the Russian mob, rather than the Sicilian one. And sure, they might have a job for him–and a handle on him, after the last book. Parker won’t like it if they grasp that handle too firmly.

      It wouldn’t have gone as smoothly as it did in The Handle. That was a strictly business proposition, that Parker grudgingly accepted. Karns is a reasonable man who at least half-understands Parker. I don’t get that same feeling about Joseph Albert–maybe his hulking lieutenant with the rings. We’ll talk about it when we get to it. Won’t be long now.

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