“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). 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.
58 responses to “Review: The Handle (AKA Run Lethal)”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 😉
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.
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.
“The name is Diddums. John Diddums. It’s Welsh.”
He made more explicit Bond references than that.
Pretty sure it’s not Welsh, btw. 🙂
Pretty sure Dortmunder is too
Welsh? That’s a rare bit of nonsense, if ever I heard one. 😐
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. 😉
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. 😉
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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This is a guilty pleasure Parker novel for me. For some reason, I’m a fan of it although it’s definitely not top 10 material. * Maybe it’s the Bondian set-up, situation and trappings. Maybe it’s the teaming of Parker, Grofield and Salsa. I don’t know. I just like it.
One thing struck me, though. Do you think it was a deliberate choice that Stark left Baron an ambiguous character, as far as sex? Since his life story is described in such detail, and given the paradise island set-up and lifestyle he enjoys, it seems odd that there’s not even a passing mention of any women in his life, ever — even if he’s just taking liberties with the women who staff the cottages. On the other hand, it also says Baron and Steuber were each other’s family, world, etc. in ways neither of them quite understood. Was Stark implying something, or was it just not that important an area to get into with this character? With other villains, like Mal Resnick, you see how their sexual peccadilloes come into play in bringing about their downfall.
* And just for the record, here’s my top 10:
1. The Man with the Getaway Face
2. The Outfit
3. The Hunter
4. The Mourner
5. The Score
6. Butcher’s Moon
7. The Jugger
8. Plunder Squad
10. The Seventh
It’s definitely not one of the top ten, but can I ask–how many times have you read it thus far?
I’ve probably been through it at least four or five times. Never fails to grab me, I never feel like I’m just being entertained (though that I am being, for damn sure). There is a philosophy being illumined here, an underlying ethos you barely glimpse between gun battles (or during them), and taking Parker out of his usual environs somehow does have the effect of making aspects of it a bit more clear. Doesn’t stick out at all. All the moving parts fit together just right, in a way that is just hard to find anywhere else.
Moonraker, the only Bond outing I’ve read, is considered the best Ian Fleming by many–and going by that, I’m assuming all the Bonds combined don’t add up to one Stark.
I’ve read quite a few other KissKissBangBangs, including all but one of the Johnny Fedora books by Desmond Cory (also a pseudonym). Thought he might be an influence on Stark, and he might well have been, but if so, this is a case of the influence being far outstripped by the influenced.
I found some of the Fedoras mediocre, some little more than workmanlike, and a few of the later ones inflectively reflective (it’s a compliment), but I never, at any time, thought “I’m going to read this again.” Probably never read any of them all the way through again. Enjoyable, for sure. Not enough to sustain a reread, for me. The potential is there, but it hasn’t been developed–or maybe by the end it’s overdeveloped. Too many moving parts, and they never fit together quite right. Cory either writes too little or too much. Never just enough.
I don’t know that The Handle is a secret agent novel, but it consciously echoes this related genre (as many spy novels consciously echo crime fiction), and it works in a way they don’t. Because Parker feels real in a way fictional spies don’t. (I’ve yet to read Le Carre, and obviously he’s in a different category). So it ends up being an incisive commentary on a hugely influential (and insanely profitable) category of fiction, without even trying.
I have no problems with your list (am intrigued by your inclusion of Breakout), but mine might differ. I guess my list would be “Everything but Flashfire” and I’ve read Flashfire at least three times. I’ll get to it at least once more before I kick.
Somehow, it’s all just One Big Novel, and each individual novel is just a chapter in the saga. Then the saga ends. Without ending. And it feels right. You don’t feel cheated.
How did he do that? Has anyone else ever done that?
And why would any of us feel guilty about experiencing pleasure, and yet be reading novels about theft, murder, and the odd bit of fornication?
Parker would just shake his head at that. You know he would. You can see him doing it.
I’ve read “The Handle” probably about five times now, and I am now getting into the Grofield novels as well. When I finally finished the Parker series for the first time, a few months ago, my reaction was like a little kid getting off a roller coaster: Again, again! So I went Stark raving mad and right back to the beginning.
As far as Breakout, for me it is easily the best of the Final Eight. It’s the novelty of seeing Parker in prison and how is he going to get out? Plus the plotting and characters are excellent.
I’d give Bond a chance, at least the Fleming books, not so much anyone who followed him. “Live and Let Die” is excellent in terms of plot and character, and the story is way better than the film that got made, which was different in a number of ways. Some of the bits from the book were actually used later in “Licence to Kill.” But I have to issue a prefatory apology: Fleming’s writing often veers into a condescending racism, and “Live and Let Die” is one of the worst examples of this. So keep that in mind if you do choose to read it.
LIke I couldn’t know that from the movie? Which I’m sure dialed it back a country mile, but there it is, all the same.
Racism is quite often a symptom of failing to know oneself. A condition we all suffer from to some extent, but some much more than others. And good writing is never the result.
And that’s the key to Parker, and Stark. They know exactly who they are, and what they’re here to do. There’s a stripped-down purity to the books I can’t find anywhere else. Wish I could. Parker couldn’t be racist, because to him, we’re all the same race. A different species entirely, and he’d be sorry for us, if there was any point.
One reason I consider The Black Ice Score an underrated entry in the series. Not a PC bone in Stark’s metaphorical body. But he understands that the point of despising that poison is not what it does to others, but what it does to you. If you let it.
Top Ten Parkers. That’s an elusive list for me. I find it easier to pick out a favorite from each publishing house or era, like the Pocket Books era (“The Score”), the Gold Medal era (“The Green Eagle Score”), the Random House era (tie: “Butchers’s Moon”/”Slayground”), the Mysterious Press era (“Backflash”), and the final triptych (“Ask the Parrot”). Still, if pressed, my Top Ten, right now, today, would be:
The Green Eagle Score
(list/order likely to change as soon as tomorrow)
The Score has to be included. Ditto The Seventh, and Slayground. They are the ones you’d give to somebody you’re trying to hook on the series. (The Hunter might scare some away.)
Then there are the ones for the advanced class–The Jugger, The Green Eagle Score, Butcher’s Moon, Plunder Squad. Books that changed things up, stretched the formula. Less perfectly crafted, but maybe a bit more depth to them.
Oh hell, let me try it again–not ranking, just listing, chronologically.
The Man With the Getaway Face
The Rare Coin Score
The Sour Lemon Score
Ask the Parrot
And already I’m unhappy with it. Not with what I included, but what I left out.
Don’t break up the set.
Still slowly working through the series, so no top ten from me yet 🙂 But no Hunter on yours, sir? Is that even allowed on the internet? 😳
Btw, I know you’re not a fan of Backflash, but if you want to try it again sometime, Robert Davi narrates an audiobook of it that is available via some library systems.
And thanks again for all the great articles. Stay safe
I don’t think I need to apologize to the first Parker novel, since I’ve gone to great pains to document its antecedents, and to demonstrate what a lasting influence it’s had. I don’t consider it one of the ten best novels in the series–well, it’s probably the best series ever. Tough competition.
It’s a great starting point, full of potential, but I believe Westlake improved greatly on his beginning, came to a far better understanding of his creation, and as a heist novel, it’s actually not that good. It’s not mainly about the heists, is it? Parker is homophobic and misogynist in it–which can be explained by the unsettled state his mind is in, due to Lynn’s betrayal. He’s shedding what little humanity he had to start with during that book, becoming something more dangerous, more alien–more wolflike. And a wolf has no human prejudices.
See, Westlake wrote that book with the idea that Parker would die at the end of it. Parker is a character who is clearly cast in the mold of many other intriguing anti-heroes of crime fiction, who fascinate us a short time, then meet a bloody end. However, Bucklin Moon saw what Westlake only half-realized–that Parker had a lot of books in him. That he ended the book as a different character than the one he began it as. That he’d earned his survival.
This was a seminal moment for Westlake–it changed his conception of what was possible in this genre. However, he didn’t want to rewrite the entire book–just the ending. So Parker begins the series as an unbalanced character–but by the end, he’s stabilized–more than most of us will ever be. This makes the book less of a coherent organic whole. The author changed his mind in the course of writing it. Which doesn’t detract from it, precisely–it just leaves the way open for better books coming.
I’m more interested in the character he becomes than the character he begins as–and I think the writing greatly improved over the subsequent books. Even though the writing in the first book is splendid–it’s still a bit too raw and emotional. Stark hasn’t fully emerged from the chrysalis yet.
I just don’t have the patience for audiobooks.
And you’re confusing Backflash with Flashfire. I love Backflash. In fact, I may even think it’s better than The Hunter (you can say anything the hell you want on the internet–whether that’s a good thing or not, I could not tell you.)
Hey, sorry, didn’t mean to ruffle any feathers. Just curious. I see your point about the Parker series being about heists, I guess for me The Hunter is fascinating because we see Parker coming out of his chrysalis, as you put it so well. I feel like it has more heist to it than The Seventh, which I really liked, but it’s main thrust is a revenge thriller.
And sorry about the Backflash/Flashfire confusion, it was a late night 🙂
I’m always pleased to discuss these books. And to correct what I perceive as the misperceptions of others about them. I can literally do that all day. Not enough eyerolls in the world.
The question is not whether The Hunter is fascinating–is it as well-executed a book as some of the latter installments? Might want to read all of them before you pick a top ten–and once you reread them (and you will) your top ten could change. Mine has, repeatedly.
The Seventh isn’t mainly about the heist, but it is about Parker’s relationship with other heisters. He’s very much a lone wolf for most of The Hunter. In The Seventh, Stark contrives to have him remain in the company of his fellow professionals, much longer than he normally would, and under unusually stressful circumstances, where nobody is in his comfort zone. It doesn’t entirely go well (understatement much?), but that’s not Stark’s concern. He just wants to see what happens when armed robbers try to play detective to steal back their stolen cash.
From a purely heist-related standpoint, the standout is The Score.
THat’s the joy of rereading, seeing how your top ten changes as you see different things, and different things matter differently as one ages
Definitely want to read The Score. Was listening to it on audiobook — a necessary evil, currently — but it was so good that I want to wait until I can focus enough to read again, and enjoy it as God and Stark intended. I get maybe 50-70% enjoyment out of audio rather than the 100% out of reading, but any port in a storm…
Well worth the wait–hope the wait isn’t too long.
Me too! And then I can see / suffer through the film adaptation (Jim Brown, right)?
And it looks like Miss a Sac is on YouTube w English subtitles
Has been for some time now. Which did not escape attention here. I’m still pleased to have seen a pristine print at the Museum of Modern Art, with a packed house, and a mild cold (this was obviously pre-pandemic).
It’s both more and less than I’d hoped, back in the days when it was impossible to find it. And I still wish TCM would show it.
The Split, sadly, is mainly less. And gets shown on TCM all the time. Such is life.
Your analysis is spot-on, particularly the comparison with Bond. For me, a element of humor: England knows Parker’s background, his killed a guard in Calif., he is a seasoned heister, yet he insists on joining Parker in the jeep riding through the desert. I though when he sat in front with Parker in the back – you’re a dead man, pal. England is all government, all organization, one surefire way to be blind to the realities of someone like Parker, a wolf/man that refuses to be anybody’s lackey (like Bond). Compared to Parker, even the Outfit outlaws come off a morons.
Even Grofield (in many ways his own man) makes those feds look like stooges. Love that scene where Stark characterizes the typical government flunky as humorless, etc.. From my own experience, same could be said for corporate types. Government, corporations – different slices of the same stooge pie.
It’s not really made clear whether England is dead. For Parker’s purposes, it doesn’t matter if he lives or not. He didn’t need to know the man was dead, so he didn’t check. It wasn’t personal. Just business. Anyway, there’ll always be an England. 😉
The difference with Grofield is that he sees the humor (ie incongruity) in the situations he and Parker get into. He’s more like Westlake. He thinks about stuff. As I’ve said, he’s a Westlake character who kept popping up in Stark novels, then somehow ended up in Dortmunder novels (but he’s less interesting there, because there’s less contrast).
It’s not really made clear whether England is dead. ——- That’s right. I caught that one. However, smacked on the head with a wrench and lying in rural hinterlands, my bet is England is a goner. Typical organization man – left to his own resources, he doesn’t amount to much.
Grofield makes for a great contrast. Enjoyed where Grofield tells Parker they’re looking for their Charon. Very funny since, for Parker, Greek mythology ranks right up there with art history.
Well, just to be contrary, if the organization men hadn’t shown up after Parker was shot, with medical attention and fast transport, he might not have made it either, let alone gotten his money. Not that he’s ever going to thank them. But they did come in handy. They often do.
This one isn’t in most top tens, I bet. But it’s a lot of fun, and meant to be. You never know where this series will take you next, but you know it’ll be a ride.
Do you have any reflections on Salsa? I thought he could have saved his skin and head by being more clever rather than playing possum. Perhaps too many years being a revolutionary for a cause and sacrificing for a cause took the edge of his self-survival instinct.
He’s a supporting character. A lot of those get killed off in these books. He had a way of living that suited him, and it led to a way of dying that also somehow suited him.
I think that for him it’s a good death. To the extent death can ever be good.
But you understand, the main purpose of that murder (preceded by torture) was to demonstrate Baron isn’t as suave and self-controlled as he likes to think. When pushed to the wall, the Nazi in the Box pops out, out, jackboots and all. He thought he’d escaped all that, but it came back for him. It always does.
You ever seen Rossellini’s Open City? There’s a similar scene in there. In a very different setting.
You never really know what you’re made of until the test comes. Pray it never does.
But you understand, the main purpose of that murder (preceded by torture) was to demonstrate Baron isn’t as suave and self-controlled as he likes to think. When pushed to the wall, the Nazi in the Box pops out, out, jackboots and all. He thought he’d escaped all that, but it came back for him. It always does. —————– I didn’t catch that was the main purpose of the murder. But now I do – a jackboot jack-in-the-box. And Baron wasn’t exactly smart carrying around two heavy suitcases filled with loot in rural Mexico (unless I missed something, Baron does not even have a weapon on him).
Haven’t seen that movie. I’m not a big movie person. Don’t even watch films at home.
Well, when you’re a refugee, you don’t always get to make smart decisions. You just take what you can carry and split. You hope it works out. Very often, it doesn’t.
I suppose you could nitpick, say Baron should have had numbered bank accounts in Switzerland (not sure the Caymans were an option then). But he was trapped between a lot of powerful forces, legal and extra-legal, and walking a very narrow line indeed. He couldn’t afford to trust banks, and if he buries it, who says somebody else doesn’t dig it up? He only believed in what he could put his hands on. And by the time there were hands put on him, too late to think of another way to do it.
I think the point there is that Baron, barbaric as his behavior may be at times, is a civilized man. He was used to dealing with law-abiding people, had never been in a situation like this before, where some are living so far outside the rule of law, he no longer has an edge by being willing to bend and break the rules. Once all the rules are gone, everybody’s a criminal, and he was just a softer one, from years of easy living, and thinking of himself as being harder and more cunning than anyone else.
Westlake made a very similar point in his one science fiction novel, Anarchaos. Which now I think on it, he was consciously restating in this one.
Yet another rock solid entry in this series! Going in, I was expecting The Handle to be my least favorite of the original eight, partly due to the others setting the bar so high, mostly because I’m so not a James Bond fan, to the point where I don’t get much out of works poking fun at him or his conventions. And yet, this book surprised me! It’s still a step down from The Seventh (Of course, any follow up to that book WOULD be), but The Handle has too many great elements to label it a “Least favorite”.
It’s best element, for me, is Wolfgang Baron. I’m running out of different ways to say Westlake made a great villain. It’s not my fault he’s so good at this. Like The Amateur from last book, Baron is an unfortunately timely character (these guys never truly did go away, did they?), the “Moderate Nazi”. Sure, he joined the SS, willingly collaborated with the Nazis in the looting of French paintings, and committed countless other crimes during his service, but he wasn’t an ACTUAL Nazi! He didn’t believe in any of their beliefs, he didn’t commit war crimes (…out of self interest), he even made a few anti-Nazi jokes in private! And yet the Headhunters came for him anyway, obviously to keep the gravy train chugging along. I mean, why else, right?There’s a word to describe men like Baron, it’s called Nazi. And if Baron’s brutally bloody beating of Salsa is any indication, Westlake agrees.
Speaking of which, Salsa’s a pretty fun character here. His completely open attitude at having been a gigolo in the past is a really interesting and endearing trait. It’s a shame Westlake didn’t explore that further before killing him off.
I continue to be enthralled by the blue collar approach Westlake takes towards such mythic occupations like a heister or a fed agent. Nothing about civic duty or a need for adventure. These are jobs that put bread on the table, and they come with a lot of mundane bullshit you’d expect from a job (“Who’s available?” “Where can we find funding?” “What’s the pay?”).
Grofield is much better realised here than he was in The Score (makes sense, considering Westlake’s plans for him). One moment in particular that sticks out to me is when Grofield makes a mental note to call Mary after having sex with Crystal. It could just be simple guilt, but I honestly believe Grofield cares for Mary. This book surprisingly made me buy them as a couple and she didn’t even make an on page appearance. Also, I 100% believe Mary’s fucking other guys while Grofield’s away. Grofield probably even encourages it.
The Handle contains probably my favorite Parker moment in the series. When Yancy hands Parker a fancy map of the island, only for Parker to ditch it in favor of the technical blue print like map. It stuck with me ever since I first read this one years ago.
It’s funny, as soon it was mentioned that Parker didn’t like being on the ocean because he was effectively stranded, I immediately thought there should’ve been a Parker novel where he’s pulling a heist on a boat. And wouldn’t ya know it, the Comeback era apparently delivered on that potential with Backflash! Haven’t read it yet but now I’m extra hyped.
Ok, so I just talked about Grofield and Parker, now I HAVE to talk about the ending. This may be the feminine urge to find sentimentality in everything, but I was rather touched by it. The way Grofield thanks Parker for saving his life (and his share), and even the way Parker bats it away by simply stating “We were working together”. Hell, the fact that it’s not overtly sweet (like that would ever happen in these books) makes it even more impactful. Call me crazy but I think this was a geniune moment of sentimentality from Stark (Westlake sure didn’t mind being sentimental in his own books when the moment called for it).
And yeah, put me in the camp that believes Parker genuinely sees Grofield as a friend. True, he wasn’t looking for Grofield while with the feds, I should point out that Parker had already assumed Grofield was dead at this point. And yeah, he apparently leaves Grofield to get arrested in a later book. Of course, as I’ve argued before, leaving a man to jail and leaving a man to die are significantly different things. Or maybe I’m just anthropomorphizing, who knows?
When it comes to headcasting, I have a few ideas. I can imagine John Glover for two roles, Yancy, and Baron. He’d probably be more suited for Yancy, but Glover really shines when playing sophisticated cads. When it comes to Grofield, I have two rather unconventional choices: Paul Giamatti and Steve Buscemi. And I deliberately picked guys with average to short height because dammit Grofield should be a short guy, not a tall heavy!
There is one negative I have for the book. What was the purpose of making Heenan a pedophile? It’s mentioned once and then never mentioned again (Well, ok, it’s teased in a later chapter but it’s never fully stated outright again). It’d be one thing if the point was to establish how amoral Parker and co. were. Hell, a similar scene happened in The Score where they heard about Chambers’ brother being in jail for statutory rape and their only remark being “Damn, he would’ve been a good pick”. But no, Heenan is rejected by Parker and later on Grofield explains that he “had no idea about any of this”. If Heenan had revealed his charge and the crew hires him on anway because he’s good with boats, then I would at least respect The Handle for committing to the series’ amorality. Now there’s the obvious answer for why Heenan couldn’t work with Parker (and I’m not talking plotwise), because the partnership would make Parker look bad. And yeah, I find that notion hard to disagree with. Which begs the question: If Westlake didn’t want Parker working with a pedophile…Then why did he bring it up in the first place? To me, Heenan being a pedophile just comes off as a shallow attempt at shocking the reader.
Other than that, The Handle is another great read! TL;DR: Really fucking dug it!
Let me try to answer your question, in my usual annoying way, since I must assume there’s always a good reason for everything Westlake does in a book, especially when he’s writing under this name. Let the Stark-splainin’ commence!
Now you’ve probably seen Fritz Lang’s M, and if not, you’ve heard of it. You know what the term ‘short eyes’ refers to. There is a longstanding tradition in the criminal community, such as it is, that the lowest form of life is a child molester.
One might argue that this is their way of saying “We’re bad, but we’re not that bad.” Even the lowest levels of any society want to feel superior to someone. A form of hypocrisy–Lang certainly depicts it as such, and it’s one many if not most law-abiding citizens are likewise guilty of. Impossible to question what a horrific crime it is, the damage it does, the level of dysfunction it reveals (though I feel respect for anyone who has that or any other evil impulse and resists it)–but the mass revulsion it engenders has always struck me as suspect. If only because we have allowed so much child abuse of so many varieties to go on around us, in nearly all societies, for most of history, and perhaps before history.
And when we feel collective guilt, a pointing finger and a particularly egregious offender, always comes in handy. So criminals in a way are signaling that they still adhere to some social norms by condemning (and sometimes killing) such wretches. (Also, as Lang’s film tells us, it’s often bad for criminal business to be associated with those who harm children, and Westlake actually had a neat little homage to M in one of the Dortmunder books, though it doesn’t involve any pedophiles).
Certain types of human behavior do repel Parker, anger him, as we’ll see in other books, but I don’t think it’s moral opprobrium that makes him dump Heenan, triggering the cross. (Which drives the plot, naturally.) It’s just that feeling he gets sometimes. This guy can’t be trusted. And why did he get out so soon? Why isn’t he on parole–just kicked to the curb, when he molested an 11 year old girl? Not typically the kind of thing they let you slide on.
Parker works with a real Nazi (the American subspecies), later in the series. He can hate on the Jews all he likes, just don’t do it on the clock, or Parker will show him the true meaning of the words ‘extreme prejudice.’ Parker will work with anyone he thinks will do the work. He’s not convinced Heenan will. Something’s off. And of course that something is Heenan is a plant. The Feds let him out to serve their purposes. Knowing what he did before, and probably would do again, given the chance. You see the hypocrisy angle. And truthfully, the Feds have done worse than this. You’ve heard of Whitey Bulger. (You’ve read George V. Higgins.) What’s the point of making Heenan a pedophile? To say that if they think it’ll get them something they want for career purposes, the law will work with pedophiles. That some criminals actually have higher standards for who they work with. (If only because they have much less room for error).
So Heenan decides to go to Baron to trade information (betraying not only his fellow crooks but his Fed handlers, because why not?), and here we see dueling hypocrisies clash.
Here, being a word maven (as was Westlake) I must protest–Baron isn’t a Nazi. That word has a specific meaning (it doesn’t mean ‘any bad violent person’, or Parker would be one.) And more to the point–he’s not that honest. He never believed in it, as you say. He went along with it, for his own purposes. If he thought the German communists were going to win, he’d have joined them. You will find people like this in just about any kind of group exercising power. (I don’t really need to put the qualifier in there). Hum a few bars and they’ll fake it. He works just as happily with the Castroites, who clearly don’t mind working with him. If he’d been stuck in East Germany when the curtain came down, he’d have joined the Stasi, most likely. (Many former Nazis did–the full fanatic freaks all went down fighting, after murdering their neighbors for saying “Finally, we’ll be rid of Hitler!” or even “The war is over, let’s give up.”) You’re not less guilty for going along with it. Because the crime wasn’t what you believed, but what you did.
A true Nazi is willing to give his own life for the cause, not just end other people’s. Baron is just an opportunist. They have no ideology. And they are with us always. Pretending to have it. So Baron joined the Nazis, the same way some people joined the priesthood, or the Socialist Party, or the Shriners (who lately are creeping me out most of all with those commercials, not to mention the hats, but never mind). And he paid the price for that association, as well he should have done, and rather too belatedly, I’d say. But call him by his true name.
(Lest I forget, all this fol de rol leads to Westlake having a bit of fun by having Baron say he’s never trusted the Irish. Devious race. Shifty. Heh. You bet we are.)
Mary is Grofield’s Penelope. I wouldn’t begrudge her a lover or three, but I don’t see any indication she cheats on him. We can imagine anything we like, just as we can imagine there’s a slew of little Grofields and Parkers running around that they’ll never know about. (This happened to James Bond, in the novel version of You Only Live Twice–and film fans invested so much time and effort explaining why Bond never had children–his testicles got whipped! No, the kids would be a drag on the plot. That’s the only explanation anyone ever needs in series fiction.) Mary’s life when Grofield is away is her own business, and none of Stark’s. Though if he’d written a novel about her, I’d have read it. We can discuss this further if you ever get to Lemons Never Lie.
Parker’s feelings towards Grofield are another gray area we could discuss endlessly and never reach any conclusion. A simpler explanation might be that Stark is calling the shots, and he wants to get a second revenue stream going.
But that truly is a delicious bit of fun, when Grofield, nearing death, sees Parker descending from the clouds like a dark seraphim–“Sacrilege, Parker.” And they had to ruin it in that stupid movie by having that redneck family call Jason Statham’s ‘Parker’ an angel for sending them money because they saved his life. I don’t know if the real Parker is capable of rolling his eyes (wolves have a more limited range of facial expression than dogs), but if he could have, he would have.
…Wow, ok, you sold me. Your analysis on why Heenan was a pedophile makes too sense. I completely hadn’t thought of that.
Fair enough on Baron not being a Nazi. I think we both can agree that Baron’s a Nazi collaborator, at least.
Yeah, there’s not much evidence to suggest Mary engages in “polygamy” herself. But hey, headcanons are always fun.
I have indeed seen M! Petere Lorre can whistle a mean “In The Hall of The Mountain King”.
I also have indeed heard or Whitey Bulger, I’ve seen Black Mass after all. (The Departed was a better biopic, tbh).
Baron’s a collaborator. With anybody who’ll collaborate with him. How much you want to bet, if the Feds had gotten him, they’d have been using him against his Cuban friends (maybe some old Nazi friends plotting a return engagement), and he’d have gone along happily? Probably ended up living comfortably somewhere near Quantico or Langley. Like a lot of other guys who went along with the Nazis, then found new patrons once Hitler was toast. You can already see a lot of Republicans looking past Trump and he ain’t dead yet. Much.
I wish we’d seen more of Mary. But you know, there are always characters like that in series fiction, who seem like they were worth more time, but may seem even more interesting than they really are, because we know so little about them, and there’s clearly so much more to know. (It was Westlake’s firm conviction that you should always know more about your characters than you share with the reader). I’ve never entirely forgiven Westlake for making me fall in love with J.C. Taylor, then giving her nothing to do for the rest of the series, other than create her own country. (And we don’t get to see her do it).
Grofield could have been one of those characters. Maybe should have been. The novels mainly didn’t work out that well, though they’re all good reads, and the last one is more than that. Westlake tried to promote a supporting player to lead, and it may be the experience soured him on trying it again.
Jonathan Demme once said this about movie extras:
You can see this in Demme’s movies, like “Something Wild,” in which every single person who appears on screen, even for a moment, is a gem, someone you have no trouble believing has a fully realized existence beyond what we’re seeing.
Westlake was the same way, I think, presenting briefly sketched character histories that made even his bit players compelling, suggesting a full life lived outside the confines of the page. We see this in all his books, all of them, but the one I always come back to is from “Deadly Edge,” because it’s so damned economical:
Briley is a fairly insignificant player overall, but for that one sentence, he owns the page.
And so it is with Grofield, a far more significant player in all of the books in which he appears (except maybe “Slayground”), whose life lived outside the confines of the page was just itching to be told. Like Parker, I have a soft spot for Grofield, even if three of his four stand-alones don’t fully earn it.
Oh myself as well. But we still end up knowing very little about him. For that matter, how much do we ever learn about Parker before we first encountered him? The closest thing you’ll ever get to a prequel in Stark is the brief flashbacks that fill in what led to a particular scene from a different POV. We never even learned why Grofield’s name never comes up in the Final Eight (let alone why he never appears). But the logical assumption is that Westlake felt he was a failed experiment, albeit one he’d invested a lot in, so he did get a bit of an alternate reality reboot in the Dortmunders (but was never really part of the gang there, either).
Grofield seems to always be recovering from something. He nearly dies in this book. He’s very badly hurt in the armored car heist that leads into Slayground and The Blackbird, and his convalescence stretches well into The Damsel. Then comes Butcher’s Moon. Grofield gets near-fatally injured more than all of Westlake’s other series protagonists combined, and you could probably throw in all the non-series protagonists as well.
And interestingly, the closest Parker ever comes to death in his books is in Flashfire, which I’ve theorized could have been based on an idea for a Grofield (or some Grofield type)–it would have suited him far better than Parker. But who remembered Grofield by then? Mysterious Books could sell Parker a whole lot better. And that one got turned into a very bad movie.
Maybe the idea was, they’d want to do bad movies about the actor/heister and leave Parker alone. And that never did pan out. Most experiments don’t. They can still be interesting.
“Baron’s a collaborator. With anybody who’ll collaborate with him.” Isn’t that hair splitting at this point? Yeah, Baron’s willing to collaborate with any group…and one of those groups happened to be the Nazis, whom he worked for during the majority of the war. He was happy to collaborate with them to help himself, I think it’s more than fair to give him the title of “Nazi Collaborator”.
It’s an accurate description, sure. But technically, that same description applies to the greater part of the German population at that time. The difference is, he committed war crimes. The crimes are what matter. Why you did them, or who you did them for–not so much. He got away from the Nuremberg Trials, and after that, it was all moot. He was up for grabs, and I will say again, if the Feds had grabbed him, it probably would have been to use him, the same way they used Heenan. And if there’s anything that tops Nazi Collaborator in the modern world, it’s child molester.
My feeling is, we’re not being told to despise Baron because he was a Nazi in the past. We all remember Martin Niemöller talking about how he didn’t speak up until they came for him, at which point there was nobody left to speak up. We tend to forget he didn’t speak up because he thought the Third Reich was a positive development–until he got a closer look. And then he did speak up, and bad things happened to him. Because he believed in things. Baron only believes in money.
We’re being told to despise Baron because he did all these things without for one minute believing in the cause or ideology he was purportedly fighting for. And given our recent history, that’s a point worth making. Because it may well be that most of the people leading these various movements we fear and hate are in fact themselves utterly devoid of belief in anything but their own interests.
Both characters are dead, and the issue with them. Even the roughest crime fiction can be much neater than real life.
And so comes the end of an era. As I imagine others have done, I tend to view the Parker series as three eight episode “seasons”. The Original Eight is where the world is being set up and the Parker character is being molded. The Growing Eight (referencing the fact that it starts with the significantly short The Rare Coin Score with the proceeding installments getting progressively bigger from then on) is where the universe, along with Parker himself, are well and truly formed with a big fuck off finale that, according to those who read it anyway, ends fairly definitively. And then there’s the Final Eight, which feels like the unexpected revival after decades of fans lamenting that the series ended so soon.
With all that preamble, I’d like to give a sort of “End of season thoughts” if I may.
The perfect way to describe the Original Eight is “Lean and Mean”. These books are quick, brutal sons of bitches that don’t let up for shit. Each installment could be polished off in about a few hours but I often find myself stopping after reading one Part, just to prolong the experience.
After re-reading these things, there were two elements that stuck out to me this time through. The first was how surprisingly political they were. I’m not really talking about stuff like Parker’s history in the military, or how a lot of the main antagonists are KGB, ex-army, feds, etc. Westlake served in the Air Force, and there was always a significant overlap between those who read crime paperbacks and those who read military based men’s adventure novels. What I’m talking about is the political and social commentary that Westlake put in these novels. Whether it be the Syndicate/Outfit/Organization operating as a regular old corporate entity, to the government willingly working with evil to further their own goals, to people like Salsa and Stubbs being disillusioned protestors/organizers. And then there’s The Amateur from The Seventh basically being a “Nice Guy” way before society started taking notice of them, though that’s less proper politics and more what certain internet dwelling chuds refer to now as “politics”. Either way, the commentary packs a punch even to this day and a lot of it holds up surprisingly well.
Another element that struck me on this read through was the surprising empathy. For me, the best writers are empathetic writers, and Westlake was most definitely that. Westlake paints pretty much every character, from major to minor, with a lot of depth and dimension. And (aside from perhaps The Hunter) he cares about all them, even the scumbags. We see their points of view, we see more than one side of them and most importantly, we see their humanity (…well, aside from that ONE guy, but I digress).
I remember our little discussion about Noir being such a compelling genre. You said it’s romanticized realism, that it tells us the ugly truth and makes it feel a bit prettier. I wholeheartedly agree, but I think there’s more to it as well. David Lynch is well known, among other things, for his constant deconstruction of 50’s Americana, revealing the Stepford Suburbia for the façade it is. What makes Lynch notable though, is that he’s not happy telling us this. He WANTS the “American dream” to be true, and seems just as disappointed as the rest of us when the other shoe drops.
To me, the best kind of noir (hell, the best crime fiction) operates in a similar way. It’s not smugly pulling back the curtain with a smirk, it’s somberly telling it like it is, maybe even with a bit of remorse. Take Raymond Chandler’s classic The Long Goodbye for example. That book is ultimately about sentimentality, showing what it’s like to have a heart in a world that’s determined to be heartless. It doesn’t shy away from stating that Marlowe made a mistake in going out of his way to help Terry Lennox but it doesn’t begrudge him for doing so, either. And it’s also honest enough to not just hawk a completely cynical experience. There’s moments of real beauty, like Marlowe lighting one last cigarette for Lennox.
Which leads me, again, to Westlake and this series. He knows the score, he shows us the whole truth, even the bits that aren’t completely ugly. From Salsa fondly recalling his days as a gigolo, to Dougherty choosing to come to Janey’s aide instead of chasing Parker, to Chambers refusing to let Edgars kill people in cold blood. There’s also Handy McKay who, despite his very hardened nature, has a small amount of compassion, compassion that he never discards despite it fucking him over more than once. Understand, I’m not painting any of these guys as a “Jerk with a heart of gold”, I’m simply pointing out that even these rough bastards aren’t exempt from at least one moment of humanity.
There’s also the themes of identity but some blogger from New York already went into a lot of detail about that.
Finally, here’s my ranking of the Orginal Eight:
1. The Seventh.
2. The Outfit.
3. The Score.
4. The Mourner.
5. The Jugger.
6. The Man With the Getaway Face.
7. The Handle.
8. The Hunter.
As for the future, I’ve been debating on whether to read all the Grofields or just skip to Lemons Never Lie. I suppose I’ll make my decision soon enough. I’ll also be taking a slight break from the series. Partly to avoid burnout, but also because I don’t want this ride to end. Seriously, I can’t quite express how much I appreciate you (and Greg sometimes) taking the time out of your day to talk endlessly about these books with me. It means quite a bit. 🙂
The thanks are mutual. We love this shit, pardon my French. A fresh voice is always appreciated, and you’ve been that. I can’t add much to your summation. I personally would separate the Gold Medals from the Random Houses, because a new publisher is a new environment, with different pressures (and editors, who Westlake paid attention to, assuming they knew their onions). But there is a symmetry to seeing the series as three sets of eight. (How about as 24 hours of a very long day?)
I rank The Hunter more highly than you. It’s the foundation stone of all that followed. I don’t worry so much about which is the best, because none are complete without the others. It’s less compassionate because it was written, I believe, in a dark unforgiving frame of mind–we all have those.
You might say what follows is Parker finding his way to a more controlled complete version of himself–not more compassionate–more dispassionate. Abstracted from the passions that controlled him in the first half of The Hunter. I’ve gone to some pains to find all the influences on it, and just when I think I’m done, I find another. Which may explain both how perpetually compelling it is, and how flawed. The later books, you’re much less likely to see the joins.
All I can say is, if that one bothers you with its flashes of raw misogyny (which certainly bother me, and I’d be worried about anyone who wasn’t bothered), maybe don’t try its psychic twin, The Name of the Game is Death, by Dan J. Marlowe–neither influenced the other, and yet they resemble each other to an extent that is uncanny. Marlowe had a gift, but much less self-understanding than Westlake, so he fell by the wayside, in more ways than one. He never really graduated from the paperbacks. (Hmm–are you going to take that warning as a challenge?)
As to the other Marlowe, Westlake was a student, but not really a fan. Precisely because of the sentimentality. Of the Chandler novels, I’ve only read The Big Sleep. And it bothered me for its offhanded casual racism–hardly uncommon then, and I’m not into canceling people, as you know–it just rubbed me the wrong way how he can’t even talk about a woman in a bookstore without calling her ‘An intelligent Jewess.’ He’s very much a man of his class and race and he can’t see past it. It limits him, but his talent for lyrical prose and characterization survive, even if the man couldn’t write a coherent plot to save his life. There’s a certain willful blindness to the Marlowe’s. Maybe I’ll try the rest of them sometime. (I did see the movie with Elliot Gould. That was–interesting.)
Yes, he’s a romantic, but not struck from the same cold mold as Stark. Stark, like every aspect of Westlake, comes out of the Hammett school. And it’s Hammett who is the true father of noir, whether you think he wrote it himself or not. (I go back and forth.). Every aspect of the the best American crime fiction goes back to him. He surpasses his pupil Chandler to the same extent Shakespeare outdistances yet another Marlowe (who sometimes bizarrely gets credit for his work).
Prejudices he had, like everyone else, and sins aplenty in his personal life–but somehow he always rises above them in his work. Because his goal was self-understanding. The true goal of every writer worth reading. Chandler needed a knight errant to be his avatar. Hammett only needed somebody who could see the ugliness of the world–and himself–and still keep going. Because professionalism. You can’t be perfect, but you can still do the work.
And I look forward to you continuing yours. When you’re ready.
I can understand separating gold medal from random house, precisely for the reasons you listed. Of course, the 24 books as one extremely long day angle has its charm. Hmm, the series also works as divided into six sets of four. Might work even more than my “three sets of eight” idea.
My ranking of The Hunter actually wasn’t influenced by the sexism. Hell, it’s fairly tame compared to other crime fiction of the time (Though, I’m obviously not crazy over it). I ranked it last because, aside from its importance and Parker himself, I feel The Hunter is a fairly standard “Guy gets left for dead, now there’s hell to pay” revenge thriller. Don’t get me wrong, it’s extremely well executed, it’s a much better example of that genre than others, and it’s a classic setup (there’s a reason that, out of all the books, it’s been adapted the most) but I feel that the later books provided more variation on their concepts, not to mention stronger characterization.
Would you believe that I already own The Name of The Game is Death, before I started posting here, even? I got the double feature printing from Stark House (the Arrow Video to Hardcase Crime’s Criterion), primarily because both books supposedly contain extremely authentic bank robberies. Appreciate the warning, though I can’t say I’m surprised.
Yeeaaaah, Chandler could be a real charmer, huh? Not to mention his totally necessary homophobia. I’ve also seen the Elliot Gould adaptation of Long Goodbye! I have a feeling I enjoyed it more than you. 😉 Though, I feel I should put forth a “fun” fact: That completely unnecessary scene where Marlow puts on blackface and does an al jolson routine? Yeah, that ain’t in the book. Purely invented for the movie. The socially conscious 70’s everybody!
And yet I still find myself loving that movie, might even cover it for my blog, one day. Oh hey, that reminds me! I just set up my new joint a day or so ago! http://heistgirlshideout.wordpress.com/ Come on down sometime, I’ll fry ya an egg.
I don’t suppose you saw the Mad Men ep with Roger doing blackface? That was well into the utterly woke 21st century. And I’m sure, satirically intended, but Altman probably meant his scene that way as well. A show watched overwhelmingly by woke urban viewers, and I would know, since I was endlessly hearing about it at friends’ parties. (And yes, I watched it too, and kept thinking “Weren’t they writing this same material back in the 1950’s, for cheap paperbacks about disillusioned dissolute businessmen and their discontented wives, and what happened to our core values, and then there’d be a sex scene. And you could go back further, to Sinclair Lewis & Co.). Vin Packer–who as we’re discussed, was actually a woman–wrote a fair bit of that type of thing. It sold.)
I know I shouldn’t be making assumptions about why you don’t like this or that book as much (while still appreciating what it has to offer), and yet I do it anyway. However, I do think The Hunter moves better than some of the novels you rank ahead of it. It’s got a kinetic power to it that’s hard to find anywhere. Not for nothing did it get adapted into several movies and a graphic novel. Maybe people like it for the wrong reasons. I like it for the right ones. Or so I tell myself. (One of my reasons may simply be that I was gestating around the same time it was).
I managed to get a British edition of the Gold Medal PBO for Name of the Game. Identical in all respects. I love the way GM formatted its books. And for cheap paperbacks sold in drugstores and at newsstands, man they hold up. And nary a typo I ever find in them. (Wish I could say that about today’s offerings from many a tonier publisher). Say this for Marlowe, he pulls zero punches. There’s a biography of him available, and in many ways the author was weirder than his characters.
You know, I’m sure, that it’s often been bruited around that Chandler might have been gay. Well, sooner or later, they say that about anybody. They’ve said it about Hammett, but his sex life strongly indicated otherwise.
Anyway, I should finish reading him, if only for context, and keep putting it off. Have been doing so since the 80’s, at least. He was widely available in paperback then. He had talent, none can deny it. Double Indemnity is his just as much as Wilder’s. (And of course, Cain’s, but that’s another one I never get around to.)
Never got into Mad Men, didn’t seem to be my thing. Obviously, the rules are different when it comes to satire, but there ARE still rules. Namely that it has to have a point beyond “We’re saying bigoted shit, holy fuck, amirite?” I obviously can’t say how Mad Men handled its satire (people say it’s a good show so… *shrug*), but if The Long Goodbye (1973)’s blackface scene is supposed to be satire, then I’m not sure what of. The best I can figure is that it’s meant to add to the whole Rip Van Marlowe idea (a detective straight out of the past and into the then present). If that was the intent, then I feel the concept was conveyed perfectly fine with the other aspects that weren’t racist.
For what it’s worth, your assumption isn’t completely unjustified, considering some of the stuff I’ve said. 😉 And I still think The Hunter’s a fantastic book on its own.
Sweet deal regarding the GM print you got of Name Of the Game! I totally get having a preferred publishing house. When I began collecting Dortmunder, I made it a personal mission to make sure I got all the editions published by mysterious press. LOVE the covers for those. Specifically these kind: https://www.fictiondb.com/covers/0445406089.jpg
I tend to associate that style with Westlake’s work as a whole. They complement each other wonderfully.
Eh, there’s always gonna be at least one big author that you never get around to. I’ve never gotten around to Patricia Highsmith, myself. At the very least, it’s proof that there’s always great stories out there for us to experience.
I find her endlessly fascinating, but she is not a good writer to binge-read. Small doses. Spaced apart. If you want a good starting point, it would of course be Mr. Ripley. He and Parker make for a very interesting comparative study. So alike, so different. As difficult to read as they are perversely fun to read about.
The Tremor of Forgery is, I suppose, my favorite of her standalones. I’d tell you why, but all I can say is, I can’t hate anyone who loves dogs. (Except Hitler, and I don’t think he really did, since he had them all killed before he checked out). Not quite exactly crime fiction. And she did write a sleaze paperback where two women fall in love and don’t live to regret it (that under a pseudonym.) It sold a million copies! And is not the least bit sleazy. (I guess they just felt like two women was provocative enough in itself).
My feeling is, all the really dark crime writers have at least one somewhat lighter work in them, where they express a different more hopeful side of themselves. Like Eugene O’Neill did with Ah, Wilderness!
For Jim Thompson, it’s South of Heaven. For Charles Willeford, could be Cockfighter, or one I just read for the first time, Understudy for Love/Death (in the latter case, the publisher may have insisted). For David Goodis, maybe Street of No Return–bear in mind, all ‘happy endings’ are relative–I could mention Black Pudding as well, but that’s not a novel. Or Dark Passage, naturally, but that’s an early work. It’s still dark, you understand. But not to the point where there’s no light at all, which is where Goodis typically ends up. There’s another crime writer who may have been stranger than his own creations. Reading him, I’d never rather be in Philadelphia. But I still read.
I’m not sure this dichotomy applies to Stark at all, though. Everything he writes is dark. But none of it is hopeless. Because what’s the point of hope or despair? You do what you can, maybe it’ll work out, maybe not. If there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, well, darkness is the best environment to hunt in, no? Westlake hopes, and therefore can despair at times. Stark just keeps on going. Every time but the last time.