Monthly Archives: September 2014

Review: The Getaway Car


I can’t remember where I read this story, quite some years back, and a Google search came up empty, but I shall recount it as best I can:  Richard Ellmann, literary scholar extraordinaire, and the definitive biographer of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, was teaching at Oxford, and one day he came charging into a room where a number of his fellow Oxfordians were gathered.   He stated with no small sense of drama that he now had indisputable evidence of what Wilde’s favorite sexual act was–they awaited the news with bated breath–“Fellatio,” he announced triumphantly.

In the awed silence that followed, one very elderly don spoke up, his voice quavering slightly–“Giving or receiving?” he inquired.

If you are planning to be a famous author of the late modern era (‘late modern’ meaning ‘from the French Revolution onwards’), and if your reputation should happen to survive you, there’s a very good chance people are going to know a great deal about your personal affairs, and I use the term advisedly.  There’s an entire class of tenured academic scholars who will dig determinedly through the detritus of your private life, and present it to the public, generally with a large and hopefully not too unflattering photograph of you on the dust jacket.

This is done primarily out of the noble purpose of furthering an improved understanding of your work and the experiences that inspired it, but there’s also more than a touch of morbid curiosity–the biographies with sex in them sell a lot better.  I would strongly advise you to get up to some kind of mischief while you’re still alive, and for God’s sake maintain a detailed diary, or people will be very disappointed in you.  If you could write the diary in some kind of code your biographers would have to break in order to learn the sordid details of the aforementioned mischief, that would be all to the good.

Just recently, I was perusing a new biography of John Updike, and if you think his novels had an improbably large amount of extramarital sex in them, well let me just assure you–the man did his research.

Anyway, none of that sort of thing is to be found in The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, compiled and edited by Levi Stahl of the University of Chicago Press, with the cooperation of Westlake’s estate.   There’s plenty of mischief in the book, but of a non-salacious variety.   I think we can safely assume Westlake’s personal life was not utterly devoid of the salacious, but we may never know the details–hopefully we won’t be disappointed if we ever do.

The anthology itself is far from a disappointment.  I described it in a recent review here as “The single most invaluable resource any aspiring Westlake scholar ever laid his or her sweaty palms upon,” and I was not exaggerating.   Not that there’s been a lot of competition out there, but this book raises the bar by roughly a mile.

For a man who wrote and published well over 100 books (we may never know exactly how many, because some of his early pseudonyms were shared), and who has a diverse and adoring readership to this day, Westlake has not inspired much in the way of literary scholarship.   Maybe we’ve just been having too much fun reading all the books by him to produce any about him, and maybe it’s just too soon since his death in late 2008.   I have heard rumblings of a literary biography in the works, but they remain rumblings at this point.

Isaac Asimov, a dominating and world-famous figure in his specific genre, as well as an expert on–well, basically everything–died in 1992, and we have one hastily composed 1994 unauthorized biography of him (along with three voluminous autobiographies Asimov stereotypically published in his own lifetime).  Genre authors don’t tend to excite much scholarly scrutiny, though there are certainly exceptions to the rule.  We know a whole lot about Dashiell Hammett’s life, but that’s because 1)Hammett gets more critical respect than most crime fiction authors and 2)he was shacked up with Lillian Hellman for a long time.

Westlake admired and identified with Hammett perhaps more than any other writer, and as I mentioned in my review of the first Mitch Tobin novel, he was well aware of the long painful creative drought that afflicted Hammett in his last quarter century of life.  I think, on the whole, he would not have changed reputations with Hammett for anything.  Writing meant far too much to him–he knew he was on some level diminishing the perceived significance of  each individual book by producing so many of them, letting supply outstrip demand, but here’s the thing–he  didn’t care.  “When you’re in love, you want to do it all the time,” he said in interviews, and while his torrid affair with prose fiction may have flagged slightly after the 1960’s, he remained an exceptionally ardent and many-faceted suitor to the very end.

Such was his ardor that he pursued it under a variety of names, because it would have been impossible to publish as often as he did under his own.  But this weakness of his for pseudonyms was mainly restricted to novels.   His short stories, screenplays and film treatments, nonfiction articles, and one work of history, were mainly credited to Westlake–entirely so once he was an established name.   He didn’t produce enough of that kind of work so as to need a variety of names to publish it under.

The one thing you’d have thought he’d want published anonymously–his scathing and controversial take on the science fiction field, entitled “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You” (to be found in this anthology, along with a somewhat more measured follow-up) he credited to himself.   He wasn’t trying to hide from anybody (as Alice Sheldon, who wrote far better science fiction than Westlake ever did under the name James Tiptree Jr., most certainly was)–he used alternate names mainly for the purpose of practicing alternate styles, alternate worldviews.  While he may not have contained multitudes, he certainly had enough for a good-sized poker game.

But when he gathered some of the more prominent among them in one room, it was for the purposes of an ersatz interview–that terminates in armed robbery and murder–that’s in this anthology too.   I happened to have purchased the book that little flight of fancy was originally written for, simply to read it–and here is why we all owe Levi Stahl a huge vote of thanks, for saving us all that trouble and expense and shelf space.

But a lot of this material has never seen print before, and would not have been available at any price.   Most significantly, there’s several fragments of an autobiography Westlake worked on, but never deemed fit for publication (he was no Asimov, as he himself would cheerfully admit).   These are entirely drawn from his early life, before anybody had heard of him, and before he’d met any of his three wives, but it tells us a number of things about his parents, his childhood, and his life of crime, such as it was.

I’m not going to reveal too much of the specifics here–I don’t want you to think you’ve gotten the gist of it from my review, and feel like you can spare the cost of a copy.   The more this sells, the more likely we are to get a sequel, and a sequel we definitely need (Stahl makes it pretty clear there’s at least one more book’s worth of material in the Westlake archives).

But I think I just have to spill this one solitary bean–Westlake was arrested for theft as a college student.   Those of you who, like me, have been devotedly absorbing his criminal oeuvre will immediately shout “EUREKA!”  Or perhaps “Elementary” if you are of a more cerebral disposition.   Nobody could write so much and with so much empathy about thieves without having been one, however briefly and ineffectually.   I’d already guessed he had been in trouble with the law, well before I ever read The Getaway Car (see my review of The Score, among others), but I didn’t know the specifics until now.

Needing money badly, he stole one microscope from a science lab, and pawned it.   A dorm mate put him up to it, and then due to an unfortunate and wholly unpredictable turn of events involving a trafficker in stolen goods and an unfaithful wife, he and the dorm mate got ratted out, and the cops got them both in separate rooms, and then his father came in to save the day with a politically well-placed attorney, who got the records sealed.   And Westlake writes–with a combination of pain, and love, and lingering guilt–of how his father apologized to him at the police station for not being able to support him properly.

And perhaps it was this, even more than the resentment he’d felt towards the no doubt amused detectives, and the terror his brief incarceration inspired, that burned this incident into his soul–and how many times did he indirectly write about it?   You can’t help but feel this may be the keystone to more than half of his work–much as Alfred Hitchcock’s obsession with innocent men on the run from the law much more famously goes back to his childhood, when his parents would have the local constabulary lock him up in a cell for a few hours when he misbehaved.

The guy who is guilty of something, yet perversely furious at those who accuse him without real proof–from The Mercenaries all the way up to The Ax, we saw variations on this scenario repeated, most directly and personally in the latter, of course, where the murderous protagonist of the book, whose son made the same stupid mistake Westlake did, briefly plays the same role Westlake senior did, decades earlier.  He was writing about this well before The Mercenaries, actually.  Hey, beats talking to a shrink–this way they pay you.

How many ways did Westlake find to say “Dad, if you hadn’t gotten me out of that mess I got myself into, I don’t know what would have happened to me”?    He’d had a narrow escape, and he knew it.  And yet–some not-so-small part of him must have enjoyed that moment of surreptitious rebellion–and wondered what it would be like to be a competent thief, the kind who gets away with it, the kind those smug cops can never break.   The road not traveled was a road Donald Westlake spent much of his life exploring, via his beloved Smith Coronas.

His attitude towards authority, and specifically towards cops–something you can see him struggle with, wanting to be fair, trying to see their point of view, knowing they had him dead to rights, knowing they were just doing their job, but also knowing they enjoyed it too damn much.  And he knew that if his father hadn’t intervened, those same cops would have happily ruined his future, for one lousy microscope–for one mistake.   That interrogation room they easily broke him down in was a room he came back to, over and over.

And we’ve all been in that room, in one way or another.   One of the things we love about his books is the way they get us out of that room–that sense of vicarious empowerment, of triumphing against the odds, against the system.   Guilty or innocent, we all get railroaded, sooner or later.   It’s just a matter of degree.

And this is just one small part of the book.   Most of it isn’t so serious, but it’s all damned fascinating–a whole article where Westlake discusses the various film adaptations of his work, and how they came to be, and what he thinks of them (generally speaking, not much).   An interview via the mails between Westlake and the then-incarcerated Al Nussbaum, a genuine felon and future crime writer, who had a bunch of good questions to ask Westlake, and he answered them all, and you’ll want to hear his answers.

One thing I particularly loved (and hated) learning was how many of his novels had been optioned by Hollywood–and the movies never got made.   Mind you, in many cases it was probably just as well (I would have given a lot to see Robert Mitchum’s Mitch Tobin), but it gives you an insight into how Westlake made a living–a lot of his income came from Hollywood speculatively buying his books and doing absolutely nothing at all with them.  Which on the whole I think he preferred to having Hollywood do something stupid with them.  Just so long as the checks cleared.

Most of the information we get is professional, not personal–including several essays and lectures on the history of crime fiction, which also tell us a lot about the essayist–but for Westlake, nothing was more personal than the professional.  He talks in one (unpublished) piece about how the new level of fame he’d gotten recently was making him uncomfortable–he didn’t feel like he had the same room to maneuver he once did.  People were starting to expect things from him.  He didn’t like that–he wanted to stay just below the radar.   Is there a touch of sour grapes there, from a writer who never had a real best-seller in a very long career?   Maybe a little, but I think he felt like the grapes really were sour.  The point is not how many people read you–the point is whether what they read is what you wanted to write.

For a guy best-known for creating two fictional thieves who kept ending up in (mainly very bad) movies, he really didn’t aspire to that kind of fame–the Mickey Spillane/Ian Fleming kind, I mean.   He just wanted enough of an audience to justify him getting to go on writing and publishing a wide variety of books, making enough money to support himself and his family doing what he wanted to do,  and though things got tough here and there (as we learn in one piece), and he came close to giving up a few times, he pulled it off.   An entire adult lifetime of spinning yarns, and getting paid for it.  I see pictures of him as an older man, and I get this sense of triumph–he’d beaten the odds.   He’d gotten out of that room.

Here’s the thing–the more attention you get, the more pressure there is to produce this or that kind of book–it becomes a sort of prison.  For a Stephen King, this can simply translate into a very lucrative one-man industry, but for many others, it can be a dead end.  I mean, what was it like to be Norman Mailer, or J.D. Salinger, known entirely for a few books, never able to live up to their early promise, come up with a second act?   What was it like to be Dashiell Hammett, staring at a blank sheet of paper for 25 years?  Westlake never wanted to know.   So he kept breaking out.  If he wrote enough books, with enough different subjects (including a few later works that really have to be called science fiction, so his farewell was premature), he could keep people guessing, and avoid the waiting pigeonhole.

I wonder what he’d have thought about a book just published, in which a woman who was a neighbor of Harper Lee’s basically wrote of her personal acquaintance with She Who Was Scout–simply because people were so insatiably curious about this notoriously private woman’s private life and thoughts (and why she never wrote another book).   I’m not condemning the author of the book in question, who told Lee what she was doing, just saying–didn’t we learn all we needed to know from the book she’ll always be remembered for?

Yes, but when a writer moves us in any way, we get curious.  We want to know where his/her ideas came from.   We want to understand why he/she is this famous beloved author, and we’re not.  What did they have that we didn’t?  The will to keep typing, and the ability to withstand rejection, mainly–but there must be something else.   If we could know everything that ever happened to them, maybe we’d get it.   Yeah, right.   I think the lack of a real biography is the main reason there’ll always be a group of people trying to prove Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, even though he clearly did.  We already know where Shakespeare got his ideas–from plays and stories that already existed, that he retooled and remade in his own image.

Westlake wrote with great humor about where his ideas came from–the movies, quite often, he has Richard Stark mention in passing in that mock interview I mentioned.  Another piece has him going into some detail about where he got the story for Jimmy the Kid–the format is him talking to a small crowd of rather shallow literary persons at a cocktail party.  Then at the end, he reveals to them that they are just literary devices themselves, and that he got the idea for this article from Tom Wolfe.  “Which one?”, he’s asked–“Both of them!” he responds joyfully.

He is also seen to say in this book that he doesn’t like to talk about his sources until certain copyrights have expired.   But I’ve divined enough of them to know he nearly always improved on them, and never stuck very close to them, because that would be dull and pointless.   What he did constitutes plagiarism no more than Bach doing a variation on a theme by Vivaldi.   I can imagine him rolling his eyes now.   Maybe it’s time to cut this one short.

Ever since Westlake’s death, we’ve seen a handful of unpublished novels come out, and there’s been new material added to the official Westlake site, and books we didn’t even know existed (or couldn’t find or afford used copies of) have been republished, if only on Kindle.   Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to say “I’ve read all of Westlake’s novels that aren’t porn”–because I wouldn’t have been able to get all the books. This is a sort of golden age of Westlake fandom we’re in now, only made less lustrous by the fact that he isn’t here to share it with us.    And by the fact that there’s not going to be any more novels.

And while nothing could be as precious as an undiscovered Westlake novel, this anthology comes very close–because it finally gives us context, background details, a basis on which to really start to understand the man behind all those felonious plans, comic capers, and sometimes searing insights into human nature, and our perpetually confused understanding of ourselves.

There were many great crime fiction writers, some of whom outsold Westlake easily, and more than a few have faded more and more into obscurity, known only to a few aficionados.  Because the fact is, there’s only so much room at the top of a living genre.   What Westlake did that sets him apart, keeps him alive, was to transcend that genre, see its strengths and limitations with exceptional clarity, and because he was never too comfortable with it–because, as he put it, he was wary of the ‘ritual’–we can never quite take his measure.   He’s always got another surprise for us.  He always keeps us a bit off-balance.  He always leaves us wanting more.

And this book isn’t going to change that one bit.   Unless that unpublished autobiography (which I do hope we’ll see the rest of someday) is a lot more revealing than I suspect it to be, it won’t answer all our questions–and as I’ve already said, the answers we get will just lead to more questions.

Great title, I should mention in conclusion–it sums the work up very well.   If there’s anything Westlake was endeavoring to impart in his fiction and nonfiction alike, it’s this–always have an escape plan ready.   His books have been my favorite getaway car for several years now.

So there was no sex in this review at all, was there?    Well, I can fix that.   Go down towards the bottom (so to speak), assuming you’re not offended by (mainly female) public nudity.  No, look at the books.  Obviously an advance copy.  Good to see young women keeping abreast of current literature (::ducks::).   Thanks to Ray Garraty for providing this link, and to Lawrence Block for providing it to him.

And in my next review, I come to one of Westlake’s best known novels that doesn’t feature a series character–one of the ‘Nephew’ Books (the quote marks are actually unnecessary in this case), and some might say the greatest of them all, if only because it got Westlake his first Edgar Award, and his only one for a novel.   I’m not quite so high on this one as some others have been, you might be surprised to learn–but clearly it has a certain special place in my heart.   And stealing shamelessly from the movies, as seems appropriate in this context, let me just say in conclusion–

I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Westlake.379aaf7121258b0a3b07ca04f55d1ff1


Filed under Donald Westlake, nonfiction

Review: The Rare Coin Score, Part 2


He had been married once, but she was dead now.  She’d gotten into a bind, where she’d had the choice of risking her own life or betraying Parker, and she’d chosen betrayal.  When Parker had come looking for her afterward, unsure in his own mind what he meant to do about it, she’d killed herself.  Out of panic, probably, rather than remorse.  But since her, since Lynn, there had been no other woman, not for long.  Never long enough for him and the woman to become individuals to one another.

Looking at it now, he could see where it had served as an answer to the problem of Lynn’s betrayal, but it was the kind of answer which–like drugs–required large and larger application, led eventually to sloppiness and excess, became eventually as bad a problem as the one it was supposed to be solving.

Because Claire had come into his life in an odd way, entering in conjunction with a job, almost becoming part of the work at hand, she’d managed somehow to break through that pattern he’d developed.  He found himself wanting to please her, willing to go out of his way for her sake, and though he’d been giving himself practical reasons to explain it–she could handle Billy, and so on–the truth was that he acted that way because he wanted to.

This was the first of four Parker novels originally published by Gold Medal Books, and though specific sales numbers will presumably never be available, it seems reasonable to assume the series was peaking in popularity right about now.   Westlake said for a period in the late 60’s/early 70’s, the Stark books were outselling the books written under his own name–1967 is late 60’s.  Though Westlake was writing under several other names during this period, so I wonder if he was talking just about Westlake vs. Stark, or including the Four C’s–Coe, Clark, Cunningham and Culver–on the Westlake side?  I’m guessing not, so let’s go with that.

Between 1967 and 1974, Stark and Westlake produced 12 novels apiece (including one Westlake co-wrote with Brian Garfield).  That includes the Grofield books in the Stark column, being published elsewhere, and which I tend to doubt were ever that big, so Parker may have been significantly outselling anything else Westlake wrote in this period, at least until Dortmunder got established as a series character in his own right (Westlake’s biggest selling book of the 1960’s was probably The Fugitive Pigeon).

Westlake also wrote short stories, articles, a children’s book–and the Westlake novels were much more varied in their subject matter, protagonists, and approach to the material.   Westlake was all over the place, being funny, serious, doing crime fiction, other genres, books that didn’t seem to have any genre (or even a definable audience)–Stark just had to be Stark.   With Westlake, you never knew what was coming next–with Stark, you knew damn well.   That was Stark’s advantage, and also his limitation.

But Stark did evolve as a writer as the series went on.   Westlake didn’t want his alter ego to get stale, rest on his laurels, repeat himself too much.   When you’re doing a lot of books about one character, it’s very hard to not just keep writing the same book, over and over, all the more since a lot of your most loyal readers may want you to do just that.   It’s also very tempting to push the envelope too far, do something that just doesn’t fit the character, as Westlake very nearly did later on, when he started writing The Hot Rock for Parker, only to realize it couldn’t work–Parker wouldn’t bend that way.   To move a series character forward, but always in the right direction–easy to say, tough to do.   Missteps are nearly impossible to avoid.

Many Parker readers would say The Rare Coin Score, while a good book in itself, was just such a misstep.  I see what they’re saying, and don’t agree.  It was a necessary step.   For Stark, and for Parker.   But it was a risky step for both of them as well.

This is a single-protagonist series.  Though each book has interesting supporting characters, Parker is basically the whole show.  And the common wisdom in the publishing biz (without which, as Westlake liked to say, there’d be no wisdom at all), was that you didn’t saddle a male crime fiction protagonist with a steady girl.

For example, in the early days of the 87th Precinct series, Salvatore Albert Lombino, aka Ed McBain, had this notion that the precinct itself was the protagonist.  A collective hero, so to speak.  But his publisher wanted him to make Detective Steve Carella the hero–then after Carella got married to his sweetheart Teddy, they wanted him pushed to the sidelines, and a bachelor detective to take his place–the reason being that now he was a married man, female readers wouldn’t find him interesting anymore, couldn’t project themselves into his various love interests (don’t ask me why they couldn’t just go on identifying with Teddy, who was in the very first book–or with the cops, one of whom was female–I’m not a publisher).

Similarly, any woman James Bond fell for either had to die or become unavailable somehow.  Because readers want him to remain a free agent, even though he might be shown sometimes to dream of settling down–but they don’t want him to be a complete heel and just love&leave ’em (as he did in the movies)–so kill the girl–problem solved.

Now Parker wasn’t primarily aimed at a female audience, because another common wisdom was that women read hardcover mysteries, and men read paperbacks.  In reality, it was never that cut and dried, as I’ve mentioned in other reviews.  Still, guys reading Parker novels for escapism probably enjoyed Parker having a different girl in each book–or just felt like the girl wasn’t that important–Parker only cares about himself, right?   Giving him a girl he actually gives a damn about ruins that, or so the lament typically goes.

But I don’t think that was ever so cut and dried either.   Parker doesn’t care about anyone else because it’s not in his interest to do so–but what if it was?   What if his true nature was monogamous?   What if he needs a steady girl to–you know–steady him?   And she becomes an extension of himself–a potential point of vulnerability, for sure–but also a way for him to avoid spinning out of control, losing himself.   One thing’s for sure–Parker can’t do without the opposite sex.   Not after a heist.  And the more often he has to find a new woman, the more often he leaves himself open to the kinds of problems we’ve seen in the previous books, and to the unstable restless behavior we saw at the beginning of this one.

But more than that–Parker is, I’ll say it one more time (this review), a wolf that somehow got born into a man’s body.   And wolves are not naturally polyamorous as we humans (and the wolves we domesticated) typically are.   Wild wolves instinctively seek to bind themselves to a single partnership, that lasts for as long as both partners survive.  And having created this bond, they will go to almost any lengths to preserve it, quite famously in one case.  Westlake may not have reasoned it out anything like this, but if he didn’t, I really don’t know where he came up with that cyclical sex angle for Parker.

But on a more pragmatic, less metaphysical level, Westlake may have simply felt like he’d done as much as he could with the old pattern.   It was getting tiresome finding ways to write Parker’s cyclical sex life into the story, and the simplest way to deal with that would be to get Parker a girl he could be credibly faithful to (clearly, it would have to be some amazing girl), and then she could be a variously important part of the story when needed, or just briefly referred to when her presence was not required, which would be most of the time.

And quite simply, this was different than what anybody else in the crime genre was doing–yes, Mike Hammer had  the eternally faithful Velda, but she was never very believable, was she?   Pure wish-fulfillment, no personal agenda–no personality to speak of–just a female version of Hammer, entirely subservient to the male one.   Claire would be more than just some long-suffering gal friday.   The relationship between her and Parker would be elusive, shifting in its boundaries, impossible to quantify.   And neither of them would ever say the ‘L’ word–not even once.  If something’s real, you don’t have to talk about it.   You just know.   That’s how Richard Stark would see it.   That’s how Parker would do it.   Differently than anyone else.

But as we pick up the story in Part Two, he’s made no decision about Claire, and is still primarily focused on figuring out how to steal several million dollars in rare coins from a well-guarded hotel ballroom.   He’s figured out that the best option is to break through the wall of an adjoining office building and take the Pinkerton guards by surprise.   But there’s still a lot of details to be worked out.

He and Lempke start to assemble a string–with so little time before the convention starts, they can’t be too picky.   They need somebody to drive the truck they’ll pack the coins in–that’ll be Mike Carlow, a self-styled race car driver and designer most of the year, who will factor into many future heists Parker is involved with–he’s not a big part of this story, so I’ll talk about him more some other time.

They also need a big strong guy to move the merchandise to the truck.  Lempke suggests Dan Wycza, the wrestler/heister who we met in The Score–Parker says he’s dead.   Mark Twain might have a snide remark to make about that.

They settle on Otto Mainzer, a homegrown Nazi, and the most racist, misogynist, sociopathic, and all-round disgusting personality we’ve met in the series so far.    A real charmer, is Otto.   A man of many talents, one of which is rape (based on his experience, he’s gotten the idea women don’t really like sex).  We’re not supposed to like him, and we don’t–but he fits the needs of the string in two ways–the second being that he’s an accomplished arsonist–he sets the fire that shuts down the travel agency in the adjacent building.   Parker wouldn’t work with him if he wasn’t a professional, but he wishes to himself that heisters like him wouldn’t keep bringing their issues to work with them–Mainzer and Carlow are not exactly thick as thieves, each making little digs at the other, and Mainzer has a question to ask–

After Carlow had left, Mainzer said, “What is he, Parker, do you know?”

“What do you mean, what is he?”

“What kind of name is Carlow?  Is it Jewish?”

Parker looked at him and didn’t say anything.

Mainzer spread his hands.  “Don’t get me wrong” he said, “I’ll work with anybody.  Just so they know their job, that’s all.”

“That’s the way to be,” Parker said.

“I was just wondering, that’s all.”

“Wonder next week.”

(If you’re wondering, Carlow is a name commonly found in Britain, and is also the name of a county in Ireland.   And Mainzer is an idiot.  A rather believably drawn one for me, because many years ago, I was at this Celtic Heritage Festival in Brooklyn, over by a table full of books, and one of them was by Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Fein, and had his picture on it.  This big dead-eyed skinhead guy who I think had some notion he was of Gaelic derivation came over, and seeing the book said “Is that Gerry Adams?  He looks Semitic.”   We then somehow got into a brief discussion of racial matters, and turns out I’m a self-hating white man.  There’s no end of Otto Mainzers out there.   Westlake probably learned a lot about them researching The Spy in the Ointment.  But I digress.)

Is Parker offended on behalf of his Jewish colleagues (who might well include Lempke, though it’s never brought up)?   Hardly.  He’s just irritated Mainzer would let his private mania threaten a job of his.   Mainzer knows perfectly well what that look Parker directs at him means–“If you screw this up, I’ll kill you.”   He resolves to get Parker and Carlow after the job is over, but you ever noticed how these looming confrontations in the Parker novels never work out as planned?   Much like the heists themselves.

Lempke is the biggest question mark in the whole job–though he’s only in his Mid-50’s, prison aged him prematurely, and Parker knows he’s not mentally geared up for the job.   He just doesn’t know what else to do   He’s got nothing and nobody, and he needs a stake.   He knows as well as Parker that he’s lost his nerve, but he’s got to act as if it’s still there, and hope that the professional in him didn’t die in prison, with what was left of his youth.

“Lempke’s still down inside here,” he said, patting his chest.  “He’ll come out when we need him.”

“I know that,” Parker lied.

He offers Lempke one out after another–even says maybe they could work out a finder’s fee–Lempke is insulted.  He brought Parker into this job.  He’s the first real pro to get involved with it.  Claire, amateur though she be, has her doubts about him, now that she’s seen what the real thing looks like.   She asks Parker what happens if Lempke doesn’t come out when needed.   Parker says he will–or else he’ll get out before it’s too late.   He doesn’t really know this is true–he wants to believe it.

This may, in fact, be the most surprising reaction we see from Parker in the book, not his behavior towards Claire.  He just can’t bring himself to give Lempke the bum’s rush.   Nobody would stop him, Lempke least of all.   Is he thinking about what happened to Joe Sheer in The Jugger?   Does he want to see this story end differently?   If there’s one thing on this earth that’s sacred to him, it’s his profession–and Lempke was a very capable practitioner.  He isn’t concerned for Lempke’s life, but dislikes seeing his professional identity so hopelessly degraded and lost–it’s aesthetically displeasing to him.   He wants to see the real Lempke again.

Parker and Claire take a road-trip together in Billy’s car to pick up the needed truck.  Parker’s automotive expeditions are always one of my favorite parts of any book but this one is decidedly different–he says Claire needs to come along so she can drive the car back while he drives the truck, but she’s not entirely buying that excuse, nor should she.

Their relationship keeps deepening–and they keep having sex, which should not be happening–Parker is fully involved in planning the job now.   But she’s somehow part of the job, and alluring to him in a way no other woman has been.   She challenges him, forces him to reconsider old assumptions about himself.   He does have to explain to her that when he’s deep in planning mode, he’s not thinking about anything else, and she has to leave him alone.   He goes to bed one night and doesn’t so much as touch her–much to her disgust.

But then something she says gives him the missing piece to the plan he’s mapping out, and all of a sudden his libido ramps up, and he hustles her back to the motel.   She’s broken through his sexual cycle, but he still doesn’t completely trust her.   He still remembers Lynn.

Billy Lebatard, still thinking that he can get Claire for himself once the heist is over,  is none too happy with all this coziness.  He tries to get Parker to promise he’ll leave without Claire, and Parker says he will, but doesn’t really know.  The way Billy had it mapped, he’ll be selling off the coins, and the first half will go to Parker, Lempke, Carlow, and Mainzer–he gets the second half, and any money Claire gets comes from him–the seventy grand she wants so she can be independent, not have to go looking for a new husband in a hurry.   She has no intention of ever giving Billy what he wants, and he has no intention of letting her go–he says he loves her, but orphaned at an early age, never socialized to any great extent, he has no idea what the word means.

Billy’s only true compatriots have been other coin collectors–the very people he’s helped rob in the past, and is going to rob en masse at the convention, and this is eating at him.   He knows he’s betraying the one good thing in him–his passion for coins, his shared understanding with other enthusiasts, who have been the only people who ever accepted him, treated him with any sense of fellowship.   He never had much of a sense of self to start with, but now he’s got none at all.   He’s a horny balding numismatic nerd, trying to win a girl who finds him pitiable at best, repugnant at worst.   Parker calls it right–“You know how you make pity?   One jigger guilt, one jigger contempt.   But Claire’s got nothing to be guilty about over you.”

Billy won’t take good advice when offered, or learn from his mistakes.  He doesn’t want to accept who he is–his insistence on carrying around a gun he doesn’t need and probably doesn’t know how to use shows us that.   Earlier in the book, Jack French, the cool professional heister fallen on hard times who passed on this job, says he bets it’s pearl-handled.   “Chrome,” Claire responds wearily.   Billy’s affectations convince no one but him.

The day of the heist arrives, and in spite of the fact that this is not going down as one of Parker’s better strings, things go smoothly at first.   Most of all with Lempke, who is delighted to discover that he wasn’t bluffing–the old professional really is still down in there, waiting to come out, and when Parker gives him one last challenge before they head for the hotel, he looks Parker dead in the eye and says he’s ready to do his job.   Parker studies him closely–then smiles slightly–“Hello, Lempke,” he responds.   He’s genuinely pleased.

They go in through their self-made private entrance, and catch the Pinkertons offguard, much to their disgust–there’s more outside the Bourse Room, so they can’t take too long. Billy and Lempke get the coins worth taking packed away, and Mainzer carts them down, one heavy case at a time, to the waiting Mike Carlow, disguised as a utilities worker hanging out by his truck.

The string is working out okay as long as the job continues, but there’s trouble looming ahead–Mainzer and Carlow both have plans for right after the heist, both involving violence–each is ready to take the other’s head off for various slights, real and perceived.  Mainzer intends to have it out with Parker too, and man would we all love to see that fight, but then Mainzer’s vengeful musings are cut short by a guy with a tire iron who knocks him out cold.

Mike Carlow gets taken offguard by the same guy, and put out of commission.  Then the guy points a gun at an astonished Lebatard, and Billy the hopeless amateur, wearing his chrome-handled pistol under his coat, after Parker expressly told him not to even think about bringing it on the job with him, tries to draw down on a seasoned pro.   He will not be missed.   Least of all by his fellow collectors, though they certainly will be talking about him for a long time to come.

Claire, hearing the shot, knowing what it means, suddenly realizes what she’s been doing–the game she was playing, but it’s not a game.   It was never a game.   People die for real in armed robberies.   Her carefully cultivated poise collapses, her knees give way, and she sinks into hysteria.   Parker slaps her, but she won’t calm down–he grabs her and heads for the hole in the wall, only to see Lempke stagger out, his head bleeding–“French!” he says.  Claire starts screaming.

French could be waiting for them on the other side–nothing to do now but go out through the lobby, and Parker has to shoot one of the guards and use the near-comatose Claire as a shield to  make that work–he gets down to the truck, just as French, heisting the heist, is about to pull away.   They can’t settle their differences now–the cops are coming.   They hide out in a nearby parking garage, and French explains that he badly needed the cash, and didn’t realize Parker had decided to participate after all.  He just intended to take it over, figuring it was all amateurs except Lempke.  Parker couldn’t care less about his explanations.   But he’s got to bide his time.

Claire has gone from hysteria to chalk-faced shock to weeping as if her heart will break.   She pretended not to care about anyone but herself, but it was a lie.  She can’t deal with violence, with killing.   Not when it’s happening right in front of her.  It’s not who she is.   Parker is worried–does he have to kill her?

He will if there’s no other choice–particularly if she wants to expiate her guilt by turning herself in–but he’s strongly inhibited from doing so, unusually so.   He views the prospect with something very much like dread.  She hasn’t gotten quite close enough to him yet for her to be completely safe from  him–but sensing Parker’s conflict, she tells him no matter what happens, she’ll never talk to the law.  He wants to believe her, but doesn’t completely trust her–she did break under pressure, and might again, though her brief identity crisis appears to have passed.   Still, she’s reassured him enough for his ancillary law–don’t make murder the answer to everything–to combine with his growing attachment to her, and keep her from becoming a dead woman in his mind.

They end up at the apartment of a passing acquaintance of Claire’s, an attractively chunky bottle blonde in a pink negligee named Mavis Gross, who Claire says nobody will miss if she isn’t seen for a few days.  Parker and French tie and blindfold her, before Claire comes in, so she won’t know who fingered her place as a potential hideout.  French has a fence for the coins, but won’t say who it is.  Parker parked the car with the coins (damn, I see what Westlake meant about wishing he hadn’t named him Parker) somewhere French could never find it.  They’re deadlocked, but not for long.

In the meantime, Parker and Claire have to figure this situation out.

Parker put both hands flat on the Formica tabletop, and looked at his hands as he spoke.  “Sometime in the next few days, he said, “I’m going to kill French.  You want to be around for it?”

“No.  I don’t want to hear about it.   Never again, Parker.  I never want to hear about any of it.”

He looked up at her.  “What, then?”

“I want to be with you,” she said.  “I know sometimes you’ll have to go away and do these things, but those times you can’t talk about.  Not tell me anything, not before, not after.”

“That’s how I’d be.   Whether you wanted it or not.”

“The question is, do you want me?”

He looked at her.  “I don’t know for how long,” he said.

“For a while.”

He nodded.  “For a while.”

He’s the last man on earth who’d promise forever.   She’s the last woman on earth who’d ever expect it.  They make their arrangement–she’ll go to the law, but not to confess–to tell a story about how she was a hostage.  She’ll have to make it good–they’ll know Billy was involved, and of her connection to him, but there’s nobody to finger her–even if the cops suspect, they can’t prove anything.   And men always want to believe a woman like Claire.

Parker says in two months time, she should go to the Central Hotel, in Utica New York.  There’ll be a room registered for her under the name Claire Carroll (she finally gets a last name, but it’s not hers–otherwise, why would Parker need to tell her?).   She should wait there for him.   He’ll come for her.

With Claire gone, Parker has to concentrate on French–normally these two would have worked well together, sharing a similar professional ethos, but now, in this unstable situation, each of them knows the other is waiting his moment.   French gives Parker the name of the fence, and leaves, saying Parker can get him his share through his professional contact.   Parker lies in wait for him, for a long time–he almost starts to believe French meant it–then French comes in, gun drawn–he wants the whole pile.   Parker knocks him out and ties him up.

Then Parker unties Mavis, and tells her French was going to kill her.   She’s suitably grateful, and reacting to Parker in the way women typically do, and he just finished a job–and Claire is gone.   He takes her on the couch, and there’s no sense of infidelity.   Something hasn’t been finalized between him and Claire. But Mavis herself is never going to be in the running–to her astonishment, Parker ties her up again afterward.   No hard feelings, but there have been enough surprises on this job already.

They express their mutual gratitude a few times more before he leaves, and by the time he does, she’s disinclined to call the cops.  A good sport, is Mavis Gross. Little does she knows she’s been given the signal honor of being the last woman Parker ever has sex with who isn’t Claire.

The fence drives in from Akron, and while he’s not happy to be dealing with a stranger instead of French, he’s open to a deal–the papers say the thieves got away with about 750k in coins–they also say that Mainzer and Carlow are in custody, Billy Lebatard was the mastermind (perhaps he’d be pleased to be taken seriously just once in his life), and Lempke died of his head injury.

Parker wants 200k, and the fence grudgingly agrees–Parker gives him the keys to the car the coins are in, and the location.   Parker will pick up the cash in Akron later–and he’ll make sure Mainzer and Carlow each get 50 grand–Lempke and Billy’s shares died with them.   Parker takes 100 grand.   French is out of the money.   In more ways than one.

Wait a minute–is that math right?  Parker didn’t finance this job, and it was for even shares.     Why not split the money three ways?   Because Claire was part of this job.   She earned her money.  If she does what she said she’d do, and meets Parker, then she’s proved herself, and they’ll spend the money together.   If he didn’t think she was going to come through, he’d split the money three ways.

Parker has just one more duty to attend to.   Now, French was probably a dead man in Parker’s mind the moment Lempke gasped out his name.  But we can never be completely sure–if he’d stuck with what he’d said, trusted Parker to get him his share, maybe Parker would have been able to resist the urge to hunt him down afterwards.   Probably not, but maybe.   French wanted all the money, and he also didn’t want Parker coming after him, so he made a play–and it failed.

Now Parker is marching him down an alleyway, and he knows what’s coming. He asks Parker why he can’t just take the money and go–“You soured a job of mine.” French knocks Parker down and runs–Parker was expecting that, waiting for it–almost like he needed something to trigger him–he liked French when he first met him.   He shoots once, and French falls.   He doesn’t bother to check for a pulse.

Two months later, we find him casing the Central Hotel in Utica, where he’s been for several days now, watching Claire come and go, watching for cops, watching for a trap.   Maybe they got wise to her story, leaned on her, made a deal–Parker in exchange for a light sentence.   Maybe she’s on the square, but they put a tail on her.  But there’s nothing.   He can feel it–she pulled it off.   Nobody followed her.   They bought her story, hook line and sinker.   She’s going to be valuable to him in more ways than one.

He goes to her room, and knocks on the door.   And the moment his knuckles hit the wood, she belongs to him, and he to her.   “For a while” turns out to mean “Until one or both of us is dead.”   There’s a prettier way to phrase it, often heard at weddings, but somehow it doesn’t fit.

So that’s how Parker’s wild bachelor days came to an end, even though he and Claire never made it official (that would make no sense, since it would link Claire to him, and he needs her to stay clean with the law).   And you can mourn that, or celebrate it, or just see it as something that really didn’t make much difference, since Claire only heavily factored into two or three more books, and was completely absent from quite a few of them.

But the point, as always, is that Parker isn’t like you and me.   He doesn’t get involved the same way we do, and once involved, he stays involved–because he can’t be any other way.   You don’t ask yourself “Does he love her?” because it’s a stupid question.   She’s necessary to him.   She’s part of him.   Westlake said once that Parker has a very small circle, and once you’re inside it, you’re completely safe from him.

To those who want to see him as completely without conscience, without feelings towards others, this can seem like a cop-out, but I would say they’re projecting.   Westlake never intended to make him a sociopath–why show guys like Mainzer (and believe it or not, there’s worse coming in future books), if not to say “This is a sociopath–Parker is something else.”

I’ve probably overworked the wolf angle, particularly since I’ve never seen a wild wolf in my life–but let me tell you a story about something I did witness, just a few years back.   On the campus I work at, there was a pair of hawks.  One day, the male ate an animal that had eaten rat poison, and he got very weak.   He fell from the branch he was sitting on.   Somebody saw him, and called the authorities.   He couldn’t just be allowed to die underneath the sky he’d soared effortlessly through in life.  This would be improper.  So some official person came to pack him up in a box and take him away to die in a steel cage in a sterile room somewhere.   This is what we humans like to call compassion.

The female (the larger of the two–all of two pounds), who had been keeping silent vigil over her mate, was having none of this.   She drove away anyone who dared approach him.   Reinforcements were called for–I counted six police vehicles, riot vans, big beefy 200+ pound cops in combat gear, with shields, batons–all to weather the unfettered fury of a two pound bird, protecting another bird who could not possibly be of any use to her now.   But that didn’t matter.   He was her mate.  They were a pair.   These are the rules.

They finally got past her, got him in the box and took him away.   He died, of course.   She never saw him again.   She lived through the winter by herself.  The spring came, and her hormones began to flow again as the days lengthened, and a new male presented himself to her.   They raised more young together, and the years passed, and she finally disappeared.  Nobody ever found out what happened to her.   And a new female presented herself to the new male.  And life went on.   And, it should be mentioned, a whole lot of rats, chipmunks, squirrels and pigeons were captured, killed, and devoured, because that’s how predators make a living.

“What’s the moral?” you ask.   “What’s a moral?” I ask.

And that’s what Richard Stark asks.   And somehow, we never have an answer ready.

But the book I’m reviewing next week has a lot of answers–about Donald Westlake.   And of course those answers just lead to more questions, but what else is new?

PS: Yes, that’s Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s picture up top, and yes she does look a lot like Robert McGinnis’ version of Claire, doesn’t she?   Imaginary Casting Director–such a fun game.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: The Rare Coin Score


Parker lay in the dark in his hotel-room bed and waited to be contacted.  Lying there, he looked like a machine not yet turned on.  He was thinking about nothing; his nerves were still.

When the knock sounded at the door, he got up and walked over and switched on the light because he knew most people thought it strange when somebody lay waiting in the dark.  Then he opened the door and there was a woman standing there, which he hadn’t expected.  She was tall and slender and self-possessed, with the face and figure of a fashion model, very remote and cool.  She said, “Mr. Lynch?”

That was the name he was using here, but he said, “You sure this is the room you want?”

One of the very first things we ever learn about Parker is that his sex drive doesn’t function normally.   During a job, he doesn’t seem to have any interest at all, though he’s marginally aware of certain women as potential future hook-ups.   Right after a job, he’s insatiable, and must find a willing partner, which is rarely difficult for him.   A few months later, he’s lost interest again, until his next heist.   If the woman he’s with doesn’t like it, tough.

Before we first met him, he was married (legally?) to a woman named Lynn, who was part of the same criminal world Parker inhabited, though not a professional heister.  We’re told he was in love with her, though we don’t really find out what that meant for him, other than that he was faithful to her.   Their sex life went on hiatus once his cycle was in its waning phase, though–which was difficult for her to live with, but she apparently considered Parker worth the wait.   Finally, her life threatened by Mal Resnick, her nerve broke–at Mal’s prompting, she shot Parker and left him for dead.

But he wasn’t, of course, and he came after Lynn.   His old feelings for her were still there (not that he’d admit that to anyone but himself), but the trust he’d once felt towards her was permanently shattered–she was in a very bad mental state when he found her, and the narrator tells us Parker was afraid of her–the first and last time we’re told Parker is afraid of anybody.

He spoke to and of her with a harshness and venom we never saw from him again, but he couldn’t actually bring himself to kill her.  When she committed suicide out of despair at his seeming indifference, he was relieved, and dumped her body in Central Park, mutilating her face so Resnick wouldn’t be tipped to his return by the newspapers.  He rarely thought of her afterwards.

It’s not exactly the classic American love story, is it?   Even by the standards of French noir, that’s pretty damn cold.

After Lynn dies, Parker decides he won’t let himself get involved with a woman that way ever again.   Not long-term.   It fits in with his professional dictum that emotional attachments of any type blind you, weigh you down, make you vulnerable (well, that’s true, isn’t it?).   Lynn was an aberration, a mistake.   He won’t let himself be open to anyone that way again.  He’ll find women when he needs them, then walk away once the need subsides.

In the first few books, he lives that way, but it’s a hassle–one of the women he ends up with is a spoiled heiress named Bett Harrow, a treacherous blonde beauty, who manipulates him into doing a job for her father, and can’t be trusted on any level.  It’s not so easy to find someone worth spending time with who doesn’t have issues of one kind of another, that end up complicating your life.   He walks away from her without a backward glance.

He lives with a blonde named Jean for a while, after the events of The Score, but in the subsequent book, when he has to make sure this other blonde named Rhonda doesn’t talk to the law about him, he’s ready to dump Jean, who he’s already getting tired of, and make Rhonda his new maîtresse-en-titre–only to learn Jean left during his absence–he never wonders what happened to her.  Still, he’s already starting to think in terms of finding something steadier–he admires Mary Deegan, the woman Grofield hooked up with in The Score, and wonders what it would be like being with someone who knew what she wanted–a partnership.  He didn’t have that with Lynn.

He really seemed to go for a taciturn bohemian brunette named Ellie Canaday that he met in The Seventh, but she was murdered a few days after they got together sexually.   There is, I think, a strong implication that they were in the early stages of forming a lasting bond, and that he’s angry and frustrated about the way she was killed by a jilted ex-lover before that process could be completed–but if he feels any sense of personal loss over her death, he covers it well.

His next connection is with a professional named Crystal (yet another blonde) working for The Outfit, who likes Parker, but isn’t looking for anything permanent.  He notes, to his surprise, that his sexual pattern is more flexible than he thought–even though he’s technically working with her, casing a casino The Outfit wants him to knock over, he still wants her.   Once he’s actively planning the job, the old pattern reasserts itself, and she ends up spending time with Grofield–no feathers ruffled on either side.   Just business, mixed with pleasure.

As The Rare Coin Score begins, Parker is finally back where he thought he wanted to be.   He’s got plenty of money, nobody’s after him, and he can take a good long break before his next job.   And he’s restless, dissatisfied, out of kilter.   He’s living a life right out of the pages of Playboy–endless sex, travel, excitement, recreation, no obligations of any kind, to anybody.   It’s what all men are supposed to really want, and judging by what we read in the entertainment press, it’s not a life free-spirited humans of either gender tire of easily, when it’s actually an option.  Eventually, sure–but not after a few weeks.

His life is aimless now–even the opening of the book tells us this–and breaks with the tradition of the previous eight novels, in that it does not begin with the usual “When such and such happened, Parker did something.”   We won’t see that opening again for a long time, but this is more than just a shift in style–

Parker spent two weeks on the white sand beach at Biloxi, and on a white sandy bitch named Belle, but he was restless, and one day without thinking about it he checked out and sent a forwarding address to Handy McKay and moved on to New Orleans.  He took a room in a downtown motel and connected with a girl folk singer the first night, but all she did was complain about how her manager was lousing up her career, so three days later he ditched her and took up with a Bourbon Street stripper instead.

Parker always has a purpose of some kind when the story opens, but not here.  And he keeps moving around from one place to another, one woman after another.  To Parker, it’s so intolerable that he wanders through a rough New Orleans neighborhood until two unfortunate derelicts try to mug him for his shoes–he realizes he’s deliberately prolonging the fight–that he was looking for trouble, just to alleviate his boredom–disgusted with himself, he finishes the two bums off, and moves on again, to Vegas, and then San Diego.

He gets a call there from Handy McKay, still running his diner in Maine, and serving as Parker’s ‘mailbox’ in place of the now-deceased Joe Sheer–there’s a potential  job.  Not even knowing what the job is, Parker tells the attractive divorcee he was about to bed that she needs to go now.   Immediately his mind flips back into work-mode, and he feels at ease with himself.   He knows this is stupid–that  if he has to keep working all the time to keep from jumping out of his own skin, he’s drastically increasing his chances of being caught or killed.   But he needs to work.  He checks into a predesignated hotel in Indianapolis, and waits for someone to contact him.

That someone is Claire, who will be Parker’s steady girlfriend for the remaining 15 novels.   We never learn her real last name.  She was married to an airline pilot named Ed, who died in a crash.  Nobody calls her anything but Claire.  At the end of the book, on Parker’s instructions, she checks into a hotel under the name Claire Carroll, but it’s not at all clear that was her maiden or married name.  For most of the series, she goes by Claire Willis–she took Parker’s old alias that he stopped using after The Jugger, more or less as a joke–that Parker doesn’t find particularly funny.

Her physical description is intriguing and brief–tall, slender, the face and body of a model (which leaves a lot to the imagination).   Hair color–unknown.   Eye color–unknown.   Ethnicity–unknown–but we’re told she goes chalk-white with shock later in the book, so she’s fair-skinned.   If she has any family other than her late husband’s relatives, we never hear about it.  Her general physical attributes, aside from the fact that she’s tall and slender–never mentioned.   The Robert McGinnis cover art for the Gold Medal first edition paperback shows us a woman with very dark bobbed hair, dark eyes, her face partly hidden, her expression ambiguous–his artwork for the cover of the next book also makes her a brunette.

But later covers and illustrations (including one from McGinnis) have depicted her as a blonde, or a redhead, or just a lighter brunette.  The height of absurdity was probably reached when the four Parker novels published by Gold Medal were reprinted one after the other in a magazine called For Men Only, with alternate titles you have to see to believe, and we still have those types of magazines today, so no need to explain what they were most interested in–but take a look–



(You can imagine Westlake reading the captions and wincing slightly–back to the softcore porn pits, if only by proxy–oh well, a check is a check).

Blonde in The Rare Coin Score (sorry, I meant The Naked Plunderers), brunette in The Green Eagle Score (you don’t want to know what they called that one), and I guess The Black Ice Score was the rubber match, but it didn’t really settle anything–hell, she was blonde and brunette in the second one).   And believe it or not, these aren’t anywhere near the worst illustrations–you can see the rest over at the Official Westlake Blog.

I’m only bringing up this rather embarrassing episode in Westlake’s career to show there was no consensus, even within the pages of a half-witted men’s magazine, as to what Claire looked like.  If she was blonde more often than brunette, that’s got nothing to do with anything in the books.   That’s just the typical bias we see in books, magazines, films, TV, etc.  Blondes may not always have more fun, but they definitely get more ink.

Westlake himself went into no greater detail about Claire’s appearance until the final trilogy of novels that ended up being the defacto conclusion to the series–in the first of which (Nobody Runs Forever), she’s got auburn hair–but in the last (Dirty Money), which takes place only a few weeks later, she’s ash-blonde.  There’s no mention of her having been to the hair-dresser.   I have to believe this was intentional on Westlake’s part.  The vagueness of her description across most of the series, I  mean.  Not the switch from auburn to blonde at the end–that I can’t explain.  Maybe he just forgot.

What does your ideal mate look like?   Not the same as everyone else’s, that’s for sure–and probably even your personal ideal changes over time, in response to the people you meet, the movies you see, the books you read.   Ideals are hazy, by their nature–and flexible.   They’d better be, if you want to actually find someone in reality.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the female love interest is an important factor in most of Westlake’s novels.   It’s part of the genre he writes in, and it’s also something he’s keenly interested in, being an inveterate girl watcher, who as his third wife humorously remarked, was obsessed with sex (though really, the fact that he had a third wife could tell you that).

But he was almost always very specific in his physical descriptions of these women–they had distinct appearances, personalities, interests.   Some of them were idiosyncratic and unique, others more like standard male fantasies, but even then they were specific standard male fantasies.   Brunettes, blondes, the occasional redhead, and sometimes they were black, or Latina, or some other ethnicity.   They came in all heights, all shapes, all colors.  A beautiful woman is more than the sum of her parts–and there’s nothing in the world more subjective than beauty.  You see it or you don’t.   A true admirer of women will see it everywhere.  Because it’s really about what’s emanating from inside (though the wrappings sure don’t hurt).

To me, Claire will always look like the woman on those first two McGinnis covers.  It seems unlikely to me that Westlake originally thought of her as a blonde, because a woman being blonde is something you always mention in this genre.   McGinnis may have given her dark hair on those first two covers because the book itself offered no clues, and because he also assumed that if you don’t mention a Caucasian woman being blonde or redheaded, she’s a brunette–that’s the default option.   But perhaps also because we know Parker has dark hair, and the novel depicts her as somehow a female counterpart to Parker, and McGinnis wanted to depict that for all their differences, these are two of a kind.  Parker has met his match.

There could be some other reason for her description being so vague.   I can think of several.   And it really doesn’t matter, because whatever the original motivation, the final result is that Claire is an ideal.  She represents something you dream of, and never quite exactly find in reality–but Parker isn’t you.   What Parker needs, Parker gets.   And only what he needs.  If he doesn’t get it, he didn’t need it.

And what he needs now is someone to stabilize him, before he burns himself out.   A wolf in human form, which is how I see Parker, only needs one mate–who he will be faithful to unto death.   Wolves are very nearly the only natural monogamists among mammals–primates, not so much.   Which isn’t to say monogamy isn’t an important part of human society, but it’s a learned habit–a necessary social adaptation, that has always clashed with our natural instincts.

When it comes to sex, as with so many other things, we’re divided against ourselves–wanting many, and yearning to find the one who can make us forget the many.   Because life with a variety of partners may sound alluring, but the reality for those of us who aren’t Arab Oil Sheiks is more typically stressful, disruptive, confusing, and (oddly enough) lonely.   Also dangerous.   Let’s not leave that out.   Gay people didn’t push so hard for marriage rights on a whim.

The Rare Coin Score is unique among the Parker novels in that the central focus of its story is about Parker making a lasting connection with another person.   It’s actually unique among all of Westlake’s novels up to that point, unless you count a few of the sex books he wrote under pseudonyms.   Yes, many of the books he wrote under his own name have important romantic subplots, notably some of the ‘Nephew’ books, but those are entirely from the point of view of the male protagonist, and are really stories of self-discovery–which for a guy, can include discovering what kind of girl you’d like to spend the rest of your life with.  But it’s about the guy reaching this conclusion.   Not the girl.   She’s usually way ahead of him there.

This time, we’re going to see things from the girl’s POV as well, and we’re going to learn why both of them make the rather unconventional choice to stay together–to form a partnership.   And never get married.   Or raise a family.  Whether they chose to remain childless or it just worked out that way is never brought up.   Given Parker’s lifestyle, and Claire’s undomesticated nature, it would be an understandable (and correct) choice.

But neither of them ever seems to give the matter any thought.   Life for both of them is something to be lived a day at a time, though not in exactly the same way.  Of course, we know the real reason they never have any kids is that it would overcomplicate the heists.  And speaking of heists, let’s get back to the novel. This is going to be another of my two-parters, but you knew that already, right?   Too much to cover in just one article.

This is the first heist we see Parker pull in a city that actually exists.   Namely Indianapolis–Westlake describes it in a fair bit of detail, and I would assume he was actually there at some point, perhaps for a writer’s convention.   That would make sense, since the target of this heist is a coin collector’s convention, at the very hotel Parker is staying at.  Parker doesn’t much like Indianapolis, but he doesn’t much like cities in general. Too many people.  But that’s where the money is.

He was contacted by Lempke, an old associate of Parker’s, in his mid-50’s, just released from prison, and Parker can’t believe Lempke would be so stupid and sloppy–you don’t talk about a heist in the same city you’re going to pull it in, let alone pull it in a hotel you stayed at.

He’s also bothered by them sending a woman to pick him up.   In Parker’s experience, women aren’t part of The Profession.   He mentions this to Claire, who gets in her first memorable line–“It doesn’t sound like a very rewarding profession.”   Parker actually laughs out loud–he never forgets that line–not many people ever get the better of him in an exchange.

Claire is–different.   For one thing, as he learns later on, this whole job is her idea.     She wants a lot of money–seventy thousand dollars.   A relative by marriage, the aptly named Billy Lebatard, is a coin collector and dealer, and has previously several times colluded with armed robbers to rip off dealers he knows slightly, for a share of the proceeds.

Billy is a strangely familiar figure to find in a story like this–orphaned at an early age, hopelessly inept at any type of social activity that isn’t directly related to his hobby/profession.   He’s bespectacled, overweight, timid; quite certainly a virgin.   If you’ve been to just about any kind of fan convention, you’ve met this guy (Comic-Con, I fondly imagine, is thousands of these guys milling around in costume).   If you’ve discussed genre stuff on the internet, you’ve virtually met this guy.   One way or another, everybody has met this guy.   And many of us, to a greater or (hopefully) lesser extent, have been this guy.

Claire is roughly a million light years out of Billy’s league, but he wants her anyway, more than he’s ever wanted anything.   She wants no part of him, but with no resources (just debts her late husband left her), and not eager to try the marriage market again, she listens when he brags about how much money he can get.   When she finds out his actual resources fall far below her needs, and knowing he’s already done some really nasty things to perfectly innocent people, she decides to let him think that if he could get her the 70k, she’d be more receptive to his advances.   It’s her idea to knock over the entire coin convention, but neither of them has any idea how to pull it off, and they end up going in with Lempke, who brings in Parker.

Parker thinks the whole set-up stinks.   He and another seasoned pro, named Jack French, walk out of the meet in disgust–particularly bothered by the fact that Billy, who is supposed to just be the ‘finger’ on this job, is walking around with a gun under his jacket, as if somehow that makes him a pro.   Too many amateurs involved, and Lempke seems to have lost his nerve in prison.   Too many things could go wrong, and while the pay-off could be big (there’s going to be over two million dollars worth of merchandise), the coins would have to be sold off a bit at a time, by Billy himself–they’d get nothing for weeks or even months afterwards.

French, who Parker is impressed with, is sorry it didn’t work out–he really needs the cash, but it’s not worth risking prison over.  Parker, who is still flush, finds himself slipping back into aimlessness, but if it’s bad, it’s bad.   He can’t get a plane out of town that night, so he goes back to the hotel.   He’s sitting in the dark again, and Claire comes to see him again.   This time he doesn’t bother to turn the light on.   Claire thinks this is strange, but she sits there in the dark, while he lies in bed gazing at the ceiling.  He sees her briefly when she lights a cigarette, and for the first time he feels a very specific desire to make love to her.

Still trying to sell him on the heist, she says she does what she has to do–Parker tells her to take off her clothes.   She starts to walk out, and that’s when he lets her have it–

He let her reach the door, and then he said, “Your line was, ‘I do what I have to do.’   But that’s a lie, you wear your pride like it’d keep the cold out.   What you mean is,  you despise Lebatard and don’t care what you do to him.”

She shut the door again, bringing back the darkness.  She said, “What’s wrong with that?”

“Another rule,” he said.  “Don’t work with anyone you can’t trust or don’t respect.”

“You have too many rules,” she said.

“I haven’t been inside.  Lempke has.”

“What would you have done if I had taken my clothes off?”

“Taken you to bed and left in the morning.”

“Maybe it isn’t pride,” she said.  “Maybe I’m just smart.”

Parker laughs again–now she’s definitely got his attention.  He’s still not sold on the job, but he’s starting to get sold on her, and just to be around her a while longer, he lets her show him the ballroom where the convention will be held, and master planner that he is, he starts to look for ways to pull the job.   It’s a reflex, he can’t help himself.

Billy’s idea was to rob the room the coins are stored in before the convention starts–but the coins will be out in the ballroom Saturday night, because it’s too much work to pack them all up overnight, for this two day event.  Parker thinks it would work better to get the coins from the ballroom (temporarily renamed the Bourse Room) Saturday night, after the dealers and collectors have all left.  But there will be armed Pinkerton security men stationed there to protect the merchandise.  It’s in the middle of a good-sized city.   A tough nut to crack.   But not impossible.

Claire’s not so tough, if only because she likes Parker as much as he likes her.   He wants her to spend the night with him, and she asks if the deal is off if she says no.   He says she can just come back and pick him up the next day.   She responds “That would be a lot of extra driving, wouldn’t it?”   Fade to sex.

Billy’s not happy with the change in plan–or with what he sees going on between Parker and Claire.  New complexities are raised–rare coins have to be packed up carefully, or they’ll end up losing much of their value in transit.  Parker realizes Billy’s necessary to the job–he’s the only one who knows enough about the goods they’re stealing.  But his jealousy is going to be a problem–and it gets worse when Parker and Claire go back to the hotel to look for a way to make this work.

Claire is lying naked in bed next to Parker, wondering why she only dates men like race car drivers and pilots–men who are always about to get killed.   Parker is even worse–he’s tempting fate and fighting society at the same time.  Parker says that’s not him–“I don’t tempt anybody.  I don’t fight anybody.  I walk where it looks safe.  If it doesn’t look safe, I don’t walk.”  Claire says this is what all the adrenaline junkies in her life told her.

 “You’ll do it,” she said.  “I know your type.  You talk safety, but when you smell the right kind of danger, you’re off like a bloodhound.”

She was describing a tendency in him that he’d been fighting all his life, and that he thought of as being under control.  Also, it irritated him to be read that easily.  With an abrupt movement, he got up from the bed, saying “I’ve still got to look around, while it’s light.”

“Don’t get mad at me,” she said.  “You were this way long before I came along.”

Parker looked at her and said “You talk yourself out of a lot of things, don’t you?”

I’d call that one a draw.  Also by far the most intimate discussion we’ve seen Parker have with anybody, ever.   Claire is getting into his head, under his skin.   He’s got to move this into an area where he’s got the advantage–his profession.

So they check out the ballroom again, and this time Parker sees something.   A set of French doors that lead nowhere.   He realizes there must have been a terrace outside them once, before the adjacent office building went up.   What’s on the other side of those doors now is a wall, and on the other side of that wall is a travel agency office–he and Claire go up there, posing as an engaged couple planning their honeymoon.   They run a little con game on the receptionist, to get inside the inner office–there’s a pot of African Violets that he saw from the street below–that’s the wall he needs to break through to get to the money.

Parker’s seen all he needs to see–it can be done.  He’s still got some details to work out, but he’s convinced.  Then Billy comes barging in–he wants to make a scene.   Parker’s ready to give up again–the job is okay, but not if it comes with all this drama.   Claire tells Billy she’s done with him if he ruins this for her, and he leaves.  She tells Parker she can handle Billy.   Parker knows this job is going to be trouble, from start to finish–but he can’t let go.   Of the job or the woman.   He’s hooked.

And hopefully you are too–see you next week.   Don’t take any wooden nickels.   Unless they’re rare collectibles, of course.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: The Damsel


“What on earth,” she said, “are you talking about?”

“Acting,” he said.   “Do you realize that in my peak year so far I earned a miserable thirty-seven hundred dollars from acting?”

“What about this money here?” she demanded, pointing at the suitcase.

“Sixty-three thousand dollars.  A bunch of us knocked over that gambling casino, and that’s my share.”

“Gambling casino,” she said contemptuously.  “Off the coast of Texas.  So how do you wind up here?”

“It’s a long story,” he said.

“By the time you’re done making it up,” she said, “I suppose it will be.  The last story you were Casanova, this time you’re Robin Hood.  Who are you going to be next time, Flash Gordon?”

Since 1962, under the name of Richard Stark, Donald Westlake had been writing a lot of short violent tersely-worded novels about an armed robber named Parker, which were published by Pocket Books, and which had twice so far featured Alan Grofield as one of Parker’s more trusted accomplices.

Parker’s first sidekick, if you want to use that term, had been Handy McKay, who many (myself included) consider the best of the bunch, but the trouble with Handy was that he didn’t have any kind of backstory, or really anything to distinguish him from Parker, other than the fact that he was a bit nicer and he never seemed to be dating anybody.   Personally, I’d love to know what a Handy McKay novel would have looked like, but no question–to make that work, you’d have to substantially add to the character.   As he exists, he would not make sense as a solo player, any more than Dr. John Watson would (and yes, I know, but pastiches don’t count).

And yet the question remains–does Grofield make sense as a solo player?   After his introduction in The Score, where he met his future wife Mary Deegan, and then his return in The Handle, where Parker left him in a Mexican hotel to recuperate from his wounds, he got the chance to prove he could cut it on his own.  But because of some transitions going on in Westlake/Stark’s professional life, his ride was bumpy from the start.

The original idea, we can be pretty sure, was that Grofield would be published under the same roof as Parker, which would have made cross-marketing a lot easier–that’s why the end of The Handle leads into the beginning of The Damsel.  But around the time Westlake started developing Grofield as a solo act, Pocket decided to stop publishing original paperback crime novels–The Handle would be the last Parker novel to appear under their aegis.  So Grofield was left in that Mexican hotel for quite some time, while Westlake scrambled to find a venue for his work as Richard Stark.

Gold Medal, long the reigning monarch of the now-dying original paperback crime novel market, agreed to take Parker, an established character, inspired in no small part by novels they’d published in their heyday of the 1950’s, who had enjoyed strong sales, and was about to appear (in very altered form and name) in a major motion picture starring Lee Marvin.

The relationship between Westlake and Gold Medal was brief, and according to Westlake, never terribly comfortable on either side, but it did lead to some of the best cover art Parker ever got, from the brilliant Robert McGinnis. Parker fit right in at Gold Medal, even if Westlake felt like the odd man out in an area of publishing whose days were clearly numbered.   Gold Medal knew how to sell this kind of story.   Gold Medal very nearly invented this kind of story, or at least popularized it.

But Gold Medal wasn’t that interested in Grofield, unproven as a protagonist–and the first novel was already written, making it hard to retool to Gold Medal’s tastes–so Westlake found Grofield a home of sorts at Macmillan’s Cock Robin Mystery division, which published The Damsel in 1967.  The American paperback reprint rights went to New American Library’s Signet label, and that edition appeared in 1969–by which point in time, Parker was at Random House, and Grofield was looking for a new publisher again.

Yes, it’s very confusing, but if you want to read more about it, check out The Getaway Car, which happens to be available right now, in both electronic and paperback form.  The single most invaluable resource any aspiring Westlake scholar ever laid his or her sweaty palms upon.   Which I’ll be reviewing very shortly.

Now to the extent there was an existing market for Grofield, it existed because of Parker.   And Parker was written by Richard Stark.  So naturally the Grofield novels would be published under that pseudonym as well.  But in rereading The Damsel, I was moved to ponder–is this a Richard Stark novel, simply because Stark’s name is on it?  Remember, Westlake refused for many years to write any Stark novels at all because he felt he couldn’t get the voice right anymore.   Did he think he got the voice right here, or did he simply decide he needed the extra revenue badly enough to compromise a little?   After all, he’d created Grofield as Stark, so Stark surely deserved the credit for anything Westlake did with the character.  I can actually imagine him rationalizing it that way, God help me.

To be sure, the book is written in the third person, like every other Stark novel ever published.  All of Westlake’s novels published under his own name to this point, other than The Busy Body, had featured first-person narrators (which proved to be a less durable tradition).   I personally don’t see much difference in the writing style of The Busy Body and The Damsel–appositely, I saw significant differences between The Busy Body and The Jugger, written around the same time.   But of course, The Busy Body and The Damsel are both rather light-hearted humorous works of fiction–actually, I’d say the former was more humorous, and the latter more light-hearted.   The Jugger is as funny as an obituary page, and as light-hearted as a funeral dirge, though a lot more entertaining than either.

This small exercise in literary forensics I’m engaged with here here is further complicated by the fact that, as I’ve said elsewhere, I think Grofield is a Westlake character who for whatever reason got born in a Richard Stark novel (and much later, somehow managed to transmigrate himself, in a sort of alternate dimensional form, into the Dortmunder books).   Their propensity for armed robbery, aversion to personal compromise, devotion to professional standards, and attraction to the same types of women aside, Grofield and Parker don’t have much in common.   Parker is the ultimate monoglot (I am not referring only to language here); Grofield the ultimate dilettante.  As indeed any good actor has to be.

Grofield knows a little something about everything–fencing, guns, horseback riding, history, literature, movies, even politics–all geared to one end–for him to be able to credibly inhabit a wide variety of roles.  One of which happens to be heavy heister–he does that for real, but it’s still a role, and the places he robs are merely stages–all the world’s a stage to Alan Grofield, all the men and women he meets are fellow players.   He bears none of them ill will, but his attachment to most of them is purely transitory in nature–you have to be ready for casting changes. The closest thing he has to a permanent connection in his life is Mary–his partner in the theater, as well as in bed, which is what makes her different from the others–but there are a lot of others.  Grofield is different from Parker in that as well–his sex drive does not shut down when he’s working–quite the contrary.  He’s as much of a dilettante when it comes to women as he is with everything else.

Parker, as we’ve seen, imposes his persona on whatever situation he finds himself in–he may pretend to be something other than himself to evade detection, get the job done, but he’s not playing a role–he’s just blending in–and not very convincingly.  Put him in a James Bond spy story or a whodunnit detective story, he will turn it into a hardboiled crime novel–the narrative will bend to his agenda. Put Grofield in those situations, he bends to the will of the narrative–reluctantly, but professionally.   It’s his nature.  He plays the role he’s cast in, at any given moment–because he has no choice.  The role may not always be to his liking, but that is also part and parcel of his profession.

That, I think, is what happened with him and Mary Deegan–flirting with her at the telephone office in Copper Canyon, while his colleagues were robbing the entire town, he inadvertently fell out of the tense violent heist story he had signed up for, and into a sort of romantic comedy with a heist angle–because that’s what seemed to be called for at the time (and because his new leading lady was delightful). His identity is less settled than Parker’s–more fluid.  This opens up certain opportunities to him, but it also makes him much easier to distract.  He’s like water poured into a variety of containers–constantly changing form–and yet it’s always water.  And he’s always Grofield.   Whoever that is.   Is any actor ever 100% sure?    Any human?

By the way, here’s another contrast between him and Parker–the names.   Parker has chosen one of the most common names in the English-speaking world to hide behind–right up there with Smith and Jones, but less obviously an alias–it’s not even definitively a first or last name.   Grofield, by contrast, is very much a surname, and one of the rarest I’ve ever come across–try doing a google search for it.   Try looking up Grofields in an online directory–you’ll find damned few.   I got the impression there were more country inns going by that moniker than actual people.

I work for a library, have access to remarkable databases, and best as I can tell nobody by that name ever wrote a damned thing in all of history.  Has anyone out there ever known a Grofield?   The name clearly isn’t Westlake’s invention, but I wonder where he came across it?   One tends to assume it must be the fictive Grofield’s actual name–it would be a truly rotten alias.

And he goes around blithely identifying himself to people by that exceedingly rare name, some of whom might later have cause to track him down with ill intent.   True, he’s never been much for fixed abodes, and nobody had online search engines back then.  Still and all, I can only think this tendency of his to use his real name when not actually committing a robbery is because it’s all he’s got to anchor a tenuous constantly shifting sense of self.   And hey, it probably looks great on a theater marquee.   Not like his name is Archie Leach or anything like that. I guess it’s also possible he borrowed the name from somewhere, because it would look good on a marquee–maybe he’s Jewish, like the actor in Pity Him Afterwards.  He just picked an unusual but WASPy-sounding name out of a hat, for professional reasons.  We’ll never know.   But I think it’s his real name.

The reason I have Alan Alda’s picture up top is that from the very first time I started reading about Grofield, I cast Alda in my head to play him, and I’ve been hearing Alda’s voice in my head when I read Grofield’s dialogue ever since. (That particular film still is from John Frankenheimer’s The Extraordinary Seaman, which featured Alda in his first significant feature film role). I’m sure the shared first name had something to do with it, as did the physical description–tall, lean, dark-haired, intense–but mainly it was the sense of humor, the weakness for sarcastic asides, the knack for verbal ju jitsu, ala Groucho Marx, that anybody who watched MASH remembers very well.  And of course the roving eye. Grofield may take some things seriously, but he’ll rarely admit to it.  Language is a game to him, an art form, as well as a tool of his trade, and he uses it to both illumine and obfuscate–in a way Parker could never understand, and responds to mainly with “Shut up, Grofield.”   But Grofield never shuts up for very long.  The one role he could never play would be a mute.

Now there’s another contrast with Parker–I suspect many others who have read the books he’s in have managed to cast him as one actor or another in their imaginations.   But Parker is notoriously hard to cast–reading his dialogue, we who are film buffs may sometimes hear Lee Marvin’s voice, or Robert Duvall’s, or some actor who never played him but should have (pretty sure nobody ever heard Jason Statham), but there’s something elusive about Parker–we all know, down inside, that nobody could ever capture him perfectly, that he will never be 100% right anywhere but in the pages of a Richard Stark novel.

Grofield, we can easily imagine as the hero of a movie or a TV show.  And yet he never has been.  Nobody’s even tried.   Go figure. Grofield himself, we are told repeatedly, could easily make far more money than he ever will as a heister by just abandoning his professional principles, going to Hollywood, doing guest roles on TV, landing a series, maybe even making it as a film star.  He’d be richer and he’d get laid easier and he’d live longer, and he absolutely will not go for it.

To him, real acting means live theater–and the odds of him ever becoming one of the tiny handful who can support themselves solely through that kind of acting are virtually nil.   And he can’t compromise the way most semi-successful theatrical players do either–by waiting tables, moving furniture, teaching acting classes, or whatever.   He’ll steal scenes or he’ll steal money.   Nothing else. So he’s chosen a double life, which means a divided identity, which is dangerous for a Westlake protagonist–and makes him unique among Westlake’s series characters (there was one other, much later on, but he didn’t choose to be in that situation).

Grofield believes that his acting makes him a better heister, and his heisting makes him a better actor.  He may be right, but it also makes him vulnerable, in a way Parker is not.  Parker is all of a piece, 100% in the moment–Grofield, in his work life and his love life alike is more like Shakespeare’s description of men in general–“one foot in sea and one on shore, to one thing constant never.”   Because unlike Parker, a wolf in human form, Grofield is just a man–but a very specific type of man–an actor.   And Shakespeare knew all about men and actors.

Grofield is admirable to Westlake because of his refusal to compromise–less so in his refusal to choose a life and stick to it.  But this flaw also makes him interesting–gives him certain dramatic potentials Parker doesn’t have.   In my opinion, that potential remained largely untapped in the Grofield novels.   And yes, I’m actually going to review the book now.

The Damsel is a fun read.  It’s got adventure, sex, politics, social commentary, some decent if unremarkable supporting characters, and a rather colorful sort of travelogue for a part of Mexico Westlake had clearly visited, and loved very much (we will remind ourselves now that he died in Mexico, and something tells me that if he’d known in advance that would happen he’d have been okay with it, and would have gone anyway–vaya con dios, amigo).    I enjoyed reading and rereading it, and I say without malice that it’s the weakest novel Westlake had produced under his name or Stark’s up to this point.

I’m going to do something now I’ve never done before and will probably never do again–link to someone else’s synopsis of a book–save me a lot of time.   So venture on over to what will always be the best Stark-related website anywhere on the internet–don’t forget to come back and finish reading this.   Okay, you back?   Let’s proceed.  (Editing, much later–well, that synopsis is gone, along with the website.  Maybe not one of my better ideas.  Oh well.)  (Editing again–hey, it’s back!  All my ideas are great!)

Now obviously a synopsis, no matter how detailed and well-written, never gives you the full flavor of a book.   But just reading that over–does that sound like a Richard Stark to you?   Me neither.  It’s got a lot of the basic components, but they’re put together differently, and that’s because Grofield is not, as I think we’ve sufficiently established, at all the same kind of protagonist as Parker.  So in this first outing, Westlake I think was trying to do the Stark voice, but had a hard time sustaining it.   There’s a reason every Grofield contains at least a brief reference to Parker–just to remind us what this Stark guy is capable of when he’s in top form.  Which he isn’t here. The opening, for example–

Grofield opened his right eye, and there was a girl climbing in the window.  He closed that eye, opened the left, and she was still there.  Gray skirt, blue sweater, blond hair, and long tanned legs straddling the windowsill. But this room was on the fifth floor of the hotel.   There was nothing outside that window but air and a poor view of Mexico City.

Okay, so no “When Grofield opened his right eye, he saw a girl climbing in the window.”   That’s a Parker opening, and this isn’t Parker.  Then we hear that the hotel room has a poor view of Mexico City–something Parker wouldn’t remotely care about–Stark might, but I doubt he’d have bothered to say so in this context–and I think the problem here is that Westlake has a hard time writing in the Stark voice if Parker isn’t part of the narrative.  He needs Parker to keep him from straying into the patented Westlake-ian asides and commentaries, just like Grofield needs Parker to anchor him. Just a bit further down the page–

She said “Are you one of them?  Her voice was scratchy with panic.

“That depends.   Sometimes I’m one of them and other times it doesn’t seem worth the effort.   I haven’t been one of them lately, because I haven’t been well.”

Grofield has a tendency towards the meta-textual–at times, he seems to be commenting on the narrative, as if he’s aware that’s what it is–he’s like a Pirandello character that wandered into a crime novel.  Or if you prefer, Bugs Bunny winking at the audience, saying “Ain’t I a stinker?” (and I do actually prefer that).   And this can be explained away easily enough as a sort of coping mechanism–he reduces every new and potentially dangerous situation into a scene from a play.   But sometimes I think he really does know we’re watching him, and unlike Parker, he’s going to wink at us now and again.   Because he’s such a ham.

As we’ve already been told, in spite of his personal aversion to working in Hollywood, he is, just like his creator, a longtime cinema addict, and he is constantly casting himself in movies–westerns, gangster films, spy films, romances, whatever.   He hears movie scores in his head, that change in response to what’s happening.   He is the protagonist of his own open-ended self-produced epic, and this is yet another coping mechanism.   He knows he can die, but he doesn’t fully believe it most of the time–because he’s the hero!

So anyway, after a series of lies he and this very pretty charming and principled young girl named Ellen Marie Fitzgerald (Elly for short) tell each other, he finds out what’s really going on with her.   Her father, a respected doctor from Philadelphia, has agreed to help murder the dictator of a small fictional Latin American country called Guerrero (which would become a standby for Westlake in future books–think of it as south-of-the-border Monequois).   He’s doing it for noble but abstract motives–to help a powerful man, a friend of  his, take control of that country and lift it out of poverty.

She knows this one act will destroy her father’s identity as a healer forever–hollow him out, make him a shell of himself.   She says it’s because murder is wrong, but she lets Grofield kill a few thugs hired to stop them–she engages in a bit of violence herself.   She’s doing this for her dad.  That’s her real motive. But who is Grofield doing it for?   Well, mainly himself, he says.  He likes the girl, and easily talks her into bed once they’re hiding out at a warm springs resort in San Miguel de Allende, but it isn’t quite gallantry that is making him go to such extremes to help her.   It isn’t entirely pragmatism either, but he does have an angle.

The pragmatic aspect is that he will need help to get papers that will allow him to leave Mexico with his loot, and helping her out will put him in contact with people who can make that happen.  But he doesn’t know that’s an option until she tells him the whole story, which doesn’t happen right away (she doesn’t want anyone to find out her father is involved in this plot). So once he realizes the girl is trouble–he could just ditch her.  He’s got lots of money.   He could rent a car, go to that resort by himself, not worry about the hired thugs, and there are people he could eventually find who’d cook up a fake passport for him in exchange for cash.  That’s what Parker would do.

But Parker has no interest in sex when he’s working.   Grofield is not so fortunate.  He’s also not so cold-hearted towards people in general.   He has a tendency to get involved, against his own best judgment.   In the first three novels, he’s trying to just be a bastard who doesn’t give a damn, like Parker, but the storyteller won’t let him–which is why I question whether the storyteller is Richard Stark.

Grofield can’t afford much of a conscience in his line of work–either one, really.   But particularly the one he’s practicing right now.  He will kill when he has to, and feel little or no guilt afterwards–probably writing them off as unfortunate extras–the coping mechanism again.   But he’s interested in people–all people–in a way Parker is not.   He studies them, their mannerisms, their motivations–he can empathize with them–he’s got to, in order to be a good actor. He can’t live with his emotions down below the surface all the time, like Parker.   He also can’t afford to get too sentimental about most people, or he’ll end up dead or jailed.  His goal is personal freedom, and creative fulfillment–and for that, you need people–but you also need to know where to draw the line between their interests and yours.  Never an easy line to draw.

Somehow, just like Mary Deegan did back in Copper Canyon, this girl has managed to cast him as her leading man, hook him, albeit not so permanently.   He’s ready to walk out on the gig if it gets too crazy, but he’s reluctant–he’s certainly not going to leave before the big love scene.   He’s also not going to lie to her–he tells her he’s got a wife, repeatedly.   This is a temporary thing that’s happening between them–no matter how much they like each other, they will eventually part.  She decides she likes him enough to just go with it.   This happens over and over with Grofield; none of these women ever seem to threaten his marriage, and the only thing that keeps it from being completely unbelievable is that–he’s an actor.   And Mary knew right from the start that he was also a thief.

The thing is, Elly has her own agenda–she needs Grofield to save her dad.   So she’s not so pure either, and nobody’s asking her to be.   No point appealing to the innate nobility of a rogue, so she appeals to his sex drive, his self-interest, and his flair for the dramatic, in equal measure.   She’s enjoying every minute of it, but it’s not true love on her side either.   She’s idealistic, but she’s no fool. So what Westlake is doing here is trying to play the Stark game of motivations–why people do what they do–only in a very different context.   And it seems more like the Westlake game to me.

Thing is, Stark usually has Parker to serve as a sort of point of reference–Parker not being truly human, he serves to show us what humans are really like, by comparison.   Grofield is extremely human, but he lives by a code somewhat similar to Parker’s Darwinian drives.   It’s harder to make it work and I don’t think he manages it this time.   I’ll let you know if I think he managed it in any of the subsequent three books, once I get around to rereading and reviewing them.

What else is going on in the book?  A whole section is devoted to the other players in the game–a rich ex-governor who wants to play God in Guerrero, Elly’s conflicted doctor dad, the son of Guerrero’s dictator, and the politician’s son, who works for that dictator.   These people give us the identity puzzles Westlake loves to solve under any name. The dictator’s son, a rather admirable young man educated in America, decides he really wants to be the governor’s son.  The governor wants him to be his catspaw, take over for his father, and all he wants is to be an American, and to follow in his benefactor’s footsteps.   You realize he’ll actually be a better American than most native-born yanks, and he wants nothing more to do with Guerrero–he believes in our values more than most of us do–Westlake reminding us that immigration is itself a form of identity switch.   You can’t go home again and you may not even want to.  But much as his own father disgusts him, he’s still shocked when a man brutally tortured and disfigured by his father’s secret police tries to kill him.

The politician’s son (a rather soulless young man) chooses to be the dictator’s court follower–when Pozos is nearly killed, he reveals his true nature–he’s been worshiping at the altar of  General Pozos–a truly disgusting corrupt venial soulless man he’s idealized into a great one.   He despises the common folk his father wants to improve.

“You know what I say?” Harrison turned to starte at Grofield, his hands clutching the edge of the table.  “I say, if a hundred men starve themselves ot death in darkness in order to produce one after-dinner cigar for General Pozos to enjoy on just one evening of his life, those hundred men have fulfilled their purpose!  What else would they do with their lives, what more meaningful than devote themselves to the pleasure of one of the few men who are really and truly alive?  The people of Guerrero should be proud to have General Pozos as their leader!”

“Grofield said, “I understand your own father is a different kind of leader, has maybe a different attitude towards people.”

“Oh, all that.  I grew up with that, I know all about that.  I think it’s all very praiseworthy, I’m sure my father did the people of Pennsylvania proud, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being an administrator.  But General Pozos–He’s so far above that paperwork bureaucrat sort of thing, he’s so–He’s a lion in a jungle full of rabbits.”

I see this syndrome a lot in the present day, here in the States–certain news commentators, pundits, mainly of a conservative bent, who become enamored of foreign strongmen, wishing they could come over here and take charge of things.   Grass is always greener.   And toadies are always toadies.

The doctor is ready to betray his Hippocratic Oath and use his skills to quietly murder General Pozos because the governor has convinced him it’s the only way to help these poor people–but Elly is right–it’s eating away at his soul.   He isn’t a killer.   He would do it, but it would finish him as a man.  Then, when he sees his daughter wounded in her effort to reach him, he realizes what killing really is–and the illusion of benevolence is shattered.

And the governor–well–we don’t really find out what his reaction is to having his plans spoiled.   But we do see that he realizes how much he cares about young Juan Pozos–that he and the General have, in effect, changed sons.   And when Juan is almost murdered, he does perhaps begin to see that this personal relationship may mean more to him than his grand ambitions.    That Juan may be his true legacy–that Juan may become the man he dreamed of being, but never quite was, somehow.

Yeah, it’s a bit pat.   Well written, mind you.  Entertaining.  And containing certain insights.   But I can’t work up a lot of enthusiasm for it, because it doesn’t quite know what it is.   The book itself is an identity puzzle–half Westlake, half Stark.   Yes, Stark is an aspect of Westlake.   He cares about identity too.   But he writes about it in a different way than Westlake.   And somehow, the two approaches don’t mingle well.   The result is entertaining, but not entirely satisfying.  For Grofield to work, he’s going to have to choose whose character he’s going to be–Westlake’s or Stark’s.  He can’t be both.  Not at the same time, anyway.

What’s the point being made in this book, which seemingly suggests those who dream of imposing their own solutions to mankind’s problems  are fools, and they’d be better off cultivating their own gardens, as Candide would put it?   That everybody should be like Grofield?   God help the world if that ever happened.   It’s the last thing Grofield would ever want–somebody’s got to do all the jobs he doesn’t want to do, try to hold things together, or there’ll be no audience for his plays.   There’ll be no world for him to stage them in.  But it doesn’t have to be him–he’s opted out of that life.  He did a job he didn’t particularly want, to get what he needed–he played the hero, literally galloping in on a horse at the last moment to save the day.  And he won the heart (and body) of the fair damsel–who knows perfectly well he’s going to ditch her now.

They work out the details of the story they’re telling (Grofield is an ‘adventurer’–no need to mention what kind of adventures he normally has), so that Grofield can get his papers, and take his money home to Mary, where they can use it to put on theatricals, and be free for a while longer.   Elly, sort of informally engaged to the governor’s son for much of her life, was used to the idea of marrying him someday, but now, having seen his true colors, she opts to accompany Grofield part of the way home.

“All these years, Bob’s been the strong, silent type, that’s what most attracted me about him.   Thank God he finally opened his mouth before I married him.”

“Speaking of married,” Grofield reminded her, “I still am.”

She shook her head.  “Not till we cross the border,” she said.”

Elly seems remarkably unperturbed about this situation–to the point where you wonder if maybe the fantasy has gone past the point of reasonable suspension of disbelief.   Maybe not–maybe she’s just found out she’s an adventurer herself–why shouldn’t women get to be rogues too?   But this is another problem with the Grofields–yes, he’s charming, and interesting, and strangely honest about the things that matter, but seriously–women are not that understanding.   Nobody is.  You just have to go with it.   Or else read something else.

So I’m not entirely happy with the book, or with this review, but I’m strangely happy to be writing about Grofield, because he’s a puzzle all unto himself.  A puzzle I look forward to tackling several times more.   And, I think, a puzzle that has a lot to tell us about Donald Westlake.   Who briefly played at being an actor, before he found his true calling–and found ways of incorporating that shortlived dream into his real work.

But his best dreams were the ones that convinced us–and nobody ever convinced us quite like Parker.  Who in the next book is going to prove that he’s Grofield’s polar opposite in yet another way–by embracing monogamy.   Yes, it’s time we met Claire Carroll.  A very rare coinage indeed–a solid Gold Medal.  And a much better book than The Damsel.   And one that at least some Parker fans have retrospectively wished was never written.   But for me, the job is to figure out why it was written.    Oh, and one more thing–what color is Claire Carroll’s hair?   It’s a knottier question than you’d think.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels