The Green Eagle Score, Part 2

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“Then there was a boom like an explosion.  Not like a rifle shot at all.  A real explosion.  And I looked and there was a bullet coming toward me.  It looked like a train in a tunnel, except it filled it all the way around, there wasn’t any place to squeeze in and let it go by.  And the front was all flat and squashed. I started running away, but I was slow, it turned slow-motion, you know, the way they do.  But the bullet was slow, too, it was just behind me but it couldn’t catch up.  And my father’s eye was still up at the other end, he wouldn’t get out of the way.  I kept hollering at him, but he wouldn’t get out of the way.”

In the course of telling all this, Roger’s voice had lost its usual whine, his expression had calmed, and he had shown briefly who it was he might have been if things had been different.  But now his face twisted back into its usual expression, the whine came into his voice again, and he shrugged negligently, saying, “That’s when I woke up.”

“Not hard to interpret, that dream,” Dr. Godden suggested.

“If I come out of this with my skin,” Godden said, “I’ll consider myself well ahead.  Ellen Fusco told me about you, Parker, but I underestimated you, I didn’t really listen to what she was saying.”  His face clouded.  “I underestimated Roger, too.”

One thing that always amazes me about the Parker novels, no matter how many times I read them, is how much Westlake managed to pack into each and every one–what a concentration of exquisitely detailed little thumbnail portraits and sage, sparely expressed observations of human nature they are.   I’ve said several times already that each of them is a study in comparative psychology–the way different people react differently to the same situation–this one adds an actual psychiatrist to the mix, and finds him just as easy to lay open on Richard Stark’s unforgiving dissection table of the mind as any layperson.   He may understand his confused patients better than they do themselves, but he’s as much a stranger to himself as any of them.  If not more.  A little knowledge of the mind’s workings can be a truly dangerous thing.  All the more when you misuse it.

They are mainly quite compact for novels, but would be little more than short stories if all they did was narrate the events leading up to and away from each heist.  There are always stories within the story, and one such episode that I’d hate to finish this review without mentioning is Parker’s side-trip to get financing for the job at hand, confined entirely to chapter 6, in Part 2 (Stark arranges his books as if they were plays, with four acts and no intermission, because you can’t put them down).

As we’ve already learned, Parker and his colleagues usually get an outside man–quite often a doctor or some other professional–to put up the money they need for equipment, and other sundry expenses–if the job goes well, the financier in question gets double what he put in–if not, he gets nothing.  But either way, he’s got a lot of spare cash he doesn’t want the IRS to know about, but would like to profitably invest.   He doesn’t have to worry about reporting any returns on his investments, either.

Nor does he have to worry about the law coming after him.  It’s part of the unwritten code of the heisting profession that if caught, you never finger the money man. You may need him again once you get out, and it’s bad for business if these guys hear about somebody getting busted for being a backer.   The money man knows nothing about what you’re going to do, probably won’t even read about it in the papers, since he doesn’t live near the site of the job.  He just knows if he gets double his money back or not.  A purely financial transaction–probably be difficult to prosecute, even if one did get caught.

So basically, the Stark heisters get a no-collateral-or-questions-asked loan they only have to pay back if they succeed, and the guy putting up the money has absolutely no say over what they do with the money.  I have no idea if this was a real thing in the real world of real heist-men, in the real 1960’s, or ever–it sounds a bit dubious (why would the money men trust thieves to honor the illegal non-binding agreement, and how did they ever get involved in this business to begin with?).

Westlake is not doing a documentary here.  Maybe it’s just a convention of the genre (though I haven’t seen it elsewhere, so far.)  Maybe he saw it in an old Warner Brothers gangster movie.   He drew on those a lot, and admitted it more than once.   But he invests quite a bit of effort into making us see the logic of this system–and it allows him yet more opportunities for comparative psychology.

The money man for this particular undertaking is, appropriately enough, an undertaker, name of Norman Berridge.  Westlake had done some research about the mortuary business for previous novels (notably The Jugger and The Busy Body), and it’s still coming in handy.

Berridge is middle-aged, out of shape, wanting to do something about that, not actually doing anything about it.  His apprentice is Puerto Rican, because he can’t find any gringos who want to be morticians (this is a long time before Six Feet Under–remember Rico?).  Parker, who he knows as Lynch, shows up in his office, as he has in the past, and says he needs three thousand dollars.

They go to the bank in Berridge’s Toronado–again, the car expresses the personality–middle-aged bourgeois affectation–Berridge knows all the other Toronado drivers are out-of-shape middle-aged men as well, but the impractical car and its made-up-out-of-whole-cloth name still make him feel young.  A man trying to be something he’s not–while Parker remains ‘as clean and cold and empty as the interior of a new coffin.’   Berridge assumes Parker s judging him harshly, the same way Berridge is judging everyone who isn’t like him.  I guess he never saw that scene in Casablanca.

He considered himself an honest and upright and patriotic man, he detested beatniks and peaceniks and other antisocial freaks as much as anyone, and if his income tax statements were annual pieces of remarkably baroque fiction, that was no contradiction at all, but merely another facet of his character, the hardheaded businessman facet. Poorer families tended to pay morticians in cash; cash was untraceable; untraceable income would only be reported by fools; Norman Berridge was nobody’s fool.  If in a safety deposit box in a bank downtown there were wads of wrinkled bills, just as they had come to him from the hands of his clientele that was simply one way of an ordinary person’s defending himself from the encroachments of Big Government.

Don’t worry Norman; you’ll find less stressful ways of doing that in the future.   Just hang in there ’til the ’80’s.

To Parker, Berridge is nothing more than an overly gabby ATM (pardon the anachronism).   He takes the money out of the envelope Berridge hands him, counts it, hands back a twenty because Berridge miscounted, conceals the money in his suit, gets into Devers’ Pontiac (which is nothing but a means of transport to him) and drives away, leaving the superfluous envelope behind in the Toronado.   Berridge feels unsettled and humiliated by the encounter–the shabby pretense of his mediocre life, and his gutless, selective, and mainly vicarious rebellion against the system, is briefly and harshly illuminated, as if laid out on a slab under a fluorescent light in the basement of his mortuary.

The chapter this all occurs in serves no purpose in terms of telling the story–Reader’s Digest would have probably excised it, in the unlikely event it had ever published a Richard Stark novel–it just reminds us that people living the ‘straight’ life can be pretty crooked, even if they don’t have the nerve to be actual crooks.   So anyway, back to the main story, which was just heating up where we last left off.

Parker and his surviving associates, the neophyte Stan Devers and the veteran Philly Webb, now know what happened to their dead compatriots, and more importantly, their money.   Ellen Fusco, whose house they planned the job in, blabbed about the job to Dr. Godden, her analyst–he wanted the money–he recruited some patients–they heisted the heist.  Their choices are to get out of Dodge, aka Monequois, right now, or make one last attempt to recover the loot.   They opt for the latter–be a really short book if they didn’t.

Ellen is a basket case, knowing her father confessor betrayed her, and the actual father of her child is dead because she let herself get conned.   There’s no consoling her, and they don’t particularly want to try, so they tie her up and head for Godden’s office, since they don’t have his home address.  They find it on an envelope at the office–along with the dying Ralph Hochberg, who’s been shot–he’s strangling on his own blood–Parker pushes him on his side, to slow the process–not quite sure why he does that–why not?   It costs him nothing.   He hates it when citizens die on his jobs.   It’s messy.   Bigger headlines.   Maybe that’s why.  No point asking him.

They go to Godden’s house, and he’s holed up there with a rifle, scared out of his wits.   He thinks Parker is Roger St. Cloud, come back to kill him–Parker plays along until Webb can sneak in and disarm him, and now they get the rest of the story.   Roger St. Cloud, the acned over-aged adolescent with daddy issues that Godden persuaded to help out on the job got drunk on all the power he suddenly had in his twitchy hands.

Godden sees it all now, with crystal-clear 20/20 hindsight.  Roger had to kill Marty Fusco and the other two heisters guarding the money, just to know what that would be like.  He had to take all the money for himself, to know that kind of power as well.  When poor pliable Ralph said Roger didn’t really want to do that, he shot him for the sin of not recognizing the godlike being that Roger had now become.   Godden belatedly realizes that giving a paranoid and deeply disturbed young man a rifle and urging him to commit armed robbery may have been a slight miscalculation.

Now that Godden has suddenly reverted back to being a doctor again, Parker figures he can use that–asks him where he thinks Roger would go now–Godden realizes with horror that the next logical step would be for Roger to go home and murder his overbearing father–that would make this Greek tragedy of a heist complete.   Godden, forgetting the situation he’s put himself in, and somehow thinking the Hippocratic Oath still applies to him (maybe a similar sounding form of oath) wants to call the father and warn him–Parker doesn’t want to warn the son, so he ties Godden up, and they’re off again.

Godden called it.  There at the St. Cloud household, Roger is holding off the entire Monequois police force, while the neighbors look on in fascination.   He kills a policeman while they watch.  The father is obviously dead; possibly the mother too; it isn’t relevant to Parker, so we never find out.  What is relevant is that Roger starts tossing the money out the window, to lure onlookers into his sights–and it works–they start grabbing at bills like they’re on a damn game show.   He’s happily potting away at them, killing one after the other, like Zeus hurling thunderbolts (having first disposed of daddy Cronos), when the drama finally winds down–

Parker looked across the street, saw a uniformed cop there with a rifle to his shoulder.   He was being damned finicky under the circumstances, taking his time, being extra sure of his aim.  With all the noise, Parker couldn’t hear the sound of the shot, but he saw the rifle kick in the cop’s hands.  He looked back and saw St. Cloud drop into the people.  “All right,” he said, “Let’s get out of here.”

“Right.”  Webb put the Buick in gear, made a tight U-turn, and they headed away from there.

Devers, disappointment thick in his voice, said “What now?”

“Godden’s office,” Parker said.

Webb leaned forward to glance at him past Devers, then looked straight again, saying, “Why?”

“Because two suitcases went out the window,” Parker said.  “There were three.  He was on foot and two was all he could manage.  The third one is hidden around there somewhere handy.”

“Son of a bitch,” said Webb, and leaned on the accelerator.

It’s like we saw in The Score, if not on the same epic scale–they aren’t happy about all the civic mayhem they’ve indirectly caused–it’s been a major inconvenience–but it’s not something they’re going to spend any time fretting about.   Not their department.   They know what side they’re on–and Devers, though he’s not even processing it now, has joined their side completely.   He’s just thinking about the money too–and he’s the one that finds it, concealed in a trash can outside the office building.  The job hasn’t gone completely sour.   They take the now-deceased Ralph Hochberg (no point letting the law figure things out any faster than need be), and head back to Godden’s house to hide out until the heat  dies down.

Devers brings Ellen and her three year old daughter Pamela there as well, and now they’ve just got to keep things quiet a few days.   Parker coaches Godden on what to say to the police when they come calling, what to tell reporters over the phone when they call to ask questions about his now-infamous patient.  Parker tells Godden he can live if he does exactly as he’s told, and Godden really wants to live.

Ellen isn’t so sure she wants to, but Parker plays maybe the most cold-blooded card we ever see him play in the entire series–he tells her she and her daughter are dead if she doesn’t stay in the house and keep mum until he and his partners are well out of town–Stan isn’t feeling particularly inclined to protect her anymore.   That relationship has run its course.

This can almost get past you the first time you read the book–it’s not something Stark dwells upon at all.   Does Parker mean it?   A three year old can’t testify against you in a court of law.  Pam has no more idea what’s going on than a puppy would, though she’s clearly aware of the fact that everyone is very tense, and she’s keeping very quiet.   Parker never interacts with her at any point in the book.   He has no soft spot for small children.   He doesn’t smile when he looks at them.   He doesn’t try to make friends with them.   They are just young humans.  Not useful to him.   Not a threat to him.   Therefore not relevant to him.   Except as leverage.

I don’t believe Richard Stark would ever have put Parker in a situation where he had to harm a child.   Westlake wouldn’t let Stark let Parker do that, even if Stark wanted to.   But they both allow Parker to be in a situation where he has to threaten a child’s life to frighten a young mother into submission.   They both want us to know that if he were in a situation where there was no other alternative if Parker wanted to stay free…..but then again, if she somehow contacted the police, and they were closing in, what good would it do Parker to keep his promise?   It would just guarantee him the death penalty, if caught.   It wouldn’t make any sense.

And could he kill a three year old, even if he absolutely had to?   There’s a scene in an upcoming book that makes me wonder about that.

Ellen knows this about Parker–his pragmatism–she told Godden that he wouldn’t do anything for or to anybody unless it benefited him somehow.   But she also knows she’s put her little girl in a very dangerous situation.   She knows something else–the man most responsible for the situation they’re all in is upstairs, bound hand and foot, helpless.  The man who betrayed her confidence.   The man who pretended to be her doctor.   The man who lied. The man who thinks he can just walk away from all this, like it never happened.

By the time they find Godden with his throat cut, it’s too late–Ellen has taken Paula and fled to her parents (actually leaving an apologetic note!).  The law will get her, and then they’ll come looking.   The roadblocks are down.   They make a run for it, Webb going one way, Parker and Devers the other.   They got a decent enough haul.   About 42k per man.   Not much less than they’d have gotten if they’d split the original take six ways.  Parker’s strange luck is still holding.

Ellen told Dr. Godden earlier that she had problems with being a mother–she didn’t feel comfortable in the role, that she was just play-acting at it–but faced with a real threat to Pam’s safety, her identity crisis is at least temporarily resolved–she had to kill Godden for what he did to her–she needed that as much as Parker needed to kill Mal Resnick in the first book–but having done that, she has to get Pam to safety–she can’t gamble on Parker not meaning what he said.

She still feels enough loyalty towards Marty and Stan to refuse to talk to the cops about what happened, and given what she’s been through, they can only lean on her so much–just as well, since her telling them the whole story would involve confessing to premeditated murder.   It’s hard to feel optimistic about her future, but at least she has one.

Parker and Devers head for Albany, a big enough city to disappear in, but on the way they hear Ellen made it to her parents’ house, and Parker knows this wouldn’t be on the news if the police hadn’t already traced her back to Godden’s house, and found Godden’s corpse, and they are driving Godden’s Cadillac.  They ditch it in Saratoga, get the train to Albany, and now it’s time to say au revoir.

Parker is pleased with the way Devers is shaping up–he’s a good recruit for The Profession–somebody he can work with in the future, but he needs seasoning.   Parker tells Stan to look up Handy McKay at his diner in Presque Isle, in Maine.  Handy will show him the ropes.   Probably fry him an egg too.

In nothing is Parker more wolf-like than in his attitude towards younger heist-men, when he likes the cut of their jib.  He wants them to get better and better at their jobs–to pass on what he knows to them, help them along, keep them from making too many stupid mistakes that will get them jailed, or dead.   It’s enlightened self-interest–the more good men he can call on for future jobs, the less often he has to work with incompetents (or psychos).   He’s expanding his network.

But he also just seems to enjoy it.   It touches something in him.  Not necessarily something human.  Something that existed long before the first humans.  True, these youngsters will never be like him.   No matter how experienced they get, they’ll still be men.   But he’s willing to overlook that.

The epilogue takes up half a page–Parker goes back to Puerto Rico.   He finds Claire, more or less where he left her.  “You did come back”, she says.   “I always will”, he replies.   And in that moment, he means it.   He’ll be more honest in a much later book.   They make dinner plans.   She asks if they’ll go to the casino afterwards.   You will recall that Claire is always particularly ready for lovemaking after losing fifty bucks or so at the craps tables.  Parker has already done the thing that puts him in the mood.   But he’s learned the value of patience–he can wait a few more hours.   “Yes,” he replies.

Parker doesn’t know it yet, but he’s just pulled his last profitable heist for a good long while.   His opponents in the near future will be of a different order than the paltry likes of Dr. Godden and Roger St. Cloud (or the U.S. Air Force, which proved to be something of a pushover here).   That promise he made to Claire will be increasingly difficult to keep.

And Claire herself is a problem Westlake is going to have to deal with–what’s her place in the series?   She was little more than Penelope to Parker’s payroll snatching Odysseus here, but can she be more?  Should she be?   The next book in the series will address that question directly, and many would say, not too successfully.  But I’m not going there yet.

Since I finished this one up a bit quicker than I thought, I’d like to talk about the covers, which I don’t normally do that much–none of them are all that evocative.   McGinnis’ cover for the Gold Medal first edition (which you can see in Part 1 of this review) is lovely to look at, but McGinnis just has Parker in the foreground with a gun, and Claire in the background without a top.

The point being that Parker is focusing on the job at hand, but he’s got Claire in the back of his mind.   And we saw in the book that this is perfectly true, though only briefly expressed, so clearly McGinnis did read at least some of the hundreds of books whose covers he so ably illustrated over the years (and he’s not finished yet).

But none of the illustrators, far as I’m concerned, really capture the essence of the book–they usually focus on the Air Force angle, even though it’s less important than the storyline revolving around Ellen and Dr. Godden.   They use various military regalia to illustrate this is about a base heist, even though only Stan is in uniform during the heist, and only briefly, and it’s a guard’s uniform–none of them impersonates an officer, none of them wears one of those cap things officers wear.  The heist is, paradoxically, too simple in its structure to get across easily.  The artists keep trying to make it more complicated.

Looking at all the covers in order, you see various attempts to convey the story, and none of them succeed terribly well.   The Gold Lion reprint has beautiful artwork–clearly that’s Ellen looking all pensive in the foreground, but is that Parker clutching his arm in the background?   Did Parker’s arm get hurt and we missed it?   Did a car blow up?   Would he really wear that color shirt?   It’s just an assortment of captain’s hats, and saxophones, and firearms, and I guess all it really has to do is catch the eye, but only McGinnis gets a real point across, and it’s a very selective point indeed, because that guy had women on the brain, and no doubt still does.

The novel was also reprinted in that comically awful men’s magazine I referred to in an earlier review–care to guess what they decided to rename it as?

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Well, that’s kind of a scene from the book.   For some strange reason, I’m moved to wonder why Stan has dark hair, and Ellen is a blonde, when it’s made very clear in the book they are reprinting word for word that the opposite is true.   I won’t even bother to ask why she’s suddenly got implants.   Doesn’t pay.   But presumably the magazine paid Westlake for the rights.

We’ve reached the end of 1967, and it’s been one hell of a year–arguably Westlake’s best ever, at least if you go by publication dates.   He can’t keep this pace up forever.  Six novels, all of them still in print today (if only electronically in some cases), five of them ranking among his finest work–sorry Grofield, you didn’t make the cut this time.   And a children’s book, lest we forget.   And an Edgar Award, which far as I’m concerned is for a body of work that simply shouldn’t be this voluminous and impressive after only seven years.   Westlake could have retired right then and there, and his reputation would have been made–but his fortune would not.   Miles to go before he sleeps.

But before I put this one to bed, I’ll harken back briefly to Mr. Norman Berridge, heading up in the elevator of his mortuary business, having been informed a Mr. Lynch is here to see him about ‘the annuities.’

Lynch was not, of course, the man’s real name.  One time when he had come with another man, the other one had called him by a different name, which Berridge could no longer be sure he remembered.  Porter, Walker, Archer…something like that.

Yet another little meta-textual reference, but a lot more people would have gotten this one at the time.  It’s 1967, and Parker has entered a new medium–where he will not be called Parker–not for a long long time–not if Westlake is around to stop it.  Walker today, Porter well into the future.   Also Macklin, McClain, Georges, Stone–no Archer.   But would you believe Paula Nelson?

Believe it or not, I’m going to take a few weeks off from book blogging to review the Parker film adaptations.   Some of them, anyway.   Some I may not find the patience to sit through again.   One in particular I’d give my eyeteeth to have on DVD.   But mainly, I just want to briefly forestall the sad sad day when I will have drunk the last of the 1960’s vintage.   I’m already grieving the end of 1967–it was, as the song says, a very good year.   Hey, could Sinatra have played—hmm–maybe the musical version.  Guys and Molls.

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36 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels

36 responses to “The Green Eagle Score, Part 2

  1. Damn, what a mess these fellas made! I like this mess better than the one in The Score. There is a psycho on the loose, he’s also a cop killer, and you understand that this psycho is really dumb, yet you support him morally in his mayhem. I was glad psychos messed Parker’s score – he got his money too easy.
    The other thing you can’t not like is watching a birth of a heister in the face of Devers. What bothers me is that almost all pro heisters and crooks in the Stark novels never saw an inside of prison walls. They are all surprisingly unreachable for the law. That’s another myth Stark created.
    The McGinnis cover for TGES is probably my favorite among McGinnis covers for Parker books. Just beautiful.

    • I would like to state for the record that I do not support that pimpled nutjob Roger St. Cloud in any way shape or form–Parker is a fantasy, but guys like that are a terribly real part of living in today’s America (and other places), and they’re usually a lot better armed than Roger these days. Knock him down first, and pity him afterwards.

      How many Parker novels actually have the heist as the centerpiece of the story? The Score, certainly. Arguably The Handle, but that’s not a heist in the truest sense. This book right here has a lot of build-up to the heist, but it’s over so quick and clean–just the way Parker likes it–he has to pay for that. The Black Ice Score is about a heist, but it’s not Parker’s. Plunder Squad is about a bunch of failed heists. Backflash, Firebreak, Nobody Runs Forever are fairly centered around the heist.

      Honestly, you have to say that having done it so perfectly in The Score, Westlake felt free to play around with this sub-genre in any way he pleased. The Score is what other heist stories aspire to be. And you can’t say that was too easy.

      Lots of the Stark heisters do time, but usually before we meet them–or else right after a job–Mike Carlow and Otto Mainzer both end up in the clink, at the end of The Rare Coin Score. So does Pete Rudd in The Seventh. But let me just say, the guys actually IN prison who wrote enthused fan mail to Stark, felt very differently than you about this matter–they loved seeing Parker & Co. get away clean. Hey, the rest of us get to have our unrealistic professional fantasies fulfilled in fiction–look at the way lawyers and cops are portrayed in TV and film, compared to the reality–fair is fair.

      Parker couldn’t survive long in a prison–freedom is integral to his nature. He’d have to break out or die. Grofield would probably just start a prison theater group, but I don’t think he could adjust to the lack of female companionship–hopefully conjugal visits from Mary could be arranged. And of course we know Dan Wycza sees prison as a death sentence, health nut that he is.

      These aren’t real criminals–they’re ideals. Like Robin Hood, or Arsene Lupin. You don’t read Stark for realism. He’s a romantic.

      • Still it’s fun to scribble down the small myths Stark created. Another myth is older people still do crime until they retire. Heisting is like working in the mill, you do 20 years of work, and then you are off to Florida, to die peacefully under the sun. We see mostly middle and senior aged men working with Parker. They are all strong, healthy, not worrying a bit about spending their retiring time in the pen.
        I like a chorus line from a Scarface rap song which sums up good the real state of things: Gangstas don’t live that long.

        • I wouldn’t say they’re all strong and healthy–Stark makes it clear, repeatedly, that the aging process is something that impacts heist-men as much as the rest of us–Parker is certainly middle-aged by the time of the final books, and he’s aging differently than a normal man would–but you can still feel a sense of mortality there. He doesn’t expect to run forever.

          Thing is, the guys who actually do heisting tend to go through money pretty fast–one reason they turned to it–so building up a retirement nest egg may not be possible for many of them. Joe Sheer, remember, only retired because he started getting social security checks under an alias. That, combined with his savings, was enough to see him through, at least until Abner L. Younger showed up on his doorstep.

          Also, you’re forgetting that Peter Rabe book I reviewed, about the sick aging jugger just out of prison, who wants more than anything to retire–but life won’t let him.

          I suspect most of them can’t really give it up–they may stop robbing banks, but they can’t stop looking for ways to scam the system. And some, let’s remember, really are psychos who like to hurt people–Stark will be showing us one of those book after next.

          Stark is mythic in the way he presents this world to us–I wouldn’t say everything he shows us in it is a myth. But you judge a work of fiction the way you judge a true myth (you know, like the ones involving Zeus, Thor, and Jehovah)–by whether it tells us something important about life, the universe, and everything. Not by whether it really happened.

  2. Stark is unwilling to put his heisters in prison, yet he kills them off very easily. How many Parker’s collegues wre killed during the original run? Dozens? And Parker never express his sorrow to the dead. Still, he tries to save lives of Handy and Grofield when he can choose not to do it. That’s rules of fiction, probably I should say, not rules of life.

    • I’d say playing favorites is a pretty well-defined rule of life. Parker feels differently about different people. Also, certain of his collaborators are more proficient and reliable than others–if he doesn’t save them, he can’t work with them again. But of course, all he’d say is “We were working together.” I’d say that we’re not supposed to believe all criminals are like Parker–that he’s very much one of a kind.

      Again, The Rare Coin Score would be an example of two Stark heisters going to prison (though it doesn’t seem like Mike Carlow stays in there very long–helped, I suppose, that he was just driving, and never even went into the hotel). But for crime fiction in general–long before Westlake tried his hand at it–death was preferred to prison as the ultimate fate of a criminal. It’s just more dramatic. Whether you like him or not is beside the point.

      One of the things people love about this genre is that you can kill off major protagonists in it. It’s expected. Look how angry some people were that they didn’t see Tony Soprano’s death on television. They didn’t want this for morality’s sake–they wanted it because it would expiate them from their vicarious identification with all his nefarious deeds.

      Basically, if you’re writing crime fiction, and your criminals are not dying violent deaths on a regular basis, you’re doing it wrong. But I still liked the Sopranos ending. Perverse, I suppose. 😉

  3. Anthony

    RE: the side trip to get the financing. I know I’ve read in at least one Westlake interview that he often viewed the Parker books as being about a workman doing his work. This falls into that category – showing the nuts and bolts. The great thing is that he makes it interesting. I too don’t know if this was in any way a real thing in the real world of real heist-men. Then or ever.

    It is fun, however, to compare this chapter to the later one in Bank Shot when Kelp and HIS nephew Victor go to a doctor for financing. Sort of a pre-cursor to the Child Heist gags in Jimmy the Kid.

    • Yeah, so much in the Dortmunder books is like a funhouse mirror held up to the Parker books. Though there is no exact equivalent in Stark to Kelp’s obsession with doctors and their comfort-laden vehicles.

      One thing I wanted to mention, but couldn’t find a place for was Parker telling Devers he needs to find a way to explain all the expensive stuff he’s been buying with his embezzled funds (Parker is impressed that even when pressed, Devers will never come out and admit he embezzled, even though he self-evidently did).

      It’s all irrelevant in the end, since Devers has to go on the lam with Parker, but the original plan was for Devers to stick out the last few weeks of his stint in the USAF after the heist, since leaving early would be pointing the finger of guilt at him. But since the authorities would be looking hard in his direction, he needs to explain where the money came from, and he finally comes up with a story–he was saving his pay–in a little tin box.

      Clearly, Mr. Westlake had gone to see Fiorello! Though I guess he could have just heard the song on the radio.

      Parker, of course, does not get the ref at all. But he’s pleased with the subterfuge. Grofield would have loved it. Pity he and Devers never got to hang out–while Grofield was conscious, anyway.

      • Anthony

        There’s no exact equivalent in Stark to Kelp, period.

        • Kelp is to Dortmunder what Handy and Grofield are to Parker–a counterpoint. But yeah, the relationships are so different, it’s almost pointless trying to compare them. Parker is everything Dortmunder hopelessly aspires to be; Dortmunder is exactly what Parker wants to avoid becoming.

          However, it must be noted–Dortmunder may actually be the more successful thief, if we go by stats alone–by how much money each of them got away with in their respective careers. Westlake is a more generous and affectionate god than Stark. He plays a lot of jokes on Dortmunder, but he makes up for it in various ways.

        • Anthony

          Not sure I agree that “Parker is everything Dortmunder hopelessly aspires to be; Dortmunder is exactly what Parker wants to avoid becoming.”

          Example – Dortmunder believes in displaying but not using guns as a tool of the trade and that is as far as it goes. Hard to imagine him aspiring to a willingness to employ violience as a tool of the trade, which of course comes to Parker without analysis when the situation calls for it. I don’t see Dortmunder aspiring to anything other than the hope that fate would allow him to keep a higher percentage of his ill-gotten gains. On the other side of the coin, I doubt it would ever occur to Parker that he could be anything different than who (what) he is. He wouldn’t worry about becoming a Dortmunder because the concept would not exist.

          I see the true distinction between the characters, or at least the series, the way Westlake often remarked that he did – that the Dortmunder series is the more realistic of the two. At least in the sense of everyday foibles (not finding parking spaces where you need them) that happen to us all but wouldn’t dare happen to Parker.

  4. Parker’s threat to Ellen is of course foreshadowed by his conversation with Marty early in the book, when he probes the parameters of the job at hand. If it comes down to a choice between killing Ellen and walking away from the job, would Marty have problem with Parker killing her? Marty is of course flabbergasted at the suggestion, but there’s no malice behind Parker’s query. He’s just determining the exact conditions under which he is being asked to work. When Marty sputters that he’s surprised Parker didn’t ask if he could kill the kid, Parker says, “I didn’t think you’d go for it.” And THAT is the almost-joke I referred to in my comment under the last post. Parker isn’t joking, of course, but I still laugh every time I read that line. It’s just Parker being Parker at his most pragmatic.

    • Another fascinating moment in this deceptively complex little book I did not get to, so thanks for bringing it up. I agree Parker isn’t kidding, and his question isn’t malicious, but would he really want to be part of a job that involved killing before the job even started? As a rule of thumb, he’d always rather just take the money and not hurt anybody, because the cops are coming after you much harder for murder than theft.

      And that, harking back to my exchange with Ray, is not something Stark dreamed up–just reading a biography of Dan Marlowe that came out not so long ago ($3.99 on kindle, how could I lose?), and it has a lot of information about Marlowe’s friend and collaborator, Al Nussbaum, and his career as a bank robber. After his partner killed a bank guard, and wounded a police officer, the law really began to focus on them. Of course, his partner, Bobby Wilcoxson, notoriously had no qualms about killing–he liked it. That’s a problem.

      So Parker is possibly trying to find out if this job is more about revenge than money–in that case, he might want to pass on it. Does Marty want to kill Ellen on some level? Is he more jealous than he’s letting on? That could mean trouble. Parker does need to know if killing is a built-in proposition for heisting this military payroll, before he decides whether to get in on it–and he needs to know if Marty has his head on straight. And it is a serious concern that Ellen might rat them out–which of course she does, but not intentionally.

      Parker would kill a woman as readily as a man (though he only does so twice, once by accident), but I can only think of one instance of proactive murder–in Backflash. You know the one I mean. And that guy had, after all, betrayed Parker’s confidence earlier, even if that wasn’t entirely his fault. Generally speaking, you do need to do something to Parker that he really does not like to flip that switch in his head that lets him kill in cold blood. Stark will never let him commit insufficiently motivated murder.

      He also tends to not kill people who aren’t part of the world he lives in–Ellen is confusing, because she’s only in that world through her connection to Marty–and Devers. And she’s not there willingly–she has no real moral objection to armed robbery, she just thinks it’s too dangerous (gee, how’d she get that idea?).

      I guess through his little joke, Parker is reminding Marty of something he might have forgotten–before you do something like this, you have to know what’s possible, and what’s necessary. What you’d have to do, and what you’re capable of doing. In other words, who you are. Godden, of course, never stopped to consider any of this. He didn’t have Parker to quiz him.

      You know, it occurs to me that the real joke of this book is that Godden, the professional, does a worse job of psychoanalyzing Parker than Ellen, the amateur–and neither of them understands him as well as we, the readers–and we the readers understand him on a shallow surface level, at best. We feel a certain smug superiority towards Godden, and anybody else in the books who thinks he or she can figure this guy out. But many of Westlake’s own interview comments indicate he never completely figured Parker out either. He uses the story to ask Parker questions, and then he watches the answers with great interest–but some questions he will never ask–like “Would you kill a small child if that was the only way to survive?” He doesn’t want to know the answer to that.

  5. Your observation about Parker killing women is interesting. The first time it happens, as you note, it’s by accident, and its among the more disturbing scenes in the entire series. I believe it’s a holdover from the novel’s original conception, in which Parker doesn’t get away (and the character is more vicious and vengeance-focused than we’d ever see him again). After the first book, it’s impossible to imagine such an occurrence happening again. What’s remarkable about the second instance (“There’s always an Alma”) is how much Westlake glosses over the action. She is just alive in one sentence, dead in the next, with not a single detail of the killing revealed in the text.

    • Of the two women Parker kills, one is nameless, and we know nothing about her other than that she works in a beauty parlor, she’s got nice legs, and she’s asthmatic (which Parker finds out a bit too late). People accidentally hurt other people all the time, and just keep on rolling–in their cars or on their bikes–difference here is Parker doesn’t pretend to be a good citizen afterwards. He thinks he and this woman might have sex after he’s killed Mal–given what happened between him and Mavis Gross in The Rare Coin Score, maybe he could have pulled that off. One thing he never seems to consider at any time is rape. Doesn’t even have the concept of it.

      His other female victim is no less deserving of her fate than the worst of the men Parker kills–he’s an equal opportunity destroyer. It is startling though, that she’s just erased so casually. She doesn’t even get a last moment of frustrated rage. You just have to imagine the look on her face when she realizes her last grab at the brass ring has fatally backfired on her.

      Westlake could have just rewritten The Hunter after Buck Moon asked him for a series of books–wouldn’t have been that time-consuming to tone it down. But somehow it wouldn’t have the same impact. As I’ve said elsewhere, Parker is in a transitional stage here–becoming less human, more wolf–and he’s in an unusually emotional state, because of what happened to him–he has emotions. But Dr. Godden does have one valid point to make about Parker, actually–he keeps his emotions bottled up more than most people. As we’re told in The Hunter–

      He spent months as a vag in a prison farm; he spent over a month coming across the country like an O. Henry tramp; he devoted time and effort and thought on an operation that wasn’t clean or fast or simple and that didn’t net him a dime–the finding and killing of Mal Resnick. And more killing and bucking the syndicate more for the mean hell of it than anything else, as though for 18 years he’d been storing up all the meanness, all the viciousness, and now it had to come rushing out.

      (sidebar: Parker reads O. Henry? That’s got to be Stark interpreting for us.)

      Personally, I’m more disturbed by the scenes in which he strikes women with those huge hands of his. But we’re told right from the start those hands were made to slap with. He doesn’t do it that often, but it always makes an impact. And presumably an imprint. :\

  6. I’ll say he’s in an unusually emotional state. Here he is talking about Mal:

    “I’m going to drink his blood,” he said. “I’m going to chew up his heart and spit it into the gutter for the dogs to raise a leg at. I’m going to peel the skin off him and rip out his veins and hang him with them.”

    That’s not a Parker we’ll ever see again, despite countless betrayals by his fellow heisters and multiple threats (and worse) to Claire. Even when he’s carving out a single-minded path of vengeance (The Outfit, Butcher’s Moon, Flashfire, etc.), there’s a even-keeled pragmatism to nearly his every move.

    • But when it comes to it, he just strangles Mal–rather casually and quickly–and doesn’t devote much thought to him afterwards. He sits there by Mal’s corpse, and he’s already stopped thinking about him. Just before he kills him, he realizes–in this case, killing Mal, in and of itself, won’t be sufficient to quell his inner chaos. He’s got to get his money back from The Outfit.

      He needed that much. He needed to act, to force, to push. Mal wasn’t enough, he was easy, he was too easy, he was the easiest thing there ever happened.

      We see something like this from him in The Seventh, but it’s less intense–what happened to him then wasn’t nearly as bad. His woman didn’t shoot him, he didn’t spend months imprisoned, he didn’t lose his entire mode of existence. And Westlake has decided maybe he went overboard a bit in the first book with the colorful language. A bit too Warner Brothers.

      In Butcher’s Moon, a bit of that mode of expression comes back. But the language is less personal–and more frightening, because there’s been so many books where Parker remained outwardly calm, even when he was seething inside–he’s been frustrated so many times over the past several books, and they sent him Grofield’s finger, and he’s had enough.

      I’d like to burn this city to the ground, I’d like to empty it right down to the basements. And I don’t want to talk about it anymore, I want to do it.

      What changes mainly is the way he talks–like some hyped-up combo of Cagney, Bogie, and Widmark in the first book–but by the end of that book, he’s already starting to express himself more sparely, more efficiently. Words are their weapons. He has his hands.

  7. Exactly. Plus, there’s no heartbreak quite like your first heartbreak. (Not that Parker has a heart, exactly.)

  8. Anthony, I ran out of space to respond directly to you, but just wanted to say, I think you summed it up well. I agree Parker doesn’t really aspire to be more than he is, but he does aspire to have all his jobs go smoothly and logically, and of course they never do, but they never go wrong like Dortmunder’s.

    Dortmunder has no taste for violence, true–but in theory, he’s ready to employ it. It’s just never necessary–even Tiny Bulcher is never actually seen to hurt anyone–he just talks about it. Of course, if you look like Tiny Bulcher, and tell stories like the ones he tells, how often would you ever have to back up your words with deeds?

    In Dortmunder’s world, violence is always happening somewhere offstage–the books are written for people who don’t want to see the logical consequences of armed robbers going around with all kinds of weaponry and taking money that doesn’t belong to them. And yet they successfully steal vast quantities of cash, and (in the later books) bring formidable opponents to their knees, and Dortmunder proves to be far more vindictive than Parker–but he doesn’t want his opponents to die–he wants them to suffer eternal humiliation and defeat–that’s how he balances the scale.

    I know what Westlake said, but I don’t buy it–I’m not sure he did either. The Dortmunders are far less realistic than the Parkers. Yes, Parker has an easier time getting a parking space in front of the bank, he has a far more epic sex life (do any of us really want to contemplate John Dortmunder in the act of coitus?), he never loses a fight–he’s an idealized figure in an idealized universe, but Dortmunder is a comic figure in a comic universe, and comedy isn’t realistic either–just two different types of filters we like to use to make reality more palatable. There are no tramps like Charlie Chaplin; there are no bank guards like W.C. Fields.

    In reality, when you walk around with guns all the time, you end up using them. No matter how carefully you plan. Dortmunder has it easy compared to Parker. Never has to shoot anybody, never has to get shot. He thinks he’s the red-haired stepchild in Westlake’s family of heisters, but in fact he’s the fair-haired boy. 😉

    • Anthony

      I think my lens is that I discovered Dortmunder long before I did Parker (before Stark was even outed as Westlake) and I just love the hell out of the Dortmunder books. Among the fans of both series I think I am in the minority that favors Dortmunder (“Dying is easy, comedy is hard”). Some of the best laughs I have ever laughed have come from a Dortmunder book – even on the third or fourth (or seventh) reading.

      BTW, kudos to you for this project. Must be a full time job.

  9. Mike, no room to respond directly to your question, but as to whether Tiny Bulcher could take Fezzik from The Princess Bride–inconceivable! They’d go out for drinks. So much to discuss. I’m sure J.C. could fix Fezzik up with a date. And maybe Fezzik could convince Tiny to stop drinking that horrible concoction he orders at the OJ, and get a nice tankard of ale instead.

    • Anthony

      Hard to say, really. If Tiny got Fezzik’s Adam’s Apple between his thumb and forefinger quickly enough, then Tiny wins. If Fezzik gets his arms around Tiny first, well, it would last a long time….

      Tiny’s cagey, but I’m not sure he would catch on to the make a rhyme ploy unless he knew Fezzik a while first.

      • I think you’re missing the rather obvious fact that Tiny is from 20th century crime fiction–with all its adherent firepower. Fezzik is all about fair play, leaving out the fact that it’s not his fault he’s bigger and stronger than everybody else. Tiny has always been result-oriented. So he could just shoot Fezzik.

        But I still say they’d go out for drinks. Maybe invite Tyrion Lannister along for the ride. I’d say Little Bob Negli should tag along, just to balance things out, but you know he’d pick a fight with one of the big guys–or both of them at the same time. Anyway, I still want Peter Dinklage to play him someday, so that doesn’t work.

        • Anthony

          I know this is all silly, but it amuses me. How about a battle of wits between Dortmunder and Vizzini? I go with Dortmunder because he’d grow tired of Vizzini’s intellectual showing off and immediately cotton on to ego being the Sicilian’s Achilles heel. It would take Westlake to figure out HOW Dortmunder would double cross Vizzini, but double cross and humiliate him he would. Hilariously. Even Kelp could do it.

  10. Dortmunder wouldn’t bother with Vizzini, a mere lackey. He’d go after Humperdinck–he hates smug entitled rich guys. Just like his maker. 😉

  11. Anthony

    Well, sure, Dortmunder would ROB Humperdinck. But he wouldn’t get into a battle of wits with him. If the fictional worlds collided Dortmunder would automatically take note of every valuable – up to and including the animals in the Zoo of Death – and develop a plan to capture them all. That’s what he does. I was more intrigued with a one-on-one who could outwit the other scenario, and I maintain that Dortmunder would wipe up the floor with Vizzini. Dortmunder is not above dealing with lackeys if they get in his way. He went to a lot of trouble to deal with the worthless son (or was it a nephew?) who let the O.J. Bar and Grill go to hell, for example. Just because, dammit, he LIKES the back room of the O.J. for his meetings.

    • Maybe if Vizzini kidnapped May–then Dortmunder would have that duel of wits.

      But honestly, Dortmunder is not usually so ambitious as you portray him. It would take the treachery of some rich powerful man to incite him to the heights of inspiration you describe. If he was somehow transported to Florin, he’d try to figure out what was the exact equivalent to some small appliance or jewelry store in New York, and rob that. And then probably get caught by the Brute Squad, but he’d get out of it somehow–Humperdinck would want to use him against Guilder in some way, then scheme to have him killed, and that’s when he’d get mad, and then Humperdinck would pay. Humiliations galore.

      But he’d find some way back to New York. Or New Amsterdam, as it would then be called. I suppose he might cool his heels in London for a time, waiting for a ship home. London is almost like a city.

  12. Anthony

    I think we agree more than disagree. Obviously there would need to be some back story to put these characters together. It is just as easy to contrive any number of ways Dortmunder would be forced to go up against Vizzini. Kidnapping May works.
    As far as ambition – I agree that it takes something to get Dortmunder “incited” in order for him to reach “heights of inspiration.” Yes, sometimes it is the treachery of some rich powerful man – but there are numerous examples of other sources of incitement. When he observes stupidity or incompetency in others (his team or the opposition) he gets motivated (see the theft of the chess set from the detective’s office in What’s So Funny?). When some minor irritation grows big enough, he gets motivated (O.J. Bar and Grill example above). When he feels trapped, he gets motivated (pretty much all of Drowned Hopes. Good Behavior for that matter. Being trapped in the glasses department of a Walmart-type store). I agree that if left to his own devices he’d just sit around and drink beer or, at most, go out to bet on horses, but there are any number of conditions that can get his creative juices flowing.

    • We have to agree on anything? I thought we were just playing an amusing game, based on shared knowledge of two rather disparate fictional realms. Trading riffs. Or refs. Whichever.

      We’ll get to talk about Mr. Dortmunder’s motivation in great depth in the very near future. Very near indeed now.

  13. Where, by the way, does the title of this book come from? The USAF does use eagles as symbols, but not green ones. (If green means money, it’s a bit strained.)

    • It’s getting to the point where you can answer your own questions now. I feel anything I might add would be redundant, but I will say it’s a great sounding title, and who really cares what it means? I think if you run down the list of famous titles in this genre, you’ll find that a whole lot of them don’t really make much sense if you look too close. So don’t look too close. 😉

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