“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?
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.