Monthly Archives: December 2014

Review: The Sour Lemon Score, Part 2

sour_lemon_score_7 sour_lemon_score_3sour_lemon_score_4sour_lemon_score_5

The whine was as sharp as vinegar now, the lines in her forehead looking like pencil strokes, crayon strokes, in the candlelight.  Then she leaned forward and said, “You’re really mad at him, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“You’d really beat him up, wouldn’t you?”

It was what she wanted to hear, so he said “Yes.”

“I tell you what,” she said, her voice dropping, becoming more confidential.  “If I hear from George at all, I’ll call you.  Okay?”

Parker considered the offer.  Was there anything else under it?  No, he didn’t think so.  He said “All right.  That’d be good.”

“And if I think of anybody else, anything else that might help you, I’ll call.  Like Officer Dumek’s first name or anything like that.”

“Good.  You can reach me at the Rilington Hotel, in midtown.  You know of it?”

“Rilington Hotel.  I can look it up on the phone book.,”

“Right.  I’m in and out of there, so if I’m not registered when you call, just tell them to hold the messages for me.”

She nodded.  “You’re from out of town, then, is that it?”

“I’m in New York a lot of the time,” he told her to keep her interest alive.

It did.  “Then maybe we can get to know each other a little,” she said.  “I could show you around the city some, if you don’t know it very well.”

“After I find George,” he said.

“A one-track mind, she said, smiling, “I told you that’s what you had.”

“That’s what I have.”

One thing you read about Parker quite often is that he’s a sociopath.   That word has gotten very popular in the last few decades, hasn’t it?   That and psychopath.  We throw those words around a lot.  We have a tendency to use them interchangeably.  They started out as terms to describe certain specific (if perhaps not perfectly understood) personality disorders, and they ended up as catch-all phrases to explain why some people don’t seem to have a conscience.   We’re all born without a conscience, you know.  Some stay that way.

Near the end of The Sopranos, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, who has been treating Tony Soprano for years, and has long understood that he’s a thug and a murderer (and has been strongly attracted to him for much of this time) concludes he’s a sociopath, that psychoanalysis can only make him a more successful mobster, and refuses to see him anymore.  But it seems to me that’s just her way of detaching herself from a dangerous situation–an excuse to separate herself from a professional relationship that has gotten overly personal.

And it’s a professional and personal failure on her part–not her decision, but the way she justifies it.  Understandable, but to me it seems like a final expression of David Chase’s skepticism (that he shared with Donald Westlake) regarding the psychiatric profession.  They have a tendency to rely too much on labels.

Tony Soprano isn’t a sociopath.   He’s just a selfish bastard.  Like most of us.  His methods of getting what he wants are more direct and brutal than ours, because of the culture he was raised in, the people he interacts with, but he’s not really so different from us–he’s got the same passions, the same hungers, the same questions over what it all means.   That’s why we liked watching him so much (well, I did).

And that’s why a lot of people threw a hissyfit when they didn’t get to see him die at the end.   They wanted that sense of vicarious fulfillment from watching him kill his enemies, break every commandment–but then they’d be exonerated from guilt, in the good old gangster movie fashion, by seeing him die a violent painful death.

David Chase wasn’t interested in giving us that escape route.   Neither was Richard Stark.   If you enjoy watching criminals do their thing, that’s on you–decide for yourself what it means.  Everybody dies in the end, no matter how good they are.  Francis of Assisi had one of the most horrible lingering deaths imaginable (arguably worse than Jesus’ death, though less dramatic)–Gandhi and Dr. King went down bloody.   Plenty of gangsters, mass murderers, and dictators die peacefully in their beds.  Death isn’t a punishment for evildoing, any more than taxes are.   It’s just the logical consequence of having been born.   Some people are luckier than others regarding the manner and timing of their deaths.  That’s all.

This book starts out, seemingly, as a revenge story–a thief betrays his partners, kills all but one of them, who then comes after him.   It then morphs into a looming confrontation between the survivor hunting down the betrayer, and a third man, who decides to also pursue the betrayer, for reasons of his own.

It seems these three men are much alike–criminals and murderers all, they lack any sense of guilt or remorse over their violent behavior.   But this is a study in contrast–they are actually quite different from each other.   One is merely greedy, shallow, and self-aborbed.  One is clearly a sadist, and perhaps a genuine psychopath–certainly a fascinating textbook case from a medical viewpoint.

And one is–something else.   Something inexplicable to modern psychiatry (as we saw in The Green Eagle Score).   Something that falls between the cracks in our understanding of ourselves, and of the world we live in.   Something that lives in those cracks, and watches us with cold observant eyes.

As we pick up where we left off last time, Parker is observing Joyce Langer, George Uhl’s old girlfriend, at a Mexican restaurant on the west side of Manhattan.  She convinced him to take her out to dinner, and he let himself be convinced, because he needs to learn all he can about George, and he’s got to use her neediness and her attraction to him to get her cooperation.  He’s working now, and with Claire when he isn’t, so he feels no attraction to her at all.  A few books back, Joyce might have gotten lucky.   But she’ll have to settle for being lucky compared to most of the other people Parker talks to in this book.

As Part 3 begins, we get the now-familiar round-robin approach–six chapters, each from the POV of a character other than Parker.  We start with George Uhl himself–seeing the events from the time of his betrayal through his eyes.   He’d pulled five jobs before the one he did with Parker, and every time he’d wanted to kill the others and take it all for himself.  But there’d always been some reason to restrain himself–fear of retribution from mutual acquaintances.  He finally got the perfect chance, and he took it–only to realize, too late, that he should have shot Parker first.

He holed up with an old high school chum in Philadelphia, name of Ed Saugherty.  Ed had gotten himself a nice career, married a pretty girl named Pam, had two kids, bought a house with a lawn in the ‘burbs–as straight a life as a man could lead, but Ed, just like a lot of us reading this book, had always been fascinated by people who lived on the other side of the law.  He had admired George, idolized him, lived vicariously through him (and probably would have taken just a bit of satisfaction from reading about George’s violent death in the papers, but it won’t work out that way).

They reconnected after high school, and George, feeling insecure at first over Ed’s obvious success, was surprised to see Ed still admired him–

When George realized Ed saw himself as a dull wage slave and George as a guy with an exciting life, there was nothing for it but to agree with Ed completely and start playing the role to the hilt.  That second meeting had been full of wild stories, a few of them true, a few of them invented, a few of them adapted from paperback novels, and there was no question but that Ed would pick up the tab again.  And though George had really been in tough money shape just then, the main reason he tapped Ed for a loan was because he understood Ed’s myth-comprehension of him demanded it.  Ed pressed the forty bucks on  him with a smile of absolute joy, saying, “No hurry about paying this back, George, no hurry about paying this back.”

Staying at the Saugherty house, George checks in regularly with his current girlfriend Barri Dane, who lives in DC, and is acting as his answering service.   First he hears that Matt Rosenstein wants to get in touch–he gets a bad feeling about that, but not as bad as the feeling he gets when he hears from Barri that Lew Pearson said Benny Weiss wants to talk to him–he shot Benny Weiss in the head just a few days earlier.

That’s what brings him to Pearson’s house, figuring he’s got to nail down that loose end–kill Pearson, so he can’t talk about George to anybody (George has a tendency to make murder the answer to every problem).  He shoots Pearson from inside the house, without even trying to find out what’s going on–then realizes, again too late, that Parker was there by the pool as well, and he’s missed his chance once more.

He’s a young guy, early 30’s, slender build, dark thinning hair–description is actually a bit reminiscent of Westlake himself at this point, but maybe that’s reading too much into it.   He seems to have a fair bit of luck with women of a certain type–when he was seeing Joyce, he was also getting involved with Barri Dane, who we meet in the next chapter.

Tall, blonde, curvy, self-assured, a dance/martial arts instructor, and basically a Jacqueline of All Trades, it’s a bit hard to figure what she sees in George, but it seems like she’s just one of those people who are drawn to edgy situations–and characters.  Also, I kind of think Westlake might have modeled her a bit after Barri Chase, Fred Astaire’s TV dance partner (and sometimes girlfriend) in the 50’s and 60’s.  But this Barri’s dance partners are not so elegant.  Not a top hat in the bunch.

Matt Rosenstein shows up on her doorstep, wanting to know where George is–she knows about Saugherty (Uhl’s worst mistake, other than not shooting Parker first).  She doesn’t want to tell him anything.  Rosenstein loves it when people, particularly of the female variety, don’t want to tell him stuff.   Whatever martial art Barri might have studied, it isn’t going to do her one bit of good now.  To a guy like Rosenstein, that’s just foreplay.

While Rosenstein is doing a job on Barri, Paul Brock is back in New York, looking at the job Parker did on his beautiful West Village apartment.   He’s in shock over it.   It’s a rape, a murder, a sacrilege.   He can’t understand it.  All he did was drug the guy so Matt could ask him a few questions, take everything in his pockets, and throw him in an alley covered in cheap wine.  That hardly justifies ruining a man’s home.  He tells Rosenstein he wants to kill Parker himself.  Although Brock can be dangerous when you underestimate him, Parker never underestimates anyone twice.  Brock should recognize his own limitations, and stay out of this mess.   But there are reasons why he can’t and won’t do that.

Back in Philly, Ed Saugherty is more and more aware of what a terrible mistake he made letting George Uhl stay in his guest bedroom.   His wife Pam is furious at him, seeing George for exactly what he is.  His three young children are confused and frightened by the whole situation.  But he can’t admit Pam was right, so he refuses to throw George out.

He’s ready to let go of his adolescent man-crush on George, to embrace his boring but safe middle class life at last, but then George, who had headed off to parts unknown, leaving a suitcase full of money with Ed (not that Ed opened it to look), calls him and says he might have some unpleasant visitors soon.  He should leave the suitcase with somebody he trusts.  He should not tell them anything.   He should not call the police, because they’d arrest him for aiding a fugitive.  It’s too late for him to back out now.   He’s not just watching the exciting real-life crime story now–he’s living it.   It’s not as much fun as he thought.

And now we’re inside Matt Rosenstein’s head–it’s not a pleasant place to be, but he seems to like it well enough.  He’s described as ‘a heavyset man of forty-two with irritable, intelligent eyes and a heavy, stupid jaw.’ In his late teens, he got paid thirty dollars to beat some guy up, and he decided that getting to hurt and intimidate people for money was what he wanted to do with his life.  He’s found a great many ways to satisfy that urge since then.

The sex urge is a bit more complicated–he’s been with a lot of women, willing and otherwise, but it never quite lived up to his expectations.  Then he met Paul Brock when he got hired to do a bit of insurance-related arson for a boutique Brock owned a stake in.  He found himself seducing Brock, who was easily seduced, and though he never thought of himself that way–well, he still doesn’t.

As far as Matt Rosenstein was concerned, though, he himself was still straight.  Brock was a faggot, and the relationship they had was sex-based, but that was just because living with a guy had business advantages and other advantages over living with a broad.  Matt was still straight, and when he got a shot at a woman he still took it and it still wasn’t very good, but he was still straight.

Like Uhl’s woman down in Washington this afternoon.  Now, she might have been okay.  She looked as thought she ought to be a real tiger in the rack, but of course by the time she opened her head about Georgy Porgy she wasn’t feeling too frisky anymore, and the way it turned out she just lay there and took it when he climbed aboard.  So it was fun, but not a hell of a lot of fun.  Anybody in his right mind would prefer a Paul Brock to something like that.  You wouldn’t have to be a fag.

One of the things that most distinguishes a true sociopath, or psychopath, aside from his general lack of feeling for other people, is his utter refusal to understand himself.  He simply will not ‘own’ his actions, accept their implications.  This is why psychiatrists often conclude that treating sociopaths with ‘the talking cure’ is a waste of time–they aren’t interested in learning who they are, what makes them tick.   They don’t want to know. They just learn how to put up a better front.  They lie to themselves as much as to everyone else.  The capacity for self-knowledge simply isn’t there.   To Donald E. Westlake, there can be no more contemptible creature.

To me, the interesting thing about this little inner monologue of Rosenstein’s is that what’s most wrong with him (other than his being a rotten sadistic bastard, hardly an uncommon ailment) is not that he’s gay, but that he refuses to know that he’s gay.  He found out by accident who he was, the kind of person he was supposed to be with, but he keeps trying to prove he’s ‘a real man’–to live up to an image he has of what somebody like him is supposed to be.  He’d be a crook and a low-life either way, but he’d at least be himself.

If Uhl makes murder the answer to every problem, Rosenstein makes pain his.   His real high isn’t sex, but hurting people.  For any reason.  Or none.  To have power over them.  To feel superior to them.  To paraphrase Richard Pryor’s take on some guys he talked to when visiting a penitentiary, he’ll fuck you just to see that look on your face.   Charming fellow, eh?  I told you Otto Mainzer wasn’t the worst guy we’d ever meet in these books.

Back in New York, that other charming fellow, George Uhl, knowing he’s no longer safe at the Saugherty house, has no choice but to crash with Joyce, who he hasn’t seen in about a year, so he figures nobody will look for him there.  He talks his way through the door and into her bed (this is the only sex scene in the book), and she’s happy enough to have him there–until she realizes, once again, that he doesn’t care about anybody but himself.  Her ingrained sense of perpetual aggrievement takes hold, and as George sleeps the smug sleep of the self-satisfied, she leaves a message for Parker at the Rilington.  And then goes out.

Parker continues to rack up the miles–he’s been running down every lead he’s got on George, and they’ve all turned out to be dead ends.  He got to Barri’s apartment in DC, only to find Rosenstein had beaten him there, and very nearly beaten her to death.  The Pontiac he’s driving has a tendency to drift to the left, and can’t be much fun to drive, but of course it’s not about fun.   He’s got to find Uhl–to get his money–to make Uhl stop breathing. Then the storm inside him, created by Uhl’s treachery, will quiet down.  Then he can go back to New Orleans and be with Claire.

He calls in to get his messages from the Rilington–I’ll say again that these stories would make no sense in the era of cellphones and email–and finally, his luck changes.   And George Uhl’s runs out.

He wakes George none too gently, with a poke in the stomach from one of his two Smith & Wesson Terriers (see Part 1).  George is scared (and angry at Joyce, who he figures out right away must have ratted him out), but figures he can talk his way out of it somehow–Parker isn’t interested in talking–he swings from the floor, and a huge gnarly fist crashes into Uhl’s jaw, leaving him sprawled unconscious on the bed.

Parker still has the drug Rosenstein used on him to make him answer questions–using a combination of guesswork and past observation, he doses George with it, and eventually learns about Saugherty.  And that he’s got to drive to Philadelphia now–great.   Who wouldn’t want to be there?

Joyce runs back in–she’s belatedly repented of telling Parker where George is, and has come back to warn him–Parker ends up knocking her out too, just to shut her up.   He ties her to the sofa, and as he leaves, leading the drugged Uhl along like a compliant sleepwalker, she looks at him with solemn terrified eyes.   He leaves her alive–why not?  She doesn’t know a thing–not even who she is.

And now comes a moment readers of these books have been puzzling over since 1969.   Parker has all he’s ever going to get out of Uhl.   He has no more use for him.  No more reason to keep him alive, and we know that when somebody working with Parker betrays him, tries to kill him, takes money Parker sees as his, Parker needs to make that person dead.  We’ve known that since the very first book–that’s really how we came to know Parker, from watching him hunt down Mal Resnick, and seeing him squeeze the life out of Mal with his big veiny hands, like he was snuffing out a candle, and with about as much inner reflection involved.

Parker takes Uhl, still deep under the influence of the truth drug, out to the nearby New Jersey marshlands, to a spot his body won’t be found for quite a long time.  He points the gun at his prostrate form.  And he can’t pull the trigger. Mercy?  Compassion?   Guilt?  Conscience?   None of these things.   Parker himself can’t quite explain it–maybe no one could–but Stark gets us as close as possible to the truth–

It was stupid.  There was no sense in it, and things without sense in them irritated him.  Uhl was too docile, too easy.  Somehow he was too much like a trusting child.  Today or tomorrow he would wake up with a blinding headache and he would be again the guy who had twice tried to kill Parker, who had turned a very sweet job sour, who had killed his partners and stolen money that belonged to Parker, who had caused him trouble and discomfort of all kinds for five days in a row.  That’s who he’d been yesterday and that’s who he’d be tomorrow, and Parker wouldn’t think twice about exing that George Uhl out of the human race.  But that wasn’t who George Uhl was today.  Today he was a docile child, and with angry irritation, Parker realized that today he wasn’t going to kill George Uhl.

But neither was he going to leave Uhl capable of getting back into the game. Nothing could make him quite that stupid.  He put his pistol away again and bent over Uhl and broke three bones, all fairly important.  Uhl groaned once and frowned, but that was all.

When you’re attacked by a wild predator–not because it’s hungry, but because you’ve agitated it in some way, triggered the fight or flight response–and you can’t get away, or effectively fight back–what are you supposed to do?

Play dead.   Go limp.   Curl into a ball, cover your eyes, and hope the beast’s aggressive instincts will calm down–that it will be confused by your passivity, and will simply leave you there on the ground.  No animal other than man kills without provocation or a sound practical reason.  There are no Matt Rosensteins in the animal world, no George Uhls.  They do what they have to in order to survive.  Make them believe your death is not necessary for their survival, and they will leave you alone.

On a conscious level, Parker knows leaving Uhl alive is a bad idea.   Uhl will come after him again, someday (three books from now, to be specific).  If he doesn’t deal with him now, he’ll have to later on, and it might not go his way next time.  Consciously, he knows all this.  But there’s nothing he can do about it.  His conscious mind isn’t what pulled him into this situation.  If he was simply doing what made sense, he’d have gone back to Claire and waited for the next job.  It wasn’t that much money.  Not worth risking all he has to regain, that’s for sure.

He could always put feelers out, look for an easy shot at George later on, when George’s guard was down, if all he wanted was vengeance.   What he wanted was to calm the storm–but George’s strange comatose state of mind has done that already.  The feelings, the instinctive drives that make Parker kill have gone away–for now.  And without those drives impelling him, he can’t kill anyone.

Call him a wolf in the forest, a tiger in the jungle, a lion on the savannah, a bear on the tundra, a killer whale swimming endlessly through the sea of hardboiled crime fiction–whatever he is, he’s not like us.   He doesn’t kill when he doesn’t need to kill.   His conscious mind is strong enough to let him incapacitate Uhl for the near future–but it’s the beast within that’s really calling the shots here, at least when he’s working.  And the beast within isn’t hungry, or scared, or angry–so it leaves.  To seek its proper prey.  The money.  No time to wait for George to snap out of it.  Another hunter is on the trail.

Interestingly, Parker (or is it Stark interpreting for Parker?) thinks earlier in the book that by trying to get to Uhl through Rosenstein, ‘he’d succeeded only in setting another wolf on the scent.’  He seems to perceive other heisters as beasts of prey like himself, but if so, that’s a misperception on his part, as we can see when we look into their minds, and find the same delusions and pretensions that we see in our own minds (if we’re honest with ourselves). Parker knows himself better than any human ever could, but he doesn’t know everything.

He knows how to drive the 90 miles to Philadelphia (he must know parts of the route by heart at this point), and his seemingly endless commute up and down the eastern seaboard is nearly at an end now. He does a drive-by past the Saugherty home, and realizes Rosenstein and Brock are in there.

We’ve already seen in the Rosenstein POV chapter how he and Brock broke in there, and Rosenstein immediately put the question to Ed about where the money was. Ed has already left it with a friend. He tries to follow Uhl’s advice to not tell them anything at all–to convincingly feign innocence–that might have worked, except Ed has no idea how to lie convincingly. He changes his story in the middle of telling it, and Rosenstein knows he’s got the goods.  Or knows who does.

But instead of just torturing Ed to get the information–or threatening his family–or using his drug, which Parker has noticed he doesn’t seem to like using when there’s a woman in the picture–Rosenstein just says he’s going to take Pam into the bedroom until Ed feels like talking. Brock is pained and mortified, as usual (He’s seen this movie before, but what can he do? Poor schmuck’s in love.) Ed, who had not been terribly happy in his marriage to Pam, and has never shown any propensity for violence, suddenly finds the courage to fight for her–but this isn’t a Westlake novel.  It’s a Stark.  Rosenstein, almost as happy hurting men as women, just holds him down and hits him. A bit too hard, a bit too often. Whoops. There goes the last link to the money.

Parker, talking to Rosenstein from a nearby phone booth, says he’ll come in and talk–open the garage door for him. They can work something out. He knows they have no more intention of working anything out than he does. They’re planning an ambush, but they don’t realize they’re dealing with the ultimate ambush predator. He comes in fast and hard with the Pontiac, guns blazing–the fight lasts maybe a minute. And when it’s over, Rosenstein and Brock-en-stern are–well, not dead. But they might have been better off that way.

Parker got Rosenstein in the spinal column with one of his Terriers. He’s crippled, seemingly dying. He spits hatred at Parker–says he just got lucky. Parker’s only retort is to knock Rosenstein out with a pistol butt. He has no time to waste on this–thing.

Brock he has a little more time for–he finds him lying at the bottom of the basement stairs he fell down when Parker shot him, broken in a number of places. And he’s still whining about the damn apartment! But Parker gets him to focus–to explain what happened. And he finds out the money is gone. No way to know who has it. No way to get it back. So it doesn’t exist anymore, as far as he’s concerned. The hunting impulse switches itself off. He’s done.

He starts to leave–wait a minute–Brock and Rosenstein are still alive–neither is in some childlike narcoleptic pharmaceutically-induced state. Both tried to get his money–they drugged him, robbed him, left him in an alleyway, and were going to try and kill him just now. Has Parker totally lost his mind–or his edge?

Not a bit of it. Like I said–he’s done. He was never after Rosenstein and Brock–it was all about getting Uhl and the money. If they had it, and wanted to fight him over it, sure–he’d kill them both, happily. But he never had a working arrangement with them. They had every right to try and get the money. The drugging was unpleasant, but not a major grievance–he settled that score by trashing the apartment and shooting both of them. Madge had it right–Parker and Rosenstein have different outlooks. But honestly, she could have said that about Parker and anybody else on the planet.

He figures the cops are coming–he’s got to get out of there fast, and there’s already been too many shots fired in a quiet neighborhood. He also figures that Pam Saugherty, who he found tied naked to a bed, covered with bruises, in a rather disturbed state of mind, can deal with these two cripples better than he ever could. He can just go upstairs, untie her, and leave–it’s up to her what happens next–it’s her beef. Not his. Not anymore.

Brock can’t understand it–he asks if Parker is leaving them to the law. “I’m doing better than that,” Parker told him. “I’m going to leave you to Saugherty’s wife.” And a fair few books from now, in a time strangely different and far removed from the one he’s currently living in, he’ll have reason to question the wisdom of that decision. But it isn’t a decision at all. It’s just Parker being Parker. If he were easy to understand, we wouldn’t still be reading these books, all these years later. Still trying to figure him out. And probably never succeeding.

And thus ends the paperback era of Parker. Another thing coming to an end, as Parker leaves Gold Medal for good, is the novels being reprinted in a bizarre men’s magazine, with lurid artwork, and laughably stupid new titles. fmo_69_jul_2

That’s probably the least embarrassing retitle of the bunch, and not bad artwork at all. But it’s a shame Robert E. McGinnis never did any more cover art for Parker–he really did seem to get the character in a way none of the others ever did. I said last week that his cover for this book depicted Parker and Joyce Langer, but it’s hard to be sure–is it actually Pam Saugherty? She’s not naked on the cover, but that’s easily enough explained. There’s several traumatized tied-up women in this one. But I still think it’s Joyce.  Anyway, if you want to compare and contrast the various covers, follow this link. Or this one.

I don’t generally love the cover art for the University of Chicago reprints, but I have to give a shout-out to this one, because it correctly identifies the hero of the piece–the long-suffering green Pontiac. Which can finally take a well-deserved rest, once Parker gets back to Claire in New Orleans.

And after I take my own well-deserved rest, I’ll come back with a very different take on murder and mayhem–the next of the Westlake ‘nephew’ books, and while I wouldn’t say it’s the best of the bunch, it got a fantastic paperback cover–eventually. Almost four decades after it was first published in hardcover, with maybe the worst cover art Westlake ever got for any book–and that’s a competitive category.  Remind me again why hardcovers are more prestigious?

And this book got reprinted in a men’s magazine too–THE men’s magazine, in fact. There must have been times when Westlake pondered the irony that after writing near-porn for years, he got into actual porn magazines with stories where the hero doesn’t even have sex. People are funny, you ever notice that?  Westlake did. See you next year.

8 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: The Sour Lemon Score

sour_lemon_score_1sour_lemon_score_2

This is a pivotal moment in the Parker saga for a number of reasons.   First of all, it’s the last of the four Parker novels published by Gold Medal–the last to feature cover art by Robert E. McGinnis, as well.  Westlake’s four book (and two reprint) association with this iconic Fawcett imprint, whose 50’s and early 60’s output had been so influential for him, had turned out to be problematic from the start.  The golden age of the paperback original crime novel was over before he got there.

And with this book, Parker’s days of paperback first editions are over as well, after a dozen memorable entries.   The remaining twelve would all be hardcovers. The books would remain fascinating, but would rarely be as much fun to look at from now on.

We’re exactly midway through the series (unless you count the four Grofields), and nearly everything we associate with the character has been established (still waiting for a few key characters and a certain house in New Jersey), but he’s as much of a stranger to us as ever.   The one thing we know for sure about Parker is that he will always 1)Steal a lot of money and get to keep a big chunk of it, 2)Kill anybody who tries to take that money away from him, and 3)Get it on with a great-looking chick at some point in the narrative.

And in this book, he gets none of that.   No sex, no killing, no money.  And yet, this is one of the better-regarded books in the series, certainly much better liked than The Black Ice Score, where Parker gets cash and vengeance, and beds the lovely Claire at various points in the story (Claire is only referred to in absentia in this book).

The basic structure of the novel is nearly identical to most of the previous ones, with (as many have noted) one key difference–no extended flashback to tell us what Parker was doing before he shows up at the start of Part 4–the trademark Stark Rewind is just barely present here.  It’s a fairly linear narrative, mainly from Parker’s perspective, but as typically happens, Part 3 is composed of chapters from a variety of other POV’s, before we return to Parker in Part 4 (the four parts are labeled One…, Two…, Three…, and Four…, like Stark is counting them off).

Quite a few times before we’ve seen Westlake pushing Parker out of his comfort zone, but here it seems like he’s trying to do the same for us.   As the tagline runs, Parker steals–Parker kills–it’s a living–but not this time.  This is the beginning of a long losing streak for the character who has seemed so invincible up to this point.  His formidable skills, his oddly lupine mindset, and his strange luck will see to it that he stays in the fight, but it’s never going to be like it was before.  So it’s a transitional book, but I often think they’re all transitional, to some extent. With Parker, you can never step twice into the same river, to repurpose Heraclitus.   We the readers have to adapt to changing circumstances, just as he does.

The story begins with a pretty run-of-the-mill bank robbery.  Parker is part of a four man string, comprised of himself, the plump good-natured Benny  Weiss, the lucky Phil Andrews (never been arrested, never had a warrant out on him), and a young newcomer named George Uhl, who is driving the getaway car, and who Parker is getting weird vibes from.  He figures it’s because Uhl is scared, and he wants to make sure this guy won’t drive off and leave them stranded in mid-robbery.  Uhl says angrily that he drove for Matt Rosenstein once–Parker has no idea who that  is.

The robbery goes off like clockwork–George doesn’t panic, though he goes right on being jumpy and nervous–and they head for an abandoned farm house to wait out the road blocks, and divide the loot–and turns out they hit the bank on the wrong day–only thirty-three thousand, a thousand of which is brand-new singles and fives they’ll have to leave behind.  Just 8k a man.  Hardly worth the weeks of preparation.   And that’s the good news.  The bad news is that George Uhl was nervous and jumpy because he planned to kill them all from the start.

He takes out Benny first, shooting him in the head–then Phil goes for his gun (a bit too slow), while Parker goes through the window, knowing the man with the gun in his hand always has the advantage.  Unfortunately, his own gun falls from its holster when he makes the plunge, and he can’t go back to get it.  He makes it to the surrounding woods, bullets whistling past his ear, and then he hears George taunting him over the lost gun.

But he isn’t going to follow Parker in there–he’s not that dumb.  He torches the farm house and the barn the cars were parked in, and drives off in the remaining car–with the money.  Parker’s money.   So we know now, sooner or later, George Uhl is a dead man.  But this time it’s going to be quite a bit later.

Stranded a few miles from a small town whose bank he just robbed, Parker has no choice but to walk back to that town and steal a car from a gas station.  What follows is one of the most oddly compelling interludes in the entire series.  He gets himself about five hundred miles from the scene of the crime, ditches the car, takes a bus to Cleveland, checks into a hotel, and wires Claire to send him some money.   He then visits a shabby antique store a few blocks away, that Grofield apparently recommended to him once.  He needs to re-equip himself.   He wants two handguns, preferably of the same type.

The former proprietor, Mr. Dempsey, has died, leaving an elderly woman (Wife?  Sister?  We never even learn her name.) in possession of the rather dubious establishment–after asking Parker a few wary questions, she realizes he’s there to buy guns–not the antique variety.  She remembers Grofield–charming young man–those of us who have been reading up to this point can imagine how he would have chatted the lady up, joking with her, his usual pleasant self.  Parker is his usual unpleasant self, all business, no small talk, but that’s okay–she just needs the money.  The small talk isn’t necessary.

He went with her down the narrow aisle between the seatless chairs, the cracked vases, the chipped enamel basins, the scarred chifferobes. Everywhere there was frayed cloth, cracked leather, sagging upholstery, chipped veneer, and an overall aura of dust and disuse and tired old age.

The doorway at the back was low enough so Parker had to duck his head.  The old woman led him through a narrow kitchen containing equipment almost as old and tired-looking as the wares in the shop, and then through another low door and down a flight of stairs into a low-ceilinged basement full of more ancient furniture.  It was impossible to see how half of it had been maneuvered down the narrow stairs, or why anyone had bothered.

A era coming to its end–in fact, I think this may be the last such episode in the Parker books, where he visits some dingy shop or office fronting for an illegal gun sales racket–but the guns themselves are fine for his purposes.   Two Smith & Wesson Terriers–five shot snub-nosed revolvers that fire .32 caliber rounds.  We’ve seen this gun before–in all, I believe it figures in maybe seven of the novels–and maybe it’s worth taking a look at it now.

image008

You might say it’s Parker’s go-to weapon (though he never specifically asks for it)–easily concealed, reliable in a pinch, enough stopping power to get the job done at close range.   A cop’s weapon, repurposed for a robber. And with a memorable name.

Westlake (whose experience with guns was probably limited to his time in the Air Force) used to joke that half his mail was gun buffs correcting firearms-related mistakes he’d made, and he might have taken some flack from them about this particular weapon.   See, most of the Terriers you’d find now fire the much more powerful .38 caliber ammo.  The .38 version of the Terrier is (confusingly) designated Model 32, so did Westlake assume they fired the smaller round?   It would seem that in spite of his often commented upon dislike for research, he got this one right.

According to this source, many Terriers were chambered for .32 ammo.  They were carried by thousands of police officers, who purchased them directly, as opposed to having them issued by their employers–the smaller less powerful round would have made them lighter and easier to fire.  After 1967, the .32 Terrier was no longer used by police, and one can imagine many officers disposing of them around then, or years earlier–since they were personal property, they wouldn’t have been handed in–they might well have ended up in the back rooms of little hobby and antique shops, or in the offices of disreputable private detectives who dealt with both sides of the law.  A gun that fell between the cracks, in a manner of speaking.  Like Parker himself.

Parker pays the lady a hundred bucks for the two Terriers–she’s surprised he doesn’t haggle.   He’s got no time for that.  He asks her where he can get a ‘mace’–a used car with seemingly legal registration that he can drive from state to state without worrying too much about getting stopped.  She knows a dealer who can supply one. He gets a two year old green Pontiac, that runs fine, but has a bit of a steering problem–probably a lot like this–

pontiac-00028-1

(I wouldn’t bother showing the car, except he’s going to be spending most of the rest of the book driving it back and forth across much of the eastern seaboard, and it figures very strongly in the final chapter, as do those twin Terriers.)

He’s almost done now.  He wires Claire for more money.  He gets a suitcase and some things to put in it.  He doesn’t bother to go back and pay his hotel bill.  His one track mind had to focus first on evading the police–then on obtaining cash and equipment.   Now all he’s going to think about is George Uhl.

As Part Two opens, we find him holed up at the Green Glen Motel, being forced to chat with its proprietor Madge, who has already appeared in The Outfit and The Seventh.  This is her last appearance in the series, and the most interesting, so let’s take a closer look at her as well.

She was medium height and thin as an antenna, with sharp elbows and a shriveled throat.  Her hair was white and coarse and cut very short in the Italian style worn by women forty years her junior.  She was wearing dark green stretch pants tonight and a sleeveless high-neck top of green and white and amber stripes and green slip-on shoes.  Great golden hoop earrings hung from her ears.  She kept her eyebrows plucked and redrawn in sardonic curving lines.  Her fingernails were always long and curved and covered in blood-red polish, but she wore no lipstick, so that her mouth was one more thin pale line in a heavily lined face.

If she’d had less toughness and assurance, the effect would have been pretty bad, particularly with the gleaming white false teeth she flashed every time she opened her mouth, but somehow or other she had the style to get away with it.  The young clothes weren’t being worn by an old body but by a young spirit.  In some incomprehensible way, Madge had stopped getting older about 1920.

Madge loves to gossip with her heister clientele, share information, and she’s got a lot of information to share. Parker is calling all his contacts around the country to find out where he can find Uhl–nobody seems to know him, including Madge. But she’s met this Matt Rosenstein Uhl mentioned–he’s come by the Green Glen a few times. She’s not surprised he and Parker haven’t crossed paths before–even though Rosenstein pulls the occasional heist (along with just about every other felony in the book), he’s not like Parker–she calls him a ‘scavenger bird’.   She says he and Parker have different outlooks.  What she means by that is something we’ll learn as we go along.

Handy McKay, Parker’s former partner and current contact, calls in–he’s found out that Rosenstein’s contact is a guy named Paul Brock, who has a record store in Greenwich Village.  Parker tells him Madge has twenty-two hundred dollars for him–his split of the money from the jewels they took out of Bronson’s safe at the end of The Outfit.  They’d both forgotten about that, but Madge remembered–it’s been five years since they dropped by and left the jewels with her.  Meaning that it’s about 1968 now–the year Westlake would have written this book.

We’ve enjoyed Parker’s talk with Madge, and maybe on some level he has too, but he’s got all the information he needs now, so he politely (for him) kicks her out, and asks for a wake-up call the next morning.  “That’s always been your big failing, Parker” she jokes on her way out.  “You talk too much.”  And that’s the last we see of Madge.  Another era coming to an end–Parker may stay the same, but the world around him is changing.

And nowhere is it changing faster than Greenwich Village, where Parker enters Paul Brock’s record shop, filled with the rock music of that era–music Westlake himself doesn’t much care for–he was a jazz guy all his life. Parker, of course, is indifferent to all music, but he’s very interested in talking to Paul Brock.   He has to intimidate the store clerk a bit, but he gets Brock on the phone, and gets the address of Brock’s apartment at 8 Downing Street, an address I’m not convinced actually exists (next time I’m down there I’ll go look), but there’s a 10 Downing Street, which my British readers might be interested to know is right by Sir Winston Churchill Square, and no that’s not a coincidence.  It’s just retroactive Anglophilia.

Parker is surprised at how lavishly decorated Brock’s apartment is.  It makes him uneasy, somehow, as does Brock himself, who is quite clearly gay, and not the least bit butch.   Parker offers to run down a list of people he’s worked with, until Brock recognizes a name–he says there’s no need, he can clearly see Parker is in the same general line of work as Rosenstein (who he calls Matt).

Paul Brock is the first unequivocally gay character of any significance in the Parker novels, and for that matter in any novel Westlake wrote under his name or Stark’s (Tucker Coe will be trumping both of them in this department very soon).   Westlake, like nearly all ‘straight’ men of his era, was homophobic–more than some, less than others.  He was also meeting openly gay people on a daily basis during his time living in the Village. And as a guy raised Irish Catholic in upstate New York in the first half of the 20th century, he was finding them very interesting–and troubling–he’s got issues to work out here.  Well, don’t we all?

Brock is also one of the very few people we meet in these books who ever catch Parker off guard (Parker occasionally shows a tendency to underestimate certain types of men he perceives as weak in some way)–while Parker waits around for Rosenstein to show up, he has some expresso and chocolate cookies Brock offered him before leaving the room, and too late realizes that Brock has drugged him.  He just barely manages to conceal his guns under the sofa cushions before he collapses on the floor.

The next thing he knows, he’s being interrogated–and is atypically cooperative, because he’s been injected with a ‘truth drug’. Someone he later realizes is Rosenstein himself is asking him what he’s there for–finds out about the heist, the 33k (actually 32k, but it doesn’t matter), Uhl’s betrayal, and that Parker isn’t there after Rosenstein.   Never having seen Parker in his normal waking state, Rosenstein apparently decides he’s no threat, and not worth the trouble of disposing of a body–Rosenstein wants to get after Uhl as soon as possible.  He’s made a bad mistake, but how is he to know that?

So Parker wakes up in the proverbial alleyway, doused with cheap wine, his head feeling like it’s going to split wide open.   He’s not happy about any of this.   But he’s still focused on finding Uhl and the money.   What he told Rosenstein remains true–he’s not out to kill the guy.  They didn’t have a working arrangement–there was no double-cross here.  If Rosenstein got his money, then he might have to kill him to get it back.  But as of now, his one-track mind is still thinking about Uhl and nothing else.

Except he still has to recover from the effects of the drug–they took his cash.  He has to walk way uptown to his hotel, talk his way past the snooty desk clerk, and sleep it off.  He tells the clerk he was mugged and rolled.   It’s not one of the prouder moments of his career to date.

It is, however, clearly influenced by sequences in earlier crime novels and films.   The one that comes to mind most prominently is Farewell My Lovely–Philip Marlowe is shot up with an unidentified drug, and wakes up in a sanitarium.  Westlake was never Raymond Chandler’s biggest fan–he might, however, have felt more positively about Murder, My Sweet, Dick Powell’s innovative film adaptation of that novel, which identifies the drug in question as heroin, and rather memorably portrays Marlowe’s mental state under its influence.   Another film Westlake certainly would have seen would be Robert Aldrich’s Mike Hammer send-up, Kiss Me Deadly, where Hammer is tied to a bed and drugged with truth serum.

In any event, there must have been plenty of other druggings in this genre (perhaps some of you reading this can recall a few?), and the point is not homage but analysis–how will Parker react to this?   He reacts by not reacting.  He just recovers and gets back to work.   Only now he’s learned something–drugs can be a useful way of getting information.

So he makes his way back to Brock’s apartment, finding it empty, and utterly trashes the place, hoping to find contact information for Uhl.  He finds his guns, quite a bit of money, the drug they used on him, and takes them all with him.  Nothing on Uhl.   He’ll have to find some other way to get to him.   Benny Weiss was the one who brought Uhl into the job.  Weiss had a wife.  Now a widow.  He’ll go talk to her.

Grace Weiss has a nice little house in the suburbs, and has become a surrogate grandmother to the children there, who are playing on her porch when Parker arrives.   Nobody there but her knows how her husband makes his living (it’s implied she was ‘on the bend’ herself for a while).  Benny would go off on a job, and she’d see him when he got back.  Only this time she sees Parker.  She knows what that means.  Another world coming to an end.  Another old woman left to her own devices.

She remembers Uhl.  He came to the house a few times.  She has two possible contacts for him.  She wants to know why Parker needs that information.  Parker tells her Uhl killed Benny.  Revenge isn’t her thing, and she says it’s not Parker’s either (perceptive).  She wants a cut of the money–Parker says Benny’s share died with him.  But he’ll give her two thousand dollars (most of what he took from Brock’s apartment) if she gives him the contact info–or she can get a cut of what he takes from Uhl–if he gets anything at all.  It never occurs to him to just force the information out of her (as it surely would to Rosenstein).

She hates Parker a bit for being part of the cold mercenary world that killed her husband–but she knows when he makes a deal, he sticks to it.   She also knows he might not get the money from Uhl–or be killed trying to get it.   She takes the two thousand.  Bird in the hand.  Benny was insured, but his body burned in the house.  She can’t prove he’s dead (not without revealing what he did when he was alive).   She’ll have to wait seven years for an ‘Enoch Arden’ judgment–so she lives in one of those states where after a given period of time, a missing person can be declared dead for insurance and remarriage purposes–she’s only thinking about the former.   And not about Tennyson at all.

There’s an interesting moment in this chapter where Stark worms his way into Parker’s head, as he observes the way Grace reacts to his news–

She sagged forward for a second, her hands bracing her against the counter. He watched her, knowing she was trying to be stoic and matter-of-fact as she could, knowing she would hate him to do anything to help her unless she was actually fainting or otherwise breaking down, and knowing that she had to have rehearsed this moment for years, ever since the first time Benny had gone away for a month on a job.  Like Claire, Parker’s own woman. Rehearsing the way she would handle it when she got the news.  If she got the news.  When she got the news.

It’s a moment that wouldn’t be possible if Claire wasn’t part of Parker’s life now. His death wouldn’t only impact him now.  He understands this, but there’s nothing he can do about it.  So no point dwelling on it.   He gives her the money.  She gives him the names.   He thanks her.  She tells him she did it for the money.  She didn’t need to tell him that.  Of course, he didn’t need to thank her, either.

It’s a pity Parker doesn’t get paid by the mile, because he’s racking up a whole lot of them.  He heads down to Virginia to talk to Lewis Pearson, a guy Benny knew who introduced him to George–Grace called him from the house to try and save Parker the drive–told him Benny wanted to get in touch–but he just told Grace Benny shouldn’t work with Uhl (bit late now).   Parker figures he can be more persuasive.  Pearson has a nice house and a pool, a bikini-clad wife slathered with suntan oil, and a bone to pick with George Uhl (who we gather put the moves on Pearson’s wife).  But then, as he talks to Parker by the pool, he gets something else–a bullet hole in his head.

Parker dives for cover, and realizes in an instant that Uhl must have heard from Pearson about the call from Grace–she said Benny wanted to get in touch with George.  Parker is just lucky Pearson was the more visible target.   But Uhl got away again.  Now Parker’s got no choice but to try the other contact–an old girlfriend of Uhl’s.   In New York.   He’s got to drive back there.  Again.  You see what I mean about the Pontiac being an important player in this story.

Joyce Langer lives on West 87th Street, between Amsterdam and Columbus–that’s a yuppie nabe nowadays, very pricey and upscale–if you have to ask what it costs to live there, you probably can’t afford it.  But back then, it was quite cheap, on the seedy side, and just a bit dangerous.

Joyce is no yuppie–she’s a pretty young woman with long chestnut hair who would be quite attractive if she wasn’t, as Parker notes right away, an injustice collector, a whiner, a stubborn ineffectual hater.  Her description and general manner remind me of Ellen Fusco from The Green Eagle Score, but Joyce has never been married, has no kid to anchor her.  She doesn’t even seem to have a job at the moment.  By the way, that’s her tied up on the McGinnis cover for the Gold Medal edition, up top.  You could call that a spoiler, but I prefer to think of it as foreshadowing.

And on the whole, I’d prefer to call this Part 1, and cover the second half in Part 2, which may or may not appear before 2014 meets the same fate as half the characters in this book.  So, I dunno, Merry Christmas.   (And would you believe I typed the last of this while listening to Pope Francis on the television at my parents’ house?  Well, you probably would, yeah).

14 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution and Other Fictions

curious_facts_preceding_1curious_facts_preceding_2

Donald E. Westlake will always be remembered as a novelist, having published his first novel (that he wanted people to know he’d written) in 1960.  But he’d started out over a decade earlier, as so many aspiring writers have, with the short story.  When he first started submitting for publication, that was a very sensible thing to do, because there was an enormous market for short stories.  Pulp magazines catering to fans of various literary genres (most of which have now folded like the proverbial cheap suit), but also ‘mainstream’ magazines that published short fiction on a regular basis (some still do, but not like they used to).

In the late 50’s/early 60’s, his short story output was, to say the least, prodigious–in his introduction to Levine, a collection of short stories about a police detective, he says he turned out 46 short stories and novellas (he says ‘novelettes’, but I hate that word) in 1959 alone, of which more than half saw publication–not all in that year, of course.  Magazine editors stockpile.  So when I give the publication date of a story below, bear in mind that it may have been written much sooner than that.   Back then, you could make a  living writing short stories for mystery magazines.  Not a princely living, but a living.

The short story still exists as a form, and doubtless always will, but it’s damned near impossible to make any kind of living writing them today.  None other than Lawrence Block was moved to ask Whither the Short Story? on his blog, a few years back, and a damned good question it was, and still is.  It’s reached the point where you might actually be better off as a poet than a short story writer.  You’d almost certainly have better odds at getting into The New Yorker or some similarly toney publication with a poem; they take up less space.

I have greatly enjoyed many of Westlake’s short stories–I’ve read all the major collections, and some uncollected work–and I’ve yet to read one where I thought to myself afterwards that my understanding of the human condition would be less complete if I’d never read it.  Whereas I think that pretty much every time I read a Frank O’Connor story.  O’Connor wrote exactly two novels, neither of which is much remarked upon today–different skill sets (ie, you can do both well, but very few do them equally well).  That being said, I certainly think that my understanding of Westlake as a writer has improved from reading his short fiction–it contains the building blocks of better things.

Westlake wrote well over a hundred short stories–but unless there’s a bunch more of them than you could find in his bibliography, and there may well be, he wrote significantly more novels, under his name and others (most of his shorts were not written under pseudonyms).  By the early 60’s, he’d figured out the short story was never going to be his primary thing, but he went on publishing them pretty regularly, until the shrinking market (and the lousy pay-rates) made it impractical for him to do more than the occasional one-off.

He wrote a lot fewer in the late 60’s and 70’s, and his short stories after that are mainly light stuff (often written for Playboy) that he doesn’t take seriously, nor does he expect anyone else to.  A lot of them are science fiction, believe it or not–and from what I’ve seen, are rife with the very flaws he’d excoriated that genre for in his infamous article for Xero.  He did, however, write some very good stories featuring characters from his novels that he felt were worth a bit more exploration.

His last story collection was devoted to Dortmunder (many of those were published in Playboy as well, which somehow seems like the wrong venue, but never mind), and those stories are brilliant–to a reader of the Dortmunder books.  The characters are already established, you see.  In novels.  The groundwork is done, leaving him free to just tell the story.  It was a Dortmunder story that got him his one and only Edgar nomination (and the award itself) in that category

So that may be the problem–he needs a bit more space to establish his characters, room to run, to stretch out–and in a short story, he can’t quite make his people live and breathe the way he can in a novel.  But he can still try.   And in trying so hard to work in miniature, he doubtless got better at the dark detailed portraits and complex comic murals that we came to know and love him for.  His best novels read like really good really long short stories, quite often–fast-paced, intense–he runs into problems sometimes when he tries to write very long novels–too much room can be as bad as too little.  His novellas are superb, though that form flat-lined commercially even before its diminutive cousin.

This is Westlake’s first story collection, from 1968, and was an important professional milestone for him.  It was published by Random House, his professional ties with which were severed the following year, though confusingly, Richard Stark and Tucker Coe remained there well into the 70’s.  The ‘and other fictions’ part of the book begins on the inside of the dust jacket, where we are told Westlake is ‘barely turned thirty’–he was more like thirty-five, but I guess they hadn’t bothered to update the author bio.

There are fifteen stories, all of which (with one possible exception) had been previously published in various magazines, some of which were defunct even before this book came out, but two–Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock’s respective mystery magazines–simply refused to die, and are with us yet today.  And I suppose now there’s nothing for it but to review each one in the order it appears (they are not arranged in order of publication), as succinctly as possible:

The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution: One of several short stories published under the name Richard Stark before The Hunter came out, this is an acidic little farce with a twist ending–Westlake wrote a lot of them, and so did everybody else writing for the mystery magazines, but only Stanley Ellin ever got them 100% right, in my opinion.  It’s about a man who plots to murder his selfish grasping consumerist wife Janice, so he can marry his loving decent frugal secretary (who knows about the impending murder, so how decent can she be, really?), but is sabotaged in the event by a succession of door-to-door salesmen, girl scouts armed to their rotting teeth with cookies, phone solicitors, and nosy neighbors, making it impossible for him to conceal the fact that he was present when the murder was committed.

Basically, he never knew what the suburban neighborhood he lives in is like, because he was never home during the week.  He belatedly realizes that his wife turned into the shallow shopaholic she was because it was the only way to mentally survive these hellish surroundings, and with this insight achieved, he awaits the arrival of the police with existential resignation.  It has a nice little satiric point to make, and does so efficiently, but the point of a story like this is never to make you give a damn about any of the people in it.

guilty_mag_jun_60_3

You Put On Some Weight:  My personal favorite (and a really important story for Westlake), this was published in 1960 under the title Fresh Out Of Prison in Guilty Detective Story Magazine (which, true to its name, went to the chair after 35 issues) and contains the seeds of both Parker and Dortmunder.

Charles Lambaski (alias Charlie Lane, alias Chuck Lewis, alias Jack Kent, but just call him Charlie) has just gotten out of the joint after serving four and a half years for armed assault.  He used to work with the local rackets, but as he looks up old cronies, he finds most of them have gone straight, or to jail, or the cemetery.  Sure, there’s still crooks around, but they’re not his crowd.  His peer group has evaporated, and he realizes he’s alone, bereft of purpose.

He has absolutely no desire to reform, no regrets concerning his past career choices, and is thinking about how to get back to his life of crime when two clueless young hoods show up at his apartment window, looking to rob the place.  These hapless hooligans have no idea how to do the job, and he realizes, with a glow of renewed purpose, that he can teach them to be better burglars, and they’re delighted to follow his lead.  Which is all very heartwarming, except maybe they’ll be breaking into your apartment next time.

Thing is, he’s going to show them how to make sure nobody’s home–the way they were going about it, they’d end up surprising some old dame, and then hitting her over the head with something heavy to shut her up, and that’s bad for everyone concerned.  This way, nobody gets hurt (just robbed).  Whatever you’re going to do in life, you should be professional about it.  And is there even the suggestion here that it’s a bad thing when the authorities are too efficient in rounding up the experienced crooks?  Who’s going to teach the up and coming crooks, make sure they know the rules?  Young people need role models!

There’s a touch of Stark-ian spareness about this one, as well as a soupcon of Dortmunder-esque good humor, and we’ve already discussed how Parker feels a need to pass on his skills.  The burglary aspect is more Dortmunder, of course–these guys aren’t going after banks and payrolls.  But this really is where it all started–this is the genesis of our two favorite felons.  Their common ancestor in a criminal family tree.  Worth the price of a copy all by itself.

Sniff: From 1967–Albert White, clerk to a truly rotten old attorney, has concocted an elaborate scheme for blackmailing his corrupt employer, which involves sending damning evidence back and forth through the mail–the idea is that if anything happens to him, the incriminating envelope will go to an investigative reporter.

But having put this blackmail machine into motion, he can’t summon the nerve to actually tell his boss about it.  It’s just not who he is–it’s who he’d like to be.  He’s created a false self-image.  And he’s deluding himself into thinking he will someday spring his trap by keeping up the pretense of sending the evidence back and forth, forth and back.  It gives him a sense of impending empowerment.

Albert catches a bad cold one day, and hard as he tries, he can’t get to the post office to pick up the evidence, or persuade an enthusiastic young postal clerk to hold onto it, contrary to his strict instructions.  The reporter gets the scoop, his employer has to flee the country, but he knows who fingered him, and he threatens dire and bloody vengeance.  And Albert, out of a job, and out of illusions, has nothing to do but await his impending denouement.  In Monequois, no less.

Good Night, Good Night:  This feels like it should have been an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and wouldn’t you know, it was published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, in 1960.  A vulgar narcissistic TV variety show host–some sociopathic hybrid of Milton Berle and Bill O’Reilly (I know he never had a variety show, and he was 11 years old when this came out, but the resemblance is startling)–lies dying in his dressing room, shot by an unseen assailant, and as his time runs out, along with his life’s blood, he tries to figure out whodunnit, while his own pre-taped show, full of suspects, airs on the set in front of him.

He’s got so many enemies–basically to know him is to hate him–that he has to run down a long list of people he’s horribly wronged, looking for clues, and by the time he’s solved the mystery, The Great Mystery itself is upon him.  So a detective story where the protagonist literally solves his own murder, but has nobody to share his revelations with, and you can’t really root for him–but you can’t quite separate yourself from him either.

There’s no final moment of insight–that he brought this on himself.  This type of personality is incapable of that kind of understanding.   So he dies as pointlessly as he lived.  And the murderer presumably gets away with it.  Beautifully written, with an ending that oddly recalls the final moments of Oscar Hijuelos’ The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, though I doubt Hijuelos ever read it, and the emotions invoked are entirely different.  I guess lots of people die watching television, though not usually their own shows.

Devilishly: From 1966–William Piedmont III, born into old money, fell hard for a remarkable girl named Doris, but she was also remarkably poor, with disreputable origins, so his family disowned him.  Clever and amiable, but as he himself admits, utterly derivative in his ideas (whereas Doris is a true original), William and his beloved enter into a life of crime–mainly short cons, burglary, etc.  No heavy stuff.  Now he wants to rob his own family, for profit and revenge.   So he and Doris go to a costume ball at the old manse.

He disguises himself as a devil–along with seven others at the party–Doris has a much more original costume–a form-fitting black suit and a mirror–she’s come as ‘everybody else’.  The robbery goes off as planned, after a few close calls, but after Doris wins the grand prize for most original costume, William, unfortunately, is picked for the least (along with all the other devils), and is exposed, and incarcerated, while Doris makes her getaway.

But he does not despair–he knows his beloved will find an original way to get him out of jail.  Westlake always has a soft spot for this kind of love story–somehow, you wish he’d found a longer tale to spin for this intriguing pair of knaves.  Great banter between them, but not much of a story here

Oh wait–is this where Smoke came from?   That literally just occurred to me.  At one point, black-clad Doris becomes ‘invisible’ by covering the mirror on her face with her hands.   Maybe just the idea of two lovers who are on the bend and on the run–add genuine invisibility, make both of them working class, add a whole lot of story, and shake well.

Murder in Outer Space: Originally called The Risk Profession–from 1961.  The only science fiction story in this bunch, but also a murder mystery.  It’s interesting that he liked it well enough to include it–this well after he’d publicly renounced the genre (though he never did stop writing SF entirely).  Me myself, I never thought much of it.  It’s all ideas, no characters.  The protagonist is a clever enough fellow, a company man with an independent streak.  He’s a futuristic insurance claims adjuster, investigating the suspicious death of an asteroid miner.   He cracks the case, and ends up profiting mightily by it, and I’d rather just move on to the next story, if you don’t mind.   Maybe I’ll revisit it when I get to Westlake’s SF anthology.   And maybe not.

No Story: From 1968, originally published in–um?   Not mentioned in his bibliography.  Did this get published anywhere before this book?  It’s a purely stylistic exercise–as the title indicates, it is not a story so much as an extended practical joke–it’s a dark and stormy night–the gentleman at the club are enjoying a spot of brandy–an retired British officer begins a story–that leads into another story–that leads into another story–and etc.  And somehow none of the stories are ever told.  Like Passage to Marseilles, but shorter, and more fun.  And rather forgettable, but Westlake would do much better with a longer and more specific ‘literary’ parody, in just a few year’s time.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery: From 1966, and again first published in Hitchcock’s–perhaps a whiff of science fiction here.  A man named Albert and his wife Janice, once a sweet loving girl but now a ‘harridan with the soul of a Borgia’ (man, Westlake really did not like that name), live in a vast soulless highrise apartment building (didn’t J.G. Ballard write something like this?), and the relationship has, shall we say, deteriorated.

Like the protagonist of our first story, he’s got his eye on a more sympathetic mate, and needs to eliminate the current missus. Lord only knows how many variations on spousal homicide have been penned in this genre, read avidly by both husbands and wives, and no doubt there are gay variants as well by this time.  Anyway, Albert recently won the sweepstakes, and if he divorces Janice, she’ll get the money.

Albert has a Rear Window moment (well, remember whose magazine this is), seeing a man push his wife to her death across the way, and he decides not to tell the police–he’s going to plagiarize his neighbor’s murder.   He does so–and then realizes yet another harried husband has seen him do it–and is likewise inspired.   It’s going viral.   Well-written, and very much in the style for this particular venue, but I don’t much care for it.  And wasn’t Westlake’s first marriage breaking up right around this time?  One imagines the first Mrs. Westlake edging away from open windows for a while.

Just One Of Those Days: From 1966, and first published in This Week, a magazine ‘supplement’, that was syndicated all over the country–it would be inserted into Sunday newspapers–so a whole lot of people read this one.  And this is another venue for short stories that went the way of all things, since it folded (in the bad sense of the word) less than three years later.

It’s a heist gone wrong story–two guys named Harry and Ralph are robbing a bank–Ralph is the planner, and the first person narrator, and he’s just disgusted.  They have this job worked out to perfection, but then Harry says the bank’s closed–on Tuesday.  Ralph wants to know why such a stupid thing would happen, and Harry tells him–it’s Kenny Griffin Day.

“I give up,” I said.  “What’s a Kenny Griffin?”

“Astronaut,” he said.  He opened his shirt collar and tossed himself onto the bed.  “Comes from this burg,” he said.  “It’s his Homecoming Day.  They’re having a big parade for him.”

“By the bank?” I asked.

“What difference?”  He moved his automatic out from under his hip, adjusted his pillow, and shut his eyes.  “The bank’s closed anyway,” he said.

I cocked my head, and from far away I heard band music.  “Well, if that isn’t nice,” I said.

“They’re gonna give him the key to the city,” Harry said.

“That is real nice,” I said.

“Speeches, and little kids giving him flowers.”

“That’s so nice I can’t stand it,” I said.

“He was in orbit,” Harry said.

“He should have stayed in orbit,” I said.

“So we’ll do it tomorrow,” said Harry.

“I know,” I said.  “But it’s just irritating.”

So they pull the job a day later, and they’re making their getaway–the whole key to the caper is that they get to the airport and catch a flight out before the cops get wise–but they can’t find the exit–they just keep going around and around on this beltway, and finally the cops get wise.  And when a handcuffed Ralph asks a cop why the exit for Airport Road wasn’t clearly marked anymore, like it was when he cased out the escape route, he finds out they just renamed it Griffin Road.  Isn’t that nice?

And more than a little reminiscent of Dortmunder, yeah.   Westlake started working on the Parker novel that eventually became The Hot Rock (after first becoming The Black Ice Score) not long after this came out.   But Ralph and Harry are basically the same character–no foil, no Stan to Ralph’s Ollie–just a bit of bad luck, accepted philosophically.  Still–it’s nice.  And acceptable to a mainstream middle American audience (can’t get more mainstream than a Sunday supplement), because you like the crooks, identify with their long-suffering professionalism, but you don’t feel like they’d croak you and your whole family just to make their escape.

Never Shake A Family Tree: Ah, this one is the goods!   Again from Hitchcock’s, again from 1961.  An elderly widow with a passion for genealogy meets an elderly widower with the same interest–and turns out two distant relatives of theirs were married–and her forebear died of an unknown stomach ailment–and so did a lot of other men who married this female ancestor of her charming (and somewhat younger) new beau. And so did a lot of women who married him in the past few decades. A pattern begins to emerge.

And the twist to follow the twist–she decides this is too good to pass up–how long can a person live anyway? He’s the perfect companion for her golden years. She’ll marry him, and then deny him every possible avenue for discreet murder. He can’t leave her, and if he gets her someday, she’s made sure he’ll burn for it.But there’s no ill will on her part–she’s never had so much fun in her life. A truly original ending to a genuinely clever story. But again, no emotional involvement–that’s not what the form calls for.

Just The Lady We’re Looking For:   Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, 1964.  For some reason, door-to-door salesmen show up constantly in Westlake’s work–either thieves taking a break from thievery and hating the work intensely, or else grifters happily working short cons.   Or actual foot-in-the-door salesmen, being annoyingly persistent, as in the first story here.

So did Westlake have to put in some time as a salesman to make ends meet, or did he just have a lot of them showing up at the door when he was trying to write?   He was working at home, so unlike the unfortunate protagonist of the first story, he knows damned well how many pesky salesmen there are out there, and probably a fair few were on the grift.

Anyway, this isn’t much of a story.   A con man posing as a salesman thinks he’s found a pigeon ripe for the plucking in a timid housewife, not realizing she’s wise to his game from the start, because she isn’t what she appears to be.  Be fine as a minor vignette in a longer work, doesn’t really stand on its own.

I do have to question the inclusion of some of these pieces–what were the criteria being applied?   Many years later, a second anthology came out (A Good Story and Other Stories), and more than half of those had already appeared in this one we’re looking at now, making it a dubious buy for collectors–particularly since the ones that had already appeared were the best in that bunch.  Were some of his stories harder to get the re-publication rights for than others?   Bit late to ask now.

Domestic Intrigue: From 1966, published in The Saint Mystery Magazine, which went to heaven the year after (if more of these magazines had survived, would Westlake have produced more short stories?  And perhaps fewer novels?).   Written in the first person, from the perspective of an adulterous wife, who married for money, and has been seeing the man she really loves on the side.  A blackmailer appears, threatening to expose her to her brutish husband.  All men are beasts, you see–except for her devoted lover.

She sets a trap for the blackmailer–arranges to meet him at a motel, and for her husband to catch them en flagrante.  But she realizes two things a bit two late–first, that the blackmailer is in cahoots with her lover, who feels life as a kept man isn’t as financially rewarding as it should be.  And second, that her husband, finding her with another man, would be moved to shoot her, not him.  So as she desperately runs for her life, she realizes all men really are bea….

All Men Are Bea was the title of a 1968 story in Argosy, and I’d assume it’s the same one?  I find these nasty little tales of spousal murder a bit unworthy of Westlake, but again, that was the market he was writing to.   Murder in general he wrote about quite a bit–murderers getting away with it he wrote about more often than most–but not one of his novels is specifically about the protagonist deliberately dispatching his or her life partner, or being dispatched by same.   Still, I think he had some fun with this specific form–good enough for a very short story.

One Man On a Desert Island: From 1960, first published in Hitchcock’s.  Maybe the best and most haunting short story Westlake ever wrote.  And therefore, naturally, the best identity puzzle of the bunch.  A man grows bored with his empty humdrum existence, and wants to go adventuring on the high seas in his small boat.  The authorities try to stop him, but he’s determined, and of course completely unprepared, and he ends up shipwrecked on a small island.

As he gradually goes mad from isolation, a beautiful woman–literally the girl of  his dreams–appears to him.  She is everything he’d ever wished for, and they fall deeply in love–and then she starts to bug him.  She turns from dream lover to nagging mother, and he begins to hate her.  So he drowns her.  Too late, he is struck with deep remorse and bitter regret. She was the best part of him.

Rescuers arrive, and he tells them what he did.  There’s no body (there was no woman), but they see no reason to doubt his story.  You’d think habeas corpus would apply here, but I checked–you don’t necessarily need to produce the body. He is turned over to the proper authorities, and is eventually tried and executed for murdering a figment of his imagination.   He goes to his death feeling that he fully deserves his fate; relieved to be punished for his terrible crime.

The real kicker–the guy is an aspiring writer.  And what bugged him most about his fantasy woman was that she kept pushing him to write more.

Worth noting that in 1959, when this was presumably written, the Twilight Zone episode The Lonely aired, which bears a certain familial resemblance.   Rod Serling, that famed native of Binghamton New York, penned that script.   Westlake was a bit dismissive of The Twilight Zone at times (he called it ‘bad fantasy for television’), but he certainly watched it, and it’s not hard to believe he’d have used that story as a jumping off point.   Or that a similar idea came to him independently.   But I’d guess it was the former.  And much as I admire Serling at his best, Westlake’s story is better.

The Sweetest Man In The World: 1967, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  Another guileful older woman embroiled in a murder plot, but it’s not what you think, and neither is she.   It must have gotten wearying turning out twist ending after twist ending for these magazines, but a pretty clever job of defeating reader expectations, all the same.   But when you think about it a minute, you don’t really believe it.  Insurance claims investigators aren’t that gullible.   Still, in a world where Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire were both hit films, I guess we can’t be too skeptical.

Which finally, brings us to–

The Mother of Invention Is Worth a Pound of Cure: Published in something called Dapper, in 1966.  No, I never heard of it either (seriously, I hadn’t), but it seems to have been a sort of minor league Playboy–definitely racier than Esquire.  There’s a men’s magazine out of Dallas going by that name now, but I don’t think it’s the same one.  Here’s a cover from 1966, the image of which I filched from ebay–

$_12

I think we all get the idea.  And this is, based on a few minute’s research, a fairly modest cover for Dapper.

And strangely, I think this is the best of the four spousal murder stories in this collection (I don’t count Never Shake a Family Tree), though no spouses actually die during it.  The premise is implausible, but arresting–a beautiful but dangerous woman and her latest boy toy are having a post-coital conversation, and she shows him a letter she’s written, confessing to the murder of her husband–who is still alive, but she’d rather it were otherwise.  She says that if he were to die, the aforementioned boy toy (the narrator of the piece) could blackmail his way to a comfortable retirement–and enjoy her considerable charms in the process.   Or he could refuse–and she’d murder him.  Carrot and stick.  How can he refuse?

He thinks about it, and the story ends with an interesting reveal–all this time he’s been telling this story, he’s actually been talking to the husband himself–and holding a gun on him–but only for self-defense, to give him time to explain the situation.  A cad he is, our narrator, but no killer.   He knows his limitations.  He has no illusions about his identity, unlike the dithering Albert White.

And having told the seemingly dumbstruck husband what’s going on, and provided the undeniable proof of the murder confession itself (which he points out could be read as a suicide note) he figures one way or another, his problem is solved–whichever one succeeds in eliminating the other, he’ll be off the hook.  And on his merry way.   Poor, but free.

That is a Westlake protagonist.  Some of the others, anybody could have written just as well.   But the best of these stories show him transcending the formulaic limitations of the genre he’s working in, and the markets he’s writing them for.  As he did in his novels, but it must be said, he never managed to do it as well in the short form.  Like Cole Porter, Donald Westlake seems to always be saying Don’t Fence Me In.   He needs the structure of genre–the constraints of established conventions–gives him ideas to work from, an audience to aim for–but he needs to make fun of it, even while he’s celebrating it.  It’s just who he is.

And he was more free to be that when he was writing novels.  And hopefully none the poorer, though I bet he missed having some of those magazines to write for.   A writer can have a lot of ideas that don’t quite rate a novel–pity to waste them.  But with only so many hours in the day, I think it’s just as well for us Westlake readers that his short story production dropped way off in the 1970’s–which were his best single decade as a writer.

Yes, the 1960’s were his most prolific period, his most seminal, his most creative–the decade in which he became Stark, and Coe, and the master of the comic caper (though he didn’t really achieve mastery in that area until the very end of that decade).  But the 70’s were where he achieved his fullest potential–one amazing book after another, and no two of them alike.  I expect to review them all next year, and it’s going to be a challenge–but imagine writing them all.   In ten years.  While dealing with an increasingly complex personal life.   That we know almost nothing about, but we know enough to know it was pretty damn complex.  The 70’s were the beginning of his mature period, and the end of his youth.

But I reiterate, whatever his limitations as a short story writer, he learned a lot from writing them–and who’s to say if he hadn’t come along sooner, before the market began to fade, he might not have mastered that form as fully as he mastered the novel?  I just compared him to Wodehouse in my last review, and Wodehouse wrote novels and short stories equally well.  One of the few who could say that, though.  Different skill sets.

I may post one or twice more before the year is out, depending on how hectic the holiday schedule gets.  Next up is The Sour Lemon Score, which fairly brims over with the Christmas spirit, doesn’t it now? (Then again, there is a sort of miracle in it.)

If I don’t post again before 2015, thanks to all of you, all over the world (66 flags and counting!), for coming by, and putting up with my lengthy spoiler-laden ruminations.   The best really is yet to come.

PS: I don’t know how it happened, but this became a book-on-tape–the stories read by none other than Arte Johnson, best remembered for Laugh-In.

curious_facts_preceding_3

To coin a phrase….

2 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake short stories

Review: Who Stole Sassi Manoon?

who_stole_sassi_2_frontwho_stole_sassi_1hl-wode2

Donald E. Westlake: It’s difficult to be truly whimsical without being arch.  I can’t do it.

Moderator: And P.G. Wodehouse?

Donald E. Westlake: He couldn’t do it, either.  That’s a minority opinion, of course.

The older the guest the closer to the front door he was likely to stay.  The main living room, off the entrance, was full of the cigar smokers, the businessmen, the money boys; words like probate and percentage thudded off the white walls and buried themselves in the purple carpet.  Some wives were there, too; fat-armed women expensively but uselessly dressed, sitting in a cluster like a display of joke dolls in a novelty shop, talking to one another about the quality of service in this hotel, that hotel, all over the uncivilized world.  Amid them sat Miss Rushby, blending with the group like a submarine in a school of whales.

Deeper in the house, in what was called the library because it was full of books bought en masse at an auction, where[sic] the pipe smokers, the intellectuals, the established writers and directors, and here and there a creative producer, telling each other how crappy their agents were.  The wives here tended toward straight hair and plain talk; some of them hadn’t seen each other since the last march on Washington.  In a corner, Major ffork-Linton was involved with five others in a game of liar’s poker, and seemed to be so far the only winner.

Beyond the library, in what was called the solarium because it leaned heavily to windows and plants, were clustered the cigarette smokers, the pros, the actors and singers and comedians and personalities and celebrities, telling each other what great book jackets they’d read recently.  Here the wives looked like audition day at the Copa–leggy, expensive, blank-faced.  Benny Bernard, trying to do himself a little good, was looking around for a conversation to join.

Out by the pool were the pot smokers, the young hippies, the twenty to twenty-five crowd, the new breed–TV series regulars, rock group members, actors who were feeling guilty about copping out on La Mama because they were too young to have copped out on Circle in the Square and too old to have copped out on Yale.  Nobody was married out here, or at least not very married, and everybody had already slept with everybody else, so there was nothing to do but dance around the pool and talk to one another–shouting over the music–about analysis.

Scattered through all the rooms, like the yeast in an upside-down cake, were the critics, the magazine writers, the freelance journalists and the book compiling aficionados who fill the chinks and crannies of every film festival worthy of the name.  They were the only guests talking about movies, and they were doing so passionately, knowledgeably, and interminably.

So I’m 469 words into a review without having written a word myself.   And honestly, I don’t know what there is to say–this is, in my opinion, the worst novel Westlake ever wrote.  And yet gaze upon that lengthy scene-setting passage I quoted above–magnificent, isn’t it?  Did anybody ever sum up a showbiz party any better?   That’s Who Stole Sassi Manoon? in a nutshell–a scattered assortment of precious gems in a setting of pure brass.  And somewhat corroded brass at that.   How did that happen?

Westlake was developing a relationship with Hollywood–stands to reason, since it was buying up the film rights to his books on a regular basis.  He obviously put out feelers via his agent to see if anybody wanted him to write an original screenplay, and Palomar Pictures hired him to do just that.  The story he wrote was a comic take on a movie star’s kidnapping, which I suppose, in hindsight, might have been a bad idea–who are you going to get to play the star being kidnapped who is famous enough to sell tickets but will still see humor in the premise?

Yeah, Scorsese did it, with Jerry Lewis as the star, and De Niro as the kidnapper, and it was brilliantly creepy (creepily brilliant?), and the critics raved, and it flopped to hell (and I’ll be talking about that film again, with regards to another Westlake novel).   Anyway, for whatever reason, Westlake’s screenplay never got made into a movie, but Westlake had kept the publication rights, and as he put it “I novelized the screenplay.”

So this is a book that was originally supposed to be a film, and that may be a big part of what’s wrong with it–though the same thing happened later on (with a movie that did get made), and the result was one of Westlake’s best books.  Turning your own screenplay into a novel is apparently a skill that requires some time to master–Westlake never even tried to master the art of turning his novels into screenplays, and it’s debatable whether anyone ever mastered the art of translating Westlake into other mediums, but we’ve spent enough time on that subject already.

This is, I think, his first novel dedicated to his second wife, Sandra Foley, who he married in 1967, just when he would have been writing it.  “This, like me, is for Sandy.”  In retrospect, perhaps not a good omen for that marriage?

Westlake now has an ex-wife, two sons, and a new wife who will shortly give him two more sons, and he needs Hollywood’s filthy lucre very very badly, and any other form of income supplementation he can muster.   He’d spent a lot of time and effort working on that screenplay, and he wasn’t going to let it go to waste. He’s also got a contract with Random House for a book a year under his own name, and for 1968, this was it.

But in spite of some typically great writing, and some ideas he’d return to repeatedly in future, this doesn’t feel much like a Westlake.   Yes, it involves a crime–and it’s meant to be funny.  It is, in point of fact, his very first comic caper–a subgenre he justly came to be regarded as the supreme master of, but you’d never have guessed it from this.

His previous comic crime novels had not been about heists–his nebbishe ‘nephews’ might be involved with organized crime sometimes, but they weren’t planning elaborate thefts.  Not their department.  This isn’t a nephew book–this, like so many later Westlake novels, is the story of a heist gone ridiculously wrong, only the item being heisted is a person.  Who ends up having the time of her life.  We the readers should be so lucky.

Hard to say what the film would have been like (I’m guessing not a classic; maybe something you’d watch on TCM at 3:00am in the morning because you couldn’t sleep, and it would cure your insomnia), but the novel is a satire of the film industry–and the parts of it that don’t involve dialogue or character development or plot are the best things about it.   It opens with a quote from the dreaded Hays Code, about how “Law, natural or human, should not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation”–well gee, if they followed that to the letter, Westlake would be right out of luck as far as Hollywood was concerned.

Then there’s a fairly ingenious ersatz program for the Montego Bay Film Festival in Jamaica–there do seem to be a fair few film festivals held there in real life (maybe Westlake attended one?), but this one is fictive in nature, and and so are most of the films on its schedule, full of ironic references to the idiosyncrasies of international filmmaking–such as The Boots of the Elk (Russian),  The Beautiful Sewer (Polish), and Abortion, Italian Style (guess)–though the funniest recurring gag relates to a retrospective of films based on the comic strip Blondie, and all those film titles (like Blondie on a Budget, Blondie Goes Latin, and Blondie Meets the Boss) are quite painfully real.   Would you believe they made 26 Blondie films between 1938 and 1950?  All starring Penny Singleton.  Now Debbie Harry I could see.  But I digress.

So that’s the short subject–on to the main feature–and its star, the closest thing this book has to a central protagonist, one Kelly Bram Nicholas IV, the black sheep of a wealthy family–okay, here’s another sticking point.  Technically, Kelly isn’t rich now, but he was born rich, and raised rich, and we know by now what limited sympathy Westlake has for the moneyed classes–since Kelly has been disinherited by his rather appalling family, and is out to make his own fortune now, his creator will cut him a break (and toss him a cute redhead, but we’ll get to her in a minute).

He still does not belong in the first, second, or possibly even the third tier of Westlake protagonists.   I don’t think Westlake even for one second entertained thoughts of making this guy a series character.  But he did invest Kelly with some of his own youthful personality quirks.  Kelly loves science fiction, comic books, all that nerdy stuff; used to collect it, but he’s now cast childish things aside, and has become an inventor–of a computer that plans kidnappings.

He calls it his Selective Timed Abstract Reactional Neutronic Abduction Positioner–Starnap for short.  He keeps it onboard his 40 foot cabin cruiser, the Nothing Ventured IV (he got the money for all this by selling a few inventions and blackmailing his dad).

At times, Starnap seems to be his only true friend–they play an African board game called Kalah quite frequently.  According to Kelly, Starnap is “An adaptation of components from IBM, Burroughs, Control Data, ITT, RCA, and National Cash Register.”  And with all this digital expertise, allowing him to create a computer compact enough to fit on a small boat, yet capable of performing calculations that successfully predict human behavior, he somehow thinks the best way for him to make a fortune of his own is to grab a movie star and hold her for ransom.   Well, it’s the late 60’s–who knew?

Kelly recruits two guys he knows to assist him in this grand endeavor.   His former comic book supplier and fellow nerd, Frank Ashford, who is a talented impressionist–meaning he can do celebrity voices convincingly, not that he paints like Monet.  And Kelly’s former prep school chum Robby Creswel, described as looking like Harry Belafonte’s younger brother–his parents are black professionals, very successful and respectable, but Robby always had a knack for getting into trouble, never did stick to the straight and narrow–I guess he’d be the white sheep of the family.

Robby could have been a much better character with a bit more work–Westlake goes out of his way to tell us about his identity crisis–black, middle class, educated–not really at home anywhere.  He has nothing in common with the black people in Jamaica, even though he was picked partly to blend in with them.  He seems to mainly hang out with white guys his own age, but we’re told that he feels more comfortable in a gathering if there are other black people around.

Musing sourly on the racism of two characters to whom racism is such a given they never give it a moment’s thought, he thinks to himself–

They still lived in another age, where all the people around them were white, and if a black skin did show up, it was a uniform for a servant.  It confused them to have the servant sit down like anybody else.  Robby thought sometimes he should feel compassion for people like that, locked into unreality, but he couldn’t quite get that objective.  What he felt was irritation.  They bugged him.

It kind of bugs me we don’t get to see more of Robby, but at least he’s there, and not just as a prop.

It feels different already, doesn’t it?   These are movie characters, somehow, albeit not so very typical.  Frank would be played by some rising comic with a talent for doing voices.  Robby–well, the kidnappers are in their early 20’s, and the real Harry Belafonte was in his 40’s, but were they even going to make him black in the movie?  A movie about a white woman getting kidnapped?  I suspect Westlake did that on his own, after the movie project fizzled.

I don’t really know who would have played Kelly, based on his description–tall, dark, gangly, intense, bespectacled–a young Jim Hutton?  The actual Jim Hutton was probably a bit too old as well, but I don’t know who else could have pulled it off back then.  And I note with some bemusement that he was born in Binghamton New York (a town Westlake knew very well), not quite a year after Westlake was born in Brooklyn.

The identity conflicts that typically dominate a Westlake novel are so much on the down low here, Robby’s race issues aside, that you can barely make them out.  Because Westlake can’t quite figure out how to sandwich them into this piece of work-for-hire (to put it politely) that he’ d churned out for a movie studio.  Did he get behind on his obligations to Random House because he’d been working on this thing, and had no choice but to quickly repurpose it when the movie didn’t pan out?

It’s not just that it started as a movie, though–Westlake is trying something quite different this time.  This is his first comic novel written from the perspective of multiple characters, in the third person.   Sometimes the narrator is gazing down omnisciently, commenting sardonically on the setting–sometimes he’s inside the head of this or that character, seeing things through his or her eyes–never sticking with any of them for very long.

All Westlake’s previous comic novels were written in the first person from one character’s perspective, and have a certain confessional feeling to them–with the exception of The Busy Body, which is in the third person, but entirely from the protagonist’s POV–a bit more hard-boiled, but still extremely focused on one person.   This new approach he’s trying here will increasingly be the standard approach for his comic novels, but he’s new at it, and the thing about letting each of your main characters be the center of attention is that you need a lot of good characters.   He doesn’t really have any here.   It’s a problem.

Who else writes like this?  Well, P.G. Wodehouse.  That’s why I have that caricature of him up top.  Wodehouse wrote quite often about comic kidnappings–quite often the abductee is a pig (good old Blandings Castle), but in two of his early books The Little Nugget and Piccadilly Jim, it’s a rich kid.    Wodehouse is, of course, the ultimate master of this type of writing–got it down to a science.   Here’s his opening for Piccadilly Jim–set in America, I should mention (Plum loved America and its citizenry, for all our many flaws–and we loved him back, for all of his).

The residence of Mr. Peter Pett, the well-known financier, on Riverside Drive is one of the leading eyesores of that breezy and expensive boulevard. As you pass by in your limousine, or while enjoying ten cents worth of fresh air on top of a green omnibus, it jumps out and bites at you. Architects, confronted with it, reel and throw up their hands defensively, and even the lay observer has a sense of shock. The place resembles in almost equal proportions a cathedral, a suburban villa, a hotel and a Chinese pagoda. Many of its windows are of stained glass, and above the porch stand two terra-cotta lions, considerably more repulsive even than the complacent animals which guard New York’s Public Library. It is a house which is impossible to overlook: and it was probably for this reason that Mrs. Pett insisted on her husband buying it, for she was a woman who liked to be noticed.

Compare this to the description Westlake wrote about the party, and you see he was studying The Master very closely–and finding out for himself how easy Wodehouse is to read, and how very difficult to emulate.  He never liked to talk much about his debt to Wodehouse, but it’s unmistakable.  Remember, Westlake worked for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency–which basically got its start representing Wodehouse.   Remember something else–Wodehouse worked extensively in Hollywood, as well as on Broadway and Tin Pan Alley (his contribution to popular culture simply has no parallel, anywhere), and his books were constantly getting adapted into films–Piccadilly Jim alone has been made into three.

That little comment I put up there, from a mock-interview of Westlake and several of his pseudonyms (written entirely by Westlake himself) that you can find in The Getaway Car, is Westlake indirectly admitting that debt.   But for Westlake, of course, the problem was not how to write like P.G. Wodehouse–it was how to write as well as P.G. Wodehouse, while still remaining Donald E. Westlake.

It’s fine for Wodehouse to be all whimsical and arch–that’s what he’s there for.  But Westlake wants to be a bit more–for want of a better word–rugged.  Wodehouse often wrote humorous fiction dealing with crime, but Westlake is writing crime fiction with a sense of humor, and he needs his own voice for that.  He isn’t all the way there yet.

One of my favorite non-series Wodehouse novels is Laughing Gas, set in Hollywood in the 1920’s–it has the premise that while under dental anesthesia, the protagonist and a bored American child star who just wants to have fun like a normal kid, switch bodies–yeah, you’ve heard this one before, haven’t you?   But nobody had ever heard it before Wodehouse.  Hollywood owes his estate like a trillion dollars, but never mind that now.

Sassi Manoon, the titular character (who really has almost nothing to do in this book at all), is an adult female version of the bored child star.  It’s the same idea–movie stars don’t really want to be movie stars.  It just got foisted upon them.  Now, that works if you’re talking about a child star, because c’mon–nobody asks for that.  That’s what stage mothers are for.   But just as certainly, nobody ever becomes a major film star as an adult without wanting it very badly, working, scheming, conniving, shouldering her way past other aspiring starlets.  How did someone as apparently bereft of ambition as Sassi ever get to the top of the pile?

And not only is Ms. Manoon a major film star, she’s supposedly ‘top box office in the world’, and it’s the late 1960’s–there was a time when nearly all the biggest stars were women, but by the late 60’s, those days are coming to an end–unless you could sing like Julie Andrews or Barbra Streisand, you were unlikely to be anywhere near the top of the box office charts–the exception, in 1967, was Elizabeth Taylor, who had, of course, started out as a child star.  And who Westlake had written a very sympathetic biography of, years earlier, published under a pseudonym–I’ll review that sometime.

Sassi develops a nice friendship with Frank, who amuses her with his impressions, though her first reaction isn’t so favorable–

“How come you sound like Michael Caine?”

His smile turned more boyish and his voice turned James Stewart.  “Well gosh, ma’am, I couldn’t, I couldn’t just say.”

“Oh, my God,” cried Sassi, “it does imitations.  There is a fate worse than death!”

So she’s a very nice person, not the tiniest bit stuck-up or neurotic, good sense of humor, and she’s got two beautiful Afghan hounds named Kama and Sutra, and is of course beautiful herself, and blonde, and there’s really nothing at all wrong with her, and all she wants is to live like a regular person and do her job, and still have a normal life.  And I could imagine any number of movie stars identifying with that notion of themselves, and maybe that would have been the hook to lure one of them in to play her.  If the movie had ever been made.

But I don’t buy any of it.  She didn’t start out as a child star–she left a sailor husband, before heading for Hollywood–she worked damn hard to get where she is, and the only person stopping her from walking away is herself (I mean, Grace Freakin’ Kelly walked away at the peak of her fame, though hardly to lead a normal life).  Westlake will revisit this general scenario, jilted sailor husband and all, in a later work, and it will be a much darker portrait of celebrity.   Followed still later by one of the darkest portraits of celebrity anybody ever wrote.   Plus there was this series of detective novels–oh well, it’ll keep.

I don’t want to synopsize this one to any great extent.  The story is, by Westlake’s standards, pretty damned weak.  They go to Jamaica–they scope out the terrain, following Starnap’s instructions.  They grab Sassi while she’s screening a film entry (she’s there as one of the festival judges), only to learn they’ve actually grabbed Miss Rushby, companion to Major ffork-Linton (Westlake is letting his Wodehousian roots show here), and a fine pair of old school English felons they are, but not enough time to develop them, and they do stick out a bit in this context.

It was the Major who stole Sassi (answering the question posed by the title), and they have to work out a deal, since he’s attached to Miss Rushby (she’s actually his wife and the mother of his son, who they have to ransom from some warlord, and it’s all just so tiresome having to explain it).   They all end up on an island in Part 2 (entitled People, whereas Part 1 was Machines), and of course there’s romance and revelations, and misunderstandings, and schemes and counter-schemes, and it sounds so much more interesting than it actually is.

And then there’s Jigger Jackson.   Yes, Jigger.  That’s a girl’s name.  No, I have no idea, maybe she’s from the south?   Redheaded, spunky, a whole lot sassier (and sexier) than Sassi, and trying her darndest to become a movie star.  She has this idea maybe Ms. Manoon will want to help her, and through a series of events I don’t feel motivated to describe, she ends up getting abducted as well.

For some reason, she’s attracted to Kelly–she’s got a weakness for schnooks, which is certainly convenient.   But she’s determined to resist her feelings, because she has a destiny to fulfill–Miss Rushby puts her up to stealing the boat starter key from Kelly–then she and Kelly have what I must admit is a pretty touching love scene–also funny.  And so very Wodehouse, I can’t even begin to tell you…..but with a Westlake-ian lilt to it.

He glared at her with brooding eyes.  “I mean that society has made no place for me,” he said through clenched teeth.  “So I have to carve my own place in this world, no matter who gets in my way.”

She blinked.  She hadn’t expected anything like this from Kelly.  All she’d ever seen from him so far was petulant schnookdom.  This was the other side of the coin and she was finding it a contradictory but compelling combination: a schnook with fire.

“I understand, Kelly,” she said.  “I know just what you mean.”

He looked surprised.  “You do?”

“Yes, I do,” she said fiercely.  “You have to fight for what you want in this life.”

“That’s right!  You do know, don’t you?”  He swigged from his drink, thumped the glass down on the table.

“Of course I know!” she told him.  “You don’t get anything in this life you don’t fight for.”

“That’s for sure.”  He grinned at her in savage companionship.  “And you know what the only weapon is?”

“She did. “Money!” she cried.

“That’s right!” His fists were clenched, his face was flushed.  “Money is power!”

“That’s right, Kelly, you’re right!”  She was caught up in it completely now, she was clutching at his arm, she’d never felt so totally understood by another human being in her entire life.  She’d forgotten all about her belief that Kelly was a schnook, she’d forgotten all about Miss Rushby and the key, she’d forgotten all about Sassi Manoon and the perfect entree into the movies.  There was nothing but Kelly, who understood!   He understood!  “We’ve got to get it any way we can!” she yelled, exultant.

“And then they’ll leave us alone!” Kelly roared.  He was gripping her arm, his hands like steel.

“To  live our own lives!” she yelled in his face, laughing at the wonder of it, the beauty of it, this meeting of star-crossed atoms.

“Yes!”

“Yes!”

“JIGGER!”

“KELLY!”

They flung themselves into a wild embrace, and only much later did they start to be gentle.

Cast Emma Stone as Jigger, and some guy who doesn’t make me sick to my stomach as Kelly, and I’d pay for a ticket.   Well, maybe I’d just wait for it to pop up on cable.

So can we just cut to the chase here?   They get the ransom money.   The Major and Miss Rushby try to swindle them out of it, with Jigger’s assistance (since Jigger still thinks Sassi can help her, and refuses to process that Sassi is delighted to be taking a vacation from her crazy life), but Jigger is torn between stardom and Kelly–and of course true love prevails.   As it always does in this kind of story.  Only in this case, true love prevailing means the kidnappers get away with the goods, and it’s all arranged in such a way as that you know the authorities will never remotely suspect them.

They only get about 100k per man, so they’re hardly set for life–they just get a bit more time to figure out who they want to be when they grow up. Kelly gets Jigger, and Jigger gets Kelly (kind of think Kelly’s getting the better part of the bargain here).   The Major and Miss Rushby get each other, though they are probably out a son (he sounds like a bit of a ne’er do well, anyway).  Sassi gets to go back to her Afghans.  And Westlake gets another check from Random House, after (one would hope) already getting one from Palomar Pictures.  It’s a living.

He also gets some ideas he can do more with later on.   His next comic caper will leave nothing to be desired.  He’s still a few years away from that, though.  The best writers learn at least as much from their misfires as their successes, and Westlake is already one of the best writers out there.   But even he can’t make a silk purse out of a bad screenplay–and it’s unlikely he deserves all the blame for that, since obviously the story he wrote would have been heavily influenced by the demands of his employers.   He presumably got notes from the suits.  Just so long as they came with bank notes, he wouldn’t complain too much–he’d just get even later on, by using that same story to bite the hand that fed him.   The hand probably never even noticed.

And that’s quite enough about Sassi–one of my shorter reviews–deservedly so (not that the quality of the book is really what determines how longwinded I get, from week to week).

And my next review will be of a collection of short stories–some of them quite good, none of them really prime Westlake, because that simply wasn’t his form.  And as far as publication goes, 1968 was not one of his better years.   In terms of what he was actually writing during 1968, that’s another matter, but we’ll have to wait until 1969 (and 2015) to start seeing that.   Well worth the wait.

PS: In that lengthy quote up top, I added a bracketed [sic] because clearly the word preceding it is supposed to be ‘were’, not ‘where’.   I don’t know if this is Westlake’s error or the publisher’s.  And I don’t really care.   I’m just relieved to have this one out of the way for good and all.

6 Comments

Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Review: The Black Ice Score

black_ice_score_1Bob McGinnis

Young_MandelaThe father of US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is seen in an undated family snapshot

When he was very young, six or seven, Formutesca first learned about the two words which men in his country used when referring to black men.  One was a word that meant monkey, and that referred to the tribesmen outside the cities and the workers on the big estates and the urban poor.  And the other was a word that meant something like civilized and something like evolved, and that referred to the white-collar workers and the professional men, all the Africans who had received training in European skills and who conducted their lives by European standards.  In the way it was used, this second word seemed to imply also a further level of meaning, something slyly contemptible, something like castrated or tamed.  It had seemed to Formutesca, as a very young child hearing those words, that between the two it was better to be a monkey than a eunuch, and ever since then he had watched himself for traces of that wildness and that brash humor that he thought of as being the essence of monkeyness.

Once we have the fuel on board—and then, and then, and then—it’s nice to be able to try different things. Not to get digressive, but to give the story little extras. For instance, in one book I saw I had an opportunity, if I wanted, to tell one section in first person from Parker’s point of view. Since he isn’t someone who tends to want to tell other people anything, particularly anything unnecessary, I wondered if I could do it, what he would sound like, and would it turn out to be one of those false notes. In the event, it was fine. (And no, I can’t right now remember which book.)
Donald Westlake, talking to Ed Gorman

Many would consider this the worst Parker novel ever written (great opening, huh?).   Personally, I’d call it a weaker-than-average effort from Stark, but having just reread it, I must say that I enjoyed it more this time.  Overall, I much prefer it to Flashfire, the first Parker I ever read, and the novel most recently made into a (really bad) movie–that book opens very strong,  but starts to fade once Parker makes it to Florida.   Somehow doesn’t seem natural for him to actually work down there, but we’ll talk about that one in due course.  Suffice it to say that I don’t think there’s any such thing as a bad Parker novel.  There’s great, and there’s less great.  So why is this one a bit less great?

The most common reason I see given is that we see less of Parker in it–he gets pushed to the side by other characters that people find less interesting.   But this doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny.   The Black Ice Score has four parts and thirty-one chapters. Parker is the POV character in 22 of them–we see the story from his perspective most of the time, though Part 3 is made up of nine short chapters, each of which is from the viewpoint of someone else caught up in the same general sequence of events–then Part 4 switches back to Parker and stays with him.

Looking at The Seventh, considered by many the best of the series, the ideal to which other Parker books aspire, we see a basically identical four-part story, with Part 3 showing us what other characters are doing and thinking, before switching back to Parker’s POV in Part 4.   Forget basically, it is identical.   Westlake didn’t experiment much with the structure of these books; he had a winning formula and he knew it.

But the thing about Westlake is that he rather despised formula–‘the ritual’, as he derisively called it.   He didn’t want to write the same book over and over again.  He knew that if he let himself get bored with what he was doing, he’d dry up, burn out, stop being a writer at all.  But he needed the money from the Parker novels, and he was clearly drawn to something about Parker himself, so the challenge for him, personally, was how to stay interested in a character who really doesn’t change or develop that much–at least not on the surface of things.

You may recall that Westlake was bitterly disappointed with The Jugger–which today is considered one of the best books he ever wrote, with or without Parker in it.  I certainly consider it more interesting and powerfully written than this one we’re looking at now.  But to Westlake, it was a puzzle he’d failed to crack–he’d wanted to find a way to motivate Parker to go solve a colleague’s murder, something that didn’t come naturally to the character, and as he saw it, he’d failed.   I disagree–so do many others.  But far as I know, nobody ever changed Westlake’s mind on the subject.

But as the interview comment above indicates (and yes, that clearly refers to The Black Ice Score), he’d similarly tried to get Parker to do something he wouldn’t normally do in that book, and considered that experiment a success–even if he couldn’t remember which book it was in (whereas he never forgot The Jugger).

Writers come at stories from a different perspective than that of readers.   Our interests may overlap, but are rarely identical.   We have differing agendas.   Ideally, we all meet somewhere in the middle, and everyone is satisfied, but in practice, what pleases us more may please the author much less.   One reason why the most popular writers are rarely the most interesting ones–they give the people what they want, and gradually forget what they wanted, if they ever knew. At the other extreme, a writer may be so devoted to his or her personal fulfillment that he or she fails to engage the reader on any level, and we generally use terms like ‘navel-gazing’ to describe that kind of work.   Ideally, we all meet somewhere in the middle.

This is the third of four Parker novels published by Gold Medal Books, and by this point in time, Westlake probably knew that relationship was going to be short-lived, partly because he didn’t get along so well with the people running it at the time, and partly because the market for paperback originals was shrinking.

He also knew, writing this sometime in 1967, that four of his previous Parker novels had been or were then being adapted into films, two French and two American.  Even though none of those films proved notably successful, he probably figured he was getting some new readers–he said more than once that Stark outsold Westlake in the late 60’s/early 70’s.  The movies would have been part of the reason for that.

So knowing he’s got a large and growing audience who have already followed him to a new publisher, and that he’s going to need a new home for Parker soon anyway, he seems to have felt moved to experiment–to play around with the character, find out what his limits are.   Not what many other writers in his situation would have done–which is why most long-running series of books centered around a single protagonist tend to feel awfully repetitive after just a few installments, and almost always end on a sour note.   Can Parker go on surprising both his readers and his creator, book after book after book?

This is the third novel where Parker gets caught up in foreign intrigue, the earlier ones being The Mourner and The Handle.  Neither of those are generally considered to be among the very best Parker novels, but neither has the bad reputation this one does.  If you want to get persnickety about it, even the first novel had a whiff of foreign intrigue about it–Parker and his colleagues are stealing money from Latin American guerillas at an offshore island–that’s the money he’s coming after Mal Resnick and The Outfit to collect. Hardly your average meat & potatoes heist.

It’s generally true that Parker does best when he sticks to the world of good old American crime (which to be sure, always has a foreign aspect to it, because crime respects no national boundaries).  But that in itself doesn’t explain why this book is disliked so much.

One could argue that Westlake is at his best when he’s writing about settings he’s familiar with.  This is the first and only Parker novel to open in New York City–no, The Hunter doesn’t count, that opened on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge.  Most of the action is in Manhattan, which he certainly knew extremely well.  The rest is in Florida and Connecticut.  So no help there.   What is it that’s so different about this book?

Oh right.  There’s a lot of black people in it.   Specifically black people from Africa.

I’ve already mentioned several times that when Westlake began getting fan mail addressed to Richard Stark, most of it was coming from black men, who really liked Parker.  This may well have constituted the majority of the fan mail he was getting for any of his books at some points.  Now, it should be said, Westlake hadn’t really written much about black people in his career up to this point.  They didn’t show up in his short stories, or his ‘sleaze’ novels written under pseudonyms, or to any great extent in his crime novels from 1960 up until the second Mitch Tobin novel, published in 1967, which had several very sympathetic black characters (and one rather disreputable pimp, but that goes with the territory).

He originally used ‘black’, ‘negro’, and ‘colored’ pretty interchangeably, and even sometimes used the term ‘boy’ to refer to adult black males, but he figured out pretty quickly it was time to stop doing that.  He was a very great admirer of Chester Himes, whose Harlem Detective novels were not known for their political correctness–Grave Digger and Coffin Ed might toss the word ‘colored’ around as well (along with a word Westlake would never have dared use in the 1960’s).   ‘Colored’ died slow, even in the black community, so you can’t really fault him there.   What’s in a name, after all?   It’s the emotions behind it that matter.   And those die very slowly indeed, don’t they?

Donald Westlake grew up Irish American in a largely white community in upstate New York.  I doubt very much he had any black friends as a kid.  Impossible to say what attitudes his family passed on to him, but he would have been exposed to racism as a young man–unavoidable, no matter where you lived.  What was his attitude towards race as a young man?  Unknown–but once he moved back to New York, to Greenwich Village, he would have suddenly been moving amidst a very diverse community, many of them professing the most progressive (and downright aggressive) racial views that could be found in America at the time.

And nothing would have affected his attitude towards race more than having become Richard Stark.  Through Stark, he found himself suddenly receiving admiring enthusiastic letters from black men–not intellectuals–working class guys, many his own age, wary of the system–and the cops–as Westlake himself was. How could he not be moved by this?   How could anyone not be?

And who had been responsible for his success as Stark?  Bucklin Moon, who before the McCarthy Witch Hunts brought him down to the level of a mere paperback editor working his way through the slush piles (and finding the occasional gem), had been best known for writing socially conscious (and perhaps a bit self-conscious) novels about the plight of black Americans–and for helping discover Chester Himes.

So all of this is going on, and it has an impact on the way he looks at things.  As does his increasing awareness of what’s going on around the world–including the so-called ‘third world’, which he would write about quite a lot in his career.   With a great deal of sympathy, and a certain measure of quiet alarm.   I think he felt most of his fellow Americans tended to ignore what was happening out there in the less developed regions, until it somehow impacted us directly, at which point we’d be all “gee, how did that happen?”   Gee, you think maybe he had a point there?

Africa was rapidly decolonizing, and a variety of names, like Lumumba, Kenyatta, Mandela, Kaunda, Banda, were getting attention–revolutionaries one day, statesmen the next (Mandela waited the longest, and achieved the most).   But the after-effects of colonialism were never easy to shake off, and the repercussions of dragging people into the modern world without having bothered to properly prepare them for it (because it wasn’t done for their sake) created a legacy that plagues us to this day.  Sometimes with actual plagues.

And of course, Africa-born whites found it hard to accept their days of ruling the majority like feudal lords were over.   They hung on doggedly in South Africa, where they were well-established, but in these smaller emerging nations, they were so outnumbered that the best they could hope for was to remain a privileged minority (and in the main, they have).

Crime fiction dealt with international politics all the time–eastern bloc spies would pop up constantly in Mike Hammer novels (and get bumped off just as easily), Latin America was a common setting, North Africa had that Casablanca feel to it, Chinese port cities were always good for intrigue, but southern Africa was a bit different.   So far away, and so–black.

I’m sure there must have been some (now-forgotten) crime novels that dealt with it in one way or another, and there was a different genre that made a specialty out of African adventurers (Alan Quartermain, Trader Horn, Tarzan), but the race element was something all genres had a hard time with.  Chester Himes was just about the only exception to the rule in crime fiction.  Him and the white dude with the funny name who wrote those Shaft novels.

But Donald Westlake was an exception to pretty nearly every rule.   And Parker often seemed to not even know what the rules were.   Or maybe he just didn’t give a damn.   An unlikely apostle of racial tolerance–in a time and place when racial tensions were boiling over as never before–but in a certain limited sense, that’s the job he’s called on to perform this time.  I think that’s why we don’t like this one so much.  It seems to run against the grain of the character.   Does it?   Let’s see.

Parker and Claire are on a shopping trip in Manhattan (see, you hate it already), in which Claire is doing all the shopping, and Parker just gets impromptu one-woman fashion shows, which he seems to enjoy a great deal, no doubt figuring the sex will be really good afterwards, which is no doubt the case.  He comes back to their hotel room, and finds three strange white men (skin color is relevant in this story) with odd accents tossing it over, while Claire hides out in the bathroom

They talk to him as if he knows why they are there, which he doesn’t.   It’s very reminiscent of The Jugger–everybody figures Parker is on the same page as them, and he’s not even in the same book yet.   They warn him not to get involved, but refuse to tell him in what.  Claire, frightened of them at first, gets a big kick out of that. Just silly men, doing silly men things.  She figures Parker will want to find out what they were on about, but of course–

“What are we going to do?

He looked at her.  “Nothing,” he said.  “If somebody else shows up, I’ll try to find out what’s going on.  If not, we forget it.”

“Can you?  That easily?”

“Why not?”

She spread her hands.  “I don’t know.  Curiosity, something.  Sometimes you don’t seem–”  She shrugged and turned away.

Claire’s on the brink of an insight there, but it’s an unsettling one, so she lets it go.

Then Parker gets a call from another guy, name of Hoskins, who wants to talk more gibberish to Parker about some big score they can make together–they are, after all, white men.  Parker meets him downstairs at the bar.  Hoskins may be English–something about the description, the mannerisms–but he’s been in the States a while, Los Angeles mainly, and seems to be one of those Mid-Atlantic fellows, though he’s no Cary Grant, that’s for sure.   A two-bit con-man and adventurer, in over his head, and refusing to admit it to himself.  Parker has seen his type before.

Claire calls him back to the hotel room, and there’s some kind of African delegation there–four black men in red robes, and they, unlike the others, want to talk to him in plain English, even though it isn’t their native tongue.  Walter Karns of The Outfit referred them to Handy McKay, who rather atypically sent them directly to Parker, without an advance phone call (he did the same thing in The Green Eagle Score, but that was an old associate of theirs, not four strangers).  Claire has taken to them immediately (good manners), and wants Parker to hear them out.  These are no ordinary men, it seems.

Their names are Gonor, Formutesca, Manado, and Balando.  Gonor, the leader, is the oldest–five foot nothing, soft-spoken, and very much a man to be reckoned with.  What they want is for Parker to help them plan a robbery.   They come from a tiny, brand-new, impoverished, and entirely fictional African nation called Dhaba.  Their current President, Colonel Lumbudi, knows he’s about to be forced out of power, and intends to leave in style, with seven hundred thousand dollars he’s converted into diamonds (blood diamonds, you might say), and entrusted to his four brothers-in-law, who are holding it in New York. Dhaba can’t afford that kind of retirement package for its leaders.

These men work for Major Indindu, who is shortly going to be elected the new President–he’s the reform candidate.  They intend to steal that money back, which will mean killing the people holding it.  The three white men are part of the ousted colonial ruling class, who intend to install another military man, General Goma, in Lumbudi’s place, and rule the country through him.  They want the money to buy mercenaries, without which Goma has no chance of succeeding.

Parker isn’t interested in their impromptu history lesson.  All he knows is that these men are amateurs–as evidenced by the fact that they were foolish enough to confide in a man like Hoskins, before realizing he lacked the abilities they were seeking.  And he informs the four of them, to the astonishment of three, that the only way those whites who talked to him earlier could have known Gonor and his people were going to try and hire Parker–who they called by his working name (he’s traveling as ‘Matthew Walker’, in a little nod to Point Blank) would be if there’s a spy in their group passing on intel.   Gonor immediately realizes Parker is right, and says he will make contact again after the traitor has been found and dealt with.

Back in Miami, the same group (now three) show up and resume negotiations.   Parker is, in spite of himself, impressed–they found the traitor very quickly, and dispatched him efficiently.   In their own way, they are professionals.   All they’re asking from him is to plan the robbery, train Formutesca and Manado to carry it out, and he’ll get $25,000–in advance.   Parker likes the calm businesslike way they conduct themselves.  Much preferable to the cheap theatrics of the whites.

The two younger men seem eager to learn, which brings out his teaching instinct, that we’ve seen already in The Green Eagle Score.  There’s something about them he responds favorably towards–they strike a chord in him.   He’s his usual brusque blunt undiplomatic self with them, but–different.  Somehow.  Like a wolf instructing a pride of lions.  Or perhaps a pack of African wild dogs.   They understand each other–not perfectly.   But well enough.

The job seems relatively low-risk–he gets paid a lump sum, simply for being a planner.   He can participate in the robbery if he feels it’s necessary (in which case he will be paid another 25k), but they’d prefer to do it themselves, and he respects that.  Another thing–Claire wants him to do it.  It’s a good cause, you see–Parker tells her he doesn’t do good causes.   It’s about the work.

But she knows the work here appeals to him, and one suspects she has this notion he could transition into some kind of international heisting consultant for emerging nations, and she wouldn’t have to worry so much about him coming back from work (while still having plenty of money to shop with, and less of a guilty conscience while she spends it).   He thinks about it, and then calls them at their (segregated) motel–it’s a go.  And that’s the end of Part 1.

Part 2 is Parker getting to know his new associates, and scoping out the location of the heist, a museum of African artifacts on East 38th St., under Dhaba’s authority, but largely forgotten.   The Kasempas, Lumbudi’s people, are holed up in an apartment on the top floor with the diamonds.   Parker finds a weak spot in their defenses pretty quickly.   They can come in via the roof, through the elevator shaft.   Gonor can get them pretty much any equipment they need to do the job–though he says he couldn’t get anything like a helicopter, and why does that ring a familiar note?

Parker decides it’s best for Claire to move to a new location, and she opts for a small hotel in Boston–she teases him that he doesn’t like the fact that he worries about her.   He has no response for that.   Nothing he feels for her can really be expressed in words, but it’s indisputable that she’s become necessary to him.   Remember in The Outfit, when Fairfax told Bronson he didn’t think Parker was soft anywhere, and Bronson said “everybody is”?   Bronson gets a bit of posthumous vindication here.

Parker finishes his part of the job, collects his pay, says his goodbyes, already anticipating his reunion with Claire–and finds the leader of the Goma faction waiting for him in his hotel.  They’ve got her.  He will find a way to get them the diamonds, or she dies.

Part 3, as already mentioned, is a series of chapters, each from the POV of a different character, starting with Claire herself, who is being held at a farmhouse in Connecticut, and trying to cope with the stress of the situation.  Then we meet Jock Daask, youngest of his group, who is very attracted to Claire, and feels torn between chivalry and lust–he seems to think Claire should be grateful he’s not taking advantage of the situation–that he’s not that sort of man, but then he thinks–

He wasn’t all that sure what sort of man he was, in fact.  His current roles could only be described in negatives–he had kidnapped but was not a kidnapper, he would steal, but was not a thief–and it seemed to him his whole life was expressed only in the same terms of contradiction.  He had been born in Africa, but was not an African.  His parents were Europeans, but he was not a European.  He had done well at the university in England, but he was not an intellectual.  He had been a mercenary soldier in various parts of Africa, but he was not a rootless adventurer.  There was nothing about him, it seemed, that did not include its own negative.

Jock Daask was the son of a wealthy plantation owner in Africa, and he had grown up always knowing that everything and everybody he saw belonged to his father and would one day belong to him.  His friends in his youth were the children of other white landowners, and even then they had all seemed to be aware of their essential dislocation, at once the ruling class and exiles.  Still, it was worth exile to be a member of the ruling class.

This seems less like an identity crisis than an identity vacuum.  Every part of his sense of self relates to something outside himself, up to and including his skin.   It never occurs to him that there’s anything wrong with treating the natives of the country he was raised in like serfs, vassals.   What else are they there for but to give him a sense of importance he could never find on his own?  He doesn’t hate them, because he can barely think of them as human beings.

Donald Westlake’s Irish peasant ancestors knew this type of man very well.   This type of man watched them starve to death, while filling his belly with the food they had grown for him, and spending the rent money he wrung from them, probably in London.   That, I would think, is one reason Westlake writes about Daask and his comrades with such ill-concealed distaste, though not without some measure of pity.   It must be a sad thing to be so soulless a creature.  Pity, but not sympathy–that he reserves for the colonized.   Who he writes about in a way that oddly recalls Chinua Achebe, just then making a name for himself in world literature–did Westlake read Things Fall Apart, with its title borrowed from Yeats, and its volatile mixture of compassion and brutality?

It’s the two younger men, Formutesca and Manado, both of whom studied in America on scholarships, who interest him most.   We see them carry out Parker’s plan to the letter, each worried he won’t be up to the task–which involves cold-blooded murder, albeit of countrymen (and one woman) who were willing to steal from their own people.   They are quick, humorous, reliable in the clutch, and it’s unnerving to see how they both so easily cross that line, slitting the throats of unconscious men, killing a mother (her children mercifully absent) who pleads desperately for her life–we’re in her head for one chapter, just to remind us these are people dying, not stock villains.

This would be another thing, I suppose, that bothers people about this book–Parker isn’t present for the heist.  But how often is the heist ever the main point of any Parker novel?   The same situation, now I think on it, occurs in Flashfire–and Parker doesn’t even plan that one.  He’s just waiting around to see if he can take it from them.  Somebody else is playing that role here.

As Part 3 concludes, Hoskins shows up out of nowhere while the job is still in progress, and kills Gonor, who is waiting outside the museum–Gonor’s mistake of confiding in Hoskins coming back to bite him.  Hoskins hadn’t planned to kill anybody–he doesn’t think of himself as a violent man–he’s a man of brains, of guile.   Cheating at bridge, pulling short cons–that’s more his game.  But some combination of greed and resentment–for the way they’ve all treated him, particularly Parker (who dangled him out a hotel window to try and scare him off) has egged him on into a situation he’s not remotely suited for.

He kills Gonor more or less on impulse (and out of fear)–Gonor is, after all, just a black man (not the phrase Hoskins would use).   Weak, cowardly, given to panic and possessing little more than a sort of low cunning, Hoskins still thinks of himself as belonging to the superior race–like Jock, he takes it on faith that he’s more of a man than any ‘cannibal.’  This is what racism does to identity–corrodes it, degrades it.   If you rely on the past achievements of people whose only connection to you is genetic, the only outward sign of which is the melanin content of your skin, then how will you ever know who you really are, what you can really do?   Never mind if it’s evil or not–it’s deeply impenetrably stupid.   To act as if you are inherently superior is to prove yourself manifestly inferior.   You are you, and that’s all you ever can be.

Parker, unburdened by any such illusions, finishes Hoskins quickly, having arrived on the scene to warn his associates that he’s told the whites a misleading story, and arranged for them to come to the museum after the job is over–he knows they mean to kill him no matter what.  He doesn’t know if he can take all three of them alone, so he needs help–and he has to ask for it.   Which means he has to explain the situation to Major Indindu.   Which he does over the course of an entire chapter–sixteen paragraphs.  That end with the sentence “I want you to help me.”

This may be what bothers readers the most about The Black Ice Score, and it may be the single thing about the book Westlake was most proud of.  He’s pushed Parker so far out of his comfort zone, Parker can’t even see it anymore.   Rescuing the maiden fair, fighting bad guys (he’s supposed to be the bad guy!), and having to ask for assistance–in words–a whole lot of words.  Where’s the cold hard amorality in all of this melodrama?

It’s still there.  Parker needs Claire.  He can’t get her back on his own.  He has to fight the men who have her, because they intend to kill him (and possibly her) after they get what they want.  He can’t be sure of winning that fight, so he needs allies.  Major Indindu–a figure right out of mid-20th century African history; physician, teacher, soldier, statesman–Africa not having reached the era of specialization yet–is confused.  He thinks Parker is demanding help–Parker is just finding out whether or not the Dhabans feel like participating in his scheme.  If they choose not to, he’ll proceed on his own. The Major says he can’t help out himself–he’s too important.  But Formutesca is free to assist Parker if he wishes.

Formutesca, seeing Parker as his teacher and comrade–a role model, in fact–is more than willing to pitch in.  Manado is out of action, having been shot up by Hoskins.   So it’s two against three–pretty good odds, when one of the two is Parker.   They capture two of the whites (what else am I supposed to call them?), but the leader, Marten, makes his escape and heads for the farm house Claire is in.  Jock, terrified out of his wits, his fragile bravado crushed, agrees to take them there.  They set out in Hoskins’ car, not knowing if Claire will still be alive when they get there.

Marten is the most competent member of the Goma faction, but in the process of trying to intimidate Parker, he has become intimidated, and it bothers him.  He’s led a rather violent life himself, and something in him recognizes that by taking Claire, he’s painted a target on his back–if Parker lives, Marten will never sleep easy the rest of his life, no matter where he hides.  He has to lure Parker somewhere he’ll have the advantage, and kill him.

Marten springs his ambush in some remote part of Connecticut called East Lake (which best as I can tell doesn’t exist, though there’s a bunch of East Lake roads there, and Westlake would have his little joke), but he misses Parker and kills the hapless Jock instead.  Formutesca is rendered unconscious, and Parker plays one last cat and mouse game in the dark, before giving Marten both barrels of a loaded shotgun.  Then he and the revived Formutesca head for the farm house, where Parker finds Claire, bound and gagged–asleep.  He touches her cheek to wake her.  End story.

We never find out if Major Indindu wins the election–he’s got to dispose of a few bodies first, and explain what happened to Gonor, who was a UN functionary.  We never learn if Formutesca resolved the class conflict he was struggling with.  We never learn if Manado and the surviving white recover from their wounds (it probably doesn’t matter much in the case of the latter).   As Parker tells Indindu–“I don’t know anything about your politics.   Or anybody’s politics.”   Whatever it meant to these others, all it meant to him was doing his job and getting paid, and living to see another day, with the woman he’s chosen as his companion.  The rest is nothing to him.

And we realize, with a start, that race is nothing to him.  That he really is colorblind.    It would never occur to him to say, ala Stephen Colbert, “I don’t see race.”   Of course he sees skin color.   He just can’t understand the significance the rest of us place upon it.  He happened to be born into the body of a white man, but that’s all it is to him–a vessel.  It isn’t who or what he is, down inside.  He truly is a minority of one.

And we can only envy him for that all-encompassing sense of self–he doesn’t need some arbitrary collective identity.   He’s content to be as he is.  Is that the secret of racial harmony, that has eluded us all these millennia?  To just be happy with ourselves the way we are?   To not need a group to belong to?  A ceremonial mask of human skin to hide behind?  As Parker, the wolf, hides behind his–but never makes the mistake of believing in the masquerade.  That way lies madness.

So I like what’s in this book, and so did Westlake, but it’s not one of the better novels.   He’s trying something new, and he hasn’t quite figured it out yet.   He did some research for this one, and he’s going to be using it in the future–Africa has gotten his attention.  And he’s not finished talking about the race issue here in America, either–there’ll be a whole book about it soon, and it won’t even be in any identifiable genre. Very sui generis, that one, proudly marching under its own banner.

But in the near future, in his own odd niche of crime fiction, he’s going to revisit the specific plot elements of this book–in comic form.   See, the trouble with this book’s approach to the subject matter is that it’s all a bit too proper, too stiff, too aware of itself.   Westlake doesn’t feel free to have fun with it yet.   But suppose instead of a wolf, his protagonist was more like–I dunno–Wile E. Coyote?   And suppose he actually did pull the jewel heist–or a bunch of them?  And suppose the African military man could actually get a helicopter?

Please understand, I’m not saying Westlake himself had no racial hang-ups–he was a human being.  And what’s more, an American.  An Irish Catholic New York American.  Hang-ups galore.  But he’s not content to leave those hang-ups unexplored.  Self-understanding means understanding all of yourself–not just the good stuff.   We tend to forget that, don’t we?   And in forgetting, give our unacknowledged prejudices so much power over us.  Before you can know who your neighbor is, you have to know who you are.   If you have no problems with yourself, you’ll have no problems with anyone else.  Then woe betide anyone who has a problem with you.  And thus endeth the lesson.

And next time, we’ll be looking at what I really think might be Westlake’s worst book ever.  And would you believe it’s his very first comic caper?  I guess we all have to start somewhere.  This one started as a movie.  That never got made.  Just as well.

PS: The covers for this book are mainly pretty bad–one thing they almost all have in common is the absence of black people.  Surprised?  Not at all surprisingly, the best cover was drawn by Robert E. McGinnis, and you can see it up above–next to a photo of a much older Robert E. McGinnis.   Notice anything interesting?  Think about it.  (McGinnis, you dog).

PPS: Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan student (that’s Obama Sr. up top, next to a very young Mandela), was seven years old when this was published.  Me too.  Seven, I mean.

8 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels