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?”
“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.
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.