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.

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8 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

8 responses to “Review: The Black Ice Score

  1. I have re-read the beginning, and I quite liked it. It seems strange because I clearly remember that I disliked this book, exactly because of the ending. In TBIS one feels that Parker here is like a family man. He acts himself like a perfect husband. He listens to his girlfriend’s ideas, he’s guarding her, he calls Claire my woman, he asks for help to rescue his woman, he is fretting about her like a husband. That bothered me.
    The plot, on the other hand, was okay, nothing special, with a bit of international intrigue, sort of a prelude to Grofield novels. The ending disappointed me, it was too bland and too obvious. Parker became too human, Stark even gave him a first person chapter. Parker doesn’t talk that long.
    As for the black people, Westlake has yet to find a right voice to tell about them. Black people from this book more sound like caricatures on black people. They are like jokes not made on purpose.
    And I like that cover a lot. Tagline, too.

    • I wouldn’t say caricatures–nothing like that–certainly not by the standards of American genre fiction in that period, and I’ve seen far less convincing portrayals in much more recent (and best-selling) books–they just aren’t as fleshed out as the people Parker normally meets–they’re a bit stiffer–but then, in their situation, they kind of have to be. They aren’t members of the underworld–they’re visitors from a very different world. They need to stop and think about each move they make.

      Westlake has done a lot of research, he’s met some Africans, possibly at parties in the Village, he’s talked to them, and his descriptions of what they are thinking and experiencing ring very true. The way they speak is very formal–but then, don’t people who learned English on a scholarship tend to speak it very formally and correctly? I think Formutesca is actually a very good character–one of the most interesting thumbnail portraits in the whole series. But the language of American crime fiction will always be a second language to him.

      They just don’t seem like part of the world of Richard Stark–but I think that’s the point. They’ve wandered in from a different story, and now they have to figure out this new world they’re in, make it work for them–Parker is their guide. And he’s aware of that–that is part of his job, that he’s getting paid for, so he tries to do it correctly, compensate for the gap between them. He ends up speaking more formally as well. Including in that ‘first-person’ chapter–where of course he’s talking to Indindu and Formutesca–it’s just a very extended block of dialogue. But yes, it feels very odd. Westlake seemed to think it worked. So it worked for him, the writer, and not necessarily so well for us, the readers–as I said, different agendas.

      But isn’t it interesting, all the same? Parker doesn’t stay silent because he can’t talk. He can talk very well. He just chooses to talk as little as possible. In this case, he’s got to talk a lot–there’s no other way.

      One passage I wanted to quote, but I’d have needed to make this a two-parter to cover all the things that interested me, and I didn’t want to get bogged down in this one–I can talk about it here–Indindu wants to know why Parker didn’t just kill Hoskins, instead of trying to frighten him off. Parker is a professional, and should have known Hoskins couldn’t resist the chance at a fortune, no matter how dangerous it was.

      “Not at people. Nobody’s a professional at people. Hoskins was a con man, nothing else. He’d never made a direct offensive move in his life. There was no reason to suppose he’d act that way tonight. You can use hindsight and make it make sense, but you couldn’t have called it ahead of time.”

      He goes on a bit after that, and it’s very well-reasoned, and (as we know) entirely correct. Parker has learned from bitter experience that very often what people do makes no sense, even if you base your expectations on past behavior. And it makes sense Parker would reason it out this way, have this level of insight, but you wouldn’t expect to see him explaining his thought processes in depth.

      The situation he’s in has forced him to explain everything–because he knows these guys are strangers in a strange land, and he, as the tour guide, has to go into detail. Normally, in a Parker novel, you’d expect Stark to explain all this in third person, or maybe Grofield would be the one talking to Indindu, but Westlake wants Parker to do it–he wants to know what that would sound like.

      The stuff with Claire is going to bother some people, but she is a big part of Parker’s motivation now–he’d be protective of her at any time–she’s part of him now–but it’s particularly a problem for her to be out of his reach just after he finishes a job. Marten has taken Parker a bit lightly up to that point, but something in Parker’s expression tells Marten that only one of them is going to survive this. He wants to shoot him right there, but he needs Parker to get the diamonds. Another echo of The Jugger, when Younger is tempted to kill Parker to protect himself, but can’t let go of the money he thinks Parker can lead him to.

      Claire’s going to be in jeopardy just one more time, will be much more front and center there, and that’s one of the best novels–as I think you agree. So she’s not really the problem–the problem is that because the main focus is on the Africans, there isn’t time to do much from her perspective–just that one chapter, where Jock is trying to make her realize how lucky she is that he’s not the kind of guy that rapes defenseless women, and she’s just trying to maintain her composure–Westlake possibly put a bit too much into this book. But that’s better than too little.

      One thing I never noticed until I reread it–Parker is just thinking about his reunion with Claire, the job being over–then finds she’s been taken. Then the chapter from Claire’s POV ends with “She needed Parker.” She was anticipating their reunion as well. Then at the end, when he finds her asleep at the farmhouse, he touches her cheek–a sexual gesture, in this context. Are they doing to do it right then and there, while Formutesca waits outside? It’s so subtle, you can almost miss it, but I think that is the implication.

      That cover McGinnis drew–putting himself in the picture, so to speak–he really did read the Parker books, I think (don’t see how he could have read all the books he illustrated). He recognized the erotic undercurrent of that final scene (I don’t think Claire is in her underwear in the book, but it’s a Gold Medal cover), and he makes it the climax of the story–so to speak. And Claire seems to be a strawberry blond now–maybe that’s why she has auburn hair in Nobody Runs Forever.

      See, if I put every thought I had about these books into the reviews, they’d be longer than the books themselves. 😉

      Editing this in–you know, about the Dhabans–is the problem that they’re caricatures, or that nearly everybody else in the Parker books is, and they don’t match, because Westlake had no popular culture equivalents to base them on, so he had to do research? Really well drawn and thoughtful caricatures, derived from crime fiction and gangster movies is, you could argue, what these books are about. I mean, we’re told in The Hunter that Fairfax looks like Louis Calhern–a stock player for MGM. Westlake even had Stark tell him in that ‘interview’ of his various personas that he gets his ideas from old movies.

      But Westlake can’t go to the movies or to earlier popular fiction to get ideas he can rework and improve upon here–because the movies and popular fiction have almost no black people of any nationality in them. He didn’t have a lot of first-hand knowledge of Africans, and I suspect he still didn’t know a whole ton of black people in real life, though there’d be some.

      So he winged it, based on research and personal observations, and the fact that people are people, wherever they live. They don’t really seem that different to me than the Africans in Kahawa, written years later, and heavily researched (the Westlakes traveled in Africa to gather material). The difference here is that they’re way out of their element–and so is Parker, except when he’s planning the heist. Nobody is in their comfort zone in this book–small wonder it makes us feel a bit uncomfortable ourselves.

      • Even if they are caricatures, they are very reasonable people. And that’s what matters for Parker. We have seen more fleshed out types, with whom Parker refused to deal.
        Writing a book with a blend of international intrigue will always mean that you need to create people of different cultures and different from American background. It’s a hard work, and rare is that someone nails it. Westlake tried that in The Mourner, in Grofield novels, here, and these are the novels that are less successful.
        Back to the race theme. How many black people among Parker’s collegues in a Stark created world? Parker didn’t interact with many, that’s for sure. Westlake just didn’t create black heisters for his series. Is it because not that Parker isn’t racist, but his white collegues are? Or is it another small myth Westlake created, like Mafia WASPs, meaning that black people don’t rob any people at all? He created Africans here and there, yet avoiding African-Americans.

        • Well, we can agree to disagree–I think Westlake does an excellent job with many of these characters–remember, the actual world of American crime is as much a foreign country to him as these fictional countries whose denizens he brings his fictional American criminals into contact with. Yes, it’s hard work, but it has to be judged on its own terms.

          The more you know about something, the more inclined you are to nitpick–I know this from personal experience–like when TV shows feature Irish characters. Oh God–the accents. And the dialogue. And really, everything. :\

          Westlake said he got a tremendous amount of mail from gun buffs telling him he’d gotten the gun stuff all wrong–the botched guns still successfully kill fictional people in his books. They do the job they were introduced to do, and most readers don’t know the difference. Some mistakes are more meaningful than others, obviously.

          It’s a fair point–Westlake is more convincing when he stays closer to home. But New York City is literally his home (well, he might have moved to New Jersey by the time he was writing this). And New York is full of people from every corner of the planet–New York has the United Nations, and an astoundingly diverse population of immigrants. So it wouldn’t be realistic for people of other nationalities not to show up. Doesn’t he have to at least try to include them?

          Parker didn’t have black friends, that’s for sure (really, he didn’t have friends, period)–the first fellow heister who was black came along in the fourth to last novel of the series. You do see them before that–Westlake goes out of his way to mention them, in the Stark novels and elsewhere–but these are the first who could be called co-protagonists. No fewer than five have chapters from their POV. Only two from the perspective of the white Africans.

          This is not just Westlake’s problem–this is the genre. It isn’t integrated at this time, like much of the country–one of the few exceptions I know of is Ed McBain–he did devote a fair bit of time to a few black police detectives, who were admirable interesting men–but they never really drove the story, and they didn’t get romantic subplots like the handsome young white detectives did. They didn’t have conflicts, or dilemmas, or really anything except the chance to occasionally solve a crime–never the ‘A plot’ crime–always the ‘B plot’ crime. They were peripheral. But in the 1950’s, that was significant. McBain knew about prejudice–he damn well should have–they told him he shouldn’t try to publish under his real name, Salvatore Lombino.

          Can you point to an earlier instance than this book we’re discussing, of a crime novel written by a white American (or really, a white man, period), in which black characters are fully integrated into the main story, and where we get to see that they, like the white characters, are full of doubts and questions about who they are, what they should be doing, where they should be going? And who, it must be said, are portrayed as being equally competent–or more so–than the equivalent white characters in the story?

          He was taking a bit of a chance with this. He probably wouldn’t have done so if he didn’t know a good percentage of his audience for the Parker novels was, in fact, composed of black men–but he was wary of trying to write a black American into the story, because those readers would have known how much he was getting wrong–they would have heard the false notes more clearly.

          And white Americans, bizarrely enough, tended to be less prejudiced against blacks from Africa than blacks from America–Dizzy Gillespie used to get around segregation laws by pretending to be African–he’d wear the clothes, fake the accent, and they’d scratch their heads confusedly and let him in.

          So Africans, then–as much a mystery to African Americans as to all other Americans. And Africans from a country that does not exist in reality–a composite nation.

          The point isn’t that black people aren’t involved in crime–but the fact is, crime in America was itself pretty damn segregated back then, and still is a lot of the time. The Italian mob might have dealings with black organized crime, but there was a great deal of mutual distrust–they might fight each other, or do business, but they didn’t socialize to any great extent.

          And the famous bank robbers who partly inspired Parker–Dillinger, et al–none of them had any black confederates that I know of. There might have been blacks and whites robbing banks and payrolls together back then–but it would have been rare. And it’s not like anybody was going to point to this proudly as an example of how far we’d come as a nation.

          There was that guy who did the alterations to the truck for Parker in The Rare Coin Score–he’s at the periphery of the heisting world. He knows Parker is on the bend. Parker just talks to him like a fellow professional, albeit in a related profession. It’s respectful. And it acknowledges the basic reality that black people exist–Ralph Ellison would have appreciated that, I think, if he was reading a Parker novel. But the real point isn’t what the black guy is thinking–the point is that Parker doesn’t react to race at all. One more thing that makes him different from everybody else.

          Don’t remember any black heisters in the work of Dan J. Marlowe either, though he certainly does show us some black people–and they really are caricatures, though often interesting ones. Marlowe, parenthetically, wrote an editorial for his local paper after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated–comparing him to Hitler. I mean, I think he would have probably conceded Hitler was worse.

          Do you begin to see the scope of the problem here? This genre may have been created by some pretty progressive guys, like Hammett–but in the 1960’s, most of the writers, and a large section of the readership, are pretty damn conservative. Hippies aren’t reading Parker novels. I don’t think. Actually, Parker worked with hippies before he worked with black Americans.

          I honestly don’t know how much progress we’ve made–some, definitely. Not as much as I thought six years ago. But six years ago did prove something. I’m just not sure what.

  2. I can’t think of one early crime book with a black protagonist. Maybe there is some out there somewhere.

    This discussion led to to “Parker in prison” topic. That’s where Parker should have to become racist in order to survive. I wonder whether he would join AB, not because of his race, but to avoid confrontations and unnecessary retributions. Nobody is safe in prison, even Parker, or – rather – least of all.

    • Actually, when Parker did finally go to prison, that’s where he met up with his first (and only) African American associate.

      I don’t think he could be racist–even by necessity. He can only judge people by their capabilities. The content of their character–only of course, he’d prefer their character to be criminal. 😉

  3. Anthony

    Interesting topic. As alluded to above, it wasn’t until Breakout (in 2002!) that Parker worked with a black team member – out of necessity because of the limited pool of talent in the prison Parker finds himself. Westlake devotes a fair amount of evaluation to the matter – noting the tip-toeing Parker and others have to do to avoid undue attention from guards and from the various prison groups (gangs? cliques?). Parker’s only concern about working with a (black) man he quickly vets as qualified and reliable is that so doing invites the scrutiny of a society (not just prison society) which keeps blacks and whites separated. The injustice is irrelevant. To Parker, racial divide has been a “fact of life” that could affect his business operations. Consequently, he has historically simply accepted it, without consciously thinking about it, because doing anything else would represent unnecessary complication. Upon finding himself in a position where this business plan doesn’t work, he immediately adapts then promptly moves on.

    One could argue that this represents a microcosm of society in general. (Nah – too armchair. Guess I won’t be going back to school to pursue a Master’s in Starkian ethics….)

    p.s., returning to the Parker / Dortmunder dynamic – John Archibald worked with Herman X a full THIRTY YEARS prior to Parker working a burglary with a black partner (of course, Stark “went away” for almost half that time).

    • Ah, should have read your comment before I responded to Ray, Anthony–Breakout is one I haven’t read in a long time, but I look forward to reviewing it (in maybe two years?). That, of course, isn’t a ‘supermax’ penitentiary, but a short-term facility, where prisoners are kept until they can be assigned to a regular prison.

      That’s why there aren’t any race gangs, because the population there keeps shifting all the time. And that’s why Parker needs to find a string to work with very quickly, so he can escape before they do send him someplace he’d have a much harder time breaking out of.

      As I’ve said in the past, it’s all moot how Parker would survive in prison–he couldn’t. The routine alone would destroy him. I just don’t see him joining any gang. He’s not a joiner. Westlake only wrote one prison novel, and it’s a comedy (perhaps my favorite of his comedies). The prisoners there have found their own remedy to prison routine. That’s going to be a fun one to review.

      I don’t think Parker ‘accepts’ the racial divide–he just doesn’t think about it. It’s politics, and he doesn’t know about anybody’s politics. It’s just random noise that he filters out. Does he know that segregation exists, that lynchings exist? Sure, he reads the papers. But it’s not relevant to him. He works with white guys because that’s who he knows. If he knew black heisters who were good, he’d work with them. Only thing is, black and whites associating in Parker’s milieu, in that time period, are going to draw attention to themselves, just by the fact that they are associating.

      Dortmunder lives in a hipper criminal world, even though he’s anything but hip himself. He lives in Manhattan, after all. The whole world lives in Manhattan–it’s damned hard to draw attention to yourself there–that’s why all the movie stars have condos there. Herman X is perfectly plausible in Dortmunder’s world, but he’d take too much explaining in Parker’s.

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