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.
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–
(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).