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, was 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, (that has disappeared from the internet, and I can’t find anything equivalent) many Terriers were chambered for .32 ammo (possibly not under the Terrier name). 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).
31 responses to “Review: The Sour Lemon Score”
I’ve never considered it particularly ambiguous that The Seventh’s Negli and Feccio are supposed to be a gay couple. The dynamic between them feels similar to the dynamic between Rosenstein and Brock, both couples featuring a “masculine” partner who steps out with women as well. None of them are portrayed very flatteringly (esp. Brock and Negli), but it’s notable that they exist in this world at all. (Negli is arguably a bit more “progressive,” as he’s actually a pretty tough guy, a long way from Joel Cairo e.g.)
What’s interesting about TSLS is that it’s the first in a long line of Parker novels that demonstrate what a colossal pain in the ass it can be to be a criminal, and to be Parker especially. The guy works harder than most working stiffs, and the return is sometimes less than folks on the square.
Negli isn’t ambiguous, Feccio is–he’s not straying–he likes sex with women, obviously needs it–Rosenstein just needs to hurt people–Brock just needs to be needed. Negli just needs somebody he can talk to, hang with.
Maybe Feccio is bi, maybe not. But he’s not a sadist. And Negli is so personally fastidious, sex with anybody, male or female, might be repulsive to him–but yeah, he’s probably gay. Still, there’s room for doubt there. Not here. It’s spelled out.
You know, my dad and I both went to see Fried Green Tomatoes when that came out–he liked it more than I did–and when I told him that was a lesbian love story, he was shocked–never even occurred to him–or lots of other people, I bet. Implication is one thing; saying it out loud is another–that’s been the real shift in our culture–the love that dared not speak its name can shout it in the village square now. Thank God for that, anyway.
I would assume Westlake ultimately felt the same way about it–if there was one thing sacred to him it was the right to be yourself, without having to apologize for it to anybody. And that’s how I feel about it. And I still get the willies when I see two guys kissing. Well, that’s my problem. 😉
I think the main thing with Negli is that Feccio’s the only guy he feels at ease with–that’s what matters to him, not sex. Mean a little bastard as he is, he loves Feccio, and sexual or not, his love is returned. Nobody matters to Rosenstein except Rosenstein–he doesn’t love anybody, and I’m not convinced Brock knows what love is either. But he’d like to. That’s the main difference between them.
To me, it’s just interesting to see Westlake working his way up to seriously dealing with homosexuality–he gets there by degrees. In his ‘sleaze’ novels, gay people were all over the place, but there’s something really wrong with nearly all of them. They’re fascinating twisted tragic creatures–human, but emotionally crippled. Wanting love, and not knowing how to get it. And that may be how he genuinely felt, but it’s hard to be sure, because that’s how nearly everybody in ‘commercial’ publishing wrote about gay people back then, if they wrote about them at all. That’s one thing about the ‘sleaze’ genre, such as it is–it may get gay people totally wrong, but it doesn’t ignore them, pretend they don’t exist. Quite the contrary.
Westlake truly admired Vin Packer as a writer (rightly so), and of course he had to know Vin Packer was really Marijane Meaker (one time lover of Patricia Highsmith), and he probably found out at some point she was gay–and yet in the 50’s, she wrote about same sex relationships in much the same way he did–as something that could never flower into a lasting healthy love. Because that was the only way she could get published. And maybe because she hadn’t yet herself been able to have a healthy relationship. They can be hard to find, for anybody. And flat-out impossible with Highsmith, needless to say.
The winds began to shift a bit in the late 60’s and 70’s. It became possible to reexamine old preconceptions.
Why did things get so much more difficult for Parker, professionally speaking, around this time? Did Westlake just feel like it was getting to be too much of a predictable tough guy fantasy? Or was his own life getting harder, and he’s projecting that into Stark? Easiest guess is that he just felt the need to keep changing things up. Never get too comfortable–or you’ll get into a rut. Question everything. Keep rewriting the rule book.
As a slice-of-life-of-a-criminal, it’s good. As a Parker novel, I have doubts about this one. I remember that I didn’t like this one as much as The Green Eagle, and after re-reading I still can’t figure out what elements of the novel I wasn’t satisfied of. Probably I was bothered that Parker acts too much like a moralist. He too much second-guesses his actions, doesn’t kill when he should, and something in the atmosphere smells funny.
The ending led me to thinking about one thing: the money from the heist was left at some friend of a Uhl’s friend. Parker figures money is lost. After another heist, in Slayground this time, the money is lost again. And in Butcher’s Moon Parker returns for the money from Slayground, not from The Sour Lemon Score. He could go back to this family and poke around some, maybe he would have a chance to find the bag of money. Parker is too sure that money is amusement park is still there, yet he could go back to this family.
It’s an easy way, to make Parker to fight with Mafia, it’s a safe way, I think. It’s way harder to write a novel where Parker would fight for money with straight people. It would ruin his image, because Parker isn’t supposed to harm civilians. That would be out of comfort zone for Parker – and for Stark.
Obviously in Part 2 I have to deal with the elephant in the room–Parker not killing people you’d expect him to kill. And basically, I don’t think he makes any choice at all. When it comes to killing, he never does. He kills when he has to kill. And he doesn’t kill when he can’t kill. In this case, he simply could not kill. The choice was not his to make. His nature determines who lives and who dies. Why does a wolf leave some livestock untouched, and then decimate those he finds in another pasture? It makes no sense to us, but it does to him. He isn’t like us. And we’re as much a mystery to him as he to us.
In the later situation you mention, Parker returns to see if the money he himself hid is still there. When it isn’t, he knows exactly who took it, and where to find them, and what he has to do to get it back from them–exactly what he did to Bronson and The Outfit. So it’s a very self-conscious reprise of the events of the first novel. The same theme on a grander scale.
But here, what are his options? He knows nothing about Saugherty. Saugherty is dead–and the only living person who knows who he gave the bag with the money in it to is the person he gave the bag with the money in it to. Who could be anybody. Philadelphia is a big city. Saugherty would know a lot of people in it–all of them in the ‘straight’ world–people Parker knows better than to mess with–he’s no Rosenstein–the law will look a lot harder for somebody who starts messing with suburban white families. Once he goes down that road, there’s no going back–he either leaves witnesses alive to ID him, or he’s a mass murderer, and the law will never stop looking for him either way.
Parker just mounted a full scale assault on a home in a nice neighborhood. Multiple shots were fired. The police could come at any moment (turns out much later that they didn’t, and things did not work out at all as he’d expected, but that’s for a much later review). He’s going to risk his freedom for a lousy 32 grand?
His life, sure–that’s different. That was because Uhl crossed him–that had to be made right. That was a scale that had to be balanced out–but when the crucial moment came, there were unexpected factors that calmed the storm inside of him. He only kills when he literally has to. The impulse is there or it isn’t. Either way, there’s nothing he can do about it. His instincts tell him what to do, and he rationalizes it after the fact.
He just lets that money go–it isn’t ‘his’ anymore. And he does not want what he hasn’t got.
I always though it’s the opposite – you can kill whoever you want in the straight world because you won’t be part of it ever, and killing a criminal requires careful thinking and you are part of this world. I mean, what are the chances for police ever finding you for murder of a civilian if you operate all over the States? Close to zero, I think. Yes, the heat is way more, but homicide dicks work only a few days in a full capacity after the murder, and then it can be solved only by luck.
But if you’re killing a criminal, the law will not pursue you as if you kill a civilian, yet another danger occurs: you are always in a position when some friend of the murdered criminal can can kill you for revenge.
That’s different me talking, that part of me that is always seeking weaknesses in the things I like. And this part of me wanted if only once to read a Parker novel where Parker would deal with civilian life.
And Ask the Parrot didn’t fully grant that wish for you?
Remember that Westlake grew up with crime movies where the bad guys always always ALWAYS get caught. Public Enemy, the daddy of ’em all, is actually quite unusual in that the protagonist dies at the hands of other criminals. 99.9999% of the time, it’s the law that gets the bad guy.
Now by the time he’s writing, it’s gotten a bit less cut and dried, and the ending is harder to predict. But you still can’t do what Westlake does in these books, which is have the protagonist steal from honest citizens, leave a trail of carnage behind him, and then just walk away from it, untouched.
Most of the criminals Parker kills are unaffiliated, like him. They don’t have a gang to avenge them. Stark goes out of his way to say these guys rarely stick their necks out for anybody, and if they do, it’s a close friend (platonic or otherwise). So he doesn’t really have to worry about vendettas, as long as he kills the people who have a specific grudge against him. He’s pretty hard to find. I mean, do you have any idea how many people named Parker there are in the U.S.? They don’t even know if it’s his last name. Might as well go looking for John Smith.
The exception, of course, is when he goes to war with some version of organized crime, and then Westlake has to write it more carefully–in The Outfit, Parker figures out the politics of that mob, and uses them to his advantage.
He doesn’t really get into a fight with organized crime again until the end of the first cycle of novels–and since he can’t do the same thing he did with Bronson and Karns, he’s got to employ what can only be called a scorched earth policy. Not one stone standing upon another when he leaves that town. Figuratively speaking. Mainly.
It is actually true that the law comes after you harder when you’re killing law-abiding citizens. And most of all, I shouldn’t need to tell you, when you kill a cop. They might not be looking for you every minute of the day, but they’d be a lot more interested, and there’s a much better chance of the real professionals in law enforcement (only so many to go around) taking a keen interest in you. Make yourself as low-value a target as possible. And they’ll just get distracted by the latest serial killer or mob kingpin.
I have yet to read ATP.
Westlake always allows other criminals, which are no better than Parker, but they’re Parker’s antagonists, do some harm to civilians, and never Parker.
Even if Parker started killing civillians, I don’t think he’d get caught. Once you’re out of state, you are almost out of law’s reach. Killings in large cities are common, and homicide dicks barely have time to investigate one murder before the next occurs. And you can’t be hung twice, since you’re already done for murder of that prison guard.
I’d guess you’ll enjoy that one–it’s certainly a favorite of mine. In some ways, I wish it had been the last of them. Dirty Money (the worst Parker title ever) has its moments, but it seems like more of a preparation for a new cycle of books that were never written than a conclusion. Or you could consider the last three one long novel–that works. Kind of.
Up to this point, we really haven’t seen a lot of 100% civilians in the books. We only see two here, really–Saugherty and his wife. And Saugherty was breaking the law by giving shelter to a felon. His wife, arguably, was complicit as well. Parker moves among criminals and people who are connected to criminals. When he’s working, he has very little to do with people who aren’t part of his world, and he’d just as soon keep it that way.
Parker harmed that woman he knocked out and tied up in The Hunter, wouldn’t you say? More than he intended to, but even if she hadn’t been asthmatic, that would have been one hell of a traumatic experience. But there was nothing to link him to her. And of course he didn’t mean to kill her. Which would make a difference to the law, but as you say, Parker is already on the hook for killing that guard. That’s the one time we’re told he intentionally killed someone who wasn’t guilty of something (that we know of)–and we don’t see it happen.
Parker isn’t going to get caught or killed (well, he got caught once, but he escaped) because there’s no books without him. We all understand this. He’s got to get away, over and over, and it’s not plausible for him to keep doing this if he’s being sloppy and stupid.
And you’re forgetting the FBI. They can follow you anywhere–if they get interested enough. An agent might decide to make you his special project. The truth is, given enough time, they catch most of these guys. Certainly the ones who make a big splash in the headlines. Westlake grew up reading about the Depression-era bank robbers–one by one, they were cornered and killed. Parker was at least partly modeled after Dillinger, but Dillinger liked reading about himself in the papers a bit too much. Parker has no interest in publicity. At all.
But again, there are things Stark simply won’t let Parker do. Parker won’t kill without a reason (sometimes, as we’ll see, he won’t kill even when he has a reason), and do truly innocent people ever give you a reason? That’s what makes them innocent. And the rest is luck. Strange luck. Stark was an expression of Westlake’s romantic nature–and he sees to it that Parker remains an unsoiled expression of that romanticism. He will never get down in the gutter with the rest of us. He’s a most decidedly uncommon criminal.
I’ve always wondered about the four books with “Score” in the title. I guess it was a Gold Medal thing.
Perhaps along the same line as the “Operation:” novels about Earl Drake that Dan J. Marlowe cranked out for Gold Medal. They liked identifiable franchises. But Westlake might have just decided he liked the way the The Rare Coin Score sounded, and decided to play out that string–the way he later did a series of five Parker novels, each of which begins with the last word of the previous one. In any event, The Score was written for Pocket. All the later four did was stick two more words in the middle.
Strange to write 24 books about a character and never mention his name in any of the titles. Whereas Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley has his name in all of his. Come to think of it, Westlake never mentioned the main protagonist’s name in the title of any book he ever wrote–except Philip. And there’s a few early sleaze novels with lusty female protagonists, whose names are referenced in the titles.
Not so uncommon, though–a series character not being directly referenced in the titles. Mike Hammer, James Bond–never once. Something odd to the mystery/espionage genre, I suppose. Some quality of obliqueness.
Sherlock Holmes isn’t mentioned in any of the story or novel tittles, though of course almost all the collections are called The XXX of Sherlock Holmes
And of course in every edition of The Strand featuring a new Holmes story, the Great Detective’s image would be on the cover, along with his name.
As I said, it’s a tradition in the mystery genre–that that maverick, Ms. Highsmith, chose to violate, as she violated so many others.
Add it’s almost surely coincidence that the four Gold Medal books, all titled The XXX YYY Score, came out in alphabetical order by YYY.
Coin, Eagle, Ice, Lemon. CEIL. Honestly, we could try to make something of that, but he’d just be rolling his eyes at us from the Great Beyond, as he may be doing anyway.
Pingback: The Sour Lemon Score, by Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark) | gaping blackbird
Some reviewers couldn’t figure out why the title “The Green Eagle Score” – I myself didn’t think it that complex – Green as in cash, Eagle as in a US military base. But I wouldn’t think anybody will have difficultly with the title “The Sour Lemon Score.”
Spot-on analysis of the overuse of psychological terms. And Matt Rosenstein. We can only imagine what the Mrs. will do with the guy when Parker leaves that nice Philly suburban house.
BTW – I’m a huge fan of the Georges Simenon romans durs (not his Inspector Maigret series). One big reason: Simenon writes in a way that every single sentence counts to drive story. By my eye, same can be said for the Parker novels.
Actually, I don’t have to imagine, but that can wait for a much later book.
Never did read Simenon. I’ve read about him. Very strange man. Even by the standards of an author of fiction.
I wonder if this is where Westlake got the name.
Interesting. Could just google every Westlake character name and see what comes up. A project for my old age. Oh wait, I’m already there!
He was a pitcher, as well as a switch hitter. Bet he threw a mean curveball.
One think I noticed with the Parker novels: when Westlake created an unpleasant crook, he usually came up with a not so usual name like Tiftus or Lempke. Good catch with George Uhle, the baseball player, a name that goes back years ago.
On reflection, perhaps I missed something, but I can’t recall Westlake ever making a baseball reference in the Parker novels. Come to think of it, other than the job at the college football stadium in The Seventh, I don’t recall a reference to baseball or football or basketball. I wouldn’t be surprised if Westlake wasn’t a spectator sports fan.
Lempke was quite an affable fellow I thought, allowing for his chosen profession–he was just off his game, and very unlucky. Tiftus was merely irritating and ineffectual, not evil. But if you’re writing in the spirit of Dickens, as Westlake often did, you do want characters that have something off about them–even if they’re lovely people, like Micawber–to have offbeat names. And I suppose Dickens was channeling Shakespeare to some extent there. “Dogberry.” “Andrew Aguecheek.” “Sir Toby Belch.” Wodehouse also did it. Offhand, can’t recall about Cervantes. I might not know if a Spanish name was funny or not.
He rarely refers to sports events directly in his fiction–probably more to horse-racing than any other, due to Dortmunder’s gambling addiction, but never once does he describe a race to us. For that matter, we’re told over and over that Mike Carlow is a racecar driver who is irritated that nobody will allow him to drive a car where the fuel is distributed throughout the entire chassis–do we ever see him driving in a race? Nope. Do we ever see Alan Grofield acting in a play? Nope. Do we see Dan Wycza pretending to lose to a Ric Flair clone in some minor pro wrestling promotion? Nope.
He clearly did watch sports–I’ve seen multiple references in non-fictional writings and interview. How much he liked them I could not tell you. But the fact he doesn’t talk about them much in his stories tells us nothing. He rarely described the sex act in his fiction that wasn’t sleaze-oriented. We can be sure he was a very avid fan of that sporting event.
The one exception to the rule is card playing. Because he felt that was a way he could tell you about personality, character. Maybe he didn’t think how you throw a ball really means much of anything.
Excellent, as always. I could be wrong but I don’t think there is anybody else on the planet who could offer more incisive observations on this subject re Westlake.
Some authors, like Elmore Leonard, can really get into baseball, as he did in his Tishomingo Blues. You’re spot-on: this tells us nothing about Leonard actually being a baseball fan, although, judging from his enthusiasm writing on the subject, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was.
Hmmm, maybe this should be my entry-point to Leonard. I’ve still yet to read one novel of his, and he said this was his favorite.
It’s such an American writer thing to wax prosaic about baseball. But Westlake was not your typical American writer.
Be careful about writers’ favorites among their books. Mark Twain’s was Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. Wodehouse’s was Mike, a fixup of two school story serials, because he thought it was his best portrait of a cricket game. (The second part introduced Psmith, so it had that going for it.)
I’ve noted this before–writers are rarely the best judges of their work, because it’s so hard for them to be objective over something they poured their hearts and souls into. Westlake could never take a backwards step and see that The Jugger was a damn good book. And in the case of genre writers, often they feel more love towards something atypical for them that wasn’t fully appreciated. They are never seeing the same book we are, because they’re on the other side of the looking glass.
Anyway, I won’t be getting to Leonard anytime soon. I’m now deeply enmeshed in Jean-Patrick Manchette, and increasingly convinced that influenced as he was by Westlake, the influence ran both ways. How would this be, you ask? Westlake couldn’t read French and English translations were very late in arriving. I think I know the answer.
Which all brings to mind one of the great continuity errors in the Westlake bibliography. Throughout the Dortmunder series sports is only ever mentioned as something Dortmunder, and sometimes Kelp, has neither interest in nor knowledge of. And this lack of interest and knowledge is PROFOUND. Yet in one of the last books, probably Get Real but I don’t know for sure, May becomes quite distressed because Dortmunder – lost in thought – is committing the “uncharacteristic” act of not paying avid attention to a football game on TV. It’s really jarring. Hard to say whether all the background details had become too complex to keep track of or it was useful and Westlake just didn’t give that much of a shit about continuity anymore.
Westlake clearly did watch football. I think by that point, the identification between himself and Dortmunder was near-absolute, so his interest transferred itself to his prose-based avatar.
He’d never do that with Parker, though. Parker is the part of him that’s only interested in the work to be done. And that, once the job is over, loses interest in basically everything (except sex).
You may remember Abby Westlake mentioning a trip they took to Amsterdam. They were walking through the Red Light district, full of practitioners of the oldest profession posing in windows–which I think would be pretty diverting to just about anyone of any possible persuasion. But Mr. Westlake had a specific destination in mind, it was a bit tricky to locate, and all his faculties were trained on that outcome. She’d say “Look Donald, that one’s really pretty” and he just tuned her out. He tuned everything out but what he needed to do at that moment.
So it’s not really all that out of character for the character we’re actually being told about here.
And seriously, fuck continuity. Not that I don’t often obsess about it too. But all the same, fuck it. If we’re so concerned about continuity, why are we reading late Dortmunders, when he self evidently should be in his 70’s by then, and yet there he is, still performing physical acts that I’d have found daunting in my 40’s? Continuity is our way of denying that the stories we’re reading are, in fact, stories. We want so much to believe otherwise.
Going by the Aubrey/Maturin novels, the war of 1812 lasted five years or so, but don’t let that deprive you of the sheer joy of reading them. Just maybe skip the last few.
Well, I agree that one shouldn’t become a slave to continuity, for therein lies the pathway to mindless and endless time wasting and stupidity. Still, there is a very good reason to at least try to maintain consistency. When a figure in a story does something extremely out of character, or an event contradicts a prior established “fact” of the narrative, the reader becomes jolted out of the suspension of disbelief needed to maintain focus on what is being read or listened to or watched. It is the creator’s fault that the distraction happened. For some 5 seconds or so I left Dortmunderland to say “Hey, that’s not right. Dortmunder doesn’t give a shit about football!” before I returned to the story. And it is Westlake’s fault that I left.
But might Westlake sometimes want to jolt us? Knowing full well his contempt for the ‘ritual’ of storytelling, the hugger-mugger, the tropes of his chosen genre, even though he also enjoys them (is that consistent?), might he not want to intentionally yank our chains here and there, just to make sure we’re paying attention? Are these books mere entertainments? If so, we’re probably overthinking them. (I definitely am.). But I don’t think that’s the case. He likes to take his characters out of their comfort zones–and his readers too.
Now I don’t know if that scene from What’s So Funny? (Google Books can be a very useful way to check this stuff, as I’ve said before) was such an instance. I didn’t remember it at all when you brought it up, nor do I now recall any previous references to Dortmunder not caring about sports. I remember no prior references to athletic events other than thoroughbred horse racing in the Dortmunder series.
You know why that is? I don’t care about football myself. I have literally never watched an entire game in my life, not even the Super Bowl, and I’ve been to a Super Bowl party. I don’t remember which one it was, I don’t remember which teams were playing, or who won. Destiny’s Child was the halftime show (nobody forgets Beyonce). People and dogs I loved were there (some of whom are gone now), and I will remember them all to my dying day. The chili served was amazing (beef and pork), not forgetting that, nor the ale I washed it down with (Leffe Brune). We remember what we care about and nothing else.
I am planning to watch The Iron Bowl, parts of it, later this month–because I saw a documentary about that famed Alabama rivalry, and it captured my interest, the human element of it–I want to know how the next chapter turns out. (Also, War Eagle!) But that has nothing to do with the game. I don’t care about football. If they banned it next month, I’d sort of shrug. That’s a shame. I guess. When does wrestling come on? Hey, did you see the Fury/Wilder fight? Can you believe those are their real names? Sounds more made-up than wrestling. I actually roomed with an Irish Traveller for a while. What were we talking about? Oh right, The Maltese Falcon!
Sam Spade behaves with perfect consistency throughout John Huston’s film adaptation. He never does a single thing to surprise you, and of course I think the film is great, and I never accepted Spade was a blonde Satan (he’s clearly dark blonde in the novel), but once I finally got around to the novel, it just knocked the movie out of the box for me, for all time. I can’t watch it now without thinking “This is great, and the book is so much better.”
Why? Partly the Flitcraft Story, partly the unambiguous sex between Spade and Bridget, partly just because no movie ever made could equal Dashiell Hammett at the top of his game–but mainly the ending. Where this man who does not appear to have the slightest sense of remorse or self-doubt turns out to not only have a well-hidden conscience, but a deep sense of self-loathing he hides even from himself. (And where’d he get that from, you think?) That final jarring scene between Spade and Effie appears in none the three film adaptations. Why? Film audiences don’t like to be told they might have gotten someone wrong. At the very least, they want a bit of advance warning, and there is none given. Because Hammett wants them to be taken off guard. Hollywood knows better than to do that, if making money is the point of the exercise.
Okay, so this is not that. Maybe Westlake forgot, maybe he wanted to see who was paying attention, maybe he just needed some way to convey to the reader that Dortmunder is off his game, which isn’t football. If that’s the case, then I’m with you–of course, I’d have to see the earlier mentions. Dortmunder never pays attention to movies when he goes to see them–I remember that, because I care about movies.
But do we know for a fact Dortmunder never gambles on sports other than horse racing? You know damn well he’d pay attention to the game if he had money riding on it. He could have just gotten into it later in life. (Yes, it wouldn’t have hurt to tell us that.)
Here’s my two cents–Westlake knows he’s got a lot of new readers, who came in late to the game, didn’t read the early books. They, like me, don’t remember earlier references to Dortmunder not caring about sports. They do need to know Dortmunder is deeply distracted by the dire situation he has once again found himself in. What is the most telling sign an American male is distracted from his usual pursuits? Not watching football in the play-offs. Do I get that? Hell no. Which is why I didn’t remember it. But see, I’d read all the earlier books. So I already knew how Dortmunder gets when he’s in a jam. The weird fugue state he goes into. So I just read right past that. Washed over me like a rock at the beach.
Now Stark telling us Parker doesn’t live by debts accumulated and paid off, in Breakout–that still bothers me. But maybe, just maybe, that’s to remind us we may think we know who Parker is, but we don’t, and we never will. And that’s just as true of Dortmunder. But do we ever really know anyone? Do we ever fully know ourselves? Doesn’t everyone who ever achieves consciousness behave in manners others would consider out-of-character at times?
But the point that finally occurs to me is that this passage isn’t about Dortmunder at all. It’s about May. She’s concerned about him, and May certainly knows Dortmunder as well as anyone ever could–but as with Claire and Parker–not perfectly. She is correctly intuiting his distraction, but attributing her insight to something that in fact means nothing at all. And that would be fully in character for her.
Enmeshed in Jean-Patrick Manchette? In the spirit of sharing, here’s a link to my Manchette reviews: https://glenncolerussell.blogspot.com/search?q=manchette
Thanks. I’ve only finished three of the novels you’re reviewed. I congratulate you on the total lack of spoilers thus far (it’s kind of a stream of consciousness thing you do). But you understand, I am wary of reading any review before I’ve finished reading the novel. My emphasis is on understanding what the author is trying to convey. And Manchette is a slippery bastard. I see a lot of conflicting messages in there.