Monthly Archives: May 2015

Review: Slayground

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A man, who had been hiding in the curtains of the bed, was standing there.

“Rainsford!” screamed the general. “How in God’s name did you get here?”

“Swam,” said Rainsford. “I found it quicker than walking through the jungle.”

The general sucked in his breath and smiled. “I congratulate you,” he said. “You have won the game.”

Rainsford did not smile. “I am still a beast at bay,” he said, in a low, hoarse voice. “Get ready, General Zaroff.”

From The Most Dangerous Game, by Richard Connell.

Thinking about Grofield had made him think of prison, and that had made him think of his own single experience that way, and now he went from that to the death of his wife, Lynn, which had been involved in that whole mix-up that time nine years ago, and from that he got to thinking about other people he knew that were dead now, and how few died of old age.  Dent, any day now, was going to be an exception.

There was a fellow named Salsa, very pretty but very tough.  One time in Galveston, when Parker had been staying briefly with a weird girl named Crystal, Salsa had said to him, “Your woman wishes to photograph me unclad.”  He’d been asking Parker’s permission, and Parker had said “What do I care?”  That was shortly before Salsa was dead, in a job they were all doing together on an island.  A real island, not a Fun Island.

Now he shook and sat up and stretched his arms up in the air and scratched his head.  “I’m getting like Dent,” he said out loud.  Sitting here thinking about dead people, as though his own life was over now.

It was having nothing to do.  It was stupid that they didn’t come in.  They should have come in a long time ago, in the daylight.  Now they had not only given him time to booby-trap the whole damn park against them, they’d given him darkness to hide in.  They were just making it tough on themselves.

I think this is either the fifth or the sixth time I’ve read Slayground cover to cover.   I’ve probably read it more times than any other Westlake book, not necessarily because I like it the best, but because it’s so short, and yet so packed with story, so endlessly re-readable–a weird timeless artifact of 70’s pop culture.

My battered Berkley Medallion paperback reprint, with the enjoyably stupid cover, seen above (What is that blonde in the bikini doing there, kneeling next to Parker?  Is that supposed to be a mannequin?) probably won’t survive a seventh reading.   I already had a colleague at the library do some repair work on it, but there are still pages falling out.   And yet the book itself, like its protagonist, remains indestructible.

You’ll note the other Berkley paperback up there (the Highland imprint)–much nicer cover, and an even more timeless story showcased there–the same story, really.  Not a coincidence.   Slayground is a rewrite of The Most Dangerous Game, by Richard Connell.  I’m not stating this as an opinion, though I’ve never seen any mention of it elsewhere.   It’s pretty damned obvious, so I’m stating it as a fact.

Why is Parker in an amusement park called “Fun Island”?  Why does he find a bunch of souvenir hunting knives he puts to good use (did family amusement parks really sell hunting knives as souvenirs in the early 70’s)?  Why is he setting booby traps everywhere, when we’ve never him do that before?  Why would Westlake tell such an odd improbable tale of one man being hunted like a wild animal in a relatively small space he can’t escape from?  Westlake was fascinated by the potential of Connell’s story, and felt like it hadn’t been thoroughly enough explored in that very brief third-person narrative, and that Parker would be the ideal protagonist with which to make that exploration.

Richard Connell may not quite have been a one-hit wonder–among other things, he wrote a number of screenplays for movies people still watch today–but as a prose writer, I think he’s pretty much entirely remembered for that one endlessly anthologized and adapted tale of survival–as neat a bit of storytelling as anyone’s ever managed in this imperfect world.  For the bulk of his career, he was not actually known for this kind of story–he mainly did light comedy–imagine if James Thurber wasn’t a genius, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of his usual thing.  But somehow or other, he did manage one brief moment of sheer inspiration, and that will remain when most of what he and his contemporaries wrought is dust.

And yet, the story is all based on a series of coincidences–Rainsford, the prototypical  ‘great white hunter’, who was just having a conversation with a fellow hunter about whether animals might possibly object to being hunted, just happens to fall off the yacht he’s traveling on, and washes up on an island where a mad Cossack general has devoted his retirement to hunting shipwrecked sailors for sport.  The general knows who Rainsford is, is delighted to finally have a worthy opponent, and is not overly concerned with Rainsford’s forlorn objection that he is the hunter, not the huntee.  If you don’t know what happens after that, I have to wonder if you’ve been stranded on some desert island for most of your life.  They finally got wifi there, huh?

A story like this is contrived by its very nature, but it’s a bit too contrived–is there some way to make it more organic, less obviously just a set-up for a thrilling tale of adventure, with the odd moment of philosophizing?  And might it work better if the hunter turned hunted is not some silly thrill-seeking sportsman, but rather a wolf in human form?   And the people hunting him had practical reasons for doing so?

Like I said, I’ve read this book like half a dozen times, and I’ve yet to find a plot hole–not one moment where I can honestly say “This doesn’t make sense” or “Why would he do that?”  Believe it, don’t believe it (and since when has believability been the hallmark of a series of books about a man whose powerful sex drive totally disappears between robberies and he doesn’t care?), but if you can find a flaw in it anywhere, I doff my hat to you.  It’s a cunning little mousetrap of a book; as much so as any Agatha Christie whodunnit.

As we’ve already discussed, it shares an opening with The Blackbird, Grofield’s third solo adventure, which is why the copyright notice up front has to refer to that book from a different publisher, even though that chapter has been rewritten from Parker’s POV.  Parker, Grofield, and Laufman, their incompetent driver who insists he knows how to drive perfectly well, hit an armored car in an unnamed midwestern city.  The driver calls the cops in with his wireless phone, and as they get the cash (about 73k), they can hear sirens in the distance.  Laufman panics, drives too fast, flips the car, leaving Grofield unconscious, and Laufman mortally injured. Parker grabs the money, and runs for the nearest hiding place–a large amusement park shut down for the winter.

As Parker jumps the gate, he sees two uniformed cops and two guys in civilian duds watching him.  None of them do anything to stop him.  As he waits in there for the law–and no law shows–he realizes gradually that the cops were dirty, and the other guys were mobsters paying them off–and over the radio, he learns that the cops falsely reported that he’d stolen a car and made a getaway, putting the law on a false trail.  So now he’s not fighting for his freedom but his life–they’ll come in after the money, and eliminate him as a matter of course.  No way they can leave him alive–if he gets picked up by the law, that makes trouble for everybody.

But for reasons he can only guess at, they don’t come in right away–they give him quite a few hours to walk around the amusement park, familiarize himself with the terrain, and make certain preparations for their arrival.   He’s only got one gun–Smith & Wesson Terrier, his old standby–five shots, only good at close range.  He does find a dozen hunting knives (well-balanced, suitable for throwing) at the gift shop, and some other useful things here and there.   (Okay, you can say the knives are a bit unlikely–I already did–but that’s hardly a plot hole–it’s a tip of the hat to Richard Connell, and the excellent hunting knife General Zaroff provides to Rainsford, just to make things sporting).

As he combs the park looking for anything that might keep him alive, we get a thorough tour of the place–it’s a theme park, a sort of cut-rate Disneyland (Disney World was nearing completion in Florida when this book came out).  It also has the standard fairground attractions, like a hall of mirrors.  Many different sections, each of which has its own motif–nostalgia, futurism, pirates, etc.  Lots of blacklight rides, which offer Parker places to hide himself and his money.  It’s not a real island, but it might as well be–completely surrounded by a high fence with electrified wire at the top.  He can’t go out the way he came in, because they’ve got guys posted there with guns.

Most of Part One is him reconnoitering, but there’s also a quick flashback to explain what he’s doing there in the first place.  As with the last job in Deadly Edge, he bought a ‘package’ from a guy who plans out heists and sells them to active heisters, because he won’t or can’t do them himself (this was an old idea in crime fiction–there’s a guy like this in the Cagney film White Heat, though he’s getting a percentage, not cash upfront).

Somehow, in all of the 24 Parker novels, Parker never once has an idea for a job and plans it out himself–unless it’s to get even with somebody, as in The Outfit.  He’s oddly passive and reactive that way.  It’s pretty much always something that gets pitched to him, by pro or amateur, and then maybe he works out the fine details, how to make it work–in this case, he just gets a call, checks it out, and pays the guy.  The job is perfectly fine; it’s the driver that screws it up.   If they’d had Mike Carlow behind the wheel, they’d be heading for home with their splits by now.  Mike’s probably still in stir.

The planner is Dent, a retired heistman, who is on his last legs–he tells Parker his ‘elevens’ are up, and that’s an archaic reference from a bygone era, which you can read a little about here and here.  The interesting thing is that Parker seems to totally believe in this medically questionable bit of barroom lore–when the tendons on the back of your neck stand out like an eleven, you are going to die soon.

It’s a surprisingly durable phrase in popular culture, but it seems to have died out as a matter of popular belief–I used to room with an Irish guy who tended bar in The Bronx for years, and he says he never once heard of this.   Maybe somebody somewhere still believes it, but the only point of bringing it up here is that Dent meekly accepts his fate–but Parker refuses to accept his.  His elevens aren’t up yet, and he’ll do whatever he has to in order to get back to New Jersey and Claire.

So as Part One ends, Parker sees a group of men grab the just-arriving night watchman, and he knows–it’s showtime.

Then comes the classic Stark rewind, but with a twist–first of all, it’s in Part Two.  Secondly, it’s from the perspective of other characters besides Parker–not a flashback, but a retelling of the past few hours from the perspective of the men who are going to be hunting Parker.  The cops and the mobsters.   Why did they take so long coming in?   Because the two cops, O’Hara and Dunstan, were called away to be on a roadblock, looking for the guy they had reported driving away in a hijacked car.

The leader of this mismatched hunting party is Caliato, an up and coming mafioso, ambitious and smart, and patiently waiting his turn to take over from Mr. Lozini, the current head of the local mob.  He smells money, and instantly tells the officers to radio in to headquarters, saying that they gave chase to the robber, after he commandeered a car, and they lost him (I guess it could be a bit fishy that nobody would ever report a car stolen, but that’s easy enough to explain away–some small time crook, not wanting to talk to the law).  He needs their help to make this work, so the cops both get a cut.  He gets Lozini’s okay over his car phone–as long as he keeps it quiet, his initiative is to be applauded.

O’Hara is very eager to get his split–Dunstan, younger and not really corrupt, just going along the past of least resistance, is less happy about this arrangement–he knows they are going to have to kill the guy (O’Hara just refuses to think about it).  But if he doesn’t want to rat–and he really doesn’t, for sound pragmatic reasons–he has to go along with it.  He’s one of those characters whose physical description sounds an awful lot like Westlake himself, and there are other reasons to think he’s a bit of a self-portrait–Westlake’s idea of what kind of a cop he might have made (not a very good one).

Lozini dispatches three men to help his lieutenant out–they’ll be working strictly on salary, a hundred each.  They are not supposed to know that Caliato and the cops are splitting it three-ways.   So for about six hours, they sit there in the cold, outside the gate, waiting for the cops to get off-duty.  They grab the night watchman when he goes on-duty, making sure he doesn’t get a look at any of them (he gets a POV chapter too).  As Part Two winds down, we’ve met all the  major players, and now it’s time to start the game.

Caliato figures there’s two possibilities–the guy with the money, knowing he’s trapped, will come out meekly when the tame cops call him out with a bullhorn.  Or he’ll just hide and they have to come find him.  He dies either way.   What Caiato didn’t count on was that when Dunstan tells him to come out, Parker hits a switch, and the funhouse explodes into life, light and sound blazing out into the darkness, scaring the bejeebers out of everybody, even Caliato a bit.

They go in after him, figuring he must be in there–well, that’s just what he figured they’d do.   The hall of mirrors is in there–and Parker spray-painted a white circle onto all the mirrors.   So he knows anybody who doesn’t have that white circle over his chest is real, not a reflection.  It’s a temporary edge, but a potent one.  Part Two ends with Parker shooting Caliato–and he was so sure he was the hero of the story, the tough mob enforcer.  Should have checked the cover of the book.

Seriously, this is a major head-fake–in a movie, you know a character like Caliato would be the last to die–off all the people Parker is up against here, he was the smartest, the most capable, the one who got this whole hunt started–he was also the one who knew Fun Island best–the mob has a piece of the action there, you see.

But he’d been giving orders too long–he’d lost his edge, thinking about how he was going to be the Big Boss someday–and then he abruptly decided to take the watchman’s confiscated gun, and go hunting along with the disposable hoods under his command.   He isn’t that guy anymore–he’s just a suit now.  He forgot.  You don’t get to forget things like that in a Richard Stark novel.

So as Part Three begins, we’re back in Parker’s head to stay–and in spite of his early triumph, he’s still bucking the odds.  He needs every last bit of the advantage he got from having all that time to prepare.  O’Hara comes at him in the dark, and they grapple, and fall into a few feet of water–cold water.  Parker’s clothing is soaked, and it’s freezing out there.  O’Hara can go warm up, but he can’t.  And he lost his gun in the struggle.  Now all he’s got is two knives.  And much as he may be a wolf on the inside, he’s still a man on the outside, and he has to get warm or he’ll die.

So he finds a store that sells men’s clothing, and there’s still a bit of stock left–light summer clothes, but it’ll have to do.  He can’t get warm, but he avoids freezing–and as day breaks, he hears the cop’s bullhorn again–only this time it’s a new voice–Lozini.  Caliato was his chosen heir–in effect, his son.  He wants revenge–to hell with the money.  He’s brought a lot more men into the hunt.  They are going to keep coming until Parker is dead.  Great.

So what follows in Part Four is a topsy-turvy chase through the surrealistic world of the amusement park, Parker playing every ace he’s got, and just barely staying ahead of the hunters.  There’s a scene in a theater that makes you wonder if maybe Westlake originally intended this story for Grofield (just have to write the beginning a little differently)–how would Parker be so familiar with the mechanics of a stage?  Not a plot hole, just wondering.  He could have robbed a theater before we met him.  Grofield can also be very resourceful, but somehow it just wouldn’t work as well with him, would it?  Grofield isn’t a beast at bay.

And as Parker keeps ahead of his pursuers, fighting off hunger, cold, fatigue, looking for a chance to break out of this cage, he manages to pick isolated members of the hunting party off, one by one–in person, and through his traps.  And they are starting to become afraid of him.  He’s good with those knives.  He kills one guy with a thrown knife who was surveying the park from one of those cable sky-rides.  And I thought those things were supposed to be 100% safe.

But he still needs a gun.   Then he finds two mobsters in the wax museum.   He takes one wax figure out of a jury box, and takes its place.  Works like a charm–and no, that scene is not in the book version of The Man With the Golden Gun–and the movie was a few years off.  Hmm.  Well, the funhouse scene was right out of The Lady From Shanghai. Take a little, give a little.   Anyway–

Parker stepped out in view.  They both had their backs turned.  He set himself, his right hand holding one of the knives up behind his ear, and then threw.

This was a closer target than the other one, and more stationary.  Parker finished the throwing movement and stepped quickly back out of sight again, switching the other knife to his right hand.

He heard it hit, and heard Ed grunt, and heard Ed fall.  If he had Tommy figured right, he would just stand there now, unable to think for a few seconds, too paralyzed by fear to do anything sensible.  A few seconds was all Parker would need.

He stepped out again, and Ed was face-down on the carpet, his left leg stuck up in the air behind him, left ankle hooked over the velvet rope he’d been stepping over when the knife hit him.  And Tommy was staring down at him in disbelief, just the way Parker had thought.

But before he could get set again, Tommy moved.  He didn’t look around, he didn’t fire any shots, he didn’t yell.  All he did was run.  He turned and ran like hell in the opposite direction.

The coward may die a thousand imaginary deaths, but he avoids the real one, more often than not.  Running is still the best survival strategy there is.  Parker’s been using it himself, all through the book, but now he’s got Ed’s Colt Commander .38, with a nine bullet clip, so the game has changed.

Yeah sure, I’ve got time to grab an image–sometimes I think there are more pictures of naked guns than naked women on the internet.  Sometimes that worries me, but comes in handy when you’re reviewing a Parker novel.

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So now we’re in endgame.  Parker finds a way to use Fun Island’s canal system, part of a boat ride attraction, to get past most of Lozini’s men, and get near the gates.  Which are guarded, of course–but he’s got an idea.  The cops had to go off for a bit, to avoid their superiors noticing they aren’t actually doing their jobs.  Now they’re back.  Parker braces them with the Commander, and makes O’Hara strip–then ties him up–then puts on his uniform.  He tells Dunstan that he’s going to pretend he’s taking his injured partner out to get medical attention.  Dunstan, like Tommy, appreciates the virtues of cowardice.

So they’re making their way out, and then Lozini shows up in a golf cart–he was a bit harsh with O’Hara earlier, they had words, he wants to make up for it.  He gives them a ride outside.   Parker almost gets to kill him, but turns out Lozini is a coward too, even though he’s been talking it up how he’s going to kill this punk heister with his bare hands once he gets him.  When he realizes this is the punk heister, he runs like hell, and yells for his flunkies, who come out shooting, but Parker’s in the squad car by then, having shot out the tires of the mob cars, and he’s moving too fast for them to hit him.  He reaches the car he and his partners had stashed for the second part of the getaway.  Dry clothes inside.  He drives for an hour before he even stops to change.

Last chapter is him making it back to Colliver Pond–he goes to sit out on the back porch, taking the sun–sees children biking over the frozen lake, with a dog skidding after them–very Norman Rockwell (and just like the actual Norman Rockwell, things are never as wholesome as they seem).  Claire gets home, and for once, he’s not in the mood for sex after a job–that’s how she knows he’s had a really tough couple of days at the office.  She wants to hear the whole story, and he gives it to her–she doesn’t seem much perturbed by his close call–he’s here now.   At this point, Claire probably thinks Parker could survive anything.   We’re not so sure she’s wrong.

It’s hardly a triumph, as he sees it.  He couldn’t get back to the money.   It’s still hidden (without any evident sense of irony) inside a boat full of fake pirates in one of the blacklight rides.  If the mobsters want it badly enough, they’ll find out where it is.  But Parker knows where they are too.   When he’s ready, he’ll get his money.  One way or another.   This isn’t over, as far as he’s concerned.  But it can wait.

So if you’ve read the book, you know how much I left out of that–how many little vignettes, detailed descriptions, intricate maneuvers, and most of all the characters–lots and lots of characters, and not just your standard disposable action movie ‘red shirts’.   You don’t necessarily feel sorry for them, but you do realize they’re people.  They want to go home as much as Parker does.

But what’s different is that all of them, to one extent or another, are organization men–cops and mobsters.  Cops who work for mobsters.  Dogs heeding their master’s voice, but of the ones who get developed, who are the ones that make it?  The ones that listen to the little voice inside that says “screw the boss, I want to live.”  Obviously complicated by the fact that this particular boss might kill them too, so they can’t just say “hell no, I won’t go.”

Parker himself is no coward, but he spends most of the book running–never once stands and fights, unless he has no choice, or the situation is advantageous to him.  He never fools himself about his nature, as Rainsford does at the beginning of The Most Dangerous Game–yes, he’s a hunter (he’s The Hunter), but all so-called ‘apex predators’ can be hunted in their turn, and their response to that is usually to turn tail and flee, if they can.  Only humans are ever stupid enough to think they have dealt themselves out of the game of life and death. This is very much along the lines of what we were told in Deadly Edge–all that matters is survival.  He lives to fight another day because he runs away.  It just happens he looks incredibly cool running away, because Richard Stark is writing this book.

Now there’s no need to read anything more into this than what it is–an homage to a legendary short story, and a cracking good survival yarn in its own right.  But with Westlake, it may never be quite that simple.  He’s tricky that way.  He likes to sneak those messages in there.

What’s going on in the early 70’s–well, young American men are dying–a whole lot of them–not in an amusement park–in a distant jungle-covered country, that was supposed to be a walk in the park for the most powerful nation on earth.  We went in there with every possible material and strategic advantage–except we didn’t know the terrain well enough.   We didn’t know our enemy well enough.   We didn’t know ourselves well enough.  And what were the Viet Cong best known for?   Booby traps.  Hmm.  Well, it’s just a thought.

There’s lots of more obvious ‘easter eggs’ in there–like when Parker disappears inside the theater–we know how he did it, but the mob guys can’t figure it out–Dunstan, a fan of mystery novels, says that in a locked-room mystery, the solution would be that the guy they were after was one of them all along–that’s why they couldn’t find him, because he just blended back into their ranks.  It’s a great idea.  It’s also the kind of thing that only happens in mystery novels (like, for example, Tucker Coe novels).

It always surprises me a bit that the two cops, O’Hara and Dunstan, make it out of the book alive.  Of course, if either man died, it would raise too many questions, expose too many secrets–and Westlake clearly intended Parker to come back to this small midwestern city in the near future (which is not Buffalo NY, no matter what Darwyn Cooke says–I’m sure he had some good reason for doing that, but Buffalo never had an amusement park, and we’re told very specifically that Parker is two thousand miles away from the house in New Jersey–Buffalo is a long drive from Northwestern New Jersey, but not that long).

O’Hara in particular seems absolutely ripe for a comeuppance, feeling as he does that he has every right to consider himself a cop while being in the employ of criminals.  It’s him Parker is reacting to when he thinks “Cops tend to have pride where their brains ought to be”, watching him having it out with an enraged Lozini in the theater, and eventually deciding he’d rather be a live flunky than a dead hero.  And he makes the same choice when Parker points a gun at him and tells him to strip–survival winning out over pride once more.  So I guess he earned his right to go on living a while longer–as Stark sees it.  Doesn’t get any of that money though.  Who does?  That’s a few books off yet.

Right around this time, Westlake may have been starting to work up a very different (and in my opinion, even better) crime story (originally in screenplay format), also involving cops and mobsters, but there the cops are the heroes–well, that’s not quite the right word.  I’ll see if I can find a better one.  He did like to multi-task–and ideas from one project would invariably slop over into some of the others.  As I’ve said, one of the reasons I am sticking to rough chronological order (exact chronological order being almost impossible to figure out, given all the multi-tasking)  is to pick up on this kind of thing, that can easily be overlooked if you’re reading the books out of order.

I hope we get a vigorous discussion in the comments section, because I feel certain I’ve left some good stuff out.  But maybe it’s time to let this one go, because next up in the queue is another deceptively short book with even more twists and turns in it, a wealth of details, not to mention a black bi-sexual gourmet safecracker, along with the debut of a certain chain-smoking check-out girl, and I’m going to need some time to process this one.   Yeah, Dortmunder’s back.  And he’s back to stay.  You can take that to the bank.  Or hey–why not just take the bank?

PS: I don’t really love the cover for the Italian edition up top (that guy is way too pretty to be Parker), but I had to include it, for the glory of that pun–“Luna-Parker”.  Which means one thing in Italian, but another thing entirely in English, if you know your Coney Island history.  See you in Dreamland.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: Deadly Edge

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Jessup was half-good, which is the other side of being half-assed.  He knew how to do some things right but he wasn’t careful enough, he didn’t follow through on the reasons for doing this or that or the other.  He would be one of those people who live their lives as a movie, in which they star and direct and write the story.  That kind goes for drama, like traveling with a Manny.  Or the way they  handled Keegan.  Or what they did to Claire with Morris’ body.  And a man like that won’t crawl across a floor to a doorway, not if his life depends on it.

That was the edge Parker had; he knew that survival was more important than heroics.  It isn’t how you play the game, it’s whether you win or lose.

Up to now, the Parker novels were all paperback originals, that never saw a hardcover edition, and could be found at newsstands, drug stores, and other places cheap tawdry books were sold.  No coincidence that in Adios, Scheherazade, Westlake had an alternate universe version of Stark, named Rod Cox (who has a contract with a paperback house called ‘Silver Stripe’) appear as the now-successful author who started out doing near-porn, and is farming out his pseudonym.  The joke there is that Rod isn’t really respectable either.  Respectable authors get published in hardcover, then reprinted in paperback.   The crime paperbacks are right next to the smut at the newsstand.

Westlake had stopped publishing books under his own name at Random House, because he’d signed on with Simon & Schuster–but only as Westlake.   As Tucker Coe, he’d continued to publish books for their hardcover mystery division.  Now Richard Stark would join Coe there.  The Grofield novels written as Stark had already seen hardcover publication at MacMillan’s Cock Robin mystery division–which come to think of it, is probably one reason why the first three Grofields weren’t heist stories.   The typical Stark narrative didn’t fit the publishing niche.

But Westlake obviously continued to maintain professional ties with his first major publisher, and somehow it was arranged for Parker to come over there, as his relationship with Gold Medal fizzled out, along with the market for paperback originals.  That deliciously lurid era of publishing was coming to a close.  Parker and his ilk would need to find alternative venues for their exploits.

Please note that Deadly Edge was not, like most prior Westlake novels for this publisher, referred to as a ‘Random House Mystery’ on the cover.  It doesn’t seem to have been put out specifically by the mystery division there.  It’s just a novel published by Random House.  Unknown whether Lee Wright, the Random House editor Westlake most esteemed, was involved with it, though if it was up to him, she surely would have been.

Most houses were reorganizing themselves at this time, as the business changed, so maybe this wasn’t such an issue anymore.   But this isn’t labeled a mystery, nor is it from some peripheral imprint of a large house–this is a mainstream book from a mainstream publisher (the mainstream publisher).  It isn’t a paperback original, so it’s not being specifically marketed to men, as crime paperbacks invariably were.  Hardcover mysteries, as Westlake said, were marketed more to women, but this isn’t a mystery either, in the conventional sense.  So what audience is it aiming for?

Westlake, and presumably Wright (if she was involved) would know that Parker’s fanbase was a great deal more diverse than might have been thought.  Women did read Parker novels (and still do).  Men weren’t going to stop buying them just because they were hardcovers and you had to go into a real bookstore to buy one (horrors).

And leaving the gender issues aside, the times they are a’ changin–and Parker has at times seemed to be operating in a dimension where the 1930’s never ended, and Dillinger is still Public Enemy #1 (while somehow Parker never makes the list at all).

This worked because Parker himself is so clearly oblivious to social changes that don’t directly impact the way he does business.  For example, he knows that the electronic transfer of funds is becoming more and more prevalent, because it’s harder and harder to find large amounts of cash that aren’t too well guarded to heist, which makes him more likely to take a risk on an unconventional score if there’s a lot of cash involved.  He may notice men’s clothing just enough so that he can dress himself without standing out in a crowd.  Most changes in the world around him are just surface noise to him, not relevant, and therefore ignored.

But for the reader, there’s an increasing dissonance to the way Parker lives and lets die in this ever-changing world in which we live in–meaning that maybe it’s time for that to change.  For example, maybe it’s time for him to stop living in hotels all year ’round–give him a base of operations, something more down to earth.  And maybe the way the books are written, the style itself, has to be updated a bit.  Without losing everything that makes the books unique.  And maybe Parker himself has to be updated slightly, but that’s going to be harder.   That’s going to take some real finesse.   Can Stark do finesse?

One thing that clearly had to be updated was the depiction of organized crime.  Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was published in 1969, and while the mob has never been 100% Italian (crime is everybody’s thing), to show it as anything other than Italian-run was just not going to be credible anymore, and certainly not in an urban setting.  Parker had done extremely well against the seemingly WASP and Irish dominated organization known as The Outfit (which would be shown to still exist on some level), but could he hack it in the world of La Cosa Nostra?  In three of the next four books, he’d be given a chance to prove he could.

This book would have been written around the same time as the final Grofield outing, Lemons Never Lie, and shares a fair few plot points with it.  In both books we see the protagonist in an unconventional domestic setting with his female companion of choice, and in both cases he’s got to leave that domestic scene to take care of business, leaving his woman undefended.  But Parker is not Grofield, and things arrange themselves quite differently in most respects.

The first real change is that the book opens right at the start of a heist, which neither Stark nor Westlake had ever done before (though Jim Thompson had, in The Getaway).  None of the novels had opened with the classic “When such and such happened, Parker did something” riff since The Seventh in ’66, none would again until Comeback in ’97, but the opening to this one in ’71 is radically different, not even mentioning Parker’s name or describing any significant action until the second paragraph.  That had never happened before, and it never happened again–in all prior and subsequent novels, Parker is there in the very first sentence.  Doing stuff.

Parker is working with a solid string of pros, guys we haven’t seen before, and they’re standing on the roof of an old theater, the Civic Auditorium in an unnamed city, which is going to be demolished soon, part of an urban renewal program–change is in the air, literally–they can feel the vibrations of a rock concert going on below them, and as they cut their way through the roof, the music gets louder and louder.

Their objective is the box office take, all in cash, because of the impending switch-over to the new theater.   Ticketron had gotten started a few years earlier–a lot fewer people buying their tickets right there at the theater on the day of the concert, but they have no choice this time, and it’s a big concert, featuring several popular bands.   Not the first time Parker has come into contact with rock&roll–remember Paul Brock’s little record store in the Village, in The Sour Lemon Score?–but this is the first real acknowledgement that rock is now the dominant musical form, something that Westlake the jazz buff must have had mixed emotions about.

Since Parker cares nothing for music, Stark expresses that conflict through the other members of the string.  There’s Keegan, the capable but nervous and pessimistic electrical expert, Briley, the lanky affable Tennessean, and Morris, youngest of the group–a member of the rock generation, who would probably be going to see this concert if he wasn’t in the process of robbing it.

Keegan and Briley get into a bit of a musical debate as they make their way down through the breached roof into the building, and the music keeps getting louder.

“Listen to that music,” Keegan said peevishly.  “What the hell ever happened to jazz?”

“It’s still there,” Briley said, going over to the filing cabinets, “in the same gin mills it always was.  When did jazz ever play a joint like this?”

“Jazz at the Phil,” Keegan said.  “I used to have all those records, before that time I got sent up.”

“Jazz at the Phil,” Briley said scornfully.  “Fake.”  He opened a file drawer.  “Empty!  There’s a break.”

“What do you mean, fake?  All the greats were on Jazz at the Phil.”

“Okay,” Briley said.  “Give us a hand here, will you?”

Keegan went over to help him move the filing cabinet.  “I don’t know how you can call them a fake.  My God!  Lester Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges–”

“I guess you’re right,” Briley said, grinning.  “I must have been thinking of something else.”

(Keegan isn’t quite the jazz maven he thinks he is–he’s conflating Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, both of whom participated in the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts and recordings produced by Norman Granz, which many an old school purist did sniff at, but which remain brilliant records to this day.  Westlake, who probably had all those records himself, knows full well that the kvetchy Keegan made a mistake–maybe Briley does too, and doesn’t want to rile his partner in crime up any more.  That’s a real inside baseball joke, and just the kind of thing Westlake loved to do–there for the people sharp enough to spot it–and I missed it the first time I read this one, so some maven I am).

Part One of the book is nothing but the heist, and it’s a good one, offbeat yet believable, very much in the now, no sense of anachronism, except to the extent that Parker himself is an anachronism, and always has been.  Not truly a part of any era he might find himself in.  The guns he and his colleagues are using are quite contemporary by contrast–three Smith & Wesson Model 39’s, which went on the market in 1955, and were still being used by U.S. Navy SEALs.  Parker atypically hangs onto his after the job is done, for reasons we’ll get to shortly.

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The job goes smoothly, with just a few minor wrinkles.  Nobody gets hurt, and they score a decent haul, nothing amazing–about 16g’s a man.  Stark heisters tend to be percentage players.  Still and all, according to an inflation calculator I just checked, sixteen thousand dollars then had almost the same purchasing power as one hundred thousand dollars today.  And lest we forget, tax free.  Parker’s presumably still submitting a tax return, but he’s not reporting this income.

He’s still caching part of his split, and bringing the rest back to Claire.  It’s been about four years since the events of The Jugger forced him to start over from scratch–that matches up with what we’re told in Lemons Never Lie–obviously, since they were written around the same time.

Anyway, Part One is just prologue.  This one isn’t really about the heist itself.  None of Parker’s colleagues try to pull a cross, they have no troubles with the law, they get back to the hideout and divide the loot four ways, and after waiting a few days for things to calm down, they all head off to spend their ill-gotten gains.

There’s just one complication–a fifth man, Berridge, opted out of the job at the last minute, supposedly because he’d decided he was too old to hack it in the heisting world anymore.  But there he is at the hideout–dead.  Somebody killed him, and it wasn’t a clean job. His head was caved in with a wrench.  This isn’t a murder mystery.  So they don’t try to solve the murder.  But maybe they should have.

Part Two picks up with Parker meeting Claire at a house she’s just purchased for them in Northwestern New Jersey.   It’s on a small lake called Colliver Pond, and is located within a few miles of the borders of New York State and Pennsylvania, which means it has to be in Sussex County.  Not a lot of people are familiar with that part of the state.   It’s very rural, quite remote, even though it’s less than a hundred miles from Manhattan.  Pretty country–not the part of the state I grew up in (see my review of The Man With the Getaway Face), but I’ve spent a little time there.  Lot of black bears in Sussex.  No wolves, up to now.

Claire is feeling the nesting impulse.  She’s tired of swanky hotels in Florida and New Orleans and such.  It’s been fun, they can still do it sometimes, but she wants a place of her own–security (Parker might not come back someday, and then what?).  She’s taken Parker’s peculiar needs into account–two state lines nearby–little in the way of local law–the houses around the lake are mainly summer homes, so there are few people around most of the year–they can go somewhere else in the summer.   Probably gets damn cold in the winter, but that won’t be a problem.   She makes that point quite adequately when she joins Parker in the shower.

This is the last book to feature Claire as a major POV character, and to get into her head to any great extent.  It’s definitely the most ‘domestic’ of the Parkers, and I have to think this is at least partly because of the assumption (accurate or not) that more women would be reading Parker novels now that they were in hardcover, so you had to make him seem like a better boyfriend (though I suspect many if not most female Parker fans are identifying with him, not Claire).  At one point, talking to him on the phone she thinks “His voice is very dear to me”–possibly the first person to ever react to his voice that way.   She’s not quite the same kind of fantasy she was before.  She is, for all intents and purposes, his wife.  At least in her mind.

Parker’s mind is harder to plumb, as always.  He’s being as accommodating as he can with Claire, making a conscious effort to appear interested in the house, genuinely pleased at how much thought she put into it, but it’s impossible for him to think of any structure, any geographic location, as home.   To the extent he has a home, she’s it.

He is compelled, as we have seen, to have a woman he can go back to after a job–a mate.  He doesn’t stay with any one woman very long in the first eight books–not after Lynn betrayed him.  Claire represented a return to his old pattern, but it’s not the same as it was with Lynn.  He thinks to himself here that Lynn was hard, but she broke–Claire isn’t hard, but he believes she won’t break–more resilient, more intelligent, more adaptable.

He couldn’t handle being a free agent indefinitely; it was too destabilizing, too far from his instinctive drives.   Does he love her?   We’ve been over this before.  If a wolf can love, Parker loves Claire.  And there’s considerable evidence wolves can love.  But not as we do.  Perhaps that’s too bad for us.  Stark clearly thinks so.

Claire has up to now avoided getting too sentimental about their relationship as well, but now that she’s got a house to wait for him in (purchased with the proceeds of his heists), the relationship has progressed for her.  She doesn’t mind him being away, we’re told, because it’s pleasurable to think about him coming back, in his usual post-heist state of sexual excitement.  She’s got her own domain now.  Once he steps into the house, and then leaves, it’s really hers.  She’s invested in it–maybe a little too invested.

Parker gets a call from Handy McKay a few days after his return–Handy had gotten some panicked-sounding phone calls from Keegan–something’s wrong, and he needs to talk to Parker directly, but he can’t leave a number because he’s on the move.  Impressed by the sense of urgency he heard in the man’s voice, Handy gave Keegan the number of Claire’s house, which could be used to obtain its location.   But Keegan never called.  Parker has to go find out what’s going on (as he did when Joe Sheer wrote him in The Jugger).  He wants Claire to go stay at a hotel in New York until he comes back.

And she won’t go.  She’s just found this place, and she can’t abandon it.  Her instinctive drives are as strong as his, and they’re telling her she has to stay.  Parker doesn’t like it, but his drives are telling him to get on the trail before the scent goes cold.  As she watches him leave, Claire wonders if women are as much a mystery to men as men are to women–she still hasn’t quite come to terms with who–and what–she’s living with.

The rest of Part Two is Parker traveling, finding Keegan not merely dead, but nailed to the wall–he’d clearly been tortured by somebody who is really into torture (I’m tempted to make a Cheney joke, but never mind).  Knowing now that there’s a real problem, Parker tries once more, over the phone, to get Claire to pull up stakes and leave the house, before whoever is tracking down the concert heisters one by one makes it to Colliver Pond.  She just won’t do it.  He’s frustrated, and in his own unemotive way, worried.   He tells her to remove any vestige of his presence from the house, and if anybody comes looking for him, say she’s just his answering service.

He goes looking for Briley, and in the process runs into a small branch of the Italian mob–their first real appearance in the series.  Somebody looking for Briley killed a woman who ran a mob brothel, and the local capo wants Parker to help them find whoever did it–Parker says he works alone.  He doesn’t always, of course, but it would take too long to explain, and you know how much he hates explanations.

The boss puts a tail on him.   He lures them into a trap, disables their car, leaves them there.  They say he’ll never get away with it; they’re national, and he’s just one guy.  He’s heard that song before.  He’ll be hearing it again before long.

When the mobsters pat him down for weapons, we find out Parker sometimes carries a knife in a sheath on his back–he can reach back for it and throw it, often hitting the target–a neat trick, if somebody has a gun on you and makes you put your hands behind your head.   We never actually see him do this, but his knife-throwing skills factor pretty heavily into the next book, and Westlake wanted to set that up in advance.

Parker finds Briley dying–he offers no assistance, not that there’s anything he could do–and he finds something else–evidence of drug use by at least one of the people who killed Briley.   These are not your typical old school pros.  They’re effective, dangerous, unconventional–but sloppy.  Amateurs.  Again with the amateurs.

After he leaves Briley, still breathing but basically dead, Parker goes to a nearby diner, and calls Claire.  She answers him very formally, addresses him as Mr. Parker.   He gets the message.   They’ve arrived.

Part Three is all Claire and the longest time we’ve spent in any character’s mind other than Parker’s since the early days of the series.  The structure is different here–in the past, Part Three was usually switching from one character to another, chapter by chapter, and then we’re back inside Parker’s head for Part Four.  Here we stick with Claire the whole way.  It’s her show, and she’s not enjoying it much.

In the days following Parker’s departure, she whiles away the time in her new domicile, enjoying the life she’s found for herself, the secret heister’s moll–it’s a great fantasy.   Nobody around her knows her secret–just going out to dinner with Parker is a thrill.   Nobody knows she’s involved with one of the most dangerous men on the planet.   Does she?  Yes and no.  She can be very honest with herself at times, very self-deceptive at others–it’s a coping mechanism.   We all have them.

After Parker calls her, and she refuses to leave, she sets out to prepare herself for whoever might be showing up–she increasingly realizes, as Parker knew all along, that your typical country home, full of doors and windows, is not easy to defend.

She buys a hunting rifle, and teaches herself how to use it–it’s the ladies home edition of the type of outfitting we see Parker do all the time–unlike Parker, she can just walk into a sporting goods store and buy a gun.  She also tries to get a dog, but there are none for sale right now who would be any use as guardians.  We hear her thinking she’d love to get a puppy and train it–that would have been interesting, if she’d gone through with it–how would the dog react to Parker?  How would Parker react to the dog?  We’ll never know.

Did Westlake ever have the “Let’s get a dog” discussion with any of his wives?   By this time he was living out in the country himself, and then he’d be traveling for work, and of course it would come up, and he wouldn’t want to say “I don’t want a dog because they scare me.”  He’d see the logic behind having one–even a friendly dog is a deterrent to most burglars, and I know it was one reason my dad got us a dog when I was growing up–he traveled a lot.   Westlake frequently mentions that people who live out in the country keep dogs for protection.   But it’s pretty clear the Westlakes never had one, and neither will Claire.

She gets back to the house, walks in, and then realizes she’s not alone.  There’s this weird-looking vaguely hippie-ish man on the couch, who is apparently tripping out.  Then she turns around and there’s another one–also dressed a bit wild, with his hair frizzed out like an Afro, wearing a fringed leather jacket.  The guy on the couch is Manny.  The other one is Jessup.   It’s really hard to say which is worse.

This is not a book about psychotic hippies.  That’s just to give it a more contemporary spin.  There’s no attempt by Stark to get into their heads, tell us anything much about their past, why they dress like that, who they are.  Claire and Parker will have to try and understand them, but only for the purposes of survival.  Westlake probably had his reservations about the counter-culture, but he’d dealt with it sympathetically in the past, and would again later.

The real point of these guys isn’t what subculture they’re from–it’s that they are amateurs who don’t know where to draw the line, or that any line exists.  They smell money, and they want it.  They don’t care what they have to do to get it.  They don’t care who they hurt.  They have a certain loyalty to each other, and they don’t think of themselves as bad guys, but real bad guys never do.  In some ways, they’re like Parker, but without the self-knowledge, or the self-control.  Claire compares both of them to wild animals in her mind, but the only animal that ever behaves like these guys is homo sapiens sapiens.

Jessup in particular feels familiar–we’ve seen variations on this guy in the past.  Matt Rosenstein in The Sour Lemon Score, who was sort of in Parker’s subculture, but not really–only half a pro–he enjoyed the violence too much.  His physical description is very reminiscent of Bruce Maundy from A Jade in Aries–I’m guessing these characters are all based on somebody from Westlake’s past–you know how Michelangelo put some guy whose guts he really hated in hell on the Sistine Chapel ceiling?  Like that.

So Claire plays the role Parker instructed her to play–she knows nothing, she’s just the answering service.  She’s just a little mouse, as she puts it.  She’s had to deal with dangerous men before.  Jessup takes a good look at her, and rape is in his mind, but she gets it out by fooling him into thinking she’s got some exotic kind of clap.  For which he gives her a morally disapproving look–like I said, no self-awareness at all.   There are so many people like this in the world, you wouldn’t believe it.  Or maybe you would.

Manny is much more abstracted than Jessup.  Well to put it another way, he’s nuts.  He wants Claire to play a game called ‘Surrealism’–there are actually a lot of mind games associated with that artistic movement, but Manny seems to have come up with his own, where you pick a famous person, and then guess what kind of car they’d be, and like that.  Manny can go from childish delight to fiendish rage in a heartbeat, so she has to step lightly.

So she plays the various games as best she can with these two guys, and when Parker calls, she lets him know what’s going on, without alerting Jessup (the brains of the outfit, such as they are).   She hopes he’s not too far off.

They’re sitting down to a sort of pseudo-Mexican dinner Jessup cooked up, when the doorbell rings–it’s Morris.  You remember–the young member of the string–the rocker.  They’ve been looking for him, but he found them first.  Only he’s not quite sure at first who they are.  He sits down at the table with them–Claire can’t tell him anything without admitting she’s not who she’s been claiming to be–and he tells them a story.

Turns out Berridge had a grandson, who had a friend, and they found out about the money.  Berridge refused to help them, and they killed him.  Then they followed Keegan, and he gave them enough leads to find the others, except for Morris.  Only see, they thought there was a lot more than there actually was–they didn’t believe Keegan when he said all he had was 16 grand.  No sense of real-world limitations.

And just as Morris decides yeah, these are the guys, and draws down on them–well, he waited a bit too long.  They get the jump on him, and good-bye Morris.

And as Part Three concludes, Claire, having barricaded herself in the bedroom, is realizing she’s got no more cards to play–she’s witnessed them commit a murder.   They are not going to let her live.  They probably wouldn’t have anyway.  They trick her into emptying her rifle into Morris’ dead body on the porch.  Then they break in and grab her.

But then it’s Part Four, and you know what that means.  Parker’s here.  We see the last few hours from his perspective–he stole a rowboat on the other side of the lake, and came across quietly.   He gets there just as Jessup and Manny break into Claire’s room–and he puts a bullet in Manny’s arm.  It’s not hard to freak out guys like this–they’re both cowards, as Claire contemptuously tells Parker–their nerve tends to fail at critical moments.

They run for their car–a Corvette, so either they stole it or they’ve been spending Keegan’s money damn fast–and try to get the hell out of Dodge.  But Parker shoots out a few of their tires, so they can’t get far.  He’s ready to end this.  They’ve triggered that itch in his head that he can only scratch by killing whoever caused it.

Claire fills Parker in, and her information, combined with what he’s already learned, gives him insight into how these guys think.  Enough to track them to an empty house nearby.  Where he finds Manny tripping out again (of course).  He creeps upstairs, through the darkened boarded-up house, lit up by one candle stuck in a wine bottle.  He’s got to be careful how he disposes of them–he doesn’t want to leave blood on the floor if he can help it–nothing that might trigger alarm bells with the local law.  He wants to kill these men in such a way as that nobody will ever connect their deaths to Colliver Pond.

So Parker has to use his hands–he finds Jessup in the dark, and begins to throttle the life out of him–but Manny, alerted by Jessup’s screams, comes in with a tiny .22 pistol, and tells him to stop.  Jessup is half-dead by then, desperately in need of medical attention, so Parker tells Manny he’s going to need Parker to carry Jessup to the car, and drive him to the doctor.  Without Jessup to think for him, Manny is easy to fool.  But still cagey enough to sit in the back, with the gun pointed at Parker’s head.

Now Parker has to get them just a few miles away from there, so some other police department will be dealing with their corpses.   Jessup comes to, and starts whispering to Manny through his badly damaged larynx–he knows Parker was doing more damage to his throat, even as he was carrying Jessup down to the car.  He knows what’s coming, but it’s already too late.   Parker is driving too fast.   Shoot him, they all die.   He makes it to a turn-off on the highway, and then into a construction site, and then he leaps from the speeding car, which collides with a tractor.

Parker’s legs are bruised, but he’s otherwise unhurt.  And still armed.  Manny never thought to take his gun.   How have these two clowns made it this far?  Jessup is out of the car, firing at him, and there’s a brief stalemate.  That ends when Manny starts shrieking like the damned.  Between his wounded arm and the crash, he’s in too much pain–he took a huge dose of the hallucinogenic drug he’s been using.  His mind is collapsing on itself.   And Jessup can’t take it.  As twisted as their friendship might be, it’s all he’s got, and as Parker already knew, he lives for the drama.  He runs out into the open to help his partner.  And Parker shoots him.  Then Manny.  At this point, it’s the merciful thing to do.   Not that mercy is even remotely the point.

He gets a ride back to Colliver Pond from a friendly farmer.  He tells Claire they won’t be back.  She knows what that means.  She isn’t exactly glad, but she’s not the least bit sorry.  Knowing the monsters are dead, she beckons to the far more terrible monster she lives with to join her on the couch, by the fire.  The monster does so, and stares moodily into the flames.  Thinking surprisingly human thoughts.  He wishes she hadn’t turned the lights off, and lit that fire.  It reminds him of the candle light in the dark house he found Manny and Jessup in.  But he knows she meant it to be romantic, so he lets it go.  He can be flexible.  She’s worth it to him.  She’s all the home he’ll ever have.

It’d be interesting to compare this book with Ripley Under Ground, the second book of the so-called ‘Ripliad’, which was published about a year before Deadly Edge.  It’s barely possible Westlake read it before writing his radically different blue collar take on the same basic story.  I kind of doubt he did–timing’s a bit close–and yet–the American edition was published by (wait for it)–Random House.  Anyway, it’d be interesting to make the comparison, but I haven’t read any of the Ripleys yet (been saving them for a rainy day).  I’ll do a Westlake/Highsmith piece one of these days.  Going to have to, eventually.

Parker isn’t like Ripley–that much I know.  Ripley needs to own things–he got started on his life of crime because of that desire to possess.   He does want a home, a sense of place, culture, to make up for a certain blankness within himself.  Parker has no such desires.  Blankness is his natural state of being, except when he’s working (or with Claire, playing).  The house is just a house to him.  He could walk away from it without a backward glance, but Claire couldn’t. She’s lived there like five minutes, and it’s already a part of her.

As soon as Parker goes to hunt down Jessup and Manny, she starts cleaning it–to make it hers again.  Before he does anything else, she makes him get rid of Morris’ body.  It isn’t that she’s weak.   It’s that she’s hanging onto something–something she desperately needs.  And he doesn’t understand that need at all.  He never could.

The book is about this dichotomy in their natures, and yet, as Parker muses, with those rare flashes of what might be called empathy that we get from him now and then, he can see that it’s not entirely different from the way he gets sometimes–the way he does things that make no sense in certain situations.

He looked at her, and understood vaguely that there was something in her head about the idea of home that wasn’t in his head and never would be.  The world could go to hell if it wanted, but she would put her home in order again before thinking about anything else.

He tried to find something in his own mind to relate that to, so he could understand it better, and the only thing he came up with was betrayal.  If someone double-crossed him in a job, tried to take Parker’s share of the split, or betray him to the law, everything else became unimportant until he had evened the score.  And like the two tonight, Manny and Jessup; there was no way that Parker was not going to settle with them for the insult of their attack.  In some way, what Claire was into now had to be something like that, with a sense of home instead of a sense of identity.

Identity.  It always comes down to that in a Westlake novel, but the word itself appears only rarely in his books, as if he’s trying to hide the central theme of his work from us, make us work for it.  And yet here he’s putting it into the head of his most nonverbal and uncommunicative protagonist.  Perhaps because he was, in a sense, reintroducing Parker here, to the new world of ‘respectable’ hardcover publishing, and he felt the need to make things a little more clear than usual.  Or perhaps because as Mary makes Grofield more three-dimensional in Lemons Never Lie, Claire makes Parker just a bit more human. But underneath, he’s still the same predator he was before.

At one point, she compares him to a gorilla–to which he responds “Gorillas have mates.”  Yes, but they don’t hunt.  Wolves do.  And are hunted in return, by men.  And in the next book in the queue, Parker finds himself hunted as never before.  But the hunters in that book don’t know their quarry at all, and it will cost them dearly.  Forget ‘Surrealism.’  Parker is the most dangerous game of all.

(Very belated postscript–Wikipedia gave me a bum steer–the first edition of Ripley Under Ground was published by Doubleday, not Random House.  One of the few major houses Westlake never worked with (I don’t think they even reprinted any of his books).  So the odds of his getting a sneak peek are very poor, making the timing very close indeed for Westlake to have been influenced by it.  I’ve read the Ripley book now, and the differences are a lot more striking than the similarities.   However, there’s this one scene–involving a hung effigy–that makes me wonder if I was right after all.  And I’m still a long way off from writing that Westlake/Highsmith piece.  But if Westlake did read Ripley Under Ground before writing Deadly Edge, it would be no more plagiarism than Bach doing a variation on a theme by Vivaldi doing a variation on a theme by Bach doing a variation on etc.–and yes, in this analogy, Westlake is Bach.  There’s nothing insulting about being compared to Vivaldi.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: I Gave At The Office

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First of all, let me say here and now that I am behind the Network on this, and I do mean totally.  I have been a Network man for twelve years, and I would never purposefully do anything to harm the Network or stain its name.  Its initials; stain its initials.

I’m not even going to use its initials.  We know who we’re talking about.  You, whoever you are from the legal department, listening to this report, you know what Network you’re in the legal department of; you know in what building you are riding up and down in the elevator listening to this report.  Why should I tell you things we both already know when there’s so much to tell you that  you don’t know and should know if we’re going to get the Network off the hook on this thing.

From I Gave At The Office, by Donald E. Westlake.

There came the point when Random House (which had published my first eleven books and was already doing the Tucker Coes) had to decide whether or not to extend a little more for me or not.  My agent put them into a competitive position with Simon & Schuster, who promised me the world and the stars and the moon, and Random House dropped out of the bidding, though Coe stayed there and later the Parker series went there.  (Parker is still there.  Lee Wright, the woman editor at Random House, is the top of the pyramid in the mystery field and has been ever since she started Inner Sanctum at Simon & Schuster, back in the thirties.)  S&S turned out not to have the moon and the stars, nor much of the world, and after five books we skedaddled (that’s not the editorial we, that’s my agent and I) to M. Evans, where I’m just so happy I skip and dance and go tra-la-la all day.

Donald E. Westlake, responding to Albert Nussbaum.

Donald Westlake did not have a long or happy tenure at Simon & Schuster, as he made clear in the commentary above (which can be found in The Getaway Car).  After a promising start with The Hot Rock, he published Adios, Scheherazade, then this book we’re going to be looking at now, then Dortmunder’s second outing, and Under an English Heaven, his only substantial foray into non-fiction.  I doubt any of these but the Dortmunders sold very well.  And his new publisher might well have looked a bit askance at his wanting to get outside what was perceived as his proper domain so often.

He does not specify in that response to Nussbaum what the precise problem was, but we can hazard a guess by his specifically mentioning that at Random House he’d worked with Lee Wright.  Ms. Wright, as regulars here should know by now, was Westlake’s all-time favorite book editor, whose praises he took every possible opportunity to sing.

Since he doesn’t mention any editors he knew at S&S, having just invoked Ms. Wright, I would deduce that his editorial relationships there were less productive.  If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

True, he wrote some great books for them–three of my personal favorites.  You’d think having started his most successful franchise there, he’d have warmer memories, if only for that, but he was writing Dortmunder novels as Westlake–and maybe he didn’t want Westlake (as opposed to Stark, or Coe) to get saddled with a series character, at least not right off the bat.  So even there, his emotions might have been mixed.

As evidenced by the creative frustration of the protagonist of Adios, Scheherazade, he was feeling hemmed in as a writer–he could write Parker novels as Stark, or he could write ‘comic capers’ as Westlake, and he wanted to stretch out more.   Presumably, he’d hoped a new publisher would let him achieve that end.  He didn’t need their help to write the kind of book he was already known for–he needed their help to craft and promote the more difficult to pigeonhole work he was itching to put out under his own name.  The kind of work a Lee Wright might be able to help him with, but now only Stark and Coe could make use of her services (and it shows).

So the end result was that having written a very un-Westlakeian type of book for M. Evans as Timothy J. Culver, he ended up going over to them for the rest of the 70’s, and it turned out to be a great partnership.   But we’re not quite there yet.

Now there’s something else needs be said before the review commences–we here at The Westlake Review (that is very much the editorial ‘we’) take our responsibilities seriously.  Even though every Westlake novel being reviewed here has been previously read at least once (and if a Parker novel, probably multiple times) before this blog ever got started, it is always and invariably (and redundantly) read once more just before the review is written.

But not this time.  I skimmed this book (that’s the personal ‘I’).  Just could not summon the attention span to read it word for word.  I reread Who Stole Sassi Manoon cover to cover, and found it worse than I remembered, and called it the worst novel Westlake ever wrote under his own name, and I hold to that statement.   But it’s not the least readable novel he ever wrote under his own name.  That dubious honor may very well belong to I Gave At The Office.

And I still would say it’s far better than Sassi–more original, more developed, with an intriguing premise, an innovative presentation, and many individual moments that are searingly funny, topical yet timeless.   It’s a more mature work, but it possibly needed a few more drafts, and perhaps the tender ministrations of Lee Wright–or Bucklin Moon, Westlake’s other favorite editor at Pocket Books in the early 60’s–ironically, the paperback reprint of this book was published by Pocket (with cover art recycled from the hardcover), which was acquired by Simon & Schuster in 1966–around the same time Parker moved over to Gold Medal, and I tend to doubt that’s a coincidence.

I think, in short, that this could have been remembered as one of his better comic novels if he’d had more time to work on it, and maybe a bit of help figuring out what was wrong with it.  But that may just be me rationalizing why I don’t like it more. It is very rare for me to be rushing through any book of his.  He is one of the most enjoyably re-readable authors I know, but not this time.

Westlake was still in his hyper-prolific stage when he turned this one out–he published four books, including this, in 1971–five, including Under an English Heaven, in 1972.  After that, the work tapered off to what might be called a human level.   Still far more productive than most novelists still worth reading, but human.   It is worth pointing out that 1973 was the year Mr. Westlake turned 40.

And now I have to force myself to talk about the book.  Honestly, it isn’t that bad.  You just get used to them being better, is all.  The thing is, as has often been the case with his lesser books, it contained the seeds of greater ones.   So we can’t bypass it.  Even if we want to.

This is, to my way of thinking, the seventh of the ten ‘Nephew’ books, featuring a naive yet sympathetic male protagonist delaying maturity, who gets drawn into strange and dangerous intrigues, discovering his true self along the way, and typically finding love with a great girl.

And other than the strange and dangerous intrigues, none of that happens in this book, so why do I think that?  Because I think Westlake was getting bored with the Nephew story (I don’t know what he called it, or if he called it anything), and wanted to turn it on its head, find some way to make it new again.   So in a sense, this is an anti-Nephew novel.   Whose hero is, naturally enough, an anti-Nephew.

Jay Fisher is a news announcer, working for an unnamed network.  He is, as he will tell us many times in the book, a company man, undyingly loyal to the network, defending it even when it refuses to defend him.  He has never been one of its top talents, and in fact is best known for going to a fancy Italian restaurant called The Three Mafiosi (Westlake loved good Italian food almost as much as he loved a good joke), located in a corporate office tower, and taping lunchtime interviews with various minor celebrities–their answers to his questions will then be edited together with the same questions Jay asked them being asked by a more famous TV news personality, who doesn’t have the time to come to the restaurant himself.

So self-evidently Jay is not your typical Westlake protagonist–not only is he not his own man, he doesn’t remotely aspire to be–reminiscent of Clay in The Mercenaries, but this is no cool sexy mob enforcer–he’s played for laughs this time.  Jay, like Clay (hmm!) has achieved success as a company man–he’s also a full adult, nearing middle age, with two children and a failed marriage to his credit.   He’s not some young slacker who hasn’t found himself–he’s a grown-up who intends to go on hiding from himself for as long as possible.

He’s no dummy–we see again and again that he’s actually pretty sharp.   But as he insists at one point in the book, he doesn’t have any opinions of his own–he’s not supposed to.  He claims that he, like the network he serves, is ‘a neutral observer of the passing scene.’  He just goes along to get along, and does what he’s told, figuring that’s the only way to live.   And even though his complacent worldview is badly shaken by the events of the book, he never abandons it.  See, you hate him already.   When does the real hero show up?

The book’s story was inspired by a real story about an NBC News Team funding and then filming a group of East Germans digging a tunnel under the Berlin Wall.   It was perhaps not the total fiasco the (presumably) fictional venture in this novel is, but seems like it came close at times.   What Westlake would have found fascinating was the way that these journalists were not merely reporting the news but making it, shaping it to fit a narrative, then confounded when the narrative took on a life of its own (which involved at least one very real death).  Trend-setters, you might say.

Jay gets conned by some shady acquaintances into pitching an idea to the network–that they film gun-runners supplying Cuban Anti-Castro rebels with arms that will be used to overthrow the government of Ilha Pombo Island, a fictional Caribbean country, inhabited by former slaves, and run by a  fat brutal dictator named Mungu, who bears a startling resemblance to Idi Amin (startling because Amin took over Uganda after this book was written, and because Westlake would write a much longer and better-received book about Amin and Uganda a decade later).

The idea is, they use the guns to overthrow Mungu, replace him with Colonel Enhuelco, an exiled former associate of his (who is clearly just like Mungu, only less adept at the use of power), and then the island can be used as a base of operations to take down Castro.   Nobody reading about this is expected to believe it could possibly work, of course.  And how many people still think something like this could work?  Yes, I’m looking at you, Senator Rubio.

In the months that follow, Jay meets and falls for the beautiful blonde Linda McMahon, who entices him by losing her top in the swimming pool, and asking him to retrieve it.   He dates her incessantly, and she gives every indication of being receptive to his ardent advances, but never lets him get very far–with one exception–when he meets her at a rowdy feminist rally, which was probably inspired by the Women’s Strike for Equality, and here we get a rare statement from Mr. Westlake (via Mr. Fisher) on what was then being called Women’s Lib.   And don’t ask me how much of this represents Westlake’s real opinions–Jay is not supposed to be a completely reliable narrator.   Or a politically correct one.

Frankly, I like the Women’s Lib women.  They always make me horny.  They move their bodies around a lot, and jump up and down, and the more excited and strident they get the softer their bodies look.  There’s something very interesting in there about opposites, or action and reaction, or something like that.  Also, most of them in the midtown area are secretaries or researchers or whatnot in the office buildings, and when they’re going to have a demonstration they all take their bras off and leave them in the desk drawer, and when they hit the street their breasts are loose under their blouses or sweaters or dresses, and I kind of like that too.  And then when they jounce around, a lot of them get themselves excited, and pretty soon there’s all these nipples pressing against cloth everywhere you turn, which is also pleasant.

I would say, generally speaking, that I’m in favor of the things the Women’s Lib women want.  I think they ought to get equality of the sexes, I think it would make things a lot easier for men as well as women if we all moved through life with an equal handicap–but not yet.  I’d like to see some more demonstrations first.

(Such a shame Mr. Westlake never lived to see this demonstration.)

So he sees Linda at the rally, seemingly caught up in the excitement, and somehow they end up nearly having sex in a nearby phone booth (still some of them left in 1971, though not for long–remember that gag from the first Superman movie in 1978?), but Jay can’t quite seal the deal, so to speak.   He is, nonetheless, encouraged to go on pressing his suit, now that he knows what a wildcat she can be with the right kind of stimulation.   Viva feminism!

It’s increasingly evident to Jay that the Cubans being recruited for ‘Operation Torch of Liberty’ are not, shall we say, the keenest machetes in the shed, though they often seem smarter than the people documenting their operation.  There are several very funny interviews with them and certain other persons presented throughout the book, and perhaps now is the time to talk about the book’s rather odd format.

The entire book is basically a collection of transcripts.   Most of it is Jay himself, recording his experiences on cassette tapes, which are supposed to be listened to by influential people at the network, who must be made to see that this gun-running debacle was not in any way his fault, and that he remains loyal to the network (even while insinuating that some of the people running the network are perhaps not all they should be).

So each chapter is one side of a cassette, and since Jay can’t tell exactly when the tape will run out (reel to reel had its advantages), the chapters usually end abruptly, in mid-sentence, then he apologizes for that on the next side.  The exception to this is the interviews, which he encourages his colleagues to listen to at certain points in his narrative, to illustrate the problems he was up against.   None of the interviews ever goes the way it’s supposed to go, and I’d say overall they represent the most successful part of the book.

My personal favorite interview is not with the Cubans, or with Mungu (far and away the smoothest interviewee Jay runs into, since he actually understands he’s not talking to Jay but to the American public, and he chooses his words accordingly).  It’s with Mr. Jaekel “Jack” Grahame, the rich arms manufacturer who is providing the guns (at a profit)–who by a strange coincidence, has sold his company to General Texachron (heh, good one), the same humonguous all-encompassing multi-national corporation that owns the network Jay works for, and is headquartered in the same office tower The Three Mafiosi is in.  Small world, huh?

Jay finds this most disconcerting–he can’t summon any feeling of loyalty to a faceless many-headed entity like this, though he is technically their employee.  He just decides not to think about that.   He does that a lot, when faced with troubling revelations.

The dedication to this novel (yes, I know, I digress, it’s that kind of a book) seems to somehow refer to this extreme oddity in a Westlake novel–a very wealthy man whose intellect (as opposed to morals, of which he has none) we are not necessarily supposed to despise–think of him as Westlake’s equivalent of Andrew Undershaft in Shaw’s Major Barbara.

The dedication runs thusly–“To Lee Johnson, who rekindled my faith in the American businessman, I fondly dedicate the following doorstop.”  I know a joke of some kind is being made, but I lack the proper context to decipher it.  And I can’t figure out who Lee Johnson was.  I tried googling him, and came up with didley.  Anybody out there know more about it?  Anyway, here’s a key passage from Jay’s interview with Mr. Grahame, who makes Andrew Undershaft sound a bit lily-livered by comparison.

Q: What would you say, Mr. Grahame, is the morality of the gun?

A: The morality of the gun?  What an odd phrase.  I would say–I would say that the morality of the gun is the morality of its user, wouldn’t you?

Q: Then guns themselves have no moral value?  It depends how they’re used.

A: Guns…The fact of the matter is, you know, the gun is the cornerstone invention of our civilization.  I’ve heard the argument that the automobile is the center, and even heard that television, your medium, is the center, but in point of fact the center is the gun.

Q: Really?

A: The gun is power, that’s obvious.  It is the raw material of power, and power is ultimately the only civilizing influence in the world.  It was the handgun that brought civilization to the American West, for instance.  The gun is the primary tool in situations of mob control, which is to say, in the formation of societies.  The gun determines territorial claims, which is to say national boundaries.  The gun determined that you and I would speak English now, rather than French or Spanish or Portuguese.  The gun determined that we would be here at all, and that the Indian would not be.

Q: The Indian is still here, though isn’t he?

A: Herded into reservations, by men with guns.  If there were no guns, men would not be able to build cities, because all the bricks would be stolen the first night.  If there were no guns, estates like this would be overrun by the scruffy mob.  And as population gets more and more out of hand, the gun will be increasingly the only determinant of which of us will live which sort of life.

Q: You credit guns with the sort of power that most people give to money.

A: Without the gun, most people wouldn’t have their money.  Not for long.  And with the gun, it is possible to get money, women, or whatever else you fancy in life.

Q: Excuse me, Mr. Grahame, your words could be misinterpreted there.  I know you don’t mean to imply approval of armed robbery or rape or—

A: Why not?  I am hardly in a position to favor arms restrictions.  Once we accept the idea that society is valuable, that our civilization was worth the building and continues to be worth the saving, we must take the next step and agree that the tool which built our civilization is also valuable and, to use a moral term, good.  That tool is the gun, and no usage of the gun could be considered evil.   Now, if some dolt takes a pistol and holds up a bank, I would disapprove, but only of his tactics, not his choice of equipment.  His tactics will put him directly in opposition with a superior force of men armed with more guns; that is to say, he will be caught and perhaps shot.  The gun is power, true; it is the central tool of civilization, true; but as with any tool and any form of power, some intelligence must be employed by the operator.

Q: Well then, what should he do instead of robbing a bank?  He wants money, he wants a better life, and your prescription is that he go out and get a gun.  What should he do with it?

A: He should first learn military science, which is, after all, the science of the use of the gun.  And one of the first lessons in military science is, Never attack a superior force.

Q: Except in guerilla warfare.

A: Hit and run, exactly.  Rather than robbing banks, our dolt, if he is a determined loner, would be much better off mugging stray citizens in dark alleys.  You notice how many of our fellow beings in the major cities have independently come to this same conclusion; bank robberies are down, muggings are up.

Q: And you don’t disapprove of mugging.

A: Certainly not, unless I am the one mugged.  But if I strongly needed money, and I had a gun, and you had not, I would certainly mug you.

Q: Heh heh.  Well, then, I guess it’s lucky for me you’re doing well in your business.

A: Yes, it is.

Q: Yes.  Well— Uh—

It goes on like that.   Grahame is not saying “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”–he’s saying “People kill other people with guns, and what else would you expect them to do?”  I think it’s very unlikely the NRA would ever ask him to be a spokesperson.

He has one other key observation to make–

We are all parts of giant American corporations these days.  The world alters, and we all adapt to the new conditions.  As a matter of fact, I foresee the day–probably not in my own lifetime, but perhaps in yours–when the question of money vs. guns as the seat of all power will be given its decisive test.  The conglomerate corporations, which are already interindustrial and international, will eventually begin to think of themselves as having formed a new kind of social structure making national boundaries obsolete.  Those whose survival depends upon national boundaries such as generals and senators, will naturally reject this idea, and the inevitable result, it seems to me, will be a new kind of war.

Westlake can be downright eerie at times.   Though honestly, most of the generals seem fine with the evolving state of affairs (you remember how all the corrupt corporate heads in Anarchaos were ex-military men?), and quite a few of the senators.  Personally, I’d say money still has the edge over guns, but only as long as the old civilization holds up.  Once things fall apart, as they have in parts of the Middle East–well, back to the review.

As Jay’s account of events continues, we see him head out to Ilha Pombo Island, to get the other side of the story.  He’s got a whole news crew with him, of course, including an overzealous producer named Joe Singleton, who seems to think there’s a Pulitzer out there with his name on it, if he could just find the right story.

(At one point, back in Florida, Joe insists Jay interview a man who claims to be Field Marshal Erwin J. Rommel, still alive, contrary to all prior reports, and hoping that Israel might want to make use of his services, even though he speaks no language other than English.   Jay brings this slight discrepancy up, and Joe irritatedly responds “you’ll try anything, won’t you?” It’s not a good working relationship.)

After visiting the island preparatory to interviewing Mungu, Jay manages to fall off the boat on the way back to their hotel on a nearby island.  He swims to shore, and after getting mugged by some of the island’s starving residents, he’s knocked out by Mungu’s security people, and he wakes up strapped to what he realizes is an autopsy table, with grooves in it specially designed to channel the flow of blood and other bodily juices.  They think he’s a spy for Colonel Enhuelco, you see.   But when Mungu arrives, he screams that he’s Jay Fisher from the network.  Mungu, who was about to have him ripped limb from limb, looks confused, and says he thought the interview was tomorrow.

So they send him back to the other island on Mungu’s luxurious yacht (paid for by U.S. tax dollars, as is his palatial mansion, though everybody else on the island seems to live in shacks).   The yacht comes complete with full bar, and red-headed Irish barkeep, who asks Jay what poison he prefers.  “Nepenthe”, Jay responds.  “Would that be Irish nepenthe, Scotch nepenthe, or Kentucky nepenthe?”  It’s starting to get a bit disorienting.   All the more so the next day, when Jay interviews him, and Mungu claims to have no recollection of their previous night’s encounter at the autopsy table.  “I meet so many people”, he murmurs apologetically.

Skipping ahead, the revolution is, of course, a total bust.   They never even get to the island, and we’re left in no doubt that if they ever had, they’d have ended up on that autopsy table.   It’s unclear whether they were ever supposed to get there.  It seems like there were all these different groups, CIA, General Texachron, the network, and self-serving crooks (Jay’s ‘friends’ who pitched the whole idea in the first place) just out to make a buck for themselves, and nobody really knew what was going on, or had any coherent plan, other than getting paid.   The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and vice versa.

Jay interviews Ramon, one of the surviving guerrillas (none of them actually died, but he’s one of the few who didn’t desert) in Miami.  He tells Jay about how just as they were going to set out for Ilha Pombo, all of a sudden the authorities showed up and arrested them, took them to a compound, laid them out on the blacktop, and rapped them on the feet with billyclubs.  Then interrogated them, then back to the blacktop, then made them sign statements, then back to the blacktop again, and etc.

Q: Just a second.  They charged you with some stuff?  What stuff?

A: I ain’t a lawyer, man, how the hell do I know?

Q: But you were the one being charged.  What did the judge say?

A: A lotta bullshit, man.  I know it wasn’t Spanish, and it sure as hell didn’t sound like no English.  One fellow said it was Latin.  Anyway, they charged us and took us off to jail.

Q: And you were there until this morning?

A: Fuckin A well told

Q: Did they question you some more?

A: Shit, yeah, all the time.  They asked a lotta questions about you people, you know.

Q: They did?  You mean the Network?

A: I mean you people.  You people in a shitpot of trouble, man.

Q: We are?

A: Oh, yeah.  A shitpot of trouble.  I don’t envy you, man.

Q: You want another beer?

A: Thanks, man.  You’re okay.  You know what you oughta do?

Q: What?

A: Skip the country.  Thanks for the beer.

Q: You’re welcome.  I don’t think it’s that bad, you know.

A: Yeah, okay.

Q: There’ll be some questions asked of the Network, but after all, we’re simply a news-gathering media, we simply observe.

A: You’re gonna like that blacktop, man.  You’re gonna love it.

Q: Shut up and drink your beer.

Jay might have preferred the blacktop to what actually occurs–he gets back to his motel room, and finds Linda–who is there to arrest him.  Her name isn’t Linda McMahon.  It’s Mary Marie Conroy.  She works for the FBI.  She was at the feminist rally because she was infiltrating their ranks, trying to get them to commit crimes they could be arrested for.  She’s been dating Jay for similar motives.  And she’s a virgin.  She feels that purity is important–Director Hoover certainly keeps himself pure.

Jay asks her if nothing that passed between them–even in the phone booth–meant anything to her.   She refuses to give him a straight answer, then she starts rattling off lines from the end of The Maltese Falcon, only Jay is cast in the role of Brigid O’Shaughnessy.  I’ve mentioned that in all Nephew stories, there must always be The Girl–this is The Girl–but as Jay is an anti-Nephew–well, you get the point.   The Nephew gets the girl he deserves.   Nothing more, nothing less.

So he and the other network men get put through the wringer, but nobody knows what to charge them with.   There’s also another matter–seems like Jay’s friends who got him to pitch the idea of covering the gun-running operation were just using it as a cover to smuggle things.  Namely stoles.   Stolen stoles.  When the regular police drag him in to question him about that, Jay misses the big meeting where all the network guys point fingers at somebody else (all corporations have these meetings), and since he’s not there to give his side, guess where all the fingers are pointing?  Fuckin A well told, man.

So this long rambling monologue has been Jay Fisher trying to save his career–prove his loyalty to the network, prove that he was a good organization man all along.   He’s being accused of having engineered the whole thing just to make a few bucks on the side, and that isn’t true, but nobody will believe him.  He hopes the tapes he’s made will set the story straight, and put him back in the good graces of his employers, though he’s increasingly troubled by the realization that the network was making news, not reporting it.  Well, I’m sure that was just a passing trend.

He’s been suspended from active duty, and is stuck in his apartment, fending off the weird advances of Mary Marie Conroy, who seems to be in love with him, but can’t express it by any other means than spying on him, opening his mail, telling him girls he’s just met are bad security risks.   So really, just like a regular girlfriend (rimshot).

Then at the very end of the book, we see a brief memo from her to a superior at the Bureau–she’s intercepted the tapes.  They never reached the network.   She recommends they put the lid on.  The End.

So that’s the book, and as I said, I think it could have been a lot better than it is, with a few more drafts and the help of a good editor, but there is one problem in it that could never be be solved–Westlake doesn’t believe in his protagonist.   He was trying to see if he could bring himself to identify with an unapologetic organization man, see things from the side of a guy who has devoted his life to a corporation, and he can’t.

Jay isn’t a bad guy–you do like him, you do root for him–but his story tends to flag because Westlake has a hard time getting the voice right.  His attention is flagging, and therefore so is the reader’s.   The individual moments of rather penetrating satire get lost in the shuffle.   It doesn’t hold together as a story that well (something you can’t say of most of Westlake’s novels).   The thing is, Nephew stories are farces, not satires–so this is a satire of a farce.   Is that necessarily a good idea?   I guess there was only one way to find out.

Jay Fisher made a brief cameo in a much later book–one of the Sara Joslyn novels, I think?  Not really sure.   I’ll have to wait until that one comes up in the queue.  He’s that kind of character.   Not memorable enough to stick in your mind.

Much more memorable is Jack Grahame, who in his single-minded pragmatism, reminds one more than a little of Parker–except Parker would never bother to worry about the future of civilization.   It’s a useful amenity and all.  To Grahame’s assertion that armed robbers are just dolts without a workable plan, Parker would have no response at all.   He doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks.  That’s his edge.   And it’s deadly.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: Lemons Never Lie

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Grofield heard the interest in Tebelman’s voice, and was tempted to go into a whole explanation about being an actor in a pre-technological sense–he had the feeling Tebelman’s attitudes would be basically similar–but something about the presence of Barnes, his cigarette a red dot in the darkness, inhibited him.  Barnes, he knew, was the more typical heister; a professional with only this one profession, who found all his satisfactions, financial and otherwise, within the one area.  Tebelman was the only other person like himself Grofield had ever met in this business.

And Tebelman’s question was hanging in the darkness, awaiting an answer.  More conscious of Barnes’ presence than he would have been in a lighted room where he could see the man, Grofield said, “I’m an actor.  I own a summer theater.”

“Isn’t there money in that?”

“Hardly.  Not with movies and television.

“Ah.” There was a little silence, then, until Tebelman said, “You know, there’s a school of thought that says the artist and the criminal are variants on the same basic personality type.  Did you know that?”

Grofield was sorry now the conversation had gotten started at all.  “No, I didn’t,” he said.

“That art and crime are both antisocial acts,” Tebelman said.  “There’s a whole theory about it.  The artist and the criminal both divorce themselves from society by their life patterns, they both tend to be loners, they both tend to have brief periods of intense activity and then long periods of rest.  There’s a lot more.”

“Interesting,” Grofield said.

Obviously, when I started Lemons Never Lie, I had no idea it would be the last appearance of Alan Grofield, who had ridden shotgun in six Parker novels, The Score, The Handle, Slayground, Deadly Edge, Plunder Squad and Butcher’s Moon, as well as taking the wheel himself three other times, in The Damsel, The Dame and The Blackbird. He was good company, and then he went away.

I’d brought him aboard in the first place to try to lighten up Parker, which was clearly not going to happen. Still, might Parker find the need for his presence again, some time down the road? Don’t ask me.

What pleases me most about Lemons Never Lie is that it was the only time I can think of where I invented a plot structure. That structure, which is not an arc but three bounces, each one higher, was new, I believe. And Alan Grofield was the perfect unruffled guy to do it. Enjoy. ~DEW

I don’t know when or for what Westlake wrote that squib about how he didn’t know Lemons Never Lie would be the last Grofield novel.  I snipped that from the Official Westlake Blog, and it reads like a hastily written introduction for a paperback reprint, but I don’t really know.  I know it must have been quite a few years after he wrote the book, because he says it’s Grofield’s last appearance (which it isn’t) and that Grofield appears in Deadly Edge and Plunder Squad (which he doesn’t).   I have to keep reminding myself what I wrote on this blog a few months ago, so hardly surprising.

I’d assume he wrote that brief commentary after he’d started producing Parker novels again in the late 90’s, and was still figuring out how to make the four decade old series feel current and credible.   An alternate universe version of Grofield (who had sold out and become a prosperous star of film and TV) periodically appeared in the Dortmunder books.  Grofield never appeared in a Stark novel after Butcher’s Moon.  Maybe Westlake just felt the concept of an actor/heister committing armed robberies under the same (very uncommon) name that he acted under made no sense anymore in the Information Age that even Parker was just barely making out in.

So this is the last Grofield novel–it wasn’t planned as such, doesn’t read as such, and yet somehow it kind of works as such.  A sort of summing up, you might say. It’s very different than the previous three, not least in that it isn’t a sequel to a Parker novel (like The Damsel and The Dame) nor does it share an opening scene with a Parker novel (like The Blackbird).

Nor is it set in some exotic foreign clime.  Nor does it have a title referring to a female character.  Nor does it put Grofield into some situation he isn’t familiar with, referring to a different genre of fiction, such as mystery or espionage.  Nor does Grofield sleep with some beautiful stranger in this book–he does get it on with a hot brunette, but as the punchline goes ‘That was no lady, that was my wife.’   And turns out she really is some lady.

It does, like the others, refer to Parker, remind us of Grofield’s connection to him (there’s even a brief cameo by Handy McKay).  Westlake was well aware of the fact that Grofield had not developed much of an independent fanbase, and that Grofield’s readership was, in the main, a subset of Parker’s.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the book is that it actually shows Grofield working in the theater–his own personal theater, located way out in the sticks, in rural Indiana.  Not acting, but more mundane tasks, like washing out stage ‘flats’ to be repainted, talking with Mary about plays they might put on, actors they might recruit.  And of course raising the needed funds to put on these plays, and when Alan Grofield talks fund-raising for his highly unprofitable theatrical ventures, he doesn’t mean pledge drives and tote bags.

Grofield appeared in eight out of twenty-eight Richard Stark novels, and we never see him acting in a play in even one of them, unless you count him sitting by himself in a corner at the hideout in The Score, playing all parts in a scene from Henry IV Part One.  We’re told he’s good, and that with his talent and looks he could find work in television anytime he wanted, maybe even become a big star, but his dedication to live theater makes him rule that out categorically.   He would rather steal than sell out.

There’s a passage in this book that possibly explains why we never see Grofield acting on stage–he’s contemplating the sorry state of his and Mary’s finances, and lamenting that no heisting work seems imminent–

If worst came to worse he’d drop down into Kentucky or North Carolina for a week or two of writing paper, but he hated that kind of thing, and avoided it whenever he possibly could.  Passing bum checks was no more illegal than knocking over armored cars, but there was a difference he found important; a check passer is an actor, he uses an actor’s talent and methods, but a heavy heister uses different talents entirely. It bothered Grofield to use his acting abilities that way, it seemed somehow degrading.

You just know that if they ever did a movie or a TV show based on Grofield, we’d see him acting all the time–they’d want to show us both his professions, to get that visual contrast, hammer home the premise, the primary conceit of the story.  It would get very cute and contrived, very fast–but they’d have to do it.  Stark, like Grofield, doesn’t want to make that compromise.  He wants to keep things clean and uncluttered, like he always does.

That business about floating bad checks reminds me of what some of Dortmunder’s associates were doing between jobs in The Hot Rock, and again we see the odd doorway that seems to exist between the Stark-verse and the Dortmunder dimension, that is particularly noticeable when Grofield is around.  He isn’t really a Stark character, even in this book–he’s still a Westlake character who ended up in a bunch of Stark novels.

And Mary Grofield (nee Deegan), former switchboard girl in Copper Canyon, North Dakota, who met Grofield in The Score (which we’re told–I don’t know how accurately–was about four years before the events of this book), and insisted on tagging along with him at considerable risk to her life, because the life she had was so damned unsatisfactory–well, this is the last really good look we get at her, which I find personally frustrating, because she’s one of my favorite supporting characters in Westlake’s books.

We finally find out her hair color–black–and her figure–neat and compact–and that she looks like the heroine of a 30’s musical, whatever that means (Ruby Keeler?).  But in a sense, I would argue, she jumped over to the world of Dortmunder as well, in even more altered form.

She’s working in a local supermarket, we’re told–making just enough money for her and Grofield to get by, if they sleep on the stage of their theater–and she’s bringing home groceries from her workplace, only some of which are paid for.   And she has this rationale that what Grofield does when he’s not acting isn’t really stealing, because he’s mainly just taking from institutions who should be giving us money anyhow.

Make her a bit less of a fantasy, a smidgen more grounded in reality, put a cigarette in her mouth, take the ‘r’ out of her name, and you’ve got May–Dortmunder’s best girl, who we’ll be meeting very soon.  Mitch Tobin’s wife also worked at a supermarket to help pay the bills, but the noble Kate would never take so much as a stick of gum she hadn’t paid for.   Mary and May, like Kate Tobin, are hardworking and low-maintenance–but much more ethically flexible in other respects–like Claire Carroll.

And this whole darkhaired-wife-working-at-supermarket leitmotif we see over and over in Westlake’s books makes me wonder about those early days of Westlake’s first marriage, when he was still struggling to make it as a writer, but I should know better by now than to ask questions I have no means of learning the answers to.

I have now read this book twice, and I must confess, I don’t see that thing Westlake refers to–the new plot structure.   It’s different from a Parker, sure–the entire story is from Grofield’s perspective, but that was true of The Dame and The Blackbird as well.  He divides it into five parts, each of which begins with Chapter One, and each of which is named after the place it’s set in–Las Vegas, Mead Grove Indiana, St. Louis–then there’s a part called ‘Moving’, which starts in Mead Grove, then has Grofield traveling around, and the final part is set in good old Monequois, New York–this time it’s an isolated town a few miles from the Canadian border, with a brewery in it.   Why not?

I don’t quite see the three bounces.  I don’t know what he’s talking about.  This is probably because I’m not a writer of fiction, accustomed to mapping out plots.  Is it something entirely new?  I have no idea.  Somebody wants to explain it to me, I’d be only too pleased.

I just know it’s very much a Stark novel, and yet still very different in both tone and structure from a Parker novel.  It’s the most successful attempt Westlake ever made to write under the Stark name without writing about Parker, and yet I can’t possibly agree with Paul Kavanagh, who called it ‘The best Richard Stark ever’–it’s definitely not the worst, but it’s very very far from the best.  The fact that Paul Kavanagh is one of Lawrence Block’s pen names makes me suspect he was tossing his buddy a blurb.

But anyway, just to be different, let me synopsize sectionally this time:

Las Vegas:  The shortest section of the book, this sets up the main storyline–it begins with Grofield winning a few nickels at a slot machine at the airport, which he considers an ill omen, since he got three lemons–his old hex sign. He gives the money to a couple there on vacation, and they start gambling with it, and losing, and we’re told he feels slightly guilty about getting them started.  Just to remind us, this is not a Parker novel.

Grofield is there about a job, which is planned by a guy named Myers.  Myers is clearly an amateur, and as all us Stark readers know by know, amateurs spell trouble.  Myers says there’s this brewery in Monequois that still has a cash payroll (a rare thing even back when the first Parker novel came out, and getting rarer all the time).  It’s supposed to be about 120 grand.  He wants to plant a bomb inside the brewery, then come in with a fire engine, thus getting past the guards.

(Yes, it does sound a lot like the heist in Flashfire, doesn’t it?  That’s one of the few Parker novels I’d say is probably not quite as good as this one.  Lemons Never Lie would be easier to film, it’s more self-contained, and has the better title–way better than Parker.  Maybe they should have made this book into a movie, with Jason Statham as Grofield, except who’d buy him as a professional actor?  Oh, that was mean.)

Grofield walks out of the meet before Myers finishes his pitch.  The plan is full of holes.  It involves killing a lot of civilians, which he says doesn’t bother him morally (I don’t quite believe that, somehow), but the law would come after them much harder.  And to make things worse, Myers actually cleared the job with the local chapter of The Outfit, and they’re going to get a percentage of the proceeds (nobody there can believe he thinks that’s what real heisters do).

He’s got what’s described as an eastern boarding school accent, and he’s got all these props and notes, reminiscent of Edgars from The Score, but not out to settle an old score this time.  Still not a guy whose professionalism can be trusted–on any level.  Grofield wants to work, but not that much.   He’s outta there.

He’s joined by the one heister there he’s worked with before, Dan Leach, a big tough taciturn fellow, rather like Parker, but not nearly as smart.  Dan feels like doing some gambling before he flies home, and wins a nice pile at the craps tables.  Then two guys show up at Grofield’s motel room, looking for the money.  When they realize he doesn’t have it, they knock him out.  Then Dan wakes him up, mad as hell, because the same two guys robbed him, and he figures Grofield tipped them.  Grofield knows better–it was Myers and his flunky.  Dan heads off looking for them, and Grofield heads home sourly, brooding on those lemons.

Mead Grove, Indiana: Grofield is back home at his threadbare community theater (a converted barn, like Mickey and Judy used to sing and dance in) that he bought with the money from the Cockaigne heist.  The same money,  we should remember, that was delivered to Mary by a beautiful blonde Philadelphian in support stockings who had just spent several weeks in bed with Mary’s husband, and no we never do find out how that went over.

So he’s washing out flats, and thinking about how he’s going to come up with the roughly 10g’s he needs to put on a season of repertory (he’d hate to have to only do public domain stuff), and then Dan Leach drives up and turns out he’s got Myers in the trunk, and is debating what to do with him.   Grofield figures he should either kill him or let him go.    Grofield also kind of wishes Dan had left him out of it.  He refuses to put Myers on ice until Dan can figure something out, so Dan heads off, with Myers still en-trunked.

(Sidebar: Trying to convince Leach and Grofield that he can be useful to them, Myers tells a story about a new heist, involving an apartment full of money stolen by some guys who are serving a long stretch in prison near L.A.   They dug a tunnel, and they go out at night and do little heists, stow the cash, then go back to their cells.  They’re trying to build up a nest egg for their families, since they’re too old to feel like living on the outside again.  It turns out Myers was just making it all up, but Grofield thinks it’s a nice story, all the same.   So did Westlake, who actually got a letter from a convict fan of his, telling a similar story–he made much more extensive use of it in a later book, that I like even better than this one–Stark doesn’t always top Westlake–not by any means).

What follows the departure of Leach and Myers is a very cozy domestic scene (domestic by Grofield standards, anyway), with Grofield and Mary having a nice meal together, cooked on a hot plate, and then he and Mary have a nice married screw, and fall asleep wrapped around each other, on a sofa located onstage (this would definitely not play in Peoria).  He’s different with her, it must be said.   He’s always putting on a mask with the other women, and with her he’s just–Grofield. Whoever that is.

We’re told he’s out of his mind for her, and we believe it, and we still know he’ll be cheating on her next time he meets some fetching blonde in another state, and being no dummy maybe she knows it too, and doesn’t care that much, as long as it’s not happening where she can see it.  He’ll always come back to her.  Until he doesn’t, of course.  She had a pretty good idea what she was getting into, one surmises, when she saw him coming into the switchboard room in Copper Canyon, wearing a mask, and carrying a gun.  A ‘meet cute’ they call it in the movies.

So Grofield wakes up with his wife’s neat compact little body wrapped around him, and hears a noise, and turns out it’s Dan Leach, and he’s been stabbed a few times.  Myers got the jump on him–these Stark amateurs have their moments.  Grofield and Mary take care of him for a few weeks, and then Grofield gets a call about a job in St. Louis, and it sounds like a good one.   Summer repertory, here we come.  So he leaves Mary alone there, still tending to Leach, and we all know this is not a good idea, but work is work.

St. Louis: This is the heist part of the book, and enjoy it, because it’s the only heist we ever see Grofield pull in any of his solo adventures.  About damn time, Stark.

Grofield checks into the hotel in St. Louis, where there’s a message for him to go to a bar in East St. Louis, and Westlake did love to write about that Jekyll & Hyde of a twin city, with the prim proper Vincente Minnelli town on the Missouri side of the river, and the nasty gritty good time town over on the Illinois side.

So after finding his contact at the bar, they head for the meet, where he gets the lowdown, from a good group of pros–there’s this supermarket, not far out of town, Food King (there is an actual Food King in Baltimore, but probably no relation, and no they didn’t get looted last month, far as I can tell).

Grofield got his start robbing a supermarket, you’ll recall.   This one’s near a military base, and everybody there gets paid by check, so twice a month the supermarket needs to have a lot of cash on hand, because the military wives need to cash the checks and buy a lot of groceries.   Why do I like reading about this kind of job so much better than some elaborate casino heist or like that?  Somehow, Stark is always at his best in relatively mundane surroundings.

The money is in a big old safe, that one of the crew knows how to crack.  There was an attempted heist a few years back, some soldiers who didn’t know what they were doing and got caught, so the sheriff’s deputies watch the place closely, and it’s going to take some careful planning, but it’s doable.  Grofield is no planner, but he can see that in spite of a few irregularities (meeting too close to the scene of the crime), this is going to work out okay.   We’ve all seen how Stark sets these things up–there’s yet another road trip to buy a truck–that makes how many now?–and it never gets old.  This is the longest section of the book, very satisfying to read, but also the most predictable, so I’ll just skip ahead now.

They get the money–nothing huge, 13k a man, but that’s all Grofield needs.  There’s a message at the hotel desk from Mary–several, in fact. He goes up to his room, and guess who’s there–Myers and a new sideman, name of Brock–Myers murdered the last one, and Grofield tries to tell Brock about that, but does anybody ever listen to Grofield when he’s handing out good advice?  He’s the Cassandra of crime.

So there’s a struggle, and he loses the suitcase with the money, but he gets away.   Those lemons are just brutally truthful, you know?  Would it kill them to lie a little sometimes?

Moving: Grofield gets back to Mary, knowing from what little she could tell him over the phone that something went terribly wrong–he can guess–Myers showed up and got his location out of her.   But he left her alive, and in his laconic way, Stark makes you understand that part of Grofield would have died with her.  Leach, of course, got finished off for keeps–there is something to be said for Parker’s policy of killing anybody who takes money away from him on general principle–Leach just wasn’t a killer at heart, so he got done in by a lousy amateur, who didn’t follow the playbook.

Grofield finds Mary in the actress’ dressing room–she’s as much a professional as him, of course.  One reason she means more to him than anyone else.  She really took one for the team this time.

She was sitting at the make-up table, doing nothing, and when he walked into the room their eyes met in the mirror and he saw no expression in her face at all.  He’d never seen her face so completely empty before, and he thought, That’s what she’ll look like in her coffin.  And he ran across the room to pull her to her feet and clamp his arms tightly around her, as though she were in danger of freezing to death and he had to keep her warm.

At first she was unmoving and unalive, and then she began violently to tremble, and finally she began to cry, and then she was all right.

They were together fifteen minutes before they started to talk.  Grofield had made soothing noises and said words to reassure her before that, but there had been no real talk.  Now she said, “I don’t want to tell you about it.  Is it all right?”

“It’s all right.”  She was sitting again, and he was on one knee in front of her, rubbing his hands up and down her arms, still as though trying to keep her warm and alive.

“I don’t want to talk about it ever.”

“You don’t have to.  I know what happened; I don’t need the details.”

She looked at him, and her expression was odd–intense, and somehow sardonic.  She said, “You know what happened?”

He didn’t understand.  They’d come here, Myers and Brock.  They’d killed Dan Leach.  They’d forced Mary to tell them where Grofield was, and what name he was using.  What else?

She saw his face change when he realized what else, and she closed her eyes.  Her whole face closed, it seemed; it went back to the expression he’d seen when he’d first walked in here.

He pulled her close again.  “All right,” he said.  “All right.”

Somehow you know this would never happen to Claire.  Not that you’d need to actually rape Claire to have Parker coming after you with death in his mind.   But Grofield isn’t Parker–his mind doesn’t work that way.  Steal from him, try to kill him, even threaten his wife, and he may have unkind thoughts about you, but he won’t necessarily feel the need to come after you.   He’s not the vengeance type, and he’s not a wolf in human form, either.  He kills when he has to, not to scratch an itch in his head.  But this is different.   Possibly the only person in the world he gives a damn about, other than himself, has been violated.   Even if he’s just playing a role here, it’s a role that was first cast a long time before the theater came into being.

They make love later on–just to take the bad taste out of both their mouths.  Mary doesn’t really want him to go after Myers, but then again, maybe she does a bit, and he’s going either way.   She says she’ll go stay with actor friends of theirs in New York, and start recruiting talent for their next season–keep her mind occupied, and Grofield will know she’s safe.  In the meantime, he’s got to go ‘drum somebody out of the corps’ as he puts it.  Always the actor, most of all when he means every word he’s saying.

He heads over to Pennsylvania in his own car (because this isn’t a job–it’s personal) to pick up some guns from a guy named Recklow, who runs a riding stable, and we’re told used to be an actor in cowboy movies before the blacklist got him (perhaps just a bit of a nod to Bucklin Moon there).   Turns out Grofield is an expert rider (of course he is).  Recklow comes to meet him up in the woods, with the goods.  Grofield buys a Smith & Wesson Terrier–Parker’s go-to weapon–and a Colt Trooper 357, with a long barrel–the latter he clips underneath the dashboard of his Chevy Nova.

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(It’s a used Nova–we’re not told what year, so no image.  Guns don’t tend to change much.)

He stops at Leach’s house in Oklahoma, and finds Mrs. Leach with her throat cut–she was the only other person Grofield knows about who had contact info for Myers.  Myers making sure Grofield can’t track him.   Grofield tosses the house, and finds Leach’s getaway cash, a thousand bucks.  He takes it and torches the house–with Mrs. Leach inside it.  Can’t have the cops investigating a murder that might lead to him.  Well, maybe she wanted to be cremated anyway.

Still moving, over the border in Texas, he stops and calls Handy McKay at his diner in Maine–they’ve met a few times, with Parker (so maybe Parker did get to the diner at some point).  Handy’s still out of the game, but he agrees to ask around about Myers and Brock–he finds a guy, some minor-leaguer, who knows Brock, and was asked to come in on the brewery job, and figured it smelled bad–Grofield can’t believe Myers is still trying to pull off that turkey.  But now he knows where he’s headed–well, in the world of Richard Stark, it does seem all roads eventually lead to–

Monequois, New York: It rains.  A lot.   I’ve vacationed in the Adirondacks, and trust me when I say that’s very true to life.  Grofield locates Myers and his motley crew of semi-pros, and quickly figures out that Myers intends to doublecross them all and take the entire payroll for himself.  He makes this clear to one of them, named Morton, who he grabs from the hideout under cover of night, forcing him to fill in the fine details of Myers’ plan.   Grofield intends to heist this heist, assuming it goes off as planned, but Myers dies either way.

(We all know he’s not getting any 120g’s, because he could do like 10-12 years of rep with that–if Westlake had intended this to be the last Grofield,  even the last one for a while, then he’d have gotten the big score.)

Morton is a likable enough idiot, and Grofield doesn’t kill him, just leaves him tied to a tree, while he goes down to the real hideout, to settle with Myers and Brock.  Only by the time they get back (with the body of a dead accomplice in the car, who they killed), they seem to have had a falling out, and they quickly get into a fight–Grofield just watches them try to kill each other from a handy hayloft for a while, before Myers, fleeing the more dangerous Brock, sees him up there, and then falls to the ground below, where Brock dispatches him.  So really, Grofield just gets an assist, but he’ll take it.

Brock doesn’t know if Myers was telling the truth about Grofield being in the hayloft, but he figures he’ll take no chances, and makes a run for it–Grofield cuts him down with the Terrier, and interrogates him.   The heist, red fire engine and all, was a goddam comic opera.  There was no payroll, just twenty-seven hundred in petty cash.  The brewery went back to checks.  Myers never thought to make sure.  Lots of people dead, the brewery in flames, the whole countryside up in arms–for nothing.  Amateurs always think they know it all.  That’s what happened in Iraq, you know.   Speaking of heists gone wrong.  Oh never mind.

Grofield searches Myers, and finds the twenty-seven hundred, plus a few thousand of Grofield’s Food King money–he spent all the rest on a scheme out of the comic books.  Combined with the money he found at the Leach house, he’s got just enough to open this season.  Then somebody knocks him out from behind.

It was Morton–he got free, and made his play.  Grofield wakes up, and Morton’s getting into Grofield’s car.  Grofield then plays on his sympathies–he’s groggy, the law is closing in, Morton has his gun, and after all, if not for Grofield, Morton would be dead or in cuffs by now.  Morton, a much less vindictive amateur than Myers, feeling magnanimous in victory, says sure, come along.  They head for Canada in the Nova, and of course what Morton doesn’t know is that there’s a Colt Trooper clipped to the underside of the dashboard.  Never bet against the professional in a Stark book.

But Grofield figures that can wait.  Morton won’t be hard to handle.  He goes to sleep, perhaps dreaming of summer, playing alongside his one true leading lady, on their shabby little stage.  Shabby it may be, but it’s theirs, and theirs alone.

Would you believe I did that long intro, then summarized the whole book, with several substantial quotes along the way, and I’m not quite 5,000 words in?  That’s Stark for you.

So, having tinkered with this character over the course of seven years, and six novels (counting the two Parkers), Westlake seems to have finally ironed out the kinks, gotten out of the beta-testing phase–he’s figured out how to make Grofield a Stark protagonist while still letting him be Grofield.  He’s planted him firmly in that same edgy criminal community Parker lives and kills in, established a base of operations, and fleshed out Mary as a character (and in the words of Spencer Tracy, what’s there is cherce).  The fact is, Grofield never needed to be a swashbuckling adventurer, a reluctant detective, a secret agent.   That was interesting enough in its way, but this is far more so.

And having finally solved the problem of Grofield, it just seems like he lost interest in him–Westlake was like that, sometimes.   Grofield made a quick cameo in Slayground, speaking the same lines he had in the opening chapter of The Blackbird.  Then he made his final curtain call in Butcher’s Moon.  He was never mentioned in any of the eight much later novels featuring Parker.

Westlake never decided he was dead, but we’re certainly free to think that he is.  Or that Mary, after the events of Butcher’s Moon, finally decided to lay down the law and make him quit the heisting life.   Or maybe he changed his name to Greenwood, and took some TV jobs.  No, not that last one–not in Stark’s jurisdiction–he’d have to go somewhere else.  Somewhere a bit less–exacting.

Anyway, even if we were told he was dead, there are several Stark heisters who were supposed to have kicked it, who showed up alive and well later on.  You can think anything you want about a character who leaves the stage and never returns.  Maybe Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t really dead.   Those ambassadors could have been misinformed, or lying.  Who really knows?  Did you know W.S. Gilbert (sans Arthur Sullivan) wrote a play in which Rosencrantz had Guildenstern get rid of Hamlet, so he could marry Ophelia?  I bet Westlake did.

I know something else–Westlake didn’t think much of the next book on our list–called it a doorstop–and I tend to agree.   For the first time since starting this blog, I’m not looking forward to rereading a book of his.   And yet, having read it, I know there are things of interest inside of it.   Anyway, I’ll be chipping away at it next week, in my spare time–at the office.  Of course.  Enjoy your weekend, Nephews.  And Nieces.

PS: Since this is the last Grofield review (so sad), let’s have one last cover gallery–the first edition (from World Publishing, Grofield apparently having worn out his welcome at MacMillan) that you see above left, was almost embarrassingly on the nose–the Hard Case crime paperback cover art above right is a thing of beauty (though when I first saw it, I feared for Mary).   European publishers did their usual not terribly relevant shtik (somehow there’s always some lemon yellow in there somewhere, though I supposed that’s mostly a felicitous coincidence).

As usual, I like the Serie Noire version best.  With Stark, minimalism is almost always the best policy.   Like I’m in any position to throw stones.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: Ex Officio

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Timothy J. Culver: The difference between a hack and a writer is that the hack puts down on paper things he doesn’t believe.  Dick Stark mentioned Mike Hammer.  Now, Mickey Spillane wasn’t a hack, not then at least, and that’s because he really believed all that paranoid crap.  But the thousand imitators didn’t believe it.  You know, one time I was talking to a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and he had to leave the party early to go work on an article for one of the scholarly journals.  I asked him what it was about, and he said it didn’t matter, just some piece of crap.  “But I have to keep turning them out if I want tenure,” he said.   “It’s pretty much publish or perish in this business.”  “It’s about the same in mine,” I told him.

Moderator: Frankly, Mr. Culver, you sound to me like a cynic.

Timothy J. Culver: I act based on my opinion of the world, so I am a realist.

Moderator: Donald E. Westlake, from your vantage point, would you say that Mr. Culver seems to be a realist?

Donald E. Westlake: Sure he is.  A realist is somebody who thinks the world is simple enough to be understood.  It isn’t.

Timothy J. Culver: I understand it well enough to get by.

Donald E. Westlake: Meaning you can tie your own shoelaces.  Terrific.

From Hearing Voices in My Head, by Donald E. Westlake.

HOW can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

Politics, by William Butler Yeats

Donald Westlake will never be thought of as a political writer.   In his lifetime, he was known under his own name for ‘comic capers’ and other light-hearted entertainments (even if they weren’t always so light-hearted beneath the surface).   Under Richard Stark’s name for ice-cold novels about armed robbers.  This is what people came to expect from him, and having established himself as that kind of writer, he knew it would be hard for him to be accepted doing anything much different.

And yet there were, you might say, all these different voices in his head, and some of them did want to write about politics–not so much the campaign trail hoopla as the use of power, and the people who are accustomed to using it through long practice.   It was a subject that interested him.   Many don’t know that he published articles about Watergate, back when it was happening.  Nixon’s downfall doesn’t seem to have come as any great shock or displeasure to him.   One thing he could always do was spot a liar–he said you know a politician is lying when he answers a question nobody asked him.  “I am not a crook.”

His primary interest, always, everywhere, is identity, as I have said countless times by now.  So what would his primary interest in politics be?   The impact of power on identity, of course–well, many have been interested in that.   Lord Acton wrote that power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely, but what does it corrupt?  The sense of self.  You start out as one kind of person, but then by degrees you become someone else.   Perhaps the person you were destined to be, perhaps not.   The great thing about Democracy is that it limits how much power any one person can have, and that limits the potential corruption.  But only to a certain extent.   And the Democratic process itself can be corrupted, or simply overridden.

Westlake grew up Irish Catholic (America’s supreme political animals, for better and worse) in the corrupt ward-heeling world of upstate New York (that he wrote about in Killing Time), then came to the big city to become a writer.  There he was exposed to more radical (less practical) political expressions among the bohemian intelligentsia; turning 30 (the age he believed we cease to be children) the same year John F. Kennedy was assassinated, then watching President Johnson (a man he clearly disliked) drag us deeper and deeper into a destructive war that divided the nation in a way it had not been for a hundred years.  So politics was never very far away, even as he normally focused on more individualized forms of empowerment in his work.

And as he became a successful writer, a name, somebody whose books were made into major motion pictures, he would have been invited to a wider array of social gatherings, would have become acquainted with people who had real power, and who knew people who had much more.   He would have been curious about them–the rich, the influential, the power-brokers, and of course, the unofficial and mainly WASPish aristocracy that has always been there, disguised as simply more affluent well-connected commoners in our plebeian civil society, but never quite really that, when you take a closer look.

On its surface, Ex Officio is a mere political thriller, a genre that has produced many a best-selling book (which this particular representative of the genre was not destined to be).  It’s his first book for M. Evans & Co, a publisher he went on to have a very fruitful and happy relationship with under his own name, and I’d like to know more about how that came to happen.  It’s a very long complicated book with an intimidatingly large cast of characters, and must have taken him quite some time to complete.

Westlake had gotten some negative feedback for The Spy in the Ointment (basically a political thriller played for laughs) from longtime readers who didn’t expect that from him, so perhaps that’s why he chose to write this one under a single-use pseudonym, the shortlived Timothy J. Culver, who he ended up having Richard Stark murder in that mock-interview of his pseudonyms I quote from above.

By the time he wrote that piece for an anthology of articles about the mystery genre called Murder Ink (it is now happily collected in The Getaway Car), it must have been quite clear to Westlake that Mr. Culver’s services would no longer be required, though the oblivious Culver blithely declares himself indispensable.  Stark’s pistol is Westlake’s way of saying “Oh yeah?”   Made all the more ironic by the fact that as Stark complains, he hasn’t published anything in years either.

Neither has Tucker Coe, who dies mysteriously during the interview, while Westlake proclaims repeatedly that he didn’t do it, even though nobody asked him (you see what he did there).  So basically, the whole interview is Westlake pointing out that he, Westlake, is the last one standing in that battle between the voices in his head (though the fact that he leaves Stark alive and free tells us he thinks he might still have use for Parker someday, if he can just get that voice right again).

The Westlake who appears in that interview is quite disrespectful towards Mr. Culver, as you can see, and Culver himself cheerfully cops to being a hack, who writes things he does not believe.   But in reading this, and then reading the book itself, which is much more than just a series of hackneyed plot elements cobbled together to make money, I’m forced to ask–what precisely did Westlake write in this book that he didn’t believe personally?  Because I don’t believe it’s possible he believed none of it.

He could not have spent so much time and labor on something he didn’t believe in at all, even if he was ‘writing to the market’ to some extent, as he so often did in his career.   This is not a book he had any reason to be ashamed of, as Stanley Ellin’s enthused comparison of it with Seven Days in May on the cover of the paperback reprint (under the lamentable alternate title Power Play) amply demonstrates.  Ellin’s was not a name that was going to sell a lot of books to the audience this type of book is aimed at–it wasn’t his genre either–but a writer that meticulous doesn’t praise hackwork.

Seven Days in May (which became the brilliant Kirk Douglas/Burt Lancaster vehicle written by Rod Serling and directed by John Frankenheimer) probably does mark the pinnacle of this odd hybrid form.   There are political novels, and there are thrillers, and you combine the two to get a political thriller.  The modern form of it could be said to originate with Graham Greene–Somerset Maugham has a fair claim with his witty ruminative Ashenden stories, except those aren’t novels, or particularly thrilling.  Is Richard III a political thriller?   Julius Caesar? Depends on how good the production is.

A political thriller written for the popular book market doesn’t have to have a major elected leader, such as the President of the United States, as a character–but it doesn’t hurt.   If he’s basically an ‘offscreen’ character, you can use a real person, like Charles De Gaulle in The Day of the Jackal.  In that kind of story, nothing your main characters do is going to change history; they’re just scribbling around the edges.

A variation on that would be to imagine something happening to a real life figure–Lawrence Block wrote a novel under a pen name, where a group of hired assassins set out to assassinate Fidel Castro, and one of them succeeds.  Fun book, got dated in a hurry.  And there’s always the roman à clef–John Ehrlichman’s The Company, which told a fictionalized version of the Watergate scandal, where Richard Nixon became ‘Dick Monckton’–Joe Klein did the same thing to Bill Clinton with Primary Colors, under the rather bland pseudonym ‘Anonymous’.

The rule has generally been that if the President is a major onscreen character, you use a fictional personage, so that you can do whatever you want, like have a coup aimed at toppling him ala Seven Days, or maybe have him disappear from the face of the earth for a while.  Because Americans are so invested in the image of their President (whether they like the current officeholder or not), this is invariably good for domestic book sales, and the inevitable adaptation for film or TV.

President's_plane_is_missing_novelThe_President's_Plane_is_Missing_VHS_cover

(Peter Graves?   Was Henry Fonda not available?)

So that’s the form, and it’s led to some enormous best-sellers and a few films of lasting merit, but as literature, most of it dates very badly (not Greene, of course, but he’s the exception to every rule).   And books like these also frequently tend to fall under the heading of Airport Novels, a form we’ll talk about when we get to a much shorter and less serious Westlake novel also written under a single-use pseudonym beginning with ‘C’.

So enough build-up–time to synopsize.  The first edition hardcover runs to 498 pages, and the plot is a great deal more convoluted than your typical Westlake novel.  If I do for this book what I do for the average Parker heist, the review will run to 25,000 words, at least.  I like it, but not that much.  So let’s boil it down as much as possible.

Bradford Lockridge, former President of the United States, voted out after one term, is spending an unhappy retirement, doing ex-President stuff and hating every minute of it.   A strong-willed vital man of 70, he mopes around in his impressive family estate in rural Pennsylvania, his only real comfort being the delightful company of his quietly lovely 26 year old granddaughter Evelyn Canby and her daughter Dinah (named after Bradford’s deceased wife).

Evelyn was widowed several years before, when her soldier husband Fred was killed in Asia.   So she ended up being Bradford’s caretaker, and they are devoted to each other, as they have been since she was a child ( when she lost both her parents to an accident).   But much as she loves her grandfather, she feels sometimes as if she’s been buried alive.

Forced to attend a ribbon-cutting for a planned community in California his feckless younger brother Harrison is involved with, Bradford finds out that Harrison has once more let himself get roped into a shady deal–there isn’t enough of a water supply for the the community they’ve planned, and the partners can’t get their money back if they don’t get a lot more suckers to buy houses there, so Harrison wants Bradford to look the other way, figuring the water won’t run out for a decade or so.  Exhausted by the trip, and enraged by his brother’s self-centered stupidity, Bradford passes out on the floor.

His personal physician Joseph Holt (related to him by marriage, and let’s just state now that pretty nearly everybody in the book is related to Bradford Lockridge, in one way or another–it’s a huge extended family, and we meet nearly fifty blood relations and in-laws before the book is done) says Bradford had a very mild stroke–a warning shot, if you will–no damage done, but worse could be coming.

Still, he lets Bradford travel to Paris for a meeting with a Chinese official–relations between China and the western world still being virtually non-existent.   Okay, this might be one reason Westlake felt belatedly embarrassed by the book.   It’s pretty clear from the snippets of real-life history that are mentioned that Bradford Lockridge’s Presidency came after Richard Nixon’s–Lockridge was elected either in 1972 (Westlake not knowing Nixon will be reelected then forced to resign by scandal), or more likely in 1976 (since there’s no mention of Nixon being a one-termer), and when the book starts, it’s been 13 years since he was voted in, 9 years since he was voted out.

So it’s got to be either 1985 or more likely 1989.   Westlake putting some space between the present-day and the events of the book, so 70’s readers could suspend disbelief more readily–but that ended up backfiring.

Richard Nixon, as we all know (even if we need Google to remind us of the fine details), visited China in 1972, beginning the great thaw in U.S.-Chinese relations that led to one of the most improbable plot twists in modern history–the world’s most populous nation, ruled by a communist dictatorship, becoming, in a startlingly short time, the world’s biggest Capitalist economy (okay, they haven’t quite caught us yet, but they’re closing in).

Nobody in 1970 was expecting this–certainly not in a Nixon Presidency (who knew that China would be the one nation on earth to find him lovable?).   The book was politically and historically obsolete within about two years of its publication.   Just one more reason for Westlake to dislike Nixon.   Damn politicians.

Now you could argue Ex Officio is rather prescient in its own way, given the emphasis on an American President with a strange affinity for Red China, and given that we did elect a one-term President in 1976, who did have an embarrassing younger brother who exploited his elder sibling’s stature to promote odd business ventures (remember Billy Beer?), has been a controversial outspoken figure, and has clearly yearned for a larger role in world affairs than ex-Presidents normally get.   That’s all rather eerily on-point.

But none of that changes the fact that the book’s central premise is fatally undermined by what happened in 1972.  So you just have to say it’s an alternate timeline and go with it.  It correctly predicts that Mao would have died by then, but seeing as he’d have probably been well into his 90’s by the time the book begins (Mao died in ’76), that’s not a huge stretch.   There’s just too much specific information in the book for it not to hit its sell-by date very quickly.   It’s an inherent problem with the genre, made worse by the fact that Westlake is actually interested in political history, which I tend to doubt was the case with many more successful writers in this genre.

So Bradford has high hopes for the meeting in Paris, figuring he might be able to help accomplish what Nixon actually did in 1972, but it turns out the official was just using him to gain greater prominence at home.   He blasts the man at a press conference, and heads back in a cold rage, disgusted with himself and the world in general.  He falls into a deep sleep in his own bed back at the mansion, has a far more serious stroke, and what follows is one of the most frightening bits of prose Westlake ever typed.

Bradford’s face, even in the uncertain pale reflected light of the moonlight, now showed clear and distinct signs of the brutalization taking place within.  The two sides of his face no longer matched.  Whereas the left side looked much the same as it always had, the right side was a different face, and belonged to a far different man.  A less intelligent man, a less confident man, a less healthy man.  That side sagged, the skin looked gray and lumpy and not quite real, the  mouth drooped down so much it looked like an expression of twisted bitterness, and saliva still trickled down into a growing damp circle on the sheet.

Bradford’s bowels and bladder released.

His right hand continued to scratch and contract under the covers, making a tiny gray sound in the silence.

The thrombus blocking his cerebral artery gives way after a few minutes, but the harm has been done, to an area of the brain that governs personality.  When he wakes up the next morning, he launders his bedding himself, telling no one, thinking he was merely incontinent.   He has no idea what happened.   He does not realize that he has become a different person.  Identity is, as Westlake reminded us in Memory, a brittle construct, that can be suddenly and forever changed by relatively minor damage to that wrinkled blob of gray matter inside our skulls.

Bradford has all his memories, knows who he is, what he’s done in life, but his view of that life and his role within it, has been radically altered.   In a sense, his superego died in the stroke.  He’s lost all sense of perspective, of self-understanding, is no longer constrained by protocol.  Given his status, he is now potentially a very dangerous man (and as the book hardly needs tell us, this could just as easily happen to an incumbent President, which is perhaps why Dwight Eisenhower said nobody over 70 should ever hold that office, but I guess that ship has sailed, huh?).

In the weeks following his secret stroke, he contemplates running for congress, taking back the seat in his district currently held by a member of the other party (we are never told which party Bradford belongs to).  He points to the precedent of John Quincy Adams doing the same thing after he left the Presidency, and to bolster his argument, he invites to lunch a young history professor, Robert Pratt, a big handsome former football player, divorced for several years, who works at a university run by Bradford’s brother Sterling, who has become close friends with Robert.

The secondary purpose of this invite is to see if Robert and Evelyn will hit it off, but Bradford is already more interested in reviving his career than his granddaughter’s marriage prospects.   Robert and Evelyn go for a ride together (on horses, there’s a large stable of them–rich WASPs, remember?), and they don’t quite click, but there’s something happening there.   The obligatory romantic subplot has been established, and part of me thinks this is actually the best part of the book.

Because Evelyn is the best part of the book–the character most worthy of our admiration and sympathy.  She is, in my estimation, Westlake’s first really well-developed female protagonist, and the true hero(ine) of the piece, though there are a goodly number of other ‘POV’ characters we meet along the way, some more compelling than others, but none quite like her.  She’s our window into the entire Lockridge clan, the focal point of the narrative.

We all know Evelyn–every family has one, and no family can survive long without one.  The peacemaker, the caretaker, the one who puts her needs aside for others, the one people turn to when she’s needed, then ignore when she isn’t.

That she happens to be exceptionally pretty when she makes an effort just makes her situation more poignant–she can see life and love going on all around her, while she stands on the sidelines attending to humdrum necessities, and it’s not as if men don’t notice her, but all they seem to do is make clumsy passes.   Robert is more interesting to her, but he doesn’t even call after their first meeting, though he thinks about doing it.   Yeah.  I know.  Men.

She goes riding one fine day on the estate on her favorite horse Jester, in the splendid Pennsylvania countryside, and she cries out to no one in particular, “Life could be goddam beautiful!” and is miserable, we are told, because it isn’t.   She loves her daughter, she loves Bradford, but she needs more.   She doesn’t want Bradford to die.   And at the same time, of course, she does want him to die, so she’ll be free to live her own life.   Which just makes her more miserable, and more loyal to him.    And very much a Tolstoy heroine, under the skin.

Later in the book, Westlake has a character refer to Tolstoy’s famous dictum that happy families are all alike.  The Lockridge family is actually many linked families, some much happier than others, and we see more of the unhappy ones, because that’s where the interesting stuff is happening.

It seems pretty obvious to me that Westlake, hardly hubristic enough to think he could write the American War and Peace (particularly since there is no war here, other than the cold one), certainly was reacting to Tolstoy in this much shorter book, trying for something of the same social complexity and reflectiveness, the fascination with conflicting ideas and personalities that we see in Tolstoy’s work.

His handicap is that unlike Tolstoy, he doesn’t know the people he’s writing about from the inside–and that he’s writing about the near-future instead of events that took place half a century ago.  And that he’s not as good a writer as Tolstoy.   Was anyone?   Ever?  No disgrace in that.   But leaving raw ability out of it, Westlake simply could not afford the kind of time and research Tolstoy invested in his books.  Unlike the Sage of Yasnaya Polyana, he’s doing this for a living.  He’s got to be a great deal more prolific.  He doesn’t have a landed estate to support him.

So here’s another reason he might have become disgusted with the book–that even though on one level, it’s a bloated political potboiler cranked out for money, that will be read by bored travelers stuck in airports, he’s trying to invest it with some of the same intellectual foment one finds in the great social epics of Europe and Russia, while still making it entertaining and accessible enough for the market it’s being written for.

The book is divided against itself in that way–too smart for its target audience, not smart enough to stand with the classics that truly inspired it.   To me, it’s a fascinating experiment, but not an entirely successful one.  Westlake may have viewed it less kindly.

Like many before me, when I first read War and Peace, I was struck by the way I felt like I knew all these people, had met variations of them throughout my life, even though I’ve never been to Russia, and was born a century after it was written, and have certainly never been part of any kind of aristocracy.  They are universal types, and yet extremely specific to their era and culture, and thus tell us a great deal about that era and culture.

You get a bit of that from Ex Officio–it does have a fairly keen eye for social detail, for the types of people who would be found in this setting, for the complex and often troubled interactions of an extended family that has risen to prominence primarily because of one man–who is now in the process of going mad, putting all their futures in doubt.

But again, Westlake doesn’t know these people from the inside–though most of them aren’t really what you’d call rich, just prosperous careerists in a variety of fields (publishing, television, medicine, the law, government, academia, etc), they’re still not the kind of people he normally writes about, the wily rugged free-ranging individualists that we associate with his best work.  He’s interested in them, sympathetic towards their problems, but he doesn’t entirely respect them.  He’s on the outside looking in.

There’s really only four characters that have his full attention–Bradford, Evelyn, Robert, and the fourth is Wellington Lockridge, son of Bradford, who is a spy.  Not officially, of course–he won’t talk about his work–and not in the CIA, but rather in one of those shadowy organizations Westlake liked to write about that exist above and apart from the official U.S. intelligence agencies.

A bland, inconspicuous, unprepossessing figure (George Smiley would be proud), Wellington lurks on the edge of the narrative for much of the book, only to come to prominence towards the end.  He’s the guy you don’t want to have to depend on, but sometimes have to in dire circumstances.  Which arise about halfway through.

Having abandoned the idea of running for congress (because as Robert tells him, he’s already more prominent as an ex-POTUS than he could ever be in a lower elected office), and having become convinced by Robert’s thesis that America is on the edge of abandoning Democracy and becoming a dictatorship under a ‘fuehrer’ of the left or right, Bradford goes full La Mancha, and decides he’s going to defect to China.

He does a television interview (with Evelyn’s brother George interviewing him–the Lockridge mafia is amazingly widespread–Bradford’s nephew Howard is editing his multi-part Presidential memoirs for Random House) in which he cryptically hints at what he’s going to do, but nobody picks up on it–the network guys just know people will see that he isn’t the way they remember him, and blame them for it,  so the interview is heavily edited for broadcast, much to Bradford’s disgust.

He doesn’t think of what he’s planning to do as defecting–in his mind, his first loyalty is still to his country–but he believes China (still holding itself aloof from the rest of the world in this reality) is the great destabilizing factor on the planet, and by going over to them, he can become a voice for real lasting peace in the world.

What happened was that he was approached quietly by the Chinese over the debacle in Paris, and once they heard what he wanted to do, the prospect of such a huge propaganda victory made them determined to get him over there at any cost–at which point they will use him as evidence of western decadence.   (Honestly, if you rewrote it as North Korea, this story could still work today.)

Robert and Evelyn are unable to talk him out of this (it’s increasingly apparent to them that it’s impossible to talk to him at all in his abstracted messianic state of mind–they still don’t know about the stroke), and they are forced to talk to other family members at a family wedding.

The shock waves spread throughout the entire Lockridge clan, but they are determined to keep this within the family as much as possible–because it would destroy Bradford’s image–and by extension, their own.   Their identity as a family would be changed forever by being no longer related to a respected if controversial former President, but rather to an insane traitor broadcasting messages from Beijing (the name ‘Lord Haw Haw’ is referenced, and you can google that if you want).

Westlake is ambiguous about the story he’s telling here.   He tends to identify with the individualist, and what more powerful statement of individuality could there be than for a retired U.S. President to go rogue in the name of world peace?

But on the other hand, there’s always a fine line between individualism and insanity–his rugged individualists like Parker succeed because they know who they are.  Bradford’s cerebral malfunction has made him incapable of self-understanding, pathologically averse to it.  He just knows he finally sees a way out of the trap of forced retirement, obsolescence, that he entered when he lost the Presidency.  If anyone, even Evelyn, told him why he was doing this, he wouldn’t believe it.  He’s closed himself off to reason, because reason has become the enemy.

And in fact, he wants Evelyn to come with him.  To China.  Without Dinah (the rhyme is remarked upon).  That he’d even consider putting her in that situation, calling on her deep loyalty to him in such a devastating way, tells us that he’s lost all perspective, that the political aspect of his nature, always powerful, has now completely overwhelmed the personal.   And coached by the rest of the family, looking for some way to stall Bradford until they can figure out a way to stymie his mad ambition, Evelyn fearfully agrees–to what, if it happened, would be a true burial, of everything she hopes for in life.

She and Robert, drawn together by the crisis, are by now deeply in love, and as obligatory as that may seem, it’s also rather well done, and a needed break from all the earnest political discussions and family intrigue.  I head-cast them (early 70’s TV miniseries) as Lee Remick and Rod Taylor.  Bradford would be Jason Robards (after playing Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, this would be cake for him–I got to see him play that in the Jose Quintero revival, and he was mesmerizing).

Lee Ann Remick, London, 1974imagesindex

So that would be a pretty decent early 70’s miniseries.  Only somehow Wellington ended up being John Hodgman and clearly that’s never going to work.  Head-casting doesn’t really have to work, does it?

index

With Robert having taken a grubby little apartment near the estate, Evelyn can, for a time, shed the role of caretaker, along with her clothing–remember how in Up Your Banners, we’re told the only time you’re real is when you’re being yourself?

The only times she felt real in these days were when she was naked in Robert’s apartment.  It was strange, that difference in her, strange and delightful.  Though she’d never exactly been a prude with Fred, it was true that the intervals she’d spent wearing absolutely nothing during their marriage had been almost nil.  She’d worn nightgowns to bed, and though she might sometimes have been nude during sex, she had always put on either the nightgown or a robe immediately afterwards.

But now it was different, astonishingly so.  She had loved going without clothes in Robert’s apartment, padding around the room or standing at the kitchen-closet to make coffee, or just lying on the bed.  Sex was a large part of it, of course, her avidity for his body was still getting stronger all the time, was enough now to make her smile suddenly and at odd moments when they were miles apart, was enough to make her much less inhibited and more inventive in bed than she’d ever been before–they had done together so far two things she had previously never done with anyone–but that wasn’t all the reason. There was also a feeling of freedom that came with stripping away her clothing, as though the garments were symbols of the morass of responsibility in which she was mired; without them, she could pretend for a while to be nothing but a female body, desirable and desiring, and that she was someone for whom it was all right to think only of pleasure.

Wellington increasingly takes charge of the family cabal that is going to save Bradford from himself, using Vietnamese agents who came over to the U.S. after the end of the war to kill the Chinese agents keeping watch on Bradford on the family estate, and quietly taking their place (Westlake goes to some pains to say that all orientals do not look alike, but most occidentals aren’t qualified to know the difference).

Wellington is fighting on multiple fronts–he has to work with amateurs in his own family, to keep the general public from learning of his father having become the Presidential equivalent of King Lear, while at the same time reassuring that Lear’s Cordelia that he has a plan to keep Bradford safe–and it’s increasingly clear that if Bradford does actually try to defect, his superiors will order his assassination (approved, with great reluctance, by the current POTUS).

Wellington has a plan to avoid that eventuality and keep Bradford from ending up in an asylum somewhere, but he keeps Evelyn (and us) in the dark about what it is.   And since this novel is available as an ebook now, I’m going to respect that, and not give away the final twist, though I will say it’s a rather ingenious and plausible take on what was a pretty well-worn idea by then.  And that Evelyn shows tremendous courage in the face of a daunting fate.

So what was it all about?   Identity, of course.   As Bradford loses himself, Evelyn begins to find herself, Robert redefines himself, and Wellington reminds us that the price of being a spy is that you can never really be yourself, though he makes you believe there’s still a human being down there somewhere, trying to get out.

But it’s also Westlake letting some of his own doubts and fears about the future of his country and the world out, and it’s fun–and challenging–to try and figure out which of the ideas in this book he really does believe in–remembering all the while that in that mock-interview, Culver says he didn’t believe any of it, and Westlake said that the world we live in is too complicated to be understood.

Did Westlake worry, as Robert and Bradford do, that we were on the verge of a left-wing junta, that would lead in its turn to a right-wing tyranny?  His politics are never easy to understand, since he distrusts the left, fears the right, and has no confidence in the center holding indefinitely.   It’s suggested in the book that Eugene McCarthy, of all people, could have become a left-wing dictator, and that’s about the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.

I think with a few years perspective, Westlake realized that he’d let his imagination run away with him–and perhaps even at the time, he was writing, as he later said, things he did not entirely believe.   Nixon going to China, as I mentioned, undermined the book’s central storyline, though we still do worry about China.   And China, no doubt, worries about us.  I mean, we owe them so much money now.   Nobody in this book remotely anticipates that scenario, and neither did anybody in reality (except maybe in China).  Westlake was right in the end–the world is too complicated to understand, and that’s why predicting its future is an act of sheer futility.

To me, the point of the book is that you don’t let the political overwhelm the personal.   That you don’t let abstract ideas become more important than daily realities, and the people who make them up.  Evelyn is the hero of this book because she stays true to who she is as a person, and expands her sense of self, opening herself to new possibilities while still remaining true to her grandfather, and her family.  It’s a hard balancing act to pull off, but she manages it somehow, with some help from Wellington (who she doesn’t like, but he can understand that).

Tolstoy himself failed to live up to this ideal–he stopped writing timeless novels where he let his characters speak their hearts (even when they disagreed with their creator’s vision), and started preaching a radical new faith, trying to change the world instead of just observing it faithfully.   It led to some interesting new ideas, but it also destroyed the lives of the people who loved him, including his long-suffering wife.  Maybe he had a stroke too.  We’ll never know.

It’s fitting in its way that Richard Stark murdered Timothy J. Culver, because he was the antithesis of Culver on every level.  He always knew exactly what he was saying, and he said it in a lot fewer words.   I’ve been pondering about something–see, Isaiah Berlin famously asked if Tolstoy was a hedgehog or a fox–a believer in One Big Idea, or lots of little ones–and decided he was a fox who believed in being a hedgehog–an identity in a state of lifelong confusion, which he ultimately tried to resolve by abandoning the one thing he did better than anyone else.

Was Donald E. Westlake a hedgehog or a fox?   I’m not sure I’m ready to answer that question–but Richard Stark, of course, was a wolf.   And what’s up next is what I’d call the only true Starkian novel that doesn’t feature Parker.   Grofield is back for one last solo outing, and much as he may lie to everyone around him, he never lies to us.   And neither do Lemons.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Ex Officio, Political Thriller, Timothy J. Culver