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 he sorts out the fine details, how to make it work in reality–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 accepts without doubt 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 is known.
(Editing: I was checking links, and one of the above is no longer operative–but I found this! Mel Brooks knew about elevens too!)
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 Caliato 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.
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.