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, irrelevant to his profession, 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 Handle 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.)

53 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

53 responses to “Review: Deadly Edge

  1. Westlake had a gift for very briefly sketched character histories that suggest a much larger picture. e.g. “Briley had been two things earlier in his life — fat and a miner — but since the nine days he’d spent underground after a cave-in, he’d been neither.” By god, is that a beautiful sentence. Not quite “(picnic, lightning)”-level economy, but it evokes a fully realized character. It’s absolutely unnecessary for the plot, but now I know Briley, at least a little.

    I know there are Claire detractors out there (who may even weigh in on this thread), but I think DE does a lot of heavy lifting for justifying her existence in the series. She’s not JUST a damsel in distress (although the Claire-in-danger trope was arguably over-used), and her feelings for Parker are well drawn. It’s also interesting to see several of the same conversations play out from both Parker’s and Claire’s perspectives.

    As far as Parker’s feelings for Claire, this one sentence is probably the only direct examination we get in the whole series: “Most of the time he didn’t think about it, but every once in a while he realized she was important to him.” That’s it. That’s all we’re going to get of Parker’s “feelings.” But his actions, of course, speak volumes. If someone else were behaving as stubbornly and illogically as Claire does, Parker would shrug and be on his way. But not only does he protect her, he also goes out of his way (in this book and others) to keep Claire’s identity and Colliver Pond home safe.

    (It’s also interesting to note that in later books, when Parker advises Claire to vacate the house for a bit, she doesn’t hesitate.)

    • Well, that’s probably because she’s had a chance to get comfortable in the house by then, to claim it. To walk away from it so soon after moving in would be too craven a capitulation–it’d never be hers again. She’s fine with leaving it, now and again, but she doesn’t want to get chased out of it. Very late in the series, she says she’ll give it up entirely if she has to, which shows she can adapt to exigencies, as Parker does. She doesn’t have much choice, does she?

      It’s funny that some readers of the books–guys, obviously–insist that Parker would abandon Claire, or kill her, if necessary–that she’s just a convenience to him. Westlake could not be more clear that leaving her is not an option for Parker, as long as they’re both alive. As we saw with Lynn, even if Claire betrayed him, he couldn’t walk away, let alone kill her, but somehow it’s hard to imagine her ever doing that.

      We see here she’s up against two guys much sicker and scarier than Mal Resnick, and she could just say she’ll give them Parker if they’ll let her live–it’d be stupid, and she’s not stupid, but what Lynn did was stupid–Lynn couldn’t see past her next breath. When Mal threatened her, she broke–very easily–because even though she loved Parker, and was much more actively involved in his work life, she didn’t have a strong sense of self. Without that, you can be as hard as you like, but you’ll never be strong.

      Claire has been in the process of building up her sense of self, her identity, piece by piece–she’s got a core. Which means there are things she can’t do. And betraying Parker would be one of those things. But of course, she’s also smart enough to know that her best chance of staying alive is to play for time, and wait for Parker. Loyalty is good, love is good, but brains don’t hurt. Enlightened self-interest, we’ll call it.

      One thing I just briefly alluded to (I find it harder and harder to review the Parkers in just one installment, and I didn’t want to make this one a two-parter) is that Parker gets the call from Handy, letting him know that Keegan is scared of something, and just as he did in The Jugger, he feels this compulsion to go find out what’s happening. He could just wait, be on his guard, keep Claire safe–but it’s a compulsion with him to get out ahead of trouble, to face it head-on (or sneak up on it).

      To me, this explains his behavior in The Jugger very well, and yet Westlake never acknowledged that Parker was behaving consistently in that book. Sometimes we all do and say things that don’t make sense. Including writers.

  2. One thing that bothers me, plausibility-wise, is that the alarm isn’t raised after all the gunfire and shattered glass and screaming at Claire’s house. Parker is so quiet approaching the house, and still he is heard by two boys sitting on the dock. And yet, moments later, when violence and chaos noisily erupts, no police are called. What kind of people are living on the other side of Colliver Pond?

    • That didn’t bother me much. I grew up in rural New Jersey, albeit not as rural as this. I heard gunshots all the time in the backyard–hunters. After the land behind our house got built up more, that mainly stopped, but Sussex is definitely still hunting country to this day, and the people in those houses wouldn’t necessarily know the difference between a rifle shot and a pistol shot (and there was just one pistol shot). No nearby neighbors, and who knows if the shots even carried as far as the other side of the lake?

      The screams definitely wouldn’t, but you know as well as me how often you hear screams that turn out to be kids fooling around–and the same kids could be target-shooting. Hell, Claire herself was shooting that rifle off a lot by the house, days earlier, learning how to shoot–no cops ever showed.

      She walks into a sporting goods store, cool as you please, says she needs a gun, and they just sell it to her. No license, no permit, no background check, no waiting period–they totally buy her story that her husband wants her to go hunting with him (I guess they’d assume he’d see to whatever permits are needed). But of course it’s the early 70’s, it’s a hunting rifle, it’s the country, and it’s one hell of a good looking woman.

      If the cops had shown up, Claire could have told them any story she wanted, and they’d have just nodded, smiled, tipped their caps, and left. You think she ever got a speeding ticket in her life? 😉

      Editing–belatedly occurred to me–the Kitty Genovese murder was in 1964. I think Westlake would have rejected the notion that people ignoring violence going on around them was some uniquely urban thing. If anything, it’s worse in the suburbs. And as for the flat-out country, have you ever read In Cold Blood?

  3. What a joy to wake up and find a new Parker novel review on The Westlake Review. Really enjoyed this, thanks.

    • I enjoyed writing it (certainly a lot more than the last review)–just three more Parkers before Stark takes that long vacation inside Westlake’s head. But I’ll take my time getting through them.

  4. Ray Garraty

    Westlake almost made fun of Parker having made him rob a rock concert. You gotta create one character of a kind whi didn’t give a damn about music. It is fun to read the first part thinking how music almost annoys Parker. Otherwise it’s pretty boring by the end of it chapter, which is really kinda prologue.

    • I liked the heist, but saw no point in going into detail about it–as I said, the book serves as a reintroduction to the character, so makes sense to tell new readers “This is what this guy does for a living, and this is how he does it.”

      I wouldn’t say it’s boring, but it’s not that suspenseful, because as is true of many of Parker’s heists, it’s just a set-up for the real story, which is what happens after the heist is done. If all the heists were fraught with tension and uncertainty, Parker wouldn’t be very good at his job, now would he?

      I realize now that I made a minor error in my review of The Sour Lemon Score–I said that was the beginning of a long losing streak for Parker. Not really true–while he had some real problems with Jessup and Manny, and his entire string got killed off (which is annoying to him, because they were solid pros, and there’s never enough of those to go around), he still got home with the cash. He did not lose it. In 1970, the average American household made less than half the 16k he got from this one job. That’s bringing home the bacon and then some. But the next few jobs don’t go nearly so well.

      So Westlake goes to the trouble of telling the reader that back during the events of The Jugger, Parker lost all his stowed cash, and is still trying to rebuild his reserves. This explains why he’s working so much more often than we were told he did when we first met him in The Hunter. When Westlake wrote the first book, he didn’t know he’d be writing more of them, and would therefore need to justify frequent heists.

      Unstated but still obvious is the other reason he needs to keep earning–Claire. She just bought a house–presumably cash upfront. She’s not a cheap date. She likes the better things in life, and she does not want a steady job, anymore than Parker does. In a much later book, she and Parker visit a furrier, mainly to get information Parker needs, but since they’re there anyway, she’s obviously going to pick up a nice coat. And she sometimes travels by herself, to Europe and such.

      So the money goes fast. So Parker keeps working. Which he needs to do anyway, psychologically speaking. But she gives him a rational excuse for doing so. Because he doesn’t like catching himself doing things that make no sense. He could just ditch her and live for years and years on the take from one heist, but that’s no fun. She diverts him enough so that he doesn’t have to work all the time, but drains his resources enough so that he does have to work often enough to keep himself from vegetating.

      What was it that creepy old Mexican pimp in Kill Bil Vol 2 said? You know, the one played by Michael Parks. “Being a fool for a woman such as yourself is always the right thing to do.” I don’t think Parker would put it quite that way, but it’s the same general idea. 😉

      • Ray Garraty

        Well, you keep coming back to Claire. I agree with your points why she didn’t want to leave the house. But.
        As we start to see Parker starts to become an anachronism. And so does Claire. I will later return to your point about updated Parker, now let’s focus on Claire.
        As they’re both anachronisms, they’re a good pair. Why Parker keeps to rob organizations the old way, Claire leads the life of a wife whose husband is an earner of money. The wife’s purpose is solely to keep the fire home (I doubt Claire cooks dinner for Parker after he returns home from his not so 9-to-5 job). Claire is a woman of the first half of the XX century. She has no ambitions, she has no visible hobbies, she is just there for her man. While she’s tough and not stupid, she’s not particularly smart and intellegent (like Parker), and she’s not of that new wave of women that fight for their rights and freedom of men. What will she do when Parker gets killed? Find new man, probably. She doesn’t know how to do anything.
        Westlake updated Claire a bit having given her a home. Now she’s not just expensive girlfriend Parker drags with him, but a wife. The rest stays the same. Yes, the episode where Claire keeps off two goons is enjoyable and suspenseful. But this type of woman is just not to my liking. At least Parker can DO something.

        • I can see that, but let’s remember, these books always had an element of fantasy to them–Stark just makes the fantasy a bit more tangible, a bit more real, which is why people complain when it veers off into more fantastic elements–they’re reading these tall tales and they want to believe every last bit of it could happen. A lot of it could. Not all of it, not from the very first book (which in some ways is the least believable).

          Claire does cook for him, she does do things for him in terms of logistics–wiring him cash, making contacts, providing a sort of cover, and Parker being Parker, he does need a woman to expend his considerable sexual energies on–and we’ve seen how dangerous it can be for him to just drift from one partner to the next. It doesn’t work for him. He tried it for a short time, and he realized he couldn’t live that way long-term.

          I think there have always been Claires, and always will be. She’s as eternal as Parker, in her way. Yes, typical women don’t get to live like her, but she’s not living with a typical man. She could easily have found some rich man to sponge off of–that wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted freedom. She didn’t have any deep professional ambitions–it isn’t that she’s lazy, but to her a job would just be a job. It would never be a career (most people, in my opinion, never find work that really interests them–most work is not that interesting). And in this era, a woman looking like her could count on a lot of sexual harassment, bosses pressuring her to have sex. She’d have to use her wiles to pay the rent–it’d be a drag.

          She likes men who lead dangerous lives, but they have a tendency to die on her. She is like Parker, you see–she can’t lead an ordinary life. She can’t do nine-to-five. She also likes long periods of inactivity punctuated with brief periods of intense activity.

          She doesn’t need a family (the subject never even comes up, best as we know). She loves sex, but doesn’t want to sleep around. So here’s this guy who leads an exciting life, but somehow refuses to die. He comes home from work with the biggest hard-on imaginable. He spends the next few months fucking her ragged, taking her out to dinner, then he goes off again, and she enjoys the time alone as much as the time she spends with him. She can read, observe the world around her, engage in various activities–and enjoy certain material comforts. What was missing was a home–a place that would be hers. It’s just a small unassuming place, but that’s all she wants. A room of her own (as Virginia Woolf might put it). A place to just be herself.

          It’s a fantasy–we all know that. But it’s a very grounded tangible fantasy. It’s also not the main point of the books, so Claire is mainly in the background. I do think she adds something, but it could be done differently. For example, she could be less pretty, but more practical–she could have a job at a supermarket, bring home groceries, chain smoke, and sometimes get peripherally involved in heists. But that would be a very different kind of heister she’d be involved with. A different kind of fantasy.

          It seems like Claire bothers you more than Mary–because Mary and Grofield are work partners? How many spouses are ever work partners? Mary, unlike Claire, is unable to talk her way out of getting raped, even though she’s an actress. I think the problem was that she has much less experience with men–Grofield might well be the only man she’s ever been with, but even if she wasn’t a virgin when she met him, her dating options in Copper Canyon must have been fairly limited (one reason she wanted so badly to get out of there), and I seem to recall her uncle was a cop, so she didn’t have to worry much about guys taking advantage.

          Claire is as good a partner as Parker could reasonably hope to find. And because she’s not part of his working life normally, she doesn’t have to be in the story that much–but it was important to show her life with Parker now and again, and to change the set-up–I think the house in New Jersey was a good idea. I think it just grounded things more. The hotels were getting old. And so was dreaming up a new girlfriend for Parker every other book or so. My personal favorite is still Elly from The Seventh, but I’m not sure she had as much dramatic potential as Claire. She was a bit too uncomplicated. A great thing in real life–maybe not so great from a storyteller’s perspective. Her scenes with Parker would be vigorous sexual intercourse punctuated with long periods of silence. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. 😉

          • PS: This is the very last book that deals extensively with Claire. She gets a few more interesting moments over the series, but basically not much more real development. We find out that her initial desire to never hear about Parker’s work has changed–she does want to hear about it now, just not the part where he kills people.

            In a sense, this book solves the Claire problem–creates a place for her to be when she’s not needed in the story. So as is often the case, when Westlake solves a problem, he puts it to one side. As will we, in most future reviews of the Parker novels. But if I didn’t focus heavily on Claire in this one, I wouldn’t be doing a very good job of reviewing Deadly Edge, since the book is mainly about Parker and Claire. Manny and Jessup don’t even rate a POV chapter. They are mostly just there to show us Claire is capable of handling guys like them–up to a point. Past that point, Parker’s going to have to take over.

            But the story did show us one last time (she’s never in jeopardy again) that Parker would go through anything to protect her, keep her in his life. We’ve already seen that Lynn being involved with his work was not a good arrangement–it created more problems than it fixed. It ended up making her a liability to him. To the extent it’s possible, he’s going to want Claire separate from his working life. And her having a job, a career, would be another complication they don’t need. So lady of leisure is the best option for her. It’s an option many would envy, and not just beautiful women.

            Female heisters did show up later in the series, and they will create some interesting storytelling possibilities. But for Westlake, it seems he didn’t think Claire was well-suited to that role–he hadn’t created her for that, and she couldn’t be repurposed that way.

            We can bat it around some more, or you could change the subject. 😉

            • Ray Garraty

              I don’t like Claire, but I like the idea to give her (and Parker) home. Stark had written a domestic thriller – in his own, Starkian way. Before that Parker didn’t have a home base, HQ, now he has, and Stark exploited this new Parker’s weakness (as he did before with Grofield).
              When I first read it, I found it too simple. The mystery element was good, yet the plot overall felt like 2+2. I rated DE as a lesser Stark work. Then I started to come back to this book in my thoughts more often. The plot was simple, but then hasn’t The Hunter, my favorite book in the series, also got a simple plot? I found this book nasty and very down-to-earth, and now I liked it so I could include it in my top-6.
              What I liked is irrationality of evil here. Simple and ugly face of violent people. Closeness of violence. Whom did Parker meet as his opponents in the best novels? Coward mobster? Bitch waitress? Angry boyfriend? Greedy country cop? They are all laughable as Parker’s competitors. And in DE Parker faces ugly violent opponents in psycho junkies. They are here for fun. They can harm you just for the hell of it. It feels real. Stark updated his villains. I don’t remember mobsters in this book at all, though.

              • I think the mobsters are mainly there as a preview of coming attractions. Parker made peace with The Outfit, but The Outfit isn’t all there is to organized crime in his world. His arrangement with Karns cuts no ice with anybody else.

                I’m not sure Stark believes in evil, per se. Westlake does, but that’s another matter. Stark only asks if you know yourself or not. To be half-good–in any sense–is worse than being all bad. He’d have more respect for Jessup if he said the hell with Manny and saved his own skin.

                Bill Cosby had this bit where he talked about an acquaintance who told him “The great thing about drugs is they intensify your personality.” To which Cosby responded “But what if you’re an asshole?”

                So that explains his own relative sobriety over the years. 😉

  5. This one makes an interesting structural contrast to The Sour Lemon Score. There, Parker had to keep driving from place to place to place, all up and down the eastern seaboard. Here, the bulk of it is in two short periods of time in two locations: the heist at the rock concert and the home invasion at the new house.

    One other thing: Briley in one of my favorites of Parker’s cohort. It’s a shame he was never in a string with Grofield; that would have been a damned amusing pairing.

    • Yeah, kind of a pity Briley couldn’t have just ended up in the hospital. He’s not quite dead when Parker leaves him, but it’s made pretty clear he’s gone–Westlake later revived a seemingly dead heister, but Parker was in more of a hurry that time, and you could argue he didn’t check him that thoroughly. It’s not called The Violent World of Parker for nothing. Stark goes to a lot of trouble to make us like these three birds, then bumps them off, one by one–and who survives getting braced by the crazed hippies? Claire.

      Structurally, the Random House Parkers are all pretty different from what came before, and from each other. They all have this experimental flavor to them. In some ways, Westlake returned to the paperback format when he brought Parker back in the 90’s–just sticking Parker into that time period was an experiment. But he kept that more contemporary feel, that sense that the modern world is closing in on Parker, who has to hustle more to stay afloat.

      When you get right down to it, all the Parkers are very different from each other, some more than others, but he never wrote the same book twice.

      • Ray Garraty

        Without re-reading RH books, I can’t say how much Westlake updated the style. But he certainly did.

  6. Ray Garraty

    Also: the setting of this book is creepy. It’s always suspenseful when Parker is alone against something dangerous and harmful (I’m not talking about Slayground!). He was alone in The Hunter, in The Jugger, I think that’s it. And that’s the best books. When he relies on something, or someone, the tension almost goes away. It’s not always working to a book’s advantage, some books are good because they show how Parker interacts with other people.
    Here Parker is alone against pretty mindless villains. And that deserted NJ country? It still gives me the creeps.

    • I look forward to your explaining why Slayground doesn’t work for you, when it seemingly meets (and surpasses) your highest standards for Parker Perfection. 🙂

      I think the setting works because Westlake was so familiar with it–he’s taking something he knows very well and turning it into something alien and frightening. A wolf in the wilderness is something you expect–a wolf in what amounts to a suburb of New York (according to Wikipedia, about 60% of Sussex County residents work outside the county, many in Manhattan)–that’s a very eerie thing.

      Though as I said, there’s plenty of wildlife there–black bears, along with coyotes, bobcats, fishers. Of course, coyotes have made it into New York City–people are so excited about that now, but I saw my first one in The Bronx in 1993.

      He steals that boat, and rows his way across, and there’s kids playing on the shore, and people going about their usual business, and all unknown to them, this thief and killer is rowing across their lake to have it out with two other thieves and killers, and they’ll never know about it–but we will.

      So really, we’re like Claire–we’re in her position, savoring that secret knowledge, feeling that thrilling sense of being on the inside, only knowing even more than her, knowing the things she doesn’t want to know, refuses to know.

      I do enjoy it when Parker moves among the ‘straight’ world, the world of solid law-abiding citizens, concealing himself in their midst. Ask the Parrot is a long way off yet, and I’ll be nearly done with my reviews when I reach it, but I still anticipate it eagerly.

      • Ray Garraty

        We see people on the lake, but Westlake makes it so like the whole world is empty and deserted except for Parker, Claire and two killers. I always admired those books where the world is almost airless, peopleless, it’s hard to breathe. There is only you and that thing you’re most afraid of.

        • Yeah, that’s it. Except Parker isn’t afraid. He’s the thing people should be most afraid of.

          In a setting like this, where people will mainly filter out anything they aren’t prepared to deal with, the world might as well be empty and deserted. Most murders happen with other people nearby.

          In the earlier Parkers, you get a bit of this, but it mainly feels like a different world–a paperback crime fiction world, where nobody is honest, or innocent.

          By this point in the series, Westlake is trying harder to remind us that Parker’s world exists side-by-side with the ‘straight’ world.

          • Ray Garraty

            That’s the update – new, different violent world of Parker. He’s no longer against tin soldiers, he’s against real evil in a world where you can get hurt for real. I think we’ll return to this aspect in the next three Parker books.

  7. There’s a (very) minor error in this review:

    None of the novels had opened with the classic “When such and such happened, Parker did something” riff since The Seventh in ’66…

    The Handle’s opening sentence also has this construction. It’s also ’66, but released after The Seventh, of course. Westlake dropped the “When such and such” bit at the same time he adopted a new titling convention, with The Rare Coin Score.

    • Quite right. Sometimes I get The Handle‘s place in the canon confused (much as I like it, it’s nowhere near as rousing a tale as The Seventh, less interesting a change of direction than The Rare Coin Score). An easy fix. I don’t even have to change the year.

  8. Agreed. It really slips through the cracks, almost serving as a backdoor pilot for the Grofield series. I often forget it when trying to recall the full series. When Mysterious Press was doing its matchbook cover reissues, they stopped at The Seventh. The Handle took awhile for me to track down, and when I did, it was called Run Lethal.

    • As the last of the Pocket Parkers, with those snappy two word titles, it does mark the end of an era (I don’t know if Bucklin Moon was still working with Westlake at that point).

      Debatable whether it’s the weakest of that run (you know Westlake’s pick, and he was wrong)–is it better than The Mourner? I could go either way. Both involve foreign intrigue, spies, etc. And I think both are very well written. I like a bit of genre-bending, where Stark is concerned. The whole point, in a lot of the books, is to get Parker out of his comfort zone.

      The Sour Lemon Score was a very strong finish for the Gold Medals, Butcher’s Moon finished off the Random House run with a vengeance, and that’s not just a turn of phrase. Stark tended to go for grand exits.

      I would however, have to rank The Handle over Dirty Money, if we’re talking publisher finales. Except–hmm–technically, Dirty Money was a run of one–Grand Central. It’s both the weakest and the strongest Parker novel from that publisher.

      The last Mysterious Press Parker was Ask the Parrot, so that was a very lucky seventh indeed.

      • And now that I think about it, he used the ““When such and such…” opening sentence gambit in the first eight and the last eight. I like the symmetry of that, but given the choice, I’d have taken more books.

        • There are all kinds of inner symmetries in this series, and I find it hard to believe all or even most of them were intentional. Did Westlake plan for any of those three triptychs? Probably not.

          The Mourner is separate from the first three books, yet continues them. The first three books are all related to Parker’s conflict with The Outfit–but the 2nd 3rd & 4th could be called the Handy McKay Trilogy.

          The Score is a fresh start, and seems to get Parker back to the life he wanted to get back to at the end of The HunterThe Jugger then tears down that life, forces him to rebuild.

          The Seventh has him more desperate, on the outs, and angst-ridden than we’ve seen him since the The HunterThe Handle shows him so large and in charge that he can out-bargain a mob lord, and take down a Bondian supervillain. And that feels right, somehow. He got his mojo back at the end of the previous book. But he’s still missing something.

          Then the four Gold Medals show him building a new life with Claire, after an opening that has him drifting, clearly needing some kind of stable foundation for his existence. The Random House books have him putting down roots (after his own fashion)–then struggling to stay afloat, because of jobs that keep going wrong. Butcher’s Moon resolves everything–and then we’re gone for almost a quarter century.

          The first five of the Final Eight, in spite of their dove-tailed titles, are pretty much all pure standalones, with the Mackeys serving as glue (and the mystery of when these stories are taking place, and whether Backflash is actually a flashback, that took place between Butcher’s Moon and Comeback). By the time Breakout comes around, Parker has never seemed more fatalistic. Or more determined.

          Then you get three books written over maybe four years that take place over maybe two or three weeks, and are heavily cross-referenced.

          It’s an entire 24 book series (28 with Grofield), written by the push method. Over maybe 45 years. At the same time, painstakingly plotted and sheerly serendipitous.

          There’s nothing else like it. That I know of.

  9. Greg Tulonen

    I’m making my way through this one for the I-don’t-know-how-manyth time, and for the first time, I think I’ve spotted a small continuity error:

    He went on to tell her the whole story, from beginning to end. He left out two things: the names of the people he was with, because they wouldn’t mean anything to her, and the discovery of Berridge’s dead body in the house afterward.

    Compare that to this:

    Morris. She remembered the name from Parker’s description of the robbery; this was the man who’d stood on watch on the roof.

    A deliberate flaw in the tapestry?

    • That’s a tough one to explain away. It’s possible Parker talked to Claire about the robbery afterwards, when he had to make clear to her just how dangerous a situation they were in, but there’s not much room for that to have happened. And honestly, the real problem is that he has no problem telling her the whole story of the robbery, but only leaves out the names because she doesn’t know them (as opposed to the usual professional caution).

      Here’s another guess. There were different drafts. In one of them, he told her the names, in another he didn’t. This is the first Parker for Random House, and it’s not the mystery division–he’s probably not working with Lee Wright anymore. (I have no idea if she was still with Random House by then). There was a mix-up. By the time he noticed, if he noticed, it was too late in the printing process to fix without costing some significant bread. He wanted to keep this professional relationship alive a while longer. He let it go.

      But yeah, possible he made the mistake on purpose–to see if the new editor would spot it? (Lee Wright would have spotted it, I bet.) To see if we’d spot it? To appease the Navajo gods?

      Westlake said the big problem with Jim Thompson was that he was writing on a tight deadline, and when he wrote something further along in the book that conflicted with what came earlier, he’d just do some quick fix at that point of the book, instead of going back to rewrite what he’d done before (no word processors). Offhand, I don’t remember any serious continuity errors in Thompson. But on the other hand, I didn’t remember any continuity errors in Deadly Edge. Most continuity errors I have found in Westlake came, like this came to you, from a later reading. You’re just too caught up with it the first few times to notice. Right?

      So maybe he figures if no sharp-eyed reader writes in to tell him he did it wrong, that actually means he did it right?

      Some mysteries are never solved. (Most, really.)

      • Greg Tulonen

        Truthfully, “this was the man who’d stood on watch on the roof” feels more like a reminder to the reader than a thought Claire would have had in that moment (especially since she supposedly didn’t know any of their names save Keegan’s). We haven’t seen Morris in a hundred pages, so this is a quick memory jog.

        • Sure, and there’s no way Morris can tell her, in this situation. She has to know already, so that has to be written in. But Westlake literally just had to change a few words further back in the book to make it match up. Not even a minute’s work. He was normally very careful about that kind of thing, Navajo gods or not.

          That whole chapter of the book actually bothers me, more than this mistake–the dinner. What does Morris think he’s doing, sitting down to table with two crazed hippies he’s pretty damn sure are killing guys he worked a job with to get the money? He’s armed, he can see Claire is terrified, there’s no witnesses to worry about–why doesn’t he just throw down on them before they can get set? He’s not a cop. He doesn’t have to worry about evidence. He knows what happens if they get the jump on him.

          You could argue he doesn’t want Claire hit with a stray bullet, and of course Stark needs him dead, but it’s not really made clear why he’s biding his time.

          It’s like he’s as guilty as Jessup is of playing out some scene from a movie, where he’s the hero who takes crazy chances because the hero can’t die. Once he sits down, he’s in a really bad position to make a move. So the idea is to contrast his approach with Parker’s, comparative psychology, as always.

          So aside from fixing that earlier passage, Westlake, as Stark, should have written something from Morris’ POV, to explain why he’d do this. Except where does he sandwich that in? Only POV character in this one besides Parker is Claire.

          I still think he got that bit of business with Morris’ body being used to terrify Claire from Ripley Underground, which came out the year before this. Which would mean there would have to be very little gap between writing and publication. Meaning less time than usual to work out the kinks. Meaning he was possibly under pressure to get a book out fast, or he’d lose the business with Random House, which was a really important revenue stream.

          Meaning I have no bloody idea, or rather, too damn many.

          (But this is a nice diversion, thank you. Yes, I’m still writing. It’s finishing that’s the problem. Think I should have a piece out sometime this week.)

  10. You know, it occurs to me, years later, that what I still think is probably a jazz buff’s injoke by Westlake, telling us something about a minor character’s personal quirks, might possibly be the result of a missing comma.

    “Lester, Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges–” Works that way too.

    See, anybody who knows anything about this music would know the first two names represent two different legends, but would whoever was responsible for getting this book printed know that? It is not at all clear from context, is it? Pres referred to by his first name, Bean by his last, Diz and Rabbit get their full formal monikers. (Yeah, I’m showing off, what of it?)

    And if Westlake just possibly turned in a typewritten copy with a comma missing (or obscured), then saw the error once the book was already being printed, would he yell “Stop the presses!”? Greg and I already had a talk about this further up–might have been some pressure to get the book turned in and sent to bookstores fast.

    But my question is, would someone so proud of his knowledge relating to this supreme American musical form want to risk people out there thinking it was his dumbass mistake? Even under a pseudonym. And of course it’s not. We can be sure of that much. He knew there never was any Lester Hawkins. (Well, Google turns up a few, but none of them are jazz masters).

    This would be such an easy matter to clear up. If he was still here.

    :\

  11. A humdinger tale. I especially enjoy:

    -Westlake/Stark spending time on the details of the score – Parker’s judgement and skills on display every single step of the way – on the roof, following the blueprint, Parker’s dealing with Dockery, with RG, with the other guards, men and women in the cash room. Parker proves himself the mastermind organizer, planner along with a deep understanding of people.

    -Parker understanding the dynamics of pulling the hit without Berridge.

    -Parker dealing with the fat man and hoods. Although he’s outnumbered and the other guys have the guns, Parker remains in control.

    -the scenes in New Jersey with Claire and others. After being raised in cities, Parker becomes a Jersey guy, sort of.

    • A functional understanding of human behavior under certain situations, that he’s acquired as part of his overall heisting skill set–part of his job in any string is trouble shooter, and because he knows that when you leave dead bodies behind, the cops get a lot more interested, he tries to head off such situations before they get started.

      I wouldn’t say a deep understanding. That requires a type of empathy and curiosity that he doesn’t really have. (Though Stark does.) Most of what we say and do baffles him. (Baffles me, and I am a human.) He will never really get us. And that doesn’t really bother him, except for the odd moments (as in The Green Eagle Score) when it leads to a dangerous misreading of a situation. In this one, he is able to figure out Claire’s attachment to the house–that’s empathy of a sort. But that’s because Claire is important to him. And he knows sometimes he does things that don’t make sense, like when somebody takes his share of a score. She’s his mate, so he can get further into her mind than that of some stranger (and to Parker, very nearly all of us are strangers, and always will be).

      I mean, a wolf doesn’t understand why ungulates eat grass. But that’s their business. His is hunting them. So he watches them, comes to understand how they’ll react when hunted, allows for that. He sees weakness, injury, illness–vulnerabilities. And the rest is of no concern to him.

      Over and over, you find that seeing Parker as a wolf, or some other type of predator, trapped in the body of a man, explains him better than anything else.

      • Over and over, you find that seeing Parker as a wolf, or some other type of predator, trapped in the body of a man, explains him better than anything else. ———– Right. What I don’t get is why Parker smokes and drinks at all. Even if it is only between jobs.

        • He smokes and drinks because his creator smokes and drinks, and because it’s a crime fiction convention. However, you see a lot less of that in the later books. Westlake became very anti-cig; even wrote a whole novel satirizing Big Tobacco. I think he also cut back on the drinking as an older man. Trying to remember the last Parker novel where he’s seen to be imbibing. (Btw, you forgot coffee–Parker is also into caffeine.).

          Nicotine and alcohol relax us, help us feel better, if only briefly–at a price. Caffeine perks us up, sharpens our wits, keeps us going when we’re tired. Parker shares our body chemistry, and gets the same basic effects. It is entirely possible to addict dogs to nicotine, but it impacts their health much more severely. Animals do get addicted to various substances. We are animals, never forget. Most of what we are comes from them. We just took it to odd extremes.

          • He smokes and drinks because his creator smokes and drinks, and because it’s a crime fiction convention. ——— So true, especially crime fiction convention. I haven’t read as much crime fiction as many fans of the genre but thinking of Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Goodis, Rabe, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a novel where there wasn’t lots of drinking and smoking.

            Animals do get addicted to various substances. —- Yes, indeed. I recall reading where chimps in the wild get high on some plants.

            We are animals, never forget. ——– Nope. And I don’t hold in high regard Aristotle’s definition of humans as rational animals.

  12. Back in the early 1990s I recall my local Borders stocking a small bookcase of cool looking Black Lizard/Vintage crime fiction by such as Goodis, Chandler. Hammett. A purchases several – my intro to the world of the hardboiled. Was anything by Westlake/Stark ever considered for this series?

    • You’d have to ask the people behind that imprint what they did or did not consider–and having considered, they’d still need to get the rights. Much of Westlake was in print elsewhere by the time Vintage Crime acquired the Black Lizard catalogue. Westlake was still alive and producing new work. Entirely possible there were discussions, but they started off publishing stuff they already had the rights for, like Thompson and Goodis (both long gone).

      I’d bet good money there was discussion of reprinting the older Parker novels, but University of Chicago Press started doing that around 2008, thanks to Levi Stahl.

      http://www.thestacksreader.com/the-stacks-chat-levi-stahl/

      Every last word Westlake published is under copyright. Most is in print, even if the ‘print’ is digital. There is a small list of books I’d love to see made available, but I’m skeptical Black Lizard/Vintage would be the venue. They certainly had their chance to make an offer.

      • Thanks. All of what you note makes sense, especially how those Black Lizard authors like Goodis, Thompson, Chandler, Hammett were all long gone. Meanwhile, Donald E. Westlake was still around.

        For me, there was something special about those Black Lizard books – I so much liked the feel when reading.

        My Parker novels are all the Chicago publications. I like the uniform design and, most importantly since I can no longer read small print, the trim size is large and the font size is large (at least for my eyes).

        • I went out of my way to get most of the paperback originals, because I loved the covers, and it made me feel closer to the material, somehow. Parker began in paperback, and somehow always feels most at home there. With some help from an eBay fiend, I’ve gotten a number of rare first editions, even the Random House edition of Butcher’s Moon. But I’ve also gotten the U. of Chicago editions. Levi Stahl did more than any single person to bring these books back, make them part of the conversation again.

          I have, however, resisted getting Parker ebooks, and honestly, I do most of my reading on Kindle lately. I feel you about the font size thing, though I can read fine print (with very thick lenses). I have lots of Dortmunders on Kindle. Somehow, with Parker, it just don’t feel right.

          • Greg Tulonen

            I will forever be grateful to the U. of Chicago for getting all of the Parkers back into print where they belong. They’re truly doing God’s work. That said, I do not like their covers at all. The gun silhouette is fine, I guess, and adds some uniformity to the series, but the hastily (and, sometimes, seemingly randomly) assembled stock images that accompany the gun silhouette are… not good. The Rare Coin Score may be the worst one of all. It’s just bad. The covers did get a bit better as the series progressed (Butcher’s Moon and Ask the Parrot are almost good), but they’re all a steep drop down from Robert McGinnis, who’s still alive and working for crying out loud (but almost certainly outside of the U. of Chicago’s price range). The copy-editing in the U. of Chicago editions is also… not so great. The back covers of The Green Eagle Score and The Sour Lemon Score both refer to Parker’s fellow “hoisters,” when I think the word they’re looking for is “heisters.” Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize “heister,” and in fact recommends “hoister” as a correction, which may be where that particular error arose. Inside the covers, more typos abound. I actually alerted the good people at U. of Chicago (and they are good people, despite my bitching) to the “hoisters” nonsense about ten years back. They promised to correct it in future editions, and sent me an advance copy of “Butcher’s Moon.”

            • Yeah, the covers were never much, but I’m afraid that’s largely a lost art in publishing now. Graphic Design is all the rage. It ain’t the same thing.

              And there were a fair few errors in the text and typography, but that’s to be expected with a limited budget. Strange that you so rarely find them in the lowly paperbacks, but those paperback originals had good-sized budgets for both artwork and proofreading–because they sold in enormous numbers. Major moneymakers. I’m guessing U. of Chicago has reaped unexpectedly large dividends from the Stark reprints–but nothing like what the original editions got.

  13. I also discovered a number of typos. Never a good sign.

    I’m an avid fan of audio books, have been for years. I’ll listen while walking. I have no problems with concentration – once I hone into an audio book, I can listen for hours without being pulled out of listening. More than halfway through the 22 Parker novels (audible doesn’t have an audio book for “Breakout” or “Nobody Runs Forever”), here’s my observation:

    Both Keith Szarabajka and Joe Barrett are excellent. These men have deep, gravely voices and slide into Parker’s voice as if they were made for the part. So satisfying to listen to.

    John Chancer is good, his voice is not as deep, but he does change his voice when he shifts to Parker.

    Stephen R. Thorne’s voice is very much like John Chancer, not all that deep but he speaks clearly. However, Thorne does not change from his narrator’s voice when he is speaking Parker’s words. Not good, not good at all. And Thorne narrates a whole bunch of Parker novels.

  14. Greg Tulonen

    The old-school Parker audiobook narrator was Michael Kramer, who recorded the entire series through Flashfire, with the exception of Backflash, which was narrated by actor Robert Davi (who did a great job with that one). This was back when audiobooks came on cassette tapes. Only Kramer’s Flashfire and Firebreak are currently available through Audible, but they’re worth seeking out.

    I’ve mentioned this before on the blog: My friend Bill Dufris was a voice actor and audiobook narrator, but I didn’t know until just two weeks after his death that he had narrated Ask the Parrot. I wish I could have asked him about it. Maybe it was just another job to him. It probably was, but I would have loved to have picked his brain about the experience. Frustratingly, the Audible.com version of Ask the Parrot is missing four chapters. I reported it, but going by buyer reviewers, it’s been been an issue for many years.

    In addition to the compromised Ask the Parrot, it’s frustrating that Breakout and Nobody Runs Forever were apparently never recorded. It rubs against the completionist in me that wants to own every Parker in every possible format.

  15. Great info, Greg. Oh, yes, I have all the Parker novels available thru Audible.com.

    Sounds like my background in books is a bit different from yours and Fred. I read my first hardboiled crime fiction when in my 40s and listened to my first Parker novel just this past summer (“Slayground” since I’m a big fan of Joe Barrett and John Banville alluded to Richard Stark in his review of Pascal Garnier, – first time I heard of Richard Stark). The only other Westlake novel I read was “The Ax” back when first published. In November I made the decision to read and review all the Parker novels in order, a great decision since I LOVE all the Parker novels I’ve read/listened to so far. So much so, I made it a point to listen to each twice.

    BTW – here’s my review of “The Ax” you might want to take a look at: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2200219621

  16. I could use your help. I didn’t understand why Parker didn’t strangle Manny. I recall back in The Hunter he shows the guy in the car his hands and tells him these are all I need (in other words, Parker doesn’t need a gun).

    As you’ll see I made a mistake. I first put this comment under Plunder Squad. I don’t see any way to delete.

    • I’ll delete it.

      John Ford was once asked, regarding his film Stagecoach, why the Indians chasing the stagecoach didn’t just shoot the horses.

      He said “Well, that would be the end of the movie, wouldn’t it?”

      Now many have responded that the Indians wanted the horses–that was part of what they were chasing the stage for. Sure, maybe. But Ford’s reason is the real one. It’s a story. And the storyteller is going for a certain effect in each scene. Moving towards a certain desired conclusion. And since human beings often behave irrationally, there’s a large number of possible conclusions to any story, though some more likely than others.

      But let’s try to explain it, sure. Parker could go for Manny with his hands. He might get shot doing it. He’s more careful now than he was in The Hunter, when he was in one of those weird states he gets in when somebody crosses him (he does not feel this way about Manny and Jessup, because they were not part of the string). And Manny is more dangerous and unpredictable than Stegman–a lot more. And he sits in the back seat, remember? And he’s on drugs, meaning Parker has to handle him carefully–he won’t intimidate easily.

      But mainly, Parker needs Manny to get Jessup in the car–then he has to drive the car far enough away from the house that the law won’t be checking anywhere near Colliver Pond. He knows that once the car is moving, he’s in control. He’s confident in his ability to handle both of them once the time is right.

      (But mainly, because that would be the end of the book, wouldn’t it?)

      • Thanks. And, yes, makes good sense.

        I should have been clearer. I was alluding to the time when Parker comes in the house and sees Manny zoned out in bed since, at some point, he realizes Jessup is upstairs.

        Maybe the same reason – it would change a good story?

        • Well, yeah. But again, you can explain it pretty easily, if you want. Parker doesn’t know exactly where Jessup is, so Jessup is the real danger. Neutralize him first. And while there is one book, much later, where Parker thinks about killing some people who crossed him in their sleep, it never happens–not then or anywhere in the entire series. It’s just not his style. Or Stark’s.

          It’s comparable to him not killing George Uhl when Uhl was drugged. He knows he should. It isn’t mercy. He can’t do it. He doesn’t really understand why–it irritates him. Killing is never a casual thoughtless act for him–there has to be a clear and present reason for it–the trigger in his head has to be pulled. It’s a Parker thing. Act dead, and he won’t make you dead. Until you show signs of life.

          • That’s helpful. I didn’t catch that George Uhl connection. You mentioned elsewhere that a dog (and perhaps a wolf) will not attack you if you give off the vibe that you are in no way a danger to it. Portraying Parker this way makes abundant sense.

            • He does shoot Jack French in the back when French is running away, in The Rare Coin Score. He’s not worried about appearances. French has shown that whatever he says, he won’t walk away from a score he desperately wants and needs. And Parker has zero problems dropping a man he wants to kill when that man is running. You don’t have to be a danger to him at that precise moment in time for him to kill you. But you probably do need to be conscious.

  17. “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.” ——— I’m still learning this tough lesson from Stark/Parker. I suspect I’m like many people: winning is not enough, we don’t like to think we played a crappy game.

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