Review: Deadly Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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21 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

21 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.

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