Review: Slayground

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

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

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

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

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

From The Most Dangerous Game, by Richard Connell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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56 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

56 responses to “Review: Slayground

  1. Adi Kiescher

    I’ve always wondered how nobody in the neighborhood ever noticed all the sound and lights in the amusement park. It must have been visible for miles. I mean, it’s off-season, right? Didn’t anybody notice and wonder?

    • There basically is no neighborhood there. Non-residential area, at the outskirts of town. By the time they turn most of the street-level lights on to hunt for Parker (not the rides and stuff), the police roadblock nearby has been called off. Much of the hunt is during the day, anyhow. Because the mob controls certain aspects of the park, they have guys who can figure out how to selectively turn stuff on and off.

      The sound wouldn’t carry very far, and would get swallowed up in the ambient noise of the city. The lights would mainly be blocked by that high fence, and if anybody did happen to see it, they’d think something was being tested out, or there was some kind of maintenance going on. Almost no passing motorists except during rush hour, which is the reason it was a good place to waylay that armored car.

      I stayed in Orlando for a few days once. Just outside Disney World–a few other major theme parks nearby as well. A word of advice–don’t ever do this. The most horrible city on the face of the planet. Orlando, not Disney World, I don’t know what the latter is like, never been (I mean, I’ve seen the superbowl ads). My parents had this timeshare, I needed to spend time with them, tickets were expensive, my little nieces weren’t there, so we just hung out (decent birdwatching nearby). I’ve never been to Disney World. Or Disney Land. Or any province of Disney. Coney Island, yes. Seaside Park on the Jersey Shore, yes. Six Flags Great Adventure, yes. King’s Island in Ohio, yes (I saw HR Pufnstuff perform live there). Disney World, no.

      Point is, even though the legendary Magic Kingdom was right there, in full operation, day and night, I never heard or saw a damn thing–if it wasn’t for all the signs, and a huge gate, and the fact that there were all these people hanging around this unbelievably horrid city that basically serves as a place for all the park workers to live (if you can call that living), I wouldn’t have known it was there at all. Much larger area, to be sure. But Orlando isn’t much of a city. Seriously, you have no idea how much of a city Orlando is not. Unless you’ve been there too? Isn’t it awful?

  2. This is one of my favorite Parkers, partly because, as much as I love the Parker model, this one is so off-model. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, when we were inundated with Die-Hard-on-a-plane/boat/hockey game/etc. movies, all I could think was, “These are Slayground-on-a-plane/boat/hockey game etc. movies,” as Slayground predates even Roderick Thorp, Jr.’s bestselling (but largely forgotten) novel Nothing Lasts Forever, upon which Die Hard is based (of course). The most egregious example I can think of is Beverly Hills Cop III, described by its own screenwriter as “Die Hard in a theme park.” (Screw you, Steven E. de Souza.)

    Still, as many times as I’ve read The Most Dangerous game (a few), and as many more times as I’ve listened to the radio show adaptation with Orson Welles and Keenan Wynn (many, many times), I’ve never made the connection between it and SG (although now that you bring it up, it seems obvious).

    The Caliato head-fake is among my favorite in all of storytelling. I like it so much, I appropriated it for the web series I wrote, setting up a character as a major, series-long antagonist and bumping him off halfway through the first season (out of three). It raises rather than lowers the stakes, which is so beautifully counter-intuitive.

    • Wow, talk about burying the lead–you wrote a web series? Can we see it? 🙂

      (editing–actually anyone can see it–just google)

      It’d be interesting to know how much of an influence Slayground actually had on other books and movies that came after it. I implied that Live and Let Die borrowed elements of the wax museum sequence, but that may not be true–creepy wax museums had a long history in popular fiction before Westlake got there–he just did his usual adroit change-ups to a well-worn formula. Parker obviously isn’t going to find a figure of himself in there, like 007 did, so he just blends in with the crowd.

      We recognize a lot of borrowed elements in the book, but they all seem fresh–in part because we know Parker isn’t at all aware of them. If he went to see Lady From Shanghai, it would just pass through him. Except maybe during that hall of mirrors scene, he’d have been thinking “He should have spray-painted circles on all the mirrors. More efficient.”

      I feel the same way as you–this is a needed break from the usual routine. Parker pretty much always collaborates with somebody in the course of a book–even in The Hunter, he’s got Rosie, he’s pulling heists with other guys, he’s talking to people–it’s never just him all by himself. This time he’s totally on his own, with no way to call in help (not that he would in this specific situation), and no way to get out of the box Stark has put him in. In a sense, his only ally is the park itself–its labyrinthine nature, and the fact that most of the hunting party don’t know it that well–the one who knew it best died just a few minutes into the hunt.

      I’ve seen Diehard many times, and it grabs you, does its job, and c’mon–that could never happen in a million years. This could. I doubt it ever has, but it’s all quite believable–a fantastic bit of urban fabulism, firmly grounded in reality. That was the challenge, for Westlake–to make an unbelievable story believable. To make the unreal real. And when Hollywood finally got to the book, obviously that was just too much for it to handle, and it just ignored the story entirely, told an entirely different and utterly stupid story, that makes Diehard look like cinema verite.

      And as I’ve said elsewhere, that’s not entirely a bad thing. Much as I think it would be easier to tell parts of this story visually, rather than with prose, there is something oddly satisfying about going back to this defiant little book, and realizing that with nothing more than a Smith Corona manual typewriter and some time, a man told a story of one fighting many that beats all the Hollywood action-crap ever lensed.

      • So much of this book is internal, with a more reflective Parker than we usually see, including the bit you quoted above in which he thinks about his fellow heisters before angrily tossing those thoughts aside. And then there’s this wonderful sentence: “Even a potato, that makes a good silencer.” No way to get that into a movie without seeming contrived.

        I didn’t want to spam your comments thread, but yes, I have a deep Google footprint, much of it connected to that web series.

        • Soon as I get a spare hour or two at home, I’ll be checking that out–I hope there’s babes? I always prefer naked girls to naked guns, but I’m weird.

          The potato silencer, as you may know, was rather prominently featured in Peter Rabe’s seminal Anatomy of a Killer, which Westlake greatly admired, and was probably obliquely referencing there. The most versatile of vegetables, is the humble spud.

  3. Ray Garraty

    Once again I’ll be in minority here. I started to read Slayground with the knowledge that it is a stonecold classic. I was a bit dissappointed when I finished it.
    This book is all about technical skills. It is obvious that Parker won’t negotiate with mobsters and won’t give them money. It is obvious that Parker will win this game, regardless of money.
    So what’s left is to show how cool and immortal Parker is. Parker is exposed as a character best when he’s interracting with other people – criminals, straights, law. Here, he’s stripped from almost all interraction. He relies on his gun and his knife. And we know that Parker is very good at guns and knives.
    Before us is a tale of survival when physical objects as knives and guns dominate the story. Yes, I told on this pages how I like when Parker’s back is against the wall. The problem with Slayground is that Parker becomes a mechanical automated survival machine. He’s not a wolf anymore, because a wolf comes across other creatures thus its features are revealed during the interraction with them. Here we are left with Parker as a person without features, without inner characteristics.
    It’s entertaining story, not bad story at all, but by no means a classic or even one of the better Parkers (well, it is better than Mourner, sure). It is really amusement park of a novel. It entertains you, gives you creeps sometimes, but after you left this park you are not changed.
    (Later about mobsters and cops.)

    • Well, I can see why you’d react like that, having perceived it that way–so would I. But I don’t see it that way at all. We do get an exceptional degree of introspection from Parker. We see him pushed to his physical limits. How is this different from him rowing across that lake in the previous book? The difference is that his options are different, and his opposition much more formidable. But at the same time, less formidable–because they are company men, hirelings–not independents.

      More numerous, yes. More professional, yes. Better trained and armed, yes. But also easier to figure out, easier to predict, easier to sneak up on. So it’s a deliberate counterpoint to the previous book–Parker has a harder time here, but not as much harder as you’d expect, because big battalions are not all they’re cracked up to be–as military commanders of past and present have found out to their dismay.

      The mere fact that he is being hunted like a wild animal, and is forced to employ all his cunning to foil the hunters emphasizes his lupine nature. But remember, he also has a man’s brain, a man’s ability to manipulate the world around him. He’s still a beast at bay. Much more so than the protagonist of the Connell story, who at the end seems more concerned with vengeance than survival.

      Parenthetically, have you read that story? Did you ever wonder what happens when Rainsford wakes up the next day in that excellent bed, on an island, surrounded by the General’s surviving men? He’s got a whole new set of problems awaiting him. That would have been an interesting sequel.

      I can’t take “We know Parker will survive” as a serious criticism. When has that ever been in doubt since the first book? Leaving aside the question of the loot, it’s still a very open question who else will survive.

      Anyway, without this book, there’d be no Butcher’s Moon. And that would be a damn dirty shame.

      • Ray Garraty

        Yes, “will he survive?” isn’t an argument. Still, it was a pretty hollow novel. It was like we have seen how Parker was doing gymnastics. Entertaining story lacking psychological aspect.
        I have not read the Connell story (too much books).

        If we continue our discussion about Westlake’s updating the Parker’s world, then I should stay that Slayground is a step back, to paperback era. That’s another reason why this books was not wholly satisfying.
        Once again, the portraits of crooked cops were top notch. But the mobsters – I felt that there was very little difference between this bunch and the Outfit mobsters, or even The Mercenaries mob. They remained caricaturish, flat, one-sided, the boss especially. I mean, it’s cool how Parker bumps them off one by one, I’d like more flesh and character.
        I realize that every my argument can be beat with words “What do you want from Random House mystery?”. Only this time it’s not RH mystery, so the demands are higher.

        • There’s a link to the Connell story on the review–it can be read in about ten minutes or so. It really is one of the touchstones of popular fiction in the 20th Century.

          I felt like the psychological aspect was front and foremost–it was the whole point of the book, the different psychologies interacting–even the night watchman’s mind is explored. It was not about ‘gymnastics’–you should try rereading it sometime, and you might find you overlooked some things. Just because it’s got more action than the usual Parker book doesn’t mean it has fewer ideas.

          The Outfit guys were businessmen–it was all employer/employee, and nobody likes anybody. Here, it’s a twisted family–these guys go to social functions together, we meet one of them at home, we meet his wife, he’s watching Bugs Bunny cartoons on the TV (so whatever else you might say about him, he’s got taste). Caliato pretends to like Lozini’s cooking better than he really does, and Lozini sees Caliato as a son–you think anybody in The Outfit shed a single tear over Mal or Bronson?

          Both approaches have their merits, neither is meant to be an in-depth examination of organized crime. But they are not the same approach. Westlake sees the Mafia the way the Mafia sees itself–as a family–but he thinks it’s a bad family, a family that lies to itself a lot. As always, the point is to compare their confused self-image with Parker’s clarity.

          You’re right, it’s not an RH mystery, as I said. It’s a crime novel. It’s a Parker novel. I don’t see how it’s deficient in ways the earlier Parker novels for Pocket and Gold Medal were not. Except maybe in the prose–I can think of Parker novels with more beautiful writing in them. Because of the sheer pace of the book, there’s less room for those almost languorous moments we get in some of the earlier books. It’s all very “this happened and then this happened and then this happened”. Particularly after Part Two. This is why I didn’t use as many quotes as I generally do. It was harder to find something worth highlighting. But to me, the entire book is worth highlighting.

          • Ray Garraty

            The organizing principle is different, but the psychology of the mobsters is still underdeveloped. It’s tough, writing about inner world of a person when there is so much running around. Parker finds time to reminisce, only it still feels like a padding to his gymnastics.
            And you better prepare yourself to Butcher’s Moon with reading some George V. Higgins, because I will push hard on the mob in BM. The comparison won’t be in Stark’s favor.

            • I’m sure there are many better more detailed portraits of the mob–in Higgins, in Puzo, perhaps in Condon–that doesn’t mean the books are necessarily better. It means that the mob is actually the subject of those books, whereas in SG and BM, they are there as a nemesis, and the subject is Parker and his associates.

              It depends on what you’re looking for. Nobody does everything equally well, but I’d assume there are a fair few things Westlake/Stark does better than any of those guys.

              Westlake was, as you know, a tremendous admirer of Higgins at his best–but Higgins wrote a whole lot less, and there’s nothing in his work that remotely compares to the Parker saga, because Higgins writes mainly about guys caught up in the machinery of crime and corrupt politics, and I seem to recall a lot of his work isn’t about organized crime.

              Stark produced 28 published novels to Condon’s 27, and the mere fact that you could have a conversation about who is the better crime novelist–when Stark is just one component of Westlake’s larger career, and one could argue that Higgins was never able to top his first (published) novel–leaves no doubt in my mind who looms larger in crime fiction–not that quantity itself trumps quality, but to me, the book you’d compare The Friends of Eddie Coyle to would be The Ax–you pit one author’s best work against the other.

              Difference is, Higgins had his greatest success with the first book he published (having destroyed 14 earlier attempts), and Westlake’s defining non-comedic book came late in his career. Very different writers–Higgins is mainly praised for his dialogue, and sometimes panned for his plotting. Westlake’s dialogue is very strong, but is not meant to be so naturalistic–his plotting is a lot stronger than Higgins–in part because he’s not a slice of life guy–he’s a “Let me tell you a story” guy.

              The Parker novels are more along the lines of grim fables than serious social portraits. I don’t think they match up that well with what Higgins did, because they’re trying for a very different effect.

              It’s a bit bemusing to me that you’ve been after Westlake all this time for giving us this Irish/WASP mob, and now that he’s finally making an effort to update his portrayal–informed, no doubt, by Puzo and Higgins (Prizzi’s Honor is about a decade away yet), you’re even more critical–but the point is the same, always. It’s better to be a free man than a cog in a machine. SG and BM both make that point exceptionally well. And as always, I think you can’t blame a writer for hitting what he was aiming at. Nor can you be blamed for preferring something else, and I’d agree Higgins wrote about real criminals better than Westlake–but was Westlake trying to write real criminals?

              One thing’s for sure–real criminals liked Stark a whole lot. I don’t remember Higgins talking about all the fan mail he got from prison. 😉

              Editing this in–I think we’d both agree Dostoevsky is a greater novelist than any we’ve discussed on this thread. In his work, there are portrayals of Poles, Jews, Gypsies, etc. Never really as protagonists. The Poles we see in The Brothers Karamazov are there purely as a nemesis for the book’s tortured sympathetic anti-hero. They’re fairly important to the story of the book, but they don’t really ring true, because of a certain national rivalry Dostoevsky is responding to. He is not sympathetic to them. He does not give them their full due–of course, you could say “That’s not all Polish people, that’s just these guys, who happen to be jerks.” Yeah, but there’s no other Poles in the book. This is how he wants his reader to see Poles.

              I think Westlake does a far better job portraying the mental workings of Italian mobsters in Slayground than Doestoevsky does portraying Polish men of that time period in The Brothers Karamazov. There, I said it. Let us convene the heresy trial now. 😉

              • Ray Garraty

                When the villian, the group of persons you’re fighting against are flats, a pile of features, then you either write a farce or not so good drama (action drama in this case). Westlake didn’t upgrade the mob, I mean upgrade them psychologically. So Parker in Slayground is mainly doing gymnastics with a bunch of morons.
                I’m not saying that mobsters are not dumb. Judging by many memoirs written by mobsters and non fiction books on mobsters, they were not bright, were illiterate or semi-illiterate, didn’t have much brains. I’m saying Westlake (in this book particularly, as he needed to show what was going on inside their heads) hadn’t shown too convincingly how dumb they were. The crooked cops are good and convincing, the mob – same caricatures.
                I understand why fans like this book so much, and I’m not sorry I am not of them. I’m not a fan of amusement parks of any kind. This rollercoaster of a novel is just not to my taste.

              • Ray, fair enough, and we can leave it there. But I think he does show why they’re dumb–because they’re organization men. Because they’re cogs in a machine, like the Outfit men. If anything, they’re more capable than most of the Outfit people we see in the earlier books.

                But he shows us that these guys are told “Come help us get this guy who stole over 70 grand and you’ll get a hundred dollars”, and they just accept that. The only one with any brains is Caliato, but he’s so focused on his bright future, he pays too little attention to the bloody present.

                And forgive me for saying this, but what’s going on in the action part of this book isn’t gymnastics. It’s Parke(u)r. (ducks and runs)

                😉

  4. Anthony

    The “always wins” (or at least “always survives”) pattern is the inherent challenge to all writers of tough series characters. For example, to me Robert Crais’s Joe Pike went from highly interesting to mind-numbingly boring over the course of just a few books for this very reason. Westlake/Stark did better than most in this regard.

    • Thing is, if the protagonist of a series of books or stories does not survive, that’s the end of the series. Famously, A. Conan Doyle tried and ultimately failed to end the Sherlock Holmes series by killing The Great Detective off–except why did he do it in such a way as for there to be no body? Hedging his bets there, no?

      Chester Himes wrote a novel in which his two famous series characters, Gravedigger and Coffin Ed, both went down bloody–but he never published it in his lifetime, and since it’s predicated on a major race war that has yet to occur (::knocks wood::), one could argue it never really ‘happened’.

      Charles Willeford, having finally written a popular book about a Miami police detective, and being badgered by the publisher to produce another book about that character, proceeded to make said detective go nutso, kill his own family, and go out in a blaze of horror. The publisher was understandably not enthused. Willeford eventually–grudgingly–agreed to write a few more books in which the detective did not die, or become a crazed killer. Willeford was just plain allergic to success, unless it was 100% on his own terms, which it never would have been. I think he probably hated himself a bit for that compromise, but being old without any money really sucks.

      Now none of these are ideal comparisons to Parker, because Holmes was not mainly featured in novels, and the other two were shortlived series. At the other end of the spectrum in this genre, you have Mike Hammer, Shell Scott, Matthew Scudder, Spenser for Hire–they just go on and on and on, sometimes even after their creator has kicked off (just DIE already, Hammer!). The point of a series (as opposed to a single story told across a number of books) is never to end–it’s to go on until it’s impossible to go any further. Or really, until people stop buying the books.

      Westlake stopped writing Samuel Holt novels, then said in a completely unrelated book that Holt had killed himself. Do I believe this? Not really. It’s just a less ambitious version of what Himes did. A less extravagant way of expressing discontent with something he’d done (he was reportedly irked that it got leaked he was writing those books, and the books aren’t that great, and we’ll get to them soon enough). Along the same lines as his killing off Tucker Coe in that mock-interview of his I keep quoting from. It’s not that it doesn’t mean anything, but it doesn’t mean anything literal.

      Parker is in 24 novels. That’s a very long series. Shorter than some, but longer than most in the mystery/crime genre. Written between the early 60’s and the late 00’s. More than four decades, though less time than that has passed for Parker.

      Now the question I ask myself is “If Westlake knew for a fact he was writing his last Parker novel, would Parker still be alive at the end of it?” I think he really would have felt like killing Parker or Dortmunder would be like a form of ritual suicide. He may have felt the reaper closing in on him, but he wasn’t going to just throw in the towel. For him, to stop writing would be to stop living. And by that point in time, he needed both characters in order to keep writing.

      The last Dortmunder leaves our hero alive and free, but it still does feel like a goodbye of sorts (it’ll probably be the very last thing I write about on this blog).

      The last Parker feels less like the end of one thing than the beginning of something else–there’s potential there for a lot of new storylines, some of which could lead to Parker’s final doom. Or to his winning out yet again. Or to some major change in the pattern of his life. It could go a lot of ways–we’ll never know. If somebody else decided to continue the story, I wouldn’t even look at the book. I wouldn’t want to hear about it. If somebody posted about it here, I’d delete the post. That’s how strongly I feel about it. Nobody but Richard Stark could write Parker, and nobody but Donald E. Westlake could be Richard Stark.

      So hey, want to hear my idea for a Tobin/Parker crossover?

      What were we talking about?

      🙂

      • There’s no doubt Doyle was hedging his bets with TFP. It’s impossible to read it as anything other than a hedge, as much as Sherlock lore tells us ACD definitively wanted him dead. (If that were truly so, it would have been easy enough to accomplish.) Of course, I have the advantage of the century-plus of genre fiction that followed, all of which has taught me, if there ain’t a body, the guy ain’t dead.

        The stories authors tell us about their creations don’t always ring true. Doyle’s insistence he was done with Sherlock, or Westlake’s claim that Stark’s voice abandoned him without warning. Butcher’s Moon reads exactly like a farewell blowout for the character, bringing almost the whole gang back together, even some of the dead ones. (Sorry, Salsa.) Was it planned as the final Parker novel? It sure reads that way to me, even if Westlake never acknowledged that was the plan. And even if it was, plans change. Just ask Arthur Conan Doyle.

        As Westlake neared the end of his life, I found myself hoping he had another blowout Parker novel tucked away in a drawer, to be published after his death. He didn’t. Of course he didn’t. But the posthumous works we did get were compelling enough in their own right.

        What were we talking about? Oh yeah. Yes, I do want to hear your idea for a Tobin/Parker crossover.

        • Yeah, it is easier for us to look back and (with all due affection and respect) say that legendary deceased authors did not always and invariably confine their fiction to actual fiction. But say this much–there is a village in Switzerland that will ever be grateful to Mr. Doyle for his hedged bet. I think they’d elevate him to sainthood if they could, though his spiritualism might prove an obstacle there.

          It’s obvious to many that Butcher’s Moon reads like a finale to the Parker saga–a summing up of all that came before. Of course, he did basically four ‘blow-out’ Dortmunder novels in a row, starting with Good Behavior, and finishing with What’s The Worst That Could Happen? The last one in particular follows the pattern of Butcher’s Moon. Like he’s looking for an escape hatch, and never quite finding it. And when he changes his mind, the Westlake voice is still there, and he can just write another one. It isn’t all b.s.–you know, Holmes wasn’t ever quite the same after The Final Problem. Once you put something aside for a while, it can be hard to get back into it.

          I think it started with Westlake maybe trying to ditch Stark, and then realizing “Damn, Stark ditched me.” He assumed the voice would always be there when he needed it, but he’d start working on something, and it just didn’t sound right. He was probably happy to lay Parker to one side for half the 70’s, but as the 80’s dragged on (not his best decade), he probably did sometimes wish he could go back to Stark. His feelings about that alter-ego were always powerful–and mixed.

          If he’d written a blow-out for either Parker or Dortmunder at the end of his life, it would have seemed too much like putting a period on his career, which was pretty much entirely confined to those characters–he knew it was coming, but he didn’t know when. When we get to the last books in those series, we’ll have to discuss to what extent they feel like informal finales–hedged bets that sadly came in.

          So here’s the story–which I’ll never write–Tobin’s working security for a museum of the occult (we must have one in New York somewhere). A rich and dangerous man obsessed with demonology abducts Kate, and tells Tobin he has to arrange for a certain object of power to be delivered to him–he doesn’t care how Tobin gets it. He thinks he’s going to summon up demons to do his bidding with it. He promises a lot of money, on top of Kate’s life, if Tobin goes through with it. Thing is, even working in the museum, Tobin can’t easily get at this thing–he doesn’t have the right kind of professional expertise to pull the job.

          Tobin knows Kate is dead if he goes to the law. He also knows he and Kate are both dead once he shows up with the goods. He figures he needs a heavy heister with a formidable string to 1)get the object and 2)take out the bad guy and his large heavily armed entourage–he needs his own demon to invoke (hence my title, ‘Invoke the Demon’–this is a Tobin story, you see–Parker is in a supporting role–even in my imagination, I’m not arrogant enough to write an ersatz Stark novel).

          He figures he can find some way to turn one dangerous man against another–for one thing, this rich guy has a lot of very valuable stuff at his house–for another, the guy has the look of a born welsher–and heavy heisters tend not to react well to not getting their split.

          So he goes to see Linda and Dink (you remember what profession Dink is in), and Dink knows about this guy–that he personally would be too scared to work with–sounds perfect. He’s got Handy McKay’s number in Maine. It goes from there. Only it doesn’t. Because c’mon. Oh well, I could always go the 50 Shades route. 😐

          • I like it. And hey, the 50 Shades route certainly turned out well for ELJ. Speaking of which (sort of), it occurs to me that someone somewhere in some publishing house or another must have mulled the possibility of continuing the Parker series post-Stark. Of course, Parker never reached the heights of popularity that Mike Hammer and Spenser did, but his fanbase is pretty loyal — ultimately too loyal to Westlake (and to small, probably) to seriously consider the idea. But it does raise the question: Who could have taken up the series? You don’t read contemporary crime fiction, so you may not have an opinion (except maybe that it would be a bad idea), but I wonder if anyone else in this thread wants to weigh in on this one. Dan Simmons, Garry Disher, Max Allan Collins, Duane Swierczynski, and Tom Piccirilli have all already written Parker pastiches with varying degrees of success, and Steve Hamilton has written a particularly fine crime novel called The Lock Artist about a (voluntarily) mute boxman. But who are we kidding? If the Parker series were ever taken up again, it wouldn’t be by an established author. It would be an unknown hack trying to make a buck…

            Excuse me, I’ve got to go make a call.

            • Pity there’s no ‘chuckling darkly’ emoticon available.

              I would love to know if Westlake left any directives behind him, written or oral, saying that he did not want anyone picking up where he left off. I’d assume nothing like that would happen while Abby Westlake is alive (and may she outlive us all).

              I’ve said in the past that I don’t believe Westlake’s insistence that movie adaptations of the Parkers couldn’t actually use the name Parker unless they agreed to adapt all the books was merely a financial strategem–which you will note never worked, and Westlake would have noted that too.

              No, he just had a certain possessiveness towards the character–maybe protectiveness would be the better word. He wasn’t as uncompromising as Charles Willeford–couldn’t have supported several families and a pretty decent lifestyle if he had been–but he had some of that same stubborn quality–he was going to live and work on his own terms, as much as possible. He might loan Parker out to somebody like Joe Gores–for a brief cameo. He might be interested in seeing what Darwyn Cooke would do with Parker (knowing Cooke was doing his own thing, in a way a movie producer could not, and respecting that).

              You ever hear the term ‘ghost band’? Westlake the jazz buff would have known it well. Very few of the old big bands survived the end of the swing era, but a few did–Ellington, Basie, etc. And when those legendary bandleaders died, the bands might go on, sometimes for decades–sustained by nostalgia, as opposed to art. And there was always something sad about that. Sure, a lot of good musicians made a decent buck from it–but the proper way to do it would be to start a new band, pulling on the old traditions, keeping them fresh. And many have done that. The big band isn’t dead. The Ellington and Basie bands died with Ellington and Basie.

              Parker died with Stark, who died with Westlake. They can publish more books, sure–they could find people to write them. I know you were kidding, but if you got the job, I wouldn’t have a word to say against you. I just wouldn’t want to read the books.

              The story goes that at the funeral of Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder said “No more Lubitsch” and William Wyler (another Jewish European emigre) corrected him saying “Worse–no more Lubitsch pictures.” But I say the worst thing of all is to try and keep something alive after its time has come and gone. To remember it, sure–to appreciate it. To let it influence you, inform you. But not to turn it into a zombie version of itself, shambling mindlessly onwards forever. Eating people’s brains.

              • And here’s the thing: If by some bizarre and incredibly unlikely set of circumstances, I were ever offered the gig to write a Parker novel, I’m sure I would do it (for the money, natch), but I’m equally certain my heart wouldn’t be in it. I have never once had the slightest desire to read the “zombie” installments of series I once enjoyed. Marlowe, Spenser, Hammer, Bond — They can all R.I.P. And so can Parker.

                Speaking of widows in charge of their husband’s legacies, I don’t begrudge Audrey Geisel any deals she makes with anyone regarding Dr. Seuss’s works. A “lost” Dr. Seuss book? Sure. A Lorax car commercial? Why not? But it does bug me when she’s trotted out to declare how true and faithful this latest project (whatever it is) is to her husband’s work. Once you have Mike Myers in cat drag making a kitty erection joke, we’re all done with that argument, okay?

            • Ray Garraty

              I like what Roger Hobbs doing with the heist genre. I doubt he’s the right person to pen Parker books, though.

    • Ray Garraty

      Read the very first Crais’s novel with Block’s blurb. Found it too melodramatic. Good style, though.

  5. Anthony

    Travis McGee (I know – you’re not a fan) – the rumor was that John D. McaDonald wrote about his death in “A Black Border for McGee,” with Meyer as the narrator. There is no apparent substance to the rumor, but when has that ever stopped one from surviving?

    I referred to Joe Pike. The character has a vague resemblance to Parker ONLY in being a man of very few words. Has become boring by virtue of now ridiculous indestructibility. No tragic flaw or Achilles heel for the writer to fool around with.

    In a different genre, Bertie and Jeeves went on for 70 odd years in the exact same story rewritten ad infinitum. Somehow P. G. Wodehouse managed this, albeit with some tales being “better” or “worse” than others for unfathomable reasons. Go figure. If I were to hazard a guess it’s because the wordplay and character quirks vastly outrank plotting when it comes to Wodehouse’s ongoing popularity. And of course, Bertie Wooster is nothing but tragic flaw, so there’s that.

    Back to Parker. I’m not sure that he has a tragic flaw or Achilles heel for Stark to fool around with. If so, it’s not glaringly obvious. One could argue that the Parker series consists of the exact same story (a workman doing his work) rewritten ad infinitum, with some being “better” or “worse” for unfathomable reasons (although at least there are more changes of scenery than was the case with Bertie and Jeeves). Perhaps, as with Wodehouse, it is the wordplay that keeps us reading – in this case Westlake/Stark’s mind-blowing ability to use seven words when it takes other writers 200 to convey the same meaning.

    It’s like stew, I guess. You can analyze what goes into it, and that can be fun, but to really enjoy it you just have to dig in.

    • I don’t consider MacDonald to belong in the absolute first rank of crime writers, but I could be wrong. Many would say I was. His influence is very far-ranging. I intend to get to more of his books, but McGee just doesn’t do it for me.

      I have not read any of the Pikes, but I can see the temptation to make a character like that all-powerful, invulnerable–I think we all can. It becomes too much about wish-fulfillment–a certain balance is lost.

      Look at this book we’re ostensibly discussing here–yes, on the one hand, Parker survives against an entire army of mafia gunmen. But it’s nothing like one of those Mack Bolan novels–he’s not particularly interested in killing them all–just as many as necessary to get free. It’s all very pragmatic and cold-eyed–and it’s very clear at all times that he’s never more than one serious mistake or stroke of bad luck away from dying.

      I gather Joe Pike would not, in any of his adventures, fall into a few feet of freezing water, then spend the next few hours shivering and putting on several layers of cheap summer clothing to try and get warm? It’s not very glamorous, is it? But it feels real, and that’s the point. I mean, anybody can write a story where the hero beats everybody up. Can you make people believe it? Will it still be worth reading decades later? Does it have anything to say other than “My hero rocks”?

      Wodehouse is in another category entirely, and I think there would have been days of mourning declared across large areas of the Wodehouse-reading world, if he’d ever killed any of his protagonists off. What would the point be? That wouldn’t be FUNNY. He’s Wodehouse, not Waugh.

      Parker’s Achilles heel is Claire. If you want to set a trap for him, get a hold of her, and he’s got to come after her. As Lobo came after Blanca. If you’ve been paying attention, I should not have to explain that ref. 😉

      There is a character in two of the late Parker books who might be studying him a bit more closely–he might have been a real threat, because he was paying attention, taking notes. Parker would normally kill someone like that, but he’s got reasons not to.

      The reason Parker keeps winning is that he knows who and what he is, and he can usually figure out the people he’s up against pretty well. Whereas they understandably can’t understand Parker at all, and don’t understand themselves either. That’s the source of power in a Stark novel–understanding. Not strength, guns, martial arts training, etc. None of the things we think matter really matter. Know Thyself. And Know Thy Enemy. It may really amount to the same thing.

      • Huh–never did get around to reading Sun Tzu, but I was making sure it was ‘thy’ as opposed to ‘thine’ and look what came up–

        It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.

        Maybe Westlake didn’t read The Art of War either. But in a different life, he could have written it.

      • Anthony

        See your point about Claire. Of course, Stark couldn’t put her in jeopardy every book unless he wanted to rename the series the Violent World of Dudley DoRight.

        • But it’s not about doing right. It’s about doing what you have to do. Parker doesn’t give two shits about right and wrong. He just wants Claire. Westlake wanted to drum home the point that this is a real connection, that she matters to him. Having made that point, he let it drop. Honestly, I think he just wrote the second Claire-in-jeopardy book because the first one didn’t turn out as well as he’d hoped. As I have said before, and will doubtless say several more times before we’re done, for Donald Westlake, a problem solved is very often a problem put to one side forever.

  6. Anthony

    BTW, I recall reading that there was a chapter or two (not much) of the next Dortmunder book on paper when Westlake passed away. If so, wonder if it will ever see the light of day.

    • I hadn’t heard that. Like I said, he was going to keep writing until something stopped him. Of all the things that could have, death was by far the most merciful.

  7. Adi Kiescher

    I fully agree with Anthony on the Joe Pike figure and it’s development. I feel very much the same about Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Very strong start at the beginning of the series, like the first 6 or 7 books, but continuously getting more and more boring. Not so with Parker. Not at all. Just the opposite.

    • I honestly don’t see those characters as being in anything like the same tradition as Parker. For one thing, they aren’t crooks.

      I think you’d be better off comparing them to Travis McGee and his ilk–adventurer/detective/vigilante/soldier of fortune/whatever–and let me just say, if you forced me to read one of those three series at gunpoint, I’d choose McGee in a heartbeat.

      Look at Parker’s brief fight with Officer O’Hara in Slayground–if you’ve been following the series up to this point, you’re probably thinking “Why can’t Parker just kill this guy with one blow from a huge veiny hand?” I always think this. But the fact is, he’s off-balance, the cop is fairly tough, the leverage is against him, and he’s not Batman. And hey, even Batman will often have a tough time with ordinary crooks right after we saw him go toe-to-toe with Killer Croc or whomever. It’s a story.

      He isn’t out to prove he’s the toughest or strongest–he’s just out to survive. The more often he gets into a fight, the more likely he is to get hurt, and all it takes is one serious injury to finish him, because no matter how many guys he kills, there’s more coming. We’re even told he’s careful going down a flight of stairs, because he might trip and break something. He tries to avoid engaging the enemy unless he knows he’s got every advantage–and has something to gain by engaging (like a gun).

      You remember that quote from Deadly Edge about how Jessup was the kind of guy who acted like he was in a movie written, directed by, and starring himself? I think that’s how most of these series fiction tough guys behave. Parker does not. That’s one reason the movies have such a hard time understanding him.

      I read absolutely zero contemporary crime fiction (I read one recent police thriller because there was a dog in it, and the dog was the only part of it I liked–serves me right for taking Orson Scott Card’s word about anything). That’s not because I think it all sucks. It’s because I don’t have time to find out what sucks and what doesn’t. Reviews don’t impress me at all. Oh shut up. 😉

  8. The wikipedia article you link to says that in the UK blacklight rids are called “ghost trains”. So that’s what Mark Knopfler was on about.

  9. Two more head fakes of sorts:

    We’re introduced to all of the original mob/cop strike force, and there are only seven of them. Obviously the book is going to show Parker killing them one by one and them walking away with the loot. Though this becomes unlikely when the wrong one dies first.

    We see Parker booby-trap some of the rides to electrocute the unwary, but the mobsters figure it out before anyone gets hurt. So much for Chekhov’s gun.

    • Parker is as subject to the whims of Murphy’s Law as anyone (except Dortmunder). As we’ve discussed in past, his main talent, aside from planning crimes, is to troubleshoot–to adapt the plan to changing circumstances on the ground.

      We don’t get to see him plan a heist in this one, because he bought the plan from another planner. Then, put into a box, and knowing some guys are coming to kill him, he doesn’t so much plan as prepare–he doesn’t know which of his traps will work, but he’s banking some of them will. He can’t know killing this guy in the hall of mirrors–the leader and the one who knew the park best, so that should have given him his chance to escape–will trigger a much larger force coming to the park for the sole purpose of killing him–while he is trying to avoid catching pneumonia. You can never predict every consequence to any action you take. If your plan is static, your plan is stupid.

      He knows he can’t possibly kill over 40 men with what he has to hand (with a machine gun, maybe), so the strategies have to change. He prepares, but he also knows from the start he’ll have to improvise on the ground. But he uses the confusion of all those gunsels milling around (most of whom are less competent than the ones who hunted him originally) to his advantage. Just like a trained guerilla would do.

      And hey–didn’t Westlake compare heisters to guerrillas in that interview I quoted from in I Gave At The Office? See, I didn’t know that would factor into this review at all, but here I am, improvising on the ground, tying it together–Westlake was clearly at some stage of working on Slayground when he wrote that. He was, in fact, thinking about guerilla tactics when he was writing this, which means that yeah, he probably was thinking about the Viet Cong. Lots of people were at the time. fredfitch, guerilla blogger. 😉

      In a sense, all the Parkers have head fakes in them–you think one thing is going to happen, and something else does. You think Parker and some guy are going to fight, and they never do. You think he’s going to kill someone and he doesn’t. You think he’s going to not kill someone and he does. It’s formula fiction with a formula that keeps turning around in its skin to bite your expectations on the ass.

  10. Parker thinks about the past more than usual in this book. We find out that Slayground takes place five years after The Jugger and that this is the eighth job Parker has pulled since then, which means we’ve seen all of them.

    We also learn enough to put together a rough timeline:

    9 years ago: The Hunter (book 1)
    5 years ago: The Jugger (book 6)
    3.5 years ago: The Rare Coin Score (book 8)
    now: Slayground (book 14)

    So we can see that after Parker loses his Willis cash reserves, he goes from working about once a year to roughly every six months.

    • Yeah, I thought about putting that in, but I’m saving it for the timeline article I am going to keep putting off writing for as long as possible.

      As I mentioned already, I bought an issue of a shortlived Parker fanzine from before Parker’s return in the 90’s–because it has a timeline article in it. And what you learn from that article is that it’s really really hard to make the timeline work perfectly. Westlake wasn’t really that concerned with whether people could read all the books, compile all the references to how much time has passed, and know what Parker was doing in a given year. The references to past events, in Lemons Never Lie and Slayground, match up very well, because those two were written around the same time. But if you put all the references side by side from the first sixteen Parkers and the four Grofields, it can be problematic. Perhaps we can crack the code. Perhaps not. It can wait.

      There are two things to bear in mind when thinking about Parker and time–

      1)He does live within time, and is subject to it.

      2)It doesn’t work the same way for him as it does for the rest of us.

    • Gah. Rare Coin is book 9, of course.

  11. It’s a small detail, but I think of this book every time I’m carrying a heavy bag of groceries or some such, I think of the part where Parker says he’d rather keep carrying the money in one hand than switch and tire out both hands. Such a perfect little tidbit for the character.

    • Yeah, for such a larger-than-life adventure, it can be very mundane and commonplace. Parker’s not enjoying himself one bit here. He likes his work, but this is an unwanted hassle. If life were as he wishes it to be, it’d just be one flawlessly ripped off payroll/armored car/bank after another. Boring for us, but very satisfying for him.

      Like I never think, when I have a tougher than average commute home, “Gee, this is such a welcome variation to my daily routine.” Has any New Yorker ever thought that? 😉

  12. Apropos of not much, I was watching the very first Columbo tonight (directed by an unknown kid named Stephen Spielberg, written by another named Steven Bochco), when the killer, trying to throw Columbo off track, produces a list of “the top men in organized crime on the west coast”: three Italian-sounding names and Westlake.

    • That’d be Prescription Murder, right? February 1968, according to Wikipedia. So an homage to his early work. Probably The Fugitive Pigeon first and foremost, since that was published under his own name, and was his biggest seller to that point. And Columbo never did take itself too seriously. Could also be a reference to The Busy Body. And I suppose Stark could be in there somewhere.

      • OK, it wasn’t the very first, but the first regular-season one, “Murder by the Book” from September 1971. Just about the time we’re discussing now. My guess is that Bochco was a fan.

        • Bochco read a lot of crime fiction–I’m pretty sure it was him Evan Hunter was grumbling about when he said TV producers would take his ideas and be lauded as geniuses–because Hill St. Blues took the same basic format as the 87th Precinct books–the precinct itself is the protagonist. And of course the closest thing to a lead character the show had was a lean intense competent and highly conscientious Italian American, only he was the captain, not a detective. But it probably wasn’t just Bochco.

          I can’t really see much of a Westlake influence on Columbo. I think if there was much Westlake in there, his name wouldn’t have been used in the script. That’s just asking for trouble. Of a legal variety.

          • Columbo strikes me as in many was a Dortmunderesque figure, in that they’re both slightly rumpled working-class stiffs who are sharper than then appear, largely oblivious to fashion and cultural trends, and frequently at odds with people far outside their social and economic strata. Dortmunder is more of a misanthrope than Columbo, and Columbo has a far greater respect for the law (naturally).

            Westlake name-checks Columbo in What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, when the book’s antagonist contemptuously refers to Detective Klematsky as “this roadshow Columbo,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that Columbo’s enemies always underestimated him and that Columbo always got his man — both of which also turned out to be true for Klematsky.

            (But that’s a few books from now.)

            • (and once again, I wish I could edit the typos in my comments)

              • I could tell you how, but then I’d have to kill you. 😐

                Columbo is never exasperated, never impatient, never bothered by much of anything, and of course he always wins. He’s a genius posing as a simpleton. Dortmunder never poses as anything but himself (except in very odd situations where he’s given no choice in the matter), and he’s bothered by nearly everything. Well, you know this already.

                I think Westlake certainly might have enjoyed watching Columbo when there was nothing better on–maybe there was some association between himself and the show that we don’t know about, which explains the name check. I agree the counterpoint between the rich sophisticated adversaries Dortmunder ran up against in future books and Dortmunder’s shabby self is reminiscent, but we hadn’t really seen that by this point in the series.

                So until I learn otherwise, I’ll assume that reference made it into the script simply as a way of saying “We like Donald Westlake.” Doesn’t everyone? Well, everyone worth knowing. 😉

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