Monthly Archives: July 2015

Review: Plunder Squad, Part 2

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Parker stood looking at the painting.  It was four feet high and five feet wide, a slightly blurred black-and-white blowup of a news photograph showing a very bad automobile accident, all mashed parts and twisted metal.  A body could obscurely be seen trapped inside the car, held there by jagged pieces of metal and glass.  Superimposed here and there on the photograph were small comic-book figures in comic-book colors, masked heroes in bright costumes, all in running positions, with raised knees and clenched fists and straining shoulders and set jaws.  There were perhaps a dozen of the small figures running this way and that over the surface of the photograph, like tropical birds on a dead bush.  The painting was entitled “Violence.”

Plunder Squad.  That does sound a little like a comic book title, doesn’t it?   Some kind of supervillain crew that might fight the Justice League, or the Fantastic Four.    It sticks out in this context–you’d expect this squad of plunderers to get whatever they’re after, brush aside the forces of law and order like gnats.   The title is clearly meant to be ironic, but perhaps the irony didn’t translate well when the book made its way to other markets.   Seems like nobody outside the English-speaking world ever used the original title.

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Free PortraitsParker: Gone With the LeadHard Times–Soft Knee.   And perhaps most to the point were the Swedes, who called it Lethal Hunting.

The cover art was not mainly very good for this book–the first American edition was probably best.  The American illustrators tried to find some connection to the modern art that Parker and his string were heisting.   The European publishers made no attempt to illustrate this aspect of the book at all–probably not what they thought their readers would be interested in, with connection to this type of story.   I like the Italian cover, even though it’s not very faithfully depicting the scene in the book being referenced.  At least it’s a scene from the book.

But in fact, Westlake was not the first crime fiction author to bring his genre into the world of modern art.  Patricia Highsmith had done so in Ripley Under Ground (1970).  Ripley is involved in an art forgery scheme, conning critics and buyers into thinking a formerly obscure artist who became in vogue after his death is in fact alive, and producing new work in Mexico.  Ripley thinks the artist hired to do the fakes is better than the original.  The artist disagrees.  Complications ensue.

Around the same time Highsmith’s book came out, Charles Willeford may have been writing The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971), about an up and coming young art critic who is tasked with finding an elusive but legendary French painter, whose work was all supposedly destroyed in a fire–only a handful of people have even seen any of it, and there are no photographs.  This, of course, makes any work he might be doing now exponentially more valuable.  The book essentially asks “Is an artist’s reputation itself a work of art, entirely distinct from any physical objects he may or may not create?”

So that might explain why the first edition of Plunder Squad (1972) has an image so similar to that of Willeford’s book.

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A rising trend in the genre and in pop culture generally, to which Westlake was reacting–but his protagonist, most unlike the other two I just mentioned, has absolutely no interest in art other than what he can get for it after stealing it.   So this book isn’t going to be a rumination on the nature of art, and our perceptions of it.  More, perhaps, on the foibles and self-deceptions of some people in the art world, and at how poorly equipped they are for dealing with certain other worlds they might come into contact with.   But not primarily about that either.

Frankly, it’s a bit hard to say what Plunder Squad is about, because as I remarked in the comments section last week, it’s more a collection of inter-connected vignettes than a novel–normally the Parkers are very focused, like Parker himself.  This one meanders a bit, stumbling from one failure to the next.  It’s supposed to.   That is, you might say, the point of it.  It’s an interlude, a glimpse of how frustrating and abortive a heister’s work can be, leading up to a crisis that will propel Parker into his most dangerous adventure yet.   But before he gets there, he has to satisfy himself there’s no safer alternative.

So we left off last week with Parker being thwarted in his attempt to kill George Uhl in Pittsburgh–it isn’t a total loss, since he gets four thousand in cash from Uhl’s apartment when he searches it–he’d rather have gotten Uhl, but it’s a welcome windfall all the same.   His finances are getting tight–Claire makes his life simpler in many ways, but she has expensive tastes.  With summer coming, they need to vacate the house in New Jersey, so as not to attract attention from the summer residents (I’m always struck by the fact that they winter in a place you’re supposed to summer in).  He needs to score, and score big.

He once again hears from Ducasse, who he’s already worked with on two jobs that didn’t pan out.  Ducasse found a gig for himself, then was approached about another one–the guy organizing it is Ed Mackey, who Parker knows.  He’d be very happy to  have Parker come in on this one.

Mackey is going to appear in several subsequent books in the series, always accompanied by his wife Brenda, who is never there for the heist itself, but often proves highly useful in setting it up–she’s just a useful girl to have around, no matter what the situation–nobody more reliable in the clutch, as we’ll soon see.  Mackey has never struck me as that interesting a foil for Parker–I much prefer Handy McKay, Grofield, Devers, and a few others–but Brenda is a first-rate addition to the franchise, and Parker thinks so too.

Brenda said, “Is my skirt wrinkled in back?” and turned around.  She was a slender girl, mid-twenties, good-looking, with a lot of leg.  And just as Mackey was a hundred times better than Beaghler, Brenda was a thousand times better than Sharon.  She knew who she was, she didn’t have to struggle with anybody, there was never any sense of tension between her and Mackey, no tug of war as to which one of them would run her life.  She ran it herself, and did a good job of it.

So what distinguishes Mackey is mainly that he’s got this great woman, so comfortable in her own lovely skin, and happy to be of assistance in his work–and he’s very aware of his good fortune in having her.  It’s much more of a partnership than what Parker has with Claire.   They aren’t exactly the Nick and Nora of the heisting set–maybe more like Ralph and Alice, except they rarely bicker.  Call them what you will, they make a formidable team.

So the job is, as I’ve mentioned, stealing modern art–but since the market is so specialized, and none of them has any good contacts in that world, there wouldn’t be enough money in it for them unless they already had a buyer lined up, which they do.  He’s the one that proposed the heist to begin with.   He just has no idea how to pull it off.   Really, he has no idea, period.

His name is Leon Griffith, and he lives in California, in a big expensive house, filled with big expensive art.  He wants more–specifically, he wants Mackey and Parker to heist another traveling exhibition, like the one with the gold statues Beaghler wanted to go after–this one devoted to the moderns.   Parker goes to the museum they, looks at all the paintings, and walks out.  He has a catalog that tells him the owners paid 357k for the paintings brand new, but Griffith has told Mackey they’re worth half a million now.  They are, of course, worth only what somebody will pay for them.  Eye of the beholder.  Parker’s eye sees nothing but dollar signs.

Griffith has promised Mackey 130k upon delivery of the goods.  Mackey wanted 200k, but Griffith turned out to be a hardball negotiator, and he beat Mackey way down.  Parker intends to remedy that, but he has to meet with Griffith, who only wants to meet with Mackey.  Too bad for Griffith.

So they crash a big California-style party Griffith is holding at the manse, and Brenda fits in perfectly, as she fits in nearly anywhere, talking about Viva to some people her age (as Ed puts it, “All women social climbers”).  The description of the party is quite reminiscent of a chapter from Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, and one realizes with a start that Ed and Brenda are in some respects a revamped version of the larcenous older British couple in that least successful of Westlake’s comic capers–Brenda may owe a bit to the social-climbing redhead Jigger Jackson from that book as well–I’ve always pictured her as a redhead.  Well, to be specific, I’ve always pictured her as–

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(If you have to ask who that is, I don’t know there’s much point in telling you.  Anyway, that photo was taken a while ago.)

Griffith is not pleased to see any of them, but he soon learns nobody does hardball better than Parker, who gets him up to 160k.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that Parker heard some talk at the party that Griffith is art-rich and cash-poor.  Does he have the scratch to pay them on delivery?   The assumption is that he won’t dare try a cross–he’d be too easy to find.   But they need money now, not months or years in the future, as Griffith gradually unloads the art.  “Robbery on consignment” Mackey calls it, like the words taste bad in his mouth.  And yes, this quite a bit like The Rare Coin Score, which I still think is a much better book.

So they work it out that he’ll get the cash and deposit it in several banks, giving them the bank books to hold–they need Griffith to get at the money, but they can see it’s there.  Seems like a solution.  Griffith doesn’t seem too happy, but they figure it’s just nerves.

Part 2 of the book closes with Parker finishing some old business.   Beaghler (see Part 1 of this review) gets back in touch–he’s found out where George Uhl is staying, and volunteers to take Parker there–they’ll come at the place offroad, using his custom-built ATV.  He wants Parker to know there’s no hard feelings about his slutty wife going to Parker’s motel room to try and seduce him, and Parker hitting Beaghler when he showed up in jealous husband mode, and then walking out on the job Beaghler had planned.  A very forgiving individual, is Mr. Beaghler.  Hmm.

So they go to where Beaghler keeps his vehicle, and he’s even got two guns stored on said vehicle for them to take out Uhl with.  He’s got a Sears bolt-action rifle for Parker–fine for long range shooting, useless in a firefight–and a Colt Python for himself.   Both guns in good condition, even though they’ve supposedly been kept outside, in a vehicle with no roof, exposed to the elements.  And surrounded by children from nearby houses, who never investigated this interesting conveyance and its contents.  And the grass under the ATV is still alive, even though the ATV has supposedly been parked there a while.  Parker observes all this, and says nothing.

On the way to Uhl’s hideout, Parker decides he’ll have the Python, being more of a handgun kinda guy, and Beaghler can have the rifle.  Since Parker has the gun in his hand, and it’s fully loaded, Beaghler isn’t in a very good position to argue.  Take a look–would you argue?

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So it was a set-up.  Obviously.  The rifle was loaded with blank cartridges.  Uhl got to Beaghler.  But Beaghler was a poor tool for the task at hand, which Uhl should have known, and maybe he did, and figured it was worth the risk, rather than wait for Parker to find him.  Uhl, as we saw in The Sour Lemon Score, is only half a pro–he takes a lot of chances, figures it’ll always go his way.   And as we’ve seen in all the Parker novels, that kind of amateur mindset in somebody who thinks he’s a real hotshot always backfires in the end.  Half a pro is worse than none at all.

It’s all implied, and it all makes perfect sense, but if you aren’t familiar with the previous book with Uhl, the character is impossible to read–he’s just this guy Parker needs to kill.   We see him from a distance, and imagine him sweating, feeling Parker closing in, his long-delayed fate catching up with him.  Westlake is increasingly figuring he’s got his audience for this series, and if they haven’t read the previous books, that’s not his problem.  He shouldn’t have to explain everything over and over.

Beaghler knows Parker will kill him the second he tries to warn Uhl, and he never gave a damn about Uhl anyway.  They’re waiting up on a ridge above Uhl’s hideout, yet another godforsaken old farmhouse (we’ve seen a lot of those in these books).   Understanding his present situation all too well, he starts waxing philosophical.  He admits Parker was right all along about how he married the wrong woman, then tried to make her the right one.  He was always trying to prove something, to the world, to himself.   Cheaper than a shrink.  Well no, it really isn’t.

He kept on talking.  He talked about his three children, and his cars, and the different places he had lived.  Some of it rambled, with him talking about his parents and his childhood as though Parker already knew a lot about him and would understand all the references to people and places.  The general trend of it was that he seemed to be trying to describe to Parker, or maybe to himself, his need to be tough, to be more masculine than anybody else.  He never said so straight out, but all of the explanations and reminiscences seemed to be on that same theme.

Down below, there was still no sign of life from the house.  Parker waited, letting Beaghler talk on, a quiet drone that disappeared toward the sky and couldn’t possibly be heard even halfway to the house.  The sun was warm on his back, but not too hot, and still alternated with cooling periods of cloudiness.  Except for the nose of the Ford around the edge of the house, and in the other direction the sun glinting from Beaghler’s ATV, there were no suggestions of the 20th century anywhere in sight.

Beaghler began to pause between thoughts, and the pauses got longer, and then he stopped talking entirely.  Parker looked over at him to see if he’d put himself to sleep, but his eyes were open, staring up at the sky.  Parker said, “What’s the program?”

A small furrow showed in Beaghler’s forehead.  He turned his head so he could look at Parker, and said, “What did it, anyway?  What told you?”

“Does it matter?”

The furrow slowly smoothed out; Beaghler smiled.  He seemed relieved of all care.  “No, it doesn’t,” he said, and kept on smiling.

When Parker gets Uhl, it’s almost an anticlimax.  Intentionally so.  Poor George doesn’t even get any last words.  Parker doesn’t need to prove anything to anybody.  He just needs to get rid of that itch in his head created by Uhl’s long-ago treachery.  But that still leaves a brand-new itch, created by Beaghler’s treachery.  “You don’t have to do anything about me,” Beaghler says, still clinging to hope.  “That’s the mistake I made with Uhl,” Parker responds.  But the difference is, Beaghler isn’t in a drug-induced childlike state.  Parker has no trouble killing in cold blood.  That’s the only kind of blood he ever kills in.  He’s very zen that way.

So that’s how Part 2 ends–we’re halfway through the book, and that’s as good as it gets, for Parker, or us readers.  Uhl and Beaghler are finished, but there’s still a job to pull.  Part 3 is the usual thing; six chapters, each from a different perspective.  We start off with Stan Devers, last seen in The Green Eagle Score (I find it bemusing that Charles Ardai draws a line between the Gold Medal and Random House novels in his introduction to the University of Chicago edition of this book–when so much of this Random House novel is about picking up where the Gold Medals left off).  Stan’s been apprenticing with Handy McKay in Maine, and with Handy’s contacts, he’s had no trouble finding work.  He’s a lot more experienced than the cheerfully dishonest greenhorn Parker first met.  And a lot tougher.

He waits at a motel for a drunk businessman to come by, chokes him out in his car, and leaves him by the side of the road, to sleep it off–now he’s got wheels and a bit of money, but he still needs work–the last job turned sour.  He calls Handy, who tells him Parker would like to see him about a job.  Stan’s delighted to hear it.

Next we meet a new heister, Lou Sternberg, flying in from London, where he lives.  He’s American, best as we can tell (though Bob Hoskins could have played him to perfection back in the day), but he prefers to live over there, and work in the States.  He’s gone native, you might say–just doesn’t like where America is going these days.  Well, who ever does?  He’s reading an Anthony Powell novel, and we’re told he wants to identify with Magnus Donners, but empathizes more with Widmerpool.  Maybe you understood that reference perfectly, but I had to look it up.

Next we meet Tommy Carpenter, the hippie heister, and his girlfriend Noelle (who we’ll meet again much later on).  Tommy and Noelle travel the country in a VW Microbus (a bit on the nose, maybe, but they were very popular then), and when they run out of money, they hook into a heist.  Tommy’s got nerve, but maybe not enough judgment.

Tommy meets the string, and is suitably impressed–Parker reminds him of a guy he met once–he was living on a commune, and the local rednecks made trouble–one of the girls got raped.  Her father had mob connections.  He sent an enforcer named Tooker down to talk to the locals.  Just talk.  There was no trouble after that.

Chapter Four opens with Mackey and Brenda screwing, not that we ever thought their relationship was platonic.  Then as she lapses into post-orgasmic slumber, Mackey goes to see Griffith, and suddenly he’s feeling a lot less pleased with the world.  Griffith is scared about something.  He promises he’ll have the cash, but he’s almost in a frenzy–like an animal in a trap.  Mackey doesn’t know what to think.

Chapter Five, we touch down with Griffith at Newark Airport.  He does not have the cash.  He never did.  He goes to see an acquaintance (nobody could possibly call him a friend), guy named Renard, who is clearly gay, and even more clearly one of the biggest assholes you could ever hope not to meet (Stark was always a lot more homophobic than Westlake’s other aliases or, I trust, Westlake himself, but let’s be honest–an asshole is an asshole is an asshole).

The heist was really Renard’s idea–he has clients who’d like some of the paintings–only some.  He isn’t interested in the rest.  Nor is he interested in parting with any money upfront–cash on delivery.  He does, however, know some very nice men in Brooklyn who make high-interest loans with no collateral.  That’s right.  Griffith, seeing no other way out, takes the loan–but once the repayment terms are fully explained, he realizes the best he can ever hope for is to tread water–until he drowns.

And finally Chapter Six shows us the security team for the art exhibit, packing up in Indianapolis (setting of The Rare Coin Score, and that’s no coincidence), and going out on the road–every time they cross a state line, they get a new convoy of state police.  They make it to Illinois, and are supposed to meet up with the next trooper team at an Official-use U-Turn, only the new team gets there first, and finds this hippie couple with a VW Microbus having sex by the side of the road.  The slightly scandalized lawmen are just in the middle of deciding which laws are being broken here when Parker comes up behind them with a gun, and they realize it’s another set of laws entirely.

As Parker’s heists go, this one isn’t particularly thrilling–the key points are that they get the art, don’t kill anybody, but Tommy sorely pisses off the two troopers, who take a good long hard look at him.  The problem with being a rebel without a cause is that sometimes you forget what a bad idea it is to give anybody else a cause to fight for.   Tommy and Noelle get picked up after the string splits up.

The rest of the gang figures Tommy won’t talk, but are less sure of Noelle (we never find out for sure if she talks, but based on what we see of her later on, she’s a lot tougher than Tommy).  The real problem isn’t Tommy and Noelle–it’s Griffith.  He read the news reports, that made it sound like the whole gang was about to get nabbed  (because that’s what the cops always tell the press, whether it’s true or not).  He was half out of his mind already, and this takes care of the other half–he figured it was either going to be jail or a long intimate chat with those guys in Brooklyn.  He climbed into the tub and slit his wrists.

This may be the most frustrating professional scenario Parker has ever faced–they know where the money is deposited.  They have the bank books.  But Griffith just deposited the money in person, days earlier–there’s no way any of them can pass himself off as Griffith to the bank personnel, even if he could forge the signatures perfectly (this would be more of a job for Tom Ripley, but he’s otherwise engaged).

They find Renard’s address in New York.  They figure he might be Griffith’s buyer.   Worth a try.  Parker, Mackey and Devers go see the bastard, and he’s just as pleasantly unpleasant as ever.   He’ll give them sixty thousand for the six paintings he wants.  Twelve thousand a man.  Nobody’s happy with that, but they’ve all done worse.  They’re all about to do much worse.

Mackey and Parker show up at the meeting place in Manhattan, a lumberyard building on Second Avenue (still a few there to this day–ever heard of The Lumber Boys?).   The rest of the gang is scattered to the four winds, as is prudent under the circumstances, but it means they don’t have any back-up.  Tommy and Noelle got sprung–civil rights groups insisting these poor idealistic young children are being railroaded–mistaken identity.  Who ever heard of a hippie heister?  So they just have to make the exchange with Renard, and this lousy job is over.

It’s a trap (again).  The guys from Brooklyn showed up on Renard’s doorstep, wanting their money.  Far as they’re concerned, the debt did not die with the debtor.  Renard told them about the art.  They are here to collect.   Collateral damage doesn’t worry them much.

Mackey gets shot several times–Parker hears one of the men say he’s dead, so even if he would have felt any professional obligation to his colleague, it’s no longer an issue.  Parker was in back of the truck with the art–they didn’t know he was there Through a complex series of hastily improvised maneuvers, he manages to take the mobsters out, setting the building on fire in the process.

He can’t get the truck with the art out of there.  He’s got to abandon it, along with what he believes to be Mackey’s dead body.  The six paintings go up in smoke–the rest of the art they had already abandoned–too dangerous to deal with the insurance companies.  Parker walks a few blocks, and grabs a cab.  Nothing to do but head back to New Jersey.  Hell of a day.  End of story.

So as I’ve said, not one of my favorites.  Not one of Parker’s, either.   But in all things; life, love, literature, and larceny, you have to view it as a percentage game.  You win some, you lose some.  At least he got Uhl scratched off his to-do list.  But he still needs money.  He knows where he can get some–it was too risky before, but he’ll have to risk it now.  Back to Fun Island, for the last time, with Grofield, ditto.

As discussed last week, this is a cross-over with Joe Gores’ Dead Skip, and the two books make for a very interesting contrast–both are about a group of professionals doing their jobs.  Gores’ people will bend the rules to get the job done, Stark’s are very very serious about their rules, which come out of a different playbook altogether.  Dan Kearny would never leave one of his people behind–Parker does exactly that at the end of this book (though somebody else we met in this book won’t give up on Mackey so easily–we’ll be waiting a long time to find out who that was, and how she did it.  Whoops.  Spoiler alert).

But at the end of the day, a professional is a professional.  The work may differ, but the underlying ethos doesn’t, not fundamentally.  You do your job.  Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.  When it’s the latter scenario, you just move on to the next job.  The most important thing, in any profession that involves teamwork, is knowing who else is professional–the people in your detective agency, or the people in your string.   In Kearny’s world, he knows he can count on everybody who works for him.  In Parker’s world–well–that is a pretty big difference.  That’s where maybe Kearny has the advantage.

In his next outing, which for many years was believed to be his last, Parker assembles the best string of his life–a dream team, you might call them.  Who will prove a nightmare to the people they’re up against.  But that’s a few books off yet.  Next week we’ll be looking at an entirely different kind of gang–a nation–of six thousand remarkable people.  Who are determined to fight for their independence–by insisting on remaining a colony–wait–that can’t be right–?

Well, let’s see if we can make sense of it.  The climate will be tropical, the doings nonsensical.   Sounds like New York City in the summertime.  Oh God, how I wish I were joking.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Plunder Squad, Richard Stark

Review: Plunder Squad

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Ducasse, the one who’d let the guy in and then struggled with him and then been hit on the head by him, came shakily down the hallway, saying, “Did you get the son of a bitch?”

“No, he took off.  Who was he?”

Kirwan said “You don’t even know?  He tried to kill you, and you don’t even know who it is?”

“I didn’t see his face.”

“Uhl,” Ducasse said.  “His name is Uhl.”

Parker frowned.  “George Uhl?”

“That’s right,” Kirwan said.  “You do know him, huh?”

Ducasse said, “What the hell’s he got against you?”

“I left him alive once,” Parker said.

Ducasse said, “Never leave a guy alive who’d like to see you dead.”

“I know,” Parker said. It had been a mistake, and he’d known it at the time, but had done it anyway.  Now he’d have to go correct it.

In his foreward to the University of Chicago edition of this book (the only edition I’ve ever owned, read, or even seen in three dimensions), Charles Ardai writes that after the four Gold Medal paperback originals, Donald Westlake took Parker into ‘harder, darker territory’ in the four subsequent hardcover novels he did for Random House, of which this is the third.

He says they mark a new direction for the character, after the previous four books ‘softened’ Parker by giving him a love interest.  He kind of forgets to mention that the first of the books marking this new direction was mainly about Claire and Parker settling down in a cute little house by a lake, that Claire was the POV character for about a quarter of that book, and Parker comes galloping to her rescue at the end.

Ardai’s right when he says that most people will mention at least one of these four hardcovers when asked which Parker novels they most admire, but I wonder how many have ever mentioned this one?   Some, I’m sure.   Personally, having just read it, I’d take any of the Gold Medals over Plunder Squad, even The Black Ice Score (technically the darkest Parker novel of all, though not in the same way Ardai meant).

But personal preference isn’t really the point here.  As we’ve seen, the Parker series never stopped changing, adapting to new currents in the genre, in publishing, in the world around it, in Westlake himself.  The question is, how is Westlake changing the Parker series, and why?  Is this really any harder or darker than the territory we’ve seen already?  In my estimation, the only thing that’s gotten any harder is the material the book covers are made out of.

If you put a Smith & Wesson Terrier to my head, and ordered me to name the Top Five–

The Hunter

The Man With the Getaway Face

The Score

The Jugger

The Seventh

(Then, as you pondered my list, perhaps thinking of objections to my choices,  I’d take the gun away and shoot you.  Serve you right for pointing a weapon at someone when you don’t intend to use it.  Amateur.)

I like all of them, but to me these are the five that hold up best–the ones that most perfectly embody what Westlake was capable of in the 1960’s, his most prolific era, when writing as Richard Stark.   He’d probably said all he needed to say about the character in the eight novels he did for Pocket Books (with Bucklin Moon offering at least some editorial input), but by that time they were making big budget movies out of them.  He clearly enjoyed writing them.   And while he may have said all he needed to say with Parker, he hadn’t said all that could be said.  There were finer points to be addressed, permutations of the form he could keep coming up with.  As he’d known from the very start, Parker was the kind of character you could write a lot of stories about.

But the thing about permutations is that they tend to get more and more complicated–as you look for new variations on old themes, they may get a tad baroque.  The chief beauty of Parker, of Stark, is simplicity–how could Westlake stick with that while still throwing new curves at Parker, keeping him–and us–off balance?

In the four novels he wrote for Gold Medal, that Ardai seemingly dismisses as a wrong turn, Westlake didn’t ‘soften’ Parker–he just showed us Parker’s needs and reactions were not so simple as they had previously seemed–but Westlake kept it consistent with what he’d already told us.  For example, it turned out Parker needed a mate to stabilize him–this is hardly coming out of left field, since one of the first things we learned about him was that he’d had a wife who shot him, and this betrayal had temporarily unbalanced him, to the point where he had to kill a prison camp guard while escaping, when he was going to be released in a few weeks anyway–he couldn’t wait any longer to go on the hunt.

But once he found her, he could not kill her–merely goad her to suicide–and we were told he was afraid of her–because she still had so much power over him.   So Westlake wasn’t introducing a new element with Claire–merely reintroducing an old one, in a more pleasing (and compatible) form.

We also learned in the Gold Medal era that Parker doesn’t always get what he’s after–The Sour Lemon Score showed us Parker failing to kill George Uhl, who had taken Parker’s share from a bank heist, and tried to kill Parker–something that inevitably puts Parker in full vendetta mode.  He had Uhl right where he wanted him, under the influence of an unnamed ‘truth drug’, incapable of defending himself, and clearly not able to give him any more potentially useful information.  And Parker just broke a few of his bones and left him lying there in the New Jersey swamps.  Because in the childlike semi-conscious state Uhl was in, Parker simply could not kill him.  He knew it was a mistake, but knowing that couldn’t stop him from making it.

Parker also failed to get back his money in that book.  He went through all that for nothing, leaving a dangerous enemy alive, to try again later.  That seems like pretty hard and dark territory to me, but some people interpreted it as Parker showing mercy.   I think those people were wrong, as I made clear in my review of that book.  Parker is a wild animal in the form of a man.  Animals don’t show mercy–but they don’t always kill a helpless foe, either.   Sometimes sheer passivity really is the best way to survive being attacked by a predator.  Depends on the situation.  Depends on why the predator is attacking you.

Parker knows all this on an instinctive level only–on a conscious level, he doesn’t know why he leaves Uhl alive.  He only knows he can’t pull the trigger.  That’s a damned interesting permutation–it show that he isn’t always in control of his reactions–that sometimes his instincts override his judgment.  That his strengths are bound up in his weaknesses.

What makes him so incredibly dangerous to anyone who crosses him also makes his behavior hard to predict–causes him to make mistakes a ‘normal’ man in his position wouldn’t make.  That’s why the character is so endlessly compelling–we’re never quite sure what he’ll do next, how he’ll react to a given situation.   Because we can only see him through a glass darkly (and hopefully never face to face).

So I liked Ardai’s introduction well enough, he makes some solid points, but I think he’s not quite getting it right here.  Parker hasn’t changed–it’s the times he’s in,  the challenges he faces–and to some extent, the publishing niche Westlake is now writing for–you write differently for a hardcover audience in the 70’s than a paperback audience in the 60’s.  The style of the series is evolving, much more than the substance.

Parker was a splendid anachronism back in 1962 (Westlake once called him ‘Dillinger mythologized into a machine’), and that he remains through the subsequent twenty-three novels written over the course of four and a half decades, for five different publishers.  Even in Dillinger’s time, Parker would stand out.  You’d have to go back a lot further than that to find an era he belonged in.  Millennia.  Eons.

He adapts, regroups, updates his methods, but he can’t change his fundamental nature, any more than the leopard can change his spots.  He can only try to make that nature work for him in a constantly shifting human world that he’ll never truly understand, because he’s never truly been a part of it.  But maybe understanding the world is overrated (and, as Westlake once opined, impossible).  Maybe all you really need to understand is yourself.

I mainly love what Westlake did with Parker in the Random House books, creating an arc where Parker is having more and problems making a living in a society less hospitable to heisters (though he did have a successful score in the first one, in spite of subsequent difficulties).  He’s also having more problems with organized crime than he did for most of the series–but that isn’t entirely new either, of course.

Westlake is also going back to Parker’s roots here, as he did with Claire–he’s never fit in with the syndicates of the world, the mobbed up guys, the criminal corporatists, him being the ultimate free agent.  He’s never going to see eye-to-eye with them.  Difference is, with The Outfit, he could fight them to a standstill then make peace–by killing one leader, and replacing him with someone more reasonable.  After the third book, he had no real problems with them, could even pull a job on their behalf, though very much on his own terms.   But the tension between his worldview and theirs remained.

In the Random House books, he began to encounter what for want of a better term we’ll call The American Mafia–a lot of different outfits loosely organized on a national basis.  Primarily but not entirely Italian.  He meets them in all four of those books, and has trouble with them in all four.  They’re everywhere he goes.   Always wanting a piece of his action (or all of it).  Which he has no intention of giving them.  The wolf doesn’t share his kill with rats.

But to make the really big scores, and to hang onto them afterwards, the wolf needs a pack behind him.  Parker’s pack must, of necessity, be composed of humans.   More like him than most people, but still not quite in his league.  He makes do with them, maybe even likes them a little, but they’re still foolish creatures, always letting their undisciplined appetites and emotions get in the way of solid professionalism.  Some are much better than others, but he can never be sure of getting a string that’s all solid pros.  There’s usually a weak link somewhere.

That’s what this book is about, most of all–Parker needs a big score, needs it badly.  He isn’t ready to go back and try to get the money he lost getting away from the mob in Slayground.  There’s a certain odd passivity to him as a heist planner–he rarely ever proposes a job–he waits for someone to point one out to him, then he figures out how to make it work, irons out the kinks, troubleshoots along the way.

So he calls Handy McKay, his former associate and current criminal answering service, and asks if anybody’s looking for talent to pull a job.  And it just keeps refusing to pan out for him.   One job after another falls apart.  This is the book where Parker fails not once but three times.

Now that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?   Is this Westlake finally doing with Parker what he’d originally meant to do in the book that eventually became The Hot Rock?  Not stealing the same thing over and over–that’s a comedic idea, which won’t work with this character.  A more serious approach to the same basic plot template.   A study in professional frustration.

Parker is not, like Dortmunder, going to sulk like Achilles in his tent, grousing about his lousy luck, and he’s certainly not going to try to reform (by which Dortmunder means going on the grift; selling encyclopedias that don’t exist to bored housewives).  Parker can’t even contemplate a change of profession–wolves are less able to adapt to modern life than coyotes.  That’s why there’s so many more coyotes than wolves.  Which doesn’t make a coyote run any slower when he sees a wolf coming.

The opening is reminiscent of The Outfit–in fact, let’s do a direct comparison–

When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed.

Hearing the click behind him, Parker threw his glass straight back over his right shoulder, and dove off his chair to the left.

Westlake still hasn’t returned to the old “When such-and-such happened, Parker did something” motif, but he’s getting close to it here.  And just as with the earlier book, Parker’s past is coming back to haunt him–this time it isn’t an Outfit hitman, but rather George Uhl, broken bones re-knit, trying to do Parker in at a rented house in some unnamed city, where they intend to hit a department store right after Mother’s Day–on the theory that since women tend to control the charge accounts, the men in their lives will pay for their surprise gifts in cash.   The rise of widely available credit is sure making life more complicated for the heisting class.

Parker must really be desperate for a score–holding the pre-heist meet in the same jurisdiction that the heist is going to be pulled is normally something that gets his hackles up.  He doesn’t even mention it.  But the job is soured regardless, because Uhl ended up shooting one of the other string members (unfortunately for Parker, it’s Ashby, the one who had contacted Uhl), and they had to dump him nearby–whether he lives or not, the cops will be on high alert, and the heist is too risky now.  They could just kill him and dump the body further off, but it’s taking too big a chance, and somehow it’s just not–professional.  They leave him on a sidewalk, and call it in–once they’re a few blocks off.

Uhl was called about the job without Parker’s knowledge, found out Parker was part of the string, and figuring Parker is coming after him sooner or later, decided to take a shot at him first.  Unlike The Sour Lemon Score, we spend no time in Uhl’s head in this one–we don’t even get a physical description–he’s not so much a character here as a lurking elusive presence–an itch Parker needs to scratch, permanently this time.

He clearly hasn’t been looking for Uhl since their previous encounter–seems to have put killing the bastard well to the back of his to-do list.  And he tells his confederates that he won’t go hunting for Uhl right now–he needs to concentrate on money–but he’d appreciate any information about his whereabouts.  If he gets a solid lead, he’ll follow it.  He’d like to tie up that loose end.  But without it, he’ll go back to the job search–and to Claire, who he showers with once he gets back to the house in New Jersey.  He no longer needs a successful heist to become sexually aroused.  Not much in this world can change him, but she has.

Parker is using the alias Edward Latham now, which will recur in many subsequent books–he’s using that name when he flies to San Francisco, to check out another potential job, proposed by Bob Beaghler, who’d be the driver–he’s good at cars, lousy at everything else.  The meet is at Beaghler’s house (Parker is having to put up with so much unprofessional behavior, you almost feel sorry for him), a real white trash affair, complete with a wife right out of Tobacco Road.  But in fact, she’s out of another book entirely.

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Plunder Squad, as all longtime Parker fans know, is a planned crossover with Joe Gores’ Dead Skip.  Gores was a former private investigator, of the decidedly unromantic type–he wrote several books about an agency not unlike the one he’d worked for. Very much of the Hammett School, was Mr. Gores–he and Mr. Westlake had that in common, among other things.

The agency is Dan Kearny Associates (DKA for short), and it’s run by a supremely methodical computer-brained Irishman named Dan Kearny, who has hired a very tight effective crew of younger shamuses to do the legwork along with him.  They don’t solve murder mysteries; they track down bail jumpers, repossess cars, do the kind of work real P.I.’s typically earn their bread by, but of course if somebody gets killed along the way, they might take an interest (this being how authors of detective fiction typically earn their bread).   Imagine if Jim Rockford didn’t work by himself out of a trailer, was well under six feet tall, didn’t speak with a folksy drawl, and was a lot less of a lady’s man.  That’s Kearny.

Damn good book, worth reading in its own right, but from our immediate perspective, the most noteworthy moment is when Kearny shows up at Beaghler’s house, trying to find a guy named Odum, for reasons that are only relevant if you’re reading Gores’ book. And for the first and only time, we get a description of Parker written by someone other than Richard Stark–Kearny thinks at first it’s Beaghler, but he’s got a sharp eye for detail–and he’s noticed all the rental cars parked outside the house.  Somebody’s having a conference.

This man had never been an auto mechanic, or a home-owner, or would have worked for anyone else.  He was wide and blocky, with flat square shoulders, a good half-head taller than Kearny’s five-nine.  His hands were out of a foundry, his wrists roped with veins.  His face was bony, as flat and hard as the shoulders, rough-hewn in the same foundry as the hands.

He didn’t say anything, he didn’t have to.  He confirmed what the clustered rental cars suggested, and made it even more certain by stepping out on the porch and closing the door firmly behind him.

Kearny had to make the motions, anyway.  “Mr. Beaghler?”

“No.”  Just a monosyllable, nothing more.

“How about the little lady of the house?  Is Mrs. Beaghler–”

“No.”

“You mean she isn’t here at the present time, or that–”

“I already said no.”

Parker doesn’t give a damn what Kearny wants, just wants him gone, and if he’s enough of a problem, possibly dead–but he tenses up when Kearny, talking to him outside the house, calls him Parker–a name he only goes by to other heisters.  He’s got to know how that’s possible, because this guy is clearly some kind of law–even if it’s not the official kind.  Parker’s eye is no less sharp than Kearny’s.  In the same scene played out in Plunder Squad from Parker’s perspective, we’re told he half recognizes the guy–old memories coming back to him.

Turns out Kearny met Parker right after he broke out of that California prison camp in 1962, when he was making his way back to New York, for his confrontation with Mal Resnick and The Outfit.  Parker had a different name, and a different face, but Kearny picked up on the essentials, took a shot in the dark, and it paid off–Parker will help him, if only to get him out of the way.

Maybe a little for old time’s sake–Parker always respects professionalism, in all its forms.  He calls Sharon Beaghler out of the house–she’s been seeing Odum on the sly, and doesn’t want her husband to know–Parker leans on her–hard.  She very reluctantly coughs up what she knows.

Kearny departs, hot on his quarry’s trail–Odum is a pretty desperate character, but as Kearny later remarks to his lieutenant Larry Ballard, “I met a man today who would use Odum for a toothpick.”   Parker comes across as a very frightening presence in Gores’ book–Kearny doesn’t impress easy, and he’s impressed.

Based on my reading of the two chapters, I think Westlake let Gores write his first, after they worked out the basics.  Then he wrote his version of the encounter as counterpoint.  In Gores’ version, Kearny killed a bottle of liquor with Parker one night, while Parker was shacked up with Kearny’s sister-in-law (a convenient way to avoid the dragnet).  In Stark’s version, when Kearny mentions this, Parker thinks to himself that he let Kearny kill most of the bottle.  That’s Stark quietly correcting Gores–Parker doesn’t get drunk with anybody.  He’d never let his guard down that far. Certainly not with a stranger.  Kearny is a friendly sociable human being–Parker is none of those things.

Frankly, I don’t buy that Parker was having sex with the sister-in-law, when he was still so intent on getting even with Lynn and Mal, and getting his money.  Stark doesn’t have Parker react at all when Kearny mentions that–maybe the sister-in-law was too embarrassed to admit she hadn’t even scored once with the guy she’s never stopped talking about since–he led her on so he could hide out.  If Parker had been into one of his infamous post-heist ruts, why would he be staying up all night drinking with some guy?  Kearny just assumed what anyone would assume.  Perceptive as he is, he can hardly understand just how anomalous an individual he crossed paths with all those years before.

So it’s kind of a neat thing, this crossover–it expands the Starkian universe a bit (and gives a new crime writer Westlake both liked and admired a bit of a boost).  The crossover chapter in Plunder Squad comes fairly early in the book; the same scene comes fairly late in Dead Skip, and it’s similar to what Westlake did with the opening scenes of The Blackbird and Slayground, only the books came out the same year this time. I’d assume that’s no coincidence.

In some ways, I like Dead Skip better than Plunder Squad.  Heresy, I suppose.  It has the advantage of a more focused plot, a better knowledge of the terrain (California isn’t really Westlake country), and it’s an exciting new take on the private detective genre.  But in saying this, I must still point out that Plunder Squad is harder, more tightly written, devoid of the cheery camaraderie and quiet world-weary compassion that pervades Gores’ book–which at times slips over into melodrama and sentimentality–something you’ll never find in any book by Richard Stark.   You don’t find really find much in the way of sentiment (as opposed to raw emotion, quite a different thing), in anything Westlake wrote under any name.  He wasn’t that kind of Irishman.

So Parker has helped Kearny, for reasons of his own, while Kearny has inadvertently made Parker’s situation a little more tense, and shown Parker just how precarious this job really is, because the guy running it is not in control of his life, his wife, or himself–Beaghler knows on some level that Sharon is running around on him.  He just doesn’t know who with (it’s not just one guy)–when Parker makes up a story to explain why he had to call Sharon out on the porch to talk to Kearny, Beaghler buys it, but not 100%. He thinks of himself as a man’s man–his identity is built on a sort of ostentatious machismo, and that’s always a fragile foundation.

Parker gets him back to talking about the job, which sounds too complicated.   They hit an armored car transporting solid-gold statues on a museum tour.  Beaghler has an all terrain vehicle they can use to take them off-road, bushwhacking through the California hills.  Parker and Ducasse (who was part of the last abortive job, you’ll remember) know it’s dodgy, but they both need the money.   They’re willing to give it the old college try.   Then the wheels come off–again.

Parker must at times curse the fact that women react to him like cats to catnip (poor guy).  Sharon Beaghler comes to his motel room, looking to get laid.  Parker has had enough–he starts packing.  Beaghler shows up, looking to make a scene–Parker just hits him, hard, and goes back to packing.  Beaghler calms down, tries to make nice, but Parker’s made up his mind.  Ducasse decides to stick around and see if he can salvage something out of this soap opera, but it’s pretty clear this one’s a solid gold loser.

And next chapter, Parker is in a town just outside Pittsburgh, breaking into a house owned by a woman Uhl has been seeing (probably one of several, if past patterns hold true).  He got the tip from Kirwan, who is sore at Uhl for ruining that Mother’s Day score of his.  He comes in through the garage, and there’s no car, but maybe Uhl is there anyway–he’ll case the house and see what he finds.

What he finds is something quiet, fast, and as unreflectively relentless as himself–

He heard the clicks on linoleum and saw the dark shape hurtling at him just an instant before it hit, slamming into him at chest height and knocking him flat on his back on the floor.  Its breath was hot and sour in his face, and then it was going for his throat, and he had no choice but to jam the revolver barrel into its hairy side and pull the trigger.

It gave a convulsive leap, and he shoved it away to the left as he rolled to the right.  He hit the wall and got up quickly on one knee, staring, listening, watching.

Its claws were scratching on the linoleum, but it wasn’t going anywhere. He hadn’t killed it, but he’d de-fused it.  He got to his feet and brushed his left sleeve across his face where it had slobbered on him.

So anybody reading this knows Parker got attacked by a dog.   But he, oddly enough, does not.  He continues searching the house in darkness, and once he’s made sure nobody else is home, he turns on the kitchen light and sees a dead Doberman Pinscher.   Probably specially trained not to bark–just move in for the kill–or else he had one of those operations on the vocal cords that ought to be illegal.

Now if this was any other crime fiction tough guy, he’d be feeling bad about killing a dog.  Or more likely, he wouldn’t have killed the dog at all.   A lot of people are funny about that, when reading this kind of story–kill all the people you like, leave the dogs alone.  I’m like that.  I mainly don’t much care for people who aren’t like that.  So while I wonder why Parker couldn’t deduce he’d been attacked by a dog (what else could it have possibly been?) without seeing it, I also wonder why I’m still on his side, reading this.

And I guess it’s because I think of him as a wolf, not a man.  I don’t like that wild wolves kill dogs at every opportunity, to this very day.   But I don’t feel entitled to judge them for it.  It’s a family feud, that we humans started, because we needed some wolves on our side.   Well, that’s the romantic interpretation–hardly scientific.   But highly appropriate when reviewing a Richard Stark novel.

Parker covers up all signs of the struggle, and waits for Uhl to return–unfortunately, the dog has one last service to perform for his mistress.  When Blackie (that was the Dobie’s name) doesn’t come to greet them at the door, Uhl realizes something is wrong, and is on his guard enough to use his ladyfriend as a shield, and get away clean–leaving her behind, naturally–he hasn’t changed a bit.

Damn the dog, Parker thinks.   As I’ve said in the past, Westlake may not have loved dogs, he was probably a bit scared of them, but he respected them, in the same way Parker respects fellow professionals.   No burglar alarm would have worked half so well.   And while Parker threatens Uhl’s girlfriend, to get some information out of her, he doesn’t kill her–if he’d killed Uhl right in front of her, he couldn’t have left a witness behind.  So Blackie saved her life.   And all she’s thinking about is that bastard Uhl, who left her in the lurch.   You could do better than us, dogs.  You know you could.

But after wanking about for 4800 words or so, I can’t finish this review in one installment without going way over my limit, so let’s pick this up next week. It may not be my favorite Parker novel, but there is quite a lot to say about it.   Next time, we meet two characters who figure rather heavily later on in the series–you might call them the Nick and Nora of the heisting set, but he’s no William Powell, and I don’t quite see her as Myrna Loy.   And there’s a modern art angle.   Does Parker understand modern art?   No, and he doesn’t pretend to, either.

But that’s for later–in the meantime, let us pause and remember Blackie–a damn good dog, you ask me.  Never mind what Parker thinks.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Mr. Coe and the Dedications

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I find myself lagging behind once more this week, may not finish the next review by Friday, and there’s something I’ve always wanted to discuss about the Tobin novels, and if I don’t do it now, when will I ever? It won’t take long, and it’s an interesting footnote to our discussion of those five oddball detective stories.

Donald Westlake liked to keep his pseudonyms a sort of open secret. He’d joke about them, particularly in the pages of books he wrote under his own name, but his preference, at least some of the time, seems to have been that a lot of people would read his other books and not know a guy named Westlake had anything to do with them–it’s one thing to be popular under one name–could just be good luck–but if you’re popular under several names, and not everybody knows they’re all you, that probably means you can write. When you write as much as Donald Westlake, you can afford to play games like that.

The early Parker novels–the paperback originals–never had any dedications. The hardcovers would typically be dedicated to somebody he knew, but by that time the fact that Donald E. Westlake was also Richard Stark was presumably much better known, due to the Parker film adaptations, and the media coverage surrounding them.

Books under his own name would mainly be dedicated to very close friends, colleagues, family members, and one of his several wives–by name–as is fitting, and in that case he didn’t have to worry about compromising his semi-secret identities, since he wasn’t using one.

But the Tobins were always published first in hardcover, by Random House, the same publisher that was publishing most of his output as Westlake–a hardcover novel is a serious matter (not like those cheesy paperbacks), and is supposed to be dedicated to someone. He may have sometimes chafed a bit at this convention, but he observed it faithfully, nonetheless. So fittingly enough for a mystery series, his dedications for the Tobins were always somewhat–cryptic.

to My Secret, Love.

That’s the dedication for Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, and a very mischievous use of the comma it is. It’s even more mischievous when you look at the typography employed in the book itself.

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What secret? Which love? Did he tell anyone? If he had, would that person know for a fact there weren’t other secrets, other loves? Is he saying that his secret is Love itself?  Given the adulterous subject matter of the book–the married Tobin’s affair with another woman leading indirectly to his investigating the death of a woman having an affair with a married mobster–it’s definitely intriguing. And oblique as all hell.  But one imagines the transition in Westlake’s married life–divorcing one woman, wedding another–could have had something to do with it.   One can imagine whatever one wishes.  And on to the next book–

Miss S /Mrs.

Some mysteries are easier to solve than others–this pretty clearly refers to Sandra Foley, Westlake’s second wife, who he married in 1967, the same year Murder Among Children came out. It refers to the transition in their relationship–whether that had happened by the time he handed in the book or not–it was at the very least impending.

Then came Wax Apple, and the dedications were getting downright odd…..

For the mother

Of the purple

First baseman’s mitt

Is this Westlake’s only published attempt at poetry?  Not quite a haiku, but it has that flavor to it.   And who is it about?   Still Sandra?  I’m quite sure they had no baseball-aged boys by then, but maybe their firstborn had a toy baseball mitt that was purple?   I thought maybe it could be to his first wife–who he had two sons with, who were likely into baseball, and it would be a friendly gesture to someone who was still an important part of his life, not to mention his early writing career–but would he dedicate a novel to a former wife that his current wife would be looking at?  I’ve no idea.  Anyway, it’s a nice poem.  And far easier to interpret than the next one, for A Jade In Aries

For the hand

of the

Four-in-hand

Your guess is as good as mine, folks.  Maybe something to do with astrology?  (More likely poker.)

And then, for Don’t Lie to Me–the last book, the end of the mystery, no need to keep the Coe mask on any longer–he comes right out and names names.   And is more ambiguous than ever.

                                                               For Sandy,

                                                               Ave et Vale, et

                                                               Ave et Vale, et

                                                                . . .

The original would have been Ave Atque Vale, but that’s classical Latin–Westlake is going with the less archaic form.  In any event, not hard to translate–“Hail and Farewell.”  That’s what it means.  But what does it mean?   Trouble in paradise so soon?   They divorced a few years later.   That might not be it at all.   Maybe he was just traveling a lot.   Not necessarily in three dimensional space.   I thought of one possible erotic interpretation, but you can figure that out for yourselves just fine, I’m sure.

Westlake let out a side of himself in Tucker Coe that he mainly kept more under wraps, though it’s always there.   The Coe novels are more confiding, more emotional, more intimate, more melancholic, than almost anything he wrote under his own name, or any other.   And the dedications he chose mirror that.   They are private jokes, perhaps, but they are not meant to be greeted with laughter.  A sad smile, perhaps.  But without the context to interpret them, we just blink confusedly, and move on to read the book.   And as I’ve already said, I don’t think the Coe voice went away–Westlake just reincorporated it into his larger self, and if you listen closely, you can still hear him groaning away determinedly in the chorus.

Maybe someday some biographer will come along and explain it all to us.   I can’t quite decide if I want that to happen or not.  Do you know what I mean?  Do we ever really know what somebody else means?   When he or she actually takes the trouble to say something?  Or do we just make a show of comprehension?   Like when I post something like this.  Don’t answer that.

Anyway, no more Tobin articles, but I want to do one last cover gallery–the Official Westlake Blog is still busily adding new images, and I may have to revise my opinion that Tobin rarely got great cover art.   He definitely did better than Grofield.

The UK and German editions of the first book both distinguished themselves, though obviously they could have been used for many another crime novel.  Still good work.   The German artwork is rather gothic–appropriate enough, I suppose.   Somehow, I can’t see Tobin in a Homburg and a trenchcoat, but that’s quibbling.

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I like this Italian cover for the montage of images relating to the story, but also for its alternate title–“Over the Wall”.   The American cover next to it I like for its simple depiction of the most central visual motif of the Tobin series.

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The British cover on the left I’ve already praised to the high heavens–but seems like the artist for this Italian edition had the same general idea–and executed it extremely well, in the grand giallo style.

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Random House used a sort of pop art pistol, ala Roy Lichtenstein, to illustrate Don’t Lie to Me, and as is so often the case, overseas publishers took that idea and did their own thing with it (my understanding is that foreign publishers would have the option of using the original cover art, would have it sent to them with the galleys for the book, but would be paying extra for the rights, and they had their own artists).

This was the case with the Italian edition, which is much more graphic and violent, yet politely points the revolver away from the reader.  The Germans went in a completely different reaction (the aftermath to the pistol), and while that cover could also work for a whole lot of other crime novels, it’s still really high quality artwork that gives you a good idea of what kind of book this is.   And the title is delightfully formal–“Tell the truth, colleague.”

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I know I’ve posted three of these already in past reviews, but I can’t say enough good things about the Charter reprints, which in several cases were the very first American paperback editions.  The one for Wax Apple is so good, I’m tempted to say it’s the best cover art for any Westlake, ever–it just sums the book up so beautifully–telling all, and revealing nothing.  As good as cover art got in that era. The others are pretty, engaging to the eye, but not at that level in terms of getting the book’s point across–note that Don’t Lie to Me has the same fallen figure of a man as Wax Apple, only reversed.  By the way, is it just me, or does the Tobin in the first cover look like a young Eric Braeden?  Never quite the same face, from book to book, though they’re all pretty similar.

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I would assume Charter reprinted all five Tobins, but I can’t find any trace of their edition of Murder Among Children.  I also can’t find out a thing about the artist (artists?) behind these beautiful covers.  My copy of Wax Apple doesn’t identify the artist, but there is a signature embedded in the artwork itself–‘W. Rome’–I think that’s it.   Anybody know more?

Next week, Plunder Squad, without fail.  I just don’t know if it’ll be a two-parter or not.   Well, finding out how long-winded I’m going to get about a given book is part of the fun, right?

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin, Tucker Coe

Review: Don’t Lie To Me

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It is strange how the mind works, sometimes going on about its own business regardless of what is happening in the real world all around it.  The instant the shot had been fired, I had known who had fired it and why, and from that I had known who had killed the John Doe and Dan Tynebourne and the girl–I supposed she was a Jane Doe now, at least for the moment–and why those killings had been done.  The knowledge was absolutely useless to me in my present condition, but I did know it.

MODERATOR: He’s dead!

TIMOTHY J. CULVER: This water glass–yes, just as I thought.  A rare undetectable South American poison.  Tucker Coe has been murdered.

DONALD E. WESTLAKE: I didn’t do it!

And here we are, at the fifth and final Mitchell Tobin Mystery, and before we proceed to look it over, it might behoove us to ask why that is.  Why is this the last one?   Five novels for a reasonably successful highly-acclaimed detective series (the first of which almost got made into a movie with Bob Mitchum as Mitch Tobin) is an exceptionally brief run in this genre–even granting that you wouldn’t want there to be scores of them, that even a dozen might have been too much of a good thing, five is cutting things a bit short.

You ever read any Max Thursday novels?   If so, consider me impressed.  He got six books.   He was pretty good.  He was no Mitch Tobin.  Many far less interesting fictional detectives got twenty or more novels devoted to their perennially perplexed peregrinations.  And almost nobody reads most of those books now–collects them for the cover art, maybe.   So yeah, there is that.  Don’t want to wear out your welcome.

But why did Westlake not only get rid of Tobin, but Tucker Coe as well, killing him off in a subsequent self-referential spoof he wrote for an anthology of articles on the mystery genre?  And basically confessing that he himself, Donald Westlake, had done the deed?

We have long had the official answer from Westlake himself–that he had told the story he’d set out to tell.  He’d set out to show us a man coming back from a deep depression, while solving murder mysteries along the way, learning things about himself and the human condition as he went, and once his emotional wounds had finally begun to heal, there was no point continuing.  Tobin could either go on wallowing in a pit of gloom, or he could become a standard-issue fictional gumshoe, of which Westlake felt there were too many already.  I think Westlake was telling the truth when he said that, but maybe not the whole truth.  And it may have been more clear to him in retrospect than it was at the time.

There’s certainly no indication in the book itself that this is the last we’ll ever see of Tobin, or Coe–not in the novel, nor in the promotional text on the first edition dust jacket.  I doubt very much that Westlake started writing this book with the express and definite intention of never writing again as Coe, and he certainly leaves the door open at the end to more Tobin later, in spite of some loose ends getting wrapped up.

Westlake often wrote books that could serve as a finishing point to a given series character, only to return to that character later on.  Not this time.  This one can certainly be read as a finale, but having read it twice now, it feels much less like one than Butcher’s Moon or Good Behavior, which both turned out to be mere intermissions.

One reason this turned out to be the last Coe was probably that Coe didn’t sell that well–well enough, I’m sure, that Westlake could have prolonged his relationship with Random House a while longer, cranking out a few more Tobins–but they might have been less interested in anything else from Coe, assuming Westlake even had anything else in mind to write in that voice (which is basically Tobin’s voice).  Even a writer as prolific as Westlake can only produce so much work in one year–he may have simply figured it was not a sound professional decision, keeping that pseudonym alive.

But if he’d made that decision when he was writing this book, I doubt he’d have named the brokerage house in Cops and Robbers (which he would have written around the same time) ‘Parker, Tobin, Eastpoole, and Co.’   He was justly proud of having made not just one name for himself as a writer, but several.  He hadn’t quite let go of that in his mind.

And yet, as the 70’s went on, the pseudonyms fell by the wayside.  Just two more Starks appear after this, until Comeback in 1997.  No more Coes.  He wrote a bit more science fiction here and there, but never again as Curt Clark.  He’d quit writing sleazes, and Richard Stark shot Culver dead in the same piece where Westlake poisoned Coe, then escaped with everyone’s valuables–meaning Westlake was not ready to let go of that alter ego, several years after writing Butcher’s Moon.

Be that as it may, after Butcher’s Moon, his next twelve novels over the course of as many years are all under his own name, and then comes the even more abortive experiment of writing as Samuel Holt about a reluctant detective of the same name–and there are some odd parallels between the Holts and the Tobins, but we’ll talk about that in due course.

Westlake had been writing under multiple names since the start of his career, but from the early 70’s to the late 90’s, he wrote mainly as himself.   This couldn’t be a decision he made all at once–it would have come upon him by degrees.   It may have been partly motivated by a decreasing productivity–he no longer was writing ‘far too much’, as he confessed to doing for a while, in a later introduction he wrote for the Tobin novels.

He didn’t need the extra identities to serve as outlets for his surplus creative energies anymore.  He had a good thing going at M. Evans & Co.  He had regular income from Hollywood buying the rights to his books, and sometimes even getting him to write something original for the screen.  He had nonfiction articles bringing in money as well.  He had Dortmunder to fall back on as a series character; the most popular he ever created–certainly far more so than Tobin, and more suited to Westlake’s marked affinity for thieves.

And he turned 40 in 1973, a sobering milestone for anyone.  It was time to slow down and devote more time to figuring out what he, Westlake, could do as a writer.  To put aside all the masks,  for the time being at least.  And time for me to stop wanking about and review the damn book.  It really bugs me this is the last one, you know.   I’m going to reveal the killer below, so be warned.

So in his last outing, you may recall, Mitch Tobin, that most reluctant of reluctant detectives, had decided to stop sitting around feeling sorry for himself, building a brick wall in his back yard, and making the odd bit of change doing freelance (and technically illegal) private investigations.  Through his friend on the force, Marty Kengelberg, he got a P.I. license, and as that story ends, we the readers can only assume that he’s going to embrace his destiny as a man who solves odd crimes nobody else can, helping people who live on the fringes of mainstream society, and continuing his gradual journey back into the light of day.

And as this book begins, he’s working nights as private security for The Museum of American Graphic Art.   We probably have one somewhere in New York, there’s a museum of just about anything you can imagine here.  See, here’s the thing–most ex-cops and such who get P.I. licenses only do so in order to work this kind of gig, supplement their pensions, assuming they have one (Mitch, dismissed from the force with extreme prejudice, does not).

Tobin is actually an employee of a security firm, Allied Protection Services.  What, you thought he was going to set up his own shingle, have a little seedy office somewhere, do the Sam Spade thing?  Okay, that’s what I thought too.  It just makes sense, right?   Westlake always digs the independents–why would he make one of his greatest independents into a company man, a mere hireling?

Well, what else can Tobin do?  He’s not rich.  He’s got a wife and a son–kid’s going to college soon.  He needs a steady income, health insurance, etc.  He’s nearly gotten himself killed on three different occasions while trying to solve murders, and no real private detective makes a living solving murders.  That’s just in the pulps, and the movies.

If he worked as a private investigator, whether on his own, or for some big agency, he’d be peeping through keyholes, tracking down deadbeat dads or bail jumpers.  Maybe repossessing cars.  It’s a living, sure, but for a guy like Tobin, who values privacy above all else, it would be sheer hell.  Night security work is peaceful, quiet.   Peace and quiet is all he’s been wanting for a very long time now.  Oh Mitch.  Haven’t you figured out by now that you never get what you want?  Not for very long, anyway.

So he’s doing his rounds one night, looking at various displays, and he hears a knocking at the door–it’s Linda Campbell.  We’ve been hearing about her since the first book, and now we get a look at her–just a slender little blonde, nothing amazing–but she’s the woman who Tobin ruined his life over.   The wife of Dink Campbell, a minor-league burglar, who Tobin sent away for a few years when he was a detective, and he ended up spending some time with Linda, and if you’ve been keeping up you know the story by heart already.  It’s an old story, anyhow.   There’s a version of it in The Book of Samuel, as I recall.

Anyway, Dink’s out of jail now, and he’s in trouble, naturally.   Some criminal acquaintances want Dink, a skilled lockman, to help them on a job.   He’s one more conviction from going away for life, and is not enthused about it, but he didn’t send her to see her old lover.  She just didn’t know who else to turn to–she wants Tobin to use his connections on the NYPD to put pressure on these guys, make them lay off.  He’s not enthused about that, but we already know he’s terrible at saying no to the women in his life–even the ones that aren’t in it anymore.

Yes, this is a more than a bit reminiscent of The Out is Death, that novel by Peter Rabe that I referenced in my review of The Jugger, and I’m sure that’s no coincidence,but it’s only the B-Plot anyway.   The A-Plot is the dead naked male body Mitch and Linda discover inside the museum as she’s preparing to leave–he calls it in, but before she makes her hasty exist, it’s decided he won’t mention her–that would bring her into the media coverage, which would drag up the old scandal of their affair that led to the death of his partner Jock, and his expulsion from the force.   Tobin was a cop too long not to know there are times when telling the truth is a sucker’s game.  He’ll lie if he has to, and unless there’s a damned good reason not to, he’ll stick to that lie, come hell or high water.   Hence the title.

He doesn’t lie to Kate, though.  That’s a very different matter.  Having weathered the initial investigation without anyone getting too suspicious, he goes home that morning and tells his (much) better half everything that transpired.   He does not tell her his precise emotional reaction to seeing Linda again, all the thoughts that rushed into his head (and elsewhere)–he’s neither an idiot nor a sadist.   She takes this as progress in their relationship–sometimes she really does seem too good to be true (Westlake may be wryly acknowledging that by having Tobin mention she was watching an Andy Hardy movie when he came in).

They go upstairs, make love, and fall asleep.  Well, Kate does (Tobin being apparently okay in the sack when he’s not too depressed).  Tobin is still agitated over the night’s events, and unable to sleep, so he calls Marty Kengelberg, and asks for that favor, regarding Dink.   And this is his first real mistake, assuming you don’t count opening the door to Linda in the first place.

In very little time, everything becomes ridiculously complicated (Mitch’s life, and the book itself).   The two plainclothesmen on the case, Grinella and Hargerson, don’t like him for the murder, but they have no leads (not even the name of the victim), know Tobin’s holding something back, and unfortunately Linda was seen leaving the museum that night, though not identified.  The murder itself is the good old locked-room variety, because the museum was locked tight, and nobody should have been in there but Mitch (and anyone he might have let in).

Tobin gets on okay with Grinella, a solid pro, but Hargerson is another of those thick-skulled asshole cops that he seems destined to keep running into, who takes an immediate disliking to him.  They know he used to be a cop (like at least half the guys working security).  Of course Hargerson is going to find out why he isn’t one anymore.  It just keeps getting better and better.

In the course of checking to see if anything was stolen from the museum, it comes out that damned near half the collection has been stolen–somebody’s been taking the old archival copies of newspapers and magazines containing the aforementioned graphic art, making copies on a machine located in the basement, aging them to look authentic, and then putting them up where the ‘real’ art should be.

The irony being, as is mentioned several times, that none of it is ‘original’ artwork–it’s all copies, as anything that appears in a newspaper or magazine would be.  So it’s not worth very much, even to collectors.  Given the time and effort involved, you could probably make more money waiting tables, if the tips were good.   Why would anyone bother?  Clearly this has something to do with the murder, but what?

Nobody’s hiring Mitch to solve this one, and typically, he just wants to let someone else worry about it.   But as it becomes clear to the higher-ups that he’s that Mitchell Tobin, a high-ranking inspector assigned to the case (because there are powerful people connected to this museum) expresses his admiration for the discreet assistance Tobin has rendered in closing some tricky murder cases in the past, and makes it clear he’d like Tobin to put his ratiocinative abilities to work once more.

Hargerson, who thought he was getting Tobin in trouble by outing him, still wants Tobin to stay out of his case  And he wants Tobin to stop lying to him.   I already said ‘hence the title’, right?   What I didn’t say was that his anger is based on more than just professional jealousy.  Because his partner just got a face-full of acid that was clearly meant for Tobin.   And here comes the B-Plot.

Tobin’s friend Marty, in spite of some serious reservations about Tobin doing any favors for his old girlfriend, made some calls, and pressure was duly applied to Dink’s old heisting buddies.  Who are understandably steamed about it.   And apparently too stupid to know that when a job is soured, it’s soured entirely (probably a lot closer to most real-life heisters than the heisters you meet in a Richard Stark novel).

Instead of just melting into the woodwork until the heat is off, they put pressure on Dink, and since Dink is even stupider (Mitch, still carrying a wee torch for Linda, has to wonder what she sees in this schmuck, but that’s the oldest story of all) he spilled the beans to them about who was responsible for the unwanted scrutiny.   They figure they just need to remove this Tobin joker from the picture, and they can go back to the payroll heist they’re planning.  Only they splashed acid in an active-duty police detective’s face instead.  Bright boys.

So Hargerson may not be much of a detective, but he doesn’t need to be to know that Tobin has information he needs to find the guys who hit his partner.   And Tobin knows that he can’t give him that information without revealing Linda’s presence at the museum that night, meaning that she’d be connected to the museum murder, and the stolen art, and the acid attack, and the papers would be running stories about how he and Linda were an item once, and maybe still.   Tobin has made some progress in dealing with his emotional problems since first we met him.  Not that much progress.  He can’t take the flashbulbs in his face again.  He’d rather take the acid.   So he goes right on lying.

So Hargerson picks him up one night, and after asking him repeatedly who threw the acid, with no answer, takes him to an abandoned house not far from Tobin’s own house in Queens, and beats the living shit out of him.

We spent a long time in there, and he never once let me get all the way to my feet.  He used fists and knees and shoes, and from time to time paused to let me catch my breath or my wits, and each time he asked me the same question.  I held him off with determination for a while, and then with anger; for a time I was screaming through my raw throat that I would kill him, that I would follow him, that I would find my chance, I would kill him dead.  But he just kept at his methodical work, and steadily beat anger too out of me, and at the last I was resisting him with nothing at all.  I don’t know why I didn’t finally tell him the truth; it just seemed as though this thing would go on until it was time for it to stop, as though there was nothing I could do to cut it short, so why even try.   I guess what I was resisting with at the end was despair.

Tobin comes gradually back to consciousness, realizes Hargerson is gone, and phones Kate to come pick him up.   She wants him to call the cops.  Admirable as she truly is, she can be touchingly naive at times.  Good people often are.

As it happens, Tobin didn’t even know the name of the specific thug who threw the acid, but he’d asked Dink to find out for him, and he tells him it’s Vigevano (sounds a lot like Vigano, the mob boss from Cops and Robbers, which only proves this book was written just around the same time).  A guy named Mort Livingston drove the getaway car.  Vigevano is pleased he at least cost a cop his eyes, but he still wants to get Tobin.

Tobin tells Marty what he knows, but asks him to hold it back a while–then he talks to Hargerson, and tells him he can give him the name he wants, but he’s got to wait–he’s already proven he can’t beat it out of Mitch.   What’s he got to lose by giving Tobin a few days to wrap things up his own way?  And having illegally beaten a former cop half to death without any proof of wrongdoing (or any tangible results other than bruises a smarter cop would have known better than to leave), Hargerson isn’t in a good position to take him downtown.

In the previous four books, Tobin was called on to solve a murder case, and in all four cases, he tried like hell to get out of it.  Not much of a self-starter, is our Mitch.  It was always Kate who persuaded him–his guilt about what he’d done to her, his sense of obligation to at least try and support his family, the only way he could.  Three of the jobs were paying propositions; one was to clear a female relation of his that Kate had taken a shine to.

Kate’s not urging him to solve any murders this time, and there’s no payday involved.  Linda only wanted him to get Dink out of doing this heist.  He doesn’t give a hoot that some police inspector thinks he’s a great detective who could shed light on a case the inspector is under pressure from high-up to solve.  He just wants it all to go away–but it can’t–because it’s all gotten tangled together.   The A-Plot and the B-Plot.

He’s really trapped this time–Hargerson won’t let up until he knows who threw the acid–he can’t reveal who threw the acid without revealing why, which would reveal his lie–which would connect his past relationship with Linda to the museum murder.  But if he can solve the murder, then the press will stop writing about it, and Linda’s peripheral involvement won’t be of interest, and he won’t have to relive his past disgrace once more in the headlines.   So just this once, he’s doing it for himself.

To solve the mystery of the naked corpse in the museum, he has to solve the mystery of why anyone would spend many long hours of tedious work to steal something that isn’t very valuable.   That means he’s got to focus on the people who work at the museum.  He’s been meeting them here and there up to now in the course of the investigation,  but  now that he’s doing the investigating, he has to start paying more attention to them.   And this brings us to the outsider subculture in this book.

See, when I first read this one, a while back, I was rather indignant–I thought Westlake had for some reason dropped the main theme of the Tobin mysteries, the thing that makes them unique–that he always ends up learning about some group of social outcasts–mobsters, the youth culture, the mentally ill, gay men–there may even be a secondary subculture in the mix–actors, religious cults, and always cops (insiders and outsiders at the same time).   But I just couldn’t figure it out this time–then, rereading it for this review,  it finally came to me.  Academe.  The outsiders looking for tenured positions at institutions heavily funded by the very wealthy–the people they most despise.  Now there’s an identity crisis.

See, the museum, which runs on the income from a large endowment made long ago, is affiliated with New York University, and when it comes to maintaining the collection and planning exhibits, most of the work falls to two NYU professors and their graduate students.  Ernest Ramsay of the history department is very conservative (for an academic), rather anal and fussy, and very much inclined to quarrel with Phil Cane, from the Art department of NYU (these days referred to as the Department of Art and Art Professions).

Phil Crane is what used to be called a longhair.   It was never meant as a compliment, though he might take it as one anyway.    It’s certainly descriptive enough; “an intense, long-haired man in his late thirties, he wore a heavily undisciplined beard to go with his love beads and bell-bottom slacks, and tended to pepper his language with the slang of the moment.”   Strangely, he thinks he and Mitch are brothers under the skin–

Crane barked with laughter.  “Mr. Tobin,” he said, “you exceed my expectations.  You groove on crisis, I know you do.  Isn’t that right?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“It cools you out,” he said.  “You go along, you go along, everything’s quiet, then there’s a crash and you’re cool.  Am I right?”

I grinned at him.  “You mean I’m good under pressure.”

“Man I mean you live under pressure.  It picks you up.”

“No,” I said.  “I like a quiet life.”

He gave me a knowing look.  “Not you,” he said.  “You’re a fatality freak.  You know what I mean?”

“No.”

“You don’t know it,” he said, “but I groove with you.  I really and truly dig where you are.  You let it come to you, and that’s good.  I’m the same.”

Turns out he and Tobin are both immune to the effects of cannabis (Tobin tells us he tried it a long time before it was adopted by white college kids)–both too self-controlled to ever really let go.  He really does seem to understand Tobin very well, though there are gaps of understanding on both sides.

Tobin enjoys the understanding, but being like somebody is not the same thing as liking him, or sharing his goals.  They do say Churchill was very much the same personality type as Hitler, you know.   That’s what tipped Churchill off that Hitler was serious.   That’s how he knew they had to get ready.  Okay, I warned you there’d be spoilers in here.  You always have to be ready for that, reading this blog.

The point being made here is not that being an academic is a bad thing, but that the conflicts inherent to academia–that it attracts many people who have a love/hate relationship with their own civilization; who may have revolutionary leanings, but who also have a vested interest in keeping society afloat (why do you think tenure was invented in the first place?)–can produce major personality conflicts–people who don’t know themselves very well, because they can’t afford to.  Mitch figures the answers to the puzzle he’s trying to solve lie with a student of Crane’s, Dan Tynebourne, whose personality is really more akin to Ramsay’s, but who believes in being like Crane; subversive, off-center, cool.

Tobin breaks into his apartment to snoop around for clues.  A girl called him anonymously, who seemed to know who the John Doe at the museum was–she called him George–Tobin’s already figured out he might have been in Canada, since there was a pack of Maverick cigarettes down there–American cigarettes marketed in Canada, which are actually Marlboros, but another manufacturer owns the name Marlboro in Canada, and you can read about it here if you care.   He thinks he might find a lead to her, or to George himself, at Tynebourne’s apartment.

I found neither, but I did see plenty of further evidence of the split in Dan Tynebourne’s personality.  In his books, Jerry Rubin nestled with Henry James.  On his walls, a print of the Unicorn tapestry was hung next to a poster of Che Guevara.  His records were an amalgram of Jefferson Airplane and Mozart, and beside his bed I found a heavily annotated copy of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.  Looking at his marginal remarks, I saw him torn between the nihilism of the terrorists in that book and his own apparently natural love of tradition and heritage and history.  He was trying to be in love with both Now and Then, even though the currently accepted way to love Now is by rejecting Then.

Dan will never get a chance to resolve this conflict–he and the girl are found dead in a car that drove off a Manhattan pier.  Tobin had tried to find him by calling his role model, Professor Crane.   It’s interesting that whereas in most detective novels, the detective is always a few steps ahead of you, because of the odd methodical way Tobin’s mind works, and because he’s usually very distracted by various things in the course of the story, we sometimes get to the killer ahead of him.  But as always, he needs to know the why before he can know the who.

So cutting back up to the scene from the book that begins this review, Tobin is at his house–he wakes up and realizes that Vigevano and his gang are waiting downstairs to kill him.   The idiots didn’t see a car parked outside, because Kate and Bill are visiting family on Long Island, so they figured he wasn’t home yet, and they’ve been sitting in his living room, smoking.  He creeps down and gets the drop on them, but it isn’t enough–four against one.  His own partly-completed brick wall in the backyard hampers his escape.  But then one of them is shot in the head as he runs out the front door, and at that moment in time, Tobin knows who the killer is–and why.  But he can’t worry about that just yet–Vigevano is coming for him with a knife.

He’s not in the best of shape after that beating he got from Hargerson, but he manages to take his assailant out with a desperate bear-hug, squeezing the breath out of him.  He’s not doing much better than Vigevano at this point, though he’s in better shape than the guy who got shot in the head.  He’s on the point of total collapse, but he has to keep going a while longer.   He calls Hargerson, and tells him he has all the answers now–he just has to come to the museum with him and wait.

While they wait, he tells Hargerson the whole story–including how Grinella got the acid meant for him, and then one of the heisters got the bullet meant for him.  “You’re not a good man to be around,” says Hargerson, with admirable understatement.   He then proceeds to prove his point by getting knocked over the head by the killer–Crane.  Who has a pistol.  And who is now going to get Tobin out of there, and dispose of him at some suitable location, so as not to connect his death to the original  murder.

Mitch had called Crane and told him a story to lure him there, needing to find some way for Crane to incriminate himself.  Crane (of a similar mental bent to Tobin, sans the empathy) has figured out that Tobin has figured out what he did, and why, so he came prepared.  When you’ve murdered one person to keep a secret, it can get a bit like eating potato chips–you keep going until the bag is empty.

See, he’d talked some of his grad students into doing the museum thefts.  He said it was to return the expropriated wealth of the people–the museum endowment from some robber baron that had gone to buy a lot of old newspaper and magazine art hardly anyone ever came to look at.  They’d be symbolically returning that money by selling the material to collectors, then donating it to worthy left-wing causes.

Either Crane kissed the Blarney Stone one time, or the drugs back then were really good, because the poor kids bought it–including George, the first victim–a draft-dodger who had been hiding out in Canada, and taking some of the art there to sell.  Only he found out Crane was phonier than any of the copies they were making–he was just expropriating their surplus labor to enrich himself.   He wasn’t doing any of the actual work, so it was like having a small independent income, on top of his salary from the university.

George, suitably indignant, threatened to spill the beans.  So Crane killed George in the basement workroom, and dragged him upstairs.  And he killed Dan and the girl–because trying to find them through Crane, Tobin let Crane know they were a threat.  Tobin is a really bad guy to be around, you know that?

And the last person to find that out is Crane himself.  As they’re leaving the museum, Dink shows up, angry that Tobin beat up his heister buddies, and the cops think he did it.  Caught off guard, Crane starts firing at both of them–Mitch tackles him, and Dink finishes the job.   Then Dink wants to bawl Tobin out for getting him involved in the fracas at the Tobin house.  Tobin tells him to shut up, and then mercifully passes out.   The End.

Westlake loved abrupt endings.  He often chose to leave the reader hanging–the big stuff gets wrapped up, but all the little things stay unresolved.  There’s easily two or three more chapters he could have written about what happened next, how it all got straightened out, whether Tobin did in fact avoid the media spotlight he probably could have avoided simply by not making that call to Marty on Linda’s behalf the same night she came to see him–just wait until coverage of the museum murder had died down.  It’s all been one long self-inflicted wound.   Just like the mess that made him into the Mitch Tobin we first met back in Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death.

He’s come full circle.  He’s still alive.  He’s not in any real trouble with the law, though Hargerson isn’t going to like him any better once he wakes up.  He’s still got Kate.  He’s still got Bill.  He’s solved yet another insoluble mystery.   He’s repaid whatever debt he owed to Linda and Dink.  He may get fired from his nighttime day-job–hard to say.  But he can find work elsewhere.

He’s also inadvertently helped cause some murders and maimings, but he wouldn’t have made it this far if he hadn’t learned how to accept that you can’t beat yourself up forever over unintended consequences to well-meaning acts.  He’ll always be a gloomy bastard, looking at the world through jaundiced eyes, but he’ll go on living until he can’t, and his fate being what it clearly is, he’ll probably be faced with new mysteries in the future—and he’ll be just as reluctant to solve those.   Tobin is Tobin, and what else is there to say?

What I say is that this is the weakest of the five Tobin mysteries, the least satisfying on a number of levels.   Not everyone agrees, but since when does everyone ever agree about anything Westlake ever wrote?

First of all, the A Plot and B Plot thing is too convoluted, too contrived–I see the purpose of it, admire the way it’s constructed, but it just doesn’t work as well as the more focused stories of the previous four.  More critically, because of the two plots, there isn’t enough time to explore the outsider subculture Westlake has chosen.   What’s there is interesting, persuasive, but it isn’t enough.

It feels a bit tacked-on–Westlake would have seen that.  Compared to the organic near-perfection of Wax Apple and A Jade in Aries, you can see the joins too clearly–he’s thinking about it too much.   And while there’s some very good writing in it, there’s nothing to equal the haunting noir-inflected prose of Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, or Murder Among Children, with its echoes of Hammett, and perhaps a little of Chandler as well.

So why was this the last one?   Maybe because writing it, he could feel he was at the end of his string with this character.  I think he decided sometime after he started writing it, which is why it doesn’t quite read like a finale, but at the same time convinces you it is one. He was figuring it out as he went.

Having resolved Tobin’s depression the previous book, and his hanging storyline with Linda in this one, he had by no means resolved all of Tobin’s issues–any more than his friend Lawrence Block had resolved all of Matt Scudder’s issues by having him quit drinking Eight Million Ways to Die–perhaps not so coincidentally, the fifth Matthew Scudder mystery novel.

But was Scudder ever as interesting again after he stopped drinking?  Interesting enough for people to want to keep reading about him–in fact, he became more popular as the series went on.   Therefore, interesting enough for Block to want to keep writing about him–why give up on a character people liked?   Why not just keep going until you can’t anymore?  Westlake didn’t see it that way.   He didn’t like writing detective fiction nearly as much as Block did–for him, it was only worthwhile if it was completely different from what everybody else was doing.

Tobin doesn’t want to be a detective.  That’s what makes him such a great detective–his odd abstracted perspective, that allows him to see all the many worlds within the world–it’s not how he solves the mysteries, but what he teaches us about ourselves along the way.  And without that abstraction granted him by his depression in the first four books, the thing that made the books special is gone, or at least greatly diminished.  Westlake had to write this one to prove that to himself, and having done so, he stopped writing about Tobin, and he stopped writing as Coe. There’s no point anymore.

But on some level, he must have felt like he was killing a voice that had lived inside of him, sensitive, empathetic–different from his other voices, with valid things to say, and that’s why Coe is almost mute, tongue-tied, in that mock-interview–and that’s why he’s dead at the end of it, with Westlake vehemently insisting he didn’t do it, after having said earlier in the piece that the way you know somebody is lying is when he denies having done something without anyone having accused him.   But I would say that voice is still there, waiting its time–Coe remained a silent partner, and would be a major contributor to later books.  Don’t lie to us, Mr. Westlake.  We know you too well by now.

And whatever you do, don’t lie to Parker.   Who in our next book will suffer a succession of professional reversals to rival even Dortmunder for star-crossed fortune.  But Parker never counts on luck.   He makes his own.  And if you cross him badly enough, your luck will run out, sooner or later.

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Filed under Don't Lie To Me, Donald Westlake novels, Mitch Tobin

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