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 Man With the Getaway Face
(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.
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–”
“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.