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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35 Comments

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

35 responses to “Review: Plunder Squad, Part 2

  1. JJ Gauthier

    That photo of Alyson Hannigan may have been taken awhile ago, but who would ever know? She’s hasn’t seemed to age a day since season 2 of Buffy.

    Plunder Squad really is a weird one, for the reasons you said; each of the four acts is compelling and gripping in its own right, but they feel more like several short stories than an actual novel. It’s less a bridge between Slayground and Butcher’s Moon than a series of rabbit trails, if an interesting and worthwhile one.

    I thought your list of top Parker books in Part 1 was an interesting grouping; while I’d list the top five as The Seventh, Butcher’s Moon, The Hunter, The Score, and The Sour Lemon Score, I largely agree that Westlake said most of what he had to say with Parker in the early books, with only Claire actually adding a new wrinkle. But there are some terrific ones after that, and I’m glad the series went on. (I’m currently in the middle of Firebreak.)

    • Ms. Hannigan is still insanely hot, but I don’t think she’d pass for mid-20’s anymore. Well, given that Mackey is probably in his 40’s, she’d be more age-appropriate anyway. Thing is, I see Mackey as James Gandolfini. Good thing I’m not a real casting director, huh?

      “A series of rabbit trails.” God, I wish I’d said that. And I will, JJ, I will. 😉

  2. Parker’s defeat of his enemies is often anticlimactic. Think of Alma, who died between sentences in The Man with the Getaway Face. That’s part of what I was getting at last week when I mentioned the lack of catharsis in this novel. Not that Parker would have any use for that word, as you quite rightly pointed out.

    Like (the much later) Firebreak, this book peaks in its first half, with a handful of great scenes and a wrapping up of the subplot before the long, slow descent into defeat. Parker’s “negotiation” with Griffith is a highlight for me, as his stubborn intractability makes more a terrific comic set piece. (“Why not come sit down?” “It might be wasted movement.” Oh, Parker.) The entire party scene has some great digressions, such as whether or not Parker resembles Hubert Greene, or the tail end of Mackey’s argument with the bartender about Tittle. (Stark doesn’t bother to clarify, but Y.A. Tittle was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame the year this book was likely written).

    I’m more of a fan of Mackey than you are. Out of all of Parker’s fellow heisters, he seems (as you note about Brenda) to be most comfortable in his own skin. He’s a bit like Grofield in that regard, though he’s quicker to recognize when Parker is ready for him to stop clowning around. He also has much to contribute to Parker’s welfare down the line. Even if Parker tells himself he doesn’t “keep score” that way, Mackey is one of the good ones.

    Plunder Squad is not among my favorites either, but I think it works (as I noted last week) as a meditation on frustration. The dark side of the Dortmunder coin. A Road Runner cartoon with real consequences. (I wouldn’t want to be in Acme’s shoes in Parker decided to pay them a visit.)

    • Ah, a capsule review (and one of the better ones, I’d say). I’ve heard of those. Vaguely.

      I like Mackey fine, I just can’t help but ask what’s the matter with Handy? Why’d he disappear entirely from the latter run of books? The only thing Mackey has that Handy doesn’t is Brenda. So that’s my answer. They are a quite diverting feature of the Comeback-era Parker novels. And then they disappear, and do not figure in the final trilogy. Westlake could be downright flighty with regards to his supporting players. I mean, sometimes he couldn’t even decide if he’d killed them off or not.

      That’s a very sharp-eyed comparison, between this book and Firebreak. Almost as if Westlake wasn’t satisfied with the way this one turned out, and wanted to give it another go. The obvious parallel is between Uhl and You-Know-Who (why I even bother about spoilers after the reviews I type I’ll never know), but there’s so many other points those two books have in common. Maybe it’s not so much dissatisfaction as a desire to explore other avenues, different potentials. Like what would make Parker not kill a guy who had done something that really bothered him?

      Alma was, I think we can agree, a very minor nemesis for Parker, though memorably drawn. Uhl at least understood that if you steal from the King of Thieves, you’d better kill him too. But of course the defeat of reader’s expectations is always Stark’s most ardent aspiration. How to work within a set formula without ever letting it fully set? There’s always something fluid about the series, the way it keeps reinventing itself. Parker has to get away to steal again. The rest is negotiable.

  3. (Minor spoiler for Dirty Money) Well, Mackey makes a brief appearance on the phone in Dirty Money, locating an ID forger for Parker. It’s not much, but it’s nice to know he and Brenda escaped the events of Breakout unscathed.
    (End spoiler)

    (Minor spoiler for Firebreak) Yes, there are many parallels between this one and Firebreak, including the objects up for grabs in the final heist. I’ll have more to say about the parallels down the line, 41 books (or so) from now.
    (End spoiler)

    • I had quite forgotten that–no doubt much of that not entirely satisfying not entirely intentional and far from conclusive conclusion to the saga has eluded my memory for now. But that’s all we heard about Brenda and Eddie, Stark told us no more than he told us already, and here we are wavin’ Brenda and Eddie goodbye. Whoah-oh. Whoah-oh. Whoah-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh.

      I guess it all depends upon your appetite. 😉

  4. Ray Garraty

    Deadly Edge was too simple, Slayground was an excercise in a locked room mystery/closed space thriller, Butcher’s Moon is a melodramatic, larger-then-life grand finale, and this one is almost perfect (not so good as those Pocket PBOs, though).
    I like it because it’s closer to realism. Is our life one single, harmonic plot/event? No, it’s more like a long series of a short episodes. PS is like a slice of life of a heister. For one successful heist there are dozen aborted ones. You can’t always heist successfully year after year. Something always gets into the way. And I like when Parker is down on his luck. I like when he’s getting frustrated.
    For me this novel is more alive and explores the life of a criminal more deeply. You need money, you need work, you accept suspectful offers, you work not with those you choose but with those you’re stuck with.
    When a story has an ending which seemingly leads to nothing (like in life), it’s called a break of the plot (Russian formalists are originators of this term). Chekhov was famous for this method and employed it in his short stories. So here we have a series of interlinked stories with a break of the plot.

    What I found strange is that Parker demanding for him larger cut of the whole purse. What’s that in him? Pride? He’s finally acceped himself as a genius heister? It’s not typical of him.

    • As to the last point, that’s a negotiating strategy–Parker isn’t trying to get a larger cut for himself–we see him tell Mackey exactly how much more money he wangled out of Griffith. It’ll be equal shares, but having Griffith think he was willing to bow out of this one if he didn’t get enough was his way of getting the guy off balance.

      I’m more bothered by Noelle not getting her own cut–she’s just sharing in Tommy’s–but she’ll be back in a later book, where she’s treated as an equal member of the string–these things take time. Seems like there’s a glass ceiling in every profession.

      Simplicity is what I love about Stark–deceptive simplicity–I think if all the books were like this, they wouldn’t have been nearly as popular or enduring. As a variation, I’ll buy it, but I’m glad it’s the only one that uses this format–though really, it’s the same old four part format, with part 3 giving us multiple perspectives, and the others are through Parker’s eyes. But to have all the books with this disconnected feeling–no, wouldn’t work.

      All fiction is contrived. It’s an artifice. The question is not how real it is, but how real it feels to the reader. To say it’s more realistic is to beg the question–how can a truly realistic series have Parker keep getting away when he’s taking once chance after another (like deliberately stepping into a trap so he can kill the guy setting it)? And would an experienced heister who has never taken a fall (for heisting, anyway) have so many failed jobs in so short a period of time, and yet remain alive and free? I don’t look to Stark for realism, because he’s a romantic.

      Yes, I agree it’s a nice change-up that we see Parker fail, but we’ve seen that before. And to me, The Sour Lemon Score is a better book. That in many respects served as the model for this book. My favorite part of Plunder Squad is Parker’s hunt for Uhl. For me, it sags a little bit after that goal is reached. But I kind of appreciate the perversity of it–to put the real climax of the book in the middle of the book–any other writer would have had Parker do the heist, then kill his nemesis. Well, maybe not Rabe. But Rabe didn’t write this kind of story nearly so well.

      I wouldn’t say any of the books other than Slayground (the most singular of all the novels, I’d say) are just one story–there are always other things going on besides the heist. Deadly Edge starts off with a heist, then moves to Parker and Claire working out their new domestic arrangement, then Parker goes off to find out what’s happening to the other string members (running into the Italian Mafia for the first time in the process), then we see Claire struggling to survive the attentions of those two psychos until he gets back, then he gets back and deals with the two psychos.

      That’s not simple–it just feels simple, because it’s a better-constructed book, where the pieces are all engineered to fit together smoothly into a harmonious whole. Plunder Squad is more discordant, more out-of-whack–perhaps that’s intentional, perhaps not. I couldn’t say. I appreciate it for what it is, but to me it doesn’t represent Richard Stark at his best–it does represent a fine prelude to Butcher’s Moon. And I think you’ve said you’re content to be in the minority, which is good, because when it comes to this book vs. the next one, you always will be. 😉

      • Ray Garraty

        It was a one off – to show that jobs get aborted all the time. If every Parker books was constructed like this one, we’d get frustrated not less than Parker.
        In paperbacks Parker usually dealt with a few matters, in hardcovers Parker focuses on one matter at a time. In DE it’s the junkies, in BM it’s Mafia, in SG it’s the whole park thing. It’s as if plots became one-dimensional (though they’re not). Only this one breaks this pattern. Maybe that’s why I like it.

        • That’s an interesting point. I think it’s mainly because Westlake isn’t writing the books so close together anymore–the first four Parkers are very serialized, and have multiple storylines, some of which get resolved in a later book–that’s because there’s one coming out every few months, and he’s trying to hook people into reading all of them. Starting with The Score, you see less of that, because he’s just doing one book every year or so, devoting more time to books written under his own name, or Coe’s. The Jugger is also very self-contained, though like this book we’re discussing now, it triggers events in later books.

          I’d say the Random House hardcovers have the same element of carry-over–the subplot about Parker and Claire moving to New Jersey, the money Parker had to leave behind at Fun Island, and Parker’s growing financial concerns. There are multiple storylines in Deadly Edge–there’s the heist itself, Parker’s run-in with the mob, them moving to New Jersey, etc. Slayground is unusually focused–as I pointed out, it’s a novel-length variation on a famous short story–but still refers to events from earlier books.

          The difference is that this is less structured than the other novels–it feels more like a preface to Butcher’s Moon, which perhaps it’s intended to be. Part of the reason for Parker’s repeated failures in this book is to explain why in the next one he simply will not give up, or back down, no matter what happens. He’s been pushed too far, and he’s ready to push back.

          • Ray Garraty

            I never viewed RH novels as a series, approaching them as separate novels. If we accept your theory, which as I now see has plenty of ground, then Stark really made, probably intentionally, a full circle. He started with a serial of three books, and ended it with three other serial books. It allows us to assume that Westlake intentionally made BM the final novel – at least final for some time. He’d let Stark time to regroup and gather strenghth for future heists. But then, during this period, a lot of things happened (including things in the head of the author himself), and it’s possible the Stark voice just didn’t come after all.

            • They are all simultaneously separate novels and parts of one great super-novel. You don’t have to read them all in order (and I didn’t), but I think BrooklynVegetarian is onto something there–to read all of them, chronologically, back to back–that would give you the full effect. That may be one reason Westlake would say no film adaptation could use Parker’s name unless the producers agree to adapt all the books (which got less likely with each new book he published).

              But anyway, this matter of authorial intent is something we’ll have to discuss in depth when I get to that book. It’s a really tough question to answer–Westlake never admitted he’d intended Butcher’s Moon to be the finale to the series. I don’t think he was lying when he said he tried several times to write more, and couldn’t get the voice right. But that’s a separate question–he could have changed his mind. Did he write this book thinking “Now I bring it all to an end”?

              It may well be that even he couldn’t answer that question. I think pretty much any writer is figuring these things out as he/she goes. I know I do, and I’m just a blogger. 😉

              • Ray Garraty

                PS ended up sandwiched between two novels with a greater scale, one grandiose and another one of almost perfect structure. Between them it look underdeveloped, unperfect, unbalanced. And while grandiose things attract as always more people, someone got to give love to the underdog.

  5. I’m about 3/4 of the way through the book (as part of my annual re-read of the entire series). It almost seems that the frustrating stuff at the beginning, with the failed jobs, are necessary to explain why Parker would take this job in the first place. It’s not cash, and we know Parker prefers to grab cash, and Griffith is an amateur who’s never done something like this before. Normally Parker would walk away, but more so than the money I think he needs to WORK. The two jobs that fell through have him in the mindset. I don’t think he recognizes this in himself, and he ends up in a bad situation.

    • That’s a recurring theme in the series–Parker justifying his working a risky job that’s just bound to turn sour because of his need to work.

      Here, it’s a bit less clear–that’s probably part of it, but we’re told his resources are getting stretched a bit thin. He’s going to have to start digging up money he’s cached for emergencies, and he really hates doing that (personally, that sounds like fun to me–like a treasure hunt–remuneration excavations–but whatever).

      I think he needs not only to work, but to score–to get the money and hang onto it–otherwise the work is not satisfying to him. It’s a big part of what keeps him going. We were told he worked about once a year when he was with Lynn, but since the events of the first book, it seems like he has a harder time sticking to that. Claire stabilized him to some extent, but she’s also a drain on his finances, since part of their arrangement is that he shows her the good life. He enjoys that. It’s part of the pattern he’s remade for himself with her.

      Just as Parker needs to finish a job for his libido to really ramp up (though it’s less of a problem than it was before), Claire needs lose a lot of money at the roulette wheel to achieve her full sexual potential. They both have a certain life they want to live, and their means of living it is the money Parker takes from institutions, and man it sounds really fucked up when you just spell it out like that. You read these books enough, you kind of lose track of that, don’t you? :\

      What we have to remember, as the series moves into the 70’s, is that Westlake is not writing period pieces–every Parker novel takes place just around the time it first appeared, and that means that it gets harder and harder to justify his finding a lot of cash in one place that isn’t too heavily guarded to take. People are not getting paid in cash anymore. Banks are more secure. Armored cars have wireless phones in them they can use to call in the law, as we saw in Slayground. He made peace with The Outfit, so he can’t hit their various illicit operations–he won’t rob other people ‘on the bend’ unless they provoke him in some way. Parker is going through a period in American history where cash is no longer king.

      Parker can’t adapt to the new world so easily–to him, as you say, cash is the only thing that’s real. But if you can’t find cash, you have to steal something you can trade for cash. He has to take something that exists in three dimensions, because for him, nothing else exists. As I’ve said elsewhere, cybercrime would be meaningless to him. But that’s one of the paradoxes of the book–he’s looking at the art, and it means nothing to him. He’s trying to make sense of a world that to him is entirely senseless. Small wonder he does so poorly in it.

      We don’t have to agree with him about this–Stark, I think we can see from The Mourner, does not–we might say the art is ‘priceless’–even though auction houses routinely set prices. But to Parker, it’s just a means to get money, so he can get back to his life, and to Claire, and to a long uninterrupted period of intense screwing. How did e.e. cummings put it?

      “mr youse needn’t be so spry
      concernin questions arty

      each has his tastes but as for i
      i likes a certain party

      gimme the he-man’s solid bliss
      for youse ideas i’ll match youse

      a pretty girl who naked is
      is worth a million statues”

      Something to be said for that.

      😉

      • Um–wait a minute here–in my typical haste to over-respond to anything anybody posts here, I think I may have buried the lead.

        You read every single Parker novel once a year?

        I somehow feel the need to prostrate myself before you. At the bare minimum, genuflect. 😮

        • I’ve only been doing this for a couple of years now. But yeah. Most of them read pretty fast at this point.

          Good point re: Claire and the money. After they compromise on $12k a person, Parker reflects that, “He and Claire would use up Renard’s twelve thousand and more during their two months away from the house.” $12k in 2 months? What are they spending all of that money on, especially in 1970-whatever?

          • That’s nothing–between The Outfit and The Score, a mere matter of months, he apparently manages to spend close to a hundred grand, without even a steady girlfriend (Bett had her own money, and they were only together a few weeks)–after all the loot he’s stolen in the previous four books, he’s ‘only’ got 17k left–which is more than a lot of people’s annual take-home pay TODAY–back then it was a very princely sum indeed.

            He’s probably got some of it cached away, and he treats it as emergency funds you don’t touch unless there’s absolutely no choice–you can rationalize it that way, if you like. I think some of this is just crime fiction largesse, but the fact is, money doesn’t stick to Parker, any more than it does to Dortmunder. They get it, they lose it, they go out for more.

            And you might argue, that’s the Catholic in Westlake, percolating into Parker, via Stark–money exists to be spent. You don’t cling to it and make it grow, like some Max Weber Calvinist, to prove your justification in the sight of God. God likes you just as much if you’re poor, maybe better–not that Parker gives a damn either way.

            The problem with this is that in the early books, we’re told Parker makes his money work for him, invests it, even uses tax dodges–Westlake seems to have eventually decided this was too–human. He kept paring away at Parker’s human side. He’s more of a wolf with each book.

            If it’s only two years you’ve been doing this, I shall amend my genuflection to a hearty handshake, and perhaps a slight bow at the waist. 😉

            • I think this is my 3rd re-read (I read through them a couple of times when I was younger), so I will accept your handshake. It does make me wonder — Parker mentions he doesn’t want to start digging up his reserves, but how much does he have out there? He scoffs at the idea that Joe Sheer had $100k+ out there, but maybe Parker does. There’s something comforting about knowing that you have the money there, even if you never use it. But maybe (as you say) that’s too human for Parker.

              • Well, Joe’s situation was different, him being retired–something Parker will never do, as I made clear when I reviewed The Jugger. Joe could afford (or so he thought) to have all his money out in the open. Joe’s got over 100k, but it’s in retirement accounts, bonds, etc.

                Westlake wants to keep it vague, how much money Parker has squirreled away in various hidey-holes–and we know he forgets about some of his caches–like he forgot Madge took those jewels he and Handy got from Bronson’s house in The Outfit, sold them and held the money for them both–Handy forgot too. The point isn’t how much money he has, but how little money, in itself, means to him. He likes to get it, and he likes to spend it, and the rest is just details. He never writes anything down. He’ll remember when he needs to remember.

                I think maybe The Jugger was partly a way of rebooting the character–after that, we never hear about him doing taxes, investing, having gas stations and such to explain his income. His pattern changed again, and he never went back to the old one. He can still use banks if it’s useful to him, like in Flashfire, to create a cover identity, but it feels like something he’s put on, very self-consciously, and it doesn’t fool anybody who takes a closer look.

                The books were never an exercise in realism, and are full of inconsistencies, some of them probably intentional–so why do they feel so vivid and tangible that you can read them over and over again?

                Perhaps this would be a time to mention that in his introduction to our next book, Westlake mentions the Navajo weavers who are capable of making blankets with absolutely flawless intricate patterns, but always make an intentional mistake, so as not to anger the gods.

                He says he’s not aware of any intentional mistakes in that book–he doesn’t say he never made any intentional mistakes elsewhere. I’ve seen quite a few mistakes in his fiction that you’d think he’d have noticed at the time. And he was quite capable of producing something very near perfection in his story-weaving, when he put his mind to it. So–?

  6. “The point isn’t how much money he has, but how little money, in itself, means to him.” I think you hit the nail on the head here. Even if Parker had managed to pull off a flawless heist that netted him $10 million, I feel like he’d probably take about 6 months off before he decided he needed to work again.

    • Stark would never let Parker be exposed as so impractical–that’s why he actually heists so much less money than Dortmunder, book for book, even though Dortmunder fails to score much more often. Dortmunder makes a huge score a few books from now, and then he just throws it away at the track.

      And really, this is Westlake’s own pattern, magnified–he must have made millions in his career. And he seems to have spent it as fast as he made it. Wives, kids, travel, houses in the country. If he ever had made a really huge score, some massive bestseller that got turned into a hit movie franchise (I’ve talked about this previously, I think), it would have cut into his motivation to keep writing, ceaselessly–which was what got him out of bed in the morning, gave his life structure and meaning. So what would he have done? I bet he’d have found some way to get rid of the cash.

      Money is to be spent. Life is to be lived. Retirement is to be avoided. Sure–easy for him to say. 😉

  7. Not responding to anybody here, but just pointing out–Parker and his compatriots may have been going about that art heist all wrong. You don’t need to hit the armored car when the art is on tour. You can just take the art right out of the museum. Real heisters do it all the time, taking art far more famous and valuable than the modern crap Parker & Co were grabbing in Plunder Squad. One particularly famous (and still unsolved) case just developed a new wrinkle.

    http://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/gardner-museum-art-heist-video

    If that’s Parker, I’m really disappointed.

    😉

  8. Ron

    I always love discussions of casting choices (since it’s unlikely any films will be made of all these books, and it wouldn’t match the way we imagine them when reading, anyway). For me, Parker is always Lee Marvin, though a bit younger than he was in “Point Blank.” Some of my other casting choices: Gene Hackman and Gillian Anderson as Ed and Brenda, Harry Dean Stanton as Handy McKay, Alec Baldwin as Grofield, Bela Lugosi as Menlo (in “The Mourner”), Mitchell Ryan as Karns, Lawrence Tierney as the old mob guy in “Slayground” who has it in for Parker, Simon Baker as Stan Devers … and Maud Adams as Claire, of course.

    • A Sophie’s Choice-era Kevin Kline is my Grofield, and a Maltese Falcon-era Sydney Greenstreet is my Menlo (or is that too on the nose?).

      • He could have done it, but my choice from that era would be Walter Slezak. Greenstreet always sounds English, no matter what nationality he’s playing.

        If they did The Mourner today, I’d still be rooting for John Hodgman as Menlo. He could just fake the accent. It’s a fake country, anyway.

      • Parker: Jonathan Banks
        Claire: Dina Merrill (pure class, all the way)
        Kevin Kline is perfect for Grofield. Ryan Reynolds could be good too.
        Kyle Chandler for Ed. The right kind of beefy good looks.
        Brenda: Laura San Giacomo. Smart, sexy, and earthy.

    • I always used to hear Marvin’s voice when reading Parker’s dialogue. I don’t see him when reading the books these days, but I still think he’s theo only actor who came close to understanding the deep silences of the character.

      I don’t think I would have necessarily appreciated seeing Gene Hackman screwing Gillian Anderson, while she mumbled Chinese-sounding things into her pillow. Could we possibly substitute James Gandolfini?

      Bela as Menlo? There’s a certain ethnic appropriateness to it, but you know he’d have turned the role down, right? “I am not some fat little bureaucrat!” Anyway, he was very tall. You’d need to cast a giant as Parker to make that work. Also a time machine, to make that cast work, but I’m equally guilty in this regard. 🙂

      • If not Bela, how about your wife’s chiropractor?

      • Ron

        Interesting — I always thought Lugosi was much shorter, but maybe that’s from the comparisons to Christopher Lee. In any event, “The Mourner” certainly would have been a better end to Bela’s career than, say, “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”

        • His last role was actually as a deaf-mute in the 1955 release, The Black Sleep, but he wasn’t playing the lead. I’ve read a whole biography of him, and I know there is a feeling among many that Ed Wood was taking advantage of Lugosi (the Tim Burton film casts their relationship in a much more positive albeit pathetic light). I have no idea where the truth lies in that, but I really really enjoy Plan 9. Obviously Bride of the Monster features a much better performance from Mr. Lugosi. Well, pretty much any performance is going to be better than just standing in front of your house in long shot, isn’t it?

          In my opinion, the films he did with Wood were entirely consistent with what Hollywood had always chosen to do with him–just on a much lower budget, with scripts so dumbed down, it ended up being satire, intentional or not. I’m not sure Wood knew the difference. In his mind, he was making great movies. Well, until he was doing vampire porn, anyway.

          All that being said, Lugosi’s memorabilia now outsells Boris Karloff’s by a wide margin. Poor Boris. What were we talking about?

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