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.
Free Portraits. Parker: Gone With the Lead. Hard 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.
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–
(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?
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.