Monthly Archives: September 2015

Review: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, Part 2

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The dinner party itself was a bit unreal.  Alice Dombey, wife of a convicted professional forger, produced an incredibly complex and tasty dinner (Gourmet was one of the magazines she subscribed to) for eight AWOL cons who sat around making polite conversation with one another.  Alice beamed genteelly at everybody, used her knife and fork as though it was an intricate skill she’d learned from a correspondence course, and actually extended her pinky when lifting her coffee cup.

At the other end of the scale, and the table, there was Billy Glinn, absentmindedly snapping chicken bones and crunching through his food as though he’d wind up by eating the plates.  Jerry Bogentrodder became silly and giddy in Marian’s presence, coming on with her in the style of a collegian who has drunk too much at his first beer party.  Max also came on with her, though both more subtly and more seriously; I was beginning to feel a bit ambivalent about that fellow.

As to the others, Phil and Joe spent most of the evening talking shop with one another: guns, alarms, lawyers, stolen goods.  And Eddie Troyn kept popping in and out of his Captain Robinson persona–never in quite far enough to call me Lieutenant, but in enough for me to recognize the genial authoritarian style.  And Bob Dombey, our host, was so clearly madly in love with his wife and his home, so patently proud of both, that the great warmth of his feeling filled the room with a kind of amber Dickensian glow.

Afterwards, Marian and I rode to her place in her Volkswagen, and she said “I keep thinking it has to be a put-on. I know you’re a practical joker, and this is a whole elaborate rib.  No way on Earth those people are crooks.”

“Oh, they’re crooks, all right,” I said.  I hadn’t mentioned the bank robbery, or the stings by which the others supported themselves, and though I was tempted now I once more refrained.  Even with Marian, I didn’t feel that trust could be one hundred per cent.

I am a straightforward man, with no crime on my conscience,
But I was accused of being a spy for China.
So life, you see, is never a very smooth business,
And now the present bristles with difficulties.

Ho Chi Minh, Prison Diary

It is good to remember that this is a book written by a man who had just recently fallen madly in love–again.  The dedication in the first edition reads “for Abby–the jentle jailer.” I’m tempted to say he was love[sic], but the intended misspelling was corrected for my Ballantine paperback reprint, and probably many other editions I have not seen.

So perhaps not so coincidentally, there is a sort of amber Dickensian glow about the whole enterprise, which Westlake tries to correct for a bit (as always in the Nephew books, if there’s no real danger, there’s no real laughs), by making it very clear these guys our hero is working with mainly have pretty violent pasts.  But since this is a comic caper, we don’t see them be violent, we merely hear about various acts of physical mayhem they have previously perpetrated.

You get a hint of the soon-to-debut Tiny Bulcher in Jerry Bogentrodder and even more in the monstrous Billy Glinn (who likes to tell blood-curdling stories about the unhappy fates of people who annoyed him in some way)–maybe Westlake made Tiny by combining the two into one fine Fomorian felon.  Waste not, want not.

Phil Giffin, by contrast, is very much like Dortmunder, as we first met him coming out of prison in The Hot Rock–not the demoralized sad sack we saw later, but a tough as nails planner.  In many ways, Phil is the the most formidable member of the gang, but repeatedly frustrated by what seems like bad luck.   Even though he was the first to befriend Harry, Harry senses that Phil would likewise be the first to do Harry seriously bodily harm if he thought his new recruit was not strictly on the up and up.

But in many ways, the funniest and most frightening hard case in this gang is Eddie Troyn.   He’s the other identity puzzle of the book (the first being Harry, of course).  Eddie has such a large role in the middle of the book, that he even got his own cover, in the first Italian edition–

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Among the most misleading cover art Westlake ever got, but that is actually a scene from the book–maybe war novels were really big in Italia that year?   The next Italian cover (different imprint, same publisher, same title) was more pacific by far.

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Eddie’s shadowy military background makes him the ideal person to go into the nearby army base, Camp Quattatunk, and liberate the implausibly portable and powerful laser the gang somehow knows they have stored there.  He needs a second man, and Harry is elected, because he’s the only one who fits the other uniform they stole.  A stroke of ill fortune for him, but fortunate for us, this being a first-person narrative.

They enter the base on a bus that runs between the town and the base, using cheaply made fake military ID’s that the guards barely glance at–hearkening back to the lax security in The Green Eagle Score, and one assumes to Westlake’s own experience on real Air Force bases in the Mid-50’s.   Harry is playing a lieutenant, and Eddie is ‘Captain Robinson’, because, as he informs Eddie, there’s invariably a Captain Robinson at every military base in America.

Once inside the base, an increasingly disconcerted Harry begins to notice changes in Eddie’s behavior–he’s not playing Captain Robinson, he is Captain Robinson.  Merely putting on the uniform has triggered an identity switch.  He jokes with the younger men at the Officer’s Club, spinning various colorful military yarns, as if he’s been doing this all his life, which for all we know he was before he got sentenced to Stonevelt.

When Harry speaks to him in private, and forgets to address him according to his proper military rank, or at least ‘sir’, Eddie acts like he’s ready to clap Harry in the stockade if he doesn’t shape up.  Or possibly just shoot him.  Technically, if he tried to have Harry court-martialed, they’d both end up in the stockade.

The pretext for the visit is that ‘Captain Robinson’ is conducting an inspection, particularly of the quonset huts where military supplies are kept.   He’s been in and out of the base for a week now, has made lots of strategically placed friends, and he knows where everything is stored.   Various poison gases, plague germs, guns, all manner of ordinance, and of course the laser.  Which believe it or not, is in a 15×6″ box, plainly marked ‘Laser.’  Well, nobody’s asking you to believe it, lighten up.  Maybe the military found it at the Roswell crash site, and figured they’d store it in upstate New York, along with the Ark of the Covenant, and other assorted MacGuffins.

So they take a carton filled with one amazingly small laser, some extra guns, and a few hand grenades (‘useful materials’, Eddie calls them), and of course the sentry in front of the building wants to see a proper signed order for them to take this stuff, at which point Eddie pulls a gun on him, they tie him up, and let’s just say I hope security wasn’t this lax on our real bases back then, but I have this unpleasant feeling Westlake wasn’t entirely kidding.  It’s probably better now…..

They walk over to a closed and unattended gate, where some members of the gang equipped with wire cutters are supposed to meet them.  Only the gang is late.   Harry is all for dumping the swag, and catching the last bus out of Dodge, but Eddie–I’m sorry, Captain Robinson, sir!–tells him they will not abort the mission.  His exact words.  He says they’ll have to improvise.  By which he means using a hand grenade to blow a huge hole in the fence.   Wow, they really are useful materials.

Of course the explosion is noticed, and uniformed men come roaring up in a jeep–Captain Robinson (there’s no point putting in the quote marks anymore) tells them that armed radicals, probably Weathermen, have attacked the base, disabled a sentry, and quite possibly planted a bomb that could blow them all sky high.  He’s particularly upset about the sentry.  “If they’ve killed that man–” he says, emotion choking his manly voice.

The Captain somehow regains control of himself, and says he and the Lieutenant will have to commandeer the jeep to pursue the villains, while the other men go check on the sentry and look for the bomb.   He being the ranking officer present, they don’t argue.  And he and Harry drive right through the hole in the fence.

They meet the gang further on down the road–there was a snafu at the prison–an unexpected shakedown.   Harry recounts Eddie’s genius (he’s back to normal, or what passes for normal with Eddie), and Phil wants to know what they used to blow the hole in the gate.   When he finds out what, he turns a bit pale, and says Eddie should get rid of the hand grenades immediately.  At which point Eddie pulls the pin out of one and throws it to one side of the road they’re driving over.   He didn’t want a child to find it and injure himself, you see.

If they’d done a movie shortly after this book came out, do you think they could have gotten Henry Fonda to play Eddie?   He doesn’t match the physical description, but it would have been so cool.

So with all the necessary materials procured, the gang is ready to rob the banks–two of them, disguised as typewriter repairmen, will gain access to the modern bank on one side of the street just after it closes, and the gang will take control of it–then they’ll use the laser to drill through the wall of its vault to get to the other bank’s vault right next to it.   Piece o’ cake.   And Harry is desperately trying to find some way to make the cake inedible.

And it finally hits him–he can do what he knows how to do best.   He sneaks in before the heist, and plants improvised delayed-action stink bombs in the waste baskets.  By the time the job’s ready to start, the bank is in chaos, and the mission is scrubbed.  The other gang members are furious when they learn what happened, and in Harry’s presence, start talking about their own experiences with practical jokers, some of them surprisingly recent, and the general sentiment of the group is that no punishment could possibly be too severe.   Harry just tries to blend in.  It’ll be a miracle if he doesn’t have ulcers before this is over.

This brings us to Chapter 25 in this 49 chapter book, and with not much more than a hundred pages left, we still have to try to rob the bank several more times, solve the mystery of the repeated “Help I Am Being Held Prisoner” message gags that Harry is not pulling (but keeps getting the blame for anyway), and meet the delightful Marian James, who is The Girl in this book.  And about time, too.

Of the ten versions of The Girl we meet in the ten Nephew books, I’d put her squarely in the top three, alongside that bohemian raven-tressed reckless driver, Chloe Shapiro, from The Fugitive Pigeon, and that blonde busty put-down artist, Gertie Divine, The Body Secular, from God Save the Mark.  Never the same Girl twice.  One of the more diverting aspects of these books.

Harry meets her at a party he goes to with Max, held at the house of a local divorcee Max is hooking up with.  She’s a history teacher, blonde, amply-proportioned, elfin-faced, and full of laughter, much of it directed at Harry, who she takes an instant liking to. Harry likes her just as much, but is too afraid of saying the wrong thing to say any of the right things, and he’s well on the way to screwing up his chances with her.

Only one of the prison guards, Fred Stoon, turns out to be at the party, so Harry has to suddenly grab and kiss Marian, so as not to be recognized–an old gag, but it works for the purposes of fast-tracking their romance, as does Harry spilling out his heart to her at her apartment, explaining about his practical jokes, the name thing, the prison sentence, the tunnel, and everything (except the bank robbery).

She’s a smart, good-hearted, humorous girl, with a fine sense of the absurd, and they’re both quite drunk by this point, and they wake up next morning in bed, and now Harry has a girlfriend.  Who he has to leave post-haste, because it’s almost dawn.  It’s times like these I devoutly wish life were like a Westlake Nephew book.  Perhaps it is for some.

She sat up and switched on the bedside lamp.  Squinting at me, she said, “I’ve known some weird guys, Harry, but you’re the winner.  I’ve had them wake up and say, ‘I’ve got to get back to my wife,’ ‘I’ve got to catch a plane,’ ‘I’ve got to go to Mass.’  But I never in my life heard anybody say they had to go back to prison.

Given that Marian’s role in the book is not that big, she’s probably too big a star now (fame-wise, I mean) to be cast in the movie version that will never happen, but–

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I’m just saying.

Amazingly, Harry’s already been set-up with two other women since he joined the tunnel gang (I mentioned this book is very plot-heavy), and it was hopeless both times.  And he just meets this girl at a party he got dragged to, and they click.  So he finds true love and gets laid (repeatedly), well before the book is over–previously, the only nephew to achieve this before the book ended was Eugene Raxford of The Spy in the Ointment, and he and Angela Ten Eyck were an item before the book started. Westlake messing around with the formula again.

But the course of true love never did run smooth, particularly when one of the lovers is serving five to fifteen in the joint.  Harry gets called back in to see Warden Gadmore, only this time the meeting is on the roof of the prison, where somebody has etched “Help I Am Being Held Prisoner” in the new-fallen snow.  Guess who the Warden thinks did it?  You’d think the same thing in his place, admit it.

But see, Harry thought that Fred Stoon had recognized him at the party, and realizing that instead he’s once more being accused of something he didn’t do, he makes a little too free, asks the Warden (who is forgetting the umlaut in his name) how he’d like it if Harry called him Warden Gadabout, and that does not go over well.   It’s a prison.  He’s a convict. There’s no presumption of innocence unless the authorities feel like presuming it.  Harry gets clapped into solitary confinement for a few days, and has to see a prison shrink.

The warden then relents, and let’s him out, but takes him off gymnasium duty for two weeks, which is the only way Harry can access the  tunnel.  He’s also being given a new cellmate, Andy Butler, the elderly prison gardener, a very long-term resident who looks and behaves like Santa Claus in a prison uniform, and in fact he plays Santa in the prison’s Christmas Pageant every year.  Like Harry’s previous cellmate, Andy’s soon going to get the old heave-ho into the outside world, having spent most of his life behind bars, and having no way to support himself once he’s out there–all his friends are dead, or in prison with him.  Compassionate release, they call it.

Now not for the first time or the last, I note a sly little dig at a more famous writer.   Alice Dombey, wife of Bob, wants to make Harry’s lonesome Christmas a little more bearable.

Then Bob Dombey came around in the afternoon with two Christmas presents for me.  His wife, Alice, the reader, whom I had not as yet met, was making Christmas dinner for the boys, which of course I wasn’t going to be able to attend, so Bob had smuggled in a piece of fruitcake for me.  That made me feel both better and worse.  Bob also had a present for me from Alice, and it turned out to be a copy of Mailer’s Armies of the Night.  Holy Christ, the woman really was a reader!

So I spent a part of the day immersed in a writing style that combines the torturousness of Henry James with the colloquialness of Rocky Graziano, until Max showed up with a message and a present, both from Marian.  The message was that she’d be waiting for me when I got out of prison, which I suppose ws a pretty funny line under the circumstances, and the present was another book; The Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh.  That was very funny under the circumstances, and more fun to read than the other.  But too short.

So Harry misses the next bank shot, which manages to get fouled up without his help.  But that just means he’s got to participate in the next attempt, and the attempt after that, and so on.  The same plan, over and over, until it works.  Phil simply will not give up on his vision of robbing two banks in one night.  So Harry will have to reach down deep into his practical joker’s bag of tricks to keep it from happening.  Over and over and over.  At one point, Phil says “Sometimes, I think God doesn’t want us to rob that fucking bank.”  Oh he does, Phil.  He really does.  But not before he’s ready.  You’ll have to earn it, like Dortmunder did.

And there’s yet another “Help I Am Being Held Prisoner” message.  Harry’s on double secret probation now (oooh, John Vernon as Warden Gadmore, perfection, except he’s dead now–details, details).  If there’s just one more incident, Harry’s going to lose all privileges, including that most enviable privilege of bedding down with Marian James when he’s supposed to be paying his debt to society.

Then again, he’d get out of having to do the bank robbery, but if the tunnel gang finds out why he’s the prime suspect in the practical jokes, they’ll put two and two together–it’ll come out “Kill Harry Kunt,” and they won’t even remember the umlaut.  Maybe they’ll bury him with it.

Finally, Harry’s tricks run out, along with his luck, and the bank robbery happens.   And it turns out to be a bit of a dud.  They get the money from Fiduciary Federal (the modern bank), but not Western National (the imposing structure with the pillars).  The laser melts the layer of steel separating the two underground vaults, but there’s also a lot of reinforced concrete, and lasers aren’t so good with that.  It’s a valiant little implausible military laser, and it does its best, but too much has been asked of it.  Eddie darkly mutters that if he’d been allowed to keep those hand grenades…..

Would you believe at one point while they’re working on the vault wall, the bank staff (who have phoned their loved ones to say they’re working late on an audit) ask if they can get take-out food from a local restaurant?   And not just any restaurant, make sure it’s from Durkey’s because that luncheonette across the street is terrible.  Well, if you’ve read any Dortmunder novels, you probably would believe that, yeah.

So they get about nine thousand apiece, which is enough for Phil to at least feel like he’s beaten the jinx.   They can retire with dignity from the field of plunder, but there’s a general feeling amongst the gang that while crime may pay, it doesn’t pay nearly well enough to justify all that hard work, and there must be a less frustrating way to make a living.  The fact is, they’ve set up their own unauthorized halfway house, and by admittedly very gradual degrees, it’s reforming them.

So Harry has gotten past the one thing he was most afraid of–he performed well under pressure, even though he tells us that inside his head he was going “EEEEEE!!!” the entire time, and in a much larger font too.

So now he just has to make sure he stays on gym duty, and he can wait out the next few years, dating Marian to his heart’s content (among various other bodily organs–hey, what happens if she gets knocked up while he’s locked up?  oh never mind.), and then settle down with her.  You all know it’s not going to be that easy, right?

There’s another “Help I Am Being Held Prisoner”, and this one’s a real doozy–it’s on the paper used to wrap the communion hosts.  The prison Chaplain, Father Flynn, found it.   Father Flynn is not a forgiving man.  No, he does not care to be told that attitude is inconsistent with his beliefs.  Warden Gadmore, his patience wearing thin, removes Harry’s privileges once more, and now Harry comes to a stark realization, and yes the pun is intentional.

The month between Wednesday, April 27 and Friday, May 27 was the most horrible month in my life.  In the first place, I was in prison.

Well, I hadn’t been before.   I’d been a visitor, a roomer, hardly a prisoner.   But starting the twenty-seventh of April, I was a prisoner, and no mistake.

What does a prisoner do?  He gets up at seven-thirty in the morning and cleans his area.  He eats breakfast.  He exercises for an hour on the yard and spends the rest of the morning in his cell.  He eats lunch.  He exercises an hour on the yard and spends the rest of the afternoon in his cell.  He eats dinner.  He spends the rest of the evening in his cell.  He goes to bed.  Much later, he goes to sleep.

What else does a prisoner do?  Once a week he gets permission to go to the library and get three books.  If he has full privileges  he works at a job somewhere in the prison, but if he only has partial privileges he at least gets to wander around much of the prison area during the day and he gets to see a movie once a week, and he gets to sit down in the library and read a magazine.  But if he has no privileges he sits in his cell and tries to read his three books a week very, very slowly.  No movies, no wandering around, no job, no nothing.

It is all extremely boring.  Boredom is a horrible punishment, just about the grimmest long-term thing you can do to somebody.  Boredom is very boring.  It’s very bad.  I don’t know how to establish this point without becoming boring, and God knows I don’t want to do that.

See, you don’t know what freedom really is until you don’t have it anymore.  Westlake himself knew that full well, having spent a few days in jail after stealing a microscope from a college lab, more or less as a prank.  He had a hard time understanding how people could spend years, decades of their lives in confinement, and not lose themselves.  Many do, of course.  Then we let them out.  Good plan.

Many of us strangely choose to live lives almost as constrained and predictable as those of many real prisoners (with considerably less risk of being raped, or stabbed), but the difference is, we choose those lives.  And we could, if we so willed, choose different ones.  Prison removes the choice from life.  And life without choice, without freedom, isn’t life at all (meaning that one of the most bitterly divisive political controversies of the past four decades is based on a hopeless contradiction in terms, but I’m not dumb enough to get any deeper into that minefield).

And in choosing this moment in this comical yet compassionate work to express that brief moment of inner torment he himself had experienced, Westlake was, knowingly or not, echoing a long chain of protest poetry stretching across the centuries of history his Irish cousins had undergone, and were undergoing even as he wrote this, though the language he used was far from poetic, since his hero is no poet.  Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol.  Brendan (and possibly Dominic) Behan’s The Auld Triangle.  Francie Brolly’s H-Block Song.   And this, of course.   I wonder if he knew that last one?  The album that particular recording made its debut on came out the year before this book.

And yeah, he was probably thinking more about Ho Chi Minh, Mandela, and most of all all those crooks that wrote him letters from prison, and were reading Richard Stark novels like they were how-to manuals.  But it’s all the same thing, down deep.  It’s all the same ancient refrain, keening away in every captive heart, and we need to listen to it more.  Pity the soul that’s not free (that’s from Fraggle Rock, they can’t all be Irish rebel songs).

A month of hell passes, and there are no further messages.   Seemingly proving Harry’s guilt.   He’s summoned back to the Warden’s office, and it’s bad.  Really bad.  His sentence could be lengthened.  There’s some ‘good Catholic boys’ in the prison Father Flynn has incited to go after him in vengeance for his alleged sacrilege.  And the Warden won’t be able to cover up his past history any longer, meaning the tunnel gang will, at the very least, withdraw their protection.  Marian will have to forget about him.

Harry’s life is passing before his eyes, and then he sees something out the window of the Warden’s office–and what passes from his lips then is the oldest cliche in the history of the mystery genre, and the narrative flips back to comedy, but not farce this time–high comedy, I think you’d call it.  And that’s all I’m going to tell you.   I’m playing fair here–the clues are present.  But rather than trying to guess, why not read the book?

This book ought to be in print, even if it’s only in ebook form.  I don’t know why it isn’t; that’s somebody else’s department.  I would certainly rank it among his ten best comic novels that don’t feature Dortmunder & Co.  It’s interesting in that it’s set in a small upstate New York town, much like the ones Westlake grew up in, and he writes with easy familiarity of life there.   And with a certain clear-eyed fondness that makes me think he sometimes wondered what his life would have been like if he’d remained there.  But part of him always did, I guess.

At one point in the book, Marian shows Harry another book, that she thinks contains some of the answers to the riddle of his identity crisis.  The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology by Paul Radin.  It’s a real book; I’ve got a copy of it in front of me.  It’s a classic in its field–a bit dry and academic at points–but Marian, with her gift of laughter, makes it sound downright riveting–and who is The Trickster, anyway?

He was both creator and destroyer, both good and evil, both helpful and harmful, and by the end of the cycle he had outgrown his pranks and gone to work to make the Earth a useful place for mankind.  “The Trickster is the undifferentiated form,” Marian told me, after I’d read the book.  “He doesn’t know who or what he is, or what his purpose is.  He gets into a fight with his arm because he doesn’t realize it’s part of him.  He wanders and gets into trouble because he doesn’t have any goal.  At the end, he matures into self-awareness and finds out he’s supposed to help human beings, that’s why he was sent to earth.  I think maybe you were like that, all practical jokers are like that.  They don’t know who they are yet, it’s a case of arrested development.”

And that’s all well and good, but if you happened to see that especially woebegone manifestation of The Trickster named John Dortmunder, after the events of his next adventure, you’d be most ill-advised to bring it up.  He’d probably punch you right in the nose.  Thing about Tricksters is, they often get tricked.  And the one who tricks him this time could be accused of many things, but arrested development isn’t one of them.

PS: One last run of covers, from around the world (all but one of the covers you see here were snipped from the Official Westlake Blog)–some nice ones for this book.   Its prison theme clearly struck a responsive chord.   Of course it did.

The artist for the Swedish edition, you will note, did his own jesterly take on the original cover art–not sure which I like best:

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Czechoslovakia (it was still called that then) and Denmark.  The Danish artist emphasizes the darker side of the book, the Czech is more satiric, as perhaps he or she had to be at the time, if life were not to imitate art:

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And finally the German cover art, which somehow manages to be even more misleading than the first Italian edition.

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I would have thought for sure they’d change Harry’s last name for that edition.   Well, they remembered the umlaut.  That’s what matters.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

Review: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

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SOMETIMES I THINK I’M good and sometimes I think I’m bad.  I wish I could make up my mind, so I’d know which stance to take.

The first thing Warden Gadmore said to me was “Basically, you’re not a bad person, Kunt.”

“Künt,” I said quickly, pronouncing it the right way, as in koont.  “With an umlaut,” I explained.

“A what?”

“Umlaut.”  I poked two fingers in the air, as though blinding an invisible man.  “Two dots over the U.  It’s a German name.”

He frowned at my records,  “Says here you were born in Rye, New York.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.  Wry, New York.

You will remember my piece of some months back about the much-publicized escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat from Clinton Correctional Facility, more commonly known as Dannemora–a prison (and a town) that Westlake knew something about from his upstate days, and occasionally referenced in his books.  They managed to tunnel their way through the prison infrastructure, crawling through a pipe, and coming up through a manhole cover on the suburban street that faced the prison wall.  They actually did this twice, deciding not to escape the first time they came up–they went back to their cell to wait for a better moment.

It did not work out well for either of them, as was widely reported.   Stories about escaped prisoners rarely have happy endings, at least not for the escaped prisoners.

But suppose, just suppose, they had been living out a different kind of escape fantasy.  Suppose they had managed to somehow conceal their escape route indefinitely, arranged to have money from Matt’s successful sideline as an artist made available to them locally–they already had civilian clothes they were allowed to wear in the prison.

Suppose they had just now and again come out through that manhole, strolled around as free men, gone to local bars, had a few drinks, chatted up local girls, maybe gone home with a few of them (the question of ‘your place or mine?’ could be tabled indefinitely)–and then returned to their cells, nobody the wiser?   Even if they’d been found out eventually, all that would happen would be the loss of privileges (they were already serving life sentences), and they sure wouldn’t have been shot to death by the cops, as Matt was.  Security and freedom–the best of both worlds.   And if they’d committed crimes out there and avoided being captured and/or identified–who’d have ever suspected them?

And think how differently we’d have reacted to that story, if it ever came out.  Can you imagine such a thing?  Donald Westlake could.  With maybe a bit of help from some readers of his (or Richard Stark’s) who were themselves prisoners, and wrote him letters about prison life.  Including one about a prison so networked with tunnels that a truck parked outside the prison wall ended up sinking into the ground as some of those tunnels collapsed under it.

This is the eighth ‘Nephew’ book Westlake published, and in many ways the happiest of the bunch.  He breaks a lot of the rules of his own sub-genre in it, but we’ve seen him do that before–it often seems he created rules for the sole purpose of breaking them.   He managed to find a surprisingly large number of variations on the original theme he established in The Fugitive Pigeon, almost ten years before this book came out, and this is one of the most charming and off-beat variations he ever came up with.  And one of the funniest.

And truth be told, it’s still not as funny as the best Dortmunders.  Westlake was coming to the end of his rope with these books, as he already had with Parker, Grofield, and Tobin.  He had one more first-rate Nephew in him after this, at which point he let the form lapse for a very long time, only to kindasorta revive it at the tail-end of his career (it’s debatable, and we will debate it).  But taken as a whole, they represent a very important component in his overall production.  These peripatetic picaresques paved the way for his more mature comedic writing, and had things to say that he couldn’t have gotten across with Dortmunder.  Anyway, we can talk more about that when we get to the next one, which was published the following year.

Westlake, as we all should know by now, is a devout anti-authoritarian.  Authority figures make him itch.  He can’t see an imperious face without wanting to lob a pie at it (or, in the Parker novels, a bullet).    He’s aware of this prejudice, and tries to allow for it–we need some structure of authority in this world.  We also need to keep putting it in its place.   He felt this was a universal trait in humankind, with one significant caveat, which he mentioned in Dancing Aztecs.

Hispanics have a long tradition of defiance against authority. Come to that, the Irish and Italians and Jews also have a long tradition of defiance against authority. Thinking it over, everybody has a long tradition of defiance against authority. (Except the Germans, of course.)

Of course that’s a grossly unfair exaggeration made for satiric effect, but having been to Germany, I feel I can say with authority (which you should all rebel against!) that it’s not made up out of whole cloth.  And yet, there are German rebels, always have been–Martin Luther comes to mind, Oskar Schindler more recently, but their patron saint would probably be Marlene Dietrich.   A German rebel, by definition, has to be the most determined and resourceful of all, just to survive the consequences of rebellion in a heavily pro-authority environment.  And for whimsical reasons of his own, Westlake chose to make the hero of this book the American son of German immigrant parents.  Though to be sure, that’s partly just for the name.

Harry Künt is an American citizen because his parents fled Germany during the Nazi Era, being appalled by Hitler and the Nazis, and yet not wishing to stay and rebel against authority, particularly not an authority that has death camps and guillotines (you see what I mean about German rebels needing to be a cut above the rest).  Harry’s parents are honest decent people, who raise their one son lovingly and well, but the one thing he most wants, they will not let him have–a name that does not incite general mockery and derision from his fellow Americans.

See, in German, the word ‘cunt’ is spelled ‘fotze’ (two syllables, accent on the first).  If your name happens to sound like fotze, you are probably in for some ribbing in German-speaking lands, unless maybe they don’t go in for puns there.  The fact that Hitler not keeping his birth name of Schickelgruber is considered such a vital element in his rise to power leads me to think that name-based mockery is not unknown in those parts.  But the name Künt presents no difficulties in Teutonic territories.   With or without an umlaut.

Harry’s parents (who, aside from one phone call from Harry to his mother, are not really characters in this book) just can’t understand why he’d want to change his proud old German name, and he doesn’t want to hurt them, so he’s had to put up with the slings and arrows of outrageous classmates and army buddies, and even worse, with girls he’s sweet on, who keep breaking up with him because they don’t quite fancy the sound of ‘Mrs. Kunt,’ or the prospect of perpetually reminding people of the umlaut.

This has had a bit of a warping effect, you might say, on Harry’s otherwise rather decent and likable personality.  Unlike Fred Fitch, in God Save the Mark, always getting fooled by others, Harry has decided to be the one who makes others play the fool.  Because God, as he sees it, played a practical joke on him, he’s spent most of his life compulsively pulling practical jokes on those around him, and has gone largely undetected while doing so, since nobody expects a guy whose name looks like cunt to act like such a dick.  So he keeps getting away with it, until one of his more spectacular stunts rather spectacularly backfires.

One afternoon, Harry parked a car with a naked female mannequin suggestively posed on the hood of a Chevy Impala, on the shoulder of the Long Island Expressway.  The resulting multi-car pile-up led to a number of people being non-critically injured–including three children–but public indignation regarding this is not the only reason Harry ended up with a five-to-fifteen year prison sentence at Stonevelt, an upstate penitentiary near the Canadian border (pretty clearly modeled after Dannemora, an aerial view of which you can see up top).

See, among the victims of his gag were two U.S. congressmen.  Each of whom was accompanied at the time by a young lady to whom he was not married.  Hell hath no fury like a politician burned. Strings were pulled, and Künt was screwed.

But he’s decided to take his incarceration as a positive, not having any choice in the matter.  With good behavior, he can get out in a few years, and he’s hoping he’ll be able to get his pranking disorder under control before then.  And as he leaves Warden Gadmore’s office, he leaves a big wad of gum on the doorknob.   This bodes not well.

A short while later (just to remind us not all pranks are harmless, and not only authority figures get pranked), he hides the lower plate of his elderly cellmate who he likes very much–and then realizes, with great remorse, that the man, having just been released for ‘humanitarian’ reasons, before the prison dentist could complete his upper plate, or Harry could tell him about the gag, now has no plates of any kind.  Out in a cold world, with no family, no job, and no teeth.  Harry really doesn’t know if he’s a good person or not, but he rather suspects not.  He’d like to be, but he hasn’t figured out how.  Join the club, man.

Warden Gadmore doesn’t quite know what to make of Harry, who isn’t really a criminal, but clearly is some kind of social misfit, so he assigns him to making license plates–and then calls him back to the office–seems that somebody snuck a message into one packet of plates–“Help I Am Being Held Prisoner.”  Warden Gadmore warns Harry that this kind of thing had better stop.   Harry tells him he had nothing to do with it, which he didn’t–of course he’s not believed.  But it’s a first offense, so he’s simply reassigned.  To the prison gymnasium.

And it is there that he inadvertently stumbles into the most frightening and exhilarating experience of his life–the prisoners who run the gym, notably one Phil Giffin, are not happy with his presence, and he finds out why when he sees a man in civilian clothes step out of a locker.  The man points a gun at him, and he faints.

He’s locked up in an equipment room, until Phil can explain the situation.  Years ago, a prisoner doing a ‘five and dime’ (five to ten years) had a wife, who had a cousin, who was the contractor building the gym, back when there was money for that kind of thing.  The wife bought a house across from the prison.  The cousin built a tunnel (with carpeting, lighting, and everything) from the gym to the house.  Three of the lockers are actually doors to the tunnel, that can only be opened with a special key.

The guy had no intention of escaping–what’s the point? He’d just wait for some free time, go through the tunnel, have a nice lunch, watch some TV, take his wife to bed, go back to his cell.  It’s a short commute.  Plenty of working stiffs would envy such a life, not to mention such a wife.

Over time, the secret has been shared with a select few prisoners, each of whom has to buy his way into the club, then cash out when he gets released–there’s currently seven of them.  The wiry hard-eyed Phil Giffin, informal leader of the outfit.  The near-albino giant, Jerry Bogentrodder (somehow nobody ever makes jokes about his name).   A monstrous menacing mass of muscle named Billy Glinn.  The knobby-knuckled hard-boiled Joe Maslocki.  Eddie Troyn (the guy who pointed the pistol at Harry), a former military man imprisoned on mysterious charges.  Bob Dombey, with a name and personality borrowed from Dickens, whose wife currently owns the house the tunnel ends up in.  And the counter-cultural Max Nolan, a bit of a playboy in his off-time, regarding whom Harry has this bit of trenchant social commentary to impart to us–

There’s a funny double progression going on in prison these days, as more and more radicals arrive, sentenced for drugs or politics.  The rebels are radicalizing the criminals, which is why there’ve been so many prison riots and strikes recently, but at the same time the crooks are criminalizing the radicals.  A college graduate who enters prison for smoking marijuana or bombing an army recruitment office comes out knowing how to jimmy apartment doors and crack safes.  A few years from now the world in general may be in for an unpleasant surprise.

(Sidebar: This is a very white prison novel.  I mean, there’s not even any Italians in it, though the guy the tunnel was originally built for was named Vasacapa.  There are no African American or Hispanic characters at all, though there is a reference to the civil rights movement.  One assumes there are persons of color in there somewhere, but no reference to them is made.  In the 70’s, this monochromatic mixture is not the least bit realistic, if it ever was, and realism is not what Westlake is going for, obviously.  It’s not like minority advocacy groups would thank him for depicting their people as inveterate prison rats, right?  Race would be a distraction from the story he wants to tell.  And if they made a movie of this today, they would clearly have to go the Orange Is The New Black route [Oz is way too dark], but I really doubt there’s ever going to be a movie.  Though I would go see it.)

Anyway, this elite group within the prison can normally keep outsiders from getting assigned to the gym, but the warden’s unusual interest in Harry caught them off guard.  Arranging for his accidental death would be a hassle (so much red tape, and please don’t ask where the red comes from), so they vote to invite him into their group, and enjoy the benefits of the tunnel.  The ‘or else’ is left implicit.

They have no idea what Harry did to get locked up, but some prisoners who work in the office smuggled out his file for Phil to read, and here’s the thing–the authorities were a bit embarrassed to be giving such a stiff sentence to a practical joker to appease some humiliated congressmen, so they made it sound pretty dire, and weren’t all that specific in enumerating the charges.  Endangering the public welfare, menace to society, like that.  So the tunnel gang thinks Harry’s a desperate character, such as themselves.  Worthy of membership.   Harry knows otherwise, but if he tells them that, he’s 1)Not getting to go outside and 2)Probably dead.   So he doesn’t tell them that.   What they don’t know won’t hurt him.

However, he has not been able to restrain his pranking impulse, and even members of the tunnel gang are not immune from itching powder, shoelaces tied together, saran wrap stretched over toilets, etc.  And Harry does all this being painfully aware that in prison, the known practical joker’s chances of survival are just slightly better than the known child molester’s.  He really can’t stop himself. Because he’s still confused about who he is, and who he’d like to be, he can’t leave his old practical joker identity behind.

He does, however, get a new name, courtesy of Phil–see, he has to set up a bank account–with savings his his mother sends him after a confused phone call–to cover his membership fee for the tunnel group, and other miscellaneous expenses–and at the bank, Phil offhandedly identifies him to the teller as Harry Kent.

I almost corrected him.  Then, in a blinding flash, what he had done blossomed in front of me.  He had given me an alias!  For the first time in my life, with utter justification, I could be somebody other than Harry Künt.  With an umlaut.

She gave me a huge smile, saying “How are you?”

I gave her a huge smile right back.  “I’m just fine,” I said.  Oh let my prison term never end, I was thinking.  What did I care what they called me inside those walls; in this wonderful world outside I was Harry Kent.  What a beautiful name, what a noble name!  It sounded like something out of Shakespeare.  Harry of Kent awaits without, milord.  Without what, varlet?  Without his fucking umlaut, milord.

So it’s all good, right?  He’s got the toughest gang in Stonevelt to protect him from groups like the shower-haunting ‘Joy Boys’ (there’s plenty of references to gay sex in this book; it’s not that 30’s-era Warner Brothers), a pass to go outside and live like a free man for a few hours whenever he wants, and a brand new name that he loves.

And there’s just one little catch, that they can’t tell him about until he’s already part of the group, and can’t safely back out–he has to participate in a bank robbery.  In the town the prison is in, likewise named Stonevelt.   A bank heist.  In a Donald Westlake novel.  What could possibly go wrong?

And it’s not just one bank–the gang plans to hit two the same night, then go back to their cells–the literally perfect crime.   Directly across the street from each other, one a traditional stone-pillared temple to Mammon, the other a modern glass and steel affair.  Their underground vaults are adjacently situated, separated by a single wall, which the tunnel gang plans to breach with–get this–a military laser.   That they’re going to steal from the nearby army base.

(Yes of course there’s a nearby base, it’s a comic caper–there could be a submarine docking station if the story demanded it.   And of course the army had easily portable user-friendly lasers stored at rural upstate New York bases, that could melt through steel bank vaults.  In the early 70’s.  Let us now concede that the science fiction geek in Donald E. Westlake never did quite completely die out.)

Now Harry has already proven himself to them by pulling a little ‘sting’ in town, as they all do from time to time, but what he did not tell them is that he got the money through his own specialty–practical jokery.  He put up a sign on one of the banks saying that the slot through which local businessmen can deposit their daily proceeds after banking hours is out of order, and late-night depositors can use the provided bin, which normally is used for milk bottles, that he nabbed from a nearby house.

He gets one sucker, from a local bar, but that’s all he needs.  It’s enough to pay his share of the electric bill for the tunnel lights and stuff, and establish his street cred with the boys, and in future he can just use his own personal savings and say that he stole them.  But you can’t fake a bank robbery, and you can’t get out of it through the application of practical joke expertise.  Can you?

Now I hadn’t planned to make this a two-parter, and it’s a bit short for a Part 1, but seems like a good spot for a break, and I haven’t posted anything in almost ten days.   And there’s a lot of story packed into this not terribly long book, and I’ve done enough 6,000+ word articles already.  So I’m going to post this, then tunnel my way out of the office, and be free from self-imposed deadlines for a little while, before returning to my cell to write Part 2.

By the way, do any of you happen to have Prince Albert in a can?  Well for the love of God, don’t eat him, he died in 1861!

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

Review: Butcher’s Moon, Part 3

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This hatred is one side of the rather equivocal attitude the Greek mythical tradition has toward the figure of the wolf.  On the one hand, the wolf, as Richard Buxton suggests, “stands for one who by his behavior has set himself beyond humanity.”  This is particularly true of the “lone wolf,” a figure isolated from human and lupine community alike.  Connected to this, of course, is the idea, embodied by Odysseus’s grandfather, of cunning criminality.  In Pythian 2, Pindar emphasizes this cunning in a passage that resonates deeply with the conception of justice for which Polemarchus advocates: “May I love my friend: but against my enemy I shall make a secret attack, like a wolf, treading now here now there on my crooked paths.”  This dimension of the lupine character is what drives Polemarchus to recognize the limits of his own position.  On the the other hand, however, because of its cooperative nature, its social life together with others in a pack, and its practices of collaborative hunting and of the equitable sharing of quarry, the wolf also stood in the Greek mythological tradition as a symbol of community and even as an analogue for human social life.

From Plato’s Animals, by Jeremy Bell and Michael Naas

Richard Stark has created a large reputation (including screen credits) with his novels about Parker, the professional thief and killer-if-necessary.  And he does these books very well, even if a few in the series strain credulity.  One such was “Slayground” (1971), in which Parker takes on a whole police force in an amusement park shootout and makes his getaway.

But things improve in the latest Parker, BUTCHER’S MOON (Random House, $4.95).  It has a tie-in with “Slayground”: in the earlier book, Parker had left some money hidden in the amusement park.  In “Butcher’s Moon” he goes back to retrieve it after a job has gone sour.  To get the money back the hero must take on a Mafia gang, a crooked cop, and, in addition, exact his own revenge.  So he gets a few recruits, robs the mob blind, and finally wipes out all the bad guys.

Parker the super-tough, Parker the super-suspicious, Parker the super-lethal, Parker the super-ingenious.  So it’s all nonsense.  But what is not nonsense is Stark’s admirably controlled writing–as tough and spare as Parker himself is.  Stark deals only with the criminal subculture.  His is an unsentimental world and a fatalistic one.  Life means absolutely nothing.  Men are governed only by greed, power, or lust.  There is no such thing as honesty, and everybody, everything, is to be distrusted.  Parker himself is a curiously vague figure.  Stark is not much on characterization.  But the world in which Parker prowls is made very real thanks to Stark’s considerable gifts as a writer and storyteller.

Curiously, Parker is not an anti-hero.  He is bigger than life; nobody was ever like him, or ever will be.

Newgate Callendar (aka Harold C. Schonberg), Criminals at Large, New York Times Book Review, 9/15/74

Calesian moved over to the window, looked out at the dark city under the moonless sky.  The spotted streetlights, aping the stars, emphasized the darkness rather than cutting it.  Calesian sensed Parker out there somewhere, scurrying in the dark with his army.

He looked up at the sky.  Why the hell wasn’t there a moon, for Christ’s sake?  The air would be hot just the other side of the window glass, but the air conditioning was on in here, and he shivered slightly from the coolness of it.  And the unrelieved darkness.  A hell of a night to die, he thought.

That Times review up above is a true rarity, brief though it be (that’s the full text; the rest is devoted to other books).  Other than Westlake’s longtime supporter Anthony Boucher, few Times critics ever paid much attention to him until much later, when he was seen as more of a senior statesman of the comic caper, or whatever.   When he got out of his appointed niche, as in Up Your Banners, the Times could get downright savage.

This piece is actually from the very book review section that Westlake had the protagonist of Adios Scheherazade lament he could never get into with his pathetic pornos (even though they were still showing pictures of bare-breasted African women), and measured as its praise might be, I’d assume Westlake savored the small symbolic victory. Made it ma, top of the world!

‘Newgate Callendar’ was not primarily known as a literary critic–he was just kibbitzing here–doing a minor column for the book review section called Criminals at Large, a brief semi-regular overview of recent crime/suspense novels.  He’d previously reviewed two of the earlier Random House Parkers there (none of the paperbacks).  His regular gig was music critic, for which he won a Pulitzer in 1971.

He makes a few regrettable errors here (Parker is not shooting it out with ‘a whole police force’ in Slayground), but he gave Stark and Westlake both a number of good reviews over the years.  I would assume he knew they were one and the same when he wrote this, being no stranger to pseudonyms himself, but it’s hard to tell, isn’t it?

“So it’s all nonsense.”  Because it couldn’t happen that way in reality?  Because the characters are bigger than life?  Because it’s full of grand flourishes, overblown bloody denouements?  So by that standard, Mr. Callendar, wouldn’t pretty much every opera you ever reviewed be far worse nonsense?   Ah well, let it lie.   He had it right about how good a writer Richard Stark was.  About nobody ever being like Parker in reality–I’d agree–if we’re talking human beings.  Are we, necessarily?

I was hoping to unearth some serious in-depth critiques of Butcher’s Moon from around the time it was published, and to that end, I obtained an old copy of The Armchair Detective (Volume 7, #4), ‘A Quarterly Journal Devoted to the Appreciation of Mystery, Detective, and Suspense Fiction.’  An online search indicated I might find an article on the book there.  That’s some scary search engine, because what it was referring to was two nigh-microscopic missives; one from the letters page–fan mail from none other than Joe Gores, just starting to make a name for himself in the genre, and who had, of course, just recently published a novel that was a planned cross-over with Plunder Squad.

A hell of a fine issue of TAD this time, by the way, with the Westlake (Coe), de la Torre, and Hammett pieces well worth the price of admission just by themselves.  Have you seen the latest Westlake/Stark, by the way, just out from Random House?  Butcher’s Moon, at 300 plus pages?  Just a fantastic boomer of a book, one I think must claim very serious consideration for this year’s Edgar.  Thick, meaty, and not an ounce of fat on it.  To my mind, as close to a modern Red Harvest as we are likely to get.

Heartfelt and perceptive, but hardly an objective scholarly third party source, nor was a capsule review by TAD‘s dedicated and super-knowledgeable editor, Allen J. Hubin, about as long as Gores’ letter, and even more fanboy-esque.  The gist of it is ‘great fun, nothing to be taken seriously.’   And in case you were wondering, Butcher’s Moon wasn’t even nominated for an Edgar, a distinction it shares with everything else that ever appeared under the name Richard Stark.

In point of fact, nothing that happens in Butcher’s Moon is a whit less likely than a short stout balding man working for a large soulless private detective agency taking it upon himself to clean up a corrupt violent city by turning two criminal factions against each other with near-diabolic Machiavellian prowess, then walking away with nary a scratch on him to his next thrilling adventure.  Nothing against Hammett, I’m just saying.  ‘Bigger than life’ is pretty much the wheelhouse for the entire mystery/crime/suspense genre.   Always has been.

Whatever it is makes a piece of fiction worthy of significant long-term scrutiny–or simply throwaway entertainment, which has its place in the scheme of things, but is destined to be forgotten over time–it isn’t whether or not it could happen in real life, anymore than we judge a painting by how perfectly it mirrors its model.  Realism is just one tool in the kit.  It’s how effectively you wield the tools you choose for the job that counts.   Not whether people believe the story in retrospect, but whether they’re caught up in it when they’re experiencing it, and whether it has some unique and compelling perception to impart, above and beyond the spinning of a good yarn–but never instead of that. The yarn comes first, or what’s the point?  You could just write a pedantic long-winded essay to get your insights across.  I do, all the time.  Back to the synopsis.

So Parker is no longer merely concerned with getting his 73 thousand dollars from the Tyler mob, which at this time they have no intention of giving him anyway.  They have enraged him on some primal level by sending him Grofield’s severed finger in a box, and telling him they’ll keep cutting things off Grofield until Parker agrees to come talk to them, at which time of course he’ll be killed, as will Grofield, because they’ve got to make him the fall guy for Lozini’s murder by Calesian, who is now taking control of the organization.

They’re saying they’ll give him the money, Grofield, and an ambulance to take Grofield away in, and it’s hard to say whether they believe Parker is stupid enough to buy this, but even pretending they think he’s that stupid is pretty damned insulting.

If they had not sent him the finger, Grofield’s fate would be none of his business, and he’d have kept focusing on the money.  But the mix of sadism and duplicity in this ultimatum has brought out the inner wolf, to an extent we’ve never seen before.  He does not merely wish to kill the people directly responsible–his intent now is to decapitate the syndicate in Tyler, kill everyone who had any connection to this ‘peace offering.’   Not simply one or two individuals, but the organization itself needs to die for the disquiet in his mind to be quelled.

And, lest we forget, he still needs the money, which he knows now he’s going to have to take by force, from a large number of armed men.  And for that he needs a crew.  So drawing upon his long years of heisting, a file of exceptionally capable fellow pros he’s compiled in his head since before we first met him, he persuades eleven first-rate heisters to come to Tyler on short notice, with the promise that rich pickings await.  His reputation as a planner is all the inducement they need.  If Parker says there’s loot to be had, they believe it.

These men don’t work for anybody but themselves–they’re all hardcore independents like him.  But they have all proven to Parker that they can work with others of their kind as a disciplined unit, and there’s a toughness to them, a self-sufficiency, that no midwest mafiosi can match.   They are the closest human analog he’ll ever find to an actual wolf pack.  Though getting them to agree to what he has in mind will be more like herding cats.

The group assembled in some vacationing couple’s vacant apartment, Parker brings out his captive, Frankie Faran, who has given Parker all the intel he needs to rob the Tyler outfit down to their skivvies in one night.  Faran’s will has broken down entirely–he mechanically answers all the questions they ask him.   They’re left in little doubt that they can grab a lot of money–and because nobody steals from mobsters, and mobsters can’t call the cops in to defend illegal earnings, they’ll meet token resistance, if any at all.

Normally they’d need to finance a job, work out a plan, assign tasks–there’d be financial as well as physical risk, an investment of time and resources–but that’s all been attended to prior to their arrival–Parker has the jobs all mapped out.  He’s even stolen a small arsenal of guns they can use and throw away, none of which could ever be traced to them.  They’ll be leaving town the next day, so they can just steal any cars or other equipment they need.  It’s a very tempting proposition, but here’s the kicker–everything they take they can split eleven ways.  Parker wants none of it.   What the….?

He shows them the finger.  Explains where it came from.  Most of them don’t know Grofield at all, some (like Wycza) do.  They don’t like it, turns their stomachs a bit, but they still don’t get what he’s driving at.

And here may be my favorite passage in the entire series–where Westlake finally makes Parker explain himself–admit what he’d only privately admitted in The Seventh–that sometimes he does things that don’t make sense on purely pragmatic terms, because he can’t do anything else.   Because sometimes a wolf’s gotta do what a wolf’s gotta do.  But what he learned from that experience, perhaps, is that it’s best to have everybody in the crew on the same page.  And to be honest, with your partners and yourself, about what you’re really after.

“I want Grofield back,” Parker said, “and I want my money.  And I want those people dead.

Hurley gestured, wanting more.  He said, “So?”

“So I set you people up with scores, you go do them, you’ve got good money you wouldn’t have had.  You’ll all be finished, back here, by when?  Three, four in the morning?

Most of them shrugged in agreement.  Hurley bobbed his head, saying, “Probably.  Then what?”

“Then you come with me,” Parker said.  “The twelve of us hit Buenadella’s house and get Grofield out of there.  And if they moved him somewhere, we find out where and go hit that place.”  He checked off names on his fingers, saying  “And we  make them dead.  Buenadella.  Calesian.  Dulare.”

His intensity had startled them a little.  Nobody said anything until Handy McKay, speaking very quietly, said “That’s not like you.”

What kind of shit was this?  Parker had expected a back-up from Handy, not questions.  He said, “What’s not like me?”

“A couple things,” Handy said.  “For one, to go to all this trouble for somebody else.  Grofield, me, anybody.  We all of us here know we got to take care of ourselves, we’re not the Travelers Aid Society.  You, too.  And the same with Grofield.  What happens to him is up to him.”

“Not when they send him to me piece by piece,” Parker said.  “If they kill him, that’s one thing.  If they turn him over to the law, get him sent up, that’s his lookout.  But these bastards rang me in on it.”

Handy spread his hands, letting that point go.  “The other thing,” he said, “is revenge.   I’ve never seen you do anything but play the hand you were dealt.  Now all of a sudden you want a bunch of people dead.”

Parker got to his feet.  He’d been patient a long time, he’d explained things over and over, and now he was getting itchy.  Enough was enough.  “I don’t care,” he said.  “I don’t care if it’s like me or not.  These people nailed my foot to the floor, I’m going around in circles, I’m not getting anywhere.  When was it like me to take lumps and just walk away?  I’d like to burn this city to the ground, I’d like to empty it right down to the basements.  And I don’t want to talk about it anymore, I want to do it.  You’re in, Handy, or you’re out.  I told you the setup, I told you what I want, I told you what you’ll get for it.  Give me a yes or a no.”

Tom Hurley said, “What’s the goddam rush?  We got over an hour before we can hit any of these things.”

Stan Devers, getting to his feet, said, “Just time enough for a nap.  I’m in, Parker.”   He turned to Wycza, beside him.  “Dan?”

Wycza wasn’t quite ready to be pushed.  He frowned up at Devers, frowned across the room at Parker, seemed on the verge of telling everybody to go drop dead, and then abruptly shrugged and said, “Sure, what the hell.  I like a little boom-boom sometimes.”

Handy said, “Parker, I was never anything but in, you know that.”

Ed Mackey said, “Shit, we’re all in.  I know Grofield, he’s a pleasant guy, we don’t want anybody out there dismantling him.”

Mike Carlow, the driver, who hadn’t had anything at all to say up till now, said, “I don’t know this guy Grofield from a dune buggy.  In fact, I don’t even know any of you people.  But I know Parker, and I’m in.”

They were all in.  Parker, looking from face to face, saw that none of them was even thinking of bowing out.  Some of the tension eased out of Parker’s shoulders and back.  “All right,” he said.  “All right.”

As inspirational locker-room speeches go, it’s a bit bloody-minded, but the objective is the same–each man has individual goals–Parker needs them to work as a group.  Most of them have, in the past, been beneficiaries of his thorough-going professionalism–Devers got his start in ‘the profession’ through Parker, who sent him to Handy for training.  Handy owes Parker his life, several times over–he never thought that was because Parker had any special feeling for him, but he himself has always clearly seen Parker as a friend.  Carlow got out of jail and found out Parker had not only managed to turn that soured coin heist into a paying proposition, he’d saved Carlow’s share for him.  Because that’s what one professional does for another.   The Travelers Aid Society they ain’t, but membership does have its privileges.

So under the influence of Parker’s most atypical burst of eloquence, this motley group of misfits becomes an army, unified by the need to score–but also their respect for this man who embodies the spirit of their illegal enterprise better than anyone else.  There’s more than a little wolf in all of them–but he’s all wolf.  And they’re his pack now.  Until the job is done.

Westlake wrote this scene, I surmise, because he knew longtime readers would have problems with this seeming face-turn–as he himself might have had–after all, he repeatedly dismissed The Jugger, one of his best books, because he felt he hadn’t provided enough of an explanation for why Parker would respond to Joe Sheer’s pathetic plea for help.  But here I think he felt he had pulled it off–yes, it seems like Parker wants to help Grofield, is playing the noble hero, but is that really what’s going on?

Each of us can make up our own minds, reading these books, what feelings, if any, Parker has for the men he works with.  Perhaps none at all.  But they are, for all that, the men he works with.  And Parker’s work is who he is, what he is, all he is.  It’s his identity.  Without it, he’s nothing.  Which means without them, he’s nothing.  He’s not a pickpocket or a mugger.  He’s a heister.  Heisters work in groups, just like wolves hunt in packs.   That’s what made him turn to this life in the first place–it’s the closest thing he could find in this insane human world into which he was mistakenly born to the instinctive template in his head.

He needs Grofield, the money, and the Tyler ganglords dead.  Why?  Because in sending him that finger, and lying to him about the money and the ambulance, they reminded him, yet again, of that irrational cruelty in humankind that has always made his brain itch.  They reminded him he is an alien in this world, that he will never belong here, among these naked apes.

It’s not to save Grofield that he does this, but to make their lie the truth.  They said he would get Grofield, the money, and an ambulance, so he will get Grofield, the money, and an ambulance.  And they will die for promising what they had no intention of delivering, and for having the presumption to include him in their madness with that finger.  He isn’t like them.   He’s something else.  Something they should have left alone.

One more thing, and I know I’m getting offtrack here, but bear with me–I had the privilege, about a year back, to attend a gathering of Donald Westlake’s closest friends and colleagues, as well as his wife Abby, and I saw the way they spoke about him.  I heard the note of loss in their voices.  They were not mourning the loss of a great writer.  They were still feeling the loss of a once-in-a-lifetime friend, a gap in their lives that would never be filled.  I’ve seen this in what people who knew him wrote about him after his death.   They loved him.  Can anyone doubt he returned the feeling?  When we see Rosie refer ironically to ‘The loyalty of friendship’, in The Hunter, we should understand that loyalty–to one’s friends as well as oneself–meant more to him than anything.  He just knows that it has its limits.  A flawed yet vital shelter from the harsh winds of an indifferent cosmos.

Much as Richard Stark may represent a side of Westlake that wants to feel less, to be left alone to do his work, to not give a damn about anyone or anything, because giving a damn hurts so damn much, he did nonetheless give a damn.  About lots of things, lots of people.  And that can’t help but bleed its way into the Stark books, and therefore into their central protagonist.  The moral of those books was never “This is how things should be,” but “This is how things are, so how do we live with it and still remain ourselves?”

Regardless of what Mr. Newgate Callendar may have thought ‘the real world’ to be like, let’s be frank–it’s not a nice place.  Men are mainly governed by greed, power, and lust (women too, sorry girls).  True honesty is the rarest of commodities, people you can fully trust even rarer.  We cling to family and friendships so fiercely, because we all know it’s true.  It’s not just a convention of what we sometimes call noir fiction–noir is merely a stylized expressionistic take on everyday human life, which is why it’s endured as a literary form, and has had such a broad and pervasive influence across all mediums.   We all walk down mean streets sometimes.  Some of them a lot meaner than others.   Noir is a romanticized form of realism, and nobody ever understood this better than that wounded romantic, Richard Stark.

But when I come down from this flight of fancy, I can think of one other, much more mundane reason for Parker behaving this way–unless Westlake wrote this book quite a good long while before it was published, he would have written it after he’d seen John Flynn’s The Outfit, based rather loosely on the third Parker novel that serves, you might say, as the foundation of this much more ambitious narrative.

That movie’s version of Parker, played by Robert Duvall, refuses to leave that movie’s version of Handy McKay, played by Joe Don Baker, when the latter is badly wounded, and tells ‘Macklin’ to leave him.   Macklin puts on an EMT’s white jacket, and commandeers an ambulance to get him and his comrade away from the scene of the final gun battle.   Like at least half that movie, Flynn did not get that idea from the book he was adapting.  There’s an ambulance used for criminal purposes in The Seventh, which had already been turned into a movie, which Flynn presumably saw, so maybe that was the inspiration.

Westlake liked Flynn’s movie (more than I do), and would have enjoyed the irony of two killers escaping a scene of mayhem in an ambulance under the guise of medic and patient.  So assuming Flynn didn’t somehow get the idea from Westlake (who didn’t work on that film at all, not even as a consultant), I’d say that Westlake got the idea of the ambulance from Flynn’s movie, and improved and elaborated upon it to an exponential degree, transforming a mere throwaway gag into a wry thematic statement.

You’d think somebody would have asked him about that sometime, but unless there’s an interview somewhere I’ve missed, I guess we’ll never know for sure.   And this is what comes of not taking books like this seriously while their authors are still alive.  I better finish the synopsis before this gets completely out of hand.

Parker’s friends go out and do their heists, all of which go off without a hitch, and this is by far the most enjoyable part of the book.   Characters we’ve loved from earlier books, who have never met before in many cases, sizing each other up, working together beautifully, exchanging professional tips and iconoclastic points of view while doing their jobs, and honestly–Newgate Callendar may have been a fantastic music critic, but for him to say “Stark is not much for characterization” is just staggeringly unforgivably wrong.  Stark can tell you more about a character with one paragraph than most writers could with a trilogy.  But see, it’s the kind of characterization you normally find in the best short stories, not in novels.  Thumbnail portraits.  Callendar is applying the wrong standards here, because to him this is just light entertainment he reads to get away from himself.  Which is fine, but it blinds him to all the other things it can be.

Dan Wycza in particular gets to shine.  True, Parker said he was dead, back in The Rare Coin Score, but that doesn’t really need any explaining, since there’s no reason to think Parker witnessed his reputed demise.  In his world, false rumors must abound, and how could he check on them?  Westlake must have felt that Stark had disposed of Dan too hastily, too peremptorily, and issued a reprieve–we’ll have reason to be glad of that in future books.

At one point, Wycza, Stan Devers, and Mike Carlow are going to grab drug money from a courier and his two menacing bodyguards–named Trask and Slade, a wink to Westlake’s biggest hit of the 60’s, The Fugitive Pigeon.  Devers figures they just have to wound one of them, and the others will give up–no need to kill them.  Stan’s a good-natured kid.  Wycza and Devers, the seasoned veterans, have the bodyguards down as hard cases, and the courier as a rabbit–they’ll figure if they lose the money they’re dead no matter what, so they’ll fight, or run.  But they give Devers a chance to test his theory.  The theory fails to pan out, and they go with Plan B–three dead men.  Another life lesson for Stan.

Meanwhile, Wiss and Elkins grab a stockbroker and his wife from their bed–the cleanest job of the night, and the most profitable.  The stockbroker’s son got into trouble with the law a while back, and Lozini fixed it for him.  In exchange, the stockbroker had to keep money he knew was dirty in his office safe.   The stockbroker’s humiliation outweighs his fear–he knew all along he was compromising his integrity, but what else could he do?

He weeps brokenly on the street, after Wiss and Elkins leave with the loot, swearing he’ll never do anything for Lozini and his friends again.   He doesn’t know that’s not ever going to be an issue again, after tonight.  Free at last.  Unburdened of his guilt–and one hundred and forty six thousand smackers, so good thing there’s not going to be anybody left to complain.

I detect more than a whiff of O. Henry in this vignette–and more than a hint of Westlake’s own abiding guilt over the pain he put his father through, when he got in trouble with the law, many years before, and dad had to pull strings to get him off the hook.  One of those stories from Westlake’s past that keeps popping up in his fiction, different each time, but always the same underneath. A father now himself, he knows that no matter how high a value you place on your honor, your most deeply-held values, your obligations to your children will make you sell yourself on the cheap, time and again.   A much darker take on this story will appear in a much later novel, that I think may have helped trigger the resurrection of Richard Stark, but we can worry about that later.

Most of these jobs, in one way or another, refer back to earlier jobs Parker has done–for example, Handy and Ducasse take over the office of a private security firm, that handles alarm systems for the Tyler mob.  That’s clearly a reference to Parker & Co. taking over Copper Canyon in The Score.  Not mere nostalgic references, what we’re seeing here is that Parker has been learning all the time we’ve known him, improving his craft, making professional connections, and becoming better, in his own way, at working with other people, understanding them.   He’s not such a lone wolf anymore.  He couldn’t afford to be, if he wanted to stay solvent, free, and breathing.

I think this is one reason the book does not refer to The Seventh and The Sour Lemon Score–both about jobs that went completely wrong, where Parker’s crew ended up dead, where he either didn’t work well with his colleagues, or he was off on his own most of the time, and if he got his cut, as in The Seventh, it was mainly by dint of his strange luck.   That’s not what this book is about.  This book is about teamwork.   In some ways, we may prefer to see Parker left to his own dark devices, the rugged individualist on a lonely quest, but in all but those two books (and The Hunter, which Westlake couldn’t very well avoid mentioning here), he actually works very well with others.  As long as they work well with him.

They get back to the apartment, pockets loaded with cash–“Son of a blue bitch, boys, that’s a quarter million dollars”, Mackey says quietly.  More than that, actually–and in today’s terms, it’s almost a million and a half, for one night’s work.  Split eleven ways, each man gets a bit over 25k.  The army has its wages.  Time to start the war.

Elsewhere, Calesian has already lost the power he so briefly grasped at–as word has trickled in about all the syndicate businesses Parker’s friends have hit, it’s all too obvious that his plan to either lure Parker in for the killing or scare him away has backfired in spectacular fashion.  He’s being ignored now, and Dulare, who was content to let somebody else steer the ship, has taken the wheel, to try and keep it off the rocks.

They’ve holed up at Buenadella’s house, waiting out the moonless night, with a lot of men and guns, Grofield lying unconscious upstairs.   Even though Calesian assumes they’ll kill Parker eventually, he knows it’ll be too late for him.  His moment is gone.  He still doesn’t understand just how badly he screwed up, but somebody there will try to explain it to him.  Somebody we have to briefly look at, and now I’m thinking I should have made this a four-parter after all.  There’s just too damn much material in this book.

The only high-ranking member of the Tyler outfit who isn’t present is Frank Schroder, but he’s sent a deputy in his place–guy named Quittner, “a cold bastard, tall and skinny and pallid as death.”  That’s a real name that people have, but I don’t think it was just picked at random out of the phone book.

It’s never stated out loud, but it comes out in small subtle ways.  Quittner is the only one who understands Parker, who knows what they’re up against.  He knows Parker wouldn’t be coming after them if not for the finger–“He wasn’t the right man for that.”   He knows Parker will not be content to steal from them while they cower in the house–“He’ll come for his friend,” he predicts quietly.  How can he know all this?  Because he’s what Parker would have been if Parker had compromised with the world he was born into, gone to work for someone else, given up his freedom.  He’s a failed Parker.   He quit on himself.

And underlying this is Westlake’s fear of what he might have become, if he had given in to the temptation to seek a safe regular job, instead of choosing the much more difficult and insecure path he did.  Stark is the fullest expression of the romantic in him, the part that refuses to compromise, at least on the big stuff. We all have to compromise sometimes; even real wolves do, but Stark is a defiant rejection of that fact–and at the same time, paradoxically, a tacit concession to it.

Quittner is a capable man, feared and respected by others in the organization, but Calesian thinks to himself that it’s unlikely he’ll ever try to take control.  Because somehow it’s not in his nature to be a boss, but it wasn’t in his nature to be an underling either, and this means that dangerous as he is, Quittner is to Parker as a mangy wolf in a cage is to a free-roaming alpha with a pack behind him.  In fact, his physical description is rather akin that of Raven, the bitter beaten-down hired assassin of Graham Green’s A Gun For Sale, which I believe partly inspired The Hunter–only no harelip.  Westlake wouldn’t be that obvious.

Quittner might as well be named Cassandra–there’s at least forty armed men in the house, they’re watching all the windows and doors, there’s no way Parker’s crew can come after them without getting cut down.  Not to mention there’s a state police surveillance van parked out front.  There’s no moon, but there’s artificial light–the modern equivalent of fire, man’s first real weapon against the beasts of the night.  And then the lights go out.

Parker has left nothing to chance.  He’s had Wiss and Elkins take out a power substation, causing the part of the city Buenadella’s house is in to be plunged into blackness.  Devers has cut the phone wires.  Hurley and Mackey have disarmed and tied up the cops in the surveillance van.   And what follows makes John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 look like–um–let me think–the crappy remake of that movie?

The three drivers, Webb, Carlow, and Dalesia park their cars on the front lawn, their headlights on bright, so that Parker and his men coming in the back will be able to see the mobsters outlined in the glare, the drivers’ guns preventing anyone from escaping out the front, or shooting out the headlights.   It’s a perfect trap, and it negates the advantage of numbers.  Confused and disheartened, the Tyler mob disintegrates, cut down one after the other, until the last few, including Dulare and Quittner, are holed up in a room, figuring that the cops have to show up soon, and Parker’s men will have to run for it.  Then Handy McKay rolls a bomb into the room.

There’s even a little nod to the good old Stark Rewind–we see a scene from Buenadella’s POV–he’s about to kill Grofield in his bed, out of pure pique–then he sees Parker pointing a gun at him–“Goodbye, Buenadella.”    Then the same scene from Parker’s POV, ending with the same two words.  Goodbye, Tyler mob.

Sure, Schroder is still alive, and presumably in charge now, but of what?  Most of their men are dead.  Their finances were already stretched thin from backing both mayoral candidates.  The state and federal law will come hard at them in the wake of all the chaos, and they’ve lost Calesian, their number one mole in the Tyler police force.  We never find out who gets elected mayor (because Stark doesn’t give a damn), but there’s no money to grease the wheels with, and it’s unlikely they could control either man now.  Their businesses have been ruined.  The national organization will offer no help.   There’ll still be crime, and corruption, and the men smart enough to cut and run were allowed to live, but the Tyler mob, as Parker knew it, is dead.

And surprisingly, Grofield is still alive.  Score one for Westlake/Vishnu–but Stark/Shiva needed a sacrifice–Ducasse caught a bullet.  Their only casualty.   Well, more loot for everyone else.  Speaking of loot, they break into Buenadella’s safe–Handy hands the money to Parker in a bag–says there’s just over fifty-eight thousand.  “Not enough,” Parker says.  He was owed seventy-three.  In the ruins of the house, with dead men lying all around him, he shrugs and says “I’ll settle.” See?  Everybody compromises.  You can let the small stuff go and still be yourself.

So did I mention they stole an ambulance beforehand?  Devers has put on a white jacket, and for no reason at all but good fellowship, offers to help Parker take Grofield home.  We can imagine the look on Mary’s face when they get back to that community theater in Indiana.  Maybe the 29k they hand her–Grofield’s share–will soften her expression slightly.   Maybe she lays down the law once Grofield is up and walking again–no more heists, no more blondes.  Maybe the IRS clapped him in prison for not paying taxes.  Maybe his theater finally became successful.  Maybe he decided there are worse things than working in television.  They only shoot at you with blanks there.

In the final chapter, Grofield wakes up to the vibration of the road they’re traveling, sees a strange face leaning over him–it’s a blonde all right, but not near as pretty as the one he saw when he woke up in a Mexican hotel room once.  He says as much.

“Aw,” the guy said.  “You’re disappointed.”

“Just so I wake up.  The girl’s name was Elly.”

“Right.  I’m Stan Devers.  Your friend Parker is driving this thing.”

Grofield tried to turn his head; it wouldn’t go.  Parker was driving the ambulance?  He whispered, “What the hell happened?”

“Well,” Stan Devers said, “that’s a long story.”

Long review too, and it’s not over yet.  I still have some questions to answer:

  • Why did Westlake stop writing Parker novels, or any other novels, under the name Richard Stark, for nearly a quarter century?
  • Why did he abandon the usual segmented chapter structure he’d employed in all but two of the Stark books?
  • Why did he bring Ed Mackey back from the dead without explaining how that happened or even mentioning Mackey’s apparent demise in the previous book?

I think the answer to all three questions is the same–this is not a true Richard Stark novel.  It’s a collaboration between Stark and Westlake.   Yes, I know that doesn’t make any sense.  Hear me out.

Westlake was starting to slip out of the Stark voice, as he was developing his own, which mingled elements of Stark, Coe, himself, maybe others.  It was getting harder for him to manage.   He’d written those books during a turbulent, often emotionally bruising period of his life–failed marriages, professional setbacks, and a rate of production that would have put most writers in a rubber room.

But he had Abby now.  He was older, more settled.   He no longer feared that Stark was the only voice of his that people really wanted (Dortmunder helped tremendously with that, and Dortmunder’s Starkian origins further blurred the line between Westlake and Stark).  He’d found a home for Westlake at M. Evans, that would allow him to hone his own voice, which was getting stronger all the time.  And he was increasingly aware that he hadn’t done this all by himself–he’d been surrounded all the time by friends, colleagues, spouses, lovers, kids, who had kept him afloat, offered help, advice, feedback, support, companionship.  No man is an island–not even a wolf-man.

So he wrote this one to more fully and explicitly express that side of Parker that had been there from the start–his long-frustrated quest for people he can trust. To show that Parker’s long losing streak in the Random House novels could only be ended with a little help from his friends.  And not everybody likes this.   But as that quote about the Greeks I put up top suggests, we’ve always had a dual vision of wolves–they can be the marauders who raid our camps, steal our livestock, chill our blood when we hear them howl on a dark night, while we wonder if they’re closing in on us–but they can also be the epitome of cooperation, camaraderie, and above all, loyalty, which is why we ended up making some of them into our best friends and helpmates.

And the thing is, they can be both of these things at the same time.  As Parker and his pack are in this story.   We feel a closeness to them in the chapters from their POV’s, and then we’re in the heads of the Tyler mob guys, and we shiver, thinking about what’s coming.  Our respect for the finer qualities of wolves should not blind us to the fact that they are still carnivores. And we are still made of meat.

So it wasn’t like the books he’d written before–he mingled his approach to storytelling with Stark’s, creating a fascinating hybrid–this is why he refers to so many books that appeared under his name over the past decade and change, as well as Stark’s.   This is why he used a chapter structure more appropriate to a Westlake novel (or a Culver?  Lots of politics here).

This is why he reached into the last novel and plucked Ed Mackey from his ignominious end, seemingly unscathed.   Because Westlake is a gentler god than Stark, and because he thought Mackey (and Brenda) were worth keeping around.  Westlake is much more reluctant to let go of good characters than Stark.   He didn’t explain Ed’s return because he knew it was an arbitrary authorial act–deus ex machina.   He explained it much later, along with Wycza’s return, probably just to make people stop bugging him about it.

The end result was a book that serves as a fitting capstone to everything that came before, and he may have felt on some level that no more was needed.   But he said that he tried later to write more Parker novels, and they just wouldn’t come. So I think the part of him that was Stark simply withdrew for a time, knowing that he wasn’t needed–that the purest expression of that aspect simply wasn’t possible right now.

The Westlake who returned to writing as Stark around 1996 (interestingly enough, around the same time Butcher’s Moon was sold to Hollywood) was in his sixties, and feeling the tug of his mortality more and more.   That could have been enough, but there were other factors.   We’ll get to that too.

What we’ll get to next is as different from this book as a chuckle from a scream.  One of his finest comic novels, and certainly his most focused.   It all takes place in and around a prison.  And its hero is a real Kunt.  With an umlaut.

PS: I finished with the Japanese edition from Hayakawa, because it’s just so neat to see Westlake’s picture on the back cover.   Can anybody read the text?

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Filed under Butcher's Moon, Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: Butcher’s Moon, Part 2

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They put him in the back seat of the Impala and drove away from the motel, Parker at the wheel and Grofield occasionally glancing back at Abadandi.  After several blocks, Grofield said, in a troubled and unhappy way “Goddamnit.”

“What’s the matter?”

“Now he’s bleeding from the ear.”

“Put some paper on it.”

Grofield opened the glove compartment.  “Nothing there.”

“Turn his head then.  We’ll unload him in a couple minutes.”

Grofield adjusted Abadandi’s head.  Parker drove away from the city, looking for a turnoff that might lead to privacy.  They were going to be late to Lozini’s, but there wasn’t any help for it.  Sunday morning traffic was light and mostly slow-moving; family groups.

“I feel sorry for the bastard,” Grofield said.

Parker glanced at him and looked back at the road.  “If I’d slept late this morning,” he said, “he could be feeling sorry for you by now.”

“An hour ago I was getting laid back there,” Grofield said.  “Jesus, his skin looks bad.”

Parker kept driving.

There’s no such thing as a Butcher’s Moon.  It’s something Westlake made up himself, responding to the old tradition of naming the full moons for each specific time of year–it’s something the first Americans started here, and the European settlers emulated and added to, but the idea seems to have occurred independently in many cultures.   Many variations exist.  There’s a Harvest Moon, a Hunter’s Moon–and a Wolf Moon (that’s in the dead of winter).  But none of these are a Butcher’s Moon.  Because a Butcher’s Moon is no moon at all.  Some things are best done in darkness.

I might as well mention here that somebody optioned this novel for a film version in 1996.  Variety reported at the time that Lumiere Films, which produced Leaving Las Vegas, had shelled out for the rights, attached Steve Shagan, the screenwriter for Primal Fear to write the screenplay, and that same film’s producer, Gary Lucchesi, to produce it (the film had not come out yet).  Lumiere CEO Randolph Pitts (it’s wrong to make fun of people’s names) said Butcher’s Moon was ‘one of Westlake’s grittiest efforts.’

“Lila Cazes, who’s head of production, and myself are developing a number of things with Gary and he suggested this book, which Westlake did under the pseudonym he used to write his hardest-hitting crime books,” said Pitts.  “Then, Gary suggested we meet with Steve Shagan after they’d done Primal Fear.”

We are further informed that Westlake (who is not quoted in Variety, because hey, he’s just the novelist), was repped by Gary Salt of Paul Kohner Agency.  And nothing more was ever heard of this film, nor shall be in all the eons to come.

Could be any number of reasons for that, but I’d certainly suspect one of them was that it’s one of the worst possible choices for a film adaptation (the worst possible choice probably being Flashfire).  It’s the least self-contained of the Parker novels, the one where the reader depends most on his or her memories of the books before it.  Now I would not say you couldn’t enjoy reading it if you’d never read a Parker novel before–but I can’t imagine how anyone doing so wouldn’t feel like dropping everything to find all those earlier books, and fill in all the gaps in his or her knowledge of that fictional world and its hard-boiled denizens.  That may be one of the reasons Westlake wrote it that way, but I don’t think it’s the only one.

I wonder if Shagan ever completed any drafts of a screenplay?  A treatment, at least?  I’d be interested to see what he did with it–how he tried to somehow collapse the plot into a film-able unit without having any previous films to refer back to.  He was a novelist himself (he wrote Save The Tiger, and then adapted it into the Jack Lemmon movie that I have yet to see).  He wrote the screenplays for a number of well known films, such as Voyage of the Damned, and he did some mafia stuff, and no, I don’t think it would have worked.  And if they’d stuck to the original ending, I bet film buffs would have accused them of ripping off The Outfit.  Which might not have been totally out of line.  But let’s get back to the synopsis.

We pick up with Mike Abadandi, one of Lozini’s trigger men in the mobbed up city of Tyler–we met him in Slayground, and the late Mr. Caliato, when he saw Abadandi was going to be helping him go after Parker at Fun Island, evaluated him with one word–“Good.”  He’s a very capable individual, probably the best hitter Lozini’s outfit has at the moment.  And he’s been sent to whack Parker and Grofield at their motel.

Why send one guy after two?  Because whoever wants this done wants it done quietly and professionally, with as little fuss and mess as possible.  And because Lozini doesn’t know anything about it.   This is not a properly sanctioned hit.   Meaning that the more guys they use, the more chance there is Lozini will find out before they want him to.

He uses a set of skeleton keys, and lets himself into the motel room, after he sees Grofield go in there, back from his highly athletic extramarital rendezvous with Dori the librarian.  We can sense his professionalism–he’s somebody Parker would be happy to work with, if he wasn’t an organization man.  Grofield is in the shower, singing (tunelessly, we’re told, so I guess he doesn’t do musicals).   Abadandi figures he’ll get Grofield, then look for Parker.  Bird in the hand.

But the other bird is in the closet–Parker saw Abadandi lurking around from his room, and set a trap for him.  Abadandi realizes Parker is coming at him, and is looking at his eyes, not the gun in his hand (which is pointed the wrong way), and he has just enough time to realize he’s up against somebody as good as him.  Maybe better, Mike.

What follows is a short violent struggle, and one of the few instances in twenty-four books that we see Parker have a prolonged physical altercation with a worthy opponent–he’s not the type to engage in pointless fisticuffs.   Abadandi doesn’t panic, he gives a good account of himself, but Parker is always a move ahead. Abadandi, who is wearing contacts, gets a hard kick to the head, then as he falls, Parker chops him in the neck with a huge veiny hand, and that’s the last we hear from Abadandi.

Parker hadn’t intended to injure the guy that badly–wanted to get some info out of him first (otherwise he’d have just shot him).  But one of the contacts has gone into his brain or something (I don’t know if this is a real thing, and I don’t want to know).  He’s not talking to anybody, probably ever.  But a look through his pockets clearly shows his affiliations, and Parker and Grofield already have a meet scheduled with Lozini at his house.

Parker and Grofield (who is using the name Green, in a little nod to his alternate universe doppelganger in the Dortmunder novels) show up there, and give Lozini the bad news.  And it’s really bad.  The only way Abadandi could have found their motel is if they were followed from the last meeting they had with him and his closest associates, at the office.  Only his most highly placed people knew about that meeting.  At least one of them made sure there was somebody waiting outside the office building.  Parker can make a very cogent persuasive argument when he wants to–and his argument now is that Lozini can only trust two people in the entire city.

“You’ve got a palace takeover on your hands,” Parker told him.  “That means a group, maybe four or five, maybe a dozen  A group of people inside your organization that want you out and somebody else in.  Somebody who’s already up close to the top, that they want to take your place.”

Lozini took his sunglasses off and massaged his closed eyes with thumb and forefinger.  His eyes still closed, he said “For the first time in my life I know what getting old is.  It’s wanting to be able to call for a time-out.”  He put the sunglasses back on and studied them both.  Their faces were closed to him, and always would be.  “You’re right,” he said.  “You’re the only ones I can trust, because I know exactly where you stand and what you want.”

They discuss the possible suspects, eliminating them one by one–it comes down to Ernie Dulare, who controls offtrack gambling, and Louis ‘Dutch’ Buenadella, who runs the local porno theaters.  Lozini is surprised how much they already know, courtesy of Grofield’s research.  But they all missed a very big important detail, that comes out when Parker asks if Farrell, the mob’s candidate for mayor, would be in on it.   Lozini is bewildered–his candidate is Alfred Wain.  Farrell is the reform candidate they’re trying to beat.  And now Parker begins to see he’s badly misjudged the situation in Tyler.

Coming into town, Parker saw that Farrell had a lot more money behind him, more signs, bigger banners, and figured that meant he was the syndicate’s man–and that he is, but the new syndicate, not the old one.  They were, in fact, using some of Parker and Grofield’s money to finance him, as well as Lozini’s.  That’s part of the take-over.  With their man in place at city hall, they can push Lozini out, and there won’t even be a fight.   Lozini never even saw it coming–until Parker pointed it out to him.  But Parker is angry at himself for not seeing it sooner.  False premises.  Hasty assumptions.  They’ll get you every time.  You have to know the territory.

Is it a bit much, making Parker smarter about politics than Lozini, who has been controlling this city for decades, or even Grofield, who spent hours researching Tyler’s political scene, and has shown some knowledge of politics in past?  Should a wolf in human form really know so much about the way our power structures work?   Technically, wolves are all about politics–who has the power in the pack at a given moment–it’s a lot more complicated than people think.  It’s not just Alphas and Omegas.  Nobody knows better than a wolf how transitory power can be, how quickly it can change allegiance.

Watch two dogs smelling each other, sizing each other up, sensing subtle changes that we’re entirely oblivious to.  They know far more about us than we about them–always watching us, even when they seem not to be.  We are, after all, their source of sustenance.  But see, dogs give a damn about us.  Parker doesn’t.

Basically, Parker knows what he needs to know about us to survive in our world. He’s always evaluating the situation, the battlefields he makes his living upon, which happen to be our communities, because that’s where the money is.  His mind functions more efficiently without all the distractions that plague the rest of us–but he can still make mistakes.  He’s been too focused on what he wants (the money), and hadn’t given enough thought to what others might be wanting.   And now he’s off-balance, wrong-footed.  He’s got a new enemy, whose name he doesn’t even know.  He’s got to fix that, and quickly.

Next chapter is from the perspective of George Farrell, local furniture magnate, pillar of the community, who has become bored with the family business, and consequently developed a taste for politics (tell me if you’ve heard this one before).  To further this end, he’s made a deal with known criminals–they’ll get him into power, and he’ll do their bidding, but he figures once he has the power, he can handle them just fine. What he can’t handle is two guys pretending to be his new security detail, who turn out to be Parker and Grofield.  His self-assurance cracks quickly under the weight of Parker’s fists.   He blurts out the name of his patron–Louis Buenadella.

And now we’re with Harold Calesian, detective first grade on Tyler’s police force, and a trusted member of Lozini’s inner circle–he’s in with Buenadella, of course.  Having picked a side, he intends to do all he can to make sure everything works out as planned, and to that end, he’s the one who murdered Officer O’Hara, who knew too much about what happened that night at the amusement park, two years ago.  He’s just back from murdering Paul Dunstan, the other cop there that night, who tried (too late) to get clean, get away, get free.  There was about one chance in a million that Dunstan would ever have been a problem for Calesian.  One chance too many.   Some people really do make murder the answer to everything.

He gets to his apartment, and Lozini is there waiting for him.  Lozini knows whoever is behind the coup wouldn’t have made a move without getting their top cop on his side.  He wants Calesian to tell him who it is.  If Calesian won’t tell him, Lozini will start shooting him in various non-fatal areas of his anatomy.  Lozini is done fooling around.

Lozini’s arc in this book is interesting–he’s become aware, very suddenly, of how much he’s allowed himself to slip–too many years of playing the part of respectable citizen–over time, you become the person you pretend to be.  The old gangster has lost his edge.  This is the first time in decades he’s even held a gun in his hand.  But he’s still dangerous.

Lozini doesn’t like to be pushed, but he doesn’t really want a fight either.  This is his identity crisis.  He’s trapped between two versions of himself–the ruthless man he used to be, and the easy-going amateur chef who pulls the strings from a safe distance, and has long avoided any direct use of violence, because it didn’t make sense for a man in his position to take that kind of risk.  That man he used to be is still down there inside of him–as was the case with Bronson, when Parker came for him, years before–but the reflexes have dulled.  Memory isn’t enough.

He tells Calesian he’s just about ready to retire, leave town, play shuffleboard.   But he can’t accept being forced out by an underling.  He wants to make some kind of deal, come to an arrangement.  This is his mistake.  This is why he’s about to die.  Because you can’t have it both ways.   You can’t have absolute power, and then just bargain it away at your convenience.  In this kind of business, you’re all the way in, or all the way out.  Kings don’t get to retire.  A fellow named Lear could have told him that.  Different mob.

Calesian is finished if he tells Lozini he’s working for Buenadella, and a cripple if he won’t.   So he feeds him a lie, says it’s the other possible, Ernie Dulare.  That gets Lozini off balance, thinking about something other than Calesian, who says he’s got something in his bag that will prove he’s telling the truth–what he’s got is the same gun he used to kill Dunstan.  Lozini takes just a second too long figuring out what’s happening.  Well, he probably wouldn’t have enjoyed shuffleboard much, anyway.  Stupid game.

So next we’re with Buenadella the porn merchant, get a bit of his background–he’s the new style of ganglord.  All business.   We’ve seen this dichotomy before in Westlake’s work (361, The Outfit, etc).  When gangsters start going legit, they stop being gangsters.  Difference is, Buenadella, who got his start in the mafia, never really was a gangster at heart.  The coup he’s planned is supposed to be bloodless.   He’s not out to whack anybody.  He really thought that could work.  Then Farrell tells him about Parker and Grofield–who suddenly show up at his house, armed.  So much for that plan.

Grofield can’t believe how tacky the house is–like a bad stage set.  It’s reminiscent of how Westlake described Vigano’s house in Cops and Robbers.  Too many clashing elements, the elegant alongside the vulgar, indicative of nouveau riche tastes.  But he’s got to focus on what’s happening–Parker is tired of the run-around.  He wants their 73 grand, and Buenadella, since he now wants to be the man in charge, is going to cough it up or die.

Thing is, Buenadella spent a lot of that money from the amusement park on this coup of his.  He didn’t need it to pull the coup off successfully, it was just a convenient piece of extra capital he didn’t want Lozini to get his hands on.  He wishes he’d never seen the money, but hindsight won’t stop Parker from killing him if he can’t pay.  Money is very tight in his organization at the moment because it’s supporting not one but two mayoral campaigns–but he figures he can manage to come up with the cash before the election, somehow.  Just to make these two very frightening individuals go their merry way.

Grofield is privately a bit critical of Parker’s negotiating skills here (if you want to call them that)–he’s thinking you can’t push so hard, or they push back.  He’s dealt with businessmen before, in his acting life.  Let Buenadella come around, see the sense of their proposal.   Between the good and bad cop approach, they get Buenadella to at least tentatively agree to give them what they want.  And as he and Parker are walking out the rear-facing french doors they’d come in through, Grofield gets shot in the chest by a guy he barely glimpses, who was waiting outside.

It spun him around.  Everything went out of focus as he turned, like a special effect in a movie.  He killed me! Grofield thought despairingly, and slid down the invisible glass wall of life.

That’s a death scene, if ever there was one.  Any other Richard Stark character, that’d be the last POV chapter he ever got.  The language is not at all ambiguous, but (spoiler alert) Grofield does not die. So what’s up with that?

Up to this point, you could say this was as much a Grofield novel as a Parker–the conclusion to both sagas–Grofield has been co-protagonist, and in this chapter, he’s even seeming to take control of the partnership for a moment.  In his mind, as has been the case since we first met him, he’s the hero, dramatic music playing in the background as he goes through his paces, rescues the maiden, defeats the bad guys (even though he’s technically a bad guy).  That’s how it plays out in his mind.

But not in Stark’s mind.  That’s the problem–Stark has always preferred Parker–Parker belongs in the world of Richard Stark–Grofield, as I’ve said before, is a Westlake character who wandered into Stark’s realm by mistake, and perhaps outstayed his welcome.

Grofield is respected, by Parker and by Stark, for his skills, his professionalism, his refusal to compromise his craft by working in television and film–but his entire life is a compromise.  Is he an actor or a robber?  A devoted husband or a footloose philanderer?   One foot in sea and one on shore, to one thing constant never.  Which is what an actor needs to be, which is why an actor wrote that line.

I think Westlake, the former spear-carrier in summer theater, always had a soft spot for him–he represents some old fantasies, and is certainly based in part on Westlake’s first-ever series protagonist, the lusty young journeyman actor, Phil Crawford, who appeared in several of Westlake’s sleaze novels (only one of which I’ve read).

But in Stark’s world, Grofield’s been living on borrowed time.  He’s always on the brink of dying, in the Parker novels and his own, only to escape the final reckoning by the skin of his proverbial teeth.  Now the bill has come due.  He’s being rejected by that world, cast forth from it.  Westlake may not intend this, but Stark does, and in a Parker novel, Stark has the final word.

And even though Grofield is clearly referring to the man he saw shoot him when he says “He killed me”, he’s always seemed to me to have just an inkling of the fact that he’s a player on a larger stage, and maybe he knows on some level who really pulled the trigger on him just now.  Any actor knows, when the playwright says you’re dead, you have to lie down–but as Raoul Walsh once wryly quipped, when asked why James Cagney’s bullet-riddled character takes forever to die at the end of The Roaring 20’s, “It’s hard to kill an actor.”

This is all getting rather meta, I know, but the most Westlake, Vishnu to Stark’s Shiva, can do for Grofield is intercede quietly on his creation’s behalf, try to soften the blow.   And there’s only one ‘hero’ in this myth-cycle who can do that for him–Parker.

But Parker’s reaction, as he flees out the front door of Buenadella’s house, protected by the presence of a surveillance van manned by state police, is merely It was too bad about Grofield.  Soldiers die in wars all the time.  He’s got no intention of doing anything about it.   His objective at this point is still just the money.  73 grand would tide him and Claire over for some time.  For him to think about anything else, someone’s going to have to push that button in his head that makes him need to kill whoever pushed it.

Grofield’s shooter was Calesian, who had come to Buenadella’s to tell him about Lozini, saw the car, and realized what was happening–then realized too late that both Parker and Grofield were there, so he didn’t wait for them both to come into view as he lay in wait.   So Parker got away, and now he’s got to deal with a raging Buenadella, who is angry enough that a situation he was about to resolve non-violently has just been escalated.  He’s even more upset when he finds out Lozini is dead.   Killing a boss is a serious business–there’s people at the national level who will be angered by it, since they’re bosses too.

But Buenadella’s power, so newly achieved, is already falling away from him–his business as usual approach doesn’t fit the situation, and it’s not like he’s been elected to anything–he’s only boss if people do what he says.  Calesian begins to realize he can be boss now–he’s the one who took charge when things got tough.  So in spite of his seeming lowly status in the organization, he can take control of the whole shooting match now if he wants, and much to his surprise, he really really wants that.   A cop could be the boss of the local mafia.  Gee, no identity crisis there, right?

But this means he has to pin Lozini’s death on somebody else.  Parker will do nicely as the fall guy.  Buenadella fearfully agrees, not knowing how to do anything else.  He’ll make a good figurehead.  Calesian is making all the plans, and the other powers in the Tyler mob fall in behind him–and accept his story that Parker shot Lozini without question–that will also be the story they tell the national syndicate leaders, like Karns.  But that means they can’t cut a deal with Parker anymore.  They have to kill him to shut him up.  Which means they have to lure him in somehow.  Calesian knows just the way–and here comes the one scene people most remember in the book.

A meet is arranged over the phone–Parker makes very sure the emissary wasn’t being tailed.  Ted Shevelly, Lozini’s loyal consigliere (he was never even approached about the coup), who doesn’t know what’s really going on here, is delegated to bring Parker a token of their regard.   One of Grofield’s little fingers in a little white box.   To prove he’s still alive.  They’ll keep sending more fingers, and other things, until Parker agrees to come in and talk.   Then he’ll get his money, and Grofield, and an ambulance to take him away in.

Parker knows there’d be no talking if he took that deal.   But that isn’t the point anymore.  The button has been pushed.  The button nobody in this world can ever un-push.  The money has now assumed a secondary importance to him.   Or maybe it’s been inextricably mingled together in his mind with something else.  Something much older.

And you can imagine that very ancient fire kindling behind his unreadable onyx eyes, his facial expression not altering in the slightest as that thing inside of him is irreversibly triggered, as we have seen happen many times before, but somehow never quite like this.   If they had made that movie they planned, can you think of any actor who could have expressed that subtle yet unmistakable transition?  Lee Marvin, maybe.  Not an option in 1996.

He knows immediately that this isn’t Buenadella’s idea–that Calesian is in charge.  He tells Shevelly that.  Shevelly doesn’t understand.  Shevelly is being very obtuse.  Fatally so.

“It was a stupid thing to kill Al Lozini,” Shevelly said.

Parker frowned at him, looking at the coldly angry face.  “Oh.  They told you I did that, huh?”

Shevelly had nothing to say.  Parker, studying him, saw there was no point arguing with him, and no longer possible to make use of him.  He gestured with the pistol toward Shevelly, saying, “Get out of the car.”

“What?”

“Just get out.  Leave the door open, back away to the sidewalk, keep facing me.”

Shevelly frowned.  “What for?”

“I take precautions.  Do it.”

Puzzled Shevelly opened the door and climbed out onto the thin grass next to the curb.  He took a step to the sidewalk and turned around to face the car again.

Parker leaned far to the right, aiming the pistol out at arm’s length in front of him, the line of the barrel sighted on Shevelly’s head.  Shevelly read his intention and suddenly thrust his hands out protectively in front of himself shouting “I’m only the messenger!”

“Now you’re the message,” Parker told him, and shot him.

Parker spends the next few hours seeking a base of operations–he chooses Calesian’s neighborhood.  He’d already looked Calesian up in the phone book, broke into his apartment, found Lozini’s body.  He’s not interested in any of that now, he’s just aware of the fact that it’s the kind of impersonal upscale neighborhood where strangers will not be noticed.  He picks a large apartment building, uses skeleton keys (Abadandi’s?) to check the apartments that don’t have any mail downstairs.  He finds one belonging to a couple who just left on vacation.  He moves his and Grofield’s things there.  He makes some calls.  Some guys take longer than others to find, but he’s very persistent.  When he’s finished, eleven of the men he talked to are on their way to Tyler.

Now re-reading this, I was moved to wonder–does he have a little black book of fellow heisters, or their contacts, that he carries around with him?  That seems like a potentially dangerous piece of evidence to carry around.   Which would mean he’s got all those numbers committed to memory.   For just such situations as this.  In The Outfit, he used the mail–he sent letters to various heisters he knew, telling them these organization men had violated some unwritten law about leaving their kind alone, and as a result they should feel free to ignore the unwritten law that they don’t hit Outfit businesses, no matter how invitingly soft they look.  And surprisingly enough, it worked–they didn’t do it as a favor to him, but they did it, and it helped bring down Arthur Bronson.

There’s no time for that now.  And he’s not just out to bring down Buenadella, Calesian, or whoever else happens to be in charge.  This is not the same situation–they just owed him money then.  Now they owe him blood.  The entire organization is responsible for sending him that finger.   The entire organization has to pay.   Yes, it is rather reminiscent of Anarchaos, isn’t it?   But Parker is no neophyte, like Rolf Malone.  And Grofield isn’t his brother, not that we can be sure a mere genetic relationship would matter to him.  No matter how Parker may or may not feel about his fallen colleague, Grofield’s plight, in and of itself, wouldn’t be enough to make Parker act this way.  But the finger was.  Why?

Leaving that question to one side for the moment, we now move through a series of chapters from the perspective of some characters from past books we haven’t seen in some time, and at least two we never thought we’d see again.   As the moon continues to wane over Tyler, eleven of Parker’s fellow ‘wolves’ (and one lovely little bitch named Brenda, and I only mean that as a compliment) descend upon Tyler, which as we were informed early in the book, never did build a wall around itself, to serve as protection from rapacious bands of brigands, and other beasts of the night.  Such things are in the distant past.  Not anything a modern American city needs worry about.

The 1927-28 New York Yankees line-up was famously known as ‘Murderer’s Row’, but they got nothing on this all star line-up.  Stan Devers and Philly Webb, from the Air Force base job in Monequois.  Dan Wycza, Frank Elkins, and Ralph Wiss, from the legendary Copper Canyon heist.   Mike Carlow, the ultimate getaway driver, sprung from jail after getting nabbed for his role in the Indianapolis coin convention score–as a neat bonus, we find out that Otto Mainzer, the loud-mouth Nazi rapist they worked with on that one had, with his usual fine-tuned grasp of the social graces, made himself so generally noxious to the law that they were practically begging Carlow to accept a deal in exchange for turning state’s.  No prisoner’s dilemma here, since the two loathed each other at first sight, and nobody wanted to give Mainzer a break.

But wait, there’s more!  Ed and Brenda Mackey who we met in Plunder Squad, are driving there, everyone’s favorite fun crime couple, exchanging saucy single-entendres, and not in any way discussing the fact that last time we saw Ed, he was supposed to be lying dead in a burning warehouse, after Parker left him there.  I’m sure that will be explained very shortly.

Just to remind us how this atypically long Parker novel got started, Ducasse, Dalesia, and the other Hurley (the one Parker and Grofield did not shoot full of holes for ratting on them) are coming as well.  Last and the precise opposite of least, there’s Handy McKay, the first and finest of Parker’s partners in crime, out of retirement at last, courtesy of Uncle Sam’s infrastructure upgrades that have made his little diner in Maine unprofitable.  With a few pertinent questions to ask of his old comrade.

Murderer’s Row, indeed.   Parker’s getting the band back together, except most of these guys don’t even know each other, except through him.   You realize what a deep bench of irreformable hard cases he’s compiled in his head over the years.   This is the dream team he always aspired to create, but somehow there was always a bad apple, a weak link.   Not this time.  And just as in Copper Canyon, there’s twelve of them (Grofield makes thirteen), and just as in The Score, you wonder if you’re supposed to be drawing some blasphemous inference or other.

Parker isn’t just calling in the reserves–he’s drawing up battle plans.   To that end, he hijacks poor Frankie Faran, who manages that club Parker and Grofield hit a few nights back.  Frankie is no great shakes in the Tyler mob, but due to his position–you might say he’s their social director–he’s had many an informal chat over drinks with all the major players, and he knows everything Parker needs to know about all the rackets in town.  Which Parker needs to know because Murderer’s Row doesn’t work for nothing.  Frankie is terrified of what his friends would do to him if they found out he’d spilled the beans to Parker, but we’ve seen this dance before, and in no time at all, he’s much more terrified of what Parker will do to him if he doesn’t.

In the meantime, the moon over Tyler has shrunk to a mere silver sliver–tomorrow night it’ll be pitch black out, or would be if some joker turned out the lights.  In that bit of remaining moonlight, we see Grofield, lying in a bed in Buenadella’s house, hooked up to tubes, breathing shallowly, his hands making the occasional spasmodic movement (Should I mention that this chilling tableau reminds me of the stroke scene in Ex Officio?  Probably not).   His heart stops.  Then starts up again.  Hang in there, buddy.   You’ve got Vishnu in your corner, and Shiva has bigger fish to fry.

That gets us about 212 pages in, and that’ll do for Part 2.  Just ninety-four pages to go.  And if you can point out a more perfectly paralyzing pulse-pounding ninety-four pages anywhere else in the annals of fictive crime, I’d be only too grateful.  But perhaps a mite skeptical.

So I just have to cough up Part 3 and we’re done.  In our dimension (in the Northern Hemisphere), the next Butcher’s Moon will occur this coming Sunday, September 13th.  I’m making no promises here, but I’ll see what I can do.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Butcher's Moon, Donald Westlake novels, Richard Stark

Review: Butcher’s Moon

butchers_moon_1st_1butchers_moon_1st_3   butchers_moon_germany_1 butchers_moon_italy1_1    Half_moon_in_the_sky

“You owe me some money,” the voice said.

That one left Lozini with nothing to say at all.  He stared at the sink on the opposite wall, speechless.  He couldn’t begin to think what the son of a bitch was talking about.

“Lozini?”

“Where–” Lozini cleared his throat.  “Where are you?”

“This is a local call.  You’ve got my money, I came back for it.”

“What money, you son of a bitch?  I don’t have any of your money, that’s not the score we have to settle.”

“The money I left behind.  You got it and I want it.  Do you give it to me easy, or do you give it to me after I make trouble?”

“I won’t give you anything,” Lozini yelled, “but a one-way ticket!”

The voice was staying calm.  It said, “Do you know a guy named Karns?”

“What?”

“He runs things,” the voice said.  “Your kind of things.”

“No, he doesn’t, that’s–Oh, I know who you mean.”  Then Lozini remembered to be mad again, and said “I don’t care who you know.  I’m after your head, and I’ll get it.”

“Call Karns,” the voice said.

“I don’t have to call any–”

“Call him and ask him,” the voice said, “what you should do if you owe some money to a guy named Parker.”

Hard to believe this is the twentieth Richard Stark novel I’ve reviewed, since I started out with The Hunter, back in April of last year.  Donald Westlake himself must have been at least a little surprised that he’d come this far with Stark–twenty novels at five publishers (not counting reprints in multiple languages).   Sixteen Parkers, four Grofields (and a smattering of early short stories hardly anyone reads today).  And in looking at what is, in several senses, the ultimate Parker novel (even though it ultimately proved not to be the final one), we must ask the question–did he know he wouldn’t be writing another one for a long time, if ever?   And whether he did or not–why? 

Throughout that great Starkian interregnum, Westlake always insisted that he’d never had any idea of abandoning his most famous pseudonym–of doing no more stories featuring Parker, Grofield, et al.   He would try to write another Parker novel, and it never sounded right.  The Stark voice refused to come to him, as it had in the past.  He could have just hammered something out and somebody would have published it.  But he neither needed nor wanted to do that.  So he ended up writing twenty-six novels over twenty-three years, along with two novellas, and a variety of other things, mainly (but not entirely) under his own name.  And this ended up being one of his most creative periods.

By this point in time, it was probably no longer true that Stark was outselling Westlake, as he reportedly had from the late 60’s through the early 70’s.  Westlake had established Dortmunder as a series character, and we can speculate that Westlake didn’t want to be spending most of his time working out variations on what he’d done before, which is what franchise fiction tends to be, no matter how well written and original.

This is also the twenty-first and final book Westlake published at Random House, ending what has to be considered his most seminal and productive stint at any one publisher–all of his 60’s novels under his own name, plus a short story collection, all five of the Mitchell Tobin mysteries of Tucker Coe, and finally the last four Parker novels (and the first to appear in hardcover).

It was at Random House that Westlake had truly matured as a writer, had made his reputation as a crime novelist (alternately dark and comical), and had benefited greatly from the editing savvy of Lee Wright, one of the most influential figures in the mystery field at that time (and really, of all time).  You can read more about her here, in this fascinating and well-researched piece, that makes one small error regarding the Grofield books being published at Random House, like I haven’t made far worse mistakes since I started this blog.

So having re-homed Parker to Random House, and severed all other professional relations with them, did Westlake stop working with his first major publisher because he wanted to stop writing Parker novels for a while, or did he stop writing Parker novels for a while because Random House didn’t want any more?  Was it a four book deal, that expired and was not renewed?  Is that why this book feels like a planned conclusion to the entire saga to date?  Because that is precisely what it does feel like.  A saga drawing to a close, with a vengeance.  Literally.

And yet it also feels like a fresh departure–for one thing, the format has changed.  Butcher’s Moon runs for fifty-five chapters, three hundred and six pages in the first edition, fully twice the length of many of the earlier books.  And yet unlike even the shortest of them, it’s not divided into four distinct parts–each part beginning with Chapter One.  From the very start, the format had been three parts from the POV of Parker, and one from the perspective of other characters–usually Part Three, and usually a number of different characters, but not always–in Deadly Edge, Part Three was devoted entirely to Claire, and in Slayground, the multi-POV section was Part Two.

These two exceptions aside, the multi-POV Part Three was so integral to the structure of the Parker books, Lawrence Block once referred to it as the scherzo in an overview of the series.   As I’ve remarked in the past, the books are about comparative psychology, contrasting Parker’s unique non-human mind with the far more familiar motivations and dysfunctions of the other characters.

This approach also carried over into the Grofield books, but was less well-defined, more experimental.  The Damsel tries the same four-part structure as the Parkers, but it doesn’t work nearly so well.  The Dame and The Blackbird use the conventional chapter structure Westlake employed in most of the books published under his own name–no perspective switches in those.  Lemons Never Lie is five parts, each named after its setting, and that worked very well (it’s a terrific book by any standard), but that’s once more entirely from Grofield’s POV.

Grofield may be really weird (what actor isn’t, really?)–but he’s quite human.  So while there may be moments where his own unique outlook on life is contrasted with that of the other characters, it’s more explicit and self-conscious–not integrated within the very structure of the book itself.

Westlake would return to this four-part format in the final eight novels he wrote about Parker, starting in 1997.  Was he just tired of the old system, experimenting to see if it would be better to abandon that device entirely?   Or was it just not suitable to the story he wanted to tell here, where the perspective needs to keep changing constantly?  What we can say with certainty is that this is the only Parker novel not broken up into four parts, and the only one where the perspective is constantly switching back and forth between Parker, Grofield, and a plethora of other characters.   Why? 

Whatever the reason, the result was a Parker novel like no other–in many ways, a novel like no other, no qualifier needed–a magisterial summing up of everything that had come before, while at the same time breaking with it.  Challenging the nature of this character we’d come to be so familiar with–and had perhaps deluded ourselves into thinking we understood.  This is one of the most popular books of the series today, and yet one of the most controversial in fan circles–because it seems at times that Parker is not behaving like himself.  To the point where one of his most trusted allies tells him that, in so many words.

And perhaps most atypically of all, Parker feels moved to explain himself to that ally.  Something he’d really only done once before, in The Black Ice Score, which Westlake had considered to be a really neat thing–forcing Parker into a situation where he had to go into a long involved backstory in order to ask for help from the Africans.  Most readers of that book have been less enthused about it.

But even then, Parker wasn’t addressing what motivated him, the gut feelings that drove him to a dangerous course of action–he figured it went without saying that when your mate is in danger, you go get her.  That doesn’t need any explaining.  Here his motives are murkier, harder to put into words, even for somebody who is comfortable expressing himself in words, as Parker is most definitely not–and yet he tries.  For the first time since we’ve known him, Parker wants to make himself understood.   Why?

This book features the return of not one but two characters from previous books that we had already been informed were dead.  We had basically witnessed one of them die in the previous book, published about two years earlier, also at Random House, and to which Butcher’s Moon is a direct sequel–from Parker’s POV, mere months have transpired between the end of that book and this one.

Westlake could not possibly have forgotten he’d killed these two characters off, he certainly could not have thought none of his readers would spot the discrepancy, and yet not the slightest explanation of these two defacto resurrections is offered, nor would any be offered, until the next cycle of books began to appear, twenty-three years later.  Why? 

This is going to be at least a three parter, so let me save some of my other querulous queries–and my highly speculative answers thereto–for later.  Let’s start the synopsis already.  We have ground to cover.

As the first of the Random House Parkers, Deadly Edge, opens at the start of a successful heist, Butcher’s Moon opens at the end of a failed one.  Parker and three of his colleagues are running from the law, having tried to hold up a jewelry store, and tripped a silent alarm that was not mentioned in a plan they’d bought from a guy who spots potential jobs, works out the details, and sells the plan to still-active heisters (this is the third time in four books that Parker has been part of a job like this).

One of the crew, Michaelson, is hit by a police bullet, and falls–Parker not only leaves him to his fate, he orders Briggs, the techie of the group, to throw a homemade bomb at the stairway Michaelson’s inert form is draped over, to keep the cops from getting down there and discovering their tunnel from the next building before they can make their escape.  Briggs doesn’t want to do it, to which Parker replies “He’s finished, we’re not.  Close it up.”  If Michaelson wasn’t dead already, he is now.

They get out of the next-door building, and are picked up by their driver, Nick Dalesia, who we’ll be seeing again, far in the future.   Hurley (presumably no relation to the now-deceased child-molesting stoolie of The Handle)  is furious about the omission of the silent alarm from the plan, and wants retribution–or at least a refund.  Dalesia goes along with him without any real enthusiasm for the pointless venture.

Briggs says he’s just going to retire to Florida for a bit.   He and the remaining string member, Hurley, have been running an unlucky streak of late, one job after another turning sour.  So has Parker, whose reserve funds are starting to run dry.   He tells Briggs he’s going to go get some money he left behind, a while back.  It’s hard out there for a thief.

Next chapter we pick up with Grofield, and I guess he never did take Parker’s advice, way back when we first met him in The Score, to make sure he can justify his income to the IRS.  The tax man is there at his perpetually impecunious community theater in Indiana, inquiring why he’s had no income to report for five years.  It’s not quite clear whether he submitted a return or not, or how well his books will hold up to close scrutiny, but while he’s giving the Fed the runaround in the patented Grofield fashion, his lovely wife Mary tells him he’s got a call he should probably take elsewhere.

It turns out to be Parker–he tells Grofield to meet him in Tyler.  He doesn’t say precisely why, but Grofield figures it out–it’s the money from the armored car job–the one where Grofield woke up in a hospital, and then ended up fighting foreign terrorists in Canada.  Yeah, I wouldn’t have forgotten that either.

So it turns out the city in Slayground–the one with the inaptly named ‘Fun Island’ at its outskirts–is named Tyler.  It’s in the mid-west somewhere.  It has a rundown salesman’s hotel named Ohio House, where Parker and Grofield meet up, but that hardly proves it’s in Ohio–there’s an Ohio House motel in Chicago, and this sure as hell ain’t Chicago.   It has a population of 150,000, is located along a major tributary of the Mississippi, was named after future President John Tyler after he stopped there on the campaign trail in 1840, is quite prosperous at the moment, and is politically rotten, but not 100% ‘sewn up’.   You can try to figure out if it’s based on a real town, if you like, but truth is that description would match up to a lot of small mid-western cities of the period.  That’s kind of the point.  But at least we know its name now.

(Sidebar: I might venture out on a limb and say Tyler is Cincinnati, which has a famous amusement park named King’s Island–hmm!–actually in a nearby town, but that’s quibbling–Cincinnati has certainly had its share of organized crime–but it had a lot more than 150k people back in the early 70’s.  Columbus might be the stronger candidate, since John Tyler actually did speak at a convention there in 1840, but it’s also too large, and seems to have had no major amusement parks at the time this book is set.  The Ohio towns that do have suitable amusement parks are too small to be Tyler.  Westlake could have just used a real city, as he had in the past [The Rare Coin Score], but he’s getting into politics here, and wants more room to maneuver.  Let’s just call Tyler a composite, and leave it at that.)

Parker and Grofield head for the amusement park, and damn, that’s where they got that silly scene from the beginning of Parker (the movie), where ‘Parker’ (the Jason Statham character) wins some kid a stuffed toy.  Grofield is fooling around at the shooting gallery, and gives his extra turns to some kids hanging around.   No, he’s not dressed as a priest, though he does alternate between pretending he’s Humphrey Bogart and a B-film cowboy.   Affable gent, Mr. Grofield.  But he’s not feeling so affable when he and Parker find out the money is gone from its hiding place–somebody found it.  Somebody took it.   Somebody’s in big big trouble.

Parker anticipated this eventuality, and knows exactly who to contact–Adolph Lozini, head of the local mob, who tried so hard to find and kill Parker two years earlier, after Parker whacked his lieutenant and presumptive heir, Mr. Caliato (who was trying to kill Parker, and don’t any of you find it irritating when some bad guy says “I’ll kill you for killing that friend of mine who was trying to kill you!  If you’d just let him kill you, I wouldn’t kill you now!”  There is a logical fallacy there that this type of character somehow never perceives.  Probably not in real life either.)

What you see up top is a representative sampling of Parker’s phone conversation with Lozini, who still wants to kill Parker, but who is baffled–and unnerved–by Parker’s insistence that he has Parker’s money.  He doesn’t.  Far as he’s concerned, the park was heavily searched by his employees, and no money was ever found.  He’s half-right about that.   Lozini is going to learn that you can be half-right a few times too often.

Finding Lozini to be unreasonable, not that he really expected anything else, Parker figures he’ll try a variation on what he did in The Outfit–hit them where it hurts.  He has Grofield do some research at the local library, which has a very sexy young local librarian, who happens to be blonde, and you know where this is going, right?   Pouring over past issues of the local papers on a decrepit microfilm reader, Grofield gets a lot of the particulars about the local rackets and racketeers, as well as the librarian’s phone number (he doesn’t even have to ask for it).  She awaits his call eagerly.  You know, sometimes I really hate Grofield.

Armed with this intel, Parker and Grofield hit three mob-connected businesses in one night–a club, a brewery a parking garage–not merely taking cash (of which there isn’t much), but checks and credit card receipts–useless to them, but with so much business being conducted via credit cards, they’re cutting heavily into Lozini’s income.  Parker’s belated revenge against the cashless society he has come to know and loathe.  Our present-day modern electronic billing systems don’t exist yet–they still mainly need a physical record of the transaction in order to bill the customers, or even to know who the customers were.  Who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch?

They’re cruising around in a ‘borrowed’ Buick Riviera that night, and there’s no particular need for me to post an image, but I like those cars (Due South fan), so–

0_riv

(The one they steal is sort of maroon-colored, but I like black better, sue me.)

At the brewery, Grofield has to brace the night watchman, who wouldn’t you know, turns out to be Donald Snyder, the same hapless old guy who was guarding Fun Island the night Parker had his run-in with Lozini’s boys, two years earlier.  At the time, Caliato ordered him blindfolded, gagged, and tied up while their hunt for Parker went on, so he couldn’t identify them–a terrifying experience for the old man.  Grofield considerately agrees not to blindfold and gag him this time, but has to handcuff him and lock him in the executive washroom–with a message for Lozini that Donald doesn’t understand, because he doesn’t even know who Adolph Lozini is, let alone that he works for the guy.

Donald (and do you for even one minute suppose that name was picked out of a hat?) has no idea what happened at Fun Island two years ago.  He has no idea what’s happening now.  Neither he nor Grofield nor Parker (who is elsewhere at the brewery) are aware of this remarkable coincidence.  Nor will any of them ever be made aware of it afterwards, though Lozini is somewhat bemused when they report the theft to him, and he realizes it’s the same guy from Fun Island.  Starkian Irony.

Lozini is most unhappy to hear about Parker and Grofield’s activities, but doesn’t really know what to do about them.  For all his bluster, he’s not in a good position to fight back right now, because as Parker noted when he came into town, there’s an election in the offing.  Parker sees that one candidate clearly has a lot more backing than the other, more signs, more advertising, and figures that’s the machine’s pick–the machine being controlled by Lozini.

Parker doesn’t give a damn about the election, of course, but it’s relevant to his agenda, because Lozini doesn’t dare get into a major shooting war with two crazy heisters, right before the voting starts.  The town, as I said, is not 100% sewn-up, there is a reform movement, there are newspapers, as well as state and federal and even some local cops who aren’t in his pocket, and all are waiting patiently for him to make a wrong move.

Hoping to learn something useful, Lozini takes Parker’s ominous advice, and calls Walter Karns, who he knows slightly.  This is the third and final appearance (over the phone this time) of the wily ganglord who took over from Bronson after the events of The Outfit.  Organized crime in the Stark books is basically a lot of local bosses, and a few who coordinate at the national level.  There’s a lot of specific information about the way the Tyler mob is organized–more than in any of the previous novels–that’s because Westlake has made not only the mob but the town it’s headquartered in up out of whole cloth, and can therefore say whatever he wants about either.   An old Dashiell Hammett trick, right out of Red Harvest, that Westlake employs with gusto.

The mob is a bit more Italian in the later novels than the early ones, but Westlake was never willing to just come out and say “The mob is an Italian thing”–it really never was just Italians, at any point–and of course Westlake was still remembering his own father’s reputed connection with an Irish gangster back in the Prohibition era, as I discussed in my re-review of 361.  He was never interested in doing a realistic take on the mob, because to him a crime syndicate is just a metaphor for corporate culture–a culture he tends to despise.  Ever since The Mercenaries, Westlake has mainly depicted gangsters as lackeys, company men.  That has not changed.

Karns tells Lozini (obliquely, because their phones are bugged by the law) that if Parker says you owe him money, the most prudent policy is to pay him.  He also says Lozini should ask someone about Cockaigne (the island casino Parker and his associates looted and burned at Karns’ behest in The Handle).  Lozini is impressed, in spite of himself, but still resisting the idea of letting some two-bit hood strongarm him.  And for the record, Karns is a variant spelling of Kearns, an old Irish name. Westlake the mick, writing in the era of The Godfather, gets some small satisfaction out of having the smart Irish national boss set the befuddled Italian local boss straight, something that that certainly could not have happened in the 1970’s.  The ancient rivalry lives on.

The Handle gets more of a boost than any other Parker novel here in this most self-referential of all the Parker books–Lozini later talks to an employee of his named Frankie Faran (who runs the club Parker and Grofield hit.  Frankie heard the whole story of the Cockaigne heist directly from Yancy, the cocktail loving thug who interfaced between Parker and The Outfit on that job.

They were drinking together, and Yancy, probably drunk as usual, must have spun quite a yarn–he got a few details wrong (only Parker and Grofield know the real story), but the gist remains the same–this man Baron was thumbing his nose at one of the most powerful syndicates in the country for years, sitting there invulnerable on an island, protected by the Cubans and thirty armed men, and this guy Parker went in there with a few other independents, left the place burning, and Baron ended up dead.  Lozini is now imagining his own kingdom going up in flames, and him with it.   Not at all a pleasant mental image.  So he knows he’s in a bad situation here.  He doesn’t know the half of it yet.

And then briefly we’re with Officer O’Hara, the ill-tempered impatient bought cop from Slayground, the one Parker forced to undress, so he could get out of Fun Island disguised as a cop.  O’Hara, still on Lozini’s payroll, still, has been made aware that Parker is back in town–certain elements of the police force have been marshaled to try and find him and his heister buddy.  O’Hara thinks to himself how much he’d like to get the son of a bitch back for the humiliation he suffered.

He’ll never get the chance–in a diner restroom, a guy he clearly knows says hello, then shoots him in the head.  I said in my review of Slayground that it’s surprising both the corrupt cops–enforcing the law while consorting with crooks–get away with their lives.  Not so surprising now.   Anybody who says Richard Stark is all about amorality is not paying close attention.  Alternate morality.  Know who you are, or die.

Later in the book, the same fate awaits Officer Dunstan, O’Hara’s  younger more sympathetic partner, who got tired of living a double life, retired from the force (with a tiny pointless pension they insist on sending him), and moved 300 miles away to start over fresh.   But it’s not enough.  He gets whacked as well.   The Great God Stark is not to be bargained with.  You have to live with the consequences of every bad decision you make–well, you don’t necessarily have to live with them.

Parker calls Claire at a hotel in Florida (it’s summer, so they’ve temporarily vacated the house in New Jersey), and this is her only appearance in the book–at this point, they don’t need to say much to each other.  They can express everything they feel in a few words.  There are a few brief references to the events of The Rare Coin Score, The Black Ice Score, Deadly Edge–books where the violence of Parker’s world affected her directly.   She still wants to stay as far from that world as possible.

Before they say goodbye, Claire tells Parker Handy McKay called–not about potential work for Parker, but something else–she says he sounded unhappy.  Parker thinks, as he calls Handy, about what happened to his last contact, Joe Sheer, in The Jugger.  You know he’s wondering if something like that is happening to Handy–meaning that he might have to kill Handy.  It’s just implied, not said out loud.  It goes without saying, really.

Handy wants back into the heisting racket.  His diner in Maine is going bust, because a new highway shunted truck traffic away from the town–his main source of customers.  He wants Parker to know that he’s still good at what they do–don’t do him any favors, just put him back on the active list.   Parker predicted, long ago, that Handy wouldn’t stay retired–he’s proven right once more.   And there’s a reference to The Mourner, as well–Handy’s last appearance as a heister in the series.  Is this book going to reference every single book that came before it?

Lozini, increasingly desperate, calls for a meet with Parker and Grofield, to be conducted on neutral turf, out of town.  He manages to convince Parker he never had the money from the armored car heist–but he sent men in there to look for it–clearly some of them took it–and never told him.  And no low-level employee would have dared to do that.   Meaning somebody high-up gave the order.

At a subsequent meeting, conducted at Lozini’s office, with some of his top-ranking men, Parker hammers this point home.  Somebody is making his move.  Maybe several somebody’s.   Why don’t they just kill Parker right there?  Because Grofield isn’t there, and they pull a bluff that Grofield is ready to blow up Lozini’s house if he doesn’t hear back from Parker.

At this point, killing Parker is no longer Lozini’s main objective–his control of his own organization is slipping from his fingers, in spite of everyone outwardly deferring to him.   Somebody clearly killed O’Hara–who would have been in on the heisting of Parker’s heist–to make sure he didn’t talk.  That somebody has more in mind than just covering his tracks.  And that somebody must have gotten most of the seventy-three grand from Fun Island, because O’Hara clearly didn’t.  A high-ranking bought cop named Calesian makes that very clear indeed. Parker has a feeling there are other things about Calesian that are not so clear.

Parker and Grofield just want their cash, and before the election–their only real leverage.  But in spite of themselves, they’re getting drawn into a Machiavellian gangland power play.   Smart as they are, and in spite of Grofield’s research, they’re out of their area of expertise, both of them–this is too complicated a situation to favor their skill set.  And the crucial irony is that their mere presence is creating a crisis–exposing machinations that were supposed to stay hidden a while longer.  Screwing up everybody’s plans, their own included.

We’re at Chapter 17–oh you can just bet this is going to three parts–and two men are talking in a parked car.  One of them is the guy making his move against Lozini–he was not at the meeting, the other guy was, and they are having a somewhat heated conversation.  We learn the hit on O’Hara was somebody on their team, but acting on his own, without either man’s knowledge, and his initiative is not being applauded–he’s complicated matters, drawn attention to what’s coming.  If there’s one universal dictum in the world of Richard Stark, it’s don’t make murder the answer to everything.  But some people just can’t seem to help themselves, and not just in the world of Richard Stark, you ever notice that?

And finally (for this week) we close with Chapter 18, exactly 100 pages into the book.  Grofield is the backseat of a car (an Impala this time, I don’t like those as much, no image) screwing the girl from the library–well, they were screwing, and then they both apparently dozed off, awaking in a state of coitus reservatus.   Ever the actor, he thinks of her as Madame Librarian, ala The Music Man, but just for the record, her name is Dori Neevin.  She will not be heard from again in future, so now would be the time to mention that.

We’re told Grofield feels a bit guilty about seducing her on somewhat false pretenses (this time he’s not being upfront about being married, because he’s under cover, so to speak).  Alan Grofield is never very guilty about anything, but there’s always this residual conscience nagging at him–and you can hear Stark’s unstated commentary–what’s the point of feeling guilty about doing something if you’re still going to do it anyway?

It’s implied she has a boyfriend she’s put on hold for Grofield’s sake, and he’s slightly guilty about that too, but it’s pretty clear she’s just a small town girl who wants to have some good dirty fun with an older more sophisticated man than she normally gets to meet–still figuring out who she is, what she likes, how to best express her ebullient young personality, not to mention her ebullient young libido.  She’s no more serious about this impromptu hook-up than Grofield–she just wants to have some fun.

And fun they are surely having, in the back seat of a Chevy Impala parked by a church and a graveyard.  Nowhere else in all of Westlake’s work under his own name or Stark’s is there a passage that reeks half so much of 60’s era sleaze.  With just a bit of extra oomph to it, which was always Westlake’s specialty when he was writing that stuff under false names–one of which, come to think of it, was Alan.

“Wake up, sweetheart,” Grofield murmured.  “We seem to be having intercourse.”

Her right arm came up to wrap around his head and close off his windpipe, and her hips began to move more strongly.  Clutching with both hands, Grofield gave as good as he got, and the breathing in his right ear became very fast and ragged.

Things went along that way for a while, until suddenly the upper part of the torso reared up, Dori’s astonished face appeared directly in front of Grofield’s eyes, and she cried, in amazement and delight, “Oh!”

“Hello,” he said  His right hand was now partly free; partly to ease the pain in his shoulder, he moved it down and placed it next to his left hand.

Dori was laughing.  She put the heels of her hands against his shoulders, pressing him down into the car seat, and remained with her upper torso straight-armed erect; they were now like Siamese twins, joined from the navel downward.  Laughing and at the same time clenching her face muscles in concentration, she proceeded to bear down, doing things she’d never learned at the library.

Grofield lost track of the church bells, and when he could think about them again, they’d stopped.  Dori had collapsed into his chest, her hair in his nose and her lips against the pulse in his throat.  “Good morning,” he said, and she murmured something contented, and shot bolt upright, her elbow in his neck as she stared in horror out at the sky.

“It’s tomorrow!”

“Not any more,” Grofield said.

She is not prepared to live openly as a wanton woman yet (it may be the 70’s, but it’s also the midwest–Mary Richards may be having all kinds of premarital intercourse over in Minneapolis, but she’s not talking about it afterwards).  Dori clambers all over Grofield, gathering up her clothes, imploring him to get her back home before her absence is noted.  And as she does so, he looks around one last time at their surroundings–a church and a graveyard.

Exactly.  The church, red brick, was off behind the car, and this was the congregation’s burial ground.  Flat land symmetrically lined with weathering tombstones, the symmetry broken by an occasional maple tree or line of hedge.  At some distance ahead, woods started, stretching off toward low hills.  To the right and left, weedy fields separated the graveyard from tracts of small identical houses.

“In the midst of death,” Grofield murmured, “we are in life.”

A bit trite perhaps, but not bad on the spur of the moment.   And mightily prophetic.  I don’t really hate Grofield, but as The Bard had Feste declaim in Twelfth Night, “pleasure will be paid, one time or another.”  Yes, that was foreshadowing–Westlake’s and mine.  And I’d better wrap up now for this week.

Now was that sex scene really necessary?  I’m not asking if you liked it, that’s a different question.  Stark normally wouldn’t bother with the messy details, because he figures we know about the birds and bees already, and he likes to keep things simple.  So why go into such detail here?  I think maybe because this is not merely a summation of everything Westlake had written as Richard Stark to date, but of everything he had written at Random House (meaning he probably did know his association with them was ending here), and much of what he’d written elsewhere–including a lot of dirty books under false names.

Only Stark novels are explicitly referred to, though–and not just the Parkers.  There are references to events from all four Grofields as well–in fact, this novel concludes with a reference to the opening of The Damsel (featuring another nubile and improbably willing young blonde we never heard from again afterwards).  Seventeen books in all are referenced here.

And yet I can’t find any references at all to two of the Parker novels–specifically, The Seventh and The Sour Lemon Score.  Which are widely agreed to be two of the very best of the series–the former is often considered to be Stark’s finest accomplishment.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I fail to see even the ghost of a hint regarding Parker’s experiences in those books.  Even though it would have taken no more than a few well-placed sentences–less than half a page, in a 306 page book–to make the retrospective complete.  The omission is clearly intentional.

WHY?

More questions to follow, hopefully with answers.

PS: This book inspired some very nice cover art, some of which we’ll be seeing over the next few weeks, courtesy of DonaldWestlake.com.  This week, aside from the Random House first edition, with its spectral image of Parker looming over the Tyler skyline like Heist-zilla, we have the German and Italian first editions, which as we have seen with past books, took the basic idea of the American edition’s cover art, and did their own thing with it.  That way they don’t have to pay for the rights to the original artwork, local artists get to eat, and it all works out nice for everybody.  The German cover is cool, but the Italian–bellissima!

With the exception of some Robert E. McGinnis covers, I think it generally works best when Parker’s face is obscured–so we can all imagine what he looks like.  According to one character in this book, he looks like a regular guy–just a little tougher and meaner than average (bear in mind, this is a gangster’s perspective on what normal looks like).  But I think that’s how he looks when he’s blending in, hiding his true self from the world.  You don’t want to be around when the real Parker looks out from behind the mask.   And if you ever do see behind that mask, you probably won’t be around for much longer.  The moon is waning.  See you next week.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Butcher's Moon review, Donald Westlake novels