Review: Butcher’s Moon

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“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.


“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?”


“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–


(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.


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  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)



Filed under Butcher's Moon review, Donald Westlake novels

35 responses to “Review: Butcher’s Moon

  1. The Hammett reference is an astute one. I’ve long considered Butcher’s Moon to be a (very) loose reworking of Red Harvest. But as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, the Hammettian conceit of an outside operative playing various factions of a mobbed-up town against each other has been borrowed again and again, e.g. in Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing and Lucky Number Slevin and Miller’s Crossing (my all-favorite movie) and, well, Butcher’s Moon.

    Tyler is fascinatingly and fully realized, even if it is a fantasy of organized crime. It’s interesting that the “straight” power structure is barely a presence, the ringer mayoral candidate making a brief cameo but every other supposedly legitimate politician exists only in the shadows (the flip side of how us regular squares experience the world). I find myself wondering what happens to Tyler after this novel ends, with every major OC figure dead and the existing power structure in shambles.

    Lozini is a great character, sharper than most of the mob guys depicted here, even if our omniscient narrator informs us he’s not a good a cook as he believes himself to be, a terrific (and ultimately telling) detail. He does indulge in the logical fallacy you describe above, but he snaps out of it as soon as he sees the logic of what Parker points out to him. On a dime, Parker goes from his most hated enemy to an uneasy ally against unknown foes.

    It is quite curious that Stark resurrects Mackey and Wycza and I can only assume he wanted to bring back everyone, though, again, he doesn’t bring back anybody from The Seventh (every one of whom was a one-off). Maybe he only saw wiggle room with Mackey and Wycza’s reported deaths. Still, those long after-the-fact explanations read like fan service, especially Mackey’s. In Butcher’s Moon, we get that scene between him and Brenda as they travel to Tyler and they have a brief conversation about the events of Plunder Squad and there’s no hint or mention of the injury he sustained.


    Overall, I love this book. I’ll have more to say in the next installment.

    • It really is a headscratcher, isn’t it? Wyzca isn’t that big a deal, but Mackey? You know Westlake wrote that first scene with Ed and Brenda in the car, chuckling gleefully to himself, picturing the faithful Stark reader’s confusion. I have the beginnings of an answer, which I’ll get to in due course, but it’s speculative, even by the standards of this blog. We’ll probably never know, but it’s fun to guess. He left out The Seventh and The Sour Lemon Score from his nostalgia tour for a reason–let me see if I can figure out what that is.

      Lozini is a picture of a man who has lost his balance–smarts alone won’t cut it in his world. You see this with machine politicians all the time (you don’t get to observe mobsters much in their native habitat). For years, they have this uncanny sense of which way the wind is blowing in their districts, nobody can touch them, and then they reach a point where they just lose their bearings, become disoriented, start making mistakes. And some young hotshot comes in and finishes them off. But they get to go on breathing afterwards. The guns don’t need to come out. One of the many blessings of Democracy.

      Red Harvest, to borrow a phrase from a different kind of gangsta, is often imitated, never duplicated. Because in all those other versions you mention, it’s an empowerment fantasy, where the hero can kick everybody’s ass himself. He’s not a short balding overweight employee of a detective agency. The Op has to use his wits, his street smarts, because he’s barely able to fight one guy at a time. He has to make these guys do all the heavy lifting for him. He’s no samurai. I love Yojimbo, it’s a masterpiece, but it requires you to believe this guy is so good that he can cut down a small army with his sword, finish a gun-fighter with a knife, and yet he’s unemployed. And he’s doing all this why, exactly? You need a Kurosawa, a Mifune, to sell that fantasy. Leone went on to make some of the greatest films ever made, but I don’t think he sold it nearly so well with Eastwood in his uncredited remake of Kurosawa’s uncredited adaptation.

      This book here is a different kind of fantasy than either Red Harvest or Yojimbo. Parker is not interested in playing one faction against another. Their internal divisions are meaningless to him, and he’d sooner loot this town to its basements than bring peace to it. He just wants his money.

      The internal struggle is working both for and against him–it’s making Lozini more cooperative, yes, but Lozini has already lost his grip on power–something that happens to several characters in this book, because real power is an inherently unstable shifting disloyal thing. You can have all of it today, and none tomorrow. That’s a major theme in the book–but Parker is powerful because the only power he desires is power over his own destiny. His power comes from himself–but he’ll need more than just his own talents to win this one. That’s the real point of the book. Sometimes the lone wolf needs a pack.

      You weren’t commenting yet when I reviewed Killing Time–that was Westlake’s first attempt at rewriting Red Harvest, and it became a very dark rewrite. You try to play both ends against the middle, you get crushed between them. The ‘hero’ of that book tries to use people, but at the same time he wants to help them. He hasn’t figured out who he is, or he used to know, and he forgot. He loses because he loses himself.

      Parker never forgets, never loses himself, at least not for long. He’s the North Star in Starkville. You don’t have to go his way–you can’t, really–but you can still plot a course by him. That’s the point of the character–but would it be impossible for someone like Parker to lose his way? This book suggests otherwise. But we’ll get to that in Part 3, God help us. I hope my fingers hold up to all the typing. 😉

      • Well, in one of the versions I mentioned, Miller’s Crossing (which is really more of a reworking of The Glass Key), the hero, Tom Regan, decidedly cannot kick everybody’s ass himself. In fact, he may hold the record for movie protagonist who receives the most ass-kickings in a single film. But just like our Op, he uses his wits to manipulate those more powerful than he (both physically and politically). Unlike the Op (and most definitely unlike Parker), Regan actually cares which side wins the mob war. His shifting allegiances are so much chimerical flimflam. Parker, while clever, doesn’t rely on his wits. He doesn’t deceive anyone on either side of the war. He’s very straightforward. If I can’t get my money from you, I’ll burn you down and get it from the next guy. Which was his exact strategy with The Outfit. Butcher’s Moon, in addition to being a Hammett riff, is the star-studded, big-budget Hollywood remake of The Outfit.

        • Yeah, I was never that sold on Miller’s Crossing. I know it has its adherents, and it’s certainly a good movie for its era. I’m not Anti-Coen or anything, they’ve made some of my fave films of all time, though I’m still mad at them for remaking True Grit (Does Jeff Bridges rock? Yes. Can he beat Duke Wayne? In a western? No.).

          I don’t think that’s a retelling of Red Harvest, because the protagonist isn’t an outsider coming into a town he doesn’t know and learning the ropes as he goes–he already knows the players, just not as well as he thought. And while that could be said of Killing Time as well, the difference is that Tom doesn’t upend the status quo–he restores it.

          And believe it or not, I still haven’t read The Glass Key–I’ve never even seen the movie! Some mystery maven I am. Just kibbitzing my way through. Well, sometimes a fresh eye sees clearest. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.

          Parker doesn’t rely on lying to people, though of course he lies to the law, like any guy from his world would. He prefers the direct approach with other people on the bend, or with the people he robs, but you might as well say a wolf isn’t relying on his wits because he doesn’t try to convince the deer he’s really a mouse.

          There are different kinds of wits in this world, and we tend to assume ours–based on deception, putting up a false front–are always best. Parker will adopt whatever tactics he thinks will work, but at the end of the day, he’s found that the direct approach works best for him–with the codicil that his version of the direct approach can be very very sneaky.

          Actually, Grofield is like this as well, sometimes–remember how he gets accused by Marba of lying with the truth?

          The problem with deception is that you end up deceiving yourself. Some of our upcoming books have that point to make as well.

          Parker’s wits come down to paying attention. He may seem to be paying us no mind, but he’s always watching us very carefully and closely. With cold observant eyes.

          • I don’t know how many times or how recently you’ve seen Miller’s Crossing, but I believe it is worth a reevaluation. (It’s a movie that rewards re-watches.) It’s my favorite Coen bros. movie by a mile (clearly, since it’s also my favorite movie of all-time). Watch it after reading The Glass Key.

            • Once. On cable. Years after it was in theaters. I have to tell you, loving Irish Trad as I do (only classic jazz ranks higher for me), I have a certain sensitivity to the way certain filmmakers who know nothing about that music, never listen to it at home (unless it’s the Chieftains, or maybe Enya), still use it in movies with Irish characters, even though nobody in the movie would be listening to that music (Irish gangsters in America in that era were listening to jazz, like everybody else). “It’s so keening and Celtic. We’re establishing a mood. The Irish are a moody race.” Eh, feck you, filmmakers.

              I will give it another chance, but I’m still going to like Raising Arizona better when I’m done. And I’m still pissed more people didn’t give Inside Llewyn Davis a go. Anyway, I can’t watch The Glass Key before I read The Glass Key. And I’ve got a very very long reading list looming before me. Not to mention my re-reading list. Not to mention my DVR backlog. Would you believe I just watched Get Carter for the first time? Like tonight. Great cast, nice atmosphere, but I thought it dragged a bit. Stop wanking about and kill the buggers, Mike.

  2. This book contains what I think of as one of Westlake’s few narrative mis-steps in the entire series — why keep the identity of O’Hara’s killer (and also Lozini’s betrayer) secret? We don’t know enough about any of these people to make the reveal have an impact, and anyway the Parker books were never really mysteries (despite their library classification). I would argue it might actually be better to let the reader know, so when Parker is riding up the elevator with Calesian there’s some dramatic tension.

    • That would be one way to go with it, but I think the idea is to put us in Parker and Grofield’s position–not knowing enough about what’s going on to know what the right course of action is–we shouldn’t be looking down like gods, saying “Oh, I know what they should do.” You can’t know the players without a scorecard, and no scorecard is provided at first, or at least a very incomplete one. You can only learn so much from old newspapers, particularly when you’ve been distracted by a sexy young librarian.

      If Parker knew who was who, his choice would be simple–kill the ones that stand between him and his money–but he’s got feel his way into the situation, push their buttons, see how they react. As the story progresses, and he finally knows everything that’s going on, the full disposition of the opposing troops, then he can marshal his forces, sound the attack.

      Parker doesn’t win over and over because he’s tougher. He wins because he doesn’t just rush into battle unprepared. He wins because he sizes up his opponents first.

      Parker gets into an actual fight with a worthy opponent in this one–a rare thing in this series–he comes up behind the guy–he was hiding in a closet (no metaphor intended). Think about how few real physical altercations Parker has been in over the course of twenty books. You keep thinking “Oh, he’s gonna have to fight this guy”, book after book, and he rarely ever does. It’s a treat for the reader when it happens, but Stark is awfully stingy about it. Because it was never about proving who the better man is. Parker doesn’t need to prove anything. And he’s not really a man, down inside.

      Anyway, it may not be a real mystery, but it was written for Random House after all, and it’s another part of the ‘ritual’ that Westlake has to pay proper homage to, in his own rather irreverent way.


  3. Ray Garraty

    So many whys.)) I have mine and I’ll save them for later.
    This novel is experimental in some ways, still one archaism I found that bothered me: Grofield used an old-fashioned way to gather intel on mob, seeking info in a library. Thank gods it was not Parker. I can’t imagine Parker in a library. Do you?
    Westlake, as I wrote before, heavily stylized the dialogues here, especially between mobsters. Westlake tried to reach for authenticity. I can’t say he was fully successful, but it’s better than was before.

    • Well no, I can’t imagine that–he would never do that–that’s one reason Grofield has to be in this one. Grofield is more of a renaissance man. But it’s a good system for the time, Ray–no internet, remember. They don’t know the players in this town–they can’t even start asking questions around town, or hitting vulnerable businesses, without getting some names first, some locations. Grofield’s research works out very well, and not just in terms of his sex life. I mean, you might as well ask why they don’t communicate with Lozini via his Twitter feed. 😉

      And now that you’ve brought this up, I suddenly realize this is yet another hearkening back, a reference to Westlake’s previous work–361. Remember? Westlake clearly did. Ray Kelly uses the same exact method to dig up information on his father’s presumed killers–to familiarize himself with the enemy he’s preparing to fight. His first weapon in that fight is The Readers Guide to Periodical Literature. The switch in this book is that the newspapers are on microfilm now–no more dusty bound volumes eating up shelf space.

      So it’s actually quite up to date–for the period. I mean, you must expect some archaisms in a book that was written over 40 years ago. And you must realize that Westlake himself did this kind of research, like any novelist. He knew quite well how much you can learn about powerful people in a library.

      I just looked up an article in the Times as part of my research into this book–I used an online database to find the date, but it didn’t provide me with the full text. For that, I had to walk over to the public documents department, and pester one of my colleagues into using a much more sophisticated version of the same battered microfilm reader Grofield slaves over, so that I could get it printed out. The alternative is to subscribe to the Times Article Archive, and that costs money. I prefer free.

      I don’t worry as much as you about authenticity. I don’t think that’s the point. Actual real-life criminals in prison loved his books, particularly the Starks. If he’d gotten the speech patterns that wrong I don’t think they’d have enjoyed his work so much.

      Just for the record, there were high-ranking mafia guys living in the leafy suburban New Jersey nabe I grew up in. They sounded a lot more like the mobsters in this book than in most of the supposedly authentic mafia books and films I’ve seen. That is to say, they sounded like regular suburban people from that part of New Jersey. Because other than the way they made their living, that’s what they were.

      I think you have to recognize that these are midwesterners here in this book–they aren’t living in Bensonhurst. They wouldn’t talk the same way. They have to blend in to a certain extent, assimilate. It’s part of the American experience.

      But how realistic does this need to be? You can get so hung up on reproducing reality that you forget to tell a story. Call me archaic, but I think that’s still what it’s all about.

      But thanks for bringing this up, because I’d completely missed that. Grofield in the library is a direct reference to Ray Kelly in the library. I wonder just how long this list of back-references is going to get?

      • Ray Garraty

        I’m thinking differently. Where I live you can’t compile a dossier on anyone based on what the press writes about him. I think at that period papers were pretty blind about what’s going on with the mafia. I guess you could find out only some general info.
        I happened to read BM almost right after Friends of Eddie Coyle, and I found that in this book Westlake could be influenced by Higgins, in dialogue mostly. Westlake was more focused on the story, Higgins on the dialogue, so obviously Higgins’ dialogues were closer to life. But it seems we already covered that ground previously.

        • Westlake certainly read Higgins–and wrote about him, with a mixture of admiration and critique (he could be a tough critic). As we discussed elsewhere, I was less impressed by The Friends of Eddie Coyle than you. It’s more realistic, sure–Higgins knew more about actual organized crime than Westlake–but who said that’s necessarily the point of writing a story like this?

          If I wanted to know what really happened in that time and place, I’d read the many non-fiction books about Whitey Bulger and his associates. Fiction is about trying to understand people from the inside, and I don’t feel like any of these people are really that well understood in the book. It’s all surface. The point of writing fiction is that you can get into people’s heads. Feel out their motivations. Lozini is a more compelling character by far than anybody in Higgins’ book. He’s almost Shakespearean in his rage and confusion. And he could just as easily be a ward politician, or a truly legitimate businessman. His story is universal. Eddie Coyle’s, not so much–except in the sense that we’ve all been betrayed by friends. I don’t know who that guy was, why he did what he did. Higgins didn’t tell me. It’s a very different approach.

          I think in the wake of Godfather-mania (the novel came out in 1969), there was a rush to get mob-related stuff in print. Higgins had been struggling to get a writing career going as a sideline to his work as a prosecutor, and this was his moment. Because he really knew these guys–but remember, he knew them strictly from a certain angle–him and his co-workers trying to put them in jail. I think that’s a somewhat limiting perspective.

          But because he was so familiar with their speech patterns (think of all the surrepititously recorded conversations he had to listen to, all the mob informants and defendants he had conversations with), he really could create a sense of verisimilitude, and people were excited by that–The Godfather was just a story, but this was real. You could meet these guys, rub shoulders with them. It was crime fiction, but it wasn’t really part of the genre–people could say they were reading serious literature.

          But to me, the most serious literature is the best-written, genre or otherwise. Butcher’s Moon is much better written than this. I don’t think Higgins ever really developed much as a writer, which is why his first published book is the only one most people know. He had something to say, and he said it. I’m glad he did. It didn’t move me that much.

          I don’t think it’s much of a story, you get right down to it. Maybe it doesn’t have to be–fiction can be a lot of different things. As to the dialogue influencing Westlake’s approach, I’d assume it did, but I have a hard time seeing specific instances. These characters are talking and acting the way Richard Stark characters have been talking and acting since The Hunter, with slight adjustments in response to changes in the popular culture, and publishing trends (you write a Random House hardcover differently than a paperback original).

          I would say Puzo (who Westlake never wrote about, that I know of) had a bigger influence on it, because Westlake feels like he has to make the mob more Italian now–his audience will expect it. But he still doesn’t believe in the secret rites, and the code of honor, and all that bushwah. These are just guys trying to make money and get power, and create corporations. If he makes it really Italian–if he makes it specifically one culture–it’s screwing up the point he wants to make, which is that these guys are businessmen, organization men, cogs in a machine. And there have always been guys like this, in every culture. It’s not just an Italian thing, an Irish thing. He has different interests than Higgins. He’s not doing a docudrama here. That would tie his hands, and he wouldn’t be able to run free with the story.

          And anyway, Higgins is writing what he knows, which is the Boston scene (more Irish than Italian). This is a small city in the midwest. You really think they’d talk the same way?

          I can read a book like Butcher’s Moon over and over, and get something new out of it every time, because Westlake put so much into it, so many characters, so many ideas–you don’t have to know or care anything about real organized crime to get into it. I read The Friends of Eddie Coyle once, and that’s it. I know many others feel differently about it, see more in that book. Nothing I can do about that. I see what I see. And if I don’t see it, I won’t pretend I do. But if we all agreed which books were the best, a discussion like this would get pretty boring, wouldn’t it?

          • Ray Garraty

            We’re back to where we started. I’m not asking to compare these two books as these are quite different story. I’m just asking to consider the possible influence of Higgins on Westlake’s dialogues. Maybe there wasn’t any influence at all, who knows? To prove that one’d need to carefully examine the books and even the biographical moments of these writers. Someday someone will write a paper on that.
            Academic things aside, I still like the Higgins better. ))

            • Which is fine, and many would agree with you. But I just don’t seem to be fully receiving what it’s transmitting, a well-known hazard in discussion of any form of artistic endeavor. As the saying goes, it’s not you, it’s me. Which is the way Americans say “It’s you.” 😉

              I didn’t see any strong influence. Timewise, it’s possible. Westlake certainly had read the book. But can you give specific instances, lines that you don’t think Westlake would or could have written prior to reading Higgins’ first novel? I think the influence would probably run more in the other direction, given how much Westlake had already published in this genre, not that Higgins’ book fully belongs to that genre.

              I think the success of Puzo’s novel, and then Higgins’, would have encouraged Westlake to write more about organized crime, and to make his writing in that area a touch more authentically ethnic. But that’s all I can see. If you see more, enlighten us. If you have the books handy. If not, another time.

              I can’t contribute any more to that discussion without something more to respond to, because I just don’t see the influence, and I don’t own a copy of Higgins’ book, and frankly I think The Friends of Eddie Coyle has been over-analyzed, and Butcher’s Moon under-analyzed. That’s one of the reasons I do this blog. People read something by Westlake, say “Wow, that was cool” and then go make a fuss over some other book the critics took more seriously. Not that I want to over-analyze him either. That might ruin the fun. But there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface than people realize.

  4. We don’t know for a fact that Ed Mackey died at the end of Plunder Squad. Maybe he survived the gunshot wounds and the smoke inhalation, and somehow didn’t get burned badly, and found a doctor that wouldn’t report that he’d been shot, and the only permanent damage he suffered was memory loss (contagious, so that it affected Brenda too), and a few months later he was fine and also eager to work with Parker again.

    It could happen.

    • When the explanation for Ed’s survival was finally provided, many years later, I found it quite satisfying, emotionally if not logically. If they don’t talk about it in this book, it’s because there’s no point. It’s been discussed already.

      But that isn’t the question–the question is why is Ed there at all, his survival notwithstanding? He doesn’t have any peculiar skills or experiences the story requires. Brenda’s own skills of infiltration and reconnaissance are not employed here either (we don’t even get a sex scene with her and Ed, where she sounds like she’s talking Chinese while he’s screwing her).

      The one really false note is that Brenda doesn’t seem sure they’ve worked with Parker before–he’s a pretty memorable guy. I guess you could interpret that as irony. I interpret her saying Parker didn’t exactly turn her on as her indirectly admitting he does–in future books, she’s going to be a pretty strong advocate for Parker, and I think she figures if someday Ed and Claire are out of the picture, she and Parker will hook up. Not that she’d want that to happen, but it’s good to have a spare handy.

      It’s a very odd discordant element in the book, and it needs some attention.

      Raoul Walsh once said “It’s hard to kill an actor.” Not as hard as killing a character Donald Westlake likes.

  5. Ron

    I am reading “Butcher’s Moon” now, and I don’t recall any mention of Ducasse (from “Plunder Squad”) being part of the string in the failed heist at the very beginning. Also, not to nit-pick, but wasn’t it Littlefield (not Parker) who was leaning on Grofield to be able to account for his income back in “The Score” ?

    On another subject, I wonder if many readers found the presence of Claire to be irritating, like Susan Silverman in the Spenser books. Although Claire is never consistently present or involved to that extent. With Susan, those chapters are like toll booths on a highway — you just want to get past them so you can get moving again as quickly as possible. Sometimes I wish she and Hawk would run off and elope. (But then that raises the question as to whether being rid of Susan is worth the loss of Hawk. Probably not.)

    • If you reread The Score, you’ll see Parker was agreeing with Littlefield on this, joining in–it was an older experienced guys vs. young punk type of conversation. Parker very definitely was telling Grofield to file a return. So that’s one for my side.

      However, you’re quite right about Ducasse not being there at the start of the book–it was Hurley. I fixed that. Brainfart. It’s not nitpicking when you’re right. So the score is tied. Can’t win ’em all.

      I never read even one of those Spenser books, but I watched some of the TV show, and Claire is not even the least little bit like Susan Silverman. I think it’s mainly that she ruins the fantasy of total freedom for some readers. They won’t want Parker to be domesticated.

      But to Parker, having to keep finding a new woman after every job–every one of whom could turn out to have some hidden liability he didn’t know about (like an angry sword-wielding boyfriend) isn’t freedom. It’s a pain in the ass. He was married when we met him. A guy who gets married once will get married again, one way or another (and who would know better than a writer who got married three times?). Parker wasn’t cut out to be a swinging bachelor all his life. No wolf ever is.

      As to Hawk, I’m just glad he got himself out of that mess, and found himself a nice paying gig on Deep Space Nine.

      • Ron

        I won’t bury the lede here — OMG, you’ve never read the Spenser books? They are definitely worth your time, and are all available in either print or e-book format. I’d recommend going chronologically from the very beginning (“The Godwulf Manuscript”). One thing I would add is, do NOT judge the books by the TV show. For reasons I won’t get into, because this would turn into a rant, the TV show was not a good translation of the books, with one exception: Avery Brooks was indeed perfectly cast as Hawk. (Which reminds me that I seriously need to get acquainted with DS9 at some point. I’ve also thought he would have made a great Batman.)

        • I have a lot of books to read, Ron. Not all of them crime novels. I certainly agree you can’t judge a book based on its filmed adaptations. That being said, I just doubt I’m ever going to get around to Robert B. Parker–maybe in the retirement home, if I live that long. But by all means watch Deep Space 9, one of the best space opera shows ever, even if it did rip off Babylon 5. 😉

      • like an angry sword-wielding boyfriend

        Which is no basis for a system of government.

  6. I’m relatively new to Richard Stark. While I was reading Butcher’s Moon, I was studying your analysis of the novel. For me, VERY helpful and insightful. I recently posted a review of BMoon you might enjoy. Link:

    As a seasoned fan, love to know what you think.

    • I think maybe you’re almost as bad as me when it comes to synopsizing entire novels. Though you didn’t make yours a three-parter. You weren’t as pithy and colorful as whoever wrote that back cover synopsis for the Japanese edition, but I enjoyed the piece. I wouldn’t call what you did a review, so much as an appreciation; because you didn’t really get into the guts of the book, its inner workings. You’re just enjoying what’s there on the surface, and that’s fine–that’s a large part of the audience for Parker.

      Quibble–I don’t believe Westlake thought he was writing the last Parker ever when he sat down to write Butcher’s Moon. He probably knew his long-standing professional connection with Random House was winding down, and he didn’t have a publisher lined up for Stark, but he could have found one (probably wouldn’t have paid as well). He said in interviews that after completing this one, he did try a number of times to write a new Parker, and it didn’t feel right. I think maybe he wanted a break from Stark, and got out of the groove. (I actually covered this in the review.)

      Much later, he tried it again, and after getting some positive feedback, proceeded to write eight additional novels. While Butcher’s Moon does feel like a conclusion to a number of different running storylines, it’s hardly a finale. Parker is alive, free, healthy, intends to keep working (not like he boosted a million bucks here), and we never find out what happened with Grofield. It’s a very open-ended ending, which clearly tells us he was not ruling out more. Parker was too valuable a property to just abandon–and for all his ambiguity about Stark, he knew this was a vital part of who he was as a writer, even if he wanted to explore other areas a while.

      Westlake probably never sat down to write a deliberate finish for any of his series characters, with the exception of Abraham Levine, and that was long after he’d written the previous short story featuring Levine, as a way of tying up loose ends, and making a planned anthology read a bit like an episodic novel. The final Mitch Tobin novel wasn’t meant to be the last, and neither was the final Samuel Holt–in both cases, he just decided after the fact that he’d done all that could reasonably be done with either character and it was time to turn his attentions elsewhere. (In the case of the Holts, he also had a bad experience with the publisher, and Holt wasn’t popular enough to take somewhere else).

      Parker isn’t really the kind of character you write a finale for. There’s always something more to say with him, which is why Westlake wrote 24 novels about him. I think Westlake would have gone on writing Parkers for as long as he could type. Every time but the last time.

      • Thanks so much for your reflections and experience here. All great points. I just did edit my review accordingly. Could you kindly take another look. Many thanks. Link:

        • Quibble erased. I understand very well why you wrote it that way, because if Butcher’s Moon was the final Parker, it would be arguably the best finish to any series in the annals of crime fiction. I didn’t read the Final Eight in perfect order (since I began with Flashfire), but I absolutely did cover the First Sixteen that way, and it was as riveting and engrossing an experience as any I’ve ever had as a reader.

          You could make a case for Ripley Under Water, but that’s a much shorter series, and I don’t know that Highsmith had ruled out writing more about her favorite alter ego when she started that one. Writers have to kind of feel their way through a series, figure out when the law of diminishing returns must be enforced. You don’t want to ruin something through excessive repetition, though that’s more of a problem for a great series than a merely enjoyable one.

          Charles Willeford tried to write a finish for Hoke Moseley–after just one previous book!–and the publisher shot him down, made him write something open-ended so the series could continue, and Grimhaven remains a tough book to find in manuscript form. Chester Himes wrote a funereal finish for Gravedigger and Coffin Ed, and then opted not to publish it in his lifetime. That one you can buy, but so far, I’ve resisted. I think he regretted writing Plan B. I still understand why he did.

          It’s hard to let go of series characters, particularly if the entire series is built around them. George R.R. Martin has so many POV characters, he can afford to whack them on a regular basis (though sometimes they come back, one of the advantages of fantasy fiction). Much as Conan Doyle wanted to get rid of his great detective, you’ll notice he never provided a body. He kept that option open, exercised it later.

          There is no finale for Parker, and that’s how I like it. That’s how it should stay.

          • Thanks for your added reflections. BTW – I especially enjoyed and found most helpful your insights regarding that Newgate Callendar NYTimes review. I plan to read and review more Richard Stark – want to share my enthusiasm with as many potential readers as possible.

            • Spread the faith, brother. But understand Parker is rolling his eyes at you while you do it. He really does not give a damn who likes him or not. Which is precisely why we like him. 😉

              • By weird coincidence–


                Now of course Westlake knew there was such a thing as a Hunter’s Moon, and he could very well have named the book that, to tie into the first entry in the series–except that would have meant a full moon. Human hunters profit from the light of a full moon. Lupine hunters can do very well without it. Parker prefers no moon at all, and gets rid of all artificial light as well. There are things best done in darkness.

                I’m frankly more interested in how blue the moon was last night. Omen? I see them everywhere, always. But I never know what they mean until later.

  7. Now of course Westlake knew there was such a thing as a Hunter’s Moon, and he could very well have named the book that, to tie into the first entry in the series–except that would have meant a full moon.———– Exactly. And, if I recall accurately, the night of Parker’s eleven vs. forty Tyler thugs, Parker & company benefited from there being very little or no light from the moon.

    BTW – How powerful is the spirit of Parker? Last night, the night of the full moon, I sat down to write preliminary notes for my next Parker review – the novel: The Rare Coin Score. Couldn’t do it – it was as if Parker put a gun to my head and said, “If you’re going to write about me, do it right.” No more words were needed. I knew on the spot I had to begin with The Hunter and move through in order of publication.

    • Works better that way. I might also suggest you look at other books Westlake was writing in the same general time period. You might not like them as much (or you might sometimes like them more), but you’d learn things about his process, and the way he used the same ideas in different books–differently.

      • Excellent suggestion. The only other Westlake book I’m familiar with is The Ax. I learned of the book when first published since it received an outstanding review in the major Philly paper and I listened to an interview Mr. Westlake had with Terry Gross. A few years ago, I decided to reread and post a review, one of my all-time favorite reviews to write. Link:

        Just yesterday I read your extensive 2-part analysis of the Ax. So insightful, particularly how you delve into his influences and the connection with his own life/family experience. I had an “aha” moment when you noted that Terry Gross interview.

  8. Greg Tulonen

    For some reason, I’d never listened to the Terry Gross interview before. I just did, and was surprised to be able to add two new titles to the lost or abandoned Westlake projects file, both of which he mentions as being in progress in 1997, but neither of which ever came to fruition.

    1) A screenplay for a Martin Scorsese-produced remake of “A Double Life,” a 1947 Ronald Coleman movie about an actor who descends into madness while playing Othello. You can see how the story might fall into Westlake’s wheelhouse (actors and a main character who doesn’t know himself).

    2) A screenplay for a remake of the Kurosawa movie “High And Low” (itself an adaptation of an Ed McBain novel “King’s Ransom”), about a wealthy man whose chauffeur’s child is kidnapped (accidentally; the rich man’s son was the target). Westlake mentions that the rich man faces a moral choice over whether to act to protect another man’s child, and that Kurosawa and McBain arrived at different conclusions about what he would do.

    I wonder how far Westlake got on either project.

    • I just wonder if the checks cleared for the work he did. Marty doesn’t have a rep for stiffing people on his payroll.

      The King’s Ransom thing is interesting, isn’t it? Kurosawa probably figured people wouldn’t like Mifune turning heel, as he rarely did in films (rare exception, Samurai Assassin, great flick). Morally ambiguous, sure, but never an outright sleaze.

      And Kurosawa couldn’t very well make the cops his heroes, as we can be sure McBain did with Carella & Co. Not enough time to build them up and still focus on the shoe mogul’s conflicts. And you know, his endless obsession with noblesse oblige, due to his own family background–the samurai class or its modern-day equivalent, taking responsibility for the common people, instead of abandoning them (as happens all the time in reality, and always did, in Japan and all over).

      But a more pertinent reason to go this way with it would be it had already been done–with none other than Glenn Ford. Adapting an earlier story in the same vein–check out this terrific blog article–have to see if this guy has reviewed any Westlakes.

      But having seen the Glenn Ford movie (twice), and even bits of the inferior Mel Gibson remake (did I even need to mention it was inferior when I was going to use the words Mel Gibson remake?), I know that is a decision made for selfless motives, not selfish ones–his company wants Ford’s character to cough up the dough, they’ll back him to the hilt, he’ll lose nothing from it–it would look so bad, letting the kid die.

      Kurosawa might have approved of the social responsibility Ford’s character shows, not wanting to encourage other kidnappings to save his own boy–but it had been done. So he changes the story to it being the wrong kid, a child of the working class–effectively speaking, the child of a vassal. The feudal spirit. (Which was never as spirited as this.)

      Kurosawa didn’t have to worry so much about his primary audience saying “Hey, you’re ripping off Glenn Ford!” But he wouldn’t have wanted to tell the same story. If you look close, McBain isn’t either–he’s making a choice Westlake would approve of–showing that a man obsessed with money and power puts those things ahead of everything else. And in the context of an 87th Precinct novel, he can do it, because we can always root for the detectives–the dad is only a one-shot protagonist, and an unsympathetic one at that, something very common to that series.

      Westlake might have come to similar conclusions (I don’t know how familiar he was with Kurosawa’s work). Maybe just a tinge of all this went into Jimmy the Kid, with the oddly abstracted WASP aristocrat father, concerned for his son, but still using the phone in his car to discuss business. And refusing to let himself cry when he knows Jimmy’s okay, as he was always going to be. Kidnapping stories are a bitch to write, no matter how you go about it.

      I really do have to stop conducting all the blog’s business in the comments section, don’t I?


  9. Just did finish listening to Butcher’s Moon last evening – much richer experience than the first time a couple of months ago before listening to 1-15 in sequence. Stan Devers and the others are filled out characters just at the mention of their names. You gotta love Parker making those 25 calls – after all those Blunder Squad Plunder Squad botches, his inner wolf boiling over makes even more sense. Thanks again for your analysis of this Stark series. I’m pumped for 17-24. Initially, I thought I’d space the books, say about one a week, but phooey, just can’t help myself to quickly moving on to the next Parker. And lucky me – so many Parker scenes I’ll be hitting fresh for the first time.

    • Curious to see your reaction to the Final Eight.

      The only bad thing about the Parker novels is that there are only twenty-four of them–and they go so quickly. But you can always read them again.

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