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?