Review: Comeback

Mackey leaped down beside him, empty hands closed into fists. “Shoot the cocksucker!  What’s the matter with you?”

“No need,” Parker said.  “And a noise could draw a crowd.”

Furious, Mackey said, “Don’t leave him alive, God damn it.”  He acted as though he wanted to pull the shotgun out of Parker’s hands, and was restraining himself with difficulty.

Liss was out of sight now.  The police had finished clearing out of here a little after ten, and the three in the trailer had gone to sleep around midnight, three hours ago, Liss on the sofa in the office, with the money and the guns.  He could have just taken the money and left, but he hadn’t wanted Parker and Mackey behind him the rest of his life.

Apparently Mackey returned the feeling.  “Parker,” he said, “that was a mistake.  We could have afforded a little noise, not to have  him around any more.”

Parker never saw any point in arguing over past events.  He said, “Can you call Brenda?”

And he’s back, just like that.  With no explanations of where he’s been, what he’s been doing all this time, how much time has actually passed.  Well, that’s typical of him.  He hasn’t changed a bit.

And some would say otherwise, that the Parker we see in the final eight novels is qualitatively different from the Parker of the first sixteen.  Softer, they say.  More human.  Well, we humans say all kinds of silly things, playing our games with words, with time.  We’re all obsessed with what used to be, and comparing it to what we have now.  But he’s not one of us, and he doesn’t care what we’re obsessed with.  All he cares about is what he can take from us.  To Parker, something that happened a few seconds ago might as well have happened in the early Cambrian.  While his present is taking place somewhere in the late Pleistocene.  And there is no future, at all, at all.

So no, I don’t think Parker got any softer in the later books.  I think he adapted to a changing environment, certainly.  I agree there are some problems with these books, overall.  Welcome though they are, fascinating though they are, deliciously entertaining though they are, I think they are not quite as good as the ones that came before them.  There are several reasons for this, but most important among them is the fact that you can stretch even the most glorious of anachronisms too far.

Parker was a glorious anachronism from the very start.  Westlake based him to a great extent on figures like John Dillinger–figures from the 1930’s.  Dillinger went down bloody in 1934, almost exactly a year after Westlake was born–maybe seven years after Parker was born, going by references to his age in the books.  For all we know, Westlake fondly imagined Dillinger was Parker’s father, the result of a one-night-stand.  I wouldn’t even want to guess who he imagined the mother was.

But my point would be that even by 1962, the year he walked over the George Washington Bridge to kill Mal Resnick and get his money back from The Outfit, Parker was a relic of a bygone era, and recognized as such by many he came into contact with.  It’s a bit like how later in life, P.G. Wodehouse would hear people saying Bertie and Jeeves were relics of the 1920’s, and he’d say no, they were really more out of the Edwardian era he’d grown up in–by the time they first appeared, they already seemed very dated and twee and out of step with the times, which was part of the joke.  Anachronisms from the very start.  Everything old is new again.

So the challenge for Richard Stark, now that he’s sprung once more full blown from the head of Donald Westlake, is how to make this particular anachronism jibe with the last few years of the 20th century, and the first few of the 21st.  And that’s an interesting problem, on so many levels–you can imagine the creative juices flowing in response to it.  Does Parker make sense anymore?  Does he have a place in this world of digital cash, instantaneous information sharing, phones you carry around in your pocket (more and more of which have cameras in them)?   How far can Parker adapt to all this?  How far does he need to?

Used to be you could walk into a government office without any ID at all, and walk out with a Social Security Card.  Parker gets a driver’s license in the first novel by filling out the form that doubles as the license itself, and then drawing the official stamp onto it with a pen.  A crude forgery–that works fine, as long as nobody looks too closely.  And so few people ever do.

Sure, people can still fake all kinds of things now, steal other people’s identities with a few mouse clicks, but that takes the kind of technical know-how someone like Parker could never master, because his mind doesn’t work like that.  He can’t follow us into the digital world, and he doesn’t want to.  But that world is going to impact him, whether he likes it or not.  He is going to need people who understand how that world works, sometimes.  Whether he likes them or not. And they better hope he does.

Or else they are going to find out in turn that the old wolf knows some really old tricks that will work in any time, any place.  Parker is strictly analog, and the analog world is still the only world that really exists, you know.  The only world that ever will exist, unless you want to get all spiritual and stuff.  That’s the world you’re born into, and it’s the world you’ll die in.  No matter how many lies you tell, no matter how many false identities you fabricate, or steal.  Nobody can ever steal Parker’s identity.  Because only he knows who and what he really is.  We can’t follow him all the way into his world, either.

So that’s the point of the Final Eight–the way they show Parker adapting to the Information Age, but of course he’s been adapting to change ever since we met him.  It’s just harder to write the stories now.  Less room to maneuver.  And there was a certain energy to the 1960’s (and the decades before it)–a mingling of old and new styles, clashes between old and new ways of thinking–you can feel it in just about any form of personal expression in that period.  Obviously we still have those clashes now, but not nearly so clear-cut.  The lines of scrimmage have gotten hopelessly confused.

Westlake can do a lot as a writer, but he can’t keep that old feeling alive once it’s gone.  Him or anybody else working in genre.  Crime fiction is not as good as it used to be.  Fiction is not as good as it used to be. Not saying that to hurt anyone’s feelings, or to rant about how everything sucks now.  Just stating a fact.  Parker hasn’t gotten softer–we have.

But having said all this, I must confess, this first book of the renewed series could almost have taken place in the 60’s, with just a few minor tweaks.  There’s very little sense of social and technological change, other than the problem that recurs throughout all the books–where can you find sufficiently large quantities of insufficiently well-guarded untraceable cash? The target in this case is a revival meeting, convened by a smooth-talking preacher with about as much religious sincerity as a used car salesman–how Elmer Gantry can you get?  Not everything changes, even when you want it to.

And this retro feeling of Comeback probably stems from the fact that Westlake seems to have conceived the book around 1988, right after he finished working on the film adaptation of The Grifters–itself a very anachronistic story, based on Jim Thompson’s experiences in the Depression, moved to the early 60’s (for the novel), then moved again (for the film) to the late 80’s.   A story about how people never change, when you get right down to it.

And there were some scandals in the late 80’s and on into the 90’s, involving famous televangelists, who often held rallies at stadiums (more in the third world than in the U.S., but they did build those mega-churches here eventually), and raised a lot of money, and then spent much of it on cool stuff for themselves, and Westlake saw where Parker might find some ready cash, come up with a working plan.  Now he just had to come up with the inevitable complications to sour that plan.

But by the time he’d finished it, almost ten years had passed.  If he’d finished it just a few years later, he’d have had to write it very differently.  Nobody has a cellphone in this book.  Not even a pager.  Much of the book takes place late at night, in a mid-sized city, a twilight world, full of shadows.  The shadows persist even in full daylight.  One thing that never changes is how long it takes me to get to the synopsis when I’m doing Stark.  Okay, here we go.  Been a while.

This book is not only a comeback, but a throwback, though not completely so.  Butcher’s Moon had abandoned the four part structure that was Stark’s trademark; where the chapter count keeps resetting, and each part has a specific job to do.  The first two parts from Parker’s POV, setting up the central complication of the plot, the conflict to be resolved–then Part 3 moves around, each chapter from a different character’s perspective–and then back to Parker for Part 4 and the wrap-up.

And the point is, to show us Parker’s very clear and focused mind, and contrast it with the frequently more muddied self-deceiving perspectives of the people he’s working with or against.  Comparative psychology.  It still bugs me so many people read these books and don’t see that.  I’ve seen the term ‘psychology free’ used to describe the Parker novels–in more than one language.  Perception free, is what I’d call those readers.  Oh, that was mean.

It’s like that here, except the Part 3 stuff happens in Part 2, and not all of those (mainly very short) chapters stay in the head of just one character, as with the earlier books.  It’s still about comparative psychology, but the lines aren’t drawn so clearly–Westlake playing around with the form again, seeing how far he could stretch it.  Not too far.  But making Part 2 the Part 3 works, since so many of the main characters aren’t in Parker’s string, and we need to meet them a bit sooner this time.

Comeback is a throwback in one other notable way–starting with The Rare Coin Score, all the way back in 1967, Westlake had stopped opening the books with the now-legendary “When such and such happened, Parker did something” motif.  That was the first one he did for Gold Medal, and I couldn’t say offhand if there was a particular reason for him not kicking off the books that way anymore.  Maybe it was his idea, maybe an editor’s suggestion, and he just kept doing it that way once the series moved to Random House.  But now he’s deliberately going back, bringing Parker into the present–and the classic opening of the early Pocket paperbacks returns with him.

When the angel  opened the door, Parker stepped first past the threshold into the darkness of the cinder block corridor beneath the stage.  A hymn filtered discordantly through the rough walls; thousands of voices, raggedly together.  The angel said, “I’m not so sure about this…”

Parker is.  This is a heist, and it’s too late to cancel it on account of cold feet, or pinions, or whatever.  It’s a stadium heist–shades of The Seventh–it also has some marked parallels with the heist in Deadly Edge.  In both those books the heist happens early in the story, doesn’t take up much time, and it’s really all about the aftermath.  But this isn’t a sports event or a rock concert–it’s a very different blend of music and theater and rooting for the old home team–a sort of revival tent meeting writ large, anchored by a charismatic TV preacher, as had become commonplace by the 1980’s.

And what makes it a ripe target for armed robbers, as was the case with the heists in those earlier books is that it’s all cash–no credit cards.   People pay cash to get in, they can give still more once they’re inside if the spirit moves them, and since they’ll be seen giving it by a huge stadium crowd, as well as in a filmed version of the event to be shown on TV later, it most certainly will move many of them.  (Guess their bibles omitted Matthew 6:3–printer’s error?)

(This book is not an expose on the revival racket–that’s just background color– but Westlake was certainly drawing on his research for Baby Would I Lie? here, among other things.  Evangelical preachers have a lot in common with hillbilly balladeers–you know who Jimmy Swaggart is related to, right?  And he’s still reminding his more cosmopolitan readers that there’s an America out there in the hinterlands they might want to pay a bit more attention to.)

The angel’s name is Tom Carmody, his wings are part of a costume, and the way this all came about, we’re told via flashback, is that he works for the ministry of Rev. William Archibald, and he was a true believer in the good Reverend , until he got close enough to the top of the organization to know Archibald was a thieving whoring sumbitch who just happened to have a talent for projecting fake sincerity, and turned it towards preaching the gospel (yes, retrospectively, we may say he set his sights too low).  Elmer Gantry with a TV show.  Parker seems familiar with the type, since he says he thought they were all in jail by now.

One of the things the Archibald ministry does is work with released convicts, and this is how Tom met George Liss, a different flavor of sumbitch, the kind Parker sometimes works with, though never preferentially.  Tom knew what George did for a living, and he started pitching the idea of stealing the proceeds from one of his stadium events, and then Tom could use his share to do real good, instead of just watching Archibald spend it on fancy limos, plush hotel rooms, and big-breasted women.

So Tom is the finger on the job, their man on the inside, and like most amateurs who get into the heavy, he’s a problem.  But not nearly as big a problem as George Liss, and Parker has a bad feeling about this guy, who he’s never worked with before, though they’ve known each other slightly for some time.  He’s skeptical about a stadium heist, says it’ll be just a lot of credit card receipts.

“Not this one,” Liss said, and the left side of his face smiled more broadly.  A sharpened spoon handle had laid open the right side, in a prison in Wyoming, eleven years ago.  A plastic surgeon had made the scars disappear, but nothing could make that side of his face move again, ever.  Around civilians, Liss usually tried to keep himself turned partially away, showing only the profile that worked, but among fellow mechanics he didn’t worry about it.  With the slight slurring that made his words always sound just a little odd, he said “This one is all cash.  Paid at the door.”

For reasons that probably have a lot to do with the IRS, the people who come to these stadium events Archibald holds each have to donate twenty bucks in cash at the door–a ‘love offering’–and they are encouraged, as already mentioned, to give more once they’re inside.  The gate, Brenda Mackey observes, almost sensuously, will be around 400k.  But with the additional love offerings, it could be close to a million (as matters arrange themselves, all they get is the gate–still a nice haul).

The Mackeys, Ed and Brenda, are back in this one, and if all you’d read of this series is the Final Eight, you’d think they played a much bigger role in the First Sixteen.  Ed Mackey, of course, had been seemingly killed at the end of Deadly Edge, and the return of him and Brenda in Butcher’s Moon was never explained in that book.  And here we are, twenty-three years later, and it’s still not explained.  Going to have to wait another five years for that explanation, though if you’re paying attention, you can figure it out from what happens in this book.

With the exception of the book after this one, we really don’t see any of Parker’s more trusted confederates from the First Sixteen in the Final Eight, and the most important ones don’t appear at all.  No Handy McKay, no Alan Grofield, no Stan Devers.  Maybe dead, maybe retired, maybe imprisoned, maybe they missed the time warp and are still back in the early 70’s, but whatever the reason, they did not make the cut.  In other words, Westlake has decided to weed out the fellow heisters Parker had the closest thing to an actual friendship with.  Well, the closest thing to a more than purely professional relationship, put it that way.

So to me, this indicates we’re actually seeing a colder, less accessible, less human Parker in these new books, not a ‘softer’ one.  A Parker who cares about himself, and Claire (rarely seen until the very end), and that’s it.  He sticks his neck out for no one.  We can talk more about this when reviewing upcoming books, but some of Stark’s romanticism has worn a bit thin around the edges since we last saw him.  The novel after this has a bit of an old home week feeling, but after that, when some pro from Parker’s past shows up, it’s generally bad news for whoever that is.  Should have stayed back in the past.  No room at all for sentiment anymore in the Stark Lands, not that there was much to start with.

George Liss is to some extent a reworking of characters like George Uhl–half a pro; dangerous, effective, but always looking for a chance to take it all for himself and kill his partners so they don’t come looking for him afterwards.  A mad wolf. His physical description is quite similar to Uhl’s, (Uhl–Tall and very thin, with receding black hair”  Liss–“a tall, narrow, black-haired man with a long chin”).

I am now realizing that he also closely resembles Parker’s most trusted–and dangerous–associate of all.  “He was long and thin and made of gristle, and his stiff dark hair was gray over the ears.”  Handy McKay.  With half his face frozen.  And no loyalty, to anyone.  And all three men sound rather similar to Westlake himself as a younger man. And to John Dortmunder, of course.  I don’t know what any of this means either.  Back to the synopsis.

In spite of Tom’s jitters, in spite of him having told his girlfriend about the heist, in spite of them only getting about half of what they were hoping, the job is a success.  Almost 400k, split three ways.  Using the old trick of laying low close to the scene of the crime, all three men are holed up in a construction trailer they placed right outside the stadium some weeks before, padlocked and seemingly abandoned.  They just have to wait for the cops to finish checking to see if any of the attendants have the cash, and leave–then stow the cash at a pre-arranged spot, and wait for the roadblocks to be lifted.  It’s that simple, but Parker has learned from hard experience to assume it will never be that simple.

Parker wakes up to find Liss pointing a shotgun at him–which fails to go off. Because Parker unloaded the shotguns when nobody was looking.  Liss makes a run for it, without the cash.  Parker has reloaded the shotgun, is watching him run through the empty parking lot, has a clear shot at his retreating form–and he doesn’t take it.

Ed is disgusted with him.  Parker’s rationale–that gunfire might attract attention, bring the cops back, when they don’t have a car available to them–is that really a sufficient rationale for letting George scarper, when clearly he’s going to go on thinking of that money as his, and will regroup to come after it again?  They’ll have to get rid of the shotguns (too hard to conceal), and they have no other weapons.

We’ve seen this kind of identity puzzle before in these books.  Parker doesn’t always kill when you’d expect him to.  But this is a particularly egregious act of ‘mercy.’  George Liss was working with Parker.  He tried to kill Parker and take Parker’s share of the loot.  That’s a clear and unambiguous death sentence in the world of Richard Stark.  Stark will look into Parker’s mind, just a short time later, and see Parker thinking that he needs to see George Liss dead.  Liss knows very well that Parker will be on his trail the rest of his life, if he doesn’t get Parker first.

So why not take a shot at Liss when he’s unarmed and fleeing?  Granted, a shotgun isn’t the best distance weapon, but even a non-fatal hit would stop him long enough to finish the job.  Liss himself can’t understand why Parker doesn’t shoot–we’re left in no doubt he’d have pulled the trigger with no hesitation, if he were in Parker’s position.  So would Ed Mackey.  So would most guys in their profession.  Shoot first, ask questions later.

So apart from the undeniable fact that the story hangs on George Liss escaping the consequences of his betrayal for the time being–why didn’t Parker pull that trigger?  Because in that moment, the trigger inside his head was only half-pulled.  It was all too sudden.  He hadn’t processed it yet.  Parker only kills when he has to.  Liss is no longer an immediate threat.  Gunfire might attract attention.  Parker’s killing instinct hasn’t been engaged.  If Liss came back a short time later, saying it was all just a big misunderstanding, Parker would cut him down without hesitation.

But this momentary hesitation, mere seconds after George’s failed doublecross, is perfectly in character for him.  He needs to consider what happened, and why, before he takes on another deadly vendetta.  The trigger in his head has to be completely pulled.  Several times we’ve seen him shoot at a fleeing enemy, but these were guys he’d already decided needed to die, whether they ran or not.  It’s not mercy. It’s just how his mind works.

It won’t take him long at all to come to the same conclusion about George Liss, but we can sympathize with Mackey’s frustration–sometimes Parker’s weird instincts can be a liability.  Sometimes it’s better to act quickly–and sometimes it isn’t.  Parker’s strengths are bound up in his weaknesses.  So are Mackey’s–he would never have thought to unload the shotguns.   And Liss never thought to check the gun before he fired it.  Over the long run, it’s better to think before you shoot.

But whether Parker was right or not, they still have to proceed with the plan–when Brenda shows up with their ride, they take their leave–blowing the trailer (and the shotguns) to bits as they go, to remove any forensic evidence that might trace back to them.  The police are drawn to that noise, for sure, but too late.

One final complication–three guys came up to the trailer while they waited, checking it out, then leaving.  They don’t look like law.  Parker thinks to himself they’re dogs who have lost the scent.  As we learn later on, they never really had it to start with.

So they have the cash, they have a car, but they also have a problem–the entire town is in lock-down mode.  Most honest people are in bed.  All the outgoing roads will be watched.  They can’t go back to their motel, because Liss might be there waiting for them.  They can’t check into a new motel in the middle of the night without looking suspicious.  Parker says they need an all-night gas station. Tank is full.  Brenda’s possibly the best getaway driver Parker’s ever worked with, and that’s saying something.

Ed is puzzled.  Brenda figures it out immediately.  Earlier in the book, we hear Parker thinking that he knows why Ed always brings his woman on jobs with him, something Parker never does.  Brenda is the brains of that two-person outfit.  And the single best thing about this book, which I’ll be talking more about next time.

But in the meantime, in-between time, they find that all night gas station (Brenda the Brain spotted it earlier, made a mental note).  It’s by the interstate, so Ed and Parker get out of the car and scope things out–the exits have squad cars parked by them, waiting, but the cops can’t see the station from where they are.  Just before that, Parker thought he saw something, far behind them, in the rear-view mirror, but he wasn’t sure.  Too dark.

Brenda goes in alone, playing the helpless girl with car trouble, and then Parker and Mackey come in, and all of a sudden the kid manning the station realizes they’re taking it over for the night–he’s locked up in a windowless room, with a magazine–and no bathroom.  (Better off than that kid in The Score, a book that resembles this one in many respects–except this kid hadn’t just left his girlfriend’s warm bed, and he’s going to end up with more than just a bad head cold).

The station wagon with the money they park on the hydraulic lift in the garage. Camoflauged.  The station is shut down–with any luck, nobody will wonder why until they’re gone.  In the morning, they can seek alternate lodgings, alternate transportation, wait for the right moment to shake the dust of this town from their feet.  Parker is going to need to find George Liss at some point, but the getaway is still at the top of the agenda.

Ed and Brenda sleep in the car, while Parker naps a little on a chair in the office.   He wakes up right around dawn–there’s a police car outside.  Just one cop. Uniform doesn’t fit him right.  It’s Liss.  He sees Parker.  He unbuckles his gun holster.  Parker is unarmed, unless you count a wrench.  End of Part One.

And end of this Part One as well.  Short book, I can do the rest next time. Actually, the first edition is almost 300 pages, but the print is large, and the pages small–Mysterious Press decided to try to invoke the dimensions of the old paperback originals here, except you’d still need a pretty big pocket to fit this book in.

The cover art for the Final Eight is mainly nowhere near the standard of the First Sixteen, though some of the foreign editions were pretty good, and there is one outstanding exception with regards to the first U.S. editions.  I’ve always been a bit iffy about the concept of Parker as an angel with a shotgun–carried over from the first US edition to the University of Chicago reprint (except now he’s got an assault rifle, which makes no sense at all).  Carmody’s the one with the wings–first fake ones, then the metaphorical kind–or metaphysical.

I like the UK edition with the stadium.  Brief and to the point.  Like Richard Stark.  And so very unlike your average long-winded skirt-chasing televangelist. Well. Glass houses. We all have ’em.  And we’ll be seeing a fair few of them.  Next time.  Bring stones.

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43 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Uncategorized

43 responses to “Review: Comeback

  1. When I read Comeback (not long after it came out), I didn’t realize what a big deal it was, how long-awaited this particular return had been — though perhaps “long-awaited” is the wrong term, because I suspect fans were no longer waiting, had given up on the possibility. It would be like the Dodgers returning to Brooklyn.

    You’ll probably get into this in part two, but I believe this is the only book since The Rare Coin Score in which Parker even considers having sex with a woman other than Claire. True, he doesn’t consider it very seriously, but his dismissal of the idea seems to have more to do with the urgency of his current situation than with Claire.

    • Yeah, that’s the other identity puzzle relating to Parker in this book–Stark doing what he always does, putting Parker to the test, trying to find out how he’ll react in a given situation. He wants to shake things up a bit in these new books, ask some new questions. Not much time left to solve the riddle of this sphinx.

      I’ve gotten into actual arguments with people over this, since it seemingly contradicts what I’ve said in the past about Parker and Claire’s relationship. And I don’t believe it does. And I’ll explain why. And some people still won’t want to believe me, because there is understandable nostalgia among the male readers of these books (maybe some of the female readers, for all I know) for the days when Parker was fancy free, and free for anything fancy. To repurpose Irving Berlin. I wouldn’t have minded at all if Parker had bedded the Botticellian blonde–and there’s another one coming, book after next. And Parker doesn’t bed her either. Stark is very disciplined.

      Like the Dodgers returning to Brooklyn? More like coyote-wolf hybrids recolonizing the Bronx. Or wolves returning to Yellowstone. The Druids are no more, alas–maybe someday there’ll be a Westlake pack.

  2. Westlake shook up the structure at least a couple times before — off the top of my head, Slayground had the non-Parker chapters in Part 2 instead of 3. And at least a few of them bounced between multiple viewpoints — The Outfit and The Score, most obviously.

    I’ve only read the final 8 through Breakout, but I don’t think the drop in quality is particularly severe. Honestly, the average quality strikes me as on par with the first 16, there just aren’t any knockout works of genius like The Hunter or The Seventh or Butcher’s Moon.

    Brenda really is the best, isn’t she?

    • Yeah, I noted that about Slayground when I reviewed it. And it’s the same reason–since most of the characters aren’t on Parker’s team, won’t be talking with him much or at all, you need to find out who they are and what they want sooner.

      Butcher’s Moon is the only one that isn’t split into four parts–Stark even split some of the Grofields into four parts, but he mainly stuck entirely to Grofield’s POV. It didn’t work as well, to switch perspectives, because Grofield isn’t a wolf. He’s just an actor. Actors are people. And yes, I’ve had lunch with a few.

      I wasn’t paying as much attention to structure when I first started reviewing these books. You learn as you go. But honestly, in terms of structure, he was not shaking things up here at all–he was going back to the tried and true. The way he’s shaking things up in these books is more subtle–more about character. And most of all, in the world he’s putting these characters into.

      Brenda is the Starkian equivalent of J.C. Taylor–one of Westlake’s bad girls. And his bad girls are always his best girls. 😉

  3. Westlake would have made Archibald entertainingly crooked. Stark’s version is pretty colorless, just a run-of-the-mill con man who’s been successful enough to act respectable. He wants his money back pretty badly, because greed, but not enough to do anything notable about it. (OK, bribing one of the thieves to return it is notable, but not done deliberately.) It helps that we all assume anyone like Archibald is going to be a crook, so Stark, unlike Sinclair Lewis, didn’t have to sell it.

    • Sinclair Lewis is a reformer. Richard Stark assumes we’re all irreformable. Westlake falls between those poles.

      Stark has no real problem with Archibald (nor does he want to spend a lot of time with him, since that’s not what the story is about, and it’s not a long book). He knows who he is, what he wants, how far he’ll go to get it (he doesn’t even seem to be married, which frankly strikes me as improbable). So he’s not really punished, except with the loss of his money (plenty more where that came from). Stark chooses to punish a different character here. Somebody who is more proficient, professional, and even moral (after a fashion).

      Elmer Gantry, in the book, is a fairly romantic character. You empathize with him (and even more in the movie). Yes, he likes to have sex, and to have nice things, and who doesn’t? He’s learned he can use religion to get those things. He has his downfalls, but he always gets back up again–he’s always forgiven. And boy, has that proven out over time.

      I read a lot of Sinclair Lewis growing up, and I admired his books, but never loved them. His style can be a bit stiff, the soapbox can get wearing after a while. But he’s held up pretty well, all the same, because he, like Westlake, had a sharp eye for the passing parade. And he, like Westlake, can see things coming from quite a ways off.

      He told us it could happen here. He was right. Damn it.

      Westlake said something oddly similar (or rather Culver), and I will have to talk about that at some point. When I’m ready.

      • I read the books that earned Lewis the Nobel (Main Street through Dodsworth), and, man, they were a chore to get through: every point he makes is repeated endlessly. Not a problem with Stark or Westlake.

        Elmer Gantry is one of the few cases where I prefer the movie to the book, and that would be true even if it didn’t star Jean Simmons and Shirley Jones. Probably. (Lancaster is pretty great too.)

        • Elmer Gantry is maybe his best book (that or Arrowsmith), and the movie did manage to cover most of the same points in a lot less time. Still and all, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I prefer the movie. I prefer Shirley Jones and Jean Simmons. Not the same thing. Lancaster is magnificent, but the ending of the movie is less honest. Elmer Gantry has the capacity to learn, but somehow he never does. And neither do the pigeons he plucks.

          Lewis can be a chore to get through, but chores have their purpose in life. And he put a fair bit of sex in there, just to sweeten the medicine. Upton Sinclair did the same thing. I always found it weird, that those two far-sighted long-winded stump speakers of American literature had that name in common, but not in the same order of primacy.

          • Ever read The Man Who Knew Coolidge? It’s Lewis from that same era, though it wasn’t any kind of success. It’s a series of monologues by the titular “Constructive and Nordic Citizen”, in which he manages to show that’s he’s dumber than Babbitt and viler than Gantry. Once again, really repetitive, but fun. It might make an interesting contrast to Sacred Monster.

            • I didn’t even know that existed. It wasn’t in my high school library, that I can tell you. And I pretty much stopped reading Lewis after high school. For that matter, I stopped reading Hemingway after high school as well. Pithier, but just as full of himself. Ditto Fitzgerald. I have a limited tolerance for the Literary Lions. They have things to teach, certainly. But sometimes those towering oaks get in the way of appreciating the complex undergrowth beneath them.

              There are all kinds of little oddities like this produced by famous writers–Eugene O’Neill ghost-wrote a book for his dog. Now you know I’m a major dog lover. And even I find this a bit much.

              http://www.eoneill.com/texts/blemie/contents.htm

  4. Ray Garraty

    Either it’s something with my memory and reading habits or with last 8 Stark books. Without your review I couldn’t remember a thing about Comeback.
    (Reading this imagining Parker checking his Facebook messages from Claire.)

    • Nothing in this world could ever make me imagine that. I last read Comeback a few years ago, and many moments from the book remained vivid for me. Most of all the scene in the abandoned house. But memory is a funny thing. I’m finding that sometimes I remember things from these books that aren’t there when I go back to them.

      • Ray Garraty

        I swear: wake me during the night and I’ll tell you all about the first 8 Parkers and the 4 Random House ones. I even remember Mercenaries that I’d read in fever. Comeback: blank. I imagine there is nothing particularly wrong with the book. I just swallowed it too fast.

        • In my case, I started with the later novels. It wasn’t so easy to find the earlier ones, in libraries, or in bookstores. I had to do a lot of searching around online, and in the meantime, I read Flashfire, Firebreak, Breakout, and (after I found it at The Strand) Comeback. So that was my introduction to Parker. And they do say you never forget your first time. 😉

          • Ray Garraty

            That explains it then. I started them in chronological order.

            What I always found least believable in Parker novels is not what Parker was doing but what he wasn’t doing. What does he do in his time between jobs? Staring at walls? Chain smoking? With time came more entertainment. Cable TV, Internet, pay services, music streaming for shit’s sake – Parker checks Netflix to pick what TV series to watch tonight with Claire? Nobody can imagine Parker doing that. You can’t escape the now. Even my grandma is curious about the Internet, and she ate grass during the war. You are not buying Times now, you just pay for online subscription. You can’t fool the now.

            • Parker can, because he’s not one of us. That’s the point of the character. That’s what made him interesting to Westlake, that’s what made him interesting to Lee Marvin (who really had that staring at walls thing down), that’s what makes him interesting to each new generation of readers. If Westlake ever came out and said “He’s a wolf, he’s a panther, he’s an alien, he’s a sociopath”–that would ruin it. I can theorize all day long, and I think I’ve found the best available analogy, but at the end of the day, Parker can’t be explained away. Even his relationship with time is ambiguous, anomalous.

              Why do we always have to be doing something, watching something, living a story or listening to one? Why can’t we just be? Because we’re human. Parker isn’t.

              I did get to read the first sixteen novels in chronological order. And the last three novels–the trilogy, or as Greg and I like to say, triptych–were the last ones I got to. So it’s just the first five of the Final Eight that I read out of sequence.

              • Ray Garraty

                Sure, he’s not one of us and that’s his appeal. But can’t we fantasize a bit? While reading Parker books don’t we want to fill the gap between what’s on the page and what’s left out? Earlier I told you that I’d like to read a Parker novel where he was not robbing another bank but where he was doing nothing? Or facing a different sort of problem? Like Claire’s unexpected pregnancy? Or recovering from a stroke?

              • Westlake wrote a book sort of like this called Put A Lid On It, which I haven’t gotten around to reviewing yet, and I just bet you hate it. 🙂

                But even that has a heist in it, and bad guys, so it doesn’t really meet your criteria of a no-action book about a character who is all about action. A crime/espionage thriller about nothing–maybe we could get Jerry Seinfeld to play the hero?

                Genres can be very flexible, but not infinitely flexible. You can’t, for example, write a science fiction story set in the present with no startling new technologies, no aliens, no robots, no time travel, no alternate histories. Something weird with at least a vaguely scientific gloss to it has to happen.

                I don’t know, you seem to be describing post-modern fiction, but even that usually has something happen, even though it’s not usually very interesting when it does.

                Revisionist crime stories are nothing new–been done over and over. The private detective has been sent up innumerable times, ditto the secret agent. I think these books already exist, and you just haven’t read them, because the truth is you don’t really want to. I mean, the Ripley books are primarily composed of fairly quotidian activities, interspersed with the occasional murder. Try some of those. If those don’t satisfy, look around. You know perfectly well, if you can imagine a story, somebody’s probably already told it. Maybe even well. But I reject the notion that fiction is better when fewer things happen–or more things. Just the right number of things need to happen. And only the storyteller can decide what the right number of things is. And we get to decide if he or she made the right decision.

            • Was there ever a Sherlock Holmes mystery where he and Watson did nothing but quarrel over how to decorate the flat on Baker Street?

              Was there ever a Continental Op story where he tried to talk the Old Man into giving him a raise?

              Was there ever a Mike Hammer novel where he just balled Velda on the couch all day in his office, because there were no clients and those damn commie agents had just given up and gone home?

              How about a James Bond novel where he tries to write espionage yarns for magazines, and finds out this writing business is bloody hard, and he decides to go find one of those horny married women who make up most of his social life, and then her husband walks in and things get awkward? Or maybe things get more interesting, who knows?

              What you’re describing is called FANFICTION. Stories written by people with too much spare time, to flesh out the personal lives of characters whose personal lives are not the main subject of their stories. We think it’s what we want. We really don’t. These characters are what they do. If what they’re doing is boring and mundane, so are they. A few scattered moments of quotidian activity go a long long way in genre fiction. Or really, most fiction.

              • Ray Garraty

                You’ve just listed the books on the top of my I-Want-To-Read-Them list.
                I’m not suggesting that someone should write fanfiction. Yet if you want to break out of genre frames you should try something different. Put someone like Parker through midlife crisis and see what happens. I can really imagine some Brit author writing a novel where Parker-like character just sits at his home and looks out of the window at the lake. Just this. No robberies. No double crosses. No chases.

  5. Ray, that sounds to me a bit like the Stephen Soderbergh movie “The Limey,” though there’s a fair amount of bang bang in that movie as well.

    • Yeah, I think Ray would rewrite that so in the scene where they throw him out of that warehouse, he reaches back into his waistband and pulls out a smartphone, which he uses to tweet about his dismay over how rude people are nowadays. :\

  6. Ray Garraty

    OK, old boys, make fun of a little guy. But seriously: aren’t adventures of a mind more interesting than adventures of a body? Everybody can write a 300-pages novel with chases and fist fights, but a 300-pages novel where nothing happens and yet it’s fun to read? Can you blame a guy if he on some day likes his prose plotless?

    • Ray, I’ve ordered a lot of books for you. Some of which ran you quite a lot of money, not even allowing for what it cost to ship them to you.

      I can’t think of even one that matches this description. They were murder mysteries, heist stories, suspense thrillers. And many were, in fact, about adventures of the mind. Those chases and fist fights don’t just stand for action in the real world, you know–they can reveal a lot about human character–Edgar Allan Poe proved a long time ago that mysteries are a lot more than just lurid entertainment, and H.G. Wells proved the same for science fiction–and many have improved since on their achievements, taken it deeper, whether it’s Donald E. Westlake or Philip K. Dick.

      Is Charles Willeford a shallow action writer? Would Cockfighter or The Burnt Orange Heresy be better books if there were no fights (human or galline), no sex, no murder? Aren’t those just mechanisms to shed light on the workings of the mind, the conflict between the individual and society? As well as to try and get people to read the books, and there’s not much point to a book no one reads, is there? Willeford so utterly defeated the expectations of the genre he worked in, he wasn’t fully appreciated until just before his death, but that’s still a better fate than the author of Confederacy of Dunces. I like that book well enough, but give me Cockfighter any day. I think people are too much in love with the idea of writing A Great Novel. Posterity decides what’s great. Write something that comes from you, that tells a truth you alone can fully express, and if it’s beautifully written, all the better. But the honesty of it is what matters.

      Could you write a great book in which nothing much of importance happens? Sure. James Joyce did–a book about one day in the life of a a few Dubliners, one of them Jewish. I’ve yet to get all the way through that book, but I certainly think it was a great literary achievement, more for the way it was done than anything else. It’s been a great thing for literary scholars, who get tenure on the basis of untangling its obscure references and its use of language.

      Prose can be plotless–in which case it’s an essay, not fiction. If you’re describing mundane daily activities, you’re still telling a story, and you’re still spinning contrivances. The question is, how well are you spinning them? And that’s all that matters–whether you’re telling a story worth the telling. It can be about anything, but it can never be about nothing. Or it’s not a story. It’s just the literary equivalent of wanking off. A great deal can happen when seemingly nothing is happening–and in bad action-oriented novels, absolutely nothing of importance may be happening, even though there are bombs going off everywhere. Looking at you, Clancy & Cussler.

      Perfectly crafted prose with nothing behind it, to me, is far less satisfactory than clumsy hackneyed prose with a purpose–many of my favorite writers were by no means polished wordsmiths, but they were, as Eugene O’Neill once put it, honest stutterers. If you have something to say, say it. If not, why did you even start?

      PS: You think Dostoevsky is one of the greatest novelists of all time, and I’m not convinced you think the qualifier is needed. His most acclaimed books are about murder mysteries, terrorist plots, and sexual conquest. That shameless sleazy genre hack. Almost as bad as Shakespeare. 😉

      • Ray Garraty

        There are new forms of prose, new types of novels, story-less, plot-less. Story alone doesn’t do it. In Parker novels it’s especially the case: the story is the same in all the books of the series. The prose style matters more here, the style is the story. The style, not the story, divides Stark from Westlake.
        Like it or not, even this blog I read mostly for style.

        • This will not go down as a great age for either the novel or the short story. It’s a fairly corrupt form now, seeking relevance in the age of digital entertainments, and mainly not finding it. In my opinion, these books will not hold up over time, and honestly–how many people read them now? Not saying nobody is writing good novels, but the good novels have plots. No, story alone doesn’t do it, never has, but without story, what’s the point?

          Some critics may praise these plotless books, but you know what? Most of those critics would much rather read a Parker novel. And so would you.

          And I have a style? Are you quite sure you’re not confusing style with affectation? 😉

          • Tristram Shandy has no plot, and it’s both a classic and genuinely a lot of fun.

            • Never got to that, but going by the synopsis, sounds like it’s got scores of plots–just no central story.

              Seriously, does Don Quixote have a plot? Does Tom Jones? Does Huckleberry Finn? Does The Pickwick Papers? If just rambling about and never getting to a final point about anything (while making all kinds of points on the sly) is modern and innovative, the modern era of the novel started around the same time the novel did.

              I was reading of late about the controversy over ‘Gongorism’, also called ‘culturanismo’, a style associated with the Spanish poet, Luis de Gongora. His rival was Francisco de Quevada, who championed a style called ‘conceptismo’. Basically, Gongora’s style was very ornate (it was, in fact, the Baroque era he was writing in), full of obscure cultural references and injokes, using as many words as possible to say something. Quevada went to the other extreme, using as few words as possible to convey a variety of meanings. (Westlake is perhaps unique in embodying both approaches in the same career, though I don’t think he took it to the extreme in either direction).

              Now what I draw from this is that we think we’ve gotten so clever all of a sudden with this post-modern crap, but in fact people are just going back to older styles. Novels started out being rather chatty, episodic, and not necessarily centered around some driving narrative, and they got more focused and plot-driven over time, and that was considered progress, evolution, improvement. Now, because that style of storytelling dominates the way TV and movies and best-sellers are written, it’s seen as dated, outmoded–everything old is new again. The truth is, we just swing back and forth between opposing poles, and the only thing that’s ever new is the people swinging from those poles–the unique perspectives the individual writer, with his or her unique experiences brings to the party. Or doesn’t, in which case you just have a lot of stylistic tropes trotted out for their own sake, and there’s no point to it at all, at all.

              Whatever style you use, you still have to have something to say, whether you say it ornately or simply. There’s no right or wrong. There’s just good and less good (and sometimes flat-out bad). T’aint what you do, it’s the way that you do it. Or to put it another way–

              Arranged and conducted by Benny Carter. Saw him play many times. Now that’s real style. And when it’s real, it never gets old. And when it isn’t, it never was new.

              • So that’s where that word comes from. There’s an oft-quoted, highly unsympathetic essay in which Clifton Fadiman calls William Faulkner’s style “a kind of Dixie Gongorism”. And Faulkner was a huge contrast to Hemingway, whose concision was a big influence on Hammett, who was one of the prime influences on Stark. (Ah, finally home.)

            • Not to be confused with ‘Gorgoism’, which is when you have annoying little kids in movies about giant monsters destroying cities and fighting each other. 😐

              So who would be the crime fiction equivalent of Faulkner? Have to give that some thought, but at least one possible candidate would be Faulkner himself.

              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knight's_Gambit

              • I’d say Cormac McCarthy would be the leading candidate, once you get past Faulkner himself.

              • Yeah, but he’s not really slotted as a crime fiction author, is he? Just like Kurt Vonnegut never got slotted as a science fiction author. McCarthy has done only ten novels, and he’s kind of made the genre circuit, but he never really picked one, which is fine. But damn, that’s not a lot of books, is it?

                I pretty much have to stick to writers I’ve actually read. If Hammett was the Hemingway of crime, the Faulkner of crime would have to be–I dunno, maybe Horace McCoy? Or was he the Fitzgerald of crime? Maybe that would be James M. Cain. Now I’m starting to get confused.

                Pretty sure Hammett had influences besides Hemingway, and he was too great a writer to be in anybody’s shadow. He and Hemingway did have some things in common, though. They both ran out of things to write about, and they both committed suicide. Hammett just chose a slower method.

              • Knight’s Gambit is not good, as can be said about pretty much every story in which Gavin Howard plays a leading role. (Compare how much fun The Hamlet is to how badly The Town and The Mansion drag.)

                Anyway, I’d think the obvious contrast to Hammett is Chandler. Much wordier, with a much showier style, and a much higher ratio of telling to showing.

              • Well yeah, Chandler is the other major school in crime fiction, and he’s wordier, but I’m not sure that makes him the Faulkner of crime fiction–and I’ve already expressed my skepticism that Hammett is the Hemingway of crime fiction. There’s very little similarity in their styles. In fact Chandler is more like Hammett than Hammett is like Hemingway.

                “Spade looked at the Maltese Falcon. It was a fine bird. He had enjoyed Brigid O’Shaughnessy. She was a fine woman. He’d be waiting for her if they didn’t stretch her pretty neck. It was a fine neck. But Miles had been his partner. He wasn’t much of a partner, which kind of screwed with the passage. But still. A man has to do something. He told Effie to take a memo. She was a fine secretary. As she flawlessly took dictation for him, the earth moved.”

                Hemingway is a lot easier to spoof than any of these other writers we’ve been talking about on a thread devoted to a Richard Stark novel. Took himself wayyyyyyyyy too seriously. I like that Faulkner tried to write detective stories, even if he sucked at it. And I’m impressed you actually read them. You’re a fine blog commenter. Who confesses his errors. Like I would have noticed. 🙂

                PS: Some things really spoof themselves.

              • “Sending Miss O’Shaughnessy to chokey, Jeeves? Hardly the preux chevalier, what?”

                “She did shoot Mr. Archer, sir.”

                “And then bandying about her name? Quite shocking, really.”

                “Her motives were not personal, but strategic. She meant the police to infer Mr. Thursby as the culprit.”

                “If you say so, Jeeves. Difficult to picture Miss O’Shaughnessy as a murderer, though. Or is it murderette?”

                “Murderess is the mot juste, sir.”

                “She shot this Moe chappie, too? A bad egg, Jeeves. If they don’t hang her by that sweet neck, she’ll be an aunt one of these days.”

              • I think we already know who the Wodehouse of crime is, unless somebody hasn’t been paying attention here. Jeeves would certainly be the detective in this instance, but why does he care who shot Archer, or Thursby? Bit of a sticky wicket, old chap, but Bertie would have to be the one who came a cropper. When a gentleman’s gentleman’s gentleman is killed, a gentleman’s gentleman is supposed to do something about it. And then have a spot of tarpon-fishing. Obviously Jeeves would be in the will. He probably wrote the damn will. Anyway, service is tomorrow, at the Drones Club.

  7. Ron

    As far as your point about stretching the most glorious of anachronisms too far, there’s an interesting parallel to be made there with the James Bond movies, of which, coincidentally, there also are 24 (official) as of right now. As with Parker, the latter eight (encompassing Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig) are arguably not as good as many of the first 16 (from 1962-89) — and there was a gap between the early and later periods, though not quite as long for the Bond films as with the Parker books (and obviously both periods have their gems and their stinkers).

    But since the mid-90s, when Bond “came back,” the question has constantly been to what extent is he still relevant in the modern world given how much things in his profession have changed? It’s a more interesting comparison when you consider that sometimes the Parker series has given nods to the Bond influence, as in “The Handle,” and the fact that Westlake’s rejected Bond script (for what instead became “Tomorrow Never Dies”) that he turned into a novel is going to be published this year by Hard Case Crime.

    • The difference is that Bond was never credible. Not in the Fleming novels, not in the early films (you must understand that to me, Bond begins and ends with Connery in the 60’s–all others–including Connery in the 70’s and 80’s–are mere pretenders). Entertaining, yes. Credible, never. Bond was an anachronism stretched too far from Day One, and that’s the point. Connery was the best precisely because he was the best at not taking it seriously–and Moore was the second best for the same reason.

      So as long as people keep enjoying the bigscreen CGI action crap–and there’s plenty of that around, with or without Bond–the brandname alone is enough to sell it, and resell it, indefinitely. I know people–people my age, even–who prefer Daniel Craig. But everybody understands that each Bond inhabits his own timeline. Daniel Craig’s 007 never met Pussy Galore or Kissy Suzuki. His Blofeld isn’t the same Blofeld.

      Franchises tend to drag on, as long as somebody can make money from them. Star Wars is an anachronism stretched too far (“A Long Time Ago, when people had spaceships and reigns, and strangely their tech got less advanced over time, not more.”) Every cinematic superhero in existence is an anachronism stretched too far, and at the core of it is some drawings made by an artist who made less than his mailman, and didn’t even have the rights to his own work.

      And Parker is something else. He’s not a franchise. He resolutely resists any attempt to make him one–Westlake even helped him there, by refusing to let any of the film versions be named Parker. It is true that the Final Eight pack a bit less punch, overall, than the First Sixteen, but I never feel like “This isn’t the same Parker.” Even though chronologically speaking, he can’t be. He’d be too old. He is aging, but he’s not aging normally.

      If Westlake had lived a decade or two longer, and kept writing Parker novels, it would have started to be a problem, maybe. But that didn’t happen. Parker remained Parker, right to the end. Nobody has had the nerve to write any pastiches (sanctioned or otherwise), ala Bond or Hammer or Marlowe or Holmes.

      There’s something very pure and special about it. And it’s a good thing it didn’t get any more popular than it did. Just popular enough to remain in print. That’s all it needs. It’s up to us to keep it alive, generation to generation, and never let it be corrupted. I’d be fine with a TV series. But there’s just one Parker. The one in the books. 24 books. No more, no less. Ever.

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