Review: Comeback, Part 2

“Heisters,” Thorsen echoed.  “That’s a crook’s word for it.  We say robbers, or hitters.”

“Crooks are who I hang out with.”

“I’ll tell you what happened,” Thorsen said, ignoring that. “After the robbery, you all got split up somehow.  One bunch spent the night in that gas station.  Liss stole that police car and probably killed the poor cop.  And you waited at the motel until I showed up.”

“Wait a second,” Parker said.  “Am I a heister, am I a robber, or am I a guy waiting at the motel?”

“I figure the details have to come from you,” Thorsen told him.

Parker shook his head.  “It’s your fairy tale,” he said, “you’ll have to fill it in yourself.  George Liss takes one shot at the guy been chasing him eight months, and to you that means the guy’s in on it.”

“That shot,” Thorsen said, “made me start to think about something that had snagged me but I’d just let it go.  You know what that was?”

“You’ll tell me,” Parker said.

“There’s a lot of different words for the room that, when I was in the Marines, we called the head.  There’s the bathroom, the toilet, the lavatory, the washroom, the WC.  The Irish call it the bog.  I’ve been places they called it the cloak-room, don’t ask me why. But one thing is constant and sure and solid and you could build your house on it: Nobody named John calls that room the john.

Parker nodded. “I think you’re right about that.”

“So that isn’t your name.”

“That’s my joke,” Parker told him.  “My name is John Orr.  Meaning, my name is John, or it isn’t.”

Since I’ve got three quarters of the book to go over here, what do you say we skip the intro?  I could talk about Marilyn Stasio’s perfectly creditable write-up in the New York Times in that omnibus mystery review column (formerly helmed by Anthony Boucher and then ‘Newgate Callendar’) that used to be called ‘Criminals at Large’, and now just ‘Crime’ (budget cuts?), but I don’t much see the point.  She’s pleased Parker is back after 23 years, she loved the book, she gives it three short paragraphs and no analysis at all.  Well, Boucher’s reviews of the first Parkers were short and sweet too.  Stark is short, but never sweet.  And I am neither.  Moving on.

At the end of Part One, Parker had woken up in the office of the gas station he and the Mackeys were holed up in for the night, after pulling their heist, and then having George Liss try to take the whole pile and kill Parker and Ed into the bargain.  Parker let him get away, and now he’s somehow managed to get a cop’s car, uniform, and gun–the last of which he’s about to use on Parker, who is currently unarmed, except for his hands, which are only useful at close range.  Parker’s going to fight, but he doesn’t think much of his chances.

And this, of course, is the perfect moment for the good old Stark Rewind.  We are going to see various events leading up to this instant in time, from entirely different perspectives, meet some people who are in some way relevant to the narrative, get their take on things, see the larger picture, and when Part Three begins, we’ll find out what happened with Parker and Officer Liss at the gas station.

And fittingly enough, we begin with the Reverend William Archibald, who is after all the founder of the criminal feast Parker and Liss are contending for.  He’s just waking up in his hotel room, seven hours before the heist takes place, and all that’s on his mind is screwing his amply proportioned choir conductor/mistress, Christina McKenzie (Tina to her friends, and she’s nothing if not friendly), and then having a nice breakfast.  He does have the good grace to thank the good Lord before he tucks in to the latter.  Thanking Him, in effect, for making so many suckers.

From the very beginning of his ministry, William Archibald had understood that the appearance of propriety was the name of the game.  It wasn’t merely that the appearance of propriety was as good as propriety itself, but that it was much better.  If the appearance of propriety were steadfastly maintained–religiously maintained, you might say–a reasonably careful man could have it all; the rich rewards of religion and the rich rewards of life.  And that’s what he wanted: it all.

Archibald wasn’t a hypocrite.  He believed that man was a sinful creature and he said so, publicly and often, never excepting himself.  He believed that his ministry had held back many a fellow human being from committing crimes and sins untold.  He believed that his contributions to the social order, his civilizing influence on men and women who were in so many ways still one small step from the apes, were practical and immense, and he firmly believed he was worth every penny he made out of it.  His ministry had rescued drunkards, saved marriages, reformed petty thieves, struggled successfully at times against the scourge of drugs,  cured workplace absenteeism and given a center and a weight and a sense of belonging to unnumbered empty, drifting, useless chowderheads.  If, in his leisure moments, he liked to ball a big-titted woman, so what?

How did Brendan Behan put it?  In an elegy he wrote in memory of Oscar Wilde (in Gaelic, but let’s go with the translation from his biographer).

Sweet is the way of the sinner,
Sad, death without God’s praise.
My life on you, Oscar boy,
Yourself had it both ways.

I’m sure the good reverend would have no objections to the association I am making here.  Oscar might, but he’s in a better place now, perhaps sipping a Pernod with Brendan.

Archibald is then joined by Dwayne Thorsen, his executive assistant, who among other things, handles security at events like the stadium revival meeting to be held later that day.  He’s the enforcer of this outfit, the consigliere, if you will.  He was in the Marines for 20 years, and has been working for Archibald for seven.  He’s a lean hard disciplined man, who  likes his job, and does it very well.  He sees Archibald as his general, the rest of the ministry as the troops, and his only real issue is with Ms. McKenzie, whose abundant sexuality seems to give him the willies.  He would rather his employer were the same man in private as he is in public, but we can’t have everything.

He wants to talk to Archibald about Tom Carmody.  He thinks Tom is a problem.  Tom has been saying some things about where the money the ministry raises from the faithful is going (into Archibald’s pockets).  Thorsen thinks Tom is a security risk–and he’s right, since Tom is, at this moment in time, preparing to lead three armed robbers to the money room at the stadium, that very day.

But Archibald is thinking more about the damage Tom could do if he talked to the press.   At the moment, he’s just talking to other people within the ministry, who are mainly ignoring him.  Thorsen thinks to himself it was so much easier to deal with this type of personality in the military–just keep sending them out on patrol until they don’t come back.  (Except sometimes they do).

There’s a brief mention of Tom’s girlfriend, Mary–who we already know Tom confided in about the heist, and now she seems to have disappeared.  And now we find out why.  She’s being tortured to death by her kid brother’s friends for information.  In Memphis.

Just around the time William Archibald was whistling in the shower, Mary Quindero was beginning to die.  She knew it, or suspected it, or feared it, but couldn’t warn her murderers because they refused to hear anything except the answers to their questions and she had no more answers.  They, Woody Kellman and Zack Flynn, didn’t know she was dying because they had no idea of the cumulative effect of the strangle-and-reprieve, drown-and-reprieve methods they were using to get the answers they felt she was still holding back.  And her brother, Ralph Quindero, couldn’t know what was happening because he was over at Zack’s place, watching an old horror movie on the VCR, unable to be present while his friends pressured his sister, and not realizing just how stupid they were.

By the time Zack and Woody figure out what they’ve done, it’s too late to undo it.  They stuff Mary’s body in a closet, go tell Ralph a very edited version of what happened, and then they all drive to the city the heist is supposed to take place in, so they can take the money away from three professional armed robbers.  They really believe they can do this, no problem.  Zack has a switchblade!  And they’ve got some guns packed away in the back of the car that presumably none of them know how to use.  These three wouldn’t be a fair match for Brenda, but you have to admire their optimism.

It’s kind of a weird subplot–a tragicomedy of errors–since these punks never  get close to making a real play for the money.  They’re the ones who came around the trailer outside the stadium in Part One, then left–all they know is when and where the heist will take place, and what motel the heisters are staying in.  But that does them no good, since the post-heist plans had to change once Liss tried his cross.

They just hang around the motel, watching from the car.  Every now and again Ralph goes to get pizza, and then Zack threatens the increasingly panicked guilt-stricken Woody to keep his mouth shut about Mary.  Zack is small and intense, Woody is big and ox-like, but neither is terribly bright–they’re a sociopathic roadshow version of George and Lennie.  The Idiot’s Guide to Of Mice and Men. Ralph is maybe a little smarter, but not nearly as smart as he thinks. You don’t get away with not being as smart as you think in a Richard Stark novel.

Somehow it never occurs to them that just hanging around a sleazy motel eating pizza in their car right after a major robbery might draw suspicion.  The cops scoop them up, find the guns, find out who Ralph is, and Mary’s body has already been found back in Memphis (Tom Carmody, lying in a hospital bed under police guard, did not take the news very well, and neither will Ralph).  Even though we don’t hear about cellphones or the internet in this one, we do see that information-sharing between police departments is getting faster.  Another professional complication Parker will have to deal with.

The Part Two chapters switch POV’s quite a bit, which I personally find annoying from the POV of somebody trying to synopsize the book.  A whole lot of shit happens in 11 short chapters, all of which is necessary to set things up for the climax, but it’s less focused than usual for a Stark novel.  A few too many moving parts–which I suppose is the point.  Parker wants to keep everything simple, and life keeps getting in the way.  Life, and human stupidity.

And I want to get back to Parker’s clarity, so I’m going to rush Part Two a bit, no quotes, there’s better material ahead.  Thorsen meets his opposite number in the local police department, a detective named Lew Calavecci, who is a solid pro (which Thorsen likes) but also a gaping asshole and part-time sadist (which Thorsen does not like).  They both want to get information out of Tom Carmody, knowing he was in on the heist, and Tom is understandably reluctant to cooperate.

So they bring in Archibald–the father figure who disappointed Tom, who betrayed his trust, but who still has a hold over him, much as he knows the guy is a crook and a liar and a lech.  That voice still has power over him, and once Archibald overcomes his initial wrath that this little cocksucker lost him 400k, he figures he wants that money back, so he goes into his preacher act, turns on the fake compassion, and even though Tom knows better than to believe in that malarkey, resists it, he still breaks down, admits his complicity.  Then they break it to him about Mary’s death, and he tells them the rest of what he knows–but the only member of the string he knows anything about is George Liss.

And he knows George Liss will come after him for sharing that information.  And later that night, he tries to kill himself, but he fucks that up too.  And we leave Tom praying that they catch George Liss before he can get to Tom.  And you know, not all prayers are answered.

It bounces around–chapter 7, we see what happened with Liss right after he got away from Parker and Mackey–and as Mackey predicted, all he could think about was getting that money, and killing anybody who might prove an impediment to that end.  Chapter 8 tells us how Zack, Woody, and Ralph tried to tail Brenda on her way to the pick-up, and she shook them off like the fleas they are.  It ends with them in the hands of the cops.

Chapter 9 is more stuff with Thorsen and Calavecci.  Thorsen is increasingly bothered by Calavecci’s methods–and by the fact that Calavecci is tougher than him.  Thorsen likes to think of himself as being hard, but fair.  Even though he used to send men under his command who were irritating to him on death patrols.  Unit cohesion, you know? He didn’t do it for fun.

He’s revolted by Calavecci’s methods (taunting poor Ralph with the revelation that his sister is dead because of him).  But he did basically the same thing, siccing Archibald on Tom.  In his mind, he’s a competent pro who does his duty, and if he has to hurt people along the way, he takes no pleasure in it.  Calavecci, by contrast, sees himself as Mike Hammer with a badge and a pension.  Any Richard Stark novel is filled with people on both sides of the law, each of whom sees him or herself as the hero of the story, and they’re all punished for that hubris, because Richard Stark doesn’t believe in heroes.  Neither does Parker.

And then in chapter 10, we’re back at the gas station, finally.  Only now we’re in the head of the kid who runs the place at night, Bill Trowbridge, who got locked up in a windowless room when Parker and the Mackeys took it over.  He’s run out of magazines to read, and he needs to pee, and he’s figured out these are the stadium robbers, and more or less out of cabin fever, he’s decided to be a hero.  Uh oh.

He manages to tunnel his way up through the ceiling, up onto the roof of the station, and from there he sees there’s a police officer–what luck!  He calls to the cop, and the cop shoots him in the leg.  He got off easy.  Stark has a little soft spot for dumb kids, as long as they don’t kill anybody.  Nobody’s perfect, right?

But in fact Bill Trowbridge is the hero, after a fashion, because that momentary distraction gives Parker his opening.  Chapter 11 is about how Liss ambushed a lone officer, took his car, uniform, gun, life, and figured out his former partners and the money were at the gas station, and he was just about to draw down on Parker when the stupid kid made him take his eye off the ball, and it all goes wrong.  Again.  Part Three, here we come.

Parker throws a wrench through the plate glass window–he doesn’t hit Liss, but that’s not the point.  The point is to further confuse Liss, and create still more noise, to wake up Brenda Mackey.  Will she take the hint?

The answer was yes, but she was even faster than Parker hoped.  As he dove through the doorway, meaning to roll, to come up beside the wagon and yank open its rear door, the engine was already kicking over.  Before he was on his feet, it was moving, and he came up to see the garage door splinter as the station wagon roared through it.  Brenda hunched and grim over the wheel, Mackey just opening his eyes, his mouth a big astonished O, the car screamed through the wreckage it made of the door, spinning and sliding rightward over smashed plywood, bent metal, crushed glass.

(Ed Mackey is no saint, but I feel he must have been one in a previous life to rate a woman like that.)

Parker missed his ride, but the upside is that all George can see is the car with the money screaming away on burning rubber, and he can’t take time to try and finish Parker off.  Parker’s got a slight flesh wound from some debris, but nothing important.  A burglar alarm has been tripped.  Time to leave.  The kid, wounded far more seriously, yells down to him for help.  “Everybody needs help,” says Parker, and away he goes.  There’ll be cops here in no time, and Bill Strowbridge will get medical attention, plus maybe a chance at minor fame, if he doesn’t bleed too quickly.

Parker avoids the approaching cops, but now he’s got an identity puzzle of his own to work out.  Where will the Mackeys go now?  Ed will want to make a run for it, but the roadblocks are still up.  Brenda’s the brain, think about what she’ll be thinking.  First, shake Liss–she’ll do that easy.  Then get another car.  Then find a place to hole up.  She’ll figure that Liss will figure they don’t go back to the motel–they’ll go to the abandoned house they were going to stash the money in.

Liss will wait for them there. But they won’t ever show up there.  Because Brenda is smarter than Liss, will be one step ahead of him.  Parker is damned impressed with Brenda.  But even the most impressive of women is a woman, after all, and she mentioned leaving a lot of cosmetics in that motel room–she and Ed will turn up there, sooner or later, before leaving town. Parker goes to wait for them there.

But somebody else turns up there first–Dwayne Thorsen, playing detective (and enjoying the role maybe a bit more than he should).  He shows Parker a gun, which Parker lightly threatens to take away from him if he doesn’t behave. Dwayne just can’t catch a break here–keeps running into tougher guys than him.

Parker passes himself off as an investigator named John Orr, working for Midwest Insurance.  See the quote up top.  He tells a good story about how he’s been trailing Liss in relation to an earlier job he pulled, and Thorsen believes him, for now (Parker is vague, lets him fill in the blanks, figuring people believe a story more when they’re contributing to it).  They share some intel, and join forces–for now.

And Parker leaves a message for Brenda, on the mirror of a compact she left in the bathroom.  AKA the John.  Again, see up top.  Parker can be pretty good at conning people, when he has to be, but it’s not his primary skill set.  He slips up sometimes.  Thorsen doesn’t catch the slip right away.

(Sidebar: Some fun name games in this book.  The Mackeys signed the motel register as Ed and Brenda Fawcett.  That’s worth a gold medal or two, surely.  And Parker saying his name is John or it isn’t–well, that’s just too easy.  Can’t remember offhand if Dortmunder ever said his name was Parker.  Probably wouldn’t want to chance it.)

What follows is a comedy of terrors.  Parker figures he’s got nothing better to do than follow up leads with this security clown who thinks he’s the Continental Op (and who still thinks Parker is Thomas Banacek).  He might learn something that will lead him to his partners–the two he wants to rejoin, or the one he wants dead.  The latter of whom he sees walking around, pretending to be a cop on his beat, as he and Thorsen drive to the hospital.  Too complicated to go after him that moment.  And Liss is going to save him the trouble, anyway.

The hospital is having a busy day.  Detective Calavecci brought Ralph Quindero there, to talk with Tom Carmody on the fourth floor–not so much to get any answers as to enjoy watching both of them weep bitterly over Mary, the girl they both got killed.  Sweet guy, that Calavecci.  Bill Trowbridge (he made it!)  is on three.  Bill is having a wonderful time. Carmody’s is about to run out.

Parker has just met Detective Calavecci when all of a sudden guns start going off.  Liss found Tom–say this, the guy does not lack nerve.  He figured–probably correctly–that in all the confusion, and him wearing a cop’s uniform, if he ever was pulled in, nobody there would be able to ID him.  So he just walked in and blew Tom away.  Witness eliminated, squealer admonished.  And then he sees Parker, and figures in for a dime–

Thorsen, still playing the hero, gets Parker and himself out of the way, and Liss has to split–taking Ralph Quindero with him, as a human shield, and maybe an accomplice (since Calavecci has made Ralph feel like he’s going away for life, when in fact they have almost nothing serious on him).

Parker tells Thorsen he owes him one, but that’s John Orr talking.  Parker doesn’t feel like you owe anybody anything for doing something you didn’t ask him to do.  But he’s still being the insurance investigator, so when Thorsen invites him to come over to the hotel he and the rest of the evangelical entourage are staying, he figures why not.  He might want to check those figures.

He definitely wants to check Tina MacKenzie’s figure, and she seems rather taken with his–very obvious vibrations above the nylons there.  He meets her right after he meets Archibald, and right after that Archibald makes Tina leave, because he doesn’t like the way she’s looking at Parker, i.e. the way most women look at Parker, damn him anyway.  Then Archibald offers the dedicated investigator a bribe of one thousand bucks to find and return the money he just stole from Archibald.  That’s an advance; he’d also get five percent of all funds recovered.  He pockets the advance, and figures he’ll skip the finder’s fee in favor of his fifty percent heister’s fee.

But in the meantime, Dwayne Thorsen, that newly minted detective, has been doing some solo sleuthing.  Seems that their insurance man in Memphis never heard of any Midwest Insurance.  He doesn’t buy Parker’s story that Liss took a shot at him because he’s been tracking him down for a nonexistent insurance agency.  He’s picked up on the inconsistencies in Parker’s story, and of course there’s the bathroom thing.  He’s onto Parker. John Orr my Aunt Fannie.  This is one of the robbers.

He’s brought in four muscular (but unarmed) security boys for backup–he hasn’t called the cops yet.  He wants answers about the money first.  And this is where the detective act breaks down.  Because no matter how well this business of telling the malefactor you’re onto him works out for the detectives on TV, bracing this particular malefactor without a whole lot of guns on your side is never a good idea.  Parker whips out a steel drawer from the desk he’s sitting at, and Thorsen goes down with the kind of head trauma you never fully recover from.  I assume he’s insured.  That leaves four.

These four had trained in gyms, and knew a lot about self-defense.  They actually didn’t have guns, and they’d never thought they would need such help.  But they’d never been crowded into a small room before, getting in each other’s way, with somebody who was trying to kill them and who didn’t do any of the moves they’d learned about in gym.

40 seconds later, they’re all down for the count, and some may never get up.  (Ed Mackey’s response when he and Brenda hear about this over the radio–“Parker’s a woolly guy.”  One way of putting it.)

Parker takes Thorsen’s (stupidly) holstered gun, and leaves.  Well, he told Thorsen he was going to do that, right after they met in the motel.  So much for the security man who thought he was a detective.  Now that he’s heeled, Parker’s ready to find the heister who pretends to be a cop.  Time to go a-hunting.

But somebody else is hunting, namely Tina, decked out a bit like a Salvation Army sister, in a gray hat and cloak.  (Well, it worked wonders for Jean Simmons.)  She braces Parker in a much more appealing way, luring him into a conference room as he leaves the hotel.  Archibald keeps her on a tight leash, and she’d like to mix things up a bit.  Not the first time a strange woman has thrown herself at Parker, but for the first time since the end of The Rare Coin Score, he’s actually interested.  Or is he?  Another half-pulled trigger.  Another identity puzzle.  Another way for Stark to test Parker’s reactions to an unusual situation.

He never thought about sex  when he was working, but he was always hungry for it afterward.  What situation was this he was in now?  The heist was done, and yet it wasn’t done.  The job was finished, but it was still going on, with complications and trailing smoke.  Was he going to have sex with this woman now, or not?  He looked at her body, imperfectly hidden in somebody else’s clothing, and it looked very good, but his mind kept filling up with Liss, with Brenda and Mackey, with the duffel bags full of money; and now with Thorsen and Archibald and Calavecci and Quindero, and who knew how many more.  But still, it was a good body, walking along beside him here.

You see Claire’s name anywhere in that list of objections to fucking this delectable girl on a conference room table?  No, because Parker’s sexual fidelity to Claire isn’t based on anything other than instinct.  I’ve gotten into arguments with people about this–“Hah!  He wants this woman, therefore you are wrong about him being a wolf mated for life with Claire!” (such charming conversations you can have online)–no, because if you trapped a wild wolf who has a mate, and put him in a room with a bitch in heat (wolf, coyote, or dog)–he’s going to do what comes naturally.  Same for a she-wolf, if she’s in heat.  Without the pair-bond, it’s just an itch to be scratched.   It don’t mean nothing.

But Parker is a wolf in a man’s body, with a man’s brain.  He’s got to think about the situation he’s in.  Somebody’s going to raise the alarm soon.  He hasn’t quite finished the job yet.  He knows he can sate his appetites with Claire once he gets home.  And there’s something off about this temptress, this siren trying to distract him from his quest.  She can’t be trusted.  He can’t make himself vulnerable to her.  He doesn’t think it’s wrong.  He feels no guilt at all about wanting her.  He just thinks to himself that it won’t work.  He brushes her off, tells her he’ll take a rain check, and she indignantly responds “I’m not a game!” No, and she’s not his mate, either.  And she’s definitely not Salvation Army material, but we knew that already.

And we’re at Part Four.  Parker makes his way to the house he believes Liss (and now Ralph) are laying in wait for him and the Mackeys.  Ed found it in an architectural magazine–it’s got a fairly interesting history.  Parker doesn’t care about its glorious past. But Stark does.

It was called Sherenden, and it was a house from the twenties, modern architecture of the time, designed by someone famous in his day and built at the edge of a ravine in what had then been the outskirts of town.  On two seep acres of brush-covered rocky hill, at the end of a narrow winding road from the nearest city avenue, the house had been constructed of fieldstone and native woods and stainless steel, fitted into the broken shape of the landscape, with a large airy living room at the top, four windowed walls around a central black-stone fireplace.  The rest of the house spread away beneath, for a total of four stories with an interior elevator, its shaft blasted into the rock.

(Did Westlake read about such a house in a magazine?  In some forgotten bit of noir fiction?  Or did he dream it up himself?  Maybe all three.)

An entire chapter is devoted to the history of this decaying pile of ambition and thwarted dreams.  A broken marriage, a city expanding mindlessly, the whims of bankers, various other odd bits of history, had kept Sherenden from being replaced by tacky condos or public housing, but had likewise prevented it from being saved for posterity.  It sits there alone, waiting its inevitable end.  And hosting the occasional junkie–or worse.

He makes his way into the house carefully, and before long he smells the inevitable pizza.  Man, you’d think Ralph would have had enough of that by now. Liss probably saw him coming up that winding road, but Parker obviously didn’t have the money–so he’s waiting.  To find out where it is.

They make contact, sound each other out, each knowing the other wants him dead.  Parker, at a strategic disadvantage, has to give up his gun.  They pretend to negotiate.  Ralph gets sent out for pizza again (it’s his lot in life).  And it keeps getting darker.  This is the most gothic scene in any novel Westlake ever wrote.

After dark, Parker thought.  A chance will come after dark.

The afternoon slowly descended outside, the sunny areas growing bright even as they narrowed, the shadows getting darker.  The rock and the tangled underbrush out there would be full of creatures, wary, moving in sudden jumps, hidden away in the cat’s cradle of vines and branches, living their lives with all senses alert.  Darkness would be good for them too.

Ralph comes back.  They eat.  They read a newspaper full of stories about them. Ralph finds out there are no real charges against him.  Now the alliances are getting fuzzier.  Liss talks about shooting Parker non-fatally, to make sure he can’t try anything.  But Ralph says he couldn’t possibly carry Parker.  And Liss doesn’t want those hands anywhere near him.  So  they lock Parker in a closet, and go to get the car, so they can go to the meeting place Parker told them about, where Liss can get his money.  Sure.  That’ll work.

If that kid at the gas station can get out of a locked room, Parker can get out of a closet that was jury-rigged into an old elevator shaft.  He does.  He gets a makeshift weapon, a piece of metal ripped from the wall, and he waits.  It’s completely dark now.

Ralph goes down first–a human shield again, Parker’s, and Liss doesn’t have the same compunctions as the police, shoots him three times.  Parker hits Liss with the L-bracket he’s got, knocks a gun from his hand.  Liss still has another. Parker finds the other one–Thorsen’s. Not much of a gun, not many bullets left. He and Liss tango through the dark house, and finally they’re both out of ammo. Liss, badly hurt but still dangerous, slinks to the depths of Sherenden, to make his last stand.

You know, we don’t get to see Parker finish people with his hands very often, since the first book.  He avoids real fights when he can–like any smart predator. No avoiding it this time.  Liss has a knife.  Parker doesn’t.  Liss tries to bargain, Parker isn’t in the market, never was.  They dance some more, but it can only end one way.  Parker throws Liss out the window, into the ravine.  He’ll be food for some wild creatures.  First useful purpose he ever had.

Liss got Parker a few times with the knife, but nothing serious.  He’s ready to go meet Ed and Brenda.

That was chapter 13.  The final chapter of Part Four is called CLICK.  We’re back with the Mackeys, at their new motel room.  They’ve changed cars a few times. The police roadblocks are being shut down.  It’s time to get out of Dodge.  But first they go to an Italian restaurant, and it’s there Brenda sees Parker’s message in her compact.  ‘Eleven PM.’  Meaning he’ll be at their original motel then, and he’s hoping to see them there.

Ed Mackey is a stand-up guy, but he’s also a professional heavy, and he knows damned well Parker would look out for Number One in the same situation.  Why should he risk everything on the odd chance Parker makes it to the rendezvous? He wants to run.  And Brenda absolutely will not have it.

“It’s Parker, and you know it,” Brenda said.  “And he expects us.”

“If it was the other way around, he wouldn’t come back for me, you can bet on it.  And I wouldn’t expect it.”

“It isn’t the other way around, Brenda said.  “You aren’t him, you’re you, and he knows we’ll come back for him.”

“Then it’s you he’s counting on, not me.”

Brenda shrugged.  “Okay.”

“Brenda, he’s got the whole fucking state looking for him, they’ve probably even got him by now.  And, if they pick him up anywhere near that motel, they’ll figure he was making a meet with us, and they’ll wait, and we’ll drive right into it.”

“He won’t get caught,” Brenda said.  “He’ll be there at eleven, and so will we.”

“He can’t be sure we even got the message,” Ed insisted.  “That’s a pretty weird delivery system.”

“I checked out of the room,” Brenda reminded him.  “He can find that out, and then he’ll know I got my stuff.”

“We’re not copping his goddam money, Brenda,” Ed told her.  “We’ll call him in a week or two, make a meet, give him his half.”

“He wants to meet tonight,” Brenda said. “So we’ll be there.”

“Why, dammit?  Why do a risk when we don’t have to do a risk?”

“Because,” Brenda said, “you’ll met him again.  You’ll work with him again.  And he’ll look at you, and what will he say?  That’s the stand-up guy came back for me?  Or does he say, That’s a guy I don’t trust so much any more? What do you want him to say, Ed, next time you see each other?

Ed leaned back, muttering to himself.  After a minute, he shrugged, shook his head, and waved for the check.

The staff didn’t think there was much hope for the relationship.

It is Brenda Parker is counting on, and for good reason.  She’s smarter than Ed, and she sees further.  Parker may or may not realize that in addition to all that, she’s had a quiet yen for him ever since they first met (“Well, he didn’t exactly turn me on.”)  Nothing she’d act on, as long as Ed’s around, as long as Claire’s around (she tactfully sounded out Parker on whether he was still with Claire when they met earlier in the book).  But things happen. People go to jail.  People die.  People leave.  If she were available suddenly, and then Parker were available too–it’s good to have a back-up plan, always.

Brenda is loyal to her man, but she’s a lot more like Parker than most of the heisters he meets.  She knows life is an endless series of choices, with no guarantees.  She’d be a perfect match for him.  Too perfect, which is why it never happens.   Maybe in one of the books that never got written.

So leaving my guilty shipper fantasies aside, they go to the meeting spot, and Brenda agrees that if Parker’s not there by eleven, they’re gone.  Brenda gets out of the car, tells Ed to swing back around in five minutes.  She walks around in the dark, and then there’s someone there, but it’s not Parker.  It’s the cop who thinks he’s Mike Hammer.  Or hell, let’s make it Michael Shayne this time, just for variety’s sake.  Race Williams?

Calavecci is in trouble.  He played with his food too long.  Because of his sadism, a kid who wasn’t provably guilty of much more than stupidity was taken hostage by an armed robber, who walked out of that hospital right under Calavecci’s nose.  He’s been sent home.  He needs to find some way to redeem himself, and Brenda is it.  He figured they might come back to that motel.  Brenda can’t talk her way out of this.  Fortunately, she doesn’t have to.

Parker calls out to him in the darkness, playing John Orr again, knowing Calavecci probably knows by now there was no John Orr.  Playing for enough time to get close.  Calavecci goes for his gun, turning his back on the helpless girl. Yes, you can all laugh now.

Calavecci dropped the handcuffs to the ground in his hurry to get at the gun in his shoulder hoslter.  Parker was still too far away, but coming fast.  Brenda lifted a leg, pulled off her shoe, and did a roundhouse right with it, the heel digging into the side of Calavecci’s neck, missing the main veins, but almost giving him a tracheotomy.

Calavecci yelled, slapping her away, yanking the shoe out of his neck.  He threw the bloody shoe at her, gasping loudly, blood pumping over his collar, and he reached for his gun again as Parker got to him and put him down with two quick movements.

No more heroes.  No more kibbitzers.  No more preachers.  No more Liss.  It’s done.  Ed swings back in the car, and they head for the highway.  Ed asks if Parker saw George.  “Yes.”  Which answers all questions.

It’s not a polished perfect gem, like The Score, or The Seventh.  It doesn’t tie into some extended storyline, like The Man With the Getaway Face, The Outfit, or The Mourner.  It doesn’t shine a light deeper into Parker’s mental makeup, like The Rare Coin Score, or The Sour Lemon Score.  It’s not a majestic bloody epic of retribution, like Butcher’s Moon. It’s not one of the oddball outliers, like The Jugger, or Slayground.  It probably makes my top twenty (for Brenda alone), but there’s only twenty-four in contention.

It’s far from the most original plot Stark ever crafted, cobbled together of bits and pieces from earlier books (though that final confrontation at Sherenden isn’t).  It’s got some structural problems, and it’s a bit less focused in the way it deals with character than Stark usually is (because Westlake hasn’t been Stark for a long time).  Who gives a shit?  It’s Parker.  He’s back.

And he was back again in the very next book Westlake published–which makes me wonder if they were finished close together.  And whether the second book of the Final Eight is really the first.  But for now, just drive.

PS: Yeah, that’s Alyson Hannigan up top.  Again.  I sometimes see other actresses as Brenda.  But never quite so happily.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.  Not that Parker would care, but I do.)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

23 responses to “Review: Comeback, Part 2

  1. It’s a weird book, for a couple reasons. First, Parker pulling an extended con. We’ve seen him tell the tale just long enough to get his foot in the door, but never for as long as this. And there’s a good reason for that: he’s terrible at it. He can never act like anyone but himself, and himself isn’t plausible as anything but a heavy. Apparently Parker didn’t learn anything from The Seventh.

    Second, the number of one-liners he comes up with. Parker has no sense of humor, or wit, or irony. He might plausibly fall into a good line once in a while (say, “Now you’re the message”), but there are too many in this book for someone who’s not trying.

    • He doesn’t really have any choice about the con–he’s just improvising. He could be an insurance investigator who acts like a heavy because that’s who he deals with (there could be insurance investigators like that–didn’t you ever watch Banacek?). It’s not like he’s pretending to be a priest or a jetsetting playboy in a yachting cap or anything like that. So no, he really hasn’t learned anything. Anyway, he got his money in The Seventh, and he gets it here, and he’ll even get it after he puts on that stupid yachting cap. I did mention I have my issues with the Final Eight, right?

      He’s got a sense of humor, but he doesn’t use it much–probably does overdo it a bit here, though you can bet he’s delivering the one-liners with a very straight face. Thing is, when he worked with Grofield, he was the straight man. No Grofield anymore. He’s mainly by himself, or with people he doesn’t know. He’s got to try and look a bit more human. Humans make jokes. And he certainly does find them funny. He’s not kidding around with Liss, that’s for damn sure.

      To a certain extent, all the Parkers are weird in some way. He had to keep running variations, or it stopped being interesting.

  2. One other oddity: I can’t think of a previous book that had an extended mano a mano duel like Parker vs. Liss. It was a damn action movie climax (could Westlake have been thinking movie?) And we don’t have to wait long for another one.

    • It’s a little like The Seventh, deadly duel, abandoned building (that one new, this one old). But Liss is a much more serious threat than Ellie Canaday’s cowardly ex-boyfriend. And it was such an interesting setting for a fight. I think Westlake wanted to see what that would be like. He’s always being influenced by the movies–doesn’t mean he’s thinking “If I write a good fight scene, Hollywood will buy it.” I mean, they bought Slayground, which is better than any action movie, and then used like 1% of the book. There’s no figuring those guys.

      He’s given up trying to figure out what Hollywood will buy or not. He wants you to see this movie inside your head, and I don’t know about you, but it sure worked for me. And please note–no wisecracks at all. From either of them. Once the fight starts, they’re not kidding around.

  3. One thing that’s consistent across all the Parkers — that last loose end is heart-stoppingly frustrating to finally tie off. Every heist could be so clean, but there’s always that little bit of toilet paper stuck to Parker’s shoe as he leaves the bathroom, refusing to shake loose.

    • In many ways, my favorite of all the heists is the one in The Man With the Getaway Face (PKA The Mask). It’s so simple and utterly mundane, relative to most of the others (New Jersey is beautiful, but not what you’d call glamorous). They take the money, they see the cross coming, they deal with it, they split. The complication relates back to what happened before the heist, and Parker deals with it, only to decide he shouldn’t have bothered.

      He doesn’t get the money in The Sour Lemon Score and Plunder Squad. He doesn’t get the money from Slayground, but he makes up for that later. The Jugger isn’t about a heist, though it is about Parker failing to get the job done (as he would see it). Parker gets dragooned into a heist in Breakout, and no money there. Not his heist, so not his failure.

      What I find most consistent is the way we never find out everything we want to know. There’s a slew of loose ends here. How badly is Thorsen hurt? Does he ever recover from that blow? You have to figure, even if he physically recovers, his self-image is pretty much scrapped.

      Is Calavecci dead? A dead cop is one hell of a loose end. But he was a disgraced cop, and Parker might figure it’s better he not have a chance to try and talk his way out of trouble. Between Brenda’s tracheotomy and whatever Parker did (he also likes to go for the neck), he’s got to be busted up pretty bad.

      How does all of this impact Archibald and his ‘ministry’? True, Tom Carmody won’t be telling tales to the media (or anyone), but he’s been telling plenty to other people in the organization, and given what’s happened, you have to think some of them are going to be having doubts. The fact that Archibald was taken this way will make him seem vulnerable, fallible. But then again, maybe he’ll just find some way to turn it to his advantage. Or maybe Thorsen, embittered by what happened, will turn Judas himself. We’ll never know. Because Parker doesn’t care what happens to these people after the job is over, and neither does Stark. We never found out who won that election in Tyler, either.

      Oh, and how long does it take Bill Trowbridge to get laid after being all over the news for his brush with danger? C’mon Stark, you could have given us that much.


      • The one exception that occurs to me (and there’s ALWAYS an exception in the Parker series, isn’t there?) is The Score, in which Stark gives of a glimpse of the aftermath of the Copper Canyon holocaust. We get a very brief summary of the investigation, the reconstruction efforts, and Eddie Wheeler’s recovery.

        • Yeah, there’s always an outlier, something that sticks out. I guess in that case because the town itself is a character, and most importantly because Stark wants us to know that Edgars’ revenge scheme has utterly failed, Copper Canyon will survive, and will never even know he tried to kill it. Parker wouldn’t care, one way or the other, but Stark cares about many things Parker is indifferent to. He cares about the brilliant tragic history of Sherenden, just as he cares about the Lost Mourner of Dijon.

          Parker is only interested in people to the extent it makes him a better thief, though there may be the odd moment of curiosity about how these strange creatures think (if what goes on in their heads can be called thinking). Stark is interested in people for their own sake, and he’s interested in Parker because he’s so different from everyone else. He thinks if he can somehow understand Parker, it will help him understand humanity. Parker is the antithesis that will hone his thesis.

  4. Anthony

    An opinion:

    The best last line in any book attributed to Donald E. Westlake is from Two Much. Cements the utter loss of Art Dodge’s humanity.

    The best last line in any book attributed to Richard Stark is from Comeback. Announces with chilling clarity that Stark (and Parker) is back.

    • A highly valid opinion, in my estimation, though so many great final lines, it could always be disputed. At present time, I wouldn’t dispute it.

      Whenever I read that final line, I imagine Ed and Brenda giving each other a look. And what that look says is “Good thing he’s on our side.”

  5. So I haven’t done this for a while, but I was fiddling around with Part 1 of my review of Backflash, which is still in the process of being written, and I accidentally hit the wrong toggle, and published it. And I know how to revert to draft, but WordPress was doing some fiddling around of its own that morning, changing things around, and I had a hard time finding the right toggle to do that, and the minutes ticked agonizingly by. And I had to run out for an appointment, so I just made it a private article (meaning only I can read it), and left. And now it’s a draft again. Only I see at least two people saw it before I rendered it invisible.

    So call it a sneak preview.

  6. John O'Leary

    A late comment but this always bugged me about Comeback. When that kid locked in the storage room had to pee, he went to the trouble to climb to the ceiling, hack through the roof and climb out, all the while making a racket that Parker and the Mackeys had to have heard. He couldn’t find an empty bottle or bucket in a garage storage room? Just doesn’t maker a lot of sense.

    And my pick for Hollywood Brenda Mackey is Ali Larter. That voice of hers is perfect.

    • I like Ali Larter and all, but I always think of her as a blonde, and I think of Brenda as a redhead, though odds are she has what Westlake termed “hair-colored hair” since you always mention it in crime fiction if the girl is a blonde or a redhead, or raven-tressed. Personally, I like brown hair in reality (I used to have a lot more of it myself), but reading about it can be a trifle boring.

      Larter is fairly buxom, while Brenda’s on the skinny side, though what’s there is cherce. But whoever they went with, they’d need somebody who can do comedy, because Brenda is funny. She and Ed have a comic vibe going on between them–the criminal Nick and Nora, as I termed them some time back. Larter’s okay at comedy, but she’s not in Hannigan’s class.

      And honestly, by this point in time, might as well say cast Myrna Loy as Brenda–both our picks are in their early 40’s, and there’s no film/series anywhere on the horizon. I’m far from certain Brenda would even be in any future Parker adaptations. She’s never been in any of the past ones. I’m thinking “Parker” may have killed all future Parker adaptations for the next generation at least, and I’m even a little uncertain as to how I feel about that. I know for sure I like the one in my head a lot better than anything Hollywood could ever cook up, and I’d bet good money you feel the same way. Since there’s no limit to the number of imaginary adaptations that can be staged, I don’t see why we can’t all have our own casting picks.

      If you read the relevant passage about the antsy Mr. Trowbridge, you see that while his bladder issues are certainly a relevant factor in his decision, he’s also somewhat concerned that these people might just leave without letting him out (very likely) or decide to kill him before they left (not impossible, remember The Jugger?). There’s a lot of unknowns in his immediate future, and people, kids particularly, generally prefer doing something to just sitting there awaiting their fate–what they do may not be terribly useful in terms of avoiding that fate, but at least it keeps the mind occupied.

      If he’d had a videogame or something, maybe he’d be okay with just shooting mutants or zombies until whatever was going to happen happened. You ever notice we never see anyone playing videogames in Parker novels? I mean, Pong debuted around the same time Brenda Mackey did. What were we talking about?

  7. Greg Tulonen

    You notice things, going through the series multiple times. Small cracks in the masonry that (as you once put it) you’re just too caught up in the story to catch your first few times through. Take Bill Trowbridge, for instance, the gas station attendant who, from the safety of his hospital bed, tells his story to the cops, and then, after the cops have left, to the reporters. So he surely would have mentioned (more than once) that a cop had shot him in the leg, and then pursued two of the robbers, leaving another one behind, still on foot.

    But Thorsen, getting regular updates on his scanner and from the cops directly, reports that the police still don’t know what happened to their missing man, or if it’s even connected to the robbery. Surely someone would have put this together, or even mentioned this development as something worth puzzling over, but Thorsen’s still acting like the missing cop is a curiosity at best, even after he finds out what happened at the gas station.

    You can sort-of hand-wave this one away by considering the sheer chaos of the day, the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. But police would take a missing cop very seriously, and it really wouldn’t be too difficult to work out the connection here.

    But it’s only after multiple trips through the book that I even notice this.

    • Eh. This doesn’t bother me much. Because this is Westlake, writing as Stark, never very impressed with the collective intelligence of your average constabulary. Organization men. Now if this was the 87th Precinct, obviously they’d be right on it. (Unless Andy Parker was in charge of the investigation.)

      Agreed some would have twigged to the imposture by that point in time, but they aren’t going to talk about it on the scanner, because they don’t want it getting out to the press. Nor are they going to talk to Thorsen about it, because ditto. They’re hoping it never comes out, and there’s going to be even more crap they try to keep under wraps, like an abusive detective. This is clearly a really bad local police department, and we’ve got a lot of those here.

      Look at what happened in Georgia–young black man in running gear, jogging down a suburban street, as he’s been doing for years. Retired police investigator and his idiot son (their pictures should be in the OED entry for ‘redneck’) decide they’re going to follow him, along with an idiot friend filming the entire thing for posterity. He must be the burglar who’s taking everybody’s stuff, and hiding it in his running shorts! They bring a handgun and a shotgun. They stop the young man to make a daring citizen’s arrest! Guess what happened?

      And guess how long it was before these idiots were arrested for murder? Well over 70 days. And then only because their idiot lawyer friend released the murder tape, because he thought it would exonerate them.

      Yes, part of that is Georgia, and part is the idiot father having been on the job (shall we assume he did it idiotically?) but most of it is across the board idiocy. The DA’s office never said boo. They had over two months to figure out this was going to blow up in their faces, and this isn’t the 1950’s. Black folks got the vote and everything. Even Trump didn’t back the rednecks up. Vote’s going to be real close in Georgia this fall.

      So yes, seems like a plothole, but sometimes–often–real life has more plotholes than the worst-crafted bit of fiction ever written. Nobody knew this better than Richard Stark.

  8. Greg Tulonen

    Fair enough on all counts. Everyone’s just so taken by surprise when Liss shows up at the hospital in a cop’s uniform, and it seems like it should have occurred to them after what the gas station attendant told them. But if I could totally see it happening in real life, and after the fact it would just seem like an egregious oversight.

    • Begs the question–did Westlake spot the hole, and decide it wasn’t worth addressing? As Stark, he tries to simplify everything, cut down wind resistance. The more you explain what’s happening, the less persuasive it is, oddly enough.

      And after all, what’s hard to believe about a man in a policeman’s uniform walking into a hospital, where other police are already present, with his service weapon, and nobody stopping him? Nobody thinking twice about it–who’d believe anyone would pull something like that? Even if they knew about the impostor, they wouldn’t look for him there.

      It requires nerve, absolutely–but Liss tried to cross Parker and Mackey–at the same time. No lack of nerve there. Though it is not very professional–like a lot of Stark ‘villains’, Liss is maybe half a pro–and the amateur in him, addicted to drama, ultimately does him in.

      Also, they probably didn’t have a description–I doubt very much the kid remembered anything terribly specific about him, other than the uniform and the gun. If you look closely, you see the uniform doesn’t fit–Parker sees that–but isn’t one of the points of the series being that Parker, a detective in spite of himself, notices many things other people don’t?

  9. Greg Tulonen

    Yeah, thinking about it, it doesn’t really bother me that Liss could get into the hospital dressed as a cop. But what snags at me is the quiet moment beforehand in the car, when Thorsen fills Parker in on what happened that morning at the gas station, and mentions almost in the same breath that the police have lost a cop. Those two stories should be setting off alarm bells in his mind, and they’re not. But it’s explainable enough, if you decide that the police haven’t publicly shared all the details of Bill Trowbridge’s story, and have advised Trowbridge not to share that particular detail with the press — none of which is worth narrative time explaining.

    • Thorsen is maybe half a detective–he does figure out ‘John Orr’ is a ringer. But again with the drama–just call the cops–no, he’s got to handle it himself, with the gym-trained rent-a-cops.

      Stark is very consistent with his character themes, and if there’s one thing Parker can depend upon, it’s all these guys walking around thinking of themselves as the heroes of their stories–and making so many mistakes, because the hero can’t lose. Thorsen didn’t figure out the cop thing because that wasn’t his story, but somebody else’s. Parker knows something very important, that we should all keep reminding ourselves of–all stories are connected. You never know which plot thread is going to kill you.

      You know?

  10. 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? ———— Very Elmer Gantry. Recall the religious folk wanted to hang S Lewis . That’s why Comeback was my second Parker novel after Slayground. I thought I could instantly relate with those sleazy B-thumpers. Just did listen to the audio book again. Enjoyed every page, especially where Parker is the insurance man. And dealing with Thorsen.

    This is a Parker novel I’ll be rereading again and again. For me and probably for many readers, every scene is supercharged with energy.

    • You sort of wait for Archibald to get his comeuppance–but just like the Sinclair Lewis character he might well be partly inspired by, he comes out fine in the end–just lost some money he can easily replace at the next stadium full of suckers.

      He’s furious over the lost cash (he’d be livid if he knew what his girlfriend was getting up to with Parker), but people like that do tend to land on their feet, and die of extreme old age. Possible, one supposes, that the attention generated by Parker’s heist will get some of the seamier aspects of his operation exposed–but just as in Butcher’s Moon, where we never learn the results of that election all the fuss was about–Stark doesn’t care. Story’s over.

      There’s a whole subplot about this former acolyte of his wanting to get even with him for being a crook–ends very badly for him–and Stark is saying what’s the point of that. People can walk away from carnival barkers like Archibald anytime they want to. Hey, 81 million people just walked away from the Head Carnival Barker–not all of them, but enough to put him out of a job.

      Stark goes out of his way to say Archibald isn’t a hypocrite–a Tartuffe, putting on religious airs without really believing. He believes absolutely that he is doing God’s work, and that his wealth is well-earned, and never mind what the gospels actually say about rich men. No, to be a hypocrite, you need to know yourself well enough to know you’re lying. To some people, lies are better than the truth–lies are all they believe in. The appearance of propriety is better than the real thing.

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