Review: Breakout, Part 2


The three of us were together now in Q and I knew from old experience that anyone in Q would sell his old mother for a pack of cigarettes.  But all the same, I was puzzled and depressed.  Puzzled because I couldn’t clarify what I had really meant to say when I got up to speak at the meeting, depressed because if there was no liberty which I could define then equally there was no escape.  I remained awake for hours that night thinking of it.  Beyond the restless searchlights which stole in through every window and swept the hut till it was bright as day I could feel the wide fields of Ireland around me, but even the wide fields of Ireland were not wide enough.  Choice was an illusion.  Seeing that a man can never really get out of jail, the great thing is to ensure that he gets into the biggest possible one with the largest possible array of modern amenities.

From the short story Freedom, by Frank O’Connor

“Tile,” Parker said.  “It’s a tile wall.”

Mackey reached in to pull a strip of the Sheetrock away.  He held it in both hands and they looked at the face of it, which was pale green  “It’s waterproofed,” Mackey said.  “We found a bathroom.”

Williams said “We won’t know if there’s a mirror on it until we break it.”

“A mirror in a bathroom,” Mackey decided, “this far to the back of the building, isn’t gonna wake anybody up.  If it comes down to it, I’ll volunteer for the bad luck.”

“We’ve got all the bad luck already,” Williams told him.  “Parker and me, we already broke out once, and here we are again.”

Picking up a hammer and screwdriver, Parker said “We’re running out of time,” and went back to work.

Parker makes a good point.  I spent all of Part 1 of this review on Part One of this novel.  Part 2 has to cover Parts Two, Three, and Four.  Let’s get back to work.

Westlake started writing this book with the idea that it would be about Parker going to prison, escaping, and then doing a quick heist near the prison before heading back to New Jersey.  Now just that bare bones concept suggests a daunting array of technical challenges–how to get Parker out of prison, how to execute the heist, how to get him through the police dragnet.

But then came an even more daunting challenge, in the form of Lyme Disease, perhaps picked up while walking near his rural upstate New York home.  Westlake managed to keep typing until he’d gotten Parker out, and then went to the hospital for four days; couldn’t work for six weeks after he got out of the hospital.  Westlake was almost 70, and it’s reasonable to assume he hadn’t fully recovered by the time he started writing again.  If he ever did.

But as he said later, it was when he reviewed what he’d already written that he realized escape was the overriding theme of the entire book, not just the section dealing with the prison.  There are all kinds of prisons in this world that we may have to try and get out of–hospitals, for example.  Physical afflictions.   Prisons within prisons within prisons (to repurpose Thomas Merton).

So Parker and his ‘friends’ (maybe not quite the right word, and that’s another theme in the book–personal and professional reciprocity, the pros and cons of it, no pun intended but there it is anyway) will have to break out again and again, before they win free of this morass, and live to heist another day.

We pick up in Part Two, right after Parker, Brandon Williams, and Tom Marcantoni, have  escaped the previously escape-proof Stoneveldt Prison, with the help of Ed Mackey, and some of Marcantoni’s criminal colleagues.  They drive to an isolated area by a lake to change clothes, and take stock.  Parker and Williams gave Marcantoni their promise they’d help him and his buddies out with a heist in the nearby midwestern city Williams and Marcantoni both hail from.

This is the multi-POV part of the book, where we get to know some of the players other than Parker.  We start off with Williams, who enjoys the distinction of being the first African American POV character to appear in a Parker novel (not the first black POV character by a long shot; see The Black Ice Score).  He’s reacting about the way you’d expect a black man to react when surrounded by strange white men, all of whom are capable of violence and not much for PC. He’s wondering if he’s going to be alive much longer.

He’s also noticing that the man he knew as Kasper is being referred to as Parker. Even though he’s been a heistman for much of his adult life, he’s still the fish out of water here, but there are reasons Parker, one of the best talent scouts in his field, picked him for the escape crew, and we learn a bit about how he came to be the man he is.

Brandon Williams had grown used to this level of tension, never knowing exactly how to react to the people around him, who and what to watch out for, where it was safe to put a foot.  Part of it was skin color, but the rest was the life he’d lived, usually on the bent.  He’d had square jobs, but they’d never lasted.  He’d always known the jobs were beneath him, that he was the smartest man on the job site or the factory floor, but that it didn’t matter how smart he was, or how much he knew, or the different things he’d read.  The knowledge would make him arrogant and angry, and sooner or later there’d be a fight, or he’d be fired.

The people he mostly got along with were, like him, on the wrong side of the law.  It wasn’t that they were smart, most of them, but that they kept to themselves.  He got along with people who kept to themselves; that way, he could keep to himself, too.

I’d say Williams is a somewhat overdue homage to all the black men who’d written fan letters to Westlake (as Stark) after the Parker novels started coming out–not necessarily felons (though a lot of Stark readers were, and are), but all of them feeling alienated from society, at odds with it, and liking Parker so much because they knew he’d understand their problems, if not necessarily give a damn about them.  Not reacting to Parker as a white man, but just as somebody who knew the score, and cared no more about color than blood type.  And we all bleed red.

So Williams doesn’t trust any of these people, but he needs them, and as long as they need him too, it’s all cool.  He doesn’t like having to pull a job right out of the joint any more than Parker does, but that was Marcantoni’s price for coming in with them.  Macontoni’s crew do have a good base of operations, at an abandoned building that used to be a beer distributor.

Next chapter is Marcantoni’s, and it’s where we learn about what the heist is–a jewelry wholesaler.  But in a most unusual location.  Back around the Mid-19th century, a huge brick armory was constructed in the town, of the type Americans are well familiar with. Municipalities all over the country are still looking for something to do with these white elephants, built like fortresses because that’s what they were, now that most of them are no longer needed for their original purpose.  Williams remembers when they used this one for track and field, but that didn’t last.

(Up top, you can see a picture of the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, an exceptionally fine example of the general architectural form; built in 1910, and New York is still looking for something useful to do with it.)

The city finally gave up on the place, sold it to developers, who turned the upper levels into expensive condos.  But the ground floor was a problem, because it really had been built to repel invaders (‘like if the Indians had tanks’ Marcantoni snarkily observes).  Very thick walls, very narrow windows.  Who wants a place like that?  Somebody with something valuable to protect, but no need to bring in customers off the street.

Marcantoni, needing a job after his parole, got hired to work on the reconstruction project.  And he found out something really neat (seriously, if I found this, I’d want to pull a heist too).  The original builders put in a secret tunnel in case the defenders, (perhaps under siege from Lakota warriors armed with medieval trebuchets) needed to escape.  Not in the official plans, completely forgotten about.   And the other end of the tunnel is in the old library building across the street.

Williams, smartest man in the room as usual (with one possible exception), has some concerns about the structural stability of a 150 year old tunnel, but here’s the problem.  Marcantoni is in love with this job.  He can’t see past it. He’s waited a long time to pull it (so nobody would remember he was on the reconstruction crew).  It’s the main reason he escaped.  He knows he needs a big crew to deal with the logistical problems, and he doesn’t mind splitting the very substantial proceeds six ways.  He will take it very personally if Parker and his friends don’t live up to their end of the agreement.  It’s agreed they’ll do it Sunday.  Nobody much feels like waiting around.

Chapter 3 is from the perspective of Goody, a lowlife Williams has the misfortune to be acquainted with.  He’s heard about the escape.  He knows Williams’ sister, about the only person on earth Williams is close to.   He goes to see her, and says if her brother gets in touch, let him know, maybe he could help. Help himself to a nice fat reward, is what he’s thinking.  Like so many a minor Stark POV character, he’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, and before long his plans come to naught, but he will figure into the plot later, so worth mentioning.

And then we’re at an exercise class inside the armory, and who should we see but Brenda Mackey, attending an exercise class.  She doesn’t need to get in shape, her shape is delightful as always, but she knows her husband Ed is going to rob this place, and she knows sometimes he needs help out of a jam (like that time in New York when he almost died), so she’s there to scout the place out in case she’s needed again.  Ed didn’t tell her to do this, but then again, he didn’t tell her not to do it.

(Later, we have another nice raunchy sex scene between the two, just before the heist–reminiscent of the one in Plunder Squad, and Brenda doesn’t seem to speak ersatz Chinese during coitus anymore, but she’s still quite vocal.)

It all goes fine, except Brenda catches the eye of Darlene Johnson-Ross, the woman who owns the studio, and this woman seems bothered by Brenda.   In the chapter after that, we find out this woman is having an affair with Henry Freedman, he whose jewelry wholesale business is about to get broken into, and she’s worried this attractive fit young woman taking a class much too easy for her is some kind of detective, or IRS agent, or something.  And all Henry is worried about is his wife finding out about Darlene.

Next we meet CID Detective Jason Rembek, who has been charged with recapturing the three escapees from Stoneveldt.  He knows most guys who break prison have no plan for what to do once they’re out, so are easily rounded up again.  He’s wondering if these three will be more of a challenge.  ‘Kasper’ is the one that attracts the most attention from him.

Rembek studied the few pictures he had of Kasper.  A hard face, bony, like outcroppings of stone.  Hard eyes; if they were the windows of the soul, the shades were drawn.

So.  The heist.  As happens surprisingly often with Stark, it’s very cleverly written, takes up just one chapter, and is, shall we say, not 100% successful. They go in through the library, as planned. They get into the tunnel, as planned. They shore up the tunnel with folding tables, as planned. They get the jewels as planned. The ancient tunnel, in long-standing disrepair, compromised by street work above, collapses on Marcantoni and his two friends, Angioni and Kolaski, on their way out, very nearly smothering Williams too, except Parker pulls him out by the legs.  Not quite exactly as planned.

So they have a fortune in gems and watches.  Nobody knows they’re there, no alarms were tripped.  But the way the place is set up, and with the tunnel now permanently closed off, there’s no obvious way of exiting this part of the building without alerting security, who will alert the law, and it’s back to prison for all three of them (including Mackey, who wasn’t even in prison–he was just doing Parker a favor here–no good deed, huh?).

Williams wants to thank Parker for pulling him out of that hole, and Parker won’t let him.  He didn’t do it for Williams.  He did it because once again, he needs a crew to break out of a prison.  And this one they walked right into of their own free will.  He knew it was a mistake.  But he did it anyway.  End of Part Two, which is the only part of the book that isn’t about escaping from somewhere.

Part Three is the shortest of the four sections (Part One is the longest).  44 pages of Parker, Mackey, and Williams trying to get out of that armory without getting caught.  First thing they have to do is drop the loot.  It’s only going to slow them down, and they don’t have a fence for it–that was Marcantoni’s side of things, and the contact info died with him.

I like this part of the book a lot, the desolate desperate lonely feel of it, but there’s not much point in carefully synopsizing it.  It’s purely about three guys expert in breaking into places they’re not supposed to be trying to figure out a way to break out of a place they’re not supposed to be before morning, when none of them, of necessity, has ever been in there before, or done any advance scouting (Brenda did, but she isn’t there).  That quote up top tells you how it’s going to go.  Finding tools, breaking through walls, trying to avoid making too much noise, or setting off any alarms.  There are a lot of people living in this place.

They finally get out to where they could make it to the street, but not without passing the doorman for the apartments.  They need a distraction for him.  Mackey has a brainstorm.  They’re in an office.  There’s a yellow pages.  There’s a phone.  He finds an all-night pizza place.  He orders a pie.  Pepperoni, if you’re curious.  The guard goes to let the delivery guy in.  They get to the stairwell–but the stairs only go up.  Not down to the parking garage, where they wanted to go. An interesting exchange follows.

Parker said, “It’s the goddam security in this place.  They don’t want anybody in or out except past that doorman.”

“Well,” Mackey said, “that’s what people want nowadays, that sense of safety.”

Williams said, “Bullshit.  There’s no such thing as safety.”

“You’re right,” Mackey told him.  “But they don’t know that.”

We still don’t.

So they finally get to where they can get out to the street, but now they have a new problem.  Donald Westlake was a born problem solver, and this is the kind of problem he can truly relate to.  The physical challenges, but also the strategic ones.  They need more than just a means of egress–they need a means of escape, transportation, so they’re not trapped on  the empty streets outside, just waiting around for the law to scoop them up.

Mackey figures they can call Brenda–she can come pick them up.  Except none of them has a cellphone.  They have to go back into the trap, break into another office, use the phone there.  And then it turns out Brenda’s motel room phone is set not to receive calls until tomorrow morning.  And she doesn’t have a cellphone either.  They need somebody to come get them.  Williams has a really dangerous idea.

Goody.  Williams knows, for a stone fact, that Goody wants to sell him to the law. But he also knows Goody is stupid and greedy enough to come get him.  He and Parker work it out–set up a meet at a camera store across the street.  He’ll say he wants Goody to drop him in a little town nearby, where some relatives live, and he can hide out with them.  Goody will figure he can bring him there, then call the law on him–low risk, high reward, except Goody doesn’t know about Parker and Mackey.  They’ll just take the car and go.

(All three are heeled.  Parker has his usual go-to, the five shot Smith & Wesson Terrier .32 snubnose.  Now I’ll quibble, very briefly.  We’re told back in Part Two that Mackey has a Beretta Jaguar .22–we’re told he equipped Parker and Williams similarly.  Then we’re told in Part Three that Parker has a Terrier.  Let’s do a side-by-side comparison, shall we?

Okay, they’re both small handguns.  Other than that, not terribly similar.  And this is easily explained by Mackey knowing Parker’s tastes in armament.  And it still bothers me.  And this is why authors of crime fiction should think twice about getting specific on guns.)

Now what I left out of the Part Two synopsis is that Goody, who is a smalltime drug dealer, ran into problems with his supplier, who is a bit less small-time, and who had his men do things to Goody until he told them about the reward money he planned to get for Williams.  They’re going to come along and make sure they get their share.

So things get a bit confusing once they run out there to Goody’s black Mercury, and all of a sudden there’s a Land Rover pulling up, and three men with guns jump out.  Parker quickly figures the guy in the back of the Land Rover as the boss, drops him, and the other two are nothing without their brain.  Williams gives his old pal in the Merc a proper thank you for his loyalty.  So they end up driving away in the Land Rover, Williams at the wheel, the four interlopers left behind with bullet holes in them, and that’s the end of that subplot.  Goody.

Except a lot of gunfire in the street was never the ideal version of their plan. There’s jumpy security-obsessed rich people calling the police in those fancy apartments up above.  They figure on ditching the Land Rover for a car Mackey has stashed nearby.  There’s a lot of maneuvering through a parking garage they take refuge in, and let’s just skip over that part.  “All I want,” Williams said, “is to be in a place I’m not trying to get out of.”  You said a mouthful, brother.

They get to where Mackey stashed a Honda, and it’s still too soon to contact Brenda–who has a car of her own.  So they offer Williams the Honda so he can get over the state line, start over.  He’s touched.  He gets the hell out of there before they can change their minds.  Strange strange white people.  They get some sleep, but then Mackey wakes Parker up.  Brenda has been arrested.  They have to break her out of jail.

Hey, maybe now would be the time for a little musical interlude, what do you say?  I posted an image of a watchtower in Part 1.  Here’s the song to go with it.

(I could have gone with Dylan, but you know, The Experience was two ofays and a brother as well.  Though this power trio we’re looking at is maybe a bit more even in the talent department.)

Part Four is less focused, more freewheeling.  Lots of ground to cover.  Parker comes downstairs, and finds Mackey and Williams sitting at the table.  Williams was supposed to be headed for the border, but just when he thought he was out, he pulls himself back in.  He heard about Brenda’s arrest on the radio, figured Parker and Mackey might need a hand. This is the first thing he’s done in the book to lower Parker’s opinion of him.

The radio provided Williams with a lot of information.  The cops found Marcantoni and the others in the rubble, dead of course.  They figure Parker and Williams were involved too.  Brenda got arrested by doing what she always does–hanging around nearby when Mackey is doing a job, in case he needs her to rescue him.  Like she did that time in New York, which is how Mackey is still alive, but without cellphones, there was no practical way she could help out, and that woman from the dance studio saw her hanging around and called the police. They figure she’s the brains of the outfit.  Which might be true if it was just her and Ed.

They have her in a city lock-up.  Williams knows the place.  Not as tough as Stoneveldt, but tough.  Ed’s all for going in.  Williams is dubious, but game.

Parker wants no part of this.  It’s long past time for him to get out of this hick town, like he should have done to start with.  Ed senses his reluctance, is angered by it.  Please remember, not only did Brenda save Ed’s life once–she’s the one who made Ed stick around and wait for Parker after that heist they pulled in Comeback.  Ed helped him break prison just now, stood by him on a heist that clearly wasn’t planned out properly, just out of loyalty.  If Parker owes anybody in this world, he owes Brenda and Ed Mackey. But in his mind, he doesn’t owe anyone anything.  Parker didn’t live by debts accumulated and paid off; is what the narrator tersely informs us.

Excuse me?   Mr. Stark?  Have you forgotten every previous book in this series?  ‘Debts accumulated and paid off ‘is basically all Parker lives by, starting with the debts he collected from his wife, and his former partner, and an entire criminal syndicate, in the very first of those books.  Debts Accumulated And Paid Off might as well be the epitaph on his tombstone, assuming he gets one.  Parker has risked himself far more seriously than this to pay off a blood debt to somebody who wronged him.  He’s also risked himself several times to help criminal associates like Handy McKay and Alan Grofield, though there were other factors involved besides loyalty each time.

You can, if you want, explain this away.  Parker comes after people who wrong him in some way because their treachery triggered a response he has no control over, and he needs to kill them to restore his mental equilibrium.  He helps fellow heisters he’s working a job with because that’s part of his professional ethic, and because he might need to work with them again someday–in this case, the job was over as soon as they got out of the armory.

He tells himself he’ll have to help Ed and Brenda now, because otherwise if he and Ed work together again someday, Ed won’t trust him anymore–but seeing as we never see him work with Ed again in the series, and he’s got a lot of other names stored away in his head, that doesn’t seem like enough of a reason.

It’s a much bigger motivational problem than the one in The Jugger, that bothered Westlake so much, and Westlake should have seen that.  If Parker isn’t helping the Mackeys out of professional solidarity, or out of a sense of obligation for what they’ve done for him–as Williams, a near-stranger is willing to do, just because Ed let him have the Honda–why the hell is he doing it?

Because Stark can’t let him do anything else.  Stark can’t ever let Parker appear ignoble.  But neither can Stark allow his pragmatic anti-hero any virtuous motives.  And usually that works out fine.  And this time, it feels a mite forced. As if Westlake, still hollowed out by his recent illness, couldn’t fully access that part of himself that could interpret Parker’s thoughts for us.  I had only read two previous Parker novels when I first got to this one.  I already knew it was wrong to say Parker doesn’t live by debts accumulated and paid off.  But how else would you say it?

But in critiquing the way Stark does it here, I still appreciate what an important question is being asked.  No matter how independent you are, you are still going to need help sometimes.  In order to reliably receive help, you will need to offer it in return.  Was Brenda right when she pulled Ed out of that burning lumberyard, but wrong when she was waiting around outside the armory to see if he needed her again?  How could she ever know for sure?  How can you know when you’ve crossed the line between legitimate obligations and sucker bets?  And isn’t there anything in this world besides debts accumulated and paid off?

Ed doesn’t care if he owes Brenda or not, because he loves her (he never says it, and he doesn’t need to).  If he walked away from her now, he’d be nothing. (Parker would never walk away from Claire either, of course, because she’s a part of him).  Williams just wants to respect himself in the morning–to feel like the man he was born to be, that society wouldn’t let him be in any other walk of life. Parker and Mackey see that man when they look at him, and that’s why he came back.

Parker feels none of this, for any of them.  But he’s caught in a web of conflicting obligations (my Celtic ancestors used to call them geasa and they’ve killed no end of tough guys). Another kind of prison.  Ed’s sense of obligation to him was a necessary factor in his escape from the actual prison he ended up in because of a confederate who acted as if his only obligation was to himself.  There’s no solution to this equation.  You just have to decide what feels right to you, and accept the consequences.  And never know if you’ve chosen correctly until it’s too late to do anything about it.

Ultimately the only answer to this conundrum is that Stark is a romantic, and Parker isn’t.  Let’s get back to the synopsis.

As romantic as it unquestionably would be to shoot their way into the jail, like the 1920’s heisters, or the Old West outlaws, Parker has a less sanguinary plan. He still has the card for the criminal attorney Claire got him.  A very capable shyster, Mr. Jonathan Li.  And if they can just get Brenda released on her own recognizance, the charges against her dropped, she can go on living  in the straight world, instead of being a fugitive like Parker and Ed.

Li knows he is now dealing with fugitives from the law, and as long as they don’t implicate him, and the check doesn’t bounce (or hell, just send cash), he’s got zero problems with helping them.  The problem lies with Darlene Johnson-Ross. She’s the one who spotted Brenda waiting in the car, recognized her blonde hair, called the law.  (I don’t accept Brenda is a blonde, it’s never been mentioned before now, but we can talk about that in the comments section.)

If this woman dropped her complaint, they’d have nothing to hold Brenda on, and Li could do the rest in his sleep.  But she has to drop it.  She can’t just disappear, conveniently and forever, or Brenda will be held on suspicion of conspiracy to commit murder.  Li knows who he’s talking to here, never doubt it.

What follows is probably my least favorite part of the book, that involves finding Johnson-Ross at her house, with her lover (the guy they almost robbed), and using a variety of threats (none of them terribly veiled) to convince her to go tell the police she made a mistake, and this is definitely not the same dame.  If she doesn’t, then they’ll kill her boyfriend.  It’s a bit hard to understand why she cares, given that he’s possibly more terrified of his wife finding out about them than he is of these three desperate criminals with guns, but who can explain it, who can tell you why, fools give you reasons, Freedman doesn’t die.  Turns out he makes really nice sandwiches, and Ed figures you don’t shoot a guy who feeds you.

This is the last prison they find themselves in, unable to leave her house until they know Brenda is out, wondering if the police will come by and check, which they do, but not seriously.  Williams makes his exit (in Freedman’s Infiniti) before they find out what happens, because seriously, he’s done his share and then some.  They never would have even found the house without somebody who knows the area.

(It’s a bit too cute, this part.  Too Dortmunder-esque, except you know that these guys actually can kill people.  Mackey is his usual jocular self, even helps Darlene with the dishes.  Freedman gets Stockholm Syndrome, starts identifying with his captors.  I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, it’s just a bit much that we spend more time on this hostage caper than on the robbery.  Well, anything for Brenda.)

Endgame.  Brenda’s been released, Li worked his magic.  She’s taking a cab to the airport.  Ed will rendezvous with her there–the cops don’t know his face. They’ll get the car they have in long-term parking, and drive out of state.  Of course the law is tailing her.  Parker can’t go with them.  He’s going to need another ride.

And who should he spot in a remote area of the airport but Detective Turley–you know, the one who talked about game theory so much.  They’ll get to talk about that some more.  Parker commandeers Turley and his vehicle.  Turley’s a pro, and he knows by this time Parker is no less professional on his side of the law. He wants to live to type up his report.  So he gets them past security, and they get the hell out of Dodge.

Bit of driving to do now.  Might as well chat to pass the time.  Turley mentions that even though he’s a state cop, the car they’re in belongs to the local police.  A few years back, there was a proposal floated to the city government–equip all the squad cars with location devices–so that if a car went missing, they could find it.  You know what the city fathers said?  “You boys are local law enforcement, you know exactly where you are.”  Turley’s having a good chuckle about that now. Parker is less amused.  He’d probably have had to kill Turley and find another car if they’d shelled out for that tech.  Turley’s not done gabbing, and Parker knows why.

Just as Parker had known what Turley was doing underneath his words back in Stoneveldt, he understood now what this cosy chat was all about.  Turley was a good cop, but he was also mortal.  His second job, if he could do it, was to bring Parker in, but his first job was to keep himself alive.  Talk with a man, exchange confidences with him, he’s less likely to pull the trigger if and when the time comes.  Like Mackey deciding to do it the more difficult way because Henry had made him lunch.

This wouldn’t work on Parker, but he doesn’t need Turley dead.  There’s a railroad town coming up.  Also a major truck stop.  He leaves Turley by the roadside, in the middle of nowhere, throwing his gun into a cornfield where he’ll take some time finding it (but won’t be humiliated by Parker having taken it away from him).  Parker ditches the police Plymouth, and looks for his ride out of this goddam flat state.

He has a pretty good idea of what he’s looking for, or rather, whom.   A couple in their 40’s or 50’s, who own and operate a big rig together.  More and more of those on the road now–must have been a fairly new trend back when this book was written.  (Parker, like his creator, never stops watching people–you never know what bit of information will come in handy).  They’ll invite him aboard just to have somebody to talk to, chat on the porch, so to speak.  A lone trucker wouldn’t want to risk it.  A couple seeks out company, to spice up their own relationship.

Then here they came.  He knew they were right the instant they walked out of the cafe.  Mid fifties, both overweight from sitting in the truck all the time, dressed alike in boots and jeans and windbreakers and black cowboy hats, they were obviously comfortable together, happy, telling each other stories. Parker rose and walked toward them, and they stopped, grinning at him, as though they’d expected him.

They had.  “I knew it,” the man said, and said to his wife, “Didn’t I tell you?”

“Well, it was pretty obvious,” she said.

Parker said, “You know I want a lift.”

Marty and Gail.  Quite possibly the nicest people Parker’s ever met, which I suppose isn’t the highest praise that can be given, but they’re pretty darn nice. They can get him as far as Baltimore.  He says he could walk home from Baltimore.  They’ve got a Sterling Aero Bullet Plus.  Probably not unlike this one. Don’t really know much about trucks.  I do know the drivers matter more than the trucks do.   At least until it’s all done with computers and GPS.  Watch your backs, Martys & Gails of the world.  Google Trucks is coming for you.


Parker has a good story to tell them about how he lost his car and his money in Vegas, and there was a woman involved.  He doesn’t get into detail much about it.  They can fill in the blanks themselves.  All they know is that he’s headed for New Jersey.  Well, that’s all they know officially, put it that way.  Marty in particular knows more than he’s saying.

There’s a police roadblock coming up.  Marty tells Parker he doesn’t feel like dealing with it, so he’s going to take the scenic route, on the side roads.  Get back on the highway once they’re past the cops.  And he’s got a little story of his own to tell Parker.  He did time once.  Attempted robbery.  Served four years, which was the minimum.

“Four  years is a long minimum,” Parker said.

“Oh, you know it.”  Marty concentrated on the road awhile, then said, “I know there’s fellas belong in there, I know there’s fellas I’d prefer was in there, but after being in there myself I could never put a man in a cage, personally.  Never.”

“I know the feeling,” Parker said.

“If a man wants to learn from his mistakes, fine,” Marty said.  “You look at me.  You see the job I gave myself.  Coast-to-coast hauling.  You can’t get much farther from a four-man cage inside a six-hundred-man cage inside a four-thousand-man cage.”

Prisons within prisons within prisons.  But there’s always a way out, if you look hard enough.  And there’s people who’ll help you, if you ask.  The decent people of this earth.  The sane ones.  They do exist.

But Parker, I’m just wondering–what if  things turned out so that you had to kill these good people, who are helping you for no reason at all other than that they feel like it?  What if that was the only way you could stay free? Would you do it? Could you? I’m asking a question, Parker.  Answer me, damn you.  Silence. That figures.

They pass the roadblock, and Marty says the state troopers are just doing what they were told.  “They aren’t hunters.  They’re just boys doing a job.”   Maybe he knows what’s sitting next to him in the cab, while his wife sleeps peacefully in back.  Maybe not.  We don’t see Parker say goodbye to them.  Which means we don’t know if they were still alive when he left them–knowing what they do about him, where he came from, where he was headed.  We don’t even get that much of an answer to my question.  But Parker doesn’t kill when he doesn’t need to.  That I know.  He’s not one of us.

And Chapter 17 of Part Four is so short, I can type the whole damn thing.  Why not?

Claire rolled over when he walked into the room.  Her eyes gleamed in the darkness, but she didn’t say anything as she watched him move.  Out of his pocket and onto the dresser went the three Patek watches that were the only result of the jewel job.  He stripped and got into bed and then, folding into his arms, she said, “Gone a long time.”

“It felt like a long time.”

“I knew you’d be back,” she said.

“This time,” he said.

Just FYI, some Patek Phillipe & Co. watches sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars–some can even cost millions.  Probably a midwest wholesaler wouldn’t have the top of the line models, but Parker would have picked the best of the bunch available, and he can find a fence for three watches easily enough.  He really does not like to walk away empty-handed from a job.  Neither did Donald E. Westlake.

What I walk away from this book with is a sense that the walls are starting to close in on Parker, in a way we haven’t seen before.  Yes, he got away, but the law caught him, photographed his new face, connected it to his old fingerprints.  He’s got a few more killings to his official credit, not that he needed any more to go away for life.  He’s still having a harder and harder time finding jobs he can pull in this strange new world of electronic cash, electronic surveillance, ever-faster information sharing between far-flung police departments.

He still has to work with unreliable people sometimes, which creates points of vulnerability–and when he works with people he can trust, because they trust him, that creates other points of vulnerability, perhaps even more dangerous.

He’s free, but it’s not unqualified freedom, liberty without caveats.  I suppose there’s no such thing.  He’s certainly got a wider range of amenities in that house, with Claire (a fine amenity in herself).   But he has to keep paying for them.  He has to keep hunting, like any predator.  And sooner or later, every predator becomes the prey.  Nobody runs forever.  Yes, this is foreshadowing. Three more books left.  Which can, arguably, be seen as one long book.  Or one multi-faceted work of art.

The next Parker novel was published two years after this one, and by all rights, I should get to it in a few more weeks.  But I’m going to break with my usual habit of reviewing books in the order in which they were published.  Two rather unsatisfying standalone books are next, neither of them books Westlake will be remembered for, though both with things to recommend them.  Then a whole lot of Dortmunder: novels, novellas, short stories, workout routines.

And then we’ll get to the defacto conclusion of the Parker Saga, along with the very last Dortmunder, and the very last Westlake novel ever to be published.  The end, in fact, of the primary literary oeuvre of Donald E. Westlake, hard and painful as that is to believe.  And by extension, the end of my needing to publish an article here every week or so.  One prison I’m feeling rather ambiguous about breaking out of.  But there’s always another one waiting outside. Right?



Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

41 responses to “Review: Breakout, Part 2

  1. Grofield said, “I appreciate this.”
    “Appreciate what?”
    “You didn’t leave me up there. You carried me along, got me my share.”
    Parker didn’t understand what there was to appreciate about that. “We were working together,” he said.

    You know, when you alluded to an upcoming troublesome passage in the last comments section, I knew exactly what you were talking about. The passage seemingly contradicts what we know of Parker, but it’s also worth noting that he does stick around, he does offer his assistance to get Brenda out, so I’ve kind of always chalked that passage up to Parker not wholly knowing himself, not fully understanding his own motivations, which isn’t an entirely satisfying explanation, but:

    Parker got to his feet. He’d been patient a long time, he’d explained things over and over, and now he was getting itchy. Enough was enough. “I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s like me or not. These people nailed my foot to the floor, I’m going around in circles, I’m not getting anywhere. When was it like me to take my lumps and just walk away? I’d like to burn this city to the ground, I’d like to empty it right down to the basements. And I don’t want to talk about it any more, I want to do it.

    I do think Parker doesn’t doesn’t always fully understand (or isn’t fully able to admit) his motivations, something that Handy calls him on above. In Breakout, Parker again finds himself with his foot nailed to the floor, going around in circles. But there’s no one to take his anger out on. It’s just circumstances, some bad breaks.

    Maybe he and Brenda weren’t working together, but he and Mackey were, and Parker doesn’t walk away from a job until he’s square with his partners (for good or for ill). He knows that much, which is why the passage in question doesn’t fully work.

    • I think Westlake was trying to underline the secondary theme of the book. The primary theme is how there’s always another prison to break out of, and to some extent, everybody has to choose his or her form of incarceration–even Marty seems to see his truck, wandering the wide open spaces, with the woman he loves next to him, as a sort of confinement–but the best one available to him, and he’s happy with it, at peace with it. He knows how much worse things can be. All he wants now is to get as far away from that hell as he possibly can (and yet he’s willing to risk imprisonment to aid a fleeing fugitive, because he just can’t do otherwise–not all human irrationality is evil, you know–most of it, but not all).

      The secondary theme is how to get help, you have to give it. Parker is the ultimate independent, and his desire to avoid all fetters extends to the fetters of human camaraderie, the give and take of relationships. It’s always been there, this theme–we’re reminded, again and again, that Parker doesn’t admit to feeling any loyalty to his colleagues, even to himself, and yet he keeps behaving as if he does feel it. This is a conflict in his nature, this duality of instincts–a lone wolf, who keeps ending up in a pack. He needs the help of certain people in order to stay alive and free, but in order to get that help, he becomes a bit less free. He hates to compromise on anything, but he has to sometimes, anyway.

      You want to bet this wasn’t a conflict his creator had as well?

      So we’ve seen this before, but it’s less skillfully written this time. One problem may be is that we see Parker more often in the role of supplicant, asking for help when he has no reason to expect it. Here he’s the one being asked for it, when he has every reason to want to get out of there. His agreement with Williams and Marcantonio was a temporary pact, requiring no loyalty from any of them, merely a unity of interests. But once interests begin to diverge, that’s when ‘the loyalty of friendship’ comes into play, as Rosie sarcastically put it–knowing Parker better than most people, she sees that he is neither treacherous nor loyal. He’s something else.

      And I still wonder if Marty and Gail were alive the last time he saw them. I totally assumed they were, the last time I read it (which was also the first). Dead bodies would probably create more problems than they solved. Don’t make murder the answer to everything. But the break between the penultimate and final chapters is so abrupt. So–Stark. I think we’re supposed to at least ask ourselves that question. So I asked it. And got no answer.

      • There’s no doubt in my mind that Parker leaves Marty and Gail alive. None. They are absolutely no threat to him, and even someday they might represent a hypothetical threat to him, well… we’ve seen before that Parker doesn’t act on hypothetical future threats. He leaves Uhl alive. He leaves Matt Rosenstein alive, twice. And he sure as hell left Marty and Gail alive.

        I like the passage with M&G a lot. We’ve seen Parker take on a different persona before, but it’s usually someone who’s a close enough fit to his real personality that it sort-of works. (And when he tries to stray too far, it doesn’t work. See Flashfire.) With Marty and Gail, he crafts a persona and backstory for himself that works. Or rather, it works towards his achieving his goal. Marty still sees through it, enough to acknowledge to Parker why he’s doing what he’s doing. I don’t think he fully sees the real Parker. But then again, who does?

        • I think he sees partly through the mask. If he saw all the way through, he’d be putting himself and his wife in danger. He did four years hard time. He met a lot of really bad people in there. He may be gambling that it’s better to let Parker know he’s no threat to him, even though that means letting Parker know he’s onto him. That’s probably a sound gambit, I agree.

          But that break between the last two chapters is still very abrupt. We can’t know for sure. There’s just the faintest undercurrent of doubt. And anyway, assuming you’re right, that still doesn’t answer my question. If he had to–could he? I don’t know.

          • There are situations Stark deliberately never places Parker in, choices he deliberately never forces Parker to make. And a situation in which Parker has to kill a civilian is one of of those, with the exception of the one woman he accidentally kills in The Hunter (and even then he’s pissed off by the unnecessariness of it).

            • Very true. But when you do a deliberate break between chapters, so that there’s this empty narrative space that will never be filled in, that fairly begs the question–that’s intentional. You can’t tell me it isn’t. Parker can do whatever he wants in the vacuum between two chapters.

              And is a guy who did a robbery–albeit a botched one–then knowingly helped a felon to escape justice–really a civilian? Was that a strategic miscalculation on Marty’s part? Probably not. I agree with you 99.9999999% on this one. Leave it at that. 😉

              • What’s the motivation to kill them? Even if they’re questioned and shown pictures, all they know is that they left him in Baltimore and that he claimed to live in Jersey. Unless Marty was dumb enough to press Parker, and we see the opposite.

            • It’s a very weak motivation, which is why I don’t think he killed them. He most definitely doesn’t want to kill them. But he really does live in New Jersey, and that’s a lot more information than he wants the law to have. If the law was after you, would you want them to think “He’s somewhere in North America” or “He’s somewhere in the fifth smallest state in the Union”?

              It’s not like the old days. Surveillance cameras everywhere. Police departments communicating instantaneously, sharing data over the goddam internet. He’s more of a fugitive than ever before, because they had him, and they know his face, and they’ve connected it to those fingerprints and it’s a whole different ballgame now. Why do they even need to know he’s going to New Jersey? They’re dropping him in Maryland, which doesn’t even share a border with New Jersey. He has to give them a destination, because he doesn’t know which way they’re going. He doesn’t get very specific, because even if they were driving right up I-95, within a stone’s throw of Colliver Pond, he’d never let them know that much about him.

              But then Marty tells him he knows Parker is one of the escaped convicts–and that he’s an ex-con himself, and would do anything to avoid going back there again. Parker has to at least consider the possibility that this could come back to bite him, if somebody spots him in the truck, gives the licence number to the law, and they come question Marty and Gail, threaten Marty with going back into that cage, threaten Gail–you know at least one of them would crack. He’s not Tom Ripley, so we’re not going to get a long internal monologue about the pros and cons of it, and whether he feels right about it or not. Maybe he didn’t feel right about killing that kid in The Jugger, but he still did it. I think Westlake probably never felt right about that, and that’s another reason he didn’t like that book.

              I think it’s just the faintest possible suggestion. It would have taken one short sentence to confirm they were still alive the last time Parker saw them. Marty’s last words are “We’ll be fine from there.” He’s acting as Parker’s getaway driver. Okay, Parker doesn’t kill people he works with unless they steal from him, or try to kill him. Marty wouldn’t do either of those. I would never expect Parker to kill anyone like Marty. Stark wouldn’t let him do that. But again, Stark can’t control what Parker does in the space between chapters. Space that has quite consciously been created.

              The signals are intentionally a tiny bit mixed this time. I don’t think we’re supposed to think Parker killed them. I don’t think that. But we’re supposed to experience just a moment of doubt. We’re supposed to ask ourselves if he could kill them. Because these books are actually harder and colder than the ones that came before. I don’t understand people saying Parker is softer in the later books. He’s harder than ever, because he has to be.

  2. You didn’t spend a lot of time on Goody in your review, which: fair enough. But I do want to linger on this one passage, as it demonstrates a writer in full command of his abilities:

    “Aw no, Buck,” Goody said, because he was still to some extent a fool, “I wanna help that girl, old-friend like–”
    “Leon,” Buck said, “He’s losin his focus.”
    “No, Buck I — Aaoww! Listen, don’t — Ohh! Oww!
    “Okay, Leon,” Buck said, “let’s see is he tuned in.”

    That’s the second of three bursts of violence in that scene, and not one of those acts of violence is described. No a punch, slap, kick, or jab. Nothing. Westlake is confident enough in his dialogue (and in his readers’ imaginations) for the action to be conveyed without a single descriptive word.

    That level of confidence is simply stunning.

    • Yeah, I had to skip over nearly the all stuff that went on in the black part of town–gave short shrift to the rich white follks too. It’s interesting, and adds a social dimension to the book we don’t normally see from Stark, but it’s not really what the book is about. Williams is important to the story–the other black characters are just decently fleshed out plot devices, like most of the white characters (Goody’s a lot more interesting than Freedman, that’s for sure).

      Well, more than plot devices in this sense–living examples of how it’s not only heisters who end up in jail. Working class ghetto black prisons. Respectable white bourgeois prisons. What’s the difference? You’re not free, either way. You drive better cars in the white prison (unless you’re selling a lot of drugs in the black one).

      You’re right–he’s putting more effort into it than he really has to. And, at the same time, less. The genius of Stark. To say exactly as much as necessary. And no more.

      • Another nice piece of understatement from the passage I quoted above:

        Outside, the telephone company truck was gone. Some other emergency taken care of, working this late on a Saturday night.

        Westlake trusts us to understand that this is a tap being placed on Goody’s phone, his name just having popped on the tap on Williams’ sister’s phone.

        • You understand, I’m not saying I couldn’t have made this a three or even four-parter. But I like leaving stuff for the comments section. Aside from our being informed Brenda is a blonde, which she is NOT. You’ve heard of going snow-blind? I think by the end of his life, Westlake was going snow-blonde. One reason I’m actually looking forward to the Latin American novel up next. Nary a blonde in that one. Lots of lovely latinas and their raven tresses. Nothing against blondes, you understand.

          But back to your point–we never find out the name of this city. We never find out which of the flat dry states this is (unless we do, and I forgot?). I’m not entirely convinced there were any armories of this size and design built around the Mid-19th century in small midwestern cities, to ward off Crazy Horse and his dreaded siege engines. Westlake may have been thinking more about the New York armories when writing about this one. Quibbles, quibbles, quibbles. This town feels like a real place, with its own social dynamic, complete with distinct sub-communities within the overall community. He was doing this as far back as Killing Time, and it still works.

  3. Williams wants to thank Parker for pulling him out of that hole, and Parker won’t let him. He didn’t do it for Williams. He did it because once again, he needs a crew to break out of a prison.

    Say there’s another way out that works equally well for one or two. Does Parker pull Williams out even though he doesn’t need him? Of course. There are a few books where Parker talks about not making trouble for people who are on the same side he is (e.g, the Outfit before he has a reason to go after them), and they strike me as extremely unconvincing But he is going to help people he’s on a job with, and it wouldn’t occur to him in a million years that a larger share is a reason to let one die.

    • No, definitely not. But once the tunnel collapses, Parker knows there is no share. He can take a few baubles out in his pockets (that he never informs the others about, and quite probably they had a few as well), but the job is over. The new job is getting out of the armory, and he needs all the help he can get for that.

      And yes, that is a lot for him to think through in a matter of a few seconds, isn’t it? If he hesitated for even a moment, to make sure he wants to do this, Williams would be gone.

      So you could be right. He helps Williams because–well–just because. Then he comes up with a reason. But it’s a good reason.

      But then again, he knew this could happen from the moment he heard about the job (so did Williams). And Parker is a big one for contingency plans. “If something goes wrong, I’m going to need a crew I can count on to break out again.”

      So as always, with Parker, you can never be sure. Stark sees to that.

  4. We were talking about baseball personalities the other day. One of the classic descriptions of Leo Durocher is “You’re together on a boat in the middle of the ocean. One day Durocher falls overboard. You dive in and rescue him, and a shark takes one of your legs. The next day you start off even.”

    • “I believe in rules. Sure I do. If there weren’t any rules, how could you break them?”

      The Starkian ethos, decades before Stark.

      • “Look, that’s why there’s rules, understand? So that you think before you break ’em.”

        And while I’m here — is Parker not as much Number 1 in his own way as Number 6 is? (And as much a prisoner at various levels?)

        • Durocher got there quote a long time before Pratchett, but I guess they can work all that out now. Assuming they went to the same place.

          I was watching The Prisoner a longggggg time before I got into Stark. I even have the DVD set (though for some reason, I never watch it, even though I got through the entire Danger Man collection while recovering from ankle surgery). McGoohan is one of my heroes. And yes, there are commonalities. And differences. And if I want to get specific about that, I should probably watch the damn DVD set. Maybe later. How much later? That would be telling.

          • No intent to argue about priority of place — just noting commonality of (and variations on) themes.

            And I actually have a homegrown VHS tape set of The Prisoner, which I’m sure wouldn’t take frequent watching by now. Are we likely to talk more about that show? By hook or by crook. . . .

            • I don’t object to bringing up TV shows now and again, if they’re relevant, but this is a book blog. There’s no end of places to talk about cult TV shows online. I try to avoid being redundant, if I can. But if I ever do get around to watching that DVD set through, we’ll see.

              • When relevant, of course — if something is truly irrelevant, it’s no more defensible than Baravelli (that’sa right). How this irrelevant got in my pajamas I’ll never know. . . .

  5. One thing that bothers me: Ed and Brenda’s continuing, unquestioning loyalty to Parker after Parker left Ed to die. It was the smart thing to do, but it does seem like a bridge that can’t be unburnt.

    Also, maybe Brenda dyed her hair blonde because she felt like a change? People do things like that. Parker doesn’t say anything, but he wouldn’t.

    • But you know who would have said something about her being blonde, the very first time we met her? Richard Stark. Just like he would have mentioned Claire being a blonde, before the very last book in the series, if she was. Having said she had auburn hair in Nobody Runs Forever. And never mentioning her hair color before that.

      Stark is about ideals–Claire and Brenda both represent different versions of The Coolest Girl Ever. But man or woman, your image of the perfect mate isn’t going to necessarily be that stable, is it? It depends on who you’re with now, who you saw on the street lately, what movie you watched last. Fantasies are fluid by their nature, because they’re about experiencing more than any one person can experience in life. They’re an outlet for unexpressed desires.

      So Stark never mentions the hair color for either of these two very different women he admires so similarly, and the paperback cover artists just shrug and go with whatever image they have in their heads, or whatever model they’re screwing at a given moment (okay, probably Robert McGinnis actually did get to fulfill every possible male fantasy, maybe we should all have gone to art school, but never mind that now). Because he wants us to be able to project our ideal onto each of them. They’re both very attractive, and that’s all we need to know.

      For some reason, he needed us to know Brenda was a blonde in this one. I think mainly because he needed Darlene to notice her in the studio, and a blonde always notices another blonde, particularly if she’s younger and prettier. And very blonde hair stands out, even when hunched down in a car in the dark, which is where Darlene sees her next, and why she calls the cops, and Brenda gets arrested. If she’d seen Brenda in full daylight, it would be too hard for her to convince the cops she’d made a mistake, so that Parker and Ed don’t shoot her boyfriend.

      Sure, it could be a dye job, but answer me this–do ideals dye their hair? The hair just changes color naturally, like a chameleon, or one of those 70’s mood rings. Brenda just felt blonde that week, is all. I can believe that if I want to. Also, the final Mrs. Westlake was a blonde, and must have been taking really good care of her man after he got sick, and she was the only woman he could see by that point. That’s all I got.

      I wouldn’t say either of them were loyal to Parker in Butcher’s Moon. He didn’t violate any professional code when he left a seemingly dead Mackey in Plunder Squad–Ed knows he would have done the same thing. It’s not a good profession for sentimentalists. Parker offers Ed a proposition, and Ed accepts. And everything worked out great in Tyler, they had a good score together, so of course they work together some more. And then Parker comes in on that job with Liss because Mackey is in, and Liss would have killed them both if Parker hadn’t taken the shells out of the shotguns.

      Parker then attends to business with Liss, so Mackey never has to worry about that scarface asshole again. That creates an obligation in Mackey’s mind. Ed Mackey is a man who greatly enjoys life. Somebody allows him to go on living that life a while longer, he feels an obligation. He also wants to go on working with Parker. That’s the only reason he let Brenda persuade him to wait around in town for Parker to finish with Liss. Which I think Brenda did because Parker is a potential back-up mate if anything happens to Ed, who she loves a lot, but she’s no sentimentalist either. She needs a very specific type of man, and there’s not many of them around. Even for a woman who can change hair color at will.. 😉

  6. I just wanted to listen to Dylan’s original recording of All Along The Watchtower (which I didn’t even think about referencing in this review until yesterday), and I found this.

    Somebody please tell me I don’t sound like that when I analyze Westlake’s writing.

    Lie, if necessary.

    • Grofield is the joker; Parker is the thief. Except that he pronounces “No reason to get excited” as “Shut up”.

      • I would have said Williams was the Joker, except he’s scolding Mackey for making jokes right after the escape. So maybe Mackey is The Joker, and Williams is the narrator who sings the song.

        But Parker is always The Thief. And he was at his very peak in 1967.

        However, Jokerman (different song) is Muhammad Ali, and the Idol With the Iron Head is Joe Frazier.

        Damn, I do sound like that. :\

  7. Not worth its own article, but I kind of want to discuss the cover art for this one. I doubt I’ve found all the covers for any Parker novel–he travels extremely well–but the foreign edition titles are often very different from the original (apart from being in a different language), making searches a challenge.

    I mainly prefer the foreign editions. In fact, since this is the only Parker novel I don’t currently own a copy of (I borrowed the library copy), I may make a point of acquiring the Robert Hale edition from England, with its cover image of Parker’s oversized fist punching out a bathroom tile inside the armory. That’s seemingly quite rare, and I can see why. I don’t think Parker actually uses his fists to punch holes through any walls in that one–he’s not Popeye–but I’ve never been one for excessive literalism. It gets the point across nicely. Best in show (and not the first from this publisher to merit that honor).

    I very much appreciate the two Italian editions, with their classic giallo sensibility, and the variant title–Parker: Behind The Bars. The first one, with just a pair of hands on the titular bars, is perhaps more suitably stark, but the second–with Parker’s defiant (and predictably over-handsome) face glaring defiantly from his cage is more simpatico to the spirit of the book as a whole.

    The Rivages Noir edition keeps the original title for its idiomatic American flavor, and uses a very forbidding depiction of a prison, that, like most of their cover art, was almost certainly not created specifically for the book in question. Sometimes that approach doesn’t work very well, but it does this time. C’est bon!

    It does not, however, work at all well for the Quercus paperback edition from the UK. I’ve liked some of their covers, which basically seem to set out to show us a backdrop for one of the scenes in the book, without actually showing us a scene from the book. A stadium works okay for Comeback, because it’s about a stadium heist. But I don’t remember any roadside diners with or without a stylish Art Deco motif in Breakout. They couldn’t find a prison, an armory, a jewelry wholesaler display, a collapsed tunnel, an abandoned warehouse, or a big rig truck? I sure hope they didn’t commission that diner specifically. It does not work at all, though it’s certainly good artwork. Could have worked for The Man With the Getaway Face, maybe. Though there never was a New Jersey diner that looked like that.

    I’m none too keen about either of the American covers–Mysterious Press does its usual matchbook design, which I always like, but a bit of broken glass seems inadequate to the occasion–Parker isn’t engaging in petty vandalism here. The edition with scattered individuals in the midst of a fiery conflagration puzzles me (I think I’m going to edit it out). So does the edition (publisher unknown) which seems to just be a photograph of an urban highway at night, but I still kind of like it.

    I feel very badly that I forgot to check for a University of Chicago edition. All the more since it’s actually one of their best efforts. They rather belatedly got around to doing the Final Eight. This one isn’t even on the Official Westlake blog yet. Neither are the two German covers, which go under the title Das Grosse Gold, and I usually remember to check for the German covers, but I forgot this time. Oh well, that’s what edit buttons are for. I get the magpie (since they’re well-known thieves) but this one isn’t about stealing gold bars.

    So eleven covers, total. Any bets there aren’t more?

  8. For a long time, back when Westlake was still alive and producing new Parker novels, I very much desired a complete matching set of the series, in paperback as God intended. I was very pleased with the work Mysterious Press was doing with their matchbook covers, both with their reissues and the new novels, because I seemed well on my way to achieving this goal. As I recall, the Breakout matchbox cover was hardcover only, so I was dismayed when the paperback version came out featuring those mysterious figures in the fiery haze. (“A Civil Action” had been a surprise bestseller a few years earlier, and after that, there were many, many book covers featuring a mysterious figure or figures in hazy silhouette.) In any case, I fired off a disgruntled e-mail to the Mysterious Press publisher (I was so much younger then), and they were kind enough to respond and sorry that I didn’t like the new cover, but a lot of people seemed to, they assured me. Pretty soon after that, MP stopped with the reissues as well, so the dream was dead anyway. I’ve come to realize that the Parker series should never come in a perfect matched set. My Parker collection should be a little lumpy and misshapen, with odd digressions and short-lasting patterns. Much like the series itself.

    I’ve long been a critic of the U of Chicago covers, which strike me as hastily cobbled-together clip art. I know their budget must have been ridiculously miniscule, but some of them are simply awful. That said, their Breakout is pretty good, as you note.

    • I have resigned myself to the fact that the era of great book covers is long come to a close, the occasional pleasant surprise notwithstanding. My Parker collection is as lumpy and misshapen as one could possibly desire, but I don’t have any of the Robert Hale Ltd. editions, and I would like to acquire one or two. Still, there’s nothing like 60’s vintage paperback, is there? There shall come a day when I will have to make sure mine end up in a good home, for posterity’s sake.

      I have all the regard in the world for the contributions made by Mysterious Press, but I simply do not believe a lot of people liked that cover–those that said they did probably were just relieved there was any artwork at all. The Matchbook covers are a fine bit of conceptual design, even if the execution is a bit spotty at points. It comes down to economics. Art used to come a lot cheaper. And a lot more artists actually used to know how to draw. Oh that was mean. (But fair.)

  9. Sorry to nitpick, but another detail bothered me on my current read-through. When Rembek is studying the dossiers of the three escapees he wonders if Kasper is the brains behind the breakout. “Did he have other histories, beyond the broken burglary at the warehouse and the escape from Stoneveldt?” You mean the dossier didn’t include the fact that Kasper was wanted for ESCAPE from a CA prison camp? And for murdering a guard on his way out?

    • Rembek isn’t a very important character in the book–frankly, I’m not even sure why he’s in there, when Turley could be doing the same things to give us the law’s perspective on the escape. You could cut that whole chapter out of the book, and all you’d really be missing is his impressions of Parker’s face in that photo, his oddly insightful musing on whether ‘Kasper’ had plastic surgery in the past, and of course the recording of the wiretap on Williams’ sister’s phone.

      If you want, you can say that he was just skimming the dossiers, and didn’t pick up on Parker being wanted for murder in California on his first read, but that doesn’t really track, does it? That would be the first thing an experienced officer would notice, and they were getting ready to extradite him for that.

      What does track? Westlake just got over Lyme Disease, he was still feeling the effects, and he was making mistakes, as he did when writing Flashfire (for all we know, there was some kind of illness then as well). This book is a lot tighter than Flashfire, and has a lot more to say. It’s a much much better book, on basically every level, but there are some little holes in its logic here and there that you don’t normally find with early Stark (and when you do, it’s usually because Westlake was writing so much and so fast, back then).

      But then again, Westlake did reference the Navajo rug-makers once, and how they would intentionally make mistakes in their weaves so as not to anger their gods. Westlake might well have snuck the occasional mistake in there to placate his own tribal deities. Whatever it was, nice catch.

  10. Greg Tulonen

    Just a heads-up that the Kindle version of Breakout is currently 99 cents on Amazon.

    • Much appreciated. But I’ve yet to ever get any Parker novel on Kindle. And really, it’s Dortmunder who’d be bothered, and some of his books I’ve only read on Kindle. Parker wouldn’t care.

      My computer died last week. Long live the new computer. (Dortmunder wouldn’t like that either.)

      • Jim Dwyer just died. Great NYC newspaper columnist. Westlake certainly must have read him sometimes. The Times obit had this snippet from one of his Post 9/11 columns. A story about men trapped in an elevator in 1 World Trade Center. They pried the elevator door open–only to find a wall.

        Mr. Demczur felt the wall. Sheetrock. Having worked in construction in his early days as a Polish immigrant, he knew that it could be cut with a sharp knife.

        No one had a knife.

        From his bucket, Mr. Demczur drew his squeegee. He slid its metal edge against the wall, back and forth, over and over. He was spelled by the other men. Against the smoke, they breathed through handkerchiefs dampened in a container of milk Mr. Phoenix had just bought.

        Sheetrock comes in panels about one inch thick, Mr. Demczur recalled. They cut an inch, then two inches. Mr. Demczur’s hand ached. As he carved into the third panel, his hand shook, he fumbled the squeegee and it dropped down the shaft.

        He had one tool left: a short metal squeegee handle. They carried on, with fists, feet and handle, cutting an irregular rectangle about 12 by 18 inches. Finally, they hit a layer of white tiles. A bathroom. They broke the tiles.

        One by one, the men squirmed through the opening, headfirst, sideways, popping onto the floor near a sink. Mr. Demczur turned back. ”I said, ‘Pass my bucket out,’ ” he recalled.

        Sounds familiar, no?

        Ideas can come from all kinds of places. And maybe Westlake just knew about sheetrock and tile. But Breakout came out in 2002. I’m just saying.

  11. Spot-on re Part 1 being powerful. I’m claustrophobic and I could feel the caged in reality of prison on every page. This will be an especially challenging review to write in 1,000 words. So much psychology involved. I might focus on Part 1 and deal with Parts 2-4 more in terms of quick synopsis coupled with a number of questions the novel poses. I’ll have to go back and give your analysis a careful reread.

    • You’re telling me how challenging it is to write a short review of these not-very-long books you can breeze through in a few hours? My first two-part review was of The Hunter. My last three Parker reviews ran to three volumes apiece.

      The sparseness of Stark is very deceptive–every chapter is packed with detail, yet never seems overcrowded. There’s always room to breathe, take it all in. It’s only when you go back and analyze what you just read, that you realize how much actually happened.

      Small wonder that there came a point when Westlake found he couldn’t write them anymore–had to take a long break. He was never George R.R. Martin–couldn’t afford to be (too much money can be very bad for non-hack novelists who are not Stephen King–you lose your motivation, and you don’t know how to fake it). He rarely spent more than a few months on any book. If he ran into problems, he’d just switch over to another project, until he figured out a way around them (or gave up).

      Stark should have gotten a goddam Pulitzer–he never even scored an Edgar–was never even nominated. You know why? Same reason Fred Astaire never got an Oscar nod (except honorary, for his ‘special contributions’).

      They make it look too easy.

  12. Another Parker down, another foot closer to the finish line.

    I don’t really have much to say about this one, tbh. It’s really damn good, filled with a lot of great moments. Hell, I’d argue that so far, aside from Flashfire, the final eight has only gotten better with each installment.

    At first, I thought the title was a bit forced, especially since Parker and co. quickly broke out of prison in the very first part. Then Parker and co. had to get out of the Armory without drawing suspicion. And then I caught on to what Westlake was doing. Yet another point given to Westlake.

    Williams is a pretty cool cat, as the old cool kids might have said. His demeanor reminds me of Handy McKay in a way (accidental rhyme win!), calm and cool when he’s allowed to be, and rather accepting of being “The sidekick” of the story.

    Speaking of Handy, I have a theory. Well, a thought that crept into my head. I wonder if Handy never showed up after Butcher’s Moon because Ed Mackey essentially took his place? Not to mention, he came with one hell of a woman following him. Mulling over Ed’s role in Breakout, I can’t help but notice that most of it would’ve worked more or less the same with Handy. Do I have anything to support this outside of vibes? No. Made me wonder, though.

    Speaking of questions, to answer your big one regarding Marty and Gail: Not only do I think Parker let them live, I would also argue Westlake didn’t specify as such was simply because he didn’t felt he had to. The main crux of that scene was to compare the two formally imprisoned men. One who broke out, one who stayed full term. If Parker’s a wolf, then Marty’s a stray dog who got domesticated. But most importantly, Marty goes on to reveal that he’s not entirely tamed. That for all the law did to get him licked, it hadn’t completely succeeded. Having it end with a short “When the truck stopped at Baltimore, Parker had already planned his route to New Jersey” or something would’ve cheapened the scene, I feel. It’s very similar to why Westlake didn’t show Grofield reuniting with Mary at the end of Lemons Never Lie. It’s not needed.

    As to whether or not Parker COULD kill them: I don’t think it matters because he’s never gonna be put in that situation.

    • Look at all the solid sidemen who didn’t make it through the time warp to the Final Eight (did you read my time warp piece?) Handy McKay. Alan Grofield. Stan Devers. How come? Because fascinating as they were, they were too rooted in an earlier era of crime fiction, and would stick out too much in the time period these books were published. He experimented with bringing some of the old gang back in Backflash (which you know I think takes place just a few years after Butcher’s Moon), and it went very well–he must have felt if he kept doing that, the series would get too cozy. Too much like a Dortmunder, where the gang never changes up, and Dortmunder never has to worry about any of these guys crossing him. Works for comedy. But he already knew Parker was not amenable to comedy, which is how Dortmunder came into being.

      Not impossible that if Westlake had run on a ways further, some of them would have returned for another curtain call–but the real problem is, the audience would find it harder and harder to accept anything bad happening to them.

      As to Mackey and Brenda, this was their final curtain call (one brief offscreen cameo for Mackey). Same reason. The Final Triptych is hard as hard gets, and everyone not named Parker is expendable. Westlake wants us to know this isn’t some fucking nostalgia tour for a ghost band. Stark doesn’t do nostalgia. What’s to be nostalgic for? Nostalgia is for when you’re old and finished. Stark is neither. Not while Westlake has a pulse.

      Fair enough about Marty and Gail (I wonder how many more times I’m going to get called on that), but I still think we’re supposed to ask the question–the blank between chapters is there for a reason. Marty and Gail are not only there to give Parker a ride home. Their truck is the final prison he has to escape in this book (referred to as a prison by one of its owners), and he won’t kill them if he doesn’t have to–anymore than he killed any of the prison workers, or the very professional cop who doggedly tailed him, or the two idiots he and his string had to gently persuade to let Brenda go. But he would have killed all of them, and many more, to get back to Claire–and to make sure the law never shows up at her door. (She’d be facing prison as well, if Parker was traced back to New Jersey).

      Grofield isn’t a killer, except in direct active self-defense, never kills in cold blood, isn’t even allowed to do that to the man who raped his wife–Parker, as I have said before, pretty nearly always kills in cold blood.

      We don’t see Grofield reunite with Mary, because the story is over–there’s no question of what will happen afterwards, Grofield will neutralize Morton, probably non-fatally, get his money, go back to Mary, put on a show. There’s no empty space there, inviting inquiry. There is here.

      I agree with all you and others on this thread have pointed out–I said all the same things in my review. But the fact that Stark wouldn’t let Parker kill them in front of us doesn’t prove Parker didn’t cover his tracks when nobody was looking. I want to believe he didn’t. It’s impossible to be sure, and that’s because Westlake himself wasn’t sure. Parker wouldn’t tell him. And perhaps Westlake just didn’t want to know. He finished this book in a very dark frame of mind, for reasons I go into above.

      There’s a danger in these books that Westlake was all too aware of–that us readers will let ourselves get too fond of this thieving murderer, let ourselves think we’re identifying with him–that it’s the same thing. It’s not. It never was. And he has to keep finding ways to remind us of that. Yes, we may find parts of ourselves in Parker, just as our tribal ancestors recognized themselves in the wolf–but the wolf is still something else, something other. You can domesticate him, sure–but then he’s a dog. Maybe with Claire, Parker is a dog. Nobody else.

      It’s interesting that you’re quite sure Parker would kill Leslie, when she was far less of a threat to him than two people, one of them an ex-con, who knew Parker was heading for New Jersey. Leslie only knew about his false identity, not his real one. I really wish Parker hadn’t told them he was going to New Jersey. So why did he tell them that? Because Westlake wants us to ask ourselves whether Marty and Gail are still trucking. And I think they are. Well, probably retired by now. One way or another. Nobody runs forever. See you there.

      • Funnily enough, I’ve actually come around to your reasoning regarding Leslie. In hindsight, I think I let my lukewarm feelings for Flashfire bleed over into Leslie, which wasn’t fair. And yeah, your arguments from our Firebreak discussion helped in that regard too.

        If Westlake included that blank as a subtle clue to remind us that Parker’s a cold motherfucker, then to be frank, I’m calling his bluff. Because in order to be that cold motherfucker, you also have to look bad sometimes, and as you yourself pointed out, making Parker look bad something Westlake (nor Stark for that matter) was willing to do.

        • Which is why we will never know what happened to Marty and Gail. Or Handy McKay. Or Alan Grofield. Or Stan Devers. And etc.

          But we can continue this discussion after Dirty Money. (Not a spoiler. Just foreshadowing.)

        • Which is perhaps why we’re never going to find out what happened to Marty and Gail. Or Handy McKay. Or Stan Devers. Or Alan Grofield. And etc.

          But we can table this discussion until we get to the final book. Not a spoiler. Just foreshadowing.

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