Through the chill of winter
Running across a frozen lake
Hunters are out on his trail
All odds are against him
With a family to provide for
The one thing he must keep alive
Will the wolf survive?
Louie Perez and David Hidalgo
When the silver Toyota Avalon bumped down the dirt road out of the woods and across the railroad tracks, Parker put the Infiniti into low and stepped out onto the gravel. The Infiniti jerked forward toward the river as the Toyota slewed around behind it to a stop. Parker picked up the full duffel bag from where he’d tossed it on the ground, and behind him, the Infiniti rolled down the slope into the river, all its windows open; it slid into the gray dawn water like a bear into a trout stream.
Parker carried the duffel in his arms and Claire got out of the Toyota to open its rear door and say, “Do you want to drive?”
“No. I’ve been driving.” He heaved the duffel onto the backseat, then got around to take the passenger side in front.
Before getting behind the wheel, she stood looking toward the river, a tall slender ash-blonde in black slacks and a bulky dark red sweater against the October chill. “It’s gone,” she said.
There. I’ve done it. Typed out the final opening from the final Parker novel. I don’t usually start a review that way. Seemed to fit here. But where does this book fit into what is now and will ever remain, a twenty-four book epic? One novel for each hour in the day. Not planned. Destined, maybe.
Not half as good as the one leading into it. To be blunt, I’d be hard-pressed to rank it in the top twenty. Flashfire is still the worst. The best? I could say The Hunter, The Man With the Getaway Face, The Score, The Jugger, The Seventh, The Rare Coin Score, The Green Eagle Score, The Sour Lemon Score, Deadly Edge, Slayground, Butcher’s Moon, Breakout, or yeah, Ask The Parrot–and mean it every time. This dark horse is out of the running, in either race. Neither best nor worst–it’s the last. For that alone, attention must be paid.
Much of what you find in it is more than good. It contains many crisp clean clarified currents of prose, like what you just read up top. Stark can still write like no one else. But he seems a little confused here, as to what he’s writing about, and to what end. Maybe because he knows, on a molecular level–this is the end. Nobody runs forever. Whatever may become of Parker, Mr. Westlake’s string has almost run out, and Stark can’t go on without Westlake. Anymore than Westlake could have gone on this long without Stark. Package deal.
The book is saying hello and goodbye at the same time; finishing arcs begun in Nobody Runs Forever, and in books before that–and starting new arcs, which we’ll never see the end of, can only speculate about. It’s designed to be a pivot for the series, but it’s a pivot to nowhere, which I suppose is a fair description of death.
About the title. I never liked it. Always wondered what the point of it was. How is this money any dirtier than what came before? Because the bills from the bank are new, the law has the serial numbers, and Parker has to find a way to negotiate this marked moolah. So the problem isn’t that it’s dirty, but that it’s too damn clean. I guess you could say the money he’s going to get in place of it is dirty. Or that all money is, by definition. (Would Filthy Lucre be a better title? Not for this franchise.)
The overseas market liked the title well enough, since every foreign language edition I’ve found translates it literally. What you can say for certain is that for the second time in this Triptych, Westlake is consciously recycling the title of a foreign-made crime film. Not the original title. The American release title. Huh.
I’m a longtime admirer of Jean Pierre Melville, Prince of the Nouvelle Vague. (Wait for Godard all you like.) His final film, Un Flic (aka Dirty Money) is not one of my favorites, in part because it’s so hard to see a decent print. First time we rented a (bad) video of it, it was for Deneuve, and she was barely in it.
The dialogue can get a bit too vague, and it’s not tres nouvelle. The scene with the toy helicopter and the model train is cheesy. He didn’t have the budget to pull the visual off, and maybe he didn’t care–these days, they’d be using CGI, and I’d be yapping about that. I should probably give it another chance–great cast, some beautiful moments, and with Melville, it’s easy to miss the point. He’s always got one. But he hides it under a smoke screen of crime fiction. Like Stark. And he’s all about identity. Like Westlake.
Catherine Deneuve doesn’t have a big role in Un Flic, but she’s still a key player in it–same thing could be said of Claire–who for the first and only time in this series is said to be a blonde–no more born that way than Deneuve. Claire’s a redhead in Nobody Runs Forever. No hint of her tint in any other book. I’m going to go on thinking of her as brunette, and go on wondering why Westlake chose to bring up her hair color twice in the Triptych, after four decades of never mentioning it.
You can’t tell me he didn’t know the Melville film, a noir-inflected bank job yarn that feels more Starkian than anything Hollywood ever cranked out, allowing for the usual dose of existential fatalism that won’t let us have our cake and eat it too. As with The High Commissioner/Nobody Runs Forever, there’s no direct influence. But I don’t think this is a coincidence. Knowing what something isn’t doesn’t prove you know what it is, so that’s enough about the title.
So how about the dedication? Most Parker novels have none–the two previous books in the Triptych didn’t. But here, before the title page, we get “This is for Dr. Quirke, and his creator–two lovely gents.” I’m disappointed at how easy this case was to crack. Dr. Quirke is the creation of John Banville, writing under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. A mystery solving pathologist, hopefully less annoying than Quincy M.E. (I’ll find out at some point). He and Westlake sort of interviewed each other for Newsweek. Good bit of craic there.
One more thing before we get down to it. After a long rewarding stint at The Mysterious Press, the last two Westlake novels–the final Parker, the final Dortmunder–were put out by Grand Central Publishing. A division of Hachette.
So let me get this straight. Westlake’s two most famous characters departed this world via the auspices of a publishing imprint named after a world famous point of departure, under the umbrella of a huge media corporation, the name of which looks like a synonym for ax? And people bitch about the contrivances in fiction. The world is not simple enough to understand. This book might be, so let’s talk about that.
Avalon meets Infiniti by a river (not subtle, still pretty). Infiniti having been ditched, Parker and Claire head back to their personal Avalon by Colliver Pond, so he can take a short siesta, after which he needs her to drive him to Nelson McWhitney’s bar on Long Island, to talk about Nick Dalesia. Who is now a major problem, because as Claire tells Parker, he escaped while being transferred to Federal custody–killing a marshal as he went. The one thing that gets cops most focused on you–when you kill one of them.
Minor continuity error here–not the last in this book. Parker says they grabbed Dalesia yesterday. Yesterday he was pulling a heist with Tom Lindahl. The day before yesterday, he met Tom Lindahl, and was going to pass on the heist Tom proposed, until he saw the news about Dalesia’s capture on TV. Parker’s tired, sure. He can make mistakes. So can crime fiction authors in their 70’s. (Or crime fiction bloggers at any age, but I’m right about this.)
We get one last physical description, elusive as always--“a big ropy man who looked squeezed into the Toyota.” (Avalons are full-sized sedans, and he’s in the front passenger seat, so very big and ropy.)
Claire is taken aback when Parker offhandedly reveals that he pulled a second heist while on the run from the first one. A long heavy duffel, crammed with untraceable cash. Unlike the very traceable cash still hidden at the church in Massachusetts. If they’re going to get that, find some way to fence it, they need to move, and soon.
Parker doesn’t trust the makeshift ID Lindahl made for him, useful as it was over the past two days. His better-quality fake ID that he used in Massachusetts is now known to the law, worse than useless. He’s got to get new papers, a new identity. He’s coming to grips with the fact that things have changed, and it’s harder to slip through the cracks than it used to be.
For him to go on operating in this brave new digital world, he’s going to need 100% top-drawer ID work done. Which is going to cost him. So we’re back where we started, but with a switch. In the first book, he made his own driver’s license at the DMV, forging the official stamp with a ballpoint pen, and he could open a bank account with it. In the second book, it was plastic surgery. Now, in the final book, it’s just a better grade of plastic. That will hold up to all but the most intense scrutiny.
As they drive out to Long Island, late in the day, he fills her in on what’s happened since he last saw her, which involves obliquely mentioning that there’s been a fair bit of premature mortality going on, which has always been the part of Parker’s life she didn’t want to know about. She’s been loosening up on this rule more and more, but he’s still surprised when she says she wants to come into the bar–same bar where Roy Keenan was murdered, by the bar’s proprietor. Not that he told her that, but she’s got more than an inkling.
Sandra Loscalzo is there, still trying to get her reward money for Harbin. McWhitney gave her the location of the body, she’s waiting to hear if it was found. If it isn’t, she figures she can turn Parker and McWhitney in for a reward. She’s real upfront about that. I’d say she takes no prisoners, except that’s exactly what she does. Dead or alive.
They’re all sizing each other up, distrust running in more than one direction, but Sandra’s the odd woman out, since she’s the only one who talks to the law. Claire makes it clear that if the cops come to her door, she knows how to lie, and men love hearing her lie. Sandra’s hand is in her pocket while she’s talking. She knows Parker isn’t going to let her walk out of there if she’s going to the law. She respects that. But she’s getting her money. One way or the other. He respects that. Impasse.
Sandra has an idea about the bank money–why doesn’t she go get it? For a share, of course. Parker points out that even though there’s no warrant out on her, the cops could be sitting on the cash, waiting to see who comes for it–and if they get her, they’ll get everything she knows. The impasse is put on hold when she gets a callback–they found Harbin. Everybody leaves, and Nels locks up.
Next day, Parker stashes the cash from the track, and comes back to see FBI agents are paying Claire a little social call. They are following up on a lead–Nick Dalesia called the house, several times. She convinces them she doesn’t know the man, he was never there, and they leave. No mention of her brother, Mr. John B. Allen, now wanted for bank robbery. No mention of a Lexus registered to her, that he was driving, and she reported stolen.
So you can justify this by different law-enforcement bureaucracies not playing well together–still a thing, even today–or say that these hunters are being patient. Or you can say that the justifications are getting too hard to justify. Too much work to make it work.
In fairness, the area around the house is deserted–the summer people are gone–nobody else there the G-Men can talk to, about any gentlemen callers the charming Ms. Willis might have. But you have to figure that they’re going to find out she was connected, under a different last name, to the armed robbery of a coin collector’s convention in Indianapolis. (How many years ago? A lady never tells.)
It’s getting to the point where the house in New Jersey is getting impossible to justify. Parker accepted, long ago, that the house was essential to Claire, and she was essential to him, so they’ve done a lot of workarounds. This book seems to be the beginning of where it becomes impossible to make it work anymore. Something’s got to give. (Turned out to be Westlake’s ticker.)
But whether or not the Bureau suspects Claire of harboring a hardened criminal (one way of putting it), something has to be done about that money. Something has to be done about Dalesia. Both are to be found near a small town in northwestern Massachusetts. Parker needs to be there. He needs Claire to make him look like a tourist–a leaf peeper, as they say. No fleabag motel this time. Best look extra-legit. They’ll check into a bed and breakfast.
“You folks here for the robbery?”
The place was called Bosky Rounds, and the pictures on the website had made it look like somewhere Hansel and Gretel might have stopped off. Deep eaves, creamy stucco walls, broad dark green wooden shutters flanking the old-fashioned multipaned windows, and a sun god knocker on the front door. The Bosky Rounds gimmick, though they wouldn’t have used the word, was that they offered maps of nearby hiking trails through the forest, for those leaf peepers who would like to be surrounded by their subject. It was the most rustic and innocent accommodation Claire could find, and Parker had agreed it was perfect for their purposes.
Mrs. Bartlett, the matronly owner of this twee establishment, bears a marked resemblance to Mrs. Krutchfield, proprietress of The Sewing Kit B&B in upstate New York, who appeared in Westlake’s Smoke.
This being Stark, not Westlake, the comic elements are more muted, but still present. She’s all agog about the bank robbery (she doesn’t come out and say it will give a little boost to business, but she’s thinking it). Keeps talking about how they used bazookas, and Parker refrains from saying they were Carl-Gustafs. Same basic kind of tool, what does he care?
The idea of Claire being there is not only that she’s got real ID she can get through roadblocks with, but that she’s such a stunner, the cops will be looking at her, not Parker, so they won’t be comparing him to that sketch on the wanted posters. This theory is put to the test when they meet Terry Mulcany, a freelance journalist who does ‘true crime’ books.
He’s there interviewing anybody he can find who knows anything about the bank job. He’s so busy chatting up Claire, he doesn’t notice Parker, who is standing right there. While Parker is thinking about what he’s going to do to this guy if he ever does notice something besides Claire (but that, again, is one of the great advantages of having Claire around).
Under the pretext of driving to a local seafood restaurant, they pass the church twice–no sign of surveillance. They get back, and Sandra Loscalzo is now ensconced at Bosko Rounds. Different kind of surveillance. She suggests they go have a few drinks together.
Sandra’s problem was not solved by finding Harbin’s remains, because there were so many law enforcement agencies after him, offering money for him (dead or alive), that they now need to work out whose budget line Sandra’s money comes out of. This is the kind of shop talk Parker likes, because it means there’s still cracks in the system for him to slip through. This may be The Information Age he’s living in now, but more information means more confusion.
So she again points out that she could expose Parker, and he again points out that he could kill her and her girlfriend in Cape Cod, who Sandra says has gone on a little holiday (which when you think about it, is exactly what Claire does when Parker is involved in something extra-heavy.)
Claire dusts off her diplomatic skills, and the way it works out is Sandra just wants a taste of the bank money–not all of Nick’s share–just half of it. She could be useful. Parker can’t deny that. But he’s nowhere close to trusting her. And he knows she’s going to try and follow them when they leave the bar. Which makes it not too difficult to shake her in the dark–at which point he goes to check out the church, while Claire drives around in circles, ready to pick him up.
The money’s still there, hidden under hymnals. Nobody sitting on it. No cops, no Dalesia. Good. And when he gets back to Bosky Rounds, Sandra is there on the porch. She knows he’s been checking on their money. And he acknowledges, verbally, that part of it is hers. Her offer has been accepted.
In this same chapter, while they’re driving to the church, Parker makes it clear that if the Feds get any more interested in her, they’re both going to have to leave Colliver Pond for good. Claire says that if she has to abandon her house, change her name, go back to living like a gypsy all year, she’ll do it. She won’t like it. Parker will go further out on a limb for her than anyone (in that he will go out on a limb for her at all). So he’s still holding out hope that the exodus can be averted. Whether he believes that is another matter. (Speaking as a reader, I don’t. The house is already half-burned. At least.)
Now it’s time for the other good-looking nosy blonde in this Triptych to reemerge. Detective Gwen Reversa, of the MA state police. She comes into Bosky Rounds at breakfast time, making her rounds, and Parker has Claire block his face with her newspaper. Sandra notices all this from her vantage point, figures out what it means.
As she figures out what Parker means, when he asks Mrs. Bartlett for directions to a scenic overview of the area, while she is sitting right there listening. He wants a meet. Up at the lookout, the three of them discuss the options. Parker has to leave the B&B. Claire has to stay, keep up a front. And Sandra will drive Parker back to Long Island, so they can bring McWhitney into the picture.
Sandra gets them there by mid-afternoon. McWhitney, not the most chivalrous guy you’ll ever meet, will not say he’s pleased to see her, though a pleasing sight she remains. Thought they’d concluded their business when she got her body (and he knows he’s never getting hers). Nor is he pleased she’s getting a split of the take.
But as they fill him in, he realizes there’s no choice, other than letting it all go. And while she’s in a different business than them, she’s got a talent for planning, logistics, finding cracks to slip through Again, reminding me of someone. Point is–
Parker said, “You’ve figured out a way to get our money out.”
“I think so.” To McWhitney she said, “You pretty well know the business operations around this neighborhood.”
“Do you know a used-car lot, maybe kind of grungy, no cream puffs?”
McWhitney grinned for the first time since he’d laid eyes on Sandra. “I know a dozen of them,” he said. “Whadayou need?”
“A truck. A small beat-up old truck, delivery van, something like that. Black would be best, just so it isn’t too shiny.”
“A truck.” McWhitney sounded disgusted. “To move the stash.”
“What makes this truck so wonderful? It’s invisible?
“Pretty much so,” she said. “Whatever color it is, and I really would like it black, we use the same color to paint out whatever name might already be on it. Then, on both doors, in white, we paint Holy Redeemer Choir.”
“Holy shit,” McWhitney said.
“We’re the redeemers,” Sandra told him. “It’s okay if the name on the doors is a bit amateurish, but we should try to do our best with it.”
McWhitney slowly nodded. “The choir’s coming to get their hymnals.”
“And we’ll get some, too,” Sandra said, “in case anybody wants to look in back.”
“Jesus, you always gotta insult me,” McWhitney said. “Here I was thinking you weren’t so bad.”
“I was used to dealing with Roy,” she said, and shrugged.
McWhitney says she should thank him for breaking up the partnership, i.e., knocking Roy’s brains out with a baseball bat. She doesn’t bat an eye. Who is this broad?
We get a serious clue, as she and Parker stop to eat on their way back. He’s noticing that she’s not quite like the people he usually deals with. She’s more like–well–him. But unlike him, she’s living in the straight world, catching crooks, working with the law. And now she’s getting throwing in with bank robbers. He needs to know she knows what she’s doing here. Who she is. What she is.
While they waited for their food, Parker said, “This whole thing is the wrong side of the street for you.”
Sandra grimaced. “I don’t think of it like that,” she said. “What I think, there’s no sides to the street because there is no street.”
“What is there?”
She studied him, trying to decide how much to tell him, moving her fork back and forth on the table with her left hand. Then she shrugged, and left the fork alone, and said, “I figured it out when I was a little girl, what my idea of the world is.”
“A frozen lake,” she said. “Bigger than you can see the end of. Every day, I get up, I gotta move a little more along the lake. I gotta be very careful and very wary, because I don’t know where the ice is too thin. I gotta listen and watch.”
“I’ve seen you do it.”
She grinned and nodded, as though more pleased with him than herself. “Yeah, you have.”
They were both silent a minute, and then their food came. The waitress went away and Sandra picked up her fork, but then she paused to say, “You go see a war movie, the guy gets hurt, he yells ‘Medic!’, they come to take him away, fix him up. Out here, you get hurt, you yell ‘Medic!’, you know what happens?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“There’s no sides,” she said. “No street. We just do what we’ve got to do to get across the lake.”
I can’t imagine a more perfect metaphor for how Parker lives his life. If he gave a damn about metaphors, neither could he. (And as Greg just reminded me, he trotted out that exact metaphor in The Green Eagle Score, though he was a lot less wordy about it. Maybe Sandra had a year or two of college on her lake.)
And what you have to ask–what he’s asking himself, as he listens to her–is she like him? Is it possible he’s not alone in this insane world after all? She figured all this out when she was a child. As he must have done. When you’re that different, you figure it out early. And you start figuring out how to make that work for you. Because you don’t have any choice.
Like him, she lives from score to score. Like him, she returns to a woman and a house after each score. Like him, she hides what she really is, blends into the herd, because she can never have a pack.
But she went another way with it. Makes sense. Maybe he could have gone that way, in a different life, a different time. Right now, she’s starting to go his way, as their paths across the lake converge.
They get back to Bosky Rounds, and Claire quietly says they have to leave. Reversa was here again. No doubt what side of the street she’s on (or that she believes there is a street). She gave Mrs. Barlett wanted posters to put up there. If people can compare the police sketch with Parker, sitting there having breakfast, somebody will make the connection.
Parker tells Claire she can’t check out yet. Leave tomorrow, so it doesn’t seem like she’s running. He’s going to hide out at the church, with the money. Sandra drives him there. For all their mutual understanding, there’s still plenty of distrust (which is what you expect from two carnivores who pair up to take down something too big for a lone wolf).
She gives him a mover’s pad, to serve as a blanket. It’s going to be cold in that church. She’s got some bottled water as well. He’s going to be hungry, but he’s used to that. He checks everything out after she drops him off. Nothing changed. Just have to wait for McWhitney to come with the truck.
It was a long empty day. For part of it he walked, indoors or out, and other parts he sat against a wall in the empty house or curled into the moving pad again and slept. He woke from one of those with the long diagonals of late afternoon light coming in the window and Nick Dalesia seated cross-legged on the floor against the opposite wall. The revolver in his right hand, not exactly pointing anywhere, would belong to the dead marshal.
Parker sat up. “So there you are,” he said.
Somehow, even when you’ve got a gun on Parker and he’s barehanded, it always feels like you’re the one in danger. Dalesia’s got the drop on him, and he should drop him. But he needs a car. Does Parker have one parked nearby? (Damn, again seeing why Westlake sometimes regretted choosing that name.)
They’re five feet apart. Parker has to play this just right. Stay calm, wait for the opening. Nick keeps asking questions, trying to figure out what Parker is doing here. Then he knows–Parker is waiting–for back-up–and to kill him. He hesitates. Just for a moment. They’re friends, aren’t they? Oh Nick. You know better. The job is over. You killed a cop. You want all the money now. The rules have changed. For all we know, this is what happened to Handy McKay.
Parker tosses the water bottle towards Nick, and just for a moment it catches his eye. A moment is all Parker needs. He throws the makeshift blanket, and makes his move. A bullet pierces the mat. End of Part One. I’ll do Parts Two and Three next time. Then Part Four. And then we’re done with Stark.
I don’t know if the frozen lake thing is a coincidence. Los Lobos came out with that song back in 1984. It was pretty popular. Westlake could have heard it. And very different minds sometimes run along parallel lines. If you believe in lines. Do you believe the wolf will survive?
I need to.
(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)