Review: Ask the Parrot, Part 2

Twas a sick young man with a face ungay
And an eye that was all alone;
And he shook his head in a hopeless way
As he sat on a roadside stone.

‘O, ailing youth, what untoward fate
Has made the sun to set
On your mirth and eye?’ ‘I’m constrained to state
I’m an ex-West Point cadet.

”Twas at cannon-practice I got my hurt
And my present frame of mind;
For the gun went off with a double spurt-
Before it, and also behind!’

‘How sad, how sad, that a fine young chap,
When studying how to kill,
Should meet with so terrible a mishap
Precluding eventual skill.

‘Ah, woful to think that a weapon made
For mowing down the foe
Should commit so dreadful an escapade
As to turn about to mow!’

No more he heeded while I condoled:
He was wandering in his mind;
His lonely eye unconsidered rolled,
And his views he thus defined:

”Twas O for a breach of the peace-’twas O
For an international brawl!
But a piece of the breech–ah no, ah no,
I didn’t want that at all.’

Polyphemus, by Ambrose Bierce

They stopped at a run-down traditional diner for lunch on the way back.  They chose a table beside the large window with its view out to very little Sunday traffic on this secondary road, and after they’d given the waitress their orders, Parker said, “Tell me about the Dennisons.”

“The who?  Oh, Cory and Cal?  What do you want to know about them for?”

“They came to see me last night.  Right after you left.”

“They came–They were at my place?”

“They think I might be one of the missing robbers.”

“Jesus!”  Lindahl looked as thought he just might jump straight up and out of the diner and run a hundred miles down the road.  “What are they gonna do?”

“If I am one of the robbers,” Parker said, “they think I must have a bunch of money on me.”

“But you don’t.”

“But if I was, and if I did, I could give Cal money to get plastic surgery and an artificial eye.”

“Oh for–” No longer in a panic, Lindahl now looked as though he’d never heard anything so dumb.  “They said that to you?  You’re the robber and give us some of the money?”

“The robber part wasn’t said.”

“But that’s what it was all about.  And if you give them the money, they won’t report you? Is that the idea?”

“I suppose so.”

“That’s a Cal idea, all right,” Lindahl said.  “He’s jumped off barn roofs since he was a little kid.”

Cal, suddenly bristling, said, “My brother tells me when to shut up.  You don’t tell me to shut up.”

As Lindahl killed the sound on the television set, Parker took a step forward and slapped Cal hard, open-handed, across the cheek, under the patch.  Cal jolted back, astonished and outraged.  Parker stood watching him, hands at his sides, and Cal, fidgeting wide eyed, tried to figure out something to do.

I have many times had cause to give fervent thanks for my comments section regulars (and irregulars), who have provided me not only with their opinions, but with information I had not previously possessed.  Rarely has this information presented itself in such a timely fashion, however.

Responding to Part 1 of this review yesterday, PhilPo, whose own blog may be seen here, provided this tidbit–used to be on the Official Westlake Blog.  I’d heard about it from Greg Tulonen, but he didn’t have the exact wording.  Thankfully, Phil had the text archived in his email, and his sharp eye (two, I hope) perceived its relevance to our current investigations.  Westlake posted this in June of 2006:

It began in January of last year, when my wife and I joined three other couples on a long-planned three-week trip in Southeast Asia. The night before we left, I started to get flashers and floaters in my left eye, but decided to ignore them, since otherwise I’d have to cancel the trip at the last second. After a twelve-hour flight from New York to Seoul, change planes, four hour flight to Hong Kong, I couldn’t see out of that eye.

The next day, I went into a hospital for an operation for a retinal separation. Terrific hospital, terrific doctors, but it was just the beginning. With more retinal tears, plus cataracts, between January 26th and December 15th, I had ten eye operations, all but the first in New York, seven on the left eye and three on the right. As I was warned partway through the experience, the left eye is now permanently damaged, but usable.

For eight months last year, I was essentially one-eyed. I couldn’t drive. It was hard to read. It was hell to go downstairs, particularly at Angkor Wat (yes, we did the Asian trip anyway). That’s over now; the damaged eye is doing what it can.

But it cost me a year. I did very little work in that time, which was why there was a halt in my publishing anything new.

So January of 2005 is when this started.  Westlake was engaging in that bit of radio wordplay with Erin McKean that I referenced last week in November of Aught Four, and going by the fact that his applications of her three endangered words all appear early in this book, we may assume he had not handed in a finished manuscript by the time of the planned vacation.

Meaning, as you have no doubt already intuited, it’s not likely a coincidence that one of his characters in this book has lost the use of an eye (has lost the eye, starker image, no medical jargon).  He’s pissed about it.  As his creator was.  As anyone would be.

The facial scarring the semi-literate Cal has in addition to the eyepatch is there, I’d think, to substitute for the angst Westlake experienced from neither reading nor writing books for long months.  Motivation.  Being Polyphemus is fun for nobody, with the possible exception of pirate cosplayers.  (Cal is quite taken with Tom’s parrot, says he ought to have one.)

(I don’t know if Westlake would approve of my using that morbidly irreverent poem up top–morbid and irreverent even for Bierce–but he is known to have approved of Bierce and I figured what the hell.)

Cal Dennison, and I think his brother Cory as well, represent two more of those characters you notice here and there in Westlake novels, who represent a road not taken–a life Westlake feels he might have lived, had he been less fortunate.  Suppose he’d lost his eye as a young man, living in upstate New York?  Suppose he hadn’t had insurance worth a damn?  Suppose he never got to read all the books that made him who he was, expanded his horizons, filled him with ambitions above his station in life?

Or suppose he’d been twins?  And one half of the amniotic duo was holding the other back?

Possible some version of the Dennisons (I’m going to guess that’s a pun) was already cued up in his head, before the eye troubles began–a necessary plot complication, of a type familiar in these books–the Cal/Cory subplot and its bloody climax bears a certain familial resemblance to the Negli/Feccio story from The Seventh–but what happened to Westlake during the time he was writing this book would still have shaped them, and Cal in particular.  So it’s good that we know about it now.  And can put it in its proper context.  (Unless he had already conceived a one-eyed character before his own ocular occurrence.  Which would be kind of scary.)

This all tracks with other intel we have, such as the fact that the New York Times review of this book–and it’s a thoughtful full-length review in the Sunday section, not a squib in their little crime fiction ghetto column–written by none other than James Wolcott, very nice indeed–was published in December of Aught Six.  Over two years after Westlake said on NPR that he expected this book would be in stores no later than November of Aught Five.  (He didn’t say Aught Five, I’m being archaic.  Parker tends to put me in that mood.)

I like Wolcott’s review, and vigorously disagree with most of it.  In retrospect, it’s quite obvious this is a much better book than Nobody Runs Forever, and a bit silly to talk about how a few extra blondes Parker won’t even think about going to bed with add sexual tension, assuming you even think every novel in the mystery genre needs some of that (somebody better tell Agatha Christie).

But I can still see his point–this isn’t what we expect from a Richard Stark heist story, and as a sequel to the previous book, it’s downright baffling.  It’s The Jugger all over again–a book that departed from all the established tropes of the series, and was greeted with a good deal of head-scratching by the readership when it first appeared–and then grew on us, like a fungus.  And yet, I’d argue, this book lives up to the basic formula of the Parker novels much better than the other two panels in this Triptych.

Here, the multi-POV part of the book is Part Three.  In Nobody Runs Forever and Dirty Money, it’s in Part Two (Nobody Runs Forever also switches POV’s in Part Four).  But more than that, this book revisits one of the most fascinating and consistent elements in Parker’s behavior–how he’ll take some aspiring felon under his wing, show him the ropes. (Who had better learn those ropes fast, or Parker may garrote him with one.)

Tom Lindahl is the last in this line of journeyman heisters, that includes Alan Grofield, Stan Devers, Larry Lloyd, and a few less apt pupils who don’t make it to the end of their respective books.  Tom is perhaps the most ordinary of the bunch, in that he doesn’t really want to be a thief, isn’t looking to pull more than one job, but doesn’t try to kid himself about the fact that once is all it takes.  He’s going to change, and he wants to change.

Stealing from his former employer is the only way Tom can regain his self-respect, not a motive Parker can relate to much.  Tom and Parker have a wall between them.  But over that wall, they can converse, learn things from each other, serve each other’s needs.  And nowhere is that more evident than in Part Two of this novel.  Which is all Part 2 of this review is going to cover.  Meaning I have to cover the rest in Part 3.  Well, it kind of worked last time……

Lindahl has already driven down to the track once tonight.  Parker wasn’t going to risk being stopped by the law with no ID.  The track has a machine that can make him a new driver’s license, that will pass muster as long as the cops don’t call headquarters to have it run through their system–and they’re too bored with this roadblock gig to do that.

Using a picture he took of Parker’s faux license, bearing the name John B. Allen (that Parker can never use again), Tom cooked up a very real-looking card on a machine he himself purchased and trained on years before.  Presto chango, Parker is William G. Dodd, of Troy NY.  The name of a retired former colleague of Tom’s.  Now the name of his new colleague, for whom ‘retired’ is a synonym for ‘deceased.’

To say Parker is grateful for this vital service Tom has done him would be imputing to him an emotion he may not be capable of.  He’s appreciative.  Put it that way.  He respects good work of any kind.  And this is good work. Which he’s going to test by driving himself and Tom right back to this track he’s heard so much about.  Time to case the joint.

A billboard ahead on the right read

GRO-MORE RACING
Next Right

That’s the main gate,” Lindahl said.  “We don’t want that.  You keep going, about another quarter mile, there’s a dirt road on this side.”

The dashboard clock read 12:42.  In the last hour, William G. Dodd’gs new driver’s license had been inspected by two state troopers at roadblocks and found acceptable; which of course, was more likely at night than by day.

On the drive down, Lindahl had alternated between a kind of buzzing vibrancy, keyed up, giving Parker little spatter-shots of his autobiography, and a deep stillness, as he studied his newly changed interior landscape, as mute as his parrot.

There’s just two guards, working for an outside company, and they rarely patrol–they do watch TV monitors showing various parts of the complex, and the building is alarmed.  It’s not much security for a place that holds hundreds of thousands in cash.  If Parker had known about this track before now, he’d probably have hit it years ago.  Getting so hard to find soft targets like this in the new cashless economy.  He’s been dealing with that ever since we met him, and it’s only gotten worse.

But the fact is, people still use cash.  And for gambling–well, would you want the wife to know how much you blew at the track?  She will if it’s on your credit card statement.  Many businesses still prefer cash, insist on cash, because of the added expense that comes with credit, that little slice of the pie the banks take, the equipment you have to buy.

Gro-More got with the times, they take credit cards, but a lot of people still pay cash.  And no track casino yet (though you can bet it’s in the works–maybe that’s one of the reasons the owners were greasing palms in Albany).

(Sidebar: Little story before we go on–I work at a college campus.  A significant amount of petty cash–enough that you might question calling it petty–was kept in an office here.  When that office was closed, somebody broke in and took the money.  Thousands.  Everybody assumed it was an inside job, and it likely was, but the perps were never caught.

No publicity–because you wouldn’t want to encourage others to try the same thing.  It wasn’t the crime of the century or anything.  Nobody got hurt.  Most people here never even knew about it.  But when I go into that office now, and there’s just one person there, sometimes that person gives a little start, you know?  Calls out “Who’s there?”  Looks around to make sure I’m not wearing a mask, holding a pistol.

There’s stashes like this all over the place, waiting for some aspiring crook to find them, and they do, much more often than you think.  Because people still use cash.  In Colorado, that’s all the newly minted Pot Lords can use, because banks won’t touch their profits.  Nothing petty about that cash, and they buy big heavy safes for it, hire tough guys to watch it.

This particular score I’m talking about was minor league–they probably blew it all on a night on the town [or the kids’ braces, how would I know?]  But you think they’ll ever stop grinning to each other about it when they meet?  Easy money.  As long as you know how to avoid the pitfalls.  As long as you don’t get caught.

I won’t even mention the woman who got caught embezzling here–a lot more money than those office heisters got.  Nice lady, used to talk to her all the time.  That got covered in the campus paper [kids must have been so excited over the scoop.]  A different kind of crime, requiring a different kind of criminal, and a different kind of crime writer.  So many specialties.

She didn’t go to jail, by the way.  Which you can bet the office heisters would have done, if they’d been caught. Nobody said life was fair.  Or that the phrase “I won’t even mention” should be taken literally.

Okay, back to the book.  Which feels a lot more real than Parker robbing an island casino run by a German aristocrat who used to be a Nazi.  Or fighting off a small army of mobsters in an amusement park.  But you know, I love those too.  Ain’t genre grand?)

There’s a wooden wall surrounding the entire facility, but Tom can turn off the alarm, unlock the gate.  Nobody has ever tried to rob this place–a few times, weirdos came here wanting to hurt the horses, that’s the only thing they really worry about.  Parker could care less about the horses.  All he’s interested in is the lay-out, and Tom is giving it all to him as they go.

They’re in the main building now, where the offices are.  Tom takes Parker through one office, so as to avoid some security cameras.  Somebody left a partly eaten omelet on a desk.  Tom knocks it over.  Here’s the final secret word from the game Westlake played with McKean–only 99 pages in–

He had bumped into the wrong desk, causing the breakfast to flip over and hit the floor facedown.  Lindahl stooped to pick up the plate, but the omelet stuck to the black linoleum, which was now a black icean, and that omelet the sandy desert island, with the solitary strip of bacon sticking  up from it, slightly slumped but brave, the perfect representation of the stranded sailor, alone and waiting for his cartoon caption.  On the floor, it looked like what the Greeks call archeiropoietoi, a pictorial image not made by a human hand.

“I ought to clean that up,” Lindahl said, frowning down doubtfully at the new island.

“A mouse did it,” Parker told him.  “Drop the plate on it and let’s go.”

Maybe the last time in these books that Stark interjects his personal perspective and knowledge into the narrative–because you know damn well Parker doesn’t know from archeiropoietoi. He doesn’t see the egg island and bacon sailor.  Tom may perceive the image, but he doesn’t know the word.  Neither did Westlake, before McKean gave it to him.

But language maven that he was, he was always picking up odd bits of obscure neglected verbiage (like pootle), putting them back to work.  It sticks out a bit–but it reminds you somebody is telling this story, and he is seeing things Parker misses.  And perhaps wishing he could stop seeing them, but he sees them anyway.  Stark cares about art.  Even accidental art.  So contrived as this is, sticking a word into a book simply to answer a challenge from a fellow word nerd, it also feels organic to the series.  Strange.

With some care, they make their way to the room where the cash is stored, in long metal boxes–which Tom proudly says he’s stolen a few of, for when he does the job he was never really going to do until somebody came along to prod him into action.  (He’s crestfallen when Parker says later they have to dump those boxes, pack the loot into easily toted anonymous canvas duffels–where’s the romance in that?  Stark may be a romantic; Parker is anything but.)

Looking at the cash there now–the cash they aren’t going to take yet–Parker asks the crucial question.

“How much is in there, usually, on a Saturday night?”

“Probably more than a hundred thousand, less than one-fifty.”

Parker nodded.  Enough to keep him moving.

Lindahl, proud and anxious, said, “So what do you think?”

“It looks good.”

With a huge relieved smile, Lindahl said, “I knew you’d see it.  You ready to go?”

“Yes.”

On their way out, up the stairs from the basement, Lindahl said, “You know, I know why you wanted me to open that box.  You didn’t want your fingerprints on it.”

“That’s right,” Parker said.

So they drive back to Pooley, and Parker, beginning to see Lindahl as a fellow professional (one who needs a lot of retraining), starts to lay out the rules.  Lindahl has to follow his lead, do what he says.  He’s the expert–that’s why he’s here, and Lindahl is willing to settle for half.  They’re going to take no bills smaller than a ten.  They’re going to obtain cheap canvas duffels, not use the heavy identifiable metal cash boxes, as Tom, looking for symbolic retribution as much as profit, wanted to do.

Lindahl has some rules of his own–

“But I can say no, I guess,” Lindahl said.  “I can say no, I don’t want to do that, and then we don’t do it.  Like if you say, ‘Now we go kill the two guys in security,’ I can say no, and we don’t do it.”

I’m not out to kill anybody,” Parker said.  “It only makes the heat worse.”

“Well, whatever it might be,” Lindahl said. “If I don’t like it, I can say no, and we don’t do it.”

“You’re right,” Parker told him.  “You can always say no.”

“Good.  We  understand each other.” Lindahl nodded at the window. “Lights out there.”

Another roadblock.  Another ID check.  Another narrow escape. And then Parker hits Tom with the rule he didn’t see coming.  Because he still hasn’t grasped the full implications of what he’s doing.

Parker tells him they’re going to take the money tomorrow night.  Tom had the notion that they’d wait for the weekend.  The armored car comes on Friday to pick up the cash, doesn’t come back until Monday.  So do it Saturday night–by the time they find out the money is gone, he’s got a thirty-six hour lead for his getaway.  And they’ll know it was him.  They’ll know he beat them.

Parker says that’s all bunk.  A few more hours won’t make any difference, one way or another.  Tom’s going to leave a trail.  He’s not experienced at getaways.  He should just stay put, cache his share in that boarded up house next to his converted garage, look the cops and prosecutors right in the eye and say he didn’t do it.  Let them prove he did.  In a year, he tells people he’s going on a trip, and he doesn’t come back.  Sets himself up in a new place.  Tells people back home he decided to retire someplace warm.

This is decent advice in the abstract, I think–though it might require more nerve and conviction than Tom has shown us so far.  It has the advantage that Tom wouldn’t need to build up a new identity from scratch, and he could still collect Social Security in a decade or so. It’s not like they’re heisting millions here.  Tom’s share would amount to no more than a small nest egg in the early 21st.  The whole take wouldn’t be enough to set him up for life.

So Parker’s suggestion would have much to recommend it–if so many people hadn’t already seen Tom with ‘Ed Smith.’  At this point, only Cory and Cal know who that really is–though Fred suspects.  Tom has also shown his ID at multiple roadblocks, going to and from the track.  The second time with a man matching Parker’s description, using an ID Tom made himself, with the name of a former co-worker of his on it.  Too many weak spots.  It wouldn’t work. Tom would get taken by the law–or tortured by greedy low-lifes like the Dennisons, for his share of the take.  Either way, he’d never make it to retirement.  You have to believe Parker knows that.

Does Parker care that he’s giving Tom bad advice?  Nope.  Tom’s no more than half a professional to him at this point, if that.  Parker wants to do the job ASAP because he needs to get out of there.  Thanks to Tom, he’s got new ID–he’ll have the money soon enough–now he needs a few other things.  What happens to Tom is up to Tom.  If he can’t see the cracks in the scenario Parker is laying out for him, he’s never going to make it on the run anyway.  It’s no different from what Parker said to Fred and Tom, to get them not to talk about Fred shooting the old derelict in the back. Telling them an edited version of the truth, to get the reaction he wants.

(It’s not all that different from the song and dance he gave that scared teenager in The Jugger, about how he’d help the kid get away from the consequences of killing someone by mistake. The kid takes Parker at his word. He’s making a grave mistake. Spoiler pun alert.)

Difference here is, he still needs Tom to pull the heist–and for all his lack of seasoning, Tom is starting to impress Parker with his sagacity.  There’s a wall between them, and Lindahl is straddling it, talking about what he will and won’t do.  To get the real advice, the full benefit of Parker’s expertise, he needs to get both feet planted on the other side of that wall.  Until that happens, he’s just another civilian–and, if he gets in Parker’s way, a casualty of war.  (Remind me again why some people think Parker got soft in the later books?)

They make it back.  It’s five-thirty in the morning.  Parker tells Tom to set the alarm for ten.  “You’ll sleep when we’re finished,” Parker tells him.  One way or another……

So next morning, Parker shows Tom the way he fixed up that boarded house so that you can get in or out without leaving any trace.  Then they drive to a mall that’s on its last legs.  Tom has to get those duffels, and the plastic gloves.

Parker has more serious shopping to do.  He brought the pistol he stole last night.  Uses it to rob one of those hip clothing stores where they look at you funny if you’re over thirty.  One of those places where people think it’s cute if you wear clothing with the name of a penitentiary on it.  ‘The Rad’ (now what could that be aimed at?)   He scares the kid at the cash register out of five year’s growth.  Gets cash he can actually spend on the road–in case the job tonight doesn’t work out.

Tom comes out of the Walmart or Target or whatever with the equipment.  They drive back.  Meet squad cars going the other way, lights flashing.  Tom wonders what’s up.  “Nothing to do with us,” Parker said. Us. Get it?  Mental reservation. I knew he was raised Catholic.  Just like Dortmunder.  Funny what takes and what doesn’t.

They stop to eat, and Parker tells him about Cory and Cal–doling out information in small amounts.  Have to be careful not to scare this finger away before they get into the pie.

Fred Thiemann’s wife is waiting for them when they get back.  She’s come for Fred’s hunting rifle.  He’s told her what happened at Wolf Peak.

Looking at her through the windshield, Parker saw a woman who was weighed down by something.  Not angry, not frightened, but distracted enough not to care what kind of appearance she made.  She was simply out in the world, braced for whatever the bad news would turn out to be.

Parker and Lindahl got out of the SUV, and Lindahl said “Jane.  How’s Fred?”

“Coming apart at the seams.” She turned bleak eyes toward Parker.  “You’re Ed Smith, I guess.”

“That’s right.”

“Fred’s afraid of you,” she said. “I’m not sure why.”

Parker shrugged.  “Neither am I.”

She tells them that Fred blames ‘Ed’ for what happened–not the shooting–he knows that’s on him–but for his deciding not to tell the police what happened.

That was a violation of his nature–maybe worse than the shooting itself, which was just an impulse act, regrettably commonplace, wherever firearms are sold.  He can’t live with it, and he can’t go back and fix it.

Parker doesn’t care what Fred can live with.  He just wants him to hold whatever’s bugging him in for another day, two at most.  He tells Jane to say that George, their son serving his time in Attica, will want Fred to be there when he gets out.  A not so subtle message about truth and consequences.  That Fred will somehow manage to garble, but we’ll get to that.

Cory and Cal show up as Jane is leaving.  All of a sudden, it’s like Grand Central Station at the hermitage.  Tom probably didn’t have as many visitors in the past year as he’s had in the past twenty-four hours.

Cal shows Tom a copy of the police artist sketch of Parker, done to Detective Gwen Reversa’s specifications.  It’s not a really good likeness.  But it’s a likeness.

“He could be a thousand guys,” Parker said.

“Not a thousand.”

Lindahl said, “Cal, if this picture looks so much like Ed here, and everybody up at the meeting at St. Stanislas had a copy of the picture, and Ed was standing right there with us, how come nobody else saw it?  How come everybody in the goddam parking lot didn’t turn around and make a citizen’s arrest?”

“It was that story in school,” Cal said, and frowned deeply as he turned to hand the sketch to Cory.  “That writer we had to read, all that spooky stuff.  Poe.  The something letter.  All about how everybody’s looking for this letter, and nobody can find it, and that’s because it’s right out there in plain sight, the one place you wouldn’t think it would be.  So  here’s a fella, and a whole bunch of guys get together to find  him, and where’s the best place he oughta hide?  Right with the bunch looking for him, the one place nobody in the county’s gonna think to look.”

Voice arched with sarcasm, Lindahl said, “And you, Cal, you’re the only one there figured it out.”

“Could happen,” Cal said, comfortable with himself.  “Could happen.”

“Not this time,” Parker said, and Cory said, “Look at that.”

Tom needs to turn that TV off sometime.  The one with the parrot over it.  It’s showing news footage about the daring robbery at the local mall.  Police say it was one of the bank robbers.  Oh, and the clerk’s name is Edwin Kislamski (he’s still shaking, but he’s also enjoying his moment of celebrity).  So we’ve got a Fred, an ‘Ed’ and now an Edwin.

Lindahl says nothing, but he’s trembling with anger and fear.  Parker waits to see if he’s going to have to shoot all three of them.  Tom somehow holds it all in, Cal oversteps his bounds, and Parker slaps him (this is where we came in).  Cory reins Cal in, and the brothers depart.  Parker is not reassured–he can see Cory isn’t like his brother.  He’s got a plan.

(You wouldn’t expect a guy like Cal to reference Poe, would you?  Something about that story got to him, but he never followed up, never became a reader,  never decided to see how many other interesting things you might learn from books, how far they might take you. Cory worked harder in school, learned self-control, how to plan, but he lacked imagination, vision, humor. Two halves who don’t quite make a whole, but who remain somehow essential to each other.  Ah, Anarchaos!  Almost missed that one, Mr. Westlake.

But you’re not talking about brothers now, anymore than you were back then. You’re talking about different parts of the self–your own younger self.  About who and what you might have been, if things had been a little different.  If you hadn’t gotten the two halves better aligned.  And what was it about losing an eye for a while that brought that out in you?  That got you thinking about contingency again.  There but for the grace of…..)

Tom’s  angry at Parker.  Not just for robbing a store while he was nearby, but for not telling him about it, even afterwards.  Not telling him about the gun, either.  Aren’t they partners?  Well no, not really. He understands that now.

But he’s getting over the anger, even while he’s expressing it.  Because after all, what did he expect when he went out looking for a crook to help him rob a racetrack?  It’s not quite the Scorpion and the Frog (Parker would at least wait until they were on the other side)–but–he’s on the edge of a realization.  An insight.  An  understanding very few have ever arrived at, about his guest.

After the Dennisons left, Parker said, “I’ll drive down to the corner, put some gas in the car.”

Sounding bitter, Lindahl said, “Using some of the money you stole from that boy?”

Parker looked at him. “You got that wrong, Tom,” he said. “I didn’t take anything from that boy.  I took some cash from a company that has nine hundred stores.  I needed the cash.  You know that.”

“You had that gun all along?”

“I’ll be right back,” Parker said, and turned to the door.

“No, wait.”

Parker looked back, and could see that Lindahl was trying to adjust his thinking.  He waited, and Lindahl nodded and said, “All right.  I know who you are, I already knew who you were.  I shouldn’t act as though it’s any of my business.”

“That’s right,” Parker said.

“It’s hard,” Lindahl said. “It’s hard to be around…”

The sentence trailed off, but Parker understood.  It’s hard to be around a carnivore.  “It won’t be for long,” he said.

I could almost believe that’s sympathy.  Well–empathy.  Tom understood him, just for a moment.  That’s rare.  He’s willing to return the favor.  It’s hard for a carnivore too, in a world of sheep. Lonely.

Tom tells Parker don’t go to the gas station just up the main drag in Pooley–it’s run by a semi-retired grease monkey, who doesn’t really like selling gas, so he charges more, hawks lottery tickets on the side.  Almost as anti-social as Tom.

Name’s Brian Hopwood. He’s a good mechanic, honest about that.  Always working on some car or other.  No, Tom says, go to the Getty station, not much further, way cheaper.  Like it really matters when they’re about to commit grand larceny.  Tom’s still in the straight world, worried about bargains.  Well, Parker needs a bargain deal on a getaway car.  Free would be good.  You won’t get that at Getty.  But that’s where he tells Lindahl he’s going.

He drives to the corner, and it’s one of those places you pay inside before you pump it yourself (it’s all self-service in New York, once you’re out of the big cities–New Jersey is more civilized, you can stay in your car, watch somebody wipe your windshield for you).  He walks in, gives Hopwood two twenties, says he’ll probably be needing change.  What he needs is a better look at this place and its proprietor.

He tells Hopwood he’s the guy staying with Tom Lindahl, knowing that Hopwood would have already recognized the car he’s serviced in the past.  He’s servicing a few others right now.  Just waiting there in the parking lot–the keys on the rack inside.  Thinks to himself he’ll come back later, pick out a ride.

Not so fast, sonny.  All of a sudden, Hopwood’s pointing a Seecamp LWS32 at him.  You know, there really are an awful lot of tiny little guns in these books.  I guess because with Parker, a gun really is just a gun.

250px-LWS32

But a .32 bullet really hurts, no matter what size the gun is.  Hopwood does the old don’t move a muscle routine.  He has the wanted poster, with the damn drawing.  Says he’ll wing Parker if he doesn’t get his hands over his head.  Figuring he’ll wait his chance, Parker starts to comply–and a woman comes in.  That same woman who talked to him last night.  Wanted to know if she could help.  She just did.  Parker throws her at Hopwood, and takes out his own tiny pistol.  “I don’t wing,” he says.

And to finish out Part Two, this woman looks at the Smith & Wesson Parker is now pointing at her and Hopwood, and says “You! You’re the one who stole Jack’s gun!”  Detectives. You can’t get away from them.  No matter how small the town is.

That’s a bit over 6,000 words.  For a section of the book that runs eleven chapters, fifty-seven pages.  Didn’t leave much meat on the bone for you this time, did I Greg?  Well, you know what they say about carnivores.  They always come back for thirds.  See you at Post #200.

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20 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

20 responses to “Review: Ask the Parrot, Part 2

  1. How about this: We’ve gotten away from publication order a bit due to the need to group the triptych together (a move I fully support), but that obscures the fact that in back-to-back books, the first of which was this one (and the second of which we’ve already discussed), a character explicitly references The Purloined Letter. Westlake slipped a reference into the penultimate Parker and the penultimate Dortmunder.

    • You have pried the marrow from the bone. Not quite Yeats, but it will serve. 😉

      It’s funny, isn’t it? Westlake going on his blog to explain why he hasn’t been publishing so much of late. He had a book out in 2005. And 2006. And 2007. And 2008. And 2009, when he was in the bloody ground. And a few since then. He’s publishing more as a dead man than most writers with a pulse ever do.

      It occurs to me to ask–not knowing precisely when these health problems of his came to pass, did I miss any veiled reference to that in What’s So Funny, when reviewing it? The title, perhaps. And maybe he was feeling more like Fiona’s ailing grandpa than was usually the case (with the crochety temperament to match). I had assumed Mr. Hemlow was Westlake doing a variation on the emphysemic tobacco mogul from Smoke, mingled with an homage to Hammett and Chandler, but maybe there was more of a personal sense to it this time.

      Someone or something hunkered in the wheelchair, inside black brogans, black pants, a Navajo-Indian-design throw rug draped over the shoulders, and a scarlet beret on top. It seemed large and soft, just barely squeezing into the available space, and it brooded straight ahead, paying no attention to Eppick as he led Dortmunder forward by the hand.

      “Mr. Hemlow,” Eppick said, and all at once he sounded deferential, not the self-assured cop at all any more, “Mr. Hemlow, the specialist is here.”

      “Tell him to sit down. There.” The voice sounded as though it were coming from a bicycle tire with a slow leak, and at first Dortmunder thought Mr. Hemlow had pointed at the sofa to his left with a chicken foot, but no, that was his hand.

      Speaking of hands, Eppick finally released Dortmunder’s and gestured for him to get to that sofa by walking around behind Mr. Hemlow in his wheelchair, which Dortmunder did, while Eppick went away to take up a lot of the other sofa, crossing one leg over the other as though he wanted to show how relaxed he was, but not succeeding.

      Dortmunder sat to Mr. Hemlow’s left, leaned forward, rested his forearms on his thighs, looked eye-to-eye with Mr. Hemlow, and said, “Harya doin?”

      “I’ve been better,” grated the bicycle tire.

      Dortmunder was sure of that. Seen up close, Mr. Hemlow was seven or eight different kinds of mess. He had a little clear plastic hose draped over his ears and inserted into his nostrils to give him oxygen. His face and neck and apparently everything but those chicken-foot hands were bloated and stuffed looking, as though he’d been filled up by a bicycle pump trying to solve the tire leak. His eyes were small and mean-looking, their pupils a very wet blue, so that, under the red beret, he looked like a more than usually homicidal hawk. What could be seen of his skin was a raw-looking red, as though he were originally a very pale person who’d been left out in the sun too long. His posture sucked; he sat on his shoulder blades with his wattles on his torso, which seemed to be shaped more or less like a medicine ball. His right knee twitched constantly, as though remembering an earlier life as a dance band drummer.

      While Dortmunder sat absorbing these unlovely details, Mr. Hemlow’s watery eyes studied him in return, until all at once Mr. Hemlow said, “What do you know about the First World War?”

      (I know it wasn’t going on in the 1940’s. Oh never mind, let dead publishers rest in pieces.)

      It’s hard to retain everything. That review was just a few weeks ago, and seems to me like I wrote it in the late 19th century. Nice catch. Anybody got another?

      • Re-reading the What’s So Funny? review (this Fitch fella goes on a piece, don’t he?), I think I’ve found another link between the two books. Jack Riley, the old man Parker steals the pistol from. That woman who just gave Parker his opening at the gas station is Jack’s granddaughter, Suzanne, who is very loyal to him. She’s got a good heart, which gets her into trouble sometimes. She’s good-looking, but not aggressively so. She’s a touch naive, a bit on the timid side, but fairly smart and resourceful in a pinch.

        Fiona Hemlow. In both cases, they’re investigating something for grandpa (stolen chess set, stolen gun), and wind up in the soup. And that’s about as far as the parallels go. Stark wrote much shorter books.

  2. Parker’s decision to go back into Hopwood’s shop is an interesting one. Stark lets us know it’s deliberate, that Parker could have pumped the full $40 and driven away, “but he wanted that second encounter.” Why? He already has all the information he needs about the shop and where the car keys are stored. He has already noticed Hopwood’s seeming incuriousity. But something about Hopwood has snagged at him. So, a combination of instinct and luck drives Parker back inside, where he has his little showdown. If he had driven away, Hopwood would have called the cops on him (a smarter move all around). Lucky for Parker he didn’t.

    Incidentally, a couple of years later, Lawrence Block would serve up a virtual re-write of this scene in his Keller novel, Hit and Run. Keller, who’s wanted poster is everywhere, stops at a gas station, where he’s recognized (and held at gunpoint) by the proprietor. Just like Parker, Keller feigns exasperation that this keeps happening, that people keep mistaking him for the wanted man. Things play out similarly (with no woman this time), though Keller settles on a different solution.

    • I only read the Keller shorts, so don’t know that one. That came out while Westlake was still alive, so I’d assume it was a sanctioned heist (as opposed to a posthumous tribute). I wonder if Westlake had time to read it? Good chance he saw it in manuscript form.

      You could be right about Parker’s seventh sense kicking in–but then wouldn’t he have had his hand on the gun in his pocket? He goes out of there the first time thinking that Hopwood is “without curiosity,” so if he’s sensing anything off, it’s below the level of consciousness. I think he always planned on a second look (had two twenties in his hand before he went in there) because he might notice something the second time that he didn’t the first. Any little detail that might trip him up when he goes in there. Like the owner having a wanted poster and a gun.

      It is true that if he had driven off, he’d have had some serious troubles, shortly afterwards (and so would Lindahl). We could chalk it up to his strange luck. Without which, he’d have been dead or jailed long ago, for all his craft and cunning.

      • It seems more than just wanting to take a second look at the shop. Stark writes “he wanted that second encounter.” That’s about Hopwood himself. It’s true that Parker pumps him for information about his closing habits during that second encounter and maybe that’s all it is. But it feels like something more to me, something snagging at him. Like he wants to understand this guy a little better. He’ll have more questions for him in the next part, when we’re in Hopwood’s POV. And there are practical reasons for those questions too, but again, it feels to me like Parker trying to solve the puzzle that is Brian Hopwood. Anything he can learn about how humans behave may be useful.

        • I’ll buy that. But I don’t think he picks up on Hopwood suspecting him, because Hopwood didn’t suspect him, or even show any interest in him, the first time he was in there. While Parker was out there pumping gas, Hopwood began to compare his face with that on the wanted posters. He assumed Parker had done something to Tom, taken his car. Parker thinks to himself that ‘the man was without curiosity.’ That was true when he thought it. But curiosity shows up when you least expect it.

          So let’s say it’s Parker’s methodical nature, particularly when it comes to robbery–he’s figuring on coming back later to steal one of the cars Hopwood is working on. He wants to know in advance what problems he might run into while doing that, avoid them if possible. He may even want to try and figure out which car to take–maybe get some clue from as to which are running okay (not much point stealing a car that’ll break down a few miles down the road).

          Maybe something about Hopwood bothers him. But at a level even he wouldn’t be aware of.

          Maybe it’s Stark, whispering in his ear.

  3. Thanks for the acknowledgment and the reference to my blog, Fred.

  4. mikesschilling

    The continuity with NRF I mention awhile ago: the number of outsiders who become problems. There it was the finger, the bounty hunter, the doctor, and the cop. Here it’s Fred, Cal, Cory, Suzanne, and Hopwood. It works better here, because part of the point of the book that civilians sense something off about Parker. They notice his vague resemblance to the police sketch only because his aura of predation leads them in that direction.

    • In the earlier books, Parker is living pretty much exclusively in a criminal world–where his only real complications are other independent criminals, organized crime, and the cops. Here and there, you get a kibbitzer–somebody from the straight world who is drawn into Parker’s realm for one reason or another. But here, it’s Parker being forced to live in the straight world for a short time.

      Even in The Jugger, the people he’s talking to in that town are pretty nearly all crooked or corrupt in some way, and he didn’t cause that. In NRF, it’s pretty much the same.

      But in this book, there are all these people who were leading more or less honest lives, however unsatisfying, and Parker’s presence in their midst corrupts them–Tom was never going to do that robbery. Cory and Cal were just minor troublemakers, though Cal might have hurt someone eventually.

      Fred steps over to the dark side when he agrees not to tell the police what he did, which he would not have done had Parker not preyed on his fear of prison and social disgrace. Fred is fundamentally an honest person, so that destroys him.

      If Parker were Tom Ripley, he’d start musing on how he’s this bottomless font of evil or whatever–and go on behaving as he always has. Parker has no time for that kind of thinking at all. The rot was already there, before he showed up. He will use any vulnerability he finds in us as a weapon–how else can he survive? Might as well ask a wolf to feel guilty for homing in on the weakest member of the herd.

      Suzanne and Hopwood are the outliers–they’re not corrupted, nor is Parker any real threat to them–not in a Stark novel. Again, these books are about comparative psychology, and they’re the test group. True innocents.

      I don’t know that Suzanne had even a vague inkling what Parker was–I’d say she was just curious, because you don’t see people walking out there at night (also, whatever his calendar age may be now, Parker probably looks younger and fitter than most of the men around there, and she might be interested–think back to the opening of The Hunter.)

      Hopwood, I think, is just looking for a bit of drama. Semi-retirement can be very boring, and in a town like Pooley, it’d be positively stultifying. He wanted to play hero for a moment, so he rolled the dice. He’ll know better in future.

      • In the DVD interview, Westlake makes more or less the same point. I could almost believe ATP was the result of a challenge Westlake set for himself. Like Breakout, which was an answer to a question Westlake asked himself about Parker. What happens if Parker gets caught? I kind of assumed ATP spawned from similar musings. What happens if Parker has to live among the straights? But that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least going by Westlake’s remarks on the book. The way he talks about it, it’s like he only realized that was happening after he was finished. Which begs the question: What was Westlake setting out to say with ATP? I think maybe he wanted to explore middle-age stagnation and frustration. There aren’t any young people in this book. Suzanne may be the youngest character, but even she’s been through a marriage and divorce. You reach a certain age and you realize this is it. This is your life. The choices and options available to you when you were you younger have narrowed down to a single path. That’s a sobering realization. The impulse to throw a stick of dynamite into the situation can be a strong one.

        • Or you can always just read crime/suspense fiction. Seems like pretty nearly all older people do, myself not excluded. At least I’m reading the best.

          Part 3 of this review begins with what you might call a capsule commentary on that very predilection for crime fiction among the modern mature.

          I think he often didn’t know what exactly he was writing about when he started–the push method in action once more. You start with a general premise, then get more specific as the characters come to you. Parker is in a tight spot, he’s got to disappear for a while. He’s headed into a part of the world Westlake remembers quite well (not sure to what extent he kept up with old contacts there, but how much would have changed, really?)

          He views his old environment through the eyes of his most cold-bloodedly objective protagonist. And in the case of Cory and Cal, a two-headed (and three-eyed) representation of his younger self, gone down the wrong fork in the road.

          Well, to the extent you can ever be sure what the wrong fork is. But as you say, when you get far enough down the road, the question becomes academic.

          With rare exceptions. One of whom is in this book.

  5. Trent Reynolds just posted on Facebook that he hopes to have The Violent World of Parker website up and running again by the end of the year.

  6. mikesschilling

    Nothing to do with this book. From an Ed Gorman interview with DEW (http://newimprovedgorman.blogspot.com/2009/01/donald-e-westlake-interview.html)

    For instance, in one book I saw I had an opportunity, if I wanted, to tell one section in first person from Parker’s point of view. Since he isn’t someone who tends to want to tell other people anything, particularly anything unnecessary, I wondered if I could do it, what he would sound like, and would it turn out to be one of those false notes. In the event, it was fine. (And no, I can’t right now remember which book.)

    I can’t recall anything that’s first person from Parker’s POV. What could he be describing?

    • He’s talking about the chapter in The Black Ice Score, where Parker has to tell the Dhabans about the situation with Claire in some detail, and ask for their help.

      The normal thing to do, in that situation, would be to gloss over the details–“Parker told them what had transpired with the whites”–and conclude with the request for assistance–there’s nothing in that chapter we don’t already know. The interesting thing, from Westlake’s POV, is how Parker presents the information to them, how a man who would normally never ask anyone for help would go about it, given no other choice.

      He just tells them the situation, and concludes by saying “I want you to help me.” There’s no emotional content to it, no appeal to chivalrous instincts, nor does he imply that they owe him anything, since their deal has been concluded, and it didn’t include any rescue clauses. As it happens, the younger African, Formutesca, seeing Parker as his teacher, does feel something is owed–and wants to see Parker in action, because he might have more to learn. An apt pupil.

      I gave that (underrated) book a very short review. I don’t remember how I used to write those. A lot fewer quotes was part of it. The earlier Starks were often much simpler.

      I have mentioned this in the past, however.

      I’ve mentioned so many things in the past.

      They tend to blur together after a while.

  7. Yeah, I posted Part 3. Something went wrong the formatting. Hasn’t happened in a while. I thought WordPress finally got rid of that glitch, but apparently not. Take a while to fix it. Reverted to draft. Patience is a virtue. Parker says so.

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