Review: Dirty Money, Part 3


Parker took the Bobcat from his pocket and put it on the table, then left it there with his hands resting on the tabletop to both sides, not too close.  “That’s who I am,” he said.  “You Oscar’s brother?”

The guy stared at the gun, not afraid of it, but as though waiting to see it move.  “No,” he said, not looking up.  “I got no brothers named Oscar.”

“Well, how important is Oscar to you, then?  Important enough to die for?”

Now the guy did meet Parker’s eyes, and his own were scornful.  “The only thing you’re gonna shoot off in here is your mouth,” he said.  “You don’t want a lotta noise to wake the dog.”

Parker picked up the Bobcat and pushed its barrel into the guy’s sternum, just below the rib cage.  “In my experience,” he said, “with a little gun like this, a body like yours makes a pretty good silencer.”

The money inside the boxes was all banded into stacks of fifty bills, always of the same denomination.  The bands, two-inch-wide strips of pale yellow paper, were marked DEER HILL BANK, DEER HILL, MA.  The stacks made a tight fit inside the boxes.

It turned out to be easiest to dump a box over, empty the money onto the floor of the van, and then stuff it all into the Hefty bags.  The emptied box, with its cover restored, would be stacked with the others in the bed of the pickup.

As they worked, McWhitney said, “It’s a pity about this stuff.  Look how beautiful it is.”

“It’ll tempt you,” Parker said.  “But it’s got a disease.”

April 27th, 2008.  Not quite three years shy of a half century from when Donald Westlake first showed Lawrence Block a draft of The Hunter, Richard Stark got his last New York Times book review, courtesy of Marilyn Stasio.

The nice thing about the rather nasty stories Richard Stark (a k a Donald E. Westlake) writes about a career criminal named Parker is that none of the significant characters is ever innocent. Which is why it’s so easy to laugh when their intricate schemes begin to unravel, as happened in “Nobody Runs Forever” after Parker’s gang stashed the loot from a bank job in the choir loft of an abandoned country church — and couldn’t get it out. Although he’s still being pursued by the vigilant detective Gwen Reversa and the odd reporter, Parker gives criminality another shot in DIRTY MONEY (Grand Central, $23.99), under pressure from Sandra Loscalzo, an aggressive bounty hunter who’s even less trustworthy than the killers and con men she stalks for a living. Everyone in this merry misadventure ends up at Bosky Rounds, a quaint bed-and-breakfast that looks like the cover art for Yankee magazine — something to bear in mind on leaf-peeping excursions to picturesque New England villages.

Sometimes I’ve wondered if Stasio was reading the same books as me, but no two people have ever read the same book, any more than one person reads the same book twice.  (I come from the Heraclitus school of book reviewing).

Me, I don’t think Stark, at any time, is encouraging us to laugh at Parker–with him, maybe.  To sport a rueful grin at how the best laid plans of wolves and men gang aft agley, absolutely.  That goes with the territory. That’s what the heist subgenre is all about, going back to The Asphalt Jungle, or if you please, Jason and the Argonauts.

But if that grin doesn’t come with a glimmer of recognition as to how this insight applies just as much to us and our ostensibly more honest endeavors, you sure haven’t learned much from these books.  I’m all for entertainment, but entertainment that doesn’t on some level enlighten probably isn’t worth the time it took to peruse.  I mean, unless you’re planning to live forever.

Stasio couldn’t know that this was the last we’d hear from Richard Stark, that Donald E. Westlake would be dead in a little over eight months.  He sure wasn’t making any plans to live forever.  But he was making plans.   Right to the end.

I agree with her that nobody in these novels is ever innocent–and how many in real life ever are?  I’m not.  Why, may I ask, are so many innocent people enjoying stories about murder, mayhem, vengeance, betrayal and pillage?  And I don’t just mean on cable news.  Or in the bible.

I don’t rule out that there’s truly innocent people in the world, or at least truly good people, but doesn’t seem to me they’d constitute much of an audience.  Whether they were shelling out thirty-five cents for The Hunter in ’62, or $23.99 for Dirty Money in ’08, the publisher would go bankrupt if the readership was composed of saints.

No, I think the enduring popularity of these books attests to the fact that we know (and the saints most of all)  that we’re none of us all that innocent, and we’re still waiting nervously for some kind of law to catch up with us, and it will, never fear.  (My money’s on thermodynamics.)

But in the meantime, we’ve still got plans.  Most of which don’t work out half so well as Parker’s.  Truth is, Ms. Stasio, we’re not laughing at him at all.  We’re envying him.  His coolness under pressure, his lack of envy, fear, prejudice, treachery.  His matter-of-fact reaction to every setback, coupled with a determination to find the problem and fix it.  His patience.  His pragmatism.  His perseverance.  His perspicuity.  In short, his professionalism.

It seems perverse to say out loud, but these books have been at least as much about virtue as vice.  Whatever you do in life, do it well, as if how you perform your chosen task matters no less than your compensation for performing it, if indeed you get any.  Most of us don’t have such exciting jobs as Parker, to be sure.  But hey, we get retirement plans and health insurance.  Some of us.  For now.

If we’re laughing at anyone in these books, it’s those of inferior professionalism, or none at all.  Comparing their garrulous gamesmanship to the taciturn protagonist who is playing at nothing, because life isn’t a game, and neither is death.  That’s been the point of Parker, all along.  Made better in some books than others, and this last book is far from the best, but that’s because the professional behind them all is starting to lose his grip on the wheel.  Yet he refuses to call it a day.  He’ll know it’s time to lay down tools when the whistle blows.  Not before.

This is a flawed faltering book at points, but compelling all the same, like the twenty-three before it.  In Part Four, feeling the law closing in on him, that part of Westlake that is Richard Stark produces what I’d call, on reflection, a tightly-focused novella within a novel–to close out the day’s work.  Laying the groundwork for more books, that we’ll never read, because the whistle blew.  In Mexico.  And wouldn’t you know I’d get to this one during Dia de los MuertasHay más tiempo que vida.  Adelante.

Part Four opens with Parker checking to see if anybody picks up at Julius Norte’s number in Florida–the guy who did such a good job making him into Daniel Parmitt, in Flashfire.  He’s dead, of course, but maybe somebody else is doing the high-end ID work there now?  Nope.  That office is closed.

He reaches Ed Mackey, through channels of course–Mackey doesn’t have a direct phone number.  (Remind us again why Parker does?)  Mackey gets back to him at the good old gas station phone booth near Colliver Pond, and hey, does this gas station have free road maps and a uniformed attendant who chirps “Fillerup?” and then he cleans your windshield?  Because if they’ve got an actual working phone booth, really should make the whole retro experience complete.

Mackey isn’t working for the time being–says Brenda wants him to stay home (what happened in Breakout might be leaning both of them in the direction of semi-retirement, but it’s nothing definite).   Parker says he just wants to know if Mackey knows anybody else as good as Norte.  Mackey says he’ll ask around, and a day later, he’s got the name of a guy outside Baltimore, who seems well-regarded in their circle.  Kazimierz Robbins.  Not a name you hear every day.

He fronts as an artist.  You call him, tell him you need a portrait painted.  You mention a name of somebody he knows, and it’s understood–you want a special portrait.  A new identity.  And for that, you really do need an artist.  Though there has probably never been anyone less sympathetic to the artistic temperament than Parker.

“You understand, my studio is not in my home.”


“I use the daylight hours to do my work.  Artificial light is no good for realistic painting.”


“These clumpers and streakers, they don’t care what the color is.  But I care.”

“That’s good.”

“So my consultations are at night, not to interfere with my work.  I return to my studio to discuss the client’s needs.  Could you come here tonight?”

“Tomorrow night.”

“That is also good.  Would nine o’clock be all right for you?”


“Excellent.  And when you come here, sir, what is your name?”


“Willis.” There was a hint of “v” in the name.  “We will see you then, Mr. Willis,” he said, and gave the address.

After that, he talks to Meany, at Cosmopolitan Beverages, about the deal that will make it possible for Parker to pay for his new identity and still have something left to live on.  The big boss, Joseph Albert, has okayed it.  They need to see a sample of the cash–say ten thousand, just to make sure this is the bank money.  Parker says fine, but they’ll pay one thousand to see the ten thousand, because that’s the deal.

He calls McWhitney, tells him to make the exchange, gives him the contact info, hangs up.  He’s made all these calls from that same gas station phone booth.  You’d think somebody there would notice what a regular customer he is.  At some point, he needs to upgrade more than just his ID.  Payphones can be tapped, particularly if you keep using the same one. (Also, how come he never hears a voice telling him he has to cough up more quarters?  Even the phone company is afraid to ask him for money.)

Claire has to drive him to see Robbins.  He lives in a small town called Vista, which does not exist, near Gunpowder Falls State Park, which does.  His studio is in a space that used to be a hardware store. Robbins is there, older, arthritic, tall, thin, slightly bent–Stark tells us he looks like a praying mantis.  Claire opts to stay in the car, but Robbins notices her, says it’s well she did not enter, since beautiful women are always a distraction to him.  He tells Parker to call him Robbins, since he dislikes hearing Americans mangle his first and true name.

As they walked down the long room, on an old floor of wide pine planks, Parker said, “Why didn’t you change the first name?”

“Ego,” Robbins said, and motioned for Parker to sit.  “Many are Robbins, or my original name, Rudzik, but from earliest childhood Kazimierz has been me.”  Also sitting, he leaned forward onto his knees, peered at Parker, and said, “Tell me what you can.”

“I no longer have an identity,” Parker said, “that’s safe from the police.”


“If we’re at the point of fingerprints,” Parker said, “it’s already too late.  I need papers to keep me from getting that far.”

“And how secure must these be?” He gave a little finger wave and said, “What I mean is, you want more than a simple forged driver’s license.”

“I want to survive a police computer,” Parker said.  “I don’t have a passport; I want one.”

“A legitimate passport.”

“Everything legitimate.”

Robbins leaned back.  “Nothing is impossible,” he said.  “But everything is expensive.”

“I know that.”

Robbins says it will cost two hundred thousand dollars.  Cash.  Parker figured that would be about it.  Half in advance, of course.  And even the former Mr. Rudzik (a Polish name) is surprised to learn Parker brought the cash with him.  “You are serious!” he exclaims.  Well, yeah.

So Robbins is Polish, he grew up under communism, learned his trade well, still has contacts over there.  Infant mortality under communism was higher than Marx and Lenin would have liked to believe.  So he can find some short-lived boy, born around the same time as Parker, give Parker the identity the child never had the chance to use himself.  A cover story must be concocted to explain why Parker has no eastern European accent (ever wondered what accent he does have?)

He’ll apply for a Social Security card–protective coloration–one is reminded how Joe Sheer laughed for days when he got his card in the mail, for a name he’d made up. He laughed hard, but not long.

To get all this done, to make the new identity stick, he’ll need to pose as a Canadian representative of an American company.  Which means he’ll need to work with Cosmopolitan Beverages again.  Getting to be a habit.  He gives Robbins Meany’s phone number (Robbins would have preferred his email).  Parker and Claire have worked out a new first name for him, and Robbins will attend to the family name.

He goes out and gets the duffel–presumably the same one Tom Lindahl picked up at a mall in upstate New York.  Full of cash from a racetrack.  Parker’s entire share of that job.  He’s going all in on this.  He passes portraits of celebrities Robbins has painted, from photographs we assume, to maintain the front.  They all look guarded, watchful.

That’s Saturday.  Monday, he’s driving to Bayonne, home of Cosmopolitan Beverages, and Stark has a positive genius for capturing the inimitable ambience of that highly scenic locale, but we’ve covered that already in Firebreak.  He’s driving himself this time, since it’s a short hop.  He passes somebody with a bumper sticker saying DRIVE IT LIKE YOU STOLE IT, which to Parker means drive so the law won’t notice you.

He doesn’t have an appointment, but he’s never stood on ceremony when it comes to mobsters of any stripe.  The guy at the reception desk tries to give him the brush off, and Parker doesn’t hit him, just tosses the kid’s copy of Maxim on the floor, so it’s not as if he hasn’t acquired a modicum of social veneer.

He and Meany are still sparring whenever they meet.  Meany’s going to enjoy this bout in particular.

Meany said, “What can I do for you today?”

“You liked the sample.”

“It’s very nice money,” Meany said.  “Too bad it’s radioactive.”

“Do you still want to buy the rest of it?”

“If we can work out delivery,” Meany said.  “I got no more reason to trust you than you got to trust me.”

“You could give us reason to trust each other,” Parker said.

Meany gave him a sharp look.  “Is this something new?”

“Yes. How that money came to me, things went wrong.”

Meany’s smile was thin, but honestly amused. “I got that idea,” he said.

“At the end of it,” Parker told him, “my ID was just as radioactive as that money.”

“That’s too bad,” Meany said, not sounding sympathetic.  “So you’re a guy now can’t face a routine traffic stop, is that it?”

“I can’t do anything,” Parker told him.  “I’ve got to build a whole new deck.”

“I don’t get why you’re telling me all this.”

“For years now,” Parker told him, “I’ve been working for your office in Canada.”

Meany sat back, ready to enjoy the show. “Oh yeah?  That was you?”

“A guy named Robbins is gonna call you, ask for some employment records.  I know you do this kind of thing, you’ve got zips, you’ve got different kinds of people your payroll office doesn’t know a thing about.”

“People come into the country, people go back out of the country,” Meany said, and shrugged.  “It’s a service we perform.  They gotta have a good-looking story.”

“So do I.”

Meany wants to know why he’d agree to this.  Parker says it’s a finder’s fee, for bringing him this nice little bump in corporate earnings for the fiscal year.  If Meany won’t help him out, he can go to somebody else in Bayonne with all that nice money.  Cosmopolitan doesn’t have a monopoly on this kind of thing.

And why should this arrangement cultivate trust between them, Meany wants to know.

“You’re gonna know my new straight name,” Parker pointed out. “And how I got it.  So then we’ve both been  useful to each other, so we have a little more trust for each other.  And I know, if sometime you decide you don’t like me, you could wreck me.”

“I don’t like you.”

“We’ll try to live with that,” Parker said.

It’s a deal, if not quite an amicable one.  As to the exchange, two million in crisp new bank notes for two hundred thousand in more experienced money Parker & Co. can actually spend, Parker says they’ll use the ferry between Orient Point and New London.  Meany’s guy drives onto it with the 200k, somebody else drives if off the ferry, he rides back and forth until the car comes back with the two mil.  Parker can’t get his new ID if Meany doesn’t get the bank money.

(This creates a new level of vulnerability, as Parker noted.  He’s compromising his independent status, and with the very type of organization he’s fought two bloody wars with in past. But, you could argue, Meany already sent a hit man to the house at Colliver Pond, a few years back. He’s already got a handle on Parker, if he wants to  use it.

If Parker can abandon the house, as he might yet have to do, he can abandon a burned identity, and he has, many times before.  Meany knows from personal experience that if you shoot at Parker, you only get to miss once.  He was lucky to survive the last time. And he might have use for Parker in future.  But still–it’s a compromise Parker has never had to make before.  To even pretend to be somebody’s employee.  It’s hard to see how this ends well, but we’ll never see how it ends.)

Parker goes back to Claire, and gets some more money from one of the empty summer houses he uses as safe deposit boxes.  We’re told more than half the money from the racetrack heist is spent–come again?  Parker and Lindahl got a bit under 200k from Gro-More.  Lindahl packed the duffels, while Parker dealt with complications.  Tom was in a hurry, no time to count it out, but it’s hard to figure he would have given Parker much more than half the score, and Parker just gave Robbins 100k. Well, I mentioned the creative accounting already.  I make far worse errors when I’m tired. Some people don’t need to be tired to make fatal errors.

Claire tells Parker McWhitney left a message on their machine–reading between the lines, he’s calling for help.  Oscar Sidd is back, and McWhitney has the money.  If he doesn’t get there soon, the entire deal is shot.  He can feel this pushing the button in his head, the one that makes him kill, but he holds it in check.  He can’t afford a war right now.  But there’s going to be a skirmish.

He just wants a ride to the city, but Claire insists on driving him to Long Island–have to get to the bar before it closes.  He tells her to drop him off a block away.  She tells him she’ll have dinner in Manhattan, maybe catch a late movie, and he can call her cell if he needs anything.  It’s becoming increasingly clear Parker is the only person he knows who doesn’t have a cellphone yet.

He’s come heeled, but with his usual minimalist flair.  The final gun image.


(Beretta Bobcat .22, fires seven shots, weights twelve ounces.  Considered a ladies gun in some circles. Parker never moved in those circles.  Keeps it in a box of Bisquick.  Well, that tracks.  Imagine, if you will, how small it would look in his hand.  Just a tool to him.  Second Amendment?  What’s that?)

The bar is called McW, and it’s never been a runaway success, which is why the man it’s named after keeps resorting to armed robbery.  Parker can see some guys waiting outside in a Chevy Tahoe.  Waiting for the bar to close.  He wants to go over there and start shooting.  He controls it. He goes inside.

Other than McWhitney, there were four men in the bar.  On two stools toward the rear were a pair of fortyish guys in baseball caps, unzippered vinyl jackets, baggy jeans with streaks of plaster dust, and paint-streaked work boots; construction men extending the after-work beer a little too long, by the slow-motion way they talked and lifted their glasses and nodded their heads.

Closer along the bar was an older man in a snap-brim hat and light gray topcoat over a dark suit, with a small pepper-and-salt dog curled up asleep under the stool beneath him as he nursed a bronze-colored drink in a short squat glass and slowly read the New York Sun; a dog walker with an evening to kill.

(That could be me, except for the topcoat, the suit, the snap-brim hat, and I generally prefer a big dog.  Anyway, they don’t let dogs inside the bars in New York anymore.  And I wouldn’t use the Sun to wrap fish, even if it still existed outside cyberspace.  But there’s a time-stamp for you, if you care–that ill-fated rag started up in April 2002, folded a few months before Westlake did.  We already knew this story began after 9/11.  Not long after, going by the rapid response to the bank heist.  Fall of ’02 at the earliest, ’03 at the latest.  That’s where this Triptych begins and ends.)

Parker sees a heavy-set guy sitting alone at a table, in a tweed sports jacket, nursing a glass of club soda.  He’s not making it hard.  Parker tells Nelson he’ll have a beer, and sits down across from the guy.  You can see their initial exchange up top.  You can imagine how it would feel to have an angry Parker staring at you across a table, then shoving a gun into your ribs.  If the guy doesn’t wet himself, it’s only because he’s not drinking beer.

McWhitney comes over, and Parker tells him to take the guy’s gun out of his coat–a .357 Glock.  Size doesn’t matter, if you don’t know how to use it.  Or when.

The inside man being neutralized, McWhitney closes up.  When the coast is clear, Parker goes outside to the Tahoe, and shoots Oscar Sidd dead with the Glock.  The two guys with him decline to take exception to this.  Parker goes back inside, tells the heavy-set man that Oscar’s lying outside with a slug from his gun in him; he might want to do something about that, in case the cops show up.

Parker asks to use McWhitney’s phone, and calls Claire’s cell.  With bridge & tunnel traffic what it is, she’s probably not even  halfway to the city.  Tells her to come back, they’ll have dinner in the area, spend the night.  He’s not angry anymore.  (Horny, one would guess, but Claire can attend to that.)

Next morning, Parker goes to the bar, which is closed, but Nels is there anyway.  He’s reading the Daily News (that’s still around).  Also watching the TV news.  They just found Nick’s body in MA (and a few boxes of cash hidden under hymnals, though they don’t mention that).  So basically, Part Four has all been one long final Stark Rewind.  And it’s not done yet.

Nels is nervous.  About the hymn books he still has, about the truck with Holy Redeemer Choir painted on it, about anything that could link him to what happened over there.  So they deal with all that.  The gent who painted the words on the van is just as happy to paint them out again, no questions asked.  They pack the cash in Hefty bags, and the time passes amicably.  Time to get to the ferry soon.  Five chapters left.

McWhitney didn’t like they were bringing Sandra in for the exchange, but Parker wants somebody on their team who Meany’s people don’t already know about.  He doesn’t say out loud that she’s smarter and more effective than Nels, but that goes without saying at this point. It also helps that they have each others’ cell numbers, and again, Sandra warns of a tail–Oscar’s dead, but the people he brought in as back up aren’t ready to give up yet.

The exchange on the ferry goes fine.  Much smoother than a different mob-related exchange on an elevated subway platform–how many years ago?  Just about forty, going by the calendar, but Parker never paid much attention to those.

Job’s finally done.  They’ve got 200k in cash they can spend.  Parker can get his new ID stamped by Cosmopolitan.  Nels can just tend bar for a while (and maybe become Parker’s new mailbox?)  Sandra can wait for her reward money for Harbin’s body, and spend quality time with her girlfriend on Cape Cod.  And you didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?  Not after twenty-four novels.  Three chapters left.

McWhitney has the cash, and figuring to throw the hounds off the trail, says he’ll drive to his place the long way around from Connecticut, while Parker and Sandra take the ferry back to Long Island, and give Meany’s guy his Subaru with the bank money, completing the transaction.  Since the other guys are on the ferry, waiting their chance–oh damn–they got off.  They’re going after Nels.  And they still think he’s got millions.

McWhitney’s not answering his cell.  Sandra’s disgusted, ready to give up.  But there’s one possible way to track these guys–both the Chevy SUVs they used had dealer plates.  They’ve got an in with a dealership.  And Sandra always writes down the license number of any car that takes her interest.  Professional habit.  And she’s got contacts at the DMV.  DeRienzo Chevrolet, Long Island Avenue, Deer Park.

They’ll go over there, have some more diner food, maybe talk a bit more about frozen lakes, and wait for the Chevy to get dropped off.

Sandra frowned at the slow-moving traffic all around the.  They wouldn’t get clear of this herd from the ferry for another half hour or more, when they reached the beginning of the Expressway.  “You’re a strange guy to partner with,” she said.

“So are you.”

“Do me a favor.  Don’t kill anybody.”

“We’ll see.”

This dialogue’s a little too playful, too odd couple buddy action movie for me–Parker as played by Bruce Willis or George Clooney, Sandra maybe Michelle Pfeiffer or Kim Basinger–but hey, that could be fun.  Two chapters left.

When they go into the dealership, they pose as a married couple, looking for a family car, and you know Sandra’s the one selling it.  But seriously, how is this a place some two-bit wiseguys would be able to just show up and and borrow brand new rides with dealer plates to commit crimes with?  Let me just Google ‘organized crime, car dealerships, Long Is–man, that wasn’t hard at all.

Half a dozen car dealers were clustered along both sides of the wide road in this neighborhood, all of them proclaiming, either by banner or by neon sign, OPEN TIL 9!  All the dealerships were lit up like football stadiums, and in that glare the sheets of glass and chrome they featured all sparkled like treasure chests.  This was the heart of car country, servicing the afterwork automotive needs of the bedroom communities.

(And certain other communities, but they don’t put that in the TV ads.)

They wait around almost an hour before the Chevy Suburban shows, and much to their surprise, Nelson’s in the car, still alive.  Parker, the great detective, making his last bow, figures it out.  Sidd told them it was two million bucks.  Nels only had 200k.  They want him to tell them where the rest is.

Here’s the one problem with Sandra.  For all her talk before about how there’s no street, no line for her to cross, she still got raised respectably enough to go to college, she’s at least as much cop as crook, and she doesn’t want to cross the line between crook and killer, if she can help it.  She’d rather just watch the rough stuff, like she did the night of the armored car heist, then pitch in, and lose her cherry.  At some point, she’s going to have to choose, but for the present, Parker tells her to get the car.

McWhitney, no maiden he, makes his move before he sees Parker and Sandra, hitting two of the three guys, and going for the second one’s pistol (this is the same portly guy from the other night, who Parker humiliated–same gun too). The driver fires his gun in the air.  The salesman starts yelling “Not the model!”

Parker grazes the ear of the bulky guy with the Bobcat, McWhitney shoots one of his captors with the captured Glock, gets in the Suburban and drives.  Sandra picks up Parker in her Honda, and they leave, with the salesman still screaming about the damn model.  McWhitney’s headed back to his bar, probably still having no idea who just saved his ass.

They follow, but they don’t know Long Island that well, and may be the last to arrive on the scene.  If you’ve ever been to Long Island, this is totally believable.

Final chapter.  Up ahead of them, Nelson gets out of sight in the traffic.  Behind them, Parker spots the two remaining hoods in their own car (their deal with the dealership is presumably shot to hell, much like the dealership itself).  They seem to be taking a shortcut, and now all Parker and Sandra can do, without the aid of GPS, is get to the bar soon as they can, hope it’s not too late.

It’s all dark on the block when they get there.  The Suburban is parked outside.   The place is locked up, but Sandra’s got a set of lockpicks.  She took a class. Bit out of practice, but she gets them in.  They creep through cautiously, and they can hear Nels being interrogated.  If that’s the word.  Their idea seems to be ‘make him tell us where the  rest of the money is, tell him we’ll give him a share, then his share is a bullet.’  Nels isn’t that dumb.  He passes out.

One of them goes out to get water to revive him, Parker clubs him with the Bobcat, which for all its virtues, isn’t the right tool for that task.  Violence follows.  You’ve seen it before. Sandra tells Parker not to kill anyone if he doesn’t have to.  He already knows that, but guess what?

The bulky guy’s name is apparently Mike.  You know, the one Parker told at the bar that a fat body makes a good silencer if you press the gun right up against it. Right again. Good to know. The other one’s tied up.  Less than two pages left.  One last quote.

“Let’s see what Nels looks like.”

He didn’t look good, but he looked alive, and even groggily awake.  The two guys working him over had been eager but not professional, which meant they could bruise him and make him hurt, but couldn’t do more permanent damage unless they accidentally killed him.  For instance, he still had all his fingernails.

Parker lifted him to his feet, saying “Can you walk?”

“Uuhh.  Where…”

With Parker’s help, McWhitney walked slowly toward the bedroom, as Parker told him, “One of them’s dead in the bar, the other one’s alive right there.  Tomorrow, you can deal with them both.  Right now, you lie down.  Sandra and me’ll split the money and get out of here.”

He helped McWhitney to lie back on the bed, then said to Sandra, “If we do this right, you can get me to Claire’s place by two in the morning.”

“What a good person I am.”

“If you leave me here,” the guy on the floor said, “he’ll kill me tomorrow morning.”

Parker looked at him. “So you’ve still got tonight,” he said.

That’s right.  And that’s all.

So many more questions than answers here.

Greg and I were sort of going round and round in the comments section about this one.  It doesn’t feel like a finale.  So many balls still in the air, many of which only got up there in the very last part of the book.  So yes, it does feel like there’s much more coming.  This dance is not done.

But that final line.  That feels like somebody who knows he’s writing on borrowed time.  And the loan’s about to come due.  And the repo man is parked outside.  That’s how it feels.  That’s how it’s supposed to feel.

Butcher’s Moon was one of the greatest finishes any series ever had, and I don’t just mean crime novels, and I don’t just mean print fiction, and I’m not sure I even need the qualifier.  And yet, decades later, came eight more novels, and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on one of them, even Flashfire.  Westlake always said he never meant Butcher’s Moon to be the last one.  It was the last one until the next one, is all.

This finish, by contrast, is quite tame and uncertain by comparison.  And yet it feels more final, if only because we know–it’s the last one.  And we can only decide for ourselves how the story ends, or if.  Abrupt inconclusive conclusions were a Westlake trademark, that Stark shared with him, and this is no exception.

I see Sandra driving Parker back to Colliver Pond.  They head down the LIE (I didn’t pick that acronym), threading the needle through the heart of the city Donald Westlake first saw light in, until they pass the sign saying “Last Exit in New York.”  You miss that turn-off, and guess what?  You’re on the George Washington Bridge.  Next stop New Jersey.

Parker’s eyes are dark, unreadable.  What is he thinking about?  Is he remembering a different trip across that bridge?   Back when he couldn’t afford a car?  But you know, probably not.  You or I would be remembering, so we project that on him.  We think we’re identifying with him.  We think it’s the same thing.

The lights of the city recede behind them, as they head into the northwestern corner of that very misunderstood state.  The sign says “Welcome To Sussex County” and before long they’re at the house.  Claire’s outlined in the doorway as they pull up.  Sandra called her cell.

A brief friendly chat, an offer of sustenance passed up, and Sandra’s headed back to her own Claire, on Cape Cod, with her share.  Her cherry still intact, but for how much longer?  Domesticated on the outside, wild on the inside.  How you gonna keep her down on the farm, now that she’s seen Paree?

Claire and Parker talk softly, and she goes inside.  He puts his split in the garage–Robbins will be getting most of it soon. He’ll need that new identity. He’ll need to work again before long. If he had a billion dollars, he’d still need to work. It’s who he is. It’s what he is. It’s all he is.

He goes out back, to look out on the lake.  It’s the middle of the night, dead quiet, no birds or crickets chirping in the cold.  He hears a rustle by the lakeshore, his eyes, quickly adjusted to the darkness, pick up a shape moving towards him.

Four legs. Bushy tail. Long pointed snout. Two sharp-pointed ears. Two yellow eyes, picking up the ambient light, shining at him. Sharp teeth. Grinning at him. He grins back.  They converse. Without words. Only humans need words.

How’s the hunting been on your side?

Not bad.  Just ate a cat.  Easy kill.  House pet.  I think maybe they turned it loose before they left. Where do they go in the winter, anyway?

Oh, other places.  Cities.  Full of light and noise.  Some of your folk are there too.  You’re better off here, I think.  

No doubt.  But you have to make a living, wherever you are.   You back from a hunt?

Yeah.  A hard one.  Complicated.  It’s always complicated with them.  They don’t know anything about themselves.  But they think they know everything.

Tell me about it.  You think they’ll last much longer? 

Maybe not.  

I, for one, would not miss them.  But I’d miss their cats. And the little dogs. Tasty.

Saw one just the other day you’d have enjoyed.  The big ones can be dangerous, though.

Yeah, I avoid them. Best be on my way. My mate’s waiting.

Mine too.  Good hunting.

Any hunt you survive is good.

That’s right.

They grin again, and the shape fades into the trees.  Parker walks to the back porch door, opens it, is about to go inside.

Then he turns.  He looks around.  Looks right in our direction.  Oh God. He can see us.

He studies us a moment.  He’s thinking to himself. Deciding whether we need to die or not.  Are we a threat?  Nah.  Harmless.  We just like to watch.

There’s amusement in his gaze. Maybe more like contempt.

I hope you people had fun with your words.  No more words now.  Good Night.

And for the very last time, he shuts the door in our faces.

Postscript: That cover image up top, below the two German editions for this book, is the first German edition of The Hunter.  Title translates to Now We’re Even.  Sehr gut! Though personally, I never saw Parker as Cary Grant.  Which begs a question, I suppose.  How do we see him?  Who do we cast in the movie playing in our heads?

Before I get to the next book in our queue–the last book in our queue–why don’t we talk about that a bit.  After all, we still have tonight.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)



Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

49 responses to “Review: Dirty Money, Part 3

  1. Wow. Okay. Yes. (Sorry, till processing. I can’t believe we’ve come to the end of Parker, but here we are.)

    Okay, coupla things to start.

    Stark calls it a phone booth when he first describes it, but for the second Mackey call, it’s described as “the phone-on-a-stick,” which seems more period appropriate.


    “I’ll bring the money in,” Parker said, and went outside, where Claire lowered the passenger window so he could lean in an say, “It’s gonna be all right. We’re still happy with the name?”

    “I am. You want the money from the trunk?”


    This more than anything makes me think that Westlake saw this as a potential finale — the fact that he doesn’t disclose Parker’s new name to us. He’s always shared Parker’s aliases. But not this time. This time, he draws the curtain. Parker’s still going to be out there, doing his thing, but we’re not going to be privy to it anymore.

    Adios, Parker, or whatever your name is now.

    • A phone on a stick is not a booth. I think he went back and forth on that. He wasn’t happy with the new payphones. Nobody was, really (especially Clark Kent). And none of them work anymore. I can buy there were still a few left in the early 21st, out in the wilds of New Jersey. Hell, birdwatching out in that part of the state, back around that time, we passed a drive-in movie theater. Two screens! I think Jimmy Hoffa was running it. Or maybe Judge Crater.

      It is interesting about the name, but he’s still going to be Parker to his friends. Or would be, if he had any. Actually, does Claire ever call him by any name? And is she going to change her name from Willis now? She took that name to be part of his past from before he knew her. Now she could take his new name to be part of the future he may or may not have. I do think they both better keep an eye peeled in the direction of Bayonne.

      I think he saw all of them as potential finales towards the end. Before that, even–he may have seen Butcher’s Moon as a potential finale, even though he didn’t expressly write it as such. He was already having problems with the style–that book is structured oddly for a Parker novel. It’s a better finale than this, and A Jade In Aries would have been a better finale than Don’t Lie to Me, and What’s The Worst That Could Happen? would have been a better finale than any of the Dortmunders that followed, and there probably shouldn’t have been another Joslyn book, and Grofield’s final scene didn’t even happen in a Grofield.

      He never ended any of his series with a real bang, with the arguable exception of the Holts (and he had a few more in mind before he gave up on Holt entirely).

      The frailer he got, the more he knew that every time he started a new book, he might not finish it. Every time but the last time. So whatever his intentions, that sense of mortality burns through. And makes the work so much more precious to him. As it should be to us.

      This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
      To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

      So never mind about tidy endings. They only exist in fiction anyway.

  2. The actor Danny Trejo has always struck me as somewhat Parkeresque, “molded of brown clay by a sculptor who thought big and liked veins.” But Parker is clearly white, judging by his ability to withstand cursory police scrutiny on several occasions. I could see Trejo playing a Latino equivalent of Parker, however. He has played various Latino equivalents.

    • He has, but I can’t see Parker with a handlebar mustache. Or tattoos. I mean, he just wouldn’t get the point. You’re a criminal and you want to make yourself easier to identify?

      I have my list, and I’ll share it with you guys, and you can share yours with mine. Just delaying the inevitable. So’s breathing.

      • The fact is, there aren’t a lot of contemporary actors — or rather, movie stars — who fall into the Parker mold. He’s always been an anachronism, but movie stardom has taken a decidedly different direction in recent decades. It’s either chiseled hardbodies like Dwayne Johnson, which Parker is not; or else its doughy man-children like Seth Rogen, which is even further off the mark. I’m curious to see your list.

  3. A contemporary actor who could play Parker?

    Michael Shannon.

    • I’ve thought of him, naturally. And you know, the name doesn’t hurt.

      But the problem with good actors, you know, is that they want to act. Shannon’s a very good actor, and a very busy one. He’s not going to want to do what Lee Marvin did, just show us a blank expression, let us read what we want into it. Marvin was a great actor, but also an exceptionally confident one, with the kind of face that comes along once in a generation, and life experience most modern over-trained stars simply don’t have. He knew when not to act.

      That’s why Duvall failed, not because he was short and bald and playing Parker as a hillbilly heister (though that didn’t help matters any.) Because he couldn’t see the character, so he created one of his own, gave him feelings, motivations, that were alien to Parker.

      Probably the closest Shannon got to what I’d want is in The Iceman. I’ve only seen bits of it. It’s never on cable. Not a successful film. I did see him in that movie about bike messengers (which also flopped), and he was funny in that. If he weren’t so big and scary-looking, I’d consider him for Dortmunder. He’d look small next to my pick for Tiny (Paul Wight, aka Big Show), so might work.

      I’m not saying you’d want a bad actor. Just somebody with the right face and form, who would be willing to go full minimalist–willing to suggest the character, respect his mysteries, his nuances, his outer (and sometimes inner) blankness. It’s not a role anybody ought to be winning awards for. It’s more important than that.

      But if we’re talking name actors, today, he’d be one of the few possibles.

      That’s not what I’m going to be talking about. I’m not casting anybody in jackspit, so I’m free to do whatever the hell I want. 😉

      • Westlake famously saw Jack Palance in the role, of course. Personally, Palance doesn’t seem like the best fit for me. Maybe for the more explosive character we see in The Hunter, but not for the character Parker evolved into.

        • If they had faithfully turned all the books into movies, one by one, starting with Palance playing him in The Hunter, leading into The Mask (fits on a marquee better, as has been subsequently proven)–do I even have to complete that thought?

          If they ever did a cable series, I’d think the only way to do it would be to use prosthetic makeup for The Hunter (very scary prosthetic makeup), and then Dr. Adler would simply remove it. Leaving a face that would, one hopes, still be intimidating, but more covertly so.

          Which could be amazing, but how’d you like to pitch that to a network?

  4. John O'Leary

    I think a cable series based on the Final Three would work. Fargo has sort of run out of steam but doing something similar in concept in the Northeast instead of the Midwest would be interesting. Parker running up the hill pursued by cops and hounds and Tom Lindahl driving off for parts unknown are perfect episode endings. The final ending would need to be jazzed up a bit though. Maybe Jeffrey Dean Morgan as McWhitney warming up with his baseball bat.

    • Oh, I don’t know, he might want a little break from batting practice, after he’s done with his latest gig. Paul Giamatti would be more to my liking, but he’s still putting uppity billionaires in jail. Anyway, he’s awful smart to be playing somebody that dumb.

      The problem with this kind of casting-related conversation, is that we have to use familiar names to even discuss who we’d like, but the best actor for a role is often unknown until he/she gets it.

      A cable series based on the Triptych would be pretty short, don’t you think? What, are we doing this 24 style? I don’t see any point in a series that doesn’t start with The Hunter, and work its way through everything–maybe even the Grofields. Assuming they did a good job casting Grofield, and he shouldn’t be that hard.

      But you make a good point. Us noreasters can be just as inbred, criminal and violent as those dust bowlers out west, or those hillbillies down south. The Sopranos was better than any of those shows, but why let the Italians have all the fun? They already have the best food.

      For whatever reason, I’ve never cottoned much to any version of Fargo. Loved Justified. I don’t think it’s all that much like what Leonard wrote. They adapted him with respect, but without reverence, which is all a crime writer can ask for. As long as the check clears.

      • mikesschilling

        “So you’ve still got tonight” is really not that different from “Look on the bright side–this way you have an always.” Or, to say it another way, Parker is never far from questions of mortality.

        • Some of the books end on an optimistic note. Well, maybe that’s not quite the word. When I have time to get all of them together, maybe an article on final lines. Most of them don’t end with Parker saying something. To some extent, he’s simplifying that parting line from Flashfire, and making it darker.

          This book has other things in common with Flashfire. Parker partners with a smart sexy blonde he’s not going to sleep with (of course, now Claire is a smart sexy blonde, which still bugs me, when’s the last brunette in this series?). This one doesn’t have to strip for him, and is much more like him than Leslie (or anyone else we’ve met so far).

          He’s out to kill somebody he worked with who didn’t betray him, and this time he does. Finally crosses that line. Wonder how many more he’d have crossed if there had been a few more books. Still not as shocking as The Jugger, but that wasn’t a colleague. We got to know Nick. He’s very professional, quite likable. This wouldn’t have happened in the early books. Stark’s romanticism is waning.

          The reference to Norte is deliberate. Motivated by his anger at the Gaudy Trio, Parker took some big chances, acquired a lot of money in a hurry, and then used it to build a new identity that could survive scrutiny in an enclave like Palm Beach. (Of course, he also learned that a savvy real estate agent could pierce that identity with a careful internet search–he might want to talk to Larry Lloyd about that.)

          It’s been a few years since the events of Flashfire, and he’s still using standard fake ID. It took having his John B. Allen identity burned to make him call Mackey for a new guy (who is an improvement on Norte).

          Parker is conservative in the way he reacts to change. He’ll upgrade his tradecraft as necessary, but he doesn’t like to. He still doesn’t have a cellphone. He wants to understand both the strengths and liabilities of new tech before he uses it. Not an early adopter. Unlike Dortmunder, he doesn’t kvetch about it, but it bothers him just as much.

          There’s a smart cop in Flashfire, and there are two in the Triptych (Reversa being the smarter one), but this time Parker can’t cut a deal. He actually committed major felonies in their jurisdictions, and there’s nobody they’d want more than him. On the whole, I think Farley was a better character. More human, flawed, while still a pro. Modale and Reversa are okay, but lack interesting quirks. Can’t find anything that interesting for them to do. They feel like TV cops.

          He’s tinkering, trying to improve on things he’d done before, succeeding in some cases, not in others. He’d have gone on doing that. If he’d been granted the time.

      • mikesschilling

        Jon Hamm as Grofield. He’s got the range and the looks, and we know for sure he can play promiscuous.

        • Yeah, but can he play second banana? If Hamm’s Grofield, the show/film/whatever is about Grofield. There is nobody out there of Hamm’s stature who could play Parker. Hamm could play Grofield if they adapted the Grofield novels alone, but who’s going to do that? He’s not young enough to play the callow journeyman thief in The Score. But he’s got the right look, absolutely.

          I still want Alan Alda as Grofield. Just stick him in one of those de-aging machines the government is keeping from us. Bastards. 😐

  5. As long as we’re de-aging, I’ve always seen a young Kevin Kline as Grofield.

    • mikesschilling

      Absolutely. He’d be perfect.

      • If he could be placed in the secret government de-aging machine.

        And now, I am grieved to state, I must relinquish that fantasy, since if the government had such a machine, our President’s outward age and mental age would match perfectly. Because you know he’d insist they turn it all the way up, and would refuse to listen to reason on the matter. A knotty constitutional issue for the Supreme Court. Averted by the nonexistence of such technology. ::sigh::

    • You go to your average Hollywood shindig. You throw a rock. You hit a Grofield. He’s not hard to cast. Another truckload of Grofields descends on tinseltown every other week. Of course, the one we want is the one who despises Hollywood, refuses to sell out. Okay, so maybe he is hard to cast. Would a Grofield novel work on stage, you think? 😐

      Parker is nigh-impossible. They had beginner’s luck with Lee Marvin, but Marvin came with a lot of issues, as I’m preparing to discuss. The French had beginner’s luck too (if you don’t count Karina, she’s not the main problem with that movie anyhow), and threw it away. Quel dommage.

      Again, my goal in the upcoming piece, that I’m writing to avoid having to deal with the fact I’ve run out of books, is not who could play Parker in the future. Much more about who could have played him in some alternate past.

  6. John O'Leary

    How about Kevin Durand for Parker? From his IMDB entry:
    “Due to his towering, muscular frame, he frequently plays imposing thugs and law enforcement types.”

    • I wouldn’t be opposed. Thing is, I’ve only ever seen him as Fet on The Strain. He was good in that, but as the tough wiseass sidekick. He’d be great for a Stark adaptation, but could he play Parker? Doesn’t look like we’re ever even going to see that Dortmunder series they were talking about. After “Parker” this is about as theoretical a discussion as one could have.

      I think he’d definitely work for the vibes above nylons thing. Could he rein himself in enough to play a character as opaque as Parker usually is?

      He’s in his 40’s, so the option’s going to expire before long, if we’re talking about a complete adaptation. And if you only do one or two books, I don’t see how you ever get the character across. Either he’s softened up, or they make him Hannibal Lector only he steals and doesn’t eat people. You don’t want to take the wolf thing too literally.

    • mikesschilling

      I just don’t think of Parker as a seven-foot-tall black guy.

      • Different Durand. Assuming that’s what you mean. I don’t watch basketball either. Or baseball, though I like movies about it. I only like sports movies if there are hot chicks in them. Mirror mirror on the wall, I am the nerdiest one of all.

        I don’t know if the 6’6 white guy we’re actually talking about has the gravitas. But who am I to judge? I was thinking maybe Joe Manganiello. Mainly because he’s already played a wolf, and he reportedly knows how to throw knives. And he’s not a big enough star to throw his weight around. But if he wants to cast Sofia Vergara as Claire, he’s out, man. And he’s got to quit doing those stripper movies.

  7. Oh God DAMN.

    Joseph Albert.

    The name of the power behind Meany. The shadowy overlord we never meet in either book he’s referenced in. Who tells Meany that if wants to deal with a son of a bitch like Parker, it’s up to him.

    Albert Joseph.

    The name of Westlake’s father.

    Sometimes you get so locked into finding the subtler clues, you miss the ones staring you right in the face. Purloined letters.

    The implications are mindblowing.

  8. Not sure how this happened, but the cover for the first German edition of The Hunter I used up top is also the cover for the first American edition of the second Matt Helm novel, The Wrecking Crew.

    I’d assume the Helm novel used it first (among other things, trenchcoats are not really Parker’s style). And I very much doubt any Matt Helm novel is half as good as The Hunter, but I should probably read some of those sometime.

  9. Just did finish Dirty Money. A few details I enjoyed: knowing Tom makes it – leaves his car in Lex, Ky and buses to LA or Portland home free (sort of); the free-lance writer gonna write a book. To my memory, he’s the only book writer that makes an appearance in the series; Gwen and Sandra are back – I think you’re right – Parker might not be so lucky if someone like Regan instead of Gwen was around; glad to see Red make it alive – thought sure he was gonna get it at the end.

    I think you’re right – the new identity, the new Bayonne connection has the feel of a set up for more Parker novels. ——————– I have to take a break and reread & listen to the series in the spring. Thanks again for your analysis. Most helpful.

    • If I make my reviews so long, it’s partly because I didn’t really want to reach the end–but as with all stories, you do eventually run out of plot. These books are eminently re-readable and there are always new depths to plumb.

      Btw, Richard Stark is himself a minor character in the Dortmunder novel Jimmy the Kid, where the Dortmunder gang use a Parker novel as the blueprint for a kidnapping. It’s not a real Parker novel, and of course Parker wouldn’t do a kidnapping (too messy, and the law comes at you really hard for that), but it’s still a damn funny book. Westlake wrote a lot of his best stuff under his own name. You don’t have to stop with Stark.

  10. And so it’s come to this, the final Parker installment. I have to say, I ended up feeling rather cold by the end. Dirty Money’s certainly not bad, hell, it’s actually rather good. But as the finale for such a phenomenal series…well, it sure feels like an ending by default, as opposed to one by design. Meaning, yes, I still feel Nobody Runs Forever would’ve been a better capper to the series.

    Again, I understand all the reasons why it wasn’t the finale, and I am glad it ultimately wasn’t, if for no other reason than because it meant we got to read Ask The Parrot. But there’s a certain Starkian triumph to Nobody Runs Forever’s conclusion that I feel Dirty Money lacks. Yes, Parker’s on the lam from the law. Yes, they’re a lot closer to catching him than ever before. Yes, there’s a very likely chance Parker’s gonna get caught this time, and he’s aware of it. But none of that means he has to make it easy for those fuckers. And so Parker keeps running, despite the odds. Because that’s who he is. Compare this with the conclusion of Dirty Money, which in all fairness, is also true to Parker’s character and is fairly fitting. But it’s not quite as impactful, I feel. Or hell, I really like the alternate ending you wrote up in your review, and I think that would have been a much more fitting conclusion.

    But I repeat myself. Since we’re here, I might as well get my other big critique out of the way:

    I really like Nick Dalesia’s arc here, it’s a fantastic deconstruction of previous Parker’s side characters like Alan Grofield and Handy McKay. But there’s two things holding it back from being 100% perfect. For one, I feel the decline of Nick’s partnership with Parker and Nelson was a bit rushed. The reasoning for Parker and Nelson already abandoning Nick, as well as Nick’s reasoning for turning on them, was solid. I just think it would have felt more organic if, say, Nick tried to contact Parker and/or Nelson, only for them to coldly tell him the partnership’s off.

    Secondly, as I mentioned, Dalesia’s arc is a fantastically brutal deconstruction of Parker’s previous sidekicks like Handy McKay…so why wasn’t he just Handy? As you yourself pointed out, Nick is obviously meant to evoke him, but I can’t help feeling the meaning of Nick’s arc would have been more impactful had it actually been Handy, or Grofield, or even just someone like Dan Wyzca. Unlike Nick, who only appeared once in the first sixteen as essentially a named piece of cannon fodder, the other heisters I mentioned have history, defined personalities, long standing relationships with Parker…all of which would serve to make the conclusion hit even harder because it means jack fucking shit to him.

    Ok. Critiques are out of the way. Let’s talk about the good shit this book has to offer, because there’s a lot!

    For one, this is where I stopped “liking” Sandra and started “loving” her (…no, not that way). Or, perhaps I should say, this book cemented Sandra as a kickass character for me. The big thing I really appreciate about her appearance this time is that Westlake added more references to her sexuality. As you may recall, I was rather ambivalent towards Sandra’s status as an LGBTQ+ character because there wasn’t much detail about it. Here, while still not the focus of Sandra’s character, her queerness does pop up more in the story, like when she makes appreciative commentary about Claire, or how she explicitly tells Parker she’s not leaving the ferry yet because of all the hot ladies on it. It’s not much, but I still appreciate Westlake allowing Sandra to be a naughty pervert, it’s great. I too loved the frozen lake analogy Sandra gave to Parker and, if I can be a bit political, it’s also not a bad analogy for life as a queer person, especially during the time Dirty Money was written. And I’m not entirely certain that’s a coincidence.

    I’m delighted you brought up the rapport between Sandra and Nelson, because I felt it was a highlight of the book. For a pair of people the book explicitly states would kill each other after prolonged exposure, they sure have fantastic chemistry together. I would read the shit out of a Sandra and Nelson spinoff book.

    Speaking of, Nelson’s appearance here was fun as well. I think he had potential to be a great supporting character had Westlake been able to write more installments.

    I’m happy that Claire got to be fairly prominent for one last time. She still didn’t do much, but it’s always nice when we get Parker and Claire interacting with one another.

    Frank Meany’s return was a welcome sight. It’s funny how, despite being completely separate from other humans, Parker sure is fun to read when he’s interacting with them.

    And finally, while I think his arc had room for improvement, I still absolutely adored Nick Dalesia’s subplot, here. The fact that the book glosses over his death by Parker’s hands is the most chilling part of the story.

    Overall, Dirty Money is a rather good tale with the unfortunate baggage of being the last Parker ever written. I wonder if I’d think higher of the book had there been one more installment or two.

    • Yeah, but the whistle blew. And that author never submits to edits. (Presumably neither does Stephen King, but it’s been a long time since I read anything by him).

      One possible answer would have been to continue the series under different authorship, and I reject that out of hand–no ghost bands. Jesus, Frank Herbert died over 35 years ago, and they’re still beating that dead sandworm. I respect the Westlakes for not going there, and they could have. Though I guess it helped that none of the books were best-sellers, and the movies mainly flopped.

      The ending is flawed, and honestly, I feel like nearly all endings are, in fiction and in life. You can write a near-perfect short story, novellas are a bit trickier, novels are nigh-impossible (Dickens, Twain, Tolstoy–none of them ever completely stuck the landing), but a series of novels? Amazing this 24 book epic holds up as well as it does. All the more since Westlake was dying when he wrote the last one (whether he knew that or not, and I think he did–I think he felt it in his bones, and that’s why he was in Mexico when it happened. Upstate boys never stop looking to escape the cold–Vaya con dios).

      The best answer I can give is that it’s not written as an ending. It’s a pivot to nowhere, as I said in my review. Parker’s story continued, but we’ll never read it. We’ll never know how his story ends, so it never does. He’s still out there, hunting, and being hunted. So’s the coyote, who you can find almost anywhere you look–or the fox. They’ll be around to eat the last humans. The wolf? We’ll see.

      I appreciate the compliment, but I wouldn’t want that little flight of fancy I typed to be used in a book. It would be making the implicit explicit, which would be breaking the rules–fine for a mere kibitzer like myself. I did enjoy writing it. And I kept it short. (When I write Dortmunder fic, I stretch out more–the rules are different there.)

      Why not Handy or someone else? I guess for the same reason Grofield doesn’t die in Butcher’s Moon. Stark would have done it, because he’s Shiva. Westlake is Vishnu, seeks always to preserve whoever he can. He hated killing his kids, particularly those he’d lavished a bit more attention on. Did it very rarely, so he offered Dalesia as an alternate sacrifice (a ram with his horns entangled in a bush)–someone he (and we) are less attached to, barely remember–one of the more disposable offspring. But clearly evoking Handy, among others.

      Tolstoy, when you think about it, killed very few of his major characters, as did Dickens. Attachment is a thing with creators. Maybe that’s why we’re still here. For a while. Just keep running. Every time but the last time. 😉

      • I would have zero interest in a zombie Parker series. None. That said, if somebody wanted to pay me to write them, I’d happily take their money. (I’d just never ask you or anybody else here to read them.)

        • My sense is, if it was going to happen, it already would have. Of course, if there was a hit movie, or a long-running series–anybody heard from Robert Downey Jr. lately? Neither his Wiki page nor his IMDb page list it even as a theoretical project. And his dance card looks mighty full. That was never going to work, anyway.

          Call it The Curse of Richard Stark. Do it right, or he’ll do you wrong. 😉

  11. I agree with your assessment of Nick’s arc, and how much more powerful it would have been if Parker and Nelson had rejected him first, and he’d been someone Parker (and we) had known a little better. I can’t see Handy working in the role because he’s already come out of retirement once, and his arc seemed pretty well finished before the time jump. And I can’t imagine Westlake allowing Stark of off Grofield in such a manner. Dan Wyzca seems a little big for Parker to be silently killing with his hands, but maybe; Parker’s pretty strong. Mike Carlow might work. He could die thinking about the perfect racecar, and his death would hit us right in the solar plexus.

    • Now that you mention it, yeah, Mike Carlow would’ve been a great pick for this arc. I mostly picked Handy because, of all the sidekicks, he’s still the one with the most emotional resonance amongst fans (not to mention the times he’s helped Parker just because he likes him and the times Parker’s saved Handy in the past). And for what it’s worth, Butcher’s Moon implies that Handy was gonna stay out of retirement until further notice.

      But yeah, I agree that Mike works damn well as a candidate.

  12. I too loved the frozen lake analogy Sandra gave to Parker and, if I can be a bit political, it’s also not a bad analogy for life as a queer person, especially during the time Dirty Money was written. And I’m not entirely certain that’s a coincidence.

    Neither am I. Westlake included gay characters throughout his career, and he seemed particularly attuned to many of the barriers they had/have to navigate around.

    There’s a moment in the original manuscript for Forever and a Death (back when it was called Fall of the City) that I’m still ticked was excised from the posthumously published book. It occurs when the characters are in Singapore and things have gotten very much out of hand. It’s decided that the local authorities should be engaged. But before that can happen, one of the gay characters, Luther (part of a couple), gently suggests switching rooms with the female protagonist, as homosexuality is a crime in Singapore, punishable by ten years to life in prison. Hard Case snipped that moment right out, inadvertently making it seem as though Westlake had biffed on the true stakes involved.

    • It’s like I said, before: For all his imperfections regarding the subject, I got the impression that Westlake at the very least listened about the struggles of LGBTQ+ people and used that accordingly when writing about queer people.

      And yeah, reading that Hard Case cut that section from the final publication of Forever and a Death annoys me too. I assume they were just tying to trim off what they thought was mere fat.

      • I realize it’s been a lot of work for you, reading and reviewing all 28 Starks in just a few months–enjoyable, I’m sure–but time-consuming. I trust the exercise was instructive in some way.

        When I ran out of Starks, I moved on to Tucker Coe. That’s just five novels. All e-vailable. A different side of Westlake, just as focused as Stark, but on a different frequency. And on that frequency, he wrote an entire book dealing with what we now call The Gay Community, but as I get into in my review, it took Westlake a while to accept that word had been, shall we say, re-assigned. In the meanwhile, he did his best to understand who these people he must have encountered many times in Greenwich Village were, and it’s not perfect by any means–but as one gay reviewer said–emotionally correct.

        And Coe is all about emotions. How they fuck us up, until we learn to face them. If we can. If we dare.

        And yeah, that’s a dare. 😉

    • Hard Case did a great thing, bringing us four unpublished Westlake novels. All but the first needed some work, and I do regret not being able to see the original manuscripts. I seem to recall that the criminal penalties are referenced elsewhere, but that would have been a scene worth keeping, all the same. An unfinished novel is never going to be a seamless whole. You read it to commune one more time with a master storyteller. And the misses are just as instructive as the hits.

      • Agreed. I’m thrilled that they brought it into print, and for the most part, I agree with CA’s edits (many of which were needed), with a couple of exceptions, including the aforementioned snip. I also didn’t much care for him untangling a Stark rewind to tell the story in chronological order. I thought that rewind worked like gangbusters in the original manuscript.

        There were also a couple of changes I noted that CA denied making. I still think I’m right, and that some things were not transcribed perfectly when the manuscript was scanned, but I don’t suppose I’ll ever know for sure.

        Still, as you may surmise, what an experience it was to hold the manuscript in my (white-cotton-gloved) hands, seeing Westlake’s original strike-outs and marginalia. Even had I known the book would eventually see publication, I wouldn’t have missed that experience for the world.

        • And I still haven’t made my way to Boston. ::sigh:: Maybe when I retire. If I retire. Why is the damn archive in Boston, anyway? It’s not as bad as Damon Runyan’s estate being in Austin TX, but still. Zero Westlakes set in Beantown. How offbrand can you get?

  13. And so I’ve finally arrived. I’ve finished the Final Eight and, consequently Parker as a whole. Outside of any hypothetical adaptations, this is the end of the road. (And no, I’m not even gonna count the possibility of someone else writing new books ala Max Allan Collins’ Mike Hammer books.) I feel kinda weird about it honestly. I’m sad that there’s no more obviously…but I’m satisfied for having read them all none the less? It’s like a milestone, honestly.

    Anyway, end of season thoughts:

    This was the era I was most surprised. Going in, I expected two things:

    1. That, aside from some characters and the occasional call back, this new batch would essentially ignore the First Sixteen. They’d still be canon of course, but this new batch wouldn’t really pay attention to them and would act as its own slightly disconnected universe (sort of like how Logan was to the rest of the X-Men films).

    2. That the Final Eight would be lesser than the First Sixteen. None of them would be outright bad but neither would most of them hold a candle to what came before.

    Needless to say, I was wrong on both counts. There was a shit load of references and callbacks and character comebacks in this last batch. And yet, none of it felt like pandering or nostalgia bait. It all felt organic and earned.

    And yeah, as you might have guessed from previous posts, I think the Final Eight (Flashfire excluded obviously) holds up with the rest of the series very well! I’d even put at least two of them in the top ten. Hell, Flashfire isn’t even terrible by the standards of a regular novel. In fact, that there’s only one dud in a series of twenty four installments is a damn impressive feat in and of itself.

    Anyway, I’d describe the Final Eight as: “Oh the times, they are a changin’.” (Cue harmonica)

    Like, even before the Triptych came along, there was a more world weary atmosphere which was even present as far as Comeback. I mostly agree with you so I wont harp too much on this theme.

    I would like to present a theory though. Or, more accurate, some ponderings that won’t leave my head. As we’ve discussed before, Parker’s a bad motherfucker, a real piece of work with no real “outs” for the reader to sympathize with them. However, even from the beginning, there were lines Westlake didn’t want Parker to cross (onscreen anyway), and so he would deliberately avoid putting him in certain situations. This worked for pretty much the entire series but a part of me wonders…I wonder if one potential reason it took so long for Parker to come back was that Westlake kept finding it harder and to harder to keep this balance. To keep Parker as this truly anti-heroic Wolf in human form without having to show the worst of what that entails?

    On further reflection, it feels like that balance has become strained in the Final Eight, especially in installments like Breakout. You could easily explain it way, sure, and Westlake does a good job doing so. But I can’t help but feel the seams starting to part, if that makes sense?

    Does all this sound like a stretch? Eh, probably, but I do think it’s interesting that Butcher’s Moon (the last installment for decades) had a scene where the crew essentially called Parker out for wanting to go to war with the mob to save Grofield, something they note is out of character for him (which itself arguably debatable but I digress).

    Alright, time for my personal ranking of this batch:

    1. Nobody Runs Forever
    2. Ask The Parrot
    3. Breakout
    4. Firebreak
    5. Backflash
    6. Comeback
    7. Dirty Money
    8. Flashfire

    Aaaand, I guess that’s it for Parker. Again, an oddly bittersweet moment. I’m not sure what else there is to say at this point.

    Now, regarding whether I want to cover other Westlake titles next: Funnily enough, I do plan on tackling another Westlake, but it’s not Mitch Tobin (not this time anyway). No, I figured my next stop on the Westlake Canon would be another series character, but this time under his own name. Another thief but this time one who was practically born unlucky. Not a wolf in human form, but maybe a starved coyote?

    Quoth Sondheim:

    “Nothing portentous or polite!
    Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!”

    • I’d be very interested to see your take on Dortmunder. He is the alternate universe Parker, less compelling, more–for want of a better word–lovable. But also much more of an ensemble player. Parker often seems like he’s working alone, even with a large string. What Dortmunder has is more of a troupe. Comedy requires that. Ask Wodehouse. (Westlake did.)

      I think you like outsider types (as do many who appreciate this type of story), and Dortmunder is that, as much as Parker. But I often think Tobin is more on the fringes than either of them.

      My only problem with your list is that Nobody Runs Forever comes first. I can’t rate it that high. Not even with that title. But I can understand why you have it there. Rating things is overrated anyway.

      Many people had problems with Parker wanting to save Grofield in Butcher’s Moon (even though he’d done that in The Handle, and earlier than that he let Grofield take Mary with them in The Score). To me, this paradoxical quality of mercy in Parker is not strained. It keeps him from being just a standard villain promoted to protagonist. Hero/Villain–neither of those templates are ever going to fit him.

      When you watch a nature documentary–who’s the villain? If there is one, it’s down to the producers deciding who the protagonist is, and we the audience are notoriously easy to manipulate. But you just edit it differently, and the audience identifies with whoever was trying to eat the protagonist in the previous documentary. This is how we fictionalize reality, to make it digestible. We can’t handle the notion that maybe there is no hero, no villain.

      Sure, there are real heroes and villains, I could name plenty off the top of my head–but are they really most of what makes the world tick? They’re bit players, cameo roles, walk-ons. We promote them to leads in our head, and identify with them, to feel special, apart from the madding crowd. We humans, always with the drama. There’s zero drama in Parker. Parker never in his life read a work of fiction. He goes to the movies, we’re told, just to lay low–and afterwards he couldn’t tell you a thing about the picture. Dortmunder is pretty much the same way. Because they’re not humans, and it’s just a series of images and sounds. (Dortmunder does read fiction, once. It does not go well. The book does, I think. The heist doesn’t, and that’s all he cares about.)

      Jerry Seinfeld got it abso-effing-right.

      I love these nature shows. I watch any kind of nature show. It’s amazing how you can always relate to what they’re talking about. You’re watching the African dung beetle. You’re going, “Boy, his life is a lot like mine.” You always root for whichever animal’s the star of the show that week. Like if it’s the antelope, and a lion’s chasing the antelope, you go, “Run, antelope, run! Use your speed! Get away!” The next week it’s the lion, and then you go, “Get the antelope! Eat him! Bite his ass! Trap him! Don’t let him use his speed!”

      This is us reading Richard Stark. Trying to make this or that one the hero or the villain. Instead of predator or prey. Stark likes playing with us that way. He understands how we are, since he is human himself. Pretty sure. But there’s enough wolf in him to make it possible to get partly inside Parker’s head, and inside Parker’s head, there’s no good guy, no bad guy. There’s just what you have to do. So do it. He had to save Grofield. So he did it.

      I told you about the hawk, trying to save her mate. You think she learned that from a book or a movie or some ancient myth cycle told by firelight by a griot or shanachie? You think she was imagining herself as Barbara Stanwyck in Jeopardy? (The film, not the game show).

      I kind of think Stanwyck was imagining herself as a wild animal who will do anything to save her mate, but I can’t very well ask her.

      So in this case, I side with the storyteller, not the audience. Stark is right, and we’re wrong. Parker did only what he had to do, and the reason we can know that is–he did it.

      But yes, the balance got tougher to strike as the series wound down. I still don’t think Stark ever slipped from the tightrope. Teetered a bit, then straightened up again. Because there’s no net. Just like there’s no street to be on one side or the other of.

      • Sidenote: When my significant other had finished reading all the Parkers, and looked disgruntled there were no more, I tried to get her into Dortmunder. It didn’t go very far. I have regulars here who are, by contrast, all about Dortmunder, and Parker is an acquired taste they never acquired. Two very distinct tribes, and they are by no means the only two within the ranks of Westlake readers. He literally contains multitudes, and many are the names of his legions. No doubt there are some who only really get into his standalones. But the biggest dividing line is between Parker and Dortmunder people. Even though Dortmunder is just Parker turned sad sack.

        Switch-hitters exist within the readership, and I clearly am one of those. Let’s see how trans you really are. 😉

        • Greg Tulonen

          I’m all in for everything Westlake — Parker, Dortmunder, and everything in between. (Well, I’ll probably never read the Liz Taylor bio.)

          There’s been some talk about how to group the Parkers: Sixteen and eight; or eight, eight, and eight; or eight, four, four, and eight; etc. Personally, I think they group nicely by publisher (with a little multi-publisher juke the end). The Pocket Books era (first eight), the Gold Medal era (the next four), the Random House era (next four), the daisy-chained title era under Mysterious Press (Comeback through Breakout), and the final triptych (under Mysterious Press and Grand Central). So, eight, four, four, five, three. Each “era” saw changes to the book-titling convention and narrative structure changes too as Westlake kept finding new ways to bring us these stories.

          The Pocket Book era is probably my favorite, the purest distillation of the character. But I love them all, and I have series favorites in every era.

          I have a hard time picking series favorites, or ranking all the Parkers. It’s just an embarrassment of riches! But I can sort-of pick out my favorites in each era (though even those are subject to change with each re-read).

          Pocket Books: The Hunter and The Score
          Gold Medal: Green Eagle and Sour Lemon
          Random House: Slayground and Butcher’s Moon
          Mysterious Press (daisy-chain titles): Comeback and Backflash
          Final Triptych: Ask the Parrot

          • You know the pseudonym he used for that Liz Taylor bio ended up being one of Parker’s aliases, right? Slightly different spelling. John B. Allen, instead of John B. Allan. You probably noticed, but just thought I’d mention it. 🙂

            Publisher is probably my preferred method, since he wrote them a bit differently at different houses, responding to the the era, the milieu, and of course the market. However, I find that works better for the First Sixteen than the Final Eight, which were all effectively for the same outfit, that got gobbled up by a larger one. I don’t see much real change there, and Westlake writing as Stark was so well-established by then, he was just going to write what he wanted. Like I group Chaplin shorts by Sennett, Essanay, Mutual, First National, but once he got to United Artists, it didn’t really matter anymore.

            And did it really matter for Dortmunder? It’s harder for us to judge, since Dortmunder was never very long at one publisher, and there’s a lot fewer books. Two at Simon & Schuster, two at M. Evans, one at Viking, eight at Mysterious Press, one for Warner Books, and again, Grand Central–the point of departure.

            Again, there comes a point where the style, the voice, is so well-established, the learning curve flattens out, and you can’t really see much difference. Also the cover art is a lot less memorable. Which might skew one’s impressions a mite.

            And for Westlake readers abroad, it would be an entirely different group of publishers. Often with translators involved (one of whom, Manchette, could rival even Stark at his best). Skewing impressions even more.

            Since we wouldn’t part with nary a one of them, I don’t know as lists matter so much. Like I’ve been watching Rockford Files repeats, and the best eps repeat really well. The worst–meh. So there the lists matter, because I can watch the good ones over and over. And the filler I can just hit the delete button on the DVR. Once I remember which is which. Ay, there’s the rub.

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