Category Archives: Butcher’s Moon

Review: Good Behavior, Part 3 (God help us)

“Lie down with wolves, you get up with toothmarks.”

Frank Ritter sat at his desk in the corner office suite of Margrave Corporation and studied this addition he’d just made to his commonplace book.  Was that truly an aphorism?  Possibly it was merely a low-level epigram, or even, God help us, just a joke. Ritter didn’t like crossing things out in his commonplace book, it made for a sloppy appearance, but this particular statement, well….

In his dream, Dortmunder walked a tightrope between two tall towers.  Instead of a balancing pole, he carried a long heavy lance, tipping first to the left, then to the right. And the tightrope itself was made of long blonde hair.  In the arched window at the top of the stone tower out in front he could see the girl whose hair this was, still attached to her head, long and braided and looped between the two towers; from the strained and painful expression on her face, she didn’t much like what was going on.

The tale is well-known of the Spartan who said to her son as he was going out to battle ‘Come back with your shield–or on it’: for to throw away one’s shield was the ultimate disgrace.  But Archilochus could write cheerfully–setting a literary fashion that Horace followed more than five hundred years later:

Some lucky Thracian has my noble shield:
I had to run; I dropped it in a wood.
But I got clear away, thank God! So hang
The shield! I’ll get another, just as good.

There is something very attractive about Ionian life.

From The Greeks, by H.D.F. Kitto. 

This book has been one long exercise in creative anachronism, and the same could be said of many another Westlake novel, and arguably Westlake’s entire literary career (conducted as it was on a manual typewriter, right into the 21st century).

But his anachronisms of choice were typically more out of Dashiell Hammett and Warner Brothers gangster movies than medieval ballads and romances.  Seeing as he does that we are sliding inexorably back towards feudalism, all over the world, something he hopes can still be forestalled, he’s chosen feudal figures (like robber barons), and feudal institutions (like convents) to tell this story.

And for his champion, to take the place of We The People in the lists, he’s chosen John Dortmunder, a smalltime thief and (let’s face it) a devotee of practical cowardice, who wants no part of this fight, has no discernible politics or beliefs of any kind (other than that everybody but him is nuts, and can you blame him?).  Because he’s an individualist, sure.  But also because sometimes you need to see through the eyes of someone normally standing outside the scrum of a social conflict, to see that fight clearly, distinguish its outlines.

I said last time that maybe this is the Dortmunderian equivalent of Butcher’s Moon (the only other book to date I’ve done a three part review of).  Unquestionably Parker’s greatest epic, and his greatest triumph–where he is, basically, going up against a feudal institution, namely a branch of the Mafia that controls an entire midwestern town, with well-placed vassals everywhere along the lines of power–but still needing to be wary of the looming if often ineffectual forces of law & order, as a medieval baron would need to be wary of incurring the wrath of a  distant king or emperor, who might assert what would otherwise be mere nominal authority at any time, given enough of an opening.

And Parker basically finds their weak spots and exploits them–if they really did have absolute power, he couldn’t win.  But in any society, no matter how seemingly monolithic, there are always struggles going on beneath the surface, fissures in the lines of power. If you are not strong, you had best be cunning.  He sees that he can strike at their sources of revenue, and they can’t effectively strike back without making themselves vulnerable to the law, right before an election they’re out to fix.  Then, as they huddle in one place, trying to wait him out, he can finish them off.

But for all that he needs allies, and that’s the crucial scene in the book–where Parker has called in some fellow wolves to serve as his army of the night, drawn by the smell of an easy kill (lots of badly guarded cash), but he has to convince them to help him with an additional goal–the rescue of Alan Grofield, being held prisoner at the home (this is America, so redundant to say castle) of the local mob lord.

The assembled uber-heisters don’t see why they should stick their necks out for Grofield, who most of them don’t even know, but somehow Parker shames them into it.  They’re not doing it out of nobility, or altruism, or even professional courtesy.  They’re doing it because to do otherwise would be–disappointing.  There are times when you have to stand up and fight the bastards, if you’re going to respect yourself in the morning.   It’s not Quixotic, because Don Quixote picks fights where no fight exists, sees enemies where there are no enemies.  There are real giants in this world, you know.  They’re not all windmills (though damn, there are a lot of actual windmills lately).

Dortmunder is akin to Parker in many ways, not least in his caustic view of humankind, but he’s not Parker.  Parker is of the old Doric strain, simple, unadorned–stark.   A Spartan, you might say, except a Spartan is a cog in a machine, a servitor of the state–Parker is not so constrained, being a polis of one, answerable to no one but himself.  A wolf in human form has no government (though he may still pay taxes to one, just to blend into the herd).

Dortmunder is likewise unique, a coyote in human form as I see him, but no Spartan he.  No, I’d say Dortmunder is clearly Ionic, not to mention ironic.  He’d drop that shield and run in a New York minute.  There is something very attractive about his view of life.  And his deep attachment to it.   But the real Ionians were not opposed to fighting on general principle; simply much less anal about it than the real Spartans, who left us great stories of their martial valor (told by other Greeks) and pretty much nothing else.

Archilochus, the Ionian poet, was a citizen soldier, a hoplite–he wrote that poem I posted up top from hard experience.   He fought when he had to, and he ran when he had to, and if he left a shield behind sometimes (those things were damned heavy), that doesn’t necessarily mean he’d leave a friend–or someone he owed a favor.  Honor may have no skill in surgery, but it does make life more tolerable at times.  We all draw the line in different places.  (Yes, I know this isn’t remotely medieval–Archilochus or Shakespeare–but I can be anachronistic too, can’t I?)

So out of what I suppose we’ll have to call a sense of honor, pricked on a bit by the profit motive (and the fear of May’s disapproval, because seriously without the need to impress women, men would never have gotten anything done), Dortmunder has led his merry band of heisters into the Avalon State Bank Tower, to grab some loot and rescue a nun, in that order.

Wilbur Howey has disabled the alarm systems, Tiny Bulcher has kicked down some doors, Andy Kelp has learned how to make a bouquet appear out of a trick cane he got from a magic shop, and honestly I don’t know why Stan Murch is even in this one, since there’s basically no driving, but he’s always good company.  And Dortmunder, the only one with a debt of honor to pay, has ventured up to the restricted topmost floors of the tower, where a heavily panting Wilbur (lots of stairs) has gotten him past the main door, and Dortmunder figures he can handle any lesser locks easily.

What he didn’t figure on was that there’d be a meeting of mercenaries Frank Ritter is hiring for the purpose of overthrowing a pesky Latin American dictator who wouldn’t play ball with him.  Dortmunder gets mistaken for  one of them (coyotes can easily be mistaken for wolves if you don’t look closely), and is forced to sit in a small auditorium with this horde of ravening beasts of prey, eagerly anticipating the sweet joys of rapine, and the whole scene is mightily reminiscent of one from The Spy In The Ointment, but never mind that now.

The gist is that he’s terrified but he does his best to pretend like he belongs there, making light conversation with the heavily tattooed psycho with the Soldier of Fortune subscription who is sitting next to him, and he prays not to be discovered, and of course he is.   And then the lights go out, and he runs like hell for the door, and the mercenary comandante, fellow named Pickens (and he ain’t slim), fires a Finnish-made automatic rifle in his direction, but only succeeds in slightly wounding him with some splinters created by the bullets, and in creating holy hell inside the darkened room full of trained killers.

(If this were a Parker novel, I’d most definitely post an image of the gun in question now, which is an M-60 Valmet, basically an AK-47 only not, but this is a Dortmunder, and I’d feel silly doing that, so I won’t.)

So this is where we left off–with Dortmunder learning that the nun he’s here to rescue, Sister Mary Grace (nee Eileen Ritter, Frank’s daughter, and she pretends to vomit every time someone reminds her of that filial relationship), has in fact rescued him, by turning the lights off, and leading him eventually to her room, which she’s not supposed to be able to get out of but she can anyway.  But now they’re both trapped, and as soon as the chaos they’ve unleashed subsides, there are going to be search parties of mercenaries and Ritter’s security men looking for them, and they have nowhere to run.

And cutting ahead, Dortmunder is eventually found hiding in a dishwasher.  Don’t ask.  Seriously, don’t.  You shouldn’t even be reading this if you haven’t read the book yet.  If you have, you know better than to ask. Suffice it to say Archilochus would be proud.  Though he might have a hard time finding a rhyme for dishwasher.

All is lost.  Dortmunder will be interrogated and disposed of.   Sister Mary Grace, having resisted the gentler methods of a cult deprogrammer, will be placed under the care of an Eastern Bloc expert on what might be politely termed behavior modification, along with what I believe is now called ‘Extraordinary Rendition’ in certain intelligence circles (Westlake must have loved that), until she renounces everything she believes and swears fealty to her father, and if she’s still breathing when it’s over, that doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll still be alive.   When Frank Ritter talks about how he’s bringing back feudalism for a return engagement, he’s not talking about some sissy Renaissance Fair.

And Dortmunder’s summer soldiers and sunshine patriots down below, having turned J.C. Taylor’s office into something that looks like the mail-order equivalent of Aladdin’s Cave, are disinclined to intervene on his behalf, as they watch squads of security men and soldiers with automatic rifles running back and forth looking for him and the nun.  If any of them were to entertain any brief tender feelings towards their absent chum, Tiny Bulcher stands ready to remind them how permanently tender he could make them feel if they risk his freedom and this beautiful score over a guy who should have stuck to what he knew, namely stealing.

Now.  You remember what Professor Kitto, that erudite Cornishman, said about the Spartan mother who famously told her war-bound offspring “With your shield or on it.”  Tiger-mom indeed, but there are even more formidable females to be found in the annals of legend, and one of them is entering the office right now, and it happens to be her office.   Even she’s a bit impressed by the piles of treasure being prepared for shipping, but she covers it well, and she wants to know where ‘the guy with the worry lines’ is.  She can’t remember his name.  Tiny wants to know what she’s even doing there over the weekend.

“I wanted to check on things,” she said, and shrugged.  Monsters didn’t intimidate her, she’d worked with them all her adult life.  “Where’s the other one?” she repeated.  “Dort-whatever.”

“Munder,” Kelp said.

“Gone,” Tiny Bulcher said.  “Like you.  We’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Gentle down, big fella,” she told him, and turned to Howey, the most malleable of them.  “Where is he, Wilbur?”

“Well, say,” Howey told her, and threw a worried glance at Tiny, “he’s gone, you know?”

“No, I don’t know.”

Tiny said, “He went upstairs to get the nun and he didn’t come down, so that’s it.”

“Nun?”

Kelp said, “It’s very simple,” and then proceeded to tell her a story that wasn’t simple at all.  For some strange reason, there was a nun imprisoned at the top of the tower.  For some other strange reason, Dortmunder had to go rescue her.  The whole robbery business was to pay for partners to help in the rescue of the nun.  Last night, Dortmunder went away to rescue the nun, and so far he hadn’t come back.

J.C. said, “And?”

Everybody shifted around uneasily.  The others all glanced at Tiny Bulcher, who said belligerently, “And nothing.  He’s on his own.”

Slowly she looked him up and down.  “So that’s why they call you Tiny,” she said.  With a graceful sweeping gesture of the arm that she’d learned in ballet class at the age of four–J.C. Taylor was not always as we see her now–she indicated the king’s ransom strewn helter-skelter around the room. “Dort-whatever brought you all this, she said, voice dripping with scorn, “and now you’re going to just leave him.”

She could care less about some stupid shield.  But without your friend?  Without your partner?  Walk away from somebody who led you to a good score?  Maybe this is just that frustrated romanticism in her I referred to, some remnant of an earlier life, before the world got hard and mean for her–or maybe something older, and colder–maybe she’s the Parker in this story.   There are things you just don’t do.   When you’re working with somebody, certain things are expected of you, certain unwritten laws must be observed.  If you want to go on thinking of yourself as a man or woman to reckon with.  And when a woman like Josephine Carol Taylor implies that you’re not, what wouldn’t you do to prove her wrong?

So yeah, this is very much an alternate universe version of Parker’s speech in Butcher’s Moon (which is why I quoted it at length).  I’ve no doubt Westlake recognized it as such.  And it has much the same effect, only J.C. Taylor isn’t Parker, and she doesn’t have some perfect plan of attack worked out in her head–the planner is being hauled out of a dishwasher upstairs, and held for interrogation.

So they have to do it on the fly, improvise.  Wilbur’s lock-magic gets them into the hidden private elevator leading to the penthouse suite Dortmunder is being held in.  J.C. doesn’t really need to come along, but she wants to, and who’s going to tell her no?  Tiny has surrendered any attempt to pretend he’s not utterly in her thrall.  The beauty has tamed the beast (who will never seem quite so beastly again).  And now she’s leading him and his friends to the top of a Manhattan skyscraper where there are many machine guns waiting.  Hopefully this works out better than the last time.   Well, that was a different gorilla.  And J.C. is no Fay Wray.

While all this is going on, Pickens is getting ready to resort to various extreme persuasive measures to get Dortmunder (who is calling himself Smith, because hey, there are people named Smith) to talk–and if you’re not the romantic type, here’s an actual pragmatic reason for the crew to come get him.  He might just crack under torture, and spill the beans about their location, and they’re not ready to make their getaway yet–they’d have to leave the boodle behind.  So this really is the smart move, as well as the right one.  And since when does the Dortmunder gang ever think that far ahead?

But somebody up there likes them (and we know who)–as they come out of the elevator, they meet up with Sister Mary Grace.   She tells them where Dortmunder is, and that there are ten armed mercenaries in there with him.  More than even Tiny could handle all at once, but he’s going to try anyway for J.C.’s sake  (man’s in love).  Sister Mary Grace, still bound by her oath of silence, writes them a note.  She’s got a plan.   A very un-nunly plan, you ask me.

As Dortmunder’s hand is about to make the acquaintance of a hot stove, one of the mercenaries says he just saw a topless woman in the doorway.  It’s not the nun.  Others say they saw her too.  Then a little old man moons them.  Okay, Pickens humors them, sends out scouts.  The scouts do not return.  Then one, named Ringo, does return–as a hostage, only his captors remain outside.  He’s bringing terms of surrender.  Pickens’ surrender.  Dortmunder, now pretending to be the black sheep of the Ritter family to buy time, is feeling suddenly encouraged–bewildered but encouraged.

In warfare, morale is everything–even the best soldiers are worthless when confused, off-balance, scared.  And these mercenaries are not the best soldiers by a long shot, just the most unscrupulous and crazed, which is decidedly not the same thing.  They don’t know what’s happening, their nerve is cracking, and Pickens figures he’s got to set an example to restore order in the ranks.  He issues a most medieval challenge.  Seems there’s a little romantic in everybody.

“One-on-one,” Pickens shouted, and started pulling handguns out of his clothing and slapping them down on the butcher block island in the middle of the kitchen; three guns in all.  “A fair fight, goddamnit,” he yelled, “like the old days, like the knights!  Send out your best man, damn you to hell and back, no guns, no weapons at all!  I’ll met him one-on-one, and if I beat him, you surrender to me, whoever the hell you are!  But if he beats me, I’ll surrender my entire company!”

Ringo moved backward, and from around the corner came Tiny Bulcher, stepping into the doorway, filling it, arms at his sides, carnivorous eyes on the blanching Pickens.  “You called?” Tiny asked.

(Myself, I would have gone with “You rang?” but maybe Tiny never watched that show.)

Thus endeth Pickens’ charge.  Westlake doesn’t show us the fight, or even tell us if there was one.  But we can guess.  The whole free company threw down their weapons and wet their khakis, with perfect military precision.

And elsewhere in his besieged citadel, Frank Ritter’s certainty is beginning to crack as well–first the chaos of this search, the unleashed dogs of war he’d hired humiliating and beating up his security men, then the disappearance of his daughter from what was supposed to be her cell, and now suddenly the police are there responding to a call from some woman named Hannah McGillicuddy (I wonder if that’s J.C.’s real name?) saying there’s mercenaries running around with illegal guns in an office building, crazy story, right?

Ritter, still seeing himself as the Lord of the Manor, employs his usual intimidation tactics on them, the ones that work so well with browbeaten underlings.  You can say a lot of things about New York City cops, good and bad, but no one could ever say they respond well to intimidation tactics from civilians.   The cop in charge looks at Ritter, and you can guess what he’s thinking.  Amateur.

So that could have been the end of the story, right there, cut to the epilogue.  The mercs are led away in handcuffs, Ritter’s South American scheme is going to be exposed, and probably even he doesn’t have enough friends to get him out of this one.  What’s more, he’s on the hook for all the stuff Dortmunder & Co. stole from his tenants.  (Meaning that no honest people were hurt by the robbery, how come this wasn’t a movie?)   The lesson from medieval history that he forgot was that feudal barons themselves often ended up imprisoned in towers, when they overestimated their importance within the overall scheme of things.  Lucky for him the headsman hasn’t made a comeback yet.

Dortmunder and the rest are addressing packages full of booty (not that kind of booty, shiver me timbers, dueling slang definitions can be irritating), to be sent to various locations where it can be claimed later.  J.C. is going to take Sister Mary Grace dressed in Wilbur’s clothing (ew) and a false mustache out the front door.  J.C. and Tiny are suddenly quite chummy–he’s calling her Josie.  And she seems to like it.  Well, a tame monster is a useful accessory for any woman in her line of work, and he did prove himself to her.  All’s well that ends well, right?  Dortmunder is confused.  Isn’t something supposed to go wrong now, so they don’t get the money?

His suspicions are well-founded.  Westlake isn’t quite done with the gang yet.  See, the police are searching the tower, floor by floor, and they can’t get out, or explain their presence, or hide the loot well enough to foil a determined search.  They made too much noise–unavoidable, to be sure.  But now it looks like they’re caught.  Tiny is backsliding into I Told You So mode.  And here comes the scene that really makes me wonder how this wasn’t a movie.

Dortmunder still hasn’t actually saved anybody, you know–that’s the problem, and that’s why the story isn’t over yet.  He’s got to come up with a plan for the Exodus.  He does.  They call in the nuns.   Turns out that even though this isn’t Thursday, and the oath of silence is in force, there’s always one nun on phone duty at the convent, in case of emergencies.  The sisters pile into a rickety bus, and head for the tower.  Maria’s Messenger Riding.

J.C., in music mogul mode, passes them off as a religious choir making a recording for her.  They are rapturously reunited with their beloved Sister Mary Grace, who is once more wearing her habit, restored to her true self.   But they brought a lot of extra habits with them, in all sizes–even Tiny Bulcher’s size.  Do you believe this?  Seriously?  A convent has a nun’s outfit that can fit Tiny Freakin’ Bulcher?

Here’s where I think maybe Westlake loses his fine control–the ending is what, for me, keeps this from being in quite the same league as the very best Dortmunders.  It’s maybe a bit too cute, too busy.  But that’s what happens when you send in the nuns.  Comes with the territory.  And it worked fine up until this point.  But just a little too much mass appeal, pardon the pun.  I have this suspicion Westlake never stopped wondering why there wasn’t a movie.  But two movies of Two Much!  You can go nuts trying to figure Hollywood out.  Many have.

So nobody notices there’s a few more nuns leaving than entering.  Inspector Francis Mologna, still in disgrace after his last encounter with Dortmunder in Why Me?, is officially in charge of the search operation, as well as talking to the media (he hates talking to the media).  If he knew Dortmunder was passing right under his nose in a nun’s habit, no telling what he’d do, other than it would involve Dortmunder falling down a lot of stairs.  But of course the Inspector’s too busy ogling J.C.

Westlake can never end on a purely sentimental note.   Sister Mary Grace certainly believes her saviors deserve to profit from their efforts.  Her father will have to pay for it all anyway, and the laborer is worthy of his hire.  That’s in the bible.  Somewhere.  But you might say she tithes them a bit.  While helping them address boxes and envelopes, she redirected some of the treasure to the revolutionaries in Guerrara, via the U.N.  So the gang still gets a nice payday–but quite a bit less nice than it would have been.

And Dortmunder is still brooding about that small betrayal, as he and May soak up the sun in Aruba, months later.  (It’s not the Ionian Aegean, but it’ll do.) Dortmunder is lying on a towel with a picture of Elmer Fudd on it.  May is reading in Newsweek (remember Newsweek?) that General Pozos has been ousted, packed off to exile in Miami, without any help from Frank Ritter, so the people there will have a shot at building a real democracy of their own, instead of a corporate client state.  Ritter isn’t jailed yet, but he’s too tied up defending himself in court to do much of anything else.

You’re a hero of the people, John Dortmunder!  Conqueror of warlords,  liberator of nuns, restorer of justice!  What are you going to do now?  Later, we know you’re going to blow all that money on slow horses at the track–May asks you about that, and you make evasive noises. But having started all this by trying to rob an importer of fancy delectables that you fully intended to sample yourself before delivering them to a crooked wholesaler, what would be your pleasure at this rare moment of triumph, champion of the downtrodden, defender of the meek?

Dortmunder lay back on Elmer Fudd, with his hands under his head.  Through the dark glasses he looked at the blue sky.  The lines of his face shifted themselves around, making accomodation for a smile.  “I think I’ll have caviar,” he said.

Caviar!  Caviar for the champion!  And a Daily Racing Form!   Because a rich Dortmunder is no fun at all.

So granting the thesis that this is Dortmunder’s equivalent of Butcher’s Moon (and much as I like it, I like Butcher’s Moon better, even without the nuns and the more overtly medieval metaphors and J.C. Taylor), did this mean Westlake was hitting a wall with Dortmunder too, searching, perhaps not entirely consciously, for a fitting way to end the series?

This much we can say for sure, there were no more Dortmunder novels for five years, and the next one is certainly a lot more dark and serious, and a whole lot less fun for the gang.  It’s also really long and convoluted, and I will not make that review a four-parter, I swear by all that’s holy.

With the exception of the final Levine story, I doubt Westlake ever wrote any book about one of his series characters with the express intention of never writing another one about that character.  (The series I’m reviewing next may prove the exception, but that had nothing to do with the character.)

I think he did sometimes aim to sort of temporarily exorcise a character from his head, so he could concentrate on other things, and sometimes he just didn’t return to that character, because there was nothing left to say with him or her. But even if there was, he needed a break, a time-out, and so he felt like he had to put a bit extra into the book to tide everybody over until the comeback.  Call it an act of propitiation–to the character and to his readership.

Given half a chance, a big part of his audience would cheerfully badger him into writing nothing but Dortmunder novels for the rest of his life, and that’s not what he wants.  So he put Dortmunder aside, as he put Parker aside, the difference being that when he tried to return to Parker later on, he found that he couldn’t write effectively in the Stark voice anymore.  The comic voice remained active, so he could return to Dortmunder at will, once he’d found a story–but the next Dortmunder is by far the most Starkian of the bunch, mingled with other and maybe even darker influences.

Now I was mean to Newgate Callendar in Part 2 (fellow never did me any harm), and I’ve often been a bit dismissive of professional reviewers in general, and gee I wonder why?  But let it be said that America has produced some truly great critics, who look deep below the surface of our various entertainments.  I’m going to conclude with a passage from Tragedy and Comedy, a book by Walter Kerr, husband of Jean, one of the finest drama critics of his or any generation.   He also wrote The Silent Clowns, probably the best book ever written about the first cinematic comedians, who I’ve mentioned before have much in common with Dortmunder, and I’ve never thought that a coincidence, but it’s much more than an homage.

Kerr said that tragedy and comedy are linked–two sides, one coin.  Comedy was a reaction to tragedy.  We told dark stories of bloody retribution and catharsis before we invented the clown to take the edge off.  The clown sprung from the tragic hero, only to mock him, cast doubt upon his validity.  But without the hero, there is no clown, and true heroes–even anti-heroes–are getting dangerously thin on the ground, while clowns proliferate ceaselessly, which made Kerr worry that the balance between the two was being lost.  And now I’m going to type out an outrageously long quote:

Pain is common to both forms and is so far from being a distinguishing mark between them that it actually attests to their close relationship.  The contest that is going on in a play–its agon–is an agony whether in a comedy or a tragedy.  It so happens that the theatrical use of the term agon derives from comedy rather than tragedy.

But the pain of comedy is possibly more protracted and more frustrating than that of tragedy, because it does not know how to expel itself.  Tragedy’s pain is productive; it comes of the abrasiveness of moving forward toward transformation.  Comedy, making capital of the absurdity of seeking transformation, must forever contain its pain.  By denying freedom it denies release.  Tragedy uses suffering; comedy can only live with it, that is to say, against the possible day when tragedy, in an ultimately successful transformation, frees them both.  Comedy, hugging the fox to its breast, stays close to tragedy against that possible, eternally doubted, day.

But this interior anguish of comedy, this intense impatience and exasperation with self, in itself becomes an energy.  Dissatisfaction with self is a goad, perhaps the most powerful goad man knows.  The tragic hero courageously, sometimes presumptiously, even wrongly, takes up arms to advance the self; the clown, holding back as he must if he is to be a clown, retains the dissatisfaction as a canker which can neither be expelled nor quieted.  Impatience kicks and thrashes inside the clown, like a violent baby in the womb that cannot bring itself to term.

It is just this powerful agitation that is, in the end, comedy’s strongest assurance of survival.  Detesting its work while half despising itself for being so good at it, finding its limited situation intolerable even while it is being applauded for the hilarity it provokes in so accurately describing the situation, comedy burns with a fever that may prove unquenchable.  Transforming anger into laughter abates the anger temporarily, slightly; it does not remove its causes.  The causes fester, seek expression in any which way, generate activity.  If we have seen comedy cropping up on all sides in all hues in our time, willing to offer itself as a sacrifice to seriousness or to paint itself black where it was once too carelessly thought to be a painter of rainbows, it is because it can never be content to lie fallow in the face of the contempt it feels for itself.  Comedy may keep kicking, because it cannot help kicking out at itself.  And because it owes everything to tragedy, both the original gift of a thing to be parodied and also the only ultimate promise of a new state of being in which all private exasperations and secret despairs will be melted away in the annealing passage through time and space, it must keep kicking to see if it can kick tragedy awake.

The clown screams at his sleeping companion.  He wants him up and on with it.  Once he has got him up, if he ever succeeds, he will of course tell him his activity is absurd.  But he wants it to be absurd.  Only the tragic absurdity is capable of transcending itself.

What a good man the clown is, to endure so much, to survive so relentlessly, to keep us company in all weathers, to provide us with a way of looking at the worst that enables us to take a temporary joy in the worst!  For that is what he does: he stands horror on its head to keep us tolerably happy against the day when tragedy will look horror straight in the eye and stare it down.

What a good man John Dortmunder is, to keep us company, yes.  But the day will come, and not so far away, when he will succeed in kicking Parker awake, and then they shall briefly pull together in the traces, coyote and wolf, as a writer of many seemingly conflicting voices, his final moments approaching fast, prepares to stare down death itself.

But in the meantime, that writer is going to try creating yet another voice, an endeavor that will ultimately fail, but the question for us is whether that was entirely his failure, and whether there is something worth salvaging from the wreckage.  Let’s talk about it.

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Review: Butcher’s Moon, Part 3

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This hatred is one side of the rather equivocal attitude the Greek mythical tradition has toward the figure of the wolf.  On the one hand, the wolf, as Richard Buxton suggests, “stands for one who by his behavior has set himself beyond humanity.”  This is particularly true of the “lone wolf,” a figure isolated from human and lupine community alike.  Connected to this, of course, is the idea, embodied by Odysseus’s grandfather, of cunning criminality.  In Pythian 2, Pindar emphasizes this cunning in a passage that resonates deeply with the conception of justice for which Polemarchus advocates: “May I love my friend: but against my enemy I shall make a secret attack, like a wolf, treading now here now there on my crooked paths.”  This dimension of the lupine character is what drives Polemarchus to recognize the limits of his own position.  On the the other hand, however, because of its cooperative nature, its social life together with others in a pack, and its practices of collaborative hunting and of the equitable sharing of quarry, the wolf also stood in the Greek mythological tradition as a symbol of community and even as an analogue for human social life.

From Plato’s Animals, by Jeremy Bell and Michael Naas

Richard Stark has created a large reputation (including screen credits) with his novels about Parker, the professional thief and killer-if-necessary.  And he does these books very well, even if a few in the series strain credulity.  One such was “Slayground” (1971), in which Parker takes on a whole police force in an amusement park shootout and makes his getaway.

But things improve in the latest Parker, BUTCHER’S MOON (Random House, $4.95).  It has a tie-in with “Slayground”: in the earlier book, Parker had left some money hidden in the amusement park.  In “Butcher’s Moon” he goes back to retrieve it after a job has gone sour.  To get the money back the hero must take on a Mafia gang, a crooked cop, and, in addition, exact his own revenge.  So he gets a few recruits, robs the mob blind, and finally wipes out all the bad guys.

Parker the super-tough, Parker the super-suspicious, Parker the super-lethal, Parker the super-ingenious.  So it’s all nonsense.  But what is not nonsense is Stark’s admirably controlled writing–as tough and spare as Parker himself is.  Stark deals only with the criminal subculture.  His is an unsentimental world and a fatalistic one.  Life means absolutely nothing.  Men are governed only by greed, power, or lust.  There is no such thing as honesty, and everybody, everything, is to be distrusted.  Parker himself is a curiously vague figure.  Stark is not much on characterization.  But the world in which Parker prowls is made very real thanks to Stark’s considerable gifts as a writer and storyteller.

Curiously, Parker is not an anti-hero.  He is bigger than life; nobody was ever like him, or ever will be.

Newgate Callendar (aka Harold C. Schonberg), Criminals at Large, New York Times Book Review, 9/15/74

Calesian moved over to the window, looked out at the dark city under the moonless sky.  The spotted streetlights, aping the stars, emphasized the darkness rather than cutting it.  Calesian sensed Parker out there somewhere, scurrying in the dark with his army.

He looked up at the sky.  Why the hell wasn’t there a moon, for Christ’s sake?  The air would be hot just the other side of the window glass, but the air conditioning was on in here, and he shivered slightly from the coolness of it.  And the unrelieved darkness.  A hell of a night to die, he thought.

That Times review up above is a true rarity, brief though it be (that’s the full text; the rest is devoted to other books).  Other than Westlake’s longtime supporter Anthony Boucher, few Times critics ever paid much attention to him until much later, when he was seen as more of a senior statesman of the comic caper, or whatever.   When he got out of his appointed niche, as in Up Your Banners, the Times could get downright savage.

This piece is actually from the very book review section that Westlake had the protagonist of Adios Scheherazade lament he could never get into with his pathetic pornos (even though they were still showing pictures of bare-breasted African women), and measured as its praise might be, I’d assume Westlake savored the small symbolic victory. Made it ma, top of the world!

‘Newgate Callendar’ was not primarily known as a literary critic–he was just kibbitzing here–doing a minor column for the book review section called Criminals at Large, a brief semi-regular overview of recent crime/suspense novels.  He’d previously reviewed two of the earlier Random House Parkers there (none of the paperbacks).  His regular gig was music critic, for which he won a Pulitzer in 1971.

He makes a few regrettable errors here (Parker is not shooting it out with ‘a whole police force’ in Slayground), but he gave Stark and Westlake both a number of good reviews over the years.  I would assume he knew they were one and the same when he wrote this, being no stranger to pseudonyms himself, but it’s hard to tell, isn’t it?

“So it’s all nonsense.”  Because it couldn’t happen that way in reality?  Because the characters are bigger than life?  Because it’s full of grand flourishes, overblown bloody denouements?  So by that standard, Mr. Callendar, wouldn’t pretty much every opera you ever reviewed be far worse nonsense?   Ah well, let it lie.   He had it right about how good a writer Richard Stark was.  About nobody ever being like Parker in reality–I’d agree–if we’re talking human beings.  Are we, necessarily?

I was hoping to unearth some serious in-depth critiques of Butcher’s Moon from around the time it was published, and to that end, I obtained an old copy of The Armchair Detective (Volume 7, #4), ‘A Quarterly Journal Devoted to the Appreciation of Mystery, Detective, and Suspense Fiction.’  An online search indicated I might find an article on the book there.  That’s some scary search engine, because what it was referring to was two nigh-microscopic missives; one from the letters page–fan mail from none other than Joe Gores, just starting to make a name for himself in the genre, and who had, of course, just recently published a novel that was a planned cross-over with Plunder Squad.

A hell of a fine issue of TAD this time, by the way, with the Westlake (Coe), de la Torre, and Hammett pieces well worth the price of admission just by themselves.  Have you seen the latest Westlake/Stark, by the way, just out from Random House?  Butcher’s Moon, at 300 plus pages?  Just a fantastic boomer of a book, one I think must claim very serious consideration for this year’s Edgar.  Thick, meaty, and not an ounce of fat on it.  To my mind, as close to a modern Red Harvest as we are likely to get.

Heartfelt and perceptive, but hardly an objective scholarly third party source, nor was a capsule review by TAD‘s dedicated and super-knowledgeable editor, Allen J. Hubin, about as long as Gores’ letter, and even more fanboy-esque.  The gist of it is ‘great fun, nothing to be taken seriously.’   And in case you were wondering, Butcher’s Moon wasn’t even nominated for an Edgar, a distinction it shares with everything else that ever appeared under the name Richard Stark.

In point of fact, nothing that happens in Butcher’s Moon is a whit less likely than a short stout balding man working for a large soulless private detective agency taking it upon himself to clean up a corrupt violent city by turning two criminal factions against each other with near-diabolic Machiavellian prowess, then walking away with nary a scratch on him to his next thrilling adventure.  Nothing against Hammett, I’m just saying.  ‘Bigger than life’ is pretty much the wheelhouse for the entire mystery/crime/suspense genre.   Always has been.

Whatever it is makes a piece of fiction worthy of significant long-term scrutiny–or simply throwaway entertainment, which has its place in the scheme of things, but is destined to be forgotten over time–it isn’t whether or not it could happen in real life, anymore than we judge a painting by how perfectly it mirrors its model.  Realism is just one tool in the kit.  It’s how effectively you wield the tools you choose for the job that counts.   Not whether people believe the story in retrospect, but whether they’re caught up in it when they’re experiencing it, and whether it has some unique and compelling perception to impart, above and beyond the spinning of a good yarn–but never instead of that. The yarn comes first, or what’s the point?  You could just write a pedantic long-winded essay to get your insights across.  I do, all the time.  Back to the synopsis.

So Parker is no longer merely concerned with getting his 73 thousand dollars from the Tyler mob, which at this time they have no intention of giving him anyway.  They have enraged him on some primal level by sending him Grofield’s severed finger in a box, and telling him they’ll keep cutting things off Grofield until Parker agrees to come talk to them, at which time of course he’ll be killed, as will Grofield, because they’ve got to make him the fall guy for Lozini’s murder by Calesian, who is now taking control of the organization.

They’re saying they’ll give him the money, Grofield, and an ambulance to take Grofield away in, and it’s hard to say whether they believe Parker is stupid enough to buy this, but even pretending they think he’s that stupid is pretty damned insulting.

If they had not sent him the finger, Grofield’s fate would be none of his business, and he’d have kept focusing on the money.  But the mix of sadism and duplicity in this ultimatum has brought out the inner wolf, to an extent we’ve never seen before.  He does not merely wish to kill the people directly responsible–his intent now is to decapitate the syndicate in Tyler, kill everyone who had any connection to this ‘peace offering.’   Not simply one or two individuals, but the organization itself needs to die for the disquiet in his mind to be quelled.

And, lest we forget, he still needs the money, which he knows now he’s going to have to take by force, from a large number of armed men.  And for that he needs a crew.  So drawing upon his long years of heisting, a file of exceptionally capable fellow pros he’s compiled in his head since before we first met him, he persuades eleven first-rate heisters to come to Tyler on short notice, with the promise that rich pickings await.  His reputation as a planner is all the inducement they need.  If Parker says there’s loot to be had, they believe it.

These men don’t work for anybody but themselves–they’re all hardcore independents like him.  But they have all proven to Parker that they can work with others of their kind as a disciplined unit, and there’s a toughness to them, a self-sufficiency, that no midwest mafiosi can match.   They are the closest human analog he’ll ever find to an actual wolf pack.  Though getting them to agree to what he has in mind will be more like herding cats.

The group assembled in some vacationing couple’s vacant apartment, Parker brings out his captive, Frankie Faran, who has given Parker all the intel he needs to rob the Tyler outfit down to their skivvies in one night.  Faran’s will has broken down entirely–he mechanically answers all the questions they ask him.   They’re left in little doubt that they can grab a lot of money–and because nobody steals from mobsters, and mobsters can’t call the cops in to defend illegal earnings, they’ll meet token resistance, if any at all.

Normally they’d need to finance a job, work out a plan, assign tasks–there’d be financial as well as physical risk, an investment of time and resources–but that’s all been attended to prior to their arrival–Parker has the jobs all mapped out.  He’s even stolen a small arsenal of guns they can use and throw away, none of which could ever be traced to them.  They’ll be leaving town the next day, so they can just steal any cars or other equipment they need.  It’s a very tempting proposition, but here’s the kicker–everything they take they can split eleven ways.  Parker wants none of it.   What the….?

He shows them the finger.  Explains where it came from.  Most of them don’t know Grofield at all, some (like Wycza) do.  They don’t like it, turns their stomachs a bit, but they still don’t get what he’s driving at.

And here may be my favorite passage in the entire series–where Westlake finally makes Parker explain himself–admit what he’d only privately admitted in The Seventh–that sometimes he does things that don’t make sense on purely pragmatic terms, because he can’t do anything else.   Because sometimes a wolf’s gotta do what a wolf’s gotta do.  But what he learned from that experience, perhaps, is that it’s best to have everybody in the crew on the same page.  And to be honest, with your partners and yourself, about what you’re really after.

“I want Grofield back,” Parker said, “and I want my money.  And I want those people dead.

Hurley gestured, wanting more.  He said, “So?”

“So I set you people up with scores, you go do them, you’ve got good money you wouldn’t have had.  You’ll all be finished, back here, by when?  Three, four in the morning?

Most of them shrugged in agreement.  Hurley bobbed his head, saying, “Probably.  Then what?”

“Then you come with me,” Parker said.  “The twelve of us hit Buenadella’s house and get Grofield out of there.  And if they moved him somewhere, we find out where and go hit that place.”  He checked off names on his fingers, saying  “And we  make them dead.  Buenadella.  Calesian.  Dulare.”

His intensity had startled them a little.  Nobody said anything until Handy McKay, speaking very quietly, said “That’s not like you.”

What kind of shit was this?  Parker had expected a back-up from Handy, not questions.  He said, “What’s not like me?”

“A couple things,” Handy said.  “For one, to go to all this trouble for somebody else.  Grofield, me, anybody.  We all of us here know we got to take care of ourselves, we’re not the Travelers Aid Society.  You, too.  And the same with Grofield.  What happens to him is up to him.”

“Not when they send him to me piece by piece,” Parker said.  “If they kill him, that’s one thing.  If they turn him over to the law, get him sent up, that’s his lookout.  But these bastards rang me in on it.”

Handy spread his hands, letting that point go.  “The other thing,” he said, “is revenge.   I’ve never seen you do anything but play the hand you were dealt.  Now all of a sudden you want a bunch of people dead.”

Parker got to his feet.  He’d been patient a long time, he’d explained things over and over, and now he was getting itchy.  Enough was enough.  “I don’t care,” he said.  “I don’t care if it’s like me or not.  These people nailed my foot to the floor, I’m going around in circles, I’m not getting anywhere.  When was it like me to take lumps and just walk away?  I’d like to burn this city to the ground, I’d like to empty it right down to the basements.  And I don’t want to talk about it anymore, I want to do it.  You’re in, Handy, or you’re out.  I told you the setup, I told you what I want, I told you what you’ll get for it.  Give me a yes or a no.”

Tom Hurley said, “What’s the goddam rush?  We got over an hour before we can hit any of these things.”

Stan Devers, getting to his feet, said, “Just time enough for a nap.  I’m in, Parker.”   He turned to Wycza, beside him.  “Dan?”

Wycza wasn’t quite ready to be pushed.  He frowned up at Devers, frowned across the room at Parker, seemed on the verge of telling everybody to go drop dead, and then abruptly shrugged and said, “Sure, what the hell.  I like a little boom-boom sometimes.”

Handy said, “Parker, I was never anything but in, you know that.”

Ed Mackey said, “Shit, we’re all in.  I know Grofield, he’s a pleasant guy, we don’t want anybody out there dismantling him.”

Mike Carlow, the driver, who hadn’t had anything at all to say up till now, said, “I don’t know this guy Grofield from a dune buggy.  In fact, I don’t even know any of you people.  But I know Parker, and I’m in.”

They were all in.  Parker, looking from face to face, saw that none of them was even thinking of bowing out.  Some of the tension eased out of Parker’s shoulders and back.  “All right,” he said.  “All right.”

As inspirational locker-room speeches go, it’s a bit bloody-minded, but the objective is the same–each man has individual goals–Parker needs them to work as a group.  Most of them have, in the past, been beneficiaries of his thorough-going professionalism–Devers got his start in ‘the profession’ through Parker, who sent him to Handy for training.  Handy owes Parker his life, several times over–he never thought that was because Parker had any special feeling for him, but he himself has always clearly seen Parker as a friend.  Carlow got out of jail and found out Parker had not only managed to turn that soured coin heist into a paying proposition, he’d saved Carlow’s share for him.  Because that’s what one professional does for another.   The Travelers Aid Society they ain’t, but membership does have its privileges.

So under the influence of Parker’s most atypical burst of eloquence, this motley group of misfits becomes an army, unified by the need to score–but also their respect for this man who embodies the spirit of their illegal enterprise better than anyone else.  There’s more than a little wolf in all of them–but he’s all wolf.  And they’re his pack now.  Until the job is done.

Westlake wrote this scene, I surmise, because he knew longtime readers would have problems with this seeming face-turn–as he himself might have had–after all, he repeatedly dismissed The Jugger, one of his best books, because he felt he hadn’t provided enough of an explanation for why Parker would respond to Joe Sheer’s pathetic plea for help.  But here I think he felt he had pulled it off–yes, it seems like Parker wants to help Grofield, is playing the noble hero, but is that really what’s going on?

Each of us can make up our own minds, reading these books, what feelings, if any, Parker has for the men he works with.  Perhaps none at all.  But they are, for all that, the men he works with.  And Parker’s work is who he is, what he is, all he is.  It’s his identity.  Without it, he’s nothing.  Which means without them, he’s nothing.  He’s not a pickpocket or a mugger.  He’s a heister.  Heisters work in groups, just like wolves hunt in packs.   That’s what made him turn to this life in the first place–it’s the closest thing he could find in this insane human world into which he was mistakenly born to the instinctive template in his head.

He needs Grofield, the money, and the Tyler ganglords dead.  Why?  Because in sending him that finger, and lying to him about the money and the ambulance, they reminded him, yet again, of that irrational cruelty in humankind that has always made his brain itch.  They reminded him he is an alien in this world, that he will never belong here, among these naked apes.

It’s not to save Grofield that he does this, but to make their lie the truth.  They said he would get Grofield, the money, and an ambulance, so he will get Grofield, the money, and an ambulance.  And they will die for promising what they had no intention of delivering, and for having the presumption to include him in their madness with that finger.  He isn’t like them.   He’s something else.  Something they should have left alone.

One more thing, and I know I’m getting offtrack here, but bear with me–I had the privilege, about a year back, to attend a gathering of Donald Westlake’s closest friends and colleagues, as well as his wife Abby, and I saw the way they spoke about him.  I heard the note of loss in their voices.  They were not mourning the loss of a great writer.  They were still feeling the loss of a once-in-a-lifetime friend, a gap in their lives that would never be filled.  I’ve seen this in what people who knew him wrote about him after his death.   They loved him.  Can anyone doubt he returned the feeling?  When we see Rosie refer ironically to ‘The loyalty of friendship’, in The Hunter, we should understand that loyalty–to one’s friends as well as oneself–meant more to him than anything.  He just knows that it has its limits.  A flawed yet vital shelter from the harsh winds of an indifferent cosmos.

Much as Richard Stark may represent a side of Westlake that wants to feel less, to be left alone to do his work, to not give a damn about anyone or anything, because giving a damn hurts so damn much, he did nonetheless give a damn.  About lots of things, lots of people.  And that can’t help but bleed its way into the Stark books, and therefore into their central protagonist.  The moral of those books was never “This is how things should be,” but “This is how things are, so how do we live with it and still remain ourselves?”

Regardless of what Mr. Newgate Callendar may have thought ‘the real world’ to be like, let’s be frank–it’s not a nice place.  Men are mainly governed by greed, power, and lust (women too, sorry girls).  True honesty is the rarest of commodities, people you can fully trust even rarer.  We cling to family and friendships so fiercely, because we all know it’s true.  It’s not just a convention of what we sometimes call noir fiction–noir is merely a stylized expressionistic take on everyday human life, which is why it’s endured as a literary form, and has had such a broad and pervasive influence across all mediums.   We all walk down mean streets sometimes.  Some of them a lot meaner than others.   Noir is a romanticized form of realism, and nobody ever understood this better than that wounded romantic, Richard Stark.

But when I come down from this flight of fancy, I can think of one other, much more mundane reason for Parker behaving this way–unless Westlake wrote this book quite a good long while before it was published, he would have written it after he’d seen John Flynn’s The Outfit, based rather loosely on the third Parker novel that serves, you might say, as the foundation of this much more ambitious narrative.

That movie’s version of Parker, played by Robert Duvall, refuses to leave that movie’s version of Handy McKay, played by Joe Don Baker, when the latter is badly wounded, and tells ‘Macklin’ to leave him.   Macklin puts on an EMT’s white jacket, and commandeers an ambulance to get him and his comrade away from the scene of the final gun battle.   Like at least half that movie, Flynn did not get that idea from the book he was adapting.  There’s an ambulance used for criminal purposes in The Seventh, which had already been turned into a movie, which Flynn presumably saw, so maybe that was the inspiration.

Westlake liked Flynn’s movie (more than I do), and would have enjoyed the irony of two killers escaping a scene of mayhem in an ambulance under the guise of medic and patient.  So assuming Flynn didn’t somehow get the idea from Westlake (who didn’t work on that film at all, not even as a consultant), I’d say that Westlake got the idea of the ambulance from Flynn’s movie, and improved and elaborated upon it to an exponential degree, transforming a mere throwaway gag into a wry thematic statement.

You’d think somebody would have asked him about that sometime, but unless there’s an interview somewhere I’ve missed, I guess we’ll never know for sure.   And this is what comes of not taking books like this seriously while their authors are still alive.  I better finish the synopsis before this gets completely out of hand.

Parker’s friends go out and do their heists, all of which go off without a hitch, and this is by far the most enjoyable part of the book.   Characters we’ve loved from earlier books, who have never met before in many cases, sizing each other up, working together beautifully, exchanging professional tips and iconoclastic points of view while doing their jobs, and honestly–Newgate Callendar may have been a fantastic music critic, but for him to say “Stark is not much for characterization” is just staggeringly unforgivably wrong.  Stark can tell you more about a character with one paragraph than most writers could with a trilogy.  But see, it’s the kind of characterization you normally find in the best short stories, not in novels.  Thumbnail portraits.  Callendar is applying the wrong standards here, because to him this is just light entertainment he reads to get away from himself.  Which is fine, but it blinds him to all the other things it can be.

Dan Wycza in particular gets to shine.  True, Parker said he was dead, back in The Rare Coin Score, but that doesn’t really need any explaining, since there’s no reason to think Parker witnessed his reputed demise.  In his world, false rumors must abound, and how could he check on them?  Westlake must have felt that Stark had disposed of Dan too hastily, too peremptorily, and issued a reprieve–we’ll have reason to be glad of that in future books.

At one point, Wycza, Stan Devers, and Mike Carlow are going to grab drug money from a courier and his two menacing bodyguards–named Trask and Slade, a wink to Westlake’s biggest hit of the 60’s, The Fugitive Pigeon.  Devers figures they just have to wound one of them, and the others will give up–no need to kill them.  Stan’s a good-natured kid.  Wycza and Devers, the seasoned veterans, have the bodyguards down as hard cases, and the courier as a rabbit–they’ll figure if they lose the money they’re dead no matter what, so they’ll fight, or run.  But they give Devers a chance to test his theory.  The theory fails to pan out, and they go with Plan B–three dead men.  Another life lesson for Stan.

Meanwhile, Wiss and Elkins grab a stockbroker and his wife from their bed–the cleanest job of the night, and the most profitable.  The stockbroker’s son got into trouble with the law a while back, and Lozini fixed it for him.  In exchange, the stockbroker had to keep money he knew was dirty in his office safe.   The stockbroker’s humiliation outweighs his fear–he knew all along he was compromising his integrity, but what else could he do?

He weeps brokenly on the street, after Wiss and Elkins leave with the loot, swearing he’ll never do anything for Lozini and his friends again.   He doesn’t know that’s not ever going to be an issue again, after tonight.  Free at last.  Unburdened of his guilt–and one hundred and forty six thousand smackers, so good thing there’s not going to be anybody left to complain.

I detect more than a whiff of O. Henry in this vignette–and more than a hint of Westlake’s own abiding guilt over the pain he put his father through, when he got in trouble with the law, many years before, and dad had to pull strings to get him off the hook.  One of those stories from Westlake’s past that keeps popping up in his fiction, different each time, but always the same underneath. A father now himself, he knows that no matter how high a value you place on your honor, your most deeply-held values, your obligations to your children will make you sell yourself on the cheap, time and again.   A much darker take on this story will appear in a much later novel, that I think may have helped trigger the resurrection of Richard Stark, but we can worry about that later.

Most of these jobs, in one way or another, refer back to earlier jobs Parker has done–for example, Handy and Ducasse take over the office of a private security firm, that handles alarm systems for the Tyler mob.  That’s clearly a reference to Parker & Co. taking over Copper Canyon in The Score.  Not mere nostalgic references, what we’re seeing here is that Parker has been learning all the time we’ve known him, improving his craft, making professional connections, and becoming better, in his own way, at working with other people, understanding them.   He’s not such a lone wolf anymore.  He couldn’t afford to be, if he wanted to stay solvent, free, and breathing.

I think this is one reason the book does not refer to The Seventh and The Sour Lemon Score–both about jobs that went completely wrong, where Parker’s crew ended up dead, where he either didn’t work well with his colleagues, or he was off on his own most of the time, and if he got his cut, as in The Seventh, it was mainly by dint of his strange luck.   That’s not what this book is about.  This book is about teamwork.   In some ways, we may prefer to see Parker left to his own dark devices, the rugged individualist on a lonely quest, but in all but those two books (and The Hunter, which Westlake couldn’t very well avoid mentioning here), he actually works very well with others.  As long as they work well with him.

They get back to the apartment, pockets loaded with cash–“Son of a blue bitch, boys, that’s a quarter million dollars”, Mackey says quietly.  More than that, actually–and in today’s terms, it’s almost a million and a half, for one night’s work.  Split eleven ways, each man gets a bit over 25k.  The army has its wages.  Time to start the war.

Elsewhere, Calesian has already lost the power he so briefly grasped at–as word has trickled in about all the syndicate businesses Parker’s friends have hit, it’s all too obvious that his plan to either lure Parker in for the killing or scare him away has backfired in spectacular fashion.  He’s being ignored now, and Dulare, who was content to let somebody else steer the ship, has taken the wheel, to try and keep it off the rocks.

They’ve holed up at Buenadella’s house, waiting out the moonless night, with a lot of men and guns, Grofield lying unconscious upstairs.   Even though Calesian assumes they’ll kill Parker eventually, he knows it’ll be too late for him.  His moment is gone.  He still doesn’t understand just how badly he screwed up, but somebody there will try to explain it to him.  Somebody we have to briefly look at, and now I’m thinking I should have made this a four-parter after all.  There’s just too damn much material in this book.

The only high-ranking member of the Tyler outfit who isn’t present is Frank Schroder, but he’s sent a deputy in his place–guy named Quittner, “a cold bastard, tall and skinny and pallid as death.”  That’s a real name that people have, but I don’t think it was just picked at random out of the phone book.

It’s never stated out loud, but it comes out in small subtle ways.  Quittner is the only one who understands Parker, who knows what they’re up against.  He knows Parker wouldn’t be coming after them if not for the finger–“He wasn’t the right man for that.”   He knows Parker will not be content to steal from them while they cower in the house–“He’ll come for his friend,” he predicts quietly.  How can he know all this?  Because he’s what Parker would have been if Parker had compromised with the world he was born into, gone to work for someone else, given up his freedom.  He’s a failed Parker.   He quit on himself.

And underlying this is Westlake’s fear of what he might have become, if he had given in to the temptation to seek a safe regular job, instead of choosing the much more difficult and insecure path he did.  Stark is the fullest expression of the romantic in him, the part that refuses to compromise, at least on the big stuff. We all have to compromise sometimes; even real wolves do, but Stark is a defiant rejection of that fact–and at the same time, paradoxically, a tacit concession to it.

Quittner is a capable man, feared and respected by others in the organization, but Calesian thinks to himself that it’s unlikely he’ll ever try to take control.  Because somehow it’s not in his nature to be a boss, but it wasn’t in his nature to be an underling either, and this means that dangerous as he is, Quittner is to Parker as a mangy wolf in a cage is to a free-roaming alpha with a pack behind him.  In fact, his physical description is rather akin that of Raven, the bitter beaten-down hired assassin of Graham Green’s A Gun For Sale, which I believe partly inspired The Hunter–only no harelip.  Westlake wouldn’t be that obvious.

Quittner might as well be named Cassandra–there’s at least forty armed men in the house, they’re watching all the windows and doors, there’s no way Parker’s crew can come after them without getting cut down.  Not to mention there’s a state police surveillance van parked out front.  There’s no moon, but there’s artificial light–the modern equivalent of fire, man’s first real weapon against the beasts of the night.  And then the lights go out.

Parker has left nothing to chance.  He’s had Wiss and Elkins take out a power substation, causing the part of the city Buenadella’s house is in to be plunged into blackness.  Devers has cut the phone wires.  Hurley and Mackey have disarmed and tied up the cops in the surveillance van.   And what follows makes John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 look like–um–let me think–the crappy remake of that movie?

The three drivers, Webb, Carlow, and Dalesia park their cars on the front lawn, their headlights on bright, so that Parker and his men coming in the back will be able to see the mobsters outlined in the glare, the drivers’ guns preventing anyone from escaping out the front, or shooting out the headlights.   It’s a perfect trap, and it negates the advantage of numbers.  Confused and disheartened, the Tyler mob disintegrates, cut down one after the other, until the last few, including Dulare and Quittner, are holed up in a room, figuring that the cops have to show up soon, and Parker’s men will have to run for it.  Then Handy McKay rolls a bomb into the room.

There’s even a little nod to the good old Stark Rewind–we see a scene from Buenadella’s POV–he’s about to kill Grofield in his bed, out of pure pique–then he sees Parker pointing a gun at him–“Goodbye, Buenadella.”    Then the same scene from Parker’s POV, ending with the same two words.  Goodbye, Tyler mob.

Sure, Schroder is still alive, and presumably in charge now, but of what?  Most of their men are dead.  Their finances were already stretched thin from backing both mayoral candidates.  The state and federal law will come hard at them in the wake of all the chaos, and they’ve lost Calesian, their number one mole in the Tyler police force.  We never find out who gets elected mayor (because Stark doesn’t give a damn), but there’s no money to grease the wheels with, and it’s unlikely they could control either man now.  Their businesses have been ruined.  The national organization will offer no help.   There’ll still be crime, and corruption, and the men smart enough to cut and run were allowed to live, but the Tyler mob, as Parker knew it, is dead.

And surprisingly, Grofield is still alive.  Score one for Westlake/Vishnu–but Stark/Shiva needed a sacrifice–Ducasse caught a bullet.  Their only casualty.   Well, more loot for everyone else.  Speaking of loot, they break into Buenadella’s safe–Handy hands the money to Parker in a bag–says there’s just over fifty-eight thousand.  “Not enough,” Parker says.  He was owed seventy-three.  In the ruins of the house, with dead men lying all around him, he shrugs and says “I’ll settle.” See?  Everybody compromises.  You can let the small stuff go and still be yourself.

So did I mention they stole an ambulance beforehand?  Devers has put on a white jacket, and for no reason at all but good fellowship, offers to help Parker take Grofield home.  We can imagine the look on Mary’s face when they get back to that community theater in Indiana.  Maybe the 29k they hand her–Grofield’s share–will soften her expression slightly.   Maybe she lays down the law once Grofield is up and walking again–no more heists, no more blondes.  Maybe the IRS clapped him in prison for not paying taxes.  Maybe his theater finally became successful.  Maybe he decided there are worse things than working in television.  They only shoot at you with blanks there.

In the final chapter, Grofield wakes up to the vibration of the road they’re traveling, sees a strange face leaning over him–it’s a blonde all right, but not near as pretty as the one he saw when he woke up in a Mexican hotel room once.  He says as much.

“Aw,” the guy said.  “You’re disappointed.”

“Just so I wake up.  The girl’s name was Elly.”

“Right.  I’m Stan Devers.  Your friend Parker is driving this thing.”

Grofield tried to turn his head; it wouldn’t go.  Parker was driving the ambulance?  He whispered, “What the hell happened?”

“Well,” Stan Devers said, “that’s a long story.”

Long review too, and it’s not over yet.  I still have some questions to answer:

  • Why did Westlake stop writing Parker novels, or any other novels, under the name Richard Stark, for nearly a quarter century?
  • Why did he abandon the usual segmented chapter structure he’d employed in all but two of the Stark books?
  • Why did he bring Ed Mackey back from the dead without explaining how that happened or even mentioning Mackey’s apparent demise in the previous book?

I think the answer to all three questions is the same–this is not a true Richard Stark novel.  It’s a collaboration between Stark and Westlake.   Yes, I know that doesn’t make any sense.  Hear me out.

Westlake was starting to slip out of the Stark voice, as he was developing his own, which mingled elements of Stark, Coe, himself, maybe others.  It was getting harder for him to manage.   He’d written those books during a turbulent, often emotionally bruising period of his life–failed marriages, professional setbacks, and a rate of production that would have put most writers in a rubber room.

But he had Abby now.  He was older, more settled.   He no longer feared that Stark was the only voice of his that people really wanted (Dortmunder helped tremendously with that, and Dortmunder’s Starkian origins further blurred the line between Westlake and Stark).  He’d found a home for Westlake at M. Evans, that would allow him to hone his own voice, which was getting stronger all the time.  And he was increasingly aware that he hadn’t done this all by himself–he’d been surrounded all the time by friends, colleagues, spouses, lovers, kids, who had kept him afloat, offered help, advice, feedback, support, companionship.  No man is an island–not even a wolf-man.

So he wrote this one to more fully and explicitly express that side of Parker that had been there from the start–his long-frustrated quest for people he can trust. To show that Parker’s long losing streak in the Random House novels could only be ended with a little help from his friends.  And not everybody likes this.   But as that quote about the Greeks I put up top suggests, we’ve always had a dual vision of wolves–they can be the marauders who raid our camps, steal our livestock, chill our blood when we hear them howl on a dark night, while we wonder if they’re closing in on us–but they can also be the epitome of cooperation, camaraderie, and above all, loyalty, which is why we ended up making some of them into our best friends and helpmates.

And the thing is, they can be both of these things at the same time.  As Parker and his pack are in this story.   We feel a closeness to them in the chapters from their POV’s, and then we’re in the heads of the Tyler mob guys, and we shiver, thinking about what’s coming.  Our respect for the finer qualities of wolves should not blind us to the fact that they are still carnivores. And we are still made of meat.

So it wasn’t like the books he’d written before–he mingled his approach to storytelling with Stark’s, creating a fascinating hybrid–this is why he refers to so many books that appeared under his name over the past decade and change, as well as Stark’s.   This is why he used a chapter structure more appropriate to a Westlake novel (or a Culver?  Lots of politics here).

This is why he reached into the last novel and plucked Ed Mackey from his ignominious end, seemingly unscathed.   Because Westlake is a gentler god than Stark, and because he thought Mackey (and Brenda) were worth keeping around.  Westlake is much more reluctant to let go of good characters than Stark.   He didn’t explain Ed’s return because he knew it was an arbitrary authorial act–deus ex machina.   He explained it much later, along with Wycza’s return, probably just to make people stop bugging him about it.

The end result was a book that serves as a fitting capstone to everything that came before, and he may have felt on some level that no more was needed.   But he said that he tried later to write more Parker novels, and they just wouldn’t come. So I think the part of him that was Stark simply withdrew for a time, knowing that he wasn’t needed–that the purest expression of that aspect simply wasn’t possible right now.

The Westlake who returned to writing as Stark around 1996 (interestingly enough, around the same time Butcher’s Moon was sold to Hollywood) was in his sixties, and feeling the tug of his mortality more and more.   That could have been enough, but there were other factors.   We’ll get to that too.

What we’ll get to next is as different from this book as a chuckle from a scream.  One of his finest comic novels, and certainly his most focused.   It all takes place in and around a prison.  And its hero is a real Kunt.  With an umlaut.

PS: I finished with the Japanese edition from Hayakawa, because it’s just so neat to see Westlake’s picture on the back cover.   Can anybody read the text?

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Filed under Butcher's Moon, Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: Butcher’s Moon, Part 2

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They put him in the back seat of the Impala and drove away from the motel, Parker at the wheel and Grofield occasionally glancing back at Abadandi.  After several blocks, Grofield said, in a troubled and unhappy way “Goddamnit.”

“What’s the matter?”

“Now he’s bleeding from the ear.”

“Put some paper on it.”

Grofield opened the glove compartment.  “Nothing there.”

“Turn his head then.  We’ll unload him in a couple minutes.”

Grofield adjusted Abadandi’s head.  Parker drove away from the city, looking for a turnoff that might lead to privacy.  They were going to be late to Lozini’s, but there wasn’t any help for it.  Sunday morning traffic was light and mostly slow-moving; family groups.

“I feel sorry for the bastard,” Grofield said.

Parker glanced at him and looked back at the road.  “If I’d slept late this morning,” he said, “he could be feeling sorry for you by now.”

“An hour ago I was getting laid back there,” Grofield said.  “Jesus, his skin looks bad.”

Parker kept driving.

There’s no such thing as a Butcher’s Moon.  It’s something Westlake made up himself, responding to the old tradition of naming the full moons for each specific time of year–it’s something the first Americans started here, and the European settlers emulated and added to, but the idea seems to have occurred independently in many cultures.   Many variations exist.  There’s a Harvest Moon, a Hunter’s Moon–and a Wolf Moon (that’s in the dead of winter).  But none of these are a Butcher’s Moon.  Because a Butcher’s Moon is no moon at all.  Some things are best done in darkness.

I might as well mention here that somebody optioned this novel for a film version in 1996.  Variety reported at the time that Lumiere Films, which produced Leaving Las Vegas, had shelled out for the rights, attached Steve Shagan, the screenwriter for Primal Fear to write the screenplay, and that same film’s producer, Gary Lucchesi, to produce it (the film had not come out yet).  Lumiere CEO Randolph Pitts (it’s wrong to make fun of people’s names) said Butcher’s Moon was ‘one of Westlake’s grittiest efforts.’

“Lila Cazes, who’s head of production, and myself are developing a number of things with Gary and he suggested this book, which Westlake did under the pseudonym he used to write his hardest-hitting crime books,” said Pitts.  “Then, Gary suggested we meet with Steve Shagan after they’d done Primal Fear.”

We are further informed that Westlake (who is not quoted in Variety, because hey, he’s just the novelist), was repped by Gary Salt of Paul Kohner Agency.  And nothing more was ever heard of this film, nor shall be in all the eons to come.

Could be any number of reasons for that, but I’d certainly suspect one of them was that it’s one of the worst possible choices for a film adaptation (the worst possible choice probably being Flashfire).  It’s the least self-contained of the Parker novels, the one where the reader depends most on his or her memories of the books before it.  Now I would not say you couldn’t enjoy reading it if you’d never read a Parker novel before–but I can’t imagine how anyone doing so wouldn’t feel like dropping everything to find all those earlier books, and fill in all the gaps in his or her knowledge of that fictional world and its hard-boiled denizens.  That may be one of the reasons Westlake wrote it that way, but I don’t think it’s the only one.

I wonder if Shagan ever completed any drafts of a screenplay?  A treatment, at least?  I’d be interested to see what he did with it–how he tried to somehow collapse the plot into a film-able unit without having any previous films to refer back to.  He was a novelist himself (he wrote Save The Tiger, and then adapted it into the Jack Lemmon movie that I have yet to see).  He wrote the screenplays for a number of well known films, such as Voyage of the Damned, and he did some mafia stuff, and no, I don’t think it would have worked.  And if they’d stuck to the original ending, I bet film buffs would have accused them of ripping off The Outfit.  Which might not have been totally out of line.  But let’s get back to the synopsis.

We pick up with Mike Abadandi, one of Lozini’s trigger men in the mobbed up city of Tyler–we met him in Slayground, and the late Mr. Caliato, when he saw Abadandi was going to be helping him go after Parker at Fun Island, evaluated him with one word–“Good.”  He’s a very capable individual, probably the best hitter Lozini’s outfit has at the moment.  And he’s been sent to whack Parker and Grofield at their motel.

Why send one guy after two?  Because whoever wants this done wants it done quietly and professionally, with as little fuss and mess as possible.  And because Lozini doesn’t know anything about it.   This is not a properly sanctioned hit.   Meaning that the more guys they use, the more chance there is Lozini will find out before they want him to.

He uses a set of skeleton keys, and lets himself into the motel room, after he sees Grofield go in there, back from his highly athletic extramarital rendezvous with Dori the librarian.  We can sense his professionalism–he’s somebody Parker would be happy to work with, if he wasn’t an organization man.  Grofield is in the shower, singing (tunelessly, we’re told, so I guess he doesn’t do musicals).   Abadandi figures he’ll get Grofield, then look for Parker.  Bird in the hand.

But the other bird is in the closet–Parker saw Abadandi lurking around from his room, and set a trap for him.  Abadandi realizes Parker is coming at him, and is looking at his eyes, not the gun in his hand (which is pointed the wrong way), and he has just enough time to realize he’s up against somebody as good as him.  Maybe better, Mike.

What follows is a short violent struggle, and one of the few instances in twenty-four books that we see Parker have a prolonged physical altercation with a worthy opponent–he’s not the type to engage in pointless fisticuffs.   Abadandi doesn’t panic, he gives a good account of himself, but Parker is always a move ahead. Abadandi, who is wearing contacts, gets a hard kick to the head, then as he falls, Parker chops him in the neck with a huge veiny hand, and that’s the last we hear from Abadandi.

Parker hadn’t intended to injure the guy that badly–wanted to get some info out of him first (otherwise he’d have just shot him).  But one of the contacts has gone into his brain or something (I don’t know if this is a real thing, and I don’t want to know).  He’s not talking to anybody, probably ever.  But a look through his pockets clearly shows his affiliations, and Parker and Grofield already have a meet scheduled with Lozini at his house.

Parker and Grofield (who is using the name Green, in a little nod to his alternate universe doppelganger in the Dortmunder novels) show up there, and give Lozini the bad news.  And it’s really bad.  The only way Abadandi could have found their motel is if they were followed from the last meeting they had with him and his closest associates, at the office.  Only his most highly placed people knew about that meeting.  At least one of them made sure there was somebody waiting outside the office building.  Parker can make a very cogent persuasive argument when he wants to–and his argument now is that Lozini can only trust two people in the entire city.

“You’ve got a palace takeover on your hands,” Parker told him.  “That means a group, maybe four or five, maybe a dozen  A group of people inside your organization that want you out and somebody else in.  Somebody who’s already up close to the top, that they want to take your place.”

Lozini took his sunglasses off and massaged his closed eyes with thumb and forefinger.  His eyes still closed, he said “For the first time in my life I know what getting old is.  It’s wanting to be able to call for a time-out.”  He put the sunglasses back on and studied them both.  Their faces were closed to him, and always would be.  “You’re right,” he said.  “You’re the only ones I can trust, because I know exactly where you stand and what you want.”

They discuss the possible suspects, eliminating them one by one–it comes down to Ernie Dulare, who controls offtrack gambling, and Louis ‘Dutch’ Buenadella, who runs the local porno theaters.  Lozini is surprised how much they already know, courtesy of Grofield’s research.  But they all missed a very big important detail, that comes out when Parker asks if Farrell, the mob’s candidate for mayor, would be in on it.   Lozini is bewildered–his candidate is Alfred Wain.  Farrell is the reform candidate they’re trying to beat.  And now Parker begins to see he’s badly misjudged the situation in Tyler.

Coming into town, Parker saw that Farrell had a lot more money behind him, more signs, bigger banners, and figured that meant he was the syndicate’s man–and that he is, but the new syndicate, not the old one.  They were, in fact, using some of Parker and Grofield’s money to finance him, as well as Lozini’s.  That’s part of the take-over.  With their man in place at city hall, they can push Lozini out, and there won’t even be a fight.   Lozini never even saw it coming–until Parker pointed it out to him.  But Parker is angry at himself for not seeing it sooner.  False premises.  Hasty assumptions.  They’ll get you every time.  You have to know the territory.

Is it a bit much, making Parker smarter about politics than Lozini, who has been controlling this city for decades, or even Grofield, who spent hours researching Tyler’s political scene, and has shown some knowledge of politics in past?  Should a wolf in human form really know so much about the way our power structures work?   Technically, wolves are all about politics–who has the power in the pack at a given moment–it’s a lot more complicated than people think.  It’s not just Alphas and Omegas.  Nobody knows better than a wolf how transitory power can be, how quickly it can change allegiance.

Watch two dogs smelling each other, sizing each other up, sensing subtle changes that we’re entirely oblivious to.  They know far more about us than we about them–always watching us, even when they seem not to be.  We are, after all, their source of sustenance.  But see, dogs give a damn about us.  Parker doesn’t.

Basically, Parker knows what he needs to know about us to survive in our world. He’s always evaluating the situation, the battlefields he makes his living upon, which happen to be our communities, because that’s where the money is.  His mind functions more efficiently without all the distractions that plague the rest of us–but he can still make mistakes.  He’s been too focused on what he wants (the money), and hadn’t given enough thought to what others might be wanting.   And now he’s off-balance, wrong-footed.  He’s got a new enemy, whose name he doesn’t even know.  He’s got to fix that, and quickly.

Next chapter is from the perspective of George Farrell, local furniture magnate, pillar of the community, who has become bored with the family business, and consequently developed a taste for politics (tell me if you’ve heard this one before).  To further this end, he’s made a deal with known criminals–they’ll get him into power, and he’ll do their bidding, but he figures once he has the power, he can handle them just fine. What he can’t handle is two guys pretending to be his new security detail, who turn out to be Parker and Grofield.  His self-assurance cracks quickly under the weight of Parker’s fists.   He blurts out the name of his patron–Louis Buenadella.

And now we’re with Harold Calesian, detective first grade on Tyler’s police force, and a trusted member of Lozini’s inner circle–he’s in with Buenadella, of course.  Having picked a side, he intends to do all he can to make sure everything works out as planned, and to that end, he’s the one who murdered Officer O’Hara, who knew too much about what happened that night at the amusement park, two years ago.  He’s just back from murdering Paul Dunstan, the other cop there that night, who tried (too late) to get clean, get away, get free.  There was about one chance in a million that Dunstan would ever have been a problem for Calesian.  One chance too many.   Some people really do make murder the answer to everything.

He gets to his apartment, and Lozini is there waiting for him.  Lozini knows whoever is behind the coup wouldn’t have made a move without getting their top cop on his side.  He wants Calesian to tell him who it is.  If Calesian won’t tell him, Lozini will start shooting him in various non-fatal areas of his anatomy.  Lozini is done fooling around.

Lozini’s arc in this book is interesting–he’s become aware, very suddenly, of how much he’s allowed himself to slip–too many years of playing the part of respectable citizen–over time, you become the person you pretend to be.  The old gangster has lost his edge.  This is the first time in decades he’s even held a gun in his hand.  But he’s still dangerous.

Lozini doesn’t like to be pushed, but he doesn’t really want a fight either.  This is his identity crisis.  He’s trapped between two versions of himself–the ruthless man he used to be, and the easy-going amateur chef who pulls the strings from a safe distance, and has long avoided any direct use of violence, because it didn’t make sense for a man in his position to take that kind of risk.  That man he used to be is still down there inside of him–as was the case with Bronson, when Parker came for him, years before–but the reflexes have dulled.  Memory isn’t enough.

He tells Calesian he’s just about ready to retire, leave town, play shuffleboard.   But he can’t accept being forced out by an underling.  He wants to make some kind of deal, come to an arrangement.  This is his mistake.  This is why he’s about to die.  Because you can’t have it both ways.   You can’t have absolute power, and then just bargain it away at your convenience.  In this kind of business, you’re all the way in, or all the way out.  Kings don’t get to retire.  A fellow named Lear could have told him that.  Different mob.

Calesian is finished if he tells Lozini he’s working for Buenadella, and a cripple if he won’t.   So he feeds him a lie, says it’s the other possible, Ernie Dulare.  That gets Lozini off balance, thinking about something other than Calesian, who says he’s got something in his bag that will prove he’s telling the truth–what he’s got is the same gun he used to kill Dunstan.  Lozini takes just a second too long figuring out what’s happening.  Well, he probably wouldn’t have enjoyed shuffleboard much, anyway.  Stupid game.

So next we’re with Buenadella the porn merchant, get a bit of his background–he’s the new style of ganglord.  All business.   We’ve seen this dichotomy before in Westlake’s work (361, The Outfit, etc).  When gangsters start going legit, they stop being gangsters.  Difference is, Buenadella, who got his start in the mafia, never really was a gangster at heart.  The coup he’s planned is supposed to be bloodless.   He’s not out to whack anybody.  He really thought that could work.  Then Farrell tells him about Parker and Grofield–who suddenly show up at his house, armed.  So much for that plan.

Grofield can’t believe how tacky the house is–like a bad stage set.  It’s reminiscent of how Westlake described Vigano’s house in Cops and Robbers.  Too many clashing elements, the elegant alongside the vulgar, indicative of nouveau riche tastes.  But he’s got to focus on what’s happening–Parker is tired of the run-around.  He wants their 73 grand, and Buenadella, since he now wants to be the man in charge, is going to cough it up or die.

Thing is, Buenadella spent a lot of that money from the amusement park on this coup of his.  He didn’t need it to pull the coup off successfully, it was just a convenient piece of extra capital he didn’t want Lozini to get his hands on.  He wishes he’d never seen the money, but hindsight won’t stop Parker from killing him if he can’t pay.  Money is very tight in his organization at the moment because it’s supporting not one but two mayoral campaigns–but he figures he can manage to come up with the cash before the election, somehow.  Just to make these two very frightening individuals go their merry way.

Grofield is privately a bit critical of Parker’s negotiating skills here (if you want to call them that)–he’s thinking you can’t push so hard, or they push back.  He’s dealt with businessmen before, in his acting life.  Let Buenadella come around, see the sense of their proposal.   Between the good and bad cop approach, they get Buenadella to at least tentatively agree to give them what they want.  And as he and Parker are walking out the rear-facing french doors they’d come in through, Grofield gets shot in the chest by a guy he barely glimpses, who was waiting outside.

It spun him around.  Everything went out of focus as he turned, like a special effect in a movie.  He killed me! Grofield thought despairingly, and slid down the invisible glass wall of life.

That’s a death scene, if ever there was one.  Any other Richard Stark character, that’d be the last POV chapter he ever got.  The language is not at all ambiguous, but (spoiler alert) Grofield does not die. So what’s up with that?

Up to this point, you could say this was as much a Grofield novel as a Parker–the conclusion to both sagas–Grofield has been co-protagonist, and in this chapter, he’s even seeming to take control of the partnership for a moment.  In his mind, as has been the case since we first met him, he’s the hero, dramatic music playing in the background as he goes through his paces, rescues the maiden, defeats the bad guys (even though he’s technically a bad guy).  That’s how it plays out in his mind.

But not in Stark’s mind.  That’s the problem–Stark has always preferred Parker–Parker belongs in the world of Richard Stark–Grofield, as I’ve said before, is a Westlake character who wandered into Stark’s realm by mistake, and perhaps outstayed his welcome.

Grofield is respected, by Parker and by Stark, for his skills, his professionalism, his refusal to compromise his craft by working in television and film–but his entire life is a compromise.  Is he an actor or a robber?  A devoted husband or a footloose philanderer?   One foot in sea and one on shore, to one thing constant never.  Which is what an actor needs to be, which is why an actor wrote that line.

I think Westlake, the former spear-carrier in summer theater, always had a soft spot for him–he represents some old fantasies, and is certainly based in part on Westlake’s first-ever series protagonist, the lusty young journeyman actor, Phil Crawford, who appeared in several of Westlake’s sleaze novels (only one of which I’ve read).

But in Stark’s world, Grofield’s been living on borrowed time.  He’s always on the brink of dying, in the Parker novels and his own, only to escape the final reckoning by the skin of his proverbial teeth.  Now the bill has come due.  He’s being rejected by that world, cast forth from it.  Westlake may not intend this, but Stark does, and in a Parker novel, Stark has the final word.

And even though Grofield is clearly referring to the man he saw shoot him when he says “He killed me”, he’s always seemed to me to have just an inkling of the fact that he’s a player on a larger stage, and maybe he knows on some level who really pulled the trigger on him just now.  Any actor knows, when the playwright says you’re dead, you have to lie down–but as Raoul Walsh once wryly quipped, when asked why James Cagney’s bullet-riddled character takes forever to die at the end of The Roaring 20’s, “It’s hard to kill an actor.”

This is all getting rather meta, I know, but the most Westlake, Vishnu to Stark’s Shiva, can do for Grofield is intercede quietly on his creation’s behalf, try to soften the blow.   And there’s only one ‘hero’ in this myth-cycle who can do that for him–Parker.

But Parker’s reaction, as he flees out the front door of Buenadella’s house, protected by the presence of a surveillance van manned by state police, is merely It was too bad about Grofield.  Soldiers die in wars all the time.  He’s got no intention of doing anything about it.   His objective at this point is still just the money.  73 grand would tide him and Claire over for some time.  For him to think about anything else, someone’s going to have to push that button in his head that makes him need to kill whoever pushed it.

Grofield’s shooter was Calesian, who had come to Buenadella’s to tell him about Lozini, saw the car, and realized what was happening–then realized too late that both Parker and Grofield were there, so he didn’t wait for them both to come into view as he lay in wait.   So Parker got away, and now he’s got to deal with a raging Buenadella, who is angry enough that a situation he was about to resolve non-violently has just been escalated.  He’s even more upset when he finds out Lozini is dead.   Killing a boss is a serious business–there’s people at the national level who will be angered by it, since they’re bosses too.

But Buenadella’s power, so newly achieved, is already falling away from him–his business as usual approach doesn’t fit the situation, and it’s not like he’s been elected to anything–he’s only boss if people do what he says.  Calesian begins to realize he can be boss now–he’s the one who took charge when things got tough.  So in spite of his seeming lowly status in the organization, he can take control of the whole shooting match now if he wants, and much to his surprise, he really really wants that.   A cop could be the boss of the local mafia.  Gee, no identity crisis there, right?

But this means he has to pin Lozini’s death on somebody else.  Parker will do nicely as the fall guy.  Buenadella fearfully agrees, not knowing how to do anything else.  He’ll make a good figurehead.  Calesian is making all the plans, and the other powers in the Tyler mob fall in behind him–and accept his story that Parker shot Lozini without question–that will also be the story they tell the national syndicate leaders, like Karns.  But that means they can’t cut a deal with Parker anymore.  They have to kill him to shut him up.  Which means they have to lure him in somehow.  Calesian knows just the way–and here comes the one scene people most remember in the book.

A meet is arranged over the phone–Parker makes very sure the emissary wasn’t being tailed.  Ted Shevelly, Lozini’s loyal consigliere (he was never even approached about the coup), who doesn’t know what’s really going on here, is delegated to bring Parker a token of their regard.   One of Grofield’s little fingers in a little white box.   To prove he’s still alive.  They’ll keep sending more fingers, and other things, until Parker agrees to come in and talk.   Then he’ll get his money, and Grofield, and an ambulance to take him away in.

Parker knows there’d be no talking if he took that deal.   But that isn’t the point anymore.  The button has been pushed.  The button nobody in this world can ever un-push.  The money has now assumed a secondary importance to him.   Or maybe it’s been inextricably mingled together in his mind with something else.  Something much older.

And you can imagine that very ancient fire kindling behind his unreadable onyx eyes, his facial expression not altering in the slightest as that thing inside of him is irreversibly triggered, as we have seen happen many times before, but somehow never quite like this.   If they had made that movie they planned, can you think of any actor who could have expressed that subtle yet unmistakable transition?  Lee Marvin, maybe.  Not an option in 1996.

He knows immediately that this isn’t Buenadella’s idea–that Calesian is in charge.  He tells Shevelly that.  Shevelly doesn’t understand.  Shevelly is being very obtuse.  Fatally so.

“It was a stupid thing to kill Al Lozini,” Shevelly said.

Parker frowned at him, looking at the coldly angry face.  “Oh.  They told you I did that, huh?”

Shevelly had nothing to say.  Parker, studying him, saw there was no point arguing with him, and no longer possible to make use of him.  He gestured with the pistol toward Shevelly, saying, “Get out of the car.”

“What?”

“Just get out.  Leave the door open, back away to the sidewalk, keep facing me.”

Shevelly frowned.  “What for?”

“I take precautions.  Do it.”

Puzzled Shevelly opened the door and climbed out onto the thin grass next to the curb.  He took a step to the sidewalk and turned around to face the car again.

Parker leaned far to the right, aiming the pistol out at arm’s length in front of him, the line of the barrel sighted on Shevelly’s head.  Shevelly read his intention and suddenly thrust his hands out protectively in front of himself shouting “I’m only the messenger!”

“Now you’re the message,” Parker told him, and shot him.

Parker spends the next few hours seeking a base of operations–he chooses Calesian’s neighborhood.  He’d already looked Calesian up in the phone book, broke into his apartment, found Lozini’s body.  He’s not interested in any of that now, he’s just aware of the fact that it’s the kind of impersonal upscale neighborhood where strangers will not be noticed.  He picks a large apartment building, uses skeleton keys (Abadandi’s?) to check the apartments that don’t have any mail downstairs.  He finds one belonging to a couple who just left on vacation.  He moves his and Grofield’s things there.  He makes some calls.  Some guys take longer than others to find, but he’s very persistent.  When he’s finished, eleven of the men he talked to are on their way to Tyler.

Now re-reading this, I was moved to wonder–does he have a little black book of fellow heisters, or their contacts, that he carries around with him?  That seems like a potentially dangerous piece of evidence to carry around.   Which would mean he’s got all those numbers committed to memory.   For just such situations as this.  In The Outfit, he used the mail–he sent letters to various heisters he knew, telling them these organization men had violated some unwritten law about leaving their kind alone, and as a result they should feel free to ignore the unwritten law that they don’t hit Outfit businesses, no matter how invitingly soft they look.  And surprisingly enough, it worked–they didn’t do it as a favor to him, but they did it, and it helped bring down Arthur Bronson.

There’s no time for that now.  And he’s not just out to bring down Buenadella, Calesian, or whoever else happens to be in charge.  This is not the same situation–they just owed him money then.  Now they owe him blood.  The entire organization is responsible for sending him that finger.   The entire organization has to pay.   Yes, it is rather reminiscent of Anarchaos, isn’t it?   But Parker is no neophyte, like Rolf Malone.  And Grofield isn’t his brother, not that we can be sure a mere genetic relationship would matter to him.  No matter how Parker may or may not feel about his fallen colleague, Grofield’s plight, in and of itself, wouldn’t be enough to make Parker act this way.  But the finger was.  Why?

Leaving that question to one side for the moment, we now move through a series of chapters from the perspective of some characters from past books we haven’t seen in some time, and at least two we never thought we’d see again.   As the moon continues to wane over Tyler, eleven of Parker’s fellow ‘wolves’ (and one lovely little bitch named Brenda, and I only mean that as a compliment) descend upon Tyler, which as we were informed early in the book, never did build a wall around itself, to serve as protection from rapacious bands of brigands, and other beasts of the night.  Such things are in the distant past.  Not anything a modern American city needs worry about.

The 1927-28 New York Yankees line-up was famously known as ‘Murderer’s Row’, but they got nothing on this all star line-up.  Stan Devers and Philly Webb, from the Air Force base job in Monequois.  Dan Wycza, Frank Elkins, and Ralph Wiss, from the legendary Copper Canyon heist.   Mike Carlow, the ultimate getaway driver, sprung from jail after getting nabbed for his role in the Indianapolis coin convention score–as a neat bonus, we find out that Otto Mainzer, the loud-mouth Nazi rapist they worked with on that one had, with his usual fine-tuned grasp of the social graces, made himself so generally noxious to the law that they were practically begging Carlow to accept a deal in exchange for turning state’s.  No prisoner’s dilemma here, since the two loathed each other at first sight, and nobody wanted to give Mainzer a break.

But wait, there’s more!  Ed and Brenda Mackey who we met in Plunder Squad, are driving there, everyone’s favorite fun crime couple, exchanging saucy single-entendres, and not in any way discussing the fact that last time we saw Ed, he was supposed to be lying dead in a burning warehouse, after Parker left him there.  I’m sure that will be explained very shortly.

Just to remind us how this atypically long Parker novel got started, Ducasse, Dalesia, and the other Hurley (the one Parker and Grofield did not shoot full of holes for ratting on them) are coming as well.  Last and the precise opposite of least, there’s Handy McKay, the first and finest of Parker’s partners in crime, out of retirement at last, courtesy of Uncle Sam’s infrastructure upgrades that have made his little diner in Maine unprofitable.  With a few pertinent questions to ask of his old comrade.

Murderer’s Row, indeed.   Parker’s getting the band back together, except most of these guys don’t even know each other, except through him.   You realize what a deep bench of irreformable hard cases he’s compiled in his head over the years.   This is the dream team he always aspired to create, but somehow there was always a bad apple, a weak link.   Not this time.  And just as in Copper Canyon, there’s twelve of them (Grofield makes thirteen), and just as in The Score, you wonder if you’re supposed to be drawing some blasphemous inference or other.

Parker isn’t just calling in the reserves–he’s drawing up battle plans.   To that end, he hijacks poor Frankie Faran, who manages that club Parker and Grofield hit a few nights back.  Frankie is no great shakes in the Tyler mob, but due to his position–you might say he’s their social director–he’s had many an informal chat over drinks with all the major players, and he knows everything Parker needs to know about all the rackets in town.  Which Parker needs to know because Murderer’s Row doesn’t work for nothing.  Frankie is terrified of what his friends would do to him if they found out he’d spilled the beans to Parker, but we’ve seen this dance before, and in no time at all, he’s much more terrified of what Parker will do to him if he doesn’t.

In the meantime, the moon over Tyler has shrunk to a mere silver sliver–tomorrow night it’ll be pitch black out, or would be if some joker turned out the lights.  In that bit of remaining moonlight, we see Grofield, lying in a bed in Buenadella’s house, hooked up to tubes, breathing shallowly, his hands making the occasional spasmodic movement (Should I mention that this chilling tableau reminds me of the stroke scene in Ex Officio?  Probably not).   His heart stops.  Then starts up again.  Hang in there, buddy.   You’ve got Vishnu in your corner, and Shiva has bigger fish to fry.

That gets us about 212 pages in, and that’ll do for Part 2.  Just ninety-four pages to go.  And if you can point out a more perfectly paralyzing pulse-pounding ninety-four pages anywhere else in the annals of fictive crime, I’d be only too grateful.  But perhaps a mite skeptical.

So I just have to cough up Part 3 and we’re done.  In our dimension (in the Northern Hemisphere), the next Butcher’s Moon will occur this coming Sunday, September 13th.  I’m making no promises here, but I’ll see what I can do.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Butcher's Moon, Donald Westlake novels, Richard Stark