Category Archives: Richard Stark

Mr. Westlake and the LOA.

‘Tis pleasant, sure, to see one’s name in print.
A book’s a book, although there’s nothing in ‘t.

Lord Byron

In reviewing our last book, I was moved to rant a bit about how, much as I disparaged its quality as a literary work, it was, nonetheless, still easily and instantaneously available to anyone with with an e-reader.  That was largely because it came out in 2003, by which time pretty much any book that got a print edition got an electronic one to go with it.  Unfortunately, by the time e-books became de rigeur, most of Westlake’s best work had already been produced and published.

And yet, it must be said, most of his best work is still ‘in print’, even if only in digital form, or as audio books (if you call that print).  All twenty-eight Richard Stark novels.  Of the fourteen Dortmunder novels, the only one you can’t get at the Amazon Kindle Store is Don’t Ask (has anyone asked?), and there’s still fourteen books, because Thieves Dozen is there.  The five Mitch Tobin mysteries–all there.  Series fiction tends to perpetuate itself, because publishing, tangible or virtual, loves repeat customers.  (Sara Joslyn and Samuel Holt are shit out of luck, but I don’t think we need to worry ourselves too much about that for the present time.)

The Ax, his best-selling and most critically lauded work, self-evidently has a Kindle edition.  His few very long novels, none of which quite exactly fit his usual niche, are all there too, amazingly.  Ex Officio.  Dancing Aztecs.  Kahawa.  Smoke.  You could spend a whole summer at the beach getting through all that digital ink.

Between University of Chicago Press, Hard Case Crime, Mysteriouspress.com and a few other outlets, you can read the great bulk of Westlake’s vast treasure trove of stories, in physical and/or electronic form (including some things that went unpublished in his lifetime)–some e-publishers have even made some of his early science fiction and sleaze paperbacks available–nice thing about that is they don’t have the money to commission cover art, so often you get the original cover, in all its lurid tawdry splendor.  You can even get Comfort Station, a throwaway parody of Arthur Hailey (that nobody who has the original paperback will ever throw away, because precioussssssss…..)

And naturally there’s plenty of used hardcovers and paperbacks of many editions still to be had via used bookstores and the online marketplace.  Also, lest we forget, The Getaway Car, a nonfiction anthology, that opened our eyes to new possible interpretations of Westlake’s fiction and Westlake himself.

So I can’t really complain that  his books aren’t out there, pretty easily available to anyone with a bit of spare cash and spare time, and the willingness to search around a bit.  You can get download most of his best work (and much of his worst) with nothing more than a credit card and a wifi connection.

But I’m going to complain anyway, because it’s not enough.  Some of the best novels he ever wrote have been out of print for decades.  And it’s increasingly difficult to find even his most famous and influential books in anything other than ebook form.  I understand the way the publishing industry is going–I work for a library, and I thank the gods for my own Kindle (reading Dostoevsky’s Demons on it right now–timely–too timely)–but I also know we’re a very long way from abandoning paper books yet.  I ought to know, since I’m the one toting boxes full of them, day after day.

I have read that Abby Westlake and others with a connection to her husband’s literary estate, have expressed interest in some of his work being reprinted by The Library of America.  Inquiries were made not long after Mr. Westlake’s death.  But nothing came of them.  And yet, shortly after Elmore Leonard’s death–

three_library_of_america_covers

Well deserved, but why him and not Westlake, who died almost ten years ago?   I could make some guesses, but guess what?  I don’t care why.  There may be reasons, but there aren’t any good reasons.

Leonard got his start in westerns; Westlake in science fiction and fantasy, with the occasional dash of horror–the old literary establishment prejudice against the latter genres?

Maybe not.  Philip K. Dick got a collection too (with none of my favorites in it–mainly the ones that feel least like science fiction, which I would guess was the point).  And Vonnegut, but of course he shook the dust of genre from his feet a long time ago. I was never all that impressed with him, to be honest.  But he’s an Important Writer (who is mainly kept in print by college professors and their students).

(Incidentally, that Jackson collection is wholly inadequate–where’s The Birds Nest, The Sundial, Hangsaman?  Most people still don’t understand how great she was.  I’m glad she got in, but that is not sufficiently representative of her range.)

My interest in the LOA began in earnest when I read their collection of crime novels of the 1950’s–a truly original and downright seminal anthology of oddball authors, that will centrally figure in articles I aspire to publish here someday soon, and maybe I will.  They also published five David Goodis novels, almost single-handedly reviving interest in him (though not in France, where they’ve never stopped being interested in him).

I truly admire David Goodis.  I have spent many a cold windy day pouring over his dark meanderings in a bar, a foaming glass of suds beside me (it’s really the only way to read him).  He was not nearly as good a writer as Donald Westlake.  Hell, I’m not sure he was a good writer at all; that’s not the point of Goodis.  I guess you can say he epitomizes a style, a mood, but I suspect the main reason he got that anthology is that the French like him.  (Psst! They like Westlake too!)

Looking over their list of volumes to date, I note a decided dearth of humorous writers.  Goes without saying they have Twain, Thurber, Lardner–but no Perelman, no Benchley, and no Wodehouse (he’s more American than Nabokov!).  George S. Kaufman gets a collection, and much as I love the Marx Brothers, I’m not entirely sure why that is.  You can just watch the movies made of his plays (the best of which were co-written with Moss Hart).  I’m not begrudging him, I’m just saying.  Nobody reads Kaufman to laugh these days.  I mean, it’s bad enough they haven’t published any Parkers, but they haven’t even published any Dorothy Parkers!

One can understand that there’s a whole lot of sacred scribblers out there in the weeds, waiting their moment in the sun.  One can further understand that every time they publish a collection of some author who isn’t deemed to be quite the right sort (apparently some people didn’t think Shirley Jackson was LOA-worthy), you start seeing things like this–

(Okay, I agree something can be funny without being at all fair, but none of that changes the fact that Shirley Jackson was one of the greatest writers of her generation, and she’s been anthologized a lot.)

So you can imagine that some people would look down their noses at a Westlake collection.  But that being said, what would such a collection look like?  I don’t have the mad web skills that would allow me to create mock LOA covers, but I do have a pretty clear notion of what books of his ought to be in print that are currently not in print.

If Leonard got three books, Westlake deserves no less, but I don’t think we need to go with the decade-based system.  I’d suggest that one volume be devoted to works leaning towards the whimsical side of Westlake’s nature (but often with a dark edge to them) and another leaning towards the dark side (but still with the odd dash of whimsy).  Some of his books are so perfectly balanced between the two poles, they could go either way.  But here’s how I’d do it.

Volume I–Donald E. Westlake: Five Novels of Heroic Absurdity, 1966-1984

The Spy in the Ointment
Adios, Scheherazade
Help I Am Being Held Prisoner
Brothers Keepers
A Likely Story

Volume II–Donald E. Westlake: Five Novels of Dangerous Bewilderment, 1961-1975

Killing Time
Killy
Anarchaos
Up Your Banners
Two Much!

Volume III–Donald E. Westlake, Richard Stark, and Tucker Coe–Five Crime Novels, 1962-1997

361
The Hunter
The Seventh
Wax Apple
The Ax

My problem with Vol. III is that it steps on the toes of the publishers who are keeping all these great books around for us  (so does Two Much!, I guess, but it’s just two good to leave out).  It also potentially gets them a lot of new readers for Westlake, Stark, and Coe.  A net positive, I think.

I’d really love to get A Jade In Aries in there too, but as I said, all the Tobins are evailable now.  Wax Apple, to me, is the best of the five, even if A Jade In Aries is more ambitious and radical.  Wax Apple is also the midway book in the series, the relative calm between the storms.  And, you know, gender identity politics–what was brave and forward-thinking then can be easily misunderstood now.  People can always go find more, and make up their own minds.

Just dreaming out loud.  Maybe there’s something about Westlake that makes people in the book biz underrate him, even while they’re loving him.  Maybe he was too successful at flying beneath the radar.  Maybe he published too much, under too many names, and maybe he wrote to the market a little too much. (Elmore Leonard arguably did that even more.)  Maybe he’s just too confusing, too hard to pigeonhole, flitting back and forth between comedy and crime, mendacity and murder, and blending them together so artfully that you don’t know where one leaves off and the other begins.

I have to admit, I wouldn’t envy the task of some editor tasked with finding a way to sum him up in three books–and if it ever happened, he might well get only one.

I’m not the only one who thinks he’s among the greatest writers America ever produced, and my blog stats reveal that there are people all over this planet who think the same thing.

I’m just putting it out there.

And hopefully next week I’ll be putting out my review of the next Dortmunder, but after a two week hiatus, I figured a quick toss-off wouldn’t go amiss).

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Richard Stark, Tucker Coe

Review: Breakout, Part 2

i_Armory.0

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

From the short story Freedom, by Frank O’Connor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d say Williams is a somewhat overdue homage to all the black men who’d written fan letters to Westlake (as Stark) after the Parker novels started coming out–not all of them necessarily felons, but all of them feeling alienated from society, at odds with it, and liking Parker so much because they knew he’d understand their problems, if not necessarily give a damn about them.  Not reacting to Parker as a white man, but just as somebody who knew the score, and cared about as much about color as blood type.  And we all bleed red.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We still don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know the feeling,” Parker said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It felt like a long time.”

“I knew you’d be back,” she said.

“This time,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Breakout

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I spent four nights and five days in that jail, and hated it, even more than you might expect.  Every instant was intolerable.  I hate being here now; I hate being here now; I hate being here now.

Years later, when I was writing novels about criminals, and when at least some of the criminals were still literate, I’d occasionally get a fan letter from somebody doing time, and in a few instances, when I replied, I gave an edited version of my own jail time so I could ask the question: How can you live in an intolerable state for years?  I couldn’t stand one single second of it for a mere five days; how do you do it year after year?

The answer I got was always the same, with minor variations.  Yes, what I described was what they, too, had gone through, the absolute unbearable horror, but I’d quit the experience too early.  Some time in the second week, they told me, your brain flips over and this becomes the reality.  This becomes where you live now.  And how, I wonder, do you come back from that damage?

From the unpublished memoirs of Donald E. Westlake, excerpted in The Getaway Car.

The first week is the hardest.  The change from outside, from freedom to confinement, from spreading your arms wide to holding them in close to your body, is so abrupt and extreme that the mind refuses to believe it.  Second by second, it keeps on being a rotten surprise, the worst joke in the world.  You keep thinking, I can’t stand this, I’m going to lose my mind, I’m going to wig out or off myself, I can’t stand this now and now and now.

Then, sometime in the second week, the mind’s defenses kick in, the brain just flips over, and this place, this impossible miserable place, just becomes the place where you happen to live.  These people are the people you live among, these rules are the rules you live within.  This is your world now, and it’s the other one that isn’t real any more.

Parker wondered if he’d be here that long.

Marcantoni said, “How come you trust Kasper, that’s what I don’t get.  He’s a white guy.”

“He looks like a door to me,” Williams said.  “I never did care what color a door was.”

You ever wonder why stories about prison breaks are so perennially popular?   I don’t means someone imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, like that famously vengeful count, or Steve McQueen escaping the Nazis, or Jean Gabin escaping what came before the Nazis, and a meaningless bloody war along with it–that doesn’t need explanation.  Good vs. evil, freedom vs. confinement, is all that is.   (Granted, the prison comandante in Grand Illusion wasn’t so bad, but the system he worked for was, and so was the system Jean Gabin’s character worked for, and that’s the story of pretty nearly every war ever fought, kids.)

I’m talking about the prison break stories where there’s no question the escapees are guilty of the crimes they were imprisoned for, that society had legitimate reasons for locking them up,  and short of some Shawshank silliness (put me with those who say that film is wildly overrated), there’s not much chance of them going straight once they do break out.  They’re not breaking out to make a new life.  They’re breaking out because they can’t do anything else; a reflex action, as unavoidable and automatic as jerking your hand from a hot stove.

And we root for them to escape their escape-proof cells in fiction, even though if the same exact guys escaped in reality (and they do, frequently), we’d be screaming at the law to round them up and throw them back in the hole they just crawled out of.   It seems that we identify with them more behind bars than when they’re out in the world with us.  What are we seeing in these stories?

It’s a sub-genre better known from the movies than from prose fiction (though many of those movies were based on prose fiction).  Let me run down a few of my personal favorites.  Cool Hand LukeEscape From AlcatrazLe Trou.  But I think maybe the king of them all is Jules Dassin’s Brute Force–from 1947, back when Law&Order always won, and boy do they ever (with casualties on both sides). If that movie doesn’t break your heart, you don’t have one.

You’ll see an image from the opening of that film I posted up top–I had to do the screen capture myself, from YouTube, and I’m not any kind of wiz at that, so if your screen isn’t hi-res enough for you to make out the words beneath that grim watchtower, they read Westgate Penitentiary.  Yeah.  You want to bet Westlake didn’t notice that?  Any takers?  No?  Smart.

This type of prison break story is almost always tragic, of course.  Just like heist stories are mainly tragic.  Yes, we want to see these prisoners escape, just like we want to see daring robbers steal things, but something has to go wrong.  They have to fail in the end, go down bloody, or be dragged back into chains, perhaps after winning some symbolic moral victory.  You know what Richard Stark had to say to that?  Nothing terribly polite.

Yes, realistically speaking, violent death or renewed imprisonment is the likely fate of anyone who breaks prison and/or robs a bank. One or the other.  Sooner or later.  But what would make it later, as opposed to sooner?  Next time, instead of this time?

Parker was partly a reaction to Dillinger, who robbed banks and broke prison, and the law sure wasn’t taking any chances with regards to him doing it again.  Why didn’t Dillinger last longer?  Because he liked publicity too much.  Because he was too flashy.  Because he made himself a walking target for the equally publicity-hungry G-Men, his face on every post office wall, his name making headlines everywhere he went. Because he was apparently out to prove something.

And Parker goes out of his way not to do that–part of the point of these books is Westlake trying to solve the problem of how to be like Dillinger without ending up like Dillinger.  Parker couldn’t care less about being famous.  Parker isn’t fighting the system.  He’s subverting it, avoiding it, confusing it, blending into it, defeating it.  He slips through the cracks and he’s gone.  He won’t be writing any letters to the editor about it afterwards.

Parker is a wolf, not a man.  Wolves don’t have existentialist crises.  Wolves just want to make another kill, get back to the den, live to hunt another day.  Like any wolf, he needs a pack to make that work.  So he looks around him for the rare individuals in his line of work who share at least part of this lupine ethos with him.  The professionals.  But  those are rare in any field of endeavor, and sometimes he has to settle for the half-wit hare-brained helots that probably do belong in prison.  That’s where this story begins.

An alarm goes off in a warehouse somewhere in the flat dry midwest.  Parker and his string had been stealing pharmaceuticals to be sold offshore, but the local boy they had to recruit got greedy, went into the office to see if there was something extra he could take.  Their lockman hadn’t disarmed that one.  The cops are coming.  The screw-up, named Bruhl, panics and takes their truck (then crashes it).   There’s nowhere to hide in the desolate industrial park at night (no amusement park this time).  Parker runs, knowing it’s futile.  A squad car fixes its searchlight on him.  He gives up.   The law finally got him.

The second time we know of that Parker has been arrested–first time he’s been arrested for a felony.  The other time was for vagrancy, after Lynn shot him, in The Hunter.  He gave them the alias Ronald Kasper (I feel pretty sure Parker wasn’t referring to Kaspar Hauser, but not so sure about Stark).

They got his fingerprints, and stuck him in a prison camp in California.  He only had to wait out his short sentence and he’d be free.  He escaped, killing a guard on his way out,  made his way east to deal with Lynn, Mal, and The Outfit.  So very long ago, but fingerprints don’t age.  Parker knew that from the start.  Now he’s being confronted by an investigator from the state police, who knows too much about him.  And unlike that hick police chief in The Jugger, this one’s honest, and smart, and Parker can’t just kill him.

“The system makes mistakes,” Parker said.

Turley’s grin turned down, not finding anything funny here.  “So do individuals, my friend,” he said.  Looking into his dossier again, he said, “There is no Ronald Kasper, not before, not since.  In the prison camp, out, left behind these prints, one guard dead.  Do you want to know his name?”

Parker shook his head.  “Wouldn’t mean anything to me.”

“No, I suppose it wouldn’t.  We have some other names for you.”

Edward Johnson.  Charles Willis.  Edward Lynch.  Even ‘Parker, no first name’ (how does Turley know it isn’t a first  name?).  They have that one too.  They have him on Murder One, in California, and California wants to extradite.

Turley makes some mention of game theory–aka The Prisoner’s Dilemma.  They have all of Parker’s colleagues locked up.  Bruhl is badly hurt, but he may live. The others are in the same temporary holding facility Parker is on, but on different levels, so he can’t talk to them.  Turkey suggests that whichever one of them spills the beans first about who their buyer for the drugs was is going to get a better deal with regards to future incarceration.  Parker says he’s heard of game theory.  But that was never his game.   And he’s more about praxis.

(If I go into detail about all the connections between this book and Put A Lid On It, I’ll  use up too much space.  Game theory, a temporary holding facility for prisoners awaiting trial, having to do a job right after getting out of the joint–Westlake sometimes treated his research and the basic framework of a plot like a theater set where many different dramas–and comedies–could be enacted before he tore it down and built a new one. Part of how he was able to put on so many lively productions.)

Parker is assigned a public defender, a black man, who is clearly going to do no more than the bare minimum, because that’s all he’s got the time and energy for (and his client is clearly guilty of all charges).  He advises Parker to cooperate. Parker sizes him up as somebody who can’t do the job that needs doing–delay the extradition, give him time to plan–but can be trusted to keep his clients’ confidences.  Parker gives him a letter to mail to Claire.  Claire will get him a criminal attorney.  Parker isn’t part of the public, and he can defend himself.  He will need the help of a very different black man, though.

The new lawyer hired by Claire is named Jonathan Li, and he knows the score.  He gets paid very well for doing whatever his clients ask of him, as long it’s (somewhat) within the law.  He will delay the extradition, throw grit into the wheels of justice, slow everything down.  He doesn’t argue with Parker about the futility of his requests.  The customer is always right. He also informs Parker that his former brother-in-law wants to see him.  Parker has no in-laws, past or present.  But does he say that?  No, he just waits to find out who it is–Ed Mackey.  Claire’s been busy.

Parker is once again baffled by the way some of his criminal associates will go to bat for him in ways that he finds excessive.  One of the identity puzzles of this book is trying to figure out Parker’s rationale for when you help somebody and when you don’t.  In this case, Ed, is going to try and spring Parker because of what happened with Ed Liss, back in Comeback, the first of this five-book series of interlocking titles, of which Breakout is the last.

Parker stopped Liss from killing them both, then finished Liss off later on, and Ed feels like he owes Parker one.  Parker isn’t in a position to complain about what he sees as illogical behavior, so he says nothing about it.  He asks Ed to check up on four guys in the same cellblock as him, see if any of them can be trusted–or not.  Williams.  Jelinek.  Clayton (bit of a nod to The Mercenaries?).  Marcantoni.

And on Ed’s return visit, three full decades after Plunder Squad, we finally find out why he’s still alive–and why he always has his wife Brenda with him when he’s working.

Some years ago, Brenda had trailed Mackey and Parker, though she hadn’t been asked to, when they went to deliver some stolen paintings in a deal that then went very bad.  At the end, Parker left a lumberyard’s burning main building, with the paintings destroyed, and he’d believed Mackey was dead, shot by one of the people who’d been waiting in there.  Brenda, seeing Parker take off alone, went into the building, found Mackey on the concrete floor, and dragged him out and into her car before the fire engines arrived.

“Fortunately,” Mackey said, “life is usually quieter than that.”

Unfortunately, Jelinek is a prison rat, who sells information about his fellow inmates to the bulls (another overlapping detail from Put A Lid On It, much more significant to the story here).  Clayton is serving a short stretch, escaping makes no sense for him, don’t even bring it up.  Williams and Marcantoni are smart solid pros heading for long sentences, just like Parker.   Bingo.  He knows what he’s got to work with in terms of putting a crew together–now he just has to get them to join up.   Ed can reach out to them through mutual acquaintances on the outside.  But they still have to trust Parker–and each other.  Williams, a black man, is one of Parker’s cellmates–him first.

“You’re facing twenty-five to life,” Parker told him.

Williams turned his head to look at Parker’s profile.  “Your friend Ed got this on the outside.”

“Nobody gets anything in here.”

Williams shrugged.  “And so what?”

Parker said, “I’m not good at prison.”

Williams laughed.  “Who is?”

“Some are,” Parker said.

Williams sobered, looking away again at the scene below.  “And that’s true.”  He sounded as though he didn’t like the thought.

“I don’t think you are,” Parker said.

Williams shook his head.  “I can feel myself getting smaller every day.  You fight it, but there it is.” He turned his head to study Parker’s face.  “You aren’t thinking of breaking out of here.”

“Why not?”

“This is not an easy place.”

Parker thinks Stoneveldt could actually be easier to escape than a regular penitentiary.  (That name, by the way, is a definite nod to Stonevelt, the penitentiary from Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, Westlake’s only novel set entirely in a prison–well, not exactly true–read the review, or better still, the book).

What makes it hard to escape is that there’s no time for short-term the inmates to get to know each other, form connections, team up.  The gangs, white and black, that exist in long-term lock-ups aren’t here, because there’s no point to them.  It’s just a bunch of individuals, waiting to find out if they go free sooner, later, or never.  Many lack the brains, others lack the ambition (since they don’t know yet how long they’re in for), and all of them lack the organization, because it’s a place that encourages that old every man for himself attitude.

For this reason, perhaps, there’s not enough guards for the overcrowded facility.  Security isn’t nearly as tight as some places.  A small gang of motivated pros could beat this joint.  They just need one more.  But self-evidently a guy named Marcantoni is white.  And just because there’s no race gangs in this joint doesn’t mean race isn’t on everybody’s mind there.   Like it is everywhere else, whether we admit it or not.  Marcantoni’s not one for mincing words.  Though he avoids the obvious one, to his credit.

Marcantoni made a sour face and shook his head.  “You want to work with a black guy?”

“Why not?”

“Group loyalty,” Marcantoni said.  “One of the first things I learned in life, stick with the group where there’s a chance for loyalty.  There’s never a guarantee, but a chance.  A black guy doesn’t feel loyalty for you and me.  He’d trade us for chewing gum, and we’d do the same for him.”

As we saw in The Black Ice Score, Parker doesn’t give a damn about this tribal crap.  Wolves don’t see color, because color doesn’t tell them anything they need to know.  He needs people he can work with, there’s damned few available, and no time to wait around for a color-coordinated crew to appear.  If Marcantoni doesn’t like it, he can stick around, serve his time, and Parker will find somebody else.  Marcantoni decides the one color he can’t stand is prison gray.

They have to be careful about where they talk.  Even though there’s no gangs, blacks and whites don’t mingle, unless they’re in the same cell, like Parker and Williams.  The three of them confer while using the weights to work out.  Williams and Marcantoni size each other up, and find they have plenty in common.  Most of all a desire to get out of this place.

There is a catch, though–Marcantoni has had this heist all planned out for a while now–he was getting ready to pull it when the cops grabbed him for something else.  He’s pretty fixated on it. It’s in the nearby city–his hometown, Williams’ as well (they never met before, for reasons that shouldn’t need explaining).  He needs a large string to pull this one off, and he wants Parker and Williams to join–which means sticking around a while after they break prison.  That’s his price for taking a chance on escaping with two strangers–a show of good faith, you might say.  Neither of them likes it–Parker least of all–but they need a third man.  They agree.

Jelinek, the rat, doesn’t miss much in the world he’s chosen for himself.  He’s one of those people who are good at prison.

Walter Jelinek was a man, but he looked like a car, the kind of old junker car that had been in some bad accidents so that now the frame is bent, the wheels don’t line up any more, the whole vehicle sags to one side and pulls to that side, and the brakes are oatmeal.  Half the original body is gone, the paint job is some amateur brushwork, and there’s duct tape over the taillights.  That was Walter Jelinek, who Mackey had told Parker not to talk to, since he had a reputation for carrying tales to teacher, but now Jelinek on his own wanted to talk to Parker.

He’s been seeing these three mismatched men keeping company, over by the weightlifting area–he tells Parker he knows they’re planning a break, and he wants to join.  Parker knows he’s lying–he wants to sell them to the authorities.  But Jelinek has to be handled gently–until it’s time to leave.  Then he’ll be handled a bit more roughly.

Parker got some information about the prison layout from Mackey, and he knows their only way out is through the library–there’s a locked door there that leads into a hallway that ultimately leads to a fenced-in parking lot for personnel.  It’s not enough information, but he gets more when Turley calls him in for another meeting, and Parker get marched down that very hallway–this time he’s memorizing every twist and turn.

As in past encounters, he gets more out of Turley than Turley gets out of him (one thing to talk a good game about game theory, another to know when you’re the one being played)–he realizes that Jelinek has already made some vague noises about him and the others–but nothing specific, not enough to act on, because he wants to get something out of the bosses (a softer prison to retire to)–and the bosses, through Turley, are trying to see if they can get it themselves, so Jelinek gets nothing (nobody likes a rat).  Turley really tips his hand when he tells Parker nobody’s ever escaped from Stoneveldt.

All this means to Parker is that he and his crew have very little time now–in a few days, they’ll be moved to different floors, and the whole thing’s off.  It also means, as Marcantoni helpfully points out, that Jelinek needs to die.  Parker didn’t need to be told that.

Parker gives the word–Thursday at 5:00pm.  Prisoners on their tier can use the library from 2:15 to 4:45 (nobody is let in after 4:15).  To pass the time, or pretend to themselves they’re coming up with some brilliant legal defense, whatever works for them.

Jelinek is reading a magazine in the game room, all by himself.  Parker acts as if he’s ready to talk about the escape.  Well, it’s a kind of escape.  He chokes Jelinek slowly, with one hand, while Williams and Marcantoni provide cover.  But he doesn’t want an obvious strangulation.  So once he’s got Jelinek subdued, he breaks his neck.  They cover him with a few blankets and head for the library.  It’s been a while since we’ve seen Parker kill somebody with one of those hands of his.  One weapon that can’t be confiscated at the gate.

They get into the library just before the cut-off time, each entering separately.  The state provides legal volunteers there, law students mainly, to work with the prisoners on their cases.  Pro Bono, you know?   And as soon as the moment is right, Marcantoni grabs the one remaining volunteer by his necktie, and headbutts him, hard.

What follows is a tutorial in psychological intimidation that any interrogation expert on the other side of the law would be forced to grudgingly admire.  Williams plays good cop, telling Jim, the volunteer (never volunteer) that he doesn’t want anybody hurt, but damn, these two other guys he’s with, you just do not want to irritate them, Jim.  He’s going to do whatever they say, and he hopes Jim will do the same.  Jim is all ears.

What they need Jim to do is very simple.  He calls in some guards to help carry out some heavy law books.  They’ll do everything else.  Nobody will have a gun.  Nobody will get killed.  Williams tells Jim he saw the organ donor card in his wallet.  That’s an admirable thing to do, man.  But you don’t want to do it sooner than you have to.  Jim decides he’s not ready to be an organ donor yet.

Chance favors the prepared felon.  The two guards that come in are both races.  Armed with blunt objects scavenged from their surroundings, Parker’s crew renders them both equally unconscious.  Parker will dress in Jim’s clothes–much too tight, and the guard uniforms won’t fit Marcantoni and Williams perfectly either, but the sheer tedium of routine will render the other guards unobservant of such minor details.

And they just walk out the door leading to the parking lot.  And right at that moment, as planned, Mackey is waiting with a van marked State Corrections ID.  He doesn’t get all the way in the gate, but he doesn’t have to.  The three escapees throw down the books and file boxes, and jump into the getaway car.  In the confusion, whoever was on the gate started it closing–and by the time they get it open again, Parker and his associates are off in the wind.  Free as a bird.

Well, no.  It’s not that easy.  It’s never that easy.  This is just Part One of a four part novel.  There’s still a heist to be pulled.  Parker still needs to get out of this flat featureless state, back to New Jersey, back to Claire.  And on his way back, he will find himself imprisoned again and again, forced to keep devising new ways to break out.  Until it seems like every prison door simply leads to another kind of prison.  It might have been simpler, and quite certainly safer, for him to serve his time–maybe make a deal, if that really was an option.

Why didn’t he?  Because he couldn’t.  Because imprisonment wasn’t a viable state of being for him.  Not for him.  You see the two longer passages up top.  Westlake wrote them both around the same time, though only the one from this novel was published in his lifetime.  Both times he was remembering that brief imprisonment he himself endured, the torment of it, the horror of it.  And even after he learned from real convicts that you get used to it, that it becomes your normal everyday waking reality, he wondered–what would that mean?  What would you have become, after making that mental adjustment?  How could those scars ever heal?  How could you ever be yourself again?

What would Parker be, after serving years in prison?  Well, he might be John Dortmunder, as we met him at the beginning of The Hot Rock.  That’s where Westlake chose to open that saga of an alternate universe version of Parker–a man broken down by long and repeated imprisonment, walking with a slouch, cowed, fatalistic, a sad sack, one of life’s losers.  His spirit broken.  Yes, he gets it back, now and again, defies the odds, defies authority, gets his own back with interest.  But the damage done to him is permanent.  He can rally, rise to a challenge, but he can never truly escape.

It would be permanent for Parker as well.  Possibly much worse.  Assuming Parker could go on living at all.  Lobo didn’t.  Some people can bear imprisonment–some can even rise above it, like Mandela–and some, like Walter Jelinek, seem almost born for it, not broken so much as trained, assimilated.  But a wolf can’t recite Invictus to himself, find freedom in some sanctum of his self-captained soul.  For some creatures in this world, there is only freedom or oblivion–nothing in-between.

But life is always looking for ways to take that from us.  It can come in many different forms, imprisonment.  As it came to Westlake, while he was working on this book.

Breakout came about when I realized that, in all these years, Parker had never been jailed except once before the first book. Get him arrested, and watch how he handled it. At the end of part one he’s out of jail, but not out of trouble, and at that point I came down with bad Lyme disease, in the hospital four days, unable to work for six weeks, and I kept saying, ”Well, at least he’s out of jail.“ We both hated the experience, and we both worked very hard to get him out of there. When I got back to the book, I realized the title meant the whole book so the entire thing is Parker clawing himself out of places he doesn’t want to be. They usually find their subject and their path that way, and if they don’t I simply give up writing, move to another city and use a different name.

I’ve never had Lyme disease, but I had pneumonia once.  You know what that’s like?  Like drowning inside your own body.  Afterwards, I found out there’s a vaccine, that you only need to get twice in your life.  I highly recommend it.  But I still remember those  days I struggled against my confinement, flailing endlessly for the surface, my lungs bursting, knowing that I’d either win free or die.

Lyme disease creeps up on you stealthily, like the bloodsucking bastards that carry it. Stands to reason Westlake was already sick for much if not all of the time he was writing Part One.

And here’s the suggestion I’ll leave you with, before we go to the break, and I get to work on Part 2.   This is a solid Parker novel–it has some problems, a few false notes, a few minor mistakes, a few questions I don’t think it answers to my full satisfaction, and I wouldn’t rank it quite as highly as the best of the Final Eight, let alone the First Sixteen.

But Part One is as Stark as Stark gets.  I can’t find anything wrong with it.  I’d stack it against anything Westlake ever wrote under that name, or any other.  And he wrote much of it while he was progressively struggling with a disease, an insidious spirochete that breaks you down, physically and mentally, as the pneumonia broke me.

And he’s writing as well as he ever wrote in his life while this is happening to him.  For as long as he’s able to write at all.  And what this says to  me is that when a complex system begins to break down, it’s the most basic parts of it that are the last to fail.  And Westlake was writing as Stark.  And that tells me Stark is the core identity, the foundation on which everything else was built.

He couldn’t have written so well as Westlake in that condition, or any of his other personas.  Beautiful as they are, truthful as they are, valuable as they are, they are still peripheral, ancillary.  But when he felt the grip of the disease tightening around his throat–like one of Parker’s huge veiny hands–well, Dr. Johnson did say it concentrates the mind wonderfully.  And the mind was Stark.  So is Life, in case you hadn’t noticed.  Until we break out.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

First Read: Forever And A Death

 

The last Donald E. Westlake novel ever published.  Is what this is going down as.  Whatever its merits as a book may be, that one quality eclipses all others.  If you, like me, have developed a habit, worked your way through everything else on the list, once you’ve read this one, it’s over.  No more Westlake.  Okay, there’s sleaze paperbacks of variously dubious provenance, there’s uncollected short stories, there’s nonfiction articles, and there’s an archive in Boston you could visit under close guard, or possibly break into late at night; rather fitting, when you think about it.   But really.  This is it.

So is it any good?  To the true completist, this question can seem fairly inconsequential.  Mr. Westlake wrote far too many books for all of them to be polished gems, and he knew that better than anyone.  That so many of them are good, and often much more than that,  attests to his abilities, but I’d say an even more telling testimonial is how avidly many of us read even his less distinguished work, because on his very worst day he was capable of producing unique thought-provoking stories, and the more we read, the better we understand him.  His failures often tell us more than his successes.  But this, I would say, is neither.   Or maybe it’s both.  Somewhere in between.

I’m not here to review it this time, because first of all, I never review a Westlake novel I haven’t read at least twice.  The way I review these books is to take them apart, piece by piece, looking in depth at the story and characters, typing out quote after quote, so that (I like to think) if all copies of that book were to disappear, you could get a pretty good feeling for it just from my review.

I have said in the past that nobody should come here and read my reviews if they haven’t read the books first.  Well, hardly anyone has read this one, because it isn’t on sale until June.  I got an advance reviewer’s copy from Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime.  I will not abuse that confidence.  Not until several months after the book comes out.  Not until you at least have been given the option of reading it.  I mean, it’s not going to be much of a discussion if it’s just me and Greg Tulonen, and Greg hasn’t read the edited for publication version yet, I don’t think.

The sole point of getting an advance copy (other than impatience) is to write a review, so that people can decide whether or not they want to read the book.  That’s never really been what TWR is about, since if you’re here, you’re already hooked.  You don’t need me to tell you a new Westlake is a big deal.  You don’t need me to decide what books you want to buy.  But you might still be interested in what I think.  God knows why.

Let me talk first about the actual physical volume, which is what I read.  A glossy paperback, eight inches high, five across, and one thick.  463 pages, but just 435 of those are the book itself, so it’s not his longest novel by any means.  Westlake’s original 610 page manuscript has been trimmed down by about 10%, according to Ardai–mainly repetitive material, descriptions of restaurants, some local history relating to the various settings.  Things that needed to be more fully digested into the narrative as a whole, and probably could have been if Westlake hadn’t been discouraged from doing any more work on the book, and if he’d had a sympathetic editor to work with.

There is a substantial and fascinating afterward from Jeff Kleeman, the producer who hired Westlake to write several story treatments for the project that eventually became Tomorrow Never Dies.  Because, as he tells us right upfront, he was as avid a fan of Westlake novels as he was of 007 yarns as a kid.  He wanted to see how the two would go together.  Better than one might think, not as well as one might hope, is the short answer.

I’d have bought this book just for his description of Westlake’s creative process, and this I absolutely must quote from.  If he ever gives up on this major motion picture producing gig, Mr. Kleeman would make a passing good book blogger.

I’m fascinated by how ideas take shape and how writers write.  Some writers outline extensively, some start with an ending and work backward, some write a bunch of scenes in no particular order and with no obvious connection and then eventually pick a few of the best and build a story around them.  None of these were Don’s method  He relied on what he called “narrative push.”

Don would get an idea, usually for a beginning, an opening scene, something like, “What if there’s a bank robbery in progress and the getaway car can’t find a parking space in front of the bank? (This was the idea Don said was the spark for writing the first of his Dortmunder novels.)  Don would start from a premise like that and just write, without any plan for where he was going, trusting that eventually he’d end up with a story.  He told me there was only one story he ever started that he couldn’t puzzle out a way to finish.  It involved insurance fraud and after six weeks Don realized he’d written his characters into such a tight corner he was unable to keep them moving all the way to a resolution.  I hope one day Hard Case Crime will unearth the manuscript and we’ll get to see Don’s version of an impossible story.

Pretty sure Mr. Westlake was referring to The Scared Stiff, which he started writing after he finished The Ax, put aside, then published under a pseudonym in 2002, and I’ll be unearthing my copy soon enough so I can review it.  That’s about insurance fraud, and it’s another one of his books he was sort of cordially advised not to proceed with by people he trusted, because it wasn’t what people expected of him.   Maybe he was talking about an earlier attempt in this vein, but the dates match up pretty well, and how many insurance fraud novels was he going to write?

So as Kleeman explains, he loved the ideas Westlake came up with, and some were used in the finished film.  Most significantly, Pierce Brosnan owed Mr. Westlake a drink for getting to work with Michelle Yeoh, because it was Westlake’s idea that Bond partner with a female Chinese agent, work with her and then play of course, because Bond James Bond and Westlake Donald Westlake.

But once it became clear that Goldeneye, Mr. Kleeman’s first Bond, was a hit that had given new life to the franchise, and the studio wanted to move ahead fast with the next one, the scheduling got tight, and Westlake’s process didn’t work so well when you didn’t already know in advance exactly what the story would be (like an adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel). Kleeman also mentions Westlake’s well known aversion to adapting his own work, which I think was not because he lacked objectivity, but because he didn’t want to mutilate his own children at the passing whims of some suits in Burbank.

They couldn’t know how well his Bond concepts would work until he’d turned them into a script using narrative push, and if the script didn’t work, it’d be too late to try again, and pre-production costs would keep accumulating.  So that’s why Westlake didn’t write the screenplay for Tomorrow Never Dies, and if you look closely at what we’re being told here, you can see why he never really clicked as a screenwriter, except on very specific types of projects, where his process could be made to work.  A writer on a studio picture is not a freelance artist for hire.  He’s a (very well paid) cog in a machine.  Ask Faulkner and Fitzgerald, neither of whom ever wrote a decent script in their lives.  (Ever see Land of the Pharaohs?) 

So there’s plenty more from Kleeman, and it’s all worth reading, but that’s just the dessert.  The book is the main course, and the book came about because Westlake had developed this idea that he knew the producers wouldn’t use, and he felt like it had potential.  There was no script, but there was a treatment he could turn into a novel.

He’d done something like this before, twice.  First time with Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, where the film had never been made, and he’d retained the rights.  That was probably his weakest novel–I think there actually was a finished script there, and he’d been taking a lot of notes from the producers no doubt, and trying to tailor it to the rather puerile standards of Mid-60’s light comedy.   It was probably not a strong script to begin with, and he struggled getting it to work as a book, but good bet it was better than the movie would have been.

Second time, he wrote the original screenplay for Cops and Robbers, which was turned into a modestly decent 70’s comedy/thriller, but he thought the director, a former film editor, just didn’t know how to be the boss of everybody, and the many good scenes in it just kind of lie there, instead of jumping off the screen at you.

He’d retained the rights to novelize his screenplay, and he did, and the result was one of his best and most original heist books, very focused and unconventional in its approach.  Much better than the film, which thankfully flopped, so that people who read the book wouldn’t have the masterful plot twists spoiled for them.  You do see a certain incompatibility of interests between Mr. Westlake and Hollywood at times, but they both got something out of the relationship, which is why it never really ended.

So this was his third attempt to turn a film into a book, but unlike the previous two, it wasn’t in the heist genre.  And he was told, respectfully but firmly, by people whose input he valued, that it just wouldn’t sell–which might have been true–and that it didn’t have the patented Westlake touch with regards to character and story–a reaction I can understand, while still not agreeing with it.

It has most of what we read him for, other than his humor, which is on the down low here, and for good reason. But at many points, and particularly in the early chapters, it feels like a preliminary sketch that needs to be filled in.  Well, a preliminary sketch by a famous artist can sell for millions at auction.  Isn’t Donald E. Westlake a famous artist?  And what’s the one thing all famous artists have in common?  Their work gets more valuable after they die.

Honestly, if he had filled it in, he still might not have gotten to publish it.  He’d already had his shot at making this general type of book work, several times. One was Ex Officio, a political thriller, longer and much less action-packed than this, written under the pseudonym Timothy J. Culver (the only one of Westlake’s pseudonyms he publicly killed off, in a mock panel discussion between his most famous literary personas).   I assume that did decent sales, since it was reprinted in paperback–but under the title Power Play, so probably nothing stellar.  It’s also a better book than this–a finished work.  He had good editorial relationships at M. Evans & Co., where many of his best books under his own name would later be published.

He wrote Kahawa under his own name, but I rather suspect Culver had a hand in it, the rumors of his death being much exaggerated.  That was for Viking, where he had terrible editorial relationships, and very little support.  That was at least outwardly a heist story, close enough to his usual fictive haunts that he could get away with making most of it about Africa, about Africans of all races, about various merry wars between the sexes, about brutal venal dictators and those who serve them, about the way we in the west look the other way when it comes to human rights abuses in the third world, because there’s so much money to be made there.  And about identity, because everything he wrote was about that.   It was a book he could be justly proud of.  And it sold like purest shit.

When you write the kind of book that’s supposed to be a best seller, at least close to it–and it isn’t, not even close–you are damaging your own professional profile.  As true in publishing as in the movies–you’re only as good as your last project.  Perhaps feeling encouraged by the extraordinary success of The Ax, he wanted to try once more to break out of the confines of what people thought he was.

He’d tried that back in the 80’s with the book that became The Comedy is Finished (again about a celebrity kidnapping, but no comic capering this time), and that became the second novel of his to be published after his death.

Though many disagree, I think it’s one of the best books he ever wrote, a searing look at the political and generational divide in America that existed a long time before the internet and social media, and not just at Woodstock.  And I don’t know it would have done any better than Kahawa if it had been published back when it was written.  Westlake in this vein has a problem–he’s too commercial for the intellectuals, and too damn smart for the people who just want a good read.  (Honestly, sometimes I think he’s too smart for the intellectuals as well.  They’re like “Who does this guy  think he is?”  Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?)

Memory, written in the early 60’s, was his one attempt at a book that didn’t fit any commercial cubbyhole at all, and it’s a dark brooding masterpiece that can haunt you for weeks after reading it, and we’ll never know how many more like that he might have had in him, or whether it would have been worth losing all the books we know him for to find out.   But knowing he had the potential to write that, we can’t help but wonder.

Writers build their own ghettos and live in them.  Westlake wrote genre books, books with a defined audience, never a very large one, but never too small either.  He couldn’t try to write The Great American Novel, as Philip Roth literally did, and it turned out to be about baseball, and it’s not that great, but it’s American.  And a novel.  If Westlake had his agent submit something different to some highbrow publisher like Knopf or FarrarStraussGiroux, what reaction would he get?  “Oh yes, the Dortmunder fellow, very droll, did this get into the wrong envelope somehow?”  Far easier for the highbrow author to explore the genre slums, and so many have, but it rarely works out.  Grass is always greener.

He doesn’t want to let this Bond story he slaved over, did more than his usual amount of research on, go to waste.  And there’s a larger problem he has been trying to crack for ages now, how to write an interesting long novel that isn’t a mystery, and will sell.  This is a story he wrote for James Freakin’ Bond, which should make it commercially viable.  But it can’t be about James Freakin’ Bond.  For obvious legal considerations, but also personal ones.  If you want my honest opinion, Westlake never believed in Bond.  He enjoyed the movies, maybe even some of the novels (I’m guessing there was a lot of tongue-clucking and eye-rolling when he read Fleming), but he never believed in any of it.

Not because of the gadgets, or the glamor, or the girls, or the utter disregard for gravity, but because Bond is an Organization Man.  He’s the Organization Man.  He can twit his superiors from now ’til Doomsday (which in his world comes every other week).   Doesn’t mean a thing.  He puts on a suit, and he goes to the office, and he flirts with the secretary, and he does what he’s told.  He kills on command.  He’s not a Westlake hero.  He never could be.  Doesn’t mean he’s not interesting.  He’s interesting the way Batman is interesting (and Westlake liked Batman too, almost wrote for the comic once).  But you know who’d be much more interesting to Donald E. Westlake than Bond himself?  Bond villains.

The thing about Westlake heroes is that none of them are, really.  Heroes.  Oh there are exceptions, but always very qualified and somewhat self-conscious ones, and even in those stories, the bad guys are usually a lot more interesting.  The characters we remember Westlake for are thieves, killers, cads, rogues, rascals.  Plus the occasional befuddled naif, picaresquely stumbling into adulthood.  Hard Cases, for the most part (hey, bloggers can do product placement too).

So when these villainous heroes (heroic villains?), who know themselves, come up against out-and-out villains who don’t, the result is predictable.  But suppose ordinary decent people, with considerable courage and some applicable skills, but absolutely no experience with the cloak and dagger shtik, came up against someone who is, for want of a better word, evil–and brilliant–and filthy rich.  And he’s got a plan.  That will make him still richer, and a whole lot of people dead.  A Bond story with a Bond villain–but no Bond.

No SMERSH or SPECTRE either, because Westlake would feel, and rightly so I think, that the most interesting Bond villains in the best stories all worked for themselves.  Auric Goldfinger.  Hugo Drax.  Francisco Scaramanga.  Blofeld was more interesting as a figure lurking Sauron-like in the shadows than as an active antagonist.  Who is this guy?  What’s his motivation?  World domination?  Pfaugh.  No evil scheme Blofeld irrationally blabbed to 007 before once again failing to kill him ever resonated half so well as Goldfinger’s epic rant–

(I can imagine Westlake standing up and applauding, which might have gotten him some odd looks in the theater, but he’d be used to that.)

Shakespeare knew the virtues of a great villain, and so did Lorenzo Da Ponte, and so did John Milton.   A villain of this type is a rebel, after all.  Somebody who refuses to bow to the established order of things.    It may be necessary to thwart him or her, but we can still appreciate the ingenuity of the scheme, the audacity of ambition that inspired it.

Of all Bond villains, Goldfinger is the only one 007 personally compliments.  He’s as delighted with the genius on display as any of us are.  As we are delighted by the fictional Richard III, or Iago.  While still knowing they must, in the end, be done to death.  Though Westlake was notorious for having his villainous protagonists get away with all kinds of things, up to and including the social destruction of an entire anti-social planet.  (See, not even going to give you that much of a spoiler.)

Anarchaos may well be the book most similar to this one in the Westlake canon, and that’s no accident.  Curt Clark is very much in the mix here as well, though this one doesn’t have the noir atmosphere, the hard-bitten first person narrator, ala Hammett.  The name of the villain here is Richard Curtis.  Richard, for Richard Stark.  Curtis, for Curt Clark.  And just as Rolf Malone used carefully placed explosive charges to put an end to the world that murdered his brother–well, that would be telling.

So Richard Stark is here, and Timothy J. Culver, and Curt Clark.  I can’t for the life of me detect any Tucker Coe.  The whimsy of Westlake is mainly missing, and I think that’s perhaps at least partly why people who read the manuscript complained that it wasn’t like him.  Of course, he wasn’t planning to publish it as a Westlake.  Knox Burger, his agent of the time, said in a letter Greg Tulonen read, that he was confounded by the pseudonym Westlake had suggested using.  I find myself wondering if the pseudonym might have been Richard Curtis.  Same way the Samuel Holt novels are accredited to Samuel Holt.  The fact that Curtis isn’t the narrator argues against that.  But somehow, one would like to know.

He wanted so much to not have to be Westlake all the time.  To get away from the established perceptions of him as a writer, to be free of that burden of expectations.  The publishing industry simply couldn’t accommodate him in this way any more.  So he put the book aside, and while it’s a finished work, I think we have to say that it’s also an unpolished one.  But in many ways, that just makes it more interesting, to those of us who want to better understand his creative process, and how he was able to write so much, so well, and so multifariously.

I read the early chapters with a slight sense of disappointment.   Then the pace began to build.  I found myself turning the pages faster, needing to know the outcome.  I felt the book was out of balance in some ways, but I wondered if maybe that was the point.  There are many protagonists here, some more interesting than others, none entirely good or evil, all imperfectly knowing themselves, though the two most clearly heroic characters both end up knowing themselves better as the story goes on.  Two of the protagonists are gay, and a couple–and two of the most serious obstacles to Curtis’s plans.  Not comic relief this time.  Well, there is no comic relief this time.

There is an Oddjob, though.  That was maybe the thing I found most fascinating.  We spend quite a lot of time in his head. Westlake must have really liked Goldfinger (he probably got the idea for The Green Eagle Score from it, and greatly improved on it).   Essentially, the improbable and largely mindless henchmen one finds in a Bond story are rationalized here, given souls and motivations and inner lives, comprehensible pragmatic reasons for their loyalty to the main villain (who feels no loyalty to anyone but himself).  But nobody gets to decapitate anybody else with a bowler hat.  Oh well.  Can’t have everything.

Anything else I might say?  Not yet.  Let me read it again, and a while after you’ve all had the opportunity to appreciate what this book has to offer, we’ll come back to it.  And decide how high to rank it.  I honestly don’t think I’ll place it as high as the other two unpublished works we’ve seen since Westlake’s death.  But I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if it outsells both of them.  We’ll see.

And there is a message to it, I think.  Aside from the identity puzzles one always finds in Westlake.  It would read something along the lines of “There are real Bond villains in this ever-changing world in which we live in.  But there is no James Bond.  It’s up to us to stop them.  Or join them.  Or be destroyed and/or ruled by them.  There are no other choices.”

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Richard Stark, Screenplays by Donald E. Westlake, Timothy J. Culver

Mr. Westlake and The Home Stretch

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We must dance because the Fifties zing
The Fifties zing because the Sixties swing
And the Seventies flash and the Eighties bang
And the Nineties whimper and the century hangs

Robots working in the cotton fields
Vacations on Venus just a tourist deal
Fornication on tape, instant happiness
So we keep on dancing, dancing, we can’t rest

From Les Flamandes, by Jacques Brel
(very freely translated by Mort Shuman and Eric Blau)

Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

And here we are.  The final years of a six decade career, though I never really covered the 50’s–that was the journeyman era, the cranking out short stories for the pulps and sleaze paperbacks for Scott Meredith decade.  The 60’s were the time when Westlake stopped imitating others, and found his own voice–many, in fact–the era of staggeringly prolific creation that seemed for a time to be without any limit.

The 70’s were when he began to focus–lose the aliases for a while, take stock, pull in, then stretch out.  The 80’s were when he began to deal with limitations–his, and those of the ever-changing marketplace he had to hawk his wares in. The 90’s were when he buckled down, recommitted to what was best in him as a writer, wrote his masterpiece, reclaimed perhaps his most idiosyncratic and genuine voice, that of Stark.

And the 00’s?  God, I hate typing that double aught.  Decadism, as a system of dividing up time into defined segments, has some serious drawbacks, in English at least.  There’s never a satisfying name for the first two decades of the century–‘aughts’, ‘teens’–doesn’t work.  And what happens when we reach the 20’s?  We still remember the ‘Roaring’ 20’s, because of movies and Prohibition and Jazz and The Lost Generation and Babe Ruth and such.  (Most of the meanings imposed on these arbitrary decimal points in time are imposed well after the fact.)

So from 2030 onwards, when somebody refers to the 20’s, how will we know which one?  How will we refer to the 20’s yet to come?  If we’re lucky they’ll  be the Boring 20’s, but who thinks we’re going to be that lucky?  The Historian’s Curse is a real thing, people.  So’s nostalgia for past eras pretty much nobody was all that thrilled about while they were happening.

Donald Westlake was never about nostalgia.  He almost never wrote stories set more than a year or three before the time he was writing them.  He was all about the now, because now is all there is, all there can be.  Now is when you live, now is when you find out who you are, what you can do, what you can be.  The past is always there, sure.  Change is never all of a piece, there’s always remnants from earlier eras, anachronisms, glorious and otherwise, but that’s not living in the past–that’s the past living on into the present, just like Faulkner said it would. And the future? Who says we get one?  Best not to assume.  Live now.

It’s hard to say for sure exactly when Westlake came to the realization he was typing on borrowed time.  As of July 12, 2003, when he turned 70, he’d outlived his father Albert by well over ten years.  He’d very nearly failed to live more than a few days past the date of his birth–just a quirk of fate that they’d recently developed an infant formula his digestive system could tolerate.  A man who is told that story as a boy grows up with a healthy respect for contingency, not to mention mortality.  Live now.

And there was nothing left for him to prove, as a writer.  He’d sought out new frontiers to explore, and the explorations hadn’t always succeeded, but that was less important than the fact that he’d tried, that he’d never let himself go stale, give up, write entirely to the market, do what everyone expected of him.  Most importantly, he’d never stopped publishing–he published his first novel under his own name in 1960.  After that, there are only four years he didn’t have at least one new novel out–’78, ’79, ’82, and ’99.

His last book published in his lifetime was Dirty Money, last of the Parkers, conclusion of a bloody trilogy (that was not originally planned as such), in which Parker comes face to face with Post-9/11 America, the Surveillance State.  The year after that came the final Dortmunder novel, which like the final Parker, has vague premonitions of mortality in it, but is mainly concerned with the way people were voluntarily surrendering their inmost selves to the media–the other Surveillance State.

The year after that came the posthumous publication of Memory, the greatest of his lost books, the road not taken.  So he finished out the first decade of the 21st Century with at least a book a year (frequently more).  In fact, he’s getting published again this year.  There’s no reason to think we won’t see still more of his work resurfacing in various forms for a good while to come yet, though probably no more novels.   So really, his publishing career has stretched across seven decades.  And still counting.

But to get back to my point–he must have guessed he didn’t have much time left. He certainly knew his best work was behind him. I find it hard to believe he needed to publish every single year to remain solvent–he may not have needed the money at all.  But whether he needed the money or not, he needed the books. He needed to keep working. He needed to stay in print. Because for a writer, the difference between being in or out of print is the difference between being alive or dead. That’s what he said once, and that’s what he believed. Don’t ask me what he thought about ebooks.

I’ve arbitrarily decided this final decade begins in 2002, since that’s the first year we can be pretty sure he was publishing stuff he finished after the new century began.  Not counting Memory, in the remaining years of the decade, he published eleven novels (one posthumously), one novella, and a collection of short stories.

For most professional writers, that wouldn’t sound half-bad for an entire lifetime’s work, would it now?  It would be asking a lot for all of them to be classics, and most of them aren’t.  The Dortmunders are mainly workmanlike, fun, inventive as always, full of lively trenchant observations about the passing parade, but the series had peaked well before that time, and he was mainly just hanging out with old friends by this point.

The last Stark novels are harder.  It’s more difficult to take their measure.  I don’t rank them as highly as the best of the First Sixteen, or even the final Grofield. I’m not sure I think they’re as good as three of the four Parkers he’d turned out in the 90’s (they’re all much better than Flashfire).  You can see his powers fading, here and there, details getting a bit fuzzy–and then he snaps back to, regains clarity, grips hold of the wheel, and there are moments of such power as to make you gasp–and shudder, because this is as Stark as Stark ever gets.   This is Stark writing with the full knowledge that he’s going to die soon.  Nothing focuses the mind half so well, as Dr. Johnson once said.

And in a very real and chilling way, this is Westlake finally surrendering himself to Stark, letting his greatest alter-ego take control of the partnership in a way that’s new–and yet familiar.  Because, you begin to see, Stark was the foundation all along.  Stark was what always lay underneath all the jokes, the farce, the whimsy, the satire and social commentary, the cheerfully irreverent asides. Stark was what was real.  Stark was the core program.  And as old age begins to take hold of Westlake in dead earnest, it’s Stark holds them all together, refuses to give in, stares horror right in the face, stares it down.

There will be an ending.  Nobody runs forever.  But there will be no surrender. There will be no talking to The Law.  There will be no despair, no second-guessing.  There will be no retirement.  Retire to what, pray tell?  That’s what Joe Sheer tried.   Remember how that worked out?  Stark did.

From 2002 to 2009, there were just three novels published that were neither about Parker nor Dortmunder, and the oeuvre as a whole wouldn’t be much the poorer without them.  One had actually been written back in the Mid-90’s, and it’s interesting in its own way, Westlake bringing back his fascination with Latin America one last time, but this time it’s the total immersion route.

And there is the 10th and final Nephew Book, or so I think of it, and by far the weakest of the bunch.  That approach to comic crime had burned itself out by the Mid-70’s, where it should have stayed.  Westlake can’t write about the Nephews anymore, because he’s gotten too far away from them, can’t really believe in them now.  Picaresques are for the young.  Stark in particular can’t believe in them. (Stark would just as soon kill them, you get right down to it.)

But he did start off the Home Stretch with a comic crime novel I do quite admire, a different take on the heist story, with a different take on that type of protagonist, midway between Parker and Dortmunder, but less fixed in his career path.  A reflective reformation, you might say.  We’ll talk about that one next.

But even as we talk about it, the sound of thundering pursuit is in our ears, as we rocket down the last furlong, the crowd cheering wildly, the finish line just ahead.  And here comes Seabiscuit!   Born May 23rd, 1933.  Just about a month and a half before Donald E. Westlake got foaled.  I came up with the Home Stretch thing, because I hate typing that double aught.  Then I found the image up top.  Then I looked up the birthdates.  Then I felt a slight chill.

The world is not simple enough to understand.  With books and their authors, we can at least try.  So let’s try.

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Aside: Mr. Fitch and the Theme Music

We’ve reached the point in our review program where Parker and Dortmunder are pretty much the whole show.  Between 2001 and 2008 (the year he died), Westlake published thirteen novels (one of which was written in the Mid-90’s).  Five of them deal with Parker; another five feature Dortmunder and his motley crew.  There was also an anthology of Dortmunder short stories and a Dortmunder novella published in anthology form.

None of this sufficed to overcome Parker’s insuperable edge over all his fictional siblings.  He would remain the character Westlake wrote about most, if only because he was so dominant during the period when Westlake was most prolific.  But in these final years, Parker and Dortmunder enjoyed an almost perfect parity of attention from their creator, and it would be fair to say he cared about them equally–but differently.

And I’ll be talking more about that shortly, but the reason I’m bringing it up here is that I’m going to be re-reading a lot of Parker and Dortmunder books in the coming months.  And that means I’m going to be hearing their themes in my head a lot.  The themes I made up for them.  The music in my head.  I can’t possibly be the only one who experiences this phenomenon.  Can I?

This I know–if you read one of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, you are going to hear the 007 theme in your head.  If you read one of those Fire & Ice novels, you’re going to hear the Game of Thrones theme that didn’t exist when most of those books were written.  When Carrie Fisher died, everybody was going around with John Williams and the London Symphony orchestra in their skulls.  When you see a picture of Batman, which theme you hear will depend somewhat on the year you were born (I go back and forth between Neal Hefti and Danny Elfman, with a smattering of Shirley Walker).

But there is no identifiable theme for Parker, or Dortmunder.  Yes, they’ve both been featured in multiple film adaptations.  Those movies had musical scores.  But if there was a theme devoted to either character in any of those films, I’m not aware of it.  And being so thematically sensitive, if there had been such a theme, and I never noticed it, it wasn’t much of a theme.  The whole point of a character theme is to create an association between that character and the theme.  I hear a certain theme by the great Japanese composer Akira Ifukube, and I see a gigantic reptilian biped stomping on Tokyo.

So there is no theme for Parker or Dortmunder.  And yet I needed a theme for each of these characters I was obsessively reading about, and later writing about.  So I made them up.

I have no excuse for my utter incomprehension of musical notation.  I had music appreciation classes as a child.  It is, in effect, a language–and all attempts to teach me a language other than English have failed miserably.  I was apparently born to be a monoglot, only able to learn language at a pre-conscious level.  Or else I’m just lazy.  Or too easily distracted.

But I’ve loved music all my life, and have developed tastes that are nothing if not eclectic.  I started off with classical, then moved to ragtime, then jazz, blues, and Irish Trad.  I didn’t learn to appreciate the rock and roll going on around me as a kid until well after that genre had peaked.  I was also a devotee of ‘world music’ which is not so much a genre as a convenient way of saying “Jesus, there’s a ton of great music out there I never heard of before!”  I tried to get into rap as it was starting to take hold, and it was a bridge too far.  In its less commercialized forms I wish it well, and I wish they’d stop blasting it outside my window at 3:00am in the morning, but kids will be kids.

The quote “There’s only two kinds of music–good and bad” has been attributed in various forms to scores of musicians, and I like all of them.  But I myself am not now nor ever shall be a musician.  Let alone a composer.  And yet somehow I have composed two musical themes.  In my head.  Weirdness.

That’s not the right word, really.  To compose something implies you sat down and worked it out, but since I can’t write or play music (I can just barely play the tin whistle, and you seriously do not want to hear me practicing), all the work had to be done in my head, and I can’t even say precisely when or how I started hearing this music, or how long it took for each theme to take on its mature form.  Parker’s theme came first.  Dortmunder’s not long afterwards.  Well, that tracks.

It is possible, indeed likely, that I’ve unconsciously plagiarized elements of both.  I thought I got my Dortmunder theme from the film score for Don Siegel’s Babyface Nelson, starring Mickey Rooney; a grand medley of hard-edged 50’s big band gangster movie jazz (you know the type), but when I watched the film again, there was nothing in the score that remotely resembled my theme, so maybe I got it somewhere else, or maybe it’s actually mine.  Copyright isn’t really an issue when you can’t even write the music down, is it?

I actually do have some small recollection of how the Parker theme started.  A few years ago, summer of 2012, maybe.  I had a medical appointment in Fort Lee (podiatrist).  Afterwards I had lunch nearby (Indian buffet).  I was in no particular hurry to get home.  I decided to walk back over the George Washington Bridge.  (Incidentally, did you know there’s a Parker Street in Fort Lee, just a few steps away from the bridge?   Well, you do now.  I guess every town has a Parker Street.  Put that down as one more unprovable theory as to where Westlake got the name from.)

It’s noisy on the bridge.   The view of the Hudson, the Palisades, and the cityscape is thrilling, and a bit terrifying, depending on the severity of your spatial phobias.  You also have to dodge bicycles on the so-called pedestrian walkway a lot more than would have been the case in 1962. (Sometimes I like to imagine Parker clotheslining some clown in tight shorts, who thinks he’s Lance Armstrong in the final leg of the Tour de France.)

The bridge towers–what’s the word I’m looking for to describe what they do?–oh yeah–TOWER. It’s a lot different than walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, or probably any other bridge.  You feel naked and alone and in the middle of everything and at the edge of nowhere at the same time.  You feel the past, present and future converging and collapsing upon each other.  A good time to have some music playing in your head, though I suppose most people bring something pre-recorded.  I was never really an iPod guy, somehow.

So I must have had some of the elements for the theme assembled prior to this, but this is the first time I remember them all coming together, as I made this roughly twenty minute walk across the busiest bridge on the planet, and felt the summer sun irradiating me, and wondered if I should have applied some 60SPF in advance.

So the inspiration was clearly that 1950’s big band crime movie type of score I was just talking about.  Probably some elements from Van Alexander’s score for Babyface Nelson, but that kind of music was very popular in the 50’s and early 60’s, and you could find it in lots of movies.  Very hard-hitting and merciless, and all about the horn section.

Probably some Count Basie influence as well, of course.  And I was really into Benny Carter at the time.  But that day I was kind of imagining it being played by the David Murray Big Band, sometime in the late 80’s/early 90’s.  That tuneful dissonance they did so well, where they played as a tightly disciplined unit, but also as a motley assortment of incessantly idiosyncratic individualists, with that New Orleans second line quality; never quite marching in step and never once missing a beat.

It starts in low, like an idling car engine, maybe some misguided motorist offering you a lift.  Then the horns come in hard, howling defiance at the world, telling it go to hell….

PAR-kerrrrr!  PAR-kerrrrr!
dada-dadadada-DAHHHH-da-dada
dada-dada-dada-dada-DAHHH-da-dum!
dadadadadadadada-DAHHH-da-dum!

(horns come in lower now)

PARkerrr–(sound like an engine turning over)
PARkerrr (da-DA!)
PARkerrr  (the engine again)
PARkerrr (da-DA!)

(Now the bridge–fittingly enough–starts off like the calm before the storm).

Da-da-dum.  Da-daaa-da-dum.
Dada-dada-da-da-da-de-da-dum!

Da-da-da-DAAAAAAAH-da-dum.  Dada-dada-dum
Dada-dada-da-da-da-de-da-dum!

(repeat several times, stronger, harsher, and a bit more dissonant each time, as the storm builds, and the rhythm section holds it all together somehow, then back to the main theme one last time, as the band crescendos like Gabriel on Judgment Day)

PAR-kerrrrr!  PAR-kerrrrr!   PAR-KERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!

And that’s my Parker theme, as of the moment I stepped off the bridge into Washington Heights.   Since it’s jazz, or aspires to be, endless variations are possible.  But that’s the core of it.  It usually comes to me strongest at the end of a novel, and scenes of the aftermath, various things that might have happened sometime after the final chapter, flash before my eyes.  Like at the end of The Seventh, I imagine the fates of the various surviving characters, and then a lonely gravestone marked ‘Ellie Canaday’, with an opened bottle of beer left in front of it, while a big man whose face we can’t see is walking away in the distance, his hands swinging at his sides, because I’m a romantic, sue me.

It’s a big band theme, brassy and uninhibited, but Dortmunder calls for a small intimate ensemble of underappreciated artists, all specialists, all quietly offhandedly brilliant.

Just to be perverse, I’m going to hire the Hampton Hawes quartet for this gig–a Los Angeles based band.  Dortmunder would not approve–until he heard them play.  Anyway, he’s not originally from New York either.  Eldridge Freeman was born in Illinois too–Chicago.  That’s almost a city.  Dortmunder’s no bigot.  A good string is a good string, wherever they hail from.

Piano: Hampton Hawes
Bass: Red Mitchell
Guitar: Jim Hall
Drums: Eldridge ‘Bruz’ Freeman

Special guest performers would be Johnny Griffin on tenor sax, alternating with Milt Jackson on vibes.  Somehow Dortmunder and trumpets don’t go together, but if there was a trumpet present, there’d be a Harmon mute plugged into it.  I mean, if you can’t pull a job with five guys, it probably shouldn’t be pulled at all.  But it would depend on the book.

Where Parker’s theme is overpowering, Dortmunder’s is underwhelming–quiet, covert, sly, downright sneaky, and maybe a bit scared, but never to the point of backing down.  A bit halting and hesitant at points, gaining confidence as it goes along.  You need a good brushman on the trap set for this one, and Bruz was one of the best.

Dada-dadada-dadadadada-DA!
Da-dadada-dadadadada-DA!
Da-dadada-dadadadada-DA!
Da-dadada-dadada-dadadadada-DUM!

DA!-dada-dah!-dadadadada-dum!
DA!-dada-dah!-dadadadada-dum!
DA!-dada-dah!-dadadadada-dum!
dada-dada-dadada-dadadada-ta-DAH!

Man, you can just hear it, can’t you?  Okay, fine, only I can hear it.  My notational system has certain inherent limitations.  I should have paid more attention in music appreciation class.

I tend to hear this one when Dortmunder is going someplace he’s not supposed to go, with every intention of coming back out again, but no precise idea as to how he’s going to do that.  And sometimes when he goes into that weird fugue state where he’s putting a bunch of ideas together to make a plan. And always at the end, when he’s both won and lost, and somehow the difference between the two seems academic, but May’s got a tuna casserole in the oven, and things could always be worse.

In any given rendition, a different instrument might carry the tune, while the drums keep time.  Lots of changes you could blow to this one, but it’s a much simpler theme than Parker’s.  Dortmunder’s a much simpler guy.  It’s a theme of resigned fatalism combined with dogged determination.  He can never win the game, but he can’t ever quit either.  Not until the very last note has been played. Any jazzman could relate.

And I think that’s all there is to say about the music in my head.  Unless one of you is a practicing psychiatrist.  If so, contact me privately.   Next up is Bad News, and that might require a pow-wow drum.  Anyway, casino gigs pay well.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Uncategorized

Review: Firebreak, Part 3

“I get it,” Parker said.  “That’s your firebreak again.  Now they’re gonna move the stuff.”

“But they don’t get a chance,” Wiss told him.  “Right after Griffith gets there the place fills up with ATF, maybe thirty, forty of them, you’d think they’re after terrorists.”

“But they’re not.”

“When Larry told us, we said, what are they doing there, and he said, ‘They’re looking for our paintings.'”  Wiss laughed.  “Is that a pisser?  They’re looking for our paintings.  Larry’s gonna be okay, Parker.”

That didn’t matter, not now.  “But there isn’t a job any more,” Parker said, meaning, if the job did still exist, they’d have to think very hard, should Lloyd still exist.

“We don’t know yet,” Wiss said.  “The general feeling is, let’s stick around, see what happens next.”

“Until when?”

“Until the dust settles.” Wiss shrugged.  “Who knows, maybe they’ll truck the pictures outa there, we can  hijack them on the road, we’re the only ones know what and where they are.”

“Possible,” Parker said.

“At this point,” Wiss said, “everything’s possible.  Listen, I forgot to ask.  Did you deal with that problem?”

“Yes,” Parker said.

The most interesting stories in this one aren’t about the heist itself, not directly.   That’s not so unusual for a Parker novel, but it’s a bit out of the ordinary that there are so many distinct storylines apart from the heist that are so much more interesting than the heist, which doesn’t go off as planned, but we’re all used to that by now.

There’s the attempted hit on Parker at the very start of the story, that forces him to turn detective again, leading him to the mobbed up Cosmopolitan Beverages. Another run-in between Parker and organized crime that goes no better for the mobsters than any of the previous encounters, and sets up potential stories for future books.

This leads him in turn to a final showdown with Paul Brock and Matt Rosenstein, that cuts off the last dangling plot thread from The Sour Lemon Score.  The other dangling plot thread was named Uhl, and that concluded in Plunder Squad, also centered around an art heist, albeit much more contemporary stuff.  Parker walked away empty-handed from both of those jobs.  Third time lucky?

Just as important, and stretching across all four parts of the novel, is the arc of Larry Lloyd, disgraced techie turned heister, now the protégé of longtime Parker associate, Ralph Wiss.  Larry is as good as hacking into computer systems as Ralph is at blasting into bank vaults.  But the question remains–is he tough enough for this line of work?

And if the answer is no, Parker’s quite certainly going to kill him–not out of vengeance for Larry having accidentally exposed Parker to the hit, compromised his home base in New Jersey.  No, simply because he knows too much about Parker, he’s too emotional, too inclined to act on impulse, too likely to crack under pressure, spill what he knows.  If Parker has no faith in Larry’s ability to adapt to his new life, avoid the law–which wants him for murdering his former partner now–then Parker’s going to make sure Larry’s in no position to talk to anybody, ever.

And where is this coming from?  Westlake’s own run-in with the law, so many years before.  He and a guy he knew from college, needing a bit of extra pocket money, conspired to steal microscopes from a science lab, and sell them to some minor local crook, who then got into a fight with his unfaithful wife, then went after her boyfriend, which brought in the law.  He ended up selling both Westlake and his buddy to the state police.

Westlake broke easily under pressure, admitted to everything–which was the right thing to do, the smart thing.  He knew that.  And I doubt he ever stopped despising himself for doing it.  While trying, in his fiction, to relive that moment, to look for ways that authority could be successfully resisted, suborned, evaded, outmaneuvered.  Because there would be times in life when that would be the right thing to do, the smart thing.  If you were living a different life.  If you were a different person.  Or if authority wasn’t really looking out for decent law-abiding folk, which has been known to happen.

Larry Lloyd doesn’t have a path back to a decent law-abiding life anymore.  He knows that now.  He can only move forward, become the 21st century version of Ralph Wiss, take his chances out in the wind.  If he can prove to Parker–and to Stark–that he can make this new identity work for him, he lives.  If not, he dies.  And that’s enough prologue for a Part 3, I think.  This shouldn’t take long.

Dealing with the middle of this book last time, and mainly focused on the non-heist stuff, I opted to skip over some fairly significant moments involving Ralph Wiss and Frank Elkins.  Who are having their troubles.  Both of them are family men, leading outwardly respectable lower middle class suburban lives, as they have been doing for many years now.  While supporting their families through an assortment of burglaries and armed robberies.  They always work together, an inseparable team, but their partnership is in danger of going off the rails now.

It was their attempt to burglarize Paxton Marino’s remote luxurious hunting lodge that got them in trouble.  Elkins spotted an incongruity in the floor plan of Marino’s basement–Wiss was able to find and break into Marino’s hidden gallery of stolen art masterpieces.  But before they could make off with the goods, the law came running, alerted by a secret alarm they’d tripped.  They got away, their two partners, Corbett and Dolan got nabbed.

They lawyered up, and are currently out on bail, but there’s no chance of them escaping prison–they’d get significantly less time if they finked on Wiss and Elkins.  They also have families, but they’re willing to go on the lam–if they get enough money to make that feasible.  Meaning Wiss and Elkins have to go back and get that art that if they had left it alone to begin with, Corbett and Dolan wouldn’t be looking at hard time.

And, as has been already explained, that’s going to be much harder now, because the previous robbery made Marino beef up his security, and because Marino is now looking to move his stolen paintings out of there, and because the law has been alerted to the fact that Marino has stolen paintings.  And because those two ex-partners of theirs are starting to breathe really heavily down their necks–Dolan actually violated the terms of his parole to show up at a softball game Elkins was playing in.  Softball is the very last game these guys intend to play.  Do the heist.  Now.

And just to make things even more complicated, Larry Lloyd is now every bit as gung ho for doing the job, because as Parker finds out during a layover in Chicago, Larry’s wanted for murder, and he needs the money to create a new identity for himself.  Basically, the only one who doesn’t have to do this job is Parker–except that he knows these other guys have to do it, and they all know stuff about him, and suppose they end up trading him to the law for less time behind bars?   And anyway, this is what he does.  Steal stuff.  Once he’s started a job, he likes to finish it.

So the four of them set up at a motel near the lodge, as hunters, which is what they are, just not in the usual sense.  The law has displaced Marino’s security staff from their usual headquarters, and this being a sparsely populated area, it’s not too much of a coincidence that they are now living at the same motel.  The gang chats them up, buys them drinks, and gets plenty of useful information about the lodge.

The plan is that Larry Lloyd never gets near the lodge–he’s their eyes and ears, snooping on email conversations between various concerned parties; Marino & Co., as well as the various government officials now trying to nail Marino & Co. (You know, I’d hate to think some nerd could actually do all this, with a portable device, while operating out of a Montana motel, which I assume has lousy internet connectivity, but then again, I have been reading the news lately, so it’s kind of hard to rule anything out these days, isn’t it?)

The bad news is that the law has gotten involved in advance of the actual robbery.  The good news is that for the time being, there’s only two cops there–Bert Hayes, who works for a tiny and possibly fictitious art theft department of the Secret Service, and a Montana State CID man named Moxon, who, like Hayes, has taken a strong dislike to Paxton Marino, and would dearly love to see him behind bars.  They are in constant communication with ‘Sog’ which Parker is informed stands for ‘Seat of government’ and words cannot express how much he does not care.

So decked out like hunters with rifles and blaze orange jackets, with Larry monitoring them through one of those com links involving tiny earphones and mikes that I suspect work a lot better in fiction than in real life,  Parker, Wiss, and Elkins start closing in on the lodge. It’s actually a few days before the start of hunting season.  Like real hunters never jump the gun?

And speaking of people jumping the gun, who should turn up but Bob Dolan–Corbett isn’t far off.  Turns out their parole got revoked the day before, and they had to run for it.  They’re just here making sure they get their share of the proceeds.  The question remains open as to how large a share they figure that’s going to be.

Moxon sees the hunting party approaching, and starts issuing warnings via a loudspeaker.  Elkins talks his way in close enough to pull a gun on him, and before long, both lawmen are in heister custody.  Larry took control of communications to and from the house, so any pleas for help were never received. They surrender graciously.  Figuring these are the same pros who did the first robbery, they are reasonably hopeful they’ll still be alive when this ends–and in the meantime, would the crooks mind terribly showing the cops where the hidden art vault is?  It’s been really hard to find, and they could use some expert help.

It all starts going sour quicker than anticipated.  The damned telecommunications revolution.  People now expect to be in touch with other people at any time, all the time, for any reason, or none at all. Remember when you could be incommunicado for days on end without anybody noticing?  If not, my sympathies.  Yes, Larry can intercept and block calls and emails to and from the estate.  Yes, he can come up with a series of excuses as to why Hayes and Moxon can’t be reached.  They can even have Hayes get on the phone, at gunpoint, to talk to an FBI guy.  Who has some bad news–for the heisters.

The crooked art dealer, Griffith, has flipped on Marino, who is now in custody in Italy.  Since there is now zero doubt that there is priceless stolen art stashed at the lodge, a whole lot of law is now going to be showing up, very soon.  Three hours, max.  Not enough time to break into the stainless steel vault in the basement, and make off with the art.  Larry’s com has suddenly gone dead, which they presume means Mr. Lloyd has run out on them.  “Well, he’s right,” says Wiss.  “I know he is,” says Parker.  (As it happens, they’re both wrong, about Larry, but we’ll get to that.)

Okay, so the job has fallen through completely.  It’s happened before.  Time to leave.  Except they can’t.  Because here’s Bob Dolan, pointing a Colt automatic at Elkins’ head, and telling them that his partner Corbett is upstairs, guarding the entrance–no other way out of the basement. Parker and the others are armed, but Dolan has the drop on them, and even if they could take him, Corbett would hear the shot–if he doesn’t hear Dolan’s voice right afterwards, he’s going to just shoot anybody who comes up.

Here’s the deal–they’re betting that it is possible to get into that vault before the cops show up. The law is already after Corbett and Dolan, so they can never go home again.  They can’t make their getaway without a lot of money.  So far as they’re concerned, if they’re going to jail, they’d like some company.  Get busy with that drill, Wiss.

Parker quietly asks if he can take a look in a storage area–maybe there’s something in there he can use to help get the vault open.  Dolan says sure, what’s the harm, just don’t get too close.  Seems like he’s never worked with Parker.  If he had, he’d know Parker has two specialties.  One is planning heists, which hasn’t been much in demand this time.  The other is troubleshooting.  He’s the one who figures out how to fix problems that crop up during the job.  And if the problems happen to be people, he’s the enforcer who makes them go away.  You don’t let a guy with that particular skill set out of your sight, even for a second.

The storage area is full of sports equipment.  He sees a target, wonders what Marino and his friends used to shoot at it.  Not much time to look, but he senses there’s something there, and he finds it.  A beautifully made wooden composite bow, four feet long, complete with arrows.  And now we’re faced with an unexpected question, as he sizes up this seemingly unfamiliar weapon.

Had he ever shot one of these things?  If he had, he couldn’t remember it, but it wasn’t high technology.  He selected one of the arrows, which also had a nock in the back end of of the shaft, beyond the feathers, which the bowstring nestled into.  He wrapped his left hand around the bow’s grip, rested the arrow’s shaft on top of  his fist, and worked out how to hold the arrow with the fingers of his right hand.  Something like a pool cue grip seemed right, between the feathers and the nock.

When he tried drawing the bowstring back, it was surprisingly taut.  If he managed to let the thing go in the proper way, it would move with a hell of a force, but he could see how easy it would be to flub it, and have the arrow dribble away across the floor, asking a bullet to come rushing back.

There was no way to do practice shots.  But there was nothing else to do either, except be gunned down either by Bob’s friend Harry or by the law.

Parker moved up to the wall just to the left of the doorway.  If he moved forward, he would see Bob diagonally across the room, seated on the sixth step, leaning back against the seventh step and the side wall, half-turned towards Parker, Colt in lap, eyes on Wiss and Elkins.

Parker inhaled, and held it.  He drew the string back to his ear, left arm out straight as he held the bow.  He stepped into the doorway, aimed down the shaft, opened his right hand.  The arrow streaked across the space like an angry wasp and pinned Bob’s chest to the wall.

He’s not sure if he’s ever used a bow before?  I haven’t used one in maybe thirty years, but it’s not something you forget doing, even once.  I hit a few bullseyes in my day, but in Parker’s place I would have quite certainly 1)Missed Dolan by a mile and 2)Flashed back to archery class at summer camp as Dolan gunned me down. What do you figure the odds are Parker ever went to summer camp?  He was in the army in WWII as a very young boy, and pretty sure archery practice wasn’t part of basic training then.  He studies the weapon, figures it out, and uses it like a zen master–in a matter of moments.

Who the hell is this guy?  What names did he go by before he was Parker, and for how long?  How many lives has he lived, in how many different forms?    Not necessarily bipedal forms.  But always a hunter.  That we know.  Or perhaps he was a single drop of rain?

Stark puts just the ghost of a whisper of a hint behind this passage, as he’s done in previous books, that there is something about his protagonist that is beyond any rational accounting.  We’ve seen him throw a knife with deadly accuracy–we’ve never been told how he picked up that skill–or any other skill we’ve seen him employ.  It would have been easy enough for Parker to find a hunting knife in a hunting lodge, use that as a means of neutralizing Dolan without warning Corbett.

But Stark presents him with a different weapon–just to see what happens.  Like it isn’t obvious what will happen.   Parker will never be able to use ‘high technology’ like computers, because he’s about simple things.  Eternal things.  Perfect things.  So he’s not flying any starships across the universe divide, but he does like to wear black a lot, doesn’t he?   Back to the story.

Without speaking, Parker signals to a slack-jawed Wiss to keep the drill running, make it sound like he’s still working on the vault, keep Dolan’s partner thinking everything is fine.  Parker walks over to the gasping Bob, who is probably thinking he should have taken those stories he maybe heard about Parker in the past a bit more seriously, and squeezes the remaining life out of him with one huge gnarly hand.

Now he’s got Bob’s Colt, along with his own gun.  Now he’s got to go up and get the other one.  There’s not really any suspense at this point about whether he can do that, but after a brief exchange of fire, Harry Corbett runs like a rabbit for the car parked outside and makes his exit.  Their only means of escape is gone.

Well, there’s always the old-fashioned way.  They reverse their hunting jackets, from orange to brown, leave the two cops behind to tell a damned interesting story to their superiors, and start running down the road, figuring to get into the woods at some point, try shaking the law the same way Elkins and Wiss did last time (but without a truck this time).  Three squad cars come in fast, and they get out of sight until they’re gone.  Right now, the law is just thinking about Corbett and the Jeep Cherokee he’s driving, but very soon Moxon and Hayes will tell them about these three other guys, and then the heat will be on for real.

Another vehicle approaches–but this one is an ambulance.  Bit soon for that, no?  Parker looks more closely–it’s Lloyd.  He came for them, when he could have walked away.  What do you know about that?   Parker’s not a big fan of heroism as a general rule, but that’s not what this is.  Loyalty to his fellow thieves aside, Larry wants those paintings, needs them.  Because he needs money to do his disappearing act, but also because this is his job, and he needs closure.  He wants to go back to the house and get what they came here for.

He stole the ambulance from a nearby hospital.  It provides a limited degree of protective coloration from the law.  Larry argues they can park at the sentry house, and nobody will notice them for a bit.  Parker agrees, but with a caveat.

Parker said, “I don’t like to leave empty-handed either, but it would be worse to leave in a prison bus.  If we work something out, good.  If not, I don’t mind leaving you right here.”

Lloyd slowly nodded.  “I understand,” he said.

He really does.  So do Elkins and Wiss–mentoring only goes so far.  This is their pupil’s moment of truth.  Either he passes this test, or he’s not going anywhere–not even to prison.

Larry Lloyd is the planner now, and the troubleshooter, improvising a way to salvage something from this fiasco.  He puts on one of the uniforms for Marino’s security people–he knows enough about them to pose as one of them.  He’s cobbled together a jamming device that will keep the cops from radioing down, and he can show Parker and the others how to shut off the electricity and phone at the lodge.  He’ll drive right up in a borrowed Chevy Blazer, and take some of the paintings they’re loading on a truck.  They don’t need all of them for it to be a nice score–every single one is worth a fortune.

The others are impressed, in spite of themselves–but wondering where the hell this new Larry Lloyd came from.

Elkins said, Larry, I never knew you had yourself confused with James Bond.”

Lloyd offered a shaky grin. “Are you kidding?  The last few weeks, I’ve been scaling cliffs, shooting people, getting rid of bodies, stealing ambulances, I am James Bond.”  Earnest again, he turned back to Wiss.  “Ralph, it’s my only shot at those paintings, and without those paintings I’m dead, even if Mr. Parker here doesn’t kill me.”

Wiss blinked.  He and Elkins looked at Parker, who looked at Lloyd, whose expression was now that of a kid at the principal’s office, insisting they got the wrong guy.

Parker said, “Take your shot.”

That’s not just a figure of speech.  He’s going to be watching.  If it looks like the cops are tipping to who Larry really is, Parker’s going to be sorely tempted to try and plug him, except he doesn’t have the hunting rifle anymore.  He’s taking a big chance here.  Larry knows where he lives.  He and Claire would have to get the hell and gone from Colliver Pond, and never come back.

So, pretending to be a security man named Dave Rappleyea (the one who kept playing DoomRanger II all the time), Larry walks right up to Moxon, who is helping supervise the removal of the stolen artwork from the Marino manse.  Larry is a very convincing civilian, and before Moxon knows what’s happening, he’s jumped into the truck with the paintings, and is driving like a maniac away from there.

The other heist men follow in the ambulance, which they then turn into an improvised bomb (oxygen tanks), to block pursuit.  They know Corbett is dead, saw the cops bringing his body up to the lodge.  There’s nobody left to finger them.  They just need to find transportation and disappear

They got four crates–four paintings.  One for each of them.  Most likely they’ll deal with museums, insurance companies–eventually, these masterworks will be back where they belong–property of the world once more, instead of one self-obsessed billionaire, whose lawyers are going to be putting in a lot of overtime trying to keep him out of prison.  You know, I’d almost want to read a novel about that.  Well, a novella.  Actually, how about a nonfiction piece?

Wiss is already gone, to get a vehicle. Elkins goes to dump the Blazer.  Larry and Parker wait there for him on the back road.  Alone.  Deep in the woods.  Elkins makes a brief plea for Larry before he goes.  But it’s Parker’s call what happens now.

In this alternate reality stream we’re in, I’d kind of like to think one of the four paintings–the one Larry gets to finance his new life–is The Just Judges, seen up top–or rather, a black and white photo taken of it before it was stolen in the 1930’s.  It has yet to be recovered.  Hope springs eternal, though.

Now Larry must face his own judge, who I think we can say is just.  Some of his late colleagues might disagree.

Parker sat looking at the road, listening to the faint rustle of the woods.  It would be an hour, maybe more, before Wiss got here.  They could drop Parker at the airport in Bismarck, North Dakota, on their way home to Chicago, he’d take a plane east, call Claire.

Lloyd said, I’m too jumpy to sit.”  He walked back and forth, back and forth, looking at the road, looking with wonder at his own hands.  Finally, he stopped to face Parker and say “So you aren’t going to do it.”

“No need,” Parker said.

And if you don’t need to kill, you don’t.  Larry Lloyd proved out, after all.  He’ll be a useful member of The Profession–Parker may well work with him in the future.  Not in any of the remaining novels, but if there had been a few more, I imagine we’d have seen him once or twice.  He’s going to get a new face, via plastic surgery–well, that’s familiar, isn’t it?

Parker likes things that are familiar.  He likes patterns he can recognize.  Larry is something he can understand now.  No longer some confused frightened nerdy fish out of water, mired in unreality, lamenting a lost life.  He’s adapted to his new existence, his new reality–he prefers it.  He’s something else now.  Something better.   Well–simpler.  And Parker is all about simple things.  Eternal things.  Perfect things.  But only he can ever truly embody these things.  The rest of us will always fall short of his standard. That’s okay.  He can work with that.  He’s learned to accept us for what we are.  And we’ll never fully understand what he is.

And what I don’t understand is where the time went–and the books.  This was the first of the five final Parker novels.  And the next book in our queue is the first of the five final Dortmunder novels.  They really are in synch now, those two.  Pulling together in harness, as the finish line looms ahead.  Miles to go before Westlake sleeps.  More good books left than most authors complete in a lifetime.  That’s the good news.  But the end is in sight.  That’s the bad.

Oh, and looks like Barry ‘Spider-man’ Williams is getting eight years for art theft.  What kind of news you think that is–entirely up to you.

PS: I knew there was another cover somewhere.  My own personal gallery of stolen art is getting harder to keep track of, and foreign titles so rarely give any hint as to what book they’re for.

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(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark