Category Archives: Richard Stark

Review: Forever And A Death, Part 4

McGinnis-art-3

hong-kong-day-panorama

Bennett went over to stand beside Curtis and study the plans. God, it was good to be back in construction again! To be standing in a site office, shoulder to shoulder with the boss, looking over the plans. This, Bennett thought, is where I’ve been supposed to be, lo, these many years.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

Looking at the plans, Curtis said, “We don’t have as much time as I’d hoped, Colin.”

“No, sir.”

“Them being here in Hong Kong, and in one of the tunnels, suggests they know far too much.”

“It’s that Mark Hennessy, sir,” Bennett said, meaning, there’s a bad employee, and here, sir, right here at your side, is a good employee.

Curtis said, “I suppose part of it is Mark, but not all of it, he didn’t know that much. I think it’s mostly George Manville, figuring things out. Why I didn’t get rid of him when I had my hands on him I’ll never know.”

“You thought he could still help you, sir.”

“Well, I was wrong about that,” Curtis said. “But it isn’t going to stop us, Colin.”

Us. “No, sir!”

It might be interesting, in fact, to stay here in Hong Kong, particularly if they didn’t after all manage to thwart Curtis. To stay at the Peninsula—switching to a Hong Kong view room, of course—to sit in a comfortable chair by the window, and to watch the towers across the way begin to tremble, to shudder, then to fall to their knees, window panes snapping out into the air like frightened hawks, walls dropping away, floors tilting, desks and filing cabinets and people sliding out into the world, then to feel the power ripple in this direction across the harbor, to see it come like a ghost in the water, to feel it tug at the landfill on this side, the buildings swaying, the yachts and junks and huge cargo ships all foundering and failing and staring with one last despairing gaze at the sky, then the harbor boiling, this very building bending down to kiss the sea…

What a spectacular sight. Who would want to look at anything else after that?

One of the things I’ve had to chronicle, as I’ve worked my way from 1960 to the present day, has been the decreasing diversity and quality of cover art for Mr. Westlake’s various efforts.  (Though Richard Stark, as ever, remains the outlier, and I’ll have the covers to prove it in the coming weeks.)

Hard Case Crime, which published this book, is one component in a much larger media corporation, headquartered in the U.K., so the American and British covers are identical.  If there are different covers for any foreign language editions thus far, they have eluded me.  As of the present time, I don’t believe that’s the case (translations take time).  So was I going to just keep posting the same cover image, four times in a row?

Then it occurred to me–wouldn’t Hard Case Crime have commissioned a few alternate takes, before settling on one? Charles Ardai confirmed they had considered a different cover, and his email came with an attachment.  When making the inquiry, I figured the most I’d get would be a somewhat different preliminary sketch from Paul Mann, who did the cover you’ve already seen, but Ardai said Mann nailed it the first time, so no need for a second.

Instead, I got what you see up top, and that’s from none other than Robert E. McGinnis.  Yowzah.

There could be no more obvious choice to illustrate a Westlake novel based on an idea for a Bond flick that never happened than the man of a thousand (or more) gorgeously lurid paperbacks.  McGinnis also provided iconic poster art for 007 back in the 60’s, and to make it even more perfect, he did some of his best work for the six Gold Medal editions of the Parker novels–including their reprint of The Hunter, (entitled Point Blank, because of the film version just coming out), where Parker looks like Sean Connery, and doesn’t resemble Lee Marvin a whit.

(Also, I’m pretty sure Westlake put a fondly irreverent caricature of McGinnis in Nobody’s Perfect.  And McGinnis seems to have depicted himself as Parker in his cover for The Black Ice Score.)

So this is what McGinnis came up with, when approached.  And it’s breathtaking.  It evokes the villain’s plan memorably, as well as one of the heroes of the piece.  And I can see why they still went with Mann. (McGinnis’s art won’t go to waste; it will be used for some other Hard Case offering, in the next year or two.)

His nifty noirish style has held up beautifully (as two recent art books featuring his work can attest).  His technique (at 91 years of age!) can hardly be improved upon.  And his take on the female protagonist here–well……..

Kim Baldur is not some pale protein-deficient red-headed art model in heels.  Nor would she be wearing a pink bikini, let alone green mascara.  At any time in her life, but least of all when Hong Kong is about to be turned into a malodorous mire.  She’s going to be the one upon whom it falls in the end to prevent this, and she should be dressed for the occasion, no?  And she should probably eat something first.  Though not too soon before she goes in the water.  Like cramps are her primary concern there.

Also, there are no exploding helicopters or hungry sharks in the book, nor does George ever get his hands on an assault rifle, but that’s quibbling.  Mann’s cover has Kim boldly brandishing a sidearm, when the only weapon she ever employs is a can of hairspray, and that’s quibbling too.  One’s license to kill may never come through, no matter how many applications you fill out, but artistic license is a thing.

So how much license do we grant Westlake here?  Obviously this isn’t meant as an exercise in gritty realism.  Nor is it meant to be pure wish-fulfillment fantasy.  Somewhere in-between.  Taking the kind of story where the hero is a smug sexy secret agent, and the villain is trying to take over the world from his secret base on an island or inside a volcano or whatever–and recast it.  Re-imagine it.

The heroes (plural) are still attractive enough, but one is a duly diligent engineering wonk, another an earnestly impulsive eco-warrior of a girl, and the third is not merely gay, but German!

The villain is an arrogant billionaire, and that’s nothing new, but he’s wealthy on paper only.  In debt up to his deceptively bland eyeballs, caught in a trap of his own making, and not at all interested in conquering the world.  He merely wants to retain his current standing in that world, maybe improve it a tad.

But to do this, he has to pull off a stupendous (and murderous) caper,  taking most of the gold reserves from the Bank of China, then destroying all evidence of his crime, by obliterating most of the city of Hong Kong.  The same city the People’s Republic unceremoniously evicted him from, not long after they took charge there, so let’s just say that there’s a certain synergistic aspect.  Well, it was the Chinese who said that Crisis = Opportunity, right?

And in the process of dealing with certain complications that sprang up along the way, he’s hired a disgraced ex-employee of his, a hulking man-monster of a Singaporean, to deal with those complications, with extreme prejudice.   He’s got other henchmen as well, but keeps faith only with himself.  He expects none of the others, heroes or henchmen, to make it to the end of the movie.  But he fully expects to be there at the end, the last man standing, and he gets his way. Spoiler alert? If you don’t want to know, better stop reading now.

The final part of this novel is the shortest,  15 chapters.   Westlake has been paring away at the cast to make this possible (some posthumous paring from Ardai as well).

The guilt-ridden Captain Zhang is dead.  The murderous Morgan Pallifer is dead.  The well-meaning but tunnel-visioned Jerry Diedrich is dead.  Colin Bennett’s arc effectively concluded in Part Three, and now he’s just Curtis’s servitor–in his creator’s mind, he might as well be dead.  Inspector Fairchild, though making himself useful here and there, isn’t going to be solving any mysteries, or making any arrests. The once intrepid Mark Hennessy is soon to be reduced to a shadow of his former spying self.  A new POV character is introduced, then even more abruptly taken out of play.

One key figure after another has fallen by the wayside in this story, until there are only–

FOUR:

Martin Ha lived on a comparatively quiet side street in the middle-class neighborhood called Hung Horn, southeast of Chatham Road, an area heavily populated by the city’s Chinese civil servants, in which group, dressed for his commute, he seemed barely likely to belong. Mounted on his bicycle, teetering slightly as he made the turn onto Ma Tau Wai Road, this slender knobby-kneed serious-expressioned man of about 40 looked as though he might be a rickshaw driver on his day off. He didn’t look like anybody important at all.

Ha rode his bike down Ma Tau Wai Road and right onto Wuhu Street and then left onto Gilles Avenue, all the while ignoring the usual press of traffic that raced and squealed and struggled all around him, the other bicyclists, the hurrying pedestrians, the taxis and trucks and double-decker buses and even, though this was off their normal grounds, the occasional bewildered tourist. Gilles Avenue led him at last to the new Hung Horn ferry pier. Until just a few years ago, where he now stood had been Hung Horn Bay, next to the main railway terminal, but the bay had been filled in just recently, to make more precious land, on which had been built the opulent new Harbour Plaza Hotel, five minutes from the railroad terminal and even closer to the ferry pier.

The ferry ran every ten minutes or so, and took only fifteen minutes to cross the harbor, and this was what Martin Ha loved. The view from the ferry. Out in front of him, across the sparkling water, Hong Kong Island gleamed and blazed in the sunshine, its glittering towers bunched together like the crowded upraised lancetips of some buried army. Behind him, almost as huge, almost as modern, almost as gleaming and sleek and new, clustered Kowloon, Hong Kong’s mainland extension, the gateway to China. In the old days, you could take the train from that railway terminal beside the ferry dock on Kowloon and travel all the way across Czarist Russia and all of Europe to Calais in France, and then board one more ferry, and be in England. The jet plane had changed all that, of course, but the sense of it was still there, the ribbon that tied two worlds together.

The opening of Part Four serves several purposes–first to introduce us to Martin Ha, a Hong Kong police inspector, who bicycles to the ferry every morning, looking like some minor bureaucrat, which is pretty much how he sees himself. He will be informed over the phone by a fellow officer in Singapore that there are some people who have just arrived in his town, with a story he needs to hear. A story that may alarm him somewhat, he is cautioned, and he finds himself hoping it is something out of the ordinary–he could do with some excitement.

It also introduces us to Hong Kong itself, which matters because we need to be reminded this is not merely an idea of a city–this is one of the world’s great gathering points, a hub of commerce and trade, the home and workplace of millions of people–and much of it used to be ocean.  And might be again.

Then it shows us Ha thinking to himself about his city, how much he understands of the world he lives in–and how little–we all take the stability of our daily existence a bit too much for granted at times. No matter how many times Life warns us not to do that.

The surprising thing, Ha thought, as he sat in the air-conditioned back of his official Vauxhall, feeling the slight forward tug of the Star Ferry taking him back across to Kowloon, was how little the city had changed. Everyone had thought the transition from British rule to Chinese rule would be fraught with problems, particularly political and social problems, everything but economic problems, but everyone as usual had been wrong.

In hindsight, it was easy to see why. For one hundred fifty years, Hong Kong had been ruled by an oligarchy installed from a far-off capital, London. Then, for just a few years, there was an attempt to paste a democratic smile on this autocratic face, but the instant the pressure was released the smile fell off, and now Hong Kong was once again ruled by an oligarchy installed from a far-off capital, Beijing. Nothing had changed.

Except, of course, for some of the gweilos living in Hong Kong, the expats as they called themselves, the Europeans and Americans, but mostly the British, who had done well by serving the far-off capital of London but couldn’t be expected to receive the same opportunity to batten off the far-off capital of Beijing.

The ones who belonged to the working class, the barmaids and jockeys and interior decorators, mostly took it in good part, vanished when their work permits expired—or shortly after, when they were found to be still on the premises—and were presumably now living much the same lives in Singapore or Macao or Manila or half a dozen other neon-lit centers of the Pacific Rim.

At the other end of the spectrum, a few Richard Curtises had also found the world shifting beneath their feet. The homes they’d enjoyed for so many years up on the Peaks, the steep hills in the middle of Hong Kong Island, behind and south of the main financial districts, they’d sold off to their Chinese counterparts, entrepreneurs who now made their comfortable livings in exactly the same way the Curtises used to do. Those who’d left had sold those mansions on the Peak before the real estate crash; not bad. And if they hadn’t gotten quite as much in the sale as they’d have liked, well, how much money did any one rich person really need?

(To which many a rich person would respond “How much is there?”  That’s how they got rich in the first place.)

But Martin Ha finds it hard to believe this Curtis, who he remembers well as a ‘corner-cutter,’ could really have such a profound grudge against Hong Kong, or that he’d risk everything on some crazy scheme to steal tons of gold from one of the most powerful nations on earth, to cover some bad debts.  (Might as well imagine he’d run for President of the United States.)

So he has lunch with these people, at a world class restaurant in Hong Kong’s most luxurious hotel (where we are briefly told that George and Kim have happily renewed their sexual relationship, and that’s the very last bit of sex you’ll get in this perhaps over-prim Bond pastiche).

He’s hoping to hear a diverting tale, but for all his calm complacency, he’s a thoroughgoing professional, and no fool.  He can tell they’re not hysterics, or cranks, and one of them is a police inspector from Australia, another the somber son of a wealthy German (not known for histrionics, okay one exception, but he was Austrian).

And one is an engineer, who keeps talking about something called a soliton.  And about the solid ground beneath them, which is not solid at all, and only recently ground.

Inspector Ha nodded at the windows. “Hong Kong Island has been added to and added to. The island used to end far back at Queens Road. Just about everything you’re looking at on the flats is reclaimed land.” They all looked at the gleaming towers, and Kim remembered the great bruise of water thundering at her from Kanowit. She suddenly felt cold.

George said, very quietly, “Inspector, you’re using the wrong word.”

“What word?” “Reclaimed,” George said. “Everyone likes to talk about reclaimed land. ‘The new airport is on reclaimed land.’ It’s a wonderfully solid word, but it is a distraction.”

Ha said, “From what?”

“The Dutch reclaim land,” George said. “They build dikes, and force the sea back, and the lands they find are called polders. They’re solid and real, the same lands they always were except they used to have water on them.”

He waved a hand toward the window. “That isn’t reclaimed. It’s landfill.”

Inspector Ha said, “Reclaimed is more…dignified.”

“But landfill is what it is,” George insisted. “Inherently unstable, never quite solid. And now I suppose you’ll tell me there are tunnels under there.”

Of course there are.  They are used for air conditioning in this very hot climate.  The landfill section of Hong Kong, which is most of Hong Kong, is networked with tunnels.  Many of which go right past underground bank vaults filled with gold ingots–also constructed in landfill.  Fifty feet under the surface of what isn’t really solid ground.

But for the soliton to work, these tunnels would have to be connected to each other, as they are presently not–and how might this be done?  By construction crews, working quietly beneath the surface of the city, using one of Hong Kong’s many active construction sites as a front.  And what business is Richard Curtis in?  And in what city did he formerly practice that profession?

What truly alarms Inspector Ha is Luther’s mention of Jackie Tian, a man he knows to be midway between a union bigwig and a gangster–a man of few scruples, who would know basically every qualified worker in town who might be persuaded to engage in such a nefarious venture, could easily arrange for such a project to be undertaken without arousing suspicion.  He informs his luncheon hosts that they have succeeded in alarming him.

Luther Rickendorf, the self-exiled gay scion of a wealthy old German family, has been a somewhat neglected character in the previous three sections of this novel.  He’s made his voice heard throughout, but he rarely speaks when he doesn’t have something significant to say.  He’s been happy to live in the shadow of his more outgoing American lover.  But now the shadow is alone, and wondering what to do with himself.

For Luther, the last few days had been muffled, without resonance, like a pistol shot in a padded room. Or as though his brain and all his senses were in that padded room. Nothing came through to him with much impact or clarity. It was as though he watched the world now on a television monitor, listened to it through a not-very-good sound system.

He still went through the motions. He thought about the problem of Richard Curtis, he took care of his own needs, he responded quite normally to Kim and George and the others, but it was all simple momentum, nothing else. He went through these motions because there was no way to stop them, short of death, and he didn’t much feel like death right now; it would simply be the state he was already in, intensified.

He supposed he grieved for Jerry, but even that was muffled. He couldn’t find in himself much enthusiasm for revenge or justice, though he continued to trudge along with the others in Curtis’s wake. What he was realizing, and even that slowly and without much force, was that in grieving for Jerry he was grieving for a part of himself. Jerry had been his id, the outward expression of all those emotions and instant reactions that Luther had never quite managed to feel or express on his own. Without Jerry, he was merely the cool and amiable somnambulist he used to be, but now with the added memory of there having been once a Jerry.

(That’s also Luther, in the second quote up top, half-wishing he could be there to see the destruction of Hong Kong, the fall of its towers. Maybe he should try moving to lower Manhattan.)

Jerry Diedrich’s reaction to the loss of the man he’d loved before Luther was to lose himself in grief, bitterness, and retribution, leading ultimately to his own destruction (though it must be said, if he hadn’t pursued his grudge with such stubborn fervor, Curtis would be facing no opposition at all now).

Luther, you should pardon the expression, is not such a drama queen.  He processes his feelings more quietly, less directly.  It seems to run in the family, this emotional stolidity.  His father, upon learning his tall blonde athletic son was attracted to men, expressed no anger, no disappointment–he simply indicated he would prefer Luther live out his alternative life away from Germany, has been willing to supply the funds to make this possible.  (It is, in fact, Rickendorf pater who is shouldering much of the bill for Luther and his friends to stay in Hong Kong, in some considerable comfort).  Luther has no strong feelings about any of that, either.  Or is it that he keeps his anger locked away against the day he’ll need it?

Inspector Ha arranges for them to tour the tunnels, and Luther lags behind, still in something of a fugue state, thinking about how he and Jerry will not be spending eternity together in his  family’s ancestral burial vault, as he’d once allowed himself to imagine.  He hears something.  He looks around, curious.  Then he looks up–and Colin Bennett drops down on him, swiftly renders him unconscious, drags him away.

Just bad timing, is all.  Bennett, attending to his duties, got caught by surprise when the tour group came through, concealed himself overhead, had to neutralize Luther once he was detected.  Curtis is angry at the foul-up.  Now he knows for sure Manville is alive, and has come to stop him, and Rickendorf’s disappearance will make Manville’s story all the more believable–but it can’t be helped.  And he can always use another worker to dig in the tunnels.  He wants this over and done with as quickly as possible.

Next chapter is from Mark Hennessy’s POV, and it is not a happy one.  Curtis found out he was Diedrich’s mole.  Instead of just firing Mark, blackballing him as he’d once done to Bennett, Curtis decided to take a more satisfying revenge–and get yet another worker for his tunnels.

I’ve been informed by Greg Tulonen that some of Mark’s development got cut out of the published book, but all I can say to what I’ve read is that I don’t find his transition satisfactory.  He’s been spying on his employer, and doing a good job of it.  He’s been told Curtis is planning something terrible, by people he trusts.  He knows Jerry Diedrich has disappeared, and what’s more, his disappearance is directly linked to a man Mark knows to be in Curtis’s employ, a man who has been trying to learn the identity of the spy.

Luther had begged him over the phone to come talk to the Singapore police, back up the story he and the others are telling, and he refused to even give that very honorable man permission to tell the police his name.   To out him, in effect.

That all being said, it’s very hard to believe somebody smart enough to do what he’s been doing for years, right under Curtis’s nose, is dumb enough not to smell a rat when Curtis abruptly says he wants Mark to come along on a business trip with him.  He decides he’s done his bit for the environment, for his friends, and now it’s time to focus on his career.  His career is about to take an unexpected turn.

He was in the cabin only a minute or two, laying out his possessions on the top bunk, deciding he’d sleep on the lower, when there was a sharp rap at the door. Expecting Curtis, he crossed to pull the door open, and the man from that day in Curtis’s office shouldered in, shoving the door out of the way, punching Mark very hard in the stomach.

Reeling, doubled over, bile in his throat, Mark felt panic and blank astonishment. The man he’d delivered the money for, the one who’d been following Jerry and Luther, who’d done something to Jerry, was here! In this room, shutting the door behind himself. And when Mark stared upward at him, mouth strained open, air all shoved out of him, the man punched him in the face.

Oh, Luther, tell them! Tell the police, force me to change my mind, convince me, make me stay in Singapore and tell the police what I know, make me stay, anywhere but here! Luther, let me not be here!

(Mind you, I’m not saying that there aren’t people that smart/stupid in this world.  Thinking they can play both sides, leaking things to the press, let’s say, while still defending their master in public, collecting their paychecks, padding their résumés, praying there isn’t a Colin Bennett in their future, or just assuming nothing like that could ever happen to them, that’s just in stories.  And history books.  I’m just saying Mark needed a bit more fleshing out for this twist to work.  I don’t know if he got it in the original manuscript, but he doesn’t here.)

Bennett takes Mark to Curtis, who casually remarks that since Mark’s spying cost him some time, he surely wouldn’t mind helping to make up for that by doing a bit of honest labor.  Every time Mark objects, Bennett hits him.  Hard.  He stops objecting.

What follows, once they get him into the tunnels, is a subterranean hellscape, rather like the one experienced by Rolf Malone in Anarchaos, after he was sold as a slave and sent to be worked to death in a mine.  He is beaten mercilessly, fed minimally, allowed little rest, and in no time at all the man he was before crumbles away to nothing, his will broken.  He doesn’t even known if it’s day or night up above.  Well, that’s one way to learn how the other half lives.

What our heroes have to learn is which construction site–out of dozens now active in Hong Kong–is being used to infiltrate the tunnels.  It would take too long to find out which is a dummy corporation.   They’re so dug in now that searching the known tunnels for subtle alterations would likewise take too long.

Manville has a hunch–he remembers Curtis’s story about how the Hong Kong construction firm he took over with his wife’s help was originally called Hoklo Construction–Hoklos being pirates who escaped punishment and achieved respectability by blending into society, once they’d made their pile.  Anybody could be a pirate, hiding in plain sight, was the point.  (I’m sure Westlake read or heard about this somewhere, but I think there’s a whole lot of people who’d object to this characterization.)

Inspector Ha makes a call, and no, there’s no Hoklo Construction, nothing that obvious–but there is a company called Xian Bing Shu–which means ‘rat pie.’  I’m not quite sure whose expense that’s supposed to be at, but it’ll do as a hint.

(Very Long Sidebar: Let me point out one gaping Hong Kong sized plot hole now, and get it out of the way.  Both sides in this struggle seem to be of the opinion that if Curtis pulls off his coup, there’ll be no one left in the world who knows about what Curtis did.  They’ll all be be entombed in mud and rubble, and no fingers will be pointing at Curtis from any direction, and he’ll be safe as houses.

Curtis is seen thinking to himself that he will gradually transform the gold reserves he steals into ‘impulses in cyberspace.’  So there is a well-developed internet.  We know there are cellphones, rarely as they are mentioned.  And the telephone is mentioned quite frequently, as it has been since the dawn of the 20th century.

Martin Ha and Tony Fairchild are high-ranking police officers with easy access to those higher up in the chain of command.   It is hard to imagine that a few calls have not been made to various concerned parties, in Beijing, Australia, and elsewhere.  Maybe emails.  If this story took place in the 19th century, there’d still be time to send a telegram, or a even a goddam letter.

And, lest we forget, there’s Wai Fung, an inspector of equivalent rank in Singapore, who heard the entire story from Manville and the others, referred it to Ha’s attention, and is still in Singapore, immune from Curtis’s machinations.  He was skeptical, but he wouldn’t be once he saw the news footage.

Andre Brevizin, the eminent Brisbane attorney, came to Hong Kong with Manville and the others in Westlake’s surviving draft, but he seems a thorough sort of person, who leaves notes and things–and in this edited down version of the story, he’s still back in Brisbane.

Let’s acknowledge that Curtis is not in an entirely rational frame of mind here, and doesn’t know how many people Manville has talked to.  Let’s acknowledge that there is no absolute proof Curtis intends to destroy every acre of Hong Kong built on landfill, although if he doesn’t, he’s got to split the loot with a lot of other people, any one of whom might someday spill the beans on him.

Let’s acknowledge that it would be impossible to evacuate an island city in the time they have left, that mass panic would ensue were they to publicly announce what they’ve learned, and that Beijing’s reaction to the news might be problematic.  Let’s also acknowledge that nobody in the story has a lot of time to weigh their actions, which is very much by the author’s design.

And acknowledging all that, I think this aspect of the story needed a lot more work, and that Curtis would have to be stark raving to think he’s going to get away with this–I mean, even if they can’t prove a thing, doesn’t Beijing have a few assassins on the payroll?  Curtis doesn’t seem to be that particular kind of crazy.

And let’s finally remind ourselves that Ian Fleming’s Moonraker is today seen by many as the best-written Bond novel, and at the time it came out, none other than Noel Coward found it less outlandish than the previous two, which he admitted wasn’t saying very much.  One must always make some allowances for the literary form being employed.  Back to the story at hand, still bloody gripping for all my cavils.)

Things start happening very quickly now.   Inspector Ha surrounds the fake construction site, demands the workmen open the gate, or he’ll knock it down.   The workmen respond by opening fire, and one of the first to die is Inspector Ha.  He never liked gunplay, and his prejudice was well-founded.  But the point being made is that when  you’re going to arrest a group of men who are in the process of stealing billions in gold from a powerful and ruthless totalitarian government with some truly horrible prisons, best not expect them to come along quietly.  We say farewell to Inspector Ha, a better man perhaps than his world deserves.  (We could use you in America right now, Inspector.)

Curtis is now on a boat in the harbor, waiting for a small remote-controlled cargo submarine to deliver him his pirate gold (I would assume he got this very Bondian gadget from the same place real-life drug lords do).  In touch with Bennett, he gives the order to go ahead with the operation, get the gold to him, then get out of the immediate area before the soliton hits.  They’ll meet up later to divide the spoils.  (The men all think, remember, that it’s only going to obliterate a small area.  In reality, Curtis will be the sole surviving heister.  George Uhl would be envious.)

And that would be game over, were it not for the fact that Luther Rickendorf’s legendary patience has finally run out.  And the berserker within him is finally released.

It was when the man hit Luther on the back of the head with a fist-size stone, when he felt the pain and a runnel of blood trickling down his neck, that he finally snapped out of the stupor he’d been in ever since Bennett had dropped on top of him in the water tunnel. He turned to look at the man who’d hit him, a short compact pugnacious Chinese, who gestured angrily at the pile of rubble in front of them, making it clear Luther was working too slowly. The man tossed the bloodied stone into the tram and glared at Luther, hands on hips. Luther lifted the shovel, turned, and hit him in the face with it.

That time he used the flat of the shovel, but in the melee that followed he used the edge; it made a very adequate lance, producing quite satisfactory gashes in arms and foreheads.

He somehow fights his way outside, bullets flying everywhere.  He gets to the bulldozer blocking the gate, and much like Manville with the pistol safety in Part One, extrapolates from past experience working with snowplows at ski resorts.  He gets the big machine going, smashing through the gate, then smashing into a bus–but the cops are in, and they’re pretty mad now.  These are somewhat shady hardhats, not seasoned heistmen (seasoned heistmen would have either run away or given up when the cops came knocking).  They don’t hold out very long.

But the submarine is out of the tunnel, into the harbor, under Curtis’s control, as he heads for open ocean  He’s still listening on the phone he told Bennett to leave off the hook when the police smash into his operations room and take Bennett prisoner.  He knows Manville is there, but he assumes it’s too late to stop the charges which have already been set–on a timer.  Like last time  With no failsafe.  Like last time.  And the charges are all under water.

There is confusion in the ranks, because the now-ranking officer on the scene was not told by the cautious Inspector Ha what they were trying to prevent here.  Between Fairchild’s experience with policemen, and Manville’s understanding of what lies Bennett has been fed, they get their answers–and Bennett finally comes to the numbed realization that he’s been used.  And Curtis, still listening in on the other line, hangs up.  He’s won.

The diver Curtis used is their captive, but how can they possibly explain to him what needs doing, and why, and then trust him not to just swim away into the harbor himself, which is honestly what any sane person would do right now, given a chance.  Who could be idealistic and foolhardy enough to dive into dark murky water, with less than half an hour remaining, on a suicide mission that is almost certain to fail?  And it has to be somebody certified as an expert diver, who will fit into the scuba gear of a rather small man?

Oh, you guessed.

Kim had never been so frightened in her life. All she could see in her mind’s eye was that great boulder of hard gray water rolling at her from Kanowit Island, surrounding her, submerging her, beating her into a rag doll.

She was now wearing the other diver’s wetsuit and goggles and headlamp and flippers and air tank, thanking heaven he was a small man so it more or less fit. She moved strongly through the black tunnels. The water filling the tunnels was clouded, already beginning to mix with dirt from the temporary cross-tunnels. In a little while, you wouldn’t be able to see down here at all. Of course, in a little while, there would be no down here.

The more she thought about the urgency of the job, the need for speed and efficiency, the more anxious she became. And she knew that could be fatal. She’d almost fallen down the ladder into the water, unable to control her feet in flippers on the ladder rungs. And she didn’t want to dive or fall into that water, because who knew what debris might be in there, to cut her or knock her out.

And now, when she should be concentrating on swimming forward, finding the bombs, defusing them, all she could think about was the destroyer wave off Kanowit Island, all she could do was feed her fear. George hadn’t wanted her to come down here. None of them had wanted her to do it, none of them would have asked her to risk her life to save theirs—to save everyone’s. But who else was there?

So it’s all come full circle from the start of the book, but this time it’s different.  She’s different.  She’s not some dumb kid who thinks she’s immortal anymore, she’s not just acting on impulse.  She knows what the stakes are, and she knows what she has to do.  She knows who she is.  She’s Kim Baldur, and she wants to save the world.  Or at least this one small piece of it.  And she knows that if she doesn’t, she’ll die anyway.  Not idealism.  Not heroism.  Enlightened self-interest.  Could save us all if we let it.

So if you read this far, without reading the novel first, you have only yourself to blame.  That quote up top would indicate to me that Westlake at least considered having Curtis succeed in his plan, or partly succeed.  He had, after all, done at least three comparable stories before now, of men with vendettas against whole societies, and they were all to some extent successful, though one of them didn’t live to the end of the story.

It’s not made as clear as it might be, but in my estimation, he’d failed from the moment he tried to have Kim Baldur disposed of on his yacht, before she could wake up.  He’s lived much of his life under the illusion that he can control everything, manipulate everyone, and that led to a cascade error, one mistake leading to another, more and more people paying attention to him.

If he’d made a few less mistakes, he might have destroyed the city he feels betrayed him, destroyed many lives, caused global economic and political chaos–who’s to say he might not have triggered a nuclear exchange, the highest aspiration of many a Bond villain.

But in his mind, it’s all so simple.  He steals the gold, he kills everyone in his way, erases the home he can no longer call his own from existence, and he’s himself again.  He’s Richard Curtis, billionaire construction mogul and developer, working on projects like the Kanowit Island resort, and everyone respects him, or at least pretends to.

He’s perhaps a little like Parker–Beijing driving him forth, like St. Patrick expelling the snakes from Ireland, set off a mental chain reaction, a button pushed inside his head, and he could never know a moment’s peace until the slight had been repaid in full.  What was it Parker said in Butcher’s Moon?  “I’d like to burn this city to the ground, I’d like to empty it right down to the basements.”  But even Parker didn’t mean that literally.  And Parker’s retribution only touched those who had directly offended him.  And Parker never pretended to be anything but a thief.

That’s the problem.  That’s why he fails.  That’s why the soliton won’t go off, and he will watch, in stunned disbelief, miles offshore, on a boat operated by a married couple who know he’s doing something criminal and they’re the getaway car.  The deadline expires, and the lights of Hong Kong keep glowing in the distance.  Mocking him.

He fails because he doesn’t know himself.  He doesn’t know that he can never be what he was before.  He’s a thief and a killer now, and what’s more he’s a thief and killer who doesn’t keep faith with his fellow thieves and killers.  Or with anyone, really.  He has no code, instinctive or otherwise. Without money, he’s nothing at all.

But he’s no quitter, give him that much.

It’s George, somehow. George Manville has done this to me. He should be dead, the man should be dead, and in any case he’s nothing but an unimaginative engineer, how can he stop me?

Curtis had always known this was a possibility, but he’d had to go forward anyway. His position was untenable and getting worse. He had to get out from under or go under, ruined, disgraced. So he’d had to make this gamble, and now he’d lost.

Thirty-seven minutes.

It wasn’t going to blow. George Manville, of all people, had beaten him. (He never even thought of Kim.)

But was this any worse than to fail the other way? To be sued, hounded, taken through bankruptcy courts, reviled by everyone who used to shake his hand and drink his liquor.  If things had worked out…

If things had worked out, he would have had all the money he needed to solve his problems, and he would not have had one breath of scandal to touch upon him. He would have had his revenge on the city that had tried to destroy him, and he would have continued to be Richard Curtis, owner of Curtis Construction and RC Structural, respected, accepted everywhere in the world.

Well, he had failed, and now that failure was behind him, and it was time to start again. He still had a very few trusted people—the Farrellys at Kennison, for instance—he could rely on. Richard Curtis would have to disappear forever, and gradually he would have to build up a new identity. He had lost a battle, that’s all, not the war.

To disappear meant totally, and that meant he had to start now. Defeat had made him tougher, more decisive. He knew what had to be done, and he wouldn’t shrink from doing it.

He shoots the couple, throws their bodies overboard.  He hadn’t intended to do this before, but now that everyone is going to know what he’s done, now that the world is going to be hunting him, he can no longer count on their discretion, their complicity in his crime, to keep them silent.  He’s truly alone now.  And he just made another mistake.

He’s planning on the fly, and he’s never been good at that (he thinks he is, which only makes it worse).  He can pilot the ship, but he can’t run the risk of being discovered with a submarine full of gold trailing him.  He’s got Mark Hennessy’s papers, that will do for a start.  But he’ll need money to start over.  He’ll need a small portion of the gold, to hide on the boat, and take with him.

He has to surface the sub, tether it to the boat, get on top of the sub, open the hatch, start putting the ingots onboard.  He removes the outer hatch, which drops into the sea–no big deal, he has to sink it to hide the evidence.  It’s not the kind you ride in, anyway.  He’s surprised at how heavy the bars are.  For a man who knows everything about money, he doesn’t know much about gold.

It’s not a one man job.  But there’s nobody left to help him.  His choice.

The rope! Curtis saw it was going to happen, and lunged, but too late. The ships made one more incremental turn away from one another, and the rope tying them together met the spinning propeller of the submarine, and the propeller neatly sliced through.

Immediately the ships lunged away from one another. Curtis saw the lights of Granjya rapidly recede. There were no lights on the submarine.

Dive into the sea? He couldn’t possibly hope to swim fast enough to catch up with Granjya. But if he stayed in the submarine, what then?

Granjya’s lights were fainter, they disappeared. Curtis was getting wet. As the waves ran over the submarine, water ran inside through the two open hatches.

He was in pitch blackness, in this small heaving boat on the surface of the sea. It was riding lower, taking on water faster. There was no light anywhere in the world, except far away to the north, far away, the cold white sheen of Hong Kong against the night sky. Curtis, standing in the hatchway on his gold ingots, his body moving with the roll of the submarine, kept his eyes on that far-off pale glow.

After a while, the lights were still there, but he was not.

It’s not a perfect book.  But that’s a perfect ending.

And we never find out (because this is Donald Westlake, master of the abrupt send-off), what happened with George and Kim’s romance.  Last we see of them, they’re laughing and kissing in sheer relief that it’s over and they’re alive.  Obviously they have no idea if they’re compatible or not, and neither do we, and in this sub-genre it really doesn’t matter.  The sex will be really great in the coming months, and that does.

We never learn whether Luther got over his heartbreak and his mental solitude, or if he ever went home.  Maybe Papa Rickendorf will reconsider his position on the gay thing, in light of his son’s valor under fire?  Nah, I don’t think so either.

We never learn whether Mark got over his trauma, or his shameful understanding that it’s his own fault for trusting a man he of all people knew could not be trusted.

And most of all we never learn how the world reacted to the news that one of its (supposedly) richest men was a shameless blackguard and fraud, utterly bereft of conscience or fellow feeling, willing to go to any lengths to keep what he felt was rightfully his.  I mean, who would have thought such a thing?  (Anyone who ever did business with him.)

It’s an inspired mess of a book.  Fascinating idea, some magnificent bits of writing, several memorable villains, and if the heroes are maybe a bit less convincing, well, that’s because Donald Westlake doesn’t believe in heroes. Never did.

But he did believe, I think, that we have to go on acting as if we believe in heroes–not the idealized heroes of fiction, no.  The ordinary people who are capable of extraordinary things, once they get going.  Once they realize the alternative to heroism is death.  Enlightened self-interest.

The most chilling thing in this book is its description of the falling towers in Hong Kong, that quote that I put up top.  Not just the caliber of the writing, but the fact that Westlake wrote this in the late 90’s.

And then he would have watched, in disbelief, as it happened before his eyes, not to some distant foreign capital, but to the city he knew and loved most intimately.  And the man who planned that was an engineer.  Of course.  Who came from wealth.  Of course.  Though his motives were quite different from Curtis’s, he was still, I’d imagine, trying to get back something he believed was rightfully his.

And who would want to see anything else after that?  (I’d assume if he had any idea of polishing up this novel and getting it published, that idea was yet another casualty of 9/11)

This novel is a somewhat ill-conducted cacophony of long neglected voices in Mr. Westlake’s head–Culver, Clark, maybe Coe (I think I can hear him in Luther’s head).  But most of all, Stark.  Who had just somehow resurrected himself, and exerted great influence here, but Stark is never fully Stark unless he’s writing about Parker.

And the three remaining Parker novels, published over a period of around four years, were all conceived and created in the post-9/11 era.  They are Stark’s reaction to that event, and what followed it.  They are far better than Forever And a Death, and they are, I’d argue, the last great books Westlake ever produced–not so much as individual volumes, but as a collective work of art.

And they are so much better than his other late work, I would argue, because Stark was the voice at the back of all Westlake’s many voices.  He was the core program, that kept on running strong, after the other more sophisticated softwares had started to fade.  He’s ready to share his code with us one last time.

And Parker is going to meet his two deadliest foes.  The Information Age.  And the Security State.

We’ll see how fast and how far he can run from them.

 

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Timothy J. Culver, Tucker Coe

Review: Forever And A Death, Part 3

singapore_postcardOddJob_-_Goldfinger_(1964)

In his world, Richard Curtis moved from one tower to another.  Everywhere he went, it seemed, there were plate glass views of sky and land and city and sea, sprinkled with the tiny unimportant dots that were human beings; barely to be noticed.

He didn’t blame Curtis either, for firing him. Curtis had had damn good reason. And Curtis hadn’t even known the full extent of the mess Colin Bennett had made of things. He didn’t know a man had died.

Bennett was a construction man by trade, or had been, a big burly fellow—too large for this Honda Civic, for instance, which he seemed to wear rather than ride in—who had worked for RC Structural for nine years before he’d made his beaut of a mistake. In that time, he’d moved up from crew foreman to works manager, running the whole damn site for the engineers. In those days, he was outgoing and popular, a cheerful rowdy sort of man who claimed he got along with everybody because he looked like everybody, which was very nearly true. His father had been half English and half Malay, while his mother was half Dutch and half Chinese, and the mixture had created a big man whose squarish face featured slightly uptilted eyes, a gently mashed nose, a broad mouth and high prominent cheekbones. His ears lay flat to his skull, and his hair was straight and thick and black, now beginning to gray at the sides.

Part Three of this novel, which may be my favorite, is about henchmen.  And that’s an interesting thing to look at, in fiction and in life.  No scheming megalomaniac is worth a damn without back-up.  And certainly no Bond villain worth mentioning.

Let the names roll down your tongue.  Red Grant.  Fiona Volpe (a henchwoman, evil being an equal opportunity employer).  Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd (evil also does not discriminate by sexual preference).  Baron Samedi (or by race, damn, evil gets a bad rap).  Jaws.  May Day.  Also a bunch of blonde personality-deficient Teutons whose names I tend to forget.

The latest was Mr. Hinx, played by wrestler Dave Bautista, and I still don’t understand why he was trying to kill Bond on that train when the plan is for Bond to go to the secret base and get tortured by Blofeld.  Communication snafus; they happen in the best-run organizations.  (And quite often in this novel.)

Only one could be the greatest henchman, to whom all others must be compared and found wanting.  He’s so much better than the others, he doesn’t even need any fucking lines.  Korean in the novel, generically Asian in the movie, where he was played by Harold Sakata–red-blooded American boy, born in Hawaii, Olympic weightlifter, silvered for America in ’48. (Sure, fiction is addicted to forced irony.)

You bounce a heavy gold bar off his chest, he grins, bows slightly, and resumes beating you to death.  Spraypaints blondes, decapitates statues, and he caddies!  One is sometimes moved to inquire as to his haberdasher, but we must all doff our proverbial hats to Oddjob.  He wins the Henchman Derby most handily.

And there can be little doubt it was Auric Goldfinger’s amenable amanuensis Westlake was invoking when he created Colin Bennett.  Bennett is only half-Asian, a sort of Singaporean creole, as is explained in the longer of the two quotes up top (Westlake trying to avoid the casual racism of the Fleming novels, and perhaps inadvertently invoking a different stereotype). He has no training in the martial arts.  He eschews head wear, deadly or otherwise.  His first and perhaps only language is colloquial working class English, and he is anything but mute.  But he’s the Oddjob in this book.  And maybe the best-developed character in it.  His advantage over the original, who isn’t developed at all.

See, the thing about the henchman in a Bond story is, you rarely find out much about him, other than his favored methods of killing people.  How is one attracted to this line of work?  Are the benefits good?  Do they have a strong union? Did a henchman make a particularly engaging classroom presentation on Career Day? One would like to know, somehow.

Their evil employers will usually get a nice explanatory monologue or two in the movie, but the humble henchman’s background and aspirations are typically ignored.  Red Grant being the exception that proves the rule, more in the novel than the film, but they weren’t going to cast Robert Shaw and not give him a backstory, and I suppose class resentment is as good a motive as any–at least he’s not Irish in the movie (which would have been too funny with Connery playing Bond).

As a general rule, the henchman is treated as a sort of deadly found object, who the main villain perhaps ordered through a catalogue or obtained via some headhunting agency (only in this case, the headhunting isn’t metaphorical).

Oh yes, well. If you can get him, of course...

Not here.  We’re going to learn all about Colin Bennett; who he is, where he came from, why he’s so eager to do the criminal bidding of a man who once tossed him aside like a crumpled beer can, how he transitions from guilt-ridden semi-employed ex-drunkard to bumbling private detective to brutal unrepentant killer, all in a matter of days.  Born with a body designed for mayhem, mayhem still wasn’t his first career choice by any means.

His story, in short, is the best identity puzzle in the book, to the point where I almost wonder if the book should have been written entirely from his perspective–a squat bestial Archie Goodwin to Richard Curtis’s less corpulent and cerebral Nero Wolfe.  (Oh please, Goodwin is a total henchman, serving at the beck and call of a man who, if Ian Fleming had created him, would be a villain to make Goldfinger and Blofeld look shabby by comparison.)

His origin story is briefly outlined–he worked for Curtis on a project in Belize, building a hydro-electric dam.  It all went fine, until Bennett, who liked the drink a bit too much, made a really bad mistake, ordering the sluice gates open too soon–before various objects had been cleared from the tunnel–including a man. The man’s body was never found, nothing could be proven, but he knew.  He’d killed somebody.  He also wrecked the turbines, which is what Curtis canned him for.

He’s scraping by in Singapore, subsisting on odd jobs (enjoyed that implicit pun, did you, Mr. Westlake?), when Curtis phones him from the plane he’s on.  Leaving cushy first class in search of reading material, Curtis has spotted Jerry Diedrich & friends back in lowly coach, without being spotted in return.  He needs a man in Singapore to keep watch on the kibbitzing do-gooders, and it can’t be an on-the-books employee, or a by-the-book one either.  He must acquire an unregistered weapon he can point at these–

THREE:

When the phone rang this afternoon, in his shabby little apartment off China Street, Bennett had been hopelessly studying yet again the help wanted ads in the Straits Times. These days, he had one part-time job as a messenger, and another unloading trucks at a lumber yard, but the work was dispiriting and the pay meager. Still, without references…

Then the phone rang. Not knowing what to expect, and not expecting very much, he’d answered, and the astonishing voice had said, “Colin, this is Richard Curtis.”

“Mr. Curtis!” It was like getting a phone call from God, it was that impossible.

“I’m calling from an airplane,” the astounding Mr. Curtis said, “and I want to make this fast.”

“Yes, sir. Yes, sir.”

“I’m wondering if you’re a more controlled person these days.”

“Oh, I am, sir! Honest to God.”

“If you do a little job for me, Colin, it might make me think better of you.”

“Oh, yes, sir. Just tell me what it is, sir.”

“There’s an annoying fellow from Planetwatch on this plane. Remember Planetwatch?”

“Oh, do I. Right buffoons.”

“Worse than buffoons, Colin. They can make trouble. This fellow, Jerry Diedrich, is determined to make trouble. Write that name down.”

“Yes, sir!” He already had the pen in his hand, hoping to find job offers to circle, and he wrote the name on the margin of the newspaper.

He goes to Curtis’s corporate headquarters, doubtless where Curtis got Bennett’s current phone number in the first place.   (Bennett lost his home, marriage, and family after he lost his job, though less because of his newfound poverty than the pent-up rage stemming from it–frightening in a man that size.)

He gets photos of Diedrich, and brief descriptions of the other two.  He waits at the airport, sees Curtis leaving in a hurry (first class deplanes first, natural order of things), thinks admiringly of how the boss never even gives him a sideways glance as he goes by.

He sights his quarry, follows them to their inexpensive motel, notes with some confusion that the pretty blonde girl gets her own room and the two men bunk together.  He goes back to the office to report, whereupon Curtis curtly explains that Diedrich and Rickendorf are ‘fairies,’ to which Bennett has pretty much the standard response for a construction worker who is not himself gay.

He gets five thousand in Singapore dollars, since he has no credit cards himself now, and they can’t very well issue him a corporate card. Curtis tells him to buy himself some new clothes with what he doesn’t need for the job, so he can look the part of a tourist, but Bennett realizes, with gratitude, (bear in mind that Curtis didn’t just fire Bennett, he made sure nobody else in their industry would ever employ him), that he’s really saying “I don’t want you to look so down in the mouth while you’re working for me.”  Bennett’s devotion to his once and present master is getting stronger by the minute.  He’d kill for me, Curtis thought, surprised to realize it was true. And that he might have to.

Curtis tells him to check into the same motel and follow Diedrich everywhere, taking photos of anybody Diedrich talks to with a Polaroid camera (digital not a thing yet?)  He will bring the photos to Curtis, in an effort to find out which well-placed person in Curtis’s employ is passing Diedrich information.  He will also bug Diedrich’s motel phone.  Aside from the identity of the mole, he’s to try and find out the source of Diedrich’s obsession with Curtis (more to satisfy his employer’s curiosity than anything else).

So, basically a P.I.  They do have those in Singapore, as they do in most large cities.  Curtis must have hired people to do corporate espionage before now.  That would be the way to go now, not some amateur who couldn’t even do the job he was trained for properly–that is, if Curtis wasn’t already contemplating the possibility of having Diedrich and the others killed.  He’s not ordering Bennett to do that–he’s not ordering him not to, either.  Fact is, he doesn’t really care if they live or die, as long as they’re out of his way.  Diedrich, in particular, is the most persistent gadfly he’s ever encountered, and he needs to find some way to swat the pest.

But he will learn he’s created a far more dangerous pest, by refusing to let well enough alone.  Curtis has a pernicious tendency to make his troubles worse in trying to end them.  (The name Comey comes popping into my mind, for some reason.  Which Bond novel was he in?)

Meanwhile, back at the Australian ranch, the other henchman in this story, Morgan Pallifer, is getting bored playing babysitter to George Manville, Curtis’s unwilling guest.

Chapter 4 in Part Three is pure unadulterated Richard Stark.  I don’t mean that Westlake was channeling Stark when he wrote it.  I mean Stark wrote it.  Entirely possible he was switching back and forth between this and a Parker novel–my guess would be Backflash, going by the dates, but who knows?

And Chapter 4 is so good, you almost have to wonder if Stark should have stayed in the driver’s seat all the way through.  Just five and a half pages long.  Stark pops up elsewhere in this book, but never quite so–starkly.

Morgan Pallifer was nearing the end of his rope. Not only was he stuck on land, extremely dry land at that, with no significant body of water for hundreds of miles in any direction, but his job had somehow been reduced to that of babysitter. No action in it at all, no movement. Nothing to do, day and bloody night, but play nanny, with assistant nannies Steve and Raf. Now, there was nothing wrong with Steve and Raf, Pallifer had chosen them because they were professional and reliable in a crisis, but if you didn’t happen to have a crisis on your hands, those two were not what you might call stimulating company.

As for George Manville, Pallifer found him a disgusting disappointment. Where was the fire, the resistance, the defiance? Where were the escape attempts, the maneuverings to get at a telephone or a vehicle, the confrontations with his jailers? But no; all Manville did was sit around and read.

Pallifer would be right at home in a Parker novel.  A tough man, and a smart one, but he overrates himself.  And once again he underrates his opponent.  Manville is doing more than reading.

As Pallifer prepares to head out to kill Kim Baldur, having finally gotten the name of the Gold Coast motel she checked into with Manville (which she has long since departed, and it says something for his opinion of women that he actually thinks she’d still be there), his sidekicks inform him Manville has disappeared.  He’s also informed that Manville was listening at the window when he got the call about the motel.

Not knowing what Manville might have heard, Pallifer figures it doesn’t matter–he can’t escape the sprawling outback station, and they’ll find him sooner or later.  He’s got to go before nightfall, or he won’t be able to find his way off the place himself.  He’s got to get out of this dreary place.  Back to the coast, where a shark like him belongs, doing what sharks most love to do.  And you know, when a shark stops swimming, it dies.

So he’s heading down the highway, stops to take a piss, and comes back to find Manville sitting in the back seat.  He was in the trunk.  He heard quite a lot at that window.

“If you’re going to that motel,” Manville said, “then Curtis still wants Kim Baldur dead, no matter what he said to me.”

“So the deal’s off, is that it?”

“That’s it. Drive, Mr. Pallifer.”

He might as well; there was no point just sitting here, on an empty highway. He put the Honda in gear, and they started again to drive east.

When he’d got into the car, back at Kennison, he’d put a pistol in the glove compartment, the one he figured to use on the girl. Now he glanced at the glove compartment, thinking about it.

Manville said, “It isn’t there anymore.”

“I thought not,” Pallifer said. He looked at that expressionless face in the rearview mirror, then watched the road. “You heard me on the phone, then you hid out till I put my bag in here, so you knew which car I’d be taking, and then you got in the trunk. Where were you, before?”

“On top of the framework for the garage doors, between that and the ceiling.”

“So you could look to see which vehicle I was gonna take. But what if I just got in it and drove away?”

“At first,” Manville told him, “I was going to drop on you as soon as you opened the driver’s door. But then, when you came in and opened and closed the trunk, and went away again, I saw I could do it more quietly.”

“Well, you’re pretty cute,” Pallifer said, and slammed on the brakes, sluing the wheel hard right across the empty road with his left hand while his right hand snaked inside his jacket to whip out his other pistol. Pressed against the door, he turned, whipping the pistol around, and Manville shot him in the head.

Even Manville’s trick–hiding over the garage door–straight out of The Blackbird. Grofield was in a similar situation at that remote lodge in Canada.  Manville should be grateful he was at least maneuvering in a warm climate.

Manville disappears from the story for a number of chapters after this, then shows up suddenly in Singapore to save Kim from Bennett (kind of), later in Part Three.  The other two men eventually go looking for them, but never find Pallifer’s body, or the car.

There’s no Stark Rewind, as in the Parker books, to catch us up in real time with what Manville was doing between the end of Chapter 4 and his return in Chapter 17.  George briefly tells a dazed Kim how he went back to Brisbane, met with Brevizin again, they got in touch with Inspector Fairchild, compared notes, and now they all know they’ve been had.  She’s got a few things to tell him as well, but we’ll need a rewind of our own to cover that.

Fairchild is in Singapore too, to vouch for George’s story.  In the original manuscript, Brevizin came along for the ride, and there really were a few too many moving parts in this one.  What we do find out is that Curtis only hears about this little complication for his plans a week later, when his other two flunkies finally realize they better call him.  He hasn’t bothered to check in.  Too preoccupied with other projects, and there have been some major hitches with the one that involves destroying Hong Kong.   He decides both Pallifer and Manville are probably dead.

It’s not entirely out of character for Curtis not to sweat the small stuff, avid multi-tasker that he is.  Again, he just tends to think people will stay where he left them.  Particularly with armed guards watching them.  Maybe a bit of a stretch that he’d flat-out forget to tell Pallifer to forget about killing the Baldur girl in Australia, once he’d seen her on the plane to Singapore.  You don’t often see holes like that in a Parker novel.  Too many cooks here?

This is a recurrent problem Westlake has with this book, trying to rationalize a type of story that is, at its heart, irrational.   When you’re reading a Fleming novel, or watching one of the movies, you just kind of go with it–since it’s all nonsense, the more nonsensical elements don’t stand out much.  But this is too intelligently written for the parts that don’t make sense not to bother you.

Back to the surviving henchman, who does make sense, in his own twisted way. Let’s talk about what happened between Chapters 4 and 17.  Which is that Colin Bennett became a killer.  Though in his mind, he’s been one for a long time now.

There’s a lot of the old hugger-mugger in those chapters, where Bennett is following the troublesome trio around, trying to see who they meet up with. Somebody named Mark, he learned that much, but Curtis has thousands of employees, that isn’t enough.  He knows Mark is gay, like Diedrich and Rickendorf.  He follows them to a gay bar, but to everyone’s shared bafflement, Mark doesn’t show.

(Sidebar: Yes, there were gay bars in Singapore in the 90’s.  I was skeptical, seeing as there are still draconian anti-gay laws in that town (no anti-lesbian statutes, and trans-genders are allowed to marry, go figure), but there used to be in New York City too, and there was Stonewall in ’69, and many such places before it.  The whole gay rights movement in Singapore is decades behind ours, but there’s a scene that goes back generations, organizing patiently, waiting their moment, and may it come soon.)

Bennett refers to this particular establishment as being for older more well-heeled a clientele, ‘fellows with umbrellas.’  Funny bit where Kim wants to go with them for the meet, is told she won’t fit in, then lies about how she’s been to gay bars before.  Luther, genuinely interested, says “Really?  Why?”  She relents, stays at the motel, leafs through magazines, looking for something to read, and suddenly realizes–they’ve been moved–her room has been searched.

Mark spotted the tail easily–Bennett is not exactly unobtrusive, no self-respecting queer would ever dress like some tacky tourist for a night on the town, and anyway, Mark’s the Curtis employee who brought the expense money for Bennett.  He suggests over the phone (that Bennett has tapped) that they meet at Empress Place, a huge outdoor market, always crowded.  And once again, Jerry and Luther don’t see him–but this time Kim is along, wandering around, and Mark makes contact through her.

They end up meeting on a bus–Bennett follows in a car, but he can’t see inside, doesn’t know what’s happening.  Mark doesn’t know much of anything either. (Curtis is not confiding any part of his plan to anyone he doesn’t need to carry it out–he’s not telling anybody at all the whole of what he has in mind for Hong Kong.  A clear violation of Bond villain protocol, as has been mentioned already.)

Jerry is convinced he finally has Curtis by the short and curlies–he’s going to do something horrible, and if Jerry can find out what it is, he’s got the bastard, at long last.  Mark promises to try to find out more, and Jerry says he’ll reach out to his Planetwatch contacts there.  And I guess you could say this is an environmental issue, if not the kind that Planetwatch would normally be involved with.

And this is the problem, the reason why things are about to take a tragic turn for a man who wants to be the hero of this story, but isn’t going to be.  Jerry Diedrich is caught between worlds, between identities.  In public, he’s a crusading environmentalist, but in private he’s just trying to even an old score that only he knows or cares about.  In some ways, his subplot is reminiscent of Little Bob Negli’s from The Seventh.  (To say why would be giving the twist away–stop reading if you don’t want to know it).

Realizing that there could be many lives at stake here, sincerely wanting to prevent whatever Curtis is planning, he still can’t see past his own grievance.   Or grasp the reality that he’s in more danger than anyone.  It’s not a windmill he’s tilting at here.  It’s an evil sorceror, served by a very real giant.

They know now about Bennett, see him everywhere, watching them, waiting for them to meet their informant, but Jerry is keeping in touch with him via payphone, and they won’t do any more face-to-face meets.

And the irony is that all Curtis has to do about Diedrich & Co. is nothing. Nobody but his partners in crime know his target for the soliton, not even they know his ultimate goal.  Mark’s covert investigations remain fruitless, though he does tell them Curtis met with a Jackie Tian, from Hong Kong–big wheel in the construction union there.  (Another henchman.)

Never occurs to the tenacious triumvirate that as they are getting ever more desperate to learn Curtis’s plans, Curtis is putting ever more pressure on Bennett to find out what they’re up to, by whatever means necessary.  Bennett doesn’t cope well with pressure.  Never has.  He won’t go back to the odd jobs.  He’s convinced himself that a grateful Richard Curtis will put him back where he belongs.  If he gets results.

He follows them to a restaurant.  He follows Jerry into the men’s room.  He knocks Jerry out with a piece of pipe, and stuffs him through a small window. Takes him to his tiny apartment and ties him to a chair.

As Kim and Luther grow ever more frightened about what might have befallen their friend, Colin Bennett, who never intentionally harmed a living soul before now, is learning how to be a torturer.  Kicks to the ribcage are not getting him Mark’s last name.  Jerry’s having trouble breathing after the fall he took going out that window.  Bennett perceives a vulnerability he can exploit.

Back in the living room, Diedrich hadn’t moved. Bennett walked through into the bedroom and pulled that sock once more out of the laundry. Bringing it back with him, carefully shutting the bedroom door, he knelt before Diedrich and showed him the sock and said, “Do you see what this is?”

Diedrich gave the sock a dull look, then apparently remembered he was supposed to respond to questions, so he said, “Yes.”

“It’s a sock.”

“Yes.”

“I was using it to gag you, so you wouldn’t be shouting for help and like that, such as you did, but when I put it in your mouth, turns out, your nose isn’t working. So I had to take it out again. It was like this.”

Diedrich tried to fight, but Bennett was stronger. He pried his jaws apart and stuffed the sock inside. “And now I’ve got to wash me hands, you see,” he said, and got to his feet, and turned away from the strangling sounds Diedrich made, his legs kicking on the floor.

Bennett went into the bathroom and washed and dried his hands. When he came back out, Diedrich’s eyes were popping, his face was mottled dark red, he was straining every muscle in his body. Bennett casually pulled the sock from his mouth, and Diedrich made horrible sounds, flopping like a captured fish in the bottom of the boat. Breathing seemed to be painful for him, but at least it was possible.

Bennett sat in his chair to wait for Diedrich to be recovered enough to talk. He wasn’t a cruel man, he didn’t do this sort of thing, had never done this sort of thing, but he had no choice, did he? In for a penny, in for a pound. And he’d always believed, if you take on a job, you do it as best you know how. No self-satisfied smug little poofter like Jerry Diedrich was going to ruin Colin Bennett’s life, and that was that. That was that. No second thoughts about it.

This is, of course, right out of The Ax.  (And you can see it also in the one death in The Hunter that Parker never intended to cause.)  The final murder in The Ax, involving duct tape.  Bennett and Burke Devore, from very different backgrounds, would understand each other quite well.  Both are trying to get back to an earlier cherished self, transforming into a newer harder self in the process.  But whereas Burke only needed certain men to die, Bennett needs information first, which is trickier.

Diedrich, deeply ashamed of himself, but broken, spits out Mark’s last name–Hennessy.  And has to watch, as a satisfied Bennett phones Curtis, right in front of him, and gives him the name–which he recognizes.  Someone very highly placed in his organization.  Someone who is going to end up wishing Curtis had just fired him.

Bennett hasn’t yet decided to kill his prisoner.  He has no criminal record; it would just be Diedrich’s word against his (and he still thinks Curtis would protect him, when in fact Curtis is going to great pains to make sure he can’t be connected to Bennett).  But he still needs to find out one more thing–why?  Why has Diedrich gone to such pains, taken such risks, to go after a man who was never, after all, more of an eco-criminal than scores of other in his business.  It’s personal.  So who was the person?

The answer fills Bennett with terror, and then guilt–the latter emotion coming from the last bit of humanity left in him.

Diedrich had a lover, before Luther Rickendorf.  Daniel Foster.  They were going to be married.  He worked for Curtis.  On a dam construction project.  In Belize. He disappeared.  Diedrich made inquiries, and found out about the accident. The accident Colin Bennett caused, the accident that got him fired from his job, blackballed from the construction business, but Jerry never knew about that.  He just assumed Curtis had covered it up, when in fact Curtis never even know Daniel Foster’s name.

He needed a place for his rage and grief to go–an emotional soliton, seeking the path of least resistance, and who easier to blame than a reckless uncaring billionaire who acted as if nothing had happened at all?  So he devoted his life to destroying Richard Curtis.

And in doing this, in pursuing his white whale across the oceans of the world, he created complications that Curtis, pursuing his own path of vengeance, could not ignore–forced him to make one mistake after another, pushed him into hiring a man like Colin Bennett, who has now come face to face with the one moment in his life he’s most ashamed of.  But it’s too late.  Too late for shame now.  Too late to say he’s sorry.

The man said, “I’ve been a guilty fellow and a beaten fellow for a long time. My marriage broke up, I was blackballed everywhere. Not looking for sympathy, you know what I’m saying, but I’ve been punished. Oh, you can believe that. You wanted somebody punished for what happened to your friend, well, you got your wish.”

“If Curtis didn’t…” Jerry began, but then didn’t know what it was he even wanted to ask.

The man nodded at him. “Curtis knew you were there,” he said. “For a long time, Mr. Curtis, he’s known you were out there, a thorn in his side. A mosquito, but a bad mosquito. You know, he didn’t say to me to kill you, that isn’t the sort of man we’re talking about here. He said to me, Colin, find out who’s the traitor in my camp, and for the love of God, Colin, find out what this fellow Diedrich has against me.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Jerry said. He couldn’t look at the man anymore.

“Well, so I’ve done the job,” the man said. “Haven’t I, Jerry Diedrich?”

“Yes.”

“I’m a willing worker, you know, I’m deserving of trust. I’m deserving of a second chance. Don’t you think so?”

“You’ll get your second chance,” Jerry said, not trying to hide the bitterness he felt.

“Well, but there’s the rub,” the man told him. “I’ve given Mr. Curtis the information on this fellow Hennessy, so he’s pleased with me for that. But can I answer his other question? Can I tell him why it is you’ve been hounding him all this while?”

Jerry looked at him, and now he understood why the temperature in the room had changed. He whispered, “I’ll never tell anybody, I swear.”

“Now, why would I trust you?” the man asked him. “What sort of relationship have we had, you and I, that I would trust you? You’ve already told your lover friend there, haven’t you? The German boy.”

“No! I never told anyone!”

“You? A bigmouth like you?” The man seemed almost amused by him. “And the girl with you,” he said, “You couldn’t resist telling her, could you, for a sympathetic smile?”

“Honest to God, no, I never told— I never told anybody, I never will tell anybody!”

“Oh, I know that,” the man said.

“Please. Please. I swear to you, I’ll never say a word, you can trust me, not a word to anybody, I’ll never bother Curtis again. I’ll—”

“I know all that,” the man said, and stood. “I know all that, because you’re going to keep your mouth shut.” He went down on one knee beside Jerry. “You know the saying,” he said. “When you want somebody to shut up and keep shut up, what is it you say?”

He waited, but Jerry didn’t answer. Finally, almost gently, the man gave the answer himself: “Put a sock in it.”

So that’s how Colin Bennett commits his first (and arguably only) murder.  Not for some smug supervillain, not acting as some politely smiling cipher in a flat-topped razor-tipped bowler, a most memorable and impressive two-legged plot device, the source of whose devotion to an employer who will order him to die in a nuclear blast remains forever a mystery, because he was never really a human being to start with.

Colin Bennett, human to the core, became a murderer as an act of self-preservation.  He started out like the rest of us.   Built a decent life for himself, a trade, a family, and then he lost it all with a single moment’s miscalculation, as could happen to anyone, at any moment in time, and so often does.

And having lost the man he once was, he was open to becoming some other man, a man Richard Curtis could use, while still deluding himself (as did Pallifer, as does Jackie Tian, as does Richard Curtis himself) that he could find a way back to that earlier more innocent self.  Perhaps even Jerry Diedrich shared in this delusion to some extent, but at least he wasn’t some rich man’s toadie, and the only one he ever tried to hurt deserved it, more than he ever had a chance to know.

Bennett could have tried to be his own man for once, but strong as his body is, he’s weak as water on the inside, looking for something outside himself to give him form, purpose, agency.   Weak men must have masters, always, and that’s where henchmen come from.  He sees in Curtis the kind of power and success he wishes he had, blames him for nothing, unleashes his resentments at more vulnerable targets–like environmental activists who happen to be gay.  But hey, it’s just a story.  Right?

Much as he may resemble Burke Devore in some respects, he’s not a reader, doesn’t have a family to anchor him, and so he is going to make murder the answer to everything.  Having started down this road, he won’t stop.

The other two would be more complicated. Lying in bed, in no hurry to rise, he thought about ways to kill them, and then smiled at his own thoughts. He’d never deliberately considered killing anybody before, and hadn’t originally intended (so far as he knew) to kill Diedrich, but now that it had been done, something new had opened up inside Bennett, because now he saw what a solution this was. How easy, and how permanent. The solution to so many problems.

Well, he should get to it, shouldn’t he? They’d be missing Diedrich, they might have already reported his disappearance to the police. Before they made too many waves, before they did too much talking to too many people, he should stop them. The good new permanent way.

He starts with Kim, but she fights back long enough for Manville to make his surprise re-entry to the story.  Manville doesn’t have a pistol this time (say this for Singapore, they have excellent gun control), and he’s no match for Bennett in physical altercation (any more than Bond was a match for his prototype), but he distracts the hulking henchman long enough for Kim to give him a dose of hairspray in his eyes.  He escapes through the window, to the amused laughter of workmen who assume he was screwing the blonde American girl and then her husband discovered them–but they’re still witnesses.  He registered at the motel under his own name.  His life in Singapore, such as it was, is now over.

So he meets up with Curtis, who still has uses for him, and isn’t sorry to hear Diedrich is no more (Bennett will never tell him what really happened or why). He had never intended to create such a monster, had never really thought about the potential consequences of ordering a deeply depressed non-professional to do this kind of work, but now that it’s happened–

Curtis took the opportunity to study Bennett, this shambling messy creature across from him, and consider what he had done and what he seemed willing to do. He hadn’t realized how much of a brute Bennett was, and the knowledge was both pleasing and alarming. The man could be even more useful than Curtis had thought, but he would also be more dangerous, because he clearly wasn’t very smart. To take Diedrich home!

Curtis tells him that they’re going on a trip together.  He doesn’t need to know where the trip ends just yet.  (Curtis is quite wrong to think he knows where the trip ends but we’ll get to that next time.)  Curtis tells him that Mark Hennessy, who has no idea he’s been found out, and ignored Luther’s desperate warnings, will be coming along with them.

And then even Richard Curtis, on the verge of killing millions, is a bit frightened by the eager smile that creases his golem’s face at this news.  Here’s the other thing about henchmen; they tend to get a bit, shall we say, overenthusiastic about their work?

And there’s other stuff in Part Three, about how the new triumvirate of George, Kim, and Luther, aided by the now fully convinced Inspector Fairchild, try to convince the understandably skeptical Singapore authorities that something terrible is going to happen, and one of the richest most influential men in Singapore is going to do it, only they don’t know what.  Or where.  Or even when. But soon.  That they know.

And next time we’re going to finish this novel.  That I know.  And you’re going to see the book cover that might have been.  From an artist whose name you should all know.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Forever And A Death, Part 2

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She rubbed her eyes. “What’s that you’re reading?”

He showed her the cover. “It’s a caper story, called Payback, by an Australian writer named Gary Driver. He’s imitating the Americans, but he’s pretty good. He’s teaching me how to behave in dangerous situations.”

Grinning at him, she said, “You behave fine.”

This is Westlake’s globe-trotting novel, his most extensive tour of the eastern hemisphere.  Begins well out at sea in Part One.  Part Two is set in Queensland; the greater Brisbane area, then the outback.  It’s off to Singapore for Part Three.  And then the big finish in Hong Kong.

Most of Westlake’s best fiction is set in the U.S., but he loved to travel–and then put the places he’d visited in his stories.  He wrote about Canada now and then, Mexico and South/Central America much more often.  He liked the Caribbean as well; Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and he became the most improbable author of an entire non-fiction book on Anguilla.

He dabbled in European intrigue, but not much.  He devoted an entire novel to East Africa, where he spent some time doing research, and there are other books that reference his enduring fascination with that continent.   He ventured to Moscow, very briefly, in Humans.  Perhaps in reality as well, though some of his traveling was doubtless of the armchair variety.

So aside from his desire to make something out of the premise he’d dreamed up for a Bond film that never got made, he might also have thought that since this type of story usually comes with multiple changes of setting, he could cross several more exotic locales off his bucket list in the process of writing it.

The problem with a globe-trotting novel, of course, is that the author’s treatment of the various settings will, of necessity, be more superficial.  Westlake did research, some of it in person (possibly some of it in preparation for writing the film treatment), but he could never have the same connection with Brisbane or Singapore that he did with Manhattan or Albany.  There are a lot of references to local restaurants in this novel–and Charles Ardai has indicated there were a lot more of those before he edited the manuscript.  Well, that’s one of my my favored methods of world exploration as well.

His heroes are themselves mainly unfamiliar with the terrain they’re negotiating, and therefore supposed to feel disoriented and out of touch.  His villain, by contrast, is fully at home in all of these places.  One of which he intends to destroy.

So last time out, engineer George Manville and environmental activist Kim Baldur had escaped Richard Curtis’s yacht, after four hired thugs tried to kill them at Curtis’s behest–leading to Manville critically injuring two of them.

After tying up the remaining two, Manville and Kim take the boat their would-be assassins arrived on, and make for Brisbane harbor.  Kim is still feeling the effects, both physical and emotional, of her close encounter with the soliton wave that nearly killed her.  Manville is wondering if he’s going to have a career to go back to, after defying one of the richest and most powerful men on earth, who he now knows intends to put Manville’s soliton technique to use in some way that will be both criminal and destructive.  But that’s all he knows.  Except that now they’re–

TWO:

Movement made him turn his head, and there was now somebody seated next to him. He was in his forties, heavyset, a bruiser with a large round head, thick bone above his eyebrows, a broken nose. Manville had never seen him before, but he knew at once that this man was connected to the killers on the ship. And that something bad had happened to Kim.

The man leaned forward, as though he wanted to deliver a secret. “George Manville,” he said. Manville looked carefully at him.

The man’s large bony hands rested on the table, empty. He didn’t act threatening, he was just there.

“Yes,” Manville said.

The man nodded. “If you look out there,” he said, his voice raspy but soft, his accent showing him to be a local, “you’ll see a fella that isn’t walking. He’s looking at you. He’s got his hands in the pockets of kind of a big raincoat.”

Manville looked. “I see him.”

It was another stranger, cut from the same cloth as this one. The man said, “If I stand up and walk away from this table, and you don’t stand up and follow me, that bloke’s gonna take a machine pistol out of his pocket and blow your head off. And probably a few other heads around here, too. He’s got rotten aim.”

This is, oddly, my least favorite section of the book, yet includes some of my favorite moments from it–many of which are more than a little redolent of Richard Stark, who at the time of writing had only just made his return.  Elements from past novels by Stark, and elements from novels Stark had not yet written, that would be published long before this novel.  Westlake hated to let good words go to waste.  And Stark famously wasted no words at all.

At 34, Manville is ten or eleven years older than Kim–which is, when you think about it, less than the average age gap between an actor playing James Bond and whatever actress they hire to play the girl he’ll be screwing at the end of the movie.  Michelle Yeoh, whose character in Tomorrow Never Dies was at least tangentially influenced by Westlake’s original story treatment, was nine years younger than Pierce Brosnan.  I’d guess a similar age gap existed between Mr. Westlake and his third wife, but I don’t really know. Just a number anyway, right?

Obviously there’s going to be a romance between them, though they will decidedly not be screwing at the end of this novel, and only twice during it.  Not hard to justify, given that George just put himself at considerable risk to save Kim’s life, they’re hiding out in motel rooms, they’re both good-looking people, and the close encounter with death they shared would serve as a natural aphrodisiac.  That isn’t the problem, and Westlake had long experience writing stories about men and women finding love in dangerous circumstances.

This is not going down as one of his better efforts in that regard, and the love story is not that central to the plot.  He’s trying to make the obligatory Bond-style hook-up a bit more real here, to rationalize it, as he is rationalizing all the elements that go into a standard 007 yarn.  There’s rarely much of an effort to justify the sex in a Bond film (the latest did an above-average job of it, it still feels tacked on, and Lea Seydoux is seventeen years younger than Daniel Craig–the record age gap is thirty–it’s good to be the king, huh?)

Kim isn’t a ‘Bond Girl’–she’s as much Bond as Manville is.  She’s going to perform some of the tasks that Bond normally would handle (though her license to kill never gets stamped).  Her big moment is going to come in Part Four.  Manville’s big moments come in Parts One and Two, and he’s mostly absent from Part Three.

He’s absent when Part Two begins, having docked the boat under a bridge, and gone to get some things they need, like fresh clothing.  Kim waits for hours, knowing George took a huge risk to help her, feeling grateful, and at the same time doubting he’ll come back.  And then he does.   Her relief is as complicated as her doubts were.

George is older, more experienced, and knows how Curtis operates.  Kim wants to go to the police (her fellow activists and her parents all still believe she’s dead), but he says Curtis will probably try to make them out to be the criminals (which he does).  He’ll also try to get George blackballed as an engineer (which he does).  George needs to find allies, get the lay of the land, and he doesn’t know Australia that well.  He’s being cautious, but Kim is right–they should go to the cops.

He also needs a place he and Kim can disappear for a while, and figures that’ll be the Gold Coast, Australia’s Miami Beach, not a long drive from Brisbane.  Jammed with tourists, and they can blend in for a while.  But most of those tourists aren’t Yanks, which is going to make it easier for Curtis’s men to find them.

Fact is, Curtis has not given up on killing Kim, even though there’s every chance she’s going to reach out to friends and family before he can make that happen (though she takes her own sweet time doing that).  This is yet another mistake, him trying to tie down every possible loose end when that simply isn’t possible, but it’s consistent with the character–he doubles down on bad ideas, refuses to admit he can’t control everything.

His head flunky, Morgan Pallifer, a 62 year old American exile who served time for drug smuggling, and will do pretty much anything Curtis asks of him to get what he wants (his own boat), is very eager for another crack at the man who surprised and humiliated him aboard that yacht, but Curtis tells him to get Manville alive, if possible.  He knows now that he can’t bring George into his full confidence, but he’s not 100% sure he won’t need help with calculations for the much more powerful soliton he’s planning for Hong Kong.  This is plausible–barely.  And no Bond story is ever complete without the hero being brought to the villain’s lair as a guest/prisoner.

So George and Kim get a bit of breathing space, while Curtis’s men look for them. There’s a cute angle to their first sexual encounter, in that Kim’s ribs are still badly bruised, and George, always the engineer, has to figure out a position they can comfortably connect in.  I’m going to guess female-superior, but for the life of me I don’t know why Westlake makes us guess, after all the raunchy scenes he wrote for Kahawa.

(It’s not just the leering lecher in me that thinks Westlake made a mistake here–a good healthy sex scene or three between these two would have been a way to demonstrate the growing connection between them without investing a lot of time he doesn’t have to make that relationship feel genuine.  Wouldn’t have hurt book sales any either.  Westlake never fully recovered from having to write endless bouts of intercourse for the sleaze paperback market, before he got established in the mystery genre.  Anything but prudish, he still tended to write around the sex in most of his subsequent books, though the exceptions were worth the wait.  And that mainly worked for him, but here it’s a problem.)

George, still being cautious, meets a high-powered Brisbane attorney that a mutual friend put him in touch with–Andre Brevizin.  He tells him the whole story, and Brevizin, a sophisticated man who has heard some rumors that Curtis’s financial situation is shaky, half-believes him.  By this time, Curtis has connived with a fellow billionaire to frame Manville, make it look like he was engaged in industrial espionage, and the story has gotten some coverage.  So Brevizin can’t be sure Manville isn’t just blowing smoke to cover himself.

In the meantime, Pallifer’s men find Kim at a Brisbane cafe, waiting for George to come back (it’s not explained how, they’re supposed to be searching the nearby resort town).  Her injuries mainly healed, she manages to lose them in the crowd, and here’s where we run into another problem–she and George ought to have picked up cheap cellphones by now, to stay in touch when separated.  They’d have stores for that in a major tourist trap like Gold Coast.

What time period is this book set in?  We know it was written in the mid-to-late 90’s.  Westlake showed it to his agent in 1998.  The word cellphone occurs twice in the entire novel–both times in relation to secondary characters.   No mention of Curtis having one, though he uses an in-flight phone on an airliner, and he’s got some kind of ship-to-shore phone on his yacht.

Westlake’s techno-phobia was more than mere conservatism–there are all kinds of plot complications, a certain approach to depicting daily existence that a writer gets used to,  that hinge upon his characters not being in constant touch with each other.  Of course he could have Kim dropping her purse that had the phone in it, forgetting George’s temporary cell number, etc.  Too busy.  How are his people supposed to act as free agents if they’re never actually on their own, unless he arbitrarily confiscates their gizmos?  (And let it be said, for a story adapted from a Bond film treatment, this novel is almost entirely bereft of gizmos–there was supposedly going to be an exploding boomerang in the Australian section of the film, which sounds to me like Westlake poking sly fun at that entire convention).

So when George comes back to the cafe, he finds Kim gone.  And he finds Curtis’s goons waiting for him.  They say they have Kim, and he has no reason to doubt them.  They say innocent people will get hurt if they have to start shooting, and he believes that too.  And Westlake reworked this scene for Flashfire, as Greg Tulonen pointed out some time back in the comments section here–Parker getting forced into a car by two men hired to kill him.  No hostages, no threats to innocent passersby–that wouldn’t work where Parker is concerned.  But it’s the same scene, under all the variations.   Manville goes quietly, just as Parker does–and all the while, he’s waiting, watching for an opportunity to turn the tables.  (Big difference is, he’s in a Bond story, so these guys aren’t here to kill him–yet.)

And this tells us something–Manville is, on the surface, a polite peaceable man, who has never been involved in any kind of violence before.  And now that he’s suddenly up to his well-tanned neck in violence, he’s learned he has a natural talent for it–that he keeps his cool under pressure, as he did on the yacht.  Pallifer complains, first to  Manville and then to Curtis, that Manville isn’t what he was told he’d be.  Curtis, always discomfited when people surprise him, says maybe George has some kind of Green Beret training he didn’t know about.  No, that’s not it.  Curtis and his men have awakened a sleeping wolf.  Less ruthless, but much smarter.

So he goes with them for a very long drive, to Curtis’s station (Australian for ranch), way out in the Outback, in cattle country,  not too far from some hamlet called Murra Murra.  (The second image up top is purportedly from there–KeepGuard is some kind of remote viewing system, so you can watch your cows grazing from the comfort of home–hey, beats network primetime).

Curtis is waiting for him there.  Well, of course he is.  This is the portion of the story where Bond is an unwilling guest of his nemesis.  In Goldfinger, he’s also on a farm, this one in Kentucky, while Goldfinger tries to figure out how much Bond knows about Operation Grandslam–absolutely nothing but its name–by the time he leaves he knows everything and has Pussy Galore working for his side.

You see how problematic this part of the formula is, and yet how useful to struggling screenwriters.  Goldfinger has every intention of killing his guest, but has to bask on the glow of Bond’s admiration for his brilliant plan first.  In the words of the immortal Ernst Stavro Blofeld–

But then he most frustratingly fails to follow his own advice later in the picture, once Bond is his guest. The latest Blofeld fared no better.  My only explanation is that these people all went to elite finishing schools, where host etiquette was strongly emphasized.  You can kill your guest, but you must serve dinner and cocktails first.  Curtis never went to any finishing schools, but he’s still somehow absorbed a portion of this ethos.

Curtis went so far as to make introductions: “George Manville, may I introduce Albert and Helen Farrelly, they run Kennison for me, and Cindy Peters, an old friend visiting for the weekend. George,” he told the others, “is a brilliant engineer, absolutely brilliant. We’ve been working together for a year and a half now, haven’t we, George?”

“About that,” Manville agreed. Not so long ago, he wanted to say, while everybody exchanged friendly greetings, you were sending people to kill me, then to kidnap me, imprison me. Has one of us lost his mind? But dinner party politeness was just too strong a force; he couldn’t say a word.

Curtis even rubbed it in, saying, “It’s too bad your friend Kim couldn’t be with you, George, we’d make an even number. Well, we’ll do what we can. I’ll be father at the head of the table here, George, you take that place there on the right, Helen, you between George and me, Cindy, you on my left, and Albert, if you’d sit across from George?”

Everybody did, and Manville saw Curtis extend his foot toward what must be a call button in the floor, because almost immediately two servers in the tan pantsuits came out with plates of crisp green salad.

Manville said to Helen, on his left, “Kennison?” Surprised, she said, “The station. This place, you’d call it a ranch. And the house. This is Kennison. You didn’t know that?”

“I came here unexpectedly,” Manville said.

Wine was being poured. Around the server’s arm, Curtis said to Manville, “Kennison’s a great place, George, I wish I could be here more often myself. I’ll show you around, I think you’ll be surprised and pleased.”

“I’m already surprised,” Manville told him, and Curtis laughed.

When the five glasses had been filled with an Australian white wine, a chardonnay, Curtis proposed a toast. “To the good life, in a good place, to getting it and keeping it.”

They all drank to Curtis’s toast, Manville last and only a sip. It was a good clean wine, nicely cold. He would have to be alert not to drink too much of it.

So how to rationalize this?  First of all, Curtis’s station is very isolated, well out in the bush.  It covers thousands of acres, and the road leading out is poorly marked, and constantly blocked by cattle.  Manville would have to trek many long dusty miles to get anywhere. They’d track him down and finish him before he could do anything meaningful.

Curtis has this nice older couple running the place for him, extremely loyal to him, willfully in the dark about the man who has given them an idyllic lifestyle.  They wouldn’t kill for him, and he’d never ask them to, but neither will they take the word of a man who has been written up in the papers as having spied on their employer, and Manville wouldn’t ask them to do that either (because he can see it’s pointless).  Pallifer would snuff Manville out like a disposable lighter, and not even ask for a bonus.  So there’s that.

Secondly, Curtis promises Manville that if he’ll cooperate and stay put for the moment, give his parole, as they used to say,  Curtis will squash the whole thing about his being a corporate spy, all a big misunderstanding–he actually does this (for his own purposes).

He also says he’ll call off the hit on Kim Baldur.  That he doesn’t do, but what neither of them knows yet is that not long after she escaped Curtis’s goons, Kim ran into Jerry Diedrich and Luther Rickendorf (Jerry suspected Kim might be alive, but he still fainted when he saw her–excitable sort).

They’ve gone to the Australian police, who are skeptical, but interested.  They’ve also talked to Captain Zhang, who subsequently committed suicide, unable to reconcile his conflicting loyalties–to his employer, to his family, and to common decency.  His suicide note to his wife was on the brief and perfunctory side.  So was his subplot.

And the moral, wasted on Curtis, is that people don’t necessarily stay the way they were when you last saw them. He keeps making this mistake over and over. Can’t seem to fathom that people don’t just freeze in place when he walks out of the room, only to come back to life when he walks back in.

So contrived as this all may be, it’s contrived in character, which is what Westlake is going for here.  This way, Curtis figures he can just keep Manville quiet, make use of his technical expertise, hedge his bets in case the authorities come calling, and let Pallifer and Manville work out their differences once the Hong Kong business is attended to. As far as he’s concerned, Manville was dead the moment he told Curtis he wouldn’t help cover up Kim’s murder, just as Kim was dead the moment he decided her murder would be useful to him.   That both of them are still alive for the moment is a minor detail.  He’s already proven he can discredit anything they say about him by manipulating the press, making counter-allegations.

(Also, Curtis doesn’t have a tank full of pet piranhas to feed unwanted guests to.  Though I suppose crocodiles could have worked.  Or Platypuses.  [Platypi?]  There is, incidentally, no reference at all to exotic wildlife in this part of the book, not even one kangaroo hopping by.  I don’t know if this is because Westlake never saw much in the way of wildlife when he was there, or learned that there wasn’t much wildlife in that part of the country, or decided it was too much of a cliche, or he wasn’t there at all and didn’t want to risk mentioning the wrong critters.)

This part of the book is where Manville gets to really size Curtis up.  On his home turf, Curtis lets his guard down a bit, talks about his first marriage–the only one that mattered to him–and how his wife Isabel, who came from the family who started the company he took over, died of cancer as soon as they’d taken control.  The woman Curtis is sleeping with at the present time expresses sympathy–she’d never known.

Manville noticed, but thought that Cindy did not, that his smile to her was patronizing, that it said, thank you for your sympathy, but you’re too shallow to know what I really went through. He holds himself aloof from the human race, Manville thought, and that’s why he can be so dangerous.

(What was it Stalin reportedly said, about his first wife, Ekaterina Svanidze?–“This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.”  None too warm to start with, one suspects.  He had several of her close relations killed during a purge later on.  Well, that’s one way to deal with in-laws.)

Something else we learn in this brief episode, before Curtis heads back to Singapore–the name of the company he and his first wife took over from her family.  It had been started by her grandfather, a hundred years earlier, and given a somewhat odd name–

Manville said, “She was Chinese?”

“No, a Brit,” Curtis said. “Her background was. Her grandfather came out, started a construction company on the island, over a hundred years ago. Called it Hoklo Construction, which was a joke, because the Hoklo were 17th-century pirates from China that settled in Hong Kong and then assimilated and disappeared, so anybody could be Hoklo. Anybody could be a pirate, you see?”

Manville said, “It’s an interesting point.”

“One Isabel’s grandfather always kept in mind,” Curtis said, “as should have his successors. Anyway, the grandfather built the business, and went back to England to marry, and had children, and his first two sons took over the business, and Isabel was a daughter of the second son. I was just a roustabout from Oklahoma, my father was in construction but in a small way, little tract houses in developments in the dirt around Tulsa, not like Hoklo. They were big, always, from the beginning, building the big godowns the Chinese used for waterfront warehouses, putting up office buildings, apartment houses. I was always interested in travel, seeing something other than the tan dirt of Tulsa, and when I got to Hong Kong I took a job for a while with Hoklo, and met Isabel, and that’s where it all started.”

Manville said, “You went into the firm.”

“I became the firm,” Curtis said, and his voice was harsh again, but then it softened as he said, “The difference between the first generation and the third, you see, the first generation has to work for it, and the second generation at least gets to see their parents work for it, but the third generation gets it handed to them on a plate, with no idea there’s any work involved. Isabel’s brother and two of her cousins were supposed to take over the company, and it would have been like having the company taken over by the Pillsbury Doughboy.”

“You took it away from them.”

Curtis smiled. If tigers smiled, it would look like that. “I showed them what it was like to be in a fight,” he said.

Manville thinks to himself, around this time, that Richard Curtis is at his most dangerous when he seems to be most sane.  He is under no illusions about his chances of longterm survival, nor does he necessarily believe Curtis’s assurances about not going after Kim.  He knows that his soliton technique might be used to do something horrible.  But he agrees to stay put for the next two weeks.  And he watches.  And waits.  And nothing more of consequence happens with him until Part Three.

Curtis has to deal with official questions about Kim’s accusations, and to explain away Captain Zhang’s suicide–but now he can say that Manville is working with him again, that the charges of corporate espionage were just a misunderstanding, and would that be happening if he’d tried to have him and Ms. Baldur killed?  Without the slightest trace of remorse, he suggests the late Captain Zhang was using Curtis’s yacht to smuggle drugs, possibly people.

He talks to Brevizin, and to Australian police inspector, Tony Fairchild, playing both men like a harp–neither needs to believe him a saint, and he makes no pretense of being one.  He pulls a little dodge with the latter, where Pallifer pretends to be Manville, talking to Fairchild from Singapore (his secretary there patches Pallifer in from Australia).  Fairchild finds him rather unpleasant, hearing the unmistakable note of caustic misogyny when ‘Manville’ refers to Kim (who now doesn’t know what to believe about her newly-minted lover, suddenly gone over to the other side again–and of course Fairchild doesn’t think of having her listen in to confirm if this really is Manville).

Fairchild is another of Westlake’s professional, smart, decent, but somehow unprepossessing police officers (there’s three of them in this one book alone).   He can tell something’s wrong, he’s got no love for the moneyed classes, but he lets himself be gulled by Curtis, as does Brevizin, who is certainly no fool, and who has heard rumors of Curtis’s financial difficulties.  Curtis gives them an alternative explanation for his behavior, and they buy into it.  Because the alternative, you see, would be to believe one of the richest men on earth is a supervillain who would stop at nothing to pull off some evil plan.  I mean, what is this, a James Bond story?

Safely on his way back to Singapore, to start putting the finishing touches on his evil plan, Curtis (who gave up his private jet to economize, first class is more than cushy enough for him), realizes he’s on the same plane as his crazed nemesis Jerry Diedrich, Diedrich’s faithful Teutonic companion, Luther Rickendorf, and the seemingly unkillable Kim Baldur.  They don’t see him.  But he sees trouble.  He’s got to do something about them.

Pallifer is busy keeping watch on Manville.  He needs a man in Singapore.  Someone who couldn’t easily be connected to him. Someone desperate enough to carry out dubiously legal orders.  Someone he can trust to do an odd job or three.  He consults his mental rolodex.  He picks up the in-flight phone.  End Part Two.

There’s an arguable plot hole here, that only gets partly addressed.  Curtis now knows Kim Baldur isn’t in Australia anymore.  Curtis knows that as far as Pallifer is concerned, he’s still supposed to locate and dispatch her at the earliest opportunity (without letting Manville know about it).  Pallifer is one of the two characters I mentioned who has a cellphone, and he’s mainly going to be at Curtis’s ranch.

At no time does Curtis think it might be a good idea to tell Pallifer to forget about Kim Baldur, focus on George Manville entirely.  And this is going to turn out to be the opening Manville has been watching for, which Curtis will have cause to rue.  Leaving all that aside, it’s damned sloppy–like forgetting to call your dogs off when the day’s hunt is over.

But, you could argue, it’s just exactly the kind of sloppiness a man like Curtis would often be guilty of.  That he keeps forgetting that people don’t just stay where you left them, frozen in place, waiting for you to walk back into the room.  Having, in his mind, dealt with his problems in Australia, he puts them out of his mind entirely, and focuses on his problems in the Chinese-speaking world.

The problem with somebody to whom other people aren’t quite real is that he’s never really going to understand other people–particularly the ones who can’t be bought, or intimidated.  It causes him to make all kinds of jaw-dropping errors in judgment.  But it’s also what makes him so dangerous.  When he seems most sane.

Anyway, we can talk more about this next time.  About my opening quote up top–that’s another little oddity–and another hint as to who really wrote this novel that was going to be published under a pseudonym.

There is, you should know, no Australian crime novel called Payback, nor is there an author of such novels going by the name Gary Driver.  There is, as you already know, a 1999 American crime movie called Payback (in production when Westlake would have written this), starring a certain slightly deranged Australian actor, based on a 1962 novel credited to Richard Stark.

So best explanation I can think of (see the comments section for a better one) is that Stark put that reference in there, so we should know who’s instructing Manville how to survive what’s coming.   And Manville better pay close attention to Stark’s tutelage.  Wouldn’t hurt us any, either.  I’m just saying.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Donald Westlake screenplays, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Transgressions

When I was writing novellas for the pulp magazines back in the 1950’s, we still called them “novelettes,” and all I knew about the form was that it was long and it paid half a cent a word.  This meant that if I wrote 10,000 words, the average length of a novelette back then, I would sooner or later get a check for five hundred dollars.  This was not bad pay for a struggling young writer.

A novella today can run anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 words.  Longer than a short story (5,000 words) but much shorter than a novel (at least 60,000 words), it combines the immediacy of the former with the depth of the latter, and it ain’t easy to write.  In fact, given the difficulty of the form, and the scarcity of markets for novellas, it is surprising that any writers today are writing them at all.

Ed McBain.  AKA Evan Hunter.  AKA Salvatore Albert Lombino.

This assignment turned out to be more complex than expected.  Which is par for the course.  This is the mystery genre, after all.  Does a book detective ever have a less complex assignment than expected?

Originally, I was just going to review the Dortmunder novella Westlake contributed to the Transgressions anthology, edited by his longtime friend and mentor, Evan Hunter, under his more popular crime fiction pseudonym. This being far and away the shortest and simplest Dortmunder that isn’t a short story, I figured it wouldn’t take much time–but rereading it, I came to a realization regarding its true authorship, that had eluded me in the first reading.  So that’s one thing.

The other thing is that this time I read all three novellas in the paperback edition I’d originally acquired just to read Westlake’s.  The paperback reprints of the original collection were from Tor, a publisher Westlake probably assumed he’d never be involved with again after the Sam Holt debacle.  They broke up the original set into several, and it just happened that Westlake’s story shared a volume with McBain’s and Walter Mosley’s.

I know McBain fairly well but not intimately–I’ve read maybe half a dozen 87th Precinct novels, early books in the series, and hope to read a lot more (All of them?  Who says I’m living that long?)  I’m a fan, with a few minor reservations. I don’t think any mystery writer other than Doyle has been more identified with just one franchise.  And that’s the franchise represented here, one of the very last 87th Precinct stories ever written, if not the very last (or the very best, but McBain said novellas were hard).

Mosley I’ve only glimpsed from afar, till now–I was bemused at his introduction here (presumably written by McBain), which says he followed in the tradition of Chester Himes and John Carroll Daly, but ‘added the complex issue of race relations’–???–pretty sure Himes beat him to that by over three decades, with the Harlem Detective novels. But Himes left plenty of material for Mosley to work with.  He doesn’t write like Himes (no one did), and I don’t get the Daly reference at all.  I saw different influences.  And a writer I need to maybe move up in the queue.  We have some shared interests.

So this is, after all, The Westlake Review, and I could be pardoned for just skipping over the other two offerings here.  (I’m sure not reviewing all ten.)  I am, predictably, most interested in the Dortmunder story, which is, predictably, the best piece of writing on offer here.  But in certain respects, the other two are more interesting to me.  I can’t just ignore them, any more than when reviewing The Perfect Murder, I could pass over all the other contributors to that crazy quilt of a book.  Mr. Westlake said he and all his fellow authors swam in the same ocean together, and I would be doing him no service by ignoring his fellow swimmers.

The stories are billed in alphabetical order, then presented in reverse alphabetical order, and I’m going to reverse it yet again, and begin with McBain. Buckle up, we’re headed into Isola, for what is, unfortunately, still a very topical piece, entitled–

Merely Hate:

The driver behind them kept honking his horn.

“So much hate in this city,” Meyer said softly.  “So much hate.”

McBain died in 2005, the year Transgressions was published.  At 78 (Aw geez, he died at 78? Invert that and cue the Twilight Zone theme.), his mind was still sharp and inquisitive, his passion for the city of his birth, that became the city of his imagination, still undiminished.  He was not quite the writer he had once been, and the 87th was now hopelessly lost in a sea of mediocre copycat procedural melodramas with the precinct as the protagonist.  Nothing succeeds like excess.

He was working on novels to the very end, he had assembled a truly prestigious group of authors for this collection (that presaged the recent resurrection of the novella, now once again commercially viable, thanks to e-readers), he had laurels to spare.  He could have turned in a standard bit of rigamarole; a sex criminal, a bank robber, maybe bring back The Deaf Man, super villains being hotter than ever in the 21st.

Instead, he chose to take on the issue of Muslim immigrant communities in the big city, post-9/11.  The  man never lacked for guts, but maybe he figured it was safer to hide this one in a crowd.   Or he didn’t have enough time left to do the research a full novel would call for.

But when he summoned up his narrator for these books–who I always think of as the wise and world-weary tutelary deity of Isola, looking down on his people with mingled admiration and despair,  seeing them all, knowing them all, willing them to combine their unique strengths, and live as one many-faceted collective organism–knowing that they will fall short of the ideal, calling upon his champions to try and fill the gap, heal the wounds–well, let him tell it.

Just when Carella and Meyer were each and separately waking up from eight hours of sleep, more or less, the city’s swarm of taxis rolled onto the streets for the four-to-midnight shift.  And as the detectives sat down to late afternoon meals which for each of them were really more hearty breakfasts, many of the city’s more privileged women were coming out into the streets to start looking for taxis to whisk them homeward.  Here was a carefully coiffed woman who’d just enjoyed afternoon tea, chatting with another equally stylish woman as they strolled together out of a midtown hotel.  And here was a woman who came out of a department store carrying a shopping bag in each hand, shifting one of the bags to the other hand, freeing it so she could hail a taxi.  And here was a woman coming out of a Korean nail ship, wearing paper sandals to protect her freshly painted toenails.  And another coming out of a deli, clutching  a bag with baguettes showing, raising one hand to signal a cab. At a little before five, the streets were suddenly alive with the leisured women of this city, the most beautiful women in all the world, all of them ready to kill if another woman grabbed a taxi that had just been hailed.

This was a busy time for the city’s cabbies.  Not ten minutes later, the office buildings would begin spilling out men and women who’d been working since nine this morning, coming out onto the pavements now and sucking in great breaths of welcome spring air. The rain had stopped, and the sidewalks and pavements glistened, and there was the strange aroma of freshness on the air. This had been one hell of a winter.

The hands went up, typists’ hands, and file clerks’ hands, and the hands of lawyers and editors and thieves, yes, even thieves took taxis–though obvious criminal types were avoided by these cabbies steering their vehicles recklessly toward the curb in a relentless pursuit of passengers.  These men had paid eight-two dollars to lease their taxis.  These men had paid fifteen bucks to gas their buggies and get them on the road. They were already a hundred bucks in the hole before they put foot on pedal.  Time was money. And there were hungry mouths to feed.  For the most part, these men were Muslims, these men were gentle strangers in a strange land.

But someone had killed one of them last night.

And he was not yet finished.

(I can imagine Westlake thinking, “If Arthur Hailey had known what a writer is, this is how he’d have written.”  It’s sub-par McBain, the clichés are too thick on the ground–hmm, speak of the devil–but it still grips you.)

So somebody is killing Muslim cabbies, and spray-painting a Star of David on the windshield as a calling card.  Detectives Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer (who is Jewish) are assigned to the case, which means they have to talk to people who worked with the victims, lived with them, ate with them, prayed with them.  Bit by bit, the diversity of the Islamic community in Isola is laid bare, people from many parts of the world, united only by faith, and sometimes not even that.  Well, most believe a Jew did it, once they hear about the magen David.  That’s a kind of unity that hate can bring.

Even the first victim’s wife believes it, though at first she can’t understand why a Jew would kill her husband, since they came from Bangladesh.  But when she hears about the graffiti, she says “The rotten bastards.”  Clearly, whoever the murderer is, whatever the motive for the shootings, he or she intends to drum up discord between the tribes of Isola.  More than merely the usual hate.

Before long, a handful of Islamic extremists have set off bombs in public places, ostensibly in protest of the murders not being solved (dangling subplot, never gets resolved, McBain hadn’t written a novella in quite a long time). No attacks on synagogues or Jewish neighborhoods–just freeform hate.

Carella and Meyer keep looking for a motive, a suspect, doing all the rote things real detectives do, no great flashes of insight from 87th Precinct detectives, though Meyer has one great idea–figure out if the person who is spray-painting the symbol on the cabs is right or left-handed.  The killer isn’t a southpaw, so it doesn’t help much (I knew it must be those right-handed infidels!  And they call me sinister!)

One of their suspects, pointed out to them by a rabbi, is Anthony Inverni, an outspoken young Italian American, who wants to marry a young Jewish girl.  Her family is trying to stop them.  The rabbi thinks maybe he’s getting revenge by trying to pin the killings on Jews.  An aspiring author, very angry at the world, very anti-religious (one of two such characters in the book), Inverni says he’s going to change his last name to Winters, it’ll look better on a book cover (Hunter would also work, or McBain).

Inverni/Winters also admits he was sleeping around on the girl he means to marry, since he needs an alibi, treats it as no big deal.  Under any name, it is now a well-known fact that the compiler of this anthology was not a faithful husband for much of his life.  Hate can also be directed towards one’s younger self, particularly in old age.

What McBain does here is take what would have been just one plot skein in an 87th Precinct novel, and make it the whole story.  Too cramped for such an expansive topic–he tries to be fair, spends a lot of time in the heads of many different Muslims, showing us their varied lives and interests.

Putting myself in the place of a Muslim reader, I would see the good intentions, the genuine perceptions, and still find it wanting.  Too forced, too hasty, and the shock of 9/11 is still there, the wounds still fresh and raw.  I don’t buy that terrorist bombers are motivated by a few cab drivers getting whacked.  It is mentioned that Muslims died in the towers on 9/11–it is not spelled out whether that happened in Isola, since that would be openly admitting Isola is New York, which McBain was always loathe to do.  The problem with fictional cities being used to talk about specific real-life events.

He’s looking for some way to believe that these newest arrivals can also become fully part of his city, join the larger family, without abandoning their core identities.  It’s a noble project, that needed more time, more research–and perhaps a fresher eye.

He also doesn’t have much space to talk about his detectives–there’s lots of friendly banter between the two comrades, “a Catholic who hadn’t been to church since he was twelve, and a Jew who put up a tree each and every Christmas”–there’s also a brief cameo by the irascible anti-ideal, Andy Parker–but their personalities don’t really come through strongly here.  Nobody who hadn’t read the earlier stories would get a strong sense of who these detectives are.

Comes up short compared to some of his earlier books centered around Puerto Rican immigrants and their kids–who once upon a time were likewise believed to be incapable of assimilation, slotted as gangsters (they did some terrorism too).  It’s a long list of ethnic groups who have been declared social undesirables in America, and we’re all on it.  But you see how quickly he put this one together, wanting to make some personal contribution of his own to this project he’d embarked upon, wanting to make some final statement.  Not enough space, not enough research, not enough perspective.

Maybe he felt the ultimate deadline looming as he typed it.  But with so little time left, and nothing left to prove, what would make him care enough to attempt something so daunting, difficult, and controversial, that would profit him nothing?  Merely love.

And that was merely adequate, as a review, but at least I’ve read some McBain.  A strange thing to begin one’s acquaintance with an important mystery writer with something he wrote in a format he’d probably never attempted before (since the market for novellas had died out before he even got started).

This is an origin story, along the lines of A Study in Scarlet, with a first person narrator who is both protagonist in his own right and observer of a unique investigative mind.  Written as the starting point of a series of stories about two intrepid mismatched detectives–that ends up a bit like those unaired TV pilots you can sometimes see on cable, or get on home video–a series that never happened, stillborn.  All kinds of unrealized potentials that were never explored.  We can talk about why that is, while we’re–

Walking The Line:

There was a bookshelf in the bathroom.  The books were composed of two dominant genres: politics and science fiction.  I took out a book entitled Soul of the Robot by the author Barrington J. Bayley.  It was written in the quick style of pulp fiction, which I liked because there was no pretension to philosophy.  It was just a good story with incredible ideas.

Walter Mosley writes mainly detective novels, series fiction.  He started out with science fiction, broke big with mysteries, and wrote a fair bit of erotica on the side–hmm, who does that remind me of?  His various franchises are always based around a strong central character with well-established quirks and a memorable name–Easy Rawlins, Fearless Jones, Leonid McGill, Socrates Fortlow.  I’ve read none of their books.  No, I had to start with Archibald Lawless.  And his artsy antsy amanuensis, Felix Orlean (of the New Orleans Orleans.)

It’s not clear when he wrote this–there’s a slighting reference by Mr. Lawless to President Bush–probably Bush the Younger, going by context–but you can’t be 100% sure–maybe this dates back to before Mosley was a name, still into science fiction, dreaming of the pulp magazines that folded before he had a chance to write for them.

The narrator, doing Dr. Watson as a cultured young black man, encounters Lawless because he reads all the personal ads in multiple print newspapers.  Nobody seems to be using even flip phones, let alone the smart kind.  Computers and the internet are a thing, but not really used much.  There is a certain retro feel to this one, so Mosley could just be filtering some changes out (hmm, who does that also remind me of?).  I find it very hard to believe this was originally conceived in the 21st century, though going by the sarcastic reference to Bush being a legitimately elected President, it was written after the 2000 election (that ref could have been shoehorned in later).

McBain says in his intro that some writers who responded to his entreaties in the positive had ideas too slight for a novel, too involved for a short story–others had a character in mind they wanted to introduce, run him/her up the flagpole, see who saluted.  But I’d think a few had something written or half-written already, and just didn’t have a market for it before McBain sent out the call.  (In Westlake’s A Likely Story, the anthologist protagonist suspects many of the famous authors responding to his call for Christmas-themed pieces are simply dusting off some unpublished work and reworking it.)  Well, the provenance isn’t really the point.

The point is anarchism.  Felix needs a job to support himself while he studies at the Columbia Journalism School–for his temerity at rejecting the practice of law his father and grandfather and great-grandfather sacrificed much to attain success in, he’s been cut off from his wealthy New Orleans clan–he personally prefers the less well-heeled more ‘authentically’ black members of his large socially diverse family (he describes himself as being very light-skinned–as is Mosley himself).  His father whipped him with a belt as a boy, and he’s scared spitless of the man, was quietly delighted when dad told him to get out and never come back.  (But he still thinks about calling him when the cops haul him into a frightening holding pen on a bum rap, where he’s about ten seconds away from getting raped when Lawless pulls a few strings to spring him.)

The man he meets at a midtown office building is the polar antithesis of his father–an alternative authority figure, a modern-day crusader, whose enemy is authority itself.

The man standing there before me had no double in the present day world or in history. He stood a solid six three or four with skin that was deep amber. His hair, which was mostly dark brown and gray, had some reddish highlights twined into a forest of thick dreadlocks that went straight out nine inches from his head, sagging only slightly.  The hair resembled a royal head-dress, maybe even a crown of thorns but Mr. A. Lawless was no victim.  His chest and shoulders were unusually broad even for a man his size.  His eyes were small and deep set.  The forehead was round and his high cheekbones cut strong slanting lines down to his chin which gave his face a definite heart shape.  There was no facial hair and no wrinkles except at the corner of his eyes.

He takes an immediate liking to Felix, who quickly realizes this guy is at least a little bit crazy (more than just a little, as things work out)–but compelling. Convincing.  He’s not part of any organization, but he monitors the outpourings of fellow anarchists across the globe, recognizing that much of what they’re saying is demented gibberish (and that they can be as dangerous as the people they’re fighting), but sometimes they stumble across something real.  He says there are government and corporate assassins everywhere (calls them ‘killkills’). He sees a world most people choose not to see.  His office is full of file boxes containing endless conspiracies of the powerful against We The People.

Yeah, he’s Fox Mulder without the FBI, aliens, mutants, or the ability to hail a cab.  And Felix is Dana Scully without the sexual tension to distract you. Definitely conceived after 1993.  And just like that overblown accident of a cult show that ran far too long (and still ludicrously clings to half-life, like a TV zombie), the believer is always right, and the skeptic is always wrong.  And yet remains a skeptic.  I’ve always had issues with that dynamic. It’s very hard to get the balance right.

Mosley mainly doesn’t here, but Felix is a much better-realized sidekick than Scully–helps that he’s the first-person narrator, of course.  He even gets himself a waitress/music student girlfriend who shares his congenially complicated relationship with her ethnicity.  They enjoy a classic New York date at a classical music concert at The Cloisters, then a sweet raunchy sex scene, and I applaud Mr. Mosley for rejecting the old Chandleresque “Gumshoe meets nice interesting girl he could be happy with, but goes for the deadly noir-blonde siren instead” trope (Though that trope is here in force, her name is Lana Drexel, and she ends up working for Lawless too.)

Who knows if the girlfriend would remained part of the series, if there’d been one? Who knows if Felix would ever have been proven right about anything? The story itself is almost more of a mystery than the mystery its protagonists try to unravel.

So Felix can smell trouble all over this awesome anarchist; he himself is small of stature and timorous of nature, but he really needs the job, he’s got the investigative instinct of a hound dog, and he finds Lawless fascinating, as anyone would, as I do.  As indeed nearly everyone we meet in the story does.  Lawless can’t seem to go anywhere without being recognized–he’s not famous, but everybody knows him, from the humble to the great.  (The only one who doesn’t seem to know who he is happens to be the one ‘killkill’ we meet in this story, which I found a bit random, but it’s a cool fight scene.)

And the minute Felix questions anything (like what are the odds an anarchist would be born with the name Lawless?), this peripatetic Nero Wolfe gets up on the invisible soapbox he carries everywhere with him for precisely such occasions.  His one weakness, but it’s a bad one.

“I am Archibald Lawless,” he said.  “I’m sitting here before you.  You are looking into my eyes and questioning what you see and what you hear.  On the streets you meet Asian men named Brian, Africans named Joe Cramm. But you don’t question their obviously being named for foreign devils.  You accept their humiliation.  You accept their loss of history.  You accept them being severed from long lines of heritage by their names.  Why wouldn’t you accept just as simply my liberating appellation?”

Why can’t Felix, who is no dummy, riposte with “Lawless is a foreign devil’s name, and we’re all foreign devils here except the Indians”?  Trouble is, the author identifies more with Felix, but would much rather be Lawless.   Which could lead to interesting tensions in the narrative, ways for Mosley to explore his own inner contradictions (that you kind of figure a man with a black father and a Russian Jewish mother is going to have, and who doesn’t?) but there’s not enough room to work with them.  Though there was plenty of room for Lawless to just smile at Felix’s little jibe, and say “A man from New Orleans whose last name is Orlean thinks my name is contrived?”  And he doesn’t, because that’s not the character.  Lawless talks too much and says too little (and I am, after all, something of an authority on that).

This is the longest of the three novellas on offer here–so long, I’d call it more of a short novel.  The narrative style reminds me more than a little of the Mitch Tobin mysteries, though the themes and character dynamics don’t.  Mosley sticks in a lot of bells and whistles, about stolen jewels, and mysterious murders, and a haven for fugitives in a restaurant on the western banks of the Hudson, and you can tell he’s really jonesing for the halcyon days of pulp fiction, when it was so much easier to get away with crap like this.  When it felt a lot more real than it does now.  A lot of McGuffins here, none of them terribly convincing, but they never are–the trick is to make the story so engaging, we don’t care.  Mosley doesn’t quite pull it off, but he does make me wish he’d tried again, because I do care about these people, I am interested in what they think.

The real story is Felix stepping into a larger world, accepting his alternative father figure (I think we can all see the looming confrontation between Lawless and Orlean Sr., and that would have been something to see.)  So when that’s done, maybe all that’s left is formula, and Mosley didn’t see a way forward.  He’s clearly more than good enough a writer to know when he hasn’t done his best work.  But there’s a lot of good work here, all the same.  And a lot more than your standard identity politics.  Lawless sends Felix to talk to a snooty real estate agent he suspects of being involved in something more than just gentrification.  Felix bluffs his way in by using his father’s name.

“Why did you need to see my ID?”

“This is an exclusive service, Mr. Orlean,” she said with no chink of humanity in her face.  “And we like to know exactly who it is we’re dealing with.”

“Oh,” I said.  “So it wasn’t because of my clothes or my race?”

“The lower orders come in all colors, Mr. Orlean.  And none of them get back here.”

Her certainty sent a shiver down my spine.  I smiled to hide the discomfort.

I suppose Mosley could still bring Felix and Archie back someday.  But I doubt it. And these days, I’m more afraid of the wild-eyed conspiracy mongers than I am of ‘The Deep State.’  Though there’s plenty of fear to go around, isn’t there?  And no clear lines of scrimmage anymore, if there ever were.

So I’m over 4,000 words into a Westlake review, and I’ve yet to talk about what Westlake wrote.  (Be warned, there will be a lot more spoilers for this one). McBain contributed a less than fully satisfactory installment to his most famous series–perhaps the concluding installment.  Mosley turned in a much more interesting but confused introduction to a series that never happened.  Both struggled with the constraints of the novella form, which McBain had abandoned maybe 40 or more years earlier, and Mosley probably had little or no experience with.

Westlake always had problems with the short story, but the novella was a form he felt much more confident in.  He’d published a two-novella collection back in ’77, proof of his wishing there was still a market for them.  Anarchaos (a science fiction novel I’m not sure would have been in Lawless’ collection, though it fits Felix’s description to a T) is little more than a novella, and he probably didn’t even get 500 dollars for it.

In his early days, Richard Stark was writing basically nothing but novels about the same length as Walking the Line, but a whole lot more focused and sure of themselves, with a protagonist who disdains both soapboxes and sidekicks.  And I am much inclined to think Stark’s the one who really wrote–

Walking Around Money:

Dortmunder said, “It’s a heist.”

“A quiet heist,” Querk told him.  “No hostages, no explosions, no standoffs.  In, out, nobody ever knows it happened.  Believe me, the only way this scores for us is if nobody ever knows anything went missing.”

“Huh,” Dortmunder said.

“You oughta try cough drops,” Querk suggested.

I gave the game away up top, so might as well just say it.  This is a clear rewrite of The Man With the Getaway Face.  I say clear, even though I didn’t twig to it on my previous reading–Westlake always hid his recycling well.  It doesn’t play out the same way, because Dortmunder is not Parker, he lives in a much less brutal reality than Parker,  and he’s never getting plastic surgery (though he probably could use it more), but the stories share a skeleton, and his name is Querk–though it used to be Skimm.

Querk:  A skinny little guy, maybe fifty, with a long face, heavy black eyebrows over banana nose over thin-lipped mouth over long bony chin, he fidgeted constantly on that wire-mesh chair in Paley Park, a vest pocket park on East 3rd Street in Manhattan, between Fifth and Madison Avenues.

Skimm: He was a thin stub end of a man, all bones and skin with no meat.  His head was long and thin, set on a chicken neck with a knotty Adam’s apple, and his face was all nose and cheekbones. The watery eyes were set deep in the skull, the jaw small and hard.

In both cases, there’s a woman at the back of it.  A mean frustrated New Jersey waitress named Alma who is just using Skimm in the Stark novel.  A good-natured hearty trout-fishing upstate New York travel agent named Janet, for Querk, with a pernicious habit of trying to improve the men in her life.   Both a bit on the hefty side, but attractively so.  Big difference is that Janet actually wants to be with Querk–Stark can relax and be a bit more mellow and forgiving here, but it’s still Stark–hell, he was actually wordier in his physical description of Skimm.

Janet likes the man she’s using (Querk will make a good project for her), but they are still both looking for an escape route–her from a really bad marriage with an abusive paranoid who works for the phone company.  Him from having to work at his brother’s printing company, having been trained for the old school non-digital printing industry that no longer exists during his last stint in prison, and only his brother would hire him on.

The plant sometimes prints money–lots and lots of money.  But security is lax there, because it’s not our money.  It’s Guerraran money, siapas–yep, Guerrera is back for one last encore.  (And please recall, Guerrara also exists in the Starkian universe, albeit under the more masculine alias Guerrero.)

The pitch is simple–Querk works at the plant.  He can get them in during a period when it’s shut down a few weeks so that the river that serves as its power source can be opened up for the annual trout run.  They’ll get the power to run the presses from a mobile generator kept at the local firehouse they can borrow with none the wiser.  They print themselves a hundred billion siapas, in twenty million siapa notes.  This will come to about 500g’s in our money.  (No, I don’t know why they don’t just make the siapa worth more, I’m not an economist, ask Paul Krugman or somebody.)

Instead of being the finger on this job, like Alma was in the earlier book, Janet’s involvement is explained by her having a contact in Guerrera who can fence the money for them, demanding a hefty cut of course.  Kelp goes to check out this story, finds it lacking in credibility.  Like Parker and Handy before them, Dortmunder and Kelp smell a cross in the making.  This alone should tell you who’s writing this, since that’s a common twist in the Parker novels that only showed up once in the Dortmunders before now.

Where Stark and Westlake come together is in their endless interest in their surroundings–you gotta know the territory.  But the territory has changed a lot since the early 60’s.  Querk explains the job to them while they are parked along the West Side Highway–remember how much I loved the familiar settings of the second Parker novel, so near where I grew up?  This is equally familiar, but much more contemporary. And a lot less noir-ish, but that goes with the territory as well.

Querk said, “What is this?”

“Fairway,” Kelp told him, as he found a parking space on the left and drove into it, front bumper against fence.  It was hot outside, so he kept the engine on and the windows shut.

Querk said, “I don’t get it.”

“What it is,” Kelp told him, putting the Infiniti in park, “Harlem never had a big supermarket, save money on your groceries, they only had these little corner stores, not much selection on the shelves.  So this Fairway comes in, that used to be a warehouse over there, see it?”

Querk nodded at the big warehouse with the supermarket entrance. “I see it.”

Kelp said, “So they put in a huge supermarket, great selections, everything cheap, the locals love it.  But also the commuters, it’s easy on, easy off, see, there’s your north-bound ramp back up to the highway, so they can come here, drop in, buy everything for the weekend, then head off to their country retreat.”

Querk said, “But why us?  What are we doin’ here?”

Dortmunder told him, “You look around, you’ll see one, two people, even three, sitting in the cars around here.  The wife–usually, it’s the wife–goes in and shops, the husband and the houseguests, they stay out here, keep outa the way, sit in the car, tell each other stories.”

Kelp said, “Tell us a story, Kirby.”

Dortmunder and Kelp don’t make one wrong move this whole mini-book.  They scout every problem out before it happens.  There are no surprises.  The idea wasn’t that Querk and Janet would kill them, but just scoot off to Guerrera with all the cash, never to be seen again.  They get surprised–by Janet’s crazy husband, and by their criminal co-conspirators being so much smarter than they look. (As Kelp says at the end, “That’s what we specialize in.”)

But other than uncomfortable rental cars (they decide it’s too long-term a job for Kelp to borrow some doctor’s luxuriant Lexus or whatever), bad upstate food, and a brief moment of buying into Querk’s original story, there are no embarrassments for Dortmunder here.  He’s finally what he’s always wanted to be–a Stark heister.  But without one vital little element.

See, the job goes off fine, without a hitch, they have the money, they’ve neutralized the crazy wife-beating husband (Janet’s black eye was a vital clue for Inspector Kelp), they’ve got Querk and Janet at their mercy–and they show mercy.  Kind of.  See, in the words of Lord Vader, they have altered the deal. Maybe Querk and Janet would have been better off with Parker.  It’d be over faster.

The original deal was that Dortmunder and Kelp get a bit over 62 grand to split between them.  In dollars.  New deal is Querk and Janet can run away together to beautiful scenic Guerrera, as planned.  They can take one box of freshly minted walking around money,  a hundred thousand bucks’ worth of siapas to start their new life together, mazel tov.   But here comes the catch.

Querk said, “Where am I gonna get that money?”

“You’re gonna steal it,” Dortmunder told him.  “That’s what you do, remember?  You gave up on reform.”

Querk hung his head.  The thought of a Guerreran jail moved irresistably through his mind.

Meanwhile, Dortmunder said, “If you don’t show up in six months, the four boxes will go to the cops with an anonymous letter with your names and a description of the scheme and where you’re hiding out, and the probable numbers on your siapas.  And then, you’ve got nothing.”

“Jeez,” Querk said.

“Look at it this way,” Dortmunder suggested.  “You lied to us, you abused our trust, but we aren’t getting even, we aren’t hurting you.  Because all we want is what’s ours.  So, one way or another, you keep your side of the bargain, and we keep ours.  Looking past Querk at the window, he said, “Here’s the goddam compact, I hope we can fit these boxes in there.  Come on, Querk, help me carry the loot.”

I can imagine many faithful readers of this series coming to this point in the story and exclaiming out loud, “Why is Dortmunder being so mean?”  He was pretty damn mean in The Hot Rock–many since have learned you don’t want to tick him off–usually some wealthy powerful person who did a lot worse than just stiff him.  Querk and Janet are basically nice people (as opposed to good people) who only wanted to escape their unsatisfactory lives, and needed to stiff somebody in order to start over from scratch.

But they stiffed the wrong guy.  And they didn’t realize who was writing this story.  A much harsher god than Donald Westlake.  Who is enjoying the chance to administer justice without the use of firearms or huge veiny hands.  A change is as good as a rest, as they say.

Far and away the best novella of the three on offer here–I couldn’t say about the remaining seven in the original hardcover.  Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King are no slouches, Lawrence Block recently put out maybe the best novella I’ve ever read via Kindle, which is proving to be the savior of that long-neglected form.  But could anybody beat a tag-team composed of Donald E. Westlake and Richard Stark?  Talk about a handicap match.

His entry, in a form none of them employed regularly, is the best because he’s not trying for something bigger, bolder, brassier, he’s not trying to save the world in 40,000 words or less, he’s not jumping on any soapboxes.  He’s just using this opportunity to try a little experiment–what would Dortmunder be like if Stark wrote him?  And he’s not going to tell anybody that’s what he’s doing.  Because that would skew the data.

Which I suppose is what I’ve just done, but it’s been over ten years now, and I think the statute of limitations has expired, along with the author, sadly.  Only Mosley is left now.  They should have set up a tontine or something.  For all I know they did.  That would make for an interesting novella, don’t you think?

I think it’s going to be a while before my next review, since I haven’t had time to reread the next Dortmunder novel, and it’s a long one, with all the extra plot elements Stark summarily dispensed with here.  Maybe I’ll find something to write about in the nonce, maybe not.  Forgive my transgressions, gentle readers, as I would forgive yours, had you any.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Donald Westlake short stories, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels, 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,  which I find LOL-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 Williams 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.

2006-sleeper-cab-sterling-003

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