Category Archives: Uncategorized

Aside: Mr. Fitch and the Theme Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(horns come in lower now)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Backflash

1024px-rhinecliff_train_station_platform

Amtrak was new but the station at Rhinecliff was old, one end of it no longer in use, rusted remains of steel walkways and stairs looming upward against the sky like the ruins of an earlier civilization, which is what they were.  At the still-working end of the platform, a long metal staircase climbed to a high enclosed structure that led above the tracks over to the old station building.  The land here was steep, coming up from the river, leveling for the tracks, then continuing sharply upward.

A dozen people got off the train with Parker, and another two or three got on.  He came down to the concrete last, the only passenger without luggage, and stood on the platform while the rest of them trudged up the stairs and the train jerked forward behind him.  In his dark windbreaker and black chinos and heavy black shoes, he looked like some sort of skilled workman, freelancing, brought in by a contractor to do one specific job.  Which he was.

Encouraged by his at last being able to write in the Stark voice again, Westlake wasted no time in writing another Parker novel, which was published just about exactly a year after Comeback.  Westlake hit upon an odd little gimmick for the first five of the Final Eight–each title was composed of one two-syllable compound word, and each one after Comeback began with the second syllable of the previous title.  He sometimes had to strain a bit to justify the title in terms of the plot, but on the plus side, you always know which book comes next.  Or–do you?

Here’s the thing–I’m finding myself increasingly convinced that in chronological terms, Backflash comes before Comeback.  No question Comeback was completed first, since Westlake started working on it in 1988.  Fact is, dating either book would be enough to give even the redoubtable D. Kingsley Hahn conniption fits.  Not because there’s no evidence of when they take place, but rather because there’s a superfluity of conflicting evidence.

Comeback would seem to be taking place in the late 80’s, right after a series of prominent televangelists got themselves into trouble with their shameless shenanigans.  That tracks with when Westlake first conceived it.  But he conceived Backflash in the mid/late 90’s, and its premise certainly tracks with that as well.

Backflash is taking place in a sort of parallel universe version of New York State, where Riverboat Casino Gambling was 1)a political inevitability and 2)involved the floating Monte Carlos actually going out on river jaunts, instead of just sitting at the dock, accumulating cash from the pockets of people with too much spare time and not enough sense.  Where’s the romance in that, pray tell?  A much less interesting challenge for Parker.

Westlake would have read articles like this 1994 op-ed, from a proponent of riverboat gambling in New York, and it would have gotten his mind moving.  But in fact, there was massive political opposition to this from the get-go, and to this day, the Empire State has no such nautical gaming houses, though gaming it has, in abundance.

Westlake lived to see Yonkers Raceway, just over the Bronx Border, turn into Empire City Casino. (I gambled there myself once, but strictly on the ponies, and I won!–all of five bucks.  How was I to know I was betting on the favorite, he just looked really good in the warm-up lap.  Okay, I suppose there probably were ways I could have checked that.)  There’s casino gambling at the Saratoga racetrack as well, the reasoning being that this way you get the tax revenue from gambling and you keep the racing industry afloat.

One reason given in the book for the eagerness to institute riverboat gambling on the Hudson is the success of Foxwoods Casino Resort in Connecticut.  That actually started on the Pequot reservation as a bingo hall in 1986, and it’s a long complicated litigious story you can read about elsewhere, but nobody in Albany was paying that much attention until about a decade or so later, by which time Foxwoods was the east coast gambling addict’s Disneyland.  Most of New York’s casinos today are likewise on land controlled by local tribes, something Westlake would touch upon in the next Dortmunder novel.

So that should, by all logic, make a shambles of my theory that Backflash came first.  Except for several things I will now annoyingly bring up, since I never admit I’m wrong if I can possibly help it.

See, if we can say that this is a parallel timeline, where the success of a land-based casino rather confusingly means New York had to have water-based casinos (when in fact they decided to go the same way as Connecticut, give the Indians a break for once, and the ponies too, for that matter), then we can just as easily say that Foxwoods graduated from bingo parlor to full-fledged casino in a much shorter span of time, perhaps started up at a much earlier date, and faced fewer legal challenges.  Maybe it’s actually  the early/mid 80’s when all this is happening.  But can I point to any other evidence this is the case? In fact I can, and the corpus is most delectable indeed.

This book marks the return of the poetically named Noelle Kay Braselle, the hippie chick heister from Plunder Squad (who turns out to hail from a much older and more pragmatic subcultural milieu than Haight-Ashbury).  After Noelle and her boyfriend are apprehended in that book, we see the other members of the string watching a news story about the arrests, which mentions that she’s 21 years old.  That information comes from the police, who have been checking her vital statistics.  No reason to doubt it.

But in this book, while her exact age is never disclosed, we have it from multiple POV’s that she looks just around 30, give or take.  Could be a bit older, or a bit younger, but essentially ten years have elapsed for Ms. Braselle since last we saw her in Plunder Squad, and she was arrested in June of 1971, according to D. Kingley Hahn’s highly persuasive arguments.

And furthermore, if this book is happening in the late 90’s, say 1997, the year before its publication, Amtrak is over a quarter century old (having been founded the same year Noelle got busted), and hardly qualifies as ‘new.’  Please note the opening line of that quote up top.  The description of the station tracks nicely with how it would have looked in the early/mid 80’s, but that decaying ironwork Stark refers to would have been removed by the late 90’s–see any sign of it in that photo I nabbed from the Wikipedia article for the Rhinecliff Station?

So what do we have here?  Intentionally mixed signals.  Westlake wants us to not quite be sure when this is all happening–time is well and truly out of joint.  He’s not writing a period piece, because he doesn’t do that, and certainly not when he’s in Stark mode.  But he’s not writing 100% in the present, because it doesn’t suit his purposes here.  He wants this to be the past and the present, simultaneously. In these Stark novels he wrote in the 90’s, time is a river that flows both ways–like the Mahicantuck,  AKA the Hudson.  These people are out of an earlier time, and they bring some of its archaisms with them–and they drag us back with them, and the story takes place in some historical nether-realm

The stories of both Comeback and Backflash were inspired by events that occurred around the time they were written.  But neither is strictly rooted in those times (or shows any evidence of the advanced communications technology increasingly prevalent in those times, which would be pretty damned relevant to the stories being told, particularly in the latter instance).

And none of this proves Backflash happened before Comeback, but I still think it did. Partly because it helps fill in that yawning vacuum between Butcher’s Moon and the new books. Partly because of the sums of money involved here, and inflation.  Partly because it has all these familiar faces from the books of the 60’s and 70’s, and sure, maybe they all came through that time warp I was theorizing about the other day, along with Parker.  And maybe they haven’t aged normally because that’s a convention of series fiction, and I’m just obsessing over minutiae, as is my wont.

But then again, maybe the reason we never see them again in the six subsequent novels (when we see the Mackeys over and over) is that they’re still back in the past–in the 80’s (or in prison, or retired, or dead).  Parker never seems to think about any of them again afterwards other than Noelle (in Firebreak).  If he had all these ultracompetent fully reliable pros to call upon, would he really be working with the guys we see him with over the remaining six novels?

Backflash to me is a transitional story, between the old and new eras of Parker–but since it was written after Comeback, and since Westlake would be almost constitutionally incapable of referring to anything he ever wrote as a prequel, it can only be one on a conjectural, damn near subtextual level.

Although, it suddenly occurs to me–Backflash?  Transpose the two syllables in that compound word, and what do you get?  In The Hunter, Parker scornfully remarks  “I hope you people have fun with your words.”  Nobody ever had more fun with them than Donald E. Westlake.  And perversely, when we miss the joke, he may sometimes enjoy it all the more.

Anyway, it’s something we can have fun arguing about in the comments section.  After I do a bit of synopsizing.  If you were betting this would be a multi-part review, you were definitely on the money.  Hands off the table, ladies and gentleman, around and around she goes….

We come in, once more, at the tail-end of a job that has gone less than smoothly for Parker.  He and a few fellow pros have just pulled a job reminiscent of the one he pulled with Mal Resnick in The Hunter.  Some rogue soldiers were selling stolen high-tech weaponry to the highest bidder, in this case terrorists.  Parker’s string wants the weapons to sell and the cash to spend.  They got all of the first, and some of the second, but they weren’t the only ones who knew about the exchange, and the cops who busted up the party are disinclined to view Parker’s little company of freebooters as a freelance counter-terrorism squad.

As Parker flees the scene with a guy named Marshall Howell, who brought him into this operation, their car goes off the road, and rolls down a hill.  Parker is mainly undamaged, but Howell is busted up pretty bad, and trapped in the car.  The pursuing lawmen opted to pursue the truck with the military hardware for now, but somebody will be checking up on them soon.  Parker has to go, and he dislikes loose ends.  Does Howell need to die?

Howell knows he’s going to jail, and he assures Parker he’d never talk to the law.  Parker is conflicted–a fellow professional has certain rights when you’re on a job with him.  All of which come second to Parker’s right to avoid capture or death himself.  Howell talks to him just the right way, joking, congenial, quietly tough.  It’s a close call, but don’t make murder the answer to everything.  He tells Howell he’ll see him in twenty years.  Howell says he’ll be rested.  Parker gets away with 140k.  His remaining partners can sell the weapons for their share.

And that really should be it for a while, since Parker doesn’t like to work too often, and that’s more than enough cash to tide him and Claire over awhile.  He gets back to the house in New Jersey, and Claire, who is happy to see him and the money.  The paper says Howell died from his injuries–Parker knows he wasn’t that badly hurt.  He wouldn’t have died unless somebody leaned on him hard to identify his associates, and obviously he didn’t talk, since the cops haven’t come knocking.  Chalk one up for honor among thieves.  And knowing she came that close to losing her man puts Claire as much in the mood as Parker always is after a job is done.  All brushes with death do for Parker is make him wax existential.

Claire pointed at the newspaper.  “That could have been you.”

“It always could,” he said.  “So far, it isn’t.  I go away, and I come back.”

She looked at him.  “Every time?”

“Except the last time,” he said.

She put her arms around him, touched her lips to the spot where the pulse beat in his throat.  “Later,” she said, “let’s have a fire.”

So afterwards, he goes to stash the money in several empty vacation homes nearby, and comes back to find that somebody claiming to be Howell left a message for him.  The area code is for Albany.  Since he’s pretty sure that’s not where people go when they die, he’s not surprised to find himself talking to someone else–someone who has information about him he doesn’t like just anyone to have.  Somebody named Cathman, who wants to meet with him–he was going to work with Howell on something, and now that Howell is permanently unavailable, he needs somebody in the same line of work.

So they need at the Amtrak station in Rhinecliff.  Parker is once again weighing the option of discretionary murder, but as we’ve seen before (The Jugger, for example), he doesn’t like to close a case that way when he doesn’t have all the information.  How much does this guy know, and what is he really after?  You don’t want to pull the trigger before you know all the potential consequences.  So he’ll talk to the guy.

His name is Hilliard Cathman.  Short, fat, balding. Spent most of his life as a consultant for the state government, now semi-retired, doing freelance consulting.  And increasingly ignored, on a subject he has very strong feelings about, namely state-sanctioned gambling.  Parker is pretty much indifferent to the social effects of gambling, generally agrees people would be better off without it, but since when do people only like what’s good for them?

“My question was, do you gamble?”

“No.”

“May I ask why not?”

What did this have to do with anything?  But Parker had learned, over the years, that when somebody wants to tell you his story, you have to let him tell it his own way.  Try to push him along, speed it up, you’ll just confuse him and slow him down.

So the question is, why not gamble?  Parker’d never thought about it, he just knew it was pointless and uninteresting.  He said, “Turn myself over to random events?  Why?  The point is to try to control events, and they’ll still get away from you anyway.  Why make things worse?  Jump out a window, see if a mattress truck goes by.  Why?  Only if the room’s on fire.”

Cathman loves this answer, though subsequent events will reveal he’s gambling with much higher stakes than any state-sanctioned casino would allow.

(Sidebar: Regarding Parker’s avowed dislike for gambling, I am tempted to bring up his frequent visits to a casino in San Juan with Claire in The Green Eagle Score, and before that with Crystal in The Handle, though to be sure the latter was strictly to case the joint, and the former just because it got Claire in that mood he likes so much.  But he is in fact playing cards for money with some fellow heisters in Nobody Runs Forever.  I suppose you could say that was just to be social.  Westlake famously loved that kind of socializing, and at least in a private game you only have to beat your fellow players.)

So the upshot is that Cathman wants to be the finger on a riverboat casino heist.  Albany has okayed a four month trial run, with one boat–formerly the Spirit of Biloxi, now the Spirit of the Hudson.  They only had to change one word.  They can easily change it back again if things don’t work out, but Cathman is sure the boat will bring in a lot of money–enough to make it worth Parker’s while. He’s in a position to give Parker all kinds of useful information about that boat.  He says he only wants ten percent of the take.

Ten percent is about what the finger would normally get (if he gets anything), but Parker feels like that’s not nearly enough money to make a guy turn his back on everything he ever was.  He smells something rotten in the air, but he doesn’t know what it is.  As we’ve seen before, when Parker is confused like this, he is compelled to seek answers.

He doesn’t need to work now, and the easiest thing to do would be to just get rid of somebody who already knows too much about him (that he knows the phone number of the house in New Jersey is itself enough reason to kill him).  But first he needs to understand Cathman, his plan, his motives, before he can know what to do about him.  And it is a potentially good score.  He asks Claire if she’ll do some background research on Cathman, which she agrees to happily (she was worried for a moment she’d be dragged into a hit).  And there’s guys he can call, so he calls them.  Might as well get things lined up.

They’re good guys.  Mike Carlow and Dan Wycza.  They meet up with Parker in Denver.  Seems like Parker hasn’t seen either of them since they took out the Tyler mob in Butcher’s Moon  (they definitely haven’t seen each other since then).  Wycza says it’s been a long time when he meets Carlow (care to specify how long, Dan?). Mike totaled another race car, needs a stake to build a new one.  The hulking muscular Dan just wants to take a break from his pro-wrestling career, stop pretending to get beat up by bleached blondes with big hair and capes (yeah, definitely the Ric Flair era, but that doesn’t narrow things down much, does it?).  Dan himself is a blonde, but given his size, I doubt anyone ever brings that nitpick up with him.

Dan is excited at the possibility of robbing the erstwhile Spirit of Biloxi–he lost some money on that tub.  He says he automatically cased it when he was there, just a professional habit.  Security’s fairly tight, lots of guards, metal detector, bag searches.  The three of them bat around ideas on how to take it, and keep running into roadblocks. For example, how do you get the guns aboard?  How do you get the cash off?  How do you get yourself off?  Parker still doesn’t like boats much–to him, a boat is a prison cell in the middle of the water, where you can be seen for miles.

Parker finally hits on an idea that would involve Lou Sternberg, who we met in Plunder Squad.  He’s just the right type to play a surly anti-gambling state politician.  Parker and Dan can play his bodyguards.  The show is shaping up nicely (No way Grofield wouldn’t be in on this if he were available, so something definitely happened there).  Just have to round out the cast a little.  Maybe an ingenue?

And a river rat.  Parker needs somebody who knows the Hudson between Albany and Poughkeepsie, the route the boat takes every night.  Somebody with his own boat, who isn’t too picky about the jobs he takes.  He gets pointed to an ex-con named Hanzen, in his sixties, a born loser, rueful but resigned with regards to his lot in life (too bad for him this isn’t a Dortmunder novel).

He lives in a town that suits him to a T, and as Parker looks around for him, we get a bit of Stark history.  To some extent, all of New York State is Westlake country, and under any name, he’s never on surer footing when he’s describing it to us, in all its many-splendored grandeur, if you want to call it that.

He was in Hudson today, a town along the river of the same name, another twenty miles north and upstream from Rhinecliff, where he’d met Cathman at the railroad station.  The town stretched up a long gradual slope from the river, with long parallel streets lined like stripes up the hill.  At the bottom was a slum where there used to be a port, back in the nineteenth century, when the whalers came this far up the Hudson with their catch to the plants beside the river where the whale oil and blubber and other sellable materials were carved and boiled and beaten out of the cadavers, to be shipped to the rest of America along the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes and the midwest rivers.

The whalers and the whale industry and the commercial uses of the waterways were long gone, but the town was still here.  It had become poor, and still was.  At one point, early in the twentieth century, it was for a while the whorehouse capital of the northeast, and less poor, until a killjoy state government stepped in to make it virtuous and poor again.  Now it was a drug distribution hub, out of New York City via road or railroad, and for the legitimate world it was an antiques center.

(And perhaps Westlake lived long enough to see the beginning of the next chapter, when Hudson was revitalized by an influx of gay people who discovered it while looking for antiques.  I doubt he’d have been surprised, since we’re told in Backflash that “Being poor for so long, Hudson hadn’t seen much modernization, and so, without trying, had become quaint.”  In 2005, Hudson’s more affluent new residents (of all sexualities) successfully opposed the building of a cement factory there that would have employed a lot of poor people.  Still a fairly large prison facility there, though.  And so the long historical parade of ironies continues in Hudson, except on Gay Pride Day, when there’s a much more enjoyable parade.)

Parker finds Hanzen outside a bar called the Lido, the one paragraph description of which makes me wonder yet again why the hell Westlake never won a Pulitzer (read it yourself, if I put all the good stuff in here, the review would be longer than the book and the estate would be on me like a ton of bricks).   Oh right, it’s crime fiction, I forgot. Not to be taken seriously.  Not like an 80’s novel about the Depression set in Albany (not exclusively Westlake country), mainly centered around a guilty good-natured alcoholic bum on the skids (isn’t that David Goodis country?) with a terse compound word title, that does in fact have a lot of crime and violence in it, and maybe I’ll never understand the rules of the Pulitzer game, but Westlake would be glad they gave an Irishman a break.

To me, this section of the book is more about setting the scene than the action, so let me sum the action up briefly–Hanzen takes Parker to his boat, shows him around the river, they talk in guarded terms about the job. Hanzen says he’d be happy to come pick them up after they do whatever they might be doing there which is absolutely none of his business, but he’s not doing any James Bond rescues, let’s understand that right now.  Parker says he never expects any James Bond rescues, which is kind of funny given what happened the last time he robbed a casino, but never mind.  Hanzen is revealed to be a part-time pot-farmer, growing his product in bags of peat moss cunningly concealed at the river’s edge, and only accessible by boat.  He is also revealed to have some rather disreputable associates who ride Harleys,  cultivate beards and beerguts.  They give Parker the fisheye, and Parker has to tell one of them to move his bike if he doesn’t want to get run over. He moves his bike.

I don’t know this particular stretch of the river terribly well, but I know the Hudson intimately (swimming in something certainly qualifies as intimacy), and love her immoderately, but not blindly.  Pete Seeger wasn’t kidding when he called her a dirty stream.  I walk along certain desolate sections of her with my dog sometimes, stretches of urban shoreline still waiting for the Parks Department to ‘improve’ them, and you just never know what’s going to crop up.  Jury-rigged docks nailed together out of found wood, the corpse of a ten foot sturgeon killed by a boat propeller, flotsam and jetsam from passing ships, all manner of wildlife (not all of it human), and while I personally have never found a dead body, I know people who have.  It’s not uncommon.  At all.  (Oh, and a humpback whale swam under the George Washington Bridge the other day, but I missed it.)

Claire’s research has resolved one mystery about Cathman–his roots are in New England, and a lot of his ancestors were ministers and such.  The old Puritan strain.  That’s why he’s got a bee in  his bonnet about gambling.  There are a lot of very good logical arguments he can employ against it, but Parker knows when it comes to people, emotions are what motivate, not logic.  Emotions and money, and money is winning out where the gambling issue is concerned.  Not enough people in New York with uptight clergymen in their family trees.

Cathman’s consulting business is a polite pretense at continued relevance; he’s getting very little work–just paying his loyal longtime secretary and renting his nicely appointed office with a view of the capital building probably eats up all he makes and more.  Another relic of the past, hanging on for dear life in a tenuous present (you do meet a lot of them in Richard Stark novels).

Stark knows what Cathman’s office looks like because Parker goes there, uninvited, and Cathman isn’t happy about this, but when you entice a wolf with fresh meat, don’t be surprised when he shows up at your door.  Parker wants to goad Cathman, test him, see if he can get at the truth about his motives–but he also needs some information–wants to get the name of a New York politician, not too well-known, who is short, stout, and surly.  Somebody who answers to the same general description as Lou Sternberg.  Cathman has a brief attack of conscience here–he doesn’t want anyone hurt (and yet he is instigating an armed robbery of a crowded pleasure boat).  But he coughs up the name.  Morton Kotkind, an assemblyman from Brooklyn.

Parker meets up with Wycza and Carlow again, this time at a restaurant just above Yonkers, with a nice view of the New Jersey Palisades.  He’s using the Edward Lynch name again.  We don’t find out what names Dan and Mike are using, but under any name, they’re up for a good score.  Lou Sternberg is in, that makes four.  Parker says they need a fifth–a woman.  First time in the series he’s set out to recruit a female heister, but this isn’t your usual smash and grab operation.  They need somebody to play a specific role.  She has to be pretty, appealing, but also she has to be of slight build–somebody who can do Mimi from La Boheme to perfection.  Somebody who looks frail–but isn’t.

It’s actually Mike who brings up Noelle Braselle–he worked a job once with her and her old boyfriend, Tommy Carpenter.  Parker didn’t think of her because he thought she was still working with Tommy, and that would make it a six-way split–hey, things are getting liberated here! Brenda Mackey didn’t get her own share of the take in the last book, and she worked harder than anyone.  Well, I guess that’s because she wasn’t actually there for the heist, just before and after, or maybe there’s some heister rule that married couples are a package deal, but free love is more expensive.  Maybe we don’t need to talk about whether felony larceny is an equal opportunity employer.  (The next cabinet sure won’t be.)

Mike knows something Parker doesn’t–Noelle and Tommy split up.  After they got picked up by the state troopers in Plunder Squad, Tommy got seriously spooked, gave up the racket for good, split to the Caribbean–scared straight.  This actually tracks pretty well with what we saw of Tommy in that book–Tommy mocked those two troopers they had to put on ice during the job, and one of them quietly promised him that he’d be singing a different tune when they got him, and they did.  He had lots of nerve, but the thing about people with nerve is that they’re nervous.  Once they break, they stay broken.  He never wanted to see another State Trooper again in his life.

Noelle has something better than nerve–she’s got class.  Dan isn’t sure if he knows her, and Mike says if he’d ever once met her, he’d remember.  Parker remembers her very well–the one that didn’t crack when the law got her–very sexy, very good at role-playing, very cool under pressure–she’d be perfect.  They have their ingenue.  The play is cast.  Time to get it on the road, work out the kinks (such a pity Grofield wasn’t in on this one).

The job is real to him now–he has the scent of the prey in his nostrils.  There’s definitely something screwy about Cathman, but he can deal with that when it comes (he’s already pretty much assuming he’ll have to kill the guy).  This isn’t about sizing up a potential threat anymore, and it’s clearly not just about the money, since he’s got plenty for now.  It’s about the hunt.  The one thing Parker can’t live without.  And just to prove that it’s fated to happen, this is the very moment their quarry chooses to make its entrance to the happy hunting ground.

Wycza said, “I smell my money.”

They looked at him, and he was gazing out the window, and when they turned that way the ship was just sliding into view from the left.  On the gleaming blue-gray water, among the few sailboats, against the dark gray drapery of the Palisades, it looked like any small cruise ship, white and sparkly, a big oval wedding cake, except in the wrong setting.  It should be in the Caribbean, with Tommy Carpenter, not steaming up the Hudson River beside gray stone cliffs, north out of New York City.

“I can’t read the name,” Carlow said.  “You suppose they changed it already?  Spirit of the Hudson?”

“They changed that name,” Wycza assured him, “half an hour out of Biloxi.”

Parker looked at the ship, out in the center channel.  A big shiny white empty box, going upriver to be filled with money.  For the first time, he was absolutely sure they were going to do it.  Seeing it out there, big and slow and unaware, he knew it belonged to him.  He could almost walk over to it, on the water.

Well, sure.  All it takes to walk on water is faith.  But just to be on the safe side, they’re going to need that river rat and his boat.  And of course there’s going to be a few unforeseen complications, people butting in where they aren’t wanted, amateurs screwing the pooch, and Parker will have to improvise a blue streak when his perfect plan breaks down.  I mentioned this is a Richard Stark novel, right?

Now all I have to do now is deal with the remaining three parts of the book in Part 2, but it worked okay last time.  I sort of assumed this book was longer than Comeback, but in fact I have Mysterious Press editions of both novels (paperback for Backflash), and both come to exactly 292 pages.  But this one is very different, much more detail packed into every page, because it’s set in a very real world that Westlake knows, and loves, and laments.  All at the same time. Whether that time is the early 80’s or the late 90’s.  Or both.  On the river that flows both ways, all things are possible.

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

Review: Comeback

Mackey leaped down beside him, empty hands closed into fists. “Shoot the cocksucker!  What’s the matter with you?”

“No need,” Parker said.  “And a noise could draw a crowd.”

Furious, Mackey said, “Don’t leave him alive, God damn it.”  He acted as though he wanted to pull the shotgun out of Parker’s hands, and was restraining himself with difficulty.

Liss was out of sight now.  The police had finished clearing out of here a little after ten, and the three in the trailer had gone to sleep around midnight, three hours ago, Liss on the sofa in the office, with the money and the guns.  He could have just taken the money and left, but he hadn’t wanted Parker and Mackey behind him the rest of his life.

Apparently Mackey returned the feeling.  “Parker,” he said, “that was a mistake.  We could have afforded a little noise, not to have  him around any more.”

Parker never saw any point in arguing over past events.  He said, “Can you call Brenda?”

And he’s back, just like that.  With no explanations of where he’s been, what he’s been doing all this time, how much time has actually passed.  Well, that’s typical of him.  He hasn’t changed a bit.

And some would say otherwise, that the Parker we see in the final eight novels is qualitatively different from the Parker of the first sixteen.  Softer, they say.  More human.  Well, we humans say all kinds of silly things, playing our games with words, with time.  We’re all obsessed with what used to be, and comparing it to what we have now.  But he’s not one of us, and he doesn’t care what we’re obsessed with.  All he cares about is what he can take from us.  To Parker, something that happened a few seconds ago might as well have happened in the early Cambrian.  While his present is taking place somewhere in the late Pleistocene.  And there is no future, at all, at all.

So no, I don’t think Parker got any softer in the later books.  I think he adapted to a changing environment, certainly.  I agree there are some problems with these books, overall.  Welcome though they are, fascinating though they are, deliciously entertaining though they are, I think they are not quite as good as the ones that came before them.  There are several reasons for this, but most important among them is the fact that you can stretch even the most glorious of anachronisms too far.

Parker was a glorious anachronism from the very start.  Westlake based him to a great extent on figures like John Dillinger–figures from the 1930’s.  Dillinger went down bloody in 1934, almost exactly a year after Westlake was born–maybe seven years after Parker was born, going by references to his age in the books.  For all we know, Westlake fondly imagined Dillinger was Parker’s father, the result of a one-night-stand.  I wouldn’t even want to guess who he imagined the mother was.

But my point would be that even by 1962, the year he walked over the George Washington Bridge to kill Mal Resnick and get his money back from The Outfit, Parker was a relic of a bygone era, and recognized as such by many he came into contact with.  It’s a bit like how later in life, P.G. Wodehouse would hear people saying Bertie and Jeeves were relics of the 1920’s, and he’d say no, they were really more out of the Edwardian era he’d grown up in–by the time they first appeared, they already seemed very dated and twee and out of step with the times, which was part of the joke.  Anachronisms from the very start.  Everything old is new again.

So the challenge for Richard Stark, now that he’s sprung once more full blown from the head of Donald Westlake, is how to make this particular anachronism jibe with the last few years of the 20th century, and the first few of the 21st.  And that’s an interesting problem, on so many levels–you can imagine the creative juices flowing in response to it.  Does Parker make sense anymore?  Does he have a place in this world of digital cash, instantaneous information sharing, phones you carry around in your pocket (more and more of which have cameras in them)?   How far can Parker adapt to all this?  How far does he need to?

Used to be you could walk into a government office without any ID at all, and walk out with a Social Security Card.  Parker gets a driver’s license in the first novel by filling out the form that doubles as the license itself, and then drawing the official stamp onto it with a pen.  A crude forgery–that works fine, as long as nobody looks too closely.  And so few people ever do.

Sure, people can still fake all kinds of things now, steal other people’s identities with a few mouse clicks, but that takes the kind of technical know-how someone like Parker could never master, because his mind doesn’t work like that.  He can’t follow us into the digital world, and he doesn’t want to.  But that world is going to impact him, whether he likes it or not.  He is going to need people who understand how that world works, sometimes.  Whether he likes them or not. And they better hope he does.

Or else they are going to find out in turn that the old wolf knows some really old tricks that will work in any time, any place.  Parker is strictly analog, and the analog world is still the only world that really exists, you know.  The only world that ever will exist, unless you want to get all spiritual and stuff.  That’s the world you’re born into, and it’s the world you’ll die in.  No matter how many lies you tell, no matter how many false identities you fabricate, or steal.  Nobody can ever steal Parker’s identity.  Because only he knows who and what he really is.  We can’t follow him all the way into his world, either.

So that’s the point of the Final Eight–the way they show Parker adapting to the Information Age, but of course he’s been adapting to change ever since we met him.  It’s just harder to write the stories now.  Less room to maneuver.  And there was a certain energy to the 1960’s (and the decades before it)–a mingling of old and new styles, clashes between old and new ways of thinking–you can feel it in just about any form of personal expression in that period.  Obviously we still have those clashes now, but not nearly so clear-cut.  The lines of scrimmage have gotten hopelessly confused.

Westlake can do a lot as a writer, but he can’t keep that old feeling alive once it’s gone.  Him or anybody else working in genre.  Crime fiction is not as good as it used to be.  Fiction is not as good as it used to be. Not saying that to hurt anyone’s feelings, or to rant about how everything sucks now.  Just stating a fact.  Parker hasn’t gotten softer–we have.

But having said all this, I must confess, this first book of the renewed series could almost have taken place in the 60’s, with just a few minor tweaks.  There’s very little sense of social and technological change, other than the recurring problem of where can you find sufficiently large quantities of insufficiently well-guarded untraceable cash?  The target in this case is a revival meeting, convened by a smooth-talking preacher with about as much religious sincerity as a used car salesman–how Elmer Gantry can you get?  Not everything changes, even when you want it to.

And this retro feeling of Comeback probably stems from the fact that Westlake seems to have conceived the book around 1988, right after he finished working on the film adaptation of The Grifters–itself a very anachronistic story, based on Jim Thompson’s experiences in the Depression, moved to the early 60’s (for the novel), then moved again (for the film) to the late 80’s.   A story about how people never change, when you get right down to it.

And there were some scandals in the late 80’s and on into the 90’s, involving famous televangelists, who often held rallies at stadiums (more in the third world than in the U.S., but they did build those mega-churches here eventually), and raised a lot of money, and then spent much of it on cool stuff for themselves, and Westlake saw where Parker might find some ready cash, come up with a working plan.  Now he just had to come up with the inevitable complications to sour that plan.

But by the time he’d finished it, almost ten years had passed.  If he’d finished it just a few years later, he’d have had to write it very differently.  Nobody has a cellphone in this book.  Not even a pager.  Much of the book takes place late at night, in a mid-sized city, a twilight world, full of shadows.  The shadows persist even in full daylight.  One thing that never changes is how long it takes me to get to the synopsis when I’m doing Stark.  Okay, here we go.  Been a while.

This book is not only a comeback, but a throwback, though not completely so.  Butcher’s Moon had abandoned the four part structure that was Stark’s trademark; where the chapter count keeps resetting, and each part has a specific job to do.  The first two parts from Parker’s POV, setting up the central complication of the plot, the conflict to be resolved–then Part 3 moves around, each chapter from a different character’s perspective–and then back to Parker for Part 4 and the wrap-up.

And the point is, to show us Parker’s very clear and focused mind, and contrast it with the frequently more muddied self-deceiving perspectives of the people he’s working with or against.  Comparative psychology.  It still bugs me so many people read these books and don’t see that.  I’ve seen the term ‘psychology free’ used to describe the Parker novels–in more than one language.  Perception free, is what I’d call those readers.  Oh, that was mean.

It’s like that here, except the Part 3 stuff happens in Part 2, and not all of those (mainly very short) chapters stay in the head of just one character, as with the earlier books.  It’s still about comparative psychology, but the lines aren’t drawn so clearly–Westlake playing around with the form again, seeing how far he could stretch it.  Not too far.  But making Part 2 the Part 3 works, since so many of the main characters aren’t in Parker’s string, and we need to meet them a bit sooner this time.

Comeback is a throwback in one other notable way–starting with The Rare Coin Score, all the way back in 1967, Westlake had stopped opening the books with the now-legendary “When such and such happened, Parker did something” motif.  That was the first one he did for Gold Medal, and I couldn’t say offhand if there was a particular reason for him not kicking off the books that way anymore.  Maybe it was his idea, maybe an editor’s suggestion, and he just kept doing it that way once the series moved to Random House.  But now he’s deliberately going back, bringing Parker into the present–and the classic opening of the early Pocket paperbacks returns with him.

When the angel  opened the door, Parker stepped first past the threshold into the darkness of the cinder block corridor beneath the stage.  A hymn filtered discordantly through the rough walls; thousands of voices, raggedly together.  The angel said, “I’m not so sure about this…”

Parker is.  This is a heist, and it’s too late to cancel it on account of cold feet, or pinions, or whatever.  It’s a stadium heist–shades of The Seventh–it also has some marked parallels with the heist in Deadly Edge.  In both those books the heist happens early in the story, doesn’t take up much time, and it’s really all about the aftermath.  But this isn’t a sports event or a rock concert–it’s a very different blend of music and theater and rooting for the old home team–a sort of revival tent meeting writ large, anchored by a charismatic TV preacher, as had become commonplace by the 1980’s.

And what makes it a ripe target for armed robbers, as was the case with the heists in those earlier books is that it’s all cash–no credit cards.   People pay cash to get in, they can give still more once they’re inside if the spirit moves them, and since they’ll be seen giving it by a huge stadium crowd, as well as in a filmed version of the event to be shown on TV later, it most certainly will move many of them.  (Guess their bibles omitted Matthew 6:3–printer’s error?)

(This book is not an expose on the revival racket–that’s just background color– but Westlake was certainly drawing on his research for Baby Would I Lie? here, among other things.  Evangelical preachers have a lot in common with hillbilly balladeers–you know who Jimmy Swaggart is related to, right?  And he’s still reminding his more cosmopolitan readers that there’s an America out there in the hinterlands they might want to pay a bit more attention to.)

The angel’s name is Tom Carmody, his wings are part of a costume, and the way this all came about, we’re told via flashback, is that he works for the ministry of Rev. William Archibald, and he was a true believer in the good Reverend , until he got close enough to the top of the organization to know Archibald was a thieving whoring sumbitch who just happened to have a talent for projecting fake sincerity, and turned it towards preaching the gospel (yes, retrospectively, we may say he set his sights too low).  Elmer Gantry with a TV show.  Parker seems familiar with the type, since he says he thought they were all in jail by now.

One of the things the Archibald ministry does is work with released convicts, and this is how Tom met George Liss, a different flavor of sumbitch, the kind Parker sometimes works with, though never preferentially.  Tom knew what George did for a living, and he started pitching the idea of stealing the proceeds from one of his stadium events, and then Tom could use his share to do real good, instead of just watching Archibald spend it on fancy limos, plush hotel rooms, and big-breasted women.

So Tom is the finger on the job, their man on the inside, and like most amateurs who get into the heavy, he’s a problem.  But not nearly as big a problem as George Liss, and Parker has a bad feeling about this guy, who he’s never worked with before, though they’ve known each other slightly for some time.  He’s skeptical about a stadium heist, says it’ll be just a lot of credit card receipts.

“Not this one,” Liss said, and the left side of his face smiled more broadly.  A sharpened spoon handle had laid open the right side, in a prison in Wyoming, eleven years ago.  A plastic surgeon had made the scars disappear, but nothing could make that side of his face move again, ever.  Around civilians, Liss usually tried to keep himself turned partially away, showing only the profile that worked, but among fellow mechanics he didn’t worry about it.  With the slight slurring that made his words always sound just a little odd, he said “This one is all cash.  Paid at the door.”

For reasons that probably have a lot to do with the IRS, the people who come to these stadium events Archibald holds each have to donate twenty bucks in cash at the door–a ‘love offering’–and they are encouraged, as already mentioned, to give more once they’re inside.  The gate, Brenda Mackey observes, almost sensuously, will be around 400k.  But with the additional love offerings, it could be close to a million (as matters arrange themselves, all they get is the gate–still a nice haul).

The Mackeys, Ed and Brenda, are back in this one, and if all you’d read of this series is the Final Eight, you’d think they played a much bigger role in the First Sixteen.  Ed Mackey, of course, had been seemingly killed at the end of Deadly Edge, and the return of him and Brenda in Butcher’s Moon was never explained in that book.  And here we are, twenty-three years later, and it’s still not explained.  Going to have to wait another five years for that explanation, though if you’re paying attention, you can figure it out from what happens in this book.

With the exception of the book after this one, we really don’t see any of Parker’s more trusted confederates from the First Sixteen in the Final Eight, and the most important ones don’t appear at all.  No Handy McKay, no Alan Grofield, no Stan Devers.  Maybe dead, maybe retired, maybe imprisoned, maybe they missed the time warp and are still back in the early 70’s, but whatever the reason, they did not make the cut.  In other words, Westlake has decided to weed out the fellow heisters Parker had the closest thing to an actual friendship with.  Well, the closest thing to a more than purely professional relationship, put it that way.

So to me, this indicates we’re actually seeing a colder, less accessible, less human Parker in these new books, not a ‘softer’ one.  A Parker who cares about himself, and Claire (rarely seen until the very end), and that’s it.  He sticks his neck out for no one.  We can talk more about this when reviewing upcoming books, but some of Stark’s romanticism has worn a bit thin around the edges since we last saw him.  The novel after this has a bit of an old home week feeling, but after that, when some pro from Parker’s past shows up, it’s generally bad news for whoever that is.  Should have stayed back in the past.  No room at all for sentiment anymore in the Stark Lands, not that there was much to start with.

George Liss is to some extent a reworking of characters like George Uhl–half a pro; dangerous, effective, but always looking for a chance to take it all for himself and kill his partners so they don’t come looking for him afterwards.  A mad wolf. His physical description is quite similar to Uhl’s, (Uhl–Tall and very thin, with receding black hair”  Liss–“a tall, narrow, black-haired man with a long chin”).

I am now realizing that he also closely resembles Parker’s most trusted–and dangerous–associate of all.  “He was long and thin and made of gristle, and his stiff dark hair was gray over the ears.”  Handy McKay.  With half his face frozen.  And no loyalty, to anyone.  And all three men sound rather similar to Westlake himself as a younger man. And to John Dortmunder, of course.  I don’t know what any of this means either.  Back to the synopsis.

In spite of Tom’s jitters, in spite of him having told his girlfriend about the heist, in spite of them only getting about half of what they were hoping, the job is a success.  Almost 400k, split three ways.  Using the old trick of laying low close to the scene of the crime, all three men are holed up in a construction trailer they placed right outside the stadium some weeks before, padlocked and seemingly abandoned.  They just have to wait for the cops to finish checking to see if any of the attendants have the cash, and leave–then stow the cash at a pre-arranged spot, and wait for the roadblocks to be lifted.  It’s that simple, but Parker has learned from hard experience to assume it will never be that simple.

Parker wakes up to find Liss pointing a shotgun at him–which fails to go off. Because Parker unloaded the shotguns when nobody was looking.  Liss makes a run for it, without the cash.  Parker has reloaded the shotgun, is watching him run through the empty parking lot, has a clear shot at his retreating form–and he doesn’t take it.

Ed is disgusted with him.  Parker’s rationale–that gunfire might attract attention, bring the cops back, when they don’t have a car available to them–is that really a sufficient rationale for letting George scarper, when clearly he’s going to go on thinking of that money as his, and will regroup to come after it again?  They’ll have to get rid of the shotguns (too hard to conceal), and they have no other weapons.

We’ve seen this kind of identity puzzle before in these books.  Parker doesn’t always kill when you’d expect him to.  But this is a particularly egregious act of ‘mercy.’  George Liss was working with Parker.  He tried to kill Parker and take Parker’s share of the loot.  That’s a clear and unambiguous death sentence in the world of Richard Stark.  Stark will look into Parker’s mind, just a short time later, and see Parker thinking that he needs to see George Liss dead.  Liss knows very well that Parker will be on his trail the rest of his life, if he doesn’t get Parker first.

So why not take a shot at Liss when he’s unarmed and fleeing?  Granted, a shotgun isn’t the best distance weapon, but even a non-fatal hit would stop him long enough to finish the job.  Liss himself can’t understand why Parker doesn’t shoot–we’re left in no doubt he’d have pulled the trigger with no hesitation, if he were in Parker’s position.  So would Ed Mackey.  So would most guys in their profession.  Shoot first, ask questions later.

So apart from the undeniable fact that the story hangs on George Liss escaping the consequences of his betrayal for the time being–why didn’t Parker pull that trigger?  Because in that moment, the trigger inside his head was only half-pulled.  It was all too sudden.  He hadn’t processed it yet.  Parker only kills when he has to.  Liss is no longer an immediate threat.  Gunfire might attract attention.  Parker’s killing instinct hasn’t been engaged.  If Liss came back a short time later, saying it was all just a big misunderstanding, Parker would cut him down without hesitation.

But this momentary hesitation, mere seconds after George’s failed doublecross, is perfectly in character for him.  He needs to consider what happened, and why, before he takes on another deadly vendetta.  The trigger in his head has to be completely pulled.  Several times we’ve seen him shoot at a fleeing enemy, but these were guys he’d already decided needed to die, whether they ran or not.  It’s not mercy. It’s just how his mind works.

It won’t take him long at all to come to the same conclusion about George Liss, but we can sympathize with Mackey’s frustration–sometimes Parker’s weird instincts can be a liability.  Sometimes it’s better to act quickly–and sometimes it isn’t.  Parker’s strengths are bound up in his weaknesses.  So are Mackey’s–he would never have thought to unload the shotguns.   And Liss never thought to check the gun before he fired it.  Over the long run, it’s better to think before you shoot.

But whether Parker was right or not, they still have to proceed with the plan–when Brenda shows up with their ride, they take their leave–blowing the trailer (and the shotguns) to bits as they go, to remove any forensic evidence that might trace back to them.  The police are drawn to that noise, for sure, but too late.

One final complication–three guys came up to the trailer while they waited, checking it out, then leaving.  They don’t look like law.  Parker thinks to himself they’re dogs who have lost the scent.  As we learn later on, they never really had it to start with.

So they have the cash, they have a car, but they also have a problem–the entire town is in lock-down mode.  Most honest people are in bed.  All the outgoing roads will be watched.  They can’t go back to their motel, because Liss might be there waiting for them.  They can’t check into a new motel in the middle of the night without looking suspicious.  Parker says they need an all-night gas station. Tank is full.  Brenda’s possibly the best getaway driver Parker’s ever worked with, and that’s saying something.

Ed is puzzled.  Brenda figures it out immediately.  Earlier in the book, we hear Parker thinking that he knows why Ed always brings his woman on jobs with him, something Parker never does.  Brenda is the brains of that two-person outfit.  And the single best thing about this book, which I’ll be talking more about next time.

But in the meantime, in-between time, they find that all night gas station (Brenda the Brain spotted it earlier, made a mental note).  It’s by the interstate, so Ed and Parker get out of the car and scope things out–the exits have squad cars parked by them, waiting, but the cops can’t see the station from where they are.  Just before that, Parker thought he saw something, far behind them, in the rear-view mirror, but he wasn’t sure.  Too dark.

Brenda goes in alone, playing the helpless girl with car trouble, and then Parker and Mackey come in, and all of a sudden the kid manning the station realizes they’re taking it over for the night–he’s locked up in a windowless room, with a magazine–and no bathroom.  (Better off than that kid in The Score, a book that resembles this one in many respects–except this kid hadn’t just left his girlfriend’s warm bed, and he’s going to end up with more than just a bad head cold).

The station wagon with the money they park on the hydraulic lift in the garage. Camoflauged.  The station is shut down–with any luck, nobody will wonder why until they’re gone.  In the morning, they can seek alternate lodgings, alternate transportation, wait for the right moment to shake the dust of this town from their feet.  Parker is going to need to find George Liss at some point, but the getaway is still at the top of the agenda.

Ed and Brenda sleep in the car, while Parker naps a little on a chair in the office.   He wakes up right around dawn–there’s a police car outside.  Just one cop. Uniform doesn’t fit him right.  It’s Liss.  He sees Parker.  He unbuckles his gun holster.  Parker is unarmed, unless you count a wrench.  End of Part One.

And end of this Part One as well.  Short book, I can do the rest next time. Actually, the first edition is almost 300 pages, but the print is large, and the pages small–Mysterious Press decided to try to invoke the dimensions of the old paperback originals here, except you’d still need a pretty big pocket to fit this book in.

The cover art for the Final Eight is mainly nowhere near the standard of the First Sixteen, though some of the foreign editions were pretty good, and there is one outstanding exception with regards to the first U.S. editions.  I’ve always been a bit iffy about the concept of Parker as an angel with a shotgun–carried over from the first US edition to the University of Chicago reprint (except now he’s got an assault rifle, which makes no sense at all).  Carmody’s the one with the wings–first fake ones, then the metaphorical kind–or metaphysical.

I like the UK edition with the stadium.  Brief and to the point.  Like Richard Stark.  And so very unlike your average long-winded skirt-chasing televangelist. Well. Glass houses. We all have ’em.  And we’ll be seeing a fair few of them.  Next time.  Bring stones.

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

Review: Baby, Would I Lie?

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It’s too blatant to be a put on, Sara thought.  With that voice, that honky tonk music thudding along in the background, it’s supposed to be taken seriously. Do the fans take it seriously?  What do they think it’s about?  Is this irony, or is it real?  Does Ray Jones know?

I know you’ve heard I did some time in Yuma jail,
And when I left, some girl got stuck to pay my bail;
But with you, babe, I know I’m never gonna fail.
Baby,
Baby,
Baby, would I lie?

“My God,” Sara said, and the sign by the road said Branson in seven miles.

This is the second and final Sara Joslyn novel, marking the end of Westlake’s shortest and last known attempt to create a series character, although I have some doubts as to whether he was actually trying to do that here.  Trust Me On This had been one of his most successful novels of the 1980’s, critically acclaimed, strong sales, lots of foreign editions, audiobook.    That had come out around six years before this one,  and the two standalone novels he’d done since had certainly been much less successful and acclaimed, and good luck trying to make a series out of either of them.

If he’d originally intended for that 1987 novel about a sleazy supermarket tabloid to form the foundation of a franchise, he’d have probably have gotten around to the next one a lot sooner.  And he wouldn’t have rescued the two main protagonists of that book, Sara and her sardonic swain, Jack Ingersoll, from the clutches of The Weekly Galaxy, basically resolving all their major character conflicts, and giving them a happy (if morally equivocal) ending.

So my own feeling is that Westlake needed a solid win that didn’t involve Dortmunder, and had, furthermore, an idea in his head for a story from a branch of the mystery genre that he’d never really done before.   But certainly one he was well familiar with.  Aren’t we all?  I’m speaking of what is sometimes called the Courtroom Drama, though Wikipedia prefers a different term.  Perry Mason country.  Much of the ethos of that mystery-solving, evidence-tampering, dubiously ethical defense attorney pervades this book.

Your typical Westlake protagonist is rarely if ever seen in court–it’s not a milieu he’s likely to feel at ease in.  Westlake never had a lawyer as the hero in one of his books, let alone a judge, though highly capable and professional attorneys often appeared as supporting characters.  There’s two of them in this book, in fact.  But it’s not a book about lawyers.   It’s a book about reporters (same ones we met in the last book), and it’s also a book about a famous country-western singer, and there sure as hell had never been a Westlake protagonist of that profession before, nor would there ever be again.

Back at the start of the decade, Westlake had written the book for a stage musical, Murder at the Vanities, which was never produced.  He had not written the song lyrics, but one might theorize the experience got him curious about what it would be like to try.  In a novel, he wouldn’t be expected to come up with the accompanying tunes, and he could use the lyrics to convey things about the character who had written them, as well as the regional subculture the songs had been written to appeal to.  One of his primary influences, P.G. Wodehouse, had in fact written the lyrics for a whole lot of popular songs.

Wodehouse had also sometimes written stories with spirited and intrepid female protagonists–a habit he probably picked up from his work for the stage.  The Adventures of Sally is one of his efforts in that vein, it was quite popular at the time, and is not today remembered as one of his classics (which to be fair, would be true of most of his prose efforts from that period).

I made a good faith attempt to read it before giving up, and my impression was that Wodehouse likes his spunky heroine too much to make fun of her, which is deadly to comedy.  That he could write devastatingly funny female supporting characters of all ages and backgrounds is attested to by many subsequent novels and stories.  He’s pulling his farcical punches with Sally.   He’s made her too perfect.  Yes, this is foreshadowing.

At some point, for unknown reasons, Westlake got interested in the country music scene just then starting to blossom in Branson, Missouri.  (That he spent some time there scoping out the scene is attested to by the dedication to some friends resident in Branson, whose social lives he does not wish to ruin by naming them in print).

Branson’s not so much a poor man’s Nashville as a southern-fried Vegas, only without the casinos (they have them now in abundance, I believe).  By the early 90’s, many established talents (primarily but by no means entirely country-western singers) who were getting a bit long in the tooth, and tired of the road, were setting up shop there, opening theaters and doing daily shows.  Instead of them going to the fans, the fans could come to them, which they did, in vast teeming multitudes.  And still do.

Westlake had spent a lot of time over the past two decades analyzing the strange foreign cultures of other lands–but as a New Yorker, of course, there could be no culture more foreign to him than that of rural southern America.  These people, as he saw it, were being roundly ignored by the urban opinion makers, and yet here they were anyway, paying taxes and voting in national elections and everything.  And what movie stars are to most of us, country stars were (and are) to them. Sacred Monsters.

Yeah, he’s revisiting a lot of the ideas from that savagely cynical satire here.  But you ask me, this is the most cynical book he ever wrote by a considerable margin.  It’s a glass of sweet tea with an acid chaser.   You may never quite get the taste of Bac-O Bits out of your mouth after reading it.

A famous country singer suspected of murder is nothing new–Columbo had done that years before, with none other than The Man in Black himself (who happily never had to stoop to playing daily matinees in Branson, though he’s probably been impersonated there as often as Elvis) as a rather less sophisticated foil for Peter Falk than was the norm on that show.

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But of course, as with any Columbo, that story begins by showing us not only who did it, but how and why and everything.  Westlake is playing a variation on the usual mystery game here.  It’s not a whodunnit, or even a howdunnit.  It’s a whodint.   And having said that, maybe it’s time the opening act winds down, and the headliner gets on stage, before the audience starts tearing up the seats.

Having kicked off the proceedings with a selection from Sonnet 110, and William Watson’s tersely titled To, we rejoin the beauteous Sara, working a solo gig now, driving into Branson from the airport in a rented car, there to cover the Ray Jones murder trial for Trend (The Magazine For The Way We Live Right Now, in case you’d forgotten).  She’s listening to one of his songs on the radio, and elsewhere so is Ray Jones himself, but he tells somebody to turn it off, because he’s heard it already.

The murder victim was Belle Hardwick, an employee at Ray Jones’ Country Theater, who was found beaten and raped and strangled and drowned in a nearby lake, with various circumstantial evidence tying the murder to her employer.  Ray Jones being a celebrity, what would normally be a minor local trial has blossomed into a major national story.

(Do I need to mention that this entire book was written and handed in to the publisher before Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were found murdered in June of the year it saw print?  I suppose I just did, and this is a very different story in a very different setting, but there’s one moment where Ray actually says “If I did it,” and of course the ghostwritten book of that title was well over a decade away, so–spooky).

Chapter 2 is all Ray (as are many others, he’s at least as much the protagonist here as Sara), and he’s remarkably calm under the circumstances, still doing shows at his theater, talking to his first-rate criminal attorney (increasingly vexed and perplexed by his client’s behavior), musing over the irony that basically everybody in his life is saying that he should keep his songs playing on the radio during the trial, but all for entirely different reasons.

The reason that particularly irks him is that presented by Leon “The Prick” Caccatorro (Ray’s nickname for him, and highly evocative it is), an IRS agent tasked with squeezing every last possible dime of revenue out of Ray, who made some ill-advised financial decisions some time back, and has been paying through the nose for it ever since.  Leon wants Ray’s songs to stay on the radio during the trial so Uncle Sam can keep siphoning away at Ray’s royalty checks.

(Sidebar: Just how bad were Westlake’s own problems with the dreaded Taxman?  Years before, he’d dedicated an entire novel to ‘the guys and gals at the IRS,’ hinting that he’d written it just to pay a tax penalty, but was the matter that simply resolved?  Let’s just say that there’s a level of empathy here with the sadly necessary duties of your average ‘revenooer’ that in Mr. Westlake’s body of work as a whole is normally reserved for brutal corrupt policemen, unethical psychiatrists, and the very very wealthy).

One charge aimed at this novel by some critics (overall, the book got great reviews, but the NY Times sneered once more at the efforts of Gotham’s native son to do anything other than funny heist books set in New York) is that it becomes clear, very early on, that Ray probably did not kill Belle Hardwick (or this other associate of his who turns up dead just before the trial begins, whose demise the authorities want to pin on Ray as well, just for lagniappe).

As was usually the case with a Westlake mystery, the identity of The Real Killer is not remotely the point.  The real mystery is why Ray seems to want people to think maybe he did murder Belle, why he’s repeatedly sabotaging his own cripplingly expensive and beautifully orchestrated defense, to the disgust and dismay of two two savvy superior shysters busting their legal asses to save his, and if you’re paying close attention, the answer isn’t that hard to figure out.  But that’s not really the point of of the exercise.

The point is figuring out who Ray Jones really is, what’s going on under that folksy facade he’s created to fool the world, and Sara Joslyn (who already figured out who she was in the last book, and we learn nothing new about her in this one) is there merely as our entry point to that identity puzzle, along with the hillbilly Wonderland that is Branson; Alice through the looking glass, and Ray’s the Cheshire Cat, grinning to himself, and fading out of sight every time you take a close look.

So I liked this book better the second time through, probably because I wasn’t saddled with a lot of false expectations of what it would be about, but that doesn’t make me any more inclined to do a real synopsis.  There’s not a whole lot of story here.  It’s all about sly trenchant observations of the passing scene, and a handful of quirky complex characters, and I don’t need to synopsize much to talk about that.  I don’t need a Part 2, either.

Anyway, I could only find two covers worth highlighting–first time I ever didn’t have the first edition cover up top in a review, because it’s pretty lame–the audiobook used the first edition artist’s complete drawing, while the Mysterious Press cover weirdly focuses in on the guitar in that drawing, which isn’t germane to anything, since the only time Ray ever tells the truth is when he’s playing that guitar.  The Rivages/Noir edition predictably went with Cherchez La Femme, not that I’m complaining. The mere fact there was an audiobook makes me think this probably sold pretty well (though probably less than Trust Me On This).  But what’s actually on sale here?

The main story, at least on the surface of things, is Sara Joslyn managing to embed herself into the Ray Jones defense, sitting in on his trial, going to see his show, intrigued by his talent and the redneck subculture that spawned it–and it’s clear from the outset that she’s been given a ringside seat (it’s actually The Elvis Seat, explanation further down) to observe the goings-on, because Ray wants her there.  He believes he can make use of her, and it’s not entirely clear how, but he’s got a plan, and he’s sticking to it, come hell or high water.

She’s so enraptured by this cultural experience that she sends a somewhat starry-eyed preliminary story back to New York, which arouses the concern of her editor/lover, who heads down to Branson to make sure she hasn’t gone totally native (and to give her a fond hello in the process).  She’s fine with him being after her body, but he better not be telling her how to do her job.  She hasn’t forgotten who she is, and she believes she’s found a great angle for the story, as indeed she has.

Jack’s got his own agenda, which is to do that dreaded Galaxy-type expose on the Galaxy itself–his own personal Moby Dick.  He’s never forgiven that pernicious publication for making a whore out of him all those years, and the fact that Bruno (‘Massa’) DeMassi is no longer among the living (we’re told his loyal staff laughed itself to tears for hours after the news broke) makes no never mind to him.

And of course, Generoso Pope Jr., Massa’s prototype, founder of the National Enquirer and Weekly World News, had expired in 1988, so this is art imitating death.  “Massa in de cold cold ground,” their old friend and colleague Binx Radwell observes solemnly.  But the Weekly Galaxy is very much alive, now controlled by what seems to be an even more diabolical consortium of financial interests (strike off one head, and many grow in its place), so Jack can only say “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale.” Words to that effect.

So there’s Sara doing her story, Jack doing his, and in the odd moments in-between, they talk a little about their relationship, but there’s really not much of a story there at all.   Sara wants Jack to tell her what’s wrong with her, that she’s with a guy who is clearly never going to recover from the emotional traumas he underwent before she ever met him, to which Jack responds “After a close look at the X rays and the test results, I’m afraid I have to tell you the reason you’re staying with me is because you love me. Sorry.”  Sara says she was afraid it was something like that, and that’s really all there is to the Jack/Sara thing in this book, because that story got told in its entirety in the last book.  And this is why a sequel to His Gal Friday would have been a really bad idea, folks.

A much more interesting story is told about Jack’s perennially jealous friend, and Sara’s hopelessly lustful admirer, Binx Radwell, who was rather a pitiable figure in the last book, and begins as one here, but he doesn’t end that way.  One of the most interesting identity puzzles in the book is Mr. Binx, who decides he’s had enough of being a henpecked husband to his spiteful spouse Marcy, and consequently a fearful wage slave of the Galaxy, burning through each huge paycheck as soon as he cashes it, and knowing each paycheck could be the last.

His identity crisis comes to a head when he makes a desperate and doomed attempt to seduce Sara while they’re having dinner, and the seduction turns into a confessional (as they so often do), and this is the single best passage in the book, by far.  Painfully funny, painfully true.  And really, who but a man who had to get married three times to get it right could have written this?  Well, maybe a woman who went through the same damn thing from the other side, but only a man would write it quite this way.

“The thing is, we were too young when we got married, we didn’t know our own minds, we didn’t know who we were.  I’m not blaming Marcie, I think it’s just as tough on her as it is on me, and she’s stuck just the same way I am. And now with the kids, you know, and that drives us even further apart.  We were just kids ourselves, somebody should have told us, ‘Don’t do it!  Find out who you are first, don’t tie yourself down before you even tested those wings.” I’m not blaming Marcie, I know it’s hell on her, too, and she’s got the kids more than I do.  We came together and we thought it was love, you know, love for the ages, but what did we know?  It was just sex, that’s all.  We were just kids, and sex was like a new lollipop, you know, in those days we couldn’t keep our hands off each other, and then the kids started coming.  I’m not blaming Marcie, we made all the decisions together, but we were wrong. What did we know? Nothing.  We were in college, and her folks were all over her to marry me, and my folks were just as bad.  I’m not blaming them, it was our own decision, but we weren’t ready to make a decision, neither of us.  I’m not blaming Marcie, I’m as responsible as she is.  More.  It was up to me to be the mature one, and I just wasn’t.   And then the Galaxy job came along, and the money looked so good, and we just spent it, we just bought stuff, and everything you buy it winds up you still owe on it, we’ve got all these mortgages, and paying off the cars, paying off the furniture, paying off the swimming pool, paying off all this stuff.  I’m not blaming Marcie, I wanted that stuff as much as she did, or almost as much.  But it means we’re stuck again, all over again.  The kids, and all the debts, and when I was fired for a while we really fell behind, taking out loans and I don’t know when we’re gonna get caught up.  I’m not blaming Marcie, it’s the whole lifestyle, you get it, you spend it, you know how it is at the Galaxy, the money isn’t real, so you spend it as soon as it comes in, and then you’re behind the eight ball, and you don’t know what the hell you’re gonna do.  You’re stuck, that’s all.  You and Jack were right to get out, you really were, but I’m stuck in it.  I got Marcie, and the kids, and the house, and the cars, and the pool, and all this stuff, but I can’t make a move.  I wanted life, you know?  And I got the Sargasso Sea.  I’m not blaming Marcie, but if only I could get away from her at some point, find somebody that understands me, has confidence in me, faith in me, I know I could turn my life around, get out from under all this shit.  And I have to tell you, I’m not blaming Marcie, but she’s no help at all, she doesn’t try to save any money, give me any encouragement, act like she’s gonna stand by me, you should have heard her when I was fired for a while, no support, nothing. And sex. On a good day our sex is down to something that looks like an illustration in a plumbing manual, but when I was fired for a while it was hopeless, she had Krazy Glue in there, I swear I couldn’t–”

“Maybe,” Sara interjected, “you shouldn’t tell me about your sex life.”

But he does anyway.  And of course he does not get Sara into bed, but on the plus side, he doesn’t have to spring for a therapist, and I assume they can both charge dinner to their expense accounts.

A bit earlier in the book, he and Jack have a talk, and Binx both admires and resents Jack, and Jack both pities and despises Binx, and one is reminded of what Parker said in The Rare Coin Score–“You know how you make pity?   One jigger guilt, one jigger contempt.”   But Binx is no Billy Lebatard–he’s got a score of his own in the works, and when Jack tells him he has to accept that Marcie is his wife, and the Galaxy is his job, and then he’ll be happy, Binx responds, with quiet desperation, “no, I won’t, Jack.  No.  I won’t.”

He can’t be happy with this identity, so he’s going to find a new one.  No matter what it takes.  No matter who it hurts.  Much as he’s not a great artist, or any kind of artist, he can understand as well as anyone that Somerset Maugham’s Charles Strickland meant precisely what he said–“When a man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly: he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown.”

So using a vast dossier he’s compiled of the ‘journalistic’ misdeeds of many a Galaxy employee (Jack included) Binx sort of half bribes/half blackmails Jack into getting him a job doing a story on the new Post-Soviet Eastern Europe for Trend.  He doesn’t want a lot of money (he knows now what a trap that can be), and he’s got the journalistic creds (which in themselves were never enough for him to get a job anywhere but the Galaxy, after he’d worked at the Galaxy).   He’ll leverage his credentials to get a job there with some other media outfit, and he’ll find his own Sara to ‘mentor’ (maybe Czech, maybe Polish, Hungarian girls are lovely), and when Jack asks him what about Marcie and the kids, he says “Who?”

And angry as he is about the blackmail, Jack is still perversely proud of him, and probably Sara is as well.  You see what I mean about this being a really cynical book.   And you could argue that Binx is more the hero of this book than either Jack or Sara.  But still not as much as Ray Jones.

Ray was born dirt poor in a little town in Georgia, by the name of Troutman (I checked–it really exists, not too far from a town called Benevolence–sometimes I think people give Faulkner too much credit; he didn’t have to stretch things all that much, writing about the south).  He gives a sort of humble/proud version of his upbringing to the press, but he’s under no delusions in the privacy of his calculating mind–he was the runt of a very large litter, and nobody gave two shits about him.  But he made a loyal (if rather dull-witted) friend there, Cal Denny, who he’s kept around ever since, and who will do pretty much anything Ray asks of him.  A more pliable less calculating version of Buddy Pal from Sacred Monster.   But Ray Jones’s best friend has always been Ray Jones.

Born hungry, Ray was hungry his entire life,  but he’d never let the hunger show.  He was hungry for food, for love, for success, for ease, for safety, for money, for women.  He was born hungry for everything.  Fortunately, he’d also been born smart.

Indirection.  Guile. Use your brains.  Use the other guy’s strength.  Get what you want without anybody noticing you wanted it, or they’ll take it away from you.

And he was also born with a lot of genuine musical talent, which he developed with damned little help from anyone in his formative years, because he knew he needed something to make people pay attention to him.  If he’d been born somewhere else, into a different subculture, maybe he’d have become a writer of crime fiction.

Westlake the jazz buff is anything but unappreciative of country-western music, and the people who make their living playing it.  He makes it very clear how much he admires them, and that fascination with their world, and their professionalism, enlivens this book.  But he rather thinks many of its fans are not fully aware of just how good these troubled troubadours of theirs really are–because for them it’s less about the music these people make than it is about living through them.

Country-music fans don’t envy or begrudge the material success of the performers, and that’s because they don’t see country stars as being brilliant or innovative or otherwise exceptional people (which they are), but firmly believe the Willie Nelsons and Roy Clarks are shitkickers just like themselves, who happened to hit it lucky, and more power to them.  It means anybody could hit it lucky, including their own poor sorry selves, so these people, most of whom could lean down and rest their Coke cans on the poverty line, took vicarious pleasure in the overt manifestations of their heroes’ lush rewards.

If you get nothing else out of this book, you get a sense of how good a lyricist Donald Westlake might have been if he’d gone down a different road.  Though for the life of me, I can’t imagine him in a cowboy hat.  He wants us to respect what Ray Jones has accomplished, and at the same time, to understand that there’s always this dishonesty in what he writes, since he’s writing for people who want to be told, against all evidence to the contrary, that they are the only people in the world who matter.

New York sure is a great big city
Blow it up, blow it up;
Los Angeles is kinda pretty,
Blow it up, blow it up.

Oh, I don’t go to Washington D.C.,
Those marble halls are not the place for me;
They tell me San Francisco’s kinda gay,
I’m telling you that I will stay away.

Chicago is a toddlin’ town,
Knock it down, knock it down;
And Boston has got great renown,
Knock it down, knock it down.

Oh the country is the only place to be,
A silo’s the tallest thing I want to see;
I’m a country boy, my heart is in the land,
I’m a country boy, I think this country’s grand.

Jack is in ‘The Elvis Seat’ (a seat they save at Ray’s theater for an Elvis impersonator who is part of the show) when Ray sings this, and he tells Sara he took it kind of personal.  Sara tells him it’s about the tribal unit, defining who’s in and who’s out.  But we the readers have been made to know Ray Jones himself doesn’t really identify with his audience at all–sees them for the hicks and suckers they are, playing their prides and prejudices like a steel guitar, while wanting them to go on loving him, because that’s how he survives.  Except now he has to make them think maybe he’s a murderer.  Knowing full well that in showbiz, those who love you today can rip you to shreds tomorrow.  It’s a calculated risk.  With Sara as his failsafe device.

He’s got two very smart lawyers–his personal attorney (and friend), Jolie Grubbe, who strikes up a tense friendship with Sara (who she’d like to ban from Ray’s bus and the courtroom, for all that she admires Sara’s gumption)–and his brilliant criminal attorney, Warren Thurbridge.   Both are horrified when Ray insists on testifying on his own behalf in court, opening himself up to cross-examination–and Ray insists.  There’s really very little in the way of evidence against him.  All he has to do to get off scot-free is nothing–and that’s the last thing in the world he’s going to do.

And just as he expects (not that he’d admit it), the prosecutor hits him with a song he hasn’t sung in a long time, written after his marriage fell apart–that shows a darker side of Ray than he’s wanted to admit to in a while, along with a streak of misogyny a mile wide.

I’d like to tell you how I feel,
And what I think is my ideal.

Her face is like an angel’s is, but the devil’s in her eyes,
She dances like a panther, with lightning in her thighs.

She’s Ali Baba’s treasure room, all without a lock,
And she turns into a pizza at three o’clock.

There’s more, but you get the gist.  And the kicker is, the murder victim is estimated to have died just around 3:00am in the morning.

Now is this evidence of anything at all (other than a predictable streak of misogyny)?  Of course not.  But when you’re on trial for murder, you are on trial for murder–your public identity, the way people perceive you, is on trial, much more than the facts of the case.   All the more if you’re famous.  The prosecution hasn’t proven beyond any kind of doubt that Ray Jones murdered Belle Hardwick, but Ray has given them the ammunition to make it seem like he’s exactly the kind of man who’d have turned her into a pizza at three o’clock.  And he goes out of his way to make comments about her rather notoriously loose sexual behavior that everybody who knew her would have agreed with while she was alive, but that’s hardly the point now.

I mean, Fatty Arbuckle didn’t rape anybody, he was the same person the day after that wild party where a young girl died as he was the day before, but the same crude anarchic destructive boyish behavior that people had laughed at before in his films looked sinister now, in light of the accusations against him. He was acquitted by his peers, and banished from the movies. And that trial was in L.A.  This one’s in the Show Me state, and people have been shown something they’d forgotten about this guy–that he can be one nasty son of a bitch.

If you’ve come down this far in the review, you obviously don’t care about spoilers, so here’s the answer to this mystery–Ray has proof he didn’t murder Belle–he has proof of who really did it.  But he wants the IRS to think he’s going to be executed for Murder One, so they’ll accept a deal he offered–either they take half of his royalties from what he’s already created, or half of what he’s going to create in future.  And they were going to take the latter, since that’s the more lucrative end over time, but he’s made it seems like his time’s up, so they take the former.  He’s conned his own lawyers, the state of Missouri, and the Federal Government.  And now he just has to con Sara Joslyn.  And that’s where it all falls apart.

Sara’s led right to the videotape that proves somebody else murdered Belle, stashed in Ray’s house.  And she figures out right away–she’s being used–because the tape will have more credibility coming from her.  Ray Jones wasn’t covering up for a friend–he was using a sordid tragedy that destroyed two human lives in order to free himself from the toils of taxation (not to mention costing the taxpayers a fortune in the process).  She grabs the tape out of Cal Denny’s hand, and drives away with it.  And tells no one about it.  Perry Mason would be proud.

But to me, it’s not an entirely satisfying ending.   Sara relents, of course.  She blackmails Ray into giving a lot of money to the local hospital, and he agrees, with grudging admiration.  She wasn’t going to let him go to the gas chamber for something he didn’t do.  But what she’s doing, of course, is anything but ethical. And she gets a nice exclusive for herself into the bargain.   “No losers, Ray,” Sara said, pleased with herself.  And why not?  “Everybody wins.”

Again, we see she’s the hungriest shark in the tank.  In many ways, she never really left the Weekly Galaxy.  She’s just doing the same thing at a more respectable level than before.  And how are we supposed to feel about this? About the same way we felt about the end of the last book–like maybe in this world it really is just about who wins and who loses, and nothing else.  We’ve certainly seen no indication to the contrary in this story.  But the difference is that now we know for sure–even with true love, even with Massa dead, even with the Galaxy perhaps exposed to all the world for exactly what it is–nothing’s changed, and nothing’s going to change.  The acid in that sweet tea has a real kick, don’t it?

The line isn’t between good and evil here, but rather professional and  unprofessional.  Ray Jones is a professional at what he does, his lawyers are superbly professional, Sara and Jack and even Binx are all solid pros at what they do, and nobody gives a shit about right and wrong–the only thing that makes the Galaxy reporters different is that they don’t pretend to care–and the lawyers prosecuting Ray are such a bunch of dullards, one of the Aussie Trio poses as a reporter from The Economist, and gets away with it for most of the trial.

There’s a whole subplot in the book about a ‘Shadow Jury’ Ray’s defense hires to try and figure out how best to influence the real one, and this was and still is a real thing, and they’re even premiering a network series about it this fall, and the guy manipulating juries for possibly guilty people is the hero.  And I hope to hell it meets the fate of most network primetime shows in recent years, but who knows?  Who really cares about right and wrong these days?

Donald E. Westlake did.  This I believe.  Much as he’d long written about protagonists whose only morality was professional in nature, there’s quite a difference between an amoral armed robber who doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of him, and an amoral journalist who thinks of herself as a nice person.  Donald E. Westlake believed there was much more to life than winning. But he was in a dark mood when he wrote this, and he clearly identified a lot with Ray’s cynicism in particular–with a talented songwriter who has to hide his real feelings, because nobody wants anything deep from him, they just want to be flattered and entertained.

Nothing wrong with a dark story, but this is a dark story that is light on the surface, and he doesn’t pull that tricky balancing act off nearly as well with this story as he had with the previous Joslyn book.  Maybe that’s why he never wrote another one.  But I think it’s mainly that like Wodehouse, he couldn’t bring himself to go all out in showing Sara’s own inner darkness.  He liked her too much, she was one of his perky blonde ingenues, and he’s proud of her achievements, but what are they, precisely?   To be played for a patsy, and then to figure it all out in one rather unconvincing flash of insight (and to be sure, Perry Mason did that all the time, so double standard much?).

Now I’m not blaming Sara, she’s an enjoyable character, and she deserved a chance to solve the mystery on her own this time without Jack’s help, and the book is fun to read and all, but it seems like a lot of work for too small a reward, and it might have worked better to just concentrate more on the identity puzzle of Ray Jones.  I’m not blaming her, really, she’s got some great moments in this book, Westlake kind of enjoyed being a girl I think, and endowing his surrogate female self, his blonde bubbly Brenda Starr, with every quality, but maybe just a wee bit of a Mary Sue, not that it’s her fault, I am not blaming Sara, I hope you understand that, because I wouldn’t want to have to repeat it seven or eight times in one run-on paragraph, but while this book is worth reading once, or even twice, it’s not going down as one of his best novels, or even as his best novel about Sara Joslyn, but can we blame her for that?  Of course not.  How dare you even imply that. Shame on you.

There’s a scene in the middle of the book where Sara is telling Jack off for surprising her at her motel in the middle of the night, and all of a sudden she makes a face, because she’s noticed this unpleasant taste in her mouth–she realizes that she’s had to eat at the local restaurants for days now, and they all put Bac-O Bits, artificial bacon, in everything.  The Redneck’s garlic, she calls it. Now that she mentions it, Jack can taste it too.  An aftertaste that is not easily shaken, and while the ins and outs of this book could have easily taken up a much longer review, I hope you understand, I’m ending this one here, because I’m hoping the next book in our queue will help dispel it.

Mind you, there’s plenty of cynicism in that book as well, but there’s much else besides; an entire universe of wry empathetic observational humor, though the center of that universe is rather uniquely challenging to observe.  Westlake went back to his roots in more ways than one with it, and much as the romance in Baby, Would I Lie? is perfunctory and half-hearted at best, it’s at the very center of what can only be called Westlake’s last serious foray into science fiction–and his only true epic in that genre.  An homage to H.G. Wells, but maybe to Ralph Ellison as well.  Because if nobody can see you–who the heck are you?

And I just have to do one little piece before I get to that, to set it up.  And to give me time to finish rereading it.   And to find the antidote to Bac-O Bits.  Blech.

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Bonus Feature: Who Loots The Looters?; The Genesis of Charley Varrick

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” ‘Charley Varrick, Last of the Independents.’ I like that. Has a ring of–finality.”

I should probably explain.

Donald E. Westlake had no role whatsoever in the writing or production of Charley Varrick.  It was not based on anything he’d written.  I don’t know if the people responsible for this movie ever read any of Westlake’s heist books, though given that it came out the same year as John Flynn’s adaptation of The Outfit, it’s a safe bet they knew his name.  I don’t know if John H. Reese, the author of the novel this movie was very loosely based on was familiar with Westlake’s work in the crime/heist genre, but there’s reason to think he was.  Reese was mainly known for westerns, and wrote very little in the overall mystery field (The Looters was his first crime novel, and he only wrote one more), so Westlake probably didn’t read much or any of him, but you never know.

Here’s the thing–I’ve loved this movie for a good while now.  It’s probably my favorite film ever made in this genre.  Not just my personal favorite–I think it’s the best.  I think Don Siegel, the guy who made it, was the greatest director of crime flicks who ever exposed a negative (it’s him or John Huston).  And I’ve been curious for a while now about what the novel this film adapts is like.  And now I know.

The first edition hardcover is from Random House–1968–Westlake was still publishing there under his own name, but not for much longer.  Coe was still around, and Stark would show up there soon enough, so yeah, Westlake and Reese would presumably each have had at least some inkling of the other’s existence.

A good first edition of The Looters (or even a crap one) will run you well over a hundred bucks online. The paperback, making its futile misguided attempt to entice Mario Puzo readers, is ugly, and not cheap.  I decided to go with interlibrary loan–the copy on my desk hails from a public library upstate.  It has to go back soon.  So I figured I better write this now.  (Also, I’m still rereading the next Westlake novel in the queue–try to get that review done by sometime next week.)

It’s really hard to say why some books get bought up by Hollywood and some don’t.  If this had been any kind of bestseller,  if it had done even reasonably brisk sales, copies wouldn’t be so expensive now.    The high price for used copies nowadays probably stems from relatively high demand (because of the movie) combined with relatively low supply (due to average sales for the genre and publisher, and the fact that a lot of copies have not survived the decades).

Doesn’t seem anything John Reese ever wrote (and he wrote a lot) has made it to Kindle. Completely out of print, in all formats. But somebody bought the rights to The Looters, probably not long after it came out (conceivably before it came out), and it wasn’t the first time Reese had tapped into that well.  Three of his short stories in the western genre had been adapted, one into a movie with Fred MacMurray.

But for many who went to school in a certain era, the book below would be what they remembered him for–won him an award.  I remember reading it myself as a kid.  Good story.  Mind you, back then I’d read pretty much anything with a dog  on the cover.

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Also out of print.  Because stories about ranchers ruthlessly exterminating wolves with the help of really big dogs (not in the frontier days, there’s cars and electricity and tourists passing through) just ain’t gonna play in most parts of the country anymore, nor should they.  Old Yeller can still get away with it, because he’s protecting his family (and the wolf was rabid).  And because that book is much better written and illustrated.   But see who the hero is here?  Not the wolf–one of Life’s true independents, and among the last ones too, on that range (you might say they’ve made a comeback since then).  Nope, the dog is the hero.  A canine cop, out to eradicate the independents.  Hmm.

The screenplay for Charley Varrick is credited to Howard Rodman and Dean Riesner, but in reading Don Siegel’s account of the making of this movie in his credit-by-credit professional memoir, A Siegel Film,  I learned that the two never worked together on it.  Rodman had been tasked with writing a script based on the book for Universal, years before, and nobody liked it much (probably stuck closer to the book), so the project languished in development.

Siegel took an interest in it, and hired Riesner, who had worked with him on his previous film at Warner Brothers, Dirty Harry, which had of course been a box office sensation, and presumably that gave Siegel a bit more leeway to do what he wanted here than he usually had.  I’m tempted to say he felt lucky, but that would be so obvious.

He tried to get his buddy Clint Eastwood, who he’d just finished turning into a  legit A-List star, interested in playing the lead–the lead being a bank robber who gets away with it.  Eastwood, who thought the world of Siegel, turned him down flat.  He didn’t like the character–said he had no ‘redeeming qualities.’  Yeah, looking at his list of roles, before and since, I don’t know what he meant by that either, but I’m guessing he just figured the movie wouldn’t do that well (he was right too), and he was just getting some real traction in the biz.  I like Clint’s movies and all (even some of the ones he made himself).  He has long struck me as being a character with few redeeming qualities away from the film set, but anyway he photographs nice.

So instead of the combative macho camaraderie that generally prevailed between Eastwood and Siegel, who I get the impression never tired of putting each other through various forms of hell, Siegel had to work with Walter Matthau–who had, in fact, made his own movie about a bank robber, years before–one who didn’t get away with it, who met with the traditional fate of movie heisters.  Interesting film, shot in a near-documentary style, not very good, pops up on TCM now and again.  He must have enjoyed the experience.  Met his wife on that movie, too, and she looks quite enjoyable indeed.   Marriage lasted.  No Eastwood, he.

But he put Siegel through a few kinds of hell also.  Siegel loved everything Matthau did in front of the camera, and said he was a pain in the ass to deal with once the camera stopped rolling.  Did not understand the script.  Did not understand the character.  And apparently, he didn’t need to.  Because he just was the character.

Lalo Schifrin, the Argentinian composer best known for the Mission Impossible theme, who had also worked on Coogan’s Bluff and Dirty Harry with Siegel, did the score. He and Siegel had a rare rapport, and Siegel talks with pure admiration of the way Schifrin figured out how to put music over the climactic biplane vs. muscle car scene in the movie, the kind of scene you normally never put music over, because it gets in the way, but somehow Siegel felt like this one needed it.

Michael C. Butler was the cinematographer–his first big gig.  His dad was close friends with Siegel.  His mother died just before shooting started. Siegel told him to go home, they’d delay shooting, he said no way, his mom would want him to work.  You getting the impression this was less like a film set than a family reunion?  (With Matthau as the cranky eccentric uncle everybody’s a bit in awe of, but not Siegel, because he was used to stars, and knew how to wrangle them.)

As was increasingly typical for many of his better, more polished, individual films–the ones he cared most about–Siegel was his own producer.  He always liked that.  Cleaner.  Simpler.

So you mainly had a group of people who knew each other very well, understood each other, could communicate without much difficulty, and since Siegel was the producer, no suits getting in the way most of the time.   And no real star egos, except Matthau, who might kibbitz a bit, make a bunch of suggestions that wouldn’t work (because, I’d posit, he’d made his own bank robber movie, and it hadn’t turned out great, and he was trying to impose all the ideas he’d never been able to execute properly in his film on this film)–but he was all pro once the director yelled action.

(Lee Marvin could have maybe been an even better Charley, except he’d have been more dangerous, less cerebral.  It would have to be a different story, that would end with a fight, not a ruse.  Siegel had, of course, directed Marvin in a made-for-TV adaptation of The Killers [that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Hemingway story], and I’d talk about that here, but Lady, I Haven’t Got The Time.)

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Great supporting cast, of course.  Joe Don Baker (his best performance ever, I think) as a Dixie-accented hitman.  Richard Vernon as a smooth unctious frontman for the mob.  Sheree North as a sly slatternly photographer who doesn’t impress easy.  And Felicia Farr as Sybil Fort, the Vernon character’s shrewd secretary/mistress, who implausibly but delightfully ends up ‘boxing the compass’ in a round bed with Varrick.  And the weird thing about that was that in real life she was married to Matthau’s buddy Jack Lemmon, and somehow it doesn’t seem fair that Lemmon never got to do a relaxed intimate grown-up sex scene with Matthau’s wife, but they do seem to be enjoying themselves.

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Siegel claimed he believed every picture he ever made would be a hit, even though he knew in practice that you just never knowCharley Varrick was a flop.  Siegel’s alibi was that Matthau had been badmouthing the movie to every reviewer he talked to (what else would you expect from an independent?), but it hardly seems likely that would have made the difference between a hit and a flop.  A flop and a marginal success, maybe.

The fact is, this movie wasn’t what anybody would have expected, and the objections of both Eastwood and Matthau were not entirely offbase–it’s not for everybody.

Some mainly pretty bad people rob a bank in a tiny hick western town.  Two citizens of the town  are killed, one of them a cop.  The heist planner–the hero of the movie, its title character in fact–didn’t kill anyone personally (never so much as punches anyone in the entire movie), but neither is he feeling any apparent guilt over it, then or ever afterward.

He’d tried making an honest living, working as a crop duster after his career as a barnstormer fizzled, and then the combines pushed him out.  He can’t work for other people, because he’s an independent by nature.  He can’t live on the dole, because he’s not a bum.  So he meticulously plans and executes minor bank robberies.  And he finally robs one full of mob money.  He realizes right away that’s what it must be.  Enough money to retire on, if you’re careful.  If you’re not careful, you won’t have to worry about retirement.

His wife  (played by a shopworn but still lovely Jacqueline Scott, best remembered for The Fugitive) was the driver on the job, and she died too, after getting them to safety.  He kisses her dead lips passionately, and then has his partner set the car to blow up with her inside it (and has guilt-free carnal knowledge of a total stranger very shortly afterwards, while wearing the ring he’d just taken from his wife’s cold finger maybe two days earlier).

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The partner, played by another Siegel alum, Andy Robinson, is an edgy out of control fellow, unprofessional, untrustworthy.  He says to hell with whose money it is, who might be coming after them, he’s going to spend it, and he’s not going to wait long to do it.  He threatens Charley.  Charley, seemingly conceding, says “You called it, kid.”  He says that once more in the movie.

Most of the film is Charley, a deeper player than anyone could have guessed, working a long intricate con on both sides of the law, so that he can get away clean, with most of the cash, and nobody will ever know that he did that.  To just disappear into thin air, free as a bird–the Last of the Independents.  That was Siegel’s preferred title, the words that begin and end the film, but honestly, I think the title the studio stuck him with works better.  Though there were several.

There is no explaining Charley Varrick.  The film or the man.  You only know that a man like that can be either free or dead, and there is nothing in-between.  He’s precisely the kind of existentialist criminal character a filmmaker once told Westlake American movies don’t know how to do.  In American movies, either the bank robber is just a bad man who has to go down bloody, or he’s a good man who only did the robbery because he needed money for somebody’s operation (and may still go down bloody–High Sierra comes to mind, except that wasn’t exactly Roy Earle’s first dance, was it?).

Westlake said it wasn’t really that simple, but in commercial terms, it usually is.  People want the vicarious excitement of being in on some criminal enterprise, but then they want the robbers punished in some way–they die, they go to jail, they don’t get to keep the loot–to expiate their vicarious sense of guilt.  There’s none of that here.  You saw what Charley did, you wanted him to do it, you wanted him to get away with it, because if he doesn’t, that means the System always wins, and the System has to lose sometimes, or there’s no hope.

Yes, it was mainly mob money, but not entirely, and innocent people died because of what he did.  And his reaction to that is–well–there is none.  He didn’t want anyone to die, but he always knew it could happen.  He took his chances, and everybody else would have to take theirs.  No remorse, no regrets, no excuses.  They’re a waste of time.  Whatever Charley Varrick feels or doesn’t feel about what he’s done, he’ll never share those feelings with us.  His feelings are none of our business.

Not for nothing is this movie on a list entitled “Not Quite Parker” over at The Violent World of Parker site.  And not for nothing was blues guitar god Rory Gallagher inspired to write one of his best songs after seeing it.   Though when Joe Don Baker’s Molly is onscreen, Brute Force and Ignorance might be a better fit.  They debuted on the same album.

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So anyway, there’s lots of reviews of this movie already, and it’s not directly on-topic for this blog, but here’s the thing.  I finally read the book they based it on.  And guess what?  It’s not very good.  Which is not to say it isn’t interesting–any storyteller with a vision, which I surely think John Reese had, can be interesting to read, if you are interested in people, since as I’ve mentioned several times since starting this blog, there’s no better pathway into a human mind than fiction, good or bad–and this isn’t bad at all.  It’s just not that good. It’s a bit of a mess, really.  Reese was out of his element here.

And it’s not about The Last of the Independents, either.  It’s really about a young, good-looking, sensitive, and deeply insecure policeman, serving his first day on the job in that tiny hick western town of Tres Cruces.  His name is Kenneth Steele, but his nickname–and it’s not meant as a compliment–is ‘Stainless.’  Yeah.  Stainless Steele.  That’s the name of the first chapter. And several others.  It’s one of those multiple POV books, where each chapter begins with the name of the character whose POV it’s written from.  The second chapter is from Charley’s POV, and a few after that.  Ten POV characters in all.  One of whom is named ‘Possum Trot.’  I am not making that up.

Okay.  Spoiler alert.  You want to know just how far the movie got from the book here?  If not, stop reading.

This novel is 177 pages long in the first edition.  Charley Varrick gets his head beaten in with a bowling ball by Molly Edwards on page 130.   Molly gets shot down by Stainless Steele on page 169.

Yeah.  Chew on that a moment.  I’ll wait.

In the novel, Charley Varrick is a career criminal, been to prison more than once, never remotely aspired to making an honest living, never gave a damn about anyone but himself. He was never married to Nadine, the character played by Jacqueline Scott in the movie, never felt anything but contempt for her, did not kiss her dead lips before setting her body on fire, felt nothing but relief that she was gone, except maybe irritation that she screwed up her job as driver for the heist (it’s not clear she actually did).  He has every intention of betraying his surviving partner.

He knows there’s something funny about that much money being in that little podunk bank, but never figures out he just stole laundered mob money until it’s much too late. He and Molly know each other from prison.  Molly, also nowhere near the fierce focused professional he was in the movie, but still a tough mean hombre (and also intending to keep all the money himself), spots Charley on the street, guesses right away he pulled the bank job, and that’s all she wrote for Charley Varrick.  Let me give you a sampling of Reese’s prose here, which is a bit hit or miss, but this is a solid hit.

Molly whipped the Imperial to the curb and rolled out of it.  “Charley!” he called softly.  “Come here.  Get in this car.”

Charley turned slowly.  In prison he had always been one of the wise old heads who by advice and example taught the wild youngsters to live out their terms without going mad. Molly was a different kind of aristocrat, solitary and dangerous, and he knew that he was one of the few people Charley Varrick feared.

But Charley tried. “Let me alone,” he said in a soft, expressionless yet carrying voice. “I been keeping clean, Molly.  See you around.”

“You ain’t been keeping clean,” Molly drawled.

“The least you can do is not make trouble for a fella.”

Molly walked toward him.  They were about the same height, but Molly was fifteen years younger and thirty pounds heavier than Charley.  He had moreover the quick, killing decisiveness of a panther, an animal quality somewhat lacking in Charley.

Yeah, I think Reese probably read some Richard Stark in his day.  Not that Stark invented the idea of a predator in human form.  And not that Reese could match Stark’s wily willful way with words, even at his very best.  Not going by this, anyway.  And none of his westerns are e-vailable either.  I mean, you can only read so many books in one lifetime.  This is a late book in Reese’s canon.  I have to assume he’s giving it his absolute best shot here.

Reese’s Varrick has no ingenious intricate plan for survival, or anything resembling a sense of honor or professional integrity.  He’s the one threatening his frightened guilt-ridden out-of-his-depth partner, not the other way around.  He always intended to keep the whole score for himself.

He sure as hell never gets to screw a smart sexy blonde in a round bed–in fact, the characters never even meet, or learn of each others’ existence.  Sybil Fort is just a plot device here, to make sure the mobsters get theirs in the end too (she’s going to turn state’s evidence on her boss because one of his associates frightened the hell out of her).  And she’s not a blonde, or a knock-out, but that’s neither here nor there.  (It’s worth mentioning that Reese had a gift for describing ordinarily attractive women, and that is one of the legit pleasures of this book.)

The Charley Varrick in The Looters is, to put it plainly, a sleazy third-rate low-rent criminal sociopath, who knows his chosen profession pretty well, but thinks he’s a whole lot smarter than he really is.   Oh, and he can’t fly a plane–the crop duster thing, that ‘We are the Last of the Independents!’ motto on the side of the van he’s driving–that was just a front he was putting up to blend into the community, prior to looting it.

As a fellow once said, ain’t that a kick in the head?  Or a bowling ball, same thing.

Westlake said many times that Richard Stark was a romantic in the way he wrote about crime. Which doesn’t mean everybody in his books is perfect, far from it.  He wants us to see the ugly side of the underworld, but he still expects his professionals to be professionals, to know their business, to live up to some ideal that probably doesn’t exist anywhere in real life, and real life isn’t the point of the Parker books, never was.  You put enough reality in there to make the romance believable–and to convey the underlying truths about selfhood and identity the author is trying to get across.  You don’t have to believe Don Quixote is real to know Don Quixote tells the truth.

I think there’s a strong romantic streak in John Reese as well, but it expresses itself differently.  Like there’s an actual romance in the book–between Stainless and a slightly older girl who just moved into town to be the new art teacher.  He got a good look at the robbers, and they don’t have a police sketch artist in such a small department, so she gets dragooned to come see him in the hospital (he got winged during the robbery), and do some drawings based on his descriptions (which are of course superb), and of course they fall for each other at first sight, and they hop into a motel bed the moment he’s released, and are headed for the altar by the time the book ends, like maybe two days later, if that.  His frigid domineering mother doesn’t like it, but he’s determined to break free of her, and finally be a man, and you’ve seen this movie before, and it’s not nearly as good as Charley Varrick.  Oh, and he’s a virgin when the book starts–now you get why his nickname isn’t a compliment.

This would, by the way, have made a perfectly good 1950’s low-budget crime picture.  Which Don Siegel  might well have directed, and he’d have had somebody rewrite the hell out of it then too.  And the studio censors would have insisted the premarital sex at the motel be cut out.  Party poopers.   But it feels very dated for the time period it’s set in.

I’m giving the impression Reese wasn’t a good writer, and again, I haven’t read enough of his stuff to know how good he was.  There were points, here and there, where he really had me going, and I thought (as some online reviewers have) that this would turn out to be a forgotten classic.  But on reflection, I don’t believe it is.  I think it was forgotten because it’s largely forgettable.  Not because Reese wasn’t a pro–it’s very obvious he knows his business well, and he’s no hack–he believes every word he writes.  He’s damned sincere.  Maybe too sincere.

I found some points of comparison between him and another western-raised author, named Willeford, but Willeford was a whole lot more self-aware, and couldn’t write a clichéd turn of phrase or character development if his life depended on it.  So much comes down to knowing who you are, knowing what rings true, and what doesn’t. Literary technique is merely the medium by which your tell your truths to the world, and some truths are more compelling than others.

And yet, reason dourly asks me, isn’t this more true to life than the movie based on it?  Isn’t this the genuine nature and likely fate of a real-life Charley Varrick, and shouldn’t we be more sympathetic to an earnest young patrolman finding his way in the world (not to mention the older and highly professional lawmen, local and federal, who appear in this book), than we do to some sleazebag thief and killer?

Yeah, and we should probably care more about Banquo than Macbeth.  What’s your point? You want to see  a three hour play about Banquo?  Be my guest.   You can just bet that if Shakespeare hadn’t written that play based on scurrilous English propaganda about a great Scottish king who never did any of those vile deeds, the hero of any historical film they made of that story would be MacDuff.  I mean, he wins the final sword fight.

Reese creates potentially interesting characters, and then he over-explains them, while at the very same time under-developing them (it’s too many POV characters for such a short book).  He’s too much on the side of the law to be objective here.  Did he ever write differently about outlaws in the old west?   Maybe, but look who his hero is in that dog vs. wolf book.

He writes in some depth about organized crime, and not one word of it makes any sense–he dabbles in both anti-Italian and anti-Jewish stereotypes, and I don’t believe he was any kind of bigot–he just can’t quite see how offensive he’s being. Never mind offensive, great writing is often deeply offensive–he’s out of key.

He makes it sound like American Jews only got into the Mafia recently, after the Italians started losing interest–the book came out in 1968!  Meyer Lansky was in his 60’s by then.  Bugsy Siegel  (no relation, I trust) got whacked in 1947.

You compare it to Westlake’s brilliant little analysis in 361 (presented by an untrustworthy character, not the infallible narrator), of how it’s always outsider groups, of all ethnicities, who get sucked into organized crime, and you see the difference between a young master and an old journeyman (Reese was in his late 50’s when he wrote this book).

Siegel and Riesner got around the whole mess there by making Vernon’s character, who is Jewish in the book, a snooty WASP who makes snide comments about ‘bagelbiters’ (referring to Norman Fell’s honest put-upon FBI agent in the film, who is actually pretty close to Reese’s take on the same character–seriously, I don’t think Reese hated anybody, he does not strike me as the type).

Realistic?  Maybe not, but it’s better storytelling, because there’s no room in the story for that kind of in-depth social commentary, accurate or not (and it’s mainly not).  You have to know how far you can stretch it before it becomes a distraction.  Sneak those messages in, don’t blast them over the PA system.  Show, don’t tell.  But if you need to tell, tell it right.  Tell it straight.  And keep it simple.

Reese’s book provided nothing but the bare outlines of a story, and some raw character sketches, to the movie that is now better-remembered than any of his books (and still something of a cult film–you can’t even get a decent DVD of it in the U.S.–pan & scan!   Wait for TCM’s letterboxed version).  Siegel, who I think most definitely saw himself as one of the last independents, saw the potential for something much more interesting. And definitely for better dialogue (reading the novel, I don’t think I came across a single line I remembered from the movie).

And I’ve often complained on this very blog, and at some length, about this way movie directors have of taking some hard-working print author’s brainchild and remaking it so completely that it says the exact opposite of what it said before.  And I’m praising this director (and the screenwriter) for doing that here.  Because at the end of the day, it’s not about who did the story first.  It’s about who did it best.  It’s about who had the most interesting points to get across.   It’s about who knew precisely what he was trying to express, and precisely how to do that.   All stories are true, from a certain perspective.  Not all stories are equally well told.  Not all stories are equally memorable.  Some stories live on forever.  Others fall by the wayside.

Charley Varrick never had his brains bashed out with a bowling ball.  Charley Varrick never doublecrossed a partner who didn’t cross him first.  Charley Varrick had a plan.  Charley Varrick outsmarted the Law and the Mob.  Charley Varrick got away clean, and lived free, and died without regrets, except maybe he missed Nadine, who wasn’t some cheap slut–she was a hell of a driver.  Maybe that isn’t real.  But it’s true.  Charley Varrick was The Last of the Independents.  May his flame burn forever in the soul of man.  Because dammit, we can’t let the System win every time.   And Stainless Steele is a silly name.  You know what isn’t?

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Addendum: Plotting The Perfect Murder

As promised, here is the original Harper’s Magazine article that inspired The Perfect Murder.  

And, as I mentioned last time, you’ll see Mr. Westlake is not actually a dominating presence in the conversation.  He’s reacting mainly to what the others are proposing, offering suggestions, observations, relevant citations of both fact and fiction, but he’s really off to one side, watching the rest of them, I think.  His own murder plan that he came up with for the book is not here, even in embryonic form.  He came up with that later.

Only one of the writers–Hillerman–seems to have already arrived at a solid plan (the yuppie mushroom massacre), and merely needs to fine tune it a bit.  Much as I enjoyed Hillerman’s contributions to the finished book, I felt like he kind of mailed it in a bit–well, technically they all did.

What strikes me as interesting about Westlake’s reticence is that he did always say that in school he was never ‘the funny one.’  He wasn’t the life of the party.  He wasn’t the one who dominated conversations.  He was, ultimately, the one who could be funnier than any parlor room (or barroom)  wit–with a bit of time and contemplation.  But he was also someone who needed, it often seems, to be inspired by others–encouraged–presented with an idea, then given room to run with it.  Who does that remind me of?  Dortmunder.  Also Parker.  Not big talkers, those two.

So it’s a rather telling look at the way his mind worked in public, and how he wasn’t necessarily an overwhelming presence in person.  He liked to lay back in the weeds a bit sometimes, and make his presence known when the time was right.  Or maybe he was having a spot of indigestion that day, I don’t know.

Here’s the article.  You may have to download the scans yourself–or even print them out–to read them properly.  For whatever reason, you can’t expand the images by clicking on them, and I’m not sure why–maybe there’s something I’m forgetting to do, but I’ve forgotten what that is.  The section containing the discussion between the writers is in rather annoyingly small print.  Might want to be quick about it too–you never know when I might be forced to delete it.  If that happens, I can always email the scans upon request (which would probably work better anyway).  Try and stop me, coppers!

(Also, you’ll note a number of old newspaper articles interspersed through the piece, relating to the murder trial of Dr. Robert Buchanan.  The link I’ve created leads to the article about him on something called ‘Murderpedia.’  Well, I guess it would, wouldn’t it?  Bon Appetit.)

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Guest Review: Fall of the City–the last unpublished Westlake novel.

I’ve been awaiting this eagerly, and Greg Tulonen has finally gotten the article done, and I’m going to post the link to his blog.  Right here.  Right now.

Honestly, I may be more excited about this than any article I’ve published here myself.  This is a direct glimpse into a book Westlake hoped to publish in his lifetime, but was discouraged from doing so–perhaps for good reason.  Perhaps not.   It’s certainly different from anything he wrote before or since, going by Greg’s very detailed synopsis (detailed by TWR standards, so even though it’s impossible to say whether this book will ever see print–spoiler alert–Greg has prudently omitted some details about the ending).

Sometimes Westlake’s best books were precisely the ones that radically diverged from what people expected from him.  Sometimes those books were miscalculations (we’ll be getting to one of those soon enough, but that got published, so go figure).

But always, invariably, he revealed something of himself in these outliers of his, and to me, the most sacred thing about any writer’s legacy is the indelible imprint it leaves us of a human soul, a human intellect–a human life.  So except under very exceptional circumstances (like somebody will die if it’s published), I’m for getting it out there, and letting the readers decide.  And if it’s Donald E. Westlake, well obviously I’m pre-sold, and if you’re reading this blog, probably you are too.

Is Go Set a Watchman the masterpiece fans of Harper Lee’s only book published in her lifetime dreamed of?  Hell no.  It’s a deeply flawed and often disturbing piece of work, that shows how conflicted she was about her origins, her hometown, her family, her father, her race, herself.  In its own right, it is not a great book, but in reading it, don’t we know her better?   And respect her achievements in life all the more?

Fall of the City sounds to me like a book that could have sold very well if it had been marketed properly, perhaps reaching a whole new audience for Westlake. That’s neither here nor there–today, it would be of interest primarily to Westlake readers.  Some of whom would love it.   Others would find it an intriguing but ultimately irrelevant artifact of a great career.  And some might actively dislike it.  But don’t we all deserve a chance to decide for ourselves?

Well, it’s not our call.  And it shouldn’t be.  Copyright laws exist for a reason, and are heritable for equally good reasons.  And they eventually expire, also for good reasons.  But since I can be fairly sure I’ll expire before this book goes into the public domain….

A synopsis is not a book.  I can’t offer an informed opinion as to who was right or wrong with regards to the worthiness of this manuscript now languishing in an archive in Boston.  I’ll say this much–I’ve learned to greatly respect the judgment of Mr. Tulonen when it comes to fiction of any kind, and certainly with regards to Westlake.  And without further ado, here is his synopsis and assessment of Fall of the City

PS: Since I could imagine some people avoiding the comments section to avoid discussion of plot elements (which so far hasn’t occurred there), let me mention here–Greg just found out from Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime, that the manuscript is being edited for publication there, as I type this.  We’re going to get to decide for ourselves how good a book this is.   Now that’s what I call prompt service.

 

 

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