Category Archives: Uncategorized

And In Review……

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A realist is somebody who thinks the world is simple enough to be understood. It isn’t.

Donald  Edwin Westlake. Speaking to Timothy J. Culver, Richard Stark, and Tucker Coe.  All of whom were also Donald Edwin Westlake.

“The direction of escape is towards freedom.  So what is ‘escapism’ an accusation of?”

Ursula K. Le Guin.

It all really began with Trent Reynolds, and The Violent World of Parker.

I’d started reading the Parker novels because I’d enjoyed two different films based on The Hunter.  I wanted to know more about what I was reading, and Wikipedia wasn’t that informative.  There was only one website on the internet devoted to Parker, at least in English.  It was there I began to acquire context.  Without which, nothing ever makes much sense.  Without which, you can’t fully understand what you read.  Not that anything worth reading is ever simple enough to be understood completely.

There was an official Westlake site, but it wasn’t getting updated much (DonaldWestlake.com has steadily improved as a resource all the time I’ve been doing this blog, and there were times when I didn’t know what I’d do without it).

VWOP was more than a database–it was a community, relating to not only the Parker novels, but many other things relating to Westlake.  Engaging in its format, giving you the sense there was this world of limitless adventure and intrigue waiting for you between the covers of these books.  As a tribute site to a great genre author, I cannot say I  have ever encountered its better.

I’ve told some of this story before, no need to repeat it all, but I did what I’ve usually done since the Mid-90’s, when I find myself obsessed with a given set of fictions–I looked for people I could discuss them with online.  Because preferable as conversations in three dimensions may be, it’s not that easy to find somebody in your non-virtual life who is conversant in everything you want to talk about.

I love talking about books so much, that recently, when a lawyer friend mentioned at another friend’s birthday party that she’d read something called The Essex Serpent, and had been captivated by it, I downloaded the ebook post-haste, polished it off in a sconce, and the very next time I saw her, attempted to engage her in a far-ranging literary debate on the deeper implications of Sarah Perry’s Neo-Victorian venture into the Gothic Realm.  Which lasted maybe ten minutes. Shortly after, she moved upstate.  (That’s one way to get out of having me talk your ear off about books.)

The novel had enraptured her, but to her it was a great love story with a sort of pseudo-paranormal slant–and it’s all of that and much more (Sarah Perry bears watching, is all I’ll say for now).  But that’s all she, with her busy life, full of dogs, horses, and The Law, had time for.  We can’t all be book nerds, nor should we.  For many a book is just something to savor, then put aside.

You can read many thousands of books in a lifetime.  You don’t get a friend for each.  Book clubs are–how shall I put this?–clubbish.  Oprah, for all her powers, can only accomplish so much in one lifetime.  Even if you could afford to go back to school, where it’s normal to want to talk a novel to death, there are no courses devoted to Parker or Dortmunder (plenty for Buffy the Vampire Slayer).  And who has the tuition money?

Somewhere out there in cyberspace, there are people reading the same things you are.  The  internet does have its uses, after all.  (So does a life partner–mine loves both Parker novels and The Essex Serpent, but she’s never really gotten into the rest of Westlake, as I did when I ran out of Starks).

Trent had a comments section for each of his blog articles (some of them written by Nick Jones, polymath proprietor of the more free-ranging Existential Ennui, who Trent had developed a creative partnership with).  I began to comment.  First on Nick’s site, then on Trent’s (there was also a Yahoo!Group thingy, never did much care for that format).

I had a lot to say.  I had too damn much to say, much of it snarky in nature.  I never could bear fools gladly, and where there’s an internet, there be fools, myself not least among them, but false modesty does not become a lit-nerd.  How shall I put this?

There were problems, for which I shall accept my rightful share of the blame, no more.  But the real problem, as Nick deduced, was that I needed my own space, where I could set the parameters of discussion myself.  As narrow or wide-ranging as I needed them to be.  People would dig it or not, but you can’t get thrown out of your own place.  (Well, maybe you can, but I’m not that obnoxious.)

And here we are.  And here we’ve been, for over four years now.  First me, then Ray, then Greg, Mike, jalp5dai, Anthony, Rinaldo, Phil, Adi, J. Goodman, many a kibbitzer passing on through (if I missed your name, doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the input).

It never felt like a book club–more like a loose-knit free-form crew of planners, locksmiths, drivers, assorted specialists and utility infielders, swapping insights, pulling heist after heist together–and the score was enhanced understanding of an author we all loved.  And this blog was the O.J. (sorry I never could figure out how to distill my own brand of virtual bourbon).

And because you were here, egging me on, making this exponentially more than I ever could have achieved in my own, I have finished what I set out to accomplish.  (If you knew me in real life, you’d know how remarkable that is.)  I’ve substantively and in some cases perhaps even authoritatively reviewed each and every Donald E. Westlake novel that isn’t a sleaze paperback.  Plus short story collections.  Plus a few of the less objectionable film adaptations (and one of the most objectionable).

I review by the ‘push’ method, much as Westlake wrote his fiction.  No outlines, just ideas that took shape as I worried at them, making use of various found objects as I went, and at some point I stopped being wondering at how the right object was always found just when I needed it.  (Like I’m still pinching myself over the Adrian Benepe quote from 2006 that I used in my review of Comfort Station.  I bet Westlake was too.)

OR the spooky coincidences–getting to my review of Brothers Keepers right around St. Crispin’s Day, or posting Part One of my Good Behavior review around the Feast of St. Dismas, which fell on Good Friday that year.  And then there was my review of Adios Scheherazade, that I got in on April Fool’s Day. (Thanks again to Mr. Westlake for answering my celestial correspondence in time for that to happen.  Sorry, I still can’t tell you what happened to Ambrose Bierce.)

Sure, if I noticed the temporal convergence, I’d work a bit faster so as to have that date stamp–but if you think I planned that out more than a day or two in advance, you really do not know who you’re dealing with here. I can’t even plan where I go to lunch more than a minute before I head out the door, and sometimes it’s a minute after.  I do my taxes online, right after I get my W2–in about 45 minutes (I’ve spent my refund before you’ve finished itemizing deductions).  I live by the ‘push’ method.  Doesn’t everyone?  Don’t answer that.

My reviews kept getting longer as I went, more complicated, more spoiler-laden, and sometimes less readable, but it seemed like the more I said, the more I had to say, and the deeper into the weeds I had to get.  To some extent, that was true of Westlake as well, so it wasn’t all my fault.  The more you know, the more you know how much you don’t know.  You know?

Many of my favorite reviews are one-parters, but I hold some of my three-parters in high regard, and as for four-parters, let’s just be grateful I didn’t do a Tolstoy blog.  (Never read Proust; maybe I’ll have the time now.)

As we create our own identities, we create our own realities.  I came to feel that Westlake had been waiting for me.  While I was gestating, getting born, learning how to walk, experiencing my first conscious memories, he was writing his first novels under his own name, and Stark’s, and Coe’s, and etc. We shared two states and a lot of years, as our lives moved on parallel lines, never meeting once.  I could have met him, quite easily, as I’ve met other writers I admired.  He was notoriously friendly and helpful to readers who got in touch with him.  I never even read him until he was gone.  Freddie-come-lately.

And the more I read of him, the more I knew I’d found a mind that worked very much like mine.  Only tougher.  Fiercer.  More disciplined.  I began to perceive that I would never be the smartest person in any room Donald E. Westlake was in.  And by figuring him out, I might figure myself into the bargain.  (Thus answering the Dortmunderian query, Quid lucrum istic mihi est?)

I feel like everything in my life prepared me, in one way or another, to grasp him.  Too much familiarity might have gotten in the way, somehow.  Many knew him up close–I scanned him from afar.  In the best way anyone can scan a writer.  Through what he or she wrote.  Because it is through art, not conversation, or correspondence, that we humans tell the unvarnished truth about ourselves.  What cannot be said can be sung.

And how he sang to us all, of darkness and light, of laughter and pain, of criminals, clowns, calamities and capers, and always, in every word that came out of his Smith Coronas, of self.  Of identity.  Who are you?  What are you doing?  Where are you going? How will you get there?  Will you get there in one piece?  Will you let this world break you down to nothing, or will you stand up, fight back, get away clean?

Sometimes you fight best on your own.  Sometimes you need a string.  But either way, the fight is to be yourself.  The hardest thing in this world to be.  And the only thing in this world that matters a damn.

He hid his theme well, but it was always there, for those who were willing to see that this most diverting and versatile of storytellers was never content with mere diversion, and his experiments with style and form were merely conduits for a vision that went far beyond the normal parameters of his chosen genre.  His hideout, if you will.  Where he could plan his heists without the law catching wise.

His goal was never escapism.  Escape, sure.  We all need a getaway car, now and then.  But escapism, to me (pace Dame Ursula), means wanting to forget the real world entirely.  To lose yourself in stories, when you should be finding yourself there.  To never learn, never confront your problems, never grow up, never become anything. To never be real.  Because it hurts so damn much.  It’s easier to be a phoney all your life.  To never look past the surface of things.  To skate on through, sweating the small stuff, missing the big picture.

If that’s what you want, you are in the wrong fucking place when you open a Donald Westlake novel.  You picked the wrong getaway car (and with no MD plates; I can hear Kelp tsking).  There’s a reason he never had a best-seller in his life, in spite of being one of the best-liked most-admired writers of his generation.  Escapism sells because most people don’t have the guts to stare the world as it is right in the face, stare it down.  He did.

But he did it without pretense, without affectation, without hubris.  Without roaring in the jungles of high culture, like some literary lion, fighting the other lions over prizes and plaudits (and occasionally, plagiarism).

He much preferred to prowl the fringes, like a grinning coyote.  Leaner. Meaner. More cunning. More adaptable.  Built to last.  Always finding a crack to slip through, a score to tide him over. A survivor, as much at home on a city sidewalk as a primeval wilderness. The equivalent of a coyote in Africa is a jackal, and guess who’s going to eat the last lion? The trickster always wins in the end.

It’s a funny old world, isn’t it?  And much too complicated to be fully understood by any one storyteller.  Brilliant as Westlake was, I was never out to say he was the be-all and end-all, that there were not many wordsmiths who could best him in this or that arena of their shared profession, or that perceptive as he was, he was never wrong.

He would have known too well the universal truth of Charles Willeford’s dictum,  “My work is one long triumph over my limitations.”  But I knew that he merited a bit more attention from the opinion-makers of the book world.  That he was being taken too lightly, and he still is, and will be for some time to come.  So if I overcompensated, let’s at least acknowledge I had something to overcompensate for, and someone worth doing it for.

When I named this blog, I was making an implicit pun.  Yes, it’s The Westlake Review because I’m reviewing everything Westlake.  But it’s also my understaffed attempt at a sort of literary journal.  The kind that many other great writers have been honored with after their deaths (I think they’d have mainly preferred cash, but never mind).

The point of my reviews was never “This book is great, this one’s pretty decent, this one’s okay, this one’s kind of meh”–not to evaluate them as works of entertainment, as ‘reads,’ because others had already done that.  I wanted to evaluate them as expressions of a man’s soul, commentaries on the world he saw around him, the worlds he saw inside himself, and inside all of us.

I wanted, more than anything else, to convince people that he was and is a Great Writer–he may never have won a literary prize more prestigious than the Edgar, but remind me how many prizes Shakespeare, Cervantes, or Dickens ever won?  Is he that immortal? No, and neither are most of the dead writers who actually have their own scholarly journals, where every word is parsed, every sentence deconstructed, every meaning hidden, and only other scholars give a shit.

This is a journal for scholars of the road.  Scholars without portfolio.  The best scholars for a meat and potatoes guy like him, though really, the tenured set might try a bit harder.  We here are looking for a different kind of tenure.

I saw too few highbrows out there even trying to understand him at more than a superficial level–not just because he was genre, but because he was funny. And because he wrote so much, in so many different voices, he was too hard to get a handle on. The blind men never did get their act together with regards to this elephant, but maybe they’ll compare notes someday.  Don’t hold your breath.

There was also a lowbrow section of  his readership I ran into online–mainly Stark readers, and you know the type.  They likewise couldn’t see past the outward trappings of genre, the macho wish-fulfillment angle, which has its place in crime fiction, just as it does in Homeric poetry, but the difference was, they didn’t want to see anything else.  I’m pleased to say I saw very little of that type here–I probably bored them.  The feeling is mutual.

I guess that makes me midbrow?  Do people still use that term?  However elevated my brow may be, it was frequently knit when trying to pierce Mr. Westlake’s mysteries.  (Which I will say one last time were never about whodunnit.)  He put me through my paces, slow dance to foxtrot.  And the dance floor is barely scratched.  I got a small piece of what’s in there.  Waiting now in joyful hope for a greater detective than myself, whose gumshoes I am not fit to shine.

I’ll never say all there is to say about him, but that would hold true for any subject of note. My problem is, I have not yet said all I have to say about him. I’m not done yet.  There are short stories I haven’t read. Nonfiction articles I could look at.  There are sleazy paperbacks he wrote to pay bills, and I can’t give them the same treatment his real work got, but they might be worth a quick pass through (if I can afford to buy enough of them–very collectible). There’s an archive in Boston I could mine for gold, as Greg did before me.  And there are things about books I’ve already reviewed that I just didn’t have enough context to pick up on the first time through.

And there are a few other crime writers I want to talk about–each of whom has some kind of oddball connection to Westlake.   Each of whom had his attention, and they have mine too.  I need more context there as well.  Which means I need time to read up on them.  Which means I may not be posting so often for a while.  It’s going to depend on what found objects surface in the coming year.

But to go back to where I started, this all began with The Violent World of Parker.  Which showed me what could be done with an internet connection, a bit of spare time, and a lot of passion.  It convinced me that you could create an online community devoted to a writer who isn’t yet counted among the immortals, and it also proved that running out of books doesn’t mean you’ve run out of things to talk about.  That was my first model for what I’ve done here.  Showed me the ropes.

It also warned me this is an ephemeral medium.  Back in 2015, VWOP vanished from the internet.  There had been outages here and there in the past, but they never lasted long.  This one dragged on for seeming eons.  Nobody knew the story.  I’d have emailed him, but the only addy I had was from VWOP.   Going by the metaphor of somebody’s blog as his or her getaway car, it began to seem like we’d seen Trent’s last mace.  Oh please, you knew that was coming.

Then, days ago, I got an email from him.  Asking if I’d update the link to VWOP in my Known Associates sidebar–which I never had the heart to get rid of, even though it now leads to a site hawking hair products to Japanese men. Don’t ask–well, if you must.

If I hadn’t read so many Westlake farces, I’d call that outlandish yarn of VWOP‘s foreign abduction a bald-faced fib. (You knew that was coming too.)  A Likely Story indeed!

On a purely selfish level, I’m relieved I don’t have to go back and update all those links to sections of his site that I put in my reviews.  What’s that, you say?  Now that the addy for VWOP has changed, however slightly, I still have to do that?  That should keep me busy a spell.  Anybody remember which reviews those were in?

But here we are again with the freaky coincidences.  VWOP was a long time dead.  Nick Jones had pretty much stopped writing about Westlake, before I ever got started.  All that while, I was holding forth here, on my long slog through the canon. What were the odds VWOP would come back–with Nick Jones once more contributing–just as I was writing my last review?  And that, at the very same time, a new voice was heard singing in the marshes?  (Can’t wait for him to get to The Blackbird.) The world is not simple enough to understand.  Neither is the internet.

Ethan Iverson’s vitally important summation, with its unique insights, never left.  David Bratman’s pioneering compendium of pocket reviews not only survives, but has been updated recently.  The Official Site continues to expand, and I think you might say we’ve got a quorum here.  Always room for one more.

Timing is everything.  I came along at just the right time to have a level of access to Westlake’s work that earlier enthusiasts could only dream of.  The last unpublished novel (they’re pretty sure) came out this year.  The Getaway Car came out just as I was starting.  This is, in fact, a golden age for Westlake scholarship and general appreciation.  The only thing we don’t have is–well……

I think sometimes about his very last day on earth.  In a country he loved.  As the country where he lived embarked on a new era, his opinions of which I could not comment on, except to say he’d have preferred it to the one we’re in now. (He really did try to warn us, you know.  We really should have listened, you know.  But hey, what’s the worst that could happen, huh?)

Details are sketchy about his demise.  He took a trip to Mexico, and never came back.  (He and Bierce must have had a good laugh about that).  Seems that he who lives by the ‘push’ method may also die by it.  Were there last words?   I’ve long heard that the famous last words of famous authors are generally more like the last reasonably coherent things they said–penultimate words.  So what were they?  Somebody knows.

I respect his family’s privacy.  In this and many other things.  But there should be a biography of him, and not that far into the future.  I heard somebody was working on one.  That was years ago.  Don’t look at me.  You don’t write scholarly tomes by the ‘push’ method.  And I suppose I’d end up preferring the man I imagined.  The face I could see as I read his work.

At the risk of repeating myself (And don’t I always?  Hasn’t killed me yet.) I shall close this section of The Westlake Review with the same words I finished my review of Kahawa with–the finishing lines of George Orwell’s essay on Charles Dickens, one of the writers Westlake most identified with.  They work oddly well for him too.  A man born out of his time, who nonetheless chose to live and write in the present, because that’s where the fight is.

He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.

Sin-é!

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Mr. Reese and the Candids

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It’s not hard finding images of movie stars online.  When putting together my recent piece on the seven actors I thought might have played Parker in the past, but never did, I had an embarrassment of pictures to sift through.  I picked the ones I thought got my points across best.

With one exception.  Tom Reese.  Born 1928, six feet three inches tall.  My personal favorite of the bunch.  By far the least famous.  (Compared to him, William Smith was an A-Lister.)  Call it my love of the underdog.  That’s an IMDb link, incidentally.  Google “Tom Reese, Wiki” and you get an article about a cricketer from New Zealand.

You can find the odd few screen captures of Reese, from this or that film, but the only one I could find from The Outfit was of very poor quality.  The others I found, relating to different roles, did not do him justice.  To be honest, most of his film roles did him no justice.  He fared somewhat better on television, where many a first-rate thespian eked out a living back in the day (and still does).  In no way shape or form could you call him a movie star.

I mean, when one of your career highlights on the big screen is playing an Oddjob style villain named Ironhead in one of those ultra-kitschy Matt Helm movies, and you have to pretend Dean Martin can beat you up–you get the picture.  Or you would, if you Googled around some.

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(At least Harold Sakata got to knock Sean Connery around some before he took a dive.  Geez, Reese was asked to autograph these things.)

Hating injustice as I do, I ordered a brand new remastered DVD of The Outfit, which just arrived this morning.  I did some screen grabs, and from now on there will be decent pics of Tom Reese online.

In The Outfit, Tom Reese plays a hit man.  Whose name in the credits is “Hit Man.” He’s the first character of any note we see in the film’s opening scene, where he kills Macklin’s brother, while dressed as a priest (which makes no sense, like most of the film). He’s accompanied by another hitter, Frank Orlandi, played by Felice Orlandi.  But Reese’s character is the one that matters, the boss killer, who plans hits for The Outfit.

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Reese and Duvall have no scenes together–Macklin isn’t interested in taking revenge on mere mechanics, seeing the organization itself as his target.  I suspect they didn’t have the budget to write more scenes for Reese, give him a name, motivation, etc–that way they’d have had to pay him more.  Their loss.  He gives the most interesting performance in this movie, far as I’m concerned.  (Okay, tied with Joe Don Baker, having fun with his second banana role.)

Reese comes on like a major player in every scene he appears in, somebody Macklin will eventually have to reckon with.  But for whatever reason, he’s treated as secondary (maybe more like tertiary) to Timothy Carey’s sneering over the top underboss.  Carey, who played small roles in a lot of important films, has something of an online cult, and maybe he earned that elsewhere, but not here.

“Hit Man” pops up again at a restaurant owned by Cody, the Handy McKay of this story, played by Joe Don Baker.  This time, he’s dressed as a hunter.  Suits him.

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He and a different partner (played by former boxer Roland La Starza) are there to kill Cody, but because the local law is eating there, that gets called off.  Reese, realizing the game has to be called on account of cops, gets up to go, nonchalantly tosses a coin on the counter, walks out, pausing at the door to say–

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“You know something, Cody, you ought to play the races.  You’re that lucky.”

No outward emotion.  He plays every scene, reads every line, 100% deadpan.  Not because Reese couldn’t do emotional reactions, if the director needed some.  He’s making a deliberate choice to keep it all inside.   You can see just a glimmer of annoyance when he realizes he can’t do the job now.  But he’s not frustrated.  If at first you don’t succeed…..

The attempted hit on Macklin, borrowed in a ham handed way from the novel, doesn’t involve Reese’s character.  They send Orlandi, without back-up, even though he’s nowhere near as good as Reese’s hitter.  (I mentioned this movie makes no sense, right?)

But as The Outfit begins to realize Macklin and Cody are a threat, they get the A-talent back in the game, and Reese is seen talking to a man outside the motel Macklin, Cody, and Karen Black’s Bett are staying at.  He walks off, a cheroot in his mouth, arms swinging at his sides, and I’ll say again–I don’t give a hoot what the credits say.  This is Parker!

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And after all that build-up, he is seemingly killed off in a perfunctory manner, almost as an afterthought, along with Carey’s character Menner and some other guy I don’t care about, when they use some bought cops to try and whack the independents out on the highway.  They come driving up slowly from the other direction, while the fuzz have them distracted, and you can just barely make out Reese in the back seat of the car.

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As they close in for the kill, you see Hit Man’s gun (same one he used on Macklin’s brother) stick out of the rear window–it’s a terrible position for him to be firing from.  You can sort of infer what happened, if you read between the scenes–he found Macklin, scouted the terrain, planned the hit, but Menner, looking for revenge, forced his way in, took it over, screwed it up. Kibbitzers.  They’ll get you ever time.

Macklin and Cody, having neutralized the cops, respond with superior firepower, the Outfit car goes off the road, turns over, bursts into flame–after Menner comes out shooting, with predictable results.  Bett gets killed in the crossfire.  You don’t see Reese or the other guy at all.  The implication is they’re unconscious/dead, and will get burned to a crisp, leaving an interesting puzzle for the real law when they show up.

Macklin, now having both his brother and his girlfriend to avenge (::sigh::) will mount an improbably successful attack on Mailer’s mansion (they do not reconnoiter before moving in, like Parker and Handy), then drive away with a wounded Cody in an ambulance, yelling “The good guys always win!”  Yeah, but you didn’t win any money, did you?

Flynn later explained that an MGM exec insisted on an ‘upbeat’ ending.  Which sounds a bit odd to me.  The end of the novel isn’t at all depressing.  It’s one of the most upbeat Parker novels I can think of.  Parker and Handy kick ass and get paid.  Nobody they like gets killed. I don’t know if Flynn’s story means Cody originally died in his script, Macklin went back to jail, or they just had to throw in the good guys joke at the end to send the audience out happy.  If it was either of the first two, I’d say the suit was the good guy here.

I know I’ve been very down on what is, for many, a classic of the genre (and a movie Westlake is known to have called his favorite of the Parker adaptations–I have my own opinions as to what he meant by that).

For me, it’s an exercise in frustration.  This could have been something amazing, if the script wasn’t so lousy.  Great cast, great atmosphere, great cinematography, great music.  Flynn does a fine job coordinating all this; he knew how to do that.  But he just had to write it himself, didn’t he?  Be the auteur. He didn’t know how to do that.  Anymore than Menner knew how to plan an ambush.  Kibbitzers.

After the shoot out on the highway, we never see ‘Hit Man’ again.  There’s never any direct confirmation he’s dead.  He and Macklin never once eyeball each other, even though he was the one who got the whole story kickstarted, before we ever laid eyes on Macklin.  It’s a very unsatisfying conclusion to a character arc.  If you want to call it that.

Here’s what I say happened–I’m imagining a post-credits scene, which they didn’t have very often in the 70’s, but what the hell.  Hit Man gets out, after Macklin and Cody (and the now deceased Bett) drive away, before the car explodes.  He dusts himself off.  He walks away calmly, arms swinging at his side.  He bides his time, makes his plans, no amateurs this time.  A few minutes after that ambulance leaves the mansion–well, turns out the good guys don’t always win.

I’m allowed to be prejudiced on my own blog. In a good cause.  Giving an honest workman a bit of overdue credit surely qualifies as that.

And speaking of honest workmen–hello, John.  You seem upset.  What’s that you say?  Fourteen straight posts about the other guy?  Fancy that.  Funny story, I actually reread your book like a month ago, but the other thing kept expanding, and I figured you could wait.  Save the best for last, you know?  Technically, Ask The Parrot was better, but your final outing is quite interesting.  I just have a few more things to say about the finer nuances of the Starkian aesthe–I beg your pardon?  You want your review now?

John, I’m sorry you’re upset, but you must recognize, I’m in authority here. Anyhow, what are you going to do about it? Everybody knows you never hurt anyb–oh.  Hi Tiny.  Didn’t see you looming in the shadows there.  You move quiet for a big guy.

No, I would never want to be rude, Tiny.  Proper etiquette is the driving force of my existence.  Ha, that’s a clever pun.  Yes, I heard the story about what you did to that procrastinator who annoyed you.  I know all those stories.  I should probably start working on that review now.  Good seeing you guys.  Regards to May and Josie.  Tiny, please don’t slam that–damn.  Better call the locksmith.

Well, no point putting it off any longer, folks.   All good things must come to an end.  Time to get real.

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, John Dortmunder, Parker film adaptations, Richard Stark, Uncategorized

Mr. Parker and The Casting Call

Office women in passing cars looked at him and felt vibrations above their nylons.  He was big and shaggy, with flat square shoulders, and arms too long in sleeves too short.–

–His hands, swinging curve-fingered at his sides, looked like they were molded of brown clay by a sculptor who thought big and liked veins.  His hair was brown and dry and dead, blowing around his head like a poor toupee about to fly loose.  His face was a chipped chunk of concrete, with eyes of flawed onyx.  His mouth was a quick stroke, bloodless.  His suit coat fluttered behind him, and his arms swung easy as he walked.

“I saw Point Blank at a film festival a year or so ago, and I was absolutely shocked. I’d forgotten.  It was a rough film.  The prototype.  You’ve seen it a thousand times since in other forms.  That was a troubled time for me, too, in my own personal relationship, so I used an awful lot of that in making the picture, even the suicide of my wife.”

Actors.  Can’t live with ’em, can’t shoot ’em.  Well, some do both, of course.  That second quote up top is from Dwayne Epstein’s Lee Marvin: Point Blank, and I feel I must point out that the trouble in Marvin’s personal life was the break-up of his first marriage, to Betty Ebeling (why am I suddenly reminded of a passage from Adios, Scheherazade?

She did not commit suicide.  She left her movie star husband, because he drank, and he saw other women, and she had a hard time of it for a while there, but she published a tell-all biography, and got a career, and she made out okay.  Her ex maybe a little better.

Marvin, being an actor, was conflating his own past emotional tumults with that of his character, Walker–a character he’d played once, decades before.  Whose wife commits suicide.  In the movie Point Blank, directed by John Boorman.  Based on The Hunter, written by Richard Stark, aka Donald Westlake.  (I’m not sure Marvin ever read the book.)

But he did like something about the character in the original script, drawn heavily from the novel, that he literally threw out the window when he took control of the project, and gave it over to Boorman, who made a very interesting movie with a largely incoherent story, and it bombed.  Marvin had The Dirty Dozen out the same year, so again, he was fine.  Lee Marvin was always going to be fine. And he was the best actor ever to play Parker, the one who got closest to the character.  No cigar, mind you.

He wasn’t the first to play some version of Parker.  That was Anna Karina.  I’m not counting her.  Don’t yell chauvinism, I’m not counting Peter Coyote or Jason Statham either.  I think there are four film adaptations, from 1967 to 1973, of four Stark novels,  (plus one 1999 ‘remake’ I can’t leave out, though I’d like to), that are close enough to even talk about as adaptations.  Five performances worth evaluating as attempts to portray a fictional character who has been notoriously difficult to portray.

All are entertaining.  All have casts to brag on.  None of them got it right.  The books or the character behind them. Parker has eluded everyone who ever tried to capture him on film.  To be fair, some weren’t trying that hard.  Their interests lay elsewhere.

But let’s note two things–the books must have been popular to get four radically different adaptations, in so short a time, most of them featuring big names above the title.  And even if none of the movies hit big, they still gave a substantial boost to Westlake’s career.  And therefore, to Stark’s career.  And hence, to Parker’s longevity.  Would we have twenty-four Parker novels if not for those first four Parker movies?  The relationship can’t be denied, however poorly the progeny resemble the parent.

Let’s beg another question.  Could anybody get it right now?  Could anybody have gotten it right at any time in the past?  Is Parker just too elusive to be captured on film, pixels, or whatever they’re using now?  Big screen, small screen, episodic, serialized–could it ever work?  Should we give a damn either way?  Is there any better way to ruin a good book than to make a movie of it?

Thing is, we make a movie in our heads, every time we read a work of prose fiction.  We cast the characters from a pool composed of actors living and dead, people we have loved or loathed or just seen in passing on the street.  Quite often the result is a composite of all the above, an ideal, something that could never exist outside our heads.  Real casting directors have to settle for what’s available.  (And within their price range, and of course they have to think about things like name recognition, drawing power.  I don’t.)

So let’s start by talking about these five very different stars who at least got within spitting range of the character (who wouldn’t waste spit on any of them).  And next time, I’m going to talk about actors, ranging across a pretty broad span of time, who I think might have gotten closer.  With the right script.  The right co-stars.  The right director.  The right producer.  The right timing.  Sheahright.

(All the while aware that I’ve got one more novel to review here, but allow me this one last diversion before that part of the blog runs its course.)

Let’s run them down, one by one.

LEE MARVIN AS WALKER IN POINT BLANK (1967):

Though an argument could be made for #2 on this list, Lee Marvin should probably be considered the first actor who tried to play Parker.  (I don’t know what Anna Karina was trying to do, and judging by what I’ve read about the filming of Made In USA, neither did she.)

Does Parker have prematurely white hair?  No, and he probably doesn’t have blue eyes, though ‘onyx’ is a touch ambiguous.  Details.  Marvin’s face, his body language, his gaze, and most of all his voice, set the benchmark all subsequent interpretations have fallen short of.

Marvin, as he later indicated, was in a disturbed abstracted emotional state when he made Point Blank, because his marriage had broken up (there is some reason to think Westlake’s first marriage was getting rocky when he wrote The Hunter; it ended shortly before Marvin’s did).

After toiling in obscurity for years, he became an A-Lister almost overnight, an Oscar winner, the guy everybody wanted.  He’d already been through hell in the Pacific, and later he made a movie by that name.  There are things no acting class can teach you.  Life is the ultimate Method.

I’ve already talked plenty elsewhere about what I admire and deprecate in this film.  Marvin bears equal responsibility for both.  He had so much clout by then, he could give John Boorman final cut.  He trusted Boorman, and was willing to experiment.  Boorman, grateful beyond measure, was willing to take ad-libs (Walker blankly repeating what somebody says to him, as if it’s meaningless) and incorporate them into the film, often to good effect.

The end result is very very very strange.  Compellingly so.  Also confusingly.  At the end of the day, I don’t believe this film has anything at all to say.  It’s all surface.  But what surface.  You could fill an art gallery with nothing but stills from this movie.  And at the center of it is a performance like no other.

Without any pressure to create a character with comprehensible human motivations (since Walker may in fact be a ghost, or else having a fever dream of vengeance as he lies dying on Alcatraz Island), Marvin was free to just react–or not react.  To sit and stare at nothing at all, while we wonder what he’s thinking about.  To walk down a hallway with cold dead eyes, like he’s Murder Incarnate, which he well might be (even though he never directly kills anyone in the whole movie).

He doesn’t explain himself.  He doesn’t share anything with  us.  He doesn’t seem human.  He doesn’t react to anything he encounters in the story as a normal man would. Except Angie Dickinson, and that works fine for Parker too.  It’s just–perfect.  The script isn’t, but hey, quibbling.

If you contrast his performances as Walker with his character in The Dirty Dozen (a military heist film, Marvin as the planner, putting together a string, pulling a job), and his laconic hitman in Don Siegel’s The Killers, you see an actor uniquely outfitted to play this character.  And with no further interest in playing him.  To Marvin, this was just an interesting gig.  That ended when Boorman yelled “That’s a wrap!”

He flat out refused to do sequels (don’t hold your breath waiting for Dirty Dozen 2, though they never do stop remaking it under other names).  So even if Point Blank had done Godfather numbers at the box office, he wouldn’t have done another. A sequel to Point Blank wouldn’t have made any narrative sense, anyhow.  Which would at least have been consistent with the first film.

Marvin’s professional standards and perverse free-roving individualism–the things that make him resemble Parker even when he’s not playing Parker–made him unattainable for any further adaptations.  If there was ever an actor too well-suited to the role of Parker, Lee Marvin was it.

However, if there was ever someone genetically engineered to play Parker it was–

MICHEL CONSTANTIN AS GEORGES IN MISE A SAC (1967):

Not a lot of people out there have seen Mise a Sac (aka Pillaged) in a theater.  I’m one of them, and it was a beautiful pristine print from Le Cinematheque Francaise, on loan to the Museum of Modern Art, with subtitles projected below the screen, a large appreciative audience present.

I had a cold, but figured the chance might never come again, and so far, it hasn’t.  I sucked on Mentholyptus to keep coughing to a minimum, become far too engrossed to worry about bronchitis setting in, and far as I’m concerned, this is the best and truest adaptation of anything Westlake ever wrote.  And one of the most cunningly subversive crime films ever.

Westlake himself only saw it when visiting someone in France–they had taped it off TV.  No subtitles.  He said it looked good.  Not as good as Point Blank, which he always said was the best (not his favorite, that’s different). He had nothing to say about Michel Constantin’s performance.  I’m not sure his performance is really the point here.  It’s more about his presence.

Constantin was one of those guys who almost never got to play the lead.  He was mainly in crime films, a second banana in most–this is probably as close to a starring role as he ever got.  6’1, an inch shorter than Marvin, but that, combined with his lean build, craggy facial features, and a certain je ne sais quois, made him an eerie monstrous figure, towering over most of his cast mates.

Read that description of Parker up top.  Other than his thick black hair (which matches descriptions from later books) he’s a direct match.  Ugly, but in a way that probably gave a lot of women vibrations above their nylons.

He’s just–right.  I can’t explain it.  He doesn’t look like a movie star.  He doesn’t act like a movie star.  Because he’s not a movie star.  He’s some guy off the street who got tapped on the shoulder, and said “Pourquoi pas?”   (I bet he didn’t get paid like a movie star either.)

There are moments when he’s just walking down a street, his hands at his sides, and if you’re a Stark reader, you almost gasp.  He’s not somebody they pulled out of central casting.  He’s somebody they pulled off the cover of a vintage crime paperback.  You can’t believe this guy exists in three dimensions.  And then, as I said in my earlier review of this movie, he opens his mouth and ruins everything.  Well, he’s got to say what the script tells him to, right?  And in French, to boot.

Like I said, he wasn’t a star.  He would have had basically no clout on set, and maybe he never wanted any.  He wasn’t the kind of actor who gets called upon to act, which would be good, if the director knew what to do with that.  This is the best adaptation of a Parker story by far, but it’s a Parker story where Parker, as we know him, doesn’t exist.

What we have in his place is a workaday French thief, tough but not ruthless, operating out in the provinces. Laid-back, professional, courteous, jokes with his colleagues, and only shows flashes of the explosive violence we associate with the character he’s derived from.  This is an ensemble piece, no big names in the cast, no one player dominating. It works for the story being told.  But that story has been edited.

I believe Alain Cavalier understood what Westlake was doing with The Score, but he wasn’t quite doing the same thing.  He’s better at the visual end of things than he is at the dialogue (though he’s got a hell of a writer collaborating with him on the script, in Claude Sautet).

I don’t know if he could have done a heist film where they got the money and lived to spend it, and never even thought of reforming, but I can’t say I’ve seen a single French heist film where that happened.  Existentialism has a morality all its own.  And it’s not Starkian morality.  Damn Sartres, anyway.

Cavalier, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to make Parker the criminal juggernaut he is in the books.  He’s much more interested in Edgar, the character filling in for Edgars, the one whose vendetta against a town drives the plot.  I don’t agree, but I can’t really argue  That’s what most filmmakers would do in his place, unless they had a major star playing Parker, and he doesn’t.

It’s one novel, filmed out of sequence.  How much time does he have to explain Georges to us?  Very little, so he doesn’t try.  Would it be better if we got some backstory, flashbacks, monologues, telling us why this guy robs banks and jewelry stores for a living?  It would be much worse.  You have to respect the integrity of the story being told, which in its turn, respects the book it’s riffing on, much more than Boorman respected The Hunter, or John Flynn The Outfit.

Say what you will about how Cavalier used his version of Parker, he picked the right guy to play him.  And then didn’t give him enough to do, or the right direction as to how he should do it.  Frustrating.  Because I don’t think Constantin would have needed much coaching at all to hit that elusive bullseye, dead solid center.

There’s something about him–this watchful quality.  Which is, you know, the mark of a good actor–much more how you listen than how you talk.  There’s this great sense of situational awareness about Georges, an understanding that yeah, these are his fellow pros, the men he has to trust his freedom with, and he better not take his eyes off them for a minute.  He leans in when he’s talking to them, he enjoys their company–but he never lets his guard down–until one crucial moment.  And he becomes the second actor playing Parker to get knocked on his keister by some boob he should be able to take apart one-handed.  Oh well.  Nothing’s perfect.

I have my problems with the way this movie wraps up (the way most heist movies wrap up).  But I like the final moments of it very much, and I bet Westlake did too.

It’s been frustrating for me to have to describe this movie to fellow enthusiasts who haven’t seen it.  No DVD in the offing, there may be issues with the rights.  But it’s been shown on TV many times (though never in the U.S. that I know of), and maybe you should sit down now.  You probably are sitting down.  You ready for this?

Somebody uploaded the entire movie to YouTube last year.    Crappy print. Pretty sure this was originally taped off TV with a VCR, like the version Westlake watched, only this one has subtitles.  May have been edited for broadcast.  But this is probably as good as it gets for now.  And watching a bit of it just now, my estimation of Constantin’s Parker went up, not down.  The movie’s opinion of him may be wrong, but he’s just right.

But suppose they were to cast somebody who was super-tough in real life–on the gridiron, no less.  And given that many of Parker’s earliest fans were black men, isn’t it only fair that a black man get to play him?  Wouldn’t it be cool if he had an eclectic troupe of brilliant quirky thespians supporting his criminal venture?  Well, it would have been, if not for the script.  Again.

JIM BROWN AS McCLAIN IN THE SPLIT (1968):

The worst of the five films I’m looking at here, The Split coulda woulda shoulda been the best.  An adaptation of what many consider the best book of the series, I’d be willing to make all kinds of allowances for it, given the talent assembled here.  They transplanted the action west again, but okay (insert eyeroll here).  They spend too much time on the stadium heist, but that’s what they bought the book for.  They don’t have Little Bob Negli, but Peter Dinklage wasn’t born yet–although, Mickey Rooney would have been a cool substitute, and there have always been brilliant actors who happened to be vertically challenged.

The heart of the story being adapted was the string banding together to try and get their money back–not most of them banding together to try and take out the character standing in for Parker, as happens in the movie.  Forming what you might almost call a lynch mob.  Which is unfortunate, given that the character standing in for Parker is played by Jim Brown.

I mean, was this really necessary?

jim-brown-jack-klugman-the-split-1968-BP8D6W

I’m a fan of Jim Brown.  Not as a football player.  I don’t watch football.  Even if I did, he retired when I was in kindergarten.  I’d probably have enjoyed his Lacrosse game more (he did too).

I’m a fan of Jim Brown the actor.  Have been most of my life.  I think he could have been a great Parker.  A good actor. Not a fancy one.  As an actor, he was basic; intense, physically and sometimes emotionally intimidating, dangerously attractive to women, and at all times he displayed a quiet brooding intelligence, along with a general disregard for convention.

Parker isn’t white.  Parker isn’t black.  Parker’s just Parker.  He has no racial identity, because only humans believe in race, and he’s not one.  Could they have written a  role for a black actor–in the late 60’s–with an icon like Brown–that worked that way?  Probably not, but it would have been something to see.

Personally, I think Jim Brown always saw himself as Jim Brown first, everything else second.  Part of equal rights is the right to be yourself.  Not saying he didn’t or doesn’t care about civil rights, that he didn’t identify with the people he came from–he did, and does, he’s still a leader in that area today, in his 80’s–but he’s not so easily pigeonholed, and he always goes his own way.  Doesn’t give a damn what people think.

I believe he could have gotten inside the Parker we see in The Seventh, in a way few other actors ever could.  But the character in that novel never made it into the script.  Not even close.

And of course, how are they going to have Jim Brown confront a white cop in his own home, with his wife and kids nearby, without everybody going crazy?  Parker may not care about race, but we still do.  How are we supposed to believe the cops in a small city in upstate New York won’t grab (or gun down) a Parker who looks like Jim Brown on general principle, after a major robbery?  Would Vegas be much different?  I doubt it.

So they made it about war among the criminals, and they divide along racial lines, because that’s what seems to make sense.  Hey, Stark didn’t write a book with an integrated string until the 21st century–hardly anyone did.  Ocean’s 11 was so goofy, nobody took it serious, and Sammy was part of the pack.  There was Odds Against Tomorrow, but Belafonte got to break some of the rules because he was Belafonte.

Dortmunder got integrated in the early 70’s because that’s comedy, and the rules are different.  But when they adapted that book for the movies, they cast Frank McRae as Herman X. I love him dearly, but that’s terrible casting.  And that was the least of it.  There are far worse Westlake adaptations than The Split, you know.

But this is the worst of the five films I’m looking at here, and all the more egregious because they had some of the best actors on the scene then–Klugman, Sutherland, Borgnine, Oates, Carroll, Julie Harris for crying out loud–a Quincy Jones score to boot–and they wasted it all, just like they wasted Jim Brown.  And not just in this movie.  Hollywood threw away Brown’s potential, over and over again, because they already had Sidney Poitier, and there wasn’t room for another one (and Brown wasn’t as subtle–or socially acceptable–as Poitier).

But in certain scenes in this film–like when McClain is testing out his potential string members–you see what could have been.  Just professionals, sizing each other up, never quite trusting each other, but ready to work together, to get their split.  Race doesn’t enter into it, because the only color they see is green.

And imagine him standing on top of that unfinished building, in the dark, over the Amateur’s dead body, realizing he got the same money he would have gotten if everything had gone just right.  Imagine Jim Brown’s laughter in the darkness. Coulda, shoulda, woulda.  Oh well.

From a talented actor who made it on the basis of his superb physical gifts to one of almost unequaled thespian achievement–and guess what?  Now Parker is a short bald redneck who wants to avenge his brother.  He’s versatile, give him that.

ROBERT DUVALL AS MACKLIN IN THE OUTFIT (1973):

I’ve made my problems with this movie known in the past, no need to dwell on it in depth here.  It has its cult, and I can see why, yet I still dissent vigorously. The Outfit is a decent drive-in flick, with some fine performances, an intriguing gritty atmosphere, and a script that does a fair to middling job of invoking the underground criminal subculture that Stark wrote about.  As a film, I rank it far far below both Point Blank and Mise a Sac.

So why is it here?  Because Duvall.  Is there a greater actor?  Probably not.  Could there be anyone more constitutionally unsuited to playing a man described as big, tall, shaggy, and irresistible to women?  You tell me.

Westlake spoke well of this film, calling it his favorite of the Parker adaptations, while still saying Point Blank was the best movie as a movie.  He didn’t say much about Duvall’s performance, that I can find.  Diplomacy.  He knew damned well that was not his character up on screen, but who wouldn’t be flattered that an actor that good would even want to play somebody you created–even as you waited in vain to hear him speak a single line you wrote?

What Duvall got right was Parker’s focus, his tunnel vision, the way he becomes the job he’s doing until it’s done, and everything else in him shuts down for a while.  He could identify with that (I suspect he’s very much like that himself, as was Westlake).  There are scenes in The Outfit where Macklin braces gangsters and treats them like punks.  But he’s too emotional.  He justifies his brutality in various ways.  He’s a misogynist and a knight errant at the same time.  He’s a psychopath with a professional veneer.

And his victory makes no sense, because honestly, he’s not that good at this.  No strategy, not even tactics.  He just walks into places and shoots people.  That’s not Duvall’s fault.  John Flynn was basically half a filmmaker.  The half that’s there is very good.  It’s not enough.

Again, there are moments, in spite of Duvall looking nothing like Parker, where you can still see the character glancing out for a moment–sitting at a bar, looking at nothing, as Marvin did–but Marvin trusted that.  He knew his face was so magnetic, he didn’t have to come up with bits of business to make him look at us.  Duvall knew he’d never have that kind of charisma.  If he was going to be a star, he’d have to make it on acting alone.  It’s a testament to his genius that he did.  But it doesn’t work here.

Duvall used the Method, and the Method says you have to know exactly what your character is feeling.  No human, not even Westlake writing as Stark, could ever fully comprehend what Parker is feeling.  There’s no mystery to Macklin.  But without that mystery, he’s an ill-conceived anachronism.  A heister out of the 30’s who never learned from his mistakes.  Just a good old boy who went wrong.  I’d award points for him not being dead or jailed at the end, but that’s true of all the Parkers.

Let’s run a comparison test.  Here’s Duvall walking down a hallway with murder in his mind–

Here’s Marvin,–

See the difference?  One is just playing the character.  The other is inhabiting him.  Duvall doesn’t understand Parker.  Maybe Marvin doesn’t either, on a conscious level.  But the way Duvall works, he can’t play anyone he doesn’t understand on a conscious level.  Marvin could.  And he was also big and shaggy and sexually charismatic.  Nobody said life was fair.  Parker sure never said that.

(And what I say is that if you watch the beginning of Mise a Sac, Constantin walks the walk better than either of them. If only he could talk the talk.  The total package.  So hard to find.)

And if anybody ever proved life is not fair, it’s–

MEL GIBSON AS PORTER IN PAYBACK (1999)

I have to give the film industry credit for one thing–they stuck to the one name thing when adapting these books.  Westlake wouldn’t let them call any of these guys Parker (he claimed that was about money, and I don’t believe him), but having one name has always appealed to show people (Vegas, baby, Vegas!), so they stuck with it.  Mind you, it’s always easy to tell if it’s a first or last name in the movies, so they even got that wrong, but I want to be positive where I can.

Of the five performances I’m ranking here, Gibson’s is last and least–but not bad. I’m prejudiced in this matter.  I don’t like the guy.  I think he’s talented.  I also think he’s got more and worse issues than your average major movie star–no small achievement.  But you judge an actor’s performance, like any artistic endeavor, on the merits.  And Gibson’s Parker is not bereft of merit.  He shows us a few things we haven’t seen before.

This is not so much a remake of Point Blank as a new interpretation of The Hunter, that went through the wash a few times after Brian Helgeland wrote it. But it focuses on a lot of the same crucial scenes in the book.  And like the earlier film, it chooses to have the protagonist’s wife betray him, not out of fear for her life, as Stark had it, but because she wanted to–with reservations.  In both cases, she’s remorseful afterwards, in both cases she kills herself because of that, but it was her choice.  (And never very well explained, in either film).

And in both cases, the character standing in for Parker is, we have to say, a lot gentler with her than Parker was with Lynn.  I question whether any filmmaker would ever faithfully adapt that part of Stark’s novel.  It’s too damn stark.  Parker slaps her to the floor, then tells her to take too many pills, and she does (because she’s addicted to him, far more than the pills she’s taking, and he’s made it clear she’s getting no more of him.)

Then he mutilates her face, so her corpse won’t be identified, and dumps her in the park.  But, we’re made to know, he could never have killed her.   Not even if she was coming at him with a knife.  Not even if she betrayed him to Mal again.  She was his, he was hers, and while he may no longer love her, he fears her, as he fears no one else.  He didn’t believe she could ever turn on him, but she did.  He has not fully recovered by the end of that book–to some degree, the recovery process extends all the way to The Rare Coin Score. Time wounds all heels.

In Payback, as in The Hunter, there’s another woman.  Walker and Porter each get seriously involved with a beautiful blonde they knew from before (the wife’s sister in the first movie, a call girl Porter used to drive in the second), with Lynn’s body barely cold.  The second version is closer to the book, but not by much.

Gibson really got into his performance here.  I happen to think it’s his best, in any movie of his I’ve seen.  Because it’s the most honest.  Most of his characterizations are extremely dishonest–which is by design.  He’s hawking a product, not telling the truth.  He’s appealing to that part of us that wants to perpetrate mayhem and still feel like a good person, and there’s always a market for that.

Even when he’s a psycho trigger happy cop, he’s a psycho trigger happy cop who is a total sweetheart to everybody but bad guys.  Somebody you’d trust with your beautiful teenage daughter who has a crush on him.  This is not who Mel Gibson is, but it’s who he typically plays.

His Parker is a decent enough guy to women he cares about if more than a bit rough around the edges–okay, consistent with the book character.  He’s wordier than I’d prefer in explaining himself to Maria Bello’s Rosie (now there’s somebody who gives honest performances), but they’re sugaring the pill for the audience, I get it.

They sugar the pill because while Porter is very  much a human being, not a wolf in human form, he’s still a human being who has nothing resembling a proper conscience.  He feels no guilt about stealing, killing, torturing.  He assumes everybody is as amoral as he is, and he’s usually right.

He sneers when somebody tries to attach some higher motive to his cash-based vendetta.  “Stop it, I’m gettin’ misty.”  Not something Parker would say.  But I applaud the sentiment.  Porter’s not a hypocrite.  And at times, playing him, neither is Gibson.  Works for both of them.

I applaud the dialogue, most of all.  The best of any Stark adaptation, which tracks, because much of it was ripped right from the pages of Stark’s book.  It was that dialogue, delivered with flair and zero apologies, that caught my attention when I started catching this one on TV.  It’s that dialogue that made me curious to read the originals.  It’s that dialogue that is responsible for this blog’s existence. The dialogue, and the verve with which the cast delivers it.

Most of the other actors in Payback (all of them very fine) put a bit of a wink into their dialogue–not Gibson.  Deadpan, and dead serious.  Give me my money or I’ll kill you.  That’s right.  Somebody says, “They’ll kill me if I help you” and he rejoins “What do you think I’m going to do to you?  Worry about me.”  That’s damn right.  And from the book.  And Gibson means every word of it.

He’s loving the chance, for once, to play the violent selfish vengeful dark-hearted bastard he really is, deep down inside.  (Okay, I’ve never met him, but I surmise, from a safe distance.)

An actor needs that leverage.  Some part of him or her that resonates with the character he or she is playing.  This is Gibson’s point of access.  And it works.  Up to a point.

See, the problem is, he enjoys it too much.  Both causing pain, and receiving it.  There are no scenes in The Hunter where Parker is tortured.  Nor were there any such scenes in the original screenplay for this movie.  Gibson wanted to get tortured.  He’s into that.

Parker is neither a sadist nor a masochist.  Gibson’s both.  Oh please, even if you never saw that Jew-baiting passion play he lensed (that ends with Jesus back from the dead, and looking to kick ass), you know that already.  It’s not any kind of secret.

He’s created a character who works on his own anti-heroic terms, better than any of Gibson’s other characters.  Because this time he doesn’t have to pretend to be a hero.  It must have been a huge relief, but the box office was only okay by his standards, so he went back to what he knew.  Pity.

Unlike Marvin, he can’t get into the enigma of Parker, the mystery–only the fantasy of being tougher, meaner, and more devious than any of his antagonists.  It’s a sharp performance, but also a shallow one, and that’s what the screenplay called for, even before it got tinkered with, so can’t really blame him for that.  I don’t think he had any problem with the superficiality of the role, though.  If he ever noticed it.

The Chandler-esque offscreen narration he recites (that he had written for him, when he took control of the picture), while probably a good device to keep the audience engaged, and evoke the genre, isn’t something Parker would ever do.  Parker’s not going to explain himself.  To anyone.  Ever.  Least of all us.  Gibson, at the end of the day, still wants us to think of him as a nice guy.  Duvall’s performance may present even worse problems, but it’s got integrity.  Mel Gibson knows not the meaning of that word.

And of course Gibson’s short.  And too damn good-looking.  See what I mean about life being unfair?  At least he’s got all his hair.  (Even more unfair.)

While I think each performance needs to be judged in its own right, having done so, I find, somewhat to my chagrin, that my personal preference runs in strict chronological order–Marvin, Constantin, Brown (more for what could have been than what was), Duvall, and Gibson.  As to the other three, they weren’t playing any version of Parker, far as I’m concerned, least of all the one billed as Parker.

There’s no reason to think Hollywood will give Parker another go after the Statham film. There’s also no reason to think they couldn’t do even worse next time.  But I can’t convince myself that there couldn’t have been something better.

And next time, it’s the could have beens I’m going to look at.  Actors who might have played Parker, but didn’t.  You’ll guess some of the names I’m thinking of.  Not all of them, I bet.

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

Mr. Stark and The Triptych

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When I sent Ask The Parrot, the previous Parker novel in the series, to Stephen Moore, my west coast agent, he said, “Oh, does that mean it’s going to be a trilogy?” “No, no,” I said, “This is just the next book in the series.” But his question stuck in my mind. Although Ask The Parrot had nothing to do with the book before that, Nobody Runs Forever, except that it starts one second after the previous book ends, and although Ask The Parrot does close out its own story and characters pretty satisfactorily, it was true there were some messy strings hanging out of Nobody Runs Forever and some cash up there in New England that Parker and his associates thought they had a right to. So, thanks to Stephen Moore, Dirty Money started to grow in my mind. Maybe it’s more a triptych than a trilogy, where the side panels reflect on one story and the center panel reflects on something else. At any rate, it closes out the triplet, tercet, triangle, and the job is done. And no, it won’t be a tetralogy.

Donald E. Westlake, blogging about himself.

“For me this painting is a kind of rosary, or a ring of colourless figures, who can glow when there is real contact and who tell me truths that I cannot express with words and did not know before. It can only speak to people who, consciously or not, have within them more or less the same metaphysical code.”

Max Beckmann, referring to his 1932 triptych, Departure

It’s been about three and a half years since I reviewed The Hunter (with a Starkian brevity I can only glance back upon in wonder now–and I thought I was being so bold and undisciplined, making that review a two-parter).

And here I sit, twenty four reviews later (counting the Grofields), prepared to look at the last three Richard Stark novels we’ll ever have.

Not the best of them, by any means.  Not the worst either (that’s still Flashfire).   But having subjected the saga to such intense scrutiny over that much time, I feel entitled to say that I don’t know of a more riveting, intriguing, or satisfying multi-book journey in all of literature, nor one that closes itself out with such integrity, if not finality.  And if we’re talking about a series based around one character that proceeded over the course of a score or more novels and close to five decades–well, I can’t say I’ve encountered its equal.

The runner up for me would be the Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian (I know, two characters, but I think of them as one), which I devoured back in the 90’s.  And they were still coming out at the time, so I kept reading, and came to wish I hadn’t.  After The Commodore, the story was complete, even if Bonaparte was still at large.  The Yellow Admiral was a pleasant enough coda to the dance.  Then the masts toppled.  Would I had not read a word of the remaining two and a half books.  An unpleasant surprise (still better than the movie with Russell Crowe).  O’Brian was having his troubles towards the end, but who isn’t?

Series fiction is harder than most people think.  And more important than most critics will allow.  Oh, they’ll acknowledge there are ‘serious’ writers who have dabbled in it. (Dabbled?  More than half John Updike’s novels are series fiction.)  But there is always the suspicion that by writing one book after another about the same set of well-liked creations, a writer is merely playing to the pit, repeating him or herself, to ever-diminishing effect.

And that’s usually the case, if not right away, then eventually.  Did we need most of the latter run of Sherlock Holmes stories?  Conan Doyle clearly didn’t think so.  (I sometimes think he was getting revenge on the public for rejecting his knightly romances about Sir Nigel and the Hundred Years War.)

Any idea, any character, can be exhausted through repetition for repetition’s sake.  Even Wodehouse, perhaps the ultimate master of series fiction, was flagging at the end.  As was Westlake, just a bit, in his last few Dortmunder novels, which have much of Wodehouse in them.

Stark never did.  Past his prime, perhaps.  His potency?  Not hardly.  Some people say he got a bit softer.  I say he got even starker.   This Triptych begins with Parker strangling a man with his own necktie, at a card game.  Towards the end, he strangles another man with one hand.  But that’s not really what I mean by starker.

There was always a certain romantic element to the series, from the start. Westlake said himself that Stark was a romantic. By which he meant an idealist; Parker representing that perfect Platonic form, that everything else in creation is aspiring to, and never quite attaining.  He’s real, but he’s not real.  He’s a man on the outside, but he’s the furthest possible thing from a man.  He’s a wolf on the inside, but you can’t be a true wolf without others of your kind around you, and he’s alone.  He’s evil, he’s honorable, he’s beyond category.  An insoluble mystery, which is why he belongs in this genre.

And in the earlier run of novels, written mostly for the crime paperback market, Stark indulged our desire for larger than life adventure.  Parker goes to war with organized crime.  Parker steals a forgotten art treasure.  Parker loots an entire town.  Parker sacks an island casino run by a German aristocrat who used to be a Nazi.  Parker steals rare coins and finds an even rarer woman into the bargain. Parker steals the payroll from a military base.  Parker steals the box office for a rock concert, and then defends it from a pair of drug-crazed longhairs.  Parker fights an army of mobsters in an amusement park, then comes back later to decimate that mob, decapitate it.

Well, there’s none of that here.  He robs a tiny rural bank and a minor upstate racetrack.  Positively mundane.

And there were the vendettas–the most impractical thing about him, therefore the most romantic.  His need to finish things with those who violated his sense of order, who transgressed against unwritten laws.  Well, there’s none of that here either.  No Mal Resnicks, no George Uhls, no treacherous gang lords (well there’s one, but if he’s plotting a cross, it’s coming later, and there was no later).

There are people he needs to kill, and he does, but it never has that personal feeling to it.  It all makes sense, from his standpoint.  He’s calmed down a lot since the first book.  I guess you could say calmer means softer.  Parker never would.  To him, a well-ordered mind is the deadliest weapon you can wield.

So while I think most of the best writing in the series had already been done years before, in spite of my undying love for the grand gory guns-a-blazing scenarios that have played out in past decades, I can still appreciate what’s being done here–how everything is scaled back, made more real, less fanciful, so that you could almost drive through Northern Massachusetts, or upstate New York, and imagine you see him, at a gas station, or a crossroads.  It’s all taking place at the northeastern tip of America.  Westlake country.  The Stark Lands.

Westlake began this process with Comeback, but there was still much of the old romance there.  There’s none by the end.  Because really, what room is there for romance in this world we live in now?  Because old men see the world differently than young men.  And Westlake was old now.  So was Stark.  But he’s aging better, because what he has to do is simpler.

Westlake was the more sophisticated writer (so there were more things that could go wrong).  The farceur, the satirist, the social commentator.  Indignant and irreverent at the same time.  Dry, whimsical, witty, compassionate, urbane.  Stark just had to be dry.  Until things got wet.

The saga had begun without any plan for it to be one.  The Hunter was supposed to be a one shot, that ended with the random death of its random anti-hero protagonist.  And just as randomly, Bucklin Moon, who I will always believe saw in Parker’s story some funhouse mirror image of his own, demanded a rewrite.  Parker would live. Parker would win.  Parker would go on being Parker.  (And Moon ended up retiring to the Florida Keys, where Parker was thinking about going at the end of the book.)

So Westlake followed up with a book that followed right on the heels of the previous one, but somehow skirted away from that storyline.  Parker is hiding behind a new face, planning an unrelated job, and it goes off pretty well, with a few complications, but the way it ends, he’s realizing he’s going to have to confront unfinished business from the earlier book.  So that’s what he does in the third book.

And whether Westlake knew it or not, that was the first Starkian Triptych.  And it just went on from there, until there were twenty-eight novels, about Parker and his thespian sideman, Grofield.  Three more than he wrote about Dortmunder, Tobin, Holt, and Joslyn, combined.  Not that numbers tell the whole story, by any means.

Westlake probably never got over this quirk of fate, that gave him his second (and more lucrative) steady contract with a publisher, got him out of having to write crap he didn’t believe in.  Now he was writing crap he did believe in–makes a difference.

Now having strong relationships with two first-rate editors, Lee Wright at Random House and Moon at Pocket, he could perfect his craft,  really figure out what this writing gig was about, while supporting his family.  Breathing space. Parker got him out of a tight spot, and he never forgot it.  He’d sell the novels to Hollywood (or Paris), but never the character.  Parker would remain Parker, and his cinematic counterparts, well or poorly executed by committee, would be something else, something less.

He had his little ambiguities about the devil he was dealing with.  Mr. Westlake had a criminal mind, but not the heart to go with it.  He wasn’t sure this was what he was supposed to be writing, and I doubt any writer worth reading is ever sure about that.  He abandoned the Stark voice, then learned it had abandoned him.  It only came back to him once he’d reached a certain age, and Parker longer represented the romantic in him, but the realist.  Which, at a certain age, means the same thing as fatalist.

And this sense of fatalism permeates the second unplanned Triptych, beginning with the title of the first panel, which had an ending so stark as to make readers who’d been there from the beginning ask if the man with the getaway face had made his last getaway.

He hadn’t, but that brings us to the second and major panel, which takes Parker out of the underworld he normally inhabits, into our world–and guess what?  It’s not that different.  He just sits there most of the time, watching us go through our paces, fine civilized people that we are.  And wonders what the fuss is all about.  Some people didn’t get it.  Thought it was too quiet, too uneventful, too rustic.  Some people never do get the point of anything. You know what Max Beckmann would say about that?

At some point, he must have realized he was unconsciously echoing the first Triptych (the word, incidentally, occurred quite independently to me, before I ever read that quote I put up top).  It was time to get back to the themes of the first panel, finish that story.  But to leave some things unfinished, in case he had a little more room to run afterwards.  As matters worked out, he didn’t.  Mexico beckoned in the distance.  Oh well.  You know what they say.

Autumn is here.  Winter is coming.  I had to get that in there somehow.

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

Mr. Westlake and the Fender-Bonder

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Dear Jeff,

In LIVE AND LET DIE, I am the passenger in the red car in the stunt driving sequence on the FDR Drive in New York.  When I saw the movie, back then, I was astonished at how much that black silhouette (moi) inside that car was being thrown around.  At the time, it had just seemed like a little sideswipe, not such a much at all.

Donald E. Westlake, writing to Goldeneye producer Jeff Kleeman, in 1995.

Well, it’s taking me a bit longer than I thought to write my review of Forever And a Death, but I kind of thought it might take me longer than I thought, which sheds perhaps an unfortunate light on my  mental processes, but there you are.  Maybe tomorrow (assuming tomorrow doesn’t die).

In the nonce, I found something interesting to share with you all, that I considered just mentioning briefly in the review (in a prologue that’s already getting very long), but I think it’s worth highlighting, because it’s such an odd quirky little story, based on an unpredictable series of coincidences. A very Westlake story, when you get right down to it.

The story goes like this: long before he was ever approached to write a story for a Bond film (the story that eventually became Forever And a Death), Westlake was in a Bond film, namely Live And Let Die.  This happened in 1972, when he was at the very peak of his powers as a writer, and amazing novels bearing his various professional names were getting rolled out in the bookstores five to seven times a year.

He told Jeff Kleeman this story, when approached about writing the follow-up to Goldeneye, and Kleeman kept the letter, the relevant section of which you can see above.  You can read more in Kleeman’s (superb) afterward to the novel I’m supposed to be reviewing now.

No, he’s not in the cast, don’t bother looking on IMDb.  He was, in a sense, an unpaid extra. To even call it a cameo would be gilding the lily–it’s unclear whether the director, Guy Hamilton, had the slightest inkling who this bespectacled fellow in the back seat of a red Chevy was, or if he’d have cared.

But he was in the back seat, I’m pretty sure, though he didn’t specify–the guy at the wheel would have been a pro, the guy on the passenger side up front has very long hair, and can be pretty clearly seen–not a ‘black silhouette.’  I don’t know that there’s any technical wizardry that could produce a recognizable image of Mr. Westlake in that car.  (Hell, I didn’t even make the screen capture up top, found it on a discussion forum where they talk endlessly about cars used in movies. Obsessives can be very useful, I find.  I trust I’ve been useful at times myself.)

Last night, having borrowed the ‘James Bond Ultimate Edition 2-Disc DVD Set’ (2006) from the library I work at,  I watched the scene in question with the commentary enabled–first from the director, then Roger Moore.  (Moore wrote a book about his experiences making Live And Let Die, not evailable, paperback copies are now prohibitively expensive, and it’s not that important, is it?)

Moore wasn’t much help, though drily entertaining as always (much more fun when he’s not being Bond, you ask me), but Guy Hamilton filled in some useful details that provided a clue as to why Westlake would be in that car at all.

Hamilton enjoyed filming that scene very much, one of his favorites I think.  That section of the FDR Drive was closed off to traffic for the shoot, inconveniencing many a Sunday motorists out for a day’s pleasure, we can be sure.  Hamilton was well and truly chuffed at how eagerly the local authorities facilitated all this hugger mugger, awfully decent of them, really.  (Other local authorities were less helpful, but we’ll get to that.)

It’s the scene in which Bond, having been picked up at the airport by some unfortunate fellow named Charlie at the behest of Felix Leiter, survives an attempt on his life by one of Kananga’s henchmen, Whisper.  Poor Charlie gets a dart in his brain, which not only kills but paralyzes him, so that he’s just sitting there gripping the wheel, dead eyes staring vacantly ahead, which to be sure is a commonly seen expression on the faces of Gotham motorists.

Bond, realizing his chauffeur is now deceased, and therefore not fully competent to handle New York City traffic (though I’ve seen worse),  has to be a literal backseat driver, and can I just ask, if the goal was covert assassination, why didn’t Whisper dart him instead?  People who are not indestructible globetrotting secret agents survive horrific car crashes every day.  This is perhaps a topic best reserved for Bond-blogs, of which there is no present shortage.

You can watch the entire sequence on Youtube–the part with the red car getting jostled comes a bit over two minutes in–

So what Hamilton reveals in his DVD commentary is that they were filming this scene very near the Manhattan offices of United Artists, which provided distribution for all the Eon-produced Bond films prior to Octopussy (MGM having absorbed UA by that time).

Some studio ‘brass’ as he refers to them had wanted to come by and watch the scene being shot.  He told them they weren’t going to see anything much as distant bystanders, and they’d get a much better view from inside one of the cars being used in the scene. But he was grinning inwardly as he told them that.  He names no names, and a good bet he had a pretty vague grasp of who any of them were.

He probably just got a call from some high muckety-muck at Eon (the people actually signing his checks, remember), saying there were these dashed Yanks who’d like to take a look around, try to humor them, there’s a good chap.  No director in the history of cinema has ever taken kindly to such requests.

So he put them in the car that was going to get bumped up into the highway divider.  Not a terribly difficult or hazardous stunt (though I just bet you they didn’t have Moore in the other car doing the bumping when they filmed it).  But Hamilton figured it would seem like a fifty car pile-up to them.  As he relates, with great satisfaction, they got out of the car white as a sheet, looking as if they had momentarily concluded their last day on earth had dawned.

Westlake’s account of how scary it was differs quite a lot, and he was one of the people in the car, wasn’t he?  But then again, he was Donald E. Westlake, wasn’t he?  And he’d done a stint in the Air Force, meaning that he’d experienced far worse jostling, thousands of feet in the air, over water.  Maybe the others (there are perhaps three passengers in all, other than the stunt driver, hard to tell)  experienced it differently than he did.  Or maybe Hamilton didn’t want to admit his practical joke had been thoroughly enjoyed by its victims.  Or maybe Westlake was retroactively editing his own reaction.  We shall never know.

But that’s not really the question here.  My question was more along these lines: Westlake wasn’t any kind of studio brass.  He had no connection with this movie, in any capacity whatsoever.  Hamilton doesn’t even seem to have known who he was.  What the fuck was he doing there?

And I figured out the answer, or so I think.  Strange as it may seem, there were a few other United Artists releases in 1973, besides Live And Let Die, and one of them was this.

cops_and_robbers_7

(The more interesting movie of the two, but try telling that to the public.)

One of the few instances of Westlake writing a script based on his own (very) original story that actually got made into a decent enough movie, which he subsequently expanded into a much better novel which I’ve already reviewed.  It was released in theaters about a month before Live And Let Die.  Meaning it would almost certainly have been in production around the same time.

There’s little production info out there about Cops And Robbers, but there’s plenty about every Bond film ever lensed.  The exterior scenes featuring Bond in New York were mainly filmed in December of 1972, according to Wikipedia.  The Hot Rock, based on one of Westlake’s most successful novels, had been released in January of that year–not a hit, but still a big movie with Robert Redford as the star.  So while he was hardly a name to conjure with in Hollywood, he would have been somebody the suits were keeping tabs on, in case he could be useful in future.  And therefore, somebody who’d be taking a fair few meetings, doing the odd few lunches.

He was probably taking a meeting there that day (it was a Sunday, so fewer people around the office), maybe with one of the execs who wanted to go check out the Bond shoot nearby.  Not much of a stretch to figure somebody asked him if he wanted to come with.  Can you imagine him responding “Nah, thanks, I’m going to go get some lunch, maybe hit a museum”?  Me neither.  Mr. Westlake liked to watch professionals of any kind at work.  Research.

At a different point in his correspondence with Kleeman, Westlake tells a story that Moore corroborates on his commentary track–a black stunt driver from Pennsylvania, who didn’t know the rules of the road in New York very well, had to go off and get gas, prior to shooting the scene.  He was dressed as a pimp, in a car customized as a pimpmobile.  He made a right turn on red, on a Sunday, in the Wall Street district, with no traffic, and he got pulled over (as a banker in a Beemer probably wouldn’t have been).

He had no registration for the car, because why would he?  His wallet was in his other set of clothes.  He tried to explain to the officer he was working on a James Bond movie.  Would you have believed him?  He got bailed out very late in the day, after it was too late to reshoot the scene.  And all this tells us is that 1)Westlake really was there that day, and 2)Some things never change.

One more thing of interest (out of many) from Kleeman’s afterward–Westlake told him he had not seen all of the then-sixteen previous Bond films.  He was anything but a diehard fan of that franchise (probably not of the Diehard franchise either).  It was just a casual interest, which is all it is for most people.  Kleeman had sent him video copies of three Bond movies (I’d guess Goldeneye was one of them?), and he asked for one more.  He wanted to see Live and Let Die again, “because I’m in it.”  It was 1995, you could get that movie anywhere there was electricity.  He probably didn’t have a single Bond video in the house.   (Well, neither do I, but I work for a library.)

In the same letter to Kleeman that I quote up top, he wrote “A continuing motif, I see, is birth through water; I have no problem with that.”   Meaning he could work with that.  And he did.  But not, ultimately, in a Bond film. And the one being reborn through water would not be Bond.

Okay, fine, I’ll get back to work.

 

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake screenplays, Uncategorized

Review: What’s So Funny?, Part 2

“What it is,” Mr. Dortmunder said, “we got a real problem getting at that thing down in that place, like I told you last time.”

“I’m sorry this whole thing got started,” she said.

“Well, so am I, but here we are.” He shrugged. “The thing is,” he said, “your grandfather and the guy working for him, they’re pretty set on getting that thing. Or, I mean, me getting that thing.”

She felt so guilty about this, much worse than mistaking him for a beggar. “Would it help,” she said, “if I talked to my grandfather?”

“Defeatist isn’t gonna get far with him.”

That sounded like her grandfather, all right. Sighing, she said, “I suppose not.”

“But there maybe could be another way,” he said.

Surprised, ready to be pleased, she said, “Oh, really?”

“Only,” he said, “it’s gonna mean I’m gonna have to ask you to help out.”

She stopped, absorbed a couple rabbit punches from the hurrying throng, and said, “Oh, no, Mr. Dortmunder!”

They’d reached the corner now, and he said, “Come on around here, before they knock you out.”

The side street was easier. Walking along it, she said, “You have to understand, Mr. Dortmunder, I’m an attorney. I’m an officer of the court. I can’t be involved in crime.”

“That’s funny,” he said. “I’ve heard of one or two lawyers involved in crime.”

“Criminal lawyers, yes.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

This title begs a rhetorical question–and the answer is “lots, but not the title itself.”  Rather generic, isn’t it?  You’d think Westlake could have stuck a chess reference in there, given the subject matter.  Kings, queens, knights, bishops, castles, gambits, sacrifices, isolated pawns–it’s endless.

The Dortmunder titles (and many other non-Dortmunder titles of Westlake’s) are often popular turns of phrase, turned on their heads.  But I can’t see how that’s the case here.  The word ‘funny’ appears an unremarkable nine times in the book (thank you, Kindle), one of which you can see in the quote up top, but nothing close to this specific phrase ever appears (whereas, in What’s The Worst That Could Happen?, the titular phrase serves as a leitmotif, a much-repeated rhetorical question that keeps getting answered in ways that are all too sadly predictable, much like the currently breaking news stories that refuse to stop breaking, no matter how you beg.

If he didn’t want to get all inside-chessball, Your Move would have worked better than What’s So Funny?  Too Many Rooks would work, but is derivative of an earlier story. Every Rook and Plan B?  I’m not saying the title couldn’t be worse, you understand.

This becomes all the more puzzling when we consider that Westlake did not shun chess-themed titling when it came to the internal structure of the book, divided as it is into two roughly equal parts–Knights Errand and Pawn’s Revenge.  Part Two begins with Chapter 33.  (I’ve given up trying to figure out how Westlake decided whether the chapter count should be reset when he started a new section.  Maybe he flipped a coin?  Or the bird?)

Pawn’s Revenge would seem to refer to Dortmunder’s retribution against newly minted private investigator, Johnny Eppick.  This comes, paradoxically, towards the end of Part One, after Dortmunder is told his services won’t be required after all, and he won’t be paid for his time, which predictably triggers his less lethal version of Parker’s reaction to being shortchanged.

He holds Eppick responsible for this indignity, even though it’s Hemlow who is stiffing him.  It was Eppick who put a handle on his back, forced him into a job he never wanted, by finding proof of his involvement in a minor burglary.  Eppick’s the one who has to pay.

A few weeks pass, and then the cocksure retired police detective, enjoying his little private eye fantasy (and hoping to somehow make it pay) finds his own office has been burgled, clearly by a seasoned pro, who defeated his security system with contemptuous ease.  Everything there worth stealing is gone.  The evidence against Dortmunder has mysteriously disappeared (along with the computer it was stored on).  Takes him a while to figure out whodunnit (not much of a sleuth, when you get right down to it).

This is the pawn’s revenge, and I’m not sure I see how what follows in Part Two is revenge of any kind.  Dortmunder is only interested in profit after that.  So I’m even quibbling over the sub-titles.  Enough about the titles, already.  I’ve some of my own to think up, as I finish this one out.  How about we start off with–

Isolated Porn:

This is a subplot that straddles both parts of the book.  In the early stages of planning the heist of the chess set, Dortmunder and Kelp are chauffeured to a Hemlow’s hunting lodge in the wilds of northern Massachusetts, which nobody in his family wants to use anymore, and he figures would be a good place to stow the goods until the heat fades.

They check the place out, and it’s definitely isolated.  What they miss out on is the porn.  See, there’s two kids from Nebraska holed up there, and I use that phrase advisedly.

Brady tried find his place in the Kama Sutra even while Nessa kept on galloping beneath him at cheetah speed, putting him in a position similar to the person who has to rub his belly and pat his forehead at the same time. Got it; that page! Brady bent to his lesson, and Nessa abruptly stopped.

Brady reared back. “Already? No!”

An urgent hand reached around behind her to grasp his hip. “A car!” she cried, her words only half muffled by the pillow.

Now he too heard it, the throaty purr of some expensive automobile rolling up toward the house. Flinging the Kama Sutra away, he leaped off the bed and ran across the large master bedroom toward the front windows, as behind him Nessa scrambled into her clothes.

A long sleek black limousine rolled to a stop at the garage door behind which Brady’s battered Honda Civic sat, as Brady peeked around the curtain. The car doors opened down there and four men climbed out, one at first on hands and knees until two of the others helped him up. The one from the front seat in the chauffeur’s hat would be a chauffeur, and he’s the one who led the others toward the house, taking a key ring from his pocket.

The door wasn’t locked! Racing back across the room, grabbing his jeans from the floor but nothing else, Brady shrilly whispered, “Hide everything!” and tore out to the hall as behind him Nessa, already hiding the Kama Sutra under a pillow, wailed, “Oh, Brady!”

Brady and Nessa are basically ripped straight out of the ‘sleaze’ novels Westlake used to write in the late 50’s/early 60’s, which he’d sent up memorably in Adios, Scheherazade.  Less memorably here, but it’s the same basic story, only without all the deconstruction and soul-searching.  Porno-picaresque.  Brady took one look at Nessa, decided she was all he was ever going to be interested in, and they took off to see the world and each other’s genitals, not necessarily in that order of significance.

Brady, who thinks of himself as a real operator, found a way for them to get into the lodge undetected, and they’ve been living there a while now, raiding the freezer, and hiding whenever somebody shows up to do a bit of maintenance work.  They similarly avoid detection by these new interlopers, and Brady can’t help but listen in with interest, as Kelp (not that Brady ever knows his name) once again shows us he’s a reader.

“The purloined letter,” the chipper one said.

Both of the others seemed stymied by that. Johnny finally said, “Was that supposed to be something?”

“Short story by Edgar Allan Poe,” the chipper one said. “Whatsamatta, Johnny, you never went to high school?”

“Yeah, that’s all right,” Johnny said. “What’s this letter? We’re not talking about a letter.”

So what, Brady asked, are you talking about?

“We’re talking about something where you hide it,” the chipper one told him, “that nobody’s gonna find it. In the story, it’s a letter. And where the guy hid it, turns out, was right there on the dresser, where nobody’s gonna see it because what they’re looking for is something hidden.”

“Crap,” Johnny announced.

The weary one said, “You know, Johnny, maybe not. You got something, you can’t find it, turns out, it’s right in front of you. Happens all the time.”

“Nobody’s gonna look at that set,” Johnny insisted, “and not notice it.”

Set? What the hell is it? Brady was about to go out and ask, unable to stand it any more.

But then the chipper one said, “How about this? We get it. On the way up here, we get cans of spray paint, black enamel and red enamel. We paint ’em all over, this team red, this team black, nobody sees any gold, nobody sees any jewels, it just looks like any chess set. We can leave it right out, like on that big table over there with all that other stuff.”

Gold. Jewels. Any chess set.

Tiptoeing as fast as the first night he ever sneaked into Nessa’s house back in Numbnuts, Brady made his way to the second floor, where Nessa, tired and sweaty, was just finished bringing all their dirty used stuff up from the kitchen. “Baby!” he whispered, exulting. “We’re in!”

More (heavily euphemized) sex follows (That’s what you paid your thirty-five cents for, right?  Wait, you paid how much?), but here’s the thing about Mr. Westlake and the pseudo-porns he wrote to pay bills.  I’ve read enough of them to know that he was satirizing this shortlived publishing niche even while he was working in it.  And he does it again here, nostalgically, you might say.

Brady is determined to heist the heist, but Nessa thinks these were just three idiots shooting off their mouths, and is getting cabin fever out there at the lodge.  She insists they leave, and then she leaves Brady for another guy, and that guy for yet another guy, and turns out she was the protagonist of the sleaze novel within the heist novel after all, a sexual adventuress sowing her wild oats, a figure we saw more than once in the Westlake sleazes of bygone days, and one last time here.

Which is why she’s back in Part Two, and Brady is seen no more after Part One ends, having returned to the much-despised Numbnuts (there are towns with much weirder names out there in the American hinterlands).  He lands a job at Starbucks, nothing interesting ever happens to him again, and he only occasionally wonders what happened with that purloined chess set.  Not that he’d believe it if you told him.

But would you believe in–

The Wicked Witch of the East Side:

Mrs. W (as she preferred to be called by the staff) was, for instance, on the boards of many of the city’s organizations, as well as a director of a mind-boggling array of corporations. Beyond that, she was a tireless litigant, involved in many more lawsuits than merely those involving her immediate family. Solo, or as a very active member of a class, she was at the moment suing automobile manufacturers, aspirin makers, television networks, department stores, airlines, law firms that had previously represented her, and an array of ex-employees, including two former personal assistants.

While passionately involved in every one of these matters, Mrs. W was not at all coordinated or methodical and never knew exactly where she was in any ongoing concern, whom she owed, who owed her, and where and when the meeting was supposed to take place. She really needed a personal assistant.

And Fiona was perfect for the job. She was calm, she had no ax to grind, and she had a natural love for detail. Particularly for all the more reprehensible details of Mrs. W’s busy life, the double-dealing and chicanery, the stories behind all the lawsuits and all the feuds and all the shifting loyalties among Mrs. W’s many rich-lady friends.

And, just to make Fiona’s life complete, Mrs. W was writing an autobiography! Talk about history in the raw. Mrs. W had total recall of every slight she’d ever suffered, every snub, every shortchanging, every encounter in which the other party had turned out to be even more grasping, shrewder, and more untrustworthy than she was. She dictated all these steaming memories into a tape recorder in spurts of venom, which Lucy Leebald, Mrs. W’s current secretary, had to type out into neat manuscript.

Perhaps predictably, Westlake’s deep animosity towards the very rich abated just a touch when it came to very rich women.  Not that they were ever fetching fantasy figures in his fiction.  But he could appreciate that great wealth, inherited or otherwise, was one means whereby a woman could be absolutely unequivocally herself in a chauvinistic society, without anybody calling her on it.   Or at least anybody whose opinion she is obliged to give two shits about.  Whether this is a good thing or not, is, of course, a different matter.  But it’s a thing.

Livia Northwood Wheeler is a dominating presence in this book, and not only because she is at least part-owner of this chess set Dortmunder is out to steal, which she knows literally nothing about except the fact that she doesn’t want her scheming relations to get it. She has no idea her grandfather stole the set from his army buddies, and used it to build a real estate empire that has given her the position in life she now enjoys.  She’s never laid eyes on it. But Fiona’s seemingly innocent questions about it, that led indirectly to her now being very happily in this dragon lady’s employ, have made the dragon lady ask some inconvenient questions.

“Your memoir is fascinating, Mrs. W.”

“Of course it is. But it’s a different history I want you to think about now.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Do you remember a discussion we had—two discussions, I think—about the Chicago chess set?”

Oh, dear. Fiona had been afraid to even mention the chess set, but wanting to help her grandfather in his quest—even if at the moment he believed he’d given it up—she had given it a try. She’d even—when they were looking together at the photos of the pieces on Mrs. W’s computer—managed to “discover” the mismatch in weight among the rooks.

But that had been some time ago. She’d given the effort up when she’d seen she was getting nowhere and might even be putting herself at risk. But now Mrs. W herself had raised the issue; for good, or for ill?

Heart in her mouth but expression as innocent as ever, Fiona said, “Oh, yes, ma’am. That beautiful chess set.”

“You noticed one of the pieces was the wrong weight.”

“Oh, I remember that.”

“Very observant of you,” Mrs. W said, and nodded, agreeing with herself. “That fact kept bothering me, after our discussions, and I soon realized there was far more mystery surrounding that chess set than merely one unexpectedly lighter rook.”

Looking alert, interested, Fiona said, “Oh, really?”

“Where is that chess set from?” Mrs. W demanded, glaring severely at Fiona. “Who made it? Where? In what century? It just abruptly appears, with no history, in a sealed glass case in the lobby of my father’s company, Gold Castle Realty, when they moved into the Castlewood Building in 1948. Where was it before 1948? Where did my father get it, and when? And now that we know the one piece is lighter than the rest, and is a castle, now we wonder, where did my father get his company name?”

“Gold Castle, you mean.”

“Exactly.”

Knowing how she could answer every last one of Mrs. W’s questions, but how doing so would be absolutely the worst move she could make, Fiona said, “Well, I guess he had to have it somewhere else before he put up the new building.”

“But where?” Mrs. W demanded. “And how long had he had it? And who had it before him?” Mrs. W shook her head. “You see, Fiona, the more you study that chess set, the deeper the mystery becomes.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“History and mystery,” Mrs. W mused. “The words belong together. Fiona, I want you to ferret out the history and the mystery of the Chicago chess set.”

I am being given, Fiona thought, the one job in all the world at which I have to fail. I’m the mystery, Mrs. W, she thought, I’m the mystery and the history, my family and I, and you must never know.

So this is Fiona’s latest identity crisis, but I see nary a one for Mrs. W.  She never, at any time, questions her right to the massive wealth and influence she inherited.  She does, eventually, learn of her grandfather’s crime, and she finds it appalling, and never does she make the slightest existential query as a result of that.  As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, the very rich, and most particularly those who were born that way, are very different from you and me–not because they have more money, but because they just assume it’s their natural inalienable right to have all that money.  And in their position, so would you.

The Devil Wears Prada was published in 2003, perhaps around the time this book was written, and there is a hint of the relationship between that novel’s title character and protagonist and that between Mrs. W. and Fiona.  However, it’s a very different thing to scratch and claw your way to the top, and to simply be born there as a result of somebody else’s scratching and clawing.

So perhaps fortunately for Fiona, there is no friction between her and her new employer. Mrs. W. can never see her as a rival, let alone a protégé.  Simply one in a long chain of people who exist to service her needs.  It may have seemed as if she was making it up to Fiona by hiring her on after accidentally getting her fired from her law firm, but who ended up with the perfect assistant as a result?   At her most altruistic, she is still helping herself more than anyone else.  Well, that’s the unfortunate part of it, you see.

When Mrs. W. learns of the secret connection between their families–and she knows Fiona was born into a moneyed family as well, even though she’s clearly not inheriting any great wealth–she’s politely apologetic, and not the least bit sorry.  The fact is, it’s all working out in her favor, as things pretty much always tend to do.  And she’s not done helping herself yet.

Fiona has a live-in boyfriend, named Brian, who works at some youth-oriented cable channel, that does a lot of snarky youth-oriented programming.  Brian was definitely not born into a moneyed family, but clearly wishes he was, and his interest in Fiona is pretty clearly motivated at least in part by her proximate connection to great wealth, though the life they lead is anything but lush.

He’s delighted when Fiona gets the job with Mrs. W, and wants to find some excuse to meet the old gal.  He finally hits on inviting her to this ‘March Madness’ party at his office–which is a costume party.  He invariably goes as a character from one of the shows his network puts on. The Reverend Twisted.  Fiona seems to always go as herself, and never really fits in with all the pretenders.

But who will Mrs. W. appear as?  She keeps it a secret to the last possible moment.

Yes; that was it. The clunky black lace-up shoes; the black robe; the tall conical black hat; the outsize wart on nose; the green-strawed broom held aloft. It was Margaret Hamilton from The Wizard of Oz to the life; to the teeth. “And that goes for your little dog, too!” she cried, exiting the elevator and announcing her presence.

She was an instant hit. Awareness rippled outward through the hall, and people were drawn as by magnets in her direction. People crowded around her, people applauded her, people tried to hold conversations with her, people gave her about thirty drinks. The only sour note in the event, as it were, was the band’s attempt to play “Over the Rainbow”; fortunately, most people didn’t recognize it.

The first excitement and delight soon passed, and the party returned to approximately where it had been before Mrs. W had made her appearance, only with an extra little frisson created by this new presence in their midst. It isn’t every party that has a drop-in from the Wicked Witch of the West, perhaps the most beloved and certainly the best-known villainess in pop culture.

With the theater ticket sales to prove it.  So rich she was able to order a rewrite, with herself as the beautiful young heroine!  Wicked opened on Broadway the same year The Devil Wears Prada saw print, and that does not seem like a coincidence to me, but who the hell knows?

What Fiona knows, watching her employer dance with her boyfriend, while she sits on the sidelines, holding the witch’s broom, is that she is definitely getting the short end of the stick.  But we can talk about that later.  Right now, we’re going to be–

Watching The Detectives:

In the earliest days of his retirement years, Eppick had thought about hiring on somewhere, but a life on wages after so many years on the Job had just seemed too much of a comedown.  It was time to be his own boss for a while, see how that would play out.  So he got his private investigator’s license, not hard for an ex-cop, and set up the office down on East Third because it was inexpensive and he didn’t feel he was going to have to impress anybody.  All he needed was files and a phone.  Besides, private eyes were expected to office in grungy neighborhoods.

Jacques Perly was the only private detective Jay Tumbril knew, or was likely to know. A specialist in the recovery of stolen art, frequently the go-between with the thieves on the one side and the owner/museum/insurer on the other, Perly was a cultured and knowledgeable man, far from the grubby trappings associated with the term “private eye.”

Tumbril had known Perly slightly for years, since the Feinberg firm had more than once been peripherally involved in the recovery of valuable art stolen from its clients, and now, although Fiona Hemlow could not fairly be described as either “stolen” or “art,” Jacques Perly was the man Jay Tumbril thought to turn to when there were Questions to be Asked.

They met at one that Monday afternoon for lunch at the Tre Mafiosi on Park Avenue, a smooth, hushed culinary temple all in white and green and gold, with, this time of year, pink flowers. Perly had arrived first, as he was supposed to, and he rose with a smile and an outstretched hand when Tony the maître d’ escorted Jay to the table. A round, stuffed Cornish game hen of a man, Jacques Perly retained a slight hint of his original Parisian accent. A onetime art student, a failed artist, he viewed the world with a benign pessimism, the mournful good humor of a rich unmarried uncle, who expects nothing and accepts everything.

Westlake made a very interesting choice here, in giving us two private detectives to watch, one of them trying to arrange a heist, the other trying to prevent it.  But we’re not supposed to root for either of them.  Just watch them, and note the differences.  A study in contrasts, something he was always good at.

What he always had trouble with was identifying with detectives–that is to say, with those who have made it their business to sniff out secrets, solve mysteries, tiptoe around in gum-soled shoes–as far back as Killing Time, his mistrust of them was made clear.  (Though the Mitch Tobin mysteries rank with his very best work, and in my estimation are a cut above all but a handful of stories written in this subgenre, that’s basically an anti-detective series.)

To write about detectives, he needed to subvert the formula, defeat expectations, because he just did not believe in detectives, though he was fascinated by the idea of solving puzzles.  There could be many reasons for that, but I’d assume one of them would be that it was detectives working for the NY state police who caught him stealing in college, and threw him in a cage for a few days.  They humiliated him, and he spent the rest of his life returning the favor with interest.  (We Irish are noted for our long memories.)

So you would think, wouldn’t you, that it would be Eppick, the retired cop, ready to put our beloved Dortmunder in a cell for the rest of his life if he won’t cooperate, who’d be the nemesis here.  Maybe he was originally intended as such, and Westlake changed his mind.

There are darkly ominous moments relating to Eppick, such as when he surprises May at her job, getting in the checkout line at the supermarket, to send a message to Dortmunder that he knows his every weak spot.  His interest in the chess set seems much more than just professional; his distress when Hemlow calls the whole thing off for a time is palpable. But he likes the life he’s got, and the wife he’s got, has no interest in going off to build a new identity with ill-gotten goods.  This is just a way to pass the time for him.  He’s enjoying the drama, the intrigue, and quite honestly, the company of men he used to incarcerate for a living.

This is the second time I’ve read this, but memory is a sieve, and again I found myself thinking Eppick was going to try a cross, steal the stolen chess set for himself, leave Dortmunder & Co. holding the empty bag–and clearly we’re supposed to expect that, but that’s not what happens.  Both detectives ultimately prove honest, each after his own fashion.  Westlake ultimately sides with the one who proves to be an honest crook.

Eppick ultimately gets his drama, and Jacques Perly gets the shaft (and I don’t mean the one who’s like a sex machine with all the chicks).  Perly gets hired by the same high-powered lawyer who fired Fiona, because he’s worried–Mrs. Wheeler, his very lucrative litigious client, wants that chess set taken out of the bank vault and examined by experts.  For no other reason, really, than that Fiona has aroused her curiosity about it.  Her squabbling relations have no objection, probably because they’ve always been curious about it themselves.  None of them has ever laid eyes on it (and none of them ever will).

Perly is supposed to find out if there’s some nefarious scheme behind all this, and his suspicion somehow falls on poor Brian, who may have some vague designs on Mrs. Wheeler’s money, but could not care less about the chess set (whose real story he knows from Fiona).

Here’s the problem with this approach–knowing there’s some kind of scheme afloat, and knowing what it is–two different things.  A good detective, like a good scientist, doesn’t shape the facts to fit his theory.  Perly, a polished professional lackey to the rich and powerful, knows everything but what he doesn’t know, but that’s the most important thing anyone can ever know.  Once his instincts tell him Brian is the malefactor, he can’t let go of that assumption, and it irreparably warps his ratiocinative processes.  The narrative builds towards that moment in every mystery book, where The Great Detective unmasks the villain–and we watch with some satisfaction as he falls flat on his smug round face.

Eppick, by contrast, is not significantly better or worse off by the end–he had his fun, and he’ll probably never have another case half as good (though maybe he’d have shown up in future books, if there had been more than just one more book in the future).  He’s actually advocating in good faith for Dortmunder & Co. with Hemlow–a hireling  himself, and perhaps more of a rogue than he ever dreamed, he identifies more with them than with his employer.  What you’re watching in him is a detective and former cop finding out he prefers the black side of the chess board after all.  Maybe he started out as the antagonist, but he ends as decent enough guy, who holds no grudges against Dortmunder for burgling his office.

The Irish have a long memory for slights, as I said, and I don’t know offhand of any ethnicity with a short one–but I’d guess Westlake had made the acquaintance of many a police officer since his youthful disgrace.  He must have had a fair few fans among them, and some would have perhaps aided his research.  Privately, some might even have been willing to admit to the failings of their profession, and in the words of Lucius O’Trigger, “An affront, handsomely acknowledged, becomes an obligation.”   An obligation to at least be an honest dealer, but since the pleasure of a Dortmunder novel is dishonest dealings, it’s time we move on to–

Parkeur Brothers:

Gansevoort Streeet is part of the far West Village, an old seafaring section, an elbow of twisted streets and skewed buildings poked into the ribs of the Hudson River. The area is still called the Meatpacking District, though it’s been more than half a century since the elevated coal-burning trains from the west came down the left fringe of Manhattan to the slaughterhouses here, towing many cattle cars filled with loud complaint. After the trains were no more, some cows continued to come down by truck, but their heart wasn’t in it, and gradually almost an entire industry shriveled away into history.

Commerce hates a vacuum. Into the space abandoned by the doomed cows came small manufacturing and warehousing. Since the area sits next to the actual Greenwich Village, some nightlife grew as well, and when the grungy old nineteenth-century commercial buildings started being converted into pied-à-terres for movie stars, you knew all hope was gone.

Still, the Meatpacking District, even without much by way of the packing of meat, continues to present a varied countenance to the world, part residential, part trendy shops and restaurants, and part storage and light manufacturing. Into this mix Jacques Perly’s address blended perfectly, as Dortmunder and Kelp discovered when they strolled down the block.

Perly had done nothing to gussy up the facade. It was a narrow stone building, less than thirty feet across, with a battered metal green garage door to the left and a gray metal unmarked door on the right. Factory-style square-paned metal windows stretched across the second floor, fronted by horizontal bands of narrow black steel that were designed not to look like prison bars, to let in a maximum of light and view, and to slice the fingers off anybody who grabbed them.

The single best part of the book is not the heist itself, but Dortmunder and Kelp doing a bit of scouting in advance of the heist.  In fact, it’s one of the best pieces of writing in any Dortmunder book, or even any Westlake book–worth the price of admission all by itself.  And if you found some way to sneak in and read it for free, well that’s entirely appropriate.

Dortmunder knows the chess set is coming out of its grim redoubt, and he knows that Jacques Perly has, perhaps imprudently, volunteered his own office on Gansevoort Street, as the site where it will be evaluated by experts.  Security will be tight as hell–they’re going to need to know the set-up in advance.  So he and Kelp head down there at night, and look for a way to break in without triggering any alarms or leaving any trace of their presence.

They find an apartment with a window that looks down on the small building the detective agency is headquartered in.  (The resident of said apartment is out enjoying the nightlife.)  Maybe they can go in by the roof.  Kelp goes out the window to try and find out.  Dortmunder waits for him to come back, but you know what?  Sometimes people come home earlier than you’d think.  He hears a key in the door.  He sees light in a nearby hallway.  Time to improvise.

Dortmunder didn’t go in for agile, he went in for whatever-works. He managed to go out the window simultaneously headfirst and assfirst, land on several parts that didn’t want to be landed on, struggle to his feet, and go loping and limping away as behind him an outraged voice cried, “Hey!”, which was followed almost instantly by a window-slam.

Dortmunder did his Quasimodo shuffle two more paces before it occurred to him what would be occurring to the householder at just this instant, which was: That window was locked. Once more he dropped to the roof, with less injury to himself this time, and scrunched against the wall to his left as that window back there yanked loudly upward and the outraged voice repeated, “Hey!”

Silence.

“Who’s out there?”

Nobody nobody nobody.

“Is somebody out there?”

Absolutely not.

“I’m calling the cops!”

Fine, good, great; anything, just so you’ll get away from that window.

Westlake had been working on this type of parkeur-esque escape scene for a long time now, at least as far back as God Save The Mark–Manhattan is a vertical environment.  Cliffs, plateaus, canyons and arroyos, made of masonry and brick and glass and lots of empty air a person could fall through on his way to the very hard ground below.  There are people who have fun by learning ways to negotiate this hazardous terrain.  Dortmunder would think those people are nuts.  But he’s in a poor position to throw stones right now.

Kelp is nowhere to be seen, obviously he heard the shouts, knows what’s going on, took a powder.  Dortmunder figures Kelp found his way into Perly’s building, and that seems as good an escape route as any.  He can’t just wait around here for some curious cop to show up in response to the householder’s distress call.  But there’s no way into the building from its roof–how can he find his way to some useful doorway?

Rungs. Metal rungs, round and rusty, were fixed to the rear wall, marching from here down to the wrought iron. They did not look like things that any sane person would want to find himself on, but this was not a sanity test, this was a question of escape.

Wishing he didn’t have to watch what he was doing, Dortmunder sat on the low stone wall, then lay forward to embrace it while dangling his left foot down, feeling around for the top rung. Where the hell was it?

Finally he had to shift position so he could turn his head to the left and slither leftward across the stone wall toward the dark drop which, when he could see it, was nowhere near dark enough. In the lightspill from across the way, many items could be seen scrambled together on the concrete paving way down there: metal barrels, old soda bottle cases with soda bottles, lengths of pipe, a couple of sinks, rolls of wire, a broken stroller. Everything but a mattress; no mattresses.

But there was that damn iron rung, not exactly where he’d expected it. He wriggled backward, stabbed for the rung, and got his foot on it at last.

And now what? The first thing he had to do was turn his back on the drop and, while lying crosswise on the stone wall, put as much of his weight as he could on that foot on the rung, prepared at any instant to leap like a cat—an arthritic cat—if the thing gave way.

But it didn’t. It held, and now he could ooch himself backward a little bit and put his right foot also on the rung. One deep breath, and he heard that far-off window fly up, and knew the householder was looking for him again. Could he see this far into the darkness, at the shape of a man lying on a stone wall?

Let’s not give him enough time to pass that test; Dortmunder clutched the inner edge of the wall with both hands in a death grip, and slid back some more, letting the right foot slide on down past the safety of that rung, paw around, paw some more, and by God, find the next rung!

The transition from the second rung to the third was easier, but then the transition to the fourth was much worse, because that was when his hands had to leave the stone wall and, after several slow days of hanging in midair, at last grasp the top rung tightly enough to leave dents.

Overcome, he remained suspended there a minute or two, breathing like a walrus after a marathon, and then he progressed down, down, down, and there was the porch which was really just an openwork metal floor cantilevered from the building, with a skimpy rail at waist height.

Next to him. The rungs did not descend into the railed metal floor but beside it. So now he was supposed to let go of these beautiful rungs and vault over the goddam rail?

He manages, somehow, to overcome this Escherian nightmare.  Down the fire escape, into a little courtyard with a back door to the building waiting for him.  Of course it’s all walled in, no way out to the street, he’s got to go inside, as he still thinks Kelp has done, without leaving any trace of tampering with the lock–very nice work–he pulls out his set of lockpicks.  He wants to do just as well as his comrade in arms.  Professional pride and all.

So he’s in.  Might as well look around.  Has one of those tiny powerful flashlights that most people use as keychains–civilization will eventually provide an industrious thief with every tool he could ever desire.  One door leads to another, and he’s got the run of the place. Scopes it out, seeing its potentials, its vulnerabilities.  He sees a nice wooden door he deduces must lead to Perly’s office.  Locked of course.  Easily unlocked, of course.

And within this holy of holies, right there on Perly’s nice desk, he finds Perly’s extensive notes on the security provisions that will be in place the day the chess set arrives.  And there’s a photocopier he can use to bring them home with him with none the wiser, so helpful.  A bit more poking around yields a garage door opener that can get him and his buddies in there anytime they want.

In his mind, Dortmunder has been following Kelp through this labyrinth, the way Professor Lidenbrock was following Arne Saknussemm to the center of the earth.  But that, he learns, was all in his mind.  Kelp’s parkeurian path led him in an entirely different direction.  So when they meet up later, Dortmunder has to tell him the whole story (and we get to enjoy it all over again).

Kelp was astonished, and said so. “John, I’m astonished.”

“No choice,” Dortmunder said. “Down the rungs, down the fire escape. What got me was how clean you went through that basement door.”

“What basement door?”

“Into Perly’s building. What other way was there?”

Kelp was now doubly astonished. “You went into Perly’s building?”

“What else could I do?”

“Did you never turn around?” Kelp asked him. “Did you never see that humongous apartment house right behind you? You get thirty-seven windows to choose from over there, John.”

Dortmunder frowned, thinking back. “I never even looked over there,” he admitted. “And here I thought how terrific you were, you got through that basement door without leaving a mark, got through and out the building and not one single sign of you.”

“That’s because I wasn’t there,” Kelp said. “Where I was instead, I went into an apartment where there’s nobody home but there’s a couple nice de Koonings on the living room wall, so I went uptown to make them on consignment to Stoon, and then I went home. I never figured you to come down that same way. And wasn’t that a risk, you go in there before we want to go in there? Did you leave marks, John?”

Insulted, Dortmunder said, “What kind of a question is that? Here I tell you how impressed I am how you didn’t leave any marks—”

“It was easier for me.”

“Granted. But then, back last night, you were like my benchmark. So what I left was what you left. Not a trace, Andy, guaranteed.”

“Well, that’s terrific, you found that way in,” Kelp said. “Is that our route on the day?”

“We don’t have to do all that,” Dortmunder told him. “While I was in there anyway, I looked around, I picked up some stuff.”

“Stuff they’re gonna miss?”

“Come on, Andy.”

“You’re right,” Kelp said. “I know better than that. Maybe I’m like Eppick, I’m getting a little tense. So what stuff did you come out with?”

“Their extra garage door opener.”

Kelp reared back. “Their what?”

And all he got was a couple de Koonings.  Actually, as matters arrange themselves, Andy probably ended up doing better out of their night’s work, but there’s no question in either man’s mind which of the Parkeur Brothers did the niftier bit of burglary that night.  There’s always a friendly competition going on between those two, and Andy, to his credit, is only delighted that John got the better of him this time.

You know, all these long quotes are really piling up the word count.  Sorry, I just recently found out how easy it is to copy/paste from Kindle, and it’s going to my head.   Not going to do a Part 3.  Not really feeling the need to cover everything in this book–I’ve spent almost three straight months now, reviewing Dortmunder stories, more than I ever have before–and that’s fitting, since Westlake was likewise writing more Dortmunder than he ever had before.

The results were a bit mixed, but far from unhappy.  This book is a very fine bit of late Westlake, well worth reading.  However, while it’s  a more organic bit of storytelling than the last two, its principle pleasures are still to be found more in the individual bits and pieces than in the finished whole.

I think we’d best move to the endgame now.  Hmm, ‘Endgame’ is too obvious a subheading, and this isn’t Samuel Beckett we’re talking about here.  I wouldn’t say chess was ever the true theme of this novel (I rather doubt Mr. Westlake played it well, if at all), but it was, you might say, a stylistic motif.  How about we go with–

En Poe-sant:

Before dinner, Mr. Hemlow read to them, in the big rustic cathedral-ceilinged living room at the compound, with a staff-laid fire crackling red and orange in the deep stone fireplace, part of a paragraph from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue on the subject of chess: “Yet to calculate is not in itself to analyze. A chess player, for example, does the one without effort at the other. It follows that the game of chess, in its effects upon mental character, is greatly misunderstood. I am not now writing a treatise, but simply prefacing a somewhat peculiar narrative by observations very much at random; I will, therefore, take occasion to assert that the higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess. In this latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound.”

Closing the book, nodding his red-bereted head this way and that, Mr. Hemlow said, “What Poe calls draughts is what we know as the game of checkers.”

Kelp said, “I like checkers.”

Eppick said, “That’s easy. Everybody likes checkers. Shall I put the book back on the shelf, Mr. Hemlow?”

“Thank you.”

The heist does not go off quite as planned, because Perly, that eager beaver, shows up earlier than expected, forcing them all to scramble for hiding places.  But the gang somehow avoids having The Great Detective, you know, detect them. Dortmunder figures out a way to conceal himself in the shower of Perly’s private bathroom.

Dortmunder had it all worked out how they were going to disguise themselves as the private security detail (from the unfortunate Continental Detective Agency, that seems perpetually doomed to keep crossing paths with Dortmunder & Co.), and make away with the goods.

But that all goes into a cocked hat, as you’d expect, and Dortmunder improvises a bold gambit.  Thankfully, things don’t go wrong just for him–the armored car with the chess set won’t fit into Perly’s garage, gets stuck on the way in. That’s from an entirely different security company, which means you have a bunch of unrelated security guys milling around–the problem with hiring a lot of extra security is that you end up with a lot of extra security guys who don’t know each other.  Or what the hell is going on.  Until it’s too late.

The gang, improvising to beat the band, poses as yet another layer of security hired by Perly, just take the chess set, put it in their own van, and leave.  He closes the garage door with the garage door opener.  By the time the befuddled rent-a-cops have gotten it open again, the Chicago Chess Set is long gone.  Like a turkey in the corn.  And Perly may never get that armored car out of his garage.

Dortmunder isn’t the type to plan a cross, so they drive the set out to Hemlow’s country place, as planned.  They spray-paint the pieces to disguise them, as planned.  Hemlow comes out with Eppick to view his long-sought holy grail, as planned. And then Nessa and her latest none-too-bright boyfriend, who got into the house the way Brady showed her months before, come out of the woodwork.  Nessa decided Brady had an idea there after all.

They load the heavy gold bejeweled playing pieces, two of which are fakes, into a bright red Cadillac Colossus with MD plates that Kelp picked up back in the city.  (Westake’s final fake car name?  We shall see.)  All that remains is the very nice ebony and ivory chessboard, and a fat lot of good that does anybody.  What was it Robert Burns said about the best-laid plans?  Oh wait, that was schemes.  Same thing, really.

Hemlow is disgusted, but at the same time philosophical.  He gets a bit less philosophical when the sticky question of payment for goods received yet not retained arises, but he reluctantly agrees the laborer is worthy of his hire, and the gang reluctantly agrees to a stiffly reduced fee.  And they just decide to keep it to themselves that Anne Marie’s jeweler friend cooked up a fake queen, and they still have the real one.  I mean, any landing you walk away from is good, right?

Elsewhere, a more successful heist is pulled–Perly insisted that Brian be hauled in and interrogated.  He’s no genius, but he knows enough to keep his mouth shut.  Perly’s case, such as it is, falls to pieces when he triumphantly produces security footage of Brian in the vicinity of his office, in the company of this older woman who he thinks may be a real Ma Barker type.

It’s Livia Northwood Wheeler.  They went to this hot new nightclub down on Gansevoort Street, after the March Madness party.  If Mrs. W. is secretly flattered to be described as a criminal mastermind, she hides it very well, and there is very little in this world as intimidating as an outraged rich lady with all the lawyers in the world at her disposal.  All charges are dropped, and Perly’s reputation is in tatters, much like his garage.

There is also very little as nakedly acquisitive as a rich lady–she’s lost the chess set she never really gave two figs about, but somehow ends up with a badly traumatized and deeply grateful Brian in her tender custody–had her eye on him ever since the party, just like he’s had an eye on her money.  What Livia wants, Livia gets.  Leaving Fiona out in the cold.  It must be in their genes, she thought.  Her father stole my great-grandfather’s future.  And now she’s stolen my boyfriend.  (You ask me, our mouse is better off without her social-climbing louse, but that’s not going to be much comfort in the moment, is it now?)

As to the chess set, fear not.  It finds a good home.  Nessa and whatshisname never stopped to consider that the car they stole in order to steal the chess set might itself be stolen.  The cops get them in New Hampshire.  Nessa claims she never saw this boob before he picked her up.  He’s going down for grand theft auto, she’s off to her next sleazy adventure, while Brady writes people’s names on paper cups in Numbnuts Nebraska.

The incognito Chicago Chess Set, the theft of which New Hampshire policemen neither know nor care about, winds up in the custody of–wait for it–the Little Sisters of Eternal Misery.  Yes, I believe we can assume this is the same order that raised the infant Dortmunder, after he was abandoned on their doorstep, in Dead Indian, Illinois.  They seem to have dropped the Bleeding Heart part of their name, perhaps that was deemed excessive.

They run a home for the elderly in the town.   Old people like to play games to pass the time.  And the pieces are so heavy, it’ll give them a nice bit of cardio to boot (maybe a hernia or two).  Eventually, the paint will start to chip away, and looks like Dortmunder just paid his childhood benefactors off with considerable interest.  He’d be so pleased to know that.

And there’s just one Dortmunder novel remaining–which will mark the end of the main part of my reviewing project.  Still a few months away.  Next in view is a novel that might well have remained forever unpublished, if not for the hard cases at Hard Case Crime.  A James Bond novel–without James Bond.  Without Spectre.  Without gratuitous sex. Without even a single car chase.  And most definitely without easy answers.  But some rather troubling questions.

So you go get the popcorn, and I’ll just put on a little mood music.  This is very definitely the mood I’m in about now.  Don’t know about you.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels, 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