Review: A Good Story and Other Stories

Westlake is the exact opposite of, say, a Stanley Ellin, who writes good novels and wonderful short stories.   The Westlake novels are always among the best of the year, the shorts are merely very good–clever, imaginative, ironic, admirably crafted, very much in the Alfred Hitchcock manner, and far more neatly professional than most of that school.  I suppose the main difference is that the novels have people in them.  Westlake has yet to learn how to make his characters breathe in a short story; but his other virtues are so marked that this may be a niggling objection.

Anthony Boucher, Criminals at Large, the New York Times, March 31, 1968–reviewing an earlier anthology, but might as well have been this one. 

You’ll note that the covers of the first hardcover edition of this anthology and the later paperback reprint both feature manual typewriters.  Perfectly appropriate to this author, who stubbornly stuck with that method of committing words to paper (and paper itself) to the end of his life.  His weapon of choice was the Smith Corona Silent Super–but the first edition clearly doesn’t feature that machine.  I rather think the reprint does, but they seem to have removed the brand name (no endorsements).  See what you think.

corona_silent_1950s_pink_l

This is probably a twin of the machine he told an interviewer about getting from a warehouse once, after Smith-Corona stopped making Silent Supers–all they had was pink.  Like really really pink.  He said he gradually managed to de-pink it somewhat, and kept plinking away.  So did Smith-Corona, but they had to give up on the typewriter entirely, after a while.  They make something called ‘thermal labels’ now and seem to be doing fine.  I’m not sure Westlake would have even had the heart to make a joke about that.  They have an entire online museum devoted to the noble typewriter, so you know they never really got over its demise either.  Speaking as somebody who makes a lot of typos, and hated wite-out with a passion, I’m okay with it.  Yet oddly gratified that he wasn’t, somehow.

Westlake wrote quite a lot of short fiction, mostly for magazines, and very little has ever made it to book form.  Basically, if you’ve read the very first anthology for Random House in the 60’s (The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution), combined with the linked stories collected in Levine, and the Dortmunder related stuff in Thieves Dozen, you’ve probably read all his best work in that format.

I can’t say this for certain at the present time, since there are many stories of his I have not yet read (I doubt I’ll ever find them all, nor is a definitive anthology ever likely to appear), but I can’t help but notice, when perusing contents of the existing anthologies over at the Official Westlake Blog, that the same small handful of stories (often under different titles) keep cropping up, over and over again.  Either there were problems with the rights to other stories of his that merited being collected (and I don’t know why that would be) or else Mr. Westlake only felt like a very small percentage of his small-scale  yarns were fit for human consumption. Bit of both, maybe.

(And I have no idea how many of his shorts have appeared in general mystery anthologies involving multiple authors.  Westlake helped compile one of those himself, and guess how many of his stories he put in it?  That’s right.  Well, it would have looked bad if he had put himself in that company.  I still have to review that one, if only for his intro.)

These days, quite a bit of previously uncollected work of his shows up in tiny cheap ebook collections.  Often just one or two stories, mainly science fiction, presumably not protected by copyright.  I’ve found these little offerings for Kindle useful in terms of getting some historical perspective on Westlake’s early preoccupations and development as a writer, but I can’t honestly say I thought any of them were much good as stories.  And neither did he. Man’s gotta know his limitations.

Most of what he wrote for magazines was for experience and to pay bills.  Once he could support himself as a novelist alone (with some work on the side for Hollywood), his short story production slacked off quite a bit, but he never completely stopped writing them, along with articles and essays.  He never gave up trying to master the form, and he never quite did master it, but there were the odd few exceptions, here and there.

His best shorts frequently involve established series characters, such as Levine and Dortmunder.  For obvious reasons–if we agree with Anthony Boucher’s comment up top that Westlake couldn’t easily create believable compelling three-dimensional characters in a short story as he did so often in his novels–it only stands to reason that he’d do his best work at the shorter distance when he already had such a character ready made, so to speak.

The Levine stories, in particular, get stronger with each new entry–because Westlake would keep deepening Levine, remembering what he’d done before with him, and adding to it; fleshing the character and concept out a bit more each time. The end result was a series of brief vignettes that made a negligible impact individually, but were emotionally devastating when read in proper sequence.  I don’t even consider that a true anthology–it’s an episodic novel, composed sporadically over the course of several decades.

Honestly, if you already have a copy of The Curious Facts (a better sharper bit of anthologizing than this, all told, wonder if Lee Wright had a hand in it), I don’t know what you need this one for, unless you’re a completist.  Most of the best stories in it appear in that earlier collection (even the capsule review of this anthology in the New York Times agreed with me about One On A Desert Island being his best standalone short, though I question whether the reviewer was aware it had been previously collected).

(Actually, The Risk Profession is one of those ten that were in The Curious Facts, as well as Tomorrow’s Crimes, and I am now genuinely baffled as to why it keeps cropping up.  That’s three Westlake anthologies it’s appeared in now.  I’d forgotten about it being in this one, when I reviewed Tomorrow’s Crimes, which is the only one it should have been in.  Westlake must have liked it.  I remain unimpressed.)

Obviously that Random House collection was out of print by the time this one came out.  That, I suppose, is one reason for its existence.  The other was to showcase some later stories (mainly for Playboy).  And maybe to remind people that Westlake didn’t just write novels.   But it inadvertently served to remind everyone why he primarily wrote novels.

And now I’d best remind myself that I review pretty much everything of his I can get my hands on, and get about my business.  There’s still eight stories here I have not yet covered.  The first of which is from the 50’s, but did not appear in the earlier Westlake collection.  Why?  Well, possibly because you can spot the ‘twist’ ending a mile away.

Sinner or Saint:  Originally printed in Mystery Digest, in 1958.  And there’s no mystery as to its origins, since The Music Man debuted on Broadway at the tail-end of 1957.  Mr. Westlake did love the theater (and O. Henry stories).

It’s about a con artist, a charming rogue named Joe Docker, and his criminal Sancho Panza, one Lefty Denker; less brainy than his compatriot, cursed with an unfortunately accurate shifty facial expression, but equipped with a large criminal skill set, which includes the unlocking of locks.  Gifted a duo as they are, they got caught and sent to prison, but Joe regards this merely as a hiatus to their careers.  A chance to take stock.

So Lefty has been studying the locks at the prison, and figures he can bust them out any time, but Joe wants to take his time, take advantage of the free room, board, and library privileges there.  Find the perfect scam, and he does.

There’s a parish wanting a new minister, now the old one has died.  There’s a wealthy matron attached to this parish who has a fabulous diamond in her possession.  Opportunity knocks at last.  He has Lefty let them out of jail, and even has him lock the doors after them, so the prison bulls will waste time searching inside the prison before broadening their search.

There’s a neat bit of business where they break into a closed gas station not far from the prison, and pretend to be running the place–the cops ask Joe if he’s seen the escaped convicts.  Joe, properly disguised, regrets to say he hasn’t.  Yes, you can definitely see bits and pieces here that would be put to much better use in many a Dortmunder novel.

So of course Joe, posing as the Reverend Mister Amadeus Wimple, with Lefty as a poor lost soul he has taken under his wing, is a huge success as minister, the best in living memory in fact, and in the ensuing months he wins over the skeptical Miss Grace Pettigrew, convincing her to donate her fabulous diamond to a fund to establish a new hospital.

He has a slight complication in the form of an assistant minister sent by the bishop.  The new man, Rev. Martin, tells ‘Rev. Wimple’ the archdiocese lost his personnel records, or indeed any record of having dispatched him there–fancy that–but were impressed by all the good things they were hearing about him, and wanted to offer support.

This is all hooey, of course (we were told upfront it was a small denomination–obviously the bishop would know all his ministers).  The con man has been conned–the bishop smelled a rat.  And instead of calling the cops right away, he dispatched one of his own men to check up on the situation, and they just waited around to see what might transpire.  Sure, this could absolutely happen.  I mean, why not?  Oh never mind.

Joe gets the fabulous diamond put right in his hot little hands, and Lefty is all for scramming, but Joe, enjoying his pastoral duties a mite too much (foot caught in the door, get it?) insists on waiting–until he can convert it into cash through proper legal channels, maximize returns.  He tells Lefty to hit the road, they’ll meet up later.  Then with just a whisper of regret, he proceeds to deposit the cash–in the account set aside for the hospital.  And this, I should add, without even the inducement of Shirley Jones warbling love songs in his ear at the footbridge.

Joe, or should I say Amadeus, has had a chance of heart–and vocation.  In studying to be a minister, he has become one.  But because the watching law waited for him to abscond with the cash, only to see him donate it for the common good, they have nothing on him but escape from prison, and the previous charges (and he was up for parole in two years anyway). He meekly admits to all his crimes, and waits to be taken back to his cell.

But see, nobody is angry about the con.  Everybody still loves him. Miss Pettigrew promises to hire the best lawyers money can buy, Reverend Martin says he’ll be welcomed back as head minister once he gets out, Lefty shows up saying he doesn’t want to be a crook anymore either, and the investigator from the state police says he’s going to make a little call on their behalf.  And they all lived happily ever after in the idyllic little town of AreYouFuckingKiddingMe?

Call it a road not taken, and thank God for that.  Mind you, O. Henry would have done a beautiful job with it (in the era he was writing in, the plot contrivances would be far easier to justify), and maybe Meredith Willson could have written some punchy numbers for the Broadway version.  There are some comparable Warner Bros. flicks from the 30’s–anybody here ever seen Larceny Inc, with Edward G. Robinson?).  I’m not say saying stories about reformed criminals never work.  This simply isn’t the kind of story Westlake was born to write.

But maybe he had to try and write it first to make sure of that.  And maybe in rereading this story, pursuant to it being anthologized, Westlake got an idea for a more deliciously nasty set of swindlers to be featured in a Dortmunder book he was working on at the time.  No happy endings for them.  Westlake wasn’t much for the grifters–one area of fictive crime where I’d say his buddy Lawrence Block outperformed him.

In fact, I just read a short novel of Block’s where he reforms a small-time hustler, and makes you believe it.  But even in a short novel, there’s time to do the groundwork to pull that off.  Westlake didn’t have that here, but in due time, he’d come up with a much better story about a heister who reforms.  Very much on his own terms, though.

So that’s it for the late 50’s/early 60’s stuff, since the next ten stories, as already mentioned, comprise most of the cream of the earlier anthology (with the head-scratching exception of now thrice-collected The Risk Profession).  So for our purposes here, the next story is the title piece, and just like the title piece of the Random House collection (which is also here), it’s one of the weakest stories in the book.  Go figure.

A Good Story:  More of a forgettable sketch–something that would have worked fine if worked into the fabric of a larger narrative, which might well be what it started out as–background detail for one of Westlake’s Latin American adventures, didn’t make the cut, so he repurposed it for Playboy in 1984.  Just a guess.

This American kid named Leon is running a little cantina and private zoo, way up in the Andes, for some local criminal.  Been there about eight months now.  He’s very pleased with himself, figuring he’ll go home rich when his stint is done.  But he’s bored, and these various hot young female tourists come through, and he’s been telling tales out of school.

So now the ‘ice-blond’ traveling companion of some business suit is talking to him in a bored way, acting like she’s in the mood for a quick fling with someone interesting, and he really wants to impress her, and she doesn’t impress easy. She wears Jackie-O sunglasses and everything.

He shows her this little menagerie of animals his boss ships to zoos.  He explains, strictly on the QT you understand, that the real business is smuggling cocaine inside monkeys–who are then fed to boa constrictors, so they don’t digest the merchandise, and the snakes of course have a very slow digestive system.

Which he will now find out about first-hand, because the girl and the suit both work for the syndicate, and Leon has already created a lot of legal problems for his employers with his storytelling, and now he’s going to be fed some cocaine envelopes himself, and then it’s feeding time for the boa. End of story.

Okay, how did this kid last even eight months?  Sure, okay, he was stupid to go up there in the first place, and overconfidence, combined with a desire to impress the opposite sex, is a frequent attribute of the young.  If he was a minor character in a novel, you could buy it.  But we learn nothing about him at all, other than his penchant for the gab.  He’s every bit as boring as the blonde who lured him in.  Again, the set-up isn’t there to justify the pay-off.  I felt every bit as bored as the blonde looked.  Can’t speak for the snake.  Next victim, please.

Breathe Deep:  From Playboy again, 1985.  The new stories get better as they go–this one probably owes something to the research Westlake did for What’s The Worst That Could Happen?  This is too dark for a Dortmunder, though.  A dealer name of Chuck is nearing the end of his shift at the casino, when an old man walks up to him, starts engaging him in conversation.  The dealer is professional, courteous, but he knows this guy has no money to lose, and therefore no reason to be there.

“Sir,” said the dealer, “I want to give you some friendly advice.”  He’d seen past the imperfectly shaved cheeks now, the frayed raincoat, the charity-service necktie.  This was an old bum, a derelict, one of the many ancient, alcoholic, homeless, friendless, familyless husks the dry wind blows across the desert into the stone-and-neon baffle of Las Vegas.  “You don’t belong here, sir,” he explained.  “I’m doing you a favor.  Security can get kind of rough, to discourage you from coming back.”

Oh, he knows that, sonny boy–happened to him many times before.  But, he explains, he keeps coming back for more lumps.  Something about the air in the big casinos–one time he got thrown out, none too gently, via the loading dock out back; he saw all these green oxygen tanks outside.  He figures the casino puts a very heavy oxygen mixture into the air, to make their customers more hopeful, energetic, stay up later, gamble more.  That’s what kept him coming back, over and over, until his string ran out.  He produces a can of lighter fluid and starts squirting it around.

The dealer insists they don’t do that with the oxygen, frantically presses the button on the floor that summons security, and tells the old man they’re coming for him.  The old man says that’s good–he wants to  have some company on his trip.  He lights a kitchen match.

Sure, just a vignette (not even five full pages), but a decent one.  An even better one next.

Love In the Lean Years: Again from Playboy, in 1992, and proof positive that Westlake could still write a short story worth reading–and that his creative energies were dramatically rekindled  during the 90’s.  There was, you might say, much in the era he found inspiring, if not necessarily encouraging.

Charles Dickens knew his stuff, you know.  Listen to this: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness.  Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Right on.  You adjust the numbers for inflation and what you’ve got right there is the history of Wall Street.  At least, so much of the history of Wall Street as includes me: seven years.  We had the good times and we lived high on that extra daily sixpence, and now we live day by day the long decline of shortfall.  Result misery.

Where did they all go, the sixpences of yesteryear?  Oh, pshaw, we all know where they went.  You in Gstaad, him in Aruba, her in Paris and me in the men’s room with a sanitary straw in my nose.  We know where it went, all right.

That’s one of the two narrators, Bruce Kimball, an account executive with a brokerage firm.  The other narrator (they alternate telling us the story) is Stephanie Morwell, 42, attractive widow (lots of time and expense involved in maintaining that), living off various investments her husbands (yes, plural) left behind, hence her relationship with Bruce, which turns amorous, partly because she likes him, and partly because she (incorrectly) assumes he’s loaded, as he (incorrectly) assumes of her.  Yes, again there’s something of an O.Henry feel to the tale at hand, but these two ain’t Jim and Della, and no magi are in the offing.

Cupid capriciously blasts his bolts at this mercenary mingling of fading fortunes.  The sex is great, compatibility is high, and they are married in a sconce, happily so, to the great surprise of both.  But Stephanie has a little secret Bruce discovers when trying, manfully, to straighten out her tangled financial affairs.  More tangled than he had imagined.  She’s had quite a lot of husbands, you see.  And she took out large life insurance policies on all of them.  And each of them just happened to perish unexpectedly about a year after each policy took effect.  And she’s taken one out on him now.

Bruce is no Black Widow’s brunch, no matter how good she is in bed.  He takes out an equally generous policy on her, and awaits the proper moment.  But Cupid is in a joking mood, and Stephanie realizes she really does love this one, can’t bring herself to do him in, they’ll just have to make ends meet somehow, economize more, and to that end she opts to cancel the policy she took out on life, but that’s when she finds out about the one he took out on hers.  That’s where it ends, with Stephanie absorbing the bitter truth that turnabout is fair play.  We never learn who won out in the end, but it sure wasn’t True Love.

Maybe a bit too bloodless?  The point, of course, was to turn O. Henry on his head, as well as to revisit one of Westlake’s own stories (Never Shake a Family Tree, also present in this volume), and to suggest that these are not romantic times we are living in, certainly not those of us who are addicted to conspicuous consumption.  Hey, anybody know how much Trump is insured for?  Well, the next story is a positive Valentine’s Day Card by comparison, though it actually celebrates a different holiday.

Last-Minute Shopping: First appeared in the New York Times in 1993.  A cop named Keenan braces a crook named O’Brien, on Christmas Eve, no less.  But not to arrest him–he needs a little help with his love life.  He broke up with his girlfriend (a waitress) a while back, and now she’s just called him (the holidays being such a lonely time for the unattached), saying she’s been thinking about him for weeks, and they should get together after her shift ends, around midnight.

He realizes she must have gotten him a gift.  But being so hurt and angry over the break-up, assuming it was permanent, he didn’t get her anything.  He’s got one hour to get her something really nice, and the jeweler’s is closed.  Hence O’Brien.  Who has broken into said jeweler’s more than once, Keenan has good reason to believe.

O’Brien objects roundly, fearing entrapment, but Keenan insists this is on the up and up.  It’s not strictly legal, but it’s not theft, since he’ll be leaving cash there for whatever item he chooses for his lovelorn Laurie.  He just needs a little expert assistance getting inside the place.  And come some future occasion, when O’Brien needs a favor–and that day will surely come–O’Brien has little choice but to agree.  And Keenan says O’Brien can pick up something for his girlfriend as well–he’ll also have to pay for it.  You can’t give stolen goods for a Christmas present.  It is known.

So they break in, keeping the lights off inside, since neither can afford to get caught.  Keenan finds a lovely bracelet (gold filigree inlaid with garnets, so much more character than diamonds, I’ve always thought), and O’Brien picks out a brooch that will match his Grace’s eyes, and strangely enough has more than enough cash to pay for it as well.

So at Grace’s place, shortly prior to getting laid (oh grow up, half the Christmas songs you hear at the mall in December are about premarital nookie), O’Brien explains to a gratified yet suspicious Grace how exactly he got the cash to pay for her gift.  He picked the sentimental cop’s pocket.  Flatfoot didn’t even know how much he had on him–must have cleaned out his bank account, to make sure he had enough for whatever peace offering he picked.  Like many another successful burglar, O’Brien has great night vision.  Which he will now turn to less mercenary ends.  Joyeux Noel.

I think O. Henry might have liked this one.  But would have pretended he didn’t, in case there were cops listening in.  And what follows is yet another Christmas-themed short involving larceny, but not romantic in the least.  Well, science fiction so rarely ever is.

The Burglar and the Whatsit:  From Playboy, 1996.  A burglar named Jack, posing as Santa Claus in order to rob people’s apartments unsuspected, is accosted by a drunken inventor, so drunk that he actually believes this guy in the red suit with a bag full of (stolen) goodies is the real ‘Sanity Clause’ as he insists on putting it.  He figures the Big Guy would be the one to ask–he’s invented something.  Something pretty good, he thinks.  But he was drunk when he made it, and he can’t remember what it does. This happens to him a lot, but he usually leaves himself a note on his computer to remind him.  This time somebody stole the computer, would you believe it?  Jack has nothing to say to that.

Jack really has no idea what this weird little device could be–it’s some kind of robot, a box on wheels, and all these antennae sprout out of it, while it makes these whirring noises.  It does not seem to like Jack at all.  The inventor talks about how laughable the burglar alarms in his building are.  Jack silently concurs with that.

So they basically try to figure out what the inventor might have wanted to invent, and when Jack, responding to the inventor’s indignation over the inadequate alarms in the building, says it’s really hard to find a good one, the inventor lights up like his whatsit, and says that’s it.  It’s a burglar alarm–that can actually identify burglars, before they’ve finished burgling–and then call the police.  There’s a knock on the door.  The inventor wonders who that could be.

And again, I am reminded why Westlake never really excelled at science fiction, unless he had some idea he really needed to get across.  Though this could have made a decent enough concept for a Twilight Zone.  Well, maybe half a Twilight Zone.   Probably Rod Serling would have insisted the whatsit have disintegrator beams or something.

And now comes my favorite story that is unique to this collection–partly because it’s a sequel to Trust Me On This and captures the madcap spirit of that book rather more effectively than the second Sara Joslyn novel, but mainly because there’s a dog in it.  Oh Mr. Westlake, you shouldn’t have.  Seriously, he shouldn’t, because this is a murder mystery, and the dog is the victim.  Also a major celebrity.  Who answers (well, formerly) to the rather unsonorous name of–

Skeeks: From Playboy (Again?  Did they have him on retainer?), 1995.  The protagonist of the piece is Boy Cartwright, the sneering smarmy supercilious English rival to Sara Joslyn and Jack Ingersoll, the Uriah Heep of the scandal sheet.  He is still star reporter for the Weekly Galaxy, (No mention of ‘Massa’ so this would definitely have taken place well after the first novel).  A man so utterly without scruples of any kind that were he not a fictional character he would undoubtedly already be on the Trump transition team.

The second and final Joslyn book came out in 1994.  Boy was in it (briefly).  Good bet Westlake would have come up with some secondary storylines to reintroduce him, remind people what an unmitigated cad he is, that ultimately didn’t fit into the finished work.  Or else he just had this idea for another Hollywood satire, Boy was clearly the man for the job, and he was fresh in his creator’s mind.

In any event, this is the longest story in the collection, 22 pages.  Not novella length, but more room than Westlake normally had to work with in this format, and as a result it feels much more like an actual story, as opposed to a sketch.  Though Boy himself is little more than a caricature, albeit vividly drawn.  So in spite of my above attempts to explain the existence of this tale, I must yet inquire–Mr. Westlake–of all the beloved supporting characters from past novels you might have tapped for a leading role–all the Handy McKays, the J.C. Taylors, the Brenda & Ed Mackeys–why him?  Well, let’s try and figure that out.

Boy Cartwright awakens like the dead (to conscience, anyway) from a drunken revel with a subordinate named Trixie (“or so she claimed.”)  His phone rings–it’s Mr. Scarpnafe, some high muckity muck with the Galaxy.  He informs Boy that Skeeks is dead, as if Boy is supposed to know what that means.  Boy pretends to know what that means.

He is to fly to Los Angeles at once, assemble a team, to cover the funeral, assemble vital statistics regarding the deceased, and above all to get The Body in the Box, which as you should all know by now means a picture of some grand personage in his or her coffin for the front page.  These are frequently very tricky to obtain, as has been sufficiently well covered elsewhere.  Skeeks shall prove to be no exception.  But who, pray tell, is Skeeks?

On the plane coming out, Boy had been brought up to speed on the late Skeeks, who had been, it seemed, a lovable German Shepherd, as if there could be any such a thing.  For three years Skeeks had portrayed the adorable pooch on an extremely successful sitcom, and when the human male lead of that show decided to throw it all in for the glories of failure as a motion picture star, the mail bemoaning the disappearance of Skeeks from the nation’s screens (they’re that stupid, and yet they can read and write, marveled Boy) was so overwhelming (the word avalanche was used in all press releases on the subject) that the network brought Skeeks back the next season with his very own sitcom, called Skeeks, in which he portrayed the dog in a man-and-dog vaudeville act.  The idea at the heart of this series–that there is, at this moment, in the secondary cities of America, a thriving circuit of vaudeville theaters–was not the most outlandish suggestion ever made on television, and it was accepted without a murmur, as was Skeeks’ partner on Skeeks, a comedian named Bill Terry, who when sober could juggle, sing, ride a unicycle and remember jokes.

The funeral shall be conducted at Forest Lawn’s Wee Kirk o’ the Heather, “the largest send-off there since that tramp what’s-her-name.” (I assume the narrator doesn’t refer to Lassie, since she was a paragon of virtue, and also invariably portrayed by male collies).

(This is all very dated, you know–like worse than the notion that there’s an active vaudeville circuit in late 20th century America.  There had been no American primetime network shows with a dog as the protagonist since Lassie went off the air in 1975.  None that lasted, anyway.  Might as well have said the funeral was for Ed Sullivan, and he was still on TV each week with Senor Wences and Topo Gigio-[I wish].

Dogs could still have roles on sitcoms by then, sure.  But when Frasier went off the air, they didn’t do a spin-off about the misadventures of Eddie Spaghetti.  Which would have been watched religiously in my house, I can tell you.  And we will watch anything with a lovable German Shepherd in it.  “As if there could be any such a thing.”  I do hope that line was worth the extra stint in Purgatory, Mr. Westlake.)

Now the problem with giving Skeeks the traditional Galaxy treatment, as opposed to your usual dead celebrity, is that being a dog, he’d led a very boring life away from work.  No scandalous affairs (he had, in fact, been neutered as a puppy), no catty ex-wives (well, obviously), no threats to walk over outrageous salary demands, no racist remarks, no drunken binges (at least a famous feline might have had some catnip-related indiscretions), no cults, no stints in rehab.  He just lived quietly at home with his caretaker/housekeeper Mayjune Kent, a former model who had been horribly scarred (The Phantom of the Opera would faint at the sight of her) by acid thrown by a crazed admirer, whom she had subsequently run over with a car.  They were said to be very close, Skeeks and Mayjune–the scars don’t bother him at all–but no sex tapes, so that’s a dead end.

But at a local restaurant, an informant who works at the veterinary clinic Skeeks was pronounced dead at has a terrible secret to reveal–it was murder!  (dramatic music please).  The vets are hushing it up because they’re afraid they’ll get blamed.  But no question at all, somebody poisoned Skeeks, idol of a grieving nation.  And Boy Cartwright, crusading reporter, fully intends to find out whodunnit, because that would make a smashing story.

So let me just cut to the chase, since there’s one more story to review after this.  After a bit of sniffing around (heh), and several successive failures to obtain the required coffin photo, Boy winds up inside the former Skeeks residence, and overhears a conversation between Mayjune Kent and Sherry Cohen, producer on the show, and girlfriend to Bill Terry, Skeeks’ sidekick (he’s reportedly none too happy about that).

Mayjune has cracked the case–she knows Sherry poisoned Skeeks.  She knows precisely why Sherry would do such a thing.  A depressed and overshadowed Bill is slowly drinking  himself to death.  The only way to save him was to make him a star in his own right.  The show’s ratings are such that the network would look for some way to save it in the event of Skeeks’ untimely demise, and promote Bill to star.  (It somehow never occurred to Sherry that there’s other German Shepherds working in showbiz.  I mean, how many dogs have played Kommissar Rex by now?  Komissar Who, you ask?  Dumkopfs.)

But surely Mayjune could be mistaken in her suspicions?  And anyway, so what if she isn’t?

“Mayjune, he was an animal!  You can’t say he–besides, why say it was me?  I mean, if it even happened.”

“I didn’t do it, and Bill doesn’t have the guts, and who else is there?  You did it for love, Sherry.  I know you did, for the love of Bill.  But I loved Skeeks, and that’s why you’re going to die now.”

Jumping to her feet, Sherry cried, “What are you talking about?  I’m not going to die!”

“We both are, Sherry.  Skeeks was the only one in my life.  You took him away from me.  I have no reason to live.”

“Mayjune!  For God’s sake, what have you done?”

“The same poison you  used,” Mayjune said, as calm as voice mail.  “It’s in the cookies, and the tea.  We both have less than half an hour to live.”

Sherry is forced to accept that it’s too late to do anything about the poison, and she and Mayjune somberly await their impending demise, while Boy tiptoes over to the fridge to get himself a snack to tide him over until it’s over.  Mayjune mentioned having a lovely photograph of Skeeks in his coffin that she snapped herself at the vet’s; it’s right there in the other room, so he is victorious on all fronts.  He’ll call the police after he’s safely away from there, and after he’s called his scoop in to the Galaxy, of course.  In the meantime, he starts working on the lead-in to his story.  “They did it for love.”  Something Boy Cartwright could never understand, but hum a few bars…

So if I’d happened to pick up the issue of Playboy this first appeared in (for the articles, of course) I’d consider it well worth the inflated cover price.  (I never did much care for the naked pictures they no longer feature there, so obvious and banal, though there was this red-headed firewoman from Texas–).

And as with his other efforts featuring the delirious denizens of the Galaxy, he achieves this odd effect, where you both rejoice in the amoral escapades of the reporters, and at the same time,  mourn for the human condition, such as it is.  I still believe Westlake was afraid of dogs, hence his almost W.C. Fieldsian cynicism towards them (as much a self-conscious posture as Fields’ supposed dislike of children–in both cases, the real target is cheap sentiment), but under all that, you still somehow feel that Mayjune Kent, as absurd as the motive and manner of her self-inflicted demise may be, is still the only human in this story who is worth a tinker’s damn.

A dog doesn’t care what you look like.  Skeeks only saw and smelled a person he loved.  She saw him the same way, caring nothing for his celebrity, for the image of him projected on TV–just for the image of her true self she saw reflected in his guileless eyes.  And she knew that for all his fame, the law could never properly avenge him. Because to the law, and the holding company that owned (and heavily insured) him, he was only a valuable piece of property.  And the backstory has already established that Mayjune is capable of murder, when you attack her self-image.

And strangely, it’s through the malevolent machinations of a man who never loved anybody, who is completely unmoved by the spectacle unfolding before him, that the world will learn of this poignant sacrifice she made.  No doubt soon to be a movie of the week.  Actually, I don’t think they were doing those on the networks by the Mid-90’s either.  Maybe on Lifetime?  Or E!  Actresses will be lined up from Burbank to Fresno to play Mayjune.  Scars!  Prosthetic makeup!  Emmy, here I come!

So that leaves just one more story, fittingly enough entitled–

Take it Away:  From 1997, published in an anthology called The Plot Thickens (Lawrence Block had something in it too), the proceeds of which went to charity, but a critic must of course show none.

An FBI agent on a stakeout pops into a Burger Whopper franchise (pretty sure there’d be a lawsuit if anybody started a franchise by that name) for a quick bite, and the guy behind him starts chatting him up in ways that subtly suggest he knows the guy he’s talking to is an FBI agent on a stakeout.  The Fed is suspicious, but thinks maybe he’s imagining it.  They’re after this sneaky French art smuggler.  Well, guess what?  The guy in line behind him was the smuggler, playing with him for laughs, taunting him with his mastery of disguise and his ability to assume a perfect American accent.  End of story.

Okay, that was short shrift, but I’m over 6,000 words, and I did not like that one at all.  The Times reviewer loved it, and she gave it all of one sentence.  This is probably the longest review Take it Away will ever get.

There’s maybe ten very good stories in this collection of eighteen written over the course of maybe thirty years.  A few others that are decent enough little thumbnail sketches.  And nothing that comes remotely close to the best work this writer was capable of.

But as I said when reviewing The Curious Facts, it may well be that Westlake needed to keep trying to write that perfect short story that just simply was not in him, in order to prepare himself for the kind of writing he was meant for.  In chapter after chapter of his best novels (and even some of his lesser ones), you do in fact see that perfect short story–bundled into a larger narrative.  By working in miniature, on short deadlines, writing to the ever-dwindling magazine market, he learned how to put a lot of story into a very small space.  But he needed that extra space a novel affords to make his characters breathe.  So that we’d give a damn when they stopped breathing.

But suppose his characters were writers, like himself?  Could he make us care about them?  Time to find out.  And if it doesn’t work, well, better get out the hook.

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Filed under Donald Westlake short stories

Review: Backflash, Part 3

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They were keeping close to the east bank, and it stayed pretty much the same until they passed another river town, smaller than Hudson, and looking poorer, its clapboard houses climbing above one another back up the hill from the water.  Hanzen steered farther away from shore at that point, out closer to the middle of the river, which was very wide here, the other bank visible but not clear, just a blur of green and the colors of structures.

North of that town, Hanzen steered closer to the bank again and said, “You don’t mind, I got some stuff of my own to look at along here.”

“Go ahead.”

“First we see if my alarm’s okay,” Hanzen said, and steered abruptly leftward, toward the middle of the river, so that Parker had to press his forearm down on the cabin top to keep his balance. Hanzen drove out a ways, then swung around in a wide half-circle, looking toward the shore, and smiled in satisfaction.  “There it is,” he said.  “You see the big branch bent down?”

Parker shook his head.  “Just so you do,” he said.

Hanzen grinned back at him.  “That’s right, I guess.  We know what we have to know, and we see what we have to see.”

For perhaps no other reason than that I love the Hudson River so damn much (which only increases my enjoyment of this book), I have filched the above scenic vista from the New York Times.  It’s the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse, also called The Hudson City Light, which is out on the river between the towns of Hudson and Athens, but closer to the Hudson side of the Hudson.  It’s not mentioned in Backflash at all, nor is the long narrow island nearby (more of a glorified sandbar) with the less than picturesque name of ‘Middle Ground Flats’, which has been a frequent hazard to navigation in those parts (hence the lighthouse), and has a few marginally legal shanty houses on it.

Those would both seem like relevant things to mention in this story, though I suppose it wasn’t strictly necessary (the Hudson has more mysteries than any one novel can be expected to address, or any thousand novels, for that matter).  I don’t expect Westlake was out there much around Hudson, mentally mapping the area from a boat.  I don’t know he went out there at all when he was writing this one.  I think he was mainly working on old memories here.  He knew what he had to know.  He saw what he had to see.

Although no one has yet seen any riverboat casinos steaming down the Hudson River (with or without paddlewheels or James Garner in a Stetson), many waterfront locales have had the dubious pleasure of hosting such establishments. As you would expect, it’s mainly been communities with a lot of poverty and unemployment, and then somebody shows up making big promises, saying this is going to be so classy and everybody’s going to get rich, you’ll never lose again, believe me.  You know where I’m going with this.

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This one was on a Great Lake. Huge.  

I had to search around a bit to find book covers I hadn’t already used (I hadn’t anticipated a Part 3 for this review). Fortunately there was an alternate German edition.  (There are no crocodiles in the Hudson River, or even alligators, but that’s nit-picking.)  Sein Letzer Trumpf means “His Last Trump” in German, and as is so often the case with genre book titles, had been used before, but in a different genre.

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Buster Brack, I have only now learned, was a pseudonym of Kurt Brand, a German pulp writer (mainly science fiction and westerns), who seems to have written a whole lot more novels than Westlake, under many names, including some of those endless (and still ongoing) Perry Rhodan science fiction adventures that I’d guess Westlake would have dismissed as stories about ‘psupermen’–but you know, many of us obviously need to believe in supermen, with or without the silent ‘p.’

And I guess now’s as good a time as any to ask–is Parker a superman?  Was Westlake violating his own aversion to this type of character by creating him, and keeping him alive across the course of twenty-four novels and forty-six years?  Is he just another square-jawed hard-bitten two-fisted adventurer, only with a different set of hardware than if he was in a horse opera or a space opera?

Westlake said Stark was the romantic in him speaking, and that means Parker is an ideal–an archetype.  Drawn from both real and fictional gangsters of the early 20th century.   And probably from other genres, such as the western (I’ve already talked about some of this in that Genealogy of a Hunter piece).  Maybe from much older sources as well–Westlake believed Parker had always been lurking out there in storyland, and all he’d done was bring him into the foreground for once.

But Westlake was never content to just let him be a type.  He had to keep putting him to the question, challenging him, giving him identity puzzles to solve–his own or someone else’s.  This is what keeps him from being like those SciFi psupermen Westlake despised, or some gat-toting guff-spouting gangster or gumshoe–that and the fact that he’s not trying to impose his worldview on anyone else.  He’s content to just be what he is, and let others figure out who they are and what they want for themselves, if they can–as long as they don’t overly complicate his existence.  Then they may have to go.

And with less than seventy pages to go in this book, this should be a really short Part 3.  Why don’t I believe that, even as I type it?   Because just like their protagonist, not to mention their creator, these books are never as simple as they seem.

The heist is done.  Parker, Dan Wycza, and Lou Sternberg have been picked up on the river by Hanzen, the river rat and two-time loser, who has a secret they need to know.  Mike Carlow and Noelle Braselle subsequently debarked The Spirit of the Hudson (Nee Biloxi) by more conventional means, with the cash most unconventionally hidden in a compartment under Noelle’s wheelchair that is normally reserved for a less pleasant (though arguably more useful) substance.

As Hanzen’s boat approaches the stretch of shoreline where their rented cabin is, they hear shots.  Parker could smell Hanzen’s fear already, suspected a cross, and now he’s sure of it.  Hanzen, resigned to his unfortunate lot in life (and powerfully reminiscent of Dortmunder in  this worldweary resignation), needs little persuasion to tell what he knows–the biker gang who distribute the pot he grows in hidden locations along the river’s edge figured out Parker wasn’t a restaurateur looking for a riverfront location (Parker himself made that obvious when he stared down one of them who was blocking his path).

They beat on Hanzen until he caved (knowing that even if he didn’t, he’d still have them to answer to after the heist was done). They’re waiting there at the cabin to kill Parker & Co. and take the money.  As to the gunfire, he’s got no idea what that’s all about (we do, since we know about Ray Becker, the dirty cop who was waiting there at the cabin himself, for the same reasons, only to see the bikers arrive, and decide to deal with them himself).

Sternberg wants Hanzen shot and dumped in the river without delay.  Parker reminds him they need him to pilot them back to an alternate location, namely Hanzen’s own landing, where they can take possession of his car and then deal with whoever is left over by their cabin.  Hanzen says fine, he’ll take them there, hand them the keys, then they can kill him, and his troubles will be over.

Parker isn’t sure yet whether Hanzen needs to die.  Yes, he betrayed them, but not of his own volition–he wasn’t getting greedy.  He only did it to survive.  He was trapped between his arrangements with two different groups.  Parker can understand that.  He’s not sympathetic, exactly.  But he can see why Hanzen did what he did, and Hanzen owned up to it, and that button in Parker’s head has only been half-pushed–he doesn’t want Hanzen dead.  Not unless he needs to be.

Sternberg, thinking of his comfortable life in London, wants all loose ends tied up neatly.  Hanzen got them back to his landing, they have his car keys, he needs to stop breathing now.  Parker is on the fence.  Dan breaks the tie.  Right after he breaks Hanzen’s jaw with a vicious right hand.

While still on the boat, needled by Wycza, Hanzen had a little something to say about ‘enhanced interrogation.’

“Leaned on him,” Wycza said, scoffing.  “They leaned on him.  Made faces and said boo.”

“That’s right,” Hanzen said, “they did that, too.  They also kicked me in the nuts a couple times, kicked me in the shins so I got some red scars you could look at, twisted my arms around till I thought they broke ’em, closed a couple hands down on my windpipe until I passed out.”  He turned away from the wheel, though still holding on to it, and looked Wyza up and down.  “You’re a big guy,” he said, “so you figure it don’t happen to you.  The day it does, big man, when you got seven or eight comin at you, not to kill you but just to make you hurt, you remember Greg Hanzen.”

“I’ll do that,” Wycza promised.

He clearly did, because after dropping Hanzen, Dan walks away, saying he wants no part of killing him.  In the world he and the others have chosen to live in, mercy is almost always a mistake, but sometimes it’s a mistake worth making, if you want to go on being yourself.  Parker and Lou shrug, figuring what the hell, he’s not a threat, and you don’t kill when you don’t have to. They leave him there, unconscious, his jawbone in pieces, an angry biker gang soon to descend upon him, and drive away in his little Hyundai, which shall never be returned.  The quality of their mercy is somewhat strained, it must be said.

They were lucky they heard the shots before they dumped their guns in the river. Parker and Wycza both have their heavy artillery–a Colt Python and a S&W Magnum.  Lou has an automatic they took from a guard on the boat.  They scope out the cabin and the surrounding area, and find three dead bikers.  They figure he’s hiding in one of the unoccupied cabins.  Whoever he is.  They find evidence he’s been wounded, but hard to say how badly.  They go back to the Hyundai, where Lou is keeping watch.

By this time, Mike and Noelle have showed up, Noelle still looking pretty wan–playing a sickly girl has made her temporarily sick herself (Dan, still nursing the Starkian heister’s equivalent of a crush, is worried about her).  They discuss the situation, and the upshot is that only Parker has to worry about this guy, whoever he is.  He could never possibly find any of the others. They have their cash, and they want to go spend it.  Parker’s the one who has to make sure this guy doesn’t show up on his doorstep sometime, so Parker’s on his own.

He is in perfect philosophical agreement with this.  No argument at all.  As you’ll recall, he argued with Handy McKay, quite a ways back during the events of The Outfit, when Handy wanted to help him out in his private war with Arthur Bronson.  But at least there Handy stood to get some profit from that venture. What bothered Parker then was that Handy was pitching in because he thought of himself as Parker’s friend.  Parker doesn’t think of himself as having friends. He respects these people he’s working with, trusts them as much as he’ll ever trust anybody, but the job is over, and any professional loyalty they may owe each other has already been satisfied.

They tally up the proceeds of the night’s work, and it comes to $319,720.  You know, that seems a bit light to me for a casino heist–if this is the late 90’s.  Just saying.  Inflation.  Parker takes out three grand for having financed the job.  He rules that the four departing string members get 63k each, and he’ll keep what’s left over for tidying up the mess they leave behind.  They consider that more than fair.

He bids them an unsentimental farewell, as they drive away together in Mike’s limo, and far as we know, he never sees any of them ever again, though obviously he’d want to work with them again, and they with him.  Maybe Dan and Noelle decide along the way to have fun spending their money together, maybe not. Maybe Mike finally builds that race car where all the gas is stored in metal tubing (maybe that’s why we never hear anything more about him).  Maybe Lou is knighted by Queen Elizabeth, becomes the Marquess of Montpelier Gardens, enters the House of Lords, and retires to a landed estate with Fergie (either one). Make up your own stories, why don’t you?

Waiting for his night vision to come back, so he can go back and kill this guy, Parker suddenly has to dodge a pick-up truck coming from the direction of the cabins–moving too fast for him to shoot the driver.  Knowing it’s safe now, he checks the cabins more thoroughly, and realizes the guy who shot the bikers had passed out from his wound afterwards.  He hadn’t moved on Parker and Wycza because he never even saw them.  Then he woke up, realized his original plan was ruined, and got out of there.  Parker sets fire to the cabins, to remove any trace of forensic evidence that could lead to him or the others.

That was supposed to be the end of the job.  But he has to deal with the guy who shot the bikers.  He has to deal with Cathman.  And now he wearily realizes he’s got to deal with Hanzen.  Mike’s offhanded act of humanity was a mistake. Because they had to take Hanzen’s Hyundai to get to the cabins.  And once they were all there, the only thing for the others to do was take their splits and split, in Mike’s car, leaving Parker behind to cover their tracks.  No time to stop and think it through.

But Parker, all by himself, can’t get rid of Hanzen’s car–the fire will bring the cops around in a hurry, and they’ll find it there.  It will lead the cops to Hanzen, and Hanzen has met him, Wycza, and Sternberg.  He knows things about the job the law might use to come after Parker and his string.  He knows Pete Rudd, the guy who referred Parker to him (who I just now remembered was in Parker’s string in The Seventh–he was the former cabinet maker who got beaten up by The Amateur, then caught by the law, and now he’s out again–and still on the bend, apparently.  Because there’s still not much work out there for a cabinet maker).

Parker does the math–Hanzen’s a known former felon, who associates with local gang members, who will need medical treatment for a broken jaw, the night of a major robbery on a river he basically lives on.  The odds of him avoiding attention from the law are not good, and he’s already proven he’ll break like an egg when the pressure is on.  The button in Parker’s head is now fully pushed. Hanzen has become too much of a liability to go on breathing.

Parker drives to Hanzen’s landing in the Lexus he’s been using, telling himself that if Hanzen isn’t there, he’ll just let matters drop, and hope the poor schmuck knows better than to talk to the law (‘schmuck’ is me talking, somehow Yiddish and Parker don’t go together).  But Hanzen doesn’t even know better than to get the hell out of sight.  He’s still there, on his boat, groggy from Dan’s blow, his head wrapped in a towel.  Parker tells him his problems are over after all.  Fade to black.

Of all the killings Parker does in twenty-four novels, this one bothers me more than any that don’t involve dogs.  Hanzen’s something of a shelter mutt himself, you might say.  In his quiet downbeaten way, he’s a likable guy, with an interesting outlook–and smalltime crook that he is, he’s hardly a menace to society. As he told Parker earlier, he’d been to prison twice, and he wanted to stay free, no matter what.  Whether he spilled what he knew to the cops or not, he was probably going back inside for the rest of his life.  If he didn’t, those dead bikers have friends who will want to take their mad out on somebody, and he’d be the only punching bag in town.

You could call it mercy, but that’s not what it is. You could call it survival of the fittest, but that’s not quite right either.  It’s simply this–Hanzen was trapped between two identities.  He’d been on the bend too long to make it in the straight world.  Hence the pot growing and doing odd jobs for guys like Parker.  But he didn’t have all the instincts necessary to survive in that world, or the strength to accept the consequences of living in it.  He couldn’t commit to either life, so he lost both.  And nobody will mourn him.  Except us.  And maybe Stark.

And Parker still isn’t done.  Miles to go before he sleeps, and he needs that sleep, very badly.  The main problem is Claire, or rather, her house, that she’s grown attached to, as he’s grown attached to her.  Howell gave Cathman the number of the house.  Cathman has used that number to get the address.  Meaning that now Parker has to silence Cathman, or else he and Claire have to pull up stakes and disappear.  Parker doesn’t know how much the shooter at the cabins knows.

He’s got to assume the worst.  He’s got to keep driving.  All the way to Albany. All the way to Cathman’s house.  Which has a pick-up truck parked outside it–very similar to the one that nearly ran Parker down near the cabins.  And stored in the truck is a shotgun, marked property of Monroeville P.D.  That town name sounds familiar.  But he doesn’t have the time–or  by this point, the mental acuity–to ponder it.

Parker enters silently, finds Cathman asleep upstairs, with the lights on.  In his office, there are sheets of paper on his desk.  He’s been writing something out in longhand, something important to him, and he’s been obsessively editing it, trying to make it perfect (an exercise in futility, as any writer could tell you).

Normally Parker wouldn’t care what garbled nonsense goes through the mind of a failed apparatchik; what would make him set pen to paper when his career is already over, but now Parker’s got to know.

What’s with Cathman now?  Why was he afraid to sleep in the dark?  What idea is he trying so hard to express?

Standing over the desk, Python in right hand, Parker moved the sheets around with his left index finger.  The writing was very neat and legible, a bureaucrat’s penmanship, but there were a lot of crossings-out and inserted additions.  Numbers in circles were at the top left of each page.  Parker picked up the page marked “1” and read:

“Gambling is not only a vice itself, but is an attraction to other vice.  Theft, prostitution, usury, drug dealing and more, all follow in gambling’s train.”

Oh; it was his dead horse again, still being beaten.  Parker was about to put the page back down on the desk, but something tugged at his attention, and he skimmed the page down to the bottom, then went on to page 2, and began to see that this was more than just the dead horse, more than just Cathman’s usual whine. This time, he was building towards something, some point, some deal…

It’s damned near impossible to horrify Parker, but as he reads on, he experiences something rather akin to horror.  Cathman isn’t writing an Op Ed here–he’s writing a confession to conspiracy to commit armed robbery!  His plan all along was to get some professional criminals to rob the casino boat, in order to prove that casino boats will attract professional criminals.  Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

And I think Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle might also be fairly applied here, but maybe Cathman isn’t familiar with that.  He certainly should have been familiar with Parker’s First Law.  For every action that might get Parker dead or jailed, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  But Parker, exhausted and wired at the same time, is still reeling at this revelation of the chaos that can erupt from even the most seemingly well-ordered of human minds.

Insane.  The son of a bitch is insane.  The dead horse is riding him.  He’s so determined to prove that gambling leads to crime that he’s got to rig the crime.  He went out to find people to commit the crime for him; first Howell, then Parker.  Point them at the ship, give them every bit of help they want, so after they do their job he can say, “See? I was right.  Gambling led to the robbery, so shut down the gambling ship.  And listen to me from now on, don’t shunt me off into retirement, as though I was old and useless and not valuable any more.”

And it would take no time at all for the law to realize Cathman was in on it.  His idea is that he’ll tell the cops he knows who did the robbery, but he won’t tell them anything unless they give him and his quadruped corpse a press conference.  They won’t need to comply, because once he’s admitted he knows something about a felony, but isn’t telling, he’s already guilty of a crime.  And since the only member of the string he knows about is Parker….

(Sure, we can laugh, but people much higher up the political food chain than Cathman ever was have done far stupider things.)

He wakes Cathman up.  Cathman, trying to control his fear and not succeeding, pretends he only wrote his manifesto in case Parker and the others were caught and pointed the finger at him.  Honestly, if Parker was sure this was all he’d done, he would have strangled Cathman in his sleep, so he wouldn’t have to hear all this rote denial.  But he’s got to know if there’s anything else.  He’s very tired, and he’s got to do this all by himself (Handy McKay would have come in handy right about now, wouldn’t you say, Parker?).  He’s very focused on tying up this loose end, and then the other loose end knocks him out from behind.

(I hate this part of crime fiction.  The hero detective getting knocked out from behind just as he’s getting to the truth.  Particularly since this hero detective isn’t really a detective or a hero, and he knew there was a strange truck parked out there that didn’t belong to Cathman, and he should have located the driver before he started with Cathman .  Westlake does his best to sell it, making Parker atypically vulnerable and unwary from lack of rest, because he needs Parker to be at Becker’s mercy for a short time, so Parker can learn the rest of the story from him.  I understand that.  That doesn’t mean I have to like it.  It’s a cliché of the genre this series has done quite well without up to now.  But hey, it worked great for Mickey Spillane.  And even real wolves get taken by surprise sometimes, as many a pelt nailed to a trophy wall attests. I’d just rather Ray had just told Parker to put his hands up from the doorway, but Parker has a very impressive-looking pistol in one hand, and I guess that would be problematic as well. Fanboy whining disabled now, back to synopsis.)

Parker wakes up with his hands cuffed behind him.  Well, this is a setback.  Ray is trying to get Cathman to tell him where the money is.  Might as well ask him where Jimmy Hoffa is (unless maybe he set that up too?).

Now that Ray’s realized Cathman is no good to him, Parker has an opening–he offers a deal.  The same kind of deal he offered George Liss in the previous book–a split of the take.  As with Liss, it’s a deal neither man intends to honor, but each will pretend to believe in, to get what he wants.  Ray wants all the money.  Parker wants to kill him.  Parker pretends he’s there to shut Cathman up, and he’s still got to go back and get his share from the others.

As it happens, his share is right there in his car, hidden away, but he won’t mention that, and it wouldn’t be enough for Ray’s purposes anyway.  Ray, feeling the law closing in on him too, needs so badly to believe he can get the whole pile, and disappear to some distant tropic paradise without extradition treaties, he won’t let himself believe that’s no longer an option.

While they’re working all this out, Cathman, perhaps finally coming to terms with the sheer ludricousness of his plan, not to mention his life, takes a lot of pills, and saves Parker the trouble of killing him.  Just one more loose end left.

Parker is already sizing Ray up, and coming to some well-founded conclusions about him.  Some kind of cop (who else goes around with handcuffs and a police department shotgun?).  He’s in some kind of trouble.  He heard about the heist from somebody.  Parker still needs to know who before he kills the guy (Parker is thinking this while the guy has his hands cuffed behind his back and has a gun on him, and it doesn’t seem even the least bit presumptious, does it?).

So Parker says he’ll take Ray to where the money is, and they’ll give him a cut to make him go away, and Ray says he’ll accept the cut, and before they go, Ray agrees to let Parker search Cathman’s house for anything that might lead the law to him.  He destroys it all, except for the manifesto, which Ray pockets (probably figuring he could use it for leverage if all else fails).

With Ray’s kind (and deeply unwise) indulgence, Parker takes a pen–not the fancy retractable kind, so probably not the brand you’d associate with him.  He also pockets a paperclip.  He notices Ray is not being careful not to leave fingerprints around the house–which means he’s definitely leaving his old life behind–and also means he’s careless.  All the better.   Parker talks Ray into taking his Lexus, instead of the pick-up.  If he leaves that money here, it’s gone. Ray now has to cuff him behind his back again.  Gives him the old Face To the Wall routine.  Absolutely a cop, Parker thinks.

The story Parker is telling is that he’s supposed to meet up with his colleagues who have all the money, down along the same stretch of river the cabins were on. The reason being that Parker scouted that area with Carlow beforehand, and he needs to know the terrain in order to make his next move.  There’s only a quarter tank of gas left in the Lexus.  Wait until the tank is nearly empty, then guide Ray past a lonely gas station on a lightly trafficked road.  First they have to cover some more heavily trafficked roads, and Stark has to give us a suspiciously Westlake-sounding history lesson.

At first it was all major highways, across the Hudson River out of Albany and then due east toward Massachusetts.  This was called the Thruway Extension and at the state line it would met up [darn, typo in my paperback edition, well those happen sometimes] with the Massachusetts Turnpike, one hundred fifty miles due east to Boston.  A little before that, there was teh Taconic Parkway, the oldest major highway in the state, built in the twenties so the state government people in Albany would have easy access to New York City, one hundred fifty miles to the south and screw the rest of the state, which didn’t get a big road until the thruway came in, thirty years later.

Okay, but it’s a really pretty highway to drive on all the same, Mr. Sourpuss Stark. Particularly in autumn.  Not that Parker gives a shit either way, and the only color Ray is seeing now is green.  Red isn’t here yet.

They reach the station.  Parker mentions the gas gauge.  Ray figures he needs to take a leak anyway–and he enjoys leaving Parker, who needs one just as much, in the car, while he goes.  That’s how a cop thinks, you see–good or bad.  Keep reminding the perp who’s in charge.  Never mind that he’s a perp too.  That’s not the point.

The point, unfortunately for him, is that Parker still has that paper clip.  Which makes a dandy lock pick, if you happen to be cuffed behind your back.  He freed his hands before they even got to the gas station and is only pretending to still be cuffed.  I bet Houdini would have made a great bank robber back in the twenties. Parker probably wouldn’t have been able to work the showmanship angle well enough to be a professional magician, though Claire would have made a ravishing assistant.  I digress.  Almost 5,000 words, we can start wrapping this up now.

He’s got no gun, but he’s got the pen, and the element of surprise.  As Ray comes out of the men’s room, Parker clubs him with a hard left, using the cuffs as brass knuckles.  He tries to get him in the eye with the pen, but just stabs him in the cheek.  Ray was so used to thinking of himself as being in charge, he can’t handle the role reversal, doesn’t react fast enough.  Parker gets his .38 revolver before he knows what’s happening.  Then he shoots Ray right above the belt buckle (perhaps remembering how a belt buckle saved his life back in the first book, you never know with him).

Ray’s finished, but he can’t bring himself to believe it.  Parker tells him to sit on the toilet while he looks at Ray’s wallet.  Yeah, he’s a cop.  He had all that figured just right, master detective that he is (I don’t mind that part of the genre so much) but he still wants to know how Ray got involved in all this.  He’s had time to think about it.  He’s got a theory he wants to test out.  He mentions a name. Marshall Howell.  The man Ray Becker killed by squeezing him too hard, when he was pinned inside a crumpled car.  Trying to get the location of the money from an earlier heist, getting Cathman’s name instead.  The dead cop’s eyes fill with fear when Parker says that name.  Bingo.

You ever notice how often Parker avenges someone’s murder in these books without remotely intending to do that?  He doesn’t really have a sense of justice. But Richard Stark does.  And Parker is his instrument.

“You didn’t have a lot of time,” Parker told him.  “I guess you were already in a lot of trouble, you look like that kind.  He wouldn’t give you me, but he gave you Cathman, and here you come, on the run, gonna kill the whole world if you have to, get your hands on fuck-you money.”

“He was dying anyway,” Becker said.

“He was not,” Parker told him.  “But he should have been.  I knew it was a mistake to let him live.”

He took the Python out of his pocket, put it an inch from Ray Becker’s left eye.  Becker was saying all kinds of things, panting and spitting out words.  “We live and learn, Ray,” Parker said, and shot him.

Chapter 14 of Part 4 is only two pages, nothing more than a coda to this symphony.  Parker goes to where the kid clerking the convenience store at the gas station is, just to make sure he didn’t hear anything.  Kid’s got headphones on, listening to a little plastic radio.  Not a Walkman.  Geez, I’m not sure it’s even the 1980’s yet.  But anyway, the kid heard nothing, so he can keep his life, such as it is.  He’s going to have a real surprise when he gets around to cleaning up the men’s room, if he ever does.

Parker drives away in the Lexus, the money still hidden inside it, along with the Python.  He got Cathman’s manifesto from Ray’s pocket, and he slowly tears it to pieces, scattering it along the roadside.  He already passed his final verdict on the feckless finger for this job, back at his house.  Well, you made a lot of trouble, Cathman, Parker thought, but tomorrow people will still pay money to see the next card.  

He drives up a hill, and he can see the river to his right, beautiful as ever, not that he cares.  A sailboat comes into view.  Maybe it’s the Clearwater. He doesn’t care about that either.  He knows what he has to know.  He sees what he has to see.  He drives down the hill and he’s gone from our sight once more.  With all the money he’s heisted the last few weeks, he shouldn’t need to work again for some time.

I think this is both a better and worse novel than Comeback.  More content, less poetry.  Maybe a few too many moving parts to be ranked with the best Starks, but you could say the same of Butcher’s Moon.  Maybe the old familiar faces here are a bit too old and familiar by this point (maybe that’s the real reason we never saw them again), but that’s part of the point of the exercise–to find out which parts of the old series still work in a new era (regardless of when precisely this book is set, and as I said in the beginning, there’s no straight answer to that question anyway).

Maybe a bit too much politics, but that being said, it’s damned interesting to see Stark writing about politics, get his take on it, not quite the same as Westlake’s, nor entirely different either.  It was never Stark’s point that criminals are the only really honest people out there.  But at least his criminals know they’re dishonest.  The best of them, anyway.  The ones Parker wouldn’t need to kill once the job is over.

And if it’s possible to be honest within the parameters of a criminal life, surely it should be much easier to be honest as an ostensibly law-abiding citizen.  So how come it’s not more commonplace?  How come so many people out there are looking for an angle, but not willing to pay the price for playing those angles?  I think that’s something like what he’s getting at.  He’d know better than me.

And that’s 2016, folks.  The year my father died, the year a crook worse than any ever seen in the pages of a Richard Stark novel got elected Leader of the Free World (was Walter Karns not available?).  May 2016 rot in hell.  Did that come across as bitter?  Oh well, these moods come upon me at times.  Irish, you know?

Come the New Year (which I do not anticipate great things from, but it’s free to surprise me), I fully expect to finish the main reviewing project of this blog. Once that’s done, we’ll see what’s left to discuss, if anything. Next up is a rather desultory anthology of short stories, the best of which I’ve already reviewed. After that, there’s still six more Parkers, five more Dortmunders, and various odds and ends, some more diverting than others.  And, I shouldn’t forget to mention, a ‘lost’ Westlake novel, published at last.  But the end is near, kids. Hopefully I’ll finish the blog before then (rimshot).

Okay, I do sound bitter, don’t I?   Fuck that.  I don’t write about fictional crime because I don’t believe there’s anything decent in this world, anymore than Stark/Westlake did.  I write about it because sometimes you have to look deep into the darkness in order to know how beautiful the light can be, and how far away from it you are (and the light in turn can warn you of dangerous waters ahead).

You don’t get to a better world by denying what the world is now.  Maybe you don’t get there at all, but at least you can get your bearings, plot a course, and toughen yourself up a bit.  Like Auden said, Mithridates, he died old.  Cranky blinkered fantasies like Cathman’s don’t get you spit.  Look at reality head-on, see people as they are, and yourself most of all, or it’s no good.

I wish all the poison in this world was just a poetic metaphor for life, but a lot of it is in my river.  Still, much less than there was.  I mentioned the humpback whale that swam under the George Washington Bridge a few weeks back, right? That could be a sign or something, right?  Not everything gets worse.

So I’ll end this misbegotten year with a song that acknowledges all the filth out there, but not in resignation–in defiance.  You can listen to a more high-fidelity version here, but I like the video this guy did on YouTube, the images he used. Well, I appreciate them.  Put it that way.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Backflash, Part 2

Wycza, in shorts and sneakers, was doing push-ups on the weedy grass in front of the cottage. Noelle, seeing him as they drove in, laughed and said, “Is this supposed to be my birthday?”

“Dan Wycza,” Parker told her, and Carlow said “For the heavy lifting.”

“I can see that,” she said.  “Is Lou Sternberg here?”

“Not yet.  He’s in Brooklyn, watching a guy for later.”

Wycza got to his feet when he saw the car coming.  He offered a small wave and went into the house, while Carlow parked the Lexus.  They got out, Noelle carrying her backpack slung over one shoulder, and went into the house, where Wycza now stood in the living room, rubbing his head and neck with a towel.

Parker said, “Noelle Braselle, Dan Wycza.”

“Hi,” Wycza said, and Noelle frowned at him and said, “I know you.  Don’t I know you?”

Grinning, Wycza said “I wish you did, honey.”

Perhaps feeling a need to step up their game, graphically speaking, after the rather disappointing cover art for such an epochal return as Comeback, Mysterious Press hit upon a nifty idea for the dust jackets of the next four Stark novels.  These are now generally known as ‘The Matchbook Covers’ and you can easily see why if you scroll down to Part 1 of this review.  This design was presumably inspired by the ‘flash’ in Backflash, even though there is no actual fire in the book, merely the brief suggestion of it.  (The staple at the bottom of each new matchbook, seen on both the front and back covers, was a nice touch, I thought.)

As you can see up top, French publisher Rivages (their thriller imprint, as opposed to noir, don’t ask me why), did what foreign houses so often did with American cover art, and borrowed the idea, while doing their own thing with it (rather strikingly).  Others focused more on the gambling aspect, and some cover art just can’t be figured out at all from the standpoint of its relationship to the story, no matter how hard you try, so don’t try.  And that’s all the prologue you’re getting this time, so let’s strike a match and shed some light on what’s left of this one.

Part 2 is short and uneventful, and mainly about Parker acquiring the equipment and personnel needed to pull the job.  He’s got to come to an understanding with Hanzen, the ex-con who lives in Hudson, a town alongside the Hudson (that must get confusing).  He’s the one with the boat, and the know-how.  And a bleakly philosophical attitude towards crime and life–crime being the only life he’s ever known.  Crime, and prison.

Hanzen said, “There’s fellas, and you know them, too, that like to be in there.  They won’t admit it, they probably don’t even know it themselves, but they like it.  They like not having to be in charge of their own life, not having that chance to fuck up all the time.  Life is regular, simple routines, food not so bad, you can pick some okay guys to be your pals, you don’t have to be tense any more.”

Parker drove. Traffic was light, mostly pick-up trucks and delivery vans.  Hanzen said, “You get into a little job with a fella like that, he’s just waiting the chance to make that mistake, screw it up just enough so he can say, you got me, officer, and back into the nest he goes.  And you with him.”

“They exist,” Parker agreed.

And Hanzen’s point is that he’s not one of those fellas, he wants to stay on the outside, which is fine by Parker, except that of course Hanzen should know there are never any guarantees.  Hanzen knows they’re going to try and take the casino boat out on the river, Parker doesn’t need to tell him that; he’s not getting a cut of the take, just a straight-up payment for services rendered.  Hanzen picks them up from the boat, drops them off on the shore, gets his money.  If Hanzen sees any sign of trouble on that boat, he won’t go near it.  If there’s trouble on the boat he can see from a distance, the job has already been soured, and he wouldn’t be able to do anything anyway.  So they have an understanding.

They rent an isolated vacation cottage along the river.  They steal a wheelchair designed to serve as a commode on wheels (it will, in the event, serve as a bank on wheels).  Parker gets Cathman to obtain some blank ID forms for state troopers, and he pushes him harder, still trying to figure out why Cathman is doing all this.  Cathman still refuses to come clean.

Parker scopes out the boat, and has Carlow and Braselle start going onboard regularly, posing as a paralyzed but courageous rich girl and her chauffeur.  And her commode on wheels, and after a while the security men just stop checking the receptacle underneath.

Another thing that makes me think this story is taking place much earlier than the date of publication is that Parker is still buying guns from shifty guys operating legit non-gun businesses as a front (who seriously thinks anyone was doing this in the late 20th century in America?  Our growing obsession with Second Amendment rights has taken all the fun out of writing heist novels where the protagonists have to covertly obtain firearms they hardly even use).

This one’s named Maurice Fox, and he’s got a hardware store. In this case the hardware consists of a S&W 357 Magnum model 27, and a Colt Python, same caliber (and of course Parker takes the Python).  It would have been two S&W’s, except one had the serial number removed, and since Wycza and Parker will be posing as a security detail for a politician, they need to look legit.  I’d say they both look pretty legit.  And quite similar to each other, which is the point.

Parker thinks about testing them, but if they actually need to be fired on the job–on the river–Hanzen will not be coming over to get them.  And there’s that old routine about how if they don’t use the guns on the job, Fox will buy them back at half price.  Was that ever really a thing?  I have no idea.

A hard-working Korean immigrant operating a print shop in suburban Pittsburgh turns the blank IDs into real-looking filled-out ID’s.   They steal an official New York State vehicle from a lot in Albany.  Lou Sternberg pens a very convincing letter on official stationary to the company that runs the boat.  It’s purportedly from State Assemblyman Morton Kotkind, who has been opposed to legalized gambling in the past, but is now willing to reconsider his position–he will need a guided tour of the casino boat, while it is in operation, during this six-month trial run.

The real Assemblyman Kotkind will be temporarily indisposed at the time–Lou will see to that.  Non-lethally, of course.  He’ll just suddenly become very ill, courtesy of something Lou slipped in his drink at a courthouse district bar.  Noelle posed as his secretary over the phone, the tour’s all set up, and as Part 2 ends, the heist begins.

(Sidebar: But before we get to that–you see the little exchange up top, between Noelle and Dan.  Westlake did something a little different here for a Stark novel.  He gave us a criminal meet-cute in Part 2.  It’s not too obvious, but it’s not really subtextual either.  They click from the moment they meet, all the more since Noelle recognizes the bemuscled blonde behemoth as part-time pro wrestler, Jack Strongarm; says she really enjoyed the way he pretended to get beat up by clowns he could tear in half without half-trying.  He’s flattered, and more than a little turned on, but they keep it professional while the job’s going on.

Noelle is later seen musing that she might like to find a new guy who is on the bend like her, only more reliable in the clutch than her former beau, Tommy.  The health-conscious Dan is clearly interested in therapeutic sex with somebody in the near future, but most of the women he meets wouldn’t appreciate the more lucrative of his two professions.  Last we see of them, they’re driving off in the same car.  And this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  Or not.  Stark never was much of a matchmaker.  If they adapted this one in the near future, I’d say maybe Anna Kendrick or Emmy Rossum as Noelle and William Colin Morrissey for Dan. Because you can’t teach that.  Back to the boat.)

Part 3 is the round robin chapter this time, as it usually was for the First Sixteen books, though Westlake’s still not adhering strictly to the old system.  Ten chapters, ten different POV’s, but as with Comeback, individual chapters sometimes have more than one POV character.  I find this approach less pleasingly elegant than that of the earlier books, but it’s less obtrusive here than it was in Comeback.  And as it happens, the heist takes place entirely in Part 3, so we’ve got something like 85 pages devoted to a heist here, which is pretty rare in these books.

As always, Stark wants to get into the heads of other people, and contrast them with Parker. But since four of these characters are reliable level-headed professional heisters, who have worked with Parker before–the only people whose mental processes mirror his to any great extent, and therefore make for a less interesting contrast–Stark is also contrasting these more relatably human criminals with variably honest non-criminals, with the sad sack half-criminal Hanzen, and most of all with one jumpy dangerous amateur trying to horn in on their operation.

As we’ve seen in the past, this is the type of character who invariably gives Parker the biggest headaches, because such people have completely lost sight of who they were, if they ever knew to begin with.  They are the wild cards that keep ruining his perfect plans.  And somehow that never works out well for them.  But they keep trying.

The amateur this time is a cop named Ray Becker.  He was never much good as a cop, or at anything else, but as we all know, a high level of professionalism has never been an absolute requirement for a career in law enforcement, and neither has good judgment–looking to supplement his income, Ray got himself involved with some bad people, who then gave him the shaft, and if his role in that comes out, he’s going to jail.  Certain official persons are already looking hard at him, and he needs a lot of money, fast, so he can get out of there, start fresh somewhere else (as he already has, after he made the same mistake in the army).

He was the one who got to Howell, right after the car crash that started this book. He was also the one who (as Parker guessed) was pushing the badly injured Howell too hard for information–not so that he could arrest Howell’s partners, but so he could kill them and take the money.  But he ended up killing Howell instead–just after Howell gave him Cathman’s name.  He followed Cathman to Parker, he figured out what they were after, and now he’s at the cabin by the river, waiting for Parker and the others to come back with his money.  In all probability, he’s waiting to die.  But he could easily take several members of the string down with him.  Parker is planning to ditch their guns in the river before they land.

But before that all comes to a head, there’s a lot of supporting characters to meet. Chapter 2 is about Susan Cahill, a tall blonde former flight attendant, who is now working in customer relations for the company that runs the casino boat.  She left the airline because she fell in love with a banker named Culver (heh), and he turned out to be married, and that understandably soured her with regards to love, and men, but she feels like she’s got the right end of the stick now.  Just use her looks to manipulate men, string them along, and get what she wants.  She thinks that’s power.

So she has to pretend to like this unpleasant little man, Assemblyman Kotkind, and treat him like visiting royalty, and flirt with him lightly, which he greatly enjoys, while not being the least bit fooled, because of course he’s not Assemblyman Kotkind, and the two hulking state troopers in civilian clothes accompanying him are not state troopers.

Then we’re in Dan Wycza’s head for Chapter 3, the very last time we’ll ever be in his head, and he’s thinking he’d love to take this Cahill woman to bed.  Sex with her would be highly therapeutic.  Dan, as we learned all the way back in The Score, is a health nut, but to him there’s nothing nuts about being concerned with your health.

Health was extremely important to Dan Wycza.  It was, as the man said, all we’ve got.  His body was important to him the wa Mike Carlow considered those race cars of his important.  Take care of it, keep it finely tuned, and it will do the job for you.  THe way a car nut likes to tinker with the engines, the fuel mixture, the tire pressure, all those details, that’s the way Wycza took care of himself.  His diet was specific and controlled, his exercise lengthy and carefully planned.  He traveled with so many pills, so many minerals and herbs and dietary supplements, that he seemed like either a hypochondriac or the healthiest-looking invalid in history, but it was all just to keep the the machine well-tuned.

And sex was part of it.  Simple uncomplicated sex was good for both the body and the mind.  There was nothing like rolling around with a good willing woman to keep the blood flowing and the mental attitude perked up.  A woman like this Susan Cahill, for instance.

Pity it wasn’t going to happen.  This woman would never fuck anything but power, or at least her idea of power.  At the moment, to her, Dan Wycza, aka Trooper Helsing, was just a spear career, part of the furniture, a nothing.  Later, he’d be something, all right, but it wasn’t likely to be something she’d find a turn-on.  Not likely.

Sternberg’s role here is crucial, and he savors every minute of it–he’s got to persuade the captain of this tub to let his ‘guards’ keep their weapons, when there’s a firm rule that no one may be armed onboard except security.  Parker is really in charge, of course–but Wycza is amazed at how he pretends to be cowed by Sternberg’s pretended rage at his suggestion the captain can call their barracks to confirm he and his partner are not allowed to be disarmed while on duty. His factfinding mission here is not to be leaked to the press!  Calling the barracks would compromise that.  Don’t you understand that, you fool?

Dan never would have believed Parker could take that that kind of tongue-lashing, even to get several hundred thousand dollars.  However, once Ms. Cahill has taken the captain away for a brief lecture on corporate priorities and how some rules can be overlooked for the sake of good public relations, Parker finds a way to remind Sternberg that he’s still the director of this play, and Lou stops with the scenery chewing.  And they get to keep their guns.

Skipping over another chapter with Ray, Chapter 5 is from the POV of Greg Manchester, eager young cub reporter for the Poughkeepsie Journal.  (This is a real newspaper, as you see, and I am stubbornly italicizing both words in its name, when Westlake just as stubbornly would refuse to italicize the name of whatever community the newspaper served, and I don’t know who’s right, but this is my blog).

Greg is there undercover, because while Avenue Resorts, the Houston-based company that runs this boat and many other gambling-related things (and has, of course, a connection to organized crime, but what doesn’t these days?), loves publicity, but wants to control every aspect of it.  He wants to do an unfiltered story, human interest–not an exposé, because he assumes there’s nothing to expose.  Basically, he just thinks it would be more fun to sneak on the boat as a private citizen, armed with a tiny Minolta camera.  More fun than he thinks.

He notices Nicole immediately, of course, like all the other young straight males onboard –he figures she’ll be a great angle for the story, this beautiful brave sickly young woman in a wheelchair.  He snaps multiple photos of her.  Very telegenic.  Her chauffeur rather less so, but he’ll be good for local color.

He also notices ‘Assemblyman Kotkind,’ but when somebody tells him that is Assemblyman Kotkind, he’s confused–because he’s met Assemblyman Kotkind, and that ain’t him.  Greg is there incognito.  He can’t go to anyone in authority without blowing his cover, but suppose this is important? The chauffeur looks like a guy who’d know what to do in a situation like this.  He heads over to ask him for advice.

So now we’re in Mike Carlow’s head–this is his third and final appearance in the series, same as for Dan.  And as with Dan, we get the obligatory rundown of the odd little quirks of character that make him who he is.  I’ve always neglected Mike in past review, and this is my last chance to talk about him, so let’s get it out of the way at last–he’s not necessarily someone Ralph Nader would approve of.  Which somehow makes me approve of him all the more.

For Mike Carlow, everything related back to the track and the fast cars.  He’d driven his first race when he was fourteen, won for the first time when he was sixteen, and had never much cared about anything else.  For instance, he’d figure it out early that the amount of gasoline in the gas tank affected the car’s center of gravity, constantly shifting the center of gravity as the fuel was used up, so while still in high school he’d designed a car that wouldn’t have that problem because there wasn’t any gas tank; the car was built around a frame of hollow aluminum tubing, and the tubing held the gas.  When someone told him it was crazy to want to drive a car where he’d be completely surrounded by gasoline, he’d said “So what?”  He still couldn’t see what was wrong with the idea, and didn’t understand why no official at any track in America would permit such a design into a race.

(Mike could have been based on any number of crazed grease monkeys Westlake grew up reading about, but this guy here seems like a pretty fair candidate).

His and Noelle’s part of the job is simple but risky–the money’s going into that compartment under her wheelchair, that would normally serve as a commode for people who can no longer control their bodily functions.  This way, even if Parker and the others get stopped out on the river, there’ll be no evidence linking them to the crime (unless the river cops have even sketchy physical descriptions of Parker, Lou, and Dan, in which case they’re screwed).  They just have to hang out, enjoy the scene, pick up the cash, and get off the boat the moment it docks.

Mike can always tell when a job is on the verge of going sour, and this sixth sense of his is going nuts when this Manchester kid comes up to them.  The problem, you might say, solves itself–the kid tells them he’s a reporter.  He tells them that short irritable man being shown around as a visiting dignitary isn’t who he claims to be.  He tells them he’s got pictures of ‘Jane Ann’ for his story.  He’s a trusting soul.  Hopefully it will not be necessary to separate that soul from his body.

They get him out on deck, and Mike saps him from behind.  He gets stowed on a lifeboat.  Not too gently, either.  Neither Mike nor Noelle is feeling terribly gentle towards him at present time.  Noelle sharply tells Mike not to kill him, but get that camera.   Close call for her–if he hadn’t responded to the romantic image of herself she’d created for the job, he wouldn’t have snapped the pictures that might later have put her face on wanted posters–but he also wouldn’t have confided in them, thus neutralizing himself as a threat to the operation.  He’ll have a bad headache when he wakes up.  She could not care less.  He will also have a far better story to write for his paper than he could have ever imagined possible.  She doesn’t care about that either.

And next we’re in Lou Sternberg’s head.  He is loving this job–it’s making up for that art theft fiasco Parker got him involved with in Plunder Squad.  He’s very definitely enjoying his eye-level view of Ms. Cahill’s bosom while she pretends to find him attractive.  But it has its drawbacks–he has to pretend to be this bad-tempered Brooklyn politician for five hours.  As he thinks to himself “He actually was bad-tempered at times, he had to admit, but he’d never been a politician or a Brooklynite, and he certainly hoped he had never been a boor.”

Lou Sternberg’s friends back in England know him as a capital fellow.  He decided long ago that London life suited him, and as a result he never pulls jobs in the United Kingdom, where he spends most of his existence, in his charming little townhouse at Number 2, Montpelier Gardens, SW 6, its gardens enclosed by ancient stone walls.  (Yes, of course I looked it up, and they didn’t look so ancient to me.  And Montpelier Gardens is not in SW 6, but you know there is no 221 B Baker St. at all, to this very day.)

So all Lou really cares about is maintaining a large-enough tax-free income to continue his  gentlemanly lifestyle, working maybe once every two years or so, and he figures that he can support himself another year or two with the bit over 60k (in dollars) he expects to get from this job.  And pretty hard to see how he could do that if we’re talking late 1990’s dollars, converted into late 1990’s British pounds sterling.  But he grows his own cucumbers and brussels sprouts, so I suppose anything’s possible.

Lou doesn’t like being rude for rudeness’s own sake, but as he thinks to himself–

There were reasons for it.  First, the original was like this.  Second, bad temper keeps other people off balance, and they never believe the person being difficult is lying in some way; rudeness is always seen as bona fide.  And the third reason was the money room.

(Maybe he should have run for President.  Oh wait, that would mean living in America.  Never mind.)

So having bluffed his way into the captain agreeing to let his guards keep their guns, now he has to bluff Susan Cahill into letting them see the money room, which is supposed to be kept locked for the entire trip.  The money goes down chutes from the gaming tables to the place where it is counted and stored.  Nobody goes in, nobody comes out, until the ship is safely docked back in Albany.

But in character as the unreasonable irascible Kotkind, he reacts to her refusal to grant him this favor with characteristic paranoia–what are you hiding from the people of New York State, Ms. Cahill?  She knows she’s not supposed to do this.  But she also knows she’s supposed to keep the VIP happy, and avoid any unpleasant scenes.  She can’t flirt her way out of this one.  Nor can she go to the captain, because she already talked him into bending on the no guns rule.  She thought she was playing Kotkind all this time, while Sternberg was playing her. And now the game is about to end.

And finally, we get into the mind of someone who is precisely what he seems to be, namely George Twill, fifty-one, former bank clerk from Albany.  He got downsized, and after a very frightening spate of unemployment, he got a job counting money on a casino boat, and he’s liking it just fine.  He’s interesting to us, because he’s the one who is supposed to hit the panic button (that’s what they call it) if something goes wrong down there in the money room.  If he does that this time, Parker and his pals are going to prison, and we wouldn’t want that, because books about George Twill would not be very entertaining.

So George watches with mild interest as Ms. Cahill brings three strangers into the money room, where no strangers should be. One is introduced as an Assemblyman, the others are Troopers Renfield and Helsing.  Pete, the cashier, thinks this is funny.  Apparently Ms. Cahill isn’t a reader or a devotee of horror movies, because she doesn’t get the joke.  (Probably neither did Parker, which is why he didn’t say anything about it to the guy who made up their fake ID’s).

And all of a sudden, the joke turns serious.  He’s lying on the floor, his head ringing from a sudden blow.  These people are thieves.  Two of them are armed.  It’s a robbery.  He’s not supposed to be in this movie.  Somebody in central casting screwed up.  He’s supposed to be the hero now, push the button.  But if he does that, he’ll die.

Ms. Cahill still thinks she’s in the movie about the sexy tough-as-nails PR woman.  She confronts Parker.  Remember the first chapter of The Hunter? Where we’re told women who see Parker instinctively sense he’s a bastard, and those huge hands of his were made for slapping?  She somehow missed that vital detail.

He slapped her, left-handed, open-handed, but hard, the sound almost like a baseball being hit by a bat.  All of them in the room jumped at the sound. George and Pete and Helen and Ruth and Sam.  The three robbers didn’t jump.

Susan Cahill staggered from the slap, and stared at the non-trooper, who stepped closer to her and said, as though he really wanted to know the answer, “Are those your teeth?”

She gaped at him.  “What?”

“Are those your teeth?”

She didn’t know the reason for the question, but she was suddenly afraid not to answer.  “Yes.”

“Do you want to keep them?”

The answer was smaller, more defeated. “Yes.”

“Hands behind your back.”

I don’t know who Westlake was getting even with here.  Maybe nobody, maybe I’m just imagining it.  The passage has bothered me ever since I read it, because there is in fact very little violence against women in most of Westlake’s earlier work–even when a woman is hurt or killed, it’s usually not described, just implied.  Cahill doesn’t seem like a terribly pleasant or principled person, I’m sure we can all think of modern-day real-life equivalents, often in quite high places, many of whom could use a good face-slapping–but why is she humbled this way?

It bothers me because I just know there are guys out there reading this passage and thinking “Yeah, Parker showed that lippy broad!” But I’m not one of those guys. I voted for the lippy broad. I’ll spend the rest of my life wishing she’d won. And there’s nothing Westlake likes better than a lippy broad, long as she knows what she’s talking about, as so many do.  What’s being communicated here?  He wouldn’t put this in there for no reason.

I think it’s because, like so many people in these books, she’s deluded about who she is, what her position in life is.  She’s a lackey, a cog in a machine, just as much as George Twill, but she’s a cog with delusions of grandeur.  All through this part of the book, we’ve seen her using her body, her face, her feminine wiles, to get powerful men to do what she wants, on behalf of the powerful men she works for.  And she thinks that makes her powerful.  She honestly doesn’t see what a crock that is.

Some people, men and women alike, are all about control.  But without real power, control is an illusion.  Real power can only come from inside yourself. You think you have a certain guaranteed position in the hierarchy, and then you find out it’s just an illusion, and somebody can slap you down with impunity, and all you can do is just take it.  Usually the slap-down is metaphorical, sometimes not.  In some cases, the metaphorical slap-downs hurt a lot more than Parker’s hands.  Ask Megyn Kelly.

Before the section with George ends, Dan Wycza avoids a mistake Parker made in the first book in this series–they’re about to gag George, when he says he’s got asthma.  The health conscious Dan knows about asthma, doesn’t want any dead bodies on this cruise, so he tells George to take out his inhaler, take a few puffs, and then be calm–nothing’s going to happen to him.  He didn’t push that button.  He should just think about what he’s going to say to the TV cameras when the media shows up to interview him.  He’s so busy thinking about this, he misses a vital little detail about something he heard after the blindfold went on–something the police would have liked to know about.

And elsewhere, before the chapter ends, Cathman is thinking about a button he intends to push, and trying to persuade himself that he can deal with Parker’s reaction to that perfectly well.

They exit through a door in the hull of the ship, right from the money room–out onto the river, where Hanzen is waiting to pick them up in his boat.  Hanzen is looking scared.  Too scared.  We’re in his head now, and it’s not a happy place to be.  Parker is looking at him, frowning–he can tell something’s wrong.  Hanzen begins mentally writing his will.

Chapter 9 is all Noelle, and about time.  It’s her time to shine here–and for us to learn a few things about her before she makes her final exit.   She’s also liking this job–it’s hard to find a good string like this to work with.  None of them have hit on her, which she thinks might be in part because they heard about the guy she kneecapped in St. Louis.  She’d like to find a boyfriend who shares her interest in armed robbery, but she can handle the life solo, if need be.

We find out she was raised out west, Wyoming, and her dad was a pharmacist.  Her uncle wasn’t.

It was her father’s older brother, Ray Braselle, a heister from way back, who’d brought her into the game, over her pharmacist father’s objections.  Ray Braselle had been around for so long that once, in describing the first bank job he was ever on, he’d said, “And I stood on the running board,” and then he’d had to explain what a running board was.

Uncle Ray was all right, though old as the goddam hills.  But the people he ran with were more like Parker; tough, but not just smash-and-grab, always with a plan, a contingency, ways in and ways out.  For guys like that, a good-looking girl could frequently be part of the plan, and if she was a pro herself, steady and reliable, not a hooker and not a junkie, who knew how to handle a gun, an alarm system, or a cop, so much the better.

She thinks about how Uncle Ray ended–not with a cop’s bullet in him.  A horse he was on fell on top of him.  After that, she met Tommy Carpenter, and that’s when she got into the hippie scene a short time, but it was never who she was.  Just another mask.  Like the mask she’s wearing now, the sickly rich girl, except she is feeling pretty sick, because she hasn’t been able to stay hydrated, being in the chair all the time, and not being able to relieve herself.

But that works fine for the job, her looking so convincingly queasy, because now they have to convince the purser to let them off the ship as soon as they get back to port.  He’s sympathetic, and then the alarms start going off–holy shit, somebody robbed the money room!  Well yeah, and the money is resting underneath Noelle’s lovely ass.  But no matter, he can still get her off the boat, personally.  And perking up suddenly, her sense of humor engaged, she tempts fate, just a little.

Noelle said, “Jerry?”

He leaned close to give her a solicitious look, and to say, “Don’t worry, Jane Ann, we’ll still get you off, just as soon as we dock.”

“Thank you, Jerry,” she said, “but that’s not what I wanted to say.  Jerry, do you realize what this is?  It’s piracy!”

Jerry reared back, thinking about that.  “By golly, you’re right.”

Noelle said, “Look for a man with an eye patch.”  And despite how miserable she felt, she smiled.

And chapter 10 ends Part 3, with Ray Becker waking up with a start in his comfortable Adirondack chair at the cabin, thinking nervously about what would have happened if the robbers and killers he means to rob and kill had found him that way.  And then he hears voices, but they aren’t the robbers.  They’re another bunch of people who mean to rob the robbers.  Three bikers–two old fat ones, and a young skinny one.  So now he’s got to deal with them, before he deals with Parker & Co.  And now three different sets of criminal plans (four if you count Cathman) fall apart with the pull of a trigger.

And now I’ve got to decide if I want to type a 9,000 word Part 2.  No, not really. This is something I’ve noticed about Backflash.  It’s no Butcher’s Moon when it comes to length, and it’s not that much longer than Comeback (same number of pages in the first editions, but the type is smaller).  Somehow, this one just has a lot more detail, more items of interest to discuss than the typical Stark novel.  And I have typically gotten bogged down in those details,  which means I’m going to have to make this one a three-parter.

Anyway, I’ve got a Christmas Party to attend.  We’ll wrap this one up before New Year’s, at which point I have a brunch to attend.  Who says bloggers have no social life?  Have yourself a merry little whatever.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Backflash

1024px-rhinecliff_train_station_platform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looked at him.  “Every time?”

“Except the last time,” he said.

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

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

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

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

“My question was, do you gamble?”

“No.”

“May I ask why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wycza said, “I smell my money.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Comeback, Part 2

“Heisters,” Thorsen echoed.  “That’s a crook’s word for it.  We say robbers, or hitters.”

“Crooks are who I hang out with.”

“I’ll tell you what happened,” Thorsen said, ignoring that. “After the robbery, you all got split up somehow.  One bunch spent the night in that gas station.  Liss stole that police car and probably killed the poor cop.  And you waited at the motel until I showed up.”

“Wait a second,” Parker said.  “Am I a heister, am I a robber, or am I a guy waiting at the motel?”

“I figure the details have to come from you,” Thorsen told him.

Parker shook his head.  “It’s your fairy tale,” he said, “you’ll have to fill it in yourself.  George Liss takes one shot at the guy been chasing him eight months, and to you that means the guy’s in on it.”

“That shot,” Thorsen said, “made me start to think about something that had snagged me but I’d just let it go.  You know what that was?”

“You’ll tell me,” Parker said.

“There’s a lot of different words for the room that, when I was in the Marines, we called the head.  There’s the bathroom, the toilet, the lavatory, the washroom, the WC.  The Irish call it the bog.  I’ve been places they called it the cloak-room, don’t ask me why. But one thing is constant and sure and solid and you could build your house on it: Nobody named John calls that room the john.

Parker nodded. “I think you’re right about that.”

“So that isn’t your name.”

“That’s my joke,” Parker told him.  “My name is John Orr.  Meaning, my name is John, or it isn’t.”

Since I’ve got three quarters of the book to go over here, what do you say we skip the intro?  I could talk about Marilyn Stasio’s perfectly creditable write-up in the New York Times in that omnibus mystery review column (formerly helmed by Anthony Boucher and then ‘Newgate Callendar’) that used to be called ‘Criminals at Large’, and now just ‘Crime’ (budget cuts?), but I don’t much see the point.  She’s pleased Parker is back after 23 years, she loved the book, she gives it three short paragraphs and no analysis at all.  Well, Boucher’s reviews of the first Parkers were short and sweet too.  Stark is short, but never sweet.  And I am neither.  Moving on.

At the end of Part One, Parker had woken up in the office of the gas station he and the Mackeys were holed up in for the night, after pulling their heist, and then having George Liss try to take the whole pile and kill Parker and Ed into the bargain.  Parker let him get away, and now he’s somehow managed to get a cop’s car, uniform, and gun–the last of which he’s about to use on Parker, who is currently unarmed, except for his hands, which are only useful at close range.  Parker’s going to fight, but he doesn’t think much of his chances.

And this, of course, is the perfect moment for the good old Stark Rewind.  We are going to see various events leading up to this instant in time, from entirely different perspectives, meet some people who are in some way relevant to the narrative, get their take on things, see the larger picture, and when Part Three begins, we’ll find out what happened with Parker and Officer Liss at the gas station.

And fittingly enough, we begin with the Reverend William Archibald, who is after all the founder of the criminal feast Parker and Liss are contending for.  He’s just waking up in his hotel room, seven hours before the heist takes place, and all that’s on his mind is screwing his amply proportioned choir conductor/mistress, Christina McKenzie (Tina to her friends, and she’s nothing if not friendly), and then having a nice breakfast.  He does have the good grace to thank the good Lord before he tucks in to the latter.  Thanking Him, in effect, for making so many suckers.

From the very beginning of his ministry, William Archibald had understood that the appearance of propriety was the name of the game.  It wasn’t merely that the appearance of propriety was as good as propriety itself, but that it was much better.  If the appearance of propriety were steadfastly maintained–religiously maintained, you might say–a reasonably careful man could have it all; the rich rewards of religion and the rich rewards of life.  And that’s what he wanted: it all.

Archibald wasn’t a hypocrite.  He believed that man was a sinful creature and he said so, publicly and often, never excepting himself.  He believed that his ministry had held back many a fellow human being from committing crimes and sins untold.  He believed that his contributions to the social order, his civilizing influence on men and women who were in so many ways still one small step from the apes, were practical and immense, and he firmly believed he was worth every penny he made out of it.  His ministry had rescued drunkards, saved marriages, reformed petty thieves, struggled successfully at times against the scourge of drugs,  cured workplace absenteeism and given a center and a weight and a sense of belonging to unnumbered empty, drifting, useless chowderheads.  If, in his leisure moments, he liked to ball a big-titted woman, so what?

How did Brendan Behan put it?  In an elegy he wrote in memory of Oscar Wilde (in Gaelic, but let’s go with the translation from his biographer).

Sweet is the way of the sinner,
Sad, death without God’s praise.
My life on you, Oscar boy,
Yourself had it both ways.

I’m sure the good reverend would have no objections to the association I am making here.  Oscar might, but he’s in a better place now, perhaps sipping a Pernod with Brendan.

Archibald is then joined by Dwayne Thorsen, his executive assistant, who among other things, handles security at events like the stadium revival meeting to be held later that day.  He’s the enforcer of this outfit, the consigliere, if you will.  He was in the Marines for 20 years, and has been working for Archibald for seven.  He’s a lean hard disciplined man, who  likes his job, and does it very well.  He sees Archibald as his general, the rest of the ministry as the troops, and his only real issue is with Ms. McKenzie, whose abundant sexuality seems to give him the willies.  He would rather his employer were the same man in private as he is in public, but we can’t have everything.

He wants to talk to Archibald about Tom Carmody.  He thinks Tom is a problem.  Tom has been saying some things about where the money the ministry raises from the faithful is going (into Archibald’s pockets).  Thorsen thinks Tom is a security risk–and he’s right, since Tom is, at this moment in time, preparing to lead three armed robbers to the money room at the stadium, that very day.

But Archibald is thinking more about the damage Tom could do if he talked to the press.   At the moment, he’s just talking to other people within the ministry, who are mainly ignoring him.  Thorsen thinks to himself it was so much easier to deal with this type of personality in the military–just keep sending them out on patrol until they don’t come back.  (Except sometimes they do).

There’s a brief mention of Tom’s girlfriend, Mary–who we already know Tom confided in about the heist, and now she seems to have disappeared.  And now we find out why.  She’s being tortured to death by her kid brother’s friends for information.  In Memphis.

Just around the time William Archibald was whistling in the shower, Mary Quindero was beginning to die.  She knew it, or suspected it, or feared it, but couldn’t warn her murderers because they refused to hear anything except the answers to their questions and she had no more answers.  They, Woody Kellman and Zack Flynn, didn’t know she was dying because they had no idea of the cumulative effect of the strangle-and-reprieve, drown-and-reprieve methods they were using to get the answers they felt she was still holding back.  And her brother, Ralph Quindero, couldn’t know what was happening because he was over at Zack’s place, watching an old horror movie on the VCR, unable to be present while his friends pressured his sister, and not realizing just how stupid they were.

By the time Zack and Woody figure out what they’ve done, it’s too late to undo it.  They stuff Mary’s body in a closet, go tell Ralph a very edited version of what happened, and then they all drive to the city the heist is supposed to take place in, so they can take the money away from three professional armed robbers.  They really believe they can do this, no problem.  Zack has a switchblade!  And they’ve got some guns packed away in the back of the car that presumably none of them know how to use.  These three wouldn’t be a fair match for Brenda, but you have to admire their optimism.

It’s kind of a weird subplot–a tragicomedy of errors–since these punks never  get close to making a real play for the money.  They’re the ones who came around the trailer outside the stadium in Part One, then left–all they know is when and where the heist will take place, and what motel the heisters are staying in.  But that does them no good, since the post-heist plans had to change once Liss tried his cross.

They just hang around the motel, watching from the car.  Every now and again Ralph goes to get pizza, and then Zack threatens the increasingly panicked guilt-stricken Woody to keep his mouth shut about Mary.  Zack is small and intense, Woody is big and ox-like, but neither is terribly bright–they’re a sociopathic roadshow version of George and Lennie.  The Idiot’s Guide to Of Mice and Men. Ralph is maybe a little smarter, but not nearly as smart as he thinks. You don’t get away with not being as smart as you think in a Richard Stark novel.

Somehow it never occurs to them that just hanging around a sleazy motel eating pizza in their car right after a major robbery might draw suspicion.  The cops scoop them up, find the guns, find out who Ralph is, and Mary’s body has already been found back in Memphis (Tom Carmody, lying in a hospital bed under police guard, did not take the news very well, and neither will Ralph).  Even though we don’t hear about cellphones or the internet in this one, we do see that information-sharing between police departments is getting faster.  Another professional complication Parker will have to deal with.

The Part Two chapters switch POV’s quite a bit, which I personally find annoying from the POV of somebody trying to synopsize the book.  A whole lot of shit happens in 11 short chapters, all of which is necessary to set things up for the climax, but it’s less focused than usual for a Stark novel.  A few too many moving parts–which I suppose is the point.  Parker wants to keep everything simple, and life keeps getting in the way.  Life, and human stupidity.

And I want to get back to Parker’s clarity, so I’m going to rush Part Two a bit, no quotes, there’s better material ahead.  Thorsen meets his opposite number in the local police department, a detective named Lew Calavecci, who is a solid pro (which Thorsen likes) but also a gaping asshole and part-time sadist (which Thorsen does not like).  They both want to get information out of Tom Carmody, knowing he was in on the heist, and Tom is understandably reluctant to cooperate.

So they bring in Archibald–the father figure who disappointed Tom, who betrayed his trust, but who still has a hold over him, much as he knows the guy is a crook and a liar and a lech.  That voice still has power over him, and once Archibald overcomes his initial wrath that this little cocksucker lost him 400k, he figures he wants that money back, so he goes into his preacher act, turns on the fake compassion, and even though Tom knows better than to believe in that malarkey, resists it, he still breaks down, admits his complicity.  Then they break it to him about Mary’s death, and he tells them the rest of what he knows–but the only member of the string he knows anything about is George Liss.

And he knows George Liss will come after him for sharing that information.  And later that night, he tries to kill himself, but he fucks that up too.  And we leave Tom praying that they catch George Liss before he can get to Tom.  And you know, not all prayers are answered.

It bounces around–chapter 7, we see what happened with Liss right after he got away from Parker and Mackey–and as Mackey predicted, all he could think about was getting that money, and killing anybody who might prove an impediment to that end.  Chapter 8 tells us how Zack, Woody, and Ralph tried to tail Brenda on her way to the pick-up, and she shook them off like the fleas they are.  It ends with them in the hands of the cops.

Chapter 9 is more stuff with Thorsen and Calavecci.  Thorsen is increasingly bothered by Calavecci’s methods–and by the fact that Calavecci is tougher than him.  Thorsen likes to think of himself as being hard, but fair.  Even though he used to send men under his command who were irritating to him on death patrols.  Unit cohesion, you know? He didn’t do it for fun.

He’s revolted by Calavecci’s methods (taunting poor Ralph with the revelation that his sister is dead because of him).  But he did basically the same thing, siccing Archibald on Tom.  In his mind, he’s a competent pro who does his duty, and if he has to hurt people along the way, he takes no pleasure in it.  Calavecci, by contrast, sees himself as Mike Hammer with a badge and a pension.  Any Richard Stark novel is filled with people on both sides of the law, each of whom sees him or herself as the hero of the story, and they’re all punished for that hubris, because Richard Stark doesn’t believe in heroes.  Neither does Parker.

And then in chapter 10, we’re back at the gas station, finally.  Only now we’re in the head of the kid who runs the place at night, Bill Trowbridge, who got locked up in a windowless room when Parker and the Mackeys took it over.  He’s run out of magazines to read, and he needs to pee, and he’s figured out these are the stadium robbers, and more or less out of cabin fever, he’s decided to be a hero.  Uh oh.

He manages to tunnel his way up through the ceiling, up onto the roof of the station, and from there he sees there’s a police officer–what luck!  He calls to the cop, and the cop shoots him in the leg.  He got off easy.  Stark has a little soft spot for dumb kids, as long as they don’t kill anybody.  Nobody’s perfect, right?

But in fact Bill Trowbridge is the hero, after a fashion, because that momentary distraction gives Parker his opening.  Chapter 11 is about how Liss ambushed a lone officer, took his car, uniform, gun, life, and figured out his former partners and the money were at the gas station, and he was just about to draw down on Parker when the stupid kid made him take his eye off the ball, and it all goes wrong.  Again.  Part Three, here we come.

Parker throws a wrench through the plate glass window–he doesn’t hit Liss, but that’s not the point.  The point is to further confuse Liss, and create still more noise, to wake up Brenda Mackey.  Will she take the hint?

The answer was yes, but she was even faster than Parker hoped.  As he dove through the doorway, meaning to roll, to come up beside the wagon and yank open its rear door, the engine was already kicking over.  Before he was on his feet, it was moving, and he came up to see the garage door splinter as the station wagon roared through it.  Brenda hunched and grim over the wheel, Mackey just opening his eyes, his mouth a big astonished O, the car screamed through the wreckage it made of the door, spinning and sliding rightward over smashed plywood, bent metal, crushed glass.

(Ed Mackey is no saint, but I feel he must have been one in a previous life to rate a woman like that.)

Parker missed his ride, but the upside is that all George can see is the car with the money screaming away on burning rubber, and he can’t take time to try and finish Parker off.  Parker’s got a slight flesh wound from some debris, but nothing important.  A burglar alarm has been tripped.  Time to leave.  The kid, wounded far more seriously, yells down to him for help.  “Everybody needs help,” says Parker, and away he goes.  There’ll be cops here in no time, and Bill Strowbridge will get medical attention, plus maybe a chance at minor fame, if he doesn’t bleed too quickly.

Parker avoids the approaching cops, but now he’s got an identity puzzle of his own to work out.  Where will the Mackeys go now?  Ed will want to make a run for it, but the roadblocks are still up.  Brenda’s the brain, think about what she’ll be thinking.  First, shake Liss–she’ll do that easy.  Then get another car.  Then find a place to hole up.  She’ll figure that Liss will figure they don’t go back to the motel–they’ll go to the abandoned house they were going to stash the money in.

Liss will wait for them there. But they won’t ever show up there.  Because Brenda is smarter than Liss, will be one step ahead of him.  Parker is damned impressed with Brenda.  But even the most impressive of women is a woman, after all, and she mentioned leaving a lot of cosmetics in that motel room–she and Ed will turn up there, sooner or later, before leaving town. Parker goes to wait for them there.

But somebody else turns up there first–Dwayne Thorsen, playing detective (and enjoying the role maybe a bit more than he should).  He shows Parker a gun, which Parker lightly threatens to take away from him if he doesn’t behave. Dwayne just can’t catch a break here–keeps running into tougher guys than him.

Parker passes himself off as an investigator named John Orr, working for Midwest Insurance.  See the quote up top.  He tells a good story about how he’s been trailing Liss in relation to an earlier job he pulled, and Thorsen believes him, for now (Parker is vague, lets him fill in the blanks, figuring people believe a story more when they’re contributing to it).  They share some intel, and join forces–for now.

And Parker leaves a message for Brenda, on the mirror of a compact she left in the bathroom.  AKA the John.  Again, see up top.  Parker can be pretty good at conning people, when he has to be, but it’s not his primary skill set.  He slips up sometimes.  Thorsen doesn’t catch the slip right away.

(Sidebar: Some fun name games in this book.  The Mackeys signed the motel register as Ed and Brenda Fawcett.  That’s worth a gold medal or two, surely.  And Parker saying his name is John or it isn’t–well, that’s just too easy.  Can’t remember offhand if Dortmunder ever said his name was Parker.  Probably wouldn’t want to chance it.)

What follows is a comedy of terrors.  Parker figures he’s got nothing better to do than follow up leads with this security clown who thinks he’s the Continental Op (and who still thinks Parker is Thomas Banacek).  He might learn something that will lead him to his partners–the two he wants to rejoin, or the one he wants dead.  The latter of whom he sees walking around, pretending to be a cop on his beat, as he and Thorsen drive to the hospital.  Too complicated to go after him that moment.  And Liss is going to save him the trouble, anyway.

The hospital is having a busy day.  Detective Calavecci brought Ralph Quindero there, to talk with Tom Carmody on the fourth floor–not so much to get any answers as to enjoy watching both of them weep bitterly over Mary, the girl they both got killed.  Sweet guy, that Calavecci.  Bill Trowbridge (he made it!)  is on three.  Bill is having a wonderful time. Carmody’s is about to run out.

Parker has just met Detective Calavecci when all of a sudden guns start going off.  Liss found Tom–say this, the guy does not lack nerve.  He figured–probably correctly–that in all the confusion, and him wearing a cop’s uniform, if he ever was pulled in, nobody there would be able to ID him.  So he just walked in and blew Tom away.  Witness eliminated, squealer admonished.  And then he sees Parker, and figures in for a dime–

Thorsen, still playing the hero, gets Parker and himself out of the way, and Liss has to split–taking Ralph Quindero with him, as a human shield, and maybe an accomplice (since Calavecci has made Ralph feel like he’s going away for life, when in fact they have almost nothing serious on him).

Parker tells Thorsen he owes him one, but that’s John Orr talking.  Parker doesn’t feel like you owe anybody anything for doing something you didn’t ask him to do.  But he’s still being the insurance investigator, so when Thorsen invites him to come over to the hotel he and the rest of the evangelical entourage are staying, he figures why not.  He might want to check those figures.

He definitely wants to check Tina MacKenzie’s figure, and she seems rather taken with his–very obvious vibrations above the nylons there.  He meets her right after he meets Archibald, and right after that Archibald makes Tina leave, because he doesn’t like the way she’s looking at Parker, i.e. the way most women look at Parker, damn him anyway.  Then Archibald offers the dedicated investigator a bribe of one thousand bucks to find and return the money he just stole from Archibald.  That’s an advance; he’d also get five percent of all funds recovered.  He pockets the advance, and figures he’ll skip the finder’s fee in favor of his fifty percent heister’s fee.

But in the meantime, Dwayne Thorsen, that newly minted detective, has been doing some solo sleuthing.  Seems that their insurance man in Memphis never heard of any Midwest Insurance.  He doesn’t buy Parker’s story that Liss took a shot at him because he’s been tracking him down for a nonexistent insurance agency.  He’s picked up on the inconsistencies in Parker’s story, and of course there’s the bathroom thing.  He’s onto Parker. John Orr my Aunt Fannie.  This is one of the robbers.

He’s brought in four muscular (but unarmed) security boys for backup–he hasn’t called the cops yet.  He wants answers about the money first.  And this is where the detective act breaks down.  Because no matter how well this business of telling the malefactor you’re onto him works out for the detectives on TV, bracing this particular malefactor without a whole lot of guns on your side is never a good idea.  Parker whips out a steel drawer from the desk he’s sitting at, and Thorsen goes down with the kind of head trauma you never fully recover from.  I assume he’s insured.  That leaves four.

These four had trained in gyms, and knew a lot about self-defense.  They actually didn’t have guns, and they’d never thought they would need such help.  But they’d never been crowded into a small room before, getting in each other’s way, with somebody who was trying to kill them and who didn’t do any of the moves they’d learned about in gym.

40 seconds later, they’re all down for the count, and some may never get up.  (Ed Mackey’s response when he and Brenda hear about this over the radio–“Parker’s a woolly guy.”  One way of putting it.)

Parker takes Thorsen’s (stupidly) holstered gun, and leaves.  Well, he told Thorsen he was going to do that, right after they met in the motel.  So much for the security man who thought he was a detective.  Now that he’s heeled, Parker’s ready to find the heister who pretends to be a cop.  Time to go a-hunting.

But somebody else is hunting, namely Tina, decked out a bit like a Salvation Army sister, in a gray hat and cloak.  (Well, it worked wonders for Jean Simmons.)  She braces Parker in a much more appealing way, luring him into a conference room as he leaves the hotel.  Archibald keeps her on a tight leash, and she’d like to mix things up a bit.  Not the first time a strange woman has thrown herself at Parker, but for the first time since the end of The Rare Coin Score, he’s actually interested.  Or is he?  Another half-pulled trigger.  Another identity puzzle.  Another way for Stark to test Parker’s reactions to an unusual situation.

He never thought about sex  when he was working, but he was always hungry for it afterward.  What situation was this he was in now?  The heist was done, and yet it wasn’t done.  The job was finished, but it was still going on, with complications and trailing smoke.  Was he going to have sex with this woman now, or not?  He looked at her body, imperfectly hidden in somebody else’s clothing, and it looked very good, but his mind kept filling up with Liss, with Brenda and Mackey, with the duffel bags full of money; and now with Thorsen and Archibald and Calavecci and Quindero, and who knew how many more.  But still, it was a good body, walking along beside him here.

You see Claire’s name anywhere in that list of objections to fucking this delectable girl on a conference room table?  No, because Parker’s sexual fidelity to Claire isn’t based on anything other than instinct.  I’ve gotten into arguments with people about this–“Hah!  He wants this woman, therefore you are wrong about him being a wolf mated for life with Claire!” (such charming conversations you can have online)–no, because if you trapped a wild wolf who has a mate, and put him in a room with a bitch in heat (wolf, coyote, or dog)–he’s going to do what comes naturally.  Same for a she-wolf, if she’s in heat.  Without the pair-bond, it’s just an itch to be scratched.   It don’t mean nothing.

But Parker is a wolf in a man’s body, with a man’s brain.  He’s got to think about the situation he’s in.  Somebody’s going to raise the alarm soon.  He hasn’t quite finished the job yet.  He knows he can sate his appetites with Claire once he gets home.  And there’s something off about this temptress, this siren trying to distract him from his quest.  She can’t be trusted.  He can’t make himself vulnerable to her.  He doesn’t think it’s wrong.  He feels no guilt at all about wanting her.  He just thinks to himself that it won’t work.  He brushes her off, tells her he’ll take a rain check, and she indignantly responds “I’m not a game!” No, and she’s not his mate, either.  And she’s definitely not Salvation Army material, but we knew that already.

And we’re at Part Four.  Parker makes his way to the house he believes Liss (and now Ralph) are laying in wait for him and the Mackeys.  Ed found it in an architectural magazine–it’s got a fairly interesting history.  Parker doesn’t care about its glorious past. But Stark does.

It was called Sherenden, and it was a hosue from the twenties, modern architecture of the time, designed by someone famous in his day and built at the edge of a ravine in what had then been the outskirts of town.  On two seep acres of brush-covered rocky hill, at the end of a narrow winding road from the nearest city avenue, the house had been constructed of fieldstone and native woods and stainless steel, fitted into the broken shape of the landscape, with a large airy living room at the top, four windowed walls around a central black-stone fireplace.  The rest of the house spread away beneath, for a total of four stories with an interior elevator, its shaft blasted into the rock.

(Did Westlake read about such a house in a magazine?  In some forgotten bit of noir fiction?  Or did he dream it up himself?  Maybe all three.)

An entire chapter is devoted to the history of this decaying pile of ambition and thwarted dreams.  A broken marriage, a city expanding mindlessly, the whims of bankers, various other odd bits of history, had kept Sherenden from being replaced by tacky condos or public housing, but had likewise prevented it from being saved for posterity.  It sits there alone, waiting its inevitable end.  And hosting the occasional junkie–or worse.

He makes his way into the house carefully, and before long he smells the inevitable pizza.  Man, you’d think Ralph would have had enough of that by now. Liss probably saw him coming up that winding road, but Parker obviously didn’t have the money–so he’s waiting.  To find out where it is.

They make contact, sound each other out, each knowing the other wants him dead.  Parker, at a strategic disadvantage, has to give up his gun.  They pretend to negotiate.  Ralph gets sent out for pizza again (it’s his lot in life).  And it keeps getting darker.  This is the most gothic scene in any novel Westlake ever wrote.

After dark, Parker thought.  A chance will come after dark.

The afternoon slowly descended outside, the sunny areas growing bright even as they narrowed, the shadows getting darker.  The rock and the tangled underbrush out there would be full of creatures, wary, moving in sudden jumps, hidden away in the cat’s cradle of vines and branches, living their lives with all senses alert.  Darkness would be good for them too.

Ralph comes back.  They eat.  They read a newspaper full of stories about them. Ralph finds out there are no real charges against him.  Now the alliances are getting fuzzier.  Liss talks about shooting Parker non-fatally, to make sure he can’t try anything.  But Ralph says he couldn’t possibly carry Parker.  And Liss doesn’t want those hands anywhere near him.  So  they lock Parker in a closet, and go to get the car, so they can go to the meeting place Parker told them about, where Liss can get his money.  Sure.  That’ll work.

If that kid at the gas station can get out of a locked room, Parker can get out of a closet that was jury-rigged into an old elevator shaft.  He does.  He gets a makeshift weapon, a piece of metal ripped from the wall, and he waits.  It’s completely dark now.

Ralph goes down first–a human shield again, Parker’s, and Liss doesn’t have the same compunctions as the police, shoots him three times.  Parker hits Liss with the L-bracket he’s got, knocks a gun from his hand.  Liss still has another. Parker finds the other one–Thorsen’s. Not much of a gun, not many bullets left. He and Liss tango through the dark house, and finally they’re both out of ammo. Liss, badly hurt but still dangerous, slinks to the depths of Sherenden, to make his last stand.

You know, we don’t get to see Parker finish people with his hands very often, since the first book.  He avoids real fights when he can–like any smart predator. No avoiding it this time.  Liss has a knife.  Parker doesn’t.  Liss tries to bargain, Parker isn’t in the market, never was.  They dance some more, but it can only end one way.  Parker throws Liss out the window, into the ravine.  He’ll be food for some wild creatures.  First useful purpose he ever had.

Liss got Parker a few times with the knife, but nothing serious.  He’s ready to go meet Ed and Brenda.

That was chapter 13.  The final chapter of Part Four is called CLICK.  We’re back with the Mackeys, at their new motel room.  They’ve changed cars a few times. The police roadblocks are being shut down.  It’s time to get out of Dodge.  But first they go to an Italian restaurant, and it’s there Brenda sees Parker’s message in her compact.  ‘Eleven PM.’  Meaning he’ll be at their original motel then, and he’s hoping to see them there.

Ed Mackey is a stand-up guy, but he’s also a professional heavy, and he knows damned well Parker would look out for Number One in the same situation.  Why should he risk everything on the odd chance Parker makes it to the rendezvous? He wants to run.  And Brenda absolutely will not have it.

“It’s Parker, and you know it,” Brenda said.  “And he expects us.”

“If it was the other way around, he wouldn’t come back fo rme, you can bet on it.  And I wouldn’t expect it.”

“It isn’t the other way around, Brenda said.  “You aren’t him, you’re you, and he knows we’ll come back for him.”

“Then it’s you he’s counting on, not me.”

Brenda shrugged.  “Okay.”

“Brenda, he’s got the whole fucking state looking for him, they’ve probably even got him by now.  And, if they pick him up anywhere near that motel, they’ll figure he was making a meet with us, and they’ll wait, and we’ll drive right into it.”

“He won’t get caught,” Brenda said.  “He’ll be there at eleven, and so will we.”

“He can’t be sure we even got the message,” Ed insisted.  “That’s a pretty weird delivery system.”

“I checked out of the room,” Brenda reminded him.  “He can find that out, and then he’ll know I got my stuff.”

“We’re not copping his goddam money, Brenda,” Ed told her.  “We’ll call him in a week or two, make a meet, give him his half.”

“He wants to meet tonight,” Brenda said. “So we’ll be there.”

“Why, dammit?  Why do a risk when we don’t have to do a risk?”

“Because,” Brenda said, “you’ll met him again.  You’ll work with him again.  And he’ll look at you, and what will he say?  That’s the stand-up guy came back for me?  Or does he say, That’s a guy I don’t trust so much any more? What do you want him to say, Ed, next time you see each other?

Ed leaned back, muttering to himself.  After a minute, he shrugged, shook his head, and waved for the check.

The staff didn’t think there was much hope for the relationship.

It is Brenda Parker is counting on, and for good reason.  She’s smarter than Ed, and she sees further.  Parker may or may not realize that in addition to all that, she’s had a quiet yen for him ever since they first met (“Well, he didn’t exactly turn me on.”)  Nothing she’d act on, as long as Ed’s around, as long as Claire’s around (she tactfully sounded out Parker on whether he was still with Claire when they met earlier in the book).  But things happen. People go to jail.  People die.  People leave.  If she were available suddenly, and then Parker were available too–it’s good to have a back-up plan, always.

Brenda is loyal to her man, but she’s a lot more like Parker than most of the heisters he meets.  She knows life is an endless series of choices, with no guarantees.  She’d be a perfect match for him.  Too perfect, which is why it never happens.   Maybe in one of the books that never got written.

So leaving my guilty shipper fantasies aside, they go to the meeting spot, and Brenda agrees that if Parker’s not there by eleven, they’re gone.  Brenda gets out of the car, tells Ed to swing back around in five minutes.  She walks around in the dark, and then there’s someone there, but it’s not Parker.  It’s the cop who thinks he’s Mike Hammer.  Or hell, let’s make it Michael Shayne this time, just for variety’s sake.  Race Williams?

Calavecci is in trouble.  He played with his food too long.  Because of his sadism, a kid who wasn’t provably guilty of much more than stupidity was taken hostage by an armed robber, who walked out of that hospital right under Calavecci’s nose.  He’s been sent home.  He needs to find some way to redeem himself, and Brenda is it.  He figured they might come back to that motel.  Brenda can’t talk her way out of this.  Fortunately, she doesn’t have to.

Parker calls out to him in the darkness, playing John Orr again, knowing Calavecci probably knows by now there was no John Orr.  Playing for enough time to get close.  Calavecci goes for his gun, turning his back on the helpless girl. Yes, you can all laugh now.

Calavecci dropped the handcuffs to the ground in his hurry to get at the gun in his shoulder hoslter.  Parker was still too far away, but coming fast.  Brenda lifted a leg, pulled off her shoe, and did a roundhouse right with it, the heel digging into the side of Calavecci’s neck, missing the main veins, but almost giving him a tracheotomy.

Calavecci yelled, slapping her away, yanking the shoe out of his neck.  He threw the bloody shoe at her, gasping loudly, blood pumping over his collar, and he reached for his gun again as Parker got to him and put him down with two quick movements.

No more heroes.  No more kibbitzers.  No more preachers.  No more Liss.  It’s done.  Ed swings back in the car, and they head for the highway.  Ed asks if Parker saw George.  “Yes.”  Which answers all questions.

It’s not a polished perfect gem, like The Score, or The Seventh.  It doesn’t tie into some extended storyline, like The Man With the Getaway Face, The Outfit, or The Mourner.  It doesn’t shine a light deeper into Parker’s mental makeup, like The Rare Coin Score, or The Sour Lemon Score.  It’s not a majestic bloody epic of retribution, like Butcher’s Moon. It’s not one of the oddball outliers, like The Jugger, or Slayground.  It probably makes my top twenty (for Brenda alone), but there’s only twenty-four in contention.

It’s far from the most original plot Stark ever crafted, mainly made cobbled from bits and pieces from earlier books (though that final confrontation at Sherenden isn’t).  It’s got some structural problems, and it’s a bit less focused in the way it deals with character than Stark usually is (because Westlake hasn’t been Stark for a long time).  Who gives a shit?  It’s Parker.  He’s back.

And he was back again in the very next book Westlake published–which makes me wonder if they were finished close together.  And whether the second book of the Final Eight is really the first.  But for now, just drive.

PS: Yeah, that’s Alyson Hannigan up top.  Again.  I sometimes see other actresses as Brenda.  But never quite so happily.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.  Not that Parker would care, but I do.)

 

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: Comeback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addendum: D. Kingsley Hahn on the Parker Timeline, circa 1983

As promised, here are scans of three pages from The ParkerPhile, February-March 1983, Volume I, Number 2, edited (and mostly written) by D. Kingsley Hahn.  This was a shortlived fanzine devoted to Westlake, that published once every two months and ran for five issues (this issue opens with a letter Hahn had received from Westlake himself, thanking him for his efforts) .

The issue at hand is composed of two folded sheets of good quality paper, eight pages in all.  I’ve finally gotten around to ordering the other four issues, haven’t received them yet.  I have only received his kind permission to post this particular article here, which I’m doing because I think it’s a first-rate bit of literary sleuthing, that does admirable legwork regarding the various bits and pieces of chronological information provided in the Stark novels (which as you will see, do not always match up).

As I said last time, we don’t want to get to obsessed with dates.  Parker is not meant to be taken that literally, but Westlake didn’t have to provide any dates at all, so obviously he did want us to have some sense of time passing in Parker’s world, as it was passing in his.

I agree fully with Mr. Hahn’s observation that the first sixteen Parker novels take place over a period stretching from 1962 to 1972 (Butcher’s Moon was most likely completed in 1972, based on comments Westlake made about trying and failing to write another Parker novel in 1973).  It’s 1962 when Parker crosses the George Washington Bridge, and 1972 when he drives out of Tyler in that ambulance.  They do not all take place the same year each was published in, and there’s a bit of authorly legerdemain regarding the dates, but it seems safe to say Parker has aged roughly ten years from the time we first meet him until the events of Butcher’s Moon.  And the books after that–well, that’s a bit more complicated, as I was discussing last time.

If you want to read more of The ParkerPhile, Mr. Hahn has some remaining copies for sale on eBay.  Now let me see if I can get these scans posted at a legible size.  I used to know how to do that.  Oh well, each era of amateur publishing has its own crosses to bear…..

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If these are too hard to read, try these links–

Page One

Page Two

Page Three

Thanks to Greg Tulonen for the technical assist.

 

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Filed under Parker Novels, Richard Stark