Review: Get Real, Part 2

Babe turned to John. “Just so you know what’s happened here,” he said, “the Social Security numbers are much more important than the names. You can call yourself Little Bo Peep for all I care. But a corporation like ours simply cannot employ anybody who cannot demonstrate, with a valid Social Security number, their right to work in this country. We absolutely cannot hire wetbacks.”

Andy said, “Wetbacks?” sounding incredulous.

Babe patted the air in his direction. “Listen, I know you guys are homegrown, I know you’re not illegal aliens.”

“We are,” John said, with dignity, “illegal citizens.”

When they first started to do the camera thing, Dortmunder found himself, to his surprise, itching all over. That was completely unexpected, the idea that all of a sudden he’d be feeling this great need to scratch, all different parts of his body. He didn’t want to scratch, he just felt compelled to scratch, but he fought it off, because he was damned if he was going to stand there and look like an idiot, scratching himself like a dog with fleas in front of a bunch of cameras.

And the cameras themselves were intrusive in ways he hadn’t guessed. They were like those barely seen creatures in horror movies, the ones just leaving the doorway or disappearing up the stairs. Except that the cameras weren’t disappearing. They were there, just incessantly there, at the edge of your peripheral vision, their heads turning slightly, polite, silent, very curious, and big. Big.

Between the nudging presence of the cameras and the maddening need to scratch all these itches, Dortmunder found himself tightening into knots, his movements as stiff as the Tin Woodman’s before he gets the oil. I’m supposed to act natural, he told himself, but this isn’t natural. I’m lumbering around like Frankenstein’s monster. I feel like I’ve been filled up with itchy cement.

Dortmunder’s last dance is, in many ways, his most off-beat.  You know the tune, but the cadence keeps throwing you off.

It goes back, as I said last time, to the more focused approach of the first few books–there is one idea here, pursued to its conclusion, logical or otherwise. The usual story elements are trotted out.

There is a heist–attempted several times, finally successful, which goes back to the very first book, the variation here being they’re not quite sure what they’re looking for, or where exactly to find it.  It all takes place in New York.  No new string members are introduced (none that are going to stick, anyway). Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch, Tiny, and (like him or not) Judson.  The core group.

The ladies auxiliary, of May, Murch’s Mom, J.C., and Anne Marie–so important to previous books–present and accounted for but mainly sidelined.  This isn’t about them.  It’s about whether the men in their lives still count for something. Do they have a place in this world?  (Technically, they should be on Social Security by now, but who says Social Security is going to have a place in this world?)

What’s missing?  An identifiable enemy (unless you count Dortmunder’s arch enemy, change). Nobody is out to murder them. Nobody is out to jail them. Nobody is out to cheat them of their rightful due.  The closest thing to a nemesis is this authority figure who keeps storming in, saying “This show is canceled, shut it down.”  I am not the first to detect a metatextual overtone to this leitmotif, anymore than I’m the first to try and plumb the existential mysteries of maybe the most consummate storyteller the mystery genre ever had.

Am I too fanciful or is Babe, the executive producer, somehow Westlake’s own grim reaper, circling like a vulture before ringing down the curtain? Read carefully. At the least, it is rather chilling and moving how Babe sits in the corner, a “stiff” actor, while Dortmunder, Kelp, Tiny, and the kid are asked to reminisce “about the hits of yesteryear.” It’s the last book but the normally unsentimental author gets it in:

“The group cut up old jackpots, the bank in the trailer, the emerald they had to keep going back and getting again and again, the ruby that was too famous to hock so they had to put it back where they got it, the cache of cash in the reservoir. The time just seemed to go by.”

You know, it has at that.

The other Westlake completist (who never bothers much with the pseudonyms), says this one sticks out as well.  He is, nonetheless, gratified our champion goes out a winner.  “John Dortmunder, sad sack no more.”  Might as well say John Dortmunder no more.

And what would Westlake want to do for the brainchild who was, in many ways, closest to his heart?  If he suspected this was the final outing, and there’s reason to think he did.  The elder and fiercer of his thieving progeny, self-reliant to the last, would always take arms against a sea of troubles, and in opposing end them. That younger, timider screw-up of a prodigal–who had still done his dad proud, so many times–he maybe needed a little help.  A final bequest, let’s say.  If he had the gumption to claim it.  If to his own self he was true.

Although I have given less virtual ink to much better (and longer) Westlake novels, I have come to terms with the fact that there’s a lot to say about this one.  Get Real is at least as good as Dirty Money.  So a three parter this shall be, after all. (What happened to the Fred Fitch who polished off Ex Officio in 6,205 words?  I suspect foul play.)

Let me try one final subheading motif, to move us along more briskly.  We’ll begin with–

STORAGE WARS:

When Kelp came strolling down Varick Street at two that afternoon, he saw Dortmunder ahead of him, facing a building in midblock, frowning at it while he frisked himself. Kelp approached, interested in this phenomenon, and Dortmunder withdrew from two separate pockets a crumpled piece of paper and a ballpoint pen. Bending over the paper held in his cupped left palm, he began to write, with quick glances at the facade in front of him.

Ah. The right third of the building, at street level, was a gray metal overhead garage door, graffiti-smeared in a language that hadn’t been seen on Earth since the glory days of the Maya. To the immediate left of this was a vertical series of bell buttons, each with an identifying label. These were what Dortmunder was copying onto a cash register receipt from a chain drugstore.

Reading the labels directly, since Dortmunder’s handwriting was about as legible as the Mayan graffiti, Kelp saw:

5 GR DEVELOPMENT
4 SCENERY STARS
3 KNICKERBOCKER STORAGE
2 COMBINED TOOL

The building, broad and old, was made of large rectangular stone blocks, time-darkened to a blurry charcoal. On the street floor, to the left of the garage, were two large windows, barred for security and opaque with dirt, and beyond them at the farther end a gray metal door with a bell mounted in its middle at head height. The upper floors showed blank walls above the garage entrance and three windows each, all looking a little cleaner than the ones down here.

Putting paper and pen away, Dortmunder acknowledged Kelp’s presence for the first time: “Harya doin?”

“I wanna see the inside of the place,” Kelp told him.

“We can do that,” Dortmunder said, and pushed the button for five.

The gang has accepted Doug Fairkeep’s offer to build a reality show around them–while using the access they get to seek the caches of corporate cash, earmarked for illegal overseas bribes, which they now believe might exist within this grimy downtown edifice, occupied by several businesses, all of which may in fact be related to each other in some obscure way.

They meet Doug’s boss Babe Tuck, who introduces himself with the foreboding remark that they’re lucky to only have to worry about U.S. prisons.  Aside from the occasional rape, stateside stir is so much cushier than what he encountered back during his foreign correspondent days.  Life expectancy is much longer.  Kelp says maybe it just seems longer.  Babe likes that, says they have to keep a mike on this guy, he’s a character.  Oh he is that, Babe.

The idea of the meeting is to figure out which aspects of the gang’s working life could be best translated to television.  The subject of a hang-out is raised (‘lair’ is the word they actually use), and the TV people learn of the OJ Bar and Grill.  They express a desire to see it–not to film there, they assure an alarmed Dortmunder, but to recreate it as a studio set, where the gang can be seen plotting their next job.

This show is going to be a bit different than your usual reality TV gig.  Because they’re going to film people committing crimes, there will have to be a lot more artifice than is the case even with a ‘normal’ show of this type.  (Which it seems to me is ever more true of the genre as a whole. Mission creep, you could call it.)

As the book goes on, the gang alternates between learning how to play edited versions of themselves, and trying to find that cash.  As John puts it, the heist the TV people see and the one they don’t see.  One of those other businesses, Combined Tool, has a door with a very sophisticated alarm system.  Hmmm!  Andy’s expertise with locks (no Wally Whistler or Herman X this time) is going to be tested as never before.

There is, as you see, an actual storage outfit  in the building, which is a potential target for the TV heist–but that turns out to have nothing but people’s old worthless junk in it.  Like, you know, a normal storage outfit.  That has not been salted in advance with all kinds of rare wacky collectibles–which would have been one solution to the problem of how to pull a legal  heist that people would enjoy watching on TV, but nobody suggests this.  (Storage Wars premiered in 2010).

Doug Fairkeep is happy with how things are developing (or so he thinks), but the need for him to develop this new show is going to be accelerated by revelations concerning the previous one, as shall now be detailed in —

SAY YES TO THE DRESS:

“I’ll tell you,” Doug said, “I wouldn’t kick Darlene out of bed.”

“Kirby would,” Marcy said, and the other two sadly nodded.

Doug said, “Does he have a reason?”

“Yes,” Marcy said. “He says he’s gay.”

Gay!” Doug made a fist and pounded it into his other palm. “No! We shall have no gay farm boys on The Stand! Who gave him that idea, anyway?”

Marcy, on the verge of tears, said, “He says he is gay.”

“Not on our show, he isn’t. In the world of reality, we do not have surprises. Kirby has his role, the impish younger brother who’s finally gonna be okay. No room for sex changes. What does Harry say?” Harry being the father of the Finch family.

Josh shook his head, with a weak apologetic smile. “You know how Harry is.”

Not an authority figure; yes, Doug knew. Whatever they want is okay by me, you know? So far, that had been a plus, meaning there was never any argument with the producers’ plans for the show. Except now.

Marcy said, “I think Harry has the hots for Darlene himself.”

“No, Marcy,” Doug said. “We aren’t going there either. This is a clean wholesome show. You could project it on the wall of a megachurch in the South. Fathers do not hit on their sons’ girlfriends. Come next door, fellas, we’ve got to solve this.”

Meanwhile, over at The Stand, Doug’s other show, about an upstate New York farming family trying to hawk their produce by the roadside (in Putkin’s Corners, which you will remember from Drowned Hopes, though Dortmunder would much rather forget), things are not well, as you see.  The show is about the family’s dynamic, and that is disintegrating, due in part to the pressure of being incessantly filmed. (What does that remind me of?)

A lushly proportioned blonde named Darlene has been hired to play the younger son’s love interest, spice up the storyline a bit, and he’s refusing to play along, because girls are yucky. The older son is deemed unsuitable because he’s established as the gloomy loner who is going to leave the old farm to study engineering.  These people need to stay in character, dammit!

And the father, who would happily leap into bed with Darlene, is just too darned old.  It’d be creepy.  (I know what you’re all thinking, and so am I, about Doug’s assertion that older men hitting on really young women won’t play in the evangelical heartland, but let’s stay focused here. This is a family blog.  Pretty sure nobody’s reading it while attending a megachurch, but maybe if the sermon goes long….)

Doug wants Darlene on the show, it should be mentioned, because he’s hoping to get her into bed himself (off camera, funny how the people who make these shows never seem to aspire to be in one themselves).  This does not work out as planned either, but we’ll get to that.

The subplot with the Finch family goes on through the book, and ultimately ends with production on The Stand shutting down–the family just doesn’t want to play along anymore.  They aren’t getting rich from it, fame hasn’t made them any happier, and business at their stand hasn’t picked up that much, probably because loyal viewers can’t navigate the secondary roads in upstate NY. (Can anyone?)

We never get to know any of the Finches, only hear about them through scattered reports, but they make an impression, regardless.  I would describe them as the secondary heroes of the piece.  Westlake himself hailed from that part of the world, and I think the point is that all inducements to the contrary, they just can’t help being themselves.  Their real identities reject their fabricated identities, like an implant that didn’t take.

They say no to the show, refuse to  hit their marks, and that’s how they stop being marks, sink with relief back into middle American mediocrity.  Overoptimistic?  We can ponder that question as we sink (metaphorically!) into our next topic, namely–

THE STARLET:

Darlene didn’t believe they were really serious. This was her third reality show—fourth, if you counted The Stand, though you probably shouldn’t—and in her experience nothing that happened in reality was serious. She’d been a contestant on Build Your Own Beauty Parlor and a survivor on The Zaniest Challenge of the Year! and would have been a fiancée on The Stand if that fellow hadn’t turned out to be all icky, and she had to say that not one of those shows had been any more serious than first love.

This one, that Doug Fairkeep kept calling The Gang’s All Here although apparently he really didn’t want to, would just be more of the same. This “gang” wasn’t going to steal anything. They were just a bunch of guys who could look like bank robbers in some B movie somewhere, that’s all.

Just look at the variety of people inside the “gang”: that was the giveaway. All of these cast-to-type characters, the ugly monster for the “muscle,” the sharpie with the line of patter, the gloomy mastermind, the testy driver, and the innocent youth, that last one so the audience would be able to see it all through his eyes. Everything but a black guy, so maybe you didn’t need a black guy any more.

Of the peripheral characters in this book, Darlene Looper is by far the best-developed (you know what I meant).  Sexy in a way that probably won’t age well, but too young to let that bother her right now.  Does she care about fame?  No.  Does she care about acting?  Hell no.  Will she take any excuse on offer to get the hell out of the dustbowl she was born in?  Now you’re talking.

Darlene Looper was a product of North Flatte, Nebraska, a town that had had its peak of population and importance in the 1870s, after the railroad arrived and before the drought arrived. The railroad turned out to be a sometime thing, but the drought was the natural condition of the Great Plains, it being a kind of a joke on the European settlers that they got there in the middle of a rare rainy streak.

All the time Darlene was growing up, North Flatte was getting smaller, until there was nobody left who cared enough to correct the POP. sign on the edge of town, which would apparently read 1,247 forever. (In truth, the comma had moved out a long time ago.)

Darlene followed suit, and since then she’s played her assets for all they’re worth.  But just because you invariably get cast as the dumb blonde doesn’t mean you have to play her in real life.  Darlene gets a lot of things wrong, and her cynicism isn’t quite lived-in enough yet, but she knows her way around.

However, she’s so grounded in the fake world of entertainment as to see everything within that frame, translating the gang into a bunch of no-name bit players like her, posing as something they’re not, because she can’t grasp they’re legit thieves (though, of course, they were built by their creator along precisely the genre-based lines she perceives–and so was she–and so are lots of real people all around you, but they’re still made of flesh and blood, same as you.)

She knows why Doug Fairkeep really cast her, what extracurricular role he wants her to play, and she just plays along, giving him nothing.  And he, thankfully, is no Harvey Weinstein (give him a few more years…..).

Darlene is no longer surprised by anything, so she no longer takes joy in anything.  A hardened trouper in her early 20’s, whose jaundiced reaction to reality TV is that it’s a lot like first love.  A whole lot of fuss over nothing.  What is there in this world for someone simultaneously so naif and blasé?

How about true love?  She meets somebody, on the new show, that she got drafted onto after her role on the one about veg peddlers went away.  She figured she’d just end up sleeping with this or that member of the gang (either Kelp or Judson, doesn’t even think to find out if either is spoken for).

Then The Real Thing hits her right between the eyes, as it always does, when you least expect it.  And all at once she realizes there are things in this life you can’t fake your way through, and there is no script.  Even reality can get real, sometimes.

The Great God Westlake was in a giving vein, as he wrote this final book.  And what he has on offer could be called–

HUMAN RESOURCES:

RAY HARBACH (Dippo) is pleased to be back in the Excelsior Theater, where he appeared three seasons ago as Kalmar in the revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. Other theater roles have included work by Mamet, Shaw, Osborne, and Orton. Film: Ocean’s 12; Rollerball. Television: The New Adventures of the Virgin Mary and the Seven Dwarfs at the North Pole; The Sopranos; One Life to Live; Sesame Street. I want to dedicate this production to my father, Hank.

Doug goes for a meeting with Babe Tuck, only to find Babe has recruited an actor to play one of the gang members.  Not like Darlene.  A bonafide thespian, with a long list of past roles, and just a trace of a criminal background (more like he used to hang out with guys who used to hang out with guys who may have done something).

The story for the gang is that Ray Harbach is there to teach them how to act for the camera.  The real story is that he’s there to report back to Babe, make sure nothing’s amiss with these felons.  He’s game, as long as they make sure he’s covered on the legal end.

He’s got an applicable skill–he can climb walls like a human fly.   The gang’s very impressed.  But once they’re out of earshot, Kelp asks everybody what they think of the human fly.  “He’s a human plant,” Tiny growls.  Because obviously.

So they work it this way–they pretend to ditch Murch (Doug’s afraid they’ve killed him).  Murch is still part of the genuine job they intend to pull, at Combined Tool.  But he’s out of the show (even though it was  his mom who got them on the show in the first place).  Ray Harbach can take his place on the fake heist–but they will freeze him out of anything real.  Same goes for Darlene, which means even Judson isn’t going to hook up with her (kid never gets a break).

And since they’re the only experienced actors on the show, and there isn’t much of anything else for them to do, they get assigned the obligatory fake reality romantic subplot.  Guess what?

The setup was this: Ray, the wall-walking specialist of the gang, had recently met Darlene and had wanted to show her off to the guys, but when he did, the contrast between her nearly fresh innocence (it’s all in the acting) and their jaded disbelief (no acting required) had shown him his life in a whole new light.

So they’d gone off to Central Park together, that was the idea, to be away from the others, unobserved, so they could talk things over. What was their relationship, really? (In reality show terms, that is.) What was their future? Did they have a future together?

They spent most of that day filming all over the park, with all the necessary permits, that was part of what made the day so special and so much fun and so liberating. They rowed a boat together on the lake, they wandered together in the Ramble, they watched the joggers endlessly circling the reservoir (without joining them, although Marcy would have dearly loved it if they had), they walked around Belvedere Castle, they observed the imposing stone buildings that stood like sentinels in long straight rows all around the periphery of the park, and they talked it all out, coming to several different conclusions in the course of several different takes of each sequence, because Roy wanted to keep his options open. (At that time, so did Ray.)

And they shared one brief tentative tremulous kiss, late in the day, on the path beside the Drive, surrounded by taxis and hansom cabs and joggers and bicyclists, all of whom, this being New York, ignored the smoochers in their midst.

And then they all went home, walking out of the park, Darlene and Ray and the others, and they didn’t even hold hands. But they knew, they both knew, and a little later that evening they confirmed their knowledge.

Basically, nothing else happens with Ray and Darlene, and far as we know, they lived happily ever after in Ray’s nice little actor’s apartment, full of his old Playbills and 8×10 glossies, and maybe she even became a real actress with his tutelage.  One hopes it won’t end up like another damn remake of A Star Is Born (he’s at least twenty years older), but something tells me these two will always be supporting players, and those are the best kind. HR did its bit, and the rest is up to them.

Meanwhile, back at the OJ–wait a minute–we’re at the TV studio!  What’s the OJ doing here?  Somebody call–

BAR RESCUE:

“It’s like a set,” Kelp said.

“From the wrong side,” Dortmunder said. “Is there a way in?”

There was. Around the rough unfinished wall they came to an opening, and now they could see that what had been built was a broad but shallow three-walled room without a ceiling. A dark wood bar, a little beat-up, stretched along the back wall, on which were mounted beer posters and mirrors that had been smeared with something that looked like soap, so they wouldn’t reflect. A jumble of bottles filled the back bar, plus a cash register at the right end. Barstools in a row looked as though they’d come directly from the wholesale restaurant supply place next door, and so did the two tables and eight chairs in the grouping in front of the bar. At the right end of the bar stood two pinball machines, and at the left end a doorway into darkness.

Kelp, in wonder, said, “It’s the OJ.”

“Well, it isn’t the OJ,” Dortmunder said.

“No, I know it isn’t,” Kelp said, “but that’s what they’re going for.”

John and Andy first come across The Fake OJ while trying to find a way into Combined Tool one night.  Kelp is impressed at how real a fake it is–Dortmunder is disgusted.  He says he feels like a guy who fakes an autobiography.  “We haven’t done anything and already this is a lie.”  (Too pure a soul for this age, I sometimes fear.)

Before you know it, The Fake OJ has a Fake Rollo the Bartender (played by Rodney, another fine supporting player), and as for the barstool brigade–

When Kelp and Dortmunder and Tiny and the kid walked into the fake OJ Tuesday afternoon at two, Doug and Marcy and Roy Ombelen and Rodney the bartender and the camera crews were already there, clustered around the left end of the bar, where in the real joint the regulars reigned.

As they approached the bar, Rodney was saying, “No way Shakespeare wrote those plays. He didn’t have the education, he hadn’t been anywhere, he was just a country bumpkin. An actor. A very good actor, everybody says so, but just an actor.”

Doug said, “Isn’t some duke supposed to be the real guy?”

“Oh, Clarence,” Rodney said, in dismissal.

“I heard that, too,” Marcy said. “That’s very interesting.”

“No, it wasn’t him,” Rodney said, scoffing at the idea. “In fact, if you study those plays the way I did, you’ll see they couldn’t have been written by a man at all.”

Marcy, astonished, said, “A woman?”

“No sixteenth-century guy,” Rodney said, “had that kind of modern attitude toward women or instinctive understanding of the woman’s mind.”

One of the camerapersons said, “My husband says it was Bacon.”

Another cameraperson, dripping scorn, said, “They’re not talking about meat, they’re talking about Shakespeare.”

“Sir Francis Bacon.”

“Oh.”

Roy said to Rodney, “I venture to say you have someone in mind.”

“Queen,” Rodney pronounced, “Elizabeth the First.”

Kelp and Dortmunder looked at one another. “You build it,” Kelp murmured, “they will come.”

(Malcolm X thought it was King James.  You know, the one with the bible.  Everybody’s got a pet theory.  Mine is that it was that Stratford bum.  Because who else had the time?)

Marcy, the writer who can’t call herself a writer, is hanging at the fake OJ as well, which kind of makes sense.  If anything here does.  She’s got some ideas for how to save their show that keeps threatening not to happen (I could do a Project Greenlight segment, but this is getting long).

Marcy and the rest of the cast were now clustered at one of the side booths, and Marcy waved to Kelp and called, “Come on over, Andy, we’re working out the story line.”

The story line. 1) You go in. 2) You take what you came for. 3) You go out. If civilians are present, insert 1A) You show, but do not employ, weapons. Marcy’s story line would be a little more baroque.

Kelp went over, found a sliver of bench available next to Tiny, perched on it, and Marcy leaned in to be confidential, saying, “I hope you held out for a lot more money.”

“Oh, sure,” Kelp said. “You know us.”

Because, of course, Marcy didn’t know anything. She didn’t know why they’d left, and she didn’t know why they were back. So, as with the reality show, she was making up her own story line, which was perfectly okay.

“What we need, in the next couple weeks of the show,” Marcy told them, “is some sense of menace. Not from you guys, some other outside force.”

Dortmunder said, “Like the law, you mean?”

“No, we don’t want to bring the police in until the very end of the season. The escape from the police will be the great triumph, and it’ll make up for you not getting the big score you were counting on from the storage rooms.”

Kelp said, “Oh, we’re not getting that?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Marcy said. “I don’t want you to know the story too far ahead, because it can affect the way you play it. But I can guarantee you, the escape from the police will be the climax of the first season.”

“I’d watch it,” the kid said.

“For a menace from the outside,” Marcy said, “what do you think of another gang going after the exact same target?”

Kelp said, “Wasn’t that in a Woody Allen movie?”

“Oh, it’s been in dozens of movies,” she said. “That’s all right. Nobody expects reality to be original. People will see that, and they’ll laugh and they’ll say, ‘Just like the Woody Allen movie, and here the same thing happens in real life.’ ”

Dortmunder said, “That’s what they say, huh?”

(Nobody gets it when Dortmunder uses irony.  He has one of those faces where ironic is the default expression, so it goes unnoticed.  Much like the reference to Take The Money And Run, which came out about the same time Westlake was working on The Hot Rock, and long before Too Many Crooks, a more organic and sustained use of the basic gag, but credit where credit is due, assuming the Woodman didn’t steal it from somebody else, which I don’t.  He’s got bigger stuff to worry about these days.  Like when did he have his funnybone surgically removed?  Does Blue Cross cover that?  Wonder Wheel, Schmonder Wheel.)

In the midst of all these media-based meta-isms, there is actual thievery going on, most of it from none other than Stan The Man Murch, or as he shall now be known–

KING OF CARS:

Vehicles, vehicles everywhere. Big ones, little ones, new ones, old ones, valuable ones, junk. Whistling behind his teeth, Stan wandered among all these wheels and used his cell phone to take pictures of the ones he thought might be of interest. He stopped after he’d chosen six, not wanting to be greedy, then picked for tonight’s transportation a relatively modest black Dodge Caliber, mostly because it was pretty close to the garage door and wouldn’t require shifting too many other vehicles around to get it out of here.

The Caliber had apparently been used one way or another in movie- or television-making, because the passenger floor in front was littered with several random screenplay pages and the entire back area was a foot deep in plastic coffee cups and fast food trays. The glove box contained four different lipsticks, a package of condoms, and a cell phone; people are always leaving their cell phones.

Well, all of this would be somebody else’s problem, farther down the line. Stan merely drove the Caliber out to Varick Street, then left it athwart the sidewalk as he ducked back in to close the garage door.

Satisfied with the day’s work, he steered the Caliber down through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and thence by many secondary streets across Brooklyn to Canarsie, pausing along the way to pick up from a closed movie rental place a DVD of Pit Stop (1969, Brian Donlevy, with a cameo from George Barris, famous custom car builder) to watch that night with his Mom.

Leaving the Caliber at the curb on a side street a couple blocks from home, he returned to it Thursday morning to find it was still there, so he drove it onto an even more remote area than Canarsie, a neighborhood—if that isn’t too fancy a word—somewhere out there that was in a way Brooklyn, in a way Queens, and very nearly but not quite, Nassau County.

Murch has been thrown off the fake heist, and as matters work themselves out, he won’t really be needed as a driver on the real one, but as the ultimate rolling stone, he’s still going to gather some moss.  There is a huge parking garage on the ground floor of Get Real’s headquarters on Varick Street.  Conveniently located near a tunnel leading out of Manhattan. Full of all kinds of cars used for shoots. So many that it will take some time for anyone to realize some of them aren’t there anymore.

There aren’t a lot of fake names for American-made autos here, a running gag in the late Dortmunders.  I thought Dodge Caliber might be fake, particularly since Westlake uses it to make a pun, but it’s an actual car, a five door compact. (Not sure what caliber that would be, .32 maybe?)

There’s a Chevy Gazpacho–I don’t want to know if that’s real.  There’s a GMC Mastodon, and I think we already had that one?  No?  They kind of blur together after a while.  Much like the cars themselves, which is one of the many reasons Detroit is having problems now.

He pops over to Maximillian’s Used Cars, where things proceed much as always, except Harriet the receptionist has a computer now, and Max is all agog at the photos Stan presents him of creampuff after creampuff, all of them his for the asking (and cash, needless to say). “What’d you do?” he asked. “Follow them to their nest?”  More or less, yeah.

But he hasn’t reckoned on the mama bird, namely Babe Tuck, who marches in (for the second time in the book, to proclaim “This show is canceled.  Shut it down.”  Because somebody’s been taking cars from the garage downstairs, and guess who Babe thinks that would be?  Dortmunder doesn’t need to be any kind of detective to solve that mystery.  And he was just working on a way to monetize the prospective storage heist (this is before the discussion with Marcy at the Fake OJ), which brings us to our final easily-named segment–

HARDCORE PAWN (the other one was too easy):

For instance, last week they kind of took the show on the road. All of them except Ray, since there was to be no actual planning or wall-walking involved, went to a real pawnshop and talked to a real pawnbroker, who wasn’t like old suspenders-wearing pawnbrokers in the movies, but was some kind of Asian guy, very thin, who talked very fast with a hard click-like thing at the end of every word. He thought what they were doing was hilarious, and he kept cracking up with high-pitched giggles, his whole face scrunched around his laughing mouth. Marcy and Doug kept at him to stay serious, to remember the actual cash money they’d be paying him, and eventually he did settle down enough so they could get through it.

But it wasn’t any good. That is, it wasn’t any good on purpose. The whole point of the week was that Tiny knew this pawnbroker, so they all went over to talk with him (taxi scenes, with Tiny all over the front seat, and another reason not to include Ray), because this pawnbroker would be willing to take whatever it was they would be removing from the storage company.

But then it turned out he was only willing to take the stuff on consignment, and consignment was not going to cut it. Thieves don’t work on consignment. Thieves obtain the goods, they sell the goods, they take cash on the barrelhead. That’s why they finish with such a small percentage of the value of whatever they’ve taken, which was all right, because it meant they had something where they had nothing before.

The question must be asked–why do they need to steal anything?  I mean, other than whatever Get Real sets up for them to steal, or fail to steal, or maybe get stolen from them?  However the season finale works out, they get 20 grand apiece.  That’s better than they’ve done in most of the previous books, even allowing for inflation (they got bupkus in a lot of the previous books, and inflation does bupkus to bupkus).

It’s even been worked out so that they don’t have to provide things like Social Security numbers, through a clever dodge (that Kelp thought of, naturally) involving paying them through a related company in the UK.  (Been a lot of clever dodges like that going around lately, wouldn’t you say?  Deutschebank, Deutschebank, uber alles.  Andy, have you been moonlighting again?)

And the reason is, this is what they do. They are thieves.  Not ‘reality’ thieves. Real thieves. And once you’re real, you can never become unreal again–right?

That is the question we shall ask next week.  When I finish this review.  Yes, really.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.  Possibly for the last time, but be that as it may, thanks to Patti and Todd for all the plugs.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Get Real

So, a minute later, when May reappeared, unencumbered except for three beer cans that she distributed, Dortmunder said, “I got a very strange proposition today.”

She didn’t quite know how to take that word. Settling into her chair, she said, “A proposition?”

“A job, kind of. But weird.”

“John’s gonna describe it to you now,” Kelp said, and looked at Dortmunder, as alert as a sparrow on a branch.

Dortmunder took a breath. “It’s reality TV,” he said, and went on to describe how Murch’s Mom had introduced Doug Fairkeep into their lives and what Doug Fairkeep had proposed, including the payoff.

Somehow, every time he told that story he got the same kind of dead-air silent reaction. Now May and Kelp both gave him the glassy-eye treatment, so he said, “That’s the story, May, that’s all there is.”

She said, “Except the next day, when they drag you all off to jail.”

“Doug Fairkeep says we’ll work around that.”

“How?”

“He doesn’t say.”

May squinted, much the way she used to squint back when she chain-smoked. “I’ll tell you another question,” she said. “What is it you’re supposed to steal?”

“We didn’t go into that.”

“It might make a difference,” she said.

Dortmunder didn’t get it. “How?”

“Well,” she said, “if they were going for laughs, like. Like if you hijacked a diaper service truck, something like that.”

Kelp said, “I’m not gonna hijack any diaper service truck.”

Like that,” she said.

Dortmunder said, “May, I don’t think so. What they do is, they find people got some sort of interesting lifestyle or background or something, and they film the people doing what they do, and then they shape it, to make it entertainment. I don’t think they’re goin for jokes, I think they’re goin for real.”

“Jail is real,” she said.

Dortmunder nodded, but said, “The problem is, so is twenty G.”

“Looks to me,” Kelp said, “as though you oughta go back and see this guy and ask him a lot more questions.”

“I’m realizing that,” Dortmunder admitted. “You wanna come along?”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Kelp said, as casual as an aluminum siding salesman. “No need for me to poke my face in at this point. Murch’s Mom didn’t rat me out to the guy.”

“No, she didn’t,” Dortmunder said.

“But I tell you what I’ll do,” Kelp said. “Come home with me and I’ll Google him.”

Dortmunder frowned. “Is that a good thing?”

“Oh, yeah,” Kelp said.

It’s 2009.   Almost half a century after you wandered into a drugstore, and found The Mercenaries.  Hard to believe. Time flies when you’re having fun.  You need something to read, so you surf on over to Amazon.  Hey, there’s a new Dortmunder out!  A few clicks later, you’ve got it on your device.  No more gaudy paperbacks at newsstands, no more revolving racks at drugstores, damned few bookstores of any kind in New York now.  (The rent is too damn high.)  Progress. One supposes.

As always, Dortmunder dissents.  But the world keeps changing, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  As inevitable as death and taxes.  Well, as the latter.  Apparently some people aren’t going to pay taxes anymore.  More for the rest of us, huh?

Somewhere, Donald E. Westlake is rolling his eyes at us.  But not on this mortal plane.  Mr. Westlake has left the building, after making one last statement about identity–and how we keep confusing it.  He’s been here with Dortmunder & Co. before, decades earlier.

In Jimmy The Kid, he was talking about the increasingly blurry line between fiction and reality.  Real criminals getting a plan from a paperback crime novel, only to learn that real life is more complex, more contingent, and nobody knows their lines, heeds their cues.  Because everybody in this world is living out his or her own story, as the protagonist, you can’t control life the way a writer can control a narrative.

In Get Real, he’s talking about the increasingly nonexistent line between fiction and ‘reality.’  As in reality TV.  Semi-scripted documentaries, where people narrate their daily existence, improvise dialogue in place of having conversations–become fictional characters in their own lives.

That erudite Irishman, Bishop Berkeley, once opined that to be is to be perceived.  That the world around us is created by the act of viewing it, God being the divine perceiver who holds the fabric of reality together.  I don’t know about all that, but we 21st century humans sure behave as if the Bishop spoke gospel.  Only for us, God is a camera.  And a boom mike.  Budget lacking, a webcam, or smartphone.  Life must be dramatized.  Like it wasn’t dramatic enough already.

Let’s learn about this one.  The last one.  Not just the last Dortmunder.  The last book in our queue.  (If there are any outstanding wagers, with regards to my reaching this milestone, time to settle up).

Given how much earlier Dirty Money appeared, we should probably assume this is the very last piece of work Westlake submitted for publication in his lifetime.  Marilyn Stasio’s review for the New York Times came out in late August of 2009, eight months after Westlake departed this mortal coil by way of Mexico.  After a long series of affectionate thumbnails, she put more time and effort into this one, as a final homage, even praising the wry social commentary that was always a part of this series.

It’s quite a nice review, one of the best he ever got in the Times, which routinely gave short shrift to far better Westlakes than this.  His humorous writings in particular tended to be dismissed as enjoyable diversions, but now his satiric edge begins to be appreciated.  All he had to do was die.   (Why am I thinking of Daffy Duck again?  Oh right.)

(Censored!?  Is literally nothing sacred?  Oh never mind.  Overture.  Curtain lights.  On with the show, this is it.)

The quote up top gives us the premise.  One fine day in New York City traffic, Murch’s Mom struck up a conversation with her fare of the moment, a TV producer working for Get Real, a shingle devoted to reality shows, owned by a media company called Monopole, majority controlled by by Trans-Global Universal Industries, the same mega-corporation referenced in What’s The Worst That Could Happen?  (No mention of its disgraced CEO, so maybe he’s in prison.  Or the White House.  Details.)  TUI in turn is controlled by Somnitech, which we heard about in The Road to Ruin.  It is, quite literally, a rich tapestry.

Right now, the only show they’ve got on the air is The Stand, which is not, you should know, about a post-apocalyptic world in which the fate of humanity shall be decided by a war between Boulder and Las Vegas.  It’s about a failing roadside farm stand in upstate New York.  The kind of thing you come across channel-surfing, and you wonder what the hell is keeping Captain Trips.  Should have been here decades ago.

You know how proud mothers can never resist talking about what their sons do for a living.  So when our Gladys summons both Murch and Dortmunder to her cab for a confab, she has worrisome news to impart.

Stan said, “Hello? You started telling him what about me?”

“I’m looking to see,” his mother told him, “could he get you a job.”

“In TV? What am I gonna do, sports?”

“Whatever,” his mother said. “Face it, Stanley, your previous occupation is coming to an end.”

Stan frowned at her profile. “How do you work that out?”

“Cameras,” his Mom said, and pointed at one mounted on a nearby pole. “Security. ID. Tracking. Records of everything. Global positioning. Radio chips. It’s harder for people like you and John every day, and you know it is. It is time, Stanley, you underwent a career change.”

Dortmunder said, “It isn’t that bad.”

“Oh, it’s all right for you,” she told him. “You go on doing what you’re doing because what else have you got, but Stanley’s possessed of an actual marketable skill.”

“Mp,” said Dortmunder.

Stan said, “Which skill is that?” “Driving,” she said. “Keeping your wits about you. Anyway, the point is, I liked this guy, Doug Fairkeep his name is, so I wound up I gave him a little more of your background than I originally planned.”

Fairkeep wasn’t looking for any new drivers, but when he realized he was talking to somebody who could put him in touch with professional heisters, he got very excited.  He immediately saw the potential for a new show.  Title to be determined (I’d stick with the King motif–MiseryNeedful Things–I think he just had a book out called Finders Keepers?)

She gives Stan the guy’s card and it looks legit.  What he and Dortmunder do isn’t, so how could they ever pull a job on national TV and not end up in a reality show about prison, perhaps on MSNBC?  (With Dortmunder’s luck, it’d be Animal Planet, and he’d be a teaching aide for German Shepherds who chase burglars.  Rrrrr!)

While they ponder that,  Chapter 2 introduces us to Mr. Fairkeep, and his production assistant, Marcy Waldorf.  Who would like to be called a writer, since that’s what she’s doing for her meager living, but alas–

“It is not writing, Marcy,” Doug said, “for two reasons. In the first place, The Stand is a reality show, the cameras catching real life on the fly, not a scripted show with actors. The Finches aren’t actors, Marcy, they are an actual family struggling to run an actual farmstand on an actual farm on an actual secondary road in upstate New York.”

“But,” Marcy objected, “they’re saying the words we write, down here in the production assistants’ room, Josh and Edna and me.”

“The Finches often,” Doug allowed, “follow our suggestions, that’s true. But, Marcy, even if they followed your suggestions one hundred percent of the time, you still wouldn’t be a writer.”

“Why not?”

“Because The Stand is a reality show, and reality shows do not have actors and writers because they do not need actors and writers. We are a very low-budget show because we do not need actors and writers. If you were a writer, Marcy, you would have to be in the union, and you would cost us a whole lot more because of health insurance and a pension plan, which would make you too expensive for our budget, and we would very reluctantly have to let you go and replace you with another twenty-two-year-old fresh out of college. You’re young and healthy. You don’t want all those encumbrances, health insurance and pension plans.”

(Perish the thought.  And quite possibly the bodies producing said thoughts, but that’s a whole other issue, currently in the capable hands of the former CEO of TUI.  We just had to know what was the worst that could happen.)

Doug is delighted to learn that he’s got a call from the son of that Murch woman–now he can get to work on the new show (working title The Gang’s All Here, there goes the motif).  He’s even more pleased to learn that he’s going to meet Dortmunder as well–the criminal mastermind.  (Hey, he is sometimes!)

He’s a bit nonplussed to learn he’s going to meet them across the street from his office on Third, at the outdoor cafe pertaining to a bar/restaurant named Trader Thoreau.  (We are spared a description of the thematically decorated walls inside, since they never go inside).

The meeting is short, not at all sweet, and mainly involves Fairkeep trying to get pictures and tape recordings of our heroes, while they make very sure he gets no such thing to hold over their heads. And then politely suggest that they might throw him under a slow-moving bus if he keeps trying.  No shortage of those on Third.

The main thing is the offer, and it’s tempting.  20g per man, plus six hundred a day in working expenses.  The storyline, to unfold over one season, is them finding a place to rob, planning the job, then pulling it.  And the sticking point is how they can legally commit an illegal act on national TV.

(There is a poignant moment where Marcy, tasked with taking surreptitious photos of the duo with her smartphone only to have it confiscated, makes a plaintive request for its return, saying her entire life is on that phone.  Stan deletes the photos, hands it back.  Chivalry is not dead.  Certain other things, perhaps….)

Kelp is brought in to consult, and he brings in The Ultimate Consultant, as you see up top.  Doug consults on his end with his boss, Babe Tuck, a former foreign news correspondent, who has seen it all before, or so he thought.  Just a preliminary consult, they’re not ready to commit to the concept yet, and even Babe, who has been held hostage by terrorists, is somewhat taken aback at the threat of bus-related violence on Third Avenue.

“I didn’t take it literally,” Doug assured him. “I took it to be Stan telling me he would do what it took, so he was showing me the extreme case. Naturally, I gave him the recorder before we got anywhere near there.”

“So there’s a threat of violence,” Babe said, “without the actual violence. That’s good, I like that.”

“These guys,” Doug said, “have a certain grungy kind of authenticity about them that’ll play very well on the small screen.”

Nodding, looking at his notepad, sucking a bit on his lower lip, Babe said, “What are they gonna steal?”

“That’s up to them,” Doug said. “We didn’t get that far.”

“No widow’s mites,” Babe cautioned. “No crippled newsie’s crutches.”

“Oh, nothing like that,” Doug said. “Our demographic would like to see some snooty rich people get cleaned out.”

(For all we know, many similar conversations have taken place at production offices with regards to many a Dortmunder movie that did or did not happen, as well as the TV pilot threatened in the trades a short while ago, of which nothing has been heard since.  Marcy should try applying for a job on one of those, they have writers. Kind of.)

Doug gets a call from Dortmunder.  He and Kelp are waiting to see him.  In his apartment.  (Kelp must have decided this was too interesting a meet to pass up, Post-Google).  They tell him to bring a sixpack.  Heineken, please.  It was Beck’s at Trader Thoreau, so I’m guessing the beer choice is Andy’s.  (Nobody ever has DAB in stock these days. My dad used to like that.)

And the moral here is that Google is a very good thing indeed–when you are the Googler.  As opposed to the Googled.  Googlee?  Whatever.

Doug is having mixed emotions about these people.  On the one hand, they’re breaking into his place like it’s no big deal, making themselves at home, pawing through his personal effects, learning about him while they wait (Like Google in three dimensions.  With lockpicks.) On the other hand, this does prove they’re–you know–for real.  That’s what he wanted, right?  Reality.  Of course, for people in his business, the meaning of the word is more flexible

Let’s say we rent a house, and we furnish it,” Fairkeep said, “and we put spycams all through the house, and we get a bunch of college kids, boys and girls, and we pay them to live in the house. But the gimmick could be, they have to spend the whole summer vacation there, they can’t ever step outside the house. Anybody leaves the house, they’re out of the game. We ship in food, and they can watch TV, and like that. And they don’t know each other before they start. And we can make up any rules we want to make up, make it different from any other show like that.”

Dortmunder said, “And you get people to do this? All summer?”

“We’ve got waiting lists,” Fairkeep said.

Dortmunder nodded. “And people watch this.”

“You’d be surprised.”

“I am surprised.”

“The point being,” Fairkeep said, “in a situation like that, what’s gonna happen? Who falls in love, has a fight, can’t hack it. We do the setup, but then they just do themselves. Same with you.”

Andy said, “Only, where’s our setup?”

Which in Kelp-speak means “What do we steal?”  This remains the sticking point.  And the logical solution would be that they’d steal from Get Real, or one of its sister companies–a sanctioned theft, indemnified under the corporate umbrella.  Doug doesn’t like this logic, but he has no convincing counter to it.  If Dortmunder & Co. can’t commit legal larceny, the show will not go on.

Doug protests that Get Real doesn’t have anything worth stealing–the other companies have things like aircraft engines that make for an impractical heist.  Having done his Googling well, Kelp knows how rich the corporate tapestry is, rattles off a list of names, knocking Doug even further off-balance.

Dortmunder, focusing on the essentials, insists that somewhere in this capitalist crochet there must exist some cash.  Hearing this assertion, Doug Fairkeep hesitates for a nanosecond, then issues a rote denial.  It’s all electronic impulses now, no cash anywhere (this in spite of the fact that he’s already told them he pays restaurant checks in cash so he can skim his expense account).

The thieves spot this wobble like a shark smells blood in the water.  So. There’s cash.  And it has to be somewhere Doug could have seen it.  The game’s afoot!

Next, we are with young Judson Blint, still slaving away at the enviable behest of the enticing J.C. Taylor, keeping her minor fraudulent operations afloat, while she busies herself with the great nation of Maylohda she conjured out of thin air to scam the entire planet.  She tells him to go have some fun.  He says yes ma’am.  She does not like that.

“Ma’am,” she said, with a scornful look, and left. Judson shrugged—it was so hard to know the right reactions to people when you were barely a person yourself at nineteen—and went back to, face it, work.

He always saved the music business for last, because those people were the most fun. The people who just wanted to be a detective at home in their spare time or just wanted to look at dirty pictures at home in their spare time were pretty cut-and-dried, merely sending in their money, but the people who sent music to Super Star Music to have lyrics set to it, or alternatively, lyrics for an infusion of music (sometimes A’s request meshing just fine with B’s, so what came in could be shipped right back out again, neither participant any the wiser), tended to write confessional letters of such mawkish cluelessness that Judson wished there were, somewhere in the world, a publisher gutsy enough to put out a collection of them.

But that was not to be, since dispassionate self-knowledge is not a quality held in much esteem by the majority of the human race, so not enough people would find the product funny. Oh, well; at least he could enjoy the sincerity of these simpletons, to ease his own stress in the workaday world.

Ah; this grandmother of eight had been compelled at last to her true vocation as love-song lyricist by the flaming car-crash death of her favorite seventeen-year-old grand-daughter. Well, Grandma, lucky for you she bought it.

He’s only delighted when Dortmunder calls, saying something about getting the group back together.  To play a very different kind of song.

And for the penultimate time in the annals of world literature–stop booing, it’s not my fault!–

When Dortmunder walked into the OJ Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue that Wednesday night at ten, the big low-ceilinged square room was underutilized. The booths along both sides and the tables in the middle were all empty. At the bar, along the rear of the room, Rollo the meaty bartender, off to the right, was slowly carving tomorrow’s specials onto a black blackboard with a stub of white chalk, a gray rag in his other hand. The regulars, as usual, were clustered along the left side of the bar.

It being April, the regulars were discussing taxes. “I might declare my bowling ball as an expense,” one said.

The guy to his right reared back. “Your bowling ball!”

“We wager certain amounts,” the first regular explained. “Only then I’d have to declare how much I won, and then pay tax on that. I asked the guy at the drugstore, which way do I come out ahead, he said he’d get back to me on that.”

As Dortmunder angled toward Rollo, he saw that the barman was groping in the direction of “lasagna,” but hadn’t quite reached it yet. Seeing Dortmunder, he nodded and said, “Long time no see.”

“I been semiretired,” Dortmunder told him. “Not on purpose.”

“That can be a drag.” Rollo pointed his jaw at the black-board. “Whadaya think?”

Dortmunder looked: LUHZANYA. “I don’t know about that H,” he said.

(I don’t know I’d necessarily want to eat lasagna at the OJ, no matter how it’s spelled, but if that was the price of attendance, gladly would I pay it. That’s what they invented Bismuth Subsalicylate for. )

Dortmunder and the next-to-arrive Kelp proceed to the back room, as one of the regulars insists that the flat tax means you owe the Feds the equivalent of one month’s rent.  Past the pointers and setters, past where the phone booth used to be when there were still phone booths.  They take a seat, pour themselves some Amsterdam Liquor Store bourbon (Our Own Brand), and wait.

Not for long.  Thunderous footfalls sound in the distance, like you hear at the opening of a Kaiju Eiga film.  Want to see how you spell Tiny Bulcher in Japanese?

As Dortmunder nodded, the doorway filled with enough person to choke Jonah’s whale. This creature, who was known only to those who felt safe in considering him their friend as Tiny, had the body of a top-of-the-line SUV, in jacket and pants of a neutral gray that made him look like an oncoming low, atop which was a head that didn’t make you think of Easter Island so much as Halloween Island. In his left fist he carried a glass of what looked like, but was not, cherry soda. When he spoke it wasn’t a surprise that bass notes of an organ sounded: “I’m late.”

Judson arrives, and behold–he’s got his own drink.  From now on, Rollo the Bartender will refer to him in absentia as the Campari and Soda, we may safely infer.

So everybody gets into the loop with the Get Real thing, and the meeting at Fairkeep’s apartment, and the momentary wobble when they asked if he knew of a place that had cash.  Incidentally–

Dortmunder said, “Andy and I had a discussion with the guy this afternoon, at his apartment.”

Stan said, “Oh? Where’s that?”

“One of those Trump buildings on the west side.”

“And how is it?”

Dortmunder shrugged. “Okay.”

“A little too bronze,” Kelp said.

Tiny said, “Over here, I’m still working around this.”

“Okay,” Dortmunder said.

“Andy did some computer trick—”

“It’s no trick,” Kelp said. “I Googled.”

“Oh, sure,” Stan said.

“Whatever,” Dortmunder said. “Turns out, this guy’s little company is owned by a bigger company, owned by a bigger company, and like that. Like those cartoons where every fish is getting eat by the bigger fish behind him.”

So Trump now officially exists in the Dortmunderian universe.  As if they didn’t have enough problems there.  But leaving that to one side, the gang being all here, they try to figure out exactly what Doug’s little wobble would signify, and of course the Campari and Soda nails it.

“Oh!” said the kid. When they all looked at him, he had a huge happy grin on his face. Lifting his glass, he toasted them all in Campari and soda, then knocked back a good swig of it, slapped the glass down onto the felt, and said, “Now I get it!”

That was the annoying thing about the kid, who was otherwise okay. Every once in a while, he’d get it before anybody else got it, and when he got it, he got it.

So Tiny said to him, “If you got it, give it to us.”

“Bribes,” the kid said.

They looked at him. Stan said, “Bribes?”

“Every big company that does business in different countries,” the kid said, “bribes the locals when they want to come do business. Here, buy our aircraft engines, not that other guy’s aircraft engines, and you look like you could use another set of golf clubs. Here’s a little something for the wife. Wouldn’t you like to run our TV show on your station? I know they don’t pay you what you deserve; here, have an envelope.”

“I’ve heard about this,” Kelp said. “There’s a word everybody uses, it’s chai, it means ‘tea,’ you sit down together, you have a cuppa tea, you move the envelope.”

Tiny said, “So? That’s what they call business.”

“Somewhere around thirty years ago,” the kid said, “the US Congress passed a law, it’s illegal for an American company to bribe foreigners.”

Stan said, “What? No way.”

“It’s true,” the kid said. “American companies have to be very careful, it’s a federal crime, it’s a felony, they all gotta do it, but they really don’t wanna get caught.”

Kelp said, “So we’re shooting ourself in the foot, is what you’re saying.”

“Both feet,” said the kid. “And not for the first time. Anyway, what this guy Doug saw was the courier, the guy who carries the cash. He’s a known guy to everybody, he works for this television outfit, he travels for them all the time, they’re used to seeing him go back and forth, he always carries all his movie equipment with him.”

Tiny said, “That’s very nice.”

“And one time,” the kid said, “maybe more, Doug saw the cash going into the DVD boxes. So the guy who carries the money works in Doug’s outfit.”

“Him,” Dortmunder said, “we’ll find. It may take a little time, but him we’ll find.”

“What’s extra nice about this,” Tiny said, “it’s like those guys that knock over drug dealers. You heist somebody already committing a crime, he doesn’t call the cops.”

“At last,” Kelp said. “The perfect crime.”

I was somewhat bothered by the assembled thieves’ stern disapproval of sound anti-corruption legislation, but then I remembered–they’re thieves.  There really is nothing objectionable about small time crooks snookering major leaguers.  Inverting that cartoon of the big fish eating the little ones.  You never heard of piranha?

I don’t know about that H, but I do know that as they walk out of the OJ, and Rollo has lasagna spelled correctly on the blackboard because he called The Knights of Columbus to check, I have to restrain myself from hugging him.  Could be misinterpreted.  With the exception of a brief episode near the end, what we get from now on is a simulacra Rollo, overseeing an ersatz OJ.  In a tediously predictable Part 2 to this review.

I used to be a lot terser when I started doing this.  As the blog rolled on, the books got longer, more sophisticated, the author finding new ways to restate his themes, and of course he wasn’t writing short paperbacks anymore–I found myself getting lost in the devilish details.  And there is no pleasanter place to go astray, but even so, I miss the pithier me, sometimes.

All the same, I thought I might manage one final one-parter for this one.  It’s one of the shorter books in this series, bit of a throwback to the early days.  Westlake was focused here, not going off on tangents, not introducing a lot of character arcs that don’t go anywhere, not taking elements he might have intended for some other novel he never wrote and retro-fitting them for Dortmunder.

There are the usual satiric asides–it’s never just about quirky crooks pulling half-assed heists–but the satire here stems entirely from the A-Plot, and there is no B-Plot. Very focused indeed.  Almost as if the author knew he didn’t have much time left.  For as Dr. Johnson said, nothing focuses the mind like the realization you’ll hang tomorrow.  Let’s see how well that axiom applies to Fred Fitch.

Those who want to hold off paying their bets until next time will not be considered welshers.  There will be no Part 3.  (Unless it becomes unavoidable)  I only have two more (nearly identical) cover images.  And no more novels at all  Get ready.  The end is nigh upon us.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Mr. Reese and the Candids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addendum: The Mystery of Joseph Albert

“I’ll carry the message,” Meany said.

“Yes, you will,” Parker agreed.  “On the floor.”

“I’ll carry it now!  I’ll make a phone call!”

“Who to?

Meany licked his lips.  His elbows were twitching back and forth from the strain of holding his hands together on top of his head.  “One of the owners,” he said. “A guy that can make the offer.”

“What’s his name?”

Meany didn’t like doing this, but he knew he had no choice.  “Joseph Albert.”

Parker looked at Arthur.  “Do you know that name?”

From Firebreak, by Richard Stark.

“You look more like your mother than your father,” he said.

Then I got it.  “You’re a lying son of a bitch,” I said.

“You look a lot more like her. I know.  I see your father in the mirror every morning.”

I laughed at him.  “You’re crazy, or you think we are.  Or are you just wisecracking again?”

“It’s true,” he said.

Bill said, “What the hell’s going on?”

From 361, by Donald E. Westlake.

I’ve written my last Stark review.  (Unless there’s some unpublished manuscript out there, awaiting rediscovery.  I think we’d know by now.)  Not my last Stark analysis by a long shot.  There will always be more to say about an author that interesting, even if he was just one voice within the convoluted cranium of Donald Edwin Westlake.

But I did think, after typing out three part reviews of  Firebreak and Dirty Money, that I had at least covered the bases for both those books, plumbed their essential mysteries  Again, I’m forced to say–I was wrong.  I missed the most tantalizing mystery of all.

Throughout the series, starting with The Hunter, Parker had come up against arrogant mob bosses.  Taking money from them, waging wars of attrition upon them, forming alliances of convenience with them, and, more than once, murdering them when they became sufficiently irksome.

Arthur Bronson.  Walter Karns.  Adolf Lozini.  Louis Buenadella.  The excellent character guide for these books maintained at the University of Chicago Press website, glosses over the details a bit when it refers to them all as members of ‘The Outfit.’  Lozini and Buenadella are midwestern mafiosi, aware of The Outfit (still headed by Karns at the time of Butcher’s Moon), loosely affiliated with it perhaps, but not under its sway. Only Bronson, Karns and their various subordinates referred to in the first sixteen novels would count as members of that national syndicate, peddling vice to the masses.

To Parker, I should add, the differences between various criminal organizations are meaningless, semantic–their names are just words these people play with to pretend they’re something more than thieves, like him.  He recognizes them as part of his world, on the same general side of the law as him, and sometimes he has to deal with them. Thorough-going independent that he is, he can never identify with any such group.  His ethos and theirs are diametrically opposed.  In this, Parker represents his creator’s own deep feelings about authority, and more specifically, corporations, legal and otherwise.

The final such enterprise Parker encountered, first in Firebreak, then again in Dirty Money, was Cosmopolitan Beverages, an ‘import/export’ business (another fancy name, this time for smuggling), headquartered in Bayonne NJ, run day to day by Frank Meany, described as a semi-reformed thug wearing expensive suits.

But The Big Boss (one of five, we’re told), is named Joseph Albert.  We never see him,  Parker only talks to him on speakerphone.  We’re told his voice is heavy, guarded.  He sounds educated–doesn’t talk like a thug, reformed or otherwise (we’ll assume his suits are even nicer than Meany’s).  A CEO of crime.  If that’s not too redundant a term.

By the end of Dirty Money, by default the end of his story, Parker has formed yet another alliance of convenience, this time with Cosmopolitan.  He’ll sell them the roughly two million dollars from the bank in Massachusetts,  for 200k in untraceable cash–they can launder the bills overseas.  Gives him money to live on, gives them a little more liquidity.

He attaches one more condition to the deal–they put him on their employment rolls, vouch for him with the straight world, so he can create a new identity for himself, have a driver’s license and passport that will hold up to all but the most intense scrutiny.  A strictly no-show job (mob guys know all about those).  Meany and Albert will be only his nominal bosses–but still–it’s a compromise.  The biggest he’s ever made.

The Information Age is becoming a problem. Forcing him to make difficult choices.  But he never flinches from those.  Without good ID, he’s not going to stay free much longer.  But it suddenly occurs to me–what he’s doing here is not entirely unlike what Mal Resnick did–for very different motives–when he gave all the money he and Parker had stolen together to The Outfit, to regain his position there.

Joseph Albert is briefly referenced in Dirty Money–Meany clears the exchange with him, and reports to Parker that Mr. Albert said that if Meany wanted to cut a deal with a son of a bitch like that, it’s up to him.  In Firebreak, remember, Parker had more than hinted that if Albert didn’t call off the hit on him they’d ordered as a favor to Paul Brock, he’d be putting one out on Albert, after he killed Meany.  And carrying out the contract in person, as usual.  Difficult to say how personally Albert took that threat.  On the phone, he sounded very cold and businesslike.  More of a Karns than a Bronson.

So what would have happened if there had been more novels?  Would this arrangement have held?  There are reasons to doubt it.  Parker has effectively shared his score with them.  Suppose they decide they want a share of subsequent heists?  Suppose they decide he really is their employee?  Suppose they have little errands for him to run?  How much can he say no to, before they tell him play ball or his cover’s blown?  He and Claire can walk away from the house in New Jersey, but it would be harder for him to walk away from his new name (whatever it is).

You have to figure there would be some kind of showdown.  Perhaps not as sanguinary as the previous wars.  But when Parker has a problem with middle management, he always wants to go straight to the top.  And that’s not Meany.  That’s Albert.  Interesting name, that.  Joseph Albert. Is that the whole moniker, or just first and middle?  You know, like Sinatra was sometimes called Francis Albert.

I don’t know how I missed this for so long.  Granted, when I started reading these books, I  had almost no background info on their author.  But it’s been a few years since I learned the name of Westlake’s father.  Albert Joseph Westlake. That’s right.

And I also learned that after Albert Joseph’s death, Westlake discovered his father knew people in organized crime, back during the Prohibition era. He may, in fact, have done accounting work for bootleggers.  You know.  People who smuggle alcoholic beverages, among other things.  Import/Export.  A very cosmopolitan trade, I’ve heard.

So shall we chalk this up to coincidence, or a private joke?  I don’t think so.  He’s telling us something.  He knows most of his readers won’t twig to it, but he thinks some of us will (I doubt I’m the first).  The Parker novels aren’t whodunnit mysteries (The Jugger being a partial exception), but mysteries they are, all the same.  Mystery writers give you clues.  It’s up to you to put the pieces together.  To look underneath the surface of things.  These books were never just about stealing and killing.

But what is this about?  Was Parker headed for an “I am your father” moment?  Pretty sure he turned to the dark side a long time ago.  The supreme mystery of the series–the one we never got close to solving–was where did someone as strange as Parker come from in the first place?

We know he served in the army during WWII in his early teens, going by his age when we meet him (and this is something that happened a lot more than people think).  We know he got dishonorably discharged after getting involved in the black market, and that it didn’t bother him one bit.

We know he lived in cities when he was younger, never felt at home there.  We know he got involved with armed robbery somehow, after the war.  We know he got married, that he was in love with his wife, but that he lost all interest in sex a few months after he pulled a job, only to have his libido ramp back up again after he pulled another.  That’s it.  He is never seen to think about anybody he knew before all that.  He doesn’t have any tattoos (unless you count bullet wounds), but if he did, you can bet none of them would say “Mother.”

His alternate universe mirror twin, John Dortmunder, was found abandoned at the door of a convent, when only a few minutes old.  Raised by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery.  So did something comparable (but utterly devoid of comic overtones) happen to Parker?  Only without the nuns, or a long stretch in prison?  Is that why he had to grow up so fast? Or was he ever really a kid at all?  Who–or what–could have given birth to such an unaccountable creature?  Who could have fathered him? Being a foundling doesn’t explain him in the least. Maybe nothing could.

The Hunter was written more or less in tandem with 361, the best of Westlake’s early crime novels, before he became known more for comic capers under his own name.  (Both books feature the George Washington Bridge in their opening chapters.)  It’s a taut little noir masterpiece, about a young man named Ray Kelly, just out of the army, who finds out the man he sees as his father wasn’t always an honest lawyer–he used to work for a mob boss.  The mob boss, named Kapp, is Ray’s biological father.  Who tries to make the protagonist accept him as his true father.  Doesn’t go well.

Ray’s mother killed herself, when he was very young.  The mobster tells him she was–different.  She married Ray’s foster father first, had a son with him.  Motherhood brought something out of her, something Kapp couldn’t quite describe, something that attracted him, so he took her, and she went, willingly.  Ray looks like her, he’s told–and he’s like her in less obvious ways.  He has his father’s brains, drive, genius for criminal intrigue, and violence comes naturally to him–but he’s not a joiner.  Not an organization man.  Independent to the core.

And he wants the truth, at all costs.  He wants to know about himself, even if it means destroying every last vestige of his old identity.  He’s telling us all this in first person narrator form.  And we still feel like he’s not really sharing with us.  Always holding back.  A stranger on this earth, as much as anyone Camus (or Dinah Washington) ever imagined.

It’s not hard to divine that 361 was part of how Westlake dealt with mixed feelings about his family.  The man who raised Ray Kelly clearly loved him, was loved in return.  As Westlake was loved by the man who got him out of trouble, when he was caught stealing equipment from a college laboratory for pocket change.  Then apologized to his son for not being able to give him everything he needed in life. But is that all there was to the relationship?  Gratitude and guilt?

Albert Joseph Westlake worked very hard, kept his own counsel.  On the road for business, he felt a heart attack coming on, checked into a hotel, drank cheap liquor until it had passed.  When he lost his job, he went out day after day, as if he was still employed, keeping it from his wife and children for months.  Because that’s what he thought a man does.  Whatever he may or may not have done for bootleggers–that wasn’t something he ever shared with his son, and his wife didn’t know much about it either–just that a well-known gangster once approached him, addressed him as Al.

Westlake had his doubts about this way of living, but he could respect it.  What he couldn’t do was accept the life his father had chosen–whether it was working for a company or a mob.  He was going to work for himself, hew to a different path.  His father never lived to see him succeed on that path.  Is it likely the father had nothing to say about the pragmatic drawbacks of the career choice his son had made?

With rare exceptions (Up Your Banners comes to mind) Westlake never wrote too much about parent/child relationships.  He came at them obliquely, for the most part.  So yes, I think this is another case of that sideways glance at his own childhood–feeling his father never was honest and open with him.  Feeling abandoned at times by a mother who worked constantly herself.  Feeling like a cuckoo in the nest. Different. Odd.

But at the end of the day–and Dirty Money was written at the very end–hadn’t Westlake ultimately spent his life working for corporations?  Literary agencies, publishers, film studios.  Yes, freelance work.  What’s the difference?  It still amounts to giving the bosses what they want in exchange for the money to support yourself and your loved ones.  He was more creative than his father, sure.  More independent.  Lots richer. But in his mind, Albert Joseph Westlake still loomed over him.  As fathers tend to do, all the more in death.

What was going to happen? Is Joseph Albert literally Parker’s long lost sire, or just a sly subtextual metaphor for Donald Edwin’s conflicted emotions regarding Albert Joseph?  Could be both.  Not neither.

Would Parker have been forced to go to war with Albert, to kill him, or be killed by him?  Would he declare independence once more, or would he be drawn further in for a time, as Ray Kelly was?  Would we at least find out who his mother was?

Remember Quittner, from Butcher’s Moon?  Somebody like Parker, it’s implied–who had joined a criminal syndicate, surrendered his independence.  And over time, this compromise had eaten away at his sense of self.  Made him a shadow of the wolf he was born to be.  Unable to cope with the wilder freer version of himself he was confronted by in Tyler.  If it could happen to him, it could happen to Parker too.  But would Stark allow that?  Could he prevent it?  The romanticism of the earlier books was, as I’ve already mentioned, starting to wear thin in the latter ones.

I think no matter how many more Parker novels Westlake had written, we’d never have gotten all the answers.  But as matters worked out, we got none.  Just a question that was never asked out loud.  Who is Joseph Albert?  And why, when Meany comes to him with Parker’s offer, does he say (according to Meany), “If you want to deal with a son of a bitch like him, it’s okay with me”?

Technically any male wolf–well, I’m reading too much into it.  I do that sometimes.  But the mystery remains.  Everyone in this world faces the same mystery.   Who was my father?  Who was my mother?  That relationship can span most of our lives.  We can love them, hate them, condemn them, forgive them, ignore them.  Do we ever know them?  And if not, do we ever really know ourselves?

Search your feelings.  You know it to be true.

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

Mr. Parker and The Casting Call, Part 2: Guns of The Reminiscent Seven.

To be honest, I don’t believe there are going to be any more attempts to adapt any of the Parker novels for a long time to come.  By the time it happens, if it happens, almost anyone we might think of who is the right age now could be out of the running.  So what are we doing here?  I won’t speak for  you, but I’m trying to convince myself it’s even theoretically possible to cast an actor who is spot-on right for this role.

To that end, I find myself casting an eye backwards in time–to actors born a mite too soon to play Parker (but may have had some influence on his creation).  To actors perhaps too iconic and sought-after to play him by the time it became an option.  Or to actors who, though much appreciated in supporting roles, often villainous ones, never quite made it as leading men, and thus would never have been considered in the first place, unless it was some lowly B picture from Poverty Row (which might have been the best option).

It’s all moot, but does that make for any less enjoyable an exercise? These days, I’m grateful for distractions, triter the better, so let’s survey the competitors, the youngest of whom is eighty-four.  (The rest, being deceased, are all the same age.)  I’m going to consider them roughly in order of generation.  Starting with–

RYAN, Robert.  Born 1909, Chicago IL.  Height: 6’4.  Eyes: brown. 

This may seem an odd pick.  By the mid-60’s, when Hollywood began to pay attention to Parker, Robert Ryan was pushing sixty hard. But I don’t feel like any list of actors who might have had the potential to play this role is complete without him. In the history of noir on film, there is no grander name to conjure with.

Not much doubt he was the best actor on this list of mine.  But he was never the kind of actor who put on airs–who was afraid to underplay, when that’s what the role called for.  He could be almost impossibly cool–but you could still feel the rage seething beneath, barely held in check.  He often played characters who were on the verge of losing control, fighting a losing war of self-containment.

But he could play calm well-balanced men as well, as he did in The Wild Bunch.  He could play cowards, pedants, bullies and blusterers.  He could play the hell out of just about anything.  The year The Hunter came out, he played John Claggart in Ustinov’s Billy Budd.  His last role was Larry Slade, in John Frankenheimer’s boiled down adaptation of The Iceman Cometh.  If he ever gave a bad performance, I haven’t seen it.

More than tall enough for Parker, built towards the lean and ropy side.  As a younger man, he was in splendid physical shape, knew how to box, could move like lightning.  He could project murderous intensity, and he could be sexy, without being conventionally handsome.  More of an ensemble player, but he had the charisma of a star–and people knew him the moment he walked onscreen.

So if you could figure out how to do a series of Parker movies in the 1950’s, he’d be hard to beat.  My reservation is the one I have for all truly great actors–with Parker, you have to know when not to act.  Much as I think Ryan could restrain himself as needed, his work in crime movies leans more towards the histrionic side (partly because that’s what the movies of his era called for).  He’d have been brilliant in those stories where Parker is on a rampage, all his buttons pushed.  But I’d like him even better in something by David Goodis or Peter Rabe.

Next up is another Robert–the guy you’d want to see in almost any hardboiled role in crime fiction.  Only trouble with him is that he’s too damn good-looking.

MITCHUM, Robert.  Born 1917, Bridgeport CT.   Height: 6’1  Eyes: dark blue (I think), heavy-lidded.

With Ryan, I’d like to somehow transport the younger man forward in time a bit.  With Mitchum, I don’t feel like he could have played Parker until he was well into his forties.  The Mitchum we want is the Cape Fear Mitchum–early 60’s vintage.  And who ever believed Gregory Peck could take him?  In a courtroom scene, sure.  Or a western.  Not anything hardboiled.

But he never needed to play the toughest man in town.  Never mattered much to him.  Never took himself that serious.  When you’ve got that kind of personal magnetism, doesn’t make sense to exert yourself.  Mitchum underplays almost everything, because he doesn’t need to try that hard to draw us in.  He’ll put in the work, reveal himself, if he thinks the role is worth it.  But most of the time, he just doesn’t give a damn.  Most of the time he’s hiding beneath a ceremonial mask of skin. (Or getting himself arrested–never had much use for authority.)

Mitchum fits the descriptions of Parker that lean towards big, blocky, shaggy.  Westlake didn’t always have the same image in his mind when writing the character, and neither do we when reading about him.

Though he was more often cast as sympathetic characters, Mitchum liked playing really bad guys, and you could make a case nobody ever played them so well.  If I’d like Ryan for the stories where Parker is angry at the world, out for blood, I’d like Mitchum for the ones where hiding his true nature from the world–and of course, for the ones where there’s a woman involved.  Of all the names on this list, this is the one that would most easily justify Parker’s ineffable allure for the opposite sex.  I can’t think of a single leading lady Mitchum didn’t have chemistry with.  But as with everything else, he never worked hard for that either.  Lucky bastard.

He almost played Mitch Tobin, in a movie that never got made.  He’d have been right for that too, though in a different mode.  Not that he’d be right for any Westlake protagonist.  About the only worse pick for Dortmunder would be Robert Redford.  Strange be the ways of Hollywood.  Nobody found them stranger than the most reluctant star of all time, namely–

HAYDEN, Sterling.  Born 1916, Montclair NJ.  Height: 6’5.  Eyes: dark–something. 

The biggest problem with casting Sterling Hayden as Parker isn’t that he turned fifty before Point Blank was even made.  It’s that you would never know when he’d take a mind to jump in The Wanderer, set sail for distant climes, and not come back until his money ran out.

He didn’t even like acting until he got older, and they stopped trying to turn him into a matinee idol.  He hated being forced into any kind of mold.  Which is precisely what would make him a prime candidate here, along with his intimidating size, his patented surly glower, and the undeniable fact that he played a primary prototype for Parker, in one of the greatest crime films ever made.  You know the one.

I can’t pretend to myself that the Hayden of the 60’s could have played Parker, except maybe one of the later books.  He had happily moved into more eccentric supporting roles by then, the pressures of unwanted stardom no longer weighing him down. But I can’t watch Hayden as Dix, Sam Jaffe as Doc, without being further convinced that one aspect to Westlake’s conception of Parker was his aspiration to combine the two–brawn and brains in the same package.

Hayden only played a heistman one more time after The Asphalt Jungle–in that film he had brains and brawn (and bad luck).  See what you think.

He had, you might argue, the best pedigree (even if he was a blonde).  But again, born a bit too soon.  And a bit too fidgety.

Let’s move on to the one actor Westlake mentioned as a direct influence in Parker’s creation.  Not my personal pick, but you can’t talk about the might-have-beens without mentioning–

PALANCE, Jack.  Born 1919, Hazle Township PA.  Height: 6’4. Eyes: dark brown, verging on black.  Onyx, one might almost say.

Westlake would have gone to see a lot of movies about armed robbers in the years before he wrote The Hunter, so in all probability, he saw this one, a remake of High Sierra.  Not as good as the original–but the lead was somebody you’d be much less happy about meeting in a dark alley.  Or a well-lit one.

Palance, as an actor, was a mixed bag.  Huge ability, but he didn’t always know what to do with it.  In a picture like The Big Knife, he’s practically dancing across the screen, hyperkinetic, almost dizzying (personally, I find that film exhausting, but that may be Clifford Odets’ fault).  In other performances, he’s like the proverbial coiled spring–just about to snap.  I prefer the latter approach for him.  And for Parker.

He doesn’t look human–sometimes he’s more of a monster than Karloff was with Jack Pierce and the entire Universal Pictures makeup department helping him out.  There’s often this sense of him being out of place–of having been born not so much in the wrong century, but the wrong millennia, possibly the wrong geologic era (not for nothing did they cast him as Attila the Hun).  But the present day is where you most often find him, and he’s going to have to make the best of that.

He’d have been a good pick for Parker in the 50’s, into the Mid-60’s.  Though physically, he’d have been able for the role well into the 70’s, fitness freak that he was.  It would have been imperative to have a director who could rein him in.  He, unlike Mitchum, liked working too hard.  A natural born ham, he relished big dramatic gestures, strong facial expressions, and those are only rarely called for with Parker.

The Palance you want in this case is minimalist Palance, impassive as a rock, twice as hard–and he can be hard to find, but he’s worth looking for.  All he had to do to embody Parker was stand there and breathe.  He might not have found that interesting enough.

But if the acting career hadn’t worked out, he could have picked up some cash modeling for Robert E. McGinnis crime paperback covers.  He’d have looked terrifying, walking across the George Washington Bridge at dawn, murder in his mind.  And we can be pretty sure that’s the image Westlake had in his head when he wrote that scene.

Next is my most perverse pick by far, that even I don’t take seriously.  But I make it anyway, because 1)He could have played the part with zenlike restraint and 2)Some imp of the perverse within me thrills at the notion of making the ultimate white hat into the baddest hombre of all.  I speak of none other than–

ARNESS, James.  Born 1923, Minneapolis MN.  Height: 6’7 (in his cowboy boots).  Eyes: blue.

Anyone whose two signature roles are a straight-arrow TV western lawman and a carnivorous bipedal vegetable from another world can be said to have had an interesting career.  James Arness was, to all accounts, a very thoroughgoing gentleman, and there is reason to doubt that he would have been willing to portray Parker at his most dastardly.  So why am I bringing him up?

I guess because of scenes like this–

In a sense, Arness never stopped playing The Thing From Another World, only the planet he hailed from was Justice.  In scenes that called for Matt Dillon to get angry, he never lost his cool–he got even colder.  His eyes would turn to purest ice, bore contemptuously into whoever had roused his ire, and even if that bad guy was played by Chuck Bronson, he’d start to look scared. Matt Dillon was the most frightening good guy in television history.  I’m not sure even Palance could have shown that side of Parker so well.

Think about that scene in The Rare Coin Score, where Neo Nazi Otto Mainzer asks if fellow string member Mike Carlow is Jewish.  We’re told Parker just looks at him.  And Otto, a big scary guy in his own right, starts backpedaling, and we understand that he’s worried Parker will kill him right then and there, so that he won’t ruin the job with his personal crap.  How many actors could pull that off?  This one could.

So the question is, was there something in him that might have enjoyed playing the villain for once, if the villain’s targets were mainly other villains.  He was not one of the more ambitious stars you can name, but he knew his craft, and he knew as well as anyone how to underplay, show you what he was feeling with a relatively minor change of expression.

I think the main objection to him is that if he was playing someone who didn’t believe in law and order, and was more than willing to shoot first, it would be awfully hard to depict him as the underdog in any fight.  Slayground would literally be a romp in the park for that guy.

Humor me on this one, I’m a huge fan of early Gunsmoke (the Meston era, far as I’m concerned that show only ran ten seasons).  So much so that I’m going to put up another YouTube video–only this time the coldest eyes in the scene I’m looking at don’t belong to Arness.  Or to anybody who was ever any kind of star, though he sure had a long career.  Go in a bit over eleven minutes.

No, I don’t mean Strother Martin, though he’d have been a fine addition to the cast of any Parker adaptation.  I’m talking about someone  I first noticed in a small but important role in The Outfit.  He played a hitman, out to kill Duvall’s Macklin.  I don’t know how Macklin got out of that picture alive.  Fiction isn’t always fair. Best man doesn’t always win.  And in this contest I’m playing out in my head, the best man for the job might very well have been–

REESE, Tom.  Born 1928, Chattanooga TN.  Height: 6’3.  Eyes: Narrowed, depthless, unreadable.  Wouldn’t swear to their color.

You always want what you can’t have, and all the names on this list qualify in that respect.  Tom Reese never played the lead in anything.  But the more I see of him, the more I know–he was really something.  He’s my personal pick.

Big. Tall. Blocky.  Face like chipped concrete.  Eyes like a wolf, almond-shaped, unblinking, merciless.  Voice as impassive as his eyes, betraying little in the way of a regional accent.  There’s a scene in The Outfit, where he’s walking with his hands swinging at his sides, and you just know somebody made a mistake.  This is Parker.  Duvall is playing the crazy guy Parker’s going to kill.

He’s dressed as a priest when we first see him in that movie, and I wonder if maybe Westlake was thinking of that when he had Parker pose as a priest in Flashfire (it’s as good an explanation as any).  Later, he’s dressed as a hunter, complete with cap.  Suits him.  He doesn’t sneak up on his targets, he stalks them.  He’s a murderous automaton, that would give The Terminator nightmares.  They wasted him in that movie, but they usually did. And yet, he would find a way to get his point across, time after time.

And it’s hard to find suitable images of him online.  I’ve ordered a DVD of The Outfit.  Maybe later I’ll take some screenshots, put them up.  My personal tip of the hat to somebody who deserved a bigger career, but far as I know, he never complained.  Just did his job like a pro, claimed his split, went home.  Perfect.

But since perfection is not to be had in this world, here’s my idea of a compromise–

SMITH, William.  Born 1933, Columbia MO.  Height: 6’1-6’2 (opinions vary).  Eyes: dark as dark gets. 

Let’s play one last what-if game, just a little more rooted in reality.  Let’s imagine Point Blank had grossed enough to qualify as a minor hit.  Enough for MGM to consider a follow-up.  Let’s further imagine that they needed somebody to replace Lee Marvin as Walker, which doesn’t require much imagination, since he hated repeating himself.

And it’s a historical fact that the TV western Laredo, starring William Smith as Joe Riley–a role not unlike Clint Eastwood’s in Rawhide–ended the same year Point Blank came out.  Born the same year as Donald E. Westlake, just nine months earlier, Smith was just the right age to play Parker by then.  And it’s hard to imagine any actor more precisely resembling the character described to us in the opening paragraphs of The Hunter.  Or better able to embody the menace of the character.  Or his dangerous sex appeal.

Smith never got his big break, as Eastwood, Garner and McQueen did after their western shows ended (he fought the first two onscreen, he engaged in impromptu auto races with the last offscreen).  He, like Reese, was destined for a seemingly endless series of guest starring roles on TV, and a long succession of big screen heavies (and he was Conan of Cimmeria’s dad for like five minutes–he’d have far better than Arnold in the main role, but that wasn’t his karma).

Smith has many of the same strengths and weaknesses of Jack Palance, was perhaps not as good an actor, but given the generally putrid quality of the scripts he was given, it’s hard to say.  He made the whole country hate him in Rich Man, Poor Man.  He was encouraged to mug it up, because that’s what sneering heavies do.  Only rarely did he get a chance to show restraint, because restraint was almost never what the director wanted from him.  But he could keep a straight face when that’s what was called for.

WILLIAM-SMITH-8

WILLIAM-SMITH-2

What was usually called for was more like this–(he claimed Taylor broke a few of his ribs, and made it sound like a compliment.  Taylor never disclosed the full extent of his injuries.)

Or, on television, this (and yeah, I considered Garner for Parker, but would we want to lose him as Rockford?  He was too much the comedian to play it straight for long.)

The villains he usually played were too over the top, but does that mean Smith couldn’t have reined himself in, if he was the name above the title, instead of far below it?  Give him the right director, the right scriptwriter, an adequate budget, and he might have been the guy.  He sure as hell would have been available.

I’ve said it before, but for some roles, you don’t want the best actor–you want the right one.  Somebody born to play the part.  Willing to just let the character step forth,  unedited, unbidden, unforced.  Lee Marvin came the closest, but Marvin was too big a star by the time he came to Parker, and any major star is going to come with too many strings attached.

Think about what any casting director would have to find here.  Tall.  Powerful. Huge hands. Scary but sexy.  Calm, quiet-spoken, but able to project cold rage when needed.  Able to credibly scare the bejeebers out of mob bosses and criminal sociopaths, and yet mask his true nature from the straight world, and particularly the law.  Looking for all the world like a man born into the wrong age–or a wolf born into the wrong body.  Nothing to it, right?

That’s right.

So I’ve had several suggestions for somebody who could play Parker right now.  Michael Shannon.  Kevin Durand.  I’ve mentioned Joe Manganiello once or twice.  Not enough to justify a Part 3.  Anybody else got a pick?  If not, I’ve got one more thing to talk about before we get to the very last book in the queue.  Call it an addendum to my previous review.

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

Mr. Parker and The Casting Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s run them down, one by one.

LEE MARVIN AS WALKER IN POINT BLANK (1967):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JIM BROWN AS McCLAIN IN THE SPLIT (1968):

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

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

I mean, was this really necessary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROBERT DUVALL AS MACKLIN IN THE OUTFIT (1973):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Marvin,–

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

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

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

MEL GIBSON AS PORTER IN PAYBACK (1999)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Dirty Money, Part 3

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Parker took the Bobcat from his pocket and put it on the table, then left it there with his hands resting on the tabletop to both sides, not too close.  “That’s who I am,” he said.  “You Oscar’s brother?”

The guy stared at the gun, not afraid of it, but as though waiting to see it move.  “No,” he said, not looking up.  “I got no brothers named Oscar.”

“Well, how important is Oscar to you, then?  Important enough to die for?”

Now the guy did meet Parker’s eyes, and his own were scornful.  “The only thing you’re gonna shoot off in here is your mouth,” he said.  “You don’t want a lotta noise to wake the dog.”

Parker picked up the Bobcat and pushed its barrel into the guy’s sternum, just below the rib cage.  “In my experience,” he said, “with a little gun like this, a body like yours makes a pretty good silencer.”

The money inside the boxes was all banded into stacks of fifty bills, always of the same denomination.  The bands, two-inch-wide strips of pale yellow paper, were marked DEER HILL BANK, DEER HILL, MA.  The stacks made a tight fit inside the boxes.

It turned out to be easiest to dump a box over, empty the money onto the floor of the van, and then stuff it all into the Hefty bags.  The emptied box, with its cover restored, would be stacked with the others in the bed of the pickup.

As they worked, McWhitney said, “It’s a pity about this stuff.  Look how beautiful it is.”

“It’ll tempt you,” Parker said.  “But it’s got a disease.”

April 27th, 2008.  Not quite three years shy of a half century from when Donald Westlake first showed Lawrence Block a draft of The Hunter, Richard Stark got his last New York Times book review, courtesy of Marilyn Stasio.

The nice thing about the rather nasty stories Richard Stark (a k a Donald E. Westlake) writes about a career criminal named Parker is that none of the significant characters is ever innocent. Which is why it’s so easy to laugh when their intricate schemes begin to unravel, as happened in “Nobody Runs Forever” after Parker’s gang stashed the loot from a bank job in the choir loft of an abandoned country church — and couldn’t get it out. Although he’s still being pursued by the vigilant detective Gwen Reversa and the odd reporter, Parker gives criminality another shot in DIRTY MONEY (Grand Central, $23.99), under pressure from Sandra Loscalzo, an aggressive bounty hunter who’s even less trustworthy than the killers and con men she stalks for a living. Everyone in this merry misadventure ends up at Bosky Rounds, a quaint bed-and-breakfast that looks like the cover art for Yankee magazine — something to bear in mind on leaf-peeping excursions to picturesque New England villages.

Sometimes I’ve wondered if Stasio was reading the same books as me, but no two people have ever read the same book, any more than one person reads the same book twice.  (I come from the Heraclitus school of book reviewing).

Me, I don’t think Stark, at any time, is encouraging us to laugh at Parker–with him, maybe.  To sport a rueful grin at how the best laid plans of wolves and men gang aft agley, absolutely.  That goes with the territory. That’s what the heist subgenre is all about, going back to The Asphalt Jungle, or if you please, Jason and the Argonauts.

But if that grin doesn’t come with a glimmer of recognition as to how this insight applies just as much to us and our ostensibly more honest endeavors, you sure haven’t learned much from these books.  I’m all for entertainment, but entertainment that doesn’t on some level enlighten probably isn’t worth the time it took to peruse.  I mean, unless you’re planning to live forever.

Stasio couldn’t know that this was the last we’d hear from Richard Stark, that Donald E. Westlake would be dead in a little over eight months.  He sure wasn’t making any plans to live forever.  But he was making plans.   Right to the end.

I agree with her that nobody in these novels is ever innocent–and how many in real life ever are?  I’m not.  Why, may I ask, are so many innocent people enjoying stories about murder, mayhem, vengeance, betrayal and pillage?  And I don’t just mean on cable news.  Or in the bible.

I don’t rule out that there’s truly innocent people in the world, or at least truly good people, but doesn’t seem to me they’d constitute much of an audience.  Whether they were shelling out thirty-five cents for The Hunter in ’62, or $23.99 for Dirty Money in ’08, the publisher would go bankrupt if the readership was composed of saints.

No, I think the enduring popularity of these books attests to the fact that we know (and the saints most of all)  that we’re none of us all that innocent, and we’re still waiting nervously for some kind of law to catch up with us, and it will, never fear.  (My money’s on thermodynamics.)

But in the meantime, we’ve still got plans.  Most of which don’t work out half so well as Parker’s.  Truth is, Ms. Stasio, we’re not laughing at him at all.  We’re envying him.  His coolness under pressure, his lack of envy, fear, prejudice, treachery.  His matter-of-fact reaction to every setback, coupled with a determination to find the problem and fix it.  His patience.  His pragmatism.  His perseverance.  In short, his professionalism.

It seems perverse to say out loud, but these books have been at least as much about virtue as vice.  Whatever you do in life, do it well, as if how you perform your chosen task matters no less than your compensation for performing it, if indeed you get any.  Most of us don’t have such exciting jobs as Parker, to be sure.  But hey, we get retirement plans and health insurance.  Some of us.  For now.

If we’re laughing at anyone in these books, it’s those of inferior professionalism, or none at all.  Comparing their garrulous gamesmanship to the taciturn protagonist who is playing at nothing, because life isn’t a game, and neither is death.  That’s been the point of Parker, all along.  Made better in some books than others, and this last book is far from the best, but that’s because the professional behind them all is starting to lose his grip on the wheel.  Yet he refuses to call it a day.  He’ll know it’s time to lay down tools when the whistle blows.  Not before.

This is a flawed faltering book at points, but compelling all the same, like the twenty-three before it.  In Part Four, feeling the law closing in on him, that part of Westlake that is Richard Stark produces what I’d call, on reflection, a tightly-focused novella within a novel–to close out the day’s work.  Laying the groundwork for more books, that we’ll never read, because the whistle blew.  In Mexico.  And wouldn’t you know I’d get to this one during Dia de los MuertasHay más tiempo que vida.  Adelante.

Part Four opens with Parker checking to see if anybody picks up at Julius Norte’s number in Florida–the guy who did such a good job making him into Daniel Parmitt, in Flashfire.  He’s dead, of course, but maybe somebody else is doing the high-end ID work there now?  Nope.  That office is closed.

He reaches Ed Mackey, through channels of course–Mackey doesn’t have a direct phone number.  (Remind us again why Parker does?)  Mackey gets back to him at the good old gas station phone booth near Colliver Pond, and hey, does this gas station have free road maps and a uniformed attendant who chirps “Fillerup?” and then he cleans your windshield?  Because if they’ve got an actual working phone booth, really should make the whole retro experience complete.

Mackey isn’t working for the time being–says Brenda wants him to stay home (what happened in Breakout might be leaning both of them in the direction of semi-retirement, but it’s nothing definite).   Parker says he just wants to know if Mackey knows anybody else as good as Norte.  Mackey says he’ll ask around, and a day later, he’s got the name of a guy outside Baltimore, who seems well-regarded in their circle.  Kazimierz Robbins.  Not a name you hear every day.

He fronts as an artist.  You call him, tell him you need a portrait painted.  You mention a name of somebody he knows, and it’s understood–you want a special portrait.  A new identity.  And for that, you really do need an artist.  Though there has probably never been anyone less sympathetic to the artistic temperament than Parker.

“You understand, my studio is not in my home.”

“Okay.”

“I use the daylight hours to do my work.  Artificial light is no good for realistic painting.”

“Okay.”

“These clumpers and streakers, they don’t care what the color is.  But I care.”

“That’s good.”

“So my consultations are at night, not to interfere with my work.  I return to my studio to discuss the client’s needs.  Could you come here tonight?”

“Tomorrow night.”

“That is also good.  Would nine o’clock be all right for you?”

“Yes.”

“Excellent.  And when you come here, sir, what is your name?”

“Willis.”

“Willis.” There was a hint of “v” in the name.  “We will see you then, Mr. Willis,” he said, and gave the address.

After that, he talks to Meany, at Cosmopolitan Beverages, about the deal that will make it possible for Parker to pay for his new identity and still have something left to live on.  The big boss, Joseph Albert, has okayed it.  They need to see a sample of the cash–say ten thousand, just to make sure this is the bank money.  Parker says fine, but they’ll pay one thousand to see the ten thousand, because that’s the deal.

He calls McWhitney, tells him to make the exchange, gives him the contact info, hangs up.  He’s made all these calls from that same gas station phone booth.  You’d think somebody there would notice what a regular customer he is.  At some point, he needs to upgrade more than just his ID.  Payphones can be tapped, particularly if you keep using the same one. (Also, how come he never hears a voice telling him he has to cough up more quarters?  Even the phone company is afraid to ask him for money.)

Claire has to drive him to see Robbins.  He lives in a small town called Vista, which does not exist, near Gunpowder Falls State Park, which does.  His studio is in a space that used to be a hardware store. Robbins is there, older, arthritic, tall, thin, slightly bent–Stark tells us he looks like a praying mantis.  Claire opts to stay in the car, but Robbins notices her, says it’s well she did not enter, since beautiful women are always a distraction to him.  He tells Parker to call him Robbins, since he dislikes hearing Americans mangle his first and true name.

As they walked down the long room, on an old floor of wide pine planks, Parker said, “Why didn’t you change the first name?”

“Ego,” Robbins said, and motioned for Parker to sit.  “Many are Robbins,, or my original name, Rudzik, but from earliest childhood Kazimierz has been me.”  Also sitting, he leaned forward onto his knees, peered at Parker, and said, “Tell me what you can.”

“I no longer have an identity,” Parker said, “that’s safe from the police.”

“Fingerprints?”

“If we’re at the point of fingerprints,” Parker said, “it’s already too late.  I need papers to keep me from getting that far.”

“And how secure must these be?” He gave a little finger wave and said, “What I mean is, you want more than a simple forged driver’s license.”

“I want to survive a police computer,” Parker said.  “I don’t have a passport; I want one.”

“A legitimate passport.”

“Everything legitimate.”

Robbins leaned back.  “Nothing is impossible,” he said.  “But everything is expensive.”

“I know that.”

Robbins says it will cost two hundred thousand dollars.  Cash.  Parker figured that would be about it.  Half in advance, of course.  And even the former Mr. Rudzik (a Polish name) is surprised to learn Parker brought the cash with him.  “You are serious!” he exclaims.  Well, yeah.

So Robbins is Polish, he grew up under communism, learned his trade well, still has contacts over there.  Infant mortality under communism was higher than Marx and Lenin would have liked to believe.  So he can find some short-lived boy, born around the same time as Parker, give Parker the identity the child never had the chance to use himself.  A cover story must be concocted to explain why Parker has no eastern European accent (ever wondered what accent he does have?)

He’ll apply for a Social Security card–protective coloration–one is reminded how Joe Sheer laughed for days when he got his card in the mail, for a name he’d made up. He laughed hard, but not long.

To get all this done, to make the new identity stick, he’ll need to pose as a Canadian representative of an American company.  Which means he’ll need to work with Cosmopolitan Beverages again.  Getting to be a habit.  He gives Robbins Meany’s phone number (Robbins would have preferred his email).  Parker and Claire have worked out a new first name for him, and Robbins will attend to the family name.

He goes out and gets the duffel–presumably the same one Tom Lindahl picked up at a mall in upstate New York.  Full of cash from a racetrack.  Parker’s entire share of that job.  He’s going all in on this.  He passes portraits of celebrities Robbins has painted, from photographs we assume, to maintain the front.  They all look guarded, watchful.

That’s Saturday.  Monday, he’s driving to Bayonne, home of Cosmopolitan Beverages, and Stark has a positive genius for capturing the inimitable ambience of that highly scenic locale, but we’ve covered that already in Firebreak.  He’s driving himself this time, since it’s a short hop.  He passes somebody with a bumper sticker saying DRIVE IT LIKE YOU STOLE IT, which to Parker means drive so the law won’t notice you.

He doesn’t have an appointment, but he’s never stood on ceremony when it comes to mobsters of any stripe.  The guy at the reception desk tries to give him the brush off, and Parker doesn’t hit him, just tosses the kid’s copy of Maxim on the floor, so it’s not as if he hasn’t acquired a modicum of social veneer.

He and Meany are still sparring whenever they meet.  Meany’s going to enjoy this bout in particular.

Meany said, “What can I do for you today?”

“You liked the sample.”

“It’s very nice money,” Meany said.  “Too bad it’s radioactive.”

“Do you still want to buy the rest of it?”

“If we can work out delivery,” Meany said.  “I got no more reason to trust you than you got to trust me.”

“You could give us reason to trust each other,” Parker said.

Meany gave him a sharp look.  “Is this something new?”

“Yes. How that money came to me, things went wrong.”

Meany’s smile was thin, but honestly amused. “I got that idea,” he said.

“At the end of it,” Parker told him, “my ID was just as radioactive as that money.”

“That’s too bad,” Meany said, not sounding sympathetic.  “So you’re a guy now can’t face a routine traffic stop, is that it?”

“I can’t do anything,” Parker told him.  “I’ve got to build a whole new deck.”

“I don’t get why you’re telling me all this.”

“For years now,” Parker told him, “I’ve been working for your office in Canada.”

Meany sat back, ready to enjoy the show. “Oh yeah?  That was you?”

“A guy named Robbins is gonna call you, ask for some employment records.  I know you do this kind of thing, you’ve got zips, you’ve got different kinds of people your payroll office doesn’t know a thing about.”

“People come into the country, people go back out of the country,” Meany said, and shrugged.  “It’s a service we perform.  They gotta have a good-looking story.”

“So do I.”

Meany wants to know why he’d agree to this.  Parker says it’s a finder’s fee, for bringing him this nice little bump in corporate earnings for the fiscal year.  If Meany won’t help him out, he can go to somebody else in Bayonne with all that nice money.  Cosmopolitan doesn’t have a monopoly on this kind of thing.

And why should this arrangement cultivate trust between them, Meany wants to know.

“You’re gonna know my new straight name,” Parker pointed out. “And how I got it.  So then we’ve both been  useful to each other, so we have a little more trust for each other.  And I know, if sometime you decide you don’t like me, you could wreck me.”

“I don’t like you.”

“We’ll try to live with that,” Parker said.

It’s a deal, if not quite an amicable one.  As to the exchange, two million in crisp new bank notes for two hundred thousand in more experienced money Parker & Co. can actually spend, Parker says they’ll use the ferry between Orient Point and New London.  Meany’s guy drives onto it with the 200k, somebody else drives if off the ferry, he rides back and forth until the car comes back with the two mil.  Parker can’t get his new ID if Meany doesn’t get the bank money.

(This creates a new level of vulnerability, as Parker noted.  He’s compromising his independent status, and with the very type of organization he’s fought two bloody wars with in past. But, you could argue, Meany already sent a hit man to the house at Colliver Pond, a few years back. He’s already got a handle on Parker, if he wants to  use it.

If Parker can abandon the house, as he might yet have to do, he can abandon a burned identity, and he has, many times before.  Meany knows from personal experience that if you shoot at Parker, you only get to miss once.  He was lucky to survive the last time. And he might have use for Parker in future.  But still–it’s a compromise Parker has never had to make before.  To even pretend to be somebody’s employee.  It’s hard to see how this ends well, but we’ll never see how it ends.)

Parker goes back to Claire, and gets some more money from one of the empty summer houses he uses as safe deposit boxes.  We’re told more than half the money from the racetrack heist is spent–come again?  Parker and Lindahl got a bit under 200k from Gro-More.  Lindahl packed the duffels, while Parker dealt with complications.  Tom was in a hurry, no time to count it out, but it’s hard to figure he would have given Parker much more than half the score, and Parker just gave Robbins 100k. Well, I mentioned the creative accounting already.  I make far worse errors when I’m tired. Some people don’t need to be tired to make fatal errors.

Claire tells Parker McWhitney left a message on their machine–reading between the lines, he’s calling for help.  Oscar Sidd is back, and McWhitney has the money.  If he doesn’t get there soon, the entire deal is shot.  He can feel this pushing the button in his head, the one that makes him kill, but he holds it in check.  He can’t afford a war right now.  But there’s going to be a skirmish.

He just wants a ride to the city, but Claire insists on driving him to Long Island–have to get to the bar before it closes.  He tells her to drop him off a block away.  She tells him she’ll have dinner in Manhattan, maybe catch a late movie, and he can call her cell if he needs anything.  It’s becoming increasingly clear Parker is the only person he knows who doesn’t have a cellphone yet.

He’s come heeled, but with his usual minimalist flair.  The final gun image.

Beretta_Model_21_In_Hand

(Beretta Bobcat .22, fires seven shots, weights twelve ounces.  Considered a ladies gun in some circles. Parker never moved in those circles.  Keeps it in a box of Bisquick.  Well, that tracks.  Imagine, if you will, how small it would look in his hand.  Just a tool to him.  Second Amendment?  What’s that?)

The bar is called McW, and it’s never been a runaway success, which is why the man it’s named after keeps resorting to armed robbery.  Parker can see some guys waiting outside in a Chevy Tahoe.  Waiting for the bar to close.  He wants to go over there and start shooting.  He controls it. He goes inside.

Other than McWhitney, there were four men in the bar.  On two stools toward the rear were a pair of fortyish guys in baseball caps, unzippered vinyl jackets, baggy jeans with streaks of plaster dust, and paint-streaked work boots; construction men extending the after-work beer a little too long, by the slow-motion way they talked and lifted their glasses and nodded their heads.

Closer along the bar was an older man in a snap-brim hat and light gray topcoat over a dark suit, with a small pepper-and-salt dog curled up asleep under the stool beneath him as he nursed a bronze-colored drink in a short squat glass and slowly read the New York Sun; a dog walker with an evening to kill.

(That could be me, except for the topcoat, the suit, the snap-brim hat, and I generally prefer a big dog.  Anyway, they don’t let dogs inside the bars in New York anymore.  And I wouldn’t use the Sun to wrap fish, even if it still existed outside cyberspace.  But there’s a time-stamp for you, if you care–that ill-fated rag started up in April 2002, folded a few months before Westlake did.  We already knew this story began after 9/11.  Not long after, going by the rapid response to the bank heist.  Fall of ’02 at the earliest, ’03 at the latest.  That’s where this Triptych begins and ends.)

Parker sees a heavy-set guy sitting alone at a table, in a tweed sports jacket, nursing a glass of club soda.  He’s not making it hard.  Parker tells Nelson he’ll have a beer, and sits down across from the guy.  You can see their initial exchange up top.  You can imagine how it would feel to have an angry Parker staring at you across a table, then shoving a gun into your ribs.  If the guy doesn’t wet himself, it’s only because he’s not drinking beer.

McWhitney comes over, and Parker tells him to take the guy’s gun out of his coat–a .357 Glock.  Size doesn’t matter, if you don’t know how to use it.  Or when.

The inside man being neutralized, McWhitney closes up.  When the coast is clear, Parker goes outside to the Tahoe, and shoots Oscar Sidd dead with the Glock.  The two guys with him decline to take exception to this.  Parker goes back inside, tells the heavy-set man that Oscar’s lying outside with a slug from his gun in him; he might want to do something about that, in case the cops show up.

Parker asks to use McWhitney’s phone, and calls Claire’s cell.  With bridge & tunnel traffic what it is, she’s probably not even  halfway to the city.  Tells her to come back, they’ll have dinner in the area, spend the night.  He’s not angry anymore.  (Horny, one would guess, but Claire can attend to that.)

Next morning, Parker goes to the bar, which is closed, but Nels is there anyway.  He’s reading the Daily News (that’s still around).  Also watching the TV news.  They just found Nick’s body in MA (and a few boxes of cash hidden under hymnals, though they don’t mention that).  So basically, Part Four has all been one long final Stark Rewind.  And it’s not done yet.

Nels is nervous.  About the hymn books he still has, about the truck with Holy Redeemer Choir painted on it, about anything that could link him to what happened over there.  So they deal with all that.  The gent who painted the words on the van is just as happy to paint them out again, no questions asked.  They pack the cash in Hefty bags, and the time passes amicably.  Time to get to the ferry soon.  Five chapters left.

McWhitney didn’t like they were bringing Sandra in for the exchange, but Parker wants somebody on their team who Meany’s people don’t already know about.  He doesn’t say out loud that she’s smarter and more effective than Nels, but that goes without saying at this point. It also helps that they have each others’ cell numbers, and again, Sandra warns of a tail–Oscar’s dead, but the people he brought in as back up aren’t ready to give up yet.

The exchange on the ferry goes fine.  Much smoother than a different mob-related exchange on an elevated subway platform–how many years ago?  Just about forty, going by the calendar, but Parker never paid much attention to those.

Job’s finally done.  They’ve got 200k in cash they can spend.  Parker can get his new ID stamped by Cosmopolitan.  Nels can just tend bar for a while (and maybe become Parker’s new mailbox?)  Sandra can wait for her reward money for Harbin’s body, and spend quality time with her girlfriend on Cape Cod.  And you didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?  Not after twenty-four novels.  Three chapters left.

McWhitney has the cash, and figuring to throw the hounds off the trail, says he’ll drive to his place the long way around from Connecticut, while Parker and Sandra take the ferry back to Long Island, and give Meany’s guy his Subaru with the bank money, completing the transaction.  Since the other guys are on the ferry, waiting their chance–oh damn–they got off.  They’re going after Nels.  And they still think he’s got millions.

McWhitney’s not answering his cell.  Sandra’s disgusted, ready to give up.  But there’s one possible way to track these guys–both the Chevy SUVs they used had dealer plates.  They’ve got an in with a dealership.  And Sandra always writes down the license number of any car that takes her interest.  Professional habit.  And she’s got contacts at the DMV.  DeRienzo Chevrolet, Long Island Avenue, Deer Park.

They’ll go over there, have some more diner food, maybe talk a bit more about frozen lakes, and wait for the Chevy to get dropped off.

Sandra frowned at the slow-moving traffic all around the.  They wouldn’t get clear of this herd from the ferry for another half hour or more, when they reached the beginning of the Expressway.  “You’re a strange guy to partner with,” she said.

“So are you.”

“Do me a favor.  Don’t kill anybody.”

“We’ll see.”

This dialogue’s a little too playful, too odd couple buddy action movie for me–Parker as played by Bruce Willis or George Clooney, Sandra maybe Michelle Pfeiffer or Kim Basinger–but hey, that could be fun.  Two chapters left.

When they go into the dealership, they pose as a married couple, looking for a family car, and you know Sandra’s the one selling it.  But seriously, how is this a place some two-bit wiseguys would be able to just show up and and borrow brand new rides with dealer plates to commit crimes with?  Let me just Google ‘organized crime, car dealerships, Long Is–man, that wasn’t hard at all.

Half a dozen car dealers were clustered along both sides of the wide road in this neighborhood, all of them proclaiming, either by banner or by neon sign, OPEN TIL 9!  All the dealerships were lit up like football stadiums, and in that glare the sheets of glass and chrome they featured all sparkled like treasure chests.  This was the heart of car country, servicing the afterwork automotive needs of the bedroom communities.

(And certain other communities, but they don’t put that in the TV ads.)

They wait around almost an hour before the Chevy Suburban shows, and much to their surprise, Nelson’s in the car, still alive.  Parker, the great detective, making his last bow, figures it out.  Sidd told them it was two million bucks.  Nels only had 200k.  They want him to tell them where the rest is.

Here’s the one problem with Sandra.  For all her talk before about how there’s no street, no line for her to cross, she still got raised respectably enough to go to college, she’s at least as much cop as crook, and she doesn’t want to cross the line between crook and killer, if she can help it.  She’d rather just watch the rough stuff, like she did the night of the armored car heist, then pitch in, and lose her cherry.  At some point, she’s going to have to choose, but for the present, Parker tells her to get the car.

McWhitney, no maiden he, makes his move before he sees Parker and Sandra, hitting two of the three guys, and going for the second one’s pistol (this is the same portly guy from the other night, who Parker humiliated–same gun too). The driver fires his gun in the air.  The salesman starts yelling “Not the model!”

Parker grazes the ear of the bulky guy with the Bobcat, McWhitney shoots one of his captors with the captured Glock, gets in the Suburban and drives.  Sandra picks up Parker in her Honda, and they leave, with the salesman still screaming about the damn model.  McWhitney’s headed back to his bar, probably still having no idea who just saved his ass.

They follow, but they don’t know Long Island that well, and may be the last to arrive on the scene.  If you’ve ever been to Long Island, this is totally believable.

Final chapter.  Up ahead of them, Nelson gets out of sight in the traffic.  Behind them, Parker spots the two remaining hoods in their own car (their deal with the dealership is presumably shot to hell, much like the dealership itself).  They seem to be taking a shortcut, and now all Parker and Sandra can do, without the aid of GPS, is get to the bar soon as they can, hope it’s not too late.

It’s all dark on the block when they get there.  The Suburban is parked outside.   The place is locked up, but Sandra’s got a set of lockpicks.  She took a class. Bit out of practice, but she gets them in.  They creep through cautiously, and they can hear Nels being interrogated.  If that’s the word.  Their idea seems to be ‘make him tell us where the  rest of the money is, tell him we’ll give him a share, then his share is a bullet.’  Nels isn’t that dumb.  He passes out.

One of them goes out to get water to revive him, Parker clubs him with the Bobcat, which for all its virtues, isn’t the right tool for that task.  Violence follows.  You’ve seen it before. Sandra tells Parker not to kill anyone if he doesn’t have to.  He already knows that, but guess what?

The bulky guy’s name is apparently Mike.  You know, the one Parker told at the bar that a fat body makes a good silencer if you press the gun right up against it. Right again. Good to know. The other one’s tied up.  Less than two pages left.  One last quote.

“Let’s see what Nels looks like.”

He didn’t look good, but he looked alive, and even groggily awake.  The two guys working him over had been eager but not professional, which meant they could bruise him and make him hurt, but couldn’t do more permanent damage unless they accidentally kiled him.  For instance, he still had all his fingernails.

Parker lifted him to his feet, saying “Can you walk?”

“Uuhh.  Where…”

With Parker’s help, McWhitney walked slowly toward the bedroom, as Parker told him, “One of them’s dead in the bar, the other one’s alive right there.  Tomorrow, you can deal with them both.  Right now, you lie down.  Sandra and me’ll split the money and get out of here.”

He helped McWhitney to lie back on the bed, then said to Sandra, “If we do this right, you can get me to Claire’s place by two in the morning.”

“What a good person I am.”

“If you leave me here,” the guy on the floor said, “he’ll kill me tomorrow morning.”

Parker looked at him. “So you’ve still got tonight,” he said.

That’s right.  And that’s all.

So many more questions than answers here.

Greg and I were sort of going round and round in the comments section about this one.  It doesn’t feel like a finale.  So many balls still in the air, many of which only got up there in the very last part of the book.  So yes, it does feel like there’s much more coming.  This dance is not done.

But that final line.  That feels like somebody who knows he’s writing on borrowed time.  And the loan’s about to come due.  And the repo man is parked outside.  That’s how it feels.  That’s how it’s supposed to feel.

Butcher’s Moon was one of the greatest finishes any series ever had, and I don’t just mean crime novels, and I don’t just mean print fiction, and I’m not sure I even need the qualifier.  (And yet, decades later, came eight more novels, and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on one of them, even Flashfire.)  And Westlake always said he never meant Butcher’s Moon to be the last one.  It was the last one until the next one, is all.

This finish, by contrast, is quite tame and uncertain by comparison.  And yet it feels more final, if only because we know–it’s the last one.  And we can only decide for ourselves how the story ends, or if.  Abrupt inconclusive conclusions were a Westlake trademark, that Stark shared with him, and this is no exception.

I see Sandra driving Parker back to Colliver Pond.  They head down the LIE (I didn’t pick that acronym), threading the needle through the heart of the city Donald Westlake first saw light in, until they past the sign saying “Last Exit in New York.”  You miss that turn-off, and guess what?  You’re on the George Washington Bridge.  Next stop New Jersey.

Parker’s eyes are dark, unreadable.  What is he thinking about?  Is he remembering a different trip across that bridge?   Back when he couldn’t afford a car?  But you know, probably not.  You or I would be remembering, so we project that on him.  We think we’re identifying with him.  We think it’s the same thing.

The lights of the city recede behind them, as they head into the northwestern corner of that very misunderstood state.  The sign says “Welcome To Sussex County” and before long they’re at the house.  Claire’s outlined in the doorway as they pull up.  Sandra called her cell.

A brief friendly chat, an offer of sustenance passed up, and Sandra’s headed back to her own Claire, on Cape Cod, with her share.  Her cherry still intact, but for how much longer?  Domesticated on the outside, wild on the inside.  How you gonna keep her down on the farm, now that she’s seen Paree?

Claire and Parker talk softly, and she goes inside.  He puts his split in the garage–Robbins will be getting most of it soon. He’ll need that new identity. He’ll need to work again before long. If he had a billion dollars, he’d still need to work. It’s who he is. It’s what he is. It’s all he is.

He goes out back, to look out on the lake.  It’s the middle of the night, dead quiet, no birds or crickets chirping in the cold.  He hears a rustle by the lakeshore, his eyes, quickly adjusted to the darkness, pick up a shape moving towards him.

Four legs. Bushy tail. Long pointed snout. Two sharp-pointed ears. Two yellow eyes, picking up the ambient light, shining at him. Sharp teeth. Grinning at him. He grins back.  They converse. Without words. Only humans need words.

 

How’s the hunting been on your side?

Not bad.  Just ate a cat.  Easy kill.  House pet.  I think maybe they turned it loose before they left. Where do they go in the winter, anyway?

Oh, other places.  Cities.  Full of light and noise.  Some of your folk are there too.  You’re better off here, I think.  

No doubt.  But you have to make a living, wherever you are.   You back from a hunt?

Yeah.  A hard one.  Complicated.  It’s always complicated with them.  They don’t know anything about themselves.  But they think they know everything.

Tell me about it.  You think they’ll last much longer? 

Maybe not.  

I, for one, would not miss them.  But I’d miss their cats. And the little dogs. Tasty.

Saw one just the other day you’d have enjoyed.  The big ones can be dangerous, though.

Yeah, I avoid them. Best be on my way. My mate’s waiting.

Mine too.  Good hunting.

Any hunt you survive is good.

That’s right.

 

They grin again, and the shape fades into the trees.  Parker walks to the back porch door, opens it, is about to go inside.

Then he turns.  He looks around.  Looks right in our direction.  Oh God. He can see us.

He studies us a moment.  He’s thinking to himself. Deciding whether we need to die or not.  Are we a threat?  Nah.  Harmless.  We just like to watch.

There’s amusement in his gaze. Maybe more like contempt.

I hope you people had fun with your words.  No more words now.  Good Night.

And for the very last time, he shuts the door in our faces.

Postscript: That cover image up top, below the two German editions for this book, is the first German edition of The Hunter.  Title translates to Now We’re Even.  Sehr gut! Though personally, I never saw Parker as Cary Grant.  Which begs a question, I suppose.  How do we see him?  Who do we cast in the movie playing in our heads?

Before I get to the next book in our queue–the last book in our queue–why don’t we talk about that a bit.  After all, we still have tonight.

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark