Tag Archives: Africa

Review: The Black Ice Score

black_ice_score_1Bob McGinnis

Young_MandelaThe father of US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is seen in an undated family snapshot

When he was very young, six or seven, Formutesca first learned about the two words which men in his country used when referring to black men.  One was a word that meant monkey, and that referred to the tribesmen outside the cities and the workers on the big estates and the urban poor.  And the other was a word that meant something like civilized and something like evolved, and that referred to the white-collar workers and the professional men, all the Africans who had received training in European skills and who conducted their lives by European standards.  In the way it was used, this second word seemed to imply also a further level of meaning, something slyly contemptible, something like castrated or tamed.  It had seemed to Formutesca, as a very young child hearing those words, that between the two it was better to be a monkey than a eunuch, and ever since then he had watched himself for traces of that wildness and that brash humor that he thought of as being the essence of monkeyness.

Once we have the fuel on board—and then, and then, and then—it’s nice to be able to try different things. Not to get digressive, but to give the story little extras. For instance, in one book I saw I had an opportunity, if I wanted, to tell one section in first person from Parker’s point of view. Since he isn’t someone who tends to want to tell other people anything, particularly anything unnecessary, I wondered if I could do it, what he would sound like, and would it turn out to be one of those false notes. In the event, it was fine. (And no, I can’t right now remember which book.)

Donald Westlake, talking to Ed Gorman

Many would consider this the worst Parker novel ever written (great opening, huh?)   Personally, I’d call it a weaker-than-average effort from Stark, but having just reread it, I must say that I enjoyed it more this time.  Overall, I much prefer it to Flashfire, the first Parker I ever read, and the novel most recently made into a (really bad) movie–that book opens very strong,  but starts to fade once Parker makes it to Florida.   Somehow doesn’t seem natural for him to actually work down there, but we’ll talk about that one in due course.  Suffice it to say that I don’t think there’s any such thing as a bad Parker novel.  There’s great, and there’s less great.  So why is this one a bit less great?

The most common reason given is that we see less of Parker in it–he gets pushed to the side by other characters that people find less interesting.   But this doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny.   The Black Ice Score has four parts and thirty-one chapters. Parker is the POV character in 22 of them–we see the story from his perspective most of the time, though Part 3 is made up of nine short chapters, each of which is from the viewpoint of someone else caught up in the same general sequence of events–then Part 4 switches back to Parker and stays with him.

Looking at The Seventh, considered by many the best of the series, the ideal to which other Parker books aspire, we see a basically identical four-part story, with Part 3 showing us what other characters are doing and thinking, before switching back to Parker’s POV in Part 4.   Forget basically, it is identical.   Westlake didn’t experiment much with the structure of these books; he had a winning formula and he knew it.

But the thing about Westlake is that he rather despised formula–‘the ritual’, as he derisively called it.   He didn’t want to write the same book over and over again.  He knew that if he let himself get bored with what he was doing, he’d dry up, burn out, stop being a writer at all.  But he needed the money from the Parker novels, and he was clearly drawn to something about Parker himself, so the challenge for him, personally, was how to stay interested in a character who really doesn’t change or develop that much–at least not on the surface of things.

You may recall that Westlake was bitterly disappointed with The Jugger–which today is considered one of the best books he ever wrote, with or without Parker in it.  I certainly consider it more interesting and powerfully written than this one we’re looking at now.  But to Westlake, it was a puzzle he’d failed to crack–he’d wanted to find a way to motivate Parker to go solve a colleague’s murder, something that didn’t come naturally to the character, and as he saw it, he’d failed.   I disagree–so do many others.  But far as I know, nobody ever changed Westlake’s mind on the subject.

But as the interview comment above indicates (and yes, that clearly refers to The Black Ice Score), he’d similarly tried to get Parker to do something he wouldn’t normally do in that book, and considered that experiment a success–even if he couldn’t remember which book it was in (whereas he never forgot The Jugger).

Writers come at stories from a different perspective than readers.   Our interests may overlap, but are rarely identical.   We have differing agendas.   Ideally, we all meet somewhere in the middle, and everyone is satisfied, but in practice, what pleases us more may please the author much less.   One reason why the most popular writers are rarely the most interesting ones–they give the people what they want, and gradually forget what they wanted, if they ever knew. At the other extreme, a writer may be so devoted to his or her personal fulfillment that he or she fails to engage the reader on any level, and we generally use terms like ‘navel-gazing’ to describe that kind of work.   Ideally, we all meet somewhere in the middle.

This is the third of four Parker novels published by Gold Medal Books, and by this point in time, Westlake probably knew that relationship was going to be short-lived, partly because he didn’t get along so well with the people running it at the time, and partly because the market for paperback originals was shrinking.

He also knew, writing this sometime in 1967, that four of his previous Parker novels had been or were then being adapted into films, two French and two American.  Even though none of those films proved notably successful, he probably figured he was getting some new readers–he said more than once that Stark outsold Westlake in the late 60’s/early 70’s.  The movies would have been part of the reason for that.

So knowing he’s got a large and growing audience who have already followed him to a new publisher, and that he’s going to need a new home for Parker soon anyway, he seems to have felt moved to experiment–to play around with the character, find out what his limits are.   Not what many other writers in his situation would have done–which is why most long-running series of books centered around a single protagonist tend to feel awfully repetitive after just a few installments, and almost always end on a sour note.   Can Parker go on surprising both his readers and his creator, book after book after book?

This is the third novel where Parker gets caught up in foreign intrigue, the earlier ones being The Mourner and The Handle.  Neither of those are generally considered to be among the very best Parker novels, but neither has the bad reputation this one does.  If you want to get persnickety about it, even the first novel had a whiff of foreign intrigue about it–Parker and his colleagues are stealing money from Latin American guerillas at an offshore island–that’s the money he’s coming after Mal Resnick and The Outfit to collect. Hardly your average meat & potatoes heist.

It’s generally true that Parker does best when he sticks to the world of good old American crime (which to be sure, always has a foreign aspect to it, because crime respects no national boundaries).  But that in itself doesn’t explain why this book is disliked so much.

One could argue that Westlake is at his best when he’s writing about settings he’s familiar with.  This is the first and only Parker novel to open in New York City–no, The Hunter doesn’t count, that opened on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge.  Most of the action is in Manhattan, which he certainly knew extremely well.  The rest is in Florida and Connecticut.  So no help there.   What is it that’s so different about this book?

Oh right.  There’s a lot of black people in it.   Specifically black people from Africa.

I’ve already mentioned several times that when Westlake began getting fan mail addressed to Richard Stark, most of it was coming from black men, who really liked Parker.  This may well have constituted the majority of the fan mail he was getting for any of his books at some points.  Now, it should be said, Westlake hadn’t really written much about black people in his career up to this point.  They didn’t show up in his short stories, or his ‘sleaze’ novels written under pseudonyms, or to any great extent in his crime novels from 1960 up until the second Mitch Tobin novel, published in 1967, which had several very sympathetic black characters (and one rather disreputable pimp, but that goes with the territory).

He originally used ‘black’, ‘negro’, and ‘colored’ pretty interchangeably, and even sometimes used the term ‘boy’ to refer to adult black males, but he figured out pretty quickly it was time to stop doing that.  He was a very great admirer of Chester Himes, whose Harlem Detective novels were not known for their political correctness–Grave Digger and Coffin Ed might toss the word ‘colored’ around as well (along with a word Westlake would never have dared use in the 1960’s).   ‘Colored’ died slow, even in the black community, so you can’t really fault him there.   What’s in a name, after all?   It’s the emotions behind it that matter.   And those die very slowly indeed, don’t they?

Donald Westlake grew up Irish American in a largely white community in upstate New York.  I doubt very much he had any black friends as a kid.  Impossible to say what attitudes his family passed on to him, but he would have been exposed to racism as a young man–unavoidable, no matter where you lived.  What was his attitude towards race as a young man?  Unknown–but once he moved back to New York, to Greenwich Village, he would have suddenly been moving amidst a very diverse community, many of them professing the most progressive (and downright aggressive) racial views that could be found in America at the time.

And nothing would have affected his attitude towards race more than having become Richard Stark.  Through Stark, he found himself suddenly receiving admiring enthusiastic letters from black men–not intellectuals–working class guys, many his own age, wary of the system–and the cops–as Westlake himself was. How could he not be moved by this?   How could anyone not be?

And who had been responsible for his success as Stark?  Bucklin Moon, who before the McCarthy Witch Hunts brought him down to the level of a mere paperback editor working his way through the slush piles (and finding the occasional gem), had been best known for writing socially conscious (and perhaps a bit self-conscious) novels about the plight of black Americans–and for helping discover Chester Himes.

So all of this is going on, and it has an impact on the way he looks at things.  As does his increasing awareness of what’s going on around the world–including the so-called ‘third world’, which he would write about quite a lot in his career.   With a great deal of sympathy, and a certain measure of quiet alarm.   I think he felt most of his fellow Americans tended to ignore what was happening out there in the less developed regions, until it somehow impacted us directly, at which point we’d be all “gee, how did that happen?”   Gee, you think maybe he had a point there?

Africa was rapidly decolonizing, and a variety of names, like Lumumba, Kenyatta, Mandela, Kaunda, Banda, were getting attention–revolutionaries one day, statesmen the next (Mandela waited the longest, and achieved the most).   But the after-effects of colonialism were never easy to shake off, and the repercussions of dragging people into the modern world without having bothered to properly prepare them for it (because it wasn’t done for their sake) created a legacy that plagues us to this day.  Sometimes with actual plagues.

And of course, Africa-born whites found it hard to accept their days of ruling the majority like feudal lords were over.   They hung on doggedly in South Africa, where they were well-established, but in these smaller emerging nations, they were so outnumbered that the best they could hope for was to remain a privileged minority (and in the main, they have).

Crime fiction dealt with international politics all the time–eastern bloc spies would pop up constantly in Mike Hammer novels (and get bumped off just as easily), Latin America was a common setting, North Africa had that Casablanca feel to it, Chinese port cities were always good for intrigue, but southern Africa was a bit different.   So far away, and so–black.

I’m sure there must have been some (now-forgotten) crime novels that dealt with it in one way or another, and there was a different genre that made a specialty out of African adventurers (Alan Quartermain, Trader Horn, Tarzan), but the race element was something all genres had a hard time with.  Chester Himes was just about the only exception to the rule in crime fiction.  Him and the white dude with the funny name who wrote those Shaft novels.

But Donald Westlake was an exception to pretty nearly every rule.   And Parker often seemed to not even know what the rules were.   Or maybe he just didn’t give a damn.   An unlikely apostle of racial tolerance–in a time and place when racial tensions were boiling over as never before–but in a certain limited sense, that’s the job he’s called on to perform this time.  I think that’s why we don’t like this one so much.  It seems to run against the grain of the character.   Does it?   Let’s see.

Parker and Claire are on a shopping trip in Manhattan (see, you hate it already), in which Claire is doing all the shopping, and Parker just gets impromptu one-woman fashion shows, which he seems to enjoy a great deal, no doubt figuring the sex will be really good afterwards, which is no doubt the case.  He comes back to their hotel room, and finds three strange white men (skin color is relevant in this story) with odd accents tossing it over, while Claire hides out in the bathroom

They talk to him as if he knows why they are there, which he doesn’t.   It’s very reminiscent of The Jugger–everybody figures Parker is on the same page as them, and he’s not even in the same book yet.   They warn him not to get involved, but refuse to tell him in what.  Claire, frightened of them at first, gets a big kick out of that. Just silly men, doing silly men things.  She figures Parker will want to find out what they were on about, but of course–

“What are we going to do?

He looked at her.  “Nothing,” he said.  “If somebody else shows up, I’ll try to find out what’s going on.  If not, we forget it.”

“Can you?  That easily?”

“Why not?”

She spread her hands.  “I don’t know.  Curiosity, something.  Sometimes you don’t seem–”  She shrugged and turned away.

Claire’s on the brink of an insight there, but it’s an unsettling one, so she lets it go.

Then Parker gets a call from another guy, name of Hoskins, who wants to talk more gibberish to Parker about some big score they can make together–they are, after all, white men.  Parker meets him downstairs at the bar.  Hoskins may be English–something about the description, the mannerisms–but he’s been in the States a while, Los Angeles mainly, and seems to be one of those Mid-Atlantic fellows, though he’s no Cary Grant, that’s for sure.   A two-bit con-man and adventurer, in over his head, and refusing to admit it to himself.  Parker has seen his type before.

Claire calls him back to the hotel room, and there’s some kind of African delegation there–four black men in red robes, and they, unlike the others, want to talk to him in plain English, even though it isn’t their native tongue.  Walter Karns of The Outfit referred them to Handy McKay, who rather atypically sent them directly to Parker, without an advance phone call (he did the same thing in The Green Eagle Score, but that was an old associate of theirs, not four strangers).  Claire has taken to them immediately (good manners), and wants Parker to hear them out.  These are no ordinary men, it seems.

Their names are Gonor, Formutesca, Manado, and Balando.  Gonor, the leader, is the oldest–five foot nothing, soft-spoken, and very much a man to be reckoned with.  What they want is for Parker to help them plan a robbery.   They come from a tiny, brand-new, impoverished, and entirely fictional African nation called Dhaba.  Their current President, Colonel Lumbudi, knows he’s about to be forced out of power, and intends to leave in style, with seven hundred thousand dollars he’s converted into diamonds (blood diamonds, you might say), and entrusted to his four brothers-in-law, who are holding it in New York. Dhaba can’t afford that kind of retirement package for its leaders.

These men work for Major Indindu, who is shortly going to be elected the new President–he’s the reform candidate.  They intend to steal that money back, which will mean killing the people holding it.  The three white men are part of the ousted colonial ruling class, who intend to install another military man, General Goma, in Lumbudi’s place, and rule the country through him.  They want the money to buy mercenaries, without which Goma has no chance of succeeding.

Parker isn’t interested in their impromptu history lesson.  All he knows is that these men are amateurs–as evidenced by the fact that they were foolish enough to confide in a man like Hoskins, before realizing he lacked the abilities they were seeking.  And he informs the four of them, to the astonishment of three, that the only way those whites who talked to him earlier could have known Gonor and his people were going to try and hire Parker–who they called by his working name (he’s traveling as ‘Matthew Walker’, in a little nod to Point Blank) would be if there’s a spy in their group passing on intel.   Gonor immediately realizes Parker is right, and says he will make contact again after the traitor has been found and dealt with.

Back in Miami, the same group (now three) show up and resume negotiations.   Parker is, in spite of himself, impressed–they found the traitor very quickly, and dispatched him efficiently.   In their own way, they are professionals.   All they’re asking from him is to plan the robbery, train Formutesca and Manado to carry it out, and he’ll get $25,000–in advance.   Parker likes the calm businesslike way they conduct themselves.  Much preferable to the cheap theatrics of the whites.

The two younger men seem eager to learn, which brings out his teaching instinct, that we’ve seen already in The Green Eagle Score.  There’s something about them he responds favorably towards–they strike a chord in him.   He’s his usual brusque blunt undiplomatic self with them, but–different.  Somehow.  Like a wolf instructing a pride of lions.  Or perhaps a pack of African wild dogs.   They understand each other–not perfectly.   But well enough.

The job seems relatively low-risk–he gets paid a lump sum, simply for being a planner.   He can participate in the robbery if he feels it’s necessary (in which case he will be paid another 25k), but they’d prefer to do it themselves, and he respects that.  Another thing–Claire wants him to do it.  It’s a good cause, you see–Parker tells her he doesn’t do good causes.   It’s about the work.

But she knows the work here appeals to him, and one suspects she has this notion he could transition into some kind of international heisting consultant for emerging nations, and she wouldn’t have to worry so much about him coming back from work (while still having plenty of money to shop with, and less of a guilty conscience while she spends it).   He thinks about it, and then calls them at their (segregated) motel–it’s a go.  And that’s the end of Part 1.

Part 2 is Parker getting to know his new associates, and scoping out the location of the heist, a museum of African artifacts on East 38th St., under Dhaba’s authority, but largely forgotten.   The Kasempas, Lumbudi’s people, are holed up in an apartment on the top floor with the diamonds.   Parker finds a weak spot in their defenses pretty quickly.   They can come in via the roof, through the elevator shaft.   Gonor can get them pretty much any equipment they need to do the job–though he says he couldn’t get anything like a helicopter, and why does that ring a familiar note?

Parker decides it’s best for Claire to move to a new location, and she opts for a small hotel in Boston–she teases him that he doesn’t like the fact that he worries about her.   He has no response for that.   Nothing he feels for her can really be expressed in words, but it’s indisputable that she’s become necessary to him.   Remember in The Outfit, when Fairfax told Bronson he didn’t think Parker was soft anywhere, and Bronson said “everybody is”?   Bronson gets a bit of posthumous vindication here.

Parker finishes his part of the job, collects his pay, says his goodbyes, already anticipating his reunion with Claire–and finds the leader of the Goma faction waiting for him in his hotel.  They’ve got her.  He will find a way to get them the diamonds, or she dies.

Part 3, as already mentioned, is a series of chapters, each from the POV of a different character, starting with Claire herself, who is being held at a farmhouse in Connecticut, and trying to cope with the stress of the situation.  Then we meet Jock Daask, youngest of his group, who is very attracted to Claire, and feels torn between chivalry and lust–he seems to think Claire should be grateful he’s not taking advantage of the situation–that he’s not that sort of man, but then he thinks–

He wasn’t all that sure what sort of man he was, in fact.  His current roles could only be described in negatives–he had kidnapped but was not a kidnapper, he would steal, but was not a thief–and it seemed to him his whole life was expressed only in the same terms of contradiction.  He had been born in Africa, but was not an African.  His parents were Europeans, but he was not a European.  He had done well at the university in England, but he was not an intellectual.  He had been a mercenary soldier in various parts of Africa, but he was not a rootless adventurer.  There was nothing about him, it seemed, that did not include its own negative.

Jock Daask was the son of a wealthy plantation owner in Africa, and he had grown up always knowing that everything and everybody he saw belonged to his father and would one day belong to him.  His friends in his youth were the children of other white landowners, and even then they had all seemed to be aware of their essential dislocation, at once the ruling class and exiles.  Still, it was worth exile to be a member of the ruling class.

This seems less like an identity crisis than an identity vacuum.  Every part of his sense of self relates to something outside himself, up to and including his skin.   It never occurs to him that there’s anything wrong with treating the natives of the country he was raised in like serfs, vassals.   What else are they there for but to give him a sense of importance he could never find on his own?  He doesn’t hate them, because he can barely think of them as human beings.

Donald Westlake’s Irish peasant ancestors knew this type of man very well.   This type of man watched them starve to death, while filling his belly with the food they had grown for him, and spending the rent money he wrung from them, probably in London.   That, I would think, is one reason Westlake writes about Daask and his comrades with such ill-concealed distaste, though not without some measure of pity.   It must be a sad thing to be so soulless a creature.  Pity, but not sympathy–that he reserves for the colonized.   Who he writes about in a way that oddly recalls Chinua Achebe, just then making a name for himself in world literature–did Westlake read Things Fall Apart, with its title borrowed from Yeats, and its volatile mixture of compassion and brutality?

It’s the two younger men, Formutesca and Manado, both of whom studied in America on scholarships, who interest him most.   We see them carry out Parker’s plan to the letter, each worried he won’t be up to the task–which involves cold-blooded murder, albeit of countrymen (and one woman) who were willing to steal from their own people.   They are quick, humorous, reliable in the clutch, and it’s unnerving to see how they both so easily cross that line, slitting the throats of unconscious men, killing a mother (her children mercifully absent) who pleads desperately for her life–we’re in her head for one chapter, just to remind us these are people dying, not stock villains.

This would be another thing, I suppose, that bothers people about this book–Parker isn’t present for the heist.  But how often is the heist ever the main point of any Parker novel?   The same situation, now I think on it, occurs in Flashfire–and Parker doesn’t even plan that one.  He’s just waiting around to see if he can take it from them.  Somebody else is playing that role here.

As Part 3 concludes, Hoskins shows up out of nowhere while the job is still in progress, and kills Gonor, who is waiting outside the museum–Gonor’s mistake of confiding in Hoskins coming back to bite him.  Hoskins hadn’t planned to kill anybody–he doesn’t think of himself as a violent man–he’s a man of brains, of guile.   Cheating at bridge, pulling short cons–that’s more his game.  But some combination of greed and resentment–for the way they’ve all treated him, particularly Parker (who dangled him out a hotel window to try and scare him off) has egged him on into a situation he’s not remotely suited for.

He kills Gonor more or less on impulse (and out of fear)–Gonor is, after all, just a black man (not the phrase Hoskins would use).   Weak, cowardly, given to panic and possessing little more than a sort of low cunning, Hoskins still thinks of himself as belonging to the superior race–like Jock, he takes it on faith that he’s more of a man than any ‘cannibal.’  This is what racism does to identity–corrodes it, degrades it.   If you rely on the past achievements of people whose only connection to you is genetic, the only outward sign of which is the melanin content of your skin, then how will you ever know who you really are, what you can really do?   Never mind if it’s evil or not–it’s deeply impenetrably stupid.   To act as if you are inherently superior is to prove yourself manifestly inferior.   You are you, and that’s all you ever can be.

Parker, unburdened by any such illusions, finishes Hoskins quickly, having arrived on the scene to warn his associates that he’s told the whites a misleading story, and arranged for them to come to the museum after the job is over–he knows they mean to kill him no matter what.  He doesn’t know if he can take all three of them alone, so he needs help–and he has to ask for it.   Which means he has to explain the situation to Major Indindu.   Which he does over the course of an entire chapter–sixteen paragraphs.  That end with the sentence “I want you to help me.”

This may be what bothers readers the most about The Black Ice Score, and it may be the single thing about the book Westlake was most proud of.  He’s pushed Parker so far out of his comfort zone, Parker can’t even see it anymore.   Rescuing the maiden fair, fighting bad guys (he’s supposed to be the bad guy!), and having to ask for assistance–in words–a whole lot of words.  Where’s the cold hard amorality in all of this melodrama?

It’s still there.  Parker needs Claire.  He can’t get her back on his own.  He has to fight the men who have her, because they intend to kill him (and possibly her) after they get what they want.  He can’t be sure of winning that fight, so he needs allies.  Major Indindu–a figure right out of mid-20th century African history; physician, teacher, soldier, statesman–Africa not having reached the era of specialization yet–is confused.  He thinks Parker is demanding help–Parker is just finding out whether or not the Dhabans feel like participating in his scheme.  If they choose not to, he’ll proceed on his own. The Major says he can’t help out himself–he’s too important.  But Formutesca is free to assist Parker if he wishes.

Formutesca, seeing Parker as his teacher and comrade–a role model, in fact–is more than willing to pitch in.  Manado is out of action, having been shot up by Hoskins.   So it’s two against three–pretty good odds, when one of the two is Parker.   They capture two of the whites (what else am I supposed to call them?), but the leader, Marten, makes his escape and heads for the farm house Claire is in.  Jock, terrified out of his wits, his fragile bravado crushed, agrees to take them there.  They set out in Hoskins’ car, not knowing if Claire will still be alive when they get there.

Marten is the most competent member of the Goma faction, but in the process of trying to intimidate Parker, he has become intimidated, and it bothers him.  He’s led a rather violent life himself, and something in him recognizes that by taking Claire, he’s painted a target on his back–if Parker lives, Marten will never sleep easy the rest of his life, no matter where he hides.  He has to lure Parker somewhere he’ll have the advantage, and kill him.

Marten springs his ambush in some remote part of Connecticut called East Lake (which best as I can tell doesn’t exist, though there’s a bunch of East Lake roads there, and Westlake would have his little joke), but he misses Parker and kills the hapless Jock instead.  Formutesca is rendered unconscious, and Parker plays one last cat and mouse game in the dark, before giving Marten both barrels of a loaded shotgun.  Then he and the revived Formutesca head for the farm house, where Parker finds Claire, bound and gagged–asleep.  He touches her cheek to wake her.  End story.

We never find out if Major Indindu wins the election–he’s got to dispose of a few bodies first, and explain what happened to Gonor, who was a UN functionary.  We never learn if Formutesca resolved the class conflict he was struggling with. We never learn if Manado and the surviving white recover from their wounds (it probably doesn’t matter much in the case of the latter).   As Parker tells Indindu–“I don’t know anything about your politics.   Or anybody’s politics.”   Whatever it meant to these others, all it meant to him was doing his job and getting paid, and living to see another day, with the woman he’s chosen as his companion.  The rest is nothing to him.

And we realize, with a start, that race is nothing to him.  That he really is colorblind.    It would never occur to him to say, ala Stephen Colbert, “I don’t see race.”   Of course he sees skin color.   He just can’t understand the significance the rest of us place upon it.  He happened to be born into the body of a white man, but that’s all it is to him–a vessel.  It isn’t who or what he is, down inside.  He truly is a minority of one.

And we can only envy him for that all-encompassing sense of self–he doesn’t need some arbitrary collective identity.   He’s content to be as he is.  Is that the secret of racial harmony, that has eluded us all these millennia?  To just be happy with ourselves the way we are?   To not need a group to belong to?  A ceremonial mask of human skin to hide behind?  As Parker, the wolf, hides behind his–but never makes the mistake of believing in the masquerade.  That way lies madness.

So I like what’s in this book, and so did Westlake, but it’s not one of the better novels.   He’s trying something new, and he hasn’t quite figured it out yet.   He did some research for this one, and he’s going to be using it in the future–Africa has gotten his attention.  And he’s not finished talking about the race issue here in America, either–there’ll be a whole book about it soon, and it won’t even be in any identifiable genre. Very sui generis, that one, proudly marching under its own banner.

But in the near future, in his own odd niche of crime fiction, he’s going to revisit the specific plot elements of this book–in comic form.   See, the trouble with this book’s approach to the subject matter is that it’s all a bit too proper, too stiff, too aware of itself.   Westlake doesn’t feel free to have fun with it yet.   But suppose instead of a wolf, his protagonist was more like–I dunno–Wile E. Coyote?   And suppose he actually did pull the jewel heist–or a bunch of them?  And suppose the African military man could actually get a helicopter?

Please understand, I’m not saying Westlake himself had no racial hang-ups–he was a human being.  And what’s more, an American.  An Irish Catholic New York American.  Hang-ups galore.  But he’s not content to leave those hang-ups unexplored.  Self-understanding means understanding all of yourself–not just the good stuff.   We tend to forget that, don’t we?   And in forgetting, give our unacknowledged prejudices so much power over us.  Before you can know who your neighbor is, you have to know who you are.   If you have no problems with yourself, you’ll have no problems with anyone else.  Then woe betide anyone who has a problem with you.  And thus endeth the lesson.

And next time, we’ll be looking at what I really think might be Westlake’s worst book ever.  And would you believe it’s his very first comic caper?  I guess we all have to start somewhere.  This one started as a movie.  That never got made.  Just as well.

PS: The covers for this book are mainly pretty bad–one thing they almost all have in common is the absence of black people.  Surprised?  Not at all surprisingly, the best cover was drawn by Robert E. McGinnis, and you can see it up above–next to a photo of a much older Robert E. McGinnis.   Notice anything interesting?  Think about it.  (McGinnis, you dog).

PPS: Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan student (that’s Obama Sr. up top, next to a very young Mandela), was seven years old when this was published.  Me too.  Seven, I mean.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels