Tag Archives: art theft

Review: Firebreak, Part 2

West of the Holland Tunnel, the Turnpike Extension rides high over the Jersey flats, where garbage and construction debris and used Broadway sets and failed mobsters have been buried for a hundred years.  Arthur drove, with Parker and Rafe behind him on the backseat.  Rafe had nothing to say until Arthur took one of the steep twisty ramps down from the Extension into the industrial wasteland of the flats.  Then, not looking at Parker, he said “I’d like to live through this.”

“Everybody would,” Parker said

Take me home–to Bayonne
To the place–that I call home!
Jersey City!–By the turnpike–
Underneath–
Exit 14-G!

Mark Russell, parodying John Denver, and getting the exit number wrong, but the aggrieved writer of that linked Times article got his lyric wrong, so they’re even.

Writers of crime fiction often stake out a patch of home turf to write about.  Dashiell Hammett had San Francisco, where he did most of his writing.  Raymond Chandler had L.A., and so did his prolific emulator, Ross MacDonald (though his gumshoe avoided competition from Mr. Marlowe by sticking to the ‘burbs)  San Diego had Wade Miller (the writing team of Bob Wade and Bill Miller), who dreamed up the melancholy loser Max Thursday to solve its sun-drenched mysteries.

At the other end of the country, David Goodis, who spent a short time in L.A. himself, was never more at home than when writing about his native Philadelphia and its environs, though I don’t think Philadelphians of the time necessarily appreciated the way he wrote about it (many do now, which only goes to prove that even the seamiest scenarios can seem romantic in retrospect).

Jim Thompson got around some, but his best books tend to be out there in the dry dusty southwestern states he grew up in, some panhandle or other.  John D. MacDonald more or less invented the Florida crime novel, followed by the likes of Hiaasen and (in the final years of a strange peripatetic life) Willeford. Chicago, by comparison, has a perplexing paucity of first-rate crime fiction, but it got Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, and that ain’t nothing (honestly, I haven’t read the books, so I don’t have an opinion).

Patricia Highsmith and Chester Himes, expatriates both, took different paths in their long European exiles–writing out of France and Switzerland, Highsmith transplanted New York bred Tom Ripley to the French countryside, while her one-shots mainly stayed in New York.  Himes, a Parisian by way of Missouri, dreaming of the country that had rejected him as a writer and a man, turned the metropolitan microcosm that is Harlem (which he spent a rather short period of his life in) into his own personal Dublin, ala James Joyce.  (Needless to say, there’s crime writers for Dublin as well, and plenty of real crime there to keep them busy).

But when they weren’t working their own patch, most of them wrote about New York.  When it comes to crime, New York is nobody’s turf, because it’s everybody’s turf.  One writer proved the exception to that rule, made New York (city, state, and half of New Jersey into the bargain), uniquely his own, to the point where they became not merely settings for a story, but dramatis personae in themselves.  Give you one guess.  Well, actually, you’d need at least three.  The reluctant detective agency of Westlake, Coe, and Stark.

Westlake didn’t like to confine himself too much to his patch, but he was always somehow more sure-footed when negotiating it.  Spending a few weeks in a different part of the country, or some sultry tropic clime may give a writer all kinds of ideas for stories, but it doesn’t give him/her that deep familiarity with the terrain that comes from spending the better part of a lifetime there.  You gotta know the territory, if you want to make it work for you.

I doubt Westlake spent all that much time in Florida, a state he never seemed to like very much (a big club, that includes a fair few longtime residents, but the winters are nice, and not everybody there is crazy).  And the section of it he’d have felt the least affinity for would have been Palm Beach, primary setting of Flashfire.  And that is certainly one reason Flashfire is a bit of a misfire.

But Firebreak, by comparison, is set primarily in Manhattan and North New Jersey (with a quick nod to the wintry upstate region Westlake was raised in).  He concludes the story in Montana, but such a relatively unpeopled part of the state, the need for extreme familiarity with the landscape isn’t really there.  He could have done a fair bit of his research for that part of the book with the Delorme State Atlas and Gazeteer for Montana, and no one would be the wiser.  (Plus he would have loved that it still calls itself a ‘Gazetteer’, whatever that means.  And is still printed on paper, though they’re diversifying into GPS now.)

Because Parker doesn’t like to work too close to home, his settling down with Claire in Sussex County made it harder to justify him pulling heists in and around nearby Gotham, but the main action of this book isn’t actually heist-related, and he’s really got no choice but to attend to business in both Bayonne NJ and Greenwich Village NY.  Two more disparate communities could rarely be found in such close proximity to each other (maybe six miles as the crow flies).  And yet Parker’s visit to the former leads inevitably to his grim descent upon the latter.  One of the charms of this book.  Which I’d better get back to now.

Having gotten involved in the plan to steal dot.com mogul Paxton Marino’s stolen collection of famous art from his grandiose hunting lodge in Montana, along with series perennials Frank Elkins and Ralph Wiss, Parker has discovered that their new recruit, disgraced uber-nerd Larry Lloyd, has accidentally identified Parker’s home address to old enemy (and nerdy in his own right) Paul Brock, who promptly dispatched a Russian hitman to that location, only to have the hitter be dispatched by Parker instead.  I feel fairly confident that sentence will never be typed again.

Parker has learned there’s a surveillance device in the currently vacant house in New Jersey, but to find whoever is using it, he needs a specialist.  Lloyd is elected.  Parker is reserving judgment on whether he goes on living after this job is over, but his digital acumen is necessary for the heist, and in the meantime he might as well help clean up the mess he created with Brock and (presumably) Brock’s larcenous lover, Matt Rosenstein.

To track down the base the hidden camera is broadcasting to, Lloyd will need some equipment from his house, just outside Springfield, MA.  Parker drops him off there, and drives off in Larry’s car, planning to swing around and pick him up.  A paranoid with very real enemies, Larry has his house wired for sound, and the car can pick up the audio of a conversation he’s having with some people who clearly aren’t supposed to be there and are leaning on him hard.

Parker figures the same people who sent the Russian after him sent these people after Lloyd, because they can’t find Parker.  Now does Parker give a damn what happens to Larry Lloyd?  No, but these people are grilling him about the Montana job.  Even if he doesn’t tell them anything crucial, and even if they don’t kill him (which would kill the job), he’ll be so mentally crushed by the third degree that he won’t be useful to anybody afterwards.  Parker to the rescue once again.

Parker breaks into the house just before a weeping Larry spills everything he knows.  He shoots one man in the knee, and the other jumps through a closed window to escape.  Parker’s all ready to do the old “you can dish it out but you can’t take it” routine, to find out how much these people know about him, but in a humiliation-fueled rage, Lloyd shoots the remaining hood in the head with his own gun.  It’s not like Parker didn’t already know about the Mr. Lloyd’s self-control issues.  But this nerd-on-the-bend’s chances of living to spend his share of the loot just got significantly worse.

Parker calms him down by asking him a sobering question–does he want to leave his current life on parole and go on the lam, or does he want to dispose of the body and stay put?  Larry’s not ready to be out in the wind yet, so he opts for the latter–Parker tells him how to go about getting rid of the stiff, and leaves him to it, while he takes a little nap.

It’s not often we learn anything at all about Parker’s sleeping habits.  After almost 40 years, we still don’t even know what he dreams at night, or if.  And we’re not going to find out this time either.

It wasn’t real sleep, but something close, learned a long time ago, a way to rest the body and the brain, a kind of trance, awareness of the outer world sheathed in unawareness.  The dim room remained, shades drawn over both windows, the gray-canvas-covered synthesizer in which Lloyd kept his computer equipment not so much concealed as reconfigured, the shelves and cabinets, the close door, the framed color photographs of machines, the small occasional sounds from outside the room, and the cot, narrow, with a thin mattress covered by a Canadian wool blanket in broad bands of gray and green and black that held him like a cupped hand.  Inside it, farther within it, there was nothing except the small bubbles of awareness that surfaced and surfaced and found nothing wrong.

Call it sleep mode, if you like.  Power-save?  Mind you, this type of half-waking dormancy was around a long time before electronics.  If you have a dog or cat, you’re well familiar.  Can’t say I’ve ever met a human who’d mastered it.  Wish I could.

Mr. Lloyd does okay with the corpse disposal, a point in his favor.  He thanks Parker for the help, and Parker doesn’t want thanks, of course.  He wants to go back to Colliver Pond and find out who’s watching the house.  Lloyd takes very little time to pinpoint the source–another unoccupied vacation cottage, a short distance off.  Not wanting to seem unneighborly, they go pay their respects.

It’s a double set-up.  The people the Russian worked for, Cosmopolitan Beverages (a legit business fronting for all kinds of illegal activities), sent a semi-retired former employee of theirs (strictly smalltime stuff), named Arthur Hembridge, to watch the monitor linked to the camera in Claire’s house.  If he sees a man matching Parker’s description (“A big man, hard and shaggy, with brown flat hair”–Stark tended to alternate between making Parker’s hair brown and black, and I’ve never been quite sure what he meant by ‘shaggy’),  he calls a number to report.

What he doesn’t know is that calling that number generates a signal that will automatically trigger a bomb in the house he’s watching.  What he also doesn’t know is that he and his wife blow up at the same time, removing all possible witnesses, and avoiding the need to pay him for his services.  Cute, huh?  Arthur is most amused, as you can imagine.

So after they clear up a little misunderstanding with Arthur’s wife (she panics when she wakes up and hears voices in the other room, runs to the other house, and very nearly calls that number herself before Arthur stops her), Arthur agrees to accompany Parker on a little investigation into the inner workings of Cosmopolitan Beverages.  Parker knows what he’s up against here–another version of The Outfit.  He knows how you deal with people like that.  Make them bleed.  They always have more soft spots than they think.

Lloyd will stay behind, clean up all the explosives and such.  Parker and Hembridge head for a building on Hudson Street in lower Manhattan, which is where Arthur’s former colleague Rafe Hargetty works–his successor there, the ‘friend’ who sent him on a suicide mission.  Arthur is a bit sore about this, you know.  He was a good organization man, always did what he was told, never talked out of school.  He’s sort of feeling like Cosmopolitan’s retirement package isn’t all it was cracked up to be.  We’ve all been there, or will be in future.  One way or another.  Never trust a boss.

Parker plays a variation on the game he played in the early books.  Climb the ladder, from one underling to the next, until you reach the top.  He leans hard on Rafe, who folds like the proverbial cheap suit.  Once Parker has the address where they can find Rafe’s boss, in Bayonne, they head over there.  They drop a relieved Rafe off along the way, in the midst of the industrial wasteland, far from the nearest phone, with no shoes or socks. I’m sure he turned up eventually.

Ah, Bayonne.  You know, it’s not really such a bad little town.  Some parts are downright livable.  They’re not going to any of those parts.

It’s called the Port of New York, but years ago most of the shipping businesses moved across the harbor to New Jersey, where the costs were lower and the regulations lighter: Newark, Elizabeth, Jersey City, and Bayonne are, along their waterfronts, a great sweeping tangle of piers, warehouses, gasoline storage tower, snaking rail lines, cranes, semi-tractor trailers, chain-link fences, guard shacks, and forklift trucks.  Day and night, lights glare from the tops of tall poles and the corners of warehouses.  Cargo ships ease up the channels and into the piers every hour of every day from every port in the world.  The big trucks roll eastward from the Turnpike and the cargo planes lift off from Newark International.  The thousand thousand businesses here cover every need and every want known to man.

Gentrify that, yuppies.

The receptionist at Cosmopolitan, a well-mannered young black man, is rather perturbed to have actual visitors to receive out here in the wilderness–normally he just sits there, more or less as window-dressing.  Parker identifies himself as Rafe Hargetty, and asks to see Frank Meany.  It works.  Down comes Rafe’s boss, with two goons.  He’s just a better-dressed goon himself.  Too good a physical description to skim past.  And we’ll be seeing this one again a few books from now.

He was tall and bulky, with a bruiser’s round head of close-cropped hair that fists would slide off.  He’d been dressed very carefully by a tailor, in a dark gray suit, plus pale blue dress shirt and pink-and-gold figured tie, to make him look less like a thug and more like a businessman, and it might have done a better job if the tailor’d been able to do something about that thick-jawed small-eyed face as well.  The four heavy rings he wore, two on each hand, were not for decoration.  He had a flat-footed walk, like a boxer coming out of his corner at the start of the round.

So this is the capo del tutti capo, right?  Wrong.  Just another flunky, who may have been genuinely tough once, but has been sitting behind a desk too long, wearing tailored suits.  Clothes sometimes unmake the man. Standing next to him is the thug who got away at Larry Lloyd’s house, bandaged, still bearing the marks of having gone through that window, and very unhappy at seeing Parker instead of Rafe–he reaches for his holster.

All Parker’s got is a small-caliber Beretta he took from the dead thug (the one Larry killed him with).  Not enough range and power for this situation, but just drawing it makes Meany nervous (flying bullets don’t discriminate) and he suggests they go back to the office and talk.

Parker’s never really the chatty type.  As soon as they get to the office, bunched closed together, he kills the hood with the bandages, and takes his .32 revolver.  He has Arthur take the guns from the other two.  Then he says he’s going to shoot Meany in the spine, paralyze him for life, if he doesn’t arrange for Parker to talk with his boss–not just a higher-up–one of the owners.  There’s five of them.  Meany only knows one, named Joseph Albert.

See, Meany is more than willing to call the hit on Parker off, just a misunderstanding, let bygones be bygones.  Brock does little things for them like debugging their offices so the Feds can’t listen in, plus he can make neat gizmos like remote-controlled bombs, so they did him a solid in return.  They gave him Viktor Charov’s number, so Charov could do a little freelance job for Brock.  But when Charov disappeared, and they knew Parker must have made that happen, screwed up their system, so it got personal, and they tried to do the job themselves.  Mistake.  They know that now.

But Parker isn’t buying that.  Meany isn’t the boss of anything, he’s just an employee, a soldier, so he can’t call it off.  Best way to make Cosmopolitan realize going after Parker is a poor business decision is to start sacrificing assets–like Meany.  Make him the message.  Keep killing soldiers until the generals are ready to make peace.  Meany, eager to discourage this line of strategic thinking, agrees to get Mr. Albert on the phone, stat.

The conversation has to be somewhat encoded, in case Brock missed some of the taps on their phones.  But Albert gets the gist.  He can put an end to any further attempts on Parker’s life, and tell Parker where Brock is.  Or Parker shoots Meany, and comes after him next.

Albert doesn’t sound like he’s easily intimidated.  But even if Albert doesn’t think Parker could get to him–like he just got to Meany, and Hargetty before that, and a very professional Russian hitman before that–he knows what would follow would be unpleasant, and noisy, and when things get noisy, cops get nosy.  They can always find another nerd-on-the-bend (more of those in Russia than hired killers these days).  Brock is expendable.  He agrees to Parker’s terms.  Meany relaxes.  Parker gets the address.

414 Bleecker.  The Village.  Brock didn’t run far.  He and Rosenstein used to share an apartment at the fictional address of 8 Downing Street,  and now he owns a fictional townhouse that would be maybe a brisk ten minute walk from the former address, a mere block away from the seriously overrated Magnolia Bakery (come check out the long line of suckers sometime), were 414 Bleecker not in fact the site of a large municipal playground.  Mr. Stark giving us a rare glimpse of his droll side.

Part 2 ends with Arthur Hembridge dropping Parker off in Manhattan, just after they exit the Holland Tunnel.  Arthur seems oddly crestfallen Parker doesn’t require his services anymore.  It’s almost a Handy McKay moment, but Arthur isn’t nearly so handy, and while they both had a score to settle with Cosmopolitan, Parker needs to settle with Brock and Rosenstein alone.

“I was getting used to going places with you,” Arthur says.  “Now you’re retired again,” Parker responds, and sets off for 414 Bleecker. On the way, he phones Lloyd, says to tell the others he’ll have finished with his personal business soon, and he’ll see them in Montana.  But the first chapter of Part 3 opens in a very different (though no less scenic) locale.

Horace Griffith, art dealer to the rich and famous, is in Geneva negotiating over the sale of a Titian when he gets a call from longtime client Paxton Marino, who wants to meet.  No need for him to come to New York, where Marino is now; Marino will jet over to Northern Italy, meet Griffith at his chalet in Courmayeur.  Griffith readily agrees to make the three hour drive, since obscenely rich and obsessively acquisitive people like Marino are, after all, his bread and butter.

Griffith didn’t actually believe in ghosts, and yet he was always among them.  He traded mostly in European paintings and sculpture, from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and most of the creators of those works had firmly believed in an unseen world, in spirits, in an often vengeful and occasionally merciful God.  They’d painted saints and sinners, martyrs and miracles, and Griffith had steeped himself in their work.

He had also, in the darker side of his profession, showed himself to be at one with the world those artists had described.  He, too, was merely human, full of error.  He didn’t really believe in all that cosmic moral accounting, but he couldn’t help some faint awareness in the back of his mind that, if retribution ever did fall on him, he’d damn well deserve it.

Every dealer in valuable art, at a certain upper level of market worth, is offered the temptation now and again.  To deal, in almost absolute safety, with stolen work, or forged work.  Griffith at times envied those who had never fallen, but he also knew he could not possibly live as well, as comfortably, if he had been one of the virtuous ones.  If virtue truly is its own reward, then Griffith regretfully had to go where the rewards were more palpable.

He’s the one who arranged for Marino to buy all those stolen paintings, and even arranged for some of them to be stolen in the first place.  And now he needs to arrange to unload some of them.  Because the sad truth is, he’s broke.  In the manner that only the very wealthy ever can be broke.  Property rich.  Cash poor.

“That’s all it is,” Marino insisted, turning his glower at last full on Griffith.  Still standing there in all that Alpine light, he looked like a later Roman Emperor, lesser and more effete, but still both powerful and dangerous.  “I have a cash-flow problem,” he said.  “It’s temporary.  I’m projected to be out of it in less than eighteen months, probably under a year.  But the problem is, if I’m seen to cut back anywhere, it will be taken as a sign.”

“Yes, of course.”

“That’s where the self-fulfilling prophecy comes in,” Marino said.  “With the hyenas.  With the schadenfreude.”

If he stops spending at his current rate, if he starts selling off houses, planes, other fungible assets, the scavengers of the marketplace will close in and rip him to shreds.  But if he merely sells off things nobody knows he has, because he’s not allowed to have them, they’ll just assume he had more cash at hand than expected, and seek another wounded wildebeest at a different watering hole.

The attempted theft of Marino’s lodge in Montana that started this whole narrative unfolding; which Griffith had not known about, and the potential implications of which chills him to his very marrow, has made Marino aware that he needs to move all of that stolen artwork out of his cunningly concealed basement gallery there.

This is what he wants Griffith to do for him, tout de suite–and then to pick out three or four masterworks, and negotiate with museums and/or insurance companies as if he’s representing the thieves who stole them (which of course he is).  The rest can be restored to their unlawful owner once he’s set up a new secret gallery to gloat over. (Geez, man, you’re a nerd, not an aesthete.  Couldn’t you just collect old Spider-man comics or something? Oh yeah, that reminds me. Still very topical, this book.)

Chapter 2, in this very traditionally Starkian multi-POV Part 3, shows us Pam Saugherty coming out of the D’Agostino supermarket at 790 Greenwich (which closed recently, but seems to be open again–no, you didn’t ask, I’m just trying to be current–rents are so damn high in the Village now, it’s getting hard for anybody to stay in business).  She’s headed for 414 Bleecker, where she is, in effect, the housekeeper.  On the way there, she bumps into Parker, who is too focused on his objectives to notice her, but she recognizes him, and it brings back memories, none of them pleasant.

Okay, the last time we saw Pam, her pleasant suburban home in Philadelphia had been invaded by Messrs. Rosenstein and Brock, the former of whom had beaten her husband Ed to death for not letting him rape her (and then raped her anyway).  After a brief bloody engagement with Parker, both men were critically wounded, incapable of defending themselves, and Parker, not caring if they lived or died, left them to her tender mercies.  Which seem to have been more tender than Parker could have ever imagined.  Pam, what happened?

After Parker untied her, she had every intention of hurting Matt Rosenstein, torturing him, making him pay for what he’d done to her and her family.  Then calling the cops, once she’d gotten back some of her own.  But Paul Brock called to her from the basement Parker had left him lying in, unable to move.  Imploring her to help them.  Help Matt.  Help the man who used her like a blow-up doll, only with less empathy.  But who is still the only person in this world Paul Brock has ever loved.

He’s offering to support her and her three children, even send them to school, everything, anything, if she’ll call a doctor he knows, the kind who can be discreet.  She is oddly moved by his devotion, and uncomfortably aware that with her husband dead, her economic prospects are extremely poor.  Rosenstein can’t ever hurt her again–Parker’s bullet severed his spine, he’s probably going to die anyway.  She agreed to call Brock’s doctor. And here she is, an unspecified number of years later, still looking after them.

(Sidebar–there is a bit of a timeline clue here–we’re told her oldest child was ten at the time of the home invasion, and all of them are in college now.  Well over ten years have passed from her perspective. A lot less than the 30+ years that have passed from our perspective.  Time warp.)

Rosenstein didn’t die, but if Brock’s love had been less possessive, less needy, he would have let his sociopathic sweetie go.  It was impossible for a man like that to adapt to life in a wheelchair, reinvent himself–he liked himself the way he was, even if nobody else other than Brock did.  No life of the mind, only of the body, and the body has been wrecked beyond repair, leaving only a shell of the predator he once was.

Predator?  No, that’s the wrong word.  To call Matt Rosenstein an animal would be doing a disservice to animals, predatory or not.  The worst person ever to appear in a Parker novel.  Even Otto Mainzer was a pro compared to him.  And this is his hell, to which he has been consigned, not for his many evil deeds, but for being incapable of self-knowledge.  Or love–even for the one person who has single-mindedly devoted himself to Rosenstein’s welfare.  Another way in which love and life resemble each other.

Pam tells them about seeing Parker at dinner, and Rosenstein’s response is along the lines of I Told You So, even though he obviously wanted Parker dead, and just as obviously could never do the job himself.  Brock is terrified, remembers that look Parker gets in his eyes when he’s hunting all too well, but holds himself together somehow.  Rosenstein can afford the luxury of self-pitying rage.  He has to find a way to shore up their defenses for the assault that is surely coming.

He was hoping that if Parker was dead, Matt could let go of his anger, which was foolish, but understandable.  He goes out at night sometimes, to slake the needs Matt can’t satisfy anymore, but that’s just sex.  He should have just put Matt in a private hospital and walked away, but he can’t do that.  Just like he can’t run now, when he knows he should.  He can’t let Parker finish the job he started years ago, even though that would be merciful at this point.  Anyway, Parker would keep coming after him, after Rosenstein was dead.  He’d never stop looking over his shoulder.  He’s not a strong man, never was, but in his own quiet way, he’s got more guts than his lover ever did.

He tells Pam to go to Florida or somewhere, he’ll call her when it’s over–unless it’s really over, in which case there’ll be no call.  One somehow assumes he remembered her in  his will.  Fellow caretakers, they understand each other very well, formed a sort of tenuous friendship, but that’s coming to an end now.

He nails the inner door of the townhouse shut.  He seals off the roof entrance.  He’s got a gun–Matt wants one too, but he’s afraid of what he might do with it, in his growing panic, knowing the wolf is closing in, stuck in that chair, telling himself that if he could just walk again, he could deal with Parker himself (like you did before, Mr. Rosenstein?).  He hears footsteps on the roof.  “He’s here,” Paul thinks.

And then a few chapters that have nothing to do with Parker, Brock, and Rosenstein.  Stark can be sadistic sometimes.  Let’s skip over them fast.  We meet Bert Hayes, an investigator working for a the Art Identification Department of the Secret Service, in charge of art theft.  (I can’t find any evidence this department exists, but I wouldn’t be surprised–they do a lot more than just try to keep VIP’s from being shot).

He’s very suspicious of Paxton Marino.  An early report of the theft at the lodge in Montana mentioned some valuable old paintings–then later reports left that out (because local cops were bought off).  He talked to Marino about it directly, and let’s just say rich people probably never do learn much about diplomacy.  Well, I guess we all know that now,  huh?  He’s going to nail this guy if it’s the last thing he does.  And he just found out about a bunch of crates suitable for shipping paintings are coming to the lodge, along with a certain art dealer.

And then we’re with Larry Lloyd again.  He’s found out his old business partner, Brad Grenholz–you know, the one that cheated him, who he then tried to murder, and they both ended up in prison, that guy–is getting out of prison, a lot sooner than he’d expected.  And then he gets a friendly visit from the local fuzz, who make it very clear they are never going to stop harassing him–he’ll never have a normal life again.  Because of Brad Grenholz.  Who is rich, and will therefore never have to worry about the police knocking his door down and searching the premises, and treating him like slime, even though he’s a criminal too.

Larry belatedly decides that of the two options Parker gave him earlier, he prefers the first one after all.  He destroys any evidence he ever had a computer there–after he uses it to ‘buy’ plane tickets for Brad’s location.  He makes his way to the beachfront house, which belongs to Brad’s crooked lawyer brother-in-law, George.  They’re planning to make a fortune together–a fortune that should have been partly Larry’s.

He gets into the house.  Wanders around a bit, stumbles into Brad.  Brad is surprised, but he recovers his equilibrium quickly.  And Larry feels the tug of  his old identity, the self he used to inhabit, before he became a convict, and then a crook.

And all at once, Lloyd was himself again.  The nerd, the follower, the number two, the fellow born to be a sidekick.  The years on his own  had, after all, been horrible ones, left to make his own decisions, with no one to trail after and obey.  Brad was a leader, and needed Larry.  Larry was a follower, and needed Brad.  It was as simple as that.

Except it’s not.  He can’t go back to that Larry.  He died in prison.  Brad killed him, and will happily do it again, given half a chance.  And Larry has gotten used to making his own decisions now.  He’s gotten to kind of like it.  So he decides to hit a very surprised Brad with a very nice half-empty bottle of wine, again and again, until it breaks over his head.  And then he’s got a very nice cutting implement to work with.  Afterwards, he heads for Montana, and the life he has now.  Which isn’t much, but at least it’s his.  The King is dead–long live the independents.

Then there’s a chapter set at the small house for security staff at the Marino lodge.  A fine group of self-obsessed social misfits, since nobody else would want the job.  One of them named Dave is happily playing something called ‘DoomRanger II’ on his handheld gaming device, as he clearly intends to do for the rest of his life; we are now officially in the modern era, like it or not.  He sees a bunch of ATF vehicles descending like locusts upon the estate, and experiences a moment of dislocation between the gaming world and the real one.  He has no idea what this means, but he’s pretty sure it’s nothing good.

Chapter 8 comes from inside the head of Matt Rosenstein, not a happy place to be, as has already been explained.

He hated this body.  He remembered who he used to be, when he was someone who wasn’t afraid of anybody, when he was stronger than anybody, and more reckless than anybody and tougher than anybody, so if anybody ever had reason to be afraid, it was the people who had to deal with Matt Rosenstein.

He knows Paul is soft, can’t protect him, and who can he call for protection?  He was a scavenger bird, as Madge once told Parker.  He preyed on other predators.  Nobody could ever trust him, particularly those who worked with him, so he can’t call on any of them now.  He assumed he could just take whatever he wanted, from anybody dumb enough to trust him, and it would never come back to bite him in the ass.  Not that he can feel his ass now.

He’s not remotely concerned with what happens to Paul Brock.  He’s just thinking about how to prolong his life a while longer, and for that he needs a weapon.  He gets a heavy chopping blade from the kitchen, but that’s not a range weapon.  Parker won’t give him the chance to use it, unless he can trick him somehow.

He can’t even move between floors now, because Paul turned off the chair lift.  He hates needing Paul, hates needing anyone.  He screams for Paul, and Paul comes, like a whipped dog, which is what he is, loyal to the very end, and far better than his master.  They decide they better wait together for Parker to come.  Matt still wants a gun, but Paul won’t give him one. He seems strangely resigned to what’s coming.

Paul doesn’t see the knife hidden beneath the blanket on Matt’s useless legs.  He does know that Matt’s arms are still very strong.  He knows, down inside, that Matt doesn’t care about him, but a long time ago, he surrendered a piece of his soul to the person he needed Matt Rosenstein to be, and he can never get that back again.  Love can be a way to find yourself, or to lose yourself.  It depends on what you do with it, and who you do it with.

A noise comes from below.  Parker sized up the defenses, found them inadequate.  As he so often does–as he did when he came after Brock and Rosenstein all those years before–he takes the direct route, no second story crap. He’s got one of those police battering rams.  He’s inside the vestibule, where nobody will notice him smashing through the inner door, reducing it to splinters.  He’ll be upstairs soon.  They have nowhere to go.  You’d think Brock would have invested in a panic room, but who really believes that would stop Parker?  When you can’t call the law, and the attackers are determined enough, a panic room is just a tomb for the temporarily living.

Paul insists he doesn’t have a gun with him, but Matt won’t believe him.  Overcome with fear-driven rage, he grabs Paul with one hand, and shakes him.  The other hand has the sharp steel blade.  It goes about the same way as it went with Ed Saugherty.   Before he even realizes what he’s doing, it’s done.

Christ, why didn’t you give me the gun?  Shit, he’s coming up, where is it, where is it?

Matt yanked Paul’s body across his lap, frisked it desperately, one-handed, knife in the other as he patted the pockets, searching…

There was no gun.  There was no weapon of any kind.  How could Paul not have a gun?

Matt looked up, and Parker stood in the doorway.  He had a gun, a small stub pistol in his right hand.  Matt lifted the slippery red knife, but there was no threat in it.  He knew he was no threat.  He stared at Parker, and Parker stepped forward to look at the scene.  Matt let go of Paul’s arm, and the body slid off his lap onto the floor.  Parker looked at it, at the knife, around at the room, and at last into Matt’s eyes.  He shook his head.  “You aren’t worth much,” he said, and turned around, and walked away.

Now once again I have to explain why Parker shows mercy.  Or do I?  Isn’t it obvious that’s not remotely what this is?  Mercy would have come in the form of a bullet crashing into Rosenstein’s thick skull, but Parker doesn’t care about Rosenstein.  Parker was never after Rosenstein.  The target was Brock, and Brock is dead, so the hunting instinct has once again switched itself off. Parker doesn’t kill without a reason.  He’s not like  us.

He knew just what he’d done to Rosenstein in Philly; that the injury to his spine would never heal, and that without his body, Rosenstein was no threat to him.  He knew who had been combing the internet for Parker’s location, who had used his connections to send an assassin after him, who would never stop looking for some way to kill him.  Parker knew the real threat was always Paul Brock, the brains of the outfit–always more dangerous than Rosenstein, from the very start.

It was Brock, not Rosenstein, who humiliated Parker all those years before, giving him drugged coffee, so Rosenstein could interrogate him–it was Brock who made the money, it was Brock who gave Matt Rosenstein a safe home base to operate from, enabled him, indulged him, kept him out of jail all that time, kept him alive when there was no reason. Rosenstein was the id creature of this collective consciousness, nothing more.  Brock was everything else.  And as sometimes happens, the id has destroyed the ego, and there was never much of a superego there to start with.

Without Brock, without his legs, Rosenstein is now truly helpless.  Maybe he’ll starve to death in that room.  Maybe the cops will come, and he’ll wind up ranting impotently in some state nursing home.  Maybe he’ll have the guts to use that knife on himself.  But I doubt that last one.  A lot.  Because the truth is, Matt Rosenstein was a coward all his life, and he’s going to die a coward.

And the other, more unsettling truth that comes to me now, is that the world we live in is full of Paul Brocks, men and women, straight and gay, all desperately seeking a Matt Rosenstein to cling to.  I called Brock a dog just now, and that wasn’t right.  Because as Cesar Millan once said, the primary difference between dogs and humans is that dogs don’t follow unstable energy.  You know exactly what I’m talking about.

There’s one more chapter in Part 3, but I don’t really feel the need to get into that.  Part 3 of the review will be ready when it’s ready.  If there’s someone you love, who deserves that love, go hug them.  Now.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Nobody’s Perfect

Oppressed by the continuing silence in the cab, these four large bodies sweating lightly in the hot July London air, Chauncey made a desperate stab at Smalltalk: “This your first trip to London, Dortmunder?”

“Yeah.”  Dortmunder turned his head slightly to look out the window.  The cab, having come in the M4 from Heathrow, was now inching through the normal traffic jam on Cromwell Road.  “Looks like Queens,” Dortmunder said.

Chauncey came automatically to the city’s defense.” Well, this is hardly the center of town.”

“Neither is Queens.”

I don’t really know what my favorite Parker novel is, but I know my least favorite–Flashfire, which is the first thing of Westlake’s I ever read.  It starts out great, then somehow loses its way once it gets to Palm Beach.  This just does not seem to be a place Parker belongs.   You could write a perfectly good crime novel set in Florida, don’t get me wrong (I believe it’s been done once or twice)–just not with Parker in it.

I don’t really know what my favorite Dortmunder novel is, but I know my least favorite–this one.   Which starts out great, then somehow loses its way once it gets to London, and from there to bonny Scotland.  These do not seem to be places Dortmunder belongs.  You could write a perfectly good crime novel set in London and/or Scotland, don’t get me wrong (they’d probably wear funny hats and there’d be fog)–just not with Dortmunder in it.  I believe I vaguely detect a pattern here.

Terra incognita is one thing for a fictional character and another thing entirely for an author.   Westlake had probably been to London by this point, perhaps more than once–referring back to an Abby Adams quote I employed in my review of Brothers Keepers, he reportedly uprooted much of his family for a tour of Britain and The Continent (dates not specified), and of course a writer never takes a trip purely for pleasure–there’s always mental note-taking going on, and perhaps the other kind as well.

Still, he could hardly claim the same familiarity with European locales as he could with New York and other American cities (Britain is still kindasorta European, right?  I mean, there’s a tunnel and everything).   So much of Westlake’s better writing is about the fine details, and particularly his comic writing.  To get the fine details right, you have to know the territory very well.  Or else fake it to beat the band.  That’s always an option.

More than that, though, Westlake must have been wondering where he could go with this series that had dropped into his lap unexpectedly at the tail-end of the 60’s.  What was he supposed to do with Dortmunder & Co?  People loved the books, and he could hardly pass up a steady paying gig, particularly now with Parker, Grofield. and Tobin all out of the picture.

But he’s already on the fourth book, and he’s got a problem–with Parker, he had a lot of options–Parker might steal a lot of money and get to keep it–or go on a blood-soaked campaign of ruthless retribution, which was what he did in the first book.  Dortmunder doesn’t seem constitutionally equipped for the latter course, and anyway, it wouldn’t be funny.  Nor can he do what Grofield does, and play-act his way through a variety of roles, swashbuckler, detective, secret agent.  Dortmunder is just Dortmunder.

The whole point of the character is that he does these elaborate heists that go hilariously wrong, and he ends up with a mere pittance–enough to keep him going until next time. How many stories like that can you write and keep it fresh?    If he wanted to keep writing these books, and cashing those royalty checks, Westlake had to find ways to expand Dortmunder’s options, without surrendering the essential qualities of the character.

Part of that will involve expanding the cast of regulars, but the finale of this book radically shrinks that cast down to just Dortmunder and Kelp.  Who normally make a great team (from our perspective, anyway), but here, not so much.   I’m probably spoiled after the last three books, the pioneering works of the series–this is a transitional book.  There’s so much to like about this one.  So many brilliant moments.  Somehow the pieces don’t quite fit together.  Well, a Dortmunder that doesn’t quite entirely work is still a Dortmunder.   But I’m making this a one-parter, because I don’t want to dwell on it.   Short synopsis follows, and then I shall analyze what went wrong–and right.

Dortmunder gets nabbed stealing TV sets from a repair shop.  He figures he’s going away a long time.  He figures wrong–out of the blue comes this famous legal eagle, J. Radcliffe Stonewiler, who mysteriously agrees to take up Dortmunder’s defense without Dortmunder even asking him to.

The wily Stonewiler performs a little courtroom razzle-dazzle at the preliminary hearing (something to do with doors), and the delighted judge, bored to tears with his humdrum routine of obviously guilty people stringing things out in hopes of getting off on a technicality, dismisses all charges out of sheer gratitude.   Dortmunder goes home to May about six years early, by his reckoning.   Hey, I thought next time he went to jail it’d be for life, due to his prior convictions?   Retconning already, Mr. Westlake?   Hedging your bets, in case you want to do another jailhouse comedy someday?

Dortmunder knows there’s always a catch.   The catch this time is named Arnold Chauncey.   The shiftless wealthy heir to a great fortune, who spends his days lolly-gagging about, jet-setting around the globe, enjoying the fruits of other mens’ labors–enjoying them so much, in fact, that he’s perpetually on the brink of insolvency, due to cash-flow problems.

These problems he has twice addressed in past by claiming that a valuable painting from his extensive collection has been stolen, then cashing a hefty insurance check (he just sticks the painting somewhere nobody but him can look at it).   Now he wants to try it again, with a painting he’s particularly fond of (Folly Leads Man to Ruin, by Veenbes, and there is no such work, or artist, don’t even bother to look) .   The insurance company is getting skeptical.   Hence the need to hire a professional to make it look real this time.  Hence Dortmunder.

But what, you may ask, would prevent Dortmunder, after he’s pretend-heisted the Veenbes, from actually heisting it?   Dortmunder asks this question himself, and then wishes he hadn’t, because it turns out Chauncey hired another professional–from a different profession.   Leo Zane is his name.  Tall, skinny, pale, pronounced limp.  His gun, you might say, is for hire.  Or for sale, same difference.  If Dortmunder doesn’t give back the painting, Dortmunder’s going away for keeps, to that big house in the sky.

So he recruits a string, some of the usual suspects, plus a new guy, Tiny Bulcher, and they steal the painting–and then lose it.  At a gathering of Scotsmen, of all things.  Okay, now what?  Not only can they not get paid without the painting, but Dortmunder is going to get whacked if they don’t cough it up.

So Kelp has an idea (doesn’t he always?).  They approach Griswold Porculey, an artist friend of his nephew Victor’s (the former FBI agent from Bank Shot), who can turn out a really convincing copy of just about any painting in any style–but he can’t get it exactly right without the original to work from.   It will stand up to a cursory examination, but not an extended one.

Dortmunder calls in some favors from a variety of old friends he re-connected with at this fantastic heister’s Christmas party at May’s apartment, including bisexual black revolutionary Herman X, and heister turned full-time TV actor, Alan Grofield (formerly Greenwood), and they pull an elaborate sting that ends with Chauncey believing Dortmunder brought him the real painting, but then a gang of terrorists or something stole it, and they were seemingly tipped off by Leo Zane (Grofield, giving the performance of a lifetime, in silhouette).   Dortmunder made sure to trap the real Zane in a blockade of trucks over on the west side–by the time he gets out, Chauncey won’t return his calls, and he won’t whack Dortmunder gratis.

So they have a fantastic heister’s Post-Christmas party, with the whole gang present, and Dortmunder feels really good about one of his schemes finally working out the way he planned it, and then he and May go off to Puerto Rico on Chauncey’s money (which of course the ‘terrorists’ stole along with the painting).

Dortmunder is, as I said, atypically contented with his lot in life after making this score, but he can’t help but think he’s missed some crucial detail, and he starts looking around nervously, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And part of me thinks this is where it should have ended, but that would be too simple, right?  Still and all, up to this point, it’s a very creditable effort.   Westlake, playing his usual structural games, divided the book into three ‘choruses,’ First, Second, and Final.  It’s the Final Chorus, only fifty-six pages long in the first edition,  where the enterprise begins to founder.   And in fiction, as in life, how well you end things matters more than how well you began them.

See, Leo got out of the trap Dortmunder set for him, and managed to convince Chauncey that they’d both been had.  And now he and Chauncey are in Dortmunder and May’s apartment (Kelp is there too), Porculey’s fake thumbtacked to the wall (Dortmunder had considered tacking the original up there as well, before they lost it), and not even Kelp can come up with a good enough story to get them out of this.

This is bad–Chauncey didn’t even get the insurance money, because the real painting has shown up (wouldn’t you know it) in Scotland, where an impecunious squire by the name of MacDough (pronounced MacDuff, but no relation, so lay off) is claiming, with a completely straight face, that it’s been in his family for generations.

They are all going to die (even May).  Chauncey believes they lost the painting, knows there was no planned double-cross, but that just means they conned him out of the money with that terrorist gag, and like all rich men in a Westlake novel, his well of compassion runs dry very quickly.

But now Dortmunder has an idea–and here’s where we may detect that most extreme rarity–a genuine gaping plot hole in a Westlake book.  See, Dortmunder says they can go to London and steal the painting back, putting the copy in its place, and then Chauncey can demand the one in London be re-appraised by experts, who will declare it a fake, and he’ll have the real one stashed back at his crib, no one the wiser.

Okay, who knows why this doesn’t work?   First of all, the experts in London would probably have taken photos of the original, which they could refer back to, and see that it doesn’t quite match up to the fake, in ways they would have noticed on their first perusal.

Now that might not be too much of a problem for Chauncey, insurance-wise (he just needs to prove the other guy doesn’t have the real painting), but why is he risking everything, even his own liberty, to help commit an art heist, in a foreign country, with one surly hired assassin and two guys who already bungled it once on their home turf?  Aside from the fact that Westlake figures he needs another fifty-six pages of story?  Obviously because he has a collector’s obsession with hanging onto his collectibles, but that doesn’t work here.

Because once Dortmunder tells Chauncey the whole story, you see, he can get the painting back without their help.   Because he can prove the doughty MacDough was there in New York, in a theater a block away from Chauncey’s townhouse, at a gathering of be-kilted Scotsmen attending a concert.  The very same night his painting was stolen.  And then, shortly afterwards, Mr. MacDough ‘discovered’ this old Flemish master, worth a small fortune, in his dungheap of an ancestral castle, part of his inheritance from a land-rich relation who never had two farthings to rub together.

It’s too much of a coincidence for anyone to swallow.   Even a Scotsman (sorry lads, couldn’t resist).

You can rationalize it, if you want–Chauncey didn’t really want to be an accomplice to murder, he was intrigued by the prospect of engaging in art theft directly, he just didn’t think of it (though he’s no dummy).   If Westlake thought any of these were viable excuses, he’d have trotted one or all of them out for our approval, but he didn’t.  Because he knew they weren’t viable.  And he just devoutly hoped we wouldn’t notice the hole.   Well, to be honest, I didn’t notice it myself–the first time.    His legerdemain is always adroit.

But much as the Dortmunders are not exercises in gritty realism, there does have to be that underlying credibility–Westlake has to play fair.  He painted himself into a corner here, and he cheated.  Bad form, old scout.

And that may be why what follows just lacks the usual Dortmunder flair, aside from the change of venue.  Oh it’s fun to read, don’t get me wrong–Westlake can’t be boring, ever.  But you compare it to what came before, and there’s something missing, some secret ingredient, and while the ending rather cleverly hearkens back to the overriding theme of Folly Leading Man to Ruin, the final image seems more like the ending of a third-rate Abbott & Costello movie.  Or maybe Tom & Jerry?   You’ll know what I mean if you’ve read it (there is no way they could have gotten that armor on so quickly by themselves).

(‘Newgate Callendar’, NY Times music critic and part-time mystery maven, loved this one, by the way.   I don’t know if he saw the plot hole, and if he had, I don’t know that he’d have given a damn, because to him, this is just a silly entertainment, nothing more.   The more depth a book in this genre has, the more it departs from the established format, the less he likes it.   Someday I’ll have to share with you all what he thought of Charles Willeford and Patricia Highsmith.  Maybe you can guess.)

So I’ve prefaced and synopsized and dissected the whole novel in a bit over two thousand words, and delivered my final judgment, and just one short prefatory quote, and it’s not at all my normal way of doing things, is it?

Because, you see, I want to end this on a positive note.  Because even a Dortmunder that doesn’t quite work is still a Dortmunder–just like a painting by an old Flemish master who was having a bit of a dry spell is still an old Flemish master, and as I have said before, sometimes we learn more from an artist’s failures than his successes.   Whatever the Book of Proverbs may think, Folly often leads man to more inspired efforts in the future–if he recognizes it as such, as I believe Westlake did in this case.

So let’s go back to the beginning, and look at all the fine details of the picture, all the things that do work, all the masterful little brush strokes that don’t quite add up to a masterwork this time, but still make for an interesting book.

Detail #1: The Terror of Tiny Town

“Hello, Dortmunder.”  Tiny had the voice of a frog in an oil drum, but less musical.”  “Long time, no see.”

Dortmunder sat opposite him, saying, “You look good, Tiny,” which was a palpable lie.  Tiny, hulking on the little chair, his great meaty shoulders bulging inside his cheap brown suit, a shelf of forehead bone shadowing his eyes, looked mostly like something to scare children into going to bed.

Westlake had introduced many a massive supporting character in past novels–George, the good-natured and oddly philosophical leg-breaker for the Machinists Union in Killy; Lobo, the silent and comically terrifying evocation of Rondo Hatton, in The Spy in the Ointment; Dan Wycza in the Parker novels; and there were two giants in Help I Am Being Held Prisoner.  I think it was the shorter and scarier of the two, Billy Glinn, who provided the main impetus for Mr. Bulcher’s genesis.

Billy was always telling stories about this or that person who had irritated him in some way, and those stories had a tendency to get rather bloody in their details.   Tiny has the same disarming habit of  going off on gruesome tangents, but the point, of course, is to keep reminding his colleagues that he’s not somebody you want to piss off.

And yet, in all his many appearances in the series, we never once see him seriously hurt anyone, because that’s just how the Dortmunder books tend to work out (with only one exception, and even Tiny was scared of him).   So does Tiny just make these ripping yarns of his up, or embellish them, simply to give himself a more fearsome reputation?   Looking at him, one would not think that necessary, but he’s smarter than he looks, and he might just figure the more scared people are of him, the less actual work he has to do.

Mainly he just carries heavy things (like cars), and Dortmunder may want him on some jobs because he provides that intimidation factor that makes actual violence unnecessary.   Dortmunder’s smarter than he looks as well, and he wisely assumes Tiny isn’t making anything up–their professional relationship is always somewhat guarded, with Dortmunder not wanting to let on he’s intimidated, and Tiny not really wanting to head up the string.  He just wants whoever is in charge to know they better not screw up.  As he meets each member of the string in this book, he is moved to recall some person in the same specialty (Driver, Lockman, etc), who disappointed him in some crucial way, and let’s just say you really don’t want to disappoint Tiny Bulcher, and leave it at that.  But the main thing is, he never disappoints us.

Detail #2: The Duo’s Dynamic

“Maybe you’re the jinx,” May said, very softly

Dortmunder gave her a look of affronted amazement.  “Maybe what?”

“After all,” she said, “those were Kelp’s jobs, and he brought them to you, and you can’t really blame any one person for all the things that went wrong, so maybe you’re the one that jinxes his jobs.”

Dortmunder had never been so basely attacked in his life.  “I am not a jinx,” he said, slowly and distinctly, and stared at May as though he’d never seen her before.

“I know that,” she said.  “And neither is Andy.  And besides, this isn’t you coming in on a job he found, it’s him coming in on a job you found.”

“No,” Dortmunder said.  He glowered at the TV screen, but he didn’t see any of the shadows moving on it.

“Damn it, John,” May said, getting really annoyed now, “You’ll miss Andy, and you know it.”

“Then I’ll shoot again.”

The pattern of the books up to now had been simple, though the execution was not–Kelp pitches a crazy heist to Dortmunder, Dortmunder wants nothing to do with the job but somehow gets pulled into it anyway, it all goes to hell (which on some level actually gratifies Dortmunder, because it proves he was right all along), and Dortmunder swears never to work with Kelp again.   And repeat.

Westlake was a lot like Dortmunder (and Parker, and Tobin), in that he often wrote books based on ideas that somebody had pitched to him.  Some of these ideas worked out better than others.   His was a reactive form of creative genius–he needed something to get him started, some outside stimulus.   And anyway, nobody could write as much as Westlake did and only use his own ideas.  And sometimes his own ideas didn’t work so well either.

Dortmunder is a genius (as Kelp is constantly telling him), but left to his own devices, he seems to mainly do penny-ante burglaries, and that’s what he’s doing at the start of this book.  The small job leads to a big one–this time pitched to him by Chauncey.  Work for hire, which isn’t his favorite source of income, but he’s having the same problems Parker is having, with finding heists where he can simply take a lot of insufficiently well-guarded cash.  He’s got to diversify.

So he takes the job, but he doesn’t tell Kelp about it.  Obviously Kelp finds out anyway, and is deeply offended.  May remonstrates on Kelp’s behalf, as always, and Dortmunder relents.  And ends up regretting it, again, but as matters work out, Kelp probably saves his bacon in the end, though Dortmunder is not feeling terribly grateful by then.

Westlake is trying to figure out how to use Kelp without always going back to that same old pattern.  At the end of the book, the two of them are a team, working to steal the painting (again) in London, and then (still yet again) in Scotland.  Yeah, it’s too much like The Hot Rock, only not nearly enough like it.

And yet Kelp is responsible for much of what’s best in this book.   Westlake is starting to develop ways to use him as something other than Dortmunder’s albatross.  His contacts and resourcefulness serve Dortmunder well after the first heist goes wrong, and one contact in particular–a police detective named Bernard Klematsky, who considers Kelp a dubious but useful source of information (and free Italian food)–will factor into future escapades.   As the books go by, it will often seem like Dortmunder is the jinx, not Kelp.  But don’t ever tell Dortmunder that.

And somehow, I always get the notion that what we’re seeing here is an encoded history of real-life friendships Westlake had, that as loyal a friend as he reportedly was, he was also sometimes irritated beyond words with certain (mainly male) associates, and that irritation found expression in the Dortmunder/Kelp dynamic–and that way, he can write from the perspective of the overly helpful friend,  see things from his side, and convince himself that he’s worth the trouble after all.

Dortmunder would like to think he doesn’t really need anybody, but we know better, and so does May, and (at the deepest core of his being) so does Dortmunder.   In the Parker novels, as we saw in Butcher’s Moon, this contradiction between the protagonist’s rugged independence and his need to sometimes rely on others gets expressed with the tried-and-true Starkian romanticism.  In the Dortmunders, it’s expressed in the manner of a Laurel & Hardy comedy, with Dortmunder playing the ever-exasperated Ollie.  And once in a while giving we the audience an aggrieved look–“What did I ever do to deserve this?”  I dunno, John–just lucky, I guess.

Detail #3: Old Friends

Stately plump Joe Mulligan paused in the privacy of the hallway to pull his uniform trousers out of the crease of his backside, then turned to see Fenton watching him.  “Mp,” he said, then nodded at Fenton, saying, “Everything okay down here.”

Here’s another thing I missed the first time I read this–a glaringly obvious reference to the opening paragraph of Ulysses.

Now I’ve read a fair bit of James Joyce, but I must shamefacedly confess, I’ve rather cravenly shied away from his magnum opus over the years (I start reading, and then I stop, and they keep revising it anyway), and am thus not properly equipped to know if this is merely a surface reference, a little wink at the more erudite members of Westlake’s readership–or if there’s something more involved going on.  Probably not.  Then again, possibly so.  But I do know, having read virtually all of Westlake, that stately plump Joe Mulligan, and the six other other security men at Chauncey’s mansion, were in Bank Shot.

They’ve stayed together as a team, and have, as we’re told, been exiled to the wilds of Manhattan after their disgrace (losing an entire bank!).  Used to be cops, public and private, wanted to work Manhattan, but those days are gone–they’d rather be anywhere else.  They’re hoping to get back in the good graces of the Continental Detective Agency, and get posted back out to Long Island, Staten Island, any island but this.

Three of their number are still named after Hal Dresner, Lawrence Block, and Brian Garfield, and they still play a lot of poker during their down time.  They’re guarding the valuables of Arnold Chauncey at a party Chauncey has arranged for the sole purpose of making the theft more palatable to the insurance company, and of course they will fail in their sworn duty, because Chauncey wants them to, and also because Dortmunder is most definitely a jinx to them, whatever else may be the case.  And this won’t be the last time their paths cross, but we’ll get to that.

Detail #4: Kentucky Nepenthe

“Would that be bourbon?” asked the Prince.

“It would.  May I offer?”

“You certainly may.  Say what you will about jazz, the Hollywood movie, the Broadway musical or the short story, but I say America’s contribution to the arts is bourbon.”

I never drank a drop of bourbon in my life before I started reading Westlake novels, and now there’s a bottle of Knob Creek in my living room, and I’ll just pour myself  a dram to get in the mood to write this segment.  I’ve always been more of a beer&wine guy, but you read enough Westlake, you just can’t help getting curious.  Maybe I’ll go with Wild Turkey Rare Breed next time.  Widow Jane is pretty damn good (distilled in Kentucky, bottled in Brooklyn, with limestone-rich water from the Widow Jane mine in Rosendale NY,  not that you asked, but Westlake would have, I bet).

Dortmunder is a bourbon man (as is Kelp), but they normally drink the cheap stuff.  Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon: “Our Own Brand”.  Dortmunder thinks to himself, having sampled Chauncey’s extremely fine bourbon, that the stuff he drinks at the O.J. is probably distilled in Hoboken, from a combination of Hudson and Raritan waters (adding a whole new dimension to the phrase ‘Bourbon and Branch’).

So Dortmunder has to steal a lot of valuables from Chauncey’s mansion, along with the painting, just to make it look good, and having had a taste of the top drawer stuff, he crams all the bottles he can find under his suit jacket, and this proves to be his undoing, trapping him in an elevator shaft until after his colleagues have lost the painting.   This would never have happened to Parker, who never seems to give a damn what he drinks (and yet he often drinks bourbon).  Dortmunder learns to compromise, buying a decent if unremarkable brand to have at home, but at the O.J. he’ll stick to the stuff from Hoboken.  And speaking of the O.J.–

Detail #5: The Boys at the Bar 

When Dortmunder walked into the O.J. Bar and Grill on Amsterdam Avenue at eleven that night, three of the regulars were deep in discussion with Rollo the bartender about private versus public eduction.  “I tell ya what’s wrong widda private schools,” one of the regulars was saying.  “You put your  kid in there, it’s like a hothouse, you know what I mean?  The kid don’t get to know all kinds a people, he don’t get prepared for  real life.”

One of the others said, “Real life?  You wanna know about real life?  You put your kids in a public school they get themselves mugged and raped and all that shit. You call that real life?”

“Sure I do,” the first one said.  “Meeting all kinds, that’s what real life is all about.”

The second one reared back in disbelieving contempt.  “You mean you’d put your kid in a school with a lotta niggers and kikes and wops and spics?”

“Just a minute there,” the third regular said.  “I happen to be of Irish extraction myself, and I think you oughta just give me an apology there.”

The other two stared at him, utterly bewildered.  The main offender said “Huh?”

“Or maybe you’d like a swift left to the eye,” said the Irishman.

It is now an established feature of these books that Dortmunder will walk into the O.J. Bar and Grill and Rollo will be at the bar, and will tell him who’s in the back room waiting for him, identifying them by their drinks.  And as Dortmunder waits for his Hoboken bourbon, he will hear snatches of very strange conversations, and here’s one of the stranger ones, though by no means the strangest.  And let me say, I fully believe that Irishman is out there, to this very day, defending his Celtic race from wholly unintended ethnic slights, and if you don’t believe me, how’d you like a swift left to the eye?  Huh?  And it’s not just the Irish, either.

Detail #6: Family Resemblances

And now some of them were fighting.  Over there by the head of the second aisle, two or three lads were rounding and punching and clutching at one another, while another half dozen tried to either stop them or join in, hard to tell which.  “What are they fighting about?” Kelp cried.

A passing Scot paused to answer: “Well, you know,” he said, “if it’s neither football nor politics, it’s more than likely religion.” And away he waded, to join the discussion.

Since Scotland voted ‘No’ in the referendum, any visitors I get from there fall under the sway of the Union Jack, which is a damned shame, because I’d love to add the Saltire to my collection (118 flags and still counting).  And maybe for other reasons, but we all compromise at times, don’t we?  I’m quite sure a referendum in Northern Ireland would go the same way for the present time, and sometimes it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.  Tiocfaidh ár lá.

Anyway, I haven’t known a lot of Scots, and that’s only my misfortune, but there’s this one story that reminds me of the Dortmunder gang’s experience at the concert hall.

It was a different kind of concert hall–The Ritz, in lower Manhattan, and not my usual type of venue at all, but I wanted to see The Pogues live, just once (it was twice, eventually, but Joe Strummer was in for Shane MacGowan the second time at the Beacon Theater, and that doesn’t really count).  Anyway, once the lads started playing their Celtic Punk, an impromptu mosh-pit quickly developed, and at its center were these muscular fellows, whipping their shirts off, and pouring beer all over each other, and (inadvertently) myself.

“We’re sorry, we’re from Scotland,” one of them cheerfully informed me. I forgave them at once.   That’s a perfectly decent excuse.  Fight on, Scotland the Brave.

And perhaps I’d best wrap up this itemized list with–

Detail #7: A Portrait of the Artist as a Lewd Man

While waiting, Dortmunder  looked around, absorbing this weird dwelling place and noticing here and there on the dark walls unframed paintings, presumably Porculey’s.  They were all different, and yet they were all the same.  In the middle foreground of each was a girl, either naked or wearing something minimal like a white scarf, and in the background was a landscape.  The girls were mostly seen full length, and they were always very absorbed in what they were doing.  One of them, for instance, sitting on the grass with some ruined castles behind her, plus in the distance a couple of trees and a small pond at which two deer drank, was studying a chess set laid out on the grass in front of her.  Another showed a girl on a beach, leaning over the gunwale to look inside a large stranded rowboat, with a huge storm way out at sea in the background.  (This was the girl with the scarf.)

The girls were not quite identical.  Glancing around, Dormunder saw maybe four different girls among the paintings, and it was with a sudden shock that he realized one of them was Cleo Marlahy.  So that’s what she looks like with her clothes off, he thought, blinking at a picture in which, against a background of an apple orchard white with spring flowers, an unsmiling girl was rather leggily climbing over a rail fence.

My favorite part of this book involves Kelp taking Dortmunder to see Oswald Porculey, Victor’s artist friend, whose studio is rather improbably (and yet entirely plausibly) situated in a Long Island shopping mall (the sheer wealth of detail in its description puts to shame the rather threadbare descriptions of London later in the book)–he gets cheap rent on a space that formerly housed a clothing store, in exchange for doing some security work.  He’s described to us as a man around fifty, overweight, unshaven, sloppily dressed, with about the most beautiful model/mistress any artist might desire, and somehow we know that much as he may enjoy fucking her, he’d much rather be painting her. She’s that beautiful.  Even Dortmunder ogles her, and he’s not generally the ogling kind.

Porculey is a tremendously gifted artist, with (let’s be honest) somewhat banal tastes.  Technique is not all.  His ability to mimic other artists is nothing short of uncanny, but left to his own devices, he mainly does very elaborate pin-ups.  And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  And what is the point of all this?

It may interest those of you who collect old paperbacks (like the Gold Medal editions of the Parker novels) that at the time this book was written and published, Robert E. McGinnis was just about exactly fifty years of age, and while I couldn’t possibly know what his shaving and dressing habits were, that physical description matches him to a proverbial T, and the descriptions of that artwork bear an even more striking resemblance to what McGinnis generally paints when left to his own devices.   Though I would tend to doubt he was ever reduced to doing night watchman duty at a Long Island mall.

I don’t believe this is a coincidence.  You may draw your own conclusions.   And really, since McGinnis drew himself as Parker (fondling a nearly-naked Claire) on his cover for The Black Ice Score, one might argue this is merely one feminine-obsessed artist returning the sincere compliment of another.   And I would hope McGinnis would take it as a compliment (particularly since Westlake wrote him into the final chorus of this book), but in the unlikely event that I ever meet him, I think maybe I won’t bring it up.

I could say more.   I can pretty much always say more.   But I think that’s enough.  I like this book.  It could have been better.   Pretty nearly all the subsequent books in this series are better, I think.  But there’s so much here.  So much richness of description, so many little flourishes put in there for those able to enjoy them, that you can’t call it a failure.  It’s just a bit less of a success.  Anyway, Newgate Callendar liked it.  I can imagine Westlake reading his rave review, having previously read his pans of far superior efforts, and wondering where he’d gone wrong.  And where he might, with a bit of extra effort, go right.

I am now going to commit heresy.  Our next book is Castles In The Air.   Perhaps Westlake’s least-loved comic caper featuring a cast of professional thieves–operating out of Europe this time.  And I think it’s funnier than Nobody’s Perfect.   And if you can refrain from the tar and feathers until next week, I’ll tell you why.

PS: One final array of covers–and again we see that the foreign editions tend to have the best artwork, where Dortmunder is concerned.  Some really creditable efforts.   No McGinnis art, though.  Somehow, I don’t think Dortmunder would have appealed to him.  Maybe that’s why he’s in a Dortmunder novel.

More at the Official Westlake Blog–my favorite place to commit art theft. 😉

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels, Nobody's Perfect, Uncategorized

Review: Plunder Squad, Part 2

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Parker stood looking at the painting.  It was four feet high and five feet wide, a slightly blurred black-and-white blowup of a news photograph showing a very bad automobile accident, all mashed parts and twisted metal.  A body could obscurely be seen trapped inside the car, held there by jagged pieces of metal and glass.  Superimposed here and there on the photograph were small comic-book figures in comic-book colors, masked heroes in bright costumes, all in running positions, with raised knees and clenched fists and straining shoulders and set jaws.  There were perhaps a dozen of the small figures running this way and that over the surface of the photograph, like tropical birds on a dead bush.  The painting was entitled “Violence.”

Plunder Squad.  That does sound a little like a comic book title, doesn’t it?   Some kind of supervillain crew that might fight the Justice League, or the Fantastic Four.    It sticks out in this context–you’d expect this squad of plunderers to get whatever they’re after, brush aside the forces of law and order like gnats.   The title is clearly meant to be ironic, but perhaps the irony didn’t translate well when the book made its way to other markets.   Seems like nobody outside the English-speaking world ever used the original title.

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Free PortraitsParker: Gone With the LeadHard Times–Soft Knee.   And perhaps most to the point were the Swedes, who called it Lethal Hunting.

The cover art was not mainly very good for this book–the first American edition was probably best.  The American illustrators tried to find some connection to the modern art that Parker and his string were heisting.   The European publishers made no attempt to illustrate this aspect of the book at all–probably not what they thought their readers would be interested in, with connection to this type of story.   I like the Italian cover, even though it’s not very faithfully depicting the scene in the book being referenced.  At least it’s a scene from the book.

But in fact, Westlake was not the first crime fiction author to bring his genre into the world of modern art.  Patricia Highsmith had done so in Ripley Under Ground (1970).  Ripley is involved in an art forgery scheme, conning critics and buyers into thinking a formerly obscure artist who became in vogue after his death is in fact alive, and producing new work in Mexico.  Ripley thinks the artist hired to do the fakes is better than the original.  The artist disagrees.  Complications ensue.

Around the same time Highsmith’s book came out, Charles Willeford may have been writing The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971), about an up and coming young art critic who is tasked with finding an elusive but legendary French painter, whose work was all supposedly destroyed in a fire–only a handful of people have even seen any of it, and there are no photographs.  This, of course, makes any work he might be doing now exponentially more valuable.  The book essentially asks “Is an artist’s reputation itself a work of art, entirely distinct from any physical objects he may or may not create?”

So that might explain why the first edition of Plunder Squad (1972) has an image so similar to that of Willeford’s book.

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A rising trend in the genre and in pop culture generally, to which Westlake was reacting–but his protagonist, most unlike the other two I just mentioned, has absolutely no interest in art other than what he can get for it after stealing it.   So this book isn’t going to be a rumination on the nature of art, and our perceptions of it.  More, perhaps, on the foibles and self-deceptions of some people in the art world, and at how poorly equipped they are for dealing with certain other worlds they might come into contact with.   But not primarily about that either.

Frankly, it’s a bit hard to say what Plunder Squad is about, because as I remarked in the comments section last week, it’s more a collection of inter-connected vignettes than a novel–normally the Parkers are very focused, like Parker himself.  This one meanders a bit, stumbling from one failure to the next.  It’s supposed to.   That is, you might say, the point of it.  It’s an interlude, a glimpse of how frustrating and abortive a heister’s work can be, leading up to a crisis that will propel Parker into his most dangerous adventure yet.   But before he gets there, he has to satisfy himself there’s no safer alternative.

So we left off last week with Parker being thwarted in his attempt to kill George Uhl in Pittsburgh–it isn’t a total loss, since he gets four thousand in cash from Uhl’s apartment when he searches it–he’d rather have gotten Uhl, but it’s a welcome windfall all the same.   His finances are getting tight–Claire makes his life simpler in many ways, but she has expensive tastes.  With summer coming, they need to vacate the house in New Jersey, so as not to attract attention from the summer residents (I’m always struck by the fact that they winter in a place you’re supposed to summer in).  He needs to score, and score big.

He once again hears from Ducasse, who he’s already worked with on two jobs that didn’t pan out.  Ducasse found a gig for himself, then was approached about another one–the guy organizing it is Ed Mackey, who Parker knows.  He’d be very happy to  have Parker come in on this one.

Mackey is going to appear in several subsequent books in the series, always accompanied by his wife Brenda, who is never there for the heist itself, but often proves highly useful in setting it up–she’s just a useful girl to have around, no matter what the situation–nobody more reliable in the clutch, as we’ll soon see.  Mackey has never struck me as that interesting a foil for Parker–I much prefer Handy McKay, Grofield, Devers, and a few others–but Brenda is a first-rate addition to the franchise, and Parker thinks so too.

Brenda said, “Is my skirt wrinkled in back?” and turned around.  She was a slender girl, mid-twenties, good-looking, with a lot of leg.  And just as Mackey was a hundred times better than Beaghler, Brenda was a thousand times better than Sharon.  She knew who she was, she didn’t have to struggle with anybody, there was never any sense of tension between her and Mackey, no tug of war as to which one of them would run her life.  She ran it herself, and did a good job of it.

So what distinguishes Mackey is mainly that he’s got this great woman, so comfortable in her own lovely skin, and happy to be of assistance in his work–and he’s very aware of his good fortune in having her.  It’s much more of a partnership than what Parker has with Claire.   They aren’t exactly the Nick and Nora of the heisting set–maybe more like Ralph and Alice, except they rarely bicker.  Call them what you will, they make a formidable team.

So the job is, as I’ve mentioned, stealing modern art–but since the market is so specialized, and none of them has any good contacts in that world, there wouldn’t be enough money in it for them unless they already had a buyer lined up, which they do.  He’s the one that proposed the heist to begin with.   He just has no idea how to pull it off.   Really, he has no idea, period.

His name is Leon Griffith, and he lives in California, in a big expensive house, filled with big expensive art.  He wants more–specifically, he wants Mackey and Parker to heist another traveling exhibition, like the one with the gold statues Beaghler wanted to go after–this one devoted to the moderns.   Parker goes to the museum they, looks at all the paintings, and walks out.  He has a catalog that tells him the owners paid 357k for the paintings brand new, but Griffith has told Mackey they’re worth half a million now.  They are, of course, worth only what somebody will pay for them.  Eye of the beholder.  Parker’s eye sees nothing but dollar signs.

Griffith has promised Mackey 130k upon delivery of the goods.  Mackey wanted 200k, but Griffith turned out to be a hardball negotiator, and he beat Mackey way down.  Parker intends to remedy that, but he has to meet with Griffith, who only wants to meet with Mackey.  Too bad for Griffith.

So they crash a big California-style party Griffith is holding at the manse, and Brenda fits in perfectly, as she fits in nearly anywhere, talking about Viva to some people her age (as Ed puts it, “All women social climbers”).  The description of the party is quite reminiscent of a chapter from Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, and one realizes with a start that Ed and Brenda are in some respects a revamped version of the larcenous older British couple in that least successful of Westlake’s comic capers–Brenda may owe a bit to the social-climbing redhead Jigger Jackson from that book as well–I’ve always pictured her as a redhead.  Well, to be specific, I’ve always pictured her as–

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(If you have to ask who that is, I don’t know there’s much point in telling you.  Anyway, that photo was taken a while ago.)

Griffith is not pleased to see any of them, but he soon learns nobody does hardball better than Parker, who gets him up to 160k.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that Parker heard some talk at the party that Griffith is art-rich and cash-poor.  Does he have the scratch to pay them on delivery?   The assumption is that he won’t dare try a cross–he’d be too easy to find.   But they need money now, not months or years in the future, as Griffith gradually unloads the art.  “Robbery on consignment” Mackey calls it, like the words taste bad in his mouth.  And yes, this quite a bit like The Rare Coin Score, which I still think is a much better book.

So they work it out that he’ll get the cash and deposit it in several banks, giving them the bank books to hold–they need Griffith to get at the money, but they can see it’s there.  Seems like a solution.  Griffith doesn’t seem too happy, but they figure it’s just nerves.

Part 2 of the book closes with Parker finishing some old business.   Beaghler (see Part 1 of this review) gets back in touch–he’s found out where George Uhl is staying, and volunteers to take Parker there–they’ll come at the place offroad, using his custom-built ATV.  He wants Parker to know there’s no hard feelings about his slutty wife going to Parker’s motel room to try and seduce him, and Parker hitting Beaghler when he showed up in jealous husband mode, and then walking out on the job Beaghler had planned.  A very forgiving individual, is Mr. Beaghler.  Hmm.

So they go to where Beaghler keeps his vehicle, and he’s even got two guns stored on said vehicle for them to take out Uhl with.  He’s got a Sears bolt-action rifle for Parker–fine for long range shooting, useless in a firefight–and a Colt Python for himself.   Both guns in good condition, even though they’ve supposedly been kept outside, in a vehicle with no roof, exposed to the elements.  And surrounded by children from nearby houses, who never investigated this interesting conveyance and its contents.  And the grass under the ATV is still alive, even though the ATV has supposedly been parked there a while.  Parker observes all this, and says nothing.

On the way to Uhl’s hideout, Parker decides he’ll have the Python, being more of a handgun kinda guy, and Beaghler can have the rifle.  Since Parker has the gun in his hand, and it’s fully loaded, Beaghler isn’t in a very good position to argue.  Take a look–would you argue?

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So it was a set-up.  Obviously.  The rifle was loaded with blank cartridges.  Uhl got to Beaghler.  But Beaghler was a poor tool for the task at hand, which Uhl should have known, and maybe he did, and figured it was worth the risk, rather than wait for Parker to find him.  Uhl, as we saw in The Sour Lemon Score, is only half a pro–he takes a lot of chances, figures it’ll always go his way.   And as we’ve seen in all the Parker novels, that kind of amateur mindset in somebody who thinks he’s a real hotshot always backfires in the end.  Half a pro is worse than none at all.

It’s all implied, and it all makes perfect sense, but if you aren’t familiar with the previous book with Uhl, the character is impossible to read–he’s just this guy Parker needs to kill.   We see him from a distance, and imagine him sweating, feeling Parker closing in, his long-delayed fate catching up with him.  Westlake is increasingly figuring he’s got his audience for this series, and if they haven’t read the previous books, that’s not his problem.  He shouldn’t have to explain everything over and over.

Beaghler knows Parker will kill him the second he tries to warn Uhl, and he never gave a damn about Uhl anyway.  They’re waiting up on a ridge above Uhl’s hideout, yet another godforsaken old farmhouse (we’ve seen a lot of those in these books).   Understanding his present situation all too well, he starts waxing philosophical.  He admits Parker was right all along about how he married the wrong woman, then tried to make her the right one.  He was always trying to prove something, to the world, to himself.   Cheaper than a shrink.  Well no, it really isn’t.

He kept on talking.  He talked about his three children, and his cars, and the different places he had lived.  Some of it rambled, with him talking about his parents and his childhood as though Parker already knew a lot about him and would understand all the references to people and places.  The general trend of it was that he seemed to be trying to describe to Parker, or maybe to himself, his need to be tough, to be more masculine than anybody else.  He never said so straight out, but all of the explanations and reminiscences seemed to be on that same theme.

Down below, there was still no sign of life from the house.  Parker waited, letting Beaghler talk on, a quiet drone that disappeared toward the sky and couldn’t possibly be heard even halfway to the house.  The sun was warm on his back, but not too hot, and still alternated with cooling periods of cloudiness.  Except for the nose of the Ford around the edge of the house, and in the other direction the sun glinting from Beaghler’s ATV, there were no suggestions of the 20th century anywhere in sight.

Beaghler began to pause between thoughts, and the pauses got longer, and then he stopped talking entirely.  Parker looked over at him to see if he’d put himself to sleep, but his eyes were open, staring up at the sky.  Parker said, “What’s the program?”

A small furrow showed in Beaghler’s forehead.  He turned his head so he could look at Parker, and said, “What did it, anyway?  What told you?”

“Does it matter?”

The furrow slowly smoothed out; Beaghler smiled.  He seemed relieved of all care.  “No, it doesn’t,” he said, and kept on smiling.

When Parker gets Uhl, it’s almost an anticlimax.  Intentionally so.  Poor George doesn’t even get any last words.  Parker doesn’t need to prove anything to anybody.  He just needs to get rid of that itch in his head created by Uhl’s long-ago treachery.  But that still leaves a brand-new itch, created by Beaghler’s treachery.  “You don’t have to do anything about me,” Beaghler says, still clinging to hope.  “That’s the mistake I made with Uhl,” Parker responds.  But the difference is, Beaghler isn’t in a drug-induced childlike state.  Parker has no trouble killing in cold blood.  That’s the only kind of blood he ever kills in.  He’s very zen that way.

So that’s how Part 2 ends–we’re halfway through the book, and that’s as good as it gets, for Parker, or us readers.  Uhl and Beaghler are finished, but there’s still a job to pull.  Part 3 is the usual thing; six chapters, each from a different perspective.  We start off with Stan Devers, last seen in The Green Eagle Score (I find it bemusing that Charles Ardai draws a line between the Gold Medal and Random House novels in his introduction to the University of Chicago edition of this book–when so much of this Random House novel is about picking up where the Gold Medals left off).  Stan’s been apprenticing with Handy McKay in Maine, and with Handy’s contacts, he’s had no trouble finding work.  He’s a lot more experienced than the cheerfully dishonest greenhorn Parker first met.  And a lot tougher.

He waits at a motel for a drunk businessman to come by, chokes him out in his car, and leaves him by the side of the road, to sleep it off–now he’s got wheels and a bit of money, but he still needs work–the last job turned sour.  He calls Handy, who tells him Parker would like to see him about a job.  Stan’s delighted to hear it.

Next we meet a new heister, Lou Sternberg, flying in from London, where he lives.  He’s American, best as we can tell (though Bob Hoskins could have played him to perfection back in the day), but he prefers to live over there, and work in the States.  He’s gone native, you might say–just doesn’t like where America is going these days.  Well, who ever does?  He’s reading an Anthony Powell novel, and we’re told he wants to identify with Magnus Donners, but empathizes more with Widmerpool.  Maybe you understood that reference perfectly, but I had to look it up.

Next we meet Tommy Carpenter, the hippie heister, and his girlfriend Noelle (who we’ll meet again much later on).  Tommy and Noelle travel the country in a VW Microbus (a bit on the nose, maybe, but they were very popular then), and when they run out of money, they hook into a heist.  Tommy’s got nerve, but maybe not enough judgment.

Tommy meets the string, and is suitably impressed–Parker reminds him of a guy he met once–he was living on a commune, and the local rednecks made trouble–one of the girls got raped.  Her father had mob connections.  He sent an enforcer named Tooker down to talk to the locals.  Just talk.  There was no trouble after that.

Chapter Four opens with Mackey and Brenda screwing, not that we ever thought their relationship was platonic.  Then as she lapses into post-orgasmic slumber, Mackey goes to see Griffith, and suddenly he’s feeling a lot less pleased with the world.  Griffith is scared about something.  He promises he’ll have the cash, but he’s almost in a frenzy–like an animal in a trap.  Mackey doesn’t know what to think.

Chapter Five, we touch down with Griffith at Newark Airport.  He does not have the cash.  He never did.  He goes to see an acquaintance (nobody could possibly call him a friend), guy named Renard, who is clearly gay, and even more clearly one of the biggest assholes you could ever hope not to meet (Stark was always a lot more homophobic than Westlake’s other aliases or, I trust, Westlake himself, but let’s be honest–an asshole is an asshole is an asshole).

The heist was really Renard’s idea–he has clients who’d like some of the paintings–only some.  He isn’t interested in the rest.  Nor is he interested in parting with any money upfront–cash on delivery.  He does, however, know some very nice men in Brooklyn who make high-interest loans with no collateral.  That’s right.  Griffith, seeing no other way out, takes the loan–but once the repayment terms are fully explained, he realizes the best he can ever hope for is to tread water–until he drowns.

And finally Chapter Six shows us the security team for the art exhibit, packing up in Indianapolis (setting of The Rare Coin Score, and that’s no coincidence), and going out on the road–every time they cross a state line, they get a new convoy of state police.  They make it to Illinois, and are supposed to meet up with the next trooper team at an Official-use U-Turn, only the new team gets there first, and finds this hippie couple with a VW Microbus having sex by the side of the road.  The slightly scandalized lawmen are just in the middle of deciding which laws are being broken here when Parker comes up behind them with a gun, and they realize it’s another set of laws entirely.

As Parker’s heists go, this one isn’t particularly thrilling–the key points are that they get the art, don’t kill anybody, but Tommy sorely pisses off the two troopers, who take a good long hard look at him.  The problem with being a rebel without a cause is that sometimes you forget what a bad idea it is to give anybody else a cause to fight for.   Tommy and Noelle get picked up after the string splits up.

The rest of the gang figures Tommy won’t talk, but are less sure of Noelle (we never find out for sure if she talks, but based on what we see of her later on, she’s a lot tougher than Tommy).  The real problem isn’t Tommy and Noelle–it’s Griffith.  He read the news reports, that made it sound like the whole gang was about to get nabbed  (because that’s what the cops always tell the press, whether it’s true or not).  He was half out of his mind already, and this takes care of the other half–he figured it was either going to be jail or a long intimate chat with those guys in Brooklyn.  He climbed into the tub and slit his wrists.

This may be the most frustrating professional scenario Parker has ever faced–they know where the money is deposited.  They have the bank books.  But Griffith just deposited the money in person, days earlier–there’s no way any of them can pass himself off as Griffith to the bank personnel, even if he could forge the signatures perfectly (this would be more of a job for Tom Ripley, but he’s otherwise engaged).

They find Renard’s address in New York.  They figure he might be Griffith’s buyer.   Worth a try.  Parker, Mackey and Devers go see the bastard, and he’s just as pleasantly unpleasant as ever.   He’ll give them sixty thousand for the six paintings he wants.  Twelve thousand a man.  Nobody’s happy with that, but they’ve all done worse.  They’re all about to do much worse.

Mackey and Parker show up at the meeting place in Manhattan, a lumberyard building on Second Avenue (still a few there to this day–ever heard of The Lumber Boys?).   The rest of the gang is scattered to the four winds, as is prudent under the circumstances, but it means they don’t have any back-up.  Tommy and Noelle got sprung–civil rights groups insisting these poor idealistic young children are being railroaded–mistaken identity.  Who ever heard of a hippie heister?  So they just have to make the exchange with Renard, and this lousy job is over.

It’s a trap (again).  The guys from Brooklyn showed up on Renard’s doorstep, wanting their money.  Far as they’re concerned, the debt did not die with the debtor.  Renard told them about the art.  They are here to collect.   Collateral damage doesn’t worry them much.

Mackey gets shot several times–Parker hears one of the men say he’s dead, so even if he would have felt any professional obligation to his colleague, it’s no longer an issue.  Parker was in back of the truck with the art–they didn’t know he was there Through a complex series of hastily improvised maneuvers, he manages to take the mobsters out, setting the building on fire in the process.

He can’t get the truck with the art out of there.  He’s got to abandon it, along with what he believes to be Mackey’s dead body.  The six paintings go up in smoke–the rest of the art they had already abandoned–too dangerous to deal with the insurance companies.  Parker walks a few blocks, and grabs a cab.  Nothing to do but head back to New Jersey.  Hell of a day.  End of story.

So as I’ve said, not one of my favorites.  Not one of Parker’s, either.   But in all things; life, love, literature, and larceny, you have to view it as a percentage game.  You win some, you lose some.  At least he got Uhl scratched off his to-do list.  But he still needs money.  He knows where he can get some–it was too risky before, but he’ll have to risk it now.  Back to Fun Island, for the last time, with Grofield, ditto.

As discussed last week, this is a cross-over with Joe Gores’ Dead Skip, and the two books make for a very interesting contrast–both are about a group of professionals doing their jobs.  Gores’ people will bend the rules to get the job done, Stark’s are very very serious about their rules, which come out of a different playbook altogether.  Dan Kearny would never leave one of his people behind–Parker does exactly that at the end of this book (though somebody else we met in this book won’t give up on Mackey so easily–we’ll be waiting a long time to find out who that was, and how she did it.  Whoops.  Spoiler alert).

But at the end of the day, a professional is a professional.  The work may differ, but the underlying ethos doesn’t, not fundamentally.  You do your job.  Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.  When it’s the latter scenario, you just move on to the next job.  The most important thing, in any profession that involves teamwork, is knowing who else is professional–the people in your detective agency, or the people in your string.   In Kearny’s world, he knows he can count on everybody who works for him.  In Parker’s world–well–that is a pretty big difference.  That’s where maybe Kearny has the advantage.

In his next outing, which for many years was believed to be his last, Parker assembles the best string of his life–a dream team, you might call them.  Who will prove a nightmare to the people they’re up against.  But that’s a few books off yet.  Next week we’ll be looking at an entirely different kind of gang–a nation–of six thousand remarkable people.  Who are determined to fight for their independence–by insisting on remaining a colony–wait–that can’t be right–?

Well, let’s see if we can make sense of it.  The climate will be tropical, the doings nonsensical.   Sounds like New York City in the summertime.  Oh God, how I wish I were joking.

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