Tag Archives: Ask the Parrot

Distraction: Had I But Known………

For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The Saddest are these: “It might have been!”

From Maud Muller, by John Greenleaf Whittier, but then Kurt Vonnegut reworded it slightly in Cat’s Cradle, referring to Whittier only as ‘the poet’, and now everyone attributes it to Vonnegut.

To paraphrase Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear, and all those guys, “I wish I had known this some time ago.” 

From Sign of the Unicorn, by Roger Zelazny, and notice how he credits his sources, even though he’s just paraphrasing?

Ah, hindsight.  Had I but known.  That’s considered a mystery subgenre of sorts, you know.  But I didn’t, you see.  There’s the rub.

When I started this blog, I was but an aging neophyte with regards to the mystery genre.  I knew Westlake pretty well–or so I thought–but not the ocean he spent most of his life navigating.  So when it came time to talk about the influences on a given novel or story, I might, by chance, be familiar with this or that possible source (I was reading a long time before I knew Westlake existed), but there would be so many others I had no inkling of.

And then, later, I stumble across one, smite my forehead.  Then another.  And yet another.  The forehead shows signs of bruising.  Mr. Westlake was a most erudite mariner.  Or if you prefer, he’s Arne Saknussemm, and as I tunnel my way through this genre, I keep finding his mark, to indicate he’s been here before me.  Perhaps you’ve seen his mark too, here and there. (Or are we the marks? God save us.)

To be a professional genre writer, you have to know the territory–those who came before you may have tricks of the trade to share–or have made mistakes you want to avoid–and you certainly want to avoid plagiarism charges.

The trick, and it’s no mean one, is to borrow, constantly, without stealing.  To see something worth recycling, run your own variations on the theme–perhaps improve on them, as Bach ofttimes improved upon Vivaldi (Vivaldi might disagree).  And if you do it just right, you can make your influences clear without ever copping to them (thus opening yourself up to the legal representatives of an irate estate).  Clear, that is, to those who pay attention, and the rest can just enjoy a good story.

Like Mitch Tobin, sagest and saddest of his reluctant detectives, Westlake was a completist.  You need as much context as you can muster, to see as many of the worlds within this world as you can, in order to pierce the mystery (which is about so much more than whodunnit).  Mystery is not one form but rather hundreds, perhaps thousands.  I don’t think he read everything (nobody could), but he covered the bases, mastered the essentials.

And perhaps for no reason other than to challenge himself (and to make a living), he would identify a discrete form within the form, study its best practitioners–and set out to create his own take on it, possibly without telling anyone he was doing that.  The result wouldn’t always turn out equally well (trial and error leads to a great deal of the latter), but it kept him amused, and I think he had no greater enemy than boredom.  The sense of repeating oneself, going through the motions.  He had to keep writing.

And what he wrote had to come partly from himself, his ideas and experiences, but you run out of those so quickly (as Hammett learned).  And then what? Then, Westlake reasoned, you combine stale ideas with fresh perceptions.

Anyway, I’ve come across what I consider three separate instances of this penchant of his–I’ve already mentioned one in the comments section for the relevant novel–hadn’t thought it enough of a find for its own piece, but it will do as one wheel of a tricycle.  Let’s start with that.

I’m working from home of late (call me eccentric), and as fate would have it, I’m helping to catalogue a large assortment of old mystery novels, anthologies, assorted miscellenia (hmm–aren’t all miscellenia assorted, by definition?)

One title caught my eye–The Chinese Parrot.  The second Charlie Chan novel (of six), by Earl Derr Biggers.

Westlake directly referenced the Chan novels and movies in his third Samuel Holt mystery, What I Tell You Three Times Is False.  In that novel, Sam is trapped in a huge mansion on a remote island with several other actors known entirely for playing a fictional detective, one of whom is Fred Li, described as the first Asian to play Chan, which isn’t quite accurate–there were several early adaptations (including a silent adaptation of The Chinese Parrot, of which no extant prints are currently known to exist) featuring Korean and Japanese actors as Chan (because they all look alike and Chinese immigration had been banned for a while), but for reasons too tiresomely predictable to mention, the detective’s role in the story was greatly reduced.  Chan only became the protagonist of his own films once he was played by Occidentals in makeup.

All this merely serves to establish Westlake’s famliarity with the character, which shouldn’t really require proof, since his generation routinely went to see Chan movies in the theater, then watched them on latenight TV later on.  Very popular.

Those of us familiar with Mr. Westlake will further divine that he wouldn’t have stopped with the Hollywood yellowface.  He would have gone back to the originals, at least some of them.  The second book in a series, in some ways, matters more than the first (you don’t have a series until you have a second book) so safe bet he read it.   Equally safe bet he wouldn’t use plot elements from it in a novel where an actor playing Chan is a character.

But years later, when he was writing the penultimate Parker novel, I believe elements of this book came back to him.  Let’s come back to that after I do a very quick synopsis.  (I can do that when forced.)

This is the only Chan novel I’ve ever read, and I skimmed it, mainly because most of the characters are white people, and these white people are dull.  By which I mean not only uninteresting, but exceptionally thick-witted.  It’s normal in a detective story for nearly everyone other than the detective and killer to be clueless (or what’s the detective for?), but Chan novels take this to the extreme, so I mainly just skipped to the parts about Chan himself, and soon discovered why these books have endured, in spite of their dating, and their defects.

Charlie Chan is a sphinx with many secrets–not only in the caucasian world, but even amongst his relations, some of whom he visits on his trip to the west coast. The previous novel having established him as a police detective in Honolulu, he goes to visit a cousin in San Francisco, who thinks he’s doing the bidding of ‘white devils.’  (The cousin also objects to his pretty assimilated American-born daughter working as a switchboard operator, but that second generation tends to laugh off such objections from old fuddy duddies, as those of us with recent immigrant roots know full well.)

He is there, ostensibly, to deliver a valuable necklace to a wealthy buyer, as a favor to a former employer fallen on hard times, but there is murder most fowl (humble apologies, dishonorable pun was lying there waiting to be sprung)–a pet parrot in the buyer’s desert home is poisoned.  Apparently because he talked too much.

“Poor Tony very sick before he go on long journey,” Chan continued. “Very silent and very sick. In my time I am on track of many murders, but I must come to this peculiar mainland to ferret out parrot-murder. Ah, well—all my life I hear about wonders on this mainland.”

“They poisoned him,” Bob Eden cried. “Why?”

“Why not?” shrugged Chan. “Very true rumour says ‘dead men tell no tales’! Dead parrots are in same fix, I think. Tony speaks Chinese like me. Tony and me never speak together again.”

Many justly defend Biggers from intended bigotry, but it must be said, a man as smart as Chan, born and raised in the future 50th state, could speak better English than that if he wanted to.  Then again, a man as smart as Lieutenant Columbo probably could too, when questioning snooty rich guys–only he appreciates the advantages of being underestimated by his social superiors, who prove not so superior after all–and guess where that idea came from?  The shadow of Chan is large indeed.

For the usual contrived reasons, Chan spends much of the book masquerading as a domestic, with even more stereotypical dialect, in the rich man’s desert home, with a few confederates knowing of the imposture (not as few as he’d prefer, since his trust in caucasians is only slightly greater than his cousin’s).

“Charlie,” said Bob Eden, “this is a friend of mine, Mr Will Holley. Holley, meet Detective-Sergeant Chan, of the Honolulu police.”

At mention of his name Chan’s eyes narrowed. “How do you do?” he said coldly.

“It’s all right,” Eden assured him. “Mr Holley can be trusted—absolutely. I’ve told him everything.”

“I am far away in strange land,” returned Chan. “Maybe I would choose to trust no one—but that, no doubt, are my heathen churlishness. Mr Holley will pardon, I am sure.”

“Don’t worry,” said Holley. “I give you my word. I’ll tell no one.”

Chan made no reply, in his mind, perhaps, the memory of other white men who had given their word.

He’s always wearing a mask, hiding his true self from those around him–now he’s wearing a mask over his mask, because much as white devils underestimate a Chinese policeman, they barely notice a Chinese servant.  This allows him great freedom of movement, ample opportunity for investigation.

The case is cracked, and let’s just say it’s not the greatest mystery ever written by a long shot (I gather it’s not the best Biggers was capable of), but that’s not really the point of anything, since it’s a story about human motivations, and a man who studies them closely, carefully,  quietly, because his professional success depends on such observations.  As to his true feelings, his own motivations, those always remain, to some extent, opaque–one might say inscrutable.  You want to know what Chan really thinks of us?  Might as well ask the parrot.

Yeah.

So that’s where the hook for the best of the final three Parker novels and one of the most haunting and intriguing books of the entire series, comes from.  (Though to be fair, fish out of water stories are older than the Paleoarchean hills, as are stories about disguised wanderers.)

To make it even more clear, there’s an abandoned mining town key to the story, and a crazy old hermit who comes out of nowhere, then disappears from the story, after providing a useful if misleading clue (but he isn’t shot down by mistake then left for scavengers, like the equivalent character from the Stark novel).

As usual, where Westlake seeks to improve upon his model is motivation.  Chan, as a policeman, self-effacing hero of the piece, and a self-conscious attempt by Biggers to counter racial stereotypes (only to end by perpetrating them, because it’s never that easy), has to behave honorably at all times.  Even though you get the distinct feeling he does so under extreme sufferance.

As a felon on the lam in upstate NY, Parker only has to survive.  His imposture, in a dying little town, done at the behest of a poor man seeking restitution, who knows Parker’s secret, and has one of his own Parker smells profit in, is much easier to justify.  Not only is he not called upon to solve the parrot’s murder (which is no mystery, except in the sense so much of we do is mysterious), he never even learns about it, nor would he give a damn if he did.  The story wouldn’t be much different if Stark’s nameless parrot (less garrulous than poor Tony, though it’s his decision to speak that gets him shot) wasn’t there–yet he’s the title character.  How come?

The parrot is there to tell us where parts of this story came from.  A respectful and nigh-inscrutable nod of the head to a predecessor who taught him a few tricks of the trade.  A subtle hint to the reader, that went unnoticed by most, since these two novels really couldn’t be much more different.  (Marilyn Stasio, who reviewed several late Parker novels, provided an introduction to a recent reprint of The Chinese Parrot–did she pierce the mystery?  I greatly misdoubt it, but that edition is not evailable.)

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(In both books, the titular parrot is not nearly so colorful as the ones on most of the covers.)

All that being said (and Stark’s parrot is the wiser bird by far), Westlake knew very well Parker could never equal Chan’s ability to blend into the background, by putting on a cook’s clothing and chattering like Hop Sing from Bonanza. Parker is suspected, almost immediately, by several suspicious locals, of not being who he claims to be–Chan is only exposed at the climax, through a chance encounter, the fool’s mask slipping away to reveal the hunter beneath.

The race/class element is not present, and the story told to justify Parker’s sudden presence in Tom Lindahl’s world is even more hastily improvised, under the far sterner exigencies Parker faces.  For all that, it’s still a story about how most people see only what they’re prepared to see, and Parker, like Chan, sees what’s really there.

Thankfully, Parker doesn’t have to speak in hokey dialect.  He has the luxury of a white skin.  Not that he gives a damn.  Just another mask.  The Chinese policeman and the Wolf in sheep’s clothing would understand each other very well, in spite of their professional divide.  I would not go so far as to say Parker is Chan’s Number One Son, but again, dishonorable pun was impossible to resist.

So from one of Westlake’s finest novels to perhaps his very worst–I’ll give this one short shrift.  This is an easy catch, but to make it, you have to know the source, and it’s not a much-watched film these days.  TCM and DVR–what did we ever do without you?

Jane Russell was Star of the Month for April, and I could hardly refrain from recording a few of her films I was not familiar with.  (This gentleman does not invariably prefer blondes.)   The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown?  Didn’t sound promising, but what the hell.  It ended up being the only one I watched without fast-forwarding (much).

One of her personal favorites, though according to her own perceptive commentary (Russell, as you all should know, was a damn smart broad) it ended up foundering on a difference in vision between herself and the director, Norman Taurog.  She wanted a more serious satiric film, in black and white–he wanted a color romp.  It ended up going both ways.  You can see the joins.

She’s great in it–one of her best performances–like her chum Bob Mitchum, she never really exerted herself much, unless she found the role challenging.  With looks like theirs, it wasn’t necessary.  Neither is a synopsis.

There’s no point in my trying to prove Westlake saw this film prior to writing his take, since Westlake only wrote that half-baked kidnap caper after working up  a script with that general premise at the behest of disreputable film producers (very nearly the only kind he ever to to work with.  The flick was never lensed, but he retained the novel adaptation rights (hated to waste work).

I have no idea who first had the idea of kidnapping a sexy starlet and holding her for ransom, but Taurog’s comedy is the earliest instance I know of where somebody actually made a film with this precise subject,  and given that it had been just about ten years since the last attempt, some producer probably figured it was worth another go.

It’s not easy to write a romantic comedy about an ex-con (wrongly convicted, of course) who decides to kidnap a famous sex bomb who is bored with her life (though very good at her job), roughs her up a bit when she gets out of line, and they end up falling madly in love with each other.  Westlake probably did know the earlier film (maybe had it screened for him), and would have noted all the gyrations you have to go through to make that work.  He decided to switch the romantic angle from the star who is bored with her life to a younger woman who wants that life for herself, or so she thinks.

The kidnapping in the Taurog film is very perfunctory, and far too easy.  Westlake, who had only written capers as Stark up to that point, made it into a carefully planned girl heist (computer-planned, in fact) that gangs a mite aglae, but still works out well for all concerned (except for the English grifters who for all I know were a legacy from the original film concept).  The kidnappers, sterling lads all, actually get their cash, get away clean, and the gangleader gets his girl, while the movie star goes home well-rested.  Were they going to do all that if the film was made?  They didn’t in Russell’s flick.

There’s little point in trying to decipher how much of Sassi is Westlake, how much is the fuzzy nightgown, and how much is the threadbare borrowed concept he was handed by his former employers.  That’s not my point of interest here.  It is rather the origin of the earlier film, which was, if you’d believe it, based on a novel that may have been the basis for the self-faked kidnapping of a very minor Hollywood starlet.  (No, her name wasn’t Jimmy, but she was some kid.)

So did Westlake know about Marie McDonald’s fictionally inspired self-snatch? Did he check out the Sylvia Tate novel?  I would, but damn, expensive–though the first edition hardcover is often cheaper, because it doesn’t have Jane Russell on the cover, like the paperbacks that came out with the movie.  The book is not e-vailable, and life is short, you know?  Shorter all the time.

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Life imitating art imitating life imitating whatever.  Shades of the Peugeot snatch, that inspired the third Dortmunder book.  Did all that stick in his mind, and a few years later, he found an opportunity to tell a version of the same story, only this time  exploiting all the latent satiric potential that Russell and Taurog couldn’t get close to? With a gang that wasn’t the least bit glamorous, but were always good for a laugh.  (Incidentally, the great Keenan Wynn plays the kidnapper’s best friend and confederate, and wouldn’t he have been a great pick to play Kelp, if Kelp had actually been a thing in the 1950’s?)   I think that’s all I want to say about this one.

So elsewhere amidst all the quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore I’m helping to catalogue (some of which were penned by Poe), I became aware of Mary Roberts Rinehart.  One of the most influential and successful of early mystery novelists, by no means forgotten today, though not quite the icon she used to be.  (Through her industrious sons, her last name decorated several major publishing houses over the years.)

She it was who inspired The Butler Did It meme that everybody knows, and almost nobody knows the origin of (it was actually a stage adaptation of a novel of hers that got that into popular parlance–the line does not appear in her novel, but people would describe what happened, and the rest is history).

Her most famous and influential novel of all is the one you see up top.  (That link leads to Project Gutenberg.)

And that novel (along with many others that followed in its train) inspired a less well-known term, that subsequently inspired the ribaldry of Ogden Nash–

Personally, I don’t care whether a detective-story writer was educated in night school or day school
So long as he doesn’t belong to the H.I.B.K. school,
The H.I.B.K. being a device to which too many detective-story writers are prone;
Namely the Had-I-But-Known.

In this case, the critics done it.  Readers loved her books, bought them by the carload, but were not required to read them for a living, and become overly innured to the inevitable tropes.  So peevish reviewers began pointing out that book after book would begin with the narrator of the ensuing mystery lamenting that if she (it was often a she) had only known what would happen, things would have gone much differently.  Foreshadowing, a technique for getting the mystery reader interested in finding out what terrible things would happen, as if the genre itself wasn’t a damned good clue.

But isn’t that life, friends?  Don’t we all go around lamenting thusly, of our unfortunate uninformedness, that led us into one pickle after another, and sometimes the waiting embrace of a body bag?  Is the mystery writer to ignore this inevitable outcome of being an autonomous, self-aware, yet not omniscient being?

(“Had I but known that when I went to the corner store to buy Kleenex, a woman would just walk up to the counter, right next to me, her unworn mask dangling down her neck, wanting to buy a pack of gum….”  Three days ago.  I’ll stop obsessing over it in another eleven.  I trust.  “Had we but known Donald Trump was a self-obsessed idiot…”–oh wait, we did know that.  But what’s the worst that could happen, huh?  Better not waste any more time on second-guessing.)

Let it be said, Rinehart was not a bad writer at all (most styles date at least a bit) and Westlake was hardly the first, by a very long shot, to inject wry humor into the mystery trade.

This is the story of how a middle-aged spinster lost her mind, deserted her domestic gods in the city, took a furnished house for the summer out of town, and found herself involved in one of those mysterious crimes that keep our newspapers and detective agencies happy and prosperous. For twenty years I had been perfectly comfortable; for twenty years I had had the window-boxes filled in the spring, the carpets lifted, the awnings put up and the furniture covered with brown linen; for as many summers I had said good-by to my friends, and, after watching their perspiring hegira, had settled down to a delicious quiet in town, where the mail comes three times a day, and the water supply does not depend on a tank on the roof.

And then—the madness seized me. When I look back over the months I spent at Sunnyside, I wonder that I survived at all. As it is, I show the wear and tear of my harrowing experiences. I have turned very gray—Liddy reminded me of it, only yesterday, by saying that a little bluing in the rinse-water would make my hair silvery, instead of a yellowish white. I hate to be reminded of unpleasant things and I snapped her off.

“No,” I said sharply, “I’m not going to use bluing at my time of life, or starch, either.”

The opening passage of The Circular Staircase.  And here is a less whimsical, more existential approach to the same answerless rhetorical question.

The ticket window was to my left, and on impulse I went over and asked the man when was the next train back to New York.  Without checking anything, he said “Four-ten.” It was not yet eleven-thirty.

Would I have gone back if there’d been a train right away?  Possibly, I don’t know.  The house would have been empty, Kate and Bill already gone to Long Island.  I would have had a month to myself, Kate wouldn’t have had to know I’d stayed home until she herself returned.  And of course by then it would have been too late to make me go back to The Midway.

Would that have been better, as things turned out?  But that’s a meaningless question, really.  In a life in which nothing really matters, nothing can be either better or worse.

If you’re looking for it, it’s not at all hard to see (which I suppose is one possible answer to the Had-I-But-Known thing–we are not sufficiently mindful of our surroundings, or of past life lessons learned, then forgotten–not our stars, but ourselves.)  However, he knows better–having read Rinehart, and many others–not to harp on it too much.  It’s all so much less busy, and there is far more attention paid to motivation, character development–to making it a story about people, not plot devices.

This much I can know–Westlake wrote Wax Apple quite consciously in the H.I.B.K. vein.  It is entirely about belated recognitions, Mitch Tobin figuring things out just a moment too late to avoid the consequences, to himself and others.  He typically feels no sense of triumph in identifying the guilty party here, already in stir, you might say.  It’s diverting, gripping–but there’s no sense of fun to it.  What’s so fun about people dying?  (Rinehart’s protagonist is already missing the excitement by the end, planning to find another country house to rent, hoping for more distractions from her boring existence, which is of course what people read books like this for.)

While this is not an uncommon feature in detective stories, and Tobin especially, it is especially pronounced here, and to exceptionally fine effect.  I consider this the best of the Tobin novels, and far as I’m concerned, the best H.I.B.K anyone ever wrote, though I’d have to slog through a whole lot of so-so mystery books to know that for sure.

He indubitably read some of Rinehart’s work.  He probably knew about the disdain some critics held this type of story in (most of them being male, and filled with the usual derision towards lady scriveners not named Austen or Sand), and while he was something of a critic himself, he knew professional book reviewers are mainly good at missing the point of things, as they did so often with him.

But would they even notice the well-worn plot device here, in a hard-boiled detective story, whose protagonist is not an aging spinster, but a disgraced and depressed former police detective, visiting not a grand old country manor, but a halfway house for mental patients?  I am not aware of anyone but myself ever twigging to that, and me only by virtue of being stuck at home, pouring over endless lists of books most people will never read again.  That doesn’t mean no one ever did.  Could I but know……

So to sum up, this is my lament for all the things that had I but known them, I would have put in my earlier reviews of these three books, and so many others. But I did not know, had nary the inkling, and all I can do now is bewail my past ignorance, and be grateful the consequences here are relatively inconsequential. Nobody died.  Right?

And the upside is, I can write many more articles about all the things I didn’t know heretofore.  And since I know so very little, I can bore you all here for years to come with my belated recognitions.  If I can but avoid being one of the many casualties of ignorance.  Would that you all avoid that as well.

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

Review: Dirty Money, Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

“Okay.”

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

“That’s good.”

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

“Tomorrow night.”

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

“Yes.”

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

“Willis.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fingerprints?”

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

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

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

“A legitimate passport.”

“Everything legitimate.”

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

“I know that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You liked the sample.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So do I.”

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

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

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

“I don’t like you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beretta_Model_21_In_Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So are you.”

“Do me a favor.  Don’t kill anybody.”

“We’ll see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s see what Nels looks like.”

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

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

“Uuhh.  Where…”

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

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

“What a good person I am.”

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

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

That’s right.  And that’s all.

So many more questions than answers here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How’s the hunting been on your side?

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe not.  

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

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

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

Mine too.  Good hunting.

Any hunt you survive is good.

That’s right.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Dirty Money, Part 2

A bum?  Nick edged closer, and was astonished to see it was Parker.

What was Parker doing there?  He had come for the money, no other reason.

So where was his car?  Nick had been on both sides of the road and he hadn’t see any car.  Was it hidden somewhere?  Where?

He hunkered against the wall, across the room from Parker, trying to decide what to do, whether he should go look for the car, or wake Parker up to ask him where it was, or just kill him and keep moving, when Parker came awake.  Nick saw that Parker from the first instant was not surprised, not worried, not even to wake up and find somebody in the room with a gun in his hand.

The covers for the various editions of the final Parker novel are all quite decent, including the first edition from Grand Central.  Rivages turned up a fitting bit of criminal Trompe L’oeil, and we’ll see the usual two alternate takes from Germany next time.

But of the covers I was able to find, I must award top marks to Italy.  Maybe that abandoned chapel is too Gothic-looking for the white clapboard structure in the book (though it is named after a saint), but that somber tableau perfectly captures the underlying mood, even if we can’t be sure the figure standing there in the dark is Parker or Dalesia.  I’m going with Nick.  Guy deserves that much.

Like all Parker novels save one, Dirty Money is divided into four parts, one of which changes POV at least once every chapter, showing us the perspectives of people other than Parker who are in some way relevant to the plot.  Usually, this was Part Three, but in a few instances, it was Part Two, and this is one of those.

Because this book is taking place immediately after the events of the previous two books, there’s a lot of carry-over.  Four of the ten chapters are from the vantage point of a character introduced in Nobody Runs Forever, one from Ask The Parrot.  Only two new POV characters are introduced in Part Two, one cop and one crook, and neither amounts to much in the grand scheme of things.  In Parts Three and Four, a whole new group of players come in, as the story shifts from getting at the stashed loot to unloading and defending it.

I find all this less than satisfyingly organic and well-balanced, compared to most past novels in this series.  More than diverting, all the same.

And I’ve long found it remarkable that Westlake spent the last four or five years of his life working on what turned into three inter-connected books, the collective timeline of which probably runs no more than two or three weeks–not unlike the first four novels in the series, but even more chronologically compressed (and remember, he published the first eight Parker novels in about the same time it took him to come out with the last three.)

If Westlake had lived long enough for a 25th entry, would it have picked up where this left off, turning the Triptych into a Quadriptych?  (Which is what Stark turned the original Triptych into when he wrote The Mourner.)  Don’t you love rhetorical questions?  Almost as much as rambling drawn-out plot synopses, or you wouldn’t be here.  Not wanting to disappoint….

Remember Dr. Myron Madchen?  Who was going to provide Jake Beckham with an alibi for the armored car job?  He needed a share of the loot in order to leave his wife.  When that didn’t work out, he killed his wife, made it look like natural causes, and everybody was so intent on the robbery that he ended up having nothing to do with (because Jake was such a screw-up), a quiet little murder didn’t get much attention.  At no point, mind you, does he ever admit this to anyone, even himself.  But that’s what happened.

He’s preparing to start his new life, with his pretty young girlfriend, who will be leaving her abusive husband for him.  He doesn’t have to leave town now.  He can keep his old practice, his wife’s money, and the big comfortable house her money paid for.  Who says crime doesn’t pay?   He’s made out better from the heist than anybody.  Just one little catch.  His name’s Dalesia.

Nick’s sitting there in his home office, when Madchen turns the light on.  Nick tells him to turn it off.  They have some things to discuss.  Nick needs a place to hide out.  He figures this house will do just fine.  Conveniently, Madchen just gave his maid the week off.  That should be long enough.

If the good doctor won’t play ball with him, and Nick gets grabbed by the law, he’s going to play ball with them–which is going to include letting them know about how Madchen conspired to aid and abet armed robbery.  And maybe they should run an autopsy on the wife, just to be thorough.  But that won’t be necessary, will it?

Nick’s too nice for this gig, you know.  He belongs in a safe cozy Dortmunder novel.  He won’t threaten the doctor’s life in any convincing way (though the doctor thinks for a moment about giving Nick the same injection he gave the wife).  He even agrees not to steal Madchen’s car.  He stays in the room the doctor gives him, makes no trouble, leaves before Estrella the maid comes back–at which point all he asks for is a ride to the church the money is stowed at.  You think Parker would be that cooperative?

Circumstances are less cooperative.  A week wasn’t long enough.  The heat is still on.  Because Nick killed a Federal Marshal.  So now he doesn’t belong in a Dortmunder novel either.   Nowhere left to go.

(When Dr. Madchen drops Nick off, a few chapters further on, we never hear from him again.  There’s no reason to think he won’t live happily ever after with his lovely Isabelle, who is so grateful to him for giving her an escape hatch from her own miserable marriage, she won’t ask any inconvenient questions. Maybe her hurtful hubby will have a few, but we never meet him.

And I don’t think Stark gives a damn about who killed whom, but this doesn’t quite seem like Starkian morality to me.  The doctor got in way over his head, he put up a moral front while dealing with crooks, and he murdered his wife.  He’s not owning any of this. He’s the same weak-willed wuss he always was.  And he’s just going to slide home safe? Was this really the end of his arc?  Or was he going to show up again later, for some form of comeuppance?  In a book that never got written.)

Chapter 2, we meet up once more with Captain Robert Modale, of the New York State Police, the ranking trooper responsible for (among other things) the tiny town of Pooley, where Parker recently had a short profitable stay.  He’s been asked to come down and compare notes, and he thinks it’s a huge waste of time.  He’s staying at Bosky Rounds, where a room has suddenly opened up (safe trip home, Claire).  He sees Sandra, thinks maybe he recognizes her.  Sandra wasn’t in Ask The Parrot, so not sure what that’s about.

He and Reversa hit it off right away.  Both professionals, both observant, both quietly exasperated with the general run of human stupidity.  And best of all, when she first came into the room, looking much too young and pretty to be a detective, somebody introduced her by title, so he didn’t embarrass himself in front of her.

They agree the existing police sketch being used is inadequate.  Modale never questioned Parker as Reversa did, but he saw him in the course of the manhunt for the bank robber, that the bank robber ended up joining.  They join forces to come up with a more lifelike portrait.

The artist was a small irritable woman who worked in charcoal, smearing much of it on herself.  “I think,” Gwen Reversa told her, “the main thing wrong with the picture now is that it makes him look threatening.”

“That’s right,” Captain Modale said.

The artist, who wasn’t the one who’d done the original drawing, frowned at it.  “Yes, it is threatening,” she agreed.  “What should it be instead?”

“Watchful,” Gwen Reversa said.

“This man,” the captain said, gesturing at the picture, “is aggressive, he’s about to make some sort of move.  The real man doesn’t move first.  He watches you, he waits to see what you’re going to do.”

“But then,” Gwen Reversa said, “I suspect he’s very fast.”

“Absolutely.”

The artist pursed her lips.  “I’m not going to get all that into the picture.  Even a photograph wouldn’t get all that in.  Are the eyes all right?”

“Maybe,” Gwen Reversa said, “not so defined.”

“He’s not staring,” the captain said.  “He’s just looking.”

The artist signed.  “Very well,” she said, and opened her large sketch pad on the bank officer’s desk in this small side office next to the main HQ room.  “Let’s begin.”

Terry Mulcany shows up, talks about how he saw this man with this very good-looking woman, and the man kind of resembled the face on the wanted posters.  He can’t remember the name of the place he saw them at.  They show him the new sketch.  Bingo.

Time to check on Nelson McWhitney, still back on Long Island, who has obtained and customized a small truck, as Sandra suggested in Part One.  Soon he’ll be heading over to New England, but having a bit of time to kill, decides to set up a failsafe–in case he’s the only one who comes back from this trip, with all the cash.  He talks to a guy he knows, connected, named Oscar Sidd.  Tells him about the money.  Suggests that Oscar’s connections could arrange for the cash to be laundered.

This is dumb, of course.  Nels is not one of Life’s Deep Thinkers.  Naturally suspicious of everyone, which would be fine, but then why is he confiding in Oscar Sidd?  He insists he’s not planning a cross–but he’s talking as if somehow the whole pile might fall into his hands.  Maybe Parker and Sandra will try to cross him, and  he’ll be forced to kill them.  Yeah, and then he’ll turn out to be heir to the throne of Narnia.  C’mon.

Next chapter is from Terry Mulcany’s POV, and he’s so excited.  He’s going to have a really fantastic book to write about this true crime he helped solve.  (Working title: The Land Pirates.)  This chapter is only of interest because we learn the fate of Tom Lindahl, or rather, what fate he didn’t have.  Parker wondered, at the end of the last book, how far Tom would get.  Pretty far, as it turned out.

Detective Reversa asked “Tom Lindahl?  Who’s he?”

“A loner,” Modale said, “just about a hermit, living by himself in a little town over there.  For years he was a manager in charge of upkeep, buildings, all that, at a racetrack near there.  He got fired for some reason, had some kind of grudge.  When this fellow Ed Smith came long, I guess it was Tom’s opportunity at last to get revenge.  They robbed the track together.”

Detective Reversa said, “But they’re not still together.  You don’t think Lindahl came over here.”

“To tell you the truth,” Modale said, “I thought we’d pick up Lindahl within just two or three days.  He has no criminal record, no history of this sort of thing, you’d expect him to make nothing but mistakes.”

“Maybe,” Detective Reversa said, “our robber gave him a few good tips for hiding out. Unless, of course, he killed Lindahl once the robbery was done.”

“It doesn’t look that way,” Modale said. “They went in late last Sunday night, overpowered the guards, and made off with nearly two hundred thousand dollars in cash.  None of it traceable, I’m sorry to say.”

He ditched his car in Lexington Kentucky, near the bus station there.  Modale says he could be anywhere in the country by now, working on a new identity for himself.  Not living in anything like luxury, of course.  ~100k is not retirement money, and would he be able to get Social Security checks under a false name?  (Joe Sheer did.)

Point is, he got free.  Stark wants us to know that.  It wasn’t about the money for Lindahl, or even revenge; it was about leaving a failed life behind, starting fresh.  100k’s enough for that.  Well-earned, after the system failed him so badly.  All Terry can see is the sheer romance of it–but not, to his disappointment, the ‘triumph of the law at the end of the day’, so essential to any True Crime story.  Well no, and that didn’t happen with the corrupt track owners who screwed Tom and the entire legal system over, either.  But that’s a bit out of his journalistic niche, isn’t it.

Chapter 5 tells us Oscar Sidd is tailing McWhitney in his nondescript little sedan.  Nels may not be planning a cross, but he is.

Nothing much happens in Chapter 6, except Modale and Reversa part on terms of mutual respect and a shared desire that this Allen/Smith/Whoever gets locked up soon.  Terry tells Gwen he remembered the place he saw the guy had something to do with pears.  It’s on a date with her lawyer friend that she figures that out.  Bartlett.  Bosky Rounds.  (For all we know, Terry was thinking of Bosc pears, but never mind.)

Chapter 7 introduces us to Trooper Louise Rawburton, and her partner, Danny Oleski.  They’re being told by a superior that the roadblocks aren’t enough, and now they’re going to actively search for both the robbers and the presumably stashed loot from the robbery.  Louise and Danny have been assigned, among other things, to check out St. Dympna.  Sounds a bit sacrilegious, but I’ll bite–who her?

“She was supposed to be Irish.  Most churches with saints’ names are Roman Catholic, but we weren’t.  We were United Reformed.  Louise laughed and said, “The funny thing is, when they founded the church, they just wanted some unusual name to attract attention, so they picked St. Dympna, and then, too late, they found out she’s actually the patron saint of insanity.”

Danny looked at her.  “You’re putting me on.”

“I am not.  Turned out, there’s a mental hospital named for her in Belgium.  When I was a kid, that was the coolest thing, our church was named for the patron saint of crazy people.”

(There’s supposed to be an ‘h’ in her name somewhere, but you know Protestants–always editing things out.)

Chapter 8, Reversa shows up at Bosky Rounds, with the new improved wanted posters, and after she’s left, Mrs. Bartlett is forced to acknowledge that one of the robbers was a guest of hers in the near past.  Henry Willis.  And that lovely Claire Willis.  Mrs. Bartlett thought Henry was a sourpuss, but she adored Claire.

She wrestles with her conscience a while, and decides not to drop a dime on them.  It would be embarrassing to admit a bank robber was under her roof, for one thing.  But for another, she just can’t bring herself to get that sweet girl in trouble.  And this is why you should always be extra nice to people who work in the hospitality trade, folks.  Parker used to know that.  I guess having Claire means he doesn’t have to put up a pleasant affable front in hotels and such anymore.  That must be excruciating for him.

Chapter 9 is all Loscalzo/McWhitney, and I must say, it’s a delight.  They rub each other in just the right wrong way (she’s so simpatico with Parker, there’s no friction there at all).  She knows he got an Econoline van, dark green, good enough, and had the name of the ersatz church choir painted on it.  He does not know she’s decided to tail him all the way there in her car.

Good thing she did.  She spots the other tail–Oscar Sidd.  She knows all about nondescript vehicles as camouflage, and she knows a tail when she sees it.   She and Nels, being more techno-friendly than Parker, both have cellphones.  They exchanged numbers, and man this is getting modern!  Next thing you know they’ll be texting each other.  Not sure about FaceTime.

We get a little background on her as they drive–she did go to college, got her P.I. license shortly after she left (doesn’t say graduated–Westlake didn’t get the sheepskin either).  She worked the respectable side of her business a while, and found it deadly dull.  Roy Keenan was happy to show her the ropes of bounty hunting, then take credit for her brains.  She thought it was a good partnership, and she’s not the least bit sad that it’s over, because what would be the point?  Parker with a bit of polish (and not just on her nails).

Anyway, she’s got to deal with this shoofly. Better call Nels.

“You’ve got a tin can on your tail, you know about that?

“What?  Where are you?”

“Listen to me,  Nelson.  He’s in a nothing little car, two behind you.”

“Jesus Christ!”

“Tall bony guy in black, looks like he’s never had a good meal in his life.”

“That son of a bitch.”

“You know him, I take it.  Pal of yours?”

“Not any more.”

He offers to swat the fly, but she tells him keep the truck clean, she’ll handle the mess.  She gets out ahead of them both, and lies in wait, with her Taurus Tracker .17HMR–like Parker, she knows the value of the right tool for the job at hand.  A .45 for intimidation factor.  For a job like this, you want precision, which means a long barrel.  Might as well post an image.

hgtracker_1204a

Puts one right in Sidd’s tire as he goes by.  He loses control, knocks himself out on the windshield.  She and Nelson drive on to the church, and as they get there, they hear a shot.  This is where we came in.  Stark Rewind time.  With a twist.

Chapter 10 is from Dalesia’s perspective, and it’s not a happy one.  He’s on the run from the cops and  his former partners.  He’s looking into Parker’s eyes, there in the church, and all he can see is death.  Parker threw the water bottle, then he threw the mat he was using as a blanket, then he threw himself.  The bullet misses.

Parker knocks the gun out of Dalesia’s hand, and now his hands are reaching for Nick’s throat. Those huge veiny hands. Every guy who works with Parker has probably thought about what those hands would feel like, wrapped around his throat.  Nick would rather not find out.  He jumps through a closed window to the ground below.  And that’s Part Two.

McWhitney and Loscalzo come up, one after the other, to hear the sad story.  Parker had Nick, but he was too stiff after sleeping on that floor, let him go.  He’s cut from the glass, no gun, no car, no money, cops everywhere.  If they don’t find him, the law will, and any faint hope he wouldn’t spill his guts about McWhitney and Parker is gone now.  So they have to spill his guts for him, or start prepping for some serious lifestyle changes.

While Sandra gets the van ready to receive its cargo, Parker and Nels do a quick search, come up empty.  No more time, have to get the money out.  Boxes of bills, covered with a layer of hymnals.  Also a few boxes that are just hymnals, in case they get stopped.  Have to leave some cash behind.  C’est la guerre.

Parker says he needs to go back into the church.  He doesn’t say why.  He saw mud on the floor that wasn’t there before.  Dalesia’s hiding in the basement.  Parker has the gun now, but Nick has one last card to play–the cops are outside.  No silencer on that gun.  Stalemate, right?

Wrong.  He forgot about the hands.  This time they find the neck.  Bye, Nick.

This is a significant moment in the series, that isn’t treated as such.  Parker has killed a lot of his colleagues in the past twenty-three books.  He’s never been forced to kill one who didn’t cross him on a job, cheat him of his share, or try to kill him.  Nick did just shoot at him, but that’s as clear-cut a case of self-defense as ever there was.  And, you know, he could have said they’d smuggle him out in the van–but the cops have his photograph.  He’s got a target on his chest the rest of his life.  Which isn’t saying much anymore.

Nick Dalesia was a solid pro, a likable guy.  Not a nice guy.  Not in that profession.  But is he–pardon, was he–any worse than Handy McKay, Alan Grofield, Dan Wycza, Salsa, Mike Carlow, Stan Devers, or Ed Mackey?  Nope.  A bit more mellow, I’d say.  And would Parker have hesitated to kill any of those old amigos, if they were standing where Nick was just now?  Nope.  Is Parker getting soft in this final books?  Hell nope.  He is maybe crossing a line here.  Nick crossed it first, when he killed that marshal.  Romanticism only gets you so far in the 21st century.  Sorry, Nick.

Parker hides the body, goes back outside.  Sandra is playing the friendly choir director (there are going to be some things she does better than Parker, having lived in the straight world so long, and this is one of them). Parker’s name is now Desmond.  “I’m in recovery,” he lies.  For a guy who has never lived in the straight world, he’s not bad, you know?

The cops are, of course, Louise and Danny, and Louise is so happy and nostalgic about the place.  She totally believes Sandra belongs to some church choir that rehabilitates people who had a tough break. She’s so pleased when Sandra gives her a hymn book as a keepsake.  And Parker is so pleased to learn the roadblocks have been lifted.

The ride back to Long Island is not as uneventful as hoped.  McWhitney gets stopped once along the way, so good thing they didn’t do what he wanted, and dump the hymnals to make room for the last few boxes of cash.  Parker learns what happened with Oscar Sidd from Sandra, and he knows Nelson was at least half-thinking about a cross.  Not enough to push that button in Parker’s head, but the button is still there, waiting.

Sandra drops him at a motel, where he and McWhitney will watch the cash, before getting the rest of the way back.  Parker tells her it’s safe for her girlfriend to come home.  They’re getting pretty cozy, those two.  For wolves who just met on a frozen lake.

Parker and Nels have a drink at the motel bar, and talk strategy.  They’ve got the money, and don’t feel like waiting a decade or so to spend it, so they need somebody with overseas connections, who can make it disappear, and give them a decent percentage.  Oscar Sidd has proven  himself less than trustworthy.  Parker knows somebody else–not trustworthy.  More solid, better connected.  And there’s a relationship there.  Not what you’d call a friendly one, but as Parker told Sandra in the car, he doesn’t have friends.

Let’s skip over the preliminaries in Chapter 7 (okay, just this much–“Who shall I say is calling?”  “Parker.” “Is that all?”  “He’ll know.”), and cut ahead to the meet.  Northern NJ, state park, picnic area, right in front of a park police headquarters.  Neutral turf.  Frank Meany.  Cosmopolitan Beverages. You know, the people who sent their Russian hitman to kill Parker, at Paul Brock’s behest, only things did not work out as planned.   At one point Parker had a gun to Meany’s head, and that definitely wasn’t part of Meany’s plan.  Now Meany’s wondering what plans this guy has.  He’s wondering even more at the size of the balls on this guy.  But he’s no slouch himself.

Meany said a word to the driver, then came on, as the driver got back behind the wheel and put the Daimler just beyond the red pickup.  A tall and bulky man with a round head of close-cropped hair, Meany was a thug with a good tailor, dressed today in pearl-gray topcoat over charcoal-gray slacks, dark blue jacket, pale blue shirt and pale blue tie.  Still, the real man shone through the wardrobe, with his thick-jawed small-eyed face, and the two heavy rings on each hand, meant not for show for for attack.

Meany approached Parker with a steady heavy treat, stopped on the other side of the picnic table, but did not sit down.  “So here we are,” he said.

“Sit,” Parker suggested.

Meany did so, saying, “You’re not gonna object to the driver?”

“He gets out of the car,” Parker said, “I’ll do something.”

“Deal.  Same thing for your friend in the pickup.”

“Same thing.  You didn’t bring a sandwich.”

“I ate lunch.”

Parker shook his head, irritated.  As he took his sandwich out of the bag and ripped the bag in half to make two paper plates, he said, “People who ride around in cars like that one there forget how to take care of themselves.  If I’m looking at you out of one of those windows over there, and you’re not here for lunch, what are you here for?”

“An innocent conversation,” Meany said, and shrugged.

“In New Jersey?”  Parker pushed a half sandwich on a half bag to Meany, then took a bite of the remaining half.

(It’s official.  Everybody makes jokes about Jersey.)

So while they each chew on half a Reuben, Parker lays out his business proposition.  He’s not saying he did that armored car robbery, but if he was, he’d want ten cents on the dollar. 200k.  Meaning they’ve got two million.  (I’m not sure that matches up with what we were told in Nobody Runs Forever, or with the fact that they had to leave some cash behind at the church, and there’s some more dubious accounting ahead, but it’s the last book, the author’s dead, what are you gonna do, demand an audit?)

They reach a tentative agreement (you might go so far as to call it tenuous, tense, tendentious, or even tenebrous.)  Meany will go talk to his boss.  Parker has no boss, and he doesn’t talk to himself.

Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts, which is the name of the last chapter in Part Three, Louise and Danny are passing St. Dympna’s again, and she just has to go in and check it out this time.  Oh no, the church group left some of the hymnals behind! Maybe they can give them to charity.  That would be some lucky charity. They’re still absorbing the full terrifying implications of their fuck-up, when Danny smells something funny.  Or someone.

Reversa has been working on a different case, relating to a wealthy Chinese couple keeping undocumented Chinese immigrants as defacto slaves.  They bring her in to hear the sad news.  All that good professional work she put in.  Undone by some unprofessional work done further down the chain of command.  The troopers never even took down the name of that guy who showed them his license–Mac-something?

She sighs to herself.  She really thought they’d get him, and now she’s got to tell Modale that their quarry has slipped through the net yet again.  It’s been nine days.  John B. Allen?  Might as well call him Long John.  Because he’s long gone.

She’s a good hunter, but she didn’t quite understand what she was chasing.  She refers to him as a cat at one point.  Right track.  Wrong family.

That’s all we see of Gwen Reversa, or Massachusetts.  The loose ends from Nobody Runs Forever have all been tied up neatly.  Parker has come to an arrangement that should deal with the one remaining loose end, that of the serial numbers on the stolen bills.  The book could end right here, at page 192.  But the thing about loose ends is, they proliferate.  In literature, and life.

Not at 5,000 words yet.  I could wrap things up now, without going on longer than I have in past.  But what follows, in Part Four, is a story all to itself, and merits special treatment.  With regard to what’s come before, it’s more of a coda than a conclusion–long enough for a novella, which I’m half-inclined to refer to it as.  And it seems to me that Stark was laying the groundwork for more Parker stories.  That we’ll never read.

Because he’s long gone.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Ask the Parrot, Part 3

vernon_downs_0

Jane loved to read.  Reading invariably took her out of the world she lived in, out of this glassed-in porch with its changing views of the seasons, and off to some other world with other views, other people, other seasons.  Invariably; but not today.

Jane tended to buy best sellers, but only after they came out in paperback, so the excited buzz that had greeted the book’s initial appearance had cooled and she could see the story for itself, with its insights and its failings.  She was a forgiving reader, even when she was offered sequences that didn’t entirely make sense; after all, now and again the sequence of events of actual life didn’t make sense either, did it?

Like that man, Smith, staying with Tom Lindahl.  What could possibly have brought those two together?  And how had Tom, a man she’d known for probably thirty years, suddenly come up with an “old friend” nobody’d ever heard of before?

No; that was the real world.  What she was trying to concentrate on was the world inside this book, and finally, after distracting herself several times, she did succeed, and settled in with these characters and their story.  Now she concentrated on the problems of these other relationships and intertwining histories and didn’t look up until the room had grown so dark she simply couldn’t read any more.

“You’ve got something else going on.”

Ed gave him an exasperated look.  “We work from different rule books, Tom.  You already know that.”

“Yes.”

Why did I think I could control him? Tom thought, remembering the sight of the man coming up that hill.  Because he was on the run?  That didn’t make him somebody that could be controlled, that made him somebody that could never be controlled.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down. I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

Robert Frost

My 200th post here.  I can’t think of a better place for it.  This is the final Westlake masterpiece (so by definition, the final Stark masterpiece).  He had two more decent books left in him after this; they did not rise to this level.

Westlake gets slotted as a comic author, and he earned that backhanded compliment, but what I’ve found, again and again, is that his strongest work–even when comedic in tone–is often very dark, composed at trying moments in his life, as was this book, completed after he’d been afflicted with retinal tears and cataracts, leading to multiple surgeries on his eyes.  For the better part of a year (the worst, really), he could neither read nor write.

Hard for anyone to endure–terrifying for a writer. Too late to learn Braille.  Too private and involved in his work methods to write by dictation, as John Milton did.  “Does God exact day labour, light denied?”  He did not fondly ask.  Providence and modern medicine (and good insurance) gave him back his eyes, impaired but usable, and he put them to good use.  Make hay while the sun shines.

Ask The Parrot, the first book he finished after his recovery, benefits, ironically enough, from its crystal clear focus–relatively few characters, the action taking place over perhaps forty-eight hours, perhaps less.  Quite a lot of action, and yet it never feels rushed.  There is an autumnal chill over the proceedings, even when the characters themselves are in the grip of frenzy, vendetta.  Which Parker, who has felt such emotions in the past, never submits to here, never loses control.

Which is why we need Part Three, to bring us into the heads of all those who do. It skips around quite a bit in time and space.  And state of mind.

We start with Nelson McWhitney, the only member of the string from Nobody Runs Forever who has gotten through the dragnet with little trouble–because he’s driving his own car, with his own ID, we’re told.  He’s had troubles with the law before, so you might think his priors would show up when they checked on him, but how much of a check do they run on you when they stop and question you, if they stop and question you?  I think most of us don’t really know, because most police roadblocks are directed at drunk drivers, Latin-American immigrants, and, of course, black people.  Nelson is none of the above.  So he can get back to his bar on Long Island, and wait to see whether Nick Dalesia, whose capture he hears about on the car radio, knows enough about him to be a problem.

Then we’re back with Brian Hopwood and Suzanne Gilbert, the two civilians Parker has been forced to hold at gunpoint at Hopwood’s service station.  Parker wants to know more about Suzanne, who stopped to talk to him last night, when he was out strolling (prowling, really).  She wants to know why he took her grandfather’s gun.  The one he’s pointing at her now.

He looked at her, and though his face didn’t change into anything you could call a smile, Brian still had the feeling the question  had given him some kind of amusement.  “Just in case Brian here,” he told her, “would draw down on me.  You didn’t stop to see your grandfather last night.”

Last night?  Brian looked from the hardcase to Suzanne, who didn’t even look worried, much less scared, and he thought, What about last night?  Now there was some other story here, and he wasn’t in on it.

She said, “No, I just drive by, on my way home.  Sometimes he can’t sleep, and, if that happens, he’ll sit out on his porch with the light on and I stop and we talk awhile.  He knows I’ll be there and it makes it easier for him, so these days he’s sleeping more than he used to.  Last night when I went by he was asleep in front of the television set, so that was fine, so I just went on home.  I suppose that’s when you broke in and stole his gun.”

For Christ’s sake, Suzanne, Brian thought, leave it alone.  But the hardcase didn’t seem to mind.  He just shrugged and said, “He didn’t seem to use it much.”  Then he switched those cold eyes to Brian, considered him a minute as though he might decide after all he was the kind of pest you might as well shoot, and said, “When did you decide?”

“To be a hero?”  Brian, beyond embarrassment, shrugged and looked away.  “When I did it.”

The way it was, once he realized Parker was one of the bank robbers, he made this little bargain with himself–if Parker drove away after pumping gas into Tom Lindahl’s car (that he assumes Parker stole), he’d call the state troopers.  If Parker came back in, he’d make a citizen’s arrest.  In truth, it worked out better for Parker that he didn’t call the cops.  Brian’s starting to realize that it worked out better for him that Suzanne came in when she did.  He can’t look at this guy now, really look at him, and believe he’d have lived to brag about how he captured the bank robber single-handed.

Parker doesn’t want to leave any dead bodies behind him, if it can be avoided. Can he fix it so that these two can’t call the law before he gets out of this podunk town?  Between the three of them, they come up with a story–Brian has to work on a local doctor’s car, it’s an emergency.  He’s going to call his wife and tell her that.  Tell not not to hold up dinner for him.  She tells him he’s going to have to make do with reheated chicken curry.  He tells himself nothing will ever taste so good in his entire life.

Then Parker has Suzanne tie Brian’s hands behind his back with his own shoelaces.  Suzanne doesn’t want to be tied up–she still isn’t processing who and what she’s dealing with here.  But she finally accedes–shoelaces for her hands, jumper cables for her feet, stuck on the floor.  And then Parker rigs Brian’s office chair with screwdrivers and electrical tape, so it can’t roll.

Parker takes the keys for a customer’s black Infiniti (there was a white one in the last book; Westlake must have liked those cars, or at least the  name), and drives off.  Leaving Suzanne to ask who he thinks he is, treating them that way?  Brian says that a man in that situation will do pretty much what he likes.  Suzanne, beside herself with anger, asks what, is he famous or something?  Brian groans inwardly, thinking of the hours they’re going to spend in each other’s company.  It would be a great mistake to think Richard Stark did not have a comedic side to him, just as Westlake had a somber side–it’s a matter of emphasis.

(I wonder to myself, at moments like this, whether Parker could kill someone as patently innocent as Suzanne Gilbert. He’s caused the death of exactly one presumed innocent since we’ve met him–the first time we met him–by binding and gagging her. Turned out she had asthma, and suffocated while he was elsewhere.  He felt no guilt over it, but it bothered him, in a way he couldn’t really articulate, even to himself.

It’s a stupid question to ask, even if one believes, as I do, that Parker is a beast in human form.  A romantic notion, that true innocence is a sure defense against a carnivore, with four legs or two.  Yet, it must be said, others have had this notion in the past.  Best not take it too literally.  Remember Timothy Treadwell, and even more aptly, Amie Hugueonard.  Though grizzlies are really omnivores, like us.)

We pick back up with Cal and Cory, who are still looking for some way to score off ‘Ed’ and Tom.  Cal is brooding over the way Parker bitch-slapped him, not wanting to admit how scared he is, which means he’s got to do something to prove he isn’t.  Cory’s musing on how they need to be able to tail their quarry undetected.  He’ll borrow their sister’s car, telling her he’s got an interview for a nice respectable office job, suitable for someone of his intelligence.

She’s got no time for Cal the perennial screw-up (it’s been made clear that the only reason Cal is short an eye is Cal) but she still holds out hope for Cory.  She’ll buy his explanation that it’ll look better for him to show up for the appointment he doesn’t really have in her Jetta than in the pickup he and Cal share.

He drops Cal off at a diner, so sis won’t suspect anything’s amiss.  Cory knows his brother will want to over-indulge himself with food and drink, which will make him slow and stupid later–tells him just to have coffee. Cal promises, then goes into the diner and orders whatever the hell he wants, including beer.

Chapter 4.  We’re now with Fred, and his wife Jane, who has just brought back his rifle from Tom’s house.  This chapter is from Jane’s POV.  He’s watching football.  She can see it’s not helping.  She knows he’s wounded inside, doesn’t know what to do about it, has been emotionally overwhelmed for some time now.

She passes on what ‘Ed’ told her, that their son George would want Fred to be there once he gets out of Attica.  Fred is baffled by this, then agitated.  Why did ‘Ed’ say that?  What neither of them knows is that Parker was telling Jane to tell Fred that himself.  Give him a motivation to stay alive.  But honest to a fault, she reports it as an odd thing this friend of Tom Lindahl’s said.  Which Fred will now brood upon at length.

She settles in to read a book, her comfort, her anodyne, as it is for so many of us.  It works for her, far better than football did for Fred.  Frightening things happen in books, but you know they’re not real.  When she rouses herself from the book, she realizes Fred has gone.  He’s taken the car.  And the rifle.

It’s evening now. When the fake hunters get ready for bed, and the real ones get ready to prowl.  Parker tells Tom there’s going to be another change in the plan.  Tom should go ahead to the track without him.  He’ll catch up later.  Tom takes a quick look at his parrot, and thinks he’ll come up with a name for it when he gets back.

A short piece down the road, Jack Riley is worried about his granddaughter Suzanne.  She should have dropped by to check on him by now.  He’d better check on her.  He’s been unsettled ever since his pistol disappeared.  He always used to check on that, every night, just to remind himself it was there, if he ever needed it.

What he needs now is the only person left in the world who cares if he lives or dies.  Pooley is too small to have a sheriff, let alone its own police department.  He calls the local state police barracks, reports both disappearances–the missing gun and the missing granddaughter.  Not in that order of importance.  Suzanne hasn’t been missing that long, and old people lose things all the time, but the trooper asks him a lot of questions, decides this might be something worth checking on.  Jack’s told a car will be around in maybe half an hour.  He says he’ll turn the porch light on.

Now we’re in Fred’s head, for the first and only time in the book.  Not a pleasant place to be, and we’re just visiting.  He lives there.

It wasn’t football Fred saw on the blank television screen, it was the cell.  The all-purpose cell, sometimes the one he knew he was headed for, sometimes the one George was in right now–what has happened to our family?–but other times the cell/grave in which lay the man he killed, twitching still in death.

He had never seen George’s cell, of course, so this cell, constantly shifting, existed only in  his imagination, fed mostly by old black-and-white movies watched on nights he couldn’t sleep.  A small stone room it was, longer than wide, high-ceilinged, with hard iron bars making up one of the short walls and one small high-up window in the opposite wall, showing nothing but gray.  The cell smelled of damp and decay.  He lay curled on the floor there, or George did, or sometimes that poor man up at Wolf Peak, the last thick dark red blood pulsing out of his back.

It was getting dark outside the living room windows.  Imagination had never bothered Fred much before this, but now he was all imagination, screaming nerve ends of imagination, imagining the cell, imagining the shame, and now, as darkness was coming on, imagining the teeth.  Destroying the evidence.  It gets darker and darker, and all those rustling creatures gather around the body on the forest floor, gnawing at it, snarling at one another, gnawing and gnawing.

His body.  The way he sometimes became George, in that Gothic prison cell, now sometimes, too, he became the dead man on Wolf Peak, among all those jaws, all those teeth.

Day before yesterday, he killed a harmless old man for no reason.  A stranger who smelled of trouble told him not to report it, and he agreed, hating himself for his cowardice.  Now the stranger has told his wife to tell him, in effect, “Don’t shoot yourself.”

He wasn’t going to do that!  Well, of course he was thinking about doing precisely that, or rather, trying not to think about it.  But that doesn’t mean this shadowy bastard has the right to tell him not to think about it.  And the more he thinks about it, the more he thinks what this Ed Smith really meant was ‘go ahead and do it.’  Trying to plant the idea in him.  Trying to get him out of the way.

Fred tells himself that Ed’s sympathy for him was fake–he’s got that much right. But paranoia makes it impossible to put yourself in anyone else’s place, to see past your own fears and insecurities.  Parker couldn’t care less whether Fred Thiemann eats his gun or not.  He only cares about getting out of this podunk corner of New York with his share of the loot. Fred’s suicide would complicate that, so the message he sent through Jane was meant to head that scenario off, at least for a while.  It got garbled in transmission.

What passes for Fred’s reason now tells him is, if there were no Ed Smith, he wouldn’t be afraid anymore.  He wouldn’t worry about the cell, about the teeth.  He heads over to Tom Lindahl’s place.  But the only one at Tom Lindahl’s place now is a parrot who can’t talk. Or can he?

Chapter 8 of Part Three in this book has bothered me for a long time.  I happen to  know a lot about birds. I even know a thing or two about parrots.  And the one thing anybody should know about them, aside from the fact that they are smart and long-lived, is that they see color better than we do.  Why would they have such splendid plumage were that not the case?

So the opening to chapter 8 bugs me, and it always will.  Even though I’m probably taking it too literally (‘black and white’ probably refers to the lining of the cage).

I still think it’s damned well written, and haunting in its (for want of a better word) starkness.  Donald Westlake’s one and only attempt I know of at a deep dive into an animal mind is worthy of attention.  But I think this must be considered more of a portrait in solipsism than a true vision of what it’s like to be a bird in a cage.  We probably don’t want to know what that’s like (I avoid stores that sell parrots whenever possible).

But one thing we do know is that a smart social being like a parrot goes entirely mad when confined to a cage by itself for too long.  Normally, a pet parrot forms a very strong bond with the human or humans it’s living with, comes to perceive one special human as its mate.  I don’t know that Westlake did any research on parrots at all for this book.  It might have gotten in the way with what he wanted to say here, but again–irritating if you know something about parrots.

The parrot is described as being green–maybe a species of conure, perhaps a Monk Parakeet–not one of the larger, longer-lived, more expensive species known for their exceptional capacity to mimic human speech.  Not a bad metaphor for Tom Lindahl’s life, the last few years.  This is where Tom’s been headed, up until Parker showed up.  And maybe this is what Westlake himself feared his life would become, if he didn’t get his eyes fixed.  Or maybe he just wanted to imagine what it would be like to look through those eyes.  If the whole world is a cell, a cell is nothing to fear.

The parrot saw things in black and white.  He knew about this place of his, that it was very strong, and that he was very strong within it, and that whenever he thought he might be hungry, there was food in the tray.  He was clean and preferred to stand on his swinging bar rather than down at the bottom of the world was made new, almost shining white and black, crisp, noisy if touched, until he began to drop upon it again.

For movement, rather than down there, he preferred to move among the swinging wooden bar and the rigid vertical black metal bars of the cage.  Up and over, sometimes, for no reason at all, his strong talons gripping the bars even directly above his head, giving him, when he arched his neck back and started with one round black and white eye at the world, this world, a whole new perspective.

The parrot is aware of other creatures, outside its cage, occupying a still larger cage, and how these creatures sometimes depart the outer cage for some outer realm of which it knows nothing.

He had some curiosity about these Creatures, but not much.  He studied them when they were present, usually observing one eye at a time, waiting for them to do something to explain themselves.  So far, they had not.

The parrot becomes aware that another Creature, not the one who attends to his needs, has entered the outer cage, and is shouting at him.  Trying to communicate something.  He’s never felt the need to speak before, but when an alien talks to you, shouldn’t you try to say something back, make contact?  He begins by trying to repeat the Creature’s words back to him–“Air izzi?  Air izzi?  Air izzi?”  No mention of wanting any crackers.  Has anyone ever heard a real parrot say that?

It’s not just psittacines in cages who go mad, but only bipedal hominids, sane or otherwise, are  guaranteed the right to bear arms.  The parrot knows nothing of that, so he grabs hold of the metal tube stuck into his cage, cocks his head to look down the barrel, and…..Polly want a harp?  Already got the wings.

Next, we’re with State Troopers James Duckbundy (perhaps an even rarer name than Grofield, possible Westlake made it up), and Roger Ellis, driving over to Jack Riley’s house, when they hear a rifle shot.  There are still some gun laws enforced in these United States, and one of them is that you can’t discharge a firearm within five hundred feet of a house (probably not as tightly enforced as all that in some places, but this is New York State).

They see somebody getting into a black Taurus by a boarded-up house.  They see a rifle.  They identify themselves as police, command him to put the weapon on the ground.  They have no way of knowing this guy just shot a parrot for talking back to him.  But they know he’s ready to shoot them for doing the same, and while eleven shots is probably excessive, you know how it is with semi-automatics and panic. (I would like to see ordinary patrolmen go back to revolvers, but I get why they probably won’t.)

Now we’re with Tom, heading for the track in his Ford SUV, thinking about what to name his parrot, wondering where the hell Parker is, vaguely aware of a Volkswagen Jetta behind him, seeing a black Infiniti rocket past him, dealing with the fact that if his accomplice has ditched him, he’s never going to have the nerve to take the money himself, even though the take would be twice as large, and the risk of capture about the same.

Chapter 11.  Suzanne and Brian are still tied up in the gas station.  She’s woken up by gunshots, which we know mark the end of Fred Thiemann’s life, but she doesn’t.  She’s quietly humiliated by her recent inability to grasp the fact that the man who tied them up was not being rude.  He was a bank robber, looking for a way not to kill them.

Bank robbers were being hunted all around the countryside, but when this had happened to Suzanne, did she think, bank robbers?  No, she thought, now, see what they’re doing to me, and it took Brian Hopwood of all people to tell her, not gently, that this time the story wasn’t about her, it was about him, about that man, the one who’d tied them up and gone away.

And on top of everything else, she really really needs to go to the bathroom.  Isn’t there some saying about how The Necessary is the Mother of Invention?  She’s the one tied the knots holding Brian fast–used to be a Girl Scout.  She figures what she can do, she can undo.  Brian is skeptical, but she’s insistent (because her bladder is too).  And as she starts to make progress, he perks up, begins to help, and they’re both free.  And she’s running for the rest room.  And he’s reminding her she’ll need the key.

A very light section for such a dark book.  Doesn’t advance the plot in any way, though it might have done if they’d gotten free a few hours ago.  No danger they’d die of starvation in there.  The worst possibility they faced was having to wet their drawers, a fate now averted by Suzanne’s knot-savvy.  What’s the point of this chapter?

Stark wanted to know. He wondered how it turned out. It’s that simple.  He’s got a lot of developing situations to monitor, but he kept an eye on these two, watching to see if they’d find a way to work together, get out of their shared predicament.  They did.  Well done.  His curiosity satisfied, he turns his gaze elsewhere, and these two groundlings are seen no more, save for a brief curtain call. Enough with the comic relief (and the very low-key sexual tension neither of them is ever going to do anything about).

Following Tom down the highway, in the sister’s Jetta, Cory and Cal are getting confused.  What’s he up to?  For that matter, what are they up to?  Their necks in trouble, but that’s nothing new for the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern of upstate NY.

They know Tom wouldn’t be covering for this wanted felon if there wasn’t something in it for him.  That something has to be money.  Cal would like some of that money for himself.  Cory too, though it seems more like he’s just doing it for his brother–and to see if he can do it.  If he can come up with a plan that will get them what they want.  If Westlake were writing this book, maybe he would.  He should have checked the title page.

Still, he’s got potential–he solves the mystery–the race track.  The one Tom used to work at.  That’s where they’re going.  That’s what this is about.  That’s where the money is.

Neither of them is really thinking about what they might have to do to get this money.  Well, Cal’s thinking about it a little–he brought a gun.  High Standard GI, in .45 caliber.  Small gun, big bullets. Bought it in a pawn shop, years ago. Just like Jack Riley, he’s been fascinated by it ever since, wondering what it would be like to use it on someone.  (Guns are a bit like snakes, you ever think about that? And we’re the birds.  Ask the parrot about that.  Well, too late now.)

Cory freaks.  A Westlake hero, in a Stark novel, he never counted on anything heavy.  And he suddenly notices that his brother seems drunk–that beer is kicking in all of a sudden.

Then Cal notices that Tom Lindahl is alone in that car.  They pull over at a closed gas station.  Cal is beside himself with anger and fear.  Where’s Ed?

Right behind you, doofus.  Has been for a while.  In the black Infiniti (get the implicit pun?)  Which now pulls in front of them, blocking the road.  Parker gets out.  His hands are empty.  Cal remembers those hands.  He yanks out his .45 auto.  Parker takes out his .22 revolver.  Guess who wins?

Cal drops.  Cory runs for it in the Jetta.  In the rearview mirror, he can see Parker, striding, hands at his side, the gun in one of them.  Maybe he wasn’t going to kill them before.  But that was before Cal pulled out the gun.  Nobody who sees Parker like that ever forgets.  A Romero zombie would be comforting by comparison.  Still, Cory could just keep driving.

A brother is not so easily abandoned.

Absolute panic compelled him to drive hard for three or four minutes on a road with no traffic until he overtook a slow-moving pickup and had to decelerate.  As he slowed, the panic receded and clear thought came back, and he knew he had to go take care of Cal.  He was the younger brother, but he’d always been the one with brains, the one who went along with Cal’s stunts but then–sometimes–got them both out of trouble when things went too far.

Cal was hit.  Shot.  How bad?

(So they’re not twins, after all?  Cal was just joking about that?  Or is Cory the younger brother by a few minutes?  For our purposes, it doesn’t really matter.  So I don’t really care.)

Nobody there at the gas station. No body. No Ed Smith.  No Infiniti.  The gun’s still there on the ground, where Cal dropped it.  Cory picks it up.  What would you have done?

Chapter 13 is Captain Robert Modale, trying to put all the pieces together.  A man is dead.  He shot a parrot, then committed suicide by cop.  Two people were tied up in a gas station by one of the escaped bank robbers, who stole a really nice car.  The dead man’s wife says he killed a vagrant while on the police manhunt that no armed civilians should have had any part in, and this house guest of Tom Lindahl’s they now know was the bank robber convinced them both to stay quiet about it, and it drove Fred Thiemann crazy, so he shot a parrot.  Of course.  It all makes perfect sense now.  The only thing Modale knows for sure is that if he gets his hands on Tom Lindahl, he’s going to have a whole lot of questions.

At Gro-More, one of the two security guards is bored.  He decides to go for a walk around the complex.  What the hell.  Do his job, why not?  He retires next month.  He’s feeling nostalgic.  So he walks around, and he sees headlights–a car.  In a place no car should be this time of night.  Could be more crazy people wanting to hurt the horses stabled there.  He hadn’t set out to be a hero, but…..(is a goddam leitmotif in this book).

Tom Lindahl (they were his lights) reaches the dirt road he needs to turn off on, to reach the point where he and Parker can enter the complex, do the job. And he keeps going a ways, until he reaches another damn diner (no McDonalds up there?), and pulls over by a dumpster.  To think.  Maybe this was all a bad idea, start to finish.  But even bad ideas happen for a reason.  It’s the reason he’s after.  Why did he start this?  Where should he go now?

I can’t go back there.  He meant Pooley, he meant the little converted garage he’d been living in, he meant that whole life.

He didn’t think, I can’t go home.  That wasn’t home, he hadn’t had a home in years.  That was where he’d camped out, waiting for something to happen, although, until Smith had come along, there was never anything going to happen except one day he wouldn’t be waiting any more.

But Smith had come along and riled up the waters.  Tom had met him, and hooked up with him, and told him about his racetrack opportunity, because he’d thought he wanted revenge and money, but he’d been wrong.  He’d wanted a hand grenade to throw into the middle of his empty unbearable life, and boy, he’d sure found one.

And he knows, as he stands there in the dark, that whether he robs the track or not, he’s a marked man.  Too many people know too many things about him and his guest.  Tom Lindahl is going to get arrested if he goes home, so there can’t be any Tom Lindahl anymore.  He’s got to be somebody else, somewhere else.  But he still needs some closure, so he’ll go back, wait for Ed.  If Ed doesn’t show, he’ll just leave.

Once the decision was made, it was easy, as though it had always been easy; he’d just been too close to it to see the path.  Now he could see it.  He started the engine, drove to Dead End, and this time headed on in.  He went to where there was the right turn to the chain-link fence, and stopped at the gate there.  He didn’t get out of the car but looked through the fence at the clubhouse and after a minute switched off the headlights.  He didn’t need them to know where he was.

Smith, in the dark beside Tom’s open window said, “Time to get started.”

(Tom doesn’t pee his pants, that we hear about, so he’s not kidding himself about being ready.)

So that’s Part Three.  Part Four is seven chapters, thirty-four pages in the first edition.  Not enough for a Part 4 review, even on this blog.  Time to finish up.

Chapter 1 is the penultimate Stark Rewind, and one of the best in the series.  It doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know.  Parker knew Cory had a plan, figured out what it was, countered it.  If Cal hadn’t taken out his gun, Parker would have just stopped them from going any further, but you know Cal.  And Parker knows who the real threat is.

The other one got scared, all right, and skittered away from there like a drop of water on a hot frying pan, but Parker knew he’d be back.  Cory’d made it his business to stand with his dumber crazier brother, so once the fright wore off, he’d have to come back.

Not 100% sure Cory won’t bleat to the troopers manning the roadblock, Parker disposes of Cal’s body, dumping it down a roadside gulch, into a creek.  He gets to the track ahead of Tom, and waits. Wondering if Tom’s nerve will hold.  He really does need a good score, but there’s no point without Tom’s keys and knowledge of the terrain.  If it’s not in the cards, he’ll just head back to Claire.  “It had been too long since he’d seen her.”  (Now that’s a Starkian love poem, much better than that schmaltz about the doors and windows in Flashfire.)

There are two pallets of cash waiting for them. Much more than expected. Parker says there’s no time to count it out, do a dead even split–stuff both duffels full of bills no smaller than a ten, they’ll each take one, and they’re done. Fortune favors the bold. Unless they’re security guards on the verge of retirement.

Bill, the hulking 6’5 rent-a-cop, who felt like taking a reminiscent stroll prior to his last day on the job, has stumbled across them.  Parker motions Tom to hide–and plays another role–the guy who came to play the ponies and drink, fell asleep in the men’s room. Honest, mister, I don’t know why all these doors were unlocked–I couldn’t find a way out!  Sure, call the cops if you like, just get me out of here.  And take me to your partner, so I can get you both out of the running.

Bill, suspicious, but not enough, takes Parker to the guard’s room where Max, the other guard feels like this guy is a bit of a smartass, might have to tenderize him. Parker takes out Hopwood’s little automatic, and a tender little moment follows, with a terrified Bill pleading with Max to remember how close they both are to getting out of this place alive. No need to bother with boot-laces this time, since they both have handcuffs.  Very convenient.

Parker gets back to the money room, where Tom is in a morbid state of mind, even for him.  He’s sure Parker killed the guards, both of whom he knew from his days at the track.  Parker explains once again that thing about how you don’t kill when you don’t have to, because it makes the law take you more seriously.  He can’t understand why everyone assumes he’s this mad dog killer.  (Doesn’t look in the mirror much.)

Tom is coming to terms with everything that’s happened because of his snap decision to go find Parker on that hillside, save him from the hounds.  He doesn’t know what happened to Fred (or his parrot), but he knows something awful will happen.  Parker, showing more patience than you’d expect, says Fred was already going crazy, because of his son, maybe.

If Fred had turned himself in, that might have purged his guilt, but he would have been just as doomed, because the mills of the law grind so exceeding fine. He was doomed the moment he squeezed the trigger.  Nothing Tom did changed that.  It’s bad enough to be guilty about your own bad decisions you can never take back.  If you’re going to take responsibility for everyone else’s, where does it end?

Now Tom’s ready to start in on the old hobo, whose body they left to be devoured by scavengers; deprived him of a decent funeral, embalming fluids, a few scattered family members pretending they’re sorry he’s gone.  Tom never heard of sky burial, I guess.  Or certain practices of the North American Plains Indians. Or Robinson Jeffers.  May my own remains come to such a noble end.  Parker reminds Tom that if they don’t get out of there soon, they’ll come to a far worse one.  Tom agrees.

The loot is stowed in the duffels–Tom didn’t let his guilt paralyze him.  But they have one more hurdle to clear.  Cory’s here.  It’s not about the money anymore, for him.

Parker has to fill Tom in on what happened further back along the highway.  Tom has to process that while Parker doesn’t kill when he doesn’t need to, sometimes he really needs to.  And sometimes that creates the need to kill again. Another reason not to do it if you don’t have to.

Their strategic position could be better.  Cory, being the smart Dennison brother, has picked a spot outside, in view of their two cars, where he can pick them both off, if they go out the way they came in.  Parker has to try and flank him.  He has no reason to think Tom would be an asset in this fight, so he tells him to stay put–but Tom wants to know–suppose Parker loses?  Parker tells him to go to the guard room, get one of their revolvers. Then he goes hunting. For someone who is already hunting him.

What follows over most of the final three chapters must have been challenging to write–certainly challenging to write about, and I think I’ll pass.  Several men in the dark, with guns, maneuvering around, looking for an advantage, a target.  It’s exciting to read, and very hard to describe.  It’s the kind of scene Westlake himself was painfully aware could be more effectively depicted on film.

With one major exception–prose fiction’s great advantage over the visual arts, and Westlake knew it–he can tell us what’s going on inside the heads of the characters.  In this case, Parker’s head, since it’s all from his POV.  We follow him around in the dark, watch him calculate the odds with cold dispassion.  We only know what he knows.  And what he doesn’t.

He doesn’t know exactly where Cory is.  He doesn’t know what Tom is doing.  He doesn’t know if he can trust Tom not to pull a cross.  He doesn’t know if Cory is too overcome with rage to think clearly, or if his anger has made him more focused.  He assumes only one thing.  That if he sees Cory’s silhouette, backlit in the darkness, he’ll shoot him.

Cory gets a few shots off, and Parker knows he thinks maybe he’s killed Parker.  The maybe would only make him more frightened, as his rage begins to cool. Because now he’s not sure of anything.

We’re sure–Parker is unhurt, lying low, still waiting.  Tom emerges–Parker wonders where he’s been, what he’s planning.  He calls for ‘Ed’–Parker doesn’t respond.  Cory and Tom talk.  Cory says he’s killed Ed.  Does Tom believe him? Tom asks if Cory wants to kill him too.  Cory says no.  Does Tom believe that?  Does he just want to get away with all the cash?  Then Tom, who did get one of the guards’ guns, shoots at Cory, misses, but this provides covering fire for Parker to shift position undetected.  He knew, as Parker did, that Cory needed both of them.

In the end, nobody catches a bullet.  Cory, his strategy defeated, his nerve broken, gets clubbed over the head with the butt of Parker’s pistol, as he searches through the parked cars for Parker’s body.  Unlikely he’s dead, though he could have a bad concussion.  Parker doesn’t check. Because he doesn’t care.

He comes up on Tom in the darkness again–he did believe Cory killed Parker, so he’s taking the second duffel, putting it in his car, preparing to scram before the law shows.  Parker isn’t offended, he’d have done the same thing (he has done the same thing).  He’s pleased.  Tom got their money.  Now they need to go their separate ways.  Two roads diverging in a wood.

I will allow myself one more long quote.  These two have packed a lot into their short time together.  Now they have to express something to each other.  Without using a lot of words.  Or time.

Parker opened the rear cargo door and looked in at the two long mounds, like body bags.  Lindahl came and stood beside him, looking in at the bags.  “I did it,” he said, his voice quiet but proud.  “I know, you and me together did it, but I did it.  After all this time.”

“We’ll just put it on the ground outside,” Parker said, reaching for the top duffel, “beside the wall.”

“You don’t want me to see your car.”

“You don’t need to see my car.  Come on, Tom.”

They put their arms around the end of the duffel and carried it around the car and through the gate and put it on the ground beside the wall.  Looking down at it, Lindahl said, “Half the time I was sure, if we ever got it, and I never thought we’d get it, but I was sure…” His voice trailed off, with a little vague hand gesture.

“You were sure I’d shoot you,” Parker said.  “I know.”

“You could have, anytime.”

Parker said, “You brought me the job, you went in on the job with  me, that’s yours.”

Lindahl giggled; a strange sound out here.  “You mean,” he said, “like, honor among thieves?”

“No,” Parker said.  “I mean a professional is a professional.  Take off, Tom, and stay away from roadblocks.  That car might be burned by now.”

“I’ll be okay,” said Lindahl.  The giggle had opened some looseness inside of him, some confidence, as though he’d suddenly had a drink.  “So long,” he said, and got behind the wheel of the Ford.  His window was open; he looked out and might have said something else, but Parker shook  his head, so Lindahl simply put the Ford in gear and drove away from there.

Once Lindahl had made the turn onto the dirt road leading to the county road, Parker went over to bring the Infiniti up close to the duffel.  By then, Lindahl was out of sight.  Parker wondered how far he’d get.

Parker wondered how far he’d get.  Perhaps the most six most enigmatic words in all twenty-four books.  He doesn’t wonder if the man who just tried to kill him is dead.  He does wonder what will become of his fellow hunter. Parker never wonders about things he doesn’t care about.

Earlier in the book, when Parker told Tom that his best course of action after the heist would be to stay where he was, gut it out, face down the law, Tom responded, “It’s like hunting, I see that.  In some ways, it’s like hunting.  The main thing is, you have to be patient.  If you’re patient, you’ll get what you want.” Parker’s only rejoinder was his usual two-syllable affirmative.

As I’ve said already, Parker was not giving Tom good advice there.  Tom could never have stayed in Pooley and kept out of jail–probably not even if he hadn’t pulled the heist.  But it was for Tom to figure that out for himself.  He already had, when the job started, for reasons of his own–but Parker couldn’t know that.

He does know that to get that pistol he fired at Cal, Tom had to show his face to the two guards, who would have recognized him, could identify him.  He knows Tom wouldn’t have killed them.  So he knows he doesn’t need to tell Tom it’s time to leave Pooley, leave this part of the country, never look back.  I don’t know if he would have.  I’m guessing not.

Knowing more about what happened back in Pooley earlier that day, Parker does warn Tom that they probably already know about him, will be looking for his car.  He didn’t need to say that.  Tom could have figured it out for himself, as he has so many other things, in the course of the nigh-Himalayan learning curve he’s traversed the last two days.

But a professional is a professional.  Get it?  There are certain courtesies professionals owe each other.  And nothing else, far as Parker is concerned. Good fences make good neighbors.

But he still wonders.  To wonder implies giving a damn either way.  Why does he care?  Ask the Parrot.

Twenty-three down.  One to go.  That’s right.

(And a sidebar:  Up top, below the cover image for the audiobook, you see a photo of Vernon Downs, the only racetrack that actually exists between Albany and Syracuse–too far from the border with Massachusetts to be the track in this novel, but perhaps a model for Gro-More, all the same. John O’Leary mentioned it in the comments section, and I looked it up.

Last June, the owner was threatening to close the whole complex down.  First the casino [of course they got one, the sport of kings and the king of sports go together like Donald Trump and pussy-grabbing], then the track, then the hotel.  Last day for the track would have been November 11th.  I was going to write a little elegy, but then I found another article that said the state assembly caved, in the face of several hundred jobs disappearing, and agreed to give Vernon a bigger cut of the casino money.

If you want to know where your cut is, maybe ask the parrot about that too.)

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Ask the Parrot, Part 2

Twas a sick young man with a face ungay
And an eye that was all alone;
And he shook his head in a hopeless way
As he sat on a roadside stone.

‘O, ailing youth, what untoward fate
Has made the sun to set
On your mirth and eye?’ ‘I’m constrained to state
I’m an ex-West Point cadet.

”Twas at cannon-practice I got my hurt
And my present frame of mind;
For the gun went off with a double spurt-
Before it, and also behind!’

‘How sad, how sad, that a fine young chap,
When studying how to kill,
Should meet with so terrible a mishap
Precluding eventual skill.

‘Ah, woful to think that a weapon made
For mowing down the foe
Should commit so dreadful an escapade
As to turn about to mow!’

No more he heeded while I condoled:
He was wandering in his mind;
His lonely eye unconsidered rolled,
And his views he thus defined:

”Twas O for a breach of the peace-’twas O
For an international brawl!
But a piece of the breech–ah no, ah no,
I didn’t want that at all.’

Polyphemus, by Ambrose Bierce

They stopped at a run-down traditional diner for lunch on the way back.  They chose a table beside the large window with its view out to very little Sunday traffic on this secondary road, and after they’d given the waitress their orders, Parker said, “Tell me about the Dennisons.”

“The who?  Oh, Cory and Cal?  What do you want to know about them for?”

“They came to see me last night.  Right after you left.”

“They came–They were at my place?”

“They think I might be one of the missing robbers.”

“Jesus!”  Lindahl looked as thought he just might jump straight up and out of the diner and run a hundred miles down the road.  “What are they gonna do?”

“If I am one of the robbers,” Parker said, “they think I must have a bunch of money on me.”

“But you don’t.”

“But if I was, and if I did, I could give Cal money to get plastic surgery and an artificial eye.”

“Oh for–” No longer in a panic, Lindahl now looked as though he’d never heard anything so dumb.  “They said that to you?  You’re the robber and give us some of the money?”

“The robber part wasn’t said.”

“But that’s what it was all about.  And if you give them the money, they won’t report you? Is that the idea?”

“I suppose so.”

“That’s a Cal idea, all right,” Lindahl said.  “He’s jumped off barn roofs since he was a little kid.”

Cal, suddenly bristling, said, “My brother tells me when to shut up.  You don’t tell me to shut up.”

As Lindahl killed the sound on the television set, Parker took a step forward and slapped Cal hard, open-handed, across the cheek, under the patch.  Cal jolted back, astonished and outraged.  Parker stood watching him, hands at his sides, and Cal, fidgeting wide eyed, tried to figure out something to do.

I have many times had cause to give fervent thanks for my comments section regulars (and irregulars), who have provided me not only with their opinions, but with information I had not previously possessed.  Rarely has this information presented itself in such a timely fashion, however.

Responding to Part 1 of this review yesterday, PhilPo, whose own blog may be seen here, provided this tidbit–used to be on the Official Westlake Blog.  I’d heard about it from Greg Tulonen, but he didn’t have the exact wording.  Thankfully, Phil had the text archived in his email, and his sharp eye (two, I hope) perceived its relevance to our current investigations.  Westlake posted this in June of 2006:

It began in January of last year, when my wife and I joined three other couples on a long-planned three-week trip in Southeast Asia. The night before we left, I started to get flashers and floaters in my left eye, but decided to ignore them, since otherwise I’d have to cancel the trip at the last second. After a twelve-hour flight from New York to Seoul, change planes, four hour flight to Hong Kong, I couldn’t see out of that eye.

The next day, I went into a hospital for an operation for a retinal separation. Terrific hospital, terrific doctors, but it was just the beginning. With more retinal tears, plus cataracts, between January 26th and December 15th, I had ten eye operations, all but the first in New York, seven on the left eye and three on the right. As I was warned partway through the experience, the left eye is now permanently damaged, but usable.

For eight months last year, I was essentially one-eyed. I couldn’t drive. It was hard to read. It was hell to go downstairs, particularly at Angkor Wat (yes, we did the Asian trip anyway). That’s over now; the damaged eye is doing what it can.

But it cost me a year. I did very little work in that time, which was why there was a halt in my publishing anything new.

So January of 2005 is when this started.  Westlake was engaging in that bit of radio wordplay with Erin McKean that I referenced last week in November of Aught Four, and going by the fact that his applications of her three endangered words all appear early in this book, we may assume he had not handed in a finished manuscript by the time of the planned vacation.

Meaning, as you have no doubt already intuited, it’s not likely a coincidence that one of his characters in this book has lost the use of an eye (has lost the eye, starker image, no medical jargon).  He’s pissed about it.  As his creator was.  As anyone would be.

The facial scarring the semi-literate Cal has in addition to the eyepatch is there, I’d think, to substitute for the angst Westlake experienced from neither reading nor writing books for long months.  Motivation.  Being Polyphemus is fun for nobody, with the possible exception of pirate cosplayers.  (Cal is quite taken with Tom’s parrot, says he ought to have one.)

(I don’t know if Westlake would approve of my using that morbidly irreverent poem up top–morbid and irreverent even for Bierce–but he is known to have approved of Bierce and I figured what the hell.)

Cal Dennison, and I think his brother Cory as well, represent two more of those characters you notice here and there in Westlake novels, who represent a road not taken–a life Westlake feels he might have lived, had he been less fortunate.  Suppose he’d lost his eye as a young man, living in upstate New York?  Suppose he hadn’t had insurance worth a damn?  Suppose he never got to read all the books that made him who he was, expanded his horizons, filled him with ambitions above his station in life?

Or suppose he’d been twins?  And one half of the amniotic duo was holding the other back?

Possible some version of the Dennisons (I’m going to guess that’s a pun) was already cued up in his head, before the eye troubles began–a necessary plot complication, of a type familiar in these books–the Cal/Cory subplot and its bloody climax bears a certain familial resemblance to the Negli/Feccio story from The Seventh–but what happened to Westlake during the time he was writing this book would still have shaped them, and Cal in particular.  So it’s good that we know about it now.  And can put it in its proper context.  (Unless he had already conceived a one-eyed character before his own ocular occurrence.  Which would be kind of scary.)

This all tracks with other intel we have, such as the fact that the New York Times review of this book–and it’s a thoughtful full-length review in the Sunday section, not a squib in their little crime fiction ghetto column–written by none other than James Wolcott, very nice indeed–was published in December of Aught Six.  Over two years after Westlake said on NPR that he expected this book would be in stores no later than November of Aught Five.  (He didn’t say Aught Five, I’m being archaic.  Parker tends to put me in that mood.)

I like Wolcott’s review, and vigorously disagree with most of it.  In retrospect, it’s quite obvious this is a much better book than Nobody Runs Forever, and a bit silly to talk about how a few extra blondes Parker won’t even think about going to bed with add sexual tension, assuming you even think every novel in the mystery genre needs some of that (somebody better tell Agatha Christie).

But I can still see his point–this isn’t what we expect from a Richard Stark heist story, and as a sequel to the previous book, it’s downright baffling.  It’s The Jugger all over again–a book that departed from all the established tropes of the series, and was greeted with a good deal of head-scratching by the readership when it first appeared–and then grew on us, like a fungus.  And yet, I’d argue, this book lives up to the basic formula of the Parker novels much better than the other two panels in this Triptych.

Here, the multi-POV part of the book is Part Three.  In Nobody Runs Forever and Dirty Money, it’s in Part Two (Nobody Runs Forever also switches POV’s in Part Four).  But more than that, this book revisits one of the most fascinating and consistent elements in Parker’s behavior–how he’ll take some aspiring felon under his wing, show him the ropes. (Who had better learn those ropes fast, or Parker may garrote him with one.)

Tom Lindahl is the last in this line of journeyman heisters, that includes Alan Grofield, Stan Devers, Larry Lloyd, and a few less apt pupils who don’t make it to the end of their respective books.  Tom is perhaps the most ordinary of the bunch, in that he doesn’t really want to be a thief, isn’t looking to pull more than one job, but doesn’t try to kid himself about the fact that once is all it takes.  He’s going to change, and he wants to change.

Stealing from his former employer is the only way Tom can regain his self-respect, not a motive Parker can relate to much.  Tom and Parker have a wall between them.  But over that wall, they can converse, learn things from each other, serve each other’s needs.  And nowhere is that more evident than in Part Two of this novel.  Which is all Part 2 of this review is going to cover.  Meaning I have to cover the rest in Part 3.  Well, it kind of worked last time……

Lindahl has already driven down to the track once tonight.  Parker wasn’t going to risk being stopped by the law with no ID.  The track has a machine that can make him a new driver’s license, that will pass muster as long as the cops don’t call headquarters to have it run through their system–and they’re too bored with this roadblock gig to do that.

Using a picture he took of Parker’s faux license, bearing the name John B. Allen (that Parker can never use again), Tom cooked up a very real-looking card on a machine he himself purchased and trained on years before.  Presto chango, Parker is William G. Dodd, of Troy NY.  The name of a retired former colleague of Tom’s.  Now the name of his new colleague, for whom ‘retired’ is a synonym for ‘deceased.’

To say Parker is grateful for this vital service Tom has done him would be imputing to him an emotion he may not be capable of.  He’s appreciative.  Put it that way.  He respects good work of any kind.  And this is good work. Which he’s going to test by driving himself and Tom right back to this track he’s heard so much about.  Time to case the joint.

A billboard ahead on the right read

GRO-MORE RACING
Next Right

That’s the main gate,” Lindahl said.  “We don’t want that.  You keep going, about another quarter mile, there’s a dirt road on this side.”

The dashboard clock read 12:42.  In the last hour, William G. Dodd’gs new driver’s license had been inspected by two state troopers at roadblocks and found acceptable; which of course, was more likely at night than by day.

On the drive down, Lindahl had alternated between a kind of buzzing vibrancy, keyed up, giving Parker little spatter-shots of his autobiography, and a deep stillness, as he studied his newly changed interior landscape, as mute as his parrot.

There’s just two guards, working for an outside company, and they rarely patrol–they do watch TV monitors showing various parts of the complex, and the building is alarmed.  It’s not much security for a place that holds hundreds of thousands in cash.  If Parker had known about this track before now, he’d probably have hit it years ago.  Getting so hard to find soft targets like this in the new cashless economy.  He’s been dealing with that ever since we met him, and it’s only gotten worse.

But the fact is, people still use cash.  And for gambling–well, would you want the wife to know how much you blew at the track?  She will if it’s on your credit card statement.  Many businesses still prefer cash, insist on cash, because of the added expense that comes with credit, that little slice of the pie the banks take, the equipment you have to buy.

Gro-More got with the times, they take credit cards, but a lot of people still pay cash.  And no track casino yet (though you can bet it’s in the works–maybe that’s one of the reasons the owners were greasing palms in Albany).

(Sidebar: Little story before we go on–I work at a college campus.  A significant amount of petty cash–enough that you might question calling it petty–was kept in an office here.  When that office was closed, somebody broke in and took the money.  Thousands.  Everybody assumed it was an inside job, and it likely was, but the perps were never caught.

No publicity–because you wouldn’t want to encourage others to try the same thing.  It wasn’t the crime of the century or anything.  Nobody got hurt.  Most people here never even knew about it.  But when I go into that office now, and there’s just one person there, sometimes that person gives a little start, you know?  Calls out “Who’s there?”  Looks around to make sure I’m not wearing a mask, holding a pistol.

There’s stashes like this all over the place, waiting for some aspiring crook to find them, and they do, much more often than you think.  Because people still use cash.  In Colorado, that’s all the newly minted Pot Lords can use, because banks won’t touch their profits.  Nothing petty about that cash, and they buy big heavy safes for it, hire tough guys to watch it.

This particular score I’m talking about was minor league–they probably blew it all on a night on the town [or the kids’ braces, how would I know?]  But you think they’ll ever stop grinning to each other about it when they meet?  Easy money.  As long as you know how to avoid the pitfalls.  As long as you don’t get caught.

I won’t even mention the woman who got caught embezzling here–a lot more money than those office heisters got.  Nice lady, used to talk to her all the time.  That got covered in the campus paper [kids must have been so excited over the scoop.]  A different kind of crime, requiring a different kind of criminal, and a different kind of crime writer.  So many specialties.

She didn’t go to jail, by the way.  Which you can bet the office heisters would have done, if they’d been caught. Nobody said life was fair.  Or that the phrase “I won’t even mention” should be taken literally.

Okay, back to the book.  Which feels a lot more real than Parker robbing an island casino run by a German aristocrat who used to be a Nazi.  Or fighting off a small army of mobsters in an amusement park.  But you know, I love those too.  Ain’t genre grand?)

There’s a wooden wall surrounding the entire facility, but Tom can turn off the alarm, unlock the gate.  Nobody has ever tried to rob this place–a few times, weirdos came here wanting to hurt the horses, that’s the only thing they really worry about.  Parker could care less about the horses.  All he’s interested in is the lay-out, and Tom is giving it all to him as they go.

They’re in the main building now, where the offices are.  Tom takes Parker through one office, so as to avoid some security cameras.  Somebody left a partly eaten omelet on a desk.  Tom knocks it over.  Here’s the final secret word from the game Westlake played with McKean–only 99 pages in–

He had bumped into the wrong desk, causing the breakfast to flip over and hit the floor facedown.  Lindahl stooped to pick up the plate, but the omelet stuck to the black linoleum, which was now a black icean, and that omelet the sandy desert island, with the solitary strip of bacon sticking  up from it, slightly slumped but brave, the perfect representation of the stranded sailor, alone and waiting for his cartoon caption.  On the floor, it looked like what the Greeks call archeiropoietoi, a pictorial image not made by a human hand.

“I ought to clean that up,” Lindahl said, frowning down doubtfully at the new island.

“A mouse did it,” Parker told him.  “Drop the plate on it and let’s go.”

Maybe the last time in these books that Stark interjects his personal perspective and knowledge into the narrative–because you know damn well Parker doesn’t know from archeiropoietoi. He doesn’t see the egg island and bacon sailor.  Tom may perceive the image, but he doesn’t know the word.  Neither did Westlake, before McKean gave it to him.

But language maven that he was, he was always picking up odd bits of obscure neglected verbiage (like pootle), putting them back to work.  It sticks out a bit–but it reminds you somebody is telling this story, and he is seeing things Parker misses.  And perhaps wishing he could stop seeing them, but he sees them anyway.  Stark cares about art.  Even accidental art.  So contrived as this is, sticking a word into a book simply to answer a challenge from a fellow word nerd, it also feels organic to the series.  Strange.

With some care, they make their way to the room where the cash is stored, in long metal boxes–which Tom proudly says he’s stolen a few of, for when he does the job he was never really going to do until somebody came along to prod him into action.  (He’s crestfallen when Parker says later they have to dump those boxes, pack the loot into easily toted anonymous canvas duffels–where’s the romance in that?  Stark may be a romantic; Parker is anything but.)

Looking at the cash there now–the cash they aren’t going to take yet–Parker asks the crucial question.

“How much is in there, usually, on a Saturday night?”

“Probably more than a hundred thousand, less than one-fifty.”

Parker nodded.  Enough to keep him moving.

Lindahl, proud and anxious, said, “So what do you think?”

“It looks good.”

With a huge relieved smile, Lindahl said, “I knew you’d see it.  You ready to go?”

“Yes.”

On their way out, up the stairs from the basement, Lindahl said, “You know, I know why you wanted me to open that box.  You didn’t want your fingerprints on it.”

“That’s right,” Parker said.

So they drive back to Pooley, and Parker, beginning to see Lindahl as a fellow professional (one who needs a lot of retraining), starts to lay out the rules.  Lindahl has to follow his lead, do what he says.  He’s the expert–that’s why he’s here, and Lindahl is willing to settle for half.  They’re going to take no bills smaller than a ten.  They’re going to obtain cheap canvas duffels, not use the heavy identifiable metal cash boxes, as Tom, looking for symbolic retribution as much as profit, wanted to do.

Lindahl has some rules of his own–

“But I can say no, I guess,” Lindahl said.  “I can say no, I don’t want to do that, and then we don’t do it.  Like if you say, ‘Now we go kill the two guys in security,’ I can say no, and we don’t do it.”

I’m not out to kill anybody,” Parker said.  “It only makes the heat worse.”

“Well, whatever it might be,” Lindahl said. “If I don’t like it, I can say no, and we don’t do it.”

“You’re right,” Parker told him.  “You can always say no.”

“Good.  We  understand each other.” Lindahl nodded at the window. “Lights out there.”

Another roadblock.  Another ID check.  Another narrow escape. And then Parker hits Tom with the rule he didn’t see coming.  Because he still hasn’t grasped the full implications of what he’s doing.

Parker tells him they’re going to take the money tomorrow night.  Tom had the notion that they’d wait for the weekend.  The armored car comes on Friday to pick up the cash, doesn’t come back until Monday.  So do it Saturday night–by the time they find out the money is gone, he’s got a thirty-six hour lead for his getaway.  And they’ll know it was him.  They’ll know he beat them.

Parker says that’s all bunk.  A few more hours won’t make any difference, one way or another.  Tom’s going to leave a trail.  He’s not experienced at getaways.  He should just stay put, cache his share in that boarded up house next to his converted garage, look the cops and prosecutors right in the eye and say he didn’t do it.  Let them prove he did.  In a year, he tells people he’s going on a trip, and he doesn’t come back.  Sets himself up in a new place.  Tells people back home he decided to retire someplace warm.

This is decent advice in the abstract, I think–though it might require more nerve and conviction than Tom has shown us so far.  It has the advantage that Tom wouldn’t need to build up a new identity from scratch, and he could still collect Social Security in a decade or so. It’s not like they’re heisting millions here.  Tom’s share would amount to no more than a small nest egg in the early 21st.  The whole take wouldn’t be enough to set him up for life.

So Parker’s suggestion would have much to recommend it–if so many people hadn’t already seen Tom with ‘Ed Smith.’  At this point, only Cory and Cal know who that really is–though Fred suspects.  Tom has also shown his ID at multiple roadblocks, going to and from the track.  The second time with a man matching Parker’s description, using an ID Tom made himself, with the name of a former co-worker of his on it.  Too many weak spots.  It wouldn’t work. Tom would get taken by the law–or tortured by greedy low-lifes like the Dennisons, for his share of the take.  Either way, he’d never make it to retirement.  You have to believe Parker knows that.

Does Parker care that he’s giving Tom bad advice?  Nope.  Tom’s no more than half a professional to him at this point, if that.  Parker wants to do the job ASAP because he needs to get out of there.  Thanks to Tom, he’s got new ID–he’ll have the money soon enough–now he needs a few other things.  What happens to Tom is up to Tom.  If he can’t see the cracks in the scenario Parker is laying out for him, he’s never going to make it on the run anyway.  It’s no different from what Parker said to Fred and Tom, to get them not to talk about Fred shooting the old derelict in the back. Telling them an edited version of the truth, to get the reaction he wants.

(It’s not all that different from the song and dance he gave that scared teenager in The Jugger, about how he’d help the kid get away from the consequences of killing someone by mistake. The kid takes Parker at his word. He’s making a grave mistake. Spoiler pun alert.)

Difference here is, he still needs Tom to pull the heist–and for all his lack of seasoning, Tom is starting to impress Parker with his sagacity.  There’s a wall between them, and Lindahl is straddling it, talking about what he will and won’t do.  To get the real advice, the full benefit of Parker’s expertise, he needs to get both feet planted on the other side of that wall.  Until that happens, he’s just another civilian–and, if he gets in Parker’s way, a casualty of war.  (Remind me again why some people think Parker got soft in the later books?)

They make it back.  It’s five-thirty in the morning.  Parker tells Tom to set the alarm for ten.  “You’ll sleep when we’re finished,” Parker tells him.  One way or another……

So next morning, Parker shows Tom the way he fixed up that boarded house so that you can get in or out without leaving any trace.  Then they drive to a mall that’s on its last legs.  Tom has to get those duffels, and the plastic gloves.

Parker has more serious shopping to do.  He brought the pistol he stole last night.  Uses it to rob one of those hip clothing stores where they look at you funny if you’re over thirty.  One of those places where people think it’s cute if you wear clothing with the name of a penitentiary on it.  ‘The Rad’ (now what could that be aimed at?)   He scares the kid at the cash register out of five year’s growth.  Gets cash he can actually spend on the road–in case the job tonight doesn’t work out.

Tom comes out of the Walmart or Target or whatever with the equipment.  They drive back.  Meet squad cars going the other way, lights flashing.  Tom wonders what’s up.  “Nothing to do with us,” Parker said. Us. Get it?  Mental reservation. I knew he was raised Catholic.  Just like Dortmunder.  Funny what takes and what doesn’t.

They stop to eat, and Parker tells him about Cory and Cal–doling out information in small amounts.  Have to be careful not to scare this finger away before they get into the pie.

Fred Thiemann’s wife is waiting for them when they get back.  She’s come for Fred’s hunting rifle.  He’s told her what happened at Wolf Peak.

Looking at her through the windshield, Parker saw a woman who was weighed down by something.  Not angry, not frightened, but distracted enough not to care what kind of appearance she made.  She was simply out in the world, braced for whatever the bad news would turn out to be.

Parker and Lindahl got out of the SUV, and Lindahl said “Jane.  How’s Fred?”

“Coming apart at the seams.” She turned bleak eyes toward Parker.  “You’re Ed Smith, I guess.”

“That’s right.”

“Fred’s afraid of you,” she said. “I’m not sure why.”

Parker shrugged.  “Neither am I.”

She tells them that Fred blames ‘Ed’ for what happened–not the shooting–he knows that’s on him–but for his deciding not to tell the police what happened.

That was a violation of his nature–maybe worse than the shooting itself, which was just an impulse act, regrettably commonplace, wherever firearms are sold.  He can’t live with it, and he can’t go back and fix it.

Parker doesn’t care what Fred can live with.  He just wants him to hold whatever’s bugging him in for another day, two at most.  He tells Jane to say that George, their son serving his time in Attica, will want Fred to be there when he gets out.  A not so subtle message about truth and consequences.  That Fred will somehow manage to garble, but we’ll get to that.

Cory and Cal show up as Jane is leaving.  All of a sudden, it’s like Grand Central Station at the hermitage.  Tom probably didn’t have as many visitors in the past year as he’s had in the past twenty-four hours.

Cal shows Tom a copy of the police artist sketch of Parker, done to Detective Gwen Reversa’s specifications.  It’s not a really good likeness.  But it’s a likeness.

“He could be a thousand guys,” Parker said.

“Not a thousand.”

Lindahl said, “Cal, if this picture looks so much like Ed here, and everybody up at the meeting at St. Stanislas had a copy of the picture, and Ed was standing right there with us, how come nobody else saw it?  How come everybody in the goddam parking lot didn’t turn around and make a citizen’s arrest?”

“It was that story in school,” Cal said, and frowned deeply as he turned to hand the sketch to Cory.  “That writer we had to read, all that spooky stuff.  Poe.  The something letter.  All about how everybody’s looking for this letter, and nobody can find it, and that’s because it’s right out there in plain sight, the one place you wouldn’t think it would be.  So  here’s a fella, and a whole bunch of guys get together to find  him, and where’s the best place he oughta hide?  Right with the bunch looking for him, the one place nobody in the county’s gonna think to look.”

Voice arched with sarcasm, Lindahl said, “And you, Cal, you’re the only one there figured it out.”

“Could happen,” Cal said, comfortable with himself.  “Could happen.”

“Not this time,” Parker said, and Cory said, “Look at that.”

Tom needs to turn that TV off sometime.  The one with the parrot over it.  It’s showing news footage about the daring robbery at the local mall.  Police say it was one of the bank robbers.  Oh, and the clerk’s name is Edwin Kislamski (he’s still shaking, but he’s also enjoying his moment of celebrity).  So we’ve got a Fred, an ‘Ed’ and now an Edwin.

Lindahl says nothing, but he’s trembling with anger and fear.  Parker waits to see if he’s going to have to shoot all three of them.  Tom somehow holds it all in, Cal oversteps his bounds, and Parker slaps him (this is where we came in).  Cory reins Cal in, and the brothers depart.  Parker is not reassured–he can see Cory isn’t like his brother.  He’s got a plan.

(You wouldn’t expect a guy like Cal to reference Poe, would you?  Something about that story got to him, but he never followed up, never became a reader,  never decided to see how many other interesting things you might learn from books, how far they might take you. Cory worked harder in school, learned self-control, how to plan, but he lacked imagination, vision, humor. Two halves who don’t quite make a whole, but who remain somehow essential to each other.  Ah, Anarchaos!  Almost missed that one, Mr. Westlake.

But you’re not talking about brothers now, anymore than you were back then. You’re talking about different parts of the self–your own younger self.  About who and what you might have been, if things had been a little different.  If you hadn’t gotten the two halves better aligned.  And what was it about losing an eye for a while that brought that out in you?  That got you thinking about contingency again.  There but for the grace of…..)

Tom’s  angry at Parker.  Not just for robbing a store while he was nearby, but for not telling him about it, even afterwards.  Not telling him about the gun, either.  Aren’t they partners?  Well no, not really. He understands that now.

But he’s getting over the anger, even while he’s expressing it.  Because after all, what did he expect when he went out looking for a crook to help him rob a racetrack?  It’s not quite the Scorpion and the Frog (Parker would at least wait until they were on the other side)–but–he’s on the edge of a realization.  An insight.  An  understanding very few have ever arrived at, about his guest.

After the Dennisons left, Parker said, “I’ll drive down to the corner, put some gas in the car.”

Sounding bitter, Lindahl said, “Using some of the money you stole from that boy?”

Parker looked at him. “You got that wrong, Tom,” he said. “I didn’t take anything from that boy.  I took some cash from a company that has nine hundred stores.  I needed the cash.  You know that.”

“You had that gun all along?”

“I’ll be right back,” Parker said, and turned to the door.

“No, wait.”

Parker looked back, and could see that Lindahl was trying to adjust his thinking.  He waited, and Lindahl nodded and said, “All right.  I know who you are, I already knew who you were.  I shouldn’t act as though it’s any of my business.”

“That’s right,” Parker said.

“It’s hard,” Lindahl said. “It’s hard to be around…”

The sentence trailed off, but Parker understood.  It’s hard to be around a carnivore.  “It won’t be for long,” he said.

I could almost believe that’s sympathy.  Well–empathy.  Tom understood him, just for a moment.  That’s rare.  He’s willing to return the favor.  It’s hard for a carnivore too, in a world of sheep. Lonely.

Tom tells Parker don’t go to the gas station just up the main drag in Pooley–it’s run by a semi-retired grease monkey, who doesn’t really like selling gas, so he charges more, hawks lottery tickets on the side.  Almost as anti-social as Tom.

Name’s Brian Hopwood. He’s a good mechanic, honest about that.  Always working on some car or other.  No, Tom says, go to the Getty station, not much further, way cheaper.  Like it really matters when they’re about to commit grand larceny.  Tom’s still in the straight world, worried about bargains.  Well, Parker needs a bargain deal on a getaway car.  Free would be good.  You won’t get that at Getty.  But that’s where he tells Lindahl he’s going.

He drives to the corner, and it’s one of those places you pay inside before you pump it yourself (it’s all self-service in New York, once you’re out of the big cities–New Jersey is more civilized, you can stay in your car, watch somebody wipe your windshield for you).  He walks in, gives Hopwood two twenties, says he’ll probably be needing change.  What he needs is a better look at this place and its proprietor.

He tells Hopwood he’s the guy staying with Tom Lindahl, knowing that Hopwood would have already recognized the car he’s serviced in the past.  He’s servicing a few others right now.  Just waiting there in the parking lot–the keys on the rack inside.  Thinks to himself he’ll come back later, pick out a ride.

Not so fast, sonny.  All of a sudden, Hopwood’s pointing a Seecamp LWS32 at him.  You know, there really are an awful lot of tiny little guns in these books.  I guess because with Parker, a gun really is just a gun.

250px-LWS32

But a .32 bullet really hurts, no matter what size the gun is.  Hopwood does the old don’t move a muscle routine.  He has the wanted poster, with the damn drawing.  Says he’ll wing Parker if he doesn’t get his hands over his head.  Figuring he’ll wait his chance, Parker starts to comply–and a woman comes in.  That same woman who talked to him last night.  Wanted to know if she could help.  She just did.  Parker throws her at Hopwood, and takes out his own tiny pistol.  “I don’t wing,” he says.

And to finish out Part Two, this woman looks at the Smith & Wesson Parker is now pointing at her and Hopwood, and says “You! You’re the one who stole Jack’s gun!”  Detectives. You can’t get away from them.  No matter how small the town is.

That’s a bit over 6,000 words.  For a section of the book that runs eleven chapters, fifty-seven pages.  Didn’t leave much meat on the bone for you this time, did I Greg?  Well, you know what they say about carnivores.  They always come back for thirds.  See you at Post #200.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Ask The Parrot

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.

Robert Frost

Thiemann looked out the windshield, not saying anything more, but thinking it over. He was suspicious of something, but he didn’t know what.  He had sensed the otherness in Parker, but he didn’t know what it meant.

An older Cadillac convertible, bright red, top down, big as a speedboat, came the other way, suddenly honking madly.  The three guys in it, middle-aged, in their bright orange or red hunting caps, waved hands with beer cans in them at Lindahl, who honked and waved back but didn’t stop.  Neither did the Cadillac, which went on by, the three guys all grinning and shouting things, now at Parker and Thiemann. They were very happy. Parker nodded, but didn’t honk.

“That’s part of our group,” Thiemann said.

“I know.”

“They shouldn’t be drinking.  That’s the worst thing you can do.”  Then Thiemann turned away with a grimace.  “Almost the worst thing.”

Ahead, Lindahl signaled for a left, and Parker did too.  “How much farther?”

“A couple miles.” Thiemann turned toward him again.  “You don’t think much of us, do you?”

“How do you mean?”

“Not just those guys with the beer,” Thiemann said.  “All of us, running around, being man hunters.  You could see in those troopers’ eyes, they thought we were all just a joke.  Useless and a joke.  And I could see it in your eyes too.  You think the same thing.”

Parker followed Lindahl around the turn.  Thiemann’s sense of Parker’s otherness, which had led him toward suspicion, had now led him to embarrassment instead. Parker wasn’t an alien from outside them, unknown and untrusted, he was a judge from above them, finding them wanting. Good; that moved Thiemann away from a direction that might have caused trouble.

Richard Stark

When Westlake conceived and wrote The Jugger, it seems to me that he had a very specific purpose in mind.  A bottle story, as it’s sometimes called.   Isolate Parker in a small midwestern town, where he would be cut off from the world he knows, his fellow professionals.

Not planning a job, because he just had a very satisfactory one, in Copper Canyon. Not knowing the terrain, the people he interacts with, the rules of the game he’s playing, or its stakes.  Trying to blend into the crowd, as he always does, finding it harder than usual, because any stranger draws attention in such a hick burg.  Fish out of water story would be another applicable term. But Parker is no fish.

He can’t leave until he knows what happened to his mentor Joe Sheer, and why–to see if it represents a threat to him.  Which it does.  There’s a lot of violence and evil beneath the innocent facade of that town, along with some genuine innocence.  Well, that’s pretty much true wherever humans live.  Parker has known that a long time.  He has never for one moment considered himself human.  Because he’s not.  What does he consider himself to be?  Unknown.

No doubt there’s a bit of Bad Day at Honda in it.  That short story by Howard Breslin that got turned into Bad Day at Black Rock.  I’ve read the story, seen the movie, and they’re both good–not a patch on The Jugger.  The Jugger, to me, is one of the finest short novels ever produced in any genre.  A minor masterpiece.  (The Godard film loosely adapted from it stinks on ice, which is nobody’s fault but Godard’s. Auteur theory cuts both ways.)

Westlake would not have agreed.  He repeatedly called The Jugger the worst failure he ever had.  Because he felt like he hadn’t come up with a strong enough motivation for Parker to come to this town in the first place, expose himself to so much risk with no potential reward.  Spencer Tracy comes to Black Rock because he’s a decent man trying to find out what happened to a friend.  Parker is neither decent nor a man, and in his mind, he doesn’t have friends.

And that kind of failure, real or perceived (and art is all about perceptions anyway, right?) tended to eat at Westlake, make him look for a way to get it right.  I think that’s part of what led him to write this book.  A do-over.  Parker’s motivation is impeccably contrived this time.  Fleeing the law after a heist gone wrong, he’s forced to take shelter in a slow-dying upstate NY hamlet, not far from where his creator grew up.  He makes a run for it too soon, the hounds will get him. Tarries too long, same deal.

Instead of trying to solve the mystery of a colleague’s death, he’s trying to stay out of prison, avoid the tightening dragnet.  He looks to blend in with his rustic surroundings, does his human impression once more, and once more learns it’s a harder act to pull off in the provinces.

The thing that really sticks out about The Jugger, probably hurt its sales when it first came out–that it’s got no heist in it–not an issue here.  The heist comes to Parker, via a most unexpected finger, with a story of his own to tell.  Parker has a secondary motivation to stick around.  A big stash of poorly guarded cash.

So maybe that chronic itch in the back of Westlake’s head was finally eased.  A very fine and oddly revealing late entry in the Parker series resulted.  I still think The Jugger is better as a standalone story, simpler anyway, but this center panel of the final Starkian Triptych has murky depths of its own to plumb. We’ll toss a line in, see how far down it goes.

Ask the Parrot picks up minutes after the end of Nobody Runs Forever, with Parker still climbing a steep wooded slope.  He can’t see down to the bottom anymore, but he knows the state troopers and their tracking dogs will be coming up after him.  He looks up, and sees a man holding a hunting rifle.  Figuring better the devil you don’t know, he finishes the climb.

At some point in that climb, he crossed into New York state from northwest Massachusetts.  My guess is Rensselaer County.  Not far from Albany,  The part of the world where Donald Westlake’s first conscious memories would have occurred.

This hunter’s name is Tom Lindahl.  He saw news coverage of the robbery and the subsequent manhunt.  They’re just a short drive from his house.  He ostensibly went out to plink a few rabbits, but really he was hoping to run into a genuine bank robber.  Someone with the guts to pull that kind of job.  “Those guys aren’t afraid of their own shadow, they go out and do what has to be done.”   Thinks he can use a man like that.

But he’s no fool.  He knows Parker would happily jump him, take his gun and his Ford SUV, make a dash for it.  Lindahl makes it very clear the searchers are up here as well, roadblocks all over the place, and Parker wouldn’t get very far.  But they aren’t going to search his home. A fugitive could find respite there.  He’s speaking in terms Parker can  understand–mutual need.

But what is it Lindahl needs from him?  What has he stumbled into here, in a ‘town’ called Pooley, that is not much more these days than a stoplight, a gas station, a few shuttered businesses, and a handful of people waiting to die?  And why does Lindahl have a green parrot (who doesn’t talk) in a cage on top of his TV set?  We never learn the answer to the last question (the bird’s not talking), but the others are easy enough.

“I’m a whistle-blower,” Lindahl said, as though he’d been planning some much longer way to day it.  “My wife told me not to do it, she said I’d lose everything including her, and she was right.  But I’m bullheaded.”

“Where did you blow this whistle?”

“I worked for twenty-two years at a racetrack down toward Syracuse,” Lindahl said, “named Gro-More.  It was named afer a farm feed company that went bankrupt forty years ago.  They never changed the name.”

“You blew a whistle.”

“I was a manager, I was in charge of infrastructure, the upkeep of the buildings, the stands, the track.  Hired people, contracted out.  I was nothing to do with money.”

“So whatever this is,” Parker said, “you shouldn’t have known about it.”

“I didn’t have to know about it.” Lindahl shook his head, explaining himself.  “What we had was a clean track,” he said. “The people working there, we were all happy to be at a clean track.  There’s a thousand ways for a track to be dirty, but there’s only one way to be clean, so when I found out what they were doing with the money, it just hurt me.  It was like doing something dirty to a member of my own family.”

The strain of getting his point across was deepening the lines in his face.  He broke off, made erasing gestures, and said, “I need a beer. I can’t tell this without a beer.” Rising, he said, “You want one?”

“No, but you go ahead.”

What he found out was that the people who owned the track were using it to launder money given to state politicians running for reelection. It’s not a mob-run track, they always did everything straight there, but one supposes the owners had other concerns, and this was a convenient way to address them.

Tom went to the state police.  He wore a wire (still with the wires).  But the people this scandal would have touched had too much suction.  So in the end, the only one who lost his job (and his wife) was the whistle-blower.  And ever since, he’s lived by himself, stewing in his own juices, with only a parrot for company. (I guess maybe the answer there is that they don’t eat much, you don’t have to walk them, and good bet a parrot will outlive a bitter lonely middle-aged man.)

He wants his own back, on several different levels, and that’s why he wants to rob Gro-More.  He knows the track inside-out.  He’s got keys to everything.  He still goes in there some nights, just walks around, never gets caught, and if he sees a new lock, he finds the key and copies it. You get the feeling he still considers it to be his, somehow.

Nobody’s ever tried to rob it, so security is a joke; two bored guards nearing retirement, watching TV screens at night.  It has to be done during one of the two twenty-four day meets held during the year, and there’s one going on right now.  At an absolute minimum, there’d be a hundred grand in untraceable cash–usually quite a bit more.  But he hasn’t got the experience to spot potential pitfalls.  Nor does he have the guts do to it alone. He needs an expert. He needs a secret sharer.

Parker finds the set-up at the track interesting, from a professional standpoint, but he’s just done a heist, he needs to get  back to Claire, and he’s had his fill of pissed-off amateurs for the time being. He’ll just humor Lindahl, wait for a good moment to scram.

Then the TV under the parrot’s cage shows him a confederate’s face–Nick Dalesia.  They caught him (comes out later that the cash from the bank was new, and extremely traceable). The first thing you expect a pro in that position to do is give up the location of the money for a lighter sentence.  Meaning Parker is back to square one, and now that track is starting to look good to him.  Back to the races.

Parker says they’ll go take a look at it tonight–he needs to see for himself if it’s as good as Tom says.  But before they have a chance to discuss it further, a car parks outside the converted garage Tom lives in now.  Tom wants to know if Parker is there or not.

When there’s no place to hide, stand where you are.  Parker said, “I’m Ed Smith, I used to work with you years ago at the track, I moved to Chicago, I’m back for a visit.”

“Smith?”

“There are people named Smith,” Parker said as a heavyset man in maroon  windbreaker got out of the car.  “Who’s he?”

Name’s Fred (there are also people named Fred, quite a few in Westlake novels). Tom can’t place the last name.  Used to know him from the Rod and Gun Club.  Which he’s still technically a member of, though he hasn’t paid dues in years.

(Before we go any further, I think I detect a final homage to Peter Rabe in Parker’s alias, and his matter-of-fact justification for it–from Anatomy of a Killer.

When the policeman turned him over, he found one driver’s license which said Smith and another one which said Jordan.

“Must be Jordan,” he said. “There aren’t any Smiths.”

Sure there are.  So many that when the law tries to look for an Ed Smith in their fancy databases, later in the book, they get an overload of useless data.  Parker laying down a false trail for the hounds. But the downside is that people will naturally assume it’s an alias, even though there are actual Smiths. Can’t say I know a single one.  Even though my workplace directory has sixteen of them.  Half as many Joneses.  They’re keeping up and then some.

So anyway Fred is all hepped up over the manhunt for the bank robbers.  The state police have requested that groups like the American Legion, VFW, and sportsman’s clubs (the linking element being guns and spare time) volunteer to help cover the area. Fred wants Tom to pitch in and do his bit.

Tom, wanting no part of the search (because he’s already won that game), looks at ‘Ed.’  Who says says the safest place to be is with the posse.  Which Fred interprets as ‘Ed’ wanting safety in numbers from these violent fugitives, but Tom knows what Parker really means–the best protective coloration he can take on at present is blaze orange–that or a red and black checked hunting jacket, which is what he borrows from Tom, along with a good pair of boots and a rifle. Blend into the herd. Tom is nervous about giving Parker a gun. Parker’s not the one he should worry about.

They go to a community center to get their marching orders–which means now a lot of people have seen Tom’s guest, including two brothers, younger than most of the posse, local troublemakers–one with an eyepatch. Three eyes giving Parker a look he doesn’t like one bit, nor should he.  More on them later.

All the troopers overseeing the search make it clear they think this posse thing is a dumb-ass idea, but whoever had it outranks them, and at least this heads off any freelance vigilante crap.  They do their best to send the deputies to very isolated places where the robbers are least likely to be found. With luck, they’ll only shoot at each other. But in a Parker novel, that kind of luck is thin on the ground.

The three of them get through all the roadblocks just fine, nobody asks to see Parker’s ID, just as well, since he doesn’t have any.  They get assigned to search Wolf Peak (hmmmm), the site of an old abandoned railroad station, from the days when there was still a lumber industry there.  The roof of the station has fallen in, there are trees growing up out of it.

There’s a bedroll by one of the crumbling walls.  There are signs its owner heard them coming, forced his way through the bramble to escape. Fred’s excitement is palpable. Never mind they were told to only defend themselves if attacked, report back if they saw anything suspicious–he’s getting away!

They hear somebody running through the brush, give pursuit.  Tom yells at Fred not to do it.  He does anyway.  And then they’re all looking at the body of a ragged scabrous old derelict, his life’s blood oozing from a bullet wound in his back.  Fred, the light in his eyes dimming, asks why he was running.  “Men with guns chased him,” Parker responds.  Fred’s idea of himself collapses like the roof of that station.  Though as we’ll learn, the foundations were already compromised.

And for Parker this is a problem, because if the police learn about the shooting, they’re going to question all three of them–he’s a witness to accidental manslaughter, at the very least.  Not blending into the herd anymore, and he won’t have the right answers to their questions.  He’s got to talk Fred into staying quiet. Tom as well.

He tries to make it sound like he’s concerned for all three of them, which is true if you subtract two.  Good chance Fred serves a short prison sentence.  He and Tom will be implicated.  The old hobo was killing himself, just more slowly and painfully.  It was a mistake, why beat yourself up about it?  Why be a martyr?  You know, it’s not as if he doesn’t practice what he preaches.

Ground’s too hard to dig a grave.  He asks about carnivorous wildlife in the area, who could dispose of the remains–they tell him there’s coyotes, bobcats, hosts of Turkey Vultures.  Corpse picked clean, bones carried off to gnaw on.  They don’t mention timber wolves.  Been a long time since there were any of those at Wolf Peak.

Fred wants to make a clean breast, purge himself, but he’s terrified of prison–and of the world knowing what he’s become.  He’s suspicious of ‘Ed’s motives for counseling silence, but that doesn’t make the arguments any less persuasive.  He’s in shock, clay that can be easily molded–but which might rebel against the sculptor later on.

Tom is torn both ways–if it comes out who his guest really is, he’s in more trouble than Fred.  But he still knows what Parker is doing here, doesn’t like it. Parker doesn’t care what Tom likes.  If need be, he’ll shoot both of them, take his chances in Tom’s car, with Tom’s other rifle, that hasn’t been fired yet.  But there’s no need for any of that if they’re both going to be reasonable.  Not being human, he only kills when he has to.  A moral in there somewhere, I’m sure.

For all their doubts, they both agree to stay silent–once they’ve reported back to the state troopers and not mentioned the shooting, they’ve already committed a crime.  As they take the shellshocked Fred back home (they’re hanging onto Fred’s rifle for the time being), Parker tells Fred he should talk to his wife about it, don’t keep it locked up inside, where it can fester.  He tries to sound sympathetic, compassionate. Not really his strong suit.

He really has been watching us a long time now, knows more than he used to about how our minds work, how to manipulate us. There are, however, still significant gaps in his understanding of our mental make-up.  Well, that would be true of anyone, right?

(For those who have read Ripley Underground; I see the parallels, and so did Stark.  He wrote this type of scene almost as well as Highsmith  There are other types of scene she wrote almost as well as him.  And still other types sui generis to each.)

And as Lindahl drives Parker back to the house, he gets the rest of the story.  Fred’s son was on active duty in Iraq when he was caught looting.  He saw the locals doing it, the ones referred to as Hawasim, an Arabic slang term relating to something Saddam said about the war (there’s a story about how that word ended up in this book, we’ll get to that).  He went a little too native; now he’s serving a stretch in Attica.  Hit Fred very hard. Made him think about prison a lot.  And maybe want to take his anger out on the same general type of person who corrupted his son.

Parker wishes he’d known all this before.  Now he understands better why Fred did what he did–and why talking to his wife about it may not be enough to keep him in one piece, mentally.  And if he goes all to pieces….well, hopefully Parker will be gone by then.  Fred will be somebody else’s problem then.

The immediate problem is the racetrack.  And now Tom, who was getting cold feet before Fred showed up, is telling Parker he definitely wants to do it.  The encounter with Fred has reminded him how everyone there sees him–as a crazy old hermit, on his way to being like that guy dead by the railroad station.  He can never get past that–he’s got to escape this life, this world, if he wants to be anyone else.  Parker says they’ll drive out that night to look it over.

While Tom goes out to get food, Parker goes over to the boarded-up house by Tom’s converted garage.  He rigs the door so that it still looks boarded up, but he can get in and out easily (the old gag with the sawed-off nails that goes back to Jimmy the Kid).

Tom comes back with pizza, and as they eat, it comes out that there’s a machine at the track used to make employee ID’s.  Tom bought the machine, knows how to use it, could run off a new driver’s license for Parker, out of the burned fake license he has now under the name John. B. Allen.  Give him a new identity, that would hold up to a cursory glance, nothing more.

So Parker sends Tom to the track by himself–more than an hour’s drive, each way.  He’ll make the new license, and come back with it.  Then they’ll drive out together that same night.  This way, Parker doesn’t have to risk hitting a road block with no ID.  Each man is a bit antsy about letting the other out of his sight that long, but if you gotta you gotta.

While Tom is gone, Parker has visitors.  The two brothers from earlier that day.  Still giving him funny looks, like they know something.  Like they want something.

They figure he’s the bank robber, which he is.  They figure they can get some of that money, which they can’t, but the one with the patch, Cal, no point telling him that.  He was pretty wild before he lost his eye.  He’s still got scars.  He wants plastic surgery and a glass eye.  He wants to look like Cory again, the calmer smarter brother–his twin.  He wants that money.

Parker manages to intimidate both of them into leaving (now there’s a psychological technique he has few peers at), but it’s clear they haven’t given up.  Cory, the brains, figures it’s time for a strategic withdrawal.  As they go, Parker tells Cal (the opposite of brains) to make sure nothing happens to his other eye.  Frightened, ashamed, and enraged at Parker for making him feel that way, Cal asks him what about the eye he lost?  “Ask the parrot,” Parker responds.  I believe that constitutes the only instance where the title of a Stark novel is derived from a line of dialogue.  Or vice-versa.  Ask the author.

Still plenty of time before Tom gets back.  Parker goes for a walk in town.  Pooley only runs a few blocks either way, and pedestrians are as rare as they would be in Los Angeles. A woman in her thirties (very young for this burg) pulls up, asks if he needs help.  Not suspicious.  Just being neighborly.  He tells her he’s staying with Tom Lindahl.  She’s amazed.  Everybody knows Tom is a wacky old recluse.

He needs a gun. Pistol, not hunting rifle.  He figures he can find one in the home of one of these elderly shut-ins.  He figures right.  Sees an old man watching TV in his living room.  Breaks in the back way with a credit card.

There were two places people usually kept a handgun inside a house, both in the bedroom: either in a locked box atop a dresser or in a locked drawer in a bedside table.  There was no box on top of the dresser in here, only coins, socks, magazines, and a very thin wallet, but the lower of two drawers in the bedside table was locked.

Parker opened the drawer above that one, felt in the near-darkness through a jumble of medicines, flashlight, eyeglasses, and a deck of playing cards, and found the key.  He closed that drawer, unlocked the other, and took out a Smith & Wesson Ranger in .22 caliber, a stubby blue-black revolver with a two-inch barrel, moderately accurate across an average room, not much good beyond that.  But it would do.

I don’t believe Smith & Wesson ever made a gun called the Ranger.  I don’t know if Westlake made a mistake, or he just wanted to call it that for some reason. Pretty sure this is the gun Parker found, though (with a box of ammo, citizens can be so helpful).

2-in-Mod-34-300x223

Model 317 Kit Gun.  So called because in all its variations, it’s compact and light-weight, and you can carry it around with your camping gear, or in your fishing satchel, or whatever.  Just what an old man in the country would have.  And put in his locked night table drawer, because robbers.  But what does he have that a robber would want?  He never thought it that far out.  Parker did.

Parker walks back, goes into the boarded up house through his secret entrance, with his new pistol and a flashlight.  He waits in the attic, watching for Tom to get back.  Just in case Tom had a change of heart, called the cops.  When he’s sure Tom came back alone, he goes back down.  Sees his new ID.  It’s really nice.  This guy can be useful.  Pity if he has to kill him.  End of Part One.

I think I’m going to leave it there for now.  Been over a week since I posted, and I’m thinking this will be another three-parter after all.  I’ve got all the cover images I need for that.  Lots of parrots next time.  Nary a one of them green.  Go figure.

But before I sign off until next time, let me get this out of the way.  There are three words in this book that Westlake put in there as his answer to a spirited challenge from ‘activist lexicographer’ Erin McKean, in a segment she did (does?) for NPR’s Fresh Air.  (Both segments aired in 2004, the year Nobody Runs Forever came out, and Westlake mentions having finished the previous book a year ago, and the next one would be out in about a year and a half.  So much for my supposition he wrote them back to back.)

Hawasim was one word–the only one that changed the book in a significant way–perhaps it never occurred to Westlake to make Fred’s son a solder in Iraq before he got this assignment from Ms. McKean.

Blat (referring to a smalltime local paper of dubious quality) was another–Parker’s reading one of those to get an idea of his surroundings, just before Tom tells him about the whistle-blower thing.  The version you hear on the NPR segment is a lot more involved than what he finally settled on.  Probably because it wouldn’t make sense that a local blat could have the news about Dalesia’s capture so soon, complete with photo.

The third and strangest word we’ll get to next time, as I pootle along in my own fashion.

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Mr. Stark and The Triptych

Beckmann;+The+Departure

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

Donald E. Westlake, blogging about himself.

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

Max Beckmann, referring to his 1932 triptych, Departure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had his little ambiguities about the devil he was dealing with.  Mr. Westlake had a criminal mind, but not the heart to go with it.  He wasn’t sure this was what he was supposed to be writing, and I doubt any writer worth reading is ever sure about that.  He abandoned the Stark voice, then learned it had abandoned him.  It only came back to him once he’d reached a certain age, and Parker no longer represented the romantic in him, but the realist.  Which, at a certain age, means the same thing as fatalist.

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

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

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

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

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