When Parker got back to the lake a little before noon the next day, Claire was in the living room, reading a shelter magazine. She tossed it aside, got to her feet, and said “Oh good, I was hoping you’d be home before lunch. Take me someplace nice, with a terrace. There won’t be many beautiful days like this left.”
“We can drive over to Pennsylvania,” he said. There’s some places along the river there.”
She looked doubtful. “With good food?”
“You want good food and a terrace?”
She laughed. “You’re right. Come with me while I look at my hair We got a very strange wrong number this morning.”
“What kind of strange?” He stood in the bedroom doorway and watched her poke at her trim auburn hair, which had been flawless when she started.
“He asked for somebody named Harbin.”
Thinking about it, it surprised him that there were always the same people in every job.
From The Man With the Getaway Face, by Richard Stark
In The Getaway Car, the thirteenth and penultimate section of that anthology of Westlake nonfiction is Jobs Never Pulled, which is a list of titles Westlake had considered but hadn’t used. Many of them pretty awful–Cloak and Dagger, Clay Pigeon, Crossfire, Dark Angel. Some are worse than that–and you will note, perhaps, that all those I mentioned have been used, though not by Westlake. Perhaps not all when he first wrote them down (Crossfire was in theaters when Westlake was in his early teens), but good bet some of them had been.
He often fell back on well-worn clichés for his titles, which he would transform into ironic wordplay. But some clichés are just too clichéd for that to work. So he never used them, and just as well.
At the top of that list, there’s one title crossed out–the one you see above. Which had been the American release title of a Rod Taylor movie I haven’t seen yet (new DVD coming out in November, I’ve pre-ordered, can’t resist). But which, going by every synopsis I’ve read, can’t be any kind of influence on the novel I’m about to review. Maybe I’ll eat my words in November, but I’ve got to review this book now.
Pretty sure Mr. Westlake, like myself, was a fan of Mr. Taylor (I’ll explain why I think that some other time), but he only would have had to read the entertainment section of the paper back in ’68 to have seen that title.
The funny thing about titles is that they aren’t copyrighted. In some cases they can be trademarked, but that takes a lot of lawyers. You want to name your book Great Expectations, Moby Dick, or War and Peace? Go ahead. Only thing stopping you is the shadow you’ll be standing in. There have been a lot of books called The Hunter. All but one have languished in obscurity.
Great cast, little-remembered film. Bit of a dud when it came out, only available now under its original title, The High Commissioner. Doesn’t cast much of a shadow, does it? But that American title is noir as noir gets. Fits Parker’s current situation (and his creator’s) like a well-worn black leather glove. That’s what I think happened here.
This is the largest panel in the Triptych (see previous article) going by word count. Almost three hundred pages in the first edition. Longer than it needed to be, I think. After a strong opening, it sags in the middle, then revives with a vengeance at the end. Too much repetition of effort, not something you often find in Stark. It’s what you might call a high-maintenance heist.
The grandeur of Plunder Squad and Butcher’s Moon notwithstanding, Stark, child of the gaudy paperbacks that he was, never fully adapted to the demands of the modern hardcover market–the pressure to crank out more pages to justify the cover price, be more ‘immersive.’ (Show me anything more immersive than those early Stark paperbacks, I dare you.)
If he had a big enough story to tell, not a problem, but this is more like half a story, with a completely different story sandwiched between. Would have been better as a novella, leading into a shortish novel, leading into another novella–but who was publishing novellas then? (Evan Hunter, but alas.)
No point crying over spilled ink, and I shouldn’t throw stones either, since I’m currently planning to make this review a three parter (the better to finish my final Stark review in one, since it wraps up the story this one kicks off). Nobody runs forever; some bloggers come close. However, I’d prefer none of the installments run over 6,000 words, so let’s emulate Stark at his best, and get to work.
The book begins in the middle of a card game, and we learn that poker can be a full contact sport in Parker’s world.
When he saw that the one called Harbin was wearing a wire, Parker said “Deal me out a hand,” and got to his feet. They’d all come to this late-night meeting in suits and ties, traveling businessmen taking a break with a little seven-card stud. Harbin, a nervous man unused to the dress shirt, kept twitching and moving around, bending forward to squint at his cards, and finally Parker, a quarter around the table to Harbin’s left, saw in the gap between shirt buttons that flash of clear tape holding the wire down.
As he walked around the table, Parker stripped off his own tie–dark blue with thin gold stripes–slid it into a double thickness, and arched it over Harbin’s head. He drew the two ends through the loop and hanked back hard with his right hand as his body pressed both Harbin and the chair he was in against the table, and his left hand reached over to rip open Harbin’s shirt. The other five at the table, about to speak or move or react to what Parker was doing, stopped when they saw the wire taped to Harbin’s pale chest, the edge of the black metal box taped to his side.
(Loathe as I am to quarrel with such fine workmanship–Stark even describes the murder tie!–this story, as we shall see, takes place in the era of modern digital communications tech, as Parker shall have cause to lament. It also takes place after 9/11, as we may infer from certain references later on.
Therefore, it is most unlikely even the most underfunded state police investigations unit–and that’s who was behind this–would have one of their informants wear a wire. There were better ways to do it, long before then. The convention lives on in crime fiction, and explaining how Parker somehow noticed a miniaturized listening device would have spoiled the rhythm of the scene. So, live with it.)
The rest of the chapter is the assembled felons (of whom Parker knows only Nick Dalesia, first and last seen in Butcher’s Moon) pretending to continue their game for the sake of whoever is listening in, while the guy who brought Harbin there to talk business, red-bearded gent name of McWhitney, makes amends for his mistake by disposing of the body. There was a potential job, involving a shipment of gold meant for people’s teeth, but that’s just as dead as Harbin now.
Parker leaves with Dalesia, who has an alternative score to offer. A bank heist. Way out in New England. Parker says what they could get from some piddling backwater bank wouldn’t be enough to justify the risk. Dalesia says they can get basically everything there, because it’s merging with a larger bank, and all the assets are going to be moved at one time. They take out one armored car, and it’s all theirs. He already knows the route. It’ll be in a convoy of four, the other three running empty–they have to know which one has the cash, and that won’t be decided until the last possible minute.
This, as Parker quickly intuits, is where you need somebody on the inside, and Dalesia’s got somebody. Or rather, an old friend of his does. Former security guard at the bank, named Jake Beckham. Got caught on the skim (hmm….) Served time for it. Lives in a trailer park now, works at a cheap motel, wants a ticket to something better, figures this is it.
He arranges to meet them at his doctor’s office–doctor patient confidentiality means there can’t be any bugs there, and even if somebody was wearing a wire (or whatever they wear now), it would be inadmissible. The doctor, Myron Madchen, is a mite bent himself, expects a nice taste of the proceeds, whatever they are–Jake’s not dumb enough to tell him, he’s not dumb enough to ask, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t both dumb about other things.
Jake’s been screwing the wife of the bank manager for years. Daughter of the man who started the bank, she’s angry about the merger that will destroy her dad’s legacy, angry at her husband for tricking her into marrying him so he could take over. She’s the one who can get them the info they need. Parker smells emotion all over this one, and he doesn’t like it. But so hard to find a lot of cash on the hoof these days. This one could be worth millions.
The big problem right off is Jake wants to be part of the heist, and Parker and Dalesia both know he can’t be anywhere near it, has to have an titanium-clad alibi, because the cops will look at him hard. He says Dr. Madchen will admit him to a local hospital, private room, and he can sneak out and meet them, then sneak back in afterwards. No one will ever know!
Parker nixes that scenario, suggests an alternative–Jake’s on parole. He breaks it by flying to Vegas. He turns himself in there, says he was drunk, there was a woman. They’ll have heard it a million times before. Not like he killed anybody. They’ll lock him up, ship him back to New England, where he’ll be locked up some more. He’ll be out again in a few weeks–after the job is done.
Jake hates every aspect of that idea. Prison did not agree with him, or he with it. Plus he loved the idea of being in on the job himself (sticking it to the husband like the husband stuck it to him like he stuck it to the jerk’s wife). He says he’ll go along with it, but without a whole lot of conviction. Parker and Dalesia depart the trailer park with some trepidation.
As they drove, Dalesia said, “Jake’s problem is, he’s still part amateur himself.”
“He is,” Parker said.
“I like him, don’t get me wrong, but he didn’t start out to be one of us. He started out to be a soldier boy, obey orders, get drunk, chase girls. He got turned and turned, and he’s with us now because he’s got no place else to be.”
“He brings us a job,” Parker said, without emphasis, “he got us from the woman he’s in bed with.”
“I know. It’s worse than a soap opera. Do you think you got him to back out of this?”
“Maybe. If not,” Parker said, “you’re the one he can finger.”
Dalesia laughed, but then he said, “No. I put one in his head before that.”
“Then her head, too.”
Dalesia, considering, said, “You think so?”
“Never trust pillow talk.”
Dalesia thought about that for a while, then said, “We could just keep driving.”
“I got nothing else.”
“Neither of us has anything else.”
So they have to talk to the daughter. Elaine Langen. You might call her The Last Finger (except there’s one more, in the next book). The first was named Alma, waitress at a New Jersey diner–where an armored car carrying a payroll would park, so the security men could eat. Using a guy she’s sleeping with (named Skimm, hence the ‘hmmm’ ) to try and escape–and get even with the whole world. She’s plotting a cross, which gets her killed, because Parker.
This finger was raised with money, isn’t planning any cross, just wants revenge on her dirtbag husband, with a bit of fuck-you money on the side–but otherwise it’s a lot like that. Check out the descriptions.
She was in her mid-thirties, and her waitress-short hair, a mousy brown in color, was crimped all around in a frizzy permanent. Her eyes were sullen and angry, glaring out at a world that had never given her her due. She was heavily built, with broad hips and full bosom and thick legs, all of it solid and hard. She had a double chin and a pulpy nose and a surprisingly good mouth, but the mouth was obscured by the hardness of the rest of her.
Well. The first impression was of a slender, stylish well-put-together woman in her forties, but almost instantly the impression changed. She wasn’t slender, she was bone thin, and inside the stylish clothes she walked with a graceless jitteriness, like someone whose medicine had been cut off too soon. Beneath the cowl of well-groomed ash-blond hair, her face was too thin, too sharp-featured, too deeply lined. This could have made her look haggard; instead, it made her look mean. From the evidence, what would have attracted her husband most would have been her father’s bank.
And now it begins to dawn on me at last that Stark knew all along what he was doing here, even if he didn’t know exactly where it was going. As he had already done once, with the Dortmunder novella Walking Around Money, (credited to Westlake, but Stark was ghost-writing), he is consciously revising The Man With the Getaway Face. Or, as Stark originally titled it, The Mask.
The second book in the series, the one that made it a series. The first that was really about a heist, that showed us what Parker was like when he wasn’t in mad wolf vendetta mode, the one that began to lay down the rules, the guidelines for what would come after. The Hunter was the launchpad–The Mask the trajectory. These last three books are the splash down.
You stay on the merry-go-round long enough, sooner or later you come back to where you started. Dalesia, thin and dark, resembles Handy McKay quite a bit, has the same quiet competence and affable nature–less of his loyalty. It’s not that hard to see the parallels once you’re looking for them. But see, that book came out more than forty years before this one, and the scenario can’t play out like last time. The more things stay the same, the more they change. No more Handy McKays in the world Parker lives in now. Yeah, foreshadowing.
They tell Jake to tell Elaine to meet them at a service area on the MassPike. There’s a cafeteria style restaurant there (a diner would be too on the nose). She’s every bit as much of a handful as they thought, and even less of a professional than her lover. Still, you have to give her points for brass.
She looked at the booth, looked at the privacy they’d arranged for her, and said “Thank you.” She slid in and said, “Jake had to talk me into this, you know.”
Dalesia said, “Into this, or into the whole thing?”
Her laugh was brief and harsh. “Into this,” she said. “I had to talk him into the whole thing. But I guess you two must agree with me.”
Parker said, “About what?”
“There was an old movie,” she said, “called, Nice Little Bank That Should be Robbed.”
Dalesia laughed and said, “That’s what we got here, huh?” In the movie, did they get away with it?”
“I never saw the movie,” she said. “I just noticed the title, in a TV listing. It struck me.”
“Probably,” Dalesia said, “being a movie, they didn’t get away with it. Movies are very unrealistic that way.”
She seemed amused by him. “Oh? Do bank robbers usually get away with it?”
Well yes, Dalesia explains–in that the phrase literally refers to the robbers getting the cash away from the bank, and bank employees are instructed to let them do precisely that, so they pretty much always ‘get away with it.’ It’s the aftermath that tells the tale–if the robbers are stupid, as is often the case, they get caught or killed later on–if they’re smart, they may ‘get away with it’ in the more expansive sense of remaining alive and free and spending the money–perhaps multiple times. But not too many. Nobody runs forever.
(And yes, that’s a real movie title Elaine references, minus a prefatory article of speech, and I haven’t seen it either, but now I really want to, c’mon TCM. As to whether they get away with it–yes and no. Basically, the movie is making the same point as Dalesia. Don’t go to the well too many times.)
It’s arranged that she’ll fax them the day of the big money move as soon as she knows it, using a fax machine at the bank itself. The position of the money car is more time sensitive, and turns out the only way this can be worked is for her to go there that night, watch to see them loaded up, then drive to a pre-arranged intersection and give them the number of the car. It won’t be the first or last of the four, she knows that already, but that isn’t enough.
Her only contribution to this job is information, but it’s an indispensable contribution. If they could get rid of Jake altogether, the job would work a lot better. His relationship with both Dalesia and Elaine makes that impossible. She’s not too enthused about his breaking parole to establish an alibi–mainly because she knows how much he hated prison. But she accepts the necessity of his having an unbreakable alibi, in order for suspicion not to fall on her as well.
She tries not to show much bothered she is by their conviction that her husband knew about the affair with Jake all along. She says she knows her husband, would know if he knew about her and Jake. Her husband’s name is Jack. Do I really have to spell out the implicit pun here? Point is, much as she may think she is above suspicion, nobody would ever accuse the old man’s daughter, she better take care to establish an alibi for herself as well, call her husband the minute she gets home that night.
Frowning, she said, “You really believe it, don’t you? That Jack will suspect me.”
“Whether he does or not,” Parker said, “do you like to take risks?”
“To wind up in jail, you mean?” Her mouth twisted. “Prison orange is not my color.”
Really? I’ve heard it’s the new black. Parker notices she’s got a gun in her purse, which she’s very defensive about (there’s a lot of that going around lately, can’t imagine why). She kids on the square about how they’re playing good cop/bad cop, complains they never even offered to buy her a cup of coffee, and departs. Leaving them less than reassured of her soundness, but they still have nothing else.
Parker goes back to Claire in New Jersey, they go swimming together in Colliver Pond, in the warm September weather, she’s wearing a bright blue bikini, and let’s just say Parker has a lot to lose here. Then again, women like Claire come with a certain amount of overhead built in, even if they’re happy with a small house on a lake in Northwestern Jersey that they have to vacate during the summer, when it gets all touristy. Anyway, Parker has to work whether he’s got a woman or not.
She tells him the bank account is getting low, so he goes to his bank–caches of cash, concealed in little hidey-holes he’s made inside surrounding vacation cottages, that he can easily access when they are unoccupied, which is most of the time he and Claire are in residence there. It’s a neat system. No interest accruing, to be sure. But you know, with the market so volatile of late, call it a hedge fund. Perhaps in actual hedges, at times.
He comes back to the house, and Dalesia left a message to call–bad news. Jake went to his scheduled appointment with his parole officer like a lamb. They head back to Massachusetts to see if the lamb needs slaughtering.
They go to the trailer park this time, never mind the doctor. Barge right in. Jake tells them he knows what they’re going to say. Parker says he was going to say the job works just as well if Jake is dead. Dalesia, the good cop, is in general agreement with this sentiment, with the difference that he feels personally let down by his old camping buddy.
Jake’s rattled, but sticks to his guns–he can’t do another minute of time. He won’t. He came up with a better version of his medical alibi. Madchen will diagnose him with stomach problems, he’ll be in a hospital ward, not a private room, and he agrees he can’t sneak out to participate in the heist. He’s already talked to his parole officer about it–meaning that it’s a fait accompli. And if they kill him, Elaine will be too scared to play ball. Not liking it one bit, Parker gives in.
Back to Claire again, leading to the exchange you see up top. Which I’ve found interesting for a while now, for two reasons. Reason the First: Would Parker know or care what constitutes good food? I guess he knows the difference between rare and burned. It seems more like a Westlake Foodie thing. Away from major cities, you pretty much do have to choose between classy ambience and good food. Even in major cities, you have to look pretty hard and pay through the nose to get both.
Reason the Second: Claire’s a redhead? She was introduced in the ninth book of the series. This is the twenty-second. First time we’ve ever been told what color hair she has. She was depicted on the cover of three of the four Gold medal originals, each one drawn by Robert E. McGinnis.
I’ve always preferred the brunette. But that’s just McGinnis, perhaps going with his personal preference of the moment, given no visual cue in the books–or else he just assumes that if a woman has red or yellow hair–in a crime novel–you mention it. For whatever reason, his final take on Claire is a strawberry blonde. And is being pawed by somebody we assume is Parker (though it could be one of her abductors), who looks an awful lot like a younger version of McGinnis himself.
I could probably spend a good five thousand words just speculating on Westlake’s reasons for telling us what previously only Parker and Claire’s hairdresser knew for sure. Five thousand wasted words, because in the final novel of the Triptych, which takes place just a few weeks later, she’s suddenly ash blonde, and Parker doesn’t say one word about that when he sees her. Okay, it’s Parker, why would he care, wolves being colorblind and all.
Is Stark messing with the heads of his faithful longtime readers? Westlake, in truth, never cared all that much about matters follicular himself–to the point of sometimes describing this or that character as having ‘hair-colored’ hair. He doubtless had been asked by some readers whether Claire was blonde or brunette, as most of his female love interests had been in the past. Only redhead I can think of offhand in the Westlake canon is Jigger Jackson, from the ill-starred Who Stole Sassi Manoon?
I saw one exchange where a fan asked Westlake why Parker had started out as a blonde, then had dark hair–but that reader was just responding to the early cover art, since none of the books ever described Parker’s coif that way–it did seem to get darker over time. As did that of the author himself. Childhood photos of him show a tow-headed boy, adult photos show a man with hair both dark and rapidly thinning –it’s an Irish thing, as me and one of my sisters can attest–we were both born blondes. We didn’t stay blonde. (Maybe because we got smarter.) I went from blonde to brown to salt & pepper. Sis was a redhead by choice, last I saw her. It’s just hair.
Point is, by starting to define Claire a bit more, after decades of letting us (and the cover artists) imagine her, Stark is making her less of an ideal. She’s going to start coming into focus more and more during this and the final book–leading to some questions about the long-term stability of her arrangement with Parker. She’s now freely discussing a job with him, before it’s even pulled–she never used to want to hear a word about what Parker did to earn their living. But that’s been changing for some time now. Like everything else in Parker’s world. Except Parker himself. He adapts. It’s not the same thing.
The third thing about that scene with Claire is the important thing–the guy who called looking for Harbin. Who is dead, you should recall. Parker does. Not long after that, the guy calls again.
“I’m looking for Harbin.” The voice was gravelly and a little false; not as though he was trying to sound tougher, but softer.
“Which Harbin would that be?”
“The Harbin from Cincinnati.”
“Don’t know the guy, sorry.”
“Hey, wait a minute, I think you can help me.”
“From your phone number, I got a pretty good idea of your general geographical location. I can get up into that northwest corner of New Jersey in, say, an hour. Give me directions to your place, we can talk it over.”
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
“I just don’t want to leave a stone unturned here,” said the gravelly voice, sliding back and forth between menace and gentleness. “I’m the kind of guy, I’m dogged, I just keep coming.”
People who tell Parker they know where he lives tend to end up going, but there’s no point telling this guy that. He obviously knows he’s living life dangerously. He plays a little game of tag, agreeing to meet the guy at a gas station by the Delaware Water Gap, having no intention of keeping the appointment, not expecting the mystery caller to do so either, but figuring he can spot the dark red Chevy Suburban the guy said he was driving. (Parker’s driving a Lexus himself, but he didn’t mention that over the phone.)
Whoever is behind this, they know about surveillance. Parker never sees the Suburban, but he still gets followed back home–spots the tail, black Honda, tall good looking blonde woman inside. Like the wolf he is, he tries to double back, lead them away from the den, from his mate, but no good. He finally parks, and waits for the mystery caller to identify himself.
Parker’s heeled, Beretta Jetfire .25, a handgun smaller than most hands (but look at all the movies it’s had cameos in). Parker never did go in for ostentation much. Nor has he ever been much inclined to mince words.
Parker showed him the Beretta. “One step back; I don’t want blood on the car.”
The guy took the step back, but he also gave a surprised laugh and stuck his hands up in the referee’s time-out signal, saying, “Hold on, pal, it’s too late for that.”
Too late? Parker rested the Beretta on the windowsill, his eyes on the other’s eyes and hands, and waited.
The guy nodded toward the supermarket. “Sandra’s already been on the horn with the DMV. Claire Willis, East Shore Road, Colliver’s Pond, New Jersey Oh-eight-nine-eight-nine. Why don’t you wanna have a nice little talk?”
“You’re not law,” Parker said.
The guy shook his head. “Never said I was.”
Being with a partner, running a license through Motor Vehicles, having all the time in the world for a stakeout, not particularly impressed by the sight of a handgun. “You’re a bounty hunter.”
“You got it in one, my friend,” the guy said, grinning, proud of either himself or Parker. “If you’re not gonna blow my head off, I can reach in my jacket pocket for my card case, give you my card.”
“Not that a Beretta like that’s gonna blow anybody’s head off, the guy said, reaching into his jacket, coming out with a card case. “Though it would make a dent, I give you that.”
Roy Keenan Associates. Sandra’s the associate, and Roy mentions she packs a S&W 357. Parker could try getting her too, with his dinky little rod, but wouldn’t it be easier to talk?
There’s a big government reward out on Harbin, which Keenan can collect just as well by proving Harbin’s dead. We still do that dead or alive thing? I thought that was just Steve McQueen. Googled around, seems to be a bit of a grey area–you can’t shoot the guy in the back and drag him in, no legalized murder, but you can bring in a dead body to collect, as long as you didn’t plug the guy in the back. If he resists, and you shoot him, you get paid. Somebody else shoots him and you dig him up, same deal. Keenan would take that deal all day long.
Keenan’s got Dalesia’s name as well, and perhaps a few other names from that ill-fated card game the book began with. He doesn’t know much of anything else–like Parker strangling Harbin with his tie–or he wouldn’t be this close. He tells Parker he’s not giving up until he finds Harbin, or Harbin’s corpse. Parker figures there’s no point mentioning the third option and leaves.
He calls Dalesia, to warn him, only to hear yet more bad news. Jake’s been shot in the leg. He’s in the hospital, which was part of the plan, but there’s cops asking him questions, which wasn’t. One of those cops is also a good-looking blonde, who we’ll meet next week. See, you mention a woman being blonde in a crime novel. There’s three blondes in this one. All of them trouble. Well, that’s a crime fiction thing too.
That finishes Part One. We’re over 5,000 words. I actually have enough cover images to make this a four-parter, if I want. Nobody runs forever, you say? Try and stop me, coppers!