Tag Archives: Comeback

Review: Comeback, Part 2

“Heisters,” Thorsen echoed.  “That’s a crook’s word for it.  We say robbers, or hitters.”

“Crooks are who I hang out with.”

“I’ll tell you what happened,” Thorsen said, ignoring that. “After the robbery, you all got split up somehow.  One bunch spent the night in that gas station.  Liss stole that police car and probably killed the poor cop.  And you waited at the motel until I showed up.”

“Wait a second,” Parker said.  “Am I a heister, am I a robber, or am I a guy waiting at the motel?”

“I figure the details have to come from you,” Thorsen told him.

Parker shook his head.  “It’s your fairy tale,” he said, “you’ll have to fill it in yourself.  George Liss takes one shot at the guy been chasing him eight months, and to you that means the guy’s in on it.”

“That shot,” Thorsen said, “made me start to think about something that had snagged me but I’d just let it go.  You know what that was?”

“You’ll tell me,” Parker said.

“There’s a lot of different words for the room that, when I was in the Marines, we called the head.  There’s the bathroom, the toilet, the lavatory, the washroom, the WC.  The Irish call it the bog.  I’ve been places they called it the cloak-room, don’t ask me why. But one thing is constant and sure and solid and you could build your house on it: Nobody named John calls that room the john.

Parker nodded. “I think you’re right about that.”

“So that isn’t your name.”

“That’s my joke,” Parker told him.  “My name is John Orr.  Meaning, my name is John, or it isn’t.”

Since I’ve got three quarters of the book to go over here, what do you say we skip the intro?  I could talk about Marilyn Stasio’s perfectly creditable write-up in the New York Times in that omnibus mystery review column (formerly helmed by Anthony Boucher and then ‘Newgate Callendar’) that used to be called ‘Criminals at Large’, and now just ‘Crime’ (budget cuts?), but I don’t much see the point.  She’s pleased Parker is back after 23 years, she loved the book, she gives it three short paragraphs and no analysis at all.  Well, Boucher’s reviews of the first Parkers were short and sweet too.  Stark is short, but never sweet.  And I am neither.  Moving on.

At the end of Part One, Parker had woken up in the office of the gas station he and the Mackeys were holed up in for the night, after pulling their heist, and then having George Liss try to take the whole pile and kill Parker and Ed into the bargain.  Parker let him get away, and now he’s somehow managed to get a cop’s car, uniform, and gun–the last of which he’s about to use on Parker, who is currently unarmed, except for his hands, which are only useful at close range.  Parker’s going to fight, but he doesn’t think much of his chances.

And this, of course, is the perfect moment for the good old Stark Rewind.  We are going to see various events leading up to this instant in time, from entirely different perspectives, meet some people who are in some way relevant to the narrative, get their take on things, see the larger picture, and when Part Three begins, we’ll find out what happened with Parker and Officer Liss at the gas station.

And fittingly enough, we begin with the Reverend William Archibald, who is after all the founder of the criminal feast Parker and Liss are contending for.  He’s just waking up in his hotel room, seven hours before the heist takes place, and all that’s on his mind is screwing his amply proportioned choir conductor/mistress, Christina McKenzie (Tina to her friends, and she’s nothing if not friendly), and then having a nice breakfast.  He does have the good grace to thank the good Lord before he tucks in to the latter.  Thanking Him, in effect, for making so many suckers.

From the very beginning of his ministry, William Archibald had understood that the appearance of propriety was the name of the game.  It wasn’t merely that the appearance of propriety was as good as propriety itself, but that it was much better.  If the appearance of propriety were steadfastly maintained–religiously maintained, you might say–a reasonably careful man could have it all; the rich rewards of religion and the rich rewards of life.  And that’s what he wanted: it all.

Archibald wasn’t a hypocrite.  He believed that man was a sinful creature and he said so, publicly and often, never excepting himself.  He believed that his ministry had held back many a fellow human being from committing crimes and sins untold.  He believed that his contributions to the social order, his civilizing influence on men and women who were in so many ways still one small step from the apes, were practical and immense, and he firmly believed he was worth every penny he made out of it.  His ministry had rescued drunkards, saved marriages, reformed petty thieves, struggled successfully at times against the scourge of drugs,  cured workplace absenteeism and given a center and a weight and a sense of belonging to unnumbered empty, drifting, useless chowderheads.  If, in his leisure moments, he liked to ball a big-titted woman, so what?

How did Brendan Behan put it?  In an elegy he wrote in memory of Oscar Wilde (in Gaelic, but let’s go with the translation from his biographer).

Sweet is the way of the sinner,
Sad, death without God’s praise.
My life on you, Oscar boy,
Yourself had it both ways.

I’m sure the good reverend would have no objections to the association I am making here.  Oscar might, but he’s in a better place now, perhaps sipping a Pernod with Brendan.

Archibald is then joined by Dwayne Thorsen, his executive assistant, who among other things, handles security at events like the stadium revival meeting to be held later that day.  He’s the enforcer of this outfit, the consigliere, if you will.  He was in the Marines for 20 years, and has been working for Archibald for seven.  He’s a lean hard disciplined man, who  likes his job, and does it very well.  He sees Archibald as his general, the rest of the ministry as the troops, and his only real issue is with Ms. McKenzie, whose abundant sexuality seems to give him the willies.  He would rather his employer were the same man in private as he is in public, but we can’t have everything.

He wants to talk to Archibald about Tom Carmody.  He thinks Tom is a problem.  Tom has been saying some things about where the money the ministry raises from the faithful is going (into Archibald’s pockets).  Thorsen thinks Tom is a security risk–and he’s right, since Tom is, at this moment in time, preparing to lead three armed robbers to the money room at the stadium, that very day.

But Archibald is thinking more about the damage Tom could do if he talked to the press.   At the moment, he’s just talking to other people within the ministry, who are mainly ignoring him.  Thorsen thinks to himself it was so much easier to deal with this type of personality in the military–just keep sending them out on patrol until they don’t come back.  (Except sometimes they do).

There’s a brief mention of Tom’s girlfriend, Mary–who we already know Tom confided in about the heist, and now she seems to have disappeared.  And now we find out why.  She’s being tortured to death by her kid brother’s friends for information.  In Memphis.

Just around the time William Archibald was whistling in the shower, Mary Quindero was beginning to die.  She knew it, or suspected it, or feared it, but couldn’t warn her murderers because they refused to hear anything except the answers to their questions and she had no more answers.  They, Woody Kellman and Zack Flynn, didn’t know she was dying because they had no idea of the cumulative effect of the strangle-and-reprieve, drown-and-reprieve methods they were using to get the answers they felt she was still holding back.  And her brother, Ralph Quindero, couldn’t know what was happening because he was over at Zack’s place, watching an old horror movie on the VCR, unable to be present while his friends pressured his sister, and not realizing just how stupid they were.

By the time Zack and Woody figure out what they’ve done, it’s too late to undo it.  They stuff Mary’s body in a closet, go tell Ralph a very edited version of what happened, and then they all drive to the city the heist is supposed to take place in, so they can take the money away from three professional armed robbers.  They really believe they can do this, no problem.  Zack has a switchblade!  And they’ve got some guns packed away in the back of the car that presumably none of them know how to use.  These three wouldn’t be a fair match for Brenda, but you have to admire their optimism.

It’s kind of a weird subplot–a tragicomedy of errors–since these punks never  get close to making a real play for the money.  They’re the ones who came around the trailer outside the stadium in Part One, then left–all they know is when and where the heist will take place, and what motel the heisters are staying in.  But that does them no good, since the post-heist plans had to change once Liss tried his cross.

They just hang around the motel, watching from the car.  Every now and again Ralph goes to get pizza, and then Zack threatens the increasingly panicked guilt-stricken Woody to keep his mouth shut about Mary.  Zack is small and intense, Woody is big and ox-like, but neither is terribly bright–they’re a sociopathic roadshow version of George and Lennie.  The Idiot’s Guide to Of Mice and Men. Ralph is maybe a little smarter, but not nearly as smart as he thinks. You don’t get away with not being as smart as you think in a Richard Stark novel.

Somehow it never occurs to them that just hanging around a sleazy motel eating pizza in their car right after a major robbery might draw suspicion.  The cops scoop them up, find the guns, find out who Ralph is, and Mary’s body has already been found back in Memphis (Tom Carmody, lying in a hospital bed under police guard, did not take the news very well, and neither will Ralph).  Even though we don’t hear about cellphones or the internet in this one, we do see that information-sharing between police departments is getting faster.  Another professional complication Parker will have to deal with.

The Part Two chapters switch POV’s quite a bit, which I personally find annoying from the POV of somebody trying to synopsize the book.  A whole lot of shit happens in 11 short chapters, all of which is necessary to set things up for the climax, but it’s less focused than usual for a Stark novel.  A few too many moving parts–which I suppose is the point.  Parker wants to keep everything simple, and life keeps getting in the way.  Life, and human stupidity.

And I want to get back to Parker’s clarity, so I’m going to rush Part Two a bit, no quotes, there’s better material ahead.  Thorsen meets his opposite number in the local police department, a detective named Lew Calavecci, who is a solid pro (which Thorsen likes) but also a gaping asshole and part-time sadist (which Thorsen does not like).  They both want to get information out of Tom Carmody, knowing he was in on the heist, and Tom is understandably reluctant to cooperate.

So they bring in Archibald–the father figure who disappointed Tom, who betrayed his trust, but who still has a hold over him, much as he knows the guy is a crook and a liar and a lech.  That voice still has power over him, and once Archibald overcomes his initial wrath that this little cocksucker lost him 400k, he figures he wants that money back, so he goes into his preacher act, turns on the fake compassion, and even though Tom knows better than to believe in that malarkey, resists it, he still breaks down, admits his complicity.  Then they break it to him about Mary’s death, and he tells them the rest of what he knows–but the only member of the string he knows anything about is George Liss.

And he knows George Liss will come after him for sharing that information.  And later that night, he tries to kill himself, but he fucks that up too.  And we leave Tom praying that they catch George Liss before he can get to Tom.  And you know, not all prayers are answered.

It bounces around–chapter 7, we see what happened with Liss right after he got away from Parker and Mackey–and as Mackey predicted, all he could think about was getting that money, and killing anybody who might prove an impediment to that end.  Chapter 8 tells us how Zack, Woody, and Ralph tried to tail Brenda on her way to the pick-up, and she shook them off like the fleas they are.  It ends with them in the hands of the cops.

Chapter 9 is more stuff with Thorsen and Calavecci.  Thorsen is increasingly bothered by Calavecci’s methods–and by the fact that Calavecci is tougher than him.  Thorsen likes to think of himself as being hard, but fair.  Even though he used to send men under his command who were irritating to him on death patrols.  Unit cohesion, you know? He didn’t do it for fun.

He’s revolted by Calavecci’s methods (taunting poor Ralph with the revelation that his sister is dead because of him).  But he did basically the same thing, siccing Archibald on Tom.  In his mind, he’s a competent pro who does his duty, and if he has to hurt people along the way, he takes no pleasure in it.  Calavecci, by contrast, sees himself as Mike Hammer with a badge and a pension.  Any Richard Stark novel is filled with people on both sides of the law, each of whom sees him or herself as the hero of the story, and they’re all punished for that hubris, because Richard Stark doesn’t believe in heroes.  Neither does Parker.

And then in chapter 10, we’re back at the gas station, finally.  Only now we’re in the head of the kid who runs the place at night, Bill Trowbridge, who got locked up in a windowless room when Parker and the Mackeys took it over.  He’s run out of magazines to read, and he needs to pee, and he’s figured out these are the stadium robbers, and more or less out of cabin fever, he’s decided to be a hero.  Uh oh.

He manages to tunnel his way up through the ceiling, up onto the roof of the station, and from there he sees there’s a police officer–what luck!  He calls to the cop, and the cop shoots him in the leg.  He got off easy.  Stark has a little soft spot for dumb kids, as long as they don’t kill anybody.  Nobody’s perfect, right?

But in fact Bill Trowbridge is the hero, after a fashion, because that momentary distraction gives Parker his opening.  Chapter 11 is about how Liss ambushed a lone officer, took his car, uniform, gun, life, and figured out his former partners and the money were at the gas station, and he was just about to draw down on Parker when the stupid kid made him take his eye off the ball, and it all goes wrong.  Again.  Part Three, here we come.

Parker throws a wrench through the plate glass window–he doesn’t hit Liss, but that’s not the point.  The point is to further confuse Liss, and create still more noise, to wake up Brenda Mackey.  Will she take the hint?

The answer was yes, but she was even faster than Parker hoped.  As he dove through the doorway, meaning to roll, to come up beside the wagon and yank open its rear door, the engine was already kicking over.  Before he was on his feet, it was moving, and he came up to see the garage door splinter as the station wagon roared through it.  Brenda hunched and grim over the wheel, Mackey just opening his eyes, his mouth a big astonished O, the car screamed through the wreckage it made of the door, spinning and sliding rightward over smashed plywood, bent metal, crushed glass.

(Ed Mackey is no saint, but I feel he must have been one in a previous life to rate a woman like that.)

Parker missed his ride, but the upside is that all George can see is the car with the money screaming away on burning rubber, and he can’t take time to try and finish Parker off.  Parker’s got a slight flesh wound from some debris, but nothing important.  A burglar alarm has been tripped.  Time to leave.  The kid, wounded far more seriously, yells down to him for help.  “Everybody needs help,” says Parker, and away he goes.  There’ll be cops here in no time, and Bill Strowbridge will get medical attention, plus maybe a chance at minor fame, if he doesn’t bleed too quickly.

Parker avoids the approaching cops, but now he’s got an identity puzzle of his own to work out.  Where will the Mackeys go now?  Ed will want to make a run for it, but the roadblocks are still up.  Brenda’s the brain, think about what she’ll be thinking.  First, shake Liss–she’ll do that easy.  Then get another car.  Then find a place to hole up.  She’ll figure that Liss will figure they don’t go back to the motel–they’ll go to the abandoned house they were going to stash the money in.

Liss will wait for them there. But they won’t ever show up there.  Because Brenda is smarter than Liss, will be one step ahead of him.  Parker is damned impressed with Brenda.  But even the most impressive of women is a woman, after all, and she mentioned leaving a lot of cosmetics in that motel room–she and Ed will turn up there, sooner or later, before leaving town. Parker goes to wait for them there.

But somebody else turns up there first–Dwayne Thorsen, playing detective (and enjoying the role maybe a bit more than he should).  He shows Parker a gun, which Parker lightly threatens to take away from him if he doesn’t behave. Dwayne just can’t catch a break here–keeps running into tougher guys than him.

Parker passes himself off as an investigator named John Orr, working for Midwest Insurance.  See the quote up top.  He tells a good story about how he’s been trailing Liss in relation to an earlier job he pulled, and Thorsen believes him, for now (Parker is vague, lets him fill in the blanks, figuring people believe a story more when they’re contributing to it).  They share some intel, and join forces–for now.

And Parker leaves a message for Brenda, on the mirror of a compact she left in the bathroom.  AKA the John.  Again, see up top.  Parker can be pretty good at conning people, when he has to be, but it’s not his primary skill set.  He slips up sometimes.  Thorsen doesn’t catch the slip right away.

(Sidebar: Some fun name games in this book.  The Mackeys signed the motel register as Ed and Brenda Fawcett.  That’s worth a gold medal or two, surely.  And Parker saying his name is John or it isn’t–well, that’s just too easy.  Can’t remember offhand if Dortmunder ever said his name was Parker.  Probably wouldn’t want to chance it.)

What follows is a comedy of terrors.  Parker figures he’s got nothing better to do than follow up leads with this security clown who thinks he’s the Continental Op (and who still thinks Parker is Thomas Banacek).  He might learn something that will lead him to his partners–the two he wants to rejoin, or the one he wants dead.  The latter of whom he sees walking around, pretending to be a cop on his beat, as he and Thorsen drive to the hospital.  Too complicated to go after him that moment.  And Liss is going to save him the trouble, anyway.

The hospital is having a busy day.  Detective Calavecci brought Ralph Quindero there, to talk with Tom Carmody on the fourth floor–not so much to get any answers as to enjoy watching both of them weep bitterly over Mary, the girl they both got killed.  Sweet guy, that Calavecci.  Bill Trowbridge (he made it!)  is on three.  Bill is having a wonderful time. Carmody’s is about to run out.

Parker has just met Detective Calavecci when all of a sudden guns start going off.  Liss found Tom–say this, the guy does not lack nerve.  He figured–probably correctly–that in all the confusion, and him wearing a cop’s uniform, if he ever was pulled in, nobody there would be able to ID him.  So he just walked in and blew Tom away.  Witness eliminated, squealer admonished.  And then he sees Parker, and figures in for a dime–

Thorsen, still playing the hero, gets Parker and himself out of the way, and Liss has to split–taking Ralph Quindero with him, as a human shield, and maybe an accomplice (since Calavecci has made Ralph feel like he’s going away for life, when in fact they have almost nothing serious on him).

Parker tells Thorsen he owes him one, but that’s John Orr talking.  Parker doesn’t feel like you owe anybody anything for doing something you didn’t ask him to do.  But he’s still being the insurance investigator, so when Thorsen invites him to come over to the hotel he and the rest of the evangelical entourage are staying, he figures why not.  He might want to check those figures.

He definitely wants to check Tina MacKenzie’s figure, and she seems rather taken with his–very obvious vibrations above the nylons there.  He meets her right after he meets Archibald, and right after that Archibald makes Tina leave, because he doesn’t like the way she’s looking at Parker, i.e. the way most women look at Parker, damn him anyway.  Then Archibald offers the dedicated investigator a bribe of one thousand bucks to find and return the money he just stole from Archibald.  That’s an advance; he’d also get five percent of all funds recovered.  He pockets the advance, and figures he’ll skip the finder’s fee in favor of his fifty percent heister’s fee.

But in the meantime, Dwayne Thorsen, that newly minted detective, has been doing some solo sleuthing.  Seems that their insurance man in Memphis never heard of any Midwest Insurance.  He doesn’t buy Parker’s story that Liss took a shot at him because he’s been tracking him down for a nonexistent insurance agency.  He’s picked up on the inconsistencies in Parker’s story, and of course there’s the bathroom thing.  He’s onto Parker. John Orr my Aunt Fannie.  This is one of the robbers.

He’s brought in four muscular (but unarmed) security boys for backup–he hasn’t called the cops yet.  He wants answers about the money first.  And this is where the detective act breaks down.  Because no matter how well this business of telling the malefactor you’re onto him works out for the detectives on TV, bracing this particular malefactor without a whole lot of guns on your side is never a good idea.  Parker whips out a steel drawer from the desk he’s sitting at, and Thorsen goes down with the kind of head trauma you never fully recover from.  I assume he’s insured.  That leaves four.

These four had trained in gyms, and knew a lot about self-defense.  They actually didn’t have guns, and they’d never thought they would need such help.  But they’d never been crowded into a small room before, getting in each other’s way, with somebody who was trying to kill them and who didn’t do any of the moves they’d learned about in gym.

40 seconds later, they’re all down for the count, and some may never get up.  (Ed Mackey’s response when he and Brenda hear about this over the radio–“Parker’s a woolly guy.”  One way of putting it.)

Parker takes Thorsen’s (stupidly) holstered gun, and leaves.  Well, he told Thorsen he was going to do that, right after they met in the motel.  So much for the security man who thought he was a detective.  Now that he’s heeled, Parker’s ready to find the heister who pretends to be a cop.  Time to go a-hunting.

But somebody else is hunting, namely Tina, decked out a bit like a Salvation Army sister, in a gray hat and cloak.  (Well, it worked wonders for Jean Simmons.)  She braces Parker in a much more appealing way, luring him into a conference room as he leaves the hotel.  Archibald keeps her on a tight leash, and she’d like to mix things up a bit.  Not the first time a strange woman has thrown herself at Parker, but for the first time since the end of The Rare Coin Score, he’s actually interested.  Or is he?  Another half-pulled trigger.  Another identity puzzle.  Another way for Stark to test Parker’s reactions to an unusual situation.

He never thought about sex  when he was working, but he was always hungry for it afterward.  What situation was this he was in now?  The heist was done, and yet it wasn’t done.  The job was finished, but it was still going on, with complications and trailing smoke.  Was he going to have sex with this woman now, or not?  He looked at her body, imperfectly hidden in somebody else’s clothing, and it looked very good, but his mind kept filling up with Liss, with Brenda and Mackey, with the duffel bags full of money; and now with Thorsen and Archibald and Calavecci and Quindero, and who knew how many more.  But still, it was a good body, walking along beside him here.

You see Claire’s name anywhere in that list of objections to fucking this delectable girl on a conference room table?  No, because Parker’s sexual fidelity to Claire isn’t based on anything other than instinct.  I’ve gotten into arguments with people about this–“Hah!  He wants this woman, therefore you are wrong about him being a wolf mated for life with Claire!” (such charming conversations you can have online)–no, because if you trapped a wild wolf who has a mate, and put him in a room with a bitch in heat (wolf, coyote, or dog)–he’s going to do what comes naturally.  Same for a she-wolf, if she’s in heat.  Without the pair-bond, it’s just an itch to be scratched.   It don’t mean nothing.

But Parker is a wolf in a man’s body, with a man’s brain.  He’s got to think about the situation he’s in.  Somebody’s going to raise the alarm soon.  He hasn’t quite finished the job yet.  He knows he can sate his appetites with Claire once he gets home.  And there’s something off about this temptress, this siren trying to distract him from his quest.  She can’t be trusted.  He can’t make himself vulnerable to her.  He doesn’t think it’s wrong.  He feels no guilt at all about wanting her.  He just thinks to himself that it won’t work.  He brushes her off, tells her he’ll take a rain check, and she indignantly responds “I’m not a game!” No, and she’s not his mate, either.  And she’s definitely not Salvation Army material, but we knew that already.

And we’re at Part Four.  Parker makes his way to the house he believes Liss (and now Ralph) are laying in wait for him and the Mackeys.  Ed found it in an architectural magazine–it’s got a fairly interesting history.  Parker doesn’t care about its glorious past. But Stark does.

It was called Sherenden, and it was a house from the twenties, modern architecture of the time, designed by someone famous in his day and built at the edge of a ravine in what had then been the outskirts of town.  On two seep acres of brush-covered rocky hill, at the end of a narrow winding road from the nearest city avenue, the house had been constructed of fieldstone and native woods and stainless steel, fitted into the broken shape of the landscape, with a large airy living room at the top, four windowed walls around a central black-stone fireplace.  The rest of the house spread away beneath, for a total of four stories with an interior elevator, its shaft blasted into the rock.

(Did Westlake read about such a house in a magazine?  In some forgotten bit of noir fiction?  Or did he dream it up himself?  Maybe all three.)

An entire chapter is devoted to the history of this decaying pile of ambition and thwarted dreams.  A broken marriage, a city expanding mindlessly, the whims of bankers, various other odd bits of history, had kept Sherenden from being replaced by tacky condos or public housing, but had likewise prevented it from being saved for posterity.  It sits there alone, waiting its inevitable end.  And hosting the occasional junkie–or worse.

He makes his way into the house carefully, and before long he smells the inevitable pizza.  Man, you’d think Ralph would have had enough of that by now. Liss probably saw him coming up that winding road, but Parker obviously didn’t have the money–so he’s waiting.  To find out where it is.

They make contact, sound each other out, each knowing the other wants him dead.  Parker, at a strategic disadvantage, has to give up his gun.  They pretend to negotiate.  Ralph gets sent out for pizza again (it’s his lot in life).  And it keeps getting darker.  This is the most gothic scene in any novel Westlake ever wrote.

After dark, Parker thought.  A chance will come after dark.

The afternoon slowly descended outside, the sunny areas growing bright even as they narrowed, the shadows getting darker.  The rock and the tangled underbrush out there would be full of creatures, wary, moving in sudden jumps, hidden away in the cat’s cradle of vines and branches, living their lives with all senses alert.  Darkness would be good for them too.

Ralph comes back.  They eat.  They read a newspaper full of stories about them. Ralph finds out there are no real charges against him.  Now the alliances are getting fuzzier.  Liss talks about shooting Parker non-fatally, to make sure he can’t try anything.  But Ralph says he couldn’t possibly carry Parker.  And Liss doesn’t want those hands anywhere near him.  So  they lock Parker in a closet, and go to get the car, so they can go to the meeting place Parker told them about, where Liss can get his money.  Sure.  That’ll work.

If that kid at the gas station can get out of a locked room, Parker can get out of a closet that was jury-rigged into an old elevator shaft.  He does.  He gets a makeshift weapon, a piece of metal ripped from the wall, and he waits.  It’s completely dark now.

Ralph goes down first–a human shield again, Parker’s, and Liss doesn’t have the same compunctions as the police, shoots him three times.  Parker hits Liss with the L-bracket he’s got, knocks a gun from his hand.  Liss still has another. Parker finds the other one–Thorsen’s. Not much of a gun, not many bullets left. He and Liss tango through the dark house, and finally they’re both out of ammo. Liss, badly hurt but still dangerous, slinks to the depths of Sherenden, to make his last stand.

You know, we don’t get to see Parker finish people with his hands very often, since the first book.  He avoids real fights when he can–like any smart predator. No avoiding it this time.  Liss has a knife.  Parker doesn’t.  Liss tries to bargain, Parker isn’t in the market, never was.  They dance some more, but it can only end one way.  Parker throws Liss out the window, into the ravine.  He’ll be food for some wild creatures.  First useful purpose he ever had.

Liss got Parker a few times with the knife, but nothing serious.  He’s ready to go meet Ed and Brenda.

That was chapter 13.  The final chapter of Part Four is called CLICK.  We’re back with the Mackeys, at their new motel room.  They’ve changed cars a few times. The police roadblocks are being shut down.  It’s time to get out of Dodge.  But first they go to an Italian restaurant, and it’s there Brenda sees Parker’s message in her compact.  ‘Eleven PM.’  Meaning he’ll be at their original motel then, and he’s hoping to see them there.

Ed Mackey is a stand-up guy, but he’s also a professional heavy, and he knows damned well Parker would look out for Number One in the same situation.  Why should he risk everything on the odd chance Parker makes it to the rendezvous? He wants to run.  And Brenda absolutely will not have it.

“It’s Parker, and you know it,” Brenda said.  “And he expects us.”

“If it was the other way around, he wouldn’t come back for me, you can bet on it.  And I wouldn’t expect it.”

“It isn’t the other way around, Brenda said.  “You aren’t him, you’re you, and he knows we’ll come back for him.”

“Then it’s you he’s counting on, not me.”

Brenda shrugged.  “Okay.”

“Brenda, he’s got the whole fucking state looking for him, they’ve probably even got him by now.  And, if they pick him up anywhere near that motel, they’ll figure he was making a meet with us, and they’ll wait, and we’ll drive right into it.”

“He won’t get caught,” Brenda said.  “He’ll be there at eleven, and so will we.”

“He can’t be sure we even got the message,” Ed insisted.  “That’s a pretty weird delivery system.”

“I checked out of the room,” Brenda reminded him.  “He can find that out, and then he’ll know I got my stuff.”

“We’re not copping his goddam money, Brenda,” Ed told her.  “We’ll call him in a week or two, make a meet, give him his half.”

“He wants to meet tonight,” Brenda said. “So we’ll be there.”

“Why, dammit?  Why do a risk when we don’t have to do a risk?”

“Because,” Brenda said, “you’ll met him again.  You’ll work with him again.  And he’ll look at you, and what will he say?  That’s the stand-up guy came back for me?  Or does he say, That’s a guy I don’t trust so much any more? What do you want him to say, Ed, next time you see each other?

Ed leaned back, muttering to himself.  After a minute, he shrugged, shook his head, and waved for the check.

The staff didn’t think there was much hope for the relationship.

It is Brenda Parker is counting on, and for good reason.  She’s smarter than Ed, and she sees further.  Parker may or may not realize that in addition to all that, she’s had a quiet yen for him ever since they first met (“Well, he didn’t exactly turn me on.”)  Nothing she’d act on, as long as Ed’s around, as long as Claire’s around (she tactfully sounded out Parker on whether he was still with Claire when they met earlier in the book).  But things happen. People go to jail.  People die.  People leave.  If she were available suddenly, and then Parker were available too–it’s good to have a back-up plan, always.

Brenda is loyal to her man, but she’s a lot more like Parker than most of the heisters he meets.  She knows life is an endless series of choices, with no guarantees.  She’d be a perfect match for him.  Too perfect, which is why it never happens.   Maybe in one of the books that never got written.

So leaving my guilty shipper fantasies aside, they go to the meeting spot, and Brenda agrees that if Parker’s not there by eleven, they’re gone.  Brenda gets out of the car, tells Ed to swing back around in five minutes.  She walks around in the dark, and then there’s someone there, but it’s not Parker.  It’s the cop who thinks he’s Mike Hammer.  Or hell, let’s make it Michael Shayne this time, just for variety’s sake.  Race Williams?

Calavecci is in trouble.  He played with his food too long.  Because of his sadism, a kid who wasn’t provably guilty of much more than stupidity was taken hostage by an armed robber, who walked out of that hospital right under Calavecci’s nose.  He’s been sent home.  He needs to find some way to redeem himself, and Brenda is it.  He figured they might come back to that motel.  Brenda can’t talk her way out of this.  Fortunately, she doesn’t have to.

Parker calls out to him in the darkness, playing John Orr again, knowing Calavecci probably knows by now there was no John Orr.  Playing for enough time to get close.  Calavecci goes for his gun, turning his back on the helpless girl. Yes, you can all laugh now.

Calavecci dropped the handcuffs to the ground in his hurry to get at the gun in his shoulder hoslter.  Parker was still too far away, but coming fast.  Brenda lifted a leg, pulled off her shoe, and did a roundhouse right with it, the heel digging into the side of Calavecci’s neck, missing the main veins, but almost giving him a tracheotomy.

Calavecci yelled, slapping her away, yanking the shoe out of his neck.  He threw the bloody shoe at her, gasping loudly, blood pumping over his collar, and he reached for his gun again as Parker got to him and put him down with two quick movements.

No more heroes.  No more kibbitzers.  No more preachers.  No more Liss.  It’s done.  Ed swings back in the car, and they head for the highway.  Ed asks if Parker saw George.  “Yes.”  Which answers all questions.

It’s not a polished perfect gem, like The Score, or The Seventh.  It doesn’t tie into some extended storyline, like The Man With the Getaway Face, The Outfit, or The Mourner.  It doesn’t shine a light deeper into Parker’s mental makeup, like The Rare Coin Score, or The Sour Lemon Score.  It’s not a majestic bloody epic of retribution, like Butcher’s Moon. It’s not one of the oddball outliers, like The Jugger, or Slayground.  It probably makes my top twenty (for Brenda alone), but there’s only twenty-four in contention.

It’s far from the most original plot Stark ever crafted, cobbled together of bits and pieces from earlier books (though that final confrontation at Sherenden isn’t).  It’s got some structural problems, and it’s a bit less focused in the way it deals with character than Stark usually is (because Westlake hasn’t been Stark for a long time).  Who gives a shit?  It’s Parker.  He’s back.

And he was back again in the very next book Westlake published–which makes me wonder if they were finished close together.  And whether the second book of the Final Eight is really the first.  But for now, just drive.

PS: Yeah, that’s Alyson Hannigan up top.  Again.  I sometimes see other actresses as Brenda.  But never quite so happily.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.  Not that Parker would care, but I do.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: Comeback

Mackey leaped down beside him, empty hands closed into fists. “Shoot the cocksucker!  What’s the matter with you?”

“No need,” Parker said.  “And a noise could draw a crowd.”

Furious, Mackey said, “Don’t leave him alive, God damn it.”  He acted as though he wanted to pull the shotgun out of Parker’s hands, and was restraining himself with difficulty.

Liss was out of sight now.  The police had finished clearing out of here a little after ten, and the three in the trailer had gone to sleep around midnight, three hours ago, Liss on the sofa in the office, with the money and the guns.  He could have just taken the money and left, but he hadn’t wanted Parker and Mackey behind him the rest of his life.

Apparently Mackey returned the feeling.  “Parker,” he said, “that was a mistake.  We could have afforded a little noise, not to have  him around any more.”

Parker never saw any point in arguing over past events.  He said, “Can you call Brenda?”

And he’s back, just like that.  With no explanations of where he’s been, what he’s been doing all this time, how much time has actually passed.  Well, that’s typical of him.  He hasn’t changed a bit.

And some would say otherwise, that the Parker we see in the final eight novels is qualitatively different from the Parker of the first sixteen.  Softer, they say.  More human.  Well, we humans say all kinds of silly things, playing our games with words, with time.  We’re all obsessed with what used to be, and comparing it to what we have now.  But he’s not one of us, and he doesn’t care what we’re obsessed with.  All he cares about is what he can take from us.  To Parker, something that happened a few seconds ago might as well have happened in the early Cambrian.  While his present is taking place somewhere in the late Pleistocene.  And there is no future, at all, at all.

So no, I don’t think Parker got any softer in the later books.  I think he adapted to a changing environment, certainly.  I agree there are some problems with these books, overall.  Welcome though they are, fascinating though they are, deliciously entertaining though they are, I think they are not quite as good as the ones that came before them.  There are several reasons for this, but most important among them is the fact that you can stretch even the most glorious of anachronisms too far.

Parker was a glorious anachronism from the very start.  Westlake based him to a great extent on figures like John Dillinger–figures from the 1930’s.  Dillinger went down bloody in 1934, almost exactly a year after Westlake was born–maybe seven years after Parker was born, going by references to his age in the books.  For all we know, Westlake fondly imagined Dillinger was Parker’s father, the result of a one-night-stand.  I wouldn’t even want to guess who he imagined the mother was.

But my point would be that even by 1962, the year he walked over the George Washington Bridge to kill Mal Resnick and get his money back from The Outfit, Parker was a relic of a bygone era, and recognized as such by many he came into contact with.  It’s a bit like how later in life, P.G. Wodehouse would hear people saying Bertie and Jeeves were relics of the 1920’s, and he’d say no, they were really more out of the Edwardian era he’d grown up in–by the time they first appeared, they already seemed very dated and twee and out of step with the times, which was part of the joke.  Anachronisms from the very start.  Everything old is new again.

So the challenge for Richard Stark, now that he’s sprung once more full blown from the head of Donald Westlake, is how to make this particular anachronism jibe with the last few years of the 20th century, and the first few of the 21st.  And that’s an interesting problem, on so many levels–you can imagine the creative juices flowing in response to it.  Does Parker make sense anymore?  Does he have a place in this world of digital cash, instantaneous information sharing, phones you carry around in your pocket (more and more of which have cameras in them)?   How far can Parker adapt to all this?  How far does he need to?

Used to be you could walk into a government office without any ID at all, and walk out with a Social Security Card.  Parker gets a driver’s license in the first novel by filling out the form that doubles as the license itself, and then drawing the official stamp onto it with a pen.  A crude forgery–that works fine, as long as nobody looks too closely.  And so few people ever do.

Sure, people can still fake all kinds of things now, steal other people’s identities with a few mouse clicks, but that takes the kind of technical know-how someone like Parker could never master, because his mind doesn’t work like that.  He can’t follow us into the digital world, and he doesn’t want to.  But that world is going to impact him, whether he likes it or not.  He is going to need people who understand how that world works, sometimes.  Whether he likes them or not. And they better hope he does.

Or else they are going to find out in turn that the old wolf knows some really old tricks that will work in any time, any place.  Parker is strictly analog, and the analog world is still the only world that really exists, you know.  The only world that ever will exist, unless you want to get all spiritual and stuff.  That’s the world you’re born into, and it’s the world you’ll die in.  No matter how many lies you tell, no matter how many false identities you fabricate, or steal.  Nobody can ever steal Parker’s identity.  Because only he knows who and what he really is.  We can’t follow him all the way into his world, either.

So that’s the point of the Final Eight–the way they show Parker adapting to the Information Age, but of course he’s been adapting to change ever since we met him.  It’s just harder to write the stories now.  Less room to maneuver.  And there was a certain energy to the 1960’s (and the decades before it)–a mingling of old and new styles, clashes between old and new ways of thinking–you can feel it in just about any form of personal expression in that period.  Obviously we still have those clashes now, but not nearly so clear-cut.  The lines of scrimmage have gotten hopelessly confused.

Westlake can do a lot as a writer, but he can’t keep that old feeling alive once it’s gone.  Him or anybody else working in genre.  Crime fiction is not as good as it used to be.  Fiction is not as good as it used to be. Not saying that to hurt anyone’s feelings, or to rant about how everything sucks now.  Just stating a fact.  Parker hasn’t gotten softer–we have.

But having said all this, I must confess, this first book of the renewed series could almost have taken place in the 60’s, with just a few minor tweaks.  There’s very little sense of social and technological change, other than the problem that recurs throughout all the books–where can you find sufficiently large quantities of insufficiently well-guarded untraceable cash? The target in this case is a revival meeting, convened by a smooth-talking preacher with about as much religious sincerity as a used car salesman–how Elmer Gantry can you get?  Not everything changes, even when you want it to.

And this retro feeling of Comeback probably stems from the fact that Westlake seems to have conceived the book around 1988, right after he finished working on the film adaptation of The Grifters–itself a very anachronistic story, based on Jim Thompson’s experiences in the Depression, moved to the early 60’s (for the novel), then moved again (for the film) to the late 80’s.   A story about how people never change, when you get right down to it.

And there were some scandals in the late 80’s and on into the 90’s, involving famous televangelists, who often held rallies at stadiums (more in the third world than in the U.S., but they did build those mega-churches here eventually), and raised a lot of money, and then spent much of it on cool stuff for themselves, and Westlake saw where Parker might find some ready cash, come up with a working plan.  Now he just had to come up with the inevitable complications to sour that plan.

But by the time he’d finished it, almost ten years had passed.  If he’d finished it just a few years later, he’d have had to write it very differently.  Nobody has a cellphone in this book.  Not even a pager.  Much of the book takes place late at night, in a mid-sized city, a twilight world, full of shadows.  The shadows persist even in full daylight.  One thing that never changes is how long it takes me to get to the synopsis when I’m doing Stark.  Okay, here we go.  Been a while.

This book is not only a comeback, but a throwback, though not completely so.  Butcher’s Moon had abandoned the four part structure that was Stark’s trademark; where the chapter count keeps resetting, and each part has a specific job to do.  The first two parts from Parker’s POV, setting up the central complication of the plot, the conflict to be resolved–then Part 3 moves around, each chapter from a different character’s perspective–and then back to Parker for Part 4 and the wrap-up.

And the point is, to show us Parker’s very clear and focused mind, and contrast it with the frequently more muddied self-deceiving perspectives of the people he’s working with or against.  Comparative psychology.  It still bugs me so many people read these books and don’t see that.  I’ve seen the term ‘psychology free’ used to describe the Parker novels–in more than one language.  Perception free, is what I’d call those readers.  Oh, that was mean.

It’s like that here, except the Part 3 stuff happens in Part 2, and not all of those (mainly very short) chapters stay in the head of just one character, as with the earlier books.  It’s still about comparative psychology, but the lines aren’t drawn so clearly–Westlake playing around with the form again, seeing how far he could stretch it.  Not too far.  But making Part 2 the Part 3 works, since so many of the main characters aren’t in Parker’s string, and we need to meet them a bit sooner this time.

Comeback is a throwback in one other notable way–starting with The Rare Coin Score, all the way back in 1967, Westlake had stopped opening the books with the now-legendary “When such and such happened, Parker did something” motif.  That was the first one he did for Gold Medal, and I couldn’t say offhand if there was a particular reason for him not kicking off the books that way anymore.  Maybe it was his idea, maybe an editor’s suggestion, and he just kept doing it that way once the series moved to Random House.  But now he’s deliberately going back, bringing Parker into the present–and the classic opening of the early Pocket paperbacks returns with him.

When the angel  opened the door, Parker stepped first past the threshold into the darkness of the cinder block corridor beneath the stage.  A hymn filtered discordantly through the rough walls; thousands of voices, raggedly together.  The angel said, “I’m not so sure about this…”

Parker is.  This is a heist, and it’s too late to cancel it on account of cold feet, or pinions, or whatever.  It’s a stadium heist–shades of The Seventh–it also has some marked parallels with the heist in Deadly Edge.  In both those books the heist happens early in the story, doesn’t take up much time, and it’s really all about the aftermath.  But this isn’t a sports event or a rock concert–it’s a very different blend of music and theater and rooting for the old home team–a sort of revival tent meeting writ large, anchored by a charismatic TV preacher, as had become commonplace by the 1980’s.

And what makes it a ripe target for armed robbers, as was the case with the heists in those earlier books is that it’s all cash–no credit cards.   People pay cash to get in, they can give still more once they’re inside if the spirit moves them, and since they’ll be seen giving it by a huge stadium crowd, as well as in a filmed version of the event to be shown on TV later, it most certainly will move many of them.  (Guess their bibles omitted Matthew 6:3–printer’s error?)

(This book is not an expose on the revival racket–that’s just background color– but Westlake was certainly drawing on his research for Baby Would I Lie? here, among other things.  Evangelical preachers have a lot in common with hillbilly balladeers–you know who Jimmy Swaggart is related to, right?  And he’s still reminding his more cosmopolitan readers that there’s an America out there in the hinterlands they might want to pay a bit more attention to.)

The angel’s name is Tom Carmody, his wings are part of a costume, and the way this all came about, we’re told via flashback, is that he works for the ministry of Rev. William Archibald, and he was a true believer in the good Reverend , until he got close enough to the top of the organization to know Archibald was a thieving whoring sumbitch who just happened to have a talent for projecting fake sincerity, and turned it towards preaching the gospel (yes, retrospectively, we may say he set his sights too low).  Elmer Gantry with a TV show.  Parker seems familiar with the type, since he says he thought they were all in jail by now.

One of the things the Archibald ministry does is work with released convicts, and this is how Tom met George Liss, a different flavor of sumbitch, the kind Parker sometimes works with, though never preferentially.  Tom knew what George did for a living, and he started pitching the idea of stealing the proceeds from one of his stadium events, and then Tom could use his share to do real good, instead of just watching Archibald spend it on fancy limos, plush hotel rooms, and big-breasted women.

So Tom is the finger on the job, their man on the inside, and like most amateurs who get into the heavy, he’s a problem.  But not nearly as big a problem as George Liss, and Parker has a bad feeling about this guy, who he’s never worked with before, though they’ve known each other slightly for some time.  He’s skeptical about a stadium heist, says it’ll be just a lot of credit card receipts.

“Not this one,” Liss said, and the left side of his face smiled more broadly.  A sharpened spoon handle had laid open the right side, in a prison in Wyoming, eleven years ago.  A plastic surgeon had made the scars disappear, but nothing could make that side of his face move again, ever.  Around civilians, Liss usually tried to keep himself turned partially away, showing only the profile that worked, but among fellow mechanics he didn’t worry about it.  With the slight slurring that made his words always sound just a little odd, he said “This one is all cash.  Paid at the door.”

For reasons that probably have a lot to do with the IRS, the people who come to these stadium events Archibald holds each have to donate twenty bucks in cash at the door–a ‘love offering’–and they are encouraged, as already mentioned, to give more once they’re inside.  The gate, Brenda Mackey observes, almost sensuously, will be around 400k.  But with the additional love offerings, it could be close to a million (as matters arrange themselves, all they get is the gate–still a nice haul).

The Mackeys, Ed and Brenda, are back in this one, and if all you’d read of this series is the Final Eight, you’d think they played a much bigger role in the First Sixteen.  Ed Mackey, of course, had been seemingly killed at the end of Deadly Edge, and the return of him and Brenda in Butcher’s Moon was never explained in that book.  And here we are, twenty-three years later, and it’s still not explained.  Going to have to wait another five years for that explanation, though if you’re paying attention, you can figure it out from what happens in this book.

With the exception of the book after this one, we really don’t see any of Parker’s more trusted confederates from the First Sixteen in the Final Eight, and the most important ones don’t appear at all.  No Handy McKay, no Alan Grofield, no Stan Devers.  Maybe dead, maybe retired, maybe imprisoned, maybe they missed the time warp and are still back in the early 70’s, but whatever the reason, they did not make the cut.  In other words, Westlake has decided to weed out the fellow heisters Parker had the closest thing to an actual friendship with.  Well, the closest thing to a more than purely professional relationship, put it that way.

So to me, this indicates we’re actually seeing a colder, less accessible, less human Parker in these new books, not a ‘softer’ one.  A Parker who cares about himself, and Claire (rarely seen until the very end), and that’s it.  He sticks his neck out for no one.  We can talk more about this when reviewing upcoming books, but some of Stark’s romanticism has worn a bit thin around the edges since we last saw him.  The novel after this has a bit of an old home week feeling, but after that, when some pro from Parker’s past shows up, it’s generally bad news for whoever that is.  Should have stayed back in the past.  No room at all for sentiment anymore in the Stark Lands, not that there was much to start with.

George Liss is to some extent a reworking of characters like George Uhl–half a pro; dangerous, effective, but always looking for a chance to take it all for himself and kill his partners so they don’t come looking for him afterwards.  A mad wolf. His physical description is quite similar to Uhl’s, (Uhl–Tall and very thin, with receding black hair”  Liss–“a tall, narrow, black-haired man with a long chin”).

I am now realizing that he also closely resembles Parker’s most trusted–and dangerous–associate of all.  “He was long and thin and made of gristle, and his stiff dark hair was gray over the ears.”  Handy McKay.  With half his face frozen.  And no loyalty, to anyone.  And all three men sound rather similar to Westlake himself as a younger man. And to John Dortmunder, of course.  I don’t know what any of this means either.  Back to the synopsis.

In spite of Tom’s jitters, in spite of him having told his girlfriend about the heist, in spite of them only getting about half of what they were hoping, the job is a success.  Almost 400k, split three ways.  Using the old trick of laying low close to the scene of the crime, all three men are holed up in a construction trailer they placed right outside the stadium some weeks before, padlocked and seemingly abandoned.  They just have to wait for the cops to finish checking to see if any of the attendants have the cash, and leave–then stow the cash at a pre-arranged spot, and wait for the roadblocks to be lifted.  It’s that simple, but Parker has learned from hard experience to assume it will never be that simple.

Parker wakes up to find Liss pointing a shotgun at him–which fails to go off. Because Parker unloaded the shotguns when nobody was looking.  Liss makes a run for it, without the cash.  Parker has reloaded the shotgun, is watching him run through the empty parking lot, has a clear shot at his retreating form–and he doesn’t take it.

Ed is disgusted with him.  Parker’s rationale–that gunfire might attract attention, bring the cops back, when they don’t have a car available to them–is that really a sufficient rationale for letting George scarper, when clearly he’s going to go on thinking of that money as his, and will regroup to come after it again?  They’ll have to get rid of the shotguns (too hard to conceal), and they have no other weapons.

We’ve seen this kind of identity puzzle before in these books.  Parker doesn’t always kill when you’d expect him to.  But this is a particularly egregious act of ‘mercy.’  George Liss was working with Parker.  He tried to kill Parker and take Parker’s share of the loot.  That’s a clear and unambiguous death sentence in the world of Richard Stark.  Stark will look into Parker’s mind, just a short time later, and see Parker thinking that he needs to see George Liss dead.  Liss knows very well that Parker will be on his trail the rest of his life, if he doesn’t get Parker first.

So why not take a shot at Liss when he’s unarmed and fleeing?  Granted, a shotgun isn’t the best distance weapon, but even a non-fatal hit would stop him long enough to finish the job.  Liss himself can’t understand why Parker doesn’t shoot–we’re left in no doubt he’d have pulled the trigger with no hesitation, if he were in Parker’s position.  So would Ed Mackey.  So would most guys in their profession.  Shoot first, ask questions later.

So apart from the undeniable fact that the story hangs on George Liss escaping the consequences of his betrayal for the time being–why didn’t Parker pull that trigger?  Because in that moment, the trigger inside his head was only half-pulled.  It was all too sudden.  He hadn’t processed it yet.  Parker only kills when he has to.  Liss is no longer an immediate threat.  Gunfire might attract attention.  Parker’s killing instinct hasn’t been engaged.  If Liss came back a short time later, saying it was all just a big misunderstanding, Parker would cut him down without hesitation.

But this momentary hesitation, mere seconds after George’s failed doublecross, is perfectly in character for him.  He needs to consider what happened, and why, before he takes on another deadly vendetta.  The trigger in his head has to be completely pulled.  Several times we’ve seen him shoot at a fleeing enemy, but these were guys he’d already decided needed to die, whether they ran or not.  It’s not mercy. It’s just how his mind works.

It won’t take him long at all to come to the same conclusion about George Liss, but we can sympathize with Mackey’s frustration–sometimes Parker’s weird instincts can be a liability.  Sometimes it’s better to act quickly–and sometimes it isn’t.  Parker’s strengths are bound up in his weaknesses.  So are Mackey’s–he would never have thought to unload the shotguns.   And Liss never thought to check the gun before he fired it.  Over the long run, it’s better to think before you shoot.

But whether Parker was right or not, they still have to proceed with the plan–when Brenda shows up with their ride, they take their leave–blowing the trailer (and the shotguns) to bits as they go, to remove any forensic evidence that might trace back to them.  The police are drawn to that noise, for sure, but too late.

One final complication–three guys came up to the trailer while they waited, checking it out, then leaving.  They don’t look like law.  Parker thinks to himself they’re dogs who have lost the scent.  As we learn later on, they never really had it to start with.

So they have the cash, they have a car, but they also have a problem–the entire town is in lock-down mode.  Most honest people are in bed.  All the outgoing roads will be watched.  They can’t go back to their motel, because Liss might be there waiting for them.  They can’t check into a new motel in the middle of the night without looking suspicious.  Parker says they need an all-night gas station. Tank is full.  Brenda’s possibly the best getaway driver Parker’s ever worked with, and that’s saying something.

Ed is puzzled.  Brenda figures it out immediately.  Earlier in the book, we hear Parker thinking that he knows why Ed always brings his woman on jobs with him, something Parker never does.  Brenda is the brains of that two-person outfit.  And the single best thing about this book, which I’ll be talking more about next time.

But in the meantime, in-between time, they find that all night gas station (Brenda the Brain spotted it earlier, made a mental note).  It’s by the interstate, so Ed and Parker get out of the car and scope things out–the exits have squad cars parked by them, waiting, but the cops can’t see the station from where they are.  Just before that, Parker thought he saw something, far behind them, in the rear-view mirror, but he wasn’t sure.  Too dark.

Brenda goes in alone, playing the helpless girl with car trouble, and then Parker and Mackey come in, and all of a sudden the kid manning the station realizes they’re taking it over for the night–he’s locked up in a windowless room, with a magazine–and no bathroom.  (Better off than that kid in The Score, a book that resembles this one in many respects–except this kid hadn’t just left his girlfriend’s warm bed, and he’s going to end up with more than just a bad head cold).

The station wagon with the money they park on the hydraulic lift in the garage. Camoflauged.  The station is shut down–with any luck, nobody will wonder why until they’re gone.  In the morning, they can seek alternate lodgings, alternate transportation, wait for the right moment to shake the dust of this town from their feet.  Parker is going to need to find George Liss at some point, but the getaway is still at the top of the agenda.

Ed and Brenda sleep in the car, while Parker naps a little on a chair in the office.   He wakes up right around dawn–there’s a police car outside.  Just one cop. Uniform doesn’t fit him right.  It’s Liss.  He sees Parker.  He unbuckles his gun holster.  Parker is unarmed, unless you count a wrench.  End of Part One.

And end of this Part One as well.  Short book, I can do the rest next time. Actually, the first edition is almost 300 pages, but the print is large, and the pages small–Mysterious Press decided to try to invoke the dimensions of the old paperback originals here, except you’d still need a pretty big pocket to fit this book in.

The cover art for the Final Eight is mainly nowhere near the standard of the First Sixteen, though some of the foreign editions were pretty good, and there is one outstanding exception with regards to the first U.S. editions.  I’ve always been a bit iffy about the concept of Parker as an angel with a shotgun–carried over from the first US edition to the University of Chicago reprint (except now he’s got an assault rifle, which makes no sense at all).  Carmody’s the one with the wings–first fake ones, then the metaphorical kind–or metaphysical.

I like the UK edition with the stadium.  Brief and to the point.  Like Richard Stark.  And so very unlike your average long-winded skirt-chasing televangelist. Well. Glass houses. We all have ’em.  And we’ll be seeing a fair few of them.  Next time.  Bring stones.

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

Mr. Parker and the Time Warp

pb9

Riff Raff: It’s astounding…
Time is fleeting…
Madness takes its toll…

Magenta: Ahh…

Riff Raff: But listen closely…

Magenta: Not for very much longer…

Riff Raff: I’ve got to keep control….

AC: Why and how did Stark come back?

DW: I tried three or four times over the years, from ’73 up to maybe 1980. Then in 1988 I started to do the screenplay for The Grifters and the Writers Guild went on strike. I was writing a Dortmunder novel, Drowned Hopes, and when I finished it the strike was still going on, and I had a little idea for what might have been a Parker novel and I started it then. But then the strike ended and I did The Grifters. So then a year later I went back and looked at those two chapters and I thought, geez, maybe I can, and I did half a book and then it just stopped. Then about a year and a half ago, I finished something, I forget what, and I said to my wife, usually I know what I’m gonna do next, usually by the time I finish a book I’ve got an idea for something, or I’ve been hired to write a screenplay or something, but I don’t know what I’m gonna do next and it feels weird. She said why not take a look at that Richard Stark book you never finished. I went back and looked at the first half that existed I said, I see the next three chapters. And it just flowed and it went so easily then that I’ve done another one since. He’d gone away and then he’d come back. There’s no telling why. Maybe it was me or something in the world around me…

AC: Maybe it was hanging out with those grifters.

DW: Yeah, that could be it.

Jesse Sublett, interviewing Donald E. Westlake for the Austin Chronicle, 1997.

Maybe it was working on The Grifters with Stephen Frears, who kept pushing him to write more like Richard Stark.

Maybe it was getting into Tom Jimson’s head, while writing Drowned Hopes.

Maybe it was his increasingly sinister yet practical and results-oriented contributions to The Perfect Murder, where he was clearly writing as Richard Stark, even though he was still signing his mock-correspondence as Donald Westlake.

Maybe it was realizing that he was now older than his father Albert had been when he died.

And maybe it was the process he went through writing the darkest of all his books, the one I just finished reviewing. Was The Ax that thing he said he finished, and he didn’t know what to write afterwards?  How could he have forgotten that?  He wasn’t writing that many novels by then, and it had only been a year and a half.  Maybe it was some article or short story (maybe it was the book that’s finally getting published next year, though I’m not sure the dates match up).

It was probably a lot of things that got him in Stark Mode again; a cumulative process, that took him back to where his career as a writer got started in deadly earnest.

But no question at all, The Ax and Comeback have a shared genesis.  They came out of the same period in Westlake’s life, and were published and reviewed in the same year.  I don’t know for sure if The Ax made Comeback possible, or vice versa–maybe Westlake wouldn’t know either.  But neither book could have been completed before Westlake came to that particular stretch of the road.

Comeback, to be sure, was begun much earlier, in the late 80’s, and Westlake attributes that abortive beginning to being assigned the unenviable task of adapting a Jim Thompson novel (he’s still the only one who ever got Thompson even half-right).  Different as they were from each other, as he wrote for the New York Times, Thompson and Stark still had much more in common than Thompson and Westlake.

At that point in time, he’d been unable to write as Stark for about a decade and a half.

Westlake’s writing through most of the 70’s and 80’s  (he presumably finished writing Butcher’s Moon no later than ’73, and that interview quote up top makes it clear he was trying to do another Parker in ’73) is happy writing.  It’s upbeat.  It has its dark melancholy moments, sure, but it’s mainly the work of an optimist, somebody who wants to see the best in people (even when he’s writing about Idi Amin’s Uganda). Not eliminate the negative, but definitely accentuate the positive.

It was, I believe, the happiest time in his life, having settled at last into a marriage that would not fall apart, and he spent time with his kids, with his wife’s kids, with friends, explored more of the world around him.  Having achieved so much in the 60’s, established himself in his profession, he could afford to relax a little.  Stick to the sunny side of the street a while.  You may still get mugged there, but the muggers are more polite. Some things you see more clearly in sunlight (and some in shadow).

Your 40’s and early 50’s are, after all, the prime of life.  You still have a decently functioning body (fortune permitting), and your mind, you start to realize, is functioning better than it ever has before, working the way it was always supposed to. (Shaw said youth is wasted on the young, because the youthful mind is chaotic and incomplete, working in fits and starts, still trying to understand itself).  But then you reach A Certain Age, and how did Ira Gershwin put it?  The winds grow colder.  Suddenly you’re older.   And the man or woman who got away is you, dammit.

So even though he was stimulated to start writing a new Parker novel around ’88, it took him almost ten years to finish it.  Parker came out of a pretty bad time in his life–stimulating, exciting, but difficult.  That’s self-evident.  You look at the books he wrote around that time, ’60-65, you see the darkness, the anger, the discontent, the betrayal, the frustration–and nowhere do you see it more than in The Hunter.  He didn’t have to be miserable to write as Stark.  But it sure didn’t hurt.

Well, let me put it a different way–when he wrote as Stark, he could make it stop hurting so much.  He could channel the pain, the anger, into something productive, cathartic.  Cast a cold eye, on Life, on Death–Horseman, pass by!  Stark knew how to keep the emotions beneath the surface–not suppressed, but controlled.  Focused. Aimed. Like a weapon.

If he wanted to wear his heart on his sleeve, wallow in his pain, he’d write as Tucker Coe.  If he wanted to laugh his troubles away, he’d write as Westlake.  Sure, there were exceptions to the rule–Adios, Scheherazade–works that drew on old sorrows, that did not fit Stark or Coe’s M.O., so they got published under his own name–they’d be funny too, just with a lot more pathos thrown into the mix.   Under any name, the scars are there, throbbing away.

But the scars healed over, life got better, success was very sweet indeed, as was Wife #3, and what do you know–no more Coe.  No more Stark.  I’m sure many a practicing psychiatrist would have something to say about that.  And Westlake would perhaps have something not too polite to say in response.

And then he got old, and perhaps a bit creatively frustrated, bored with being The Funny Man all the time, even though his humor was the very coping mechanism that had allowed him to get this far.  He’d opted to stay up north.  To stick out at least some of those woeful winters.  And as the cold seeped into his aging bones, Stark seeped back in with it.  Well, maybe that’s just me projecting, as another northern winter looms, and the polar vortex drifts down from a dangerously warmer Arctic Circle (Andy Kelp’s optimism regarding the end of winter was premature, to say the least).  My most frequent choice of armor these days is a heavy wool hunting jacket (Made in USA).  Stark’s in my bones, for sure.

Hanging out with Thompson’s grifters got him started, sure, but there was still a process he had to go through before he could make it work again.  He couldn’t write as Stark unless he could become Stark.  If he wasn’t feeling it, he wouldn’t publish it–and of course he could have done.  Established series, famous character, multiple film adaptations.  He could have just faked it.  Cashed a few easy paychecks.  Lots of people would have bought it.

Case in point: the first Jack Reacher novel came out in 1997 too.  Those are popular well-reviewed entertaining books, whose author works damn hard at getting them right.  Getting them to just about the level of Westlake pretending to be Richard Stark, I’d imagine–not quite as well written, not quite as observant, but roughly the same level.  That’s not remotely a diss.  Westlake pretending to be Stark would be very entertaining–might actually sell better than the real Parker novels have (a lot more fist fights and sex scenes, probably).  It just wouldn’t be Richard Stark.  As Jack Reacher will never be Parker.  Because he’s trying too hard to convince us of something.  And Parker doesn’t give a damn  if we’re convinced or not.

I can’t remember where I read this, but I recall an interview where Westlake said he showed Comeback to somebody whose opinion he trusted, just to make sure–is this Stark?  Is he really back?  Yes, and yes.  The Final Eight are not just retreads, though they do revisit some ideas from the First Sixteen.  They are not filler.  They are sure as hell not nostalgia. They are not the old boy trying to prove he can still cut it.  They are the genuine article.  Which isn’t to say they’re as good as the First Sixteen.  That’s a separate question.  And answering it has a lot to do with the passage of time.  And the warping of it.

Last week, I had a very interesting phone discussion with a predecessor of mine, who goes by the rather distinguished-sounding name of D. Kingsley Hahn.  Back in the early 80’s, he did five issues of something called The ParkerPhile.  A fanzine devoted exclusively to all things Westlake, but most of all to Stark.

Westlake read it–a letter expressing his bemused gratitude appears in the second issue.  He and Hahn corresponded off and on, and while much of what Hahn told me I already knew, there was one stunning little revelation, relating to Parker. Shall I tell you what it is?  Maybe if you beg.

He was a little suspicious of me at first (highly appropriate, given the subject at hand), but once we got past that, we had a nice talk, and he graciously gave me permission to put up an article from the second issue, which will be my next post here.  That article constitutes the only serious attempt I’ve come across to work out the timeline of the first sixteen Parker novels (as well as the four Grofields), and it really should be available to a wider readership.  However, if you want to read any further articles–he’s still got some copies available.

And as you might expect, Westlake didn’t really care if the timeline worked out perfectly or not–and it doesn’t.  Many of his references to dates, to the passage of time in Parker’s life, don’t match up all that well with other references, though clearly he was making some effort to make it jibe.  Westlake wanted to make us believe Parker existed in time, to produce the verisimilitude of continuity, without being chained to a rigid chronology that would get in the way of good storytelling (and take up too much of his own limited time).

Hahn does a valiant job trying to make the calendar balance out, and he does manage to establish pretty convincingly that the events ranging from the start of The Hunter to the end of Butcher’s Moon comprise just about exactly ten years–1962 to 1972.  And no further novels appeared until long after The ParkerPhile expired, due not to financial considerations (nobody in his right mind expects to make money from a fanzine), but personal time-oriented ones.  I try to envision how much work would go into something like this, without Google, without Amazon, without eBay, without user-friendly blogs, without email, and the room starts spinning around me.

But Mr. Hahn’s difficulties rationalizing the Parkerian timeline in 1983 would be magnified tenfold were he to try now to factor in the eight novels that appeared between 1997 and 2008.

Donald Westlake didn’t like to write period pieces.  The only unequivocal example of him doing this is the western novel he did with Brian Garfield–which to him was justifiable, since as he said, there’s no point writing period unless the story is about that period.  Westlake wrote about people, not eras.  People don’t really change.  True, he wrote about the future when he did science fiction, but that’s inherent to the genre, and he was usually extremely vague about when exactly his futuristic stories took place (a wise precaution, given how many futuristic stories have been rendered retroactively obsolescent by their writers setting them a few decades in the future).

So when you’re reading a Parker novel from the 60’s or 70’s, you only have to look at the original date of publication to have a pretty good idea when it’s taking place.  A system that works quite well up until Comeback.  A book that appeared with the World Wide Web in full flower (Google had debuted the year before); with handheld cellphones a commonplace fact of life, frequently used as a plot point on television shows–the world had changed quite a lot since Westlake had begun the book in the late 80’s.  And in this instance, Westlake (or Stark) chose not to acknowledge that.

When is this book taking place?  It’s deliberately kept vague.  There’s a reference to ‘money floating around in cyberspace’ and clearly Parker knows he’s living in a different world (he notices any social change that makes his professional life more difficult), but he’s not using any cellphones, and I doubt anything could ever induce him to go online.  In any event, the term cyberspace first appeared in 1982, in a short story by William Gibson.

The most obvious answer is that the book takes place around the time Westlake started work on it, 1988, or shortly afterwards.  That also ties in to references to televangelists going to jail–Jim Bakker went to prison for fraud in 1989.  That presumably was one of the stories that inspired the choice of targets for the heist in this book.  (Jimmy Swaggart had to step down from his ministry for a while at around the same time, due to sex scandals–they both had subsequent comebacks of their own.)

But most of the book was written much later.  The security chief in the novel is pretty clearly a variation on similar characters used in What’s The Worst That Could Happen?  (Though now I think on it, they are more likely to be variations on the character in Comeback.)And how much the characters have aged since last we saw them–well, that’s the real kicker isn’t it?

You hear a lot of talk about Parker being an ageless character.  Timeless, certainly.  In that he belongs to no time, no era, no culture.  No more than any other wolf would belong in the human world.  But real wolves are quite certainly impacted by changes in the human world, and so is Parker.  All the more since he was born into a human body, a joke played by some celestial agency, or perhaps an experiment the results of which have yet to be fully assessed.

Parker isn’t ageless.  He is getting older, as his creator gets older.  He’s still physically powerful, vital, virile–but that’s how wolves age–they stay strong until the very end of their life cycles–a decrepit wolf is a dead wolf.  He knows he is mortal, that his time will run out–nobody runs forever.  But time functions differently for him than it does for us.  For him, and for a few people he knows.

What Stark essentially did was bring him and some of the supporting characters through a time warp–not all the way to the present–not yet.  It is not 1997 when Comeback starts.  It may be 1989.  But even that is ambiguous.  Can 18 years really have gone by, and all these people are still where we left them?

Parker was in his early to mid 40’s when Butcher’s Moon ended, in 1972.  He’d be well into his sixties by 1997.  That doesn’t work.  Neither does writing it as a period piece set in the 70’s or late 80’s–not for Westlake.  The story isn’t about that period–it’s about the same thing all the Parker novels are about–a man who knows exactly who and what he is, rubbing up against a bunch of people who think they know themselves, and are often fatally wrong in that assumption. Comparative psychology.  It’s about who you are, not when.

So taking the timeline literally is a mistake–the books aren’t meant to be taken literally.  Stark is a romantic–but not the kind of romantic who just avoids reality–he filters it through his odd sensibilities, and he’s no mere fantasist  His romanticism is hard, cynical, ruthless, bleak.  He sees the changes in the world around him.  He doesn’t think much of them, but he won’t deny them.  That’s not how his particular kind of romanticism works.

He will, however, counterpose his ideal, Parker, against these changing times, and for that to happen, Parker has to be affected by time, but only so much.  Not an ageless character, but one who is out of synch with his age, with time itself. Who marches to his own drummer, as do the people he works with, caught up in the time warp with him.   None of them quite processing what’s happened.   All of a sudden the world around them is different–and they are still the same. Criminal Rip Van Winkles.

To a great extent, Westlake did the same thing with Dortmunder & Co., but that was much less obvious, because there were no equivalently long gaps between the Dortmunder books.  Those books are much more about changes in the world, in technology, in culture (all of which he hates, but nobody ever asks him). There’s no great leap forward with Dortmunder–just a lot of little incremental time-jumps.   He’s also getting older, but not as quickly as the rest of us.

You can try to explain it away–Brenda Mackey, so important in two of the later books, was a mere kid in the early 70’s, when we first met her–so if it’s 1989, she could just be a really well-preserved 40, let’s say.  She does mention leaving a whole lot of cosmetics in a motel room.  But nobody reacts to her as if she’s that age–or to Claire, who would be in her late 40’s by then, years older by the time of the final trilogy.  Nobody ages that well.  (Okay, maybe Catherine Deneuve, but I heard she had a lot of work done.)

Physical descriptions of Parker and other characters from the earlier books are rare and increasingly vague in the later ones.  Also contradictory at times–Claire has auburn hair in the penultimate book; then she’s ash-blonde in the last one. Westlake stops talking about Parker’s hair color (originally brown, later black) entirely–is there grey in his temples now?  Westlake didn’t want to tell us they hadn’t changed at all.  He just didn’t want to go there.  He wants us to know these people have a lot more mileage on them–but something’s gone wrong with the odometer.

Nobody has to buy what I’m selling here.  Don’t take me literally either.  I think Westlake would probably just tell us not to worry about all this stuff.  He more or less told D. Kingsley Hahn the same thing.  But the thing about obsessives is, we obsess.  And that’s fine, as long as you don’t let it get in the way of the story.  If you want strict unbending reality, subject to the same implacable chronological rules that you are sadly subjected to–why are you reading fiction?  A story only has to make sense on its own terms.  If you want to enter that world, you have to live by its rules, until the story ends.  It can be disorienting.  Or reorienting. Depends on the storyteller.   And one of the very best is just starting his comeback.  Let’s have fun with it.  I’ve got the time if you have.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark