Tag Archives: Donald Westlake

Review: The Outfit

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“Hold on.”   Bronson held up his own hand, fingers splayed like a traffic cop’s.  “What do you mean, they don’t think they’re crooks?”

“They work for a living.  They have an employer; they pay income tax; they come under Social Security; they own their own homes and cars; they work in local industry.  They know the corporation they work for engages in illegal activities, but they think what-the-hell, every corporation these days does, from tax-dodging through price-fixing to government bribing.”

“What’s that got to do with anything, Quill?”  There was an undertone of warning in Bronson’s voice.  He thought of himself exactly as Quill had described it.  He wasn’t a crook.   Bastards like Parker were crooks.  Bronson thought of himself as a businessman.  All right, he was a criminal, but everybody was more or less dishonest, particularly in business.

The Parker novels were fairly serialized, particularly in the beginning (and towards the end), and writing in his new Stark modality, Westlake developed a neat little trick to keep readers on the hook–he’d finish a particular story arc in one book, then start a new one in that same book, to pull you into the next one.   He’d done that with The Hunter, finishing Mal’s story two thirds of the way through, then getting Parker started on his war with the syndicate, which was just heating up by the end.   He took a temporary break from that war in his second outing, then finished it in his third–but by then, a new complication had cropped up, requiring Parker to move immediately to another job in book four.

The fifth novel was the first true standalone–ie, the first that didn’t either end on some kind of unresolved note or resolve something from an earlier book–but there was still this sense of a continuing story–as if all the books were just chapters in one long sprawling epic (that never truly ended).  Later, when the novels weren’t being published so close together, there would be more of a pause between jobs, and less need to refer to earlier novels via brief footnotes, but in the early days, Westlake had to justify Parker being active all the time, even though we were told in The Hunter that he only pulled one heist a year.   That may have been the ideal, but it didn’t always work out that way.

Parker gets called an ageless character, but I don’t think he ever was.   The books have an odd sense of time, but they do exist within it.   In The Outfit, we find out Parker served in WWII from 1942-44 (and was given a bad conduct discharge for black-marketeering), which would make him remarkably young when he joined up, but not impossibly so.   Calvin Graham joined the navy at 12, and it took the brass a long time to find him out.  Some folks just mature faster than others.   And maybe some were never really kids to start with.

Someday I’ll work up my own Parker timeline (that should be fun), but for now, let’s concentrate on the book at hand, which is one of the most pivotal in the series–and probably not anyone’s personal favorite (somebody wants to tell me I’m wrong there, pipe up).   But still one of only four Parker novels to get turned into a movie; which I’m less impressed with than some, and which I’ll review eventually, but not now.   Synopsis follows–spoilers abound.

For the first time in a Parker novel, we join the proceedings right in the middle of a scene of violence.  The Outfit has sent a hitman after Parker in Florida, just a few weeks after the events of the last book came to a close.   Parker is just in the process of working out his usual post-heist horniness on a tall toothsome blonde name of Bett Harrow when the guy takes a shot at him.  The hireling misses his mark, and Parker takes him out with his gun–not by shooting, which would risk bringing in the law, but by throwing it at the guy’s head, giving him a concussion that ultimately proves fatal.

Before the ill-starred trigger man dies, Parker finds out what local Outfit stooge fingered him, by threatening to have Bett torture him (which she’s a bit too eager to do, but we’ll see a lot more of Ms. Harrow in the next book, so she’ll keep).   The hitman is terrified of women, as Parker suspected he would be, and spills all he knows.

Parker manages to get his would-be killer out of the hotel room before he collapses, but when he returns he finds out Bett took his gun–with his fingerprints on it–so now she’s got leverage over him.   Leverage for what?   No time to worry about that now, so  Parker writes her a brief note saying he’s got business to attend to, and whatever she wants can wait–if he’s not back in a month, she can give the gun to the cops.  Because if he’s not back in a month, he’s probably dead.

Parker tracks down the local who fingered him at a poker game, finds out the hit came from New York, kills the fink on general principle, and then sets about outfitting himself for war with The Outfit.    As he goes from place to place, getting the needed equipment, he’s writing letters to fellow heist men (as he’d threatened he would do in The Hunter), telling them The Outfit has been giving him a hard time, and he’d consider it a favor if they knocked over any Outfit operations they might have had their eye on.    His reasoning being that many of them had only been looking for an excuse to do exactly this.

It’s interesting to watch him compose a letter–he’s literate enough, checks his spelling if he thinks he got a word wrong, but it’s almost like he’s using a second language, even though English is the only language he knows–it isn’t natural to him, communicating this way.   It’s a skill he acquired because he had to, but he’s not comfortable with it.   Words are a necessary evil to Parker.

Then comes a scene that makes it hard to be a Parker fan and a dog-lover at the same time.   He heads down to Georgia to get himself a mace (a vehicle with seemingly legitimate registration that won’t bring unwanted attention from the cops when driving across multiple state lines).   He looks up his old friend Chemy, a redneck genius mechanic, whose specialty is souped-up getaway cars.

Chemy’s brother has a very unappealing wife who offers herself to Parker (as all women apparently must, sooner or later), and even if she looked like, I dunno, Sheree North, Parker wouldn’t be interested, because he’s working.  When he turns her down, she cries rape, gets her husband to make an ill-advised attempt to avenge her honor, and that failing, sics the dog on him (Chemy, to his credit, tells her to leave the dog out of it).

When the lean black and tan cur, loyal to a fault, leaps at him, Parker smashes the poor brave mutt’s head in with a shotgun butt.  Oh, and he threatens to kill the wife, the brother, and Chemy, just to make sure he doesn’t have some southern-fried vendetta to worry about, but that’s perfectly understandable.

Parker gets in his mace and drives away, irritated, but otherwise unaffected, and certainly not the least bit guilty about the dog.  And this is why there’s never going to be a fully faithful film adaptation of The Outfit, folks.   In the movie that was made, the character standing in for Parker doesn’t kill any dogs–in fact, we see him pat a completely different dog on the head for trying to protect his brother (yeah, he’s got a brother in the movie) from hitmen.

Westlake is resisting on all four cylinders the temptation to humanize this character.   It’s too easy an out to say the big bad heister has a soft spot for animals.   Same thing goes for kids.   Like him or don’t, but either way, you’re going to have to take him on his own terms, because those are the only terms on offer (except in the movies).

Parker hits an Outfit joint in New York, then looks up Fairfax, who we saw in the first novel (still looking and acting like a roadshow Louis Calhern).    Through Fairfax, he gets in touch with Walter Karns, Arthur Bronson’s primary rival for control of The Outfit, and makes a deal–if Parker gets Bronson, who put out the contract on Parker, Karns will cancel the contract, and leave Parker alone.   Fairfax, seeing which way the wind is blowing, coughs up Bronson’s home address in Albany, where he’s currently holed up.

Parker meets Handy McKay at a motel run by retired hooker Madge, a relic of the 20’s;  a sort of heister groupie who frequently offers members of Parker’s profession a safe haven when they’re planning a job or laying low (she’s also one of the most enjoyable characters in the entire series, but we’ll see more of her later).  Parker lays out the plan, and it’s pretty simple–go to Albany, whack Bronson, and Handy can have whatever cash and valuables they find at his place, plus all the money Parker has already taken from The Outfit.

Handy is confused, maybe a bit offended–he’d go with Parker just because it’s Parker–they can split whatever they find at Bronson’s, and if there’s nothing to split, he won’t kick about it.   Why offer him money from jobs he wasn’t in on? Usually they’re on very similar wavelengths, but Handy doesn’t understand Parker’s thinking here–that this is his personal war, not a regular job, and Handy shouldn’t come in just out of loyalty.    They find a working compromise, and as Handy leaves to chat with Madge, we get a glimpse into Parker’s mind–

It was a bad sign when a man like Handy McKay started owning things and started thinking he could afford friendships.   Possessions tie a man down and friendships blind him.  Parker owned nothing, the men he knew were just that, the men he knew, not his friends, and they owned nothing.  Sure, under the name Charles Willis he had pieces of a few businesses here and there, but that was for tax reasons.  He stayed away from those places, had nothing to do with them, didn’t try to get a nickel out of them.  What Handy was doing was something else again–buying things to have them.   And working with a man, not for a profit, but because he liked him.

Parker is assuming too much about his fellow heisters.   We briefly meet Salsa in this book,  one of Parker’s most formidable sidemen, and we’re told he owns a house and a car–many if not most of the heisters we meet in these novels will be shown to be men of property, and sometimes even loyalty.   This is not Westlake being inconsistent–this is Parker projecting his own wolfish weltanschauung onto his colleagues.

But wolves feel deep loyalty to their pack, which is to say, their family.   Parker, the lone wolf, born into the wrong species, has no pack, no family, no friends–just temporary work partners, and to him, loyalty outside the boundaries of the workplace is a luxury he can’t afford in the treacherous human world–the only exception had been his wife Lynn, and seeing how that turned out, you can understand his thinking, without necessarily sharing it.   It’s a desolate alienating moment in the book–who wouldn’t gladly trade anything they own for  a friend like Handy McKay?   But then again, if you don’t own anything……

At this point in the book, we cut over to Albany to see how Bronson is doing, and he’s in a bad mood–worse than usual, I mean.   The reports keep coming in–turns out Parker’s letters were a huge hit with the heisting community, and they’ve been hitting Outfit operations with gusto, taking over a million bucks, and meeting token opposition at best from the Outfit personnel they’re ripping off.

Several short chapters are devoted to detailing several of these operations, including one that introduces Salsa to us (we’ll be seeing him again, book after next).   The point of this detour in the plot is to show us that ‘organized crime’ is mainly just organized illegal business dealings–numbers rackets, money laundering, gambling, offtrack betting, etc–things people enjoy doing that the law frowns upon.   In the movies it’s all guns and glamour, but the realities are far more mundane.

The people staffing these operations mainly aren’t what you’d call tough, and because they’ve got The Outfit behind them, they’re not prepared for Parker’s very professional colleagues to show up armed and organized–as Parker warned Bronson, most of them have had these jobs cased out for years, and were just waiting for a reason to pull them.

This is when Bronson has his little business discussion with Quill, an Outfit numbers man–I began this review with a snippet from their discussion.   Quill is trying to explain to Bronson (who came up during Prohibition) that people working for The Outfit now aren’t equipped for anything heavy, except for the ones that specialize in violence–they know that technically, what they’re doing is illegal, but they still see themselves as decent citizens, who own homes, and have families, and they aren’t going to risk all that to protect money that isn’t even theirs.   The Outfit is just a corporation that breaks the law–like most ‘legitimate’ corporations do, just in a different way.

It’s not hard to discern what we’re being told here–it goes back to what Parker was thinking about Handy–you have to know which side of the fence you’re on.   You can’t be crooked and straight, and do both equally well.   Bronson, the old school hood, is disgusted by the softness in his organization that Quill describes to him, but we’ve seen enough of his personal life in Albany to know he’s gotten soft himself.   He owns things, he’s got a wife (who he tries desperately to please, even though he’d much rather be with a high-priced call girl)–he’s become a rather bourgeois sort of gangster.   His personal life mirrors the identity confusion we see in The Outfit as a whole.

In the process of protecting himself from the law, playing the upright citizen, blending into high society,  he’s become a part of it, in spite of himself, and that’s made him just as vulnerable as the businesses Parker’s friends are knocking over.  He’s trying to get this straight in his mind, looking out the window of his big impressive old stone house on a once-fashionable now increasingly plebeian street, a house he only bought because his wife wanted it, so she could forget she used to be a showgirl–when he feels a prickling in his spine, and he looks behind him–guess who’s here?

Then the book rewinds, and we see how Parker made his way to Albany with Handy (stopping in Syracuse to pick up firearms), and turns out he was listening to Quill’s little lecture in the other room, waiting his chance.   Prior to entering the mansion, he and Handy had made sure the chauffeur was neutralized, and we get a soupcon of racial politics–he’s a black man, and they find him with a white woman–he’s terrified at first.   He’s of a generation that remembers what used to happen to black guys in this situation not so very long ago (and since the woman keeps insisting he was raping her, obviously she remembers those times as well).

Handy just thinks it’s funny, and makes a little joke about how there’s no problem as long as they’re not going to school and learning geometry together–because of school desegregation in the south,  get it?   Handy has a much livelier sense of humor than Parker (well really, who doesn’t?).    At any rate, the chauffeur is relieved to learn they’re only there to kill his boss.   Bronson, we gather, is not a fun guy to work for.

So back to the study–Bronson is looking down the barrel of Parker’s gun, and he knows his number is up.    Does he beg, offer money, hide under the desk?   Nope.  Deep down inside, the gangster is still there–he looks Parker dead  in the eye and yells for his bodyguards, knowing Parker’s going to kill him anyway, but damned if he’s going to give him the satisfaction of going down like a punk.   Not that Parker gives a damn about Bronson’s identity crisis, but he helps resolve it, all the same.    Once a hood, always a hood.    Well, not literally always, of course.

Parker and Handy deal with the bodyguards, and case the house for cash.   It’s a pretty good haul– 24k in a safe, and maybe 6k in jewelry.    Quill, who is no hood, calmly agrees to take Parker’s message to Karns–the robberies won’t stop right away, but they’ll stop.

The war is over. The king is dead. Long live Walter Karns (and he does).  Parker is ready to go back to Florida and find out what Bett Harrow wants from him in exchange for that gun. He asks Handy if he wants to go along–doesn’t he have a diner in Maine to get to?   Handy says the hell with his diner in Maine.

Was it all too easy?   I think that’s the main critique one could level at The Outfit, that and a somewhat disjointed narrative structure, because of all the different elements being introduced, some of which will figure heavily in later books. When they made the movie, they threw in all kinds of added complications to the final act, probably for that very reason–it just seems too simple.   This is a major criminal operation, bristling with expensive hired muscle, and Parker brings it to its knees in a matter of weeks.   Unrealistic, right?   Well, who said realism was ever the point here?

The point is actually not about how tough Parker is–that’s a given, always–the point is that with any organization,  size itself can become a weakness–success makes you stupid.   You get fat and complacent, and sooner or later somebody comes along to knock you off your high horse.   We’ve seen that drama play itself out in the business section of the paper, many times, and in the history books.

But Parker is no rival syndicate–he’s got zero interest in taking over The Outfit’s territory.    He could never become a Bronson, a Karns, or even a Fairfax–he’s got no taste for it.    He’ll always be a loner, albeit a loner who knows how to network like nobody’s business.

Parker is something a man like Bronson can’t understand (even though Bronson thinks he and his friends from the 1920’s were the Parkers of that time), and you can’t fight an enemy you don’t understand.    Parker keeps running rings around the Outfit boys, because he’s got nothing to defend except his life.   He seeks the weak spots in their defenses, and zeroes in on them.

Think about all these enormous dot.coms out there now–and all it takes is a few nerds armed with cheap little computers to paralyze them, steal priceless data, and there’s damned little they can do to hit back.   Parker’s doing the same thing, only in three dimensions (he could never understand the point of cybercrime).   The more you own, the more you have to defend.    And the less you own, the faster you can move, and the harder you are to find.

I would argue The Outfit is rather prophetic in this way–and while the odds of one man surviving an all-out war with organized crime are pretty poor, there are some real-life analogues–ever hear of Danny Greene?   If he’d made himself a bit harder to find, he might still be alive today.   Unlike Parker, he actually thought he could take over the whole shooting match.  The Irish can be very pigheaded (and I oughta know)–but he still took his enemies down with him, like a mobbed-up Samson in the temple of vice.

So no.   It’s not impossible.   It’s just very unlikely it would happen this fast.   Parker does have a knack for finding the shortest distance between two points. Richard Stark likes to get to the point.   And perhaps I should emulate him now, and get to my own.

My final point is that this is a really weird way to tell a story–to use the first book to set up a mob war, then call an intermission to that war in the second book, then resolve it rather abruptly in the third–and the fourth and final book in what is essentially a self-contained cycle within the overall Parker saga is going in a different direction entirely, with a different type of enemy entirely.   One you would think would be far less formidable than the late Arthur Bronson.   But in fact, he turns out to be quite possibly the most dangerous opponent Parker ever faces.    And the most–piquant?   I think that would be the word.    Not the word Parker would use.   But to him, all words are necessary evils, at best.

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